I’ve only taken a few steps toward Fushia City when Sanae’s voice appears in my mind.
[…No. Stay in position.]
Even as the words leave my soul, Haris’s huge, four-meter-tall form appears in the distance, walking toward me. I suppose it was too much to hope for, to permanently disable a god specializing in close combat so easily, but my attack did have some effect. Even though Haris looks angry and eager for battle, his face is still pale and covered in sweat, and his gait is obviously pained.
However, even if he’s already been injured, I don’t lower my guard.
Because I can see the gauntlets he’s wearing over his hands. Orsino said it was an artifact. I can’t know what effect such a thing might have just from its semblance. I need to keep my guard up, and avoid forming any expectations. That way, I won’t be surprised, no matter what happens.
I also keep a strand of my attention on the sky, just in case Orsino decides to come back and launch a surprise attack in the middle of the fight.
Both Haris and I walk toward each other for a few seconds, until, when only 100 meters remain between us, he snaps his fist forward in a short, sharp jab. He should obviously be too far to reach me, but since he’s wearing an artifact, I simply can’t take the risk. Maybe its power is to extend the range of the wearer’s attacks, after all.
I immediately dive to the side and cartwheel back up to my feet fifty meters away from where I stood a moment ago.
…But nothing at all happens.
And Haris suddenly bursts out laughing.
His laugh doesn’t sound very natural, though. I can hear the rage and bloodthirst laced into it.
“Sorry!” he shouts, his voice reverberating through the air. “That was just a little joke!” He waves his hand in my direction once or twice, then takes up a stance. “Careful, now! The real ones are coming!”
And right after saying this, he starts punching the air again, his fists snapping back and forth in rapid succession. His first few strikes don’t produce any more results than before, but then, without any warning sign, his sixth jab suddenly projects some kind of thick beam of light that tears through the air in my direction.
However, that sort of little trick – hiding the real attack in the middle of several feints – is useless against me. I’ve already forced myself not to expect anything. Even if the first five attacks are clearly useless and ineffectual, I won’t form any kind of opinion on the sixth and will take it just as seriously as if it were the very first.
Which means that when that beam shoots out of Haris’s fist, I’ve already dodged to the side.
The beam clearly isn’t made purely out of light, but it still is pretty fast. It takes barely half a second for it to cross those 100 meters between Haris and I. When I leap out of its way, I feel the residual heat of its passage as it disappears behind my back.
I don’t want to take my sight off Haris, so I can’t actually see the effects of that beam for myself, but I don’t need to.
Perhaps two seconds after passing me by, the beam hits the ground – it should have struck near the mine, probably – and detonates. The explosion shakes the earth, and lights up the night’s darkness, eclipsing the stars with its bright glare.
Yes, I definitely can’t let Haris hit me with this thing…
A moment later, the shockwave washes over me and pushes against my back, urging me forward.
I don’t fight against that push and instead use it to propel myself forward and close the distance to my enemy. Haris shoots more of those beams one after another, and I leap over them to escape them.
When he sees me airborne with nowhere to step onto, Haris’s face distorts in a fierce smile. “Got you now! Die, whore!”
But no, he hasn’t got me.
And I have no idea what a whore is supposed to be, either.
When the next beam cleaves through the sky toward me, I stretch my left arm to the side and concentrate my magic above my palm. There, I form a hollow sphere of ice, which I compress as much as possible, trapping and pressuring the air inside of it. Then, I simply breach the sphere, and the air expands once more, creating a short but powerful blast that pushes me to the side and out of harm’s way. As soon as I soar out of the beam’s range, another identical sphere appears in my right hand, which I uses in the same way to once more correct my course in mid-air and fling myself toward Haris.
When I land next to him, Haris still doesn’t look particularly flurried, but neither did he when I sent him flying earlier, so that doesn’t necessarily mean the situation is as much within his control as his attitude might suggest. Keeping a close eye on any strange move he might make, I slip in close to him, staying low to the ground to make it harder for him to touch me.
But when I’m about to cut his legs out from under him, he suddenly claps his armored hands together.
A sound, disproportionately huge and ringing for the small impact that produced it, echoes through the plains around Fushia City. I barely have time to see the taunting grin on Haris’s face before my vision goes dark.
A loud noise takes out my sight, but not my hearing…
I can’t help but find that a little strange.
