Night fell some hours ago, already.
I’m walking toward Aldenfell, capital of Lamos, after detouring in a large circle through the plains around Getsbane so that its inhabitants wouldn’t notice me.
I would reach the capital in around five or six minutes, if I ran at top speed, but I’m not in such a hurry that I’d waste my energy like that. Finding Nerys won’t be a matter of one or two days, in any case, so I can take my time.
So I take the time to admire the dark, peaceful countryside around me.
…It seems like I’ve gotten used to Sif’s presence, over the past few weeks. It actually feels a bit strange to be alone again – well, Sanae is with me, but we’ve been together for so long that our companionship is something we take for granted, now. I don’t mind the silence, though. And there is the advantage that there is no longer any need to stop for a rest every now and again to indulge Sif’s pathetic stamina.
I sigh quietly to myself, raising my hand to my lips to rub away the heat left on them.
Sif’s behavior is just as difficult to understand as everybody else’s, in the end. She left immediately after that, almost running away toward the east without a look back. She certainly didn’t explain why it was so vital for her to do such a thing before leaving, of course, which only adds to my confusion.
And Sanae isn’t willing to explain, either. She just chuckles to herself whenever I ask her.
So I continue walking throughout the night, quietly thinking to myself, enjoying the calm and silence around me.
It’s raining, today, the afternoon sun hidden behind heavy grey clouds.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen rain, but I’ve always liked it. It’s a pleasant feeling to have drops of water drumming down onto my skin. It’s ticklish. Also, it makes my magic more convenient to use. There is really nothing to dislike in rain.
Well, almost nothing.
It turns out having a waterlogged cloak on my shoulders is quite uncomfortable, so I’ve taken it off, for now.
I think I shouldn’t be too far from Aldenfell, now. I even found a road earlier, leading roughly in what should be the correct direction. I intend to follow it and see where it leads me, but I’m confident I’m on the right track.
Suddenly, the sound of hooves trampling the ground breaks through the patter of the rain, at first almost subsonic but getting progressively louder, coming closer to me with each moment.
There are quite a number of riders, if I’m not mistaken. They’re still a bit too far, and the sound of the rain is too loud, but I think there should be almost 60 heading toward me.
They’re the first people I’ve seen since I separated from Sif, yesterday.
I feel a bit bemused at the small flutter of anticipation that springs up within me. I’ve already seen countless people in the Planar Prison. Even just yesterday, there were those 5,000 apostles, a truly enormous crowd. And yet, I still feel this little thrill of excitement, of curiosity, at the idea of seeing a full 60 people, even if I know intellectually that this is no great thing at all.
My own reaction makes me feel a bit childish, but it’s not really harmful, so I don’t go so far as suppressing it.
I walk to the side of the road and stop walking, watching out for the riders’ arrival.
I don’t have to wait long.
Soon, I see them approach in a long column, three people wide, their armored figures blurred by the curtain of rain. The two riders on the left and right sides at the head of the column are each carrying a flag, but even with the speed of their horses, the cloths are too heavy with water to properly stream behind them and only droop against the pole. These people are all wearing rather similar equipment to that of the apostles, but not exactly. For one, they don’t have a cloak, whereas all the apostles did. Their helmets are also different, with an open front, rather than the face-concealing ones of the apostles. Additionally, the frontmost rider has a crest over his helmet and wears a more ornamented armor, which helps differentiate him from the others at a single glance. I presume that means he’s the leader of this group. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be any female among them, only males. I think. I might be wrong. Perhaps, it’s simply my own failure to properly differentiate between the two. Even if I’m right, I have no idea whether it would be a significant piece of information or not.
The horses aren’t running too fast – only a trot – but they still quickly reach my position.
At first, I think they’re simply going to pass me by, but when the leader sees me standing on the side of the road, he raises his arm over his head and yells, “Halt!”
Impressively enough, all 50 riders do indeed halt immediately, neatly staying in formation like they’d been doing while advancing. None of them speak. In fact, few even look at me. Most stay rigidly on top of their horse, staring forward, letting the rain clatter noisily against the metal of their armor.
