Slayers:Volume 09 Chapter 2
The Shadow of Demons in Bezeld...
"So... there's a mysterious sword somewhere in Bezeld?" Gourry said, as we walked along the path.
"Maybe, maybe not."
"What do you mean?"
"There's a chance that Sherra's father really did find orihalcon in Bezeld. Say he found an unexpected mother lode, but for some reason he couldn't bring it all back at once. So he made up a story to keep the villagers from getting too curious, and that story found its way to the ears of that swindling mayor. And his daughter, Sherra, not only knows where the orihalcon is, but also knows a way to discreetly convert it into money. That'd explain why she's been able to make a living even though nobody's ever seen her work."
"The only obvious problem with this theory is, why would he make up a story about a sword? If he wanted to keep people from going to look, a story about some monster would have worked much better. Though I guess a sword would be a bit more believable...
"But on the other hand, if we assume that there really is a sword and not some great hoard of orihalcon, that in turn leaves us with no explanation for Sherra living alone without any visible income. There's the possibility that she did some kind of shady work, but judging from the innkeeper's opinion of her, that doesn't seem likely."
"Ah, don't worry about that. Or it could be that Glenn really did love his daughter, and he left her with some kind of inheritance. What I mean to say is, there are lots of possibilities. Got it?"
"Mmm..." Gourry pursed his lips, looking up at the sky. "I'm not sure, but I think you're trying to say... everything will be made clear once we get to Bezeld?"
"Well... yes." Grr... Don't summarize things like that! It makes me look long-winded for explaining everything!
"But we might be able to learn what's going on before that," Gourry said suddenly, stopping dead in his tracks. We were at a place where the path became thickly surrounded with trees. It was easy to see what Gourry was expecting: an ambush.
Now, it wasn't exactly set in stone that you had to ambush people in forests where there wouldn't be many witnesses, but it was undeniably true that such places were great if you wanted to kill someone quietly. It was nearly impossible to see someone in drab clothes hiding in the flush undergrowth, after all. At times like these, you had to rely on being able to sense your would-be attackers' presence.
Even I could easily sense, say, a roving band of bandits lying in wait. But when the enemy was skilled enough to hide their presence, I couldn't be sure at all.
In such situations, Gourry's animal-like instincts were indispensable.
Maybe it was the men in black?
"Right," I said, moving my gaze to the forest and straining my eyes. "The ones waiting for us might be willing to explain everything."
"Don't concern yourself with the girl if you value your lives," a dark, husky man's voice said, sounding oddly out of place in the bright and sunny light of day. Needless to say, it belonged to whoever was waiting in wait for us in the trees. I could hear his voice, but I still couldn't sense where he was. It seemed like he was willing to see how we reacted before making his move.
"What girl are you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb," the unknown man said coldly.
"Heh. It looks like you've got a brain on your shoulders," I said. "Unlike Zain."
"The only words I'm interested in hearing are 'yes' or 'no'."
Hmm... He was ignoring all my attempts at getting him to reveal anything, only saying what he had to say. I guessed he was a fair bit better at negotiating than Zain had been. Well, then...
"Does your master really want that sword so badly?"
"Yes, or no."
Bah! Stubborn one, wasn't he? How about this?!
"You're telling us not to concern ourselves with Sherra... but you don't know where she is right now, either, do you? That means no matter how big you talk, we hold the advantage here - since we know that much, at least."
The voice fell silent for a moment. Heh! How would he deal with that?
A whisper on the wind was the only warning we got before something came flying out of the trees towards us!
Just as I expected! A brace of throwing knives embedded themselves in the dirt where we'd been only moments before-
Erk! I couldn't move! Shadow Snap?
Even though Shadow Snap was a minor spell that only kept the opponent from moving, it still took a fair amount of concentration to cast properly. Being able to pin both of us with separate casts meant that our enemy was considerably skilled.
But that didn't mean it couldn't be beat. "Fireball!"
My spell slammed into the dirt, causing a huge explosion and banishing our shadows in the sudden firelight. We could move again.
"What?" It seemed our attacker was more than a little surprised at my quick response.
"There you are!" Gourry cried, drawing his sword and rushing towards the place where the knives had come from. A flash of silver split the air as another blade flew towards him, but he quickly parried it. At that moment, an onyx shadow detached itself from the trees and flew out into the sunlight. From his black clothes, it was clear whose side the man was on.
