C32 – Return
With the demise of the devil, Rocher issued orders for his men to return to Gray Tree Hall.
Seated within an open carriage, Shire found himself battling the chill of autumn’s wind. He buttoned up his snug jacket and rested against the carriage’s side. Though people offered him a carriage all to himself as a mark of respect, it also meant he could only converse with Gradiu.
“I’ve been pondering Alicia’s advice to ‘seal the sheep collar,'” Shire contemplated before adding, “By doing so, we can effectively keep the wolves at bay.”
“Do you truly desire what she spoke of? It’s inconceivable. I observed it clearly. Your desire lay in her lips and the allure of her scent. You longed to possess her and lose yourself in passion. Last night, she denied you… Otherwise, you might have unleashed your inner beast, causing havoc like a wild creature. She cared not for her own suffering and ultimately took pride in herself. You believe yourself to wield the power of a man,” Gradiu chuckled heartily.
“I did nothing of the sort.”
“This makes you even more formidable. You’re seizing her fate. If you were to harm her casually, insult her, or break her heart, she would transform into someone strong, unfeeling, and keenly observant of the world. She would treat everything around her with caution… And you, in turn, would find release, planting seeds in her fertile soil. You’d be satisfied and could clear your mind, ready to pursue your next objective. Yet, from this point forward, you’d still have to seek her out, and she’d have no choice but to engage with you. The two of you would become each other’s trials,” Gradiu always seemed to find a rational perspective in his alarmist words.
“What about you? Do demons not experience love?”
“We don’t even experience intimacy.”
“That seems rather primitive,” Shire murmured discontentedly to himself.
“Well then, give this a try,” Gradiu’s voice suddenly shifted from raspy and dry to delightful and charming. “How’s that? Do you feel our bond has grown closer?”
Shire shuddered at these words, a wave of nausea washing over him as he lay against the carriage’s side, retching for a moment.
“Are you alright?” inquired the soldier riding alongside on horseback. “We can stop.”
“I’m fine; please continue,” Shire replied as he slid back into the carriage.
“You seem to be quite disinterested. What’s going on?” Gradiu reverted his voice to its original tone, sounding much more ordinary. “Your subconscious appears to indicate an affinity for this kind of sound.”
“The voice of a ‘woman’ is far from that of a ‘devil.’ Do you understand? Whenever you speak, I can’t help but recall your previous form, with your charred visage and a massive horn sprouting from your head. You, a creature like you, trying to use the voice of a young girl to converse – and you expect a reaction from me? Perhaps you should reflect on yourself.”
“You’ve actually resorted to criticizing me. That’s unheard of. Only I have the privilege of speaking ill of you.”
“Being of a higher level than you, I am akin to a demon, a superior creature, traversing between realms. Being of a higher level than you, I resemble a demon, a creature of greater stature, moving between different worlds.”
“Inhabiting distinct vessels, at present, I can only utilize my brain for contemplation.”
“You lack comprehension.”
“I comprehend. You are assessing me and attempting to corrupt me. Do you believe that one day I will entirely disregard you and allow you to exercise absolute control over me?”
“The fact that you harbor such thoughts reflects your moral decay.”
“All you need to grasp is one thing.” Shire found it too cumbersome to converse within his mind, so he allowed the devil to peruse his thoughts.
“Regardless of what I may evolve into, I remain a Devil Hunter.”
Shire had no desire to prolong his conversation with the devil. He casually gazed into the distance and spotted a picturesque field. His focus became wholly absorbed in the surrounding scenery.
Stretching out before him lay an endless expanse of grayish-yellow wilderness. The variegated forest stood verdant and scattered in the distance. Though the leaves had all withered, they clung tenaciously to the branches, displaying a determined persistence.
The group advanced along a wide, stone-paved path. The resonance of horse hooves striking the stone slabs created a rhythmic cadence. This road had been constructed by nearby residents, and every hundred meters they traversed, a stone tablet bearing the donor’s name would be found by the roadside.
Soon, they neared the village. A lengthy fence partitioned the fields into tidy and orderly flat and perpendicular plots. Each extensive piece of land was subdivided into three sections, separated by embankments. Shire recognized this well—it meant that… One piece of land was sectioned into three, with only two portions used for cultivation. One part lay fallow for replenishment. When Shire was still a young boy, he used to shuttle back and forth with a wooden pail between the manure pit and the fallow fields, engaged in countless farming tasks.
The farmers were sowing wheat and rye in the fields. These seeds were resilient, capable of enduring the harsh winter cold. Shire knew that snow would blanket them, yet the seedlings would endure unscathed. When spring blossomed, the melting snow would nurture the earth, and soon after, they would sprout and grow. By summer, they would be transformed into bread, sustaining the people.
A broad-nosed, six-year-old cow grazed beside the road, emitting a low hum. Each time a carriage passed by, it would emit a sound, but when the carriage bearing the devil’s corpse approached, it would flee without looking back, darting into the fields and causing a commotion.
“Animals fear demons,” Shire observed the cow. “Why? How do they sense your presence?”
“The answer is ‘unfamiliar’.” Gradiu said.
“You know what I want to say.”
“Would you like me to continue explaining? Certainly. We originate from a different realm, and the inhabitants of this world find us peculiar. We possess unique qualities, which they can naturally perceive through sight, scent, and hearing. However, humans are distinct; you evolve and distance yourselves from the primitive state of ignorance. Your physical forms hail from this world, but your thoughts are in a constant state of transformation… As a result, you possess the capacity to quietly acknowledge the existence of ‘extraordinary’ phenomena, thus rendering your own transformations logical. Ultimately, you become less sensitive to our presence. It’s a mutual exchange; you employ your wisdom to gain similarities with this world. The question is, do you deem it worthwhile?”
