Leading a normal life is not as easy as it sounds.
There are quite a lot of complicated yet meaningless rituals one has to go through. It’s all rather tedious.
Incidentally, since murdering people isn’t conducive to leading such a ‘normal life’ – I think – I’ve provisionally decided to spare Finram, for now, despite his threat against me. I suppose I’ll just kill him when he actually acts on his threats.
But yes. While sparing people’s lives when I otherwise would not is quite easy, it’s unfortunately not enough to consider myself as someone leading a normal life. And the other stuff is quite a lot more difficult.
Still, I try to do my best.
The first hurdle I met is that I appear to have lost the ability to express my emotions in any comprehensible form, which apparently makes me seem strange and alien to the people around me. I never really noticed myself, but Lilly told me that my expressionless face is actually quite conspicuous, and that my telepathic voice couldn’t get more cold and lifeless if I tried. Unfortunately, those are not problems I can fix with just a bit of casual effort. I attempted to form a smile, while in front of a mirror, but nothing really happened beyond a few vague twitches in my cheeks. It might have something to do with the injuries my face suffered from the frog godbeast’s acid, but it’s much too late for me to heal that, now. The damage has already set in. And as for my voice, well, I don’t really understand how I’m supposed to put something nebulous like ’emotion’ into it. My mental link to Sanae has long since been strong enough for her to pick up my background thoughts – emotions included – every time I speak with her, so I never met an occurrence in which she didn’t automatically understand what I was feeling at this particular moment.
So I ended up stumbling on the first hurdle.
But I’m not going to give up so easily. Surely, there are many normal people suffering from extensive facial nerve damage while also having flat voices. I don’t see why such a thing alone would prevent me from achieving a normal life.
The first step in the day of a normal person is to sleep until the sun rises.
This is necessary because both humans and majin apparently require several hours of sleep every day in order to function properly. Gods can ignore that need for a while, but eventually, they do need to rest as well.
Failure to do so for long enough will result in death.
As for me, sleep is only useful as a way to relax a strained and tired mind. Even then, while I did require such a thing in the past, my brain has gone through 300 years of strengthening, and few things can put any sort of strain on it.
And using magic.
But not all that much. I’ve been doing those for so long and with such regularity that they’ve become only slightly more mentally challenging than simply staying at rest. It would take a very difficult battle or a very complex and delicate spell to push my mind toward its limits.
That is to say, I don’t actually need much sleep at all.
But I did say I would make an effort.
So I just spend eight hours lying on a bed, waiting for the sun to rise and the humans in the house to wake.
It does give me time to devote to my body strengthening.
Right now, the sun is still hidden beyond the horizon. I can hear a few people up and about in the house – probably some of the maids – but I focus more on the torrent of blood-qi flowing through my meridians and on the familiar ache burning throughout my body.
I slowly sharpen myself into a better weapon.
I may have already left the Planar Tower, and I may be trying to live a normal life, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to discard my strength or give up my desire to become stronger.
After all, my objectives still haven’t been accomplished.
My work is still not done.
So it’s important to continue and make progress.
The incident in Fushia City was not a pleasant experience – for anybody, I reckon – but it did offer me some pleasant surprises. Even beyond the inexhaustible reserves of blood-qi I now possess, after experiencing the violence of the torrent of energy that flowed through them at the time, my meridians have all become noticeably larger. I can now channel much more blood-qi through them at any given time, and this in turn increases the maximum potency of my body strengthening and magic spells. Another change – one I didn’t expect and can’t really explain – is that the adamantine has climbed further up my limbs. In just those few minutes of madness, nearly three more centimeters of white flesh have turned into indestructible black metal. Going at its usual rate, this should have slowly taken place over 30 or 40 years of painstaking effort.
…I’m not going to complain, but I consider understanding how my own body works as something rather important to me, since it’s my main weapon. I’d really like to know how exactly this could have happened.
Well, it’s not like I don’t have any guesses about it…
My eyes still closed, I let my mind drift into my dantian and turn to look at the towering black rune floating in the void next to the glittering white one. It’s still spewing dark smoke, like always, but the mist around it seems slightly sparser than usual, for some reason.
Not enough for me to see what the word is, though.
