51. Separation
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Part 1 –

Somewhere, a [Gear] began to turn. It was small; minuscule compared to the other [Gears] in this wonderful dreamscape, but it was the only one that turned.

Gaia sat atop a giant floating [Gear] and watched her world from above with motherly eyes. No matter how ancient that gaze was, the love she had for her world never faded. It was a place filled with memories; good and bad – memories that she couldn’t afford to forget.

It was her home.

She hummed a soft song in this lonely world and raised a palm. In it was a strange circular object comprised of [Gears]. It was intricate like the gears of a clock, and the orb was only as big as the well of her palm. A blue light glowed somewhere inside, but there was also a faint red.

Only one [Gear] turned inside of this intricate orb. This filled Gaia’s heart with contentment.

“The tides are finally moving. You’re still so small, but you did it. The [Gears] are finally beginning to move. Keep going.”

Needless to say, she was talking about Exrite. This object seemed to represent Exrite and her powers as the Exrenity and the Maiden of Time. In additon, it also acted as a gauge that measured her state of hope and despair.

Gaia’s eyes softened.

“A storm brews in your heart. You must’ve made it down there, past the Reservoir and into the funnel that leads down into the depths of my trial.”

Then, she slowly shut her eyes.

What were minutes in her world were easily hours in Corozin. Her strange world worked in mysterious ways, but that was to be expected from a Maiden’s Domain.

“But… you made a grave mistake, Exrite.”

Her eyes suddenly opened. They were sharp; almost criticising. But there was also a hint of sincerity in that gaze, like she was scolding a loved one.

“This trial was never meant for the Maiden of Time alone. You found an escape in that body to avoid the pain of change, but you failed to realise that it would bring about the ultimate despair.”

Unbeknownst to Exrite was that by using the body of the Maiden of Time to traverse through the floors meant that her human body was still abysmally weak, as far as the strength of her gears were concerned.

Her trial was designed for the Geared – like Exrite – to slowly strengthen themselves as they descended, because the extremes were so great that if one were to dive straight into a lower floor they would be destroyed by the gears of the other creatures.

Exrite was no exception.

So, what would happen now that she was down there in the depths?

What would happen to him if he consumed a Geared there?

Gaia could only look to the red of the orb in her palm and the despair it entailed.

“Vital Unity was your only chance to break through the pain of absorbing their powers. You may not realise it now – but your human body carries a potential far greater than any of my creations, because you carry my heart, and I have yours right here by my side.”

She hummed and glided a thumb across the orb. The corners of her lips rose into a warm smile as she recalled her very first meeting with the young boy.

Then, as she delved into the memory, she slowly shifted her sights to the world ahead. A world of darkness stood like a menacing wall in the distance. It loomed over her pristine world and corrupted everything it touched.

“There’s another storm brewing down there.”

Only a few crimson gears existed behind a faint veil of red. The surface of the mirror-like sea twisted with warped waves, and the shallow waters became bottomless trenches. Streaks of crimson light flashed from the impossibly dark skies, sparsely illuminating the horrifying world like lightning.

If one word could describe that place – it would be despair.

But that did not belong to Exrite.

Her gaze shifted, and she found a lone crimson [Gear] somewhere deep within. It pulsated with red mist and the water beneath turned into a violent whirlpool that led to a bottomless abyss.

The darkness was overruled by its red hue as it licked the air like flames. It possessed a wicked power and dragged everything around it into its world of despair.

As disturbing as that thing was, Gaia looked at it with tender eyes and a gentle smile. That [Gear] – no, that despair – belonged to the only creature that successfully reached the bottom and achieved the Attributed Whole.

She tilted her head, her hair collapsing to the side as she whispered:

“The Attributed Whole… how long has it been since I last heard that, I wonder?”

It had been countless of centuries since she last set foot into the shallows. So long in fact, that many stars of Corozin’s night sky had died and been reborn over the course of her disappearance.

And the lonely little Biomech she left there returned to her. She cherished the memory of her singing voice no matter how imperfect it was. Before Auga was the first Biomech, or Gaia’s first creation – she was her first friend.

“Exrite – what does the ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete’ mean? What does my trial have to do with the monsters in my trial? All your precious answers are down there. And maybe, you’ll even find something about yourself at the steps of my old home.”

She held the orb in front of her face once again and whispered:

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Sometimes, the pain of one can’t justify the salvation of many. That pain can only save yourself. You’ll have to suffer all alone again. All because of my own selfishness. Your pain in the past was only a prelude to this trial, Exrite. I’m sorry that this couldn’t be any other way. But if you manage to overcome this – then you’ll finally understand everything.”

A red light suddenly glowed within the orb.

“You’re tiny compared to the rest of the world, but you carry the experience of a hundred humans all from a short span of time, and soon, you’ll be holding many, many more. I’m sorry Exrite, but you’ll have to hold on a little longer. Stay strong.”

Those parting words came from the bottom of her heart. Despite everything she did to Exrite, she wanted nothing but the best. Her methods were cruel, but it was the only way.

Because one day – Exrite will be alone again.

Whether it was a result of the erosion of time, the many trials they’d face in the future, or Exrite herself – it was an inevitability; the cruel fate of the Maiden of Time.

But she had hope. If there was one other thing that was certain aside from fate –

It was Exrite’s audacity to stand before it.

* * *

The <42nd Floor>. A frightening contrast from the floors above. The once spacious skies and luscious landscapes turned into constricted passageways made of nothing but rock, similar to the first few floors.

The only light down here were the ones from the gemstones, which lined the walls unevenly. Their pale light was enough to cleave through the thick darkness where many creatures lurked.

One of these creatures that Exrite briefly stumbled across was called the Tunnel Borer. Or that was at least what Exrite called it.

The floor quaked. As rubble piled below, the sound of wailing creatures and a blazing flame could be heard. It echoed hideously and the heat easily attracted many more monsters to this strange place –

No.

Exrite knew in her heart that they weren’t attracted by the thunderous sound or the immense heat. These creatures were not so stupid to enter a battle where the odds of winning were virtually zero.

It was because she was here.

Exrite was swarmed by tens of creatures which all reeked with nothing but pure bloodlust. They knew her exact location, as if possessing a sixth sense or some strange magic.

“Will I catch a fucking break!?” She cried. In the next moment, she easily cleaved a giant black wolf in half as it flew over her.

Blood splattered over her face, some reaching her eyes. They stung like a potent acid, but it was nothing compared to the stench of charcoaled flesh that surrounded her like a toxic haze.

Her [Gears] made quick work of the swarming beasts. [Liquid Fire] sprayed over any creature that dared to approach her and created a thick moat of the flaming death which burnt any creature that was foolish to cross.

And those that did were met with certain death.

