52. Wedged Between the Dark
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Before this chapter starts, I want to apologise for my absence. It has been almost 2 months since the last chapter was released.

For that, I am incredibly sorry.

This chapter spans at around 26,000 words, so I hope you can find the time to read this lengthy chapter. I've split it up into 5 parts to make it a bit less of a chore to read in one go.

Thank you.

Part 1 –

His Eye of Despair only worsened with each floor he descended.

The duration of the gear overloads slightly increased alongside their soul-crushing pain. This allowed him to harness additional strength before he would inevitably be destroyed by the gruelling process.

Whether this was considered a good thing was nothing more than speculation to Exrite. But in the end, he needed that strength if he wanted to complete this trial.

And return to his beloved friends.

The <44th Floor> saw a sudden change in its layout. The caverns he was once familiar with transformed into dilapidated hallways. Ancient cracked brick lined the ceilings and the walls, as gemstones lit the hallways unequally – with some being plunged into total darkness.

Monsters avoided those dark hallways like the plague. A beast of an unparalleled strength bathed in this darkness. It was known to drag its unfortunate victims deep within to feast on their flesh.

Exrite ventured through without a second thought. Nor did she need to. A monster of its calibre was nothing more than a little insect compared to her.

Also, the path leading towards the door seemed to reside somewhere within the dark hallways.

Her strides were wide and without care. But her invincibility against the creature wasn’t the only thing that contributed to her waltz in the dark.

In fact, Exrite didn’t even realise that she was stranded in the dark to begin with.

Her world was clouded by thought, memories and fears. The Gaze of the Abyss: the second phase of the Eye of Despair, where one was thrust into an inescapable window of their heart.

She was forced to watch her fears, her traumas and weaknesses.

The Eye of Despair showed her the place she once called home. The hell that failed to break her, and the hell that began it all.

But she didn’t remember the pain, or her suffering like the previous manifestations. Rather, she simply saw an empty room. Nothing but the sound of her heart could be heard in that place.

Exrite hated it. Despised it. She Loathed that cold place.

She grimaced as a heat formed in the wells of her palms. Balls of intense magic suddenly swelled at the memory as an overwhelming desire to destroy that place consumed her.

However –

Reality returned to her after a sudden pain throbbed at the side of her head. She awoke to the pitch-black world ahead and instantly summoned a [Flare].

The hallways were grandly illuminated, revealing countless of carcasses and bones left behind by hundreds of fallen monsters. They were likely to be the victims of the unknown creature.

“Eh? I’m… did I wander into its territory?” She muttered and glanced at the floating [Gear] beside.

What struck her across the side of the head was that same [Gear]. After her first manifestation at the <43rd Floor>, she commanded it to strike her if she failed to talk at least once every 10 minutes.

I haven’t been attacked yet?

Exrite thought this was odd. But at the same time, she imagined that the creature was warry of her. Or perhaps planning some sort of attack. It was odd for someone to nonchalantly gaze into the darkness. She imagined that she must have seemed like she possessed [Night Vision] magic of some sort, otherwise she wouldn’t have tread through so casually.

But little did it know was that Exrite was simply daydreaming.

She sighed.

It lost its opportunity now. The door shouldn’t be far off anymore. It’ll probably attack me right at the magic circle, the one place I’ll have to drop my guard. But I’m not an idiot to even let that possibility exist.

A blue magic circle suddenly formed behind her. It hovered like a wing, arching to one side as the embedded gear-like symbols and letters of the Ecloma alphabet spiralled.

It was a near replica of Uru’s [Seeker] magic circle.

Suddenly, 5 [Blue Beams] ripped through the darkness ahead, like how a knife tears through fabric. The hidden beast – which Exrite only saw for a split second – was eviscerated by the homing beams unspectacularly.

It fell from the ceiling in a bloodied pulp, riddled with holes like a sponge. Another [Flare] illuminated the path ahead as she approached the creature and promptly inspected its corpse.

The monster had the body of a centipede and boasted tentacles for hands. The still pulsating mass spat out half-digested bones and other vile contents beneath her feet. A loud hiss erupted as it corroded the bricked ground like an acid.

Exrite grounded her teeth. This disgusting thing was her soon-to-be meal.

Not that it bothered her. She’s had much worse than this.

“Corrosive blood… really…? What can’t the Geared become?”

The transformations, or as White called it, adaptations, only grew increasingly hideous with each floor they conquered. It was at a point where Exrite could no longer identify what creature they originally were.

Her heavy gaze remained fixated on the corpse.

“… is this supposed to be a living metaphor of despair?” She said in a low tone.

Exrite couldn’t help but to imagine this was so.

Despair often brought out the worst of people, particularly those that seek to escape that terrifying abyss. Like a light at the end of a dark tunnel, they could only see that light and chase after it.

But their vision was obscured. In pursuit of the light – the hope amid despair – they could not see the consequences of their actions. Only the goal mattered in the end.

Whatever happened within the dark was invisible until they reached the end. No one would even begin to recognise if they themselves were turning into a monster along the way.

She sighed agian, rose to her feet and dragged the corpse by a tentacle appendage along with her.

With narrowed eyes, she glanced at the broken walls around her. There was nothing special about them, yet she felt drawn to them. Then, she looked back into the now illumined hallway and frowned.

“Experience…” A silent mutter left her.

Exrite was reminded of her journey to Colight. Her one goal was to reach the end and be freed from the curse that striped her of her life. It bestowed nothing but suffering.

She wanted nothing more than for it to all end.

That was her hope – her light – in that time of despair. And because of it; mounds of innocent corpses piled, and rivers of blood were spilt along the way.

The children that ran to call for guards.

The parents that tried to avenge their beloved.

The guards that tried to govern peace.

And the many others that wanted nothing more than to ‘help’ him return to his… home. All of them were killed indiscriminately. But that was nothing but an optimistic thought.

In retrospect, it was easy to make that judgement, even though he knew that an overwhelming majority of those who approached him sought to reap the rewards of his bounty.

However, that was all before the Guilds of the Katho Region wanted him dead or alive. Due to his countless murders, and the adventurers and mercenaries that never returned to tell the tale – ‘Frost’ quickly became a name akin to death.

“Monster… you monster! W-wh-why won’t you die!? WHY WON’T YOU DIE!? How are you still standing w-w-without half of your body –!?”

How many times had she heard that?

The word ‘monster’ would always sicken her. What was wrong with trying to reach Colight? To reach the Gods and relieve her of the pain? Who had the right to take her back to that hellish place?

No one did.

However –

… I really was a monster back then, wasn’t I?

When she finally reached Colight, and felt the warmth of the world she so dearly missed, Exrite turned back and saw nothing but a plain of corpses.

The mercenaries and adventurers she slain peacefully rested in death beneath the black sun of this world. But the thousands of innocents she killed were disfigured mounds of flesh, all screaming “Monster!” at her.

Only when she reached her destination, and that light she so desperately chased – she saw what laid within the darkness around her.

For the sake of her own goal, she buried thousands more. The shock of that realisation never left her. She vividly remembered that sensation which almost threw her straight into the pits of madness.

From that day forth, she became ‘Exrite’. A person who never spited the innocent, and a person who always cherished others.

In fact, that was always a part of him. But it would never have returned if it weren’t for Khaos and Frosty.

It was all because of their goal to reach something impossible. She saw their foolish strive as a joke, but little by little, she came to realise that it was real hope. And to see them struggle alongside her in pursuit of it was inspiring.

They would surely suffer more than ever had, yet they thought nothing of it. The saying of “Our goal is so big that this is nothing in comparison” was actually Khaos’ saying.

Those words sparked a warmth that even a monster like Exrite could adore, embrace and follow. To call them her saviour was a severe understatement.

They reignited the warmth she once had before she became a monster.

The corners of her lips curled into a gentle smile as she remembered their faces, and the ridiculous passion that started it all.

Really… where the hell would I be without you both?

* * *

Exrite prepared the monster’s remains. She cleanly picked the meat apart from the bones and minced them so finely that that spilt through her open palms like the grains of sand.

Compared to her human body, she did this in mere minutes. The efficiency and precision of a Maiden was astounding no matter how many times she witnessed – no, experienced it for that matter.

The staggering difference in strength caused her to slump down in front of the mound of flesh. With a long sigh, she stared down at a pair of clenched fists. Slowly, they relaxed, and her gaze soon mellowed pleasantly.

“This… is all nothing compared to our goal, isn’t it…? Yeah… yeah. This won’t be the last time I’ll have to go through something like this. All this proves is how weak I really am in Gaia’s grand scheme.”

She softly whispered.

Exrite thought it was pathetic. She was only strong in the past because of her immortality, and now, because she possessed the body of a Maiden. She amounted to nothing as a human, save for the title she beared as the Exrenity.

Granted, Exrite possessed a body that few humans could dream to achieve, but in a world of magic; physical strength alone was useless unless it was in Khaos’ case, where his indomitable strength broke the scale of balance.

Exrite even died on this floor due to a simple kick that pulverised his ribs. It was against a strange hopping creature that threw punches like a boxer yet possessed powerful legs that cracked the ground with each hop.

He was lucky to survive it, even if he died soon after. It gave him the opportunity to douse it in [Liquid Fire] before he finally passed out.

His body was strengthened by the gears… but not by a considerable amount. The gears would tear his body apart before he had a chance to absorb a sizeable amount of the geared, but thankfully…

Thankfully?

Exrite mentally sighed.

Thankfully, the duration of the gear overloads seemed to increase. It was subtle, but she noticed it immediately. Ironically, trying to combat her suffering – through the means of attaining strength – was the very source of her suffering.

Well, in this place at least.

But the pain somehow became secondary. There was a new form of torment – the Eye of Despair. The visions over the last few days grew more and more vivid, to the point where she’d wake up screaming hours after being consumed by the manifestations.

She looked down at the pool of blood. In her reflection, she saw the near-perfect gear that formed on her crimson eye like a miniature magic circle.

The manifestations drew her closer to madness than the pain did. After all, the Gaze of the Abyss showed one’s most relevant past and underlaying fears.

And in Exrite’s case – it was separation… it was loneliness.

That empty room came to mind. Silently, she stared at the mound for a short while. It wasn’t a trance, nor was there something on her mind. An air of unease washed over her as the cold floor sept into her bones.

She shivered in this lonely place with nonchalance. But deep beneath that blank demeanour was a festering fear of being alone.

Because without them, everything would become cold again.

With a heavy heart, Exrite mentally prepared to transform into her human form. A surge of light engulfed her, and her surroundings quickly dissolved to black, she muttered the names of her the ones she lost so long ago…

The ones she loved more than anything in this world.

“Lizzo. Kizzo. Are you… still waiting for me to come back?”

* * *

 

Part 2 –

A memory. A strange, familiar memory filled the darkness behind her eyelids.

Suddenly, the black turned into a magnificent streak of gold and white.

Patterns filled the glistening halls of this place. Walls so large that an army of a hundred could march through with ease surrounded him. Intricate magical chandeliers dangled in rows high above, painting the golden and white hallways with their dazzling light.

Not a single shadow was cast as the young boy strolled through the silent palace with excitement. A heavy book far too complex to be read by a child was cradled in his arms as he navigated through the various twists and turns. Soon, a myriad of faintly clinking glassware and voices could be heard.

Ahead was a ballroom where hundreds upon hundreds of the region’s most defining individuals danced, drank and mingled. Though ‘mingling’ was too generous of a word for them.

Negotiating was a better way to describe it.

The ballroom was as extravagant as Exrite last remembered. It was defined by its enormous scale, the beautiful decorative gold that filled every inch of ballroom and the five statues of the Six Point’s Maidens which resided at the furthest wall.

He passed the various guards with brief greetings and weaved through the crowded space. As a 14-year-old, he was awfully short for his age.

Within moments he was lost amongst them, and the few that saw him immediately graced him with their most sincere respect.

Exrite was the son of Enthile’s King after all. He was a prince.

“Hm? Ah~! His majesty’s son! My apologies for not noticing earlier.”

A man dressed in a black tuxedo pulled away from his conversation, placed his glass of wine away and greeted him with a sudden bow. Even when he bent over, he still towered over the short Exrite.

“You seem to be in a hurry? After your sister I presume?”

Exrite nodded with a bright smile. He knew this man by name, unlike the many other unfamiliar faces here.

This person was a butler of the royal family. Or more specifically – for the prince and princesses of Enthile. It was his role to carry out the mundane and needless chores for them, as well as to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

His name was Abadel. The old man was in his late 60’s, yet his eyes held more passion than any of the younger men present.

“Kizzo. I believe she’s at the balcony again. It’s a shame that she refuses to participate in a ball as lively as this.” He offered a hand to Exrite. “That book. It looks too heavy for you to carry around. I shall take it back to your room.”

“Thank you, but there’s no need. I’m going to head back there anyway. I’m only here to see Kizzo.”

Exrite politely refused.

“If you insist, then I shall leave you to it. Your sister rarely gets an opportunity like this, so I won’t further impede you.”

The old bearded man swiped his drink and bowed once again.

“Please take care.”

Abadel was unlike the other people in the palace. He was a genuine man with a certain familiarity. To Exrite, he was more of a father figure than the King.

They were normally familiar and less formal with each other.

However, in this specific time the man couldn’t afford to call Exrite by his name so casually. Not in front of so many esteemed guests.

Status was a difficult thing to manage. The seeds of Exrite hatred for status began long before his decade of suffering. He was by no means anyone special, apart from his status as the prince of Enthile.

The mana capacity he lacked, and his short, weak physique made him quite the target for ridicule, especially when he was compared to the rest of his family. They were all powerful, all boasting magic capacities that would put Cardinal and even legendary mages to shame.

The only thing that propped him up on a pedestal was his status.

But Exrite was still naïve, and vastly underestimated just how powerful his status was.

Because as soon as he lost it on that faithful night; the world turned against him.

“You too, Abadel.” A smile accompanied his words of thanks.

Exrite left after a prompt bow of his own and disappeared into the crowd.

Through twists and turns in between the waists of hundreds, he finally arrived at the balcony. If it were any other person they would’ve been lost, but as the prince the guests subtly made room for him to walk by and gave small greetings of their own.

A cool breeze swept by, pushing him back slightly as his eyes widened in awe. There, a dazzling figure stood at the edge of the balcony, her hair seemingly dancing in the air.

An impenetrable aura surrounded her like a thick wall, impeding all those that dared to approach or even dared to brush their gaze against her. But Exrite was unaffected by this mysterious magic.

This was his elder sister, after all. How could he ever mistake that ever-so familiar back, and the long, black hair which reached her knees. Even the pale dress she wore carried a splendour unlike any other.

He approached her with a soft smile. A wash of warmth filled his heart with each step he took into the silent night. The grand balcony suddenly seemed so small, and before he knew it, he was already a handful of steps away.

As if by magic, the sound of the ball disappeared as only the graceful breeze and the taps of his rubber shoes filled the air.

Then, he spoke with a warm voice.

“Kizzo… what are you doing out here again? Aren’t you cold?”

Exrite joined her by the balcony. He only reached up to the girl’s elbow, let alone the tall marble railing. Side to side, they were like complete opposites.

The girl smiled upon hearing his voice, and with shut eyes, she hummed:

“Hardly. I felt like I needed to capture the view while I had the chance.”

Her tone was delicate, yet a strange authority accompanied it.

