The monster – no, Akasha – has fallen silent, seemingly lost deep in thought, head down, looking absently at the ground.
I’m not sure if it’s safe to interrupt her. She doesn’t seem to be as temperamental as I would have expected from a devil – if devil she is – but I still prefer not to take any chances. She’s sitting too close to me. If she suddenly decides to attack, I won’t be able to react at all.
Of course, even if she were sitting 50 meters away from me, I wouldn’t be able to react, but it’s the principle of the thing. I would prefer to keep a proper distance between us.
Also, the air around her is chilly, like she’s a small pocket of winter in this late-spring forest.
It probably has something to do with her magic. It should be 冰, I reckon, or some derivative.
It was pretty easy to guess, really, once she got close enough for me to recognize that her entire left arm was made of ice – though I still have no idea how she manages to make it move so naturally, seeing as how ice isn’t exactly the most flexible of materials.
Well, it’s not like the particulars of her magic are really relevant to my situation.
She wouldn’t need to use it to kill me.
Still, flirting with a devil turned out to be as difficult as I had expected. She didn’t even react when I spoke about ‘showing her my gratitude’, even though I tried to say it as suggestively as possible.
Or is it because she’s too young to properly appreciate my charms?
In any case, I managed to secure passage to Jodene Fortress.
With such a bodyguard by my side, my safety is guaranteed, so long as the bodyguard herself doesn’t suddenly decide to rip my head off.
And if she can actually manage to escape the Prison, as she seems confident to, I might just be able to ride on her coattails and return to Caldera. I’d long since discounted the possibility of going through the teleport formation in Jodene Fortress, since it’s well-known that anyone who dares to do so eventually comes back to the Prison – that is to say their corpse does, cut up in small, bloody pieces – but maybe this monster could do it. Even if, despite all her power, she turns out to be unable to escape, my own abilities might allow me to, if I can just take advantage of the confusion she causes.
…But this little girl is a bit strange.
Where do all her scars come from?
Why doesn’t she know about ettins and oni and such?
Why did she ask me what year it is?
Was she living under a rock or something?
“Do you mind if I ask you something?”
At my question, Akasha raises her head and looks at me.
Um, is it just me, or is the wind colder than before? And isn’t her left eye shining more brightly, as well? She’s not angry I interrupted her while she was thinking, is she?
Even though her lips haven’t moved, Akasha’s voice booms inside my head again. The walls of my dantian shake slightly, but the sound isn’t so terrifyingly loud now that my head threatens to explode, like it was before. Her voice is childish, but also bland and lifeless and flat, without any inflection at all. It’s the kind of dead monotone you’d expect to hear from a golem.
It makes it hard to get a read on her.
Her voice doesn’t give away any of her thoughts. Neither does she make any sorts of gestures when she speaks, and I’ve yet to see even the slightest hint of emotion cross her face.
In fact, her faction isn’t so much emotionless as motionless. Apart from her eyes, the rest of her features never move. She’s doesn’t open her mouth to talk. She doesn’t seem to ever smile or frown or make any other expression. She never even blinks.
…It’s like I’m talking to a statue.
Thinking about it, it’s very possible that she actually can’t move her facial muscles, due to nerve damage from all those scars, so I can’t exactly blame her.
But it’s still a bit creepy.
[…What?] Akasha says again in the exact same tone as before.
Oh, right. I was trying to ask a question.
“Ahem. My apologies for disturbing you.” I point at the teleport formation. “Could you tell me where this leads, please?”
Akasha glances behind her at the formation, then turns back to me. She hesitates for a few seconds, as if she doesn’t quite know how to answer me, until, with a small flick of her tail, her voice resounds in my mind again.
“A wasteland? It’s not on Caldera, is it? Are there any cities around it? Any people?”
[…Not Caldera. No cities. No people.]
“I see. Is there anything interesting over there?”
“The corpse of what?”
I try to keep my befuddlement off my face. “How is the corpse of a frog interesting?”
“How big is it?”
[…10 kilometers high. 20 kilometers long.]
Um, are you sure that was a frog, young lady? I’m don’t think there are frogs that big. Frogs are things you can put in jars and dissect, you know? Maybe you were drunk? Or the poison of that wasteland took its toll on you? Or are you just exaggerating to make the story more interesting?
I couldn’t care less about any frog corpses, anyway, no matter how big they are.
