I walk for several more hours.
Well, I’m more limping than walking…
Fortunately, I haven’t encountered any other demon. Neither have I seen any trace of my captors.
The corridor continues to shrink. By now, it’s so narrow that I have to inch along sideways, like a very slow, very clumsy crab. My chest rubs painfully against the wall in front of me with every step I take. Nerys always said that I should be happy to have such a figure at my age, but right now, I very much disagree.
If this keeps up, I’m going to end up stuck in here and starve to death…
Now, that would be a stupid way to die.
Fortunately enough, however, when I take my next step, the walls on both sides open up widely, and I stumble out of the passage and fall to my knees, panting roughly.
This ended up being quite an exhausting ordeal.
When I’ve regained my composure, I look up to see that I’ve arrived in a chamber almost identical to the one at the opposite end of the corridor, where I first started. This one is as empty and featureless as the other was.
Except for a set of stairs, that is, leading down, dug into the wall in front of me. In that stairway, there are no glowing blue stones to light the way. I can only reluctantly see the first two steps; then the rest disappears into darkness so opaque it’s almost as if a solid black screen has been erected there.
I stare at it for a minute, hesitating, my mind swaying back and forth between my need to escape the cave and my fear of venturing down that dark stairway.
But I’m not exactly drowning in choice, here, am I?
I gather up what courage I can find within me and make an effort to stand up, only to feel my chest suddenly tighten as a low, burning heat lights up throughout my body. I drop back down to my hands and knees, coughing. Warm blood comes up my throat. I choke on it for a second, bringing tears to my eyes, before I spit it out. It splatters to the ground beneath my face.
I stay on all fours, eyes closed, retching and vomiting blood as it keeps flowing into my mouth.
The knot in my chest gradually disappears.
A few more drops of blood still drip down my chin. The sound of them as they hit the stone floor sounds deafening in my ears.
I take deep breaths through my nose and wait for the pain to fade away, but my trembling arms fail me before it does, and I collapse onto my side. My blood on the ground stains the sleeve of my dress and dirties my hair, but I just don’t have the strength to care about this, right at the moment.
With everything that’s been going on, I completely forgot to take my medici–
A shudder shakes my body. My eyes fly open in shock.
Oh… Not good…
My pills are at home, and I’ve never felt the need to carry any on my body since I never left the house before those people attacked it. I always had them on hand when I needed them.
But what am I supposed to do, now?
I need those pills.
What am I supposed to do…
My eyes mist up, and tears threaten to fall, but I bite my lip and hold them back. I can cry because I’m lonely or afraid or in pain. But I refuse to cry because of this disease. Absolutely not.
Still, it is a valid question.
What am I supposed to do?
Even if I do return home, the house has been destroyed. If the amethyst canister in my room is damaged, all my pills will be spoiled. And Father’s refining stand might have been broken in the explosion, too.
Father… Maybe Father carries some on his body? Or Nerys? Yes, Nerys is definitely the kind of person to keep some of my medicine with her at all times, just in case something happens to me.
I have to find her as soon as possible.
If my symptoms have progressed as much as they seem to, then it should already be my second day without medicine. I took my last pill several hours before those people attacked the house, and I’ve already spent more than half a day in this cave. Which means I should’ve spent something like a day unconscious before I woke up here.
That sounds about right.
It also means I’m running out of time.
Two days without medicine…
After three days, the pain will become both constant and debilitating.
After four days, I’ll start coughing up bits and pieces of my organs as they rot within my body.
After five days, my dantian itself will start falling apart.
And then, death.
I am really running out of time.
Ever since I realized that my condition was still getting worse despite the medicine’s help, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to my short lifespan, but that doesn’t mean I want to die painfully even earlier than I’d predicted.
I’d rather die in peace, without even realizing it, sleeping in Nerys’s arms, two or three years from now.
Well, I’d rather not die at all, in fact, but you can’t always get what you want.
Gathering strength in my limbs, I laboriously make my way up to my feet and look at the dark stairway in front of me.
I hope this is the exit.
W–Wait a minute…
I’m already underground, aren’t I?
So why are the stairs leading down?
Trying to ignore the sense of foreboding rising within me, I start down the stairs, one careful step at a time, leaning against the wall to help my balance.
The stairway seems to go on forever.
