53. The Final Dive
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I appologise for my absense yet again. It's been more than half a year since my last upload. I don't have an excuse for the lack of uploads, but I will try to increase the frequency ASAP. This is another lengthy chapter - somehow even longer than the last. I hope you can all enjoy. Thank you if you've stuck around for this long, and I'm sorry for those of you that waited.

Part 1 –

 

Flames licked the sky and smothered the air with smoke. The once vibrant, emerald world was engulfed by a hellish inferno. A sea of flames replaced the leaves of the canopy, rendering the lives of thousands of creatures into cinders.

Thousands of charred remains littered the forest floor with hundreds more running through the desolate world seeking refuge from the heat, most already half-dead. A section of the forest was left untouched and saw a massive swarm of monsters enter.

Their final stand was at the other side of the floor, furthest away from the entrance of the Door. They found temporary respite there. But those that still remained lost in the forest of flames encountered something worse than the flames.

If the flames didn’t consume them, then this monster most certainly would.

Those that crossed its path would rather jump into the inferno, for its flames were incomparable to the monster’s wicked vitriol and rage. It was unquenchable, devouring all those that wandered into its gaze.

The flames that consumed all could not consume it, for it was hungrier.

* * *

A shadow lunged from the flames. Its speed was uncanny, though slow in comparison to the rest of the monsters of the floor.

A giant armoured beetle saw this in the corner of its vision, rearing its head as it turned with both wings raised like swords. Its beady eyes landed on the expected path of the shadow and fired a corrosive substance from a gland hidden within its serrated mouth.

Though it was an insect it carried a formidable amount of intelligence. However, its corrosive attack missed the shadow. In fact – the shadow did not tread in that direction.

It saw it again in the corner of its eye before it disappeared entirely. The insect grew confused as it zipped its head all around it. But its armoured shell could only allow so much movement.

The unpredictable hunter lurked in the flames. Its movements were unpredictable and made zero sense.

But that wouldn’t matter anymore.

It stumbled unexpectedly. An unknown pain caused it to writhe and stagger. Two of its six legs had been severed near instantly.

Or rather – it looked like they had been torn apart. A deafening screech left its hideous mouth, and shortly afterwards, its serrated legs were thrown like stakes into its gaping maw.

As it staggered and reared itself in agony, a humanoid figure emerged from the height of the flames. It splendidly kicked its legs down its throat. When the steam and flames wore off the skin of the unknown hunter, the beetle shuddered, as if frozen in fear.

Though it seemed that way; Exrite knew that was far from the case.

The battle was already over by the time he landed. The beetle quivered then expanded before its underside collapsed. A vile mixture of black blood and the corrosive substance gushed from the hole in its stomach.

Exrite guessed that he must’ve punctured the corrosive gland. Though he found it odd as to why the beetle was incredibly susceptible to its own acid.

But that was a side thought.

He feasted on its fibrous insides as quickly as it perished, hacking away the thick armour with one of its legs.

Despite having eaten more than a few dozen Geared he still couldn’t get used to the taste. It was identical to his flesh after all.

Moments after his first mouthfuls his body convulsed. But it only lasted for a split second. Why was this so? It was because the gear’s Exrite possessed in his blood were stronger than the beetle’s.

In addition, his body was strong enough to effortlessly accommodate its gears.

The gear overload was a thing of the past. Only remnants of the process persisted, such as the strengthening of his muscles, flesh and bones. And as Exrite continued to devour the beetle, he noticed that his tolerance to the heat had increased.

But even so, it wasn’t nearly enough to stop his blood from boiling.

The firestorm soon consumed him and the carcass. As the beetle withered away before him and the flames rendered his skin to pink tissue, all he could think of was his next meal.

Nothing could fill him on this floor, no matter how large they were. Everything was weaker than the Ent, save for a certain bird. He scowled at the thought of the Megitavis and set his sights to the giant tree.

It burnt like the beacon of a lighthouse. He could no longer tell whether it was mist that concealed the skies or smoke. Up there, he saw the shadow of the bird behind the flames and smoke. Every flap of its grand wings fed the fires like a bellow.

“Dammit. How much longer are you going to stay up there you damn bird? … tch.” Exrite growled, half amazed at its stamina.

The energy needed to sustain flight for hours was astronomical given its sheer weight, size and how often it flapped its wings.

He knew it wouldn’t come down anytime soon. Or at all for that matter. The bird danced with the flames of the tree with no end in sight.

As he pushed through the inferno, he pondered on how he’d take the Megitavis down to his level. He considered climbing the tree, but in the end, he ruled it out. It was far too unstable. Massive chunks of burnt wood fell from its great height joined the moat of debris below.

And even then – he didn’t have a feasible way of fighting the bird. At worst, the bird could flee if it realised that Exrite couldn’t die. If he somehow grappled it, then what was next?

Punch it to death? Strangle it? Tear it limb from limb? The Megitavis was a giant mass of metal. He suspected that he could pry out its feathers at most with his bare hands with his current strength.

Despite possessing immortality, he was still a human in the end. He had no wings, no claws or fangs to fight it. However, because Exrite was a human – he possessed a trait that allowed him to bypass these limits.

It was a human’s innate ability to create and use tools as if they were an extension of themselves. If a human couldn’t catch a bird with their hands, then all they had to do was create something capable of striking it down.

And only one thing came to mind.

A big handgun… no. From this distance, I’d be lucky if a bullet even reaches it. Not to mention how ineffective my bullets are. I need something stronger… bigger. Powerful. Something that can reach the skies faster than the sound can follow. Something… devastating.

An image came to mind. No… it was a memory.

He remembered the long, bulky weapon White used against the human invaders in Cryo. It was a weapon that ignored honour, for it bestowed instant death from afar with the pull of a trigger and shattered the air with a deafening roar.

This weapon was of course the sniper rifle.

* * *

He chose a place away from the flames to create the weapon. Hidden beneath the roots of a bustling tree, Exrite drew a crude schematic into the dirt. What laid beside it were the broken remains of his handguns, his ammunition pouch and the twisted metallic feathers.

The schematic was indecipherable and looked more like the scribes of a mad man. It was as close as he could get to a functional rifle from memory and what Black taught him about firearms.

His first hurdle was the amount of explosive powder he had left. Only a pinch of the highly volatile powder was salvaged from the canister of his handguns. It was enough to fire another few dozen shots, but the power he sought after required at least half a pinch of explosive powder.

This meant he could only afford two shots. To put it into perspective: the finest amount of this substance could rip a man in two, and a wooden barrel’s worth had every potential to destroy at least a third of an airship.

The fact that Acacia had multiple barrels in her cargo was baffling to say the least. Insane even.

Explosive powder was something to both behold and fear, and it was no wonder why Truebirth considered it as contraband.

