50. The Reservoir
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Part 1 –

Exrite remembered the confines of her room. She remembered the dark walls, the putrid smell of blood, faeces and despair and various devices scattered around her haphazardly.

No. At this time, Exrite was a man. A young man at the age of 15.

Nothing but curiosity filled his eyes at the time. Of course, Exrite did not know of the fate that awaited him. He was lured – or rather – forced into a rather pristine room that bared no windows nor a single crack to allow light to enter.

The only source of light here was that of a generous wax candle.

His father and those closest to him said that his body had undergone a curse, and that only the strongest mages of the Exthar could heal him. The Exthar were a circle of mages that were at the peak of magic and strength, and who boasted the eternal support of the King for they were his right-hand.

Exrite was naïve. He trusted the words of his nameless father, his mother and everyone around him. Never in his life had he gone through any hardships, so this was to be expected.

Then, under the mercy of leather bounds, the arms of his family’s closest aides and the cold surface of a wooden table – Exrite watched in horror and disbelief as knives tore through his flesh.

Under normal circumstances, a magical sedative such as a [Sleep] or [Sleep – True Paralysis] would be used before any operative procedure. Enthile was a country – no, a civilisation that was far more developed than most.

This kind of barbarism was often limited to Demi-Humans, criminals, prisoners and enemies.

Otherwise it was considered an act against their King, and their God – Malum the Correct.

Needless to say, those that disobeyed or even carried a contrary thought were punished severely.

* * *

“So why me?” Exrite spoke as if speaking to someone invisible underneath the company of the false stars.

Her eyes glistened. A gentle smile hovered on her face, unmoving as she retold the beginning of her tale. It was shallow, but it carried a weight that even Black had to acknowledge.

The woman silently laid beside her, devouring everything that left Exrite’s lips.

“I never thought about it until it was too late. I trusted them, through thick and thin. I believed that everything they were doing was for my sake. To save me from my… curse.”

Her eyes narrowed ever-so slightly.

“… but my promised salvation became my damnation… no one intended to help me from the start. I was left to rot and become their screaming toy for the next ten years.”

She gently closed her eyes. Too gently, in fact.

She suppressed an urge to scream out those words at the top of her lungs. The mere thought of it riled every fibre of her body. Rage could not begin to describe the feeling in her heart.

It was something far more sinister. But at the same time, a hint of sadness could be heard in her soft voice.

“No one thought twice about my curse, my disappearance or suffering. I sort of… disappeared in everyone’s eyes. But those who knew… those who understood what exactly I had inside of me, worked for days on end trying to break into my mind.”

* * *

If immortality could not be harvested from Exrite, then they could at the very least turn him into a pawn for their bidding. They promised him release at the expense of his thought and total obedience to their King.

But Exrite could no longer believe a word that left their mouth. Or, it was perhaps that his countless weeks of endless torture left him unable to comprehend those words.

He was then sent to neighbouring Kingdoms that were part of the Exototh – a massive allegiance consisting of the four largest kingdoms in the Enthoric Region. It was something akin to the system the Skathow Region used to maintain uniformity and order across their every-growing expanse.

Exrite was promised more in the face of one of the neighbouring Kings.

He was promised to be reunited with his sisters. Those were the only words he understood, and as if in an act of desperation – Exrite reached into the air and grasped at nothing.

At this point in time, he was severely broken. The promise was like a beacon of a hope in the pits of a chasm. He was a moth attracted to the light by nature.

But in the end, it was a lie – a trap to further whittle his mind.

* * *

“I was burnt, cooked, drowned, strangled, beaten, corroded, melted, rendered, excavated, dissected – I’ve gone through every death you can possibly imagine.”

Exrite said in clear voice.

Some of the horrific methods involved skinning her entirely and rubbing handfuls of salt across her defenceless body, or slowly slicing inches from her body over the course of a day.

She could never bleed out, nor die for that matter. A clamp would stop her regeneration and force her to endure the agony until they pried her vitals away.

And it only grew worse as time went on.

“When they realised that they couldn’t strip my mind away they used me as their… for a lack of a better word: pincushion. Their magic, their potions, their understanding of a humanoid’s body – a lot of it came from me as a result of their… tests…

Ten years ago, potions were a rare and ineffective source of healing. At most, potions were used to help replenish mana or aid in the recovery of a status – such as poison or the likes.

Healers and magic users were vital smaller villages. It was not uncommon to hear villages disappear in a matter of days due to a disease or illness. But now, healers were only necessary for vital and major wounds, or a malignant status or disease.

This was all because of Exrite. Killing another human – or testing on them for that matter – was one of the highest offences in Enthile. Demi-Humans often served the role of hamsters, but they were different from humans.

They obviously didn’t see Exrite as a human anymore.

She wanted to laugh.

The silver lining here would be that her sacrifice helped many thousands of others. But as Gaia once said –

Sometimes even the pain of one person can’t justify the fate of many.

Exrite felt conflicted by the thought. Her virtue wanted to say it was for the greater good, but something crawling inside of her screamed otherwise.

This was because the people she saved were the people of Enthile – the place she so dearly loathed.

Perhaps if it was for the Demi-Humans instead, and that she knew the purpose of her sacrifice, then she would never have spiralled down so far. She would’ve willingly accepted her fate, knowing that a brighter tomorrow existed.

But nothing of the sort existed in her reality. Everything was bleak. No light shone into the depths of her cold void – save for a single strand of light.

This was her hope, her drive to escape…

And to die.

Upon hearing this, Black asked a simple question.

“… then tell me, Exrite: if hope is nothing but a delusion, then why do you continue holding onto your humanity? What hope do you have for yourself in the future?”

Exrite turned to Black and saw the concern in her eyes. She spoke from the bottom of her heart for she too was in a similar place as Exrite.

Then, Exrite softly smiled.

“I want to prove myself wrong… I used to loath hope, but I still never let go of it. I never would have left that place without clinging onto hope.”

Her eyes moved to the stars.

“But it was false hope. I never escaped any of this in the end. Even now… but… you know, I did get to meet them.”

“Them? Whose them?”

“Khaos and Frosty.”

Black was bewildered. She nearly rose in surprise but restrained herself for Exrite’s sake.

“Those two… huh? I don’t get it. I thought you said you wanted to prove yourself wrong –”

“They had a dream. A stupidly impossible dream that I couldn’t help but to wonder if they were alright in the head when I first heard it.” Exrite laughed to herself, her voice becoming raspy.

“At the time, I threw everything aside. I planned to reach the Children of Balance to finally die, but then those two… those two… changed me.”

Exrite eyes’ moistened and glistened underneath the stars. An arm slowly shielded her gaze as she continued her heartfelt confession.

“They told me their stupid plan with that dumb, confident smile, and I couldn’t help but to laugh. It was so stupid. So stupid. Reaching the Maiden of Wisdom is as impossible as killing an immortal. I knew how ridiculous it was, and on a whim, we made a promise to reach the Maiden of Wisdom for answers… together.”

Black was awestruck and fell silent as she stared at the fragile girl beside. Rather than the pain of the past, it was instead her memories with Khaos and Frosty that brought her to the verge of tears.

“But after we reached Colight… and saw the beautiful sights… and the world beyond Enthile and the Katho Region… I started to see everything in a different lens.”

A tear ran down Exrite’s cheek as she muttered her last words.

“Because the world was warm for the first time in so long.”

* * *

Essentially, Exrite’s newfound hope was due to Khaos and Frosty’s ridiculous plan to find the Maiden of Wisdom. It grew as she became increasingly fond of the two, to the point where they sparked a meaningful reason to continue fighting the odds.

She wanted to be with them through thick and thin, just as how they did during their perilous travels to Colight.

But most of all – she believed that if they could see to the end of their dream, then so could she. It was a selfish thought, but no one could blame her for thinking in such a way.

However, her goal was now far more ridiculous than theirs. The simple dream of finding a home, or respite was frankly impossible. But she could not give up, nor would she allow herself to.

Even if she was suddenly alone, Exrite vowed to push on until the very end.

And one day, perhaps she could too pass on her confidence to someone, like how Frosty and Khaos did to her.

Exrite’s sniffles filled the air. Her near silent weeps were interrupted by meek “Sorry.” And “I’m sorry for being so pathetic.”

A soft sigh left Black. She took off her black peaked-cap and placed it over Exrite’s head.

“Calm down, will you? Haaah… emotions are such a pain sometimes.”

Her tone was far softer than her words. The girl nodded as Black patiently waited for her to calm down.

“Soon it’ll be my turn to tell you all about myself. But remember this Exrite – your history has only lasted for ten years. You have a thousand more to go at the minimum… or less than one if you die to Melody.”

She sighed and placed a hand onto Exrite’s capped head.

They were like this for an hour. Exrite’s sniffles soon disappeared and the night fell silent once again. Then, Black held out a hand into the sky and gently smiled.

In her hand was the colourless compass. The bead which could detect any Colour stabilised for the first time in this dungeon. However, that bead was black, and the hands pointed down to herself.

“Hmm. Let me take you to the beginning then, Exrite. Believe it or not, I was just a normal girl who loved flowers.”

* * *

Part 2 –

Earth – hundreds of years ago. A world where technology preceded even that of the most isolated civilisations of Six Point. Only a simple world existed here.

Black was born into a family of smiths somewhere in a small, remote town at the base of a dormant volcano. She was a prodigy in her work from a startlingly young age, crafting the finest farming tools and simple weaponry out of beaten metal.

But she wasn’t so fond of her work. There was rarely a day where she wouldn’t be covered in layers of black soot or other toxic by-products.

Black’s passion laid elsewhere. If one couldn’t find her in the workshop, then they would certainly find her at her family’s garden.

Though she loved tending to the hundreds of sprawling plants in her beautiful sanctuary – she was not very good at it.

Her hands would fumble and crush their soft leaves, and the water she poured often split over herself than the plants. Many whittled away under her care, most was due to the by-products that smeared over them like a thick paste.

So, to see it in such a pristine state spoke volumes of her effort.

If one were to compare her to the current Black, then they would be polar opposites. After all, this was a Black who cherished life, both big and small.

Her life was filled with smiles, happiness and love. She knew all 100 inhabitants by name, last name and their quirks and in turn, she was known by everyone as if she was the jewel of the town.