In this darkness, I could close my eyes and see precisely as much as I do with them open. Which is why, when a pinpoint of vague, blurry light appears in the distance, it’s clearly visible, even from a great distance.
Is this the exit?
I quicken the pace, but when I step off the stairs, I find myself disappointed.
The ceiling here is a bit higher than on the floor above, and it’s a wide open space instead of a tight corridor. But I’m certainly still inside the cave. However, I can only describe the scenery in front of my eyes as a ‘plain.’ The last step of the stairway I just went down is still the same bare rock as before, but the landing abruptly turns into loose earth, with luxuriant grass growing in it. The grass tickles my bare feet. The ground is warm and soft. It’s quite pleasant after walking for so long over cold, solid rock. A bit further away, trees and bushes grow sparsely, here and there. It looks like a regular plain has been grafted from the outside world into the cave. I wouldn’t be so shocked if I’d stumbled into a forest of giant mushrooms.
Can plants like this even grow without sunlight?
Do the glowing stones substitute for it?
How is this possible?
Well, I suppose none of these questions truly matter. I just need to find the exit.
Looking around, I see that there are no more signs of life here than in the corridor from before, but that doesn’t mean much. Even though it’s not as dark down here as it was up there, it’s still not very far before the gloom steals everything from my sight, so I might just not be seeing this floor’s inhabitants yet.
In fact, this floor could turn out to be more dangerous than the last.
Indeed, if I consider the corridor upstairs to be my ‘prison,’ then here might just be the space where my captors have taken residence. Their leader didn’t sound like the kind of man who’d live in a cave, but you never know.
I’d best be discreet.
I start off in a random direction, flitting from cover to cover, using the bushes and trees along the way to hide to the best of my ability. And maybe there actually isn’t anybody here, or maybe I’m more stealthy than I thought myself because I progress unimpeded for almost two hours before I’m forced to stop.
I’ve just reached a dense thicket when the pain starts burning once again within my chest, unmistakably more pronounced than before. I clamp my hand over my mouth and lean against a tree trunk to wait for it to pass. I hold back the coughs wracking my body, and my efforts are successful in silencing them. Blood trickles from the corners of my mouth and the gaps between my fingers, but, up until my chest unknots itself, not a single sound escapes from me.
But I don’t allow myself to relax just yet. I swallow back all the blood left in my mouth, and as soon as I’m able, I forge onward.
The moment I take my first step, however, I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye and immediately scurry back behind the tree.
A white form, sitting on the very edge of my vision.
I peek gingerly around the trunk.
A rabbit, this time.
Which doesn’t sound like much, admittedly, but once again, this is a demon, by which something that should by all rights be small and weak – smaller and weaker than even me – immediately turns into a deadly predator.
The rabbit is about as large as the rat from before. Its fur is white – like any demon’s – and it has a single, red, glowing eye in the center of its forehead. The rabbit doesn’t have any front legs at all, but as if to compensate, its back legs are large and sturdy, thick muscles shifting visibly beneath its skin.
The rabbit holds its head up high, its little nose twitching, carefully tasting the air for interesting, appetizing smells.
Don’t notice me.
Don’t notice me…
It turns its head in my direction.
I shrink back behind the trunk, lest I am spotted, and look down. Even though I swallowed back most of it, quite a bit of my blood still wetted the ground. And my dress and body are covered in it, too.
Even I can smell it, at this point, let alone that demon.
This time, I don’t hesitate. I creep away in the opposite direction from the rabbit, careful to keep the trunk of that tree between the two of us.
Five meters away from the tree.
Ten meters away…
The rabbit comes hopping around the tree, instantly bringing me into its line of sight.
I turn around and bolt.
With my body as it currently is, running so hard is tantamount to suicide, but that death will at least take some time to come. If I allow that demon to catch up with me, on the other hand, it will most likely kill me on the spot. On the floor above, I was fortunate enough to stun the rat in my frantic attempt to defend myself, but I have no illusion that this in any way represents actual skill. I can’t expect to reproduce such a stroke of luck once more.
I take a quick glance behind me.
The rabbit is giving chase, leaping after me. Each time it lands from a jump, both its feet viciously strike the ground at precisely the same moment as if to pound a crater into the earth. And if that’s its intent, it is somewhat successful. The strength of the impact is enough to send clumps of grass flying through the air in its wake, almost like a bow wave around a speeding ship.
