Uncle Finram flies fast, even while carrying me along. I have to squint my eyes against the wind. It only takes us a few seconds to reach the harbor.
When Uncle Finram is about to head down, however, I feel his body suddenly stiffen, and we swerve to the side. The change in direction is so abrupt I almost feel sick to my stomach, and my neck stings from the whiplash.
We alight behind a tall warehouse’s wall.
“Uncle, what…?” I start asking while rubbing the back of my neck.
“Shh, we’ve got company,” he whispers urgently while placing a finger before his lips. He leans slightly out of the wall’s angle to peer toward the harbor. “Be careful.”
“What is it?”
I imitate him, taking care not to reveal myself.
A new ship is just reaching the harbor, but it’s still too far out for me to see who’s on it that could make Uncle Finram act so carefully. In a minute, the ship approaches one of the piers, and a few sailors jump off from it to moor it securely.
I hold my breath as the gangplank is lowered and more of the ship’s passengers disembark. My heart skips a beat when I finally realize who they are.
The same devils who kidnapped me last time!
Some I haven’t seen before, but others I definitely recognize. Like this man. I remember the others calling him Salem. He should be something like a leader to the rest of the devils. Or this woman. I can’t remember her name, but she looks a bit like Akasha, except she doesn’t have a horn.
Fortunately, the devil who tormented me back then isn’t present. Perhaps he was killed by Akasha in Dorn. I can’t remember much of what happened back then, and Uncle Finram immediately escaped with me after Akasha went to fight someone else. He carried me and left as soon as he was able without paying attention to anything else. He didn’t stay long enough to see what happened afterward.
I wish I could ask Akasha…
More devils disembark from the ship and gather on the pier until nearly sixty of them stand there together. It’s a chilling sight. All of them have pale skin and white hair and glowing red eyes. And they all bear some degree of difference from normal humans. Scales here, a tail there, strange ears or webbing between their fingers, more eyes or limbs, horns, gills… Some are closer to human than others, but there’s always something to set them apart from ordinary people.
Salem is in the center of the group talking to a few individuals while the others surround them, watching the surroundings warily.
Is Salem giving orders to the others?
After a few moments, one after another, the individual devils speaking with Salem split from the group and head further inland toward different directions. Groups of devils, from 5 to 10, follow each of them as if to form squads. Quickly and stealthily, without any fuss, the various squads head toward their respective destinations.
Do they have designs on the Competition?
What are they planning?
I look up at Uncle Finram, but before any words can come out, he claps a hand over my mouth and hauls me inside the warehouse, signaling me to keep quiet. Eyes wide, I see a group of devils run past our position. Fortunately, they don’t appear to notice us.
Are we just going to let them go past us like this? Shouldn’t we stop them? Or at least warn the people still at the arena that devils are attempting to take advantage of the situation to… do something?
Has no one else noticed the devils’ arrival?
I peer anxiously out of the warehouse’s door, but what I can see of the harbor is pretty much deserted. Everyone went to the arena to watch the Competition. Only a scant few practitioners – the weakest of the lot – have been left behind to watch over the ships, but even they are loafing. I see one squad of devils come upon one such practitioner, but they take him by surprise and silently dispatch him before he can raise the alarm. I assume the other sentries will share this one’s fate. And even if one of them notices the devils’ ship, without coming close enough, it can be hard to differentiate them from normal humans.
When the squads of devils are distant enough that no one risks overhearing our conversation, I turn to Uncle Finram.
“Uncle Finram, what should we do?” I whisper.
He shakes his head. “We do nothing.”
Uncle Finram shakes his head more firmly than before. “No,” he says categorically. “We can’t take that risk. You still haven’t learned any spells. You’ll have no way to defend yourself against a devil.”
“Can’t you protect me, though?”
Uncle Finram is really strong after all.
But unexpectedly, he shakes his head again. “The devils have someone as strong as I am. And killing one of them is always a risky endeavor, in and of itself. You risk instant death every time they bleed. I’m confident I can protect my own life, but I don’t want to take risks when you’re with me.”
