༺ Playing the Loner ༻
Lieutenant Colonel Callis was an officer of the Military State, and she took pride in this fact. From her distinguished performance in secondary military school, she seamlessly progressed to advanced military academy, eventually becoming an honorable officer of her country with stellar grades.
Graduates of the academy were immediately granted level 3 citizenship. When Callis had her bio-receptor engraved with her new status, she shed her first tears of bittersweet joy. Level 3 citizens enjoyed many privileges, but the most significant was the right to inherit.
In other words, they could start inheriting property.
The first thing Callis did after her new appointment was to head straight for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and inherit her father’s estate before it was lost. A house with a courtyard, an old yet classy automaton carriage, a sword adorned in gold, and a special combat suit.
If she hadn’t claimed her right, those possessions would’ve ended up in the State’s coffers, and her childhood memories would’ve been unearthed by the shovels of the military engineers.
Callis took pride in safeguarding her father’s legacy. With her own hands and abilities, she preserved memories that could have been buried beneath concrete.
‘I can’t stop there.’
After striving so hard to reach this point, she felt it was only natural to aim higher. Level 4 citizenship granted unrestricted access to all Military State facilities. It allowed land ownership, the employment of personal staff, and even temporary level 3 citizenship for a spouse upon marriage.
Above all, while level 3 citizens only had the unilateral right to inherit, level 4 citizens gained the right to bequeath. With that right, she could pass everything to future generations, from her father’s inheritance to all the wealth she would accumulate on top.
The mere opportunity to leave a lasting legacy made pursuing level 4 citizenship worthwhile.
But talent alone wasn’t enough to achieve this. It was a goal that could barely be reached with the right opportunities, sufficient luck, and the capability to seize them. Her father was an exceptional officer… but even he only ascended to level 4 due to his timely position near State headquarters during a crisis, resulting in a posthumous promotion of two ranks.
If he hadn’t been there, or if his heroic death had been even slightly lacking, Callis wouldn’t have received the inheritance, regardless of her level.
‘Fortunately, an opportunity has come my way as well.’
Just as she became an officer, they approached her. Though her ambition overflowed, she lacked the courage to plunge herself into danger. So to throw herself into the depths of hell, she took their hand.
Officer Callis was assigned unreasonable undertakings, yet she made full use of her abilities to render merits. She even received a medal at the New Year’s Assembly. After repeating such accomplishments several times, she attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at a relatively young age.
Then they entrusted a new mission to her. To infiltrate Tantalus the Abyss and assess the situation within. Or more precisely…
‘To identify any elements that may hinder securing the Dog King.’
Tantalus was an infernal realm no one should ever enter… but due to a recent prison break, the level of danger had significantly diminished. Callis even heard that a laborer—referred to as a “litmus” by the State to designate minor criminals used for scouting purposes—had survived despite being sent in first.
Colonel Callis had to obey the order regardless, but reduced danger did play a part in Colonel Callis accepting so willingly. She was confident that they couldn’t abandon her if she successfully completed the mission in the abyss. Seeing it as an opportunity, Callis volunteered as a logistics overseer and staged an accident to descend into Tantalus.
But plans in life always tend to go awry… as if predestined.
* * *
Following the officer’s arrival, I made it a daily routine to spend time playing with Azzy. I sighed as I fit three heavy discs between my fingers.
“Argh. A quick round of playtime used to be enough, but now with the competition, there’s no time to relax.”
Despite our unyielding three-month bond, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that little wag-happy dog. Azzy’s first instinct upon seeing humans was to eagerly approach, after all.
I tossed the discs up, and Azzy leaped. She caught one in mid-air by the mouth, kicked off a wall to snatch another, and simultaneously used her reserved strength to extend her body—she bounced further upward, as if she had stepped on an invisible platform to change direction.
In this manner, Azzy successfully caught the final disc and landed on the ground, looking joyful.
“Triple discs, a success!”
Difficult challenges, repeated attempts, and exhilarating successes provide immense psychological rewards. Azzy savored the joy, hopping in place several times.
