Anxious energy pulses through my chest, pulling my step forwards as I race towards Sedena. After our brief discussion she’s remained in shadow and left the students to go their own way without harassment. Readying herself to face us, no doubt.
The threat that has been hanging over my shoulders for the last week has finally born fruit. I have no idea how this will end, but for now I finally feel a driving purpose stripping away all other thoughts and worries.
Eshya leads us through the ruins, a skip in her step as she gently caresses the hilt of her sword. She’s found strong foes to challenge herself over the last few weeks, but nothing so dangerous as this. Nothing that could ruin us so completely.
Sedena could but send a message to her associates and we’d lose any chance of returning to the academy above. Possibly even put the whole dungeon at risk if Arduelle’s concerns are genuine.
My heart pounds as the roiling fear inside of me finally has a direction and meaning. I’m not jumping at shadows, or half buried memories, Sedena is a real and immediate threat. An enemy to face, and a challenge to overcome.
"Are we going to be okay?" Vii asks, shivering a little as she follows along. Her eyes checking every corner nervously. "Can we beat her with just us? Maybe we should go get Red, or the twins…"
"We’ll be fine." I say, and Eshya nods back excitedly. "If it turns to a fight we’ll win. I’m more concerned about preventing it turning to violence."
A welfare officer seeing us with a bunch of strangers and beasts wouldn’t do us well. Though Adler being with us is hardly any better for us. It’s essentially giving away the secret that she’s free from the collars influence, but then again, perhaps we can use that to our advantage.
I push forwards, burying my concerns with thick flickering cold flames of wrath. Should she give me cause, I will eliminate her.
Adler and Vii watch our backs and Eshya and I lead through the dark ruins. Nel stayed behind in our little city, she’s never been a fighter and now that she’s pregnant none of us are willing to risk her life further.
Through the shadows and darkness, which too easily give way to us, the monsters fleeing from our hectic charge, as we head towards Sedena. The tension in my guts is building up, there’s a terrible risk that comes with this meeting, and I can’t screw it up.
"Left me waiting long enough." Sedena says, her cold smile rather charming in the darkness and the cold chill of the ruins. Like the light shining off of the fangs of a beast as it readies for a fight. There’s a fatal beauty to it, but not one which inspires affection.
"You didn’t really give us much time to prepare for you." I say, leaning against the wall and preparing a small annihilation spell. It’s nothing like what I used against Loekan but it’s easily enough to destroy her three times over. Her eyes flicker towards my chest where the magic is stirring, but her smile never fades.
"Thinking of attacking a welfare officer?" She asks. "I shouldn’t be surprised, you’ve already captured one of my kind."
Her eyes turn to Adler, who nervously shifts around under the inspection of her senior officer.
"What did you do to your collar?" Adler asks, stiffening and trying to stay strong. "None of what you’ve done should be possible. What you did to Alo, the person you slaughtered on that water planet, coming down here to harass students…"
"Ah… yes." Sedena slowly nods. "That issue… It seems to me that you have a rather pleasant solution of your own. Is that how you stole her to your side?" She asks me.
"How did you break your collar?" I ask firmly, watching her closely.
"My answer to the collar, isn’t anything worthy of praise at all." Sedena continues, hissing in frustration without breaking her smile. "The collar spreads itself through every piece of your flesh and mind. It taints everything that you are, except for your mana form. It can only reach into your mana form as deeply as you will allow it.
"I’m only free when using my mana to think, my body and physical mind are… well I work around them."
"And what do you get from explaining all of this so easily?" I ask, grumbling as I lean against the wall. I was expecting her to put up a fight, to cause trouble, to try and mess with us. Straight, simple answers, given freely were the last thing I ever expected in meeting with this murderer.
"Isn’t that obvious?" Sedena asks, smiling brighter than ever before. It’s unnerving to see. "You can do something more permanent with my collar, can’t you? You can help me, so why wouldn’t I be honest?
"We can posture and threaten, as with your magic. With my position I can ruin any chance of a life within the Unified States, even if it wouldn’t stop you from killing me. Since we have each other in such a bind, then there’s no point in fighting at all.
"You now know my problem, so let’s talk."
I grate my teeth. This is too easy.
Has she already contacted her peers? Is she trying to squeeze us for time so that they can get here and surround us?
