I land heavily at the bottom of the mine, the ground underneath my body shattering, a spiderweb of cracks spreading out from around me.
My head feels like it’s splitting open. My thoughts are sluggish. My vision is blurred. I can only hear a high, tinny, constant whine in all four of my ears. My throat is filled with blood.
But that’s still not enough.
I need more…
My thoughts are abruptly interrupted when a huge boulder the size of a house crashes down square onto my face. That wouldn’t normally affect me much, but with my brain already shaken by all the blows I’ve received in the past few minutes, this new impact is enough to knock me out instantly.
My head really hurts.
In fact, everything hurts.
Even my soul hurts. That’s not a good sign. It’s not supposed to do that. Ever.
[…How long was I unconscious?]
Well, first things first.
Since I now have nearly inexhaustible reserves of blood-qi within my dantian, I might as well use them. After taking stock of my injuries and singling out the most serious of the lot – it takes me more time than usual, still dazed as I am – I cram my meridians full of energy and start healing myself.
My brain is the priority. All my senses are scrambled, right now. It’ll be downright impossible to fight like this.
Next are my heart and my lungs, both burned by that lightning bolt. I can do without the latter, but the former is a bit more important. Ice has already filled in all the holes and damaged parts of my internal organs, so I won’t bleed to death, but it’s still not a state in which I should spend too much time. In the end, ice isn’t a very good replacement for organic tissue.
I wait a few seconds, as my headache lightens perceptibly – healing my brain is always much faster than any other organ, for some reason – and listen to the continuous sounds of falling rubble coming from above me. The noises are rather muted, so there must be quite a distance between me and the top of the pile of debris pressing down upon me.
Is the entire mine collapsing on top of me?
At least, my body is completely pinned to the ground. Even with my current strength, I can’t hope to free myself on my own with sheer brute force. I might be able to do it if I were in a good position, but lying on my side like this doesn’t allow me to brace myself properly.
And there is a stone crushing my tail…
Even beyond my splitting headache, my aching soul, and my battered heart and lungs, this is the most painful…
I think I’m going to cry a little bit…
Trying to draw my own attention away from the pain in my tail, I examine the revolving cloud of black beads in my dantian. It looks a bit like a galaxy. Or maybe a swarm of bugs. Or maybe just a revolving cloud of black beads – but a huge one.
4981, in all.
This is just ridiculous…
The amount of energy contained in a single bead is nothing to sneer at. It’s enough to power quite a lot of advanced spells. In fact, the most beads I’ve ever had in the past is 63. Approximately 80 times less than the current count.
It doesn’t exactly mean that I’m now 80 times stronger than before, of course, since my meridians and my soul still limit how much blood-qi I can manipulate at once, but it does mean that I won’t be needing to eat for a few centuries – or millennia, if I live a peaceful life where I neither fight nor use magic – which is always good news.
But how on earth did this happen?
I certainly wouldn’t have minded if this particular phenomenon had continued a bit longer, but by now, the rate at which my body produces blood-qi has already lowered back down to the more reasonable levels I’m used to.
Actually, it might be a bit faster than before…
But not to the point where I can produce 5000 beads in just a few minutes.
I remember that those inexhaustible streams of energy were still filling my meridians and flowing toward my dantian, right before I lost consciousness, so whatever caused it to stop must have happened in those eight seconds when I was unconscious.
As for my second magic rune, it has already gone back to normal, too.
And… I don’t feel quite as angry anymore.
I remember thinking earlier that there might be a few leftover descendants of the villagers who helped capture me, somewhere in this city, but that fact doesn’t really bother me, now. If it were Festus and Dane themselves, I could probably convince myself to actually make the effort to look for them and kill them, but their descendants can go and die on their own for all I care.
Right now, I just feel a bit… drained…
Almost like I felt after fighting Jodene and Shen Lei.
I also feel a bit concerned.
Since when do I derive pleasure from being hurt?
Being punched in the face was pleasurable.
Being struck by lightning was pleasurable.
What on earth was I doing?
And what’s with this stupid ‘game’ of mine?
