We wondered what on earth we would do in the coming weeks as we waited for a subjugation force to arrive from the capital and hopefully send this general packing.
Aqua was forced to find part time work, she ended up spruiking for traders in the marketplace in between shifts with the builders. Their workload had slowed down now that no one was firing explosion magic right outside the town but a city the size of Axel needed a good amount of maintenance so there was always another job lined up.
Darkness returned to her family home, claiming she would be doing strength and endurance training until the situation changed. We bid our recently made friend farewell and hoped she would come back to us soon, she could have at least told us where she lived in case we needed her.
Megumin and I had the most free time, myself due to the rewards I had recently acquired negating the need for a job and her seemingly unwilling to look for one. Thus I found myself escorting the dainty yet destructive Archwizard so she could practice her magic, walking side by side as we strode along the road that lead south from Axel.
Eventually we passed the farmland that ringed the city walls, leaving behind the fields of crops and grazing animals and nearing the patch of woods that marked the end of private land and the beginning of crown land. Ironically it was probably safer walking outside Axel now that the monsters were in hiding from this unknown General. Still, we made sure to stick to the road, not wanting a repeat of the slime incident and were just entering the forest when I asked how far she was planning to go. Megumin held her staff against herself protectively, a faint tinge of red on her cheeks. "If I use my magic too close to town again the guards said they won't let me back in." Come to think of it, I had noticed the guards watching her with a leery gaze as we entered and exited the town. How many times had she done this, just gone outside to cast Explosion for the sake of Explosion.
It was a good day, the skies were clear and the air was pure, a light breeze carrying the sounds of nature while on a peaceful bushwalk. It might seem strange coming from someone who was basically shanghai'd into coming here but I quite liked this world, how often back home would I have the opportunity to... was that a castle?
On a not too distant plateau stood an ancient stone keep, ruined and derelict, its condition noticeable even from this distance. There were holes in the roof scattered here and there where tiles had either fallen off or collapsed inwards, several large patches of green where moss and vines had staked their claim and from this side I could see one tower stood at a fraction of its former height with its spire reduced to rubble. Megumin and I made our way closer until we stood on a crest before the road winded down the valley and split, the left path leading to who knows where, the right presumably to the castle. It was a steep incline but the place was well positioned with good visibility, only one means of access unless you wanted to try your luck climbing the ragged cliff face. If it wasn't for the existence of magic I'd call it nigh unassailable.
My companion gazed at the fortification with wide eyes, pointing her staff enthusiastically. "I've found it! My target today will be that castle." Something about this was familiar, I was almost certain I had overheard some adventurers talking about some abandoned castle outside of town that had been taken over by undead, if this was that castle then surely no one would object if it received the odd dose of cleansing fire. "All right, but if it turns out someone owns this we were never here." Megumin waved off my comment like it was nothing, her eagerness overpowering any kind of concern she should have had. "It'll be fine, no one will complain if I obliterate that."
With her usual theatrical air Megumin started chanting, the air beginning to thrum with magic power. "Crimson-black blaze, king of myriad worlds, though I promulgate the laws of nature I am the alias of destruction incarnate, in accordance with the principles of all creation." As the Archwizard aimed her staff at the target a magic circle burned in the air like liquid fire. A second one appeared at her feet, a seven-pointed star inside a whirlpool of crimson and gold fury. "Let the hammer of eternity descend unto me! Explosion!"
The shockwave hit just as I caught Megumin's exhausted body, the spell once again draining her entire store of energy. In a weakened voice I would have missed were I much further away she muttered a final epithet. "Burn to ashes within the crimson." What a nerd. Gently I shifted her to my back, making sure she was steady before I started the return trip to Axel. As I was wondering how I was supposed to carry a staff with both hands occupied I felt a breath whisper against the back of my neck. "This the best." For her perhaps.
After the overwhelming noise of an explosion the forest seemed quieter than ever, any wild beasts or monsters nearby had probably fled in all directions or huddled even deeper in their holes thinking the rapture had come. "That wasn't your usual bit, was it?" I had seen Megumin cast her trademark spell a few times now but this was the first I had heard of that particular incantation. The faintest of voices answered, her weak and unresponsive body preventing from doing any more. "Creativity and style are the lifeblood of the Crimson Mazoku." Creativity. Does that mean that the invocations used in spells aren't actually part of the spell structure, they're just a mnemonic or chant used to focus power and intent? Still so much to learn.
