Is this an offensive formation or is it just supposed to trap me in here until someone strong enough can catch up and kill me?
And just when I was thinking I’d successfully escaped Alsomn, too…
Well, no matter what, this isn’t good. I need to get out of this formation. It shouldn’t be too difficult, I think, but I don’t want to take this lightly. Some formations can be truly lethal, even to the highest-ranked gods.
The easiest way out would be to kill the caster of this formation.
Far above in the sky, just beneath the lowest layer of clouds, several people are floating in the air.
Of course! I’m an idiot! Since it’s such a useful spell, pretty much every sufficiently skilled human learns to fly once they possess the required energy reserves to allow it, I once read in one of Miroslav’s books. It seems I neglected this point and failed to take proper precautions. It didn’t even cross my mind, even after seeing so many people flying around during all those battles, ever since I returned to Caldera.
How careless of me. How foolish.
I’ll be sure to be more careful from now on.
In any case, that must be how they set up this formation around me without me noticing anything. My hearing may be good, but not so good that I can catch the sound of someone soaring through the air so far away. Unless they break the sound barrier, of course, but they’d have to be even more foolish than me to make this kind of mistake.
Still, I would’ve imagined that I’d be able to detect the qi fluctuation of a flight spell, even from this distance. Perhaps it consumes less qi than I thought, and the fluctuations are too slight to feel them from here? Or perhaps these people took precautions and cast some sort of anti-radiation shielding around themselves? I’m aware that there exist spells which can hide the traces of other spells; this might be the case here, too.
Humans sure are full of all kinds of sneaky tactics.
Now, how am I going to kill them all?
There is that shimmering layer of energy in the way, so I can’t see these people clearly, but it looks like there is at least a dozen of them, arranged in a loose circle with another one, presumably their leader, at the center.
Of course, they’re outside the barrier. It’d be a pretty useless formation if it not only trapped the target inside but also the caster.
Since I can’t reach the caster, I must destroy the formation first.
At this moment, distortions appear in the barrier, like raindrops creating ripples on the surface of a puddle, and the concentration of qi in the air starts to increase. Are they going to detonate it to try and kill me? Or is it going to power some other kind of spell?
Without waiting for them to show their magic, I rush through the forest toward one of the four points the formation sprung up from. I’ve never set up – or even seen – this kind of transportable formation myself, but I do know about them. If I’m not wrong, I should find some sort of artifact at those four points, which the formation uses as anchors and power sources. Disabling even a single one of them would be enough to neutralize the formation.
…Though, of course, if the caster isn’t a complete idiot, those artifacts will also be outside the barrier.
Still, even without being able to touch it, just looking at the artifact’s form might tell me more about the formation itself; how it works, what it’s going to do to me, how long it can last, and hopefully, how best to destroy it.
It only takes me a few seconds to burst through the foliage and reach the edge of the barrier. When I stop, a torrent of airborne leaves crashes against the barrier all around me, ripped from their branches and thrown here by the wind of my passage. And there, planted in the loose earth of the forest, a small flag stands proudly. The triangular cloth at the top is flapping slowly and silently. Its movement, however, is too regular and doesn’t even follow the direction of the wind. Instead, it’s like artificial waves are stirring its surface. With each new wave that reaches the peak of the triangle, a pulse of energy flows down the shaft, toward the point where it touches the earth, then diffuses into the translucent barrier in a spreading circle of iridescent blues and purples that slowly fades as it spreads further from the flag.
But the formation carved on the flag is ridiculously complicated. The runes are archaic, even for Ancient Eashiri, and so numerous as to almost overlap. The formation drawn on the cloth is simpler, but from what I can tell at first glance, it only acts as an energy pathway. The cloth receives qi from an outside source and transmits it down the shaft, powering the complex formations carved into it and allowing the barrier to form at the very bottom. If the cloth acts as a power receiver, I think it should also transmit the operator’s instructions to the shaft’s formation. The shaft is the one transforming that raw qi into an actual barrier.
But how am I supposed to analyze and neutralize this thing before anything untoward happens to me?
