Inside the locomotive.
I can’t help but salivate at the sight in front of me.
Dozens of magic cores are embedded in sockets of various sizes, all over some sort of altar. And all those magic cores are of quite high quality, too. They would make for a very nice meal after those days of fasting.
But if I did eat them, the train would stop moving…
Accounting for potential problems I could face during the trip, if I ate those magic cores myself and made my way to Fushia city on foot, it would probably cost more energy than simply riding the train to my destination then eating the magic cores.
Which means I should refrain until we’ve arrived. That’ll be the most optimized option.
[…This machine is quite efficient.]
“Of course it it!” the hoary-headed old man shouts at me in response, playing around with levers and buttons and things all around him. “Although, I have to admit, it drinks up quite a bit more when it’s starting up. Now, we just have to maintain our speed, so it’s not as bad. And there are more magic cores embedded into the walls to power formations that reduce air resistance, too, so it’s not only what you see here.”
The walls are quite solid, though. It might take more energy to tear them apart than eating the magic cores I would find within would bring me. And it would take a long time to search for them.
I glance over the complex magic formations draining energy from the magic cores to power up the locomotive and pull the train. Most of them are scorched and blackened, while others are damaged enough that they’ve stopped working entirely.
[…Can you fix it?]
“No, I can’t. I’m just a conductor. I can do basic maintenance, but how on earth am I supposed to completely redraw such complex magic formations? In an orichalcum surface, no less.” He shakes his head. “I would barely be able to even scratch the damn thing.”
That’s a shame, but there’s nothing I can do, either.
I could carve the formations with my claws.
If only I knew what they were supposed to look like.
But they indeed seem very complex, and I don’t know the details of how the locomotive works, so I can’t even guess at their appearance when intact. If I draw a formation that sends the energy from the magic cores into the wrong place, it could do more harm than good.
Well, it’s not like the train can’t move anymore, even in its current state…
It’s just not as fast as before.
That’s not such a big problem.
“So who are those vandals, then? Do you even know?” The old man glances at the two corpses of the presumed robbers, one of them lying frozen on the floor, the other pinned to the wall by an ice spear in his chest. “Thanks for saving me and all, but they are dressed like the security team, so I’m not quite sure what to make of it all.”
[…I don’t know.]
“Heh. You were killing them quite happily for someone who doesn’t even know who they are. You’re quite a cold-blooded child, aren’t you?”
Well, my blood is indeed cold, as a matter of fact.
But I’m really not a child.
And I wasn’t particularly happy about killing them, either.
Nor does it really matter to me who they are.
It’s all the same to me.
…Now, since the locomotive is temporarily safe, should I go back to the room, or should I remain here and watch out for more robbers?
I don’t really want to stay in this place, with all those magic cores tempting me with their deliciousness. But even though all the robbers on the roof were crushed and sliced to bits, there might be more hidden inside the boxes themselves, and they might come back here to try and break the locomotive again. Which would be bad.
Before I can decide, however, a wave of heat suddenly rolls over the locomotive from the back of the train.
I can feel qi fluctuations coming from over there.
Is somebody using fire magic again?
No, it’s a less aggressive heat…
Well, it’s heat nonetheless.
I’m definitely going to kill whoever’s doing this.
Moments later, great explosions rock the train left and right, almost pushing it off its tracks and making it derail. At the same time, two great qi pressures mingle and struggle, as if trying to gain dominance over each other.
…Is it a fight?
I can recognize one of them as Finram.
The other, I don’t know.
“Woah! What is going on, out there?” the old man shouts, scowling. “Do they really want to destroy this train? There are nearly 300 passengers aboard! Criminals in my days at least had principles! 40 years I’ve done this job, and this right here is a first, let me tell you! Simply intolerable!”
Using light magic so wantonly like that and making people hot. That scum should just die.
[…I’m going to ask them to stop.]
“Oh, you do that. I’ll stay here and try to keep this tub rolling along.”
I regretfully wrench my gaze away from the delicious magic cores in the altar and step outside the train, climbing up the side of the locomotive, using the pipes and other mechanisms as hand- and footholds.
