I rush across the valley. No spider is following after me, yet, but I want to put as much distance as possible between me and that nest.
Hmm… I didn’t plan my route too well, though, did I?
The way I took is a dead-end, barred everywhere by tall, sheer cliffs. I should have been more careful. As it is, it won’t be too much of problem, I think, but something like that might prove fatal the day I’m actually being chased by something nasty.
I continue running, heading straight for the cliff in front of me.
When I reach the foot of the cliff, I simply jump up and stab my claws into the rock, digging out hand- and footholds for me to use. And then I climb, piercing holes in the cliff as I go.
…It’s not as easy as one might think, to climb up a cliff with only one arm.
Fortunately, I’ve already had training in this particular discipline on a lower floor. At the time, I also had to fight off a flock of vulture demons while I clung to the rock, several thousand meters up from the ground.
It was quite a challenge.
I wonder, would I have survived, had I fallen?
Thinking about it, I believe I might just have, actually. I can be cut or stabbed as easily as anyone else, but blunt force is almost useless against me. It helps that my bones are unbreakable. But, then again, the impact of such a fall might have shaken my organs into mush. Hard to say. In the end, I think I prefer not to find out unless and until I really need to.
As it happens, I reach the top of this particular cliff without incident.
But, when I crest its edge, the spectacle before me leaves me dumbfounded.
This side of the cliff gently slopes down to another dusty valley, indistinguishable from the others before it. Except, that is, for the tens of thousands of spiders milling around within it. All of them are identical to those I killed earlier today.
And all of them are rushing toward a single point, in the center of the throng.
There stands a person.
An actual, flesh-and-blood person…
If I’d seen that person just one floor earlier, I would probably have jumped in glee and rushed at him to start a conversation, but now… After 16 years of solitude, already another person, so soon after I found Phineas? Really? Is there that much luck in the whole world?
A trap? A hallucination?
That mysterious person is fighting against waves after waves of spider demons, sending them flying back one after another, gushes of black blood and scraps of white exoskeleton arching through the air, bodies falling to the ground only to be unceremoniously trampled and shoved aside by their blood-maddened kin coming behind them.
The distance between the two of us is quite far, but my sight is sharp enough to take in the details of the figure fighting down there. It’s a man, garbed in armor that was probably glittering in the past but is now covered in black gore. A tattered red cloak hangs over his shoulders. The man’s features are concealed beneath a metal helmet.
And every time he swings the sword in his hand, one more spider dies.
Still, seeing the sheer number of enemies he has to face, his situation seems hopeless. He’s already been injured, too. His right arm hangs limply at his side.
…Who is this man?
Does he have a death wish? Why isn’t he even trying to flee?
Is he an idiot?
He might be an idiot.
Even as I watch the spectacle from a safe distance, he keeps on slaughtering demon after demon in a frenzy.
…Should I go help him?
I’m not sure I like the idea of arousing the attention of that horde of spiders.
But it’s a real person…
In my dantian, Phineas opens his eyes. (Yes? What is it?)
[Do you know that person?]
(Know wh– Oh. Um… No, I don’t. I mean, he’d have to take off his helmet for me to be sure, but probably not. I know very few mortals. Most of my acquaintances are gods. He could be another challenger of the Tower, I suppose.)
[How do you know he’s not a god?]
(He’s too weak. That’s the strength of a mortal.)
(I know what you want to say, but you’re an exception. Don’t start thinking everyone’s the same as you. As far as I know, your situation is unique. And among us normal gods, while there are of course differences in strength, there is still something of a baseline, some minimum level of strength that all of us can exhibit.)
[So I’m the weakest god in the universe?]
(That’s right. You should be proud, you know. Being dead last is an achievement all its own.)
[…Do you think I should help this person?]
(Hmm… I don’t know. Miroslav never allowed two people to challenge the Tower at the same time, but now that he’s gone… I’d advise you to, um, do whatever you want. Which isn’t particularly helpful advice, admittedly, but I’m a firm believer in the concept of freedom. The choice is yours. I trust in your judgment.)
Without letting me get a word in, Phineas immediately closes his eyes again and goes back into meditation.
I sweep my gaze over the army of spiders, trying to get a better idea of my options.
