I wake up, this time not only with a piercing headache but with such a dizzying array of aches and pains that I wish I could lose consciousness once more to escape from them.
But I know that if I do, I won’t wake up again.
I force my eyes open. Even that hurts.
I don’t dare to move anything else.
My legs are cold. I glance down to discover that my lower body is submerged in shallow water, while my upper body is lying crookedly on the last few steps of the stairway.
I assume this is the landing of the third floor.
It’s a bit strange to count floors starting with the uppermost, isn’t it? But I have no idea how many there are in total, so I can only do it like that.
I try to sigh, but the moment air enters my lungs, I end up in the throes of a new coughing fit. Blood froth sprinkles the stairs in front of my face. There are solid bits mixed in. All the abuse my body suffered on the second floor must have quickened the progress of my symptoms. Small cracks are already running through my dantian. It’s on the verge of breaking.
The moment it does is the moment I die.
Well, I may just die before my dantian has a chance to break if the rest of my body cannot hold up.
How much time do I have left?
Hours, perhaps? Surely less than a day.
Does it even matter?
Can I still continue?
Haaaa… I’m so tired…
A haze of pain like a heavy, wet tarp weighs down on my mind. I would give almost anything to be able to sleep, right now. To be able to stop.
How did I end up like that?
A few days ago, I was having fun with Nerys, reading my books, playing music, dancing, painting…
What on earth happened?
Well, no. I know that…
Rather, why on earth did it happen?
What did I do?
Am I going to die? Just like that?
I can’t die…
Just one more floor.
If I can’t find the exit on this one, if I only find stairs down once again, I’ll stop. I’ll rest a bit. But not before then. I have to try. I have to try just a little harder.
Just one more.
I prop myself up with my right hand. Muscles scream in protest. Bones creak. Blood gushes out of my body. I’ve been lying on my side all along, my left arm pinned between my body and the stairs. When I lift my weight off of it, the pain of it is almost enough to knock me unconscious again. But after an eternity of effort, I manage to bring myself up to a sitting position, my back against the wall of the stairway.
I’m clenching my teeth as hard as I can, but even so, I can’t prevent a pained moan from escaping me.
I think I must be crying again.
I glance up into the darkness of the stairway.
…That rabbit didn’t follow me down, for some reason.
Well, I’m not going to complain.
And I don’t have the brain power to handle complicated questions, right now, anyway.
Then, my gaze trails down to my left arm.
It was already in a pretty bad state after the rabbit kicked it, but after that little trip down the stairs, it’s been twisted almost beyond recognition. Bone sticks out of my skin in several places, and all my fingers are bent in different, wildly incompatible directions. It should disgust me, but I just feel numb, detached. It’s strange. It’s almost unreal, like this arm I’m looking at doesn’t even belong to me. Like it’s just a model or a drawing in a book. I doubt that kind of damage will ever heal completely, even if I end up leaving this cave alive, by some miracle. There is little I can do to treat it, in any case. I don’t even have the materials to build a splint. So I give it up as a lost cause and just keep it cradled against my chest. Even then, only moving it into position leaves me trembling and dripping with cold sweat.
As for my ribs, I think a few more of them broke during my fall. As with my left arm, there is little I can do to fix them. On the other hand, both my legs and my right arm seem to be whole, surprisingly. The Taint in my right leg still hasn’t spread any further than it had before. My tail is fine, too, thankfully.
In the end, the greatest problem with my body is how far my disease has progressed. The pain from the damage to my internal organs is overwhelming. Every time I breathe, a sharp twinge goes through my chest. Every time I cough, I spit out small, bloody fragments of my lungs and trachea.
But without my pills, I can’t do anything to treat that, either.
As a matter of fact, by that point, it’s pretty much hopeless even if I take my medicine, isn’t it? To have a chance, I’d need a Rebirth pill or something on that level.
No, no. I should focus on getting out of here. A pessimistic attitude won’t be of any help.
Let’s get going. I don’t have any time to lose.
I force myself to stand up and finally, fully reach the third floor.
A layer of cold, clean water that reaches up to my ankles covers the entire surface of this floor. Starting a few meters from the lip of the stairway, tall reeds – taller than I am – grow densely, forming a wall that obstructs my vision just as well as the gloom did on the floors above. While the glowing stones were until now encased into the ceiling, here, they are instead fused into the ground, beneath the water. The ripples created whenever I move twist and distort and refract the blue light from those stones and cast deep, shifting shadows against the reeds, giving the illusion of movement where there is none.
It’s quite beautiful.
And creepy, too.
