That’s a maid demon for you, Neia thought.
She could not have come all this way without CZ.
And this is also thanks to the order His Majesty gave to CZ.
Only the Sorcerer King could inspire deeper respect in people even when he was not present.
Honestly, the fact that he was undead or whatever was a trifling problem.
I need to let everyone know, after all. I need to tell them how great a person His Majesty is!
The tower was almost completely made of stone and it only had a small window for light. It was darker than the castle that they had pass through earlier.
The passage inside the tower was quite spacious, big enough for Neia and CZ to walk side by side. It spiralled up along the inside of the tower’s wall.
Their objective, the Zern prince, ought to be near the top, so the only thing they did when passing doors along the way was check for movement inside while the two of them continued ever upwards.
About two circuits later, CZ raised her hand to signal that they should stop. This happened almost at the same time as Neia’s keen hearing picked up some creature’s footsteps.
It would seem it was wearing metal armor, because she could hear the sound of metal striking stone.
“It’s alone, CZ-san.”
“...Yes. But… heavy footsteps.”
Neia could not tell, but if CZ said it, then it was probably so. In other words, whatever it was, it was not human-sized.
“What… should we do? Should we hide behind one of the doors we passed along the way?”
“...It’s already here. Kill it.”
Neia readied her bow after CZ. Her plan was to shoot first and not bother with questions. She had heard that the Zern prince was about the size of a human child. In addition, he would not be wearing metal armor.
A massive object came into view, and Neia and CZ attacked without hesitation.
The arrow and bullets entered its body, as though they had been sucked in.
The massive object stumbled, and backed up along the path.
Since it had retreated along a curved path, it was no longer in the line of fire.
The fact that it had survived their attacks -- particularly CZ’s -- suggested that it was a very tough demihuman.
“What! Who are you!”
An angry cry echoed from the depths of the passage.
“What should we do, CZ-san?”
“...Can’t sit here and wait… Close in and attack before the enemy gathers the tower guards.”
Neia and CZ broke into a run.
Since it could survive CZ and Neia’s surprise attack, they could assume that it was one of the guardians -- a Vah Un. Vah Uns were beings which possessed very good overall fighting power and a shocking amount of stamina.
As they ran, the humidity in the air seemed to increase as well -- Neia’s nose picked up the scent of rain.
“Goooaahhh! The humans! The humans are here!”
After closing in, they saw a massive demihuman.
While it possessed the savage air of an Ogre, it looked much more intelligent than Remedios.
Its skin was bluish-white, though it looked more demonic than unhealthy.
It had a single thick horn on its forehead. It carried a mace that was bigger than Neia.
Judging by its physical appearance, it was quite similar to the descriptions of the species known as Vah Uns.
While it was not as bad as Buser, it was still quite a dangerous opponent. The arrow and bullets had clearly hit it, but it did seem to be wounded. There was no smell of blood either, so it would seem it had not covered it up with illusions.
Somehow, it had negated their attacks -- particularly CZ’s.
“So you’re here for my life, are you!? You’ve got good eyes on you, humans!!!”
It seemed very happy.
In that case, she would let it remain mistaken--
CZ fired as she spoke.
There was a pop-hiss of expelled gas as something flew through the air. After that, part of the Vah Un’s body dissolved into mist and the bullet passed through.
“Wahahahaha! Ranged weapons are useless against me!”
Neia loosed an arrow at the Vah Un’s forehead, but its head also sublimated into mist and the arrow sank into the wall behind it.
“--Useless! It’s useless! Now quiver in fear of me, the enemy of all archers, and then die!”
“...Immune to all ranged weapons? On something that’s only that strong?” CZ muttered. “There must be a trick.”
Neia glanced at CZ and shook her head. Unfortunately, the Zerns did not know any details about its abilities.
“What are you blathering about!”
The Vah Un closed the gap. The sight of its massive body approaching them felt off, like her sense of distance was messed up.
Neia would not be able to survive a single hit from it, so she obediently listened to CZ and fell back.
CZ stood on the frontline, and the mace slammed down on her. The strike was like a howling storm, but she elegantly evaded it.
The Vah Un’s strength was extraordinary, given that it could swing a weapon that was as tall as CZ with one hand. The stone was shattered where it had struck the ground, and cracks radiated in all directions. It felt like the massive tower was shaking.
Neia loosed an arrow.
While the Vah Un was locked in melee with CZ, there was a huge difference between their body sizes. If she aimed up, she could strike the Vah Un without hitting CZ.
As expected, the Vah Un transformed into mist in order to avoid the arrow whistling through the air.
“Useless! Useless! I told you arrows are useless against me! Foolish -- uwoooooh!”