As another giant wolf leapt from across the moat, Exrite swiftly thrusted her hand and fired a thin blue beam straight at its head. A hole quickly formed and consumed its face along with a few others behind. Even the wall behind them wasn’t spared and collapsed into a pile of rubble and blood.

This magic had no name, but its effects were not far off from a [Seeker]. In fact, it was a prototype [Seeker] – or more accurately a [Heat Trail], just without the heat. It was a formidable magic though it left a bit more to be desired.

Regardless, she was more than content with its piercing and minor explosive effect.

That aside –

Each Geared that fell were quickly replaced by another in a seemingly endless loop.

They were attracted to the ticking of her heart, and the gears coursing through her veins. It was likely that they believed she was the obelisk of the floor. The real obelisk never ticked, and therefore remained somewhere hidden on this floor.

But because of prior experience, they couldn’t help but to be drawn to its siren calls.

“Even the weaker ones are after my blood.” Exrite muttered as she summoned 5 enlarged [Wind Blades] which promptly severed through a dozen more wolves.

“Does this mean the obelisk allows the entry of weaker Geared?”

It was possible, and at the thought, Exrite continued to slaughter the swarming Geared until there were none in her immediate surroundings. The [Gear] swiftly moved to each entrance in this spacious room and doused them with [Liquid Fire], incinerating every beast that dared to enter.

Their wails and howls soon subsided as silence returned to the floor. Exrite had killed well over a hundred beasts, although they weren’t significantly stronger than the ones of the <41st Floor> to begin with.

They were nothing but simple monsters appropriate for the first floor of the second half of the dungeon.

Amid the silence, she sighed and stared down at her palms.

“… a Maiden’s body is unbelievable. I don’t think I would’ve survived against the first ten as a human. Convenient doesn’t begin to describe this power. But…”

Exrite turned to the orange passage with a sharp glare.

“Am I supposed to be fighting as the Maiden of Time in a trial meant for the Exrenity?”

As it stood, Exrite could easily overwhelm the Geared…

No. Overwhelm was a massive understatement. She was essentially their Creator in this body. Nothing stood a chance against her. If it weren’t for her knowledge of the obelisks, then it would appear as if the Geared swarmed her solely because they felt the presence of their Creator.

“… Gaia came through here only once. Was this why? Maybe she was attacked as well when she passed through these floors. Wait… what about that Tunnel Borer. That thing ran away the moment it saw me.”

The creature that Exrite dubbed the Tunnel Borer was an exceptionally unusual creature. It was massive; so large in fact that its body was more than triple the size of the average tunnel in these caverns.

She didn’t catch a glimpse of the worm-like creature’s length, but she couldn’t imagine it being anything but huge. In addition, she remembered its scent being oddly sweet – like grapes.

Its sudden departure abnormal, and even more so when every other creature came straight for her.

Whatever that thing was – Exrite wanted to find it.

Luckily, it was simple to track.

The very same passage she stared down was abnormally large; triple the size to be exact.

First thing’s first is to find out whatever that thing is and hopefully find the obelisk along the way. Or whatever comes first. I don’t want to stick around and fight another hundred Geared.

With this in mind, Exrite lunged straight into the dark tunnel. The sudden burst of energy ripped through the remains of the creatures under her as she disappeared without a trace.

… this speed isn’t something I’m still used to. I guess a silver lining being alone is that now I’m able to move at my own pace. Not that I minded being in the backlines to begin with.

* * *

Even with her strength her heart never settled.

She certainly had more freedom now that she was alone, but it came at the cost of her own safety. If anything happened down here then there was no one who could help her.

She ran through the passageway with surprising speed. Compared to Uru and Frosty, she was probably only a fifth of their maximum speed. Even the Commanders were faster. Not that it was a bad thing. It astonished her in fact.

This was the first time she moved so fast on her own.

Over an hour she passed through countless of openings. It was sterile of life, save for the end of the trail which likely led towards the Tunnel Borer.

If she had to guess why it was so barren; it would be because the creature consumed them. It wouldn’t be odd if most were caught in its tracks either.

However, it was still eerily quiet.

By now at least one Geared should have appeared. She suspiciously followed its trail with her combined [Gear] ordered to watch her back. Then, as a sweet scent reached her nostrils, she braced for battle.

It’s here!

The path underneath her suddenly disappeared and revealed a gaping mouth. Layers of thousands upon thousands of serrated teeth lineds the innards of its leech-like appearance.

Exrite reflexively created a [Barrier] to keep her from falling before she leapt out of the pit just in time before the beast’s circular mouth shut.

She landed at the ledge nearby, and her [Gears] instantly poured the [Liquid Fire] over it as she struck it with a barrage of [Wind Blades]. However –

Not a single scratch remained on its disgusting green exterior, which was riddled with thousands of tiny pink appendages and spikes.

Magic resistance… or is it just plain tough?

She quickly held out a hand to fire the unnamed beam, but as if sensing this – the Tunnel Borer retreated. The thunderous tremors could be felt as it ploughed through the ground.

You’re not getting away!

Exrite followed the tremors. But strangely, it ran through the same direction of the tunnel. It had the option to escape and reset an ambush elsewhere. A prey like Exrite was far out of its league, yet it refused to let her go.

Suspicion rose in Exrite’s heart, and soon, the rumbling disappeared.

… they’re all the same, I guess. No point in sparing it then. If it wants to kill me, then I hope it’s prepared to die… but it could’ve easily moved on to the next floor with that kind of strength… how weird.

It was odd, but Exrite also found this rather interesting. She resumed her breakneck pace and chased it. But the sweet smell never returned. She wondered if it really did disappear, although she remained wary.

This was likely what it wanted her to think. Well-spaced out ambushes can catch even the most cautious of prey. Exrite knew this from experience.

And as such, she prepared her magic. By sheer coincidence, the ground unexpectedly disappeared and was replaced by the repulsive rows of teeth and meat.

The horrific sight which had brought many Geared into despair caused her to grin as her [Gears] poured [Liquid Fire] into its gaping maw. As if anticipating this, its mouth swiftly shut but strangely –

It didn’t budge.

Exrite hummed, staring down at her hunter’s pried mouth through a hollowed [Physical Barrier].

“… really now, you’re a lot smarter than you look.” Exrite said as the [Liquid Fire] blistered and burnt its body from inside out. Only the sound of flames and its gurgling death woes escaped.

“Luring me into a false sense of security was a flawless plan. Unfortunately, you're not the only one with cunning tricks. Say… if I wasn’t in this body, you’d probably be having a… less spicy meal right about now.”

Exrite was honestly astounded, but also wary. If this was what a Geared can come up with at the first floor of the second half, then she couldn’t possibly imagine what else resided deeper.

Once the hole was nothing more than a pool of molten rock, she went off in search for the obelisk. From what she gathered; the creature was definitely aiming for her like the others but didn’t act irrationally.