Kizzo was as dignified if not more than the King himself. She wielded eyes sharper than steel and donned an impenetrable demeanour which garnered her the nickname of the ‘Ice Queen’, or more commonly, the ‘Ice Princess’.

To see even the corner of her lips curl upwards was considered a miracle in of itself.

But that all changed whenever she was with Exrite or Lizzo.

Exrite tilted his head slightly, then turned to the ball and back to her as he whispered:

“… Kizzo. You didn’t forget that there was a ball scheduled for tonight, did you?”

“That too. I couldn’t leave the balcony anymore before I knew it. Sorry. Is Lizzo still waiting?”

“She’s still in her room, but at this rate, she’s probably on her way right now.”

“How nice~ You get a cute little sister chasing you around. Well, at least I have a cute little brother of my own.”

She ungloved a hand and stroked his head lovingly. But among those strokes, Exrite saw Kizzo’s light-purple eyes mellow through his strands of hair.

Curious by her gaze, he asked:

“Are you looking at the stars? I read that the best time to go star-seeing is on cold nights like these. See, there’s not even a cloud in the sky. It’s beautiful tonight.”

Indeed. The world above was presented in its entire glory. Every star, every bit of the strange cosmic dust and the full moon made it a sight to behold.

But Kizzo’s gaze was never raised to the sky. Instead, they were focused down on the world below.

The city beneath glowed fantastically, rivalling the stars overhead. Dozens of impenetrable walls surrounded the city as far as the eye could see, protecting the benevolent Kingdom of Enthile.

Only the most beautiful buildings persisted in this Kingdom. From houses, to inns and markets – all were equally as astonishing as the one beside. It was a paradise for humans… and whoever they deemed worthy of co-existing with.

“No. I’m looking down at our home. Why do we need to look up to the stars when we have a home that rivals their beauty?”

“But it’s still beautiful regardless, isn’t it?”

“Not beautiful enough. It’s dull compared to our reality. Listen – there’s no need to look up when there’s beauty everywhere below.”

“… sometimes people don’t want to look at reality.” Exrite wanted to say.

A gentle breeze swept through. The stench of death arrived, though only Exrite could sense it. He knew how the Demi-humans were treated in Enthile, and he put himself in their shoes as he stared up at the stars.

“Well, I can’t exactly look down. I can only look up from here.” He muttered shortly, causing Kizzo suddenly burst into laughter.

“Aha~ Is that why you’re fixated on the stars all the time? Because you still haven’t grown?”

“Not at all. I just think they’re beautiful to watch. They’re warm as well, and it’s even better when you’re looking up with someone you love.”

“How romantic. But really? I think it looks crowded up there. It’d be better off with a dozen stars or two than a million. Unlike the moon, they serve no purpose other than to fill out night sky. Or – they serve no purpose other than to distract people from the real world.”

Kizzo hummed, although, it sounded like she was trying to stir an answer from him.

He understood what she meant, but that didn’t sit well with him. For a moment, he remained silent and repeated Kizzo’s last words before suddenly replying with:

“But maybe if things weren’t so tough, then a distraction wouldn’t be needed in the first place… right?”

Kizzo shut her eyes and smiled.

Then, amid the silence, she whispered:

“Exrite.”

“Huh?”

“Correct. I meant correct. Sorry, I get a bit carried away with my Frostbitten sometimes.”

She sighed as she drew her hand away from him.

“That’s right. The stars would no longer need to exist if reality was… perfect. But that’s why magic exists. It’s the power to alter reality. Without magic, then your reality is all in the hands of the world. That’s why you don’t have to worry about anything, Frost. I’ll always protect you – both you and Lizzo, no matter what. Your mana capacity might be low, but you have a big heart. Bigger than anyone I know, at least~”

Kizzo glanced down at the book in his arms, slightly frowning. By the symbols on its half-burnt front cover, she could already tell that it was a magical book. Not only that, but it likely contained advanced magical spells, such as those of the [Fourth Tier] and [Fifth Tier].

It wasn’t something that could be easily obtained or found from even the royal library. Someone must’ve given it to him, knowing well of his abysmal mana capacity.

Even uttering a word from any of its spells meant a mana overload for Exrite.

Kizzo was visibly angered, but as the wind blew, her hair hid her ugly face from Exrite’s eyes. Then when the wind stopped, her original smile returned almost instantly.

“But changing the world isn’t so easy.”

She forced a sigh as she slumped over the rail, her elbows hovering over the young man.

“Because you can’t make everyone happy. If we make it easier for the Demi-humans to live, then our people will be dissatisfied, and we’ll only create more conflict. No one wins. Altering reality only alters your reality, not the world. Think of our mana capacity as a bubble. The bigger it is, the bigger your influence. That’s why the Gods, the Overlords and the Maidens of Six Point have such a powerful influence on our world.”

She patted Exrite as her gaze rose to the stars. Her eyes dazzled as they drowned in those lights. Although, only a handful were able to reflect in those all-consuming eyes.

“There wouldn’t be a need for the stars if everyone was happy.”

“If everyone was under the power of someone’s wish… then can you even call that happiness genuine?”

Exrite wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut. However, he knew what Kizzo meant. If a world like that could truly exist, then no one would have to suffer. Everyone could live happy for the rest of their lives.

They talked for some time. Kizzo was equally an older sister as she was a teacher to Exrite. A large portion of his knowledge was derived directly from her, whether it was in the form of ramblings like this or studies.

But unlike her, Exrite took a… different approach. It felt like he was trying too hard for who he was. Kizzo would rather he be complacent and let her do everything, but he was unnaturally stubborn.

And it seemed to rub onto their little sister, Lizzo, as well.

She silently laughed, pulled him close underneath her arm and asked him a question beneath the moonlight.

“Let me ask you something. Think of this as a tiny lesson~ Tell me: if reality can’t be altered effectively; and if our existence is in perpetual conflict; and if people are forced to suffer in order to survive – then what do you think this world is missing, Frost? You only have once chance to answer~”

Exrite had no immediate answer, or any in fact. But after a minute of thought, he arrived at the most reasonable answer.

“Kindness?”

Kizzo gently pinched his cheek and laughed.

“Not a bad answer. But kindness alone can’t do anything. More than that, it’ll only enrage them because no one wants to be pitied.”

Her eyes sharpened unnaturally for a split second.

“They seek retribution. Frost, what this world is missing is judgement –”

“Kizzooooo! Frooooost! What’s taking you so looooong!?”

A high-pitched voice startled Exrite, and before he could turn to see who it was, a pair of small arms wrapped themselves around his waist. He looked down and found an adorable, cheerful face.

“Lizzo –!? You scared me!” Exrite laughed. “I told you to wait in the room, didn’t I?”

“But you took too long! Kizzo! Stop hogging Frost all for yourself!”

Kizzo broke into a soft laugh and patted the head of the girl.

“Sorry, sorry~! I think I held Frost back longer than I thought. Sorry for making you wait, Lizzo~”

“I’ll forgive you if you come with us. Right now!” Lizzo smirked cheekily and marched away without looking back. “Let’s go before the fireplace goes cold! Kizzoooo! Frooost!”

“We’re coming!” Exrite cried, swiftly sighing afterwards.

“She’s spoiled, isn’t she? Frost, what have you done to her?”

“Don’t blame me. Mom can only be around for so long until I’m in the picture, so it can’t be helped that she’s like that. Not that it’s a bad thing anyway.”

“… that’s right.” Kizzo whispered through her teeth.

“Froooost!”

“Like I said, I’m coming!” Exrite called, then turned to Kizzo with an innocent smile. “Let’s go. I don’t think Lizzo will be too happy if you keep me back any longer. C’mon, let’s not keep her waiting.”

He followed Lizzo’s suit and soon caught up to her. But Kizzo didn’t move an inch as she stared at their backs with nothing but love and compassion. Exrite felt her gaze and wondered where Kizzo’s footsteps were.

He was about to call for her, as was Lizzo. But before a single word could leave their lips – Kizzo spoke.

“Frost, what do you think happiness means?”

“– Eh?”

He muttered dumbfoundedly as he swiftly turned and saw his sister’s gaze reach the stars. Her figure beneath that moonlight was like an art piece. He was momentarily stunned by the sight, but as he recovered, so did his ability to speak.

“W-what’s with that from out of the blue?”

Kizzo didn’t respond. She only wanted an answer.

He turned to the stars like Kizzo and became inspired by their warm cluster. As his eyes sparkled with the many millions of dazzling lights, he slowly answered with:

“… isn’t that obvious? Happiness means being together with the ones you love, and others without any attachment. That warmth is real happiness – Ah!?”

He was suddenly embraced by Lizzo once again. Despite being marginally smaller than him, she was somehow also stronger. Even with his lacklustre mana capacity, Exrite barely had any physical growth or strength.

He felt somewhat pitiful to lose to a child half his height.

“Yeah! Being together with everyone is what happiness means!”

Lizzo chimed in with the unrivalled enthusiasm of a child. Her excitement spread to the two, causing them to chuckle and smile before Exrite asked:

“That’s right. What about you, Kizzo? What do you think happiness means?”

As swiftly as those words reached her ears, she extended her arms like and approached them. With a motherly embrace, she fell to her knees and brought them close to her chest.

“Mhm. I have mine right here. Just like you both, happiness means being with the ones you love. Being with Frost and Lizzo is my happiness.”

“Then let’s stay together forever!” Lizzo cried.

“… yeah… forever.” Exrite warmly whispered.

“That’s why – you don’t need to push yourself. The both of you. Because I’ll always be there to save you if anything happens. Believe in me. That’s all I ask, so please – don’t risk chasing the stars when you don’t have wings yourself, Frost.”

Kizzo whispered and slowly slid the book away from him. Her voice was tantalisingly sweet, and it drowned Exrite with assurance. But being told that he couldn’t achieve anything because of his state was… painful.

But that was the truth. Because he was weak, he had to rely on Kizzo if things went wrong…

Something warm dripped from his cheek. He didn’t know why, but he was crying. It wasn’t because of the warm assurance of his eldest sister, or because he cherished this moment.

Exrite held onto her, his fingers digging deep into her fine cloth like claws. Then, he muttered:

“… Kizzo. Then… where were you when I was taken to that place?”

His memories returned, and he sobbed. His uncontrollable whimpers reached no one as the warmth of his sisters disappeared. Soon, the world faded around him to a dark room.

But he could see everything behind that darkness. The blood, the body parts, the chains, the bars, and the incomprehensible scratches across the walls and desk he knelt on.

Exrite hated it. He hated being weak. He trusted his sister and was left there to rot. But he could never blame her. Not Kizzo. She did nothing wrong.

But the chain of events was so similar to his present situation that he couldn’t help but to feel almost helpless here.

The promise of being together.

The separation.

The descent into loneliness and suffering.

And then… the cold world that followed.

“I don’t want to leave everyone behind again. I don’t want to be alone.”

Exrite didn’t want that to occur again. He blamed his weakness and himself, because if he were stronger, then he could’ve escaped… but in the end – Exrite didn’t have wings to leave that pit alone.

“Kizzo. Why… why did you say that? Why did you call me helpless?”

In his heart, he already knew that answer. He was weak. Nothing more, nothing less. There was nothing he could do alone… and if he could, then this never would have happened in the first place.

But what was wrong with trying? What was so wrong about wanting to strive for something; to break through what you thought was impossible for yourself?

Exrite lamented the past and despised the ‘what if’ thought that naturally flooded his mind. There was no turning back anymore. The past was the past. But even so…

“Why does it still hurt so much…?”

He murmured.

But that was also something he already knew.

It hurt because he simply didn’t want it to ever happen again. The trial Gaia gave him was no different from his hell. Because he was alone and weak, he’d never be able to reunite with his friends.

Just like how he lost Lizzo and Kizzo.

He needed strength if he wanted to avoid this from reoccurring.

But attaining that strength was also the cause of his pain and suffering in this very place.

This loop of despair was undoubtably a fate worse than death.

If he didn’t change, then all he could do was wait until someone came to save him…

Exrite bit down on his sobs and felt the table around him. In this dark room, there was an unfamiliar corpse beside him. It was too old, too… ‘unbroken’ to be his own.

He wiped the tears away, albeit unsuccessfully and studied every part of this person’s body.

His fingers sunk into a gaping wound on that person’s chest. It was an explosive wound, and the acidic scent of explosive power only proved it. But he knew this regardless of the scent.

After all, he was the one who killed this man.

The monster that he was couldn’t recognise that the man meant no harm, and killed him with the explosive powder, which in turn also destroyed a vast part of his own body.

Not that it mattered to an immortal.

The guilt-ridden Exrite mourned this person’s death. If it weren’t for them, then he would’ve never left that place.

“I’m sorry… so sorry.”

His meek apology reached no one. The lifeless corpse was his only company here as he cried and lamented his weakness. Only the sound of sniffles and groans filled this place until suddenly –

A voice spoke from somewhere within the darkness.

“And the bereaved man struck the hand that reached for him in the well.”

Exrite shuddered to the unknown voice and looked around the empty room. Nothing. Nothing was there at all.

“He used that arm to climb from the pit and left the hand without thanks – then he wandered in search for a light he could never reach.”

Where had he heard that voice before?

“But little did he know was that he never left the well; only eagerly staring up at the passage of light he called a ‘tunnel’.”

The feminine voice came from all around him. His efforts were futile in trying to find the source and in the end, he stared into the abyss with wary eyes.

All of his senses were sharpened to the extreme. Without weapons here, there was no telling what would happen to him. This was the first time he entered a lucid state. By now, he should’ve returned to reality.

But something was stopping him from exiting. That voice was likely the cause.

“Who’s there –!?”

“Has our human Exrenity forgotten so easily?”

The voice swiftly interjected.

A pair of crimson eyes suddenly illuminated from the dark. An unknown pressure forced his breath to become lodged in his throat. His parted mouth uttered a voiceless whisper when he witnessed an accompanying silhouette surround those eyes.

The black of that figure was so dark that it was as if the surrounding room was painted in a bright light in comparison.

“Shall I remind you which benevolent God plucked their eye and gifted it to a mere human like you?”

His body trembled, and every muscle froze instantly. Darkness, blackness or abyss could not describe that degree of ‘darkness’. That thing was Despair.

The room went cold as her hands gracefully entered his vision. Though it was dark, he could perfectly see every bit of detail the child-like God presented.

Her footsteps made no noise. In fact, she floated towards him like a haunting spirit.

Whether this was all in his head or not – Despair’s presence was not underplayed.

He was definitely under the omnipotent eyes of a God, which anchored him in place with invisible chains.

This was not by [Statement], but by a powerful mixture of fear and awe. Still, his heart throbbed unnaturally. Whether it was because of his ongoing bereavement, or from the fact that the person who granted him the Eye of Despair appeared before him; he did not know.

Nor did he care. Exrite simply wanted salvation; a solution; a way to reach his friends and escape from this place.

What he needed was strength.

As she came to an abrupt stop and stared down at the battered Exrite, he mustered the strength to answer the God with a heavy gulp.

“Despair… Despair! I remember. How could I forget… the God who gave me their eye?”

The corners of her lips rose. She seemed amused that he could even answer her.

After all –

“Excellent. Amazing. So appetising. To think that a mere human was the first of any kind to make it this far past the Gaze of the Abyss. To become so ripe with despair that your Eye brims with light, and your heart beats like the drums of war.”

