I don’t know how long I sleep.
There is no sunrise and sunset down here to help measure the passing of time.
But I feel rested. I feel good – physically if nothing else.
I feel healthy.
I feel… strong.
I’m still lying down on my back, in the water which covers the third floor of this mysterious cave. I haven’t even moved, but I can already feel the strength coursing through my entire body.
In point of fact, I feel better now than I ever remember feeling in my whole life – which hasn’t exactly been long, so that might not mean as much as it could, but still. There is no tightness in my chest, no matter how slight. No weight pressing down on my lungs, making every breath I take an effort. I’m not certain what happened, but if I had to guess, I would say that, while I survived the changes the Taint brought to my body, my disease did not.
Which is remarkably good news.
Didn’t my life span just increase by a lot?
Even in the best of cases, with this disease undermining my body, I would have had at most three more years to live, but now, if I am actually free from it…
Am I actually free from it?
I should probably wait a few days before celebrating and see if the symptoms come back.
I don’t want to be disappointed.
Still, I think I can hope.
I slowly raise my right arm above my head. Drops of water rain down from my fingertips and onto my face.
My hand looks… strange. Different from before.
I glance down at the rest of my body.
As the Taint left my meridians and was sucked into my dantian, the black stripes that covered my skin also thinned out and disappeared. And it looks like they took every other color along with them when they left. Even the stripes that covered my leg after my encounter with the rat on the first floor are gone.
As it is, my skin went back to white.
However, it’s no longer the normal, pinkish white that I’m familiar with – although I was always a bit pale for never having left the house – but a pure white, like new snow or like an alabaster statue. It’s not a very natural skin color. Only my fingers and my toes are jet-black, and rather than bearing actual claws, the digits themselves taper to a sharp point. It’s as if they’re all covered in some sort of metal. I can’t feel any seam between the white of my palm and the black of my fingers.
…Isn’t this the same black metal that replaced all my bones, now that I think about it?
I clench my fist a few times and rub my fingers against each other. I have lost neither flexibility nor sensitivity, at least. Quite the contrary, in fact.
I sit up slowly, carefully, in case some damage remains even after the transformation, but nothing impedes my movements. My body responds to my will more readily than it ever did before.
All of my injuries have already healed.
My left arm hasn’t grown back, however.
As I lean forward to examine myself, my hair suddenly slips past my shoulder and falls into my sight. It’s much longer than before. When I stand, I think it should reach all the way down to my knees. And it’s white, of course. It seems even whiter than my skin, somehow.
I flick my tail to my front. White, too.
“Thish ish… quite…”
I try to speak but trail off quickly. I’m having some trouble pronouncing the words correctly. I don’t think Eashiri was designed for people with fangs growing in their mouth.
But if the price to pay for my body to heal and for me to stay alive is a little speech impediment, I’ll happily accept it.
Still, it’s uncomfortable. I had perfectly normal teeth before. And I didn’t have claws, either. It’s like the wolf part of me, which had until then only given me my tail and my ears, suddenly became more prominent.
I will need some time to adjust to all of this.
Well, as long as I don’t bite my own tongue off or stab myself in the face with my own fingers, I suppose it’s fine…
But what does annoy me, is that I don’t look like Nerys so much, now. Both of us had black hair. Now, we’re basically standing on opposite ends of the color spectrum. It sounds stupid, but it makes me feel like the distance between us increased.
I hope my face didn’t change too much, at least…
What if she can’t even recognize me the next time we meet?
I don’t have a mirror so it’s not like I can make sure.
I softly trace my features with my fingertips, careful not to injure myself with my new claws.
I don’t feel anything particularly strange about –
Wait, I take that back…
What is that?
Strange. Very strange.
My memory may just be playing tricks on me, but I distinctly seem to recall being a wolf.
“Am I a unicorn, now?”
When I look up, I can see it on the very edge of my vision. I didn’t pay attention earlier, but…
A black horn, slightly curving upward and around 30 centimeters long, thrusts out of the center of my forehead. It’s apparently made out of the same strange metal as my fingers, my toes, and my skeleton. A groove spirals around its length, from base to tip. And it ends on a very, very sharp point.
The moment I touch it, it pierces effortlessly through the metal-skin of my fingertip, drawing a bead of black blood.
Yes. I will definitely need some time to adjust…
It’ll be bad if I skewer anyone on it.
I put my finger in my mouth and idly lick off the few drops of blood on it.
To my surprise, a few seconds later, the blood I just swallowed enters the meridians linked to my stomach and is immediately sucked into my dantian, passing through its surface unimpeded, precisely as the leftover demon blood did after the transformation I was subjected to.
I focus my mind on my dantian to examine it in more detail.
I don’t feel from it the sense of rejection I usually do.
For some reason, I’ve never been able to let my mind enter my own dantian in the past – though I’ve never had any issue observing its outside appearance. It always repelled me when I tried. Which means that I’ve never been able to refine any qi at all. Which in turn means that any technique that requires qi, like magic or body strengthening, is completely out of my reach.