Off in the distance, standing on a tall rock overlooking the ground, like a reef jutting out of the sea of demons, is another spider. But this one looks different. It is smaller, barely a meter in length, half the size of the others. In fact, this one actually looks like a spider, rather than some kind of deformed, freaky mutant. It has the correct number of eyes, at least, and they’re all in the right place.
Also, its body is jet-black.
The black spider seems to notice my attention. It also turns in my direction, glowing red eyes staring back at me.
Why is its body black? Shouldn’t it be white? Does that mean it isn’t a demon?
But then, why aren’t all the other spiders trying to kill it? Demons always attack everything around them like it’s their purpose in life, but they’re all ignoring that anomalous spider standing so conspicuously over them. And, I may be wrong, but it really seems to me that this spider is looking over that army like a commander over her troops. That’s the feeling it gives me, at least.
Is it a special demon? Some kind of elite specimen of its species, perhaps? Are elite demons black?
Isn’t that adamantine?
…I’m pretty sure it is.
Its whole body is made out of it.
And I was just thinking how nice it would be to have such a thing.
Why was Phineas pretending adamantine was rare?
He probably just said that to flatter me and make me feel special…
Adamantine is crystallized demon blood, I remember him saying.
So then this spider is a demon?
Am I supposed to kill it?
Wouldn’t this adamantine make it completely invulnerable?
And it’s looking at me peacefully. It’s clearly aware of my presence, yet it’s not showing any sign of aggression. It’s not even sending its troops after me.
My gaze turns back to the man fighting down there.
Right, then. I’ve decided.
Let’s not help him.
If I go down there and help that man fight off the spiders, I suppose it might be possible for me to earn myself an ally who could help me survive in this Tower against the hordes of demons that constantly attack me.
But would I really trust someone I don’t know anything about to watch my back and fight alongside me like this? Someone who apparently doesn’t know what the word ‘retreat’ means, at that… Phineas is fine, since he can’t really affect me at all – he doesn’t even have a body, and in my dantian, a thought would be enough for me to exterminate him without leaving a trace the moment he becomes a danger – but this man could stab me to death when I’m in danger, or fail to appear when I desperately need reinforcements. If I need to stay constantly on guard against someone supposedly my ally, it would be better to stay alone.
If I don’t expect any help from anyone, then I won’t be disappointed…
Also, I have Phineas, now.
I don’t need more than one conversation partner – not enough to risk my life for it, at least.
And I would be risking my life.
There are more than 20,000 demons down there. I do think I could win, if I put my all into it, but it wouldn’t be an easy win, by any means. It would cost me.
I’m still far from the cyclone. I can’t afford to exhaust myself in a battle I can avoid.
And that’s all without taking that strange black spider into account. Doesn’t it feel like it’s goading me into coming closer to it, by pretending to be peaceful like this? At the very least, it’s an unknown factor I really don’t feel like approaching carelessly.
…In any case, that man doesn’t even need my help, does he?
He’s strong enough that he should be able to escape, if he wanted to.
On the other hand, if he wants to die, he shouldn’t drag me down along with him.
Still, I am a bit curious as to what he’ll do. He is only the second real person I’ve met in sixteen years, after all. And there is always the faint possibility that he might be in the same situation as me, trapped down here by the same scum that blew up my house and captured me.
I do feel some faint measure of sympathy.
So I will at least watch.
I sit down on the ground, flicking my tail onto my lap and idly combing its fur with my fingers, my eyes roving over the battle taking place before me.
It’s been three hours, and he’s still alive.
He really is strong. I admire his endurance.
I wonder if I’m stronger?
I think I’m stronger.
Yes, I’m definitely stronger.
But I can’t fathom why he’s doing this.
He might be an idiot.
A spider ate his arm.
Losing an arm can be quite inconvenient, sometimes, but don’t worry too much about it.
You’ll get used to it after a while.
A spider stabbed a claw right through his chest.
And, while he was busy dispatching that one, another took the opportunity to bite his leg.
He’s not going to last much longer, I think.
One of the smarter spiders attacked the slit of the man’s helmet, and judging from the volume of his subsequent scream, that definitely hit something sensitive.
