The wind blows violently, playing with my hair, casting snowflakes into my face.
I’m not sure what kind of demon I’ll have to face on this floor, but as far as environment is concerned, this is the most pleasant I’ve yet to encounter. Inversely, the worst wasn’t actually the fifth floor’s desert, unexpectedly, but the ninth floor’s swamp. Constantly wading through warm, mucky, disgusting water was unbearable, and it became even more so when the snake demons tried to drown me in it.
I suppose it was instructive, in a way.
It taught me that my body does not, in fact, require any such thing as air to survive – which was quite the welcome discovery, given my situation at the time. Breathing is useful to me only insofar as it allows my sense of smell to work.
But still, I would have preferred to learn that in a more peaceful manner.
This tenth floor is much better. It is pretty and cold and comfortable. My magic should also be particularly powerful, here.
This cave is getting more and more unnatural, however.
How can there be a blizzard raging underground?
Does that mean that this floor is connected to the outside?
Am I really going to find the exit soon?
I’ve already spent the better part of a month in here, and I am sick and tired of it.
I hope I can get out soon.
I walk onto the ice, my steps sure and stable. I can’t see very far, because of the falling snow, but I’ve already spread my magic through the glacier in a twenty-meter radius around me. I’ll be able to know as soon as something touches the ice within this area – as in the case, for example, of a demon walking or burrowing toward me. That kind of countermeasure won’t work against a flying species, of course, but I doubt anything could reliably fly in this weather.
Interestingly, on this floor, the light doesn’t come from blue stones, or tree leaves, or a fake sun, or fireflies, as it did in the past, but from the glacier itself.
I wish I could make my ice glow, too. That would be very cool.
…All right, that wasn’t funny.
Anyway, I don’t think I want to try such a fancy thing and waste the blood-qi I went through so much effort to gather. Since I’ve been hunting continuously for the past month, the black lake in my dantian has grown considerably – maybe I should call it a sea, now – but I’m still reluctant to spend it wantonly.
I do have reached the point where I can allow myself a few hours of body strengthening, here and there. Even with that, however, I still haven’t noticed any great effects. This thing is even slower to show its worth than I previously thought. Still, I don’t think it’s a waste. It’s an investment, rather.
My ability to survive the various challenges this cave keeps throwing at me is growing every day.
Another thing making me happy is that I haven’t experienced any resurgence of my old symptoms, even after a whole month. It looks like I’m really cured. My mood can’t help but soar every time I think that I’ve been freed from this naked blade hanging over my neck, just waiting to fall and reap my life.
And so, I walk with a spring in my step, looking for the exit and enjoying the weather.
And as usual, the demons quickly appear.
However, this time, there is no ambush. They come straight from the front, their massive bodies walking ponderously toward me.
Huge polar bears, nearly four meters in length. Their white fur would make them almost invisible in this environment, if it wasn’t for their glowing red eyes, very conspicuous in the darkness – well, I’ve never actually seen my own eyes, but I imagine that’s something I could also say about myself. The claws arming the bears’ limbs are around 30 centimeters long, and they carve deep furrows into the ice of the glacier with each step. It makes the bears look somewhat like giant sloths, except not as cute. Slaver runs down their mouth, and a deep, half-formed roar constantly rumbles in their chest, like an earthquake in waiting.
This is the most imposing demon I’ve had to fight, so far.
They look even more frightening with the glowing ice lighting them up from beneath.
And there are three of them coming together.
But I feel calm. My breathing and heartbeat are steady.
I find it a bit disturbing that I’m already getting used to this sort of thing…
The bear demons seem to move slowly, but since they’re so large, their gait eats up distance unexpectedly fast. And this may not be their maximum speed, either. I’ll need to be careful of that; they may surprise me by suddenly accelerating during the fight.
Of course, I don’t intend to let them get anywhere close to me in the first place.
There is no way I would dare to fight such monsters head-on.
When it’s still about 30 meters away from me, the leading bear demon opens its mouth and lets out the roar it was building up. The sound wave is almost visible, the snowflakes in its path exploding into nihility.
As if that roar was a signal, all the bears suddenly start charging at me.
I send my magic into the glacier and reconfigure the stretch of ice in between us.
And then, I wait for them, my tail idly swishing from side to side behind me.
The bears’ speed keeps increasing. Perhaps they’re goaded by my lack of visible reaction. In any case, it’s quite an impressive spectacle, like an avalanche – an avalanche with teeth – bearing down on me. But, when the first bear gets too close to me and steps onto the area affected by my magic, cracks suddenly spread through the ice, and the surface of the glacier collapses to reveal the deep pit hidden underneath.
The bears may be powerful creatures, but their bodies are unwieldy, and their momentum is not so easily stopped. Two of them can’t brake in time and topple down the hole, making the glacier tremble beneath my feet with the impact of their fall.
…That worked quite nicely, if I do say so myself.
