By my reckoning, 16 years have passed since I arrived in the cave.
Which means I have spent more of my life inside the cave than outside it.
I have no idea what floor this is. I stopped counting a long time ago.
What I do know, is that my situation is worsening at an uncomfortable pace.
For a while, I could rely on the power of my body and of my magic, but increasingly, I find myself retreating in defeat again and again before demons far stronger and faster than I am. The time I spend on each floor is steadily increasing. And while most is still devoted to finding where the next stairway is hidden, the part dedicated to training becomes each day more and more important.
I have to fight smart, now.
Or I will die.
Being smart isn’t exactly my specialty, though. I do my best, and in some measure, I’ve been successful – I am, after all, still alive – but my failures accumulate nonetheless.
And my injuries accumulate right along with them.
I’ve long since gotten rid of my habit of mending every single scratch I get. Now, as long as it’s not life-threatening, I mostly let the injury heal naturally. I only make sure that the damage won’t actually diminish my long-term fighting efficiency. Healing like this leaves scars behind, but at this point, I couldn’t care less about my appearance.
Blood-qi is too precious to waste on such a thing.
I don’t want to find myself running out again like I did against the mantis demon.
I didn’t even have enough to heal myself properly, back then…
The results of that mistake are still carved into my body.
I take my first steps on this floor.
White bones, strewn about everywhere, covering the ground. Some of those bones are small enough to belong to mice. Others dwarf even the whale demons I killed three floors ago. There is a clear pathway leading through the field of bones from the stairway, framed on both sides by the ribs of some gigantic animal.
Smells like a trap, this. I should assume there’s an ambush waiting for me ahead.
Will the demons burrow out from under my feet? Or fly down from the sky, maybe?
I suppose the bones could suddenly animate and combine to form skeleton monsters.
I hope that won’t happen. Considering the amount of bones lying here, I would find myself quite badly outnumbered. And there’d be no blood for me to drink, too… It would be a pure loss.
I activate my magic to form a radius of cold temperatures around myself.
I can’t detect any heat source anywhere near me.
Well, an animated skeleton wouldn’t necessarily give off any heat, so I still need to be careful.
I start walking along the path, trying to make my steps as smooth and fluid as possible.
It’s actually quite difficult. I need to keep a good grasp of my center of balance and distribute my weight carefully. I never would have thought I would ever need to train such simple movements, but I recently noticed that I’m burning through quite a lot of energy just moving around, so I’m trying to find a solution to that problem. I spend enough blood-qi fighting my enemies. I would rather not waste any of it fighting myself.
Hence, training. Training even the simplest, most trivial of motions.
My body is inherently flexible, so I’m starting off with an advantage, but, even so, I still haven’t gotten all that good of a handle on it. My steps are more ponderous and jerky than they should be. I have to counter the inertia of my own movements, when each should naturally flow seamlessly from the last.
I realize it isn’t something that I can learn in a month or two.
Well, maybe someone with more talent than me could do it…
Body strengthening doesn’t exactly help, here, either. It simply gives me raw power, but whether or not I can turn that power into something actually useful is up to me.
Interestingly, even after sixteen continuous years of strengthening, my muscles haven’t turned all that much bigger. Instead, they very much have become denser. Thankfully, my strength has also dramatically increased, so I don’t actually feel the increase in my weight. From my perspective, my body is actually getting lighter and more nimble over time. The only sign of what’s happening is, as I said before, how much energy I now consume every time I move.
Stiil, I have to say that it’s quite satisfying to send demons twice my size flying with my blows.
It must look a bit surreal, though, now that I think of it.
Who would guess that a little shrimp like me has that much strength?
I wonder if there’s a limit to how high body strengthening can bring me. Or can I continue on until I reach the point where I can flatten a mountain with a punch? Now, that would be –
“You’re letting your mind wander again. You should focus.”
I raise my head and look to my side.
Oh, Father. It’s been a while. And yes, yes. You’re right. Thank you for your advice, as always.
Father smiles at me. “You’re welcome.” He glances at the field of bones around us. “This floor is strange. I don’t know what it is, but something smells wrong about it. Be careful.”
I follow his gaze.
I have the same feeling. But I can’t detect any threat, yet. Nothing’s moving. Nothing’s trying to attack me. I can only wait for the danger to come to me, as always.
I turn my eyes back to Father, but he’s already gone.
That’s a shame. He doesn’t visit me as often, these days. Nerys, as well.
Maybe they’re busy with something else.
I keep walking through the field of bones.
It’s several hours until, finally, something breaks the monotony of this floor.
In front of me, the pathway widens into a circular clearing of sorts, where no bones litter the ground. It’s not very big, a kilometer at most, and I can see the pathway continue into the distance, on the far side of the clearing. In the middle of the clearing stands an obelisk made out of black glass – I think it’s obsidian, but I’m not sure. It towers over me, at least several hundred meters in height, and its surface is covered in symbols I don’t recognize. Small, faint wisps of light seem to flutter up and down inside the obelisk, but its surface is too opaque and blurs their forms too much for me to recognize what they are.