I’m somewhat surprised at my ability to still feel fear, even when I’m in the kind of state where it wouldn’t be surprising if I keeled over dead any second…
I lower my head for a moment as a wave of dizziness almost makes me topple, and the water near my feet enters my sight. My blood is currently trying to turn it murky and dirty as it drips down into it, drop after drop.
Well, what is this?
I slowly bend down and pick up the sharp stone I found during my last minutes on the second floor. Its point has broken off, but its edges are still keen. I assume it fell down the stairs alongside me and ended up sinking into the water here.
It’s quite lucky I noticed it.
Not sure if it’ll be useful for anything, though.
Keeping it firmly in hand just in case, I walk through the wall of reeds before me, pushing them out of my way, the water flowing gently around my ankles and soothing the scrapes my feet have accumulated.
I’ve only walked for a few minutes, but I already have to rest.
My body is reaching the limits of its endurance.
I feel light-headed, nauseous.
I sit down as lightly as I can – which isn’t much, right now – sending waves rippling out through the reeds around me, and hang my head down, letting my chin rest against my chest. I barely have enough energy to flick my tail out of the way so that I won’t sit on it. Even my ears are drooping.
My eyelids are getting heavier.
I want to sleep.
I think I’ve lost too much blood.
I quickly open my eyes.
Not good. I fell asleep. I can’t let that happen. I forcefully shake myself out of my torpor and immediately get up, even though I don’t feel any less tired than I did a second ago.
But what greets me when I raise my head is the sight of a grotesque, freakish dog, standing right in front of me, perhaps three or four meters away.
I let out a short gasp, and my body instantly freezes. My pain and weariness are swept away by a wave of adrenaline surging through my veins. My limbs quiver with the desire to run away, but my fear is even stronger than that, and in the end, I don’t dare to move.
Both the dog’s legs and its body are long and thin, suitable for running. It has an almost featureless face, with neither eyes nor nose. Instead, its mouth is disproportionately large, like a gaping hole filled with more sharp teeth than ought to fit in it.
I have no idea how long it’s been waiting here for me to wake up. Was it just watching me this whole time?
I tightly grip my stone knife.
Should I even run away? Wouldn’t that set if off?
Before I can form an opinion, however, a preposterously long tongue suddenly stretches out of the dog’s mouth and quests around in the air, as if tasting it. After a few seconds, the dog retracts its tongue and closes its mouth again, its jaws clacking against each other. Then, it rears its head up to the ceiling and lets out a horrible screech, a sound like nails scraping on a blackboard, only much louder.
All the fur and hairs on my body stand on end, and in a purely instinctive reaction, I bolt through the reeds, my legs carrying me away from the dog of their own accord, water splashing noisily all around me.
More screeches rise from every direction.
Was it calling its friends?
It alone is more than enough to kill me.
I run frantically, not even daring to look behind me to check whether or not the dog is closing in on me. I don’t believe I’m running very fast, but I still haven’t been caught, so I suppose I do run fast enough. I keep my right hand extended in front of me, slapping reeds out of my way as I rush through them, and try to judge where the high-pitched screeches are coming from to steer myself away from them.
With each step I take, I keep expecting a demon to pop out of the reeds in front of me and cut off my escape – along with my head – but no. It seems that, unexpectedly, miraculously, I do have some measure of success in slipping away.
In the distance, a wide stone column suddenly appears out of the gloom, its form still indistinct. It towers over the forest of reeds, perhaps a hundred meters in diameter and even more than that in height, before fading into the darkness concealing the third floor’s ceiling.
Could that be the exit, somehow?
In any case, I don’t have a better plan. Out there in the open, the dogs will find me sooner or later. I can only hope for the best, adjust my course, and run in its direction.
Only a few minutes later, when I approach the stone column, do I notice that I haven’t heard any more of the dog’s horrible screeches for some time. The heavy silence hanging over the forest of reeds is unexpectedly even more unnerving than the ruckus from earlier.
What’s going on, here?
I don’t think the dogs would give up hunting me down so quickly.
Driven by the fear fast creeping up my spine, I accelerate and finally burst through the last row of reeds. I find myself standing on the edge of a clear, empty space bordering the stone column, where reeds do not grow. From up close, the column is even more massive than I thought. It’s like a gigantic pillar holding up this floor’s ceiling all by itself. I can’t see any stairway, but there is a crevice running all the way down the column’s height. It looks narrow enough to prevent the dogs from entering but wide enough that I could take refuge inside.
I wish I could reach its safety.
I very much wish I could.
But I can’t.
Because another dog is standing right in front of it, its featureless head turned toward me, as if it knew I’d end up here and was waiting for me. This one looks even bigger and uglier and stronger than the other I met before.