“Then… Then, how about we fly back to the arena to warn everyone. Won’t it be bad if the devils take them by surprise?”
This time, Uncle Finram’s lips stretch into a cruel smirk. “No. The devils won’t attack the arena. At least, not openly. There are too many powerful practitioners there. A mere 60 devils would be ganged up on by everyone else and wouldn’t be a threat. And come to that, Akasha is over there, too. She alone can deal with all of them together without breaking a sweat. In fact, if her battle heats up too much, the devils might become collateral damage, too. They’re quite unlucky, actually, to set foot on the Island at this particular moment.”
“I–If you say so…”
“Right now, we only need to worry about escaping before things get too out of hand. We need to steal a ship and run away.”
“I agree! Let’s hurry up and steal a ship before all those nutjobs start to go all out on each other! We’ll be in for it when that happens!”
Uncle Finram stiffens at those words.
So do I.
Because I’m not the one who said them.
We both whirl around, Uncle Finram stepping protectively between the unnoticed intruder and me. I glance around his body to see who snuck up on us while we were talking.
My gaze falls upon a woman, kneeling on the other side of the warehouse’s doorway and gazing through it just like us. She’s a majin, an elf, with chocolate-brown skin and jet-black hair. And she’s unimaginably beautiful, so much so that, even in this situation, with devils almost breathing down our necks, I feel blood rush up my cheeks. My heart starts beating uncontrollably fast, and it takes considerable effort to avert my gaze.
How on earth did we fail to notice someone like that standing right beside us?
“Who are you?” Uncle Finram asks warily, his voice full of tension. “And why did you follow us?”
“Name’s Seres,” the woman replies, still peering out of the warehouse’s door at Salem’s group of devils standing on the pier outside. “And I didn’t follow you. I was hiding in here before you came. You just didn’t see me.”
“Shhh!” The woman finally turns her gorgeous green eyes toward us and puts a finger to her lips, as Uncle Finram did toward me earlier. Then, she whispers, “Lower your voice, man. Who I am isn’t important. Right now, we should focus on leaving the Island. I heard your conversation. You know about Akasha. Then you should know that this tub isn’t going to stay afloat for much longer.”
“Lady, you know Akasha, too?”
The elven woman, Seres, turns a gentle smile toward me, and my heart skips a beat. I bashfully turn my eyes away as she says, “Yes. We traveled together for a while. So I know precisely how strong she is. My point is, there must be something like half a dozen people currently on the Island who’re just as strong as she is. If they all butt heads against each other, we’re going to be turned to dust along with everything else just from the aftershocks.”
At this moment, as if to punctuate her words, the entire island rumbles and trembles under our feet. It’s so unexpected I almost lose my balance and only stay upright when Uncle Finram tightly grips my arm to steady me.
“W–What was that?” I ask shakily, propping myself with a hand against the warehouse’s wall.
Seres smiles. “Aftershocks.”
Uncle Finram’s face twists like he’s bitten into a particularly bitter lemon.
“Why are you still hesitating?” Seres asks Uncle Finram urgently. “Let’s work together to get out of here. You’ll have a better chance if I help you.”
“Will we?” Uncle Finram asks, his tone heavy with suspicion. “What can you do?”
Seres strikes her plentiful chest and lifts her chin proudly. “I’m a 6th-rank warrior, and while I admit my specialty isn’t direct combat, I think you’ve already experienced for yourself that I’m very good at sneaking around undetected. In our current situation, that’s precisely what we’ll need.”
Uncle Finram still seems to hesitate, so Seres turns a pleading gaze toward me. She looks so pitiful that I can’t help but tug on Uncle Finram’s sleeve and say, “Uncle, let’s take her with us. No matter what, we shouldn’t leave anyone at the devils’ mercy.”
Another shiver creeps up my spine as the memory of my own ordeal at their hands resurfaces.
