16.0 Candela_Chapter 4: Zwischenzug

I’d always known how important it was to stay calm and collected, so I never let anything surprise me. Even back on Earth, nothing could break my poker face. Frank Stone could attest to that.

But that day shattered my poker face so badly I couldn’t piece it back together again.

After leaving the Dark Kingdom, I finally managed to make my way to the Southern Continent by joining a merchant caravan. The caravan went all the way to the capital of the Light Kingdom, Cerena.

When the glittering white city slowly emerged from the horizon, I praised its masterfully designed outer wall, and the long spires and tall towers of the King’s Castle that rose into the clouds.

Of course, I only praised it inside my head. Something of this scale couldn’t faze me at all. The city looked almost exactly like it did in the game, which was surprising because that meant the game developer’s initial design had lasted for nearly a thousand years.

The first thing that surprised me that day was an accident. I was leaving the market after buying some food when I bumped into a hooded figure wearing brown robes. Although my level had risen to 463 by then, this hooded figure managed to push me back!

I quickly checked their status and was instantly flabbergasted. Just what kind of a coincidence was this? Was this what Azoth called Fate? I walked into an alley outside the entrance to the market and waited. When she finally came out, I checked her status once more to be sure.

At first, I felt a strong urge to jump out and kill her but I restrained myself. After all, this was an opportunity! If I played my cards right, I could use the hero to achieve my own goals. I followed her as she left the city.

I made sure to stay hidden while following her down the rocky plateau. Although the difference in our levels should have made it impossible for her to notice anyway. Along the way, I began to formulate a grand strategy that would win me back my Kingdom.

I wasn’t strong enough to defeat Azoth and his followers on my own and finding a lot of powerful allies would be nigh impossible. Therefore, I needed to play this game a little differently. I needed to plan, to manipulate, to work the rules of this world in my favor.

A loud roar interrupted my thoughts. I stopped and hid behind a tree and began watching the Hero confront a Light Ogre. Based on her movements, I determined that she was already very adept at using her power. Even though she was only level 235 and the ogre was several levels above her at 273, she still managed to dodge its attacks while retreating. This made my urge to kill her even stronger.

I can slice off her neck while she’s distracted by the ogre. It’d be so easy. No! The plan, remember the plan Runir!

While I was arguing with myself, she fled backwards. Or rather, she started coming towards me. Did she find me? How was that possible? My stalking skills were unparalleled! I was surprised for the second time that day. A personal record.

“Hello Ms. Hero,” I said. I stepped out to save the hero and began the first stage of my grand strategy. I made it evident that I was far stronger than her and shocked her by revealing that I knew she was the hero.

“Hey uh, are you sure you aren’t confusing me with someone else?”

It would be easy to manipulate her, I concluded, so I tried to approach her, but her gaze flitted down to a very… vulnerable place. I halted in place. She was more dangerous than I thought.

“No, Ms. Lilith Grayscale. You are most definitely the Hero.” I kept calm and mentioned her name to unsettle her, and got a satisfying reaction. Then I tried to steer the conversation to where I wanted it to go.

But…

“…you creepy stalker!”

I was stunned, not only by the horrible accusation but also by the fact that she knew I had been following her for quite some time. This time, my expression changed and my poker face was thoroughly broken. This hero was really something.

“…bye!”

She capitalized on my weakness and tried to shame me into leaving. Or at least that’s what I thought she was doing.

I immediately turned the tables on her by telling her some fake story about going back to Earth. Her breathing stopped for a moment as she processed the information I had revealed and soon, she started dancing in the palm of my hand. Although she did give me a threatening glare when she began suspecting that I was the demon lord.

The goddesses probably wouldn’t tell us how to go home, but they would give us their blessings.

In the game, the hero and the demon lord were essentially champions representing two factions of eternally antagonistic goddesses who summoned their respective champion to fight on their behalf. The goddesses themselves wouldn’t interfere with the battle between the hero and the demon lord, and couldn’t harm or help locate either of them.

This made sense in the story because if the demon lord knew where the hero was early in the game, they’d be able to kill them very easily. This insane attention to detail and filling in of plot-holes was one of the reasons why Choices was my favorite video game of all time. It was also very well balanced. It was almost as easy to win as the demon lord as it was to win as the hero and there were a multitude of ways to win the game.

However, the hero and the demon lord had the same main quest: to visit all the goddesses’ shrines and receive their blessings. Each blessing gave the character a large power boost while also increasing their mastery of the type of magic the goddess governed.

