The Island stands something like 200 kilometers away from the Frontline’s coast. The trip can be made by boat, but it’s essential to follow a very specific path to avoid reefs, dangerous currents, and violent sea creatures.
A skilled captain can always deal with the first two, but the third will be the most troublesome. Both humans and majin find it difficult to fight to their best over- and underwater. Added to that is the increased ferocity and territoriality of sea beasts – to say nothing of sea demons – and the problem finds itself compounded.
All these factors make the Betwixt Sea, along with every other ocean on Caldera, practically impassable, save for very narrow channels. Even on those so-called safe channels, too much traffic will undoubtedly attract sea monsters. This all means the Island is a place where transporting any sizeable army without prohibitive expense is downright impossible, which makes it an ideal neutral ground. Both sides can only bring a very limited number of troops – not enough to threaten each other effectively.
That’s also why it ended up selected as the venue for the Inter-Species Competition.
That’s what my map book says, at least. None of that really applies to me, though. I’ve spent dozens of years living and fighting underwater. I’m used to it. Actually, I’m even more comfortable underwater than I am up on the surface. It’s just so quiet. I like it. Also, I’m much stronger with all this water around me. It’s not quite as ideal as a glacier, but it’s still an excellent medium for me to cast my most powerful spells.
As for the ferocity of sea monsters, well, it’s hard to do more ferocious than demons that are all perfectly willing to trade their life for mine. And I’m also used to that.
Then, when it comes to reefs and water currents, those can just be ignored. It’s not like I’m using a boat, after all. Considering the problems I had on that train, some time ago, and that there is now a bounty on me, I decided to just walk to my destination. Not only is it simpler, since I can just go from the Frontline to the Island in a straight line, but I also save all the blood-qi I would have spent killing dozens of people along the way.
Thus, I just stride on the seafloor. Reefs are mountains. Water currents are wind. Sea creatures flee at the mere sight of me, like any other animal free of Taint. Sea demons are killed instantly.
Really, it’s all quite peaceful.
(It’s this sort of thing that reminds me that you’re not human.)
[…Killing sea demons?]
(No. Feeling more at home at the bottom of the ocean than on solid ground. That’s something that no human could empathize with. Even if they could see in absolute darkness and resist crushing water pressure and hold their breath for days, no one would ever choose this as their favorite environment.)
[…It’s not my favorite environment.]
(Oh? What’s your favorite environment, then?)
Even quieter than the seafloor. Not being encumbered by my own weight. And so beautiful. It’s perfect. I wonder if elves can survive in outer space. Maybe I could live up there with Nerys.
(That’s even worse than underwater! And no, of course, elves can’t live in space! You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of species that can – on the fingers of one human hand. And elves sure aren’t one of them. Even the hardiest of elves would die in a day, in a vacuum. Elves need to breathe. And their blood would boil inside their veins, too. Liquids boil much faster under lower atmospheric pressures, you see. In outer space, blood will boil while still inside the veins,) Phineas says, nodding to himself in manifest satisfaction at having taught me something new. (You probably never experienced such a thing because your blood is constantly nearing freezing temperatures.)
Only, while it’s true that I never experienced such a thing myself, it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of the phenomenon. I have learned basic alchemical theory, which means I also know what mechanisms affect the boiling points of liquids. I’m not an idiot.
Furthermore, even if elves as a whole can’t live in the void, I’m pretty sure Nerys could. She’s outstanding like that. Her blood wouldn’t boil in her veins. She wouldn’t let it.
Slowly, my soul reforms.
Consciousness gradually returns to me as I separate from my blood-qi. I savor the last remnants of the pleasant sensation the fusion always brings me, until the last drop of blood-qi floats back to the whirring cloud of black beads and I regain total control of myself.
(Oh, you’re back?)
Training my soul like this has always been a bit of a dangerous gamble, since it completely cuts me off from my body. If an enemy finds me in that state, they would be able to destroy me without me even realizing what’s happening. That’s why it’s vital to secure a safe place to hide where I can be at peace, and then, make sure not to stay in that unconscious state for too long.
