With the formations successfully disabled, I approach the walls, keeping an eye on the sentries patrolling atop them.
As expected, avoiding detection by humans who are incapable of seeing in the dark isn’t a difficult task. No problem should occur.
When I step within 100 meters of the wall, a problem occurs. Unexpectedly.
A familiar qi fluctuation, minute but noticeable, like scrambled noise in the back of my ears. As soon as I notice its presence, I grit my teeth and retract all my qi, deactivate all the spells I usually keep up – like the one giving life to my left arm – and firmly cage my soul within the bounds of my dantian.
Since stopping short in the middle of the open land before the city would be remarkably stupid, I keep going until I’ve reached the foot of the wall, then lean my back against it, safely out of sight, thinking about my next steps.
I should have anticipated this problem.
(What’s going on?) Phineas asks.
[… Demon-sealing stone.]
(Ha. I like things with such straightforward names. A stone that seals demons. Is there really such a thing? And from your reaction, I assume it affects you, too? What does it do, exactly? ‘Sealing’ is a bit of a generic word. It blocks your magic apparently?)
[…And my soul force.]
This device is really starting to annoy me. I’m not in as much danger as the first time I was subjected to it, since I know what it does and I can recognize its presence in time to react to it, but it’s still a huge weakness of mine.
Magic and soul force are necessary tools.
My body may be strong, but I can’t survive in this world with just this. If anyone can disable my powers just by taking a small rock out of their pocket, I’m going to die before I can accomplish any of my objectives.
I need to know how to fix this.
I need to steal a demon-sealing stone and study it, if I can. Research any means to acquire immunity against its effects. Keeping the stone around without it affecting me shouldn’t be too hard. Both Jodene and that worthless brat snuck the stone they carried close to me before they activated it. So a box impermeable to qi radiation should do the trick. I think even just storing it within my space ring would be enough. The stone’s qi fluctuations are all-pervasive within its range, but as its mode of action is only to create a resonance with the blood-qi in my body, the fluctuations are not intense, in and of themselves. I doubt they could breach the barrier of space magic and affect me all the way from within the tiny proto-plane that is the storage ring. As for the research itself, I’m not entirely sure I will be able to find a way to counteract the effects of the demon-sealing stone by studying it – I’m not sure it’s even possible to counteract them – but it doesn’t sit well with me to so blatantly ignore one of my weaknesses like this. Even if it takes me some time, I need to look into the matter.
(Demon-sealing stone…) Phineas says, tasting the words. (Never heard of it. Could it be some recently discovered ancient artifact? I know of a few magic formations that display sealing effects, too, but as far as I’m aware, none work on demons, most likely due to the differences between qi and blood-qi. Hmm…)
[…Probably not an ancient artifact. Too many of them.]
Phineas’s eyebrows rise up in surprise, creasing his lined brow even more than before. (It’s not unique? Is it a modern artifact, then? Which they managed to mass-produce? Incredible.) Phineas starts mumbling to himself again, tugging on his beard. (Wait, does it actually work on demons, or does it just work on you alone? The name seems to imply that it does, but perhaps it’s not as straightforward as I thought.)
From what Jodene said at the time…
[…On all demons. Though I haven’t seen it for myself.]
But I doubt they mass-produced it. I haven’t seen all that many of them. If it was so common, every one of my enemies would be carrying one. And there would be no reason not to set one up in every city.
(Truly incredible. From what I’ve heard so far, this thing could redefine the landscape of power for humanity. Or it might already have, for all I know. If such a thing exists that can render demons powerless, the world must be a very different place today than it was when I died. If the threat of demons doesn’t exist anymore…) Phineas shakes his head, his eyes wide. (I’m having some trouble imagining it.)
I’m afraid I don’t share Phineas’s enthusiasm. Perhaps because I am part of that ‘threat of demons’. And I don’t want to stop existing. At least, not until I’ve found Nerys and made sure she’s safe.
More than the far-ranging benefits of this wonderful new technology for humanity, however, what concerns me more are its immediate consequences for me. Specifically, how to remove them.
(So, what now? Do we give up this infiltration?) Phineas asks. (I have to say, if gods from the Adkins family are waiting for you in this city, facing them with neither magic nor soul force at your disposal would be foolhardy. Or downright suicidal. I suggest we retreat. The trip wasn’t wasted in any case; we learned a lot about modern magic formations.)
