Gunner and Archer
After leaving Caspond’s room, the first place Neia went was the archery range. Neia’s subordinates had been waiting there and they swiftly flocked to her.
As her friends went, “How did the meeting turn out, Miss Baraja?”, “We’re always ready to go” and other such things, Neia told them about the meeting.
She told them everything — what had happened, what had been said, and the conclusions they had reached.
Most of them hunted for a living, and they were all excellent outdoorsmen. Even they could not help but nod grimly at Caspond’s conclusion. There was no doubt that searching the Hills would be extremely difficult.
That being the case, they would not be able to cover a large area with a search party within a short span of time. However, they could conduct a simple search within the Holy Kingdom — heading east from this place to the fortress line. Since it was unclear where the Sorcerer King had landed, he might be within the Holy Kingdom’s borders.
Several people skilled in ranger techniques stepped forward.
Neia wanted to take part as well, but she had practically no ranger skills, so she would only get in the way if she accompanied them.
This was an operation to rescue a righteous king who had reached a helping hand out to save the people of another country. As his squire, not being able to go felt like disloyalty, and it gnawed at Neia’s heart.
She felt like screaming the way she had done at Remedios, but nothing would come of it even if she did so.
Neia told everyone that they had received Caspond’s permission to search within the Holy Kingdom’s borders, but she could not take part herself.
“Leave it to us, Miss Baraja.”
“Ahhh. We’ll keep our eyes open while searching our great benefactor, His Majesty. We won’t miss a single clue!”
“Alright, everyone. Once the Prince-denka gives his permission, I, I’ll be counting on all of you!”
Neia bowed deeply to them.
“Miss Baraja, what will the rest of us do? How can we be useful to the Sorcerer King?”
As everyone looked at her with zeal in their eyes, Neia was filled with delight.
Even after witnessing that sight, nobody felt that the Sorcerer King was dead.
That’s right! How could His Majesty be dead! I’m sure, I’m sure he must be waiting for us to rescue him… I think.
Neia could not imagine a scenario where that supreme being would wait for these people to rescue him. For all she knew, they would probably find him elegantly sipping a glass of fine wine in front of a pile of demihuman and demon corpses.
“Alright! Then everyone who’s left will start training, because weakness is a sin!”
Indeed, that was all Neia could do now. She had to become strong enough to be of use next time. If she and her people had been strong enough, the righteous Sorcerer King would not have ended up like this.
Their spirited answer echoed loudly. That was because everyone understood what Neia meant when she said, “The Sorcerer King is justice and weakness is a sin”. Not many people had agreed with those words when this unit had first been formed, but after mixing with them, more people had come to understand them.
“Then I’ll go see the Prince!”
After speaking directly with Caspond, the search party was quickly granted permission to move out. They had set out on the day itself, and three days had passed since then.
While things might have gotten troublesome if the members of the search party had not been of one mind, the fact was that all of them had been chosen because they agreed with Neia’s proposal, and so they had left without delay.
While rumors of taking back Kalinsha had circulated through the city during these three days, the Liberation Army had not actually made any moves and merely let time pass aimlessly. The exception was Neia and the increasing number of people who had come to accept the Sorcerer King as justice — they diligently applied themselves to their training
Neia let loose an arrow at the target bored, an irritated look on her face.
Her anxiety and anger had probably made her hands slip, because the arrow embedded itself just slightly off the center of the target.
Normally, someone would have come over to lightly chide Neia, but nobody dared address Neia now.
The reason for that was Neia’s face.
Her anxiety over not being able to do anything for the Sorcerer King and a lack of sleep due to a lack of news meant that the area around her eyes was swollen and discolored, which made for a frightening face when one factored in the wrinkles between her brows as well. Since she typically concealed her face with her visor, it made a great impact on others when she removed it.
While Neia’s subordinates keenly understood how she felt, nobody dared come near her.
–Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your–
Those words tumbled round and round in Neia’s head.
The shoulders of everyone around Neia who was drawing back their bowstrings trembled as they heard those quiet words.
–Majesty. No. I need to calm down. Calm down. It’s only been three days! Just the eastern region of the Holy Kingdom is large enough as it is! You don’t want to scare the others, do you?
Neia took off her visor — and heard something like a choked scream from someone who had happened to look her way — then massaged her temples lightly as she tried to relax her stiff face.
