Piles upon piles of papers are stacked in front of me.
Yet none of them contain what I seek.
No mention of Nerys at all in any of the records held by the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, even though they do reach more than 300 years into the past. I even enlisted the help of the human man who opened the door to explain to me the filing system used to order the papers and then help my search.
I’m not sure how I feel about this.
I’ve lost the only good idea I had on how to find Nerys, which is frustrating. On the other hand, since the human informed me that most slave trading in the human territories goes through the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, it also means Nerys likely wasn’t sold as a slave, which is good, considering what I’ve since learned of the treatment of slaves by their owners.
I turn to the human man. At first, he was absolutely terrified of me – almost exaggeratedly so – but after spending the whole night working next to me, he seems to have become more used to my presence. Now, he’s not trembling every time I look in his direction anymore, and he can hold a proper conversation with me without biting his tongue or stuttering on each word.
Sighing inwardly, I slowly raise myself from my seat on the floor – I gave the only, flimsy chair to the human, who had less chance to crush it under his weight. I stretch my limbs and arch my back, consciously relaxing all my muscles, and wipe out the remaining disappointment that lingers in my mind.
This failure is nothing but another stumbling step along the way.
Just like in the Tower. Giving up is forbidden. Being discouraged is forbidden. Failure is normal. Expected, even. Patience is everything. Slowly but steadily grind away at the world until I accomplish what I want to accomplish. Kill everything that needs to be killed. Get stronger, so that I can walk a little bit faster and grind away a little bit harder. Take the next step. And then the next. Just one step forward. Just one floor down. Until I finally die or until I finally satisfy my objectives.
Didn’t this bring me to the 199th floor? To that teleport formation at the very bottom? To Jodene fortress and then to Caldera?
This idea to investigate the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce was a mistake. It didn’t bring any results. But that changes nothing. Nerys will still be found, all the same. Even if I have to hunt down every elf on this plane – or on other planes if it comes to that – and compare their faces to the one in my memory…
Of course, this will only be my last resort. Surely, there must be a more efficient way to locate Nerys than this.
I raise my head and look at the human sitting in front of me.
[…How can I find an elf, if not here?]
The man shakes his head and rubs his tired, bloodshot eyes. “I’m really not sure. Perhaps you could check the census office? If the elf you seek is living lawfully in human territory, her name should be recorded there.” He hesitates and considers the question for a while more before continuing, tugging thoughtfully on his lower lip. “Otherwise, you might try to examine the passage manifests of the fortresses on the Frontline. If the elf returned to majin territory, they should also have records of that. And if you still can’t find her there, then you may have to go all the way to majin territory yourself and see what you can find there. I’m fairly sure the majin also have a census office, and elves are fairly rare, nowadays, so you might find her unexpectedly easily.”
Back east, then. I’ll need to retrace my steps, roughly, toward the place where Sif and I split up. I could sneak aboard a train again, though Fushia City’s destruction might have broken its circuit. I’m not sure how difficult it would be to fix the damages and return the railroad to working order. Could it have been done in the weeks since the battle?
Another concern is that I remember Sif telling me that the Frontline is heavily militarized and that even I should be careful if I go there. I’m not sure if this is due to Sif underestimating the extent of my power, or if her assessment is correct and the soldiers there could indeed threaten me. In any case, accessing their ‘manifests’ – I don’t know the word, but judging from context, it should be some sort of record similar to those held by the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce to document their sale of slaves – would be a much harder task than it is today in Alsomn. Soldiers will know how to defend themselves better than the frightened human currently sitting in front of me.
“Uh, well…” The human starts fretfully tugging at his chin. His eyes swim around as his brain works frantically to provide me with a satisfying answer. After a few seconds, he finally seems to hit on something. “The Inter-species Competition? Maybe?” He says in a weak voice. “It’ll take place in two months on the Island. Well, I’m not sure if there’ll be any elves, but many majin will attend. Your friend might also be there.”
(A competition, eh? I confess I’m somewhat curious,) Phineas says wistfully. (There are a few such things, up on the Godrealm, too. They’re all very popular, and victory is considered a mark of great honor. Though they’re probably much more impressive than a competition between mortals… Still, while any random god should be able to take the win here, the proceedings might be entertaining to watch.)
I wonder what discipline they compete in? Magic formations, perhaps? If so, it’s true that I might learn a few things. Although, it might be something completely different, too. Like… singing? Or dancing? Or maybe killing demons?
