This cloak is in the way. I can’t fight correctly while wearing it.
Since my blood-qi is sealed, I can’t even open my space ring, so I just undo the clasp holding it in place and let it fall off my shoulders. It drops to the ground, bunching up around my feet.
I step over it and walk slowly toward Jodene and Shen Lei.
Shen Lei takes a few steps back and to the side, spreading out so that, if I attack one of them, the other will be able to strike me in the back in an instant.
Jodene, on the other hand, doesn’t move. She’s still seated at the table.
One of her eyebrows rises in a quizzical tilt. “I can’t speak for Shen Lei, but I regret having to inform you that you don’t match my tastes enough that you’d be able to distract me just by stripping naked. Especially when you’re covered in your own blood.”
I don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter.
We are far past the time for questions and understanding.
I keep walking toward Jodene, until finally, she acts.
She lifts one hand, a finger pointing toward me. A powerful qi pressure fills the room, and black lightning flickers across her hand. A small pellet of pulsating darkness forms at the end of her extended finger. When the black pellet has reached a certain density, when its color is darker than the pitchest black, it abruptly turns into a beam, aiming straight for my head. It instantaneously reaches my position.
But Jodene took too long to cast the spell.
Judging from the buildup of qi when the black beam would appear, I’ve already, safely sidestepped out of its way.
Streamers of black lightning branch off the beam, grounding over every object in its vicinity. The table in front of Jodene, my chair and Shen Lei’s, stone tiles on the ground…
Everything is abruptly disintegrated.
And a wide hole, edges perfectly smooth, is bored clean through the wall behind me, where Jodene was pointing, and through the walls and furniture – and people, if people there were – standing in the beam’s way beyond it, too. The outside can be seen at the end of all those consecutive holes, wind coming through them to fill the vacuum left behind in the beam’s wake. I can see the castle’s garden, where some trees have also been destroyed, and the outer wall, where the exact same wide hole can be found.
All this destruction hasn’t made a single sound. It was perfectly silent.
Fortunately for the people of the city, the castle where we’re fighting is on top of a hill, and Jodene’s finger wasn’t pointing downward, so the beam disappeared into the distant sky, sparing them from its effects. I’m not sure their luck will hold throughout the evening, though.
As for me, I dodged by far enough that I’m untouched even by the small streamers. I’m not the kind of idiot who’d evade an unknown attack by the narrowest of margins just because it looks cooler that way. It’s important to leave yourself some leeway. For all I knew, the beam might have changed directions in mid-air, too, so I would obviously give myself a bit of room to react to anything unexpected.
…Still, some sort of deconstruction magic, huh?
I can see where this woman’s confidence comes from. She’d be able to kill pretty much anything, with this, wouldn’t she? It should be a word like 灭 or 毁. I suppose it depends on what the user makes of his power, of course, but words like those can generally directly rip apart molecules, destroying the bonds that hold their atoms together. It’s ridiculously powerful. Not very versatile, though.
Well, how easily the magic can destroy things also depends on what it tries to affect.
I wonder if Jodene knows that?
I can’t wait to see her reaction when she finds out.
Even as the beam flies past me on its line of destruction, I keep walking toward Jodene.
Before I can reach her, however, Shen Lei rushes at me from behind.
Tss. This could have been a good sneak attack, but his motion displaced too much air and revealed his position.
What an amateurish mistake…
I glance back at him over my shoulder. His skin has turned grey and jagged and rough, like stone, as if the man has become a living statue, though he doesn’t seem to have lost any mobility. He has a glaive in his hands, now – I don’t know where it came from; I can’t see a space ring on any of his fingers. Small flames flicker along the edges of the glaive’s curved, red blade, twisting and blurring the air around it.
Shen Lei cuts down at my head in a powerful arc, and I simply lean my upper body to the side to dodge the attack. In the wake of this swing, a wide swath of the room ends up wreathed in flames, forcing Jodene to finally stand up and jump away to avoid them. The thick carpet covering the ground turns to ashes in an instant, along with the remaining chairs and my discarded cloak. The stone tiles closest to the conflagration start melting down under its heat.
