“This is it,” Jodene says, handing the small glass sphere to me.
This… is a key?
That makes no sense.
In the first place, it’s strange that there would be a lock on a teleport formation. Space magic is quite an arcane discipline. Adding extraneous elements to a teleport spell could easily make it malfunction. In a teleport, the destination coordinates are decided by the frequency of the qi used to power the spell. Normally, the frequency is fixed upon creating the formation, so that all the user has to do is input energy into the formation, but if the frequency somehow changes – for example, if the formation is damaged, or if some random idiot tries to append crude security systems to the formation upon its creation – then the coordinates will also change unpredictably.
That’s not something you want happening to your teleport.
From what I’ve learned from the books I found in the Planar Tower, even Miroslav himself considered it impossible to add any such thing as a magic lock to a teleport formation.
But then again, most of those books are several thousand years old. Things might have changed, since then. It’s not like magic is a static field of study. New theories are formulated everyday. New hypotheses are tested and confirmed and refuted. It’s plausible that someone might have found a way to secure teleport formations, somehow.
Curious, I try to ask Sanae if she recognizes this key, and how to use it.
Unexpectedly, however, I discover that I cannot.
It’s not that she refuses to answer me or anything. It’s simply that I can’t use any soul force anymore. It’s like my soul is confined within the walls of my dantian. Both telepathy and telekinesis have been sealed. I can’t send even the slightest strand of soul force toward either Sanae or Sif or Jodene or Shen Lei – which means I can’t talk to any of them.
I’ve been locked inside of myself.
Did this sphere do that?
What on earth is it?
I can feel Sanae shift uncomfortably, but still no words reach me from her. Has her soul suffered the same kind of imprisonment mine did? Otherwise, I imagine she’d already be asking me why I severed my link to her – losing telepathy on my side wouldn’t mean she couldn’t talk to me; it would just mean I couldn’t answer her when she does.
Before I can ponder any further, however, Sif suddenly starts vomiting large amounts of blood, and collapses onto the table. I can hear her heartbeat slow down to a crawl, and then completely stop, along with her breathing.
…What is going on, here?
I glance at Jodene and Shen Lei. Both of them are staring at me, gauging my reaction. They don’t look surprised in the slightest by Sif’s abrupt demise.
Well, I may not be a genius, but it sure doesn’t take one to figure out that the two of them had a hand in this.
That… annoys me.
Quite a bit.
And I can’t even ask them why they did it, either…
Should I just break this sphere?
But what if it really is a key?
Right. Best to keep it safe, for now. I can always discard it later, if it turns out to be useless.
“You didn’t react as violently as I thought you would,” Jodene says suddenly. “You’re quite self-possessed, for a devil. Or is it that you just didn’t care about this woman?”
Well, I’ve worked very hard for several hundred years to keep my temper in check. I won’t suddenly lose my mind over such a little thing as this. The only reason I’m annoyed is that Sif was a very helpful person, who could guide me along in this strange world and talk to people in my stead. As long as I’m provided with a proper replacement, I’ll refrain from killing anybody in retaliation.
…Also, I have no idea what a devil is supposed to be, so I can’t really respond to that accusation.
Jodene leans back into her seat and continues. “You wanted me to lead you to the teleport formation, yes? Well, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.” She directs a bright smile at me. “Because a piece of trash like you simply isn’t worth the effort I’d need to expand to get off this chair and lead you around. Furthermore, it would mean I’d need to suffer the sight of your hideous face for even a second longer than I’d really need to, and I wouldn’t want that even for all the gold in the world. So. I suggest you obediently get down on your knees and thank me profusely for being kind enough to spare your own pathetic life and only killing the stupid whore who accompanied you.”
My finely honed senses detect some hostility, in that little speech.
I don’t know why this hostility is there at all, though.
Shen Lei here is the one who invited Sif and I to come here, isn’t he?
And apparently, he obeys this woman.
So, if she didn’t want to see us, she could have just said so.
I really, really can’t understand people…
But there is one thing I do understand, here.
It’s that this woman knows where the teleport formation is.
Since it’s in this castle, I suppose I could just look for it on my own, but asking her is simply more convenient. I couldn’t care less about her insults, but she will tell me where I can find my objective.
I gather my blood-qi, letting it course through my meridians, and I raise my left hand, ready to capture Jodene in its grip –
– but the moment I do so, cracks run through the ice making up my arm, my fingers breaking off one by one and falling onto the table, scattering small white flecks everywhere. As I watch dumbfounded, the cracks spread faster and faster, and in just a few seconds, my entire left arm has shattered and fallen off my shoulder.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Jodene and Shen Lei staring at my right hand.
I reflexively follow their gazes.
The light coming from the so-called key is getting brighter and brighter. The single black wisp inside the sphere is fluttering about, and all the other white wisps seem to have been activated in response to it, all of them flocking around the black one and glowing brilliantly. Along with this, the qi fluctuation radiating off the sphere is also getting steadily stronger.
I feel the blood-qi inside my meridians vibrate, as if resonating with that qi fluctuation.