The leader directs his horse toward me, and only two other riders detach from the long column of men to follow after him, taking positions on his left and right. The three of them stop perhaps a meter or two in front of me, their horses tossing their heads and snorting, their steps hesitant, clearly uncomfortable at the idea of coming any closer to me.
The leader glances at his horse and then at me, but makes no comment on the animal’s behavior. “Your name?” His voice is peremptory, more like he’s giving me an order, rather than asking a question.
For a moment, I wonder if I should just ignore him and go my own way, but in the end, I decide that replying wouldn’t really be a problem. It’s just my name, after all. […Akasha.]
I transmit the words to the consciousness of each of the three men in front of me, just in case the other two are also supposed to be included in the conversation. When my name arrives in their mind, their faces twist in surprise. Or is it pain? The two soldiers following behind the leader look pale and unsteady on their horses, like they’re going to fall off the saddle any moment. The leader himself reacts a little better, but only just.
Am I still talking too loud?
Sif seemed to have gotten used to it, though…
“Mind speech?” the leader asks, scowling at me. “Is that supposed to be your magic?”
Mind speech? What is that? Why not call it ‘spiritualized conversationalism’, while he’s at it?
And it’s not magic.
But, well, I certainly can’t be bothered to correct him.
“Interesting,” the man says, apparently taking my silence for agreement. Something flashes in his eyes. “What range does this magic have, exactly? Can you talk to anyone in sight, or is it just anyone close by? Or can you talk to anyone you want, anywhere, anytime?”
What’s with all the questions?
Is it common for people on Caldera to ask the specifics of each other’s powers? Is that brat going to ask for a list of my weaknesses and what best tactic to employ in case he ever wants to kill me, afterward?
“The baron has honored you with a question!” the man on the right suddenly shouts, a fierce scowl twisting his face. “It would serve you well to answer! And speak the truth! Any lie would spell your doom!”
[…What’s a baron?]
“You! You dare to mock the baron of Stillwater?! Do you want to die?!”
…Well, yes, sometimes I do, but I’m always too scared to act on it.
I really don’t see what that person means, though. I don’t remember mocking anyone.
Anyway, judging from the situation, Baron must be the leader’s name. And he comes from a place called Stillwater. Seems fairly straightforward, really.
But why is there a ‘the’ in front of his name?
Is that normal?
Should I call myself ‘the Akasha of the Planar Tower’?
That sounds a little weird…
“No matter, no matter,” Baron says, waving his hand in the air dismissively. His eyes rove over me, looking me up and down, first stopping for a few seconds on my breasts, then for a few seconds more on my left arm, then on my tail, swinging lightly from side to side behind me, then on the eyepatch Sif gave me. “What is a child doing alone so far in the wilderness?” he asks me finally.
I’m not a child, though.
“And… why aren’t you wearing any clothes? Did something happen to you? Were you attacked by bandits on the way?”
[…No. They’re uncomfortable.]
That must be something like a robber.
Do robbers steal clothes, too?
What do they do with them afterwards? Do they wear them? Do they offer them to other people? Do they eat them?
Wait just a minute.
Asking me information on my magic… Asking me where my clothes are… Asking me if I want to die… Asking me what I’m doing alone in the wilderness…
Could those people be robbers themselves?
It would all make sense. Baron is asking about my magic because he wants to know if I have any offensive power that could threaten him if he attacked me. He’s asking about my clothes because he wants to steal them. He’s asking if I want to die because, if I did, that would make things a win-win for everybody – they could just get the clothes off my corpse after I killed myself. And he’s asking if I’m alone because he’s afraid of my calling for reinforcements.
But still, something doesn’t fit.
It should be obvious to anybody that any clothes I’d wear would only be child-sized. And he himself is pretty large – almost twice as tall as me, and twice as wide, too – even discounting the bulk his armor imparts to him.
Perhaps, it’s for his daughter…
Or he could be a shapeshifter, like Sif.
