I do have one more doubt, however.
Why can’t I find a dantian inside the big dog’s skull?
It’s true that I couldn’t smell it, but I wondered if it was hidden somewhere deep inside its body, perhaps, so I ended up tearing the corpse apart piece by piece in my search for it.
But I really couldn’t find it…
Did I already refine it along with its blood during my transformation?
I have no idea.
I’m not hungry anymore, so it doesn’t really matter, I suppose.
What’s important, now that I’ve secured enough energy for a few days, is to escape this cave and rejoin my family. This is really no time for me to get sidetracked on dangerous magic experiments. I’ll be able to do that even more easily in the comfort of my own house – after it’s been rebuilt, I suppose – with Father’s advice to help me along.
I just need to find the exit as quickly as possible.
But where could it be?
I’m sure it’s not on the first floor, at least. It was just a straight, narrow hallway, so I would have seen it if I’d passed it along the way. It could be on the second floor. I didn’t exactly have the leisure to explore it before the rabbits chased me out. I could have missed it. Or it could be on the third floor, hidden somewhere behind the tall reeds. Or it could be on an even lower floor.
…How many floors are there, in fact?
And what is this place even supposed to be? What I’ve seen of it so far completely removes any possibility that it might be the hideout of the people who kidnapped me. No one would be crazy enough to base themselves out of a den of demons. In the first place, how did they bring me to that chamber, at the end of the first floor, where I woke up? Did they fight the demons along the way? Except I didn’t see any sign of battle as I went through. And why would they have even done such a thing?
Why go through all that trouble?
Why bring me here in the first place?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
My dantian starts pulsating again as the sound of my heartbeat fills my ears. The shroud of dark smoke hanging over the second rune stirs and roils.
No. Calm down. Focus.
The goal is to escape.
There is nothing else apart from that. My questions will come afterward.
I push the anger back down again and consciously regulate my breathing.
“Haaaa… All right.”
Now. I should head back up to the second floor, I think, to make sure I didn’t miss the exit. If I don’t find it there, I can always come down here again.
Without further ado, I start walking, pushing through the reeds, away from the crevice that witnessed my rebirth as a monster, leaving behind me the corpses of the dog demons that killed me and became my food.
I’ve finally found the stairs.
I tried walking in a straight line from the crevice, tracing back the way I took while I was fleeing from the dogs before I died, but I quickly lost myself in the forest of reeds. I guess a good sense of direction isn’t included in this new body of mine… In the end, I started cutting the reeds down in my wake to mark my passage, so that I’d know if I started walking around in circles.
It was quite laborious.
At least, I wasn’t attacked by any more demons. The six at the crevice must have been all those living on this floor.
I look up, into the darkness of the stairway. Even my improved eyesight can’t pierce through this impenetrable gloom. I can make out only the first dozen steps, and then… nothing.
A pitch black hole.
I start climbing.
Well, this plan is scrapped.
There is definitely something unnatural about those stairs.
I couldn’t go back up. I kept walking and walking for several hours, but I never saw even a hint of the second floor. There must be some kind of spell set up on the stairway to allow people to climb downward, but not up. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.
In the end, I had to give up and come back…
I go down the last steps to the third floor’s landing again. I can see red blood spatters on a few of them.
I was in really bad shape, the last time I passed through here, wasn’t I?
It feels like a long time ago, somehow.
Well, it is from another lifetime, I suppose. My blood has at least had time to dry, since then.
Without looking back, I forge through the reeds, heading in a random direction away from the stairs. I have no idea where the exit could be hidden, in any case, so I may as well leave it to my luck.
I do hope I’ll find it quickly.
Perhaps leaving it to my luck – if it deserves the word – was a dubious proposition to start with, considering how the past few days have been going for me.
As it is, I spend hours combing the third floor from end to end.
Fortunately enough, this body of mine doesn’t feel tired in the least, even after such a long time. My legs continue walking without protest. I’m not even sweating. It seems that, as long as my blood-qi doesn’t approach exhaustion, I can continue to act normally without any need for sleep or rest.
But by the time I’m done searching, I’ve cut down most of the reeds on the third floor.
And I still can’t find any way out.
What I do find, are stairs.
How deep is this cave supposed to be?
Well, I can’t just stay in here.
I’m conflicted and reluctant, but I still go down this new stairway.
I reach the fourth floor without a problem.
It’s a forest, this time.
