Haris’s punch landed firmly on the side of Akasha’s face.
The impact rang out like an explosion, and the little girl was sent flying across the room, crashing through the wall there, and the wall after that, and the one after that again, the sound of destruction and crashing rubble following her all the way.
Haris stayed in this position, with his fist raised, stone dust obscuring his sight.
His knuckles stung after that blow. The response he’d felt at the moment of contact had been more like he’d slammed his fist into a solid steel block than into the body of a living creature.
But that wasn’t the reason for his surprise.
That blow wasn’t even supposed to land in the first place.
Before Haris could recover, an echoing voice abruptly sprang up into existence next to him. It sounded young and rather androgynous. “Did I see that right? Did you just blow the bitch out of the building?”
“Um, yes,” he replied to the voice, shaking the numbness out of his bruised hand.
“Did you go all out right from the start? With a surprise attack? I’m a bit surprised, I have to say; that’s not really your style. Don’t get me wrong, though. I heartily approve. Maybe you’ll survive long enough to reach the 2nd rank if you finally get rid of your ridiculous concept of ‘honor’.”
Haris shook his head, even though he knew Orsino couldn’t see him. “No, no. Of course, I didn’t. Don’t you have any pride as a god, Orsino? What kind of trash would use such underhanded tricks as this? My attack was just supposed to be a light greeting. I didn’t expect to actually hit her. I barely used any magic reinforcement. Almost broke my damn fingers, actually.”
“I see. You’re still an idiot, then. So, was she distracted? She didn’t see you in time to dodge?”
“No. You know how good her reflexes are supposed to be. There is no way I should have been able to get her. She even looked at me – she made eye contact – and she smiled at me. And then, she just let me punch her in the face.”
“She let you? And, wait… She smiled? At you?” Orsino chuckled. “Children usually cry when they see your ugly face, but you’ve finally found one who seems to like you. You must be happy.”
“…I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, but this isn’t exactly the right time.” Haris glanced at the bloodstains and mangled remains next to him. “She killed the earl’s son, too.”
There was a pause before Orsino’s answer came. “I’m sorry to hear that, but we didn’t have a choice. Our orders were clear. Wait until the earl himself is…”
“I know our orders,” Haris interrupted. “But that doesn’t mean I approve of them. They are cowardly and despicable.”
“Well, if you want to avoid collateral damage so much, I suggest you hurry and pursue the target, then. You blew her right into the middle of the city, and some people are starting to get curious about the commotion.”
“What?! Why didn’t you say so earlier?!”
“Well, because it goes without saying. Three tons of murderous monster suddenly crashing into someone’s backyard are definitely going to draw some attention. Maybe you should start using your brain, you know?”
Without anymore hesitation, Haris leapt through the hole Akasha had left in the wall and rushed after her.
Orsino’s voice followed him. “But it is a bit strange. AK-A-13’s behavior, I mean. She didn’t exactly strike me as the smiling type.”
“And why did she let you strike her?”
“Hmm… Did you notice anything else?”
“Sorry. I didn’t have time to examine her in detail before I punched her through the wall.”
“I see. Be extra careful.”
Haris agreed inwardly.
He and Orsino had been briefed on the enemy they would face, of course. And even beyond that, they’d been aware of the experiment the girl was involved in. Both of them had watched some parts of her centuries-long trip through the Planar Tower. And what they’d learned from all that data, was that this would not be an easy fight.
Speed. Strength. Endurance. Technical expertise. Experience.
Orsino had been complaining all through the previous days about the absurdity of only sending the two of them – two 1st-rank gods – to kill that monster. Really, they should have sent a 2nd- or 3rd-rank god for this job, but every one of their comrades in Caldera were busy with their own assignments, and with the flurry that had fallen on the young master in the wake of his father’s injuries, the task had ended up being dropped onto their lap.
Both Orsino and Haris were confident in their own abilities. They’d risen from the ranks of Caldera’s mortal masters to reach the true peak of prominence – godhood. They knew that, on other planes or on that mystical ‘Godrealm’ the emperor and the young master came from, their power might not amount too much, but at least here, they were almost invincible.
