Sif was right.
Islandis Fortress is even noisier during daytime.
Annoying, annoying, annoying.
Should I just kill everyone in here and be done with it? That would reestablish silence, would it not?
But no… I may be a monster, but I’m not an indiscriminate monster. Those people aren’t being loud specifically to annoy me. It’s likely that this is a normal condition, for them. They probably don’t even realize that there is a problem at all…
Sif left the house an hour before daybreak to see to our ‘documentation’, whatever that is. She told me to wait for her here.
And so, that’s what I’m doing.
I just laze around on the bed and stare at the ceiling, like I’m trying to burrow through it with my gaze. I could probably accomplish just that with a touch of telekinesis, but that would be cheating.
The ceiling is still stubbornly resisting my attacks when I suddenly feel Sanae twitch a little. I immediately sit up, excitement quickening my heartbeat. I wait for a long time, but apart from that one little twitch, she doesn’t make any other movement. I would almost think I imagined it, if I didn’t trust my own senses as much as I do.
Even after waiting for several more minutes, I don’t receive any response.
She’s clearly still sleeping, but that was definitely a hopeful sign. She’ll probably wake up soon. At the moment, I can only let her rest on her own, but once she awakes, I’ll be able to give her some of my blood and keep her going for a while, at least until I find enough magic cores to feed her.
…I’m sorry you had to empty your reserves of blood-qi against that stupid frog. But don’t worry. I’ll definitely get stronger. Next time a godbeast dares to attack me, I will kill it myself, without needing you to step in and take care of it.
On the other hand, I don’t hold the same hope that Phineas will wake up any time soon. Even after all those years, he’s still sitting in the same position as before, in the middle of my dantian. He hasn’t moved in the slightest for all that time.
…Why is he even meditating, again?
I remember him telling me his dormancy would last 300 years, but I can’t remember what the reason for it… He was… injured… maybe? Well, nothing I can do about it, anyway.
As my thoughts drift here and there, Sif finally comes back from her errand.
“Oh, you’re still here. Good, good. I was afraid you’d set out to explore the fortress on your own.”
…What is she saying, when she’s the one who instructed me to stay here and wait for her? I am indeed a bit curious as to what this place looks like under the light of day, but I’m not so stupid that I don’t understand it would be dangerous to go out and look around until Sif’s finished whatever it is she was supposed to do.
Sif approaches the bed and hands me a sheet of paper. There are many lines of text on both sides of the sheet. I understand most of the words, but the few I lack are probably the important ones because, for the life of me, I can’t tell what the purpose of this thing is supposed to be.
[…What is this?]
“Identification papers for free merchants heading to Jodene Fortress from Ryuuko Fortress. They should fool anyone who doesn’t look too closely. Still, remember that if a guard asks you for them, he will probably look at them too closely. So don’t flaunt them carelessly. And remember the story, too. I am a free merchant, who bought a shipment of red boar pelts in Ryuuko Fortress. I came to Islandis Fortress hoping to sell them for a profit, employing you as my bodyguard for the duration of the trip. Unfortunately, we were attacked on the way by a stray herd of demons. We lost the cargo, but managed to escape.”
Apparently, my confusion is plain to see on my face. Sif just takes one look at me, then continues. “Actually, it would probably be simpler if you pretended to be mute and let me do the talking in all circumstances.”
Well, I certainly agree with this. Things will be a lot simpler if I don’t have to speak to anybody.
For now, all I want to do is look around the fortress. The people living in it are interesting, as well, but people are dangerous; I don’t want to involve myself with them too much.
I nod to Sif to signify my agreement to her plan and store the identification papers inside my space ring, just in case I do need to flaunt them. Then, I put on my cloak, and we both leave the house, the only trace of our sojourn here a bit of displaced dust.
We head for what Sif calls the marketplace.
As we get closer to it, the number of people walking in the streets increases seemingly without end, until I can see people absolutely everywhere, more than I’ve ever seen in such close proximity in my whole life.
It’s unbelievably noisy, but I try my best to ignore that.
There are clearly many different species coexisting in this place. I’ve already seen several ettins, werewolves, oni, high oni. I’ve only seen one elf apart from Sif herself, though, and this elf looked a bit different; her skin was white instead of Sif’s brown – I’m not sure if that means anything.
