I’d learned a lot of things on the Hill outside Reneste. A lot of things about this world, about its people and the lives that they lived, the challenges that they faced. Their hopes, their dreams, their struggles and their joys.
I’d also learned a lot about myself. Not just about my powers or my Ability. No, I’d learned a lot about who I was as a person.
Sure, I’d learned what my identity was in the hearts and minds of the people of Erath. I was Fate. The ever present force that dictated their lives. I was feared and worshiped. Hated and respected. Loved by some, detested by others. For most people, I evoked a mix of conflicting emotions and I understood that. I understood how they saw me and what I meant to them, which helped me understand my position in Erathan society.
But perhaps the most important thing I’d learned about myself, was who I was as a person. My personality. What made ‘Kairo Mezai,’ ‘Kai Zero.’ The emotions I felt. My beliefs, my wants, my desires. I’d learned it all.
On the Hill, I had learned who I was. And it had been a meaningful experience.
Was I pleased with who I was? Of course not. Some aspects of my personality disgusted me. But then there were others that I could objectively praise. But no matter what I’d learned, one thing was clear to me; I was not the kind of person who could let the evils of this world weight down on his conscience.
After all, I had made this world. All of the problems facing its people were, in a way, caused by me.
However, I wasn’t naive enough to think that the people of Erath were completely innocent. The bonded laborer system was not of my design. It was not something I had made.
But I had to share some of the responsibility for it. The Air kingdom initially hired laborers to offset the loss of mana crystals from the bottom of their floating island. At first, they’d mined the crystals because of their insatiable desire to improve their battle capabilities because they had discovered the crystals’ potential for war.
But then they realized the value of the crystals or the ‘Breize stones,’ as they’d come to be known, in other aspects of life and had used them to fuel their economic and industrial development. The crystals were to the people of Erath what oil and gas was to the people of Earth.
And their actions had proven that analogy.
So a part of the plan I had made on the Hill included a way for me to undo the mistakes of the Air kingdom. To free the laborers and to rescue their economy from its absolute dependence on the crystals. But like the rest of the plan, there were some restrictions and considerations to bear in mind.
After all, I had to look at the bigger picture. Since I was the only one who could see it. And speaking of the bigger picture…
A map of Erath stretched out in front of my eyes. I focused on the capital of the Air kingdom, Laput. Houses had crumbled and roads had cracked apart. The city was in shambles.
I zoomed in on the palace, towards the throne room. The tower was lopsided and a huge chunk had fallen out. The roof of the attic had caved in but the throne-room had avoided a similar fate.
“Did you find them?” asked the woman wearing goggles.
“No, my Goddess. We could not find any trace of them,” said the old lady with her head bowed low.
The Goddess sighed. “As I suspected. If those two have teamed up, we cannot expect to find them. Even my hands are tied.”
The queen regent looked up. “Forgive my insolence, oh exalted one, but is it really true? Are the Hero and the Demon Lord really-”
“Yes. For whatever reason, they are working together. In fact, the only reason I can say this is because you’ve already heard their names and arrived at the same conclusion. Which reminds me, how is your son?”
The queen’s gaze fell. “His physical health is fine but as for his mental state…well, it will need some time to remedy.”
“He doesn’t trust us anymore, does he?” asked the Goddess.
The queen shook her head. “No. This experience has thoroughly shaken everything he believed in. He’s locked himself in his room and won’t let anyone in. Not even Ms. Taiker.”
The Goddess looked out the window. “So many questions…this whole thing has been a confusing mess. The Hero and the Demon Lord, two entities that should have been at each others’ throats, worked together to bring down the Air kingdom because they didn’t like the bonded laborer system? They both came to me to get their blessings. How could they endure letting their mortal enemy get stronger? How could they possibly resist the pull of Fate? And that’s not even the most confusing part…”
“What could be more confusing than that, exalted one?”
“I confronted them to buy you some time. Just before you surrounded them with your guards, I blew out the candles and tried to take down the other members of their party but…I was blocked by something. In the end, I could do nothing but leave empty-handed.”
The old lady frowned. “But two members of their party disappeared? If you didn’t take them away, where did they go…and why?”
“The Demon Lord went to the catacombs. He slid through the shadows and rushed there as if he knew the place like the back of his hand. He knocked out the masters and riled up the laborers even before they were released. Then he led them to the surface as the catacombs began to cave in. By the time we fell to the ground, he had already rescued every single laborer.”
The old lady’s eyes widened. “And the other one?”
The Goddess closed her eyes, as if contemplating something. “She went somewhere else. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal much more than that. Please forgive me.”
“No, no exalted one!” said the old lady frantically. “It is I who should apologize for prying into your matters. Please, allow me to apologize for my transgressions.”
“It is fine.” The Goddess walked up to the window. “Besides, that’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me today.”
“I understand. The deaths of your people must be weighing down on you, oh merciful one! But do not worry, no one will doubt that you did everything in your power to-”
“That’s not it.”
