Chapter 5. The Darkest Hour – Part 2.
During much of its five hundred years of recorded history, Sairaag was always regarded as one of the most famous cities not only in Lyzeille, but in the entire peninsula. It was known by a number of titles, but the two most widespread were 'the City of Magic' – and, ominously enough, 'the City of Ghosts'. These two together describe its rugged history perfectly: Sairaag was the center of magical research and study, but more than once paid the price of these experiments going wrong, leveling most of the town as a result.
When it first happened, when the horrifying monster Zanaffar appeared and nearly proved unstoppable, the survivors turned against those responsible; all the sorcerers left to a faraway land named Taforashia, leaving the multinational institution of the Sorcerer's Guild, traditionally governed from Sairaag, without a central authority. The settlement's reputation remained, however, prompting the famous Rezo, one of the Six Great Sages, to establish a secret cache of knowledge and artifacts nearby. In the end, the city could not escape its fate: its second destruction was delivered by the Red Priest's half-mazoku copy, another experiment which turned against its creator.
After that, the residents changed tactics. Under Lina Inverse's guidance, the Sorcerer's Guild headquarters were rebuilt to become bigger and more powerful than ever before. The city openly embraced all kinds of magic again; its simpler forms found their way into the homes of the common folk, assisting them in everyday tasks such as lighting and cleaning. Spells were everywhere, but only under one strict condition: that the sorcerers would use their influence to keep the more dangerous aspects of their art in Sairaag under tight control, so that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated again. Or at least, that was the theory.
Seemingly, this tenet was taken to heart, and the city flourished, exceeding all expectations. Its high spires nearly touched the sky, its roads were wide, clean and constantly full of traffic, and the citizens became among the wealthiest of the nation. The previous hardships began to fade into history, and most agreed that Sairaag was on its way towards a bright, spectacular future, without anything to be afraid of.
When the summer sky was covered by thick, dark clouds, and eventually, the storm arrived with thunderous flashes of lightning and rain, few people took notice of anything being out of the ordinary. The merchants at the marketplace offered a silent prayer of gratitude to the gods that the downpour came late in the afternoon, packed up their wares and left. Those of the city guards who were fortunate enough not to be on patrol duty withdrew into their barracks and outposts, leaving their windows open just enough to welcome the cool wind after the uncomfortable heat. Others also hustled along the streets, trying to get their business done as quickly as possible and hurry home, so they can safely watch the arcs of lightning dance around the gigantic New Flagoon tree and the guild's high tower at the city center – an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold.
At the foot of said building, the young receptionist envied their luck. Objectively speaking, he had little to complain about: studying at the very heart of human sorcery was not only an honor and unique opportunity, but an exciting adventure in itself. Still, he found some of the miscellaneous duties, such as his current assignment of welcoming the institution's guests, to be impossibly dull and boring, especially since no guests really bothered to come in such harsh weather – and in these hours the benefits of his education felt like a small comfort.
With a yawn, his glance swept through the large entry hall lit by floating spheres of light; like almost all parts of the building, the walls were enchanted, subtly changing their colors over time. He watched dully as the dark blue gradually advanced towards pinkish red. Nothing moved or made a sound, except for the muffled noises of the storm outside the double doors of the entrance. The boy tiredly leaned on the marble table in front of him, resting his head on his arms, and closed his eyes.
He heard the front doors creak. Blaming it on the outside winds, he reminded himself to check whether they were properly shut later. For now, he thought, maybe he could sleep a little. No one would notice, after all…
The receptionist half-opened one eye, certain that he was hearing things – he then opened both of them wide, and jumped back from the table.
A young woman floated in the air before him; a steady stream of water poured from her brown hair and black and white clothes to the floor. She looked horrible: her sorceress outfit was almost torn to shreds, her exposed flesh at places blackened, at others covered with dried blood. Her red eyes, however, looked entirely clear and determined, if somewhat sad, which only made her look even more terrifying.
"Gaaah, a specter!" the receptionist yelled, sounding not only scared, but annoyed. "Those crazy Wachosk brothers summoned another one‽ Ceiphied help me, I'll make sure they get expelled this time!"
"Stop bawling, I'm not dead… I'm levitating because I can't stand on my legs." The woman shot him down in an exhausted voice. "Go and round up some of the teachers for me, will ya? I need to… have a word with them, and it's kind of urgent."
The boy blinked; her request was roughly on the same level of a complete stranger waltzing into the palace and demanding a little 'chat' with the king. But, although he did not entirely understand why, he found himself taking her at least somewhat seriously. "Why, what happened?" he asked cautiously. "Is it the end of the world or something?"
"You got that right," the sorceress answered weakly. "Something very close to it… ugh…" She wobbled in the air for a second before the spell keeping her afloat finally gave in; the receptionist caught her by the shoulder to keep her from collapsing.
In seconds, those boring, dull moments of 'business as usual' in Sairaag came to an abrupt end – and somehow the boy found himself wishing that they would rather return.
She was floating in the middle of nowhere – Jane could not give a better assessment of her situation. Her surroundings were completely featureless, even darkness or light failed to make an appearance: around her, above and below, everything was muddled gray, and even the gray tried its best to hide that it was, in fact, a valid color, instead of an indiscernible wall of haze.
"Who would have thought? You actually did it." The waitress appeared before her. She did not fade into view gradually from the gray backdrop, but materialized without warning from one second to the next. Her form felt less tangible than before, rather slightly translucent, closer to the spiritual apparition that she really was. "Maybe Xelloss was right about you: you're not as hopeless as you look at first glance."
The girl seemed flustered by the praise. "I'm not sure," she replied weakly. "I experienced it more like I was lucky, I guess."
"Hmh, if you still feel powerless, I think I can help you with that." The ghost brought her hands to her chest. Her fingers reached into her incorporeal form, and with a careful tug, pulled out something the size of her fist: a sparkling, asymmetric crystal wreathed in blue and faint red tongues of flame. "This is a fragment of Flare Dragon Ceiphied's soul, a small part of him which wasn't lost to the Sea of Chaos, nor entrusted to his four descendants. Ever since his death, this fragment appeared in each generation, embedded into the souls of newborn children, humans like me, who are known as the Knights of Ceiphied." She looked down at the crystal musingly, like she also saw it for the first time. "Normally, it'd be impossible to pass it on like this, but the Nameless One's stupidity messed up the reincarnation cycle. I have no choice but to kick it back into gear."
The waitress made an offering gesture with her hand, and the flaming soul fragment began to float towards Jane, stopping at half way between them. "Here, take it. Once you get the hang of things, you'll find that it's much more powerful than whatever 'spells' that demon was granting you earlier – the two aren't even worth comparison. Believe it or not, girl, even Xelloss will have a hard time against you," she added with a smug look. "It goes without saying that I'm not too comfortable with giving it away. I would've preferred if you didn't know about its existence within you at all – but that would no longer work, and besides… it's silly, but for some reason I don't think it will turn out too badly in the end."
The former Knight of Ceiphied lowered her arms, relinquishing her hold on the fragment entirely.
Jane's eyes positively feasted on the beauteous crystal. Even from such a distance, she felt the raw, intoxicating power within, might that could split the skies and shake the world to its foundations. All she needed to do was to reach for it, and the piece of the god's soul would forever be merged with her own. She would become a completely different person. Her life would never be the same embarrassing satire again.
The girl's hand never moved a muscle.
"Thanks, but… could you please take it back?" she muttered. "I don't want it."
The waitress stared at her like she just sprouted three heads. "A-Are you out of your mind?"
"No, it's just that… I think I understand now why Ms. Lina was so mad at me." Jane lowered her head. "If I made use of this, I'd again be employing something which isn't really my own. Something I never really worked for to achieve. I'm sorry, but I don't want that to happen – I can't accept your offer."
The ghost's gaze hardened, her mouth tilting into a frown. "Well, isn't that great. You made a huge self-discovery, ready to take your life to the next level; I'm so touched, I want to kiss the top of your cute little head. There's only one single, tiny little problem with it… that I don't give a damn‼" she snapped with a sudden burst of anger. "Do you think I'll patiently wait for another forty long years before I get such an opportunity again? Or do you think I'll take the blame for letting a five-thousand years old lineage die out because of your damned inferiority complex‽ Fat chance! Who cares about your pathetic issues‽ I never wanted this power either, but I still nurtured it for a century – now I want out!" She spun around. "And getting out of here is exactly what I'm going to do!"
"Y… You can't!" Jane yelled desperately.
"Watch me," the waitress shot back in a cold voice. Her form began to shrink into the distance rapidly – but a moment later she was standing in the same spot as before, as if something yanked her back into place. Looking confused, the ghost glanced behind her, and saw an angled, blue-red chain of light seizing her right arm, its other end fastened to Jane's hand in a similar fashion; both halves of the chain emanated from Ceiphied's soul crystal between them.
"How… how could you do this‽" the ghost demanded. "It took me years to have any control over the fragment! How could you tap into its powers so easily…‽" She trailed off, understanding spreading over her features. "I get it now; so that is why the Nameless One was so interested in playing around with you. Given the opportunity, you could control its powers with the same ease like they were your own… just like you now control mine. You don't even have to be aware of it… Unbeliavable."
"I d-don't know anything about that… but please, stay just for a little bit longer," the girl pleaded. "I really owe you a lot; I promise I'll find a way to get Flare Dragon's soul to a new owner. Just… give me a little time, that's all I ask."
The waitress looked annoyed, but sense of relief could also be felt underneath her cold exterior. "Fine. It's not like I have a choice," she murmured, then added with a snicker, "You might grow to regret this though. I won't stay quiet any longer, and people tell me I'm an awful person to live with."
"People tell me the exact same thing," Jane replied sheepishly. "Thank you."
"Which reminds me, you better wake up." The ghost glanced to the side. "It looks like we have some unpleasant company."
"Company?" The girl gave a start. "But how do I wake—"
Her eyes popped open.
She lay on her back in the middle of the road, soaked by the pouring rain. She could see a column of smoke rising from behind the treetops of the Miasma Forest, but what really captured her attention was the ongoing conversation nearby.
"It was pointless to drag me here. The Nameless One is already gone," an unknown voice spoke with a low growl.
"But it left the human alive! It never did such a thing before!" The second voice was more familiar; Jane bolted up as she recognized it as one of the mazoku who confronted her and Nilian a little while ago.