(Wow. Flag formations are already ridiculously expensive, but this one is definitely a top-quality example. You can be sure that whoever owns it wasn’t born on Caldera. Only on the Godrealm will you find something on that level. And even then… only in the families of the Septentrion.)
Perhaps interpreting my silence as a lack of understanding, Phineas continues. (Considering that the only members of the Septentrion you’ve met on this plane are those of the Adkins family, I’d say it’s them you’re facing, today. I sure hope it’s not Wayland Adkins, at least. Otherwise, we’re done for no matter what.)
I’d got that the first time, though. I’m just trying to focus on the formation. Rather than knowing where it comes from, I want to know how to escape it.
Here is one of the characters for ‘barrier’ in Ancient Eashiri. The surrounding characters here and here and here should represent the link between this flag and the three others. Then, the characters over there seem to interlock with those here to… do something…
I’m still trying to understand how everything is pieced together when the ripples marring the surface of the barrier suddenly pulse violently. Crackling balls of greyish lightning coalesce before each one. With the forest in the way, I can’t see the whole barrier, but just within my line of sight, there should be at least 300 of those lightning balls. I’m not sure how damaging they truly are, but the qi fluctuations pressing down on my mind are strong enough to be a concern. All put together, I have to admit that the energy powering those lightning balls is more than I could ever channel into any one spell.
I hope this is an effect of the formation amplifying the power it receives from the operator. The alternative is that the operator himself is much more powerful than I am.
As the lightning balls slowly detach from the barrier, crackling louder with each passing second, I step away from the small flag. There is no way I can continue analyzing it while those things are bearing down on me.
I turn around and put my back to the barrier, so that I’ll have to face attacks from only three directions at the same time instead of four. Then, I stretch my left arm in front of me, and my hand dissolves into a massive wall of ice, curving up and around me.
With a sound like an angry swarm of bees, the lightning balls finally shoot toward me, covering the sky. In an instant, they’re upon the ice wall I erected in front of me.
When the furthest ones cut through the forest on their way to me, most of the trees inside the barrier’s enclosure quickly turn to ashes, leaving only a rare few charred, broken husks where the hardiest trees barely survived the ordeal.
(Careful. Don’t be fooled,) Phineas calls out, eyes wide. (Those trees weren’t disintegrated only because the power in that lightning is very well contained. If you take those spells head on, you’ll end up in a pitiful state.)
Following Phineas’s advice – which wasn’t exactly necessary; I didn’t survive 300 years in the Tower by letting obviously dangerous magic hit me when I can avoid it – I send more of my blood-qi into my arm. The spell changes, and before the first lightning balls can impact the ice wall, countless icicles shoot out like arrows. It takes hundreds of them to down even a single one of the lightning balls, but they fly out the ice in an unending stream. I have enough blood-qi in me to keep that up for weeks, so I’m not concerned when it comes to endurance, but the lightning balls are fast. At this rate, some of them might reach the ice wall before they can be destroyed. Thus, I decide to not only increase the force of my magic but also supplement the spell with telekinesis.
I wince inwardly and flatten my ears against my skull at the continuous sound of simultaneous sonic booms. Now, pushed not only by my magic but also by my soul force, the icicles are so fast that only vague afterimages can be seen of them. The ice wall shakes and trembles, and my feet are almost pushed back by the force of those icicles blasting away, so I brace myself against the barrier behind me.
In just a few moments, hundreds of thousands of icicles tear through the lightning balls until nothing is left of them, at which point they crash against the barrier on the other side and explode into white powder. Unfortunately, the barrier doesn’t even flicker.
Since the consumption of blood-qi is no joke, I immediately interrupt the spell, and the ice wall melts back into the shape of my left arm.
I can already see new ripples forming all over the barrier’s shimmering surface. There are fewer of them than earlier, but they’re larger, this time. In any case, it should take at least a few seconds until the flags gather enough energy to implement a new attack spell.
I turn back to face the flag behind me.
(I don’t think it’s a viable idea to decrypt that formation. You’ll never have enough time to study the entire flag. And you can only see one side of it, even. You won’t get anything out of it.)
(Couldn’t your spider help us? Where is it at a time like this?)
