After several days of travel, the fortress finally comes into sight.
Not Jodene Fortress.
Sif decided to go there first, because she’s run out of her strange food.
She seemed very sorry about it, but I don’t really mind. As I said, I’m not going to quibble for a few days.
Still, I didn’t imagine this fortress would be so big. There are so many people, it’s almost absurd. Just in the few minutes I’ve been watching, I’ve already seen 641 people, and there should be even more hiding in all those buildings, everywhere.
Isn’t that as much population as a country?
It should be pretty close, at least.
…This is all going a bit too fast for me.
I’m nervous, knowing I’m soon going to step into that fortress, with all those people around me.
What if I do something wrong?
What if they attack me?
Well, no. I know precisely what I’ll do if they attack me, but they might… they might…
Actually, I don’t know what they might do. I have no idea what to expect. That may be what’s making me nervous.
“Islandis Fortress isn’t quite as stringent in its security measures as most other fortresses,” Sif says suddenly as she gazes at the buildings in the distance, “but they still won’t allow us to enter if we simply walk up to the gates and ask.” She glances at me, gauging my reaction. “We’ll need to sneak in.”
Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
The wall is only 30 meters high, so we can jump over it while no one’s looking.
After a few seconds of consideration, Sif says, “We could try to impersonate some free merchants, I suppose, but it’s unlikely we’ll be able to find a caravan to ambush in the next few days. Those don’t arrive all that frequently, after all.And if we arrive at the main gate pretending to be merchants without any kind of cargo to show for it, it’ll look too suspicious. We can’t have that; there’s no way we’d hold up to any real investigation. No, I think we should stay with something simple. One of us will act as a spotter while the other climbs up the wall and disables the guards. Once that is done, the other will come up.”
Merchants? Caravan? Cargo?
And why would we need a spotter?
Can’t we just jump over the wall?
“I’m a pretty good climber, but you should be even better, I reckon,” Sif continues. “And you could deal with the sentries more easily than I could. On the other hand, your telepathy means you could transmit the sentries’ locations directly into my mind without the sound of your voice alerting people to our presence. Which means you’re suited to both roles. Which one do you want to do?”
Or we could just jump over the wall.
When I don’t answer her question, Sif tilts her head and peers at my face. “What’s wrong? Do you have a better idea?”
“Over the wall, you mean?”
I nod again.
Sif looks at the fortress’s wall for a minute, then turns back to me. “Isn’t it a bit high?”
I shake my head.
“Oh. All right. What about the guards?”
“About as strong as me, I think. Maybe a bit weaker. Definitely not as strong as you.”
[…Like the werewolf?]
“No, no. Not like the werewolf at all. Much weaker than that.”
Weaker than the werewolf? Aren’t guards supposed to protect the fortress against demons and such? How are they supposed to do that if they don’t even know how to fight?
Sif seems to have noticed my confusion. “The purpose of the guards is more to sound the alarm and hold the line for the more powerful warriors to arrive, rather than defeat the enemies themselves. They won’t be the strongest practitioners in the fortress.”
What line are the guards supposed to hold, though?
From my perspective, they don’t seem to be holding anything but their weapons.
…I don’t get it.
If the guards aren’t even as strong as the werewolf, they won’t be any kind of impediment to me, no matter what they do. I should be able to sneak in without problem.
But I’ll need to deactivate the magic formation carved into the part of walls we intend to jump over.
That’s the real danger, here.
In fact, as I see it, the guards patrolling on top of the wall are little more than bait, something to grab attention while the real defensive measures – the detection, shield, and attack formations – are cleverly hidden out of sight. I probably wouldn’t have found out about those defensive measures myself if I hadn’t felt the energy fluctuation coming from the magic cores – as Sif calls them – encased in the walls to power the formations. I assume most people won’t notice them, even if they stand right next to them all day long, but I’ve spent most of the past three centuries eating that stuff every day. I could recognize that energy fluctuation with my eyes closed.
“What about me, though?” Sif continues. “I can’t jump over such a height so easily, I’m afraid.”
…That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve already noticed over the past few days that Sif’s strength, speed, and endurance are really poor. For example, even though she sleeps several hours every night, she only has enough energy to keep walking for less than a day afterward before she has to sleep again. Perhaps her injuries are affecting her stamina, but still, it’s clear she hasn’t trained very diligently.