"I knew you were in cahoots with Zain!"
The man in black didn't reply, instead darting towards us with amazing speed.
"You'll have to try harder than that," I called, bending my body to avoid another small knife the man threw, even as he avoided a wide slash from Gourry.
With a wordless shout, Gourry reversed directions in a blur of motion, gathering momentum into a powerful thrust. I couldn't even tell when he'd drawn, but a dagger appeared as if by magic in the shadowy man's left hand, barely deflecting Gourry's attack. At the same time, a snap of his right wrist sent yet another knife flying at Gourry - too close to avoid!
His body flowing like quicksilver, Gourry somehow managed to avoid the impossibly quick attack and the man in black drew back, shifting to charge towards me. Another knife flew at me, but from this distance it was easy to avoid.
Something was wrong. For a man skilled enough to block Gourry's attacks, his attacks were way too simple and straightforward. Then could it be...?
I began muttering a spell beneath my breath, forcing myself to draw back from the heat of battle and widen my field of vision. The man in black continued to dart around, throwing easily avoidable knives at Gourry and I. Suddenly, he threw himself backwards, clapping his hands together. Like I'd thought, it was a set-up for something greater!
The earth responded violently to the words of power, turning a dark shade of blackish purple and lurching like a living thing. The knives the man in black had thrown hadn't been aimed at us - they'd been forming a makeshift magic circle on the ground!
With a great explosion of dirt, a huge brass demon began rising out of the ground.
But I'd already known it was coming! The moment the brass demon's bulk hid the man in black from my sight, I thrust one hand outwards. "Gaav Flare!"
A gout of flame burst from my hand, reducing the brass demon to nothing but black dust and piercing through towards my enemy!
...Or at least, that was the plan.
"...Huh?" Not even a small sputter of sparks came from my outstretched palm, much less a mighty stream of fire. What-
Oh! That's right! It'd completely slipped my mind.. Gaav Flare was a spell that drew on the power of Chaos Dragon Gaav, one of the five Mazoku Lords under Ruby Eye Shabranigdu... and as of a while ago, very, very dead. Of course a spell designed to call on his magic wouldn't work! How could I forget?
While I was busy drowning in my regrets, the brass demon announced its presence with a low roar. This was no time to be concerned about my mistakes!
The man in black pointed at us as I began casting another spell, yelling, "Kill them!"
The brass demon roared in response, a flurry of fireballs forming in front of it and jetting towards Gourry. Almost at the same time, Gourry made his move - not away from the demon, but towards it!
Thankfully, Gourry didn't start hacking away at the spells like I'd feared, instead weaving his way through them - but the man in black shrewdly hurled a salvo of deadly blades straight at him. If he blocked or avoided it, he'd be easy pickings for the demon.
Not on my watch! "Dynast Breath!" My spell rocketed forward, freezing and shattering the brass demon instantly. At the same time, Gourry's sword blurred and sent all the incoming knives flying in a series of metallic clangs.
"Impossible!" the man cried, suddenly frozen in shock. It was obvious he hadn't been expecting his hard-summoned brass demon to be defeated so easily. Taking the initiative, Gourry snagged one of the parried knives out of midair and sent it flying back. By the time the man in black noticed, it was already too late. The sharp blade embedded itself deep in his right calf.
"It's over," Gourry said, slowly walking over to the man in black, who'd collapsed where he stood. "You can't fight with one leg lamed like that." Even as he talked, he didn't show a single opening to attack.
"Bah... so this is it..." In the sudden silence, I could hear the man in black gritting his teeth as he growled. As long as Gourry didn't lower his guard, there was no way the man in black could possibly win.
"So," I said. "Now that you've lost, maybe you'll be willing to tell us-"
Before I could even finish, the man's body exploded!
There was nobody else around. That meant...
"He killed himself to keep the secret... How could he do that?" I muttered.
"I guess we didn't learn anything useful, after all."
"What? We didn't learn everything, but we did manage to glean a lot of information."
"Huh? We did?" Gourry looked awed. I suppressed a sigh. Gourry would always be Gourry.
"Listen. The fact that the men in black were waiting for us along this path confirms that there's something in Bezeld."
"They want something that Sherra knows, too. Of course they'd try and stop anyone who was after the same thing. If we'd been going somewhere else, they'd see no need to warn us, or attack us."
