I curse under my breath and look at the stairway in front of me.
I’ve spent quite some time in the forest – though time is something that is difficult to keep track of underground.
By my reckoning, six days have passed since I arrived in the cave, half of which I spent on this fourth floor. But my estimate is bound to be somewhat fuzzy, since I measure the passing of time by the depletion of my blood-qi and by my desire to sleep – my body may not actually require any, but the constant sense of tension brought on by all those demons threatening my life does wear my mind down, and sleeping helps me relax.
The reserves of blood-qi I obtained on the third floor weren’t inexhaustible – even taking into account the amount I generated on my own as I slept – so, although I was reluctant to put myself in danger, I resolved to hunt down the tree demons living here for sustenance.
There were seven when I arrived.
Now, there are only two left alive, somewhere in this forest.
I wanted to eat them, too, but they were too close to each other. After I attacked the first, I was surprised to find that the second had sneaked up behind me and cut off my escape.
It was close, but I survived, and I escaped.
I didn’t dare to get close to them afterward, though.
Still, this intensive hunting made my lake of blood-qi grow larger than ever. Large enough that I dared to try experimenting with both magic and body strengthening as I rested between fights.
The result of the first is the ice sword now held in my hand. It’s heavy, and not very sharp, because it’s difficult to picture such fine details with enough clarity that the magic will reproduce them in reality, but my current strength makes it an effective weapon, nonetheless.
As for body strengthening, as I had surmised, I only needed to send blood-qi running through my meridians and command it to seep into my cells. It ached a lot, but it was a good ache – the ache of growth. And I could indeed feel my muscles slowly become stronger, my bones slowly become tougher, my eyes and my ears slowly become more sensitive, my claws and my horn and my fangs slowly become sharper…
The keyword here being ‘slowly’.
As I found out, it would require enormous amounts of blood-qi to attain any tangible effect.
I tried it for only half an hour, and almost a full quarter of the lake of blood-qi I’d managed to build within my dantian disappeared, for no really noticeable advantage. I didn’t suddenly become able to leap fifty meters into the air or run like the wind or lift giant boulders and fling them at my enemies. On the long term, if I can secure a steady supply of blood to refine, body strengthening might become a good investment, I suppose, but for the current me, whose main concern is balancing the prospect of starvation with risking my life in battle against demons, it’s nothing more than an unaffordable luxury.
Another, more cost-efficient use of my blood-qi, which I discovered during my experiments, is to heal wounds.
The process is the same as for body strengthening, except that, instead of allowing my blood-qi to course through my entire body, I focus it in one specific area. I suppose that it’s simply another application of body strengthening – by concentrating its efficacy – rather than an actual, separate ability, but I find it much more useful to my short-term survival. It drastically improves my regeneration power for as long as I can keep it up, enough to heal most injuries without a trace in mere minutes.
This should prove very useful in the days to come.
And, in the end, I fully explored the forest.
Which brings me here, cursing under my breath, looking at the stairway in front of me.
No point in delaying the inevitable.
I tighten my grip on the hilt of my sword and head down the stairs.
Soon, I see the light of the fifth floor below me, far in the distance. It seems a lot brighter than that of all the floors beforehand, to be able to reach me all the way up here through the darkness of the stairway. I walk down, slowly, and the temperature of the air around me gradually increases, until, when I’m standing just a few steps up from the landing, it is almost unbearably hot. And the light is now so bright it hurts my eyes.
What’s wrong with this floor?
Is it covered in lava or something like that?
Do I have to fight demons on the slopes of an erupting volcano, now? Is that it?
Frankly, after dying and coming back to life, I’m just about ready to accept that kind of ridiculous development.
Could it be the outside?
The light streaming into the stairway isn’t blue. Nor is it multicolored.
Is it sunlight?
I rush down, heedless of my discomfort, until I reach the landing.
And step into a burning-hot desert.
Rolling dunes extend in every direction, heat shimmers rising above them, distorting and twisting my sight of whatever’s behind them. There is not a single hint of shade anywhere. In fact, the desert is completely empty. No trees, no bushes, no demons. Not even rocks. Only sand, as far as the eye can see. What I first took to be the sun clearly isn’t, because I can still make out the ceiling of the cave when I look up. I assume it’s some new kind of glowing stone that just so happens to shine much brighter and in a more natural color than the ones found on the previous floors.
In other words, I’m still trapped.
