“Akasha? Ah, there you are! Could you come with me?” Father asks, beckoning to me from the doorway to my bedroom.
“What is it?”
I raise my head from the open book in my hands to look at him. He seems about to collapse from exhaustion, like always, dark circles drawn under his eyes, and heavy eyelids half-closed over them. He’s probably stayed up all night again, working in his lab.
I’ve long since given up discouraging him from doing that, since he’ll go right back to it just after telling me he’ll stop.
When I’m about to stand up, however, Nerys’s arms snake around my waist and close into a tight hug that forces me to sit back down again onto her lap.
“Noooooo, don’t leave meeee!” she says in a ridiculous, whiny voice, leaning forward and rubbing her cheek against mine.
I helplessly look at Father and shrug. “Sorry, I can’t come. I’ve been captured by a monster, and I don’t think it wants to release me. I hope it’s not going to eat me, at least.”
The hug tightens even more, becoming uncomfortable but not painful. Nerys knows well the limits of my body and has enough control over her own strength to avoid injuring me inadvertently.
“How dare you call your sister a monster,” she whispers into my ears, her breath tickling me.
When I unconsciously twitch my ears back and forth to shoo her away, I realize my mistake.
Showing signs of vulnerability to a monster…
And as expected, when my movements remind Nerys of how sensitive my ears are, she immediately starts purposely blowing air into them.
I squeal and squirm within her embrace, trying to escape, but it’s a lost cause; her strength surpasses mine by far.
Until finally, my liberator speaks up with a wry smile. “Nerys, don’t bully your sister too much. And Akasha, once you’ve escaped the monster, remember to come down to the lab.”
“Hmph.” Nerys doesn’t answer him and turns her head away with a snort.
Father shakes his head at that, his small smile still on his lips, and walks out of the room, closing the door after himself.
Immediately, Nerys rounds on me, her hug loosening slightly. “You have to tell me if this old man performs some weird experiments on you, all right?”
I wriggle a bit, nestling more comfortably against Nerys’ chest and look up at her with a smile. “They’re not weird experiments, you know? Father is just trying to fix me.”
“Ahem! ‘Fix you’. You don’t nee…”
Nerys bites down on her words before they can escape her mouth.
We both know what she wants to say, and we both know it isn’t true.
For a moment, Nerys looks frustrated, but she quickly schools her expression and gently smiles down at me. “Fine, then. In any case, you have to tell me if anything happens. I’ll beat up this old man for you.”
“You’re so violent. I can hardly believe a barbarian like you could actually be the sister of a nice person such as myself.”
“Violent?! I’m not violent! You’re violent! Your face is violent!”
“…Not only violent, but also gifted with a masterful, pointed wit, as well. You never fail to impress.”
At my words, Nerys’s smile becomes bright as a sun – and more dangerous. “Oh, my. That mouth of yours is very good at throwing insults, today, isn’t it?”
“Ah… N–No, I need to go to Father’s lab. I shouldn’t make him wait too much.”
Even as I edge away from her and prepare to flee for my life, Nerys slowly leans forward, looming menacingly over me. “Do you think you can run away?” She asks in a low voice, and one of her hands grasps onto my tail while the other loops around my waist.
I knock on the door, and a muffled, indistinct voice answers.
I can’t actually make out the words, but I can guess them well enough. I open the door and step into the lab.
Long, flat tables are lined up in rows, heaps of strange devices, scribbled papers, colourful ingredients, and reference books strewn about all over them in a haphazard manner that nonetheless gives the impression of some kind of arcane order, which only the person who created this mess in the first place would be able to call his own. On one table, inside several glass containers, a few medicinal pills, almost exactly identical to each other save for very minute details, float in a purplish solution.
Father is leaning over one of the tables, focused on some kind of document, but he raises his head when I step toward him. “I see you safely escaped from the monster.”
“I did, yes, but it took my chastity before it let me go,” I reply, somehow managing to keep a perfectly straight face even as this insanity leaves my mouth.
Father’s breath catches in his throat, and he start choking on his own spit.
I look at him with the kind of feigned concern that wouldn’t fool a 3-year-old. “Are you all right?”
“Cough, cough. Ahem, yes. I’m fine. Where on earth did you learn that kind of…”
“Hmm? Isn’t that what monsters are supposed to do to the beautiful young women they capture?”
“Uh, well… I think I should probably get a look at all those books Nerys brings to you from the village. I suspect some of them might not be suitable for a girl your age.”
“I see. Yes, whatever the problem, it’s definitely Nerys’s fault. How irresponsible of her. This villainous criminal should be brought to justice. Be sure to punish her as severely as possible.”
Father chuckles quietly and beckons toward me. “Come here.”
