Why is there an old man inside my dantian?
That’s never happened before. Usually, my hallucinations limit themselves to the outside world. They never enter my dantian. And it’s always either Nerys or Father. Why is it someone new, all of a sudden?
…Well, I suppose there is a first for everything.
The old man smiles at me, stroking his beard, and suddenly starts speaking. (Hello. My name is Phineas. I’m a three thousand-year-old god. When you touched the obelisk earlier, my soul flowed from it and into your body. So, I’ll be living here from now on. Pleased to make your acquaintance.)
That’s also the first time my hallucinations bother with coming up with a backstory.
Phineas tilts his head. (Hello?)
Oh, yes. My apologies. After so many years down here, I’ve somewhat forgotten my manners.
This hallucination is quite polite. The others usually just start talking to me without preamble.
Hello to you too, then.
There is a few seconds of silence while Phineas stares at me.
Is there a problem? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to say?
(I know you can hear me. And your body may be incapable of speech, but your soul isn’t.)
My soul? What on earth is this old man talking about?
And why does it seem like he can’t hear my thoughts? Nerys and Father certainly can.
(Um, please don’t take it the wrong way. I’m simply asking, just in case, but… you… you do know how to control your soul, right?)
I shake my head.
Soul? Does that kind of thing even exist? Control it?
Phineas has a dumbfounded look on his face, as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing. He looks at me like I’m some kind of strange beast he can’t quite comprehend. (You must be the first god in history who can’t control their soul.)
You’ve lost me. Completely.
Phineas suddenly looks spirited and starts talking enthusiastically. (Let me enlighten you, then! Here, look down at yourself. You have a body, correct? And yet, you’re currently inside your dantian. I think we can both agree that it’s not like your actual, physical, flesh-and-blood body itself enters the dantian. I mean, your dantian is housed within your skull, so you’d have to turn yourself inside out for that to be possible, and it would make a terrible mess. In truth, the ‘body’ you’re wearing right now is actually your soul. I’ll allow that, since it looks exactly like your physical body, if you’re a bit thick, it might be possible that you didn’t realize the difference until now.)
…Did you just insult me?
Phineas floats back and forth in the void, as if he’s pacing. He gesticulates and nods to himself as he speaks, lost in his own babbling. I think he’s forgotten I’m even here.
(Now, I said your soul looks exactly like your physical body, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The form your soul takes inside your dantian is just an image. It’s mostly decided by your subconscious mind, but you do have some measure of control over it. In your case, what you have to do is imagine the ‘you’ in the dantian as someone who still has her voice. If you manage to convince yourself of that on a deep enough level, your soul will change to accommodate that image. How deeply you have to convince yourself is somewhat of a sticking point, unfortunately. In the course of my studies, I’ve conducted some experiments on that myself, you know, but I’m ashamed to admit that nothing solid has emerged thus far. It seems to differ from person to person, and there might also be a variety of environmental factors which…)
Blah blah blah…
I think I’ve heard more words in these two or three minutes than I did in the past sixteen years put together…
In any case, I got the gist of it.
While Phineas continues prattling on and on, I try putting what he said into practice.
I suppose it’s a bit strange to indulge a hallucination so much and follow its instructions, but I take what little entertainment I can get. Also, such things sometimes even give me new ideas for training or combat that I can put to actual use.
Now then, imagining myself differently…
That shouldn’t be too difficult, I think. Imagination is the basis for magic, and I’ve done plenty of that lately. But it’s already been fourteen years since the scythes of that mantis took my voice away. I don’t remember what I sounded like. Hopefully, the image doesn’t need to be as precise as it does for magic.
I close my eyes and concentrate, leaving my body – or my soul, rather – to float in the void of my dantian.
[He… He… Hello…]
(Yes, yes. Hello. And good work, too. It only took you five hours. Your foundations are pretty solid.)
Success, finally. This turned out to be quite difficult. And even then, my voice sounds a bit strange, I think. I’m not sure. Wasn’t it a bit higher than that? Right now, it sounds a bit rougher than it should be.