"I see," Gourry said, nodding. "But wait. Does that mean the two who took off before us have already been taken out?"
"Maybe. Or they might have gone in the wrong direction, or avoided the road. And one other thing we've managed to find out is that Sherra hasn't been snatched by the men in black yet. He attacked as soon as I said we knew where Sherra was, even though he'd been staying hidden before. In other words, they don't know where she is. So even though he knew we might have been bluffing, he couldn't afford to leave us be. Before I said that, he even seemed willing to let us go if we gave up."
But even as I thought it over, there were things that didn't quite match up. The men in black should have at least known that Sherra would move towards Bezeld once they blew up her home. In that case, it made sense that this sentry-cum-assassin was posted here a day ago. And in that case...
How did Sherra get by? Or maybe she wasn't headed to Bezeld after all?
Whatever Sherra had done, our only choice was to keep going straight.
"Anyway, let's get going. To Bezeld," I said, taking a step forward. Gourry followed.
It was twilight and we were still walking along the same dreary forest path when Gourry suddenly decided to open his mouth. "But Lina. You know, about the men in black clothes we've been fighting, and those two... um... whoever..."
"Luke and Milina."
"Right, right. Those two. Who do you think they are?"
"Who...? I said it yesterday, while we were fighting the two men in black. It's pretty obvious they're the secret service of some kingdom or lordship."
"You said that?"
"Where were you when I was talking to Zain?"
"But you weren't talking to me. Of course I can't remember," Gourry said, pouting. I couldn't believe he was actually being serious.
"...Anyway," I said, struggling to rein in my disbelief at his stupidity, "that's probably who the men in black are. And Luke and Milina are probably just mercenaries, after treasure just like us."
"Hmm... Then the treasure Sherra knows about probably isn't a sword, right?"
"Why would you say that?" I asked, frowning slightly.
"Well, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? If the men in black are from a king or lord's secret forces, why would they go to so much trouble for just a sword?"
I let out sighed and gave a little nod. "Good for you, Gourry. It looks like you do have a brain. Somewhat."
"Look, Gourry. You don't know just how valuable a legendary weapon would be. Am I right?"
"Huh? But even if someone did have a great weapon, it wouldn't be of any use if you just shot a spell at him from far away, right?"
"You're right about that, but that's just in terms of battle. The real value of an ancient enchanted weapon lies in the secrets of its making."
"In other words, legendary weapons are items which can't be reproduced with modern magecraft. If you discovered such an object and reverse engineered it to figure out the magic behind the enchantment, it'd be far more valuable than any old pile of gold. Remember how Amelia and Zelgadis used a spell called Astral Vine to temporarily imbue their weapons with magic?"
"Who're Amelia and Zelgadis?"
I actually tripped over my own feet in surprise, barely managing to catch myself before I fell over. "Y, you..." I stammered, shooting him a glare that could melt steel. "Gourry! You idiot!"
"I was joking, relax. How could I forget the people I journeyed with for so long?"
"It doesn't sound like a joke coming from you. Honestly!" I snapped. "Anyway, the spell they used was actually developed long ago by a sorcerer who managed to reverse engineer the spell out of a sword he found."
"Though on the other hand, there are many cases where the would-be researchers fail to find anything they can understand about the weapon's crafting. It's kind of a gamble, I guess, but worth it. Even if you can't get any knowledge from it, the weapon itself is still there. At the very least, you can use it as bragging rights."
"But to kill people just for that..."
"Come on, Gourry. A single weapon of old could bring in enough money for a whole family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Of course there'd be people willing to kill for such a thing."
"A whole family? They're that expensive?"
"Of course. They're not called legendary for nothing, you know."
Gourry thought about that for a minute before replying. "I was just asking, because I knew a girl once who asked me to sell the Sword of Light to her for five hundred and fifty copper pieces, you see."
I stopped dead in my tracks, twitching. Why'd he have to remember that, of all things?
"Anyway," I said, gritting my teeth, "that's why there's nothing strange about the men in black looking for a sword."
"All right." Gourry nodded. He took a few more steps and stopped suddenly.
"Wait," he said, slowly turning to face me. "Do you mean that we have to keep on fighting guys like those men in black clothes?"
"Most probably, yes."