A current of wind, its air searing hot, buffets my face.
I start feeling vaguely nauseous. Not enough to hamper me during the fight, but enough to make me very uncomfortable.
It’s so hot…
I don’t want to stay here too long, now…
But I don’t want to end this too quickly, either. I want to take my time and kill them slowly and painfully, to really make them taste that feeling.
What a dilemma…
I use the momentum of my dodge to help turn my body completely around, and send a sweeping kick into Shen Lei’s side, the air around my leg exploding with its speed.
Unexpectedly, Shen Lei manages to bring the pole of his glaive in the way of my strike just in time to block it. I could simply blow right through iron or steel or orichalcum, but the pole seems to be made of some sort of mysterious jade, and it doesn’t break, even against my strength.
It does bend, though, and the force is still enough to go past what Shen Lei himself can bear. His arms can’t keep hold of his weapon, and the glaive slips from his fingers and slams into his own face, sending him flying straight through the opposite wall and into the room beyond, disappearing from sight, shattered stone pelting down everywhere – coming from both the wall and Shen Lei’s own rock armor.
I let my kick spin me back toward Jodene, to find her pointing both her hands at me, spheres of deconstruction magic much larger than before growing in front of them, already pitch black. They fly off, zipping through the air on complicated trajectories, turning this way and that at random, small space cracks branching off wherever the spheres pass.
…Deconstruction magic really is overpowered, to be able to tear space apart so easily. I’m a god who has much greater reserves of qi at my disposal than Jodene, but even I couldn’t break space like this. My ice magic clearly is a lower-levelled rune than whatever hers is.
The spheres’ speed is great, and when they get close to me, it’s a bit of a struggle to dodge them, since they come from wildly different and unpredictable directions.
But my reflexes are good.
And I’m very flexible.
I contort my body, dodging and jumping and dancing around the spheres. Sometimes, streamers of black lightning discharge from them, striking my body, but beyond peeling a few layers off my skin, they don’t cause any noticeable damage.
Those 300 years of body strengthening haven’t been for show. My body is not so easily destroyed, even with deconstruction magic. Even letting the sphere’s edges touch me wouldn’t seriously harm me. Only if Jodene manages to make me come in direct contact with the spheres’ centers, where all those small space cracks originate from, would I risk actually dying.
Jodene herself seems to realize this, and she redoubles her efforts in controlling the spheres. She grits her teeth, her hands moving this way and that in front of her chest, directing the two spheres against me.
I dodge everything. The spheres can’t even prevent me from getting closer to her, slowly but surely.
And finally, Shen Lei comes back into the fight. Blood is trickling between the crags of his rock face. He’s definitely been injured from my last attack, but as expected, it wasn’t enough to kill him. When he returns to the room, walking back through the hole he created on the way out, he stomps his foot on the ground, and the stone ripples away from him, forming waves that I assume are supposed to make me lose my balance, leaving me at the mercy of Jodene’s black spheres.
But that fails as well.
I simply leap above the waves of stone, up to the ceiling, burying the claws of my hand and feet into the stone and hanging there upside down for a moment. Then, before Jodene can direct the black spheres to catch up to me, I throw myself through the air toward her.
Beneath me, Shen Lei suddenly melts down into the ground, and, barely an instant later, emerges back up in front of Jodene, bursting out of the stony tiles in a geyser of earth and soil, right at the point where I was supposed to land. He stretches out his hand to the side, palm open, and the glaive he dropped earlier automatically flies back into his grasp. Shen Lei twirls the glaive around in a circle, then readies his strike, fire burning brighter and brighter over the red blade, until it’s almost like a miniature sun, its brilliance hurting my eye.
…It’s really hot, too.
Jodene retreats a few meters behind Shen Lei’s back, a third sphere of condensed deconstruction magic coalescing in front of her chest, this one even larger still than the ones that came before.
