I rush through Alsomn, sprinting through alleys and leaping over buildings, yet no sound betrays my passage but a slight stirring in the wind.
My destination is the castle sitting atop its stocky, gouged-out mountain.
This late at night, there aren’t many people left roaming the streets, even in the capital, but I still need to be careful. With a population this large, exceptions to the rule are bound to be more numerous than during the previous times I needed to sneak around. It wouldn’t be good to be carelessly noticed by a random passerby.
There are two ways for me to reach the castle. The first and most straightforward is the road twisting left and right, slithering up the mountain’s slope. It leads from the actual city, lying at the foot of the mountain, to the castle I need to reach. The problem is that it’s also guarded and patrolled.
Which is why I’ll use the other, less straightforward route.
I’m fairly sure I could sneak past all the sentries on the road, but the possibility of failure still exists. I could mess up, somehow, or be unlucky and be caught by the eyes of these humans. Unlikely, but possible. Having survived for 300 years in the Planar Tower doesn’t mean I never make mistakes. I’ve actually made tons of mistakes. And I keep making them, all the time. The trick is only to trim the potential space of available mistakes as much as possible so that the ones I do end up making aren’t the lethal ones.
So, I decide to simply climb the inner, concave side of the crescent-like mountain. The part of it that has been seemingly bitten off by a gigantic mouth.
…Which might be what actually happened, for all I know. In which case, I’ll need to be very careful not to meet the mountain-eating creature that roams Caldera.
Climbing the mountain requires a little more energy than walking up the road, since there is no stable platform on which to rest my weight and I need to be careful of how I move, but the difference is negligible, considering the amount of blood-qi currently in my dantian. The curving stone wall rising several hundred meters into the sky is remarkably smooth so that people without claws or dedicated magic would have quite the trouble climbing it. Fortunately, I do not suffer from this particular lack. I climb quickly, my fingers and toes digging effortlessly into the stone. I hope no one’s going to see me from the city below, though. I don’t think they could since it’s pretty dark and I’m already too high for human night vision to pierce through the distance. They might see the red glow of my eye if I look down, maybe.
It takes me a few minutes to reach the summit of the mountain. Since no alarm was raised while I climbed, I’m going to assume everything went well and I’ve yet to be discovered.
For a few moments after reaching the summit, I stop moving and crouch in the darkness, my eyes roving over the scenery in front of me, mapping out the location of all the sentries, magic formations, and other relevant data. My ears twitch minutely at the many sounds of life – footsteps, breaths, coughs, conversations.
The castle is vast and takes up much of the mountaintop. It’s formed of a long main body, from which a wing branches off at a right angle on either side. Gardens fulls of flowers and leafy trees and statues of humans in various life-like poses stretch before the castle, all the way to the tall, magically-enhanced fence enclosing the compound. The area beyond the fence – the outer rim of the summit, bordering the edge of the tall cliff I just scaled, where I currently stand – is not as well-tended. Wild weeds and trees grow tall and haphazard and provide me with much-appreciated concealment. Facing the main building, past large fountains spouting water jets and paths covered in white round pebbles, is an ornate grated iron gate marking the end of the road up the mountain. A few carriages, without horses harnessed to them, are parked in the clear space beyond the gate, presumably to ferry people to and from the city of Alsomn.
My climb led me near the outer end of one of the wings. From this position, I can see enough of the place to tell me that entering through the main gate – or even crossing the garden – would be foolhardy. There are many soldiers making rounds there, walking the white-pebbled paths, and even at night, the place is well-lit by magical lights secured to the top of tall metal poles. Large dogs even accompany some of the patrols. Regular, non-demon animals such as these represent no direct threat to me – experience tells me they’ll just run away upon noticing me – but their senses are sharp enough that hiding from them might prove difficult. And the strange behavior they’d surely display at that point would alert the guards as surely as if they started barking and pouncing toward me.
Examining the buildings, my eyes come to rest on the numerous windows dotting the walls of the castle. I can see from here that anti-intrusion magic formations are installed on every single one of them.
…Whoever took the time to set up the same formation hundreds of times like this must have had a lot of time on their hands.
I stand up and slowly circle the compound, staying away from the fence and the lights. I find nothing interesting until I reach the opposite wing, almost diametrically opposite the point I started from. There, one of the windows is not only lit, but also wide-open. A human in the uniform of a soldier is leaning against the window frame, facing the room inside and gesticulating. I catch muted voices – more than one – engaged in conversation. The man is chatting with his friends about how annoying the night watch is and how he should ask for more money from his superiors. I fail to understand why he thought opening the window and compromising security would be a good idea, though. Perhaps it has something to do with the smoldering, smoking stick in his mouth, which he sometimes holds through the window and flicks with his thumb, making the ash on the end of it fall outside to be carried away by the wind.