Before he disappears from view, the old man shouts after me, “And stop making holes in my train, girl! Can’t you retract those claws of yours?”
They’re not even claws, per se. They’re my digits. I can no more retract them than humans can retract their own fingertips. Or can humans actually do that? The anatomy book didn’t say anything on the subject…
When I reach the top of the locomotive, the battle finally enters my sight, although the three ‘chimneys’ – as the old man called them – on either side try to shroud it behind the white smoke they constantly belch out. Two people are flying in the sky, dodging and weaving around each other like they’re dancing. They’re focused on each other instead of following the train, so it’s slowly pulling the distance and leaving them behind.
That’s good. Less risk of it ending up as collateral damage under a missed spell or something like that.
…But why is there another train right behind ours?
From where I stand, I can see through the front window of its locomotive, at the conductor. He looks younger than the one I talked to just a minute ago, but what’s really interesting is the man standing right next to him.
That man is wearing the same kinds of clothes as all the other robbers.
And the conductor doesn’t seem to have been threatened. The robber isn’t holding any weapon, and the conductor isn’t injured in the slightest. They’re only peacefully talking to each other while looking at the battle in the sky.
Is this the robbers’ train, then?
But the tracks only link cities with each other. Wouldn’t those robbers be arrested easily, if they only moved in such predictable lines? Can locomotives leave the tracks?
Haaaa, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose…
What matters – at least a bit more – is that there are two robbers crouching over the roof of the last box of our train, where I left the Lilly and her family earlier.
Before I can decide whether I should kill them myself or not, a cloud of tiny spores descends upon these robbers without their notice. Although the cloud is frayed by the strong winds of the train’s passage, the two men are still covered by it. After a few moments, they seem to finally realize something is wrong. They start squirming and scratching at their bodies hard enough to draw blood. I can’t hear them, but their mouths are wide open and their expressions are twisted in pain. Quickly, their skin starts bubbling up, then sloughing off. Before the poisonous spores can even kill them, the wind makes the both of them lose their balance. With their concentration broken by their pain, the two robbers slip over the edge of the box and drop off the train’s roof, crashing to the ground below in a tangle of shattered limbs.
I look up at Finram, who conjured up the cloud of spores. He’s still locked in midair combat with a man with short-cropped hair and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, whose body is shrouded in a bright halo of light.
The heat does indeed come from this person.
Specifically, from this halo of light hanging around him.
Tree branches, vines of all colors, and minuscule spores appear and disappear around Finram as he fights, trying to skewer and entangle and poison his opponent. At the same time, to counter Finram’s attacks, beams constantly shoot out of the other man’s fingertips, or curtains of searing light open in the air around his body. Unfortunately, even when some of Finram’s attacks manage to get past the beams or other defenses of his enemy, his spores and his vines all combust when they enter the halo of light, then turn to dust before they can actually cause damage.
But even though this other man seems to have the advantage, he’s an idiot.
‘Light’ is an extremely powerful magic, for one very simple reason.
It’s too fast to be dodged.
…Well, at least, I can’t dodge it. Maybe someone stronger than me could, but I very much doubt it, since air resistance becomes an unbreakable barrier, after reaching certain speeds.
In any case, light magic is something troublesome against which the only option is to rely on the toughness of one’s body. Except, that is, when the person casting it conveniently points his fingers and makes sweeping, grand, obvious movements to clearly show everybody the exact trajectory of his next attack.
Sometimes, I also do things like that – wave my hand to make a frozen fog appear, for example – since those sorts of mnemonic motions make it slightly easier to cast spells, but this moron is doing something different.
He’s plainly dulling his weapon’s sharpest edge.
Like this, even light-speed attacks can be dodged. You just have to see where he’s pointing, and you’ll know what he’s targeting.
As for Finram…
Although he seems to have less raw power than the other man, he’s using what he has a bit better. He more accurately calculates the amount of energy each of his spells need, so there is less waste. He’s not exactly to the point where there’s no leakage of his qi when he casts a spell, but he’s perhaps halfway there. It’s pretty good, really.