In freefall like this, and with neither magic nor soul force at my disposal, it’s impossible even for me to change my direction. I drop helplessly toward Shen Lei.
When I enter his range, he swings his glaive up at me, a hoarse cry of exertion escaping his throat.
So I extend my right hand and just grab the blade out of the air.
The small sun covering it erupts, but my hand is both in the way and indestructible. My palm deflects and funnels the brunt of the explosion to the sides, in two wide wings of fire that span almost the entire room. The heat is enough to melt the ground into lava for a good 50 meters around the three of us, while everything farther than that is blown apart by the shockwave. The blast is almost enough to send me flying as well, despite my weight, but I tighten my grip on the blade of Shen Lei’s glaive and keep myself in place. I can hear small creaks of straining metal at the force I put in my fingers.
And then, once the shockwave has passed, as I start dropping to the ground again, I wrench Shen Lei’s glaive to the side, and lunge at him, biting down onto his right forearm.
Shen Lei’s hand, like the rest of his body, is covered by a layer of dense rock, several centimeters thick, which offers him precisely zero protection against the sharpness of my fangs. They cut through it like they cut through absolutely everything else that isn’t adamantine. The only problem is that my mouth is too small to bite his arm off.
But I don’t really need to go that far.
Before I can do anything else but taste Shen Lei’s blood, he slams a front kick into my belly. Even though it does dislodge my fangs from his flesh, since I’m much heavier than he is, he’s the one who ends up stumbling back from his own kick.
I don’t press my advantage. I simply watch him center his balance again and heft his glaive, ready to continue the fight.
I can feel the incredible heat of the lava beneath my bare feet, molten rock slowly sagging under my weight. It’s terribly painful, but adamantine covers my legs all they way up to my knees, so I at least don’t immediately melt or combust. Still, heat like this – around 800 or 900 degrees – is a very heavy strain on me. Sif has already explained to me that normal people sweat to vent heat and regulate their body’s temperature, but that’s not an ability I have, so I need to rely on my ice magic to do it. It’s a passive effect I usually don’t even realize, let alone consciously think about, but now that the demon-sealing stone has sealed my blood-qi, I no longer have any way to keep myself cool.
Which, for me, is a rather dangerous situation.
My internal organs just aren’t made to function in temperatures above freezing. Normally, just having my magic sealed for a while wouldn’t put my life in jeopardy, since my skin acts as an insulator and prevents outside heat from seeping in, but there is a limit to this insulation, and lava goes well beyond that limit.
Right now, there is still a trace of chill remaining within me, but Shen Lei’s fiery antics are rapidly changing that. If this state of affairs persists for too long, I could actually die, especially considering I’ve already been injured by the demon-sealing stone, earlier.
…But it’s still too early to end this fight.
I’ve only just dealt my first attack, and I want to see how Shen Lei handles it. If he’s not decisive about it, there won’t be a need for a second. He’ll just drop out of the fight right away. I think. Probably. I’m not actually certain what’s going to happen, myself.
I spit out the rock and flesh I tore off his arm and watch him as he falls to one knee with a grunt of pain. His rock armor starts flaking off his skin as he loses control of it, small stones pelting down onto the lava, melting and feeding into it. His face is deathly pale and twisting in obvious agony.
I watch him impassively.
He really can only blame himself. After all, he’s the one who brought the demon-sealing stone here. Considering the scale of the injuries I suffered from it, it only stands to reason that I would have some of my own blood left in my mouth, doesn’t it? And it only stands to reason that some of it would enter Shen Lei’s body if I bite him, doesn’t it?
It’s the first time I use my blood as poison, now that I think of it. Since I’ve been fighting fellow demons for my whole life, it’s never been a useful tactic, but against normal people…
I’m guessing it hurts, from his reaction?
This is a bit strange. I don’t remember being infected by tainted blood as being painful. Transforming into a demon very much was, yes. But the infection itself…?
I might be wrong.
It’s been so long, since then, that I might have forgotten.