Still, it’s not exactly the first time I end up having to fight while blinded, so I know how to react. I simply start to dedicate more brainpower to processing the information feeding in from my other senses in order to compensate for the loss and judge the situation around me based mostly on sound and touch. Fortunately enough, my maid uniform has already long since been destroyed, so I can feel the flow of the wind over the skin of my whole body.
The motion of the attack I’d already started when Haris sealed my sight doesn’t stagnate in the slightest. Indeed, it is Haris himself who seems unprepared and unfocused, probably because he assumed I would stop and retreat once I lost the use of my eye. A low, scything kick strikes the back of one of Haris’s legs, and the sharp, jagged layer of ice covering my shin digs and slices into his flesh.
For a moment, I wonder if I’m going to bring him down with this, but he reacts quickly enough to avoid the worst and jumps away from me, throwing a punch in my direction that I dodge by a hair’s breadth after noticing a shift in the air currents around me – his body is so big that the wind produced every time he moves is quite easy to detect.
“Ngh… You’re really hard to deal with, bitch, you know that? And where’s Orsino? Did you kill him?”
Judging Haris’s position by the sound of his voice, I once more close in on him, while simultaneously focusing a strand of my mind onto my link with Sanae. We’re a bit far from each other, but the link is still solid enough for communication.
[…I’ve been blinded. If Orsino comes back, kill him.]
By the time Sanae’s response arrives, half a dozen exchanges have gone by between Haris and I already. I have a bit of trouble properly dodging his attacks, but I do manage to avoid any real damage, and my weight prevents me from reeling at simple glancing blows. It helps that Haris hasn’t used his artifact’s power again since I got close to him – I assume he fears being affected by the explosion himself if it detonates at such close range.
Though, he might throw caution to the wind if his situation gets bad enough…
And it’s almost as if Haris read my mind, because the next time my claws tear through his flesh and specks of his blood splatter against my face, I feel the air all around me suddenly turn searing hot –
– and my sight abruptly comes back to let me see the strange airborne lattice made out of light heading straight for me.
Could it be the artifact can’t display more than one of its functions at a time?
That might provide an explanation for why Haris didn’t use it anymore after blinding me. He was hoping taking my sight away from me would be enough to defeat me.
In any case, the lattice in front of me spreads far in every direction. I won’t be able to simply dodge around it, and the gaps in its structure are too small to let me dive through.
If I can’t avoid it, then…
I rush directly toward the lattice – and toward Haris on the other side of it. When I’m just about to run into it, I jump up and bring my knees up against my chest and my right arm in front of my face to let the indestructible parts of me meet the threat first. The light beams making up the lattice hit upon the adamantine of my limbs. The beams sizzle and hiss and start shining brightly, but not a single trace of damage is left on my body. The only problem I face is the temperature of these beams, and even that stops once I release my magic and a wave of freezing cold subdues their heat.
I push directly through the lattice as it fizzles against me and land in front of Haris.
Without waiting for Haris to speak – he really should have noticed by now that nothing good ever comes out of him opening his mouth; I don’t know why he persist in his mistake – my left arm lengthens and I press an open palm against his chest, almost gently.
For a brief instant, it’s as if the fight has stopped completely, as Haris looks down at my hand resting on his abdomen. And then, the momentum of my rush and the several tons of my weight and every scrap of strength I can muster transfer up my waist and through my torso and along my arm and into my palm.
The impact shatters my left arm, and a span of earth more than a kilometer in length rocks and buckles and explodes behind me as the impulse of my palm strike slams fully into Haris and blows him away into the distance once again, his body bouncing and tumbling over the ground in a tangle of limbs.
I watch him crash into Fushia City, bursting right through all the buildings in his way, then I pursue.
Finding him again isn’t difficult.
I just need to follow the trail of destruction his body has left behind.
I land lightly on the edge of a rooftop.
In the street below, lying down half-buried beneath the rubble of what probably used to be a two-story house, Haris appears to be breathing his last. He’s alive, but only just barely, reduced to weakly coughing up small mouthfuls of blood all over himself. My attack caved in his chest, and shards of his ribs are poking through his skin. His lungs have definitely been destroyed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his heart had been pierced by his broken bones, too.
His strength itself really is good, but that’s all he has. His defense and his speed and his technique aren’t up to par. Even if his artifact provides him with a few more tactics to choose from, if his basic skills are poor, that’s definitely not going to help him much against someone like me.
He really should have realized that.