Anyway, I can talk again, now. Only within my dantian, to be sure, but it’s still something to celebrate.
Something troubles me a little, though.
How can this Phineas know how to do that? I just went with the flow and tried it seriously, but by all rights, there should have been no way for him to know this would really work. Because I didn’t know it was possible. I don’t know anything about souls.
How can a hallucination be more knowledgeable than the mind which produced it?
[A… Are… you… real…?]
Phineas’s eyebrows rise in surprise. (Why, yes, I am. Why wouldn’t I be? Oh, you mean, because I’m only a soul, with no physical body? Gods are their soul, you know. For people like us, the body is only a vessel. A pretty important vessel, but still. I have to say, it’s really strange that you don’t know about that. Didn’t your master teach you this? How did you ever reach godhood without even having such basic knowledge?)
(H–Huh? W–W–Why are you crying, all of a sudden? What did I say? I’m sorry!)
Phineas flurriedly waves his hands in the air. He takes a few halting steps toward me, then stops, wringing his hands, looking completely lost and very much uncomfortable.
Haaa… This is…
I haven’t cried even once, ever since I became a demon, no matter how many bad things happened or how much it hurt, but now that something good has finally happened, I can’t stop the tears from coming.
Finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, finally…
So long. Sixteen whole years.
And, finally, I’m not alone anymore.
Someone is here.
Someone to talk to.
Father and Nerys visit me, sometimes – though less and less often, in recent days – but, even if I try to convince myself that they’re real and talk to them, in the end, I can’t get past the fact that they are only figments of my imagination. In the end, they don’t exist, here.
In the end, I’m still alone.
But no longer.
I try to wipe the tears with the back of my hand, but more fall to replace them.
I nod, still sniffling a little.
I hug my tail against my chest, using its fur to dry my cheeks.
We’re sitting cross-legged face to face, floating in the void within my dantian, above the black ocean of blood-qi. Behind Phineas, my two runes exude thick fog in their respective color, as always.
(So. Let’s go back to our conversation, if you don’t mind. I have a bit of trouble understanding the situation, to be honest. Would you mind telling me how you came to enter this place, please?)
I don’t actually know how I entered the cave – or why – but I relate to him what happened to me, how that scum destroyed my house and captured me and dumped me in here. Phineas listens without interrupting me. I expected him to interject questions and remarks every ten seconds, considering how wordy he was earlier, but no.
It takes quite a while to explain it all. I don’t think I’ve lost any of my vocabulary, but the words have trouble coming out of my mouth. I wonder why that is.
Perhaps, it’s because this is the very first time in my whole life that I speak to a stranger.
Am I… shy?
Now that I think about it, this is the very first real person I’ve ever seen, apart from Nerys and Father.
This is a bit thrilling…
When I finally conclude my story, Phineas strokes his beard and ponders silently for a few minutes.
(I see… I don’t know why those people brought you here, but I think I can safely declare that Miroslav is gone. That old bastard was insane, but he never would’ve brought anyone inside the tower without their explicit consent. And he wasn’t the kind who could be bullied into going against his principles.)
Phineas lets out a despondent sigh. (An old friend of mine – though ‘friend’ might not be exactly the right word. He’s the creator and original owner of the Tower, and a true master of space magic. Not someone you want to cross, let me tell you. The man is as strong as a founder of the Septentrion, and twice as unreasonable.)
[Tower? You mean, this place?]
Phineas nods. (Yes. This place is called the Planar Tower. As the name suggests, it’s a tower in which each floor is an independent, artificial plane of Miroslav’s creation. A true masterpiece of magic! Unique! Magnificent! There is not a single person apart from that old bastard who’d be even remotely capable of such a feat. I can’t imagine how much qi would be required to build so many planes, and then keep them stable and linked to one another. There is only one word to describe it: incredible!)
Spittle flies out of Phineas’s mouth with every word. He looks excited and proud, as if he’s showing off his own glory.
I guess he really liked his friend.
