It’s a very large city. Much larger than even Jodene Fortress. There are countless humans everywhere, walking this way and that, even this late in the evening. From my current vantage point, sitting on the roof of its tallest tower, another major difference between this place and the fortresses of the Planar Prison is evident. That is, the houses here seem to have been built quite haphazardly, without any regard for convenience or organization. They are strewn about everywhere without any obvious pattern, leading to a maze-like array of twisting alleys and streets. I’m not sure about the other fortresses, but at least Islandis Fortress and Jodene Fortress seemed more regular.
I expect finding the headquarters of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group in this mess will be quite a chore, but I’ve at least got enough information to start looking.
Indeed, the book of maps I bought in Islandis Fortress is even more comprehensive that I’d first expected. Earlier, I’d stopped my search upon finding the map of the Thread, but when I perused the entire book again, I discovered that there is in fact a whole map dedicated to Lamos alone, with further information about its capital – including a picture of the crest of the High-Sea Verse, what should be a stylized boat floating on a wavy line, with a sword for a mast. In my opinion, the building I’m looking for should be displaying that crest; I have only to find it.
What is disappointing, however, is that I haven’t found any reference anywhere in the book to a mountain covered in pink cherry trees.
It is disappointing, but it is not unexpected. Since there was only a small village on that mountain – plus my house – I very much doubt it could be considered a notable place for anyone other than myself. It might not even have a proper name. There would have been no reason to talk about it and describe it in a book listing only the most important landmarks of Caldera.
I sigh quietly and close the map book again. I wave my hand above it, and it disappears, joining the rest of my possessions in the space ring.
The fruits of nearly 300 years of hoarding…
Well, not exactly. It’s not like I scrounged up everything I could get my hands on. There simply wouldn’t have been enough room for everything in a space ring only capable of holding several cubic meters’ worth of items.
Most of the treasures I harvested from the last 100 floors of the Planar Tower were books, sometimes several volumes at the same time. I kept all of those, and after 100 floors, that certainly makes for quite the collection. I’m basically a walking library, now.
A vast majority of these books are on the subject of magic. Which means that most of what I’ve learned from them, I’ll quite simply never be able to replicate in reality. Only humans can learn new magic, after all. For the rest of us, our abilities are fixed at birth. That’s not to say they were completely useless, though. Simply reading about how I would learn magic, if I could, what steps and processes and training I’d need to go through to master a particular discipline, gave me inspiration on how to develop my own 冰 magic, even if I couldn’t directly copy the spells and breathing techniques described therein.
Then, beyond all these books on magic, I also obtained others about alchemy and blacksmithing, and even a few on more diverse subjects, like martial arts, engineering, strategy and tactics, warfare, astronomy, architecture…
Not all of those books are arcane, or even complicated. Most are part of a set, which starts with the basics of that particular discipline, then slowly becomes more advanced with subsequent volumes. However, although they are not necessarily complicated, they are certainly specialized. I found no book on the simple subjects of everyday life, when those are what I would need the most, at the moment.
I have gained extremely precise and technical knowledge in a variety of fields, but who cares if I can craft a Rebirth Pill from a few common ingredients, or if I know how to process Moonstone into ingots and forge an artifact out of them, when I can barely even recognize the species and genders of the people I see, when I fail to understand most of the contents any time I casually try to eavesdrop on the conversations around me.
I am like an idiot child, who blunders around, breaking things and killing things she doesn’t even understand.
It’s rather frustrating…
Other treasures I found in the Tower, apart from all my books, were objects related to the disciplines they describe: alchemical ingredients and reagents, medicinal pills, ores and materials, even a few weapons… Of those, I’ve only kept the medicinal pills, because even though they were completely useless to me, they didn’t take much space. The rest I discarded after experimenting with them for a while.
And then, there was the weird stuff, things that seemed so benign or useless that there should have been no reason to consider them as ‘treasures’, when placed alongside everything else. Which, conversely, made me think that they might be really precious, instead, so I also kept them.
The strange black suit I showed to Sif, soon after we first met.
An irregular, jagged piece of metal whose purpose I can’t even guess at.
A painting of a beautiful, colorful scenery.
A scrap of wood with the character 九 drawn on it in black, sloppy handwriting.
I’ll have to ask Phineas about these things, once he wakes up. Since he knew Miroslav, he might have some idea as to what they are and how to use them – if they even have a use in the first place.
I retract my blood-qi from the ring, closing it, and lean back to lie down on the tiles of the roof, the stars glittering above me. I watch them in quiet satisfaction for a while.
Those are definitely the stars I know.
I was worried they might have changed with time, but no. They’re just like I remember them. Nerys and I used to watch them together from my room’s window. She’d sit on the armchair, and I’d sit on her lap with her arms wrapped tightly around me, and we wouldn’t say anything at all and just watch silently. In the end, I’d fall asleep like that and wake up in my bed in the morning, with her by my side.
…I should stop thinking about that.
Let’s just focus on completing my objectives. Wallowing in pointless nostalgia isn’t going to help at all.
I sigh again and close my eyes, letting my mind enter my dantian.
