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1

The night fell with a rain. It was not uncommon for it to rain in the spring, but there was something unusual about the weather that particular night. It was not like the typical, mellow showers that watered the rooftop gardens, made the cobblestones brightly glitter, nourished the fields, and left pedestrians on the way home refreshed. It was a bleak, cold, uncaring rain, which clung to clothes, sucked the warmth out of the body, and made one feel naked, apathetic, hated, and lost. It was the rain of a godless world, the world outside, from which the presence of the Divines had long shielded Bhastifal.

The knights restlessly patrolling the walls of Selenoreion eyed the city below them with doubt and dread, as if their homes and neighbors had suddenly become foreign to them. They were all anxiously waiting for the attack by the unknown enemy, without knowing whence it should come or even what form it would take. How could they, as ordinary humans, hope to stand against the malice that had in short order stolen their finest warriors?

What was going to happen to their beloved city?

What was going to become of the Empire?

Right now, did that Empire truly even exist anymore?

What was a “country”, anyway?

Thinking about it, there was no magical power that could have covered all the land, wordlessly binding everyone and everything in it together, dyeing it with uniform colors. Was their land not, in truth, only towns and cities inhabited by disconnected strangers, with great expanses of nothingness in between, their only common denominator being the will of the one who had named them as his “people” and exerted military power over them?

Deep within the Imperial Palace, that connecting factor, the ruler of Tratovia, remained shut inside the Throne Room, fearing the approaching blade of an assassin, unwilling to show himself to his fearful subjects even at the hour of their collective despair.

 

And deep within that very same Palace, in the great library of the south-western keep, a young, bespectacled man slammed his palm on the long table before him.

The time has come!” he told the woman standing up ahead. “The guards of the inner palace change shifts at midnight. That’s our cue. Make your way to the Azure Hall using the upper passageway and defeat the man they call Heaven’s Hand. After that...it’s a one-way road to the Throne Room. Here’s the master key. Make good use of it.”

Benjamin tossed the key to Izumi, who caught it with a casual move, as if merely heading out for another day in the office.

I guess it’s come time to say goodbye,” the man told her with a faint smile. “By tomorrow morning, you’ll be far from this city, loaded with gold. Best of luck to you, Izumi. It was an honor to meet you. I didn’t think real heroes existed, but you’ve changed my mind.”

What about you?” Izumi asked him. “It’s going to be chaos out there soon. Not coming with?”

Me? Become an adventurer?” Benjamin laughed. “I wouldn’t make it through one day out there in the wilderness! I’m an indoors type through and through, didn’t I tell you that? No, I’m afraid I shall remain here, depending on Lady Carmelia’s whims. It should be all right. I don’t know the specifics of what she has planned for after the Emperor is dead, but no one has any reason to care about a nobody like me. Being absolutely non-threatening is one of my few strong points. Besides—”

“—Your good looks, huh?”

...That, above all,” the man added with a charming smile. “Well, can’t say I have no regrets whatsoever. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a hero in another world? Fight evil, sword in hand, with songs written about you...So many things left to discover out there. But, these hands of mine simply weren’t made for fending off wild beasts, as you can see. So you’re going to have to do the discovering in my stead.”

Regular guys being heroes is pretty popular these days, though,” Izumi told him.

Really? Maybe I still have a shot then? Oh well. Maybe in another life. At any rate, I have a funny feeling we’ll be seeing each other again. So stay safe until we do. Hopefully, I’ll have a story of my own to tell you when that time comes.”

Ah, stay safe,” Izumi replied. “I’m off then.”

Happy hunting.”

Without further ado, Izumi turned to leave, clutching the keys.

Towards a new future, for better or worse.

Towards death.

Towards life.

Towards destiny.

 

2

The upper passageway was empty. New guard patrols would gradually replace the previous ones, momentarily clearing the way. Or so it had been explained. In any event, there were no enemies currently in view, as if a zombie apocalypse had hit the capital. Izumi ran low along the open-air hallway on the side of the palace wall, towards the main building, sticking to the shadows, keeping her senses sharp. Cold wind blew against her face, soothing her heated nerves.

Beyond the railing spread the city, veiled in the darkness of the night, the heavy rain obscuring visibility. It worked to Izumi’s advantage. In such weather, no archer would be sniping at her from the nearby towers or terraces.

Following a few sharp turns in the heights, and a handful of quick flights of white marble stairs, Izumi reached the doorway leading into the main building. Mostly used by servants, it was a simple, inconspicuous, copper-plated door, turned green by oxidization, securely locked at all times. With the key the secret order had procured for her, Izumi opened the door without effort, and slipped inside.

The doorway brought her to the second floor walkway in the Azure Hall, named after the beautiful blue patterns which adorned the ceiling, and countless little tiles of jade-like gemstone. Izumi had already passed through this hall once before with Yuliana, on the day of their arrival. The path to the Throne Room from here was familiar to her, just through the connecting hall, on the other side of the large gate in the north end.

There were no shiny knights in their ceremonial gear to be seen.

The silence of the hall was uninterrupted.

And yet—the way ahead was blocked.

As she had been warned it would be. Izumi knew to expect it. Nevertheless, seeing that man once again made her heart automatically quicken its beat.

Before the great doorway stood a single, imposing warrior.

Today, he hadn’t painted his body, showing his heavily tanned features, his determined eyes, his long, thick, dark brown hair, tied tightly back to keep his vision clear.

Instead of a heavy armor, that brawny man wore a brown vest, and a leather kilt. Like Izumi, it seemed he favored mobility over defense. In both his hands were swords, one with a curved, sickle-like blade, in the fashion of the Egyptian khopesh; another one straight and short, similar to a Roman spatha. Both quick and deadly weapons in skilled hands, difficult if not downright impossible to receive with a greatsword, their shorter reach notwithstanding.

There was no way to catch him by surprise either. No place to hide in the straightforward hall. No traps or tricks. She could only meet him head-on.

Steadying her breathing, Izumi descended the nearby stairs and faced her nemesis.

Without a word, they stared at each other across the hall.

Once before, Izumi had fought that man to a bitter draw. No, a defeat. Although, for the man himself, the loss of the invaluable weapon, despite his overwhelming advantage, was likely no less bitter. They certainly had a score to settle.

Tonight, in this place, that settlement would be sought out, for once and for all.

Izumi drew breath.

This was it.

The confrontation that would be remembered in legends long after.

The summoned champion from lonely planet Earth, Itaka Izumi…

And across the hall, the strongest warrior in Tratovia’s infamous Guild of Heroes, the man known as ‘Heaven’s Hand’, a hand that takes lives the way a farmer’s scythe mows down hay, unrivaled and irresistible, Waramoti, from the land of Oss...

Two people representing the highest order of skill attainable by mortal humans, one man in the Empire’s defense, one woman against it.

Surely only one would walk away from their second meeting, if either.

Throwing away all unnecessary thoughts, feeling the thrill and tension that only those in a genuine life-or-death situation could experience, Izumi drew her sword, kicked off the floor and dashed forward.

Gefir, Sifl, Gram, Tauhirn...Carmelia had warned Izumi to never activate more than four runes at once. She cast five all the same, disregarding the risks. Magically augmenting her abilities beyond their human capacity, she was prepared to give her absolute everything in this fight.

Because this was an opponent who demanded no less.

Even stripped of the divine blessings, Waramoti was still a seasoned fighter who outclassed Izumi in every aspect of combat, in strength, stamina, durability, mobility, and, most importantly, field experience. Underestimating him would come at a deadly cost. Going easy on their enemy was what all Izumi’s foes had died for, it would have been nothing but the world record of irony for her to be undone for the same reason.

Too much was at stake to not take him down with absolutely everything she had.

This fight could be decided in a single move. And if she didn’t claim his head with that one move, it would surely become her end instead.

She would lose everything.

Carmelia would lose everything.

And Yuliana—

 

You’re already dead!” Izumi cried and raised her weapon. “As Kenshiro says!”

As if to mirror her, Waramoti charged, swords in both hands, his countenance one that would traumatize children. Without wavering, without blinking, his dark eyes were fixed at his opponent, no doubt searching for some critical weakness to exploit, to deliver the deathblow.

And then, as the combatants neared, that proud warrior raised both his muscular arms. With a determined face, he swiftly cast both his weapons away to his sides, dropped sliding down to his knees, and shouted in his thundering voice,

 

——“I SURRENDER!”

 

...Huh?” Izumi stopped, the kneeling warrior before her.

Had she misheard him? Did some synapse in her brain misfire, causing her to hear things? Surely he had yelled, “I will kill you!” instead? That would have made a great deal more sense. No, there he was, kneeling in front of her, unarmed hands pressed firmly against the red carpet, indicating nothing but full and total submission.

Whoa, that’s sly!” Izumi gasped, appalled. To think that a warrior of his level would resort to such dirty tricks to make her drop her guard! “Well, whatever you’re planning, it doesn’t matter.”

Izumi gripped her sword tighter, ready to cut off his head.

No! Stop!” Waramoti quickly gestured for her to wait. “I mean it! There is no trick! I surrender!”

What?”

I cannot best you, nor do I have any reason to even try. I don’t want to die! You can proceed from here and I will do nothing to hinder you or get in your way.”

...You think I’m going to believe that?” Izumi retorted, lifting her sword again. “Try again!”

I swear it,” he insisted. “On my honor, I speak the truth and nothing but the truth. I am not your enemy. Never was! There is not a single reason for us to fight.”

No matter how she stared at him, Izumi could discern no wickedness, falsehood, or mischief in his stern, straightforward gaze. The man appeared to be telling the truth. His weapons were too far away for him to suddenly seize them and lash back at her. One could argue that his body itself was a weapon of lethal effectiveness, but Izumi, third dan in Brazilian Jujutsu, with Tauhirn and Gram active, wouldn’t be overwhelmed so easily.