She was right: the short ape-like and the slime-covered skeletal demons stood next to the line of trees. They were talking to a roughly humanoid figure with glowing white eyes, the rest of its form covered in impenetrable darkness, who likely was the first to speak.
"Doesn't matter," it said. "Let's kill the human like we were ordered to, and return to the rest of our squad. Sairaag has to fall soon; Huraker-sama is getting impatient, and neither of us wants to make her angry."
"Don't worry about that; I'm giving you some new orders."
All heads turned to the young woman who stepped forth from the trees. Her dark clothes looked to be a cross between a cleric's robes and a military uniform, decorated with silver runes all around. She seemed no older than her mid-teens, with large but unfriendly eyes and long black hair twisted into a single triple-braided pigtail. "I know Dynast Grausherra-sama is on the move; I want you to take me to him, immediately," she addressed the three mazoku. Her voice was the same which Jane heard in the Nameless One's forgotten piece of memory.
"General… Sherra… sama…" the ape-like demon stammered. "But you… you're dead!"
"Do I look dead to you, idiot? Now do as I say!" the woman barked, shooting an angry glance towards Jane as well. "If you're expecting some kind of an eternal gratitude, human, you better give up on that idea quickly. Clear out of here, before I change my mind and get rid of you right away."
The girl had no intention of arguing; ignoring the annoyed voice in her head telling her to fight, she sprang to her feet and started running towards Sairaag as fast as she could. Should she have stayed, though, she could have bore witness to an alarming scene which took place immediately afterwards.
"Gratitude…?" The skeletal mazoku sounded shocked. "But… does it mean that she… that you were… you were the Nameless—"
"Be quiet!" Sherra snapped her head back to glower at the demon, but her furious gaze jumped quickly to its fellow, covered in darkness. "What did you just say‽"
"I haven't said a word!" the shrouded being protested, taking a step back.
"What do you take me for‽ I clearly heard you whispering about the 'unnaturalness' of my existence," the general spoke through clenched teeth. "How dare you insult me!"
"I… I never said that aloud…" The dark mazoku started to back away, sounding terrified. "You can still read others' minds…! You are… you're still an abomination!"
"NO‼" Sherra screamed, and lunged forward with insane frenzy. A simple black rapier with a slightly curved blade appeared in her hand, and bisected the demon from head to toe.
"Aaaah‼" With a panicked yell, the ape-like mazoku whirled around to flee; in the next moment, the obsidian sword pierced its chest, reducing its body to a puddle of oil-like goo.
Sherra lashed out with her arm, and caught the slimy skeleton by its throat. "Are you willing to obey me now‽" she hissed.
"Y-Yes, Sherra-sama." The third demon kept inclining its head desperately. "Your wish is m-my command and all that."
"Then lead the way," the general ordered, releasing the mazoku as madness gradually faded from her eyes. Both of them disappeared from the dusty road a second later.
Lina hung onto the young boy's arm as he dragged her up a spiral staircase, holding her by her shoulders. Not only did she feel awfully tired, but the injuries which she managed to ignore in the heat of battle now came back with a terrible, painful vengeance. She cast Recovery on them back in the forest which succeeded in closing her wounds somewhat, but they were far from being fully healed and she still could not feel her legs; her entire body screamed for rest, and it took all of her willpower just to keep herself from passing out.
What's my problem, damn it…? I survived worse beatings than this…
She could not recount all the halls and corridors they passed through, but she had a rough idea that they were heading towards the students' quarters. Once they reached the top of the stairs, the receptionist sat her down on a small, three legged stool. She could see several bunk beds lined up next to the walls in a room which gave the impression of an attic.
"I'll be right back, Miss." The boy touched her arm reassuringly before his footsteps faded into the distance. Lina found it increasingly hard to move any of her limbs – her strength was leaving her entirely, and she did not understand why. Her neck going limp, her head fell forward…
"So, what's the plan, Lina?" someone called her name.
I haven't had much time to think about it yet. She leaned against the trunk of a huge, solitary oak tree in the middle of an endless wasteland. We need to get the locals out of Sairaag first and think of strategies later.
"Sure, fine by me."
Lina frowned. Seriously Gourry, you would've said the same thing if I started explaining the most complicated plan ever to you. Why do you even ask?
"You sound like you know what you're doing." The swordsman shrugged. "That's all I wanted to hear."
She felt her cheeks turn pink. Oh. Okay.
"I'm glad you two are so optimistic."
Because you sure aren't, are you Zel? The sorceress patted him on the back.
"Lina, we're obviously outnumbered, and badly. We need to find some allies soon or we'll keep retreating until there is no place left to run."
"Don't worry, we will take the fight to them! No goodhearted soul will take such an outrage lying down – once we band together against this evil, justice will achieve a glorious triumph!"
She sighed. I really hope you're right, Amelia. I'd take a half as glorious triumph, even.
"My, that sounded almost as if you doubt your chances to succeed."
She glanced towards the top branches of the tree. Anything actually useful to add, Xelloss?
"Hmm… I don't think I'm revealing a secret when I say that doubting was never your strong point, Lina-san. It is a bit late to start practicing now, don't you think?"
That's… true I guess. She smiled. All right, let's show them what we're made of!
Gourry's hand rested on her shoulder. "You can always count on us."
She closed her eyes contentedly. Thank you. I really mean that. As long as I have you guys with me, I can—
Lina heard a distant creak, and found herself staring at the wooden floor of the students' quarters again, in the middle of a city which would soon meet its end, but knew nothing of it. She was completely alone, no one to turn to, no one to talk to – and the reason for her weakness finally dawned upon her.
All of them were gone now. Even Xelloss.
"What do you mean you couldn't find any of the teachers?" she heard an approaching female voice say skeptically.
"I told you, all the restricted laboratories downstairs are empty! No one I met on our way here saw any ranking staff member since over an hour!" the receptionist replied. "I hoped you knew where the old priest was at least. This woman sounded pretty serious that she has important news to tell to someone in charge, and her wounds need to be treated before she drops dead at our feet."
"The old man also left me in the middle of a lesson on chimera research an hour ago," it was the girl again, somewhat irritated. "Don't worry though, I've got the healing part covered. Once I patch our mystery guest up, we'll hear her out. If something's so important that it keeps all the higher-ups busy, the last thing I want is to barge in on them with some nonsense." Her words now came directly from above. "Ugh… Right, she really doesn't look so good. Maybe we should— Whoops!"
Lina found herself disappearing in a giant heap of paper sheets.
"If this is supposed to be part of a healing spell," she murmured evenly, "then a lot changed about white magic in recent years I didn't know about."
"No, I just slipped, I'm really sorry." The girl sounded flustered. "We would need you to fill out these forms before I'm allowed to cast Resurrection on you."
With great effort, Lina turned her head towards her. A short brown-haired teenager in white robes met her gaze apologetically.
"You're kidding, right?" the sorceress droned.
"Err, no Miss, these are mandated by the city council," the receptionist explained in an entirely serious voice. "To avoid past accidents, the regulations on safe spell usage here became the strictest in the world in recent years. If we don't want to get jailed, we need you to accept the list of spells we use on you, the list of magic we might employ if something goes wrong, the ones we would cast when both of these would turn out bad, and the possible side-effects these spells may have. Also, you need to read and accept the shortened thirty-page version of guild's ethical codex, the standard disclaimer about unforeseeable arcane disasters, and Sairaag's educational paper on the dangers of becoming addicted to magic. Oh, and there is also the statement you need to sign about—"
"I think I'll rather die, thanks."
"Okay-okay, just sign the white magic safety manifesto then!" The girl searched through the pile, and handed the sorceress a single sheet along with a long swan quill. With a grumble, Lina scribbled her signature to the bottom of the page; the quill seemed empty, but still left a steady line of ink on the paper.
With a satisfied nod, the young healer put her hands on Lina's back and began her work. Her inexperience immediately became obvious to the sorceress: she wielded the healing energies clumsily, most of her concentration simply spent on keeping Resurrection active; it must not have been long ago that she learned to cast it in the first place. For a moment, Lina's thoughts jumped back to the not-so-distant past, when she witnessed Priest Officius' mastery over curative spells in Atlas City – and decided with a scowl of resentment that she would still take the student's fumbling efforts over his anytime.
"Uh, sorry for asking something so stupid," the receptionist spoke up after a few minutes, startled, "but Resurrection isn't supposed to heal people's clothing, right…?"
"No, but… I'm sure her shoulder guards were pretty much missing a little while ago," the girl sounded similarly uncertain of what was happening.
Lina removed a small splinter of wood piercing her sleeve, and the tear disappeared almost instantly. "I didn't make these clothes and armor from a small fortune to shred them in the first serious battle. They fix themselves up when I have enough life energy left to spare," she said, flexing her toes as she felt life gradually return to her legs. She glanced at the healer again encouragingly. "This means you're not doing a bad job."
The two students exchanged incredulous looks, before the girl retrieved the paper Lina signed from a nearby bed. "Well then, I'm mostly done, so how about you tell us those important news, Miss… err…." She stared at the signature in silence, color draining from her face. "…Oh crap."
"What? Who is she?" The boy also peered closer. "I can't read this squiggle at all."
"I can't either, but… don't you remember seeing the same signature at the bottom of the founding charter?"
Blanching likewise, the receptionist plopped down on the bed. "Oh well… At least I had a couple of fun years at this school…"
"Don't whine, you've done nothing wrong." Lina rose from her seat. She still felt a bit sore at places, and the spell did not do much to ease her exhaustion, but it was enough.
Mope-time's over, I still have things to do. If I have to do them alone… then so be it.
She turned to the two students; they were looking at her slack-jawed as the last holes in her cloak mended before their eyes, like she just jumped out of a page in the history books. "Come on, let's track down the guild faculty. Once we find them, you can listen to what I have to say there."
Regardless of the season, the wind among the snow-covered tops of the Kataart Mountains was always bone-chilling: it blew constantly, carrying a vapor of icy snow. Few living beings frequented these summits, and even most of those who did never stayed for long – only a single exception existed for this rule.
Surprised, the towering golden dragon turned away from the southwest horizon he had been gazing at to look at the young woman calling his name. She had long blond hair and ordinary clothes entirely unfit for the local weather. Even in such a form, her arrival should not have escaped his notice – but apparently he was too absorbed in his thoughts to pay adequate attention.
