What a big city.
The biggest I’ve ever seen, in fact. I’m genuinely surprised. I didn’t know cities could get this big. What a strange world I live in.
(No, no. I think your sense of what is strange or not is somewhat skewed. The Planar Tower was much stranger than this, you know? And this city isn’t that big, either.)
[…You’ve seen a bigger one?]
(Of course. I lived for a very long time, and I traveled a lot all over the Godrealm. I wouldn’t dare say that I’ve seen all there is to see up there – I doubt anyone would dare say that, as vast as it is – but big cities aren’t exactly an uncommon sight.)
(Well, the biggest would probably be the city where the Adkins family set up their headquarters, actually. In fact, it’s more like the city developed with them at its center after they settled down there. They are the ones who made that particular geographical location relevant to everyone else. As for how big it is, I’d say something like… 50,000 square kilometers? I’m not sure. Should be something like that, though.)
That is… quite large.
Several orders of magnitude larger than the city currently in front of me.
[…How many people live there?]
(Millions. And keep in mind that this was only the case when I last visited the place. I have no idea how long I spent sealed in the obelisk after I died, so things might have changed a lot in the meantime. Humanity tends to expand rather fast if nothing untoward happens.)
Idly trying to imagine what the city Phineas speaks of could look like and wondering if I’ll ever have the opportunity to see it, I examine the much smaller one lying in front of me.
The city sprawls at the foot and on the slopes of a mountain whose flank has been gouged out so that the line from its foot to its top forms a sort of malformed crescent. The mountain’s summit seems to only support its own weight through some kind of magical intervention, leaning far over the city below, as if threatening to crash down at any moment. The humans who built their houses and sleep underneath the eave of that hanging mountaintop must be confident they can survive in case an accident does happen and all of it comes crashing down on them. Atop the mountain’s summit, a great castle full of towers and spires rises high toward the sky, as if ignoring the dangers of the unsteady ground on which it is built. A winding road leads from the castle into the city below, linking the two to each other down the crescent of the mountain slope. The road is currently empty of travelers, but even this late into the night, Alsomn is still brightly lit. From this distance, the lights look like fireflies, floating around an anthill.
These lights are a good sign for me. I know them to be only a poor crutch that makes up for the humans’ terrible night vision. Outside of these little circles of light, the people of this city might as well be blind.
Just like in Islandis Fortress, I’ll have no trouble sneaking in.
And this time, I don’t even have a burden like Sif I need to carry along. That’ll make things even easier.
Phineas sighs. (It would have all been much simpler if you didn’t have a bounty on your head. Or if there weren’t gods of the Adkins family walking around this plane, in which case you would have nothing to fear even with bounty hunters after you.)
I quite agree that this bounty is inconvenient. If it didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have had to spend three whole weeks walking to Alsomn, either. I could have just taken the train. Maybe I could have tried to sneak aboard, as I did in Aldenfell, but considering everything that happened last time, I preferred to refrain.
My thoughts drift for a moment as I remember those days’ battles. I wonder what happened to Lilly after we separated. By all rights, the Rebirth pill I gave her should have healed all her injuries back to perfection – and even gone beyond that into the realm of actual improvement. But after all, I’ve never seen those pills in action. They never had any effect on me. And I didn’t have time to stick around, back then, what with the other idiots suddenly attacking me. Maybe the pill didn’t work. Maybe it was poison. Or maybe Lilly ended up unable to bear the mass of energy held inside it. Maybe she exploded, taking Finram and everyone else along with her and leaving only a smoking crater of the Springfields’ house.
Nothing I can do about any of this, though.
I shake those thoughts off my mind and focus on the tall walls protectively surrounding the city of Alsomn, capital of humanity on Caldera. The walls are taller than those in Islandis Fortress, but the difference is meaningless. My legs are strong enough to propel me into the skies if need be; I can vault over a 50-meter wall as easily as a 30-meter or 300-meter one. In the worst case, I could even directly fly over it.
If there is one problem about those walls, it’s the magic formations carved into them. There were defensive formations keyed into the walls back at Islandis Fortress, too, but those were easily circumvented. The ones shielding the walls of Alsomn, however, are different. My eyes rove over the twisting symbols and lines, and I understand what I see, but I find no instantly obvious loopholes I could use to slip through. Whoever drew these formations is quite clearly more proficient at the discipline than the one who handled Islandis Fortress’s defenses. There are even some parts of the formations that confuse me, not because they are arcane or abstruse beyond my abilities, but because the way of thinking which led to their creation differs quite a bit from the one I inherited from Miroslav’s books, the foundation of all my skill and knowledge.
