He may as well not have appeared in the first place. It would have spared me the disappointment.
But yes, it’s fine.
I’ll be fine. I’ve already been through sixteen years like that. What are a few more?
[When will you start sleeping?]
(I think I should be able to hang on until you’ve passed this floor, but I can’t delay too much. A week, maybe two. More than that would be reckless.)
Maybe I shouldn’t have killed that lizard-man, after all. Although he didn’t seem eager to meet me – to say the least – he may have talked to me, if I’d let him live. I hope I’ll find someone else on one of the upper floors…
I let out a sigh.
Well, no point in regretting it now, is there?
It takes me almost an entire day to process all those corpses.
There were really many of them.
A true massacre.
The black spider disappeared at some point, without me noticing. I still have no idea what it is or what it wants, but as long as it’s not a direct threat, I don’t intend to do anything about it. I’m not going to go look for a fight I’m not even sure I could win.
But harvesting all those spiders was really quite pleasant.
Gains without pains.
I also drank all the lizard-man’s blood and swallowed his dantian, despite Phineas’s protests. There just weren’t any good reasons to restrain myself.
With all that, the ocean of blood-qi in my dantian grew quite a bit.
This 51st floor is starting off well enough, and I’m still far from the cyclone.
Although the lizard-man took care of the first wave of spiders for me, I have no doubt that more will be coming. The thought of it evokes a very strange feeling inside me. A mixture of dread and anticipation. I know that being chased by so many demons is dangerous, and that my life is at stake, but I can’t help but feel a little thrill at the thought of eating all of them.
If I ever die again, there is a good chance that this hunger will be the reason why.
Well, I’m not all that thrilled anymore.
10,000 spiders, I can accept.
Even 20,000 or 30,000 would be manageable, if I really tried. I wouldn’t want to do it, by any means, but I could.
No. No, thank you.
This is several times more demons than on any other floor I’ve ever seen so far, and there are most likely more of them waiting for me elsewhere.
Phineas wasn’t kidding about this difficulty spike.
Actually, that can’t even be described as a difficulty spike, can it? It’s more like a difficulty cliff. Or, if you want to get really colorful, it is a difficulty spike, but that spike is currently being shoved up your nostril and into your brain. That isn’t the kind of spike I like.
…That Miroslav person is completely insane.
I hope he isn’t already dead. Because I really want an opportunity to kill him myself.
In any case, after eating the spiders the lizard-man butchered for me, I walked for an entire week, slaughtering or avoiding more spiders along the way. By now, I’ve almost reached the outer rim of the cyclone.
Normally, I would try to approach it gradually and carefully, but, at the moment, being careful is a luxury I cannot afford.
Because those aforementioned 200,000 angry, hungry spiders are hot on my heels.
The sound of their legs hitting the ground is earthshaking – literally. The small pebbles littering the ground everywhere are all jumping and bouncing madly, and more of them are shaken loose from the great crags that dot the landscape. It’s like an earthquake is following me, affecting the entire world in its pursuit.
I’m not actually certain how many demons are after me, because the frontmost group raises a thick dust cloud in its wake that makes it impossible to properly estimate their overall numbers. 200,000 spiders is only my best guess; there might be more.
I’m not sure why they all suddenly became so aggressive, either. Beforehand, I could go from nest to nest and fight more reasonable numbers one at a time without fear of another nest coming as reinforcements – and if there really were too many of them at once, I could still escape rather easily. But when I reached the outermost belt of tornadoes, about a day ago, all the spiders suddenly started running out of their burrows and chasing me madly. They don’t even wait for me to approach anymore. They actually, proactively leave their subterranean nests to hunt me down. They throw themselves after me and never give up. It really seems that, no matter how much effort they have to expend, they are determined to kill me.
There is no way I can win against such numbers, of course. If I exhausted all my blood-qi by casting the most destructive spells I can manage, I could make a nice dent even in an army like this one, but a dent is far from good enough. Afterward, I would drown in a sea of scuttling demons and be torn to pieces.