No, I can’t see any movement anywhere within my expanded vision, and I don’t think she’s lying.
"What about the students you were following?" I ask, Eshya is still itching for a fight, while Vii watches our backs, and Adler considers the problem before us.
"My prey?" She asks. "We’re all beasts down here, so I don’t mind being honest with you. I was looking for something to play with. Something to kill to get my mind off of my own pitiful situation."
"You were going to kill them?" I ask. It’s what I was suspecting, but it’s just too ridiculous that she’s answering so honestly even now.
"I was going to make them suffer and then kill them, yes." Sedena says, nodding to my question. "You’ve killed before too, right? That’s what you do down here in the ruins where the welfare officers don’t deign to look. This is a place for us beasts to be ourselves."
"And you want me to take off your collar so you can murder more freely?" I ask, gritting my teeth as a pressure builds up in my mind. I thought this would turn to threats and violence, maybe even beating her up a little. I never thought that she’d come to us with a deal of her own, let alone one so… strange.
"I want to be free from my collar, and I’m willing to make a deal with you to make it happen." She says, affirming my suspicions. "What do you want? I can kill people for you if you’d like. You can have me do whatever you please, I can dance like a puppet to your will, just rid me of this damn collar."
Her face trembles and the stone cracks as she speaks, a madness glowing in her stone eyes, and through her smiling lips as she refuses to look away from me.
"Why are you so concerned with the collar, if you’d just make yourself into my slave getting rid of it?" I ask, refusing to show any fear in the face of her twisted visage.
She chuckles, the sound a disturbing twisted thing.
"You haven’t truly worn a collar, have you?" She asks, leaning forwards. "Your own mind bent, corrupted, stolen from you, to such a point that you can’t even be yourself anymore. Made into a tool for a supposed ‘greater purpose’, so that we can have this distorted, unhealthy peace."
"Yes, I would beg and bow to be free of this thing. To finally be myself again." She seethes with every breath. "I will be anything you want of me, so long as I can have my mind back."
"You seem perfectly able to work around it…" I say, peering closer at her as she shivers slightly at my words.
"With the right treatment, you can live your live with a sword thrust through your chest. It does not make for comfortable living." She says, closing her eyes and trying to regain her calm.
"How do I know you won’t just stab us in the back the first moment you can?" I ask.
"We’re beasts, young Kyra, that’s all we are. You already know my strength is limited. I can’t kill you, even with every advantage on my side, the best I can achieve is getting the other officers to hunt you down and even then you’d probably kill me." She says. "Beasts survive by avoiding stronger beasts, or by bowing to them. You are stronger than me, and from your rate of growth, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever catch up. I’m not going to act against you."
"I need some assurances." I say, rubbing at my head. "If I free you and you get found out, or you run away, or get killed…"
"Then there’ll be trouble." Sedena says, nodding firmly. "I promise that if you should set me free, I won’t cause you trouble. I won’t hunt anyone near to you, and I won’t get caught."
"So, you’re still going to go around killing and capturing innocent students?" I ask, rubbing at the side of my head.
"I am but a beast. It is my nature." She says, nodding slowly. "If you… demand that I restrain myself, then I will try."
"Why are you so…!" I turn around and barely stop myself from hitting the wall. Flaring rage burns through my guts as she lowers her head to me, subservient.
She’s supposed to be an enemy. A threat. Someone that’ll give me a proper challenge to overcome, instead she’s begging for my help.
My guts are twisted up in frustration as I sneer up at her.
"I won’t have you killing anyone while you’re here." I say firmly.
She growls a little, leaking some cerulean liquid from the cracks running through her face.
"Can I hunt the mindless beasts at least. You shouldn’t care too much about the things in these ruins, the things that these students hunt. Allow me that much, at least." She begs, her face still twisted into a smile.
"Fine, but there are some smart beasts working for me in the cavern below, sometimes coming into these ruins." I say. "Only hunt the violent beasts, and if I tell you to desist, then you will."
She nods, not exactly happy, but determined, nonetheless.
"Then you’ll rid me of this collar?"
"Just…" I rub at my head. "Give me a moment to discuss your offer."
"Can any of you see an issue from this?"
"Freeing a crazed murder, and trusting that she’s not going to try and murder us, or other innocent people?" Vii asks, her talons tapping nervously on the stone floor.