On this floor, there are no more of the glowing blue stones that used to provide light to the cave until now. Instead, the light comes from the trees. Those back home grew luxuriant, pink flowers, and their bark was white. In the various books I read, I also saw pictures of other varieties, with different sets of colors. But the trees in front of me now are something new. Their bark is a normal, regular white, but some of them have green leaves, others blue, or red, or pink, or orange, or purple, or yellow… And all these leaves glow in their respective colors, like paper lanterns during a festival.
It’s unfortunate that I don’t have the leisure to keep admiring the scenery.
I crouch down and sweep my gaze around.
The light of those leaves doesn’t reveal any demon in my vicinity, but I should assume they’re here anyway, hiding somewhere out of sight, waiting for unwary prey to stumble in their territory.
Let’s try to sneak through. The trees grow more densely here than on the second floor’s plain – and I’m not bleeding all over the place – so I might have more success with this tactic now than I did then.
I leave the stairway behind and quietly enter the forest.
There are no twigs or fallen leaves littering the ground, so the only sound is the whisper of the grass as it caresses my feet. All my senses are on alert, scanning my surroundings. My magic is on the edge of my mind, ready to be unleashed and freeze everything around me. I’m as ready as I can be.
But that’s still not enough.
The attack comes without warning.
A tree standing to my side, a few meters away, stirs suddenly. Its branches shoot toward me like arrows. Two are aimed at my face, and three more at my body. I flinch back by pure reflex and manage to just barely avoid the former, though one of them gets close enough to scrape a bit of skin off my cheek.
But the latter are too fast.
One pierces through my chest, another through my forearm, and the last through my thigh.
I grit my teeth against the pain as the branches twist and lift me up into the air, carrying me toward the tree they grow from.
And I finally see that this tree is not like the others around it. Where normal trees in this forest have leaves colored in bright, exuberant shades, those of the tree attacking me are instead pure white.
Is that a demon?
Can plants be infected by the Taint, as well?
The tree’s trunk cracks open, and a wide chasm appears across its surface, its jagged edges forming sharp teeth. A deep, drawn-out moan resounds, causing the glowing leaves of the regular trees all around to tremble and shake and rustle.
This thing is trying to eat me.
The tree demon keeps towing me closer and closer to itself.
I’ve lost grasp of my magic as soon as it attacked me, and I’m far from calm enough to imagine any spell with enough clarity to have any effect.
I struggle with all my strength against the branches skewering my body, and when I finally manage to bring the one stabbed into my arm close enough to my face, I lean forward and bite on it as hard as I can. My fangs easily slice through the wood, cutting the branch right off. The pleasant taste of demon blood fills my mouth, and a pained shriek explodes from the tree’s gaping maw, as more black blood gushes from the stump of the severed branch, sprinkling everywhere. The entire tree is shaking and clattering, its branches swinging wildly through the air.
The sharp end of the branch is still stuck through my arm. I remove it with my teeth and spit it out. Then, with my limb freed and the tree distracted, I grasp the branch going through my thigh and yank it out of my body. I do the same for the one in my chest – this one hurts a lot more than the other two.
Once I’ve removed the last branch, there is nothing to hold me up in the air.
I drop down.
As I land, my injured leg buckles under my weight, and I fall to the ground –
– just in time for more branches to arrow through the space my head occupied a moment ago, the air whistling in their wake.
My eyes widening at the close call, I roll on the ground, away from the tree.
I need to put some distance between us.
Those branches are way too fast. From this close, I don’t have any time to react before they attack.
I only stop rolling when my back bumps against the roots of another tree. I scramble around it, putting its thick, heavy trunk between me and the enraged demon. I quickly glance up to make sure I’m not committing another terrible mistake.
Not a demon.
Things would have gotten complicated if I’d ended up jumping right into the jaws of another enemy.
I ignore the angry roars of the tree demon and sit with my back against the trunk, trying to get the measure of my injuries.
A sharp pain is coming from my abdomen, abruptly reminding me of the disease I suff– I used to suffer from. One of my lungs seems to have been punctured by the tree’s attack. Every time I take a breath, air escapes through the wound in my chest with a small whistling sound, making the blood leaking from it froth and bubble.
This doesn’t look too good…
I’m not yet feeling any sign of asphyxia, but it’s definitely going to come quickly.
And it really, really hurts.
But how am I supposed to fix that kind of damage?
I would need to plug the hole, somehow, but I don’t have the materials necessary for –
I press my palm against my chest and close my eyes to concentrate.
