If something seems impossible, it is because you lack the imagination to see possibilities. You are like a thief trying to break open the door while the window is wide open. Use your brain, idiot.
~Ogma, God of Eloquence and Inspiration
Otto carried him home, but some of it was a blur. Luthais was there initially and after performing a few heals and setting some bones, he gave Crow a few pills to numb the pain. Most pills at the Arena required the cultivator to use their Source to activate—something Crow couldn’t do. It was to where the Druid Council fought over allowing the fights to continue. It was one thing if the contender was weak, but something entirely different if they couldn’t even use their Source to heal themselves.
Crow’s face was a mess, his clothes torn and exposing nasty gashes and abrasions, and he was slung over Otto’s shoulder. The residents of Oiche missed none of this as Otto walked through town. Luthais’ medicine left Crow a little loopy, so he barely understood the taunts and jeers leveled at him. It didn’t matter. If he had been sober, he’d have ignored them anyway.
“Bahaha!” Munro laughed upon stepping out of the Night Sky Restaurant. “The trash of clan Maddox can’t even walk.”
“W-why you always here? Eating. Pigs. Eat food, pigs. You eat food. You’re a pig. No, I mean you always eat, pigs eating here.” Crow tried to curse the restaurant, and to him, his ravings sounded terrific. If it wasn’t for his memory, he’d probably believe every word he uttered was the most fantastic utterance. However, reality sobered him up a little.
Esme was nearby, but instead of her usual haughty look, she appeared cautious. Crow didn’t realize that she suffered of late, and in public, she heard people whispering ‘Whore of Teonet.’ It was that comment that harmed her more than the curse itself. She wasn’t the same person she was ten days ago, and she wanted nothing more than to jam her rapier into’s Crow’s eye socket. However, fear was now her constant companion, and fear kept her away from her ex-fiance.
Otto chuckled at Munro’s attempt at provocation and Crow’s nonsense. While he’d have liked to have said something, the moment he tried to think of anything to say, his brain turned sluggish. Instead, he walked past the restaurant and the jeering monkey named Munro.
Between the time Crow spoke and Otto left Munro behind, Crow’s eyes glazed over. His perspective of the world, hanging over the back of Otto’s shoulders, differed vastly from walking on his own two feet. Add in the weird drugs Luthais gave him, and he reached half-stage enlightenment. The medicine in his body wouldn’t let his clarity last long. Still, the upside-down world showed him how little we emphasize the eyes during cultivation.
Not that eyesight didn’t improve with the body, but Crow knew of very few spells or techniques that aided physical sight. Even the ones he knew of were more focused on mental attacks. Seers and Scryers had their own methods of doing things, but that was a metaphysical sight enhancement. Faster than any mind had a right to process information, Crow evaluated how people see things. Concepts of focusing and unfocusing sight. How a person could see in dark places by detecting movement out of the corner of their eyes.
Ultimately, human eyes default to a reliance on light, but some beasts rely on heat. Bending light allows magnification, which could be helpful with Scholarly Talents. The temptation in this theorizing was to see if a method could be developed that allowed the eyes to rely on more than just light.
Looking at the upside-down world, Crow knew nothing had changed, just the way he saw it. A small door opened in his mind giving him a hint at developing a way to improve what he could see. However, his thoughts slowed down, and the effect of the drugs took over once more. He held onto that door, refusing to let it slip away, but any further insights would need to wait another day.
“Oi, I’m talking to you, trash. How come you haven’t accepted my challenge?” Munro asked, but Crow’s eyes didn’t focus on him, nor did he acknowledge anything that was said. “Hey, idiot! What’s wrong with him?”
“Arena fight. Pills. Move, toy-thing,” Otto said the moment Munro rushed in front of him.
“You tell him. He can’t hide behind his giant forever. I expect a response to my official challenge by tomorrow.”
“Line. You last. Weakling. Coward. Brother stronger. He not afraid. Brother lose. Otto fight. You lose. Otto break toy-things,” he laughed at Munro’s pale face. The more intelligent people in the crowd recognized Otto’s threat and challenge. Anyone that challenged Crow and won, Otto would challenge them in turn. Those people that recognized the danger shivered at the thought and stepped back. At this point, even if they believed Otto was dumb, they all knew he was an opponent they couldn’t fight. The biggest fear wasn’t Otto’s strength, which was already intimidating enough. The giant passed the aptitude test with an extremely high rank. There was no telling what techniques he could unleash. Even if they believed Otto was a dummy, they feared the beast that broke bones as easily as twigs. In the younger generation, none of them were foolish enough to attempt fighting Otto one on one.
Munro dodged out of Otto’s way when the giant started walking forward again and stumbled, nearly falling on his face. He was not Otto’s match, and his knees shook a little while looking up into the big bastard’s face. Otto was like a massive bear, and Munro was one swat away from death.
The brothers reached the Maddox manor without any further issue, and Otto put Crow into his bed.
Mara was there when Otto appeared and immediately grabbed a bucket of water and a towel. Otto stepped out while she stripped Crow’s clothes off and proceeded to bathe him. By the time she was done, the clear water was reddish-black, and the towel was all but ruined. However, Crow’s wounds didn’t look as serious. While she was sliding some shorts back onto his naked body, Song Lin walked in.
