Kaoru awoke with the utter certainty that she had died and gone to hell. Or, if she was lucky, stranded forever on a plane of limbo where her soul would be slowly driven insane from the vast nothingness surrounding her.
But when she opened her eyes and saw him sitting in a chair next to her bed, she was faced with several realizations:
One: she wasn't dead. Somehow. She couldn't remember much, but she vaguely remembered taking a spear through the chest. As in, a spear went through her chest and took most of her vital organs with it on the way out, including her heart.
Most people would die from that. Presumably. But her miraculous recovery would have to wait for later because she was confronted with realization number two:
She was about to be asked some very, very uncomfortable questions, wasn't she?
She groaned and covered her eyes. Maybe it would've been better if she had stayed dead.
"I don't know what anyone else has told you, but it's all my fault."
Minato raised an eyebrow. "I didn't say anything."
"You certainly looked like you wanted to. But before that . . ." She made a vague gesture. "Where's everyone else?"
"Your friend is outside, coordinating the clean-up effort."
Kaoru sighed in relief. If Amakasu had shirked his duties just so he could watch over her, she would've had some words with him later.
"As for Elizabeth . . ."
That's right, where had the eighth Campione been during all of this? Had she been lying in wait all this time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike?
The door slammed open.
"I'm glad to see you've made a full recovery! Now we can finally conclude our battle!"
Two decks of cards slapped down on the small round table next to her bed and a handful of cards were shoved into her hands.
Elizabeth beamed at her. "Rest assured, I did not peek at your cards while you were away!"
For the umpteenth time that day, Kaoru's brain felt like it was about to short-circuit. While she had been out there, risking her life against foes far beyond her, the Campione had been lounging around, waiting on her to return so they could finish their card game?
"After running through dozens of different scenarios, I believe I have finally found the best line of action among the eighty-seven possible options presented to me –"
She wanted to bury her face in her hands. The game was supposed to briefly distract the woman while she finished putting her plan in place, but it appears that it had been too good at its purpose.
She didn't have the energy to deal with this right now.
"Ah, I didn't even get to properly carry out the customary end-game ritual! How disappointing."
Kaoru didn't know what "end-game ritual" Elizabeth was talking about, and she didn't really want to know. All she wanted was to just collapse back in the bed, fall asleep, and pretend that nothing had happened.
But she was the leader, the pillar of the organization. It was her job, her duty to take responsibility.
Sometimes, she hated her job.
But before she signed her life away, there was one thing she needed to know:
"What happened to the Heretic God?"
"Oh, him? He's dead," Elizabeth answered.
Her heart hammered in her chest, filling her voice with trepidation. This was it: the moment of truth.
"Who killed him?"
Kaoru kept her gaze on the other woman, hoping against hope that the Campione would claim credit for the kill –
But a soft voice from the other side interjected, dashing her hopes.
She turned to him, more memories spilling into her mind. That's right, a figure had appeared to defend him from the Heretic God. A figure that had, in fact, done a marvelous job at beating the god back.
Just what had that been all about?
"How?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Persona."
She knew what the word meant, but in this context, it meant nothing to her.
Seeing her confusion, Minato elaborated. "A manifestation of thought."
That still didn't tell her anything. At all.
"Perhaps a better way to explain it would be to call them 'masks'," Elizabeth said. "They are alter egos, personas that people create to face hardship. They are drawn from the depths of human hearts, a collective unconscious where mythological archetypes dwell. Through them, an ordinary person can take on the role of something else, something greater. Through a Persona, a mere human can become a hero, a villain, a god, a demon, a spirit . . . the possibilities are truly endless."
Kaoru was sure that in a different time, a different place, such an explanation would've made perfect sense. Unfortunately for her, most of it sounded like mumbo-jumbo, but she managed to condense it down to a few simple statements:
It was magic that drew its powers from myths and legends.
And it was powerful enough to kill a god.
Why hadn't she heard of it before? It sounded like something that would've been very useful in their endless struggle against Heretic Gods.
"Is it something that can be learned?"