But her story had no happy ending. If it did, then Black wouldn’t be here in the first place.

* * *

Black felt her body sink into the grass as a quiet hum left her lips. She allowed Exrite the time to digest the story so far. The girl was surprised, but at the same time, she knew Black was a… kind person.

No matter how cruel she seemed, there was a warmth in her blackened heart that Exrite saw. A humanness to a weapon.

The sky seemed to dim. The plentiful stars faded as if a curtain was drawn. The empty void high above was reflected ever-so perfectly into Black’s eyes.

After many minutes of silence, Black spoke.

“Exrite. Tell me, does the term ‘Witch Hunt’ ring any bells?”

Exrite could only shake her head. As if sensing this, Black shut her eyes and continued.

“Interesting… I thought you would’ve at least heard of it. But magic in your world is normal, so hunting witches makes no sense. Well, depending on what a witch means in your world.”

Black brought a hand to her stomach, feeling it writhe as she recollected the exact moment of her downfall.

“I… lived far away from the rest of the world. There were no doctors, or anything like that. If you caught an illness, then the only thing you could do was call a priest and pray that it would subside. But I never believed in any of that nonsense.”

There was anger in her voice, yet her face remained mostly the same. All hairs on Exrite’s body rose, as if her body entered a state of fight or flight. But she shrugged off the sensation and keenly listened.

“Blindly hoping for a better outcome gets you nowhere. My dad was shone a light and lead straight to his death, like a fucking moth. If you wanted a result, then you had to do it yourself – that’s what I thought. So from then on, I found ways to heal people. The herbs and plants from my garden did wonders, and for years I tried mastering the art of herbal medicine.”

Black’s father died to an unknown illness one day. No one knew how or why he died, but with her knowledge now – she suspected it came from a metallic puncture at the workshop. She remembered him complain of a foot injury days before he could no longer control his body, and in turn, his breathing.

“It took over a thousand failures before my first successful concoction. I sucked. I had no talent, but I never gave up. I didn’t want the people I cared about to rely on supernatural causes, or false hope. I didn’t want anyone to die.”

Black briefly paused, stifling a laugh. It was funny. Too funny. Everything happened so suddenly. It felt like it was all just a bad dream. But that was a long time ago. Any less, and there was a chance that she would’ve wept like Exrite.

But she had a will like iron – no, like diamond… though diamonds could easily be cracked if they were hit in a certain weak point.

“I saved many lives with my medicine. But they saw it as a supernatural power. They saw it as magic. How could a human possibly reverse an injury or disease with mere plants? – is probably what those… fucking idiots thought. So – I was labelled a witch. And like the term goes – I was fucking hunted.”

* * *

Black ran. She ran as far as she could from the burning garden and the toxic fumes that followed her. Behind was the clamour of a hundred people, all wielding lit weapons as they searched for her in the middle of the night.

Years of friendship and happiness crumbled in a matter of moments. The medicine she dedicated her life to perfecting caused to be suspected of witchcraft.

And news of this spread across the town’s residents like wildfire.

Her nightly gowns tore as they were caught by the protruding branches of the forest. The thick sprawls of vegetation beneath the volcano was like that of a jungle.

Scratches were carved into her body like the lashes of a whip, as if nature too sought to punish her for witchcraft. Black’s mind screamed endlessly as she ran barefoot.

What did I do wrong!? I tried to save them, didn’t I!? I’m not a witch!

The animal path she followed eventually led her to a hideout only she and her mother knew. Her numb legs brought her to the steps of a wooden cabin. Here, only the stars and the smoking summit of the volcano could be seen through the clearing above.

She barged in and immediately toppled onto the cracked wood. A deadly mixture of shock and pain ran through her body like electricity as vomit poured across her hands.

Her body and mind struggled to accept this reality. This had to be a nightmare. How could the kind people of her town change so drastically? What did she do to incur this hell?

As she struggled to think things through – creaking sounded from behind as an array of heavy steps approached. Suddenly, someone tugged her from the collar of her neck and threw her outside the cabin.

“YOU!” An unidentifiable voice screamed.

She tumbled and fell down the flight of stairs and laid flat on the cold soil.

Blood pooled beneath her. During her fall she had hit her head against the edge of the staircase. Her vision was blurred, but that was the least of her concerns.

A pair of hands suddenly caught her throat as a familiar voice scolded her.

“YOU KILLED HIM! IT WAS YOU ALL ALONG! I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN! I SHOULD HAVE KNOOOOOOWN!”

The usually calm and motherly voice twisted into one of soul-rendering rage and anguish, like she was being simultaneously burnt alive.

“M… o….m…?”

Black could not fight back. Not against her own mother. What was supposed to be the hands of her eternal nurturer were the same that would claim her life.

Her mind was torn between pain, shock and disbelief. The events that unfolded in such a small frame of time was something she couldn’t possibly accept.

“Why… a…re… …uo…?”

“DON’T TALK! DON’T TALK YOU WITCH! YOU KILLED MY LOVE! YOU TOOK HIM AWAY FROM ME!”

Words could no longer leave her cracked lips. The grip that nearly snapped her neck forced her consciousness to fade in an out. Dark spots invaded her vision and carved out the face of her mother.

Death was imminent. Her fate was sealed.

Whatever did she do to deserve this? Hours ago, she remembered the smiling face of her mother, friends and the towns people.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she mentally begged for her mother to stop, but the grip only grew harder. Soon, air could no longer pass, and a heart wrenching cry left her as everything slowly faded to black.

What was the point of saving people if they could change in a matter of seconds?

Black died with this thought at the hands of her mother. Her dark brown eyes lost their colour as she fell into an eternal sleep…

* * *

“That’s only half of it. Now you understand that we’re not so different, you and I. Granted, most of my well-deserved developments occurred in the Colour Plane, but at least you know where I was before I abandoned everything behind all for the sake of my goal… well, most of it anyway. Haaah…”

Black sighed as she threw herself upright to lighten the mood. But it did little, for Exrite sill couldn’t wrap her mind around Black’s story.

“Why’re you looking at me like that for? I don’t need your pity, and neither do you need mine. We’re two peas in a pod, or two shells in a double barrel. Let me say this, Exrite – in order to move on in the Colour Plane, I had to change almost every aspect of myself in order to survive and achieve my newfound goal.”

She reached for the stars and grasped them with all her might.

“I wanted to create my own army – an empire consisting of those bereaved, hunted, decimated or forsaken by the world. I want to empower the weak, to show them that if they forge themselves into a blade then they can take the rein of their lives back into their hands.”

Black spoke with unrivalled passion. No, she spoke with absolute certainty. The authority she commanded in her voice could make even the strongest warriors shudder.

“But~ funnily enough, my initial goal was to create a small resistance in Earth. What a fucking disaster that was. Try to guess who happened to be there at the same time I went to visit?”

No one came to mind immediately. But after some thought, and the recollection of Black’s interaction with a certain green-haired Maiden – the answer naturally came.

“Melody…?” Exrite slowly rose.

“Bingo~ But in all seriousness, I guess I was the one who got our world into this mess. I don’t know why, but after she kicked me around, she sent us all into this world. It still doesn’t make any sense.”

She nonchalantly shrugged.

“… sounds like another familiar Maiden.” Exrite sighed. “… so, if I gathered things correctly – you threw away your humanity for the sake of survival?”

“That, and for the sake of my goal. Humans change and break, Exrite. I’ve seen it countless times. I always talk about efficiency, but in reality, I could be a thousand times more efficient. My lingering humanity won’t let me cast the Demi-Humans aside so easily, Exrite. Granted, they’re nothing but pawns, but they’re my pawns. All of them have the potential to become a queen.”

… you’re kind. Exrite wanted to say, but she knew Black would deny it.

“Humanity will tear you apart. It’s called humanity for a reason Exrite, because that kind of thing belongs to humans only. Humans are fickle. Power changes them and when they get desperate, they either break or become more than just a monster… this is your warning from someone who experienced it firsthand.”

Black held her gaze to the empty sky. But rather than reflecting the void, Exrite saw the glimmer of a gem – an intense purple light that shone like a star.

“Like you, I was thrown into the deep end and given a task. Fight. But, being the human that I was, there wasn’t much I could do. The sole existence of a Colour is to fight, and I didn’t understand that until it was too late. My body is quite similar to yours, well, at least in the Colour Plane. I took hits, explosions, magic, bullets and none could penetrate armour and skin. In short – I was a fucking punching bag for the other Colours.”

Black proudly presented her black garbs, which was excellently detailed with gold embroidery, buttons and trimmings. It was something from a more contemporary Earth – a militaristic style that she took a liking to.

“But remember what I said about emotion? It’s one of the strongest mediums of strength, but it costs you your vision. Compared to the Colours – and that Blue who nearly killed me – I was an outlier, driven by rage and survival. They call me the Tyrant of the Colour because I’m the only Colour who has more than just a lust for battle. I strive to survive – to crush anything that dares to threaten my existence.”

Black reclaimed her cap and firmly wore it. With her gaze set on Exrite, she sadistically grinned.

“And that’s the basis of me, a weapon born from a human soul. Let me remind you these emotions I carry aren’t exactly my strong point either. I still have lingering beliefs and attachments, and that’s my ultimate flaw. My bullets can’t hit every target.”

Black despised humanity because it indeed was a detriment to one’s goal. It got in the way and had every potential to throw one off or severely alter their cause. Humanity was the manifestation on one’s deepest and most sincere desires, and depending on the situation, can bring out the worst of an individual.

“I… think I get it now. Black, I’m not afraid to stoop low and do what needs to be done if it means reaching my goal. But like you, my sword can’t hit everyone.”

“Hmm~ So, would you’ll kill innocent people –”

“I already have.” Exrite sternly spoke.

“Before I reached Colight, I didn’t care what needed to be done. I just wanted to reach the end. But Khaos and Frosty changed me, and I can’t thank them enough. Black, I’m scared of something more than tight spaces. I’m scared of a cold world. If everyone knew who I was, and if I killed millions along the way – then I’d only be fulfilling the goal of the Gods, not mine. I want a place to call home, somewhere where I can still be Exrite, not a Maiden or the Exrenity. Just me.”

“… you’re awfully stubborn. Haaaah~!” Black sighed as she slouched forward, wearing a tired smile. “You already know that things are only going to get harder. You’ll eventually run into a roadblock, get desperate, and realise that the only way forward is to cast everything aside.”