[…She’s coming closer. But she won’t act unless it’s necessary.]
Or unless she feels like it, I guess.
Phineas’s eyebrow rise up in wonder. (And right now isn’t necessary?)
(I admire your self-confidence,) Phineas says in a dry voice. (If you have a plan, I suggest you hurry, then. Solely judging by the complexity of that flag, I very much doubt lightning is the only thing they can throw at you.)
Well, I’m not sure if I’d call it a plan, really.
But it’s true that I’m confident.
In one thing in particular.
Absolute brute force.
I’ve reached the point where, in the last floors of Miroslav’s Tower, no matter what kind of strange new demon popped up, no matter how big and ferocious they looked, I always had the advantage when it came to raw strength. Even the Sulfur Frog was outmatched when it came to sheer destructive power. The only reason I lost against it was that it was so enormous that even a 300-meter-wide, 100-meter-deep crater blown into its face was nothing more than a flesh wound. By the time I did enough damage to threaten its life, its acid had already disabled most of my much smaller body.
(Wait. Wait, wait, wait! You want to break through it forcefully?) Phineas asks in disbelief. (Give it up! That’ll never work!)
I ignore him and send my magic into the earth beneath my feet to reinforce it, then slide my right foot backward and take a stance. I lower my center of mass and bring my clenched fist at hip level. The claws of my feet dig into the ground. I sharpen my soul force into a pinpoint needle that will condense all the force of my blow into a single spot.
And I strike.
My feet sink into the earth, while the ground a bit further behind me, beyond the range of my reinforcement, simply buckles and rocks like a shifting sea, toppling and uprooting the few battered trees that managed to survive until now. When my fist impacts the barrier, I can only push it four or five centimeters deep before I expend all the force I’ve mustered and it pushes back against me. An intense shockwave still spreads out through the barrier like a wave, disrupting and smoothing out the ripples heralding the next attack.
As the shockwave wreaks havoc on the barrier, the flag starts flapping frantically, sending more and more energy down its shaft to reinforce and maintain the barrier’s integrity.
Phineas’s eyes widen. (That is a lot of power going through this flag…) His eyes widen even more, as if he’s just realized something that should have been obvious, and he smacks his forehead. (Ah, I see! You want to overwhelm the operator with the surge of energy needed to stabilize the barrier? Clever. Very clever. Or not, actually… You’re just punching the issue away… But, you’re going to have to do this several times in quick succession for it to work. If you give them time to rest between each surge, they’ll be able to maintain the barrier. Are you sure you can bring out that kind of strength so many times in a row?)
Actually, I was hoping to directly break the barrier with one strike. I thought it would be enough, but it seems I underestimated its solidity. I suppose Phineas is right, though. Every time a strike distorts the barrier, it’s going to draw an enormous spike of energy from the people channeling their qi into it. If that spike of energy is greater than the capacity of these people’s meridians, they soon won’t be in any state to fly, let alone power such a strong formation. They’ll be lucky if they even survive.
I glance over my shoulder at the floating forms in the sky, far above. The silhouette in the center is still flying stably, but I get the distinct impression that the others around it are already swaying.
Definitely not gods, then…
I turn back to the barrier and prepare another full-power blow.
(Wait, shouldn’t you try that at the midway point between two flags? The barrier will be weaker, there.)
[…Not weak enough to pierce through. And the overload will be divided between the two flags.]
That’ll make it harder for me to strain the operator’s control over the formation. Not worth it. Better to focus on a single flag at a time.
When I’m about to loose another strike on the barrier, Sanae’s voice suddenly pops up in my mind.
I blink and my gaze trails down the shaft. There, peeking at me from behind a tuft of grass, is a tiny black spider.
All right, then.
I relax my stance, but before I can ask Sanae to break the flag and get me out of there, another qi fluctuation appears behind me. All the ripples that still survive on the barrier’s surface after the shockwave from my first punch are gathering together and merging with each other. A strange aura fills the entire area, and gradually, a faint, shadowy shape coalesces. It roughly has a human form, but without any features. The edges of the silhouette are indistinct, almost fading into the air around it.
