I look down the hole in the mountainside.
Far below, the residential district of Alsomn lies, its surface pockmarked by the debris of AK-A-13’s exit from the tunnels. A good part of these tunnels is now in ruins. The room that contained the demon-sealing stone is unrecognizable. The frozen and shattered corpses of the palace’s guards litter the grounds everywhere; it’ll most likely be impossible to piece them back together again for a decent funeral.
And the city really suffered, too. From here, it doesn’t look like much. Only a few irregular spots breaking the maze of streets and alleys below. But I’m sure that, at ground level, the devastation is another spectacle altogether.
How many people died beneath these boulders? They were peacefully sleeping alongside their loved ones, their families, when all of a sudden, disaster struck. How many parents lost their children? How many wives lost their husband? How many households lost all their possessions, crushed beneath the stone?
And the culprit has disappeared, of course.
Without a single word, without a single shred of responsibility or contrition.
A fire rages in my chest, almost as if pushing it to explode. I do my best to restrain my reaction and show an impassive countenance to my subordinates, but my face is carved of stone, and my lips are drawn in a tight, bloodless, grim line.
I turn to Jarod, standing silently next to me while his men bustle in the tunnels trying to clean up the aftermath. He looks scarcely happier than I do. “How did she enter the city?” I ask coldly. “She couldn’t have gone through the gates without raising the alarm – not with that bounty on her head. Was the border formation breached?”
Jarod frowns. “I’m not sure, sir. I’ve already sent people to verify the integrity of the formations carved in the outer walls. I’ll get word from them soon, I reckon.” He looks up into my eyes. “You suspect it’s AK-A-13, sir?”
I smile bitterly. “At this point, it’s no longer just a suspicion. Who else could it be? Someone strong enough to sneak in the palace and destroy the stone. And all this ice is something of a giveaway. I know we shouldn’t make hasty judgments and conclude anything rashly, but I can’t think of anyone else with both the power and motive to do… this.” I wave my hand at the battered tunnels behind Jarod.
“But why come here?” Jarod asks, rubbing his forehead tiredly. “She had to know that sneaking in Alsomn would be quite a risk for her. If your father happened to be here… There would be no escaping from him.”
I nod. “Right. What exactly did she come here to do?”
Destroying the stone shouldn’t have been her ultimate objective. There is just no need for her to go out of her way to do so. Instead, she must have come here tonight because she noticed it hampered her use of magic when she entered the city, which would be detrimental to the completion of her real objective.
She must want something else from Alsomn.
Father said Akasha would strive to find her family, when she escaped, if I recall correctly.
Is she here to do that, then?
But why would she ever imagine her family is in Alsomn? If that were the case, Father would have long ago captured them and sent them to one of his laboratories, surely? I don’t know anything about them myself, but whoever they are, it would certainly be valuable to keep them under our control.
What else, then?
A mission for Duke Springfield, perhaps? Let’s not forget that she joined his faction, and even assassinated the city lord of Kohln, Yarang, on his orders.
What could that traitor want in Alsomn that he cannot do himself?
Probably not assassination. Otherwise, why would Akasha have revealed her presence so openly? With her abilities, she could have easily assassinated everyone in the palace and got out cleanly before anyone could react. There would have been no need to destroy the demon-sealing stone.
Right. She destroyed the stone to recover her magic and soul force.
Something that requires magic…
Or perhaps simply something that requires her to stay in the city long enough that someone would unavoidably notice her presence, which would force her to fight.
Springfield shouldn’t know about gods, but he’s definitely aware that powerful guardians watch over Alsomn – though, right now, there’s only me; with Harris, Orsino, and Clara’s deaths, we’re rather short on qualified personnel, and the others are all away on their own missions throughout Caldera. If he’s warned Akasha of this, then she would instantly translate that into ‘gods will be there to oppose me.’ That would be enough to push her to strike first and neutralize the device sealing her powers.
That doesn’t get me any closer to discovering what she wants to do in this city, however.