The Vah Un roared even louder than before. CZ seemed to find it annoying and hacked at him.
While CZ’s shooting skills were far superior to Neia’s, she was not as skilled in close combat, so unfortunately, her strike was blocked by the mace.
Neia nocked and drew back another arrow.
This time, Neia aimed for the hand holding the mace. While it was very likely that the weapon would not drop even if it turned to mist, she decided that she had to try, however small the possibility.
In the end--
The mist-formed arm did not release the mace.
“Aren’t you going to stop, human!?” The Vah Un presented a palm to Neia. “[Water Splash]!”
A ball of water flew out at Neia.
Something hit her right shoulder. Neia was blown back like something had crashed into her and fell to the ground.
It hurt like she had been savagely beaten. She might even have broken bones.
After nervously trying to move her right arm, she found that it could move without issue. However, a torrent of pain spread from her shoulder inside her body. She touched her shoulder and found that it was wet. While she was afraid that it was blood at first, she immediately realised that it was water.
“Hmph! You made me use a petty spell!”
The Vah Un swung its club as it spat its reply at them.
CZ muttered quietly to herself as she nimbly avoided a deadly stroke that could have smashed Neia to bits.
“...Why that girl? Why attack someone who can’t hit you? I don’t get it.”
“Hah, you idiot! That’s because she’s a pain--”
“--Because it was effective? Limited uses?”
The Vah Un’s face changed. In other words, CZ was right.
Neia loosed an arrow, which the Vah Un avoided by turning into mist. After that, she fired again -- and the arrow pierced into the Vah Un.
As the Vah Un grunted in pain, CZ spoke.
“...I understand. You can only defend against seven ranged attacks. Is that… per day? Per hour? ...Doesn’t matter. You’ll die here.”
The Vah Un could not catch up to CZ, who dodged with amazing skill. In other words, if this kept up, it would take a one-sided beating and die. Perhaps the Vah Un had sensed this would happen, because its face knotted up.
“Damn you! [Fog Cloud]!”
A bank of fog sprang up.
It was thicker than the fog she had seen in the Sorcerous Kingdom, and Neia did not even know her own location. While she could not see CZ fighting against the Vah Un, she could hear CZ’s spell gun going pew pew pew.
When she thought about it, that was obvious.
Even if the Vah Un conjured fog in the middle of the passageway, she still knew where it was. All she had to do was keep shooting. Neia followed CZ’s lead and launched arrows. She was a little worried. so she aimed up high; that way even if she missed, she would not hit CZ.
The arrow she loosed melted into the fog, and it was followed by the sound of something striking the wall. It would seem she had missed.
“It’s moving behind you now.”
As CZ said that, Neia thought Eh?
When one considered the size of the passageway, it was impossible for the massive Vah Un to get behind CZ and Neia without bumping into them. However, along the way here, Neia had come to realize that CZ was a trustworthy demon. Or rather, she did not trust CZ so much as she trusted the Sorcerer King which she served.
Neia turned, and while the fog was still so thick she could not see anything, she loosed another arrow.
Just like before, she heard the sound of an arrow striking a distant wall.
“Where, Where is it!?”
“..Mm. You’re looking in the right direction. It’s trying to run… get down!”
Neia instantly dropped prone as CZ spoke in a tone that was very forceful for her.
“...Reloading… full burst.”
There was a piercing kyuuuuun and then a cacophonous dakka dakka dakka dakka thundered down the passageway. Unlike the pew pew sound from before, this was a sound that was filled with an oppressive brutality.
“Gobooh~,” There was the sound of someone coughing up something, followed by a crash as a massive body hit the ground. After that, the mist cleared, and she could see the body of the Vah Un lying along the curved passage.
Its body was covered in holes, and it looked like it had been blown apart. There were similar marks all around the nearby walls. What had happened to cause this?
As a demihuman assigned to guard this place, it should have been quite strong. In truth, Neia alone would not have stood a chance at all. Yet CZ could instantly kill a demihuman like this as long as her weapon was effective against it. That was a difficulty 150 maid demon for you.
“What… was… no. With magic, you can do anything, huh.”
Neia worked her stricken shoulder. She had forgotten the pain during the excitement of battle, but now it was starting to hurt more and more.
“Mm. But it hurts to draw a bow. I don’t think I can aim well.”
“...Got a healing potion?”
“No, but I have a healing item His Majesty lent me.”
Neia could only use it once during that battle, but now she felt like she could use it more often. Still, that did not mean she could waste mana, because she might need to heal CZ if the situation called for it.
“Don’t worry. We just need to rescue the hostage and retreat.”
“...Mm. Then let’s hurry.”
Neia nodded and ran with CZ. The Vah Un, which was most definitely a worthy opponent, had been defeated.