The dirt road leading to Axel crunched underfoot as we made our way back. "What the hell does 'promulgate' mean, anyway?"
The second night of what I will call our forced vacation ended like usual with myself, Aqua and Megumin resting in the stables. I had bought a second blanket so we had separate bedding finally, Darkness may have been for it and I don't think Aqua cares either way but I wasn't quite comfortable with the sleeping arrangements. I can only imagine how someone like Megumin's parents would react if they found out their little girl was sleeping with a man she only just met. The Archwizard was already conked out on her and Aqua's blanket, only myself and the Goddess were still awake. I was absently stretching out of lack of anything practical to do while Aqua was working on something by candlelight, it looked like she was making fake flowers out of coloured paper. And whingeing about the lack of missions.
"I don't care if he's a demon or undead or whatever, if he shows up I'll hit him with a God Blow so strong his grandparents will feel it." Maybe she could, but I'd hate to see what will happen to Axel should a goddess and a demon general fight.
With a triumphant hum Aqua turned around to display the fruits of her labour. "Look at this, isn't it pretty?" A flawless pink rose, handcrafted from stem to stamen was held in front of my face, I took it gently and turned it over in my hands, examining the fragile object. "You do good work." I moved to hand it back then thought better and tucked it behind her ear, the colour complimenting her hair well. "She's a beauty." She giggled and turned back to the wooden crate acting as a workbench, deft hands assembling the next one. "I bet I can sell these for a lot." She was going to sell them? I thought it was just a hobby to keep her occupied.
Another day, another explosion. Despite my better judgement I continued to act as Megumin's escort for her daily casting, if only for the sake of making sure she doesn't wander off on her own and get eaten while laying helpless. With that out of the way we had the rest of the day to ourselves, Darkness was still at her family's place and Aqua was doing odd jobs to support her nightly one-woman bacchanalias.
I was enjoying a slice of foxberry cheesecake - it was delicious, as long as you don't think about where the berries come from - when we were joined by a blue-haired young woman who threw herself into a chair with a huff that would have made a soap opera star green with envy. Wordlessly I slid the remainder of my cake over, Aqua swallowed it in two bites and reached for my drink. "Bad day at the office?" Aqua's latest get rich quick scheme was simple, people in medieval societies often lack clean water, as the goddess of water it was child's play for her to conjure up as much as she wants or to quickly purify what was already there. She'd pranked me a few times like that, looking forward to a cold drink at the end of the day and suddenly, water! Cheeky brat.
"It isn't fair!" She whined, after slurping down my entire mug of tea. "I'm the actual goddess of water but people would rather get it from some failure of a wizard!" As it turns out Axel already had someone magicing up water and he was popular enough that people called him a saint, the Saint of Water, and unlike the goddess he asked for nothing but accepted donations of coin or even food. "Remind me, how much were you charging per bottle?" Aqua puffed herself up obstinately, unbothered by the fact that the first people she tried to sell that overpriced crap to were her own teammates. "A mere ten thousand eris, that's a bargain considering the quality." Greedy little sod, she was lucky that she wasn't run out of town for that kind of scam. "You know I can make water too, right? Why would anyone pay for something when they can get it for free?" Despite what I thought was a logical argument she continued unabated. "But this is so much better! A goddess' water is pure and refreshing, it can even cure wounds!"
Like health potion? The potions I had seen so far ranged from not cheap to sell a kidney expensive, if Aqua could really supply us with something that useful... "Here, I'll show you." Unconsciously my right hand twitched to the side, narrowly missed by a cake fork that punctured the tablecloth beneath. I glared at the pair of bright blue eyes that shone with naive light. "Did you just try to stab me!?" She huffed, unapologetically. "I just wanted to show you how good my holy water is." Do I look like Darkness to her, I'm not going to let myself get jabbed just so Aqua can stroke her inflated ego. Instead I pointed to the underside of my chin where a small red patch had been since early in the morning. "I nicked myself shaving, why didn't you think to use that instead?" Something I had picked up after my windfall was one of the old straight razors, despite their fearsome appearance I only managed to cut myself about three times more often than normal.
After pouring some of her water onto a folded napkin Aqua dabbed at the spot on my chin. The pale cloth came away red at first before she turned that corner over and continued wiping with uncharacteristic gentleness, this time the fabric only gained a tinge of pink, the third time it came back clean. I turned to the Archwizard who had so far remained silent. "How's it look?" Despite slowly managing to down her own food and drink Megumin had regained little of her usual energy, red eyes peered listlessly up at my jaw before looking away in disinterest. "Healed." The answer was short and curt, clearly she needed more rest.