Well, I’d better lop off your head anyway, just to on the safe side,” she said and raised her sword once more.

I AM A BARD!” Waramoti exclaimed.

Excuse me—what?

I am a bard,” he repeated. “I never wanted to be a warrior or a mercenary or a hero or whatever. I didn't want songs written about me, I wanted to be the one to write them, about someone else! My dream, ever since I was a child, was to become a traveling singer and compose ballads for other people’s pleasure. And that's all.”

You don’t look one bit like a bard,” Izumi pointed out.

Of course not,” he admitted. “The village I come from isn’t known for its bards. My people are all warriors, men, women, children, even the pets. Cows too, for blast’s sake. I was put through excruciating training to become a dog of war from the moment I was old enough to hold a sword, the same as everybody else, and that is the sole reason to why I look the way I do. It’s just muscle, matter, crude flesh! But within my chest, my heart never ceased to yearn for the art of music and poetry.”

You really do have a knack for making up stuff, I give you that. But sorry, I’m pretty sure it’s going to come back to bite my ass some day, if I don’t kill you here now.”

Izumi raised her sword again.

—“Would you like some tangerines?

Ha?”

Waramoti suddenly broke into song.

Then come to markets of Esopos, the first thing in the morning/
But I’ve become a man of seas/
Where the wind is now blowing, I’ll be quickly into going/
Throw away such fantasies/
They take your head and leave it hanging, on your door they come a-banging...

Er...What are you doing…?” Izumi interrupted him.

My first song performance,” Waramoti explained. “The Tangerines of Esopos, it was called. It earned me forty pieces of copper at a tavern at Esopos. Although, I suppose they mostly paid out of fear when I asked them to, and not because they honestly liked the piece. Even after I went to the trouble of composing it for their benefit. Then again, rather than saying I intimidated them, would you not say that this was a form of successful marketing instead?”

You were...actually telling the truth?”

When I became of age, sick of the whole honorable macho warrior-thing, I left my home village to pursue my true calling. I worked tirelessly to make my dream true and sang in every town, every port, every street corner I could find. My reputation started out a tad poor at first, but I persisted for the sake of art. And eventually, I ended up gaining some exceedingly troublesome fans.”

Fans?” Izumi raised a brow.

The Divines,” Waramoti answered. “My travels brought me to Bhastifal, and I made the mistake of doing a public recital at a pub in the Gralia district one night. I was trying to woo a certain lady, but somehow, Lord Cinithlea also heard my efforts. For reasons unknown, she developed a profound appreciation for my art, the likes of which no mortal has displayed before or since. At first, I was overjoyed to finally find myself a patron, and of such a high profile one to boot. And yet, my delight soon turned into terror instead.”

Terror?”

Yes. Ever since that fateful night, the Divines forced me to go read them my poems every single day I was at the capital. Because of their magic, I was unable to run away, so I volunteered for the Imperial army instead, knowing the Divines were unable to interfere in the matters of the state. I figured I’d get sent off to war somewhere far, far away, where I could finally break free of the spell and escape—or better yet, die off in peace. But the Lords wouldn’t let me off that easily. They pushed their blessings on me, which not only kept me from death, but made me into legend. Again and again, I was forced to return home victorious, and was about to reach writer’s block for real. But, suddenly this morning, all of this changed. The Divines have vanished and their blessings together with them. I am a free man now, and I will never fight another battle in my life. From today on, I am 'Heaven’s Hand' no more! Gods, I hated that title! I am now Waramoti, the Bard, and that is what shall be carved on my gravestone, if only it’s up to me to decide.”

“………………………………..Okay?”

Somehow, the greatest duel in modern history was over before the first blow.

Suspicious though Izumi remained of him, Waramoti showed no sign of changing his mind, but courteously instructed her to go on ahead, opening the hallway door for her. He even returned the magnetite vest.

You don’t need to believe me,” he told her. “Just take my weapons and bar the door from the other side. So long as I remain in guard here, no one will dare to pursue you.”

Thanks...I guess?”

No, thank you. It’s because of you and your associates that the Divines have ceased to be, is it not? Therefore, I owe you no less than my life and freedom twice over. It is a debt I will give my all to repay some day.”

Thanks, but no thanks,” Izumi declined. “I’d rather never see you again, if I can help it.”

Why, do you still hold a grudge for the other day? You were the one trying to kill me out of nowhere, remember? Can you fault me for only defending myself?”

...I suppose that’d be a bit unreasonable,” Izumi had to admit, recalling her actions that night. His story totally made her look like the villain.

Right?” he agreed. “So let’s put that trifling matter behind us. By all means, for the gratitude I have for you, we should be best of friends.”

Look, even if you aren’t strictly a bad guy, that doesn’t mean I suddenly like you a whole lot. Rather, you needlessly handsome muscle guys make me uncomfortable, so why don’t we keep this purely platonic, and part ways without further ado?”

Ah, a professional to the core,” Waramoti nodded approvingly. “I, on the other hand, have deep respect for your type. You are unusually disciplined, for a woman.”

What do you mean, for a woman? That’s sexism!”

...What’s ‘sexism’? It sounds terribly lewd, somehow.”

Never mind,” Izumi heavily sighed. “Talking to you is seriously draining. I’m just going to go ahead now.”

Good luck,” the man told her. “And do be careful. My oath of fealty prevents me from disclosing anything that might bring his majesty to a disadvantage, so I cannot directly help or advise you. Fortunately, he gave me no direct orders to defeat you either, so remaining neutral should keep me safe.”

It sure warms my heart how you put your own safety above mine, even after declaring us as best of friends.”

That just means I trust you to make it through this alive without my needless sacrifice. If you fail, despite my faith in you, then wouldn’t that make me look like a poor judge of character? Would one normally depend on a complete stranger like this? Not, right? Surely this only speaks of the firm bond that destiny has forged between us. Besides, who will record the events of this fateful night in a song, if I, the only literate person here, were to perish?”

Don’t just assume I’m illiterate!” Izumi retorted. “Although, it’s true I’m probably never going to write any of this down. I don’t have such talent, and it only sounds like a huge waste of time. Not like anyone would believe a word of it.”

True, I might have to alter a few details here and there to better appeal to the local audiences,” Waramoti went on to ponder. “But such is the part of the poet. I have my own livelihood to mind also.”

Aren’t you a little too quick to give up on honesty? You have no principles, do you!? Wait a minute, what parts were you going to change, exactly!? I can’t let you publish anything that will ruin my reputation! I have my brand as a champion from another world to consider!”

Huh? What kind of a brand? Demonic, or divine?”

Barely before losing her temper, Izumi recalled her mission and forced herself to leave the self-proclaimed bard behind. Getting past Heaven’s Hand without expending her fighting strength was no doubt an enormous stroke of good luck, but it was still too early to celebrate.

Waramoti’s words had, in part, indirectly confirmed the paranoid idea which had haunted her all day. She was being expected.

The exact hour and manner of her arrival were already known to her target, even though it shouldn’t have been possible. Exactly what manner of a vile setup awaited her ahead, in the ominous Throne Room, she couldn’t yet even guess.

But there was no choice.

Regardless of the danger, there was no turning back now.

 

3

I have to do something. The longer she waited, the firmer this conviction grew within Yuliana. For reasons the princess couldn’t understand, Izumi was expected to kill the Emperor tonight, as if the matter were already set in stone. An outright prophecy.

Following her brief meeting with his majesty, Yuliana had been escorted back to her chamber in the corner tower and locked there. She kept anxiously pacing back and forth in that spacious room,, as the melancholic day slowly passed, feeling neither hungry nor sleepy.

As the nightfall neared, that torturous restlessness only grew worse.

Something terrible was going to happen. Soon.

If Izumi was indeed being expected, then she was most likely headed into a trap and would be killed. If, by some chance of a miracle, she managed to kill the Emperor instead, then the whole country would be thrown into chaos and disorder. And Izumi wouldn’t walk safely out of that either.

So many were going to suffer, and for what? Did anyone even know?

There had to be a way to prevent their meeting, stop the worst from happening. But how?

Why was Izumi doing this, anyway? Was the woman still trying to save Yuliana? Did she think the princess was in danger or held against her will? Strictly speaking, it was true, but Yuliana didn't wish for a rescue. The one thing the princess had feared the most from the beginning was about to come true, regardless of her own will. If only she could somehow tell the woman to give up on her plans…

Ah…!”

Suddenly, Yuliana recalled the enchanted chain she had been given by the mysterious young man. How could she ever forget about it! It should have still had enough power for one brief contact. Yuliana quickly pulled the chain from her pocket and clutched it, gathering her focus. If that youth was indeed connected to Izumi somehow, then he could probably deliver the warning. “Keep away, you’re being expected!”

It took quite some time to establish the contact. Was the magic in the chain already waning? But eventually, the familiar male voice did resound in the princess’s mind again.

Your highness? Is something the matter?

Her heart beating painfully hard in her chest, Yuliana quickly responded,

I’ve heard his majesty is expecting an attempt on his life tonight! Is this true? That someone’s planning to kill him? It’s not Izumi, is it? Please tell me it’s not her...”

Huh? Ah, er, why are you asking...?the young man’s voice stammered.

You have to tell her to keep away from the palace, if you can! She’s walking into a trap!”

A trap!? What do you mean by that?

They know she’s coming! We can’t let her go through with it, she’ll be killed for certain! And there’s no reason for his majesty to die either! It’s complete madness, this whole affair! You can’t let them go through with it! There’s got to be another way!”

“'Let them?' W-what do you expect me to do? I’m just a...a totally inconspicuous nobody, with no authority whatsoever. A cog in the machine. Nobody’s going to listen to a word I say!