With that said, however, they also possessed a healthy dose of self-knowledge.
And it was very clear to both of them that their opponent for tonight had them outmatched.
The two of them were gods, still, so they wouldn’t die easily – and would be able to retreat in more or less one piece, come to that – but for them to actually kill Akasha would be no easy feat. They would need to press the attack and not give her any time to breathe.
At least, that had been the idea.
But if the girl had suddenly decided to let Haris punch her in the face as much as he wanted, the mission would probably turn out to be easier than they could have hoped for.
Haris landed next to the crater, in front of a gaggle of onlookers who had already gathered here to gawk at whatever was going on.
Fortunately, it was already late in the evening, so the number of people walking the streets was limited. Still, almost 30 innocent, curious civilians had already assembled here, talking among themselves in low voices, keeping at a respectful distance from the edge of the crater itself.
With no wind to dissipate it, the veil of stone dust hanging in the air over the crater still occluded sight, and no one dared to actually approach to see what had caused it, but Haris very much doubted that Akasha was already down. In fact, he was a bit surprised she hadn’t already jumped out onto the street and struck back against him.
Had she been more injured by his first strike than he’d expected?
In any case…
“Everyone!” Haris shouted to the civilians in a booming voice that resonated up and down the street. “Disperse!”
A middle-aged man looked at him and flinched when Haris’s gaze fell on him, but he did have enough courage to ask, “Sir? Who are you? Do you know what’s going on?”
Instead of answering, Haris just took a step forward and grabbed the man by the collar, before flinging him down the street over the heads of the rest of the crowd, away from the crater.
“I said disperse! Now! Or I’ll make…”
Before Haris could finish his sentence, however, long stakes of ice suddenly shot out from the ground under everyone’s feet.
Haris himself easily dodged the attack, but the onlookers – most of them possessing absolutely no cultivation to speak of – didn’t even see what happened before they were impaled, only managing a few agonized gurgles and involuntary twitches before they expired. Even the man Haris had just throw away was caught mid-flight, another stake of ice skewering him through his belly.
When Haris turned away from the grisly forest of spikes all around him and looked back to the crater, gritting his teeth and smothering his anger, he found Akasha already waiting in front of him, silently looking up at him with that same hideous smile on her face he’d seen earlier. She didn’t appear to have been at all wounded by the blow he’d given her. And as she focused her attention on him, Haris could feel the overpowering bloodthirst hiding within her diminutive frame. It was like a cloying touch against Haris’s skin, something almost palpable, so dense and heavy was it.
And for some reason, faint black smoke was drifting up from the jet-black portions of Akasha’s limbs, coiling delicately around her body before fading in the night’s wind.
…What was this smoke supposed to be?
No one had said anything about such a phenomenon during the briefing.
But this wasn’t the time for questions. The fight had already started.
Haris didn’t hesitate. He called upon his magic and strengthened his body.
In an instant, he grew up to nearly four meters tall, his already bulging muscles expanding even more and his skin taking on a dull greyish hue as it hardened and became a steel wall of defense against all attacks. All the clothes on his body burst apart as he grew too large for them, but neither he nor his opponent, whose clothes weren’t in much better of a state than his own, cared about such a thing. As Haris’s heavy body settled onto the ground, his feet sank a few centimeters into the packed earth of the street.
The difference in size between him and his opponent was almost comical, but Haris knew that this little girl’s body was also quite tyrannical in its own right.
Still, Haris’s body had never betrayed his confidence, and neither would it fail him today.
For a few seconds, the two just looked at each other.
Until finally, Haris spoke. “Let’s take this outside the city.”
At his words, Akasha’s smile widened even further, if that was possible. She glanced left and right at the street and the buildings around them, then at the corpses still impaled onto her stakes.
Finally, she looked back into Haris’s eyes.
[…I want to play a game with you.]
The voice that rang out within Haris’s mind didn’t fit the outward appearance of the creature in front of his eyes. It was a low, deep voice, that strangely echoed, as if several different people were saying the same words at almost the same time. It was a voice filled with malicious, cruel amusement – that part at least matched the smile on her face.