The last bear demon stands there and looks down dumbfounded at its fallen comrades.
It’s like it’s begging me to attack while it’s distracted.
And I am more than happy to comply.
Let’s try something new…
I command a spear of ice to shoot up from the ground underneath the bear and impale it.
The results are disappointing, however. The spear isn’t sharp enough and didn’t grow fast enough to pierce through my enemy’s thick hide. It merely pushed against it a little before breaking under the strain.
That was quite lacking. The speed at which I can manipulate ice is still too low. Or is it that the image of it in my thoughts isn’t clear enough? Picturing a static object is relatively easy, so I can use my magic to generate an ice spear out of thin air. But picturing a process with the same clarity is much more difficult, so making that same spear actually grow from the ice of the glacier is beyond my current abilities.
Well, I can do it, as I just demonstrated, but it’s not an effective form of attack.
Digging a pit hidden underneath a thin layer of ice is fine, though. No need for too much precision or speed in such an exercise, comparatively.
What my failed experiment did manage to achieve, on the other hand, is to give the bear the time it needed to collect itself.
It looks toward me, enraged.
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems to me that its eyes start to glow a bit brighter with its anger.
The bear starts running again, circling around the pit.
Before it can build up its charge, I grow a series of short, thick ice walls in its way. The bear powers through the first few that haven’t had the time to yet form completely, sending chunks of glowing ice flying through the air, but its speed reduces with each subsequent one, until it’s slow enough that I can command the ice of the glacier to directly crawl up its legs. These restraints break easily, but the bear can’t free all its limbs at the same time, and once it focuses its efforts on one of them, I can trap the others and prevent it from moving freely.
I slowly approach it while it’s busy, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.
Once I’m close enough to directly affect the bear with magic without emptying all my reserves of blood-qi on the task – without using a medium like the ice of the glacier, distance negatively impacts the efficiency of magic – I raise my hand toward it, and a layer of ice congeals over its bulk like a blanket. I also encase its snout in ice to muzzle it.
Then, I let the ice I produced fuse with the glacier and trap the bear.
Interestingly, my ice starts glowing too, as if the glacier transmitted to it whatever causes that phenomenon.
The bear thrashes and squirms and flails and tries to get the ice off its back, but the steady supply of blood-qi I channel into the spell means that it only gets thicker as the seconds pass.
When I’m sure it won’t be able to attack me anymore, I step forward and heft up my sword.
Even though the bear can’t even turn its head anymore, its eyes, filled with anger and bloodthirst, follow me closely. A deep growl bubbles up from its throat, but its muzzled mouth can’t give voice to it.
Nerys would find something witty to say, at this moment, but I’m not a particularly witty person.
So I just swing my sword down.
It takes me a few hacks to cut through the bear’s thick neck.
Its head falls.
I step on it before it can roll away.
A great victory.
…Or it will be, as soon as I take care of the two trapped in the pit.
I can hear their roars, coming from beyond its lip, and I can feel them pawing and digging at its walls through my connection to the glacier.
I don’t get any closer – I’m not comfortable being near anything stronger than I am that also very much wants to kill me. Instead, I send more of my magic through the ice and extrude thick, stocky spikes from the walls of the pit.
And then, I make these walls close up toward each other, slowly crushing the bears in-between.
The roars of rage turn to cries of pain.
It would normally be impossible to squash beasts so massive with my puny strength, but right now, I’m borrowing the entire weight of the glacier. There is no way those bear can resist that. I do wish I could make the walls smash closed in one go, instead of drawing it out like this, not because I lament the pain the bears have to go through, but because more of a delay might mean unexpected problems cropping up.
This time, though, everything goes well.
I stop when the walls are only 30 centimeters apart.
The bears’ screams already stopped a while ago, but I prefer to be thorough.
Then, I widen the pit again – I need to collect the spoils, after all.
While the glacier’s surface opens up, I kneel down and extract the dantian from the severed head under my foot, then swallow it.
Once the pit has become large enough for me to enter it, I walk up to it, dragging the decapitated bear behind me – it’s as heavy as it looks, so that takes some effort; I have to use a bit of magic for help – and look down at its contents. Nothing in there can properly be recognized as a bear anymore. There is only pulped flesh and splintered bone floating in a large amount of black blood.
I push the corpse of the bear next to me onto the edge of the pit, so that the stump of its neck angles downward.
Then, I wait for its blood to flow out.
That took a long time.
I glance down at the pit.
There is a lot, isn’t there? Am I really going to swallow down more than my own weight in blood? I realize I’m not actually drinking and digesting it, and that my dantian doesn’t actually have a limited capacity, but it still feels a bit surreal.
In any case, wasting food is bad.
Lapping it up would take too long, with this amount.
This is going to be messy…
I leave my sword on the surface of the glacier and jump down into the pit.
And messy it was.
My skin and my hair and my fur have been dyed black.
