I don’t know how long I stand like that, with my eyes closed, savouring the moment.
As the tide of emotion slowly recedes, the smell of Caldera is gradually replaced by another.
The smell of demons.
It’s a very distinctive smell. One I wouldn’t mistake for anything else. I’ve spent nearly three centuries killing and eating creatures who carry that smell, after all, and I exude it myself. Sif doesn’t. Nor do any of the other people I’ve met in the Planar Prison.
Usually, this smell would be the sign of a welcome meal, but right now, I’m not so glad of its presence.
Right now, I just want to stand there for a while again. Maybe try to slowly remember a few more things about my old life. I’m sure they would be happy things.
But I doubt I can afford such a thing, at this time…
I let out a small sigh and open my eyes, my gaze falling on the soldiers surrounding Sif and I.
The smell comes from them. There are several thousand people here, but none of them are moving, and none of them are even making any sound. It’s really at odds with what I’ve seen of people in the Planar Prison, who always bustle about. I might almost mistake those people for statues, but I can feel their gazes, their attention, focused on me, like they’re waiting for me to do something before they can respond. Like, if I don’t move from here and stay quietly in the middle of their encirclement, they won’t attack me first.
…I’m not sure why they’re acting like this, but I think I do know why they’re here.
I’m not a complete moron, after all. After what happened with Jodene and Shen Lei, I could see the pattern even without Sanae’s reminder.
Those people are here to prevent my escape from the Planar Prison.
Just a while ago, I was wondering when I’d find someone else involved in my imprisonment. I thought it would be a difficult task to track them down. Turns out, not. They come to me by the thousands without me having to even do anything.
While I do think I should be pleased by this turn of events, I’m not exactly certain how I should handle it anymore.
I just didn’t enjoy killing Jodene and Shen Lei as much as I should have.
I still haven’t stopped thinking about why…
I tell myself that my mistake was that I killed them too quickly, or that Shen Lei’s fire ruined my mood before I could even properly get going, but I’ve developed a new theory, over the last few hours. And I think that the problem might be somewhere else altogether.
Because in the end, what I did at that time wasn’t even really taking revenge, was it?
It was just a normal fight. We exchanged a couple of moves. My enemies all died. End of story. A rather common occurrence, really. Nothing really worthy of note, here.
Yes, the speed or the method with which I killed Jodene and Shen Lei are irrelevant. So is the fact that I dislike fire, or that the environment posed a threat to me…
My mistake was that I fought them at all.
I never questioned this course of action.
The end result might the same – the deaths of my enemies – but the intention behind those deaths is very much different from what I would have wanted.
Instead of taking revenge, I simply neutralized all threats.
Once they’d injured me with the demon-sealing stone and their status as a threat was established in my mind, that status trumped every other consideration. Even when I realized who Jodene and Shen Lei were and how they were related to me, their status as a threat I needed to remove overshadowed their status as objects of my revenge I needed to slowly torture.
Maybe, if I’d taken a few steps back and calmed down, tried to see the situation from another perspective, I might have gotten things back on the right track, but no. I really never considered any other option than simply fighting them until one of us dropped dead at the other’s feet.
Or rather, I did, a little bit…
My brain half-heartedly came up with a few random ways in which I could make Jodene and Shen Lei suffer, but either I discarded these ideas on the spot or my body didn’t follow through with them afterward.
I know why, too. Fighting is an activity where I’ve always carefully controlled myself, in which I’ve always sought efficiency, rather than enjoyment, to the point where it’s been carved into my being as a deeply set reflex. Even if I don’t think about it, even if I consciously try to make the fight last longer, my body will automatically go for a killing strike.
I just don’t let my emotions affect me during a fight.
At least, I try not to…
Yes, I suppose that, paradoxically enough, fighting calms me down.
And I shouldn’t have calmed down, at that time.
I should have stoked the flames.
Slowly and carefully.
I remember that thrill, that rush of pleasure and exhilaration and excitement, when I realized that, after so many years, I’d finally found some people on whom I could heartily vent all my anger, all my bloodthirst.
This is what I wanted to feel.
This sheer, unadulterated joy…
Then, since I can’t vent by fighting, the obvious thing to do would be to not fight.