Which is not to say that the formations in front of my eyes today are in any way inferior to those in my books. In fact, thinking about it, these look more… streamlined. Efficient. Optimized. I could draw similar defensive formations if I wanted to – and if I had the necessary resources – but it wouldn’t be quite as elegant.
Somehow, I feel defeated.
And Phineas, as perceptive of my moods as usual, quickly notices my state. (What’s wrong?)
[…These formations look strange.]
(Do they? Hmm… I suppose there are a few points here and there that they didn’t do quite the same as we used to in my time, but apart from that, it all looks fairly straightforward to me. What seems so strange to your eyes?)
So that’s what it is.
(Aaaaah, I see,) Phineas says, suddenly enlightened. (Of course. You could only have studied formations inside the Planar Tower, from Miroslav’s collection. Which is thousands of years old, at best. I assume you’re using a very old-fashioned drawing style. Perhaps even older than mine.)
I don’t really have a way to judge.
(Since magic formations are useful in such a diverse and all-encompassing spectrum of circumstances, it is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic fields in the study of magic,) Phineas says, nodding – and talking? – to himself. (Improvements are made every day, to bring greater effects while using less energy. I suppose it doesn’t sound like much of an achievement when I phrase it like this, but try to imagine the Ye family’s flying fortress. A behemoth of stone and earth and metal, housing thousands of the Godrealm’s most powerful warriors. Arguably, the single greatest artifact ever built by man. However, even this masterpiece requires enormous quantities of magic cores just to stay afloat in the air or to use its main cannon. For the Ye family who owns it, even a tiny increment in efficiency would save them millions upon millions of wasted magic cores they could otherwise use for other pursuits. Magic researchers must always keep themselves up to date on the latest developments. And I speak for everyone one concerned, I believe, when I say that the conferences and gatherings of like-minded fellows, where we discussed our respective discoveries, were some of the greatest and most pleasant events that I was given the opportunity to join. Not to mention that we, as a community, had to…)
Blah blah blah.
I tune out the rest of Phineas’s lengthy nonsense and focus back on the walls of Alsomn. I’d planned to get into the work of disabling them right away, but perhaps I should study these formations for a while, instead? I might not have another chance such as this for a long time.
Yes, that seems wise.
Let’s do so.
I spend two full days hovering around Alsomn, examining the formations and trying to get used to their strange design, circling the wall so that I will miss as little of it as possible. Sometimes, there are trees or rocks or things that block my view, but I dare not come any closer to the wall before I’ve disabled the formations. And disabling them would hamper my ability to learn how they operate. So I stay away and remain content with what I have.
(No matter what else can be said about you, at least you’re conscientious.)
Well, I’ve learned that some things take time.
I’ve had 300 years to learn patience.
Of course, enduring doesn’t mean I will waste my time on pointless pursuits. Nerys is waiting, after all. But studying the tools of my enemies is far from pointless. It might become the deciding factor between success and failure, somehow.
(So. What now?)
[…Disable the formation. Enter the city.]
The goal hasn’t changed.
Though, unlike what I initially expected, it’s going to be markedly more challenging than at Islandis Fortress. In fact, I’m not entirely confident I can perfectly disable the formations and sneak in undetected. It took me a while to find the loopholes I was looking for, and even then, there are a few parts that still elude my full understanding. Phineas was quite helpful on many occasions during that short study session, and together, we devised a few theories on how some of the most esoteric symbols and patterns fit together to produce what effect, but both of us will readily admit we could very well be wrong. Two days isn’t much time to completely update our formation-drawing and -subverting skills.
Still, I can’t turn back now. I have things to do in this city.
In the worst case, if I find myself detected and hunted, I’ll just fight.
I’m talented at fleeing.
One more time, I slowly circle the full circumference of the city, watching again the patterns of movements of each soldier walking atop the walls, confirming for myself what I’ve already noted in the past two days. Gradually, I approach the position, the part of the wall, where the formation is least stable. There, the stones appear visibly older, moss and ivy crawling up within the cracks between them, their edges blunted by time and rain and wind.
I conceal myself in a small thicket, a kilometer away from the wall, my form obscured by the shadows of the leafy trees and bushes around me. I lean down and run my left hand across the ground. The ice that forms my palm shifts and folds as it rakes the ground and catches a variety of small stones of all shapes and sizes, sucking them in and trapping them inside the ‘flesh’ of my arm. Their silhouettes are faintly visible inside the ice, though the way the moonlight refracts as it passes through my arm makes them look distorted. I don’t need to use my eyes to see what these stones look like, however; I simply have to keep track of what the holes they inhabit within my arm look like, instead.