I really wish I also had the word 血 inside my dantian, so that I could extract blood directly from my kills. It would be so much more convenient – and clean – than to just drink it.
Well, what’s done is done.
But I desperately want to take a bath.
I climb out of the pit by gouging hand- and footholds with my claws, take back my sword, and resume my search for the exit, the blood coating my body quickly freezing under the low temperature.
Afterward, I meet four more groups of bears.
I exterminate them all.
Of course I do.
With their bulk, these demons are a treasure trove of blood, and since I can kill them almost effortlessly, thanks to my magic and this favorable environment, it would be a waste to spare them.
I shouldn’t underestimate any opponent, but these bears are little more than prey to me.
That’s not to say they’re weak, though. If my magic wasn’t so uniquely suited to this particular battlefield, I would be almost certain to die. Three or four bear demons at a time, in the middle of a raging blizzard? How on earth would I survive such a thing?
In point of fact, this entire cave is ridiculously deadly.
I can imagine how a skilled human warrior might clear floors one, two, three and four.
But the difficulty of each floor after those grows way too fast.
Surviving the desert of the fifth floor would definitely require some kind of special resistance to heat. Even allowing for my own weakness to it, the glare of that fake sun was not something that just anyone could have tolerated for too long a time. On the other extreme, the seventh floor’s tundra was already plenty cold, but this tenth floor is even more so, to really hazardous levels. A normal person would freeze to death in minutes, on this glacier.
And that’s all without even touching upon the issue of sustenance.
The last clean, drinkable water was on the third floor. The only other body of water, on the ninth floor, was so dirty as to be almost opaque. No one without a death wish would dare consume it. As for food, the only animals here are demons, their meat steeped in the deadly poison that is their blood – well, presumably deadly; my expectations and knowledge about the Taint have been somewhat subverted, so I don’t know what to think about it anymore. But, in any case, no one without a death wish would dare consume demon meat, either. And I haven’t come across any fruits or vegetables. I suppose there was bark to be found on the fourth and sixth floor, but that can’t be enough to sustain someone who has to fight demons every day. The plants growing in the ninth floor’s swamp were very clearly not edible, either.
All of which makes me wonder if this cave is really supposed to be a prison.
Isn’t it more of an elaborate execution ground?
At least, I don’t think I can reasonably be expected to survive, if the dangers of it keep worsening at this pace. I’ve been coasting on the power of my new body and a few bursts of amateurish magic here and there, but that can’t continue forever.
My luck is going to run out, eventually.
…Or maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe it’s a zoo, what with the new demon species exhibited on every floor.
And why was I brought here in the first place?
I really, really can’t fathom what the answer might be.
I’m just a sickly shut-in who hasn’t ever had any contact with anybody except for close family. My only experience with other people is through recording crystals that Nerys sometimes brings me to watch. I hadn’t ever seen anyone else before that scum captured me – and I didn’t see them, either, now that I think about it; they were always to my back and I couldn’t turn around.
What on earth could I have possibly done to justify being dumped in this place?
Yes… I’ll really need to find the scum and have a long, thorough talk with them about that.
I just hope they haven’t hurt Nerys or Father, too.
If they have, I –
My dantian starts to throb and pulsate, like a beating heart.
I force myself to calm down, closing my eyes and rubbing my temples against the headache I know is coming.
What is this? Why does my dantian always react like that whenever I’m angry?
It’s really annoying. Especially considering the fact that I seem to get angry a lot more easily than I did in the past.
I let out a frustrated sigh and open my eyes to the empty, bleak, beautiful expanse of the glacier.
The good mood I’d managed to build up when I arrived on this floor, a few days ago, has completely faded. The best way to allay my worries would be to escape and reunite with my family, but I can’t find the exit.
Stairs I have, but I’m getting tired of those.
Where on earth could the exit be?
Pacing around, I idly kick at an outcropping of glowing ice.
Could the exit be buried inside the glacier, somewhere?
Ooooh… That might just be the case.
Let’s try that.
My sword isn’t suited for such a task, so I discard it – I can always build a new one, if I have the need for it – and start to burrow into the ice. I do most of the work with my claws, but I do use a bit of magic to make my way easier.
How many days have I been digging?
I was able to get a good grasp of the glacier’s width when I reached its edges, where it meets the wall of the cave, but, as for its depth… It seems to continue down endlessly.
I have found nothing but ice and ice and more ice.
Well, now that my failure puts my actions into perspective, even I have to admit that I was grasping at straws with this…
My reserves of energy are dangerously low.
The precious blood-qi I refined from the demons hunted and eaten over a month of effort, gone.
I’m actually hungry, now.
I need to hunt.
But I already ate all the bears on this floor.
I have to take the stairs to the eleventh floor.
But going down would be…
I want to find an exit.
I need to find an exit.
After a few more hours of pointless dithering and hesitation, I finally give up and head down the stairs with heavy steps.