When I open my eyes, I’m lying on my back in the water again.
My whole body feels weak.
What’s going on?
I thought I’d become stronger, after my transformation.
And I’m so hungry, too…
Oh… I think I understand…
The blood-qi inside my dantian isn’t only used for magic. It also serves as energy for my body itself. By emptying my entire reserves of it when I tried to use my magic, earlier, I must have collapsed from something akin to starvation.
I really should have been more careful.
In my dantian, the sky is still rippling. The two runes are still letting out mist in their respective color. But the lake of blood-qi has been replaced by a much smaller pool.
I remember spending every single drop, so why is some of it left? I’m not complaining, since it’s probably thanks to it that I even woke up at all, but I don’t understand how it came to be here. This is a rather important question – I wouldn’t want to inadvertently starve to death – so I try to ignore my hunger, and focus my mind on the black pool, on my dantian as a whole, and on my meridians.
I keep my eyes closed, and I wait.
And I observe…
Ah, I see. I understand my body a bit better now.
Minute amounts of the blood flowing in my veins are constantly entering my meridians and getting sucked into my dantian, feeding into the black pool and replenishing it. At the same time, the pool is slowly being consumed, drop by drop, to power my body. Even right now, lying motionless as I am, the pool of energy is slowly shrinking. Its consumption rate is faster than its regeneration rate. I am spending blood-qi just to stay awake. As it is, I have perhaps an hour of consciousness left to me before the pool is depleted, and I fall unconscious – or is it asleep? – once more.
I can’t help but feel that this body of mine is quite inefficient…
But no… I suppose that, although it looks large enough to be called a pool from my current perspective, in the end, it’s really a very small amount of blood-qi – only what my body could refine on its own in the time I was unconscious. And if I follow this logic, it means the consumption rate of my blood-qi diminishes when I sleep. Enough that I can actually accumulate energy faster than I spend it. Otherwise, the pool never would have formed in the first place.
And I never would have woken up…
This was quite dangerous…
I wonder if other demons also work the same way. Can they just enter hibernation and wake up later full of energy, even if they don’t actually eat anything at all in the meantime?
Other demons… is it?
I thought it like it was natural…
But, yes. I am a demon, now, aren’t I? A humanoid, intelligent demon. The first, as far as I know. At least, I’ve never heard nor read about anyone not only surviving the Taint but also fusing with it and transforming from it, like I did.
I’m a true pioneer. I should be proud.
Now that I think about it, didn’t that scum accuse me of being a demon?
I suppose they turned out to be right in the end, didn’t they?
…Good job predicting the future, scum.
I can feel a dark, black anger quietly smolder in the back of my mind, like a bed of coals just waiting for a small gust of wind to feed into it to suddenly sprout up into full flames.
…I was too scared and anxious and desperate to really consider the question before, but I suppose being angry would be justified. Would it not? Do those people have any idea how much I suffered because of them? Would they even care if they did? They wanted to burn me alive, anyway, so probably not.
They’d probably be happy about it.
Let me satisfy you.
As you would have wished, it did hurt.
And yet, I’m still alive, even now.
I wonder, Mister, um… Festus, was it?
I wonder, Lord…
I really can’t help but wonder…
Would I not be perfectly justified in making you all also get a taste of that?
My heartbeat is pounding in my ears, as loud as a drum. My whole dantian seems to pulsate in time with it as well, and the dark mist shrouding the second rune suddenly stirs. It coalesces into a dozen black tendrils that slowly stretch out from it, grasping blindly through the air toward my body, floating in the void a bit away.
My head hurts.
I take long, deep breaths and try to calm myself. I retreat away from the dark tendrils reaching out for me and focus on the character 氷. Cold. Indifferent. Unfeeling. Impassive. Slowly, gradually, the anger recedes, and my dantian calms down. The tendrils of darkness retract back into the black mist around the second rune.
I let out the breath I’ve unknowingly been holding.
Why did my dantian react like that? Is this because of the transformation, too? Have my emotions also been strengthened? Have they become more sensitive, more likely to rear up and run out of control?
And what’s with the black rune?
Was it reaching out to me?
