Hunting for a traitor is hard work.
And to make things worse, it’s not the kind of work I can delegate to my subordinates. Otherwise, I open myself up to the risk of that very subordinate being the traitor and spending the whole time they’re supposed to be investigating covering their tracks. And then coming to me with a report implicating someone who’s actually loyal.
The universe might just spit in my eye like this. It has that kind of sense of humor.
No, better to do it myself.
It’s vital I succeed.
Before I do anything else – before I capture AK-A-13 so we can harvest what we need from her body, before I oversee the creation of the improved Well of qi – I need to find out who’s trying to trip up my feet. I will be quite displeased if the third lab ends up destroyed like the first two.
I’ve already checked the few individuals who were directly aware of the first and second lab’s locations and could have leaked them to the Major. None of them were particularly suspicious.
This was to be expected. The first lab was destroyed 100 years ago. Someone who managed to conceal their tracks for so long without being discovered wouldn’t be so careless. They would go through agents and intermediaries.
But finally, after two months spent sprinkling little morsels of bait, I think the fish has taken a bite. I’ve finally got a lead.
I had to be subtle. The bait couldn’t be too big or too obvious. And I had to gamble by making this bait actual, true information on the third lab – I had to assume the spy would be placed high enough in my chain of command that they would recognize obviously false data. I made this bait related to my recent trips to the third lab, to explain away its existence. Information doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all, and the spy would have recognized that, too. But if the intel comes from a few moments of carelessness I let slip after I sustained those injuries when the second lab blew up… For example, a single city guard who saw me fly in a hurry toward a particular direction, a maid who accidentally caught glances of a few unobtrusive but somewhat revealing documents on my desk, a few anomalous qi fluctuations in a seemingly random part of the world where nothing should exist… It suddenly seems more real. I couldn’t create too many openings, of course. Otherwise, it would become evident that I was fishing for a traitor. So, I let peek only slight hints at the truth here and there, almost minute enough to be overlooked.
I hoped that the traitor would be competent enough to come upon at least one of them and make the decision to act. At which point, I would do my best to widen the breach and reveal their identity. Follow up the leads, investigate the middlemen, trace back the orders.
It took some time until I finally got some results to show for it.
While I expected this traitor to be high in my chain of command, I didn’t expect him this high. He, is one of my most loyal subordinates and has been for several hundred years, now. I’ve thus placed him in an adequately important position, as a reward for his service.
Beyond the simple and obvious surprise of discovering someone who’d convinced me I could trust him was, in fact, trying to render all my centuries of effort into nothing, there is also, surprisingly enough, disappointment.
Out of all the local gods I trained, Direnni may have reached the highest rank, but this traitor is – was – the one with the brightest future, the one who’d have gone furthest on the path of cultivation, the one with talent great enough to rival even someone born in the superior environment of the Godrealm. Direnni is ranked higher, first because he’s much older, and second because the traitor spent most of his time seeking technical excellence in magic and spellcasting rather than focusing on raw cultivation. Direnni managed to reach 2nd-rank godhood after investing great time and effort. All his growth potential has already been exhausted. But this traitor…
I was even planning to bring him back to the Godrealm with me once my work on Caldera was complete. He could’ve become an outer official under the Adkins family.
…Well, it’s all in the past, now.
It is a bit of a shame, truly, but that won’t stay my hand for even a second. It’s not the first time I clean up the trash, and it won’t be the last.
No matter how bright his future was, it all stops now.
Floating high in the sky, I sigh and let my gaze wander over the expanse of the vast military camp stretching across the plains for kilometers in every direction. Broad tents of white canvas arranged in a precise and calculated array, all lined up properly as if someone took a ruler to them, house thousands upon thousands of soldiers. They walk in the aisles between the tents or gather in squads and platoons and divisions to perform exercises and training drills under the command of their officers.
At first glance, it could be mistaken for any other army camp. But an experienced campaigner would recognize the signs that something here is different, that something here doesn’t feel quite right. For one, it’s much too quiet. It’s not silent exactly, but it’s far from the ruckus and bustle of a normal military camp. Then, there are no fires lit between the tents, no distinctive trails of smoke where soldiers would converge to cook their meals and chat. In fact, no soldier in this camp is doing such a thing as chatting. None of them are playing cards; none of them are taking swigs from concealed canteens of bootlegged liquor; none of them are loafing or snoozing on the job. Every single soldier in this camp is busy completing whatever duty they were assigned. Every sentry is properly, meticulously, scrupulously following their patrol routes.
