The riders are approaching.
Their voices are almost drowned out by the thunder of their horses’ hooves striking the ground, but I can still make out that of the old man from the stall, speaking to the others.
“Remember my instructions,” he says. “Do not draw your weapons. Whatever happens, do not draw your weapons. If you do, you will die.”
“Yes!” thirty-five other voices shout back at the same time.
So they’re not here to attack?
I feel strangely disappointed, for some reason.
But still, they are clearly looking for us.
I wonder why.
Is it that the old man wants to get his magic core back?
Except it should be pretty obvious that I wouldn’t return it just because he asked.
So then, why?
This is really quite frustrating. I just don’t understand people. I feel like I’m some kind of moron, a retarded child who stumbles blindly along with no grasp whatsoever of her surroundings.
Demons are so much simpler.
They want to eat me. Period.
Simple. Easy to understand.
No need for me to wonder ‘Should I kill this one?’ or ‘Should I spare that one?’
I, as well. I’m very simple and easy to understand. I want to find Nerys. I want to find Father. I want to kill the people who imprisoned me in the Planar Tower. And I want to kill anyone who gets in the way while I’m doing that.
Simple. Easy to understand.
Fortunately, it seems I won’t have to wait for too long to understand these people’s motivations, because they are just about to reach our camp site.
With a sharp holler, the frontmost rider reins in his horse perhaps a dozen meters in front of me, forcing the ones behind him to stop in turn. A few gravels, dislodged by the sliding hooves of his horse, bounce over the ground in my direction, knocking against my bare feet and the hem of my cloak.
After the riders have stopped, one of them – the winged old man – slowly trots to the front until he stands halfway between me and his soldiers. For a few seconds, he only watches me silently. Since I’m not sure if I should say anything, I stay quiet too. Until finally, the old man gets down from his horse, his wings fluttering to help lift him up from the saddle, and takes a few more steps toward me.
“Good evening,” he says.
I’m not sure. I suppose it is good in that I haven’t been attacked by any demons, tonight. But on the other hand, that also means I have nothing to eat, so overall, I would say that this evening is quite neutral, rather than good.
What he said didn’t sound like a question, however, so I feel no need to correct him.
When I make no reply, the old man continues. “Do you mind if we take a seat?” he asks, gesturing toward the campfire. “I have something to discuss with you.”
What could there be to discuss?
Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to hear it, whatever it is. It might just be interesting.
But… Are all those people also going to sit around the fire? I don’t think there is going to be enough room. I can relinquish my spot, since I don’t like heat so much, but I doubt even that would be enough to fit everyone here. I suppose the leftovers can just stay standing.
I idly glance at the riders. They all dismounted after the old man did, but they stayed close to their horses instead of stepping forward alongside him. Most of them are glowering at me, for some reason, but I can tolerate that degree of hostility if they don’t act on it.
“Shall we?” the old man prompts again.
I nod and walk with him back toward the campfire.
We sit on opposite sides of it, but unexpectedly, none of the others join us. Instead, they remain a bit further away, still clustered as a group. Even though they keep their distance, I can feel their attention on me, their gazes tracking each of my movements, their muscles taut and ready for action. I assume that, if I attacked that winged old man, those 35 people wouldn’t hesitate to throw themselves at me to prevent me.
Unfortunately, if that did happen, their determination would most likely not be rewarded.
All of them are simply too weak to stand against me.
Well, it hasn’t reached that point, yet.
I look back at the old man. He’s casually warming his hands over the fire, but his eyes are serious, and staring unblinkingly at my face.
What’s wro– Ah!
I forgot, but Sif did advise me to keep my face concealed, most likely because people might not necessarily react well upon finding out that I’m a demon. But with both of us sitting face to face like this and me not taking care to lower my head, the old man must have gotten an unobstructed view past the poor concealment the hood of my cloak was supposed to provide me.
I’m not ashamed of what I am, and even if this old man decides to take offense to my nature and attack me, I’m confident I can kill him before he kills me back.
Thus, I ignore his reaction and simply wait for him to speak.
Eventually, he does, without making any comment on my appearance. “From what I heard from the soldiers guarding the gates of Islandis Fortress, you were accompanied by a free merchant, were you not?” the old man asks, looking around the camp. “Did she leave this place first?”
