Sif, along with most of the riders, except for those on guard duty, are asleep. Shen Lei is sitting cross-legged in meditation near a campfire.
As for me, I’m sitting against a tree, about a hundred meters away from the camp – far enough that no one will easily witness my actions, but close enough that I can rush back there almost instantly if something unexpected happens.
Sanae is sitting atop my palm, nibbling on my fingers as a way to beg for the food I promised her when she woke up this afternoon.
With a thought, I remove one of the magic cores from my space ring and hold it out to her.
Sanae increases in size until she’s big enough to swallow it, but the moment her mouth gets close to the magic core, I snatch it away from her and hold it at a tantalizing distance. Sanae slowly turns to me, eight eyes glaring into my one, and her annoyance flows into my mind. My lips almost twitch in the beginnings of a smile, and I flick the magic core into the air in her direction. She jumps up expertly and catches it in midair. It disappears down her gullet.
I wave my hand, and all the other magic cores I purchased from Shen Lei fall into the grass in front of me, including the big one he gave me in exchange for the life of the idiot who tried to strike me, at the time. Sanae throws herself at them, and in just a few seconds, she’s swallowed and refined all of them.
Then, she skitters back atop my palm and settles down comfortably.
[…The Planar Prison. Apparently, it’s an artificial plane between the Planar Tower and Caldera. It’s alive and stable, so there is an exit. We’re heading there now.]
[…No. We should arrive tomorrow.]
[…It should be fine. People here are weak.]
At that, Sanae turns her body toward the camp behind me. <Them? Who?>
I transmit to her an image of Sif’s face. […Our guide. Try not to kill her. The others don’t matter.]
There are a few moments of silence as Sanae digests the information I’ve given her. She’s quite intelligent for a spider – probably more intelligent than I am, actually – so I shouldn’t need to explain everything in detail for her to grasp our current situation even better than me.
When she’s done, she sends into my mind a series of concepts and images and predictions, all of which put together describe a scenario more complex than can be expressed with a word or two – Sanae is actually more than capable of forming complete sentences, but I’m convinced she just doesn’t want to bother with words when she can just shove her entire thought processes onto me for me to dissect; her usually using actual words is only because she’s humoring my own preferences.
And the scenario she’s showing me right now can be roughly summed thus: what if the scum who kidnapped me and threw me into the Planar Tower have noticed I’m about to escape and intend to ambush me as I go through the teleport formation?
That could be a possibility, couldn’t it?
Even after all those years, I don’t have even an inkling of the reason why I was imprisoned here or who exactly is responsible, but it’s reasonable to think they’ve been tracking my progress in some way. And, if they know I’m about to break out of the cage they’ve prepared for me, they might act. They might even try and kill me.
I didn’t think it would come so fast.
But, if it does…
I feel excitement and bloodthirst bubbling up from within me. The pitch black smoke around the second rune within my dantian dances in joy, its tendrils coiling gently around my soul at the idea of finally ripping my enemies into tiny, tiny pieces.
Sanae really knows just the right thing to say to put me in a good mood.
I raise my hand, lifting her level with my eye.
[…I hope you’re right. I hope they come.]
Sanae makes no answer to that, simply watching me quietly, her red eyes glowing in the night.
The tall, solid gates of Jodene Fortress stand before us.
I can already hear the noise of countless people coming from beyond them.
It’s even more unpleasant than it was in Islandis Fortress.
Just how many people live here?
If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed that so many could gather together like this. It’s almost unimaginable, really. They’re like ants in an anthill.
Like in Islandis Fortress, people in armor stand guard at the gates, but this time, with just a single word from Shen Lei, they let us pass, without having to show them any pieces of paper or anything like that. Afterwards, with Shen Lei riding in front and his soldiers escorting us, we head toward the enormous castle rising in the middle of the fortress. The trip is long; this place is clearly a lot larger than Islandis Fortress.
Along the way, many people gather on both sides of the road to wave and cheer, shouting Shen Lei’s name with bright, stupid grins on their faces. At one point, a little girl stumbles out of the crowd and hands Shen Lei a handful of flowers. It takes me a long time to understand the meaning of that, until I remember that, during their meals, normal people – that is, people who aren’t demons – sometimes accompany their meat with a few plants, so I assume that this young girl was here to deliver Shen Lei some food, as thanks for whatever great meritorious service he rendered all those people.
…That’s nice. I’d like it too if everyone just spontaneously decided to give me magic cores as soon as they saw me. That would be so very convenient.
But as the case may be, since I am walking along next to Sif’s carriage, concealed by the bulk of the riders arrayed all around us, I stay mostly unnoticed by all those spectators until we reach the castle.
There is a deep, wide moat surrounding its outer wall that would normally prevent anyone from rolling their carriages inside, but by the time we arrive, a wooden bridge has already been lowered from the castle gate, and the heavy iron mesh barring the way has been lifted up. As soon as we’re inside the castle grounds, the iron mesh and the bridge both return to their original positions, completely cutting off the castle from the rest of the fortress.
The courtyard where we find ourselves is wide and open, with leafless trees planted here and there, seemingly randomly. Some guards patrol atop the walls, glancing in our direction at the ruckus of our arrival, and some young people who had been milling about when we came in rush toward us as soon as they see us, each of them taking charge of a horse, holding it by the bridle and gazing at the rider atop it with shining eyes full of awe and respect.
After dismounting, Shen Lei turns to Sif and I. “You can leave your carriage in the care of these young ones. I give you my word that it will be taken care of honestly, along with your cargo.”
“Of course,” Sif answers, readily jumping off her driver’s bench and handing the reins to the young oni holding out a hand for them.
“These two will arrange your rooms,” Shen Lei continues, waving to two more youths standing silently behind him, both of them looking remarkably alike and sporting wings similar to Shen Lei’s own. “In the meantime, I shall go and inform Lady Jodene of your arrival.” Shen Lei bows slightly, first to me, then to Sif, then turns around and leaves without another word, walking quickly toward the front door of the largest and most ostentatious building.
Once he’s gone, the two winged youths he indicated take a step forward and bow as well, exactly at the same time. “Please.”
Sif nods to them, a polite smile on her face, and takes my hand in hers, leading me to follow on their heels as they head for another building, a wide, multi-tiered pagoda off to the left of the one Shen Lei entered earlier.
[…Where is the plane’s exit?]
Sif glances down at me at my question, but I doubt she can make out my face with the hood of my cloak in the way. “I’m not sure,” she whispers back. “It should be in the main building, I think. If I’m not reading things wrong, Sir Shen Lei and Lady Jodene will arrange some kind of banquet in our honor, tonight.” A small smile appears on her lips as she continues. “You should ask them then.”
“They might not directly provide you with the information you seek, though. You might need to, um, convince them, somehow. If you fail to do that, then I’ll go and gather information among the fortress’s local inhabitants tomorrow, but I’m not sure what result this will bring. I doubt common citizens will know the precise location of this mysterious exit. Whereas Sir Shen Lei and Lady Jodene most definitely know. Hearing it from them would be best.”
I see. That makes sense.
But one question remains.
[…What’s a banquet?]