Verse 3 – 6: The Stalking Nightmare Has Left a Mark
65 0 2
X
Reading Options
Font Size
A- 15px A+
Width
Reset
X
Table of Contents
Loading... please wait.

1

Down the staircase of a little brothel by the Pequed alley stepped the man known wide and far as “Heaven's Hand”. His formidable frame had to bend low to keep his head from hitting the ceiling on his way down, and his heavy feet made the old wood stairs squeak like tormented animals on each step. Although the warrior's mind was persistently elsewhere, he unconsciously controlled his weight just enough for the boards to endure his passage. The few customers around on the first floor quickly hid themselves at one glance upon his countenance, regardless of how it brought their valor and mandhood to question.

Not that anyone could blame them for it.

Even though the regulars and employees of the brothel alike had become more familiar with Waramoti's character and appearance in the years following his arrival at the Imperial capital, one simply couldn't gaze at the strongest hero alive and not be overcome with healthy fear and awe.

Normally, that is.

Lately, his looks had turned even stranger, more unsettling than usual.

For some reason, the man had painted himself blue.

That unusual paint covered most of his form from head to feet without any clear patterns or symmetry, hiding the iconic tattoos and scars coursing along his frame, disguising even most of his facial features. Stained blue all over was also his long hair, much to the vexation of the women who admired it. As if to further show off the color, the man wore next to no armor, save for bracers, combat shoes, a light leather vest with the front hanging open, and padded trousers, his muscular upper body and head otherwise bare and vulnerable.

Why?

No one could understand.

Was it war paint, in his native land’s fashion? Was he preparing for some difficult battle? Or had he gone mad in anticipation of one? Was it some religious rite, meant to ensure good hunting luck? Or was it just his favorite color? An accident with palace workers? The theories varied. Only one thing was for certain: no one dared to laugh aloud at the sight of him, even if the urge did occur to them.

 

Without uttering a word, Waramoti headed across the shabby little lobby to the front door, shoved it open, and disappeared into the night, allowing everyone left behind in the building to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The narrow alleyway outside had become flooded due to the heavy rain, which had started near the end of the sixth period. One of the downsides of being placed at the base of a hill. The few remaining, scattered cobblestones were about to become carried away by the various streams splitting the soft, muddy ground.

Waramoti paid the weather no heed, even as large droplets whipped his eyes and ran down his jaw. As said, his mind was elsewhere.

Where, exactly? Who could tell?

What went through the mind of a legendary hero, surely no average person had the capacity to understand him. Not even the most skilled mages out there could probe the thoughts lurking under that severe brow. His reflections remained known only to the man himself as he rarely made any effort to express them in public. Many songs, poems, ballads, and plays had been written about Waramoti's deeds, but not even the composers of those works of art presumed to understand the will guiding his weapons.

Yes, songs had been written about him.

That was, in truth, where the rub lied.

The warrior briefly paused, glanced up at the tearful heavens, letting out a barely audible sigh, and turned to head west down the alley, to his temporary home.

 

 

——“Hello handsome! I heard you have something of mine!”

 

 

At that moment, a sudden, cheerful call from behind his back interrupted Waramoti's feet. Slowly, the warrior turned his wide shoulders and looked back.

At the eastern end of the alley stood a lone woman.

A woman of foreign looks, in dark clothes. She was unarmed, but there was rather unfeminine fortitude in her confident pose. Moreover, her voice lacked fear. A quality no one addressing Heaven's Hand had exhibited in quite some time. Probably no one since his own mother. This aroused his curiosity for a fleeting instance. Who was she, exactly?

Then, that instance passed.

No matter how famous or powerful he became, Waramoti's days were never without challengers. Men, women, children, non-humans, even beasts, anyone who made a living through combat and desired fame in the field would sooner or later find their way to him, the mightiest of all. Victory or defeat, they thought to at least boast with the effort.

Although, in this case, the word “challenger” could just as well be substituted with “deranged, suicidal idiots”. The defeated would be left with no cause for pride, or the means to express it. Regardless of who they were or where from, their aspirations would all end the same way—miserably.

Something of yours?” Waramoti repeated, his voice low like distant, rumbling thunder.

That's right,” the woman nodded. “Well, it's not like I paid anything for it and I have no ownership certificate to show either, but I happen to have grown quite fond of the thing over our brief partnership, and I'd really like it back. So hand it over in peace and quiet, okay? I'm not normally the type to cry over stolen bicycles or such—but this is like buying a new game, only to find out that the store clerk has redeemed your DLC code. And I can tell you, that seriously blows.”