My fingers brushed across what only a minute ago had been a shallow injury and was now freshly healed skin, contemplating. I turned back to our Archpriest who was waiting for praise and acknowledgement. "From now on I want everyone in the group to carry a bottle of holy water." As Aqua's eyes widened in satisfaction, mistakenly assuming that meant we would be paying her for said holy water, Megumin spoke up again. "Impossible, as I was a god of destruction in my past life the power of an inferior goddess would react violently with my soul's container." Claiming to be a deity now? Aqua was a bad influence on this girl. "What do you mean 'inferior'!?" The fact that she was now shouting at a semi-comatose young woman was proof of that.
I reached over and took the opened bottle from Aqua's grasp before tilting it over the distracted Archwizard's exposed neck. "Is that so?" The shriek she made may have gotten us kicked out of the cafe but it was worth it.
For two weeks straight this routine continued - we would walk out, Megumin would cast explosion and I would carry her back. Sometimes I would use the time to exercise or practice my own magic as she lay immobile, occasionally I even brought lunch and we had an informal little picnic with just the two of us. But eventually, like always, I would dust myself off and pick up the young girl to make our way back to town.
Today I had rested Megumin against a tree on the edge of the path as I practiced wind magic, after my reserves had dropped to what I judged was about half I decided to call it a day. "All right Megsy, time to make tracks." A pair of crimson eyes gazed at me in annoyance. "'Megsy'? Who gave you permission to infantilize my name like that?" I stopped, tilting my head to the side in mock confusion. "Aw, and I thought we were getting so close." She looked away, a delightful shade of red coming to her pale cheeks, I graciously decided not to comment on it.
Megumin stumbled over her words at first but recovered, attempting to take back control of the conversation. "W-well, you've seen plenty of Explosion lately, would you consider learning it yourself?" I blinked, considering who I was talking to that shouldn't have been surprising but the question had managed to catch me off guard. "Well it is impressive, but it's not really my style." Even if I wanted to learn it the cost was ridiculous, fifty skill points according to her, it would take months for me to save that many points while still keeping my skills up. "The only reason I can think to use that would be as a last resort attack." The Archwizard watched from the ground as I spread my legs, lowered my shoulders as if I were exhausted and spoke in a rough, defiant voice. "When you get to hell, tell them Johno sent you!" Boom, just like in the movies.
"You would have made a decent Crimson Mazoku." Megumin was looking away, the oversized hat once again hiding her features but I had a strong suspicion she was still blushing, I chuckled. "Come on Megsy, let's get you home." This time she didn't comment.
I suspected that my total lack of experience with magic was actually beneficial - because I was unaccustomed to the presence of mana in my body I was more aware of it, like how someone who had spent the first part of their life deaf before being graced with the gift of hearing might pay attention to subtle sounds and noises that others would instinctively tune out. I felt the mana move within myself, willed it direction and form, from my left palm emerged a flow of water as thick as my thumb. If physics had its say the liquid would splash onto the floor of the stable to be absorbed by the soil and hay but it was kept aloft by the slightest trickle of focused mana.
This may have been a little easier if I used my dominant hand but it was important to learn the same way I would be fighting, that meant steel in the right hand and magic in the left. Keeping focus I moved my arm, the tendril of water following the movement like a limp snake, the form swaying with the motion but remaining intact. Buoyed by the success I began swinging the proto water whip to and fro, admiring the sinuous form as it cut through the evening air. At that moment my concentration slipped as with a hearty "I'm back!" Aqua entered our 'room' carrying a large wooden bowl piled high with an assortment of food. The sound of splashing water startled the cat that had been using my lap as a bed, it tensed and dashed away leaving me with some shallow pricks through the cloth of my pants. Considering that this experiment lasted longer than three seconds I decided to call it a success.
Aqua looked around the stable curiously before asking where Megumin was, our third member unlike the two of us didn't spend every night together, instead occasionally heading off after dinner claiming that she was going to stay with a friend but never elaborated or tried to introduce them. After the third time I decided if she didn't want us to meet her 'friend' I would respect her wishes, as long as she came back in the morning safe and sound that was good enough for me.
I suspected that half the reason she took off is because she's frustrated that castle is still standing despite being hit by Explosion so many times.