"She’s been hunting while working with the Unified States." Eshya points out. "We can trust that she’s smart enough not to be caught, and not to piss off the wrong people. I think she’ll be fine if we free her."
"She’ll kill innocent people." Adler says. "If not today, or tomorrow, eventually. It’ll be because of this choice. It’ll be our fault."
"Can you think of a better idea?" I ask, genuinely hoping for an answer. "I’d just kill her, but that isn’t an option until Arduelle says otherwise."
"The deal is good." Eshya argues.
"I just hate that she’s the one offering it." I reply. "I hate that she’s leading us to this conclusion. It’s like she’s trying to manipulate us, but she does sound as if she’s serious about playing by the rules we set down."
"We could promise to free her, and keep stringing her along until we’ve left this place behind." Nel suggests, from back in the capital, watching us through Skills. "It would deal with Adler’s concerns of her murdering people because of us, and it would likely prevent her from acting against us in the meantime. We are her only option as far as I’m aware."
"It would also inspire her to act against us." I say. "She could take people hostage using her influence with the welfare officers, and try to pressure us into helping her. I have no doubt that she’s already working on ways to screw us, but if we pull off her collar, she has no reason to work against us at least. We’d become a dangerous threat, not worth the trouble we’d cause."
Thinking about the situation carefully, Sedena’s offer is about the best that we can really expect. I can keep a watch over her, and while she’s bound to try and stretch the limits of my good will, she’ll likely keep from hurting me and mine to a degree.
"We’re not giving her a new support device, are we?" Vii asks, nervously meeting my eyes. "If we give her an old support device, we could give her a new collar. One that we can program with whatever rules we like. Like ‘don’t kill people’ or something."
"It’s not like it’s going to do anything to restrain her that her current collar isn’t already failing to do. Then again, maybe we can do something with it... the bombs we developed, maybe…"
"I can’t trust you, not yet." I say to Sedena standing up straight and meeting her eyes. "But your main issue with the collar is that it twists your own thoughts, no? So, if I remove your current collar and replace it with another, that won’t restrain your thoughts. Then, would that be agreeable?"
Sedena shivers, looking down at the ground as she thinks. While she stands still, the split stone parts of her body grate against one another, grinding down as she bleeds that strange blue liquid. I still need to learn what sort of being she is. I’d suspect a golem, a creature created by intelligent design, much like our own training machine Barry, but I haven’t seen anything the like in the modern Unified States.
"You will not restrain my thoughts?" She asks, but the growl in her voice is closer to a threat. "Then it’ll be trapped to kill me if I misbehave, won’t it…? You’ll free me of this collar too when I’ve earned your trust?"
"Yes." I nod to both her questions. Hearing her frustration makes me somewhat more confident in this decision. Then again, I swear I’ve heard somewhere that the best way to manipulate a person ends with them thinking that the ideas planted in them are completely their own.
Still, it feels like the issue is coming to a resolution. I still don’t like the use of collars, especially explosive collars, but in this instance with a self-professed killer, I have no better idea.
"I will accept with gratitude, then." Sedena says, the grinding of her flesh slowly easing as she settles into the decision.
"Come with us, then." I say. "We need to get some things ready."
Over the past week, as I’ve been slowly transitioning my people’s support devices over to the newer model, I’ve managed to develop a few more tricks. I can now copy over the full profile of the support devices, so that all contacts and Skills are properly maintained.
That’ll be necessary in this case, but more than that I’ll need to talk with Adler to set up appropriate rules for Sedena that will hopefully fit within proper moral boundaries without pushing her into a corner and having her turn against us.
Thinking about these problems, my attention returns to the shadows around us, they seem alive with movement. Conspirators unseen, and hunters watching for a moment of weakness. Meanwhile, the murderer at my back is likely planning some way to free herself from me, perhaps even planning to kill me. Even worse are the flashes of memories that come to life in the darkness.
I need something to focus on, a plan that’s not so simple and broad as simply building up my city. I need a future to focus on and some place to put these anxious energies.
"I need a moment with you all when we get back and finish with Sedena." I say, taking a deep breath and focusing my mind away from the distractions. "I have some thoughts about what we need to do next."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Skills & Stats
Current mana density: 19262 units
Mana sense: 20/100%
-Tag and Film
-Mana surge movement
-Annihilation flame burst
-Eyes of an Empire
-Quick perception mind
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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