The clouds around me are blown into tatters as I fly through them, the speed of my passage creating a vortex of wind in my wake strong enough to tear them apart. The landscape visibly rolls back behind me, much faster than it should at this height.
I know my increased speed is sign of my flurried heart, but of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to slow down. Not showing weakness or doubt is something I only bother to do in front of my subordinates, in my image as their leader.
And time is short.
Why did they attack the laboratory now, of all times?
Did they know how inconvenient their timing would be for me, or is it just chance?
Destiny, spitting in my eye.
Things are spiraling out of control.
They started spiraling out of control when AK-A-13 killed the Sulfur Frog, I think.
I convinced myself that it wasn’t that bad, that I could afford the loss of a lesser godbeast, that there were still too many unsolved mysteries and that observing her interactions with the people living inside the Prison would open for us a new treasure trove of information.
I should have put a stop to it at that time.
I should have teleported to the 198th floor, gone down to the 199th, and killed her then and there, while she was injured.
Because something isn’t right.
How did AK-A-13 kill the Sulfur Frog?
She shouldn’t have been able to kill it.
The girl has become strong, certainly. Even though she is a false god, she has rightfully earned the power of a real one. And I suppose that’s something deserving of respect, considering no one was there to direct her on her path. But in the grand scheme of things, even that is nothing great. She still only has the power of a 1st-rank god. She might stretch up to the lowest reaches of the 2nd rank, at her very best, but no more. Her sheer wealth of battle experience lets her compensate for her deficiencies in raw power, but there is still a wall she should never be able to breach.
So how in the void did she kill that frog?
It is a lesser godbeast, to be sure, but an old one, with power equivalent to a god at the very highest peak of the 2nd rank.
So how in the void did she kill it?
Because I have no idea…
I couldn’t watch the end of her battle.
It happened once again, as it has periodically, here and there, these past few centuries.
I lost control of the floor AK-A-13 was on.
Of course, I still have no idea why that particular problem happens, but it definitely has something to do with her. I’ve never lost control of any floor on which she was not currently living.
And now, there is this little voice in the back of my head asking me, can you be sure that whatever happened to the Sulfur Frog won’t happen to you? If your enemy can leap ranks to kill a godbeast, then can’t she leap ranks to kill you? Are you sure you should be so confident in your victory?
Common sense dictates that this little voice in the back of my head clearly doesn’t know what it’s talking about, that even leaping ranks has limits, that a man of my power would destroy AK-A-13 with a flick of his finger.
It wasn’t as obvious in the past, but the more I watch her, the more she reminds me of her ‘mother’.
And this fool of a son who doesn’t even realize the danger…
I can only sigh at the memory of it.
“Father, allow me to deal with her. I give you my word that I will succeed. This merit will be mine!”
Again with his absurd demands. The boy has a good heart – and the talent to go with it – but his confidence is baseless. And the last thing I need right now is to lose time arguing with him.
I suppose the environment in which Gareth grew up bears a part of the blame for his personality. As one of the potential successors to the Adkins house, he would have no lack of sycophants fawning over him, and this would no doubt color his perceptions.
Some of the flattery he receives certainly is justified, but if this flattery gives him the idea that he’s invincible under the sun and unmatched under the void, it could really come back to bite him rather painfully in the future.
But he is my son.
“Absolutely not,” I reply. “Jodene will buy time, then the sixth division after her. Once I’ve handled the matter at the laboratory, I will deal with her. You will stay here and reflect on your quite obvious shortcomings.”
“Tell me something, then,” I interrupt. “Do you believe that Jodene will fail?”
“Yes, of course,” Gareth replies, “Jodene’s deconstruction magic is inherently more powerful than Akasha’s ice, but Akasha is a 1st-rank god, while Jodene is only a 9th-rank warrior. There is a wall between the two that Jodene won’t be able to cross. That’s precisely why I think I should go, Father. Instead of losing an asset like Jodene – and that old man who serves her, too, I suppose – I could take care of things myself. It would even be an opportunity to temper myself against a powerful opponent.”
I frown. “First, don’t use that name. People have names. Things don’t. Second, I agree with you on only two of your points. One, the best Jodene can do is to gain me some time before she dies. Second, you do need tempering. But what kind of tempering, exactly, involves the object to be tempered being torn into pieces? What makes you think you would stand a better chance than Jodene herself?”