“Then I’ll just have to break through that roadblock. Black, I know I can change for the worse. My Eye of Despair won’t make this any easy for me, and I’ve already accepted that in the end, I’ll descend into insanity. But I’m not alone. That’s our biggest difference. I have Frosty, Khaos, Uru – everyone back at the Capital, White and even you, Black. If I can’t break through it alone, then surely we can do it together.”

Exrite assured this. She was certain of an inevitable descent into madness, but that was only if she was alone. They were all in this together, and all shared a collective goal.

Black’s brows rose as she let loose of another sigh. Something about Exrite… reached her.

Was it her stubbornness? Her certainty? Her emphasis on a collective struggle?

She didn’t know. But whatever it was – she didn’t mind it one bit.

“Together, hmm? Geez. You can say the strangest things sometimes. Hmhm~ Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I’ve made it this far already. I don’t plan to give up any time soon. And if I start to descend into madness, then I trust you’ll all help me come back.”

“When that time comes, I’ll also savour the look on your face. Just don’t bite my hand when I try to save you ok?”

They laughed. The silent night was filled with soft laughter, the rustling of the grass beneath them, and the gentle breeze. The unlikely duo found comfort in each other’s company, for they were one in the same.

Black saw a part of herself in Exrite. She was a human soul thrust into an alien body, sent to accomplish a goal that she couldn’t possibly achieve with a human mindset.

But Exrite was not like her. Exrite understood the demand of her goals and dreams, the risks and ultimately, her inevitable future. But she wasn’t swayed even the slightest by it.

Where Black’s will was like diamond, Exrite was like… well, Exrite. There was nothing that could quite capture the girl’s will. No matter what held her down, she had already made her mind to see things through.

Plus… she had so many people by her side.

Exrite wasn’t alone in this endeavour. With them, Exrite couldn’t possibly become deranged like herself. So long as they were there, her Eye of Despair was effectively neutralised.

With a soft hum, Black fell back onto the grass and muttered:

“We’re done with our exchange now, huh. Hurray~” She said sarcastically. “Now you don’t have to hear me drill you every day like a broken record.”

“No, thank you for tying. Really, thank you for telling me everything. Because of you I’ve never been more certain about going forward.”

Exrite gently placed a hand on top of Black’s cap, patting it like how a mother pats their child. Black looked like she wanted to say something, but given how quiet things have become, she sighed and looked straight at the foreboding [Gear] ahead.

“Anyway – let’s kill some time. We’ll return to the Biomechanical Gardens by tomorrow, and you’ll finally learn that Biomech’s [Biomechanical] magic. With my help and knack of making weapons, I’m sure you’ll become quite invincible.”

Exrite suddenly froze. An awkward silence brewed, and Black wondered why the girl didn’t respond. For a moment, she thought she heard a faint rustling from behind, but she mostly ignored it in favour of the girl who wore a conflicted look.

“Hello? Earth to Exrite? Is your Eye acting up again –?”

“Black.” Exrite gulped. “I’m sorry to bring this up so late but… I don’t think we’ll be returning any time soon.”

“… what the fuck do you mean?”

“An obelisk… there’s another obelisk beneath this sea.”

* * *

Part 3 –

Exrite returned to his human form. Where his Maiden body failed to provoke a response from the [Gear], he was certain that this body would.

When Uru returned at the break of dawn Exrite finally debriefed the others about the unknown obelisk. He gathered mixed responses, some expressing anger and frustration like Black and Frosty, while the others were mostly complacent with the sudden news.

They knew there was nothing they could do about their predicament, so there was no point in feeling frustrated. In fact, they were more surprised by Exrite’s sudden change.

And so was Exrite. His body was strangely stronger. Swinging his sword was easier than ever before, and it felt like his movements were somewhat faster. Because he did not use this body for such a long time, he could only conclude that this was due to his Gear Overload.

Like all Geared, it seemed that consuming them would also strengthen his body. However, the agony that followed was something he did not want to experience again… Unless of course, it was absolutely necessary.

That aside – Exrite heard a faint whisper from the giant [Gear]. The more he observed the banks of the sea, the more he would see creatures frequent it and dive straight into its depths.

It sounded like it was saying something. But at this moment, he couldn’t quite decipher its calls.

“Are we ready yet? Or are you going to continue staring at it?” Black scornfully spoke.

“I’m trying to hear it. There’s a voice… and it sounds like it’s trying to say something.” Exrite answered.

“Ho… Amazing. The Maiden of Time left you another recorded message?” Uru said with awe.

“No, that’s not it. It’s a genderless voice. Monotone and hollow: kind of like the Biomech… Just what is that thing?”

“Are you sure you’re not going insane?” Black nudged him with her shoulder as she passed.

Exrite ignored her with a quiet sigh. The longer he observed the strange whisper, the louder it grew. He overtook Black and relayed this information as the others remained at the back with caution and intrigue.

What is it trying to say, I wonder? Given how they know where the hidden obelisk is, I’m almost certain that’s what it’s trying to say… but at the same time – I don’t think it’ll be that simple.

For whatever reason, his body as a Maiden rejected those whispers. If it was magic, say for example [Telepathy] or [Remote Thought] – which were magic used to directly communicate with one’s mine – then perhaps that was why.

These were only of the [Sixth Tier].

Only.

Exrite wanted to laugh. Now that he possessed and could use magic well above the limits of a human, he could deem it as such. Only few magic casters could use such a spell, and those were mostly mages responsible for relaying information.

Such a system existed in Enthile. The highly secretive Exthar communicated almost solely through [Telepathy]. The risk of information-gathering magic sabotaging their plans was high, given how many enemies Enthile actually had in the Enthoric Region.

Not everyone was as cruel as the people of Enthile.

Exrite shook the thought off. The whisper was almost readable.

“… yo… ere…”

“… here…”

“You…”

“… you’re… ere…”

“You’re here.”

In an instant – as if under the intense pressure of [Statement] – he collapsed onto all fours.

“Exrite!?” Frosty cried and in a matter of a second, they all gathered by him and tried to pull him up. “Why won’t you move!?”

“Hey! What’s wrong with you Exrite!?” Khaos grappled him by the waist and heaved him with all his might.

But he didn’t budge. Not even a single strand of hair twitched.

“Don’t waste your energy on me! The [Gear] has me under some spell – just like when we first met the Children of Balance!”

Exrite explained, but his words of assurance casted a shadow of doubt. There was no way he could be so sure that it wasn’t something else. However, Uru promptly threw her claws, threatening to cut down anyone that tried to touch him.

“Uru – let me through! We don’t know if that’s [Statement] or not –!”

“Be at ease Frosty. If I couldn’t recognise the power of [Statement], then I would be a failure of a Demon! Although… this one appears to be weaker. Exrite, what was the command?”

Y…you’re here.

Uru nodded, confirming her suspicion – no, her knowledge, for she already knew the cause of this abnormal event.

“A bow, or some sort of greeting was most likely intended with that [Lesser Statement]. You can hardly defend yourself against magic of the [First Tier], so [Ninth Tiered] magic is obviously going to be worlds more effective on you.”

Uru – as well as Phase – had seen this first-hand at the mountains by the Capital. Many of the men under Phase’s [Statement] were crushed as a result of possessing inferior mana capacities. And in Phase’s words, they were likely not prostrating themselves far enough even when crushed into a bloody pulp.

This was likely the same for Exrite.

“At least you weren’t crushed by it.” Uru added.

“… Good point.” Exrite said underneath his breath, largely ignoring the commotion behind as the voice spoke loud and clear in his mind –

“How long did you plan to make me wait, Exrenity?”

Exrite froze. Even though he was already held down by invisible chains, he froze. He was surprised to hear it call him the Exrentiy rather than the Maiden of Time.

“It… it knows I’m the Exrenity.”

However –

“Ho!?”

“Hey…?”

“Did it… just speak?”

“Hmm… so I’m not the only one who heard that, huh?”

“A talking [Gear]… how bizarre.”

It seemed like he wasn’t the only one surprised by the nonchalant, mechanical voice that spoke with a resounding echo. Their attention was drowned by the colossal object as its hollow centre seemed to return their gaze.

That thing was alive. Exrite’s gut screamed this was so.

“Awe. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Caution – I can feel so many emotions coming from those behind you, Exrenity. To make it this far down, I can empathise with your feelings. The Maiden of Time did not create our home for the sake of living. You must’ve faced incredible challenges to get here. I commend you, Exrenity.”

No one uttered a word. They were so taken aback that some had forgotten to breathe. A talking – no, a sapient [Gear] stood before them, and spoke in the tongue of the Gods: Ecloma.

The restraints on Exrite’s body disappeared and was replaced with complete numbness.

“Where…” He trailed off, not knowing what to say. But as the spell wore off, he regained his composure and stood before the [Gear] with brimming confidence and passion. “Where exactly are we?”

“The centre of her trial. This is the Reservoir. The place where we accumulate in this paradise for all of eternity.”

The Reservoir. At one glance of the name, and Exrite could already draw conclusions to what exactly this floor was. For reasons unknown, Gaia required a pool of creatures to be funnelled into the deeper parts of her dungeon.

And judging by how few actually descend, he expected it to entirely different from the floors above.

Seemingly, as if Frosty had the same train of thought, she asked the question that hung on their mind.

“If this is only the half-way point, then how many more floors are there!? Just what is under us!?”

She was impassioned, driven by frustration at the lack of knowledge they had about this trial. Uru promptly hushed her, but the woman refused to divert her bared fangs from the [Gear].

For all she knew, that thing was just like Gaia and the Children of Balance.

“The floors are mirrored. A total of forty-one floors await you, as well as those that seek for their ultimate purpose. If it is details you require, I am more than willing to grant you my wisdom. I exist solely to unify the [Gears] and creatures of the Maiden of Time’s trial. Any creature that seeks to join me in sustaining the floors become [Gears] like myself.”

It sensed Frosty’s worries.

“The purpose of a creature’s endeavour towards the Reservoir is the accomplishment of Vital Unity – the trial set out for all creatures like us, including you, Exrenity.”

This was the first time Exrite had heard of this. Vital Unity meant nothing to him, nor the others. Confused faces popped up, and they looked to Exrite for answers.