It all looks wrong. Almost artificial. As if this is all merely a recreation of a military camp performed by some over-enthusiastic hobbyists, rather than a real army fielded for battle.
Of course, that’s not the case at all.
Some of these soldiers may not have accumulated much combat experience, but all of them will kill and be killed without a second thought if they are so ordered.
I slowly lower myself out of the air and land on the uneven grass. None of the soldiers around react to my arrival in any way. No signs of surprise, no flurry upon seeing a stranger suddenly fly into their restricted camp.
That’s because they all know me. They recognize me, all the way down to their bones. It’s been bred into them, almost. I made sure of that.
I walk through the camp toward the command tent, a structure of the same white canvas as everything else, but taller and broader and set up in the middle of the camp, forming a central axis around which the other tents are arranged symmetrically. Atop it flies a flag, black with a pair of red eyes separated by an upright drawn sword.
All the soldiers I see on my way there are dressed identically – save for the few differences to denote their respective ranks. Gleaming metal armor underneath a sweeping red cloak, and a closed, full-face helmet concealing their appearance. No non-human features are apparent, but of course, none of them are human.
They’re all apostles.
Five full-strength divisions of them, amounting to nearly 50,000 soldiers.
There was a sixth, a few months ago, but a wild beast escaped from its cage and devoured all of its members. Which is a bit of a shame, as the second lab worked hard to create those apostles and condition them for servitude, but there are many more remaining, and in the end, they are mere prototypes of a mere byproduct.
Even if all of them are exterminated, I won’t lose any sleep over it.
I quickly reach the command tent, making sure the ground, turned to mud by the frequent passage of so many feet, doesn’t dirty my boots. I enter without announcing myself, and my gaze sweeps the interior.
The large tent has been partitioned into several smaller rooms or compartments by hanging curtains. It doesn’t afford much privacy or secrecy, but that’s not the point. It’s more a matter of organization than anything else. Apostles are standing at attention in here as well, their postures straight and unflagging. Of course, none of them challenge my presence. They barely even look at me.
Voices can be heard from deeper inside the tent, beyond the rows of curtains in another compartment. I raise my hand, then let it fall. Along with my movement, all the curtains are ripped from their holders and fall to the ground at once, returning the tent into a single, vast room.
All the voices are abruptly silenced, and the speakers all turn to face me.
The first humans I’ve seen since I arrived.
There are four of them. The one seated beyond a practical, scratched up wooden desk, an unprepossessing man with watery eyes and a weak chin, is Karim, commander in chief of the apostle legions. Despite looking like a weak scholar — and dressing like one, too — he’s the one calling the shots, around here, and possesses skill and strength to match his position. Standing in front of him is the vice commander, his son, Malhtur, who usually serves as his father’s emissary to the capital whenever he has something to report. On Malhtur’s left is Brocklaw, a… quartermaster of some sort, if I recall correctly? And on Malhtur’s right is Jenit, Karim’s liaison with the regiments of the imperial army composed of actual human beings.
There should be a few other humans around the camp, who aren’t in here at the moment, but not many. I deliberately staffed this army almost exclusively with apostles to see if they could still function as an effective fighting force even with little human oversight.
Upon seeing me, Karim stands up off his seat and bows. “Your Majesty.”
The other three turn to face me and greet me the same way.
I give them a perfunctory nod. “Karim, Malhtur, stay. The rest, out.”
The apostles execute my order without a single instant of hesitation. They’re almost gone before I’ve finished speaking. Brocklaw and Jenit seem to be taken by surprise for a moment but quickly recover and follow the apostles out. They show no complaint at the fact that I’m disturbing them in what I assume is the drawing up of plans and preparations for the coming war against the majin.
When they’re all gone, I approach Karim and Malhtur. With a wave of my hand, two chairs lined up on one side of the tent float over in front of the desk. I sit in one and gesture for the others to do the same. The two of them hesitate for a moment, exchanging a curious glance, then both sit, Malhtur next to me, and Karim behind his desk.
“Your Majesty, what brings you all the way out here?” Karim asks, his face displaying no anxiety. His son, on the other hand, looks distinctly uncomfortable.
I return Karim’s gaze steadily. “I just wanted to ask you a simple question. What did the Major offer you that convinced you to turn your coat?”