Jodene and Shen Lei were slightly better still, but they were also a lot older than him.
…What’s with this brat?
Didn’t he say he didn’t care about efficiency, yesterday?
And having that kind of strength at only 54 years old…
Is this natural talent?
…But I don’t know what his magic is, exactly. Something to do with plants, but I’m not sure of the specifics. I can see him reach into the pouch around his waist, sometimes, his fingers coming out pinching small seeds and the like, which then grow and attack according to his orders. Other times, however, he simply creates those clouds of spores and those vines out of thin air.
In any case, his power is a poor match against his opponent’s. It seems like it would be much more useful against large crowds of weaklings than against a single strong foe. Even just now, when Finram diverted some of his attention to send this cloud of spores down on the robbers standing atop the train’s roof, he took several beams right through the chest for his trouble.
…Yes, he’s definitely going to lose.
Unless he’s still hiding something, to produce a surprise attack of some sort when it’ll really count?
In any case, this fight doesn’t have anything to do with me anymore. Since the train is leaving them both behind, the heat produced by the man’s presence also quickly fades, and any reason I might have had to interfere disappears along with it.
You two have fun on your own, then…
But what about the others in the room?
Wasn’t Finram supposed to protect them against the robbers?
While sighing inwardly, I lift my eyepatch and Sanae skitters down my cheek and onto the back of my hand.
[…Protect the locomotive.]
Lazy, wordless assent comes back in response, and Sanae jumps off the edge of my hand, dropping straight down to the roof of the locomotive and landing with a loud, hollow boom – she must have increased her weight while falling in order to resist the wind’s pull.
[…Don’t eat any of the magic cores, yet.]
<Hmm. This one?>
An image of the pursuing train appears in my mind.
[…I’ll handle it and bring you your share.]
Readjusting the eyepatch and leaving Sanae behind, I make my way over the roofs of the boxes until I reach the very last one. Countless holes have been melted into the walls everywhere, and from them filter the sounds of a dozen people fighting frantically inside.
I lean down and peer through one of the holes.
The maids are fighting a group of robbers, except for Meliand who’s lying unconscious in the back corner, along with Lilly. Rieshia is standing one step before the two, casting spells over those fighting in the front – probably magic to increase the defensive or regenerative abilities of their bodies, judging from the effects I can see. Solaire is staying near her, his skin showing a dull, metallic luster. He’s holding a small pendant in his hand and blocking attacks directed at him and Rieshia with the vines growing from inside it.
Ran and Rin are clearly outmatched by their opponents, needing to fight together to even hold up against one of them, but they still haven’t been completely routed, mostly on account of Ophelia, who picks up the slack by fighting two people at once with her flying swords, though her injuries are accumulating rapidly.
They’re definitely going to be suppressed by the robbers’ superior numbers soon. Although the room is too cramped for this to be instantly decisive, once one of the robbers is injured, another can come to the front to take his place while he heals. Those robbers are rather well-organized, actually. They’re not up to the apostles’ level, where individuals can complement each other’s attacks seamlessly, but they still have pretty good teamwork.
Should I help?
It doesn’t really have anything to do with me.
But, then again, it wouldn’t really cost me anything to slap some weaklings around. I don’t really need to kill them all, either. Just even things up a bit.
I stand up and walk to another hole in the roof, this one directly over the cluster of robbers.
Before I can actually do anything, however, the robber in the pursuing train, next to the conductor, suddenly leans out of the side door of the locomotive, holding onto some kind of metal handle with a hand while the other points toward me, green and blue particles slowly gathering between his fingers.
Now, that is reckless.
From what I’ve seen, humans can’t really resist a fall at the kinds of speeds the trains are going…
Before his own spell can coalesce, I throw a small icicle toward the man’s face. He dodges it adroitly, but that motion puts enough strain on the hand grasping the metal handle that the fingers I’d surreptitiously flash-frozen a moment ago snap directly. I almost laugh at the dumbfounded face of the robber as he stares at the fragments of his fingers stuck to the metal handle, then starts to topple toward his doom. He desperately interrupts his spell casting and tries to reach out to the metal handle with his other hand, but he’s too late.