"We have been worried about you, Filia," the dragon spoke in the language of humans, the same tongue which he was addressed in. "Where have you left Val?"
"He's staying home in Solaria," she answered in a tone that could have been mistaken for provocative. Milgazia's wings twitched in reaction to his shock.
"What…?" he rasped in a deep, guttural voice. "That place is no longer safe! You must get him away from there at once!"
"So it is true, is it not?" Filia took a few steps forward, shortening the distance between them; she sounded calm, but at the same time her words felt to be burning from inside. "Our race has agreed to carry out another genocide, Milgazia-sama? Wasn't the ancients' blood on our hands enough?"
"It was more than enough." The old dragon turned his head away. "But you were not there during the War of the Monster's Fall, Filia. You cannot imagine how terrible it was, how close we got to the end. Both ryuzoku and shinzoku are unfathomably terrified of the mere thought of it happening again, and since two pieces of Ruby Eye already appeared very recently, felled only by near-miracles… they began to suspect a trend, which they would not dare to let continue." He stomped his foot, causing the mountain below them to tremble. "I have warned Lina of the possibility, she knew about it well. We both tried our utmost to keep this from happening – but what can she do, when she is the very heart of the calamity? And what do you believe I could do now? Nothing. Nothing at all."
"So you… you agreed to this?" she whispered disbelievingly.
"I have not," Milgazia snorted in disgust. "Since the death of the Aqualord, my tribe takes orders from no one. Speaking as their leader, I have told the other tribes' envoys that we shall remain neutral during the conflict. My disciple Memphis informed me that the nearby elves have adopted a similar stance. We will let the events take their course."
"But that is the same thing!" Her patience at end, Filia pointed accusingly at the elder. "You're only deluding yourselves! If you are content with sitting idly by, you might as well start slaughtering innocents regardless – it would not make a difference!"
"What else do you expect of me‽" the age-old dragon roared back. His inhumanly loud and sharp voice reverberated among the chasms, loosening a wall of snow which rolled down the valley in the form of a devastating avalanche. "Do you think I should lead my people into battle against our own kind‽ How would that be different from the slaughter of the ancients?"
Filia wanted to retort, but the reply got stuck in her throat. She lowered her head, staring in solemn silence into the valley below as the avalanche erased a group of pine trees and continued downwards, like an unchangeable, unstoppable force of destruction.
By the time Lina finished searching the guild headquarters from top to bottom, she had a smaller army of students, clerks and other support staff trailing her. They respectfully kept a few paces of distance but were still close behind everywhere she went, and the sorceress started to feel like some rare animal in a zoo, her simplest grimaces or head-scratches evoking murmurs of astonishment from the crowd.
Can't say I hate appreciation, but this is a few notches over the top.
The situation was the same no matter where she looked. A little over an hour ago, every officially recognized magic user received a message through the Vision spell, abandoned what they were doing and departed to an unknown part of the building – if not left altogether. Assuming they stayed, however, there was only one place she had not been to yet: the assembly chamber at the top of the main tower.
The chamber was supposed to be unused in this time of the year. Only the annual conference of Sorcerers' Guild leaders from around the world and a handful of other prestigious events were allowed to take place there, with the final say on authorization, along with the keys to the entrance, being in the hands of Sairaag's guild chairman. Needless to say, while the guilds in other cities worked more or less independently of each other, this person still had peerless influence over the spellcasting community as a whole. Lina had some fond memories of the previous chairman, but she did not know whether he was still alive, and if he was, whether he retired from the position already because of his advanced age.
It's been a long time since I've been this involved in guild matters, so I'm a bit out of the loop, she thought as she climbed the tower's long, winding staircase, the group of onlookers not far behind. She considered asking them about the chairman, but dismissed the idea as unnecessary. Whoever he or she is, calling together a meeting up there means deadly serious business. The sorceress paused near the top of the stairs. Maybe they already know? But then why aren't they doing anything?
She leaped up the remaining couple of steps, and saw a twenty feet tall marble arch ahead, the view through it blocked by a red satin curtain; the entrance was usually a lot better protected, but all the locks and magical wards have been removed already. Her ears picked up the muffled sounds of debate as Lina marched to the arch; she pushed the two halves of the silky fabric to the side and stepped through the threshold.
The spacious, circular room was constructed to resemble an amphitheater, with ascending rows of stone-carved seats encircling the wall; the last line of chairs nearly touched the high ceiling. Every seat was occupied, with some sorcerers even left standing on the stairs leading up the rows; they were arguing and shouting at each other, but mostly at the person standing on the podium in the middle of the room. All that was visible from the tall but hunched sorcerer was the back of his steel blue robes and the top of his bald head, covered by wrinkles – which was all Lina needed to recognize him.
"You didn't resign after all, huh, Mar?" she spoke lightly as she entered the room. Silence fell upon the crowd almost instantly as all eyes fell upon her.
The old man turned around carefully; his cold blue eyes shined with a clarity which contrasted the signs of age on his lined face. "Magistress… By Zoamelgustar, it really is you," he muttered.
"I haven't been teaching you anything for a while, you know." The sorceress approached him, her expression somewhat nostalgic. "As long as I'm not calling you 'Chairman Markus Zoana Auth Navratilova the Blue', you can drop the formal titles too."
A wave of whispers ran through the assembly.
"You… you are the Demon Slayer Lina Inverse, are you not?" one of the mages spoke warily from the front row. "Forgive my bluntness, but what does one of the Great Sages want from us at such an hour, after nearly three decades of absence?"
The chairman's eyes berated him coldly. "Show some respect, boy."
"No, that's okay." Lina waved her hand. "I already wasted too much time with the hide-and-seek in this place, so I might as well get straight to the point." She pointed with her thumb to her left, towards the western portion of the wall. "I'll also be blunt: as crazy as it sounds, the city will be run over by a large combined force of both mazoku and golden dragons in a matter of hours."
Her ridiculous-sounding claim provoked markedly less reaction from her audience than she thought it would; not sure what to make of this, the sorceress continued on. "I ran into some of their troops earlier and I've seen the destruction they're capable of with my own eyes; they already leveled every single settlement at least thirty miles west of here. We need to do something before things get nasty." There still was hardly any reaction. Lina looked questioningly at the chairman. "Although… something tells me you already knew about this, right?"
The elderly sorcerer glanced the other way, not looking her in the eye.
"Show her, Markus," another mage with a long white beard spoke up. After a moment of hesitation, the chairman made a tired gesture towards the walls – which immediately became transparent. And not only the walls: the circular rows of seats along with their occupants became little more than a faint outline in Lina's eyes, letting her behold the surrounding landscape in its entirety.
The sorceress drew a sharp breath. To the west, what remained of the Miasma Forest was blanketed by a haze of darkness. The forest was teeming with mazoku; through the tower's magically enhanced vision, their fearsome presence felt almost as if they were within arm's reach of her.
I hoped we'd have more time than this…!
"We also saw a few dragons circling above the forest earlier," the previous mage said in a grave voice. "They and the mazoku did not seem to be fighting, although we do not know why. There is also smoke rising from the direction of the inn beyond the forest. The seriousness of the situation became clear to us relatively quickly."
Lina mimicked the chairman's hand-gesture, and the outside view was again replaced by the room's interior. "Well, that saves us some time at least," she said before her face set into a small, puzzled frown. "But tell me then, why is the city all quiet and peaceful like nothing is about to happen? Why are you all sitting here arguing instead of trying to get the locals to safety…? We haven't got all day you know!"
"It's already too late," a female voice sounded from the back row. "There is no time to evacuate; we would only cause panic, not to mention turn the residents against us."
Murmurs of agreement could be heard from the crowd, much to Lina's astonishment.
"Yes, who else would be there to blame?" another sorcerer spoke. "Whatever happened to Sairaag in the past, we were always the ones held responsible for it. That's what we've been trying to tell Chairman Markus just now: we should gather whatever books and other important artifacts we can take with us, and leave the city immediately. Those morons can rot here for all I care."
"Zoamelgustar curse you all, you despicable spineless cowards!" the old chairman's head snapped up angrily, his yell piercing the tumult. "I've told you already; there is no way the city council could make a case against us if we helped them hold the mazoku off! You're all making this up because you want to stay out of harm's way!"
Several furious retorts sounded immediately, raising the chaos in the room to the same level it was before Lina's entrance.
"Really, Markus? Do you honestly think it's wrong that I don't want to risk my neck for these people‽"
"Weren't you here in the past years‽ With all the impossible regulations and paperwork they forced upon us, the council is trying to ruin us with or without the mazoku!"
"They took our art and turned it into a mere tool for housework – everything else is nigh forbidden! They leech upon us constantly and you want us to protect them‽"
Lina watched with a strange sense of detachment as the chairman's unstrung breathing quickened, red specks of fire blinking to life within his half-clenched fist. She knew it was supposed to be the other way around; normally, she should have been the one to literally grill some sense into the guild members with a few Fireballs several times over by now. But for some reason she could not get herself angry – it was like that flame inside her burnt itself out.
"Let me handle this, Mar," she put a hand on the shoulder of her former pupil. He gave a start at her touch, but then took a deep breath and stepped down from the podium with a nod, making space for the sorceress.
Lina ran her gaze through the room with a hard look, and the noise died down – the infamy she acquired in addition to her fame did come in handy at times.
"As some of you said, I haven't been around for a while, so I don't know much about what happened here – but honestly, I don't care, and neither should you," she stated calmly. "All I know is this: we are the only ones who can help. If we don't, thousands of innocent people will die. No 'but's – that's a fact."
Her words echoed in the room like it was empty; no one dared to talk back this time.
"You have two choices. If a massacre like that is fine by you, then by all means, go wherever you want. But if it isn't, then stop making excuses and give me a hand; I'm not going to let it happen if I can help it, but I can't do it all by myself. It's as simple as that." She jumped off the podium and turned her back to them. "We need to start clearing out the city right away, so you better choose quickly."
With that, Lina made her way to the exit. She could hear only precious few footsteps follow her lead.
Not much more I can do here. Some help these people turned out to be…
She reached the tall arch; the two halves of the satin curtain were already pulled to the side by a pair of students to let everyone in the stairway hear what happened inside. The crowd gathered in the forefront and the stairs listened to the previous discussion in stunned silence.