“A game?” Haris repeated.
[…Yes. The game is, will you kill me before I kill everyone else in this city?]
Haris’s eyes narrowed. He clenched his fists tighter. “Why are you trying to do that it in the first place?” he asked in a calm voice. “Those people have done nothing to you. You’d never even met them before today.”
[…Because it amuses me.]
Haris spat at the ground between them. “Bah. So you’re just another devil, in the end. I expected better. Fine, then. Let’s play your game.”
Akasha suddenly looked up at the sky.
[…He can play too.]
While she was still distracted looking at Orsino high up in the sky, Haris took a sharp breath, and without waiting for her attention to return to him, he struck. His huge fist swept through the air, creating eddies and gusts of wind as it passed, and again smashed into Akasha’s face, catching her chin and blowing her into the distance once more, her body tumbling and crashing through building after building.
This time, Haris immediately followed after her, the earth trembling with each of his heavy steps.
As he ran in pursuit, dark clouds covered the sky above the city, obscuring the stars, lightning flickering inside them, low rumbles of thunder rolling out every now and then.
“Since she already knows I’m here, I’m joining the fight,” Orsino’s voice explained, appearing once again near Haris. “Try to bring her into a wide open space, if you can.”
All along the way, Haris could see signs of Akasha’s passage. The buildings and the street were covered in frost, small wisps of white mist wafting up from them. Glittering statues stood here and there, too, the people they’d once been frozen solid and most definitely dead.
When Haris rounded the last corner, Akasha was there, waiting for him. This time, a small line of blood started from the corner of her mouth and trailed down to her chin – the only visible result of Haris’s attack.
When Haris arrived within her sight, Akasha’s voice echoed in his mind.
[…Hit me again.]
Even as she said this, a towering qi pressure exploded out from within her small body, and as she raised her right hand over her head, thousands of ice spikes congealed all over the sky, their sharp points aimed at the city beneath.
And now, Haris was surprised.
He knew that the range of Akasha’s magic was unnaturally large for a 1st-rank god, but at this moment, the furthest ice spike was floating in the air a kilometer away, almost five times her maximum recorded range.
Haris wasn’t sure, but that should be the power of a 3rd-rank god, at least.
“Something is definitely wrong, here,” Orsino’s voice said quietly. “I think we should retreat and report to the young master.”
“Are you joking?” Haris replied even as he kept running undeterred toward his opponent. “Neither of us is injured. In fact, neither of us suffered the slightest attack, yet. So if we’re counting points, we’re technically winning, right now.”
“Talking about points, the one I’m trying to make right now is that when we do suffer an attack, it would be good if we weren’t killed instantaneously. And I really don’t like what her current level of magical power is implying about our chances of victory.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. And me. Especially me. In any case, we can’t retreat so easily. The moment we leave is the moment this city is wiped off the map.”
Orsino sighed. “I know.”
“How many people live here?”
“Don’t remember. Something like 200,000?”
Haris shook his head. “We can’t just let so many people die, Orsino.”
“…I’ll never understand how someone so stupidly nice managed to become a god. It’s simply inexplicable. A true mystery.” Orsino sighed again. “All right, then. But I should warn you that if you get yourself killed, I’m leaving immediately, wiped-out city or not.”
By the time they finished talking, the last ice spike also finished forming, and Akasha lowered her hand, at which point they all started raining down over the city. Before they could actually land onto their targets, however, a blur shot through the sky, streamers of lightning crackling in its wake. The blur weaved between the falling spikes, and everywhere it went, those around it exploded in a flash of light and a rumble of thunder.
And while Akasha was still distracted watching Orsino do his work up in the air, Haris reached her on the ground. The girl should definitely have been able to hear him or feel the earth shake with his footsteps, but she didn’t seem to care at all about his approach.
This time, so that the impact wouldn’t throw Akasha into the distance again and let her wreak more havoc in another part of the city, Haris jumped up and attacked from above.
The concentrated wind of his first punch buried Akasha into the earth and dug a crater into the street all around her.
