Ending 4: War

Suzume had hoped that this moment wouldn't come to pass.

It could have happened in so many other ways. Soma could have been killed before she got here. Marcus could have located Soma and saved him while she fought off the vampire hordes. If Death had realized the importance of her assistance, he could have even decided to show mercy at the critical time.

No such luck. The situation had worked out exactly as Death had anticipated when he had formed the pact with her in the first place. Sometimes she wondered if he had a foresight for these things. It could be argued, she decided.

The cardinal had been defeated, and it still hadn't been enough to prevent this outcome. Soma was still manacled to the wall, and Death was still moving in for the kill.

Marcus continued to protest as he attempted to stand up. "Suzume! I mean it! We have to stop him! If we don't, Dracula..."

And if I do, she thought, Death...

What I don't understand, a long absent voice inside her head told her, is why you think there's a decision at all. She thought about it, and her expression grew angrier, and she realized that it was right.

She threw up her hands. "This is stupid!"

Death turned his skull to look at her, his execution stayed briefly. Marcus watched her with interest.

She started walking toward the others, ranting loudly. "Why are we arguing about this? Have we all forgotten why we're supposed to be here?"

She pointed accusingly at Marcus. "You're a healer! You're a member of the church! Why the hell are you still a vampire? You should have healed yourself ages ago! And what about Soma? If you wanted to stop the cardinal's plan, you should have been resealing his power or something!"

Marcus stared at her for a second, and then caught himself. "Uh, right!"

"And you!" she shouted, turning to Death. "Why are you preparing to kill Soma? The cardinal just tried to put you out of business! And look! I just laid him flat! If you should be reaping anyone here, it's him!"

"He is not yet deceased", he said calmly.

"Oh, for the love of God!" She picked up her scythe, walked over to the cardinal's body and swung the weapon so that its blade landed directly in his chest. There was a groan of pain from the man, and then it was gone. She left the scythe in his body as she turned to face the others again. "Do I have to do everything around here?"

"...y...you killed him", Marcus stuttered. "Why did you..."

"Serves him right! Trying to steal Soma's power, trying to turn people into vampires, trying to disrupt the proper flow of nature... you know, I could have sworn he was about to die, anyway!"

"...Suzume... this isn't like you. Have you gone insane?"

Suzume smiled at him. "I don't know. I've been through a lot. Maybe I have." She took a deep breath. "But you're right. This isn't like me. I'm not supposed to be some kind of killer! I'm a freaking priestess! I'm supposed to be helping the church, not killing members of the cloth! I'm supposed to be defending against the undead, not allying with them! And most of all, I'm supposed to protect the innocent, right?"

She walked back toward the back wall of the room and pointed at Soma. "And as far as I'm concerned, the only innocent person here who deserves to be defended is chained to that wall."

"Do not be foolish", Death reminded her. "You swore to allow me to kill him."

"I know I did! And I was a moron to do so! What kind of protector am I, promising to end someone's life and bring back the man who slaughtered millions, just to save my own skin?" She tried to smile at Death. She failed miserably. "I'm glad we were able to stop the cardinal. Thank you for helping me do it. But if our agreement requires him to die, then I'm sorry, but I'm not going to let that happen. I'm breaking the pact." She lowered her head. "So just kill me already."

"Stop!" Marcus interjected. "Please! Don't throw your life away like that!"

She shook her head angrily at him. "Throwing my life away? For God's sake, shut the hell up, Marcus! You should be dead, too! The only reason you're still here is that you decided to screw over everyone who bothered to help you! The clerics, Death, the vampires... oh, for crying out loud!" She traced the motion of the heal spell and cast it on him. "Since you're too busy to free yourself from a single bloody curse... I mean, honestly, do we really want the rest of the church to follow your example?"

He stared at her in shock. "Don't say that..."