I do so, ‘watching’ the stones carefully, as I send a trickle of magic inside my left arm. On the surface, nothing seems to happen, but I can feel the ice below the ‘skin’ start to spin around each stone it holds and grind them into the needed shapes.
(What are you doing?)
(Tools? To disable the defensive formations on the walls, you mean? I see. Wait… The thought just occurred to me that… How are you even going to get close enough to disable the formations without being detected? I probably should have asked that at the start, now that I think of it. I got a bit too excited about this new, modern stuff and forgot…)
[…Throw knives at it.]
(What? You’re going to throw knives to cut the lines of a formation? From all the way out here? At night? When it’s windy? At a formation we don’t fully understand?)
There is a short silence before Phineas replies. (You sound awfully confident about this, for some reason. Burglars would usually use an artifact with stealth capabilities or their own personal concealment magic and get close to the formation to sabotage it, but all right. You’ve piqued my interest. I’d like to see how you’re going to do it.)
By the time my conversation with Phineas has ended, the stone knives I was carving are also complete. I would trust self-made ice tools better, but part of the formation carved into the city wall is here to detect interference from magically created objects. Which means I have to process natural materials, instead. The ice of my left arm shifts and pushes out the knives – and the flakes of stone left over from their carving. The knives are small, but their edges are sharp, and I’ve pared off the fragile outer shell of the rock to leave only the dense, solid core. Neither Phineas nor I detected strengthening formations affecting the wall – which makes sense, considering the energy requirements involved in enhancing a several-kilometer-long, 50-meter-tall wall – so these stone knives should be enough to pierce through its surface and cut off the formations’ channels.
(Are you really just going to throw that? From here? Really?)
A kilometer is nothing. The formation’s energy channels are finer than at Islandis Fortress, but cutting off those I want won’t be too difficult. The important part is that the channels I want to cut must match the channels I need to cut. Hopefully, my analysis of the formations is accurate enough for that to be the case.
Well, let’s start.
I whip out the first few knives one after another. They all strike true and successfully cut off the energy channels I set as my targets. One of the knives hits at the wrong angle and doesn’t actually bury itself into the wall. It bounces off, but after a moment of tension, I see that the channel I aimed for has been destroyed anyway.
(You missed one.)
[…It performed its intended purpose.]
(You still missed one.)
All this criticizing had better not be setting a trend for the evening.
Shaking my head at their foolishness, I prepare the next volley of stone knives and mark the spots I need to hit this time. The first volley disconnected the outermost series of redundant alarm systems. Basically, I removed the part of the formation that checks on the part that checks on the part that checks on the part that checks on the part that checks that no unauthorized being – and as a demon god, I would definitely qualify as such – is trying to sneak through. Of course, the function of each of those redundant systems is obfuscated and hidden behind layers of deception. For example, one of those I disabled just now had been set up in such a way that, at first glance, it seemed only to make sure that no natural phenomenon would blur the formation’s lines. Simple maintenance, in other words. In reality, it would have sounded the alarm had I tampered with the sub-systems under its supervision. Now, I need to disable the next layer of redundancy, each part of which is of course also camouflaged in its own way.
It’s like a puzzle.
I enjoy it.
The defensive formations at Islandis Fortress didn’t give me a proper challenge. The ones arrayed in front of me today are much more interesting.
The next few volleys of knives strike unerringly true, slowly taking apart the alarm systems carved into this portion of Alsomn’s walls, until finally, all the energy channels leading to the core sigil of intruder detection find themselves cut and the way becomes clear.
(Nicely done. Your skills at knife throwing are quite impressive, I admit. I suppose your eyesight helps. Most humans would never be able even to see the channels from this far away, let alone hitting them with a thrown blade. Actually, more than your knife throwing, the sheer absurd heights your body strengthening has reached is just… flabbergasting. It makes me wonder if you haven’t gotten your dates confused. Didn’t you spend 3000 years in the Tower, instead of only 300?)
(Well, there’s just no way you could have become that strong in only 300 years. Did nobody ever tell you that body strengthening is very, very slow? So slow that no one even bothers, except for those old monsters stuck in the bottleneck of the 8th and 9th ranks who’ve got nothing better to do with their time? I mean… 300 years is nothing! It’s a tenth of my lifetime! If I could have become as strong as you just by dedicating a mere tenth of my lifetime to body strengthening, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.)
Maybe it has something to do with being a demon?
I’m not sure.
In any case, let’s get into the city quickly, before someone notices the damage I dealt to their defensive formations…