Slightly disappointed, the goddess set the overladen bowl down on an upturned crate that served as a table as I fetched the travel cutlery. "Where'd you get this from?" I asked, hungrily eyeing a fried egg on top of a pile of potatoes and suddenly wishing I had a bottle of barbecue sauce. "The restaurant on fifth street, she said I could take this home since I only broke three plates today." Aqua explained proudly. Three plates in a six hour shift, I guess that's an accomplishment for some. "Well, good on ya." Free food is almost always good food after all.
The next morning Megumin and I were waiting for breakfast to digest in the guild hall, our hope that some new quests had been posted if only for something to break the monotony were sadly in vain. Aqua had to leave for her morning job waiting tables at some cafe I hadn't been to yet, I'm sure she'd tell me if the food and drink were any good.
My companion was toying with her scraps while glancing towards the kitchen, silently pondering whether or not she should order another plate when the guild's doors opened. Framed in the morning light was a figure I hadn't seen for a short while, her eyes searched the building before settling on us and with a smile as bright as the sunrise made her way here. I waved but waited until she had passed the first few tables before speaking, not wanting to shout in the still-quiet building even though rowdy mayhem seemed to be guild's standard atmosphere. "Hey, welcome back." Darkness greeted the two of us like dear old friends reunited, the warmth in her voice was surprising but by no means unwelcome. "Johnathan, Megumin, it is good to see you again." I patted the bench to my left and waited for her to sit before asking what she had been up to, the Crusader daintily brushed her tabard back so she could rest comfortably as we got reacquainted.
Before she could open her mouth Megumin spoke, her red eyes peering almost accusingly at our teammate. "What brought you back, it hasn't been that long." Darkness' face twisted like she had bitten something sour, her regal features conveying her distaste for her circumstances as clearly as a neon sign. "My father chose to bring up the idea of marriage again, so I gave him a good thrashing and decided to return." I hope she meant a verbal thrashing, the idea of someone as tough as Darkness beating up an old man was unsettling. Maybe I could have considered the fact that she was so focused on being an adventurer as a positive but attacking family is something I just can't condone.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by Darkness' father's attitude, the middle ages weren't known for their long lifespans and consequently people in that time tended to marry young. That reminded me that Megumin had referred to herself as an adult some time ago, briefly I considered asking Darkness how old she was but decided against it. The last thing I wanted right now was for her to give me a thrashing too.
The subject changed quickly after that, Megumin explained what we had been up to and I filled in the gaps with anecdotes or explanations of what Aqua had been doing with herself. I was right, Darkness seemed disappointed that I had bought a separate blanket for myself but laughed (somewhat uneasily) when I described the silly little get-rich-quick schemes the fallen goddess tried to pull.
"The next thing I knew, Aqua throws the bloody thing at the poor bloke and demands he give her the first prize instead." I mimed the act, rearing my arm back as though I was about to throw a stone like a biblical peasant trying to take down a giant. Darkness' eyes grew wide in disbelief as she hid her mouth behind a hand, shocked at the goddess' brazen behaviour in contrast to my own humour. Not that I was laughing when she did it of course, I'm not a sociopath. Across the table Megumin shook her head in confusion. "I don't understand, if it was such a valuable magic item why was she upset?" I wasn't sure how or even if I should explain why a twentieth century mobile phone was useless in this world, thankfully before I could try to answer every conversation in the guild was stilled as Luna's amplified voice echoed through the hall.
"Emergency! Emergency! All adventurers please arm yourselves and assemble at the South gate as quickly as possible!"
Unlike the emergency cabbage harvest there was no sign of eagerness in Axel's adventurers, they were as surprised by this as I was meaning this was most likely an actual threat to the town. My teammates looked at me for instruction as Luna lowered the magic megaphone. Darkness was wearing her full kit and Megumin only needed her staff but I had foregone armour, believing it unnecessary when I was only going to escort the Archwizard on another explosion jaunt. At my waist hung a sabre to replace the sword that was eaten by a slime - I had chosen it due to a recently learned preference for single-edged swords, the double-edged one I couldn't help but feel was a liability to myself. Aqua's absence was a large concern but the announcement should be repeated throughout the town soon, I could only hope she heard it and came on her own.
Resolutely, I stood from the bench and addressed my team. "You heard her, let's move."
