“Bala…” I walked over to her and whispered.
“Twelve., Six in front, the rest along the sides,” Bala spoke instantly without me needing to spell it out.
Of course, Bala was a will user too, and much more skilled than me, so she’d be able to sense things like life presence. She was standing in a somewhat casual position that gave nothing away, but her hand was conveniently on her sword and she gave the feeling that she could burst into movement at any moment. Simply put, she was ready to fight.
“Hostile?” I asked.
“They have not surrounded us completely. They’ve left us a direction to escape. This is what an elvish patrol trying to repel an invader would do. If they planned to end our lives, they would close off the possibility of escape.”
“Could be a harrying tactic. Might be setting a trap?”
“Back in the human territory? Although this area is all but abandoned, that would be a bold move.”
“It’d be what I’d do,” I responded.
“Not everyone is as… bold… as Master.”
“Very well, then we shall treat them as enemies until we know better. I’ll bring their attention to me. You break away and see if you can disable their backup.”
“My people are mindful. What makes you think you can hold their attention so absolutely?” Bala demanded scornfully.
“Easy…” I pulled back my hood. “I’m a devil, after all.
I immediately took a few steps forward towards the forest. If my life sense was a little better, perhaps I could have detected the men tensing around me. There were certainly arrows aimed at my body right now. I could feel that level of threat easily, even if I couldn’t see the archers among the foliage. My movements caught the attention of everyone in camp as well. Entering the forest was not allowed, and I was heading right for the line.
I’d like to say I was confident in my actions, but even I felt a bit of sweat dripping down my face. This could all go badly in a heartbeat. My foot reached the final point. Another step and I would be officially in elvish territory, and technically a trespasser. I lifted my foot. Saria made a noise, running out with her hand outstretched.
“Halt!” A voice shouted from the woods. “State your identity!”
The words coming from the forest instantly put everyone who was not paying attention on guard. The two guards, Captain Moar and his surviving subordinate, a young man by the name of Derald, instantly drew their swords. Baba remained unmoved while Saria looked over anxiously. Bala had already slinked off, using the cart to hide her presence.
My foot instantly stopped, and I let out a breath of relief. I had received the best outcome from this experiment. I reckoned there were three possible scenarios. First, they were here to escort us. In which case, by stepping out and threatening to trespass, they were forced to reveal their presence. The second scenario is that they were looking to trap us. In this case, even upon trespassing, they would hold off attacking us, hoping to lure us into a more compromising position.
The third option was that the elvish party weren’t familiar with who we are. They confused us with a random party of people, and thus attacked me the second I stepped on their territory. Of course, with my hood down, my identity as a devil was undeniable. There was no way they wouldn’t recognize who we were.
“I am Prince David,” I said in a clear voice. “I’ve come to visit you. I bring the princesses Bala and Saria home to visit their father as well.”
Naturally, Bala had returned to dressing like a girl. Her clothing hadn’t changed all that much. She had allowed her hair to grow out a bit, and she didn’t wrap her chest any more. She still wore clothing more like a boy. She was a will-user and a swordswoman, and she remained the picture of a female knight, rather than a princess. As I understood it, she had always dressed this way since a long time ago. It had been to protect her from her brother’s advances.
It had been a trade the two girls had made as sisters. Saria took upon herself the risk of being a woman, bearing with the internal threats of her brothers, scheming, and betrayal. She even allowed herself to be betrothed to a devilkin to spare her sister. Meanwhile, Bala took on the stress of being a protector, laying her life on the line to protect her sister from external threats. Their relationship was a complex one, but also a clear part of who the two girls were.
“The devilkin has arrived.” My sensitive hearing managed to pick up the hushed whispers of those hiding in the trees. “What do we do?”
“The King has ordered to have them brought to Greenvale.”
“But the prince…”
“Do you follow the King or the prince?”
“The king, of course!”
It seemed like there was already a bit of dissension. Although it was said that the King had ultimate authority in the land, the prince already appeared to have a faction which people listened to. Although these guards appeared to follow the king, it would be safe to assume for every man who chose the king over the prince, there might be another who wouldn’t.
“Very well, we will be escorting you the rest of the way.” The man said after another brief moment.
His voice was neither polite nor disdainful. The princesses behind me were still the princesses, after all. Furthermore, I came as an official noble visiting the country. If they were to treat me poorly, even to vent their hatred of devilkin, it would certainly cause them to lose some face as well.
Six men in front of us came out of hiding. A few had bows in their hands. They were still nocked but not drawn to fire. Overall, their stance wasn’t particularly aggressive. Since that was the case, I gestured for my men to put away their weapons as well.
“That would be acceptable, as I do not know the way,” I admitted casually with a smile.