You have to try!” the princess told him. “I’m going to see if I can get out of here. But in case I can’t make it in time, please, don’t let Izumi anywhere near the palace tonight! Tell her I forbid it! I will never forgive her if she goes in there! She must not kill the Emperor, no matter what!”

I...I will see what I can do. But please, your highness, you mustn’t do anything stupid now. Selenoreion is in high alert. If the guards catch you wandering outside, you could be—well, they will not be asking questions! Anyway, it’s not safe! So stay away from the palace, no matter what! Do you hear me?

I can’t just sit still while they’re killing each other!”

I understand how you feel, but it’s at times like this that you must try to maintain a...e...My, we appear to be losing...p...power...

Benjamin’s voice abruptly faded away mid-sentence.

Oh great...”

Not relieved in the least, Yuliana threw the magic chain away.

Clearly enough, there was no guarantee that the warning would reach Izumi in time, unless Yuliana took it to her in person. She had to find a way out of confinement, but how? She was on the highest floor of a tower, with only one way down. Well, two, if you counted the window. Needless to say, surviving the fall of nearly a hundred and thirty feet wasn’t something she was willing to try. She didn’t know how to fly like the Divines.

Speaking of which.

Would Aiwesh aid her this time?

The sun had already set and the Divine’s powers were restricted by her element. But, performing the ritual to manifest the spirit, Yuliana could share her form and expend her own vitality, allowing the ancient being to temporarily overcome her natural restrictions. At least for long enough to take her down to the ground.

There was no other way. Yuliana knelt, crossing her arms across her chest and closed her eyes.

My Lord, I beseech thee—wah!”

The princess was suddenly blinded by a flash of light, which appeared to fill her whole head. An abrupt surge of power within her startled the girl and, as though she had been slapped, she lost her balance, leaving the incantation unfinished.

What…happened...?”

Yuliana slowly sat back up, rubbing her forehead and throbbing eyes. Although no explanation was offered for the odd seizure, she got the vague impression that she was being reprimanded. It was the first time the Divine spirit had expressed such direct strictness with her.

Why...at a time like this?”

It was as if Aiwesh was telling her to not get involved.

Be patient, my chalice, and I will give you the world.

Eh…?” Feeling vaguely frustrated, Yuliana struggled up to her feet.

Clearly, she was on her own. There would be no help from anyone else. But even after being denied by her Lord, she didn’t intend to give up. People’s lives were at stake. So long as she had control over her own arms and legs, she would keep trying.

With no better ideas, Yuliana approached the door and repeatedly struck it with her fist. There should have been two guards on watch outside...It was risky, but if only she could slip past them, her range of options would become considerably wider. This was the last method she wanted to try, but desperate situations called for desperate measures.

Open up!” she shouted. “I demand to speak to his majesty at once!”

There came no response.

"Open immediately! This is important!”

She didn’t even sense anyone’s presence on the other side. Nevertheless, Yuliana continued to stubbornly hit and kick the door, calling for someone, anyone to open it. Over time, her manner of addressing the possible outsiders turned increasingly ruder, until she was practically yelling out insults.

Then, at long last, she heard a key in the lock and took a hurried step back.

The guards weren’t going to be happy with her after all that racket. It could even turn into a fight. Without a weapon or armor, things didn't look well for the princess, but she couldn’t let dread stop her now.

Then, the door opened, and instead of a crude guard, a palace maid’s head appeared in view.

Good heavens, your highness, you kiss your mother with a mouth like that?” the maid asked.

The maid was one of the two who had been looking for Yuliana earlier. The maid’s earlier companion was also behind her, but it seemed there had been no guards in the hallway, after all.

I was just trying to get...Oh, never mind,” the embarrassed princess started to reflexively defend her behavior, before realizing the pointlessness of it.

The two maids opened the door wider and entered the chamber.

Were you hungry, your highness?” the other one asked. “If you would like a late night snack, I can prepare something modest for you in the servants’ room. Although, I feel I must warn your highness of the perils of snacking at such a timing...”

“—What Tilfa means to say is that you’re going to get fat,” the other one said. “Even more fat than you already are, that is,” she added, glancing at the princess’s chest.

I was trying to break it nicely!” the maid called Tilfa cried.

Yes, yes, you’re always sucking up to royalty. But I’m not going to let you get promoted and leave me behind by myself.”

Hila! At this rate, we’ll both end up in prison! Or worse!”

Don’t worry,” the maid called Hila said, “if we’re taken in for questioning, I will blame everything on you.”

I’m going to get thrown in prison alone...Or worse.”

You two...” Yuliana felt that her headache was growing worse.

Forgive us, your highness,” Hila said, not sounding very remorseful, “but this is our second night shift, we’ve been awake for two days straight, and cannot be held responsible for our behavior.”

We will most definitely be held responsible!” Tilfa pointed out.

What I mean to say is that I am progressively unable to give a damn.”

Why do I always get paired up with you? My luck is simply the worst!”

Excuse me,” the princess interrupted the two arguing servants. “Aren’t you the least bit interested to know why I was making so much noise here?”

No,” Hila blankly replied without a pause.

Ah, forgive us, your highness,” Tilfa humbly bowed. “Please tell us what you want.”

She doesn’t care either, she’s lying. See? What a kiss-ass.”

Hila, shut up!”

You should be more honest with yourself. People like brazen characters over polite doormats these days. Take Malik, for example. She’s such a rude fucking bitch, yet all the guys can’t stop buzzing around her without a moment’s rest, and the head maid doesn’t seem to care...”

I don’t need to be popular,” Tilfa cried, “I just want to get paid this month, is that too much asked…?”

Okay, listen up, you two,” Yuliana raised her voice. “I’m going to be perfectly direct and brazen with you now. I will take whatever keys you have, lock you up here, and leave. Do you have anything to say about that?”

The maids fell quiet and glanced at each other.

...No, as you’d expect, that’s really going to land us in prison,” Hila said.

Ma’am, I understand this is a trying experience for you, but...”

Yuliana took a quick step forward, caught Hila’s thin neck under her arm and held the maid down in a chokehold.

I should add that besides a princess, I am also a knight officer, and prepared to use force, if necessary. Now, Tilfa, was it? Your keys. You have them, don’t you? After all, no one in their right mind would give this fool anything of importance.”

Hey, I resent that—ow!” Hila tried to speak, but Yuliana tightened her hold.

Yes, here, please don’t kill my friend,” Tilfa quickly took out the keys from her pocket and handed them to Yuliana.

Don’t give them!” Hila shouted. “Get away!”

Oh, aren’t we brave?” Yuliana said with an evil grin, pulling the maid closer. “As I thought, it’s at moments of crisis that people reveal their true colors, and even a fool can prove to be a hero.”

...No,” Hila replied, “it’s just, it’s really turning me on, getting roughed up by a busty younger girl. Please don’t stop.”

“…..”

“…...”

Yuliana took the keys and locked up the two maids in her chamber.

Is everyone in this country absolutely mad…?”

She headed down the long spiral staircase, while frantically trying to plan her next move. Even if she could get out of the tower, she was bound to get caught trying to get into the main building. The guards wouldn’t allow her to see the Emperor at a time like this, regardless of what she would tell them, but simply either return her back in her room, or throw her in jail.

Or...there were worse options.

She had been warned.

Yuliana couldn’t possibly fight all the knights along the way either, even if she found a weapon. She wasn't Izumi, and fully aware of the limits of her ability. But, if direct methods weren’t possible, then what could she do, exactly? Not knowing how to fly or turn invisible, she couldn’t well dress up as a guard and fool the others to get past them either…

Wait a minute,” shes topped.Not as a guard, but...”

Surely the palace servants had nothing to fear?

A state of high alert or not, people needed to have food and clothes and various other chores taken care of. The guards couldn’t stop the maids from doing their jobs, or the whole palace would fall apart.

Thinking about it further, Yuliana regretted not taking the outfit of one of the maids, even though it might have resulted in an even more bothersome exchange…But where did the maids stay while they kept watch, anyway? Not in the cold, bare hallway, certainly. One of the maids had mentioned a servants’ room. Certainly, there had to be a place close by, where they could remain on standby for extended periods of time. Such a place was bound to have various supplies, perhaps even spare uniforms. Yuliana started to check the doors along the way down, searching the rooms she could access with the keys she had taken.

Her reasoning appeared accurate too.

Yuliana soon found a room with a simple fireplace and tables, and a small kitchen. There was nothing especially useful in there, but she continued looking. In the next room, the floor below, were bedclothes, sheets, towels, and curtains. Searching this storage further, she eventually came across a rack with spare maid outfits in numerous sizes. Just what she had been searching for.

In a hurry, Yuliana took off her dress and changed into an outfit closest to her size that she could find.

This is...more awkward than I imagined.”

That white, gold-lined uniform was tight especially around the chest and her waist, making her recall the maid’s painful remark about her weight. But, together with the headpiece, the garb hid her features well enough. No one who didn’t know her face could tell that she wasn’t part of the palace staff. Together with a lantern she found, she looked like a simple maid on some late night errand.

Even if she couldn’t walk directly into the palace like this, the disguise should have allowed her to move around without instantly raising an alarm. She could decide what to do next once outside.

Her resolve strengthened, the princess hurried down the stairs to the ground floor.

There were two guards watching the tower entrance outside of it. Yuliana simply walked past them, as if they didn’t even exist, trying to act as natural as she could.

No one called after her, as she crossed the rainy front yard, to the gate in the perimeter fence. With the keys, she was able to unlock the gate, dispelling whatever doubts any observer might have had of her identity, even though she had to try twice to get the right key. Locking the way behind her again, the light of hope grew even brighter within the princess.

