“Fuuu… Haaa… Fuuu…”
The room is utterly silent save for the sound of my breathing. In and out, regularly. Carefully controlled as I bear the strain my training puts on me.
With each inhalation, the amount of qi in my dantian replenishes. I then immediately send it flowing into my meridians. Once it’s evenly distributed throughout my whole body, I let it slowly seep into my muscles, my bones, my flesh, my organs. Stabs of pain shoot out as all my cells tremble. Beads of sweat, sometimes tinted red with blood, leak out of my pores. My brows crease and my teeth clench as I bear with this suffering.
But it’s worth it. Each cycle strengthens me minutely.
It’s worth it.
It’s certainly worth it.
But it’s also discouraging.
I’ve been assiduously strengthening my body like this for quite a while, now, and I can feel myself getting incrementally stronger. But those increments are very small.
As of yet, I haven’t enjoyed any benefit that would be obvious during combat. At this rate, I’m not sure how long it’s going to take me to catch up to AK-A-13, even with my superior breathing technique – and talent.
Regular cultivation is less frustrating. The progress during qi refining is much faster. Of course, with every rank I climb, my dantian’s capacity increases, and the amount of qi I need to refine to break through to the next level also increases – especially since I became a god – but the improvement is still obvious. I can feel the density of qi inside my dantian slowly improve until I finally succeed. And I know that with each new breath of qi I absorb, I can cast more numerous and more powerful spells.
With body strengthening, it’s not as satisfying. My progress seems more abstract – at least for now. I can’t lift a boulder I couldn’t lift yesterday. I can’t run noticeably faster than I ran a week ago.
Yes, it’s frustrating.
I’m starting to doubt my impulse to follow the methods of my enemy. She managed to reach unprecedented heights with them, but our circumstances are different, after all. Who knows if her demonhood brought her advantages in practicing body strengthening? I don’t know what AK-A-13 looked like in the past, but I know for a fact that her appearance was different before she entered the Planar Tower. It’s probable those changes affected more than simply physical appearance.
Still, even if I’m at a disadvantage, I’m not one to quit so easily.
Since I decided to try body strengthening, I must at least keep at it for a year, and see where it takes me.
I slowly, carefully release the breath I’d been holding, now that all the qi contained in it has been properly refined and utilized. My lungs empty, and I inhale to start a new cycle, when…
A loud rumbling breaks through the barrier of my increased focus, shaking the room around me. My consciousness violently snaps back to reality. The shock of my shattered concentration and of my entire body abruptly relaxing from its tense and focused state makes my blood flow backward in my veins. My internal organs feel as if they’re being twisted between the arms of a terrible vise. Blood rises up my throat and floods into my mouth, some of it leaking out of the corner of my lips. My eyes fly open as I strive to subdue the roiling of my qi, but my body topples off its seat, and I crash to the floor.
I lie there for a while, dizzy, and absently listen to the increasingly loud commotion making it past the soundproofing of my training room.
What… What in the void happened?
This is the imperial palace, the heart of human territory. This should be the safest place on this entire plane. I very much doubt any sufficiently powerful force could attack all the way here without me being notified about it beforehand. I may have taken a step back from my duties as emperor, but Jarod still keeps me informed of anything even remotely important. I last saw him two days ago, just before I started this training session, so what great matters could have possibly occurred in the meantime?
Or was it just an earthquake?
There are spell formations carved into the mountain to sustain its integrity, but a particularly destructive natural disaster might still be enough to power through these defenses and destroy something. It’s not like anything of true import takes place in this city, after all – not like Father’s laboratories – so none of the gods on our side ever bothered to expend any energy to reinforce them. Every formation in Alsomn is powered by purely mortal means.
But no. I can hear the castle’s alarm ringing, now that I’m paying attention. This particular chime is the one warning of a hostile intruder.
Who would have the guts?
And… something feels wrong, right now. What is it? Something…
I wrack my brains for a while, trying to unearth where that mysterious sense of unease is coming from, without success.
Eventually, the unrest inside my body subsides enough that I can stand without stumbling like a drunkard. I wipe the trail of blood at the corner of my mouth and control my breathing again, looking around me to check that the training room hasn’t been damaged. I wince a little at the tingles of pain running through my body every time I move. Looks like I didn’t avoid being injured when my training was interrupted.
Actually, now that I think about it…
How on earth did Akasha manage to train so far when she was constantly assailed by demons trying to eat her? Wouldn’t she have suffered the same kind of injuries I just did countless times, as well? In fact, I watched some of the recordings of her actions while she was trapped in the Tower, but I don’t recall her ever really stopping to sit in peace and meditation. That seems to imply her training method is different from mine. Could that explain the difference between our efficiencies, too? Though it seems unbelievable that an uneducated, prepubescent bumpkin would come up with an efficient training method that would additionally allow her to act and fight even while she’s training, all by herself. Bumpkins are bumpkins for a reason.
Then, if I try to follow her example, does that mean body strengthening should be practiced in the midst of bloody battle, for the best effect? Except, how are you supposed to keep your qi so well-behaved when you’re fighting for your life? I think I’ve just proved that even the slightest of disturbances at the wrong time would be enough to knock someone to the ground. During a fight, this would be nothing more than a death sentence. With a bit of luck, one would be able to perhaps survive one or two battles like this – if they’re not too strenuous – but 300 years’ worth of battles? Not a chance. There must be some secret behind it.
