Chapter 17:


The Swordmaster and the New God

      It was not long until we reached the Edge of Life. Where the clouds stopped, and the wind ceased to flow. The grass all around us stopped suddenly, giving way to barren earth. The ground was dry, with an almost purplish tint to it from the storm clouds. Sunlight seemed to stop right before touching the ground, darkening the land. This was truly the Edge of Life.

      The grass formed a straight line, so precise you couldn't drop a pin in the middle. The grass was not even allowed to lean into the demon realm, standing straight up as it was leaning against an invisible barrier.

      Sadly, this was also where the path happened to end. It refused to go on, not facing the endless earth ahead of us.

      “This is it. No going back once we cross this.” Austin leaned ahead of the line, tilting his head up to look beyond.

      The three of us stood looking over the Demon Realm. Lightning flashed in the distance, seeming to focus on an ominous-looking castle in the distance; our destination. Between us and the castle laid acres of solid earth, hills rolling through the land. The Demon Realm looked flat overall, with some hilly parts here and there. The nearer we got to the Demon Lord’s castle, the more mountainous it became.

      I hadn't seen Emilia since she stormed off, not that I complained. Evelyn was a much better sight after all. Just looking at her would make me happy.

      “What are we waiting for? Come on!” Evelyn leaped over the Edge of Life with glee, landing on the hard earth beyond it. “It's just a line; there's no barrier or anything!”

      “If you say so.” Austin took a giant step over, looking more carefully than Evelyn.

      It was all up to me now. I lifted my leg, moving it over. I felt the grass licking my foot, begging me to stay as my foot crossed the line. I moved forward, my whole body passing into the Demon Realm. As I did, I felt a sense of foreboding wash over me for less than a second. When I completely entered the Demon Realm, it was gone as fast as it had come. “You're right. That was easy.”

      “Exactly! Now let's get going!” Evelin skipped along through the still air. The closer to the castle we got, the happier she seemed to be. She must have been thinking of this for a while, wanting to attack the Demon Lord, making it a goal. A goal, however, that she could not achieve if not for us. It all came down to the faithful meeting. Without the restaurant, I would have never met Evelyn, and she would have never met me.

      “Hey Evelyn, how big is the Demon Realm anyway? We need to find a good spot to camp eventually unless you want to attack the Demon Lord while sleep deprived?” Austin asked.

      “Let's see.” Evelyn pulled out an old map from her own satchel. It was starting to age, the ends looking somewhat frayed. “According to this, the Demon Lord’s castle is about an eight-hour walk from here. There's some shelter at around the six-hour mark, where we'll have to walk near the edge of the mountain range. It looks like, there's a ton of caves we can use, and obviously, there's no chance of running into monsters, so we should be safe there.”

      “Wait, did you say there's no chance of running into monsters? We're in the Demon Realm, shouldn't there be a ton of monsters everywhere?” I asked.

      “No, monsters won't enter the Demon Realm, no matter what. The only potential enemies we can face here are demons, who won't leave the vicinity of the castle unless they are sent to Palsu, or other humans, who will never go that far into the Demon Realm, even if they are bandits.”

      “Really? We're in the Demon Realm, and there are barely any Demons? What the heck did they name this place for then? Calling it the ‘Demon Realm’ is practically marketing. Oh no, how dare we run into dirt, the terror.” Austin rolled his eyes. Despite how he looked, there was a glint in his eyes, one of fear. If I had to guess, Austin was afraid, not that he would ever admit it. He would just say something like ‘Us Americans never get afraid, because with true freedom and a few guns, any challenge is beatable,’ then salute the flag. Austin had the ability to always face the same direction while saluting the flag, no matter where we were. We could be in a pitch black room, and he would always face east, away from where we were now, no matter what. According to him, he felt freedom radiating from the east, whatever that meant.

      “Exactly! This is why I wanted to come here sooner. The Demon Realm is not even dangerous. We have just been piddling our thumbs our whole time when we could have been coming here! After seeing this, I know we can beat the Demon Lord! He can't be that strong if this is what the Demon Realm is like.” Evelyn’s expression looked almost euphoric now, full of happiness.

      “If you say so. Still, this feels kind of weird. With how stereotypical this world has been, this feels like a break in the flow of things. It's like the silent hallway you walk through before facing the final boss.” Austin looked around us, his face a mask. It felt like he had done a 180, from the joking Austin to this.

      We walked through the darkness of the demon realm, our footsteps echoing around us. After some time, we started to hear the thunder from the castle looming ahead of us. Lightning flashed, illuminating the mountains towering in the sky. The lightning was constant, flashing left and right. It felt like a disco ball spinning in a nightclub. The light became disorienting, making me nauseous when I looked too long.