In any case, if elves are truly present…
[…Let’s go there, then.]
Phineas blinks, openly surprised. (Really? Just like that? Are you interested in the competition, too?) The corners of his lips lift in a small smirk. (Do you want to participate? It’d be a good way to show off your skills to the world.)
[…No, I won’t participate. I’m going there to find Nerys.]
(Of course, you are,) Phineas says, his smile twitching a little.
“W–What should I do, now?” the human man asks then, fidgeting uncomfortably. “We’ve gone through every pertinent record available. I’m not sure what else I can do for you.”
Removing my focus from my dantian and my conversation with Phineas, I glance at the human, then wordlessly make my way to the narrow staircase that leads out of the hidden room housing the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce’s slave trading records. After a short moment of hesitation, the human makes to stand up and follow me, but I conjure a small spike of ice in my hand and fling it at him. Despite warily staring at every one of my movements – perhaps he expected that I would kill him once his work was done – I act too fast for his reflexes to catch up. The spike soars through the few meters between us in a fraction of a second and blasts straight through his skull, automatically dissipating on the other side of his head. Blood and brain matter splatter against the wall behind him, and the man falls bonelessly to the floor, dead without even having had the time to realize what happened to him.
Phineas looks at me disapprovingly for a moment, before schooling his expression back into careful neutrality and pretending he doesn’t care. It’s pretty obvious by now that he disapproves of me killing humans, probably because he is one himself. I’m not sure why he’s not just saying so out loud, however. Perhaps he realizes that I’m not going to stop just because he asks?
I make my way up the stairs, out of the basement room, and enter a vast hall holding a smattering of chairs and low tables. The stairs don’t open to a door, though. Instead, the staircase’s mouth is concealed behind a fireplace, which slides to the side and reveals the way when one pulls on a bunch of candlesticks lined on a nearby wall. I didn’t really understand why the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce felt the need to hide their records of the slaves they sold, but Phineas explained that slavery is often frowned upon. Apparently, even if ‘frowned upon’ doesn’t equate to ‘explicitly forbidden’, the Chamber of Commerce would still strive to protect their ostensible reputation by pretending – even though it’s nothing but an open secret and pretty much everyone knows the truth – that their business lies elsewhere and they have nothing to do with slavery.
Well, I still don’t really get it, even after the explanation, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve made sure Nerys didn’t pass through their hands. Anything else is meaningless noise.
I backtrack through the way the human man followed when we came in until I reach the front gate. The corpse of the door guard is still lying there next to it, where I threw him last night.
A thought dispels the layer of ice covering the door, and another opens it. I stride out of the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce confidently. I already know nobody’s waiting in ambush outside. First, because my ears are telling me so – in fact, they’re telling me too much, this deep in an overpopulated human city, but I’m starting to get the hang of ignoring the overload. Second, because Sanae spent the night watching the surroundings. Even now, I can feel her through the link between our souls. She’s not out of range, so she’d have warned me if I needed to be careful.
I close the door again behind me and seal it shut, filling the small gaps between the door and its frame with ice. Hopefully, that will delay the discovery of the two dead humans inside until I escape Alsomn.
I sneak in and out of back alleys as necessary, staying out of sight as I make my way toward the edge of the city.
It’s still early morning, but with the ruckus I caused during the night – looking up, I can still see the part of the mountain I ripped out on my way out of the tunnels – there are already quite a lot of people out in the streets. The conversations I catch all around me confirm what I heard last night. The inhabitants have been frightened by the destruction of the demon-sealing stone. It’s as if they expect a tide of demons to assault Alsomn at any moment. Also, the guards are still looking for the perpetrator and that the city gates are closed, all passage in and out of the city stopped until further notice.
That shouldn’t affect me, assuming that the god protecting Alsomn isn’t included in ‘the guards.’ It’s hard to say whether this is the case or not. The mortals don’t seem aware at all that gods even exist, so despite my eavesdropping, I don’t catch any clues as to my enemy’s identity at all.
Actually, does that god even exist? I’ve been here all night, and still no sign of them. Did Sanae run interference? Or could it be that this god doesn’t have access to tracking magic?
In any case, my business in this city is concluded, for now.
