I’m definitely outside.
I stop channeling my blood-qi into the teleport formation and enjoy the feeling of being outside.
I can hear small insects make noise in the forest everywhere around me. There weren’t any tiny animals like that anywhere in the Planar Tower. I think they’re too small to survive the Taint’s infection. It just kills them, instead of turning them into demons. Some of the biggest mosquitoes can survive the transformation, but…
I don’t want to think about that.
What’s important is that I’m outside.
There are stars here, so high that no matter how hard I fly, I wouldn’t ever be able to reach them. There weren’t any of those either, in the Planar Tower, so I’d forgotten how real stars looked like. Their light seems to be wavering very slightly, like pinpoint candles.
I don’t recognize those stars, though; I must have forgotten that as well.
The sky above me is incredibly beautiful, but it still looks foreign to my eyes.
I feel a bit sad about that.
I bury that train of thought and adjust my mood, then take a breath of the outside air.
Even disregarding the faint traces of poison I can detect in it, it smells subtly different from the air inside the Planar Tower.
I’m not sure why.
And finally, when I’ve basked in that feeling for long enough, I look down at the people around me.
Four of them.
…Well, four and a half.
Did I kill this person there when I teleported? Miroslav’s book did say you shouldn’t stand within a teleport formation when someone is trying to come through from the other side. Fortunately, teleport formation only open in one direction, so those people couldn’t activate it. Otherwise, I might have been the one to die, today.
That would have been displeasing…
But those people really look different from me. In fact, they even look different from each other.
I can’t really remember how people are supposed to look like.
I only remember Nerys, and she looks a little like this woman lying on the ground, except this woman has brown skin and green eyes and her hair is even blacker than Nerys’s. Also, her face is different. And this big, fat person over there doesn’t even remotely look like either me, Nerys, or Phineas. And while I look a little bit like a wolf, this other creature here looks completely like a wolf, except it stands on two legs.
This is all very peculiar.
It’s a werewolf, I think.
Can werewolves speak? Should I attempt to communicate with it?
I’m a bit excited.
I should ask them where my house is, first.
No… How would they know that?
Maybe I should just ask them if they know where Nerys is?
Hmm… They won’t know that either, will they?
All right. I’ve decided. I’ll ask them where I am. That should be a good start.
Or I could ask their names.
No, one step at a time.
I can ask for their names afterward.
But before I can start speaking, the fat person suddenly starts roaring at me – or, at least, in my general direction. Then, it charges toward me, brandishing huge swords menacingly.
Does it want to attack me?
That’s unexpected. I didn’t think the first people I’d meet after so long would be so aggressive.
Is this normal, as well? Are people naturally aggressive?
The fat person jumps up to the teleport formation and swings its swords down at me, so I create a small spike under its head, concealed beneath its chin so it won’t notice, and then make the spike pierce right through the fat person’s skull, then through the head of the person following behind, who’s preparing to use magic.
They both drop dead in front of me, so I let the spike dissipate and recycle what blood-qi I can from it.
I hope I didn’t misunderstand the situation. Maybe the one coming behind was preparing to use magic to stop the fat person, instead of helping it. However the case may be, even if those people weren’t actually targeting me, I can’t tolerate anyone approaching me so ambiguously, with drawn weapons and magic on the edge of their mind. That just wouldn’t be conducive to my long-term survival.
But then, the werewolf attacks me too, which somewhat confirms my suspicion that they were indeed targeting me.
The werewolf circles around me and strikes. Both strength and speed are decent, but the technique is sloppy. I can feel the wind caused by this attack stroke my back. The way the air currents shift and move tells me the direction of the werewolf’s strike, so I dodge it and counterattack.
The werewolf loses both its arms in the confrontation, and its chest is split open. It represents little threat to me now, but there is no point in letting it live, so I turn around and just cut its head off by turning my left hand into a blade for a few moments.
…Well, this is a bit disappointing.
I’d planned to speak to them.
What am I supposed to do, now?
Why on earth did they suddenly decide to attack me? And with such paltry skills, too? I really can’t see where their confidence came from.
Fortunately, there is still one left alive.
The woman, lying down on the ground.
I think she’s an elf.
She seems to be injured.
When I start walking toward her, the woman’s face pales a little and she hastily closes her eyes.
Um… What should I do?
Her breathing and heartbeat are strong. Her body is still moving, minute twitches apparent here and there. She doesn’t seem to have suddenly died or lost consciousness.
So why did she close her eyes?
Maybe that means something in elvish culture?
…Sorry, I have no idea what.
I squat down next to her, and when she still doesn’t open her eyes, poke her cheek a few times to get her attention – with my left hand, of course, after blunting the claws at the end of its fingers; I wouldn’t want to inadvertently slice her face or puncture her skull.
And, finally, she opens her eyes and looks at me.
Hmm… What was it, again? I remember this one. It was, um…
Oh, yes. Here it is.