“Sir?” Jarod asks, and I lift my gaze to meet his. “Your orders?”
I purse my lips and ponder for a minute more, and eventually make my decision. “For now, we wait. Send some people to search for AK-A-13 in Alsomn. Find out where she’s hiding. However, if you find her, don’t make contact. Only keep an eye on her. We can’t afford to fight in the middle of the capital. Our enemy might not care about collateral damage, but we shouldn’t lower ourselves to her level.”
“And once she’s left the city?” Jarod asks expectantly.
“Then, we strike.”
Jarod starts nodding but his head stops halfway through, and his gaze snaps back to me as if something just occurred to him. “Sir, your injuries?”
I nod gravely. “Right. I won’t be able to fight her directly. We’ll use a formation and attack her from a distance. Prepare a flight of mages to accompany me. I won’t need them to fight, but they’ll need to show off their stamina. I’ll use them to power the formation.”
“Understood. I’ll prepare a squad for you, sir. But… excuse my ignorance, but doesn’t a formation need to be set up in advance, before the enemy even arrives? How are we going to lure her inside it?”
I shake my head. “It’s a flag formation. I can set it up in a minute or two. Even less if I hurry. As long as we know in which direction AK-A-13 intends to escape the city, I can fly ahead of her and set it up around her. When she enters the kill zone, I’ll close and activate the formation, and she’ll be trapped inside.”
“Flag formation?” Jarod repeats, looking dumbfounded.
Well, I suppose someone from such a small plane wouldn’t have encountered such a thing before. The resources necessary to create one of those would be enough to strip a plane like Caldera of anything even remotely precious.
“Anyway,” I continue, “this means we need to know where our target is located and follow her as she makes her exit. Even if we can’t follow her, we at least need to know roughly where she’s heading.”
There are also other ways to get past this problem and find Akasha no matter where she’s hiding, but they’re too costly to use for such a thing. I’m injured and without proper backup, against a powerful enemy – and potentially even one of the strongest godbeasts I’ve ever heard of, though I pray it won’t appear today – so success is far from guaranteed, even in the best of cases. There’s no way I would use all my cards on such a risky bet. If worse comes to worst and I can’t keep Akasha here, then that’s that. She’ll escape. At the very least, we won’t have paid too much, and we’ll have avoided the worst scenario – that is, Alsomn and its 4 million inhabitants sharing Fushia City’s fate. We’ll always have other opportunities to bring her to swift and merciless justice.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Jarod assures me. “We’ll find her.”
“See that you do,” I say as I make my way back out of the tunnels, giving one last glance at the scarred expanse of Alsomn, far below.
I float, high in the sky, thick clouds covering the ground underneath my feet. Behind me are also floating the members of the squad Jarod put together for me.
AK-A-13’s location was discovered late in the night. The whole thing went so smoothly it’s almost suspicious, in fact. We only had to investigate the most likely places she could have targeted. Starting from the hypothesis that she’s here on the orders of Duke Springfield, where would she have gone? If her mission in Alsomn is of the same ilk as the time she traveled to Kohln, then her target should be either the city lord or the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. Since she could have assassinated any high official she pleased when she snuck into the imperial palace yesterday, this eliminates the first possibility. Instead, she probably intends to push Springfield’s political agenda by attacking the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce. Just like she did in Kohln, really.
Of course, there were many other possibilities we had to check. The city guard’s barracks, the houses of powerful merchants holding trade deals with political opponents of the duke… The Blackwood Chamber of Commerce was only one of the places on top of our list.
And fortune did not desert us.
The simplest of investigations revealed that a layer of ice sealed the door to the Chamber of Commerce, and a corpse was left to rot in the entry hall.
Jarod’s men didn’t dare enter the place, for fear of alerting Akasha. He simply left some people to watch the place from afar, and continued investigating the rest of the city, in case she had already completed whatever business she had with the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce and left to hide somewhere else.
And this morning, she was found exiting the building.