Elizabeth made to answer, but Minato held up a hand, cutting her off.
"Before we answer that, there is something I would like to ask you, Sayanomiya-san."
He peered at her, a piercing gaze that drilled down into the depths of her soul.
"Why were you there?"
Ah, her little scheme to rescue him from the Heretic God. It certainly wasn't one of her brightest moments nor did it pan out as she had hoped, but . . .
She wouldn't regret her decision.
"To rescue you."
"The Heretic God you were walking towards!"
"The very same god you summoned here?"
Her eyes widened as she immediately clammed up. Shit, shit, shit. How did he know about that? And in the heat of the moment, she had inadvertently confirmed his suspicions!
Fuck. He got her good.
Kaoru frantically tried to backpedal. "I mean, what –"
But the knowing look in his eyes made it clear that such a gesture would be futile, and she felt the excuses on her tongue shrivel and fade away.
She sighed and slumped back down in the bed. "How did you know?"
She expected rage, anger, hatred, some sort of malice directed at her for her attempts to deceive them.
But all she got was that same calm, steady gaze, not an iota of judgement in those eyes.
"The god told me."
She snorted. Of course. She had assumed that the god would be battle-hungry enough to initiate the fight without the need for banter, but it seemed she was wrong. Again.
"You pulled off a most deceitful gambit." Elizabeth tilted her head. "I was under the impression that those who could slay gods such as ourselves are widely feared and respected. Was it truly worth the risk of drawing our ire?"
Was it worth it? Was the permanent death of one Heretic God worth her life and possibly the lives of her entire organization as well?
"Yes." She closed her eyes. "It was."
She turned to see Minato's head cocked sideways in confusion. "Why do you feel that way?"
Her hand clenched around her blanket.
"Do you know what it feels like to be helpless?"
Silence reigned. Of course. They didn't understand. They would never understand. Not people like them, people who could crush a god as easily as a god could crush a mortal.
"I do. Me and everyone else who isn't lucky enough to be at the top of the world. We live our daily lives in fear. Fear that today might be the unlucky day we are crushed underfoot by the latest god passing by. And the worst part is that there is nothing we can do about it!"
Something wet dripped onto her hand, but she didn't care. "We live our lives as sheep waiting to be slaughtered. My plan . . . my plan was a way for us to strike back. To bloody the wolf's nose, at least. Even if we were not the ones doing the fighting, even if we were not the ones doing the killing . . ."
Her eyes opened, watery trails sliding down. "In a way, this was our way of fighting back. By tricking you into killing the Heretic God for us . . . in a way, it would be as if we were the ones who had killed the god. In a way, we could say that we managed to stand, to fight, to win."
Her voice dropped, becoming a small, fragile thing. "In a way . . . we could say that we made a difference, that we made some progress towards breaking ourselves free of this endless cycle of terror." She sighed, a desolate, lonely sound. "But I suppose we won't even be able to say that, since you weren't the one to kill the god, Elizabeth-sama."
The other woman looked troubled, wavering back-and-forth, like she was unsure what the proper reaction was. Eventually, she sighed, closed her eyes, and smiled.
"If it is victory you seek, then rejoice! For Death has claimed the god you summoned all the same."
Kaoru felt her heart skip a beat. Was . . . was it really true? Had her plan actually worked, even if only this once, and not at all in the manner she had expected it to?
She turned her gaze to Minato, a silent inquiry.
He responded with a shrug. "It was an accident. But yes."
She didn't know how someone could accidentally kill a god, but she wasn't complaining. It felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, now that she knew her sacrifice would mean something.
She leaned back in her bed, a wave of acceptance rolling over her. Now that she had fulfilled her final mission, she didn't care what happened to her now.
She just hoped she wouldn't drag too many others down with her.
"I understand you're likely displeased with what I did. Do as you will with me, but I ask that you leave the rest of my organization out of it; they were only following orders, after all."
Another white lie, very likely the last of the very many she had had to tell. After all, she wouldn't force her people to participate in a likely suicidal plan; those who had feared retribution were already long gone, somewhere far, far away from this country.