Is that an incense stick?
Is he casting some sort of ritual magic? I know incense is a fairly common ingredient in low-level rituals. But what kind of ritual requires for the incense stick to be held in the caster’s mouth? And it sure produces a lot of smoke, for an incense stick. From both ends, too, apparently, since the man has to regularly spit it out of his mouth.
It shouldn’t be a powerful ritual. Otherwise, the man wouldn’t be so casual about it. I doubt it’ll present any threat to me.
I can hear three people.
I have no way to know how strong they are.
Hopefully, none of them are gods.
Keeping my eyes on the man at the window, I slowly approach the tall fence. Fitting with all the other security measures protecting the castle, there are more formations carved into the metal bars. Fortunately enough, they’re simplistic. They don’t project any kind of remote detection spells or anything of the sort. The alarm purely activates upon contact. And even then, a threshold of force needs to be crossed before tripping the system, presumably so that the alarm won’t ring for a windborne tree leaf or blade of grass. I don’t know where exactly the threshold lies, since it would take a while to properly analyze the formation, but I don’t need to know.
I jump directly over the fence.
The man at the window hasn’t noticed anything. The black suit lets my body fade into the darkness, but if he only looked down, he’d probably notice my white hair. And a glowing red light staring up at him.
I wonder how he’d react.
Would he be startled enough to fall out the window?
That would be amusing.
I won’t find out, though.
Another leap brings me up there. I land on the windowsill right next to the soldier, crouching in flawless balance. I examine the lay of the room. It’s largely empty, save for a few pieces of furniture set against the walls and a large crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Doors lead deeper into the castle and into the neighboring rooms, but they’re all closed.
And as expected, three soldiers are standing around the window in a loose semicircle. Apart from the one leaning against the window frame next to me, the others are standing next to each other, with a tiny round table between them, upon which lies a strange transparent plate littered with ash and the remains of more incense sticks.
The two of them are facing the window and in a perfect position to witness my arrival. They stare at me, dumbfounded, their mouths open so wide the incense sticks they were holding between their lips fall at their feet.
“…and then he actually told her to – what? What’s wrong with you guys?”
The third soldier’s recounting of some random anecdote I didn’t bother to listen to trails off as he notices his friends’ state. Following their stunned gazes, his head starts to turn in my direction –
– and bursts open when my fist slams into it.
Seeing their comrade’s head explode seems to wake up the other two, who scramble for the short swords at their hips. However, before their fingers can even touch their weapons, I lightly jump off the window frame and bury my fingers into the skull of one of them. Then I duck low and spin, sweeping the legs out from underneath the last, hard enough to rip them off at the knee and send them flying into the opposite wall in a geyser of bright red blood.
The last man is still toppling to the ground when I finish spinning and straighten up. As he falls, I catch his throat in my bloodied fingers, squeezing it shut over a pained scream.
I’m about to carry him next to a wall and write the same question I asked the soldier outside the city wall, but before I can even take my first step, I see his eyes suddenly roll back. A few weak tremors wrack the man’s body, then he becomes limp, trailing bonelessly on the floor next to me, the ragged stumps of his legs pumping his blood out onto the carpet.
He’s not dead; I can still hear his heartbeat, but it’s faint and irregular. I don’t think he’s going to survive more than a few seconds more.
…Isn’t that a bit of an overreaction to just losing a few limbs? Surely, even humans aren’t that fragile?
A sigh suddenly comes from Phineas. (He’s gone into shock. You’re not going to get anything out of him.)
Did he die of surprise?
Is that even possible?
That has to be the most ridiculous cause of death I’ve ever heard of.
This time, it’s my turn to sigh. I drop the human to the floor. He falls in an unresponsive heap. Shaking my head, I step on his head. It bursts like an overripe fruit. Blood and brain matter and fragments of bone spurt out all around.
…Wait, I’m an idiot.
I’m going to leave bloody footprints everywhere I go, at this rate.
Taking a few steps away from the messy corpse, I wipe my feet against the carpet.
Watching my actions from within my dantian, Phineas looks like he wants to say something, but after a few seconds of hesitation, he eventually decides to stay silent.
Was he going to resume this whole discussion about how I behave?
I’m glad he refrained, then. I’m a bit busy at the moment. Unless it’s vital, I’d rather focus on my current objective.
I need to find another soldier to interrogate.
This castle is too broad. On my own, I would spend the whole night searching through every room for the demon-sealing stone. And in the end, I likely would be discovered before finding it.
Focusing on my hearing to detect the position of other possible targets nearby, I head for the door set into the wall opposite the window I came in from. Beyond it is a long, empty hallway. I close the door behind me and head down it, walking in the direction of the main building.
Hopefully, no one will smell all that blood.
