So. If I follow what Phineas is saying, once I’ve attuned to this black suit, I should be able to use it as a replacement for the maid outfit I lost during the battle in Dorn, yes?
It is something of a problem that this is going to take me years of slowly grinding at it though. Which will only start once I’ve found that energy core, even. Which I haven’t.
I wish it could be faster.
When a thorny issue presents itself, a friendly spider comes to the rescue.
For some reason, Phineas reacts rather violently when Sanae’s voice echoes in my dantian. He looks around himself frantically, trying to determine where it came from.
I’m a little surprised he can hear Sanae’s voice in the first place, but I suppose that, since he resides in my dantian, it’s not that surprising that he’d be able to experience the effects of the link between Sanae’s soul and my own.
[…Yes. Make this artifact attune faster.]
If Phineas told the truth, I suppose this could be considered quite the unreasonable request, but since Sanae offered her assistance, then it must mean she’s confident she can do something. I’ve never known her to make empty boasts. I’ve never known her to fail at anything she’s ever tried, either.
So this should be fine, too, surely.
Receiving my assent, Sanae skitters over to the black suit, and her tiny body disappears among its folds.
Then, nothing happens.
…I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but I at least expected something. Is she just hiding inside? Tentatively, I send a tendril of soul force after Sanae, to see what she’s doing – if she’s doing anything. I find her in the middle of the bundle of cloth, standing perfectly still. Tiny qi fluctuations, which would remain undetectable if I wasn’t focusing my senses on this single location, emanate from her body, keeping to a strange, pulsing rhythm.
Qi fluctuations mean she’s using her blood-qi, not her soul force. Didn’t Phineas say that one should use the latter to attune to an artifact? Or is Sanae doing something different, here?
This continues for several minutes. Since I have no idea what she’s doing, I don’t interrupt her and simply watch. In my dantian, Phineas too is silent, borrowing my senses to watch the proceedings. He’s so focused I’m pretty sure I could punch him in the face, and he wouldn’t even notice.
…Is it that interesting?
Eventually, the tiny qi fluctuations radiating from Sanae disappear altogether. Without doing anything more, she crawls out of the folded black suit and climbs up my body toward her usual place in my eye socket.
Take the suit, you mean? Has anything changed about it?
My head full of questions, I stoop down and reach out for the black suit. I turn it this way and that, rubbing its fabric between my fingers.
I don’t notice anything different from before.
I grabbed the black suit with my fake left hand, just to be safe, but it looks like this was unnecessary paranoia. My right hand is made out of adamantine, so I suppose I could be more confident in its invulnerability, but with a so-called ancient artifact, I felt it was better not to be too arrogant.
This time, the moment the fingertips of my right hand brush against the black suit, a jolt runs up my arm, almost like a burst of electricity – though it would have to be powerful electricity indeed to pass through so much adamantine and still have such an effect on me. When I’m about to draw my hand back, the black suit abruptly liquefies and surges up like a wave, jumping onto my hand and slithering up my arm. Like a snake, it crawls upward until it reaches my neck and coils around it. Fortunately, it doesn’t squeeze or try to strangle me and only rests there, like one of the collars the prisoners wore in the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. It fits snugly, but it’s not actually constricting.
Then, I feel a thin stream of what seems to be soul force – it shouldn’t be, though; how could an object, no matter how ancient, possibly have a soul? – quest out of the collar toward my dantian. This stream of energy instantly penetrates my dantian’s shell, and an explosion of new knowledge suddenly rocks my mind.
Is this what Phineas meant, earlier, when he said I would automatically learn how to control the artifact?
(Did… whatever the spider did… do anything?) Phineas says, returning my speculative gaze with one of his own.
Instead of answering his question, I gently touch the black collar around my neck and will it into the shape I want it to take. It’s not quite as easy as simply imagining the form it should take – there’s a specific pattern the ‘message’ has to follow for the artifact to understand my intentions – but with the knowledge I inherited from it and my strengthened mind and soul, the process still doesn’t present much difficulty. Following my instructions, the collar returns to its liquid-like form and expands, flowing down my chest and my back and quickly covering my whole body.
…That feels really strange. Not unpleasant, exactly, but it’s certainly not a sensation I’ve ever experienced before.
Once the black fluid has conformed to the shape I desire, it coagulates once again into its fabric, leather-like form.