All of this enters my eyes in the mere second I have before I need to close them. It turns out that, after spending such a long time in the darkness of the floors above, suddenly being confronted with this much light is quite uncomfortable – painful, even. I don’t stay long enough in the desert to let myself get accustomed to the bright glare of that fake sun, though, because the heat bearing down on me quickly starts to affect my body and becomes well and truly agonizing, making me reel and scamper back up the stairs.
I don’t retreat all the way back up to the fourth floor, of course. The stairway probably won’t let me do that, anyway. I stay just close enough to still see the light of the fifth floor, but far enough that the heat of it isn’t directly burning me alive.
I stand there, in the cool and comfort of the stairway’s darkness, stumped.
…How am I supposed to do this?
I’m pretty sure this floor will be like all the others before it, with hidden demons and a new set of stairs heading down, with no actual exit to be found anywhere.
Another disappointment, in other words.
But how am I supposed to even look for this elusive exit?
If I stay exposed to the heat of this desert for too long a time, I will die, without even needing a demon to bite my face off and help the process along. There is simply no doubt in my mind on this point.
I can feel the threat this heat poses to me.
I really didn’t expect I would end up facing this sort of situation, though. I can freely admit I’ve always had a preference for cold environments, but that isn’t to say that I would run the risk of spontaneously dying simply by walking around under a hot summer’s sun. It’s almost like my distaste for heat has suddenly become much more prevalent and turned into an actual vulnerability. Perhaps, it has something to do with my having unlocked my magic. I would imagine heat would be the natural enemy of the word 冰.
I didn’t know runes also affected their owner’s physical body, though…
The question is purely academical, in any case. It’s not like I can remove the rune from my dantian – nor would I, even if the possibility actually existed.
But the problem remains that, if I don’t find a way to dampen this heat, I won’t survive long enough to explore the desert and find either the exit or the next stairway.
There is one obvious way, of course, but I’m not sure I can actually implement it.
That is, to use my ice magic to constantly cool down my surroundings.
Although I don’t believe it would require too much blood-qi, I would have to always keep the image of this process in my thoughts. I’ve been slowly getting more proficient at magic over the past few days, but I’m still very far from such fine control. Magic just isn’t something one can learn in a day.
Still, I can’t think of another solution.
It seems I can only try my best.
This will be good training, at least.
I close my eyes and imagine my magic diffusing through the air around me, forming a cloud of cold air hanging over my body. I activate the word 冰 and let a tiny trickle of blood-qi constantly drain through my meridians to power the spell. I feel the temperature around me noticeably decrease.
Now for the hard part…
I let out a breath through clenched teeth, squinting my eyes in concentration, and walk a few steps down the stairs, slowly, carefully, as if any abrupt motion might jostle the image out of my mind – which it might.
Ooooh! It’s working! The image is holding up!
I really must be some kind of rare genius, to have succeeded on my very first try!
All my thoughts are focused on keeping the spell running, so of course, my magic would hold firm and steady. But unfortunately, climbing down a set of stairs without paying attention to where one puts one’s feet is a rather risky endeavor.
Incidentally, I trip on my third step. I manage to catch the wall in time to prevent myself from toppling altogether, but my spell is abruptly cancelled. The backlash of the failed magic feeds back into my mind and sends me reeling; if I wasn’t already leaning against the wall, I would probably have fallen right then.
I close my eyes and let out a low moan as I rub my temples and try to soothe the headache.
“Mmmh… I wish thish didn’t have to happen with every shlip-up…”
I’ve gotten rather used to this punishment, lately, what with all the failures my training in the difficult discipline of magic have produced, but it’s still rather less than pleasant.
After a while, the headache fades away, and I let out a heavy sigh.
The next few hours are going to be very long ones, I can already tell.
Finally, I can reluctantly hold my cooling spell and walk at the same time.
I don’t know what will happen in the event of an actual fight, but if it’s only strolling around an empty desert, I should be able to just barely manage. Maybe. Hopefully.
I go down the stairs again and gingerly step onto the sands of the fifth floor. A faint white mist flutters around me, beating off the heat attacking me and keeping my surroundings at a proper, survivable temperature. The soles of my feet burn painfully as they touch the ground, but the rest of my body feels pleasantly cool.
I grit my teeth and wait a while until my eyes get used to the light.
And then, I start walking.
Still nothing after all this time.
Not even a simple stone to mark the way.
I would almost think I’ve been walking around in circles, but since I’m leaving deep footprints in the sand behind me and there is no wind to erase them, I think I would have noticed my mistake, by now. The sun still beats down mercilessly down upon me, but with my magic counteracting its heat, it has little effect on me. My skin isn’t even reddening at all.