And so, I decided to let the cyclone do the job for me.
The plan is to throw myself into its jaws and pray very hard that it will be just destructive enough to exterminate all the spiders, without actually killing me alongside them.
Phineas thinks the plan is completely insane, that I should find another way to lose my pursuers, so that I can focus all my efforts on surviving the cyclone without any interference from attacking demons.
It is a bit of a gamble, admittedly, but I do think there’s a good chance of success. After all, individually, each spider is a lot less resilient than I am – except for that black spider, of course, who seems to have completely vanished.
In any case, it’s too late to turn back now.
I’m only 30 kilometers away from the cyclone.
It towers over me, huge beyond what my limited brain can comprehend, casting a shadow that seems to occlude the entire world. The sound of it is like a deep, low, threatening roar that makes the air itself tremble, almost drowning out the noise of the stampeding demons behind me. I’ve never actually seen any other cyclone before today, but even so, I don’t think this one is normal. It feels… alive, somehow. The malice emanating from it is almost palpable, as if it’s a malevolent deity coldly gazing down at me and preparing to crush me the moment I get too close for its taste. The more I approach, the louder and more violent the wind becomes. It does everything it can to obstruct me. It plays with my hair, casting it into my eyes, and tries to break my balance and send me careening and stumbling to the side. Lightning flickers across the cyclone’s edge and sometimes strikes down, like arms reaching out and pounding the earth. The closest such strike hit almost 100 kilometers away from me, but it still shook the ground under my feet, and the soil and debris the explosion raised travelled all the way here to rain down upon me and the spider army.
And then, there are the smaller tornadoes spinning along the cyclone’s borders. Despite looking like thin and ephemeral wisps when compared to the true monster behind them, they are still massive on a scale far beyond human.
I’ve done my best to weave my way between them as much as I could, and in this, I have been mostly successful.
Those spiders can’t say the same, however. They follow closely behind me, so they’ve also avoided most of those tornadoes, but 200,000 spiders take up a lot of space, and the tornadoes are constantly moving – and at much greater speeds than it might seem just by looking at them. A few ended up scraping and paring the sides of the spider army, tearing apart every demon unfortunate enough to find itself there at the time.
Most of the spiders are still safe, of course, and still chasing after me, but the reduction in their numbers, as slight as it may be, comforts me. Because it proves that the spiders can’t even resist the smaller tornadoes.
If I can just reach the cyclone, they definitely won’t be able to follow me any further.
And as the matter stands, I don’t see why the plan would fail. The spiders might be a bit faster than me, but the difference isn’t big enough for them to close the distance so easily. They might be able to keep running without tiring, even after more than a day of pursuit, but conveniently enough, the same can be said about me.
Yes, if nothing unexpected happens, I will definitely reach the cyclone first.
…And then, suddenly, something unexpected happens.
50 meters in front of me, the ground shifts and buckles, and a dozen spiders emerge from it, as if they had been patiently waiting in ambush here all along. Those look different from the other spiders of this floor. They don’t have any clear features – no eyes, no mouth; in fact, they don’t even have a head, as such… Instead, their bodies are covered in sharp spikes. Basically, they look like sea urchins with legs, rather than spiders.
I didn’t expect demons to appear there, nor did I expect their strange appearance, but this isn’t enough to make me flounder.
I keep running undeterred, a spear of ice condensing in my hand.
Before I can throw it, however, the strange new spiders make their move. They bury their eight legs deeply into the ground, as if bracing themselves for a great impact, then their bodies suddenly contract, shrinking into a smaller, spiky ball, before violently expanding again, with a sound almost like an explosion.
All the spikes pointing in my direction rip themselves out of the sea urchins’ flesh and shoot toward me.
I immediately kneel down and channel more blood-qi into my meridians. My ice spear changes shape and turns into a large, heavy shield, just in time for the spikes to strike like rain against it.