As I removed the discs from her mouth, Azzy shouted with sparkling eyes.
“Woof! Competition, I like!”
“Who are you kidding? An eating competition is the only competition you’d know.”
You think repeating difficult words makes it human lingo? No, it takes understanding to speak human.
As I snorted, Azzy continued with a bright smile.
“Monopoly, don’t like! Become lazy! Like you!”
“…Monopoly? Where’d you learn such a word?”
“Woof-woof! Ball! More!”
“I told you these are discs… Anyway, now that we’ve done the triple disc challenge, what should we do next? Hm.”
As I scratched my chin in contemplation, a sudden idea came to me and I snapped my fingers.
Huh, hang on. Is this the moment? Is it finally time to try that?
“Hey, Azzy. What do you think about quadruple discs?”
“Woof? I like! But still can’t!”
It would make her happy since it was playtime either way. What Azzy meant was that even she couldn’t see it happening. It wasn’t like she could really step on air or change direction mid-jump without a solid surface, so it could be considered an objective self-assessment.
“But what if I become your footing?”
“Yeah. Jump and catch one, use me as a launchpad for another, rebound off the wall for a third, and use your remaining momentum for the last. That’s how we’ll do it!”
“Woof! I like! You?”
“Let’s give it a go, I guess.”
Until now it was only Azzy reading my movements, but from the quadruple disc challenge onwards, we had to synchronize. When she was ready and carefully observed my position, she had to jump off me at the right moment to reach the next disc.
Let’s see how it goes then.
I knelt on one knee and firmly supported my arms on the other to prevent any shaking when Azzy jumped off me.
“I’ll throw one at a time. Aim for the closest one first.”
“Now, let’s go!”
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. I swiftly threw the four discs one after another at increasing distances. Then, upon seeing Azzy rushing toward me, I firmly braced myself.
…Hang on, though. Azzy’s the Dog King, but she’s in human form right now. That means she weighs about… Huh.
“Wait, Time o—”
Azzy leaped before I could finish, and I was hit with the force of a running carriage.
* * *
Upon witnessing my tumble on the concrete, Tyr immediately scolded me.
“That is why you should have been careful!”
“It’s alright. I’m fine now, see?”
I showed her my arms and legs. My injuries from scraping against the concrete earlier were completely gone. It was thanks to one of the powers possessed by a Beast King, lick-healing. As conceptual beings, Beast Kings were capable of healing wounds through licking, and Azzy made liberal use of it on me.
Seeing that my injuries had already disappeared, Tyr sighed.
“…It is not to my liking, but nonetheless, it is a relief to have the Beast King present. Since her licking can… heal wounds.”
“Why don’t you like it?”
“How can I stay in close proximity to the Dog King? We were once sworn enemies.”
“But Azzy is the Dog King of this era. We should be dozens of generations apart from the time when you were battling it out.”
“Even so, are they not fundamentally the same? The apprehension I feel from her is unchanged. And…”
Tyr poked my shoulder with two fingers, eyeing me in a rather distant, unhappy manner.
“Dozens of generations? How mean of you. It was merely a few hundred years ago.”
“I don’t get why you’re making that sound so little, but it’s the truth, you know? The Dog Kings are relatively short-lived.”
“They assume human form and age accordingly. Given their blessed existence, how can one claim that the Dog Kings are short-lived?”
“Well they’re always at odds with the Wolf Kings.”
“Er, you don’t know that story? It’s a common tale in story books though.”
Hearing that, Tyr forgot her worry for the moment and gazed at me with anticipation, her crimson eyes glittering. So to satisfy the story-hungry Progenitor, I recited the fairy tale from memory.
There was once a King of Dogs and a King of Wolves.
The two were originally kindred brothers. Bound by their pack nature, they would unite their claws to corner prey and end the hunt with a bite to the throat.
The role of trapping their quarry usually fell to the small and agile Dog, while the Wolf, with its sharp fangs, ensured deliverance of the final blow. This harmonious, clever, and agile pair spent their days in blissful hunting.
