I loved the rain. The world always seemed so clean afterwards. As I watched the water level in the well rise, I didn’t like it all that much.
When I had fallen in, the well was dry and ten metres deep. When I had fallen in, I had broken my legs. Fractured the bones of my hands. Sighing with resignation, I lay down in the muddy water and let it slowly cover me.
From my perspective as I looked up, the falling raindrops seemed to converge to a point on the underbelly of the clouds. Sometimes, lightning flashed, painting the world white and silver. Thunder pealed. It continued to rain.
My hearing was the first to go, the water level rising above my ears and leaving me in a world of profound silence. No, the silence wasn’t complete. I could still hear the beat of my heart.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The gutsy organ was still trying its best to keep me alive despite my apathy. It brought a tear to my eye. It brought a tear to my eyes and opened the floodgates. I cried, I wept, I wailed, I cursed. Then, exhausted, I whimpered.
It rained harder. The murky waters covered my eyes. The ripples on its surface due to the falling raindrops filling my vision with static. My heart beat harder. It rained.
The waters covered my nose. I held my breath.
The waters rose and I could feel myself grow weightless as the air in my lungs helped me float. My long hair floated up around my face like a dark halo as I struggled to raise my head out of the water without my limbs.
My lungs burned. My body ached with the need to take a breath. My mind screamed against the instinct. My body won. Water flooded into my lungs, dowsing the pain, numbing it, filling me with a dull sense of weight. I sank. No longer held up by buoyancy, I drifted slowly down to the depths as a burst of bubbles trailed upwards from my open mouth, carrying my impotent scream upwards into the light.
The water grew murky. The light dimmed. My back touched the muddy bottom of the well and I thrashed, sending clouds of mud up into the water, darkening it further. The edges of my vision darkened as my consciousness faded.
Desperate, with the last of my breath, I screamed my plea towards the ever so distant surface of the water. Towards the light.
“Help me, someone. Please! I don’t want to die.”
The last thing I saw before the darkness claimed me was a gleaming spot of blue drifting down towards me through the water.
‘Maybe… just maybe, it was here to help.’
Isabella Chromis, the Demigod of the Waves, came awake with a start, shooting upright on her bed and throwing off her blanket. Moistened by cold sweat, the flimsy shift she was wearing stuck to her body, turning translucent and outlining her perfect curves.
‘That dream again,’ she thought bitterly.
Taking a few deep, calming breaths to settle her racing heart, she waved her hand across her body. As though heeding some call, the droplets of her sweat separated from the fabric and from her body, floating up and gathering into a small sphere of liquid that shimmered under the moonlight streaming in through the gap in the blinds.
The surface of the sphere began to boil as it shrank, the water vaporising into the atmosphere. Soon, no evidence remained of her night terror except the worried expression on her face.
Getting up from the bed, she walked over to the window, drew the curtains and threw the shutters open. The chill winter night breeze blew eagerly into the warm room, blowing the strands of her cascading midnight blue hair.
As she looked out over the brightly lit cityscape of the Wind Sector at night, she contemplated about her current state.
Immediately after dropping Mars and his wives off, she had travelled to the nearest Forbidden Zone: The Fourth Forbidden Zone – the Mines of the Central Province. While she was reluctant to practice soul magic on humans, she had no qualms experimenting on the mindless beasts that occupied the mines. She had learnt a lot from curing Mars’ soul and she wanted to immediately consolidate her goals.
Her practice had been very fruitful. Earlier, without a reference to compare to, she hadn’t been able to understand the difference between human and beast souls. But now, she could and her practice was all the more effective for it. By working on the mistakes, she had made during the operation, she had ensured that she wouldn’t make the same ones again. Although she couldn’t work on some of the aspects that relied on emotion and higher cognitive functions of the subject, she was much better at soul magic than she had been the week before. And that was all that counted.
But unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. This progress had come at a price. The nightmares, that had plagued her since her childhood and faded with age, had returned with a vengeance.
She had a pretty good idea as to what had caused them. When she was very young, barely more than twelve, she had fallen into an abandoned well and broken all her limbs in the fishing village she lived in. She had screamed herself hoarse but the well was quite a bit away from the village proper and her calls for help had gone unanswered.
To make matters worse, a storm had broken right at that time; the peals of thunder and the soughing of the winds drowning out her weakening screams further. There, lying at the bottom of the well, slowly being submerged by the water, she had fully expected to die.
When she had regained consciousness after being submerged by the water, she had discovered that all her broken bones had healed perfectly and that she could breathe underwater. The rain was particularly heavy and as the water level rose, she was able to rise to the surface and pull herself out of the well.
She had never mentioned the incident to anyone. She was an orphan and introverted. She cherished her secrets. But after the incident, she had gained the ability to breathe underwater (realizing later that it was nothing more than an application of Tier 1 water magic: Water Veil) and after she awoke to her magic, her progress was swift and violent. Whenever she tried to attempt any magic, she would have an odd sense of familiarity – like she had performed it thousands of times before.