I obediently walk up to him, then quickly disrobe and climb on top of the padded examination table next to him. The lab is always kept at a constant temperature, so I don’t feel cold, even though I’m naked.
“All right,” Father says. “Let’s start.”
He reaches out and places his palm flat on my back. I feel a faint jolt shake my body, then streams of qi start running through my empty meridians and feed into my organs. It continues for a few minutes, then the qi fades away and Father takes a step back.
“Is the effect better than last time?”
I try to measure the discomfort in my chest compared to a few minutes earlier. “Hmm, I’m not sure. I think last time was more effective. Right now, it still hurts to breathe, a little bit.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad does…”
“I see. Any headaches, today? Blurry vision?”
“No, not today.”
Father starts mumbling to himself and takes a sheet of paper on which he scribbles a few notes, sometimes crossing over his mistakes or adding annotations in the margins. I just wait for him to finish, idly swinging my legs as I sit there.
I sigh inwardly.
Father spends pretty much all his time cooped up in this lab trying to find a way to delay my death as long as possible.
However, while it may sound a bit weird coming from me, since I’m the one who stands to benefit from his efforts – and ungrateful, considering the sacrifices he’s made for his research – sometimes, I wish he would just stop. That’s what I want to say, as I look at his stooped back in front of me.
Just stop worrying about it.
Turn around and look at me.
I’m more than just this disease.
I can still have fun.
I can still laugh.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m the one the in this house who’s most accepting of my own fate.
In the past, Father wasn’t quite so driven. Oh, he always saw it as his appointed duty to save my life, somehow, to come up with a treatment that would stop my body from degenerating as quickly as it does. But he still showed his face to us for more than just calling me to his lab for another test or exam.
But after repeated failures, he started isolating himself more and more.
…I remember that he didn’t look quite so exhausted and desperate, in the past.
Nerys worries for me, too, but she’s channeled that into spending as much time with me as possible before I’m gone. Into having as much fun as possible.
This… is much better, I think…
Yes, that’s what I want to say…
But I won’t, because I know he would no more listen to me now than he did the last time I said so, and the time before that, and the time before that.
When he’s done writing, Father puts down his pen and takes a few long, thin needles whose tips are submerged in a yellow fluid of some sort. “You might feel a slight pinprick,” he says like always, almost ritualistically, then his hands fly over my skin, pausing every second or so to stab one of the needles at seemingly random points into my back.
As it happens, it really is only a slight pinprick. It doesn’t hurt much. Some other procedures I’m sometimes subjected to are much more painful than this one, but I’ve learned to read the tone of Father’s voice to know if the use of the word ‘slight’ is justified, or if it actually means that I’m really not going to enjoy the next few minutes.
When all the needles have been inserted into my back, a peculiar numbness spreads throughout my body.
“Bear with it for a few minutes,” Father says, but I don’t need his instructions; I go through this every few days, so I’m almost as familiar with the process as he is.
The numbness keeps spreading, and I start becoming drowsy.
My vision blurs and fades, and I lay down on my side over the examination table as I slowly fall asleep.
This is what I remember most about Father.
I remember the sight of his back as he worked, too.
But I don’t remember his face anymore.
How can I not remember the face of my own father?
I remember Nerys perfectly, though.
This is just…
I let out another sigh, my gaze trailing aimlessly over the dirty expanse of Fushia City.
Sitting on the stocky mountain next to the town, I have a pretty good view of the hole – the ‘mine’ – next to it.
And it is even more enormous than I had expected.
It is gigantic, unthinkably huge. It defies imagination. Not only is it wide, it’s also very deep. I could toss the corpse of the frog godbeast inside it and still have room to spare.
A road spirals down the inside of the hole, humans travelling up and down it, going about their business. Some of them carry tools and bags and things, while others drive great carriages laden with rocks or soil, pulled by the same kind of rhino-like beast I saw beforehand. At regular intervals down the road, clusters of people covered in dust and soot are working on the rock wall, digging into it with pickaxes and shovels and expanding the hole even further. Armed guards patrol everywhere, keeping an eye on those workers.
The same arrangements can be seen on the stocky mountain, too. It has been carved up into a set of tiers like concentric rings getting gradually smaller toward the summit, and workers and guards busy themselves on each of those tiers. The entire top third of the mountain appears to have been completely removed – that’s where I’m sitting now, in an isolated corner of it.
The town lies before me at the foot of the mountain, grey and drab, except for that one patch of bright pink in the courtyard I left earlier.
It’s so conspicuous.
…I sigh again.
My objective is right there, but I’m sitting here like a fool, thinking about the past and wallowing in old memories instead of investigating. I don’t even know how long I’ve stayed here, wasting time.
The sun is already setting, so it should be pretty long.
…What on earth am I even doing?
The tide of uncontrollable emotions has long since faded.