His red eye flashed with light every time Despair spoke. The room was painted in the additional red, briefly revealing their horrific surroundings. Even so; the light never reached Despair’s body.

She absorbed it like she was a hole torn in space.

“But don’t think for a second that you made it to the end. The well never ends. The Gaze of the Abyss was merely the second phase of the Eye of Despair. You’ve seen it all; the past that haunts you, and the weakness which cruelly took everything away from you.”

She clasped his head and slowly twisted it down. It felt like his head was gripped by an unmovable vice. Resistance was futile. But Exrite never planned to move anyway.

He obeyed her hands and saw what rested beneath him.

Instantly – his blood ran like ice, and his pupils shrivelled in disbelief. A soundless “… why…?” left his lips.

The corpse wasn’t some mere guard’s or infiltrator like he first thought. No. He couldn’t be more wrong… as much as he wished he was.

“Abadel…?”

The tremble in his voice caused Despair to push his face closer.

“Why the shocked face? You killed him, remember? Only after despair do you realise what hides behind the veils of darkness, and what the writings on the walls mean. You were stifled with hatred of your suffering and destroyed all those that dared to touch you –”

“– Stop it…”

Exrite painfully muttered, unable to look away. Abadel was more than a friend. He was almost like a family. Where his mother failed to tend to him, he was always there alongside his sisters.

This was a reality Exrite didn’t want to accept, but had to.

“Because you were so blind that you couldn’t differentiate whose hands were who. Your body could never forget the sensation of being tortured, nor could it forget the coldness of this lonely place. The innocent hands that reached out to you were weeded –”

“– Stop it!”

Exrite clamped his ears shut in a futile attempt to block out the agonising words. Uncaring for the suffering this brought, Despair continued to drill in his vital flaws and the consequences of his blind endeavour, which costed the lives of thousands of innocent lives across the Enthoric and Katho Region.

“– All for the sake of your selfish goal. You sought to die at our hands. There was nothing you wanted more than respite in the form of death to end your suffering. Because in the end – you could never end it alone –”

“SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!”

He broke. Exrite flailed, twisted and thrashed but to no avail. His nails snapped as she tried to pry off her hands but, in the end, he was nothing more than a weak human.

Soon, as his bones fractured and snapped in various places, he finally succumbed to Despair’s strength and stared down at the lifeless eyes of his friend.

Exrite wept in silence. Nothing but tears fled.

Everything hurt.

Everything was unfair.

It wasn’t his fault that he was given the Heart of Time.

It wasn’t his fault that he was born with a laughable mana capacity and a pitiful body.

It wasn’t his fault that he was turned into a monster.

Why did it feel like the world was against him?

“I know… I know that already! You don’t have to tell me again, and again and again! I already know how flawed I am… how imperfect I really am. I never asked for this – for any of this! I don’t want this pain anymore. I just… wanted to live together with my sisters. I just wanted warmth.”

Exrite meekly spoke in between sobs.

“The people I’ve killed, the loved ones I’ve abandoned, and the countless more who continue to suffer because of me – I’ve never once though that it wasn’t my fault! So why… are you telling me this? To change me? To consume despair…?”

He clasped his blooded hands and turned them into a fist. The rage that sudden boiled within him was enough to turn him against the God before him.

But instead, he brought them to Despair’s hands. They begged her to be more lenient with her grip. Understanding this, she gently allowed him to look up at her with nothing but sincerity in his eyes.

“Why does this world hate the weak…?”

Despair didn’t flinch or react. But something within her clicked, and she hummed.

This person wasn’t normal. Anyone else would’ve given up the blame on their blindness or blamed the world for their wronging him. At worst, they’d blame themselves like Exrite.

But unlike them, Exrite saw through it to the end.

“End…?” Despair murmured.

No. Exrite’s eyes had no end. They were as boundless as the oceans beyond Six Point, and as deep as the wells of despair. They were equally as vast as skies above as it was the void.

Despite everything he had gone through, Exrite still struggled.

Though he never reached the hope at the end of despair, to others, he would undoubtably stand as a light for them to chase. A star amongst the stars.

And those eyes were so clear that not even the slightest shred of darkness remained. Exrite accepted the past in its entirety and only saw reality.

Despair smirked. He was beyond her expectations. She had already made various preparations in case Exrite failed, but at this rate; it would be needed after all.

“Exrite. My little…” Despair slowly shook her hair. “My Exrenity, what do you believe Despair is? The amalgamation of all negative emotions? Grief in its final form? The overwhelming sense of hopelessness?”

She drew him close and whispered into his ear.

“It is the truth. Despair opens one’s eyes to their reality, however cruel it might be. You can turn, hide and run away – but you can never escape from that well without climbing. Despair is the forge of truth; when one finds their path to follow no matter the cost. Those pure, imperishable emotions lead them to the light – the light of the hope at the end of despair.”

She reeled herself back, drilled her eyes into the silent Exrite who devoured every word she spoke and uttered:

“Do you know what that process is called?”

“… the Attributed Whole?”

Her encroaching smile spelled “No.”

“The Final Dive. For you Exrite – you will fall into the depths of that well and reach the void. No one will help you. No one will reach you. You will be alone in that spaceless forge. But there, you will find what your heart desires and chase it no matter what.”

This was the ultimate despair. A place where no light reached. To hear that such a place darker than this caused him to shudder and doubt Despair’s intentions.

For all he knew, she could’ve been scheming something again.

However, as if sensing his suspicion, she drew his face closer and said:

“But like the Attributed Whole, it will make you strong – stronger than any mortal can possibly imagine! You will grow the wings you so dearly deserve. But it is ultimately up to you whether you fly and reach for the light or continue falling and reach insanity. Which ways is up? – I couldn’t tell you.”

She pulled herself away and hummed:

“If you can’t save yourself; then how can you possibly expect your friends to come save you and end this suffering once and for all?”

Exrite contemplated this proposition. He was certain that Despair wasn’t telling him everything, and if he asked, she likely wouldn’t answer. Either way, it didn’t seem like he could refuse it even if he wanted to.

Right now – Exrite was desperate.

He needed strength in order to reunite with his friends.

He couldn’t afford to lose them again, like how he lost his sisters because of his –

Weakness…

Despair saw the flames brimming in his sore eyes and wore a grin that reached from ear to ear. His instincts screamed at him. With everything Hope and Despair omitted, he knew there was a catch.

But in the end, he was at the mercy of a God.

Failure was not an option, nor did he consider it.

With every fibre of his being; he mustered his courage and cried:

“I’ll do it! I’ll do it! Please show me how to embark on the Final Dive! I’ll do it if it means that I get to see them again!”

Despair cupped his face, wiped the remaining tears away as she floated before him like an angel. She admired the tenacity in his eyes, and his unrelenting strive despite everything the Eye of Despair had shown him.

Or was it his stubbornness to give in? Or his recklessness? Whatever it was – Despair was more than pleased that she finally had an Exrenity that made it this far after countless of eons of waiting.

Despair hovered at the end of the table and reached a tiny hand down to him. He froze at the sight of her hand and remembered the false hope Kizzo recklessly gave him.

The hand she promised to reach out for him never came, no matter how long he waited in this place.

He wanted to laugh. That Despair was the one who could only save him. But contrary to her name – she was his only ray of hope here.

Exrite didn’t want the past to repeat, which was why he feared this place to such an extent. Everything was the same as back then, and at this rate, he would disappear from the people he loved the most again.

In order to end the pain.

In order to end his suffering.

In order to end his weakness.

In order to end his inability to save himself.

And most of all – in order to stay by the side of those he loved:

He needed power. He needed strength to descend, and to facilitate a… brighter future. Because if there’s anything he knew more in this world – it was that those who held power:

… dictates their reality.

Exrite took her hand without a second thought, and the world around him soon crumbled. Reality returned with a blinding light. The corpse that he sat over were the remains of the Geared he butchered.

Satisfied with his clasp, Despair uttered:

“Pray that your freefall into the void is short and painless. Hear the ticking of your heart and feel the fire in your eye. As you fall, they will constantly mash and meld into one. My eye will finally become yours at the end.”

The walls of the <44th Floor> returned, and so did the stench of death and struggle. But he was no stranger to both. With eyes locked onto Despair’s, she smiled, took to his side and pointed at the interior of the room ahead.

“Your descent has already begun. Forward, Exrite. I wouldn’t dare laze around if I were you.”

“… yeah. Thank you – wait. You’re coming with me?” Exrite said with surprise when he realised that the floating Despair followed him like a shadow.

“I believe that isn’t an issue, now is it? You’re still under the manifestation of the third phase – the Voice of Despair. Your fall into the Final Dive has merely begun. Think of my presence as a reward for making it this far. Cherish it, for you will be alone soon enough. Not even I can infiltrate that void.”

“Not even a God…?”

He deeply swallowed the fears that came with her final words. Before he knew it, he was already approaching the dark staircase ahead. There was no turning back now, nor did he even consider it.

Exrite couldn’t afford a single moment of respite.

The only way forward was to go down.

“Descend, fall, then ascend from that darkness. I’ll guide you and nurture the merge of your heart and Eye. In return – I will indulge in your irresistible despair.”

Aside from the sound of his heavy breaths and footsteps in the darkness of the staircase, the sound of lapping could be heard beside him.

* * *

 

Part 3 –

The Final Dive. After the Voice of Despair came this fourth phase, where one was thrust into the depths of despair with nothing but themselves. A voyage into the dark with no way out, and no way to tell which way was where.

A ceaseless world was how Despair described it. At first, Exrite thought that the void was a metaphorical existence that represented his ultimate despair, but soon realised that it was indeed a place.

Not even Despair knew of its mechanics, other than that it was where Exrite would inevitable fall, and that it was a forge that finalised the melding of one’s heart and eye. This would unravel a path within the darkness and lead them towards the hope at the end of despair, where they would finally leave that void.

And that well that had consumed him for the longest time.

Despite this, Exrite still vaguely understood this phase. More than anything, it felt closer to the Attributed Whole. He believed that his initial descent into the <42nd Floor> marked his fall into the ultimate despair, but only now did he realise that he was merely at the rims.

Now, he was finally descending it. Rather rapidly, as Despair claimed.

Naturally, the Final Dive was exclusive to the bearer of the Eye of Despair. The Attributed Whole seemed like a physical manifestation of the concept as far as he could tell.

For instance, both he and the Geared descended down through this trial of despair. This place was their physical well, and maybe at some point, perhaps at the very end; their void.

By reaching that void, they could finally find what their heart truly desires, and they would chase it at all costs. No one wanted to wander in the dark forever.

Reaching that light at the end of despair was the Attributed Whole. Although, for the others it merely meant that they were strong enough to stand as individuals within the Exrenity.

But Exrite didn’t have the luxury to endlessly ponder on these things.

* * *

Exrite struggled through the <45th Floor>. Between his lacking strength and the resilience the creatures exhibited against his attacks; he couldn’t afford to take an overwhelming majority of them head on.

At the times he did, he would find himself severely wounded and under fire by the taunting remarks of a certain God. Against certain enemies, such as those with thick, hardened armour; he could only injure them with bullets.

Within days Exrite’s sense of judgement was slowly replaced by pure instinct, and a sole drive to reach wherever Despair pointed. His thoughts swam in a sea of nonchalance and stasis. The fascination he once had of the dangerous yet oddly stunning worlds each floor harboured was lost.

Despair guided him though the <45th Floor>’s grand labyrinth. He wandered this place for what felt like days on end in search for the obelisks as he fought to teeth and bone against the highly resilient creatures of this floor.

There was never a lone minute when Despair didn’t belittle him for his weakness. He felt like he was in an infinite loop. It was maddening. But Despair was his guide in this labyrinth. Without her directions, Exrite estimated that he could’ve spent into a month on this floor alone.

Exrite steadfastly followed a straight path. The doorway was supposedly far ahead according to Despair. At every split in the path he hugged the walls and peeked for any roaming creatures.

The scent of death was at every corner, and the cries of battle echoed all around him. Yet it was still oddly silent here. Like the previous floors, the path leading to the hallway was strangely vacant of the floor’s normal creatures.

With keen eyes, he asked:

“Despair. Is there a reason why the Geared don’t wander around the door?”

He asked in a near silent whisper, which was no louder than the clapping of his makeshift boots.

“The weak don’t dare to trespass into the stronghold of the strong. Think of it like entering a dangerous part of the woods. A monster lurks there, and the rest of the forest’s inhabitants understand that. Beware of the unknown hunter.”

“Just like that weird centipede thing on the last floor. Either way, I’m going to have to kill whatever it is. I won’t be satirised with eating anything weaker.”

“That’s a very human-like decision. You aim to avoid as much pain and attain as much strength as possible.” Despair teased.

“But considering your circumstance, I think it’s unfair to make that judgement. What you call a ‘gear overload’ is a pain no different to that of a mana overload. Even Gods fear it.”

“Is that so? I thought Gods couldn’t undergo a mana overload… interesting. I guess everything does has a limit.”

It was strangely reassuring to know that.

Despair didn’t answer. She seemed to be lost in thought. Or simply didn’t care. Exrite accepted the silence and traversed deeper into the path. After a long journey of peeking around his corners, he finally found what he was looking for.

He found the door, and the wide back of a Minotaur which protected it. He hid behind a wall at about 30 meters away and observed his soon-to-be meal. Unlike a predator, he didn’t salivate at all. Merely thinking about it churned his stomach. Only his calculating eyes were that of a hunter.

A few shots were all he needed to take it down from this distance. He slowly pulled his cobalt handgun from its holster and lined up the shot. But the longer he stared, the more suspicious he grew.

That Minotaur didn’t seem normal. In addition, there shouldn’t be a reason why it was in front of the door.

“Why do you hesitate? Is your tool broken?”

“Something’s wrong.”

“Hm?”

“It’s unsteady. Like it’s drunk or under some spell. The other Minotaur’s we came across didn’t look so crippled.”

Pleased with Exrite’s observation and rightful wariness, Despair shut her mouth and left him to his own devices.

He had a choice. Either he could fight this strange Minotaur head on as is, or, he could change to his Maidenly form.

In the end, it was his value of his own life that made him chose the former. In addition, he was confident he could take it down seeing that he was in an advantageous position.

However –

“– Ack!? D-Despair!?”

Exrite, on instinct, blamed a sudden sharp pain that stabbed his neck on the only one he knew who was beside him. He took a step away from the wall and turned faster than he realised as he clutched that painful place with his free hand.

His heart suddenly dropped.

“W-what the fuck is that!?”

A vine-like monster swayed where he once stood like a cobra. His eyes trailed the long vine and saw a scrambled heap of hair-like vines which were line with razor-sharp barbs. It beared a striking resemblance to that of a tumbleweed and contained a bulging eye which bored straight into his soul.

Exrite didn’t usually fear the appearances of monsters. But this one struck him with terror as he instinctually backed off and began uttering a chant until –

M-my voice won’t come out!?

His legs suddenly froze. With a shaky hand, he brought his hand in front of his face. There was a green, bubbling liquid which had been injected into his neck.

Poison!? Paralysis! Then that Minotaur was also poisoned by that!?”

Exrite didn’t know how he failed to notice its presence. That was until it rolled around the corner in pure silence. It then pounced on the Minotaur. It was wrapped with layers of barbed vines which chewed into its flesh.

The handgun in his other hand nearly slipped from his weakening grasp. But Exrite could still move against all odds. His natural resistance to poison was second to none, even surprising Despair who watched from above.

