I’m walking along the pathway through the field of bones again, all of my senses looking out for any potential threat.
Phineas’s voice suddenly resounds. (This floor looks different from when I was sealed. At the time, it was a long, dirty river, bordered by jungle on both sides. There weren’t all these bones everywhere. What’s this all about?)
Suspicious. Very suspicious.
I proceed forward carefully.
I’ve already reached the next stairway. I just followed the pathway and it led me here. No attacks. No demons. Only the field of bleached bones spreading beyond sight in every direction.
I’m a bit confused.
I wish all floors were this easy.
I start down the stairs without hesitation.
(Perhaps the obelisk had some unforeseen effect on the demons living here, and Miroslav changed it to accommodate that fact. Oooh! That’s interesting. I can still feel the magic formations set up on the stairway. I don’t know if you ever tried it, but the stairs only go one way. As soon as the light of the previous floor can no longer be seen, it becomes impossible to go back up. That little trick in itself isn’t difficult to produce with space magic, but I have no idea how Miroslav managed to make the formations persist even after his death. That old bastard really had some skill…)
[Can’t you do this?]
(Make my magic persist after death? No, I can’t. I really can’t imagine how he did it.)
[…Is a soul actually useful for anything?]
(Why, yes, it is. For you, the most important point would be that it greatly increases your qi sensitivity, so it becomes much easier to manipulate, and your magic is more powerful. And then, as you’ve seen with me, if your physical body is destroyed, your soul can survive, even without it, though that requires extensive preparations. Also, when your soul becomes strong enough, you’ll gain some nifty abilities like telepathy, telekinesis, spiritual attacks… Basically, bending the world around you by sheer willpower. It’s nothing too strong – at least at first. You’re never going to be able to rip a mountain out of the ground with your mind, for instance, but it’s all really quite convenient, nonetheless.)
Telepathy? So I’ll still be able to communicate, then?
[How do I strengthen my soul, then?]
Phineas shakes his head. (You can’t. Not actively, at least. Refining qi lets your soul coagulate more and more, become more and more real and tangible. Along with that, its ability to affect the world will increase. That’s where all the powers come from. But, unfortunately, there is no training technique I’ve ever heard of that can hasten that process. Some mystical treasures and immortal pills can provide a one-time boost when you consume them, but you and I quite simply have no way to get our hands on any of those.)
[Is there anything else the soul can do?]
Phineas nods, stroking his beard and squinting mysteriously. (Yes, yes, actually. There is one last thing. Once you die, your soul will… reincarnate!)
My feet stop, leaving me standing in the darkness of the stairway. A shiver runs through my body.
So I don’t need to care if I die? If I can just get past the fear of it, I’ll just return to life in a new body?
Shouldn’t I kill myself right here, right now?
It would be easy. I just have to freeze my own brain with magic.
And I’ll escape this place?
This could be a viable solution, couldn’t it?
Instead of suffering in here as I make my way to the exit, I should just kill myself and be born again. In fifteen years, I’ll have grown up enough to start looking for Nerys and Father.
(Akasha, I suggest you listen to me a bit longer before committing yourself to any stupid idea. Your soul reincarnates, yes. But your memories are sealed in that process. It’s possible to recover them, through an extremely costly and dangerous ritual, but anyone who does so becomes irretrievably, violently insane and has to be put down on the spot. Also, the magic you’ve trained doesn’t transfer to your new life. After all, it’s not as if your dantian goes along for the ride, so all the qi you’ve refined and all the runes you have are lost. You’ll become a mortal again.)
[Then it’s useless?]
(Pretty much, yes. Although it does seem as if the runes you had in your past life have some measure of influence over the ease with which you’ll learn and train them again in this life.)
[I can’t learn new magic.]
(Oh, right. I forgot you weren’t human. Then, yes, it’s completely useless to you. I mean, there might be a use to it that I don’t know about, but if I were you, I wouldn’t bet on it. Countless gods have reincarnated throughout history. If none of them noticed it after all this time, I very much doubt it’s the convenient game-changer you’re hoping for. It’d be more along the line of some faint spiritual influence or karma or something obscure like that.)
(Even if you could keep your memories, I don’t think it would be worth it to lose your current body. You probably don’t realize it, seeing how ridiculously ignorant you are, but it’s truly incredible.)
I force myself to walk down the stairs again, pushing the anger back down into the depths of my mind and trying to focus on the conversation.
I should be used to disappointment. Nothing has changed from two minutes ago, when I didn’t even know about reincarnation. Since nothing has changed from two minutes ago, there is no reason to be any more angry than I was two minutes ago, is there?
(Take your horn, for example. Do you know what material this is?)
