Now that this annoying demon-sealing stone is gone, I fix my broken meridians and heal my wounds, then regrow my left arm, while Sif leads us deeper into the ruins of the castle.
“Ah, this should be it. I’m glad he didn’t lie to me.”
I don’t know who Sif is referring to, but she looks relieved when we arrive to a metal trapdoor set into the stony ground. It should have probably been hidden under a piece of furniture, once, but the only thing left of that now are the fragments of pulverized wood spread around it. Instead, a large piece of rubble that must have once been part of the wall next to it, judging from the gap in it, is lying halfway on top of the trapdoor, preventing it from opening.
Sif tries to anyway, using only her right hand, her left held close against her chest, but it doesn’t budge. She sets her shoulder against the piece of rubble and strains for a second, but it budges even less.
Finally, she turns to me and gestures toward the obstruction.
“Could you, uh…”
I take a step forward, bend down, slip a hand underneath the piece of rubble, then, with the sound of scraping stone, lift it off the trapdoor. Dust rains down from it and onto us.
“Thank you,” Sif says, waving her hand in front of her face to clear the air.
She leans down again and tries one more time to open the trapdoor, pulling against its handle with all her strength, still one-handed, groaning with the effort.
She fails again.
She turns to me. “Huh. Could you also…”
Without a word, I flick away the piece rubble I’m holding up. It crashes into the wall it was once part of, collapsing it, the rumble of shattering stone accompanying its fall. Then, I crouch next to the trapdoor and pull on its handle.
The trapdoor doesn’t open. Instead, I only manage to rip out the handle from its socket.
I stare at it for a moment as it rests in my hand.
When I look up at Sif, the corner of her lips are twitching a little.
As soon as our eyes meet, she clears her throat and looks away from me, glancing around at the ruins of the castle. “Ahem. It, uh, it might have been locked. Somehow. The trapdoor, I mean. There should be some hidden… mechanism to allow it to move. I’ll – I’ll go find it now. Or something to act as a lever to pry it open, maybe.”
Before Sif can leave, I stab the stiffened fingers of my right hand down into the trapdoor’s edge. My claws easily pierce through the metal. Then I pull, tearing the trapdoor out of the groove it’s lodged into, the scream of tortured metal very loud in the silence around us.
Sif blinks. “That works too, I guess.”
Soon, the dark hole beneath the trapdoor is revealed. I lean forward and look down into it. A steel ladder stretches down into the hole all the way to its end, nearly 100 meters below. There are no light sources, but my eyesight is good enough to pierce through the gloom.
“Can you see anything in there?”
[…There is nothing to see.]
Sif flexes her left wrist a few times, wincing a little at the movement, then approaches the ladder. As she carefully climbs down the first few rungs, however, testing her footing on each one, Sanae suddenly stirs.
Before Sif can go any further, I grab her, my left arm lengthening to reach her and my hand becoming large enough to almost fill the entire hole. Her body stiffens a bit at my touch, but she doesn’t struggle. I lift her back up to the surface and gently set her down on the ground, my hand quickly returning to a more normal size, the excess ice dissipating into faint white smoke whose fueling blood-qi I recycle as always.
Sif looks at me, her eyes a bit wide. “W–What’s wrong?”
[…Traps. I’ll go first.]
With her fragile body and her vision impaired by the darkness, she might have some trouble surviving whatever dangers are hiding down there.
“Oh, right.” She smiles at me. “Thank you for your concern.”
I glance down into the hole again, just to make sure. The ladder’s rungs look a bit too thin to support my weight. There are no other surfaces on which I could hold myself, either, so the ladder alone would have to bear a burden of several tons. Those flimsy rungs would most likely break under the strain, or the ladder itself would be ripped away from the wall it’s attached to.
Since Sif needs to climb down after me, it would be best if it was left intact.
So I just jump down the hole.
The air whistles in my ears for a few seconds, until reach the bottom, one hand flat against the floor to ease the impact on my legs, and the other ready to meet any threat that could jump out at me. The only sound my landing makes comes from the displaced air and the drops of my blood hitting the floor.
The air down here smells stagnant and moldy. I’m guessing no one came here – or even opened the trapdoor – in a long while. A tunnel, its walls of bare stone cracked and fissured, probably due to the shock of Shen Lei’s explosion, leads away into the darkness, sloping gently downward. There are no light sources anywhere. When I look up, the opening far above me is only a pinpoint of light. In the middle of that pinpoint, Sif is there, already climbing down the ladder.