I wonder if he’ll turn into a demon, like me?
That would be interesting.
Unfortunately, however, before I can see if the Taint is going to transform Shen Lei like it did me, a long, thin, jet-black line of deconstruction magic cuts Shen Lei’s arm off at the shoulder, before my blood has time to crawl up his meridians and spread to the rest of his body.
But that’s fine. That too might be interesting.
I could infect them with my blood, little by little, and let themselves cut off their own body parts until they don’t have any more to cut. That should be an appropriate way for them to die.
…Except that would take a bit too long, I think. I did want to take my time making the two of them suffer, but this place has become way too hot for comfort. I’m really not sure I want to drag this on so much, anymore.
Shen Lei’s severed arm falls on top of the lava, instantly bursting into flames. It only takes a few seconds for it to burn down to nothing. Shen Lei doesn’t seem to care. His face has already regained its color, and after scooping up a handful of lava and cauterizing his own stump with a muffled groan, he stands up again, the glaive he’d just dropped automatically returning to his lone remaining hand, nestling in his palm.
“You’re slipping,” Jodene says from behind him, completely disregarding my presence. “You should have been able to cut off that arm on your own. You know we can regrow it, anyway. And it’s not as if it’s the first time you get poisoned by a demon, either. You never hesitated, in the past. You know you can’t hesitate. If this happens again, I might not react on time.”
Shen Lei frowns, answering without taking his eyes off me. “I know. But the pain is different from that of normal demon blood. Deeper. More potent. It wipes the thoughts right off your mind.”
“Hmm… And you destroyed my castle, you old fuck. Restrain yourself.”
Shen Lei snorts. “That’s exactly why we decided to only leave a skeleton crew, tonight. Our losses are limited, and the castle itself can be rebuilt. Also, I really don’t think we can afford to hold back.”
While they talk, I idly glance around. As Jodene said, most of the castle was destroyed in the explosion of Shen Lei’s miniature sun. There are only vestiges left, ruins, standing precariously, threatening to crumble too at the slightest gust of wind. The three of us stand in the center of a great crater gouged out of the hill on which the castle originally stood. An entire side of the hill seems to have collapsed into a landslide, burying beneath it a whole quadrant of the city surrounding it. As for the rest of Jodene Fortress, the shockwave seems to have pelted the flaming debris of the castle everywhere, crushing some houses, setting others on fire. Thick smoke rises over the fortress.
The cries and screams of people are everywhere.
I feel no sympathy for any of them. Those people are irrelevant. They might not have anything to relate with Jodene and Shen Lei, so I won’t go out of my way to kill them, but they don’t have anything to relate with me, either, so neither will I go out of my way to help them.
The strong thrive. The weak are trampled and torn apart and eaten.
That’s just how it was in the Planar Tower.
That’s just how it is here.
And I assume that’s how it is everywhere else, as well…
I turn back to Jodene and Shen Lei, and they seem to feel the weight of my renewed attention, because they both shut up and focus back on our fight.
…Let’s continue where we left off.
Jodene still has all her limbs attached.
Clearly, this is a problem.
Let’s rectify it.
I suddenly burst into motion and rush toward her, flitting over the glowing lava, a sonic boom exploding around me again. Before I can reach Jodene, however, the huge sphere of pulsating darkness she’d been working on earlier reappears in front of her. I thought she’d expended its power in order to weather the blast of Shen Lei’s small sun, but it looks like I was wrong.
Jodene doesn’t throw this sphere at me, though. Instead, writhing black tentacles extend from the sphere and reach out in my direction, in a sight a bit reminiscent of what my second rune is doing in my dantian even now. I suspect, however, that if I let these tentacles wrap around me, it won’t be quite as harmless.
The problem is…
There really are a lot of them.
And they’re all quite fast.
Even for me, dodging all of these would be a bit too difficult.