Crow would have been mortified to know that all three women had seen him naked, but the reality was this wasn’t their first time seeing him without clothes. It was like a rite of passage for all of Crow’s closest companions.
Song Lin checked over his body and used her acupuncture needles a few times to release some blood below the surface. Mara was there to clean up when she did so. A lot of the swelling and bruising went down noticeably.
“Did I win?” Crow mumbled in his sleep. The girls looked at each other and burst out laughing. It wasn’t long after that they replaced his bedding and left, letting him get his rest. Some of the medicines that Song Lin used were part sedatives, so Crow wouldn’t wake until morning.
Nightmares arrived. The lucid ones that Crow disliked the most. Everything around him was covered in Night Fire, but it had faded to the edges of his awareness, exposing a town. Upon seeing it, he realized that it had always been there, hidden within the black flames that roasted him.
With Night Fire hovering in the background, Crow saw the black flames encroaching on the village. Those flames felt similar to Night Fire, but they definitely were something different. Within them, he could feel something darker and more sinister.
“Is that another type of soul fire?” Crow heard his own question as if he’d voiced it out loud.
Screams echoed out across the town as the fire jumped from building to building. None of the villagers could escape because the entire village was surrounded by those flames. The more they tried to combat it, the more it agitated the fire. He could feel the Night Fire in him pulsing in response.
Each thump occurred when another person died. As a passenger, he couldn’t affect anything in this place, but witnessing one horror after another was enough to cause his own soul to howl in pain. No one was spared, not even the women or children. The fire was hungry and wanted to devour everything.
“Make it stop…” Crow whispered and wondered why he saw all this suffering. It wasn’t enough to torment him with fire, but now he was made to watch others burn too.
A nagging feeling inside told him his answers were at the center of the village. A town square with an exquisitely carved fountain contrasted sharply with the crude wooden buildings in this rural place. It was out of place. Upon seeing it, Crow tried to resist its inexorable pull. He feared that fountain and wanted nothing more than to flee. Somehow he knew that the source of his curse was waiting for him inside that thing. It was an entity that attracted Soul Fire to it, or maybe it was the origin of all Soul Fire.
Killing it was impossible, but he knew if he did, his curse would break. He’d be free. Terrified, his soul rebelled and tried to wrench itself from his mortal flesh. It was the first time his mind and soul fought each other. Crow knew he’d lost control—if he ever had it. In this nightmare scape, the only thing that was still him was his soul. Everything else belonged to that fountain.
Previously, his body was a ghostly haze, but the more his soul opposed the temptation, the more solid he became. It was when his feet touched the solid ground that the soul stopped struggling. It knew it had lost.
The last bit of strength he had was used to tightly close his eyes. Dream logic told him as long as he didn’t see the thing in the fountain, he’d survive. Step by step, Crow approached the entity, his feet dragging as if they were heavy stones.
It was like standing on a frozen pond, knowing the ice was breaking but unable to escape the fate before him. It was as inexorable, this meeting. He realized he’d greatly misjudged the Sluagh, and they were never the cause of this sinister curse.
His toes bumped into something, and he stopped moving. He’d arrived.
Eyes were pried open by ghostly fingers until he was staring into the fiery depths of the fountain’s basin. The heatwaves distorted his vision, but nothing could hide the massive eye that opened within the flames. It filled the entire basin, and Crow couldn’t do anything else but stare back. Eye contact acknowledged its existence and gave it the power of a domain, which is used to attack Crow’s soul, trying to grind his will from it. A tactic that would eliminate Crow and leave his body, soul, and mind intact for another entity to take it over.
A three-headed crow made of Night Fire intervened and broke him free from the deadly trance. It was no match for the thing in the fountain, but it was only a fraction of the Sluagh’s power, and it was enough to disrupt everything.
Crow shot up from his bed screaming in terror, blood flowed down his cheeks, and he fought with everything he had at the strong hands holding him down. After several deep breaths, he finally relaxed his bulging muscles.
Otto had seen Crow react in his sleep, but nothing like this had ever occurred. Electricity sparked through his body as he fought against Crow’s inhuman strength. Even with his Source, his body was battered, and his face gashed.
Despite all that, Otto smiled at Crow, cheerful as ever. He felt guilty for harming the giant, and not even his innocent smile could bring him back fully. Crow knew he’d been the closest to dying he’d ever been in his entire life. No, not dead but replaced. Shaking uncontrollably at the horrifying thought, he struggled to breathe.
The Sluagh saved his life. While it interrupted the ritual, Crow felt as if he was marked from the incident. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and it made him a little paranoid. No matter what, he owed the Sluagh a debt. One he engraved on his soul with fire and blade.
Otto’s ear-to-ear grin finally melted away the worst of Crow’s tension.
“What are you smiling about?” Crow asked. His throat felt like he’d swallowed glass.
“You. Thick face. Ha! Funny,” Otto’s booming laugh was infectious, and Crow joined him.