The rest of them were all people like her, people tired of being scared and helpless. They were all ready to die, she knew, but she would prevent their deaths if she could help it.
It was the least she could do for their loyalty to her over the years, to a girl who had been thrust into a position far beyond her far too soon.
She closed her eyes, waiting for the end to come.
"You make it sound like we're going to kill you."
Cracking open an eyelid, she turned to see Minato staring at her in bemusement.
"Is it considered normal to kill someone over something like this?"
"Many Campione have killed for less," she retorted.
"Then it is a good thing I am not a Campione."
She opened her mouth to refute that point, then promptly realized that if Pandora hadn't made Elizabeth a Campione, the goddess certainly wouldn't have made Minato one either.
However, she wasn't out of the woods quite yet; there were many fates worse than death, after all.
"If you're not going to kill me . . ." she said. "Then what happens now?"
The other woman spoke up. "Our relationship is one of mutual benefit, correct?"
"Well . . . yes."
"Seeing as how we just did something for you, it is your turn to do something for us, yes?"
Kaoru nodded slowly. "I suppose so."
Elizabeth grinned. "Excellent! There are some things I would like your group to do for me; a very great deal number of things, in fact. First of all, I would like you to collect something for me . . . ."
As she listened to the request, Kaoru thought she got off easy. Running a few errands for the Campione? That didn't sound too bad.
Much better than a fate worse than death, at least.
Minato pitied the HCC. He really did.
"H – Here are the bronze figurines, Elizabeth-sama . . . ."
She beamed at the man panting with his hands on his knees. "Excellent! Now, I would like for you to retrieve several snake scales for me."
The man looked like he wanted to collapse, but with sheer force of will, he managed to stagger out the door to chase the latest item on Elizabeth's list.
He shuddered as the sight dredged up old memories. Memories of slaying dozens upon dozens of Shadows, hoping to collect the strange, rare items she had asked for from them.
"Aren't those the same requests you asked of me?" he asked.
"Why, yes they are! Of course, since I can't ask them to fuse Personas like I did with you, I shall have to come up with some appropriate substitutes." She tapped her chin. "Ah, I know! I will ask them to bring me a cowry shell born of swallows!"
". . . Isn't that an impossible request?"
"Not at all! I'm sure it exists somewhere in this wide, fantastical world!"
That wasn't the issue, but rather, any Japanese person would understand the significance of such a request.
"Even so, don't you think you're being a bit harsh on them? You aren't even giving them breaks between the requests like you did with me."
She grinned. "Mitsuru would've done worse."
He winced. That was an understatement if he had ever heard one. If the HCC had pulled this kind of stunt on her, her infamous executions might have gotten a bit more . . . literal.
"I can understand why they did it," he said. "Even though I don't agree with the methods they utilized. They could've just asked."
"Oh?" She peered at him. "And if they had asked you, would you have agreed to help?"
"Yes," he said simply.
She blinked. "Truly? You would aid them, even though you have long since fulfilled your duties? Even though this should be your time of peace, the time when you should be resting on your laurels and enjoying the fruit of your labors?"
It was just who he was. Even though he was a blank slate, a Wild Card who could wield many different Personas, who could view the world through many different lenses, there was one that spoke to him the most, one that he felt the most affinity for.
He was the one who would deliver unto them their salvation at the end of times.
Even now, it whispered to him, telling him of this world's many sorrows and many woes. The world was such a sad place, filled with so many tragedies that stayed buried forever.
He wanted to help alleviate this suffocating despair. He wanted to offer a hand to someone and tell them that it would be okay. Above all else . . .
He wanted to make a difference.
That was just who he was. Who he was now, at least. He was a far cry from the apathetic loner he had once been, someone who would've looked upon this cruel world and simply looked away from it all.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and sighed. "I suppose there's no changing your mind on this matter, is there?"
Minato shrugged. "If we will be living in this world for the foreseeable future, is it wrong to try to make it a better place?"
