“Then just call a maid to lead her and fetch some clothes for her,” Finram said in a resigned voice. “Your new friend here can come back once she’s done. But you are not leaving this room.”
“All right,” Lilly replied easily, as if he’d failed to make the sarcastic emphasis on the word ‘friend’ thick enough for her to notice.
The devil, Akasha, peacefully left the room, following behind Ran, and Finram could finally breathe a small sigh of relief.
These past few minutes had shaved years off his life…
He glanced at Lilly, his carefree, 13-year-old niece, still standing there, staring at the door behind which Akasha had disappeared. She was squirming impatiently, innocently waiting for a devil to come back so she could catch its tail, in as literal a sense as possible.
Finram didn’t know if he should praise her courage for daring to treat one of the unnatural creatures – and such a powerful one, too – like a stuffed toy. He almost felt insane just formulating the thought.
And he also felt confused.
Let alone clinging onto them like this, the devils Finram knew would have killed his niece the moment she’d first approached them. No, actually, the devils he knew wouldn’t have waited for people to come to them. They would have rushed through the train, carving a bloody path of destruction down its entire length, laughing in glee all the while.
This one, though, hadn’t shown any particular reaction when Lilly had gone so far as tugging on her ears. In fact, her face had yet to even display any kind of expression at all.
Finram wasn’t fooled, though. He had noticed the centering of her balance, the small twitch of her shoulders when Lilly had first ran toward her. He recognized those signs; he’d displayed them often enough himself, after he retired from his years fighting the so-called enemies of humanity. Those were the signs of someone consciously restraining the sort of deeply ingrained reflexes one could only earn on the battlefield.
And the girl’s scars told a similar story.
Finram knew his niece had escaped death by a hair’s breadth, today.
He’d motioned to Solaire and Rieshia not to get any closer, for fear of offending or somehow setting off Akasha, and he had mostly limited himself to keeping an eye on how things proceeded. The devil girl had clearly noticed his attention, but she didn’t seem to care.
If Finram’s suspicions about her level of power were correct, she indeed could afford not to.
As his niece had boasted, Finram was, in point of fact, one of the strongest people in the world. But he knew very well that, in the face of some of the beings who walked this plane, that strength of his didn’t mean much.
“…five or six years ago, I think. Right, Finram?”
It took a moment for Finram to realize his brother was talking to him. He cleared his throat awkwardly and focused back on the conversation. “Ahem… I’m sorry, I was lost in thought. You were saying?”
Solaire looked a bit surprised. It wasn’t strange for him to take notice of Finram’s strange behavior. 9th-rank warriors were rarely so distracted they didn’t pay attention to their surroundings. “Is everything all right?” he asked.
Finram started to nod, then held himself. He looked into his brother’s eyes. “I need to talk to you.” His gaze flicked to Rieshia. “And to you.” His eyes then came to rest on the young man who’d already been sitting in the room when they’d arrived. “Privately,” he said finally.
The young man – what was his name, again? Finram hadn’t paid attention to his introduction – got the hint. “I’ll excuse myself then, Your Grace,” he said smoothly, his smile not even faltering before Finram’s rudeness.
Solaire nodded affably. “My apologies, Sieur Fulmist.”
“It’s no issue at all.”
Fulmist stood up and strolled toward the window on the other side of the room, looking through it at the rolling, rainy landscape.
“What did you want to talk about, Finram?” Rieshia asked.
“Is it about that little girl Lilly befriended?” Solaire guessed.
Finram threw a glance to the side, making sure Lilly was still lost in her daydreams of the supposed fluffiness of the devil’s appendages. “That’s right.”
“An apostle, correct?” Solaire said.
“Devil, more like,” Finram corrected.
“Oh? I was under the impression those were more… violent and uncontrolled. This girl called Akasha didn’t strike me as the type.”
“Perhaps not, but apostles are more biological machines than actual people. I’ve fought alongside them in the past, and I never even get one to talk to me. They’re just one step away from being simple golems.”
“Hmm… True, this Akasha isn’t exactly talkative, but she doesn’t exactly fit that mould, either.”
“In any case, her nature isn’t the question.”
“Well, what is the question, then?” Solaire asked, shifting in his seat to a more comfortable position.
“Did you follow the course of the conversation Lilly had with her?”
“At first, I did. But I could only hear Lilly’s side of it, so I didn’t understand much of it,” Solaire replied. “You seemed to have things well in hand, so I stopped listening pretty quickly.”