"Murdering innocents, trying to revive the bane of mankind, manipulating each other, breaking promises, cursing the populace, destroying villages... everything we've been doing is wrong! And the worst part is that everyone here's supposed to be holy and religious and everything! Even the reaper! Aren't you supposed to be a divine being or something?" She threw her arms down in anger. "So why the hell is it that the only halfway decent people I've met around here all day are a couple of demons and the reincarnation of the dark lord? Just for once, I'd like to stop listening to your goddamn arguing and pay attention to what they..."

"I have listened to enough of your rambling", Death interjected impatiently. "I do not care what you think of my goals. If you are so eager to die, then accept it." He dashed forward and grasped Suzume by the neck. "But know that your sacrifice is meaningless. Soma will not be spared from his..."

"Don't you dare."

Death stopped his speech to look at the new speaker. Marcus looked up to see that Soma was glaring at Death.

The white-haired man continued. "I don't care if she made a pact or not. I don't care if she's lost her faith in everyone here. She is my friend's daughter. I will not allow you to kill her simply because she wishes to defend me."

Death was unimpressed. "Your sentiment changes nothing. She will die. You are next."

"I insist." Soma took a deep breath. "I am sick of this. I am sick of this obsession with the dark lord. I am sick of everyone I know and love being threatened because of me." With a quick move, he broke his chains from the wall. "I am going to end this."

"You are going to sacrifice yourself for her." Death's voice was incredulous. "I may never understand why mortals..."

Soma continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Half of everyone wants me to deny who I am. The other half wants me to become someone else." His voice lowered to a mutter. "I'm sorry, Mina."

Marcus was quick to figure out what he was planning. "Don't do it!" he shouted abruptly. "You know what will happen!"

Soma looked at him. "No. I don't. I know what people have told me will happen. And after what she said, I'm starting to think that I've been listening to everyone else for too long. From now on, I decide my own fate."

A large amount of essence rose from the cardinal's body and traveled directly into Soma's body. To the trained eyes of a priestess, his aura grew darker and more powerful. Even Death had to hesitate at his spiritual transformation.

"And my fate is to be the dark lord", Soma finished. He pointed at Suzume. "Release her. Now."

Death looked at him for a few seconds, and then allowed Suzume to fall to the ground. From her position, she could see Soma again. And he was... different. His hair was unkempt, and his eyes had become red. As she watched with a worried expression, he walked up to her and knelt down beside her.

Marcus's voice barely found itself. "No... It can't be... Dracula?"

Soma turned to look at him. "No." He faced Death. "I will disappoint you, reaper. I am not Dracula. He is dead, and I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that he stays that way."

"You insolent..." Death said in a furious tone, before he stopped himself and reverted to a quiet tone. "You refuse to be Dracula? You intend to make a new name for yourself as the dark lord?"

"I already have a name. It is Soma."

"Soma, I have no pact with you. Your orders are meaningless." Death raised his hand quickly and closed it. Suzume's body writhed once in pain, and then it was over.

Marcus was to her side in an instant. "Suzume! No!" He checked her quickly for signs of life, using a quick magical gesture to be sure, and then looked at Death again. "You bastard!"

"She betrayed our pact. She requested the consequences. You cannot deny me my rightful property."

"I can." Soma opened his hand to reveal that it was holding a soul. "Your master called it the power of dominance. She has denied you and given herself to me."

"She has no right to do so. Nor do you."

"After everything you have done to me, I care nothing for your rights." He placed a hand on Suzume's body. "Rise."

And she did, warily. "What the hell just happened?" she asked. Marcus stared at her and Soma wordlessly.

"You may not care", Death said angrily. "Others do. I have been granted the right to end your life and reclaim my rightful soul. I obey wholeheartedly."

And he dashed forward at an inhuman speed, wielding his scythe. Just before he could connect with Soma, Suzume held up her spear and blocked his attack. "No", she said. "You will not hurt him."