I wake up Sanae, then send her my reasoning, for confirmation. After all, two opinions are always better than one, and I’m well aware that I might just be misunderstanding the situation. I wish I could let Sif handle it and just stand there in the background while she does, like in the Planar Prison, but now that I’m alone, that’s not an option anymore.
The best way, then, is to simply let Sanae make the final decision.
She’ll know if I’m making a mistake.
After a few moments, however, what first comes back from Sanae is… amusement.
Only afterward does she answer my question.
Her words are tinted with laughter, for some reason – perhaps she finds it funny that those weaklings are targeting me, of all people – but it seems I wasn’t wrong.
With my strengthened mind, all those thoughts and exchanges only take a few moments. Baron is still looking quietly nonplussed about the answer I gave to his earlier question. “I… see,” he says. “Child, I’ll get right to the point. Mind speech is quite a rare and valuable power, and it’s very hard to train. Depending on your proficiency with it, I might go so far as to offer you a post in my army. I can see from your appearance that you’ve had a hard life, but I can promise you that there will be no discrimination of any kind based on your species if you decide to join us. You’ll be able to live a frank and upright life.”
So… they weren’t trying to rob me? Or is it a ploy to get me to lower my guard?
As I wonder if both Sanae and I made some sort of mistake, the man on the left, who’d never said anything up to now and had only been silently staring at my face, suddenly leans toward Baron and whispers in his ear, probably in a futile attempt to hide his words from my ears. “My Lord, I don’t believe recruiting that girl into our forces would be the right decision.”
Baron frowns and turns his head to the man. “What’s wrong, Mehodore?”
Mehodore glances at me, then jerks his head to the side. “Please, my Lord.”
Baron frowns, then throws a few words at me. “Wait here.”
…It’s getting annoying how this brat seems to believe that he can give me orders.
But I still want to listen to what Mehodore has to say, so I decide to let him live a little while longer.
Baron and Mehodore lead their horses back toward the rest of their troops while the man on the right who shouted to me earlier stays here, his hand hovering near the hilt of his sheathed sword, eyeing me disdainfully, in a stance that’s almost begging me for a fight.
Watching this idiot strains my hold on my temper, so I stop paying attention to him and focus on Baron and Mehodore’s conversation. They seem to believe that simply walking a few steps away from me will prevent me from hearing them, for some reason, but even with the din of the rain to cover them, their words are still perfectly clear to me.
“My Lord, I don’t think this girl is a majin. Rather, she should be…”
“An apostle. Of course, I know that. Do you think I’m so ignorant that I wouldn’t be able to recognize her?”
“She might be an apostle, yes. But what if she’s a devil instead, my Lord?”
“She’s not. If she was, we’d already be dead.”
“I see. Of course. But have you ever seen a child apostle, my Lord?” I can hear Mehodore’s frown in his voice.
“Well, no. But there obviously are some.” Baron’s voice becomes teasing. “Or do you think they’re born directly as adults?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Save it, Mehodore. I know that rumors and theories abound on the subject, but it should be patently obvious to anybody with half a brain that apostles are simply a newly discovered tribal group who hired themselves out to humanity. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“But people say they’re related to demons, my Lord. Or even that they’re demons themselves. Trusting a demon would be…”
Baron lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Even if apostles are somehow linked to demons, it’s already a proven fact that humans can successfully employ them in battle. With unquestioning obedience, even! Now, I obviously wouldn’t try it on a full-grown one, but this one is still very young. If we can subdue her now and train her thoroughly, she could become a great asset in the future. We might even be able to use her as a bridge to start communication or trade with other apostles. Or at least get some useful information out of her. There are only advantages to be gained from this.”
“No one’s ever done that before, my Lord. We don’t know how other apostles might react to this.”
“Oh, please… Do you honestly believe that, in the century and a half since the apostles first appeared, no one, anywhere, ever, got their hands on one of them, apart from the God Emperor himself? Don’t be so gullible, Mehodore. In any case, I’ve made my decision. We’re taking that girl with us, one way or the other. Even if we’re the first to try taming one of those creatures, it only means it’s that much more of an opportunity.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
These robbers actually want to subdue, train, and tame me.