Uncle Finram looks down at me for a moment before finally relenting. He nods. “Fine. Let’s cooperate, then.”
Seres gives a brilliant smile. “Thanks, Uncle Finram,” she says, teasingly borrowing my form of address. “You won’t regret it.”
Uncle Finram frowns at Seres’s frivolity but doesn’t comment. Instead, he says, “Then, let’s do this. We should try to steal one of the boats furthest away from the devils’.”
“I agree. And try not to use too much magic. Weak qi fluctuations will be drowned out by those from the old monsters fighting in the arena, but you might still be noticed if you push your luck.”
“Good. Let’s go.” Seres turns to me. “Be careful, little girl.”
I nod and tighten my fists, taking a deep, steadying breath.
Then, we are gone.
We leave through the warehouse’s back door, to avoid Salem and his group noticing us. Seres takes the lead, with Uncle Finram following behind, holding my hand in his. Seres walks confidently, as if she’s very much used to this sort of thing and has escaped similar situations a hundred times before. Her gaze sweeps everything around us, and I assume she’s using her concealment magic, because even though I know where she is, every time I so much as blink, I have to struggle before finally confirming that, yes, she is indeed still walking two steps in front of me.
Her magic is really powerful.
And I can’t sense any qi fluctuation at all. She must have a way to prevent them from spreading.
Seres leads us toward the other side of the harbor. The squads of devils have already left for whatever destination they had in mind, so we don’t meet any opposition along the way. At one point, we do stumble upon someone, a human, but he’s already dead, lying in a pool of his own blood, his eyes wide open and staring, his face full of uncomprehending surprise. He must have been one of the weak cultivators left in the harbor, whom the devils found and murdered before he could warn anyone.
I do my best to ignore the ghastly sight.
We’re still on our way when the Island suddenly shakes again. However, if the previous time was a little tremor, then now, it’s a full-blown earthquake. The three of us are thrown to the ground as the earth heaves violently. Deep groans and cracks come from below us, as if Caldera itself is screaming in pain.
Then, a deafening thunderclap, loud enough to be physically palpable, seems to pass us by. Fortunately, we were already lying on the ground when it came. If we’d been standing, it probably would’ve injured us. As it is, we merely slide a few meters over the ground. The warehouse next to us, on the other hand, is less flexible. With a crack, its roof is torn off and flung away, then its walls crumble, rubble soaring through the air at terrifying speeds. A moment later, pieces of debris coming from the buildings closer than us to the center of the explosion – or whatever it was that produced the shockwave – start raining down all around us. Uncle Finram curses loudly, before thick roots and vines pierce out of the earth all around and arch above the three of us to cover our bodies from this danger. Dull thumps resound as rubble falls on top of the roots – rubble undoubtedly heavy enough to crush us to death were it not for Uncle Finram’s magic.
But even as this deadly rain of stone falls everywhere, the earth’s screams reach their peak, and the ground shifts beneath us. Incredibly, it seems to actually tilt upward, going from flat to a 40-degree slant in just a few moments.
I can’t help but imagine myself sliding down and ending up buried alive under tons of rubble and soil. A scream of terror, drowned out by the tortured sounds of the earth, escapes me unbidden.
But finally, the destruction slowly comes to a stop.
“Haa, haa, haa…”
After the deafening ruckus of the last few seconds, my strained breaths sound very loud. Uncle Finram’s roots retract from above us, taking the heavy wreckage they hold away from the top of our heads.
Almost stunned, I slowly make my way to my feet and look around. A dust cloud covers everything, but I can see that few buildings are left intact. Most are missing a few pieces. Some even fell completely, only leaving a pile of rubble behind. What’s even more terrifying is that deep crevices split the earth here and there. I almost want to approach one and look down to see how deep it goes, but then I imagine one of those fissures opening up underneath me while I’d been lying on the ground earlier, and suddenly I’m not curious anymore.
Next to me, Uncle Finram and Seres also stand up. I turn to them.
