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I felt that we needed to keep trying. Ko’s idea was plausible. Sitting around and acting helpless was the worst. If there was anything I could do to improve the situation, I would take the chance.
“I think this can work. It really sounds like it can work!”
“Huh?” Ko coughed and stood up straighter. “I mean, of course. I might not know a whole lot of magic, but I definitely know what I know, so it should be obvious that…”
I rummaged around in Ko’s messenger bag, looking through the items she brought while she went on with her grandstanding. The bag was stuffed to the brim with magical items. Some of them, like the filter mask, were familiar to me. I could vaguely ascertain what the other items were supposed to do, as well. Ko had light grenades, magic reflectors, auto-correcting maps, and all sorts of other potentially useful gear on her.
Two strong hands jerked me upright. “What do you think you’re doing, Kid?”
“I was looking at what you brought.”
“Geez, aren’t you the sort to ask politely first?”
“I’m learning from you!”
“Little brat!” I rolled away from the scary demon and jumped my feet. Ko lunged again but lost her balance when the liquid metal golem under her feet began to ripple. I laughed and made sure to keep my distance from the red-haired demon whose eyes promised painful retribution.
Ko gave up her chase soon enough. “Seriously though, what were you looking for?”
I poked at the now empty spirit container. “Did you bring any more of these jars?”
“Nope, I only have the one. Why?”
“We need more if we’re figuring things out.”
“Figuring things out?”
“Experiments!” I waved my arms outwards, showing Ko just how much I planned to do. “We need a whole bunch at once so we don’t run around all day.”
“Oh, I getcha.” My friend crossed her arms in thought. She shrugged after a few seconds and offered her solution. “Well, I assume mother has more, so we can always ask her.”
Ko blinked at my shout. “You okay there?”
I had to calm down. Ko’s suggestion had thrown me for a loop, but it wasn’t something to get worked up over. “Yes. I mean, no, we don’t need to bother the goddess about any of this.”
My friend peered at me, one eye widened with suspicion. “You sure? Telling everybody else might not be too smart, but she’s pretty powerful herself. At the very least, I know she has more of these jars.”
“No. Shinki doesn’t need to know right now.” The resolve in my voice surprised me. It was only a short while ago I was debating with myself whether or not to tell the goddess.
Perhaps it was because I didn’t feel helpless. Ko had given me a way out, a method of taking the initiative. Running back to Shinki after finding out I might be able to solve the issue myself was distasteful. Why be a kid running to mom for help when I could be a grown-up for once?
My friend shrugged in acceptance. “Okay, fine, your call. If that’s the case, though, I don’t know anybody who has spirit-catching gear off the top of my head.”
Examining the black jar again, my mind began to draw out designs. “Well, I can just make my own, right?”
“I think so.” The container didn’t seem complicated. The material probably didn’t matter too much, and the enchantments were similar enough to what I was learning. Making them in bulk probably wouldn’t be much more difficult. There wasn’t much precision work to be had in a jar.
I concentrated on my senses and probed through the earth, carefully drawing metals out of the ground. With an abundance of mostly aluminum on hand, there wasn’t a problem forming a dozen rough jars and shoddy lids. An invisible glow accompanied my craftsmanship as I etched enchantments into the jars. Preventing a spirit from escaping was relatively simple; it was a matter of adding another layer to the jar, one which could interact with an incorporeal spirit.
“There!” I flourished my finger on the last line of the last enchantment. My creations were neatly lined up in the order I created them, the jars perfectly serviceable.
“Huh.” Ko picked a jar up and tossed it around. A pang of worry accompanied every catch. The jars were thinly made, and the metal wasn’t exactly hardened to any significant degree. Any demon could probably crumple my creations with their fingertips. Luckily, Ko was careful with her strength after getting a feel for the jars. “Only one way to find out if they work, right?”
The two of us rose into the air and began to fly around. I had my strong magical sense and Ko had her mask to identify any free-flying spirits.
Thus began my first great spirit hunt.