In my dantian, Phineas gasps. (Careful, that’s a soul curse. If it touches you even once, you’ll…)
He doesn’t have time to finish giving his warning before the shadowy figure raises what should be its head and takes a single step forward. Abruptly, its motion seems to stutter.
Although it’s only a single step, it’s like space shrinks in front of it. The figure flickers out of existence and reappears right in front of me. I didn’t blink or take my eyes off it for even an instant, but it still managed to move so fast I couldn’t follow it.
Still, my centuries of deeply ingrained reflexes are not there for nothing. Nowadays, I usually have to try hard to restrain them in order to not hurt everyone around me every time they’re triggered, but it’s undeniable that, in these sorts of circumstances, they can save my life. In this case, without any conscious decision to do so, an ice spike suddenly appears between us and shoots forward, leaving behind only the echoes of a sonic boom.
The spike tears straight through the figure’s indistinct head, boring a large hole into it. Immediately afterward, however, more shadows seem to bleed out of the rest of the figure into the hole, filling it up again. In no time, it’s like nothing ever happened to it.
(You can’t destroy it with physical attacks! Run away! Don’t let it touch you!)
How am I supposed to run away from something that can move this fast?
And it’s not like it’s the first time I face this sort of threat, either. If anything, it’ll be more dangerous to run away. Better confront it directly.
The shadowy figure takes another step and raises its arms, stretching its hands out toward me like it wants to hug me. In response, I also raise my right hand. Black, clawed fingers close around one of the figure’s wrists.
Phineas looks on frantically. (No! Don’t touch it!)
I do my very best to ignore his annoying shrieking and tug on the figure’s arm. It doesn’t stumble or anything like that but instead tilts to the side while keeping its previous posture, as if it’s only a rigid paper cutout of a person instead of an actual, living entity. It looks bizarre, and the thing is still reaching for me with its other hand, but since that brings it in an even better position for me to strike, I don’t let it bother me.
I slam an ax kick into the figure’s face.
This time, it doesn’t just make a little hole in its head. The kick shears through the thing’s body and directly splits it in half. Its head is disintegrated on the spot, while most of its chest is ripped apart from the rest of it. For a moment, I wonder if I misjudged and the soul curse is going to continue ‘living’ even in that state – although it’s not actually a living thing – but then, what’s left of it stiffens and freezes mid-motion. When the next gust of wind comes, a second later, its remains harmlessly dissipate into nothing, like a fog melting under the sun’s rays.
(Wha–?! What?! What happened? Did you just kick a curse to death?) Phineas says, mouth gaping open in astonishment. (How is that even possible? It’s not like it even ‘exists’ as such. There is nothing to kick in the first place. It’s like… like… kicking a mirage and actually killing it. It’s not just impossible! It just plain doesn’t make any sense!)
(What…? What does that have to do with anything?)
I can even touch magic and soul force with my adamantine fingers. My claws can tear illusions, mirages made out of magic, to pieces, so why wouldn’t I be able to destroy a simple curse? It would certainly be dangerous if that thing managed to touch me and seep into my dantian – though even then, I’m still fairly certain I could have survived it; Phineas himself would have been the one in trouble – but as it is, I can just beat it to death and be done with it. And since it doesn’t have a mind or intelligence of its own, it can’t even dodge.
(This… What? That doesn’t even… Huh?)
I leave Phineas to himself and turn back to Sanae. She’s still peeking out from behind her tuft of grass, her tiny legs waving to and fro as if in anticipation.
Sanae skitters behind the flag, and a moment later, I see the point of one of her blade-legs pierce clean through the shaft.
A new pulse of energy was just streaming down it to feed the barrier, but upon running across Sanae’s obstruction, the entire flag suddenly shudders. As more and more energy pools in the shaft with no way to exit, cracks start appearing on its surface, and the triangular cloth on top catches fire. Meanwhile, the barrier, without a steady source of qi to keep it going, immediately starts fraying. There are still the other three flags to slow down the process, but I know that they’re not going to be able to hold it together for much longer.
So I reach out with a finger and gently poke the barrier with my claw.