“Haaa… This isn’t the time for this.”
I shake my head and head for the door with a frown on my face and anger in my heart.
Whoever disturbed my training is going to pay for it…
When I exit the training room, Jarod is already waiting outside, like a simple servant waiting for his master. Since I returned from Dorn and started focusing on my own cultivation, he’s basically become the steward of the whole empire, but he still tries to get my input on most everything and keeps me aware of whatever’s happening at any given time. I’m satisfied with this arrangement. It’s a good middle ground between completely discarding my responsibilities and properly working as Emperor. As the spymaster, Jarod was already aware of all the background necessary to understand the empire’s politics, anyway, and he’s already proved his competence multiple times. Like this, the human territories can run as usual under his leadership, and I have enough time to train while only giving some instructions when I feel I have to. It almost makes me wonder why he was so adamant in trying to convince me otherwise, back then. Isn’t he the perfect man for the job?
“Jarod, what was that, earlier?” I ask as we walk side by side. “The whole room shook around me. Was it an earthquake?”
Jarod shakes his head, his face grave. “Not an earthquake, sir. An intruder snuck into the palace.” He hesitates a moment before continuing. “They reached the tunnels and… destroyed the demon-sealing stone.”
My eyes widen as I finally realize where that strange sense of unease I’ve been feeling since earlier comes from. The omnipresent, minute qi fluctuation of the demon-sealing stone resting within the mountain beneath my feet and protecting Alsomn… has disappeared!
“How could it have been destroyed? How many people attacked the palace? You said, ‘an intruder’? A single one? One person snuck in and destroyed the stone?”
My questions come out like a flood.
Who could have destroyed the demon-sealing stone? It wasn’t protected by many soldiers, quantitatively speaking, but when it comes to quality, they were the elites of all elites, to the point of wastefulness. Teams of 7th and 8th-rank warriors take turns guarding the door leading to the stone. Additionally, the door and the walls themselves are covered in absolutely lethal spell formations. Anyone the formations don’t recognize who tries to open the door or break through the wall would be blown to pieces. Even if someone managed to avoid that fate, more spells would assault the intruder’s mind and disperse their consciousness into nothing. The intruder would be left as nothing but a soulless husk, a doll without any life inside. The absolute weakest point of any mortal is their consciousness, after all. Mechanisms that directly attack it are some of the best defenses one can come up with to restrict access to an area. Indeed, as long as it hasn’t congealed into a proper soul, the consciousness is almost unbearably fragile, blown away by the slightest gust of wind. Though it’s also true that the spells which directly affect the consciousness – and even more so, the soul – are so ridiculously difficult to implement that they require complex formations.
In any case, only a god could have done this – and a strong one at that.
Which brings the question of why a god would want to do this? The demon-sealing stone is a marvel of magical technology, but in the end, it only protects the city against demons. That’s all it does. And as far as I know, there isn’t a demon tide anywhere close to Alsomn. Even if the demon-sealing stone is destroyed, beyond a bit of civil unrest when they realize their shield is gone, I doubt it’ll have any evil consequences for Alsomn’s inhabitants.
And then, it hits me.
Because, well, it’s really fucking obvious.
A powerful god, who’d want to destroy the demon-sealing stone. I can only think of one on this plane.
For an instant, a surge of fighting spirit fills my mind, and my lips stretch in a combative grin at the idea of finally being able to take revenge for my previous defeat.
But then, my brain is doused in a bucket of ice-cold water when the image of that terrifying monster, that godbeast who helped Akasha escape from me last time, flashes into my mind. My thoughts hiccup, and I almost trip over my own feet.
Jarod catches me before I fall on my face. He stares at me, his eyes wide and worried. “Sir?! Are you all right?”
I regain my footing and shake the image of the monster out of my head. “Ah, yes. I’m… fine. I just… suffered some injuries when my training was interrupted all of a sudden.” When Jarod still looks anxious, I shake my head. “I told you I’m fine. It’ll heal in no time. For now, let’s just… go and see what happened.”
Hastening my steps, I leave Jarod behind and head for the nearest staircase. My mouth twists bitterly at the tight sting that seems to pierce my chest every time I move. I didn’t lie to Jarod. This injury will heal in no time, but that doesn’t mean I’m in a good state to do battle, right at the moment.
I was already outmatched when Akasha was the one to be injured at the start of battle, so now that the situation has reversed…
I’d like to think she has yet to recover from the wounds she suffered in Dorn – any human would likely never completely recover, save by consuming priceless elixirs – but I know for a fact that the bitch can heal from pretty much anything as long as she can still draw breath.
Most likely, I’m the one at a disadvantage, today.
I grit my teeth and wrack my brains for a solution, but in the end, I have to accept the facts. Even if that monstrous godbeast is absent, if I fight AK-A-13 today, I will lose.
Perhaps even die. She’s not one to show mercy.
Drops of cold sweat start rolling down my brow as I hurry toward the tunnels, Jarod trying to keep up behind me.