Rieshia nodded. “I, as well.”
“I see. Well, long story short, this devil is probably going to come and ask you a few questions.” A smirk stretched Finram’s thin lips. “Your daughter recommended you as a good information source. She seemed very proud of her daddy.”
Rieshia chuckled. She looked to her husband. “As long as the information isn’t too sensitive, it shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
“Indeed. I don’t mind helping, if I can.”
“You should mind,” Finram said, his voice grave. “Don’t involve yourself with this girl.”
Solaire’s eyes narrowed. “Did you notice something wrong with her?”
“Apart from the fact that she’s a devil? I should think this sufficient to convince you to keep your distance.”
Solaire decisively shook his head. “It’s not. It makes no sense to judge people based on gross generalizations imposed on their entire species.” His gaze grew deeper as he looked at Finram. “You know this more than most.”
That stung. Finram had to work hard to mask his reaction to Solaire’s words. “I do,” he said, his voice coming out as a low growl despite his efforts at controlling himself. “And I agree. Or I would, if you were talking about a regular majin. But this is a devil.” Seeing that Solaire was still unconvinced, Finram shook his head. “Anyway, whatever her species or her history, you do not know her. She represents a potential threat to your daughter.”
“Not with you here, dear brother,” Solaire said sincerely. “Even if this girl had foul play in mind, what could she possibly do under the eye of a 9th-rank warrior?”
Finram shook his head again. “You overestimate me. I already told you a thousand times that my skills aren’t the most suited to one-on-one combat. I can do more than most bodyguards, certainly, but even I have limits.” Finram leaned forward to make his point more piercing. “And that girl goes beyond them.”
That gave Solaire and Rieshia pause.
“She’s… stronger than you?” Solaire said slowly.
“Most likely, yes.”
“How can you know that?” Rieshia asked. “Didn’t you tell me once that it was impossible to know someone else’s cultivation level without using a grading sphere?”
“It is.” ‘For mortals like us,’ was what he left unsaid. “I’m not judging based on that.”
“Then, on what?”
“Instinct, first,” Finram said with a bitter smile. “Every single one of those I have is screaming warnings at me every time I look at this girl.”
“Come now, an old hand like you –”
“‘Old hand’?” Finram interrupted, his voice rising an octave higher. “Didn’t you hear her introduction? If I’m an old hand, then what is she? This child – as you seem to see her – is older than everyone in this room added together.”
“That ‘291 years old’ thing? Wasn’t that a joke?”
“In my professional opinion, it was not.”
“What kind of species could have such a long lifespan that a 300-year-old would still look like a child?” Rieshia asked.
Finram shrugged. “Devils, apparently.”
Even as he said so, Finram knew this was unlikely. That would have meant devils could possess a lifespan reaching as high as 3,000 years, almost three times that of an elf, who were already recognized as the pinnacle of longevity. No, it was more likely that the very concept of a lifespan didn’t apply to this creature that had taken the guise of a little girl.
That wasn’t a secret he could share with anyone, though. Not even his own brother.
Especially not his own brother.
“Then, if she’s so dangerous, what do you suggest I do?” Solaire asked finally.
“Give her the bare minimum assistance in order to satisfy her, then send her on her way. Don’t involve yourself with her. Keep your distance. Don’t offend her. She doesn’t seem to really care about any of us, one way or the other, so I doubt she would threaten us if none of us give her any cause.”
“What about Lilly?” Rieshia asked, now clearly worried.
On the contrary, Finram’s smile became much lighter and more natural when he heard her question. “Speak frankly, now. Would your daughter be able to restrain herself, even if you asked it of her?” Finram shook her head. “Let Lilly act as she will. She seems fond of Akasha, so there is little risk that she would insult her.”
“But won’t she…?”
Finram shook his head, understanding her concerns. “I wouldn’t worry too much. There is not a shred of ill intent behind any of Lilly’s actions, so they probably won’t produce too strong a response. Just warn Lilly to be careful and avoid actually injuring Akasha, and she should be fine.”
Finram considered his own words as they left his mouth. They’d been intended more to reassure Rieshia as to the safety of her daughter than to be perfectly accurate, but hearing them himself, he couldn’t help but think that they did ring true. Without the proper stimuli of danger and threat, he didn’t believe someone of Akasha’s power would react violently. That would simply be beneath such a being’s dignity.
Finram wasn’t certain that sort of reasoning could apply to a devil.
Even if he turned out to be wrong, though, even if he did end up facing off against an actual god, Finram wouldn’t let anything happen to his precious niece.
