I watch through Akasha’s senses as the wall approaches in front of her eyes, almost faster than I can process. I understood what she intended to do while she ran through the tunnels for the first time, but I still can’t help but flinch when she slams into the wall. I feel cold sweat on my brow at her recklessness, but Akasha herself is imperturbable. There is absolutely no hesitation, not even a tiny scrap of fear or anxiety to be seen in her demeanor. She seems perfectly confident that, if she uses herself as a cannonball against that mountain, the mountain will be the one to shatter first.
As it turns out, she’s right.
In a single instant, she plows through a dozen meters of solid stone, shaking the entire mountain and coming out the other side, into the open air, free-falling toward the city of Alsomn below.
As always, I can’t help but be astonished by the absurd power held inside Akasha’s small body. Over several thousand years of life, I’ve met many gods who specialized in physical reinforcement magic, but I think I’ve never seen someone who could blast right through a mountain just by running into it. Even if a human could somehow magically strengthen themselves enough to match Akasha’s strength – and supporting such magic for a long time would take a lot of qi; reinforcement spells are costly – they would also need to reinforce their whole body to bear the strain of that strength. Otherwise, their bones would break, and their muscles would tear, and their tendons would snap. That, along with the damage caused by crashing at such insane speeds into a dozen-meter-thick solid stone wall… If at any point, the reinforcement spell wavered, the impact would turn that spellcaster into a pile of ground meat. There would be no other possible ending.
Akasha’s physical strength was already impressive when I first met her and tried to possess her body through my obelisk, long ago, but now, merely two centuries later, it has reached a point where I’m having some real trouble even imagining explanations for it.
She claims she simply performed standard body strengthening to achieve this state, but that doesn’t add up.
The process of using qi to strengthen one’s body is painfully, excruciatingly, despairingly slow. It is slow even for an immortal god, who has all the time in the world to improve himself. Of course, it’s still faster than the natural process of letting one’s own qi radiation gradually mutate and toughen one’s body over time. But only marginally so. It’s not such a terrific improvement in efficiency that it would explain Akasha’s situation.
For example, I, who lived for nearly 3000 years and never used body strengthening at all, ever, was only perhaps four or five times as physically strong as a typical mortal when I died. If I’d performed regular, assiduous body strengthening, with a modern and high-graded breathing technique to hasten my way, I would have become 10 to 15 times as strong as an ordinary mortal. Reaching even as high as 20 times would perhaps be plausible – barely – if my body had turned out to be uncommonly receptive to the strengthening process.
But Akasha is much, much stronger than even that most optimistic estimate.
The combined strength of 20 mortals would not rock a mountain on its foundations like this. The combined strength of 20 mortals would not allow one’s legs to churn fast enough to run faster than sound, or one’s arms to punch hard enough to turn a fully armored human being into a fine blood mist.
A lone, self-taught, prepubescent girl trapped in a hostile environment where she can’t even fully concentrate, lest demons ambush her, would never be able to grow so strong naturally.
There has to be another factor at play. An outside influence of some sort.
But what could transform someone’s body like this?
Maybe. It does mutate the creatures which survive contact with it into monsters overwhelmingly stronger than they’d been as uncorrupted lifeforms. However, I don’t understand enough about the Taint to make that a satisfying answer. It doesn’t even answer anything, really. Saying ‘the Taint is responsible’ doesn’t help me make any predictions on what’s going to happen in the future. It’s a non-answer.
(No, wait. I’m drifting off the point, here.)
How Akasha managed to become that strong isn’t important, right now. I certainly intend to elucidate that particular mystery at some point, but more vital is the question of how exactly I should go about keeping her mind intact.
It’s not even simply a question of altruism anymore, of helping a little girl gather the fragments of her shattered life. Neither is it a question of curiosity, of solving an intriguing puzzle. Instead, I’m really starting to think my survival is at stake, here. Trapped in her dantian like this, I’m essentially at Akasha’s mercy. If she suddenly decides that I should die, there will be nothing I can do to stop her. So, her continued mental health is a point of some import to me. I don’t want her to suddenly lose her sanity and lash out at the easy target that I am.