“Wait Ko! Be careful of the-”
“Bwarraaagh! Yuck, when did this crap get here?”
“-web. Can you see normal things through that mask?”
“Nope. Why? What’s there to see- Spider! Kill it! Kill it kill it kill it!”
“S-Stop m-moving Ko! I can’t blast it!”
“Nooo! Don’t hit it with my jar!”
The world had seen more elegant hunts, I was sure. Our attempt was actually rather pathetic. Nevertheless, all the jars (after some restoration work) were filled within a few hours of effort.
Ko fell onto her back and spread out on the soft Makai dirt. “Whew, I’m beat. Why did I have to do all the chasing? Couldn’t you have pulled a spirit out of your hat or something?”
“I got half of them!” It was much simpler grabbing spirits with magic than trying to catch them in a jar. If anything, I was surprised at how many spirits Ko could snatch before me.
Ko waved me away from where she was laying. “Fine, fine. Go on with whatever tests you’re going to do. I’ll just lie down right here, out of the way.”
I sat down in the dirt far away from my resting friend, but still within eyeshot. I set out the jars around me and thought about what to do. “Hm. Well, the first thing in experiments is safety! Right Luminita?”
My doll nodded in agreement and cupped her eyes with her fingers.
“Um, actually, I think I’m fine. It’s only one little spirit.” The doll smacked me and crossed her arms. “But I don’t have any glasses!” Last time I had tried to make glass had ended rather spectacularly – in the explosive kind of way. It was safer not trying to make safety glasses or anything of the sort.
Luminita smacked her forehead and flicked her hand. Disappointed, but willing to let me continue.
“Then I guess we start, right?” After unscrewing the lid of the nearest jar, the spirit trapped inside rushed into the sky.
“Hey, you can’t go!” I lashed out with my mind, roping my magic around like a lasso and catching the spirit by its wispy tail. I dragged the head-sized cloud back down and grabbed it. “Sorry, but I need you. You don’t mind, do you? I mean, you’re already kind of dead.”
The spirit wiggled in my magic-coated grip. Was that an okay? Maybe not. But, I thought, if I left him alone he would just float around or do bad things. This way he can do something good, so I’m helping him! Sort of…
“Okay, so next I need data!” It was an excellent idea, befitting of the scientific method my parents had taught me. Yet, there was a problem. “Uh…Luminita, do you know how to measure a spirit?”
My doll shook her head and gesticulated as best she could. “Well, I guess we could try that.”
What followed was the highly scientific measuring of the spirit. Without a notebook, I created thin sheets of metal and carved my observations into the metal. My findings, from ‘Kind of big’ to ‘Not much magic to hold’ were recorded in meticulous detail. Then there were the mix of colors I saw in it and flow of the energy inside the cloud-like form. After finishing, I was comfortable in my ability to identify the spirit amongst a host of others.
“Then we experiment!” Despite my exclamation, I noticed an anomaly which put the trials on hold. “Oh, wait. Does it look smaller to you?”
While I re-measured the spirit to my stringent standards, I wondered. The ‘soul stealing’ was something I did, according to Erk’s theory. It was unconscious and natural, no different than breathing if the magician was to be believed. My body regulated its health on its own, which included the maintenance of my soul. After all, changes in the soul resulted in changes in the body. I was never sick like Yuki or Erk, and luck was always on my side compared to Ko. That meant, among other things, that my soul was always in good condition. Always.
Yet, Erk’s theory about me still wasn’t fact, even if we were treating it as such. There wasn’t proof of anything. There was, at best, circumstantial evidence based on what we knew of souls.
“But, if it’s like breathing, then I should be able to stop it,” I whispered to myself.
A simple test. Was Erk correct? Was the spirit in my hand ever so slowly disappearing because of me?
I closed my eyes and imagined it. I imagined my soul, my body, my magic. I imagined the subtle flow of energy, wrapping around those near me and tugging.
If it was my magic, then I should be able to control it.