Just then, Neia heard two sets of footsteps running toward the archery range. Given the metallic clinking of shirts, they were not militiamen who had come here to train. Paladins wore armor of metal plates, so it could not have been them wither. They were probably somewhat higher-ranked soldiers, or colleagues (squires).
“Squire Neia Baraja!”
When Neia turned to face the people who had barged in, the two men who had shown up simultaneously stepped back and cried out.
“What, what’s going on? Did something happen?!”
Weren’t you the ones with something to say? Neia thought as she replied:
“Ahh, it’s been a while. That’s the usual reaction… no, maybe it’s a little more than the usual reaction?”
These two people were also squires, and they had been trained alongside Neia. That said, she knew next to nothing about their characters since she had barely spoken to them, but at the very least she still remembered their names and faces.
If Neia knew them, then they must also know Neia. That would mean they ought to have been used to Neia’s murderous eyes. Even so, the fact that they had reacted this way showed how terrifying Neia’s face was now.
Speaking of which, Neia recalled that they too had been freed from prison camps.
“Ah, yes. I usually don’t look like this — like I hate the entire world… I think. No, am I usually like that?”
Neia rubbed her face and mused that maybe she should not take off the visor.
“…Ah, sorry. It seems there’s something going on, can you tell me about it?”
“Ah, no, Prince Caspond is looking for you. Please report to him right away.”
Why was he looking for her? She had a few ideas, but she did not know which one was correct, so all she could do was pray that he was seeking her out for a good reason.
“I understand. Please tell him I’ll be coming right away.”
However, they did not look like they were leaving, even after she had given her answer. It puzzled Neia.
“What is it? Is there anything else?”
“No, it feels a little — well, it’s not your face, but maybe it’s the air around you? Feels like the air around you has changed. I know I can’t express it too well in words…”
“Well, I’d be glad if it was a good change… but we’re all going to change. We’ve all been through so much.”
“Ahh, yes. You’re right. It’s just like what you said, Baraja.”
The two of them smiled tiredly. She did not know if they had bought it. They said, “We’ll talk again some other time” and then they left.
Neia told her subordinates looking at her about how she was going to see Caspond, and then she headed out.
Caspond still stayed in the same building as before, but he was in a different room now.
That was because Jaldabaoth had smashed a huge hole in the previous room’s wall when he had shown up.
Nobody stopped her on her way to the room, even with her visor on, and she reached it with no problems.
During this time, nobody had asked her to leave behind the bow on her back either. There was no telling if it was because they trusted her, or because they were mindful of the fact that the bow had been borrowed from the Sorcerer King.
“Caspond-denka, this is Squire Neia Baraja reporting.”
Caspond was sitting inside the room, and two paladins stood beside him — Remedios and Gustav. Neia immediately fell to one knee.
“I’m glad you came. We’ve been waiting for you. Ahh. that’s fine. Don’t worry about it, just stand up.
Neia stood as requested, and then asked:
“I apologize for keeping you waiting. May I know your bidding?”
“Before that, remove the item covering your face, Squire Neia Baraja.”
Those matter-of-fact words came from Gustav. Common sense indicated that she ought to have done so.
“Yes! Please forgive me.”
After Neia removed her visor, Gustav’s eyes widened slightly.
“…Ah, are you not feeling well? Would you like the priests to examine you?”
“No, I don’t feel that bad yet.” Since explaining was troublesome, Neia decided to press on. “…Now then, may I ask what’s the matter?”
“About that… well, there’s one more person who will be joining us besides the four of us here. I’m going to get them now, so don’t be too shocked, alright?”
She could see a look of distaste on Remedios’ face from the corner of her eye. If it could put a look of disgust on the Captain’s face, it was probably related to Jaldabaoth. And then the word “maid demon” suddenly came to Neia’s mind.
After hearing Caspond’s order, Gustav opened a side door and spoke to the person within.
And then, a heteromorph emerged before them. Neia knew what species it was.
It was a Zern.
While it was a species with a shiny carapace, its appearance was not offensive. However, there was a faint, almost imperceptible smell of bloodshed surrounding it.
What’s a demihuman like that doing here, Neia wondered. Caspond seemed to sense this, and he spoke.
“He is an envoy.”
So Jaldabaoth’s envoy is here, is that it? Neia unconsciously let her hostility show, and the Zern twitched like it was going on the defensive.
“Hold it, Squire Baraja. It seems you are slightly mistaken. He is not Jaldabaoth’s envoy. It is the opposite. He is an envoy of those people who plan to rebel against Jaldabaoth.”