“Vital… Unity? I don’t understand.”

“The ultimate accomplishment. The Exrenity’s union, the creature’s union. It is what you have all achieved by reaching down this far. But this is only half of it. Unity is no greater than the sum of its parts. Creatures that yearn to devour race to the depths where they will find their place in this world as themselves – the Attributed Whole.”

If Exrite deciphered it correctly – essentially, the trial they undertook was designed to unite them together. Hearing this, he finally understood why the creatures were so intertwined with their groups this entire time, and rarely ventured out on their own.

But the concept of ‘Vital Unity’ and ‘Attributed Whole’ were still vague. As if sensing this by the look on all of their faces – apart from Uru – the [Gear] clarified.

“In your vocabulary, it would be hope and despair.”

Instantly, Exrite’s eyes widened. Then, his brows sharply furrowed.

“But… that makes no sense then. If Vital Unity is to hope, then why did Gaia put up measures to kill everyone with the three-headed dragon? Why did she try so hard to make me fall into despair!?”

Exrite roared. An unspeakable amount of rage manifested in his eyes as he tightly clenched his fists…

But there was nothing he could do about this.

“But that is the basis of the Exrenity, no? Hope and despair are as intertwined as the double helix we fail to possess. Looking at it like they’re extremes is not balance, but imbalance.”

“Precisely.” Uru approached Exrite, a hand raised to his face as a gesture to calm down. “Hope is despair, and despair is hope. They are both one in the same. Delve far enough into one, and you’ll end up on the other side. Surely you know this already, don’t you Exrite?”

The concept wasn’t alien to him. He knew this all too well but balancing such a thing was like tap-dancing on paper thin ice. One false step, and it was a plunge straight into insanity.

However –

“They can’t be one in the same. Hope isn’t always as fruitless as you think. If that was the case, then I would’ve given up a long time ago.” Exrite muttered. “Besides… I’m more concerned about what was Gaia trying to achieve here in the first place. Everything is right in front of us, but it all feels so muddled.”

Exrite did not know hope and despair were the underlaying concepts of Gaia’s dungeon until now. He had been led to believe that it was all for the sake of growing strong and to learn the creation of the [Gears].

But that was all secondary. The major concept was hope and despair – or as the [Gear] put it – Vital Unity and the Attributed Whole.

With this knowledge Exrite realised that Gaia’s trial was aimed more towards the Exrenity than the Maiden of Time.

The knowledge of the [Gears] was merely a by-product.

Gaia… she planned this from the start. That’s why she asked me how confident I was with my companions. This was the perspective she wanted me to see. Despair at the end of hope. Then, what’s below? Hope at the end of despair?

His mind was colluded, but his vision remained as clear as day. Regardless of what awaited them down in the depths, Exrite did not see failure as an option.

He broke into a small smile.

“The basis of the Exrenity. I get it now. I guess I should’ve expected something like this sooner or later. I’m just baffled that she doesn’t expect me to fail.”

“Are you doubting the Maiden of Time?” Uru teased in a hum.

“No. I’d be doubting myself if I was.” He laughed and turned to the others behind.

There, behind their mixed emotions, he saw a resounding confidence in their eyes. By that alone, Exrite knew that not even the walls of fate could stop them from completing Gaia’s trial.

Even if they knew despair was all that awaited.

“Plus, I’d be doubting everyone around me. We won’t lose, right guys.”

“Of course not. We didn’t come this far just to lose. I don’t know what the Maiden of Time is thinking, but you’re the one who needs to watch out Exrite.” Frosty warned, approaching Exrite’s side with folded arms.

“Hope was the first half of this trial. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s next. Dammit… it’s like she wants you to go insane. How do you even balance hope and despair?”

“Probably through experience. If Gaia won’t show me how, then there’s no other way than to know from diving straight in – F-Frosty –?”

Her gloved hands suddenly clutched onto his shoulders, holding him hostage as she stared into his eyes with deep fury.

“Idiot! How can you say that? We’re supposed to be fighting against your inevitable insanity from that stupid eye! Not chase it! Or did you already go insane?”

She almost yelled, growling like a rabid animal. She was worried, so deeply worried from the bottom of her heart.

Exrite slowly shook his head and returned a stare filled with indomitable conviction. Her grip tightened.

“I don’t like this either. But what other choice do I have? Looking at it from Gaia’s perspective, I think this makes sense in circumventing my inevitable descent into insanity.”

Frosty recoiled as if he uttered some sort of curse. His words were nonsensical and dangerous. But she listened to him, nevertheless.

“As insane as it sounds, if I can balance both hope and despair then I won’t be so torn in between them like I am now. For the sake of the future, I’m willing to go as far as to risk my sanity. But I promise you – Frosty –”

Exrite firmly held her arms and assured her with a convincing voice:

“– I won’t fail. I won’t lose to this Eye. If anything, the Eye of Hope won’t let me lose my mind so easily. And besides, I can’t imagine Gaia’s ‘despair’ is anything worse than a mana overload.”

Having his mind intact after the mana overload was an impossible feat, and he considered it a miracle. If he had to put his finger on why he was… mostly fine, it was because of the Eye of Hope, and perhaps even the Heart of Time – although he didn’t know if the mind-protecting effects of it were nullified like his regeneration by the Eye of Despair.

Regardless of the case, he was thankful that he didn’t break.

Frosty saw his conviction as recklessness. But in the end, Exrite was right – there was nothing they could do about it. The trial would be useless if Exrite learnt nothing from it, even though reaching Gaia’s home was their only goal here.

With reluctance, she deeply sighed and muttered:

“You’re really stubborn. Fine then. Do whatever you want. Just don’t forget to grit your teeth when you bat an eye. All of my punches are going straight to your face.”

She warned, albeit with a hint of humour in her voice.

“I’ll have to participate as well if it comes to it.” Khaos chimed in, patting his bulging muscles. “We made a promise, didn’t we? That you would be there with us when we stand in front of the Maiden of Wisdom.”

Exrite smiled.

“I haven’t forgotten.”

* * *

Regardless of what Exrite knew he still found the goal of Vital Unity odd.

It was the ultimate goal for the Geared, who had to stick together and fight through the floors until they reached the Reservoir. Exrite was not exempted from this, and neither were his companions.

By reaching this floor they had achieved Vital Unity.

However –

Vital Unity wouldn’t be possible if I arrived here alone… so why did Gaia intend to kill everyone off?

He asked the benevolent [Gear] and it answered with:

“Because there is no accomplishment without a greater risk. Accomplishing Vital Unity as the Exrenity is meaningless if it was so trivial. By my knowledge, her intention was to sever the ties of the weak, for the Exrenity are only as strong as the individuals that makes it whole.”

Its wording was mysterious and bizarre. Exrite had to convince himself that what he heard was correct, for he found a frightening discrepancy.

He replied on instinct.

“What do you mean by the Exrenity are only as strong as the people that makes it whole? Your dialect makes it sound like I’m not the only Exrenity alive.”

Exrite blurted, his face plagued with confusion. However, he seemed to already know the answer in his heart.

“… or, are you implying that we’re all the Exrenity?”

Silence ensnared them for what felt like years. The lack of response only cemented this as fact, but no one could digest this. Outrage quickly plagued the group as they realised that they had been misled by the Gods and the Maiden of Time once again.

“What the fuck do you mean we’re all the Exrenity? Exrite!? What the fuck is going on!?” Black erupted in rage as she pointed her handgun at the [Gear]. “[Gear]! You’ve got a lot of nerve claiming that bullshit! Explain how we’re considered the Exrenity if you value your life!”

“Vital Unity. The Exrenity was never an individual. They are the one who embodies the balance of hope and despair – the centrepiece of the Exrenity.”

“T-that can’t be right, can it!?” Khaos was taken aback.

Exrite recalled the princess of Saicry – Kati Goruden – who mentioned that in Cryo’s history the Exrenity was always remembered as a group of powerful individuals.

With this knowledge, Exrite began to slowly make sense of this. But why this was so different to Colight’s history was beyond him. In addition, there was also one question that struck him ever since he became the Exrenity – no, the centrepiece of it.

“Then what exactly is the Exrenity?” He asked from the bottom of his heart. “I was under the pretence that the Exrenity was more or less the pawn of the Children of Balance. We were given the task to liberate the Maidens of Six Point and that was it. Please – I’m begging you, tell us everything you know!

He was desperate, and the [Gear] was more than willing to answer his calls. However –

“While my knowledge is as vast as this sea that engulfs me, that is ultimately the extent of it. The Children of Balance are not something I am familiar of, nor is the existence of other Maidens. However, I can answer one thing. ‘We’. It was right there in front of you all along. From the start, you were never intended to liberate them alone. I can’t say for certain what the Exrenity means – but knowing my Creator, is it ultimately the sum of those that consist it.”

The [Gear] was right. From the very start the Children of Balance told him, Khaos and Frosty to liberate the Maidens of Six Point. Why this was their goal was uncertain, but as Exrite began to unravel the concepts of hope – Vital Unity and despair – Attributed Whole, he finally understood what his goal as the Exrenity ultimately was.

To bring the Maidens together and achieve Vital Unity.

He broke into a warm smile and softly sighed.

It really was right there in front of us all along…

He never forgot how monumental this task truly was. Even at everyone’s best no one could fight the Maidens like herself. Ultimately, it was up to Exrite to defeat them.

He was the catalyst to bringing them together. But what for was still a mystery. However, he didn’t mind not knowing this. He was already content by newfound knowledge. It was like a light had pierced through their clouded future. Though it was only the size of a thread, it was more than acceptable.

“And that’s the extent of your knowledge?” White inquired, yearning to know more.

Despite what Black thought, White didn’t mind this development. Now that their only trump card against the Maiden of Realms found an alleyway to success, she was more than willing to aid her at all costs.

“Unfortunately, that is so. I only know so much for I have solely existed here from birth. Any other knowledge that wasn’t gained through my journey to becoming a [Gear] is all predetermined.”

“Specify what you mean exactly.” Uru asked, curious by what the [Gear] meant by that. “Did the Maiden of Time give you that knowledge from birth?”

“That I do not know. I do not recall it; however, it is likely that my knowledge belongs to her.”

“So, she gave you bare-bones knowledge and left you to figure things out on your own? Sounds awfully familiar. All those damned Gods are like that as well.” Frosty scorned.