The elf in charge looked at me, the expression on his face remaining completely unchanged. Of the six elves I could see, they all met the criteria of elves based on my typical fantasy books. They were the tall, pale-skinned kind with short, pointy ears and thin, willowy bodies. The men were taller than the women, and were a bit more muscular, but they also had an ikemen quality about them that likely made them easily pull off a feminine look if they desired.
Their blonde, white, and grey hair were usually long and tied up with a single ribbon. They wore cloaks and armor made out of grey, green, and natural colors of the forest. In general, they looked as generic as elves could be, right down to being forest-dwellers.
Saria approached the man first. Putting her hands together, she gave a small bow. The man returned it in an instant. I thought about replicating her actions, but Baba didn’t move and neither did my guards, so I followed their actions and just remained in the back, watching.
“How fares the forest?” Saria asked.
“The forest grows.” The man replied.
I was always uneasy when code words were used around me. The man seemed to relax as he replied to those words, so perhaps it was a means of letting him know that everything was safe and she was in her right mind. Saria seemed to notice me staring at her with my brow furrowed, so she gave a snort.
“It’s an elf thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
I decided not to feed into her bait. Instead, I glanced over at the leader casually.
“Since we are all friends here, perhaps your archers still in hiding should make themselves known?”
The man stiffened, before letting a sigh and then raising his hand. Three more men on either side emerged from the brush. One was even in a tree branch. My two guards let out noises of surprise. Clearly, they were not aware that even after showing themselves, they still had us in an ambush spot. I raised my hand and also made a movement. Bala suddenly emerged from behind the three of the elves. Her bow was completely drawn, but she slowly released the pressure and put it down as she walked into the light.
The three elf men whom she had been aiming at made shocked faces of their own. The effect probably would have been much greater had Bala not been an elf. Instead, they were partially confused that one of their own was treating them suspiciously. However, for those in charge who knew about the current stresses between the prince and king, they certainly would have gotten the message.
The man smiled tightly. “I’m glad to see the youngest daughter is here as well.”
As he said those words, there was a strange edge to his words. Furthermore, she didn’t approach and bow to him in the slightest. She only gave a nod before subsequently ignoring the leader. As for Saria, her lips tightened, just a slight flash of anger that was quickly concealed. I had become quite good at reading the situation, but that didn’t mean that I understood what any of it meant. In the end, I could only make predictions or wait until I could ask Bala directly.
“Then, shall we go?” I shrugged.
The exchange had barely lasted fifteen seconds, but engagement had been filled with tension and there was a lot for me to go over in my mind. Once the lead elf nodded, I gestured to the men to start packing everything and getting ready. I casually knocked Baba out of her bedding, folding it as she rolled aggressively out of it.
“Hey! What’s the big deal!” She cried, standing up and stopping her feet at me angrily.
“We’re going,” I announced, rolling my eyes.
“You have brought a… dwarf with you?” The elf asked.
I blinked at his question. Baba was a dwarf? I mean, it was always clear to me that she wasn’t a human. She was the Grand Magus, a supposedly powerful figure that lived hundreds of lifetimes and was extremely powerful. She was known for manipulating events since before any of us were born. I had read a book that suggested there were only three of her kind. The other two had disappeared, and she was the only one who existed.
Somehow, my family had negotiated a deal with her, and she had remained in our castle. This gave the human race a great deal of clout for many years. However, the Grand Magus didn’t do anything in particular for many years, and most of her previous feats became distant legends. People began to doubt her power and abilities.
Even I doubted her until she single-handedly stole control of a massive undead army, and helped me wage a battle against superior forces before she put them back into the ground for good. That wasn’t even considered the strongest of her magic.
I had never asked specifically, but supposedly she used to be a man. When she died, her body and personality changed in a process she called reincarnation, not unlike a certain British science-fiction character. I figured her previous form was quite old, and had died when a bookshelf landed on top of him as he reached for something out of his reach.
I was the one who, by coincidence, pulled her out of that. In that respect, she seemed to have imprinted on me. At least, that’s the only reason I could come up with as to why she followed me everywhere. She said she enjoyed the taste of my blood, although it didn’t have the same effect on her as it did in humans. At least, given her twelve-year-old appearance, I hoped that it didn’t have the same effect on her.
I knew why I needed Baba. She was a powerful woman with a great deal of respect across the land. Anyone who heard her name would immediately bow down and show her all of their respect. I needed to borrow her strength. As to why she followed me, I couldn’t believe it was just for the chance to sample my blood from time to time. Imprinting seemed the most logical conclusion. After a reincarnation, the first person she saw became a very important person to her. Perhaps, that was how my grandfather had convinced her to remain in the human realm for so long, by being present during her last reincarnation.
Either way, this man did not know that Baba was the Grand Magus, and he had a scornful look in her direction that suggested he might not like dwarves all that much. I had never seen a drawing of a dwarf, but I had heard a description of them that described them as youthful. Was it possible that dwarves in this world were actually child-like lolis? In that case, was the Grand Magus not simply gender fluid, but also species fluid?
