“Your clothes are very strange, Miss Akasha. I can’t see any seams at all,” Sirona says, matching her steps to mine and letting Jasper lead the way in front of us. “May I ask where you found them?”
Her interest was piqued when I reached for the black collar around my neck and reshaped my suit. I only added a hood to it. The hood can’t really hide my eyes since my horn prevents it from falling too low, but it should adequately conceal both of my sets of ears. I refused to attach a cape or cloak to my back, though. If I’m going to fight in this tournament, I don’t want any such thing interfering with my movements and providing opportunities for my opponents to grab me. As for whether people question if I’m truly an oni or not, like Jasper feared… well, I’ll let him deal with that. Leaving my tail in full view kind of defeats the purpose of adding the hood in the first place, but I don’t care. I only made a token effort to hide my species so that Jasper would shut up about it.
[…I found it in a Tower.]
“A tower?” Sirona repeats dubiously. “Where was this tower?”
[…On another plane.]
My reply almost causes Sirona to miss a step and trip. Her face stiffens in shock for a few moments before an eyebrow slowly quirks upward. Jasper also looks over his shoulder, clearly taking an interest in the conversation.
“Another plane? Miss Akasha, did you leave Caldera?” Jasper asks. “You visited another plane?”
“What kind of place was it?” Sirona asks.
[…An unpleasant one.]
Perhaps there is something in my tone that warns the two of them not to inquire too deeply. Jasper wordlessly returns his focus to guiding the group toward our destination, while Sirona turns back her gaze.
We walk silently through the night streets of Pamthen – the name of this town, according to Sirona. It’s not long until we reach a wooden building. It looks pretty decrepit. Above its front gate is – roughly – nailed a flag bearing the symbol of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group, a boat with a sword as its mast.
Catching my glance at the flag, Sirona explains, “This place is only a temporary headquarters for the duration of the tournament. The entire city is like that. Most of the time, it’s deserted. Only when the arena is used do the buildings around it also welcome residents.”
The inside of the building is just as rough as the outside. The walls and floors are completely bare. Only a wooden table and a few chairs are thrown together in the middle of the only room making up the ground floor. Additionally, chests and bags are piled haphazardly against one wall, out of the way. A staircase in the back of the room leads to the upper floors, but I can’t sense any signs of life anywhere in the building. The place is empty, except for us.
“Excuse the accommodations,” Jasper says as he takes a seat at the table while Sirona heads for the pile of chests in the corner and opens one of them. “But since we’re not going to stay in Pamthen a long time – and most of that time will be spent in the arena – there’s no point in getting anything better.”
“There is also the part where our poor anticipated performance in the tournament pushed the higher-ups into cutting most of our budget,” Sirona, still riffling through the chests, adds with clear amusement in her voice.
Jasper frowns for a moment, then relaxes and lets out a sigh. He shrugs. “Well, that’s right.” His gaze turns to me as he explains, “Our team is only composed of mercenaries of ranks B and C. That’s far from enough to achieve any noteworthy results, so…”
[…So only weaklings are going to take part?]
That would be disappointing. It will be more difficult to experience valuable techniques if my opponents can’t even put up a proper fight.
Jasper looks a bit awkward as he replies, “No. That’s the problem, actually. If every team were composed of only low-ranked mercenaries, it would be fine. We wouldn’t lose too much face. But most other teams should be a few levels above our own.” At this point, he hesitates for a moment, before shrugging again. “Well, you’re technically also part of the Verse, so I can just tell it to you straight. The High-Sea Verse has been contracted by the empire to reconnoiter the Frontline’s current terrain in preparation for the war. All our A and S ranks have been mobilized for that purpose. We’re only participating in this tournament as a formality, this year, but that’s not where our resources are currently focused. Hence, our rather… underwhelming… presence.”
“Now that Miss Akasha’s here, though, we shouldn’t have any problems getting a good position anymore,” Sirona says, smiling at me as she joins us at the table. She hands Jasper a pen and a sheet of paper she found in the chest she’d just been searching.
“Thanks,” Jasper says, taking both and scribbling on the sheet. “I’ll hand over your registration to the authorities first thing tomorrow. Just in time for the start of the tournament. You really cut it close, Miss Akasha.”
Jasper quickly finishes writing whatever it is he needs to write, glancing back and forth a few times between my identification card and the sheet of paper, copying down my information.