But this so-called poisonous wasteland is intriguing. I might be able to get through it and reach some sort of settlement. I have a few days of food left in my bag, and I can safely ignore the poison. Akasha said there aren’t any cities or people, but maybe she just didn’t find them? If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more convenient to escape the Prison through that teleport formation, rather than trust my safety to something like a devil and hope I’ll be able to go through the Mysterious Teleport Formation of Doom in one piece? Even if the place on the other side of the teleport formation is not Caldera, I should be able to live there, shouldn’t I?
What worries me a bit with this plan, however, is that Akasha’s scars don’t seem self-inflicted.
Something definitely put them on her.
And, considering how strong she is, I wouldn’t want to meet that ‘something’.
“Is there any danger on the other side of the gate?”
[…Lakes of acid.]
“Oh. Is that what…?” I wave my hand at the right side of my face, hinting at the worst of her scars.
I think I should probably shut up, now, before I get myself killed.
But, acid, huh?
I can resist poison, but I’m less confident against acid. At the very least, anything that can hurt Akasha can most definitely hurt me too. I’d probably melt on the spot if I got within a hundred meters of the thing.
Looks like it won’t be so easy…
But I don’t want to give up just like that. If I just go through to take a quick look and evaluate my chances, I shouldn’t be in too much danger, and I can always retreat through the teleport formation and come back here if I need to.
[…You can’t go.]
Akasha’s words stop my thoughts cold. I peer at her face and ask carefully, “Why not?”
[…Unidirectional,] she replies, pointing behind her at the teleport formation.
That is a pretty good reason.
You really should have said that from the start.
The Mysterious Teleport Formation of Doom it is, then.
But that also means that it was pointless for me to try and escape through it, earlier, when Ralgrermn and his little pals were pursuing me, doesn’t it? I really was lucky Akasha burst in when she did.
[…Healed?] Akasha asks suddenly.
No, no. I said ‘hours’, didn’t I?
Please, be a bit more patient.
I tentatively prod the side of my chest, just in case I’m overestimating the damage I received, but the sharp stab of pain that immediately rears up its head convinces me to answer truthfully. I shake my head and gingerly say, “Sorry. Not yet. Still a bit more.”
The delay doesn’t seem to infuriate Akasha. She simply nods and closes her eyes.
Does she intend to sleep here?
Right next to me?
Should I see this as her showing a measure of trust in me?
Or is it simply confidence in her ability to resist any mischief I might be up to?
But I do have to admit that I too am tired, and my injuries certainly aren’t helping.
The moment I realize my own exhaustion, my eyelids quickly become heavy. I try to fight off the wave of sleepiness, but even though the monster sitting in front of me should by all rights keep me tense enough to stay wide awake for a few weeks straight, my body doesn’t seem to agree and, despite my best efforts, boldly strides toward unconsciousness.
I wake up to a pair of mismatched eyes staring into mine.
The first thought that bursts into my mind is “Demon!”.
Then, there is no second thought.
I flinch so hard my butt leaves the ground, and the back of my head cracks against the tree trunk against which I’m resting. It should probably hurt, but fright sends adrenaline pumping through my veins and drives away any trace of either pain or sleep.
It’s only after a moment that memories of the previous night’s events come back to me and the panic dissipates a little, but my heart still hammers painfully in my chest.
And the back of my skull finally starts hurting.
Akasha is still staring at me, no trace of contrition – or anything else – visible on her face.
“Y–Yes. I should be fine, now. Thank you for your patience.”
Rubbing the back of my head and blinking small tears out of the corners of my eyes, I look up at the sky. Judging from the height of the sun, it should be close to midday, already.
I remember that I ended up falling asleep, despite my best intentions. Even though I did survive the night, against all expectations, I still can’t help but find it strange that I managed to rest so peacefully with a devil so close to me.
Am I slipping? Did I lose the prudence and wariness I’d cultivated on Caldera, during this one peaceful year I’ve spent in the Planar Prison?
…I’m also surprised Akasha waited for me to wake up so patiently. I would have expected her to be more forceful and overbearing.
Even if she is rather polite, however, I’m not going to start being too casual. Devils are not the most rational of creatures; they might be very amiable one second, then suddenly kill you the next, even though you may still be useful to them – or a vital ally, even – simply because you somehow set them off or because their tempers got the better of them.
I doubt this would be an enjoyable experience.
When I’m about to get up, my stomach suddenly growls in complaint, conspicuously loud in the otherwise silent forest. Akasha’s wolf ears twitch, and her tail swishes from side to side. She turns a blank gaze toward my belly, as if she has no idea what that sound was supposed to be.