"What about you?" the sorceress addressed them curtly. "Are you planning to run off as well?"
Then she noticed something: unlike the majority of the spellcasters in the room, most of the younger ones gathered here did not show signs of fear. They looked restless – perhaps even excited.
"Magistress… we're…" she heard the receptionist say, "We're with you all the way!"
"Yeah!" someone else yelled. "We'll show these mazoku who's boss!"
"That's right! You did it before, we'll do it again! Let's bring them down!"
Before Lina could even comprehend what happened, the stairway was filled by the strengthening sound of cheer.
Well I'll be… I hope they hear that inside too, she thought, her expression relieved. Of course, these kids probably don't really know who we're dealing with – but it's just as well.
"That's the spirit!" She marched towards the stairs, the crowd splitting up to make room for her. For some reason, she suddenly felt a lot less tired than before. "Come on, we need to get to it right away! Do you keep some Illusion Gems in this place? We need at least a dozen of those…"
"Why do you need the gems, Lina-sama?" a boy looking barely over ten asked as she passed by her.
"Well, the ever-so-wise sorcerers inside said they don't want to cause panic," she winked at him, "but the way I see it, a little well-orchestrated panic can go a long way!"
Milgazia, the Supreme Elder of Aqualord's golden dragons stared blankly at the gigantic icicle sprouting from between his pair of reptilian nostrils, like a long, strangely placed horn. It looked as if Filia was about to give up on their argument, but then abruptly spun around and fired an ice spell at his head, resulting in this rather funny-looking appendage.
"Filia… what are you doing?" he stammered.
The dragoness folded her arms in front of her chest with a huff. "You know, there is a popular story I heard about a little boy whose nose always grew longer when he told a lie. I think that also fits you very well right now. Shame on you, Milgazia-sama."
The elder dragon was so hurt in his dignity that he could not even put it to words – so he tried prying the icicle off instead, but it froze so well onto his nose in the chilling cold that it would not budge without causing serious pain.
"If you really want to know," Filia continued in a somewhat lower voice, "if I could have been there when it happened, I would have rather died protecting the ancients than to let my tribe go forward with their atrocity." She opened her arms wide. "So, do you think I desire to kill my own family? That's not what I told you at all! It's just that our kind has to know that what they are doing is wrong. And if they still want to go through with it then they need to kill some of their own first, because there are those among them who will not let it happen. I would like to see just how much of a sacrifice their goal is worth for them."
Milgazia lowered his long neck towards her. "Can you possibly think they would oppose orders from the shinzoku themselves?" he muttered skeptically in a deep growl.
"We will never know if we don't make a stand and give them the chance," she stated resolutely. "Few of my tribe spoke up against the Supreme Elder's orders or decisions, not even the other elders; we followed both him and Flarelord blindly, thinking in our arrogance that we could do no wrong. This was the cause of many ills for both the Supreme Elder and us, but I never would have realized it if I had not met people who didn't take everything he said for granted. Don't you think the rest of our kind deserves the chance my people never got?" She stepped closer, and put a hand on the dragon's muscular leg, gazing up at him. "Standing on the sidelines will not solve anything, Milgazia-sama, even if all other choices look painful. Lina-san told me this once, and the more I saw, the better I understood how right she was."
The elder exhaled loudly, a wave of steam-like air escaping his mouth and nose. Its base melted by the hot current, the icicle lurched to the side and broke off his head.
"You still have much to see and learn, Filia… yet I can't help but feel ashamed by your words." He flapped his wings, ascending several feet from the mountaintop. "You are undoubtedly right about one thing: this is not my choice to make alone. As a Supreme Elder, it would be a grave wrong for me to follow the example of your predecessor." He turned around in the air, and glided towards the low-hanging clouds obscuring Dragon's Peak, the home of his people. "Our tribe will discuss this matter among ourselves," he said, turning his head back towards the priestess. "However we choose, that will be our final decision."
Moments later the majestic dragon disappeared among the clouds. Filia looked after him silently for a long while – then, once she was sure he was out of earshot, began sneezing like there was no tomorrow.
"Achooo! ACHOOO! Cold-cold-cold-cold…! Symbolic or not, I shouldn't have come here like this!" She hugged her shivery body, readying herself to transform into her rightful form as well to better cope with the weather.
Then she gave pause. "Wait, what… what did Milgazia-sama mean by the Supreme Elder being my predecessor…?"
Filia blushed so profusely that the freezing cold no longer stood a chance against her.
The citizens of Sairaag watching the storm instantly noticed something was amiss when they saw the smoke rising from the guild's highest tower amidst the subsiding rain. Such a thing never happened before; all they could think of was that it had to have been some kind of an accident. Their uneasiness grew further as they noticed even more pale gray puffs escaping through several windows and roofs – whatever occurred, they realized, must have been very serious.
Still, that tinge of distress was nothing compared to how they felt when they became aware that the smoke was not rising into the air in a natural manner. It seemed to congest into a dark mass above the building, gradually growing as big as the New Flagoon tree itself – and even more terrified they had become when the cloud began to mold into a revolting, remotely humanoid figure with long arms, eyes and teeth of brimstone and claws made of pure darkness.
By the time the horror let out a chilling yell, Sairaag was already on the brink of chaos.
"Listen well and tremble, mortals!" it exclaimed. "Your city now belongs to none other than the Supreme Being of Evil: the almighty Wyqixaould, master of…" it trailed off for a second, sounding almost embarrassed, "master of bureaucracy, paperwork and endless backlogs!" It extended its arms, long enough to reach through the entire city. "Should you nurture thoughts of resistance, know that your sorcerers have fallen! They foolishly attempted to make a stand against the Great One, but had so many forms to fill out beforehand that he crushed them with a single wave of his hand! They pitifully begged for mercy, and—" Strangely enough, it seemed as if an unseen force whacked the thing of nightmares on its head. "Ow. Anyway, if you value your lives, you better flee eastwards out of the city while you still can, as Wyqixaould's hellish army of doom is on the brink of invading your western border! Flee, or the mighty demon shall feast upon your souls! Mwahahahahaa!"
Needless to say, the residents did not need to be told twice; they grabbed what they could take with them and ran for their lives.
Meanwhile, hidden behind the obscuring smoke, several people stood on the roof of the guild headquarters' largest wing, along with a much smaller version of the terrible demon itself.
"Not bad, Mr. W," Lina addressed the grey mazoku. "I take back what I said about you earlier, you're much better than a circus clown… maybe you'd even make a fine boogieman." The demon did not seem to appreciate the praise for some reason. "All right, tell the people that they should take all the food and water they can carry with them, because you, uh, can't stand the smell of food or whatever, and then we can call an end to your big scene."
Wyqixaould looked at her with an uncharacteristically beseeching gaze.
"Can't the Great One really feast upon their souls first…? At least a little?"
The sorceress frowned. "We made a deal, remember? You can terrorize the townsfolk with your corny speeches, nothing less and nothing more! Once you're done with that, you better get back into the book if you know what's good for you!"
The mazoku's glowing hole of a mouth twisted into a pout. "The great Wyqixaould knows they are not worth feasting upon, anyway," it grumbled.
"Mar, the students can keep the boogieman's oversized illusion in the air after the real one exits the stage, right?" Lina turned to the aged sorcerer standing with her on the roof. "We need to make sure no one gets any second thoughts about leaving."
"Yes, Magistress." The chairman inclined his head readily, gesturing towards the high tower. A couple of young mages floated next to it, and also at several other points around the top of the building, holding large, yellow sapphires in their hands, where the 'smoke' actually originated from. "With the Illusion Gems they can keep the figment active for at least an hour, even if they can no longer copy the sounds or movements of the original."
"Good, I'm counting on you guys." The sorceress gave him a thumbs-up. "By that time, we should have one empty city on our hands, and after that—"
She interrupted her sentence, gazing towards the western forest line. A swarm of birds soared to the sky from the trees everywhere, visibly frightened by something. Lina muttered a curse.
The mazoku are on the move... And even if we can't see them, the dragons are probably not far behind either!
"Is something the matter, Magistress?" the chairman asked hesitantly, not noticing what she saw.
Refusing to answer, the sorceress looked over the guild structure again with a torn expression.
We have a dozen relatively powerful mages from the council who were willing to help, not counting Mar, and around fifty students with very little experience. She clenched her eyes shut. No, that's not enough, far from it! If I ask them to hold off the attackers while the locals escape… I will be sending all of them to their deaths, no doubt.
Her eyes fluttered open with determination. That's not going to happen.
"It's nothing," she lied through her teeth, turning away. "I need to go check something. Once it looks like the city's clear, get the kids out of here as quickly as possible, okay?"
Before the old sorcerer could reply, Lina muttered a short incantation and disappeared in a flash of gold.
Most mortals possessed a deep-seated, natural fear of darkness. They could try to fight it, to ignore it, but the feeling was still there, the dread of the unseen and unheard lurking beyond the limits of their perception, their imagination filling this impenetrable realm with legions of fictional – and at times, real – monsters and forces. It was no coincidence that the Lighting spell belonged to the most ancient and widespread forms of magic: even the sorcerers, who delved in the arcane and the supernatural, many even acquiring sight beyond sight, could not escape the urge to bring light to their places of mystery. Aside from the issues of practicality, their work simply would have been too frightening otherwise.
As such, it was no surprise that the mazoku, who generally enjoyed instilling fear into the living, cherished the darkness and actively cultivated its ancient, primal legend – but even among the creatures of chaos, few beings were as fond of the lightless void as Greater Beast Zellas Metallium.
The heart of Wolf Pack Island never saw the light of the day. Amidst the foggy, barren terrain, a mile-wide pitch black dome sealed off a volume of space, distorting it by the whim of its ruler in such a way that the lack of sight extended both to the physical plane and to the demons' natural habitat of the astral side. Virtually no being, human, dragon or mazoku, could make its way out after entering, unless the mazoku lord wished it so; they could wander inside for an eternity, or, more likely, quickly fall prey to the many dangers waiting for them within the darkness. Indeed, the dome itself was part of the Beastmaster's being, its contents malleable by the mere thought of its creator – and as these thoughts flew by, so did the mazoku lord's realm change minute after minute.