In the 279 years I’ve had that rune in my dantian, I’ve never activated it. Not even once. I’ve never cast a single spell with it. It always coils around and plays with my soul, every time I get a bit agitated, but even though I was wary of it at first, this never seemed to affect me in any way, so I soon stopped paying attention to it and just let it do whatever it wanted.
Am I just overly suspicious in thinking that, maybe, this thing has something to do with what’s happening to me?
Still, there isn’t much I can do about it, even if that’s the case. I can’t just rip it out of my dantian. It’s a part of me, as much as the other rune next to it or the heart in my chest.
Turning away from the black rune, I glance down at my soul. The cracks running through it dating back to the battle against Jodene and Shen Lei are starting to heal. At this rate, my soul should be good as new in 4 or 5 more weeks. Fortunately, someone leading a normal life has no great need of telekinesis, so there is little risk of the injury worsening in the meantime.
A low, indistinct mumble suddenly rises up from behind me, and I turn toward Phineas. He’s still sleeping, but when I float closer to him, I notice that his eyes are moving behind his closed eyelids.
[…Are you awake?]
No answer is forthcoming even when I call out to him, so it seems he won’t be waking up just yet, but that was definitely a good sign. His dormancy should end pretty soon.
I have a lot of questions for him.
Cutting off the flow of blood-qi flowing through my meridians, I open my eyes and climb off the bed, the wooden floorboards creaking under my feet.
I shake the ache out of my limbs, then walk to the center of the room, where I won’t be bumping into anything fragile, and start stretching, testing the range of movement of each of my joints.
I didn’t suffer any permanent damage from the battle in Fushia City, but body strengthening will always minutely affect my strength, my speed, my weight, my balance. Since my muscles are strong enough to rip themselves away from my own bones if I’m not careful, it’s important to train regularly to know precisely what I can and can’t do with my body.
I slowly test the limits of my flexibility and adjust and calibrate the way I distribute and use my increased weight and strength.
I’m still in the middle of my exercises when I hear the pitter-patter of hurrying feet, rushing toward my room.
A few seconds later, the door bursts open.
“Akasha! Good morning! W–Woah! Doesn’t that hurt?”
I release the leg I’d brought over my head from the back and return to a normal standing posture.
Seeing Lilly blush while asking her question acts as a reminder, and I walk toward the wardrobe next to the bed and pick one of the outfits inside to put on. While I get dressed, careful not to snag the dress’s collar on the tip of my horn, Lilly says something stupid again.
“I want to do it too!”
Definitely. Her tendons and ligaments will absolutely break if she tries to imitate me. And then, Finram will have to die because I put his niece in danger or something.
“Really? Then, what else should we do?”
Contrary to what I’d expected of her considering her usual frivolous behavior, Lilly is actually quite assiduous in her own training. In the mornings, she’ll do some physical and practical work, while she’ll study more scholarly subjects in her afternoons.
She doesn’t seem to show as much progress as she would if she had demons threatening to eat her if she didn’t put everything she learned into immediate practice, but it’s still impressive enough.
I tend to forget it, since she looks older than I do, but that brat is only 13 years old. That’s pretty much the age I was when I was first trapped in the Tower, so it would be strange to expect of her as much skill as I can display now as a 291-year-old.
In fact, considering the level she’s reached so young and the rate at which she’s learning new things every day, she could definitely be stronger than me, 300 years later. After all, she’s not fumbling around, making mistakes left and right. Her training on magic is guided by Finram, and she also has tutors for the other disciplines she’s studying on the side.
The only advantage I have on her is that I’m older.
“So? What are you going to teach me today? Oh, but not magic! You don’t teach magic very well! I couldn’t understand your lesson at all, yesterday.”
[…I don’t have anything to teach.]
“Of course you do! Uncle Finram said that, even without magic, you’re really strong! You can teach me that!”
[…300 years of body strengthening.]
“Waaah… That’s too much. Humans can’t live that long, you know? But you practice some sort of martial arts, right? How about you teach me your secret techniques? I’ll be your first disciple!”
Lilly takes up a funny-looking stance in front of me, like she’s preparing to fight, but her balance is a mess. She’d get tired really fast if she stood like this for more than a minute or two, and I could trip her with just a slight push, so I’m not sure what it’s supposed to accomplish.
Confuse the opponent, maybe?
[…I don’t have secret techniques, though.]
