Sif’s face flickers through a variety of expressions, until she ends up just blankly staring at me. “Your family?”
“I see…” She nods back for a few moments, then instead shakes her head, squinting her eyes. She takes a deep breath. “No, actually, I don’t see. At all. I’m trying to imagine it. I really am. But I just can’t picture it. Do you have… siblings?”
Sif quirks an eyebrow. “Younger sister or elder sister?”
A strange smile appears on her face. “Is she pretty?”
Hmm… Well, I don’t really know, but it’s Nerys we’re talking about, so she should be. […Yes.]
“Is she a devil, too?”
[…No. An elf.]
“Ooooh. An elf, huh? That’s pretty rare. I’m impressed.”
[…You talk like you aren’t one yourself.]
Sif’s body stiffens for the shortest of instants, but she quickly relaxes again and explains, “Ah, that’s a bit of a sore point for me, actually. I’ve spent so long living among other species that I have a bit of trouble acknowledging my own identity, sometimes.”
Hearing this, Sanae suddenly stirs. <Asmodian.>
With that word, the image of an elf appears in my mind. That elf looks exactly like Sif. Soon, the elf’s features start transforming, and before long, instead of an elf, there stands a human. Not only is the species different, but the face and overall appearance have changed as well, yet the transition between the two forms seemed seamless. It’s difficult to tell where one form began and the other ended. Then, the human transforms again into another species, and another, and another, until the elf stands there once more, unchanged.
I see. Shapeshifting, is it?
An interesting ability, she has.
There were a few shapeshifting demons, in the tower, too. They were all quite the troublesome opponents.
“Still,” Sif continues, “I didn’t know devils had families, too. Though, now that I formulate the thought, it does seem kind of obvious. So, what about your parents, then? What are they like?”
I tilt my head. My tails flicks left and right behind me. […Why all the questions?]
Sif’s eyes widen, and she takes a small step back, shaking her hands back and forth in the air between us. “Just curious, just curious! You don’t need to answer if you don’t want to!” Her lips stretch into a bright smile. “I do admit it’s a bit strange. We’ve been together for the last three weeks, and it’s only when we’re about to go our own ways that I start wondering about you.”
My silence seems to make Sif uncomfortable, and she quickly starts talking again. “Right, it would be a bit dangerous for me to stay in human territory for too long, so I won’t accompany you all the way, but we can stay together at least until the next town. Asking the people there should be enough to give me an idea as to our general location, and from there, I should be able to direct you toward your goal. You said you’re looking for your family, didn’t you? Where do you intend to start looking? Do you have any idea where they might be?”
“I see. And where is that home?”
[…I can’t remember.]
“O–Oh. Um, how do you intend to find it, then? Is there any well-known city around it?”
[…I don’t know. I can’t remember.]
Sif’s smile becomes a bit strained. “Do you know the name of the country, at least?”
I shake my head.
In the first place, I can’t even say for sure that Father, Nerys, and I actually lived in human territory. That’s only a vague feeling I have. And yet, despite its vagueness, there is no doubt attached to that feeling, in my mind. I suppose this might just be me making assumptions where I shouldn’t, but I rather believe that this feeling of mine originates from all the books I read when I was a child. I suspect that they must have planted the idea in me that I lived in human society. Over time, the memories of these books’ contents have faded, but the idea must have remained, deeply rooted in my mind.
Still, even if I’m correct, just ‘human territory’ isn’t enough to start with.
The only other thing I remember about where my home used to be is…
[…It was a mountain, covered in cherry trees with small pink leaves.]
“Hmm… That’s… not much to go on, to be honest.” Sif strokes her chin, pondering for a minute. “No, sorry. It doesn’t ring a bell. I’ve travelled far and wide over the course of my life, but Caldera is too vast for a single person to have seen all of it. You really can’t remember anything else?”
“Do you have amnesia or something?”
There is no need for such a thing. Time, is more than enough.
[…It was long ago. My memories have faded.]
Sif’s expression becomes a bit strange as she stares at me. “Long ago, you say?” She looks at me up and down, as if trying to discover something from my appearance. “Perhaps I should have asked that earlier, but… how old are you, exactly?”
[…291 years old.]
“…I’m sorry, what?”
[…291 years old.]
Sif’s body abruptly freezes, and her gaze locks onto my face, not moving from it for a solid minute, until she finally comes back to herself, blinking rapidly. “No, no. How could that even be possible? There is no species with a lifespan so long that one would still look like a child after almost three centuries. Elves have the longest lifespan of all, but even they don’t stop growing. An elf who’d look as young as you do would still only be around 30 years old, maybe?” A bitter smile suddenly appears on her lips as something seems to occur to her. “Well, I suppose an asmodian could look that young forever, but I know for a fact that you’re not one.”
[…I have no such thing as a ‘lifespan’.]
Sif tilts her head at me. “What?”
Sif squints at me. “You… are immortal…?”
Sif frowns at me. “Really?”
“Why are you immortal? What happened to you? What’s going on?”
[…Gods are immortal. I’m a god.]
It’s nearly a full minute before Sif can say, “Huh?” and then another minute before she can continue with “What?”