At that moment, Zellas' thoughts centered on quiet, patient contemplation. Somewhere within the darkness, a silver-haired woman, her features both old and young, sat on a simple but gracefully curved lounge chair dressed in paper-thin layers of bluish white silk, and silently, leisurely smoked from an overly long, thin obsidian pipe. There was no light to illuminate her form, but as she willed it to be so, she was somehow still very much visible. It would not be right to say that the female figure was the Greater Beast, at least not more than anything around her; the human-like body was a mere matter of convenience, allowing her to do things she would not have been able to otherwise. Apparently, smoking must have been one of those.
The bit of the pipe moved towards her mouth, but never reached it; Zellas unhurriedly lowered her hand, her unblinking gaze gliding towards the spot nine feet ahead of her. Several seconds passed with the faint trace of smoke rising from the pipe chamber being the only source of movement all around, before the air trembled around the place occupying her attention, and Xelloss materialized from nowhere, down to one knee with his cloak – whole once more – touching the floor. He bowed his head towards her.
"I have returned, Juu-ou-sama," the priest said in a gentle, respectful voice. Zellas leaned slightly forward in her chair in an expression of puzzlement. Her servant's appearance was not what she was accustomed to; something was unusual about his posture, or perhaps something was missing…
"What happened to your staff?" she asked quizzically, her tone deep and distant, but still personable.
Xelloss raised his head slightly. "It… fell into a pool of lava, Mistress." His words sounded as if they would explain everything – which they did not.
"I… see." The mazoku lord raised an eyebrow at his answer, but did not push the matter any further. "Still, I trust the problem with Lina Inverse has been dealt with in a satisfactory manner?"
The priest did not reply immediately. Once the silence between them had obviously been stretched too long, he spoke with audible reluctance: "I'm afraid not, Zellas-sama. She is still very much alive."
The Beastmaster's eyebrow rose even higher. She reached to the side, resting her pipe on some unseen piece of furniture; it disappeared into the darkness the moment she let go.
"Explain." The word left her mouth in a neutral tone, but it still held the firmness of an order.
"I will attempt to." Xelloss nodded obediently, his open eyes cast down. "As for the battle itself, while Lina-san did manage to put up commendable resistance, I still would have gained the upper hand eventually, of that I am sure. However… in the end that proved to be of little significance."
He paused unwittingly, like the words he was about to say were shaming him. "It would appear, Mistress, that my… obsession of overcoming this human sorceress has, most disturbingly, reached the point where I would rather risk defying direct orders than let it go unfulfilled. Lina-san presented me with a situation which made real fulfillment impossible… and I lost all will to fight. I am, too, greatly appalled by this development. I have no excuse."
Zellas' fingers, which were drumming on the side of her chair while she heard her servant out, now tightened around the arm rest. "I see. So that is what happened," she said once more, this time her voice colder by several orders of magnitude. Her face was an expressionless mask, unreadable even to her closest subordinate. "Is there anything else you wish to say?"
"Y-Yes, of course, Juu-ou-sama, my apologies." His head snapping up hastily, the priest banished all traces of emotion from his voice. "I fully understand that my behavior is unprecedented, and entirely unacceptable. It is also likely that because of this unreliability, my continued existence would quickly put your goals in jeopardy."
While he was not given permission, Xelloss rose to his feet. "Therefore, I would humbly suggest that you return the portion of your power you made me from to yourself; then you will be able to create a new servant with similar abilities, if you so wish. I am sure you can salvage most of the knowledge I have gathered in the process." His gaze flicked to the side, and he smiled a meaningless, awkward smile for the first time since his appearance. "I fear I cannot offer much advice on how to prevent such an accident from happening to my replacement. I am unable to tell where I went wrong exactly… it is somewhat exasperating, to be honest."
By the time the priest glanced back, Zellas' chair was empty. It was impossible to notice her movement even by astral means: the entire place was filled with her presence, blocking out even the faintest clue.
"Xelloss, Xelloss…" An arm reached over his back, enveloping his form in a kind of a rigid embrace. The living darkness around them, previously only impenetrable, now became close to suffocating. "How long had you been my servant? For well over a thousand years, perhaps?" the mazoku lord's voice whispered into his ear.
"Yes, Mistress." Xelloss only stood there, unflinching; if he was nervous, he did not let it show. "I am beyond grateful for all the time I have been allotted in your service."
Zellas raised her other hand, and ran her fingers through his dark hair. "And even after such a long while, given all your admirable intellect," her whisper gave way to muffled laughter, "your rare moments of sheer stupidity still continue to amaze me."
She abruptly let go; a second later Xelloss' head lurched to the side as he was slapped across the back of his neck. The priest raised a hand to the reddened patch of illusory skin in utter confusion.
"You deserve worse," the Beastmaster berated him curtly as she made her way back to her chair. "I expected more from you: you should have at least tried to talk your way out of your predicament, not straight up recommend your own demise! Such lamentable behavior is unlike you, not to mention unworthy of my closest subordinate."
"Forgive me, Mistress, I… figured it wouldn't do much good in a situation like this," Xelloss muttered the words blankly.
The mazoku lord shot him an impatient glance. "Then you were wrong. I have no intention of destroying a servant who is still ten times as useful as any other, not even counting the formidable power I have also bestowed upon him. There will be repercussions of course, but your punishment will be meted out in due time; I have more important things to take care of right now."
The priest still appeared to be entirely lost. "…A-Again I must ask for your forgiveness, Juu-ou-sama, but I don't understand the logic behind your sudden display of lenience," he insisted. "I have disobeyed your direct orders. If you turn a blind eye on this, what guarantee do you have that I will not openly betray you the next time?"
"If I let you, then I will only have myself to blame." Zellas gracefully sat down, smoothing the creases in her clothing with her hand. "Let us be clear about something, my priest: while this might have been the first occasion when you did so against your better judgment, without anything to justify your actions in front of me, this is clearly not the first time you have ignored my commands one way or the other. Or what else should I call your little 'creative interpretations' of late? For example, when your mission to close and destroy the gateway between the worlds accidentally resulted in Dark Star's destruction?" She regarded her servant with a smirk. "You will stay alive, Xelloss – you better get used to that thought. And when the time comes that I really want you to follow my orders to the letter, believe me that I will know just the way to make you obey."
Followed by her underling's incredulous look, Zellas extended her hand, and retrieved a fragile glass of red wine from another invisible fixture nearby.
"So, in the end even you failed to defeat Lina Inverse, although you knew her better than any of us…" She took a small sip of her drink, her smile widening in way not unlike her priest. "Excellent. Then it seems I have no choice; it is about time that I come to humanity's aid in its hour of grave need."
Jane struggled to make her way through the mass of terrified people crowding the streets, all headed in the opposite direction. It was hard to blame them for trying to get as far away from the smoke-demon towering over the Sorcerers' Guild as they could; but when the girl saw the mazoku during her fruitless search for Nilian and Lina in the outskirts of the city, she knew that it was exactly where she needed to go. Or, if she did not, a voice in her head made sure to remind her. Many-many times.
"I'm going, okay? I am unable to advance any faster than this," Jane muttered to no one in particular as she finally glimpsed the road leading towards the guild headquarters. Most of the residents have already fled from the nearby homes, giving her some well-needed room to break into a run towards the entrance. "…I meant unable until now! Give me a break!"
As she got closer, she noticed a large group of sorcerers – powerful ones, if their elaborate robes were any indication – gathered not far from the double doors leading inside. A few of them were shouting upwards into the air, as if they wanted to call someone from above. Indeed, as the girl got within earshot, she noticed an aged mage in steel-blue clothing descend from the direction of the smoke-covered roof, scowling at the magicians below.
"You have some nerve to show your face around here, after what happened in the assembly chamber," he growled as he landed in front of them.
"Don't make this more embarrassing than it already is, chairman," a sorcerer in white replied, attempting to retain some of his pride, but his quivering voice doomed his attempt to failure. "The chamber's scrying devices showed that the mazoku have already begun to surround us. There is no longer a chance to escape for any of us, even if we wanted to. So we came to help."
The news he brought set off a very angry tirade inside Jane's head.
"Yes, I am aware that we need to stop them!" the girl whispered, sounding annoyed. "Please, just a minute!"
"The mazoku are already attacking‽" The chairman's face paled. "By Zoamelgustar, so that is why the Magistress left! She's trying to stop them by herself… curse it all, I should have known!"
"The… the Demon Slayer has disappeared‽" the white-robed mage stuttered, his panic quickly spreading to his fellows. "Then… this is it! We're all dead! Only a miracle from the gods could save us now, it is—"
"Oh, shut your mouth already‼" Surprised and more than a little insulted, the sorcerers collectively turned their heads toward the girl hiding under an upturned wagon a couple of yards away. Their surprise grew further when they noticed that she was not shouting at them, but at a puddle of rainwater in front of her. "No! For the last time, I'm not telling them that I am the Knight of Ceiphied! I told you that I'm not going to…" She trailed off, noticing all the wide-eyed gazes upon her. "Uh-oh… err… You did this on purpose, right?"
Jaze smiled sheepishly at the group of some of the world's greatest spellcasters and tried to think up a viable excuse to quench their interest.
"You wish to ally yourself with the humans, Juu-ou-sama?" Xelloss stared at his creator, more confused than ever before.
Sitting at ease in her chair, Zellas looked greatly amused by his incomprehension. "Why is that surprising? I think anything else is preferable to our current 'alliance' with the shinzoku. You warned me of the dangers of that deal yourself a little while ago."Her brows furrowed in a slightly more serious manner. "Both of us know that Dynast is using nothing more than a blatant lie to keep Dolphin and I in check. We will get to the bottom of his claims shortly, and then this farce will be over before it really begun. Besides," she shrugged, seemingly without a care in the world, "after what happened between you and that human, I do not think I need to have any fear of ending up on the losing side."
"So you were prepared for this outcome when you gave me my orders." Though he tried to hide it, the priest sounded clearly affronted.
"Oh, not at all, my dear Xelloss. I was expecting such an outcome." Her servant's ruffled pride only made the mazoku lord even livelier. "It was the test of a theory I have – and the events took place mostly the way I thought they would. In fact, I am now sure that should I have gone to confront Lina Inverse in person, I would not have fared any better either."
The Greater Beast hid her face in her palm with a snicker.