He swiped a piece of bloody meat from the side and munched on it as he began to work on the devastating weapon.

* * *

Exrite chose to use bone as the main material.

The amount of explosive powder per bullet was dangerously excessive. Iron and steel were unlikely to contain the explosion, even if it was tempered and treated well.

He completely disregarded limite, however. Heating that metal to a malleable state would take days, and he needed to make the weapon now. If anything, it would serve to reinforce his weapon later.

Carapace was a contender, but it was far too brittle to bend into shape. Bones on the other hand were hollow enough to allow a finger-sized bullet through. Furthermore, as these bones belonged to him, their strength was second to none.

Earlier, he harvested both his femurs to create the barrel and chamber. Then, he carved a hole large enough to fit a bullet into the side. A rudimentary seal would contain the explosion with the push of a small lever, similar to what Black called a ‘Bolt Action’.

He held the giant blowpipe-looking-rifle into the light and nodded in satisfaction. It didn’t look like it would work, but Exrite didn’t dare to second guess himself.

What came next was the creation of the two bullets. Why did he choose this before completing the weapon? Because the bullets dictated the shape and trigger system of the rifle.

The bullets he decided on would each be encased in a jacket of metal containing explosive powder. A reservoir similar to his handguns was not possible for two reasons.

Firstly, the explosion would be so powerful that the reservoir would certainly ignite. Furthermore, Exrite couldn’t replicate the mechanism Black created to separate the appropriate explosive powder for each shot in his handguns.

They were damaged beyond repair. Only the absurdly tough canisters remained intact.

As a result of scrapping the idea of a canister, the rifle was considerably less bulky than he initially envisioned.

The trigger system was as rudimentary as it could possibly get. Unlike the flint-striking hammer his handguns used, Exrite resorted to using a heated, replaceable hammer instead.

[Liquid Fire] would’ve worked well as an ignition source here, but that would be for a more refined version of this weapon.

That aside – he created the handle out of bone and layered the entirety of the weapon in metal. He had beaten the twisted feathers together with his bare hands in the flames until they were spread thinly like a plate.

From there, all he had to do was wrap it around.

* * *

He cradled it with pride as he sat amongst a heap of scrap beneath the tree. A flame of excitement burnt in his heart as he imagined the devastating power this weapon possessed.

The object is his arms was none other than the finished sniper rifle.

Each bullet was made of carved bone and was about as long as the length of his hands. They were sharpened to a point to increase its penetrative power, as opposed to the round pellet-shaped bullets of his handgun.

He marvelled it. Adored it, and brushed its surface. The rugged texture gave it grip, though he would’ve liked it to be a bit more… smoother. But that was him nit picking. Normally, he wouldn’t care. But he felt awfully attached to the weapon for some reason.

Perhaps it was how blacksmiths or craftsmen felt towards their creations. Or maybe… he was just lonely and saw the weapon as an extension of the others.

It was the amalgamation of the Commander’s wisdom and his experiences with their otherworldly weapons.

They were still with him in spirt.

The rifle was cold, but Exrite could only feel a reassuring warmth brim with each touch. He saw the darkened skies through the twisted underbelly of the tree with widened eyes. Sincerity filled his cruel eyes as he remembered the faces of his friends.

“I’ll be there soon… so please keep on waiting for me. All of you…” He whispered to the air before his eyes regained their viciousness and unrelenting fury.

Emotions flooded him and all his anger returned by tenfold.

His path wasn’t an easy one. Not when he had everything in this trial pit against him.

He primed the weapon and inserted the giant bullet into the rifle’s chamber as an ominous shadow lurked through the sea of smoke above. His blackened lips glistened as he lapped them in hunger.

He had to consume everything in order to reach his friends.

He had to become stronger no matter the cost.

Exrite tied the rifle to his bare back with vines and left the safety of the tree. It hung similarly to a scabbard, save this was far larger and heavier than any blade he had ever come across, that was if he could exclude Khaos’ behemoth carapace sword of course.

He looked up at the tree and studied its ever-reaching height. There was a branch amongst a thousand others which he took a liking to. It stuck out of the canopy like a splinter, which provided a clear line of sight with the world above.

It was the perfect place to snipe the Megitavis.

With an unbreakable look, he drew a bone-crafted dagger from his ammunition pouch, took a dozen steps back and ran straight towards the tree.

Then, he flew 10 metres into the air with a mighty leap.

The dagger penetrated cleanly through the thick bark, securing his position. Likewise, his fingers were able to secure a grip by clawing into it like a cat.

By no means was the bark weak. In fact, it was amongst the toughest and most resilient trees he knew of. No human could ever dream of even scratching its surface.

It was a testament of his newfound strength. He could even bend metal with his bare hands, though it seemed to be limited to iron and steel. The cobalt canister failed to budge and instead shattered when he tried to dismantle it earlier.

The iron canister was easier, but not effortless.

That aside – Exrite ravenously climbed the tree. Insects and an assortment of monsters scurried around the bark as the heat of the floor rose with each passing hour.

They flooded holes and openings to cool themselves, but because of how many swarmed into those confines, it only made it worse. Cries and mangled wails erupted from all around him as the monsters entered a state of utter frenzy.

They murdered both friends and foe as the floor suddenly took a turn for the worse. It was every creature for themselves.

As he passed one of the tree’s openings, he saw a scene that could only be described as a massacre. Corpses littered the massive chasm, most rendered down into slimy mush.

A horde of creatures fought amongst themselves as they ravenously bit and swallowed chunks of each other’s flesh, carapace and bones.

A sight that would normally cause one of be filled with utter despair and terror filled him with delight. He nearly smiled at the scene, seeing them as nothing more than his nutrition.

let’s not take them all on at once… not yet at least

Defeating the Megitavis was of utmost priority.

If it weren’t for the bird, he would’ve sprung straight into the battle. It didn’t matter that there was over a hundred of them there, for he couldn’t die.

He set his sights to the skies past the branches once again and locked onto the bird’s lurking shadow. In mere minutes, he reached the highest branch and secured himself in place.

But in that exact moment –

SCREEEECH!

The Megitavis suddenly swooped down for him, disbursing the thick smoke as it cut through the air like a fine blade.

He could tell that the bird was surprised to see him still alive, and at the same time he could feel its unrelenting fury.

Exrite never dared to pull his eyes away from the bird as it entered freefall. The bird’s form was like looking up at a giant bullet. He seemed to freeze in its gaze as the bird screeched once more; its talons reaching out to swipe him out of the tree.

Only a few seconds separated them.

But he was calm.

Abnormally calm.

Exrite simply pulled the rifle from his back and took aim.

In that instant – the bird’s eyes widened in terror. It sensed its destructive power, despite never seeing anything like the weapon he possessed. It remembered the small handguns and the power they exhibited.