I suppose she wouldn’t need to train diligently, though, would she?
This world isn’t quite so filled to the brim with angry, hungry demons as the Planar Tower.
There is no real need for that kind of strength, here.
I shake my head slightly to cast off the thought and reply, […I’ll carry you.]
“Really? Good, then. I’ll be counting on you. Once we’re inside the fortress, we’ll be able to move more openly, but we’ll still need to be careful not to stir up trouble. The fake identities I can forge for us might fool regular citizens, but once again, they won’t hold up to proper inspection by the guards. If we bring their attention down on ourselves, things will become a lot more difficult. Understood?”
To sum it up, be discreet, right?
Sif seems unconvinced by my silence. She looks at me suspiciously and continues explaining. “Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, it means you should try not to kill people without a very, very good reason. In fact, try not to kill people at all, no matter how good your reason may be. Also…” Sif hesitates for a moment, her eyes sweeping over my body. “You’ll probably need to wear some clothes.”
What’s this all of a sudden?
Sif didn’t mention it over the past few days, so why did this suddenly become a problem now?
“You see, not everyone is as… enlightened as I am.” Sif shakes her head and sighs. “The people in that fortress might not share my appreciation for the naked female form. So, while we’re there, it’s probably more prudent for you to wear something.” She turns a bright smile toward me. “But if you prefer to forgo clothing entirely when it’s only the two of us, know that you have my wholehearted approval.”
“I’m not sure where we’re going to find you any clothes, though. Do we really have to wait until we find someone to ambush outside the city?”
[…I already have this.]
With a wave of my hand, take the red cloak out of my space ring. It has been waiting there for almost 300 years, and finally, it sees the light of day. I remember Phineas telling me it would be useful, one day. He’ll be glad to know he was right, once he wakes up.
But, even though the cloak was safely stored away for all this time, the years alone have been enough to damage it. Its colors are faded. The holes the spiders had punched into it seem to have widened even more. The hem is torn and ragged.
Sif doesn’t seem all that much interested in the cloak itself, however. Rather, she seems more surprised that an object suddenly appeared in my hand out of thin air.
“Oh, is that a space ring you have, there?”
Sif’s eyebrows rise up in wonder, and she nods her head a few times. “I see, I see. You have some pretty good things. I’m envious.” Then her eyes finally falls upon the cloak itself, and her expression coagulates. She blinks a few times, her gaze doubtful. “Is that…? Ah, um, it looks… nice. But… it’s pretty worn down, isn’t it?”
“And isn’t it too big for you?”
I nod again.
Sif scratches her cheek. “Huh, don’t you have anything else?”
Well, I do have something…
I channel a thread of blood-qi into the space ring once more and take out the clothes I found on the 188th floor. It’s a black and gray one-piece suit. It should cover everything below the chin when worn – including the feet – but there are no openings through which I could put it on. I’m not sure what material it’s made of, either. The fabric is slick to the touch and very thin and flexible, but at the same time so tough that, even with my current strength, it would take quite a lot of effort to tear it apart forcefully, though my claws could slice through it easily enough.
Sif looks at the suit thoughtfully for a few moments. “Hmm, that looks good. It’s not your size, but I should be able to refit it, I think. I may not look it, but I’m actually a pretty decent tailor, if I do say so myself. Since we still have time until night falls, I can try my hand at it, if you want.”
…Well, I doubt she’ll succeed, but if she wants to try, I don’t mind.
Sif sits down on the grass and takes shears, needles and thread out of her bag. I hand her the black suit, and, after fingering the fabric and mumbling to herself for a minute, she spreads it over the ground and starts cutting the edge of one sleeve.
But, no matter how hard she struggles, the blades can’t even put a scratch on that strange material.
After a few minutes of fruitless effort, Sif looks up at me, hefts the suit, and asks, “What is this thing, exactly? What’s it made of? Why can’t I cut through it? Is it some kind of artifact?”
[…I don’t know.]
Sif sighs, her shoulders slumping powerlessly. Then, she stands up and walks to me, returning the suit to me. “I’m sorry. I’m never going to be able to do anything with this. I might have more success with the red cloak. This one, I should be able to fix – presuming it’s as normal as it looks. I’ll just shorten it and use the excess to mend the holes. It’ll still look old and battered, but it should be better than nothing.”