"Goodness gracious, my priest, get a hold of yourself! If any dragon could see your expression right now, your reputation would be ruined for centuries!" She took another sip of her wine, her fingers dancing around the glass surface. "I am beyond tired of all the pitiful excuses I hear even in the highest circles, that Lina Inverse only has insane luck, or that her innumerable triumphs were only because of favorable circumstances. Pointless rubbish. It is time to face the facts: anyone who opposes that human may count themselves lucky if they survive." She stopped to confirm with unabashed satisfaction that Xelloss now appeared even more scandalized than before. "How is such insanity possible, you may ask? Since she is still but a mortal, of course, there is only one explanation to this paradox: someone or something is intervening on her behalf, and makes her succeed beyond her natural limits. It may be the Golden Lord herself for some capricious reason, or perhaps Flarelord's ravings about the shard might actually have some truth in them – I don't know, and it matters little. What is important is that Lina Inverse is apparently destined, or cursed, if you so prefer, to win no matter the odds, and I do intend to take full advantage of this fact."
Zellas leaned back comfortably in her chair, looking quite pleased with herself. Her good mood proved to be short-lived, however, as her subordinate's strictly reserved voice put a frown back on her face.
"Mistress, may I speak freely?"
"You always speak freely, Xelloss." The Greater Beast rolled her eyes. "What is it?"
The priest's gaze gleamed with previously unseen intensity. "Forgive my rudeness," he bowed, his tone still respectful, while near vitriolic at the same time, "but your theory about Lina-san sounds no less of an excuse to me than all the others."
Defying all laws of nature, the temperature around Wolf Pack Island dropped several degrees in less than a second. The mazoku lord's eyes narrowed at her servant, but she made a point of finishing her wine before taking the time to reply, as if his words were not bothering her in the least.
"Unlike a certain subordinate of mine, I at least have one." She tossed the empty glass away, out of sight; there was no sound indicating that it ever hit the ground. "Be careful, Xelloss. You are of great use and value to me, and thus I am willing to overlook your recent failure – but nonetheless, this incident has brought to light a serious weakness within you." Her mouth twisted into a feral grin. "I really wouldn't want anyone to take advantage of it except me. So watch your words and deeds even more from now on."
Xelloss descended back unto one knee. "As you command, Juu-ou-sama. I will."
"Will you?" Zellas eyed her greatest creation with a look distantly resembling concern. "I do hope so, my priest, because something tells me whatever odd connection existed between you and this Lina Inverse, today's events were not the end of it." Along with her chair, the Beastmaster's form began to fade into the darkness as she lowered her voice to a troubled murmur. "I'm not Vrabazard, I do not claim to see into the future – yet I cannot help but feel that your bond will only grow much stronger still."
The small farming district at the western edge of the city was already entirely abandoned. The streets and the gardens around the diminutive houses were empty, the doors left wide open, tools and goods thrown away – even the animals felt the rising panic and escaped. Just as before, Sairaag was on its way to become the City of Ghosts for the third time in a matter of minutes.
A small whistling sound cut into the silence, and Lina appeared in the air after a yellow flash, falling head-first into a bed of irises. Coughing, she lay on her back among the flowers and waited for the wave of nauseating exhaustion to subside.
Ugh… I really shouldn't be casting experimental spells like that in such a condition, she thought as she slowly managed to climb to her feet. Thankfully, a few grains of her strength returned after a couple of moments, letting her walk out of the town in a relatively brisk pace. There was a good half mile of distance between the Miasma Forest and the last buildings of Sairaag; the open field looked boring and empty, as if nothing of interest was to happen around it anytime soon.
As she left the last couple of parcels behind her, Lina lingered by the side of the road, near a horse-sized stone pedestal. A stream of crystal clear water poured from copper pipes emerging from the middle of each of the four sides. The water was likely conjured by magic; it disappeared into thin air before it touched the ground, but was nonetheless a wonderful boon to any weary traveler who reached Sairaag after a lengthy journey. The statue of a priestess with long, straight hair and a warm smile stood on top of the pedestal, facing the forest to welcome any new arrivals entering the city.
Lina tasted the water and regarded the statue with a tinge of sadness in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Sylphiel," she muttered, "I don't think I can save your town from getting blown up again. But I will get the people to safety this time. I promise."
She turned around and continued on the road towards the forest.
That said, this might easily be one of the craziest things I have ever dared to pull.
The sorceress stopped again once she was halfway between the trees and the city. After glancing around to make sure there was not a single living being nearby, she shouted towards the Miasma Forest at the top of her lungs:
"Hey, mazoku, I know you can hear me! I'm the one you want the most, right? Well, there's no point in trying to surround the city; I'm right here! Come out, come out, wherever you are!"
For several seconds, nothing happened; Lina stood alone in the middle of the field below the storm clouds, with only the wind whispering into her ear.
In the next moment, she was surrounded.
Like a dark fog that has set in, the field was swarming with mazoku of all kinds, from the lowliest deformed lesser demons to the powerful middle-ranking ones with a human-like appearance. Only a fifteen foot wide circle around the sorceress was left empty. There had to have been no less than a thousand; each and every one of them had their eyes on Lina, scowling, growling or even smirking gleefully at her predicament, all too eager to attack her, but still holding back for some reason. She heard a noise from above: a group of more than a dozen golden dragons circled around her in the air, blocking out much of the light which got through the dark clouds. They regarded her with similar looks of suspicion; although, while she could not say for sure, some of those glances felt more reluctant than others.
"I am Vilnius, from the tribe of Airlord Valwin," one of the dragons spoke as he slowed down to hover in the air in front of her. "Demon Slayer, know that it pains us greatly to meet you at such a terrible hour. We respect your exploits in defending the world; but in this cruel twist of fate, in order to fulfill our oath and protect existence, we have no choice but to—"
"Did I allow you to talk, Vilnius-san?" A young woman stepped forward from the crowd of mazoku. Her clothes and hat looked like a strange hybrid of a crab and a fish, her hands invisible under her very long cloak adorned by what seemed to be sea shells. Her long hair was curled into two large 'buns' next to her ears – her entire appearance would have looked incredibly silly, if it were not for the unnaturally imposing aura that surrounded her. "Heh, I don't remember doing so." She grinned lightly at the dragon. "Please keep in mind that I have been entrusted with leadership over both the mazoku and you, so try not to act without my permission, okay? Thanks in advance!"
Lina kept her eyes on the woman as Vilnius withdrew to the rest of his kind with a furious, if suppressed sneer.
Huraker, Deep Sea Dolphin's priest. It seems she's the one running the show here.
"Ah, and here we have the famous Lina Inverse." The mazoku faced her with a smug look; the swirling shadows cast by the ryuzoku above danced eerily on her features as she spoke in a disturbingly sweet voice. "I really expected better, you know? Of course, that's a human for you: once she finds herself alone, with all her 'friends' either gone or turned against her, out of desperation she clings to the hope that with some foolish self-sacrifice she can at least end her life in a meaningful way." She cocked her head to the side. "Still, I must admit I feel terribly disappointed regardless; that's not the style the legendary mage is known for at all. Well, so passes the glory of the world, as the saying goes."
Bits of gloating laughter sounded from the demon ranks around the sorceress, their circle around her shrinking slightly. The voices were filled with hatred, glee and the lust to kill – all directed at Lina.
She showed no reaction to any of it at all. Sorry people. I've heard these lines from someone already, and you're not even half as good at it as he is. She took a decisive step towards Huraker. Here goes…
"You look seriously misinformed, crab-girl." Lina threw a smirk at Dolphin's priest. "I haven't come here to die. I've come to kick your nether regions to the other end of the continent – it's about time I taught my servants some proper discipline."
The demonic army fell oddly silent.
"Hahaha… did you say servants, human? Your servants?" Huraker also seemed to have taken notice of the sudden shift, but did not let it interfere with her lighthearted, cheerful demeanor. "Such a claim would warrant instant death, but since you are going to die regardless, I'll play along with the joke. What could you possibly mean by that? Has the pressure upon you driven you insane?"
The sorceress shook her head in a patronizing manner. "Miss Sea Monster, you have no more of a brain than you have fashion sense, but you ought to learn due respect at least. This is no joke. I was entirely serious." Stomping her foot angrily, she yelled at the crowd of demons. "You know of Flarelord's prophecy, don't you, worms? Then hear this: I am no longer the human named Lina Inverse‼"
A red aura of light sprang to life around her, wrapping her surroundings in a crimson glow. The dragons all withdrew higher into the air in alarm.
"Once I learned of the truth, when I realized that the entire world was out to get me, I chose to embrace the darkness within my soul, and I… no, we have now become Ruby Eye Shabranigdu, the Destroyer of All! We've returned to take back what is ours, the leadership over the mazoku race – and you'll either swear your loyalty to us, or will be among the first we'll send back into the chaotic nothingness this world had once arisen from!"
The mazoku horde fidgeted nervously as confusion reared its head within their ranks, their previous lust for battle evaporating.
"Lies!" Huraker exclaimed. She was no longer smiling. "You cannot be him! Your astral form is still that of a human… we should be able to feel Ruby Eye-sama's presence within you! I never did – and I still don't!"
"And neither did any of the mazoku Lina Inverse had met in the past century." The sorceress gave a ridiculing nod. "But didn't it ever occur to you that the Demon Lord was doing that on purpose? Since when could a pathetic amateur like you comprehend or question His plans, anyway? The prophecy is clear, isn't it?" Her ruby eyes narrowed dangerously. "Or do you dare to claim that you don't believe what Flarelord's vision says about his glorious awakening‽"
The priest of Deep Sea Dolphin staggered back, her composure broken. "No... I mean, yes! I mean… I believe that the prophecy is true, but… err…"
"Then bow before your creator, servant!" Lina commanded, the crimson aura around her doubling in size and intensity. "To your knees, all of you! Join us, and we will lead you upon a quest for destruction greater than the world could have ever imagined – or tarry a minute longer, and face the consequences!"
A wave of fear swept through the field. While most of the mazoku still looked confused about what was happening, a good number of them moved to descend to their knees.
"Stop‼ Don't be fooled by her, you disgraceful simpletons!" Huraker shrieked, losing her cool entirely. "If you move another inch, I am going to end your miserable existence with my own hands! Come to your senses‼"
"Oh, we have come to our senses, indeed. How infuriating it is that we are already too late!" Vilnius growled at her as he drew closer in the air, his nostrils flaring in anger. "I now see what your plans were, demon: your race used our truce to buy time, and the destruction of humankind to hasten Ruby Eye's resurrection compared to what the prophecy foretold! As we suspected, the gods have erred when they joined forces with you; but even in the face of certain death, we will not give up our lives without a fight!"
