(That’s right. It’s me. I apologize for the delay, but…) Phineas looks down at himself. (I’m all better, now. Every bit of damage has been fixed.)
His soul was injured.
I’m not quite sure what he’s so proud of, though.
He spent more than 2 centuries healing, but I don’t remember his soul being too broken, either. I’m not sure why it was so difficult and time-consuming for him to do so. My own soul was in a much worse state than his own, after the incident with the demon-sealing stone. There were even cracks running through it, as if it would shatter at the slightest of touches. And yet, it only took me a few months to heal completely. There might be circumstances I don’t understand, though. Phineas is a soul mage, so he should be more of an expert on the subject than I am.
(You look… different,) Phineas continues when I remain silent, his gaze flicking up and down over me, examining my soul’s appearance, and the scars crisscrossing all over it. (I’m guessing a lot must have happened since I started sleeping.)
Phineas sighs. (I sympathize. But rest easy, I’m here to help, now. So? Which floor are we on? What can I do?) His gaze becomes blurry and distant, as if he’s looking at a faraway scenery. (I can’t see any demons through your eyes, but I assume there must be some somewhere, right? If you can describe them to me, I might be able to give you their characteristics. Maybe I’ll know their weaknesses. Could be useful.)
I think there has been a misunderstanding of some sort, here.
[…We’re not in the Planar Tower.]
Phineas blinks and his eyes focus back onto me. (What?)
(Caldera? What caldera? You mean, Caldera, the plane? This is Caldera?) Phineas asks, his surprise evident in his voice. (Really? You’ve already escaped Miroslav’s Tower?)
(Really? Truly? Honestly?) I nod again, once for each of his questions, and Phineas looks at me with a strange gaze. (Ah, I see,) Phineas says, nodding to himself. (You found an exit before the 199th floor?)
This time, I shake my head.
[…I left through the teleport formation on the 199th floor.]
Phineas’s white eyebrows climb up toward his hairline. (Impressive! Most impressive! I would have thought escaping the Tower would take centuries. I didn’t anticipate it would actually be over and done by the time I woke up.)
Well, he’s not too far from it. Only a few months earlier, and he would have caught me on the last floor.
[…It did take centuries.]
(Yes, but not even 3 of them. I expected 7 or 8. 6, at the very least. But this is truly quite an achievement! In fact, I daresay you’re the very first person to pass each and every floor, ever. If Miroslav were still alive, he’d probably be biting on his handkerchief in impotent rage. Hahaha! Just the thought of it is enough to put me in a good mood. Hahahaha!)
I watch Phineas laugh loudly for a few seconds, but when he sees that I’m not joining in, his mirth quickly fades, and he clears his throat. Awkwardly.
(Ahem. Anyway. Good, good,) Phineas says, rolling back and forth on his heels – except he’s floating in the void, so the movement looks a little strange. (Though, I feel kind of useless, now. It’s like there was this huge story I could have been a part of, but I fell asleep at the beginning and missed all the good parts.)
[…There were no good parts.]
(Oh, of course. I apologize. But you certainly grew, didn’t you? I mean, not in size or anything; you still look as childish – young, I mean. Youthful,) he quickly amends when I stare unblinkingly into his eyes. (What I’m saying is, your soul is really powerful, for your age. Almost unbelievably so.)
Phineas nods. (That’s right. Didn’t you rip a boulder out of the ground with telekinesis, just earlier? Telekinesis is a 4th-rank god’s power. To achieve that rank in less than 300 years is… phenomenal. Monstrous, even.) He rubs his chin thoughtfully. (Actually, I would go so far as saying ‘impossible’, but it clearly happened, so…)
[…How old are normal 4th-rank gods?]
(Well, that really depends. Something like… 1000 years old? There are differences depending on individual talent and the quality of one’s breathing technique, but 300 years is still way too short. That’s almost the time it took me to become a 1st-rank god – though it’s somewhat embarrassing to say that about myself.)
Huh? Now that I think about it…
[…How did you survive so old as a mortal human?]
Humans have only a short window available to become gods. The very oldest a mortal human can live is something like 200 years. Beyond that, even a 9th-rank warrior, with the improved health and resilience that comes with the rank, will simply die of old age. But I remember Phineas telling me he became a god at 233 years old. How is that possible?
(Ah, that’s a long and boring story,) Phineas says, waving his hand. (In short, my teacher gave me some medicinal pills to increase my lifespan, so that I would achieve godhood before it ran out.)
My interest has been roused.
Nerys must become a god, so that she won’t have to age and die. I have no doubt she’ll be able to do so effortlessly, since she’s the greatest person in the universe, but the very existence of godhood is supposed to be a secret, on this plane. If Nerys doesn’t even know it’s possible to reach further heights than just the warrior ranks, it might be a blind spot that would be difficult to see past, even for her.