Until, finally, they come.
As I climb up a dune, an indistinct form suddenly bursts out of the sand nearby and pounces toward me.
I swing my sword, fast but unhurried, with strength and accuracy. It strikes true, slamming my opponent back down onto the sand, a jet of black blood splashing onto me. The thing that jumped out at me had quite some momentum behind it, and my sword ends up wrenched from my hand, staying stuck into whatever it struck.
Taking a deep breath, I turn and take a look at my new enemy.
It looks like… a monitor lizard, perhaps. With red eyes and white scales and bony spikes growing down its spine and its tail, which is as long and sinuous as its whole body. All in all, it’s perhaps one and a half meters in length. Its wide mouth is filled with several rows of small, wicked teeth, and it has six legs – three on each side.
Also, my ice sword is buried into its skull.
It is very much dead.
I’m rather satisfied with how this particular ‘battle’ played out…
After the first tree demon’s ambush almost killed me, and then when I found myself surrounded and almost failed to escape, I decided to always pay special attention to not let myself be taken by surprise again.
As such, there is no way I would make the same sort of mistake twice.
…Is what I’d like to say.
But unfortunately, the moment I kneel down to extract the dantian from the lizard demon’s corpse, four more of them leap out of the sand from every direction around me.
And I do have to admit that I didn’t expect these.
Even more unfortunately, my sword is still lodged in my first victim’s brain.
I don’t tarry. I abandon the sword and dive toward the lizard in front of me, meeting it in midair. I’m heavier than it is, so I’m the one who pushes it down and ends up on top. It struggles beneath me for a moment, giving me a few inconsequential scratches, before I bury my claws into its skull.
But then one of the others jumps onto my back and latches on to me.
It thrashes and buckles wildly, and I collapse onto the sand. I immediately curl up into a ball raise my arm to protect my neck, since I assume this would be the most attractive target. I turn out to have acted just in time; barely an instant later, I feel the lizard’s fangs sink into my forearm.
Not good… My only hand is trapped, now.
I struggle to break free, and the lizard struggles to hang on, and the both of us end up toppling off the top of the dune I was climbing and rolling down its slope, kicking up sand all the way, the other two demons rushing after us. Even as we reach the bottom of the dune and our speed reduces, the lizard demon is still stuck onto my back, gnawing at my arm.
I can’t get it off me.
But I don’t need to.
I’ve spent the few seconds of our descent fixing a picture of what I want to happen in my brain, and, the very moment we stop moving, a wave of cold shoots forth from my hand, turning the entire lizard into a block of frozen meat. Clenching my teeth, I yank my arm back to my front, and the lizard’s head directly shatters, chunks of it pelting down all around my feet.
The demon’s rigid, headless corpse falls heavily down onto the sand.
“Hah, hah, hah…”
My arm is finally free, but it hurts really badly. I find myself already panting as I try to restrain the stabs of pain shooting through me. The wound itself isn’t actually very dangerous, but it’s quite ugly. A sizable portion of the skin of my forearm has been shredded by the lizard’s countless small, sharp teeth. My blood is running down my trembling fingers in rivulets and sprinkling over the ground, small wisps of smoke rising up from the drops when they touch the burning sand.
“Ngh… Damn it…”
My ‘improved’ body is otherwise rather convenient, but this heightened sensitivity to pain is a serious drawback. Even discounting what happened during my transformation, I already experienced the feeling of being injured on the floor above, and I know that even minor wounds can now be truly agonizing.
There is no time to send my blood-qi to hasten the healing process, so I just quickly seal the wounds with more ice magic as a temporary measure.
And the two surviving lizards are upon me.
They both pounce, with just the slightest delay between them.
I manage to dodge the first, but the second slams into my chest, sending me tumbling backward over the sand. I hear the demon fall as well, bouncing away out of my sight. Only a few moments later, it recovers, and the sound of its footsteps get rapidly closer to me again.
Before I even can get up and turn around to meet the attack, however, the lizard I’d first dodged comes back to the charge once more, right in front of me. I barely have time to react before it leaps at me, hissing and spitting, a forked tongue darting in and out of its open mouth. Sitting on the ground as I am, I can’t possibly hope to dodge in time, so I simply kick the beast out of the air, landing a blow right into its face, the claws on my toes ripping through its flesh and tearing its cheek open.
