My image of Akasha as a steely, stoic engine of destruction is steadily crumbling.
She’s sprawled on top of the bed again, and even though her face still doesn’t show any kind of emotion, I can’t help but get the feeling that she’s enjoying it a lot more than she’s letting on.
Who knew a devil could be lazy.
And a drunkard, too.
…What is the world coming to?
Still, she’s never shown any appreciation for whatever food I offered her, so it was a little unexpected when she turned out to actually enjoy drinking alcohol.
Especially Haldir’s Vigil…
There is a legend behind the name, of course. To sum it up in a few words, the man named Haldir was a soldier who once took part in a great campaign to resist and eradicate a tide of demons that had razed entire countries to the ground and threatened still more. Toward the end of the war, every single soldier in Haldir’s troop was grievously wounded, but they refused to retreat, and Haldir volunteered to be the one who would stand guard while the others rested. He would alert them once the demons approached their position. To keep himself awake despite his plethora of fatal wounds and his bone-deep exhaustion, Haldir drank a liquor so strong the sheer pain of swallowing it jolted him awake every time he was about to lose consciousness, until he successfully spotted the demon tide, warned his comrades of the impending threat, then died on the spot of massive internal bleeding – not from his injuries, but from the alcohol itself corroding a hole through the wall of his stomach.
The story is probably apocryphal, but the name stayed, and the liquor called ‘Haldir’s Vigil’ is still reputed as the most potent one can ingest without the bartender being accused of attempted murder – though, from my perspective as a professional assassin, the difference between it and actual poison is mostly semantic; the only reason I’ve never used it to kill people is its strong, noticeable smell.
At the very least, it sure isn’t something you give to children.
Which makes it a bit surprising that this little girl rolling on top of the fluffy bed of our shared – by my request – chamber can chug it down by the bottle without any ill effects. In any case, she’s been regularly asking me where she can get more of it, since then…
We arrived in Jodene fortress just two or three hours before, and the least I can say about Shen Lei is that he knows how to welcome his guests. The pavilion given for our exclusive use is the most luxurious place I’ve ever lived in – and that’s saying something, as someone who’s impersonated noblewomen of high standing in pretty much every country on Caldera. The most pleasant feature of it is without a doubt the bath, which, after more than two weeks of wading through the wilderness, I used with all alacrity.
I also dragged in Akasha along with me, though she, on the other hand, had nothing good to say about it, probably on account of her bitter hatred of hot water. Still, she definitely needed it even more than I did. Alarmingly, she seems to have no concept of personal hygiene, and by her own admission, her last bath took place in a pool of acid, about two months ago. I suppose I can only thank whatever demon-y tricks prevent her from stinking as much as she probably should – maybe the fact that she never so much as sweats a single drop.
In any case, this bath was quite pleasant, and in more ways than one.
Indeed, since I’m not one to neglect perfectly good opportunities – and Akasha herself didn’t seem to mind – I indulged myself a little bit and helpfully offered Akasha my assistance in cleaning her body.
Of course, there was nothing lewd about any of it.
I am a professional, after all.
It was all purely to gather intelligence on this mysterious devil bodyguard of mine.
And I did learn a few interesting tidbits, as it happens.
Most notably, I learned that Akasha’s breasts are very soft and very firm, and that they fit very well into the palms of my hands. They’re not too small, nor too big. Just enough to overflow a little between my fingers when I fondle them. Also, even though her face always looks frigid and emotionless, her body is on the other hand quite sensitive. It was quite satisfying to see her squirm under my touch.
Now, if that isn’t vital information right there, I don’t know what is.
…In my defense, I did feel a bit of cold sweat run down my back, later on, when I realized that sexually harassing an invincible, bloodthirsty monster actually might not be such a great idea. I suppose I can only curse whatever gods decided to take from me the ability to control myself when a naked woman enters my sight.
After that bath, I tried to comb Akasha’s hair but only met a resounding lack of success. Even though it’s so long it reaches all the way down to her knees and should, by all rights, straighten under its own weight – especially when it’s wet – it instead stays stubbornly messy, and it persistently refused to yield before any of the brushes I could lay my hands on.