Human senses are rather weak, so I think it should be fine, but perhaps I should have been cleaner with my kills.
As my brain flits from scenario to scenario, devising contingency plans for each of them, it doesn’t take long for me to come across another human guard.
I crush the woman’s head and let her corpse drop at my feet.
It seems there are tunnels dug into the mountain below the castle. That’s where I’ll find the demon-sealing stone.
It seems remarkably reckless to me to undermine the already unstable ground upon which the castle is built. I can’t help but think that, one day, the whole mountain will collapse on the city built at its foot. Though I suppose they might have strengthened the mountain itself with magic, somehow, and fixed the problem.
The guard didn’t give me a precise location, since she apparently didn’t have permission to access the area where the demon-sealing stone is stored, but she gave me a direction, which is more than enough.
I leave the small room where I conducted my interrogation and backtrack slightly, heading for the staircase I noticed on my way here.
I need to hurry.
I’ve already killed quite a few people here. The more bodies I leave behind, the more likely I am to be discovered.
I head down the stairs, distributing my weight carefully so that the wood won’t creak and betray me. I hear the sounds of more patrols as I head down, but none of them are close enough to come across or notice me.
Soon, I reach the first floor.
The stairway continues down toward the underground floors below, but this time, two guards are standing at attention on the landing, blocking the way. I watch them silently from the landing halfway to the second floor.
Killing them is no problem, but I can’t make noise, and I can’t leave any bloodstains in such an obvious place. The guards’ absence could still be explained away, somehow, but bloodstains, even without corpses, would definitely reveal my presence.
(You know, I think even just the guards not being at their assigned posts would be enough to put everyone on guard.)
[…What if they have something important to do elsewhere?]
Phineas smirks. (If they can’t even properly act as sentries for a night, I expect they’d be punished quite stringently. In fact, they wouldn’t even be guards in the first place. They’d have been removed from their functions a long time ago.)
So I need to pass through this absolutely undetected, without hurting anyone?
How am I supposed to do this?
Go back outside and dig into the mountain with my claws?
But that would take too long.
Look for another staircase somewhere?
Except, while there probably is another staircase somewhere, I very much doubt it wouldn’t be guarded. If this one is, there is no reason for any other not to be.
Just hurry up and find the stone before these two guards’ absence can be noted. I already know roughly where I need to go, so it shouldn’t take me long, now. In any case, once I’ve destroyed or stolen the demon-sealing stone, everyone in the city will realize that something has happened. The stone’s qi fluctuation will suddenly disappear, after all. It’d be hard to miss.
For a moment, I wonder if I should perhaps just give it up, ignore the stone, and try to find Nerys in this city even with its interference. But I quickly shake my head at the idea. The stone hampers my abilities too much. If I’m ever discovered by some god while still under its effects, I’m done for. Let alone fighting, even escaping would be a real challenge.
At least, with the stone destroyed, even if everyone knows I’m somewhere in the area, my life won’t be quite as threatened if trouble does start – which it always does.
Resolved, I glance once more at the two guards below. The one on the left seems about to fall asleep. He’s not even carrying his spear, preferring to leave it against the wall next to him. The other, armed with a short sword, looks wide awake, though bored.
I can’t hear any other patrol nearby, so this seems like a good enough opportunity.
I jump down to the first floor. When I reach the staircase’s landing, the two guards are lined in front of me, one behind the other. The closest one – the one about to sleep – startles at my appearance, but I don’t give him time to react. I jump, not at him, but at the one behind him. Only, when I pass him by, my arm whips out, and I catch his neck in the crook of my elbow.
He makes only a small strangled sound before being taken off his feet and following me toward his comrade, leaving his spear behind against the wall. I reach the other feet first. Since my only arm is already strangling the other, I wrap my legs around this one’s neck. Incredibly, the soldier manages to support my weight – and the weight of his friend caught in my arm – on his shoulders for long enough to reach up with his hands and claw at my thighs in a doomed attempt to get them off him. His nails don’t even leave any trace on the black suit’s fabric, however.
…I’m glad he didn’t claw at my tail, though, or I would probably have disregarded my resolution to dispatch them without leaving any bloodstains.
Then, the surprisingly strong human falls. I don’t even need to tighten the snare formed by my legs. His back finally fails to hold up the unexpected burden suddenly pressing down on it, and his spine simply breaks. Several times. He crumples to the ground, and I land silently, his corpse lying between my legs.
At the same time, I crush the neck of the other one.
No sound – or not much, at least.
I quickly head down the staircase to the underground level. There, a solid, narrow metal door blocks the way. I ignore it and dump the body of the guard whose neck I broke. Then I return to the first floor again, to carry the first guard’s spear and the second guard’s corpse downstairs too.