There is no great explosion. The barrier just fizzles and fails.
I didn’t even suffer the slightest injury during the whole thing. I’d almost feel bad for whoever went through so much effort to put up the formation.
Who exactly put up the formation?
I turn around and gaze at the sky. With the barrier gone, my view is unobstructed. The humans flying in the sky are suddenly revealed to me. All the ones arranged in a circle bear varying amounts of injuries. Clearly, the surge of energy the flag drew from them when I punched the barrier earlier cracked their meridians. Their skin has split, blood flowing copiously and staining their robes red.
And as for the human in the center of the circle…
[…That brat, again.]
(Do you know him?) Phineas asks, finally recovering from the shock of the soul curse’s destruction. (Oh, is he the one you spoke about? The one who attacked you in Dorn? Does he carry a grudge against you? At the very least, using a soul curse is quite virulent, even against bitter enemies. Going so far as to try and prevent you from even reincarnating… I think it’s a fair guess that he doesn’t like you much.)
Contrary to the others around him, the brat isn’t bleeding, but his face still looks pale and drawn. When he looks at me, his eyes are wide and bloodshot.
“Go!” he shouts to his accomplices, and they all start flying away.
He, on the other hand, stays behind for a moment longer, holding up a hand. I can’t see from here what it is he’s holding, but after a second, the four flags that were anchoring the formation suddenly rip themselves out of the ground and soar toward him, even the one Sanae damaged.
Not so fast…
I jump after the flag before it’s gone too far and manage to grab onto its shaft. Unexpectedly, it doesn’t sink at all under my weight but instead pulls me along toward the brat.
The brat gawks for a moment before decisively severing his link with the damaged flag. While the other three drop obediently into his hand and disappear, gravity reasserts itself over mine, and we start to fall.
But the flag flew at great speed, and I’m already close enough to my target.
I let the flag go, and swing my left hand down. As it falls, I channel more of my magic into it, and it suddenly grows to 250 meters in size.
The weak humans panic when the enormous shadow of my hand falls over them, but the brat doesn’t look flurried. A sword appears in his grasp, and with a flourish, its blade starts flickering with a faint blue light. He doesn’t wait for my hand to reach him. He swings, almost a dozen times in a second, and my hand is cleanly cut into as many pieces.
“Go, go, go!” he shouts again as he turns to face me fully.
Is he trying to gain time for the others to escape?
A burst of telekinesis sends the fragments of my hand barrelling toward him, but a few careless swings of his sword are enough to reduce them to white dust. That doesn’t matter, though. I only want to keep him occupied while more ice grows over my back in the shape of four gigantic wings.
Before my wings can properly take shape, however, the brat raises his sword over his head, holding the hilt with two hands. He closes his eyes, and even though a line of blood trails down the corner of his mouth and large beads of sweat rain down his brow, the blue light covering the blade deepens.
With a shout of exertion, he slashes down. The blue light extends far enough to reach me. I twist to the side to avoid it, but the brat twists his wrist a little, and the blue light adeptly turns to follow me.
Sighing inwardly, I spin around in mid-air and send a kick into the blue light, adamantine meeting his sword magic.
The brat’s magic is defeated, but the resultant explosion sends me hurtling away. I try to flap my wings and stabilize my body, but they hadn’t even fully formed yet, and the blast must have damaged them further. They shatter in millions of tiny flecks of ice.
In the end, I can only fall back down to the ground and watch helplessly as the brat coughs out a mouthful of blood and flies after his comrades. They all quickly take altitude and disappear into the clouds.
(You’re not going after them?)
I want to, but fighting a human god in the air would be too dangerous. I can’t dodge fast enough, there, and this boy has already proved he can create space cracks with his sword, which can even threaten me. And he probably has tons of protective artifacts on him, too, like last time.
If I want to kill him, I need to catch him on the ground while he doesn’t expect it and start hitting him with all I have before he can recover his composure.
I can feel my anger threatening to explode again at the sight of prey escaping from me so blatantly, but I grit my teeth and forcefully press it down. I turn away, walking toward where I saw the flag drop earlier.
It’ll make for good study material while on my way to the Island.