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Chapter 0 – A Devil’s Handiwork
Flocks of crows flew over the ravaged wasteland. Their beady eyes were moving back and forth in excitement looking down at the ocean of death beneath their wings. Their constant piercing shrieks resounded like laughter above the battlefield.
Below them, death had spread its fangs as far as the eye could see. The corpses of countless mortal men were littered about on the ground. They dyed the muddy land in the colors of slaughter and attracted an endless number of little flies.
Clank──Clank! A metallic rattle resounded.
A tall figure wrapped in an elegant robe stepped over the bloodied bodies on the ground. He was clutching a long, rusty chain in one hand. Ash blonde hair drooped around his pale cheeks, and a blood-stained crown decorated his head.
Behind him limped several figures in lumpy clothing, their hands in shackles. They were bound together by the man’s rusty chain and ruthlessly dragged along through the mountains of carcasses. Their vacant eyes were staring into emptiness, and they were silently whimpering.
“As expected, an excellent result!” A light chuckle escaped Aslan as he brushed his ash blonde hair back behind his ears.
“Isn’t this great for you lot?” Aslan shook the rusty chain in his hand while smiling back at the shackled slaves following behind him. “You should rejoice as you can soon be of use to I, your beloved master! Your noble sacrifice will enable this lord‘s ascension!”
The slaves all averted his gaze, their whimpering stifled by a bone-deep fear. The first slave in line, a brown-haired young woman shuddered visibly, tears forming in her hazel-brown eyes.
Dark lines were forming on Aslan’s forehead, and he inwardly scoffed, ‘Cowardly serfs! How do they plan to survive with that feeble attitude?’
He turned his eyes away and continued strolling through the battlefield while taking in the dreadful scenery around him. He was genuinely delighted. Wiping out these many men at once used to be beyond his abilities, but not anymore. Now, a new era would begin.
Aslan chuckled gleefully like a child at the thought. But it sounded like the laughter of the most sinister devil in the ears of those shackled slaves he was dragging along.
Like that, hours passed. Aslan kept his pace, remaining on the lookout for any survivors. Anyone capable of living through his grand magic would undoubtedly be a great guinea pig for his experiments. But there seemed to be no one left alive on the battlefield. The thing coming closest to a survivor he had found were those corpses that at least still had all four limbs still attached to them.
‘How vexing. Not even a single one survived?’
“Hm?” Aslan suddenly stopped.
Before him, there was a corpse wrapped in a black mantle laying in the mud. That is if you could even call that shredded piece of cloth a mantle. It was only covering the corpse’s head, and the rest of the black fabric was almost entirely in tatters. Filthy brown leather armor was visible underneath. One could even see a bloody stump sticking out in place of where an arm should have been.
The corpse looked as ordinary as any other on this battlefield. Except that it was twitching and even groaning from time to time.
‘Not so dead after all.’ Aslan took a closer look at the alleged corpse. It seemed to be some brute from the mercenaries battalion clinging to his last sliver of life.
‘He might have been a suitable subject, but, alas, it is a pity. It seems like I am just a bit too late.’ Aslan shook his head in disappointment.
Those mercenaries were sturdy and robust, but they lost their worth when dying. No one needed a subject that was half-dead, especially not Aslan. His experiments were too vital to allow any risk factors to appear. He needed proper survivors; otherwise, it wouldn’t pay off for him if his subjects were to perish halfway through the process.
Aslan shrugged and turned away. He was contemplating just using another slave instead of scouring the battlefield for even longer. Those slaves unarguably were of much less quality than a survivor of his grand magic would be. But he had already been searching for hours, and that dying brute here was the first survivor he had found in all that time.
It might just turn out to be a massive waste of time if he continued.
Aslan muttered to himself for a bit before concluding that it really was a useless endeavor to remain here. Musing if he should select the hazel-eyed woman for his next experiment, he turned to leave the battlefield when he suddenly froze in place. The thin smile slowly faded from his face.
‘Insolent!’ A vein pulsed on Aslan’s forehead as he stared down at his right leg that was currently being grabbed by the dying cloaked man beneath his feet.