Not on his life.
“All right, then. We’ll follow your suggestions,” Solaire said, stretching. The conversation had become somewhat tense, at some point, and Finram himself felt relieved to see it concluded. “I think I need a drink,” Solaire continued abruptly, rising from his seat.
“Get one for me, too,” Finram called out after him.
Finram settled back into his seat and closed his eyes as he waited for His Grace the Duke to fetch him his refreshments. A small smirk lit up his face at the thought of the breach of hierarchy – though, as a 9th-rank warrior himself, Finram could easily have obtained an equal title to his brother, if he’d ever bothered to apply for it.
“What’s wrong?” Finram asked, opening his eyes and looking over at his brother standing in front of the wooden cabinets lined up against one of the walls.
“All the bottles are empty. They’re all here, neatly lined up, but they’re all empty. There’s not a drop of alcohol left in there.”
“I suppose we’ll have to stay dry, then.”
“Shame, that. You’d expect better service, considering the price of a first-class ticket.”
“Quite. I’ll be sure to file a complaint.”
The devil god came back, wearing a maid outfit.
Finram wasn’t sure if he should make some comment about it, but he eventually decided that silence was the way of wisdom.
The worst thing was that the uniform did actually suit her pretty well.
Destem, capital of Destem, named thus by its clearly unimaginative citizens.
The railroad’s first stop after Aldenfell.
It was also the first stop for the Springfield family and their accompanying servants, on their way home to their territory after a visit to General Foss, in Aldenfell, an old friend of Finram from his days in the army, whom Solaire had hoped to rally to his cause – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
A coach, sent by Count Sterr of Destem – who, contrary to Foss, already shared Solaire’s political inclinations – was already waiting for them as soon as they stepped off the train. Their group would only stay in Destem until the train continued on its way, the following morning, but while Solaire would have been perfectly satisfied with renting an inn or a hostel, Finram had objected on grounds of safety – his brother had enough enemies to make such a trip already dangerous; no need to add to it by giving those enemies opportunities to perform their work even more easily.
As they boarded the coach, the young man called Fulmist who had shared the communal room with them during the trip bade them his goodbyes – although, he said, he too would be boarding the train again tomorrow – and went on his way.
Akasha also left, her small form quickly disappearing into the crowd milling around the train station, weaving gracefully through the throng of people. Though Finram was glad to see the back of her, Lilly looked about to cry, so he had to reassure her with false cheer that the girl would accompany them at least until Fushia city.
Count Sterr’s welcome, in his manor house, was warm and sincere, and after a good meal shared with their host, the Springfield household retired to their respective rooms.
Finram, standing on the balcony of his assigned bedroom, looked out over the grounds of Sterr’s estate. A few guards were making their rounds under the rain, diligent in their protection of their master’s guests.
But not diligent enough for Finram’s tastes.
He reached into the pouch hung on the back of his belt and took out a sprinkling of tiny spores, pinched between two fingers, as unobtrusive as simple particles of dust. Turning back to his room, he brought the spores in front of his lips and, with a breath, blew them away.
He closed his eyes, and his consciousness anchored on each microscopic spore within the spreading cloud, leading them through the gap beneath his door, then through the manor’s corridors toward different directions, to cover the entire building.
His sentinels were in place.
Let alone move past them undetected, it would be a hard task for pretty much anyone – even powerful practitioners – to so much as detect them. They were the most convenient tool Finram always used in his capacity as the bodyguard of his younger brother’s family.
And tonight, once again, those tools proved their value.
Finram quickly noticed the anomaly.
An intruder had infiltrated Count Sterr’s library.
An intruder dressed as a maid, who was peacefully reading books like she was in her own house, her tail swishing lazily from side to side.
Finram could only watch dumbfounded for a few moments before Akasha’s head turned and her glowing red eye locked onto Finram – onto the invisible spore that served as a relay to his senses.
How on earth had she noticed it?!
Or had she just looked in this direction by chance?
Finram was dissuaded of this notion the next instant, when a force stronger than his own magic could resist suddenly closed around the spore and it drifted closer to Akasha, despite his efforts to regain control of it.
Finram wasn’t sure what Akasha could do to him if she started fiddling with the spore while it was still connected to him by his magic. He didn’t want to take any chances, so he immediately retracted from it, cutting off his vision of the library.