It is a pretty simple question, but the weight with which it falls on the room is most definitely not. Malhtur next to me stiffens in his seat, and he stares alternatively at his father and me in open-mouthed astonishment. Karim, however, doesn’t look flurried in the least and stares at me silently, his fingers steepled, his elbows resting on the top of his desk.
“F–Father, what is this?” Malhtur asks, his voice trembling, upon noticing Karim’s distinct lack of denial and sputtering, righteous outrage.
Oh? The son didn’t know? Or is he faking it?
I suppose it doesn’t matter.
When removing weeds, the roots have to be pulled out, too.
Since Karim is still silent, I continue. “For the record, I’d like to say that I’m fairly impressed by the guts you have in you. First, you reveal to the Major the location of the second lab, which, by keeping me pinned down there, allows AK-A-13 to destroy the sixth division of apostles with impunity. And then, you send your son to the capital to complain that you’re lacking troops and ask for replacements. I’d almost admire your sheer shamelessness, if I wasn’t the victim of it.”
“S–Sir, Your Majesty! T–There must be a misunderstanding! My father would never…”
“There’s no misunderstanding,” Karim says, cutting off his son’s defense, to the latter’s shock. Malhtur looks like he’s going to faint in a second or two, and huge beads of sweat are starting to appear all over his face. It’s almost comical.
My brows rise at Karim’s frank admission of his guilt. “You admit it? Just like that? I thought you’d keep denying it right up until I killed you.”
Malhtur gasps, but Karim shakes his head, his lips pursed thoughtfully. “I always knew you’d find out one day. So, for Your Majesty to come here today is… not entirely unexpected.” He gives a sigh. “Those leaks on the third laboratory’s location… They were deliberate, correct? You purposely spread them.”
He sighs again, slowly shaking his head. “I should have known better. It felt like too good an opportunity to pass up at the time, but afterward, doubts started springing up.”
“Still,” I say, leaning forward, “why did you do it?”
A bitter, dry smile lifts the corners of Karim’s lips. “Is the reason that important to you, Your Majesty? I hadn’t imagined you would care.”
“Not important, per se, but I’m curious. I don’t believe I mistreated you, and I’ve been vocal in my assessment of your potential. You could have followed me to the Godrealm, in time, and spread your wings. Why would you piss it all away?”
Karim’s smile deepens, but not in a good way. From bitter, it turns ghastly. He settles down more comfortably into his seat and stares at me straight. “Because of this place,” he says, waving his hand in an arc as if to encompass everything around us. “It sickens me.”
“You mean the camp?”
“The camp, yes, and your laboratories. You’ve turned these people into something even less than animals. Every time I see them, I want to puke. And I want to see your head on a spike, Your Majesty.”
His voice is still calm, but I can hear the searing heat behind it. Even his son, who spent the past two minutes in a shocked daze, comes back to himself at the intensity in his father’s words.
“‘People?'”, I repeat incredulously, tasting the word. “Karim, are you talking about the apostles? When did you start thinking they were people? And, ‘something even less than animals?’ Yes, they are, but I didn’t turn them into that. I didn’t need to. They already were from the beginning. They’ve always been objects, tools, things. Obviously, they’re not people.” I pause for a moment to see if he has anything more to say on the subject, then continue, almost pleadingly. “Please, don’t tell me you helped destroy my laboratory because of some misplaced sympathy…”
But his silence is telling.
I lean back into my seat and rub at my eyes tiredly.
Well, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I sure wasn’t expecting this. I could have appreciated a reason like ambition or power or even anger at some perceived injustice. Maybe sympathy for the majin.
This is why?
Sympathy for the apostles, of all things?
I spend the last two months exerting great efforts investigating and hunting for a deeply hidden traitor, someone who came close to threatening the success of my operations on Caldera, and this is the reason I get at the end?
I don’t even know what to say anymore…
It would at least be a tiny little bit more plausible if Karim didn’t know what the apostles are, how they’re made, but he does! He may not have known the ‘where’ – and when he did discover the ‘where,’ he promptly sent that information to the Major so she could blow it up along with me – but he has known the ‘what’ since the beginning.
I let out a heavy sigh and look back at him. He still looks calm and composed, as if he has things well in hand. Perhaps he even does. He didn’t turn traitor and start working with the Major for a day or two, after all. And like he said, he must have expected that such a day would come.
Perhaps, he’s prepared an escape route.
