Individual Fragments of Certain Stories
The Sixth Fragment – A Matter of Strength
I'm an ordinary male student in high school. I study before my tests and do well enough to get a passing grade, I don't bother working out, and I don't have much of a love life. I'm happy and contented enough with what I have, just living my life peacefully.
But it seems that the heavens are hell-bent on making sure that things aren't that simple for me.
It was a routine day and I was heading home after school. The weather was fine and the streets weren't crowded, so I wasn't in too much of a hurry. I fingered the golden ring that I wore on my left index finger as I watched a few kids play tag in the park as I strolled by. One of the kids crashed into his playmates, and all of them tumbled in mid-air.
They didn't hit the ground after that.
The world turned grey. Trees, benches, swings and even the children all turned into various shades of grey. It was as though God had spilled some paint from his palette and into the world, overpowering all the other colours and setting it firmly in greyscale. That wasn't the only change, either. All forms of movement were immediately ceased. Even gravity was powerless before this phenomenon. I glanced upwards and saw a flock of birds, frozen in mid-flight.
I froze, too, but it wasn't because of this phenomenon. I knew that I could move.
There was a monstrous creature before me.
It had a beastly visage, resembling that of a bull or a boar's. Long, serrated tusks protruded from its maw, and a sickly green liquid dripped from the edge of these tusks. Its skin was blacker than coal and its pupils burned with an eerie blue light. It gripped a pitchfork in its claws and the ground trembled as each step it took brought it closer towards me.
I prayed with all my heart that it would ignore me, but one look into its eyes was enough to confirm my deepest fears - it was not fooled into thinking that I had been affected like the other humans by the phenomenon. I decided not to waste any time on idle hopes. I turned around and ran away. The beast unleashed a harsh, grating laugh and followed me. Its legs were short and stubby but it seemed able to jump with explosive power and that eliminated its need to run. Each leap it took closed the distance considerably, and it soon became clear that it could catch up to me any time it wanted.
"Goddamnit!" I yelled as I searched frantically for a way to escape. There just seemed to be no good way out, however.
The monster made a prodigious leap from behind me and vaulted straight over my head. It landed heavily right in front of me and brandished its pitchfork, forcing me to stop. It must have finally gotten bored of toying around with me.
"You bore me, human. Do you know nothing but cowardice?"
Its discordant voice was inordinately loud due to the absolute lack of sound in this colorless world. Every noise that was usually there, that was there and was heard all the time until your brain phased it out and silence itself became audible, was missing. The idle chatter of pedestrians in the street, the chirping of the birds in the sky, the rumble of motors on the road. All of those were missing.
I didn't bother to give it a proper answer. I screamed again in frustration, spun around, and started running again. Why did something like this have to happen to me? I didn't do anything to deserve this. Various similar thoughts ran through my head as my feet pounded against the pavement. The beast didn't bother playing around this time. It jumped right over me again and then went straight for my throat with its weapon.
"Let the icy winds roam freely, and may they envelop all that lies in their path."
I could only watch in shock as I felt the caress of a cold gust of wind brush past me. All I experienced was a slight chill, but the consequences were far more dire for the demonic creature that stood before me. Its skin slowly faded from black to pure white, and it roared hellishly in agony as sheets of frost formed on its body. It only took mere seconds before its scream petered out into a high-pitch whine and finally died.
I turned my head in the direction of the voice and saw a girl falling freely through the air. She must have jumped off from the rooftop of a nearby building. Despite the insane height that she had jumped at, she was able to land gracefully on her feet with no problems. That was surely not the act of a normal human.
"Hm?" she narrowed her eyes as she approached me. She wore a normal outfit consisting of a simple blouse and knee-length skirt, and yet there was something inexplicably striking about her appearance. Perhaps it was the way her head of golden hair fell past her waist in a style rarely seen in modern days. Or perhaps it was because of her high cheekbones and Alice blue eyes that were so light that they were almost white. Either way, it was clear from the first time I saw her that she was not an ordinary person by any means.
"You're not a Veneficium...How can you move in the Time of Purgatory?"
I stared at her, touching the ring I wore with my thumb. "I'm sorry, but I don't quite know what you're talking about. Thank you for saving my life from that monster, though. I really appreciate it."
"Don't worry about it. So you're just a normal human? I've never seen a normal human avoid the effects of the Time of Purgatory," she replied.
"Yes, I'm just a normal human," I answered hurriedly. I didn't want her to get the wrong idea. That could end up causing all sorts of problems. "Who are you?" I asked, my voice shaking slightly.
"My name is Natasha. To put it simply, I'm someone who fights demons like the one which was just about to kill you. I suppose it would be best if you thought of me as something like a mage from those video games that everyone seems to be so fond of playing."
"Oh, I see," I said dumbly.
"You should probably hide somewhere," she said, her gaze sweeping the surrounding area.