But more people, I simply don’t recognize at all.
There are people made out of black smoke, who seem like they’ll dissipate at the slightest gust of wind. There are people with dark skin and curved horns and a long, leathery tail. There are people who look otherwise human but have white wings growing off their backs. There are people made out of wood, and people made out of rock and metal. And there are even people whose body is nothing more than a huge eyeball surrounded by slithering red tentacles.
All of them look very strange.
I can’t see anyone here who might be the same species as me, though.
The people are going around and talking to each other. I can hear everything everyone says, but there are way too many threads of conversation for me to keep track of all of them. Even for those I do keep track of, I can’t understand most of the contents.
I feel like I’ve stumbled into some kind of unknown, alien world – which is technically the case, since this plane isn’t Caldera.
Without my prompting, Sif takes my hand in hers and leads me forward, cutting into the crowd until we reach a wide square, where even more people are milling about, like little ants, buzzing about their incomprehensible work.
The pattern here is clear, though. Even at just a glance, it looks more organized than the streets from before. Some people stand inside stalls, with items resting atop wooden counters in front of them, while other people go around from stall to stall, discussing things I don’t understand with the people behind the counters. Then, they exchange small chunks of metal, which look and smell like silver, with pictures and text stamped onto them, for some of the things on the counters.
…Seems fairly straightforward.
As we walk in the square, most of the people we cross paths with stop to glance at us, but their gazes are more often focused on Sif than on me, although I’m not sure why exactly. Perhaps it’s because I’m a lot shorter than she is, so I’m less noticeable.
Fortunately enough, no one stops us to ask for our papers.
After arriving in the center of the square, where a great fountain stands erect, spouting water at least ten meters into the air, Sif releases my hand and turns to look at me. “It might take a while for me to go and fetch everything I need. Do you want to take a look around on your own in the meantime?”
“All right, then. We’ll meet back here in two hours. Is that fine? And please, remember. No violence. And don’t approach the guards. Also, don’t talk to strange men. And don’t follow people into dark alleys. Don’t eat anything off the ground, either; it’s dirty.”
Then, Sif reaches into her backpack and takes out a small pouch, which she hands to me. “Here. Feel free to use this if anything here strikes your fancy. Consider it a small part of my thanks for saving my life a few days ago.”
Sif pats my head a few times, then walks away toward the edge of the square, the people around her once again turning head to look at her as she passes near them. When she’s disappeared from my sight, I open the pouch she gave me. Inside are the same chunks of silver everyone here uses to exchange for the items on the counters.
How convenient. I’ll use these, then.
But there are simply too many items available. I have absolutely no idea what most of them are used for, either.
What should I choose?
I walk slowly from one stall to the next, looking at the things inside them.
I see stalls offering swords, spears, bows and arrows, armors, clothes, and even food.
I disregard all of those.
Eventually, I end up walking up to a stall whose counter is piled high with books. I’m too short to see the cover of the topmost books, but fortunately, the spines face in my direction, so I can at least check the titles of some of them.
‘Brief History of the Planar Prison, Vol. 4’
‘Brief History of the Planar Prison, Vol. 9’
‘A Study of Demons and their Appearances throughout the Ages’
‘Human and Majin Relations – 1345 to 1889 – The Great War’
‘The Majin – Extinct Species (1998 Edition)’
‘The Majin – Current Species (1998 Edition)’
‘Your Neighbor Could Be a Human: Five Signs to Watch Out For’
‘Is Caldera the Principal Plane?’
Everything looks interesting.
And those books from 1998… They’re about a millennium old, so wouldn’t they qualify as antiques? They might be ridiculously rare and precious books. And there are two of them, even.
I really want to read all of them.
But I’m a bit reluctant to spend my silver exchanging for useless things.
I’d like something that would bring me some kind of practical advantage, like books about drawing magic formations or about concocting pills or forging artifacts. But unfortunately, I can’t see any here on those subjects. It’s a bit disappointing. I doubt that, even if they had some, they would compare favorably with the ones Miroslav left in the Planar Tower, but it would still be better than nothing.
When I’m still hesitating, a tall woman, with curling horns growing out of her forehead, leans down over the counter, looking down at me with a smile. “Do you want to purchase one of my books, little girl?”