Neia could not help exclaiming in surprise. Caspond seemed to have expected that response, and laughed.
“You look surprised. Well, that’s only to be expected. Surely you didn’t expect anyone to rebel against Jaldabaoth’s subjugation of the demihumans, did you? However, there are people like that. According to the envoy-dono, not all demihumans serve Jaldabaoth wholeheartedly. For instance, these Zerns. There are other species like the Zern who have no choice but to help Jaldabaoth because their ruling class — their royal family — was taken hostage. What they want is to rescue those hostages.”
Neia had never heard that female voice before and it startled her. She looked around the interior of the room. Finally, just as she was about to go “no way”, her eyes landed on the Zern. That voice would have sounded perfectly fine coming from a human being.
From where on its disgusting and frightening body did its human-like voice come from?
Was this a special ability of the Zerns, or was it a kind of magical power?
“The city you humans call Kalinsha that is four or five days’ travel to the southwest holds someone important to us. We ask that you save him.”
Neia conjured up a map of the Holy Kingdom in her head.
From her previous words, the city of which the Zern spoke was indeed Kalinsha. Of course, it was closer to west-south-west than the south west and she wondered if travelling there would really take five days, but everything else was within the margins of error.
However, there was one thing she did not understand. Why were they telling Neia about this?
However, before Neia could contemplate the reasons for that, Caspond said something shocking.
“That is why we have decided to ally with them to fight against Jaldabaoth, Miss Baraja.”
Ehhh? Neia could not help but doubt her ears. Could they trust a species like the Zern, monsters who did not even have facial features to read?
“While we were forced to bow to Jaldabaoth’s power and invaded this place as part of his army, we received news that our king, who was being held hostage in the Abelion Hills, was killed by demons. As for the other one, the prince who’s being held prisoner as a symbol of our submission… now that the previous king has been killed, he is our new king. If you rescue him, we will help you.”
Did they kill him because they did not need two hostages? Or was there a more demon-like reason for the killing? While she could not read that deeply into matters, it would seem the important thing was that their king had been killed.
“That said, we are preparing to take our new king somewhere that Jaldabaoth cannot reach, so our most elite royal guard will not be able to help you. However, the remaining three thousand or so of our warriors that Jaldabaoth brought along will fight by your side. Our species will not die out as long as there is a king and a single female, so you may use those warriors as you wish. There will be no problems even if you kill them all.”
“That’s how it is. You also know the conditions I’ve laid out to triumph against Jaldabaoth. Rather than decreasing the demihumans numbers with combat, we will take fewer losses if we persuade them to leave his side. Also, they have provided us with important information, and we have finished verifying it.”
Caspond smiled, and then continued.
“From what we know, this news is not a trap set by Jaldabaoth. On the contrary, this is something we can use to deal with the Zern. If Jaldabaoth finds out, they will be purged, and their prince — the new king — will also be killed.”
That’s what’ll happen to you if you betray us, Caspond was threatening the Zern.
Although it was only natural for anyone in a high position to think like that, the fact that Caspond could ruthlessly describe such a development frightened Neia a little.
However, once the calm returned to Neia’s heart, a question boiled up inside her. Namely: why had he brought her here to listen to their planning? If he wanted Neia to take part in the rescue, all he would have to do was give her an order. It was true that Neia was now a unit commander, but ultimately she was just a squire who was somewhat skilled with the bow. There was no need to explain the operation to her in such detail. And not just that–
…Ah, don’t tell me that they still regard me as His Majesty’s squire? I mean, I’m halfway to being a citizen of the Sorcerous Kingdom already, right?
They probably mean that the Sorcerer King would also be listening to this under normal circumstances. Or maybe they want me to explain this to the Sorcerer King when we see him again.
That was it. Neia was still the Sorcerer King’s squire.
Neia puffed up her chest, and Caspond was slightly surprised at the sudden change in her attitude.
“Now then. With regards to rescuing the Zern prince, we have reached the decision that rescuing him during the chaos of attacking Kalinsha will be very difficult.”
“Indeed,” the Zern followed up on Caspond’s words. “Let me tell you where the prince is being held. Vice-Captain, I hope you will help clarify details for me.”
The Zern launched into her explanation with Gustav backing her up.
First of all, the great city of Kalinsha occupied the top of a hill. It was under the direct administration of the royal family and was protected by thick walls. On its west, near its highest point, was Castle Kalinsha.