He could tell she was savouring his despair. In fact, she probably expected to consume more from this predicament. A grimace formed on his face and without warning, his [Gears] hovered before him and tilted upwards before a spectacular arc of [Liquid Fire] doused the path before him.

The immense heat cooked his body. But this time around, Exrite possessed an unnatural resilience that he believed was the work of the Final Dive. In fact, he now possessed an unnatural regenerative ability which allowed him to survive fatal injuries.

Such as taking a bullet to the head.

How he knew was because he initially attempted to revert to his Maidenly form at the beginning of this floor, but upon discovering this newfound strength, he refused to let it go to waste.

Though calling this ‘strength’ was a stretch. If anything, it only allowed him to take twice or three times as much of a beating. The reason how he even made it this far into the labyrinth as a human was solely because of this.

Through the flames that turned the walls and ceiling red, he saw the tumbleweed-like creature twist and pull its vines around like that of a saw. The Minotaur was mutilated in mere seconds from flesh to bone.

In the next instance, it rolled across the wall to avoid the flames but not even it could withstand the power of [Liquid Fire]. It was a plant through and through. However, that didn’t mean that it gave up.

It lunged at him with many of its vines charred and limp.

The [Gear] ceased its attack. If he drew it any closer, then he’d die before the creature.

It rolled under his feet and wrapped him like the Minotaur with each barb digging deep into his armour and flesh. The eye bounced in and out of his vision rapidly as it swirled around him.

His arms were bound and panic soon began to ensue as he suddenly found himself precariously cradled in the arms of death. Though he could still move, it was only marginally and limited to his hands.

Exrite looked up at his [Gear] and squinted, then darted his eyes around for the creature’s eye. When he felt its slimy residue pool on his back, he immediately angled his gun against his body.

And then – 20 deafening explosions rang throughout the floor. He fired rapidly into his body at a slightly different angle with each shot. It was enough to riddle his entire back with holes.

“… da… dammit...” He coughed as he crashed into the floor backwards. The bounds of the monster loosened as expected. One of the bullets managed to successfully destroy its eye.

“Is that how you use your body?”

“No… it’s… how I compensate… for my weakness…” Exrite gurgled, unmoving as much as he tried. “… this… was how I… used to fight… believe it or not – Ach! Well… at least it’s not as… painful as I expected.”

Indeed. Back when he still possessed his immortality, Exrite fought in an absurdly unconventional way. His reckless style involved sacrificing himself for the sake of gaining the upper hand, or as the saying went, ‘give an inch to take a mile’.

Only Exrite could afford to adopt such a reckless way of fighting. Of course, this always worried Frosty and Khaos. But this went onto an entirely new level after his curse was lifted.

From his first sneeze to how he trained; they never let him push himself, for they knew just how far Exrite was willing to go at his own cost. But changing was not so easy.

Remembering this sparked a nostalgic warmth in chest.

“… you see… I… never had any… natural sense of self… preservation b-because of my curse. What’s the point… of being afraid of death… if you can’t be put down?” His words oddly became clearer, though it was only a matter of time before he bled out.

The [Gears] split before they scooped the mashed remains of the creature’s eye beneath him and dropped it into his mouth. It slid cleanly down his throat with little effort.

He looked up at Despair’s pondering face as she joined his side.

“In order… to make it… to survive… I always had to suffer in one way or another… this is no different… now the gear overloads – those are a different story.”

Exrite cringed, preparing to undergo one at any moment now.

“Despair… How much longer until this is all over?”

“Soon. So very soon.”

“No… I mean everything.

“Everything?”

“Our goals. Yours. My friends. Everyone… and mine.”

Despair didn’t answer. It wasn’t out of spite, or because she had no need to. In those crimson eyes, he saw a glimpse of sincerity. True to her words, despair, was the truth; and as the embodiment of it –

She refused to give him false hope.

“… yeah. You’re right… it’s only just begun…”

He smiled sourly. The pain began to settle in, and he froze. Despair’s own smile returned as she whispered:

“Your despair has considerably lessened. I wonder what you’re imagining in that bizarre mind of yours. Humans are strange creatures indeed. But even they are predictable. But you – you are an enigma.”

She showed a look of disappointment and pressed a hand against his chest.

“Let me hear your anguish.”

* * *

Despair locked eyes with a naked Exrite for some time. Exrite didn’t know how much time had passed in this timeless place. She was ordered to keep still and silent for the God who devoured her being with her eyes.

She was not deceived by her small frame, for she knew exactly what kind of power Despair wielded. Even as a projection of her true body; the presence she exhibited was akin to the real thing.

After some unknown amount of time, Despair blinked, felt Exrite’s heart and uttered:

“Intriguing.”

Then she took five elegant steps back.

“Your face is just like the adolescent Maiden of Time.”

“… I think I’ve heard that before.”

“Hm? From whom?”

“Gaia’s Biomech; Auga the Original… I’m sure you’ve heard of her.”

Her eyes lit up.

“Ah. So you’ve met her first creation. In that body no less. You’re more of a monster than I imagined. I almost feel sorry for the Original.”

“… I don’t think I’m the monster here at all. I’m not the one who abandoned her in the first place.”

Exrite shuffled in place and slumped against the wall.

“As she did with everything else. The Maiden of Time was an enigma, just like you. No one knew who or what she was, what she did or what her intentions were. Even we – the Children of Balance – were roped into making you our Exrenity. What goes through her mind is beyond decipherable.”

Despair spoke with increasing spite. The air around her suddenly thickened with dread. From her tone and stance, she could tell that Despair despised the Maiden of Time from the bottom of her heart.

She questioned their relationship once again. Then the thought of the Children of Balance creating her reminded Exrite of the discrepancy she found on the Reservoir.

“You have an awfully blank stare. Is there something you wish to say?”

Exrite gulped.

“I- I have a question.”

“You may ask.”

“What exactly is Gaia? I can’t… believe that she’s a normal Maiden. She didn’t die after I inherited her heart. She has [Gears] with [Realm] magic, and the [Gear] on the upper floors didn’t know what the Maidens or who her creators were. Despair… just who is she?”

Despair’s eyes glowed with a wicked sheen of red, which was accompanied with a cruel grin.

“An enigma. Like you. Enough with the Maiden of Time. I already suspect what you want to know. I would tell you myself, but that would kill another reason for you to descend.”

Figures… but at least she has a reason. I knew their relationship was strange. So everything is really down there.

A part of her was mildly pleased somehow. With a sigh, Exrite stretched before she brought herself onto her feet. The sudden gear overload destroyed her clothing once again, so she needed to create a new set from the monsters of this floor.

Exrite hunted the roaming Minotaur’s of this floor for their pelt. Dozens fell to her [Blue Bullets], which effortlessly pierced through their tough pelts. Each was skinned and the blood-soaked material was hauled back to the door.

With the vines of the tumbleweed-like monster, she sewed pieces of pelt together to create a new set of armour. However –

“… a failure. Dammit.”

The first set was deemed as such. Unlike the pelt of the bear from the <42nd Floor>, this was far tougher. When she dragged a finger across, she felt the rough texture of metal grates and heard soft chinking when she scratched it.

In addition to its metallic properties, it was far less flexible and required to be cut into multiple segments and sewn together. Through trial and error, and dozens more freshly skinned Minotaur pelts, she managed to create a single set of armour.

A mound of skinless Minotaurs and torn pelts were the result of her difficulty working with the material. Exrite was by no means an expert at craftsmanship, but she wasn’t bad at it either.

The armour was crude and rough, but she believed in function over form. If it worked then she had no qualms.

“It fits. Thank God.”

She confirmed with relief. Pleased with how it turned out, she soon stripped and neatly placed them aside. Afterwards, she placed all of her weaponry and tools out in front and inspected them for damages.

As she fiddled with the chips and cracks along her blade, Despair showed curiosity upon finding a certain green crystal.

“A Gatestone? What an interesting find. By making it through the Shallows, I assume you also must’ve set foot into the Depths. An item as extraordinary as that can only be found near the Maiden of Realm’s Domain or as a priceless heirloom for the powerful. Only a handful of them are known to exist. How did you manage to find one?”

“This. Melo- ah. I mean, the Maiden of Realms gave me this herself.”

Despair’s face was unreadable. No matter how hard she tried to decipher that unnerving grin she always saw nothing but an infinite reach of darkness. The Exrite who could read people’s intentions and emotions was no match for a God.

“A gift you say. I’m impressed that a human like you managed to collude with another Maiden. Maybe that’s your specialty. Your abnormal companions are proof.”

Despair’s smile suddenly widened.

“I believe you’re being pitied –”

“That’s not true at all… You couldn’t be more wrong.” Exrite suddenly cut through her voice. “If I really was being pitied, then they would’ve spared me from my ridiculous fate the moment you revealed it!”

A spontaneous anger welled deep within her. She knew that her companions weren’t like that. They didn’t pity her like Kizzo.

But despite her anger, Exrite managed to refrain from saying anymore. They locked eyes for some time, and Despair remained complacent throughout. In fact, it seemed like she enjoyed the tempered Exrite.

“… sorry.”

“Your anger is understandable. Justifiably so. Enough for me to render your audacity to over-speak me negligible. Keep in mind that I only exist here to guide you down into your Final Dive. The emotions you feel, the truths you believe in – my goal is to draw them out from the depths of your heart.”

She placed one hand to her heart, and the other on her eye.

“This is part of the process of the descent. Your heart and eye have already begun to meld together. You’re so very close to reaching the void.”

What did she mean by the heart and eye? Exrite had wondered ever since she first mentioned it.

Staring down at the reflection of her sword, she stared at her Eye of Despair, which was so vibrantly red that she mentally smelt blood in the air. She felt it; felt its strange yet assuring warmth then touched her chest and asked with uncertainty:

“… what do you mean by the melding of my heart and eye? Will they physically come together, like how Gaia’s Heart of Time fused with my body?”

Despair’s smile shrunk. At first, Exrite accepted that silence as it was and muttered:

“As always… dammit.”

She curled forward. She hated that the answers were so close yet were always out of reach. The complacency she always had was annoying to herself. If she were stronger, then she wouldn’t have to grovel and stare at the unreachable.

However, like a light in the dark, Despair suddenly answered.

“The truth. The Transparency. The self-awareness and lack thereof. What you see isn’t always what you believe in. Your eyes are merely the windows of the world, and your heart is your perspective. They can never be perfect, because the heart is alive and beats with emotions that change on a whim.”

She paced around the seated Exrite, who could only stare up at the child-like being who devoured every ounce of her attention.

“What I call insanity is when one blinds themselves and sees the world solely through their heart. A total lack of self-awareness, and a truth only deemed true to themselves. Naturally, people are drawn to the light. When they lose it – where do they go? They lose themselves in that darkness. You need the light to see.”

Two tiny feet stopped before Exrite.

“Your heart will be tested. Whatever it is that you so truly desire and yearn for in that moment will be realised, and you will stop at nothing to chase it. There is no incorrect strive, so long as it is a light that leads one out of the void and the well altogether. It is ultimate test of one’s true resolve – their hope at the depths of despair.”

It fascinated her. A strange light glimmered in her eyes. As cruel as the essence of despair was, it was also a person’s revival. So long as a person carried resolve and a will, they always had a chance to return from the darkness.

If Exrite never had even the slightest ray of hope in that place, she never would have escaped. After a decade of constantly holding on, it finally paid off. But she also admitted that clinging onto that hope was a recipe for inevitable self-destruction.

Because not everyone could make it all the way through. Sometimes, it is not the absence of light that sends people into despair, but rather its unreachable nature.

What was the point of trying if it was so far away?

Though he hated that mindset, Exrite understood it. her goal was no different. But she wasn’t the type of person to give up. Nor was she ever.

The lights that simply existed above was all she ever needed to believe in hope.

A strange smile formed on her face. It wasn’t one of happiness or determination, but rather of affirmation.

This was the path she and the others decided to follow.

“… I think understand now. Thank you, Despair. Thank you for telling me this.”

Exrite’s yearn to reunite with her friends increased by tenfold. As quickly as she spoke, she returned to inspect her equipment once again. Her blades were bruised with battle and chipped in various places.

There was nothing on this floor to make another blade, nor repair them. Their integrity was still intact, and it kept its razor-sharp edge. She could only hope that there was something she could use to fix them in the following floor.

Satisfied, Exrite looked to Despair with determination and announced:

“My body should have regenerated by now. Let’s go.”

“Hmph. Follow me.”

* * *

 

Part 4 –

The <46th Floor> was leaps beyond the previous floors. The enclosed space was replaced with an expanse filled with giant trees and greenery. A dark mist enshrouded this place, falling from the heights of the boundless sky. It accumulated at the forest floor where no creature dared to tread.

Why was this so? If one carefully peered into the mist, then they would find swarms of long tentacles swimming like eels. Any creature that fell or unfortunately wandered down onto the floor were immediately swarmed and killed by either being torn apart, dragged away or stabbed and absorbed directly from the mouths of the tentacles.

He guessed that there was an Ent of some sort on this floor. One way they hunted was by externally digesting prey and leaving behind a withered husk.

There were probably thousands of corpses scattered down there.

Exrite followed the branches of the giant trees. They all seemed to be connected by branches like a spider’s web. However, he was still required to perform long jumps and precarious climbs in order to traverse this vertical floor.

Because of the sheer distance between trees and the outrageous heights, it would likely take him more than a week to complete this floor. But with Despair’s guidance, he was confident in lowering it to two days.

However – he strove to do it in only a single day.

To achieve this, he reproposed his crossbow into a grappling hook to aid his in ascent into the trees. Furthermore, this floor was still considered ‘smaller’ than the previous floors. And with Despair’s guidance, he had already found six out of the eight obelisks.

He stood at the edge of a giant branch, perched himself and aimed his crossbow. A length of rope – which was made from fibrous vines – ran from the arrow to a coil beneath him.

The obelisk was just above; roughly 100 meters up, near the canopy. He fired the bolt with careful precision. The following rope spiralled splendidly behind it as the bolt impaled the side of a giant branch just 50 meters above him.

“Got it. This should be secure enough.”

He proclaimed as he tugged the rope taught. Though only a metal bolt held the rope in place, Exrite had faith in its strength. But this was the least of his concerns.

Life flourished in the upper parts of the trees. Giant butterflies and insects roamed the oversized bark like guards. Countless of fluorescent jellyfishes flocked like schools of fish. The creatures here seemed to form packs or recognise species of their own, like those in the floors before the Reservoir.

Their appearances were also more defined and seemed less as an abominable mash of different creatures.

This floor at first glance felt out of place. But that was a though for the foolish. Moments later, Exrite watched a butterfly snatch the child of a 4-armed ape from its nest from atop a branch. Soon after, its brains were siphoned by its straw-like mouth.

Exrite’s mouth cramped.

“Different place, same bloodthirsty monsters. What would Frosty say if she saw that?” He mumbled and hugged the bark tightly as he climbed. “Then again… how the hell is Khaos going to get past this floor?”

He climbed to the branch with little trouble, other than the occasional insect that drew near. Bullets easily repelled them. It seemed like they were frightened by the deafening roar of his handgun.

However, that also attracted unwanted attention.

SCREEEEEECH!”

The cry of a bird shook the tree. A shadow of the feathered behemoth was cast through the umbrella of leaves high above.