What is this thing?
Is it dangerous?
I flick a small ice needle at it, to see how it will react.
The needle simply shatters on the obelisk’s surface, not even putting the tiniest dent in it.
Is this normal?
I have no idea how tough a material obsidian is supposed to be, but shouldn’t my needle at least leave a little mark on it?
After receiving my attack, the obelisk shows absolutely no reaction. The lights still fly around inside it, no more flurried than before. I suppose it’s a bit weird to expect a reaction from an inert piece of glass, no matter how impressive it looks, but this place never ceases to surprise me, so who knows?
I approach carefully.
As soon as I enter the clearing, I feel the powerful pressure radiating from the obelisk, like a heavy weight pressing down on my mind. It’s a similar pressure to the one I feel from some demons whenever they use their own magic to try and counter mine, except that this one is much, much stronger. Against the demons I’ve faced, I have to purposely look for this pressure, in order to even notice it at all, but here…
What is this thing?
As I get closer, I can hear a very faint buzzing sound, something almost subsonic, like a vibration running through the air.
Once I arrive in front of the obelisk, I make the armor on my forearm spread over my hand and fingers.
Then I press my palm against its surface.
I make the ice covering them slide off my fingers. The obelisk is faintly warm to the touch. Except for the mystical characters carved into it, it’s unnaturally smooth. I can’t feel any bumps or irregularities at all. This is strange. Considering the sensitivity of my senses, I should be able to find some minute flaws over its surface, but I don’t. It’s absolutely, perfectly smooth.
How was it carved?
Suddenly, the warmth of the obelisk increases. I try to jerk my fingers away, only to find out that they’re stuck to the obsidian.
…Uh-oh. What did I do, now?
The obelisk gives off more and more heat, until it becomes uncomfortable, almost painful. My entire hand is burning, and the feeling is spreading up my arm and through the rest of my body.
I struggle to take back my fingers, but my efforts are fruitless.
I redirect some ice from the armor on my shin to cover my foot, in order to prop myself against the obelisk to get some leverage and pull myself free, but I don’t have any more success than before.
The faint lights floating within the obelisk start gathering in front of me. When they reach the point where my fingertips touch the obsidian, they seem to pass through the obelisk’s surface and stream through my fingers and into my body. The moment they do so, a stab of pain shoots through my head. It feels like it’s going to explode. My vision flashes white, and I have to struggle not to lose consciousness.
It’s not as excruciating as my transformation into a demon was, but it’s still pretty bad.
A shudder runs through my body. I clench my teeth over a scream. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to resist the pain.
I can feel more and more of the lights flow through my meridians and into my dantian.
Inside my dantian.
The last wisp of light joins the others of its kind.
They’re slowly revolving, forming a sort of glowing tornado. It’s certainly quite beautiful, but I can’t say that it’s welcome.
I look at it from a distance, warily.
…If it stays as it is, without interfering with me, fine, but if it –
The tornado abruptly condenses and coalesces into a small sphere of light, brilliant as a sun. I can’t look at it directly without squinting my eyes. The sphere pulsates quietly, like a beating heart. Suddenly, streamers of light shoot out from the sphere. They all take different directions, randomly turning and looping through the air, but, even so, it’s barely an instant before they reach me.
It doesn’t hurt at all.
But, somehow, this feels even worse than pain.
My consciousness itself is being attacked, disintegrated, unmade.
I don’t understand why or how, but this thing is killing me.
I grit my teeth and command the ocean of blood-qi beneath me to rise up and surround me, like an egg whose liquid walls are dozens of meters thick. Years worth of energy close around me and protect me.
The streamers of light linking the sphere to my body all dim a little. The damage to my consciousness slows down.
At the same time, I send an enormous jet of raw blood-qi toward the sphere of light. However, a faint corona of light appears around it, and when my blood-qi touches it, every single drop of it flashes into steam and dissipates.
…Are you kidding me?! That was quite a lot of energy I just wasted!
More streamers shoot from the sphere of light and pierce through my shield of blood-qi and into my body, sucking out my life. I try to cut them off with my claws, but my fingers simply pass right through them without affecting them in the slightest, like they don’t have any substance.
My consciousness is dimming.
I can feel myself slipping toward darkness.
No… No way am I letting myself die again.
Let’s try something else…
I’m not sure it’ll be useful to block the attacks of that strange sphere of light, but it should give me a bit more time, if nothing else. The problem is that I’ll fall unconscious for a while after using this technique. So I won’t be able to react to anything else the sphere might do to me.
No time to hesitate.
At least, it’s doing something. If I stay as I am now, I’ll definitely die.
This is pretty much my only chance, already.
If it works, good.
If it doesn’t, I’ll die anyway. At least, I won’t be around to feel it happen.
I suppress the fear gripping my heart and focus for a few seconds.
And then I fuse with the sphere of blood qi surrounding me.
I instantly lose consciousness.