Things went much smoother than I’d feared.
That little girl – Akasha – is a bit taciturn, but she’s more amenable than her demonhood might suggest. Submissive, even.
It’s actually quite a surprise. I expected to have to fight tooth and nail and negotiate and debate and convince in order to earn my place inside her dantian. But I guess being the one to free her from her loneliness played in my favor.
And so, I got settled in.
And we’re off to a new floor.
Even I have never stepped foot on this one.
That cyclone looks troublesome. And those spiders are weaker than I expected – which isn’t good news. It means that, either there is some clever trick involved, or their lack of strength will be compensated by sheer numbers.
Well, I’m sure Akasha can handle it, whatever it turns out to be…
But why on earth is she practicing such simple movements? She’s taking so much care just walking. What kind of training is this supposed to be? It doesn’t seem to be part of a secret technique, or anything like that. I can’t see any mystical meaning into it. It’s really just… walking.
I never exactly focused on martial arts, but is it my mistake to think her efforts are completely pointless?
I’ve never heard of anyone practicing anything so basic, at least… Dancers would do it, perhaps, but not warriors, let alone gods. And it’s all well and good to move gracefully, but I’m not sure that’s a necessary skill, in our situation.
Although I suppose that, if her entire skeleton is made out of adamantine, her body would be a lot heavier than it looks, wouldn’t it? Maybe, It’s like the difference between fighting with a sword and fighting with a war hammer. With the latter, you have to use the inertia of each movement to lead into the next. If you fight against the hammer’s weight, you’ll tire yourself out in no time.
…Is it like that?
I suppose it might not be that stupid, after all.
But then again, I firmly believe you need neither war hammer nor sword when you can call up something like a firestorm down on your enemies. Best to refine more qi or study new spells, if you have time to waste on training your body.
Well, I did say I would let her follow her own path, mistakes and all, so I won’t say anything more.
I have my own matters to tend to, anyway.
First on my list of priorities is to heal myself. Since Akasha regained control of her own body, my soul has remained loose in her dantian. Without being properly anchored to a physical vessel, there is no way for it to heal on its own from the damage it sustained while transferring from the obelisk. If I don’t act and fix it quickly, my condition will quickly deteriorate until I dissipate completely.
Which, as the case may be, would be a bad thing.
…Still, how did Akasha ever manage to injure me at all? I was sheltered behind the might of the obelisk. Her soul should have been crushed easily, and my own should have been pretty much invulnerable.
How did the situation turn itself around so much?
What kind of technique did she use?
I glance down at the stagnant ocean of blood-qi stretching below me. I’ve almost gotten used to the overwhelming smell of blood it gives off, already, but I still feel a bit uncomfortable at the thought that so much of the Taint is resting so close to my soul.
I’m not sure what would happen if my soul were to touch it…
I’m definitely not taking the risk to try, in any case.
Although I do know Akasha didn’t have any problems with it. I remember her soul had fused with it when I first invaded her dantian. Was it also this way that she struck back at me through the obelisk? I wasn’t actually conscious when that happened, so I can’t know for sure, but I don’t see how else she could have done it…
It’s all quite mysterious.
An alternate source of energy from qi that also serves as a source of nutrients for the body and replenishes automatically.
…I wonder if other demons work the same way, as well?
That would explain quite a lot, actually.
If other demons are the same as Akasha and can produce this blood-qi on their own, it would shed light on how the creatures can enter hibernation and come out bursting with energy, even when placed in seemingly qi-deprived environments and starved for years at a time. It was supposed that demons were capable of refining qi from some as-of-yet unknown, undetectable source, but no one could have imagined that demons themselves were wells of qi – or blood-qi, as it happens.
Even now, I still have trouble believing it myself, even though I can see the process happening within Akasha’s body, if I pay the least bit of attention to it.
…Shouldn’t producing qi be a power exclusive to overgods?
And more importantly, would there be a way for humans to acquire that power for themselves?
I already know that humans can’t directly refine the energy found in a demon’s dantian. I’ve read some experimental reports from people trying to do just that, and the results sure weren’t pretty.
But there should be a way to purify it, somehow, and let humans enjoy the benefits of this blood-qi, too. If that were possible, it would make certainly cultivation a much easier affair. It probably wouldn’t completely remove the need for breathing techniques and the like, but it would be a powerful supplement to normal qi refining. People would be able to breakthrough much more easily, just by purchasing a few magic cores and slurping up all the energy inside them…
…Well, I’ll have time later to think about all of this.
Right now, I need to mend the injury my soul sustained.