A laugh. "I suppose that is true." She spun around. "Kaoru-san will be ecstatic when she hears of this."
"I'm sure she will be." A pause. "That was you, wasn't it?"
"Hmm? What are you talking about?"
He looked up at her. "I'm talking about the part where you set her up to die."
His hunch wasn't something he was entirely sure about; in fact, he may very well be reading too much into things.
But the way Elizabeth gazed back at him, expressionless, all but confirmed it for him.
"Perhaps it was. What of it?"
"I can understand why you did it." He frowned. "Even though I don't agree with the methods you utilized."
"Ah, lumping me in with them, are you? How cruel."
He glanced back down, returning to his book. "That was a bit much, don't you think? You could've just asked them to stop if you knew what they were going to do."
". . . I suppose I might've been a bit hasty. And excessive," she admitted. "Humans plot the demise of other humans all the time, so I thought it was considered acceptable, but perhaps I was mistaken."
He snorted. "You've been reading too much tragedy lately."
"It is an excellent genre!"
"They told me you almost died."
Kaoru winced as she paused in her Google search of 'How to (il)legally obtain snake scales'. She had been expecting him to show up sooner or later; in fact, she was surprised he hadn't rushed to check up on her sooner.
"I'm pretty sure I did die out there, Amakasu-kun."
A tidbit that she had completely forgotten to bring up before Elizabeth had sent them all off on this sadistic scavenger hunt. Of course, she had been far more worried about the fate of the Heretic God at the time; compared to a being like that, her own life was barely an afterthought.
He sat down next to her, a shadow covering his eyes. She didn't need to turn around to know that her antics had probably made him age a decade in the span of a few days. Again.
Amakasu chuckled humorlessly. "That doesn't assuage my concerns in the slightest, you know. And I think you are acting a bit too lively to be a walking corpse, hmm?"
"With this sadistic scavenger hunt Elizabeth-sama is putting us through, I certainly feel like one," she grumbled. "Anyway, what do you want? We're supposed to be procuring snake scales y'know?"
"If she hasn't killed us all for our transgressions by now, I'm sure she'll be willing to wait a few minutes longer," he said. "As for what I want . . . well, it's quite simple, really –
"I want to know what you're going to do now."
She glared at him balefully. "Right now, I'm trying to obtain snake scales. Which you're preventing me from doing."
He snorted. "I meant your little crusade against the Heretic Gods. You haven't given up on that, have you?"
"No . . ." She turned back to her computer. "I haven't."
"Why? Your plan succeeded, didn't it? Aren't you satisfied with that?"
"You know I won't be satisfied until I've rid the whole world of Heretic Gods."
"Your scheme won't work anymore," he pointed out.
"I know. I'll just think of another one. I'm resourceful like that."
There was a long pause. For a moment, Kaoru thought he had left the room entirely.
". . . I don't want you to," he whispered.
She frowned. "Didn't you say you would always support me?"
"I did," he admitted. "But my support won't mean anything if you die. And you won't always have someone conveniently waiting around with a miracle ready to save you!"
A quiet calm settled over her. That's right, she never thanked Minato for saving her life, did she? She didn't even thank him for killing the Heretic God either.
And she had never, ever, thanked the man sitting next to her for his years of tireless dedication to her.
Truly, she was an ungrateful girl, wasn't she?
She felt his gaze on her, breathing heavily from his outburst.
"Thanks for everything."
". . . What brought this on?"
"I just thought it was the least I could do after all you've done for me," she replied. "However, I won't change my mind; I will see this through to the end, even if it kills me."
Silence fell over them. Had he given up?
"I thought you might say that," he said. "If you won't listen to me . . ."
The door opened behind them.
"Then perhaps you'll listen to him."
She turned and saw her savior glancing back at her, eyes as passive as always.
"Ah, Minato-sama – " She hurried to stand up –
He held up a palm. "There's no need for that."
She settled back down. "Well, what brings you here, then? If you're here to collect the snake scales for your friend, I'm afraid we don't quite have them yet."