“It wants you it seems.”

“No kidding.”

Whenever Exrite fired his gun, the bird would arrive to the scene without fail. Though he had never seen it directly, he knew well that whatever that thing was – it was unquestionably this floor’s most feared monster.

His proof was how the other creatures, insects and jellyfish suddenly dispersed and retreated to the safety of the world below. The insects that roamed the bark either dug into the tree itself or swarmed into gaping holes, while the monsters withdrew to their nests.

As for the jellyfish – they flew as far away as possible. The pale, giant blobs pulsated with every movement, looking almost like a balloon to the untrained eye.

“Hey, do you think bullets will do anything to that bird?”

“Will you try?”

“Depends. Birds do have fragile bones so I’m confident I have some sort of an edge. I just thought it would be wise to ask a God. But this place doesn’t exactly follow the rules of the surface, so who knows.”

Exrite continued his assent.

“Besides, I only want to consume the gears of the strongest. Any less and I’m suffering for a minor increase in strength. My body can only withstand the changing process for so long.”

“It seemed to me that you withstood it well last time.”

“… not at all. I still despair having to undergo gear overloads. That kind of suffering shouldn’t exist.”

“But it does exist. Do you know why?”

Exrite shook his head and pulled himself onto the giant branch, where he carefully reused the lodged bolt. As he took aim for another branch above, Despair clutched his shoulders with a chilling giggle and announced:

“Everything in this world has a limit. Eastern Corozin falls victim to the govern of the Maiden of Judgement, who punishes all those that try to overstep their boundaries. Her rules are overpowering, unabridged and absolute.”

She drew close to his ears and whispered:

“Now, what if I told you that your suffering was a punishment for trying to reach for the unreachable. How cruel of a fate would that be, I wonder~?”

“… tch.”

Exrite clicked his tongue, his aim suffering from a slight tremble. The rage that suddenly consumed him amused the child-like God. Without seeing his face, she could tell that a fierce flame burnt in his eyes.

“… that’s unlikely. The punishment of breaking that limit is the mana overload.” Exrite sternly spoke as his aim recovered.

“But to entertain the thought, what do you think will happen if that ends up being the truth?”

“Ah. So that’s your response? How interesting. Hmph. I imagine that there’ll one less Maiden in this world. Permanently.” Despair giggled. “The question is who~”

“Funny. I also can’t imagine it any other way.”

“However~ that Maiden has already been replaced. Let’s hope that the world the new Maiden of Judgement envisions is different from her predecessor.”

“… yeah. Let’s hope.” Exrite spoke in a dangerous tone and fired his crossbow, and finally resumed his ascent into the canopy.

* * *

Through a series of close encounters with the giant bird; which forced him to hide amongst the growing greenery near the canopy, and the challenging fights against other monsters along the way, he finally found the seventh obelisk.

Its light pointed somewhere below, as all the other obelisk did. Only now did he realise that the light it fired didn’t lead to the obelisks, but rather to the door. How he knew was because all the obelisks of this floor pointed in the same direction, despite the final obelisk resting atop this floor’s largest tree.

Exrite took refuge beneath the surface of the canopy. But even through the thick veil of leaves and spiralling branches he could still see the massive tree looming in the distance.

The screeches of the bird finally left. It returned in the direction of the obelisk, which prompted Exrite to take a short moment to re-check his equipment. It was likely that he would have to fight the giant bird there. The size and features of the beast was still mostly vague, but he understood that it was too big for its own good.

It could not penetrate through the roof of the canopy. However, that was a lonely tree. The bird could easily swoop into its depths with little effort. Retreating into it was useless even if he found a hole to hide in like the insects.

Outrunning it was not an option either, unless it was absolutely necessary.

His odds were measured by the tools laid down before him and his increasing resilience and regeneration. It was nowhere near as potent as it was during the peak of his curse, but it was still frighteningly effective.

He was confident that he could survive a fall from over a hundred meters. Maybe an extra 50 if he was lucky.

Blood dripped beneath him. The source was from an open wound in his forearm which exposed bone and flesh. The bone which had been cracked by the carapace dagger healed before his very eyes in the span of an hour.

When the blood stopped, he curiously returned Despair’s nonchalant gaze, although her uncanny smile remained fixed.

“For someone who hates pain, you injure yourself quite often.”

Exrite softly smiled.

“I can hardly call it pain anymore. And it’s not like I can check my monstrous resilience and regeneration any other way.” He admitted and felt the healed patch of skin.

His gaze then drifted down to his weapons. There, a tip-less dagger caught his eye.

It split on impact with his bone. The carapace, which was superior to iron, could not break his bone. A multitude of factors could have had a hand into this; one being that the blade was already cracked and damaged.

But that didn’t mean it was unsuited for combat. In fact, it held up well against the ‘fleshier’ monsters of this floor. Only the insects posed a problem, given their thicker exoskeletons.

His bone strength caught him off guard immensely. The Final Dive didn’t directly cause this newfound strength, however. Instead, it only increased his body’s regenerative ability.

But this alone increased the duration of the gear overload; which resulted in a rapid gain of strength at the cost of prolonged, immeasurable pain. If he compared the duration from the <44th Floor> to the <45th Floor>, he would find that it had almost quadrupled in length.

That endless pain that seemed to never cease increasing terrified him more than ever.

But his resolve wouldn’t allow him to back down.

He could not afford to let himself stay weak and risk never reaching his friends.

He could not allow his fears to overtake him.

Before he knew it, Despair had chosen a place to seat herself. It was among a bed of flowers across him. Her presence was like that of an ominous wind. The flowers parted away; a futile attempt to flee.

She never showed interest in his tools. Despair already knew what they were and the Otherworlders who granted him such weapons. Her gaze could consume a man and send them straight into madness, and she stared at Exrite with unshown intrigue.

He didn’t know what she wanted, but it was best if he remained silent for the time being. Despair’s intrigue further brewed in that silence, and she soon became unreadable once again.

“You’re odd.” She said from out of the blue.

Exrite paused, looked up at the woman and blankly blinked. Dumbfounded, he replied with:

“Sorry?”

“You heard me clearly. I don’t need to repeat myself. You are well aware that the Final Dive will continue nurturing that regeneration, and the consequences it holds will be the essence of your void. Yet you’re still disgustingly calm.”

His brows knitted.

Indeed. With the rate the regeneration was affecting his body, he realised that his ultimate despair laid in the fact that his gear overloads would increase in duration. That ever-lasting pain that saw no end, nor no climax. It only increased as one endured, and frankly speaking, Exrite was afraid of it.

But not afraid enough to run away.

“I’m not calm. I’m desperate... to the point where I’d cooperate with despair itself.” He stated as he swiped his equipment and wore them upon his body. “I don’t care about the pain or whatever it is I have to face. I just want to see them again.”

“Despite the pain? Despite the inevitable despair that awaits?”

“Of course.” He said almost instantly as his attention swayed to the top of the distant tree. “Nothing’s ever going to change that. No amount of pain is going to sway me. Because if there’s anything I’ve learnt –”

He paused for one moment and looked over his shoulder at Despair. His drive and the boundless resolve in his eyes reached her.

“– It’s that a gear overload will never hurt more than losing the people closest to me. The Gaze of the Abyss showed me it, and I’ll never let that happen again. Mark my words, Despair.”

She watched him walk away. Her eyes never left him, always discerning. She adored that gaze and imprinted it into her memory, smiling to herself as her eyes soon fell onto a peculiar bulge in his ammunition pouch.

“But is that what your heart truly seeks?”

* * *

They were like a speck of dust compared to the leaves of the giant tree. Its staggering height far surpassed his expectations. He was tricked by the distance, and only when he arrived half-way did he realise just how large it truly was.

Vast networks of carved tunnels and passages were carved into its thick trunk. Giant red ants among other bugs and insects crawled through those paths in the thousands.

There air was stale, no matter the altitude. Whether he was half-way or currently near its overarching canopy – there was no change in the air. Nor was there a breeze.

He climbed using his crossbow and the occasional manual climb with the aid of his sword and dagger. His encounters were minimal; mostly consisting of the poisonous flora which grew on the barks of the tree.

Colonies of these purple mushroom-like plants clumped along the tree in a ring-shape pattern. As a result; a thick, purple layer of toxic fumes blocked his assent at various levels. He fell unconscious on his rope the very moment he stuck his head into it. Luckily, he had prepared in advance. The rope was tied to his waist, so he hung there with his head stuck in the fumes.

Despair watched him hang for on the rope for hours as he continuously breathed in the narcotic haze; until he finally awoke with an immunity against it.

From there, it was only a matter of how fast he could climb.

And finally, he reached the canopy after 6 hours of non-stop climbing.

His body thanked him. The climb was utterly gruelling, even with a body like his own. His body was already considered a warrior’s dream before he began consuming the Geared, and by now he was probably twice as strong.

Strictly speaking; if it weren’t for his regeneration then the climb would have easily taken 10 times as long. The regeneration granted him boundless stamina and repaired whatever fatigue he happened to experience along the climb.

In a sense, the fatigue he felt now was likely a trick of the mind.

As he clutched his knees, he leaned over the edge and struggled to find the bottom. A kilometre of space, fumes and air separated him from a lengthy plummet. Then, he looked up through an opening in the leaves and branches, finding the grey sky where a sea of jellyfish aimlessly floated.

Amongst them were some that wandered into the mist, only to reappear soon after. He remembered a similar phenomenon that existed in the Shallows.

“[Dimensional Mist] …? Down here? Why is it down here as well?” His quiet question was directed to no one. Despair kept silent on this matter, only grinning as she pointed up at the furthest end of the branch he stood on.

It stretched on for many tens of meters and steadily extended out of the tree. Beyond that, there was a conspicuous collection of leaves and twigs. It was in the shape of a giant bowl.

The obelisk was likely there.

That talking [Gear] didn’t know a thing about the Maidens. So why the hell is there [Realm] magic here? This place couldn’t have been built before the existence of the Maidens, could it?

Every question seemed to open another, like an endless fractal. But every unwinding path seemed to point in parallel towards a certain entity.

Did Gaia possess that magic before the Maiden of Realms existed… is that right? Is that even be possible?

Merely imagining it caused his head to spin. He had already accepted that Gaia was strange, and possibly the creator of the Children of Balance. However – if she too somehow possessed the powers of the Maiden of Realms, then what was she?

His eyes moved to Despair, where he was met with an unreadable stare. It rose every hair in his body, for it felt like he was being judged by the God. After some time, she casually flicked her head away.

But not without a suspicious grin. It seemed like she knew what was going on in his mind.

Then, she pointed down.

He shut his eyes, knowing well what she meant by that gesture. With a long sigh, he relinquished his thoughts and stared at the path ahead.

All his answers rested at the bottom of this dungeon.

* * *

The only life that thrived here were the jellyfish and other flying insects. Monsters and tree-dwelling insects were sparse in this place. And when he did find one it was often an empty, withered husk.

The branch was spacious and devoid of any cover. His size made him easy prey, and the butterflies eyed him as he braved onwards. They fed from various hanging flowers above the tree, obviously containing a vast amount of nectar seeing that they left him alone.

However – there was one butterfly that wanted a taste of the unknown prey.

It approached him like a gust of wind, cutting through the air with its beautiful metallic wings. In one moment, the insect glistened in the dim light like a gem, and in the next, it glowed like a fireball.

His [Gears] doused the surrounding air with a wall of [Liquid Fire]. The unfortunate butterfly crashed through as a blazing ball of flames. Like a meteor, it struck the branch and caused it to shudder as it slipped and fell many hundreds of meters below.

Its ear-splitting screech was a warning to all its kin.

The flaming arc followed it down the tree. Thankfully, the flames missed the bark and its leaves entirely. Although, a fierce flame rabidly licked the air at the place where the butterfly collided.

He expected it to spread to the rest of the tree in about a day.

His eyes never stopped scanning the area. It wasn’t the butterflies that caused him to be wary, but rather the giant bird which was known to patrol this tree.

And when he finally reached the bowl of leaves and twigs, he realised why this was the case.

“A nest... fuck. This isn’t that bird’s nest is it?”

“Hm. Be grateful that I pointed in this direction. The obelisk being amongst its eggs is merely a coincidence.”

“… so it built a nest around the obelisk. Weird. Its eggs are defenceless like that. The obelisk is only going to draw predators… isn’t that counter intuitive? It’s stupid even. Unless I’m missing something?”

The nest was at least 20 meters wide and fairly deep. He stood at the rims and studied the five human-sized eggs which all surrounded the obelisk in the centre.

He was bothered by it. There shouldn’t be a reason for the bird to leave its eggs so vulnerable. Unless it was intended. That thought caused him to further study the eggs as he walked around the rims.

A single breeze would be enough to knock him off his feet. The nest wasn’t exactly sturdy either. His boots sunk into the fibrous material with every step, as if he were treading on snow.

Then, his eyes narrowed. A fine detail was found around the tip of the eggs.

“A crack… an egg with an opening? Like a trapdoor maybe? I’m almost certain walking down there will trigger whatever’s inside of those eggs. Kind of like an ambush… well, that’s one way to feed your young, I guess. Not bad.”

“You sound like you’ve finally gone mad from loneliness.”

“I have to keep my spirits up somehow… anyway –”

Exrite searched the skies around him for a particular bird. If this was its nest, then he was certain that it was somewhere nearby. The nest hung a considerable distance away from tree. It granted him a massive field of view, but the sea of jellyfishes surrounding the skies obscured most of his vision.

After minutes of a fruitless search, he aimed his [Gears] over the eggs.

“A gamble~ Tell me, what will you do if the Megitavis hears their wails?”

“So that’s its name… well…” Exrite peered down at the world below. Falling from this height was certain death no matter how he saw it. But as he looked up at the surrounding jellyfishes, he smiled wryly upon remembering their speed.

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

“Entertain me then.”

First and foremost, he pulled out his crossbow and swiftly anchored the rope to the nest. Then, he fired a bolt into the swarm of jellyfish. It cleanly impaled one; and the bolt seemed to hover in its translucent body.

It diverged from the group with a sudden burst of speed until the rope went taught. It could go no further. He tugged on it and measured its secureness.

It didn’t budge. Though pulling back with all his weight dragged the jellyfish slightly. It was strong, but not strong enough to carry a human. However, he was still satisfied with the result. It was exactly what he wanted.

He turned to the eggs and prepared to scorch the nest.

However –

“Despair, are these really that bird’s offspring? I’ve never seen a Geared in the lower half of Gaia’s dungeon with a child until this floor. There are infant apes, insect broods and now giant baby chicks. What exactly is this place? Another Reservoir?”

“A plateau. Some of the beings you call the ‘Geared’ have given up on chasing the Attributed Whole in search for peace. For blissful ignorance. Why descend and suffer when you have power and can persist in this world without struggle?”

“Then this place is their respite in a way?”

“Correct. This is their escape from the descent and the horrors that await below. They’re smart creatures. They know their own limits. They know when to give up, unlike a certain Exrenity of ours.”

Exrite mostly ignored that last part.

“Their light has been snuffed. Now they wander in limbo, aimlessly wandering the void for they have nowhere else to go. They don’t seek; for they have already found. They don’t fall; for they no longer despair. They wander; for they have poisoned themselves, tricked themselves into believing they have escaped or reached their goal; never daring to look beyond the haze that blinds them. Ironically, that darkness becomes their hope. The worst kind. Blissful ignorance.”

