“He might be hurt,” said Amy.“Nah, the asshole’s smirking!” said Lily, bringing her sword down.
I rolled out of the way. Fixing my robes, I stood up and faced the frowning party.
“You always manage to cheer me up. Thank you, Lily.” I smiled.
“Whatever,” said Lily. “What the hell were you doing lying around in the middle of this swamp?”
I blinked. I checked my clothes and realized they were covered in slime. I looked around and took in a deep breath.
It’s gone! The hill, the statues…it’s all gone!
“Are you done acting like an idiot? Now come on in and get changed. You’re covered in gunk.”
She walked back onto the boat and the others followed. I took a new robe out of my Inventory and got changed before boarding the boat. The boat was tiny but we managed to sit down comfortably enough. Kai waved a hand and the boat started floating across the sea of slime. A gust of wind blew out of the prow of the boat, clearing the purple mist from the boat’s path.
“Where’s Gale?” I asked, noticing his absence.
Zoe looked down.
Kai turned to me. “He’s fine. I saw the Goddess save him when the island fell. He’s probably being pampered in the castle as we spea-”
“When the island fell? What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
Lily’s expression darkened.
“You didn’t know? Well it turns out that the laborers were propping up the kingdom, literally. Once we freed them, the whole thing fell to the ground,” said Kai.
“Fell to the ground?” I frowned. “Oh.”
Silence. The implications of our actions weren’t lost on us. We’d messed up, big time.
“We should go back. Maybe we can help?” said Lily.
I shook my head. “No, we’ve done enough.”
We sat quietly in the boat as we let that sink in. We’d meant well but we had possibly caused far more pain than we had prevented. Then again, what do I care? I did what I needed to do to carry out my plan. The Air kingdom was in turmoil and the Alliance significantly weakened. For some reason, those thoughts made me feel uneasy. It reminded me of the statues and the song.
What the hell was that anyway? I’ve never heard of anything like it. None of the books in the Demon Lord’s Castle said anything about a circle of creepy statues.
And why did they let me go? If they were some kind of monster, they would’ve attacked me and killed me. That’s what monsters do around here. If they wanted something from me, I was right there, lying prone on the ground! Completely defenseless! They could have taken anything they wanted to but they didn’t. And that just makes me even more confused.
If they weren’t out to kill me and they didn’t want to take something from me…then why me? Why target me? I’m sure they targeted me. They wanted me to come to them. One of them had my face on it, didn’t it? Yet, why would they do that? What was their purpose?
Did they want to mess with my head? Was that it? No, no, that’s too simple. That shit wasn’t simple.
I feel like I’m missing something here. It’s right in front of my eyes and I can barely make it out but I just can’t see it! What is it? ‘Castle’…what castle? The Demon Lord’s Castle? No, it’s not that simple. It doesn’t feel that simple.
Was it just another weird encounter in an even weirder world? I’ve met a lot of strange creatures here. An apologetic dragon, a family of soul sucking monsters, and a masked creep leading an army of crazy fanatics. A circle of singing statues wouldn’t be all that out of place, would it?
But then why am I still brooding over it. It was a random encounter. A bit of bad luck. Get over it Runir! You have a plan. You know what to do.
You know what to do…
The words were replaying in my head. Over and over again.
But I still couldn’t understand what any of it meant. Perhaps I needed to see this from a different perspective? I could always try asking someone for their opinion on it.
But who should I ask?
Kai? He might know about it but I can’t trust him yet. Too many variables. Perhaps he was involved somehow? He might mislead me too. I’ll come to him if I need to.
Lily? Nah, she wouldn’t be any help. She came here with me. The chances of her knowing anything relevant are slim at best. I mean, she still hasn’t realized that I’m the Demon Lord. I’ve been accidentally dropping hints too. Probably getting lazy.
Note to self: stop being lazy, your plan goes to hell if Lily finds out that you’re her archenemy.
