I keep watching out for a mountain covered in pink trees, or maybe just something that might rouse one of the old, dusty memories buried in the confines of my brain.
No luck, as of yet…
This wind is starting to annoy me, though. It keeps blowing into my ears. It’s really uncomfortable. I try to keep them flat against my skull, but it doesn’t help much. Perhaps I should just go and see if I can find somewhere to sit at the back of the train, out of the wind. The train’s own bulk would shield me without preventing me from watching the landscape as I wish.
Yes, that’s a good idea.
Since the decision is made, I dissolve the tendrils of ice tethering me to the train’s roof, stand up, and start walking toward the last box, the wind pushing my back as if it’s urging me on.
As I walk atop each successive box, however, I notice something strange. The number of voices coming from inside them gradually diminishes, until, when I finally reach the very last, I can no longer hear anyone. This is really quite peculiar. Back then, there were clearly many, many people walking all over each other, rushing into the station. Even if all of them didn’t end up boarding the train, at least a majority must have. So why would there be a box empty of people? Wouldn’t it be more optimized to spread the passengers equally in every box?
There might some considerations to it that I don’t understand…
When I reach the edge of the last box, I gently let myself drop down to the small balcony jutting there out of its wall. The metal groans under my weight, but it holds.
Instantly, the roar of the wind lessens to more bearable levels, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
There are guardrails set in place around the balcony to prevent people from falling off, which should mean that regular passengers might come here – otherwise, who would those guardrails be protecting? And indeed, once I turn around, I find an ornamented, richly decorated metal door, kept securely closed. It’s just as black as the metal of the wall around it, almost merging into it. The door doesn’t seem to have any handle.
And now that my ears are out of that wind, I can state even more firmly that there is currently no one inside the box. No breathing, no heartbeat. No qi fluctuation, either, so neither are there any golems here.
Maybe the other boxes are just more comfortable, so no one wants to be relegated to this one?
Well, if no one’s there, I don’t mind occupying this box by myself. Its large windows will give me a clear view of the landscape outside, so it won’t affect my search.
I approach the ornamented door and lightly push against it. It remains closed. For a moment, I hesitate to simply force my way through, but I eventually decide against it. There is no magic formation set up on either the door or the wall, but that doesn’t preclude purely mechanical detection systems – I have no way to detect those. The driver might stop to see what the fuss is about, if he’s alerted that a part of the train has suffered damage.
[…Try to open this door.]
A strand of Sanae’s soul force sneaks into the small gap between the door and the wall of the box and coils around the lock. A few seconds elapse as she fiddles with the mechanism, until the door opens successfully before me.
I enter the box, closing the door again. The sound of the wind disappears completely, then, which is a welcome change. The only real problem is that it’s a bit too hot in here, so I use a trickle of magic to cool the air around me. I stop when frost starts clouding the edges of the windows.
I glance around the room. Thickly padded crimson chairs, facing each other in groups of four or five. Gleaming wooden cabinets lined up along the walls. The entire floor is covered in something like a rich, luxuriant animal fur. I remember seeing the same thing in the main room of Jodene’s castle, before it was destroyed during the fight. It’s soft under my bare feet, and it provides adequate traction – important in case I need to perform complex acrobatics in order to dodge incoming attacks. Wide and tall windows are set into the two walls to my left and right as I enter, but long curtains cover them and prevent sunlight from getting in. The room would be dark, if it were not for the intricate lamp made out of crystal hanging from the ceiling, casting a soft, dim light against the gloom. On the wall opposite me, a door identical to the one I just went through – though this one does have a handle – leads toward another room, quiet, muted voices reaching my ears from beyond it.
It all looks very… warm and comfortable, though those aren’t two words I would usually link together.
My nose twitches as it detects a smell it knows well.
A magic core.
The scent of it is very faint, but there is definitely one embedded somewhere within that crystal lamp.
I assume its energy is harvested to magically produce light, like how magic cores are used to power some magical formations. It’s quite ingenious. I wonder how it works.
…Could my own dantian be used this way?
That’s what magic cores are, after all. The fossilized dantians of dead demons. And I am a demon. There is no reason to think that my death would produce anything different from any other demon I’ve ever seen. I do hope that, if such a thing ever happens, I’ll be used for more than powering up a lamp in a train, though.
Since there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to remove the magic core from the lamp without breaking it open, I decide to leave it there. It’s not particularly powerful, in any case, so it isn’t a big loss to me. The energy it could bring me if I ate it would be negligible.
I look away from the lamp and turn to the wooden cabinets. I open them one by one, checking their contents.
Tools made out of ceramic that people use when they eat and drink. Some strange crystals I feel I saw somewhere before, though I cannot remember exactly where. Bottles containing all kinds of different –
I reach into the cabinet and take one of the bottles. An amber liquid sloshes gently inside it. On a paper stuck to the glass of the bottle, several warnings advise drinking the contents with proper restraint and moderation and list the dangers in case that advice is not followed: headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, loss of consciousness, internal bleeding, and death. Above those warnings is the picture of a man in soldier garb, holding up his hand over his eyes as if shielding them from the sun while he gazes into the distance at some unspecified thing. And beneath that picture are the words ‘Haldir’s vigil’.