However, the moment I use telepathy to transmit this word to the woman’s consciousness – she doesn’t have a proper soul in her dantian – she screams in pain and grabs her head with her hands and rolls up into a twitching ball on the ground, all her muscles apparently clenching up uncontrollably, blood flowing from her eyes and nose and ears.
Um, did I do something wrong?
This is how I always communicate with Sanae, and she never reacted so badly.
I stand up and take a few steps back, giving the woman some space and letting her catch her breath.
…It takes a while for her to recover. She actually lost consciousness for a few minutes, there, and she still seems to have a pretty painful headache. Sorry about that.
Finally, her whole body relaxes and she lies down on the ground, panting roughly.
Her face looks even paler than it did before.
I hope she’s all right.
I wouldn’t want to kill all the people I finally found after going outside. That would be annoying.
The woman raises a hand and waves weakly at me. There is a smile on her lips, but it looks a little unsteady. “Hello to you, as well. Please don’t take offense, but I would very much appreciate it if you, um, didn’t speak quite so loudly. Otherwise, I think your next sentence – your next word, actually – is going to kill me.”
I wasn’t aware telepathy had any appreciable volume.
Was I screaming to Sanae for all those years? Why didn’t she ever tell me?
Even though I’m not sure it’ll work, I try to send a tiny whisper to the woman’s mind.
The woman winces, but she doesn’t lose consciousness and start bleeding from everywhere, this time, and she answers readily enough. “Much. Thank you. My name is… Sif. May I ask yours?”
I’m glad. This conversation is proceeding quite well.
She even knew what question I wanted to ask before I needed to.
I answer with an even tinier whisper than before, and this time, Sif doesn’t seem to feel any pain at all.
Sif smiles at me again, much more naturally than before. “What a beautiful name. Quite exotic. Forgive me for asking such a question, but are you a devil?”
[…What’s a devil?]
Sif blinks. “Um… Well, devils are renegade apostles. I assume if you don’t know about them, you’re not one of them. You’re not an apostle either, then?”
[…What’s an apostle?]
Sif shakes her head. “Never mind. Did you not come from Caldera?”
I haven’t heard that name for such a long time.
Good, good. Then, I should be –
Hmm? No, wait…
[…This isn’t Caldera?]
Sif tilts her head to the side, idly removing a trail of blood from the corner of her mouth with a swipe of a finger, then licking the finger clean. “No. This is the Planar Prison, an artificial plane linked to Caldera, where some majin are exiled after being captured by humans.”
Well, at least, it’s not ‘Tower’.
But in the end, I’m still not home, am I?
[…Is there an exit?]
Sif is silent for a few moments before answering. “There is indeed an exit. A teleport formation, in a place called Jodene Fortress. However, I don’t know much about it. People in Jodene Fortress would be better able to inform you. I would guess, however, that if the humans dared to put an obvious exit in full view of their prisoners, that means they are quite confident that no one will manage to escape through it, so its defenses must be solid.” She shakes her head. “If there is another way to escape this place, I’m afraid I don’t know of it.”
Hmm… That makes sense.
Any artificial plane must by necessity have at least one entry point and one exit point, in order to circulate qi and feed the plane, otherwise it won’t be stable, and it’ll quickly collapse. And I doubt it’s a question of being daring. The humans most likely didn’t place their exit inside this Jodene Fortress. Rather, Jodene Fortress must have been built around the exit by prisoners hoping to find a way through it.
But it would indeed be defended quite strenuously.
…I suppose I’ll need to go and check the situation myself.
If the people guarding it are on the level of those three from before, I don’t anticipate any problems, no matter how many of them there are, but three is a bit too low to form a representative sample of this plane’s population. Those might just be exceptionally weak, compared to everyone else, so I don’t want to conclude anything yet. Let’s keep a low profile, as much as possible.
“Are you going to Jodene Fortress?” Sif asks suddenly. When I nod, she continues, “May I join you? I happen to have business there, as well. And I can show you the way, if you wish.”
Oh, that’s a good idea.
I have no idea where this Jodene Fortress is even supposed to be, so a guide would be convenient.
I nod again and Sif’s smile widens.
“Thank you.” She tries to stand up, propping herself with her hands on the ground, but immediately winces in pain and quickly gives that up. “Um. My apologies, but I might need a few hours to heal the worst of my injuries, if you don’t mind.”
“Thank you. And thank you for saving me, too. Those four would definitely have killed me if you hadn’t come when you did. I will certainly do my utmost to… show you my gratitude.”
I point at the corpse of the fat person and ask, […What is this?]
“Huh? T–That’s an ettin.”
Oooh. An ettin.
I see, I see.
I did faintly remember the name, but I didn’t remember what they looked like at all. I didn’t imagine they’d be so big. Or is it just this particular specimen?
[…What about this?]
“This one’s an oni. You’ll probably see a lot more like him everywhere. They’re almost as numerous as humans. They make up most of the majin population. The ones who look like that but have blue skin instead of gray are called ‘high oni’.”
After explaining, Sif slowly crawls up to a wide tree standing next to her and sits with her back against its trunk, while I continue to examine the corpses of the people I killed.