To silently weaken my enemies, haul them off somewhere quiet, and really work on them. Really make them feel some pain. Really deal some damage. Deep and raw. Bloody. Violent. Excruciating. Make them beg me for death, just so that I can refuse. Then give them some hope, and the moment that light shines in their eyes, eat them alive. Devour them. Bite after bite. Slowly. Carefully.
Now, that would be more like ‘revenge’.
…Except I can’t exactly do that, here.
There are thousands of targets!
If I slowly torture each and every one of them, it’s going to take forever!
And the timing is completely wrong, too. I’m trying to be happy about finally returning to Caldera, right now, so I don’t want to hurt people. I’m just not in the right mood for it.
Really… I spent nearly 300 years fantasizing about it, but this business of taking revenge is quite a bit more difficult than I’d anticipated. So many factors to take into account…
So, the question remains.
What do I do with these people?
They’re already here, patiently waiting for me to butcher them. I can’t very well tell them to come back another time.
“What are you thinking?” Sif whispers suddenly, warily gazing at the army around us.
[…How to derive the most pleasure out of killing everyone here.]
Sif’s breath catches in her throat, and she coughs a few times. Her eyes flick to me. “O–Oh… I, uh, I’m not included in that, am I? B–Because I don’t think it would be very pleasurable to kill me. Actually, I know something else that’s even more pleasurable than killing, if you want. I’d be glad to show you.”
[…You are not included.]
Sif exhales a sharp sigh of relief. “Ah, good! Excellent, even! But do you really want to fight all those people, then? Aren’t there a lot of them? Actually, are we even on Caldera, or is this another failure? I think we are, but it’s a bit hard to tell for sure.”
[…This is Caldera.]
Sif tilts her head in question. “Really? How do you know?”
Sif sniffs the air a few times experimentally, but in the end, she just shrugs and let’s the matter rest, apparently trusting my judgment. “Well, that’s good. But what about all those apostles? There really are too many of them. Isn’t that a bit dangerous? Each of them is probably stronger than me, you know? So don’t count on my help on that front.”
So those are apostles, then?
I can understand why people tend to mistake me for them, in that case. We are indeed similar, in some ways. As I said, it is a very distinctive smell. They don’t seem to have horns or tails, though, so that’s at least one difference. Or have those been filed off and cut off?
Like those of the lizard-man I killed so long ago…
He was probably one of those apostles, I think.
It seems like a pretty large leap in logic to make, I suppose, but the similarities go to the point where they even share the same taste in clothing. All these apostles wear just about the same things: a sweeping red cloak over full-body armor, completely concealing their figures. Some are taller, some are shorter, but there are no real glaring differences between any of them.
And the more I look at them, the more I realize that they are indeed demons, even if they hide themselves beneath their armors and cloaks.
They all look so… appetizing.
I remember eating the lizard-man from back then, too. I think he tasted just as good as any other demon.
And as it happens, I am quite hungry. There were no demons anywhere near the fortresses or roads of the Planar Prison, so I haven’t eaten my fill for a very long time. And neither has Sanae. Demons can’t starve to death, of course, but failing to eat as much as we want is still unpleasant. And the two of us have grown in a prey-rich environment, where food was not lacking.
I can feel Sanae stir, and I know that my hunger has ignited her own.
I may not be in the right mood to rampage, and I may not feel angry – much.
I may be trying to be happy.
But a feast is a happy and pleasant thing, is it not?
What a good reason to kill people…
The pleasure I will derive from this just won’t be the same kind as the one I was expecting, but it’ll still be pleasure nonetheless.
And I suppose I should make at least a token effort to make these apostles suffer as I eat them, too. After all, they are somehow linked to my enemy. Since I’m going to be fighting again – I can’t really afford not to, against so many opponents – I’m not sure I’ll have any more success with that than against Jodene and Shen Lei, but resolving myself to do so before the fight itself is still better than nothing, even if it doesn’t produce any real results.
“Your eyes are glowing again.” Sif says, staring at my face. “You really do want to kill them, don’t you? Are you really sure you’re not a devil? You really remind me of them, sometimes.”
That, is quite simply irrelevant.
I am a demon.
As for categories like ‘apostles’ or ‘devils’, those don’t matter to me.
Who or what I am, those questions don’t matter.
I do hold some vague, intellectual curiosity over my own identity, of course, but nothing that will prevent me from doing what I need to do. I suppose I could just casually ask one of these guys what they know about me, before I kill them.
Aaaaah, but enough thinking!