Just like that, Yuliana had escaped confinement. But the main palace stood far away still, like a mountain she had barely started to climb. The frizzle wetting her face, she gazed around, trying to find the best way forward.

In the dark of the night, Selenoreion looked like a different city altogether. On a quick look, Yuliana judged she could either follow the stairs ascending right, past her tower, which after a brief circle around the corner took to the main entryway. But the front gate was bound to be heavily guarded. From her position alone, past the fences and houses, Yuliana could see four knights on the stairs, and by their positioning, it was easy to deduce there would be more along the path.

No matter how she appeared like a simple worker, marching in through the front entrance on a night like this would have been too weird. There was no getting in that way. However, Yuliana saw another, more roundabout way.

High up, beyond the buildings directly ahead of her, Yuliana spied a skywalk connecting the servant’s dormitory with the main building. That had to be her way in. She hurried across the street and unlocked the next gate on the opposite side, to get into the yard between the staff buildings. Fortunately, the Imperial Guard had prioritized the walls and entryways in their defensive formation, allowing her to move in the inner areas without difficult encounters.

Still, the place was a veritable maze.

The princess rushed up the stairs along the servant’s dorms, up and up, at times running into a dead end between the tightly spaced houses and the walls separating them. Once, she tried to find a shortcut through indoors, running into strange folk along the way, making up random excuses, only to return back outside again. She also slipped on the wet pavement a few times, dropping and breaking her lantern on the last, and later a guard dog bouncing up behind a fence scared her half-dead.

Then, at long last, after her great adventure, the skywalk extended before Yuliana’s weary feet.

Just a bit further from there, and she would find the Emperor.

Just a bit further, and she might see Izumi again.

The great tragedy could be averted—she was certain of it. If only she could see those two, everything would be made clear. All the questions would be answered. No more lives had to be lost.

How, exactly?

She couldn’t tell, but she would find a way.

Encouraging herself to keep going, Yuliana ran across the covered stone bridge high above the streets and treetops. After about one third of the way, it hit her.

 

——“IYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!”

 

Agony unlike any she had ever experienced struck the princess down mid-step.

As if a lifetime’s worth of guilt had gripped her heart all at once, freezing her insides, she collapsed on the spot, writhing, blinded by the pain.

Yuliana had experienced a similar sensation once before, weeks ago in the Felorn woods. But that torturous backlash now was much stronger, clearer in both effect and meaning. She knew without a question—should she take but one step further from there, it would mean directly breaking her vow.

Why…?” Yuliana gasped, catching her breath, looking at the path ahead of her. So close, yet distinctly out of reach. “Why now? I don’t understand…! What did I do? What does it mean…!?”

The ceaseless rain drumming the skywalk roof gave her no answers.

 



4

The nexus hall, in the heart of the immense building complex. One could thence access all parts of the palace, east and west, the front entrance, as well as the Throne Room itself. Four knights in red capes awaited Izumi, guarding the way to the lion’s den.

For his majesty!” they exclaimed in unison, before picking up their ceremonial spears and attacking. Their emotionless, fish-eyed looks disturbed the woman. Their blind charge lacked unity, intent, or plan. The men were either drugged or plain drunk. Perhaps to dampen their fears, to allow them to carry out their final duty without fleeing. Clearly enough, no one had earnestly expected them to protect anything. They had been picked out to be sacrificed, in order to preserve the illusion of normality.

For no reason at all. There was nothing normal about them and neither did their placement have any meaning. Due to their debased state, the guards’ aggression lacked edge. A hollow unease eating at her from inside, Izumi quietly knocked the knights out with the flat side of the blade, one by one, before proceeding to approach the doorway of black stone in the back of the hall.

The moment of truth.

Just like Yuliana had done on the night of their arrival, Izumi went on to push the heavy gateway open and walked in.

At a glance, the Throne Room looked the same as the first time.

Of course. Probably nothing much about this room had changed since the day it was constructed who knew how many centuries ago. The red-tiled road to the Onyx Throne remained free of obstructions. The famous heroes tasked with his majesty’s protection had all either been slain or were otherwise out of commission.

And there, on that bombastic chair, sat the man himself, like posing for a portrait.

The Emperor of Tratovia.

So you’ve come,” the dark-browed man greeted Izumi in his deep voice, not looking surprised in the least to see her. Indeed, he shortly added, “I have been expecting you.”

Can I skip this cutscene?” Izumi asked, walking on.

Are you in such a hurry to murder me?”

Look, it’s nothing personal, mister,” Izumi told him. “Some people I know just happen to think you’ve been doing a piss-poor job as the boss of this country, and they want you gone. Capturing cute princesses is not really an endearing character trait either. But whether I kill you, or you resign and walk out of that door on your own, it makes no difference to me.”

I see,” the Emperor replied, unhurriedly standing up. “I’m afraid simply resigning is not an option for me.”

If you say so.”

To emphasize that it really didn’t matter to her, Izumi held out her sword.

His majesty’s gaze narrowed.

Even after coming this far, you cannot tell that you are being deceived?” By the throne, leaning on the stone, was a slim shortsword, which the Emperor proceeded to pick up. “You will kill me simply because you were ordered to, never questioning the motives of those who hired you? Never making an attempt to picture the consequences that your actions will bring, not only to yourself but to everyone else around you?”

I’m really missing that fast forward option, you know?” the woman retorted. “Yeah, everybody’s got ulterior motives, isn’t that a given? And every choice has consequences, both good and bad. Because we’re people, not the Justice League, and this is real life. I’m not here to argue who’s objectively more evil, because that kind of grade school debates belong in bad video games. I picked my side, and I’m going to stick to my guns, that’s all. And whatever happens, it happens. If things go south tomorrow, then I’ll deal with it in due time—tomorrow.”

Because obeying without question and not looking ahead is far easier than taking responsibility for yourself?” the man asked, stepping down the stairs from the throne.

That’s pretty ironic, coming from a tyrant feared by half the world,” Izumi pointed out. “Since when did you ever have to take responsibility for anything you did?”

Irony...” his majesty repeated. “Yes. We’re not missing any of that here.”

Don’t worry about it,” Izumi shrugged, “even contradicting yourself is fine. I’m not asking you to be the perfect person. It doesn’t matter if you make stupid decisions for stupid reasons, so long as you don’t cry and moan about it afterwards. If you ask me, I may have made some dumb-looking choices in the past. But when I think back to why I did it, I have no regrets. Can you say the same?”

Of course not,” the Emperor answered. “My whole life was nothing but poor choices and regrets. But that doesn’t mean I want to surrender and die.”

...My condolences, I guess? It’s not like I don’t see where you’re coming from. Had I never been brought to this world, I’d probably be drowning in regrets myself.”

Then, things changed for you, after coming here?”

Of course? How could they not? It’s another world we’re talking about. Isn’t fixing your past mistakes and taking a different route the whole point of it all?”

...What a shame,” the man sighed. “I would’ve liked to have a more in-depth conversation with you, about a great many things. But, regrettably such a choice has not been given to us. If you claim to have no regrets, then let us fight for our respective convictions now.”

Raising his sword before his face and nodding in a chivalrous expression of respect, the Emperor cut down, signaling his readiness.

Come!”

As you wish!”

Banishing the fleeting spark of sympathy that had momentarily been lit inside her, Izumi tightened her grip on the greatsword’s handle and took a stance.

She had felt no hatred for her foe from the beginning. No matter how he had been branded a monster and a tyrant, even now, looking at the man in the eyes, Izumi felt nothing resembling animosity towards the Emperor. She felt nothing at all.

Nevertheless.

In spite of it all.

Kill or be killed.

Kill or don’t kill.

After all the souls she had sent out of this mortal coil, stopping here would have been nothing if not the epitome of hypocrisy. Of lunacy. Of sheer stupidity. This man was her enemy, representing everything she hated about this other world, the source of all her misfortune, starting from the night of her summoning.

Unless he died, it would surely never end.

For a moment, the combatants stared at each other in complete silence.

Then, the Emperor made the mistake of blinking.

By the time his eyelids were drawn back again, Izumi had already advanced five steps and was fast on the way across the Throne Room.

There was no reason to think up a complex strategy.

Accelerating her movements with Sifl, she crossed the distance in a flash. Perhaps it was oversight on her part, but she used no other Words.

No, her assessment of the situation had certainly been the correct one—to eliminate the opponent with the minimum necessary force. Nothing more could be reasonably expected to settle it.

Unarmored, with only the slim short sword for a weapon, the Emperor was good as naked before the Amygla’s shining edge. One overhead blow by the timeless blade would end the duel short. He needed magical protection comparable to a Divine Blessing to endure it, but even in the event that his arm strength surpassed his human frame, his steel-made weapon would not take it.

By all means, it should have been over with this.

It should have been.

But, after coming this far, Izumi remained suspicious to the end.

It had to be a trap—all her senses were screaming at her to watch out.

Even then, regardless of all her caution, it would have been her end there, if not for the awe-inspiring effect of the Rune of Displacement.

 

—“Whoa!”

Right as Izumi was about to lift her sword to deliver the deathblow, she caught a flash reflected in the Amygla’s clean surface. Something was flying at her from her eight o’clock, fast. Izumi broke off her attack and twisted her head to the side, leaning out of the way of the approaching threat.

An arrow shot a bit past her brow, striking one of the pillars lining the walkway to her right, rebounding harmlessly onto the floor.

Click.

It was a black shaft of raven feathers, with a head of dark metal attached—in that metal, a strange letter vaguely resembling Poseidon’s trident was engraved.

Startled, Izumi looked over her shoulder, in the direction the eerie projectile had come from; just in time to see a ghastly, transparent figure, like an armored man, slip back into complete invisibility. Hearing rustling from the opposing side, she turned back, to see an identical apparition crouch and retrieve the discarded arrow, before melting back into nothingness.