…So you can’t see her, huh?
I do have to admit that Sif is very good at hiding herself. I know where she is, of course, but that’s mostly due to me seeing beforehand where she went before casting her concealment spell. If I hadn’t, if I had arrived afterward like this old man did, I probably wouldn’t be able to detect her presence so easily, either. It’s really quite impressive. If only considering her stealth abilities, she would be a match for demons around the 170th floor of the tower or so.
Of course, I wouldn’t be so stupid as to betray her position to this old man. I simply keep watching him silently.
In the face of my lack of response, he can only let out a tired sigh and say, a trace of irritation tinting his voice, “If you don’t want to answer my questions, that’s fine, but please, could you at least say something? Or are you mute?”
Since, in point of fact, I am – even though I do have ways to get around this problem – I nod.
The old man looks surprised for a moment before nodding back. “O–Oh. I see.”
…I assume he found my persistent refusal to speak annoying.
But I’m just not all that comfortable with the idea of talking to strangers, yet. Since meeting Sif, I’ve deeply realized that I really know nothing about this world. I have no idea what I should or shouldn’t say to people. Sif herself is fine, since we’ve already been together for a few days and she knows a little bit about me, but I think holding a conversation with someone I’ve just met would be a bit too much for me, right at the moment.
After a few moments of silence, the old man clears his throat and waves a hand through the air in front of him. A bottle gourd appears in his grasp, liquid sloshing inside it. After removing the cork, a strong smell wafts through the air, carried to my nose by the night’s wind, and the old man takes a sip of whatever is inside. A shudder runs through his body, then he lowers the gourd, sighing contentedly to himself.
This thing smells pretty good.
I wonder what it is.
When the winged old man looks back up at me, he catches me staring at the gourd in his hand and asks with a small smile on his lips, “Do you want some?”
I hesitate for a moment, then nod.
No poison should be able to affect my body, in any case.
The old man’s smile widens. “This is Haldir’s Vigil, you know? It’s… a pretty strong drink. I’m not sure it would be wise for a child to partake.”
…I’m not a child, though.
When I extend a questing hand despite his warning, the old man tosses the gourd to me, a bemused look on his face. I catch the gourd out of the air and bring it up to my nose, taking in a deep breath, the heady scent coming from inside flooding my senses.
This smells really good.
I hope the taste will be as pleasant.
I take a small sip, like the old man did. The liquid goes down my throat, leaving a burning sensation in its wake – though it feels completely different from the kind of burning from heat or acid that I’m used to – and then settles into my stomach. Abruptly, my thoughts blur, my mind shakes, my vision twists, my heart skips a beat, my ears pop, my blood boils and flows backward – all that, for just a moment, before my body detects that what I’ve just ingested cannot be refined into blood-qi and destroys it in a small, cleansing burst of energy.
This… is nice.
The old man raises his hand in my direction and opens his mouth, but before he can speak, I’ve already lifted the gourd again, this time gulping down several mouthfuls of the stuff inside it, one after another.
The same effects as earlier manifest once again, but seemingly compounded.
My entire body is shivering uncontrollably.
This is fun…
For an instant, I almost wonder if drinking this is going to cause some damage to my internal organs, but as before, the liquid is quickly neutralized and disintegrated as soon as my body notices it’s useless.
It’s completely different from drinking blood, and it doesn’t replenish my reserves of blood-qi, but the effects are very interesting, nonetheless. I raise the gourd again, ready for another round, but it’s already empty. Only a few lonely drops fall into my mouth, their potency so low as to be unnoticeable.
What a shame…
Well, I’ll be able to buy this somewhere, surely.
I’ll have to ask Sif about it, once she comes out of hiding. She might know just what this was.
I throw the empty gourd back at the old man. He receives it wordlessly, checking inside, then making it disappear with another wave of his hand after a moment of hesitation. His cheek is twitching a little, though, for some reason.
I just look back at him steadily, until he finally gets to the point of his visit.
“My name is Shen Lei,” he says after clearing his throat one more time. “The reason I’ve come to speak with you, is that I would like to invite you to Jodene Fortress, as an official guest of the Lord’s castle. It’s my belief that Lady Jodene would be very much interested in meeting you, as well. She would certainly make it worth your while.”
