On a certain sunny afternoon somewhere with vague traces of spring an editor was panicking in front of a laptop.
“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” he said, to the background of furious typing.
spilled out of the release post templates in a sorry heap.
But finally the chapter was done, and the hapless editor could click publish quietly muttering curses at annoying quirks of Japanese narration and certain tardy translators. For a moment, he had a feeling he had forgotten something. But, nah, it was impossible.
He couldn't have possibly left the chapter in the release post. Right?
“Another Person’s War”
While the Kingdom of Gran Flamm was about to enter a period of upheaval, the south-eastern part of the continent was ahead in that game, already in an all-out war. One between the Kingdom of Merica and an alliance of small local kingdoms, the Eastern States Alliance. The Mericans intended to subjugate the countries here before the inevitable final showdown with Gran Flamm, but the plan hit a snag. The Alliance’s resistance was far greater than expected.
The initial stages of the war were favorable to the invaders – two border kingdoms constituting the Alliance’s western flank were seized by the first offensive. But that was as far as the Merican armies got. The attempted attack at the Kingdom of Altest met with a fierce counteroffensive and an unexpected defeat despite the fact that the defenders were outnumbered ten to one. And this was not the end of the setbacks. When the regrouped Merican armies attempted to invade another member of the Alliance along a different route, they encountered a solid defensive line they found themselves unable to breach. And then yet another counterattack caused even more casualties among the invading army.
Those defeats pushed Merica to make a big decision. A significant number of troops was withdrawn from the border with Gran Flamm and placed under the command of Princess Olivia to reinforce the war effort and break the stalemate. The government was growing impatient with the ever more real risk of the war ending in an upset. It had been also concluded that Gran Flamm was in no position to attack at the present time. The eastern campaign had to be successful. The planned future southern campaign and the ultimate battle with Gran Flamm for the hegemony over the continent all depended on the outcome of the present struggle. Thus a new plan was drawn. The armies numerically boosted by fresh reinforcements would break through the defensive line in a single push and conquer the Alliance that would be surely unable to plug the breach.
However, the success never came. Despite taking the risk of leaving the western border virtually undefended to nearly double the number of soldiers here, despite having the War Goddess in charge, the invasion was going nowhere. The root cause of all those difficulties was the army under the banner of Altest, the smallest kingdom in the alliance albeit one with the richest history. That army was not composed from the regulars, but entirely out of a mercenary group employed by that kingdom.
One day, Merican troops were marching along the main road that led through the mountains in the direction of the Kingdom of Iria.
“Keep your ranks!” barked the commander of the troop, raising his voice so that his orders would be heard clearly. “Stay alert! Watch the surroundings!”
The man was very wary of enemy ambushes, he remembered what had happened not that long ago. The line Eastern States Alliance had chosen to form their defense along had been very suitable for the purpose and then further fortified. Merica had tried to counter that with an overwhelming number of soldiers that had eventually found a comparatively weaker defended path through the mountains. An army had been sent to advance along that route. But this had proved to be a trap. Their march had been plagued by ambushes and surprise attacks. They even had boulders thrown on their heads from cliffs above. The supposedly weakly defended route had claimed so many victims that a retreat had been called.
Despite that debacle, the Mericans still had a superiority in numbers. They had reorganized yet again to resume the invasion. Attempts to breach the defensive line had been abandoned and only a holding force had been left behind in order to keep the Alliance forces pinned. All other soldiers had been reassigned to many newly-created invasion groups that had been ordered to attack simultaneously. The idea had been that the Alliance, held inside their static defenses, wouldn’t be able to intercept all of them at once. The Merican high command had also strongly suspected that the majority of enemy troops had been concentrated on the defense line and there hadn’t been much left behind to garrison the interior.
This seemed to work. This particular army had not suffered any surprise attack thus far and was able to march forward undisturbed. The capital of Iria awaited on the other side of the mountains, the third kingdom would finally be conquered.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers felt something was oddly wrong. The day grew dark, as if the sun was being obscured by something. The man casually looked up at the sky, only to notice a huge mass of rock falling down straight on him. Just as if the whole mountain was toppling in this direction. An inhuman shriek pierced the air. The soldiers around the man now noticed the danger too and tried to run, but it was much too late for that. The huge mass of stone shook the ground with a tremendous crash that echoed endlessly among the peaks. Thick clouds of dust rose into the air turning breathing into hard work.
