Ray of Hope – Zem
Zem was apparently born in a small village where the mountain people, the Radorus lived. He wasn’t fully sure because his home village was destroyed in a war with the empire before he had even formed any memories.
After that, Zem lived off of others, receiving praise for burning fields and the like before he was hired by the empire and was put under the care of the very mercenary group that had destroyed his village.
That small mercenary group was the Scarlet Phoenix, who took Zem, a Radoru, under their wing and raised him as one of their own. Obviously, the war environment was no place for a child, but they certainly had the warmth of a real family.
When Zem turned 18, that warmth was then shattered, and the one who had pulled the trigger was none other than Zem himself.
The group had accepted an escort job for a small village that was forced to relocate. One day, while on patrol, Zem captured a shady 12 or 13-year-old boy. His unique appearance made him out to be one of the Radorus, and Zem guessed that the boy had been lost.
Zem told the boy that he, too, was a Radoru, and promised to release the boy if he kept this a secret.
Then, tragedy struck.
An overwhelming number of Radorus surrounded the village. The leader, Zem’s foster father, and the other adults held the rear in order to let the villagers escape.
Zem immediately confessed his blunder, upon which his foster father said, “You could call it karma. But you didn’t do anything wrong. You’re his brother, right? Then do what needs to be done.”
Those words were like a curse to Zem and were the last things his foster father had said before dying in battle.
Zem soon lost sight of things. Before this incident, he had held a considerable amount of love for his fellow Radorus. Somewhere, deep down, he had believed that they could just talk it out, and he had certainly never even began to think that they would target those plagued by illness, people that even bandits turned away from.
Zem didn’t know who to hate anymore, but he still had his younger siblings who weren’t even adults yet. To raise his siblings, he had the previous leader’s only son rise up to become the next leader and shelved his doubts away, recklessly living life.
With Aquido, the Scarlet Phoenix accomplished various deeds and grew to become a famous mercenary group among the empire.
Then, that incident occurred.
During the period where an all-out war was soon to come with the Radorus, they were employed by Viscount Dolt Magotta and were stationed in Margulis, a major city in the Magotta territory.
Zem received reports from the scouts that a large Radoru army was approaching the city. They would arrive in Margulis the next morning, whereas reinforcements would take around three days. Nobody believed they could hold the Radorus off for that long.
Viscount Dolt decided to abandon Margulis and quickly link up with the expeditionary force, and he only allowed his family and his retainers to leave the city.
In short, Viscount Dolt used his own people as a decoy to save his own ass. But Zem didn’t think that decision idiotic, rather, he sort of understood that cowardice.
Yes, abandoning your own people was unsightly, but that wasn’t always true when looking at the big picture.
The citizens weren’t stupid by any means, and they would put up at least some resistance as amateurs. Additionally, even the savage Radorus wouldn’t massacre the people of Margulis; they needed to put in more effort than that in order to gain control.
And during this crooked time, if they set up traps in the city and retreated before linking up with the expeditionary force and re-attacking Margulis, they would surely come out on top. Then, the Scarlet Phoenix be the heroes, having led the empire to victory.
That’s why Zem couldn’t believe what Aquido had just done.
“Aquido, why did you punch Viscount Dolt?” Zem asked.
“Isn’t it obvious! He tried to abandon his own people. He even used them as decoys, you know!?”
“Aquido, this is war. If we set up several traps in the city, we’ll be able to destroy those savages without much effort. It’s not too late now; let’s go apologize to the Viscount. We can still make it in time.”
“Zem, even if this is war, there are things we can never waver on. And that pig spat on this iron rule. So you could say I’m still plenty rational just by the fact that I haven’t killed him yet.”
“Don’t you understand? He’s a noble!?”
“I don’t fucking care! And you know, Zem, when did you start calling the mountain people savages? Don’t get us involved with your own revenge plot!!”
Zem couldn’t say a single word back. After all, he had just realized something.
Aquido had been against this war from the start, and the one who had firmly insisted on joining was Zem himself; he probably hadn’t forgiven them at all.
He hadn’t forgiven the child who had trampled over his good conscience nor the Radorus who had killed his foster father. And to satisfy his thirst for revenge, he had even gone so low as to use the most important people around him.
He had realized just how foolish and hopeless he was and couldn’t say anything back now.
In the end, they capitulated without spilling any blood, and the Scarlet Phoenix came to be known as The Fools.
That incident was named the Second Radoru Campaign and ended with the empire’s win on a paper-thin margin. The empire destroyed the mountain people, the Radorus, and forcefully annexed them.
After the battle, nobody requested for the Scarlet Phoenix anymore, and they were forced to become pseudo-adventurers in Straheim.
But it was during this humiliating time that Zem found happiness, living with his family. Then, a turning point arrived, and a mysterious child came knocking at their doorsteps.
The feminine child named himself as Grey Millard, and, of all things, wanted to hire them as his private soldiers for the upcoming undead attack.
It was an offer so ridiculous he couldn’t even laugh at it. And yet Aquido and the other members were all pulled in by Grey Millard’s words.
Grey hired the Scarlet Phoenix with 100,000,000 G and showed them several miracles.
—He had a vast fortune in the empire.
—He had countless special grade materials called grimoires and even distributed them to each and every last member.