I dislike repeating myself, so I don’t respond to that.
Eventually, Sif takes a deep breath and leans back, rubbing her forehead and closing her eyes. “I’m sorry, this was only supposed to be a casual conversation, but it’s going places I hadn’t really expected.” She looks back down at me, then around us at the plain littered with the corpses of the apostles. “Ah, shall we go? As I said earlier, we should probably leave this place quickly. We can talk on the road.”
When I agree to Sif’s suggestion, and we start walking westward, in the opposite direction from the strange explosion from earlier. Neither of us say anything for a long time, the only sound around us that of the wind in the grass. It’s quite pleasant after the noise of the day’s battles. Or is it the night‘s battles? Night had just fallen when we left the planar prison, just a few hours ago, but it’s day on Caldera, now.
That reminds me of the Tower, a little. There wasn’t anything like a day-night cycle, over there. Each floor’s environment was fixed, but the differences between two floors could span from one extreme to the other just by going down one flight of stairs. I would spend a few years with a bright, brilliant sun constantly shining down from overhead as I worked to clear one floor, then I would spend the following years within the next floor in complete and utter darkness. When I left the Tower, it felt strange at first to see the sun gradually set and rise in the sky, but I’ve gotten used to it by now.
After walking peacefully like this for a while, Sif finally asks, “So, you’re a god, huh?”
“And is your sister a god, too?”
[…She wasn’t when I last saw her.]
“What about the rest of your family?” When I shake my head, she continues. “Is that normal? That you’re a god, but the rest of your family aren’t, I mean? Shouldn’t they be gods, too? Or can gods be born from common mortals?”
[…I wasn’t born a god.]
“Ah. How did you become one, then?”
[…I died. When I woke up, I ended up like this.]
“You died?” She directs a small smile at me. “You look rather well-preserved for a 300-year-old corpse.”
“Uh, sorry. That may have come out a bit more insulting than I intended… What I meant, was that you look quite… youthful. Nubile, even. Ahem. Still, you’re a god! And an undead god, at that! I suppose that explains why you’re so strong. I wonder how godhood would be classified, as a rank? 9th rank, I assume? Or maybe 10th rank?”
[…God ranks are above warrior ranks. There is no overlap between the two.]
“Huh? Wait, godhood is an actually cultivation rank?”
“I see, I see. So, could one become a god through simple, regular practice? By refining enough qi, as for any other rank?”
“Hmm, I think I like this way a lot more than the one you used. Dying seems a tad extreme to me. Oh, but it all makes sense! Yulan and the God Emperor are gods, too. That’s why they’ve been able to rule for several thousand years. I thought their names and titles were some sort of inheritance passed down surreptitiously from one generation to the next to give an impression of immortality and appear more mystical to the common people, but it might have actually been the same person from the very beginning until now… They’re actually immortal.”
[…You didn’t know about gods?]
Sif shakes her head, a happy smile on her face, as if simply learning about this is a pleasant thing in and of itself. “I didn’t. I mean, I know about the gods in stories, of course, but I didn’t think it was an actual cultivation rank. I thought the peak was the 9th rank, that it plateaued at that point and progress stopped, without any further breakthrough possible. I had my doubts when I saw you, since you’re much, much stronger than anyone I’ve ever seen before, but I figured it was simply that I had underestimated 9th-rank warriors.” Her smile suddenly becomes a bit tigerish. “It must be a pretty carefully guarded secret, if even I have never heard of it. I assume Yulan and the God Emperor don’t want other people to gain enough power to rise up and challenge them. They don’t have any incentive in sharing their knowledge with anyone but their inner circle. They might even try to directly eliminate whoever else shows signs of reaching godhood to nip potential problems in the bud.” She glances at me, and her smile sharpens even more. Her voice becomes teasing. “I wonder how they’d react, if they knew about you?”
Well, I don’t really care about any Yulans and God Emperors and whatnot. And I certainly couldn’t care less about them wanting to keep godhood a secret. I simply have no interest in following anybody’s rules and laws.
I have my own goals.
Everything else is irrelevant to me.
It’s several hours before we find a road, and several hours more before following that road westward brings a town within our view. We never cross paths with anyone as we walk.
The town looks completely different from the fortresses of the Planar Prison. There is no surrounding wall, no moat, no magic formations, no guard towers, and it’s much smaller, with a lot fewer people living inside it. There are only a few scattered houses, none of which seem particularly solid. At least, in the Planar Prison, the buildings were all made of stone, but those here are of wood – normal wood, not Ironshard Wood or anything like that. A few of the houses are a bit bigger than the rest, and these see more traffic, with people regularly coming in and out of them, but still, let alone Jodene Fortress, it’s a far sight from even Islandis Fortress.
And everyone here is human. There is no such diversity in species as I could see in the Planar Prison. It looks less colorful.
Sif stops walking while we’re still some distance away, for some reason, so I stop alongside her.
She hesitates for a few moments before turning to me. “It’s probably best if I go into town alone. Isolated peasants like these can be quite wary of outsiders, and you are sure to arouse suspicion, let me tell you. More than suspicion, actually… We should probably try to find you a stream or a river, so you can wash all that blood off yourself.”