A bad premonition suddenly appears inside my mind, and I quickly try to retract my blood-qi.
But then, the resonance abruptly worsens, setting the blood-qi inside my body surging and boiling, completely out of my control.
Until it bursts while still inside of me.
Almost three-fourths of all the meridians in my body crack and wither under this ruinous attack, and the damage quickly spreads to the rest of my body. My internal organs shake. Fissures appear all over my skin, like on dry mud under a burning sun, black blood seeping out of them. My dantian trembles and distorts, but fortunately, its half-liquid state gives it enough flexibility that it doesn’t fracture. But the damage even reaches inside my dantian, all the way to my soul. It seems to flicker for a few moments, and then splits audibly, as if it’s made out of glass, a series of small cracks appearing over its skin, in a similar way as over the skin of my physical body, except those don’t bleed at all and only pitch darkness can be seen inside them, instead of actual flesh.
I stumble a few steps back from the shock and the pain, spraying black blood everywhere around me, knocking my chair out of the way, the stone ground underneath the carpet shattering under my uncontrolled weight, loud booms resonating with each of my footsteps.
I grit my teeth and try to suppress the pain, but having my meridians break like this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to get used to, even though it’s happened to me quite a few times in the past. That kind of pain is deep and raw. It seems to forgo nerves to drive directly into the blackest recesses of my brain.
But pain is something I’m used to. I regain control of myself quickly enough.
And even as I stumble those few steps back, my brain is leaping from idea to idea, trying to get a grasp of the situation, to understand what’s going on – it’s at times like this one that I’m most grateful for the increased speed of thought I obtained during these years in the Tower.
I’ve already been heavily injured; I can’t make a mistake now, or I could really be in danger.
First of all, if I’m guessing correctly, that strange sphere isn’t a key at all. It’s more like a thaumaturgical focus, something to create a sympathetic link with my blood-qi and affect it even while it’s inside my body. Which means that the more I use magic while around this thing, the more ammunition it will have to hurt me.
Breaking the focus isn’t even an option. If the link between it and me has already been established, any damage it sustains would be transmitted right back to me in some form. I probably wouldn’t die, but it wouldn’t be pleasant, I imagine. It might even go so far as damaging my meridians even more, perhaps irreparably. In the worst case, I could end up unable to use magic ever again.
Which makes it a very bad news that I dropped a second ago, when I reeled back from the damage I received.
I’m not sure where it rolled off to, but if it somehow breaks…
Still, something doesn’t fit.
Whoever created this device must have been intimately familiar with my magic, my blood-qi, the lay of the meridians in my body… Without all this data, the most they could possibly manage would be to obstruct the flow of my blood-qi a little, to make it more difficult and more tiring for me to cast spells.
But for this thing to be this effective, it’s like it was specifically designed to deal with me.
And it’s even be able to restrain my soul…
How do they know me so well, that they’d be able to accomplish that?
And why are Jodene and Shen Lei even attacking me in the first place?
For two or three more seconds, I’m still confused.
And then, it clicks.
I remember Sanae’s theory.
That the scum has been watching me all along and will attack me when I try to escape the Prison, to keep me inside.
And I finally understand.
It all makes sense.
How they know enough about me to create that device…
Why they’re attacking me…
It all makes sense.
It was you.
It was you all along.
Maybe not just you, but you two – Jodene, Shen Lei – are definitely a part of it, somehow.
So you’ll be the first…
I regain control over my body and steady my center of balance. The ground stops breaking under my feet. And my pain seems to disappear.
A shiver of excitement crawls up my spine.
A small smile plays upon my lips.
My tail swishes from side to side in anticipation.
My ears twitch a few times in eagerness.
Ooooooooh, oh oh oh.
That old anger…
It still hasn’t faded, even after all those years.
Like an old companion, ever-present, ever-faithful.
And like always, the second rune in my dantian stirs, tendrils twining around my soul, sneaking into the black cracks running over its skin, filling them up with its dark fog.
…Yes, I changed my mind.
Who cares about any stupid teleport formation? Who cares about what they know or think they know about me? Who cares about who they really are or what they really want?
These people just need to die.
All of them. Without exception.
They all need to die.
As violently as possible. As painfully as possible.
I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really want to kill them.
I need to kill them.
I need to drown them all in a sea of their own blood.
“What’s with that disgusting smile of yours?” Jodene asks, frowning. “Did you enjoy the feeling of your body tearing itself apart from the inside out? Are you some kind of masochist? Well, that demon-sealing stone was more effective than I would have thought, admittedly. It’s a bit of a shame you didn’t die immediately, though, isn’t it? It would’ve been less painful for everybody involved, if you had.”
Is that what it’s called?
Well, I don’t really mind, even if my magic is sealed.
I wouldn’t have used it, anyway.
It just wouldn’t do to miss out on the pleasure of tearing these two people apart, piece by piece, with my own claws and fangs. Just freezing them solid would be too quick. I want to admire the spectacle of their flesh and blood and bones flying in every direction as I scoop them by the handful out of their still-living body.
I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time.
Please, forgive my impatience.