Ridiculous. The whole point of coming here is to look for Nerys. There is no way I’ll leave without having accomplished what I set out to do. Studying the strange formations was nothing but an interlude; how could its importance even be compared to my goal of finding my sister?
But Phineas’s idea, as stupid as it is, does have the merit of framing the problem. Hesitating now is pointless and unproductive, but I need to take things in order.
First, find and disable the demon-sealing stone. Next, with my strength – and my ability to speak to anyone but Phineas – unsealed, find and question the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. Finally, find and secure Nerys.
Now. How to accomplish the first one…
(Hello? Are you even listening to me? I don’t mean to be annoying, but it’s common politeness to answer when people ask you a question.)
Right. I didn’t actually translate my thoughts into spoken words.
This is quite annoying. Sanae doesn’t need me to speak so much.
[…I refuse. I need to find and disable the demon-sealing stone.]
(Oh. And how are you going to do this? You can’t trace the spell, with your soul trapped inside yourself like this. How are you going to find the stone?)
I don’t even know the maximum range of the stone’s effect, so for all I know, it could be anywhere in this city. It’s not like this is an unsolvable problem, though. Qi fluctuations behave predictably. They spread in a regular sphere centered on whatever generated them. I can discover the bounds of that sphere by checking whether I’m still affected by the stone at a given location, and from that, I’ll be able to infer the position of the stone at the sphere’s center.
Except, in order to do so, I’d need to approach the city again at various point along its perimeter. The formations carved into the walls would prevent me from doing this easily. The only reason I can approach the wall here and now is that I disabled the formations at this specific, weakest point. Doing it again and again before anyone can realize I’m doing it sounds chancy.
…What to do?
Where would I put a demon-sealing stone, if I wanted the radius of its effects to cover the entire city?
I have had two days to study the city, so by now, I’m pretty familiar with its layout. It’s clustered at the foot of the mountain, rising in tiers toward the castle above.
If the city’s map was flattened down to a two-dimensional plane, the castle would be at the center. And the mountain is quite stocky, not very high at all.
[…Inside the castle?]
(That would be my first guess, as well, but maybe that’s just what they want us to think! The stone might be in an entirely inconspicuous location. It could even be buried into the ground somewhere.)
Unlikely. As a demon, its own effects prevent me from tracing the qi fluctuation back to the stone, but regular humans and majin would not labor under the same restrictions. If the demon-sealing stone could so easily be found in an unmarked cubic meter of earth somewhere, Alsomn’s enemies could destroy it, which would leave the city at the mercy of demon attacks once more. I think the stone must be heavily protected, instead.
Which comforts me in the idea that I will find it in the castle.
But, in fact, I don’t need to speculate so much!
I can just ask someone.
Turning to the wall, I carve the words ‘demon-sealing stone’ and ‘where’ into it, taking care not to trip the wrong channel on the parts of the magic formations that are still working.
(What are you doing?)
I ignore Phineas’s question and gaze up at the 50 meters of stone rising in front of me. It’s old and rough and flaking. I doubt I could actually climb it; it would fail to support my weight. Fortunately, I don’t need to. I shake off my paralyzed left arm, since it’s now nothing more than a burden. It falls to the ground at my feet with a dull thud. Freed from the useless weight, I squat for a moment. My gaze is still fixed on my objective, all the way up there, as I calculate and gather the proper amount of strength into my legs. I need to be precise. Too short and I’ll have to cling to the side of the wall – which will most likely break it; too high and the guards risk spotting me and sounding the alarm, calling powerful gods from whom I’ll be forced to flee.
It takes me roughly a second until I’m confident in my judgment, but I still wait a bit more for the right moment, my tail swinging from side to side behind me as I count the footsteps clacking atop the wall. Then, I jump. The jump brings me high, and just as my momentum expends itself and gravity is about to reassert its control, the top edge of the wall appears before my eyes. My hand reaches out, and I vault over it, landing quietly between two crenellations.
Just as I planned, a guard is walking right past my position the moment I reach the top. He catches hints of my sudden appearance in his peripheral vision, and his head reflexively swivels to face me. His eyes widen, his mouth opens, but before any sound can come out, black fingers clamp around his throat in a vise-like grip. A fraction of an instant later, before anyone can see what happened to him, I’m already on my way down, towing him behind me.
I land where I started, at the base of the wall, outside the city.
