I walk away from the hall at a brisk pace, my limbs a bit shaky under the qi pressure radiating from inside the room.
I’m glad I relinquished my front-row seat. I don’t think I would have survived more than a second or two of the spectacle that’s about to take place. To be perfectly honest, I was almost tempted to stay and watch the battle – it might be instructive for my own cultivation – but when I saw Akasha’s smile, I changed my mind.
It was a pretty scary smile.
So, when those three were focused on each other, I used my concealment magic and made myself scarce. I had a few moments of trepidation, at first, wondering if it would even work against monsters like them.
Surprisingly enough, it did.
I suppose I’d already had confirmation my magic could at least hide me from Shen Lei’s senses, back on the road to Jodene Fortress, but actually putting it into practice when I’ll die if it fails was something else entirely. And it was doubtful whether or not it would be as effective against Jodene and Akasha. Though Akasha might not have cared, even if she’d seen me, I’m still quite glad she didn’t notice me; she didn’t look at her sanest, when I left.
Still, I was quite surprised to find the poison in my drink. I was sure the one to open hostilities would be my young devil friend. It gave me a good opportunity to fake my death and remove myself from ground zero – identifying what poison they used and simulating its effects was trivial to me – but I can’t help but feel that things are a bit strange, here.
Why would Jodene and Shen Lei antagonize Akasha like this?
It’s like they were purposely trying to make her angry. From what they said, even my own death was supposed to goad her into action. Except, we’d never met each other beforehand, so where does this hostility come from?
Is it just about Akasha breaking that guy’s wrist in Islandis Fortress?
Shen Lei had certainly managed to convince me that we’d gotten past that little hiccup…
And if it’s because we want to use the teleport formation, well, what do they care? Even if it’s dangerous on the other side, I don’t see how that’s any of their business. They can just let us die without interfering; it’s not like we asked for their help…
I glance down at the sphere in my hand as I walk through the castle’s corridor, away from the epicenter of the battle – and ‘epicenter’ is definitely the right word; the entire castle, the entire hill, is trembling and shaking, and I already heard a few walls cave in, somewhere behind me. This sphere rolled up against my feet when Akasha dropped it, so I ended up taking it with me when I left, but I’m not sure this was a good idea, even now.
Jodene called it a key, but that’s not what it is at all. It’s a demon-sealing stone, a device that inhibits demons’ powers within a certain radius – big ones can cover several kilometers, but this one probably isn’t that powerful. It’s pretty rare, however, even on Caldera, and it’s the first time I see one up close. But I do recognize the faint qi fluctuation it gives off. The same one covers Mel Senshir and Alsomn and a few other major cities and protect them from the demon tides that might otherwise threaten them.
That’s why it felt so familiar to me…
I don’t think I’ll mention to Akasha that I could have recognized it and spared her her injuries. That might put a dent in our partnership.
I hope she’s fine, though.
She was smiling, so she should be, right?
Suddenly, footsteps and voices ring out from down the corridor.
Looks like two people coming in my direction.
Good. I just needed a guide. This castle is too big for me to find what I’m looking for without assistance – if Jodene even told the truth and it’s really here; it might be somewhere else altogether.
Before the owners of those two voices appear, I open a door to the side, and after checking no one is inside – it’s a storeroom of some kind; I don’t bother looking inside the crates – I enter and leave the door ajar, a small gap between it and its frame letting the sounds from the corridor reach me inside.
I gently put the demon-sealing stone in my pocket to avoid breaking it. The violent qi fluctuation caused by the battle taking place right next door should drown the one the sphere gives off, so it shouldn’t betray my position, unless someone with really sharp senses suddenly appears.
And then, I ready myself.
Soon, the two soldiers arrive, their armor clattering noisily with each of their steps.
“No, no! I’m telling you! This is treason! We have to stay!”
“Why are you following me, then? You can just go back and do your duty, if that’s so important to you. But I’m not staying to die here. No way.”
I can’t recognize what species these two are just from their voices, but I can at least affirm that they’re not setroka – setroka voices reverberate and echo in a very distinctive manner. Which is good news. Setroka don’t actually have nerve endings, so I wouldn’t have any way to ‘query’ them for the information I need. Any other species, I can handle more easily.