(The point is that, if Miroslav can’t let us out, then we have to get to the exit on our own. The good news is that we’re already on the 50th floor. Congratulations for reaching here, by the way. It mustn’t have been a whole lot of fun. The bad news is – actually, you might want to get ready for that one. Because it’s pretty bad. Ready?)
(The bad news is, the exit is on floor 199.)
One hundred and ninety-nine…? T–That’s a lot…
(I have no idea myself why Miroslav bothered creating so many floors. It’s not as if anyone ever managed to reach that high. In my time – I don’t know if that’s still the case now – the Planar Tower was used as a training ground of sorts, you see. A competition between powerhouses, to see who could progress furthest. Reaching the 50th floor like you and I did is already well above average. I think the all-time record is the 86th floor.)
Phineas sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. (I realize this can seem a little daunting, but stop looking so discouraged. Now that Miroslav is gone, reaching the top floor should be a lot easier. There is no other choice than this, anyway. If we can’t do it, we’ll be trapped here forever. It will take quite a bit of time, certainly, but we’re both immortal, so that’s not a problem.)
(Come now. What are a few hundred years, to people like us?)
…A few hundred years?
Nerys is an elf, so she should still be here, even in two or three hundred years, but Father is a normal human. I’ve already wasted 16 years, so how many are left until he simply passes away from old age?
16 years took me through a quarter of that so-called Tower – the first, easiest, least dangerous quarter. So how long is it going to take me to wade through the 149 following floors?
…I can’t afford to stay in here for that long. I want to see my family again.
Looking at my reaction, Phineas frowns and looks at me with suspicion. (How old are you, really?)
[28 years old.]
(T–Twenty-eight?! You’re only 28?!)
(How did someone in their twenties reach the 50th floor of – Wait a second. How long did you say you’ve been trapped inside the Tower?)
Phineas gapes at me. (You were twelve when you arrived here? That’s just… I’m confused. This confuses me. Very much. Hmm… Then, at what age did you become a god? Eleven? Twelve? Was it before or after you entered the Tower?)
[I don’t know what you mean by ‘god’.]
Am I a god, now? Aren’t gods supposed to be incredibly powerful beings? People who create worlds with a wave of a hand and level mountains by sneezing too hard in their general direction?
That doesn’t sound like me. At all.
Phineas sighs. (You don’t know that either? That’s a bit… Well, nevermind. Yes, you’re a god. Being a god technically doesn’t have to do anything with age, or strength, or power, or experience. By definition, gods are only those who have a soul inside their dantian. Since you do, then you’re a god. It’s that simple. Mortals, on the other hand, don’t have a soul. Within their dantian is only an… amorphous consciousness, I suppose you could call it. They don’t have a discrete ‘body’, like you’re using now to talk to me. Oh, and the reason I asked for your age is that no one with half a brain becomes a god as young as you did, even if their talent would allow them to do so. You see, having a soul prevents you from aging, so you’ll be forever stuck at the age you were when you became a god. For example, I became a god – that is, I acquired a soul – when I was 233 years old, so I looked like this for the next 3,000 years or so, until my body was destroyed. And, as for you, you became a god when you were…?)
[12 years old.]
I think. I don’t know anything about acquiring a soul, but that’s when I stopped aging. So that should be the answer Phineas seeks.
(It’s a monstrous talent you have, to be capable of making the breakthrough into godhood at such a young age, but… Well, as I said, everyone usually waits until they’re in their twenties or thirties. There is nothing you can do about it, now, though.)
For now, staying a child forever isn’t very high on my list of concerns. I’m already thankful to be alive at all. I’m not going to start complaining about my youth. Even if I’m stuck looking like a 12-year-old all my life, that’s still a vast improvement over my previous situation.
But I don’t remember any ‘breakthrough into godhood’, or anything like that…
Was it a part of my transformation?
Maybe Phineas will know.
I explain to him how I died and became a demon.
As I tell the story, I can feel the old anger bubbling quietly in the back of my mind. I’ve gotten a pretty good grip on it, these days, mostly on account of being too busy trying to survive to angst on the unfairness of the world, but it still hasn’t gone away. In fact, it grows and deepens with every injury I suffer, with every moment of loneliness, with every new demon that gets in my way.