Why would I focus on slaughtering irrelevant weaklings who represent absolutely no threat to me, when there are two very much threatening gods already going after my life? And letting that hostile god with the huge muscles strike me in the face repeatedly? Letting the other one skewer me with a thunderbolt?
Am I an idiot?
I think I might be an idiot.
That just makes no sense at all…
What is this?
If I had behaved like this in the Planar Tower – willingly letting my enemies land attacks on me – I would have been ripped to shreds a thousand times over.
Did I just lose my mind?
As far as I know, I haven’t had a single hallucination for more than two centuries. In fact, I firmly believe that my brain has already become immune to such a thing as ‘insanity’. I might have a few problems keeping my temper in check, sometimes, but it’s never been quite so bad as today.
If I hadn’t had the luck of being buried beneath countless tons of rubble, those two gods would have had a perfect opportunity to end me while I was unconscious.
Also, while I don’t mind killing people if they’re annoying or get in the way of my goals, I do need more of a reason than simply that it amuses me.
I’m not an indiscriminate monster.
…But more than all of that, more than stupidly risking my life or slaughtering innocents for fun, what really frightens me is that, for those few minutes, killing everyone around me somehow became higher on my list of priorities than finding Nerys.
And that, is unacceptable.
I feel a chill run down my spine as the next thought forms in my mind.
…What if this happens again when I find her?
Would I actually want to hurt Nerys?
Would I actually hurt her?
Would I actually enjoy hurting her?
I can’t let that happen.
No matter what.
A sudden sound interrupts this disturbing train of thought. I glance to the side to find Sanae skittering around my arm. Her body is slowly growing, her back pushing against the boulder pinning my limb to the ground.
I did ask her to try and free me.
I’ll have time to think about all of this later.
For now, let’s concentrate on getting out of this situation alive.
I need to either kill or escape from those two gods.
I very much doubt they’d just up and leave simply because I’ve been buried into the mine. I don’t really know who either of them are or why they want to kill me, but they definitely know about me. At least, that’s the feeling I got from the way that huge man was talking to and about me. Which means that they should know I’m able to survive this sort of situation. Even if they do believe I died, they’ll at least want to see my corpse to make sure.
When Sanae has grown up to twenty centimeters tall, the boulder finally shifts, and I quickly draw back my arm. I notice Sanae’s thin legs trembling under the strain of all that weight, so I quickly create pillars of ice around her to help lighten her burden. I need to make them extra dense to prevent them from just shattering instantly, but I’ve got energy to spare.
Far above me, the sound of collapsing and falling stone is growing fainter. The landslide must be slowly drawing to a close.
With my right arm freed, I reconstruct the left with more ice, then push against the boulder resting on top of my chest. I can’t actually lift it, but I do manage to slide it off me by shoving it to the side, though it painfully scrapes against my breasts when I do. I hear groans and cracks of breaking stone with every centimeters I gain, but it doesn’t worry me too much. Even if the pile of debris collapses again because of my moving things around, it won’t likely put me in a worse situation than I’m in now; I’ll just need to push them away again.
It takes me about half a minute of effort to let my upper body regain mobility, and with the leverage this gets me, I quickly free my tail, and then my legs, in only a few more seconds.
Then, I cradle my tail against my chest and gently try to massage away the ache, as Sanae looks at me impatiently, hopping from one side’s legs to another.
[…But it’s really sore.]
<Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.>
[…Fine, fine. I heard you already.]
I don’t blame Sanae for her ignominious, despicable, disgraceful callousness. Spiders don’t have tails, after all, so they can’t understand the feelings of beings that happen to be blessed with them. It’s not her fault that she’s shamefully, unforgivably, deplorably cruel and cold-hearted when it comes to…
[…All right. Shut up. I’m going.]
Swallowing a sigh, I look up at the debris piled up above me, then start moving.
