The first to cut through the oppressive air was Laladi, who continued to regard the hero party with unrivaled apathy. She had deigned to pay them some attention at first, back when she had thought they would put things behind them soon enough, but as their interactions continued to stretch out, she disregarded them and frolicked around the Master instead.
…But now, already finding herself irritated by the unpleasant cast of characters that surrounded them, she couldn’t help the stinging words that escaped her mouth.
“Whoa there, Lala, better watch your tone. You might not get to pass away peacefully otherwise, ya hear me?”
Longmann spread his arms wide as if flaunting the grand multitude of grey guild members and kingdom knights in his vicinity. The motion was wasted on Laladi, however. After all, it made no ultimate difference whether guppies came in schools – it would give them no advantage over someone so beyond them in strength.
“Lala thinks you people should start worrying about yourselves instead.”
A Cheshire grin carved itself onto the girl’s face as she spoke. A line suddenly cut across her right cheek, just the slightest shade of black. It began to grow more and more prominent, stretching to form patterns of much greater complexity. Then, finally, the crest of a particular guild began to come into view.
“So that’s it…”
One of the kingdom knights that surrounded the Master and the others gulped audibly. That was it, one those select few guilds which the kingdom had officially deemed dark, a guild so reviled that requests of its extermination were not only left to the official guilds, but extended to their greyer counterparts as well.
The Army of Salvation, Yelquchira.
Dark guilds were considered the worst form of a guild that could be, and among all of them, none were quite as shrouded in secrecy as Yelquchira. Those few that did know of them recognized and feared their guild crest.
“H-Hahah! What’s there to fear, huh?! Did you people forget that we have these on our side?!”
The drastic change in the atmosphere surrounding Laladi had left Longmann feeling as if he had been doused in ice water. While he could do nothing to circumvent the outbreak of cold sweat, he recalled the powerful ace he and his crew had up their sleeves and raised his voice with emphasis.
The people of the grey guild took his word as a sign and began conjuring forth a magical circle, which let loose a shrill ringing that hung in the air.
“You piss-ants’re bein’ noisy! Can’t you see you’re disturbing our peace?! …Do, would you?”
While it would have been right to point out that Laladi, as obsessed as she was with the Master and as uncaring as she was of everyone else, was in no position to make such a statement when she herself paid no heed to the welfare of others, nothing good would have come of doing so. This was because her words were almost immediately followed by thunderous noise and the appearance of monsters of a very specific variety.
“You… You’ve got to be kidding…”
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When Maho first saw the monsters, she grew pale as a sheet. One could hardly fault her for that. There had been neither hide nor hair visible from these monsters before now, after all.
The assembled monsters – ogres – howled, their voices joining as one. There were four of them. They moved in from the surrounding terrain almost sluggishly and leveled hateful glares at the Master and Laladi.
“W-Why are there so many of them…? I thought we defeated…”
“Oh, that ogre? Our boys were pulling the strings on him.”
With a scornful smile, Longmann answered Maho’s surprised whispers.
“I thought monsters didn’t obey humans…”
It was Yuuto who had spoken up then. Mary had informed him as much at some point, claiming it to be common knowledge in this world. When he turned to look at her, she did not greet him with the usual kindness and warmth in her eyes. Instead, her gaze was pregnant with a heavy hatred as it turned on him.
“That’s quite true, yes. But there are always loopholes to be exploited.”
“They offered up a sacrifice to summon them here, making them obey our commands! I heard that this wouldn’t last more than a day, though.”
The way Longmann completed her explanation seemed forceful. It was as if he could no longer suppress the urge to speak. There was one word especially that Maho did not allow to slip by her, and she renewed her inquiries.
“Hahah! Sure, we might only have them under control for a day, but the right sacrifice is needed to keep that up for a monster as strong as an ogre, don’t you think?! Five ogres in total, including the one you just iced! See? A few sacrifices are unavoidable.”
The sight of Longmann levelly spewing his vile answers made it clear to Maho that the Longmann she had known until now simply did not exist. She had never been fond of him, true, but she had never imagined him as a villain capable of such atrocities. Had his jealousy towards Yuuto really warped him that much?
“You’re not…! Don’t tell me, the sacrifice…”
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“Right on the money! It was all those poor sods who used to live in that village. Controlling an ogre for a day takes a sacrifice of about, say, twenty people. Oh, Maho, with your help we could’ve kept the casualties to a minimum, but no. You were totally useless, powerless to do anything!”
Until now, Yuuto had been listening in on their conversation, his mind still muddled and unsure, but that terrible answer forced his mind to retreat to some distant plane.
Maho was not like him. She did not fight for the people of this world like he did. So, as enraged as this all made her, she hadn’t suffered too much from the shock. But Yuuto, in turn, was unlike her.
When he had been summoned into this world without warning and been forced to do battle against all manner of demons, risking his life as he fought, his psyche had become drained just as hers had. He had nevertheless found a way to cope with this mental affliction – he had built himself back up as someone who would lend his assistance to those innocent souls in need. With these very souls he had sworn to protect now dead, he could not even summon the strength he needed to face Longmann.