Everyone, from Yuki and Erk to Sara, stressed control. Control over my magic. Control over my emotions. Control over my body. Control was necessary for anything skillful.
I ground my teeth in frustration when I couldn’t feel anything. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that I could manipulate. Was it because there was truly nothing, or was I too weak? Why couldn’t I understand?
Understand. Why did I care about understanding? Understanding could come after. Understanding wasn’t important when I was just trying to get something to happen.
The possibility of Erk’s theory being true, that I could suffer if I stopped myself, was terrifying. It was scary to imagine I was the one causing others difficulty.
But letting that fear stop me would be stupid. It would be dumb and horrible and not help anybody.
How simple. If I was going to get anywhere, I needed to be serious.
All I wanted was for the soul stealing to-
Shock. Rolling pain in my stomach, throbbing aches in my head. My arms tingled, my legs shook, and my back groaned in weariness. I was drowning ever so slowly, slipping underneath the surface and into the darkness. A slow suffocation. My chest tightened. The world was dipping, threatening. It was scary, terrifying, absolutely-
I gasped for breath and squeezed my eyes shut. Metabble was hugging my legs in a warm embrace and Luminita was rubbing my arm in comfort.
The mild panic attack passed after a few minutes and left me feeling distinctly empty.
Was it supposed to be that simple?
I gazed down at the spirit in my hand and held it up. It looked different. It was the same as before, but changed in my eyes. I draped Luminita over my arm temporarily and reached up with my hand.
It felt like I could just pinch it.
I flinched when a piece of the spirit came away with my fingers.
The cloud-like spirit part rested easily in my palm, unanimated after being separated from the main body.
It looked like a fluff of cotton candy, no larger than my pinky.
Slowly, I raised my hand with the part of soul. The shake to my hand was barely noticeable, but it was there. Why? I shouldn’t have been nervous.
I didn’t know how it was supposed to work, but I thought I knew how it should. It was all magic, in the end, something I could accomplish without any training whatsoever. I needed to think about it less, to act more.
I popped the torn off part of the spirit into my mouth and swallowed.
It was warm and satisfying, like a hot cup of cocoa after spending all day in the freezing darkness of winter. It was a handful of cool oasis water in the middle of the desert, a heavenly treat that could satisfy my body’s craving.
It was so simple. The wriggling spirit in my hand could easily fill me up if I just used it.
“No!” I cried and stumbled backwards, accidentally letting go of the spirit. I watched the soul fly away with a pang of not-quite-hunger.
“I can’t just…I can’t just…eat, them. I- I need to, uh, run tests. Yeah.” I ignored the subtle feeling of wrongness and moved on. The mental slap was just what I needed to stay focused. I opened the next jar and kept the spirit more than an arm’s length away.
I worked against the temptation and moderated myself, slowly figuring out the extent of my capabilities. I spent hours rearranging the jars and spirits in dozens of exhaustive tests.
Although physical movements made it easier, drawing the spirits into me from a distance was doable. I couldn’t figure out a hard limit on my effective range, although it was easier if I could see the spirit in question. Consciously affecting multiple spirits at a time was difficult but unconsciously, I found that the spirits closest to me changed the most over the course of an hour.
Over time, I grew distracted. I thought it was just a feeling at first, the hunger-like desire to use up the spirits. The urge grew stronger and stronger, forcing me to regularly stop and breathe in order to calm myself.
After a few of hours of experiments, of denying my urges, I was floundering. My arms were heavy weights when I tried to move them and my eyes were watering. Sweat dribbled down my forehead and my throat itched. I sneezed and coughed and felt miserable, as sluggish as when I broke out in fevers and had to rest in bed while Momma fed me soup. It wasn’t anything as serious as sickness, but the beginnings of the symptoms were still distracting.
My productivity ground to a halt. I was staring at the spirits more than I was experimenting. I couldn’t move my eyes from the alluring clouds of purple and grey. They wiggled and teased me while I coughed and tried to work.