Old and battered, is it?
I guess it fits me just fine, then.
I store the suit in my space ring again, then hand the cloak to Sif. While she gets to work on it – with more success than before – I continue watching the fortress, studying the defensive formations carved into the walls so that I’ll be able to disable them quickly when the time comes.
Night has fallen.
Sif and I are ready to infiltrate Islandis Fortress.
I’ve received the restored cloak from her, but I haven’t put it on yet. It’ll wait inside my space ring until we’re past the wall. I’m confident in my ability to sneak in undetected, but I’m not one for pointless risks, and wearing clothes isn’t something I’m used to; it might distract me at the wrong moment.
A throwing knife made out of ice congeals in my hand. It’s wide and flat, a little like a trowel – and I can’t help but wonder why I would even remember what a trowel is – and also heavy enough that the wind won’t measurably impact its trajectory.
I take aim, then throw.
The wall is two kilometers away. The energy channel I’m targeting has a width of half a centimeter.
My throw is accurate, and the knife is sharp. It pierces into the stone wall and directly cuts off one of the energy channels carved shallowly into it, severing the link between the magic core and a part of the formation designed to warn its owner if the rest of the formation isn’t receiving enough energy to operate – it’s something like an alarm system to prevent people from doing precisely what I’m trying to do.
Whoever set that thing up is an amateur. The alarm system does indeed check if someone severs the energy channels feeding the magic formation, but there is no redundant system checking if the alarm system itself has suffered the same fate. I suppose a little trick like that might confound someone unlearned about such things, but I’ve had a lot of time to study Miroslav’s books.
To me, all this means is that I need to throw two knives instead of one.
The second knife is as accurate as the first. This one directly cuts off power to the center of the formation, instantly neutralizing most of its functions.
Now, I can safely jump over the wall without triggering anything dangerous.
Of course, once someone personally comes and checks whether or not the formation is operating correctly, they will instantly notice the issue, but by that time, I expect Sif and I will already long be inside the fortress. If the owner of the magic formation isn’t in the habit of performing routine checks on their defensive systems, they’ll probably never even notice what happened until an actual enemy comes and takes advantage of that weakness in a more obvious way than I did.
“Did you succeed?”
I look to Sif and nod at her question.
“What now?” she asks. She seems vaguely excited, though I can’t say I know why.
Instead of answering, I extend my left hand toward her and channel some blood-qi into it. It quickly becomes bigger and bigger, until Sif can comfortably fit in its grip. I take care to blunt the claws before gently taking hold of her body. She doesn’t flinch, even when the gigantic fingers slowly close around her and ice slithers over her body, trapping her against my palm so that she won’t move around and injure herself.
When I’m holding her securely, I turn back to the fortress’s wall.
The sentries are patrolling atop it, just like during daytime.
I don’t know why we waited for night to fall, but Sif insisted, so I complied. She definitely understands this world better than I do, so it’s natural to trust her decisions more than my own on things like that. It’s highly possible that I’m missing something obvious, and that night somehow helps us.
I time the sentries’ rounds, one last time.
It’ll take me about six or seven seconds to run the two kilometers to the stone wall. I can’t make it any faster, otherwise I’ll break the sound barrier, which would be a bit too noisy for our activities to qualify as ‘stealth’ anymore. After that, jumping above the wall and falling on the other side will take maybe three or four more seconds?
That should be fast enough to avoid the guards’ eyes.
My gaze follows the sentry walking slowly along the edge of the wall, and when the timing seems right, I start running. I arrive within 40 meters of the wall before the sixth second has elapsed and jump, carefully adjusting how my feet strike the ground and how my weight distributes itself so that the earth won’t shatter under the impact.
I reach my target without issue, alighting silently atop the wall. I walk across it and immediately drop down to the street on the other side. Fortunately, there is no one passing below at that moment. That’s the only variable I couldn’t clear beforehand.
Once again, I try to dampen the shock of my landing, but this time, my control is less than perfect. The stone underneath me is a lot denser and more tightly packed than I’d thought just by looking at it from above. It doesn’t have the feel of natural stone; it was probably magically made.
So, when my weight comes to rest upon it, the stone splinters with a loud noise that rings out up and down the street before I can even correct my posture.