Then, it’s just a matter of climbing through the cracks between the rubble. Fortunately, I’m very small, while the stones that formed the landslide are all enormous. Some have broken off in smaller fragments, but even those fragments are still vastly larger than I am, so I can usually find or widen those cracks and make my way upward without too much difficulty, though it would probably be a lot more difficult if I couldn’t see in this darkness as easily as I can in broad daylight. Sometimes, the rubble shifts on its own as the tremors of the landslide transmit through the debris above us, but that’s not enough to threaten my sense of balance.
All of this somewhat reminds me of that time when I got crushed under the corpse of a gigantic hydra demon, on the 177th floor of the Planar Tower. Except that I was underwater, then. And there were all those eel demons flitting around trying to kill me as I strove to escape. And the water was boiling hot. And acidic. And gravity was about sixteen times higher than on Caldera. And I had almost no blood-qi left.
Yes, compared to that time, today is still pretty tame, now that I think about it.
The landslide must have stopped by now.
I can’t hear anything around me, except for a few pebbles sometimes clattering down here and there.
The air smells clearer, here. I should be pretty close to the surface.
Sanae’s voice suddenly resounds in my mind as I climb. I don’t need any explanatory pictures to understand her meaning.
[…I’ll draw them to you, if needed.]
And what’s going on, here, by the way? Since when did we start listening to my opinion before killing people? Since when did I become the one to decide what we should do? The spider is usually the one with the brains, while I’m just someone whose sole experience in life consists of killing demons. And that doesn’t really help one make good choices…
Sanae seems to catch some of my thoughts because she unexpectedly decides to provide an answer to my concerns.
<Your world. Your decisions.>
[…You know more about my world than I do, though. Somehow.]
I only spent a negligible fraction of my life on Caldera, and it was so long ago that I forgot most of it, so my ignorance is understandable. But Sanae…
[…Did you visit Caldera before?]
With her reply comes a set of images I’ve already seen once before, when I asked Sanae where all the demons in the Tower came from. The images depict a vast underground cavern, whose floor is completely covered in a layer of small eggs, tiny white spiders crawling out of them under the watchful gazes of the bigger spiders I remember fighting on the Tower’s 51st floor.
Or at least, the birth of her kin, because there actually isn’t any black adamantine spider anywhere in this picture.
Those images aren’t directly related to my question, but I assume she’s implying that she stayed on the 51st floor ever since her birth, until I picked her up.
I keep climbing for a few more seconds, until I finally catch subdued starlight filtering through the cracks between two large rocks leaning against each other in precarious balance. I squeeze between them and finally reach the surface.
Smoke and stone dust are still hanging in the air, obscuring the sky, but I don’t need my sight to find my enemies.
My hearing is sufficient.
The voices of the two gods who attacked me earlier echo all the way down to my position. Judging by the distance, I imagine the two of them are standing on the edge of the mine pit, talking to each other.
My wounds still aren’t exactly healed, but I should be able to fight without suddenly bleeding out in the middle of my first kick. It’s not like I need lungs in order to kill people, anyway.
Then, let’s start…
Sanae quickly skitters down my leg and disappears into the debris beneath my feet, while my left arm abruptly grows large enough to grasp an elongated boulder roughly the size of one of the train’s boxes. I aim according to the source of the voices, and throw. The boulder shoots through the curtain of airborne dust, the wind of its passage creating a clean, clear tunnel of air behind it.
My aim is good.
The sound of the boulder shattering reaches me at the same time as the sound of the huge man grunting in pain.
I quickly follow after the boulder, bounding up the slope of the mine’s inside wall, and arrive on the lip of mine pit where the two gods were standing a few seconds ago. The huge man is sprawled face down on the ground a few meters away, while a thin man – the one called Orsino, presumably – stands protectively over him.
Orsino’s face tenses when he notes my arrival, and he quickly nudges the huge man with his foot.
“Haris, you might want to get up in a hurry,” he says.
The huge man grunts and does so, turning toward me as well. He looks visibly surprised for a moment, for some reason, before his expression smooths over into focused indifference. We watch each other silently for a few seconds, until I’m ready, and then I speak, as provocatively as I can – which probably isn’t much.
