Shen Lei knocked quietly on the door before him.
“Shen Lei, responding to your summons, my Lady.”
A voice, deep and low but obviously female, answered from the room beyond. “Enter.”
Keeping his gaze down in respect, Shen Lei opened the door and stepped inside the lavishly decorated chamber. He closed the door again behind himself.
His liege was sitting in an upholstered chair, her legs casually crossed. With her messy hair and disordered clothing, she gave off an indolent, unmotivated air, but Shen Lei knew this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and anyone who dared to underestimate her would pay a deeply grieved price for it.This woman hadn’t become the most powerful individual in the Planar Prison by luck.
As soon as he stepped into the room, Shen Lei noticed the decanter of brandy, along with the half-filled glass next to it, resting on a small table within reach of the chair.
This was not a good sign. Whenever Jodene drank, it meant things were about to get complicated.
Shen Lei had received her message something like a week ago, while he was spending his rest day pretending to be a simple peddler, selling off the magic cores he’d harvested from his last hunt. He always did this, if he could. It gave him a profound feeling of achievement to complete the entire process on his own, from hunting the demon, to killing it, to harvesting its dantian, to selling it off. And then, of course, to enjoying the profits in whatever tavern of his choosing.
He had to go all the way to Islandis Fortress to do so, however, because his face was simply too well-known, back home.
Still, that message had almost failed to reach him, because the young and brash messenger had decided to play with his life against someone he really shouldn’t have. Fortunately, Shen Lei had managed to smooth over the situation – and at the same time, potentially even gained a powerful ally for Jodene, if they could somehow convince the monster pretending to be a little girl to lend them her strength.
But this matter could wait.
For now, what was important was the reason why his Lady had asked him to come back to the fortress with all possible haste. Jodene knew the few moments of relaxation Shen Lei could find were precious to him. She wouldn’t have disturbed him for anything less than vital.
“You asked to see me, my Lady?” Shen Lei asked.
“I did,” Jodene replied, her eyes staring into his. She flicked her hand, and a black envelope appeared between two of her fingers. It had already been opened. She held it up for a moment so that Shen Lei could see it, then said, “Orders from outside.”
Shen Lei’s heart shook when he saw the envelope, but he hid his reaction with the ease of long practice and asked, “What are their contents?”
“To prevent someone from going through the gate. Lethal force is specifically stated to be a valid way to accomplish that, but if we’ve got other ideas, we’re welcome to try them. Those, are the contents.”
Hearing these words, Shen Lei couldn’t help but be assailed by the feeling that he’d made a terrible mistake, somewhere. There was nothing specific in what Jodene had said he could put his finger on, exactly, but… The list of people in the Planar Prison who could push that person to dispatch orders for them to act was pretty damn short.
Yet, there was one in that list he could think of in particular…
“Is the target described in more detail?” he asked, his mouth suddenly dry.
Jodene nodded. She idly glanced at the envelope, more as a reflex than to refresh her memory, since she didn’t even take out the letter itself. “Wolf-type devil, with all that implies, both appearance-wise and, um, insanity-wise. Female. Apparent age, 10 or 11. No actual age is given, interestingly. One-eyed. One-armed. Horned. Scarred.”
When his suspicions were confirmed, Shen Lei’s heart sank, even as Jodene continued reporting the details of the orders they’d received.
“No specific rank is given, which makes sense, I suppose, since the target is a devil, but –” a small smile graced Jodene’s lips “– we are explicitly advised to approach her ‘with extreme caution’. Those last words are written in bold, red, and underlined. Want to see?”
“N–No, it’s fine.”
Beads of cold sweat were already trickling down Shen Lei’s back, while his mind worked furiously to try and find a way to lighten the inevitable blow when he admitted to the blunder he’d made.
“Hmm. It’s intriguing, though, isn’t it?” Jodene asked, stroking her chin in thought, her eyes unfocused, her long tail swinging idly behind the back of her chair. “I certainly can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of how apostles and devils are created, so I may be unfairly mistrustful, but what kind of wolf-type would have a horn, exactly? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? Wolves obviously don’t have horns. You’d need a fenrir, for that. But there are no fenrir-type devils, as far as I know, and it’s bloody unlikely there ever will be, since even he couldn’t defeat such a monster.”
Shen Lei frowned, his mind somewhat calmed by the sudden questions that sprang within it as he heard Jodene’s suspicions.