"What do you mean, most probably?! What're you thinking? You don't even know how many of them there are!"
"Well, true. But if you fight with all your might, then I'm sure we'll come through. Don't you think?"
"Don't say that so calmly! We don't even know if there is a sword or not! I can't fight for that!"
"Oh? Can you really rest easy, knowing that you've given up on Sherra, who's gone who-knows-where?"
Gourry gasped. "That's right... I'd forgotten all about Sherra."
Somehow, I couldn't say I was surprised. "Whether there's really a sword or a hoard of treasure or something else, I can't sleep easy knowing there's something amiss. So..." I gave Gourry a meaningful look.
"Well... I guess..." Gourry grumbled, looking decidedly dissatisfied.
To tell the truth, there was one thing bugging me, though I didn't share it with Gourry. Why had Luke and Milina, and the men in black, chosen now to make their move? Glenn's story about the sword was almost twenty years old by now, and for that matter it'd been years since he died and Sherra came to live all by herself.
Since then, it seemed that nobody had approached Sherra about anything regarding a treasure or sword she might know about... so why now? There had to be some kind of event that had triggered the plans of both the two mercenaries and the men in black. In other words, there was still a lot of information that remained unrevealed. I only hoped that things wouldn't get too complicated...
My mind heavy with thoughts, I turned my gaze forward - and stopped dead. "What's that?"
The sky was turning dark, the green woods fading towards black. But in the distance, I could see a stain of faint red color. It wasn't the sunset - it was in the wrong direction for that.
"It's red," Gourry observed, following my gaze. "Wonder if there's a fire?"
Fire... Wait, fire!?
"This is no time to be standing around! Don't you realize what this means, Gourry? If that fire is burning down the next town or inn, we're going to have to camp outside tonight! Outside, in the cold!"
"Well, yeah, but there's not much we can do about it..."
"Of course there is! We can hurry up and help put it out. Come on!"
Without waiting for a reply, I began moving my hands in a cross, casting Boost. The talismans on my wrists, my waist and my chest began to glow faintly. Reaching out, I grabbed Gourry's hand in mine and recited a word of power.
A fierce whirlwind kicked up, forming a barrier of air around us. Soon we were floating in the air, speeding through the sky towards the red blotch in the distance. Even though I was lifting Gourry as well, the power of the Demon's Blood Talismans was more than enough to let the Raywing spell send us flying through the air.
A few minutes later, Gourry let out a little yelp of surprise. "The village!"
Just ahead of us, the village where we'd been planning to spend the night was wreathed in crimson flames. Not just one or two houses - the entire town was engulfed in a huge firestorm. What was going on? The distance and the barrier of wind both made it hard to clearly make out what was going on.
I turned up the power, touching down a short distance away from the village. With the obstructing wind gone, we could finally see what was going on. The shadows darting through the flames, the townspeople running in terror... and the dozens of demons murdering people indiscriminately! Were they behind the fire?
It went without saying that lesser demons and brass demons never naturally formed bands of such numbers. There was someone or something behind the scenes here, controlling them.
But first, we had to take care of the situation at hand.
We exchanged nods and rushed off, towards the burning village.
The brass demon vanished in a cloud of black dust as my spell hit it head on, and as one the other demons turned to look at us. Gourry drew his sword and charged, one slash felling a lesser demon with ease. Thankfully, I'd had the sense to cast Astral Vine on his sword before we arrived, and now it was sharp enough to deal with lesser mazoku such as these.
With a roar, one of the lesser demons sent dozens of fireballs flying our way! I dove out of the way, muttering a spell under my breath...
Damn! There were too many of them!
Both lesser and brass demons were fairly robust as well as resistant to magic. One or two would have been no match for Gourry and I, but against this many, even we had problems. If we'd been in a deserted plain, I might have used Dragon Slave to clear them out, but there were too many townspeople around to even think of that.
"Goz Vu Row!" Another brass demon slumped to the ground, but even as I stopped to take a breath, an ominous feeling made itself known behind me! I whipped around, and saw a lesser demon growling angrily at me.
With a deep snarl it gathered arcane fire in front of itself, forming fireballs that floated in the air, waiting to be released.
But suddenly- "Felzareid!"
A bolt of light flashed past me and speared through the lesser demon's head!