He falls off the train and is sucked into the wheels of the locomotive below, his body instantly ground into paste.
Shaking my head, I turn back to the small hole before me.
I cup my left hand in front of me, and some of the ice making up my arm flows together to form a small, dense sphere cradled in the center of my palm. Then, I kneel down and place my hand down over the hole. The small sphere I created starts to descend through the hole and into the room, hanging at the end of a rigid ice thread linking it to my palm. A faint mist seeps from the sphere and spreads around, informing me of the exact position of every person below through the differences in temperature – I wouldn’t want to mistakenly kill someone I shouldn’t.
The small sphere keeps descending until it reaches a proper height, right in the middle of the group of robbers, upon which it’s finally noticed.
“Hey, what is that?”
I send more of my magic down my arm, through the thread and into the sphere, and several blades, thin but still quite solid, and very, very sharp, suddenly spring out from it.
And the sphere starts spinning.
A few robbers with better reflexes than the others manage to successfully dodge and evade the deadly whirlwind for a few moments, right up until the thin blades all start randomly shrinking and lengthening and twisting and sliding across the surface of the sphere in every direction. All but two of the robbers – who were too far for the blades to reach them with the amount of energy I channelled into the spell – are turned into minced meat.
Satisfied with the results, I command the blades to retract into the sphere, which then climbs up its thread the way it came and merges back into my hand.
For a moment, Ophelia, Ran, and Rin stand frozen in shock at these unexpected developments, before recovering and throwing themselves upon the remaining robbers. They make short work of them.
…That might have been a bit more than just ‘evening things up’, now that I think about it.
Since the situation here is already under control, I stand up and turn toward the pursuing train. The conductor inside looks flustered, and I can see that he’s already started to slow down the train, in hopes of pulling the distance between us and escaping.
But I don’t intend to let that happen.
If nothing else, Sanae will be quite angry with me if I let such a prize escape without doing anything to prevent it.
I run up to the edge of the box and leap the 30 meters between us. I forgot to account for the wind pushing me while in my jump, though, so I overshoot my target a little and have to bury my claws into the roof of the locomotive to stop my momentum, leaving long gashes into the metal.
That was close.
I’m somewhat surprised I made such a stupid mistake. It’s quite uncharacteristic. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any big problem, but I’ll need to be more careful, next time.
Idly reflecting over my mistakes, I swing myself over the edge of the roof and move across the side of the locomotive toward the door the robber so tragically fell from, earlier. Inside, the conductor is still there, waiting for me with a pale face. When he sees me enter, he unsteadily retreats, stumbling backward into a corner of the compartment and leaning against the wall behind him as if he wished he could melt into it and disappear. Since it doesn’t look like he intends to attack me, I leave him alone – though I do keep a strand of my thoughts on him, in case he changes his mind – and turn to my goal.
An altar covered in magic cores, identical to the one in the other locomotive I visited earlier, except that this one is intact.
I glance over the complex array of magic formations drawing power from the magic cores and commit the complex shapes and symbols to my memory. With this, I might be able to fix my own train at least a little.
Then, once that’s done, I extend a hand and remove all the magic cores from their sockets.
I swallow a third of them and store the rest in my space ring.
They really are good quality…
The smallest, 13th bead of blood-qi inside my dantian grows almost imperceptibly, offsetting some of the consumption of these past few days.
Haaaa, this is terrible. I didn’t end up quite as bad as Sanae, after the fight against the giant frog, but I still lost most of the blood-qi I had accumulated. When I entered the 199th floor of the Tower, I had almost 60 full beads in my dantian. Now, though…
But I suppose I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
It really wasn’t the time to skimp.
In the end, however, I was knocked out even before I could empty all my reserves – I would have emptied them in order to flee, of course, not to fight; at that point, to keep fighting would have been pointless – and Sanae had to save me and end the battle herself.
In front of me, the magic formations carved into the altar slowly power down, as the leftover dregs of energy within them are consumed. The subsonic buzz of power that had stayed almost unnoticeable until it started winding down also stops, and the locomotive gradually decelerates.