(It’s unfathomable. I checked this time again, and your soul truly disappears. As soon as you’ve fused with your blood-qi, I just can’t sense it at all anymore. How can you possibly survive such a thing? It doesn’t make any sense. Everything I know about souls tells me the result of such a fusion should be… destruction. Souls are fragile things. Yours should dissipate instantly upon fusing with your qi. However, not only can you survive it, but the fusion actually strengthens your soul. Noticeably so. Could it have something to do with that black rune over there? But what kind of magic would allow you to manipulate your soul like this? I know for sure it isn’t soul magic, but then what…)
Once again, Phineas starts mumbling to himself. Every time I finish training, he starts to blather on and on about how what I’m doing doesn’t make any sense, and this isn’t how people are supposed to train, and I shouldn’t be alive right now… And every time, he comes up with a new theory to explain it all, which he ultimately and inevitably rejects as incorrect.
But he’s not frustrated. His eyes are shining with interest. The mystery excites him.
What a strange person.
Thinking about it, he’s basically a prisoner, here. Entirely at my mercy, incapable of being anything more than a spectator to my actions. But he doesn’t seem to care. Apparently, studying me is fun enough to satisfy him.
Although, perhaps, the reason he can be so patient and acceptant of his current circumstances is because he has hope of regaining a body of his own? I wonder if it’s possible to transplant his soul into a corpse. Probably not. Otherwise, there would have been no need for that strange obelisk of his, right?
In any case, it’s not my problem.
Right now, even Phineas himself doesn’t seem to care, so why should I? If he one day decides that he wants to revive, and he has a way to do so handy, I won’t mind expending a bit of effort to help him, on account of his living in my dantian for the past 250 years. But I’m not going to be the one to make the offer.
Of course, right now, even if he asked, I have more important things to do.
I send my blood-qi to run a few cycles through my meridians. I don’t want to start a round of body strengthening, right now; I just want to check that nothing strange happened to my body while I was asleep.
Once reassured, I rise to my feet and lift my left arm. The ice cocoon enclosing me is sucked back into it. With a small jump, I catch the rocky ledge above me and haul myself out of the hole I dug into the sea floor, down at the bottom of a deep oceanic trench. The moment I appear, strange species of fish that barely even resemble fish at all frantically swim away from the pit where I slept, even though I show no interest in them. In the distance, rising from the edge of the trench and forming one of its walls, is a tall mountain. I’m in a valley, looking up at its slope. And far above, perhaps something like 10 or 12 kilometers away – far enough to strain even my eyesight, under these conditions – this mountain breaches the surface of the sea, its summit forming an island.
It’s not the Island, though. Just an island.
Even though this mountain dwarfs any other I’ve seen on Caldera, the island, the small fraction of itself it shows to the people living up on the surface, likely doesn’t even have a name. Do people even realize that, beneath this nameless, unremarkable island, lies such a magnificent mountain? Without looking at it from down there, without eyes that can penetrate the darkness, it’s impossible to understand just how gigantic it really is.
I glance at Phineas, to see if he’s as impressed as I am, but he’s still ruminating on the mystery that is my existence.
With slow, ponderous steps that disturb the dense silt on the seabed, I start walking again. My destination likely won’t be as peaceful, so I enjoy it while it lasts, in that perfect silence and that perfect darkness.
Around a day later, I arrive at more shallow waters. After scaling a cliff or two, the refracted light of the sun pierces through the water. At this depth, fish actually look like fish, though they still keep their distance from me.
I spend a few minutes watching the sunlight play through the waves, until a large shadow suddenly approaches my position, heading in the same direction as mine. A bunch of aggressive sea beasts, looking vaguely like sharks with tentacles growing from their bellies, trail after that large shadow and peck at its sides and bottom, trying to sink it. When one of the sharks nears the surface too closely, magic suddenly coalesces around it, and the surrounding water turns into spinning blades that dig into its flesh. The sea beast struggles for a little while, but eventually, its mangled body is left behind by the large shadow and the other attackers, its blood leaking from its wounds in red, slow, smoke-like trails. Immediately, countless little shrimps swarm around the corpse and feast on its flesh, scooping it out with their sharp pincers.
(Is that a ship? They must be heading to the Island to take part in the tournament. And considering that piece of magic just now, I’d say a contestant is aboard. That was a pretty nice spell, for a mortal.)