I get the feeling he doesn’t have much experience fighting opponents stronger than himself…
Haris’s huge body starts to gradually deflate, returning to the more normal, human-like build he had when he first burst through the wall of the earl’s office and punched me in the face. Interestingly enough, his gauntlets also shrink to fit with the size of his hands. I wonder if all artifacts can do that. At least, the rest of Haris’s clothes clearly didn’t share that power, or they would have survived his transformation into a giant instead of leaving him naked like this…
Abruptly, rays of light start to overflow from the gaps in the layers of his lamellar gauntlets, getting brighter with each second. At the same time, the qi fluctuation spreading from the gauntlets suddenly starts to grow erratic, sometimes wavering and sometimes increasing.
“Ngh! N–No! I don’t – AaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
And Haris starts screaming, the fear in his voice quickly replaced by pain. His legs are still trapped beneath the rubble, but his upper body is madly thrashing around as he tries to escape his torment, like a fish suffocating on a beach.
Hmm, I’m not sure what’s going on, but it certainly doesn’t sound good…
Is the artifact’s power running out of control with the wielder’s impending death?
I was preparing to throw an ice spear into Haris’s face to finish him off once and for all, but maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. It might hasten whatever is happening.
I should probably get away from here. This thing really looks like it’s about to blow up, and even for me, the power emanating from those gauntlets feels dangerous.
I immediately turn around and flee, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, heading for the mine, where Sanae is still waiting for me. The best plan I can come up with is to use her as a shield, since with her body, she should definitely be able to bear a little explosion.
In my haste, I stop paying much attention to how I distribute my weight, and roofs crumble under my steps one after another. Fortunately though, I’m fast enough that their collapse doesn’t actually affect me – I’m already gone by the time they fall.
But I don’t think I’ll be able to reach the mine in time, judging by the wild qi fluctuation coming from behind me.
I glance over my shoulder for an instant to see a gigantic pillar of light shoot up into the sky, turning night into day.
If that’s the only effect of that artifact overloading, I’ll be very happy, but for some reason, I doubt I’ll be so lucky.
And indeed, barely a moment later, I’m proven correct as the same sorts of beams that Haris was using earlier against me suddenly shoot out from the pillar of light, aiming in every direction. Dozens of them at the same time. Repeatedly.
Most of the beams discharge harmlessly in other places around Fushia City – harmlessly for me, that is; I doubt the inhabitants struck by those beams share my opinion on that – but a few still fly in my direction. I’m forced to slow my escape and turn around to face them, because being struck in the back by something like that would be quite unpleasant. Dodging the beams themselves isn’t so difficult, although since there are so many of them and with Fushia City’s buildings standing all around me, I’m forced to directly burst through some houses’ walls – I just ignore the people inside – in order to slip past each volley. Even then, the resulting explosions once the beams hit the ground behind me are another problem, and I end up facing danger from both the front and the rear. Eventually, I have to completely abandon the idea of reaching the safety of the mine pit. The beams force me to change direction again and again, sometimes leading me deeper into the city – and closer to the pillar of light – rather than away from it, as I try my best to avoid them.
Explosions ring out one after another, laying waste to the city. Buildings crash down everywhere around me. The streets are choked by debris, until a light beam detonates nearby and scatters the rubble like leaves in the wind, sending it to crash everywhere and cause secondary collapses. I sometimes hear a few screams, here and there, but most are drowned out by the noise of the explosions.
As the beams become more and more crowded and staying on the ground becomes more and more risky, I take to the sky. I can’t actually grow wings, because they’d be burned to pieces in only a few moments, under that kind of bombardment, so I’m left with the only option of constantly creating the same hollow spheres I used during my fight against Haris to propel myself around and keep myself airborne.
Unfortunately, that particular mode of travel doesn’t exactly offer me the same freedom of movement I would enjoy down on the ground. I do manage to avoid any direct hit, but a few close calls leave several swathes of burnt skin over my body.
Another danger – and one I can’t avoid quite so easily – is the incredible heat radiating off the pillar of light itself. I can feel it sapping the strength from my body with each passing second, despite my efforts to slow the effects. A thick white mist constantly emanates from me as I try to keep myself cool, but I still have trouble offsetting the temperature of the air around me.
And it keeps on rising, too. It’s almost like I’m walking on the surface of a sun.
Well, no. Actually it’s not like that at all – even I would burn to death rather quickly if I ever did that – but it’s still pretty bad.
The buildings and the ground around where I found Haris a minute ago – the base of the pillar – have already completely melted down into lava, and from my point of view high up in the sky, I can see the process spreading outward over the city. I can see a few humans desperately trying to escape, their clothes and hair spontaneously bursting into flame. They throw themselves on the ground and roll, trying to put out the fire burning them, but they never get back up again.
