It’s difficult to retain a precise sense of time, while in dormancy.
It’s quite a long time, admittedly, but not all that long. At least, for unaging gods, it isn’t. And yet, many things seem to have changed, in that time.
Akasha, the little girl who cried because she was lonely and had finally gotten someone to talk to, has changed. She talks a little more and a little more easily than I remember, surprisingly, which should be a good sign, but the rest of the changes don’t paint such a good picture of her situation.
She already was rather inexpressive when I first met her, but now… She doesn’t even feel alive anymore. Her voice is dead. Her face is dead. It’s strange. I’m clearly talking to a person’s soul, but it’s like I’m watching a golem going through the motions of life as it fulfills its mission – its mission and nothing else. She looks empty, somehow, except for some moments, here and there, when something ugly and dark flickers in the depths of her glowing red eye.
Reading a soul isn’t an exact science, by any means, but I’m a soul mage. I know how to catch this sort of stuff and make conjectures about someone’s psyche from it. This isn’t about the soul’s appearance. It’s about what’s behind.
Now, I don’t really remember – I had just gone through the obelisk’s resurrection, at the time, so I may not have been as attentive as I could have been – but I don’t think Akasha felt like this, in the past. I don’t think she felt this… dangerous.
Right, dangerous. Deadly.
Like those war golems the Ye family created, up on the Godrealm. Those abominations which flay their victims with their bladed fingers and wear their skins over their metallic skeletons to inspire dread in their enemies. The kind of golem that does these things to innocent mortal civilians without hesitation and never accepts surrender. Remorseless, merciless killing machines.
This little girl feels like this, now.
I suppose it’s not her fault. I can’t reasonably expect a child left alone for centuries on a plane where everything is trying to kill her to still be mentally sound.
It’s creepy. Intensely so.
I’m not sure if it would be as obvious if I were to meet her physical body face to face, but standing in front of her soul like this, in this dantian that reeks of blood, my own soul is sending me warning signs that something is not right. The world of this dantian is like a plane that was purged through a particularly vicious viral strike, all its life slowly dying and wasting away, the world in its entirety inexorably putrefying, one step at a time.
Something is most definitely wrong and unnatural with her dantian.
Is it the effect of the Taint? Or something else?
I try not to let it affect me – or at least, I try not to let it show on my face that I’m affected – but this is just painful to watch.
And Akasha’s outer appearance, even if not necessarily a reflection of the state of her mind, is still there for me to see. Half of her face has melted like wax, one of her eye sockets is empty, the rest of her body is more scar tissue than skin.
The only things that haven’t changed are her tail and her ears, still swishing and twitching to and fro. The tail isn’t scarred, and its fur is just as luxuriant and silky as I remember. The ears aren’t notched or hurt in any way, either. It’s almost funny, really, like she paid special attention not to let any damage be inflicted on those parts of her body while disregarding the rest so completely she ended up mangled almost beyond recognition.
That tail and those ears bring a bit of life to her image.
They look good. Lively.
They do a good job of giving me hope that I’ll be able to fix some of the damage.
Because, of course.
I am a soul mage.
The best there is.
I can destroy souls, certainly. But it also goes without saying that I can fix them, not just from direct structural injuries like I suffered during my resurrection and which cost me those 230 years of effort, but also from more… abstract damage. Tinkering with the soul can definitely help deal with psychological trauma, if it’s done well.
Ohoh. After 230 years of labour fixing my own soul, now I’m supposed to fix another’s. I daresay that, if it were anyone else, they might be drawn past the limits of their abilities. Fortunately, I am me. The man who conquered death itself with his wondrous obelisk. I relish any challenge that presents itself before me!
Though the wondrous obelisk did kind of malfunction…
What in the void is this book?
Why is the input qi discounted when the formation becomes complex enough? I could probably come up with the answer to that if I had a bit of time to think about it – I am pretty good with formations, since I needed to carve some pretty complex ones into the obelisk – but am I supposed to reply on the spot? I may be a genius, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here. Even I can’t know everything right here, right now!
I’m only a man!
A supernaturally talented man, but a man nonetheless!
Let’s try to divert her attention with something else, until I’ve come up with the answer.
And what’s this?
People actually care about this garbage enough to write 13 volumes about it? Someone just had way too much time on their hands, didn’t they? Also, how did this kid manage to discover that these 2 characters don’t have any strokes in common? Most people would just take what the book says at face value, assume the two words do indeed share roots, and drop the matter. Who in their right mind would compare them to each other so carefully? They have 157 strokes! And she even went as far as comparing all the other characters to each other in order to see if this question repeats itself anywhere else…
Just how much time did Akasha spend reading that boring book?
