41. Facing the Demon Lord (10)
Ludin’s eyes widened. His sword had been blocked by a man whose entire body was covered in leaves and a beast’s hide. A white hood obscured his face, and the tail-end of his robe fluttered from under his strange attire. Ignoring his appearance, Ludin’s attention was wholly focused on something else. This man had deflected his blade with his bare hands, with the strength comparable to that Ogre they called an Apostle!
“… This bastard?!”
Even though he was struck with astonishment, Ludin rotated his body in the air and swung his blade at this new enemy. However, the stranger delivered a swift kick to his abdomen before his attack could connect. Ludin’s muscles screamed in pain as the heavy blow struck his stomach and, with the sound of twisting viscera, Ludin was launched dozens of meters back before falling and rolling across the ground.
Ludin was hunched over in agony, clutching his abdomen. Aris ran over to him in horror. The Orcs and Ogres, even the Holy Knights, paused before slowly separating themselves from one another, no longer interested in fighting.
“W-who?!” Ellin shouted in surprise.
Kuman turned to stare at Tom in shock, while Karakul stood in stunned silence.
Lily stared at Tom dumbfoundedly, confusion written across her face. Tom had avoided meeting the Demon Lord, but now, he had personally stepped in to protect her. Karakul gritted his teeth at his own incompetence and clenched his fist. He had forced his master to intervene due to a moment of carelessness.
Lily’s heart raced uncontrollably. A fearsome amount of Holy Power had been racing toward her within the silvery steel of the Hero’s blade just moments ago. Her mind had blanked and the word ‘death’ had flashed in her mind. She had wanted to scream. However, just as she was at death’s door, someone had saved her. Lily looked at the back of her savior. It was familiar: a strange, nostalgic feeling stirred within her. She knew this back.
‘… I saw it back at the City of Twilight. Was it the Ain who had been drinking on the bar’s balcony?’
Meanwhile, Tom remained stock still, facing away from Lily.
‘This makes things complicated.’
Tom felt helpless. If only Karakul had been present, him stepping in wouldn’t have mattered, but now here he was with the Demon Lord. The desires he had been holding back for so long were becoming unbearable.
He smiled faintly; he had finally met her, just like he wanted. But now wasn’t the right time. With trembling hands he pulled his hood further down, before turning to Ludin
In truth, he wanted to back out of this. Tom was Ludin’s senior when it came to being a Hero, but that didn’t mean Ludin was weak. Considering Ludin’s prowess with the blade, Tom wouldn’t be able to deal with him half-heartedly.
Ludin vomited blood and bile. He gasped for air while retching, as more of the stuff leaking from his nose.
“Ludin! Ludin! Are you ok? Can you stand?! Wait a moment! With healing magic…!”
Aria supported him and cast healing magic with her staff. Ludin ignored her and glared at Tom with bloodshot eyes.
“… Aren’t you an Ajin?”
Others may not have noticed, but through Ludin’s eyes—the eyes of a Hero—he could discern that Tom was not a Demon. His disguise had already been poorly designed to begin with, and the hand that had deflected Ludin’s sword was wrapped in ‘Holy Power’.
“You bastard, are you human?! Wait a moment, Holy Power as well…? Holy Knight? Are you a Holy Knight?!”
Aris was shocked by Ludin’s words.
“What?! It can’t be… a human? Really?”
Aris looked at Tom. With his hood, she couldn’t be sure, but he certainly had a presence unlike a demon’s.
“You dare protect the Demon Lord? Are you a heretic?! You bastard, you must be a heretic!”
Ludin staggered to his feet, gripping his Holy Sword. He trembled with rage.
‘I was moments away from cutting the Demon Lord’s neck! Why did this bastard have to come to ruin it all!’
Tom sensed Ludin’s rage and narrowed his eyes. His golden eyes could discern the emotions of the soul, and Ludin’s was turning dark red. He was unstable.
‘He may come at me with nothing to lose.’
“Why is the Demon Lord standing around so cluelessly?” Tom muttered, still unable to look at her.
Surprised, Lily responded in the formal tone she had adopted after so long. Tom continued speaking, ignoring her out-of-place mannerism.
“Your head… might become detached from your body if you linger here any longer. Shouldn’t you be fleeing?”
“T-that might be true, but…”
Lily scanned the battlefield. She could see the fallen Orcs, Ogres, and Apostles. She would be abandoning them here if she fled. Guilt washed over her at the thought.