I wait for her instead of proceeding deeper into the tunnel, just in case something happens.
And something does.
When she’s about a quarter of the way down, Sif triggers a trap when her boot touches the next rung of the ladder. With a ratcheting sound, a series of spears suddenly shoot out from the walls around her, ready to skewer her body.
I see Sif’s body stiffen with the shock and surprise and judge that she won’t be able to dodge in time, so I act. My telekinesis stops the spears in their tracks before they can actually hurt her. Unexpectedly, however, I can barely hold them in place for an instant before a small sound, like straining-then-splintering crystal, resounds in my dantian.
The cracks in my soul caused earlier by the demon-sealing stone abruptly widen. For an instant, my sight blurs, my hearing dims, and I almost lose my balance. I lean against the wall next to me to avoid falling to the ground, my claws carving deep scores into the stone.
With my soul force in disarray, the spears threatening Sif immediately regain their previous momentum.
Fortunately, it seems the instant I gained her was enough. By the time my senses return to normal, she’s already arriving at the bottom, sliding down the ladder instead of carefully scaling it step by step, her feet pressing against its sides to control her speed.
Once she lands next to me, she leans forward, her hands on her knees, and exhales slowly. “Phew. That was a close one. Should we… A–Are you all right?”
Well, I’m not sure, actually.
Healing the wounds on my body is easy enough. It just costs me some blood-qi.
Even fixing my meridians isn’t too much trouble for me, now. After being injured so many times during those countless battles in the Planar Tower, and after steeping for 300 years in the blood-qi flowing within them, my meridians have become quite resistant to trauma and have gained a very high regeneration speed. These days, I can no longer meet a situation where my magic can’t be used because of broken meridians.
However, the damage my soul sustained because of the demon-sealing stone is much more concerning.
Even after going through the Planar Tower, which isn’t exactly the safest environment I’ve ever seen, this is the first time such a thing has happened, so I have no idea what consequences this might have. Phineas would be the one to ask – I remember he was quite informed on such matters – but he’s still sleeping. Neither is there anything on that subject in any of Miroslav’s books.
I’m not even sure what would happen if the cracks were to worsen until my soul falls apart completely.
Death would be my first guess.
It’s a bit of a surprise that it doesn’t hurt, though. Even the pain I felt when the demon-sealing stone attacked me came mostly from the destruction of my meridians and the injury to my internal organs, but my soul itself didn’t actually hurt in the slightest.
But injuries should be painful, shouldn’t they?
The fact that this one is not isn’t comforting. It’s confusing, rather. And a bit frightening.
In any case, I should probably try not to exert my soul too much…
Considering what happened a moment ago, telekinesis is right out, at least on heavy or distant objects. I suppose moving very light things – like feathers, or the page of a book – might still be possible, but I really don’t want to take much risk on that front.
Telepathy should be fine, though.
I gingerly stretch a thin strand of soul force to Sif’s consciousness.
Sif looks doubtful, but I don’t give her the time to continue her questioning and immediately start down the tunnel. I doubt she could hurt me, but I’m still not comfortable confessing to her that I’m weakened in any way. It’s a matter of course to never show weakness before potential enemies, after all.
They might think you’re easy prey.
I know I would.
After only a few steps, however, I hear her stumble on a loose stone lying discarded on the ground, perhaps dislodged from one of the cracks in the ceiling. She barely catches herself on time and curses under her breath, her hushed voice nonetheless echoing quite clearly in the silent tunnel.
I turn back to face her.
“My apologies. It’s just that… I can’t actually see anything in this darkness. I’ll trip if I go too fast.”
I simply take Sif’s hand in mine and guide her forward without another word.
Sif follows me in silence for a while, still sometimes stumbling here and there, but no longer to the point of actually threatening to fall down, until she asks, “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Well, you seem somewhat… not nicer, exactly, but more… mellow? Oh, I hope that doesn’t offend you. I’m just a bit concerned by the fact that you are concerned for me. It’s, uh, uncharacteristic.”
I don’t think I’m behaving any differently than usual, though.
“In any case, it’s a shame your eye is so dim, right now,” Sif continues with a quiet chuckle. “If it was as bright as usual, we could almost use it to light our way, down here.”
