Sorcery Hacker:Volume1 Phase3
Phase 03: Earth Castle Town Grouviv
Earth Castle Town Grouviv was a lot less unique compared to the other towns. It had normal roads, normal houses, and normal shops making up a normal cityscape. It had a lot fewer lights at night, so the glow of the red aurora known as the Demon Lord’s Bite seemed more distinct there.
This was the town for viewing the moon and stars.
It was night there and a conversation was being held in a restaurant that put more focus on alcohol than food.
“You can tell how crazy Celedileka is by the fact that being normal can be a selling point here. But I guess people will sometimes feel homesick while sightseeing. People tend to end up here when they’re sick of the other more unique towns and need a break, so they apparently get a lot of customers.”
Of course, that could also be seen from the buff Executioner collapsed on the table while complaining about his everyday troubles and how a female Paladin and Samurai showed more gentlemanly spirit than any of the men by trying to comfort him.
The restaurant was not illuminated by the mana light of a vacuum crystal container or crystal tube filled with phosphorescent moss spores. The tallow lamps on the tables provided an unsteady but gentle light much like watching a campfire.
Mana light was uniform and simple to use, but it was known to exhaust the eyes during long periods of work. That may have been another way this place welcomed people who were tired of the city. The mood was further established by the lack of the ubiquitous Media Summoners that looked like a crystal snowdome hooked up to a cable.
And when they had hired a beautiful Dancer to alluringly shake her hips instead, no one was going to complain.
Two people were seated at the lamplit counter.
Needless to say, one was Ayato Criminaltrophy.
The problem was the person seated next to him. He used fingers thicker than bananas to flick a royal gold and spoke with a cheerful voice. He slammed the bottom of his empty glass against the counter to gather the barkeeper’s attention and the vibration caused some sharply flavored round beans to dance on their plate.
“Hey, barkeep, give me another. This kid’s still too young to drink, so it’s be rude of me not to drink enough for the two of us.”
However, this man had a powerful presence.
It was overwhelming enough to keep anyone from asking the obvious questions that came to mind.
Ayato placed a hand on his forehead while commiserating with the bad luck of the barkeeper who worked here and the customers who happened to be here. Quite a few glasses and mugs of alcohol were served, but not one of those customers was truly drunk. One look at that man’s face was enough to sober them up.
The man supported his unusually large head with a hand and nearly stabbed Ayato with a thick horn as he winked and smiled.
“Oh? What’s this? I know a sexy guy like me draws everyone’s eye regardless of sex or age, but observing me isn’t gonna help improve your own looks.”
“What are you talking about, bull man?”
He was a Minotaur.
The bull-headed giant stood 1.7 esoule tall. He wore pants with an absurd number of zippers, but his upper body was entirely bare. And with how muscular his reddish-brown body was, that was about his only option. It was indecent for a person, but it may have made for a lovely sculpture. He claimed his muscles had burst through all the decent clothes and armor he had tried to wear. He had leather holsters at his hips, but instead of twin handguns, he carried two old-style magic swords that were treated like fossils in the current age.
The beautiful but out-of-place voice of a strict woman reached their ears.
“Mgh, mgh…pwah!! Wh-what do you think you’re doing!?”
“I tied you up pretty tightly and stuffed you in a sack, but you escaped already? Not confiscating your sorcery gun was probably a mistake.”
While the boy made a dangerous-sounding comment, something burst out of the cheap sack lying at his feet. It was a battle-obsessed woman with a ponytail-like blonde braid who wore combat armor that increased its magical defenses and her own athletic ability using large monster tendons and leather as well as protectors made of oxidized mana-conducting silver that was given an asphalt color to increase its durability at the cost of general versatility. She had chosen the more popular older style to obtain the people’s cooperation. This was of course the beautiful Striker named Henrietta Split Destrius.
Her flushed face was due to more than just difficulty breathing.
“How dare you take me to some cheap inn, knock me out with a cowardly surprise attack, and then tie me up in order to do who-knows-what to me!?”
“You accepted that the anti-dragon sniper exists and is the greater threat to Sky City Celedileka and you agreed to help us eliminate that threat, but the instant you saw an opening while we were holding a strategy meeting at the inn we were hiding out in, you tried to contact your old buddies in the knights. How many times must you try to have us surrounded and slaughtered?”
“Uh…b-but it is my duty to keep the peace in Celedileka, so I could not ignore the ruffians I saw in front of me.”
“Don’t give me that and stop pouting your lips like some selfish brat! I really was nearly shot to death because of that!!”
“(B-besides, what are we doing in such a seedy restaurant? What are they plotting by taking me to some sketchy bar? No, stay strong. I need to stay strong. I can’t let them scare me. The instant you look away, they will try to have their way with you, Henrietta!!)”
The miniskirt Striker started muttering to herself and behaving oddly, so the blatantly suspicious Minotaur spoke up in exasperation.
“Hold on, boy. That is no way to treat a lady.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I made sure to put one of my shirts in the sack to help that lonely kitten get through the night. Did you have fun rubbing against it and filling your lungs with my scent?”
“You did what!? Now I am killing you!!!!!!”
That woman, who had chosen the old-fashioned protector armor and miniskirt instead of cutting-edge combat equipment, must not have understood how she had ended up in the earth town after losing that battle.
“Well, now that the cat’s out of the bag, you might as well take a seat.”
“Shouldn’t you apologize for your rudeness first!? Do not worry. I am not angry. If you sincerely bow your head, I will make sure to arrest you and tie you up swiftly and painlessly!!”
“You say that, Miss Henrietta, but don’t think I missed that complicated look you gave Miss Mamilis earlier.”
That earnest woman apparently could never bring herself to outright reject what someone else said and instead took it all under consideration. To be blunt, she got the short end of the stick a lot because of that.
“No. As a Striker, I refuse to accept this. I can never accept the concept of a necessary evil…uhh.”
“Strange things happen. Like a completely innocent girl’s SOS going unheard by all those wonderful Knights or Strikers or whatever. Since you left her to be captured by despicable human traffickers, don’t you think you need to reconsider your view of Sorcery Hackers?”
“Stop reading my min-…cough, cough, ahem!! No, you misheard! That is not at all what I was thinking!! Cough, cough! Besides, even if those charges were false, you are still a sorcery criminal, are you not!?”
“Here, you can use my handkerchief. You were in that sack for a while.”
“Ugh, wipe, wipe. I can’t believe a Striker like me must accept the charity of a hacker…”
“Oh, I thought you were just going to wipe the sweat from your brow, but you went for the whole face. I used that to wipe off my mouth earlier, so does this count as an indirect kiss?”
She spat out the contents of her mouth.
For being a cutting-edge knight, her table manners were not the best.
“S-s-s-stop messing with me! There is so much I want to say that I’m afraid I won’t remember it all, but for now, you two dangerous individuals need to be tied up!! Yes, the human and the bull head!!”
Just as she shouted and pulled out her bolt-action carbine with axe-like bayonet, a Martial Artist woman hoping for some excitement stood up at a table a short distance away.
The reddish-brown Minotaur drank from his glass and did not even reach for the swords at his hips.
A palm-sized purple butterfly fluttered by in their vision.
This was an unnatural night butterfly decorated with lace and gems. It became a woman whose long hair glowed with a purple radiance and who wore a classic maid uniform. She also had metal arms extending from her hips and back which held a double digit number of small and large sorcery guns. They were all aimed at the various vital points across Henrietta’s body.
The ponytail-style blonde braid Striker gasped and the purple-haired maid spoke coolly.
“Sheathe your rude and impudent blade, insolent woman. You are a mere knight who serves one of the many regional kings left in charge of the continent’s excess land, so did you really think you were an equal of the primary heir to the Selected Kingdoms’ Combined Royal Family?”
“Stop it, stop it. I’m just some bull man now. This is my chance to live my life the way I want and bars are more enjoyable when everyone can relax.”
The Minotaur said that while draining his drink and munched on a handful of salty beans and small fish cooked in oil, but that was all. He did not give any kind of explanation. Henrietta blinked in confusion while still holding her sorcery gun at the ready and she glanced over at Ayato who was supposedly her enemy.
The boy simply shrugged.
Only the maid who he had called his client kept speaking.