“Uncle – cough! – Uncle Finram.”
“Lilly, are you all right?”
“I’m… I’m fine. What happened? What was that?”
“Aftershocks,” Seres says again, sounding very calm. “Let’s hurry up and find a ship. Hopefully, they’ll still be intact even after what just happened.” She looks at Uncle Finram. “Thanks for protecting us with your magic, by the way.”
Uncle Finram nods wordlessly, then tightly grasps my hand in his again.
We follow behind Seres, taking advantage of the dust cloud to mask our progress. As we advance, we sometimes have to jump past crevices. Every time, I don’t dare to look down too much.
“There we are,” Seres says finally, kneeling at the angle of another building.
This one seems to be the office of the harbormaster. Peering inside through one of the shattered windows, I can see that this place too is deserted. No one is inside. The furniture is in disarray, most of it broken to pieces, and while the building still stands in mostly one piece, cracks cover the walls.
Seres continues, “This ship looks good. Undamaged, and fairly easy to steer even with only the few of us.”
She points to one of the smaller ships in the harbor, and only now do I remember that the larger ones all require a full crew to operate. The boat we rode on the way in carried something like two dozen sailors, all of whom always seemed busy with something. With just the three of us, it would probably be a struggle – or even downright impossible – to control such a ship.
“Do you know how to steer a ship?” Seres asks, turning toward Uncle Finram.
He shakes his head. “Not really.” He glances down at me somewhat self-consciously. “I planned to wing it, and if it really didn’t work, I’d just fly out of here while carrying Lilly.”
“Fly?” Seres says with some surprise coloring her voice. Then, she nods dubiously. “I suppose that could work. For a while. Can you fly all the way back to the mainland in one go, though? There aren’t any islands between here and the continents on which you can stop to rest. And how would you eat and drink? It would be a pretty rough trip, is what I’m saying.”
“It would,” Uncle Finram says with a dark face. “But better that than staying on the Island.”
“Can’t deny that,” Seres says, pursing her lips.
“Do you know how to steer a ship, then, Lady Seres?” I ask to get the conversation back on track. “And is this one loaded with enough supplies for the trip?”
Seres nods decisively. “I do. And I hope so. Otherwise, we might be in a bit of trouble. It would be stupid to escape the Island, only to die along the way… Really, we only need water. The trip to the mainland should take two days, so let’s double that because we’re not actual sailors and there might be unexpected accidents along the way. We can survive four days by fishing while on the boat, I reckon. But we can’t afford to stay thirsty for that long. Nor can we drink seawater. Can either of you produce or purify water with magic?”
Uncle Finram and I shake our heads.
“Neither can I.” Seres hesitates for a moment before continuing. “Well, we still don’t know if we actually need to worry about that. Even if the ship hasn’t been resupplied, yet, there might still be leftovers inside from the trip to the Island. Wait here. I’ll go check.”
Without waiting for a response, Seres daringly leaves our hiding place and walks openly toward the ship we selected. My heart jumps when I see her do so – though we’re a bit further away than before, the dust cloud has already settled down and dispersed in the wind, and Seres would stand in full view of Salem and his group. Fortunately, no cry of alarm is raised.
Looks like she hasn’t been noticed.
Concealment magic is really convenient…
I breathe out in relief and glance back toward the arena. Echoes of explosions still ring out regularly. In fact, they seem to become more and more frequent, as if the battle is increasing in intensity.
“Are you all right?” Uncle Finram asks, his tone full of concern.
“I’m fine. I’m just… worried. I don’t know what the devils are planning. I hope Akasha will be fine.”
Uncle Finram smiles. “She will. You simply cannot imagine how much more powerful your friend is, compared to the devils. They’re ants facing a dragon.”
“If you say so…”
I turn back to look fretfully at our ship. Will it take long for Seres to check whether it carries enough supplies for us to…
“I’m back,” a voice suddenly resounds and interrupts my train of thought. I blink, and Seres appears in my sight, standing right in front of us.