It could not imagine what something of that size was capable of.

It swerved in the air in an attempt to dodge the bullet, spiralling left and right as it drew nearer.

But that was too little for a marksman of Exrite’s calibre.

There was no cliché grin, cheesy remark or war cry. Exrite only pulled the trigger and watched a mass of flames eject from the barrel. The explosion was like a crack of thunder, and the shockwave ripped through hundreds of surrounding branches and leaves like a giant scythe.

Then – a metallic crunch tore through the air. His vision was still blurred by the rifle’s roar. Despite this, he could still make out the faint image of the bird.

He saw it crash into an invisible wall. Every ounce of its momentum disappeared the moment his bullet met its mark, which pummelled the bird’s head straight into its chest.

All of its feathers were frayed as if it was struck by lightning. The bird began to fall once again and this time, straight down into the depths of the forest floor. As a gaping hole emerged in the canopy before him, he touched his ears and brought his fingers to his face.

He saw blood. The sound was so powerful that his eardrums ruptured, and even his eyes were close to giving out. Surely, if he were any weaker – or his old self, or any other human for that matter – then he would’ve died on the spot.

Just by being within its vicinity was dangerous.

Fascination struck him as he stared down at the damaged sniper, which wheezed a vitriolic cloud of toxic fumes. His body was the perfect compromise for such a powerful weapon.

It was like a double-edged sword, carrying an equal amount of danger to his foes and himself. However, Exrite was immortal. Even without his immortality, he possessed a body that could withstand the rifle’s recoil and explosive breath to a certain degree.

He was certain that if he continued to consume the Geared, then he would become immune to the rifle’s backfire. The prospect caused him to whet his lips as he flung the weapon behind him.

Afterwards, he leapt into the forest floor with every intention to devour the Megitavis.

But first – he needed to recover his Gears.

* * *

The bird was too heavy to drag back to chamber. He had to chop off its wings using an insect’s saw-like legs and make three separate trips to recover it in its entirety. Flocks of monsters were naturally attracted to the easy source of food. Dragging the bird made him quite the target for the many frenzied monsters.

However – this was also a part of his plan. He easily devoured more than a hundred monsters with each trip. The [Gears] that followed him doused every inch of the world in flames. Many fell to the flames, and many more to his bare hands and weapons.

After he had secured the bird, he pried out every ounce of meat and swallowed it like it was his last meal. The taste – as with all other Geared – was identical to his own flesh, but by now he had already grown accustomed to it.

Or rather – being bothered by it was a waste of time. So long as it fuelled his strength then he didn’t care. Nor could he find himself to care at this moment in time.

There was little space in his heart and mind to ponder on such things, especially when he had yet to devour the entirety of the <46th Floor>.

As he continued to shove bloodied heaps of flesh down his throat; he suddenly felt a strange sensation run through him. He froze and toppled to the side limply as a strange strength flowed through him.

Before long, he was up again and back to consuming the bird. The event was unsurprising. Expected, even. Exrite remembered that this was the process most monsters underwent when consuming gears with strength similar to theirs.

“… ha…ahahahaha… ah.”

Exrite slowly broke into muffled laughter. He was pleased because he saw this as proof that his gears had finally equalized with the floor…

No. That would be an understatement. It was vastly superior to the monsters of this floor. No longer would he have to suffer a geared overload.

But that wasn’t all.

Exrite also harnessed unfounded fire and heat resistance from consuming the Geared of this floor. It was unknown why he developed this resistance rather than attaining more strength, but he managed to claw out a theory from the back of his mind.

He remembered that White called the changes of the Geared adaptations, meaning that they would change depending on external pressures. By this logic, it made sense as to why his resistance to fire had increased.

It also explained why there was such a vast diversity between the monsters. Similarly, it also explained why many more monsters down here had similar appearances – such as the Minotaurs from the previous floor.

For this change to occur now of all times meant that it had something to do with the strength of his gears. The reason for his rapid strength was solely because of how weak his gears initially were, which forced his body to adapt with devastating cruelty.

Strictly speaking – his body now saw little increments of strength because his body didn’t need to adapt to abnormally high gear strengths. His body deemed other changes more important.

When he realized this was the case, his gaze wandered into the heights of the chamber. With eyes that could pierce through darkness itself, he muttered:

“What the fuck was Gaia thinking when she created the Geared…? What was the point of creating life if you’re just going to abandon them all in the end?”

His last words became rugged, and he crushed the stone ground with his bare hands in frustration. Anger filled him to the brim, and he remained like that for some time.

When it had all dispersed, Exrite returned to shoving mouthfuls of flesh into his gaping maw. In the corner of his eye, he saw the sheen of a green metal and planned his next course of action.

Exrite undoubtedly possessed the strength to take on any Geared head on but doing so would take an unreasonably long time. Bolstering his efficiency in killing was his next step. The sniper rifle was not a solution to this.

It was only a tool – albeit a devastating one – to take down unreachable prey or monsters that he knew he couldn’t fight head on.

He turned to a heap of limeite in the centre of the room and muttered:

“… now might be a good time to make use of that. But that thing… if I’m going to go through the trouble of smelting limeite – then I might as well destroy this floor while I wait.”

A reason stood behind this. Limeite was notorious amongst blacksmiths and Dwarves for its difficulty to both smelt and work with. Such a brilliant material was highly sought after, but very few actually knew how to turn it into something decent.

Exrite was no blacksmith. However – he saw potential in the metal. Its strength and versatility were only second to carbodix as far as he was concerned. And after looking down at his half-broken sniper and chipped bone-dagger; he growled, bit down on more avian meat and accepted this endeavour.

If things went smoothly, then he could only imagine the devastation that would follow.

After all – he vowed to destroy everything in Gaia’s trial.

* * *

The limeite would likely take an entire day before it was ready to be beaten into shape. With this reason alone, he took it upon himself to cleanse this floor while he waited.

Though ‘cleanse’ was a gentle way to describe the destruction that followed his stead. From butterflies to beetles and apes, Exrite killed and devoured every ounce of whatever he managed to get his hands on until the flames consumed every corner of the floor.

It spread faster than anticipated. Half of this was because of his [Gears] which endlessly doused the world in flames. But it still should not have spread so quickly.

After hours of scavenging through the blazing forest, he saw a spectacular sight and found his answer. A flock of flaming jellyfish rushed through the canopies and forest floor, tearing holes in the vegetation as they set everything they touched alight.

They went from corner to corner, edge to edge until their gelatinous innards were exhausted. Those that died fell into the flames and exploded with little to no warning.

They were like kegs of explosive powder being dropped from an airship. He took no caution as they showered the floor. In fact – he ran towards them. He was stricken with surprise and intrigue, for he had found a potential material to replace his exhausted explosive powder.

