With a hungry gaze, I step closer to the iron coffin and run the arc suit’s sticky gauntlets across its solid exterior. As the gauntlets brush upon the iron surface, it produces a rather squeaky sound. My eyes squint as I tap the coffin in frustration, wishing I could get closer to whatever it is inside this coffin, assuming it is not a genuine corpse that is.
‘Nay certainly I would not feel this way about a corpse?’ My thoughts drift back to the epistle that mentioned bringing something here, to be near the Tower’s roots. ‘Is the thing they brought here in it? The suspected Kiln? Why is it in a coffin? More importantly, is this where the Acerb came from? This Kiln made it. If that is the case, I do not know if I can leave this with the Hex Church nor the Consortium.’
My eyes wander across the coffin, searching for a handle, crack, or even nails I might use or remove to open it. Since I cannot bend my legs to lean over, I take a few steps back to see what I may discover. The coffin is black, and oddly, there is a hatch above where the corpse’s head would rest; I assume this is to confirm they are indeed dead. It is around six feet long, roughly four feet wide at one end and three at the other, and on the front, some letters spell the word “Corrosive.”
Noticing a pair of iron hinges on this side of the coffin, I move to the opposite, discovering three latches, evenly separated along the edge, each with what I assume is a shiny new lock. I shuffle to the hatch above where the head would be and discover it is also locked, the difference being that this lock is embedded in the coffin itself.
I raise myself a tad higher by standing on the tips of my toes and stare into the lock. With my vermillion sight, I see a bright red hue emanating from between the lock’s inner mechanisms. ‘Perhaps I may squeeze the cattail through? ...Nay, the mechanisms would not seem to allow that.’
Jessica’s voice snaps me from my study of the coffin. “Do… do you see something?” she asks.
‘Ah, let us sort out the prevailing situation first.’ I wave my arms toward Jessica, indicating I suppose I did not find anything. She coughs, pushing up on the coffin to relieve some of its weight on her chest. While she takes a few deep breaths, I glance between her and the coffin, nodding. ‘...But it is also time to face the truth; a dash of inventiveness will be required if I wish to move the coffin. I shall solve Jessica’s breathing problem, fix the leak, and then see about this coffin if reinforcements have not arrived, that is.’
Glancing around the floor, I notice a broken shelf lying in pieces. Next to it are some glass jars that I believe were resting on the shelf previously, but most are shattered except for one that has a familiar roach-like creature bouncing about within it.
‘Verily, I know these creatures; they are copepods, or at least they are comparable.’
The most significant differences are that these are larger, white, and rather than a blending between shrimp and roach, like my copepods, they resemble a blend of roach and head lice. They have a label that says, “sea louse, coral variant,” whatever that means.
Ignoring the hideous creature, I shuffle toward Jessica and position my leg directly next to her face. This blocks off that whole side of the room from her view. With bloodshot and upturned eyes, she peers into the black window. Unbeknownst to Jessica, I am also scrutinizing her; it is odd that this woman resists the haze’s influence. While I examine her, she is biting her lip and scowling at me; I presume it is because I am not helping her quickly enough; regardless, her eyes betray her—I can see her quivering pupils. I do not know why this woman is able to resist the vermillion haze, but the fear in her eyes is real, of that I am certain.
She takes a breath, I can see the vermillion haze being sucked into her nostrils. “Y-you are going to help me, right?” she asks with a small shiver. “You’re acting really weird, and it’s kinda… well, shit, it’s kinda freakin’ me out.”
My shoulders droop, I glance away. ‘Perhaps I have been acting a tad harsh and aloof. Since I discovered this was done by their own hand and my experiences with the noble’s guard thus far have been far from pleasant.’
Remembering a hand sign Terra once performed, I raise my hand, make a fist, and extend my thumb. ‘Thou art fortunate I feel like a knight in this blue suit, and as a noble knight, I shall assist, I suppose... Well, I shall at least remove this coffin since I think I am going to attempt to take it with me either way... everything after that is thy own responsibility.’
She nods with a tiny chuckle. “That’s the most beautiful thumbs-up I’ve ever seen,” she says, releasing the breath she had been holding since earlier.
While I pretend not to notice the tear she is wiping on the floor, I remove the cattail from the arc suit’s leg and push it through the hole at the neck.
“God, I’m so pathetic,” she murmurs, her head swinging back to me. “Hey, you can’t talk, can you?”
To keep her calm and distracted, I raise a single finger and try to write in the air. The vermillion haze hardly reacts to my writing, but Jessica watches intently, following the movement of my finger.
“Nay,” I scribble in the air.