What?” the warrior wasn't quite following the conversation.

The sword, Steve,” the woman, Itaka Izumi, pointed at the weapon on Waramoti's back. “That's my sword. The harness too. I want them back, both, as they happen to have some emotional value, beyond the practical sort. Hurry up and take the hint! Not like you have anything else of value on you.”

Waramoti had claimed possession not only of Langoria's fabled relic, but also of the magnetite harness which allowed one to conveniently carry the great weapon on their back. For Izumi's slim figure, the sword had doubled for a shield in this fashion, but between Waramoti's wide shoulders, the Amygla looked awkwardly thin and frail.

This is yours?” the warrior said, removing the blade and holding it up in the air. “Then you were the assassin at the court? You have escaped?”

Could’ve been me, or maybe someone else, let's not get stuck on the little details, okay? If you give the sword back like a good boy now, I'll let you off with just a motherly scolding tonight.”

And if I don't?” The man watched rain bounce off the mirror-clear blade. It really was superb craftsmanship.

Then I'll have to pry it off your stiff, dead fingers,” Izumi answered. “And I happen to know someone who's wholly opposed to looting corpses, so I'd rather not, if I can help it.”

Her statement was followed by silence.

Only the muffled drumming of rain on the cheap plate roofs of the slums could be heard, as the warrior and the woman stared at each other, neither batting an eye. The brothel's gutter flooded over, throwing an irregular sprinkle on the lid of a trash can by the wall, pat-pat-pat-pat-pat.

Then, a customer staggered out of the building.

I'll be back, Ledivia! I promise I will!” he lovingly shouted back into the doorway. “As soon as the next payday comes, I shall come see you again! Please wait for me. And then I will keep my promise to—”

First he saw Izumi and forgot what he was saying. Then, following her line of sight, he saw Waramoti. Spinning around twice, the drunkard made a swift retreat back into the brothel and slammed the door shut behind him.

Tch,” Waramoti chuckled and turned to leave. “Go home, woman. I have no quarrel with you.”

 

 

——BADAM!

In the next moment, the trash can came crashing down on the warrior’s head. The lid went right, the bottom part left, leaving his shoulders veiled with the rotten remains of leftover food, dirty rags, and other miscellaneous things that were best left unidentified, as well as undescribed.

Needless to say, Waramoti stopped.

The trash can had been quite heavy, yet no visible harm had come to him. Visible harm, that is. What were the state of his pride and dignity at that moment, anyone could attempt to deduce this by imagining oneself in his iron-plated boots.

Oops, my hand slipped! Tehehe~!” the woman behind him announced, not in a very apologetic tone.

Pressing his lips tighter together, Heaven’s Hand turned, his eyes flashing with fury. He lifted the greatsword in his hand, which he had been about to put away, and flung it over his shoulder, like a whaler captain about to impale the fish he had an undying vendetta for.

Boom.

The blade shot through the rain like an unstoppable bolt.

The horrifying might of mankind's greatest hero behind it, it could have no doubt pierced a wild boar, like a toothpick would a ripe olive. His aim as well was without error. The sharp tip of the sword beelined for the lone woman's heart and sank through her soft figure with next to no resistance—or not quite.

Having provoked him on purpose, Izumi had of course anticipated the attack.

Reading the warrior's moves, tracing his line of fire, she quickly twisted her upper body sideways and threw her right arm behind her—to catch the handle of the blade as it flashed past her.

Still, the force behind the projectile was monstrous.

It pulled Izumi along with it and she was dragged back a good distance on the muddy street, sliding on her heels, before she could fully still the momentum. Her shoulder as well was nearly pulled out of its joint and the pain made her contort her brows.

But only the results mattered.

Once again, Izumi clutched her beloved weapon in her grip and nothing else mattered.

Thanks a bunch!” she gleefully said, shrugging off the pain, and faced Waramoti again. “This is nothing personal, kid, but I'm going to have to kill you now.”

Saying no more, completely forgetting about her earlier promise, Izumi dashed through the rain.

Hmph!” Waramoti, now left unarmed, made no effort to escape or look for a replacement weapon, but faced the woman head on.

Sprinting at him, side-stepping quickly at the very end, Izumi raised the greatsword above her head and cut down diagonally at her opponent's shieldless neck.