Cracks quickly appear over its surface, so I send more magic into it to repair and reinforce it.
For a moment, I believe I can hold out.
Until, that is, I hear the same explosion-like sound coming from behind me.
Since the flurry of spikes coming from the front still hasn’t let up, I can’t yet move my shield away. I can only glance back behind me to discover that another dozen sea urchins have come out of the ground there, between me and the army of normal spiders rushing in this direction as fast as their legs will carry them.
I drop to the ground, lying prone, letting the shield fall onto my back to cover me. My hand freed, I raise it up to protect my head and my neck as much as possible.
I’ll probably take some damage, but I should survive.
The spikes coming from the front are still blocked by the shield, glancing off its slanted surface, while most of the spikes coming from the back fly harmlessly above me, piercing through the air where I stood a moment ago. Others bury themselves into the ground next to me. And others still stab into my flank, into my arm, into my thighs.
I wince as my body shakes at those impacts.
The spikes penetrated more deeply than I’d expected, but still, it’s nothing lethal. Once I remove them, ice magic will be enough to handle the damage.
What surprises me a little is that the spikes are clearly hollow, and that black blood is leaking out from inside them and into my body, slowly spreading through my veins.
Infecting their enemies with the Taint contained in the blood within the spikes…
Against anyone else, this would be an instant death-blow.
But I’m a demon too.
The only thing this poison does to me is… feed me.
Without waiting for a second wave of attacks, I remove the spikes that would impede my movements too much, then quickly stand up, using more ice to repair my shield and strap it to my back like a turtle’s shell.
I cannot afford to lose any time dealing with these sea urchins. When the spider army arrives – which should only take about four or five minutes, at this rate – I will definitely die. I need to leave, and fast.
I immediately start running toward the front again, ignoring the sea urchins behind me, trusting my shield to hold out long enough for me to escape this ambush and hoping I won’t take a spike in the leg as I run.
The enemies in front are 50 meters away. That’s way too far for me to directly affect them with magic and freeze them – I could do it, but at this distance, efficiency would be horrible; it would empty my reserves of blood-qi in one little spell. Which leaves me with the elegant and subtle tactic of chucking spears at their stupid faces. It’s not as flexible a tool as something like a frozen fog I could reconfigure on the fly according to the situation, but it does have the advantage that, once the spear is created, the ice is stable and sustainable. It won’t dissipate. I don’t have to constantly feed blood-qi into it, so I can throw it as far as I want without worrying about draining all my energy.
As usual, my aim is good. It helps that these sea urchins buried their legs into the ground and can’t move at all. They end up skewered one after another.
New spikes are growing out of the flesh of the survivors to replace those they shot at me earlier, but they’re not fast enough. I should be able to kill all of them before the next volley can arrive.
My arm is a blur in the air, hurling spears at each of them in turn as I run toward them. Since I have to create my projectiles as quickly as possible, they certainly can’t be described as finely made. They’re not particularly sharp, and the ice isn’t packed in densely enough, but at this distance, it doesn’t matter much. I can compensate for these defects with sheer brute strength.
One le– A single spike suddenly flies out of the last sea urchin’s body, aiming right for my face.
It’s going to stab through my left eye.
So I snatch it out of the air bare-handed, twirl it around my fingers, and throw it right back at the sea urchin, killing it instantly.
For a few moments, I almost succumb to the urge to stop in my tracks and whoop in surprise at my own actions. My eyes flit back and forth between my hand and the corpse of the sea urchin as it drops down into the dust.
…I really didn’t expect to actually be able to do something that impressive by pure reflex.
It’s a bit of a shame that I can’t share this small moment of triumph with anyone else, though. Neither Nerys nor Father are here, today, and Phineas already went back into meditation, so he didn’t even see it…
Well, I suppose I can just quietly smile to myself, in a smug sort of way.