All that remained was to rescue the prince and return to the larder.
Having reached the topmost level, CZ and Neia exchanged looks. There was only one door here. That would mean it was undoubtedly their objective.
They nodded to each other, and then kicked the door in.
They had long since abandoned any thoughts of a covert entry. After all, they had just fought a big battle with the Vah Un. That said, the two of them leaned against the threshold of the door, in case someone attacked them in the instant it opened.
However, their caution had been in vain. Therefore, they both leapt into the room at the same time. Neia grit her teeth against the pain from her shoulder and went left, while CZ went right, and they both covered each other.
The first thing they saw was a large, canopied bed. Perhaps its lace trimmings had once been white, but age had blackened them. The room also contained a simple dresser and human-sized furniture such as a cabinet and others. These pieces of noble-styled furniture were old and damaged, and they did not look like antiques so much as used goods.
A quick glance across the room revealed no demihumans.
CZ raised her chin to signal to Neia, and Neia silently approached the cabinet before opening its doors. Of course, Neia opened it from the outside and stayed out of its way in case anything happened, while CZ pointed the muzzle of her spell gun at the interior of the cabinet.
After that, the two of them looked to the bed.
After verifying that there was nothing underneath it, they approached the bed.
Part of it was bulging up.
Neia looked to CZ before nodding to show she understood, and then she flipped up the blanket.
There was a pretty-looking lump of lustrous purple meat there. No, it would be better to say it was a huge maggot. It was about 90 centimeters long, and it did not have hands, but stubby feet.
CZ pointed her gun’s muzzle at it without any hesitation, and Neia hurriedly called out to her.
“Wait! That’s the target we were sent to rescue, the prince of the Zern!”
That was what the Zern envoy had told Neia. However, she could understand CZ’s doubts, because Neia had gone “wat” when the Zern had given her the description of the Zern prince.
The Zern were a species of demihumans whose royalty looked very different from other individuals of their species. In addition to that, they ought to be sexually dimorphic too.
“Er, can you hear us, Zern prince-sama?”
“--Mm. Speak. It seems you are not my food.”
He sounded like a teenager. Neia was curious as to where his voice was coming from and examined him, whereupon she saw that his maggot mouth was opening and closing.
“That’s right. We’ve been asked to rescue you. Let’s start by getting you out of here.”
He was still a prince, even if he looked like this, so she had to abide by the rules of etiquette. In addition, she would need his race’s help when finding the Sorcerer King. Therefore, she ought to do him a favor now, instead of offending him.
“Was it a request from my eggmates (comrades)? Who asked you to do this?”
“It was a Zern called Beebeebee. Do you know him?”
“Beebeebee, you say? Ah, him, then? Hm… But if I leave this place, Jaldabaoth...-sama will be angry. This will place the Zern people and particularly the King in danger.”
“While I’m not too sure about the details, it seems the King has passed away, so we must rescue you at the very least. That is why the Zern made this request of us.”
It was impossible for a human like Neia to read the expressions of the Zern prince, who could not be anything but a gigantic maggot. However, she could clearly sense the profound sorrow in his voice.
“Oh, Father was actually… I see. That bastard Jaldabaoth… In that case, can you get us safely out of here?”
“Your Highness’ underlings will be guiding us out, so I think it should be fine.”
“I see… oh human heroes, who have come this far to aid me, I have a shameless request for you. Can you pretend that you carried me off by force while I was resisting you?”
That request was probably just in case.
“I understand. We shall pretend it is so.”
“Thank you very much.”
The prince raised his head. While it looked just like a maggot raising its head, this was probably how his species expressed their gratitude.
Neia wrapped the prince up in the sheets like a baby -- if he had been a baby, he would have been scared to tears; she had experienced that twice now -- and carried him on her back.
She firmly tied the blanket around her chest, so it would not loosen even when she was moving vigorously.
The weight on her shoulder made Neia hurt. She wiped away the sweat beading on her forehead and used the necklace’s magic.
Her wounds healed instantly. Now she would be fine even if she had to run with the prince on her back.
“Are you feeling alright? If it hurts, please tell me right away.”
“No, I am not uncomfortable… but you smell delicious. It makes me hungry.”
Hearing those words spoken from the vicinity of her neck made Neia shudder.”
“...What do the Zerns eat?”
CZ asked a question which Neia did not want to ask.
“The precious bodily fluids of living creatures, be they alive or dead.”
“...I’ll get angry if you do anything weird to my junior.”
“There is no need to worry. I am not hungry enough to do such a thing to the heroes who came to rescue me. While I have not been allowed to leave even once since the day they brought me here, they took care to feed me, at least.”