“The man before you is His Excellency Liberca Bran Zorca Totalinus. His Excellency himself has forgiven you your previous insolence, but since you are aware of your inferior position now, any further rudeness will be swiftly punished.”
“D-do you want me to cut you down on charges of disloyalty and impersonating royalty!? No, do not give up on people’s lives just because they are a dangerous individual, Henrietta. As a Striker borrowing the king’s authority, I must show them the proper way and urge them to reform. Listen, some things are not appropriate to joke about!”
“Your Excellency,” smoothly said the maid. “Please kindly enlighten this foolish servant.”
There was a heavy thud as the muscular Minotaur drew one of his two swords from its holster and placed it heavily on the counter.
Henrietta’s forehead tensed more than necessary when she saw the symbol engraved at the base.
“The Royal Sword – Butterfly Effector.”
“So even a lowly knight like you knows a bit about heraldry. The combination of the family crest and the individual name is all the proof you could need that he is a member of the Selected Kingdoms’ Combined Royal Family. If you continue to question his royalty, I will punish you for disloyalty.”
“Ah, ahhh, wah, wah, ahhh!!”
There was no sign of the powerful foe Henrietta had been earlier.
The ultimate vertical society had its pros and cons. She was so confused she dropped her carbine with axe-like bayonet, her face paled, her eyes spun in her head, and she dropped to one knee in the pose of absolute obedience.
“Can I put this away? I don’t like flaunting my authority to solve problems. That makes me one of those awful rulers that looks down on everyone else. I just hate it. Every time I do it, it makes me feel like less of a man.” The reddish-brown Minotaur looked like he could not stand it. “And we call it the Combined Royal Family, but it’s unclear how ‘combined’ we really are. It might look like everyone in the Static Continent gets along, but it’s not unusual for regional royal families to make plantations overseas to secretly build up money and soldiers. We’re one secret agreement away from a set of kingdoms saying they’ll sink any ships not in their little group that try to head out to sea. Not everything is nicely in view. Like this sky city for example.”
“There are four continents in all, right? But the other continents are supposed to have their hands full with small kingdoms fighting each other for supremacy. Is there really room there for all this?”
“And who told you that nice story? Was it those Media Summoners you love so much? It’s not like you’ve actually gone overseas and seen it for yourself.”
Henrietta was seriously having trouble keeping up with all this now, so she could not even shout like a child and her mouth simply flapped wordlessly. But unlike that earnest Striker, the outlaw Sorcery Hacker had considered another possibility.
“Why did you believe him so readily? Even if that Butterfly Effector is real, he could just be some talking Minotaur that stole it from the corpse of a prince who kicked the bucket on a trip.”
“Huh!? That is truly despicable, bull head! No more mercy! It is time I began the Henrietta Education Camp where I will teach you the difference between right and wrong until your eyes are shining mirrors of purity!!”
“By the way, I am Micha Angelos, a prototype humanoid sorcery device whose organs are made from biological gems. I function as a succession manager who protects the Butterfly Effector’s seal. If any unauthorized individual were to touch the that royal blade or its wielder, I possess the defense capabilities to cut them down.”
“Wah, wah, wahhhhhhh!!”
Henrietta was truly at her limit after so much back and forth. Her position kept changing and her eyes were spinning dizzily as she tried to figure out whether she was pointed in the direction of good or evil.
Meanwhile, Ayato gave a snort of laughter while seated next to the Minotaur.
“So you’re enjoying a trip across the continent with a servant who does everything you ask? Not only are modern Minotaurs compulsive liars, but they apparently get their diapers changed too.”
“Say what you like, but I really don’t want to hear that from some gloomy geek who drags around a tearful busty blonde roommate wherever he goes.”
Invisible sparks flew between them, but the maid broke that silence.
“If necessary, I am willing to equip some thin plastic gloves, a mask, and goggles to change your diapers or eliminate your pent-up desires.”
“You might think that’s a kind offer, but you’re really not helping, maid! I never asked you to grab my you-know-what and I definitely don’t want to hear you need all that equipment before you can stand to do it!!”
The (self-proclaimed) Prince Charming gave a roar and the cool, purple-haired maid transformed back into an unnatural night butterfly made of bewitching lace and gems before flying off somewhere.
The reddish-brown Minotaur clicked his tongue and returned the sword to the holster.
The elderly barkeeper was left dumbfounded by this exchange, but he finally seemed to have found someone to speak to.
While being very careful not to drop the glass he was polishing with both hands, he asked a hesitant question of the well-known Striker who was tasked with keeping the peace in the sky city.
“How am I supposed to respond to these people?”
“Hm, good question. They are dangerous individuals, but I am monitoring them for the time being. Let them do as they wish.”
She finally said it once someone came to her for help. That seemed to help loosen up the tense atmosphere in the restaurant. Having the “seal of approval” from the knights meant a lot.
“(So which is it? Is he real or a fake!? Am I facing an insolent traitor, or acting rudely to the Combined Royal Family? Please tell me where I stand here, so I can figure out what to do. Nothing bothers me more than this kind of gray zone. I need a clear division between right and wrong!)”
“I don’t know either, you earnest and straitlaced moron,” said Ayato. “How am I supposed to prove it one way or the other?”
“Oh? What, so you’re sitting next to Ayato!?” protested the Minotaur. “Makes me sad to have a guy sitting between me and such a pretty lady!!”
It was said that man had received divine punishment after performing repeated sorcery experiments.
Not even Ayato had been told what those experiments were meant to accomplish, but the man claimed they were meant to help people.
And Ayato honestly did not particularly care whether or not he really was the First Prince of the Combined Royal Family that bound together the many regional kings.
The man would spew nonsense when he was drunk, but he had far more information than Ayato could imagine and he was a good client that freely spent royal gold taken from some personal fortune he had hidden away somewhere.
“As your client, could I ask for a report on what happened?”
“There’s not much to report. Funny Snatch’s human trafficking group was successfully destroyed in the fire town and that completed the job you hired us for. Although if you’re interested in the overtime we put in for free, the villain pulling the strings decided to pick a fight with us and we were stuck being chased all over the wind town by those ignorant knights who were lagging several steps behind. We didn’t earn anything and we had to pay our own way through it all!!”
“We were ignorant and lagging several steps behind!? I demand you take that back!!”
“You were perfectly happy attacking me when I was working to stop the villain. That’s one step behind. Some straitlaced woman was shouting nonsense without even knowing what the real threat to the sky city was. That’s two steps! You still don’t seem to understand any of this. That’s three steps!!”
Henrietta’s head was full of question marks (and her eyes had some tears welling up in them), but the reddish-brown Minotaur ignored her to speak to Ayato again.
“Run out of tricks?”
“Right now, I can only wait.” Ayato licked the surface of the magically-created ice floating in his water. “Someone went out of their way to acquire that monstrous Critical Disaster and they disappeared beyond that nasty barrier with a ridiculous name like Free Audience Restriction. I am worried about what they are trying to accomplish, but we have no way of breaking through that barrier.”
“Hm. A Sorcery Hacker is saying he can’t do something?”
“Are you trying to provoke me? But luckily, the Free Audience Restriction is brought down to allow the normal citizens and sightseers into the royal castle on certain days. We’ll have to use one of those days to get in. And I believe the one coming up is for that Temple Moving Ceremony.”
“Are you aware what kind of event that really is?”
“A public execution. Fun for the whole family, I’m sure.”
Ayato spat out the words in disgust.
The Temple Moving Ceremony was used to invite in a specific religion as the new state religion, but Sky City Celedileka was a military government run by the king and knights. If this was to defend the divine right of their rule, they could not afford any mistakes here. In other words, the Forturiana Church had to defeat some great evil to be accepted by the king. (Officially, anyway. Any previously established connections were a different matter.)
This was not the suppression of the great Demon Lord spoken of in legend or the slaying of a dragon from a picture book.
It would take the form of a test, but the regional king and the church did not want it to fail. That was why they had chosen a convenient villain for themselves. They would offer up a human prisoner who had been sentenced to death and the event would continue as planned.
“Hey, Ayato. I’ve got a fundamental question for you here.”
Henrietta tugged on his sleeve and begged him to explain what was going on, but the muscular bull man cut in before he could reply.