The explosion-like sound resounds once again, jolting me out of my self-congratulating mood. I quickly crouch down, letting the shield on my back shelter me from the second volley of spikes shot by the sea urchins behind me. One of the spikes glances off the edge of the shield right next to my cheek, casting flakes of ice into my face.
Fortunately, the shield is holding.
I wait for the volley to conclude, then, as soon as the last spike shatters against the ground next to me, I abandon the shield, letting if fall heavily behind me, and bolt away.
The shield is good protection against the sea urchins, but I can’t run fast enough with it weighing me down. If I continue at this snail’s pace, the spider army will definitely catch up to me before i can reach the cyclone.
I throw a quick glance behind me.
I lost too much time, here. The horde is way too close for comfort. I really want to curse those sea urchins. I managed to stay ahead of that army of spiders for an entire day, but now, all my efforts have almost been ruined.
I hope I’ll be able to reach the cyclone, at least.
I’m pretty close. If I don’t dawdle, I think I can still make it.
I start running faster.
Two kilometers away from the cyclone.
The wind buffeting my body is absurdly strong. Every step I take is a battle. I’ve been forced to slow down to a crawl.
In the end, the spider army caught up to me.
But they too are affected by the wind. Only a few of them can attack me at once. The rest struggle forward and try to cut my way off and encircle me – with little success. I do have to be careful, however, because it’s quite difficult to fight while the wind tugs at my limbs and strives to break my balance. If I’m not careful, I’ll trip and skewer myself on their bladed legs without these demons having to actually do anything.
Some sea urchins also sometimes appear and shoot their spikes, but their efforts are even more ineffectual. Their projectiles veer off course and are carried off by the wind before they can reach me.
Pebbles and stones borne aloft by the strong winds fly around us, fast as bullets, almost invisible in the red dust rolling in eddies around the cyclone. Discounting luck, it’s basically impossible for me to dodge them. By the time they’re close enough to be seen or heard, it’s already too late to do anything. I’m simply not fast enough. Fortunately, I can simply let those stone bullets hit my body without too much trouble. It’s a little painful, but after sixteen years in the Tower, pain is already pretty low on my list of concerns, and those stones are too blunt to penetrate my flesh deeply enough for them to be an actual threat.
As long as they don’t hit my eyes, I should be fine.
100 meters away from the cyclone.
The spiders can no longer afford to divert attention to attack me. I can no longer afford to divert attention to defend myself.
If we do, the wind will carry us off.
The spiders are really suffering, now. They try to dig their legs into the earth to hold themselves in place, but more and more are lifted up and blown away by the wind. I don’t imagine they’ll ever get back down again.
As for me, every time I take a step, I have to stick my leg to the ground with ice magic. It makes for slow progress, but it’s better than nothing.
Gradually, I approach the cyclone. It’s like a solid, revolving wall of dust in front of me. Here, the earth has been scoured clean and smooth. There are no crags, no rocks. Everything has been worn down into sand by the wind or has been ripped off the ground and sucked away by the cyclone.
Phineas has woken up. His face is grim. I imagine it must be quite frustrating to be stuck as a spectator in such a situation. He’s in as much danger as I am, but he can’t actually do anything.
I know I wouldn’t like it.
I take another step.
My eyes hurt.
I think they’re bleeding.
But, then again, my entire body is bleeding. Countless pebbles are flying around me, even faster than before, like wasps buzzing around me, taking bites out of me every time they pass close.
I take another step.
The wall of the cyclone is right in front of me. It looks strange. It seems solid enough for my hand to bump into it if I reach out to it, but at the same time, I can see that it’s clearly only dust and sand and wind. I know that I can pass through.
I take another step.
And the cyclone swallows me.
Great pain assaults my body.
The ice around my feet shatters and is blown away in an instant. I let myself fall to my knees. The wind drags my body along the ground, my claws carving deep furrows into the rock as I strive to keep myself anchored against the cyclone’s pull. My muscles strain to hold me in place.
Slowly, I slide to a stop, still kneeling.
