I open my eyes only to find myself suddenly assailed by a feeling of intense vertigo. Almost as if I fell asleep sitting on a chair balanced on its two back legs, and all of a sudden, it tilted backward, and the drop woke me up.
I look frantically around myself.
I’m… inside an iceberg. A toppling, splintering iceberg.
No, wait. Inside that gigantic ice spider of Akasha’s, rather. Except that it’s breaking to pieces. And lying right next to me, in a growing pool of blood so black I have goosebumps all over my arms and my instincts scream danger at me the moment I see it, is…
She’s injured! Unconscious!
I clamber to my feet and rush toward her, but in my haste, I almost slip on the ice. The growing tilt of the floor underneath me isn’t doing my balance any favors, either. Akasha’s unconscious body too is starting to slide away from me, her spilled blood making the ice around her even more slick and slippery.
A small trill of panic almost threatens to overtake me when I see her unnaturally pale face and closed eyes. It almost looks like she’s…
No. Calm down. She’s a demon; of course, her skin is pale. This is no time to lose my composure. I take a deep breath, my eyes fixed on Akasha, and ignore the growing cracks spreading noisily throughout the ice spider. Its entire body is groaning loudly, about to fall apart now that Akasha isn’t here to give it life. I raise my hand, and Akasha stops sliding away, then floats up and toward me. It’s… more difficult to move her with my magic than I’d expected. Hopefully, I have enough left in me after the previous fight to carry us both away from…
My grasp on the spell pulling Akasha toward me almost escapes me when I finally notice the fountain of energy flowing through me. Any fatigue, any injuries I may have suffered earlier is gone without a trace. Even the fractured meridians I earned from casting three singularities at once to kill those three gods back in the arena have healed. The refreshing stream of power that took their place is seemingly inexhaustible and as deep as an ocean, but it’s also gentle. That amount of qi should by all rights destroy my entire body in an uncontrollable blast, but instead, it runs along my meridians, smoothly, gently, peacefully. Everywhere it passes, my flesh is nourished and mended. Not just fresh wounds, either. Old aches too disappear. Even some ancient scars I received several hundred years ago during my desperate flight from human territory gradually fade into nothing as I watch this miracle happen.
Abruptly, all doubts on my ability to carry Akasha out of here are gone. In my current state, let alone shifting gravity around two people, I feel like I could keep casting all the singularities I want without fear of straining myself.
How did that happen?
I remember losing consciousness, earlier, after defending against the boy emperor’s last ditch attempt to escape. Did Akasha do something to me during that time? Feed me some miraculous medicine, perhaps?
But when my gaze falls on her seemingly lifeless form floating gently into my arms, I almost want to curse at her. Why didn’t she keep that medicine for herself, if it’s so powerful? What a waste!
Akasha’s clearly in a bad way. Much worse than me. The only reason I fainted was the sudden surge of pain that accompanied my last singularity, but it wouldn’t have caused any long-lasting damage – at worst some scarring on my meridians. I would’ve woken up in a few minutes. I would have been sore afterward, sure, but nothing more would have befallen me.
Well, I suppose I was flying at the time, so if I fell wrong, I might really have just died like this. But once Akasha recovered my body and brought me to safety, there was no need to do anything more.
Akasha herself, on the other hand…
Her black suit is dripping with even blacker blood. Patches of frost cover her face and her clothes, too, but I expect these are less harmful to her than they might be to anyone else. I doubt someone with her skill in ice magic could ever suffer from frostbite. None of her limbs seem to be broken, and the vast majority of the many, many scars I can see over her exposed skin are old. On the surface, she has few open wounds, and I can’t see any rips or holes in her clothes. Still, her state is worrying. Most of the damage is probably internal.
A thought transfers a medicinal pill to my hand from the space ring hanging from a chain around my neck. The ring is a ‘gift’ from one of the Emperor’s subordinates I killed some years ago. The pill, on the other hand, is produced by the majin. It’s a bit more potent than the stuff the rank and file cannon fodder gets, but it sure won’t be as good as whatever Akasha gave me. But it’ll have to do for now.