“… what about the ones who don’t find anything and wander?”

“Few beings in this world possess such innocence. Everything strives. The ones who wander and cannot find are the true victims of the boundless void – the innocent souls. They don’t know that they suffer, because it is all they know. They can’t see the truth, because they don’t know what’s false. Children, the beings you call the ‘Geared’, and beings of pure innocence tread the fine line between hope and despair – the limbo of black and white; the truth and false; the good and bad.”

Exrite calmly devoured her words as he stood silently, as if in a trance. She spoke with a resounding echo that knocked on his bones, and with an authority that nearly caused him to instinctively prostrate himself.

“… and all it takes is a single push to throw them into either side… but even then, I don’t think they’d realise it until it’s too late… Despair, are you trying to guilt me?”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. That wasn’t my intention. These ‘Geared’ are a lost cause. Their respite has become their prison and now they can no longer strive for true hope. I just wanted you to understand that the ‘Geared’ below are no worse than you.”

“It won’t change the fact that I still have to kill them if I want to go on.”

“I wholeheartedly agree. But let’s call your murderous spree a blessing in disguise.”

“What do you mean?”

Exrite turned and watched her tip her finger downwards.

“… of fucking course.”

Then, not a second later – a stream of [Liquid Fire] rained into the nest. The five eggs rumbled and cracked as soon as Exrite lunged towards the obelisk.

What sprung were human-sized baby chicks. A foul stench emitted from the goop that clung to their feathered bodies. Only their elongated necks and head extended from the cracks of the egg, with the shell seemingly attached to their head.

They screeched in one moment as they prepared to attack and screamed in the next. The [Liquid Fire] flooded their hollow eggs and cooked them alive. As soon as the obelisk activated, he ran back to the rim with his boots and pants caught alight.

The nest erupted in flames; the floor already giving way as the [Liquid Fire] sept through. It crackled amongst the screams of the chicks behind him as the nest quickly began tear apart.

He extinguished the flames on his person, attached himself to the rope and watched the obelisk fire a beam somewhere in the distance below. Despair pointed at its location with an eager grin.

But another sound caused her to giggle.

SCREEEEECH!

“It’s here already!?” The surprised Exrite looked all around him for the source of the sound. He found nothing, save for the sea of jellyfish which swarmed away from the treetop.

A cold sweat ran down his cheek. He didn’t need to turn to know that the Megitavis was somewhere behind the tree. For the first time, he felt a powerful gale move the stale air.

Without a second to lose, he cut the rope free from the nest and was instantly dragged off with an astounding amount of force. He didn’t scream, cry or yell in his momentary free-fall. A man like Exrite could not fear death anymore.

The rush of air alone was enough to knock a grown man unconscious, and if it weren’t for his resilience then he would’ve been sliced waist-down by the sheer force when the rope snapped taught.

And as expected, the jellyfish steadily lost altitude with every passing second. It could not support his weight and remain totally buoyant. It was why he was satisfied when he was able to pull it back with his weight earlier.

With one hand on the rope to support his balance and another clutching his gun, he watched the feathered behemoth finally swoop over the canopy.

SCREEEEEECH!

It was massive. The wingspan of the beast was easily over fifteen meters in length. Each flap generated a powerful monsoon, which shoved the leaves and branches aside with utter ease.

But no matter how strong those gusts were, the inferno that razed its nest could not be extinguished. Instead, it fed the flames like a bellow and threw them into the tree.

The creature seemed to resemble a giant grey eagle. Its semi-reflective feathers were stacked upon each other like a scaly suit of armour. Only now did Exrite question whether his bullets could injure its gigantic mass.

SCREEECH…!

“Delectable.” Despair slurped.

After its brief pause, the bird suddenly lunged straight for him. Like the Commander’s Airship, its speed was somehow disproportionately faster than its size.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Explosions rattled the air. Three bullets burrowed into the bird’s wings. It screeched in pain, twisting and turning mid-air until another pair of bullets pounded its skull.

None penetrated through its feathery armour, but the impact seemed to deter it to a certain degree.

“What the fuck are those feathers made out of!?”

He watched metal shavings burst from the bird with every shot. To the untrained eye, it would appear as if the bullets were being destroyed by its unknown armour. But in fact, it was its feathers that produced the shavings.

The feathers were made of metal.

He fired shot after shot at the bird, never allowing it to draw closer than 50 meters. Every bullet collided perfectly with either its wings or face, no matter how hard it tried to weave.

Unlike a crossbow; he did not have to compensate for gravity or velocity. In addition to his uncanny aim, the beast did not stand a chance. However –

The bird suddenly shot itself high and dove straight for him with tightly tucked limbs. Its speed doubled in less than a second.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

He fired another barrage, only to watch them be deflected as it suddenly spun like a drill. It rapidly approached and broke through the 50-meter mark. When he pulled the trigger once more a haunting ‘click’ caused him to take desperate measures.

A blazing wall of flames scorched the air before him. It destroyed the line of sight between the bird and himself. Afterwards, it burst through and reached for him with massive talons.

“– Wind Blast!”

An explosion of air shoved him to the side at the last second as he narrowly avoided the beast’s grasp. The flaming bird flew into the distance as it rummaged in the air. The [Liquid Fire] seemed to have sept into the crevasses of its feathers.

But his main concern was the rope. Smoke erupted on a place just above his face. He climbed higher onto the rope and hacked the length away before it could burst into flames.

“You’re severely outmatched here. It’d be better if you fall.”

“What makes you think I’ll survive from this height!? We’re a kilometre high! Despair – are you trying to get me killed!?”

“Nonsense. Are you confident that your odds of survival are better in your current circumstance? There’s no possible way a mere human like you can take on a Megitavis.”

“Like I have anywhere else to go! Tch! Despair! Keep pointing in the direction of the door! I’ll drop as soon as we lose enough height! I’m just hoping I don’t fall straight through the canopy!”

Despair giggled at his cry. She was amused by his confidence, even in such a perilous situation. He had no immediate plan other than to fend the bird off until the distant canopy was right beneath him.

Afterwards, it would be a wild dash for the door. Everything he did was out of pure instinct and his unrelenting drive to survive. His desperation for strength grew with each passing second, to the point where his Eye of Despair erupted with a searing pain.

“Call your hope a prayer. You may be granted a miracle.”

“I’m counting on it then!”

Exrite only had 20 bullets remaining in the other handgun. It was impossible to load the empty clip with a single hand. He watched the bird make a wide turn and rise to a great height once more.

He prepared another chant, expecting the beast to dive at him. But that never happened. To his surprise, and equally his dismay, the bird threw its wings far behind it and, with one powerful flap, a thousand projectiles littered his vision like black dots.

Those were its feathers. The monsoon rocked both him and the jellyfish around as the one thousand metallic feathers passed by them like a hailstorm.

His [Gears] covered his face and heart as he twisted himself away. Puncture after puncture, Exrite’s backside quickly resembled that of a porcupine. He grounded his teeth in agony as he held on and stared up at the rope and jellyfish partner.

The feathers missed the rope by mere inches, some coming as close as to leaving a shallow gash. The jellyfish was in a more awful state than he was, seemingly filled to the brim with feathers.

When the barrage suddenly disappeared, he peeked past the [Gear] and watched the bird rapidly approach. He fired multiple rounds at its face, keeping it at bay as he noticed his descent suddenly increased in speed.

The feathers were heavy. Terrifyingly so. If it weren’t for his strength, he would’ve fallen the moment 20 had hit him.

But here he was with dozens upon dozens fused with his flesh. His regeneration locked them into his body, making every movement an agonising struggle. Thankfully, most of his wounds were superficial, with only a few reaching as deep as the bone.

SCREEEECH!

The bird could not get close to him. A layer of its armour had been shaved after the barrage. However, it didn’t change the fact that his bullets were still ineffective in injuring the beast.

If it came too close, he easily fended it off with [Liquid Fire], always hacking away the close-to-bursting length of rope. Eventually, he was down to his last few bullets.

“C’mon! We’re almost there!” He yelled.

The forest canopy was only a hundred metres away now. But he didn’t want to risk falling yet. If he missed the branches, then it was an additional 200 metres of freefall.

Exrite watched the bird approach again. However, the angle was odd this time. It swooped a few dozen metres higher than him. For a moment, he was stricken with confusion until he realised what its target was.

“Tch! Did it only just notice now!?”

Its talons pointed at the jellyfish. The sole reason why Exrite was able to gracefully fall was because of this creature. He didn’t know whether the creature knew this from the start, but he was certain that his inevitable approach to the safety of the canopy caused this abrupt change of behaviour.

Bang! Bang! Click! Click!

Exrite cursed at the top of his lungs when the dreaded click arrived. Both guns were unloaded. His crossbow was not primed. Only his [Gears], blades, magic and wits were left.

A massive shadow cast over him as monsoon followed. The bird clutched the jellyfish in its talons and relentlessly dragged them across the air. Exrite battled with the new torrent of winds as he was swung, twisted and yanked up and down.

Getting a clear shot with [Liquid Fire] was impossible. The rope would burn before the creature could take any damage. He grit his teeth and endured the maddening ride until the bird suddenly rose another 50 metres in the sky.

SCREEEEEEEEEEECH!

Then, it made a majestic arc and nose-dived straight into the canopy below.

“… wait… this thing is–!?” For a split second, he hovered in place before a monstrous rush of air interjected. He was dragged down like a loose thread at a speed nearly comparable to Uru’s.

When he saw the emerald forest rapidly engulf his vision, he realised what the Megitavis planned to do. His only lifeline was the rope. If the Megitavis couldn’t fight him directly due to his [Gears] or kill him with its ranged attacks – then the only option was to let gravity do its work.

But this was no mere fall. It was a fling. He’d splatter if he so happened to graze against a branch. The odds were stacked against him. The fall was inevitable.

However – failure was not an option. He couldn’t afford to die here.

“I’m counting on that miracle!” Exrite cried, and when he saw the Megitavis suddenly extend its wings, he released the rope.

He was flung straight into the canopy below. The [Gears] futilely pushed against the sheer force of his body, and within a second, his surroundings turned green.

Then black. Then green. Then black again. He crashed through multiple leaves, tumbling as he fell. His consciousness wavered each time he collided with the leaves, but he mustered every ounce of strength he could and endured the fall without a single word.

That was until he smashed into a branch.

“A-AAGH!” Exrite screamed in agony. It felt like a hundred knives were stabbed into his back. He writhed and kicked as a green mist of plant fibre fell from above and began to smother him.

Every metallic feather embedded themselves deep into his back as a result of his landing. He rolled onto his stomach and forced himself to his knees as he trembled to his injuries.

“How… how the fuck am I still… Alive!?”

“Your fall was broken by countless leaves. That’s your miracle. Can you stand? I doubt the bird will leave you be. Your scream was quite something.”

“Y… yeah… I can still move… some-fucking-how.” Exrite painfully growled. “… which way… is the fucking door?”

Every movement felt like his bones were being grounded to dust. He wouldn’t be surprised if he died in the next minute or so. But he couldn’t die. Not when the bird was still on his tail.

“You’re close. Can you descend to the forest floor?”

“Of… of course –!”

SCREEEEECH!

The snapping of wood erupted from above like thunder. Massive sections of branches and thousands of bark showered all around him as the tree rattled.

Exrite quickly rose to his feet as soon as she pointed in its direction. He ran, though his movements were stiff. Moving even an arm felt like it was being torn apart as the embedded feathers shredded him from the inside.

But the pain was nothing. It was tolerable. Compared to the other heinous things he’s already been through this fell towards the bottom of that painful scale.

Rather, he was surprised that he could still move. It was a miracle in of itself.

The rapid regeneration exploded to a monstrous level of effectiveness. He knew that it was the only thing that kept him alive. But he didn’t expect it to be for long.

There was only so much that could be healed.

His breathing was rugged, and it only became worse as he ran through branch after branch. The canopy above shattered with each deafening screech. Talons breeched into the depths of the canopy in pursuit, cleaving away whatever dared to stand in its way.

He realised that he had severely underestimated its strength.

“Fuck! How much closer is it Despair!?”

“You’re close. The door is within reach!”

Exrite peered over the edge as he ran, finding the steep walls of a cliff-face emerge from the mist just ahead. He wildly scanned it and quickly found a small opening at its base. A shot of relief surged through his battered body. It was the last drive he needed to push through and escape from the Megitavis.

However –

SCREEEECH!

A destructive force destroyed the canopy overhead as he prepared to leap onto a descending platform. By instinct, he looked up and watched massive pieces of wooden debris bombard his immediate surroundings.

Then, right as he jumped, the branch gave way beneath him with a thundering crack.

“Are you fucking kidding me!?”

His heart dropped when he missed the platform and plummeted straight down into the forest floor with hundreds of giant debris. All that awaited him now was death.

But he refused to die so easily.

His jump was not all for naught. It still carried enough forward momentum to thrust him close enough to the steep tree trunk. A flash of light accompanied a metallic chime as he gripped his cracked carapace blade in both palms.

Then, with one mighty thrust, he carved it straight into the bark.

He bit down on the sheer force that nearly snapped his arms in two. His right arm instantly went numb after only a second of breaking his fall. But the blade was too sharp for its own good. He continued to fall an additional 50 metres before suddenly –

A shattering sound echoed.

“… what?” His shocked voice was drowned by the rushing air.

The sword snapped in two. A handle with a fragmented blade was all that was left of it. He was rendered shocked and immensely confused. The blade shouldn’t have broken so easily.

That was what he believed until he noticed a series of unknown cracks riddled across the blade. The barrage of feathers must have weakened its integrity without him knowing it.

It would explain why that section of his back was completely unscathed, apart from a map of bruises and dark discolouration.

Exrite’s eyes widened as he watched the ground rapidly approach. He fell from nearly 100 metres. He braced himself with everything he had and stuck his legs out to absorb most of the impact.

Dust, plant matter and wooden chippings were flung when he crashed through a heaping pile of debris. Silence returned almost immediately. A lone body laid buried in a newly formed indent of soft soil between the cracks of the debris.

“… A… ahh…”

He couldn’t believe he was still alive.

He laid prone underneath, trembling from the sheer shock as he slowly examined his body. His head was fine, but his vision was skewed. His arms were intact, but his right arm could no longer lift a finger. And as for his legs, only one of them ached with a resounding pain.

He suspected his left leg was broken.

SCREEEEECH!

The cry above and the thunderous destruction of the canopy caused him to claw at the ground. He crawled through the narrow crevasses of the debris with one arm until the forest’s emerald ceiling returned.

A trance enraptured him. He stared up at the sheer height of the trees before his gaze fell onto his battered body. For the thousandth time, he wondered how he was still alive.

It felt surreal, almost like a dream. No. Maybe a nightmare. Exrite didn’t know.

Soon, his curiosity fizzled away. A desire to reach the door replaced it instead, drowning out any and all questions.

Slowly, he rose to his feet and stumbled around like a drunkard. His left leg could barely support his weight, and every step he took was a gamble of whether he’d topple over or not.

Driven by nothing but his will to survive, he travelled through the soft soil that swallowed the soles of his boots. He limped and increase his sluggish speed every time the canopy collapsed.

But the floor also held its own horrors. Vine-like tentacles slithered hunted him within the mist. They attacked in hordes, ready to sap him of his life.

