I fling the metal door so fast it only leaves a blur in the air as it heads for its target. I wasn’t particularly accurate, so it also takes a good chunk of the wall as it passes through the doorway.
As rubble flies around in its wake, I notice that the wall of the room holding the huge demon-sealing stone is made of several different layers. Regular stone encases some sort of reddish-brown metal. This metal is covered in intricate runes, which flash once then fizzle as the metal door bursts into the room, crushing all obstacles in its way.
Some kind of protective field, most likely. I didn’t feel anything when I wrenched the door out of its hinges, but whatever spell was used to safeguard the room must have faltered ineffectually against the adamantine of my hand.
Trailing debris, the door slams into the demon-sealing stone, eliciting another flash of defensive magic. Thanks to whatever shields were set in place to protect it, the stone doesn’t shatter upon impact. Still, like the formations carved into the room’s outer wall, I threw the door hard enough to overwhelm what defenses the stone had available. The metal door bounces off the demon-sealing stone at an angle and flies off toward one side, while the stone itself is flung toward the other side, embedding itself into the wall there. Cracks cover its glass surface, sparks crackling here and there. The black and white wisps floating inside it fly erratically.
But it’s still working nonetheless.
The blood in my veins is still roiling, my body’s very cells breaking apart under the influence of that omnipresent, disgusting qi fluctuation. I cough out a mouthful of blood as some starts seeping into my lungs. I stumble against the wall, leaning against it for support as a wave of dizziness washes through my mind. More blood is still flowing out of my eyes and nose.
My mind feels foggy and blurry.
And my frustration with this whole situation slowly turns into anger. Something black and boiling seems to bubble up from deep within myself at the sheer absurdity of it all.
I should be looking for Nerys, but instead, I’m wasting my time dealing with this worthless ball of glass that some worthless scum saw fit to create. Simply standing here is painful. I wouldn’t be hurting so much if I hadn’t tried to be subtle and discreet. If I’d just directly torn that mountain in half and made it collapse, the demon-sealing stone would have been destroyed all the same without me ever coming in close contact with it. Defensive spells or no, a mountain falling on top of it would have broken through everything. I would have been perfectly safe just ripping buildings out of the ground and using them as projectiles from the city below. Even without magic, I could have done that.
So why didn’t I?
Why do I have to scurry around like a terrified little mouse? These weakling humans strut through the place like they have nothing to fear, while I hide and sneak and work hard to not hurt too many of them, so that they won’t notice my presence.
They are the prey, not me. I stopped being prey a long time ago.
They should be the ones hiding from me.
And so what if powerful gods find me? They might disturb my search through the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce’s records, but if that happens, I just need to slaughter them along with everyone else, and I’ll be able to read in peace. Problem solved. It’ll take longer, and it’ll cost me more energy.
But it will also be much more pleasurable.
Thinking about it, should I not look forward to some god finding me? Mortal humans are way too fragile. They will not provide me with a proper outlet for this frustration. I need to destroy something – someone – with more substance than that. I need to vent on someone who can take it for at least a little while.
Before amusing myself with whoever dares to show themselves in front of me, though, I still need to get rid of that annoying demon-sealing stone.
Or do I?
Maybe I should try and fight as I am? Wouldn’t it be even more interesting? My enemies would last for much longer if I can’t just freeze them solid with my magic. And it’s not as if I’m not used to pain. Feeling like I’m dying has basically been my default state of being for the past few centuries. Nothing new here. I’m fairly confident I can keep fighting, even in my current state, with my body seeming about to break down any second. I won’t be at my best – at all – but that would be the whole point.
I shake my head and discard the idea.
I’ll have better options if I can use my magic in full. It’s been awhile since I’ve used a really big spell, so why not do so today? I’ve got all the blood-qi I need, and it’ll surely provide suitable entertainment.
They even provided me with a mountain to crush. How generous.
An alarm starts ringing, somewhere in the castle above. I ignore it.