It’s like she wasn’t even hiding…
Thus, my team and I immediately took flight and rushed ahead of her in the direction she seemed to be taking to escape Alsomn.
“Sir,” Jarod’s voice says, coming from a tiny communication crystal in my hand. “The border formation was just breached between nodes 35 and 36. She should be approaching your position now.”
Between 35 and 36.
So, she didn’t exit through the same place she came in…
Last night, Jarod’s people found the suspected point of entry where Akasha managed to silently disable the border formations carved in Alsomn’s outer walls. It wasn’t hard to find, when we knew there was something to be found. Another corpse was left on the ground there, along with carved words left on the wall asking for the whereabouts of the demon-sealing stone. Her guilt in yesterday’s matters has thus been conclusively confirmed. Not that there was any doubt in the first place.
And not that I needed any more reason than I already have to condemn her to a well-deserved death.
“Good,” I reply in a low voice. I slip the crystal in the inner pocket of my robe and turn to the flight team. “Let’s go! To your positions!”
A burst of magic sends me hurtling through the sky on a current of wind, leaving the rest of the team behind. At this altitude, the atmosphere is quite thin, so it consumes more qi than usual to gather enough air to propel oneself, but that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone here today. It’s not like we’re going to be flying for days.
It only takes a scant few seconds for me to arrive at the first appropriate point. I wave my hand, and four thin, tall flags appear out of thin air. Intricate runes cover their shafts, so densely packed together that, even with my eyesight, it’s difficult to tell where one rune starts and the other ends. A triangular cloth is tied at the top, two more identical formations drawing concentric spirals sewn on either side.
I fling one of the flags toward the earth below. It pierces through the air like an arrow, and in just a second, reaches the ground and stabs deeply into it, standing proudly, the cloth snapping in the wind.
Without pause, I resume flying, quickly throwing three of the flags to form a regular triangle. Pushing my speed up as much as I can, I soar toward the last target point, opposite the summit of the triangle.
Below lies a thick forest, so I can’t even dive below the clouds and check Akasha’s progress with my own eyes, but I should still have enough time to close the formation around her. Hopefully, I’ll judge the timing correctly.
A second later, I finally reach the correct location, and another flag pierces the ground, disappearing between the branches of the forest’s trees.
I flip my hand, and out of my space ring comes the core of the flag formation, a small, jagged crystal with a short series of ancient Eashiri symbols carved onto it. Compared to the flags themselves, it looks almost contemptuously simple, but it’s the key to the entire formation.
I spin around and soar toward the rest of the flight team. They’re all gathered in the center of the four flags, just below the clouds. Thankfully, they’ve already started pooling their qi without me needing to remind them – looks like Jarod at least found some reasonably competent individuals.
Before even reaching them, I start sending my qi into the crystal key. All the energy I channel into it disappears like a drop of water in an ocean. The key continues to absorb more and more of my qi, until slowly, its surface starts to heat up and vibrate. Far below, the four flags start shining, and threads of glowing power stretch out from each of them toward the others, forming a brilliant circle of light several kilometers in radius. At this point, I finally reach the flight team sent there to assist me, and together, they follow my example and push all the qi they’ve managed to accumulate into the crystal key in my hand. The key instantly becomes searing hot and shakes so hard it almost slips from my grasp, but I tighten my fingers around it, bearing the pain of my sizzling flesh. With so much energy to feed it, the flag formation finally actuates, and a shimmering, translucent dome rises up toward the sky, covering a good part of the forest below in its circumference.
When the sides of the dome arch and meet at the center, linking up with a crackle of released power, a stream of information and data floods into my brain from the crystal key. Everything happening in the area encircled by the barrier is laid bare before my mind’s eye.
And there, not too far from the edge of the flag formation, stands my enemy, her short form dressed in an immodest black bodysuit, her tail swinging relaxedly behind her and her face displaying the same unconcerned, cold look as ever, even as her escape routes are cut off and she finds herself locked in this deathtrap.
Now, let’s see how long you’ll be able to look so calm, bitch.