I’d learned from the documents in the demon lord’s castle, although the previous demon lords and heroes had learned their power would increase after they received a goddess’ blessing, none of them had tried to receive all the goddesses’ blessings.

Which meant they thought the goddesses from the other faction wouldn’t bless them. Which in turn meant that they hadn’t played the game because in the game, the goddess would bless the hero or the demon lord regardless of which faction they supported.

I had my back to her as we talked. Her glare died down as I convinced her that I was not the demon lord. The rest of our conversation went smoothly after that. Soon, she agreed to go to the fire goddess’ shrine with me, just as planned.

I smirked at her and said, “My name is-” But I was interrupted by a loud shout.

A giant, flaming meteor was flying straight towards us. That was the fourth surprise of the day!

We ran as fast as we could but the meteor kept gaining on us. Just as I resolved to pick up the hero and run at full speed, the meteor went over our heads and crashed into the ground in front of us. What happened next was the fifth surprise of the day.

A beautiful girl ran out of the dust cloud and hugged the hero. She talked to her while completely ignoring my presence. But what surprised me even more – number six for those still counting – was what she said when she realized I was there.

She was on guard and incredibly suspicious of me. It was nearly a miracle she didn’t attack me. I tried checking her status but I couldn’t see it!

She was stronger than me, but judging by the fact that she didn’t attack me nor tell the hero to run, I determined that she wasn’t strong enough to see that I was the demon lord. After all, Obscure would hide more of your status depending on your relative strength compared to the person using Appraisal. It was possible that all she could see was my name.

The hero began explaining our plan to her but the newcomer was still skeptical. But she didn’t oppose it so I politely introduced myself.

“Runir Candela, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” I gave her a charming smile too.

I would have preferred giving a fake name to the hero, in case she came across the name of the current demon lord, but this new girl threw that plan out of the water.

After some reproachful words from the hero, she finally introduced herself as Amy Genis. Although I harbored some doubts about her name and identity, I decided to set them aside for now. This day had been a very surprising one, and I could do with some boring old walking.

But then I was surprised for the seventh time. I heard something strange, was someone… snoring?

The others noticed it too and we gave each other perplexed looks before following the noise. We pushed aside some bushes and found someone sleeping behind a tree just a few feet away from where Lily fought the ogre and where Amy had fallen from the sky as a giant meteor.

Just who could have slept through all of that? I mused.

We moved closer to the snoring figure. It was a boy, probably around my age, wearing weird, purple robes. His face was quite ordinary, and he was wearing very unfashionable glasses, so he would probably not stand out in a crowd back on Earth.

“Hey! Wake up!” said the hero, Lily.

The boy kept snoring. Lily frowned and went over to him.

“I told you to wake up!” she said, reaching for the boy.

“Wait! Something’s not right here,” I shouted, feeling uneasy.

“Of course something isn’t right here! It’s rude to wake someone up like this,” the boy said as he got up, almost as if he hadn’t been sleeping at all.

I blinked in surprise but it wasn’t too startling. What was surprising, however, was the fact that I couldn’t see his status either!

Fuck! Shouldn’t the hero and the demon lord be the strongest people in this world? Just who the fuck is he?

The boy glanced at all of us before smiling. An innocent smile that would fill anyone’s heart with warmth and coziness.

“Finally, I was starting to think no one was going to come here. I got lost in the forest ages ago and couldn’t find my way back. Thankfully, I’ve met you guys now! Say, would you mind taking me along to the next city? Please?” he asked, facing Lily.

Lily stared at him wide-eyed, and nodded unconsciously. The boy smiled and thanked us for our assistance. I met Amy’s gaze and saw the surprise in her eyes, mixed with a bit of fear.

She can’t see his status either? So he must be even stronger than her. Why would someone like that be taking a nap in the middle of the forest? Besides, if he was lost, all he had to do was follow the road in one direction and he’d come to a city eventually.

This guy… I don’t like him. Not one bit.

“Oh right! I forgot to introduce myself,” he said, fixing his glasses. “My name is Kairo Mezai, but you can call me Kai.” He smiled.

We continued to the city of Fohil but the atmosphere around our group was strange. Lily and Amy walked together; Lily trying to think of some way to break the ice and Amy trying to keep herself between Kai and Lily while glancing at me, occasionally.

Kai hummed a familiar tune while walking in a carefree manner while I tried to wrap my head around everything that had happened so far.