“You seem to be doing your best to not see a certain possibility here. So do you mind if I point it out for you?”
“Quit beating around the bush. What are you talking about?”
“The Zodiac Bright Eater.”
Henrietta clearly had no idea what the reddish-brown Minotaur meant. Ayato did know what that term referred to, but he still did not understand what the man was getting at.
“The ancient Demon Lord Nirvelphany? That’s one of the nicknames listed in the sightseeing pamphlet while explaining that people here call the aurora the Demon Lord’s Bite, but why bring that up now?”
“Because that’s who you’re pursuing here. She’s a ruler of surprises and she can be the trigger of doom or the key to salvation. Write her name in a circle to link the end back to the start and you create an eternal incantation that provides unlimited power.”
This was all far too sudden.
But the Minotaur did not seem to be joking.
“C’mon now. You have a Dark Elf like Mamilis with you and you’re speaking with a guy who abandoned his humanity after too many sorcery experiments, so how can you be so certain the Demon Lord isn’t still alive?” The bull man drank down the rest of the amber liquid in his glass and slammed the glass against the counter, sending the round beans and small fish dancing along their plates with the vibration. “You did figure it out on your own, didn’t you? You knew the answer, but your common sense got in the way and refused to let you accept the answer right in front of your eyes.”
“It can’t be…”
“You remember now, don’t you? It’s about that sniper’s Expansion Armor. Shops selling demon wings and horns are pretty common in that wind town, but those are different. Demon Lord Nirvelphany remade her own right wing into Expansion Armor. She used her own body part that was cut off long ago and sealed in that shrine along with her.”
“It is true she seemed to have much greater control over that one compared to the horns, the left wing, or the tail. It seemed like an excessive amount of processing space for a mere decoration.”
“She only saw it as reattaching the body part taken from her, but as Expansion Armor, she can’t hide it inside herself anymore. Being a sniper or Sorcery Hacker is all about hiding and sneaking around and she would stand out quite a bit walking around with just the one wing sticking out, so she probably felt the need to match the rest as well.”
The Minotaur chuckled and tapped at his empty glass a few more times. Earnest Henrietta still could not decide who was an enemy and who was an ally, but she still called over the frightened barkeeper like the organizer of a drinking party.
“Demon Lord Nirvelphany definitely did exist in the distant past, but how she vanished from the center stage of history is much less clear. Some say the holy light of Forturiana purified the demon and others say she destroyed herself in some kind of sorcery experiment, but none of it is very credible. It’s all a bunch of rumors.”
“ ‘It was a golden horse carrying death and a holy follower adorned with glittering gems.’ Those words apparently describe her fate, but all the scholars have different interpretations of what it means. Although maybe it means there’s someone else out there like my maid.”
“What are you even talking about? I’ll admit the right wing of that Expansion Armor wasn’t normal, but I seriously doubt Nirvelphany is still alive and active to this day. Didn’t you see that dragon rampaging in the fire town? Without a leader, the demons have been fighting sadly meaningless individual battles. Yet if they had rationally banded together again and formed a single cohesive force, they could have started a war large enough to divide the continent in two. If that charismatic leader was still around, it never would have ended up like this.”
“You’re right about that. But a history book gathering dust on the Combined Royal Family’s bookshelves says the Forturiana Church opted not to wait for the arrival of the Hero and instead sealed Nirvelphany in a small shrine somewhere.” The giant bull man accepted a newly filled glass and waved it around a bit to spin the ice. “But not even the official records of the Combined Royal Family say where that shrine is located. No one can tell you where on that vast, vast continent it is.”
“Wait, hold on…”
“This isn’t too unusual. For example, the Combined Royal Family’s treasure house isn’t open to public tours, but that’s because we can’t let the commoners know it’s actually empty. And the Resurrector Cathedral that preserves the royal tombs is pretty much the same. All the generations of kings are supposed to be sleeping there, but if you open up the tombs, the numbers don’t add up. If it was just one body missing, you could make up some story about the mysterious vanishing king, but when there are that many missing, you can’t smooth it over with legends.”
“(Heh heh heh. This is fine. I am using invisible chains to keep these dangerous individuals here. This is an important job, so I haven’t given in. I will never lose to these ruffians. Eh heh heh heh.)”
Henrietta had tried to figure out from the conversation if this Minotaur was telling the truth about his identity, but the information must have overloaded her mind at some point. She had been listening in without interrupting for a while, but now she was childishly muttering to herself while slumped down on the counter despite not having had a drop to drink. Ayato lightly rubbed her head with a hand while listening to the reddish-brown bull man.
“A lot is lost in the long span of history. Records that everyone just assumed would always be around will one day not be there. Now, a question. You believe the commonly-accepted fact that Demon Lord Nirvelphany disappeared and was no more, but does that really have any historical basis? Or is it a false theory some idiot made up to hide the fact that the official records were lost due to some combination of coincidence and malice? Yes, that’s the real question here.”
It was true the right wing that red leather woman had worn was not your average device. If it really did belong to the Demon Lord, then not many people would be able to get their hands on it.
But Ayato still shook his head.
“I still don’t get it. That isn’t a logical conclusion. All you’ve said is ‘well, it could be’. If the Demon Lord was sealed in some musty old shrine several thousand Combo-Years ago, why would she be showing up again now? And why would she bring down the Free Audience Restriction to make an attack on the light castle in the center of Celedileka?”
“That just means she has a reason to do it now.”
“Listen, you’ve already given the answer yourself. You just haven’t noticed because you’re being led astray by the preconceptions made up by some idiot to hide the missing records.”
“Just tell me what you’re getting at here.”
“Try thinking for yourself.” The man with the ridiculously-large bull head sighed. “Nirvelphany went on ahead. And you can’t reach her because the Free Audience Restriction reactivated. That’s a problem, but luckily, the central light castle is bringing down that aurora-like barrier to invite in the normal citizens and sightseers for their fixed game of a Temple Moving Ceremony. And that means you can sneak in then to get a second chance at fighting Nirvelphany.”
The newspaper had mentioned an old man named Thomas. Losing his head for some silly event was tragic, but he had been given a death sentence already. He must have done something bad enough to warrant it, so that fellow resident of the underworld calmly urged the man to continue.
“Really? That wasn’t enough?”
The reddish-brown Minotaur took a jocular tone as he pressed the cold glass against his forehead.
And then he said it.
“Then why did Nirvelphany go to all the trouble to bring down the Free Audience Restriction? Couldn’t she have just snuck in with the crowds during the public execution of that old man named Thomas Robergin?”
That point should have been obvious, so Ayato’s mind went blank.
“That means she must have some reason for it,” said the bull man. “Nirvelphany has some business she wants to take care of before Thomas is killed for that religious event. Surely that’s enough for you to figure it out, Ayato.”
“You mean it’s related to that old man they’re calling a brutal criminal?”
“Incidentally, despite being part of this fancy event at the castle, the actual charges against him haven’t been released. All they’ve said is that he is a ‘brutal criminal’. So I wonder what this Thomas actually did?”
“Zodiac Bright Eater Nirvelphany hasn’t appeared on the center stage of history for several thousand Combo-Years. Not since this sky city was still a piece of the continent below. Yet now she appears to be active again. So how do you think that great Demon Lord managed to come crawling out of the shrine that’s location has been lost? Of course, the door can’t be opened from within, so I’m really asking who came along to open the door from the outside? Once you look at it that way, it all clicks into place, doesn’t it?”
Light Castle Brightio was the central region of the sky city. The king’s castle stood at the center of that special district that also contained all important government facilities and the cathedral of the Forturiana Church, which was more or less already protected by the king and was enjoying its honeymoon here. There were no real shops running here. That was not due to the late hour. Most likely, commerce was banned here and the king provided food, clothing, and shelter for the knights and soldiers.
Below the moonlit starry sky, a woman in red leather walked quietly along without worrying about the slits in her long tight skirt. Yes, she walked silently despite the flashy high heels she wore.
After seeing a Flower Seller girl walking there, Nirvelphany briefly hid behind cover. The Demon Lord’s sharp nose could tell that seedy look was a disguise. Unlike her, that girl probably used her powerless and foolish appearance to gain permission in and out. She may have been a Priest spying on the Forturiana Church which was effectively linked to the king.