Waramoti, with no means to defend himself, raised his bare hand in a futile effort to—

 

BANG——!

With a steely, reverberating sound of impact, the Amygla's blade was stopped.

Receiving it with his unshielded palm, as if his hand were the strongest buckler in the world, Waramoti caught Izumi's killing blow and held her back, not giving in an inch.

Not a drop of blood seeped from the naked hand pushing against the edge of the elven relic. His skin was like that of a daemon—no, something even harder.

Impossibly hard. Its resilience surpassed even the hardest known metal in the world.

Of course.

 

Because he had painted himself blue.

 

The power protecting Waramoti's body wasn't mere paint or an enchantment, or anything that could be scientifically or magically measured, quantified, or compared.

It was nothing short of a “Law”.

Not a law written by the hands of mortal men, declared by any earthly judge or a politician, but an absolute condition set at the creation of the world.

A fragment of a true God's power——the Divine Authority of Lord Cinithlea.

Blue.”

So long as “blue” was one of the properties of an object, all that object's other properties could be freely modified by the Divine Lord. If only she willed it, something that was “blue” could just as well be “impenetrable” and “everlasting”.

It was the best possible measure the ancient spirit could take to ensure the survival of her mortal champion in war and peace, even if such shameless partiality violated the Covenant that the departed Gods had forced on their orphaned children. Not even a Divine Lord could escape such transgression without penalties. Cinithlea’s nepotism considerably diminished her power, and so long as Waramoti held her Authority, it could not be used for any other purpose—a sacrifice Lord Cinithlea herself considered more than worth it, but this was not the time to dwell on that.

Bending the blade aside with his mighty grip, Waramoti used his free hand to smack the bottom of it, forcing the handle from Izumi's grip. Not even trying to resist the force that would have shattered her wrists, Izumi quickly retracted her hands, and so the greatsword was sent spinning high up in the air.

Without waiting for it to land, Waramoti continued to strike his palm at Izumi's abdomen with rib-shattering might. But, having already retreated a step, ready to react, Izumi diverted the blow, guided it aside with her hand while turning sideways. Simultaneously, she lowered her posture, gripped his wrist, and pulled the man along with her.

Dragged by the added force of his own attack, Waramoti staggered forward a step. As he leaned on, Izumi lifted her hips and kicked him in the face with her knee.

Hn!”

The man reacted as if he had been hit with a pillow. The effect fell short of the desired, so Izumi followed up with an elbow strike on the bridge of his nose, but without any better results.

It was like hitting an anvil.

Unfazed, Waramoti tried to grab the woman’s neck with a swift sweep of his immense arm, but Izumi bowed deep forward to avoid it and then cartwheeled backward to escape the following kick. For once, she was glad for her shortened hair, which left the enemy less to get a hold of.

The Amygla came falling back, between the opponents.

Izumi reached out for it, but Waramoti quickly kicked up at her, forcing her to give up on the weapon again to evade. The handle of the sword hit the tip of his boot and so the blade was once again propelled into the night sky.

Continuing to chain his attacks without delay, Waramoti turned around and aimed a wall-crushing back kick at Izumi. Turning sideways, pulling her stomach in, Izumi wove past the attack by a hair's breadth. She stepped in along his leg, grabbed a hold under his immense thigh, stomped on his grounded foot, and then cast him over it into the street.

Despite his hefty mass, Waramoti rolled nimbly back up, drenched by the muddy water coating the ground. Not quite quickly enough, however. During the fragments of a second she was out of his sight, Izumi crossed the gap, and sank another heavy knee kick directly into his solar plexus, the minuscule area under the sternum, where muscles didn’t protect him.

Hnng,” the warrior let out a grunt and stiffened up. But his arms continued to move uninterrupted. He tried to pull his opponent into a cruel bear hug, which no doubt would have proven deadly. Izumi threw herself backward to evade it. Without hesitation, she dropped down on her back onto the muddy street and aimed a kick up with both legs, at his groin. With commendable swiftness and agility, Waramoti pulled himself sideways to dodge it.

The resulting distance allowed Izumi to bounce back up to her feet again.

The drenched, muddied opponents measured one another with their silent gazes.

One second, two seconds...Waramoti still didn't inhale.

He had the airs knocked out?