When I leap over the wall, taking advantage of a gap in the rotation of the patrols, I trigger the formations carved into it. I feel a tightening in the air around me, trying to coil around my limbs and restrain me, but it’s merely mortal magic, powered by a very limited amount of energy. I only need to flex my muscles for an instant before the magical restraints snap.
(They definitely noticed that. So much for stealth.)
I suppose I could have tried to find the point through which I infiltrated Alsomn yesterday, but if it’s been found, which it most likely has as I didn’t exactly take care to mask my sabotage, then they would have strengthened their defenses there, or perhaps even set up an ambush. All in all, better to exfiltrate at a random point of the wall.
And it’s not like stealth is all that important anymore.
Yesterday, I needed to avoid being interrupted while I went through the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce’s records, so I stayed hidden, but now that my work is done, whether I’m detected or not matters a lot less.
In fact, it might be amusi…
I silently grit my teeth as I push the thought out of my mind and force my legs to keep moving, away from Alsomn. In a few seconds, I’ve already vanished from sight of the wall, diving into a nearby forest, a few kilometers away. Now safe, I take a few deep breaths to clear my head while Phineas watches in obvious concern from the side.
Reading boring papers for six consecutive hours while thinking of Nerys did a lot to calm the violent urges lingering from last night, but I can tell that they’re not completely gone, yet. That old anger is smoldering as always at the bottom of my mind, and right now, it’s only a little spark away from igniting.
This is actually quite frustrating.
I didn’t have that much trouble staying in control of myself, back in the Tower.
…Or should I say that, when I did lose control, it wasn’t that bad?
Certainly, it was getting worse with time. As I got older and stronger, I started to rampage more and more often, but I never purposefully, knowingly risked my life because I found it amusing. That would have been a death sentence. I only slaughtered everything around me with greater enthusiasm than usual, which… really wasn’t that much of a problem.
It’s like returning to Caldera suddenly worsened my situation…
(So, are we heading to that competition, then? The clerk said it would take place on an island, but do you know which one he was referring to?)
[…Not an island. The Island.]
(The Island? What’s so special about this island that it doesn’t even need a name to be recognized?)
I’ve read about the Island in the map book I bought in the Planar Prison, so I do in fact know where to go to attend this competition. The Island doesn’t need a specific name because it’s the only island accessible to people on this plane – excluding those in landlocked lakes. The oceans surrounding the two continents and the Betwixt Sea separating them from each other are both too dangerous to be crossed or even explored. Apparently, there are countless giant beasts and demons living in the waters, and whirlpools and maelstroms destroy any ship lucky enough to escape attacks. Unless the ship remains in shallow waters, close to the coast, venturing too far in Caldera’s seas is nothing short of a death sentence. The only exception to this rule, then, is the Island, a random rock rising just a bit north of the Frontline, in the middle of the Betwixt Sea. Countless reefs dot the path leading from the Frontline to the Island, and while those reefs also present danger to any ship daring to sail there, they do have the benefit of breaking up the nearby whirlpools’ flows and preventing the largest of sea beasts from approaching. So, while the trip to the Island is still quite risky, it’s not entirely impossible. And since it’s roughly equidistant to each continent, it’s seemingly considered neutral grounds between the humans and the majin.
I suppose it makes sense, then, that this competition would take place there.
It’s also convenient that it’s roughly in the same direction I would need to head if I wanted to follow up on those ideas the human man – the clerk, as Phineas calls him – gave me to find Nerys: the Frontline, and majin territory. It won’t be too much of a detour to visit the Island before continuing my search.
(I see,) Phineas says, nodding, once I’m done explaining all of that to him – in vastly fewer words. (By the way, aren’t you forgetting something? Isn’t your spider friend still in the city?)
I shake my head. […Sanae is following us from a distance to check that no one is tracking us.]
When those words escape my soul’s mouth to answer Phineas’s question, almost as if they’re prophetic, a translucent, faintly shimmering barrier suddenly rises up from a few hundred meters in front of me. When I look to the sides and behind me, the same translucent barrier is climbing over the treetops and gradually covering the sky, until the four parts meet at the top with a sizzling sound of leaking energy and form a full dome, trapping me inside.
(I see. So she’s looking out for just this sort of thing, is she?) Phineas says wryly.
Is this the god who lives in Alsomn?
Did they wait until I left the city so that our fight wouldn’t destroy it? But how did they manage to raise this barrier without me – or Sanae, as Phineas pointed out – noticing anything?