Baba immediately spun and glared at him. “Who’s a dwarf! Your mother’s a dwarf!”
Her attitude was clearly sour, but she directed it all at the elf man. The man’s eyes flashed and he reached for his sword. I grabbed Baba who seemed to be ready to lunge forward and bite him. Was being called a dwarf really that much of an insult? I knew the atmosphere was tight before, but it went from tight to arms being drawn in two sentences!
“Wait! She’s the Grand Magus!” Saria immediately called out desperately.
The man who was just about ready to cut down the little girl was taken aback, audibly gasping. The same reaction appeared on all of the other elves as well. They instantly fell to their knees and bowed.
“Grand Magus! We sincerely apologize! This one did not realize your greatness!”
Baba stopped acting like she wanted to rip out his throat. I released her and she patted off her hands like she had just vanquished a bunch of street punks.
“Hehe… now that you understand my greatness, then naturally you have an offering for me? Perhaps your finest alcohol.”
She had her arms crossed and an extremely cocky expression on her face. The elvish men looked between each other with a confused expression, immediately checking their pockets desperately as if looking to give her some kind of sacrifice. What the heck did she think she was, a god? I immediately bonked her head with my fist.
“Quit it. You’ve had enough.”
“Ow…” She grabbed her head. “Why do you always hit me! I’m a beautiful woman!”
“You’re a pain!” I shot back. “You get hits because you keep acting in a manner that deserves them. If you want head rubs, those must be earned by appropriate behavior!”
The elvish men all had stopped looking for something to please the Grand Magus and were watching us as I scolded Baba and she looked up at me tearfully and tried to insist she was really a good girl. They had their mouths open and their eyes wide. The other people who have been traveling with us had long grown used to this kind of behavior, but for someone new, I suppose it was a bit strange seeing how Baba chose to act. I too was amazed that at the end of the day, the Grand Magus was such a spoiled child.
“H-h-he hit the Grand Magus?” One elf said, his face white with shock.
“How can you… how does one…” Another elf shook his head.
“I apologize for Prince David… as you know, he is a devil. He naturally is incapable of love. He only feels cruelty and hatred.” Saria bowed while Bala nodded in confirmation.
“What? Me?” I turned away from the crying little girl and glared at the group. “Hey!”
What was with those looks? Even Aeryn seemed to be nodding slightly until I shot her a glare. Of course, I had the same feelings I always had. How could they speak such ill things about me? If they’d say these words to a random guard, what would happen if they said something to the King? I suddenly felt a headache coming on as my trip became a dozen times more exhausting.
The leader stepped forward, putting out his chest and holding his sword while shooting me an angry glare and a sympathetic one towards Baba. “Grand Magus. If this miscreant is mistreating you in some way… I wouldn’t dare to suggest you lack the power to deal with it, however, if you need my sword, I would…”
Baba shot me a mischievous look, and then turned to the group. I felt my hackles rising. Months of careful planning, and suddenly I was going to be cut down by a couple of elf guards because everyone decided to turn on me. It was so embarrassing, I thought I’d explode!
“He’s fine! If it hadn’t been for his bad behavior, naturally you never would have mistaken me for a measly dwarf! Please don’t mind him! I know he has poor manners, but I definitely will correct them, or I am not the Grand Magus!” She spoke proudly, even pointed to herself as if she was announcing her name once again.
The elves still looked slightly unconvinced, so Bala stepped forward and also gave a small bow. “I apologize. My sister was joking with you previously. The relationship between The Grand Magus and Prince David is complicated and difficult to decipher. It is not our place to comment on it.”
“Eh? I was joking?” Saria spoke quietly enough that she could barely be heard while tapping her fingers.
Fortunately, the men still bought the combined words of Bala and Baba and the stress decreased again. My guards in particular were wiping the sweat from their faces. They were in too deep to betray me at the moment, so any attack on me meant an attack on them. Although they had exhibited some bravery recently, twelve against two was still basically death.
As for me, I was glaring at Saria and Bala, who both seemed to be acting smug. Was this because I called them tools? Women were very difficult to figure out, which is exactly why I never trusted them. As I had these thoughts, I felt a nudge on my arm. I looked down to see Baba there. She nudged me again, displaying the top of her head to me. Wait! Did she just disarm the situation so that she could obtain a head pat.
I formed a fist and raised it over her head. However, before I brought it down, I let out a sigh and then formed a palm. Baba preened happily as I patted her head. This also seemed to finish disarming the elves, who had looks as if they were agreeing with Bala’s assessment that our relationship was indeed undefinable. As for me, I had a headache coming along. We were only just entering the elvish lands, and it felt like it was going to be a really trying visit.