I don’t wait for anyone to come and check the disturbance.
Ten seconds later, I’m already a few streets away, disappearing in the deep shadows between the buildings, Sif still tightly held in my fist. Only when I deem us safe from any pursuit do I let most of the ice making up my left hand dissipate, until it returns to a more normal shape and size. I sharpen its fingers into claws again, as a force of habit.
As the ice holding her disappears, Sif drops to the ground, her arms wrapped around her own chest. When she straightens up and looks at me, she’s shivering fiercely.
“Haaa… Are we inside the fortress? Oh, good, good. That didn’t last too long. Fortunately. Oooh… I felt like I was going to freeze to death there, for a moment. Your hand was really a lot colder than I’d expected. Yes, I don’t think I want to do this again.”
Freeze to death?
Surely not. It barely lasted a minute.
I ignore Sif’s ridiculous complaints and take my first proper look around me. I was busy running away earlier, so I didn’t have time to really appreciate my surroundings.
The buildings tower over me, almost blotting out the sky on both sides of the alley in which Sif and I are standing. It feels… oppressive, somehow – which is a bit strange of a feeling to have, considering the number of narrow caves and tunnels I’ve explored over the years. The scent of people here permeates everything around me. At least, I think it’s the scent of people. I’m not certain. There are so many different smells I don’t know – or don’t remember – and all of them blend and mix and meld together until they change and become something else altogether. It is all quite confusing.
But it isn’t that much of a problem.
On the other hand, the noise is.
With stone walls everywhere around getting in the way, my hearing doesn’t have all that much range. But even considering that, the sounds of countless heartbeats, of countless people breathing, talking, crying, walking, moving things and touching things and breaking things are constantly flooding my mind. And they echo between the buildings, bouncing around and around, making it impossible for me to determine where they came from. And worst of all is that all this noise is constant; it never seems to stop or even abate in the slightest.
I have to make a conscious effort to ignore it, otherwise it quickly becomes dizzying.
I’m not sure I’m going to be able to bear with this for too long; it’s already getting annoying.
“Are you all right?” Sif asks suddenly.
Sif looks blankly at me for a moment, before glancing around us at the alley and the streets beyond. “Noisy? Here? Now? We’re in the middle of the night. There is no one out there. What exactly is so noisy that you’d react like that?”
…So it’ll be even worse during the day?
I don’t even want to imagine it.
Sif looks down at me with a gentle gaze. “Well, you’ll get used to it, in time. After a while, the bustle of the city becomes nothing but background noise. You learn to tune it out. Though, I have to say, if you find Islandis Fortress’ nightlife noisy, you might have some difficulty adjusting to more… populous locales.”
No way? More than here?
Surely, that’s impossible. There must be several thousand people in this fortress, already. That should be enough to resist any demon tide. What call would there be for even more people to gather in one place?
“We should try to find a place to spend the night.” Sif continues in a casual tone, as if what she said isn’t important in the least. Without waiting for a reply, she starts turning away, but then hesitates and looks back to me. “You should probably start wearing the cloak, now. You never know; someone catch sight of you.”
I take the cloak out of my space ring and drape it over my shoulders. Sif adjusted its length so that I wouldn’t tangle my feet in its hem, and it indeed matches my size much better than before. And there aren’t any more holes in it. Wearing it will cause a slight increase in the amount of energy dedicated to cooling down my body, but that’s just nitpicking. I should be able to wear the cloak indefinitely without disadvantage – as long as I don’t get into a fight where it could be grabbed to pull me off-balance.
Still, it’s uncomfortable. I can’t feel the wind as easily anymore. And the touch of the fabric on my skin feels rough and coarse.
“Here, just in case. White hair and red eyes might attract attention.”
Sif reaches out and tugs the cloak’s hood over my head. My horn gets in the way of it falling low enough to really cover my face, but since I’m so short, as long as I don’t look straight up at people, it should hide my features adequately enough. The weight on my wolf ears is annoying, though; they flutter and push against the hood for a while, trying to find a comfortable position.
“It suits you well,” Sif says with a smile. “Now, come on. Follow me. We need to find somewhere safe, not too far from the marketplace. That way, we won’t have to move too much, tomorrow morning.”
Sif starts walking toward one end of the alley, heading deeper into the fortress.