Lilly drops her strange stance and peers at me suspiciously, rubbing her chin. “Are you sure? Doesn’t everyone strong have secret techniques? Uncle Finram says he has dozens, but he doesn’t want to teach them to me. Because they’re secret.”
…That certainly makes a lot of sense.
“How do you fight, then, if you don’t have secret techniques?”
[…Stab the eyes. Tear the throat. Crush the legs. Dodge what’s lethal. Weather what’s not.]
That should be it, really.
The important point is to know when to do which one of those.
Although, I suppose I don’t exactly follow these rules all the time, either. Thinking about it, my fighting style should simply be ‘destroy the opponent and save energy, no matter what the means’. But that’s not very specific, so I thought it’d be better to give some actual advice Lilly can use, instead.
“Hmm. That sounds really violent,” Lilly says. Quite accurately. “I don’t think I want to do that. And that also sounds really painful. Aren’t you telling me to not dodge when the attack isn’t lethal? Wouldn’t I get hurt a lot?”
[…Yes. To save energy.]
Lilly blinks at that. “What? Isn’t it better to be a little more tired, rather than be slashed by a sword or be hit by a spell?”
Said like this, my advice does sound kind of stupid.
But in my experience, it’s better to be injured a bit, rather than needlessly waste energy. It’s always possible to heal from non-lethal wounds once the battle is over, but once energy runs out in the middle of a fight, the only fate is death.
Still, I don’t think it’s wrong for Lilly to refuse my advice.
[…It wouldn’t work for humans. You’re too fragile.]
I can only allow myself to be struck and stabbed and sliced willfully because I know my body can take it. My limbs won’t be cut off. My brain won’t be pierced through. My bones won’t break.
“Eeeeeeeeh. So we’re back to the 300 years of body strengthening?”
[…Don’t fight like me. Just use ranged magic.]
“Oh, that’s better! I really don’t want to be hit by swords! Well, actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t want to fight at all, but uncle Finram says I should be able to defend myself.”
Lilly shrugs. “I don’t know. Since we have a lot of money, can’t I just hire a super strong mercenary to protect me?” Then, something seems to occur to her as she stares at me with glittering eyes. “Hey, Akasha, you’re a mercenary, right? And you’re super strong, right? How about you become my bodyguard and protect me?”
I have more important things to do.
Lilly pouts and looks at me sulkily. “Tch. Well, if I’m going to learn magic, then I have to go see Uncle Finram. Do you want to come with me?”
Lilly’s mood abruptly brightens again and her usual smile reappears on her lips. “All right! Let’s go!”
And without a pause for breath, she pounces on me and hauls me out of my room after her to follow her to her lessons.
After Finram’s lessons on magic, Lilly takes a break to eat and spend some time with her father and mother.
I realize eating is part of a normal life, but since it would be worse than useless for me – it would waste energy without any sort of benefit to offset it – I decided to forgo that part.
Instead, I just go the library and read.
There are many, many books, here, and while there is some overlap with those I found in the library of the house where the Springfields stopped over during the trip to Fushia City, most other books I’ve never read before.
I mostly ignore fiction books and stories to focus more on whatever will bring me data about the world. And slowly, I fill in the gap in my knowledge those 279 years have created inside me.
During the afternoon, Lilly too comes to the library, as this is the place where she takes her more theoretical lessons with her other tutors – they come one by one, depending on what Lilly is scheduled to study that day.
Most of these people are clearly a bit uncomfortable to see me there listening to them and asking them questions alongside their actual student – even more so than Finram was the first time I accompanied Lilly when she was learning magic from him – but they dutifully answer everything I ask of them, so I have no reason to complain.
And like this, the afternoon of a normal person passes peacefully.
Late in the evening, two maids accompany me back to my room.
I’m not exactly certain why they insist on following me. Maybe they’re afraid that I’d get lost in the various intersecting corridors. Or maybe it’s just a human custom to do things this way.
When they wish me a good night and the door closes behind me, I hear their footsteps recede in the distance, along with their whispering voices.
“How scary! That child really has scary eyes!”
“I know. When she looks at you, it feels like your soul is going to be ripped from your body. Or like a wild beast is staring at you.”
“And those scars are really terrifying. I wonder what happened to her.”