In her hesitation, Ludin made his move. He had heard their conversation, and knew he had to strike now while he had the chance.
“Aris! Support magic…!”
Aris raised her staff and began her incantation. All manner of buffs flowed into Ludin’s body. As the glowing runes seeped into his body, he felt lighter, his strength returning to him. Ludin’s feet pounded upon the earth as he rushed forward with a thunderous fury, his Holy Sword instilled with new strength. He was several times stronger than before.
Recognizing this change, Tom stepped back.
“… It’s a bit too much for bare hands.”
He quickly looked over at the weapons littered around him from fallen Orcs. He chose a worn wooden shield and a dull sword, taking a defensive stance with his them. Then, he instilled within them Holy Power, wrapping the weapons in a white light.
Ludin’s sword and Tom’s shield collided. Tom managed to deflect the Hero’s sword and swung his own, but Ludin evaded his strike and counter-attacked. A common blade and the Holy Sword collided, sending sparks flying and creating a brilliant flash of light. The air and ground split along the path that the Holy Sword was swung, barely missing the tip of Tom’s robe.
‘This man… who is he?!’
Ludin was at wits’ end. This man’s movements were smooth, and his mastery of the sword and shield were at a different level. His overall physical ability and combat sense were unlike anything Ludin had seen before. Ludin’s own strength and dexterity had been buffed by Aris’s support magic, and his blade was the finest of all the equipment bestowed to him by the Holy Kingdom. However, the person before him stood strong, not giving an inch.
When their blades collided, Ludin glimpsed the face under the heretic’s hood: it was a young man, the face of a man whose age wasn’t all that different from his own. It wasn’t anything special, other than his clear golden eyes which contrasted the deep scar along the right side of his face.
“Don’t you think this is a bit unfair? To rush in all crazy like that when our equipment is so mismatched. Ah, are you trying to kill me?”
The corner of Tom’s lips rose. Ludin could tell he was playing with him.
“Shut up! Heretic!”
“I said that word quite often in the past myself, but here’s a piece of advice: that word is really meaningless!”
Ludin’s suspicions were confirmed by Tom’s words. The heretic was a ‘Holy Knight’! In fact, one of great skill!
‘Why is such a person in the Demon Army…?!’
Had he been seduced? Did the devils seduce this Holy Knight?! There was no other conclusion that Ludin could come to. This unnatural strength could only come from a contract with the devil! Was there any way that this man could stand against a Hero, such as himself, otherwise?
“You bastard, you must be a Holy Knight!”
“… Yes, though I’m only a probationary Holy Knight at the moment.”
His joke was promptly ignored.
“Once a heretic, always a heretic!”
Ludin pushed away with his sword, making some distance between the two of them.
“How about this?!”
Ludin thrust his sword to the ground. Holy Power poured out of Ludin, coalescing and forming into swords, until hundreds of blades of light orbited him, aimed at Tom.
“Try blocking this, Heretic!”
Tom retreated a step.
Ludin pulled his sword from the ground. One by one, the floating blades sliced through the air, shooting straight toward Tom.
Tom quickly jumped to his left. The swords of light fell upon the area where he had just been, completely destroying the earth in an explosion of force. The attack’s frightening accuracy was a problem, but so was its destructive power.
“This is a bit dangerous…” Tom remarked.
Raising his head, he watched as more for the swords of light started racing toward him. Over the next few moments Tom repeatedly evaded the swords. He jumped back, ducked his head, and somersaulted. He rotated and maneuvered his body in all manner of ways, but even this wasn’t enough to dodge hundreds of blades. He relented and switched to his sword and shield.
He raised his shield—fortified with Holy Power—to block one of blades he couldn’t dodge, and it shattered. Now, using his sword, he carefully deflected the blades at a slant, as to avoid breaking his last remaining weapon. The blades ricocheted, flying in every direction. Even ss countless blades of light relentlessly pursued him, Tom kept calm and defended against the onslaught. But the sword in his hand couldn’t withstand his continued abuse and shattered as well, allowing two blades to pierce his left leg and right shoulder.
Tom’s eyes twitched in annoyance.
‘This Holy Sword is quite the headache.’
It was like this with the Holy Knight at the Golden Fief, and with Ludin’s equipment as well… Was there some magic equipment sale going on? Everyone he ran into as of late seemed to have a special weapon!