I push past the waves of agony running through my whole body with the ease of long practice, and a faint, bloodthirsty smile appears on my lips. I raise my hand, then slam it down into the ground. The tunnel shakes under the blow, and cracks open everywhere on the ground, the walls, the ceiling. The whole place seems about to crumble. Pieces of rubble break off from the ceiling and crash to the ground in showers of dust. A few pieces of debris fall on my shoulders and back, some heavy enough to break a human’s spine, I’m sure, but they only bounce off me, not even eliciting the slightest flinch.
My hand still buried in the floor, I dig my claws into the rock, then lift. A long and broad span of the floor, its edges drawn by the fissures running everywhere, suddenly rumbles and rises with a groan. I don’t lift that gouged-out boulder over my shoulder to swing it around or anything of the sort. It’s only hanging by my fingertips, so without any telekinesis to support it, the stone itself will quickly fold under its own weight, even if my grip does not falter. Instead, I only keep the stone aloft for a moment, low and parallel to the floor it was ripped from. And as soon as it’s lined up toward the demon-sealing stone in the room in front of me, I take a step forward. I stomp on the ground, more cracks drawing spiderwebs under the soles of my feet, and push, my hips twisting to transmit every scrap of force from my legs up into my trunk and then my arm. My new projectile shoots toward its target, tearing itself from my claws. It’s even larger than the metal door was, so it rips out more of the wall as it squeezes through the battered doorway. Then it crosses the room’s length and slams into the demon-sealing stone like a battering ram, driving it even deeper into the wall where it crashed earlier, until it collapses on top of it as well.
And finally, with the sound of shattering glass and crashing rubble, the pressure bearing down on me – on my body, my dantian, my soul – disappears.
And the footsteps that were steadily approaching since a few seconds ago finally come close enough to be seen, just in time. A couple of humans in armor round a corner, further down the hallway. They see me standing there amidst the crumbling ruins of the tunnel and the room beyond, with the remains of their two comrades smeared across the walls.
With a spirited shout, they rush at me, sword in hand and magic at their fingertips.
My smile widens.
(Hey, Akasha, careful here! That fog is trying to reach out for you! Is that normal?! Are you the one doing this?!)
But Phineas’s voice interrupts me just as things are about to get interesting. A part of my attention diverts to the inside of my dantian.
There, Phineas is standing protectively in front of my soul, his back to me, sheltering me from the dark tendrils reaching out from the black fog hanging around the second rune. He’s exerting some kind of pressure to keep the tendrils off us.
Is that his soul force?
He can still use it, even while inside my dantian?
How is he even doing that? My soul force can’t affect the black fog at all. Is that some sort of special technique he acquired from studying mind magic when he was alive?
Still, it doesn’t seem very useful. I very much doubt that soul force of his can pass my dantian’s shell to affect the outside world, and nothing inside the dantian can hurt me.
[…The fog is harmless. I’m busy. Don’t bother me.]
(Harmless?! I very much doubt that! Can’t you feel it? Its… corruption? I don’t know what the rune behind this fog is, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing good. I don’t think you should use it.)
I’m not using it. It does that on its own. It’s always done that.
I have more interesting things to do than talk.
Outside, the two rushing soldiers are well within range of my magic, so a simple thought – no, not even that, a mere effort of will materializes two ice spikes right behind their backs. They seem to feel the qi fluctuation radiated by my spell – their faces tighten in surprise – but they’re so painfully slow and clumsy…
A burst of telekinesis sends the two spikes hurtling forward. The two humans are skewered and pinned to the floor.
But they’re not dead.
I’ve studied human physiology, to some extent, so I can avoid instantly lethal strikes with some measure of reliability. Of course, that’s not to say that I intend to spare them.
I leave them only just enough time to realize their predicament before sending another little burst of magic into the spikes. Then, they start growing. Branches of ice crawl out from the smooth surface of the spikes inside the two humans’ bodies, piercing ever deeper, pushing through organs and flesh like a fast-growing tree of ice.
I feel through our reestablished link that Sanae shares my excitement. She shifts a little in my eye socket, as if itching to kill some humans herself.
As expected, these creatures are fragile, though.
They die too quickly. It’s over in seconds.