There was no way Gourry could have done it. I took a quick look around my surroundings and saw a lone figure standing a short distance away. Her silver hair whipped around in the wind, shining brightly in the firelight.
It was one of the two mercenaries we'd parted ways with back in the last town. It looked like she was a sorceress, too. Seeing that my attention was focused on her, she drew her long sword from its scabbard and said quietly, "We'll talk later. First, them."
A lesser demon rushed her, but she darted out of the way and left a light wound in its side. The demon snarled in pain and turned to attack again, but Milina was too quick. She dodged easily and cast her next spell: "Dislash!"
The demon collapsed lifelessly. Hmm, not bad. Not bad at all... But this was no time to be appreciating someone else's skills! I gathered my thoughts and turned my energies towards demon slaying.
A bolt of lightning slammed down from the heavens onto the pentagram formed by my spell, frying a hapless brass demon.
An acrid smell, like the stench of something burning, permeated the night air. The bugs began chirping again under the serene light of the full moon. The battle was finally over.
After defeating all the demons, Milina and I went around town, putting out fires, and only now were we able to take a short rest. The mood was anything but festive, though; most of the villagers had managed to run away, but not all. The anguished wails of those who had lost family members and homes filled the air.
"Yo! You weren't half bad, after all!" a voice said, light and unconcerned about the somber atmosphere. It was Milina's would-be sweetheart, the foul tempered Luke.
"What do you mean, weren't half bad?" I snapped. "What happened here?"
Luke just shrugged, not bothered at all by my anger. "I don't know!"
"You don't know?"
"Right. Milina and I were just taking care of some things when the demons swept in out of nowhere. We tried to stand and fight, but there were too many of 'em. The houses started to burn... and then you two arrived. If you hadn't taken so long to get here, maybe the village wouldn't be in ashes right now."
"You've got some nerve! You're the ones who lied to us and went off after Sherra."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't try and play the fool. I know you guys are looking for the sword as well, aren't you?"
"Hey! As well? You mean you two're trying to get your hands on it, too?" Luke said, obviously surprised. Heheh. Caught hook, line and sinker. I fixed a bright smile on my face.
"So it was a sword."
"...What? Hey! You! You tricked me!"
Master of the obvious, right there. One of the oldest ones in the book - pretending to trip up and presenting an opening for the other person to walk into. Also, if Luke had given a negative response, I would've been able to make sure that it wasn't a sword, after all.
"I'd heard about the story of Sherra's father and the sword from the innkeeper, so I had my suspicions. Looks like you haven't been able to find Sherra yet."
"Maybe, maybe not," Luke replied guardedly.
"You don't have to be so evasive. I'm not trying to trick you now. I know you were asking around because you said earlier that you were 'taking care of some things' here. You were trying to find out if Sherra had been here."
"So you've noticed." It wasn't Luke who replied to my words, but Milina. She walked up to us with a frosty smile gracing her features.
"H, hey! Milina!" Luke cried, startled.
"She said we didn't have to be evasive," she said calmly, unconcerned with her partner's surprise.
"Well, yes, but..."
Heh. It looked like he lowered his tail if Milina so much as said boo.
"So how did you two get here? I thought you'd have met the men in black on the way."
"You fought them?" Luke asked.
"Yes, but we weren't able to find anything out about who they were."
Luke sighed. "Are you people idiots?" he said, in the tones reserved for one speaking to either the very young or the very stupid. "Anyone could figure out that there'd likely be an ambush along the path. You should've walked through the forest, not along the big road!"
"Then, you two trudged your way through the woods?"
"Hmm. I'm not so scared of an ambush that might not even be there, that I'd forsake a comfy bed and a tasty meal just to avoid it."
"Who're you saying is scared, huh?"
"Luke." It was Milina.
Luke's mouth immediately shut with an audible clack of teeth. Wow. That was what I called training.
"I guess this is no time to be arguing," I said at length, managing to wrestle in my own natural urge to bicker. "But the question is, why did the demons suddenly appear here? There's no way this is some kind of natural occurrence... So, here's what I think. Our ambusher was in cahoots with the men in black, and he summoned a brass demon, too. Do you think this attack might have something to do with them as well?"
Luke and Milina exchanged quick glances. Milina nodded.
"Didn't you know?" she asked. "We don't know the reason, but a large amount of demons have been appearing in Bezeld..."
