“Here is Fushia City,” Solaire says, pointing through the train’s window at the buildings rising in the distance. “It isn’t actually the capital of Tonarr, but it certainly is its economic center. It’s a young city, too. It was built just a bit more than two centuries ago, and since then, with shrewd planning from its ruling family, it has developed up to this state.”
It looks different from any other city I’ve ever seen – admittedly, I have seen few of them.
Mostly, Fushia City distinguishes itself by being grayer and dirtier.
Another difference is that, while a thick wall encircles most of the city, the west side of it actually isn’t protected like this. There, bordering the city, I can see the edge of a very wide hole.
Did those humans build their city next to a crater?
Or did the crater come later? Did a meteor crash near the city?
[…What is this?]
“This is an orichalcum mine,” Solaire explains, following my gaze. “The second-richest vein in the whole human territories. And the source of Fushia City’s great wealth.”
[…What’s a mine?]
Solaire looks troubled at the question. “A… A quarry? Does that mean anything to you? No? Well, a mine is an… excavation site, where people dig the earth looking for precious resources, like metals or gemstones. Here, it’s specifically orichalcum, a very useful, gray-black metal that’s both tough and possesses high qi conductivity.”
[…Do they build weapons with the orichalcum?]
“Yes, but not here. Here, they wholesale it to others who’ll handle the processing of the orichalcum on their own. Well, I suppose there might be a side venture of forging and blacksmithing within Fushia City itself, but its profits and importance would be negligible compared to their supplying of the raw material to the imperial army and the various major guilds. That’s the real fount of their business.”
There were some words I didn’t know in all that, but I think I understand the gist of it.
I can’t see the mine very well from the window, since the train is currently rolling through the plain surrounding Fushia City – I’d need more elevation to see down into the hole – but it looks really, really big. It looks much bigger than Fushia City itself, at least.
“Do you want to go and visit the mine?” Lilly asks, standing on the other side of me from her father and looking through the window too, her hand holding onto mine.
I don’t imagine watching humans wade through dirt looking for a few bits of metal would be very interesting.
As the train starts to slow down in preparation of entering Fushia City’s train station, I suddenly feel a qi fluctuation quickly approaching our position, along with a whoosh of displaced air. A few seconds later, I hear the dull thud of Finram alighting onto the roof of the box where the Springfield family and I took residence after the earlier battle left the first one a wreck – Ophelia commandeered a whole box to ourselves, driving out the other passengers, in case there happened to be more enemies hiding among them. Finram’s footsteps stride across the length of the roof and drop in the gap between the boxes, before the door opens and he appears, bedraggled and injured but still relatively whole. One of his ears appears to have been burned right off, though. The whole side of his face is covered in caked blood, and the skin is charred black.
Looks like it was a really close call…
As it is, he should probably count himself fortunate to have survived against a superior opponent without losing anything too significant. Presuming he didn’t suffer any brain damage from the thermal bloom of what I assume was one of Keller’s light beams passing so close to his skull, of course.
“Phew… Finally caught up to you,” Finram says casually, without a shred of pain in his voice. “That took a while. I’m glad to see that everyone’s all right.”
Lilly gasps when she sees him and lifts her hands in front of her mouth. “Uncle! You…”
“Finram, are you all right?” Rieshia asks in an anxious voice.
Solaire and the maids don’t say anything, but their faces twist a bit as they take in the extent of Finram’s injuries.
“I’m fine. Took a bit of a beating, but nothing too dangerous.” He turns to look at me and bows deeply, speaking to me without raising his head. “Miss Akasha, thank you very much for protecting my family in my absence. I really abused your good will, this time. I hope you’ll forgive me for it. And if there is anything I can do to help you, you have but to ask; I’m at your service.”
[…Ask the earl about his tree.]
That’s the whole point of my visit here, after all.
“Of course,” Solaire answers instead of Finram. “I assure you we’ll do our very best to uncover the information you require, Miss Akasha. We really are in your debt for today’s incident. Without you…” He shakes his head and lets his voice trail off.
Well, they already thanked me after the battle, once everyone was safe and steady, but they were all a bit too worried about Finram, I believe, to really think about being grateful to me.
