First impressions are the most lasting. Despite how genial she had been with my wives in the last few days, I was still quite stiff in the presence of the Demigod of the Waves. That illusion she had trapped me in had been too terrifying to forget. Nightmares plagued my sleep. Nightmares that involved me struggling in a vortex of seawater, being drawn inexorably to its depths. No matter how hard I thrashed, I could never resist its pull. They always ended with me waking up gasping for breath, drenched in sweat. Thankfully, there were only single rooms aboard the Cloud Whale or I'd have worried the girls.
Now, only the two of us sat across a desk from each other in the captain's cabin without the comforting presence of one of my wives to alleviate my tension. I couldn't stop my right leg from vibrating as I tried to appear calm under her ultramarine gaze. This was why I'd been camping out on the crow's nest, skipping out on the discussions she was having with Ceres and Phobos about their project. Even when she had generously offered to coach Deimos in the art of mana control, I couldn't bring myself to participate. I had been avoiding her because I feared her. Knowing fully well that this fear was totally irrational – there was no reason for her to harm me – I still couldn't get it out of my mind. And with every nightmare, it was getting worse.
Isabella Chromis – the youngest Demigod in the history of Regiis. At merely thirty years of age, she was a true prodigy of magic. Despite my leaping progress in the recent past, and my ability to match Tier 3 peak mages at the tender age of nineteen, I wasn't at all confident of exceeding or even equalling her record. It got harder and harder to progress the higher up the Tiers one went, and, in my case, I had no idea how I was supposed to proceed down my path as it was one none had walked before. Rather, it was one which people had forgotten how to walk. I'd count myself lucky if I managed to match Tier 5 mages when I was forty.
Little was known about Isabella. Her origin was mystical and none of the prominent aristocratic families of Regiis were titled Chromis. Demigods were the pillars of the Empire and their families were granted permanent residence in the Capital, becoming one of the very few hereditary nobles in Regiis. Isabella's promotion was especially striking as it wasn't accompanied by the rise of another family. Unconfirmed rumours pegged her as an orphan and speculation was rife about what might have happened to her absent husband.
My heart hammered against my chest and close beads of sweat appeared on my forehead as the silence stretched on oppressively. My leg vibrated even harder and I had to clamp down on it, digging my fingers into my thigh, to still it and stop it from knocking against the desk.
I wanted to speak… desperately. But I couldn't bring myself to talk. My tongue felt like leather in my mouth. It could have been my misconception, but in the depths of the silence, I felt like I heard waves crashing against a shore.
As I focused on it, the sound grew louder and louder until it covered the entirety of my perception. At the edges of my vision, I thought that I could see waves towering up into the sky, waiting to crash down upon me and swallow me whole.
A sharp sound rang out, startling me out of my fugue. Jerking back instinctively, I toppled my chair and tumbled backwards. My honed reflexes kicked in before I could fall, and catching myself, I flipped backwards and into a battle-ready posture.
Isabella raised the hand she had used to slap the desk and before I could react, she bowed deeply to me.
"I apologize for my carelessness. Please forgive me."
Caught off guard by the sudden apology, I gaped at her for a good while before gathering my wits and hurriedly preventing her.
"Please don't bow, milady. Your obeisance isn't something I can withstand. And I have yet to know what you are apologizing for."
Straightening up, she looked me in the eye as she asked, "Have you been sleeping well these last few days?"
My eyes widened slightly as I made the connection. "I've been having nightmares, milady. Nightmares that end with me drowning."
"That… might have been my fault," she admitted sheepishly.
Despite my nervousness in her presence, I couldn't help the undertone of discontent that slipped into my voice or the frown that wrinkled my brows.
"I have apologized for my invasion of your privacy, milady. I will gladly do so again if you are unsatisfied."
I had already assured her that I wouldn't spy on my allies with my mana senses again. The continued punishment was indication that she didn't trust me. I didn't like her casting aspersions on the credibility of my word.
Shaking her head hurriedly, she explained, "It isn't what you think. I don't doubt your honour. Nor do I mistrust your pledge. It was an accident."
With a wave of her hand a stream of water congealed out of the air and wrapped around the armrest of the fallen chair and pulled it upright. The stream pulled away and then vapourized, vanishing into the air like it never existed.
"Sit," she invited. "Sit and let's talk."
Accepting her offer, I sank into the chair, marvelling at how the armrest was still dry. Her control over her element was astounding.
Placing her elbows on the desk and lacing her fingers, Isabella peered at me over her interlaced fingers. "You remember that illusion I trapped you in, right?" she asked.
When I nodded, she continued, "That wasn't exactly an illusion. It was my Soul Realm and coming in contact with it had unexpected consequences in your case. The least of which are the nightmares you are suffering from."
She seemed to hesitate a bit before setting firm resolve. "Look, what I'm going to tell you now involves secrets that concern the Demigod Realm. Technically speaking, telling you would be illegal. I could ask you to trust me and let me cure you on faith… but that really wouldn't be fair now would it? After all, I am the one at fault. All I ask is that you not tell anyone else."
I frowned. It seemed that things were much more serious than I thought. "I can take a Vow of Secrecy, milady. Tier 3 contract magic isn't out of my reach and with you as the guarantor I won't be able to divulge anything unless I can match your cultivation."
She waved my suggestion away. "No need. I trust you to keep your word. And performing contract magic in your current state would only aggravate your condition."
Looking me right in the eye, she asked, "What do you know about souls?"
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