Also, her nights would be plagued by nightmares. Mostly it was a recalling of the situation in the well. But sometimes, she would dream of another life. A life wholly different from the one she led now. She never could recall these dreams perfectly but the impression she took away from them was of a life of authority and power; the life of someone at the apex of the societal pyramid.
She knew now that she was the reincarnation of a Demigod. One who had reincarnated imperfectly, leaving her younger self’s soul intact and in charge of the body; only bestowing upon her an instinctive understanding of magic and a phenomenal growth curve.
After becoming a Demigod, Isabella had tried her best to find out who that mysterious Demigod was. After all, even if unintentionally, he or she had saved her life and bestowed her with such extreme talent. But all her efforts had run upon a wall.
No water attuned Demigod in Regiis had died in that timeframe and till this day, it was an unsolved mystery. The dreams had faded and she had relegated the matter to the back of her mind.
But now that the dreams were back and stronger than ever before, maybe she would be able to find some clue from within them.
Isabella shook her head. That was a matter for later. Drawing the blinds of the hotel room she was residing in temporarily, she turned her back on the window. Walking over to her travel case, she shed her shift and began to get dressed.
She had just returned from the Central Province and taken up residence in the Capital, using her magic to hide her identity from the hotel reception. It appeared that Mars and his wives had been quite busy in her absence. The entire Capital was abuzz with the news of his upcoming duel with the Princess scheduled for the following day.
She sighed. ‘Stupid politics.’
‘But,’ she mused, ‘there is an opportunity there for him if he can grasp it.’
Having finished dressing, her form wavered like a reflection on disturbed water and she vanished on the spot. It seemed like it was an appropriate time to pay her good friend, the Empress, a visit.
Isabella trailed her hand over the rough stone wall of the dark and narrow corridor as she made her way down it towards her destination.
A thin film of compressed water mana covered her, casting a mild blue light upon the walls and revealing the multicoloured flecks of crystals that glittered on them. The mana-film rippled as silent, invisible forces acted upon its surface; like a placid lake disturbed by a strong breeze. The wavering light only illuminated things in a small radius centred on her, leaving the rest of the passage dark.
Unlike her usual course of action when facing conditions of low visibility, Isabella strongly restrained her soul sense, because if she activated it here, her senses would be overwhelmed by the sheer density and turbulence of the ambient mana. It was this overabundance of active mana that had transformed the rock of the walls into elemental crystals over two millennia of constant washout. And without the film of water mana protecting her, even her enhanced Demigod physique wouldn’t last long within the vortex.
Reaching the end of the corridor, she found her way blocked by a heavy stone door, glittering with the same rough outgrowths of colourful crystals as the rest of the rock.
If the Capital was the heart of Regiis and the Imperial Palace was the heart of the Capital, then beyond this door was the very centre of the Palace – the core of the Grand Topology that encompassed the Capital.
Laying her palm flat on the heavy stone door, Isabella pushed and her mana surged in tandem with her, lending the strength of a crashing wave to her effort. With the deep rumble of stone grating against stone, the multi-tonne slab of rock sank into the wall, and with another grunt of effort, Isabella pushed it far enough to reveal a gap between it and the doorframe. Sliding through the gap quickly, she pushed the stone slab again and shut the door, sealing herself in.
Turning around, she took stock of the cavern she had entered. It hadn’t changed much – or at all – since the last time she had been here a couple of months ago. Massive stalactites of white, blue and light green crystal hung down from the domed ceiling of the cavern, while corresponding stalagmites of black, red and yellow crystal towered up from the ground. This was the absolute centre of the perpetual mana vortex of the Capital and over the years, the mana had condensed into these interlocking spurs of crystal.
Isabella weaved her way through this mildly glowing crystal forest; the mana turbulence and the size of the crystals reducing along the way. Until at the very centre the mana stilled entirely, like the wind within the eye of a storm, and the forest gave way to a clearing.
There, at the heart of the clearing floated a perfectly round sphere of transparent crystal ten times the size of a human head. Two figures, one woman and one girl sat facing each other on either side of it on two rush cushions. The crystal glowed with a harsh internal brilliance that cast stark shadows of the two figures on the floor of the clearing.
Even with her soul sense sealed, Isabella felt extremely uncomfortable bathed under that light. She could feel the substantive agglomeration of the soul force within the crystal – Vita’s Divine Will.
Earlier, Tier 5 peak mages at the end of their natural lifespans used to imitate the Elementals and forcibly absorb a huge amount of mana in order to try and break through to Demigod somehow. This was simply an unrestrained gamble with very low odds of success.
Less than one in ten thousand survived and even less were successful.
Then, a little more than two thousand years ago, Emperor Adam had become the first person to reach the level of Demigod through the use of contractual bonds – thus opening a new era of magic where reaching Tier 6 was a hundred times easier than before with a one in a hundred chance of success.