I evade the first five successfully, leaping and spinning around them. But the sixth gouges a line of flesh out of my side, deep enough to expose the ribs underneath, and the seventh devours a chunk of my thigh, and then, Shen Lei arrives, and this time, he’s not covered in rock anymore, but in lava. He brandishes his glaive, and as he swings it down one-handed, another small sun brightly shining upon its edge, the lava behind me rises up in a tidal wave that hems me in and prevents me from retreating. More lava tries to crawl up my feet and trap me in place.
Let’s end this now…
When more black tentacles are about to skewer my chest, I suddenly extend a hand and grab them out of the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jodene look upon this scene, dumbfounded, then I yank on the tentacles. Before she can react and cancel her spell, I swing the huge sphere of darkness attached to the other end of the tentacles around me, like a flail, aiming straight for Shen Lei.
The first danger Shen Lei has to face isn’t the sphere itself, but the tentacles. I can’t actually control them, of course, so they hang there in the same position Jodene left them. But if there are too many for me to dodge, there are way too many for Shen Lei. He evades the first. The second severs his leg right through his lava armor. The third slices through his waist and cuts him in half. The fourth and fifth sever his left arm along with his precious glaive. The sixth passes through his head, lengthwise.
Shen Lei’s already dead, of course, but then, the sphere itself crashes down onto him and continues right through, plunging into the wave of lava still bearing down upon me. It doesn’t leave anything behind. No corpse. No glaive. No wave of lava, either.
I swing the sphere in a full circle around me, then toward Jodene herself. It’s only a token attack, though. I very much doubt she’d die from this. It is her magic, after all, and the half-second I spent killing Shen Lei should have been enough for her to get over her surprise and regain control.
As expected, when the sphere gets close to her, Jodene simply raises a hand and the sphere stops instantly, all its momentum disappearing in an instant, and the tentacles in my hand dissipate, along with all the others growing from the sphere.
Jodene is staring at me, an expression on her face I can’t quite read. Then, she sighs. “How can you hold my magic in your hand, like this? Your fingers should have been destroyed instantaneously. Even without that, it’s not like those whips were material objects. You should have passed right through it without touching it.”
It’s not exactly a common metal – well, it’s not a metal at all, but who cares? Touching magic or ghosts or things like that isn’t a problem at all, for me. I imagine that’s part of what makes it so precious, when shaped into a weapon or a piece of armor.
“I’m a bit curious, though…” Jodene continues. “What are you? There is a reason why demon-sealing stones aren’t called devil-sealing stones or apostle-sealing stones. That’s because they just don’t work on them. They only work on regular demons. And even then, they’re not that effective. I mean, it looks like you actually exploded from the inside out. It looked really quite painful. I’d almost feel sorry for you, if you weren’t su–”
In the middle of Jodene’s speech, I abruptly feel the lava shift beneath my feet. I dive to the side, just in time for more black tentacles – ‘whips’, I guess – to burst out of the molten rock, piercing through the space I was just occupying. I land with my hand flat on the lava’s surface and push off it to cartwheel back to an upright position.
“Tch. You are one persistent bitch, aren’t you?”
…I’m not sure ‘bitch’ is the right term, here.
I’m a wolf, not a dog, after all.
I rush toward Jodene, judging by the vibration in the lava where more black whips are threatening to skewer me from beneath. There are many. She must have spent the entire time she was talking to me setting traps everywhere.
But I avoid all of them.
When I get too close for her liking, Jodene starts waving her arms in my direction. From the tips of her stiffened fingers, black lines are drawn through the air and soar toward me. Then, she opens her palms out, pushing them toward me, and a flurry of black snowflakes appear between us and float lightly in my direction as if borne aloft by the wind. Then she stomps her foot down on the ground, and a dozen blades of darkness, looking like shark fins slicing through water, circle around me on both sides to try and outflank me while I’m busy dealing with her other attacks.
I dodge what I can, and simply block the rest with my hand, forearm, feet, and shins – I don’t need to hide the fact that I can do that any longer, now that I’ve already used the element of surprise with good effect to dispatch Shen Lei.