But the greatest problem here is, while I did successfully divert her attention away from her first question, it only led her into a subject I’m even less familiar with, somehow. I’m quite fluent in Ancient Eashiri, of course, but definitely not to this extent. I suppose I could just wing it and tell her the book made a mistake, but what if that’s not true and she finds out later on. I wouldn’t be able to raise my head in front of her ever again…
Let’s divert the discussion again.
(Hey! What is that, over there? Clothing? Why do you have clothing piled up here? Do you have questions about this, too? Please, do ask me! Go ahead, that’s what I’m here for! Don’t hesitate, by all means!)
But it seems to do the trick.
Though, perhaps, Akasha just can’t be bothered to argue with me about how I abruptly changed the subject like this. She seems like the kind of person to take that sort of behavior silently – until she explodes and tears you to shreds in sheer frustration.
I should tell her not to repress her own annoyance so much. It’s not healthy.
[…Do you know what this is?]
Good. Finally, something I can answer. This is…
No, wait. What? Did Miroslav really offer this thing as a gift to the climbers of his Tower? Unbelievable. He always boasted about how it was unique in the whole Godrealm and that, when the elders of the Septentrion begged him for it, he sent them packing without hesitation.
Why would he risk losing it?
That it truly ended up in Akasha’s pocket is a very good confirmation that Miroslav must be dead already. Otherwise, even if he had to attack her himself and smear his good name, he would have tried to take back this ‘gift’ of his from her hands.
[…So, what is this thing?]
(It’s a suit.)
Akasha’s disapproval at my oh-so-exhaustive answer is deafening.
She really doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.
But perhaps I really should try and answer at least one of the questions she’s asked me to her satisfaction. My track record since I woke up and started talking to her again has been rather poor, I feel.
Let’s not forget that I’m still inside her dantian, and that my life is in her hands. She can erase me with a thought. I should probably demonstrate how useful a person I truly am.
(It was one of Miroslav’s favorite artifacts, something that no one has been able to reproduce, no matter how hard they’ve tried. It protects its wearer against harm. It’s almost unbreakable – though I wouldn’t pit it against an adamantine weapon; it can fix itself over time; it can change shape at will… Basically, it’s a transforming, self-repairing suit of armor. I suppose it doesn’t sound like much, but this thing has saved Miroslav’s life dozens of times. It’s extremely precious.)
(Are you disappointed?)
(By any chance, did you also find the Space-warping Knife? Did Miroslav also leave it in the Tower?)
I can’t help but salivate at the thought. It’s not like I would be the one to wield it, but just knowing that the body that harbors my soul is carrying that weapon would be an honor in and of itself.
[…What does it look like?]
(It looks like a knife, as its name might suggest to those gifted with keen deductive capabilities. It has a pitch black blade, and a hilt covered in dark-red leather. There is an octogonal ruby set into a small, round pommel. Its guard is shaped like a weird, twisted… thing. Like someone with a lot of strength took a regular cross guard and spun it down its length.)
[…I found it.]
(Really? Can I… Can I see it?)
Fabulous. That thing is probably the single most precious artifact Miroslav ever owned. Even in the entire Godrealm, it could easily rank in the top 10.
Did the old bastard use the Tower as a warehouse for his best treasures or something? Or could it be that he predicted his own death and left them there for the next generation? That doesn’t really sound like something he’d do, but I suppose the prospect of death can thoroughly change a man’s character…
[…I left the knife in the Tower.]
Did I hear wrongly?
[…I left the knife in the Tower.]
(You… You left the Space-warping Knife in…?! You…! You what?!)
[…I left the knife in…]
(In the Tower. Yes, all right. I heard you. Why did you do that?! Do you not realize how…! This is just…! Gah!)
[…My claws were sharper.]
(Wait… Wait, wait, wait. Sharper? Did you use the Space-warping Knife as a weapon? Did you stab demons with it?!)
[…Yes. It didn’t work very well.]
(It didn’t work… So… you just dropped it somewhere?)
Akasha just looks back at me blandly, completely unaware of the incredible opportunity she let go for such a stupid reason.