”Water…” the cloaked man on the ground muttered with a low voice. Speaking this single word, the man was already gasping for breath.
“Does this lord look like a charity to you?”
Aslan’s face darkened as he tried to raise his leg, only to realize that he wasn’t able to move it one finger’s breadth. Even on the verge of death, the cloaked man’s grip around his ankle was as hard as steel.
“Take your vile hand off of this lord, filthy brute!” Aslan commanded.
He kicked at the cloaked man with his other leg, but unfortunately also found that one grabbed in an instant.
Aslan’s face slowly turned red from anger. How could someone dying have so much strength left?
Irritated, he glared down at the cloaked man while trying to free his legs with all his might. But it was as if the earth itself had grown hands to pin him down. He couldn’t even budge.
“Eee?” Aslan suddenly froze. Hadn’t there been a bloody stump poking out from under that man’s cloak instead of an arm? How was it that the filthy brute was grabbing onto both his ankles now?
Aslan narrowed his eyes. His gaze wandered towards the cloaked man’s right side where the bloody stump should have been. But there was no stomp, not even a little blood, only a healthy arm grabbing onto his ankle with a steely grip.
‘What is happening?’
Aslan clenched his teeth. His hand moved towards a sleek, black steel blade hanging from his leather belt. As his hands reached the sword’s hilt, he suddenly felt the grip around his ankles loosen. He immediately staggered backward while pushing the slaves aside. His gaze didn’t leave the cloaked figure for even a moment.
The cloaked man had stopped writhing in pain on the ground. Uncaring, as if he hadn’t been half-dead lying in a field of corpses, he rose from the ground. Two crimson eyes gleamed dangerously from under the black fabric. This pair of eyes terrified the slaves so much that they stopped whimpering, and it prompted Aslan to throw away the chain in his hands and retreat another few steps.
Aslan gulped down a mouth full of saliva. A sense of crisis was welling up within him, but… for some strange reason, it was drowned in a strange wave of anger the next moment.
The feeling was foreign as if this anger wasn’t his own. His uneasiness vanished as the anger overwhelmed him. Now he only had one thought; he had been played for a fool by some filthy mercenary.
Between clenched teeth, Aslan barked, “Peasant! Who are you, daring to deceive this lord?”
The cloaked man ignored the question. He stretched his body, all his joints cracking in the process.
“Ah── I have become rusty. Even my great theatrical talents are in this state…” the cloaked man muttered as his gaze wandered around. It was hovering on the pack of chained humans for a moment, before coming to a halt on Aslan’s crown.
“I see, another devil’s relic has found its way into a vile worm’s hands,” the cloaked man spoke with a calm tone of voice. His gaze stayed on the crown, and he watched with great interest as it was giving off a strange hue as black as ink.
Aslan’s face contorted into an ugly grimace. Another overwhelming wave of anger was seeping through his whole body.
He roared, “Lowly peasant! How dare──”
But before he could even finish his sentence, he saw an incredibly fast shadow moving towards him. In an instant, the cloaked man’s hand had arrived in front of his throat.
“You!” Aslan growled.
He wanted to draw his blade, but he quickly realized that his body was somehow frozen in place. He could neither move his arms nor his legs.
The five icy cold fingers closed around his throat without any effort and smothered his howls of anger.
A moment later, Aslan was slowly lifted off his feet by the cloaked man. Like that, he suddenly found himself hanging in the air struggling to breathe.
A veil of silence descended upon the area. The whimpering of the slaves had long subsided. But now even the laughing crows above their heads had stopped their incessant shrieking. Only the gasping of a single man resounded through the eerie quiet.
“Stop now!” Aslan gasped. ”Do you even know… what you are doing? Do you want to die? Halt now, and I may forgive… your crimes!”
“Oho, you can still speak held up like that. It is a truly wondrous thing how a little devil magic can improve a mortal’s body.” The cloaked man chuckled dryly. “Sadly, it seems to damage one’s head quite a lot.”