“I hear that she’s…”
Every day, I hear the comments of the people around me, who apparently don’t realize that my hearing is sharp enough to record everything going on in this house, down to the pattern of everyone’s breathing and the rate of their heartbeat.
I’m not sure if I should answer the concerns they voice.
Should I tell them that my magic does not, in fact, allow me to rip the soul from the dantians of my enemies? But that I wish it could, because that would be very convenient?
Shaking my head, I walk to the wardrobe and take off the dress I’m wearing, carefully smoothing the wrinkles in the fabric and hanging it back on its hook.
When I close the wardrobe again, my reflection on the mirror set into its front enters my eyes.
Do I look that scary?
Wouldn’t it depend on personal sensibilities?
Lilly doesn’t seem to find me scary.
Although I suppose she just focuses on my tail and my ears and just ignores the rest, so she may not be the most representative sample I could find.
But I don’t think I look scary, either.
My eye isn’t scary at all. On the contrary, the fact that it glows so brightly means that everyone can know where I am, even in the deepest darkness. Isn’t a conspicuous threat more comforting than an invisible one? And my scars aren’t scary at all. They’re the proof that I can be hurt. Isn’t a vulnerable threat more comforting than an invincible one?
I wonder if Nerys would find me scary?
Now I’m getting worried.
It’s true that I don’t look at all like I did when I was young. And I don’t act at all like I did when I was young.
Is there even a shred of the old me left?
Yes, there is. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to find Nerys in the first place.
Or would I?
279 years ago, I needed something to keep me going, in order to escape the Tower, so I deeply carved this objective into my mind and clung to it as hard as I could.
‘Find Nerys again’.
But did I even care anymore – actually, truly care – when I was on the 100th floor, on the 158th floor, on the 191st floor?
Did I kill the demons around me and go down the stairs to the next floor so that I would meet Nerys because I loved her and wanted to see her again, or did I just do so because that is what I did?
Is there even any real emotion left, or am I just mechanically going through the motions?
Isn’t the best proof of that the fact that I’ve even forgotten my father’s face? I try not to think about it, but if I’m perfectly honest with myself, didn’t my own father become little more than an afterthought to me?
It makes sense.
Would anyone be able to stay as motivated to accomplish her objectives as I still seem to be, even after spending so many years failing to see any noticeable progress?
Their anger would fade. And their love, as well. They’d stop missing their friends and family, after some time.
Then I should…
<STOP! OVERTHINKING! THINGS!>
Sanae’s voice suddenly explodes inside my mind, so loud that it sends me reeling back a few steps.
Is this how it feels when I’m shouting into someone’s mind?
I can understand why they don’t like it…
I turn toward her, standing on the sill of the open window. She probably just came back from her hunt – she doesn’t share my newly inexhaustible reserves of energy, so she needs to regularly go out and find some demons to eat.
I must have been really lost in thought, to not even notice her coming back.
[…I’m not overthinking. I’m just thinking.]
[…Are you telling me to just plain stop thinking, now?]
[…Could it be that you see me as some sort of brainless idiot?]
And how inaccurate, too.
[…I just didn’t think in the past because there was no need to think.]
I just needed to kill and survive. But things are different, now. Enemies are much scarcer. I have some leisure to think about what I should do.
Images of horse-mounted bandits, of warriors on a train, and of two gods punching me in the face and throwing lightning bolts at me.
<Enough peace. Go. Kill.>
[…I’m trying to live a normal life. It’s important. Killing things would undermine that.]
Sanae hops closer to me.
<Too early. And…>
A maelstrom of emotions suddenly bursts into my mind. I recognize them as my own, seen from Sanae’s point of view. There is always that dark anger in the background, of course. But in the forefront is a restlessness, an urge, an impulse, steadily growing stronger.
Seeing what I feel so clearly exposed makes the actual emotions inside me surge up with more clarity, as if in resonance. My breathing becomes a bit rougher, and I clench my fists tightly to suppress the tremor shaking them.
<Need to vent. Soon.>
I grit my teeth, but I don’t deny her words.
I’m perfectly aware of it myself.
I’ve been trying this ‘normal life’ thing for barely a week, and I can already feel that need. Something akin to hunger. I see it as good training for my mental fortitude and do my best to carefully keep control of my actions despite it.
I’ve been mostly successful so far.
But it’s getting worse.