In any case, getting Solaire serious about the task I gave him is an unexpected benefit of my efforts against those robbers. Finding where the tree originally grew might not bring me any closer to finding Nerys, but it could still give me some sort of clue. After all, according to Solaire and Finram, they’ve never seen this particular species anywhere else. Which means finding more data on it will at least narrow down the realm of possibilities open to me. It will give me a next destination.
We make our way through the crowd in the station.
There was quite a commotion when the battered train came to a shuddering stop, with guards rushing about in every direction and shouting things to each other and questioning passengers.
Fortunately, after Solaire gave a few words of explanation and a promise that he would report all of this matter directly to the earl himself, someone who I took to be the guards’ leader let all of us go – though he threw a strange glance in my direction and really looked like he wanted to hold me back.
Even now, eyes still turn my way, but no one tries to stop me.
In fact, I’ve noticed that the gazes have changed since I started wearing my current outfit instead of the red cloak.
Oh, I still catch a lot of attention, certainly. I might even catch more attention now than I did beforehand, but the attention I do catch is filled with less suspicion than before, and more… curiosity.
That’s the feeling I get, anyway.
I have some difficulty deciphering people’s expressions, so I might be misinterpreting the situation…
Even if I’m right, this change could be due to the presence of Solaire and everyone else, with me obviously being part of their group. However, I also noticed those different gazes when I was walking alone in Destem, yesterday – if less obviously.
When I mention the matter to Finram, he replies, “Nowadays, most people know about apostles and devils. Maybe not well, maybe not even well enough to recognize what you are just by your appearance, but basically everyone has at least heard of them. However, for those who’ve never been directly involved with them, apostles and devils are just another kind of majin. The only difference is that the former are enemies with other majin – and thus allied to humanity – and the latter are enemies with, well, absolutely everybody. Which means that, just by walking among common people, you likely won’t raise any more fuss than if you were a simple elf or oni.” He tilts his head, his eyes sweeping over my body. “Well, maybe a bit more fuss, actually, since you have animal ears and a tail, which is a bit more conspicuous than pointed ears or stubby horns. But if you were a rhuth or a setroka or a werewolf, say, people would point in the street and children would scream and run away and you’d probably be accosted by the guards in a quarter of a second.”
“In fact, even soldiers aren’t necessarily familiar with your kind. Apostles keep to themselves and don’t conduct any joint operations with other bodies of troops. As for devils, they’re exceptionally rare. And, well, wherever they appear, few survivors are left… In the end, it’s more people like us – people high enough in society that we have our fingers in many pies and have to keep abreast of everything going on in the kingdoms – that are more likely to recognize you and be vigilant and suspicious of you. The rest will treat you roughly like they’d treat any other majin.”
[…So it’s not an effect of the uniform?]
Finram chuckles quietly. “Well, I suppose it plays a role. You said you covered yourself from head to toe in a cloak, right? Now, that screams ‘I’m a shifty character and don’t want people to recognize me’. City guards might not have very high ranks, but they’re still trained to do their job and keep the peace. Someone who dresses like you did will ring alarm bells the moment they appear. Looking like you do now, however, tells people that you have some backing behind you – not just anyone would hire a majin maid.” Finram rubs his chin for a few moments, considering his words. “Basically, what I can tell you is that, if you act like you belong somewhere, like you’re supposed to be here, people will assume that’s the case and leave you in peace.”
Act like I belong, is it?
I’m not sure how to do that, but I’ll try to find out.
With her words, Sanae – who’s returned to her hiding place behind my eyepatch after sneaking into our train’s locomotive and eating all the magic cores there while the conductor wasn’t looking – sends an absurd image of herself, standing upright on her two back legs, wearing human clothes around her spider body, and strutting casually within a crowd of people who don’t seem to notice anything strange about the sight of her. A few girls among the crowd wave cheerfully and bat their eyelashes at her. Then, I see her lean down and give a flower to a passing child, who smiles and thanks her profusely, before she ruffles his hair with one of her bladed legs – this should have cut his head right off, but the boy is inexplicably unharmed – and sends him on his way.
[………………No, I really don’t think this is it.]