“Nay?” She scoffs. “What are you, Congress?”
‘What is meant by that?’ As I make a question mark with my finger, I use the fiery cattail to grip one of the poles on the broken shelf. The pole is loose but still attached, so I twist it.
Jessica tries to look over, but I step in front of her and make the question mark again.
She follows my finger, chuckling. “I was just joking. I guess you just came in for your shift or something. Listen…” she says, motioning toward a bite wound on an exposed area of skin near her ankle. “It’s weird they didn’t attack you. My partner and I got caught up in this after hearing the commotion. They bit me, I tried to grab onto the table, but it started to tip over. My partner tried to keep the table and coffin from falling on top of me, but he only managed to hold it for a second. The table rolled over, and he lost his grip on the coffin. After that, those people held him down until he breathed in enough of this red fog shit.”
The metal bar breaks, and I yank it to me; the speed is much more than I anticipated. Like a spring, the cattail bunches against the arc suit, the metal pole smacks against the helmet. I seize the metal rod with my hand and pull the cattail back into the suit, placing it back into the right leg.
‘The cattail is much faster when I am in this vermillion form!’
“What the fuck was that!?” Jessica whispers at me.
I look from left to right and then make a question mark with my finger. ‘I know naught of what thou speak of.’
Waving my arm dismissively, I bring the metal rod forward. I grip the bar with both hands and make a shoving motion and then point at the coffin. She stares at me with squinted eyes for a moment and then nods.
“Can you push it in while I shove the bar underneath?”
I write “Nay” in the air with my finger.
‘Apologies, but if I bend down to do that, I shan’t be able to stand back up.’ She huffs and murmurs something under her breath. At the same time, she endeavors to use the rod to relieve some of the coffin’s weight, my attention shifts to the nine people who have yet to move despite my presence. ‘I need to move faster.’
Since the people against the wall are wearing naught but their undergarments and the other is a noble’s guard, I first investigate the six people who are curled up on the floor. At first, I keep a distance; I do not trust anyone who has been afflicted by the madness. I watch them for a few seconds and decide to test their aggression; it is not as if I have any flesh to lose, and they do not have any weapons. Extending my arm, I approach a woman who rocks back and forth, murmuring incoherent sentences.
The arc suit’s gauntlet pokes the woman; she does not react at all. I tilt my head. These are mannerisms and symptoms I have not observed from those afflicted with the madness in the past. The only thing I may do is assume that they have simply been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of the vermillion haze that is present. Though admittedly, I do not have as much experience with the haze’s madness as I do with the haze’s disease.
‘Doing nothing is almost worse than if she had bitten me.’ Moving to the front of the woman, I attempt to push my gloves into her torn suit, but the tears are too small; moreover, this type of effort will probably be time-consuming and futile.
Taking a minute to think, I conclude that this predicament is not salvageable in a timely manner without either more power or maneuverability. Glancing at the white sea louse and then the vermillion haze. ‘I have an idea. Copepods. I can make a lot of copepods…’
I focus, the feeling of copepods tickling the outside of the kiln’s shell. The fingers of the gauntlet rub together, producing a squeaky noise.
‘It is nothing Constance, just think of them as little leaves brushing against thy arm.’ Shaking my arms, I order a copepod to crawl to the black window and confirm that it is indeed a vermillion copepod. ‘Spl… splendid. Time to make a lot more of these red leaves, and not horrendous bugs. But...’
I stare at the vermillion copepod. It appears more defined and denser than my usual copepods. Maneuvering my arm from the arc suit’s sleeve and poke it. Beneath what little force my finger produces, it bends the copepod’s body just a tad, yet it does not pass through.
‘They are much more solid than they were! Is it because there is so much vermillion haze or… because of my magic power has gone up now that I am a vermillion haze; I do not know, but their usefulness has just increased by an immeasurable amount.’
For a time, I stand motionlessly as the suit fills with these copepods, mostly because I want my kiln to touch as few copepods as possible. The haze floating around the arc suit is drawn into the small hole at the neck that I have been using for the cattail. It is like a churning whirlpool of red air is being sucked into the suit; this is the easiest time I have experienced fashioning copepods. Further, it is not merely because of the surplus of vermillion haze. It feels genuinely easier to make. It is not long before I feel the suit may burst open from the sheer quantity of copepods.
“Hey. Are you okay? Y-you, look a bit, uh…” she swallows some spittle. “...l-lumpy.”
Peering down, I find the suit looks as if it is being worn by a person that is attempting to steal a coop's worth of hens by stuffing them down their shirt.
‘Thou hath witnessed nothing!’