The paint was advertised to render the man invulnerable to all damage, but that didn’t quite appear to be the case. Strictly speaking, his body itself was not blue. The divine power only applied to the thin paint coating which veiled him, not his insides. It was no doubt the most powerful armor conceivable, but sufficient blunt force could still partially carry through the protective layer.

In other words, Waramoti's defense wasn't absolute...the discovery made Izumi's pulse quicken with competitive excitement.

I might actually have a shot…!

But just having a slight chance made success far from guaranteed.

Any ordinary man would've been down for the count, helplessly coughing and gasping for air. But even though he had been temporarily deprived of oxygen, Waramoti remained alert and ready. He masterfully contained his rage and frustration at the unexpectedly troublesome opponent, controlled even his body’s autonomous reflexes, and kept his guard up. Whether he knew pain or not, he allowed not a hint of it to show on his face. His dark eyes continued to watch Izumi with the calmness of a professional, waiting for the fatal opening to turn the tables.

Rather than a man, it was like fighting a statue.

Though it went without saying.

The strength of “Heaven's Hand” was by no means that of an average person—but neither was it all his own innate excellence or experience. His ability as a combatant was further augmented by Lord Gwanlyn's blessing. Mental and physical fortitude akin to solid stone; silent strength that outlasted kingdoms...Slowly, the warrior forced the stiffened abdominal muscles to relax.

Izumi had to make the most of her opponent's temporary handicap.

Spying a flash of steel in the dark, she moved.

Dashing again at Waramoti, she caught the falling greatsword along the way and swung it down in a perpendicular line, aiming to cleave the blue-painted forehead in two. The enemy evaded by leaning his upper body deep left, like a dancer. Continuing to turn on her heels, Izumi’s hands flowed from one cut into another. Tracking the blade with his eyes, Waramoti deflected the waist-level cut with the back of his arm. Izumi withdrew a step and stabbed back without delay.

Again and again, she struck at her foe, aiming at his soft spots, his unpainted eyes, his joints, groin, and sides, to keep him moving and reacting, to prevent him from catching his breath. If only she could keep him from breathing for long enough to cloud his consciousness and land the final, debilitating blow, victory would surely be hers.

All in all, her tactic was excellent.

But, little by little, Izumi’s efforts boiled down to nothing.

The opponent calmly received each and every one of her attacks with his bare hands, finally catching the Amygla by coiling his long arm around the blade. With the weapon locked tightly under his armpit, steely bicep, and wrist, Izumi found that she was stuck.

Were she to let go of the sword, Waramoti would reclaim it and cut her down in a heartbeat. On the other hand, by keeping her hold, she was right within the reach of his murderous fingers.

Kh...”

Check and mate, was it…?

Had Izumi calmly thought things through in advance, she might have perhaps realized the underlying flaw in her plan. Like an amateur, a gambling addict of the worst kind, she had been lured too far by the theoretical promise of victory, and fell in a trap.

After all, the approach she had bet on was a fallacy from the get-go.

The last of the three, Lord Yubilea's blessing, the blessing of the festive fire that lifted people's spirits. This divine power enabled one to maintain their peak performance, regardless of the type of activity, regardless of all other conditions involved.

In short, even on the brink of unconsciousness, on the brink of death itself, so long as even the faintest spark of sentience remained in him, Waramoti could do battle just as well as when fully rested and fresh.

Battle of attrition—that is, any and all forms of combat relying on indirect measures to wear down the enemy—were completely ineffective against him. Wasted.

Having bought himself all the time he needed, Waramoti slowly drew breath.

...Your movements grow dull, woman.”

The many hours Izumi had poured into competitive game modes in her past world allowed her to recognize when the tide had turned against her. No, even before experience or intuition, her physical body informed her of this. While her opponent recovered, this pause enabled fatigue to catch up with her instead, lactic acid filling and numbing her burdened muscles, undoing the benefits of the initial rush of adrenaline. Any suggestion of pushing the limits with sheer willpower were senseless.

The chances of victory were now zero.

To a casual observer, Izumi's usual optimism might have seemed like the sort that came at the cost of denying reality. However, this was not the case. Her eyes had trained to spot opportunities, and she had confidence in her ability to make the most of such, that was all. One could say that the true source of her strength was not any technique or a skill, but that she knew herself inside out, simply put. And just as well she could tell when all the possibilities were exhausted or beyond her.

Izumi was a poor loser, but she wouldn't refuse facts, she accepted them upfront. In her past world, in the world of digital entertainment, this meant swiftly exiting the game before even looking at the final score, and throwing the controller into the wall.