He grimaced at the mention of their task. "No . . . I'm not here for that." Was that pity she saw in his eyes? "What I'm here for is to tell you . . ."
His gaze was sharp, pointed. There was a hidden strength there, a pool of resolve ready to make itself known.
"I want to help you."
She blinked. Did she hear that right?
"You want . . . to help me? After I tricked you?"
He shrugged. "I understand why you did it."
"Even so, you want to help me? Help me kill the Heretic Gods?"
"Who said anything about killing?"
She paused. "Then . . . what exactly are you going to help me with?"
"I want to help you make this world a better place."
There was a thumping in her chest, a thumping that sounded like it could shake the world itself. This was a crucial moment, she knew. A crucial moment in this world's history, and she was about to witness it with her very own eyes.
"And how exactly are you going to do that without getting rid of the Heretic Gods?"
"We're going to find another way. A way to make peace."
She stared at him incredulously, like he had suddenly grown a second head. "And how exactly are we supposed to achieve that with a race that we've been at war with for all of recorded history?"
"I'm not sure yet," he confessed. "But I do have a lead."
Before she could ask him to elaborate, she felt a chill in the air, and the next thing she knew, that thing had appeared, a cackling, sinister creature wielding a jet-black blade.
"Let him go."
The thing knelt, and one of the coffins hanging from its wings swung open, a pure white essence spilling forth to fill the space in front of it, coalescing into something . . . humanoid.
Her eyes widened as the shape took form. It was a familiar presence, one she had never expected to feel again. But it seemed . . . different this time. The arrogance was diminished, almost gone, in fact, and the manic bloodlust that had surrounded him before had vanished entirely.
The man – no, god before her smiled as he stood up, donning a regal bearing. "I am sorry for before; I was not entirely myself then."
She resisted the urge to bend down and feel the floor with her hand because she was pretty sure she had dropped her jaw down there at some point.
"Let us do introductions properly this time." He swept down in a bow.
"I am Perseus. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Alex hated hospitals.
It was not their purpose that irked him; he could care less about what other people did, whether it be saving lives or taking them, so long as they didn't get in his way. Rather, it was the way simply being here made him feel weak and helpless, like he was simply another patient on his deathbed, waiting for the end to come.
He hated that feeling. Growing up on the streets, he had quickly learned that showing weakness was a surefire way to get himself killed. It was important to be the one in control, to be the one holding all the cards.
Like a shadow, he slipped through the corridor, unnoticed by any of the personnel rushing about. He could've gone about this normally by talking to the receptionist and going through the proper protocol, but that simply wasn't his style.
He was a thief, after all. And he wanted this visit to be on his terms, a desperate effort to maintain a sense of control even as the miasma of helplessness thickened as he approached his destination.
The door was a plain, ordinary thing. He had circumvented countless other doors over the course of his career: doors made of the thickest steel, doors guarded by the strongest of magics, doors meant to turn away even the most stubborn of intruders.
But it was this door, this mundane, wooden door that gave him pause, made him hesitate like no other.
It was infuriating. He was a Campione, the one known as the infamous Black Prince, a ruffian who followed his impulses and damn the consequences! Why was a door giving him so much trouble?
He wrapped his hand around the handle.
The door slid open, and he slipped in without a sound.
". . . You came to visit . . . ."
Her voice was but a tiny whisper, so soft he doubted he would've heard her without his Campione-enhanced hearing. She was lying in a hospital bed, her pale, gaunt face looking just a little more sunken than the last time he had seen her.
He hated seeing her like this, hated seeing what such a beautiful, cheerful girl had been reduced to.
Her eyes were closed, blinded by the ailment that afflicted her, but she was gazing in his direction all the same, a small smile adorning her face.
He sat down in a chair next to her bed. "Did you expect me to run away, Alice?"
Alice chuckled, but the sound was lost before it ever left her mouth. "You're a thief . . . aren't you? You've always been good . . . at running away."
He was silent, simply gazing upon her, gazing upon what White Princess Alice had become.