Finally, my attention turns to that metal door. There is no handle, so I’m not quite sure how one is supposed to open it. I just slip my claws into the small gap between it and its frame. The metal bends and warps a little until my fingers go all the way through, but that doesn’t matter. If someone notices the door’s broken, they’ll also notice the two dead bodies lying next to it, anyway. Once my fingers are through, I slide them down until their passage destroys the mechanism holding the door locked, and I push it open.
The way afterward is easier. There seem to be fewer patrols keeping watch over this part of the castle. I follow the direction given to me by the woman I interrogated.
And I quickly notice that the intensity of the qi fluctuations given off by the demon-sealing stone is steadily increasing.
I hadn’t noticed earlier, since the change was minute, but now, as I get closer to it, I can feel the effects of the stone on me perceptibly worsen.
It feels uncomfortable, like a high, tinny sound scratching at my ears – except that the sensation is mapped onto all of my senses, not just hearing. Even though there is no actual, physical sound to be heard, my ears unconsciously flatten against my skull, and the fur on my tail stands on end. I grind my teeth and bear with it, continuing on my way, directing my steps toward where that feeling is affecting me worse.
(Are you all right?)
(You don’t look fine to me.)
Ignoring Phineas’s concerns, I keep going.
The tunnels of the underground levels below the castle aren’t natural cave tunnels. They’re regular, with smooth and clean floors. The ceiling is high, and rafters bridge the walls. These rafters might be what holds the whole structure together; there are magic formations drawn into the wood, though I don’t take the time to study them more carefully.
Eventually, I reach a point where one of the tunnel’s walls becomes rounded, as if tracing the outline of a circular room beyond. By that point, the qi fluctuations are so powerful that the demon-sealing stone affects me even though I’m not using my magic at all. My blood seems to be boiling inside my veins, and even the whirring cloud of blood-qi beads inside my dantian is spinning more and more irregularly, the beads leaking black smoke like they’re having trouble keeping their solid forms.
I stop for a moment, closing my eyes against the headache pounding on my temples. I lean against the wall and take a deep breath to steady myself.
This is not good…
Not good at all…
I’m not sure why this particular demon-sealing stone is so powerful, but if that brat had used it against me in Dorn, he would have killed me on our very first exchange of blows. This is not just sealing my magic and soul force anymore…
Within my dantian, Phineas looks at me worriedly. But he doesn’t say anything. He probably realizes that there is nothing he can do to help, even if he opens his mouth.
Taking my eyes away from him, I glance at the humongous 冰 rune. It looks completely unaffected by what’s happening to me, still majestic and immovable. The black rune isn’t the same though. The fog hanging around it is roiling restlessly.
Heh. Looks like it enjoys my current situation as little as I do.
Well, let’s hurry up and get out of here.
I hurry down the tunnel, following the curve of the wall, until I reach a new doorway. This time again, two guards are waiting in front of it. I wonder for a moment at their ability to stay here for so long under the debilitating effects of that qi fluctuation before I realize that, to them, it’s probably nothing more than a slight pressure on the back of their minds.
I don’t want to spend any more time here, so I forgo the subtle path.
I simply charge at the two.
Three seconds later, I’m forcefully prying open the door behind them, tearing through the metal like paper. In my current state, I didn’t have the leisure or the mood to care about restraining my strength; one of the soldiers has been cut in half at the waist, while the other’s corpse is simply missing his head, along with his neck, an arm and shoulder, and a good half of his chest. The walls and floor everywhere around are covered in blood and bits of flesh.
When I rip the door out of its hinges, the wave of qi that assaults me sends me reeling back into the corridor. I almost fall to my knees, but somehow manage to recover my balance. I bend down, with my hand on my knee, gasping and retching. Small black drops are dripping down my face onto the floor. I rub my eye with the back of my hand. It comes out wet with blood. My blood.
(Hurry up and deal with this thing,) Phineas says urgently. (You look like you’re going to fall apart any second.)
That’s a pretty good description.
It’s like my own blood is rebelling against my own body, somehow, and trying to unmake it from the inside out.
I look up at the demon-sealing stone resting in the wide, circular room. It looks like the other demon-sealing stones I’ve seen in the past. A glass sphere with strange black and white wisps floating inside.
But this one is huge. Enormous.
More than three meters in diameter.
Can’t steal it. Not enough room in my space ring.
Can’t even approach it.
I don’t want to know what would happen to me if I stood right in front of that thing. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be good.
I bend down and pick up the heavy metal door, which I dropped on my own feet a moment ago. I hear rushing footsteps echoing through the tunnels, approaching my position. Someone must have heard the ruckus of me ‘opening’ the door to this room.
I don’t care anymore, though.
I heft the twisted, mangled door above my shoulder.
And I throw it, with all the strength I can muster, toward the demon-sealing stone inside.