This may have gone without saying, but stone castle were the product of a tower and walls culture. The many towers would be connected by tall walls to form the overall silhouette and the courtyards and the boxy hall where the king performed his official duties would be constructed inside those walls. Brightio was no exception, but the one major difference was the many additional structures that seemingly bubbled out from the main king’s castle. That created a unique view of labyrinthine staircases arranged in accordance with no apparent logic. It almost looked like a piece of trick art.
Even those small staircases were enough to get the red leather woman out of breath. Her head was wobbling side to side and she could not support her body weight, so she placed a hand on the wall.
A sticky sensation had hit her as soon as the faint magical lights – artificial magical lights – shined on her soft skin.
Dark blood stained her upper body in a diagonal line down from her right shoulder. A dull and heated pain similar to pus spread below her beautiful skin.
She shut her eyes and took a deep breath.
(I am fine. There is no wound. The old wound itself has been forgiven. This is an illusion. Just an illusion.)
When she opened her eyes again, the rusty-looking color was nowhere to be seen and the pus-like pain had faded. Still leaning against the wall, she wiped the cold sweat from her brow.
Long ago, the Hero’s sword had dug into her shoulder and then sliced diagonally through her torso. The wing on her back and the item embedded in her body had been sliced through as well. Without the “breadth of possibilities” available to the Demon Lord, she would have died. The right wing Expansion Armor she now wore had been made from her own body part thrown into that sealed shrine along with her. That alone would have stood out too much, so she had also acquired horns, a thick tail, and a left wing to match.
She lived in fear of that nonexistent wound, she had lost her “breadth of possibilities”, she had reattached her severed wing in pursuit of her former appearance, and she did her best to maintain her dignity.
What would the humans think if they knew this was what had become of the Demon Lord who had once shaken all of history?
(They would think I have grown weak.)
She gave a self-deprecating smile. For one thing, the Demon Lord was not some strongest being. It was said writing out her name in a circle to connect the end to the beginning would give you an eternal incantation that provided unlimited power, but that was not what the title actually meant. When powerful, she broke through the upper limits of history. When weak, the average human could defeat her. The Demon Lord title referred to the being with both those highs and those lows. That was why she was known to bring surprises and the unexpected. The Demon Lord’s power referred to her great “breadth of possibilities”, whether that led to her victory or her defeat. That was why the Four Great Demons, who only had their fixed strength, had found her interesting enough to follow.
(The fact that I’ve lost the strength to laugh even in defeat may be the real proof of my weakness.)
During the vast length of time for which she was sealed, her “power” had slowly but surely leaked from her broken body. The current Demon Lord no longer had that “breadth of possibility”. She was an ordinary being who could not change anything and only had her arms and legs to work with. All her “power” had leaked out, so all that remained to her was the sturdy tank that was her healed body. She could bathe in the moonlight to gradually refill that tank and expand her possibilities, but that would take too long to accomplish her goal here.
Since she was at human level or below, she would do things their way.
She just had to use techniques just as – or more – cheap and underhanded as those humans.
She looked up at the stone wall she was leaning against.
(This really is the age of sorcery guns. I can see the loopholes all over these walls. They look like worm-eaten cheese.)
However, if all of those small holes opened at even intervals had sorcery guns and snipers waiting at them, she would have been detected well before now. Just like with laser pointers, more loopholes were built than necessary to frighten the enemy by giving the impression of more guns than there really were.
Using the many stairs to move from tower to tower must have been a lot of work because there were thick wires set up between towers and between plazas and moonlit cable cars could be seen dangling from those. Humans would do anything to increase efficiency in the name of laziness.
They must have loved the stillness and inviolable atmosphere because unlike the rudely bright nightscapes outside, the light castle was much more subdued at night. It did seem ironic that it was the light castle which was enveloped in darkness.
(They placed light at the peak of the four elements, but they lost their way because they aren’t sure what exactly the “light” element even is.)
Nirvelphany gave a snort of laughter below the red aurora known as the Demon Lord’s Bite.
The statues praising the regional royal family were joined by ones of Forturianan priests. Based on the inscriptions at the bottom, they had supposedly brought peace to the world by defeating the Demon Lord.
Thanks to that, the religious leaders were allowed a life more luxurious than the royals and nobles. The Temple Moving Ceremony was no more than checking off the proper boxes on the official paperwork. It was ridiculous to think of those holy men as pure and righteous when they were clearly indulging in a life of disgusting gluttony.
(What is this Light-Dark Duality nonsense? Everything in this world can be explained just fine with the traditional four elements, so why even bring good and evil into it?)
The world had not been like this back when she was sealed.
Celedileka had been planted firmly on the ground and she had been discarded in a tomb deep below the surface. She had never imagined she would be lifted high into the sky along with the ground around her.
(Not that it matters.)
The facility she was interested in was also here.
(The special prison. The giant cage used to contain those found guilty of sorcery crimes.)
Or that was the story anyway, but the devil in red leather knew all too well that it did not function as advertised. Simply put, that prison run by Government Security was an exchange that traded hostages for money. They claimed to be protecting the peace by keeping dangerous criminals off the streets, but if you were rich enough to pay bail, you could walk free once more. This was abused by accusing the son of a rich merchant or noble for some random crime to get a juicy ransom or bail payment out of them. And if they refused, the money could still be obtained under the name of consolation money, indemnities, or a fine.
And once that system became normalized, the jailors stopped questioning the absurdity of their duties. If a political opponent or an inconvenient witness ended up imprisoned for no justifiable reason, it was dealt with as just more of the same.
So no one would question it if a completely innocent old man showed up in there.
“I need to get going.”
Brightio was best described as a city of stairs. The royal castle’s tall towers extended ever upward and the boxy government buildings were built alongside those like lizard eggs.
But the prison alone was different.
A secret route defied the staircases by continuing ever downward.
Even with the giant anti-dragon rifle resting on her shoulder, even with the revealing red leather vest and tight skirt, and even with the horn and wing Expansion Armor, no one called out to her in suspicion. It did not matter that she was blatantly not dressed like a knight or government officer.
The guards did not bother leaving their assigned posts and the patrols along the many staircases tangled all around the royal castle were only made at specific times.
Instead of actually trying to increase security, it was more like creating a giant clockwork device to show off to everyone looking in from the outside. There was still a giant dragon in Fire Castle Town Flared, but not everyone would be out dealing with that.
An attempt on the king’s life could not be allowed to happen.
And because it could not be allowed to happen, they must not even consider it a possibility and must not put together any concrete countermeasures.
That was probably how it worked.
(This must be the result of living so snugly behind that impenetrable aurora-like barrier.)
The soldiers’ training and the locks on the doors did not matter when the Free Audience Restriction was considered an absolute defense. It was considered impossible – truly impossible – for an enemy to get through there, so it would be disrespectful to try to convince the royal family there might be a threat. She was silencing the sound of her sharp heels, but this place was not designed with intruders in mind, so this was no different from a nighttime stroll.
In what was probably meant as a form of camouflage, a makeshift wooden door was attached to the right triangle wall in the space below one of the many staircases. She aimed the stock of her anti-dragon rifle toward it.
She swung the weapon down at the knob to break the lock and then slipped through.
She was now inside the special prison.
She silently snuck in, but she did make one unnecessary statement to herself.
“I will be there to save you soon, you kind old man.”
“So, so, so.”
The legs in those zipper-covered pants rudely fidgeted below the counter.
Ayato and Henrietta were not interested in eating anything, but that First Prince reached for the assortment of cheeses laid out on the counter. Unlike the uniform mana light trapped in artificial crystal, the gentle orange light of the lamp was reminiscent of a campfire and that may have made the food look more delicious.
Henrietta tugged on his sleeve from the side.
It was an oddly weak and childish action for that adult woman in armor and a tight skirt. It did not suit her at all, but she could not help but wonder if this was possible and if this kind of plotting really was carried out on a daily basis in the light castle that stood above the knights.
She must have always trusted the information given to her by her allies.
She would not want to believe that some of the criminals she had arrested in the past were actually good people or that she had assisted some bad guys who had worked their way into the groups meant to carry out justice.