Unlike how it had seemed at first, she was not alone with the Emperor.

And although it was not one of the spells taught to her by the Court Wizard, Izumi could still recognize the letter on the arrow. She had seen both the character and its effects numerous times before—Yodith, the perilous Rune of Immolation.

Oi-oi…!”

There was no time to think.

While Izumi remained distracted, the Emperor quickly stepped up to her, lifting his weapon into a furious overhead strike. No matter how he was an amateur, he was still an adult man, and his arm strength was nothing to laugh at. Izumi likewise raised her weapon as a shield to receive the blow. But, at the last moment, the man relaxed his arms instead, and swapped his attack for a crude kick in the stomach.

Gh…!” Receiving the impact with her abdominal muscles, Izumi was pushed back and lost her balance. Shrugging off the pain, she rolled around her hips and was quickly back up on her feet, ready to receive the opponent’s follow-up attack.

—“Huh?”

Against her expectations, the Emperor didn’t continue the successful assault, but stood back.

Instead, two arrows came flying at Izumi, loosened by invisible archers at her two and ten o’clock, respectively. She leaned right to evade the other, and deflected the second with her sword. Although the reflexive defense had been successful, the latter shaft passed unnervingly close to her right shoulder.

As soon as the volley had been delivered, the Emperor charged again, aiming a merciless stab at her chest. Turning sideways to avoid it, Izumi momentarily locked swords with the man.

You and your cheap tricks…!” she groaned.

Like you’re one to talk, you witch from another world,” the man retorted. “Why don’t you just give up and die? As you can see, victory or defeat, you have no future in here.”

“…”

A blunt, unimaginative provocation on the outside, the Emperor’s words nevertheless caused an unpleasant resonance within the earthling.

The immolation arrows, as well as the invisibility amulets...both high level magic items were from the arsenal of the sole non-human mage at the Imperial Court.

Of course, that person sharing her talents to the Empire’s benefit was only one minor aspect of the alliance between the races. There was nothing too surprising about Izumi having it played against her now. Rather, considering Carmelia’s status, it was inevitable. But still—no matter how Izumi pretended not to care, the other possibility wriggled its way into her heart with the effectiveness of a poisoned barb.

Was it only a coincidence that Yodith was the perfect counter to Tauhirn?

Iron Hide could easily withstand arrows, even sword blows—but the accursed rune of certain death didn’t need to impale the target’s vitals to be lethal. Simply leaving a mark of any kind was sufficient for the loathsome magic to completely consume its victim. Had Izumi used Tauhirn from the beginning, the rune would have slowed her movements enough for the first arrow to land.

All according to plan...?

That wasn’t all.

The setup of invisible soldiers effectively disabled the benefits of Sifl, preventing Izumi from taking full advantage of her mobility and the environment. She had to keep her guard up to all directions, allowing her otherwise human foe not only to keep up with her, but to even rob her of the initiative.

No matter how she looked at it, this trap had not been designed with some unknown attacker in mind, but specifically to render her runic power-up irrelevant and level the playground. Only one person in the world could have devised such a precise strategy.

“Tch…!”

Izumi had tried to act like it didn’t matter.

That she was ultimately only here for herself, for her own reasons.

That no matter what they threw against her, she would find a way.

Yet, that one thought appeared to sap strength from her limbs.

What’s wrong with me…!? I didn’t come here with a resolve this weak...!

Izumi forced the Emperor’s sword aside, and swung the Amygla in a horizontal sweep. The wide blade hit nothing but air. The moment she had started to move, the man abandoned the confrontation and ran away, cowering. Shamelessly turning his back in a duel—he fought like a stage actor, not a soldier. But under the conditions, his skill was irrelevant.

With a quick dash, Izumi could have cut him down from behind—but her pursuit was denied by another arrow coming at her from her blind spot. She couldn't leave her rear unchecked even for a moment. Like wolves, the invisible knights were waiting for any opening.

If things continued like this, it would only be a matter of time, before she made a mistake and took a hit. And in this game, even that one hit would mean instant, irreversible game over. Then, was it completely hopeless for her?

No. It’s still not enough.

Itaka Izumi would not have gotten this far in life, if that were all it took to bring her down. Her wrath, her resentment, her fears, her doubts, her despair, all of that became absorbed and converted into ice-cold fuel for the primal desire to win, to betray the expectations.

By this point, Izumi’s simulated combat experience had become sufficiently complemented by real life practice. Throwing away her human concerns, her mind cleared, becoming like that of a machine, a beast, seeking only the path to devour her prey, and nothing else.

In every boss fight, there was a pattern, and those patterns were what she had grown accustomed to seek out. The enemy had failed to kill her with the first exchange, even the second, and by the third contact, a “pattern” had formed...And for every pattern, there was a counter.

Suppressing her impatience, letting the boss go, Izumi awaited the follow-up. Although Sifl’s effectiveness had been restricted, even the deadly arrow’s flight at 160 miles per hour looked to her no different from being thrown with an eraser in the classroom. As soon as her eyes observed the trajectory, her hands moved accordingly, and the dart aimed at her throat was deftly parried.

The enchanted arrowhead forged of tempered dimeritium was a menace to mages, even to daemons—but the unnamed metal forced into the shape of a sword by ancient blacksmiths received it without the faintest scratch.

The parry wasn't executed blindly.

Receiving the arrow at an angle, Izumi redirected it across the aisle. On the other side of the room, that hateful shaft clashed with an invisible obstacle.

AAAAAEEEEEEHHHH—!”

That invisible object was at once rendered plain to the naked eye, as an explosion of pure green flames swallowed it. The arrow had only crazed the knight’s shoulder, but nothing more was needed. His life burned away in a brilliant blaze, the dance of his morbid pyre eerily reflected in the onyx slabs making up the Imperial throne. The echo of his horrifying death cry resounded in the ears of the witnesses, shaking their hearts, no matter how hardened. Even the Emperor averted his face, stunned by the macabre light show.

His first and last mistake.

In those few seconds of respite, the flow of combat was reversed.

Izumi opened her eyes.

Ocíl. Augmenting her vision with the Rune of Perception, she gave the hall another look.

The magic surrounding the Emperor’s guards was powerful enough to prevent such a basic rune from seeing through them—but against the otherwise highly defined interior textures, the vague, misty spots in Izumi’s enhanced vision revealed their positioning all the same.

Kill the minions before engaging the bossthis elementary game tactic in her mind, Izumi set about to dismantling the trap.

It had been the Emperor’s role to lock her in combat and prevent her from going after the archers, while they should have been the ones to finish her off. It had been a carefully planned and rehearsed formation. However, even if the knights were trained professionals, their lord was not, and his momentary hesitation cost his side the ever-precious advantage.

Izumi left the walkway and dashed at the nearest knight to her left. As she reached close enough, the invisibility enchantments effectiveness was slightly reduced, letting her perceive his approximate figure.

What—?” the soldier gasped, caught by surprise.

Gram!” Izumi recited and swung the greatsword in a wide horizontal arc. Her flesh fortified by the Rune of Power, the sword cleaved straight through the plate armor, above the hip, severing the poor man instantaneously in two. Barely had the knight’s helpless upper body hit the floor, when she was already on the way to the next fuzzy shape, towards the entrance.

However, there it was Izumi’s turn to get surprised.

Eh?”

Preparing to cut down the second enemy, she was distracted by a faint flash of light beneath her feet. It was hardly brighter or larger than the notification light of a smartphone, but her magically affected optic nerves couldn’t avoid picking it up anyhow.

The source of the light was a small character drawn on the floor, on the tile she had stepped on. The light was growing rapidly brighter.

Apparently, the enemy had anticipated even this course of events and had taken measures to prepare for it by laying runic traps all around. The knights naturally knew the placement of the magic mines and avoided them, while Izumi herself had walked right into one.

Crap!”

Abandoning the attack, Izumi put all her strength into her legs and jumped. At the same time, the sharply brightening letter on the floor erupted into a discharge of high-voltage electromotive force. This artificial lightning bolt spread to cover an area of about six square feet, even catching an unlucky knight nearby. Without uttering a sound, he stiffened up, his invisibility dispelled, and collapsed on the spot with faint, pale smoke pouring out of the armor seams. The smell of ozone and burning flesh filled the air.

Oops!”

Unable to control her boosted strength in the heat of the moment, Izumi jumped too high. Her feet hit the ceiling, but there was nothing there to hold onto. Sadly, levitation magic was not among the words of power engraved in her secula sonatea, and so she could only helplessly fall back down.

Although Gram was powering Izumi’s muscles, the drop of fifteen feet back onto the hard stone flooring was anything but soft. Her right shoulder and hip collided painfully with the floor as she fell on her side, and she had stars in her eyes. If the rune hadn’t strengthened her muscles, she might have broken bones. The whole arm was struck numb and her knee protested against motion, but they were still functional.

No time to take a break either.

Two misty shapes were already coming for her.

In motion, the effects of the invisibility spell were somewhat reduced, allowing even one with normal vision to perceive the crystalline outline corresponding to their form. One of the foes had swapped his bow for a sword, now raised in an effort to execute the downed foe. But in this, he had misjudged both Izumi’s condition and her sight.

Quickly sitting up on her knees, sliding forward, Izumi drew her sword from under her and cut low at the shape she judged to be the soldier’s leg. A leg it was, forcefully amputated below the knee, as the greatsword swept under him. With quite the restrained grunt of pain, the knight lost his balance.

Realizing the enemy could perceive them, the second guard gave up on close combat, and pulled back.