"That demon wasn't the only one in this city. Now that I've been forced to show myself, they'll flock towards this location to get rid of the only being that can threaten them - me."
I considered this as quickly as I could. "I can't just leave you here. We should go together."
"What are you talking about? You're just a normal human, aren't you? There's nothing you can do to help me or fight those demons. Even if you did have a gun or some other weapon, it would not be effective against them."
"Yes, but even so! I can't allow myself to leave a girl behind like that."
Natasha's expression remained impassive. "Don't be ridiculous - "
Her head whipped around and she moved closer towards me. "Well, it looks like you've got your wish, however silly it may have been. It's too late for you to run away now. They're here."
Numerous patches of red haze began to warp into existence around us. These clouds of mist gradually formed clumps and shapes, before finally solidifying into various humanoid figures. Some had the heads of beasts, like the creature that I had previously encountered. Others had extra appendages, too little appendages, or simply no limbs at all. At the forefront of the group was a headless knight clad in medieval plate armor who was astride a similarly beheaded horse. It was wielding a giant jousting lance that seemed far too heavy for it to carry with only one hand, but it was able to point it at us with no difficulty whatsoever.
"Stay close to me. There is no need for you to lose your life meaninglessly. I will defeat them," Natasha cautioned me.
"Worry not, Veneficium. That human is the least of our worries. It is strange that he is not immobilized, but he is not a threat," the knight said. Its voice was sonorous and sounded much more human compared to the beast I had first met. It raised its spear high into the air, and the demons surrounding it charged at us.
My first thought was that there were too many of them. Natasha was doing a fine job of handling them, warding them off with blasts of ice and wind, but it seemed that she needed to concentrate to do any real damage. Every time the frost accumulated on a certain demon, another would prevent her from striking the decisive blow. It seemed that she realized this as well, because she backed away from the demons.
She clasped her hands together before her as though praying and began to chant.
"I beg thee, Freya of the Northern Lands. Give me thy blessings, for I ask for the aid of thy beloved and most famous of ornaments, the Brísingamen."
I could not stop myself from shuddering as the temperature fell and my breath came out in wisps of white mist before me. A floating chain of giant icicles materialized out of thin air around Natasha and I. Each piece of ice flashed with a dazzling, brilliant light that was clearly unnatural. The demons watched in horror as their legs slowly became encased in the encroaching frost.
"Don't step past the icicles. It's dangerous," Natasha added unnecessarily.
"Don't worry, I can see that," I replied as I watched the ice creep up the bodies of the demons. Many of them already had their entire lower body completely frozen. To my consternation, however, I noticed that the headless knight's mount had been barely affected. There was a coating of ice on the steed's hooves, but that was the full extent of the effect.
"Duke Eligor! Save us! Please, we beg for you mercy!" the demons roared, forming a cacophonous chorus.
The knight tossed his lance into the air, catching it with a reversed grip on the way down. It was unbelievable that he could hold the massive weapon steady in such an unorthodox stance. I noticed that a coiling, snake-like pattern had emerged on the shaft of the weapon and was glowing faintly.
"I suppose I was foolish to have expected more from the likes of you," Eligor said to his subordinates. "But I must admit that you are capable, Veneficium. It is imperative that I eliminate you here."
He threw the lance and murmured a few sentences as it flew in a straight arc towards the chain of icicles.
"I announce myself as Duke Eligor, ruler of sixty legions of demons. By my authority over war, I shall divine the weakness of my enemy, and vanquish her without fail." The snake-like pattern now glowed with an intense emerald light, and it seemed as though the pattern itself was slithering and moving on the lance.
The lance struck one of the mammoth blocks of ice and bisected it cleanly.
Natasha grabbed me by the shoulders and dived to the ground, dragging me behind her. The huge lance spiralled through the air and stabbed into the ground some fifty feet away from us. The demonic steed broke into a canter and the Duke wasted no time in retrieving his weapon. The frost that was encasing the demons was already beginning to recede.
Duke Eligor directed his mount towards us and brandished his lance threateningly.
"You have lost, Veneficium. Yield. I may yet be able to spare your life."
Natasha bit on her lower lip as she watched the tip of the lance carefully. "I am grateful for your mercy, Duke Eligor, but there is no real difference between capture and death. Why not put me out of my misery?"
The headless knight shrugged. "Very well. If that is what you prefer."
I grit my teeth. Now was the time to make my choice. I took a step in front of Natasha placed my arm in front of her.
"...What are you doing?" Natasha and Eligor asked at the same time.
"I'm still wondering about that even now. But it's not that surprising. This is the only path left for me to take. I don't think I could bear the guilt, otherwise."
Natasha frowned. "If you're still going on about how you can't just leave me - "
"`O Andvarinaut, Loki's treasure ring of red gold. Thy curse be swift and deadly, but none can overcome my might. Shatter."