But I press it down.
Because it isn’t the right time to let it loose.
Phineas quietly listens to my story, then says, (I see… This is very peculiar. First time I hear of something like that, actually. And, since then, you use demon blood as a substitute for qi?)
(Intriguing… There are techniques that alter qi to make it more suitable for a specific magic, but to use something else altogether as a source of energy is unheard of. Demons aren’t exactly my specialty, however, so I can’t draw any conclusions. Even if they were my specialty, I’m not sure that would help, since, as far as I know, there are no records of other humanoid demons. And why did the transformation allow you to reach godhood? I can accept the other changes to your body, somehow, but attaining godhood has specific requirements.)
Phineas stands up and starts pacing again.
(Usually, for mortals to become gods, they have to refine enough qi for their soul to completely congeal and take form. That’s the breakthrough from 9th-rank warrior to 1st-rank god. The length of that process depends on one’s talent and what breathing technique they’re using, but it’s still counted in years, or even centuries. Your transformation lasted at most a few hours. Even if it had been days or weeks, it would still be impossible. What is going on, here? This is all quite intriguing, I must say…)
What is this ‘breakthrough’?
I know the word, obviously, but I don’t understand how it applies here. I really should have kept reading those books on qi refining, even if they weren’t useful to me. At least, I would know what all this stuff is about.
[What breakthrough are you talking about?]
Phineas quirks an eyebrow at me. (Hmm? You don’t know about that, either? Tsk, tsk, tsk. That’s not – Oh, no, wait. I forgot. It’s true that your form of practice is completely different from everyone else. I suppose your ignorance is forgivable, then. Heh. You were lucky to encounter me, young lady. This humble Phineas before you was recognized as one of the foremost scholars of his time.)
Phineas strokes his beard in self-approbation, nodding to himself, and starts rambling again. (Ahem… Where should I start? Right. You refine demon blood into what you call ‘blood-qi’ and use that as a substitute energy for qi to power your body and magic. Which is certainly novel, but all right, I’ll accept it. Now, that blood-qi is actually a consumable resource, if I correctly understood what you’ve told me. Once you use some of it to cast a spell, that blood-qi is gone forever. Right?)
He glances at me for confirmation. I give it to him.
(Right. Now, for everyone else who uses regular, normal qi drawn from the world, that simply isn’t the case at all. Here’s an example. Someone draws qi from the world and refines it within their dantian. Once they have refined a certain quantity of qi – let’s say, 10 units of qi – they can use spells that cost 9 units of qi or lower. But they can use that 9-unit spell as much as they want. They can cast that spell again and again and again, because the qi they’ve refined isn’t actually consumed upon use. It always returns to them to be used again for the next spell. You, on the other hand, could only cast that 9-unit spell once, because your blood-qi is irrevocably consumed after the first time.)
Doesn’t it seem like normal qi a lot more convenient than my blood-qi?
Phineas continues his lesson. He really looks like he’s enjoying himself. Was he a teacher in his previous life? (However, if that person makes a mistake and uses a 10-unit spell, they’ll suffer something called qi exhaustion. And that means… instant death! Absolutely 0% chance of survival!)
(Simple. Another name for qi is life force. If you send your entire life force into a spell, you don’t have anything left inside you to sustain your own life anymore. Hence, death. The qi will try to go back to you once your spell is over, but you’ll already be dead, by then. You, on the other hand, don’t run that risk. You can use spells past your own limits, and then just sleep it off afterward, while your body produces more blood-qi, which in turn – Hmm? Wait… Your body produces qi? That’s not right… Mortals and gods harvest qi from the outside. They can’t produce it. Only overgods can produce qi. Except it’s not exactly qi you’re producing, now, is it? It’s blood-qi… But, if they’re exchangeable, there has to be a link between the two. What would it be… Does the Taint have some quality that makes it… Hmm… Demons… Godhood… Mutation in the soul? No, that can’t… Hmm…)
Phineas starts ignoring me again. He’s hunched over, staring at nothing, pacing rapidly and mumbling to himself.