Sanae will tell me if I do something wrong, in any case. She’s the one with the brains, here.
Right now, I just want to eat!
Ignoring any further questions from Sif, I turn back to the army around us. They stand just out of the optimal range of my magic. I could still reach them if I really tried, but it would cost me a lot of energy to power a lethal spell at this distance.
…It’s really like they knew precisely how far to stand to avoid any sudden attacks from me.
Well, it won’t change anything, in the end.
Without any prior motion or telltale gathering of blood-qi, I instantly cast a thick cloud of frozen fog in a 200-meter radius all around me, hiding both Sif and I from view. And then, I rush in a random direction, different from the one I was facing a second ago.
I don’t leave my blood-qi within the frozen fog, so I can’t control it. I’m just as blinded by it as my enemies are, but I don’t want to take the risk. If these people are part of the same faction as Jodene and Shen Lei, they just might –
Ah, here it comes.
It seems I reacted just in time. A fraction of a second after I retract all my blood-qi back into my dantian, a qi fluctuation spreads over the entire battlefield.
As expected, those brats are carrying a demon-sealing stone…
Without magic to control it, my left arm turns rigid. Cracks quickly appear all over its surface, before it shatters altogether, dropping to the ground at my feet. Beyond that, however, I don’t suffer any damage. My powers are still sealed, though. My soul force is useless, and the moment I try to use my magic, I have no doubt that the stone will lock onto me, and I’ll suffer its full, devastating effects.
Fighting against so many people without my magic is going to take a long time…
Since Sanae wants to eat, too, we might as well share the work.
I gently knock against my right eye to notify her to get ready, and then I’m out of the white fog I created, the first of my enemies just a few meters in front of me. I abruptly accelerate, the air exploding around me, and before they can bring either magic or weapons to bear, I’m in their midst.
Apostles fall with each of my blows. Armor crumples and folds. Bones break. Heads explode. Limbs fly off in every direction. Flesh is torn apart by the simple expedient of claws and fangs and horn. Death cries resound everywhere, and delicious black blood sprays and flows in torrents.
For a moment, I’m surprised by the ease with which they die. I thought I’d managed to hold back enough that most of them would only be disabled. They were supposed to writhe on the ground for a while before expiring but…
They are all so pitifully fragile.
I suppose they’re not all that similar to me, after all…
Spears and axes and swords and knives are swung at me, but they are slow, so pitifully slow, and the strength behind them is feeble. What blows are clad in offensive magic or threaten sensitive parts of me – like my throat or my eye or my tail – I block head-on, but the rest I simply allow to land. Blades pierce my skin, drawing blood, but they are stopped in their tracks by the muscles underneath, completely unable to cut any deeper.
Inside the crowd to my side, I notice a group of apostles with their hands outstretched in my direction, palms out. They’re clearly trying to invoke some kind of magic – either something to directly attack me, or something to support their comrades.
…So they really can use magic, even with the demon-sealing stone here. Jodene did say something to that effect.
Well, no matter.
Once again, those magicians are slow.
Much, much too slow…
Before they can cast whatever spells they had planned to unleash, for the first time since the battle against the frog godbeast, weeks ago, Sanae acts. She bursts out of hiding, jumping toward them, and while still in midair, suddenly expands a thousandfold.
A 20-meter-tall, giant black spider lands in the middle of the apostle army, crushing half a dozen soldiers beneath her bulk, their weapons clanging harmlessly against her indestructible body. Eight bladed legs flail around, like scythes reaping lives. Sanae’s movements are seemingly wild and random, but with each, a head flies or a body splits in half.
I keep killing everyone around me, as well, heading away from Sanae so that we won’t steal each other’s prey, but I quickly notice that she’s slaughtering these apostles at a much faster pace than I.
That only makes sense. With my magic sealed, Sanae clearly has the advantage when it comes to sheer killing efficiency. I blame the number of limbs. Eight versus three; my disadvantage is clear from the onset. And she’s so big, too. She has much greater range than I do.
By the time we’ve killed everyone here, she’ll definitely have earned a huge share of the food.
On the other hand, if I really try to bring out 100% of my body’s abilities to catch up to Sanae, I’ll end up consuming more blood-qi than I’ll earn by eating my kills. That would just be stupid. And wasteful.