I tilt my head in confusion.
He came all this way, made me wait all this time, just to invite me to a place I’m already headed for?
What’s the point of that?
Is he an idiot?
It’s not even that this old man – this Shen Lei – wouldn’t know where I’m going, since this road has only one destination. There are no branching paths. Sif said it explicitly. This road only serves to link Islandis Fortress to Jodene Fortress. If I’m walking on it and I just left Islandis Fortress, my destination should be pretty obvious.
I feel stupid for even listening to him.
You can go away, now.
When I’m about to shake my head and refuse his nonsensical offer, however, Sif suddenly cancels whatever magic she was using to conceal her presence and walks out from behind her tree. “Thank you very much for your invitation, Sir Shen Lei,” she says in a conversational tone, as if she’d been part of the discussion all along.
The riders closest to her, upon her unexpected appearance, all jump in fright, their hands going for the swords at their belts or tightening on the shafts of their spears.
My gaze flicks to them.
And they quickly discover that, between the time when their brains made the decision and the time when their arms started moving, a solid layer of ice already trapped blades inside sheaths and stuck the butts of spears to the ground, turning their weapons to little more than dead weight in their hands.
After completing that little bit of magic, before the riders can properly react, I circle my blood-qi through my meridians, and a powerful pressure crashes down over everyone around me. The air itself seems to coagulate and become heavier, and most of the riders quickly find themselves on the ground, their knees buckling out from underneath them. Some of them lie on their backs, gasping for air like beached fish about to expire. Shen Lei himself bears with it more solidly, but his face still pales, and small beads of sweat start rolling down his brow.
Since Sif herself is also included in the scope of this pressure, I restrain its power a little and only let it out for a few seconds – just enough to make my point.
And I think my point is made, indeed.
When the pressure disappears, Shen Lei takes a deep breath and starts barking at his soldiers. “Do not draw your weapons! Have you idiots already forgotten my orders?” Then, addressing Sif, who’s just barely regained her composure herself, he gestures to the campfire. “Please, join us. Miss Yinan, correct?”
Sif looks a little unsteady on her feet, but her usual smile is still on her face when she nods at Shen Lei’s question. “That’s right.”
…I’m not sure why she’s now suddenly using the name ‘Yinan’, when she’s always answered to ‘Sif’ before. It might be something normal for some people to have different names they use under different circumstances. Who knows?
Sif sits down next to me, gently squeezing my shoulder for a moment, perhaps in thanks for restraining the riders who were about to attack her, and says, “Once again, pleased to meet you, Sir Shen Lei. My name is Yinan. I’m the free merchant who employed this young girl, Akasha, as a bodyguard during my travels.”
Shen Lei quirks an eyebrow at me. “Bodyguard?”
Hmm, I did just guard her body, just now, didn’t I?
So I suppose this is close enough to the truth.
“I… see,” Shen Lei says, clearly surprised by the information. “Then, I’ll extend my offer to you, as well, Miss Yinan. I would like to invite you both to Jodene Fortress as formal guests of Lady Jodene.” He looks to Sif more specifically and continues. “I of course do not intend to interfere with whatever business you might have already planned upon arrival, but I believe that a good word from us in the ear of our fortress’s merchants might help you turn up more of a profit.”
Sif’s eyebrows climb up toward her hairline. “You’d go that far?”
“I would indeed. As I was saying to Miss Akasha earlier, it is my firm belief that Lady Jodene would be quite interested in meeting the two of you.”
“Well, at the very least, I am very open to the idea. It would be an honor to gaze upon Lady Jodene’s face and hear her words. But I need to consult with my bodyguard, first. I have entrusted my safety to her, after all, and when you employ a professional, it’s only right to listen to their judgment.”
After sketching a small bow toward Shen Lei, Sif turns to me, giving me a look which is probably meaningful – but whatever meaning it carries, unfortunately, is completely lost on me – and asks, “What do you think, Akasha? Should we go with Sir Shen Lei, or continue on our own?”
Why is she asking me?
How on earth would I know?
From my perspective, both will lead to the same outcome, anyway, since we all have the same destination. So I can’t really see the point of it all, but on the other hand, neither does this invitation appear to have any real disadvantages.