But Haris didn’t stop there. He landed heavily on top of her and, avoiding the horn on her forehead, started mercilessly pummeling her, driving her deeper and deeper into the ground. Buildings on both sides of the street collapsed from the intense earthquake, fissures spreading over hundreds of meters in every direction.
But his enemy still didn’t react.
Haris could see that Akasha was suffering some damage. None of his blows could break her bones, but he definitely drew blood. However, Akasha limited herself to staring unblinkingly at him, her crazed smile still on her lips.
All around them, the remaining ice spikes that Orsino hadn’t had time to destroy – perhaps 400, all in all – finally fell. A few landed harmlessly in the streets, but more pierced directly through the roofs of Fushia City’s buildings, the fate of whoever might be inside left entirely to their luck.
Haris continued his attack for a few seconds, and when it still didn’t seem to have much effect, he instead directly grabbed Akasha by the neck and lifted her in front of him. He didn’t try to strangle her, though, because he knew the bitch could survive perfectly without air. Akasha just let herself dangle there in his hand without struggling, her feet nearly three meters off the ground due to the height difference between them. Her eyepatch had fallen off, and both of her mismatched eyes were staring at Haris. Her left arm had been destroyed some time ago, too, but she still hadn’t bothered to create a new one. Her face was covered in her own black blood, and her maid clothes had long since turned into so much scraps of torn fabric.
But for all that, she was still smiling.
[…Is that all?]
Haris frowned at the taunt that resounded in his mind. “Why aren’t you fighting back?”
“No, no,” Orsino’s voice cut in. “Don’t give her any ideas.”
[…Kukuku. Very well. Here.]
Even as she spoke, Akasha swept the black fingertips of her right hand over her cheek, smearing them with her blood. Then, in a flicker of movement, her claws pierced through the reinforced, steel-like skin of Haris’s hand. Small black veins instantly appeared there, spreading from the wound like the countless minute branches of a dead tree.
Haris scowled at the burning pain that spread over his limb, but he didn’t make any other response. He just waited.
And for the first time since the fight started, as she watched the spread of the black veins slow down and then stop entirely, Akasha looked surprised, her smile dimming slightly.
[…Why aren’t you dying?]
“Heh. I wonder?”
Akasha’s glowing left eye flicked back and forth between Haris’s face and the wound on his arm, while her black right eye stayed focused solely on the wound itself.
[…What have you done?]
Her voice sounded puzzled now and almost… offended, instead of just amused, and Haris could feel a satisfied smirk creep over his own face at this change in her behavior.
“You’ll just have to take a guess.”
Without waiting for her response, he suddenly took a step back to brace himself and threw Akasha into the sky.
Quickly, glittering ice started growing from her back in four separate sheets. Haris knew she was trying to create wings for herself – though he doubted she wanted to use them to escape – but Orsino didn’t give her the chance. A terrible lightning bolt cut through the sky with a deafening crack of thunder, searing right through Akasha’s chest and detonating in a huge explosion when it hit the ground below her, reducing all the buildings nearby – along with their occupants – into dust and molten rock. Even after it went through her, residual arcs of electricity flickered over Akasha’s skin, and she dropped from the sky head-first, her half-formed wings already blown to smithereens.
Haris met her in midair, halfway to the ground.
Pulsating magic wreathed his fist, ripping at the air around him with noises like tearing paper.
With a wild shout of effort, Haris slammed his fist into Akasha’s face again.
The sound of the impact almost rivaled the thunder of Orsino’s lightning strike, and Akasha was shot into the distance like an arrow from the bow – or perhaps more accurately, like a meteorite – crashing outside of the city on the border of the mine, her momentum such that her body actually dug through the earth at an angle and emerged out of the inside wall of the gigantic pit, halfway down, before disappearing out of sight into the bottom of the hole.
Haris’s full-power strike caused another earthquake, and with the ground already weakened by Akasha’s passage through it, a whole quadrant of the mine collapsed into a landslide, an enormous volume of broken stone, loose earth and debris flowing almost like water to fill up the pit on top of Akasha herself. The landslide spread far from the mine itself, clawing at and swallowing the ground all the way to the edge of the city, before entraining the outermost buildings of it into its flow.