First is the hole in my lung. If I start by closing up the hole in my chest wall, the air will still flow out of my lung, but it’ll be trapped within my body instead of allowed to flow out of it. This wouldn’t be a good thing. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve read a lot, and I do know a little bit about lungs collapsing.
I locate the precise position of the injury and imagine ice spreading over it, sealing it, knitting torn tissue together.
Then, I call up my magic to turn this picture into reality.
After a second or two, I open my eyes and take a tentative breath.
No air leaks out of my lung.
…That worked surprisingly well.
The ice has meshed seamlessly with my body, almost as if it was already a part of it in the first place. It feels quite uncomfortable, certainly, and my lung has lost some flexibility, but It should allow me to breathe unimpeded until the injury heals on its own.
Abruptly, loud cracks resound from behind me, wrenching me out of my thoughts. I lean to the side and peer around the thick trunk sheltering me. The demon tree is tearing its own roots out of the ground, still roaring and waving its branches in my direction.
It’s trying to come after me…
Can this thing actually move around?!
I thought I would be safe enough if I stayed at a distance, but it seems this was only wishful thinking.
I don’t have much time.
I hunker back behind the trunk and close my eyes again. Since the experiment was so successful and I still have blood-qi to spare, I continue my work and seal the rest of my injuries. I already went through this process a minute ago, so it’s even faster this time.
The treatment ends quickly.
I try to lean to the side again to take a look at my enemy’s progress. But a sharpened branch stabs right through the trunk I’m hiding behind, as if it were paper, passing a centimeter in front of my face.
I freeze in fright for an instant, but then I realize what’s coming next, and I immediately dive to the side.
And, as expected, a moment later, more branches follow the first, piercing through the trunk, blasting bits of white bark in every direction and burying themselves in the ground where I was just sitting.
The tree demon got itself loose from the earth faster than I’d expected.
I scramble to my feet and pounce onto the branches it just used to attack me. They’re still stabbed through the trunk, like threads passing through the eye of a needle, so they’re not able to move as freely as before. One of them manages to slither back through the hole it pierced, but I catch all the others.
I prop my foot against the trunk to get some leverage and tug on the tree demon’s branches as hard as I can.
An instant later, a powerful impact transmits through the trunk as the tree demon smashes into it so hard that the trunk’s bark cracks and splinters, puffing small clouds of wood dust into the air.
The demon shrieks in pain, the sound of it from this close hitting me like a physical blow. I fold my wolf ears flat against my skull, but I can’t do the same with the elf ears on the side of my head, so I still suffer the full effect of that scream and almost let go of the branches in my hand. Fortunately, I manage to recover before I make that mistake.
I tighten my grip and pull on the branches, again and again, each time violently slamming the tree demon against the trunk standing between us.
Gradually, its screams grow weaker.
Until finally, with one last, great heave, the trunk snaps right in half.
I quickly let go of the demon’s branches and scurry out of the way.
The tall, purple-leaved tree topples ponderously, crashing to the ground with a great boom, raising a cloud of dust into the air, fallen leaves and fragments of white bark flying everywhere.
I approach carefully, ready to dodge at a moment’s notice.
But the demon couldn’t react in time. It’s been crushed by the falling tree. Its branches are twitching feebly, and its blood is running in rivulets through the cracks splintering its bark, forming a growing pool on the ground beneath it.
It’s clearly no threat to me anymore.
That doesn’t mean I will spare its life, of course.
I walk up to it, my feet splashing in the pool of blood, and stiffen my fingers into a blade before burying my hand deep into its trunk. Its branches jerk once, then fall down limply and stay still.
The tree demon is dead.
I grasp blindly inside the trunk, then yank my hand out, trailing a string of organs, blood spurting onto my body, black on my white skin. As expected, it was merely camouflage. Its outer appearance may look like a tree, but its insides are those of an animal, not a plant.
I throw the handful of organs to the side and lick my fingers clean.
My body hurts from the injuries it sustained, but my muscles aren’t sore, and I’m still not tired, even after such an intense fight. I suppose I do feel mentally drained, however.
And I have spent quite an amount of blood-qi.
I glance down at the pool of blood at my feet. An appetizing scent wafts from it. And I can smell an even deeper and more delicious fragrance coming from the tree demon’s body – its dantian, I assume.
I’m not hungry yet, but thank you for taking responsibility and paying me back this fight’s expenditure, tree demon.
It’s very mature of you.