…What on earth is that thing supposed to be? Can runes even do that?
I was planning on using some blood-qi to blindly activate it, in order to witness its effects and guess its meaning this way, but I don’t think I will, all things considered. I don’t want to take the risk.
Taking a last, steadying breath, I finally open my eyes and look around myself.
I blink at the sight greeting me when I do.
Where am I?
Am I still on the third floor?
Is this really the same crevice as before?
Starting a meter or so from me, the entire world is encased in a layer of ice. The walls, the water, the dog demon’s corpse… Everything is white and glittery. Small wisps of fog rise up from every surface, curling artistically through the air.
…Did I do that?
Is that the result of my attempt at magic?
This is amazing. It’s even better than I had imagined. And didn’t the temperature drop vertiginously, too? I didn’t notice, since, for my new body, this is actually quite comfortable, but a human would probably be on the verge of freezing to death, right about now.
Interesting… My breath isn’t misting when I exhale, even in this cold.
My stomach growls loudly, interrupting my reverie.
I need to find food.
Well, I say food, but I just mean energy. Blood-qi. And the only way to refine blood-qi I know of is to drink blood. I’m not sure if I can even eat normal food anymore. It’s entirely possible I lost the ability to digest such a thing altogether. I do still have a stomach, but I’m not sure how my transformation might have changed it.
I look at the dog demon’s corpse. I hope there is blood left in it. Otherwise, I’ll need to kill another dog.
I suppose I can also drink some of mine, if I really need to, but strangely enough, I feel an inexplicable disgust at the idea, as if I were contemplating something as revolting as eating one of my limbs or something. Anyway, in the long term, bleeding myself isn’t a viable solution. Blood naturally regenerates over time, but I need to eat more often than such a slow process can sustain.
In the end, I’ll need to hunt.
I stand up. My legs are weak, shaky, unsteady.
I step on the frozen water in front of me, careful not to slip. With my luck, I might just knock myself unconscious again. As I quickly find out, however, I know precisely where and how to put my weight on the ice in order to stay perfectly balanced. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I could run or jump or do cartwheels on it even more easily than I can on bare earth.
Is this instinct?
I walk to the dog demon.
I can’t get to its blood like this.
How am I supposed to remove the ice covering it? Do I use magic?
I’m pretty sure I’ll collapse on the spot if I spend more blood-qi on another ill-advised spell.
I absently run my hand against its frozen hide, and my claws enter my sight.
…Yes, that could work.
Time to test out how sharp they really are. I stiffen my index finger and stab it into the ice. Although I’m not too forceful, I easily penetrate all the way through until I feel the dog’s skin under my fingertip. I barely felt any resistance at all.
I remove my finger.
I might actually hurt myself with these things.
And what if I touch Nerys in my sleep? Wouldn’t this be ridiculously dangerous?
And not just my claws… What if Nerys hugs me like she always does?
Wouldn’t she end up skewered on my horn?
Yes. Yes, she would.
She very much would.
We won’t be able to sleep together anymore…
Well, enough joking around. I’m starving, here.
I pierce a few more holes through the ice, my instincts kicking in once more to tell me where to do so in order to undermine the whole thing. After only half a dozen holes, the ice starts falling off the demon’s corpse in large chunks.
But I find myself disappointed. The corpse is empty of blood.
No choice, then.
I raise my hand up to my forehead, and as gently as possible, I let the point of my horn slice over my skin. It’s so sharp it doesn’t even hurt. Then, I lower my hand and cup my palm and let my blood pool into it for a minute or two. I hesitate for a moment, battling the revulsion within me, then finally bring the blood up to my mouth, careful not to spill any, and drink.
It tastes just fine.
…So what was that disgust all about?
A few seconds later, the blood enters my meridians and flows into my dantian, feeding into the black pool of blood-qi, almost doubling its size. My hunger barely subsides at all, but a little bit of strength comes back to my limbs.
With this, I should be able to give a better fight against the dogs.
I focus on my hearing for a few moments.
It feels a bit strange to also hear sounds through my elf ears when, for my whole life up until now, they’ve remained completely useless. I can usually ignore the discomfort that brings, but, when I actually make an effort and listen, it can get a little disconcerting.