I’d started the day with what seemed like a stroke of good fortune but now I was stuck with a hero that could get under my skin and make me lose my cool, a frighteningly strong girl that was always on guard around me, and a terrifying powerful guy who was humming what sounded like the Happy Birthday song!

My head throbbed in pain as I tried to make sense of it all. I finally calmed down when I realized that my grand strategy was still feasible. Kai would leave when we reached Fohil and perhaps Amy could serve as a useful bodyguard for Lily while she grew.

The sun dipped over the horizon. The sky was awash with a beautiful crimson glow.

“We should probably make camp for the night,” said Kai.

We began preparing the camp. Lily collected firewood while Amy cleared the ground with her sword. Kai pulled out a tent from thin air, probably using the Storage skill, and I started setting it up while Kai pulled out some pots and pans. Lily returned with a bunch of sticks and branches began making a fire with Kai’s help.

We work surprisingly well together don’t we? I thought, feeling slightly strange as I finished setting up the tent.

Kai and the girls were making dinner so I set up a few security measures in the meantime. By the time I was done, a delicious scent was wafting through the air.

I walked over to them, losing my composure yet again as I started drooling. Kai looked at me, and grinned while passing me a plate of steaming, red curry. Amy and Lily were already wolfing down mouthfuls of curry with bread that Kai pulled out of his Storage.

This isn’t so bad, I thought.

I finished my plate of curry and asked for seconds.

I couldn’t sleep. The fire crackled behind me as I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag – a gift from Kai. I’d never been this restless before in my life, but then again, I’d never lost my composure so many times in a single day. And to top it off, I felt a strange warmth in my chest. It made me calmer than my poker face ever had, and gave me a weird sense of contentment.

Am I happy? No, my strategy requires ruthlessness! I can’t be tied down by these emotions!

I sat up in my sleeping bag and looked around. Kai had offered to take the first watch, claiming that he’d already taken a long enough nap. But even though he was supposed to be on watch, he lay on the ground by the fire with his eyes closed. Amy sat against a tree, pretending to sleep. She obviously didn’t trust us yet and quite frankly, I didn’t blame her. Lily’s breathing was shallow, so I surmised that she was also having trouble going to sleep.

Well, at least I wasn’t the only one. I stood up and started walking out into the forest.

“You shouldn’t go out alone at night, you know,” said a voice from behind.

“Mind your own business, Kai,” I said, frowning. I walked away from the clearing and started collecting my thoughts.

I want to defeat Azoth and his followers and take control of the Dark kingdom again. To do that, I need to get stronger and find powerful allies. Couldn’t these three be strong allies? Although their loyalties are questionable, perhaps I can draw closer to them and use them to achieve my own ends.

But Lily is the hero, and Fate will force her to fight me as soon as she finds out. Amy will obviously side with her over me. And Kai… well, I’m not sure.

Should I leave them and go on my own? No, I don’t think I’ll be strong enough in time to execute my grand strategy. Should I kill the Hero so she doesn’t pose a threat? No, I need her for now.

What about that Amy? Can I arrange for her death or lose her somehow? Probably not, she’s too strong and I don’t want her to be even more wary of me. I need to slowly win her trust.

And should I convince Kai to come with us to the Fire goddess’ shrine? He doesn’t seem like a bad person, perhaps he’ll agree to helping us find a way back home? But then again, I still don’t know who he is or what he wants. I should probably try to gather more information on him first. Although, judging by his actions, he either doesn’t know that I’m the Demon Lord or he doesn’t care.

Right! No use worrying about this for now. I can think about this in the morning. Fohil is still quite far away, after all.

I took a deep breath and walked back to the camp. A soft, orange glow flickered behind the trees. I froze as my eyes grew wide in shock and my mind went blank with disbelief. What I was looking at was the most surprising thing that had happened all day.

Amy still sat against a tree, but she held an arm over her eyes while tilting her head towards the sky. The flickering flame of the campfire reflected in the silvery streams running down her face.

Lily’s face was buried in her sleeping bag, with faint sobs and sniffles escaping the cloth while it shuddered as if it had a cold.

And Kai still lay by the campfire, his eyes closed and a sad smile on his face. I stared at the scene in front of me but couldn’t understand it at all.

“What did you do?” I asked, barely managing to get the words out of my mouth.

He smiled but he still didn’t open his eyes as he said, “I told them a story.”

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