Gareth blinks, clearly dumbfounded. “Well, I’m not far from becoming a 2nd-rank god. Based on cultivation alone, I might only be about equal to AK-A-13, but based on the quality of my runes, or the complexity of the spells I cast, I do believe that I’m firmly superior to her.”
“Yes, you’re superior in both those aspects. And yet, you would still lose, were you to fight her. The same could be said if you were to fight Jodene, instead of AK-A-13.”
Gareth scoffs, a chuckle on the edge of his words. “Surely not, Father. I think you underestimate me too much. I can admit that Akasha would be a good match for me, but Jodene is still nothing more than a mere mortal, even if she’s the holder of a rare, high-quality rune.”
“Yes, a mortal with several hundred years of struggle and slaughter behind her. You may be a god, but what do you presume to achieve with the vast experience your 17 years of life have brought you?” If the sarcasm was thicker in my voice, I would choke on it. “I tell you, Jodene can definitely defeat you. She would run circles around you and play you to death. Even Shen Lei would give you a good challenge.”
Gareth’s face flushes redder with each of my words. Which was the desired effect, of course.
To this boy, his own youth is both his greatest pride and his greatest weakness. Indeed, even if I would have preferred if the fool had waited until his mid- to late twenties to break through, it’s undeniable that achieving godhood at his age is proof of his genius. But at the same time, he quite simply does not have a shred of the wisdom or experience any proper god should have by simple virtue of age.
“Well, AK-A-13 isn’t as old as Jodene, either,” Gareth continues, grasping at whatever straw he can think of.
“Yes. But if Jodene’s life qualifies as a ‘struggle’, then AK-A-13’s life most certainly does too, and then some. You’ve watched some of it. You should have an idea of the difference between the two of you, no?”
“If I agree to your proposal and send you against her, she will break you in half. That’s all there is to it. I would be, quite literally, sending you to the wolves.”
“But you gave a demon-sealing stone to Jodene, didn’t you?” Gareth asks, still worrying at the subject like a vulture at a corpse. “Do you mean to say that even with her power sealed away – plus the injuries she’ll most likely suffer when she tries to use her magic anyway – I still wouldn’t be her match?”
“Yes. That’s precisely what I’m saying. I’m glad we understand each other so well.”
“No need to shout. It’s just the truth as I see it. In any case, the point is moot. I couldn’t send you to her, even if I wanted to. If I teleport you directly to the Planar Prison, AK-A-13 will definitely feel the tear in space the moment it appears. And with her power, it would be an easy thing to scramble a loose teleport.”
“Not with the demon-sealing stone right next to her.”
“Wrong again. The stone wouldn’t actually prevent her from doing anything. It would only punish her for doing it. If she’s willing to pay the price, she can still power through the seal and use her qi.”
“That would just be throwing her own life away. From what I know about this girl, she doesn’t have a death wish.”
“Except that she’s perfectly aware of the amount of power and skill required to tear through space. If she detects someone like that approaching her, do you really think she’d abandon such a perfect opportunity to remove a potential threat?”
“She’s a devil. Devils thrive on fights like those. They yearn for them. She would never…”
“Yes she would!” I interrupt again, frustration creeping into my voice at the endless back and forth. “You quite simply don’t know your enemy. That thing is not a normal devil. That thing is not a devil at all.”
“Enough out of you! I’ve already made my decision. I will deal with AK-A-13 myself, once the laboratory is safe. In the meantime, if you want to make yourself actually useful, find out more on this so-called ‘Major’.”
“Y–Yulan’s right-hand man?”
“Woman. But yes. This is already the second attack on our laboratories. Whoever this Major is, she definitely has an inside source who feeds her information. Find out who. Link up with Jarod. He’s the one in charge of the investigation.”
I sigh inwardly again as I watch Gareth scamper meekly back down the corridor without another word.
I shake my head.
Fleeing at the first sign of my anger?
Was I that timid, in my youth?
I think not, if I do say so myself. At least, I don’t recall ever asking anybody’s permission to do anything.
That might be a sign of arrogance, if you see it as a fault.
In any case, this boldness has served me well, over the years – although time has tempered it into something less akin to pure recklessness – and it saddens me that my son, despite all his talent in cultivation, has failed to inherit it. If he truly believed he was correct, he wouldn’t even ask for my opinion. He would fly to the Planar Prison’s exit point and start sharpening his blade right now.
The one closest to my own character on that point would be Milla, but she’s made it very clear that she has absolutely no interest in cultivation or practice. Gareth considers her the shame of our family for this, but I can’t help but feel pride at her unflinching spirit – along with annoyance, that Gareth would look down on her for displaying the very same trait he so sorely lacks. At least, when that girl decides on something, she doesn’t let anyone convince her otherwise.