Zoe wasn’t an option. She’d lived her entire life inside what was effectively a cage. But all that left was Amy.
Interesting…this idea may be worth pursuing. Let’s call her out when we’re alone. Maybe I can confirm a thing or two about her identity at the same time. But for now, I’d better-
“Oi, Runir!” said Lily, interrupting my thoughts. “Why the hell are you sulking in the corner? Do you want to eat or not?”
She passed me a bowl of steaming hot soup.
“Not if you’re the one who made it,” I remarked.
Lily frowned. “Kai made it of course. But I’m a good cook too.”
“Doubt it,” I said, blowing on a spoonful before bringing it to my mouth.
“Fine! I’ll make some and shove it down your throat,” said Lily as she stomped away.
I have a bad feeling about this…
I finished the rest of my soup and got up. The boat wasn’t all that big but there was enough space on the deck for a small table and a few chairs. Kai and Amy were sitting on the chairs talking about something while Zoe leaned over the side of the boat and stared at the sea of sludge below.
“Where’s Lily?” I asked.
Kai laughed at something Amy said and then turned to me.
“She’s in the kitchen below-deck,” replied Kai.
“Great,” I said. “I thought we were trying to avoid the sludge, not make it.”
I chuckled but the others ignored me.
“Whatever.” I made my way to the table and sat down. “We should start planning our next move.”
“Never a moment’s rest with you huh,” said Kai.
Kai folded his arms on the table. “Fine. But before we decide what we’re doing next, I think we should decide why.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, frowning.
“He means we need to think about what we’re doing next time. We don’t want to mess up another country,” said Amy. She turned to Kai. “Right?”
“Yep, we’re thinking through our every move properly from now on. And that means defining our goals first,” said Kai.
That was interesting. Did he want us all to come clean about our motives? Why would I want to do that?
“Come on, almighty Demon Lord, don’t you want to tell us your master plan? Gloating is half the fun of the job, isn’t it?” said Kai as he smirked. He leaned closer. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell the Hero.”
So he really does know…that changes things.
I’d been sure that he was at a higher level than me but there was no way to confirm it until now. An exchange of information would be in my benefit in this case. After all, I knew next to nothing about him whereas he could presumably read my Status like a book.
Besides, he’d already offered me something in good faith, even if it was something I’d already suspected.
“All right, I’ll play this game. But only if you offer your own motivations in turn. Both of you,” I said, shifting my gaze to Amy.
“Sure,” said Amy.
“Fine then. What would you like to know?” I asked.
“Why are you traveling with Lily?” asked Amy.
“Because I need her.”
“Well, isn’t love beautiful?” said Kai with a dry chuckle.
“I’d already figured as much. But why do you need her and what for?” pressed Amy.
“Hey, I’ve already answered your question. It’s my turn now,” I said. “But don’t worry, my question is a simple one. Who are you?”
“I know that already!” I sighed. “Fine, I get it. We aren’t getting anywhere until we get more specific. I suppose asking the really important questions will have to wait. So tell me, why aren’t you telling Lily about who I am?”
“Because I know what will happen,” said Kai.
“Me too,” said Amy.
“Great, so now we’re getting somewhere.”
“My turn,” said Amy. “Why do you want to go back to your world? Is it really that amazing a place?”
“Honestly? I don’t really want to return to Earth. Back home I was a nobody but here, I’m the god damn Demon Lord! I’m virtually a God here. Why the hell would I want to leave?” I said.
“Then why are you looking for a way back?”
“Nice try but no follow ups. It’s my turn now,” I said. “Why do you care about my motives? Neither Lily nor I knew you before you thrust yourselves on us. And you have no reason to help us find a way home, yet you insist on following us. Tell me, why the hell do you care so much?”
This was the question that had been bothering me ever since we met. Lily and I were looking for a way home, or at least, there was a reason for us to stick together but why did these two want to come with us?
“I was tasked with protecting Lily. That is my mission here,” said Amy.
“Protect her? From what?”
