“You don’t believe me? Fuck it, it doesn’t matter,” I said, brushing aside the branch in front of me.
We were making our way through the Twilight Forest while following Lily’s group from a respectable distance. We were close enough to see them on the trail up ahead but we couldn’t hear them because if they were in earshot, they would have heard us walking through the underbrush.
Then again, it didn’t seem like they were talking much anyway. Professor Roweta had tried to start a conversation but apart from what seemed like a simple introduction, the three girls behind her hadn’t said a word to each other.
“You’ve been grumpy since big sis Lily beat your sorry ass,” said Zoe.
“What the hell did you say?” I asked.
“That she beat your ass,” she replied.
I frowned. “No-”
“But she did.”
I stopped and turned angrily to Zoe, “First, she cheated so it doesn’t count,” I turned back. “And second, what I meant was why are you calling her big sis Lily?”
“You’re jealous I don’t call you big bro Runir?” she said.
“Please don’t call me that. You’re older than me!” I replied.
“No I’m not,” she said, perplexed. “Look, I’m tiny!”
She stood on her tiptoes and tried to reach Amy’s forehead but couldn’t.
“But you’ve lived two lives,” I said. “And your vocabulary is way too mature,” I added under my breath. “It’s really creepy hearing a ten year old shouting profanity all the time.”
“What was that, dumbass?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I sighed. “And why are the two of you so quiet?”
Kai and Amy hadn’t said anything since we left the city. Their silence and my dissatisfaction with Lily’s childish act had made the journey stiflingly uncomfortable until Zoe started accusing me of being grumpy.
A baseless claim, to be sure, but at least it livened up the atmosphere a bit.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with you two?” said Zoe.
“I was just thinking…” said Amy.
“Thinking about what?” I asked.
“About whether this will be the last time we’ll be traveling together,” she said.
“What do you mean?” asked Zoe, worried.
“You’ll leave, won’t you?” said Amy. “Once you find a way back to your world…you’ll leave.”
The leaves rustled in the evening breeze as darkness crept upon the forest.
“Maybe,” I said. “That’s funny, never would’ve pegged you as the sentimental type.”
“Why not?” she asked, hugging Zoe.
The shadows of the trees drew longer yet even as the sunlight died, the forest began to come to life in a different way. The animals of the night began making their presence felt; hooting and chirping to lay claim to the trees and bushes that buzzed with bees and butterflies in the morning.
It was that time of the day. The time when the sun’s gentle glow has all but faded away and the moon hasn’t come out to take over yet. A limbo or a no man’s land, of sorts, between the day and the night.
Twilight. That’s what they called it.
The day was over and it was time for the night to begin.
“And what about you Kai?” I asked. “What are you thinking about?”
He kept walking as if he hadn’t heard me.
Just as I began to ask him again, he said, “Nothing. I was thinking about nothing.”
That’s an odd way to phrase it…
Professor Rowetta stopped outside a thick clump of trees and bushes. We inched closer to them, stopping near the edge of the road. We managed to barely hear what they were saying.
“…Kind…Goddess… we come… please accept…our prayers… bring you the wisest… guide us!”
The trees faded away to reveal a tiny cabin in the middle of a clearing right beside the game trail we’d been following. It was an unassuming little building that seemed as if it had seen countless years pass by. It was moldy, rickety and seemed on the verge of collapse.
I inwardly chuckled.
So that annoying Goddess lives inside this dump? That explains everything…
“Now that we know where it is, should we wait for them to leave and come back later or should we just go in uninvited?” asked Amy as Professor Rowetta led the girls inside the shack after bowing in front of it a few times.
The girls were obviously quite disappointed in the Goddess’ taste in architecture but followed along anyway. Lily stopped and looked behind her.
Did she want us to follow her inside? She mouthed something but we were too far away to make out what it was. A shadow fell over her face as she turned and walked into the cabin, disappearing from view.
“…they went inside,” came a light murmuring from behind us.
A couple of shadows appeared from the trail we’d been following. It didn’t seem like they’d noticed us but it was surprising that we hadn’t noticed them earlier.
Although I couldn’t make out their faces, I recognized their voices.
“…hurry, she’s waiting for us,” said the smaller shadow as it ran inside the cabin. The larger shadow followed.