This place is too peaceful.
No tension. No danger. No enemies.
Peace and safety.
Normally, it would be fine – probably – without enemies to kill, but what’s compounding the problem is that I’m not moving.
I know I’m not wasting my time.
But it still feels like I am, deep inside.
I need a clearer objective than just ‘act like a normal person’. And then, I need to move toward that objective. Idleness isn’t working out very well for me.
<Simple. Find. Nerys.>
[…No. Not as long as I can’t control myself well enough.]
<Gradually. Now, too early.>
[…You don’t know that.]
<I do. Proof. Here.>
Once again, the maelstrom of emotions bursts into my mind, and I flinch away from it.
<Leave here. Then it stops.>
At my hesitation, a strange, ghostly sigh seems to sweep through my brain before Sanae’s voice rings out once more. <Look.>
In my mind, a blank white figure appears, the word ‘Akasha’ written on its face. Around this figure, a landscape slowly forms, and the figure starts running around, frantically looking everywhere, in piles of dead leaves, inside hollow fallen logs. Then the figure enters a deserted village and starts looking inside the houses, lifting buckets and opening drawers left and right.
[…What is this?]
<You. Searching. Nerys.>
[…I don’t think Nerys is small enough to fit underneath an overturned bucket.]
In my mind, the pictures change again, and this time, a second figure appears in the distance. This one has the word ‘Nerys’ written on its face. The Nerys figure goes about its business and lives its life, while the Akasha figure follows it around, hiding behind tree trunks and inside barrels and atop rafters.
[…That makes me look really dangerous, somehow. Like a predator stalking its prey.]
Then, the Akasha figure suddenly grows bigger and the words ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, ‘sane’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘not a mass murderer’ appear everywhere on its body. When this happens, it stops hiding and abruptly rushes directly toward the Nerys figure, dropping onto one knee thirty meters out and sliding the rest of the way while keeping this position. The earth explodes around its grounded knee like a bow wave before a speeding ship, and a bouquet of wilted flowers, their roots still dirty with earth, suddenly appears in its hands out of nowhere. Upon seeing this, the Nerys figure claps jubilantly, then the sun abruptly sets halfway down the horizon and the two walk hand in hand toward it.
[…Um. Maybe. I’m not sure.]
Basically, if I try to trim the nonsense from those images, all it says is that I should find Nerys right away, but hide from her and only appear when I’ve managed to gain perfect control of myself.
Well, it’s not like I never considered doing this, but…
It’d never work.
[…I’ll never resist the temptation to talk to her.]
I’ve waited for 279 years. If I see Nerys suddenly appear in front of me, I won’t be able to simply hide and wait and look at her from a distance.
In response to my concerns, the images rewind, the scene returning to the point where the Akasha figure is about to slide over the ground toward the Nerys figure with flowers in its hands.
Except, this time, a spider figure with the word ‘Sanae’ on it abruptly appears next to the Akasha figure and cuts its legs out from under it, black blood spraying everywhere. The Akasha figure doesn’t seem to particularly mind, and starts furiously crawling toward the Nerys figure. This seems to infuriate the spider, as it starts to repeatedly stab the Akasha figure, driving its bladed legs right through its back and pinning it to the ground to prevent it from moving.
[…Isn’t that a bit excessive?]
[…This isn’t doing much to convince me to accept your plan.]
[…What? I’m not whining. You’re whining.]
<No. You are.>
[…No. Times infinity.]
[…You’re the idiot.]
And finally, Sanae keeps her silence, not deigning to give an answer to that. Which makes this profound debate my uncontested victory.
Still, this stupid spider makes a good point.
Even if she doesn’t go as far as cutting off my legs and stabbing me in the back, she could stop me. She’s strong enough for it.
And wouldn’t it be easier to lead a normal life if I know Nerys is safe and sound and that I can see her whenever I want – even if I can’t actually speak to her?
That would do a lot for my peace of mind.
I open my right hand and look at the faint shaking in its black fingers.
I sigh inwardly.
I need to start moving again, or I’ll go crazy.
[…All right. I’ll leave.]
Let’s put aside this attempt at a normal life, for now.
It was more a failure than not, but I can try again later.
Let’s continue looking for Nerys, then.
[…Be ready to rip my legs off and pin me to the ground.]