I wish it hadn’t.
I know that failing to control myself like this is dangerous. I know that I should strive to remain cold, alert, impassive. Because there is no way I could fight, with my mind in such disarray. There is no way I could survive.
And yet, I don’t care.
I want to feel these emotions just a little longer.
They really hurt…
Like a knife twisting in my chest.
But I like this pain.
It’s not like the usual pain.
This one is a good pain.
But unfortunately, no matter how hard I try to force them to come back, they won’t.
I wish I could find some more old memories within me, to dust them off and maybe rouse another surge of emotion.
But I can’t.
…Why can’t I remember more?
I try to remember.
I scour my brain for anything I can dredge up.
It’s been too long.
I can’t remember.
I really can’t remember…
The only thing left inside me now is that quiet, smoldering anger.
I try to think of Nerys, of the idea of finding her once more after all those years, and that has some effect. The usual mix of anticipation and love and anxiety and fear wells up within me.
Even that is pale, compared to those emotions from earlier – those echoes of what I used to feel in the past.
It is so very pale.
I wonder if that means I don’t love Nerys as much as I did when I was young.
Maybe demons can’t feel love as much as normal people.
[…Fine. I’m going. Stop pestering me.]
Sighing again – I seem to be doing a lot of that, today – I slowly stand up, patting dust off the skirt of my maid uniform. Then I start walking down the mountain and toward Fushia City.
Some human workers and guards walk parallel to me, presumably heading back to the town after finding some orichalcum to sell. I ignore them, and while they stare and ask each other about me in whispers I can hear perfectly well, none of them take any threatening action – not even the guards, who really should if they wanted to do their job properly.
Once in the city, I walk in the streets in the general direction of the earl’s house. Sometimes, I detour through small alleyways to avoid places filled with too many people.
I could probably just climb up the side of a building and make my way over the rooftops, but I don’t.
I don’t want to hurry.
My head is still a confused mess of thoughts I can’t untangle. I have to force myself to walk. If Sanae hadn’t been so insistent, I’m certain I would still be sitting on top of that mountain, looking at nothing in particular, waiting for nothing in particular.
I feel tired…
Yes, even though I’ve been sleeping quite a lot these past few days, even though I even naturally fell asleep just a while ago, I still feel so very tired…
As I trudge onward with heavy steps, I eventually arrive into some kind of town square. Quite a lot of people are milling about, here, but this time, I can’t be bothered to avoid them. I cut through the square, until I find my way blocked halfway through by a huge statue that, in my current state, I didn’t even notice until I was almost upon it.
I raise my head and look at it.
It depicts three human males, locked in combat against some kind of wolf-like creature, a bit similar to a werewolf, but with a more irregular body. There are jagged spikes growing from seemingly random points all over its body, and its teeth are so disproportionately long they jut out of its mouth like raised swords. It doesn’t look like a very practical creature – it would probably hurt itself just by moving around or chewing on its food – but I suppose it does look threatening. As for the humans, they appear to be struggling to fight, but their expressions are still firm and resolute, like they’re holding on courageously despite the dwindling odds of victory. Their stances are poor, though. Standing like they do, their balance wouldn’t be properly centered. It would just take a little nudge in the right place to trip them, and then the wolf creature could tear them apart in an instant.
I would recommend they flee immediately and wait for a good ambush opportunity.
I glance at the small marble block below the statue and the words carved upon it.
‘Founders Odhran, Festus, and Dane battling the demon.’
That’s supposed to be a demon?
I haven’t seen this kind befo–
Odhran is the name of the earl.
And I don’t know about Dane.
I know that name.
That’s one of the things I most definitely haven’t forgotten.
Every single second is indelibly carved into my memory, rather.
“My Lord! We have to burn her! And salt the land to purify it!”
“That’s right! Burn her!”
“That is not your decision to make.”
“But, my Lord…”
“Your input is not required. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Festus?”
“Of course, my Lord. My deepest apologies.”
I stumble a step back, the ground cracking under my feet, my eyes still locked onto the words on the marble block.
‘Battling the demon’.
My gaze returns to the strange wolf-like creature.
Is… Is that…
I look at the dirty city around me, and at the stocky mountain that had its top blasted off so that the humans could mine for orichalcum.
No, wait, wait…
Don’t conclude anything so quickly…
There is no way this is it.
There is no way.
Absolutely no way.
There is definitely another explanation.
He’ll know something. He definitely has the answers.
I wrench my eyes away from the statue and turn away, continuing toward the earl’s house. I try to measure my steps, but I quickly find myself running, shoving people out of my way. I think a few of them shout after me in anger, but I can’t hear them over the loud pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.
I grit my teeth and try to ignore the stirring of the black fog in my dantian as I rush through the streets.