Beyond Axel's gates an ominous figure loomed, a crash of lighting striking the earth behind it in seeming announcement of its presence as the assembled adventurers stood in awe. Dark and heavy plate armour covered his body, a massive sword was slung across the saddle of the black horse he rode, not a beast of burden but a true creature bred for war. A royal blue cape billowed in the wind, totally unlike a tiny Archwizard's posturing which was only an affectation of the aura of power and authority this being commanded.
In my peripheral vision I saw a barbarian wielding a battle axe with a head the size of a barrel take a step back in fear. "That's no laughing matter." If I wasn't standing here myself I might have said it was. I mean, I could believe that dullahans were real here but was the headless horse really necessary? It could've been a skeleton, or a zombie or any kind of infernal creature. Some people are just so unimaginative. And why the hell did it have reins? They weren't even attached to anything, just floating in the air above its neck like its head was invisible. For a fraction of a second I wondered if someone had cast an invisibility spell on a normal horse just so they matched.
The being spoke in a deep, booming voice that silenced the fearful murmurs of the adventurers. "My name is Verdia, General of the Demon King's army." To my right Darkness stiffened, a glance showing her tense expression. She wasn't the only one, all around us bodies shook, skin turned pale and I almost imagined I could hear hundreds of throats close in fear. "I claimed residence of a castle nearby recently." A flash of shock shot through me and a gasp from my left revealed Megumin had reached the same conclusion. The helmet clasped under his left arm trembled in rage as his volume raised into a thundering echo. "Who is the deranged lunatic that keeps attacking my home with explosion magic," His arm shot upwards as his scream reached a crescendo, burning cold eyes glaring at all of us as one. "TELL ME!" He roared as the armoured steed reared back in response to its master's rage, punctuated by another bolt of lightning from the dark clouds that hung overhead.
We are so dead.
Around us the locals of Axel began muttering amongst themselves, trying to figure out who could be responsible for bringing this spectre of death upon them. Since the lunatic in question was capable of using Explosion there was only one obvious suspect and one by one every eye turned to face us. Every accusing stare aimed directly at the Crimson Mazoku at my side, Megumin looked around desperately for a way out before her slumping in on herself, hopelessly. A nervous sweat burst out of her skin as the young girl began trembling. I placed my hand on her narrow shoulder and she jumped in shock before realising it was only me. I swallowed my fear and tried to sound as reassuring as possible. "Just stay here, I'll take care of it."
The crowd of adventurers parted like the Red Sea as I made my way forward, the sixth sense I had received from Aqua was a constant thrum at the base of my skull. This monster could kill me like a lion pouncing on a defenceless rabbit, I could sense it, but if the choice was myself or a friend there was only one path I could take. "Johnathan?" From behind I heard Darkness' concern, echoed a second later. "Megumin?" A glance back showed that despite her fear the Explosion wizard had decided to join me in my death march, damn fool. Darkness didn't hesitate to follow.
With one hand on my blade for the mental security I led the diminutive Archwizard and beautiful Crusader, I hoped it looked impressive because on the inside I was shitting bricks. Three abreast we approached the Demon King's general, a being likely as strong as the Lich we had encountered in the graveyard and that we never actually fought against. Briefly I remembered the story of the rock and the whirlpool before our path terminated at the base of the small hillock our executioner stood upon.
Even talking at a normal volume the dullahan's voice echoed with power. "So it was you three." As he continued however his tone became less sonorous and more exasperated. "You're the imbeciles who fired explosion magic at my home day after day, after day, AFTER DAY?! If you think you can challenge me just because I came to this low level area then come do it face to face!" As he ranted his manner became less and less composed to the point his arms were waving about so harshly he lost grip of his head for a moment before catching it. Underneath, his fearsome steed lowered its neck to the ground as though it was grazing then remembered it didn't have a mouth to eat with and returned upright. "I can't even enjoy a glass of wine without an explosion going off in my face, explain your dishonourable behaviour! Did you think that because I left this town of rookies alone you were invincible and decided run out and cast explosion after explosion, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!?" He ended with head outstretched in his left arm, eyes alight with madness.
As much as I wanted to ask how he ate or drank with his head the way it was, I instead took a deep breath and opened my mouth, hoping that responding with courtesy might calm him down slightly. "My name is-" "My name is Megumin!" In a voice louder and more fierce than she had ever used the Archwizard tried to hide her fear behind a wall of bravado just like she attempted to hide her body behind mine, sticking only her head out to speak her piece. "An Archwizard who commands Explosion magic and the greatest wizard in this city!" She could think on her feet, I'll give Megumin that, but revealing yourself to a creature many levels superior to yours in this world can be a fatal error. Also, brave or cowardly, if she could pick one that would be great. "'The greatest wizard in the city'?" I shushed Darkness, the General had no way of knowing that Explosion was her only spell.
