By my reckoning, two years have passed since I arrived in the cave.
I should be 14 years old, now.
I’ve always tried to keep a measure of time, as a way to build a stable element on which to anchor my mind, something solid and objective and regular. I think it’s good for my mental health to do so.
But it’s somewhat discouraging to see the days pass by so quickly.
This would all be so much less painful if I had anyone – anyone real, that is – to talk to.
Well, no point in brooding over it. With my luck, if I ever met someone else, they would probably try to kill me, anyway, so being alone might be the better option.
I try to convince myself like that.
It doesn’t really work.
This should be the 26th floor.
It’s a fairly normal countryside. Rolling hills, green woods, limpid brooks, soft grass, all lit by bright – and fake – sunlight.
And a conspicuous lack of demons.
I’ve already been here for about two weeks, looking for the next stairway, but no threat has manifested itself in all that time. Usually, the fight starts at most four or five days after my arrival.
…Well, I welcome the delay.
But I can’t help but see it as something of a bad omen, somewhere in the back of my mind.
I’ve never been able to sleep comfortably, ever since I arrived in the cave, but, for the past few days, it’s been even worse than usual. I don’t really need to sleep, so it hasn’t been too much of a problem, but… I can’t rid myself of this sense of disquiet and unease that’s followed me ever since I stepped off the stairway.
Something is there, somewhere.
It’s not like I can force the confrontation, though.
The demons will come when they want to come. In the meantime, all I can do is remain vigilant.
I leave the forest I finished exploring and head toward what looks to be a corn field, but probably isn’t – there is no one around to tend to that field, and there is no way this place would provide food so easily to its prisoners.
The earth is warm and loose and soft under my feet.
The corn stalks seem to whisper to me in grating voices that hover on the edge of my mind, voices that I almost recognize but don’t, speaking words I almost understand but don’t. I shake my head and close my eyes for a moment, until those whispers fade away and transform back into the sound of the wind, quietly rustling and whistling through the stalks.
I let out a soft sigh and raise my hand to push the corn stalks out of my way, when the motion abruptly reminds me of the third floor and of its reeds and of the dangers I found within.
I stop moving.
I’d better circle around, I think…
I take a few steps back, then start walking again, keeping the field a few meters to my side, my wolf ears angled toward it, my magic ready to strike.
I walk all the way around the field without being attacked.
…Looks like I was a bit too paranoid. Good, then.
I’m just about to continue on my way, when the corn stalks rustle again.
My ears perk up and quiver. My body strums with tension.
The sound is different from before.
It’s not just the wind.
There is definitely something in that field.
Before I can turn around and check, a chill runs up my back, and the fur of my tail rises on end. I immediately dive to the side, just as something slices through the air, right behind me. I roll on the ground and get back up a few meters away, quickly turning to face my new enemy, staying crouched low, ready to dodge any further attack.
Standing in front of me, one of its arms stabbed in the ground where I stood a moment ago, is a giant mantis.
Its chitinous carapace is white. Bulbous red eyes stare at me out of a head adorned with two whip-like antennae. Six clawed legs support its lower abdomen and allow it to move around, while two arms ending in jagged scythes extend out of its torso. The sharp mandibles framing its mouth open and close threateningly as the mantis lets out a series of chittering clicks and stands up fully, facing me. It’s almost three meters tall.
I breathe out slowly.
Close combat seems… unwise.
I construct an ice spike and throw it at the mantis’s face. With my current strength and just a few meters between us, it should only be an instant before the spike reaches its target, but a scythe flashes before it can and easily cuts it out of the air, its two halves tumbling harmlessly into the grass behind the mantis.
The mantis clicks at me some more, then crouches slowly. I do the same – minus the clicking – and bury the claws of my hand and feet into the earth to make sure I won’t slip when I need to move.
…I hope there is only one of these demons nearby, at least, or things might get really dangerous.
I don’t know how long we stay in this position, unmoving, staring at each other. I don’t mind, though. My muscles can neither tire nor cramp. I could comfortably stay like this until I exhaust my sea of blood-qi, and I’m already used to this sort of tense atmosphere. If it’s a test of patience, I’m confident I will win.