No, it wasn’t. It was sloppy and inefficient. Even a child could have done better. The magic spread through too large a volume of water just to create a few spinning water blades, which needlessly increased energy consumption. And the blades themselves weren’t sharp enough. Neither was their angle accurate enough; they skidded against the shark-thing’s scales for a few seconds before finding purchase.
But Phineas is correct on one point. That ship is heading toward the Island.
As the ship sails above me, I take a few steps, then jump. My body arrows through the water, until my momentum, expertly calculated, brings me right underneath the hull. Burying my claws in the reinforced wood, I cling to it, easing my weight under the ship. It bobs on the waves for a few seconds under the unexpected burden, but eventually, it doesn’t sink.
While the added weight slows down the ship a little bit, my presence does have the advantage of scaring all the shark-things away. They all disperse in random directions, abandoning their prey and reducing the burden on the magicians aboard the ship.
(Is that really necessary? We’re already pretty close to our destination, now, aren’t we?)
[…Easier to find the right place.]
The Island might not be as vast as the human and majin mainlands but it’s still several hundred kilometers in breadth. Since no big sea monsters are likely to appear so close to the Island’s coast, I think it’s a pretty good choice to ‘follow’ that ship. That way, I won’t have to look for the precise location where that tournament is being held. It’ll be more convenient.
(Are you just going to hang down there for the rest of the trip? There should still be a day or two until we arrive, you know.)
I have all the energy I need. Even if I have to stay hanging here for a hundred years, I won’t tire. I just need to be careful and not strain the wood too much. It’s pretty solid, considering it bore the attacks of those shark-things without breaking, but there are still several tons of weight hanging from a few planks. I need to be careful and not move too much.
(What’s the plan, when we reach the tournament?)
Phineas smirks. (Yes, I got that. But do you have anything more specific? How are you going to find a single elf in the middle of that crowd? I mean, I’m not entirely sure how many people are going to take part in that tournament, whether as audience or contestants, but I imagine it’ll be at least ten thousand. Looking for a single individual will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.)
…What’s a haystack?
But I think I understand the point.
If there are too many people, even my senses might have some trouble picking Nerys out. Especially since it’s been 300 years since I last saw her. Who knows how much she’s changed?
If she’s even there in the first place.
(I think that, instead of looking for her, you should make her find you. Participate and win the tournament,) Phineas says with a touch of excitement. (If you spread word of your existence far and wide, she’ll be able to at least know you’re alive. Then, she’ll come to you. And wouldn’t it be interesting to beat down a few arrogant mortals along the way and show them what real strength is?)
I have absolutely no interest in fighting mortals, no. But it’s true that this would be the simplest way to meet Nerys again…
I’ve considered the idea before myself.
But… my concerns are still the same. As I am right now, I’m not sure I should meet Nerys. It would be better to find her secretly and stay at a distance, at least for now. I’ve made very little headway toward curbing my more violent impulses. If they suddenly act up when I’m with her, I don’t know what would happen.
I’d like to think I would never hurt Nerys. And indeed, I’m certain I would never actively target her. But I’m also strong enough to affect everything around me too, along with my actual target. I’ve no real experience avoiding collateral damage, because I’ve never cared about it. Destroying everything has almost always been a perfectly acceptable outcome to most of my fights.
If I fight near Nerys, can I be sure she’ll be fine?
Otherwise, can I sure I’ll be able to restrain myself from fighting? Will I have the presence of mind to think about her next to me? Will it be enough to calm me down?
I really don’t know.
I need to be able to control myself.
I need to be able to stop myself.
But at the same time… I do want to see her. I’ve wanted to see her for so long. I don’t want to wait anymore. I want to talk to her. I want to touch her. Now.
The ship continues on its way, its passengers unaware of my presence below it. Even when no new sea monsters come to attack the ship, no one appears to suspect anything untoward, and they all simply rejoice in their good luck.
Even when the ship arrives at its destination, a port full of other ships of varying sizes, and drops its anchor, I’m still clinging to the hull, underwater.
Even when all the passengers have disembarked, I still haven’t made up my mind on how I should proceed.
The only thing I know for sure is that I have to keep looking, no matter what.