“Guess we weren’t the only ones smart enough to think of following the winners,” I remarked, as I slowly got up from the bushed. “Since it looks like things are going to get more complicated than we’d initially assumed, I say we go inside.”
“Waiting is boring anyway,” said Zoe, standing up.
“I hope Lily’s okay,” muttered Amy, as she shook some leaves out of her hair.
We walked up to the cabin, pushed open the door and stepped into the darkness.
“Yes,” said Kai, as the door closed behind us. “Let’s get this over with.”
We walked down a staircase that seemed to go on forever. As expected, it wasn’t an ordinary log cabin. We reached a small hall with a large bronze door standing slightly ajar at the end. The walls were lined with dimly glowing stones pulsating with a strange white light that somehow seemed to increase the darkness rather than reduce it.
As we neared the door, voices drifted out from inside.
“Oh Mighty Goddess of Darkness! Oh guardian of the Night, bastion of Knowledge and protector of the Truth! We have come here to pay our blessings and –”
“Yeah, yeah, cut the crap and come over, will ya?”
Yep, that’s her alright…
Just as I was about to walk over, Kai stretched out his hand to stop me. Confused, I looked at him and he gestured to the door with his chin.
Amy seemed to have noticed something too as she put her hand over Zoe to stop her from asking what was wrong.
What is it?
I furrowed my brows and focused, but couldn’t find anything out of place. Finally, I used Appraisal and my eyes widened.
Names and numbers were floating in the air next to the door.
How did they – Are they using some sort of magical item or something? Never heard of anything that could make people invisible to people several hundreds of levels above them though…
“What do we do,” I whispered to Kai.
He thought for a second before pulling something out of his Storage. It was a large piece of cloth that shone with a silver luster. He pulled us closer and draped it over us.
“Is this an invisibility cloak…” I muttered under my breath as my face got crammed against Kai’s shoulder.
“Of course not,” he said, smiling lightly. “It’s a sheet of invisibility.”
“Shush, they’ll hear you,” said Amy, quickly.
“Don’t worry, this thing blocks out sound too,” replied Kai.
“Convenient,” I said, dryly.
“Look!” said Zoe.
It seemed like the invisible people were awkwardly trying to fit through the slightly open door without giving themselves away to the people inside. Although we couldn’t see them, seeing their names tumbling around gave us a good idea of how funny they might have looked.
They managed to get in without making the door move and it didn’t seem like the people inside had noticed them either.
“…So who do we have here, three little puppies? But wait a minute…”
We crept closer and peeked into the room.
The chamber seemed empty at first glance. The walls radiated a uniform gray light that made it impossible to judge how big it really was. In the center was a small bed with a black canopy and sheets. There was a coffee table next to the bed with a single metal chair by its side. A black cup lay on a golden saucer on top of the table, with wisps of steam floating out of it.
On the chair was a short woman with long, flowing black hair. At first glance she seemed like a little girl having a tea party in her room. However, her eyes – even from this far away – betrayed her maturity because they were cold, dark and carried a chilling gaze.
This was no ordinary girl.
And this was no ordinary tea party.
“Hey, old lady,” said the Goddess. “Are you an idiot?”
Professor Rowetta blinked and turned from side to side until she realized that the Goddess had been addressing her.
“Beg your pardon my Goddess, but this pitiful being does not know what you are speaking of,” she said. “Alas, how can one such as I hope to understand an intellect such as yours. It is an honor to be –”
“Shut it,” said the Goddess, cutting the Professor’s groveling short. “The hell do you think you’re doing?”
“M-me, your grace?” stammered the old lady as she instantly fell to the ground. “Please have mercy on this pitiful being that is too weak minded to realize her own wrongs. If I have offended you in any way, I did not mean to do so…”
The Goddess sighed. “What a mess. I mean, where the hell do I even begin?”
This doesn’t sound good. Does she know that we’re here? I thought.
“First, you came here without a gift. The old man promised me sugar cubes and because of that I didn’t buy any but now I’m almost out!”
Oh, she’s an idiot after all.
“Second, you bring me three obvious traitors.”
“And third…” said the Goddess as she sipped her tea and put it down on the saucer. “You let yourself get followed.”
However, the Goddess wasn’t looking at us. Instead, her gaze was locked at the status values floating beside the door.
“Coming into a lady’s room uninvited merits strict punishment, wouldn’t you say?” she said, waving her hand.
