Lower Fire Month (9th Month), 1st Day, 14:15
As he looked up, a light drizzle began falling from the dark clouds which had covered the sky since this morning, as though they could no longer contain themselves any more.
Gazef Stronoff, the Warrior-Captain of the Kingdom, clicked his tongue loudly as he looked on the rain-grayed world before him.
If he had left earlier, perhaps he might have been home by now.
He looked up again, and saw that the clouds filled the sky above the city of Re-Estize, the Royal Capital of the Re-Estize Kingdom. There was probably no point waiting for the rain to stop.
Therefore, he decided not to linger in the Royal Palace. After drawing up the hood of his cloak, he stepped out into the rain.
The gate guards made way as they saw him, and he strode onto the main road of the Royal Capital.
It would normally be full of life and activity, but there was hardly anyone there now, just a few pedestrians walking carefully on the waterlogged road lest they fell down.
Given that there was hardly anyone around, the rain had been falling for some time now.
Well, if that’s the case, then it can’t be helped. Leaving earlier wouldn’t have made a difference.
The heavy rain soaked the outside of his cloak and weighed it down. He walked silently through the rain, passing several others who were similarly attired in wet-weather gear. While his cloak did provide him with a measure of protection from the rain, the sticky sensation of the wet cloth was uncomfortable against his skin. Gazef picked up the pace and hurried home.
Gazef breathed a sigh of relief as he neared his home and freedom from his soaked cloak. Just then, something drew his attention. A filthy man sat in an alley, heedless to the rain which shrouded the world like a veil, tucked inside an alley that was a short right turn away from the main road.
The man’s hair looked like it had been haphazardly dyed, and one could see the original color at the roots. His hair was plastered to his forehead by the rain and beaded with water droplets. His head was lowered, and his face could not be seen.
Gazef’s attention was drawn to him because he was puzzled by how the man was not wearing any rain gear and seemed entirely unconcerned by the fact that he was thoroughly drenched. Something seemed to stand out about him — particularly his right hand, which drew his attention.
That right hand clenched a weapon tightly, like a child clinging to his mother’s hand. It seemed quite incongruous with the man’s disheveled appearance. It was a weapon that hailed from the distant deserts of the south, a rare and precious treasure known as a 「Katana」.
He’s holding a sword… Is he a bandit? No… I’m not getting a feeling like that from him. He’s nothing of the sort. It seems almost… nostalgic?
A bizarre feeling grew in Gazef’s heart. Something was amiss here, like he had mis-fastened one of his buttons.
Gazef stopped to look at the man’s profile. When he realised who he was looking at, the memories washed over him like the rising tide.
“Don’t tell me you’re… Un-Unglaus?”
Even as he said that, Gazef thought, it can’t be.
Brain Unglaus. His opponent in the finals of the Kingdom’s previous martial tournament.
The image of the main who had fought so fiercely and so closely with him was still branded in Gazef’s mind. He had been the strongest warrior Gazef had ever faced ever since he had taken up the sword. Perhaps that was merely wishful thinking on Gazef’s part, but he considered Brain to be a worthy foe, and he could not forget the man’s face.
Yes, the emaciated profile of the man before him was roughly similar to that of his rival.
However — that could not be.
His facial features were very similar. The years might have changed him, but Gazef could still recall the way he looked back then. However, the man in Gazef’s memory did not have such a pathetic expression on his face. That man was absolutely confident in his swordsmanship and his fighting spirit burned like an inferno. He was nothing like this pathetic shell of a man.
Water splashing around him, Gazef walked towards the man in question.
The man seemed to react to the sound, and slowly raised his head.
Gazef drew in a breath. Seeing him head-on made him change his mind. There was no doubt that this man was Brain Unglaus, the genius swordsman.
However, the Brain before him had lost the lustre of his past, and he was nothing more than a beaten dog.
Brain raise unsteadily to his feet. No warrior would ever permit themselves to move so sluggishly or lazily. Even an aged veteran would not act in that way. His eyes were downcast as he turned and left, his footsteps devoid of energy.
His form shrank in the rain. Gazef had the feeling that if he let Brain go now, he would never see him again, so he hurriedly shouted:
“...Unglaus! Brain Unglaus!”
If the man had said, “You’ve got the wrong guy”, Gazef would have told himself that he had merely seen someone who looked like him. However, a weak, thready voice, like the buzzing of a mosquito, filtered into Gazef’s ears.
It was an utterly lifeless voice. It was completely different from the voice of the Brain who had pointed his sword at him.
“What’s going on? What happened to you?” Gazef asked in shock.
What on earth was going on?
Any man could fall, no matter who they were. Gazef had seen many people like that. Those who wanted to run away from things and sought refuge in mediocrity often lost everything by making a single mistake.
However, he could not connect people like that to Brain Unglaus, that genius swordsman. Perhaps he did not wish to admit that his strongest foe could have degenerated into someone like this.
Their eyes met.
What kind of face is that...