I can hear more coming, their clanging footsteps loud in the echoing tunnels, but I’m fairly certain they’re going to be just as disappointingly short-lived as the two I just killed. There is little point in waiting for them to arrive. If it’s going to be that anticlimactic, I might as well end it before it even starts.
Right. Let’s clean up the chaff.
I’ll wait until a god comes out. Though, if none do, I suppose I’ll have to content myself with hunting down the mortals. There should be enough in the city below to satisfy me.
Even as streams of blood-qi flow through my meridians to mend the damage the giant demon-sealing stone did to me – my body stabilized as soon as the stone was broken, so I’m in no further danger – I raise my hand in front of me. A tiny, glittering ball of ice blinks into existence above my palm, floating gently. Instantly, the temperature inside the tunnel drops vertiginously. Frost crawls to cover the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the two new corpses and what’s left of the two old ones. And even myself.
It takes me a few seconds of concentration, but I complete the spell. The tiny ball of ice splits down the middle, each half turning into a small wisp of white mist and heading in a different direction down the tunnel. The mist itself is almost invisible to the eye, but its effects aren’t. A wave of cold follows after it down the tunnel, almost tangible, turning the insides of the mountain into a world of ice.
Soon, no more humans are approaching.
I can’t see it from here, but I imagine a few frozen statues now stand, unmoving, somewhere in these tunnels. The spell will continue on its way until it’s expended all its energy, dividing automatically at each branch of the road. I expect that, by the time it runs out, I’ll be the only living thing down here.
(Was that really necessary?) Phineas asks gravely, staring at me. He’s still exuding some soul force to keep the dark tendrils at bay. (Weren’t you supposed to favor stealth, tonight? In and out without anyone knowing you were there? You’ve already killed too many to really achieve that, but I don’t think killing everyone in the mountain will really make things any better.)
[…No need for stealth if everyone is dead.]
Phineas’s expression doesn’t flicker. (I see. True enough, I suppose. But have you really thought this through? I disagreed with your plan to enter the city in the first place, but now that you’re here, I certainly think that your idea to remain unnoticed was a good one. There must be gods in this city. They will not allow you to slaughter these mortals as you please.)
Phineas’s eyebrows rise in shock. (Good? How is that good?)
Why should I explain myself to anyone?
Shaking my head, I start preparing another spell. Since the gods living in this city are apparently taking their time coming here – though it’s only been a few seconds since I ripped the door out and used it as a battering ram, so perhaps I’m just being impatient – I should signal my position in a more obvious way.
A series of concentric spheres of ice, their surface thin but airtight, each new layer enclosing the smaller ones inside, appears in front of me. All the spheres are rapidly shrinking, trapping the air between each layer and compressing it into a gradually smaller space. When the smallest sphere becomes only half a centimeter in radius, and the next sphere is about to catch up with it, I release the strand of magic feeding into it, and it disappears. At the same time, I endlessly create additional, larger spheres to take the place of those shrinking. Gradually, with an almost hypnotic rhythm, more and more air is trapped in the innermost center of the construct.
If I keep this up a little longer, I’ll have a bomb powerful enough to tear the mountain apart from the inside out. That should wake up any god nearby.
Phineas watches me work with a thoughtful look.
(Well, you’re free to do what you want, of course,) he says slowly. (Far be it from me to dissuade you of anything. At least, I’m glad to see you do things for your own benefit, for once. Ever since I woke up, you’ve been so focused on finding you sister and rescuing her and making sure she’s safe. You haven’t taken any time to take care of your own needs. Now, you finally put yourself first and foremost. And you’re even smiling so brightly! I’m truly glad to see you like this. I’m sure – Nerys, was it? – I’m sure she can wait.)
Phineas’s casual words are like a blade driven into my brain. My mind shakes and jolts, disturbing my control over my spell. The inner sphere disappears a tad too early and all the air inside it expands violently, destroying all the outer layers as well.
The explosion sends me flying backward. After the metal door and the piece I ripped out of the floor, it’s my turn to be flung into the room that held the demon-sealing stone. I burst through the wall and crash amidst the rubble already there, more debris falling all over me and burying me.