"W…What?" Huraker mumbled as she saw the ryuzoku assume formation behind their leader, preparing for a suicide attack against the most important target they believed they could deal real damage to: her. "No! This completely defies all logic!" the powerful mazoku managed an agonized shout as her former allies dove at her with lightning speed. "This… this cannot be happening‼"
A painful scream stopped the dragons dead in their tracks.
Her aura gone, Lina staggered to remain on her feet, her hands clutching the deep cut inflicted to her right side which was already bleeding heavily.
Aaah… what… who was this‽ The sorceress' eyes, tearing up from the overwhelming pain, darted frantically around the crowd. Realizing the truth, Huraker, along with the dragons and demons under her command now regarded her with a look of murderous hatred – but otherwise they seemed to be just as surprised by the sudden event as she was.
"The entire army was fooled by a few ridiculous claims and a modified Lighting spell? Don't you feel ashamed?" A teen-aged-looking girl wandered into her sphere of vision, holding a dark, bloodied rapier in her hand. "I'm glad Dynast-sama allowed me to come back here," she said, turning around to face her. "Lina Inverse, you may have managed to mislead the others by hiding your emotions from us… but you cannot hide your thoughts from me. Your trick has failed."
She could read… my thoughts…‽
Lina gazed at the girl's familiar features, clothing and braided hair – and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place in her mind.
"Sherra… don't tell me you found your name?" She forced the words out between painful, ragged gasps for breath. "If I knew it was you… I'd have told you to give up on it… The 'Nameless One' at least had some mystery to it, you know."
The general scowled. "You can insult me all you want, but it's all over," she asserted coldly. "Thanks to your memories, I've learned that Sairaag has no magical defenses whatsoever, so we will simply run down the city right away. All the humans within will die – not only have you accomplished nothing, you've only made things worse."
Her hand rose, and the sorceress could feel the cold, sharp edge of the blade touching her neck.
I can't… move… DAMN‼
Her blurring vision showed the general's mouth twisting into a jubilant smile. "I've finally had my revenge. You are finished, Lina Inverse."
The rapier moved back from her neck to strike…
"I beg to differ."
A six-foot tall cone of darkness struck the ground between Sherra and her, shoving the mazoku general away. Several nearby demons shuddered as the dark mass twisted and turned in the air, quickly assuming a human-like shape Lina knew all too well.
"Xelloss…" she whispered. "But how…?"
His cloak, bag and clothing were entirely the same – but his staff, which he held horizontally in both hands, looked vastly different. It appeared to be made from a long, entirely straight branch of black wood, carefully polished to give a much more refined impression than before. The red gem at the top remained, but was now held in an elaborately styled brass casing.
"My, if it isn't Sherra-san! What an unexpected surprise to see you again." Xelloss beamed at the general. "Unfortunately, I must inform you that I would only allow a few select people to end Lina-san's life, and you are certainly not one of them. Rest assured that I can sympathize with your frustration."
Looking desperate to catch up with recent events, Huraker hurried closer to stand next to Sherra. "What is the meaning of this‽" She looked from the priest to the general questioningly.
"He has betrayed us," Sherra stated in a dark voice, which did little to ease the confusion.
"Now-now, there is no need to use such drastic words," Xelloss wiggled his finger in front of them. "I am merely following orders, as we all are. They only happen to be in conflict at this time."
That was just about what Dolphin's priest could take for the day. "That's enough!" she snapped. "I don't know what Sherra is doing here alive and I don't know what you are up to, Xelloss, but I've been given precise instructions to kill Lina Inverse and destroy this town. Stop interfering!"
"And what if I don't…?" The other priest raised an impertinent eyebrow. "Would you mind explaining the alternative, Huraker-san? I would love to hear it, especially since if memory serves I am more powerful than the two of you combined, am I not?"
"While you have to protect that critically injured human alone?" Sherra spat, her grip tightening on her sword. "I don't think so."
Lina wanted to scream the mazoku general's head off for treating her like nothing more than a distraction, but her buckling knees sapped all her remaining strength. She had to admit that the demon was right: unable to even talk anymore, she was reduced to a mere spectator to the events around her – there were few things in the world the sorceress despised more than this.
There was, however, someone else there to respond in her stead.
"They are not alone."
Lina forced her head back, and found another familiar figure clothed entirely in white standing behind her.
Milgazia...? Or am I seeing things now?
The sight was very much real; while the elder dragon spoke, dozens of similarly dressed men and women appeared around them, forcing the horde of mazoku to recoil. The sorceress felt a hand touching her side.
"Let go of your wound, Lina-san, I will heal you in a bit." Filia knelt next to her, carefully prying her arms off the injury, before bathing it in a pristine white glow.
"I have heard admirable things about you, Vilnius." Ignoring the mazoku, Milgazia focused his attention on the group of golden dragons. "They say you may very well become the new elder of your tribe in a few hundred years; considering this, it is sad to see you in such questionable company. All of you should know better than this."
"It is not a company of our choosing," the other dragon growled. "What about you, Supreme Elder? Have you decided to betray your duty and go against the orders of the gods who you should serve?"
"I have decided nothing, and we have betrayed nothing," Milgazia stated resolutely. "On the contrary, we have realized that despite our beliefs of independence, we still have the obligation to carry the cause of our late mistress, Aqualord Ragradia. She always regarded the humans fondly, and the crime you wish to carry out would have never met her blessing, regardless of what the other shinzoku may say. We mean you no harm – but we will protect the humans in Aqualord's name, if you force us to."
"Even if that goal also involves joining a mazoku?" Vilnius snorted, his head pointing towards Xelloss.
The dragon elder threw a sidelong glance at the priest. "That… is nothing but an unfortunate coincidence," he spoke in a deadpan voice.
Xelloss merely grinned. "How truly unkind."
"Both you and Lina Inverse underestimate me, dragon," Huraker cut into the exchange. "I've ordered most of my underlings here, that is true, but a smaller number of them are already attacking your precious humans from the sides. The only thing your heroic meddling will accomplish is getting you killed; both the city and you are sur—"
"You're surrounded‼ Give up while you are still able, mazoku!" Lina heard Jane's voice from the direction of the town.
Dolphin's priest tore her hat off her head, flung it to the ground, and proceeded to trample on it repeatedly. "I'm fed up with these sudden appearances‼ Why can't I finish a single sentence‽"
The claim was nonetheless true: from behind the forest trees and Sairaag's last buildings numerous sorcerers stormed out, assuming a circle around the mazoku. Jane stood next to Sylphiel's statue on the stone pedestal by the road, and directed the movements of the spellcasters from there.
"That's it, gather around them quickly! We already vanquished those sneaky ones trying to enter the city, these out here will be child's play! Come on, hurry up!"
"Yes, Jane-sama!" a sorcerer shouted as he ran past her.
Lina's eyebrow twitched. Jane-sama‽
"Did you hear that? They do everything I tell them!" the girl whispered to herself, her voice trembling with excitement – only to deflate rather spectacularly a moment later. "Yeah, it's only because they think I'm the Knight of Ceiphied… That wasn't my idea, you know…"
While more than a little angry, Huraker did not look particularly frightened by the sorcerers. At her signal, the mazoku stood their ground, not letting themselves be pushed any further either by the humans from the outside, or the ryuzoku from the inside.
"Listen to me, Sherra, it's time to end this accursed joke," she spoke without looking at the general, her furious eyes kept on Xelloss instead. "My army will take care of these human pests. Vilnius and his dragons will deal with their own, while you and I will keep Xelloss at bay until we can find an opening to kill Lina Inverse. Understood?"
There was no need to wait for an answer. Bloodlust and surging arcane energies blanketed the field, foretelling a terrible, bloody clash of the opposing sides at a moment's notice. Threatening roars sounded from the mazoku horde as Milgazia's dragons formed a circle around Lina to protect her; fragments of energy from the entire color spectrum appeared in the sorcerers' hands, ready to be unleashed. The atmosphere was tense beyond belief; the smallest movement, the tiniest spark was all that was needed to ignite it.
A deep, laid-back voice cut through it all. "That's a great plan, Huraker dear. But who is going to deal with me?"
"What are you talking about‽" Dolphin's priest snapped her head back. "And who are you calling 'dear', you idiot— uh, you i… i… Z… Z-Zellas-sama!"
The Greater Beast stood between the completely terrified general and priest, her arms resting on their shoulders like she was there with them from the beginning. Her long silver hair and silky clothing was ruffled gently by the wind, carrying the faint smoke that oozed from the pipe in her hand.
"That's right," she purred, her grin showing unnaturally white teeth. "Here is a free piece of advice, my dears: I know you are all itching for a fight, but I think you should really retreat right now. I would hate to slaughter fellow mazoku needlessly – it's such a waste of resources."
"But… Did y-you…‽"
"Yes, I did." The mazoku lord leaned closer to the trembling Huraker's face. "And you can tell Dolphin that once she gets tired of dancing to Dynast's little tune, she is free to follow my example. You, on the other hand," she turned coldly to Sherra, "will let your master know that he should reconsider his plans, because his lies will not protect him for long."
Her gaze swept through the mazoku army, petrified entirely by fear. "Have I made myself clear? Good, then be gone from here, all of you," a pulse of darkness emanated from Zellas' smiling form, "before I get cranky."
What followed was the biggest, fastest mass-retreat to the Astral Plane Lina had ever seen. Perhaps a better phrase to describe it would be that the mazoku were crazily running for their lives – not even Xelloss was able to frighten them so much before. Vilnius' dragons lingered for a few more seconds, their leader eyeing Milgazia with an unreadable expression, but then they also disappeared in a flash of light.
The sorceress could hardly believe it: the swarm of demons and ryuzoku departed as abruptly as it appeared – but left another sizable group of humans, dragons and mazoku on the opposing side. She forcibly shook her head a few times; although the mind-wrenching pain was no more, she still fought to drive a certain feeling of dizziness away.
Filia touched her shoulder with a look of concern. "Are you all right, Lina-san?"
"I'm… fine, thanks," she murmured, smiling at the priestess. "I'm just tired, and… well, this was not something you see every day."