Whether this was because it clearly contained a higher gear strength, or something else entirely remained a mystery.

However – it was clear that the Geared will hunt her no matter the cost so long as she was the Maiden of Time.

* * *

[Control] was an odd magic to say the least. It gave magic the ability to move or change according to its caster’s will even after it was casted. Almost anything was possible aside from tinkering with its structure and power.

But it didn’t carry much of a practical use to humans. Namely because, it was magic of the [Sixth Tier], so only a select few could even dream of using it. Depletion and an overload were also an issue, so a caster would have to utilise a magic circle in order to sustain it with external mana.

However, that was an issue in of itself.

Magic is impure until the [Seventh Tier] and therefore disappears if their catalyst breaks. Strictly speaking, if one were to use [Control] and any magic lower than the [Seventh Tier] with a magical circle, then it was vulnerable to being destroyed.

If the magic circle broke, then the casted magic would also disappear with it.

This was the fundamental difference between magic above and below the [Seventh Tier]. Higher tiered magic didn’t need a catalyst to exist, for they were made of refined mana and existed separately.

Also – Humans only had an average of mages possessing magic of the [Third Tier]. However, there were certainly some that possessed far more powerful magic.

The world was too big to judge, and Exrite was an optimistic person.

The five at the top of my mind who could maybe pull it off is Cardinal, Anoma’s maid, Bailey, Talia and Amy… especially Amy. If a human’s going to pull it off, it’s definitely going to be her…

Exrite quietly sighed as she ran.

“… I wonder how much everyone’s grown now.”

[Control] wasn’t simple for Exrite either. In fact, she couldn’t use it at all. But she knew the concept. The only problem was how to apply it into combination magic.

Magic that abides your command so long as you’re conscious… [Golemancy] must be a derivative, and maybe even [Summoning]. Amazing how many things can arrive from a single concept.

It’s been a while since Exrite thought so deeply about magic. She had a love for it since she was a child, even though it was something she could never obtain or use.

With an exceptionally low mana capacity, Exrite had no hope. But she chased it, nevertheless. A small misstep and it was a mana overload, but that was the type of person Exrite was for… the longest time.

Dangle a light in front of a flightless moth, and it’ll still try to fly.

After an hour of running through the carved path, she eventually stumbled upon a spacious room that forked into handful more. And when her eyes wandered to the centre she smiled triumphantly.

The black obelisk was there.

However, the sound of dozens of mudded steps and clamours approached from each entrance. In less than a minute, she’d be swarmed by an army of Geared. The best choice of action now would be to escape while she could.

Her [Gears] took the initiative to douse the tunnels with [Liquid Fire] as she swiftly lunged straight for the obelisk. Her hands touched its cold surface, yet nothing happened.

Exrite’s brows furrowed.

Her suspicion from earlier was confirmed. As annoying as it was – it made perfect sense.

“This trial was made for the Exrenity after all… So I can’t progress down with this body!” She turned to the noises in irritation. “I’ll have to kill every single one of those things before I transform. Hopefully Gaia will kick me out of the Domain again.”

And with that, Exrite prepared her magic for one last standoff against the Geared. The creatures that beared little to no fire-resistance were the first to perish by the wall of flames. Thankfully, they made up the majority of the Geared on this floor, being; giant wolves, three-headed snakes and screeching bats just to name a few.

What emerged through the wall of flames instead were black insect-like creatures. Their metallic carapace – which was woven around their bodies like chainmail – protected them from the heat. They were easily twice as large as Exrite and possessed black eyes that strove for nothing but her blood.

The spacious room was more than large enough to contain at least 100 of them at once. There was no time to waste, less she wanted to be swimming neck-deep in the Geared.

Exrite erected a [Hybrid Barrier] around her like the shell of an egg. A second later, her vision was engulfed by flames. These things seemed to not only be resistant to heat but were able to cast [Fire] magic from a magic circle that was inscribed into the centre of their heads.

The Geared have always been capable of magic, but this is the first time I’ve seen it used in action like this, apart from that three-headed dragon. If I were to guess… this is magic only of the [Fourth Tier].

The intense flames didn’t need to die out before she could strike. Considering the number of creatures around her already – she needed magic with a massive area of effect.

And one in particular came to mind.

“[Stone Barriers].”

The ground shifted by her will, creating a maze of mountainous spikes made from rock. The once spacious room turned into a claustrophobic nightmare, and when the flames subsided, Exrite’s heart raced at the sight.

Dozens were left skewered by the mess, some left barely alive. This once spacious room suddenly mimicked the innards of an iron maiden.

“… come to think of it, I never had this much freedom with magic. Half the time everyone was doing the work for me, so never I had the chance to let loose. Even using a fraction of a Maiden’s power is insane.”

Exrite fired her prototype [Seekers] at the rest of the crawling insects with frightening precision. The lethal hole it left was enough to kill most in one hit, goring them until they were reduced to nothing but chunky remains.

Also, I was the back liner through and through. There wasn’t a need for me to step in with my powers in the first place. Our strength together is enough to take on the world. But if it’s me alone –

Exrite grit her teeth, wiping a fresh patch of blood from her cheek.

Then I’ll need to step to the forefront… but I’m still not very proficient. Using that [Stone Barrier] without my normal chant took a good amount of mana, and if had to guess what tier that was – it would be of the [Fifth Tier]. Not to mention dozens of them at once…

She tore through many more with countless [Wind Blades], littering the room with nothing but blood and gore. It was easy. Too easy in fact. But she didn’t let that get to her head.

She was a Maiden. This was to be expected.

I can’t get complacent just because I’m the Maiden of Time. This trial was meant for my human body. At the very least this body should be my last resort! If I want to grow stronger, then I need to earn that strength myself!

Exrite’s human body was integral to the trial and most of all, to herself. She couldn’t allow it to rot away in the dark. And it was likely that in the future she’d need to be strong in her human body regardless.

Strictly speaking – fighting as the Maiden of Time defeated the purpose of this trial which was aimed specifically at the Exrenity and the Geared.

The Maiden of Time had no reason to complete the Attributed Whole.

The Geared swarm were quickly vanquished. All that surrounded her were the teeth-like spikes of the room which were smeared with endless blood and torn carcasses. Every step she took landed on a piece of a monster, and the splash of blood echoed throughout the empty floor.

She approached a nearby wall and fired her beams until a space large enough for her to fit appeared. In truth, Exrite wanted to use her handguns to fight them off, but she became desperate by the sheer number of Geared that attacked.

This was why she omitted her chants and went solely by what she knew. It wasn’t perfect, and any ordinary person would’ve been depleted after the first minute. But she had a Maiden’s mana capacity, so this was entirely mitigated.