I can’t hear anything clearly. The wind is a constant, deafening roar that drowns out everything else.
Particles of sand fly all around me, shrouding the entire world. Through narrowed eyes, I see them slowly flay the skin from my body as they pass over me. Gritting my teeth, I send blood-qi coursing through my meridians to heal myself, but since I can’t focus it on a specific spot, its effect is diluted. It’s not enough to actually heal, but it does slow the spread of the damage a little.
Right now, I almost wish I’d stayed outside to fight those 200,000 demons. I would’ve probably died against them too, but at least, I would’ve been able to fight, to flee.
But simply by standing within this cyclone, I’m already dying.
My body is strong. Unbelievably so. But it has limits. And this place goes past them.
I can’t stay here too long.
I slowly stand up.
(No! Wait! Stay down!)
Beforehand, the wind shot pebbles and stones everywhere. To me, those weren’t life-threatening.
But now, an enormous boulder, tearing through the air, bursts out of the dust in front of me, rushing straight toward me.
The moment I hear Phineas’s shout, I try to drop down to the ground and duck beneath it.
I’m too late.
The boulder smashes into me.
And the impact is enough to rip my claws from the ground.
The wind doesn’t let that opportunity slip by.
My body spins around uncontrollably, thoroughly confusing my sense of direction. I have no idea which way is down, which way is up, which way is inside or outside the cyclone. I have no idea how high I’ve been blown.
Suddenly, the entire world flashes white around me, taking away my sight.
Barely an instant later, the roar of the wind is eclipsed by an incredible explosion, the sound of it loud enough to shake my organs and make blood rise up my throat. I flatten my wolf ears against my skull to dampen it, but after a small pop, I can no longer hear anything through them at all – I quickly redirect blood-qi toward healing them. I also feel blood leaking out of my elf ears, as the high-pitched whine ringing inside them slowly fades back into the usual scream of the wind.
I take in a small, fearful breath, blinking white spots out of my eyes.
Not good. If this thing hits me, there’ll be nothing left of me but ashes.
Well, maybe my skeleton will be whole, but the rest of me definitely won’t survive it.
But how should I prevent it from –
Before I can consider the matter, something in the air around me makes the fur on my tail stand on end.
I don’t think I’m going to enjoy what’s about to happen.
The wind roils around me. The world noticeably darkens, as if concentrating for one great burst of brightness. Small arcs of electricity snake through the shroud of flying dust hanging over everything. Some of them discharge directly into my body, but it doesn’t hurt much – my flesh smolders a little, but compared to the pain of my skin being slowly stripped off of me, it’s only a small discomfort.
[Phineas? Any ideas?]
(…No. I’d tell you to try to make the lightning hit your horn or your fingers, but by the time you see it and the thought of trying to intercept it has formed, it’ll already have struck and we’ll both be dead…)
Phineas looks pale.
‘Nothing left of me but ashes’, was it?
I hope I was wrong.
I suppose it’s time to see precisely how much punishment this body of mine can bear.
When I was about to drown, some years ago, I discovered I didn’t need air to live. Maybe the same thing will happen again today with lightning. It’s unlikely, but you never know.
As the electricity streamers around me get more numerous, I cram more and more blood-qi into my meridians. So much of it, in fact, that they start to rupture under the pressure. The pain is almost unbearable, but the effect is good. My flayed skin slowly grows back, creeping over exposed muscle and flesh.
I don’t think improved healing will help much against that lightning, but I don’t know what else to do.
Everywhere around me, arcs of lightning flash one after another faster and faster.
And then, something presses down against my back.
It doesn’t feel like rock. It’s smooth and cold.
For a moment, I wonder if I’m hallucinating again – what on earth could possibly appear all of a sudden, so high up in the air and in the middle of that deathtrap? – until eight, thin, skeletal, bladed black legs stretch around my sides and encircle my body.
The black spider?!
How did it get here?!
The black spider’s legs close around me and press my back against its belly, as if embracing me.
And lightning strikes.