But now, I feel like I can do it.
I cross my legs, taking the proper posture for meditation, and close my eyes.
I let my mind slowly approach my dantian.
It feels like sinking into a quagmire, but, as expected, the black mercury of its surface lets me through.
All of a sudden, I’m not sitting in the dirty water of that crevice anymore.
I am floating in a strange universe.
The sky here is jet-black, without stars. Gigantic waves mar its surface. It’s like I’m looking at an upside-down, impossibly remote, endless sea. This should be the outer shell of my dantian – the black mercury – seen from inside of it.
I look down. Another black sea lies there – though it’s actually more like a small lake, in scale. This one feels closer, more real, like an actual, physical thing, rather than an untouchable, unreachable, immaterial sky. Another difference between this lake and the sky is that it is perfectly motionless, perfectly stagnant.
And the smell of blood it gives off is overwhelming.
Is this the demon blood left over after my transformation?
With the blood I just licked off my finger added to it, I suppose?
I make a small effort of will, and the lake of blood shrinks abruptly, condensing in an instant into a small, revolving black ball that comes floating in front of my eyes. With another thought, the ball morphs into a miniature version of me, who looks up at my face and waves its hand. Then, it drops back down into the empty void beneath me and expands hundreds of times again, turning back to its previous image as a lake. The change is fast but smooth and gentle. No waves rock the lake’s surface.
Well, this is all very nice, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it.
What actual, practical use is this lake of blood supposed to have?
Why is it stored in my dantian?
Since I have no answers to these questions yet, I turn my attention to the other things present in this bleak universe.
Floating in the air above me, large as mountains, are two words, written in Eashiri.
The first is 冰.
Simply calling it a word doesn’t do it justice, though. It’s as if a masterful artist decided that using a brush for calligraphy was insufficient and instead expended all his skills to carve an ancient glacier into the word’s shape. It is majestic and beautiful. Its ice is pure and transparent and glittering. Thick tendrils of white smoke drop from the character’s edges like waterfalls, coiling and curling prettily as if stirred by a non-existent wind, before slowly fading into the surrounding void.
The second word, on the other hand, is almost a complete opposite of the first. This one is so shrouded in black fog that I can only make out its outer edges. I actually can’t read its meaning. In the first place, I’m not even sure if it’s an Eashiri word at all. It should be, but…
I try to clear up the smoke around it.
Unexpectedly, I fail.
“What ish going on here?”
Inside my dantian, my will should be law. How can there be anything outside my control?
Well, I don’t want to force it. I’m quite new to all of this.
Who knows what might happen if I inadvertently do something bad?
I’m already satisfied by being able to access my dantian at all.
I look back to the first word.
This, then, would be my magic.
冰, is it?
I want to try it out immediately if I can.
I quickly stopped studying qi techniques like magic after I discovered I didn’t have the ability to use any of them. It seemed somewhat masochistic to continue tempting myself with their possibilities when those possibilities were closed to me.
But still, I do know the basics. The first step is to gather enough qi to activate a spell. To do so, I need to draw it in from the world around me with the help of a breathing technique and refine it by absorbing it into my dantian.
I don’t know any breathing technique.
Why would I need a technique to breathe? This sounds really stupid.
Just inhale and exhale. How hard can it be?
Well, let’s give it a try…
I imagine ethereal wisps of… something… flitting gently through the air, light as clouds. Then I start taking deep breaths, in and out, and try to imagine that ‘something’ being drawn into my body along with the nitrogen and oxygen of the actual air itself.
This isn’t going very well, is it?
“Am I doing it wrong?”
It’s already been more than an hour, but I still can’t feel anything.
I let out a discouraged sigh and open my eyes.
The next step would be to imbue the power of the character 冰 into the qi I’ve refined in order to give it the attribute and properties of ‘ice’. And then would be to imagine what I want that ice qi to do and send it forth from my body. If the amount of qi I gathered was large enough, and if the image in my thoughts was vivid enough, then it would happen.
As for body strengthening, if I recall correctly, it’s actually nothing more than a simpler form of magic. I would just need to send my refined qi through my meridians and allow it to seep into my body. Exactly like the medicine I took to suppress my disease did, in fact. Pills are only containers holding a certain amount of refined qi that has already been imbued with a variety of different effects – like I would imbue mine with ‘ice’ – such as preventing organ necrosis or things like that.
However, if I want to accomplish something similar without the help of a pre-made medicinal pill, I need to first gather and refine the necessary qi by myself.
Which brings me back to square one.
I can’t refine any qi if I don’t know any breathing technique.
Frustrated, I stand up and start pacing around the narrow crevice. It’s only three or four steps back and forth, but I don’t care.
I ponder and consider and think, until my attention drifts away from the problem and I hear water splash beyond the lip of the crevice, behind the corpse of the big dog demon. Those smaller dog demons certainly are patient. They’re still outside, waiting me out.
I’ll definitely need to leave this refuge of mine.
And sooner rather than later, too, if only to find food.