The situation began when a child was killed by a lone demon while playing in the mountains. Most of the lesser demons that exist on this plane were called here by human summors. I've heard that there are hundreds gathered in and around the Kataart Mountains, but that place is the stronghold of the mazoku and therefore doesn't count.
However, it wasn't like "wild" demons were completely unheard of, even outside the Kataart Mountains. Say, for instance, that a sorcerer summoned a demon to experiment and neglected to banish it once he was done, or a sorcerer died after summoning one. Then the demon would follow its instincts and effectively become a "wild" demon, roving the countryside and generally being a nasty pain in the ass.
The townspeople thought that this was such a case and gathered a group of people to take care of the demon... but the band, which had more than enough skilled men and women to face one or two brass demons, never returned. Afterwards, several people reported seeing groups of demons in the mountains. Eventually, the Sorcerer's Guild and the army of Kalmaart began looking into it, but so far they'd come up empty-handed.
That was what Milina told us.
"I see." We were in a little field next to the burned village, looking for a place to set up camp. We'd thought about moving to another nearby village, but the villagers had begged us so pitifully that we agreed to stay for the night. "So you think one of the roving demon bands from Bezeld attacked the town?"
Milina just nodded.
"Then what about the republic of Kalmaart? Did any demons attack there?"
"If they did, we didn't hear about it," Luke said, adding a twig to the campfire. "But if a village a fair distance from Bezeld like this one was attacked, it's possible that the Kalmaart Republic's already been destroyed."
"You were headed there because you believed the rumors about the sword were true, weren't you?"
Luke scratched his cheek in lieu of reply, sending a furtive glance to Milina.
"You can talk if you want," Milina said, terse as always.
Luke made a brief face and started his story. "Well... When we started to move, the demons weren't as bad as they are now. There were only rumors that a band sent to destroy the demons around Bezeld had disappeared. But then, for some reason, some people started to say there was a rumor about some guy who'd seen a strange sword in a Bezeld mine once, and that it was connected somehow to this outbreak of demons. So rumors about the sword and the demons together started to make the rounds. Though personally, I have to wonder why a sword discovered 20 years ago would have anything to do with the demons now. I guess rumors are just like that.
"Anyway," he continued, "we were interested in the rumors about the sword. Even if the part about it being somehow related to these demon sightings weren't true, as long as the sword itself existed, we had a decent chance at getting our hands on a lot of money. We didn't really have anything better to do, so we decided there was nothing to lose and started looking into it. We followed the clues and eventually came to the place where Sherra lived, but she refused all of our attempts to talk to her. Almost like she was hiding something. Because of that, we started thinking, maybe there really is a sword. So just as we decided to settle in and maybe visit her once or twice a day to ask about the sword..."
"We, and the men in black, arrived?"
A knot popped inside the fire, the sharp sound echoing in the still night.
"Though we don't know exactly what the men in black are looking for, just the fact that there's an organized group snooping around here makes it more likely that there really is a sword."
"Hmm. I see."
"Anyway, you know how the rest goes. Just as we started to think something might be up, Sherra disappeared and we decided she was likely headed towards Bezeld. So we started off, too." Luke stole another glance at the now derelict village. "Oh, and don't get me wrong. We told you everything, but don't go thinking we're in this together now or something. It didn't matter much either way, so we told you, but we ain'tt really interested in working together with you."
"Don't worry. The feeling's mutual," I said, waving a hand. I wasn't in the practice of shaking hands with someone I might be facing off against in the near future. Though, the real question was whether or not the sword really existed, and also whether or not Sherra knew about it.
Where in the world was she, anyway...?
I bolted upright in the middle of the night, the sudden chill running down my spine forcing me awake.
My instincts had saved me from attacks in the middle of the night more than once, but this was different somehow. I couldn't explain quite how, but...
It was true that the situation was ripe for an ambush. All the villages we'd passed by in the past two days on our way to Bezeld had shown some signs of damage from demon raids. It'd be stranger if the town we were staying at for the night wasn't attacked at some point.
I slipped out of bed and opened a window, thinking to make sure there wasn't anything funny going around outside. The night air, cold and clear, began seeping in. The town was nearly silent under the serene moonlight; all I could hear was faint noise from a far away tavern. In other words, a perfectly normal town at night, nothing out of the ordi...
Wait. What was that?