“Is something wrong?” Lilly asks, staring at my face.
Hmm, did I show some of what I was thinking in my expression?
As I examine the throng of people milling about in the train station, trying to get Sanae’s image out of my head and failing, Lilly’s hold on my hand tightens. When I take a glance at her, her eyes look a bit moist, like she’s about to cry.
“Are you going to leave again? Aren’t you coming with us to the earl’s mansion?”
[…I’m coming with you.]
“Oh! That’s great!” Lilly’s expression abruptly clears up, leaping from one extreme to another, a bright, cheerful smile appearing on her face. “You know, it’s not the first time we visit the earl, and I remember that his chef makes very good food. I’m sure you’ll like it!”
…Are all human children like this?
How she could get so attached to me after knowing me for barely a day?
Isn’t that just too fast?
I don’t think I’ve done anything to ingratiate myself to her, either.
Well, I suppose I do have a tail. And it is very soft. From what I’ve experienced of Lilly’s thought processes so far, these two facts seem to trump any other consideration. Even now, her eyes are drifting upward, toward my twitching wolf ears.
Before she can request to touch them again or something like that, Rieshia calls out to her. “Lilly, come on! Hurry up! The carriage is here.”
Waiting for us outside the train station is indeed a great metal carriage. It looks spacious and comfortable. Hitched to the front of the carriage is a large rhino-like beast with a hide like jagged, uneven stone and limbs that are short and stumpy, but thick as tree trunks. Ophelia and the other maids are busying themselves around the carriage, storing the Springfield family’s stuff – bags and things – onto the carriage’s roof and back.
“Akasha, let’s go!” Lilly says, pulling on my hand.
I suppose that animal should be able to pull the carriage, even if I get onto it as well. It looks strong enough for that.
A man in a black suit stands rigidly next to the carriage and proffers a hand to help Lilly climb up the small metal stairs up to the carriage’s open door after the rest of her family. When I step forward, following on Lilly’s heels, the man seems to hesitate for a moment, and his eyebrows twitch a little, before he holds out his hand again toward me.
…I can understand helping Lilly, but I’m not sure why I would need any sort of assistance just stepping into a carriage, though. Is it because I look like a child, too?
Sighing inwardly, I ignore the offered hand and directly jump up into the carriage. It groans and creaks and settles down low over its own wheels, despite my efforts to distribute my weight over its surface – there is a limit to what I can do when I stand on a thin platform suspended above the ground like this.
Inside, Lilly is patting the seat next to hers while looking expectantly at me, her eyes glittering with anticipation.
I carefully make my way there and sit down.
A few seconds later, the maids file inside one after another, and the man in the black suit folds back the small metal stairs and closes the door. Then, I hear him clamber up to the driver’s bench outside, and the carriage starts moving with a jolt.
When we disembark from the carriage, a tall man with streaks of silver in his hair and faint facial scars is there to welcome us, several maids and other people in uniforms waiting in neat lines behind him.
“Your Grace,” he calls out. “I heard there was some incident during the trip? I trust all of you are fine?”
“Earl Odhran. A pleasure to see you again. The train was attacked on the way, yes. Some among us suffered slight injuries in the scrimmage, but all of them have already been treated to the best of our abilities. We’ve seen worse situations than this, hahaha!”
Odhran nods, his eyes taking in the side of Finram’s face – as Solaire said, his wounds were healed, but traces still remain to be seen – along with the tattered clothes of Ophelia, Ran and Rin. He looks a bit surprised by my appearance when his gaze falls upon me but doesn’t say anything and simply looks back to Solaire, making an inviting gesture. “Good, good. I’m glad. Please, come in. We’ll be more comfortable to talk inside. My home is your home, and I guarantee your absolute security while you’re here.”
While Ophelia, Ran, Rin, and Meliand stay behind to coordinate with Odhran’s people and discharge the stuff stored aboard the carriage, the rest of us follow after the earl, he and Solaire walking side by side and chatting.
The house looks larger than the one I visited in Destem – I wonder if it has a library I could use – but it also looks less ornamented, more stark and practical. We go through a short series of hallways, armed guards patrolling them in teams, until we reach some sort of open inner courtyard at the center of the house.