If she knew exactly what they are, she would probably have dropped him like a ton of bricks, so Neia hurriedly stopped up her ears. Fortunately, CZ did not ask further.
“...Alright, let’s go.”
After that brief exchange, the two -- three of them began to move. There was no time to waste on idle chatter during a clandestine infiltration.
Fortunately, they managed to return to the larder without incident. This was when CZ raised her hand to stop them.
“...There are people inside.”
“I’ll leave them to you.”
CZ readied her spell gun and forcefully opened the door.
Then, she stopped. CZ looked back.
“...Not sure who they are. Zerns. Many of them.”
They ought to be the recovery team. Specifically, they were the Zerns who had brought Neia and CZ here.
They had probably arrived first because Neia and CZ had been later than they had said.
After entering the room, the five Zerns inside turned as one to them. The sight of these heteromorphs with unreadable faces doing the same thing together generated a feeling inside Neia that was either fear or revulsion.
Neia undid the sheets on her back, and revealed the Zern prince within.
“Ohhh! It’s the Prince!”
It was Beebeebee. Neia would not have been able to tell them apart if they did not speak. However, if they were as different from each other as the prince was from them, she might not even have been able to tell if they were fellow Zern.
“Oh eggmates of mine. I hear my father has passed on. I know that he -- Jaldabaoth -- does not intend to keep his word. But where will we flee after betraying Jaldabaoth? He has already conquered our lands, and installed his trusted demons as their rulers… are we not destroying ourselves by choosing to rebel?”
“Your Highness is correct to be worried. But to him, the Zern are no different from livestock. Our hero Boobeebee was a little late to arrive before him, yet it was judged enough reason to have the flesh torn from his shoulder.”
“What! Boobeebee, you say!?”
The Prince’s shuddering told Neia that said Zern must have been of quite some status.
“Once everything is over, will the Zern find a place under Jaldabaoth’s rule? We have determined that the answer is no. My Prince, there is no time, let us save these words for--”
“--You fools. Can we leave that question until after we run? This is the turning point. Once we cross it, we must follow our course to its very end. Now is the only time we can turn back. Tell me, once we go back to our hive, once we go back to our hills, how do you intend to live on?”
“That… that land is vast. Surely there will be a place where we can hide.”
“You think so? Do you intend to have the species walk the road to destruction for this fleeting, wavering chance? Give me a more concrete, more practical solution.”
“In, in that case, not everyone is in service to Jaldabaoth, we could form a resistance…”
“You fool. That will only invite destruction from Jaldabaoth. An ant swarm draws more attention than a single ant.”
Beebeebee fell silent as the prince shot down each and every proposal. It would be bad if this went on. Neia and the others had carried out this dangerous operation to this stage. If the prince now went, “We can’t do it after all”, their efforts would have been wasted.
It was then that Neia came up with something to soothe the prince’s worries.
“Ah, in that case, why not have the Zern go to the Sorcerous Kingdom?”
“The Sorcerous Kingdom? What is that?”
It was not just the Zerns, but also CZ who looked to her.
“Yes. It is the country where Momon resides. He is the hero who once drove off Jaldabaoth in the Kingdom.”
Neia sensed the Zerns were staring at her, but she did not know the implications of their looks. How could humans understand a Zern’s expressions?
“Is what you say true?”
That single sentence was enough for Neia to understand why the Zerns had kept quiet. They doubted the truth of Neia’s words. But that was only to be expected. The better one knew Jaldabaoth’s power, the harder it was to believe that anyone could defeat him.
“I mean every word. I learned this through reliable channels. In fact -- CZ-san?”
“...She’s right. Neia speaks the truth.”
“Also--” this was the crucial part. Neia psyched herself up internally. “If you go to the Sorcerous Kingdom like this, I am sure they will accept you as refugees.”
“Refugees, you say…”
There was bitterness in the prince’s voice.
“But if you can provide information about the Sorcerer King of the Sorcerous Kingdom, I am sure that you will not be slighted even when you go there.”
“Hold on, hold on. Why would they be happy to hear about their own King?”
“Ah, yes. Right now… ah… The Sorcerer King’s location is unclear…”
“Is that not very bad? In the worst-case scenario, he might even be dead, is that not true?”
“A moment please. His Majesty cannot possibly be dead. There is concrete evidence, and we are verifying it now.”
Neia told them about how the Sorcerer King might have fallen to the hills where the demihumans lived, so she wanted to use their strength to search for him. The prince fell silent. Is it not going to work, Neia thought, but since she had already made her pitch, she could say nothing more. The ball was now in their court.
Also, even if they could not provide any direct assistance, they ought to be able to at least provide knowledge, as they had promised.