The floating statuses flailed wildly but couldn’t escape the black tentacles that shot out of the floor beneath them. Something sparked and sizzled and then a chunk of metal hit the ground. The tentacles disappeared but they left behind two very startled boys.
“Mighty Goddess, you are truly the most powerful being in existence,” said the taller of the two as he fell to his knees and bowed.
“Forgive us for trespassing. We merely wanted to accompany our lord on her mission,” said the shorter boy as he bowed to the woman. “Have our heads if it pleases you, but please listen to our lord’s request. The fate of the kingdom rests on it.”
The goddess furrowed her brows and replied: “And why should –”
“Tami, Gerard! What are you two doing here?”
The black haired girl we’d met back on our way to the Academy – Persephone – raced towards the two bowing boys and helped them up. Her feet knocked against a small metal ball that clinked against the floor, revealing the hole the tentacles had pierced through it.
“Did you just interrupt me?” said the Goddess, scowling.
“My apologies,” said the girl quickly. “Punish me if you will, but please let these two go!”
“Princess, what are you saying?” said the tall one, Gerard.
“You know why we came here,” said the short one, Tami. “You know what’s at stake.”
“Tami…Gerard…” muttered Persephone.
“Will you stop ignoring me already?” said the Goddess. She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, whatever. Tell me why I shouldn’t blow you to pieces right now.”
Persephone gulped before falling to her knees and pressing her forehead against the ground.
“Please help us save the kingdom!” she pleaded.
“Not interested,” said the Goddess, dispassionately.
“Huh?” said Persephone.
“You heard me. I have no interest in getting involved in petty mortal conflicts anymore,” said the Goddess, turning her back to the groveling students.
“But you’re the Goddess of Darkness. The guardian of the night. The –”
“I get it, but so what?” growled the Goddess. “I do my job. I summon the Demon Lord, I train him and I give him my blessings. Although this one ran away without meeting me,” she grumbled.
“Yes but the Demon Lord dies every time –” began Persephone.
“Not my fault.”
“I would never dare to accuse you, Your Grace. However…” she looked up, staring at the Goddess with determination. “We know who is to blame for the disappearances of the Demon Lords.”
When she said that, the Goddess’ face twitched almost imperceptibly. She closed her eyes and took a sip from her teacup.
“I don’t care,” she said, simply.
The kneeling girl froze. Her lips quivered as she asked: “My Goddess…”
“Leave,” continued the Goddess, her eyes closed. “That has nothing to do with me. I do not meddle in mortal affairs.”
“B-but you’re the Goddess! You’re bound by Fate to –” said Tami, indignantly.
The Goddess’ eyes shot open. She waved her hand and tentacles shot out of the ground around the boy. He screamed as the tentacles grabbed him and threw him away. He slammed into the wall and slid to the ground, blood oozing from his mouth and staining the ground beneath him.
At least we know where the walls are now, I thought. And I guess she really is as testy about Fate as the Air Goddess said.
“Tami!” shouted Persephone as she tried to rush to his side.
“I am Lunaris; Goddess of Darkness, Guardian of the Night and all of that shit,” said Lunaris, her voice threateningly low. “And I do not recognize Fate.”
She lifted her teacup and resumed sipping from it. “Now get out. Your crap is spoiling the tea.”
Persephone stood shocked in the middle of the room. Her hands were trembling as she bit her lips and looked angrily at the Goddess that she had worshipped all her life.
“You…you’re not the Goddess I know. Where’s your compassion? Your love for your people?” She was shouting hysterically now. “We’ve been losing thousands of innocent lives to the Union every year. The Demon Lord’s Castle has been besieged fifteen times in the last century alone.”
The Goddess sipped her tea.
“They set fire to all the crops they come across. Pillage every village, town and city on their path. They’ve slaughtered millions of innocent people, stripped our nation of its honor and dragged our dignity through the mud. And you say you don’t care about any of it?”
Lunaris sipped her tea again.
“Princess, please calm down!” urged Gerard.
“Calm down?” shouted Persephone, a hint of laughter at the edge of her voice. “I just found out that our kind, benevolent and merciful Goddess is too busy having a tea party with herself to help her people.”
We might need to get involved soon or else this might get messy.
Amy and Zoe seemed on the verge of jumping out. Lily was frowning and glaring at the girl-like Goddess sitting on her tiny chair. She was obviously not amused by her indifference.