“But what is the truth of the matter really?” The Minotaur licked the surface of his glass. “Even if the shrine’s door did open by random chance, would that really have fully released Nirvelphany? I have to imagine she had a curse charm on her forehead, mana-conducting silver chains binding her body, and all sorts of other defenses applied to her since the regional king at the time couldn’t kill her.”
“Yes, he could have just stopped.” The reddish-brown bull man drained his glass and grabbed a piece of strong cheese. “Maybe when that old man called Thomas saw the sealed Demon Lord, he only saw a woman who could laugh and cry just like a human and he couldn’t help but reach out a helping hand. So he removed that charm on her forehead and the chains binding her.”
There would have been no real reason for it.
If he had been blinded by the Demon Lord’s charisma or wanted to sign a contract with her to turn his life around, Nirvelphany would not have been this fixated on him.
He had done it without thinking.
Truly without thinking.
That old man had simply reached out his hand like a small child opening the birdcage by the window despite knowing the small bird inside would never return.
And he had released her of his own free will.
That had been deemed a crime.
One worthy of death.
“In that case, Nirvelphany has no reason at all to hold back.” The First Prince slammed his empty glass down on the counter. “I doubt the peerless Demon Lord would rely on a human-made sorcery gun. We’re talking about someone who comes up when you discuss who it is that supports the power of magic in the first place. Why is a VIP like that relying on puny human tech? I imagine this plays a role there.”
The enormous Minotaur stroked one of the holsters at his hip. The guard of the sword was shaped like butterfly wings and it glowed with a faint magical power.
Unlike the lamps and candles in this restaurant, this was an artificial magic light.
Something happened in that moment.
That bull man had no injury on his head. Or he had not before. Yet the others saw an illusory black liquid oozing from the top of his head.
“An attack taken by the Hero can only be healed by the Hero.”
“Heh heh. This hurts like hell. Even after the injury itself has been forgiven and sealed up, it sticks with you for a good long time. There’s an illusion of a dull and heated pain similar to pus and it saps your body of strength.”
Yes, it was no more than an illusion.
The symbol of a leaking fluid vanished along with the magic light from the sword in his holster.
“If she was defeated and sealed, it’s only natural to assume she was injured as well. But the Demon Lord is walking around despite that weakened state. If she just wanted to regain her former power, she would be better off staying put. Now, Ayato, you’re a clever boy, so here’s a question for you: what could explain this contradictory situation?”
“You don’t mean…”
“I don’t know if that old man is aware of it or not. After all, even the lowest estimates put it at more than a thousand Comb-Years ago. That was so long ago that no humans or even demons remember what the Demon Lord looks like.”
The bull man twisted his oversized jaws in his best imitation of a smile.
“But it is possible this old man named Thomas carries a secret. A secret power in his blood. …If that kind old man really and truly saved Nirvelphany, then he would hold great meaning for her. She wouldn’t want to wait to recover her strength even if she only has just 1% of her original ‘breadth of possibility’. She would feel a need to challenge that impregnable castle all on her own.”
Just like in the tunnels the humans had so thoughtlessly dug through the mountains, this pitch-black area was only lit by the mana light in the bare minimum of crystal tubes installed at even intervals, but restricting the amount of light probably had its purpose.
A prison was meant to let the jailors know what the prisoners were doing, but the opposite had to be avoided. Directing the flow of information in a single direction created an absolute barrier between the rulers and the ruled. That was a truly basic tactic.
When the artificial light crawled across Nirvelphany’s skin, that irregular sticky sensation returned. She felt a heated pain like her body was rotting and filled with pus. It was all an illusion, so she slowly exhaled and brushed off the remnants of that forgiven wound.
This space was so large it was hard to believe it existed in a sky city.
This vast subterranean space continued every downward. Beyond a bottomless-looking pit that measured 100 esoule across, she saw barred cells installed on separate levels with this side of the pit converted into a large guard tower. The guard tower was installed with a large spotlight made by converting mist mana into fire magic within a giant vacuum crystal. That shined inside the cells to see within, but that same bright light would make it impossible for the prisoners to see inside the tower. It was intentionally set up that way.
In this underground space with no concept of day and night, constantly shining blinding lights on people would prevent them from getting much sleep. Not only did this place rob people of their freedom by trapping them behind bars, but it drove them ever closer to death by sapping their physical and mental strength simply by being there. They avoided direct violence like punching and kicking and instead designed everything to simply direct information in a single direction. The facility was like a crystallization of the ugly side of humanity that could claim righteousness while harming others.
They liked to talk about the Light-Dark Duality.
If anyone complained they could not sleep because of the bright light, they would simply be mocked for fearing the light because that pointed to a darkness filling their heart.
There were bridges connecting the guard tower to the cells on the other side of the pit, but they were drawbridges made to be immediately raised in case of emergency. There were no safety standards here. That single light source could start a fire if it malfunctioned, but if a fire did break out, the prisoners would have nowhere to run and they would be surrounded by flames and smoke in no time. The jailors did not leave the guard tower except to provide the bare necessities like food, so they had no problem with the current arrangement since they could climb up to the safety of their tower to escape danger.
The people in those cells were not necessarily guilty of serious crimes. One of them was a girl with unnaturally clear hair and skin. She almost looked like a sculpture. She was probably a Homunculus, but how had she ended up in here? Was the Alchemist who created her looking for a chance to break her out?
After seeing all this, Nirvelphany saw no reason to hold back.
She had never thought she could reach her destination without being detected anyway.
She would need the proper keys to open the prison’s doors.
While carrying a rope she had found tying a light fixture in place, she snuck up behind a young jailor in the guard tower and wrapped the rope around his neck.
He only started clutching at his throat and kicking his feet after he had been lifted from the ground by his neck, but by then it was too late. There was no hesitation in her high heels. He could not resist at all and he could not cry out to alert the others, so he could only accept his fate.
On the other side of the pit, his colleagues were chucking what amounted to table scraps into the cells on the wall there, but that put them on the other side of the bright light they had set up as the ruling class. They could not see the tragedy occurring so close by.
Killing someone by blocking their windpipe would take time and she was not going to bother with that. She considered shaking him up and down to break his neck, but…
“It must have been hard surviving so long surrounded by so much rust and dust. You are not human yourself, so you don’t need to let human circumstances control your fate. Live the life you want to live. That is what I want for you.”
She had killed plenty of people already, so why was she remembering those words here?
She clicked her tongue, subtly shifted the force applied by her arms, and constricted the jailor’s carotid arteries on the sides of his neck instead. With the blood flow not reaching their brain, puny humans would pass out before you could count to ten. Before the lack of oxygen could damage his brain cells, she loosened the rope in her hands and tied the limp jailor’s arms behind his back.
That choice only introduced further risks, but she did not feel like turning back to finish off a defenseless life.
Perhaps this was like not wanting to dirty your hands before heading to your birthday party. You wanted to remain clean for that special day at least.
At any rate.
(This panel operates the drawbridges. And this is the key for the cells. Hm, so they aren’t using separate keys for every cell. Well, they can’t exactly walk around with hundreds or thousands of keys, so a single master key is easier.)
She blindly operated the control panel, lowered the levers, and raised all of the drawbridges connecting the guard tower to the cells across the pit.
“Wait, what’s going on!?”
“Hold on! Now we can’t get back!!”
This was like angering a hornet’s nest, but those on the cell pathways were stuck where they were and could not move up or down between levels. More than half of the jailors had been locked in place.
On the other hand, nearly half of them were at the top or bottom of the guard tower, but she did not have to fight them.
“Let’s do this.”
There were staircases connecting different levels of the guard tower, but there were thick metal doors installed to prevent jailbreaks and riots.
She raised her giant anti-dragon rifle, pressed the top against her forehead, and focused on the disintegrating lead bullet. She focused her mind on the magic she would use.
This was the weakest of the weak.
By carving the necessary letters and numbers with her willpower, she had set up the muzzle flash in the color she wanted like a fireworks craftsman. The color was yellow, the vertices were three, and one of those vertices was kept shorter to intentionally break the balance.
“Tertiary Arc Charge.”
While drawing out as much power as she could, she pressed the stock against her shoulder and fired. The intense heat fused the door and wall together, so no one could open it anymore. No one could reach this level.