I sit down cross-legged in the void, closing my eyes.
I hope the damage isn’t too bad, at least…
I regulate my breathing and start.
Well, this isn’t a very good news. Usually, I would call the damage ‘moderate’, but with no physical body in support, moderate suddenly gets promoted to the realm of lethally dangerous.
Fortunately, I’m the foremost expert in mind magic, so I’m sure I can succeed and fix myself up good as new, but it’s going to require my undivided attention, and it’s going to take a lot of time.
Entering dormancy should help, I think, but it’s a bit of a shame; I really wanted to study Akasha.
So many mysteries titillating my interest, and I can’t even take the time to research any of them.
I let out a defeated sigh and open my eyes, then meld with Akasha’s senses to take a look at the world outside and see what’s happening.
It looks like the battle is over.
And that man is dead.
Akasha killed him.
For basically no reason at all.
I did say she should decide by herself whether to help him or not, but this is a little…
I’m not going to blame her for killing someone. Void knows I’ve done so often enough myself. That’s simply how the world works. The strong prey on the weak. Countless people kill and are killed everyday, and gods aren’t excluded from that. I’ve long since stopped bemoaning this fact.
But it’s a bit striking to see her do something so at odds with my first impression of her.
…Right. I might tend to forget it, considering she’s always so cooperative when dealing with me, but she is a demon, after all. Her nature is one of violence and bloodthirst. I shouldn’t expect too much rationality and self-control from her.
Fortunately, I’ve been unfailingly polite ever since we met, so I didn’t earn her ire, but I should still be careful. In her dantian, there is precious little I could do if she suddenly decided to get rid of me.
Which, incidentally, raises a small question…
How am I going to break to her the news that I’m going to spend the next few hundred years in dormancy?
I’m not an idiot. I don’t need her to spell it out to realize that she feels desperately lonely. She actually cried when she realized I wasn’t some figment of her imagination.
So how is she going to handle the fact that her only conversation partner is going to be sleeping all the time?
Badly, I assume.
No, no… She is quite amenable, isn’t she?
She should accept it…
Loneliness is the lot of any powerhouse. It’s common to spend a hundred years in isolated training.
Admittedly, no one is expected to perform a hundred years of isolated training at the age of 12. That would be a bit excessive. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s either that or let my soul dissipate forever…
Even as I desperately try to think of a civil way to say what I need to say, Akasha bends down over the man’s corpse and removes his helmet from his face.
…Hmm, I was right. He’s definitely the same sort of humanoid demon as Akasha herself.
Strange. When did the Taint start infecting people? It’s always been only animals. I’ve never heard of any sapient creature becoming a demon.
[You said you’d never seen anyone else like me, didn’t you?]
At Akasha’s question, I scour my memory for any rumor about humanoid demons I might have caught, but I really can’t remember any such thing, no matter how hard I try.
(That’s right. Based on what I know, you shouldn’t exist. The Taint is a poison. It is the poison. One drop of it entering your body will definitely kill you, no matter who you are, no matter how high your rank. You could be the weakest mortal, or you could be the strongest god, and it would end the same way. You should have died pretty much instantly, the moment you were first infected. I can’t understand how you managed to survive it…)
[Isn’t there an antidote or something like that?]
(Nope. People have been trying to develop a cure for a long, long time, but no one’s ever succeeded. That’s because this thing is absolutely vicious. You see, the Taint actually tries to replace one’s consciousness – or one’s soul, if one’s consciousness has congealed into one. Except that the root of the dantian is the consciousness. If the consciousness collapses, so does the dantian. And then, if the dantian collapses, so does the body. Death on three different levels. Super-death, so to speak.)
[Then why are there any demons at all? Shouldn’t animals die, too, when they’re infected?]
(No, no. Animals can turn into demons specifically because they don’t have a proper consciousness. The Taint can simply infect their dantian without having to destroy anything along the way. Although, saying that those animals are still alive isn’t necessarily accurate, as far as we understand the concept of ‘life’. They’re really more like puppets, or empty husks, controlled by the Taint. Just… walking bundles of aggression and bloodthirst. Well, that was the accepted theory at the time I was sealed in the obelisk, at least. I don’t know how long it’s been since then, but clearly, either the theory is wrong, or something changed.)
(Yes. The Taint could have changed how it operates, somehow. It could have become able to fuse with one’s consciousness, instead of replacing it altogether. The other possibility, is that there is something about you and about the lizard-man that’s different from everyone else.)
(Even if you ask me, I really have no idea. I don’t know anything about either of you, so…)
[Didn’t I tell you a little bit about myself?]