“No. It is not knowledge that I solely know… it is emotions that I also retain, yet do not understand. I am but a [Gear] with no outlet for these strange concepts, which certainly belonged to my Creator.”

Interesting. The [Gear] seemed to carry the emotions of Gaia. Depending on how long ago this was, this could serve as a mirror to a Gaia of the past. If he understood the old Gaia, then perhaps he would also understand what Gaia’s intentions within the Shallows were.

“What sort of emotions?” Exrite confidently asked, anticipating its answer.

“Hope. A hope so vast that I could spend decades describing it. But the lifespan of your friends is numbered, so I must refrain.”

It was worth a shot…

“But there is also despair. Though I cannot feel this. Vital Unity is all that I embody, and we [Gears] are the pillars that sustain this dungeon and in turn, our Creator’s will. Dive down, Exrenity and attain the Attributed Whole. For now, I congratulate you all for achieving Vital Unity. Companions of Exrite, please take this mark. It is the proof of the Exrenity, and your key to travel through the floors below.”

In an instant, a violent stream of bubbles erupted from the water’s surface. Instinctively, Frosty and Khaos took a step back as they watched five circular emblems emerge. They floated mysteriously and slowly moved towards them. One by one, they fell into their palms as a strange sense of unity spread between them.

Black’s eyes narrowed with a sigh.

“I guess we’ll play along and be part of this Exrenity cult while it lasts. Isn’t that right, White?”

“If this is what it takes to defeat Melody, then there’s no point in complaining.”

The object in their palms was a twelve-sided emblem with another hexagon within its centre. It was slightly larger than the average palm yet was weightless.

The light shone through its translucent blue and red material like a gemstone. One could imagine this costing a fortune if they were to have it appraised. It was fit for beings like themselves, who could only don the finest gear and weaponry…

Well, for the most part anyway.

“Beautiful. I will cherish this forever. Not even death will take this away from me.” Uru was deeply impassioned. Her breath was taken away by the mesmerising object which served as a reminder of the Maiden of Time’s existence.

“What is this thing made out of? Cobalt and ruby?” White wondered, already having plans to disassemble it as soon as they completed the trial.

“Keys, huh… wait – wait. Exrite doesn’t get a key?” Frosty hastily asked the moment she noticed this.

“Unlike you, Exrite seems to have gears coursing through him. This is a first, but not something I disagree with. To have the Maiden of Time as the centrepiece of the Exrenity is ingenious of my Creator. If your goal is to liberate the Maidens, then I can only imagine that it must take another Maiden to accomplish this.”

By this, Exrite understood that travelling through each floor would work as it always had. However, something struck him with uncertainty.

If they only needed him to swap forms and teleport them to the next floor – then why did they need keys? Struck by thought, Exrite juggled the concept of Vital Unity and the Attributed Whole. There, he found a heart-dropping conclusion.

Where Vital Unity drove them together –

The Attributed Whole strove to separate them.

* * *

Part 4 –

Gaia had never ventured past the Reservoir. Everything beneath was like the void or darkest memory that one strove to forget.

The [Gear] confirmed Exrite’s suspicion of their separation. For the next forty-one floors, they would all have to travel alone in different ‘instances’.

And by ‘instances’, the [Gear] explained it as a hundred or so segments of the same floor. It was designed to isolate the Geared and the Exrenity and force them into passing the floors with their own strength and wits alone.

This was the basis of the Attributed Whole. However, to the Geared, this was much more. Their trial was solely to reach the bottom and become ‘complete’. After consuming enough of the Geared, they would undoubtably attain perfect sapience.

They would no longer be a creature, but an individual with goals of their own.

But what did complete mean? Exrite thought of such as she worked restlessly on refilling her ammunition pouch by the grassy bank. During her back and forth transformations, she hadn’t reached the Domain of Time.

It seemed like Gaia was actively rejecting her. Not that it mattered of course. Gaia wouldn’t answer any of her questions even if it meant life or death anyway.

That aside –

“Exrite. Please, can’t you be a little more worried?” Frosty said in an annoyed tone. She approached Exrite from behind and found a spot beside her.

Half-captivated by the superheated iron – which was scrapped from Khaos’ armour – Frosty turned to her with waiting eyes. Exrite could tell that she was worried, even more so than she was regarding the descent.

Any by no means was Exrite’s concern anything minor. If one were to press their head against her chest, they would hear a thousand resounding thumps.

“You’re going to be down there alone. Your bullets, weapons and strength won’t matter if there’s no one to help you snap out of your trance. Exrite… how can you be so calm, even knowing this? Doesn’t it piss you off that there’s nothing you can do about this?”

“Yeah. To the point where I might end up turning against the Children of Balance and the Maiden of Time.” Exrite jokingly said, her construction of the many bullets slowly coming to a stop.

Seeing Frosty’s intense gaze beside him, she cleared her throat.

“Sorry. Sorry… I know isn’t the time but… I have to compensate for my worries in some way. If I let my worries and fears overflow, then I’d be constantly second guessing myself. To tell you the truth, I’m scared – so scared of going alone. Because it’s just as you say: who’s going to help me? No one.”

Exrite admitted.

“But I think that’s what Gaia’s intentions are. We’ve been together for so long that I’ve become so comfortable in everyone’s company. Not that it’s a bad thing, but because of my own experiences of being alone it’s made it harder for me to go back on my own... But – if I can do this alone – and achieve the Attributed Whole at the very end, then I won’t have to fear being alone anymore. I’ll be strong enough to stand on my own in the face of my personal adversities… or something like that.”

She warmly smiled. The future was certainly bleak, but not as bleak as she thought. Because she had hope, there was always a light to guide her in that darkness.

After seconds of silence, Frosty’s hands curled at her lap. Her hair concealed her face as she slouched forward and stared down at the grass.

Then, she spoke.

“… why?”

Her voice was hoarse, as if on the verge of tears.

“Exrite, why are you still believing in The Maiden of Time after everything she’s put you through? How do you know that this will work out in the end? You know that despair is all that waits down there. The Maiden of Time didn’t even try to hide it from you this time… please Exrite… tell me…”

Tears swelled at the corner of her eyes when she looked up again. Her eyes glistened with the affection of a mother and soon, her hands latched onto Exrite’s attire.

“Do you know how worried we are? How worried I am about you? If you return as someone else because of that Eye, then… I wouldn’t know what to do. Is fulfilling the goal of the Children of Balance really more important than yourself?”

Her shaky voice travelled through her arms. Exrite didn’t have an immediate answer. It was rare to see Frosty like this, so she was surprised and riled with guilt for making her feel this way.

“Frosty…” Exrite whispered, trailing off as she wondered what to say next.

“Don’t worry Frosty. Everything’s alright. Just believe in me like your brother and it’ll be fine. I promise you.”

Those words were nothing but false hope, and Exrite refused to say anything of the sort. Even in her dying breath, Exrite vowed to never give others false hope, even if it was something they needed so desperately.

… I’m pathetic.

She couldn’t help but to think.

I can’t even properly reassure her because… I don’t want to give her false expectations. I don’t want to say the future is fine, when all that lurks down there is danger and despair…

Doing what she does best – Exrite placed a gentle hand onto her head. With a small hum, she dragged her gaze across the ocean’s surface and spoke.

“I’m… an idiot huh? A reckless idiot who’s betting their life on the Gods and the Maiden that already ruined it. And I agree you with Frosty. Why am I still believing them? I don’t know myself to be honest with you… but… I don’t regret it at all. As cliché as this sounds – if it weren’t for them, I would’ve never have met you, or anyone else. Because of them, our goals have become possible.”

Exrite froze at the [Gear], her face suddenly becoming mellow as Frosty intently stared at her in silence. As much as Frosty despised the Gods; Exrite was right. If it weren’t for them, they would’ve been stuck trying to achieve the impossible with no path in sight.

Despite this however, Frosty still couldn’t ease her worries.

“And what about you? Is your sanity really worth it?”

“… not at all. My fate’s already as worse of an ending as you can imagine. All of our efforts will go in vain if I really do end up going insane at the end… but I don’t believe in fate. The future can’t be set in stone if we’re constantly living in the present. Because I’m a human, I can say for certain that we won’t fail, but that doesn’t mean we also won’t run into walls.”

Exrite proclaimed, her voice becoming more and more defined as Frosty’s look slowly shifted into one of admiration. It was bewildering to hear someone say such things with absolute certainty and announce the risks without batting an eye.

“And if one of us hits that wall, then we all need to break it together. That’s why – when we reunite at the end of the trial – I want you to all to beat the sense back into me. If my despair is to be alone, then my hope is you and everyone here.”

Frosty fell silent for a moment after Exrite’s proclamation. She shook for a moment, her grip becoming loose as her hands met with Exrite’s.

“So – wait for me at the end. I’ll be there in body, but if I’m not there in mind then you know what to do.”

Exrite didn’t know how she said that without bursting into a laugh. Thankfully Frosty did it for her. She removed Exrite’s hand from her head and let loose of her loudest sigh yet.

“… Idiot. Both you and Khaos are idiots. I still don’t get how you two can say something so embarrassing with a straight face… but… Exrite, thank you. I think I can trust you just a little more. You know, you really suck at trying to reassure people. Haaaah. Try to lie a bit more next time.”

“I feel Like it’d be worse if I gave you –”

“False hope. I know. But dammit… just let me have some piece of mind for once. You too reckless for your own good… but maybe that’s why we made it this far. Not that I’m praising you, of course. Geez… I feel like a mother telling her son to sit still. Idiot.”

“S-sorry.”

She fell into Exrite’s chest.

“Hmm? Frosty –?”

“Shh. Let me stay like this for a bit. This’ll be my last chance for a while. You can make your bullets again.”

“Eh? Wouldn’t you catch fire –?”

“Then don’t worry about it. If you’re really sorry, then let me indulge myself. For all the stress you put me through, this should be the least you can do for me. Sit still and let me listen to your ticking.”

… sometimes I wonder just what goes through her mind. One second she’s as cold as ice and cruelly sarcastic, then she’s energetic and child-like the next…”

Exrite surrendered herself to Frosty with a pleasant smile. She too indulged in this moment, allowing her thoughts to flow freely as they enjoyed each other’s company.

This was the last chance they had until the end of the trial.