There, in the middle of this small courtyard, stands a single tree,.
Its bark is white.
Pink flowers grow all over its branches.
Something explodes inside of my brain as soon as this tree enters my sight, as soon as its smell enters my nose.
I know this smell…
Just like the smell of Caldera’s air, I didn’t even know I knew it.
Too much time had passed. I just couldn’t remember.
But I do, now.
I remember perfectly.
I’m sure of it.
This is it.
This is definitely it.
This is the kind of tree it was.
This is the kind of tree that grew near my house.
And the smell of that tree brings with it memories.
Dusty, old, faded memories, forgotten since long ago, rush unbidden into my brain, like echoes from the past.
Some are happy. Some are sad.
…Actually, even the sad ones are happy ones, now, looking at them from my current perspective.
The memories aren’t very sharp. The details are fuzzy.
But the emotions attached to those memories are everything but faded. They are vibrant and heavy and deep and strong. They crash into my mind and smother the festering bed of anger that always smolders in the background of my thoughts. They drown it out.
These old emotions build up against each other and keep growing, stronger and stronger, and I feel the control I had so carefully established over my mind for nearly three centuries slowly erode and crack and crumble.
…Oh, I want to go back.
I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back…
I don’t care that I was sick, then.
I don’t care that I would have died before reaching 15 years old.
I don’t care that I never went out of the house.
I just want to go back to that time.
That time, when I was happy…
I really want to go back.
I just want to erase those 279 years.
I don’t care that I’m strong. I don’t care that I’m immortal. I don’t care that I’m a god. I don’t care that I can use magic. I don’t care that I can flatten a mountain with my bare fists. I don’t care that I can kill millions of demons.
I want to go back…
A voice calls me from seemingly far away.
For a moment, I have the ridiculous idea that the one calling me is Nerys, but when I raise my head and blink, only Lilly is standing there before me, holding onto my hand and staring worriedly at my face.
Only now do I notice that I’ve stopped walking.
The others have also stopped and are looking back at me.
Solaire and Rieshia both look surprised, but Finram looks positively dumbstruck.
“Are you all right?” Lilly asks in a soft voice.
I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince by saying that.
My voice doesn’t sound too steady, even to me, and the telepathic link carrying my words is fraying.
“Why are you crying? What’s going on?”
I reflexively lift my hand up to my cheek.
Am I actually crying…?
I haven’t cried even once since the day I died.
…What kind of demon would cry?
Lilly gently brushes my shoulder and asks, “Are you hurt somewhere?”
I shake my head, then shake off Lilly’s hand and wordlessly walk toward the tree, ignoring the stares from the others. Strangely enough, I feel my legs strain to hold up my weight. Just taking a single step is an effort in and of itself.
When I stand beneath the tree’s branches, I slowly stoop down and reach out for one of the fallen pink leaves on the ground.
My fingers are shaking.
[…I know. I’m trying.]
When I pick up the small leaf, I fail to control my strength with enough care, and it crumples and turns to dust.
I think it’s the first time in 279 years that I curse myself for being too strong.
I take a deep breath and reach for another leaf, more delicately this time.
The small, pink leaf is still wet with the rain that fell yesterday. It looks incredibly pretty and colorful, resting on the jet-black skin of my palm. Its surface is very soft, with tiny hairs covering it almost like a layer of fur.
Even with the tide of uncontrolled emotions clouding my mind, I feel through the shift in the air currents behind me that Lilly is lifting a hand toward my shoulder.
I didn’t even notice her approach, didn’t hear her footsteps following me.
Before she can touch me, I take a few steps away from her, and then, without really knowing why, I feel power gather in my legs, and I leap away from the courtyard with all my strength. I don’t have the presence of mind to dampen the impact on the ground, so it shakes and shatters beneath my feet the moment I jump.
I hear Lilly call out for me, but I don’t turn around.
She’s not the one I wish was speaking my name.
An instant later, I’m soaring through the air, several hundred meters high, passing over the streets and roofs of Fushia City as a sonic boom rings out behind me.
I don’t even know where I’m going.
Right now, I just don’t want to stay there.