I follow after her, gazing quietly at the buildings around us.
“This should do it.”
Sif stops in front of a worn-down house. It’s small and looks to be abandoned. The garden in front is covered in weeds tall enough to cover the first-floor windows. Sif approaches the front door and opens it, listening carefully for any sign of a presence inside, but I could already tell her that there’s no one there except for small insects and a few rats.
“Looks good. Come on, quickly, before someone sees us.”
I enter the house on Sif’s heels, and she shuts the door after me, taking a few furtive glances up and down the street, while I look around the room.
…I’m not sure I like this place. The air is musty and stale. It’s cramped, and it has a ceiling and walls on all four sides. I prefer being able to see the sky, if at all possible.
I walk deeper into the house, the wooden floorboards creaking under my first step before I adjust my gait accordingly. Dust covers everything. It’s clear no one came in here for quite a while. As I walk, my fingers trail lightly over pieces of furniture abandoned here in varying states of disrepair. I try to dredge up some memories of my old house, but only a few disjointed, blurry images come back to me.
Did it used to look like this, as well?
What does it look like now?
Has it been rebuilt?
Does someone else live inside it, now that we’re gone?
Or has Nerys inherited it?
I remember there were pink trees on the mountain where it was built.
I haven’t seen trees like those anywhere in the Planar Tower.
I wonder for a moment how far I am from it, right now, but the thought is pointless. I’m not even in the right plane to ask this question. It wouldn’t be counted in kilometers, but in light-years, too far for my pitiful little brain to even grasp the distance between us.
When I turn back, Sif is leaning against the door frame, watching me silently.
I didn’t even notice when she arrived…
“Are you all right?”
I’m not sure, so I don’t answer the question.
I take off the hood, my ears twitching in relief, and then the cloak itself.
“We should try to get some sleep,” Sif says. “If something goes wrong tomorrow, we may not have that luxury anytime in the following days.”
Then, Sif walks back through the corridor and into the only other room of this house. There is a bed here, and nothing more. Contrary to everything else in the house, however, the bed isn’t covered in dust. I assume Sif already cleaned it up in order to use it.
Sif stretches, yawns widely, then lies down on top of the covers, crossing her arms behind her head. She looks up at me as I stand next to the bed and quirks an eyebrow, a small smile on her lips.
“You don’t mind sharing the bed, do you?”
With the amount of blood-qi in my dantian, it would take several years for me to run out of energy so much that I start feeling the need for such a thing as sleep.
I can’t help but wonder, how does it feel to sleep in a bed?
It’s been about 300 years since I last did that, hasn’t it?
I want to try.
I want to try.
I want to sleep in a bed, like when I was young.
Will this flimsy thing be able to carry my weight, though? I’ll probably crush it the moment I try to lie down on top of it, won’t I? Maybe if I get on slowly…
I walk up to the bed – Sif watches me with a grin on her face, for some reason – then gingerly, gradually start putting my weight on it. The wood creaks loudly under the strain, but it holds. This thing is more solid than I expected.
Sif’s brows rise up in surprise at the wood’s complaint. “How much do you weigh, exactly?”
I carefully lie down on my back, flicking my tail out of the way so that it won’t be stuck beneath my body.
And immediately, Sif snuggles up against my side and brings her mouth close to my ear. I can feel her breath tickling my skin as she asks, “So? How is it? It’s not a very good bed, but it should feel better than sleeping on hard ground, right?”
I suppose it is soft.
It reminds me a bit of the time I slept atop the corpses of those huge bear-like things, on the 112th floor. Their fur was quite soft, too. And the smell of their blood was wafting all around me. It was all quite pleasant.
There was no one there at that time who I needed to share this ‘bed’ with, though – Sanae doesn’t exactly take up a lot of space, so long as she doesn’t want to.
Which, arguably, made it easier to sleep.
Sif’s body is even softer than the bed, but it’s too warm to be comfortable when it’s pressed up against me like this.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what effect it would have on her if I tried to forcefully cool her down with my magic. For all I know, it could very well hurt her. The only reference I have on that point is Nerys, and I don’t remember how it felt when she hugged me. As absurd as that sounds, maybe elves are actually supposed to be warm.
I let out a small sigh and close my eyes, the sounds and smells of the fortress still flooding all my senses.