* * *

The preparation was kept to a minimum. At least 500 spherical bullets were made for Exrite’s handgun. They were kept inside of two separate pouches by her waist, which were made from the pelt of a giant rabbit.

A third of her bullets came straight from Khaos’ iron armour which she superheated down into tiny pellets, and the rest from any outcropping ore from the mountain side.

[Mineral Identification] was how Exrite found so many in such a small span of time. In addition to her speed and the help of Black – who already knew how to snuff out various ores – this was trivial.

This magic was the weakest out of the others within its branch of magic, but with her capacity it had an alarmingly massive range of 100 metres. A normal range of a human was effectively 5 metres, and experienced dwarves possessed 20 metres.

There were also other variants and higher tiered spells of this, such as [Mineral Analysis], [Mineral Appraisal] and [Mineral Cognisance]. A Dwarf would certainly possess these spells or find it simple to use compared to a human. After all, they were the masters of the stone, metal and craft.

The downside of using this spell was that it could only identify lesser minerals, such as iron. One also wouldn’t be granted any information regarding the mineral. This was especially the case with newly found metals or minerals.

And speaking of new materials –

Exrite’s sword and dagger saw a much-needed upgrade. Though they never found a use in combat so far, Exrite would rather fight with a blade than her fists in close combat. In the worst case, it was her backup weapon.

They were made from the armour of a giant one-eyed centipede, which boasted higher tensile strength than iron and steel as well as incredible durability.

This was a highly metallic carapace which closely resembled shiny terracotta. But its appearance was gravely deceiving. Between Uru’s [Seekers] and Black’s bullets, this was more than 5 times as resilient than iron or steel.

Black – using her talents as a once renowned weapon smith – expertly crafted the fine blade. It could cleave through steel with enough force and deeply bite into the same carapace it was made of.

It was heavy, but this could not be considered a downside given how strong Exrite’s body was.

Then, there was Khaos. With this new material, Black was able to create a full set of armour for the towering juggernaut. With the full set on he looked like a hero donning some sort of enchanted armour. However, if he were to lie down on the grass he would easily be mistaken for an oversized tortoise.

But this wasn’t the only thing Black made.

A massive sword clung to his back. The reflective blade alone was roughly the entire length of his body, made from a single carapace plate from a giant centipede. The handle was absurdly thick but considering that it could handle the load of the blade was remarkable to say the least.

Frosty’s attire also saw a much-needed upgrade. Compared to everyone else, she looked almost out of place. Using the fibres of a strange plant that grew at the thickets beneath the mountains, Black and White were able to weave a new dark-blue robe.

It boasted incredible strength and could easily resist the strike of a blade. It was weightless and seemed to resist heat and cold well. If she had this in the previous floor, it was possible that she wouldn’t have fallen at all.

But that was an optimistic thought.

As Khaos continued to test out his new gear with Frosty, Exrite and Uru moved away from the group. Earlier, while Frosty was laying on her, Uru summoned Exrite when she was done with their preparations to a private talk.

Once the others were nothing but specs in the distance, Uru froze before the sea. Her gaze fell onto the [Gear] and it carried an unusual fog of uncertainty and suspicion.

Uru was the same as her it seemed. In between its words, they both caught on a fundamental flaw that they couldn’t simply ignore.

The [Gear] didn’t know of not only the other Maidens, but the Children of Balance as well.

“What do you make out of this Uru? Do you think Gaia omitted the knowledge of the Gods and the Maidens?” Exrite asked, wanting to hear Uru’s thoughts. As a Demon she would certainly have a better understanding of this bizarre discrepancy.

“It’s as you say. The Maiden of Time could have only omitted it. But the problem doesn’t lay with that matter alone. If the [Gear] is to be believed, then the Geared retains memories, thoughts and emotions from their creator. You understand what this means, Exrite.”

Indeed. All of its knowledge – apart from its own observations and experiences – came from Gaia. If Gaia never implanted it with her knowledge, then the only conclusion Exrite could arrive to was that it was passed down through the creation process.

And that’s exactly why Uru and Exrite were confused.

“Somewhat. If Gaia didn’t grant it her knowledge, then there’s only two meanings to this. Bear with my Uru; because one of these must be the truth. I can’t see any it in any other way… unless you have one?”

Exrite turned to her with curiosity, only to find Uru grimacing as if she too knew what those answers were. Between grounded her razor-sharp teeth to painfully narrowing her eyes – Uru made it clear that she was lodged in between a rock and a hard place.

“… as I said – you already know what this means. Tell me in full what they are. I’m in dire need to thoroughly digest this. As a Demon… no, as a being who lived through centuries in this world, I desire nothing more than the truth of the Maiden of Time.” Uru slowly spoke, her voice so deep and sharp that still surface of the sea suddenly shook.

The hairs on Exrite’s body rose like the quills of a porcupine. She instinctively fell silent as an intoxicating aura of dread and confusion engulfed Uru. With a gulp, Exrite began to slowly reveal their shared conclusions.

“Gaia definitely has the foresight to know that if a sapient creature will retain her mind. But what I don’t get is why she omitted the Children of Balance and the Maidens specifically. Or why the Geared retained her knowledge in the first place… I find it hard to believe that knowing about the Maiden of Time’s own creator and equivalent others will affect their decision to become a [Gear] or take that final dive. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

But sense was already non-existent. And if it somehow wasn’t, then it most certainly would be with what Exrite said next.

As silence brewed in between them, Exrite broke it with a silent voice.

“… or… Gaia never knew about them in the first place.”

This conclusion was effectively impossible. The Maidens and Overlords were created by the Children of Balance. This was indisputable, irrefutable and undeniable.

This was fact.

The Children of Balance created them to restore and maintain order throughout Six Point.

This all couldn’t be a lie.

“… Exrite… Exrite. Exrite. Ex – ri – te.”

Uru chanted, as if lost in a trance. Just hearing such heresy was enough to cause her body to inadvertently shape shift, revealing a vast network of complex markings and what seemed to be black armour before she returned to normal.

The reason why she wanted Exrite to announce the conclusions because if those words left her lips, then she would grind them until it was uniformly flat with the rest of her face.

Uttering such a thing was unforgivable and only death could atone such heresy. Only Exrite had that kind of authority.

“Do you realise what this means…? For us? For the world?... for you?” Uru began in a rugged whisper. “I don’t believe it… I won’t believe it until I hear it from the Maiden of Time herself…”

Slowly, her eyes fell onto Exrite cautiously. It was as if she was begging Exrite to say no more, but as a Demon who desired nothing but to uncover the truth of the Maiden of Time – she reluctantly braced herself for a response.

“… Right now, I’m not so sure. But if there’s one thing I’m certain of –”

Exrite returned her gaze with astounding conviction and certainty. Those eyes pierced straight through her adamant heart and for the first time, Uru began to doubt the teachings of her race – which were so ingrained into her that her body instinctively recoiled in agony.

“– Gaia wasn’t just the Maiden of Time, or a normal Maiden either. From the start it made no sense as to why Gaia chose me as the Exrenity rather than the Gods themselves. They had no other choice because of the Heart of Time.”

Exrite wasn’t done yet. She had one final thing to say.

“… Uru, you know how the Shallows are surrounded by [Dimensional Mist]? None of it was because of Melody, or the previous generations of the Maiden of Realms. Somehow or in some way, Gaia used [Realm] magic to conceal the Shallows. Auga remembers the mist being here since the beginning… and magic can’t possibly stay up for that long unless you have a constant supply of mana. Above the Shallows there’s an impenetrable [Barrier]. I think there’s a sea of [Gears] controlling the [Dimensional Mist] behind it.”

She had no proof. At this point, it was all speculation. However – the story of Saicry being once part of the Shallows until a grand [Gear] fell from the sky was all she needed to believe this was the case.

But as things were in life –

Only time can tell. That is the motto of all existence, the force that shows us the truth whether we like it or not.” Uru harshly spoke, a hand gently brushing against Exrite’s cheek.

She needed to remind herself that this person was indeed the Maiden of Time.

“You’ve opened a can of worms. My judgement remains the same however; the Maidens as the creations of the Children of Balance. As it stands, it is impossible for the Maiden of Time to use [Realm] magic… let alone have no clue about the Gods who created her… and you know exactly what this implies, don’t you Exrite?”

Her tantalising voice was like a finely tuned harp. It cut through the thick air as the world froze. Not a single blade of grass swayed as if doing so would incur the Demon’s wrath.

Exrite slowly nodded. Despite the eyes that drilled down into her soul, she remained adamant and clearly revealed her ultimate question.

“Mhm… for better or worse, it all comes down to who came first – The Maiden of Time, or the Children of Balance? The answer is obvious… too obvious, but my heart won’t sit still…”

She slowly drew a hand and placed it atop of Uru’s head. Through her gentle strokes and pats, she continued:

“And I can’t imagine what’s going on through your mind… Sorry, Uru –”

“Your apology is wasted on me. Rest assured – my emotions are well contained. No matter the outcome, the truth is the truth, and I only need to relay this back to my race… so don’t worry about me, Exrite. The Maidens, the Children of Balance and the Overlords all still have my respect, no matter who created them. It doesn’t change the fact that they saved Eastern Six Point and helped shape my race into the powerhouse that it is.”

In between this, Uru caressed Exrite’s face, hair and neck with skilful hands. She was like an obsessive lover. Not that Exrite minded of course. As her hands began to make their way down to her stomach, she lightly recoiled but allowed it only for this one moment.

“… I have nothing but awe and respect for the Maiden of Time. All of the answers we need resides at the bottom of her trial – the hope which lays at the end of despair. Hmm~ How can one not appreciate Her design? You will have everything you need moving forward, provided you do complete her trial. But you won’t fail, I’m certain of that at least~”

“Yep. There’s no way I’ll lose. Just…” Exrite trailed off for a moment with a strange smile, causing the Demon to tilt her head slightly.

“… you too. Please stay safe down there as well, Uru. We’ve made it this far, so let’s all make it to the end. Together –”

Suddenly, Exrite was pulled into an inescapable embrace. Her face sunk into two soft mountains as her arms and body were constricted by a number of tendrils.

“U-Uru?”