“I almost wish that were the case…”
The queen blinked in surprise. “Did something even worse happen, oh Exalted One?”
The Goddess’ figure vanished and a gust of air blasted through the room. “You’ll see…”
The Queen stood near the window for a while; frozen not just by her respect and reverence for the Goddess, but also by her confusion. She stood up with a jerk as someone knocked on the door of the throne-room.
“Enter,” she said, in a regal and majestic voice that conveyed her authority and status.
“My Queen,” said the guard as he entered the room and bowed low. “The damage reports you requested are in.”
The Queen nodded her head slowly. She sat down on the throne and brought out a bottle and a glass from her Storage. She poured herself a drink and gulped it down quickly.
“Very well, let me hear it.”
The guard spoke and the queen’s glass fell to the floor.
“Is that true?” she asked. “But…how could that be?”
I zoomed out, having seen what I had wanted to. Everything was going according to plan. But then again, I’d never doubted that it would.
After all, I knew exactly who I was and that didn’t leave much room for doubt.
I heard someone groaning beside me. I turned to see Lily slowly opening her eyes. She blinked a few times, trying to regain her bearings. Her eyes widened as she seemed to remember something. She looked at me.
“Kai! Why are you- where are- what happened?” she gasped.
“Calm down, it’s all right. Everyone’s safe,” I said, flashing her a reassuring smile.
She wasn’t convinced.
“But Zoe was…and Gale…and Amy and Runir…” she said.
“Like I said, they’re all safe. Look over there,” I said, pointing at the bodies lying next to her.
She turned to see Zoe sleeping soundly on the ground with a cloth draped over her. Her face was expressionless, indicating that she was not having one of the nightmares that had plagued her since her birth in this world.
Next to her sat Amy, her back turned to us as she gazed into the distance. She’d heard Lily wake up but hadn’t said anything to her. In fact, she’d ignored me even as I rescued her from the trap she’d fallen into. It should have been surprising that a Goddess had fallen into such a simple trap but I knew better. However, that wasn’t something I needed to worry about for now.
“Gale…” said Lily.
“Was rescued by the Goddess herself. Apparently Fate didn’t stop her from interfering. I assume it’s because killing a little kid wasn’t a part of your plan.”
“Right..I…” Her face paled. “I killed them…I killed so many people…I…I…destroyed a kingdom.”
Can’t let her fall into despair.
“No you didn’t. It was Fate.”
“Fate?” she said, somewhat hysterical. “Don’t give me that shit! I broke the key even though I knew what would happen. No, I did it because I knew what would happen. I…I killed those people because I wanted to. I wanted to weaken the Alliance. I knew it would be a big blow to their military strength and a huge help to the Union.”
“No, you wanted to help the oppressed laborers. They were living a life of slavery and cruelty. Wanting to free them was a good thing and that was your real intention, your real motivation.”
“At the start, sure!” she cried. “But near the end, I could tell from Gale’s expression that he was telling the truth. Freeing the laborers would destroy the whole damn country! A lot of people would die! But I did it anyways. No, I did it because I knew it would happen. I wanted to kill those people. I wanted to destroy the whole place. I didn’t give a damn about the laborers or about getting revenge for Zoe.”
She was crying now.
“I just wanted…to win the war.”
If there was ever a time when I’d felt my resolve weaken, this was it. I’d chosen every aspect of my plan with care. I didn’t doubt for a second that my plan was perfect; that it would yield the results I wanted it to yield. But I did doubt, for just a moment, whether it was worth letting Lily- one of my only friends in this world- wallow in self-pity and loathing.
But I had to look at the big picture.
“Look, Lily,” I said, drawing my face close to hers and looking into her eyes. “Remember what I told you before? It is your choices and your intentions that determine who you are. You intended to do something good, to do something brave and kind. You wanted to free the oppressed. You saw the pain Zoe went through and comforted her better than any of us could and you sought to change the system for the better even though it would take a lot of time and effort on your part.”
Her watery eyes stared back at me. “But I-”
I raised a hand to silence her. “Let me finish. Your intentions were good. Your intentions were just and noble, and I doubt that anyone could possibly contend otherwise. It is not your fault that you did not know the true function of the laborers. All we knew prior to the events at the palace was that people were cruelly tortured and abused for profit and ‘progress.’ Wanting to change that was the right thing to do.”
“But that’s not why I freed them! I did it because-”
“Because Fate wanted you to inflict damage upon your enemies. I admit, that is not the most tasteful motivation and nor is it noble or just. But, was it really your fault?”
“Don’t give me more of that Fate crap. It was my fault. I wanted to kill those people. To destroy my enemies. It was me…all me…”
“Really? Then why are you crying about it right now?”
She hesitated. “Because…I don’t like it. I don’t like what I did.”
“If I gave you the chance to do it again but without the influence of Fate to sway your actions, would you still do it?”
She thought for a while before answering in a low voice. “No.”