…Well, I wanted to destroy this city, a few minutes ago, didn’t I?
I guess my wish was fulfilled, even if I don’t really care all that much anymore.
One good news in the middle of that disaster, is that even as light beams shoot out of the pillar more and more frequently and the temperature constantly rises, the pillar itself is losing its luster, as if it’s expending all its energy in a last-ditch effort to spread its destruction as far as possible.
It will probably dissipate soon.
Just a few more minutes, and I should be able to survive this.
I increase the output of the magic cladding me, and the white mist hanging around me becomes colder once more, reducing the strain on my body. This is the kind of cold that should be able to freeze anyone to death in just a second or two, but here, it’s only just enough to dampen the damage I sustain under the pillar’s temperature.
And it’s precisely at this point that Orsino decides to throw one last attack my way.
Sudden storm clouds appear, far in the distance, diametrically opposed to the pillar of light, with me in the center, countless arcs of lightning flickering in their depths. It takes a few seconds for the sound of thunder to reach me here, in an almost constant rumble that overpowers even the noise of the light beams exploding around.
…Was this guy as powerful as this?
No way. His magic can’t possibly have so much range that he could hope to strike me down from all the way to the horizon. And I can feel the qi fluctuation of that spell even from over here. If he were that strong, I would never have dominated the short fight between us; he would have simply crushed me with sheer power.
Maybe he used an artifact, too?
Something that needs a long setup time, which he couldn’t use in the middle of his fight against me?
I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have discarded all the artifacts I found in the Planar Tower. Miroslav left a few as rewards for completing certain floors, but since I didn’t have enough room in my space ring, I didn’t bother keeping them with me – mostly on account of the fact that neither I nor Sanae had any idea how to even use the damn things; they remained completely inert, no matter what either of us did.
It might be a bit difficult for me to dodge the light beams, control the temperature around myself, and avoid lightning strikes all at the same time.
Orsino certainly chose his moment well.
Even as I assess the situation, I continue flitting through the air, weaving around the light beams that rain down all around me. I focus for a moment on my link to Sanae, but I’m too far from the mine. The link is too faint for telepathy to reach through. The most it can do is tell me her approximate position.
Hopefully, she’ll notice my situation on her own. I did tell her to handle Orsino if he did come back…
Just in case, I keep on the lookout for any signs of an incoming lightning strike, and as my attention gets divided between two different threats coming from two different directions, my movements become sloppier, and I start receiving more damage from some light beams I only just manage to barely evade.
I grit my teeth against the pain, until finally, Orsino’s final lightning bolt coalesces, much farther away than my own magic could possibly reach to affect or prevent it in any way. The entire sky is covered in dark clouds, and the static electricity coursing through the air makes the fur of my tail stand on end.
Little help, here, please.
Lightning and thunder tear through the world.
I don’t look directly at it, because I can’t afford to lose my sight in this situation. I only erect a dozen consecutive walls of ice between me and what I estimate should be the trajectory of the lightning bolt. Since I can’t use my telekinesis, right now, I can’t keep those heavy walls aloft indefinitely, so I only materialize them behind me when I feel the tension in the air reach a climax. It probably won’t work – the ice walls will either appear too early or too late to block the lightning strike – but there is little more I can do.
As it happens, I’m right. The walls serve absolutely no purpose and drop off the sky ineffectually.
As it happens, however, I don’t need them.
When the light of that lightning bolt gradually fades away, I’m still alive and completely unharmed.
I take the opportunity as I dodge another light beam – it looks paler and cooler than the ones that came before; Haris’s artifact’s rampage must be drawing to a close – to look behind me.
And I see what blocked Orsino’s attack for me.
A shadow so massive it might be mistaken as a small mountain is standing over the mine pit, right in the way of the lightning bolt, crackles of electricity flickering over its humongous frame. A haze of black mist is shrouding the shadow’s silhouette from prying eyes, but I recognize it nonetheless.
Just in time.
She only stays at this size for a few seconds, but it’s long enough.
When she disappears from sight again, the black smoke around her winding around her body as she shrinks, Orsino’s spell has already all but dissipated, the storm clouds in the sky growing ragged and faded and tearing apart from each other.
Hopefully, Orsino won’t be able to repeat that kind of attack anytime soon.