How arrogant, too.
Still, ‘rumors and theories’, is it?
So no one actually knows anything really concrete about apostles and devils?
Apart from this God Emperor person…
I suppose he’d be the one to ask, if I’ve got questions.
Well, I have more important things to do. Perhaps, once I’ve found my family and killed everyone I want to kill, I’ll go look for him. For now, however…
“Child,” Baron is saying as he directs his horse back toward me, Mehodore in tow. “As I told you earlier, I would highly value your abilities, and… W–What’s going on?!”
Baron’s eyes are staring at the ground, where thick, white mist is slowly congealing despite the rain, coiling around the legs of every horse on that road, eliciting screams of surprise from the riders and neighs of agony from their mounts.
First, prevent everyone from escaping.
The man on the right, whose name I still don’t know, guesses correctly that whatever’s happening originates from me. His fingers close around the hilt of his sword, and he tries to unsheathe it. Unfortunately, the scabbard at the hip of every soldier is wet from the rain. For me, preventing the blades inside from being drawn is but a trivial matter. I simply need to freeze the line where the two touch each other.
Before the man can get over his surprise at his failure to draw his own weapon – and before anyone else can even start to react to the unexpected attack – a wave of extreme cold spreads out in an arc in front of my body, its trail perfectly visible as drops of rain freeze solid in the wake of its passage. The wave of cold washes over the man on the right, and then over Baron and Mehodore and the other soldiers and horses standing behind them.
Where the wave goes, only frozen statues remain behind.
Not all of the riders stood in the arc of that wave, though, so some are untouched. But those once again show me how poorly trained the fighters of this plane truly are. They only sit there on their trapped horses, gawking at their comrades.
Have they never encountered unexpected attacks?
Didn’t Sif say the soldiers of this country were the sharpest of the lot?
Those must come from elsewhere. They must only have come to this country for a short visit.
Because, even as a group, soft idiots like them would have died before reaching the Tower’s 10th floor.
In any case, none of them can even remotely threaten me.
I focus my magic on the riders who are left alive, and freeze the rainwater streaming down their faces to seal their eyes and nostrils and mouths shut. To this, they react even more poorly than I’d expected. All, without exception, start clawing at their faces, trying to remove the layer of frost covering them. Only, their struggles are frantic, without method. Panic has already robbed them of whatever little shreds of skill they might still have had beforehand. They scream mutely and twist their upper bodies this way and that, as if that’s going to be of any help.
All but two quickly lose their balance and fall off their horses, their bodies sinking into the thick mist still covering the ground. They die instantly when the mist touches them, their blood freezing solid in their veins.
I raise my left arm, extending an icy finger toward each of the last two survivors. They’re moving too much and too erratically, so I aim for the center of their chest instead of their face or their throat. My fingers abruptly lengthen, growing almost instantly almost 30 meters long, and stab deeply into the riders’ bodies. I twist my hand away, the two spear-like fingers breaking off and remaining buried inside their victims, who slowly topple off their saddles, dead.
With a small expense of blood-qi, more ice flows over my hand to reconstruct the missing fingers.
I glance around the scene.
Only the horses are left. They’re no threat to me, I think, but magic might exist that could extract information from them, for all I know. So I’d better be thorough…
An effort of will sends the white mist carpeting the ground surging up. It climbs up the legs of the horses and shrouds their forms behind a layer of fog. A few moments later, the fog and the mist dissipate, leaving only a few fluttering wisps that soon dissolve in the rain.
60 corpses are left there, in a variety of positions. Certainly, the horses all died standing.
My wolf ears twitch, angling this way and that, seeking a heartbeat or a breath.
I don’t seem to have missed any of them.
…I’ve done a good deed, today. Who knows who those villains might have robbed, if they hadn’t stumbled upon this righteous protector of the innocent that I am?
That’s how I should introduce myself, from now on.
Hero Akasha, saving the world, one random act of murder at a time.
It does have a nice ring to it…
I walk back onto the road, continuing on my way toward Aldenfell, once more leisurely enjoying the feeling of the heavy rain striking against my skin.