All in all, I just couldn’t care less.
I barely even understand anything about our situation. All I want is to find the exit to this so-called Planar Prison. Since it’s presumably in Jodene Fortress, then that’s where we’re going. Why does it matter if this Shen Lei wants to accompany us? And who’s this Lady Jodene, and why does she have the same name as the fortress?
I just don’t get it.
Am I just that stupid…?
Sif said she was ‘very open to the idea’, so I’ll agree as well and be done with it.
I’ve got a good idea.
I look Sif in the eye and transmit my words into her mind.
[…Ask him if he has more of that ‘Haldir’s Vigil’ thing.]
Sif’s lips twitch for a moment after hearing my condition.
As it happens, Shen Lei did end up accompanying us, along with all his soldiers.
What was really disappointing, however, was that he didn’t even have any more Haldir’s Vigil.
Afterward, it took our little troop almost an entire week of travel to even see the silhouette of Jodene Fortress as a smudge on the horizon. The pace was quite slow, since we had to stop every so often to let the horses and the people rest. Only Shen Lei and I didn’t need to sleep, but we couldn’t very well leave the others behind.
So I passed the trip observing the riders.
It was quite interesting, since they all looked quite different from each other.
For example, one of the soldiers was one of those creatures whose body appears to be made out of black fog. From what Sif taught me, they are called setroka. In order to eat, it turns out that a setroka will simply engulf its food within its fog-body, and the food will then slowly, visibly dissolve and melt, making the black fog slightly thicker. It’s really a very strange spectacle. Even in all my years fighting demons each more disturbingly exotic than the last, I never saw anything that fed in such a way in the Planar Tower. There were also several werewolves, and although Sif could tell at a glance, I for one was completely unable to determine their genders, even though I’d have thought I should have been instinctively able, since as fellow wolf-like species, we appear to be somewhat related to each other. No such luck, though.
But what really makes me happy, is that Sanae has finally woken up.
I’d already felt her move a little when we were in Islandis Fortress, and in the afternoon of the last day before reaching the gates of Jodene Fortress, as I walked alongside Sif’s carriage, she finally regained consciousness.
The speed at which her body spontaneously produces energy is really deplorable, though. As a whole, she slept for almost nine weeks, ever since the end of the battle against that giant frog, and only now has she refined enough blood-qi to awake. Even then, with her rate of consumption, if she doesn’t eat anything soon, she could only stay active for a few hours before completely expending her reserves and needing to go right back into hibernation.
From the few experiments I performed in the Planar Tower, normal demons are even worse than Sanae on this point, so I suppose I can’t really blame her. But my own body, on the other hand, is much, much more efficient, to the point where it quite simply cannot be compared. Two or three hours of sleep, and I can be on my feet for long enough to hunt and secure a few magic cores for myself.
Fortunately enough, I displayed incredible wisdom a few days ago, when I bought several high-quality magic cores from Shen Lei, so Sanae won’t have much problems staying awake for a while. And at the worst, I’ll feed her some of my blood.
Upon waking, the very first word Sanae says to me is, <Injured?>
It makes me happy that she’s worried about me.
[…Just scars. Not a problem.]
[…Yes. But I already adapted. I’m fine.]
I can feel her distress through the telepathic link between our souls – a strong, deep link cultivated through several hundred years of constant contact – but that same link shows her I’m speaking the truth, rather than simply trying to comfort her, so she quickly calms down.
[…Outside. Not Caldera, yet. But outside.]
I consider telling her what I know about the Planar Prison right away, but it might take a while, and telepathy expends energy. It’s best if I do so once she’s fed.
[…Sleep now. Wake up tonight. I have food for you.]
Assent streams into my soul, and she obediently falls asleep again, to wait until there won’t be so many eyes around to see her.
And even though she’s asleep, I can finally feel her soul, right there next to me, ready to answer me as soon as I speak to her. And only now that a strange weight lifts off my mind do I notice how lonely and lost I’ve felt for the past few weeks. Even if I met Sif and talked to her and traveled with her, even if I’m now surrounded by more people than I’d met or seen or imagined for the whole 291 years of my life all put together… it’s just not the same as having Sanae here with me.