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“Grendel, are you okay?” Altera drew her partisan, pointing it at whoever had shot him in the back.

Unable to verbalize, Grendel raised his thumb and turned around, facing the newcomers. Bullets stuck in his armor. They had shattered his scales, but the surrounding ones had caught them like a net and prevented them from penetrating his flesh. The wound was little more than a scratch – literally.

Two figures entered the corridor through the door on the far left end. The first soldier wore a white suit, and a black cape hung from her shoulders. Her dark red hair, she had combed back. She had pistachio eyes and an abstract tattoo resembling a flower stretched from her chin to her left eye.

The other intruder wore the standard Vaix uniform whose sleeves he had ripped off, exposing his biceps. His ebony eyes scouted the environment, and his brunette hair hung from his elongated head like the segments of a scorpion tail. His fingers rested on the triggers of his guns, their smoking muzzles pointing both at Grendel.

“What a shame.” The man frowned. “Two bullets and no penetration.”

Grendel glanced at Ragna.

Her body tensed up, her hand clinging to her sword. Whatever she or anyone else was going to say about his form became irrelevant in the presence of these two individuals. It didn’t take a second for their brains to recognize the faces of the soldiers.

Grendel blew air from his snout. Neither of the two enemies tried to attack or close the distance. They just stood there.

Were they trying to analyze the situation? Trying to guess what he was?

Both individuals could tower over his humanoid form. He had transformed, but his tail twitched.

“What’s going on?” Puck asked.

Of course, he would. He couldn’t know who the enemies in front of them were.

Grendel couldn’t see Puck, but his body was probably the only one not tensing up.

“They are Paladins,” Altera said. “The elite guard of the Kaiser. Arturo Diavolo and Lif Evergreen.”

Fuck. This was the worst-case scenario: Not one, but two Paladins.

Diavolo clapped with his guns. “So, you know us. I think I can forgive this naughty girl for not giving our majesty proper respect.”

“Who wouldn’t recognize the Monster of Baghdad?” Ragna sneered. “The kingslayer.”

The joy in Diavolo’s face disappeared. He frowned and growled. ”That’s what you remember?” He facepalmed and flinched, realizing too late that he held a gun in his hand. “Of course. It is. Why wouldn’t it be the king slayer? It’s not like I did anything else that day.” He sighed. “I killed 3.476.000 people. But I was only judged and hated because two of them happened to be head of states. Is a human life worth nothing?” Diavolo widened his arms, his fingers gripping his guns. “The entire population of Baghdad, over a thousand soldiers, and at least ten Valkyries. But no one talks about that. It’s like, do people even care about their lives? Don’t they have value as individuals? They all had lives. Friends and families who mourned. Did anyone ever care about them? Sometimes, I feel like the world sees them as just a statistic. One life shouldn’t have more worth than another. And surely two aren't worthier than millions. Ah, fuck it. Might as well embrace it." Diavolo bowed like a butler. "I’m the Monster of Baghdad who slew the former President and Kaiser. The Paladin of Hashmalim. Arturo Diavolo. And my companion here’s the Paladin of Elohim. Lif Evergreen.”

No one reacted to Diavolo’s rant. If they allowed him to distract them, the Paladin would use the slightest opportunity to strike. Jokes, banter, insults, idiosyncrasies. In the hand of an experienced warrior, they became weapons.

“What’s the situation, Virtue Mandricardo?” Evergreen asked the commander who had used to the situation to retreat behind the Paladins’ backs.

“All Grigori are out. Causalities unknown. The AG’s defeated as well.”

“What poor performance,” Diavolo clicked his tongue.

Evergreen looked around. First, at her soldiers wincing on the ground and then at the walls. Fissures and cracks ran through the stone. Their once solid structures were in tatters.