“You’re right,” he said, nodding reflexively. “And why would he only give us her apparent age? Her actual age – or even just her batch number – would give us a better idea of her combat abilities. But as it is, apart from that ‘extreme caution’ warning, he’s not giving us much at all to work with.”
Something was definitely afoot, here.
Shen Lei had met the girl he was sure was the target, and what little information they had received in those orders didn’t even begin to express the feelings of sheer danger he sometimes experienced when he gazed upon her.
He’d seen the scars she bore for himself. They weren’t like the kinds of neat, pretty little things the idiots at the military academy he’d attended in his youth sometimes cut into their own cheeks or forearms to make themselves look more like hardened veterans than the greenhorns they really were. No, they weren’t like that at all. Perhaps, to some, the very fact that she had accumulated so many of them might suggest that she just wasn’t good enough to avoid getting hurt in the first place, but Shen Lei was disinclined to look down on anyone who could survive the kind of environment – the kind of battlefield – that would give scars like those.
More than that, he’d seen some hints of the power hidden in her small frame. Once, as they travelled together toward Jodene Fortress, the wind had opened her cloak for a moment, and he’d gotten a look at the naked body underneath. The girl’s muscles weren’t big, but they were perfectly drawn and defined against her skin. Muscles built for both endurance and explosive power. Body strengthening wasn’t exactly a popular practice, but Shen Lei had lived long enough and seen enough of the world to recognize that those were the unmistakable hallmarks of someone with extremely high achievements in the discipline.
More than that, Shen Lei could feel the terrifying power concealed in the girl’s slender limbs, the restrained power in every single of her movements.
If this little girl struck without holding back, even he was not confident he could stay unscathed.
Even he was not confident he could survive.
Shen Lei blinked, wrenched out of his thoughts, and raised his head. “My Lady?”
Jodene was staring at him hard, her eyes narrowed. “Shen Lei, what do you know?”
“You know something,” Jodene stated, a smirk on her lips. “I know you well, old friend, so don’t try to pretend otherwise and just spit it out. What do you know?”
Shen Lei didn’t hesitate any longer. In any case, he would have to come clean at some point, and the more he put it off, the more displeased his liege would be upon learning the truth. Furthermore, he just wasn’t the kind of man who would fail to take responsibility for his mistakes.
“I know the target, my Lady.”
Jodene quirked an eyebrow. “Oh? Do you, now?”
“Yes. I met her in Islandis Fortress when the messenger you sent to fetch me got into an altercation with her. I intervened, and since the girl seemed a promising asset, I thought you might be interested in meeting her. So I decided to, um, invite her here. As a guest. Your guest.”
“…I’m sorry. What?”
Shen Lei cleared his throat and firmly suppressed the awkwardness and embarrassment that threatened to show on his face. “She’s here, now, my Lady. In the guest pavilion. She arrived along with a companion of hers at the same time I did.”
“Wait. Just… Wait. You… You invited our target as a guest? Under my name?”
“That is correct, my Lady,” Shen Lei said.
He was a bit surprised to hear some faint touch of pride coloring his own voice, when even he had no idea where it came from. Was it something along the lines of, ‘when I screw up, I don’t do it halfway’? There might just be some pride to be found in that, indeed…
Jodene, on the other hand, was staring at him in blatant incredulity, like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Eventually, she shook her head, a small, bitter smile on her lips. “Well. I trust you, um, ‘exercised extreme caution’ in your dealings with her, right?”
Shen Lei nodded sagely, keeping a perfectly straight face. “I’m not entirely certain about ‘caution’, but I did exercise extreme politeness. If we choose a peaceful solution, we wouldn’t start on too wrong a foot. Our troops showed some disgraceful behavior, at one point, but nothing that soured our relationship too much. If we choose violence, on the other hand, well…”
Shen Lei raised his gaze and looked Jodene in the eye. “I’m not sure I would like our chances.”
Jodene’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “One little devil girl, against me and you and every soldier we have and the defensive and offensive formations carved in this very castle. And you’re telling me you don’t like our chances?”
Shen Lei hesitated for a moment. He knew the power Jodene Fortress held, and he was confident in his own strength, honed through nearly eight centuries of battles, but this particular devil was…
“Yes,” he said eventually. “That’s precisely what I’m telling you. My assessment is that, if we did win – and I’m not sure we would – we would have to pay the price for it. I don’t think we could afford that price.”
Jodene settled back deeper into her padded chair, reaching an arm out to the glass of brandy on the table next to her.
“You fear her,” she said, bringing the glass to her lips and taking a small sip.