Then, one day, a Shepherd arrived at their dwelling place, driving a flock of sheep like clouds. The Shepherd was in search of pastures for his sheep. As he looked about, he noticed the Dog, who happened to be out on patrol. The Shepherd made an approach.
‘Hello there, Little Wolf. Might you guide me to a land lush with wild grass? In return, I will reward you with a delectable treat.’
The grass held no value to the Dog, so it led the Shepherd to the heart of a grassy field on a spacious hill. The Shepherd was overjoyed upon seeing the green pasture.
‘You are such a kind little wolf! Thank you! Here, take this bone with meat!’
The Dog had simply led the way to an inedible patch of grass, yet it had received a tasty bone in return. Delighted, the Dog took the bone in its mouth and ran straight to the Wolf to share the news. The Dog spoke of how the human who herded the sheep offered such delicious meat, and proudly shared its spoils.
Upon hearing the story, the Wolf became ecstatic and hurried to the pasture. It lunged at a young lamb grazing on the outskirts, biting its neck. If it weren’t for the enraged Shepherd striking the wolf with his crook, the loss wouldn’t have ended with one lamb.
Struck on its back, the Wolf carried the limp lamb in its mouth and swiftly fled.
Despite the successful hunt, neither the Dog nor the Wolf felt satisfied. One young lamb was too little to satiate their appetites. The Dog longed for a bone with meat, while the Wolf dreaded the shepherd’s hefty wooden crook.
For their next hunt, the Wolf wished for the Dog’s assistance. It ordered the Dog to attract the Shepherd’s attention while it hunted the largest of the sheep. Then, claiming the need to heal its wound, the Wolf swiftly devoured the captured young lamb.
The Dog received only a single bone without a trace of meat.
The next day, as planned, the two approached the flock separately. The King of Dogs appeared before the Shepherd with the intent of drawing attention. Seeing the Dog loiter before his eyes, the Shepherd stood up, clutching his hard wooden crook.
But instead of striking, he gave a big wave and called out.
‘Oh, kind Little Wolf. Tell me the whereabouts of the Big One who took my lamb away. In return, I will reward you with a bone laden with meat.’
The Shepherd offered a bone with plenty of meat, while the Wolf’s bone had no meat at all. After a moment of contemplation, the Dog accepted the Shepherd’s proposal.
The Dog led the Shepherd to where the Wolf would approach from. The hiding Wolf received a sound beating and was chased away from the grassland.
Ever since then, the Dog began to live with humans. As for the Wolf, it came to howl at the sight of the full moon, haunted by the pain and betrayal of that day…
“… And that’s how the Dog King and Wolf King became adversaries. Don’t you know this story? I’m pretty sure the Wolf King was present during your era.”
Tyr appeared fascinated after listening to my storytelling. Waking from the enchantment of the tale, she raised her gaze slightly, her thoughts delving back into the past.
“The Wolf… Ahh, indeed. It had eluded my recollection. The creature that led wild dogs against me.”
“Understandable. They’re all the same to vampires, after all. Whether it’s the Dog King and its kin, who are loyal to humans, or the Wolf King and its pack, who pounce at the scent of blood.”
“Regardless, the story is intriguing. I have never heard it before today.”
“But you can read it in fairy tale books.”
“I had no one to tell me such stories by my side, you see… Though that is no longer the case.”
Tyr snapped her fingers, summoning a shadow that materialized into an old-fashioned chair beside me. She sat down and cast a concerned gaze my way.
“In any case, do not get hurt. If you do, who will regale me with stories and make my heart race?”
“Oh it was just a little bit of bleeding. I’ll write it off as a donation to you.”
Tyr slapped my right arm with her dainty hand, but it didn’t hurt at all. Then she grabbed the same arm, whispering to me with utmost sincerity.
“Your blood tastes unpleasant. So keep it safely within you, and do not let a single drop spill.”
To alleviate her worry, I had to reassure her multiple times to show that I understood.
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