“I’ve still got a long way to go, even in this body… I need to refine my magic if I want to get anywhere near Realm’s level. But before that, I need to strengthen my original body and achieve the Attributed Whole. I just need to be careful down here… because I’ll eventually run into something strong and depending on where or how I die – I’ll be dead for good.”

If a creature like the three-headed dragon existed in the upper half of the dungeon, then it was foolish to believe that something of its calibre – or even stronger – didn’t also exist somewhere below.

She held her breath and studied the narrow room as her heart raced uncontrollably.

“… m-maybe the room is a bit too small for me.”

* * *

Part 2 –

Another rejection. Gaia was not going to allow him to escape to the Domain of Time. Although, this worked in his favour. Exrite couldn’t afford to remain unconscious for too long. Not when he was alone.

He laid on the cold ground for some time as he stared at the faraway surface. Funnily enough, the ceiling was higher here in the hole he made than the cavern outside. It even seemed like he reached some sort of pool above, evident by the occasional droplets of water that splashed down beside his face.

I think I went too far with this hole, huh.

A part of him knew this was excessive for his fears of tight spaces, but his heart wouldn’t let him rest so easily. If there was anything he feared more than death, it was tight spaces… and gear overloads.

Exrite slowly pushed himself up and turned to the hidden entrance, where a faint ray of light crawled through and split the room in half. He was quiet and as he rose to his feet he closely listened to any and every noise.

But all he could hear was the constant splash of water and his own heartbeat.

It doesn’t sound like anything is out there. Good. Now for the hardest part.

The rocks that hid the entrance were carefully moved to the side before he – albeit reluctantly – quickly squeezed through the narrow entrance. On the other side, he immediately stomped ankle-deep into a chest cavity of an insect, nearly causing him to topple over.

“Fuck… at least I’m out now.”

His bearings returned to him almost as quickly as his sudden panic. The gore-infested room reeked with a strong metallic smell and the air of death lurked around him like an invisible haze.

The black obelisk was only a matter of meters away, but Exrite held off from approaching it immediately. He studied the corpses around him instead, reaching over and touching various parts of their innards and flesh.

They’re still warm. Even their blood. I must’ve been out for only a short while then. Perfect. There shouldn’t be anything nearby if that’s the case.

He confidently concluded, although, a hand hovered by his handgun just in case. Exrite approached the obelisk with a heavy heart. In the back of his mind he was afraid that he required a sufficient gear strength to activate it.

He wholeheartedly hoped this wasn’t the case. His stomach churned and his muscles instinctively tightened at the mere thought of a gear overload.

The pain that surpassed a decade of constant torture, and the pain that transcended pain itself. To call the constricting feeling in his heart ‘fear’ was a severe understatement.

In the few seconds that elapsed during his approach, a thousand thoughts flooded his being.

What if he needed to consume the Geared?

What would happen to him now that he was so far down in Gaia’s dungeon?

Would the gear overload finally claim his mind?

And before he knew it, he was frozen before the obelisk. It stood before him with an ominous presence. The thoughts plagued his mind and caused him to hesitate as he reached out for it.

However, despite the uncertainty that gnawed on his mind, he couldn’t afford to be deterred by his fears. Even if he was alone and had to endure the suffering of a gear overload – if it was the only way down, then so be it.

Whether his conviction was foolish or reckless, Exrite didn’t have much of a choice. Despair was the concept of this half of Gaia’s trial, so this should’ve been expected… as cruel as it was.

He quietly sighed and touched the cold shell of the obelisk.

My suffering won’t end, will it?

It was a sad realisation, but in the end, he was too weak to say otherwise.

Suddenly, after a brief second of contact, the obelisk activated. The mysterious lines carved through its body like streaks of lighting and collected at the razor-sharp tip of the obelisk. It split into four petals, and the floating [Gear] it revealed fired a beam of light into a tunnel behind him.

It grazed his face, leaving a wound that was instantly cauterised by its immense heat. He was surprised. Not by his close kiss with death, but rather by the beam itself.

It was just like the obelisk from the <41st Floor>. And by that alone, he knew that the beam likely pointed towards his next destination. Where exactly was unknown due to the maze-like structure of the floor, but despite this –

Exrite suddenly exhaled and leaned against the obelisk with his entire weight.

Relief couldn’t even begin to describe the euphoric feeling in his heart. He was glad – so glad that he didn’t need to undergo a gear overload. A soft tremble left his body, but he soon reclaimed his senses.

“Thank goodness…” Those subtle words left his lips as a quiet whisper.

… I’ll be lucky if it’s the same with the rest of the obelisk. Luck has always been my strong point but knowing Gaia and what that [Gear] said – luck won’t be on my side this time. All that waits for me is despair… and I can already feel its effects.

Heat swelled in his Eye of Despair, and with wrinkled brows, he chased the path of the beam with haste.

Now the question is – how far can I progress before I undergo a gear overload?

* * *

The path twisted and turned like the branches of an ancient oak tree. And like a branch, every path split into another ten. There was no way to tell which way was where, apart from Exrite’s intuition which had been forged through experience.

He also utilised rocks formations and carvings along the cave walls to mark the places already explored. It was a rather primitive method, but it worked quite well.

Although –

“Another one.” Exrite muttered as he studied a giant black wolf from the shadows.

The markings he left often attracted the creatures of this floor. It was a testament of their intelligence; as Exrite observed a few of them use it as either a means to track him down or use it as an ambush site.

The wolf sniffed the marking, then swiftly pointed its muzzle in his direction.

But at that moment –

A dry explosion shattered the stale air and reverberated infinitely throughout the cavern. The wolf suddenly fell to the side stiffly, like its body froze all over. Moments later as Exrite approached it with a dagger in hand, the beast growled menacingly as if trying to intimidate the puny human who was less than half its size.

Exrite returned its stare nonchalantly.

The dagger easily slit its neck, and a torrent of blood coated his boots in red. The sharpened carapace worked wonderfully against its ridiculously thick pelt. In fact, the reason why the handgun failed to kill it was simply because it lacked the firepower to penetrate through centimetres of pelt and bone.

But needless to say – it was more than enough if it could at least bring giant beasts down to their knees.

Exrite wiped his blade with its fur and promptly left it to die. It was only a matter of time before other monsters would show up.

He couldn’t afford to get roped into a multi-fronted fight. At best, Exrite could take down maybe 2 or 3 with the aid of his handgun, and maybe 5 if he had the jump on them.

More was definitely possible with the [Gears] he possessed, although its range was limited in this body. A mere meter was the maximum distance it could manoeuvre around him and given his body’s inferior resistance to magic and the elements – he’d be at more of a risk than the monsters.

Previously, not an hour after he departed from the obelisk, he was faced with a giant wolf and spider-bear at another obelisk. Seeing as he was the greatest threat, they attacked him in a coordinated manner.