I thought something - I don't know what, but something - had moved in the extreme corner of my eyesight. I whipped my head to the side, focusing in that direction.
"Was it just my imagination?" I muttered, squinting. Almost as though it had been waiting for me to speak, something shifted in the moonlight.
No, not one something. Two, no, three somethings. They were moving from rooftop to rooftop. The shadows and the distance made it hard to tell for sure, but they were far too big to be stray cats. I narrowed my eyes and growled under my breath - many things I might be, but nobody had ever accused Lina Inverse of being particularly patient.
Throwing a cloak on over my pajamas, I grabbed a dagger in one hand and said, "Levitation!" The spell did its work and I floated out of the window, into the night sky.
Below me, one of the small shadows soundlessly leapt from one rooftop to the next. Behind it, the other two shadows followed. The single shadow was just starting to move to the next rooftop when it happened - one of the following shadows suddenly moved, and I could hear a thin whisper as something flew through the air. Immediately, the shadow in front lurched violently and stopped.
"Fool. I told you not to kill her," one of the shadows hissed in a low voice - the partner of the thrower.
"I aimed for her leg," the other replied. "She shouldn't be able to move-"
While they argued, the lone shadow began running across the rooftops once more. The pursuers paused, apparently surprised.
"Imbecile. You missed. Follow her!"
Not while I was watching. Hovering above them, I thrust my hands forward.
The sudden flare of light, brighter than even the midday sun, burst in front of their eyes!
In the brief flash of the Lighting spell, I'd caught a clear glimpse of two men swathed in black clothes... and thanks to that startled yelp, I knew that voice as well - Zain!
And that meant that the other, smaller shadow could only be...
Sherra's voice held no small amount of surprise as she stared up at me. I let go of Levitation and landed lightly beside her.
"Save the greetings for later," I said tersely. "We have to-"
"Take care of us? Amusing."
The voice of the other one - Gal-something - floated over to us even as both of them charged across the rooftops! Their eyes must have gotten over the burst of light, because their movements showed not the slightest hint of hesitation.
"Let's move it! This way!" I shouted, breaking into a sprint. Sherra followed behind me. We had to get back to the inn, wake up Gourry, Luke and Milina...
An ominous feeling at my back washed over me. I trusted my instincts and took a quick step to the side. Good for me - at that instant, something pierced my cloak and just barely missed me before disappearing into the darkness ahead. Probably a knife, and thrown to kill at that. It looked like they wanted Sherra alive, but their tender concerns clearly didn't extend to me.
Of course, I wasn't inclined to just turn tail and run away.
Focusing my energy, I formed a dozen darts of ice and sent them flying behind me. Flare Arrows might be easy to avoid in the night, but these were a different matter.
But at that moment, Zain's voice rang loud in the darkness.
My hair and cloak whipped wildly in the sudden, stiff breeze. My Freeze Arrows had probably been smashed by the magical wind - he'd been preparing a spell in advance! That meant...
Like I'd thought... Another spell following on the tail of the last one, trying to catch me unaware! Damn it!
I made a snap decision and pushed Sherra, hard. She lost her balance and started sliding down the roof, letting out a little shriek of surprise. I jumped down after her, an ice arrow just barely grazing the tips of my hair as I fell.
Sherra made an ungainly face-first landing in a pile of waste, while I landed lightly beside her. "Are you all right, Sherra?"
"Of course I'm not!"
"Shut up and get moving! We've got to get away!"
"I think that going with you would be far more dange-"
Sherra's words were interrupted by another volley of Freeze Arrows that shattered harmlessly on the ground next to us.
"Eeek!" From the way she darted to my side, I guessed she'd figured out that this wasn't the time for arguing.
"Come on! This way!" I barked, running and muttering my next spell under my breath.
The men in black launched a few more attacks from the rooftops while we ran through the alleys, but we managed to avoid them until my spell completed.
"Fireball!" I cried, throwing the orb of flame up towards the moon. Naturally, I knew there was no way I'd hit the men in black with the spell, but that wasn't my intention in the first place.
I snapped my fingers. "Break!"
With an earsplitting crack and a blinding flash of light, the Fireball exploded in midair!
The townspeople, startled by the sudden noise and light, began to look out of their windows. Just as I'd planned.