I didn’t turn it into a maid outfit. Maid outfits are more practical than a lot of other clothes I’ve seen people wear – some seem so ridiculously complicated and impractical I can’t even guess at the reason anyone would ever put them on – but they’re still not exactly the best-suited for combat. They’re not form-fitting enough. They give too many potential holds for enemies to grab. With regular fabric, it wouldn’t be much of a problem, since it’d rip before being able to move the several tons my body weighs, but this black suit is apparently much tougher than that. Someone with enough arm strength could catch onto it and use it to throw me or break my balance in the middle of a fight.
Dangerous, that. My long hair is bad enough on that point without adding another vulnerability I need to keep track of.
Which is why I’ve commanded the black suit to form just that: a suit. It’s made of a single, seamless piece, and it’s tight enough to prevent people from directly grabbing it. It doesn’t cover my head, though. That would be too cloying, and my long hair, as inconvenient as it can be, is also quite useful to feel the shifting of air currents around me – especially now that my skin is covered up and I can’t feel the wind on it. I also left my ice arm free, since I often warp it into different shapes or even destroy it. Even though I could shift the suit around it to always fit it, the delay of sending my instructions to the suit while in battle would be undesirable, so I’ll refrain. Finally, the suit also doesn’t cover my adamantine claws, since blunting my best weapons wouldn’t be very wise.
I stretch experimentally, testing to see if the range of my movements has been affected. I quickly discover it has not. The suit isn’t actually flexible. It doesn’t actually stretch with me when I move. Instead, it grows to fill in the difference. I can feel the material slide over my skin to adjust to me, almost like it’s alive. And then, it shrinks right back when I return to a normal position.
Next, I sharpen the fingers of my left hand and slash at my own leg. The ice blades slide against the black fabric, leaving not even a single trace behind. I felt the impact of the fingers hitting against my leg, but I couldn’t cut through the suit to reach the skin underneath.
…It’s certainly a lot tougher than the maid outfits that were always turned to shreds as soon as combat started. But what about adamantine, then? Phineas said the suit likely wouldn’t be able to resist, but I should probably test it out. I’ve never met any other creature that possessed adamantine weapons, but that doesn’t mean I never will. Better to discover my limits here and now, while my life doesn’t depend on it.
I press an adamantine claw onto the surface of the suit. I do it a lot more gently than when I used my ice claws, just in case, to avoid injuring myself. Which turns out to be a good idea, as the claw’s point easily pierces through the fabric and pricks my skin.
I retract my finger, and the sides of the hole I made start crawling toward each other, thin black threads squirming like worms and linking with each other. In just a few seconds, the suit is fixed, leaving behind not the slightest trace of the damage it sustained.
(So? What do you think?) Phineas asks when he sees I’m done trying everything out.
(It is, isn’t it? Miroslav always boasted about it,) Phineas says, nodding. (By the way, what did the spider do to the suit to make you attune to it so quickly?)
(Oh…) Phineas looks like he wants to continue asking, but eventually, he decides not to pursue the matter. (All right, then. Could I trouble you to explain everything that happened since I entered dormancy? I’m having some difficulty grasping the situation. I understand that we’re on the plane called Caldera, but… When did you leave the Planar Tower? And why were you so injured, earlier? Who attacked you?)
Well, now. This is going to take a while.
It did take a long time, as expected – the sun went down and then back up again, while we spoke – but I eventually managed to narrate to Phineas the few centuries he’d missed.
My battles in the Tower didn’t take all that long to summarize since it was pretty much the same thing all the time. My tribulations in the Planar Prison and Caldera took longer to recount, despite lasting for only a few months. I tried to be accurate and exhaustive, to give Phineas enough material to analyze things for me. I certainly trust Sanae’s judgment, but in the end, I very much doubt a spider, no matter how powerful, would be as familiar with civilization as a human god who lived for several thousand years.
Phineas might be able to notice something we’ve not.
(Adkins? Wayland Adkins? Are you sure that was the name?)
(Hmm. I see.)
Phineas looks greatly disturbed upon hearing this, for some reason.
[…Do you know him?]
(I know of him. He’s quite a famous individual, up on the Godrealm. Um, do you know anything about the situation there? Actually, first of all, you do know what the Godrealm is, right?)
(And do you know about the Septentrion?)
[…Not much more than the name.]
(Well, to make it short, the Septentrion is the name given to the seven most powerful clans on the Godrealm. As much as I’d like to – and as much as I’d be able to – I’m not going to bore you with the history of each one. Just keep in mind that the Adkins family is ranked second among the seven. But since the members of the first disdain to involve themselves in the matters of the Godrealm except when it comes to the defense of its borders, in practice, the Adkins family is often considered the first.)