Also – Exrite had nothing to lose save for his body parts. All of his weapons and belongings were left in the chamber. He not a fool to carry around a highly volatile bullet, though his reasoning was simply because he didn’t want to waste it.

He seized this opportunity and rushed to as many falling jellyfish he could. Many exploded in mid-air and others ignited before him, rending his flesh down to his bones with massive explosions. With all the flames and heat, it was nearly impossible to for the black, explosive material to fall without exploding.

However – his efforts were far from fruitless.

He scoured through areas that had already been incinerated by the flames. The explosive material – which looked like coal – hid well within the charred landscape. One wrong step and the black soil would glow orange and ignite the explosive like some sort of trap, or as Black called it – a landmine.

These were taken one by one back into the chamber for the first few hours until the flames along the path subsided. A forest of black towers was all that remained, each bleeding with smoke through fractures in their bark.

The image was like the space surrounding the entrance of the trial where they fought the Decanid.

He brushed the thought aside and stared up into the open sky when he returned from the chamber. A blinding glare cut through the smoke and mist like a knife. It seared his eyes, but as he nonchalantly stopped to stare, he muttered:

“That tree is still burning.”

* * *

It never stopped burning. Neither did the flames ever seem to waver.

He saw the same thing in the sky no matter how many times he left the chamber. It must’ve been days. But he didn’t know. He could only tell because the rest of the floor ran silent after the final tree died, and with it, every other monster aside from himself.

Furthermore, the limeite was finally ready to be beaten into shape. A new femur was harvested to replace his weapon’s broken barrel, then, after he pummelled a thick layer of limeite flat with his bare fists, he moulded it around his weapon.

It took a vast amount of strength to pry it, and even more to cut off any excess metal. His strength was tested to its very limits. How blacksmiths and Dwarves were able to make fine, suitable armour from this was mindboggling to say the least.

Magic was certainly the solution, but it awed him, nevertheless.

He held up the sniper once it was completed and adored its metallic-green coating. It was now as broad as his arms, and contained a mechanism that utilised small amounts of [Liquid Fire] rather than a heated hammer

Seeing that the weapon nearly broke upon firing it for the first time, he needed to ensure that it wouldn’t break no matter how many bullets he fired.

And speaking of bullets –

Exrite created a few dozen more using a grounded form of the explosive ‘coal’. A single peer into his limeite ammunition box revealed rows of the devastating bullets. Limeite was used for the box to ensure that the bullets wouldn’t be triggered by the immense power of the sniper rifle as well as the heat generated by [Liquid Fire].

Afterwards, he made a few more weapons out of limeite, one of them being a simple dagger. Another was something in between a pickaxe and a hatchet. If his fists weren’t going to break through a monster’s armour, then the ‘pick-hatchet’ most certainly will.

Calling these weapons ‘crude’ was a compliment. Sharpening them was a nightmare, and mostly consisted of him scraping it against a rock. But he didn’t mind such a mundane task. So long as it was necessary – then he didn’t care.

His weapons hung on his sides from a metal belt, which he created from the Megitavis’ feathers. Once his pouches were similarly secured, he brushed a hand over a familiar bulge in his leather ammunition pouch.

“… you won’t have to wait long.” He whispered, pushing himself up from the ground as he set his sights on the exit. “Because now – I’m ready. There’s nothing that can stop me anymore. So please… just wait a little longer.”

He reached the door and stood beneath its frame. The gear-like magic circle activated and after its spectacular show of lights, his eyes lit up with satisfaction.

The gauges were nearly filled.

* * *

Part 2 –

 

A pair of doors opened elsewhere. A certain Demon patiently watched them roll open with an unreadable expression. Although, it was impossible to see her face anyway in the darkness of the <56th Floor>.

This place was another ‘reservoir’ and was the fourth she had come across in her descent; counting the one prior to their isolated descent. Its purpose of existing was unknown to the likes of her, and it filled her heart with mystery and intrigue.

She imagined that these reservoirs – which only appeared every fifth floor – were a breeding ground of the Geared. It made sense as it would maintain a constant population of Geared in the lower floors. A pure funnel had its flaws considering how many Geared actually chased the Attributed Whole from the <41st Floor>. The distribution would become far too dispersed, which defeated the purpose of strengthening the Geared as they descended.

However, Uru was no simpleton to believe that this was merely the case. A Demon like herself never believe in anything unless a God or any equivalent entity admitted it. With this dungeon belonging to the previous Maiden of Time, she could only trust an answer from written knowledge belonging to her, or, from Exrite directly.

That said; she pushed that thought aside and hummed. The light from the other room eliminated the darkness that embraced her.

“The reservoirs are a nuisance, nevertheless.” Her cold words seemingly froze the doors in place as she ventured through and descended into the next floor.

A vexed complexion sprawled on her face.

The reason for this was because the [Curse of Desire] unexpectedly failed to affect the Geared in the <56th Floor>. Furthermore, this was also true for the previous three reservoirs, which was what caused her to become so intrigued with these floors in the first place.

For whatever reason the Geared could not desire. The stark contrast between the floors prior and after were too great for her to properly comprehend, because in those floors the mana she gained from exploiting the desires of the Geared was staggering.

To see it drop so sharply was impossible. No creature could ever lose sight of their desires unless they were content.

The thought lingered.

Uru disappeared into the darkness of the <57th Floor>. Her [Dark Vision] allowed her to perfectly see the twisted caverns that sprawled in every direction.

The silence was so thick and constricting that one could easily mistake the darkness as a physical manifestation of said silence. But that illusion was soon dispersed when the markings on her body suddenly flashed with light for a split second.

In that moment she had instantly cleaved a finger off with a claw. The dull thud was silent, but she was certain that it reached the deepest parts of this floor.

Not that it mattered the slightest. The monsters of this floor would all fall soon enough.

A liquid dripped from her finger. However, this was not blood.

Uru could not bleed.

What dripped and melded with the cracked ground was a liquified form of the black tentacles that dwelled within her. It then shivered and split into hundreds of tiny worms which slithered away into the darkness with frightening speed.

They each tracked an irresistible scent of desire which saturated the <57th Floor> in search for victims to be inflicted with Uru’s most powerful magic – the [Curse of Desire].

The effects of this magic were far-reaching and obviously devastating to certain individuals. Those that were driven by lust for power or selfish desires could never dream of escaping the chokehold of the Curse. Additionally, those types of individuals were also the ones that granted the most mana.

And every Geared – aside from the ones in the reservoirs – were similar.

A minute passed and the silence broke. Uncanny cries – or what sounded like it – began to echo through every passage. Soon a symphony of mangled noises surrounded her, and she bathed in it with delight.