Controlling my soul, I look down at myself. It feels a bit strange to have black cracks running all over me, but it still doesn’t hurt. I carefully run my fingers over my skin. My fingertips start to sink into one of the cracks. I stop moving.
There really is a gap, there. An actual hole. I could slip my fingers into it, if I wanted to. I hesitate for a moment, but in the end, I don’t dare to, even though I already witnessed the second rune’s black mist harmlessly crawl in and out of these cracks, earlier.
…I need to fix those cracks as soon as possible.
I really don’t think I want my soul to stay in that condition for too long.
I throw a glance at Phineas, but he’s still sitting there with his eyes closed, unresponsive. He hasn’t moved at all ever since he started meditating, all those years ago. If he wasn’t in my dantian, he’d already be covered in dust and cobwebs, by now.
I really have a lot of questions for him, now.
I wish he wakes up soon.
Turning away from him, I slowly fly down, toward the place where the ocean of blood-qi used to be.
Now, there are 13 black beads, floating there, revolving slowly around each other in a seemingly random pattern, as if they’re planets competing with each other, trying to disturb each other’s trajectories with the strength of their own gravity and yet always maintaining a balance, never crashing into each other. 12 of the beads are exactly the same size, while the 13th is slightly smaller. I turned the ocean of blood-qi into that form a long time ago. It makes it easier to know how much energy I have left with just a glance. No more need to wonder about the volume and density of the ocean. Each bead contains a specific maximum amount of blood-qi, and when that amount is reached, I create another bead. It’s more convenient this way.
As I approach the beads, the pleasant smell of demon blood tickles my nostrils, until it becomes strong enough to flood my senses and overpower everything else. I stop a few meters away and take a slow, deep breath.
In front of me, the 13 beads gradually slow and expand, as if their speed itself was what was keeping them so small. Soon, the beads grow large enough to touch and fuse with each other, forming an even larger sphere. The sphere keeps growing until it reaches a height of around two meters, then stops.
I gently float toward it, and its surface parts in front of me, letting me enter. As soon as I’ve passed through, it flows back and closes behind me.
And then, I let my soul dissolve and fuse with the blood-qi around it.
When I wake up again, the sun is shining brightly overhead.
In my dantian, my soul is back floating above an inexhaustible ocean of blood-qi. With a small effort of will, the ocean quickly splits into 13 beads again. All the beads are precisely the same size and density as yesterday.
When I check, the cracks running over my soul have shrunk a tiny, almost invisible bit. At this rate, it will take several months for them to close completely, even if I do this every day.
But I don’t see another way.
Well, I can be patient.
I just need to remember to restrain my use of soul force, to avoid worsening the problem. Since Sanae is here, that shouldn’t limit my actions too much. Her own soul is even stronger than my own, after all, so everything I can do, so can she.
I slowly sit up, the roof beneath me supporting my weight without flinching, and look over Aldenfell. With the sunrise, people have started coming out of their houses, and the city has become even more lively than it was yesterday evening. The babble of voices is loud enough to reach me all the way up here.
Actually, that might be a convenient way to find the place I’m looking for.
I close my eyes and angle my ears this way and that, trying to catch every voice in the vicinity, sharpening my hearing as much as I can. Thousands of threads of conversation flow within my reach, my brain churning to keep track of and process each and every one of them. I discard those irrelevant to me. I focus on the ones that might bring me the information I need.
It takes several minutes of concentration for me to finally find the right one. The voices are quite distant, but still clear, carried to me by the wind.
“Sir, do you have business with the High-Sea Verse mercenary group?”
“N–No, not at all. I just… I just wanted to see it.”
“Well, this isn’t a place where tourists can just come and gawk. Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to go on your way.”
“Why? I’m not doing any–”
“It’s a matter of basic security, a simple precaution. Sir, go on your way, now. I won’t warn you again.”
Yes, this should be it, I think.
They don’t seem very welcoming, though.
I locate the source of the voices, then open my eyes and jump off the roof where I spent the night.
It’s a large, blocky building, with narrow windows and battlements on the edge of its roof. It lies along the city’s largest street, stretching there for almost 100 meters. Like I expected, the crest I found in the map book is also depicted on a flag flying above the large, wide-open front door.
All in all, the place is really hard to miss. My worries that I would have trouble finding it were clearly unfounded. It would have taken very little time, even without eavesdropping on people’s conversations.
Two soldiers carrying spears and wearing armor are standing on either side of the door. Sometimes, they exchange a few words, and judging by their respective voices, the man on the right is the one I heard speaking earlier, whose voice guided me here.
As I watch the place, a few people trickle in and out, in ones and twos. The guards don’t stop them. I’m not sure how to reconcile that situation with the conversation I heard earlier. Perhaps they all know and recognize each other, or perhaps everyone can enter freely but stopping in front of the building for too long is forbidden.
Through the open doors, I can see inside. There seems to be quite a crowd in there. Most are waiting in line in front of a few counters lined up against the far wall. It reminds me of Islandis Fortress’s marketplace a little. There are more guards inside, all equipped the same way as the two standing outside the front door.
…Well, if Sif directed me here, it should be fine, somehow.
I tug the hood of my cloak a bit lower over my eyes, then walk toward the building.