But Izumi wasn't about to let him escape. Before the legless knight hit the floor, she sprung up and kicked him in the side as hard as she could. Thrown back, the wounded slid in the feet of his comrade, knocking him over like a bowling ball. Leaping up to them, Izumi swung down, lopping off the staggered soldier’s head while he was still in the process of falling.

Next…!

Even while her hands delivered death, Izumi’s eyes were already looking for a new target. There was not a moment to waste. To stay alive, she had to keep a step ahead of the enemy. No matter how painful it was to move, to just breathe, no matter how desperately she was outnumbered, she had to keep fighting, even as her burdened mind and body were begging for a repose.

So that she wouldn’t have to face it.

The answer that awaited her at the end of all the fighting.

Focus, focus, focus…!

A moment's carelessness could mean the end. In group fights, there was always a certain order by which to eliminate the enemies. The very order in which they became a threat. Recognizing where death was imminent and responding accordingly was the key to survival. Now which of the many eerie forms surrounding her was to be the next in line?

There, by the wall, Izumi spotted an odd shape resembling a malformed potato sack. Her eyes alone were useless at identifying the foe, but her brain connected the dots—the shape was a kneeling archer, taking aim at her. The distance was at least twenty feet. Even with Sifl, she wouldn’t reach him in time.

The bowstring was released. The dice were rolling. Yet again, the gamble with death was on. As the arrow left its holder, it was rendered visible to her, but the time left to react by that point was ridiculously short. Survival boiled down to pure luck.

Izumi crouched and raised the sword before her face. Even a perfect parry might still mean death. Would the arrow scrape her fingers? Would it brush past her ear? Would it hit the ceiling and drop back on her? The dangers were countless.

Dang. The contact was deceptively light compared to the risks it carried. But Izumi survived yet another round of this Russian roulette. The death bolt whistled as it rebounded upward from the blade’s surface and landed well behind her. Izumi responded with her own. Lifting the Amygla up with one arm, she cast it like a javelin, faithfully imitating Waramoti’s technique.

Haa—!”

That oversized dart might have been slower than an arrow, but no less deadly with the magical effects sending it. Crossing the room in a flash, it impaled the crouching archer, throwing him back, dead in an instant.

Sorry, I didn’t take good care of it.

Izumi had sacrificed her weapon, but her fighting ability didn’t depend exclusively on it. She glanced behind. More phantasmal knights were preparing to shoot at her, in the direction of the entrance. The formerly empty-looking Throne Room turned out to have been quite crowded. The gap was too big to reach them on foot, and Izumi was out of ammunition.

Or, not quite.

Relying on her enhanced strength, Izumi quickly grabbed one of the downed knights by the leg and threw him sliding across the floor, towards the fuzzy figures. Of course, even with Gram's power behind the throw, the knight’s body was rather ineffective as a weapon. At best, she had hoped it would distract the archers for long enough to let her get closer.

However, this improvised weapon turned out far more effective than she had anticipated.

As the body of the knight swept over the floor, several bright letters drawn on the tiles lit up in its wake. There was no way the knights themselves would step on the traps—if they had a choice, that is.

Watch out!” Warning cries rang out.

Too late.

Shortly, a series of fiery explosions ravaged the Throne Room as multiple rune traps were activated in quick succession. Whoever had planted them had been highly creative. They weren’t all simple lightning traps. There were fire traps, pressure traps, shrapnel traps, and various other bizarre magical mechanisms included.

A number of pillars along the central walkway were burst by the pressure of the explosions, chunks of marble flying all around, adding to the damage. The shockwaves filled the room, rebounding from the walls, smiting everyone present with augmented intensity, leaving them dumb and deafened. Though she had stood further away, even Izumi got thrown off her feet by one such blast, and was sent sliding towards the wall in the opposing direction. And as she did, more runes on the floor became unwittingly triggered by her contact.

Hey, hey, ever heard of holding back—!?”

The devastating chain reaction showed no signs of stopping.

Other guards, who had been knocked out of balance by the initial series of explosions ended up causing similar accidents everywhere around. More flashy balls of fire erupted out of nothing. Loud crackling of electricity could be heard, vibrant arc discharge lighting up the smoking room here and there. Somewhere else, phantom spikes shot up from the floor, breaking holes in the ceiling and impaling anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the way. An out-of-nowhere hole in the very space sucked in one wretched soul, to who knows what abominable abyss.

Suddenly, the orderly battle arena had fallen into a state of indiscriminate chaos, a slaughterhouse of magical effects, where the abhorrent cries of pain and fear accompanied the havoc, together with the sobbing and moaning of the injured.

It was only well after the noise had died down and nothing more was breaking or dying or burning, that the Emperor let go of his ears and emerged from his hiding spot behind one of the toppled pillars. Keeping to the untrapped central walkway, he had survived the magical carpet bombing, though not entirely unharmed. He was covered in stone dust all around, dazed, his ears ringing, a bleeding cut above his brow. Speechless out of shock, he surveyed the room around him, which had formerly represented Imperial splendor, but now looked more like Rome after the visit of the Huns. Everywhere he looked, he saw only blood and mangled bodies amid scattered debris, ash, and unnatural flames. Abandoned, broken weapons. Dismembered limbs and clots of colorful things that were not meant to be seen outside illustrated journals on human anatomy.

Not a soul beside him was left standing.

How could such a thing happen? The Emperor couldn’t understand. What he was looking at couldn’t be called a “battle” anymore.

Then, something else moved in the aftermath.

The Emperor turned around to see someone struggle up from a mound of corpses and debris. A woman—no, a creature of inhuman, dark and inorganic countenance. From the devastation which had reduced his elite guard into battered pulp, that thing emerged, not only alive, but seemingly having incurred no visible harm whatsoever.

How…?” he gasped, stepping back. “Why won’t you die!?”

Straightening her back, Izumi coughed a bit, then puffed her chest, leaning on her greatsword that she had reclaimed during the chaos.

Nanomachines, son!” she cheerfully exclaimed. “Kidding. Just wanted to say that. This is plain old magic, nothing more.

You would crack jokes in the wake of this senseless massacre!?” the Emperor shouted at her. “Who could look at this scene and still think you are on the side of justice!? You are but a monster! An abomination!

Now, now, don’t be a bad loser,” Izumi waved at him. “I didn’t set up this bullcrap, and I think I gave you the fair chance to stop while you were ahead too.”

The Emperor gripped his sword, his eyes squeezed shut. His hands were trembling. Looking at him, the earlier pity she had felt returned to Izumi.

You know,” she said, brushing dust off her hair, “I don’t really mind if you wanna call it quits now. I’m still alive, and looking back, that was kind of fun, so if you just apologize for your evil words and deeds, I—”

“—I haven’t lost yet!” the man suddenly exclaimed. With a grimace, he cast aside his terror and ran at Izumi. Though rather than bravery, it was probably better called blindness. “I can’t! Not like this…!”

Gathering his determination, he cut down at the woman. She lightly received his sword with her own, one-handed, like in a Sunday game of badminton. Again and again, he continued to strike at her, but there was obviously no way he could match her unnatural swiftness or strength.

Come on now,” Izumi told him, without striking back. “This is starting to look like plain old bullying.”

This is my world!” he shouted back at her. “I was here first! I’m not giving it to you!”

The Emperor gathered all his might for one last overhead blow. Simultaneously, Izumi cut upward with a backhanded motion. Bent in a clean V-shape, the shortsword was knocked from the man’s hands and sent flying back. Gritting his teeth, enduring the pain in his fingers, he swung a punch at the woman. In the face, in the gut. But with Tauhirn still active, Izumi endured the hits without much of a reaction.

Arrrhgg...” the man recoiled, groaning, and cradled his right fist, a knuckle badly broken and bleeding.

Man, that might leave a mark,” Izumi remarked, wiping his blood off her cheek.

Fighting the agony, the man tried to kick her in the groin. Izumi was faster and responded by kicking the side of his thigh. Losing his balance, he dropped flat onto the floor, panting.

Take the hint,” she told him with a frown. “I’m starting to get kind of annoyed, so knock it off already. The show’s over. I thought you didn’t want to die? I’m telling you, just walk away, and nobody else needs to—”

Not listening, the Emperor saw something on the floor beside him. It was one of the magic arrows, scattered in the explosion. The shaft was broken in half, but the arrowhead remained intact. Now seizing it in his fist, he quickly rose up, and stabbed at the woman.

Just one scratch, one tiny poke anywhere, and he could still win.

Such had been his intention.

But there was no way Izumi hadn’t noticed the arrow from her position.

Would he take it, would he not—she had been waiting to see the answer.

And the moment he took that path, the capital sentence fell on him.

I’m not a total Gandhi, all right?” the woman murmured with a scowl.

Eight inches of metal through his shoulder, by the base of the neck, the man’s arm stopped responding to his brain’s desperate commands. With a click, the arrow fell from his fingers, onto the floor, unused.

Surprisingly, he didn’t feel much pain. All he felt was cold. The sword embedded in his flesh was as if made of ice. He tried to say something. He didn’t know what. He simply had to say something, so that his last words in this world wouldn’t end up being only forgettable rubbish. Instead of audible speech, blood spilled through his lips. It slightly warmed his chest, seeping through the shirt. He coughed, unable to breathe. Sensing dreadful powerlessness fill him, he urged himself to lift his face. He had to look up, in the eyes of his killer. Instead of up, however, he ended up looking down. Down, as he fell. Shortly after his forehead hit the cold stone floor, an inescapable, yet also mysteriously soothing darkness overtook him.

And then the man was gone.

Pulling the sword off, Izumi leaned on the weapon for a moment, staring at the lifeless body as blood pooled under it. After all the fervor before, her brain had come to a sudden stop. She wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. She felt no remorse either. The emptiness she had felt before the fight was still there, that's all.