She was a Hime-Miko, a Witch, and one of the greatest magic-users of her generation. With the ability to tell the future and her mastery of witchcraft, she was one of the most influential figures in the world, right below the Campione. Or at least, she had been . . .
In her case, she had the misfortune of being too powerful for her own good.
It was a well-known fact that the more powerful a Hime-Miko was, the poorer her health tended to be. For most, this was simply a troublesome phenomenon; they would have to limit their physical exertion and be careful to not overexert themselves, but that was all. Even talented Hime-Mikos were not overly held back by this restriction.
But for Alice . . . her power had manifested at an early age and only continued to grow as she matured. By the time she was a teenager, she was hailed as one of the greatest Hime-Mikos to ever live. By the time she was an adult, she was bedridden, too weak to rise from her own bed.
And her power had not stopped there; it had continued to expand, putting more and more stress on her frail, fragile body, not caring at all that its master was wasting away in a bed. By the time she was twenty-four, she was hospitalized, needing life support simply to stay alive.
She couldn't even use the magic she had been gifted with anymore; anything more strenuous than the sensory magic she used to perceive her surroundings would be too much for her frail body to handle.
Even now, the curse was eating away at her still, robbing her of her vitality little-by-little, and he knew that one day, her heart would become too weak to even beat.
He had to hurry. Before it was too late. Before this feeling of powerlessness sunk in for good –
"How goes . . . the search?"
"It's progressing well," he replied smoothly.
Another soundless chuckle. "You don't . . . have to lie . . . for my sake."
"Who said I was doing it for you?"
"Oh? . . . Does the great . . . Black Prince Alec . . . need to lie . . . to himself . . . then?"
"Of course not. I am not in the habit of disillusioning myself with empty words."
"Another lie . . ." She coughed. "Perhaps . . . you should give up . . . on your fruitless quest. There is no need . . . to trouble yourself . . . over someone . . . like me."
He felt his heart wrench from her words, betraying his stalwart effort to maintain his composure.
She was too important to him, too much of a cornerstone of his life. He wouldn't be where he was today without her, he wouldn't be who he was today without her.
Giving up on her would be like giving up on himself.
"No." His voice was hard, cold and unyielding. "I may be a liar, but I have never lied about a promise. And I promised to save you, didn't I?"
"Ah . . . but that's what . . . a liar would say . . . ."
"It does not matter if you believe me or not. I will do as I please, and if my whims should involve ridding you of the ailment that plagues you, then you will simply have to accept it."
She laughed silently. "Of course . . . you are a . . . Campione . . . after all . . . ."
Her body shuddered, convulsing as a silent seizure gripped her.
"Alice? Alice, are you alright?!"
The shudders stopped and her body stilled, and for a moment he feared the worst –
"For someone who . . . claims to not be concerned . . . you sounded . . . awfully worried there."
Her smile was light yet teasing. He felt the tension drain away, the claw that had been tightening around his heart slowly loosening.
"If you had died before I finished my quest, then it would've all been for nothing. And I do so detest wasted effort."
"I would tell you . . . to cut your losses, then . . . but I know . . . you wouldn't listen."
Another silent cough overtook her, silencing her. He watched on, as impassive as ever, a cold façade hiding a chaotic heart.
"Hey . . ." she whispered, finally recovering. "Could you . . . do something . . . for me?"
"If it tickles my interest, then perhaps I will."
A thinly veiled smile of amusement.
"Could you . . . hold my hand?"
He jolted upright like he had been shocked. "What? Why?"
"Consider it . . . a last request."
Alex frowned. "Don't talk like that."
"It's not good . . . to be in denial . . . you know?"
He fell silent, the accusation weighing heavily on his heart. Perhaps she simply wished to be comforted in her final moments. Perhaps she simply wished to leave him with a sense of closure.
Or perhaps . . . she wished to let him wash away just a little of his lingering regrets.
His hand crept forward and found hers, embracing it in a gentle caress.
Her hand was soft, so soft yet so frail.