And because Exrite ordered his [Control] [Gear] to attack all hostiles at the time, it incinerated them at a horrifically close range. A closer look at Exrite now revealed a missing sleave down his left arm and a few severe burns.

If he disregarded his handguns and [Gears], then he was only confident in taking on one Geared at a time, so long as they weren’t any stronger than a giant wolf. His human body was strong – stronger than it has ever been – but compared to even the most basic monsters here, such as the screeching bat, all it took was one misstep or a single hit and he was dead.

He pondered on his weakness with furrowed brows.

Exrite was never supposed to be at the front lines of a battle with a weak body like his. He preferred attacking from a distance, or by exploiting opportunities, or to act as a support for his friends to compensate for his weakness.

But he was alone now. There was no one to compensate for other than himself. If the Exrenity were like the gears of a clock, then it didn’t matter how strong Exrite was so long as they were there to help turn the hands.

However, if he was the only gear – then it was only natural to expand until he could move the hands on his own.

Strictly speaking – Exrite wasn’t strong enough to carry anyone’s wishes or burdens alone, including his own.

The thought infuriated him. But he suppressed that sudden burst of emotion with a hefty sigh.

My Eye of Despair’s acting again… the first phase is always impaired judgement and anger. It’s all going to start snowballing from here, huh. What came after that… recollections of the past or something…? No. Gaia – I think she called it the ‘Gaze of the Abyss’. That’s only the second phase… and no past Exrenity has ever made it past that if Gaia’s telling the truth.

The thought never left him as he steadily progressed through the floor in silence.

* * *

Exrite counted 8 obelisks. He didn’t know how many more were left, but his instincts told him that he was close to the end. Dozens of battles over the hours he spent on this floor eventually led him to a grand hallway.

More than 20 other networks linked to the chamber before it, as if it was the centre of this floor. The tunnel itself was massive, boasting pillars among, smoothened walls and a reflective floor.

There was no doubt in his mind that this was the exit.

As he took the first few steps towards it – the ground suddenly shook. It was faint, but Exrite’s instincts screamed at him to dodge.

“– There’s one here!?”

He immediately leaped to the side before he knew it, and soon rolled back to his feet just in time to see the afterimage of a giant claw tear through the space he stood just a second ago.

A bear stood in his place. Only this ‘bear’ wore fur as dark charcoal and possessed a muzzle so long that it could be mistaken as a blade. But those features were merely secondary.

Its paws were easily as large as a meter and each wielded a set of nails that were like swords.

Exrite didn’t know how he failed to notice its presence. But at a single glance of its ridiculously muscular hindlegs, he realised that it must’ve lunged straight from one of the tunnels.

W-what… the fuck is that speed?

He grounded his teeth and snatched his cobalt handgun. But the moment his hand even began the motion – the bear growled hideously and formed a cross with its paws before it suddenly charged straight for him.

Exrite immediately shoved himself to the side, barely avoiding the full brunt of the attack. However, he didn’t escape unscathed. Its claws were like double-edged longswords, and they carved straight through his right shoulder and arm.

Not a single word left his lips. The only response was a barrage of dry explosions which riddled the bear’s backside with bullets which bore deep into its thick pelt.

At the same time – Exrite ran to the other side of the room. Distance was his best friend in this battle, unless he could somehow disorientate the bear to deal a clean strike.

Its paws shielded its entire body from the bullets until the explosions finally ceased.

Compared to the wounds on its body, its hands were significantly unharmed by the bullets. And he was sure that at least 2 had landed in its skull.

Truly, this was a resilient beast.

He studied the unmoving bear for a moment. It stared through a gap in its shield, intently studying at the noisy weapon in Exrite’s hand with immense bloodlust.

It’s wary… but it’s also looking for an opening. I’m out of bullets in this handgun, and I’m afraid that if I reload – it’ll charge straight for me again.

He began an inaudible chant.

The monster slowly advanced towards him on guard. So long as Exrite pointed the weapon its way, it was unlikely to drop its paws. If he got rid of it, then the bear would undoubtably strike at that opportunity.

But this was what he wanted.

Even in a situation like this, Exrite was confident in his victory. Something at this level couldn’t compare to the Demon he foolishly faced with a crossbow, nor could the bear’s speed compare to Frosty’s.

And not only that – its swipes were still slower than Colight’s Guild Master – Anoma.

He was weak in terms of pure physical combat compared to the beast, but the tools and experience he possessed easily bridged the gap.

And with a confident grin; he tossed the handgun to the side. To an onlooker, it would appear as if Exrite had given up.

However – this was far from the truth.

The bear saw this as an invitation to attack and swiftly pounced on him. But the moment it dropped his guard and flew towards him –

Another barrage of dry explosions resounded. Surprise swelled in its widened eyes the moment Exrite drew his iron handgun. The bear’s muzzle was shredded off as its face collapsed to the 6 bullets that perfectly struck its head.

It was forced to surrender its reeled paws to defend its brutalised face, but this only slowed it down. In addition, it could no longer see what was ahead anymore.

If it allowed a single gap, then Exrite would undoubtably sink a bullet straight through and destroy its eyes. And from this range – a single bullet to the head meant certain death. The monster’s instincts screamed that this was so.

The bullets never stopped. All 20 bullets met their mark, although only 6 of them dealt any real damage. The rest were merely a distraction, a diversion to conceal his real intention.

He wouldn’t have enough bullets to finish it off, so he needed to end it with a single cleave of his blade. When the bear finally reached within 5 meters, he revealed his magic, and the red magic circle that was hidden behind his body.

“– [Fireball]!”

A [Second Tier] ball of flames attacked the bear and consumed it from head to toe. It was as if a flaming meteor had fallen from the sky. This attack was not meant to kill it. Rather, it was another layer of distraction to give him every opportunity to land his strike.

There was absolutely no room for error.

Exrite dodged to the side as it crashed straight into the ground. It skidded a few meters, leaving a trail of broken ground as it smashed a small portion of the wall behind. Its strength was no laughing matter, and he knew well that he couldn’t afford to parry it with his strength alone.

But regardless of this – he smiled.

Now was his turn to strike.

As the flames shot up the cracks of the wall, he reeled the blade high over his head and charged the beast. There was no need for any unnecessary war cry. Exrite wanted to get this over and done with.

However, just as the blade came down to smite the bear, it suddenly spun and twisted its head out of the way. It cleaved straight through its collar down the centre of its chest where his blade remained jammed.

There was no way to pry it out. He was mere inches away from the bear, and at this range, there was nothing he could do to escape it. The bear gurgled, as if laughing at its certain victory.

Both its arms spread out like the wings of a bird as its crimson eyes stared down at its prey. It was checkmate for Exrite.

The arms shut as fast as they opened, intending to crush Exrite into a fine paste. Many of its previous prey cried or wailed in these last moments.