I command the copepods to move the suit’s arm to assure her that I am fine. They do as I asked, except they lift the arm so harshly that it swings around like an arc and slaps the side of my helmet. I order them to lower the arm to my side, but all at once, they rush in the other direction, which makes it appear as if I am slapping the suit’s backside.
‘If this suit was not hiding my appearance, I believe I would not be able to allow this woman to leave the Arcade after witnessing such an embarrassment.’
Jessica does not say anything further, yet I can see her raise an eyebrow. It would seem I may only pray she assumes she is hallucinating. I check my status once again, ordinarily, my issue with making copepods is Erysichthon and not Mana, but I have never made so many copepods at once. What I find is I have gone through eighty mana, and my Erysichthon is still zero.
Ensuring that Jessica may not see, I order a copepod to exit the suit through the arc suit’s neck. The place I order it to go is, well, the cheek of the woman near my knees. The copepod exits the hole at my neck and then travels half-way down my trousers. Gripping the arc suit with its back legs, it leans out and taps its limbs against the woman’s face. Both it and the woman do not react.
‘Aye. Then I shall send them all to search the people’s clothing for anything that might be of use.’
Commanding the copepods to crawl to the nine people, I glance away and toward the exit in the arc suit's neck. As if they are a line of rat-sized ants, they crawl out one after another.
‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven…’ While they depart, I count to see the amount I was able to make given the time and energy. ‘Two-hundred-ninety-eight. Unacceptable.’
I create two more copepods making it an even three-hundred, which brings it to around one mana for just under four rat-sized vermillion copepods. Nodding, I turn my attention back to the woman. I recoil, nearly falling over backward, when I see the woman is utterly submerged in copepods; I cannot even see a hint of the woman beneath them. The woman’s body twitches, her teetering becomes more pronounced.
Glancing at Jessica, I can see she is working to push the bar beneath the coffin. ‘Aye! They are too brainless for such broad orders.’
I try to command them to split into platoons of thirty, and as I should have expected, they do not understand the order. Throwing my head back, I hold up three fingers, then make a with my fingers zero, and point while shouting in my mind. ‘Thirty! Thirty! To that person over there!’
My fingers, still forming a zero, loosen, and my arm falls to my side. A platoon of copepods separate from the army and dash toward the person I pointed at. I try to command another platoon of them again using only my thoughts, but this time only a single one goes. So I hold up two fingers, then nine, and point; it works again as a platoon of twenty-nine joins the lone copepod!
Seeing this, I start commanding them with a combination of hand signs and thoughts. ‘It is more efficient when I use gestures! I will look rather silly, but I cannot worry about such things at the moment.’
My disgusting army spreads out, and before long, all nine people have a platoon of copepods creeping on the front sides of their bodies. The woman that was earlier submerged in copepods relaxes while the other eight people do not show any reaction to the copepod’s ticklish limbs clinging to them.
These will be the most elaborate commands I have ever bestowed upon copepods before, so I attempt to keep them simple and display them with my hands. ‘If they have pockets, it is near their waist, go in there.’
I point at my waist and then make an up and down motion with my hands. Again it seems simple enough, yet the copepods all try to enter the pockets at once, preventing any of them from getting in. As for the ones that are on the two women in their undergarments, they just move around in confusion.
‘I am a commander of an army of clodpated ninnyhammers!  But, I am a commander nonetheless.’
Straightening my shoulders, I look toward the copepods and begin to make my commands like a leader.
‘That individual, go into the right pocket. Bring out what is inside. That individual, Search the breast pocket. That individual, search their belt. That individual, search beneath their shirt.’
As I give the commands, I reenact them all, making a walking motion with my fingers, pointing, and then performing a gesture as if I am taking something from that area. Jessica asks what I am doing at one point, but I pretend not to hear her. Some minutes later, we discovered naught. I wobble over to the individuals facing the wall, only to find one of them has a large patch of cloth sewn around their neck and upper bosom.
Now that I am nearer, I notice with my vermillion vision that she is more than a tad redder than the others; the cloth glows brighter than her skin. I take a close look at the woman; she seems relatively young, under twenty, I would guess, but more importantly, she is not that Emily woman. Still, this is undoubtedly the person who would have what I need. Yet, this person does not have her outer clothing, and if the copepods leave their position, Jessica will see them.
‘Let us put on a bit of a performance, shall we?‘ I give my orders to the copepods, making it as vague as possible; otherwise, I suspect they may not understand. While imagining cloth in my mind, I point at the other noble’s guard’s clothing. ‘Search for any cloth that a human is not wearing. Whatever is found, deliver it unto me!’