Since it would be a bother if I had to run to catch up to my train, I quickly exit and climb back up to the roof, before jumping over the gap once more and landing on the roof of the rearmost box, where Lilly and her family are still staying. Then, like I did when I first snuck aboard in Aldenfell, I let myself fall to the small metal platform at the back and enter the room.
Ophelia is waiting for me at the door, her wounds still seeping blood. She bows low. “Miss Akasha, thank very much you for your help, today. Your assistance was most welcome.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly difficult for me, so don’t mind it…
I glance around the room.
Rieshia is looking over Ran and Rin’s injuries, while Solaire takes care of Lilly. And Fulmist is very much dead. Most of the furniture has also been wrecked, but with a dozen warriors battling in such a confined space, I’m somewhat surprised the box itself still even exists.
“Miss Akasha?” Ophelia calls again in a soft voice, as if she doesn’t want the others to hear her.
Following her intent, I respond by only transmitting my words to her.
“Did you… happen to see Lord Finram’s opponent?”
“He is a man named Arehm Keller. May I ask your assessment of him? Did you get an idea as to the extent of his powers?”
[…He’s a moron.]
Ophelia’s expression cramps a bit. “P–Pardon? A… moron?”
“Ah, I… I see. Um, do you think Lord Finram will be victorious, then?”
If that was all Finram had to show, he shouldn’t be able to win, unless his opponent makes a mistake – which wouldn’t be all that surprising, actually – or an outside factor reverses the situation.
Ophelia looks anxious. “Then, may I ask, what do you think we should do?”
Well, nothing in particular?
I look back over my shoulder. Down the tracks, the pursuing locomotive is still slowing down and pulling further and further away from us. As for Finram and that Keller person, they have long since disappeared from view.
I turn back to Ophelia and look up at her worried face. […Just wait.]
“But, Lord Finram is…”
[…Even if he can’t win, he can escape.]
The difference in strength between the two of them wasn’t so wide that actually killing their opponent would be such an easy task, especially considering how clumsily they both used their magic. If one of them wants to escape, the other would have some real trouble preventing it.
“I see. That is good,” Ophelia says, breathing out and patting her chest. “I’m a bit worried that Lord Finram will push himself to gain more time for us, but he should realize that you are here and retreat in time.”
I feel like I’m being used, now.
I already helped them against the robbers and they still want more?
In the first place, this whole business has nothing to do with me. I really don’t care about whatever grudges are at play, here. I’d very much prefer if they kept me out of it all.
But then again, these people did give me clothes, without asking for anything in return.
I can kill the idiot if that’s what they want. That’ll teach him to make me hot with his light magic.
Turning away from Ophelia, I take a few steps into the room and focus my hearing onto Lilly for a few moments – her breathing and heartbeat are strong and stable; she shouldn’t be in any danger.
In the nearest corner of the room, a glint of metal catches my eye, along with a very faint, familiar smell tickling my nose. I stoop down to pick it up. It’s a small dagger, its blade stained with a few brownish stains reminiscent of rust. Contrary to rust, however, these stains exude the crisp, unmistakable scent of poison.
This should be the weapon Windsor Fulmist was carrying.
Did he lose it during the battle?
As I examine the dagger, I suddenly feel the temperature of the air around me rise up.
…Oh, come on. It’s only been a few minutes.
Finram really could have held on a bit longer than this.
Sighing to myself, I walk back to the doorway and look up at the sky. There, the same man as before is flying after the train, whooshing through the air like a meteor. Only, he looks quite a bit more disheveled than before. His left arm and shoulder are drenched in blood, and his hair is messy, small green leaves entangled in it. Sweat is streaming down his face, and his chest is heaving up and down.
At least, Finram got a few hits in, I suppose…
If he managed to survive in addition to that, it could be considered some sort of victory, maybe.
It probably didn’t improve things for Keller that he had to catch up to the train afterward. If his flying is anything like mine, it shouldn’t be easy to keep up high speeds for a long time. Actually, I wouldn’t be too surprised if chasing the train tired him even more than the beforehand fight.