Like an eye.
I don’t envy him.
I sure wouldn’t want to lose an eye.
Looks like this fight is nearing its end.
He almost did it.
After seven hours of constant fighting, there are only a few spiders left. Countless corpses are spread everywhere, torn apart, piled up in mountains, limbs ripped off and strewn about all over the ground, blood running in rivers.
It makes me… hungry.
It’s a bit strange, actually. I already have enormous reserves of blood-qi inside my dantian. There is really no reason for me to feel hunger, at the moment. And yet, I do.
I want to eat.
I want to hunt.
Not because I need to.
Simply because prey is in front of me. Simply because I can.
It’s only a vague impulse. Nothing I can’t repress. With my temper often getting the better of me these days, I’ve had to really work on my self-control, so a small thing like that can’t really affect me.
But it worries me a little.
I didn’t have those impulses, in the past.
…Am I changing?
The man is on the very verge of death, now. There is almost no part of him that isn’t injured. There is really no way he can survive injuries like that. As Phineas said, not everyone has a body as incredible as mine.
…Should I have helped him?
He might not be in this state if I had diverted a part of the spider army and taken up a bit of his burden.
I think the me from 16 years ago would have chosen to help him.
Yes, I suppose I am changing.
But of course, that goes without saying. I’m 28 years old. I’m a mature, responsible adult, now, so it’s natural for me not to act the same way I did when I was a child, isn’t it?
…Still, It does worry me a little, I suppose.
That’s not to say I feel any regret over my decision to simply stand by and watch as someone dies in front of me. Because I don’t. I still think it was correct not to interfere. I still think it was correct to put my safety over that of someone I know nothing about.
It’s just, what if the me that finally escapes this Tower isn’t the me Nerys and Father remember? The me they want to reunite with? What if they don’t like who I am now?
…But it’s not like I can change back to how I used to be.
More than that, I don’t want to change back.
The me from 16 years ago would never have arrived to the 51st floor.
It’s not only a question of strength or magic. It’s a question of mentality. The me from 16 years ago would have been broken a long time ago. The me from 16 years ago would never have been able to bear spending a decade and a half in solitude. The me from 16 years ago would never have been able to bear losing her arm, losing her voice, being cut to pieces and stabbed and bitten and trampled and burned and crushed.
If I hadn’t adapted to my environment, I would be long dead.
There wouldn’t even have been a need for any spiders or mantises or bears or tigers to do the job, either.
I would have taken care of it myself.
I let out a sigh.
Let’s not think about this. It’s all rather depressing, no matter how I think of it.
What matters is to escape the tower.
What happens afterward…
Well, we’ll see…
It will always be better than being stuck down there…
The black spider is still up on its rock. It hasn’t taken part in the battle at all. Instead, it’s been staring at me. Its eyes haven’t left me ever since I arrived here. I don’t know why it seems so interested in me. It might just be keeping track of me so that I don’t try to attack what’s left of its army.
The armored man is stumbling unsteadily. He’s going to topple anytime, now. He just needs one more little push, but the remaining spiders seem to be wary of him. They’re circling him slowly, waiting for him to finally drop dead.
The man stabs his sword into the earth and leans on it to keep himself standing. He’s panting heavily. After a few seconds, he somehow manages to catch his breath a little and raises his head to take a look around.
He seems to finally notice the black spider, and, almost reflexively, follows the creature’s gaze, bringing me into his sight.
Even from that distance, I can see his body stiffen in shock or surprise.
And then, unexpectedly, he turns tail and runs away from me, limping as fast as his injuries will allow, completely disregarding the spiders still circling threateningly around him.
What is the idiot doing, now?
20,000 demons don’t scare him, but a little girl sitting peacefully two kilometers away sends him running for his life? No… That’s not right, is it? That doesn’t make any sense…
Why is he running away from me?
There’s got to be a reason.
Why is he assuming I’m hostile?
That’s not right, is it?
Why is he running away from me?
There’s got to be a reason.
…Is it that he himself already sees me as an enemy, so he assumes I would be hostile to him in turn?