The [Curse of Desire] only needed one of two specific criteria to be met for it to affect its target.

The first was that Uru’s black tentacles needed to physical touch the victim. The second was reserved for those who had injured and exposed the putrid mass beneath her flesh in the past.

Furthermore, the [Curse of Desire] could only affect a person once so long as their deepest desire remained the same. This was its ultimate flaw, for if one overcame the Curse then it rendered her trump card useless.

As such, it was reserved strictly for foes that were vastly more powerful than herself and for beings she considered cannon fodder as a means of extracting mana. These two were the easiest to take advantage of and were certain to perish after being inflicted with the [Curse of Desire].

The only exceptions were Exrite, his companions and Phase.

To use it at all times was both stupid and an insult to the Overlord who granted her this power. This was solely because of its one-time-use flaw. If someone powerful – as unlikely as it was – survived the [Curse of Desire] without her knowledge, then she ran a risk of crossing paths with an immune enemy one day.

Uru was the type of person to eliminate such risks at all costs. If it weren’t for Exrite, then Bailey and Allen would have been dead the very moment she laid eyes on them. But they didn’t hold any real risk to her. They were too weak to even scratch the surface of her skin.

However, the real reason wasn’t because of that. It was trust.

Phase was a different story, and Uru couldn’t find an exact answer as to why she let her live. Only excuses such as “Because she’s Her daughter.” Or, “Phase is chained with guilt. Turning against me now will break her.”, constantly revolved in the back of her mind.

Ultimately, she blamed Exrite. Though it didn’t matter to her. In the end, Phase was closely acquainted with the new Maiden of Time and the Children of Balance.

And above all; Phase was not who she sought revenge against.

The one thousand years she damned her to was nothing compared to the betrayal of her entire race.

Uru disappeared into the darkness of the floor. Now that all the Geared’s mana were harvested, her next objective was to obviously activate the remaining obelisks. She was like a shark in the sea of black, and a powerful current followed in the wake of her flight.

In only a few hours Uru was able to reach all five obelisks. Why was it only five? This was because the number of obelisks deceased by one after every fifth floor, or after every reservoir more specifically.

It tied in with the fact that the floors gradually shrunk as one descended.

Uru touched the door’s reflective surface, which revealed her charcoal-black body in its entirety. A small hum left her lips. She would have to wait for the door to open by itself again. Under what circumstance it opens was unknown, but she knew for certain that if the obelisks weren’t activated then it wouldn’t open at all.

As a result, Uru’s descent – and everyone else’s – was controlled by the random opening of the door.

However, it seemed to be opening faster ever since she passed the <46th Floor>. Days of waiting was dramatically reduced to only one, and past the <51st Floor>, it became mere hours.

Likewise, the door rumbled and screamed open only a handful of hours later.

Uru’s brows furrowed. But despite how she looked – she was eternally pleased by this, though she imagined not as much as a certain Colour.

The thought mused her. She vaguely remembered the last time a minor thought concerning a companion crossed her mind. In recent times these thoughts concerned Exrite and the Frostbitten, but Uru held them closer than mere companions.

“I trust that I’m not making the same mistake again.” She uttered in a soft hum. In the past it was her companions which turned their backs against her which was why Uru felt conflicted by her thoughts regarding Black and White.

She pondered as she gracefully descended into the <58th Floor>.

* * *

Days earlier.

Where Uru consumed the desires and mana of the Geared, another consumed every fibre of their being. His insatiable hunger drove him though a relentless quest to devour all that existed in this trial and destroy everything within.

Exrite dominated the moss-coated caverns of the <47th Floor> with nothing but his bare hands. Compared to the Geared of the saturated floor prior they were nothing in comparison.

His shadow became flames, for a wildfire followed wherever he treaded. In hours the entirety of the <47th Floor> was smothered with soot and ashes of the unfortunate Geared. Surprisingly, they were considered the ‘lucky’ ones.

Compared to being torn limb from limb, the flames were without a doubt a far more merciful way to perish. Exrite’s normal combat style, which usually consisted of him targeting the weak points of enemies – such as tendons, heads and other vulnerable places – was enhanced by a tenfold.

Given his abnormal regeneration and resurrected nature of recklessly diving straight into battle, it was not hard to see why.

He dashed through these scorched caverns in search for the exit. His presence was known to all those that lurked in every corner and down every dimly lit tunnel, for every step he took cracked the stone underneath.

This was all on purpose. Exrite couldn’t leave a single crumb of flesh wasted; though his sentiments seemed contradictory considering the many he already incinerated.

It was all out of pure instinct; a drive that he couldn’t control, and he mostly attributed it to rage.

None of you get to live.

Those words among many endlessly revolved in his mind.

The handful of strays he encountered on his path were slaughtered; they cut at their limbs and struct at their vitals with unparallel efficiency.

One such case was against a giant praying mantis.

The monster towered over him well over 3 meters and possessed four arms; each armed with an extended blade-like appendages. During his sprint he watched it slice the air with a speed that not even his eyes could track. Any normal being would think twice before getting within its melee range.

However, Exrite did not hesitate once to thrust himself straight into it. Seeing that his approach hadn’t stopped, but instead somehow increased, seemed to confuse the mantis for a split second.

And in the next, all four blades connected. However, by some impossible feat, the blades did not pass through as expected. Horror filled the monster’s honey-comb eyes when it saw that two of its blades had been stopped by two hand-sized Gears, and the others were embedded within his forearms.

Indeed, his bones were too strong for such lethal weapons to cleave through. In the next moment, and without a single word leaving his lips, Exrite lunged straight past the arms of the mantis, grappled onto its back and tore off one of its arms.

The mantis wailed in pain, twisted its head and threw its arms at Exrite once more. But as if by some form of magic or trickery; its own arm came hurling back. As Exrite was penetrated by one of its blades – with the other two being blocked by his Gears – he swung the detached arm like a scythe and cleanly cleaved half of the mantis’ face off.

A crashing thud echoed as it fell lifelessly alongside Exrite. With the arm still in his possession, he began chewing into its thick exoskeleton like it was a giant loaf of bread. Only if it was an incredibly thick, dense and festering loaf of bread.

*Crunch* *Crunch *Crunch*

The blade was still embedded into him for the time being. Exrite couldn’t care less, let alone be bothered to remove it. All he wanted now was to devour the monster and leave for the next floor.

As he ate his meal in peace, a sudden thought came to mind.

I’m probably this floor’s final visitor. There won’t be anything left to eat here for the passing Geared. For now, at least. In time I’m sure things will slowly… return to normal. Gaia built this place after all, and there’s other instances of this descent… just what the hell is this place for the Geared?

When those last words passed his mind, he imagined a small hand pointing downwards. He took a violent bite from the mantis’ arm and it snapped into hundreds of fragments.