‘… In my time, I couldn’t afford to buy things like this even if I’d wanted to.’
Ludin shouted as he saw his blades pierce him. Tom twisted his body to evade an oncoming sword of light and gripped its handle, causing Ludin’s face to grow stiff.
“… You caught it?”
“If it can pierce physical objects, of course it can be held, but…”
Tom looked at his hand gripping the sword. It was being burnt, even though it was protected by Holy Power.
“My hand’s going to end up being well-done.”
Tom deflected the rest of the oncoming blades. It was short work with his own blade of light. When the blade in his hand shattered, he would grab another and fend off the assault. Quickly and efficiently, he blocked all of the blades shooting toward him.
Tom staggered and tried to remain calm, even as his breathing began to grow rough. He was sweating heavily as he released the sword in his hand. The blades surrounding him slowly began to disappear.
This was Tom’s honest thought. He hadn’t truly exerted himself like this in a long time, in human form no less, but facing off against a Hero equipped with magic items was more than a little hard. The silver lining, however, was that his opponent was practically a child with limited combat experience. “The Hero” was a pampered house plant, fostered by the Holy Kingdom along his path, unlike himself. When he had still been Thoma, he had employed all manner of methods with the sole goal of assassinating the Demon Lord, without any special equipment or an army.
Ludin was feeling something different than Tom; he was overcome with despair. He felt all of the effort he had put in to come this far being denied by a single opponent. Ludin’s body was losing its strength as his morale sank.
Aris shouted at Ludin, and Lily at Tom. They each shouted the same thing at the same time.
At their voices, Ludin and Tom looked toward the sky. Aris had summoned a massive fireball with her staff—over 5 meters in diameter. It had been summoned through extensive casting over the course of their duel.
Tom, who was at the center of the fireball’s target, smirked.
“This… is a bit too much.”
The ball of fire slammed onto the ground. Everything was swallowed up in flames. Ludin leaped back from the heat and covered his face with his arm. Tom could feel his flesh being burned away as he stood within the flames.
Ludin smiled despite the pain.
‘Good! With this much firepower, even that bastard should die!’
Tom’s body began to burn and break apart. His hood and armor began to burn and melt. As his flesh bubbled, a massive, pitch-black liquid enveloped the flames. The liquid spread across the ground and covered Tom’s body, forming a set of armor—familiar to some of those present—around his body. His snake-headed tail looked around before turning and glaring at Ludin. Both Ludin and Aris froze, expressions of despair etched onto their faces. They were not the only ones with such reactions.
The Apostle Kuman trembled in fear while Ellin recalled the being she had seen in the Golden Fief, causing her eyes to grow wide. Karakul instinctively bowed toward Tom. The Demon Lord, Lily Golt, grew stiff. Both the Demon and Human soldiers retreated without hesitation.
Absolute power that embodied ‘death’. The advent of Arrtark. The God of Creation had descended.
Ludin’s body began to twitch. His face became one of laughter instead of despair. He began to laugh wholeheartedly as he wiped his forehead. He felt a strange sense of joy.
“Haha… Hahaha! Hahahaha!!”
Aris, surprised by his reaction, grabbed him by the shoulders and shouted.
“Ludin! We have to run! Run! This is too much! We can’t win! How can we… against that monster…”
“Haha! Aris! What are you saying! Just what are you talking about!”
Ludin exploded in laughter, pushing her away. He looked toward Arrtark, now floating above the black lake.
“Haha! That’s it. That was how it was! Holy Knight? Don’t make me laugh! You were actually the Demon Lord! That’s it! That’s just it! Something like this can’t happen otherwise!”
Ludin pointed toward Lily.
“She was just a puppet! A trick! You’re the true Demon Lord! To fool even a Hero like me!”
Ludin believed Arrtark to be the Demon Lord. In some ways, it was the most reasonable explanation. An existence which exuded dignity and gravitas, and an incomparable, fiendish magic power…! It wasn’t wrong for anyone to call such a being a ‘Demon Lord’.
“I’ll acknowledge you! How malicious your tricks are! You are the Demon Lord! I am the Hero Ludin! I’ll cut you down! I’ll cut you down with my life on the line in the name of God…!”
[Do you believe you can beat me?]
Ludin lost his voice and broke into cold sweat upon hearing those words. In reality, he was teetering on the edge of despair.
“Haha…! Of course…”
No… He would most likely fail.