But I know it won’t end so easily, of course.
I flick my tail to the side once, and that sets it off.
The mantis flies at me, like an arrow from the bow, and I duck under a scythe. The mantis overshoots me, so I turn around and lunge at its back, stabbing with my claws. Unfortunately, the mantis sees my attack coming – its head actually turns all the way around to keep me in sight – and one of its antennae whips through the air toward my face in response. I can only see a blur where it passes, but I do my best to intercept it, quickly retracting my hand and receiving the blow on my knuckles.
Nothing has been able to pass through the strange black metal covering my fingers, yet.
And I’m not disappointed this time, either. The antenna whips over my skin but doesn’t injure me in the least.
Still, the impact does send me stumbling back, and the mantis takes this opportunity to turn around, faster than I would have thought possible from something so big with such thin legs, and swing its two scythes at me.
I dodge the first, and it only cuts off a few strands of my hair. Then I block the second with my forearm. The blade digs deeply into the ice armor protecting my limb, but not deep enough to reach the flesh beneath it.
I jump back, out of the mantis’s range, dislodging the scythe from my armor.
As soon as I land, I extend my hand toward the mantis and send a wave of freezing cold toward it. It won’t kill it – the demons have long since grown too strong to die so easily – but it should slow it down at least a little.
What I need right now is to put some distance between the two of us. Close combat really is unwise.
However, for the first time since I started using it, my magic fails me. The grass all around the mantis is covered in frost, but the mantis itself remains untouched and unharmed.
I stand there like an idiot, dumbfounded, and the mantis doesn’t let the chance slip away. It rushes at me, and a scythe slashes at my face. I flinch back enough to avoid instant death, but the scythe’s blade tears open my left cheek starting from the corner of my mouth.
I stumble back, my hand rising to my face in reflex, but I recoil in pain when my fingers touch the wound. I can actually feel my teeth through the gap in my cheek.
That’s going to leave a mark…
The mantis continues its charge, bladed mandibles opening wide to welcome my throat. I snap my hand forward and grab onto a mandible to keep the mantis’s head away from me, but it’s heavier than I am. It pushes me back, my feet drawing furrows into the earth as I try to keep my balance.
The mantis’s mandibles open and close as it tries – unsuccessfully – to chew through my invulnerable fingers.
I keep struggling against the push of the mantis’s charge until its momentum has been completely expended, then I snap a kick into its underbelly before it can resume its attacks. The mantis tries to retreat and avoid the blow, but I yank on the mandible I’m still holding and keep it in place. My clawed foot buries itself into its body, easily piercing through its carapace.
The mantis shrieks in pain.
I’ve already fought a lot of different kinds of demons, but my claws still hold the number two position of the sharpest weapons I’ve ever seen – my horn being the uncontested number one – and they only become more and more so with time as I continue strengthening my body with blood-qi. Which is why I never actually replaced the sword I discarded on the tenth floor – because I haven’t been able to imagine any better weapon than those my body naturally provides. Really, their only weakness is their short reach.
I kick the mantis once more before its thrashing breaks my grip on its mandible.
It retreats quickly, still shrieking madly, its belly letting out a steady stream of blood over the grass.
While it’s distracted, I cover my cheek in ice to limit the damage.
Then, I create another spike and throw it at my opponent.
I miss. The mantis moves too much and too erratically. The spike flies past its head and disappears into the distance.
Then, the mantis stops shrieking and starts roaring, its red eyes locking onto me. It rears up, and large, translucent wings suddenly open from beneath the carapace covering its back.
Damn it… I didn’t know mantises could fly…
I can’t stay here. In this open place, a flying creature will be able to tear me apart without resistance.
But where should I –
The forest I visited a while ago!
I turn around and bolt through the corn field behind me at full speed.
But I reacted too late.
I haven’t gone ten steps before the mantis rams into my back, a serrated scythe stabbing directly through my belly.
I feel blood rise up my throat and clench my teeth against the pain as the mantis carries me up in the air, its wings buzzing noisily. I struggle to get a grasp on my magic, but it’s rather difficult to concentrate when the scythe’s teeth scrape against my internal organs.