And at the exact same moment my voice appears in their minds – and hopefully grabs their attention – two spears of ice, growing down from the soles of my feet, suddenly explode out of the ground behind them, aiming straight for their backs.
Orsino dodges in time, but Haris is much bigger and consequently takes more time to start moving. The ice spear stabs into his flank, but only two or three centimeters deep, his reinforced skin diffusing most of its momentum.
“Vicious and underhanded! As I thought, you’re really no better than a common devil. But it’s too late to try and fight back. Your fate has already been sealed.”
“Where does that confidence come from, exactly?” Orsino mumbles on the side before suddenly floating off the ground and soaring up into the sky out of my direct reach.
“From this,” Haris replies, a pair of lamellar gauntlets appearing in his hands, presumably out of some sort of space storage – he’s not wearing any ring, but it could be a belt or a pendant, instead.
“An artifact?” Orsino’s voice resounds where he’d been standing a moment ago. “You were still holding back?! Why didn’t you use it earlier, when she was still letting you punch her in the face?!”
“This is a trump card,” Haris says, starting to slip his hands into the gauntlets.
“Damn it, you…! There’s a difference between pacing oneself and being a complete moron!”
“All right, shut up. Just cover me while I…”
Ignoring the discussion between the two, I rush at Haris when both his hands are busy – the fingers of one still trying to fit into a gauntlet, and the other tugging that same gauntlet into place – and Orsino immediately casts down lightning bolts at me to cover his companion’s idiocy.
I create several pockets of intensely cold air around me, a few meters out, which draw some of the lightning bolts away from their targets. As for those not lured by my ‘flares’, I watch out for electric streamers rising up from the ground to direct my steps and dodge Orsino’s attacks. The lightning bolts I can’t dodge, I either block with shields of ice or try to draw into the adamantine of my right arm and of my horn. A few crackling electric arcs make my muscles twitch a little as I stray too close to some of the lightning bolts raining down all around me, but I power through the volley and reach Haris in one piece.
“Shit! Haris, dodge!”
Haris himself is less flurried than Orsino, despite being the one facing my attack. I suppose he’s confident in his abilities in close combat. He simply stops tugging on his gauntlet and makes a backhand swipe at my head with his free hand.
I already experienced a measure of Haris’s strength earlier, so I know his blows are powerful – they have to be, to even think of damaging my body – and I’m not disappointed this time, either. His strike truly is powerful. When it comes to sheer explosive power, I am confident in what my centuries of body strengthening have given me, but it looks like this guy is even better, though it seems to be an effect of actual magic, rather than body strengthening, which should mean this strength isn’t a permanent condition, and he needs to draw upon his qi to maintain it.
Even before Haris’s hand reaches me, a wall of wind precedes it and slams into the side of my body.
Still, I do weigh several tons, after all, so it does little more than ruffle my hair. My body doesn’t even sway.
As for Haris’s hand itself, I easily duck underneath it.
His strength is good, yes…
But his technique is too simplistic, too direct. In fact, there isn’t really any technique to speak of. It’s easy to dodge as long as you have the slightest reflexes. And I do. He’s full of openings, too.
Is he just confident in the resilience of his body? Does he think he can take my blows?
That is bold.
Or rather, reckless.
Because I too am very confident in my abilities in close combat.
Haris’s strike passes harmlessly over my head, and he stands wide-open in front of me. Since he’s very tall, there is no way the claws of my right hand can reach any vital spot. So, without pause for breath – which I couldn’t take anyway, because my lungs still aren’t working – I channel more ice into my left arm, and an instant later, it’s already two meters long.
I see Haris’s knee start to move to knock me away, but this counter is a bit too belated to do any good.
I hold nothing back of my strength as my sharpened knuckles smash into his groin with the force of a cannonball.
Haris’s eyes bulge out almost comically, and his face pales, and with a small, strangled sound and a breathless little cry, the impact sends him flying into the distance, toward the Fushia City. The only disappointing thing is that he still firmly holds onto those mysterious gauntlets of his and fails to drop them.