Right, no need to rush…
An apostle slams a spiked mace into my shoulder. I let him. Before he can draw the weapon back for another blow, however, my muscles clench around the spikes buried into my flesh and lock them solidly in place. When the apostle takes too long to react to his failure to retrieve his weapon, I plunge my claws into his skull, ripping out a handful of brain matter I fling at another apostle’s face. Most of it slaps harmlessly against his helmet, but some slips through the slit and gets into his eyes. With a grunt, he averts his face, and the slash he’d intended for me veers off course. A flick of my fingers pushes his magic-clad blade a little further to the side still, and it ends up buried in the head of one of his comrades there. At the same time, I send a sweeping back kick into the chin of an apostle behind me whose clanking armor betrayed his presence. The force is enough to tear through his helmet and rip his jaw right out of his face. I let the kick’s momentum spin my body around enough to dodge a spear stab coming for my throat and use that small lull in the rain of attacks heading for me to grasp the mace still stuck in my shoulder. I start smacking everything around me with it. Unfortunately, it turns out these apostles’ weapons are as fragile as their bodies. After only half a dozen strikes, the mace’s handle is bent and broken, becoming utterly unusable. I throw it toward another apostle, who seemed about to use magic, and it smacks right into his helmet, deforming it beyond the limits of what the head hidden underneath should be able to endure. The apostle topples to the ground.
I keep killing.
Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of an apostle’s figure beneath the armor, as the metal is torn from it. White hair, always, and glowing red eyes. Additionally, some have scales of various colors instead of skin. Some have tusks, jutting out of their mouth. Some don’t have a nose. Some have three or four or more eyes. Some have horns or spikes – though those are filed off, as I had suspected. Some have gills on the side of their neck. Some don’t have a mouth at all, the space between nose and chin completely featureless.
A few of them even look vaguely wolfish, like me.
Still, what’s with this variety?
Is this really just one single species?
It does make me wonder, a little bit.
What exactly are they – are we?
I doubt any of them would answer, however, even if I asked them about it. As it is, their vocabulary seems mostly limited to things like ‘Aaaah!’ or ‘Uoooh!’ or such drivel.
They really are numerous, though. Approximately four minutes have passed since the battle started. I have killed 84 people. Sanae should have killed around 200, already. But I saw several thousand of them, earlier. We’ve barely put a dent in that army.
And when the wind dissipates the fog bank I created, and their comrades standing a bit further away start catching sight of us, they’ll most likely start to wantonly bombard us with long-range magic. That will be more troublesome.
I really wish I could use my own magic. That would make things much easier.
Before this train of thought can continue, a light, bright beyond description, suddenly appears over the horizon, to the east. And it grows and grows, brighter and brighter still.
Strange. I don’t remember Caldera having two suns…
Some of the apostles lose their focus for an instant when the light appears. Their heads twitch to the side, probably just by reflex, as their gazes strive to witness the strange occurrence.
I don’t make that mistake, and I kill every one of them who does, taking ruthless advantage of their distraction.
Weaklings like them, looking away from their opponent in the middle of a fight. They really are asking for death…
A few seconds later, the light is still shining, far in the distance, when something else bears down over the battlefield.
An enormous shockwave.
It buffets the plain, bending the grass flat against the ground, pushing the clouds out of the bright blue sky and tearing apart those that don’t move fast enough. The cloaks of the apostles snap at the wind of the shockwave’s passage, and my long hair flies around my head. The wind isn’t strong enough to make my enemies lose their balance, unfortunately. They’re all clearly heavier than they look, even considering they’re wearing armor – on that point, we are similar.
Despite that small interruption, the fight continues unabated, until a few seconds later again, the sound arrives.
The roar of an explosion. Low. Deep. Thrumming.
The earth trembles under my feet. The apostle’s armors shake and vibrate along with it.
…Just what is that?
The explosion clearly happened very far away, even beyond the horizon, so I can’t help but wonder what kind of destructive power it could have had to still display so much effect all the way over here? Would I be able to survive such a thing, if I were the one it had targeted?
Somehow, I doubt it…
Even this body of mine has limits.
I shouldn’t underestimate this world. The Planar Prison was so easy, compared to the Tower, that I might have grown complacent and overconfident. But I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking I’m invincible. I should try to keep a low profile, later on.
Even as the thoughts flit through my mind, my claws and fangs are still mechanically tearing through the apostles around me, killing them one after another.
Until suddenly, the qi fluctuation of the demon-sealing stone disappears.