Once things calmed down a bit, the soldiers saw that the road ahead was completely sealed off by a mass of earth and stone resembling a miniature mountain. And on top of that mountain stood a man and a woman. She was breathtakingly beautiful and wore a gothic lolita attire. He was clad in a pure black armor with a bandana obscuring the face up to his eyes. His hair was white with a shade of gray. Their appearance caused an even bigger turmoil in the Merican ranks than the falling rock. The soldiers knew those two. The pair belonged to the most vicious Wonderland Mercenaries, the recent arch-nemesis of the Kingdom of Merica. She was known as Alice, he as the White Rabbit. No one here would use those names, though.
“…The King of Calamity.”
“…The Ice-Blooded Doll Princess!”
“It’s the Sorcerer King!”
Various soldiers screamed out different popular names and not one of those would be something a man would call a fellow human being. Which was apt, since both the man and a woman far exceeded what a normal human could be.
The woman, Alice, raised her hand up towards the sky and swung it down towards the soldiers on the mountain road. They saw, and felt, a sudden wave of cold that instantly flash-froze their bodies. Those in the back that survived turned back and fled at once, thanking gods for their luck and vowing not to waste it by looking back. That prompted the man to run down the rocky mass in pursuit. There were four lights, each of a different colors hovering around him.
“…Sarah, Rufii. Go.”
Two of the lights, of red and green hue, moved ahead of the man and changed their form. Suddenly, constantly replicating fire and wind dragons tore into fleeing, disorganized ranks of Merican troops. Explosions followed, the efforts of the officers to restore order among the soldiers undone in an instant. The man drew his sword and plunged into the mass of soldiers, his sword a constant blur of motion cutting down one target after another. And then, just as the whole army was losing its will to fight, almost as if it had been pre-arranged, a group of riders on jet-black horned mounts appeared at Merican rear.
“…It’s the Black Beast Riders!”
Again, fearful screams filled the air. The new arrivals were wearing the same type of black armor as the White Rabbit and rode a type of black-maned demonic beast called ‘unicorn’. They were the Wonderland Mercenaries’ elite cavalry formation.
The Merican cavalry fanned out in response to this development in order to intercept the new enemies. But the Beast Riders were hand-picked elites, the best of the best of the Wonderland cavalry. Regular army formations could not stand up to them and soon ceased to be as a cohesive force. With the army’s path of retreat thus lost, the fighting spirit of those soldiers still alive withered and died. They started to surrender en-masse.
“Are you done?” asked Alice after she descended from the slope to join her companion.
“The battle is over. You?”
“Long done. Nobody wanted to fight the cute little me and they all just fled.”
“…Fled? You let them flee, didn’t you? Even though I told you to decrease their numbers as much as possible, you slacked off, right?”
Reducing the enemy numbers by as much as possible was one of the cornerstones of the strategy for this battle.
“Oh come on. I got tired, I had to fight all alone, didn’t I?”
The woman was not intimidated by the man’s glare in the least and even kept making lazy excuses.
“Tired, you say? You aren’t even human, right? What would happen to this planet if the World itself tires?”
When they had set out on their journey, Rion had given the incarnation of the World the name Alice. She, in turn, had named him White Rabbit. It had been rare for him to use that alias, though. He didn’t like it all that much.
“Even I tire sometimes. And you know I’m not the scary-powerful world anymore.”
“Good grief, you really are slacking around a lot lately, you know?”
“Na-ah. You just work yourself too hard. [Workaholic!]”
Rion didn’t understand the word, but he knew it came from the otherworld.
“It means ‘addicted to work’. Stop asking me for things you have in your head already.”
Alice had inherited a considerable portion of Rion’s memory when they had established their contract. This was why she knew the otherworld terminology.
“…I can’t remember.”
“Rubbish. You just don’t know how to recall. But enough of that, ‘tis a tedious topic. You work waaaay to hard. End of discussion.”
“Only until this job is over. Once we pull this off, we will be able to live the rest of our lives in luxury without ever having to work again. We can even buy a small country with the reward.”
The contract from their current employer, the Kingdom of Altest, promised an enormous reward in exchange for fighting the Merican army. So huge a reward, in fact, that it should completely exhaust the kingdom’s treasury. The amount was not surprising, though. For the countries of the Eastern States Alliance, this war was a fight for their continued existence.
“Will they really pay? That tiny, poor kingdom of theirs?”
Even for Alice, Altest was a very small state. And that state had virtually no standing army, which was why all the fighting on its behalf had been left to Rion’s mercenaries.
“A contract is a contract. Once we accomplish our end of the deal, we will make them cough up. Even by force if we must.”
“From the start, you knew full well the terms were dubious at best. The fact that you work your hardest for them despite that is all the proof that’s needed that you’re addicted to work.”
“Trust is important in business.”
She had a point. He would never recognize that, though. Their relaxed chat was interrupted by an approach of one of the subordinates that had been handling the aftermath of the battle, the Captain of the Black Beast Riders. Also known as Mercury Blau.