Losing one spore was a negligible loss, so it didn’t sadden him too much, but…
Now that he’d found out Akasha had also snuck into the manor, he couldn’t very well ignore her. Especially since she must have discovered him at the same time he did her.
With a sigh, Finram relaxed his fingers, which had unknowingly clenched tightly around the balcony’s railing. He turned away from the courtyard and left his room, walking quietly through the darkened hallways of the manor toward the library.
Finram opened the door and stepped into the room, striving to appear as casual and non-threatening and self-possessed as he could, but his hands were a bit too clammy to convince himself he really was as calm as he pretended.
Akasha was still as he had seen her through the spore, standing in front of a tall bookcase, an open book in her hands. It was a different book than the one she had been reading a minute ago. She looked up at Finram when he entered, but said nothing and immediately returned her gaze to her book, completely ignoring him.
Dressed in the same uniform as before, she could almost have been mistaken for one of the count’s servants slacking on the job – majin being employed in human households were rather rare, but not actually unheard of – except that, even for a majin, this little girl would have looked a bit wrong. She was still barefoot, for one thing, although it didn’t look that way at first glance. Her skin color changed from white to black over three of her limbs, giving the impression that she was wearing boots and a single glove. As for her left arm, it was completely white and clearly made out of ice.
Finram could readily imagine explanations for why her left arm looked the way it did – though that it was there at all and could even reproduce a normal arm’s movements so fluidly implied a frightening proficiency in magic – but as for why the rest of her limbs were half black, he had no idea. The subject hadn’t come up during Akasha’s conversations with Lilly – probably because Finram’s niece had been more interested in the devil’s tail than any other part of her; she most likely hadn’t even noticed anything strange about her new friend’s appearance.
Finram took a deep breath and stepped forward.
Akasha still didn’t look up from her book. She kept turning page after page every two or three seconds, as if merely glancing over their contents.
As he approached, Finram noticed a small ice cube resting atop a low table next to Akasha. It was perfectly clear and transparent and seemingly empty. The induction of his magic, however, told him that the spore Akasha had captured earlier was trapped inside, so small that it couldn’t be made out to the naked eye.
Finram turned his gaze away. He had no intention of asking for its return.
He stopped when he was two meters away from the little girl.
She still made no response to his presence. After a minute, when she reached the end of her book, she closed it, slipped it back into the empty gap in the bookcase from where it had come, then took the next book in line and started reading again.
“Why are you here?” Finram asked finally, breaking the silence. The question might have seemed aggressive or accusatory, but Finram’s tone was subdued enough to take most of the bite out of his words.
[…To read books.]
Akasha’s lips didn’t open to speak, but her emotionless voice nonetheless echoed in Finram’s mind, and he felt his heart start to beat slightly faster, even though he’d been expecting it. He knew Akasha’s telepathy most probably wasn’t actual magic, but rather an ability which developed as a god’s soul became more and more powerful.
A god stood in front of him.
Finram smiled bitterly.
To most uninformed citizens, gods were the immortal, borderline-omnipotent powerhouses of faraway antiquity. Nothing more than legends to be worshipped and praised. People – no, beings – who could create and unmake planes with a wave of a hand. It was common sense that such beings, if they ever existed, certainly no longer did now. They were only exaggerated stories of greatness designed to motivate youths and make their blood boil in anticipation of their own progress.
Finram didn’t know the truth of those old tales, but to his understanding, gods still very much existed, even if the arrogant title didn’t necessarily fit them, when compared to their long-ago predecessors. Actual, contemporary gods were certainly very strong. Finram had only ever seen two of them – though he knew or suspected of a few more – and the battle he had witnessed that day had been deeply carved into his mind as the most impressive display of power he’d ever seen, bar none. It was power far beyond his own, even now as a 9th-rank warrior.
But those gods were absolutely unable to destroy Caldera itself, let alone create it anew.
They weren’t beyond the understanding of common mortals.
They were people, too.
Strong people, but people nonetheless.
“Are you one of the God Emperor’s subordinates?” Finram asked.
Finram frowned. He didn’t get the sense that Akasha was lying, but as far as he was aware, those two were the only factions for gods to join on Caldera. There wasn’t any third choice, and Finram knew for a fact that neither of them would allow any rogue gods to come and ruin their fun.
Except that Akasha was a devil.
Devils didn’t care about following anyone’s rules. They took an almost sexual pleasure in ruining other people’s fun.
Finram decided to take a bit of a risk and asked, “You are a god, aren’t you?”