Before I could stop myself, I reached out to the nearest spirit and shoved it into my mouth. The rush of pleasure enveloped my body. It was a wholesome feeling, like all was right with the world, similar to the gentle euphoria I felt when Yuki first picked me up at Makai’s entrance.
Then I vomited.
Drained, filled, stuffy-nosed, sick, getting better, and splattered with little bits of vomit. Overall, the experiments went swell, ignoring a few minor issues.
“Yuck,” I complained, and cleaned myself up with magic. “Now I’m hungry…”
All too aware of my actual hunger-pangs, I tried to remember the last time I had eaten. Sighing, I sluggishly corralled the spirits back into the containers. Any further experimenting would be useless if I couldn’t concentrate.
“Where’d Ko go?” I couldn’t see my friend where she had been laying. Did she run away? Was she attacked? Did she get bored and wander off?
I tried to muster the energy to fly up and look for her, but the symptoms of sickness and lingering nausea kept me down. I waited around for half an hour, over which my maladies dissipated.
Just as I was getting ready to search for Ko, my friend came flying back. “Yahoo, Alice! How’s it going? Hold on, don’t answer that. Why do you look so pale? Did something happen?”
“Not really. Just experiments.”
“Uh-huh. So that vomit on the ground over there is just another experiment?”
“Well, uh, that’s just…learning.”
“Learning? What in the goddess’ name would you learn from that?”
I gave Ko a quick summary of what I found out about myself. I came to believe that any large change in my soul could be a problem. Losing parts of my soul left me sick, but a sudden increase didn’t help keep me stable, either. Small increments, positive or negative, were probably safest.
I kept my report strictly objective in regards to my abilities and condition. I didn’t give Ko any hint about the feelings, the emotions, involved. Every time I thought of the joy that eating the spirits gave me, I started to blush and stammer. I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or disgusted on that.
“At least you learned something from all that nonsense. Still, you have to be more careful Alice. Don’t risk yourself too much, you hear?”
“I didn’t! I was-”
Ko messed up my hair and laughed. “Very responsible. Yeah, you did good Alice. Now take a break so we can eat.”
I grumbled and fixed my ribbon. “What is that?”
My friend raised her hands. She held a jug in one hand and a cloth-wrapped bundle in another. “Water from a spring over there and some digester meat.”
The red-head dropped what she was carrying onto the ground. The cloth bundle flapped open, revealing a bloody mess of raw meat. “A ‘digester’ is…this?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of like a chicken, with a long tail. Except it doesn’t have feathers. And it sprays acid. I guess it’s actually more like a velociraptor, if velociraptors didn’t have arms. And sprayed acid.” Ko’s explanation slowed as she went on until she paused completely. She kicked the meat with the toe of her shoe. “Was the goddess drunk when she made these things? This is actually pretty stupid. Anyway, as long as you take the meat from the flanks and cook it well enough, there isn’t any danger. Can you make a grill or something?”
“Well, yeah. I don’t have any camping supplies with me to cook the sucker, but you’re magic. Should be better than any multi-tool.”
“Thanks?” It was sort of compliment. I didn’t really like being a human matchstick, but it was nice being useful, if nothing else.
I worked on creating a cooking device next to my jars of spirits. It didn’t deserve to be compared to a grill. It was a metal grate suspended over a dug-out pit, with a fireball placed inside for heat.
Ko cooked the meats in short order, stabbing the hunks with a what looked like a fire iron to flip them. Once the demon was finished cooking I dispelled the fire. Ko sliced the digester steaks into thin strips with her knife and popped the food into her mouth.
It looked normal enough, I supposed. With a bit of hesitance, I lifted a strip of meat with my magic and chewed it slowly.
The rich flavor surprised me. “Wow, this is good!”
“Of course it is,” Ko agreed between mouthfuls of food. “All the things a digester hunts and dissolves end up giving it a wonderful flavor.”
“Hunts? It’s a predator?”