Both Haris and Orsino watched the spectacle from a distance for several minutes, until the landslide drew to a close and the deafening sound of crashing rubble progressively stopped, the world seeming to fall into a hushed silence after the previous commotion.
Orsino landed lightly next to Haris, and without a word, the two of them approached the edge of the mine to look down into its depths.
Almost a quarter of that enormous hole had been filled up. Fortunately, there hadn’t been much of anyone working here so late in the evening, so casualties should have stayed relatively low, but it was clear that exploitation of the mine would be hampered by this – if not rendered outright impossible in case the tremors had produced structural weaknesses in the remaining walls of the pit.
“The young master isn’t going to be happy with you,” Orsino said.
Haris could feel a bit of cold sweat on his brow. “I, uh…”
“We weren’t supposed to damage the mine,” Orsino added quietly.
“I didn’t… I mean…”
“Yes, you did. You very much did.”
“It was a freak accident. I can’t be held responsible for this.”
“Yes, you can. You very much can. They’ll probably ask me to testify. And you know my unflinching respect for the truth.” Orsino pursed his lips in thought for a moment. “Actually, now that I think about it, even though you were the one most concerned about the safety of this city, I reckon most of the collateral damage in this battle is a direct consequence of your actions.”
“What? Of course, not. It’s Akasha’s fault. She’s the one who…”
“First, it’s AK-A-13, not Akasha,” Orsino interrupted. “The emperor doesn’t like it when people use that name. And second, yes, it’s definitely you. You met a strong opponent for the first time in a while, and like always, you just got excited on your own. I had a very clear view of it all from up there.” Orsino pointed at the sky. “Do you know how many houses collapsed because of you? A lot. That’s how many.”
Haris threw a guilty glance over his shoulder toward the wrecked Fushia City behind him, then let out a long sigh. “Haaa… Yes, I should have been more careful. But what do we do, now?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure. She’s been buried underneath all that rubble…”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“No. No, as matter of fact, I really don’t think so.”
“Really? Your lightning must have burned her heart to a crisp, and my punch must have shaken her brain into pulp.”
“Quite. But I doubt even that would be enough to kill this monster. And being buried under a few million tons of stone… Well, that must have happened to her two or three times already, during the last few centuries. She’ll definitely walk it off.”
“So then, we dig her out?”
“I think you must have missed it when I mentioned those ‘few million tons of stone’. Even for us, digging her out would be a bit difficult.”
“I don’t know. I mean, I probably could…”
Orsino scoffed. “Pssh. Who do you think you are? A god or something?”
Haris just looked at him blandly.
“That was a joke.”
Orsino cleared his throat. “Ahem. Yes, well, anyway, you’re definitely more suited to this than I am, so if you really want to do this, I think I’m going to stand right here and just provide you with my most heartfelt moral support.”
“Thank you. I’ll definitely repay your assi…”
Before Haris could finish his sentence, he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. Reflexively, he tried to dodge the projectile, but he was too late.
A boulder smashed into the side of his body, instantly shattering into smaller fragments that pelted Orsino next to him. If Haris had been properly alert, the shock wouldn’t have been able to affect him much, but as it were, he toppled to the ground head over heels.
By the time he got his bearings back, Orsino was at his side again, lightning crackling at his fingertips, looking at something behind Haris.
“Haris, you might want to get up in a hurry,” he said in a tense voice.
With a grunt of acknowledgment, Haris followed the advice and turned around.
AK-A-13 was there, standing on the edge of the mine pit. She was covered in blood. Her left eye was open and looking at them, glowing less brightly than before, while her right eyelid was closed, concealing her strange black eye. Her left arm had finally been created anew, sharp ice claws sending out a dull white radiance in the night. No more smoke was wafting up from her other limbs.
And that cruel, crazed smile had finally left her lips.
Even the bloodthirst she still exuded felt more subdued than before.
She just stared at the two gods in front of her, the cold and indifference in her gaze reflecting the absolute lack of expression on her face. And then, she spoke in a bland and emotionless voice.