To get his attention, I loudly clear my throat – and marvel once again at the complete lack of pain. If I ever tried to do that with my real body, I’d be coughing up blood within a second.
Phineas raises his head and looks at me in surprise. (Oh, you’re still here. My apologies. Haha… Ha… Ahem…)
[You didn’t explain what this ‘breakthrough’ was.]
(What? Oh, right! That was your question. Sorry, I somewhat lost myself in my explanations. Right. Let’s go back to our person who has refined 10 units of qi inside their dantian. Once they have refined 10 units of qi, they’ve reached the level of 1st-rank warrior. The magic they can use without dying of qi exhaustion is called 1st-rank magic. Once they’ve refined 80 units of qi within their dantian, they will break through the threshold into 2nd-rank warrior. Once they’ve refined 300 units, they’ll be a 3rd-rank warrior. And so on and so forth. That’s the breakthrough. Refining enough qi that you can reach the next rank of practice. The higher in the ranks you rise, the more difficult it is to break through to the next. In point of fact, each new rank invariably demands a lot more qi than all the previous ranks put together. The amount you have to refine to make progress quickly become unthinkably huge. Even worse, sometimes, people can become completely stuck in a specific rank. Their refining speed drops and drops until they can’t refine anymore qi at all and are thereafter unable to ever break through to a higher rank.)
[What about me?]
(To be honest, I don’t know how to apply that ranking system to you at all. You’ve never refined any qi, so you’d be a normal person, according to the ranking, but that’s obviously not right. I suppose your rank would depend on how much blood-qi you’ve absorbed at the moment. I’m not sure how to quantify that, though, or how efficacious blood-qi is, compared to regular qi. Normally, I’d tell you to demonstrate the strongest spell you can cast and try to judge based on that, but, in your case, that would mean wasting all of your blood-qi, so we obviously can’t do that.)
(Rank isn’t an absolute measure of someone’s worth, in any case. Some people – like me – can produce incredible results by using very little qi. You just have to be smart, skilled, precise, and efficient. There are even disciplines – like my mind magic – where using a large amount of qi in your spells can actually be detrimental to their effects. I told you before that I became a god at age 233, right? Well, believe it or not, but, after that, even after 3,000 years of training, I never did manage to break through to the next rank. Hahaha! I’m still only a 1st-rank god! And yet, once they’ve realized the full extent of my powers, few people dare to look down on me.)
That old man sure likes to boast.
If you’re as good as you say…
[Can you teach me magic? And combat?]
Phineas smiles bitterly. (No. I can’t. I don’t know anything about blood-qi. Nor do I know anything about ice magic. Nor do I know anything about… whatever that black rune is supposed to be. I’m positively rubbish at martial arts. I know a little bit about demons, but nothing about humanoid demons. I can give you some pointers, certainly. I can give you trivia, like that stuff about ranks and godhood and whatnot that any moron should know as a matter of course. But if you’re expecting to reach the sky in a single bound thanks to my help, you’ll be disappointed. My realm of competence is both narrow and unsuited to you.)
…Did you just insult me again?
Phineas shakes his head. (I’m afraid finding an appropriate master is not that easy. At the very least, I am not the one you’re looking for. My forcing you to follow in my footsteps would be fatal to your later development, especially since you’re not even human. No, I firmly believe it’s better to let you work things out on your own. You’ll probably make a few mistakes along the way, but then everyone does. You’ll have to depend on your own talent and luck. And it’s not like you actually need my help, now, is it? You’ve done pretty well so far, haven’t you?)
…I’ve done pretty well? Is that how it looks?
I reflexively stroke the scar on my throat. More than losing my left arm, this is the one injury that bothers me most.
Phineas just looks at me seriously. (Girl, you’ve been trapped in Miroslav’s tower since you were 12 years old. And you’re still alive. If that doesn’t qualify as ‘doing pretty well’, nothing does.)
I suppose that’s something…
Phineas suddenly claps his hands.
(Now that I think about it, we’ve been talking for so long, but I still haven’t asked for your name. What may I call you?)