“Yeah, but it’s pretty dumb. It just lies around, so if you come at it from above, there isn’t a problem. One of the others managed to spit a little on my shoes, but once I hauled the body high enough I was fine.”
“There were others? Like, three others?”
“Well, yeah. Some of them are solitary, but it’s easier to find the packs. Why?” I pointed behind Ko at the two-legged, spindly chicken-dinosaur-monster things stalking towards us. They were huge; taller than me by a few heads and as long as if Ko and I laid down head to foot.
Ko turned her head and looked. “Oh. I see. Let’s go!”
We were up in an instant. Ko dragged me into the air, just in time to avoid a jet of green acid splattering all over our half-finished food.
I shouted at my friend in protest. “Wait, Ko, my things are still down there! What if they step on my notes or the spirit jars? I worked hard on those!” I watched the digesters below us stomp around their fallen and cooked friend. They looked like they were slurping up their acid and presumably our meal, but in the process their tails swatted aside my stack of jars.
Their clawed feet looked sharp! One step would be all they needed to crush my notes into illegibility or crack open a jar. I threw off Ko’s hand and dived back downwards.
“Whoa, Alice, come back here!” I ignored the demon and focused.
With a quick mental flick, I moved Metabble into action. The liquid metal golem surged from where it was innocuously waiting. My golem exploded and rained back down, falling onto one of the digesters like a tidal wave. The creature was swept away and completely covered, entrapped in crushing metal.
The two other digesters reacted, spewing acid at Metabble. My anti-corrosion warding proved effective enough, causing the green acid jets to flow harmlessly on top of Metabble and fail to help the monster underneath the suffocating metal blanket.
I shouted at the monsters and threw my hand forward, Luminita copying my action. Around us, a dozen metal poles sharpened to a point shimmered into existence. I launched them at the digesters, the make-shift spears plunging into the ground and lodging into skin.
The pincushioned creatures gurgled in raged and turned their heads upwards. I squeaked, threw up a force shield, and changed direction to protect myself from the gouts of acid.
My retaliation was quick, a splash of elemental energies raining down on the digesters. Fireballs, lightning bolts, icy shards, and sharp winds exploded from my hand like dazzling fireworks. The elemental display dissuaded any more acid attacks and let me land on the ground without contest. I drew the attention of the creatures away from my precious work with another spray of magic bullets.
Acid attacks were easily thwarted by my shields. The razor sharp claws of the digesters were another matter.
“Waah, get away!” I rolled to the side, dodging the first digester that had leapt at me. I quickly rose to my feet, completely on balance and ready to meet the charge of the second digester. The monster towered over me, but I pulled a pillar of rock and metal out of the ground and launched the digester into the air. I threw a few molten metal orbs at the creature for good measure and scurried away from the landing zone.
The last digester gurgled at me and lunged a second time. I brought a metal shield into my hands and hunkered down, ready to deflect the digester over my head.
The impact never came. I peeked over the shield in time to see the digester slammed into the earth by a speeding demon. Ko crushed the monster underneath her heel and thrust her knife into the monster’s head. The always sharp blade slid through the skull like butter.
I dismissed my shield and ran over to where my supplies were gathered. Although a bit dented, my spirit jars and sheet notes were safe. “Thank goodness.”
“Good show, Alice. You’ve really gotten a lot stronger since we first met.” Ko slapped my shoulder and laughed.
“Eheheh. I know a whole lot more, too!” I basked in my friend’s praise.
Metabble slid over to me, its grisly work finished. I shook my head at the golem and manipulated it with magic, cleaning it out and making it look immaculate. I glanced over at the digesters, from our now dissolved meal to the others that lay crushed on the ground. I felt kind of bad for them, but it was hard to pity the dumb animals if they would eat their own pack members and me, too.
Ko hopped from foot to foot next to me. She tossed her knife into the air, then caught and sheathed it in one smooth motion. “Man, now I’m all fired up. Let’s fly around some, Alice, and work off all that fat.”
“What fat? I’m not fat!”
“Yeah you are. It shows in how slow you are!”