But strangely, there was never an ounce of fear in his eyes, and his confident smile couldn’t be wiped away even in the face of death.

There was no need to of course. After all, everything went according to plan.

The bear’s eyes suddenly widened with terror. Its arms that tried to crush the little human were stopped by an invisible force. The cracking sound of its wrists echoed through the caverns.

It wasn’t a [Barrier], a bullet or some unknown gimmick. It was a pair of strange floating [Gears] that stopped its attack. And just as abruptly as the shocking realisation sank in, a sharp pain overtook its senses before everything went dark.

A dagger found itself embedded deep into its brutalised face. The soul-tearing gurgles were only temporary. Exrite sunk it till the hilt smashed its face and with one mighty twist, its skull split into two.

The sound of bones being separated travelled through his arms as the bear slipped into the cracks of the wall. Its very life disappeared like a doll that had its strings severed.

Exrite sighed in relief as he took a step back to examine the corpse.

… such a tough body. I didn’t think it would take everything I had at my disposal to take it down. To take so many bullets and still retain all that power…  is this really a creature of only the <Forty Second Floor>?

A creature like this could’ve easily moved on to the next floor, just like the Tunnel Borer. But they chose to stay here for whatever reason.

The Geared only grow stronger by devouring a stronger Geared, so if something like those two can exist on this floor – then doesn’t that mean they can get stronger regardless of what Geared they consume?

Exrite stayed with this train of thought as he began to recover his embedded weapons. Needless to say – it was difficult to remove them easily, especially the dagger which was lodged in between its ridiculously thick skull.

But there’s the issue of diminishing returns. But only a moron would give up an opportunity to harvest strength for free. I’d probably do the same, but there’s no Geared I can eat without… dying. Yeah… dying in such a dumb fucking way!

He mentally screamed the last few words as he ripped the dagger out in a bloody mess.

Calm down… calm down. There’s no point in getting angry. I was on the topic of diminishing returns. Yeah… well, there’s a possibility that this bear and the Tunnel Borer were doing the exact same thing. They aimed to get as strong as possibly by consuming the Geared on this floor before descending. In terms of strength, they wouldn’t be a pushover down there. Then rinse and repeat. That’s definitely something I would do if I were in their shoes. It’s slow, but time doesn’t matter once you’re alone… or if you just want to live.

He flung both blades to clear them of any excess blood as he began to approach the glamorous hallway. His handguns were retrieved along the way, and as his legs led him though, he checked the remaining explosive powder within both guns.

A surprised hum left his mouth.

“A quarter full?”

He inadvertently spoke. Initially, he believed that the lack of remaining explosive powder contributed to the failure of the bullets to penetrate the bear’s skull. But to see so much remaining caused him to painfully gulp.

His weapons would be rendered useless sooner or later.

If there was a way to improve them then he’d certainly do it. But as it stood, he had no materials to make amendments to the handguns. Not that he knew where to start anyway.

That aside –

A set of doors stood at the end of the bright hallway. They were huge and composed entirely of a smooth black material. 4 black orbs lined both doors like the buttons of a trench coat, and they stared at Exrite as he slowly approached.

A giant blue magic circle was laid like a doormat, and to the walls directly to either side were long pillars made of a material similar to glass, and they emitted a gentle light.

There was no doubt in his mind that this was the exit.

He gripped his injured arm and muttered:

“Only forty more to go.”

* * *

The magic circle spun and expanded around him in a series of floating rings. Text of an unknown language and bizarre markings were inscribed into the circles, but there was one recurring symbol he managed to recognise.

It was a gear; the very shape that symbolised the Maiden of Time, and Gaia herself. Long ago, if someone were to ask Exrite what shape fit the image of ‘time’, it would be a clock.

And the same goes for the rest of the world. But that was merely the shell. The gears were in fact the drivers of the clock, and they dictated the rate of its ticking heartbeat and the movement of its hands.

Without them, there could be no time.

Exrite was certain of this. The Domain of Time wouldn’t have thousands upon thousands of [Gears] if this wasn’t the case. And as Gaia said – the Domain of Time regulates time itself.

He cast the thought aside the moment all 8 orbs suddenly illuminated with a familiar light. It was the same one that the other obelisks of the floor projected, and by that alone, he quickly realised that they were keys.

And for him to find 8 before arriving here caused him to silently chuckle.

I guess my luck hasn’t died just yet. That’s a relief…

The magic circles danced around him like the lights of a kaleidoscope as pillars on both sides suddenly exploded with light. He was blinded for what felt like minutes before everything around him returned to normal.

But the moment his eyes landed on the door –

His heart sank.

The door remained firmly sealed. His gaze darted around the room, frantically searching for answers before they fell onto the pillars. There, he saw something that caused his heart to further sink.

“… a-a gauge?” The words slipped through his teeth.

Indeed. The pillars were a gauge. The translucent device now had some sort of blue material at the base. However, this was only a fraction of the entire pillar.

It wasn’t even a thousandth of the way.

That thing reflected the strength of the gears in his body, and to see it so pathetically low almost caused him to laugh.

But this was no laughing matter.

He knew exactly what this meant for him.

“… I knew it… sooner or later, I was going to have to eat another fucking Geared in order move on.”

Even though he knew, a large sum of his body yearned to find another way. And as such, Exrite approached the door with an outstretched hand and touched it.

But the door rejected him.

An electrical force suddenly travelled through his fingers and launched him more than 20 meters back. He crashed into the pristine floor and tumbled like a pitiful pebble before he landed on his back with a pained growl.

“Shit!” He slammed a fist into the ground beside in a fit of rage. His knuckled burst with blood and the cracking sound of bones accompanied it.

The pain was miniscule compared to what had to be done next. In fact, he couldn’t feel a single thing. No matter how much his body ached, this was nothing new. The wounds, the bruises, the broken bones in his body after being launched with such devastating force – none of it was new.

But the gear overload was cruel, so cruel of a fate that everything he had gone through was child’s play in comparison. Exrite stared at the ceiling with nothing but contempt, however, breaking down into an angered mess will get him nowhere.

Exrite bit down on reality and forced himself onto his feet. His legs could barely hold him upright as a result of his injuries, and every second step seemed like he would trip on his legs.

But he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the gear overload over and done with.

… I can’t wait to see their faces again… all of them. Dammit… I’m not the only one suffering. Auga, her children and Melody have it worse than me… everyone has it worse than me, so I can’t possibly give up. I have to keep moving…

Exrite broke into a pained smile.

I have to see them again.

This was his drive. The Attributed Whole and his despair didn’t matter because in all he wanted was to return to the side of his friends in the end. But the cruel irony was that he needed to reach the bottom to see them in the first place.