Perhaps, he’s using this conversation as a way to buy some time until he’s ready to make his move and slip out of my grasp.
“And when did you have this change of heart, I wonder? Probably more than 100 years ago, huh? Before the Major’s attack on the first lab. But no more than 300 years, surely? You certainly didn’t seem to feel much compunction hunting down Thelyron and the materials he stole, back then.”
“They are not materials,” Karim says through clenched teeth, and for the first time, his calm facade flakes off a little bit. “They are victims. Your victims.”
I give him a smile, one as smug and obnoxious as I can muster, and try to push him further. “Are you sure they’re only mine? I distinctly remember you having a hand in this. You were the one who brought Thelyron and AK-A-13 back to me. Didn’t you head to that little village in Tonarr with a spring in your step and blow their house down? Didn’t you stay to watch alongside me when AK-A-13 was torn apart by those dogs in my Tower? Didn’t you spectate Thelyron’s torture and eventual execution? Didn’t you hunt down that escaped elf girl for years, hounding her every step like a vicious wolf? Where were your conscience and your sympathy then? Hahaha, now, now, Karim. No matter what your allegiance, I think it’s fair to say that you earned your position as commander of my army. I’m proud of you, boy.”
The more I speak, the cloudier Karim’s expression becomes.
This is quite fun.
I think I can understand why some people enjoy gloating in front of their defeated enemies. Of course, even if it’s enjoyable, it remains incredibly foolish.
Karim’s chest heaves up and down like a bellow as he tries to control himself. He’s eventually successful, but I think it’s time we end this farce. I push my chair away and stand up.
“Well,” I say, looking down at him as I cycle my qi and the earth starts to shake. “you probably know what’s coming, now, don’t you?”
Karim nods slowly and also stands up to face me.
Does he want to fight me head-on?
Surely not. He can’t possibly be that stupid, can he? Despite all his potential, he’s only at the very top of 1st-rank godhood. It’s utterly impossible for him to cross the gap between us. Even with 10,000 more of him, I could end this in one strike.
But then, I’m surprised when a loud shout erupts from right next to me, and Malhtur throws himself at me, wind spinning around his arms like circular saws.
I must admit I’d almost forgotten about him.
He’s not even a god, yet.
Well, that’s fine. I would’ve killed him anyway.
I’m about to flick my finger in his direction, which should be more than enough to erase him – and his father, if I wished it so – off the face of this plane, when a force field suddenly springs up around me to enclose me in a bluish transparent sphere.
The surprise that shows on my face at that moment is unfeigned.
Just like the explosive device the Major used to destroy the second lab and almost fatally injure me, I recognize this thing. I’m the one who built it! It’s a honeycomb shield, an improvement on traditional shielding mechanisms. It’s designed to resist terrible blows in such a way that, even if an attack beyond its capability breaches it, it can still bounce back and reform in a moment, before more attacks can make it in through the gap.
Or, as the case may be, before the person imprisoned inside can escape.
I look up. Above the crown of the sphere is floating a ball of metal, formed by countless delicate interlocking rings, all spinning around each other and giving out pulses of blue light now and then.
That belongs to me.
Those thieves are getting quite annoying, using my own equipment against me. I had at first assumed that, apart from freeing the apostles being produced and educated there – those who would later come to be called ‘devils’ – the Major had merely wrecked the first lab, 100 years ago. I hadn’t expected that she’d looted the arms development division, first.
When I look back down, I’m just in time to see Malhtur’s gobsmacked expression on the other side of the barrier. Clearly, he was no more expecting this to happen than I was. Then, a gust of wind flies past, and he’s gone, whisked away by his father.
Karim blows the tent off its pegs and disappears into the sky, borne aloft by a massive tornado of deadly wind. I suppose I could shout for all the apostles to drop what they’re doing and launch in pursuit, but that would be pointless. Not all of them can fly, and those who can would be shredded in an instant if they went up against such a skilled and powerful god as Karim. In just a second, he becomes little more than a tiny pinpoint on the horizon, then he is gone.
Haaa… Lovely skill…
What a shame, what a shame…
I smile at his escape and send a few small spells into the barrier around me. Fragments of the barrier blink out of existence as my spells slam into them, leaving regular hexagonal gaps open. In tandem with this, a few of the thin, delicate rings making up the device floating above the barrier flash once before they stop spinning. But the gaps are quickly repaired when energy streams in from their intact surroundings. The barrier soon regains its structural integrity, and the halted rings in the device start spinning again.
