The village of Dorn, destroyed beyond recovery, lies in the valley below. Streets that should be filled with people are now empty and deserted. The only visible remains of the humans who used to live here are the corpses I can see dotting the ground, here and there.
I grit my teeth as my gaze falls on the figure standing on the rooftop of one of the few buildings left standing.
Wherever devils pass…
“Should we attack, sir?” Carla whispers from right behind me. Reflexively, I almost shush her, but I hold myself back, knowing that her voice won’t be noticed. Still, I have no doubt that, were it not for the thin vacuum barrier surrounding us, our target would have heard her from all the way down to the village.
After a moment of consideration, I shake my head. “No. Not yet. There might still be survivors in the village. Just in case, we should try to avoid collateral casualties as much as we can.”
“Does that include Finram Springfield? Although he doesn’t look at his best condition, already,” Carla says with a small titter.
I shake my head again and reply with an indifferent voice. “Springfield is irrelevant. Our focus here is on the devils. Carla, you’ll round up the ones AK-A-13 sent flying earlier. Keep the 9th-ranker alive. The others, too, if you can, but they’re less important.”
“Orsino, you’ll be coming with me to handle Akasha herself. I’ll bring her away from the village, so that we can fight unhindered, without worrying about any civilians getting caught in the crossfire.”
Orsino grits his teeth. “By your will, young master,” he says in a strained voice.
Looks like Orsino isn’t particularly enthusiastic about his upcoming rematch against Akasha. I suppose I can’t blame him, considering he was sent running with his tail between his legs so pitifully, last time he fought her. Still, my orders won’t change. Whatever the results at the time, fact is, he survived and is the only one among us with any experience in directly fighting against today’s opponent. If things don’t go according to plan, his insights may tip the balance in our favor.
My gaze fixed on my target – I’m too far away to see her precisely, but her silhouette and the tattered maid uniform she’s wearing are a dead giveaway – I flick my hand, and a small grenade appears atop my palm. Spatial distortions flicker all around it, the only signs of the terrifying power held within.
A hushed gasp escapes from Orsino as his eyes land upon it. “Young master, what is this?”
“A little toy from my hometown,” is the only response I give him. A little provincial god like him, who’ll likely never even see a speck of dust from the Godrealm, doesn’t need to know more.
Of course, this thing is a bit more than a toy.
Up on the Godrealm, rampaging demons and uppity majin are sometimes the least of humanity’s problems. When the true monsters come out, gods take the field and deal with the threat. However, powerful practitioners can’t be allowed to throw their magic around wherever they want. There are too many of them and too little livable space for such a thing. Poisoning arable lands, irradiating cities, laying waste to whole swaths of what little territory humanity has earned for itself… These are real dangers, up there. Gods have learned the rules and respect them, of course, but when a mad godbeast – or something even worse – attacks, it’s not always easy to convince them to ‘take this outside’, so to speak.
And that’s where the displacement grenade comes in. This one is not a particularly powerful model, comparatively, but it’s still designed to throw godbeasts away from human cities, where they can be fought without fear of crushing thousands of mortals with the mere aftershocks of the battle.
And most godbeasts tend to be rather large. And heavy.
Which means that the effects on someone of AK-A-13’s short stature should be… satisfactory.
It might even kill her instantly.
I at least know for a fact that most human gods wouldn’t be able to resist the power of this little globe. There is no destructive magic imbued within it. No fire, no lightning, no deconstruction spells. But the sheer impulse of that raw brute force would still be more than enough to tear apart anyone unprepared for it.
I’m not sure how I feel about using such a despicable scheme to potentially win a fight before it even begins, but the needs of our circumstances trump my own feelings on the matter.
“Here goes,” I say, more to myself than anyone else, as if I’m trying to convince myself to proceed with this.