That thought seems to trigger some sort of switch inside me, because only at that moment do I notice my hunger. Interestingly enough, however, I’m not actually the least bit thirsty. I suppose I did drink a lot of my own blood, before I died, but still… Is that really normal?
Perhaps I don’t even need to drink anymore?
That would certainly be quite convenient…
I take a quick glance around myself, in case I missed anything obvious, but there doesn’t appear to be anything to eat anywhere in this crevice. However, I’m not sure I’ll stand a chance against the dog demons if I exit, even with my new claws and my new fangs – and my horn too, I suppose. Except for what little of it I acquired in this cave before my death, I have no experience with violence whatsoever.
Which is why, if at all possible, I’d prefer to work out how to use my magic before confronting them.
It would at least give me a fighting chance.
But considering my absolute lack of success with it, it may turn out that I’ll have to forgo magic, in the end.
I let out a sigh and idly look down at the water around me.
How many teeth and nails are floating in there? How many times did they grow back, only to fall off right away? How many times did my bones shatter before they were completely replaced by that strange black metal?
I glance at my own body.
I’ve been sleeping and sitting and walking in that filth, and it shows. Loose hairs, caked blood, and other things I don’t want to examine too closely are stuck to my skin and to what’s left of my dress. I didn’t really care when I woke up, but I should probably clean myself up, now that I’ve actually noticed the problem.
I take off my dress – it’s unexpectedly quite a challenge with only one hand – and drag it in the water to create a current, letting it push all the discarded fragments of my old body toward the lip of the crevice.
Let the dogs eat that as an appetizer.
After a few minutes of work, the water has regained its previous purity and limpidity. I wash my dress as best I can, sweep off the dirty water again, then use the dress as a towel to scrape the filth off my body.
Repeat until clean.
It took quite a while to clean myself up – especially my hair and my tail – but I feel much better now.
And I needed the time to think.
…I might have found a way to use magic.
But before that…
I hold my dress up in front of myself. It doesn’t look much like a dress anymore. Where is the opening for my head? For my arms? For my tail? It’s not that I’m lacking for choice, really. Rather, there are too many openings to choose from. This dress is made out of more holes than fabric, now.
I may have been a bit too forceful when I was washing and rinsing it, I think.
I let out a helpless sigh.
There is no way I can wear this.
But… do I just remain naked? I wouldn’t really care if I were still at home – though Nerys would be sure to make rude comments about it – but here… I wish I’d worn some underwear, at least. But then, I wish I’d worn some shoes, too. Only, I’ve never even owned either of those things in all my life.
I stand there like an idiot for a long time, ragged dress in hand, hesitating.
But in the end, I give up and throw it in the back of the crevice, before sitting back down into the clean water. I have more important things to worry about than embarrassment.
I close my eyes and enter my dantian again. I fly down to the lake of demon blood extending below me.
Didn’t it shrink?
It looks somewhat smaller than I remember.
Are my eyes playing tricks on me?
In any case, this lake should be the solution to my problems. I realized it earlier, but the transformation I was subjected to is basically a form of body strengthening, isn’t it? It’s a more violent, more thorough, and more painful version of body strengthening. And its effects didn’t come from qi.
Instead, they came from the demon blood invading my body.
Which should mean – should – that I can refine demon blood instead of qi. In fact, I’ve already done so, once. When I swallowed the blood I licked off my finger, it was absorbed into my dantian – that is to say, it was refined. The black lake in front of me should be refined demon blood. I had no idea it was possible to refine anything other than qi, but if I’m correct, I should be able to use the contents of this lake just as I would qi.
I’ll just call it blood-qi, then.
…Let’s try it right away.
I once again compress the lake of blood-qi into a small black ball and let it float above my open palm, bobbing gently.
With only a single thought, the character 冰 suddenly starts to exude a strange, undefinable pressure that quickly fills my entire dantian. At the same time, the black ball of demon blood hanging unsupported above my hand gradually turns white and cold and faintly glittery, small trails of white mist gently trailing up from all over it.
It’s a very strange phenomenon. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It doesn’t look at all like a ball of demon blood anymore, but the smell of it is still the same, still as overwhelming as when it was in the form of a black lake.
I’m not actually certain if this is the expected result, but at least, something happened.
I slowly open my eyes – the eyes of my real, actual, physical body, not those of the body in my dantian – and extend my right hand toward the corpse of the dog demon in front of me. I imagine a wave of cold engulfing it, careful not to lose control of the icy ball of blood-qi within my dantian.
I lost my image of the spell as soon as I tried to send the blood-qi through my meridians.
This is actually quite difficult. I need to divide my mind into two different trains of thought and keep both of them firm and stable. Mental discipline is key, here, but I’ve never trained in such a thing. I suppose I’ll be getting some practice in the future…
I eventually do manage to succeed, after several fruitless tries, and once the image is firmly fixed in my mind, I command the energy represented by the ball of blood-qi to leave my dantian and follow the meridians leading to my outstretched hand.
It does so obediently –
– and a vast amount of white fog shoots out of my palm.
My vision abruptly dims.
I lose consciousness before I can even react.