He trudged back to the spacious room and followed the scent of death. It led him to the corpse of the bear, and with his dagger, he butchered a giant chunk of meat straight from its gut.

A primal instinct urged him to eat the meat there and then, but he had an idea.

A rather… reckless idea.

I’m going to undergo a gear overload no matter how much I eat. If I’m going to go through that fucking process, then I’m going to eat to my heart’s content. The last thing I want is to find out that I’m still too fucking weak to enter that door!

His Eye of Despair flickered with a faint light for a split second.

* * *

He butchered it until each limb and body part were laid out in front of him. During this, he realised that the bullets had only partially penetrated through its skull. But it was thankfully enough to weaken its integrity, which allowed his dagger to split it open.

In addition, he realised a fatal flaw in the design of his bullets. Their structure lacked any real penetrative power. He imagined a more pointy, larger and elongated bullet would harbour greater penetrative power.

But changing the bullets also meant that he needed to change the handguns entirely. They were designed to strike a perfect balance of firepower, bullet size and required ignition with the material it was made from.

Cobalt may be strong, but it wasn’t worlds stronger than iron. They could only handle a certain amount of explosive powder without turning into grenades.

That aside – Exrite separated the meat from the bones, and the organs from the meat. Its pelt was cast aside and left to dry. They would be turned to armour once dried.

Then, he minced the flesh into fine grains and scraped them together to form a mountainous pile. He made them fine enough to swallow in mouthfuls.

Chewing was an unnecessary effort and would only stall him. And besides choking didn’t matter if he was going to die regardless.

The organs were next, although he was picky with the ones he planned to consume. The heart was naturally the first choice, then the brain, liver and its spleen. The rest were discarded with a [Fireball], then the charred remains were buried within a stone tomb immediately after.

Exrite knelt down in front of the mound of grounded meat. Not a speck of emotion was shown on his face. He could only stare at the disgusting pile and wonder what would become of him afterwards.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to eat raw meat either. In fact, he ate hundreds of times more than this and not to mention that it was his flesh that he consumed.

He wanted to cut his tongue off to spare him from the awful taste but feared that he’d gag on the blood. Slowly, his hands sunk into the pile of meat and grasped loose handfuls.

“… how much longer am I going to have to endure this…?” He asked himself in a hoarse whisper.

Minutes of silence passed as he sat there in constant contemplation. He repeatedly convinced himself that this was for the greater good; a necessity to progress and meet his friends; a small challenge in the face of their overarching goal; a tiny sacrifice for the sake everyone’s dreams and wishes.

This pain was for everyone. But somewhere deep in his heart, a shadow of doubt smothered his reasoning. A cry of his old self echoed in his mind like the scream of a banshee.

What he saw for a split second was a reflection of himself – his inherent weakness. It bothered him. Annoyed him. It boiled his blood.

Exrite subconsciously desired strength at all costs. But the thought was so miniscule – like the wind of a butterfly’s wings – that he didn’t notice this poisonous thought.

And as his Eye of Despair ignited with an unquenchable flame, he suddenly shoved the handfuls of meat into his mouth. They slipped through his throat as smoothly as liquid as blood and grainy chunks stuck to his face and tattered attire.

He ate like a starved beast and stooped low like a dog. Disgusting slurping and groaning sounds echoed in this vast labyrinth for a full minute before his body surrendered itself to an overwhelming burst of pain.

Despair clouded his eyes as collapsed lifelessly into the mound of meat. He could only see red as his body began to convulse so rapidly, that the meat began to splatter all over the room.

Then, an unworldly scream reverberated throughout the <42nd Floor>.

* * *

Part 3 –

“Bwaaaaaargh!”

The hoarse gurgles and a stream of splashed echoed. A pool of pale vomit formed beneath a hunched Exrite as strands of drool hung from her swinging jaw.

Her body screamed in agony, even though there was no pain to begin with. But it remembered every little detail of the gear overload and her body reacted on instinct.

Like a storm, her stomach churned endlessly as she clutched onto it for dear life. Her transformation into a crystal had destroyed her clothes, leaving only tattered cloth and shredded ribbons.

Exrite desperately held on. Her vision faded in an out as she crawled the nearest wall for support. A putrid concoction of blood, vomit and dirt stained her near bare body as she repeatedly puked until only a hoarse, meek cry could leave her mouth.

“… it… it still hurts…”

The phantom pain riled her with agony and anger. The fate of a gear overload and a mana overload was terrifyingly cruel, yet it was so easy to fall prey to one. All it took was a simple miscast, or in Exrite’s case, a single bite of a Geared.

She didn’t move away from her place for hours. Between groans and laboured breaths, her eyes would wander from her lap to the ceiling above.

It was dark. Despite the many gemstone lights, it was dark. Her vision disappeared, and all she could think of was how she could recover from this ordeal.

Normally, her friends were there to help her, but she was alone.

No one was going to help her here.

Then, a series of patter approached her. It was the sound of paws treading over loose stones. They were distant, but within a minute they’d be only a meter away from her.

“… you…”

Exrite grounded her teeth in anger. Something snapped inside of her. The mere thought of being attacked at this time roused a burning hatred, and it coursed through her veins like a liquid fire.

Her red eye felt like it would fall off. She was so enraged, so infuriated at that monster that the pain suddenly became secondary.

All she wanted to do now was to kill it. To brutalise it. To crush it until it was nothing but a sorry excuse of a meat-mount like that bear.

“You… come here… when I’m like this… when I’m damaged and near broken… and take advantage of my weakness…” Exrite shivered as she rose to her feet.

The creature – which was a lone giant wolf – wandered into the room with a deafening howl. But this only stirred the explosive broth in her body. Her hair masked her face, and the beast saw this as an easy opportunity to attack.

It pounced at her with gaped jaws, lined with dozens of razor-sharp teeth. They were capable of crushing bone as if they were twigs. Exrite didn’t move. She didn’t need to anyway. After all, there was nothing a mere dog could do to a Maiden.

When it reached a meter away from her, and its jaws were primed to snap her in half – the wolf’s momentum suddenly came to screeching halt.

Its lower jaw snapped to an unforeseen force, and its teeth shattered like cheap glass. Its neck nearly snapped, and its eyes wildly searched for an answer.

Then, it saw a hand.

Exrite had its lower jaw in her hand.

In that last meter, Exrite used [Time] magic. [Delay] to be specific. The entire room was engulfed by a bubble of slowed time, and only she could move normally within.

It was dangerous to use without a magic circle, considering what happened at the Capital. However, she understood the basis of [Time] this time and using it for only a second within a confined space merely spent a small percentage of her mana reserves.

In addition, that magic was formed through instinct. That alone was proof of her inner understanding of the concept.

“You’re… just like them. You’re no different from my perpetrators… from the people of Enthile, and the denizens of their cruel allegiances… who the fuck gave you the right to kick me down any further than I already am!?”