It might turn out to be a harder task than I’d anticipated, though.
I, of course, expected her to be traumatized and mentally unstable, as some old warriors are once they return to a – comparatively – peaceful society after spending too much time warring on the unending battlefields of the Godrealm’s frontier. Increased aggression and violence, a failure to understand civilization’s common-sense laws… Those would be normal.
But what Akasha showed me a minute ago was more than that.
She tortured those two human warriors to death by slowly and gradually growing a tree of ice inside of their bodies. With her abilities, she could have killed them in an instant, but instead elected to draw out their end. And she manifestly enjoyed it. Wasn’t it the first time I saw her smile? And then, her self-destructive desire to keep fighting – to even look forward to her enemies finding her – despite all the reasons not to…
I suppose that sort of behavior might still be plausible, for someone with her experiences – as a psychological defensive mechanism of sorts, to convince and force herself to enjoy the reality she’s trapped in. But from what Akasha told me of her life in Miroslav’s Tower, and from what I’ve observed of her these past few weeks since I woke up, I was under the impression that, most of all, what she’d acquired from those 300 years was a fierce, uncompromising pragmatism. We’ve talked about her attainments in magic while we made our way to Alsomn, and all the spells she described during those conversations emphasized practicality and economy. To never use more energy or time than is strictly needed. To always remove risk factors as fast and reliably as possible. Those two different mindsets don’t really mesh together too well. And I am tempted to think that the second one – the one that’s violent and ruthless, but not unnecessarily cruel – should be the ‘real’ one, for the simple reason that I can hardly imagine someone who waits for her enemies to catch up to her when she really shouldn’t would have been able to clear the Tower to the very last floor. The place was lethal enough already without bringing self-destructive impulses into it.
While I’m preoccupied with my own thoughts, I watch through Akasha’s eyes as she falls a few hundred meters down and lands in one of Alsomn’s streets. The earth shakes when her feet hit the ground, and then it shakes even more when all the huge rocks and stones Akasha dislodged from the mountain when she escaped its bowels also crash everywhere around her. These debris pepper a sizeable fraction of the city. Houses are crushed; rubble clogs streets. Alsomn wakes up deep in the night to someone unexpectedly summoning a meteor shower on top of their heads.
Wordlessly, Akasha looks around her at the devastation she unwittingly caused. Far up, on the mountain top, the echoes of the castle’s alarm still ring through the air, though muted with the distance.
Even as I also watch the scene through Akasha’s eyes, I pay more attention to her soul floating in front of me, and at its reaction to the collateral damage her escape wreaked on the city.
I see not even a flicker of guilt – or even interest – at what she’s done.
Not that I expected any.
I don’t rebuke her, either.
I’ve never exactly considered myself a particularly good or compassionate man – most of my life has actually been spent in isolated research, away from the concerns of civilization – but I’ve still always subscribed to the idea that gods should show proper restraint around mortals. That it’s our responsibility not to let our greater strength interfere with – and, more often than not, end – their lives if we can help it.
Obviously, I don’t approve of Akasha’s disregard for the lives of others.
But I know how to pick my battles.
I could try to explain my viewpoint to her, but I know that it wouldn’t reach her. Better keep my tongue today and wait for a better opportunity. I’ve already seen during the trip that hastily pushing things forward will only bring trouble down on everyone involved.
Ideally, I’d manage to find a way to make moral lessons relate to her sister, who seems to be the only person Akasha actually cares about. Perhaps, I could say ‘your sister wouldn’t approve of you doing this, your sister wouldn’t approve of you doing that,’ but I’ve never met this Nerys. That she would disapprove might turn out to be entirely untrue – and Akasha would know it. I’d lose all credibility, if that were to happen.
So, I’ll wait.
I keep my place as a silent spectator as Akasha walks away from her landing spot and starts navigating the maze of alleys any human city beyond a certain size naturally grows into, no matter which plane it’s on. Still busy with my thoughts, it takes me a little while to realize that she’s actually heading somewhere, instead of walking at random.