“Allow me to listen to your soothing ticks in full, my Exrite. It will be a while until I can feel it again, so let me savour you until we depart. I hope you don’t mind~”

How could she say no? Albeit she was somewhat reluctant given Uru’s nature as a Succubus and her deep hatred of being constricted. Despite this, she could feel nothing but sincerity in Uru’s warmth.

And that alone led her to trust Uru’s hold. Surely, if it weren’t for Exrite’s lack of carnal desires, she would’ve been seduced by her sweet scent and ridiculously soft body.

But she digressed and simply surrendered her body to Uru for some time. As many minutes passed, an array of footsteps soon approached.

It was time to finally descend.

* * *

Part 5 –

The emblems were worn like trophies, and they radiated an aura of utmost power and prestige. Animals were drawn to their perfect appearance, its aesthetics appeasing even creatures with no eyes.

Frosty petted the many gathering creatures with a vibrant smile. Beside her were the others, who huddled by the bank. Their attention moved from the [Gear] to Frosty when she slowly returned to them with nothing but determination in her crimson eyes.

“Hmhm~ Shouldn’t your priorities be with us, Frosty~? I doubt any of these creatures will remember your face.” Black hummed, obviously joking. “But~ We’ll remember you, I guess. Don’t die down there. The same goes for everyone.”

Frosty’s folded arms loosened, a smile forming across her face. She normally hated hearing Black’s voice, but for some reason or another, she found it comforting. They weren’t by any means on good terms, but they were still companions in the end.

By now Frosty should’ve realised this, but Black was rather… unique to say the least.

However, whenever she saw Black and her sadistic grin, she would suddenly recall a normal human girl.

Amid Exrite and Black’s exchange last night, Frosty snuck in and overheard everything. After realising the events that moulded Black, she reluctantly admitted that Black had more of a reason to distrust the world than she did.

It annoyed her. But not because she hated Black. In fact, her spite was directed to her own inability to directly overcome her troubles. Where she left it all to the magic and knowledge of the Maiden of Wisdom, Black forged herself to overcome everything even if it meant losing herself.

Frosty sighed.

“Huh? Isn’t that obvious? We won’t die. Not now, not ever.” She said, and the corners of her lips crept into a warm smile. “As stupid as it is, our goal is so big that this can’t possibly compare to it. Something like this can’t stop us.”

“Right! We may be weak in comparison to you three, but so long as our goal stands at the pinnacle of impossible then nothing else is! Ha-hahaha!” Khaos, who was sandwiched in between Frosty and Exrite, suddenly pulled them close to his side.

His enthusiasm was contagious to Exrite. She laughed alongside him in perfect synch, though she was much quieter compared to his incredibly deep voice.

“Friends, everyone – you will always be in the back of my mind. I guarantee it. We’re so close now, so let’s put our spirit into it!” He struck the air with a fist as Frosty escaped him with a long sigh.

But her smile grew, nevertheless.

“Until you stumble across a cliff.” Exrite laughed.

“A cliff won’t matter if it doesn’t exist anymore. All I need to do is punch it until it disappears.”

“… idiot. Knowing you, you might actually do something stupid like that.” Frosty muttered.

“But that’s what makes you, you Khaos. You haven’t changed a bit since we first met.” Exrite said.

Their hope was something that brought smiles from the other side. The contrast between them and the others was like night and day. They were a group of individuals, and the others were individuals in a group.

Something like the Attributed Whole was meaningless to the powerful trio of individuals, (Uru, Black and White) for they had accomplished their own trials.

Together Exrite, Khaos and Frosty were unstoppable but divide them and they’ll struggle.

They each knew this already. They feared separation. But through conviction and will, they promised to push forward, break through the enemies with an indomitable strive and achieve the Attributed Whole.

But most importantly – reunite as powerful individuals just like White, Black and Uru.

Still, they wouldn’t be strong enough to take on a Maiden.

But their journey moving forward wouldn’t be strong enough to break them either.

They were the Exrenity tasked to challenge the Maidens or whatever unanimous goal they had – and as individuals, they had their own goals and dreams to chase.

This was the essence of Vital Unity and the Attributed Whole.

“The [Gear]’s saying its goodbyes again. A shame that you can’t hear it, Exrite.”

Uru approached Exrite and placed a hand on her cheek for one last time.

“I trust that you will all make it out. As Frostbitten and a Maiden – I have no qualms of your success.”

Her eyes softened as they fell onto Exrite’s eyes.

“Our separation is merely temporary… but even so, I can’t shake this uneasiness in my heart. Because if you don’t make it – as unlikely as that is – then no one will. Everyone’s lives and future rests on your shoulders. This burden is yours to carry alone, my Exrite. Will you falter?”

With a smile, Exrite shook her head.

“Not by a long shot. But you already knew that.”

“Precisely…” Uru was strangely fixated on her. While Exrite knew it was because of their inevitable separation, there was a strange sheen in her eye.

“… Er… Uru?”

“You adamantly deny your image being similar to the Maiden of Time, yet the Original and the [Gear] say otherwise. Try not to damage your face. It’s as precious as you can possibly imagine.”

Uru’s hand slid away with one final stroke. Her back turned to the group and she approached the edge of the sea.

“Black and White – you two surely won’t run into any issues below. You have already proven yourselves as worthy individuals to stand by the Maiden of Time.”

“… stand by, hmm? I think using is the right term.” Black hummed. “Likewise, but I’ll be disappointed if you of all people happen to struggle. Good luck, Uru. See you on the other side.”

“Likewise.” White simply nodded at the Demon’s back.

“Until we meet again, Uru!” Khaos yelled.

“We’ll see you soon.” Exrite smiled.

“You better make it there safe and sound Uru! As much as I hate to admit it – you’re one of us now, so don’t die on me!”

“Ah-ahahah! Your humour is something else! But I appreciate your concern. I’ll cherish it to the end. Farewell my fellow Exrenity. May we meet again, and stronger than ever. I’ll be quite distressed if one of you happen to die.”

She announced in a voice that enraptured the ears of many hundreds of creatures. It was utterly beautiful, almost like the hymn of a Siren.

Slowly, her toes were swallowed by the still sea before she finally disappeared without a trace. But even with her back turned, Exrite imagined a blossoming smile on her face.

Black followed her suit and approached the sea.

“Hmhm~ Guess I’m next to dive in, huh? You know, this kind of reminds me of a fond memory I have.”

Black said, staring at her reflection as she stared at the edge of the water.

“Exrite – remember our little talk~? I first awoke as the Tyrant of the Colour Plane after I fell into this. The depths of a black ocean. I discarded my humanity in order to find my way out of that directionless abyss, and because of it – I survived.”

She shut her eyes, seemingly grinning at herself.

“I don’t regret it. Not even a fraction of it. I only regret that I couldn’t do it sooner. It’ll be worse for you, Exrite – so don’t you dare fall as low as me. That’s an order. Well, not like I’m your boss or anything~ But as a fellow ex-human, you can say that I’m… well, routing for you.”

She didn’t show her face. If she turned, the Black that they once knew would undoubtably be destroyed. Her words came out of the blue, taking them aback, especially the Frostbitten siblings.

“Because you’re right. Between you and me – you have everyone. That is your hope. As for me, I was alone for as long as I remember. Humans are social beings, and I was no exception. Honestly, you still irritate me with your stubbornness. I don’t get how Frosty still puts up with you.”

Black dipped her boots into the sea, and her gaze rose to the glowing orb above. For a fraction of a second, they didn’t see the back of a murderous weapon, but instead, of a human who wore the wounds of many experiences.

“But I digress. I’ve gone on longer than I should’ve. Haah… Exrite, don’t let me down. Prove to me that humanity isn’t a detriment to beings like us. Add that to your list of burdens, will you? I’m sure it’s nothing compared to your overarching goal anyway.”

“Yeah… I will. I definitely will. Maybe through this, you’ll cherish the remnants of your humanity one day.”

“Ahahahaha! What a thing to say!” Black suddenly burst into laughter.

She quickly recomposed herself before she calmly continued:

“Really now… don’t change Exrite. Good luck with your endeavours. You’re going to need it. The same for you Khaos and Frosty. You’re just as important as I am to Exrite. Don’t die too easily~”

“Mhm. Likewise. I’ll see you down there.” Exrite firmly nodded.

“Yep. We’ll make it through in one piece, right sis?” Khaos nudged his sister, who looked like she just snapped out of a trance.

“… Y-yeah… you too Black. As much as I hate to admit it… You’re not as bad as I thought you were. I’m sorry –”

“Hmhm~ So it was you who overheard our conversation last night~” Black’s hum surprised her. The shock of being found out caused her to lightly jump as she turned to Exrite with widened eyes.

While she had a hunch that Black knew, it was odd that she didn’t reveal it until now. She assumed she was safe this entire time, so realising that both Exrite and Black knew all along made her feel somewhat guilty.

“I wasn’t going to leave you two alone, remember?”

“Nosy to the end~ Well, take what you will from my story. So long as you understand my perspective, then we’re best friends~ Trusting a murderous weapon isn’t easy. Trust me, I know that all too well.”

She glanced back at White for a moment with a sadistic grin, then she moved to Frosty. Her face suddenly softened. In that moment an array of conflicting emotions surged through Frosty’s body.

Like Uru and White – she now didn’t mind Black... for the most part, at least. Because behind that dark demeanour was a warmth only for those she dearly cared about.

It was the remaining proof of her fragmented humanity.

“Next time you’ll tell me your side of the story. Both you and Khaos. But until then – grow strong.”

The whisper, which was said to no one in particular, were her last words. She departed without a moment’s notice, leaving them in silence as Frosty stood there awestricken by Black.

Then, a voice snapped her from the trance, along with a cold hand which gently held her shoulder.

“You’ve finally found a reason to trust us. With this I think we’re all set with Vital Unity. Really, I’m glad you believe in us now.”

She spoke in a motherly tone, her light blue eyes glowing with genuine warmth. White was truly glad that they finally gathered her trust. If anything was going to hurt their group, it would be Frosty.

“Huh? You two didn’t make it easy.” She sighed, pushing White’s hand aside. “What else did you expect when you threatened us into following your orders? And it doesn’t help that you can still turn against us if we so happen to become you ‘enemy’…”

She complained with a harsh voice. Indeed, no one in their right mind would trust them in these given circumstances. The only exception was Exrite and Khaos, and now somehow herself.

