Chasing after the pair, I dashed through the streets of Bryansk. Unlike Lamps, who could sail through the air and leapt over the buildings, I had to crisscross through the streets. At least, the castle of the Empress loomed conspicuously in the distance. I could think of no place but there for them to go.
Just in case, I flared up my eye skill, keeping a close watch of the mana trail that Lamps left behind. Even with little time to look elsewhere, I could tell that this capital was as dull as the other towns that we passed on the trek through Purnesia.
The plainness of the buildings, the lack of décor accompanying them, and the overall coldness of the layout – this was a city that had to trim the fat off anything that would waste resources. Even the air tasted bland as my footsteps echoed down the empty paths.
Pretty soon, I was at the front gate of the castle. Even there, the building itself lacked a grandeur that people of high standing usually embellished. Similarly designed like everything else in this city, but merely a bit larger. I might have stumbled upon the wrong place if not for the mana trail leading to the flung-open front doors.
I pulled out Radiant Light and sliced the metal gate blocking me. It never stood a chance.
And after chasing that thin mana trail that slowly disappeared like puffs of smoke in the air, I came upon a door where it abruptly ended. With no hesitation, I sliced the door and kicked it open. The stone fragments burst from the impact like a car smashing through them. And from that hole, a glare flooded my eyes.
So bright, shimmering like the sun reflected off mirrors. But once my sight adjusted, I could clearly see the two forms of Lamps and the Empress.
An ambiance, not unlike the one I discovered deep within the caverns of the Divine Isles, lay before me. And as my gaze turned to the glowing magic circle on the ground around the pair, my heart sank. I recalled the last time that I was standing upon one. Lady Kaguya had mentioned something about the altars being places to contact the Gods.
Various conclusions zipped through my head as the sight of this could be nothing short of a last-ditch effort to call upon them. My instincts told me that whatever Lamps was doing here, it wouldn’t be good. Given that I had seen too many reversals in anime, bad guys pulling out trump cards, this felt like nothing short of a bad omen. Whatever it was… it had to be stopped.
In my daze, the Mad Empress slowly rose from the ground and pulled off her helmet. She casually tossed it aside, letting her blond hair sweep over her front. The half of her face that wasn’t covered was beautiful, but soon enough, the bobbing of her head pushed the hair aside.
And I nearly swore in alarm at the difference.
Like some horror show where a pretty girl suddenly became a ghoul, the Mad Empress turned her damaged side at me. She held up her swords for the opening of a duel.
“Excellent, I need you to buy us some time. The ritual is almost complete. And then, you shall have your paradise. All yours, the world for the taking.”
Lamps placed a hand on her shoulder. He was glowing with power, which appeared to seep into the floor as the room grew a hint brighter.
‘Great, a time-limited battle. Just another thing to get in the way.’
Determined to get it done quickly, I dashed forward and aimed for the cracks in her suit. Another wave should disable her.
But then, my legs felt heavy. My gaze was frozen forward. At the beauty in front of me.
‘Beauty? Beauty?’ My mind struggled to think why I would think so. But something about her gave me the shivers. It compelled me to listen to her. To appreciate her. To agree with whatever she was about to say.
Her half lips curled into a smile, showing teeth not only where the gaping wound was but all across. For some reason, I felt like reaching out to touch them. But another voice within me cried out.
“Yo! You don’t have a gap moe fetish for the spooky kookies! Snap out of it!”
As much as I wanted to listen to that voice, my stretched-out hand wasn’t paying it any heed. My body remained frozen like it was waiting for a command.
“The mighty Grim Reaper. To think that even death itself is susceptible to my ‘Charm’. But now that I see you in person… you are but a man. Such power, all placed upon you. And that has brought you before me, before us. What do you have to say to that? Be a good man. Stand still and answer.”
The Mad Empress casually sauntered over to me. Her sword hovered right against my neck; I could merely turn my head in response. By now, I had realized that she was casting some sort of spell upon me. I was a fool to let my guard down after seeing her helmet removed. That should have been a red flag.
Still, her first command had been for me to simply tell the truth.
“I came here for revenge. And to make sure that I wouldn’t lose another person important to me again.”
The Empress’s eyes smiled at that.
“Revenge? Why, we are doing the very same thing. Satisfaction over being wronged. Peace for those around us. That is our one true goal. Perhaps, achieved a different way from you, but the same result nonetheless.”
I shook my head. “Is it? All I see is the two of you getting what you want, at the expense of others.”
“That will change soon. The world will be all under my command. And with that, there will be no more disorder. No conniving people merely wanting something from you, planning to stab you in the back at the first chance. No pain and suffering, merely for the sake of entertainment.”
“With no one to realize what they want but the two of you, huh. Sounds like a paradise of your own making and a hell for others.”
