It was quite laborious, but eventually, after more than two weeks of efforts, I did manage to find the stairway to the 52nd floor. My success was largely due to the presence of the black spider. I would periodically lie down under it and allow my body to heal all the damage the wind dealt to it.
And now, I’m alone again.
Phineas has already entered dormancy.
Well, the black spider is with me, but it is a poor conversation partner, probably owing to the fact that it doesn’t even have the organs necessary to produce speech.
So I continue down. And down. And down.
I quickly understand that I only passed through the 51st floor by luck.
Those 200,000 spiders were bad, yes, but there at least was the loophole that they wouldn’t be able to attack me in the middle of the cyclone. I had a way out, so to speak.
Obviously, that couldn’t last.
Even with the black spider’s occasional assistance, it’s a constant, life-and-death struggle to slaughter my way to the next stairway and reach the next floor.
Also, it seems all the weirdness was concentrated on the 50th and 51st floor, because I don’t meet anyone new after that, except for the usual demons. And they’re not very good company.
Phineas told the truth when he said that both the demons and the environment would become troublesome.
I managed to reach the 50th floor using mostly my throwing skills to attack – creating spears or spikes and skewering my enemies from a safe distance – and I believe I have become very good at it, over the years. My strong body is also suited to it; I can throw hard and fast enough for my projectiles to be effective against most enemies.
At least, that’s how it was beforehand.
But this particular tactic is increasingly showing its limits. I can’t throw spikes at a tsunami or an erupting volcano, and those are just as dangerous, in their own way, as the demons living around them.
I’m being driven into a corner, forced to innovate, to find new ways to apply my power, to broaden my realm of abilities.
Fortunately, 冰 is a word with a broad meaning.
It’s a good word, a good magic.
However, while it may be very versatile, efficiency drops to frighteningly low levels as soon as I try something a little bit too elaborate. Creating a simple weapon is perfectly fine. I can do it as much as I want, as easily as I want. But for example, changing the shape of that weapon in an instant in the midst of combat to match the demands of my situation consumes a lot more blood-qi than I’m comfortable with.
It stands to reason, really. I only have a split second to react, then imagine what I want the weapon to turn into, then gather my blood-qi, then activate my magic, then send the ice-imbued blood-qi through my meridians and into the weapon, then for the weapon itself to transform. In that kind of timeframe, I can’t very well complete every single part of that process as properly as magic demands, now, can I? So I have to cut corners where I can and just throw a ton of blood-qi at the problem, without calculating the amount of energy the spell actually requires.
And that’s just not a good thing. Blood-qi is my life. I can’t afford to waste any of it.
Which is why I’ve mostly constrained my magic to the role of an auxiliary help, like supplying weapons and armor before the fight or when I can catch my breath for a second, or to that of an expensive trump card, to use only when I’ll die on the spot if I don’t, which situations I usually do my very best to avoid.
Now, however, I don’t have much choice in the matter.
Now, I end most floors at a deficit, energy-wise. I’m losing blood-qi faster than I can collect it.
My reasoning is still the same as before, really. It’s still an auxiliary or an expensive trump card. The only, minor difference is that, now, the words “I’ll die on the spot if I don’t use it” basically translate to “all the damn time”.
I firmly believed that each floor I’d gone through had pushed me to my limits, that I’d had to exert myself to the utmost to survive and reach the next.
From where I’m standing now, those days were quite relaxed.
I’m not sure how many years have passed.
Time is a blur, each day blending into the next.
The time I spend on each floor is variable. It can go from a month or two or even less, like it did on the 51st floor, to… maybe three or four years, at most? That’s just my best guess, though. I might be wrong on that point.
I do hope I’m wrong on that point.
Because, right now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that I’m over 50 years old.
Which would mean that Father already died of old age.
Yes, I’m probably wrong.
I’m steadily growing stronger.
I can pulverize rock and steel with my bare hands. My spellcasting is fluid and comfortable.
Even the cooperation with my eight-legged friend has become tacit and effortless, even though we still can’t actually talk to each other. I guess decades of companionship will bring minds together without need for words, huh?