It was intended to hold the demihumans at bay should the fortress line be breached, and at the same time, it was near a major trade route leading to the south. Therefore, it was more sturdily built than any other city in the Holy Kingdom.
In addition, Kalinsha’s seldom-used castle was very solidly-built in order to withstand sieges.
The imprisoned Zern prince was held within one of the towers of the castle. Since he was in the innermost of the towers that were intended for last-ditch defenses, one could say it was the hardest place in Kalinsha to infiltrate.
It did not even have windows in order to protect against aerial attack, and one could not reach it without travelling down an aerial walkway.
This tower was now inhabited by powerful guardians — the water-using ogrekin known as Vah Uns. The Zerns were not allowed to go near it, lest something happen to their prince if they did.
However, provided their treachery was not exposed, if the guards saw humans — who were not related to the Zerns — they would not harm the prince. In fact, they would protect the prince instead. That was what they meant by borrowing the strength of humans.
“But once the actual fighting begins, if the prince is still imprisoned, we will have no choice but to kill you humans. Since all our fellows who were brought to this land are present…”
The Zern’s words started to lose coherence, but everyone understood her meaning.
It would be too late by then.
There was value in rescuing the prince because the Zerns were enemies of mankind. If the Zern were all wiped out, then there would be no need to rescue the prince.
“It’ll be too late to send reinforcements once the fighting begins. Therefore, the safest and most effective way to rescue the prince is to send a group of elite warriors who will move as stealthily as possible. Squire Neia Baraja, I would like you to command this operation.”
“I cannot. It is impossible for me.”
Neia responded to Caspond immediately.
Normally, gainsaying the prince — who was her supreme commander — would not be tolerated, both in terms of military discipline and social conventions, but at the same time, that order was truly ridiculous. It was simply too much, no matter how you looked at it.
“I knew you would say that. However, Miss Baraja, this matter is of great benefit to you as well,” Caspond narrowed his eyes. “They will furnish us with knowledge about the hills and introduce reliable guides there.”
She bit her lip, desperately trying to keep a lid on her emotions.
“…How much trust can we place in those words?”
“Once you rescue the prince, the Zerns will respond by rising up in revolt from the inside, at which point retaking Kalinsha will be much simpler. It’s certainly better than a conventional siege, and we will be able to take more demihumans prisoner. The Zerns also say that they will ask around to see which prisoners have the knowledge you desire.”
“I’m not too sure about the details,” the Zern added on to Caspond’s words. “It seems you wish to travel to the Abelion Hills. If you rescue our prince unharmed, our entire species will be indebted to you. Who would refuse to share what they know with a benefactor? In addition, that knowledge is nothing special.”
Her argument was utterly irrefutable.
Refusing them would mean being disloyal to His Majesty. If I let a chance to be useful to His Majesty slip out of my hands because I’m afraid…
After calmly considering the matter, she felt that this was her best chance. However — she did not intend to kill herself.
“Who else will be going on the mission to rescue the prince?”
Neia looked at Remedios, who had been silent all this time.
“I’m not going. I can’t infiltrate or anything.”
If you say that, then what about me, Neia thought, and then she looked silently to Caspond.
“…I asked her to go with you several times, but she kept refusing. Therefore, you will be accompanied by that captive… no, that collaborator.”
“Hmph. Captive will do.”
“It doesn’t matter. Vice-Captain Montagnes, can you bring her over?”
Montagnes left the room with a “yes”. At the same time, the Zern envoy left the room as well. It would seem she did not want to let unrelated people learn her true identity.
Gustav returned before long, but not alone. He had with him a girl wrapped in layer upon layer of chains, a girl that Neia had never seen before. She seemed more petite and delicate. Given her looks, she seemed to be younger than Neia.
She wore a scarf that blended dark green and sand yellow in a complex pattern, as well as a strange maid’s outfit.
Her facial features were exquisite, and even the patch that covered one of her eyes did not diminish her beauty.
Neia suddenly remembered what Evileye had said, and while she was quite sure who this person was, she decided to ask just in case.
“Prince-denka, who is this?”
“…Haven’t you already guessed? She’s one of the maid demons who showed up in this city.”
Neia went stiff. She had guessed as much, but it still startled her. She was difficulty rating 150. In other words, she was a monster among monsters. A being which humanity could not overcome now stood before her eyes.
However, Neia also sensed something else that startled her.