Still, that’s not too much of a problem.
Her lack of proper clothing, however, is.
As I had expected, the two of us have been invited to dine with our hosts, this evening, and I fear that a tattered cloak, whose color is strangely reminiscent of those worn by the apostles responsible for capturing and sending all of us inmates in this prison, would make a rather poor impression on such august company as Shen Lei and his master.
I asked some of the servants Shen Lei appointed to us for some child-size clothing, but no matter what I presented to her, Akasha remained less than enthused. Eventually, I did manage to hear from her that the reason why she liked this cloak more than any of the other clothes I tried to give her was that it could be removed easily and wouldn’t impede her when a fight broke out.
‘When a fight broke out’.
Not ‘if a fight broke out’.
Well, I suppose her attire won’t be judged too harshly, anyway, if for no other reason than that the strong are allowed their eccentricities. And as for me, such questions are pointless, since I look good in everything.
When the sun has halfway disappeared under the horizon, the same servants Shen Lei had ordered to guide us to our pavilion come again and fetch us.
Akasha and I follow them into the main building of the castle, where Shen Lei entered this afternoon. We quickly arrive into a hall that feels cavernous and austere, despite being brightly lit. Considering this place is arguably the center of the Planar Prison’s most powerful faction, I was expecting more ornaments and gaudy decorations as demonstration of their wealth and power. But no. The walls are clean but bare; there are no tapestries or paintings, only raw stone. The only visible sign of luxury is the thick carpet covering the entire span of the room. Other than that, the only pieces of furniture here are a single, wide table – the table is round, so there is no seat of honor; that might be meaningful – and the four padded chairs surrounding it.
On one of these chairs sits Shen Lei, who politely stands up when he sees us enter.
Next to him, idly playing with her knife, twirling it adroitly around her fingers, is a tall rakshasa woman, leaned comfortably back into her seat. She cannot be described as conventionally beautiful, but she is certainly striking. Her features are sharp and aggressive, pointed horns jutting from her forehead and delicately curving back. Her eyes are slanted slightly upward, like a feline’s, and they shine with the intelligence of the mind behind them – metaphorically; they don’t actually glow like Akasha’s. The woman seems completely relaxed and at ease, as if the very concept of tension is alien to her. And yet, although at first sight, she might appear lax and sloppy, the air of authority hanging about her is unmistakable. This is someone used to giving out orders and used to having them obeyed.
Shen Lei’s liege.
The most powerful individual in this prison – this world.
Probably a 9th-rank warrior.
Someone who can kill me in an instant.
Even on Caldera, people of her caliber are ridiculously rare. There couldn’t be more than 40 of them.
I probably would be intimidated by the simple sight of her or by the weight of her reputation, if I hadn’t spent such a long time working as an assassin-spy-saboteur under the orders of exactly one of those such people, back on Caldera. By now, fortunately, I’m mostly inured to such prestige. As long as she doesn’t actually use her qi to pressure me, I should be able to act normally enough, without embarrassing myself in front of anyone.
And yet, my heart still can’t help but skip a beat as I wonder what twist my fate suffered to make me end up here, in this place, in this company.
If memory serves, about two weeks ago, I was a common, unremarkable tailor in a minor fortress. Even after I murdered Preston and decided I needed to emigrate to Jodene Fortress, it was only ever to disappear amidst its population. I never expected – nor wanted – to be in any way noticed by its rulers. In point of fact, such conspicuousness is completely the opposite of what I had planned before meeting Akasha.
I feel like I just went with the flow, with what made the most sense at the time, but how did I end up deviating so much from my original goal?
And this time is quite a gamble, if I do say so myself…
If we successfully convince them to let us go through the teleport formation they should be hiding in this castle, we will successfully escape the Prison, which would be very welcome. But if we fail and a fight does break out – as I’m pretty damn sure it’s going to – then it’s quite possible that I will end up dead before the night is out.