Oh, I hadn’t really paid attention to it.
No need for any stream or river, though…
With a small burst of magic, I coat my entire body in frost, then, with a shake, all of it crumbles and falls off me like rain, ice fragments pattering down, all the blood and filth covering me now trapped inside them, leaving me spotlessly clean. Only a few faint, grey scars are left over my skin from the earlier battle.
“Huh. That is convenient,” Sif says blandly. “Still, I’m not sure how far we are from the front, but places where people can’t recognize majin and devils for what they are are pretty rare, nowadays – only remote villages and such. In this town, you’d stick out like a sore thumb, no matter how hard you try to hide that you’re not human. And if anyone comes to investigate the deaths of the apostles you and that spider exterminated, they’ll probably come looking here. You can be sure that, if they’ve seen you, the people living here won’t hesitate to report you for even a second. You wouldn’t be afraid of that, I’m sure, but being constantly hounded by pursuers would at least be an inconvenience, wouldn’t it?”
Well, I suppose that’s true.
I can safely let Sif handle it, in any case. She’s always taken care of everything in the Planar Prison, as well, and since she has the ability to turn into a human at will, she shouldn’t have any problems getting the information we need. Surely, if it’s just asking where we are, these people wouldn’t try to keep it a secret or attack her for asking.
[…I’ll wait here.]
Sif nods and says, “I’ll be right back, then.”
Without further ado, she turns away and starts walking toward the town in the distance.
I don’t want to stay standing in the middle of the road like this, so I step off to the side, from hard, packed earth into soft, green grass. I slowly approach a crooked tree, growing alone here, and sit in the shadows of its branches.
We’re still in the middle of the same plains the teleport formation led us to. They stretch before me, all the way to the horizon, shallow hills rolling gently up and down, empty and deserted save for a few trees similar to the one sheltering me from the heat of the sun. There are no demons anywhere that I can see. Nor is there anything really worthy of note, barring the small town over there.
I cast a small spell to lower the temperature of the air around me and make myself more comfortable. I sit back, leaning against the trunk behind me. The wood creaks a little as my weight settles onto it.
It’s a bit strange, actually. The first thing Sanae and I did upon arriving on Caldera was to slaughter more than 5,000 people.
That can hardly be construed as ‘peaceful’.
And yet, ‘peaceful’ is indeed my impression of this plane.
I wonder why?
I’ve only seen a very small part of it, yet I don’t feel threatened at all, here. It’s quite a pleasant sensation.
I flick my tail onto my lap, and run my fingers through its fur, my eyes closing of their own accord. I take a deep breath. The air is clean. I can’t catch even a whiff of poison or corruption. I can’t feel even a hint of bloodthirst or aggression from anywhere around me.
My mind slowly relaxes, drifting from one thought to the next.
Sanae is quietly resting, too, digesting all the blood she drank earlier.
…I can’t believe she made me give her a third of my share in addition to hers, just so she’d agree to use her telekinesis to help me extract the blood from my own kills. Taking advantage of me, just because I don’t dare to use my soul force too much, at the moment.
I know what this is called.
That’s what it is.
I’ll definitely have to find some way to get back at her, somehow.
…I wonder if Father is alive.
And what about Nerys?
She’s an elf, so she should be fine, right?
And what about the scum?
The Scum. Capital letters.
Those actually responsible for all this. Haaaa, I want to kill them. But are they already dead? Did time take my targets away from me? Did old age snatch them from my grasp? Will my revenge be over before it even begins?
Now, that would be funny…
How to make my life even more pointless than it already is…
Actually, no, I take that back. It wouldn’t be funny at all.
I don’t know what I would do…
But, those apostles… They were definitely linked to me, weren’t they? Linked to whoever trapped me in the tower. And I didn’t make them suffer much in the end, did I? Not my fault, though. They were just like tiny ants. Very numerous, but very fragile. Just by stepping around them a little carelessly, they broke. Nothing I could have done, really.
Bah, I don’t even want to think about these idiots.
…I wonder if Nerys will play music with me again, when I find her.
She’d borrow my instruments, and we’d play together, when I was little – when I was young, rather, since I’m not any less ‘little’ than before. I remember that she was a pretty good musician. I wasn’t, though, and she never let up an opportunity to let me know it.
I can almost still hear her voice, teasing laughter coloring every word.
‘You’re terrible at this, aren’t you? Are you sure you should call this music? But at least, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re a very good warrior. No, no. I’m honestly impressed. Your cultivation must have reached a very high rank, to give me a bleeding ulcer just by producing a little bit of noise with this weapon – I mean, this piano. Phew… I really thought I was going to die, there, for a second. What a terrifying attack…’
Those events must have deeply traumatized me, to still remember them 300 years later. It might have been the truth, but that’s still a horrible thing to say to an innocent child such as I.
Now that I think about it, I could probably play better now, with my body as it is.
I do have perfect coordination and extremely fast reflexes, after all.
There is a great idea. I’ll show her up with my godly – literally godly – skills!
Just wait for it…
I’ll definitely find you…