I gently open Akasha mouth and try to ignore the row of deadly black fangs that greets me. I slip the pill into her mouth and make sure she swallows it. Hopefully, that’ll help.
Before I can do anything more, though, we need to get out of here. Any longer and that ice spider will collapse on top of our heads. I hug Akasha’s floating body to my chest. Her poisonous blood soaks my clothes, but the discomfort barely registers. I look above us. There’s quite a thick span of ice between us and the open sky. Akasha must have brought me right to the deepest point of the giant spider she created. Fortunately, it’s now full of fractures and weak points, and there’s no magic left in it to keep it all in one piece. I flex my own magic muscles, and two different gravity wells appear on each side of the giant spider. Normally, this would at least be a bit of a strain, considering the size of what I’m trying to tear apart. But with that inexhaustible torrent of energy still filling my meridians and feeding into my dantian, it’s no issue at all to keep pumping more qi into the spell until, crrrrack, the giant ice spider splits vertically in half down the middle. Both halves fall away from Akasha and I, and a light gravity barrier around us prevents leftover fragments and shrapnel from touching us while we remain floating in the sky.
Another shift in the gravity around us sends me and my sister hurtling away from the ruined city and the wrecked harbor. From what I can see, there shouldn’t be many survivors left after the battle, but I don’t want to be interrupted while I try and heal Akasha.
It only takes a few minutes to cross to the other side of the island and land on the edge of a deserted cliff. Down below, the waves crash against the rock face, while the knife-edged reefs that are so common to the Betwixt Sea and help make it such a danger to navigate pierce the water’s surface.
I carefully lay Akasha down on a carpet of grass and fallen leaves. She’s bleeding so much, however, and her blood is apparently so toxic, that it only takes a few seconds for all the greenery around her to wilt and wither, turning gray and lifeless.
“Demon blood isn’t usually that bad, is it?”
In any case, I need to be careful. If even a drop of her blood enters my body, I’ll definitely die. Horribly. Thankfully, all the open wounds that might have offered a vector of infection to the Taint have healed and closed thanks to whatever miracle cure Akasha fed me.
Let’s get her out of this suit. There’s little I’m going to be able to do if I don’t.
But immediately, I’m met with a thorny problem. There’s no opening that I can see, no buttons, not even any seams. And the fabric – I’m not sure what it is; neither leather nor real fabric per se – closely sticks to her body, without presenting folds or gaps I could slip my fingers through to use as leverage. Eventually, I give up the subtle way and just take one of my knives to it. Surely, Akasha will forgive me for cutting through her clothes.
“Damn… What is this thing made of?”
It soon turns out that even the sharpest of my knives isn’t up to the task. No matter where I cut, no matter how I angle the blade, I can’t seem to put a single scratch on this strange material. And I don’t dare to apply too much pressure and start stabbing and hacking at it, either. I don’t want my knife to suddenly go through and hurt Akasha. That would be the stupidest mistake in the world.
But as it is, I find myself at a loss.
Is there really nothing more I can do?
It doesn’t take long for me to become both frustrated and anxious. Every second I lose is a second Akasha spends teetering on the edge of life and death. Am I going to lose my little sister so helplessly after finally getting her back?
There’s no way I’ll allow that!
So, even if I can’t get past the suit, there must be something else I can do. I take a moment to recover my calm and take stock of everything I have at my disposal.
I have… loads of medicinal pills, I suppose.
They’re a convenient tool, to be sure, but they’re more a soldier’s tool than anything else. Something to use in the heat of battle to quickly mend torn flesh and fuse broken bones. They are pretty good at what they do, but they can’t replace the attention of a properly trained healer. Well, I suppose some rare pills could, and then some, but I don’t have any of those on me. Taking several of these soldier’s pills at once does increase their effectiveness, but it’s also easy to overdose on them. The result of that would be a little akin to what’s happening to me right now – meridians filled to the brim with foreign qi – though it wouldn’t be as gentle and beneficial. An overdose would cause meridians to overflow and crack, potentially to the point of preventing the person from ever using magic again.