From what I'd gathered so far, I wagered that the men in black preferred to operate secretly. In other words, they wouldn't dare continue this fight if the townspeople began poking their heads out and gawking. So...
Fortunately, my body reacted before my mind did, lurching forward just as the Fireball hit the ground behind me. There was a thundering roar and the houses around me shone red as a wave of heat washed over me. The next thought that flashed through my mind was about what would happen if a Fireball hit the ground near a wooden house... I glanced back and sure enough, the house nearest to the explosion had already caught on fire, the flames licking hungrily upwards.
"Are you insane?!" I yelled, hoping I'd be able to buy some time. I didn't really expect them to reply.
"We're not the ones you should be concerned about, Lina Inverse. After all, you're the one who set this fire."
So they thought they'd pin this whole thing on me and slip back into the shadows, huh? As if I'd take that lying down! I started casting my next spell - but before I could finish, the two men appeared at the other end of the alley we were in, running toward us with swords drawn. When did they come down from the rooftops!?
One of the men's hands flickered. Moving more on reflex than thought, my right hand grabbed the edge of my cloak while I spun my body to the side. I could hear two dull impacts against the thick cloth - probably a pair of throwing knives again. And just then, my spell finished casting!
My magic coalesced in front of me, forming icy arrows that sped towards the man in black ahead.
This close, there was no way he could avoid them all. Sure enough, one of my arrows slammed into his leg. He let out a short cry of pain as he fell to one knee.
This was my chance. I began my next spell, but before I could finish an ominous feeling came from behind me-
I threw myself to the side, pushing Sherra out of the way as I hit the ground and rolled, quickly getting to my feet.
"Hey!" Sherra yelped.
I ignored her complaints, my mind racing. Sherra was a burden to me, sure, but I could tell she was obviously hindering the movements of the men in black as well. It was clear they weren't willing to try any attacks that might possibly miss me and hit - and possibly kill - Sherra. There had been clear hesitation in the men's actions. I prepared a counterattack-
Voices rang out from above me, from the rooftops. "Freeze Arrow!"
Not only from directly above, but also from in front of me and behind me. There were more of them?
My surprise dulled my reflexes, and I only barely managed to avoid the attack by tackling Sherra head on.
I snapped my hand toward the man directly in front of me. "Icicle Lance!"
Still hurting from the spell that had hit his leg, the man in black was unable to avoid my second spell and went down, encased in a block of ice. One down, how many left to go?
I kicked off strongly from the ground, leaping forward and preparing my next spell as I jumped. Or at least, that was the plan. Something tugged hard at my back from behind, unbalancing me and forcing me to my hands and knees. I hadn't even noticed, but one of them must have snuck up behind me!
Sparing a glance over my shoulder, I saw that the end of my cloak was frozen to the ground. It must have been hit by one of the Freeze Arrows from above. Damn!
The man behind me wasn't one to miss that kind of opportunity. He raised his right arm, a throwing knife held in his hand...
And slumped limply to the ground, revealing a familiar, and very welcome face standing behind him.
"Hey," he said, tipping me a cheerful wink. "You guys were so loud I just had to come and see what all the noise was about."
Above us, I could hear the sound of steel clashing on steel, and soon enough two shadows zipped down from the rooftops to stand in front of us.
"Yo, we're here, too." I recognized that voice. It was Luke and Milina. My reinforcements had arrived!
Still, without knowing how number of the cloaked men, I couldn't rest easy just yet. I summoned a small flame in my hand, melting away the ice pinning my cloak in place.
One of the men half turned to another, still keeping his eyes on us. "Wouldn't it be best to retreat now?" he asked.
"We can't give up yet!" another snapped - Gal-whatever, from the sound of his voice.
Hmm. If the guy who'd pulled back so promptly back then was making stand now, that probably meant they had some kind of ace up their sleeves.
Luke stepped forward before I could do anything, his hand on his sword. "Heh! So you think you can take us, huh? Bring it on! We'll mop the floor with all of you!"
And the wall in front of us exploded. Chunks of mortar and brick showered everyone, making us step back reflexively.
"What was that?"
A low growl came from within the cloud of debris, as if to answer Luke's startled cry. No, not just from in front of us... behind us as well, stretching into the darkness of the alley at our backs.
"Lighting!" I cried hastily, forcibly illuminating the alley...
And revealing the hulking forms of nearly a dozen demons surrounding us.
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