(Rejuvenation pills. The Rebirth pill’s scrawny, retarded cousins. Well, they’re still insanely expensive, but my teacher didn’t want one of his students to actually fail his apotheosis in such a way. It would have been a stain on his record; people would have doubted his ability to teach his disciples. Which didn’t stop him from kicking me out of the sect as soon as I actually became a god and he could do so without losing face. Can you believe this?) he asks as he begins to pace back and forth in front of me. (I can admit my genius is not geared toward cultivating a breathing technique, but I also believe I’m quite justified when I say that this old bastard had a part of responsibility in this. The breathing technique he told me to study just wasn’t appropriate for a soul mage! Soul magic is an intricate and delicate discipline which requires…)
[…Just ignore him.]
I know their recipe, and I suppose they’d be appropriate to increase Nerys’s lifespan, but I don’t have at hand the ingredients necessary to manufacture one, and I’m not likely to find them on Caldera.
Well, I suppose it’s not a priority, anyway, since I do have one Rebirth pill left – which also increases lifespan, though it’s not the focus of its purpose. If that’s not enough to satisfy Nerys’s needs, I’ll improvise something then. Maybe a ritual to transfer some of my life to her…
(…when I decided that enough was enough, and I struck! And what a glorious strike it was! I can tell you that he dearly regretted talking to me this way. But he had only himself to blame! He should have known better than to infuriate a soul mage such as I! It was only afterward, though, that I realized I had been duped. He was certainly dead, but his sworn sister, Roxanne, had surreptitiously exchanged…)
Phineas did tell the truth, though.
It is a long and boring story.
Very, very long.
I’m a 4th-rank god, then?
Just because I developed telekinesis?
I thought the amount of qi one refined defined one’s rank. Though I suppose the strength of one’s soul slowly increases in tandem with cultivation, so it’s not completely stupid to use it as a measuring stick. Except I don’t cultivate, per se, so where does that leave me?
I don’t really feel like I am a 4th-rank god, though. I’m not sure how it would even feel to be a 4th-rank god. I’ve certainly seen my combat ability grow a lot, these past centuries, but that’s because I trained and because I devoured more and more demons. My magic became easier to use; I gathered enough energy to cast bigger and deadlier spells, with longer range. My body became almost unbreakable and almost unstoppable. My soul became able to talk to Sanae and reach outside my own body to affect my environment. But there was never a day when something shifted inside me and I said to myself that this was it, that I’d just become a 2nd- or 3rd- or 4th-rank god.
What rank were the gods I fought, then? Orsino and Haris and that worthless little brat? Were they 4th-rank gods, too? It all seems very arbitrary to me, as if people decided that slapping numbers on things would make them easier to understand, except it didn’t. It only confuses things even more.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter, though. Let alone rankings and such, strength in itself is only a means to an end. A resource. Bothering myself with ways to classify it and give it names and levels is a waste of time. As long as my goals are accomplished, it doesn’t matter in the least if I accomplish them as a common mortal or as a 1st-rank god or as an overgod. I’m not idle and aimless enough to pursue a higher rank just for a higher rank’s sake.
Phineas’s blathering is interrupted when I call him – I invoke my powers as the owner of my dantian to drown his soul’s voice with mine – but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. He probably was no more listening to himself than I was.
(Yes? What is it? Do you have another question?)
He looks at me, eyes shining, as if he just can’t wait to drown me under more pointless information.
But I do have more questions.
With a wave of my hand – my actual hand, of my physical body – a part of the loot I retrieved from the Tower, some of the items Miroslav left as presumable gifts to the challengers of the Planar Tower that reached beyond the 100th floor, appear in front of me, lined up on the floor of the cave.
I have a bunch of questions, indeed.
I take a step and kneel down in front of the first item. It’s a book titled ‘Polynomial Sixth-degree Advanced Formations’. I open it and quickly flip the pages to the one related to my question.
(What is this?) Phineas asks as he witnesses my action, his face openly curious and interested.
I quickly arrive at the incriminating page and point the specific sentence I’d kept in a corner of my mind, in case I met someone capable of addressing my doubts. […This is a book. It says that formations with 6 degrees of complexities and above cannot output any greater energy-unit effect than what was sacrificed in input, discounting qi employed to power the formation itself. Why is the qi used as an energy source for the formation discounted? If it’s discounted, why does it take more of it to start up the formation than it should, based on the formation’s outer complexity level?]
Phineas blinks once, then twice.
I repeat my question.
It’s true that it’s somewhat tiring to speak so many words at once – and I even have to repeat myself. But it would be difficult to explain my problem to Phineas without a minimum of verbosity.
Upon hearing my question, Phineas starts sweating. Which is strange, because my dantian should be cold, considering the huge ‘ice’ word floating toweringly above our heads.