“We’re not going to die,” the first voice says. “Why would we die? Lady Jodene and Sir Shen Lei are fighting the enemy together. There is no way they would be defeated.”
The other snorts loudly. “Even if they’re not defeated, we’ll still end up as collateral damage. I didn’t enlist here to end up like that. I enlisted here specifically because this should be a place no one in their right mind would ever even consider attacking.”
“Well, if you defect, you’ll lose that cushy job of yours.”
“Better that than losing my life altogether. Why do you think most of us were told to leave the castle, tonight, huh? And all those corridors are empty. Do you see any servants anywhere? That’s in order to limit the number of victims, you naive dolt.”
“Aaaah, shut up already! I don’t even know why I’m trying to convince you. Just stay here and die for all I ca– gah!”
When they reach my position, their footsteps echoing in front of the storeroom where I’m hiding, I take a step back and kick the door open. It slams with bone breaking force into the soldier closest to it, on my side of the corridor, and the clatter of metal against stone tells me the impact must have thrown him to the ground. I rush out of the room to see the other soldier, a young rakshasa man, stare dumbfoundedly back at his fallen comrade. Considering he’s wasting time gawking in the middle of an ambush, I’d say it’s a fair bet he’s a new recruit, very lacking in actual combat experience.
I suppose that’s why he was left here to die by Jodene and Shen Lei.
My sympathy for his situation doesn’t prevent a small flick of my wrist from sending a knife into my hand, and another to bury that same knife into his throat, through the gap between his helmet and breastplate. The young soldier sinks to the floor with a small gurgling sound, pawing clumsily at the knife, which only serves to bury its blade deeper.
I turn to the other one, an oni without any distinguishing feature except for a small scar on his cheek. He’s lying on his back, a hand cradling his helmet, his eyes struggling to focus on any one thing. That door slam must have rattled his brain. Before he can get his bearings, I sit on his chest and force his head backward, sticking another knife beneath his chin, the tip of it already piercing into his skin, beads of blood trickling down his neck.
“Hello,” I say. Politely.
“H–H–Hello,” the oni answers. Politely too.
“I have something I’d like to ask you. You don’t mind?”
“Uh… I –”
“That wasn’t the question. That one was actually a statement. You don’t mind. The question comes now. Where is the teleport formation leading to Caldera?”
“I… I don’t –”
I activate the word 神经 in my dantian and send the qi infused with it into the man.
His body becomes taut under me as all his nerves suddenly light up in what is most likely the worst pain he’s ever experienced and his muscles try fruitlessly to flinch away from it. His jaw uncontrollably clenches shut and prevents him from screaming his lungs out.
The word has a rather narrow meaning, so I tend not to use it very often, compared to 隐 and 鸩. In my youth, it saw some use helping me pleasure my partners during sex – pain isn’t the only thing I can send through people’s nerves, after all – but I stopped doing that once I got more confident in my own proficiency. Nowadays, I’d almost find it insulting to think that I would actually need any kind of assistance on that front.
And so, whenever it’s not gathering metaphorical dust in my dantian, this word now mostly serves as a way to convince people to share their answers to sensitive questions. But even that is a pretty rare occurrence. I’m not usually the one in charge of this sort of thing, and torture isn’t the most reliable of tools, even at its best. Now, fortunately, there is a way to immediately check the veracity of the information I get.
After four or five seconds, I stop the spell and ask again. “Where is the teleport formation leading to Caldera? I’d appreciate it if you could guide me there, as it happens. Please.”
At first, only small squeaky sounds come out of the oni’s mouth, but then he catches himself and stutters, “Y–Y–Yes! I c–can lead you to it! I s–s–swear I can!”
“Thank you very much. I really appreciate your cooperation in this matter.”
I remove the point of the knife from his neck, then cut the straps holding his helmet and breastplate in place and remove them from him – I want the odds to be in my favor if he does decide to struggle once I’m not directly threatening his life anymore. Then, I get to my feet and motion him to stand up, pressing the knife against his throat again.
“Good. Now, your sword, please.”
“Unbuckle your sword belt and give it to me, please. Now.”
I press the knife a bit harder, and a thin, bloody line is drawn over his skin. I make sure to let him register the fact that I’m a diligent person who keeps her blades as sharp as possible, and that it would take very little effort for me to excise his trachea from his body.