I don’t waste time cursing my bad luck. I immediately turn around to flee back into the forest of reeds.
But that way has already been blocked off. Five of the smaller dogs are there, stalking through the reeds.
And I finally understand.
I understand why they didn’t seem in any hurry to catch me, and why I was so successful in escaping their pursuit. I thought myself clever for using the direction of their howls to avoid them, but that’s precisely what they wanted me to do.
They were herding me here, bringing its meal to their leader.
Despair wells up as the realization hits me.
…What am I supposed to do against six dog demons at the same time when I can’t even win against a single rabbit?
I hear water splash behind me and turn around just in time to see the huge dog demon rush at me, gaping maw wide-open and ready to tear me apart. I desperately try to dodge to the side.
I do manage to avoid most of the impact, but the dog still slams against the left side of my body. I prepare myself for the searing pain my left arm is shortly going to inflict upon me after this impact, but strangely enough, it doesn’t hurt. I only feel a shiver of indistinct sensation climb up my shoulder.
The dog’s weight crashing into me makes me stumble back a few steps, but I keep my balance, while the dog overshoots me and lands in the water behind me, next to its smaller kin.
And I see it…
My opportunity to survive.
All the dogs are behind me, now. The way to the crevice is clear.
This is my chance.
I can survive.
I can definitely survive.
I sprint toward the stone column. I tune out everything else. The pain in my chest doesn’t matter. The dogs running after me don’t matter. There is only me and that narrow gap in the stone.
I have to reach it…
I have to reach it.
I have to reach it!
I’m just two meters away from it when a heavy weight suddenly strikes me in the back and pushes me forward with great force. With the sudden acceleration and the weight of the water dragging my ankles down, I stagger and topple forward. I barely manage to twist my body in time to avoid the rock walls on either side and plunge through the crack in the giant stone column.
I’ve made it!
My happiness is rather short-lived, however, because the crevice isn’t very deep. An instant after flying headfirst past its lip, I crack my skull against the rock wall at the other end and collapse facedown into the water. It takes until my lungs are begging for air for my head to clear a little. I struggle to rise, but I don’t have the strength to stand up anymore. Eventually, all I can manage is to sit wearily against one of the side walls of the crevice.
A high tin is ringing in my ears, but I can barely make out a vague, blurry sound coming from seemingly far away. I raise my pounding head to take a look and end up staring right into the raging face of the huge dog demon, its jaws snapping at me, slobber flying everywhere.
But it can’t reach me.
It’s stretching its neck to try and get to me, but it simply cannot reach me.
I have no idea what’s going on anymore.
I keep staring at it mindlessly for a minute until my mind gets back on track.
Ah, I see. I understand.
The shock that propelled me forward earlier was that demon ramming against my back. Its momentum carried it halfway into the crevice, following after me. However, it’s simply too big to go either forward or back. It’s completely stuck. Its shoulders are rubbing against the walls on either side, leaving trails of black blood and clumps of fur against the jagged rock as it struggles to move. The dog seemingly can’t make up its mind whether to eat me or retreat out of the crevice. It goes from one to the next alternatively as it finds out it can’t achieve either of them.
It would normally be quite frightening to have such a monster just a meter away from me, I suppose, but I just don’t have the energy for that anymore. And it looks like I’m safe, for now, anyway.
As a matter of fact, I’m somewhat surprised this beast managed to squeeze in as deep as it did. The crevice is clearly wider than it appeared from a distance. Wide enough to let the smaller dog demons enter it, I think. This turn of events might have ended up saving my life. If the big one hadn’t been here to block the way with its bulk, the smaller demons would be feasting on my corpse, right about now.
I gaze at the monster.
…Should I try to kill it?
I probably won’t have any better opportunity than this.
How would I kill it, though?
Do I still have my – Oh, I do. I’m still gripping my stone knife.
I try to reverse my grip to make it more comfortable to stab with, but my hand isn’t responding. My fingers coil around the makeshift hilt, knuckles white with strain, clenched to the point of numbness. I wonder for a second if I should try to unwrap them from the hilt, but I quickly decide against it and just sit there unresponsive, my eyes starting to close again in exhaustion.
I’m just so tired…
I’m trapped in this crevice, with demons blocking the exit and waiting for me outside.
Now, I just want to sleep…
Even as I start to lose consciousness, the dog demon keeps struggling to reach me or escape, wildly shaking its head, seemingly undeterred by its lack of success.
And then, something thin and long and red and white leaves its mouth, dislodged from between its teeth by its thrashing. It only flickers within my sight for a moment before bouncing against the wall and falling into the water with a little splash. Then, the waves still shaking the surface of the water bring that something squarely before my eyes.