I wouldn’t wish that fate on Akasha.
However, better that than bleeding out and dying. The fact that she’s a god also means it’ll be a lot harder for her to suffer any detrimental effects from this. I’d have to really stuff her full of pills for her to overdose. I’ll still have to be careful, though. I’ll try to sense the flow of qi inside her body to try and guess when I’m about to go over her limit.
I kneel down next to Akasha and place her head on my lap.
Or at least, I try.
It’s… difficult. Her body is somehow absurdly heavy.
“What on earth…?”
I can’t seem to move her.
Is that also why I had so much trouble affecting her with my magic, earlier?
Dumbfounded, I cast a spell to reduce the strength of gravity’s hold on her, and finally, that makes it a little easier. Her small head is still a disproportionately heavy weight on my thighs, like it’s made of solid lead. It’s… weird, but I don’t let it stop me.
I start transferring the medicinal pills from my space ring into my hand, then to Akasha’s mouth. I prop up the back of her head, making sure she doesn’t choke on them. Even after she swallows five of them in a row, I still can’t feel any strain at all on her meridians, no surge of power from inside her body. The pills I gave her are like drops of water disappearing in an ocean. Either she has very wide meridians, or the pills aren’t having any effect. Probably the former; I’ve tested those pills myself countless times, and it’d be quite the coincidence to hit upon a faulty batch right when I need them the most.
When she’s gone through a dozen pills, however, I finally stop. I still can’t feel any change inside her body, but surely they must have had some effect?
She’s covered in so much blood that I can’t really tell.
I rip out one of my shirt’s sleeves and use it to gently wipe off the blood on her face. Her complexion is… deathly pale, still. Would a healthy demon be more rosy than this? At least, her breathing seems more stable than it was when I carried her away from the battlefield and the collapsing ice spider, so that’s something. And her pulse is strong and stable, albeit much slower than I’m used to. Though that could be because she’s a demon, as well. Hard to say.
I’ll wait for a few minutes and see how her situation evolves.
As I stare down at Akasha’s face, my fingers absently trace the slope of her horn. The contours and ridges of her scars. She just has so many of them… A full half of her face seems to have been burned by fire and is essentially disfigured. One of her eyes is gone, too. But even though that particular injury is the most obviously visible, it’s not the only one. There are also countless others next to it. Smaller slashing or stabbing scars lining her features, telling a long tale of battles and struggles and pain. And she no doubt has more all over the rest of her body, underneath that suit.
And all that’s without talking about her severed arm. I saw her fight and defeat that 2nd-rank god with a magical prosthesis made out of ice, but that changes nothing. She still lost a limb. I saw her lose it.
How much has she gone through, exactly, during those 300 years?
Just the thought of little Akasha, that crybaby, that scaredy-cat, trapped in the human emperor’s prison along with all the demons and scumbags he sent there over the years, is enough to set alight flames of rage and fear in my chest. I would give anything to get my hands on him and everything he holds dear and tear everything apart piece by piece.
And how did she turn into a demon? How did she even survive?
I still have so many questions.
I have no idea how long I stay on this cliff’s edge, looking down at Akasha’s face and running my fingers through her white hair, working out the knots and tangles from it and stroking the fur of her ears like I used to so long ago. I even forget to continue feeding her medicinal pills.
I’m only brought back to reality when I feel Akasha’s body shift slightly against mine. My gaze refocuses, and I see her white eyelashes flutter from a moment, before her eyes crack open blearily. She blinks repeatedly, as if trying to surface from sleep after a long night.
I stop moving. I even stop breathing.
I simply watch as she wakes up like it’s the most beautiful scene I’ve ever seen.
I have been waiting for this moment for a long, long time.
No, I wasn’t really waiting for it. I merely dreamed of it. But I never actually expected it would ever happen. I discarded all hopes that it would many years ago.