(I meant, biologically. I don’t recognize either of your species. Is that guy some kind of werelizard? Does that even exist? And you… Actually, that’s really the first question I should have asked you. What are you? Can you tell me?)
[…I don’t know.]
(You don’t know what species you are? So… you’ve never seen anyone like yourself, either?)
(What about your family? Do you have a family? And where did you live, before you were trapped in the Planar Tower?)
[Yes, I have a family. My father is a human. He should be around 60 years old, now. My elder sister is an elf. She’s… 35 years old. The three of us lived on a mountain covered in pink cherry trees, in the country of Tonarr.]
…I’m not sure I needed to know about the pink cherry trees, but all right.
What is up with this family?
Every member is a different species. Humans and elves may look pretty similar, but they can’t interbreed, so that’s definitely not the sisters’ biological father. And elves don’t randomly grow animal ears and tails, so even the sisters probably aren’t sisters at all.
Akasha does have some elvish features, though…
Hmm, wait a minute…
I’ve been assuming that Akasha was born looking like she does now, but maybe that’s not the case at all.
Assumptions are a scary thing…
(Did your tail and your wolf ears only grow after you were infected by the Taint?)
[No. I’ve always had them.]
…Oh, all right. I guess assumptions can be right, sometimes, too. I was hoping Akasha’s non-elvish attributes would be the result of mutations brought about by the Taint transforming her into a demon, but it seems as if this isn’t the case.
(Your sister is a normal elf, yes? No tail? Wolf ears? Fangs? Nothing?)
(What about your mother? What species is she?)
[I don’t have a mother.]
(Do you mean that she’s dead, or do you actually mean that no female organism ever gave birth to you?)
[…I don’t know. Father never said anything about it.]
(And it never occurred to you to ask?)
[No. I have Father, and I have Nerys. That’s enough for me.]
Nerys must be the sister’s name.
In any case, there’s definitely something about this family. I’m not sure if this is linked to how Akasha became a demon, but it’s still a trail to follow. Still, the fact that none of them seem to be actually related to each other means that I won’t find any clue as to Akasha’s biological heritage just by hearing her tell me about them.
(You said you came from the country of Tonarr, right? Tonarr… Tonarr… Never heard of it. What is the plane called?)
Never heard of it, either.
It shouldn’t have been colonized for a long time.
Old, remote planes like that aren’t quite as mystical as the Godrealm, but they’re the next best thing. They’re ancient enough for strange things to pop up all over them. Akasha might be part of some new variety of elves, exclusive to this Caldera, who happen to, for some reason, possess animalistic features.
…I’ll need to visit this Caldera plane, to get a better idea of the situation.
(You intend to return to Caldera, once you’ve escaped the Tower, I assume?)
Through Akasha’s eyes, I examine the corpse of the lizard-man for any further clues I might have missed.
(Can you remove his gauntlet, please?)
After a few moments of fiddling with the straps, the armor slides off the man’s hand. His fingers are white. They look perfectly normal. Not adamantine.
Without my prompting, Akasha turns back to the man’s face and extends a hand to pull back his lips and open his mouth. His teeth are conical and very small, but also very numerous. They don’t only grow on his gums. They also cover his palate, the insides of his cheeks, and the surface of his tongue.
And they’re white.
Not adamantine, either.
I’m not sure what this all means, but it’s certainly intriguing.
Oh? This is…
(Check his ring. There might be something good inside.)
[What do you mean, inside?]
Akasha takes the ring off the man’s finger and holds it up in front of her eyes, turning it this way and that to get a better look. She’s not going to see anything, of course, because there is nothing to see. On the surface, that ring looks perfectly normal; plain, even. There are no gems, no decorations, no ancient Eashiri script, nothing to mark that ring as special in any way.
(It’s a space ring. Put it on, then send a wisp of blood-qi into it to open it and see what’s inside.)
Akasha puts on the ring – it quickly shrinks until it fits snugly around her finger – then stands up, turning away from the man’s corpse. An instant later, with a small crack of displaced air, a pile of objects appears on the ground in front of her.
Swords, throwing knives, clothes, pieces of armor, a saw, steel spikes, pliers, some other tools I don’t recognize, a rolled-up sleeping bag, and is that a folded tent? Interestingly enough, there is no food, nor water. Several thousand magic cores also appear, then start to roll and clatter down the gentle slope. They don’t go far until Akasha raises her hand and a small layer of ice spreads over the ground and traps them all in place.
Oh, I see…
Of course, that guy wouldn’t bring any food along.