“No way! I’m not!”
“If you weren’t, then you could catch me, right?”
After a quick order to Metabble to not let anything touch my stuff, I flew after my teasing friend. We sped around Makai for another few hours and simply had fun. We chased each other around and stopped at all the interesting sights, like the lake of pudding in the upside down forest. We also decided to refill my empty spirit jars after stopping back for a drink.
Despite everything, I was feeling better than ever. The symptoms of sickness from my experimentation had disappeared in the hours since they appeared. The excitement of the day, of the fighting and exploring, was driving me forward and keeping me alert.
Eventually, the abundance of energy wore off. Ko and I were resting after poking around a ditch filled with explosive slimes when I yawned.
“Feeling tired? Let’s head home then.” Ko offered me a sheet of cloth and some rope to help pack up my things. We carried the unwieldy bundle between the two of us and floated back towards the city. “We’ve been out here awhile. Sorry about that, Alice.”
“It’s okay. I had a lot of fun! I hope Sara won’t be mad at me for ditching her. Or the school. Or Erk. Uh, is it dinner time already?”
“Almost, I guess. Where we headed, Alice?”
“I think my room. I need to put this all somewhere.”
Our flight back to Pandemonium was relaxing. With my control over magic, the bits of Makai that used to be deadly to me were minor annoyances. There weren’t any problems. I wasn’t getting sick, and Ko didn’t suffer any surprising accidents. It was wonderfully peaceful.
As soon as we landed at Pandemonium, I rushed forward and dragged Ko along with me.
“Whoa, what’s the rush, Alice?”
“We got to get all this to my room!” Luckily, we did not run into any of Pandemonium’s inhabitants in the short trek. I was able to carefully stash my notes and all but one of the spirit jars away for safekeeping.
I held the last jar in my hand and stared at it. If I could force my body to use up the soul in the jar as opposed to those of my family, I would make that trade in a heartbeat.
The question was, where could I keep it? If I held onto it myself, I would never have any free hands. In the end, I dumped the jar onto the ground and let Metabble carry it. I hoped that nobody would step on it until I could figure out a better solution.
“Oh, ‘sup Miss Maid. How’s it going?”
When I turned to look at the doorway, I found Yumeko standing in the hallway and Ko leaning against the doorframe.
“Ko, Alice, welcome back. I have already begun dinner preparations, if you care to join us.”
“Great, more food!” Ko cheered and stepped past the maid.
I smiled and went with the two of them. Yumeko led us to a dining hall, where I was surprised to see Sara seated at the table alongside the goddess.
“Hey Sis! How you doing?” Sara jumped out of her chair and bounded over to me.
“That’s great! You were having fun with Sis, right?”
“You know it!” Ko slung an arm around my shoulder. “Alice was showing me her new skills. You’re doing a good job training her.”
The gatekeeper turned to me and wagged her finger. “Well, I can’t do that if she doesn’t show up in the morning.”
I frowned, even if Sara was just teasing me. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Are you joining me tomorrow, though?”
“Aren’t we heading back out again tomorrow, Alice?”
I looked between Ko and Sara. I was so caught up in the day that I had given little thought about what I wanted to do later.
I planned on…
[ ] Relaxing more. Things were looking up, and I could enjoy myself without endangering anybody else.
[ ] Heading out with Ko more often. Experimenting on my own and learning about my condition was most important.
[ ] Meeting with Makai’s magicians and witches more. Learning more magic from others would help me the most.
[ ] Reading in the libraries more often. I needed all the knowledge, mundane and magical, that I could get.
[ ] Training myself into peak condition. Neglecting my body was the worst decision I could make.
To be clear, this is a ‘where to focus for possibly the next few months’ vote, not a ‘next day shenanigans’ one.
I hope you’re doing better man, and that my silly stories can provide you with a bit of stress relief- well, maybe not that. Enjoyment? Unless you like to read about suffering…hmm…waste your time? Yeah, that sounds about right. Live well and waste your time by voting in my stories!