“Lord Rion, all prisoners have been disarmed and processed.”
“Boooo! Forbidden! That name is a no!”
Mercury’s use of Rion’s real name caused Alice to complain petulantly.
“I will call my Lord however I want.”
“It’s the name given by that woman, and I don’t want to hear it! He swore to throw it away! You can’t break a promise!”
Mercury stifled all the objections boiling at the tip of his tongue, he knew there would be no middle ground to be found here. He decided to change his form of address instead.
“The cleanup is over… My King.”
“King?” asked Rion, perplexed by this sudden new title.
“Our names are all rooted in [car—] whatevers. [King] was the highest one, was it not? And that meant ‘King’, right?”
Mercury’s alias was ‘Spade’. His contemporaries leading the other clans were referred to as ‘Club’, ‘Heart’, and ‘Diamond’. Just like the card suits. Alice had decided that would fit the theme of the Wonderland Mercenaries perfectly, even if that was also something she found in Ryou’s memories.
“…Ah, nevermind then.”
Finally understanding where the name came from, Rion dismissed the issue. He didn’t particularly care what others called him. After all, every name other than the one Ariel had given him was fake.
“That’s rather good, isn’t it? In that case, I’m the Queen!”
Alice, on the other hand, seemed to like it a lot. But her joy was dashed in an instant.
“Doesn’t Joker fit you more?”
“…Isn’t it rude to call a lady ‘joker’?”
“Leader, then, if you wish. All this was your idea after all.”
Alice had been the one to create the Wonderland Mercenaries, and if not for the tiny detail that none of the members had joined to follow her, she would indeed be the textbook leader. In both hers and Rion’s minds, having a woman named Alice lead a group called Wonderland was a very apt thing to do.
“But ‘leader’ isn’t cute at aaallll.”
“Back to Alice then. No need to change the name after all.”
“Mercury, have the men take a break until people meant to handle the prisoners arrive. We’ll be moving to the next ambush site as soon as that happens, prepare everything accordingly.”
Rion issued orders completely ignoring sulking Alice. In his mind, there was no leeway for pointlessly waiting time. Mercury left as soon as he was given all the commands to relay them to the troops.
“Such a workaholic.”
“There’s no way for a weakling to win against the strong without an effort magnitudes larger, right? All I’m doing is trying to get the contract done. It’s all for money.”
But Alice knew he hardly gave a damn about the gold. He just desperately wanted something to do. Something difficult enough not to have time to think about… other matters. In the last four years, Rion and the clansmen had always sought battle against any and all opponents. This constant fighting and wealth of experience had tempered them hard, without a doubt placing them among the absolute strongest military formations on the continent.
The news of separate invasion forces being defeated in quick succession started to flood back into Merican headquarters. The plan did allow and assume that some of them would be intercepted to some extent, but the present situation far exceeded those tolerances. The offensive was without a doubt a failure.
“…Why on earth is Rion Frey fighting for the Eastern States Alliance?!”
Princess Olivia was rather frustrated and slammed her fist into the table. Her temper couldn’t bear all this news of defeat and her emotions exploded.
“Lady, calm down, please. This is not yet certain.”
Her royal guard, Yuri, tried to calm her down, but his reasoned words would not work this time.
“Who else can make war in this manner?! Where would such a person come from?!”
The Princess had won all of her many previous battles against the Alliance in the past, feeding her fame in the process. But now, when the Kingdom of Merica had finally committed itself seriously to the subjugation of its eastern frontiers, the combined army of the Eastern States had morphed into a completely different beast. And the unmistakable reason behind that change had been the ridiculously named Wonderland mercenary group, a roaming band that fought for money.
“Your Highness, may I have your attention? I have managed to gather some information about those Wonderland mercenaries.”
The interruption came courtesy of Hans Sutherland, a senior general in the Merican military forces. He was one of the most senior commanders in the whole military structure, second only to two of his peers and the king himself. He also boasted the longest military career out of all still active officers. He was attached to Olivia for this campaign exactly because of that vast military experience so that she would not end up being in a situation that could end up with her getting captured again.
“Please go ahead, General.”
“Thank you. The name ‘Wonderland’ seems to have surfaced for the first time within the borders of Hashu. The group took a contract to subjugate demonic beasts and demons.”
That Kingdom was bordering Bandeaux. This reinforced Olivia’s conviction that Rion was her enemy here.
“From there, the band moved via Orcus into the general area of the Eastern States Alliance. There are also unconfirmed reports that they had taken commissions in the south as well. They had no trouble finding work, dealing with demons seems to be quite a challenge for smaller countries.”