A beautiful friendship, blooming between two bloodthirsty monsters…
How touching. I’m tearing up a little bit.
Phineas is still sleeping, though.
What a freeloader.
I am, indeed, steadily growing stronger.
Problem is, so are the demons. And their ‘steadily’ is steadier than my ‘steadily’, too.
Every time I start feeling somewhat confident in my ability to handle what’s coming, I get stepped on harder than ever before.
But I survive.
In the end, after everything has been said and done – the first part of which goes very fast, as no one here can actually speak – I am the victor, while my enemies become little flecks of ice flying in the wind.
Something that surprised me about the floors beyond 100, is that small gifts are waiting for me at the entry of each new stairway, housed behind some kind of force field that automatically dissipates as soon as I approach, but stays impenetrable to any other demon. I’m not sure how the force field makes the difference between me and them.
I assume Miroslav left those gifts there as a reward for making it this far.
…Thank you very much.
I’ll be sure to thoroughly show you the depths of my gratitude, if we ever meet.
I doubt even Phineas knew about those gifts, though, or he would have told me.
Unfortunately, the gifts aren’t particularly useful to me.
For now, I’ve found two books, both describing complicated magic theories I can’t understand and couldn’t use even if I did understand them, and a small dagger, which is very sharp, admittedly, but still not as much as my claws.
Still, if they belonged to Miroslav himself, they’ve got to be good stuff, somehow, so I decided to keep everything I find in my space ring, just in case. It’s still empty, anyway, except for that red cloak, so I’ve got room to spare, and when Phineas wakes up, he might be able to examine these objects and unearth some kind of secret use for them.
And I was surprised to find out I still know how to read Eashiri, even after all this time.
It feels a bit nostalgic, to hold a book again.
It’s quite enjoyable.
Finally, my soul has become strong enough to develop telepathy.
I’ve really been waiting for this for a long time. Now, I should be able to talk to Sanae.
I’m still keeping up with my body strengthening.
And like I’d predicted a long time ago, my muscles have become so dense, my body so heavy that, if I’m not careful to distribute my weight precisely, the ground will crack under my feet with each of my steps.
This is the point where I get smug about being so far-sighted.
I still remember all that training I did on how to move my body correctly, when I was young. Phineas doubted it would be useful for anything, and it’s true that, compared to how difficult it was, the advantages it brought me weren’t immediately obvious.
But now, it’s become something absolutely necessary.
If I started that same training today, with my current, enormous weight hampering me, it would be a thousand times more difficult to achieve the same mastery over my body, the same control over even the slightest of my movements. It would be like the difference between someone trying to learn fire magic by making small sparks to light a candle, and someone trying to learn fire magic by creating a sun. The first would succeed, while the second would burn to death. It’s always a lot better to start with smaller hurdles and then naturally work your way to the bigger ones.
Another effect of body strengthening is that more of me is turning into adamantine.
At least, I think it’s an effect of body strengthening. I’m not exactly sure.
But the fact that it is happening is certain. It’s like black metal is spreading from my digits over my hand and my feet. I assume it’s going to crawl up my limbs until it covers my entire body.
But the progress of that black metal is slow. Very, very slow. Painfully slow. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of years it’s going to take for the process to be complete.
But I can be patient.
Is this an effect of body strengthening, too? Is it strengthening my brain?
Or does it have something to do with my soul?
I don’t think I’m actually becoming more intelligent – Sanae assures me that I’m not – but my mind is clearer, and I can think faster than before. My reflexes and the speed at which I can process everything going on around me and even my memory have all drastically improved.
I haven’t had a single hallucination in years.
Well, either that, or I’ve become so insane I can’t even distinguish them from reality anymore.
On the other hand, my temper is getting worse and worse.
Often, I find myself losing control and wildly slaughtering everything around me, completely disregarding defense in favor or ripping my enemies to pieces with brute strength.
This is not good.
I need to be cold, dispassionate.