It appeared he also had little patience for games. "What kind of name is 'Megumin', are you mocking me?!" Five minutes ago the dullahan had seemed like an impossible adversary, now it just seemed like two idiots arguing. "Do you have a problem with the name my parents gave me!? For a Crimson Mazoku being called Verdia would be much more embarrassing!" The undead paused at that, lifting his head closer to take another look at the girl. "Oh, you're one of that troublesome clan." Some of the anger bled out of him at that, his voice returning to somewhere above calm but below furious, a tired kind of anger. "Listen girl, I will be staying in that castle until my investigation is complete so don't cast explosion on it again, understood?"
Just as I had a brief glimmer of hope that we may all get out of this in one piece the instigator of all this trouble raised her voice defiantly. "Impossible, we Crimson Mazoku must cast Explosion once a day or-" And was roughly silenced as I put my hand over her mouth, she stared at me indignantly and mumbled out something unrecognizable. I ignored it and attempted to placate the monster at our doorstep. "Thank you for your mercy, Lord Verdia. I will make sure my -AGH!" I broke off in a pained shout as I pulled my hand away from Megumin's face. "Why the frig did you bite me!?" There were teeth marks in my fingers, the little shit had bitten down hard enough to leave teeth marks!
The crimson maniac actually had the audacity to glare at me before she turned back to the dullahan, pointing at him with her staff. "Hear this, I have decided that your castle shall be destroyed by Explosion and I never go back on my word for that is my way of Magic!" As her declaration faded into the morning air no living thing made a sound, each and every one of us struck dumb by the madness that this deluded Archwizard would rather risk all of our lives than move her daily casting somewhere else. The General's ire was so deep his next words made an order of execution seem warm and festive in comparison. "As a knight in my past life I do not enjoy crushing the weak, but if you insist on continuing to cause trouble for me..." He rose his free hand, pointing at the target of his wrath with a single armoured digit.
At that moment I finally heard that blessed voice I had been waiting for. "You're the one causing trouble!" Pushing her way through the throng of onlookers, Aqua appeared just in the nick of time. Her blue hair shining like a beacon, I could almost ignore the fact that she was wearing a maid outfit. What the hell kind of cafe did she work at? If we weren't in so much trouble I might have asked where it is and when are they open.
Uncaring of her outfit, the goddess marched directly towards the undead, continuing her accusations. "Because of you we can't find good work! But since you were stupid enough to come out during the day-" Aqua calling someone else stupid, that's the pot calling the kettle blue. "Then I'll just send you onto your next life!" Verdia looked her up and down appraisingly, not at all concerned that someone else from the town of rookies had threatened him. "You are dressed oddly for a Priest, if you are one." She sputtered at his dismissive tone, angrily insisting that she was an Archpriest in fact, not some lowly Priest. The General was not impressed. "Fool, Archpriest or not there is no way I could be defeated by some nobody from the town of beginners!"
Having dismissed her utterly Verdia then turned his attention back to the thorn in his side. "And as for you, crimson girl, your fate has been decided!" A dark energy began to coalesce around the dullahan's right hand, the miasma wafting in unseen arcane winds as he made his proclamation. "You are sentenced to death." The magic focused into an amorphous shape no larger than a sparrow as it darted towards the young wizard, as unforgiving as a bullet although nowhere near as fast.
With my sixth sense roaring in my ears I grabbed hold of my teammate and spun, covering her body with my own, crimson eyes had just enough time to look up at me in shock before from the corner there was a flash of yellow. The noise inside my head fell silent the exact moment that a scream burst from the throat of our saviour. I had never heard Darkness scream before, not when she was black and blue from the cabbages, not when her body was riddled with acid burns, not until now.
Her entire from was covered in a black aura, as dark as the very flames of hell before they moved with a life of their own, forming an ethereal skull with eyes as deep and colder than oblivion itself. The mark of death hung over her for several seconds before fading, seeping into the noble young woman's body like water into sand, leaving her seemingly untouched as she collapsed to her knees. "Darkness!" In a flurry of movement the three of us had surrounded her, one on each side and myself in between our friend and our enemy protectively, for all the good it would do. I could hear Megumin's plaintive cries as I stared down the Dullahan, he merely sat there as unconcerned by the sword pointed unsteadily at him as a wolf if it were threatened by an ant. I wished my hands would stop shaking.