However – Exrite’s [Gears] continuously doused his surroundings with [Liquid Fire] without care of himself or anything for that matter. They couldn’t penetrate the blazing heat no matter how hard they tried.

SCREEECH!

The Megitavis and the snapping grew close. At only a dozen metres away, the forest ceiling behind him collapsed as a thunderous flap threw wind and wooden fragments around him.

SCREEEEECH!

“It’s here! Go Exrite!”

Exrite ran with everything he could. The bird which was 200 metres in the air dive-bombed straight for him. It knew this was its only chance to kill him once and for all.

It cut through half the distance in no time. In the one second he twisted his head; it was already chasing him with its beak primed to swallow him whole.

Only 50 metres separated them both.

He let loose of a violent cry as he reached for the entrance and dragged himself into the narrow space. He tripped inside, and with no effective way to shove himself away from the entrance, he pointed his [Gears] and sprayed [Liquid Fire] in hopes of deterring the beast.

However – the pinkish innards of its beak emerged from the flames. It reached deep into his confines, scraping the ceiling and the floor as he pulled his dagger in anticipation of being swallowed whole.

But that didn’t happen. It snapped its beak a moment too early as it screamed to the massive amount of [Liquid Fire] it ingested. His [Gears] were snapped up and disappeared behind that serrated beak. It wriggled its beak away, leaving nothing behind before its talons mashed the entrance for Exrite.

He continued to relentlessly crawl deeper into the darkness of the cave as he lamented the loss of his [Gears]. The talons smashed rocks apart and caused the entrance to quickly seal itself off.

And with one final screech, it smashed the entrance with its beak.

The cave quaked. Rubble sifted in this unknown space, and by the time he flipped and looked back, the light of the entrance had completely disappeared. The horrid screeches eventually drowned out, and so did the crumbling rubble.

Only the light of his Eye of Despair existed in this strange passageway.

The silence was deafening. Exrite didn’t know how long he stared into the darkness. Nor did he know why. He was spread thinly across the floor. His body suddenly gave out as the pain slowly mellowed into complete numbness.

As a result of this; he unknowingly clawed at the ground until all nails had snapped.

A normal person would feel relieved after finally escaping certain death. But Exrite was filled with nothing but hatred and rage. He despised the creatures that threatened to take everything away from. He despised himself for only being able to run away. He despised himself for being so helpless on his own.

A faint giggle came from above. It teased him. Then, a pair of crimson eyes emerged from the darkness. Despair appeared before him like a reaper ready to claim his soul.

But under these circumstances, Despair was like an angel. She pointed deeper into the pathway. He was confused for a moment. The door was at the end of this pathway, but he hadn’t consumed any of the Geared yet.

Despite this Despair continued to point towards it.

“… deeper?”

“Whatever your heart desires reside there. Will you choose to follow?”

“… like I have any other choice… Y-you realise that I haven’t eaten any of the Geared yet?”

She didn’t budge. It felt like hours before Exrite finally accepted that he had to delve deeper into the pathway. He could only hope that Despair knew something he didn’t. She was his guide after all.

But he didn’t know if the path she showed him was the correct one. Nevertheless, he twisted himself onto his stomach and crawled into the darkness.

His pitiful appearance didn’t detract from the unhinged fury he carried. And like a lost lamb, he followed Despair with unwavering obedience.

But a question silently slipped his lips as he looked down at his brutalised body once more.

“I shouldn’t be alive… what’s happening to me? To this regeneration…? Why has it increased to the point where I can live looking like a human pincushion?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Your heart and eye are coming together as one. It is the result of that and will be your catalyst for the ultimate despair. What will you do Exrite? Are you afraid of pain? Are you afraid of suffering?”

“More like I’m fed up with it... but yeah… I’m afraid. So fucking afraid.”

“Yet you’ll face the inevitable head on?”

“I’m not strong enough to carve another path on my own… so this is the only way forward. I’m not going to abandon this because of my fears, my suffering and my own fucking weakness! I don’t want the past to repeat itself!”

Despair laughed.

“How simple. But it’s fascinating, nevertheless. Use that resolve to carve through this darkness and reach the void. But pray that it will be enough to pierce through its fabric.”

“… it’ll be more than enough… mark my words Despair; I see to the very end of this.”

“Then go. You’re so close to reaching full circle.”

* * *

 

Part 5 –

Exrite wondered how long it had been since he first set foot into this passageway. Hours? A day? Exrite couldn’t tell. Nothing changed no matter how far he limped. Time seemed to freeze here as he wandered through this limbo, only able to see what laid within the reach of his crimson eye.

But there was a light at the furthest reaches of the darkness. It was the blue light of the door. It dangled like a faint ray of hope in this place, beaconing him to push on.

He couldn’t measure the remaining distance, or tell if the door was an illusion. An illusion was highly unlikely seeing that Despair continued to point in its direction, but then again, Despair was essentially an illusion created by the Eye of Despair.

Save for the fact that she could interact with his surroundings to a certain extent. How this was possible was beyond him, but he understood that this illusion was more or less an extension of herself. It was like how Realm was able to leave her Domain.

A thought stuck with him for the longest time. Between Despair’s whispers which criticized his weakness and over-reliance of others, he remembered the words of his eldest sister.

“Don’t risk chasing the stars when you don’t have wings yourself.”

He could only go down because he had no wings. Ironically, by chasing his goals which sat among the stars, he had to descend into the depths of the abyss.

Only then could he finally ascend.

One needed to despair in order to reach true hope.

One needed to hope in order to reach true despair.

Exrite held onto the thought until the lights suddenly seemed to draw near.

“… even a flightless moth will struggle to reach the light. Wings aren’t the only means of ascending.”

He whispered underneath his rugged breath. His arm was still limp, and his left leg had yet to heal. He felt like he could die at any moment, as evident by his wavering vision which would occasionally fade to black.

Every step was an agonising struggle. Every finger he moved and every word he spoke caused his bones to grind against the metal feathers which were embedded deeply into his flesh.

His monstrous regeneration stagnated and plateaued. His injuries never seemed to heal, but neither did they get worse. He was only being kept alive to the bare minimum.

Or rather – he was not allowed to die. Not by his own hands at least.

How he knew was because he had already tried to return to his Maidenly form during this dark voyage. A stab with the carapace dagger did nothing even when lodged deeply into his skull.

It was both confusing and fascinating. Confusion as to why he couldn’t die, and fascination to how similar the reconstruction of his flesh felt to his old ‘curse’.

As much as he despised it, his memory of the ‘curse’ suddenly appeared as a ‘blessing’. He understood what the regeneration entailed. He could consume a Geared and attain all of its strength in a single transformation.

It was exactly how he expected to succumb to the ultimate despair.

Exrite pushed on until the blue lights finally reached him. Relief washed over him with the lights as he entered a large space before the pair of illuminated doors.

Despair’s taunts soon faded to silence as he froze before the door. To his shock, there was no magic circle let alone a gauge to test his gear strength. There was only a set of doors; and a cracked one at that. It was ruined to the point where he feared that it would crumble if he tried to pry them open.

What replaced the magic circle and the gauge were thick vines that ran across the ceiling and walls like ivy. They all crept from beneath the doors and ran in and out of the stone.

Exrite didn’t know what to make out of this. He froze for what seemed like an hour before he finally dragged himself to the doors. As he placed a hand on its fragile surface he froze once more.

He took this brief moment to brace himself for whatever laid beyond these doors. His guns were empty, and there was no feasible way to reload them. Both his blades were broken and his [Gears] had been swallowed by the Megitavis.

He had nothing other than himself.

After he looked down at his broken body and calculated his non-existent odds of survival, he reaffirmed his resolve.

“I’ll attain strength and I’ll find them… I’ll definitely find them… they’re all probably waiting for me down there...”

The thought was warm. But it was short lived. Soon after, he shoved the doors open with a mighty heave. A thick fog gushed out the cracked opening carrying a stale stench of death.

He entered what appeared to be another room. It was spacious. So spacious that he had to physically rear his head back to see the extent of the ceiling. But even then, he could not find it.

It looked like a chimney, and the shape of the room was that of a massive gear. The indents in the walls looked like pillars that rose endlessly. An infestation of vegetation littered wherever his eyes moved besides the ceiling.

Vines covered the entirety of the floor like the nest of a thousand Octanids. It was rugged and uneven, which made it all the more difficult for him to walk through this place.

There was a door at the other end. There, he spotted the magic circle and the gauges. But what caught his eye was a conspicuous mass at the centre of the room.

An amalgamation of vines, vegetation and green crystals – which he suspected was Limeite – sat there like a bulging tumour. Exrite suspiciously watched it as he continued his advance.

If those shimmering gems were truly limeite; then he was certain that he was not the first to come here. Limeite at its core was a metal made from the dead after being compressed for countless of years.

He must’ve been the first to crack open this tomb judging by the lack of bodies.

But even so, he kept his guard up as he moved deeper into the room. His senses were as sharp as a blade and his gaze rapidly moved from the corner to corner in this gear-shaped space.

The silence was so thick that he could feel it begin to constrict him.

Then, he elapsed 20 metres into the space, a crackling thud rang behind him.

The vines on the ground suddenly twisted and writhed as he turned to the source with a drawn dagger. His instincts screamed that he was in danger, and he expected a beast to have followed him into this place.

However, that was far from the truth. What he saw instead was a swarm of dozens of thick vines which immediately sealed the door shut from the inside.

He was trapped. As the realisation settled in, he quickly turned back to the mound which began to pulsate with life, soon watching it quiver as it swelled like a balloon.

“What the fuck is that thing?”

Despite his question, he already began to unravel the true nature of that mass.

“Don’t ask the obvious. The tentacles of the forest already made it clear that an Ent hid somewhere in this floor.”

Despair was correct. The moment those nonchalant words left her lips; dozens of giant vines erupted from the top of the mound. They twisted and melded with each other, creating what resembled a 5-metre-tall tree.

A slit emerged from its trunk, revealing a massive eye that aimlessly rolled before its sight landed on him. It shivered in delight, seeing Exrite as nothing more than a tasty meal.

“And it just so happens to be here. But don’t think of it as an ‘Ent’. Think of it as your meal.”

Exrite grounded his teeth in fury.

“You… you knew that thing was here all along!?”

“I merely pointed, and you followed. This is the correct path Exrite. I recall you only wanted to consume the floor’s ‘strongest’ Geared. Now show me whether you can finally begin your Final Dive. It’s all within reach!”

She grinned as Exrite began to withdraw from the Ent height as dozens of tendrils began to flail by its side. The Ent was a different breed from the normal ones he knew. Its twisted body and the vines that comprised it entirely was something he had never seen let alone heard of.

The sting of betrayal plagued him as he began to rapidly chant a [Fire]-based spell out of pure instinct. He backed away, almost tripping over the living floor as Despair took pleasure in watching him struggle.

He despised her for leading him to this place in such a state. There was nothing he could do other than to hope that his magic was enough to fend against it. He couldn’t muster any energy to scream or yell in rage, for he focused his entire body and mind on casting the spell.

However –

“– Fire burns the- w-what…?”

The sound of shattering echoed around him as red fragments fell like snow. Pieces of his magic circle fell before his very eyes and when he looked up, he saw a fractured magic circle. A web of fissures ran from multiple holes in its corners.

Then, he watched in shock as a massive vine tore through and destroyed it entirely like pane of glass.

To destroy even a magic circle of the [Third Tier] was notoriously difficult. What he created was akin to the [Fourth Tier]. However, this wasn’t why he was so shocked and filled with horror.

It was the fact that it broke mid-cast.

His body dropped suddenly as all feelings in his legs disappeared. His vision almost blacked out as he fell onto his knees. He trembled as his arms struggled to keep his body upright.

Exrite’s mana had almost been depleted. But even worse was that he almost succumbed to a mana overload.

This was because the catalyst intended to project the magic – the magic circle – was destroyed and as a result, Exrite was instead used as the catalyst. If it weren’t for the fact that he had only chanted a fraction of the spell, he would’ve died.

Never in his wildest dreams did he ever expect a monster to have the intelligence to attack a magic circle of all things. The Ent could easily overpower him, but instead, it seemed to toy with him.

A vine knocked him across the room. His ribs shattered instantly as blood trailed in an arc as he flew in slow-motion.

Why…?

He crashed into the walls, still breathing. The regeneration kicked back in and kept him alive at all costs. But he didn’t know for how long. It felt like his body was thrust into a perpetual fire. The already embedded feathers somehow felt like they were lodged deeper into his body.

His limp body sat there unmoving. As much as he tried to muster any strength to fight back, there was nothing other than the tremors of his fingers.

Move… move! MOVE –!

A giant vine struck him in the stomach, pinning him to the wall. He felt a slurry of liquid enter him and burn insides. It was going to digest him alive. However, the pain was limited to his stomach alone. His regeneration was so efficient that its digestive acid was rendered ineffective.

The Ent shivered. Or maybe it danced. Exrite didn’t know. He was too busy trying to rejuvenate himself but to no avail. Not even his monstrous regeneration could restore his depleted mana supply.

He was powerless. Helpless. Alone. He had nothing to fight with. No one to fight with. The wall before him was too vast and wide for him to break alone.

All because of his weakness.

More tendrils pierced into him, each pouring equal amounts of digestive juices which failed to corrode him entirely. Exrite couldn’t scream. Only a hoarse groan left his lips as he lamented his choice of listening to Despair at the entrance of the cave.

He should’ve listened to his own call. He should’ve searched for an easy Geared to consume while in this state rather than pushing forward. But he was desperate for strength to overcome this weakness.

He listened to Despair’s calls because he was weak.

His past flew before his eyes like a kaleidoscope as he felt his body corrode over and over again as more tendrils joined. He was soon dragged to the Ent’s main body where a gaping slit awaited.

In that darkness he saw nothing but fingers, all pointing in random directions. They were a symbol of the decisions he never had a say in. Though he was the leader of his party, he truly never felt like one. He felt like he was always following in the shadows of the others.

It was never his idea to reach Saicry, nor the Biomechanical Gardens. It was never his idea to head into Gaia’s dungeon. And it was never his idea to reach the Children of Balance.

They were all suggestions, orders or directions given to him by someone else.

Exrite never really chose his own path. He only followed.

And he blamed his weakness for it. Because there was no way that he could resist the temptation of relinquishment back in Enthile or refuse the Gods who threatened to Khaos and Frosty.

It was the same for both Uru and the Commanders. Regarding the latter; he was at their whim only until recently.

But in the end – he knew that the cycle would continue forever if he failed to change. He vowed that if he ever gained the strength to stand on his own; then he would never follow the orders of anyone else.

Not Gaia. Not the Gods. Only himself. He despised being forced into all of this. But now that he was knee-deep in all of it, there was no turning back. All he wanted was to follow his own path through this tangled mess Gaia left behind.

It reinvigorated him. Though he couldn’t move, he could still utter words.

Exrite’s crimson eye exploded with an unquenchable flame as an idea came to him. He was already going to die anyway. Whether by the hands of the Ent or by consuming it; it didn’t matter at all.

The only thing he wanted was to destroy it at all costs. And if he was going to die – then he might as well do it with the only way he can fight back.

With magic. Magic that he could never dream of handling in this body. A trump card that not even the laws and limits erected by Maiden of Judgement could prohibit.

The tendrils wrapped him into a ball-like mass and slipped him into its gaping cavity. Despite the pain and the crushing sensation – Exrite’s mouth never stopped moving. In the place that was supposed to be as dark as the void there was a crimson light that pierced through it all.