His cheeks were hollow and there were dark circles under his eyes. Said eyes were lifeless and his face was pale. He looked like a corpse.
No, a corpse would be better than this… Unglaus looks like a zombie...
“...Stronoff. It’s broken.”
The first thing Gazef did when he heard this was look at the sword in Brain’s hand. And then, Gazef realized he had been mistaken. It was not his sword which was broken—
“Say, are we strong?”
Gazef could not reply “We are strong”.
He thought of the incident in Carne Village. Back then, he would have died with his men had the mighty magic caster called Ainz Ooal Gown not come to save them. The man known as the strongest in the Kingdom only counted for that much. He did not dare speak proudly of his strength.
Gazef did not know how Brain had interpreted his silence, but the other man continued:
“Weak. We’re so weak. We’re only human, after all, and humans are weak. Our sword skills are trash. In the end we’re nothing more than the inferior lifeforms known as human beings.”
It was true; humans were weak.
That much was obvious when they were compared to Dragons, the mightiest race. Humans did not have sturdy scales, sharp claws, or wings to take them through the heavens. Neither could they expel breath that could annihilate everything before them. How could humans even compete?
That was why warriors often challenged Dragons to prove their strength. Relying on one’s hard-earned experience, one’s comrades and one’s weapons to defeat a foe with an overwhelming advantage in physical abilities was glorious, an accomplishment of which only a few outstanding warriors could boast.
That being the case, had Brain failed in slaying a Dragon?
Could it be that he had reached for a distant height but missed, and thus lost his balance and fallen?
“...I don’t get it. Any warrior ought to know that, right? Humans have always been weak.”
Indeed, he did not understand. Everyone was familiar with the concept of an unreachable height.
Gazef was hailed as the mightiest warrior of the surrounding nations, but he still had doubts about himself.
For instance, how there might be a warrior that was stronger than Gazef, hidden in the Theocracy. In addition, demihumans like Ogres and Giants had better physical abilities than Gazef, the human. Therefore, if these races managed to advance their skills to equal Gazef’s — or even if their skills were slightly inferior to his — he would not be able to beat them.
Gazef knew that such heights existed, even if they could not be seen. Did Brain not understand that? It seemed like common sense for any warrior.
“Well, there are races stronger than ourselves. That’s why we train to defeat them, no?”
He had to believe that he could reach those heights some day.
And then, Brain shook his head forcefully. It sent the water from his rain-soaked hair splashing in all directions.
“No! That’s not enough!” he shouted as though he were vomiting up his lifeblood.
The man before him finally began to resemble the image in Gazef’s memories. He could sense something like the spirit Brain had shown while wielding his sword. However, the contents of what he said were at odds with that same spirit.
“Stronoff! You can’t beat the truly powerful with any amount of training! Humans can’t do it. That’s the true meaning of power. Our feeble strength is nothing more than child’s play to them. We’re nothing more than kids playing at being warriors!”
He seemed to have lost his cool as he faced Gazef.
“...I say, Gazef. You’re pretty confident in your sword skills, right? But… it’s nothing but trash. You hold up your trash and think you can protect the people!”
“...Did you see something so powerful that it changed you?”
“I did. I experienced it. It was a height that no human could reach. Or no,” Brain smiled, mocking himself. “I didn’t even see the true heights of her power. I was too weak to even glimpse such a thing. She was just fooling around. What a joke.”
“Then you should train harder, in the hopes of someday catching sight of it…”
Brain suddenly flared up, and his face twisted in anger.
“You don’t understand anything! The bodies of men can’t hope to come close to that monster! Even the ultimate perfection of swordsmanship won’t get you there, I’m sure of it! ...It’s all useless. What was I even aiming for in the first place?”
Gazef had nothing to say.
He had seen people with scarred souls like these before. Those were people who had lost all hope in life because their friends had died before them.
Nobody could save them. Nobody else could help them. They had to pull themselves together and pick themselves up again. Otherwise there was no point in extending a helping hand to them.
“...Listen to me, Stronoff. The strength of the sword is nothing. In the face of true power, it’s nothing but trash.”
Gazef could not see any sign of the heroic visage that had once been Brain.
“...I’m very glad to have met you at the end.”
Gazef watched Brain leave with pained eyes.
After seeing the pathetic and utterly broken remains of the man he had once considered his strongest rival, Gazef could no longer bring himself to call out to him. However, he said one thing before he left; one thing that Gazef could not pretend he had not heard.
“Now… I can die.”
“Wait! Hold on, Brain Unglaus!”
A fire burned in Gazef’s heart as he shouted after Brain.
He stepped forward and seized Brain’s shoulder.
Brain’s wobbly gait was nothing like it had been in the past. Even so, when Gazef pulled on his shoulder with all his might, he lost his balance, but did not fall. That was because he had trained his core well and his sense of balance was very good.
That put Gazef somewhat at ease. His instincts told him that his rival’s strength had not diminished.