(Where are you going?)
[…Blackwood Chamber of Commerce.]
I blink. (How do you know where it is?)
I expected her to find and ask someone, first. Isn’t this the first time she’s visited this city? How would she know where to go?
[…I spotted it when I was falling from the mountain.]
Akasha’s gaze did indeed sweep over the city while she was in the air, but I didn’t think she was already looking for her next objective. How efficient.
It only takes a few minutes for Akasha to reach her destination. Even though the night is already late, the whole city is buzzing with activity, like a disturbed anthill. Squads of rescuers and squads of soldiers run through the street, respectively trying to mitigate the damage of the rock shower and trying to catch whoever was responsible for it – us. The civilians are out, too. All of them looked disturbed and uneasy, both at the devastation the city suffered and at the sudden disappearance of the Demon-sealing Stone’s qi fluctuation, which must have been to them a constant reminder that they were safe and protected from the demons roaming the wilderness outside the walls.
(Once you’ve gained access to the records of the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, I advise that you be quick. I have little doubt that you left enough traces of your passage in the castle to give any competent tracker a good shot at following your trail.)
Akasha’s acknowledgment is as passionless as ever, but I don’t miss the minute stiffening of her body, and the twitch of her fingers as they seek to clench into a fist. Both tell me that she’s only restraining herself through some great effort of will.
It looks like her previous lust for violence hasn’t quite abated, just yet.
I hope whoever is manning the Chamber of Commerce tonight is cooperative. The last thing I need is someone testing the very limited patience of an angry, bloodthirsty demon.
The headquarters of the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce in Alsomn, before which we now find ourselves, are ostentatious but tasteful. Even I have to admit that whoever built it had rather good taste. The building doesn’t advertise its owners as a bunch of lawless slave traders, of course. What it does advertise is an air of subdued refinement and wealth, taking the same architectural style as the other, lesser constructions around it, but building up on them with subtle, additional touches. A delicate statue in this alcove, hidden in shadows; a mural carved shallowly enough that one needs to gaze at the wall a certain way to catch its contours; small round windows of stained glass to set off the regular, transparent ones; a carved, gleaming door of ironwood, tougher and more beautiful than any common metal gate; a door guard equipped with immaculate, top-quality weapon and armor, standing proud and alert no matter the time.
All in all, one would be hard pressed to imagine the sordid merchandise this company deals in.
Also, selling people as cargo is apparently quite lucrative, if the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce can afford this kind of display.
Of course, all of that flies far above Akasha’s head. That girl wouldn’t recognize elegance and good taste if it slapped her in the face – and then, she’d probably murder good taste afterward for daring to attack her.
When the building arrives within Akasha’s sight, Sanae the spider suddenly decides to leave its nest in Akasha’s eye socket and skitter down her body, before going its own way. Akasha wordlessly looks at its tiny form quickly disappearing down another street.
I still can’t understand what that monster is saying, but I carefully suppress the shudder that crawls up my spine at the sound of its voice. It’s usually not talkative, but I’ve still heard it speak several times during the past few weeks. Every time, it takes an almost superhuman effort of will to school my reaction and avoid showing my unease on my face.
That feeling of death and corruption…
It’s almost exactly like the feeling that black rune was giving off while it was acting up and trying to reach out to Akasha during the fight in the castle’s basement tunnels, earlier…
As always, however, Akasha doesn’t seem bothered in the least and simply walks up to the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce’s gate and the guard standing before it.
(Where is Sanae going?) I ask quickly. I need all the information I can get on this creature if I’m ever going to do anything about it.
[…She will keep guard outside while I look for records of Nerys.]
(Hmm. I see.)
Was the spider the one who offered that plan? Was that what it was saying? Is it really only trying to help Akasha? Why can’t I get rid of the feeling that it’s not that simple? Or am I just prejudiced because the thing is a demon? I suppose Sanae has had nearly 230 years in which to act. If it had wanted to harm Akasha, there must have been opportunities for it beforehand.