Their blood is very strange. The werewolf’s blood is red. The oni’s blood too is red, but a darker shade. As for the ettin’s, it’s a blue-gray color, completely different from everyone else. The smell is different from mine, as well. Both red and blue-gray blood smell a bit like… metal.
Is blood made out of metal…?
That doesn’t make any sense. Metal must be very hot for it to be liquid. The blood of these people is lukewarm, at best. Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. What matters is, can I refine it or not?
Let’s try with just a little bit, first.
I dip my finger in the spreading pool of the oni’s blood, then bring it up to my mouth and swallow it.
I wait for a few moments, but unfortunately, the blood is simply decomposed and destroyed within my stomach, without actually providing me with any kind of nourishment. There is no increase in the amount of blood-qi within my dantian. In point of fact, some was even consumed in order to provide the extra energy needed to digest the oni’s blood.
After experimenting, the results turn out to be the same for werewolf blood and ettin blood.
It looks like I can only refine demon blood. This fact was already suggested to me when I failed to refine the frog’s blood, on the 199th floor, but the matter has been confirmed pretty conclusively, now.
Or rather than the blood itself, what I can refine should be the Taint inside the blood, I think.
Which means that, since I can’t eat people, I’ll need to keep hunting demons.
…I hope I’ll be able to find some.
Fortunately, I haven’t missed the scent coming from Sif’s bag.
This delicious scent that I know so well…
Considering the potency of that scent, she’s either holding onto the dantian from a powerful demon, or several from weak ones. In any case, it at least proves that there is indeed a way, even for someone as weak as Sif, to acquire them. Which should mean that someone like me shouldn’t have too much trouble accomplishing the same.
I really want to eat those Sif is carrying right now, but she most likely intends to eat them herself. She might refuse to guide me to this Jodene Fortress if I forcefully steal all her food, so I’ll restrain myself for now.
Oh, I know. I could just ask her for more information about it.
I turn back to Sif, leaving the corpses behind, still full of their useless blood.
[…Are there demons, on this plane?]
Sif nods. “Yes. Quite a lot of them, actually. Much more than on Caldera. We’ll no doubt cross paths with some, on our way to Jodene Fortress. I’ll have to count on your help to deal with them, when the time comes; I’m afraid I won’t be fit to fight for a few more weeks.”
That’s a very long time.
What kind of injuries did she sustain, that it would take so long to heal them? Did her internal organs explode or something?
“I must have broken three or four ribs during my fight with these four over there. It won’t take long for me to fix them back enough that I can move without too much pain, but fighting would be a bit harsh on them. Anything too violent, and they’ll break again. Once they do, it’ll be even harder for them to heal properly.”
Elves are really quite fragile, aren’t they?
Actually, I notice that no one here except for me has any adamantine anywhere on their bodies. If they had, they probably wouldn’t have lost so badly against me. Although, then again, I’ve trained a lot against Sanae, which means I know how to handle opponents who’re made of nothing but adamantine, so that might not have helped them all that much.
I let out a small sigh and sit down in front of Sif.
I’ll just wait for her to fix herself, then.
I’m not on Caldera yet, but I’m not in a rush. I can be patient.
After all, I’ve waited all these years to finally escape the Tower, so I’m not going to nitpick for a few more days.
Now that I think about it…
How many years, exactly?
How many years was I stuck in the Planar Tower?
I’m almost afraid to ask, but that is probably something I should know, isn’t it?
[…What year is it?]
Sif tilts her head at my question, but she answers diligently. “I’m not sure about the relative flow of time between this plane and Caldera, but if one year here equals one year there, then this should be 2695.”
[…Are you sure?]
“Yes,” Sif says, closely peering at my face, maybe trying to find the purpose of the question from the expression on my face.
After my time in the Planar Tower, I believe that I have become reasonably good at surviving against things trying to kill me and also at killing those things back. But I am also well aware that I have forgotten many things.
Many basic things.
I know nothing about society. I can barely even recognize people’s species, let alone genders. I don’t really know how people live, either on this plane or on Caldera, what their customs are, what they find acceptable or not, what they might attack me for and what will instead please them.
I remember the name ‘Caldera’, but I don’t remember the name of the country in which I lived. I remember there was a village next to my house, but I don’t remember its name, either. I don’t remember what my house looked like. I only remember I had books in my room and a chair and that the chair was comfortable.
I don’t remember Father’s face.
…I knew all of those things, a long time ago.
But not anymore.
Perhaps, paradoxically, it has something to do with the fact that my memory got progressively better over the years. Now, everything I experience is burned clearly and sharply into my mind, and that sharpness overshadows and eclipses all of my old memories, making them, which were already blurred by time, almost impossible to find and decipher again.
But even for all that, I do, in point of fact, remember what year it was when my house was blown up by that scum, and I was dumped on the first floor of the Planar Tower.
The year then was 2416.
The year now is 2695.
I spent 279 years in that damn place…