With a nod to Carla, she carefully adds a barrier against radiation and qi fluctuations to the sphere of vacuum already surrounding us, showing remarkable control of her magic. Just to be sure, I still check the barrier’s integrity, and when I’m reassured that Akasha won’t feel my magic activating, I cast a strengthening spell on my own body, trigger the three switches on the grenade – one needs to press the three in a specific order, to remove the risk of accidental detonation – take a deep breath, then swing my arm as hard as I can.
Naturally, my aim is perfect, despite the distance.
With the help of my enhanced strength, it takes only a fraction of a second for the displacement grenade to fly down the mountain slope and reach Akasha, up on her rooftop. She should have noticed the grenade’s own qi fluctuation, when it left the bounds of Carla’s barrier, and for a moment, I almost think she’s going to be fast enough to dodge despite my efforts.
She does try to twist out of the grenade’s way, but it hits her in the flank. A flicker of blurry motion later, a whip crack of displaced air is the only thing left of her, the bloodstained bundle she was holding dropping to the rooftop where she stood an instant before.
The three of us watch in awe as explosions rock the world, one after another. Clumps of trees are sent up high into the sky like they’re only blades of grass. Boulders are flung up and down, distance turning them into small pieces of shrapnel in our eyes. A line of craters, each deep and wide, blasts down the valley away from the village of Dorn, heading quickly for the northern horizon. Every impact creates its own localized earthquake, straining the mountains on both sides and causing secondary landslides, soil flowing like water into some of the craters, as if to fill them back up and keep the valley level.
Soon, the distance Akasha has been thrown to is enough that the sound of her body crashing repeatedly into the ground is muted enough to be almost inaudible.
I slowly let out the breath I’d unknowingly been holding.
This is the first time I’ve seen a displacement grenade in use, and I have to say it’s even more powerful than I anticipated.
Is it really all right for me to have used such a precious thing here?
Akasha should have died. As far as anyone knows, she doesn’t have any shielding magic, and the thing hit her dead-on. There is no way an unprotected body could possibly bear such a powerful force as this. It would already be a miracle if we managed to find a whole corpse.
I swallow my saliva with an audible gulp, then shake myself out of my daze. “Carla, go. The devils. Remember, keep the big one – the one who was smashed out of the building earlier – alive. Orsino, with me.”
“Yes, young master.”
We all take flight, separating into two groups. Carla heads for Dorn, while Orsino and I follow the line of destruction Akasha left in her path.
We find our quarry almost 20 kilometers north of Dorn, face down in the rubble of a collapsed hill. Rivulets of black blood flow out of her unresponsive body and slowly trickle down the slanted rock underneath her. Her limbs are still attached, but they’re all bent in strange and painful-looking ways, clearly loose from their sockets. The maid uniform she was wearing unsurprisingly turned to scrap during her tumbling through the landscape, leaving only a few strips of blood-soaked fabric hanging on her small frame.
“Young master,” Orsino calls diffidently, “we shouldn’t get close too carelessly. She could be faking it.”
Still in the air, I turn to him with disbelief written all over my face. “Faking it? Did we just witness the same spectacle, a minute ago? How could she possibly be faking anything, right now?”
“Young master, I just…”
Orsino’s excuses trail off before they can even begin, and his gaze locks just above my shoulder, his mouth hanging open in shock. I have only the barest moment to wonder what’s up with him before all the fine hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stand on end.
Staying airborne, I slowly let the air currents around me turn me around and end up gazing into a single glowing red eye staring right back at me. The face around that eye is perfectly expressionless, but strangely enough, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind what emotion hides behind it.
Burning, blistering rage.
Ice slithers over the shattered body of AK-A-13, holding her upright. It coils around her limbs and – crack, pop, snap – with a series of sickening sounds, her arm and her legs slide back into their proper place one after the other. Then, all the ice running over her body moves to her left shoulder, and a new opaque white arm slowly grows from the stump. AK-A-13 stretches like a cat waking from sleep and more wet cracks resound from within her body. After clenching and relaxing her fists a few times, she runs a hand over her face, wiping off some of the blood but only spreading the rest even more, basically painting her face black. Uncaring, she brings her hand down to her mouth and licks the blood dripping down it.