With one opponent momentarily dealt with, I bid most of the ice making up my left arm to turn into a volley of spikes that shoot upward toward Orsino, who’s hovering about 100 meters up into the sky and still pelting me with his lightning bolts. I leap after those ice spikes myself and create more of them all around Orsino to prevent him from retreating. The range of my magic isn’t as absurd as it was a few minutes ago – it dropped back down to its usual levels after those eight seconds of unconsciousness – but it’s still more than enough to reach him all the way over there.
Orsino doesn’t let himself get hemmed in so easily, though.
With a sharp cry, he brings his hands close together, and a small sphere of compressed and controlled lightning coalesces between them. It’s barely a moment before the sphere explodes and expands, reducing all of my ice spikes to a wide cloud of white dust that sparkles under the starlight.
At the same time, two more lightning bolts shear through the air toward me, but crash into ice shields that explode on contact, only showering me with harmless ice fragments.
Even as I still rise through the air toward Orsino, I waste no time in spreading my soul power through that expansive cloud of white dust hanging all around him before it can dissipate. The cloud abruptly stagnates in mid-air, completely unmoved by the wind whipping around it, forming an obviously unnatural picture that draws Orsino’s attention.
Then, with an effort of will, my telekinesis – that white dust is almost weightless, so I don’t fear to use this ability here, even with my soul in its current weakened state – makes all those microscopic grains of ice shift and drift threateningly through the sky toward Orsino.
Even at just a glance, this cloud looks dangerous, and Orsino clearly doesn’t want to let it touch him. He raises a hand, and along with that simple motion, a massive tornado suddenly springs up into existence, already spinning fast around us. I assume that, in his haste to deal with the white cloud, he sacrificed control of his spell in favor of casting speed, otherwise he would probably have made that tornado smaller and more focused, to surround only himself rather than the both of us.
As the case may be, even if his tornado can’t protect him against me, it does successfully tear into the white cloud. When I see this happen, I don’t even try to compete against the pull of the tornado. I immediately release my control of the cloud and let it dissipate harmlessly.
Orsino looks quite satisfied at this result, but he probably doesn’t realize that this cloud of white dust really is nothing more than an aggregate of small ice crystals, without any hidden magic or mysterious effects or concealed traps. It might be a bit cold to stand inside the cloud, but it wouldn’t kill even a common mortal, let alone a god. The only purpose of this whole spectacle was to bring an obvious ‘danger’ to Orsino’s attention in order to force him to focus on neutralizing that danger, rather than on evading my approach.
In this, this small ploy of mine was very successful.
Because, when the cloud of white dust dissipates, my leap brings me into range of Orsino.
The satisfaction on his face instantly vanishes when he realizes his mistake, but by then, it’s too late to dodge.
My leg slices through the air in a sweeping kick.
Orsino raises his arm to block my attack. I see and feel the air coagulate in front of him in a solid protective wall, but I estimate I should be able to directly break through it and hit him.
Unexpectedly, however, when my blow connects with that wall, Orsino releases the air contained within it in a powerful explosion that sends both of us flying in opposite direction before my kick can reach his body. The blast leaves Orsino looking disheveled. A trickle of blood drips down from the corner of his mouth, and his left arm appears to be broken, but he’s still conscious and still airborne.
He might have injured himself with that explosion, but if he hadn’t done that, if he’d let the wall of air take the brunt of my blow, I would definitely have been able to kill him – his body doesn’t seem to have been subjected to any kind of reinforcement.
That guy is more troublesome than Haris…
I drop back down to the ground, sending cracks and fissures running through it for hundreds of meters, and look back up at my opponent, ready for his next move.
Orsino looks down at me for a second, and then –
– he clicks his tongue and suddenly shoots through the air like an arrow, away from me. Two seconds later, he’s already far, leaving the battlefield behind without looking back, his storm clouds and tornado quickly fading away to nothing.
He left just like this?
Didn’t he want to kill me?
It’s good to be careful, certainly, but… isn’t he a bit too timid?
Were his injuries more serious than they appeared, perhaps? He did suffer that explosion at very close range…
I stand there perplexed for a few moments, before turning toward Fushia City, where Haris fell.