It had looked as if the Wonderland Mercenaries had been chasing after the demons that had fled the territory of Gran Flamm after the death of the Demon God. And while that had, in fact, been intentional, it hadn’t been the only reason.
“They have never settled in one place for long, though. They would move somewhere else as soon as their job was done. And they weren’t picky about what they were willing to do. Demons, demonic beasts, bandits, rebellious nobles… They have done it all.”
“…It really seems like they will take any kind of contract.”
The world Olivia knew didn’t have a place for mercenaries. Big countries preferred their armies to be composed from career soldiers, knights, and, when needed, drafted conscripts. They had no need for suspicious groups with no loyalty to the cause. But Merica had the luxury to think this way only because it was a huge country. Smaller kingdoms were in a completely different situation. For them, a standing army was a huge investment of time and money and a conscripted force constituted a huge gamble with their labor pool. A small state like that didn’t want to risk its already threadbare military resources if it could avoid it. Therefore, if it could solve a bandit or demon problem with money, it would happily do it. Even more so when the person offering his services was…
“They will. And they have executed all of them flawlessly. That, and their penchant for relocation, caused their fame to spread pretty fast.”
“Yet we knew nothing of them?”
“They never worked within the borders of our kingdom. Was that intentional? Could they not find any work? We do not know.”
The answer was – both. Rion hadn’t expected Merica to hire mercenaries and had been sure that if his true identity came to light, it would cause a huge outcry. Thus he had avoided the country.
“To our knowledge, despite many offers to retain them permanently that have been made, they do not belong to any one country yet. The fact they still call themselves mercenaries rather reinforces that notion.”
“They are currently under the employ of Altest, right?”
“Yes, Lady. And it was truly a stroke of luck for that country. The Wonderland arrived within their borders by coincidence just days before we would attack. To my knowledge, the government there did not expect much but felt there was nothing to lose. Results of that decision are apparent.”
One of those results was a heavy defeat and considerable losses suffered by the Merican army that had attacked Altest.
“…Can we hire them?”
If all they fought for was money, Merica had plenty of that. The Kingdom would be able to easily beat any already agreed terms. For the Princess, this was a rather unorthodox idea. Fighting Rion really pushed her hard.
“We have investigated that possibility already. It is unlikely.”
“Why is that?”
“They have an established reputation of never abandoning an accepted contract. The fact that they are still fighting means that whatever the current terms are, they are still unfulfilled.”
“…Is that so. Shame, I cannot help thinking it would be better if we could finish this without facing them.”
“I concur. Frankly, I am of the same opinion.”
“…You too, General?”
This was the first time Olivia saw the general be… timid
“I am a soldier, Lady. I will fight an enemy without fear if I need to. But the same soldier in me feels a kind of danger from that man.”
This admission was even more surprising. Hans Sutherland was a hero with many campaigns under his belt. He was the last person that could be suspected of fearing the enemy.
“This is hard to explain. I feel like… we are poking something better left alone.”
The long years of military service gave Sutherland an uncanny intuition for matters of war, and that intuition was right now telling him that fighting Rion was dangerous.
“Is that so? I wonder… I do not think I understand, though.”
“Us facing the Wonderland Mercenaries is purely by chance. A result of them coincidentally being in Altest at the wrong time.”
“This is true.”
“And yet, all that chance brought the outcome we face. A mercenary band is moving a whole alliance like pieces on the board. A mercenary band that commands six armies of six separate kingdoms. Is that not just… odd, Lady?”
During the early stages of the war, the countries of the Alliance had been helping each other, but had also been little more than a loose coalition with no overarching strategy. That was no more. Now, each of the kingdoms was a cog in an intricate machine. Each had a purpose and a role to play out in the grander scheme. And all this had been brought about by a formerly unknown group that had suddenly become a lynchpin of the battle.
“So, at the very least, he will not work for us, eh?”
“The King of Calamity, Child of the God of Woe. Such apt titles. That man brings doom to those who touch him. He grows in stature by making enemies. There was only one person like this and I believe no others exist. White Rabbit must be Rion Frey.”
“…Yes, General. I believe that to be the case too.”
Rion was the kind of person that grew stronger by fighting bigger opponents. Even if he had never desired such power, he would seek it when the need came, regardless of his feelings. He would face his enemy with every bit of strength he could gather. The result was unchanged. Mere existence of his enemies strengthened Rion.
Which raised a question – how much stronger would he get now that his enemy was Merica? Knowing that she was going to learn the answer, Olivia, despite being the commander of said enemy, felt a flutter of excitement in her heart.
14th May 2018
Translation by Hikkinomori Translations
with the kind permission of the author
All rights to Ayato-sensei