As Claude searched for answers to his own powers, the battle between the demons and mankind continued to rage on. With the main force of Yakuman deployed, the battlefront finally stopped advancing toward the city, stopping just outside its boundaries.
But even a stalemate could be considered a win for the demon side. After all, demonized beings didn’t get tired from the fighting. Injuries inflicted upon them healed rapidly, unless their cores were shattered. That was not the same for humans, who grew weak and slow from battle weariness.
The demons soon divided based on their human origin: Purnesia, Sistina and Sanshiro. Some chased after the knights and soldiers that arrived from Sistina, while others targeted their own countrymen. The reason for that was clear – a lingering grudge of falling in war, regret of having their futures crushed over bitter conflict. Hatred for their personal enemies drove them instinctively for revenge.
Leading that charge from the demon side were two powerful men who used to be part of the now-dissolved Thunder Phoenix Clan, Cheng Shi Yuan and Marude Zura. After their respective defeats, they were approached by Chancellor Willingham, who was their secret contributor in the coup. That man provided the necessary tools to capture the Oracle, as well as the ancient scroll to call upon the Thunder Phoenix. He goaded them on. He gave them the confidence to act upon their greatest wishes.
And now, the Demon within Eryn Faulkner’s body gave them a second chance. From the very start of the battle, Cheng and Zura scouted for the targets that defined their current existence, the ones who killed them before.
For Cheng, the sight of a young girl zipping through the crowd made his blood boil and his left arm tingle. That arm, along with the entire left side of his body, had been ripped off from that child’s strongest attack. No longer would he consider her anything more than a true warrior.
For Zura, his target could also be spotted from a mile away. The telltale sign of demons being flung high through the air was the showy technique of the Electi of Dexterity. The tactics that Zura refined all of his life, just to fight against Lau Ki Young, had met with a fatal flaw in their last confrontation. This time, he was given the power to compensate for it.
The two notable warriors, now boosted in strength by the power of miasma, dashed toward their respective rivals. They wouldn’t stop until they had their revenge.
“Quick, Hochi! Get the food over to the warriors! We need those buffs now!”
Hochi waved at the person, a fellow member of the Samyang clan, without taking his eyes off his creation. He couldn’t look away as every fiber of his being was devoted to making sure the sizzling vat of oil before him crispified his newest work to perfection.
Before him was a ten-meter long fryer with metal bins sticking out from them. Each bin had a mesh-like cage, allowing for food to be submerged in a deep red oil that bubbled vigorously. Nodding his head to keep count of the passing time, he suddenly bolted into action. The metal bins of food were pulled out of the fryers and left to hang for the oil to drain. After a minute, Hochi dumped the crispy, round red balls out of them onto plates lined with paper.
The man from before shook his head, wondering just what creation their promising, new chef had come up with. He reached over to one of the plates, noting the deep red oil dyeing into the paper under them. Giving it a quick blow to cool it down, he popped the bite-sized morsel into his mouth.
And almost instantly, he let out a horrifying shriek.
“HOLY ORACLE! WHAT THE-“
The man went on a rampage, flames spewing out of his mouth as he crashed into a solid, reinforced wall. A loud shatter of bricks echoed as Hochi watched the man continuing to sprint away. Numerous crashes persisted in the distance as it seemed like nothing could stop him.
Hochi cracked a smile as he dished up the final set of perfectly-crispy rice poppers. Given the Samyang Clan’s purpose of delivering food that gave extreme bursts of power, this was in line with what he expected.
Hochi picked up one and bit through half of it, relishing the satisfying crunch that sounded. An immediate burst of spiciness exploded in his mouth. Even though he was used to the typical spice level of a Samyang entree, this was on another level. The deep red chili oil that he fried the outer rice coating was just the beginning. Inside, marinated tuna oozed with a pink gooey liquid from the middle. The mayonnaise that he combined with a cocktail of different spices gave it a nice medium to coat the tuna with, not hitting all at once, but layered on his tongue as the sauce spread across it. He had made the filling chock full of stat-increasing properties, suspending the individual spices in mayonnaise to keep them from clashing. Then, he further enhanced their effectiveness by locking the aromas within a chili-fried coating. All of that trapped flavor was unleashed at once upon cracking the popper apart.
Sweat ran profusely down Hochi’s back. Even he, mainly a chef rather than a fighter, was now ready for the battlefield. He scooped up the entire stash of poppers into a bowl. Running off towards the battlefield, this new creation would help turn the tides if it made others as invincible as what he was feeling right now.
There was a distinct difference as he dashed madly down the streets, nearly twice his normal speed. In mere minutes, he had raced from the middle of town to where all the fighting was. Just inside of the barrier, wounded warriors were being treated. Much of this was currently done by providing them with food that accelerated healing and mana recovery. For those that could still fight after treatment, they were also given food that boosted their abilities temporarily. This became a fad after Star Shooter’s mapo tofu buns became such a hit against the Thunder Phoenix Clan.
But Hochi strove to be even better. It was a matter of pride not to be outdone by a foreigner. He studied everything he could to make food that was bolder, stronger, and made demons out of men. Not literally, but he had heard how powerful demons were and set that as a goal for his stat increases.