Once I have his sword in hand, I take a step back and smile at him. “Well then, I will be in your care. Oh, and just to make things clear, if you lead me toward something like a guard post, I will make sure to kill you before making my escape.”
“Good. Now go. It’s gotten a bit too quiet, back there, and I’m not sure I like that. We should try to put some distance between us and those monsters. Let them have fun on their own.”
What on earth just happened?
My captive and I had barely reached the back of the castle, navigating one empty corridor after another, when something exploded behind us. And it wasn’t a small explosion, either. I had to close my eyes, or the actinic flash would have burned the retinas right out of my eyes. The heat that washed over me felt like it would ignite the air inside of my lungs.
And then, the shockwave itself…
A few ruins – the very edges of the castle – are left standing around me, but when I look behind, there is only a vast crater blasted into the hill. It looks more like a miniature volcano than a hill, now, in fact.
It’s really a miracle I wasn’t killed instantly.
In fact, I wasn’t even heavily injured. A few abrasions, a few cuts, a broken wrist, and general soreness. Blood streams down my face from a scalp wound and gets in my eyes.
Nothing lethal, in other words.
The same can’t be said of my reluctant guide, however.
Most of the stone walls around us were torn apart in the explosion, rubble flung everywhere, a piece of such right into his face. The rubble won the ensuing confrontation – the face-off, if you will – by a landslide, and the guy’s head scampered off in shame somewhere, leaving the rest of his body behind.
Fortunately, he had time to tell me where we were headed during our brief acquaintance.
But what happened over there?
Is the battle over? Is the victor decided?
I don’t think so; I can still feel the violent qi pressure coming from the crater. It doesn’t seem to have reduced at all from the beginning, in fact, so I doubt anyone even died in that explosion, even though they were all standing right in the middle of it.
Unable to resist my curiosity, I slowly approach the lip of the crater, concealment magic cloaking me from enemy eyes, my broken wrist cradled against my chest.
What are these three lunatics doing?
Why are they fighting in the middle of a lava pool?
Are they showing off or something?
And shouldn’t their hair and clothes at least burst into flame?
How does that even work?
If the heat is enough to melt rock, it’s enough to melt hair and fabric, I should think.
Well, Akasha is naked again, so maybe that last part did happen to her, but still…
Shen Lei seems to have lost an arm, at some point.
Jodene looks completely fine, on the other hand.
As for Akasha, she’s still covered in her own blood, but I don’t know if it’s only from the injuries she received from the demon-sealing stone, or if she was further injured afterward.
And then, just as I’m watching her, the little girl suddenly disappears from my sight, a sonic boom cracking after her. She reappears not far from Jodene when a strange ball of viscous darkness blocks her way – probably Jodene’s magic.
I’m not exactly certain what happens afterward. It’s all too confused and too fast for me to make out clearly.
Tentacles grow from the black ball and try to entangle Akasha, I think, but their speed is such that I can only see dark blurs slashing through the air and Akasha dancing around them, as if she knows beforehand where they’re going to strike next. I’d almost think she and Jodene trained together for a few years to get the choreography right. And then, Shen Lei throws himself into the struggle, his entire body somehow coated in a layer of lava.
A second later, he’s dead, without even leaving a corpse behind.
For a second, I feel a bit bad for him. He seemed like a good enough man. He was certainly very polite. But then, I remember he and his master tried to poison me, just earlier, and my sympathy fades away.
The fight continues, events seeming to happen faster than they should. Akasha rushes toward Jodene, powering through whatever spell the rakshasa throws at her, until she sinks her fangs into her enemy’s throat.
Jodene doesn’t die prettily.
And Akasha doesn’t give her the courtesy of a quick end, either.
She stays there, looking down at her victim, while Jodene Fortress burns around her.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to this place, now that both its leaders are gone. I imagine some two-bit powerhouses will slaughter each other – and the innocent citizens around them, of course, but that goes without saying – in order to fill the power vacuum. But Jodene’s death will destabilize the entire status quo inside the Prison, on a greater scale than simply Jodene Fortress itself. Islandis Fortress has lost its backing, and the prosperity that backing had brought it will rouse envy in its neighbors. And then the neighbors of those neighbors will want in on that, too. Most likely, by the end of it, every fortress out there will be trying to fish some benefits for themselves from this mess, like a pack of vermin around a piece of carrion, snapping at each other for the juiciest morsel.