Finram was a bit surprised that she would answer this question so readily. There had been no particular hesitation in her words, nor warning or threat. It was like she didn’t consider her godhood to be any great secret.
“Shouldn’t you hide that fact instead of so simply acknowledging it?”
Akasha finally lifted her gaze from her book. Her eye stared at Finram.
“Because, if Yulan or the God Emperor learn of your existence, they will either force you to join them… or kill you.”
Finram wasn’t sure why he was explaining this to her. Hiding the fact that he knew about gods was the common sense he’d labored under for the past 30 years. He knew the risks of his knowledge, so he’d always been very careful to never reveal even an inkling of a scrap of information on the subject to anyone. Perhaps, it rankled to see someone who should have been in pretty much the same situation as his so casually ignore that common sense.
Akasha considered his words for a few moments before answering. […How strong are they?]
Finram shook his head. “I don’t really know. I just know they’ve been alive for at least 2,000 years, since the very start of Caldera’s colonization. And they’ve managed to maintain their rule for all that time.”
Akasha stared at Finram for a few seconds more before her eyes returned to her book and she resumed turning pages, without so much as a word of answer.
Finram stood there, his gaze wandering about awkwardly.
Why was he even trying to talk to this girl?
She clearly wasn’t a very good conversation partner.
But, Finram had to admit to himself, he was curious.
Of the two gods he had seen that day, he had spoken to one of them, in the few minutes until the man finally expired of the wounds incurred during his battle. Those few words they had exchanged had opened Finram’s eyes and pushed him toward greatness.
Without that day’s encounter, he never would have reached his current level.
The threat Akasha could pose to his brother’s family made Finram reluctant, but meeting and conversing with such a person, someone with such high attainments in cultivation, was the kind of opportunity that any practitioner would kill for.
Finram too was no exception.
After the death of his wife, all his time had been divided between practice and battle. There had been nothing else. Even after he retired from the war and came back to a more peaceful life, his determination to improve himself had not flagged in the least.
Yes, gods were not the omnipotent deities of ancient times.
But they were still examples to follow.
Just like the god from that day, there was much Finram could learn just from a few of this little girl’s words – if he could only make her talk, which would probably be no mean feat…
His gaze landed on the spore trapped within the ice, resting on the small table nearby.
“How did you detect the spore I sent here?”
[…What’s a spore?]
“This,” Finram said, pointing at the little ice cube.
Akasha’s gaze followed his finger, then looked up at him.
“Truly? I would have thought the qi fluctuation would have been minute enough to be lost amidst the ambient qi flow.” Finram paused for a moment as he considered the implications. “Is it because you’re a god that you’re so sensitive to the qi around you?”
“I see. I understand. Thank you for explaining.”
Finram’s own soul was just starting to coagulate, so it of course hadn’t developed any kind of ability, but he’d already noticed improvements to his control of qi. If his soul was already having such an effect this early in its formation, actually breaking through into godhood would definitely bring an incredible qualitative change to his power.
Deep in thought, Finram sat in one of the padded chairs set around the small table. His eyes roved over Akasha’s form, trying to glean whatever he could about her from her outward appearance. She didn’t seem to mind his scrutiny.
And once again, it struck Finram.
This girl looked so young it just didn’t make sense…
Gods didn’t age, which meant that she should have become a god when she was, what, 10 or 11 years old?
…How on earth was this possible?
Finram himself had started training at a late age, but even with the help of the secret breathing technique that dying god had bestowed him at the time, he had only managed to barely become a 9th-rank warrior after the better part of three decades.
Could a difference in talent account for the enormous gap between he and Akasha?
Was she some kind of incredible genius, even among gods?
Finram had always thought himself to be pretty talented – three decades was still only a fourth of the time the god had predicted it would take, after all – but this little girl really made him feel ashamed of his own incompetence.
“How old were you when you became a god?” he couldn’t help but ask.
[…12 years old.]
Although Finram had expected it, it still rankled a bit.
“So young… You were but a child…”
Before he could recover from the shock, Akasha clapped her book shut with a sharp noise and placed it back into the bookcase. Instead of picking up the next, however, she turned toward Finram and faced him fully.
[…How old are you?]
Finram blinked. “Me? I started training when I was 25 years old.”
[…How old are you now?]
“Oh. I’m 54 years old.”
When she heard his answer, although there was no more expression on her face now than at any time before, for some reason, Finram got the feeling that Akasha seemed oddly… self-satisfied.
She slowly pointed a jet-black finger at his face.
[…You, are a little brat.]