That was the fact that she could still feel such intense hatred with an unbeatable monster in front of her.
How could she hold on to such emotions when facing a creature that outclassed her so tremendously? Was it because this maid demon was not radiating an aura of fear, or was it because of her loyalty to the Sorcerer King?
Regardless of which it was — Neia sank her hatred for the maid demon into the depths of her heart and did not let it show.
If she was careless, she would start berating her as one of the reasons why such an outstanding monarch like the Sorcerer King lost to Jaldabaoth.
However, while Remedios had her hand on the hilt of her holy sword, Caspond and Gustav did not seem to be doing anything special on their part.
Therefore, Neia could conclude that she did not pose any immediate danger. Otherwise, they would never allow her to stay in the same room as the prince.
“…Murderer girl. Do not be afraid. Right now I am not sworn to Jaldabaoth, but to Ainz-sama. I will not attack.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Ainz-sama. That term of address filled Neia’s heart with displeasure, as if she was trying to reject the fact that it had been said. However, the maid demon replied to her in an inflectionless monotone.
“…You do not have to believe me. It is simply the truth.”
“Miss Baraja. It seems that His Majesty somehow managed to usurp control over her from Jaldabaoth during the battle.
Neia’s eyes went as wide as saucers.
Had he actually managed to carry out a nonlethal tactic like taking control of her while fighting multiple opponents — Jaldabaoth and the maid demons?
Neia did not know much about magic, and she did not know how difficult that was. If one needed an example, it would be like trying to snatch equipment off a very powerful opponent during the middle of combat. If that was the case, then it must have been an incredibly difficult maneuver which only the Sorcerer King could pull off.
Neia came to respect the Sorcerer King more and more.
However, she had two questions now.
She wanted to believe that if the Sorcerer King had done it, then everything would be fine and she could accept that fact. But was she really under the Sorcerer King’s control? That was the first question. Could it be that she was not actually working for the Sorcerer King, but acting under Jaldabaoth’s orders to pretend that she was under his control?
And then, the other question was–
“I understand that you’re loyal to the Sorcerer King. But why are you here? Is it because of your chains?”
“…It’s not like that.”
The maid demon began to exert her strength, and the thick chains emitted a distasteful creaking sound.
As Remedios shouted in time with a wave of killing intent, the sound stopped.
“…Even I could break ordinary unenchanted chains.”
“Then why? Why haven’t you left this place and gone to His Majesty’s side?”
She had asked because she was hoping that demonic instincts or the abilities of a bound demon would lead her to the Sorcerer King. The maid demon flatly replied:
“…Because it’s an order. The last order I received from him was to help you. So I will do my best as long as it does not mean my death.”
Neia was stunned.
…The Sorcerer King came to this country to seize control of the maid demons. He came to obtain the maid demons, a tremendous fighting force that could make the Sorcerous Kingdom even stronger. In that case, his first order to the maid demon should have been for them to return to the Sorcerous kingdom. But instead, His Majesty… What a kind person he is… Is there a king out there who is so compassionate to the people of another country? No, it can’t be, only the Sorcerer King is an exception. His Majesty really is justice! How amazing! I was right all along!
Neia forced herself to keep the boiling liquid from spilling out of her eyes.
“In that case, what does “as long as it does not mean my death” refer to?”
“…If you ask me to fight Jaldabaoth I will refuse. It will be very difficult to escape if I face him.”
I see, Neia understood. Caspond had already verified the truth of everything she had said. That was why she had been brought here.
“So this demon will come with me.”
“Just so. While I thought of sending her to the Sorcerous Kingdom as an envoy, compared to that — ah — well, once that’s over and we learn information that we can trade, ah– I was planning to have her join the search party we’re sending out. That’s because it’s dangerous… Those people you picked out haven’t found anything yet, so we can be sure that they landed in the hills.”
She did not know why Caspond’s instructions were so vague.
She peeked at the maid demon’s face and saw that it had not changed. She did not look worried.
Of course, this maid demon might not know what had happened to the Sorcerer King, and she probably could not imagine that the Sorcerer King was in dangerous territory. However, her blank face still made Neia very unhappy.
Most importantly, could she let a demon like that use a familiar term of address like “Ainz-sama?”
No, of course not! Neia fumed. Not even she had addressed him in such an intimate manner.
Oh no! Neia’s face was slightly red. She had apparently forgotten herself due to her distaste for the maid demon.