* * *

His descent quickly led him into yet another familiar cavern. The <53rd Floor> was vastly spacious and with a single glance one would assume they were at the bottom of a gaping ravine. The ceiling mimicked the night sky as thousands upon thousands of tiny gemstones shimmered from high above.

Exrite unexpectedly froze when he first set foot into this floor. For a moment he truly felt like he was back on the surface. He scowled at the thought seconds after, for he knew well that the surface was the last thing he would find down here.

He was far too deep to even imagine it.

The ravine branched off into dozens more and were connected in a network that resembled a spider’s web. Very few creatures roamed this floor as far as he could tell, however, he didn’t trust his eyes.

The number of Geared compared to the previous floor was like night and day. He honed his senses and set forth into the uneven, unstable path before him. A forest of rocks and boulders protruded form the walls and ground unnaturally.

Some clusters were even found to contain pools of blood and bones, and some oozing from cracks like they were bleeding. He wandered close by one of these clusters unaware of their sinister nature and was immediately greeted by a series of screeches.

GWAGH!!!

These rocks and boulders were living creatures. Spider-like legs emerged from the undersides of the rocks as dozens of red eyes glowed from beneath. They varied greatly in size, some even reaching as tall as 3 meters.

At first he was surprised to see a coordinated ambush by the Geared. He thought for sure that coordination of species and monsters only existed in the Reservoirs.

However, this was no coordinated attack. The monsters seemed to attack whatever moved in its vicinity including other rock-like spiders. Exrite was merely the target for the smaller ones, which scurried towards him like miniature Bouldermites.

He crushed them with the soles of his feet, then he doused the larger ones with [Liquid Fire]. The liquid sept through the cracks of their shell and cooked them from the inside out almost instantly. They rattled in their shells as they simmered in a deadly soup with the largest one leaping towards him with surprisingly speed.

But that was a mistake. The underside was left open to him, and he didn’t waste this opportunity to strike. He launched himself and met with it in mid-air. Then, with a splendid kick, the creature went crashing into the ravine walls.

The creature was surprisingly light despite its size and rocky armour. He mostly attributed it to the fact that most of the rock was actually tissue that resembled rock, hence why they bled.

Its impact shook the floor. In that moment over fifty rock-like monsters sprung from their slumber and began to massacre one another. How they have been undisturbed until now was a mystery.

It was as if everything here was set for this one moment. He didn’t know to what extent that was true, but it wouldn’t be wrong to assume this. After all, the <40Th Floor> exhibited something similar with its one-time-use obelisk.

While he could’ve exited from any other obelisk, that one in particular had the [Gear].

Exrite grated his teeth, and as expected, a peculiar Geared arrived at the scene.

There it is. The one Geared that always sticks around in the hunting grounds. The apex predator of the floor.

Indeed. Nearly in every floor there was at least one Geared that was considerably stronger than the rest, obviously because they used the floor as their hunting ground.

The walls of the ravine cracked, and a landslide of debris crushed many slumbering Geared in its wake.

A Decanid – or what looked like one – stumbled from its chamber and set its many glowing eyes on him. The massive beast was only half the size of the Decanid and was constructed out of the same rock-like tissue as the others.

He could tell because of the streams of blood which fell from each of its ten legs.

Exrite studied it for a moment as if in awe.

But that soon turned to hunger.

Like the Decanid, there was no obvious weakness for something of its size. However, there was one thing he knew that affected it more than anything else.

*Ca-chink!*

Exrite loaded a round into his sniper rifle, and with only the pull of a trigger, he killed more than a dozen Geared. The bullet carved a hole straight through behemoth, and through its gaping wound he saw the other end of the ravine cave in with a deafening thud.

As the beast fell, the dozens more that awoke all around him had their shells peeled clean off and their innards cooked faster than the sound could reach his ears.

A crater of smouldering stone formed beneath him. Aside from some slight smoke from his forearms; that was the extent of the damage he personally took with his revamped sniper rifle.

He was awed by its destructive might once again, and after witnessing the annihilation around him he was able to put his body’s strength into perspective.

It was stubbornly persistent. Barely human at this point. Even in the wake of something as powerful as his weapon there was not a shadow of a doubt that he would live.

He exhaled heavily as the ground violently shook once more. Many boulders began to rouse from their slumber in the distance, taking various forms that both disgusted and surprised him at the same time.

Scorpions, spiders, golems, crabs – a plethora of rocky monsters emerged and fought almost as quickly as they awoke. They lashed out at whatever moved, including each other and Exrite once again couldn’t believe that this had never happened until now.

He was certain that this path was handmade for this very moment.

He exhaled heavily and gripped the thought. Other floors like this were bound to exist. And as hundreds more boulders began to rouse from their slumber in the distance, Exrite loaded another bullet.

* * *

Darkness welcomed him at the entrance of the <55th Floor>. Here the gemstones which commonly lit the floors above were ominously absent. It was possible that they still lined the walls, as Exrite suspected when dragged a hand against the wall for guidance and felt smooth lumps and angular grooves along the way.

If his memory served him correctly, then these gemstones were inactive gemstones. These were essentially gemstones that contained no mana, and appeared dull, dark and produced no light as a result.

Exrite tread through the darkness with only the walls as his guide. Strange sounds whispered around him. Though they were high-pitched, he found it nearly impossible to make them out.

Even with the bright light of his Eye of Despair he could barely see an arm’s length in front of him. His humanly senses were no match for the all-consuming darkness of this floor, which seemingly devoured the noises around him.

However, he had tools at his disposal.

[Liquid Fire] was used to both banish the darkness and create a recognisable trail. This way he would be able to tell which tunnels he had already explored.

Additionally, the [Liquid Fire] had a third use. In this floor where Exrite accepted that there was no feasible way to hunt down the Geared with his inferior senses, he planned to lure them in with sound and light.

His footsteps demanded the attention of their ears and the flames consumed their sight, both of which would inevitably lead the lurking Geared back to him.

And as expected – something approached.

Or rather, something lunged at him.

“– What!?”

An invisible whip cleanly cleaved through his right arm and launched it into the air beside him. In the split second it took to comprehend what had just happened his arm had been snatched away into the foreboding darkness by the same whip.

Exrite couldn’t believe how easily his arm had been severed.

Since emerging from his Gear and mana overdose in the <46th Floor> his body had endured a thousand cuts and gashes. Many had even reached the marrow of his bones. But none had ever managed to cut through his bone entirely.

For it to come off so easily was alarming, but that instinctual worry was instantly drowned by his relentless rage and intent to devour it.

His taken arm swam towards what looked like a smile in the dark. If he didn’t know any better, he would’ve believed that it was the darkness itself smiling at him tauntingly.