…Perhaps, if it does end up like this and Akasha seems like she’ll be defeated, I might still be able to pretend that it was all her idea, and that I really am only poor, innocent, down-on-her-luck merchant Yinan, who unknowingly employed this reckless criminal as a bodyguard.
Before I can continue questioning my own motivations and coming up with backup plans, Lady Jodene raises her head, and her gaze sweeps over us. “Welcome,” she says. “You already know Shen Lei, and I’m Jodene. I’m in charge of this fortress, which you might have guessed from the fact that it’s named after me.”
Of course, who on earth wouldn’t know who she is?
…Well, Akasha, probably, now that I formulate the question.
I bow deeply and introduce myself back. “It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Jodene. I am Yinan, a free merchant. This is Akasha, a bodyguard in my employ.”
“Bodyguard, huh?” She repeats, her voice clearly dubious.
My smile doesn’t falter. “That’s correct. Is there a problem?”
She smirks, as if to tell me that she’s perfectly aware that I’m lying, but that she’ll let it go since it’s entertaining. “Forgive the question, but how much are you paying the services of this bodyguard of yours, exactly?”
“The amount is negotiable at the end of the contract, according to the dangers faced during her employment,” I reply without missing a beat.
Jodene’s smirk deepens. “I see. But I’m neglecting my manners! Please, take a seat.”
I select a chair at random from the two left free, then glance to the side at Akasha to see her prod its cushion experimentally, as if testing to see if it’s as comfortable as it looks. I have to work very hard to repress a chuckle when I imagine her suddenly complaining to Jodene that it’s too hard and she’d like more padding – ‘or maybe a cushion, as long as the embroidery doesn’t look too much like shit’. Considering the girl’s unconventional notions on the subject of politeness, I have no doubt she’d be perfectly capable of doing just that, if the idea came to her.
Fortunately enough, after only a few moments of consideration, Akasha seems to decide that she may as well risk it and slowly sits down. The wood screeches in protest, absurdly loud in the vast hall, causing Jodene to gaze at Akasha with a thoughtful look on her face, which is compounded a second later, when Akasha spontaneously decides to remove the hood of her cloak, exposing her demonic features.
Neither Jodene nor Shen Lei look surprised, though.
I assume Shen Lei noticed the truth at some point while we were traveling together and reported the fact to Jodene today, when he arrived.
What else did he discover?
I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this. Perhaps, we should reconsider this plan and try to come up with one a bit more subtle than just asking them where –
[…Where is the teleport formation?]
Before I can try to find some way to discreetly share my misgivings with her, Akasha’s voice thunders in my mind and, judging from their reaction, that of the other two.
…She sure doesn’t lose any time, does she?
This is supposed to be a banquet, but the food hasn’t even arrived that she’s already entered into the main subject, as directly and explicitly as she possibly can.
Yes, now that I think about it, with this girl as she is, would coming up with a subtle plan for her to execute even be possible? She’s too much of a blunt instrument for such a thing, probably.
And what’s done is done, now, anyway.
“The teleport formation to…?” Jodene says, her eyes narrowing a little.
“Ah. Yes. I had something of a guess that using it would be the purpose of your visit to our fortress.” Jodene nods, pursing her lips in thought. “But I would like to discourage you from that, if I could.”
Akasha’s expression – or lack of it – doesn’t falter. She keeps staring at Jodene unblinkingly.
“Well, it’s fairly simple,” Jodene replies. “Let me ask you a question. Why am I still in the Prison, when its exit stands in my very castle? Without boast, I believe that I am, even now, the strongest person on this plane. And yet, why am I still here? Why aren’t I going through this teleport formation myself?”
I frown slightly at the implied insult that Akasha is excluded from that category of ‘person’, but then again, many people would hold that as a valid opinion – I’m not even sure myself if apostles and devils do qualify for the word – so I don’t interrupt. Akasha herself is completely oblivious to any sort of subtext, of course.
[…I don’t know.]