“Oh?” I smirked. “But can you do that?”
The corners of Amy’s lips twitched. That settled it, I was nearly certain of her identity.
“Want to try?” she said, scowling.
“No, it’s okay. I don’t want to be burned to a crisp,” I said, chuckling. “And you Kai?”
“I’m just tagging along. I was bored,” he said.
Bullshit! Like I’d believe that!
“And we just happened to find you sleeping in a bush?” I said.
“You can see why that’s hard to believe, can’t you?”
“Sure, but it’s the truth.” He shrugged.
“Zoe! Get away from the edge!” shouted Amy as she got up.
“It’s so pretty!” said Zoe, reaching down to the sea of sludge.
Amy grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up. Zoe struggled in her hands but eventually gave up. Zoe and Amy started talking in quieter voices but I could tell that they were arguing about something. However, I didn’t pay much attention to it. There was a more pressing matter to attend to.
It was time to confront Kai.
“You’re lying,” I whispered.
“What?” he said, confused.
He’s really good at this. But I’ll break that facade.
He’d always been in control. In every conversation we’d had, I had never been able to gain the upper hand. I needed to push back. I needed to force him to give me some real answers.
“You’re lying. You didn’t follow us on a whim, you aren’t doing this to alleviate your boredom. You see,” I leaned closer, “I do things for fun. I do things on a whim. I know what it feels like. I know how someone who’s bored out of their wits acts like and you sure as hell don’t fit that description. No, I can tell, you want something. I don’t know what and I don’t know why but I am sure as hell certain that you aren’t here for shits and giggles.”
He stopped for a bit, staring at the teacup that had appeared in his hands out of nowhere.
“You’re right,” he said. “I am not here for shits and giggles.”
“I thought so,” I said, waiting for him to continue.
But he didn’t. Instead, we sat silently. The sounds of Zoe and Amy bickering, the boat cutting through the sludge and something clanking below-deck pervaded the silence yet they were nothing more than background noises. I felt sweat trickling down my spine for some reason.
Was I afraid of Kai?
Certainly, his Ability was frighteningly powerful and his level was higher than mine, but would he really attack me in front of everyone? No, that wasn’t right. If he wanted to do that, he could have done so at any time.
No, whatever he wanted to achieve, whatever goal he had in mind, it required my assistance or at least my presence. That was the only logical conclusion I could reach. He needed me.
I could use that.
“Then what are you here for? You know who I am, you know who Lily is and if you’re anywhere near as smart as I think you are, then you know who Amy is as well. So tell me, why the hell are you hanging out with a messed up party like this? Why did you help us rescue slaves, topple a country and fight off a God? Wait…” I took a deep breath. “You fought that Origin thing when even Amy couldn’t leave a dent on him. You-”
“Open wide douche-bag!”
“What? Wait no! Lily-”
I gagged on the sandwich stuffed in my mouth.
Damn it Lily! I had him! Why the fu-
“Well why don’t you eat this while I help Amy. Looks like Zoe isn’t giving up on that sludge!” Kai chuckled as he walked over to Amy and pet Zoe on the head.
And he got away…perfect.
I sighed, or at least I tried to. My mouth was aching because of that god damn sandwich.
“Here, eat it,” said Lily as she grabbed my lips and helped me chew.
Damn it, first you barge into the conversation and foil my trap and now you want me to eat this disgusting sandwich. It tastes like sh- Hey this is pretty good…
I munched on the sandwich. It was a cold chicken sandwich with mayonnaise. Wait, mayonnaise? On Erath?
I bit off a chunk of the sandwich and gulped down a mouthful. I fired some water magic into my mouth and drank it to wash it down.
“Where the hell did you get mayonnaise from?” I asked.
Probably not the most pressing question right now, but I had to ask.
“I sto-borrowed some from the Palace kitchens back in the Light Kingdom,” she said.
“Just shut up and eat.”
I decided to do as she said.