My own landing is once again perfectly silent, but the guard I carried with me missteps, and both his legs shatter noisily. His face pales, big drops of sweat flow down his brow, his eyes bulge out, his mouth opens wide. But I strengthen my hold on his throat and only a tiny strangled whimper escapes him.
(Owwww, that looks like it hurts,) Phineas says, wincing like he’s the one who’s been injured. (You could be a tad gentler with him.)
Uncaring, I bring the man’s face in front of the words I carved into the wall earlier.
‘demon-sealing stone’ ‘where’
But the man doesn’t seem receptive to my question.
Perhaps he doesn’t know how to read. No, everyone knows how to read Eashiri, surely. Otherwise, how would they use magic?
Or perhaps he doesn’t know what a demon-sealing stone is. No, there is no way someone living in this city wouldn’t notice that qi fluctuation hanging in the air. It should take them precisely zero effort to trace it and see which direction it’s coming from. If it was a common mortal with no cultivation at all, I might have accepted ignorance, but this guy is a 2nd-rank warrior. He has to know.
When I look at his face, it turns out that his eyes are scrunched shut, tears leaking out of their corners. His face is slowly turning purple, and his teeth are clenched. His arms are flailing around, grabbing frantically at his own legs, as if trying to pat down the pain. Judging from the shards of bones visibly poking against the fabric of his pants, I don’t think he’ll be able to heal himself so easily, though. Touching his wounds will likely worsen them, instead.
But that explains it. He’s not even reading the words.
In order to help the man focus on answering my question, I slam his head against the wall. His nose breaks and starts bleeding too.
(Woah!) Phineas shouts suddenly. (What are you doing?! That is not helping! You just broke his legs! Just give him a minute to get his bearings, at least! Bashing his head against a rock isn’t going to make him any more amenable! And let him breathe! He’s suffocating!)
That’s all well and good, but I don’t have time to waste.
Whoever drew the magic formations on that wall could check their integrity at any moment and come see what happened to them. I have no way to know how much time I have left to enter the city before being discovered.
It’s his own fault for having such brittle bones, anyway. What kind of warrior breaks their legs just from a little fall like this? How did he even survive this long, with that sort of body? One little slap from a troll, and his entire skeleton would be broken to pieces. Pathetic.
I glance at my captive. His eyes are rolling back, showing only white. Blood and saliva are dripping down his chin and soaking my fingers.
Sighing to myself, I loosen my hold a little. The guard starts gulping down large breaths of air like he’s never tasted anything more delicious. Which might well be the case, I don’t know.
At least, almost choking to death seems to have lessened the pain from his broken legs. Maybe this time he’ll read my question. Again, I bring his face in front of the words I carved into the wall.
The man takes ragged breath and cries and seems about to cough out his own lungs, but this time, his eyes are open at least, which is good progress. I’m a bit concerned with all the noise he’s making, but I’m pretty sure he’ll just die if I squeeze his throat shut again, so I refrain from anything violent.
“W–Who are you? What do you want?”
That should be pretty obvious.
Since I can’t speak, and since I don’t have another arm I can use to point at the words I want him to read, I simply squash his face into the wall for a moment. Then I bring him back to an appropriate distance, so that he can read the words. He leaves a red, bloody smear behind on the stone wall.
Phineas shakes his head at me, apparently lost for words. I ignore him.
And the guard finally seems to notice the words! So much effort for such a simple thing. It’s only when I can’t use it anymore that I realize how convenient telepathy truly is. At least then, I’m sure people are hearing me.
“Ugh! W–What? Demon-sealing…? Why do you…? What?”
I could do with a clearer answer than this, to be perfectly honest.
I shake the man, gently, which rattles all the bones in his body and almost elicits another scream of pain from him, which I cut off just in time. I give him a few moments to gather himself before loosening my hold on his throat again to give him the opportunity to answer.
But he’s just crying now.
I’m starting to lose my patience with this person.
Sighing audibly, I bring his face in front of the words again.
(You’re the worst interrogator I’ve ever seen,) Phineas says, aghast. (THE worst. Ever. This is painful to watch.)
It’s probably even more painful for the guard.
And interrogating people is difficult for someone who cannot speak. Allowances have to be made for my circumstances. I don’t think the current lack of results is entirely my fault.
Finally, however, the guard’s brain seems to catch up with his situation.