He’s a demon. He’s like Akasha. He eats magic cores – that is, the fossilized dantian of a dead demon. And if there is one thing this place doesn’t lack…
Apart from this, however, there is really nothing interesting about the stuff stored in the space ring. No recording of the lizard-man’s genealogy, no meaningful, obscure poem written on a piece of yellowed parchment, no map with a spot conveniently marked with an ‘X’…
Quite disappointing, really.
While Akasha busies herself picking and swallowing all the magic cores trapped in the ice, I keep pondering on the matter, but for the life of me, I can’t make sense of it. Who on earth is this man? What relation could he have with Akasha?
I need more information. I have a living humanoid demon, a dead humanoid demon, a sketchy family history, and that’s pretty much it. If I want to solve this puzzle, I’ll need to find the missing pieces. Blindly guessing won’t bring me anywhere.
I suppose it’ll have to wait until we escape from the tower.
When Akasha is done eating all the magic cores, she starts riffling through the loot. I’d tell her to be careful not to cut herself on the knives, but their blades would break before her adamantine skin does. She examines each item, one by one, discarding each to the side after only a few moments of consideration.
(You don’t want to use a weapon?)
[No. That would be pointless.]
(I disagree. They do have a point. See? The blades are quite pointy.)
(That was a joke.)
[I know. It just wasn’t very funny.]
Tch. Really no sense of humor…
(There are clothes in there, too. That’s very good. You can finally wear something.)
(No, no. Please. I would very much appreciate it if you could put some clothes on. I would take it as a personal favor, in fact.)
(Because a girl shouldn’t display her body for all the world to see, like this.)
(Because it’s highly improper.)
[I don’t really understand, but there is no one here who can see me, in any case.]
(Yes, there is. Me. I’m standing right here, in your dantian. And I can see everything. So, please. Do wear something.)
[I refuse. A demon could grab onto my clothes in the middle of a fight. Then, I would die.]
(What… Well, in that case, I really have to wonder why you let your hair grow so long. You should shave it off, shouldn’t you?)
[I did, once. It grew back to this length after a few hours.]
(Oh… All right. I suppose his clothes aren’t your size, either, but… What about when you finally escape the Tower? You will wear clothes, then, right?)
This time, Akasha doesn’t even answer. She just continue to study the dead man’s equipment.
Damn it. She doesn’t seem to care in the least.
It’s time for me to put my foot down and exercise every shred of authority I can muster. My dignity and gravitas depend on it. They were already badly battered when I turned from a respectable gentleman into a little girl, but, if this same little girl refuses to wear clothes in public, let’s not even talk about dignity, it will be the shame of a lifetime.
(I’d like to remind you that your body is also my body. I’m living inside it too, so how about we both make concessions? I can accept that we’re in a desperate situation, right now, and we have to use desperate measure to put every chance on our side. I concede this point. However! Once we’re back among intelligent, civilized folks, we’ll have to conform to their ways. Otherwise, they might, um, attack you for daring to disobey the customs they hold dear. Fighting against so many enemies would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Especially considering the fact that the conflict can be avoided with little effort.)
That did sound pretty convincing, if I do say so myself.
Talk to her in her own words.
Appeal to her sense of values. Practicality. Threat avoidance.
That should work.
Akasha still doesn’t answer, but she’s stopped examining her loot and seems to be considering my words.
Good. Listen to reason.
After a few moments, she stands up and turns away from the pile of equipment, walking back to the corpse of the lizard-man. Then, she bends down and opens the clasps holding the man’s red cloak in place. She holds it up in front of her, flicking it once to get the dust off it. I desperately resist the urge to tell her that the dust is the least of her problems, if she intends to make use of this rag. It’s tattered and torn and bloodstained.
[I’ll wear this, then.]
With a wave of her hand, the cloak enters the space ring.
…Well, I suppose it is better than nothing, just barely. I don’t want to push the issue too much, or she might get angry at me and simply refuse to cooperate altogether. Or she might try to kill me…
(Are you going to eat all those spiders, now?)
(Hmm… Before that, I need to tell you something. When my soul moved from the obelisk into your dantian, it was damaged pretty badly. And in order to heal, I’ll need to enter dormancy. So, um, I’ll be asleep for a while. You’ll have to handle everything on your own in the meantime.)
(Not long, not long. Barely a few hundred years. Three. Three hundred years. At most. Maybe less. Probably less. I think 250 years should be enough, actually.)
(I–It’s fine, isn’t it? You’ve done very well without me thus far, haven’t you?)