The recoil hitting her shoulder sent pain through her body like spreading cracks. It was like the bag of pus built up below her skin finally bursting. Of course, that old wound was not really there. I am overthinking this, thought the Demon Lord with clenched teeth. Just to be safe, she leaned over and collected the giant empty cartridge that was covered in a hardened film of mist mana thanks to the impurities and heat.
Once she hit the button on the control panel to lower the drawbridge to the cell she wanted, her objective was halfway complete.
She followed the path she had created for herself.
“Freeing me is a bad idea, human. Once my seal is broken and I regain access to the object embedded in my chest, I will regain my full power as the Demon Lord. Although that is assuming it still runs after being disconnected for so long. Also, you humans have a bad habit of shifting the target of your hatred to revel in a false sense of satisfaction. If I escape from their grasp, they will try to satisfy themselves by tormenting you in my stead.”
She recalled something she had said before.
Yes, she had known it would turn out like this from the beginning.
“I am an old man and I have lived long enough already.”
But none of her warnings had done anything to remove the smile from that old man’s face.
He had not even been aware of his own value.
How could a truly normal human have opened the door to where the Demon Lord was sealed? Not to mention the many charms and chains. Why didn’t he realized doing that was all the proof anyone needed that he carried the blood of the Hero whose sword she had once taken.
In the current legends, the Forturiana Church insisted quite loudly that their ancestors had defeated her to prove their religious authority and to justify their position as rulers while they worked to curry the favor of the regional king who ruled this land. That had reached the point of an effective rule and they were even putting on a ridiculous event they called the Temple Moving Ceremony.
So if the old man’s identity became known and those in power sensed danger, that forgotten old man would be the one in real danger.
Those ugly humans would not hesitate to silence someone.
“Ha ha. I’m no one that important.”
“But I still want to help out when I see someone like you. I don’t have much time left in this world, but you can live forever. The few Combo-Years I have left is a small price to pay for reclaiming your eternal life, don’t you think?”
Then that old man had removed the many curse charms and chains one by one.
He had even placed his hand on the ugly wound running diagonally down from her neck to heal it and provide forgiveness.
He himself had seemed surprised when it happened.
That was when it had hit her.
It had been a real revelation for her.
She no longer needed to hold that hatred inside her. She did not need a weapon. It was over. The age of conflict from so, so, so, so long ago had long since ended.
There was no point in continuing to live as a Demon Lord.
She could fly free now.
It was that Hero’s healing and forgiveness that had taught her that.
The old man had not known anything.
He had even forgotten the duty assigned to his bloodline. The flow of time had washed away all the bad blood.
She ran across a group on food duty, but there were only two or three of them equipped with just enough to deal with unarmed prisoners. They carried no sorcery guns, presumably so rioting prisoners could not steal them. Aiming her gun at them might have led them to jump off the edge, so she instead beat them down with the stock of her anti-dragon rifle and continued on.
(I have no interest in the division between good and evil that the humans have so selfishly defined for themselves. Fire, water, wind, and earth are the only real divisions, but they still insist on dividing the world between the nonexistent elements of light and darkness.)
In the end, it had played out exactly as she had expected.
If they hated her, they only needed to attack her, but they forgot all about challenging that powerful foe and instead redirected their excess righteousness toward an enemy in their grasp to enjoy a false sense of satisfaction.
An innocent old man had been accused of the Demon Lord’s crimes and he was to be executed in public for it.
No, even that was an excuse.
In truth, the powers that be needed to eliminate that old man because he could reveal their lies. Wounds caused by the Hero could only be healed by the Hero. That was all the proof anyone needed of who had defeated the Demon Lord. So they were trembling in their boots and too scared to sleep at night. They had needed to find anything they could accuse him of so they could kill him. That was the entirety of the emotion behind it. And if they could use him as the evil to be slain at their Temple Moving Ceremony, that was two birds with one stone. He could act as the cornerstone of the foothold the Forturiana Church needed to earn the official approval of the king. Money, money, money. It all came down to those filthy holy men needing to support their indulgent lives.
How could she let this happen?
She could not. Not for a second.
(But I am the lord of wisdom who rules the demons, so I will use everything at my disposal to make you pay. I carry a noble soul that will always repay any debt that I owe!!)
For some reason, she came to a stop just before this reunion.
She toyed with her hair, slapped her cheeks, twisted her body, and pinched at various parts of her red leather outfit to check on it. Not even tapping her sharp heels on the floor was enough to calm her down. Her pulse was racing and she was nervous despite being the Demon Lord. She took a deep breath to try to relax. What would she do and say when she saw him again? She had rehearsed this countless times in her head, yet now she found her mind had gone entirely blank. And that seemed fine to her. She would face this as her honest and unadorned self. Once she made that decision, she took that final step forward to reach the bars of the cell.
“Hi, old man.”
When she spoke, the words that came out were entirely ordinary.
She hated how poorly her mind was working right now, but there was no redoing it at this point.
She powered through it.
She gave up on trying to look good in front of him and that resignation felt kind of nice.
She smiled thinly and spoke with countless emotions in her voice.
“I apologize for the inept execution, but I am here to rescue you, old man!!”
“Th-this cannot stand,” said Henrietta with a tremor in her voice. She slammed her fist on the counter hard enough to nearly break it and raised her voice. “They stole the credit for sealing the Demon Lord? And they are beheading an old man for a nonexistent crime to gain the king’s approval? You advertise this as some exciting ceremony, Forturiana, but this cannot stand!! You make a mockery of the king’s trust and charity!!”
“Sorry about this. She’s very drunk, so please just ignore her.”
Ayato winked while doing only the bare minimum to deflect the attention they were gathering.
Then he spoke to the bull man who thought he was dressing up by wearing zipper-covered pants.
“How much did you know?”
The reddish-brown Minotaur tried to feign ignorance while using his very large hand to grab the strong cheese and dried fruit arranged in front of him.
“How much about all of this did you know from the beginning? You were the one that lured us in with gold and hired us to destroy the human traffickers working in Fire Castle Town Flared. Did you know all this already and knew we would come into contact with Nirvelphany if things went well?”
He dodged the question, but the answer was clear.
And if he was going to stick to the role he claimed for himself, then Ayato could guess why he had not told them their true objective from the beginning. He belonged to the Selected Kingdoms, which put him on the side of the humans. And if he had explained everything occurring here in Sky City Celedileka, it went without saying which side an uncontrollable Sorcery Hacker like Ayato Criminaltrophy would choose. That would have been a problem for the First Prince.
It would have hurt his reputation as a prince of the Combined Royal Family if he had bowed down to a sorcery criminal in order to clean up a scandal related to the Forturiana Church that had deep ties to the regional power structure.
Needless to say, solving this kind of problem would be difficult for strict rule-followers like Henrietta.
You could not just draw out clear divisions between right and wrong.
If humankind banded together to hunt down the incarnation of evil that was Nirvelphany, that would be an act of good.
But if Nirvelphany was trying to do whatever it took to stop this meaningless public execution, that was also an act of good.
…The normal rules did not apply in a contradictory situation where two acts of good came into conflict. Especially when it involved revealing the lies of the powerful hidden deep, deep, deep within the system. That was why people sought out Sorcery Hackers and others who operated outside the law.
“I was hoping you would figure it out on your own.”
Resignation filled the reddish-brown Minotaur’s voice like a tutor lamenting that his student was even dumber than he imagined.
He also glanced over at Striker Henrietta, who symbolized the good and just side of the sky city.
“It would have been best if you had left my control and solved it all yourself, but you were so trapped by your assumptions you were never going to arrive at the truth. And yet I went to you with this one because I believed Sorcery Hackers had more of a flexible worldview.”
“So we betrayed your expectations there?”
“That meant I had to make some decisions. If I couldn’t have everything I wanted, I had to figure out what I could salvage and what I had to give up on. I cut away the excess fat in my plan. Directly telling you the truth comes with a fair amount of risk, but I steeled myself for the pain and did it anyway. So what will you do now?”
“Is that even a question?” Ayato had a troubled look that said he wished he had been told this earlier. “Surely you have some guesses as to why Miss Teleria and Miss Mamilis are nowhere to be seen here.”