I glance back at Sif over my shoulder. […My eye?]
“Hmm? Yes. You didn’t notice? Oh, I suppose you can’t exactly see your own eye, can you? Well, its glow is a lot more subdued than usual. Normally, it’d be very, very conspicuous in this kind of darkness, but right now, I almost can’t notice it at all, even when I’m looking straight at you like this.”
I’m not exactly certain if the rule also applies to me – it probably does; I don’t see why I’d be any different – but in my experience, demons’ eyes glow more and more brightly the more aggressive and violent and bloodthirsty they feel at that particular moment.
And I suppose that, right now, it’s true that I just can’t muster up any motivation for this kind of thing…
I know why, too.
Killing Jodene and Shen Lei was supposed to be an important moment for me, something intensely pleasurable and cathartic. I’d worked myself up for it so much. I anticipated it. I wanted it.
But it ended up being so underwhelming…
I can’t stop thinking about it, now. My thoughts keep going back to it.
Such a good opportunity, spoiled…
Why did Shen Lei have to use fire? Couldn’t he have used another magic?
Who knows how long it’s going to be before I find another person I want to kill as much as I did them?
I turn around and resume leading Sif through the dark, musty tunnel, still holding onto her hand, ruminating silently on the frankly incredible amount of bad luck I’ve been subjected to tonight and wondering how it’s going to get worse before I can finally return to Caldera.
I stop walking and Sif almost bumps into my back.
“What is it?”
“Already? That was fast.”
Indeed, it was.
It took barely a quarter of an hour to get there. It was like a stroll, really.
There were traps, like Jodene said, but they weren’t anything dangerous.
Even without telekinesis, it was easy for me to block whatever came our way with my ice magic or simply with my body. I always heard the ratcheting sound of the traps’ mechanisms being triggered before danger could actually appear, but even without that, they were slow enough that I could have dodged them all with pure reflexes. They were almost suspiciously useless, in fact, but Sif assures me that, for her alone, they would have been deadly enough. Considering she can’t see in the dark – and apparently has never trained herself to fight while blinded, for some reason – I’m inclined to believe her.
And now, here we are…
Is Caldera really on the other side?
I didn’t feel like I was in any particular hurry, beforehand, but now that I’m actually here, standing in front of my goal, I feel a strange mix of anxiety and impatience and hope. As a matter of fact, it’s remarkably similar to how I felt, standing in front of the teleport formation on the 199th floor of the Planar Tower.
Is this another escape, then?
I suppose it is, in a way.
Even though this Planar Prison can already be considered ‘outside’ the Tower, it still doesn’t feel as if I’ve escaped, somehow. Or, rather, it does feel like I’ve escaped, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve gone back.
There are stars in the sky, here, but they’re not the stars I know.
I do think it’s a bit strange to consider an entire plane home, though.
And it’s not like I’ve ever seen it in any great detail, either, have I? The only thing I know of it is what I could see through the window of my bedroom – and even that, I barely remember. I haven’t even opened the map book I bought in Islandis Fortress, yet.
Maybe it’s just because of the name.
My old house didn’t have a name, of course, and I have no memory of the name of the village nearby.
But for 300 years, my objective has been the thing called ‘Caldera’.
It might have influenced my –
“Is something wrong?”
Am I stalling?
I take a deep breath and lead Sif up onto the formation, warning her of the small stairs carved into its side so she won’t trip on their steps. When we’re both in the center of the platform, I channel my blood-qi into it, and the ancient Eashiri symbols slowly start shining. Even though the light is very faint, it’s still noticeable in the surrounding darkness.
“Should I also help power it?”
I’m not sure how her qi would interact with mine. I don’t want to experiment on that with something as dangerous as a teleport formation.
In just a few seconds, the runes flash brightly, and we are gone.
Sif looks around us in surprise.
“What the fuck?”
This, is most definitely not Caldera.
We stand in the middle of a bleak wasteland. Dark, jagged stone crags rise up from the ground, surrounded by pools – or, rather, lakes – of yellow-green acid from which clouds of suspicious vapors rise up. There is no wind. The air is just as stagnant as it was in the underground tunnel we just left.
I might mistake this place for the 199th floor of the Tower, if it weren’t for the sky.