"Is that so?" As he continued to press the scythe against her spear, Death lifted one arm and lifted it in the air, producing a large sickle, and swung this at Soma as well.

Marcus was too fast for him. He had already picked up the staff that Suzume had dropped, and he moved it in the way well in time to obstruct the sickle. "I must defer to Soma", he said calmly.

"You mortals are entirely too eager to die." Using his two blades, he continued to apply pressure to their weapons. Suddenly, from nowhere, a third bony arm sprouted from his back, holding another sickle. He held it where they could see it and realize that they were out of defenses, and...

...it was knocked out of his hand. Two weapons landed on the floor nearby. Death's sickle, and a spear that resembled the one Suzume carried.

"What? How dare you defy me?" He turned to face Slogra, who was standing at the top entrance of the room. He leapt over the balcony and landed behind his former master, then picked up his spear and pointed it at him. Behind him, Gaibon followed, using his wings to slow his descent as he breathed a few flames at the grim reaper.

Suzume smiled. "I guess we know who they'd rather work for."

"Do not mistake mindless servitude for loyalty!" Death rose before everyone, lifting his weapons, the sickle returning to his third arm. And then there was a fourth arm. Two more followed, and all were wielding implements of Death. "You cannot comprehend how foolish you were to antagonize me. I am Death, and I swear that I will claim you all! You cannot hope to remain standing against my power. Throughout eternity, I have..."

And he was cut off as Soma threw what appeared to be a trio of fireballs at him. "Leave us alone", Soma insisted. "Or you will pay the consequences."

"The consequences? The consequences you have wrought are far more severe!"

And behind him, Suzume could see them. Zombies. Skeletons. Armor. Representatives from almost every kind of demon that had been in the castle, climbing up the stairway from the main tower to line up behind Death. And they kept coming. There appeared to be no end to them.

...they belonged to him, she realized. They would obey him. They would attack, and not even the five of them could hold them and the grim reaper off forever.

And suddenly, she was being lifted up and held from behind. She looked down, only to see what appeared to be an oversized gray claw upon her chest, and her back was pressed against someone's flesh. To her side, Marcus was a victim of the same fate. Meanwhile, Gaibon had picked up Slogra again.

"They do not belong to you!" a dark inhuman voice roared. "YOU WILL NOT HAVE THEM!" And before she could react, Death and his demons were becoming distant as she found herself being carried into the air. There was the sound of something breaking, and pieces of rubble fell below her, and Gaibon and Slogra dodged them as they pursued. Seconds later, all she could see was the morning sky, tinted with the colors of sunrise.

Suzume awoke in a forest.

She tried to recall how she had gotten there. She couldn't remember anything after she had been carried away from the castle. Apparently she had decided that it was the opportune time to sleep. After the past day, she most likely needed it.

There were others sitting near her. Marcus was obvious, and she started wondering if she had been too harsh with him earlier. On her other side... it looked like Gaibon and Slogra were still there. And across from her...

...what was that thing? It looked similar to a grayish Gaibon, if he had overdosed on steroids and was three times his normal height. It had large bat wings on its back, and unlike Gaibon, they were not part of its arms, which rested on its knees in a surprisingly casual manner. It had a terrifying gaze, and its toothy maw looked large and sharp enough to devour her whole.

And it had not attacked her. "What... what are you?" she reluctantly asked.

The massive demon replied in a monstrous yet calm voice. "I am still Soma."

Marcus watched him warily. "Are you sure? Because I've heard of forms like that one being used by Dracula."

The demon glared. "I am not Dracula. Even if I must be the dark lord, I refuse to succumb to that fate." He paused briefly. "Death will pursue me. I'm sorry all of you had to see me like this. I had hoped that this wouldn't happen."

"The dark lord?" Suzume asked. "So we failed?"

"I... don't know." The demon readjusted his legs. "Perhaps this is my fate after all. I just... I can't let it dictate my existence."

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Marcus asked.