“Oh, so that’s why they aren’t with you.”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know.” The Sorcery Hacker sighed. “Dagregor Bull Gerlos. He’s a white hat hacker who was given the title of Knight, but he has apparently been unleashed with Miss Henrietta away from the knights. I don’t know where you get your information, but I’m sure you’re aware of what that drugged-up Sorcery Hacker is up to.”
Henrietta’s shoulders jumped at that.
She must have known what kind of person that man was more than the bull man with the mystery information source.
“Wait just a moment. What has that drugged-up man done? What has happened while I was stuffed in that sack and tied up in a way too humiliating to describe!?”
“Heh heh heh. That is known as tortoise shell bondage, and what he believes is actually the opposite of the reality. You disappeared when we did, but how do you think he interpreted that?”
“Wait, you don’t mean…”
“Dagregor mistakenly thought you had captured us and he was so desperate to earn some credit for himself that he left the knights and started acting on his own. The knights have already fought Nirvelphany, so he hoped stopping her would earn him enough points to not be thrown back in his cell.”
“But what does that cockroach actually hope to do? That sorry excuse for a knight is an insult to the tradition behind the title, so I already know I am not going to like the answer!”
“Yeah.” Ayato nodded. “He went to destroy the earth core in this castle town. That’s why I sent Miss Teleria and Miss Mamilis to stop him.”
Henrietta had felt left behind by this conversation, but now she scrambled to her feet.
“Wh-what!? What did this dangerous individual just say!?”
“After all, Nirvelphany set things up so she could sneak into the center. Whatever kind of person he is deep down, Dagregor is officially a knight and that means he receives security reports from a law enforcement perspective. There must have been something in those reports that only someone with the skills of a Sorcery Hacker would notice. He might not be as good as me, but we still use the same sort of techniques.”
“But we never heard anything about that…”
“He wants to make a comeback after you outdid him, so do you really think he would honestly share whatever he found? Sorcery Hackers use data as a weapon, if you recall.”
The beautiful Striker placed a hand on her forehead.
She had threatened him to put a stop to his misbehavior, but she may have overdone it.
“That white hat hacker apparently thought he could sound his own alarm to make Nirvelphany panic while in the center of the city.”
“Th-that’s all? But we are talking about the earth core here!”
“Hey, what did I just say? Sorcery Hackers use data as a weapon. And the one thing we fear most is exposure. I bet he followed her ‘footprints’ so his attack would carry her scent. You can use the same technique when pursuing a sniper who also wants to avoid being exposed.”
The beautiful Striker only looked more confused by his explanation. This was too far outside of her style of fighting where she wielded a blade, directly confronted the ruffians, and proved the righteousness of the civil servants to put the people at ease.
“Maybe you could think of it like operating the bank vault door to trap the robbers inside. Just like we have to put ourselves in a fair amount of risk if we want to get the Demon Lord to make a mistake and leave enough of a trail to pursue.”
“B-but this is more important than some issue of logical planning. I mean, this is the earth core! And…and why would he hide something so important for so long!?”
“Oh, and don’t ask why we haven’t reported it yet. We’re still wanted criminals, so they aren’t going to listen to us. Also, organizations will always try to cover for their own. When it’s the word of a wanted criminal against the word of a knight, we all know who they’re going to believe.”
Well-behaved Henrietta flapped her mouth wordlessly and could not find anything to say. As someone who had seen the true line between good and evil for herself while protecting this city, she knew the power of official paperwork could not be ignored. Whoever Dagregor was as a person, he was officially registered as a knight. It did not matter that Ayato and Dagregor were both Sorcery Hackers. And it was Striker Henrietta herself who had given him the freedom to do all this.
Just then, they felt a tremor like the ground thrusting up from below.
Ayato looked up to the ceiling.
“Oh, did they screw it up?”
“Hey.” The reddish-brown Minotaur placed a hand on his rugged forehead. “Just out of curiosity, if this was so important, why didn’t you go with them?”
“Don’t blame them for this just because it didn’t work out. Remember what two threats we were facing back then: a berserker like Miss Henrietta and drugged-up Dagregor. The former was clearly more trouble.”
“Do not talk about me that way, dangerous individual!!”
“We had no idea what she would do when she came to. I mean as a Knight or a Striker or whatever, she was liable to find an opening, contact her old buddies, and get us surrounded. That meant we had to split up. …Although if I’d known she would kneel down the instant she saw bull man here, I would’ve gone there instead.”
“Wah, wah, wah!! Bah, bah, boo!!”
Henrietta’s mind was so overloaded her speaking skills reverted to the level of a baby while she clenched her fists and lightly pummeled him. The bull man sighed as he watched it play out.
“Wouldn’t this all go a lot quicker if you would just wield a sorcery gun, Mr. Hexajinx?”
“Don’t ask for the impossible. I’ve abandoned that devil’s revolver.”
Henrietta stopped her fists and tilted her head, but he had no obligation to dig into that old scar and explain.
The blue blazer boy sighed and said something else instead.
“We touched on this before, but nothing anyone does to the earth city’s core will bring down the barrier’s emergency power, but it will probably make them reconsider the security situation in the central castle. And isn’t that where Nirvelphany is right now? I’m not about to root for her, but I don’t like the thought of her being angered because Dagregor’s haphazard actions got in her way.”
“However she is trying to rescue that kind old man named Thomas, a powerful shock is going to run through that prison. Powerful enough for her initial plans to crumble around her.”
As always, he seemed to live in his own little world.
The metal bars and stone walls would wear down anyone’s heart. A cruelly bright spotlight made from a vacuum crystal and mist mana was shined on him day and night. The food and clothing were highly inadequate. The living conditions could hardly have been worse, but that old man looked no different from when she had first seen him.
His expression was as gentle as ever.
Everything was the same as when he had opened the door to that small shrine that had been forgotten to everyone.
“What brings you all the way here?”
“Don’t mess with me.”
Nirvelphany was standing before the person who had saved her life and her dignity, but she still snapped back at him. She knew it was rude, but she could not stop herself.
“Did you not hear me: I am here to save you!! I will save you from this gods-damned situation and all the crimes that should have fallen on my shoulders!!”
“I will not allow them to hold that farce of a public execution. There is no reason at all for anyone to hate you!! The crime of freeing Demon Lord Nirvelphany is entirely based on how hated I am. No, even that is an excuse! Really, the fattened-up Forturiana Church is afraid their lies about defeating me will be revealed, so they’re silencing you using this public execution they’re dressing up as some Temple Moving Ceremony! You have no reason at all to go along with it!!”
“I didn’t rescue you to bind you like this instead. I told you to live the life you want to live, so do not waste your life on something like this. I am no more than a stranger who saved you just the one time.”
“You are no stranger.”
She could bear it no longer, so she grabbed at the bars with both hands.
He had not caught on. He really had not.
Not that he had the Hero’s blood, not that he would never have ended up in this situation if it had all simply been forgotten, not anything.
But she could bring herself to abandon him because he was the kind of person who had not hesitated to save someone despite not realizing all that.
Perhaps that was the true nature of the Hero – of the kind of person who truly saved people.
They had only been able to attack each other back then, but things were different now.
It was said that writing her name in a circle to link the start to the end would create an eternal incantation that provided unlimited power, but that was a lie. The Demon Lord was not that perfect a being. When she won, she truly and utterly won, but when she lost, she lost quite easily. That breadth of possibilities was both a strength and a weakness.
She had wanted just one person in the world who understood that.
And she gathered her strength in her gut and shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Someone who saves your life for nothing in return and takes the blame for your crimes is not a stranger!! Listen, I will save you no matter what. You may have stopped struggling against the ugly conspiracies of those in charge, but I will save you even if you tell me not to!! Just like you did for me when I told you not to!!!!!!”
Luckily, she already had the key to the cell.
What did those bars matter? She could free him right this instant.
But just as she thought that, all the lights went out and she heard a deafening sound like some giant switch being thrown.
She had not expected this darkness.
It only lasted a moment and the lights came back on soon enough, but things were different now. The entire pit-like prison was illuminated by red emergency lights.
The creepy artificial light assaulted the Demon Lord’s soft skin. She felt nonexistent blood spreading from her right shoulder to cover her entire torso.