Unexpectedly, however, I can’t hear the dogs anymore.
Did they retreat? Do demons even know the concept of retreat?
Were they scared off by my wondrous display of magic?
Do demons even know the concept of fear?
No matter what, what I need to do doesn’t change…
I take deep breaths and try to still my anxiety, but it feels like a stone weighing heavily in my belly.
My body is strong. My senses are as sharp as my claws. I can casually stab my fingers right through a three-centimeter-thick sheet of ice. The dogs’ hide will be like wet tissue paper, in front of me.
I can do this.
I can definitely do this…
I place my hand against the big dog’s featureless face and push. Slowly, its corpse slides out of the crevice, leaving scraped-off patches of skin and fur on the jagged walls, until, with one final heave, the corpse is freed, dropping down onto the frozen water covering the ground with a dull, limp thud.
I step out of the crevice, ready to inflict violence on whatever target presents itself.
All five of the smaller dogs are here.
But they’re all already dead. Like their leader, their bodies too are encased in ice.
In fact, for a few meters around the lip of the crevice where I was hiding, everything has been frozen solid.
…I didn’t expect my magic to be so efficient.
Well, I’m not going to complain.
Looks like I don’t need to risk my life, today.
And I won’t need to go hungry, either.
I walk to the closest corpse, still standing upright, one front leg up in the air, presumably in the exact position it held at the moment of its death. It probably never even realized what killed it. I kneel down in front of it and remove the ice covering it just as I did the big dog beforehand. Then, my hunger urging me on, I tear its throat open with a swipe of my claws.
No blood flows out. All of it seems to have been frozen solid directly inside the dog’s veins. Even the flesh I just ripped off feels more like a chunk of ice than of meat. Pieces of it crumble under my grip and patter around my feet.
Did I unknowingly spoil all my food?
Should I wait for it to thaw?
But it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. The temperature around the crevice is still definitely well below freezing. It should even out with the rest of the third floor, in time, but my reserves of blood-qi won’t last until then.
Do I really have to bleed myself?
Wait a second…
What is this smell?
It smells… delicious…
Following my nose, I stab my claws into the dog’s skull and pry it open. I dig into it until I reach the source of the appetizing smell, right between the two hemispheres of its brain.
The dog’s dantian.
I pry it out of its skull.
I don’t find the exercise as revolting as I probably should.
I shake off a few pieces of brain matter stuck to my fingers and raise the dantian in front of my eyes. It looks remarkably similar to mine, except that it seems to have fossilized. The ripples marring its surface have hardened, becoming solid wrinkles. It’s about as big as a quail egg, but I know that its physical size doesn’t actually restrict its contents in any way. For all I know, there could be an entire planet hidden in there.
There probably isn’t, though.
Rather, if it’s like mine, what should be inside is… blood-qi.
Blood-qi I should be able to absorb and make mine.
Without hesitation, I throw the dantian in my mouth and swallow it whole.
Delicious, indeed. It tastes even better than my blood did.
Inside my stomach, the dantian’s outer shell gradually wears away, as if corroded by a powerful acid, and as expected, black blood-qi leaks out from within it, quickly entering my meridians and flowing into my own dantian.
I quickly repeat the process for all the other dogs here.
And finally, my hunger is satisfied.
It all turned out to be quite a lot of blood-qi, in the end. It took some time for me to absorb all of it. The black pool within me has turned into a lake several times larger than it was when I first woke up after my transformation.
If I try to compare them…
The small pool should have roughly equaled one hour of wakefulness, as I already estimated earlier. As for the previous lake formed from the leftovers of my transformation, if I hadn’t wasted all of it on my reckless attempt at magic, it should have lasted me for… 15 or 16 hours, perhaps? The lake of blood-qi as it is now, after eating my fill, should be able to power my body for a few days.
A few days of normal activity, that is.
I think the consumption rate should increase if I were to exert myself by running or fighting or using magic.
Still, for now, this should be good enough.
After all, even if I want to try my hand at magic, it’s purely for self-defense. I don’t intend to go hunting every demon I can lay my eyes on. Avoiding battle would very much be preferable.