(You don’t look very impressed.)
[…I am not.]
I don’t care about the Godrealm and the people who live on it. It’s so far away from me that it shouldn’t have much of an impact on my own life. There is no incentive for me to be impressed by anything anyone up there does.
(You should be impressed,) Phineas continues sternly. (We’re not talking about a little plane like Caldera, here. We’re talking about the Godrealm. There are more gods there than there are mortals here. Even in quality, the gods there are incomparable to the gods here. And in the middle of that pack of hyenas who’d like nothing more than to peck at them from all sides and try to rip a piece of their meat for themselves, the Adkins family is still considered to be at the very top. You might be feeling very confident, right now, invincible as you are on the face of Caldera, but as the saying goes, you’re little more than a frog at the bottom of a well. The patriarch of the Adkins family is a peak 8th-rank god. Eight! Just one tiny step away from nine! I wouldn’t be too surprised if the man someday managed to become an overgod.)
I’m not a frog, though. I’m a wolf.
And I feel the subject has drifted a little bit. I couldn’t care less how great and powerful the head of the Adkins family is, as long as Wayland Adkins doesn’t run to him for help when I try to kill him.
Or should I?
Should I try to exterminate this Adkins family?
If the information I got from the devils is correct, Wayland Adkins is the one who destroyed my family. It seems only fair that I do the same to his, doesn’t it?
Hmm. A thought to consider, certainly, but it’s still much too early to already plan for it. If they really are that powerful, I wouldn’t be able to do anything to them, yet, anyway. I don’t even know how to get to the Godrealm from Caldera!
[…What do you know about Wayland Adkins himself?]
Right now, he is the one that matters.
Phineas pensively strokes his beard, gathering his thoughts. (Hmm… He’s a tough bastard, is what I know. He wasn’t raised within the Adkins family. I’m not sure how much of it is true, but the story goes that he was lost soon after his birth, when his parents were attacked by a rival family while traveling outside. He somehow survived and ended up growing up in the wilderness, so to speak, in a remote provincial plane away from the Godrealm. But then, without the slightest support from his birth family and only on his own merits, he raised himself up to godhood and prominence, fought his way back to the Godrealm, and eventually rejoined the Adkins family and claimed back his rightful name. Last I heard, he was competing for the position of family head, and in a good position to win it. Keep in mind, however, that this was at the time I died and my soul entered the obelisk; the situation may have changed since then. Anyway, I think what you can take out of all this is that, contrary to some heirs of the Septentrion, Wayland Adkins is not some pampered little shit with no experience of the world.)
(Very, if you intend to oppose him. It does bring up the question of what exactly he’s come to do on a backwater plane like this one, though. I may have missed something while I was dead… In any case, we better tread carefully around him.)
[…I intend to kill him.]
Phineas sighs. (Yes, that’s what I seemed to understand. But I don’t see how that’s going to be possible. One thing I failed to mention is that, last I knew, Wayland Adkins was about to become a 6th-rank god. I’m not sure how long I stayed in the obelisk, but if enough time had passed, he might have already improved beyond that. I fear that, if you appear in front of him, you will die without being able to put up any resistance. The gap between the two of you is just too wide.)
I suppose that is true. I almost died against a frog of the 2nd rank, back on the 199th floor of the Tower. Now, I don’t exactly trust those ranks as an accurate representation of strength in battle, but they’re still at least a hint. If Wayland Adkins is even stronger than the frog, let alone winning, it would be difficult for me even to escape.
But that doesn’t matter.
I intend to kill him.
[…Wayland Adkins can wait. Finding Nerys is more important.]
Phineas nods powerfully and claps his hands in approval. (Yes! I wholeheartedly agree! Killing him can wait. It can wait for a long, long time. Preferably forever. Because being turned to dust without an obelisk to catch and shelter my soul is something I really could do without.)
(So?) Phineas continues cheerfully. (Where do we start? These slave traders? What was their name, again? Birchwood or something?)
[…Blackwood. Their headquarters are in Alsomn.]
(Alsomn, huh?) He blinks. (Wait, didn’t you say that Alsomn is the capital of the largest human country on this plane? And that’s where we’re going?)
(Wayland Adkins won’t be there, will he?) Phineas asks, looking uncomfortable and anxious.
[…He may be.]
Phineas covers his face with his hands. Is he going to cry?
(Oh. Oh… Ooooh… I have a very bad feeling about this. I’m sure he’ll be there, waiting for us. We are going to die. We are definitely going to die.)