She slammed the giant wolf down with monstrous strength. It wasn’t anything compared to Khaos, but it wasn’t far off either. Her feet kept its deformed head glued to the floor as it grovelled for dear life.

Her hair flew back after the dusty blast, revealing a pair of eyes that instilled fear into its very soul. She felt it tremble beneath her as it realised the grave mistake it made. It should have ignored the siren call that sparked it to attack in the first place.

She beat it down until every bone was turned to dust, and every piece of flesh was the same consistence as its blood. It was nothing more than a pelt filled with jelly, and it made disgusting squishing sounds when she threw it amongst the pile of bear-meat.

As she passed a pool of blood, she saw a faint glow in her reflection. Upon further inspection, she saw the irregular shape of her red iris and an unusual glow which never faded. It remained even after her fit ended.

A hand brushed over the eye as she sighed and fell back against the wall.

Despair.

That word repeated endlessly in her mind. And when the adrenaline and rage finally left her body –

“… ah… argh… why does it… still hurt…?”

The pain returned.

* * *

The pain lasted over the course of a single day. She spent hours on end staring at the smooth wall of the hallway, away from the stench of death and filth outside.

Everything returned at the peak of the second day. But she loathed the fact that she was alone again. Loneliness settled in as she sat there in silence, patiently waiting for her human body to regenerate.

Magic was her best friend in times like these. Even as a child, Exrite adored magic. If her sisters weren’t there, or if her mother was absent for the hundredth time, then she’d settle down in her room and read pages upon pages of magic.

At times, she’d even practice it. The power was like a light to her. She was always content by what little flame she could create, or that small breeze that was no stronger than a sneeze.

Magic was the power to alter reality, and to bring thought to life. But that power was unnecessary. She was a humble child. Her mana capacity never bothered her, because she didn’t need strength for any overarching goal.

She already had a place to call home.

But now – Exrite’s passion of magic became more than just that.

It became a vital necessity.

Over the course of the second day, Exrite trudged through hundreds of attempts to nail down [Control] magic. Her efforts were mostly unfruitful, but it wasn’t all in vain. The image and concept strengthened over time and at the height of the third day –

She managed to successfully create her own [Seeker], which she called [Blue Bullet]. It lacked the explosive finish, but she adored its penetrative power.

And most of all – it could never miss.

But [Control] didn’t only apply to her [Blue Bullets] alone. Her [Barriers] found a much-needed upgrade. No longer did she have to constantly recast her [Barriers], for now she could reuse them.

Under normal circumstances, [Barriers] remained fixed wherever they were first erected. With [Control], Exrite could freely move them around so long as she combined them with it.

The cost was significantly higher, but when used correctly, it had every potential to be far more cost efficient.

On the third and last day of her original body’s regeneration, she worked on turning the bear and wolf pelts into clothing. With the few strands that held what was left of her attire, it was a miracle that it hadn’t fallen off yet.

Her crafting skills were quite crude, but she didn’t care so long as it worked. Also, she made sure to remind herself to strip right before the next gear overload…

She sighed at that thought.

“That [Gear] was right about despair being inevitable. At this rate, I’m hoping I don’t lose my mind after 10 more floors… Frosty… I hope you’re ready to beat me back in place.”

A small laugh left her. Exrite refused to be beaten down so early on.

After crafting her equipment, she cleared out any stray Geared nearby. Then, within the depth of the hallway, she wore her attire – which were fitted loosely for her male body – and laid against the cold ground.

It was time to return and pass through those doors. A part of her feared that her gear strength still wouldn’t be enough, but she realised that there was no point in trying to resist it.

“Frosty, I hope you’re ready to beat the sense back into me…” She silently whispered before she delved into the darkness behind her eyes.

And despite the furry clothing she wore – everything was as cold as ice.

* * *

“Ho? It’s finally opened.” Uru said unenthusiastically.

She had been waiting here in front of the door for the last 4 days.

The floor only took her an hour or two to complete, and not to mention that she cleared it of its monsters entirely. Now that she was alone, she figured that there was no need to hold back.

Plus – Uru found this as the perfect opportunity to use her Curse of Desire. While she didn’t know what their dreams or ambitions were, the mana she deprived them of were remarkably potent.

The Attributed Whole meant everything for the Geared.

The doors creaked open with a thunderous thud, and she strode in with a devilish grin. To her surprise, there was no obelisk within this spacious room. Instead, there was a grand set of stairs that led down into the next floor.

“Now –”

Uru began as she made her steady descent into the darkness. Only the glow of her golden eyes was visible, and the soft patters of her steps slowly disappeared as she descended.

“Will I have to wait another four days again, or is there some other factor I’m not taking into consideration~?”

She sung. Her plans for the next floor were much the same. Because the Geared now conceived sapience she could harvest an immeasurable amount of mana.

Though she regained her powers, they were not complete. Compared to the demon she was a thousand years ago, she needed far more mana. Not only that – the Overlord of Desire promised her a strength beyond her comprehension.

A strength to extract revenge from the ones who wrong her.

“Only time will tell~ I’m looking forward to the strengths of my fellow Exrenity. Especially our human centrepiece. How far will you fall into the chasm of despair, and how far will you climb back up? I hope to see you down there, Exrite. Or else we’ll all be dragged down into this chasm and you won’t be the first human that dared to betray a demon~”

* * *

The Commanders proceeded with virtually zero effort. Similarly, the Frostbitten siblings made it to the door within 2 days, although Khaos ran into a few logistical problems.

He was never good with directions after all.

As such, he mapped a massive portion of the <42nd Floor>, including a few… secret tunnels he created, and a few cave-ins as a result of his reckless use of strength.

The monsters here were no stronger than the ones of the <41st Floor>, save for a select few. He had little to no trouble crushing them with his bare fists.

* * *

Loneliness hit Frosty as soon as she reached the door. Khaos had been with her for as long as she could remember, and Exrite was there ever since they escaped from Enthile. She missed their annoying tendencies during her wait with a warm smile.

She passed through the door with a heavy heart, but she believed in the strength of her friends.

* * *

Khaos was much the same. There wasn’t a day where his little sister wasn’t under his care. It felt odd going on alone, but they all knew that the others were probably thinking the same thing.

As the giant doors swung open, he laughed.

* * *

Exrite smiled at the warm thought

The door accepted him this time, though the gauge showed a miniscule increase in his gear strength. It seemed like the only criteria was to have the gears of a creature from this floor inside of him.

It was only going to get worse from here on out.

But if it was for the sake of seeing their faces again, then he didn’t care. Plus, his strength increased with every consumption, so that was a…

“Silver lining.” He whispered and moments later, he disappeared into the darkness of the black staircase.

It was time to conquer the <43rd Floor>.

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