As soon as that thought forms, I stand up and take a few steps forward, my gaze locked on the man’s fleeing form in the distance. I hesitate for a few seconds, but in the end…
I can’t let that person leave this place alive…
He’s too strong. As strong as me, perhaps.
And he’s a person – that is, he’s intelligent. He can plan.
Now, this person knows I’m here. If I let him go at this moment, and he manages to escape the spiders and nurse his wounds, he might come back to attack me later, when I least expect it.
…I can’t afford that.
…I absolutely can’t afford that.
He is a threat.
And threats… must be removed.
A long ice spear slowly condenses into my hand.
The man is running quite fast, despite his pitiful state. Some spiders try to block his escape, but he cuts them down, blood – I’m not sure whose – sprinkling everywhere. He’s clearly burning through what little is left of his life, like the last flash of a burning meteor as it explodes in the atmosphere.
He’s killing himself, just to get away from me…
I bring my arm back over my shoulder and take aim.
The target is already more than two kilometers away, and there is a lot of wind. Fortunately, throwing spikes and spears is one of my main tactics, so I’ve trained it diligently over the past decade. I should be able to hit him.
I condense all my strength into my arm, then throw.
The spear tears through the air with a sharp whistling sound.
It flies for almost ten seconds.
My aim is good.
The spear pierces into the man’s back and all the way through his body, exploding out of his torso in another spurt of blood. The man’s legs already had trouble bearing his weight; the impact of the spear is enough to send him tumbling to the ground, where he remains, unmoving.
…He’s definitely dead, now.
That’s the first time I kill someone, now that I think of it.
I’ve killed a lot of demons, but a person… It’s the first time.
…Shouldn’t I feel something?
Well, I should see who that was, exactly.
I slowly walk down the slope and into the valley, ignoring the enticing smell of all those corpses.
The few spiders left pose little threat to me. I dispatch them easily enough. One of them tries to nibble at the armored man while I’m busy doing that, so I throw another spear into its face.
I always keep a wary eye on the black spider, ready to run away if it starts acting up, but it stays on its rock, staring at me. It makes no move to stop me from slaughtering its comrades.
I soon arrive next to man. I stand over him and examine him more carefully.
He’s fallen face down onto the ground, and from up close, he looks even more ragged than I expected. His red cloak is full of holes, where the bladed legs of the spiders stabbed into him. The armor covering his body is in pieces, too, scratched and scored and dented and broken. Even his helmet has been punctured. Huge chunks of flesh have been ripped out of one of his legs, revealing the bones beneath. Blood is slowly forming a growing black pool on the –
The man’s blood is black.
…Don’t normal people have red blood?
I vaguely seem to remember that.
Was I mistaken?
(So you didn’t help him, in the end?)
[No, I didn’t.]
(Wait. That’s weird. Did a spider stab that spear into him?)
[No. That was me.]
(…Oh. Why did you kill him?)
[He was a threat.]
(Was he? You’d think that, in the kind of situation he found himself in, he’d try to avoid make enemies elsewhere, too.)
[…What’s the normal color of blood?]
(Huh? W–Well, that depends on the species. Red, usually. Dark green, for dryads. A blueish grey, for ettins. Black, for demons. What brought that u– Oooh, this guy is… Isn’t he like you? Is he another humanoid demon?)
With a touch, I melt the ice spear stabbed through the man. Then, I squat down and roll him onto his back. I remove his helmet, revealing his face.
He looks young, maybe fifteen or sixteen. His hair is as white as mine, but cropped short. His face looks mostly human-like, but patches of white scales grow over his skin, here and there, and small holes have replaced his nose and his ears. Two short horns should have once grown out of his forehead, but they appear to have been filed off. There only remains two flat, circular, bony extrusions, now, almost level with his skin. There is a large, ugly gash across his jaw, matching one of the holes in the helmet. Small, blunt spines underline his eyes, one of which has been put out, black blood still streaming copiously over his cheek.
The other eye looks exactly the same as mine. A glowing red pupil over a black sclera.
Like Phineas said, this man is like me.
The only difference between us is that I’m a wolf, and he’s some kind of… lizard, I guess.
But he clearly underwent the same transformation I did.
And he’s fighting demons in the Planar Tower, too…
What does that mean?
Are there really more like me?