The blow stuns the lizard, if only for a moment, so I use this opportunity to step onto its head and grind it into the sand –
– and my other opponent chooses that moment to reach me and lunge for my throat.
I grab its neck and try to keep it away from me, but my attention is divided between my two opponents, and its jaws slowly get closer and closer to my neck.
I really wish I still had my left arm…
I can’t resist for much longer.
In desperation, I slam a headbutt into the lizard’s face.
And that kills it instantly.
Right. I’d forgotten about that thing.
Blood drips down over my face and gets into my eyes, so I tilt my head, and the demon’s corpse slides off my horn and drops onto my chest. Before I can push it off, however, the last lizard, still struggling to get its head out of the sand and reach past my feet since earlier, finally finds something to bite.
Specifically, my tail.
Which, as it happens, is a remarkably sensitive part of my anatomy.
I let out a ridiculously loud scream, and my entire body spasms uncontrollably. Both my legs strike in a completely unintentional but absolutely vicious kick.
I hear the sound of bones shattering into tiny, tiny pieces, and the feel of its bite against my tail abruptly disappears.
I raise my head to peek past the corpse resting on my chest.
The lizard has been smashed into the side of a dune, nearly a hundred meters away from me. Its body seems to have burst upon impact, blood and internal organs spilling all over the place.
I let out a sigh and let my head fall powerlessly back down onto the sand, my whole body relaxing.
This was quite strenuous…
Fighting against multiple targets at the same time is too difficult, even when they’re not individually strong. One opponent after another can jump in from the side at any time and disturb my attack or circle around my defense. I was definitely right in my decision to flee from the two tree demons that had formed a team, back on the fourth floor. They most likely would have been able to kill me, if I’d actually tried my hand against them.
I let out another sigh and push the corpse off my chest, then slowly stand up.
I gently flick my tail into my hand, stroking it. The wounds on it are minor. A few tufts of fur have been torn off, at worst. There’s barely any blood at all.
Still, that hurt a lot.
And why is my body so –
I didn’t even notice, but I must have lost the thread of my magic at some point. The heat of the desert is busy cooking me alive. It’s fortunate that the fight ended quickly enough that I wasn’t too affected by it, or it might very well have become a lethal distraction. Even now, although it’s only been a few seconds, the ice I used to close my injuries is already melting, blood and water slowly dripping down my arm.
I quickly activate the spell again.
“Haaa… Much better…”
I carefully look at the desert around me. It doesn’t seem as if any other demons were attracted by the ruckus – they would probably have appeared, by now – so I can probably take some time to reap the spoils of this battle.
I gather all the corpses into a pile and extract the dantian from their skulls. Once I’ve digested all of those, I dig a shallow, wide hole into the ground, coat it with a layer of ice – it consumes quite a lot of blood-qi to resist the heat radiating off the sand – and start draining the demons’ blood by cutting open their throats with my claws and hanging them upside down over the hole.
I do this for each of them, except for the lizard I froze, which no longer has liquid blood flowing through its veins, and the lizard that bit my tail, which… no longer really has a body to drain blood from.
This is quite a slow process, but it’s still easier than trying to drink the blood directly from the corpses. I did try it this way with the tree demons, on the fourth floor, but that was messy, and I ended up wasting quite a lot of blood as it simply spilled onto the ground before I could even drink it.
Also, I got myself positively covered in it – although, perhaps, my own clumsiness is at fault, here.
In point of fact, I am still covered in that blood – and dirt, and dust, and sand. Several days of almost constant fighting haven’t been exactly kind to my appearance, but since the stairway won’t let me go back up to the third floor, it’s not like I can take a bath anymore, and I’m not going to lick my body clean – I’m not a beast, even though I do look a little bit like one.
Well, I suppose I can console myself with the fact that I’m still cleaner than I was right after my transformation, but then again, it would be difficult to do worse than that.
When the blood has drained from the lizard demons’ corpses, I bend down and lap it up like a cat.
No, I’m really not a beast. There is just no other way to drink it.
Ah, that was good.
It was perhaps a tad too warm for my tastes, but still quite pleasant.
And it’s nice to witness the sea of blood-qi inside my dantian grow like that.
It truly feels like I’m making progress.
…It’s like I’m watching my odds of survival slowly increase.
Well, back to work.
I take up my sword, recovered from the skull of the very first lizard I killed, and start walking again, even more wary of my surroundings than I was before the fight, scanning the sand all around me for signs of concealed enemies.