The smile split into a cavernous maw and devoured it as quickly as it opened. Crackling of bone soon filled the cave, and the sound of crawling and sifting stone hailed around him.

Exrite – understanding his severe disadvantage against the Geared – instantly drew his limeite pick-hatchet and lunged towards those sounds. With nothing to detect the monster save for his ears Exrite could only estimate its location as he followed in suit.

His swings were wild and rampant, connecting with only the stone walls of the cave as he simultaneously crashed into those walls and ceiling with every leap.

As sporadic as his movement were it also served a secondary purpose. The whip which severed his arm was lashed at him as they danced in the dark. It rippled and screamed around him, sometimes close enough to leave lacerations across his bare body.

Mobility was his greatest ally in this pursuit. No matter how strong his body was there was no feasible way to defend himself against a single strike.

But defence was never a priority anyway.

[Liquid Fire] soon pooled into the fissures he left with each step. He planned to both illuminate the cave and create areas where he was certain the monster wouldn’t dare to tread.

However, within a mere minute of springing from wall to wall he quickly realised that there was something awry in his plan.

The light could only go so far. In fact, the light that emanated from the many scattered pools of [Liquid Fire] could barely cut through a metre of darkness.

“What the fuck is that…? Is that magic?”

Exrite growled, suspecting the irregularity as such.

Confusion ran through his body like an electric through as he clawed at the recesses of his mind for something – anything – that resembled the magic before him.

He had seen mages snuff out fires to eliminate their light and seen sorcerers summon clouds to cloak the light of the moon, but never had he ever seen nor heard of anyone fizzle light from the light itself.

Light had always been eliminated by either destroying the source, or, by obstructing its path. The heat and flames still erupted from the pools which only furthered his belief that the magic did indeed only affect light.

“Magic that erases light… [Light-Eliminating] magic.”

He naturally came to call it. It amused him. The discovery of the magic almost caused him to snicker, as would anyone who had just discovered a new form of magic.

But this was not the case with Exrite. There was a reason as to why mages purposefully avoided manipulating light.

It was simple. [Light] magic – contrary to its name – was an incredibly taxing kind of magic. Reversing light or nullifying it was likely a tenfold more mana expensive. It followed the same principle as [Time] magic, where reversing it or even stopping it was far more costly than distorting it.

For this reason [Light] magic was often omitted or glossed over in texts. The few that did contain any worthwhile information only focused on simple light manipulation. One such magic he could think of was [Illuminal Haze] which mimicked the effect of how light distorted under the influence of heat.

There was little benefit to use [Light] magic. One could easily replicate the effects with a simple [Fire Ball] with only a sliver of mana. For this reason [Light] magic’s only notable use was creating light, such as [Flare]. But even that could be performed with [Fire]-based magic.

So, what did this have to do with his battle? Simply put; the Geared was doomed undergo a mana depletion so long as Exrite continued to pursue it. In this lightless floor – where the gemstones were depleted of mana – there was no external mana to draw from.

Exrite realised this when he tried uttering a [Flare] earlier.

[Liquid Fire] wasn’t used just for the sake of it. It was because he was deprived of every other option. And now – it was also his greatest advantage in this fight.

During these minutes Exrite created massive molten rings which spanned from the ground to the ceiling on both ends of the cavern. If the Geared wanted to flee then it would have to willingly incinerate itself.

It was trapped here with him.

Additionally, its movements gradually became slower as time went on. This was expected. After all, the monster was likely an ambush predator. It was not made for a drawn-out pursuit.

By this time Exrite’s arm had already regrown, and the black haze that consumed the light shrunk down to half its size. The black ball moved like a blind spot and appeared unnatural in this burning cavern. As the darkness dwindled, so did its accuracy with its deadly whip.

Then, the shadow finally disappeared. What emerged was an eyeless body in the shape of a ball. Four spider-like legs ran down each corner, each coated with a thin veil of pale, transparent skin. Above its cracked maw was long, retractable appendage which was tipped with a razor-sharp blade.

This was undoubtedly the ‘whip’ which had cleaved his arm off so effortlessly.

Exrite shifted his attention to it immediately as the Geared clumsily made efforts to sever him with its whip. The sifts of stone and crawling that once filled the cave degraded into noisy clambers, for the Geared suddenly began to struggle to keep up with Exrite.

He had a vague idea on what was going on. Aside from stamina and mana, the Geared likely possessed some form of [Dark Vision]. [Night Vision] was out of the question, because it was still able to follow him even in the total absence of light.

However, this ability harboured one fatal flaw. Light appeared far brighter than normal under the lens of [Dark Vision], which usually rendered a person or thing blind as a result. If they had no way to deactivate [Dark Vision] then light was their permanent bane.

At first, he was uncertain if this was the case, seeing that the creature possessed no eyes. But when he watched its mouth gape when it screamed in rage; he saw the pale sclera of an eye deep within its throat.

Dodging became easy, and his swings began to cut close with the Geared the longer this battle dragged on.

It could still accurately sense his position. However, it could not see what Exrite had prepared himself for. Even now it was still difficult to land an effective strike on the Geared.

There would be little left of it to eat if he annihilated it with his [Liquid Fire] or his sniper rifle. The realisation struck him in the previous floor where hundreds of the rock-like Geared were rendered inedible due to the destructive nature of his sniper rifle and his [Gears]. Of course, that was assuming that even a hair of their body remained.

Exrite wanted nothing less than to devour everything.

The barbed appendage was thrown at him once more in a last-ditch effort to intercept him as he crashed with its last known location. It clearly aimed to cleave him in half. However, it must’ve miscalculated. Or more specifically – it severely underestimated Exrite’s dexterity.

Because when that appendage swiped just a hair above him, Exrite swiftly clutched it with his free hand and sliced the barbed tip with his dagger. Nothing but pure instinct drove him as he tugged himself straight towards the Geared, which had grounded itself in agony.

He reeled his limeite pick-hatchet and swung it straight into the creature. Victory was assured, but to his surprise – its maws suddenly opened and devoured his arm alongside with the weapon.

Teeth began to grind down his flesh and bones the moment it snapped shut like a rattrap. The Geared pushed forward in an attempt to knock him down and devour him whole in its next bite.

But Exrite didn’t budge. Instead, he grit his teeth and positioned his knee below its chin. Then, he leveraged what was left of his right arm downwards into his kick which crushed it like a metal cup. The spiky part of his hatchet burst through its head as it screamed.

He did it once more. And again. And again, and again until his arm was finally torn off from the shoulder. The Geared – which was once a pale ball – beared no resemblance to any shape anymore. It was a shapeless blob; a sack of meat filled with crushed bones.

Or in his eyes; it was nothing more than a meal.

