Since there is no point in hanging below the ship’s hull any longer, I let go and sink to the bottom of the harbor. I stay underwater, since many witnesses are walking around on the surface and I prefer to remain undetected, and go sit in a corner, where one of the docks meets land.
I wait until night falls and most of the dock workers go to sleep before getting to my feet. Slowly, I crawl up the wall and breach the surface. I peek over the edge of the dock, making sure that no one can see me, then climb up, putting foot on the Island itself. My wet hair sticks to my body, and my tail feels heavy and uncomfortable, and there’s water in my ears. None of that bothered me when I was still underwater, but now that I’m back on dry land, I find that it’s quite a bother.
<Shake yourself. Doggy.>
I glance at Sanae, her tiny form skittering back and forth next to my feet. Her wet, black-metal body glistens under the moonlight.
Ever since we left the Planar Tower, she’s spent most of her time sleeping as I traveled, to avoid wasting blood-qi. She only really comes out every once in a while to share a few words or help me in a fight, so it’s nice to see her move around on her own, for once.
Though Phineas doesn’t share my joy. He’s still as uncomfortable with her presence as ever.
[…I’m not a dog.]
I send the idiotic spider a mental rebuke, then freeze all the water on me. With a thought, the ice detaches from my body and falls to the ground, then flows into the sea behind me as smoothly as if it were a liquid stream, leaving me comfortably dry.
A faint babble of voices approaches our position, so I cast a thought at Sanae, then leap away, landing in a silent crouch a few hundred meters from the shore, on the edge of a tall warehouse’s roof. A second later, Sanae’s small body alights next to me.
From this position, I can see a settlement, a bit further inland, a kilometer or so from the port. People there are still strolling around even this late at night. The atmosphere seems quite festive and joyous, with people laughing riotously as they enter and exit from buildings lit by colored streamers of light. At the same time, however, there appears to be an undercurrent of tension running through the air. I sit and watch for only a few minutes, but already, I’ve witnessed half a dozen brawls, two of which lead to the violent deaths of those taking part in them. Most such conflicts see humans and majin fight each other. Both sides frequent different parts of the town, it seems, but they sometimes do meet. When they do, a fight invariably starts.
(It’s a pretty big town for an island that’s supposed to be uninhabited, isn’t it? I thought there would be something of an audience for the tournament, but I was off by an order of magnitude. The people here must be counted by the hundred thousand.)
[…It’s an old book from the Planar Prison. Discrepancies are unsurprising.]
Perhaps, when my map book was published, the Island really was uninhabited, and it changed only recently. It’s not like the inmates inside the Prison would know.
(True enough. It’s interesting, though. Look at these people fight. All of them are pretty powerful, as far as mortals go. I don’t think any of them are below 5th rank. It’s like an entire city made up of experts – relatively speaking. There don’t seem to be any common mortals, here.)
Indeed. Everyone I see is a practitioner. Is it that common mortals would be a liability during the trip – first through part of the Frontline, until the coast, then over the Betwixt Sea? Or is it that mortals would be of little help during those fights popping up all over the town?
I can’t sense any qi fluctuation powerful enough to belong to a god, however.
Not like that surprises me.
Would gods truly be interested in a battle competition between non-gods? Phineas seems to be, perhaps, but I’m having trouble understanding why, especially considering his usual distaste for violence.
Or is it that he’s trying to broaden my experiences? Trying to get me used to the way Caldera’s inhabitants fight so that I won’t be taken by surprise again? That would make sense, I suppose. Phineas woke up right after the battle in Dorn, where I suffered some rather severe injuries. He must be worried that I’ll die – which would lead to his own death, as well.
Well, I’ve had this thought in the past, too, and I’m not adverse to the idea of fighting some interesting new opponents. But in the end, I have no desire to adopt these techniques of Caldera’s inhabitants. My ice magic isn’t perfect, but it’s enough for my purposes. And my body is the best weapon I could ever wish for, so I don’t need artifacts. I don’t even need to really train or anything like that. When it comes down to it, if I want strength, I just need to bury myself under a mountain and sleep for a few thousand years. By that point, the adamantine on my limbs will have grown to cover me entirely, and I’ll be like Sanae – indestructible.
I do have some interest in the ways humans and majin use formations, I suppose, but not for battle or survival. Formations are more like a toy to distract and entertain myself. Some of them can be quite useful in day-to-day life, maybe, but day-to-day life isn’t any of my concern, right now. Maybe when I’ll have found Nerys.
I almost start to wallow in confusion and self-pity again when I suddenly slap my own cheeks. Phineas stares at me strangely when I do that, but I ignore him and close my eyes.
I’m making this problem more complicated than it needs to be. Everything is only ever a matter of priorities.
My priority number one is finding Nerys – as in making sure she’s safe and happy and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. I’ve been going for that objective since the start. But now I’m hesitating and wasting time. This is detrimental to the completion of my objective. I don’t mind taking my time – the past 300 years have taught me that slow and steady wins the race, as an idiom I recently read states – but wasting my time is unacceptable.