“Then you already know that it was not your intention nor your aim to inflict pain on others. In fact, you wanted to alleviate it! You wanted to help the laborers. And when Fate forced you to inflict pain on innocent people, you did manage to resist. After all, you managed to hate yourself for doing it. You managed to regret what you had done. I don’t know about you, but I think that was a pretty heroic thing to do.” I smiled.
“I agree with Kai,” said Amy, without turning around. “You are not at fault here. You were brave, honorable and kind. You were, no, you are everything that a true Hero should be.”
“Hero…I am the Hero…” whispered Lily.
“No, that’s not right,” I said.
Lily looked up at me, confused. “What do you mean?”
“That’s not the right way to think about it. You keep calling yourself ‘the Hero’ as if you want to live up to your title. As if the only reason you wanted to help those people was because of your title,” I said. “But that’s not true. The ‘Hero’ of this world has no obligation to save everyone. In fact, as you found out, they may be driven to deplorable acts of cruelty and senseless violence. History suggests that the Heroes have been just as vile and vicious as the Demon Lords. So although it may be true that you destroyed the master-key because Fate forced you to desire death and destruction, your desire for justice and freedom for the bonded laborers originated solely from you and you alone. You didn’t want to free them because you were the Hero, you wanted to do it because you are a good person.”
Lily looked at me and nodded slowly but her eyes quickly clouded again. “But I still killed thousands of people. Even if it was Fate that made me do it, I broke the key. Even if I know that that’s not what I wanted to do, it doesn’t change the fact that I have blood on my hands. A lot of blood.”
My resolve was tested yet again. It would be so easy to tell her the truth. To fix everything right now. After all, my Ability could do anything. I had no limits nor restrictions. My actions had no consequences that I couldn’t fix.
But that would defeat the point. Although I had absolute power, all it did was make sure that I knew exactly why I couldn’t fix everything in a heartbeat even though it would be as simple as snapping my fingers.
Was my goal worth making Lily feel so depressed? Was it worth letting her punish herself for an action that she had no control over? For an action that, in a way, I was responsible for?
Although I asked myself these questions, I already knew the answer. It was worth it. I knew the big picture. I knew what I really needed to achieve. I had a plan and I had to stick to it. No matter how wrong my actions may seem at the time, I knew that my intentions were right. My intentions were just and noble.
“No you don’t. The only one with blood on their hands is Fate. Remember what I said about the monsters?” I said, reassuringly. “They kill because they have to, not because they want to. It is our choices that determine who we are, not the choices made for us by others.”
Lily put her head between her knees. She wasn’t convinced, I could tell. But I had gotten through to her enough to let her deal with it on her own terms. Whatever answer she came up with, whatever amount of blame she wanted to ascribe to herself, would be her own decision and I didn’t want to meddle with that.
I was meddling with enough things as it was.
Zoe stirred. She struggled awake before throwing out a bunch of incoherent questions just like Lily had. I answered them patiently.
“The laborers are free. I saw Runir lead them to safety,” I said.
“Huh? Where-” asked Lily.
“He led them to the gardens at the back of the palace and told them to leave the city immediately. Since the kingdom was occupied by more pressing matters, I’m sure they managed to make it out safely.”
“No, that’s great and all but-”
“Don’t worry, I doubt they’ll be caught any time soon. Even if they did manage to catch them, setting up the contracts and the master-key will take years, assuming they even pursue that route now that their floating island is so thoroughly grounded.”
“No I mean, where is Runir?” asked Lily as she spread her arms wide. “In fact, where the hell are we?”
“Oh right, well to answer your second question, we’re-”
“In the Alderan Wastes,” finished Amy, still refusing to turn around. “The most dangerous and inhospitable place in all of Erath.”
Inhospitable was right. We were currently sitting on a hill surrounded by roiling purple gas and a sea of putrid sludge. Nothing grew for miles in any direction and there were only a few patches of dry earth sticking through the gas. This wasn’t exactly the most perfect picnic spot.
“Right…by the way Amy, why are you-”
“No reason,” she said, her back pointed straight at me.
“Well, whatever.” I shrugged. “Anyways, to answer your first question; Runir is fine. We’ll meet up with him soon. He got separated with us during the collision but he fell somewhere close by.”
“And how do you know that?” asked Zoe. The others were too experienced to ask a dumb question like that.
“Because of this!” I said, pointing to the ring on my finger. “Put some mana into it and-”
Four rays of light shot out of the ring. Three of them landed close by-on the fingers of the three people around me, in fact. While one of them shot into the distance.
“There’s a tracker on the rings…” mused Lily.
“Yep!” I exclaimed.
Lily sighed and got up. “Whatever. We should go get that idiot then. I guess we can rely on you for a way across this slimy wasteland?”
“Of course,” I said, pulling a small boat out of my robes and placing it on the sea of sludge.
Zoe hesitated but the others got on without complaint. She’d get used to it eventually.
“Do you know what Runir’s doing right now?” asked Lily.
“Yes,” I smiled. “He’s singing.”