“Hahahah! Look at you, great Hero! You’re like a baby chick! Guess I should’ve been the real hero after all! Wouldn’t you agree?!”
With one look at the boy who had been forced to his knees, Longmann threw the question into the masses of guild members surrounding the Master and his group. It was only then that a peal of laughter rang through the air. Mary, whose obsessive assumption of there being heathens that strayed from the Angel Faith close by spoke volumes of her mental state, was now giggling to herself.
“You… You can’t just…!”
Maho’s ground her teeth against each other while she glowered at the pair. Not moments ago, Yuuto had pulled the hero party’s weight, standing as a vanguard, proactive in his approach. He was a hero who had saved their lives. How could they just stand there and say that about him? How could they just laugh at him like this? The rage inside Maho bubbled, ready to burst.
“I’ll never let you get away with this, any of you!”
“Hah! You’re not gettin’ out of this alive, so you’re not gonna have the chance! I could give a rat’s arse about whether you’d forgive us or not!”
A small, rational part of herself peeked through the haze of righteous fury and allowed her to affirm what he had said. What would have happened if Yuuto weren’t the one being laughed at like this, but the Master?
She had shown him a side of herself she hadn’t wanted anyone to see – in a purely psychological sense, of course – but despite that, she had only met him a few days ago. It would only be reasonable to assume that seeing Yuuto so humiliated would be harder for her to bear. But even now, the space the Master occupied in Maho’s heart was growing larger than the one she had for Yuuto.
It was all enough to make her believe that her anger would have erupted like a volcano, that she would have fired her sorceries in rapid and maddened succession.
Now, as little credence as Longmann’s own words gave him, it was true that they were surrounded by four ogres. Running away would be impossible. Even one ogre had been too much for them to handle, and only Laladi’s intervention had allowed for its downfall. It didn’t matter how strong the girl was, either. There was no way she could take on four ogres and come out on top. The situation was a frustrating one, but Maho refused to grind her teeth this time.
“Master. I’m very glad to have met you, really. I may die here, but I swear I’ll protect you to the end.”
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Her resolve found, she crept closer to him and peered into his piercing blue eyes. Even if the Master – and let’s not forget about Laladi – was indeed part of a dark guild, Maho had made up her mind. She was going to fight by his side, no matter what.
The fight with the first ogre had left her magical resources exhausted, true, but she thought she could still do something if she willed herself to. Maho was heroic in her resolve, a tragic figure, but that image was soon dispelled as Laladi hefted a single laugh her way.
“Hah! The Master isn’t so weak that he has to resort to being saved by you, and neither is Lala!”
“Say what you want, but we’re facing off against four ogres, Longmann, Mary, grey guild members, and kingdom knights! That’s not exactly an easy fight, even for you!”
Maho took a breath, convinced that Laladi was only putting up a front. True, the ogres were not their only enemies.
Longmann had his tough defenses, Mary could heal wounds during battle, and both the people from the grey guild and kingdom knights were hardened fighters, used to the battlefield. The Master had forced her guard down a bit, and now Laladi had nothing but bitterness towards Maho, but she reaffirmed that this was no time to be petty.
She had no way of knowing, of course. Laladi hadn’t been acting tough when she had told Maho that she could take everyone out by her own means.
“Haah… Look, Lala… Actually, all of Yelquchira’s members work like they’re extensions of the Master’s body. We’re not about to lose to small fry.”
The powerful aggression in Laladi’s smile seemed so far removed from what her innocent and childlike appearance should have allowed. Just a second later, a great rumbling shook the earth and cracked it in two.
The sound of Laladi’s voice moved effortlessly and without resistance, even as it traveled through the clamor raised by the men who surrounded the Master.
“Lala’s part of Yelquchira. Her job’s to take all those idiots who want to stand in the Master’s way and turn them into plant food.”
“You’re kidding, right…?”
Thunderous growls continued, and Longmann craned his neck to look further up, up, up. His eyes attempted to stay on Laladi as she rose skywards.
Every last shred of the airy clothing that covered her body was now gone, and her curves, though greatly modest, were clearly defined and freely displayed. Anything more sensitive was, by matter of course, obscured perfectly by the plant.
On a somewhat unrelated note the Master could, from his position, get a full and unmitigated view of her slightly budding chest curves, and even of her rather well-defined rear. As salacious as this display was, the Master, who still viewed Laladi like his very own daughter, showed no reaction and continued to smile. Laladi, seeing this by means of a furtive glance out of the corner of her eye, became immediately crestfallen.
“Oh, right. Lala didn’t mention this, but she’s not human. She’s an Alraune, a kind of monster. Pleased to meet you. Now die already.”
Laladi’s declaration was largely devoid of fervor.
On the other end, the Master looked at her with one thought in mind.
– – – – – Why is it that she keeps exposing herself when she uses her powers?