So she did now as well—sans the bit about the controller.

Izumi tilted her head, to look past Waramoti’s shoulder and gasped.

...No way! What are you doing here!?”

Hm?” Waramoti reflexively glanced back as well.

Of course, there was no one there.

—“Fell for it!”

Planting her foot on the warrior’s side in this brief moment of confusion, Izumi pulled the weapon from his hold with all her weight, as if to re-enact the legend about the sword in the stone.

Fortunately, rainwater eased the inertia, and she fell backwards onto the street a short distance away, with the greatsword in her embrace. Her kick, of course, was without any noteworthy effect on her enemy. The opening was much too slim to allow for a comeback attack. In a blink of an eye, Waramoti turned back and raised his fists, ready to pummel her.

But Izumi had no intention of continuing the fight. Using her one second of freedom efficiently, she drew a letter onto the puddle beside her and yelled,

Brandt!”

The Rune of Ignition activated immediately. All the water around the rune was instantly vaporized by the magically induced heat, veiling both of the combatants in a rapidly expanding burst of steam.

 

By the time the vapor slowly cleared, pressed down by the ceaseless rain, Waramoti saw that he stood in the alley alone, his outstretched hands gripping only air. He looked in vain for the opponent’s tracks in the mud, which had already been trampled by countless feet today. The rain also muffled the sounds of the distancing footsteps that faintly echoed between the tightly spaced shanties. It would take a while before he could find a patrol to raise an alarm and block the slums’ exits. Imperial guards tended to avoid these parts.

In the end, weighing his options, the man determined that a long, hot bath was vastly preferable to chasing dying criminals in the night and turned to head home, rubbing his jaw. The loss of the beautiful sword was bitter, yes, but he had a feeling it would be returned to him.

Soon.

 

 

2

Learning from Benjamin that the woman from the other world had gone to challenge the strongest man alive by herself, Court Wizard Carmelia spent a lengthy moment lost in total silence. There she stood like a painting, not moving a muscle, unable to hear or see anything.

No matter how long she lived among them, human stupidity never ceased to baffle her. How could something so senseless even be real?

Was this peculiar sort of madness a characteristic unique to the life forms of the other world, or was it perhaps an underlying trait shared by humans in every potential parallel reality out there? It was as if their very maker had despised them and cursed them to undo themselves in various, most obviously self-destructive ways, which no outsider could ever hope to understand, let alone prevent.

How then had humans been able to live for so long and imitate intelligent life to such a convincing degree? Was there some particular cunning lurking in them that avoided detection by disguising itself as lunacy? Was this lunacy then, in fact, an evolved survival tactic, like the ink-veil of a squid, a way of feigning superficial competence in an effort to intimidate superior predators? Was in the summoned woman’s seemingly senseless behavior in fact crystallized the prime reason mankind had been able to thrive across eons?

Or was it—Carmelia shuddered to think—just what it looked like? Plain old idiocy, naivety, recklessness, and any semblance of intellect observed in the person had only been her own misunderstanding and wishful thinking?

Either way, it was hopeless. With the Divine blessings still in place, the confrontation between Izumi and Waramoti could only end one way.

Eventually recovering, the sorceress decided to leave thinking about human nature to another time, sent servants to search for the corpse, and retreated to the terrace garden. There she gazed out into the rainy night while wondering where exactly had she gone so wrong that all her plans, hundreds of years in the making, should end for such a random reason.

Death could come to anyone, at any moment, Carmelia knew as much.

There was nothing to lament about this simple, natural truth.

But even so, the events of the past days felt too ridiculous and random to be chalked up to mere luck or lack thereof, work of impersonal chance. Was she, like the rest of her kind, still punished by some unseen force, for their arrogance of so many ages ago?

Yes—perhaps it her people, above all, who were hated by the Gods?

“Hm...?”

An hour later, Carmelia stirred from her melancholy. Someone was in the garden.

This might have been the territory of a genuine sorceress, with numerous wards in place, but no magic whatsoever was required for her to sense a simple human presence.

The barrier warning of unlawful entry hadn't reacted. Whoever it was, they had to have a key. One such key Carmelia had given to the human woman, for when she should return from the Temple. The garden's back gate was a suitably secluded way into the palace, which one could access without having to deal with a host of guards.

Did this mean the key had ended up in Waramoti's hands now?

Yet another tragic miscalculation.