It really wasn’t a mistake to leave the train’s roof.
Still no mountain in sight.
Or at least, no mountain I can even vaguely recognize. All of those I can see from the train are so far into the distance they only look like vague hills over the horizon. My memories of my youth are fragmentary, but I’m quite sure the train passed closer than this to the mountain on which my house was built.
These definitely aren’t the one I’m looking for.
In the sky, grey clouds gradually smother the sun’s rays, and soon after, large raindrops start falling, striking noisily against the glass of the windows before which I stand.
Rain and sun and rain again…
Caldera’s weather keeps changing, alternating between one and the other time after time, like its days and its nights. Not even talking about the Tower, even in the Planar Prison, I didn’t see such a phenomenon. Admittedly, I only stayed there for a bit more than two weeks, going from one fortress to another, but in all that time, the sky was always quite clear. It never rained.
But, here on Caldera, things are quite different…
You never know what to expect.
I like it.
I watch the rain patter against the glass, until footsteps approach this room from the next, and the door opens.
I throw a glance at the person who just entered. It’s a rather thin and small human man. His body shivers greatly when he steps into the room, and a white plume of mist escapes his mouth as he exhales. Cursing quietly, he glances around almost reflexively, as if looking for the source of the cold, until his gaze falls on me. He looks vaguely surprised upon seeing me standing there, but doesn’t try to question me or otherwise engage me in conversation. He only takes a few steps forward and plops down into one of the padded seats, crossing his legs and comfortably settling down, his arms wrapped around his chest against the cold.
Overall, this man looks rather unremarkable, but his body has a certain balance I’ve only seen on very few people since I left the Planar Tower. I can smell steel from somewhere on his body.
And another smell, too.
A faint, corrupted smell that feels crisp and sharp when it tickles my nose.
I look away from the man and back to my window and continue watching the landscape drift by in front of me.
Sanae’s voice suddenly echoes in my mind, with an image of that thin man accompanying the word.
I see. I wonder if he’s going to attack me. Or maybe he’ll try to recruit me, like those others I killed before arriving in Aldenfell? In any case, I’d better keep my eye on him.
[…Go back to sleep.]
While it’s true that simply sharing my senses and speaking with me won’t consume much energy, it is very important to limit waste as much as possible. Sif told me that there indeed were demons on Caldera, but I have yet to see even one of them. Even the Planar Prison was more bountiful. I suppose this is good news for the humans and majin living here, since they won’t have to suffer as many attacks, but for Sanae and I, this is a potentially lethal restriction. Especially for Sanae, in fact. My body is at least quite efficient, but hers consumes a terrifying amount of energy – even more so when she becomes bigger. That wasn’t much of a problem in the Planar Tower, since food there could be found everywhere without even having to look for it, but on Caldera, we’ll have to be a lot more careful.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if Sanae hadn’t had to expend all her reserves to finish off the giant frog godbeast, but now… If she doesn’t take care, she’s going to run out pretty soon. The apostle army from a few days ago provided for her immediate needs, but she…
Am I a moron…?
I keep wondering where I can find demons and lamenting their scarcity, because I’ve depended on their existence for so long, but there is no more need for them, is there? I should adjust my thought processes to fit Caldera’s circumstances.
Instead of demons, why not hunt for those apostles?
There were already more than 5,000 of them waiting outside that teleport formation; surely, there are more elsewhere. For all I know, they might even be looking for me, right now, as Sif suspected they would.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of that earlier.
Sanae most likely did as soon as we emerged from the teleport formation and she saw the apostles. That should be why she doesn’t seem to worry about that issue at all.
…She really could have told me about it and spared me some needless worry.
In any case, this is good news. If we ever have a pressing need for food, we should cause trouble somewhere obvious. With a bit of luck, some apostles will kindly come and feed themselves to us.
Doing that might allow me to trace back where they come from, too.
Seeing as they were the ones waiting for me outside the teleport formation, the apostles are most likely linked to Jodene and Shen Lei and the people who trapped me in the Planar Tower. Since the conversation of those robbers back then clearly implied that no one knows much of anything about them, asking the apostles themselves would be the obvious solution, though they might refuse to answer.
Perhaps, I could also try to find a devil…
When we first met, Sif described them as ‘renegade apostles’. This should mean that they know about the apostles and also don’t care to preserve their secrets. They might agree to give me the information I want, if I could only find one of them.
I shake my head and cast off that train of thought.
I won’t turn away from opportunities I stumble upon, but I’m not going to go look for them.
My priorities are very clear.
Finding Nerys is much more important than taking revenge.
When I come out of my thoughts, I examine the robber’s form reflected in the glass of the windows in front of me. He seems curious about me, his eyes flicking back to me, every now and then, but he doesn’t try to approach me.
As I ponder on what I should do about him, more footsteps approach from the other room. This time, it’s a group of four. One set of footsteps are distinctly lighter than the others – probably a child.
Are they friends of the robber?
Their conversation reaches me through the closed door.
“You took too long, Father,” a young voice says. “I hope there’s still room for us, at least.”