It seems the two of us together are too heavy to be borne aloft for a long time, however.
After just a few seconds, the mantis drops me, removing its scythe from inside me with a flick.
I crash down into the corn field below, trailing blood through the air. I bounce a few times, knocking down the stalks in my way, then come to a stop, face down against the earth.
I roll myself onto my back and do my best to close my injuries with magic. It’s not as effective as usual – the damage is simply too serious, and it’s not like I can replace my entire body with ice and still expect it to work correctly.
The mantis is still flying, circling overhead, looking down at me.
And then it dives, scythes at the ready.
I grit my teeth and raise my hand up to send another blast of freezing cold at it, this time powered by a much larger amount of energy than before. The mantis falters for a moment, and frost starts covering its wings, but then it recovers, and, with a mighty shake, flecks of ice rain down, and its body regains its previous flexibility.
Damn, damn, damn…
What’s wrong with my magic?
Is it something the mantis is doing?
No time to consider the problem.
I roll to the side to get out from under the mantis’s attack, but it simply corrects its course and keeps heading straight for me. Since it’s clear I can’t escape, I focus and create a thick ice shield above me, its edges curving around my sides to rest solidly against the ground.
Barely a second later, the shield trembles as the mantis’s dive sends it smashing into it. A scythe pierces through the shield, drawing a spiderweb of cracks over its surface, the point of the blade stopping barely a centimeter above my eye.
…That was way too close.
But this is a good opportunity.
I place my palm against the shield, close my eyes, and channel a torrent of blood-qi into thickening it as much as possible and filling up all the cracks.
Through my magic, I feel the ice on the other side of the shield’s surface start to spread over the mantis’s limbs. I’m hoping to completely seal it in a huge block of ice, but the mantis fiercely shakes its body and waves its wings again and my ice crumbles and falls off it, pattering down against the shield.
Its scythe is buried too deeply, however, and I closed around it the hole it made. So, for now, it’s trapped.
I crawl out from under the shield, ignoring the pain coming from my whole body.
Since they’re made from the same indestructible metal as my fingers and toes, none of my bones broke during the earlier fall, of course, but my muscles and organs nonetheless suffered some damage – and that’s without taking the impalement into account.
I’m in pretty bad shape, all things considered…
The mantis demon roars at me when it sees me appear, but with its limb trapped in the ice, it can’t reach me.
I stand up and focus my mind.
“What about this, then…”
I raise my hand up to the sky, create a ridiculously long and heavy ice blade, and swing it down with all my strength onto the demon’s back. The effort makes my wounds open up again, blood seeping through the ice covering them.
The mantis sees my attack coming, and, once again, it goes beyond my expectations.
It actually slashes its free scythe at its other arm and cuts it right off, then throws itself to the side. It manages to avoid a death-blow, but my blade crushes and crumples one of its wings and sends the mantis itself flying when it clips its flank.
The sword’s edge continues down and strikes onto the surface of the shield I built earlier, where the mantis was standing, causing it to explode into a cloud of white dust and chunks of ice. The recoil transmits through the blade into my arm and throws me to the ground.
My whole body feels numb.
It takes me a few seconds to stand up unsteadily. I look around myself for my enemy.
There is a trail of bloodstained, broken corn stalks, following the direction in which it was flung.
But no trace of the mantis itself anywhere in sight.
Is it hiding? Waiting in ambush?
That thing is careful…
And strong, and fast, and resilient, and equipped with even more sharp bits than I am, and it can fly. And it can somehow resist my magic… Even among all the demons I’ve had to fight over the past two years, this one really qualifies as a monster.
I crouch down and focus on my hearing.
When it attacks, I won’t be able to see it in time. I can only try to hear it coming, try to differentiate between the rustle of the wind in the corn stalks, and the rustle of the mantis passing between them.
While I wait for the inevitable attack, I take a look at the black sea within my dantian.
This is not good…
At this rate, I’m going to run out of blood-qi before the fight can conclude.
I used too much magic to exterminate the tide of centipede demons, on the previous floor. And I’ve been throwing spell after spell at that mantis. I’ll need more of it to heal all my injuries afterward, too.