When the number of light beams shooting out from the pillar drops to safer levels, I propel myself a few more times through the sky until I drop on the edge of the mine pit, on a clear span of ground.
I turn back for a few seconds to watch as the pillar of light starts flickering unsteadily, then fades away to nothing. The darkness seems deeper, now that its brilliant glare has disappeared, and it takes a moment for my night vision to readjust.
Fushia City is gone, leaving behind only a vast lake of lava, still slowly spreading outward over the surrounding plains and casting a reddish glow against the night sky. The stocky mountain where my house used to stand is still here, but with its crown blasted off and that lava pooling at its feet, it only looks like a foreboding volcano, now. Not even the slightest vestige of the beautiful landscape I still remember from my youth is left.
And along the destruction of the earl’s house, even that last cherry tree is gone, burned to ashes.
…There really is nothing left, now.
I wave a hand and a small block of clear, transparent ice appears atop my palm, the small, pink petal I took from the earl’s house earlier today encased inside it.
…Nothing but this.
A single petal.
The very last one.
I stand there for a long while, looking at it absent-mindedly, unconscious even of the stifling heat still remaining in the air around me until I notice the block of ice starting to melt, droplets of water slowly rolling down its sides.
I quickly fix the ice with a burst of magic, then store it back safely into my space ring, a tired sigh slipping through my lips.
Refocusing, I glance into my dantian.
I spent a full 26 beads on this fight. Much less than I did against the frog godbeast, but still more than I would have liked, more than my opponents today should have required. It’s not really a surprise I wasted so much energy, though. Just keeping my body airborne is already ridiculously difficult and inefficient. With the extreme heat compounding the problem, this was really a battlefield I should have avoided.
…Yes, I definitely could have handled this better. I should have tried to find a way to kill both Haris and Orsino before they could use their respective artifacts. On their own, neither of them were even remotely as strong as the frog godbeast, so I shouldn’t have struggled so much against them.
But well, I suppose I’ve learned a few things, today, so I won’t complain.
I’ve confirmed that there are indeed gods on Caldera, and that some of them are hostile to me.
Possibly all of them, with my luck.
I don’t know.
I don’t even know why those two attacked me, really.
I might have believed they did this to protect the city against me, but then Haris destroyed it himself, so I doubt this is it. It didn’t look like he did it on purpose, exactly, but would he have dared to use such an unstable power if he really cared about collateral damage?
It wasn’t a coincidence that they were here.
Which might suggest that they were part of the group of people who dumped me in the Planar Tower, maybe? I might be wrong on this. I’m starting to doubt my judgment on certain things, a little bit, and it feels somewhat strange that every opponent I face be related to this matter. But then again, why else would anyone attack me? I’ve been on Caldera for little more than a week, so it’s not as if I made any enemies here.
And Haris could resist the Taint in my blood…
I only tried infecting Jodene and Arehm Keller, but the results seemed pretty conclusive. I suppose two people isn’t really an exhaustive sample of population, so I might just have made a hasty conclusion.
Are some people immune to the Taint?
Is this why I survived it, myself?
Because I’m immune?
But why did I turn into a demon, then?
‘What have you done?’
That’s what I said when I noticed Haris had survived.
The phrasing feels a bit strange to me, even though I’m the one who spoke those words…
Why did I assume he’d done something?
I suppose I shouldn’t expect my behavior and my thoughts in those few minutes when I lost control to make any kind of sense, but... Haaa… I don’t know anymore…
The only thing that matters is finding Nerys.
The rest can wait.
But where should I go, now?
I thought I would look for my old house and seek traces of her there, but I didn’t expect to find it so quickly, just a few days after starting my search. That was really a lot faster than I thought it would be. I was completely unprepared.
Though, I’m not sure what I was unprepared for…
I can’t find Nerys as long as I’m not absolutely certain that it’s safe for me to do so.
That she is safe from me, rather…
I let out a deep sigh. My battered lungs hurt when searing air flows into them.
I disregard the pain and sigh again.
I feel really confused, right now…
I look down to find Sanae skittering around my feet. I bend down and pick her up. She nestles in my palm, watching me.
Even now, blood-qi is filling all my meridians, mending the injuries I sustained, regenerating my organs.
[…I don’t know.]
I start walking away from the lake of lava, heading toward blessed, fresh, cool wind.
[…Hmm. Lily and her family?]
Well, that’s something, at least.
Let’s go north.
I don’t really have any better idea at the moment, anyway.
And I need a new maid outfit.