It’s… disturbingly cute…
A cute devil…
What is the world coming to…?
But I really am hungry.
I quickly open my bag and look through it for the food I purchased in Rayyan Fortress. There is enough left for two days. Four or five, if I ration. But do I really need to do that, now that Akasha is here to protect me? Since she can handle the demons, I should be able to hunt ordinary animals without fear, shouldn’t I?
So let’s just eat my fill.
In any case, if worse comes to worst, I always have ways to survive. Starving to death is a very remote possibility, for any good asmodian.
When I turn away from my bag, Akasha is staring at it and at the strips of dried jerky in my hand.
I proffer one to her. “Do you want some?”
She sniffs the air a few times without taking it in hand, then shakes her head.
Maybe she doesn’t like meat.
But wolves are carnivorous, aren’t they? And demons are –
Demons don’t eat things like that, do they?
I bite down on one end of the strips of jerky to free my hands and riffle through my pack again. Half a minute later, I hold out to Akasha one of the magic cores I stole from Selma’s house, back in Hardron Fortress, when all this tiresome business began. I’d kept them with me, just in case there happened to be any devices I needed them to power – or if I needed to make some quick money by selling them – but I might as well share them with her, as a show of goodwill.
This time, Akasha doesn’t refuse. She steps forward and takes the magic core from my hand and immediately chucks it into her mouth.
Her teeth are jet-black.
When she bites down, the magic core, which should have been quite a bit tougher than any normal stone, is crushed instantly. Akasha doesn’t seem to have strained herself to do it, either.
As for me, I stand up and take the strips of jerky away from my mouth
“Shall we go? I can eat on the road.”
Akasha glances at my food again, almost suspiciously, then nods.
“All right, then. This way.”
I’ve walked together with the monster for almost two days, now.
Akasha eventually couldn’t resist her curiosity and tried the beef jerky yesterday. I’m sad to report that she didn’t like it. I’m happy to report that she didn’t decide to kill, maim, or otherwise hurt me to vent her disappointment.
But it’s a good thing she doesn’t like it.
Because I’m already about to run out, so sharing would be difficult.
Maybe I should’ve rationed it.
My plan to hunt untainted animals during the trip was scrapped pretty quickly, when I discovered after the first day that, no matter where we went, I couldn’t find any anywhere in the vicinity.
As a matter of fact, I haven’t even heard any bird calls for the past few days.
The forest is perfectly silent around us. It’s eery.
My best guess is that all the animals around here fled from Akasha.
We did see some kind of panther, once, far in the distance. It too saw us, and like any territorial creature, it fought bravely to protect its range from the intruders. Or not. Actually, the moment it got a glimpse of Akasha, it bolted away like a rabbit and disappeared before I could even consider killing it for its meat – or ask Akasha to do it for me.
I almost considered trying my luck and going far enough away from Akasha that her presence wouldn’t frighten off all the game, but so deep into the wilderness, that would be little more than suicide. The beasts here are dangerous. Judging from its fleeing speed, that panther must have been 5th-rank, I reckon.
And there are demons almost everywhere.
They, comparatively, don’t hesitate to approach us.
To approach Akasha…
Even though they probably should hesitate.
Actually, I almost get the feeling that demons are even more aggressive toward Akasha than they are toward anyone else, despite her being a demon as well. Anytime we cross paths with one, they will consistently disregard me and throw themselves at her.
Akasha herself doesn’t seem to mind.
She simply, methodically slaughters anything that dares to approach her. No demon so far has managed to survive past her first strike, even though some of them looked pretty impressive, from my perspective.
And nothing so far has put a scratch on her.
And after every effortless kill, jets of tainted blood will fly out of the demon’s corpse and soar directly into Akasha’s mouth. Then, the demon’s dantian will burst out of its skull and do the same.
I have no idea what kind of magic allows this, but it’s a scarier spectacle than it sounds.
It makes you wonder if she could do the same to you.
…I wouldn’t want to die like that, given the choice.
But the point remains that I’m soon going to lack proper food.
After discussing the issue with Akasha, she allowed me to change our destination to Islandis Fortress. It’s closer to our current position than Jodene Fortress. There, I should be able to purchase the supplies I need for the last stretch of this journey.
I’ve heard many good things about Islandis Fortress. The nice people there probably won’t mind me bringing an unstoppable, taciturn, bloodthirsty monster into their city.
For everybody’s sake.