I can’t go on a rampage at the drop of a hat, or I’ll die.
What’s with this floor?
There are twelve nests spread through the entire floor, and each nest, each second, births a new demon. And of course, by the time I noticed that this was happening, several days had already passed.
There is already a massive tide of demons bearing down on me.
But, even assuming I can exterminate those that have already been produced, how am I supposed to kill twelve more per second while also working to destroy the nests themselves?
The demons look somewhat similar to the mantis from back then. They’re insectoid, and they have sharp appendages jutting out from everywhere. One on one, they’re not my match. Ten or twenty or thirty on one, they’re not my match. Even a hundred on one, they’re not my match.
But with so many of them, I will eventually tire out. And then…
Maybe I should just see this as a good opportunity, in fact.
Usually, fights don’t last very long. The longest I’ve ever experienced only took about three days. If I remember correctly, it was against some kind of gigantic orca, in one of the underwater floors. That monster was so big it was difficult for me to hurt it, which is why it took so much time. I had to burrow into its body and kill it from the inside.
But still, three days isn’t enough to consume all the blood-qi I’ve accumulated.
Here, on the other hand, enemies will keep coming constantly. It’ll force me to fight on the long term and come up with ways to reduce energy consumption. I might even end up having to eat demons in the midst of battle just to prevent myself from falling asleep.
It’ll be a bit extreme, as far as training goes, a bit dangerous.
But then, everything is, in the Tower.
And I’ve got to get past those demons, in any case, so I may as well try to derive some kind of advantage from it as I do.
Also, I really want to kill them all.
Let’s do this.
Well, I don’t know how long I fought those insectoid demons, but my performance afterward comforts me in my choice. It really paid off.
Even though I have almost no blood-qi left in my dantian anymore, compared to the past, I don’t feel threatened by it. I know for a fact that I can use what little I have left to devastating effect.
I went through the few floors after that so effortlessly it feels weird.
Weird, but pleasant.
Still, I am tired.
Maybe this feeling of exhaustion also comes from the fact that fighting and slaughtering and rampaging for such a long time really vented some of the anger that had been accumulating inside me.
Now, I feel calm. I don’t feel as… frustrated as before.
It’s quite liberating.
But I feel a bit drained, too.
I think I need to rest for a while.
Fortunately, I found a good place on this floor. It’s a snow-covered bamboo forest growing around a small, frozen lake. It’s pretty and peaceful and silent and cold.
I like it.
I decided to settle on the island rising from the middle of that frozen lake for a few days.
I’m not going to study magic. I’m not going to train my martial arts. I’m not going to strengthen my body with blood-qi. I’m not going to fight. I’m not going to be in danger. I’m not going to run around, or look for any stairway, or hope for any exit.
I’m just going to stop.
I think I will sleep.
It’s been so long since I last slept.
I miss it.
The few days of rest I’d planned quickly turned into a few years of rest.
Making the choice to leave was surprisingly painful.
I hadn’t expected it would be so difficult to start again, once I’d stopped.
But eventually, I did leave my small island, leave the frozen lake, leave the bamboo forest, and resumed walking the Tower again. Fortunately, I can fight just as well as before. In fact, I feel like I’m even better than I was, as if my skills have had time to mature and blossom while I wasn’t using them.
Today, I was pleased to discover that my body can, in fact, survive in vacuum.
Lindworms. Ogres. Kamaitachi. Unicorns. Tengu. Wyverns. Makara. Krakens. Basilisks. Trolls. Hydras. Griffins. Taniwha. Mandrakes. Pegasi. Rocs. Salamanders. Qilins. Banshees. Kelpies. Garuda. Cockatrices. Minotaurs. Hellhounds. Chimeras. Nekomata. Undines. Zaratans. Amphipteres. Bunyips. Lavellans.
This place is a zoo.
Still, Miroslav’s collection is really impressive. If he hadn’t left the book ‘Well-known Godbeasts and Related Creatures (Illustrated)’ for me on the 162nd floor, I wouldn’t recognize even a tenth of these things. I wonder if the ‘well-known’ in the title is supposed to be sarcastic.