Phineas’s voice becomes gleeful and excited. (This is adamantine! It looks like metal, but that’s not what it is at all. It’s actually crystallized demon blood. It’s both flexible and incredibly tough. Indestructible, really – and I’m saying that as someone who’s seen entire planes collapse into nothingness. It’s absolutely priceless! An adamantine dagger would be precious enough for wars to be fought over it. And whole parts of your body are made out of the stuff. Hahaha! I think that should make you the richest person in the universe, shouldn’t it?)
(Wait… Now that I think about it, isn’t that bad? If we meet anyone who can recognize it for what it is, we’ll be in trouble… Damn it… How much of your body is adamantine, exactly?)
[Horn. Fingers. Toes. Teeth. Skeleton.]
(Your whole skeleton?)
Phineas sighs. (Oh, dear… All right. Let’s not tell anyone about that, shall we?)
(Still, it’s strange. A small shard of adamantine forms out of the blood of millions of demons, so what about an entire skeleton? A billion demons? Ten billion demons? You haven’t killed that many, have you?)
(I didn’t think so. In fact, even if you’d been killing demons your entire life, it still wouldn’t be enough to produce that much adamantine. Hmm… Stange… Really strange…)
Well, don’t ask me. As far as I know, I became like this because of the blood from a single dog demon. It’s not rare for the current me to spend more than that on a single spell, now. There is so much blood-qi in my dantian that even adding up the blood from all the demons up to the tenth floor wouldn’t have any noticeable influence. It would literally be a drop in the ocean.
But I agree that it would be nice to know where this adamantine came from.
Because I want more of it.
I want my whole body to be made out of it.
Then, I would be more confident in my ability to survive this place.
I can already see the faint light of the 51st floor, in the distance far below me.
Time goes by much faster when talking to someone.
I really missed that feeling.
I quickly reach the landing and look around.
The landscape of this floor is both bleak and beautiful. Maybe the bleakness itself is what makes it beautiful. The ground everywhere is covered in a layer of red dust that sometimes eddies up in the wind. Massive, jagged crags, whose rock is a darker shade of red than that of the ground, rise up everywhere, forming a complex array of wide, open areas which suddenly find themselves hemmed in by towering cliffs. Far in the distance, the wind seems even stronger than it is here. Many thin tornadoes twist and turn and fuse and divide with and from each other and link the ground to the dark cloud cover that occludes this floor’s ceiling. Even further than that, an enormous cyclone is spinning ponderously, like a vast, dark column holding up the sky. It’s difficult to judge from this far away, but it should be hundreds of kilometers wide. Lightning flashes constantly within the cyclone, flickering and slithering across its rim, sometimes striking the ground in explosions of dust and soil visible even all the way from here. The sound of it doesn’t reach where I’m standing now, though, and the spectacle is eerily silent. There are no signs of life anywhere in sight. Not even the smallest plant has managed to survive the harshness of this desert.
This Miroslav had nice taste, if nothing else.
Now, the question is, where is the next stairway?
And, from my point of view, the answer is clear.
Without hesitation, I start walking toward the cyclone in the distance.
This is where I would put it if I wanted to make things as difficult as possible for anyone trying to climb the Tower.
Actually, it might be another kind of viciousness to hide the stairway in a nicely inconspicuous spot and let the challenger waste their strength trying to get past the cyclone… If that’s the case, however, I have no idea where I should go first, so I might as well try the obvious. I can always change my mind if it proves too difficult.
[Have you ever been here before?]
(No, I stopped immediately after clearing the 50th floor. I was injured too heavily, at the time. I knew continuing any further would be reckless. Do be careful, though. The Tower is divided into tiers of difficulty. Floors 1 to 25 are easy enough. Floors 26 to 50 have much stronger demons than before, but their environments are still relatively peaceful. However, from what I’ve heard, floors 51 to 75 have both deadly environments and troublesome demons.)
The mantis demons?
That was the first difficulty spike? Why am I not surprised?
[What about 75 to 199?]
(I don’t know. Too few people have ever made it to that point to credibly report on the matter. Keep in mind that it was a competition, for us. There wasn’t much incentive in warning others about the dangers they’d have to face.)
I guess I’ll just have to see.
In any case, I’m still far from this point.
One step at a time.
That cyclone is even further than it appeared. I’ve already been walking for several days, and I still haven’t reached it.
My steps have not paused for even a second in all that time.
I don’t know when I completely stopped sleeping, exactly. It must have been a few years ago. At first, I still had to rest every once in a while, if only because of mental exhaustion, but it seems that, by now, I don’t find it particularly draining to have demons constantly threaten my life.
That’s good. Sleep made me vulnerable.
This small trip has also given me more opportunity to continue practicing my control over my body. I’m slowly getting there. I can feel each small increment of progress I make. It’s quite a pleasant feeling.
Phineas seems to find my efforts pointless, but I don’t care. I believe it’s necessary, so I’m going to keep doing it.