And yet, I can’t get that suspicion out of my head that this creature has its own goals…
Heedless of my worries, Akasha continues on her way, and the door guard watches her approach with gradually narrowing eyes. I don’t blame him. A scarred girl with prominent non-human features, striding up to him in the middle of the night while the city has just suffered an attack… Not even trying to hide her ears or tail… Even her clothing looks suspicious. Miroslav’s black suit follows the lines of Akasha’s body like a second skin, and it doesn’t have any seams. Without it being an artifact, such a thing would both be impossible to make and impossible to wear. I’m not sure if the guard is attentive enough to notice this, but it might trigger a few warning lights in his subconscious.
This is why, when Akasha gets closer to him, the guard’s fingers tighten on the shaft of his orichalcum-tipped spear.
And this is why, when Akasha notices what he’s doing – that is to say, immediately – she once again shows a fraction of her incredible speed and suddenly appears right in front of the guard. Her hand grasps his face before he can react, and she slams the back of his skull into the magnificent ironwood door standing solidly behind him.
The door wins.
The guard’s helmet also wins.
A wet crunch, however, attests that the guard’s skull inside the helmet does not.
Perhaps, I should applaud Akasha’s restraint. The fact that the building is still standing is a testament to her self-control. But I question the necessity of murdering this mortal before he even had the chance to open his mouth, just because he fixed his grip on his weapon. One might perhaps be inclined to condemn him simply on the premise that he’s guarding the door of a slave trading firm, but by simple probability, it’s more likely that the poor man was merely doing his job, without any more involvement in his employer’s shady business to justify his death.
Akasha doesn’t seem to share my vision and, still clearly frustrated by what must be to her an overall pretty miserable evening, knocks the guard’s head on the door a few more times.
When the urge to belatedly speak up in his defense starts to become almost unbearable, the ironwood door, whose surface is splintering under the repeated impacts, suddenly opens slightly, and a sleepy-looking man’s head appears in the gap. Judging by what little of him I can see, he doesn’t look much like a warrior. More like a clerk or something of that ilk.
“What is all this ruckus?” the clerk asks in a cranky voice. “We’re closed. Can’t you wait till morning before…”
His voice trails off as he notices Akasha and the dead man whose face is still clamped between her fingers. His eyes widen, and when he finally processes the situation, he hurriedly tries to slam the door shut again. His human reflexes, however, are woefully inadequate, compared to those of the being facing him.
Before the door can close, Akasha’s ice left arm extends unnaturally, stretching until the sharp blades that serve as her fingers close around the clerk’s head.
The clerk’s sense of self-preservation seems to work just as well as any warrior’s, though, because after the inner edge of Akasha’s thumb leaves a thin, bleeding cut on his cheek, he seems to realize that struggling would probably result in his face getting cut into shreds. His body freezes – figuratively. His eyes are wide with fear and rolling in panic inside their sockets, and his face is pale and sweaty, his lips drawn and bloodless, but otherwise, he’s not even twitching.
Akasha takes a step forward, her arm shrinking to accommodate the reduced distance, and enters the building, dragging the door guard’s corpse with her. When she’s past the threshold, a strand of soul force pushes the door shut behind her.
It closes with a deep sound that echoes in the wide, deserted hall.
With another series of spells, a layer of frost grows over the door and windows to seal them, and the mage lights burning heatlessly in their alcoves around the room suddenly flicker and die, plunging the hall in darkness only broken by the hazy moonlight coming in through the windows.
In the silence, only the thin, thready breathing of the captured clerk can be heard. His terrified face, tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes, is faintly lit in red from the glow of Akasha’s eye. He looks quite pitiful and ghastly.
Akasha takes another step forward, and I can almost feel the poor clerk’s efforts to prevent himself from flinching and cutting his face on her fingers.
[…I have questions,] she says, then.
And from inside Akasha’s dantian, I silently give my sympathy to that unlucky clerk, because I’ve seen what happens to the humans to whom the little girl who serves as my host asks questions.