Something had happened.
And it was something that Nirvelphany had not expected.
Then it hit her.
She tried to insert the cell’s key into the door’s keyhole, but it did not fit. She only heard a rattling sound and it would not fit inside the keyhole.
An announcement played from a metal tube that swelled out like a giant flower.
“In accordance with an emergency alert, the entire central castle area’s security level has been updated. All mana-conducting silver locks in the area have been altered. To rewrite your keys to match the new locks, please report to your superior officer and follow their instructions. I repeat…”
It did not fit.
No matter how much she tried it, bit her lip, and suppressed the tears, this one little key simply would not fit!!
She grabbed the bars in her hands and tried to move them with all her might, but they refused to budge. She only heard an unpleasant rattling. And the forced exertion produced a scorching dull pain in her right shoulder as if pus were seeping out of the wound that had once been there.
Had she really grown this weak?
She no longer won sometimes and lost sometimes. There was no variation and the outcome never moved too far in either direction. She had no breadth of possibility. Her arms and legs were no more than arms and legs. They could not destroy these bars!!
“Dammit, don’t you worry, old man. I swear I will save you!!”
But while the Demon Lord felt utterly hopeless, the old man awaiting his execution in the cell remained calm.
That person with the Hero’s blood placed a smile on his wrinkled face and shook his head.
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I am already close to death. And I don’t fear it after accomplishing that one last job.”
“I said yes, I do!!!!!!”
She lost her patience, threw aside the useless key, and grabbed the anti-dragon rifle from her shoulder. She slammed the stock against the door, saw that it did not budge, and then aimed the sorcery gun at the lock.
If she wanted to, she could blast through not just the door but the entire prison.
But that was the problem.
(It’s too powerful!!)
This was not like the thick metal door in the sealed guard tower. There were gaps between the bars, so the blast would fill the cell.
“Old man, move to a corner of the cell.”
He did not move.
A Hero would not do anything that would drive a neighbor toward evil.
“Please just do as I say!! Just this once!!”
The Demon Lord shouted in childish frustration, but the old man still did nothing that would place any wrongdoing on her shoulders.
And she already knew the truth herself. Even if she used the weakest of the weak and restricted the output as much as possible with the letters and numbers carved into the soft disintegrating lead bullet, she could not burn through that lock without harming the old man beyond the bars. The idea was as absurd as trying to peel an apple with a guillotine.
She could not save him.
She could not save the person she cared about more than anyone else in the world.
How could she call herself the ancient Demon Lord, the Zodiac Bright Eater, or the charismatic leader powerful enough to bind together all the demons and destroy humanity? How could she feel any pride in who she was if she could not save this one person who had saved her!?
“Knowing someone cares about me this much lets me look back on my life with a smile on my face.” The voice from within the cell sounded far too cruel to her ears. “But there is no good reason for you to stray for the sake of an old man like me. Now, go. Work towards whatever it is you want to do. I saved you, so it doesn’t make me happy to see you bound like this. Can’t you look at it like that?”
She heard his words.
She heard his words which remained perfect even now.
She finally snapped.
Demon Lord Nirvelphany threw her soul into a torrent of emotion more intense than any she had ever felt before.
“This is what I most want to do, old man!!!!!!”
She changed how she thought about this.
She forcibly cut away her regrets and drew out her cold-heartedness as the Demon Lord.
She could not afford to waste any time here. If she was captured here, she would lose what little chance she still had, so she had to leave here even if it meant forcibly tearing herself away.
“Listen, I swear I will save you. That alone I will not back down on.”
“Silence, brat!! You are but a child who has only lived as long as it takes for a nut to sprout and grow into a great tree, so don’t act like you have a complete understanding of the world!! …I will show you something, old man. I will show you that this world you have given up on is much larger, vaster, brighter, and unbelievably beautiful than you think it is!! You do not get to talk back to me! Listen, I am a lord! I am the leader of a tribe known for their wisdom! You puny lifeforms are satisfied crawling along the surface of the world, so can only view us as evil, but we cannot be accurately judged by mere humans!! By what right do you refuse me!? When I speak, the world listens!! And I say I will save you!! Do you understand now!!!???”
“Cry, fool! Cry if you wish!! I do not care how much or little of your lifespan remains and I am not interested in how many cycles of the seasons you can still experience!! Anyone is free to cry and call for help if their life is about to be snuffed out like a candle in the wind! I am doing this because you have refused that right. Even if your soul is on the verge of annihilation, I will not let you throw it away. Do not mess with me, brat! That life is yours alone, but do not assume you are the only one with a connection to it!!!!!!”
The atmosphere changed.
No, the change was on that wrinkled face.
This was a change he must not have wanted anyone to see.
It had finally happened.
He had let it happen for her.
“Better,” she spat out.
No matter how hopeless it looked, she refused to give up. This first attempt may have failed, but how could she abandon the person who saved her life and dignity? She was the Demon Lord and she would have her way. Surprises and the unexpected were fine by her. She would praise her freedom without tying herself to any specific power. Because that had always been the true essence of Nirvelphany.
She would ensure there was a second attempt.
She would look to the future.
“I will return.” She clenched her teeth oh-so-strongly, grabbed those loathsome bars, and stared the old man straight in the eye. “I cannot stay in the strictly-guarded royal castle forever, so I will leave here for the time being. But the Demon Lord will pay you another visit. I will not let your flame be snuffed out here. Old man, don’t you let anything break your spirit. When the pressure feels too great to bear, gaze upon the Demon Lord. You will always find hope there.”
The old man did not respond.
The possibility of salvation may have brought back his fear of the approaching Temple Moving Ceremony…no, of the public execution. The crime of freeing the Demon Lord was utterly absurd and he was only being executed so the terrified powers that be could rest easier, so of course he was afraid. In that case, had her actions here been cruel? She did not think so. Keeping your presence of mind and having your feelings numb over were two different things. It was more natural to start by properly understanding the situation and then preparing to overcome it.
The prison’s security was sure to grow stricter. She doubted she could break in again like this.
That left just the one opportunity.
The Zodiac Bright Eater rested the anti-dragon rifle over her shoulder again, stepped away from the cell, and spoke back over her shoulder.
“The Demon Lord will come to save Hero Thomas Robergin on the day of his public execution. Got that, old man?”
Option 04: Precaution Pamphlet Distributed to Intermediaries
The knights and administrative forces run by the government are regulated by an examination system and are backed by public funding, but there are individual workers who use their lighter footwork to slip into the gaps left by those large organizations. They are hired by third parties to perform various jobs.
However, there are some broadly-defined categories there: the Bouncers who guard a specific location or individual, the Ransackers who collect rare plants, animals, or minerals, and the Forwards who specialize in resolving the cases that the large organizations would have difficulty with.
Since they are not managed by examinations or licenses (as you well know, the legal system is concentrated more on the intermediaries that assign those jobs), there are no strict divisions between those different categories. But they still seem to take a territorial view of things, so if a combat-oriented Forward accepts a job as a defense-oriented Bouncer, it can apparently lead to some conflict over a perceived “stolen job”.
They deal with these divisions on their own, so the intermediaries need not try to settle those conflicts.
Each of those categories has some legendary members. For example, the Bouncers have Grapple Shields who singlehandedly defended a crash-landed airship from sky pirates for seven days until a rescue team arrived. And the Forwards have Hexajinx who uses a large revolver sorcery gun and is known for completely any job in no more than six shots.
This legendary status is something they decide on among themselves, so the intermediaries do not need to keep up with a ranking board or anything like that. In fact, allowing them such titles would increase the risk of them demanding greater payment for their work, so it is safer to pretend you are ignorant of it all.
Now, these people who accept jobs as individual workers are still protected by the legal system. They pay a bare minimum of respect for their intermediaries, so – for example – they will make sure you cannot be accused of helping fund a criminal’s getaway.
However, there are signs of some intellectual criminals like Sorcery Hackers abusing the holes in the system, so there is still room for improvement.
|Back to Phase 02||Return to Main Page||Forward to Phase 04|
- Approximately 10,000 yen per coin.
- Approximately 204 centimeters.
- Approximately 10,000 yen per coin.
- Approximately 120 meters.