Akasha’s single eye stays blurry and uncomprehending for only a few moments before she recovers and it clears up. Her gaze sweeps the scenery in front of her, the Betwixt sea past the edge of the cliff, then it flicks upward.
And meets mine.
Through her head still resting on my lap and my fingers still on her cheeks, I can feel her whole body flinch and stiffen. Her eye widens in shock, and her mouth opens to reveal the sharp fangs inside, though no sound leaks out.
She stays frozen that way for a good minute, and I can feel a fond smile making its way onto my face.
My voice apparently breaks the spell. Akasha leaps away from me, scrambling to her feet so fast she almost trips over herself and topples off the cliffside. But then her feet stay rooted to the spot. Her body is visibly quivering with tension, like a drawn bow whose string is threatening to snap. If I had to guess, I’d say the shock of seeing me is bad enough that she almost wants to run away, but her body won’t let her.
Well, perhaps I’m projecting.
In any case, after getting to her feet, and despite her trembling body, Akasha doesn’t take a single more step away from me. She stands rigidly, staring at me unblinkingly. Even her tail stretches behind her, stiff as a board, all its fur standing on end. Her mouth keeps opening and closing without making a noise. Two small lines of black blood slowly trail down the corners of her lips – looks like moving so violently wasn’t good for her; she mustn’t be completely healed, yet.
I don’t approach her.
I want to. I desperately want to. But right now, she almost looks like a cornered animal. I don’t want to spook her and cause her to run. Especially when she still needs medical attention.
“Akasha?” I say as softly as I can.
She almost jumps out of her skin at my call, her shoulders flinching violently, and she stumbles back a step, bringing her dangerously close to the edge of the cliff.
…She’s not going to fall, is she?
I almost want to laugh at the outlandish idea that seems to come straight out of an overly dramatic novel. Well, it would undoubtedly be very dramatic if it happened in reality. Or at least, it would be, if I couldn’t control gravity.
I raise my hands soothingly. “Akasha, relax. It’s me.” I tilt my head and give her a reassuring smile. “Or is it that you don’t recognize me? It has been a while since we’ve last seen each other, hasn’t it? But I would hope that you haven’t forgotten me.”
It takes a few more seconds for Akasha to gradually calm down.
At which point, she starts to sniffle and cry quietly, her tail drooping powerlessly behind her. She continues staring at me – or at least she tries, but her tears are too great, and even though she wipes them away as they come with the back of her hand, it’s a losing battle.
And now, although I know I should be angry and rage and curse at everything that kept us apart, I actually have to force myself not to laugh. Because while I know that she’s an incredibly powerful god with terrible magic at her fingertips and a physical body stronger than any I’ve ever seen in my life, at the moment, what she looks like is a little kid who’s been bullied by the other children and comes back home to cry to her elder sister.
Even though she looks different, isn’t she still just a little crybaby?
…It helps that she’s still so small, too. Hasn’t she gotten even smaller, somehow?
I step toward her again, and this time, she doesn’t back away. Smiling warmly down at her, I plop a hand on top of her head, ruffling her hair and rubbing at her ears.
I really missed this feeling.
My smile broadens by the second and quickly turns into a grin. “Akasha, did somebody bully you? Don’t worry, it’s over now. Your big sis is here. You’ll be fine. You’ll be just f– oof!”
I can’t finish my sentence before two short arms, one of which is white and cold and wasn’t there a second ago, wrap me in a crushing hug. I do the same around her head, pressing it against my chest – and I’m glad Akasha still has the presence of mind to turn her head to the side so I don’t skewer myself on her horn.
Her wolf ears are fluttering happily on top of her skull, trying to escape from under my hands. It reminds me of back when we were kids. But I can still hear her sniffling in my chest, and her body is wracked by silent sobs.
I too feel the corners of my eyes gradually become wet as I gaze down at her.
…Though perhaps that’s because Akasha’s arms are packing a lot more muscle than they look. Are those my ribs creaking like this? I think if she doesn’t restrain herself, that ‘crushing hug’ I spoke about is going to become a lot more literal than intended. Ow, ow, ow…