Had the warrior figured out the mastermind pulling the assassin's strings and traced her steps back here? It was said that the first-ranked hero was a masterful hunter and never let his prey escape. Had he come for revenge then?

Carmelia had already resigned to her pitiful fate, when the dark figure of the intruder wobbled into view up the stairs.

It wasn't Heaven’s Hand.

I'm home,” Izumi greeted the sorceress with a weary smile.

And then fell flat on her face on the lawn.

There she lied, under the rain, and didn’t move again.

Frowning, Carmelia stared at the human, wondering if her eyes weren't deceiving her. No, it really was her. In the woman's grip was also a large sword, covered entirely in mud, like she was. She had to have dragged it across the city, exhausted though she was.

Or, was it simple exhaustion?

You're...dying,” the sorceress observed the waning signs of life.

Thought so,” Izumi powerlessly replied. “Haven’t felt this awful since I saw End of Evang****n. But I got the sword back. Ha.”

What…?”

The woman had stolen her weapon back from Waramoti? That was the reason she had gone out of her way to challenge him? In a fight where simply escaping with her life would have been outrageous enough, she had...

Carmelia strode over to Izumi, seized the woman by the coat collar and lifted her up in the air like a stray cat. Male or female, warriors or scholars, the strength of a matured cirelo could support one human without effort worth mentioning.

Forgetting her earlier depression in a flash, Carmelia’s mind was busy at work once more. Could the human still be saved? Her gaze peered through Izumi, through her mortal flesh and bone, searching for the cause to her weakening condition.

The woman's face was eerily pale, heartbeat slow and wavering, her blood pressure dangerously low. But she was still conscious. She didn't appear to be wounded or bleeding either, all the organs and bones were intact. Whatever battle she had fought through was not the cause to her declining state.

Then what exactly was ailing her? It had to be investigated closer.

When something eluded her understanding, Carmelia’s drive as a scholar compelled her to unravel the answer. That part about her hadn’t changed in the thousands of years she had lived. She viewed the matter in her hands as only another puzzle and was determined to solve it. Dragging Izumi along, Carmelia turned back towards the palace. There were a lot of stairs to climb, and the woman didn’t have the strength left to stand or walk. By her state, she was mere moments away from slipping into coma, followed by death within hours, by morning at latest. The sorceress opened a portal directly into the library and carried Izumi through it.

On the other side, young Benjamin Watts was still absorbed in late night study.

What in the—?” Seeing the Gate of Shadows, the man jumped up to his feet, stunned. “Carmelia? What are you—?

Then he noticed Izumi in the sorceress's hold and fell silent.

“Oh my.”

Clear the table,” Carmelia instructed him.

Benjamin swept the books and papers off the library table and moved the candlesticks, allowing the sorceress to lift Izumi on it. It was not really a place fit for treating a patient, but there was no way they could take her to the palace ward either. Izumi being an escaped convict, many unnecessary questions would be asked, with other, more complicated problems to follow.

Let go,” the sorceress wrung the muddy sword from Izumi's persisten grip and absentmindedly tossed the weapon onto the floor. With unabashed hands, she then tore open the woman’s coat and shirt front.

That's...going much too far on the first date...” Izumi mumbled, barely awake anymore.

What the...?” Benjamin stared at the woman’s exposed midriff, past the sorceress and grimaced.

The flesh on Izumi's sides was badly bruised and darkened, with countless expanded veins starkly visible and stretching across her otherwise sickly pale form, like a toxic-looking webbing.

What is that? Is this Waramoti’s doing?” he asked.

This is...” Carmelia's eyes widened as she examined the injuries. She gave Benjamin a quick, odd look, and asked, Have you ever touched this woman?”

What?” he raised his brows. “No? No, no way. Of course not. We're not in that kind of a relationship, gosh no. I prefer younger girls, personally, I wouldn’t go along with just anybody, you know? Though I admit her body's fairly nice and well-preserved for her age and makes me see mature women in a whole different light, but ultimately...”

The look on Carmelia’s face was enough to silence him.

Have you at any point been in a physical contact with this person?” she reiterated with chilling clarity.

N-no, I, I don't think so...She wouldn't even shake my hand—which I think is awfully rude—”

Then leave the room. Immediately.”

Seeing that the magician wasn't joking, Benjamin fell silent and quickly left the library, closing the doors behind him.

Hit me with the bad news, doc,” Izumi momentarily regained her senses to recognize Carmelia and asked. “Is it terminal?”