For a minute the only sound was of Megumin's apologies to the Crusader, a litany that ended when against all reason our teammate spoke, shocked and breathless but alive. "I... I am unharmed?" The relief that flooded through me when I heard Darkness' voice was almost overwhelming, but I didn't dare look away from Verdia.
As the undead knight's laughter echoed darkly at our friend's sacrifice I felt my teeth clench in impotent rage. "Not what I had intended but this may work out just as well." The dark helmet in his hand moved the slightest degree, shifting his focus to his original target. "You there, Crimson Mazoku. One week from now your Crusader will die." A tear-filled gasp burst from her throat, the shame and guilt as clear as glass. "Your precious ally shall tremble in fear of her inescapable demise, and it is all your fault." A whimper. "If you wish to see her well again you will come to my castle." With a casual maneuvering of the reins his steed turned in place and began trotting its way down the road, his final words echoing in the uncharacteristic chill of morning air. "But don't take too long, her time is limited after all."
A sword-tip was buried in the earth with all the strength our weakened Crusader could muster, body trembling as she forced herself upright. "A- A- Are you saying that..." She took a moment to catch her breath, Megumin desperately holding onto one arm in an attempt to support the taller woman. "That in order to have the curse lifted I must go to your castle and do whatever you wish?!" Even though I heard it myself I didn't believe it, but against all common sense I turned to level an incredulous stare at the young woman and saw the proof. Blushing, flushed cheeks. Needful, heavy breathing. And an excited, too-wide smile on her statuesque face.
Using her sword as a crutch Darkness managed to lever herself upright, staring eagerly towards the undead general who had halted his steed at the Crusader's unexpected question. "I will not surrender to a mere curse but..." Wanton, eager eyes looked to me for either approval or acknowledgement. "What should I do, Johnathan?" The sheer desire in her gaze would have been enough to evoke a response in any straight man but right now was not the time or place.
Unheeding, she turned back to the Dullahan who appeared not just put off but startled by her behaviour. "Look at those filthy eyes hidden beneath his helmet, ever since he came he's been undressing me with them." She stopped to let out a series of heaving breaths too soft to be called moans. "Surely, surely he hopes to drag me back to his castle and commit unspeakable acts upon my unsoiled body!" Drawn in by her delusions, Axel's female adventurers looked at our enemy with undisguised fear and disgust. The dullahan may be our enemy but he didn't deserve to be slandered like that, at least not without proof.
Verdia was even less prepared to deal with this than I was and stuttered before insisting that he had no such plans but the masochist was too far gone to notice. "Telling me to shut up and obey as he slakes his unholy lust... I don't want to go, really..." Pushing herself off her sword, Darkness began to stride eagerly forward. "Very well, you may have control of my body, but you will never touch my heart." Before she could travel more than a few feet I decided to put an end to this... whatever this was.
With a suffering sigh I sheathed my sword and followed the crusader, catching up in several short steps and before she knew what was happening Darkness was on the ground with my knee in her back. Blue eyes looked up at me in excited confusion as her addled mind attempted to make sense of what had happened. "Johnathan, what are you thinking? Both of you at once is too much." I ignored her and focused on what was more important, namely the immensely powerful and still very present undead knight who had been watching us in confusion. "Your message has been received loud and clear, please just go back to your castle and wait." Attempting to regain his earlier dignity, the general hoisted his reins and awkwardly turned away. "R-Right, well I gave my ultimatum so I will be expecting you in the coming week. If you can defeat my undead soldiers and reach me I shall lift the curse." As his headless horse broke into a canter ferrying its rider away Darkness let out a piteous whine, but I'd rather see her disappointed and with us than forcing herself on some innocent monster. Innocent of sadism at least.
As I watched the armoured figure ride into the plains I finally let out a sigh of relief. Somehow, against all sense we had survived, no thanks to these bloody idiots. I looked down at the figure underneath me, still staring in the direction the dullahan had taken in frustrated disappointment. I brought my hand to the back of her head and gave her a good, hard rap eliciting a squeal. "What the hell were you thinking, do you want to die that badly!?" Not waiting for her to respond I pushed myself off her body hard enough to force a breath out, making sure to put my full weight on my knee for a second before I stood. "And you!" Megumin jumped as my glare landed on her, guilt-ridden crimson eyes opening wide as I continued my tirade. "When someone that bloody powerful gives you a way to end it without fighting, you don't make up some bullshit to egg them on!" Claiming she has to cast Explosion once a day, I'd expect something that stupid to come out of Aqua, not her.