There is no sun, nor moon, and the sky is jet-black except for the stars, which shine much more brightly here than on the Planar Prison. But something even more interesting than that grabs attention, when looking up. Gigantic boulders, larger than most mountains I’ve seen, are slowly, ponderously rolling through the air, far above, as if unaffected by gravity. Their courses sometimes bring them to collide against each other and break off into smaller pieces that veer in different directions, until the entire sky is filled with shattered stones of all sizes and shapes.
…This should be an artificial plane, still in its inception.
Someone was creating a world, here, but stopped halfway through. In its current state, it’s clearly unstable. If left as it is, it will slowly disintegrate over the next few centuries. The debris flying through the sky might be pieces of it that have already detached from the main body.
There is some flow of qi, however.
Which means there is another teleport formation somewhere around here.
In fact, all the qi I feel is flowing in one specific direction, so I should just be able to follow it to the exit. Such a thing wasn’t possible on the Planar Prison, since there were so many people plundering from that flow to refine it for their own use – and thus diverting it – but there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this plane who’d cultivate. In fact, there doesn’t seem be any kind of life at all anywhere in this ‘world’. It’s even doubtful whether this plane can sustain life in the first place.
[…Don’t use magic.]
Sif’s eyebrows rise up at my abrupt command. “Very well. But why?”
[…You’ll disturb the flow of qi.]
“Huh? The flow? What flow?”
I don’t want to explain, so I just start walking without another word. Sif follows behind me after a second of hesitation.
One question remains, though.
Jodene warned of a frog guardian that prevented people from passing through, but is it, as I believe, the same one I killed back on the 199th floor of the Planar Tower?
“Ooooh, this should definitely be it,” Sif says, looking at the teleport formation in front of us.
I take my gaze away from it and turn back to look once more over the deserted wasteland we just crossed.
This plane really is small. It only took us several hours to get to our destination, and that’s only because we had to circle around the lakes of acid from a far enough distance that Sif wouldn’t start dying just by breathing the fumes around them.
It was an uneventful trip.
We weren’t attacked by any gigantic creatures, neither frog nor anything else.
It was a bit anticlimactic, actually.
Almost suspiciously anticlimactic.
I feel a vague sense of disappointment that I won’t be able to take my revenge against the giant frog – I basically lost the previous fight, discounting Sanae’s interference; I even lost an eye – but at the same time, I know that I wouldn’t fare too well, in my current state, so it’s probably a good thing that we could arrive here without a fight.
Still, I doubt Jodene was lying to me. And the lakes of acid are definite signs of the frog’s presence here at some point. I’ve also found other traces of its passage, as we followed the flow of qi to our destination. Sif most likely didn’t realize what it was she was looking at – she probably thought they were simple canyons and gullies and ravines – but I did.
It sounds like too much of a coincidence that another gigantic frog would suddenly disappear without reason just after I killed my own.
So the one here should really be the one I met, then.
But how did the frog move from here to the 199th floor of the Tower?
There was no sign of it having ever passed through the Planar Prison, at least.
…Did someone move it?
That would require one to have great skill in space magic, probably on Miroslav’s level. Or it would require one to be the creator of the plane. That would make teleportation much easier. Even with these conditions fulfilled, however, it still would be impossible to move the frog forcefully. If it struggled, the teleport would fail.
What’s going on, here?
Who on earth is behind all this?
Someone who knows space magic and can tame godbeasts…
“Shall we go?”
I turn back to the teleport formation. I join Sif, who’s already waiting at its center.
This is the third try.
I sure hope this one will actually lead me to Caldera, instead of somewhere else entirely, like all the previous ones did.
And, once more, we are gone.
“This is just getting better and better, isn’t it?”
I detect some faint measure of sarcasm in Sif’s voice.
It might have something to do with the crowd surrounding us. There should be several thousand people here, arranged in a neat circle around us.
Normally, I would be impressed to see so many gathered in one place.
But right now, I don’t care about them.
I don’t care about them in the least…
The wind caresses my face and rustles my hair and bends the grass of the hilly plain where we arrived, making it look like a sea, waves rocking its surface. The sky is deep blue, a few white clouds rolling across it. I can see a few birds flying here and there, black dots on that blue background.
And the smell of the air.
I know that smell.
I didn’t even know I knew it, but I do.
It’s a different smell from the Planar Tower.
It’s a different smell from the Planar Prison.
I haven’t smelled that smell for the past 279 years.
So I slowly close my eyes and bask in it.