“I–If I tell you where to find the demon-sealing stone, w–will you let me go?”
To urge him to give me the answer I seek, I shake him again – even more gently than before to avoid breaking him.
“A–All right,” he says in a slightly more hopeful voice, sniffling. It takes me a moment to understand that he took my shaking him as agreement to let him live, for some unfathomable reason – wishful thinking is probably involved. “I don’t know exactly w–where, but the fluctuation comes from the imperial c–castle. It should be inside.” Then he breaks down crying again. “Please, I’m telling the truth, I swear. I don’t know anything more. Please, please, I have a family. My daughter is only thr– gack!”
A light squeeze breaks his neck before he can finish his sentence and make even more noise. Was he trying to surreptitiously alert his comrades, by speaking so loudly?
I throw his corpse at the base of the wall, where someone would need to lean far over the battlements in order to see it.
My destination confirmed, I jump again, reaching the top of the wall in a single bound. With the guard whose duty it was to protect this part of the wall now dead, I’m free to jump into the streets of Alsomn on the other side unopposed.
There are a few hours of night left. I need to make good use of them and infiltrate the castle. Finding the stone there might take me a while, though I suppose I can ask for directions once I’m there, like I did just now.
Running silently through the maze of crisscrossing streets and alleys, I head up the mountain toward the castle built atop it.
(That was cold,) Phineas says after a long silence. His voice sounds disapproving.
Not this place, surely. I think it’s pretty warm. Which is another reason to quickly disable that demon-sealing stone, too. I need my magic to keep myself suitably cold. I’m not exactly standing in the middle of an erupting volcano, but if I actually start fighting seriously, I might overheat.
(You were. Was there a need to kill that guard? You could have just knocked him unconscious.)
I think Phineas is taking this question the wrong way.
By all rights, the question should be, was there a need to knock him unconscious when I could just kill him? And no, there wasn’t a need. Not that I can think of, at least.
When I don’t answer, Phineas continues. (As gods, there is a certain standard we have to keep in our interaction with mortals. Otherwise, it’s terribly easy to get swept up by the lure of power and altogether forget what it means to be one of the weak. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?)
He sighs. (You killed this man today, when you could have shown him mercy. It wouldn’t have cost you anything to do so. Try to put yourself in his shoes. Imagine yourself as the weak. What would you think if someone – someone infinitely stronger than you – suddenly caught you by the neck and tried to casually murder you like this?)
…Put myself in his shoes?
I think the guard’s shoes were too big for my feet. And I don’t like wearing shoes, anyway. Shoes would prevent me from using my claws properly.
As for what I would think if someone like that tried to murder me…
[…I would think that I should run away.]
(But what if you can’t run away?) Phineas asks patiently. (What if that person has already caught you? You’re completely at her mercy. A gentle squeeze of her hand, and you’re dead. Would you enjoy that kind of situation? Would it bring you despair? Would it make you sad? Would it make you angry?)
What’s with the questions, all of a sudden?
(You are that guard you’ve just killed, and a god has just caught you. You’ve answered her questions the best you could. And still, she decides to kill you. What would you think – what would you feel, at that moment? Try to imagine it, please.)
[…I would think to Sanae, ‘kill her or hold her back while I run away.’]
Phineas sighs again and rubs the bridge of his nose. (You’re not getting it at all, are you?)
I think I am, actually.
Phineas must be worried that this guard could become like me. Someone weak, who was brutalized then discarded like trash, but who then becomes stronger – perhaps strong enough to take revenge. And then, I might be the one to suffer.
But there is no need to worry.
[…The guard is dead. His feelings can be safely disregarded.]
I heard his heart stop beating. I’m sure of it.
Unless he returns to life, like I did?
Perhaps Phineas is right…
Crushing his neck was insufficient. I should have destroyed his brain.
I’ve lost too much time here already, though. I need to hurry and find the demon-sealing stone. I’ll simply take this as a lesson and do better next time. From now on, I’ll make sure that no one I kill can ever resurrect. I’ll shred their corpses if I can.
(No, I really don’t think you get it, yet,) Phineas mumbles. (But that’s fine. We have time. And I didn’t expect you to understand so quickly. I’m just a little concerned with how many bodies will litter your path, by the time you do understand.)
Of course, I understand. I’m not an idiot.
I didn’t survive for so long by not learning my lessons.
No need to worry. I’ll be more careful from now on.