Her hand felt tiny in his, so thin and brittle that he thought he might accidentally crush it with but a stray twitch.
He felt a hint of pressure, the tiniest indication that she was squeezing his hand.
"Thank you . . . for that . . . ."
Her breathing was heavy, labored.
"You seem tired. I'll get out of your hair and let you rest now."
He stood up, readying himself to leave, but the faintest pull from her feeble hand on his own made him pause.
"Don't . . . don't go."
He gave her a skeptical look. "Am I not disturbing your rest by staying?"
A small, sad smile. "Your visits . . . are the only reason . . . I lasted . . . this long."
Her hand grew limp, falling to the bedside.
". . . Sorry."
His blood froze.
"I – "
Her mouth moved, but even that faint whisper had faded away, condemning her final words to the void.
Her body stilled, a hint of lifelessness that wasn't there before, and Alex frantically rushed over to check her pulse –
There. It was still there. Just barely. So soft that he had to double check to make sure he wasn't hallucinating.
But it was still there.
That meant he still had time. Time to rescue the princess from the dragon that had invaded her body like a parasite, time to wake her from her slumber before death's ghostly hands made her sleep eternal.
He stood up, a new fire alight in his eyes, a new desperation festering in the reaches of his soul.
"I'll be back," he whispered. "The next time I come, it'll be with your cure in hand."
There was no other option. She just had to wait for him.
He slipped through the door, vanishing into the darkness almost immediately, footsteps imbued with newfound vigor.
Wait for me.
When Alex had first founded the Royal Arsenal, his own personal Mage Association, he had done so with the vision of a snake in mind.
No, not a snake. A Campione wouldn't settle for something as mundane as that.
A hydra. Yes, that was the best way to describe this organization: a mythical beast with many snarling heads, each ego pressing onward even as its comrades fell beside it.
The requirements for joining were quite simple: one had to know of the existence of gods, and one had to have an ambition they wished to pursue.
As a result of these lenient standards, many of those from the more unsavory side of human society had joined, including occultists, street hoodlums, con artists, thieves, and commoners with a grudge against the supernatural.
With so many of these vying, chaotic personalities, it would've been impossible to lead them as a cohesive whole.
So, he hadn't even bothered to try. Instead, he allowed them to form their own little cliques, structuring themselves as they saw fit. Royal Arsenal fractured into several different factions, each using the greater whole as a place to share resources and exchange information.
That was how the name came about. An organization, backed by a Devil King, arming members of the underworld with the tools and knowledge they needed to carry out their nefarious deeds.
He thought it ironic, how such a bunch of misfits could have such a noble name. But he was fine with the way things were; in fact, he preferred it like this. With several different independent groups going around doing their own thing, there was no need for him to do any real leading, giving him more time to plan his heists and advance his own agenda.
Besides, the organization had never really been a serious endeavor in the first place. He had formed it on a whim, a mere impulse.
Although, it would be more accurate to call it a childish tantrum.
When he had finally become a Campione, a king of this world, he had barged into her office and demanded that she and her organization follow him.
He could still remember it vividly, that sad, sad smile she wore as her lips parted and she spoke:
He had been shocked. Everyone knew that crossing a Campione was foolhardy, everyone knew that angering a Devil King was a surefire way to get yourself killed.
But she had done it, and she had done it with a smile on her face.
When he had demanded an explanation, demanded a reason for her defiance, she had simply shaken her head and made one last request:
"I would gladly offer my life to you for my transgression; all I ask is that you spare my organization your wrath. This was my decision, and my decision alone."
He had been furious. Outraged. He had gazed at her in fury, gazed at her in rage, then spun on his heel and ran away.
He couldn't – he couldn't stand to be there any longer, couldn't stand to look in those green eyes anymore, those eyes that tugged at his heart and made it dance with every flutter, every sideways glance.
He had formed his own organization out of spite, proclaiming his desire to oppose Witenagemot and its White Princess Alice, as well as other elitist magic associations.