It was odd. After all the people she had killed in this world, she had never felt quite the same way before.

Killing was never pleasant, certainly. It was only a necessity, a method of survival, of reaching a goal of particular importance. But what had she reached today?

Was this really a battle she chose of her own will?

A fight for survival?

A fight to save someone?

Had it really been—necessary?

Izumi breathed deep, calming herself, trying to come to terms with everything that had happened.

 

And at that moment, a door was opened.



 

5

In the back end of the Throne Room, one of the side doors abruptly swung open. Izumi raised her head, throwing aside her earlier reflections, alert once again.

More enemies?

But instead of reinforcements, a rather unexpected person walked in.

It was a young man in an attire resembling an otherworldly reporter of old, white shirt, black trousers, a matte black vest—his light leather shoes sparkling clean. His short, black hair was carefully combed, his youthful face clean shaven. On his nose were a pair of thick-rimmed glasses that gave him an intellectual air. Over his usual attire, he had donned a formal-looking black coat that changed the air about him somewhat.

True, Izumi had expected to see him again. But not so soon.

Not in such a place.

At such a time.

Ben…?” she named the youth.

In the wake of the man followed the elven Court Wizard, Izumi’s quest-giver, Carmelia. Seeing her now again, the cirelo’s royal inheritance was glaringly obvious on her countenance. In her upright, dignified posture, not in the slightest bit forced or tense; her soundless steps, evenly paced, disturbing not a speck of dust at her passage; in her flawless beauty, enthralling yet fearsome, bearing the mask of composed neutrality, even amid all the mindless butchery.

“Lia?”

But wasn’t their order of appearance a bit strange?

Wow, what a show,” the young man commented with a smile, surveying the devastated room around him, as he walked on with casual lightness. “For a moment there, I had no idea how it would pan out. But looks like you were victorious, once again. Congratulations, Izumi.”

Without a hint of shame or reservation, Benjamin Watts went on to climb the wide stairs and dropped his ass onto the Onyx Throne, relaxedly leaning on his elbow and crossing his legs. So comfortable and at home he looked on that gaudy seat that Izumi was thrown for a loop.

Meanwhile, the Court Wizard—the woman who should have been the High Queen of her people—modestly took her place a few steps lower, on the left side of the Throne.

Looking at the pair, as if they had suddenly become strangers to her, Izumi thought her brain was going to short-circuit.

Ben…? You...

Yes, I believe the time has now come,” the man told her. “Allow me to formally introduce myself once more. Án Serim Eleya Bia Mavase; such was the name my mother gave me. But these days, I am better known by my other name—Mayeshwal III. I know full well your struggles with pronunciation, so you can just call me, ‘your majesty’.”

...What?” Izumi furrowed her brows. “You are...?”

Oh, don’t take me for some lowly usurper or a common schemer,” he continued. “This chair is mine by birthright, and this Empire knows no other sovereign but I. In my veins flows the blood of the rightful dynasty, starting from the days of Telios. That is who I am.”

In disbelief, Izumi glanced at Carmelia in turn. The sorceress remained still, eyes closed, as if not even paying any attention to the outrageous conversation. But her silence spoke volumes.

I know,” the youth continued. “‘Who was Benjamin Watts then?’ Did such a man ever even exist? He did, of course. No doubt about that. Summoned by Lord Gwanlyn, at my request, he appeared in this world two months before you did, just as you were told. I was curious to learn what these prophesied ‘champions from another world’ were like, you see? And, as for his current whereabouts—he would be the sorry carcass lying there at your feet, naturally.”

Izumi looked down, at the bloodied body of the man who had gone around presenting himself as the Emperor for the past week.

Apparently, he was something called a ‘sales manager’ in your world. He lost his family and all his fortune in some manner of an economical collapse, and ended up a homeless nobody. Wholly unskilled with the sword, unable to cast magic, not very strong either, he seemed quite useless to me at first. I suppose these champions were not all what they were made out to be. But, in retrospect, his life did serve a purpose. ‘A battle between two summoned champions’! Never has anyone witnessed such a spectacle before! By the Gods, was it worth it.”

There were a lot of questions going through Izumi’s head at the moment, all at once, but she ended up distilling them into the easiest one.

Why…?”

Why indeed,” the Emperor replied. “At first, I prepared this reversal of roles merely as an amusing little play, to get an edge over the princess and mess with her for a bit. Since I only ascended a few years ago, she should have had no idea what I looked like. But then, you came around.”

Me?” Izumi asked.

That’s right. On the night of your arrival, you, a nobody out of nowhere, made a complete ass of my finest warriors. It was then and there that a staggering idea dawned on me. I would use you to weed out the rebellious elements within my own regime. Ever since I took the Throne, I’ve had a great many enemies, leftovers from my father’s reign, who have been dissatisfied with my rule. Even in the Guild, which should be absolutely loyal to me and no other, there were certain individuals, who harbored nothing short of an uprising. But I couldn’t openly arrest and execute those the public worships as ‘heroes’, could I? No, it was far too dangerous for me to oppose them directly. But, if someone else, an outsider, happened to take care of them on my behalf, it would not only protect my reputation but give it an enormous boost, once I should eliminate that threat. And what started out as a wild experiment bore a resounding success. All thanks to you.”

You mean, the Circle of whatever was just a lie?” Izumi asked. “You planned all those ‘missions’ yourself, to your own benefit?”

Not quite,” his majesty replied. “The Circle of Pale Ashes does exist. Just, they’re not against me, but...with me. Their interests happen to align with my own: in the Empire’s global triumph. In the unity of all intelligent life. But it’s true that I was the one who designed your menu for the week, merely borrowing their name. And you exceeded my expectations every step of the way. Not only are the most troublesome warriors of the Guild all dead now, you also helped me lure out and trap the rotten apples in the Stohenkartes. Better still, you gave me a way to get rid of that old bag De la Cartá, whose printing machines and sermons have tirelessly spewed propaganda against me. How kind of you to take the blame for that!”

So that’s how it was...?” Izumi looked down, connecting the dots between the last week’s trials, and frowned with displeasure.

I suppose no small part of the credit goes to the dead guy.” The true Emperor went on. “Who would’ve thought, if only you give a random bum a bath and a shave, you get a passable emperor? Perhaps he could’ve fared better in his past world by becoming an actor, instead of fiddling with numbers he had no brain for? Sure, he could be a bit difficult and stubborn at times, but men like him are ultimately simple to control. I merely told him, ‘I will kill the princess and feed you the pieces, and he got quite co-operative! Even though he no doubt foresaw his own fate. Of course, I had everyone at the court swear a gias not to reveal a word of the plot. So don’t blame him too much for not confiding in you.”

Feeling sick, Izumi recalled the man’s final moments.

Of course you couldn’t walk away...” she mouthed. “It seems I really have been the idiot here.”

“Do tell me, Izumi,the Emperor asked, “did you truly never suspect either of us as not being what we seemed? I suppose I’m expecting too much from a commoner's eye, but—damn. Never? Not even once?

Of course, I suspected a lot of things,” Izumi admitted, looking at Carmelia’s stoic figure. “But I thought it didn't matter. Since I gave my word.”

Oh?” the young man gave her a questioning look. “So you did have something vaguely resembling honor to you, after all? Speaking of which, boy, did you give me a scare, running off to save Marafel without a warning! She was supposed to burn, no matter what, not join in the effort to overthrow me! Had we run into each other by accident at the Keep, the whole trick would’ve been exposed! That was thrilling. Thankfully, the good Colonel’s condition remains poor still. And I shall make sure she never opens her eyes again.”

Got all the bases covered, huh?”

“But of course?” the Emperor answered Izumi with a sardonic shrug. “This much is nothing for a man of my level. But really, the simplicity of your character was a big relief for me. After everything I learned from you and the other guy, I admit I grew a bit anxious. If the people of your world somehow gained a stable access to ours, they would conquer us in a day! After all, your level of technology, military strength, and numbers all exceed us by far. But it seems that regardless of the cleverness of the select few, the vast majority of your kind remain no different from the mouth-breathing simpletons we have over here. Your politicians' insistence on handing the decision-making power to the common people, who in turn are unable to accept leadership based on competence and merit—by the Lords, surely you will destroy yourselves long before finding a way to bridge our realms.”

“Well, there’s a reason I wanted out,Izumi replied.

“Ah, now that we’re on this topic,” the Emperor added, “did this ever strike you as odd since you came to this world? How come we are so far behind you? We, the people of Ortho, have over thirty thousand years of recorded history behind us, since the dawn of the Covenant, and you don’t see us shooting rockets into outer space or building computers. How were you able to achieve so much more in a much shorter span of time? Isn’t that mysterious?”

You mean to say there is a reason for that?”

There is,” he answered. “The Covenant.”

“The Covenant? What do you mean? Isn't that the thing that keeps this world alive?”

Nobody ever told you this? I suppose it’s largely theoretical at this point. It’s been a thousand years since the last ritual, what little we knew about the system has been lost in time. Or is that all there is to it? After spending a great deal of time studying this subject and the materials we received from the elves, I believe I’ve found the true answer. The very Covenant, which revives our planet from the precipice of ruin—is also what keeps us from growing beyond it. How can that be? The answer comes clear when you look at history, or rather, the absence of it. Because on the Night of the Covenant, once every thousand years, our planet isn’t somehow magically blown full of life again by the reigning champion, as if it were a leaking balloon. It’s remade.”

Remade…?” Izumi repeated with a frown.