I don’t think Caldera houses many of them, though. They must originate from other planes.
In fact, you can tell that just from the fact that some of these names sound very different from the others. It’s clear that people from other planes have a different naming sense.
A fortunate point is that I haven’t encountered any godbeast at all, yet.
Indeed, while I’ve already fought and killed things the size of a mountain, all the godbeasts described in the book aren’t actually the size of a mountain. They’re more on the scale of a mountain range. And I think I would have noticed if I’d run into one of those.
Some of the things I met in the Tower – like the krakens and the garuda – are actually supposed to be godbeasts, but the ones I saw were clearly much, much smaller than the real thing. I have to assume they weren’t actually krakens and garuda at all, but rather a lesser species.
There are only a few floors left.
Maybe there’ll be a godbeast in one of them?
This floor is interesting.
It’s barren and flat and very small, compared to the previous ones – only a few dozen kilometers across. I can already see the stairway down the to 199th floor, dug there in the rock face, tantalizing. Except it’s closed off. There is a forcefield blocking the way. I very much doubt I could break through it forcefully, even with my current strength.
On each side of the stairway, a gigantic gate stands tall, towering, reaching all the way up to the ceiling.
As I walk toward them, the two great gates suddenly open, revolving ponderously on their hinges.
And out of the gates come millions of rats, running frantically toward me.
Rats exactly identical to the one that attacked me, up on the first floor.
My steps don’t falter. I continue walking until I reach the center of this floor. I stop a few kilometers away from the gates – something more dangerous than rats might suddenly come out of them, after all; I want to leave myself some leeway, in case I actually need to retreat.
When the first of the rats come within 200 meters of me, their bodies freeze solid. The rats coming behind them stampede over them, crushing them into thousands of small chunks of ice sent flying in every direction, only to freeze to death themselves.
In less than a minute, all the rats are dead.
The only signs of the tide are the countless glittering fragments spread all over the floor.
And out of the gates come millions of rabbits, running frantically toward me.
Rabbits exactly identical to the ones that pursued me, up on the second floor.
They die the same way the rats did.
And out of the gates come millions of dogs, running frantically toward me.
Dogs exactly identical to the ones that killed me, up on the third floor.
They die the same way the rats and rabbits did.
I still haven’t moved one step from where I’ve been standing.
Nothing has managed to get past that 200-meter mark.
If this is really some kind of retrospective of all the previous floors, I’ll need to wait until the… 89th wave of demons for the first enemies to survive the piercing cold radiating out from my body. The walruses there were very resistant to cold. But their defenses against physical attacks were lacking, so they won’t be a threat, either. I’ll just need to set all those ice fragments conveniently lying everywhere spinning around me like a tornado, and they’ll be torn apart instantly.
Afterward, it might start getting really interesting, when the more dangerous things start to come out.
I hope there won’t be millions of those at the same time, though, or things will go right past interesting and into another realm entirely.
The last floor.
I almost thought it would never end.
Here it is.
I’m not sure how I feel.
I’m not sure how long I’ve waited for this.
There was only one demon, on this floor.
No, not a demon.
A godbeast, rather.
From what the book said, this was a rather weak specimen, among godbeasts, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I almost thought I would lose. It’s been a while since I last struggled so much against a single opponent.
It was quite a fight.
Afterward, once I’d healed the worst of my wounds, I checked everywhere.
No stairway down anymore.
The only thing left is what’s in front of me.
A wide, circular platform, strange characters carved into its surface, forming concentric rings.
I know what this is.
I saw a picture in one of Miroslav’s books, ‘Introduction to Space Magic’.
It’s a teleport formation. The strange characters are ancient Eashiri.
I’m not sure how long I stand there, unmoving, staring at it.
I’m not even sure what I’m thinking as I do.
After a while, I jump onto the platform and walk to its center.
I take a deep breath, and channel my blood-qi into the formation.
Soon, the symbols start shining.
My vision flashes white.