I raised my left hand and tapped the ring on my index finger lightly. A single crack appeared in it. A few more cracks followed it, and gradually the flaws spread all across the ring, causing to shatter into numerous small fragments.
Eligor saw the potential danger and backed off immediately, pulling his steed backwards. I looked at my left hand. It's been a very long time since I last experienced this nostalgic feeling, but it still remained as unforgettable as ever.
One of the demons, who had finally been freed from the ice, charged at me with a giant axe. It raised the weapon overhead and directed a powerful, smashing blow downwards at me. I took a step inwards, avoiding the weapon as I moved right next to it.
"Out of the way."
I brought my arm up and latched onto the demon's face with my hand. Thick, roiling tendrils of shocking yellow lightning burst out of my palm and coursed through its thrashing body. I then released my grip and allowed the charred, smoking demon to collapse upon the ground.
I looked up to see that Eligor had already retreated behind his legion of demons. He pointed his lance at me.
"This is clearly some sort of trap. The boy is a Veneficium as well. Attack him, my minions. He is the threat to us now. The other Veneficium's spell has already been neutralized. She is of no consequence."
"This isn't a trap," I said as I shook my head. "It's just a giant pain in the ass."
I took another step forward and spread my arms.
"Hear me, heavens above, and obey my orders, for none shall be able to stop my Wrath when provoked, and only death and destruction lie in my wake. I command the hammer of the thunder god, Mjollnir; strike my enemies and bring them to their knees before me."
Innumerable bolts of electric-blue lightning rained down continuously from the heavens in an instant. Not one of the legion of demons was spared and the painful screams of the demons echoed across the battlefield. When the onslaught was finally over, the ground was littered with the bodies of demons and the debilitating stench of burnt flesh spread across the area.
Eligor roared in fury as he watched his legion fall to a single spell. "You're no ordinary Veneficium! 'Lightning's Wrath'...I thought you were dead!"
I grinned at him. "That was the plan. Obviously, I'll have to think of something else, now."
"And I suppose you'll want to silence me to make sure that nobody knows of your actual survival?"
"I do want to do that, but I doubt that I can prevent you from escaping, Duke Eligor. The Steed of Abigor is well-known to any Veneficium."
"Thanks to the Ars Goetia, I presume? I will retreat now with good grace and take my men with me, if you're so willing. Information of your survival is a precious spoil of battle that I am eager to bring back to Pandaemonium."
Natasha managed to snap out of her stunned state and immediately protested. "Wait - Mmmpfh - "
"Be quiet," I said, covering her mouth with my hand. "This is my decision to make, not yours. Just be happy that you're alive."
Duke Eligor bowed in respect and pulled on the reins. His steed pawed the ground with its hooves before unleashing a thunderous neigh. The same red mist that had brought the legion here enveloped them once more and then dissipated, allowing them to disappear from the scene.
"What a mess this is," I growled as colour, movement, and sound finally returned to the world at large, now that the demons have returned and the Time of Purgatory has ended.
Natasha shoved my hand away from her face. "So you were just pretending to be a normal human all this time?" she asked. The corners of her lips were pulled down and her eyes flashed angrily.
"Yes, what about it?"
"What? You played me for a fool! And why didn't you simply defeat those demons if you had the power to do so?"
I sighed. "I have no interest in this war. That's why I faked my death, sealed my magic, and tried to live as an ordinary human. It seems like Lady Luck isn't on my side, however."
"No interest? You could save many of us by fighting on our side. You have a duty to do so! That's why you revealed yourself in the first place, isn't it? Wasn't it to save me?" Natasha said coldly.
"Yes, it seems like I just can't let someone die in front of me, but I have no interest in fighting and killing demons. I may be a Veneficium myself, but I don't value our lives over that of the demons. They aren't evil. The demon that chased me probably thought I was a Veneficium instead of a normal human. I avoided killing any of them this time, but there will be times when it's unavoidable if I join in the war. I just don't want to do that."
"And you're fine even if people die because of that?"
"I didn't kill them. People die everywhere, every day. It's not my responsibility to save all of them."
"No, but it's your responsibility to save those you can."
I looked at Natasha. She was radiating indignation out of every pore of her body.
"Perhaps you're right, but I don't care about that."
I walked away from her, but she immediately grabbed onto my hand.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Making sure you don't run away and fake your death again."
"Don't worry, that won't work twice. The ring of red gold has already been broken, and anyway Eligor knows all about it. I'm heading to the Association. You're going there as well, aren't you?"
"...Yes, I am. I thought you didn't intend to fight."
"I don't. I'm heading there to make that clear to them that I don't."
"I won't let that happen."
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow. "And what are you going to do about it?"
"I'll convince you before we get there."
I laughed wildly as I continued walking. "The nearest Association branch is two hours away. Can you do it in that time frame?"
"I can and I will. Just try me."