Uncle Finram is so startled he almost jumps out of his skin. He clenches his jaw and narrows his eyes at Seres. “Your concealment magic is… uncommonly powerful.”
Seres gives him a brilliant smile. “I’d be long dead if it weren’t. Now, I checked the ship, and we’re in luck. There’s still a barrel and a half of water left in its stores. More than enough for us to last the trip.”
“Great!” I say. “Let’s go, then.”
“Yes. We’ll need to move fast, in case the devils notice what we’re doing.” Seres turns to Uncle Finram. “In case the devils come closer, leave getting the ship ready to sail to the two of us and concentrate on dealing with them. You should be able to keep them away from us and protect the ship, right?”
“I should. Unless their strongest fighter takes the field. Then we’ll be in trouble. I’ll be busy dealing with him, so the rest will be free to attack the two of you unmolested.”
“Their strongest?” Seres frowns, then leans out of the wall’s corner and gazes toward Salem and his group. “Which one is it?”
Uncle Finram shakes his head, even though Seres isn’t looking at him. “I haven’t seen him, yet. He wasn’t part of those who disembarked. He might still be on their ship. Or if we’re lucky, he might not have come at all. He’s enormous. Something like three-meters tall and two wide. You’ll notice him if he appears.”
“I see,” Seres says thoughtfully. “Well, in that case, I don’t think we have any other option than betting on our luck.”
“I agree,” Uncle Finram nods. “Let’s go quickly.”
Seres once more walks out of our hiding spot openly. Uncle Finram and I, on the other hand, proceed more carefully, trying to put as many obstacles between Salem’s group of devils and us as possible. Fortunately, it looks like they’re focused on their own thing.
No one notices us.
We’re about to reach the gangplank leading to the small ship’s deck, when suddenly, something flies out of nowhere and smashes violently first into our ship, then into the sea. A jet of water shoots up, drenching the three of us and sending the kindling that was our ship flying in all directions with a terribly loud, terribly noticeable noise.
Seres, who had actually stepped onto the gangplank, lets out a strange scream and is thrown into the water, leaving Uncle Finram and I standing on the pier, in plain sight.
My gaze slowly trails from the disturbed surface of the water where our ship used to float and Seres just sunk, toward the position where Salem and his devils are standing.
Now, they noticed us.
In fact, they are looking straight at us.
Before anyone can move, Seres resurfaces and frantically climbs up onto the pier. She crawls away from the edge for a few meters, before lying down on the ground, drenched and exhausted, her chest heaving up and down. “Haa, haa, haa… Bad news, people,” she says, out of breath. “There are tons of demons hiding in the water. We’ll never be able to leave the Island like this. They can easily sink any ship that tries to make it out.”
I gasp. “Demons?!”
“They’re hiding?” Uncle Finram asks, frowning. “They’re not attacking?”
“Nope. Haa, haa… Looks like the rumor that devils could control and enslave demons was true. At any rate, I suggest you don’t go for a swim. They’re not very welcoming of visitors, down there. If I’d been thrown a bit further away from the pier, I definitely would’ve died.”
“How many of them are there?”
“Well, I didn’t stay and count, and I couldn’t see very well underwater. But at least a few thousands. More than we can handle, that’s for sure.”
I stare at the sea’s surface for a few seconds. For a moment, I think I see a shadow move, but perhaps I imagined it. Little hints at what’s hiding below the waves. There’s no visible sign that demons are lying in wait. There’s no point in Seres lying to us about that, though. And she did look quite hurried when climbing out of the water.
“T–Then, what should we do?” I ask, turning to her.
Seres shakes her head wordlessly, and Uncle Finram scowls, looking at the group of devils in the distance. He grinds his teeth audibly, then takes a resolute step toward them.
“Don’t do it,” Seres says, not even looking at him and making no effort to stand up. “Even if you kill them all, that won’t solve the problem. In fact, it might make things worse. We’ll have a horde of hungry demons bursting out of the sea, instead of staying in the sea, safely away from us.”