“… argh – Looking at it now, it’s still stupid to trust you two. But we wouldn’t have made it here without you or Black so… thank you. From the bottom of my heart – thank you.”

Frosty’s voice softened towards the end. Her folded arms fell as she relaxed in White’s presence, causing the woman to reveal a pleasant smile.

“Truth be told, you did better than Black did when she first arrived in the Colour Plane. So like she said – take that for what you will.” White softly laughed.

“Hey, I feel like I’m missing out on something important here.” Khaos said. “But if it’s regarding Black’s past, then I’m sure it was only for Exrite. The question is – how did you find out about it Sis?”

“I heard them talk about it overnight. I was supposed to overlook them anyway, just in case. That reminds me – why didn’t you wake me up?” Frosty asked as her eyes narrowed sharply.

“I got caught up in it I guess.” Exrite’s simple answer annoyed her.

I guess?”

“Sis… can you two stop for one second?”

Their conversation only grew worse from here. But in White’s eyes, they looked like they were having fun. From their smiles to their warmth, she hoped it could all remain no matter the odds.

White was a strange Colour. Efficiency was certainly what she always strove for, but when it came to living beings like humans and Frostbittens – she knew that it wasn’t so simple.

They needed a drive – a goal to strive for, unlike a weapon which was only designed to injure and kill. When it seemed like they had calmed down, White took a few steps backwards and spoke a voice so clear that it turned the heads of nearby creatures as if they understood.

“I believe you’ll all make it. Unlike Black, time isn’t an issue for me. Move at your own pace and finish the trial safely. I expect you to grow strong – but not strong enough to challenge the Maiden of Realms just yet. You still have a long way to go. But if Black believes in you, then why shouldn’t it?”

Nothing but hope filled the trio as they cherished White’s words of support.

“Right. Watch us grow strong, White. We won’t let you down.” Khaos raised a mighty fist.

“Take our time, huh… are you really a Colour?” Frosty chuckled and soon grinned. “Thanks. Please stay safe as well, White.”

“Mhm. This won’t be our last meeting.” Exrite warmly smiled.

White departed to the sea, waving her goodbyes before she disappeared into the abyss below. Only the trio remained.

It was strange. For the longest time, this silence was the norm. They had grown so accustomed to their new group that this suddenly felt odd.

“… I never thought I’d miss them… Geez…” Frosty whispered.

“Feels weird doesn’t it? It’s been so long since it was just us three.” Khaos chuckled. “I remember our handful of hardships along the way, but looking back at it now, it wasn’t so bad right?”

“A handful, huh? I think it was a little more than that.” Exrite laughed. “Yeah… but we made it this far, and somehow made friends along the way.”

“You know, I thought it was only going to be us three. That’s probably why I’m so stuck up about trust… or a part of it really. But I’m glad. I can’t imagine where we’d be without them.” Frosty admitted with a long sigh. “I just wish we had some… normal people… Like Bailey. Hmm, hey Khaos, do you still remember Bailey?”

“The short girl? The one who makes amazing food? How could I forget – ouch!”

A sudden fist struck a chink in Khaos’ armour. Frosty couldn’t help but to feel sorry for the lovestruck girl who was remembered solely by her height and the food she made.

“Don’t remember people by their heights or the food they cook either!”

“W-wait! Of course I remember Bailey! I can’t forget the face of someone I rescued, let alone someone as kind as her. Sis – did I do something to upset you?”

“… no, I just remembered how dense you are, that’s all.” Frosty clicked her tongue.

Khaos looked at the laughing Exrite, wanting an answer. But she just smiled and savoured the moment like it was her last.

“To be fair, if I was in Khaos’ shoes I wouldn’t have a clue either.” Exrite admitted. She chose her words carefully as Khaos didn’t know about Bailey’s one-sided love.

Though this should’ve been within the final drawers of their mind, it served as a reminder that Bailey was one of many others waiting for them outside. Exrite was eager to know how things have gone in the Capital, and if Inkshard and Talia were doing well.

“The problem is that one of you is a meathead, and the other can’t lust. I didn’t expect you to know in the first place.” Frosty sighed, stifling a laugh.

If felt like an hour passed since the others left, but only a mere five minutes elapsed. There were so many things left to say, so many things left to reminisce before their departure. But as time moved on, they were soon faced with the daunting reality ahead.

The Attributed Whole – their trial to test their strength as an individual. Separation awaited them, but despite this, only confidence beats resounded from their hearts. A flame roared in their eyes as they stared at the [Gear] from the shoreline with nothing but infinite resolve.

Khaos took a step forward, offering himself to the sea first.

He turned to them with swollen eyes and showed them his mightiest smile.

“Exrite. Sis. Let’s beat this and continue to chase our goals – however impossible that may be. We’ll become stronger than ever, and nothing’s going to stop us after this. I know it!”

He suddenly lunged forward and embraced them. Though his armour was cold and stiff, nothing but warmth filled them.

“So let’s smash this trial!” He cried.

Exrite’s eyes swelled. Tears threatened to fall as she returned the hug and whispered:

“Yeah… we won’t lose.”

Frosty was already filled with sniffles, tears and hiccups. She tried to say something, anything but only a breathless voice squeeze through her clamped teeth.

A loving hand fell onto her head. It belonged to Khaos, and despite the armour, Frosty knew this familiar feeling right away and desperately grasped his hand.

“… promise me… that you’ll be fine… please promise me that we’ll all see each other again.”

That went without saying.

“When have I ever let you down Sis? I won’t disappear like our parents… We’ve always been together. Since the very start, and I’ve never left your side.”

Khaos spoke, stroking Frosty’s hair.

“Sis, I promise we’ll make it. We didn’t get this far just to lose!”

“Mhm. We’ll definitely make it. And you know exactly why, Frosty.” Exrite smiled. “Because our goal is –”

“– So… impossibly large that this can’t possibly compare to it… huh… geez. We really are idiots, huh?”

Frosty finished off her sentence as her weeps soon reduced to nothing but the occasional hiccups. They were strange. Even in the face of danger they saw no other way than to fight it head on.

To be fair – it was the only thing they could do. But to do it with such conviction and passion was foolish, because not everything could run so smoothly.

A single death was all it took to destroy them entirely. However – if it was them, then she believed that everything would be fine. Apart from Exrite’s Eye of Despair, of course.

But that was Exrite’s battle. Not hers. And if she lost, then it was up to her to beat her back to normal.

“If being an idiot means trying your best, then I’ll gladly be an idiot.” Exrite claimed.

“Haha! Same here!”

“… ah…ahaha… really… I guess I’m an idiot as well, huh…” Frosty sighed and wiped her tears away. “You won’t hear the end of it if you die, you hear me Khaos.”

“Right!” With one final cry, he broke free from them and sank knee-deep into the water. “This is only a temporary goodbye. I’m looking forward to our growth. Exrite – Sis, I’m going now. See you on the other side!”

They cried in unison. Celebration filled their voices, but there was also a hint of sadness and reluctance. But so long as they believed – so long as they trusted each other – then that was all that mattered.

He sank into the sea with a mighty smile, leaving only the distortions on the water’s surface where he fell. They stared at it, even after it became still.

The world fell silent. So silent that only the beats of their hearts could be heard. Frosty took a step forward, spun on her heel and looked straight at Exrite with dazzling crimson eyes.

“I guess I’m next, huh…”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go first?”

“I’ll be fine. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to make the jump if I stayed back here alone. Take care of your eye, ok? I know it’s no use telling you now, but… try not to change.”

“That goes without saying… but it’ll be hard without you by my side.” Exrite said, and Frosty’s face instantly softened. “… you overheard everything, didn’t you?”

“You make it sound like I’m the bad guy here. Geez… you know, I don’t care what your intentions were in the first place. All I care about is who you are now. Exrite, I’m glad I – no, Khaos was there too, wasn’t he? I’m glad we both managed to save you.”

Frosty took one more step back.

“And we’ll save you again, no matter what it takes.”

Those words resounded in Exrite’s heart. As much as she wanted to cry, she refrained and smiled with everything she had. Relief surged through her senses as she suddenly embraced her with all her might.

“Thanks. I’m counting on it.” Exrite whispered.

With their final embrace, Frosty broke free with a gentle sigh. She looked down at herself, then at Exrite’s perfect reflection, watching her lips move as she said:

“Frosty… don’t die on me. You’re irreplaceable. Please don’t forget that.”

“… geez. Are you trying to make fall in love with you? Idiot, we’re all irreplaceable. We’ll finish the Maiden of Time’s trial, save the Biomech and return to the Capital.”

She said with nothing but certainty as she sunk waist-deep into the water.

One more step, and she’d disappear.

“Mhm… and maybe then, we can finally catch a break with a nice cup of cinnamon coffee. Our journey only starts from here… good luck, Frosty. I can’t wait to see how strong you’ll become.”

“You too. I’m just hoping I’ll be strong enough to beat the sense into you! See you at the bottom, Exrite!”

She dove with a smile that took Exrite aback. In the next instance, Frosty disappeared without a trace.

Her legs moved without her knowledge and drew her into the shallow edge of the sea. The water was frighteningly cold, and the dark abyss stared back with nothing but endless torment.

However, with the warmth and strength of her friends – and the burden she carried – she stared back with a light that could tear through the darkness.

The will of the Maiden of Realms, the Biomech, her friends, the Gods and Gaia rested on the success of this trial. At this point, she realised that everything led up to this one moment as if it was all a prelude.

All her answers awaited down there – at the end of the Attributed Whole – at Gaia’s home.

Would she find our why she was turned into the Maiden of Time and the Exrenity? She doubted it. There was no bigger secret than this, and it became a long-term goal that she sought after.

With a calm voice, Exrite turned to the [Gear] and thanked it with a bow. Surely if Uru was around, she’d scold her. The thought caused her to chuckle, remembering that even if they weren’t here in person – they were still in her heart.

Exrite clutched her chest, bade farewell to the [Gear] and dove straight into the depths of the sea.

She didn’t know what was down there.

She didn’t know what challenges she would face.

But Exrite knew that she’d prevail and attain the Attributed Whole, no matter the cost.

Even if it meant an inevitable descent into despair.

Exrite touched the black obelisk once she reached it and disappeared with a low-pitched rumble. Whenever it took her didn’t matter, because now –

She was alone.

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