Once again, an overwhelming wave of anger rushed through Aslan’s head. But before he had the chance to roar his hate out into the world, the dreadful fingers holding him by his throat tightened their grip.
An excruciating pain shot through his whole being. It felt like all his body’s energy was hurrying towards the terrifying hand. His limbs were turning icy cold yet began to burn as if they were immersed in acid. In but a single second, the terrible cold and pain had spread all over his body.
“AAAAAARGHHH!!!” Aslan started spasming as stifled screams escaped his throat. His entire body was writhing under the unbearable torment.
“GUUUARRGH──” His eyes rolled back into his head leaving only white behind.
Aslan’s body slowly shriveled up, his skin turning black and his hair falling out. His elegant crown toppled down to the ground as his head was withering away.
In just a moment, Aslan’s body went completely limp, and a golden light flew out from within him trying to escape into the sky. But it couldn’t get very far.
“Don’t bother. You are coming with me.” The cloaked man just smiled faintly as he grabbed the glowing orb.
After putting the orb away, he threw Aslan’s shriveled corpse away with a full swing. It landed far-off on the ground.
As if nothing of importance had happened, the cloaked man then directed his attention at the shivering bunch of chained slaves. They were a dozen or so humans in lumpy clothing with starved faces and gray skin. They all stood there like lost lambs, unable to comprehend the situation. Some were looking at him with undisguised terror in their eyes.
The cloaked man let out a sigh and touched the rusty chain binding the pitiable pack together. Under his touch, it disintegrated into fine dust and trickled down to the ground.
For a moment, those slaves just stood there, unable to comprehend what was happening. But then the hazel-eyed woman broke down sobbing as she threw her arms around a young man behind her who started consoling her. This also awoke the other freed slaves from their stupor. They rubbed their inflamed wrists with lowered heads while throwing quick glances at one another.
The cloaked man looked upon them for a long moment before speaking with a calm tone, “Take this.”
Eleven white shadows flew out from under the black cloak. They embedded themselves in the freed slaves’ foreheads. This made them once again fall into a stupor. Their hands wandered over their brows, trying to find what had landed on there. But there was nothing; the white shadows had already entered and vanished inside of them.
“Consider this a little gift from me. With it, you might be able to transcend from this small world of yours,” the cloaked man spoke as he studied their expressions.
“Or you can pass this chance. I won’t fault you if you decide to do so. From this point on, you are free and may do as you wish.”
The group of former slaves looked confused hearing his words, but some vigor was slowly returning to their faces. They realized that the cloaked man wouldn’t do anything to them.
The young man gently freed himself from the tight embrace of the hazel-eyed woman and stepped forward. Without a word, he bowed to the cloaked man. As if torn away from their stupor, the shabby group behind him hastily followed suit.
The cloaked man glanced over them and then turned his gaze towards a metallic object lying on the ground. It was the blood-sullied crown that had belonged to the ash blonde mortal.
The cloaked man made a subtle hand movement. The crown rose from the ground and landed on his open palm.
He turned it a few times.
Dark threads pulsed rhythmically on the metal surface inside the crown like veins. An unassuming inky stone fragment was embedded in the place where the network of threads was the densest.
Staring at the stone fragment, the cloaked man was frowning deeply. This crown wasn’t something that a mortal should have possessed. In fact, it wasn’t something that a minor world like this could even bring forth.
At least that is how it should have been. But relics like this had been popping up all over the realm of mortals for quite some time now, and no one knew why.
Deep in thought, the cloaked man watched the crown’s network of veins pulsing. Its rhythm seemed almost hypnotic.
As he watched, he suddenly felt a strange feeling of anger rising within him. Although it was faint and far from enough to threaten his mind, it was still there.
“Nasty little thing,” the cloaked man grumbled. He turned his hand, and the crown vanished into thin air. With that, its influence on his mind disappeared, and the faint feeling of anger was gone.
The cloaked man threw a last glance at the pack of former slaves. They still stood there bowing in silent gratitude.
Without saying another word, he took a big step and vanished from the spot like a wisp of smoke.
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