Very nice. Did they improve my design?
Perhaps the theft might not have been a bad thing. By the time I recover every item, I may find a few pleasant surprises among them.
My mood lifted at today’s success, I press my hand against the barrier again and cast a marginally more powerful spell. It’s still less than 1% of my full power, but I’m not sure exactly how much the device has been improved, so if I use too big a magic, I’m going to pierce right through the barrier and reduce the entire apostle army camp to dust.
As it happens, this new spell is enough to shatter the barrier completely, and I step out of its enclosure. The device floating above it drops out of the air like a stone, the concentric rings halting and the blue lights shimmering among them winking out all at once. I raise my hand, and it floats into my palm before it hits the ground.
I bounce it up and down a few times.
Good. This was an unexpected bonus.
With a smile, I lift my free hand, and fog coalesces before me. Slowly, faded colors spread through the fog, like ink diffusing through a puddle of water. After a second or two, the colors start to sharpen into a proper picture.
Karim, soaring through the sky with his son’s collar tightly gripped in his hand. He’s still flying at full speed, and the image is clear enough to render all the beads of sweat dotting his brow from the exertion. Simply willing the information to pop into my thoughts gives me his current, precise position.
Go, my boy.
Go and assist the Major. Go and meet AK-A-13. Go and earn redemption for your perceived ‘crimes’ against the poor, victimized apostle citizens.
Go and meet all of my enemies.
Lead me to them.
With a flick of my hand, the honeycomb shield disappears into my space ring, and the fog disperses. I glance at an apostle standing nearby, who just got back on its feet after Karim’s rather violent escape threw it to the ground. The gusts of wind from its erstwhile commander’s magic slashed deep cuts into its body, all of which are still bleeding, but it simply returned to its previous post without a word.
“Commander Karim and vice commander Malhtur have been removed from their position. New staff will soon be sent to fill those empty spots. In the meantime, continue normal operations as usual.”
The apostle doesn’t acknowledge my words in any way, but I don’t need it to. I’ve given my orders, and they will be obeyed as a matter of course. In truth, telling an apostle to ‘continue what it was doing’ is entirely pointless. They’ll do that anyway until given orders to the contrary.
I can see Jenit and Brocklaw in the distance. They’re running in my direction as fast as their legs will carry them, presumably hoping for an explanation. At least General Foss isn’t here. If he learned that the war was probably going to be delayed because the commander of the apostle troops defected to the majin, he’d probably talk my ear off about it, and I’d have to kill him to stop his whining.
Well, even without Foss here, I have no desire to ruin my good mood by listening to these two. They’ll probably just try to jockey for the position of commander, now that the seat is open.
Without another word, I shoot up into the sky. Even without a giant tornado pushing me from behind, I’m already much faster than Karim.
But I fly in a different direction.
I wouldn’t want to interfere with my new double agent, unwilling and oblivious though he may be.
I’m still in mid-flight, heading for the third lab again, when the emergency receiver in my space ring starts to emit a faint qi fluctuation. I frown and take it out.
“What is it?”
Anyone who would try to reach me through this should know that it can only be used to discuss absolutely vital matters.
“Your Majesty,” a voice says – incorrectly, but I’ve been emperor for so long it’s taking everyone a bit of time to adjust, it seems. “It… It’s about your son…” The voice, which I can’t quite place – Jarod, the empire’s spymaster, I think? – sounds quite anxious. Almost on the verge of panic, really.
“What about my son?”
What did this fool do, this time?
Did he lead more gods to their deaths? They’re only provincial gods, so it’s not a big loss, but it’s still quite embarrassing. I wish the child were a bit more careful with his toys.
“He… The, uh…” Jarod clears his throat and takes a deep breath before finally spitting it out. “The venue for the Inter-species Competition was attacked by devils, under AK-A-13’s leadership. Your son was… He was taken by them, Your Majesty.”
I scowl and stop flying, hovering high in the sky.
“What about Direnni? Didn’t he go with Gareth to protect him?”
“Yes, sir. Lord Direnni, along with Lords Milivoj, Basu, and Gorica. I’m afraid that… all of them have perished. The details of what happened… Well, it’s still unclear, but both the devils and AK-A-13 have already left the Island. We… We appear to have lost track of them. Along with… the young emperor…” His voice slowly trails off again.