For a few moments, I almost can’t suppress the urge to slap this expressionless face until all the teeth in her mouth fly out. Then, I want to curl up into a ball and cry until I pass out. Someone actually discarded the Space-warping Knife because it didn’t cut demons very well. If news of this spread over the Godrealm, there’d probably be a wave of mysterious deaths as people burst veins and perish out of sheer anger, while the survivors yell out at the top of their lungs that ‘YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO CUT THINGS WITH IT!’
It’s sad, though. If Akasha had grasped the Space-warping Knife’s abilities, she could have safely escaped from the Tower in half a second…
I should probably keep that a secret. It might make her angry that I wasn’t there to explain this to her at the time.
I should probably keep an eye out, too. Whoever controls the Tower now most likely has the Knife. Since Akasha could find these artifacts in the first place, it’s likely the inheritor of the Tower at first didn’t have the ability to just up and take Miroslav’s ‘gifts’. But after Akasha claimed the Knife for herself then deliberately discarded it, the security measures protecting it would most likely expire. And even if Akasha failed to recognize it for what it was, I doubt the inheritor would make the same mistake.
And now that I think about it, if the inheritor gets greedy for the artifacts Akasha kept for herself, she might meet with some trouble later on…
(Ahem. Well, that’s fine. It’s just a knife, in the end. And you’re right that it’s not very sharp.) I curse inside as I force myself to speak these words. (But why did you keep the suit, then? And without even wearing it?)
[…Because I was curious why it was considered a gift of similar value to the books. These things, too.]
I glance at the three items lined up next to the black suit. A key, a scroll, and a… block of wood?
(The scroll is the Thousand Beasts Scroll, I think. It’s a pocket dimension that can house living creatures. Miroslav used it to capture demons to populate the Tower, once. I have no idea what’s inside it, now. It might be empty. It also might be full of ravenous godbeasts just waiting to escape. You probably want to be careful when you open it.)
I rub my chin thoughtfully, scouring my memory for mentions of these last two items Miroslav might have made in my presence. (This one is a key, but I have no idea what it’s supposed to open. And this… is… a scrap of wood? Or something? Can you turn it around, so that I can get a better look?)
Without reticence, Akasha swaps the black suit for the piece of wood and spins it this way and that in her hands. I synchronize with her senses and examine the thing in more detail.
It truly does look like the simplest and most common piece of rotten wood. On one face is the Eashiri character for the number 9, 九, but I have no idea what it could refer to.
I say as such to Akasha. It’s fine to bluff and bluster on random trivia questions, but it’s not a good idea to mess with an unknown artifact like this. I can’t feel any qi fluctuation hiding within it, but since Miroslav found it justified to put this piece of wood on the same level as the black suit and the Space-warping Knife, it’s definitely not a simple thing.
(I’m sorry. I have no idea what this thing is. I’d suggest you keep it safe in your space ring. It might prove to be useful for something. Or you can just drop it, I guess. After discarding the Space-warping Knife like it was an old stinky sock, one more artifact thrown to the trash bin isn’t going to make things appreciably worse for you…)
With a wave of her hand, the key and the scrap of wood return inside Akasha’s space ring – she must have detected the sarcasm in my voice. When she bends down to take the black suit once more, I ask the question that’s been on my mind for a while, now.
(Why aren’t you wearing the suit? Wouldn’t it be smarter to use it, instead of letting it rot in your space ring?)
[…It’s too big. How can I change its shape?]
(Huh? Well, you just… think about it. Didn’t you understand how to control it when you claimed ownership of it? The knowledge should have been automatically transmitted into your mind at the time. All ancient artifacts are like this.)
(I’m just asking as pure, innocent curiosity, but… you did claim ownership of it, right?)
I’m still doubtful.
(How did you do so?)
At this, Akasha spends a few seconds staring blankly at me, as if she doesn’t quite understand the question.
[…By placing it in my space ring and leaving with it…?]
Even through the flat monotone that is her voice, I can hear her bafflement. She truly doesn’t know what I meant by this question. Which means she truly doesn’t know how to claim ownership of an ancient artifact.
Which would explain why she so easily discarded the Space-warping Knife. She most likely had no idea of its abilities and thus didn’t know how to draw them out. That’s why she used it as a common cutting tool instead of the almighty focus of power that it really is.
(What I mean by ‘claiming ownership’ is the practice of attuning an artifact to your soul’s unique fluctuation, to let it answer to your commands. That’s not something you need to do for modern artifacts, but ancient ones you might find in old ruins – like the black suit and the Space-warping Knife and the Thousand Beast Scroll – will only show their powers to someone who has formally claimed ownership of them in this way.)