Which also makes her a stubborn fool, when those decisions happen to be wrong, but well, everybody makes mistakes. As long as those mistakes truly belong to the person who makes them, there is no need for any regrets.
I shake off these pointless thoughts and continue on my way.
Soon, I arrive to the balcony, the sprawling mass of Alsomn stretching far below me, hemmed in by its series of concentric stone walls, its citizens doing whatever it is they do, spoiled rotten by the peace my existence brings them.
I barely give it a glance before my magic flings me into the air, a sonic boom rumbling through the sky behind me.
The laboratory is far east of the capital, deep underground, in what I thought, perhaps mistakenly, was an inconspicuous location. As a matter of fact, it’s on the very border of human territory. That way, if anything goes wrong, I can blame it all on the majin. I thought myself clever to build it there, but this might be a good example of boldness gone wrong.
It takes me seven hours of high-speed flight to reach it.
Seven hours spent hoping against reason that I get there in time to at least limit the damage.
I wish I could teleport there, but if it’s not to the Prison or the Tower – that is, planes under my direct control – it takes me at least half a day of effort to have a half-stable pathway I can reluctantly jump through. Space is tricky that way, and I’m still far from Miroslav’s level.
I could have set up a teleport formation in the laboratory, I suppose – those are as stable and safe as can be – but I didn’t. The laboratory’s location was to be a closely guarded secret, after all, and a teleport formation would have put that in jeopardy – such a contraption needs to constantly keep space on the very edge of tearing, and that isn’t something I can conceal for a long time from the questing eyes of either Yulan himself or this mysterious Major of his.
Still, I’m starting to question the wisdom of my decision, now.
Maybe I really should have risked it and built a teleport formation there.
A glimpse into the Planar Prison informs me that Jodene and Shen Lei have both already died already.
They sure didn’t last long.
They didn’t need to fight so eagerly, really. They could have stalled for time or something…
I can’t expect the traps to even slow AK-A-13 down.
I’m running out of time.
Fortunately, the Prison’s exit point isn’t too far from here, so once I’ve dealt with the laboratory’s troubles, I’ll be able to quickly catch up to AK-A-13. The sixth division will hold her in place there until I can arrive, hopefully. Otherwise, I’ll just track her down and kill her then.
A part of me still thinks it’s a bit of a shame to destroy our best research subject, but it’s natural to terminate assets once they turn into liabilities…
Soon, I spot the village built over the laboratory, so I stop flying, hovering in the air high above it.
The inhabitants are still going about their day, tilling the earth, washing clothes and fetching water in the nearby river. They’re all completely oblivious to the state-of-the-art research facility build under their feet, of course. They’re all perfectly genuine peasants, nothing more and nothing less.
…Nothing seems amiss, here. There are no traces of battle.
But the report was clear.
The Major, commander of Yulan’s special forces – which outfit should by all rights belong to at least a colonel – is attacking this place. The soldiers stationed here are being overwhelmed. They require reinforcements.
There wasn’t any break up or static in the communication, so there was definitely no misunderstanding. Everyone there is very clear about how seriously I take our security measures – which are all perfectly justified considering the consequences of our last breach – so it’s not a prank or a false alarm. The right identification codes were exchanged, so the transmission wasn’t somehow hijacked by the enemy.
…So why is everything so calm?
It has already been seven hours since I received the report, but a 1st-rank god and two 9th-rank warriors are stationed here full-time to protect this place. The three of them should be enough to hold strong against any assault for a very long time, even if Yulan and the Major both enter the fight. In fact, even in this scenario, they would be enough to emerge victorious, considering I trained them myself.
So what happened, exactly?
Whatever battle took place here shouldn’t have concluded already…
I circle around, staying high enough in the sky that the mortals below won’t notice me. The facility is shielded from outside investigation, so I can’t see what’s happening inside, but I do know it’s still there. It hasn’t been ripped out of the ground or melted down to nothing or sucked into a singularity or anything like that.
That’s something, at least.
I quickly glance into the Planar Prison.
AK-A-13 is already gone.
She has escaped.
This is it. No more time.
I grit my teeth and let gravity bring me down from the sky.
With one more little burst of magic just before crashing into the ground, I lighten my landing –
– and I feel a small qi fluctuation appear around me.
I recognize it.
“Oh, you sons of bi–”
The world explodes all around me.