I’m glad I won’t be here to see it.
A sudden sound nearby yanks me out of my thoughts, and I raise my head to see Akasha on top of a piece of rubble buried in the earth next to me, perched atop it like a bloody, ragged beast, looking down at me as I crouch there on the lip of the crater. The glow of her left eye looks noticeably dimmer than I’ve ever seen it.
I don’t know how she found me so easily, but my heart can’t help but skip a beat at her sudden appearance, and a surge of panic fills my mind for a moment, until I remember that, hey, we are actually allies, and I don’t need to hide from her.
Or do I?
She’s not smiling anymore.
She’s gone back to her usual expressionlessness.
For some reason, I prefer her that way.
I’m not sure I’d enjoy dealing with Akasha when she’s smiling. What emotions she displayed then didn’t inspire anything good in me. If I had to word it, I would say that she felt a lot less… controlled, when she was smiling, like she would attack anything in her vicinity for no other reason than that it brings her pleasure and amusement.
A normal demon, in other words…
I stand up slowly, both of her mismatched eyes tracking each of my movements, and fetch the demon-sealing stone from my pocket, vaguely surprised that it wasn’t broken in the blast. I move with care and deliberation, so as not to spook her – I doubt she’d ever be afraid of me, but I’ve seen warriors just after battle, and I know they can get a bit jumpy. I wouldn’t want to give her the impression that I’m a justifiable target.
“That is a demon-sealing st–” No, wait. Jodene told her that already, right when I was leaving. I wrack my head for something useful to say, and then continue. “That thing is only effective in a limited radius. If you can just get far enough away from it, you’ll be able to use your magic again. You probably don’t want to just break it, though; I’m not sure what that would do. Oh, and I know where the teleport formation is! I can lead you to it whenever you want!”
For a few seconds, Akasha just stares at the sphere in my hand, then jumps down from her perch and lands lightly next to me. I work very hard not to flinch.
She takes the demon-sealing stone from me, then, before I can ask what she intends to do with it, she turns her back to me and simply throws it away. A sonic boom explodes again when her arm lashes out, my body swaying like a reed in its wind and my ears ringing painfully at its volume. The small sphere instantly vanishes from sight, flung into the far distance. The qi fluctuation it was giving off disappears along with the stone itself.
Right… I suppose you could get out of the stone’s radius of effect this way, too.
But exactly what kind of muscle power do you need to break the sound barrier every time you move?
Just a second later, before I can say or do anything else, an enormous qi pressure, greater even than the one I felt earlier, leaks out of Akasha’s small body and crashes down upon my shoulders. And only now do I realize that the qi pressure I felt during the battle came exclusively from Jodene and Shen Lei, without Akasha’s share.
I feel my legs sink down from under me. I can’t seem to be able to even lift my head up to look at Akasha.
Neither can I open my mouth to ask her to restrain herself.
In front of my eyes, her tail swings gently from side to side like a pendulum, and behind it, I can see her legs, her skin covered in bleeding cracks. I wince at the sight, first in sympathetic pain, then in disgust. All of these cracks running over her skin are squirming, as if the flesh on each side of the gap is reaching out to the other side, trying to close her wounds.
This is most likely some kind of regenerative process, but the spectacle looks absolutely revolting.
And I’m having trouble even breathing, here…
I think I’m going to pass out in a few seconds, at this rate.
Fortunately, when Akasha turns back to me after throwing away the demon-sealing stone and sees me kneeling there, the pressure immediately decreases, returning to levels more bearable by little weaklings such as myself.
I take in a deep breath, then let it out, and laboriously work myself up to my feet.
“Phew. Thank you. I assume your magic has been unsealed, then?”
[…Yes. Where is the teleport formation?]
I’m absurdly comforted by the absolute lack of emotion in her voice.
“Ah, yes. Um, you don’t want to finish healing, first? Jodene said there would be traps on the other side. And a ‘creature’, too.”
“A–All right, then. Follow me.” I turn away from the crater, toward the back of the hill, where some ragged semblance of walls are still stubbornly standing. I take a moment to think, trying to remember the route my erstwhile guide described before his untimely demise, and then trying to judge what that same route would look like now, after suffering the brunt of the earlier explosion. “This way, I think.”