Zoe still hadn’t given up on the sludge so Kai jumped down and grabbed some for her. Lily sat down next to me with a triumphant smile, reveling in the satisfaction of having shut me up. I didn’t like admitting that I was wrong but…
…damn, it was a good sandwich.
“So, still think that I’m a bad cook?” she said.
“It’s just a sandwich. Anyone could have made one,” I replied, finishing off the last bite.
“Guess you don’t want seconds?” she said, walking away.
I cursed under my breath. “Fine, you’re a good cook,” I grumbled.
“Thank you! But I’m out of mayo anyways so I can’t make any more,” she said, winking at me.
“Look!” said Zoe, pointing straight ahead.
There was a wall of purple mist in the distance.
“I assume we’ve reached the end of the Wastes,” I said. “Perfect, now we head through the Corridor, circle around the Twilight Forest and head for the Academy.”
“Wait, what?” said Lily.
“Didn’t we decide that we’ll think over our next move properly?” said Amy, frowning as she clutched Zoe to her chest.
“Pretty!” chimed Zoe.
“The Academy…” said Kai, his voice trailing off.
“Well we’re still looking for a way back to Earth, aren’t we?” I said, casting my gaze over the others. “The Air Goddess told Lily that our best bet is to ask the Dark Goddess, but the problem is, no one knows how to get to her shrine.”
“No one? Not even the Demon Lord?” asked Kai.
Kinda pushing it, aren’t you? I thought, glancing at Lily with the corner of my eyes. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to have noticed.
I glared at Kai.
“Yes, even the Demon Lord can’t find it. And since the Goddess never leaves her shrine, the only way to meet her is through the Academy.”
“I think it’s pretty obvious, but just so we’re clear, the Academy is a school right?” asked Lily. “A school of magic?”
“Yes and no,” I answered. “It is a school of magic but it isn’t just a school of magic. In fact, it’s primary purpose is to train the leaders of the Dark Kingdom. ”
“So it’s a big deal here?” asked Lily.
“Oh it’s a very big deal here. Politicians, civil servants, generals and merchants, all of them have been to the Academy at some point. Many people consider the Academy the backbone of the country. Some even accredit the Dark kingdom’s survival despite the frequent premature deaths of the Demon Lords to the Academy and its training and teaching methods.”
“And why do we have to go to a school to find the Dark Goddess?” asked Lily.
“The Academy was founded by the Dark Goddess and it’s a well known fact that it is the only thing in this world that she really cares about. She won’t do anything all year but on the first day of Spring, the Academy holds a test and the five highest scoring students are allowed to go to the shrine to receive the Goddess’s personal training. That’s how we’ll meet her.”
“You want us to give a test?”
“No, I want us to ace it!”
“Um, in case you didn’t know, I’m not all that good with studying at stuff,” said Lily, grimacing.
“It’s all right. As long as one of us makes the cut, the rest can follow them to the shrine. She’s a Goddess so she can’t interfere with our plans.”
“Wait, if she can’t interfere with our plans then why can she stop us from finding her shrine? Isn’t that interfering with our plans?”
That was a good question. Why hadn’t I thought of that? The Goddess shouldn’t be able to stop us from finding her shrine. It was one thing if there was a restriction carrying over from the game, but there was nothing of the sort in ‘Choices.’
There was something going on here and I didn’t like it.
“Yay! Pretty wall!” screamed Zoe, suddenly.
Her mood swings had been getting worse. Ever since we brought down the Air kingdom and freed the laborers she’d been vacillating between an incredibly childish personality and an eerily mature one.
Ugh! Why are so many things happening at the same time?
Kai grabbed Lily and Amy hugged Zoe tightly to her chest as the boat hit the wall of mist. I was hit by a falling sensation as the boat tipped over the edge and tumbled downwards.
Great, a fucking sludge-fall.
Kai and Amy jumped up and hovered in the sky.
Note to self: Learn to fly.
I disappeared into the mists.