“You see, the reason I don’t try to escape is because I will die if I do. Even on the other side of the teleport formation, you don’t immediately arrive to freedom. You have to get past the obstacles the humans have put there, first. There are mechanical traps, of course, but those admittedly aren’t much threat to beings as powerful as we are. But then, there is a creature, far more dangerous than even the most dangerous demon – and that one is very much a threat, even to me. And to you, I reckon.”
“A gigantic frog. And when I say ‘gigantic’, I mean gigantic. It’s as big as two whole mountains put together. More than that, it is strong. Basically invincible. I’m fairly convinced that, even if every warrior in the Planar Prison got together, we would still be defeated. That’s how strong it is.”
And for the first time, Akasha displays some visible reaction. When she hears Lady Jodene’s description, she tilts her head, and I get the feeling that the very faint shadow of a smile appears on her lips, though it’s gone almost before I have the time to notice it.
The bloodthirst laced in that one word is enough to send a shiver down the spine of everyone else at that table.
[…Where is the teleport formation?]
The words are the same as before, but this time, there is a little bit of life in them.
That’s not a good thing.
I’m not sure what emotion it is, but Akasha’s question brings with itself a searing pain that pierces through my mind as soon as the words reach me. I flinch in my seat and rub my temples, my eyes scrunched shut, trying to will the headache away.
After a few seconds, Jodene’s answers comes. There is a tension in her voice that wasn’t there before. “The teleport formation is in this castle. I’ll guide you there, if you insist, but I can’t be held responsible for anything that happens to you afterward. And there is something else I need to show you beforehand.” Jodene glances at Shen Lei. With a nod, the old man rises from his seat and quietly leaves the room. Jodene looks back to Akasha. “The formation is magically locked. A key is necessary to open it.”
“That’s right. It took us quite a long time to build it. Years of experimentation, to try and find the correct qi frequency to deactivate only the lock and leave the teleport itself intact.”
While we wait for Shen Lei to come back with that mysterious key, a servant comes around to bring us refreshments. Mine is some kind of strange herbal concoction, which I’m sure must be a delicacy among the elves but frankly doesn’t inspire me. Akasha’s is Haldir’s Vigil – a whole glass of it. The servant who gave it to her made an interesting face when what looks like a ten-year-old little girl chugged her borderline-poisonous drink down in one breath.
But there is no sign of food forthcoming, on the other hand.
…So, the dinner is cancelled, basically? That’s a shame. I was just getting hungry, too. Akasha really could have waited until we’d eaten our fill before starting with the awkward questions.
After a few minutes, Shen Lei returns, a small, metal-bound chest held carefully in his hands. He lowers it onto the table, turning it so that its front faces Lady Jodene, who then fiddles with the padlock keeping it closed, until the lid of the chest snaps open with viperish suddenness.
A faint white glow rises from inside it, and a very strange qi fluctuation – it seems vaguely familiar to my senses, for some reason – spreads through the room.
Jodene reaches inside the chest and, when her hands come up again, they’re lifting a small glass sphere, indistinct, blurred wisps floating here and there inside it. It takes me a few moments to notice that all of these wisps are pure white in color, except for one, deep black. These wisps appear to be the sources of the white glow the sphere radiates.
…That doesn’t exactly match my idea of a ‘key’, to be perfectly honest, but I’m no expert on magical formations, let alone something as complex and arcane as space magic, so my failure to recognize whatever device this is is most likely more a display of my own ignorance than a sign of deception from Jodene and Shen Lei.
“This is it,” Jodene says, handing the sphere to Akasha.
Akasha takes it, her black fingers making a small, metallic clink as they touch it, and lifts it up in front of her face, turning it this way and that to examine it in more detail.
While she does that, I take a small sip of my drink, since even though it doesn’t look very appetizing, I wouldn’t want to make anyone suspicious of my species, and –
A second later, my face pales, and blood comes up my throat. I spit it out, then collapse face-down onto the table, my eyes closing, my heartbeat faltering, my glass tumbling from nerveless fingers and shattering on the floor, dirtying the carpet with the disgusting elvish muck it contains.