“Allow me to explain how the tournament will proceed,” he says then. “It will start tomorrow, right before noon, with a few speeches from the human and majin dignitaries representing both sides. Then, the matches proper will begin. Matches are exclusively one-on-ones between randomized opponents. Each victory will earn you two points. A draw will earn you a single point. A loss, on the other hand…”
Jasper’s voice trails off when I raise a hand to interrupt him.
[…I don’t care. I only came to fight.]
It doesn’t matter to me how the winner is determined.
“I see…” Jasper says with a strained smile. “Um, the rest of the team is… out drinking, probably… so you’ll only meet them tomorrow.”
That doesn’t matter, either. I don’t care who they are, and I’m not interested in meeting them. Let’s just cut this short. I still need to explore Pamthen to see if I can find any elves in it. With the number of majin here, there’s a good chance.
[…Do you need anything else to complete my registration?]
Jasper blinks and stumbles over his words a little. “U–Um, no. It should be fine with this,” he says, absently patting the sheet of paper before him.
[…Then I will come back tomorrow for the tournament.]
“…Good. We’ll see you tomorrow, then, Miss Akasha.”
Finally, Jasper gives a nod and rises from his seat to bid me goodbye. Sirona does the same next to him, giving a small bow. I turn around and leave the room.
I’m only a few steps outside when Phineas suddenly speaks up. (You forgot your identification card inside. Jasper didn’t give it back to you after writing your registration form.)
I stop walking.
The smile on Phineas’s face turns sly. (Don’t you find it awkward to leave in such a cool manner, but then have to come back because you forgot something? How embarrassing.)
But it’s a moot point anyway.
I focus my mind, and a second later, a small card slips through the crack between the door and its frame and flies into my outstretched hand. I wave the card back and forth in front of my eyes to show it to Phineas – through our shared senses – before storing it back into my space ring.
Phineas clicks his tongue and shakes his head, but his smile looks pleased and amused.
I turn back to the street and leap away, soaring toward the majin part of town.
I spent the rest of the night and the whole morning searching, but the results were disappointing. I only found a single elf, and he didn’t know anything about Nerys.
At first, he confused me for an apostle and refused to even talk to me, calling me a lapdog of the humans. I told him that I wasn’t an apostle, and that even if I were, I wouldn’t be a lap dog, but a lap wolf.
I don’t know why people always make that mistake…
He still refused to answer my questions after I threatened to kill him, surprisingly, so on Sanae’s advice, I threatened to also kill everyone else in the neighboring buildings. That indeed worked a lot better.
It was all for nothing, though, because it turned out that he didn’t know Nerys.
Starting from dawn, people started flooding from all parts of town toward the arena. I felt this was an excellent opportunity, so I climbed up to the roof of the tallest building around and started scanning the crowd.
Even for me, there were too many people to check them all. I will unavoidably miss the majority of those hundreds of thousands of people, but it’s still better than nothing.
But… elves sure are rare, aren’t they?
One. Two. Three.
There are countless humans here, of course. And some apostles, herding and keeping order among the humans with varying degrees of success. And of all the species making up the majin, there are also countless oni – both high and low, ettins, werewolves, rakshasa and tenjin. There are fewer rhuths, but they’re very visible nonetheless, considering they’re piles of squirming tentacles who look completely different from all the other humanoid species around them. Setroka, with their bodies made of black smoke, aren’t as visible and are even less numerous than the rhuths. I can’t really tell if there are asmodians present, since it’s pretty much impossible to pick shapeshifters out of a crowd. There are almost no dwarves, dryads and mermaids here at all, which I suppose makes sense. Dwarves are made of stone and thus extremely heavy, and would be troublesome to ferry by boat to the Island in large numbers, while Dryads and mermaids can’t survive very long outside of their preferred environments. And as for elves…
Three of them.
And one of them is the one I threatened last night. So, two, really.
Obviously, neither of these two is Nerys.
(This is quite impressive,) Phineas says, gazing at the scene through my eyes. (Imagine a riot suddenly starting right now. A huge melee involving all those people, all those practitioners, at the same time. It would level the island in a heartbeat.)
It would be a difficult fight, to be sure.