Jodene is forced to retreat again and again, as I get closer and closer to her, until we leave the area covered in lava and walk once more on solid ground.
Jodene’s face is grim, but not flustered. She’s using wilder, more powerful and destructive magic than earlier – which I suppose makes sense, considering her only ally has already died; she doesn’t need to hold back for fear of destroying him along with me anymore.
I’m guessing that’s the first time Jodene meets someone against whom her deconstruction magic isn’t effective. Normally, she should be able to cut apart pretty much anyone at will. After all, I can’t think of anything apart from adamantine that could be tough enough to resist her magic, and not everyone has limbs made out of the stuff.
Jodene’s spells tear the ground to pieces, slicing impossibly deep trenches into it. And while the spells I actually block are of course stopped then and there, those I evade continue on their course, destroying everything in their way. I can’t take the time to check, but I imagine the damage to the fortress behind me is not slight. I doubt the city built around the hill where we’re fighting – or the people living in that city – fares any better than the last time I looked. Even the small streamers of black lightning that sometimes escape from the main body of Jodene’s spells should be enough to kill most of the people I’ve seen since I arrived in this world, so there is simply no way any of the weaklings living here could possibly handle the actual, full-powered spell itself.
But even as the fortress that bears her name suffers under the aftershocks of our fight, Jodene herself is not in a very good state, either. It looks like casting so many spells is finally starting to take a toll on her. She’s sweating profusely. Her breath is ragged. Her heartbeat is loud and frenetic. Her eyes are glazed over with exhaustion.
And I reach her.
She raises an arm in my direction, black beams ready to be unleashed at each of her fingertips, but I simply grab her wrist and wrench her arm away. The beams discharge harmlessly behind me. I squeeze a little, and her wrist shatters, eliciting a gasp of pain from her.
I tug on her arm before she can muster up any defense, and she loses her balance, stumbling toward me.
She’s pretty tall, so I have to look up at her.
I stretch up, on the tip of my toes, and –
– my fangs sink into her throat.
Her warm blood flows into my mouth.
And a little bit of mine enters her veins, too.
Her body shudders, a small, gurgling cry dying before she can give voice to it. With two sharp kicks, I sever both of her legs at the knees. Jodene sinks to the ground, her hands covering her neck, trying to stem the bleeding.
It’s pointless, though.
I bit deep. I’m not sure even I would survive something like that, let alone her.
Her only chance to live, now, is to transform into a demon.
The same chance I was given.
…Of course, I am someone who lives by eating demons.
So, if she does manage to somehow turn into a demon, then she will become food.
And I’m not in the habit of letting prey escape.
I watch the black stripes cover Jodene’s neck and climb up her cheeks and cover her chest.
The last remnants of the smile that was on my lips when the fight started have already completely faded.
Jodene is lying on the ground, shattering the earth all around her with the violence of her thrashing, her muscles contracting uncontrollably. I hear several of her bones break under the strain. Some tears run down her cheeks.
She’s obviously in great pain, just as I wanted, but I don’t feel much excitement anymore.
I’m not sure why.
My second rune slowly calms down, retracting its tendrils from the cracks running over my soul.
The stripes have grown so much that Jodene’s entire body has turned black. Even her eyes have become black, no pupil of any color visible in them. I hear her heartbeat gradually slow down. Her thrashing stops, and her black skin starts to melt, then her flesh and her muscles, like wax under a flame. The two curved horns growing from her forehead start cracking and crumbling into dust.
And then, it stops.
Her heart isn’t beating anymore.
I wait for a few minutes, but she doesn’t move. She stays there, motionless, lying on the ground, her body half-melted, like a sketchy, black clay statue, unrecognizable as the woman she once was.
This really wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped.
I raise my head and take a deep breath.
The smell of blood, both red and black, of burning wood, of melting rock, of cooking flesh.
Sanae stirs, her movements gentle, one of her legs extending to stroke my cheek. I can’t hear her, but I imagine she’s asking me if I’m all right.
I’m not sure what I’d tell her, even if I could speak.