Breathe in… Breathe out. Breathe.
I flexed my fingers in muted awe, trying and surely failing to estimate how significant the changes to my body were. Things were unfolding in a… much different manner than the last time I had become a djin.
Fighting the winds on one of the countless trees spiraling in the nightmarish sky of Yaga’s forest, I had been forced to use what I considered my final trump card. I couldn’t have let Lima lose her life at the hands of those two murderers. Not right in front of me.
Though the injuries I had sustained earlier that day were still there, the pain had all but vanished, except for a slight discomfort in my stomach. I made sure to not let my eyes wander too far into the distance, making it easier to tune out the visual “noise” that came with having true perception of the world around me.
Still, I had no doubts that if I ever dared to take in the scenery, even the hellscape we were trapped in would appear beautiful, before inevitably overwhelming me. And that was despite the fact that I had no interest in looking at the bloodshot eye the goddamn moon had turned into.
In fact, our current situation should have made it impossible for me to enjoy being a djin again.
But I do, I frowned. Too much, even.
That moment of self-awareness, however, was short-lived, as strange notifications caught my attention.
Taboo has been lifted.
Attribute coefficients updated.
Vessel has been outgrown.
Physical attacks will inflict Primal Burn to lower ranked beings.
It was hard not to think that I was being rewarded for bearing with the added discomfort of my transformation.
Part of it had been physical, just enough for me to notice that opening my left eye was harder than it should have been.
Then sounds had grown quieter, giving me the surreal impression that Creation itself was holding its breath. Cold air filled with electricity rushed toward me from all directions, as if nature was trying to fill a vacuum that it had never noticed before.
And then, as the culmination of a crescendo of unseen forces clashing onto me, I opened my eye like one would flick a lighter and became living fire.
Breathe in… Breathe out… Breathe, I told myself again, as I noticed the thin layer of frost that had formed on my skin and clothes quickly melting away.
Suddenly, my metamorphosis was complete and all the tension was gone… but I could still feel my heart beating as if trying to escape my chest.
My emotions were a mess and, strangely enough, the first one to emerge from my confusion seemed to be pure satisfaction.
It felt as good as the first breath taken right after being on the cusp of drowning, except that this wasn’t just some quickly forgotten euphoria.
It was a pleasure derived from simply existing, and it was erupting with so much violence that the rest of my emotions were left scorched.
How did I ever live differently? I wondered as I looked at my arms.
The skin covering my forearms, my upper chest, and my neck, had hardened into an almost rocky material. It was darker too, but not so much that it could hide the network of faintly glowing veins spread under its surface. Somehow, I wasn’t horrified by the thought that my heart was probably pumping something other than blood. Fire would actually be a plausible explanation to what I could feel inside of me.
I had never really turned into a djin until now, I realized. This had to be what it felt like to be more than just a pawn on the cosmic chess board.
The previous times I had opened my left eye, the only change had been to my hair. It had looked like the embers of an old smoldering fire, emitting just enough light to illuminate my room before sunset. But something was different this time, something that seemed to be related to that nonsensical notification claiming that the Flame had outgrown me.
My hair had fully turned into unnatural flames, slowly undulating tongues of pale fire that seemed to react to my curiosity as I studied my reflection in a fragment of the frog girl’s glaive embedded in the closest floating tree.
Even my right eye seemed to have taken the color of the strange fire, while the one gifted by the Nameless Djin barely seemed to have a physical form. It looked more like an opened window into the furnace that my insides now were. Furnace whose secrets were still hidden from me.
I do not seem to project heat, at least not as much as I should, I mused. The girl is right behind me and seems fine… Hold on, the girl?
I glanced back and, sure enough, my eyes met those of a beastkin teenager, her green skin covered with cuts and bruises of varying severity. Dark eyes wide with shock and concern.
My earlier wish to protect her immediately seemed odd to me.
Why would I ever worry about the safety of a random beastkin kid?
The more I thought about it, the more the concept seemed absurd to me. I quickly came to the conclusion that the only plausible explanation was that I had been under the influence of a spell able to compel a human to defend her.
There was a lingering feeling of emergency that was somewhat hard to shake off, but there was no chance a mortal this weak could have survived any real danger and she seemed fine to me. That irrational fear was probably how the little sorceress had controlled me until now.
Might as well make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But before I could take a step in her direction, I was almost folded in half by a sudden wave of sharp pain and was forced to put off her judgment to a later time. A new issue was quickly evolving from a mild annoyance in the back of my mind to the top of my priorities.
My hand almost unconsciously went to my rumbling belly. It hadn’t been just any kind of discomfort in my stomach, nor just fire I had felt inside of me.
I’m starving, I realized with a mixture of disbelief and fascination.