"This was only the beginning," Milgazia commented in his usual tone, making it impossible to determine whether he was gravely serious, cheerful, listless or all of those at once. "There are great difficulties ahead of us. I cannot promise you much, except for one thing: your kind will not have to face them alone."
Even in her best shape, the sorceress was not the one to give elaborate speeches – so she merely faced the assembled ryuzoku with a grateful look. "Thank you all. We really owe you one."
"Don't thank us." The elder dragon smiled wryly. "Thank the leader and sole representative of the servants of Flarelord Vrabazard. Without her, we would not be here right now."
Leader and sole… err, what?
"Milgazia-sama, could we just drop the subject?" Filia nervously fiddled with her cloak. "I am not even part of the order any longer, you know…"
"Hey, what about us?" Jane pushed through the crowd of dragons with a wide grin, followed by the aged but similarly lively Markus Zoana Auth Navratilova. "Did you see what we accomplished, Miss Lina?"
The sorceress waved to them tiredly. "Yeah, you guys were awesome too. Sorry for disappearing on you like that, Mar… and thanks for showing up in the end."
"Magistress, you will not believe our luck," the chairman explained eagerly. "This girl, the one who led us against the mazoku, is none other than the—"
"Sssh!" Jane's hiss sounded desperate, leaving the old mage perplexed.
"But… why couldn't we—"
In any other occasion, Lina would have stopped at nothing to force the truth out of them, but the odd exchange barely reached her ears; not only due to her exhaustion, but also because all her remaining attention became focused on a sensation which sent a chill down her spine: the edge of a cloak, made from an unmistakable, unnaturally light fabric brushed against the back of her arm.
"My, what an odd day indeed. I'm sure you agree that our gathering here feels really awkward, to say the least." Xelloss joined the conversation from behind the sorceress, much to the dismay of the dragons around them. "I certainly didn't think that we would meet again, but since this is nonetheless the case, I suggest we put our differences aside and try to make the most of it. I'm happy to report that my Mistress has decided to offer you her full support in this matter." While it sounded like he was addressing all present, Lina felt that his words were meant for her more than anyone else. "Perhaps not all went the way it should have today… but in the end, all's well that ends well, right?"
The sorceress said nothing. Her head lowered, she stared at the ground for long moments, her body stiff with surging emotion – then she spared no more than a single, withering look at the priest, turned around and headed for the city.
"Lina-san…?" Xelloss' voice called after her. She did not even slow down.
"Come on, people, we still need to make sure that Sairaag is cleared out before nightfall. If these two mazoku want something from us," she added with apparent disgust, "they will have to wait for it until tomorrow."
The humans and ryuzoku followed her lead hesitantly, eager to leave the demons behind, but understandably nervous about simply showing their backs to them and walking off.
"Are you certain it's wise to embarrass them like this?" Milgazia whispered with concern, leaning closer to her as he caught up. "Lina, these are far from ordinary mazoku. That one next to Xelloss who drove Huraker away is—"
"I know who she is," the sorceress interrupted in a stern voice. "But if she came here, she must need us badly enough to bear to wait for a while. If you want to chat with them, be my guest, but as for me," the old dragon saw her clenched fists tremble, "I'm done with their kind for today."
No more complaints were voiced, and master and servant soon found themselves alone in the middle of the large field.
Zellas watched the departing group with an expression of puzzlement bordering on contempt, chewing on the end of her pipe in annoyance. As her displeasure grew, so did the miniscule shadows cast by the surrounding weeds and wildflowers: they stretched frighteningly long and wide, wrapping the entire area in darkness.
"Charming, isn't she?" she muttered sarcastically, checking the nails on her free hand with a frown. "And here I was, thinking that after saving her beloved Sairaag, Lina Inverse might be willing to display at least an ounce of gratitude. What has gotten into that human?"
Xelloss smiled nervously, although the smile seemed to be more of a notion towards courtesy than anything else. "She clearly holds something of a grudge against us, Mistress. After what happened, I can't say that it surprises me." He gestured towards the forest, where the column of smoke could still be seen rising from the direction of the Black Dragon Inn. "Especially since now she has every reason to believe that our previous fight to the nigh end was nothing but a ruse to gauge her abilities, to see whether she is worthy of your support – which, all things considered, is pretty much the truth." He shrugged simply, like the topic was of no concern to him. "I recommend looking at the bright side: your suspicion proved to be false. Lina-san and I will not be on civil terms with each other for a long while – perhaps indefinitely. That's a good thing, is it not, Juu-ou-sama?"
The mazoku lord did not give an immediate answer, and the priest did not wait for her come up with one; he gave his own opinion on the matter by disappearing without another word.
Her servant's unusual irreverence did not escape Zellas' notice; letting her hands fall to the side, the Greater Beast drew an exasperated breath. "Humans," she drawled. "They can be so unreasonable at times... And what is even worse, they are not alone."
The Beastmaster took one final glance at Sairaag, before her form melded into the overreaching shadows. None remained but the howling wind: it blew ever stronger, gradually reclaiming the City of Ghosts from the living as its sole possession.
The central character in the legend of the Cliff of Remembrance, the knight Arteus, was widely regarded as a tragic figure. With his beloved gone, he roamed the land seeking his own demise, but could not find it until he completed the long, grueling quest the gods have set forth for him – and even then, peace would only come to him in death.
Only few were aware of the fact that the legend also had another, vastly different ending.
"Uh… I sure hope they did not plan on coming back," Lina scratched her cheek nervously, her back propped against a blackened brick wall.
"You mean the villagers?" Xelloss asked, sitting next to her with newly restored arm and legs, his staff thrown to the ground in front of him. "I don't think so. The settlement was abandoned after a long period of famine two decades ago; no one comes near it these days, except those en route to the mountain."
The sorceress regarded the ruins of Morfir around them; thanks to the priest's flames and her barrage of magic, there no longer remained much to look at. "Well, that's a relief. I don't know how many towns' destruction is blamed on me already, but I don't like the idea that another had to be added to the list just to make me come to myself."
"That's surprisingly responsible of you," the priest remarked good-naturedly.
"Yeah, can you believe it?" She managed a small smile for the first time in a long while. "Maybe I'm really getting old, after all."
Lina leaned her head back to gaze at the clear sky. As if she awoke from a long, unpleasant dream, she felt she could perceive the world around her with so much more clarity, noticing many small but pleasant things she never paid any attention to in the past years: the comfortably warm breeze against her skin, the fresh smell of the surrounding forest, the noises of the wild all around her. Everything felt new and beautiful; part of her wished that a serene moment like this would last forever.
"So, what are your plans for the future, Lina-san?"
Her smile still in place, the sorceress slapped her forehead with a groan. It was so typical of him, she thought; leave it to one of the top agents of chaos not to let any single moment go unchanged for long.
"Nothing much." She shrugged. "I think I'll just keep traveling like before – except now I will pay attention to where I'm actually going, if you know what I mean. It's nothing too complicated, but I'd be shocked if something does not come up eventually."
Xelloss nodded cheerfully. "A sound plan, no doubt." He followed Lina's glance towards the heavens to take a small pause before continuing, "Would you mind some company?"
She did not fully understand at first. "You always come and go as you please, whether I like it or not. What's the point in asking for my permission?"
"Let me put it this way: I would come, but I would not go for a while," the priest explained in a casual tone. "I don't have any urgent tasks to perform right now, and following you around always proved to be an entertaining pastime… And since both of us have little in the way of companionship at the moment, the whole keeping-our-distance approach would feel incredibly silly, no?"
"More like creepy, I'd say," the sorceress replied, if only half-seriously. "If you plan on shadowing me either way, I would rather know where you are watching me from. You're in."
"Excellent!" Xelloss beamed, punching a fist into the air in celebration. "Don't you think we should come up with our very own team song? I was thinking of something lighthearted with only the faintest sense of doom, topped by some hodgepodge lyrics such as 'let's continue walking under the same sun, shalalala—"
"Don't make me hit you." Lina grumbled, looking very disturbed for some reason. Once she made sure that the priest would not break out into a song right then and there, her eyes fell towards the horizon hidden behind the ruins and the trees. "What the heck, is it dawning already? Everything was so dark a minute ago."
Xelloss surveyed the faint flush of pink coloring the sky above the forest line. "Ah yes," he said in a lower voice. "As humans like to say: the darkest hour is just before dawn."
The sorceress fell silent; his words, intentionally or not, struck a chord within her.
"The darkest hour, huh?" she whispered. "That wouldn't be bad. Not bad at all."
The chirp of a bird could be heard from afar, also welcoming the approach of the new day.
Lina pulled her legs underneath her and swiftly rose to her feet. By the time she straightened, something changed about her: she held herself proudly, her form was filled with restless energy while her eyes took on a shrewd glint. Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, the legendary sorceress had finally returned.
"Okay, enough of sitting around. Let's be on our way, companion of mine!" With a wink, she pointed a finger at the priest. "First rule of traveling with Lina Inverse: you always go where she tells you to!"
"Really? And what place would that be?" Xelloss looked at her from the ground, surprised by her sudden shift in mood.
"What else? Straight ahead!" she asserted, grabbing the mazoku by his sleeve and yanking him to his feet. "By the time the Sun appears above the hills, I want to be out of this forest, looking it in the eye!" She broke into a run through the demolished village. "Let's go! You better not fall behind!"
Only few were aware of the fact that the legend of the Cliff of Remembrance also had another, vastly different ending: a variant where Arteus was made to realize that although his own world had seemingly ended, the world around him did not. To attain peace, he needed nothing else but to find something new in the vast remaining universe to care for.
And if this version of the legend could be trusted, the hero still walks the Earth to this day.
To be continued…
In case you were wondering, Priest Huraker, along with her general counterpart Riksfalto, appeared in the Slayers manga called "The Knight of Aqualord". They were also promptly killed off, being the main villains there, but since the manga cannot be inserted into the anime timeline, Lina in this fic knows them from a different adventure that took place sometime in the last hundred years.
Sherra, one of Dynast's generals, is a character from the novels; what we were shown as memories of the Nameless One in the previous part were events from the second story arc. The more detailed one where Lina drives her away by making fun of her name is from the 9th novel, which is available as a fan translation on the net. Although the fic takes place in the anime timeline, I am assuming that most events from the second novel arc did happen there at some point.
I must thank Kiadi once more for her awesome beta reading, and, of course, thank you for reading this much belated fifth chapter! May we meet again next time!