A jolt of pain from below made me flinch. The Empress had stabbed me in the leg with her sword.
“Look at my face! Look at it! This is a face that represents the world, its beauty all on one side and broken on the other! Tell me, outsider of this world, how does one fix something this ghastly? Would it not be to take every bit of it and mold it back into shape? To force everyone to conform, for the sake of fixing every problem? One cannot simply cover up the issues behind pretty makeup and propaganda!”
Even in my pain, I could barely manage to wince and look away from that face. Even with my state of being charmed influencing my actions, my mind seemed somewhat clear. That was no doubt because of the other voice within me. It kept poking me, prodding me to think again, until it seemed like I could at least sort out the influences inflicted upon me.
That was when I noticed tears brimming at the corner of the Empress’s eyes. These were not statements out of hatred that she screamed at me. But those of desperation, a person who was lost. Someone who was led down a certain path but was no longer sure of what to do anymore.
I saw that same hesitation in the others I encountered. Saki with her desire for connections. Ludmila with her wish to know a person’s true character. Katalina with her desire to be recognized as her normal, quirky self. And finally, Eryn, in her constant struggle to be free.
I pushed myself away from the Empress, which surprised both of us. Somehow, her hold on me had broken. She lifted her swords in front of her to guard, but then, I dropped my own weapon.
“Sometimes, broken things can’t be fixed. They become a part of us. They become a part of you. You just have to find a way to accept them. And when someone accepts you, it no longer feels broken. It is just who you are.”
I realized this at some point. None of us would ever get what we want. Life itself was always a constant struggle, in hopes of getting somewhere with your desires. Mistakes were made, chances were lost, and failures upon failures piled upon us.
But still, there were people who could accept me, no matter how dangerous I became. The fear of the Grim Reaper didn’t perturb them. Just like how I wasn’t afraid to know their flawed selves.
Titles that simplified who they were. But I cared nothing for them. They were simply people who I treasured, who walked on the same path as me. And even if it was painful to lose them, I had to continue on. I had to accept. Accept the burden and move forward. To hold onto what remained.
“Tell me. Is there someone that would accept you in that world that you desire?”
I saw her eyes quickly dart over to Lamps. But before the Empress could answer, a blazing light erupted behind her. It filled the room with a bluish glow so intense that I had to close my eyes to stifle it. It took nearly a minute for the flashes to stop penetrating my shut eyes. By then, I knew that I was too late.
Lamps Magellan opened his eyes, revealing a purplish white glow. Just like me, the Empress stared at him with wide eyes. Since he was blind, there was never a reason not to keep them shut. But now, I could see a difference in the very aura around him. And accompanying it, a knowing gaze as he peered around.
Purple and white. Contained. Fiery eyes that had apparently regained vision.
There was an awful heaviness to the miasma that came from him. One that was so dense and dark that it seemed like it only came from true demons. But perfectly stable, of which I had only seen before once ever.
The previous Chancellor.
At the same time, a white glow balanced it. Like how Ludmila had found herself and become whole.
Somehow, Lamps Magellan had invoked a ceremony that had caused him to turn into a real demon through divine powers.
‘But how can that be? Was this not a ritual to call upon the Gods?’
This didn’t feel like anything heavenly. Like evil consuming the light, an ominous dread seeped into my bones. Stunned by that revelation, I didn’t even notice when another person suddenly came up from behind me.
“Excuse me. I’ll be taking that back now.”
Radiant Light, the weapon of my former Master, was suddenly pulled from my grip by a mysterious person in a long, beaten-up cloak.
Before the feeling of it leaving my hand had registered, the new person raced forward with the sword and sliced at Lamps. Only to find a massive barrier halting its blade. The crackling of mana and miasma resisting brute force kept it from getting within meters of the Electi.
With a feminine battle cry, a burst of miasma erupted from the sword. A dark shroud of energy blanketed the mystery girl, enough to nearly match what Lamps expelled. At once, I could feel it.
The power of a demon against another demon. Two demons pitted in a deadlock.
After several moments, someone gave in. The person in the cloak. She was launched backwards, where I finally saw a glimpse of platinum hair and red eyes. My heart was all the way up to my throat as I realized who it was.
“Can I get a little help here, Claude?”
Pulling the cloak off, there was no longer any doubt. Eryn was standing before me. But before I could celebrate our reunion, my body froze at what else she brought with her.
Miasma swirled all around her body, forming blades of their own. That was a stark contrast to the shining sword in her right hand. And the glow cast from the surroundings made her exposed skin look sickly, like death.
Eryn had indeed died on that day back then. But her revival came about in the form of a demon. A true demon, just like that of Lamps Magellan. And she had been waiting for this moment the entire time. The result of the summoning ceremony known as ‘Godfall’.