I’m still not sure myself, so I can only shrug at her question. The woman’s smile widens, and she walks around the counter to squat down in front of me. I tug the edge of my hood a bit lower over my face.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” the woman asks in a soft voice. “Maybe I can help you find it.”
But I’m a bit worried that, if I try to send my words to her by telepathy, she’ll start screaming and bleeding and lose consciousness like Sif did when we first met. So I bend down and write the characters for ‘magic formations’ and ‘Caldera map’ by carving them into the ground with a finger, claw slicing through the stone as if through water.
The woman gives me a strange look as I lean back and retract my hand into the confines of my cloak, then she stands up and says, “Sorry, I don’t have any books on magic. Things like that are already rare to begin with, and since majin can’t learn any, it wouldn’t be a popular product. But I do have maps of Caldera somewhere. I think you won’t be disappointed.”
The woman walks back behind the counter, her long tail swinging lightly behind her.
I follow after her to see her crouch in front of a metal-bound chest. She opens it and riffles inside, taking a few books out of it and piling them on the ground next to her to get them out of the way of her search.
Finally, after a minute or two, she turns back to me with a heavy tome in her arms. “This is the one. Big, isn’t it?” When I nod, she continues with a grin. “That’s natural. Caldera is vast. If you want to see the whole of it with the slightest degree of detail, you’re going to need a very, very big map. This book divides Caldera by regions and offers maps and information about each.”
I take the book from the woman’s grasp and make a quick check of its contents.
The woman looks a bit surprised at my ability to hold the heavy book one-handed, but she looks even more so when I’m forced to use telekinesis to flip the pages and they start turning one after another, seemingly of their own volition.
Still, surprise does not actually constitute a threatening behavior, so I ignore her and continue inspecting the map book.
It does look fairly comprehensive. It should be useful once I leave the Planar Prison.
I nod again and take out the small pouch with the chunks of silver Sif gave me earlier.
I pass it to the woman in exchange for the book.
Pouch in hand, the woman hesitates for a moment, probably wondering if she should ask me about the telekinesis I displayed, but in the end, she decides not to pursue the subject. She quickly loosens the pouch’s bindings and glances inside. Immediately, her eyebrows raise in surprise. She looks back to me and says, “Little girl, I can’t accept this.”
Isn’t that how it works?
But I’ve been watching everyone in the square. This is what they do to get the items on the counters. This book wasn’t on the counter, per se, but what’s the difference? Or does that mean you have to exchange it for something else?
I tilt my head interrogatively, and the woman explains, “This is too much. That book of maps is big, but apart from satisfying intellectual curiosity, it doesn’t have any other use. It’s not as if anyone can actually go to Caldera.” She peers at my face for a moment, until she realizes that I still don’t get it. “What I’m saying is that the book would cost at most twenty silvers.” She holds up the pouch I gave her. “There is nearly ten times that, in there.”
I see. Of course. That makes sense.
“Do you want to buy this book for twenty silvers?” the woman asks.
At my nod, the woman removes twenty chunks of silver from the pouch, then returns it to me.
Then – pom, pom – she taps gently against the top side of my horn with the tip of her finger and says, “Thank you for your business, little girl. Be careful with your money, all right? There are crooks here who wouldn’t hesitate to take it all from you if you gave them half a chance. You have to be more wary.”
I remember now…
That’s right. That’s what it’s called.
Right, right. It’s all slowly coming back to me.
I just bought something with money.
After parting with the horned woman, I store the book inside my space ring and continue wandering around the marketplace. Soon, I reach another stall, where a grizzled, bearded old man with white wings sits behind the counter, his eyes closed, seemingly asleep. Over the counter are spread several wooden planks pockmarked by concave depressions in each of which rests a magic core.
Oooooh. That’s nice. The smell is rich. They’re very good quality.
And I just happen to be a bit hungry, too.
No, no. It would probably be better to keep them for Sanae. I was just thinking I’d need to find some for her, this morning. This is a good opportunity to stock up. That way, I’ll be ready once she wakes up.
I walk around the counter and nudge the old man sleeping there.
He opens his eyes with a grunt and stares at me.
I give him the pouch of money, then point at the magic cores on the counter.