There was still hope. He could not watch a man die like that.
“...What are you doing?”
“Come to my house.”
“Stop. Don’t help me. I just want to die… I don’t want to live in fear any more. I don’t want to cower at shadows or think that someone’s chasing me. I can’t take reality any more. I don’t want to admit that I swung a piece of trash around and thought I was actually someone.”
Brain’s pleading tone sparked irritation in Gazef’s heart.
“Shut up. Follow me.”
While he told Brain to follow him, in truth Gazef was merely dragging Brain forward by the arm. Brain’s footsteps were unsteady, but he did not resist and followed obediently. After seeing Brain like that, a sense of displeasure grew in Gazef that he could not articulate.
“You’re going to change, you’re going to eat, and then you’re going straight to bed.”
26th Day of Middle Fire (8th) Month, 13:45
This was the Royal Capital Re-Estize, of the Re-Estize Kingdom.
The capital of this nation of nine million people could best be described as an aged city. That not only described its long history, but hinted that life here was as simple, unchanging and stagnant as it had always been — among other things.
That much was obvious the moment one walked the streets.
The surrounding houses were old and plain for the most part. Hardly any of them were new or fancy. However, there were many ways to view this piece of street scenery. Some would consider it to be steeped in historical flavor, while others would consider it boring and stale.
The Royal Capital seemed to be the same as it always had been, enduring season after season throughout the centuries.
But of course, nothing could remain unchanged forever.
♦ ♦ ♦
Many roads in the Royal Capital were unpaved, and every time the rain came they turned to mud, thus creating a sight that did not belong to a city. Of course, this did not imply that the standards of the Kingdom were low. Rather, the standards of the Empire and the Theocracy were too high, so that they could not even be mentioned in the same breath.
The streets could not be considered wide either. Therefore, nobody walked in the middle of the road — where the horsecarts travelled. Instead, the citizens rubbed shoulders in messy processions at the sides of the streets. The citizens of the Royal Capital were used to this and could wend through the mass of humanity like a shuttle through a loom. Even when two people were about to collide with each other, they could deftly evade each other moments before impact.
However, the street where Sebas was walking differed from many others in the city. The surface was paved — a rarity in the Capital — and the road itself was wide.
The reason for that was immediately apparent when one looked to either side. The houses lining this street were regal and well-furnished, radiating an atmosphere of wealth and prosperity.
That was because this lively and bustling avenue was the main road of the Royal Capital.
No few ladies turned to watch as Sebas strode by in style, drawn by his handsome features and his distinguished gentleman’s bearing. Some of them even fluttered their eyelashes at him head-on, but Sebas paid them no heed. He continued forward with his back ramrod-straight, his eyes fixed forward, his steps ordered and unhurried.
His inexorable tread — which seemed like it would not halt before reaching his destination — suddenly ground to a halt. Then, he glanced to either side, taking in the oncoming horsecarts from both sides, and then he strode across the main street.
He walked towards an old lady. There was a backpack full of goods on the ground, and the old lady was massaging her ankles beside those.
“Is something the matter?”
The old lady was taken by surprise as someone suddenly struck up conversation with her. She raised her head, a guarded look on her face. However, Sebas’ looks and his opulent style of dress made that wariness fade.
“You seem to be in distress. Is there any aid I can give?”
“No, it’s alright. How could I let an old gent like yourself help me…”
“Please, pay that no heed. Helping those in trouble is common sense, after all.”
Sebas smiled evenly, and the old lady blushed. That charming smile of his, coming from a distinguished gentleman like himself, broke through the final barriers of her heart.
The old lady ran a stall, and she was on her way home after closing up shop for the day. However, she had sprained her ankle halfway, which vexed her greatly.
The main streets were comparatively safe, but that did not imply that all the people who walked on it were good-natured. If she asked the wrong person for help, she might end up losing everything she had. The old lady had heard of such robberies before, which was why she was leery of asking just about anyone for help.
That being the case, the solution was simple.
“I shall walk you home. Could you show me the way?”
“Sir, is that really alright?”
“Of course. Having encountered someone who needs help, I am bound to offer it.”
Sebas turned his back to the old lady as she thanked him.
“Come, I shall give you a ride.”
“But… but…” the old lady replied uncomfortably. “My clothes are dirty and they’ll get yours dirty too!”
Sebas smiled amiably.
What did it matter if his clothes were stained? There was no need to worry about such trifles when helping someone in need.
He unconsciously recalled the faces of his colleagues from the Great Underground Tomb of Nazarick. They would probably react to this with surprise, annoyance or contempt. Still, no matter what Demiurge — who was the most strongly opposed to this sort of thing — said to him, Sebas was certain that he was in the right.
Helping others was the right thing to do.
After persuading the old lady, he carried her on his back and lifted the backpack with one hand.
Even the onlookers — to say nothing of the old lady herself — gasped in awe as they saw him walking with even strides despite carrying that heavy pack.
Guided by the old lady, Sebas set forth.