"The only thing I can do right now. I will defend myself. I refuse to fall against Death." His eyes traveled between everyone around him. "I can't ask you to get involved."

Suzume shook her head. "I am involved. You took my soul, right? If you fall, I fall." She smiled. "So I'd better do everything I can to make sure you stay alive."

As she spoke, Gaibon and Slogra nodded as well. She turned to them. "Are you sure you want to be here? Death was kinda your master and all..."

Marcus shook his head. "I'm... not sure they can decide for themselves."

"I don't like it." She looked at them. "If they wish to stay, they can. But I'm not controlling them. I'm not ordering them. I... I don't want them to be my slaves."

Slogra looked at her cautiously, and then walked up to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. A moment later, Gaibon mirrored him. She smiled at them, and they returned the gesture with a mouthful of sharp teeth and an open beak.

"Personally, I shouldn't stay", Marcus admitted. "I'm not a fighter. Besides, I need to speak with the church. They'll want to know about this."

The large demon nodded. "I accept that. If I may, I would like to ask you to perform a favor for me afterward."

As Marcus acknowledged this, Soma continued. "Go to Mina. Keep her safe. Tell her... tell her that I can't be with her right now... but I'll return... as soon as I can... once everyone is safe. Tell her not to worry... I refuse to die."

Marcus smirked. "Should I tell her you love her?"

"No." The demon looked thoughtful. "When I return, I'll tell her myself."

"I may hint at it, though", Marcus said jokingly. That said, he said his farewells, left the makeshift camp and headed toward the nearest town. They would hopefully have some form of transportation there.

Suzume looked around. "There are four of us. I think Death's got at least hundreds. I wouldn't want you to break your promise."

The demon looked down at her. "I do not intend to." And suddenly, without any visible warning, a number of glowing orbs that may have been souls erupted from the dark lord's body. As she watched, they sank into the earth.

And then more demons rose. Demons of every kind, surrounding them. Suzume even recognized some of the more unique ones. If these had come from Soma... they must have originally been claimed by the cardinal... from the souls that had been released by her battling... which meant that she was now surrounded by every demon she had killed yesterday.

Before she could panic, she felt a large claw touching her. "They are mine. They will obey me. They will protect you." And, looking at them and their body language, it almost looked to her as if they would. Most ignored her. Some adopted a guard position. Some even regarded her directly.

"So this is my fate", she sighed. "I am fighting alongside the dark lord and his demonic minions."

"Mere hours ago, you said that you believed we could be as benevolent as any human." His claw scratched her back lightly. "I agree that it is possible. From now on, I intend to prove it."

Seven months later...

Suzume set down her ballpoint pen and looked over what she had written. Next to her, an envelope, addressed to the location of the church branch where she had been raised, care of Yoko Belnades. Next to that, an already opened letter, addressed to Soma Cruz, coming from Marcus Williams. She had considered that she hadn't spoken to any of them since she left, and felt that a reply was warranted.

Dear mother,

I apologize for not writing sooner. It has been kinda busy around here for obvious reasons, and I don't know what you've heard around the church, so I guess I should explain everything I've been doing since I left.

In short, the demons are engaged in civil war.

What else could she call it? Soma had his side. Death had his, and they were regularly battling each other. Both leaders were hesitant to risk their own lives in battle, especially Soma, as his demise would lead to the entire eradication of his side.

Not quite eradication, she had to admit. Death would simply reclaim them. The whole war was more like a game of dodgeball than anything else. When Death killed one of Soma's demons, its soul returned to hell, from where he could summon it to fight on his side. And Soma simply claimed the souls of the demons he killed. In that sense, it truly was a civil war. Demons against demons, with no differences between them but their allegiance. If not for their lack of casualties, it would almost be tragic.

If you told me when I was growing up that large portions of the world would be overrun by demons, I wouldn't have believed you. Or, in the case that I acknowledged the possibility, I would have been terrified. So whenever I think about this war, I can't help but find it kinda strange.