Many had flocked to his banner, victims of one magical malpractice or another. They had looked at him with wide eyes, expecting him to hand them their victory on a silver platter. For they had a Campione on their side, and the enemy did not, so clearly, the matter was already a foregone conclusion.
They had waited for him to lead them on their glorious crusade, and yet . . .
He had done nothing. For he had cooled his head and realized that eradication was not what he wanted, was not the answer he had been looking for.
He thought it ironic, how the princess he had once promised to depose was the same princess he was now rushing to save.
Alex stormed through the main hall of the Royal Arsenal headquarters, drawing curious glances from onlookers standing around. But it had long since become an unspoken rule to not pry into the business of others, a rule that was strongly encouraged.
It was one of the few rules he personally endorsed. As such, it was one of the few rules that no one had broken.
A tall, gruff man stepped into his path. He had a stout build and twin blades slung over his back.
Alex paused, irritation building in his chest. He didn't have time for this. She didn't have time for this –
"I noticed you've been going to the hospital mighty often lately. Visiting a sick family member or something?"
"That's none of your business," he snapped.
The man held up his hands and stepped out of the way. "I was just wondering, is all. Keep your secret, if you'd like."
His pace redoubled as he swept past the man. That encounter had brought up an unpleasant reminder, a reminder that out of everyone in his organization . . .
No one held any love for White Princess Alice or her ilk.
Except for him.
If they knew of her crippled state, of the fact that she was lying helpless in a hospital, he had no doubt they would take advantage of her weakness and send in assassins to finish her off. He had considered simply disbanding the whole organization, but the problem with that was . . .
Since he held no true leadership position, the organization known as Royal Arsenal was merely a formality. Even if it were to suddenly disappear, the constituent subgroups, the real organizations, could simply choose a different meeting place and continue as normal.
The other option was to simply murder them all. But while he was a criminal, a ruffian, a thief . . .
He was no killer.
He wouldn't want to touch her hands with such despoiled fingers, to stain her hands with that ugly red mark.
For now, he would simply have to keep her location a secret. But the current pressing need was to find a cure for her condition, and fast.
He finally reached his manor proper, a building connected behind the Royal Arsenal headquarters. He rushed past dozens of his trophies, trophies that sat on his shelves collecting dust like so much trash. There were many exotic items among his collection: famous paintings, valuable artifacts, priceless treasure . . .
They were all worthless. All garbage. None of them were of any value to him.
Not when they couldn't save that which was most precious to him.
Even though he hadn't set foot in his abode for weeks, there was no dust. He had only one servant, one person whom he trusted enough to have free reign in his residence.
"Ah, welcome back, Alex-sama."
A young woman with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes greeted him. She was the daughter of a maid from his childhood, back when he still had a family. She was one of the few who knew him from before his rise to god-slayer.
"I'm in a hurry, so keep it brief. Are there any updates on potential leads?"
She was also his spy in the Royal Arsenal. After all, it was his organization, so he wanted to remain abreast of what the others were doing at least.
"There was one report that might be of interest. A few thieves in Tokyo were around when a Heretic God descended, and they stuck around to pilfer from the homes of people that had evacuated."
Alex snorted. Those fools were lucky their greed hadn't gotten them killed.
"Apparently, they saw something interesting happen. The Heretic God killed a girl, and the boy he was fighting flew into a rage and ripped the god apart."
"Oh? The girl must've been important to him, then."
She shrugged. "That's not the interesting part though. What's fascinating is that afterword, he brought her back to life."
Alex frowned. "A resurrection-type authority?" His eyes shot up. "Were there any side effects? Any hint that it was less than perfect?"
She shrugged. "The thieves, quite understandably, didn't stick around long enough to find out. But even with this kind of uncertainty, it may still be a worthwhile lead to pursue."
Alex closed his eyes. A solution like this was far from his ideal of a cure, but with the hourglass so close to running out . . . he would just have to accept it.
"Where is he?"
She pulled out a bundle of papers. "After some correspondence with my contacts in the HCC, I believe the identity of the boy is most likely to be him." She pointed at the photo on the first page.
"His name is Minato Arisato."