Other than that, he mostly stays silent, though. He simply sits cross-legged, motionless, floating in my dantian.
I don’t know what he’s doing. Meditating, maybe? I know that some practitioners do this, as a form of training. I tried it myself a few years ago, but it didn’t go anywhere. I’m still not even sure what I was supposed to achieve through it.
His silence doesn’t bother me. Just knowing he’s here if I want to talk is a comfort. We don’t need to have endless conversations, every minute of every day.
Suddenly, a few meters in front of me, a small stone rolls into my path from behind the corner of an enormous rock jutting out of the ground, clattering noisily in the otherwise silent desert.
I stop in my tracks.
I spread out a wave of cold all around me, in case this is only bait to draw my attention while the real attack comes from somewhere else, then four ice needles appear in my hand, loosely gripped between each of my fingers. They’re thin, but very sharp and a lot heavier than they look. Good weapons.
My muscles are relaxed, ready to burst into action.
A second later, a spider skitters into my sight, following after the small stone. It must have accidentally dislodged it when it moved.
What an idiot…
But, even without that mistake, such a crude ambush wouldn’t have been enough to kill me.
I allow myself an instant to examine the spider’s appearance – a white exoskeleton; at least thirty red eyes spread irregularly over its entire body; eight long, thin, four-jointed legs, each ending in a sharp blade – then my arm whips through the air.
All the needles in my hand accurately bury themselves into the spider’s face. The force of the blow sends it stumbling back, and it screeches in pain. Several of its eyes have been put out in that attack.
Regardless, it quickly recovers.
But, by this point, I’m already right in front of it, stabbing my claws into its skull. My ice needles already suggested that its exoskeleton isn’t that tough, and my fingers confirm this truth now. It only takes me an instant to rip out the spider’s dantian and flick it into my mouth.
As soon as that’s done, I jump over the corpse, using its head as a spring-board, and throw four more ice needles toward the other spider waiting just behind the first. My aim is mostly true. One of the needles strikes harmlessly against the rock to the side of it, shattering under the impact, but the others stab deep into the spider’s back.
I glance past it.
An underground tunnel opens out of the ground here.
I frown. This isn’t good.
More spiders are streaming out of the tunnel, following in single file behind the one I’m fighting right now. I can’t see how many there are overall, but I assume ‘countless’ should be a pretty accurate description.
As soon as I land from my jump, I create a long spear, taking aim even as it’s forming, and fling it toward the second spider. With the force behind my throw and the distracting pain of the injuries it already sustained, the spider can’t dodge in time and is skewered lengthwise, dropping to the dusty ground and irrigating it with its blood.
I run toward the tunnel, gathering my blood-qi and throwing spike after spike at the spiders trying to emerge from it, forcing them back.
That won’t kill them, or even deter them for very long, but all I need is a few seconds.
Once I’m only a few meters away from the opening, I unleash a large wave of cold toward it.
I sense the familiar pressure coming from the foremost spider as it prepares to use its own magic to try and counteract my own, so I send a thin, almost invisible ice needle into one of its eyes, and that’s enough to break its concentration and waste its efforts. With a high screech of anguish that hurts my ears, the pressure coming from the spider abruptly disappears, and the wave of cold washes over it and freezes it solid – along with the half a dozen others behind it that were counting on it to protect them.
I channel more blood-qi into my meridians.
An enormous mass of white fog, minuscule ice crystals glittering within it, shoots out of my palm, taking up the entire radius of the tunnel. Instead of dissipating like fog would, however, this one rapidly congeals into a thick, solid wall of ice, thoroughly stoppering the tunnel and trapping the spiders on the other side of it.
I breathe out slowly and take a few steps back to admire my handiwork.
That was nicely handled, if I do say so myself.
There probably are other branches to that tunnel opening elsewhere on this floor, but this one at least has been taken care of.
I won’t be able to always push back the confrontation, but the terrain here isn’t advantageous enough for me. A wide open space like that just isn’t suitable. I need to find a narrow defile where their numbers will count for nothing. The spiders’ tunnel itself would have been adequate, if only it wasn’t their own territory. Who knows what concealed traps might be hiding under every one of my steps?
No way am I going to venture down there without proper preparation.
Still, from what I saw in the few seconds I entered the tunnel, there were at most two or three thousand spiders here. Each individual spider is far from being my match. Three thousand of them are enough to be troublesome, but not enough to kill me.
Difficulty spike, was it?
These few demons definitely aren’t all there is to this floor.
I hear the spiders on the other side scratch against the barrier I drew across the tunnel, looking for any weak spot they might make use of. Their blurred forms can vaguely be seen busying around beyond the ice wall.
I don’t wait for them to dig through it. I immediately turn around and run away, still heading for the cyclone in the distance, pausing only to loot the dantian off the second spider I killed.