I mean, you'd expect the demons to be harming humanity during their battles. But from what I've seen and heard, they mostly aren't.

She wasn't exaggerating. She had been with several groups of demons on occasions when they passed through a town. And then they left shortly afterward, and the humans were no worse off than before. She wasn't sure what the creatures were doing, but Soma had mentioned the occasional need for supplies. Were they stealing them? Buying them? Promising not to attack if they received what they wanted? She kinda wondered about that. Maybe she'd ask Soma.

It had been a long time since Soma set foot in town, though.

I'm currently stationed with Soma's main group. In case Marcus didn't tell you, it turns out that Soma is currently responsible for the fact that I'm still alive, so I kinda feel an obligation to help him. I'm sorry, but in light of this, I probably won't be able to come home until the war is over. I miss you all frequently. Say hello to my sister for me.

Marching across the countryside with a group of demons isn't as bad as it sounds. Even so, it's been a while since I've had to do that. I recently found a new purpose among the demons, and Soma felt that it was important enough to ensure that I stay as far from the actual fighting as possible. So, for the moment, I am guaranteed my own safe form of transportation.

Well, not quite my own. Gaibon and Slogra ride with me. They seem to want to be my bodyguards, and Soma occasionally finds other purposes for them. I don't know if you've ever met those two, even as their enemy. I think you'd like them.

She looked up from her notes. Gaibon was still sitting on her right, and Slogra on her left. She looked at them briefly. Slogra nodded briefly in a manner that she had taken to mean "all's well".

She remembered that day, and Soma probably would as well. She had stopped in a village library to do research, as she was finding it more and more useful to learn new magic that could be useful in battle. So she had been looking through the offensive magic tomes when she had noticed a book that had been misfiled there.

It was a book on conjuration. Not quite relevant, she had thought, considering that she already had all the demons they needed in the area and Death would not permit her to steal from his supply. Yet she had looked through that book anyway, and she found something that, honestly, she had been wanting for a long time.

In the middle of a chapter about proper methods of maintaining summoned demons, the description and explanation of a spell that could heal their injuries.

She wondered if that alone had turned the course of battle. Certainly, every demon she healed was a demon Death didn't get, and that meant that Soma was more likely to win by attrition.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm fighting for the good guys at all. Certainly, I'm on the side that wants me to stay alive, and that's good enough for me. But Death is apparently summoning demons to the planet, and I'm not sure he can do that unless he has orders to do so, and those orders would have to come from someone who isn't Dracula. It's entirely possible that the powers that be want him to bring down Soma.

That's a sad thing about war. There really doesn't have to be a good or evil side, does there?

Either way, it looks like our side is winning. Soma's army is growing larger, and my theory is that we're only losing if our soul count is diminishing. You can tell by looking at Soma, too. When he claims a bunch of souls, you can see the difference. He starts looking taller and more powerful. It's kinda scary, but I think it counts as a good sign.

She looked to her left. Just past Slogra, she could see Soma, and he looked vastly different from what he did when the war began. It was impossible not to notice. Sure, he had the same basic physical structure, but his fangs were more pronounced, his muscle tone had developed greatly, his claws had extended, and then there was the matter of his size.

She had spoken with him recently on the subject. He tried to alleviate her fears by saying that, despite all the physical changes that had happened to him, he was still the same Soma that she had defended back then, and this was not going to change as long as he continued to exist. If nothing else, he said, be happy that he could protect her more effectively.

I wonder what'll happen if Soma wins this war. Will he claim Death's soul and force him to serve him directly? Will he replace the grim reaper in his duties, or at least lead the demons in hell? When the demons are united, will they grow bored and attack humanity again? There are so many unanswered questions, and I don't believe I'll know the answer until we get to that point.