The man grunts again and upends the pouch into his wide palm. He takes a second to count the money, then puts all of it back into the pouch, which he hangs at his belt. He wordlessly stands up, his wings fluttering for a moment to help him catch his balance, and fills another bag with half a dozen magic cores of various sizes.
Once he’s done, he throws the bag of magic cores to me and goes back to sit on his chair, closing his eyes again without another glance in my direction. I put the bag into my space ring and prepare to leave the old man’s stall, but before I can start wandering around once more, a group of people in armor suddenly approaches, the crowd making way for them like water parting before a ship.
Sif said to avoid them.
They’re not here for me, are they?
I should hurry up and leave.
Just as I walk away from the counter, the frontmost man suddenly starts jogging toward me – or rather, more likely, toward the old man with the wings sitting behind me – his armor rattling noisily. The path he takes happens to bring him right in my way, and before I can sidestep and let him pass, with a perfunctory shout of “Step aside!”, he swings his hand at my face to knock me to the side.
His movement is slow and sloppy and limp.
Even though his hand is covered in metal armor, such a blow would never deal any kind of damage to me.
But that doesn’t matter. I’m not in the habit of accepting attacks without retaliating.
My fingers clamp around his wrist before the strike can reach me and keep his hand forcefully in place. If the armored man were heavier than me, he could still simply push his way past me, but as it is, he is abruptly forced to stop, the momentum of his run bending his elbow past the limits of his flexibility.
The armored man gasps and quickly takes a step back to ease the strain on his arm, then stares furiously at me and starts shouting again. “You–!”
My fingers start applying some pressure, and that shuts him up instantly. His features twist with pain.
…Do you think you can just attack me out of nowhere and expect to live, brat?
With a squeal of tortured metal, his gauntlet starts twisting and crumpling under my grip as I gradually increase the amount of strength I’m wielding. Blood starts seeping through the cracks in the gauntlet’s surface. The armored man doesn’t even have the composure to strike or threaten me again, now. He can only attempt to free his hand from my grasp, a pained moan squeezing past his clenched teeth.
On the other hand, the several people he came along with all draw their respective weapons.
One of them bellows, “Let him go! Right now! I said, let him go!”
…So, so noisy.
The power in my fingers suddenly increases, and the armored man falls to his knees with a scream of pain.
The passers-by have stopped passing by. They’re gawking at the scene, staying at a prudent distance. They look more surprised than angry. None of them seem to be a threat to me, at the moment, so I’ll try to let them live if I end up having to fight.
But before things can degenerate to that point, the old man with the wings steps up next to me and says, “Child. That boy didn’t mean to injure you. Show mercy and let go of him, please. Here, you can take this as an apology.”
In his hand is the largest magic core among all those displayed on the counter.
But that thing would be mine too if I killed everyone here, wouldn’t it?
Why should I limit myself to choosing one when both are –
I vaguely remember Sif telling me something about refraining from violence, don’t I?
And something about not alerting the guards to our presence?
No, but the armored man was violent first. I definitely can’t be blamed for this. And, even without that, I didn’t display much in the way of violence. I merely grabbed this brat’s wrist and squeezed a little bit. If I’d actually wanted to be violent, everyone in this marketplace would already be dead.
Rather, I should be praised for my forbearance and politeness.
I take a look at the man kneeling in front of me. There are tears at the corners of his eyes, threatening to fall.
He sure isn’t acting as overbearing as before.
Good. That’ll teach him to be rude to his elders.
I let go of his wrist and snatch the big magic core from the old man’s hand before he can change his mind about giving it to me. This is an unexpected bonus. Sanae will be happy – if I can only resist the desire to eat it myself.
As I store it in my space ring, the old man says, “May I ask you name, child?”
No, you may not.
And stop calling me a child.
I turn away from him without answering his question and walk toward the fountain in the center of the square, where Sif said we should meet up. Two hours will soon have passed, so I’ll go and wait for her there.
For a moment, as I get closer to them, the comrades of the armored man seem as if they’re going to try and stop me from leaving, but after shooting a quick glance behind me, they unexpectedly lower their weapons and move aside, though their expressions are still quite hostile.
I look over my shoulder.
The old man is still standing in his stall, staring at me.
…Are the guards obeying his orders?
Who is he?
Well, I don’t really care, anyway.
I turn back and head for the fountain, the crowd parting in front of me like it did earlier when the guards came through.