—He had the grit to converse on equal footing with Margrave McBurn as well as a charismatic attitude that pulled everyone in.
Any one of these facts proved that he wasn’t just a normal child.
No, let’s not try to cover it up. That wasn’t his true nature.
His behavior? His charisma? Haa! You couldn’t evaluate the man named Grey Millard with that childish criteria.
Yes. It was hard to put into words, but the best way to describe him would be darkness, the darkness of an abyss where not even a single ray shone through lay inside of that small body of his.
And only a small percentage of us, including Margrave McBurn, had noticed his absolute insanity.
Zem didn’t want to believe it, but Grey had probably experienced raging despair and anger in the past that Zem couldn’t even begin to imagine. He had a feeling. But that was exactly why Grey wanted Aquido, who was a ray of light the couldn’t be moved by the likes of money. No matter how many opponents there were, Aquido wouldn’t bend his own convictions. Even if the only thing it led to was his destruction, he would still reach his hand out to those that were crying. That’s the type of kind, but foolish man he was.
After Grey hired them, the Scarlet Phoenix would experience a drastic change; Zem had no doubt about it.
And as if to rise above his expectations, Grey’s existence allowed the Scarlet Phoenix to slowly take back the pride that Zem had made them lose. He could barely stop himself from jumping with joy at this fact.
Which was why he had to inform Grey of his determination, and he made a declaration, thinking that.
It was to demolish anything that might stand in Grey or his family’s way, even if it meant betrayal.
Grey neither affirmed nor denied his declaration and just nodded. As Zem had thought, Grey really did understand the anguish he had been and continued to carry. At that time, Zem profusely thanked Lady Luck, who had allowed him to meet this amazing master of his.
But as if to sneer at him, Lady Luck threw an equal amount of despair right back at him.
Roche had injured the son of Duke Cyrus, the forerunner among the court nobles.
On the ground, lying in a pool of his blood, was a Radoru man. In all likelihood, a noble had killed the man for fun. This was but an everyday occurrence in the empire, however; certainly not anything rare. Even if you were to help, you would just get arrested instead and your entire family executed. The Radoru who you had tried to save would be executed as well. Zem fully knew of this fact and had decided that he definitely wouldn’t help them if he came across one.
And yet Roche had. Roche and Lyase’s parents had died along with Zem’s foster father during the battle where they helped the villagers escape. In other words, the Radorus were their parents’ enemy, and Zem had already talked to Roche and Lyase in length about this. Basically, Roche had put his life on the line in order to protect what should have been his enemy.
Zem was simultaneously overjoyed and despondent at this fact. After all, Zem would have to kill them both in order to protect Grey and his family.
And as expected, The Hero, Yukihiro, ordered Zem to bring judgement upon them. It was an understandable request, and Zem raised his beloved sword just like Yukihiro had requested.
Over and over, he tried to swing down, but his arms were frozen and he couldn’t let a single sound out.
“There’s no way I can do this……” Zem thought.
Kill Roche and Lyase? He couldn’t do that even if the world turned on its head.
He had known from the start.
“How unsightly, after I had just said that to Grey.”
Zem had little to no chance of saving Grey and his family with just his own life. Still, he had to try.
He instructed Roche and Lyase to return to the Millard camp before swinging at Yukihiro. However, even if he wielded holy magic, Zem was still vastly inferior to Yukihiro, and the results were immediately apparent. Nonetheless, Zem had to act out the rest of his role as a mere clown.
After exchanging blows for several minutes, The Hero finally sliced Zem in the stomach, who then collapsed onto the floor.
“Seriously, everyone related to that brat is so brazen; they piss me off,” Yukihiro spat, swinging the blood off his sword before returning it into the scabbard.
“You can do it now,” he said to the soldiers.
Zem sensed several soldiers nearing him.
“Sorry,” one soldier whispered.
Surprised, Zem turned to see tears forming in one of the soldier’s eyes as the soldier raised his sword up.
“I see, so you’re the same,” Zem thought.
Zem felt overjoyed at the fact that he didn’t have to hate anymore.
How much time had passed? He couldn’t even feel pain anymore, and his vision had gone white. Now, he could only hear his master’s nostalgic voice.
“I see. You made it in time.”
Grey was here, which meant he had safely secured Roche and Lyase. Grey had had the power to do so.
“Thanks to your efforts,” Grey said.
“Am I going to die?”
He didn’t need Grey to tell him, as he couldn’t see or feel anything anymore.
“Yeah, you will.”
Yeah. That’s unfortunate. It was unfortunate that he wouldn’t be able to see his family, of course, but more so the fact that he wouldn’t be able to see how far his amazing master would go.
“I see……I’ll leave Aquido and the rest to you.”
Surely, his amazing master would lead the Scarlet Phoenix in the right direction.
“Yeah, leave it to me,” Grey said, and Zem finally felt the hole his foster father’s death had left him closing.
It was a selfish and cowardly assumption, but he still didn’t think it was wrong to have saved the Radoru child in the past. He truly thought that.
The end was approaching. Zem wanted to see his master’s bold smile one more time, and so placed his hand on Grey’s face.
I see. So even Grey cries. But you know, that just doesn’t suit you.
“That’s not like you……Don’t cry here. Just keep……boldly……smiling.”
—Please, lead my precious master and family to a warm, kind future!