It wasn’t a question, but Shen Lei answered anyway, without a trace of shame in his voice. “I do.”
For a long time, the room was silent, except for the quiet crackle of the wood burning in the fireplace. Jodene was looking at him, slowly spinning her glass, the alcohol inside slowly forming a miniature whirlpool.
“Tell me more about this devil,” she said finally in a low voice.
It took almost half an hour of uninterrupted description for Shen Lei to finally tell Jodene everything he knew about Akasha.
He’d tried to be exhaustive, to impart not only what he’d seen of her, but also what suppositions about her he had formed after travelling with her for almost a week, and how he had formed them, and also everything the little girl had said – or, rather, not said; she wasn’t exactly talkative – and done during that time.
If Jodene eventually made the choice to use violence, Shen Lei wanted it to be an informed decision.
By the time he finished, Jodene was emptying her third glass of brandy. It was clear that she didn’t like what she hearing, but Shen Lei couldn’t blame her for that, because neither did he.
Jodene sighed heavily and lowered her glass back down onto its small table. “Well, if everything you’ve said turns out to be correct, we might indeed have a problem on our hands.”
“We might, yes.”
“And you said she had a companion, as well? What about her?”
Shen Lei narrowed his eyes and thought about the woman called Yinan. “She’s an elf. By my judgment, she should be around 100 or 200 years old. She is uncommonly beautiful, and she knows it and knows how to make use of it. Apparently, she’s a free merchant, but… Well, she was quite open about her own story, and she never contradicted herself in any way that I could see, but I get the feeling that isn’t all there is to her.”
“For one thing, she did manage to hide from me, once. She was right under my nose, and I couldn’t see her. She must have some sort of concealment magic, and she’s cultivated it well. If she wants to disappear, there is probably little we can do to stop her, unless we bring a tracker along – a very good one.”
“Is she powerful?”
“4th rank. Not too far from fifth. Just from watching her move and act, I couldn’t see that she has any kind of secret martial training. Her body doesn’t appear to have been strengthened to any great degree, either.” Shen Lei shook his head. “In my eyes, she really does have nothing higher than 4th-rank strength. I doubt she can leap ranks. I very much doubt she can leap so many ranks that she’d be a threat to either of us.”
Jodene snorted at that. “Could anybody? If you can find someone who can leap four or five whole ranks, I will get down on my knees and worship that person as my own personal deity.” For the first time since Shen Lei arrived, Jodene rose from her chair and started pacing in front of it, walking back and forth between the fireplace and the wall opposite. “No, I think we can safely disregard this elf’s involvement in what is to come. At least, we need to prioritize, and the threat she represents is negligible compared to Akasha.”
Those words instantly brought back the tension that had left Shen Lei as he’d been focusing on reporting what he knew as precisely as he could. He felt the muscles in his shoulders and back tighten, his wings opening fractionally before he controlled his reaction.
“So, you’ve decided to fight, in the end?” he asked.
Jodene didn’t look back at him. She stopped her pacing in front of the fireplace, gazing absently into the flames. “You know I have. I don’t like it any better than you do, but it’s an easy decision to make, really.”
Jodene nodded vaguely. “It is. Could this devil fight against him? Could this devil fight against what stands behind him?”
“That’s right: no. It’s the same as every other time we’ve received orders from outside. Following them is… shameful. It disgusts me. But not following them would be worse.” Jodene looked back at him, the curling horns growing from her forehead blocking some of the light from the fireplace and casting strange shadows upon her face. “At least, this way, we can live.”
“Can we?” Shen Lei asked, trying to suppress the bitterness in his voice.
“Probably. It’s clear this Akasha came here to use the teleport formation. And it’s equally clear, from what you’ve told me of her, that she’s not the kind to take no for an answer – though I could have known that just from the fact that she’s a devil. So we need to fight.”
Just remembering the sheer pressure Shen Lei had felt, the evening he’d invited her to travel alongside him, caused small shivers to creep up and down his spine. How was he supposed to fight Akasha if she could suppress him just be standing there? This was nothing more than an impossible task.
Shen Lei’s brows creased in a frown.
Why did Jodene think they could win at all?
She wasn’t stupid. From everything Shen Lei had told her, she had to know roughly what they would be facing. And, while her ‘probably’ wasn’t exactly what could be called a mark of confidence, it was more of it than he himself felt.
Shen Lei peered closely at Jodene’s face. “Did he send something, along with those orders? Something that makes you think we might have a chance?”
The small smile playing on the edges of his Lady’s lips gave him the answer he was looking for.