“Undoubtedly, it is worthwhile,” Wisdom serves as the keenest weapon.
“Impossible,” Gradiu exclaimed. “It cannot be sharper than the knife in your hand.”
“Come to think of it, you consumed that devil’s soul. Have you become more powerful?”
Gradiu hesitated briefly. Shire sensed that something was being concealed.
“Speak,” Shire urged.
“Feasting upon a Giant Demon is equivalent to consuming the souls of three mortals, and devouring that Winged Devil equates to ingesting the souls of a hundred mortals.”
“You can utilize a Giant Demon’s soul to mend my wounds. In essence, you can heal me over thirty times in the future.”
“If you convert my power into your margin for error, you’ll lose a potent ally,” Gradiu murmured. “Once my power grows stronger, the most crucial aspect is that I can escort you to hell.”
“Hell? What’s the purpose of going there?”
“Naturally, we are going to hunt demons, which happens to be your favorite activity. You can create the sheep collar, as Wang Yao mentioned. You can also employ your bow and arrow to combat wolves in the forest,” Gradiu continued to entice Shire. “Demons frequently infiltrate the human world. After their pillaging, they get driven away, leaving behind many treasures they’ve acquired. I’ll take you to hell to eliminate the feeble ones… I’ll consume souls, and you can lay claim to the treasures… Doesn’t this plan sound ideal?”
“These are just words without a solid foundation. Who knows what we’ll find there? Perhaps you intend to bring me back only to obliterate everything,” Shire frowned.
“We’ve been working together for some time now. Aren’t we close allies? We’ll support each other and embrace challenges. This is just another one,” Gradiu patiently reassured.
He would never place trust in demons, never pardon them, never show mercy to demons.
“Alright.” Shire said, “Sounds good.”
“You have become straightforward.” Gradiu was satisfied.
The military procession traversed the path through the rice fields and eventually reached a prosperous town.
Along the street, numerous shops lined the way, flanked by tall and splendid houses. The air was filled with the lively chatter of farmers clutching their goats and peddlers hawking cabbage. The place was abuzz with activity and packed with people. This was known as the Lower City Towns, an area beyond the city walls where individuals from all walks of life congregated, akin to a melting pot of diverse characters.
Upon entering the city, the guards at the city gate gradually lifted the sturdy iron gate, granting passage to the soldiers. As they passed through the gate’s opening, Shire glanced upward and noticed a series of elongated cavities designed for pouring flammable oil. The tunnel extended far enough to potentially consume any invaders, using their charred remains to form a gruesome barricade.
Once inside the city, they reached Gray Tree Hall City, home to a towering fortress that served as the earl’s residence. This grand edifice stretched along the highest elevation within the city, fortified by numerous towers and city walls. A long connecting wall ensured mutual support between the castle and the outer fortifications.
The city streets were wider compared to those in the outlying towns, but they weren’t significantly better maintained. In areas with drainage ditches, Shire observed foul-smelling, black sewage slowly coursing through. In spots without proper drainage, human and animal excrement, as well as refuse, lay scattered haphazardly on the streets.
“This city is quite something,” Gradiu exclaimed. “I’ve seen at least thirty to fifty thousand living souls bustling about here. It’s as if you’ve encountered thirty to fifty thousand unclothed women charging toward you.”
“Please refrain from using obscure metaphors.”
In the central square of the city, an army carriage came to a halt. The camp followers disembarked and returned to their designated locations. Alicia glanced back, and Shire knew she was looking at him. He rose from the carriage and waved in her direction. She laughed and was ushered away by her companions.
Shire couldn’t help but wonder where they were headed.
Townsfolk pointed at Rocher’s army and engaged in animated discussions. They were aware that Rocher had left the city to hunt demons, so the large carriage carrying the demon’s body drew particular attention. Everyone was eager to unveil the thick fabric covering the creature and catch a glimpse of the demon’s true form.
The carriage followed a winding road up the mountain, drawing nearer to the earl’s stone fortress. Rocher rode up to Shire at the rear. Her expression remained as pale and cold as ever, seemingly indifferent to everything.
“They’re all watching us,” Rocher remarked, noting the residents from several cities in the distance who were pointing and gesturing in their direction. He appeared nervous.
“The Winged Devil has fallen, and rumors have spread far and wide. Your reputation is on the rise as well. With time, you’ll become a renowned Hunter Master, much like the wise ones before you,” Rocher reassured.
“I did notice some individuals expressing dissatisfaction and skepticism,” Shire admitted with regret.
“Devil Hunters rarely bask in the sunlight, and the ranks have been tainted by unscrupulous criminals. They engage in wrongdoing, tarnishing our name with endless evil. The bias of the Four Territories’ populace is true, but it won’t change overnight. Good deeds take time to establish and are thus rare and precious. I only hope you’ll continue your efforts to dispel these misconceptions,” Rocher advised.
“She’s a model! But can you be a role model? You should deal with those who disrespect you, one and all! If you unleash your anger, I’ll have a satisfying feast,” Gradiu attempted to persuade him.
“I understand.” Shire nodded at Rocher.
“Within a few hours, we will meet Lord Reney.” She said.
“Count, is there anything you need to pay attention to?”
“Yes, and I need you to complete it immediately.” Rocher said seriously.