There was just one issue – the extremes of stat-boosting often made the flavors too strong to handle. Almost no one would dare to stomach a mind-blowing flavor that overtook all of their senses and drove them into a frenzy… almost.
The one exception was lovers of spicy food, who simply saw it as a challenge no matter how much pain they had to endure. Far beyond the levels of sweet, salty and savory, it was spiciness that seemed to be an infinite scale. While those that reveled in such danger were among the minority, it was still something. Test subjects for the ultimate creation in his hands.
“Ah, Geng! There you are! Have one of these!” Hochi shouted, spotting one of his ‘comrades of the flaming tongue’. He knew them all by name at this point.
Geng, a low-ranking warrior in a standard family, perked up as he saw Hochi approach. The expression on Hochi’s face only meant one thing – a new sample to try. Geng’s mouth watered at the thought. He loved to prove his bravery and worth, even if it was something as mundane as a food challenge.
Snatching the crispy ball out of Hochi’s extended hand, Geng shoved it into his mouth with no hesitation and started chewing. But then, his eyes popped open, and he started flailing around with his spear held high above him. Like he had an endless amount of pent-up energy to release, he pranced around, unsure of what to do with it all.
Hochi firmly grabbed Geng’s back and pushed him toward the battlefield. Geng had held back on fighting due to his lackluster skill, but now, he was itching for some kind of release. Huffing and puffing with sweat pouring down his face, he broke into a mad charge for the nearest demon.
The others looked on, wondering what Geng could possibly do to a demon twice his own strength, but Geng didn’t stop. He twirled his spear like a madman and crashed into that demon. A field of eyes popped open as the demon next to Geng exploded into bits, instantly dying. Geng paid it no mind and continued his charge, whooping and hollering as he chased after another demon in the same fashion.
Those next to Hochi stared at him, and then looked at the bowl in his hands. And then, they all turned back to the still-rampaging Geng. After the gears in their heads clicked into place, a swarm of warriors crowded around Hochi, reaching for one of those crispy poppers. Hochi grinned as he felt ever so popular.
Not long afterward…
“CLEAR THE MIDDLE!”
A loud battle cry ripped through the center of the battlefield. From the barrier, a long line of warriors stampeded forward, smashing everything that it came in contact with. Seeing that this charge was abnormal, the other combatants of Sanshiro quickly scrambled out of the way, leaving only demons in the direct path of the berserk-ridden group of fighters fanning out into the battlefield.
What took a dozen fighters to take on a demon previously was replaced with a scene of demons being shredded from a single blow. The middle ground, where Sanshiro had the most trouble, turned into a massacre of demons who had been overly confident in their strength.
Hochi looked on in awe. The excitement in him couldn’t be contained. He had finally done it! A boost that lifted men into the realm of demons. It was better than he could have ever hoped for… except when the warriors that ate his spicy poppers bellowed out “Holy Oracle! Hochi, you are so dead!”
Maybe they would cool down a bit after some demon slaying. The effects were only temporary after all. Aside from that, it was a resounding success. About ten minutes later, the affected warriors started to slow down, and the battle resumed its natural flow once again. Still, nearly a hundred demons had been slain as a result. Not bad for a first try. Hochi thought about how he could streamline the cooking process to make larger batches next time. If the entire army had access to them, they would be nearly unstoppable.
Hochi’s vision flicked between three spots where few people dared to interrupt. That was because true demons were fighting there. Even with his food, there was no way to approach that level of power. The battles going on there would take out a normal man in an instant, even with his ‘invincible poppers’. Strikes echoed through the air, so powerful that they shook the land and forced people to give them space. Hochi could barely see flashes of mana erupt from each confrontation. Given that he wasn’t well trained in mana detection, that alone being visible to the eyes of a normal man only meant a massive amount of mana was being expelled. He shivered to think what level of power was displayed there. Even with no other demons, those three alone could topple an entire army… if not for the existence of Electi and heroes strong enough to face them.
Just then, Hochi got another shiver down his back. He looked back at the middle of the battlefield. Seeing that the ones who ate the spicy poppers were now charging back towards him, he had a sinking feeling that they weren’t coming back to congratulate him on his success. Many of their faces were twisted in utter rage with their tongues hanging out. Their bodies were scrambling erratically as well, as if they were tormented by something and desperate for relief.
Hochi reached into his pocket and pulled out his last popper, one that he hid just in case. Throwing it into his mouth, he made a break for the city, hoping to lose the angry crowd for the time being. Even though the stat boosts had worn off after ten minutes, the burn from ingesting it persisted, with it barely calming down at all. Hochi was used to it, after sampling his creation many times to make adjustments. But for most people, the lingering spice was torture that was maddening.
Perhaps, they would forgive him if he concocted something to chase away the pain. But was there even anything that was ‘extreme’ enough to counteract the spiciness? That was one thing that he forgot to make as insurance. An oversight due to being too focused on one aspect.
‘Ah well, cooking is trial and error.’