So why am I dithering? Because I’m afraid that, after finding her, I will put Nerys in danger when I lose control of my anger and go berserk?
Priorities. Priorities. Priorities.
This issue is meaningless from the very start.
Unknowingly, something unnecessary infiltrated and polluted my goal, dulling the edge of my resolve.
Why do I want to control my violence?
So that I will be able to live alongside Nerys, without causing harm to her.
But my actual goal, my Priority Number One, is to find Nerys, then ensure her safety and happiness. Period. It’s all very explicit, really. In that sentence, there is – or there should be – nothing at all about me. Nothing about me sharing in that safety and happiness. Nothing about me even surviving at all.
When did I start thinking otherwise?
Enjoying a peaceful, joyous life alongside Nerys would undoubtedly be very nice, but it’s not necessary. It’s not a prerequisite to completing Priority Number One. It’s nowhere near the top of my list of priorities. And if this extraneous goal gets in the way of Priority Number One, then I should just give it up altogether.
This extraneous goal will only come afterward. Only once Nerys is safe and sound will I need to consider my right to survive and enjoy the results of my efforts alongside her. In the meantime, it is meaningless to worry about such things as survival and enjoyment.
Thinking about it in those terms, it’s all quite simple, really.
Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys. Find Nerys!
While finding Nerys, permanently remove all threats to her. If it ever turns out that the most significant threat is me, if I ever become an obstacle toward the completion of that objective… then, permanently remove the obstacle, before it can even actualize.
Why did I ever hesitate when the answer has been right here all along?
For the past 300 years, it’s always been the same. If there is a threat, an impediment on the way to my objective, exterminate it. Once and for all. Crush it down into nothing. It doesn’t matter in the least if that threat, that impediment, is me.
In the Tower, being alive was a prerequisite to the goal of surviving and escaping. Now, this is no longer the case, but I’ve failed to adjust my mentality. Subconsciously, I still tried to aim for an ending where I am happy and alive, even to the detriment of the objective’s completion.
This is wrong.
My life is only a tool whose purpose is to complete a specific task. As long as this tool is useful, I should certainly protect and hone and temper it. But if the task is best completed by giving up this tool or if the tool becomes a liability, then there is no reason to hesitate.
I feel a small smile settle on my lips as the conundrum is finally solved.
This feels quite liberating.
300 years have passed. Death is still scary. But… killing myself to protect Nerys… Finally ending my life, after such a very, very long time, knowing that I am destroying the last threat to Nerys, that I’ve succeeded, that my task is done…
(What’s with the creepy smile?) Phineas asks suddenly, his tone wary. (What are you thinking about?)
Next step would be…
[…I think I’ll participate in the tournament.]
This option has the best utility of all, at the moment, I think. Three benefits: help me find Nerys; help Nerys find me by displaying myself publicly; gain combat experience.
I glance down at Sanae for a moment. She’s staring at me. I can tell she’s been following my train of thought. I can tell that she approves. She’s always approved of decisiveness.
Phineas looks surprised for a moment, then shows a pleased grin. (Really? Hahaha! Nice! Good idea! Show those kids what real strength is like! You know, in my youth, I also took part in such contests a few times. I never really got very far, because mind magic is too subtle and elegant a discipline for such crude pursuits, but what can I say? I was young and rash, then. I wanted to prove myself to my peers. One time, I did get pretty far by using a spell I’d developed previously that directly attacked the soul. That got me in quite a pickle, actually, because as it turned out…)
I tune out of the rest of Phineas’s ramblings with practiced ease. Most of them are about his old history on the Godrealm, but while I’ve gathered a few interesting tidbits, the vast majority of what he says consists of boasting on his past achievements and describing the benefits of mind magic, both of which are entirely meaningless to me. By this point, I feel that it’s safe to completely ignore everything that comes out of his mouth whenever it’s not a direct reply to one of my questions.
Phineas himself doesn’t even seem to notice that I’m not listening, anyway…
Instead, I look toward the town again.
In the middle of it, there is a huge stone building, both tall and wide. It’s roughly circular, but there are no openings in this side of its wall for me to see inside it, so I’m not quite sure what it’s used for. Maybe to host the tournament? It seems just about big enough for people to fight in it.
(Definitely looks like an arena. It’s probably there you’ll need to go to register to the tournament,) Phineas puts in, finally coming back around to more useful subjects. (No, wait, it’s the middle of the night. Registration won’t be open, most likely.)
Ah, so I can’t just show up and start fighting people?
[…Why not? Many people are awake.]
(Only drunkards looking to party or get into fights. A tournament of this importance should have some official organizers. Those organizers will be the ones to talk to in order to become a contestant.) Phineas tugs on his beard and frowns, then continues his analysis. (It might also be the case that registrations are already closed, or that contestants have to come in through a specific channel or through a sponsor’s introduction. Hmm, now that it’s come down to it, I’m not even sure you’ll be able to take part at all. I didn’t think you’d actually want to participate, so I hadn’t really thought about it, but… We might be out of luck, there.)
[…What’s a sponsor?]