During this entire process, her gaze never leaves Orsino and I, and it doesn’t even occur to either of us to interrupt her.
Despite the demon-sealing stone stored in my space ring.
Since it was made specifically to deal with creatures like AK-A-13, I borrowed one from our inventories before leaving. Yet, even knowing the tactical advantage it would bring us if I were to produce it right now, I hesitate to move. Because I know that the creature in front of me will pounce at the first movement I make.
Am I… afraid?
A scowl slowly distorts my features as I realize how unsightly and disgraceful my current actions are. Hesitating to fight this evil when it stands right in front of me is simply shameful. If I don’t dare to do battle now, I might as well kill myself and be done with such a worthless life.
And fear is unnecessary, anyway.
So what if she can survive a displacement grenade? So what if her cultivation level is higher than mine? So what if she’s more experienced than I am?
I also have my own advantages, my own trump cards.
And more than that, I have my responsibility to remove this menace from the world.
First Fushia City, now Dorn.
It needs to stop!
With a thought, a sword appears in my right hand, the demon-sealing stone in my left. I slip the latter inside my robes so that it’ll be out of the way – I don’t want to be a hand short during this fight, and I can’t exactly leave it lying around on the ground for my enemy to destroy – then summon another sword into my left hand, this one a shorter dagger.
The moment the demon-sealing stone appears and its effects manifest, Akasha’s slit pupil shrinks in recognition, and all her qi abruptly retracts into her dantian, even the very faint echoes of it that were coursing through her left arm and giving it life and motion. Then, she bursts into action, the already battered hill once more caving under the impulse of her leap as she flies through the air in my direction.
Against an opponent who can fly as nimbly and quickly as I, airborne combat is a terrible idea.
Case in point, while Akasha’s movements are fast and strong – especially considering she currently doesn’t have any qi to draw on – and only a fraction of a second elapses before she’s in front of me, her leg swinging in a vicious kick aimed at my flank, my superior agility up in the air allows me to simply float above her and let her soar past below me ineffectively.
I alter my own flight’s trajectory to follow Akasha’s, so as to stay right above her, then I reverse the grip on my sword and let myself drop down, blade point first. The timing is tricky, but I get it right.
The sword stabs halfway between her shoulder and her neck, sliding against her clavicle. I feel quite the resistance pushing back against the stab – whereas it’s usually just as effortless for me to cut flesh as empty air – but in the end, the sharpness of my blade is too much for even a body strengthened as much as this one to defend against. Black blood spurts out and stains the shining metal biting into AK-A-13’s skin.
I’m just about to send my magic into the sword and end this fight with this first strike when my enemy’s hand shoots up, and her black fingers, long and almost skeletal, clamp down around the blade, heedless of the cutting edge.
Immediately, the sword that was still stabbing deeper into her body becomes as solid and static as a mountain. An experimental push on the hilt is enough to tell me that moving it according to my will again, either back or forth – is absolutely impossible. I can even feel the strain her vise-like grip puts on the blade through my connection to it.
Damn it! What ridiculous strength!
But no matter. With my weapon already inside her, one simple bit of blade magic will be enough to thoroughly destroy all the organs the displacement grenade miraculously left intact.
Akasha’s own hand suddenly pulls on my sword, forcing it even further inside her own body – judging by the length of the blade still outside, it should definitely be piercing into her lung already – and drawing me closer to her along with it.
Is she trying to kill herself? Or does she want to bring me down to the ground alongside her? Absurd! She’ll be dead long before she lands. Although the time required to cast my spell is commensurate with its great power, I already have it on the edge of my mind, on the very cusp of casting.
But then, as my qi blazes through my meridians and the spell is about to coalesce into reality, Akasha’s body twists strangely, her leg sweeping through the air toward my belly from a seemingly impossible position.