* * *

Despair watched in fascination for hours. The crimson light never wavered, nor did his ever-lasting chant. The sound of sloshing played as the ambience in this forsaken place, until suddenly –

Five blue streaks of light exploded from within the Ent, shredding it into mince like it was made of paper.

The vines surrounding the walls were torn by the blue streaks, which randomly struck the corners of the room. One suddenly zipped towards Despair, but that was easily deflected with a gentle sway of her pinky.

Soon, the beams fizzled into thousands of blue particles. All that remained was utter decimation and destruction.

A massive heap of plant-matter and other disgusting fluids accumulated at the centre of the room. A single figure laid in the centre of it all, consuming whatever mess was on their face with a rigorous appetite.

It was Exrite. An intact one at that. He had used [Blue Bullets] to destroy the Ent from inside out. However, the [Blue Bullets] was a magic akin to the [Seventh Tier], and his body was used as its catalyst.

Exrite knew he was about to succumb to a mana overload. As he laid near lifelessly on a mound of plant-matter, he shakily chewed on the remains that smothered his face.

He was not going to die without consuming the Ent. It was difficult to swallow. It seemed like he’d choke to death before he’d die to his inevitable mana overload. He could already feel his veins writhe beneath his skin.

Nearly everything he owned had been liquified by the Ent’s digestive acid. All that was left were bits and pieces of his handgun and his leather ammunition pouch which laid nearby.

It must’ve fell before the Ent captured him.

He could only stare up into the infinite void. The chimney had no end. And as his vision wavered, a certain figure hovered over him with a frightening grin.

“You’re strange. You despise pain, yet you willingly let yourself succumb to both a mana overload and a gear overload simultaneously.” She criticised, though she seemed pleased with the results.

Exrite could tell this was the case. But his mind could barely keep track of a single thought. The agony he so dearly dreaded began to spread from his heart and eye like a toxin.

“… whether I… hate pain or not doesn’t change… anything!” His voice was groggy, nearly comprehendible as he spoke in between shallow breaths.

“Even someone like me can have… a trump card! I’d be an idiot… to not use what’s left of my strength... even if it’ll cost me my life. And besides… I was going to die anyway… so what choice did I fucking have? You cornered me Despair… you cornered me… I don’t want to be powerless anymore!”

“That sort of strength hardly makes you powerless. But it is, above all, a trump card as you say. One that defies the punishment of breaking one’s limit, because you possess a second body… and the ‘curse’ you tried to rid yourself of.”

Despair hummed, fell and touched his Eye of Despair. Then, she dragged it down to his chest and smiled.

“– w-what do you mean – A-ah-ARGH!? AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

The words he wanted to say were replaced with soul-wrenching screams. The pain was worse than any of his previous gear overloads. He convulsed and writhed in the Ent’s carcass, feeling every part of his body burn with a heat which soon turned as cold as ice. He watched his fingers break down and snap into impossible angles. However, they twisted back into place almost immediately after.

The infinite loop of destruction and reconstruction spread to every part of his body. So much heat was generated that the plant-matter beneath him began to crackle and smoke.

Despair walked over him as he tumbled off the mound. His face was buried deeply into the stone, which was quickly pooled with a liquid that resembled tar. It was his blood – no, his liquified self. The regeneration was so powerful that it never let his body lose more than a quarter of its mass.

This only invited an agony that could not be described with words or with one’s imagination as a result.

Despair casted an impossibly dark shadow over him. A black ball formed behind her, consuming the light like a hole torn in space. She stared at him in amusement and satisfaction as she licked her lips to the succulent taste of his despair.

“Your curse was never cured, never absent. It was always with you. The immortality was merely sealed away by the Eye I gave you. The Eye of Despair only seals the unhinged regenerative power of your Heart of Time. They clash perpetually within, but under the right circumstances – they meld into one. Your Heart must be dyed as red as our eyes. Soon, it will finally be yours.”

She announced. And at that moment he realised that the coming of his Heart and Eye was not a psychological process – but rather a physical one. He roared, for he should have known.

“Did you really believe that the unification was nothing more than one’s mentality and their strive? No. This is for you – Exrite. The Exrenity. The Maiden of Time. The Final Dive aimed to re-ignite this lost potential. At what costs matters to only yourself. You will find the real you in that void of despair.”

She kicked the open ammunition pouch over, spilling its contents everywhere. As hundreds of bullets clinked as they rolled away, a thud landed inches from his face.

“You have a twisted fate. Insanity is all that awaits you one day. Perhaps you were insane from the very start. Or maybe you’re just that insufferable. Hm~ How does it feel, our Exrenity? Your Final Dive has finally begun.”

The scent of an unknown perfume and a green glow behind his eyelids caused him to twist his eyes onto the object.

His heart stopped beating. All of the pain seemingly disappeared the moment his eyes fell onto the green crystal before him.

“What will you do now that you have reached full circle? Everything has been exactly like your past. So – will you escape and leave them all behind again? Will you abandon your friends for the sake of temporary respite? Or –”

Despair cunningly tempted him by rolling the Gatestone closer to his face as she finally uttered:

“– Will you break the cycle?”

* * *

The ball consumed his despair, growing with every passing moment as he roared in agony. When his bones were reduced to fragments, they were reconstructed for the sole purpose of being shattered once more. His flesh was ripped from his bones, only to be grown back and torn once again.

Steam and an incredible amount of heat caused the plant-matter to finally burst into flames. As he endured the unimaginable pain of his body’s radical cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction, he bathed in an inferno that licked the empty sky.

His screams were heard by only Despair, who sat atop the ball with unparalleled elegance. But among that beauty was a cruel gaze. It pierced through his heart as she grinned at a detail only she could see.

“Despair quickly fills your heart. Look at you grovel…. To think that a human like you made it this far against all odds. Admittedly, I’m impressed that you were the first of any past Exrenity to reach the Final Dive. It’s no wonder the Maiden of Time took a liking to you, you enigma.”

She spoke with a solemn tone. His heart was like a vial containing a black liquid. It swirled and sloshed, whetting the God’s appetite as the ball continued to endlessly swell.

He was filled to the brim with despair. No human, let alone any mortal could ever dream to withstand the agony of a mana overload, let alone one in conjunction with what Exrite called a ‘gear overload’.

Exrite was perhaps the only exception. However –

He could not die.

He had to endure it until every fibre of his being absorbed the gears of the fallen Ent, and until the spell reclaimed every ounce of mana from his flesh, marrows and blood. He would not become an Undead. He couldn’t die. His curse of immortality had returned in full… no. It was superior.

It vastly outclassed the old regeneration he once despised from the bottom of his heart.

Seeing his heart filled to the brim with the black liquid, she lapped her lips and looked to his gored body. By the blank look in his eyes, she could tell that he had already fallen into the void.

Though his body remained here, his mind and soul were stranded within the depths of the void.

“… hmph. The void.”

Her eyes narrowed.

The void at the end of the Final Dive was a place inaccessible even to Despair herself. Nothing existed but the person who fell into its ever-reaching maw of emptiness in that place.

Magic, the laws of reality and the power of the Maidens had no effect in that world as far as she was concerned. It was a blank canvas – a world devoid of all.

To her understanding, it was somehow connected to this plane of existence. Something akin to the Domain of Time.

Regardless of this, it didn’t change the fact that Exrite had to find a way out from there. He had to find passage of hope to escape from his despair.

Her eyes widened. Exrite’s hands slowly crept to the Gatestone, inching with trembling fingers as he sought for respite.

She shut her eyes and sighed. It was obvious that Exrite would seek to escape, just like the past.

“As I thought. Humans are difficult beings. You cling so firmly to your beliefs until everything turns against you. Humans were never meant to chase the stars; never built to face the impossible. All that awaits those is a fate worse than death, like you.”

Her criticising words were accompanied with a short laugh. When it subsided, she rested her head on a fist and grinned optimistically.

“However, I don’t believe in fate either.”

The sound of scraping could be heard. Exrite’s reaching hand clawed at the ground at the last second. His fingers crushed the stone beneath, causing the Gatestone to roll away with a chime that seemingly echoed forever.

What she saw amongst the despair in his heart was a glimmer of hope.

At that moment, Despair muttered:

“You enigma. We’re you really a human in the first place?”

* * *

Exrite swam in an empty world. In this vast emptiness, he saw a light which fell from somewhere far above. He didn’t know how long he was there for. His senses were drowned and numbed, and his body seemed to fizzle in an out of reality as he floated there, never knowing which way was up.

But regardless of this; Exrite refused to grasp the strand of light which dangled before him. The alluring trap was something he once fell for so long ago.

This place was no different from his home in Enthile. It had taken his closest friends away from him, forced him through unimaginable pain and loneliness.

But… this was worse. No one could ever save him. Despair was ironically his last baston of hope. If he couldn’t even save himself then what hope did he have in the future?

The hope at the end of despair.

That false hope – the dangling light – was amid it.

The true hope he sought after was the warmth and comfort of his friends at the end of this trial. Not the one that existed before him. But he couldn’t carve his own path as he was now.

He was had only begun the Final Dive, after all.

Exrite had always believed that the future was never set in stone. But now, only now did he realise its fatal flaw.

The future is only never set in stone for the strong; for they set the future for the weak. They alter their reality and those beneath them with their strength.

That’s what he now believed. So long as he was weaker than the creatures, he was always at their mercy. He hated that he couldn’t do anything alone. Even in the grand plan of liberating the Maidens he had no say.

But now, he had the opportunity to change that. To change everything. To finally attain the strength he longed for. He wouldn’t have to suffer like this ever again.

He embraced the coldness of the abyss and succumbed to his ultimate despair. With a scream, he rejected the false hope and vowed to endure it all for the sake of reuniting with his friends.

The pain that suddenly returned to him as a result was incomparable to the pain of abandoning them. The darkness soon fizzled away, revealing his scorched surroundings.

A final burst of pain surged through him. His flesh burst with heat as the clanging of metal rang around him. The embedded feathers had finally been ejected from his body, and they laid beneath him like mangled twigs.

He roared one last time before everything suddenly came to a stop. The sound of sizzling ruptured from his skin as he quivered, clutching the ground in shock.

“… is… is it… it’s over…?” His voice was almost impossible to decipher. It was as if he had forgotten how to speak.

He drew his gaze from side to size, seeing nothing but the scorched stone he laid on. Minutes passed without pain. The longer he stayed there, the more he was able to accept that the absent pain was not an illusion.

It was finally over.

“How… long… was I…?”

“One day.”

“… you’re… lying.”

“Time must run differently in the void. I’m sure you must’ve had a similar experience in the Domain of Time.”

“… right. That’s right…”

Exrite was still in a state of utter shock. In one hand, he was incredibly glad that it was over, while in the other, he still couldn’t accept that he managed to endure it to the bitter… no. To the end.

He couldn’t call it bitter.

As he steadily rose to his feet, he looked down at himself and immediately noticed the immense strength coursing through him. Additionally, he seemed to have grown slightly taller. By a hair though, but it was noticeable, nevertheless.

“How does it feel to finally break the cycle? Maybe if you did the same back then, you would’ve found your own way out.”

“… I don’t believe in what if’s… the whole point of this was so I wouldn’t make the same mistake in the past… the door. Right. I need to reach the door… they’re probably waiting for me all the way down there…”

Exrite stumbled as he walked. Slowly, his posture and balance returned to him. It wasn’t long until he regained total control of his functions. Half of his mind was drawn to the strength his body possessed, and the other on Despair who had not only cornered him, but also tempted him with the Gatestone.

He detested her but was also… thankful, as strange as it sounds. He could not antagonise her, because in the end, it only strengthened his resolve. And now – it was truly indomitable.

He reached the reflective doors on the other side and studied his naked self. Immediately, he noticed the rotating gear in his Eye of Despair, which signified his Final Dive.

It was utterly mesmerising. He found himself lost in it for an unknown amount of time, seemingly hypnotised by his endlessly spinning iris. When he came to, he felt its warmth and accepted it in all its bizarre glory.

Aside from this, only his height had changed. His skin was sturdy and soft, but there was an impossible resistance that only armour could possess. It was similar to Khaos’ body, except he could never imagine himself reaching that sort of strength.

Khaos was in a league of his own.

That aside; Exrite kept his stern face, stepped into the magic circle and watched the magical lightshow for the 5th time. He had no clue how strong he had truly become. Though he could feel the improvements, he didn’t know how well they translated outside.

Or perhaps this feeling was because of the high concentration of gears that coursed through his veins.

His eyes drifted between each gauge as the magic circles disappeared. Then, they widened all of a sudden.

The gauges were both filled half-way.

Compared to the previous floors, where he barely filled a fraction of the gauges, Exrite was certainly leaps stronger. Anyone would have felt satisfied or relieved by the results, however – he didn’t react.

No. He wasn’t satisfied.

“… that’s not enough.” Exrite muttered beneath his breath.

As the doors finally swung open, Despair pointed into it. But he didn’t move. He was unsatisfied with his current strength. All that plagued his mind was an endless urge to attain ‘more’ strength – as much as he possibly could.

To Despair’s surprise, Exrite turned his back to the door and went the other way.

“Where do you think you’re going? That’s the wrong way –”

“No. No it’s not. I’m going the right way. My way. I’d be an idiot to go down without getting as strong as I possibly can.”

Exrite confidently spoke as he passed her. A look of surprise washed over her face for only a split second.

“There’s no way I’m going to let an opportunity like this slip by me. For the sake of reaching my friends… for the sake of never having to suffer alone – I’ll devour everything… and destroy this damned trial!”

He wildly proclaimed, unable to contain his rage. As his voice echoed thoroughly, Despair grinned hideously. She watched him retrieve what was left of his handguns as he strode towards the sealed door across.

“That audacity… where was it when we first met? Hm… I suppose my preparations in Colight were needed after all.” She whispered to herself. When she turned to look at Exrite, he was already at the other side of the room.

“You always had a choice from the start. I pointed, and you simply followed. But you’ve become your own compass. Not even a God like myself can sway you anymore, it seems.”

His Eye of Despair spiralled and burned with unrelenting fury. His demeanour was indestructible, for he only had one goal. To reach his friends – but before that, he must become strong enough to brave the floors beneath.

And in order to do that – he had to devour everything he could and destroy this trial which so closely resembled his hell.

“Firstly, I’ll take back my [Gears] from that fucking bird!”

He pried the doors open with a deafening roar. The charred vines easily crackled as debris from the door showed over him. But they could barely injure him anymore. The larger chunks that struck his arms were repelled by his iron-like skin, though deep wounds did manifest. But those were healed immediately by his… ‘blessing’.

Whatever dared to stand before him, he’d destroy them.

Whatever Geared crossed his path, he’d devour them.

For the sake of the future, he had to endure the present. A weight seemed to have been lifted from his heart. The worst part was finally over.

Despair departed unceremoniously the moment Exrite disappeared into the darkness of the cave. But before she could enter the hole in space, she stared at the gauge one last time and giggled.

“A human will do what a human does best, even with that sort of strength. I wonder how this will end. Until we meet again, our Exrenity. Though our reunion will be much sooner than you’d expect.”

With that, Despair disappeared, with the swollen ball collapsing immediately after.

The stagnant silence returned. Then, an explosion shook the space. An air sept in from the outside.

It smelt like smoke.

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