Attack wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me, as my magic is ideally suited to dealing with large crowds of weaklings, but defense would be much more arduous. There is only so much even the thickest shield can do against hundreds of thousands of simultaneous attacks. Dodging all of them would be pretty much impossible, too. Though, of course, if I really wanted to kill everyone here, I wouldn’t do it in a melee. That would be stupid. It would be much simpler to destroy all their ships and wait for them in the water, to ambush them when they try to swim back to the mainland.
Selecting the proper battlefield is important.
Inside the arena, a loud voice is speaking. Probably that speech Jasper was talking about yesterday. The voice sounds vaguely familiar, somehow, but the way it echoes from inside the arena’s walls prevents me from telling who it is that’s speaking. I guess it doesn’t really matter; I’m not here to listen to people speak.
I stay on my roof and watch as the last stragglers hurry toward the arena.
When the last one disappears through its doors, Phineas says, (You should go as well, or you’ll miss the start of the tournament. Jasper and Sirona are probably wondering where you are, right now…)
I sigh, but he’s right.
There is nothing more I can do here. If Nerys is on this island, she’ll have entered the arena already.
I take a step forward and drop off the roof and to the street below.
I don’t head to the house where I met Jasper yesterday. They too are probably already gone. Instead, I walk to the arena. The four guards flanking its towering gates – two humans and two rakshasa studiously ignoring each other and standing as far away from each other as possible – all look at my approach with a frown on their faces. I wonder if I’m going to have to fight my way in? I sure don’t look human, and my species – whatever it actually is – most definitely isn’t part of the majin.
Phineas seems to share my concern, because before I can reach them, he says, (You know, if you didn’t hide your power so completely, most of the people you meet wouldn’t be quite so ready to trip up your feet every time they see you.)
[…Scare off people with my qi pressure, you mean?]
(Yes. It’s what people on the Godrealm do, at least, and it works pretty well to prevent such… annoying misunderstandings. Annoying for both sides, I would add. You have pesky flies buzzing around you all the time, and those poor fools eventually find out, to their regret, that they’ve messed with the wrong person. In the end, nobody’s happy. Best to make the difference in status clear from the start, I think.)
[…I don’t want to reveal my presence like this. My enemies will investigate a god releasing qi pressure in their territory.]
Releasing qi pressure from time to time is fine, but doing it all the time, I’d be like a beacon for all the people trying to kill me.
There are other issues, too. Releasing qi pressure merely consists of cycling qi through the meridians, so it’s not actually consumed or anything, but it does require at least some measure of effort, of willpower. Continually releasing qi pressure would be quite tiring. Also, wouldn’t mortals and weaker cultivators just end up dying in droves if subjected for too long to a god’s pressure? I’m not sure I approve of leaving such a massive trail of bodies behind me when it’s so unnecessary and I’ll actually tire faster by doing it…
(No, no. Don’t release your whole power. Just enough to cow your surroundings. And adjust it to the situation. Right now, something like the pressure of a 8th-rank warrior, maybe?)
[…How much is that?]
(Um, well, I’m not sure how to describe it, exactly. Just slowly increase the pressure until these four idiots start looking uncomfortable.)
Hmm. Well, all right.
Blood-qi starts seeping into and flowing through my meridians. With each step I take closer to the arena’s gates, the qi pressure around me slowly builds up. It works out pretty well, in the end. By the time I’m close enough for the guards to talk to me, they all look distinctly uncomfortable, with sweat streaming down their brows.
Doesn’t seem like they’re going to stop me…
(See? Isn’t that convenient?)
I just hope no one noticed me inside the arena…
I wish that sort of trick could have worked in the Tower, though. If I could have scared off the demons by pressuring them, my way would have been made much easier. Instead, sensing my blood-qi only drew them to me. Purposefully releasing pressure would have been worse than useless.
I pass through the arena gates unmolested and let my seething blood-qi settle back into my dantian. I glance around for directions, and after a moment’s hesitation, I turn toward the area marked as the human empire’s. The High-Sea Verse mercenary group should be somewhere in there.
As it happens, however, I don’t even have to look around for Jasper and Sirona. After only taking a few steps past the gate, I see the latter’s figure hastily trotting toward me. She looks greatly relieved upon spotting me and breaks into a run.
“Miss Akasha! There you are!” she calls, out of breath. She stops next to me and leans forward, propping herself up on her knees and gulping down deep breaths, her shoulders heaving up and down. “Please come with me quickly. Everyone else is already on the field, and the matches are about to start. If you’re any later, you’ll be disqualified automatically.”
Let’s go and fight, then.