As if the world is slowing down around me, I see the powerful muscles of her thigh contract and twist and shift under her skin. I see the air strain and shatter around her calf, a sonic boom forming itself right in front of my eyes. I see the impossibly sharp claws tipping the end of her toes, angled straight toward me, ready to gut me in the next instant.
With her strength, this kick will blow all the way to my spine. It’ll cut me in half. Is this what she was aiming for?! A mutual kill?
I can’t die here! I still have tons of things I have to do!
Frantically, I convert the offensive blade magic I was sending down my sword into a defensive one, to protect my body. Changing the nature of a spell already coursing through my meridians is one of the best ways to injure them, but better that than dying here and now!
As expected, my meridians fray and tear from the strain put on them, but thankfully, the spell changes and, instead of flowing down my arm and into my sword, disperses throughout my being. In an instant, it’s like my muscles and my flesh suddenly lock up tight, turning my body into a rigid fortress. I concentrate most of the effect to my belly, then…
The sound of breaking glass rings out the barest fraction of a second before AK-A-13’s foot slams into me. The impact of her kick and the simultaneous detonation of my shielding spell blow us apart, just as a sizzling lightning bolt slices the air where Akasha was located just a moment ago, a peal of thunder following on its heels.
Good! I’d almost forgotten about him!
Akasha drops to the ground a few meters away, tottering and almost losing her balance as the shattered boulder she landed on – a fragment of the hill from earlier – crumbles under her feet. Now that I look at her, she’s in an absolutely terrible state, bleeding profusely from everywhere at the same time. Her left hand is pressed against the gaping wound I just gave her, trying to stem the flow of blood, and…
Why is her left hand moving?
The ice limb that had remained inert and paralyzed since I produced the demon-sealing stone is moving again. All the parts of it that had flaked or broken off during our violent confrontation are whole again. Even as I watch, the ice that makes up her hand visibly becomes a more opaque white than before, and the fingers on it lengthen and sharpen into blades, warping into distorted versions of human digits. More ice moves over her body, melting into her injuries and sealing them shut one after another.
Eyes wide, I tug open my clothes, and my gaze lands on the fragments of the demon-sealing stone I put there about five seconds ago.
I grit my teeth as I slowly alight upon the ground, keeping my distance from my opponent. Orsino is still up in the sky, looking at me with concern.
Ideally, I too would keep flying, but this bitch has already proven that she can fight me in the air. I could keep running circles around her, of course, but attacking her would also give her the opportunity she wants. Better to fight on the ground, where I can use the qi I’d reserved for flight to instead maintain defensive spells on myself at all times without risking qi exhaustion.
I wish I could also constantly cast blade magic into my sword. One good blow from that would be enough to finish the fight instantly, but that spell is just too costly to do so. I can only use it in small bursts.
But even if I can’t keep my blade magic up all the time, from now on, I at least need to always have it ready for deployment, instead of starting the cast from scratch whenever I need it. That would just take too long.
…Well, no. It’s not that the spellcasting takes too long. It’s that my opponent is too quick. I truly didn’t think she’d be able to counterattack like this before I had time to slice her apart from the inside out. How in the void can someone move that fast? It’s just absurd! And the angle of that kick. Nobody is that flexible. It’s almost like she dislocated her own leg so that she could reach me. Surely, she didn’t really do that, right?
As I glare at AK-A-13, thinking of my tactics and fingering the hilt of my sword – grooves have been left in the metal where her adamantine claws scraped into the blade – she lowers her hand from the wound on her shoulder and licks her fingers clean again. This injury too has now stopped bleeding.
I bring my sword up in front of me and exhale deeply to relax my tense muscles. My breath mists in front of my mouth, and only now do I realize that the temperature dropped a dozen degrees in the last few seconds. I quickly circle my qi within me, ignoring the ache coming from my injured meridians, to prevent my body from stiffening in the biting cold.
Sapping heat from the surroundings.
The single most basic spell in the repertoire of any novice ice magician.
Let’s see who’ll win this fight in the end, monster.