The shock came with a brief moment of complete uncertainty as to what I was hungry for. But then my gaze fell on two full-blooded beastkin warriors staring at me from a distance… and it had to be the first time I had ever really looked at them, because right then, I knew I had found what I was searching for.
“-telling you, he was right!” I heard the grey rabbit scream to his comrade. He was thinner than most of the members of his race I had seen until then, and also in much worse shape. The mangled stump in place of his right hand certainly stood out among the various open wounds that covered his body, making me doubt he’d survive a minute if his aura gave out. “Fucking kid was a homunculus all along!”
The other one shook his head and replied with something I couldn’t hear through the howling wind, but was visibly enough to relieve the rabbit of most of his concerns.
The tiger had an imposing figure, and while the aura raging around him certainly didn’t match his calm demeanor, it surely added to his presence. Almost as tall as his partner, but with lean muscles that could be seen twitching under his striped fur, he had the bearing and eyes of one convinced that they were at the top of the food chain.
It was annoying, of course, but had nothing to do with the fact that their sight made me even hungrier.
Them? I wondered, narrowing my eyes. No. No way.
I had trouble believing that I had gained an appetite for people, but in that instant, all of my instincts were telling me the same thing… that their deaths would be one step toward being free from the hunger, and that was all I was able to focus on.
It was more than just wanting to kill them. I needed to.
I have to stop thinking like a human, I told myself as I moved toward the edge, this isn’t even hunger as I understand it. The Djin said it himself, I am fire now… and it’s in a fire’s nature to want to burn. I just don’t know what that means for me yet.
That conclusion felt like a fitting one. Burning… Well, I did have a spell that involved literally creating fire.
Sun Avatar, I thought.
The light I emitted flashed brighter with the skill’s first activation, and the rabbit flinched back. I looked with dissatisfaction at the bar representing the mana I had recovered… At the speed it was being drained, it would take some time for the spell to be ready.
But the craving was only getting worse.
This probably isn’t it, I thought with frustration as the feeling of comfort was quickly making room for something else, something uglier. Never mind, I’ll deal with this the old fashioned way.
The beastkins had yet to move, however. They were still standing at a safe distance, where my transformation had left them frozen.
Frozen in awe, as they should be.
Captivated, like moths graciously allowed to witness the flame of all flames.
“Oh, I understand,” I told them, taking it as granted that my voice would reach them. “But it’s time to fulfill your purpose.”
I felt my guts twisting themselves and I raised my unwounded hand in front of me.
“Come,” I demanded.
Apparently shocked by what I was saying, the rabbit blinked and the tiger frowned. They threw glances at each other but didn’t obey, clearly not daring to make the first move despite their numerical advantage.
Their caution was understandable, but only adding to my irritation. Even though time was on my side, I couldn’t stand to wait for their silent conversation to end.
“COME!” I screamed with a voice I didn’t recognize.
My insides were grinding against each other. I needed to feed myse- to burn. I need to burn.
With a kick to the tree trunk I was standing on I launched myself down the floating stairs, toward the worthiest of the two opponent. The eyes of the tiger opened wide as he realized that I was right in front of him. As I had hoped, his surprise triggered his fighting instincts and he attacked me purely out of reflex.
I grabbed his arm as I spun to avoid his fist, and used his own momentum to send him crashing against a tree flying nearby.
I could have tried to throw him down once again, of course… but that option seemed like such a waste. It wouldn’t have helped me satiate my hunger and at that moment, that was all that mattered. Nothing else seemed like a viable alternative.
The air shifted around me and I ducked right in time to avoid the rabbit kicking my skull in. His leg swept over my head as I turned to face him, leaving him defenseless if not for his aura. But even I could tell that it had been severely weakened already.
It had the appearance of a thin membrane of water ready to break under the smallest pressure, the opposite of the energy literally churning around the other warrior. The rabbit clearly was much less enticing, but food was food, especially if it was delivering itself on a silver platter.
I punched the rabbit’s stomach before he could pull back his leg, grabbed him by the face and hurl his head against our foothold.
It wasn’t enough to knock him out so he basically bounced from the bark thanks to his aura. But instead of struggling, he curled himself up with his hands around his belly, throwing up and gasping for hair.
Stepping back from that pathetic display to avoid being stained by his bile, I raised a brow and looked at my hand.
“Oh?” I said with a toothy smile.
Movement on my left forced me to jump away before I could go for the kill, dodging the tiger’s hand as its fingers closed onto nothing but air.
I landed a short distance away and I saw him stand over the rabbit, examining him. He glanced at his own wrist, then looked up at me with an expression at the opposite of the bored one he had been wearing all this time.
And it was more than warranted, because we had just realized that I could touch them.