Precisely,” the Emperor nodded. “Whoever conquers the Trophaeum obtains the chance to rewrite the world itself from scratch. I imagine they are able to do whatever they please within a certain pre-established ruleset. Assign limitations to technology, to population, reshape geography, outright delete entire races from existence...Get the picture? That is the actual meaning of the ‘god-like power’ the myths speak of. Being simple warriors, the winners of the past probably didn’t have much of an imagination, or committed any profound changes. But even if they did, we’d have no way of knowing it. Their whims would become our new reality, accepted without question. Perhaps one of the former champions saw mankind’s growth as a threat, and simply because of that, we are forever doomed to the role of unsophisticated underdogs. Beyond this, the Covenant system protects itself by erasing people’s awareness of it each time it is used, forcing us to rediscover the same things again and again.”

Entire races could be deleted?” Izumi said. “If that’s possible, does that mean new ones could be made as well…?”

Ah, you’re catching on,” the Emperor flashed a cold smile. “Indeed. This is what I meant to tell you before. Why no daemons were observed in the previous cycles, it must be probably because none existed. They were brought into being through the power of the Covenant. What for? As a punishment for our misdeeds? As revenge? Because the previous champion hated the world so and wanted us to suffer? Well, your guess is as good as mine.”

Then,” Izumi suggested, “the easiest way to defeat all the daemons would be to delete them the same way? By using the Tower?”

Possibly, yes,” the man shrugged. “This is ultimately only my theory and I have not much proof to show for it. But, even if this were the case, why should we?”

What?” Izumi stared at the man in surprise.

Remember the prophecy?” The Emperor asked her. “A summoned champion will break the Covenant and bring about the Age of Chaos. And all we’ve built will fall to ruin. As far as I can see, the best solution to this rather significant problem is—to do nothing. Rather than enabling such a hazardous scenario, hoping our god-given fate could be miraculously diverted, we should be actively keeping people from following through with it.

But if no one conquers the Tower, then the world’s going to end, isn’t it?”

Perhaps,” he replied with a dismissing wave. “But it won’t happen in a year or two. The death of a planet will likely be a process lasting thousands if not millions of years. I won’t be alive there to see it. On the other hand, if someone does use the Covenant again, they might rewrite humanity out of existence altogether. Therefore, what incentive do I—or anyone—have to let such a dangerous ritual take place? No, it is my Imperial decree, that not a soul will be allowed to approach the Tower of Destiny. Fortunately, the daemons are doing an impeccable job at guarding the place, even without my input. So long as they’re there, no one will get anywhere close. Yet another reason to preserve their existence.”

And Lia?” Izumi asked the sorceress. “Are you fine with such a plan? Don’t you want to take back your homeland? You’re going to live longer than any of us, there’s a real chance that you’ll see the end of the world. And you’re all right with that?”

But Carmelia only replied,

All things must end one day.”

A momentary silence fell in the Throne Room.

Then, Izumi raised her voice once more.

I’m probably wasting my time asking this, but what were you planning to do with Yule?”

The princess?” Mayeshwal III replied. “Oh, nothing much. Ultimately, the talks about Langorian harbors and fleets and whatnot were only something I made up on the spot, to keep my ‘double’ busy. Seriously, negotiate with them? Looking at her highness, does it seem to you like Langorians are capable of rational thought? Please! I shall have all that they own. After I burn the rabble out of the way. The princess was to be used to provoke their first strike, to justify the campaign to the public. Well, that was at first.”

At first?”

Yes,” the Emperor continued with an unpleasant grin. “After meeting her highness in person, I changed my mind. I had something else for her. A contract, that I had that fool present as a gias of co-operation. It was a gias in appearance only. Woven between the lines was another spell, a charm. Not quite as powerful or lasting as a gias, but more convenient for me. Whereas a gias expects full awareness and voluntary agreement to the terms of the oath, a curse like this can be inflicted only with a signature. And from the moment of the contract's signing, the princess would have lived and died only for me, trapped by her lust, thinking of little else. Shame, it was there that my puppet decided to grow balls and destroyed the contract. Well, who can blame him? Aren’t we all equally enamoured by her highness? Even without much of a brain, her body is certainly splendid.”

Why am I not surprised?” Izumi sighed. “You were that guy’s boss, after all...”

Hm? Whatever. Any other questions left? If not, will you answer one for me instead? ‘New York, 1930’...I heard your people count time from the day someone they called a ‘Messiah’ was born? A savior, a king of men, chosen by God, who was destined to bring salvation to mankind. Have you heard of him? Mr Watts there appeared to believe this was a true story, but I have to wonder—did it really happen?”

Beats me,” Izumi replied. “Since I’m not a Christian.”

I see. Well, neither am I,” the Emperor smirked. “But, it is quite a funny coincidence. After all, for this world, I am something of a Messiah. The chosen king, who will save mankind from demise and obscurity. And live to tell the tale.

Izumi said nothing, but shuddered out of revulsion.

Anyway, thank you for all this,” the Emperor told her, clasping his hands. “I shan’t keep you any longer. It was a good chance to practice, since I have to explain all this again to the princess. Can’t wait to see her expression. That girlall her feelings just show right on her face. A fatal flaw for a monarch. Your reaction, on the other hand, is somewhat...tame. Like, is anybody home?”

Sorry,” Izumi told him. “But you’re not a cute girl, so your betrayal didn't mean much to me.”

His majesty’s expression clouded at her words.

That so?” he dryly replied. “Then, having played your part, it's about time you left the stage.”

Snapping his fingers, a self-content smile returning to his face, the Emperor leaned back and gave the order.

Carmelia. Finish her.”

Izumi didn’t move. She thought not about running or fighting.

There was no way out, after all. No meaning in even trying.

She had given her life to the sorceress, handed it on a silver platter, and this was the result.

The possibility of this miserable outcome had occurred to her, yes. And she had accepted it. It was a cost that couldn’t be avoided, in exchange for the powers that had allowed her to survive until this moment. She took this path while aware of the risk, and this was as far as it would take her. No matter where Izumi would run, the runes carved on her back would follow. Who was to say there wasn’t a specific combination of words etched onto her spirit, a kill-switch to shut her down, after she was done with her duty.

Not that a master of magic needed such underhanded tricks.

That thousand-year-old sorceress could probably annihilate a simple human with only a word, and there was no way for Izumi to evade or counter it. The limitations set on her arc were most likely planned with this very outcome in mind.

Therefore, all Izumi could do was accept her end. It was a particularly bad end, but she couldn't allow herself to have regrets. Therefore, only lightly sighing, she leaned onto her sword and patiently waited for death, in whatever strange, unpredictable shape it should come.

And waited.

However…

Time passed, but no incantations were spoken.

The Court Wizard uttered not a word, made no move, but simply stood where she was, as if she had turned into a life-sized figurine. Was this part of some bizarre ritual? Apparently not. Even the Emperor was starting to look uncomfortable, frowning at his magic counselor.

...Carmelia?” he finally asked. “What are you waiting for?”

The sorceress could hold her poker face no more.

A faint smile spread across Carmelia's lips as she patiently answered,

Why, the job remains unfinished. I tasked this woman to kill the Emperor. It seems there has been a slight misunderstanding, but no need for concern: there is still some time to take corrective measures.”

“……….”

“………...”

His majesty’s face fell.



6

Upstairs from the Throne Room, up and up, floor after floor, the ruler of the Empire escaped his foe, eventually emerging on a terrace on the edge of the dome, above the central palace. Knowing he would find no safety there, but lacking any other way out, he climbed over the parapet and attempted to cautiously skim down the curving roof. And partway was successful. However, the continuous rain had rendered the metal-plated roof treacherously slippery, and the descent turned unpredictably steep towards the end, causing his majesty to slip up.

Like this, he fell over the edge of the dome and onto the roof of the palace wing extending some twenty-five feet below. Although the drop was not deadly, his shinbone went and snapped by the poor landing, leaving the man lying crippled on the precarious platform. There he should have been outside the reach of conventional pursuit nevertheless, but conventional was not his pursuer.

Without much of a hurry, Izumi followed him the same way, enduring the controlled drop unharmed, with the Rune of Power fortifying her musculature.

The Emperor found himself cornered on the ridge across the slanted roof. A steep slide of roughly sixty feet on both sides, leading to a deadly drop—and behind his back, only the unprotected end of the edifice, followed by a plunge even more dramatic and no less deadly to a man of mortal composition. It was only by growing wings that one could have escaped such a predicament, and this was not within his power.

Thunder roared, illuminating the callous spires of Selenoreion around as they paid mute witness to this confrontation. Had a storm this hideous ever been seen before in the City of Lords?

Backing away before the unhurried advance of the reaper, Mayeshwal III eventually had no choice but to admit the impossibility of his escape. Therefore, he turned his attention back to the assassin, judging her to be the weakest link in this chain of unsympathetic physical elements.

Izumi walked grimly on, raising her blade.

Defiantly glaring at her, as if the thought of his demise was still utterly inconceivable to him, his majesty shouted while retreating,

Fool! You cannot slay me! I am the Lord of Lords, the master of all Noertia! I am the sole ray of hope that brings light to the darkness of this world! The future of mankind rests upon my shoulders! Without me to unite them, all the nations and all the races will drift apart, unable to achieve anything of worth! Our world will be plunged into the endless darkness of the Age of Chaos, whence there’s no return! I and only I have the power and wisdom to keep this from happening! Kill me here and you will have only doomed all those who you love and cherish!

So he boldly argued his case, convinced that justice and reason was on his side.

Determined that his nigh divine nobility would still save him.

Then, how responded his accuser?

What said Itaka Izumi, the human from planet Earth, after everything she had seen and been through, feeling the weight of her raised sword on her arm, the lives she had claimed on her heart, the fatigue from the past week’s battles on her shoulders?




——“I DON’T CARE!”




And so, as frequently happened, another page of human history was turned with a swift plunge of metal.

 

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Bio: I aim to create stories I'd personally love to read but which no one else will write.

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