Not many things more terminal exist,” Carmelia answered. “This condition is known as silen devehra among my people, or ‘touch of death'. It is not a conventional disease, but a curse unique to a certain monster. You have been wounded by a daemon. Your soul itself has become corrupted. Life retreats from you and your flesh rots as the effect advances. I cannot fathom how you are still alive. You should have died within hours of exposure. It appears that something is slowing the curse's progress in your body.”

Lucky me, huh?” the woman forced a little laugh.

Carmelia stood still, unsure of what to do. If the patient were of the aldervolk, a simple strengthening solution would have been enough to help her natural vitality combat the infection. The hit had to have been light, just a brush. While the injury was this mild, a robust warrior was likely to recover on her own.

But the victim in this case was a human. They had rarely had contact with the Enemy, and when they did, they would not last long enough to be treated. Life was weak in them, their spirit sporadic and unfocused.

Were it anyone else, Carmelia would have had no choice but to euthanize the woman and have the corpse incinerated. No, it was the only correct course of action in any event. After all, if left be, there was a risk that she would eventually—But, perhaps it was still too soon.

The woman yet lived, even two weeks after contamination. It should have been impossible, but she did. It was only after pushing herself to the physical limit that she had finally succumbed to the curse.

Did that change anything?

Why?” In doubt, the sorceress asked. “The symptoms surely didn’t appear today or yesterday. You must have been in pain for weeks. Why did you try to hide it? Why did you agree to my request, knowing that you didn’t have much time? You should have known success was beyond you.”

I didn't know that...” Izumi slowly replied. “I thought I might get it done real quick, but this job sure snowballed out of hand fast. Ahaha. I honestly wanted to say no too. I thought I’d just die in that dungeon cell and be forgotten by everybody. That would’ve been the easiest way...”

Then...what changed your mind? Why did you choose to even try?

What do you mean why?the woman laughed weakly at the question. You were...a gosh-darned adorable kitty, you know?”

Izumi passed out.

For a few heartbeats, Carmelia remained frozen before the patient.

Then, she turned and strode to her personal study. There she approached an ornate cupboard in the very back of the otherwise plain room. There were no locks or handles on the carved cupboard doors, yet it would have been impossible for anyone else to access.

At Carmelia’s touch, a set of faint runes appeared hovering in the air, which she swiftly touched in the correct order to unlock her personal apothecary storage.

On the shelves were numerous little glass vials, bottles, and jars containing colorful liquids, dried leaves, fruits, and miscellaneous things of suspicious, exotic origins. These items weren’t of particular value to any human thief, but their loss would have been a severe setback anyhow, as none of them could be found on the continent of Noertia, at least not in their natural state.

Ignoring most of the storage, Carmelia took out a small, wooden box from the top shelf and opened the silvery hatch keeping it shut. Inside were indentations for eight small vials, of which only two remained. They were filled with vermilion liquid, of slightly cleaner and more vibrant hue than human blood. Here the sorceress hesitated again, but then took out one of the vials, before shoving the box back in and locking the cupboard.

She returned to the library where Izumi remained lying on the desk, unconscious.

Not quite dead yet. Most likely, she had passed out from the pain and fatigue. The woman occasionally shivered, as if terribly cold. To think she had gone off to challenge Waramoti in such a state, just to get the sword—she had to have been the greatest idiot in the world. How she hadn’t been killed in the warrior’s hands, it could only be considered a miracle.

Why had she done something so senseless—the sorceress gritted her teeth at the answer. It made her angry, angrier than she could recall feeling in a long while.

Sending others to their deaths was nothing new to Carmelia.

Soldiers and servants sacrificing themselves for her creed, it had happened so many times by now that she had grown wholly numbed to it. But this woman hadn’t done it for any notion of greater good. Not out of a sense of duty.

Not for the world.

Not for the unity of the races.

Not for the survival of mankind.

Not even for her own personal gain.

Only for—

Because of such a meaningless thing, this fool…

 

Overcome with unusual frustration she didn’t know how to explain even to herself, Carmelia tore open the lid of the vial. Not a drop of the invaluable medicine could be wasted. She raised the vial to her lips and emptied it in her own mouth, then taking hold of the woman’s head. Raising Izumi’s chin slightly up and forcing the lips apart, Carmelia sealed those lips with her own, and carefully released the serum, making the patient ingest it all.

 

 

2