Saar was expressionlessly staring at the ground, apparently thinking about something. Kai was gazing silently at Persephone as she laughed and cried in the center of the room.
“She doesn’t care about all the people who died with her name on their lips. Doesn’t care about the people who sacrificed themselves for her honor. Worse, she doesn’t care about the Demon Lords she kidnapped from the other world.”
This seemed to get through to the Goddess as she stopped sipping her tea.
“She pulled them out of their worlds. Threw them into ours and let them die for her and now she says she doesn’t care about them? Did they all die in vain? Were their sacrifices meaningless? Why did they die for this ungrateful piece of trash –”
“Princess, stop!” shouted Gerard.
“Is this what he died for,” she shouted. Then she continued in a whisper as tears streamed down her face. “Is this what my father died for…”
“You… I remember you now –” said Lunaris as understanding dawned on her face.
“Yes,” said Persephone, scowling hatefully at the Goddess she had once believed in. “I’m the one you abandoned after dragging to this world alongside a poor salaryman and single father trying to give his little girl a decent life. I am Persephone Berus, daughter of the previous Demon King.”
“You’re the one that ran away,” muttered Lunaris.
“Yes, I ran away,” said Persephone, as her face darkened. “I ran away from home to go on a misguided adventure. I didn’t want to be the Demon Lord’s daughter. I wanted to be an adventurer. A hero!”
She stepped forward. “But while I was gone, something happened,” she whispered. “My father was mysteriously murdered while on a hunting expedition in the Wastes. The next day, the Union declared war on the Alliance and the Hero lead an excursion into the Corridor. I had to go to the front lines to defend my father’s people. I couldn’t even mourn him!”
She shouted while pointing at the Goddess. “And you won’t even listen to what I have to say?”
The Goddess sighed. She set down her teacup and folded her legs.
“Fine, what is it.”
Persephone bit her lips, obviously annoyed by the Goddess’ attitude, but she swallowed her pride and said: “I know who’s been killing all the Demon Lords.”
The air in the room grew heavy.
Interesting, I remarked internally. But…
The Goddess replied: “Is that all?”
Persephone blinked. “Huh?”
The Goddess sighed and picked up her cup again. “I said.” She sipped her tea. “Is that all?”
The daughter of the Demon Lord stood stunned. “What the fuck do you mean? Did you already know?”
The Goddess continued to sip.
“Answer me!” shouted the girl. “You knew about it? And you haven’t done anything?”
“Why should I?” she replied.
“W-why should you…” muttered Persephone, her voice trailing. “W-what do you mean?”
“She means why should she do something about it when she’s the one behind it?”
Every gaze shifted to the person who’d just spoken.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” asked Saar as she expressionlessly met the Goddess’ gaze.
Saar? What the hell are you saying?
The Goddess closed her eyes and put down her cup. “What Azoth does is up to him. I don’t have any influence over him.”
“Oh but you were the one who let him into the Demon Lord’s Castle, weren’t you?” continued Saar.
The Goddess’ eyes opened in shock. “How do you – Who are you?”
It was a beautiful smile but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Your reckoning,” said Saar as she pulled a gun out of thin air and shot it at the Goddess.
Lunaris waved her hand and tentacles erupted out of the ground in front of her but whatever Saar shot at her pierced straight through the darkness. Panicking, the Goddess flipped the table and managed to deflect the projectile.
It flew into the wall and disappeared.
“Impossible…” muttered Saar, her eyes wide in disbelief.
The Goddess was breathing heavily. She leaned on the ground and stared at the wall.
“You,” she said, turning her gaze to the muttering Saar. “How did you get that? You… who are you working for?”
Saar snapped out of it and struck a battle pose.
“Guess I’ll have to force it out of you,” said Lunaris.
Her eyes glowed with a black light as black tentacles lifted her up.
“Hey princess,” said Saar, looking at Persephone out of the corner of her eye. “I could use your help.”
“My help?” said Persephone, in a daze. “Why should I help you?”
“You want revenge for your father don’t you?” replied Saar as she pulled a giant needle out of her Storage. “Why do you think this so-called Goddess isn’t willing to help you even though she knows that Azoth killed your father?”
The Goddess waved her hand and a ball of darkness flew across the room.
“It’s because she’s been in it from the start,” shouted Saar as she jabbed the Shadowballs with her needle. The darkness split and faded but the Goddess had already sent a barrage of them hurtling towards the girls.