While this had given Emperor Adam a huge initial advantage in terms of military strength, in the later years of his reign, as the technique of Contracts spread and became widely accepted, the advantage reduced more and more. Also, Demigods were just too destructive. A war between two of them could ruin huge swathes of the environment. Destroying a city was just a day’s work for them.
Thus, he needed a deterrent, an assurance that even if some nation went crazy and set out its Demigods against Regiis, they would have an answer.
The answer was this floating sphere. It was a weapon of mass destruction created by siphoning off Vita’s Divine will from the ambient mana and condensing it within this specially created crystal that had exactly equal amounts of all six elements. The entire topology of the Capital was created to aid this process.
It required the constant attention of two extremely talented women – at least one of them married to a man she could pass the excess Divine Will off to – working in tandem to keep it stable. That was the duty of the Empress and the Empress dowager. That was the secret technique of Regiis. Only the Demigods and the Emperor knew this secret beyond the two women in question.
As though sensing her approach, the two women raised their hands in perfect synchronization and placed their palms on the surface of the crystal. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen, then the light slowly dimmed until it faded to a mild glow within the heart of the crystal.
Both the Empress and Princess Venus opened their eyes and fixed their gaze upon her in eerie tandem.
“Isabella,” they spoke in one voice, “well met.”
Suddenly, the Empress raised a hand and slapped herself, the sharp crack resounding in the silence of the cavern. She shook her head as though awakening from a dream. “I absolutely hate when that happens,” she muttered while rubbing her reddening cheek.
Princess Venus too seemed to have been thrust out of that strange melded condition by that slap and she rubbed her cheek too – most likely suffering from phantom pains.
Getting to her feet and smoothening down her skirt, the Empress greeted her with a smile. “Isabella! What brings you here? It’s been too long since we last met.”
The Empress had the bloodline of reindeers in her veins. She had taken after her father, the previous king, who was a member of the prestigious Rangifer family in the Northern Province. The current Head of the clan, the Empress’ cousin, was a Marquis while the previous Head, her uncle, had been the Duke. Her beautiful antlers, that had been polished to a shine, rose up from her layered white and brown hair, revealing her deer ears that were twitching with happiness. Her short tail was concealed beneath her velvet skirt. The Rangifers were famed for not only producing an Emperor from their line, but also for their dual affinities for Wind and Light, forming the Compound affinity of Speed.
“It’s only been two months, Celine,” said Isabella as she walked over to the woman and gave her a hug.
Patting her back, Empress Celine replied, “Yes. And that is much too long.” Releasing the Demigod from the hug, she pulled back while keeping a grip on Isabella’s shoulders. “It’s hard to find sensible people to talk to in the palace. I was counting the days till your return.”
Turning to Venus, she called the young girl over. “Come, greet your teacher.”
Approaching them, the Princess curtsied deeply to Isabella. “Greetings, teacher,” she said in a soft voice.
In Venus’ case, she hadn’t inherited the traits of either her father or her mother. Instead, her grandmother’s blood had skipped a generation and manifested in her. Pure white wolf ears peeked out of her messy white hair, with an underlying tint of pale green, and a bushy white wolf tail swayed behind her back. Her pale green eyes were extremely limpid – like pools of still water in a forest reflecting the overhanging canopy of leaves. She possessed the bloodline of the Wind Wolves, one of the hereditary noble clans.
This wasn’t strange as the current Lupin Demigod had served as the Emperor in his youth. He was her great grandfather.
The final winner of a Swayamvar was supposed to be the most talented man in the Empire. It was logical that some of the Emperors would reach the highest Tier of magic. In fact, four of the twelve hereditary families had risen when an Emperor had successfully promoted to Demigod. And another five had originated from the promotion of Empresses as well as the direct descendants of the Emperor. Only three of the families’ progenitors had no direct connection to the throne.
Beyond meeting up with her friend, Celine, and her pupil, Venus, Isabella had come here with a goal in mind. She came straight to the point. “Venus, when you were younger, you once snuck your sister in here, didn’t you?”
Without any fluctuation in her expression, the Second Princess replied serenely, “Yes, teacher.”
“I wanted to show off my new technique. I always idolized sister’s strength.” Still in that oddly calm voice, she continued, “I wanted her respect. At that time, I thought showing her I could do something she couldn’t was the way to earn it.”
Isabella shook her head inwardly. Contact with the core crystal was very taxing. Even though her mother carried most of the burden, Venus was too young and inexperienced. She would always end the session drained of all mood. And in this state of enforced placidness, she could talk about embarrassing things without compunction. Only to regret the words later.
She would have to slowly adapt to the pressure by increasing her cultivation base and by simply building up an immunity to it over time.
“How much did you tell her?” inquired Isabella.
“Up to the part concerning the extraction of Vita’s Divine Will,” said Venus. “That was all I knew then.”
The Empress butted into the conversation. “If you’re worried about my eldest daughter divulging anything, then please stop. She was made to swear an oath to that effect.”
“Although,” she relented, “Artemis did end up modifying that remnant technique into a contract with an inanimate object.”