I lie there, stunned, for a moment.
(Are you quite all right?)
(Looks like it. So. What now?)
Phineas looks vaguely satisfied, for some reason, like he’s happy to have watched me fail my spellcasting.
Well, I suppose the consequences of failing that particular spell can be quite spectacular.
I sigh inwardly and push away a span of wall that fell over me. It crashes to the side, raising a cloud of stone dust. Shaking my head, I get to my feet and look at the devastation around me. I feel my fist clench uncontrollably at the echoes of my anger still resonating in my head, my claws digging into my palm.
What Phineas said is correct.
It would be nothing more than a waste of time to fight the gods protecting Alsomn. I have more important things to do. In the end, no matter how much enjoyment I would derive from slaughtering these people, I must keep my priorities straight.
No matter what, Nerys must come first.
I forcefully open my fist and relax muscles still tense with a desire for violence.
Glancing down at my feet, I see a few fragments of the demon-sealing stone. Just broken glass. I doubt I’ll be able to discover much from these. And I don’t have enough time to root through the rubble for all the tiny pieces of it to try and reconstruct it for analysis. It’s been almost a full minute since I destroyed the stone; I know that not every god can move as fast as I do, but surely, whoever guards this place is about to arrive.
(You’ve stopped smiling,) Phineas says. (And you didn’t answer my question. What now? Are you going to fight?)
Now, I fulfill my objectives.
I can always kill people when I’m done.
I swallow back the bloodlust filling my thoughts and look up at the destroyed doorway and the tunnel stretching beyond it.
Then I burst forward, the air tearing apart around me, the rubble sent flying everywhere by the shockwave of my departure. As I run, fast enough that the tunnel is nothing but a blur around me, I consider my situation. I can’t go back up the stairs. I’m fairly sure everyone on the mountain’s summit must have been woken up by the ruckus I caused. But I could lose myself in the city below. It’s large enough that finding a single person in it would be quite a task. My appearance is quite distinctive, but I can hide adequately enough, if I want to.
So, I need to escape the bowels of that mountain without using the designated passages.
That shouldn’t be too hard.
Two and a half tons of indestructible weight traveling at almost twice the speed of sound. The impact of that should be enough to directly push through a stone wall, right? Even if that wall is a bit thick.
It’s certainly enough to destroy all the frozen statues of human guards — those who’d been coming to check on the commotion. I don’t even need to touch them. The shockwave that travels behind me as I run is enough to shatter them all into tiny pieces, bouncing all over the floor like rolling pebbles.
I judge by my memories of my trip here and the flow of the air around me where I stand within the mountain and where the weakest point might be. Crossing around 400 meters every second, it’s only a negligible delay for me to loop through the entire tunnel system and get a good idea of where I should aim for.
And still no god to pursue me.
They are so slow it’s almost unbelievable.
Or could there be no god at all in this place? Was I wrong from the start?
On my second lap, I’ve found my target point. I don’t need to think and analyze. So I run even faster, wringing every bit of speed out of my body. Which is a lot. At my very fastest, even Sanae can’t catch up to me. With each of my steps, the tunnel explodes into ruins behind me, but by this point, I’m running at around 600 meters per second. No matter how much destruction occurs behind me, it won’t occur fast enough to affect me.
And I finally reach the right place.
Overall, the tunnels are relatively straight, but this specific point turns at a sharper angle than anywhere else. Mentally visualizing the entire tunnel system in relation to the mountain it riddles, I can make an educated guess that this place is very close to the outer edge of the mountain side. On my first time through here, I had to step and run on the wall for a little while to make the turn. The vibrations caused by my footfalls confirmed that the wall there should be thin enough for my purpose.
So, this time, instead of turning, I ram straight into the wall.
An earthquake shakes the entire mountain.
An instant later, its belly explodes.
And I’m outside, plummeting from the downward-facing, inner curve of the giant, stocky crescent the mountain was carved into, enormous boulders raining down alongside me onto the city of Alsomn far below.