‘Can I beat you? Do you think that makes any sense? I couldn’t even beat that form of a heretical Holy Knight a moment ago, but facing off against this monster? What a joke. Truly a funny one. It’s why I feel like laughing. Hahaha! But I can’t fall back! If I fall back now… I’ll be punished by the Holy Kingdom!’
Ludin gritted his teeth, which began to creak and crack, sending blood trickling from his gums. The night had passed at some point and the sun could be seen peeking out from above the mountain range, beginning the new day. Its bright light illuminated the battlefield which had been blanketed in darkness.
“Do you think a Hero will lose to a sinister demon like you?! Arrtark shall bestow God’s blessing upon me! A miracle to slay a bastard like you! It is my life’s mission to kill the Demon Lord! To slay a being of pure evil with God’s blessing will be the miracle God grants me…!!”
[God’s blessing? Miracle? Ah, do you mean…]
The sun’s light fell upon the black lake. In that instant, the lake was purified into crystal clear water. It had become filled with Holy Water. In response, Arrtark’s pitch black armor turned pure white.
[… Do you mean something like this?]
Arrtark’s hand struck the lake. Water exploded and formed into a waterspout which shot into the air, where droplets of water collided with and sparkled in the morning light. The water scattered in every direction, showering the battlefield. The raging flames were doused and the withered grass was revitalized, turning green and full of life. The Blood soaking the earth turned clear and not only the Orcs, but the Humans as well, were all healed.
Ludin was filled with such shock that he dropped the Holy Sword in his hand. Demon and Human soldiers alike gazed at Arrtark with slack jaws. The formless cape fluttering behind his pure white armor looked like white wings, while the Holy Power overflowing from his entire body was enough to deify him.
The Devil-turned-Angel which had everyone frozen in fear just moments ago looked like an Angel clad in armor. The soldiers could feel it. They were dying moments ago, yet somehow their wounds had vanished. They watched as souls, turned to light, poured out of the dead and floated into the air, where they were purified.
“… Lord A-angel?”
“Did you say… Angel?”
The Holy Knights dropped the weapons in their hands, having given up any thoughts of fighting. They didn’t know what to do before such a holy presence.
Karakul reamined kneeled, holding Arrtark in his sight. Orcs and Ogres watched their Apostle kneel and followed suit, lowering their heads obediently. Following the demons, the Human Soldiers also kneeled, as if out of compulsion.
“… T-this is a lie! It’s all deceit! Don’t succumb! That bastard is the Devil! Do not succumb to the Devil!”
Ludin began to shout like a madman. Arrtark, watching him rave, spoke.
[Is this not the miracle you were hoping to see?]
Ludin shut his mouth. This was an overwhelming amount of holy energy that no sinister devil could hope to produce. It was as though an ‘Angel’ had actually appeared before him, but if that was true, why? Why was it protecting the demons? Why did it appear here? And why was it standing in his way?
‘… Were we the evil ones?’
Ludin began to think what shouldn’t be thought. Such thoughts meant that he would be abandoning everything he had believed so far. The faith that he had cultivated for dozens of years was being overturned by the sight before his eyes. Ludin, unable to stand such overwhelming doubt, raised his Holy Sword once more.
‘No! We are blameless! This is an illusion! It’s magic meant to fool us!’
“I’ll kill you. I shall!”
He rushed forward, swinging his Holy Sword toward Arrtark. However, every single thrust and slash was deflected by Arrtark’s tail.
“The Demon Lord! You are the Demon Lord! A devil that seduces humans…!”
Suddenly, a sharp pain struck Ludin’s body. Arrtark’s right hand, clad in a gauntlet of pure white, was holding the Hero’s heart. Arrtark embraced Ludin’s body and whispered into the Hero’s ear.
[You’re right. I might be the devil.]
[Rest comfortably, dear Hero.]
With those final words, Arrtark ripped Ludin’s still beating heart from his chest. His snake tail then opened its maw and swallowed the beating heart whole. Arratrk dropped Ludin’s body, which crumpled pathetically as it landed on the ground. Ludin still clung to life, faint as his hold was, and coughed up an endless stream of blood. Aris, spurned by the sight of her lover’s demise, ran to him.
Ludin said nothing and his eyes slowly closed. As death approached the Hero, Ariss’ face twisted in grief.
[It is your defeat.]
The Hero’s Allied Forces had been completely defeated in this war.
— Ω —