It goes without saying that it’s much faster than I am.
And the situation quickly worsens.
To my left, two more identical rabbits appear, speeding in my direction.
I change course to avoid them, but that also allows the first rabbit to close the distance faster than earlier. I nonetheless manage to maintain my lead for almost thirty seconds – which I honestly consider to be quite a feat – before it catches up.
I’ve spent these thirty seconds desperately thinking about what to do.
I’m prepared – mentally if nothing else.
The salient point is that I’m not going to get out of this unscathed. But I can’t let the rabbit strike me in the back. If my spine breaks under the blow, it’s all over for me.
So I time my move. I wait for the sound of the rabbit’s feet hitting the ground again.
Then I turn around.
I barely have time to see the rabbit fly in my direction. Its foot draws back, then lashes out. The attack is so fast that my eyes can only catch the after-images it draws through the air. I bend my left arm – because it’s the one I can most afford to lose – in front of and parallel to my chest, and catch the weight of the blow on my elbow joint.
I’ve read in a book on martial arts that this is how you’re supposed to do it.
I sure hope that book wasn’t lying.
Time seems to slow down to give me the opportunity to enjoy the experience of my body breaking apart under that strike.
First, several cracks and snaps resound in quick succession as my arm shatters. A little shiver of sensation runs along my arm, but it doesn’t hurt as much as I expected from such massive damage. My guard does cushion the impact, somewhat, but it isn’t enough to completely nullify it. The shock transmits through my arm and into my torso. At least two of my ribs splinter – which turns out to be more painful than what my arm suffered, then the shock transmits once more beyond my ribs and shakes my internal organs. The air is driven out of my lungs, and following it comes the blood I swallowed back earlier.
This time, I can’t hold it down. I don’t even try to. I spew it out onto the rabbit’s face, dying its fur red – although it really looks somewhat black under the glowing stones’ blue light.
All of this happens in about half a second, but it feels a lot longer to me.
Finally, after wreaking havoc on my body, the rabbit’s blow sends me flying through the air into the distance, faster than I ever could have hoped to run. My flight comes to an abrupt halt when I crash into the rock wall that delimits this floor, dislodging a rain of pebbles that patter down to the ground all around me.
I almost lose consciousness then and there, but I manage to hold on to it by some miracle.
My legs are shaking terribly, and my sight blurs as my blood gets into my eyes.
I won’t be able to go on for much longer.
Strangely enough, though, the rabbit appears to have given up the pursuit for now. I force my way past the haze hanging over my vision to discover that it’s rubbing its face with the sole of one of its feet while squeaking in pain.
Some of the blood I threw up onto its face must have gotten into its eye, too.
I feel a smirk stretch my lips.
Stings, doesn’t it?
Let’s pretend I did that on purpose and consider it my counter-strike.
Still, things aren’t looking good for me. That rabbit is going to come back even harder in just a few seconds, and there are two more on the way, though those are a bit further away from me, so they’ll only arrive in time to feast on my corpse.
I look around me to try and find a way out.
And as it happens, I find one.
Stairs. Leading down, once again. Just a few meters away.
I stand there, staring like an idiot until I hear the rabbit’s pained squeaks turn into angry squeaks.
No time to lose.
I immediately make for that new stairway.
As I take my first, limping step, my foot bumps into one of the stones knocked loose from the wall a few seconds ago. I glance down reflexively, then clench my teeth and stoop down to pick it up, keeping my left arm pressed against my chest, my ribs continually sending pulses of blistering pain through my abdomen. I take the fallen stone in hand and straighten up. It’s long and thin and sharp. Not an adequate weapon to kill demons, by any means, but better than nothing.
I continue toward the stairs.
I’m not sure what I’ll do once I reach them, but it’s my only option.
Staying here is certain death; taking the stairs leaves me a chance, as faint as it is.
To the side, the rabbit is rushing toward me.
It’s a race to see who will get to their target first.
As it happens, I do.
But not by much.
I’m going down from the first step of the stairway to the second when an actual roar tears through the air from right behind me, a more angry and frustrated and enraged roar than I would’ve thought possible coming from any animal, let alone a rabbit.
The moment that horrible sound reaches my ears, my muscles lock up, like I’m prey hearing the cry of a nearby predator.
It only affects me for an instant, but that instant is perfectly timed to make me miss my step.