If she had a response to my words she kept it to herself, instead silently and without a single grandiose action or comment Megumin began walking down the dirt path heading South. I reached out as she passed and placed a hand on a slender shoulder. "Where do you think you're going?" The Archwizard, right now looking more like the young girl she was than ever before refused to look up and instead gazed forward in a thousand-yard stare. "You're right." I paused but didn't release my grip, waiting for her to speak. "It's my fault that Darkness... that this happened, so I'll go make it right." With her head turned down the wide bring of her hat was almost enough to hide her face, but not quite, I could still see those stark red eyes brimming with emotion. That alone would have been enough to give me pause but Megumin's soft yet determined voice struck a chord with a much stronger tone.
I was glad that she had enough integrity to atone for her mistakes but making another stupid decision to fix the first one wouldn't help anyone, before I could tell her no however a dulcet, cultured voice spoke up. "I will go with you." Darkness seemed to have regained enough of her strength to stand unaided, but even if she were at one hundred percent the two of them wouldn't stand a chance. "I could not live with the shame if something happened to you because of my weakness. As a knight, and..." Her confidence fading, the Crusader looked away as her voice became almost too soft to hear. "A friend." I shook my head at their recklessness before turning to the last member of our party.
Ocean blue eyes were watching Megumin's brave declaration like it was her favourite soap opera, calmly but eagerly waiting for the next part. "Aqua! Please tell me you can remove this curse." The Goddess was surprisingly unbothered by our meeting with the General, not scared like I was, guilt-ridden like Megumin or... Darkness being Darkness. The Archpriest raised her hand, fingers curling as though she were gripping an invisible staff when a light began to shine in between her fingertips, the light spread outwards in two directions and to my surprise a silver scepter formed in her grasp. Almost as long as she was tall, the staff was topped with a broad, pink head like a flower ready to bloom, complete with a pair of green leaves underneath. She twirled the staff in her hands with the speed and control of a gold medal gymnast and spoke three words with the power to shatter fate.
"Sacred break spell!"
Darkness was covered in a sudden glow, a bright rainbow of colourful, multi-hued light shining from every inch of the young woman like it was her own aura on display. From the centre of her back a small blot of sickly, dark purple was expelled, the almost-liquid mass writhed futilely against the purifying light but lacked the strength to remain latched to its host. In seconds the parasitic energy had gone from being the size of a dinner plate, to a baseball, and then it was no more, undone by the power of a goddess. As the glow of holy magic faded the Crusader groaned with the relief of a burden removed, and then startled as she realized to her dismay that not only was the pain gone but she no longer had any reason to go on a suicide mission. The Archwizard was similarly put out by her selfless devotion and impassioned speech, as brief as it was, being made redundant.
Oblivious to the conflicting emotions of her teammates Aqua flashed her fingers in a 'V' of victory and proudly asked how impressed we were as Megumin and Darkness stood dumbstruck. "Thank you Aqua. Since you two somehow forgot, we do have a bloody Archpriest, of course she would be able to do something." I knew things were going wrong when Aqua was the second-smartest person in the group.
A cheer erupted from the gates, Axel's adventurers and our unwitting audience roared their euphoria at the fact that we had all survived, as I looked at our peers cheering for my party I wondered if they would still be cheering in a week when the dullahan returned. Aqua was eagerly soaking up the praise being heaped on her for the outstanding use of her guild-given abilities. Megumin and Darkness remained by my side, their earlier determination having been rendered meaningless by Aqua's last-minute save. I decided not to rain on her parade.
It was a harrowing thought, realizing just how lucky we had been, if it wasn't for Aqua we'd be right up the proverbial creek without a paddle. But there was no guarantee we'd get off so easily next time. That dullahan, General Verdia hadn't even come here to fight, if he had none of us would have been strong enough to stop him and by the time the goddess arrived... that was something I didn't want to picture.
A crimson-eyed wizard, a noblewoman knight and a goddess with more power than sense, if I'm going to whip these three into shape it's going to be a rough week for all of us.