“Then what?” Uncle Finram replies coldly. “We just stay there and wait for them to come and kill us?”
Indeed, a few devils are splitting up from Salem’s group and heading in our direction. In a fair fight, they wouldn’t be Uncle Finram’s match, but the moment we kill them, the remaining devils will no doubt send their thousands of enslaved demons after us. At that point, the sheer weight of numbers will be enough to destroy us.
I unconsciously take a step back, my eyes fixed on the approaching devils, when suddenly, a disturbance runs through Salem’s group. One of them, a woman, abruptly grabs her head and falls to her knees. The others, Salem included, cluster around her flurriedly. We’re too far to hear their voices, but even the group heading in our direction runs back to rejoin the rest of them.
Then, the sea starts to seethe.
Erratic waves crash against the walls of the pier, like a boiling pot, as if monstrous sea creatures are struggling below the surface.
Then, a gigantic… scythe? – something huge and white bursts out of the sea before slamming down onto the harbor’s ground. I barely have time to take a closer look at it – it indeed looks like a white scythe, the tip of its blade stabbed into the ground, the handle disappearing below the waves – before more of the same appear and latch onto the earth.
The scythes seem to flex and pull, carving deep grooves into the already battered ground and crushing a warehouse or two more, before an enormous mass of… ice… surfaces after them. A second later, my eyes almost bulge out at a colossal ice spider standing in the middle of the harbor, torrents of water crashing down like waterfalls from its back. It must be something like a kilometer tall, towering above the warehouses and the ships like they’re nothing. Each scythe – no, each leg of the spider is vastly thicker and longer than even the biggest ship in the harbor and ends in a blade that, for all its ridiculous size, still looks remarkably sharp and deadly. The spider doesn’t have a face or anything of the sort; its body is entirely featureless, so it’s a bit hard to tell which way it’s facing, apart from looking at the orientation of its legs.
“W–W–W–W–W–What is that?”
No one answers my question. I’m not sure I actually expected an answer.
The spider takes a few stationary steps to reorient itself and turn toward the arena. The impact of each step produces a deep crater and a localized earthquake. Clouds of dust and loud booms rise up with every movement.
“Is that… Akasha?” I hear Seres’s hushed, awed voice ask from behind me.
I blink at the realization, but before I can do anything at all – What would I do, anyway? Call out to her? – the surface of the sea explodes once more, and a horde of much smaller white forms rush out of the water.
Countless demons from various species, all hideously mutated and deformed.
My heart leaps into my throat at the sight, and for an instant, I expect we’re all going to die horribly. Frightening stories of demon hunters meeting their ends I read a long time ago flash through my mind.
Except, those demons don’t care about us. At all.
The demons that usually would disregard everything, even their own life, to devour us, ignore us completely. They don’t even seem to realize we’re standing just a few meters away. A demon, looking something like a warped, repulsive cow or bull, leaps out of the water right in front of me, then turns away and charges frantically toward the ice spider.
Indeed, those demons, hundreds of them now, with more appearing every second, all rush toward the ice spider – toward Akasha alone, ignoring everyone else.
Are the devils still controlling them?
I remember the sight of the kneeling devil woman, and the others crowding worriedly around her.
…They shouldn’t be, right?
As the rest of us watch dumbfounded, the fastest demons reach the ice spider and pounce on its humongous legs, biting and tearing ineffectually at the ice, howling and roaring and screaming in rage and hunger.
Even for demons, these look completely insane, rabid, bloodthirsty.
“Hey! Stop watching!” Seres calls out from behind us. Uncle Finram and I tear our eyes away from the terrible spectacle and look at her. “This is no time to gawk. While the devils and the demons are distracted, let’s quickly find another ship and get out of here!”
Uncle Finram takes a deep breath. “Right! Let’s go! Lilly!”
Throwing a last glance over my shoulder at the ice spider and the crazy demons climbing and swarming all over its body, I follow the other two toward our escape.