“Of course, there is,” a man says. “Do you know how much first-class tickets cost? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still empty, even now.”
“I hope so!”
The child’s footsteps suddenly quicken, and the words “Lilly, please wait!” come from a third voice barely an instant before the door bursts open and a little girl rushes headlong into the room.
“Woah! It’s cold in here!”
Even as she shouts her complaint, her eyes sweep the room. They come to rest for an instant on the robber, then on me, whereupon her gaze freezes.
What’s wrong with her?
She’s not looking at my face, but a bit above that.
My wolf ears?
Oh, I did forget to wear the cloak’s hood, after it was whipped off my head by the wind…
Still, I don’t think my ears are so strange that they deserve that kind of reaction.
Or are they?
Was this also why the robber kept stealing glances at me?
Slowly, the little girl’s face reddens and a wide grin appears on her lips. Then, she claps her hands and starts sprinting toward me. “Oooooh! So cute!”
When I see her suddenly rush in my direction, I reflexively center my balance, and my body automatically prepares to extinguish the potential threat, but I forcefully restrain myself. I don’t feel any sense of danger coming from this child.
The little girl stops right in front of me – I almost wonder for a moment if she’s going to skewer herself on my horn – and clasps her hands in front of her chest, sparkling eyes still locked onto my ears, her body squirming this way and that. Before I can figure out how to properly respond to this situation, the little girl’s patience seems to reach its limit, and her two small hands directly reach for my ears.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall and muscular man look over the scene with wide eyes. He shouts after the little girl and lifts up a hand toward her, as if he wants to hold her back, but considering he’s still standing next to the door and I can’t feel any telltale pressure of magic coming from him, I don’t know what he expects his gesture to accomplish.
In any case, the little girl – Lilly – completely ignores his desperate warning, and her fingers close around the tips of my ears.
“Ooooooh!” she screams again, even louder than the first time, tugging my ears this way and that and rubbing the fur covering them. “So soft!”
This girl reminds me of Nerys a bit.
She liked to play with my ears and my tail like this, too.
This little girl is quite loud in her enjoyment, though. Her gushing over my supposed cuteness and softness quickly becomes annoying, so I wriggle my ears back and forth a few times to shake off her hands and slap them away.
For some reason, that makes her laugh, but she doesn’t try to touch me again. She takes a step back and finally looks down from my ears and at my face, and her gaze abruptly freezes once more. She stutters a few words, her smile quickly fading away. “Y–Your face… What happened? A–Are you all right? Does it hurt?”
When my voice appears in her mind, Lilly shows the most exaggerated reaction I’ve seen, yet. She flinches so hard both her feet leave the ground, and she raises her hands to clutch at her head. “Waaaah! What was that?!” she screams, her eyes widening. “Was that you?! Oooooh! You can speak into my mind!” She turns around toward the people who accompanied her as she entered, and shouts, “Mother! This little girl can speak into my mind! And she’s a majin! And she has fox ears on top of her head!”
Out of the three people who filed into the room after Lilly, two are men and one is a woman. The tall, muscular man who tried to stop Lilly from touching my ears earlier is still warily looking at me. Judging by the intensity of the qi in his body, I’d say he’d rank between Jodene and Shen Lei, strength-wise. When he hears Lilly’s words, his face becomes paler, for some reason, and his gaze even more cautious. The other man is also tall and large, and in point of fact, both of them greatly resemble each other – perhaps they’re brothers – except that this one looks softer, more fat than muscular. As for the woman, she’s not quite as tall as the two men, and looks like an older version of Lilly, with roughly the same facial structure, brown eyes and red hair. I assume she’s the mother Lilly just called out to.
And indeed, while the fat man takes a seat in one of the padded chairs and spectates the scene with a wry smile on his face and the muscular man just stands there cautiously, the woman takes a step toward us and says, “That’s very impressive, but don’t trouble this poor child too much. Don’t throw yourself onto her and grab at her ears like that. That’s not nice. And introduce yourself.”
That’s right. That’s not nice.
I’m not a child, though.
“Yes!” Lilly answers. She turns back to me, her cheerful grin back on her face. “Hello, my name is Lilly Springfield. I’m 13 years old. My favorite color is green. What about you? What’s your name? How old are you? Are you really a majin? What species are you? Where are your parents? Did you take the train alone? Where are you going? It’s my first time meeting a majin, you know? How did you get all those scars? What happened to your right eye? Oh, did humans bully you? If someone bullies you, you can tell me. Do you want to be my friend?”
When the torrent of words finally dries up, I just stare blankly at her for a few moments, wondering how I should respond.
Eventually, I decide to simply give her the information she wants. That should be enough to adequately introduce myself back. I also transmit my words to the other people in the room – except for the robber – so that they won’t ask me the same things later again.
[…I don’t have a favorite color. Akasha. 291 years old. Not exactly. Demon. I don’t know. Yes. Westward. I do now. During fights. Melted by acid. No. No.]
This time, she’s the one to stare blankly at me.
It’s like we’re taking turns.
[…Answers to your questions.]
“Oh, um… What?”