I need to use both magic and physical effort to survive on the short term, but I need healing to survive on the slightly-less-short term, and I need body strengthening to survive on the long term. Keeping those balanced while still avoiding to waste any energy is quite a thorny puzzle, if I do say so myself.
“What are you going to do?”
I almost die of fright at the rushed whisper that suddenly springs up from right next to me. I reflexively jump away and look to my side, my heart hammering into my chest, my breath coming out in rushed and unsteady gasps.
Please don’t scare me like that…
Nerys is crouching next to me, a smile on her face. She’s wearing a military outfit, with a camouflage pattern in greens and browns. Something a ranger might use. She also has face paint, black stripes over her cheeks. It looks really weird on her.
“Why don’t you leave the corn field?” she asks. “It can’t ambush you if you’re out in the open, right? And it can’t fly anymore, since you destroyed its wing.”
Well, yes. Of course, I want to leave this deathtrap, but I have no idea where the mantis is hiding. I don’t want to stumble into it and get my head unceremoniously chopped off. Better to let it reveal its position when it comes to attack me.
“Oh… I see. As expected of my little sister. You’re very smart. But how are you going to kill it? Do you have a plan? Because it doesn’t look good for you from where I’m standing – crouching, whatever. You injured it a bit, but it’s far from lethal. Whereas you – well, you know your own condition better than I do.” She glances at my ruined cheek. “You have pretty smile, by the way.”
You should leave. You’re distracting me, and you’re going to get yourself ki–
The mantis pounces from the corn stalks.
I didn’t even hear it come close.
Its only remaining scythe swings down at me, fast as lightning.
The enhanced reflexes of my body allow me to react in time, just barely. I block the attack with the armor on my forearm, but only then do I remember that I never actually fixed the damage it suffered earlier, during the first engagement with the mantis.
The point of the scythe stabs down into the gash in the armor and pierces through it and through the arm it was supposed to protect, hooking into my flesh. The scythe tugs my arm to the side, out of the way, and the mantis bears down on me, its mandibles opening around my throat.
In desperation, I kick once more into the wound I already opened in its abdomen.
Blood flows, but the mantis completely ignores it.
The mandibles close.
They cut into my neck, slicing through the carotid arteries on both sides, then through everything in their way until the two blades meet each other in the middle.
Black blood gushes out of me.
The mantis demon starts to retract its mandibles.
For the first time since the dog demon killed me on the third floor, my instincts take over completely.
Everything around me stops.
The droplets of my blood hang in the air, motionless.
And I exterminate my enemy.
I slam a headbutt into the mantis’s ugly face. At the same time, I send my magic through my horn and freeze its head from the inside out, ice blades thrusting out of its eyes and skull and mouth. I lean back from the headbutt, my horn drawing an arching line of black blood into the air, as if its point is the tip of a brush and the air is canvas.
Time starts again.
Both the mantis demon and I drop to the ground at the same time.
And as for me…
I don’t want to die again…
Even after two years, the memory – the fear – of dying has not faded in the slightest.
I force myself to stay calm and focus. I’ve been injured before. This time is no different.
I cover my neck in a layer of ice. This doesn’t actually solve anything, but it should give me a bit more time than I would otherwise have. Then, I send my blood-qi into my meridians to help fix the arteries in my neck.
Long minutes pass by.
If even the weakest of demons happened to pass by at this moment, I would be a goner…
Even without that, though, I’m not sure if I’m going to survive, this time.
In fact, I’m already surprised I held on this long in that kind of condition. I can only thank the absurd toughness of my body. It’s frankly incredible. Still, I feel my consciousness grow fainter by the second, my thoughts blurrier, more sluggish.
Until finally, my arteries are healed.
But I’ve already lost a lot of blood.
And I’m starving. My energy is almost exhausted, by now.
I struggle to stay awake and use everything I’ve left to try and reduce the scale of my other injuries. I focus most of it on the hole in my belly. But I definitely won’t have enough to fix myself completely.
I can only hope that my body will heal on its own while I sleep.
I lie there on the dirty ground of this battlefield, next to the cooling corpse of my enemy, as, for the first time in two years, the last drops of the black sea in my dantian dissipate.
And the world goes dark.