I nod decisively. (That’s right. Send out some soul force toward the artifact. Try to search for a core of energy deep inside it. It should feel like a dantian, yet somewhat different at the same time. More solid. Less… breathing. Less alive.)
As I explain the process, I feel the ‘air’ of Akasha’s dantian around me shift subtly, a sign that she’s directing some of her soul force outside her own dantian.
I wait for a minute or two, then ask, (Did you find it?)
I purse my lips. (It could be a little difficult to find the core, if you don’t know where to look, but as you get in contact with more and more ancient artifacts, you’ll get used to finding it. In any case, afterward, you’ll need to keep streaming your soul force into that energy core. Slowly, you’ll feel yourself growing closer to the artifact. Like it belongs to you on a fundamental level, like it’s becoming a part of yourself. Then, once you’re completely attuned to it, once you’ve claimed ownership of it, you’ll instinctively understand how it’s supposed to work. And you’ll be able to feel its location, no matter how far away from it you are.)
[…How long will that take?]
(Depends on the artifact. The Space-warping Knife could take upward of several hundred years. The black suit… I remember Miroslav telling me it had become his uncommonly fast. Still, don’t expect it to happen today or tomorrow. You’ll at least have to wait a few years to see any results.)
(Yes. Fortunately, you have the soul of a 4th-rank god, so it won’t take as long as it might have if you’d been weaker. Just keep building the attunement slowly. Frankly, for immortals like us, problems that can be fixed with time are not problems at all.)
I’ve just finished my explanation when an incomprehensible, garbled whisper suddenly slithers into Akasha’s dantian, and a strange shudder crawls up my spine, as if a vicious snake is staring at me from the darkness, thoughtfully considering how it should devour me to make it as painful and excruciating as possible.
And suddenly, I don’t find the atmosphere carried by Akasha’s soul to be so frightening anymore. Because the sheer aura of menace and cruelty and malice exuded by that single whisper dwarfs hers by far. Compared to the thing that produced this whisper, Akasha is only a cute, bright-eyed little puppy cheerfully wagging her tail.
(W–What in the void was that?)
Akasha doesn’t answer my question and completely disregards my reaction, not showing even a smidgen of surprise or fear herself. It’s like she can’t even feel the sheer, venomous malevolence roiling in her dantian, so thick it’s almost liquid.
Instead, she also starts speaking in the same gibberish language as the whisper, as if in response to it.
When her words end, this mysterious, cloying presence disappears like a gust of wind, as if it had never been there in the first place.
I slowly exhale the breath I’d unknowingly been holding. It lasted for barely 5 seconds, but cold sweat is already coating my back. I glance around one more time, to make sure an unspeakable monster didn’t suddenly appear somewhere next to me since the last time I looked. Nothing.
(Akasha, what was that?)
(What? What’s Sanae?)
[…A spider. A stupid one.]
And then, I remember.
That jet-black spider Akasha domesticated on the 51st floor of the Tower.
(That was that spider?!)
Akasha answers just as blandly as always, apparently not noticing the issue.
At the time, I only saw it as a useful pet that could keep Akasha company in my absence and help her deal with the dangers of the Tower.
But really, what in the void is that thing?
I’ve never felt anything so… evil.
Akasha might feel dangerous to my senses, but she doesn’t actually feel malicious.
A golem isn’t malicious. It just accomplishes its mission dispassionately, even if that mission requires the slaughter of innocent people. Cruelty has no place within its thought processes.
But that thing isn’t the same. It feels actively evil.
Plain and simple.
I can’t find a better word for it.
Like something that has been steeped in blood and carnage for such a long time that they’ve become its essence. A being made of concentrated brutality and hatred and hunger for destruction.
I very much do not want to see what the soul of that spider would look like.
It takes me a few seconds to work through the idea that Akasha has basically spent the past 230 years in close proximity to such a monster, likely being influenced by it if, as it looks like, they can communicate. And only then does my expertise as a soul mage awaken.
How could that creature speak to Akasha’s soul?
I would have felt soul force knocking on her dantian’s shell to deliver a message, as happens during telepathy.
This was different.
The words appeared out of nowhere, directly inside Akasha’s dantian.
That shouldn’t be possible.
The only reason I can do so is because my soul itself resides in Akasha’s dantian. I’m basically a part of her, so I can talk to her. But that spider very much isn’t. It can’t be.
…Like I thought, there is something very wrong going on here.
And I daresay I just met the cause of it all.