“How barbaric.” Evergreen caressed the walls. “This temple’s the last vestige of a civilization lost to the sands of time. Yet, you desecrate these holy grounds with mindless violence and destruction. You didn’t learn anything from your genocidal ancestors.” She put her hand on the holster hanging from her hips. “But I didn’t come here to spread death. Nor will I allow these sacred grounds to suffer more. “I just wish to recover my comrades. Let me gather them, and, by the honor of the great Kaiser, I will leave this temple without sheathing my blade.”

֎

Ragna tightened her grip. Her mind started to recollect what rumors, records, and social media told about the Paladins.

Scarce information existed about Lif Evergreen, the newest known member of Vaix's elite guard. Was she telling the truth or lying? It could go either way. Arturo Diavolo’s infamy, by contrast, reached every corner of the world. Even if Evergreen honored her words, would the same apply to Diavolo? He had yet to withdraw his guns.

“Yeah, that won’t work.” Diavolo pointed at Eric. “You see that guy there with the hat. It took me a bit, but I remember him. Eric Mort. We hired him.”

What? That had to be a lie.

Ragna ground her teeth, and her jaw cracked. It took every ounce of willpower to keep her reactions to a minimum.

What expression did Eric show? She couldn’t afford to turn around. What if Diavolo wanted them to turn on each other? This guy was oozing with poison, waiting to drip it on others.

"Eric Mort. Give us what we paid you for, and you can all leave alive. Fail to comply, and it means bye-bye.”

“Yeah, can’t do that,” Eric said. “The skull’s gone.”

Wait. So, Eric was in the temple because of Vaix? Were they trying to use the god’s power? No. Eric would never be okay with that. He was their friend and helped them out. At least she had to hear his version of the story. Then, she would judge him.

“Your lying!” A furrow built between Evergreen’s eyes.

“As you see, you failed to satisfy anyone.” Diavolo looked at Ragna. “Last chance. Give him up, and we’ll let you go.”

Within an instant, water shot from beneath Diavolo’s feet into the air. It froze and encased his limbs in a pillar of ice. Only his face was free.

“Don’t get me wrong.” Ragna’s arm tremored. Her voice had gotten cold, and not once did her eyes look at Eric. “Once we’re in the clear, I want an explanation.” She turned to Evergreen. „New terms. You tell us what you’re doing here. You let us go. And in turn, your friend won’t end up as shish kebab.”

Ragna summoned a spike from the pillar, its edge bruising Diavolo's face.

Evergreen grunted. “You savages are all the same.” She unsheathed her sword and pointed it at the ice construct. “Pretending to negotiate when you just force your will upon the oppressed. Virtue Madaricardo, secure all Grigori.”

Black Mana coated the katana, and Evergreen swung her blade against the pillar. The sword cut through the ice. It burst and fell to the ground, freeing Diavolo.

He shook the water and clumps of ice from his body.

The commander started to limp towards the bodies of their comrades.

֎

“Foreplay’s over. Time to get busy.” Diavolo pointed his guns at Ragna. “Just between us, I was praying you wouldn’t comply.”

He fired.

Grendel rushed forward and took the bullets head-on. His armor's breastplate stopped their momentum, and they grazed his skin.

As long as his flesh remained untouched, he should be fine.

Evergreen swung her katana, the blade locking with Ragna’s sword. Past Grendel sped Altera and Puck, both choosing Evergreen as their target.

Perfect. Grendel roared. He couldn't handle two Paladin, but one, he should manage.

Diavolo shot again.

Grendel lunged with his tail and swiped the bullets away. With his claws extended, he swung his arm.

Diavolo performed a backflip. Evading the slash in midair, he aimed his gun at Grendel and shot.

Through instinct, Grendel cocked his head and opened his mouth. The air heated up. Fire erupted from his muzzle. Streaming at the falling Diavolo, the flames melted the bullets.

In mid-jump, Diavolo tilted his body. The fire brushed past him, and he fell. Softened the blow with his arms, Diavolo performed a backward roll and fired a bullet in the same breath.

Grendel blocked it with his tail. But that second gave Diavolo the time to stand up.

“That was hot.” He looked incredulously at Grendel. “What the fuck are you?”

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