Marcus tells me that the church has become very popular recently. The constant presence of demons probably earned you guys a whole bunch of converts by itself, but he also says that there's a lot of interest in training holy defense. I kinda like that idea. I'm not completely convinced that some of the demons aren't causing trouble, and I'm thinking it would be great to be able to stop them if they tried. Keep them honest, you know. I'm sure Soma feels the same way.

Well, that's all I can think of right now. Once again, say hello to everyone for me. Soma sends his best to Mina, as usual. I hope this message finds you safely. - Suzume

Satisfied with what she had written, she placed the letter into the envelope and handed it to Slogra. He took it dutifully, turned around and started to climb up from their current position.

The immediate task completed, she turned to look at Gaibon. The red gargoyle bared his teeth in his usual friendly manner at her. She smiled back and nodded slightly.

The corner of his maw lifted slightly, and he leaned forward into a crawl and moved directly next to her. As he straightened up again, she reached out and wrapped her arms around him, and he surrounded her body with his wings as well. His tongue flicked against her chin, cuing her to open her mouth and allow his tongue to enter and rub against her own. She then leaned forward, causing her lips to rest against his maw, and he leaned back and allowed her to sprawl forward upon his well-toned chest, kissing him passionately.

Suzume hadn't been able to convince herself to tell her mother the most important news. It had started so subtly, too. Gaibon had been aiding her in battle back then, and they had just finished defending their camp against an ambush one day, and he had been slightly injured, and she had decided to comfort him by hugging him. So she did.

And then, for some reason, she went further. And he responded in kind.

It had taken her a few weeks to build up a suitable immunity to the inside of her mouth being scalded by his fiery breath. Back then, it was a sign for them to stop immediately and fetch water. Nowadays, she considered a small tongue of flame passing between their jaws to be a playful act of love, and she had trained herself to extinguish it with her own saliva.

Once that problem had been solved, he had decided to go further still. Further than she would have expected, to be honest.

She wouldn't be able to keep it a secret forever. She recently passed the three month mark on her pregnancy, and it was starting to show.

She hadn't even been sure that such a child was possible, but Soma had detected its soul and described it to her, and he had told her that it was remarkably strong. She still wasn't sure if it could survive to term. Soma promised that, if nothing else, he would claim its soul if it passed away and keep it in that form. It was bizarre and it sounded like it would stunt its development, but she thought it was preferable to nothing.

She kinda looked forward to raising it. She wondered if it would have any capacity for magic. Gaibon would have to teach it how to fly, of course. And she had already thought of a name for it.

Yokoi. "More than love". Somewhere between Yoko and a youkai.

Slogra needed less than a minute of climbing to reach his destination.

Soma turned his head to look at the spear-wielding demon, and saw the letter in his hand, and nodded. Moments later, an imp was summoned. It flew to Slogra's position and took the letter. A white bandanna, their unofficial symbol of a demon who sought to conduct nonwar business with humans, was tied around its body, and it soon took off in the correct direction to deliver it to Suzume's mother.

At the same time, another imp arrived. Slogra took the letter from this one, read it, and then held it up for Soma. The dark lord read it quickly, and then gave the signal to the others. A group of Death's demons had been spotted. The rest period was over. It was time for everyone to start moving again.

There was an impatient tap on Soma's shoulder. He turned his head again to see that Slogra was still standing on it. He pointed his spear toward Soma's right claw, and he could see that Suzume and Gaibon were still engaged in physical activities there.

Soma smiled to himself. They would not be needed for the next few minutes. Carefully, he closed his claw, gently holding the two together within the warm recesses of his palm. Slogra opted to stay on his shoulder for the moment, just in case.

Soma carefully stood up, the tops of the nearby trees brushing lightly against his thighs, until he had reached his full standing height. As a large portion of his army traveled through the nearby forest, his own platoon followed close upon his heels as he treaded across the plains.

He preferred the plains. He could make sure he wasn't stepping on anything there.

An End