(Um… Wait, can you flip to the previous page? I want to read the whole section before… giving you my opinion on the subject…)
It takes a long time for Phineas to read the whole section.
I suppose he’s a slow reader.
This is forgivable. Books on magic formations are quite abstruse. They always use complicated words. If it weren’t for the diagrams and drawings next to the text, they would be almost impossible to decipher. Even for me, after spending several hundred years reading those books over and over again, it was only recently that I stopped being baffled by the more arcane sorts, like reality marbles and space-time interference formations.
Eventually, Phineas’s reading concludes, and he nods to himself, his eyes closed in contemplation. (Yes. Quite. Hu-uh. This volume certainly brings up some interesting points. Let me meditate on the subject for a few moments, will you? I need to formulate my explanation in a way that you can understand. In the meantime, do you have any other question? Don’t hesitate to ask.)
I turn to the second item. It’s another book. This one’s title is ‘Rune Etymology – Doubts and Studies of Ancient Eashiri – Volume 13’. I once again flip the pages until I find the one that interests me, then point to one of the Ancient Eashiri characters drawn on the page, formed of 157 strokes compressed into a single word.
It certainly isn’t as simple as my 冰, a word simple and clear enough with its 6 strokes to be casually used in contemporary Eashiri without overheating the brains of anyone reading it.
I wonder if anyone, anywhere, has a rune with 157 strokes in their dantian, and what magic it’d produce. The people in question wouldn’t even be able to understand the meaning of their magic, unless they studied Ancient Eashiri. That would be interesting. I wonder if my black rune is something like that, too?
In any case…
[…This says that this character, which means ‘something that rises from its ashes after being destroyed a thousand times’, shares roots with this other character, which means ‘something that is not expected to win, yet does’. But they don’t have any strokes in common. Every other two characters that share roots have strokes in common. Why?]
Phineas has closed his eyes, frowning thoughtfully. He’s nodding to himself again. I guess, this time, he doesn’t need to read the book himself to understand my issue.
(Yes, I see what you mean. Hey! What is that, over there? Clothing? Why do you have clothing piled up here? Do you have questions about this, too? Please, do ask me! Go ahead, that’s what I’m here for! Don’t hesitate, by all means!)
Without answering my question on the etymology of the Ancient Eashiri characters, Phineas suddenly points to the other end of the piled up items, beyond the books I lined up on the floor.
I suppose we can return to my more theoretical questions later.
I walk down the line of item and pick up the strange, tough black suit, which Sif unsuccessfully tried to tailor to my size, back in the Planar Prison.
(What is this thing? In fact, what is all this stuff? Where did you find books on those subjects? Did you ransack the hideout of a renowned scholar or something?)
[…In the Tower. After the 100th floor, there was one item at the end of each floor.]
Phineas looks dumbfounded. (Really? Miroslav, that greedy, stingy scum, actually gave out rewards for people making it this far? Well, color me surprised…)
[…You didn’t know?]
Phineas shakes his head, his eyes unfocused, clearly examining the piece of clothing in my hand through my own senses. (Not at all. And that doesn’t sound like him, let me tell you. I guess he only put them there as a form of personal satisfaction, to taunt the challengers even if they weren’t aware they were being taunted. He must have been really confident no one would ever make it to the point where he’d have to hand over anything valuable.)
[…Do you know what this is?]
I unfurl the suit, and it appears in front of me in its full height, trailing on the floor of the cave. It doesn’t look any different from before. The gray highlights on the black fabric are almost invisible in the gloom of the cave, but they reflect a bit of light when I knead the cloth between my fingers.
Phineas’s eyes bulge when he sees it. (Oooooh, is that what I think it is?)
[…I don’t know.]
Even in my dantian, I can’t read Phineas’s mind. He’s not Sanae.
(No, sorry. That was a rhetorical question.)
(And for the record, I do think it is what I think it is.)
(This is really inexplicable, though! Why on earth did Miroslav put this thing up as a reward to the climbers of his Tower? Was he mad? Inexplicable!) Phineas shakes his head for a minute, repeating ‘Inexplicable!’ a few more times. (On which floor did you find it?)
Phineas looks abruptly enlightened. (I see. Yes, I’m absolutely certain he never intended to give that to anyone. I’m convinced he must have been cursing people in his mind the whole time. ‘Oooh, just a few floors up and you’d find all of my most precious treasures, but too bad you can’t do it, huh, idiots?’ He probably thought that way as he watched the contenders struggle and fail in the lower floors… Damn, that old bastard was really cruel and unreasonable. What a twisted hobby.)
Phineas continues narrating stories about Miroslav and insulting him every few sentences, but while I do agree with his opinion of him – there is no way I’m going to forgive the person who created the prison that held me for so long – I have better things to do than listen to this nonsense.
[…So, what is this thing?]