(Someone who can confirm your identity and will vouch for you before the organizers of the tournament. It’s a way to limit the amount of rabble taking up spots and ruining the experience for everybody. Well, I’m not sure that’s truly how things are done, here. I’m only speculating. I’ve never visited Caldera before, so… It’s also possible that the organizers do intend to accept all contestants who dare to present themselves, no matter how rabble-ish they are. You’ll just have to try and see if things work out.)
I ruminate on that for a few more minutes. Phineas and Sanae stay silent in the meantime. My musings are brought to a stop when I spot two familiar faces, leaving a building on the human side of the town.
Someone who can confirm my identity…
I flip my hand, and a card appears on my palm out of my space ring.
Species (leave blank if human): oni
Current warrior rank: 5
Sponsor: Jasper Kelsen (119836)
Most of this is just plain wrong, but it shouldn’t matter – it’s never mattered before.
I make a bit of an effort and jump again, Sanae immediately following suit. Behind us, the edge of the warehouse’s roof crumbles and collapses, while we soar through the night sky and into the town, heading for those familiar faces. Buildings flash past beneath me until I accurately land in the street I aimed for. I don’t entirely kill the noise of my landing, so the two humans in front of me, walking arm in arm, look over their shoulders to see what happened.
When they see me, both gape open-mouthed. Sirona recovers first, taking a wary – probably unconscious – step back, while Jasper just stares dumbfounded.
“It’s you!” Jasper calls loudly after a moment. “What are you doing here?!” Then Sirona pokes his side with her elbow, and Jasper blinks, seeming to catch himself. “Oh! Um, sorry. My apologies, I was a little rude, just now. Miss Akasha, right? What, uh, brings you to these parts, if I may ask?”
Phineas quirks an eyebrow and gives me a sideways glance. (Have you terrorized these two before? They seem to know you personally – at least enough to be afraid.)
[…They’re the ones who gave me my identification card.]
(Ah, that thing from earlier? I guess they don’t know you that well, then,) he says, smacking his lips. (There must be something seriously wrong with their eyes if they thought you were a 5th-rank oni.)
I direct my telepathy to Jasper and Sirona. […I want to enter the tournament.]
“You do?” Jasper asks, astonished, then his eyes narrow speculatively. He thinks for a moment before asking, “You want to enter the tournament… as a contestant from the High-Sea Verse mercenary group?”
I nod, and after a few seconds, a crafty smile flickers over Jasper’s lips.
“Not an issue at all! I’ve been put in charge of all operational matters concerning the Verse during the tournament. I can recommend you and let you enter our team.”
I’m a little surprised at how easy Jasper was to convince, and even Sirona is looking at him strangely.
Jasper, noticing our confusion – or probably just Sirona’s, since mine probably isn’t that obvious – explains with a wry smile, “Our lineup this year isn’t particularly strong, so I was worried about our performance. If we can’t even make it past the preliminaries, it’d be a drain on the High-Sea Verse’s honor.”
“And a reduction in your paycheck,” Sirona adds quietly.
Jasper shoots her a quick glare, which she brushes off effortlessly, then clears his throat awkwardly. “In any case, with Miss Akasha here, there won’t be any problem with our standing anymore. But I’m surprised you’re interested at all. I really didn’t expect to meet you here. Especially when there’s a bounty on your head, now…”
There is a pause in the conversation as Jasper gives me a meaningful glance, apparently waiting for a response, but there isn’t really anything for me to say – he didn’t ask a question or anything – so I stay silent.
When it becomes clear I have nothing to add to the conversation, Jasper scratches the bridge of his nose and says, “Well, all right. To register you, then. Don’t worry; the bounty won’t matter. But, um, I hope you still have the identification card I gave – ah, you do. Thank you.” He takes the card I hand him and holds it up to his eyes appreciatively, as if reminiscing. After a second, he glances back and forth between it and me. “Hmm. We’ll probably need to find something to hide your tail and ears, so that you can pass for an actual oni. And… you’re still rank F, I see.” He looks at me with a strange gaze. “You didn’t complete any contracts? At all?”
I shake my head.
In fact, I never approached another branch of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group. There was just no reason to waste my time with contracts and ranks. The only thing I needed was the card itself; it worked just fine as identification when I used it, no matter what was written on it.
“I see,” Jasper says. “Well, that’s fine. The tournament doesn’t require a particular rank – mercenary rank, I mean – to register.” He looks suddenly conflicted, almost worried. “But… you should probably expect some of the other contestants to… comment on it when they see it. I’m afraid that’ll be unavoidable.”
“I’ll tell the rest of the team to keep their mouths shut before they can meet Miss Akasha,” Sirona puts in quietly. “That’ll be safer.”
“Will they even listen…?”
“If they don’t, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves when the inevitable happens,” Sirona says, shrugging and giving me a small, anticipatory smile.
“I’d rather not lose any contestants before the competition even begins, thank you very much,” Jasper says drily.
Since it looks like their conversation will continue indefinitely, I take a step forward and interrupt them.
[…Where do I register?]