Instantly, my whole body stiffens, and my eyes open wide again.
I recognize what that something is.
W–Why is one of my fingers in the water?
Why did one of my fingers fly out from the dog’s mouth?
Without waiting for my command, my head turns to the left, the motion jerky, as if my neck has suddenly rusted and needs to be oiled.
My left arm comes into my sight.
Or, it should.
But everything below the shoulder is gone. Only a few strips of torn flesh are left dangling from it. A jagged piece of white bone peeks out from the wound. It looks disgusting. I think I’m going to throw up.
“A–Ah… W–What? What’s…”
My voice is dry and hoarse. It cracks in the middle of my words and fails to come out again.
What happened to my arm?
Why is it gone?
When did I lose it?
It doesn’t even hurt.
What… What is this?
I can’t seem to be able to tear my eyes away from the ruins of my flesh.
Until something wet and slimy crawls up my leg and snaps me back to reality.
The dog demon has extended its long tongue all the way up to me. It’s entwined tightly around my thigh, like some kind of tentacle. The sensation of it is revolting, but the danger seems to bring back some life into my battered body, somehow. I frantically try to pry the tongue loose, but with only one arm and with my fingers still gripping my stone knife, I’m too clumsy to do it.
The tongue tightens further still. Slivers of pain shoot up my leg. I can hear the strained creaks of my bones.
Since I can’t drop it, I may as well use it.
I work its blade between my skin and the tongue and use it as a lever. The tongue is wrapped around my thigh snugly enough that there is no gap to work with, so I have to dig into my flesh. Blood wells up.
I grit my teeth and force myself to continue.
But it doesn’t work.
As the pain intensifies, I get more and more anxious to remove the tongue, until a shudder spreads up my leg, and – crack, crack, crack – it breaks in several places.
I scream out in pain, and more tears overflow from the corners of my eyes. My breath only comes out in short bursts now as I still try to free myself, but fear and panic and pain sap what little strength I have left.
Right afterward, the dog demon starts to retract its tongue while it’s still attached to me, towing me closer to itself, my back scraping painfully against the stony ground.
I struggle against the pull, splashing water everywhere in my struggles. I try to hold on to the walls but only manage to ruin my knuckles. I try to kick the tongue with my free leg, but my blows bounce off it harmlessly.
Before I know it, I’m lying right beneath the demon. It just has to bend down a little, close its jaw, and I will be dead. With my leg as it is, there is no way I can draw back in time.
As expected, the dog lowers its head toward me.
I reflexively stab at its face with my stone knife. The blade skids off after cutting into the dog’s hide as if a solid bone plate is hidden just beneath it.
Not going to work.
I cut at its tongue with the stone knife.
That works a lot better. Stretched taut as it is, a single slash is enough to sever it.
Am I an idiot?
Why on earth didn’t I do this beforehand?
The dog yelps and rears back its head, the stump of its tongue spraying black blood everywhere.
It rears back its head –
– and exposes its throat.
The sound of my heartbeat pounding in my ears stops.
The trembling of my body stops.
The pain stops.
Every single one of my instincts tells me that now is the perfect opportunity for me to exterminate my enemy.
In a single, fluid motion, I push myself off the floor, letting my uninjured leg carry my weight, and stab. My stone knife buries itself into the dog’s vulnerable flesh, and I slash it to the side, leaving a gaping wound into its throat.
Time starts again.
The demon’s body jerks under my attack. Its front legs strike my chest and send me flying back into the crevice. I fall on my back again, disturbing the water, waves lapping around my body.
I can’t move anymore. I try, but my body doesn’t respond.
This time, I think I’m done…
I glance down through half-closed eyes at the dog demon.
I watch it as it dies.
Its legs paw at the air, more and more weakly. It makes high, plaintive, keening noises. Black blood cascades down the open gash in its throat, staining the water underneath and gradually dimming the light of the submerged glowing stones, throwing the crevice into deeper and deeper darkness – either that or my sight is fading away.
Soon, the demon is dead.
I don’t feel any satisfaction.
Because I soon will be, too.
The dog demon ate my left arm. The Taint poisoned my right leg. My other leg, as well as half of my ribs, are broken. I’ve lost most of the blood in my body. My organs are rotting and falling to pieces. My dantian is about to shatter.
There is no way anyone could survive that.
I’m crying again.
The pain is gone.
I can’t feel my body at all.
I can’t see, or hear, or smell anything.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want to die…
I really don’t want to die…
I wish I could see Nerys one more time.