“Azoth wouldn’t have been able to kill the Demon Lords unless he had someone on the inside. And who better than the Goddess herself.”
The needle tore through the Shadowballs. Saar danced nimbly between the swirling masses and dodged the tentacles trying to sneak up on her from behind. The Goddess looked down at her from above with a slight smile at the edge of her lips.
She’s toying with her!
I looked over at the others. Everyone was watching intently but no one was willing to interrupt the fight. We wanted to see how this would play out.
I was happy too. After all, I was getting answers. I’d always wondered why there wasn’t a bigger fuss over the Demon Lords’ deaths. They’d been dying mysterious deaths for centuries now, someone should have caught the perpetrators by now. At the very least, the Goddess should have done something. Maybe keep the Demon Lord with her for longer and train them the way the Goddess of Light trained the Hero.
Lily was still standing in front of the table, apparently forgotten by everyone. She was staring at Saar with a strange light in her eyes.
“Come on princess!” shouted Saar.
She grunted as a tentacle struck her shoulder. She’d managed to raise the needle to block the attack but she was still sent tumbling to the ground.
“I think I finally know who you’re working for,” said the Goddess calmly. “You’re with –”
She was interrupted by a beam of darkness that shot towards her face. She frowned and waved her hands, causing the Void Ray to fade.
“You dare raise your hand against me?” said Lunaris.
Persephone stood with her arms outstretched, trembling as she faced down the Goddess. Suddenly, her eyes went blank and she fell to the ground, unconscious.
“Princess!” shouted Gerard as he scrambled towards the unconscious girl.
“Trying to attack your Goddess,” chuckled Lunaris. “You don’t understand how Fate works, do you?”
“I understand it just fine.”
A needle stopped in the air in front of Lunaris’ head. The tentacle that had caught it flicked it away and Lunaris turned towards Saar again.
“No you don’t, kid,” growled the Goddess. “You don’t know the first thing about Fate. Although…”
“Maybe your soul will find an answer soon. I’ve played with you long enough … goodbye.”
A rotating black mass appeared in front of the Goddess. It sucked the air out of the room, made the walls shake and the overturned table rattle.
The Black Hole whizzed across the room before Saar could react.
I rushed out of the sheet of invisibility and used Void Step to pick up Saar and dodge the Goddess’ attack. The Black Hole struck the wall and gouged a giant hole in it. Then it collapsed in on itself and flickered out of existence.
“Where the hell did you come from?” asked Lunaris, a touch of surprise in her voice. She hadn’t been able to detect us under Kai’s sheet after all.
I was facing away from her so she couldn’t see me. I turned as I spoke.
“Just came here to pay my respects, dear Goddess.”
Her eyes widened in shock and then they narrowed. She glanced at Lily from the corner of her eye, noticed that she wasn’t doing anything, and focused her attention on me.
But she wasn’t the first person to speak to me.
“Finally! Thank Fate you’re here!” said Saar as she extracted herself from my embrace.
I felt something stir inside me. Was it … disappointment?
At what? Was I disappointed that we broke our embrace? But that would mean…
“You were expecting me?” I asked, pushing my emotions to the side as best I could.
“Of course! Well, at first I assumed you’d failed to follow but ever since I met you at the back of that classroom, I knew you’d be there for me! Then again, you really should have dropped some hints that you were following.”
“Why would I –”
“Hold that thought, we need to deal with her first.” She looked at the Goddess that was glaring at us.
Wait, why isn’t the Goddess attacking us?
The Goddess seemed almost…wary. But of what?
“So you’ve joined them have you?” said Lunaris.
“Don’t let her distract you. Do you have the item?” asked Saar urgently.
“What item?” I asked, confused.
“The Anomaly gun! Don’t tell me they sent you here without one,” said Saar.
“I’m sorry but what the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“How can you not know about the Anomaly gun? Did they send me a newbie for a mission as important as this?” Saar was apparently as confused as I was.
They? Mission? The hell is going on?
“Oh, I see!” said the Goddess, apparently having understood something important. “You don’t know do you?”
“Know what?” snapped Saar and I at the same time.
“Hey kid,” she said, pointing to me. “You sure know how to pick them. Falling for an assassin from the Circle. Now isn’t that lovely?”
The Goddess grinned devilishly.
My mind went blank.