      A flat plain of dirt surrounded us for the first few hours, the light of the sun slowly getting farther and farther away. After some time, the sunlight was completely gone. The only light coming from the clouds and the lightning striking above us. The light was schizophrenic, ever-changing, and shifting through the clouds.

      “Beat em up, beat em up, K-S-U,” Austin was muttering to himself beside me, staring at the purple lightning in front of us. Austin was always talking about college football back in America. I recognized the chant as one he loved to use on Saturdays in the fall.

      After a few more hours, we finally reached the mountains. They seemed to touch the sky, the tips above the cloud. Climbing up the steep hills seemed impossible. The Demon Lord’s Castle was now in our sights, looming in front of us. The lightning was on top of us, striking the top of the castle.

       Evelyn found a deep cave at the bottom of the mountain hidden from view. The inside was damp, a purple tint coloring the walls. The lightning outside seemed like a distant memory. The thunder was nonexistent, the cave absorbing all the noise.

      Evelyn reached into her satchel and pulled out a blanket, laying it on the wet ground. “Ok, we have a few hours to discuss strategy before we hit the sack.”

      I pulled a few more blankets out of my inventory and laid the blankets next to Evelyn’s. “Ok, but I don’t think that’ll take long. I’m exhausted from walking all day. We need to be rested to beat the Demon Lord.” From what I’d seen, the Demon Lord would be easy. No powerful leader would have their territory be this empty. He had just to be using scare tactics. We could do this. I could do something, something that mattered more than anything I had ever done on earth.

      “If you say so…” Austin had sat down on one of the blankets, looking out into the purple skyline visible from the cave’s exit. His face was still a mask. Flashes of emotion had shown on his face, all worn away with time. “Kazuma, have you ever heard of Murphy’s law?”

      “Murphy’s law? I don't think I have. So what’s it about?”

      “Put simply, it states ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’ I don't know about the confidence you have here. Sure, the Demon Lord could turn out to be a cakewalk, but it could kill us. We're gambling with our lives here, just because his lands just happen to be empty.”

      “Come on dude. I get what you’re saying, but we’ll be fine. I'm an Isekai protagonist, after all. How often do they lose?”

      “This is real life Kazuma, not a light novel. Sure, plagiarism seems about as enforced as tax fraud, and creativity looks like a certain orange jacket wearing nine year old. But, we could still die here.” Austin lowered his voice. I may have come with you, but I believe Emilia.”

      “You believe that bi-”

      “Yes, I do. You're the one deluding yourself here, Kazuma. The only reason I agreed to come is to get information. Emilia didn't know why the Demon Lord created all this, and I intend to find out why. She hinted that she’s not alone, part of a group of sorts aiming to destroy this place. I suspect that the crest on her armor is from them. You’re always talking about how you can make a difference; well this is my way. Evelyn’s acted suspicious since the beginning, you just like her too much to see.”

      “I'm sorry, but you’re insane! You believe the crazy girl over our party member, with who we have been through a crap ton of stuff? You haven't liked Evelyn since the beginning! This is just your way of getting her out of the party. You’re a traitor to the party, and the second we get back, I'm talking to Evelyn about removing you from the party.” I spoke quietly, making sure not to let Evelyn, who was standing at the entrance of the cave, overhear. My malice overflowed from my voice, even with its quiet pitch.

      Austin crossed his arms.“So you're choosing a girl you’ve known for a month over me? What a beta, freaking simp. I hate using words like that, it makes me sound like an incel, but they describe you really well. Pathetic.”

      “Well, if you're so scared, then just take this. I don't know what it does, but I'm sure it’ll help your precious ‘info’ get out somehow.” I emptied the contents of my back pockets and threw them to Austin. Only one object flew into the air, right into his palm.”

      Austin's eyes widened slightly when he looked at the object. “Well, someone is confident.” He tossed it in the air, then put it in the same place on his person that I’d have it. “Well, I'm going to bed. We can do Evelyn’s precious planning in the morning.” He took one of the blankets and wrapped it around himself like a sleeping bag. A few seconds later, I heard his breathing soften as he drifted off to sleep.

      I joined him soon after. As ludicrous as Austin was, he was right about needing sleep. We could just plan in the morning. The blanket felt warm wrapped around me, almost like an anaconda wrapping itself around my body but not finishing the job. It was tight but somewhat cozy. No time passed before my mind became hazy, and my body drifted off to sleep.