Ophelia steps up next to me and looks up at Keller, too. “Miss Akasha, this…”
[…I’ll handle it.]
“Thank you very much!”
I should try for a peaceful solution, first. I tend to forget it, but it’s not like those people are demons who’ll attack me no matter what I do. If I can convince this brat to leave without a fight, that would be the preferable outcome for both of us.
When he approaches enough that I won’t have to strain for my telepathy to reach him, I open negotiations.
[…Go away, or I will kill you.]
Even from this distance, I see Keller frown as his gaze falls upon me. “Are you the one who just spoke to me? You… You’re not an apostle.” A sneer appears over his lips. “Hmph. A little devil dares to get in the way, now? I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but do you really believe everyone fea–”
This time, I do not restrain the volume of my telepathy at all. On the contrary, I do my best to make my soul’s voice as heavy and penetrating as possible. Keller’s pupils contract fiercely, and the qi fluctuation emanating from within his body jerks and shudders. The spell keeping him aloft stutters, too, and Keller’s body drops a few meters before he manages to regain control and rise back up to his previous altitude.
His eyes staring at me are warier than before. “Ahem! Pathetic tricks! Do you devils think you can involve yourselves in the matters of superior species? Good, good, good… Then let me teach you the power of humanity. Finram may have escaped, but you will not. I will bring back your head along with the duke’s.”
Negotiations seem to have failed.
As the halo of light surrounding Keller’s body starts to increase in intensity, I hold up Fulmist’s dagger behind my back, out of his line of sight, and press its tip into my skin. I feel a few beads of my blood well up and roll down the blade’s edge.
Ophelia starts to speak but hesitates. “Y–You’re…”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see her gaze locked behind me at the poisoned dagger. I think I recognize revulsion in the expression on her face.
Revulsion, and fear.
Well, it’s a demon’s best weapon. No reason not to use it, is there?
Ophelia hesitates for a moment more before nodding. She throws a glance at Keller, a strange look in her eyes, and retreats deeper into the room.
I hold the dagger’s hilt in a loose grip and keep my eyes on my target.
It’s a bit of a shame, actually…
This would be a good opportunity to experience fighting a reasonably strong human, but I really don’t want to remain for too long near someone who uses that kind of heat-producing magic, if I can avoid it.
It’s just so uncomfortable…
So, since I want to finish this quickly, I won’t hold back.
When Keller seems about to cast a spell, I stomp down onto the floor – the opposite end of the train’s box tilts up under the impact for a moment, and surprised exclamations ring out from the people behind me as the ground suddenly slants under their feet. The force surges up my legs, my hips, my belly, my chest, and into my arm, then I throw. A sonic boom explodes around the dagger as it flies out of my hand and flickers through the 40 meters between Keller and I.
Surprisingly enough, Keller does make an effort to dodge – he has much better reflexes than I expected; could it be a benefit of his magic? – but he’s still not fast enough. The dagger pierces straight through his halo, armor, and flesh, one after another, and comes out on the other side of him, its speed barely even affected as it disappears into the distant sky.
Keller groans and reflexively slaps a hand against the wound in his belly to try and restrain the blood flow, his body bending slightly at the shock. His eyes bulge out and stare fixedly at me.
With a scream loud enough to burst eardrums – a scream that abruptly cuts off as the pain keeps rising and rising into levels beyond what can be expressed by a human throat – Keller suddenly drops like a stone out of the sky, his ability to control his magic taken from him as the Taint in my blood spreads through all the meridians in his body and systematically destroys them.
He crashes, hard enough to blow a shallow crater into the earth.
Unexpectedly, he appears to survive the fall.
Which means he’ll have to experience the remainder of the Taint’s attempts at transforming his body.
Until he dies.
Which should be pretty soon, admittedly, if only judging by the experiment I conducted on Jodene, a few days ago.
Either that, or he’ll be luckier than her and become a demon himself.
The train doesn’t wait for him, though, so I won’t be there to witness the result.
In any case, Keller has been prevented from following after us or continuing his assault.
I turn away and head back into the room.