Like a rabid dog Exrite fell to his knees and fed on it, tearing through its thick skin with only his teeth. Through many mouthfuls of putrid flesh, he wondered why the creature failed to undergo a gear overload.

His gears were undoubtedly far superior to anything on this floor. Even a drop of blood would immobilise them at worse. Then, when he reached its stomach cavity, he found his answer.

“… I think this what they call a paradox, right…? That’s my arm in there – well… what’s left of it.”

Exrite was mused by this. The sight was nothing new. Having said that, there was a certain sizzling that caught his attention.

“Its stomach acid… its burning through the stone but not my bones? Not even my skin? Impressive. No wonder it didn’t show any symptoms of a gear overload.”

Although he was resistant to the corrosive juices, his hands began to tingle painfully after some time. He was not totally immune. Nevertheless, this resistance was a welcomed surprise.

And to his good fortune – this was not the only surprise in store for him.

A spiral of heat roused in his crimson eye as electricity briefly ran through him. The sensation was welcomingly familiar. This was an ‘adaptation’. A change. A development. While it wasn’t strength it, Exrite clearly saw its grand value, to which the prospects of attaining strength could not compare to.

His crimson eye flared like a beacon, and the cavern exploded with a blinding light. As he clamped his eye shut Exrite immediately knew that he had attained an ability most appropriate for this floor.

This ability was of course – [Dark Vision].

* * *

Part 3 –

 

Exrite pushed on. His prowess took him past the <58th Floor> where his mental fortitude was tested once again. Upon reaching the feet of the <58th Floor> his heart sank like an anchor into a cold sea.

Before him were speleothems of all kinds which hung from the ceiling and walls like rows of teeth. There was barely a metre reserved for anything but these towering structures. Nothing could describe the path better than a ‘maze’ built for Dwarves.

It was wet here. The cavern salivated. Water dripped from places he could never find. He imagined the cavern swallowing him whole. It was an illusion no doubt – but he couldn’t help but to feel as though the cavern were alive.

Exrite’s body tensed. As his fears of tight spaces began to gnaw at his mind, he reminded himself of his goal; of his purpose; and of his friends who were certainly waiting for him below.

An audible gulp left his lips.

“… how pathetic… to show a God my resolve only be stumped by this. This…”

Edge filled with his voice. He couldn’t feel more insulted. He agonised over this fact as his hands slowly slid to his knees. They buckled but remained strong. He became tired, faint and lightheaded.

“There’s no way I can stop here. I chose to stay… I chose to stay here and overcome this myself. No one’s going to save me. No one’s going to help me…”

He spoke from his heart. Turning back was not an option. No – that option was gone the very moment he chose to break the cycle; the chain of events that once separated him from his sisters.

“… Only I can save myself. Only I… can save myself down here.”

Along with those words arrived an unrivalled form of determination. He broke into a faint smile, because he knew how ironic those words were.

He knew that he couldn’t save himself if it weren’t for his friends. There was no doubt in his mind that he could persevere with his strength, but what would it all be for if there was no one to return to in the end?

The thought scared him. But more than that – it bellowed a wildfire of rage within his chest. In an instant, he turned to the maze of rock and smashed them with every ounce of power he could muster.

To him the speleothems were just as a greater danger than the Geared and saw them equally as those who had wronged him in the past. They were the bounds that once strapped him in that dark room, and he sought to destroy them all along with the Geared.

The cavern screamed in agony; crashes, thuds and explosions of rock reverberated like a cry for help. Geared were soon drawn to the commotion, though they didn’t last any longer than the towering speleothems.

* * *

The same claustrophobic mess repeated itself over the next few floors. Amid his path of destruct, Exrite gained yet another ‘adaptation’. Like [Dark Vision], it seemed more like an ability than a biological change.

This was [Threat Detection] – an ability which allowed one to detect threats within its area of effect. This came as a surprise to him. Most detection magic required a continuous source of mana. Exrite – who barely had an existing mana capacity – would be depleted with a second of using it.

This is what was supposed to happen. However, this was not the case with Exrite. It was always active regardless of his lacklustre mana and its coverage was frighteningly effective; reaching to as far as 10 metres around him.

As far as he was concerned; there was nothing that could explain this. Not written or spoken literature of magic had ever mentioned an irregularity of this kind.

He could only hope that Uru, or better yet, Melody carried the answer.

Or, perhaps the answer was simply waiting for him down in the depths.

That aside – his experience with [Threat Detection] was interesting. It seemed that there were multiple factors that played into determining what was considered a threat; most notably the user’s current state of mind.

Traditionally [Threat Detection] targeted living beings that bared obvious intention to harm. Objects were rare, most presumably because by the time they could process it they would have already been killed by said object.

But Exrite – as always – was an anomaly. Bearing this knowledge in mind, he was stupefied when he began detecting hundreds of threats around him amid the <59th Floor>.

There were no Geared in sight. Only hundreds of speleothems surrounded him. It was then that he realised that [Threat Detection] processed two types of threats.

The first were objective threats; which were essentially threats which would undeniably cause harm to the user. This worked solely on one’s senses, intuition, instinct and other infallible information.

The second were subjective threats. This entirely depended on the user’s state of mind. Fears, prejudice and emotions also played a vital part in deciding what was a threat or not. In short, anything had the potentially to be a threat.

And in Exrite’s case; it was hundreds of speleothems.

They tormented him. Every sight of the narrow passages roused fear in his heart, despite being drowned in rage. His actions were out of desperation; like how a wild animal would try to escape from its cage. It wasn’t long before the fear reached his throat and he began to roar in hopes of release.

His throat ripped itself apart over and over, never becoming hoarse due to it constantly repairing itself. Never had he experienced such an overwhelming desire to destroy everything in his path. He was submerged in a sea of fear and rage, lasting him until the very end when he reached light of the [64th Floor].

He stumbled and nearly fell to his knees. Release surged through him like a wave as his body suddenly became light. The longer he blankly stared at the vast surroundings, the more his lungs filled with air until he finally vented it all out in utter relief.

The anger and fear that once welled in him disappeared without a trace. Like it was all just a nightmare, and he had finally woken up. Shakily, Exrite brought a hand to his face and whispered:

“I did it… I’m finally out of there… Ah… ahaha… ha… I hate this.”

His voice was rugged and full of emotion.

He was eternally thankful. Though this was short lived. He couldn’t celebrate now. The end has still yet to come. This wouldn’t be over until he was reunited with his friends. As such, strength slowly began to reinvigorate his being.

Then, as he looked forth into the vast crystallised cavern before him, he softly muttered:

“… please be down there.”

* * *

From the <64th Floor> to the <66th Floor>, massive deposits of crystals reached across the massive cavern like a spider’s web. They were huge, spanning dozens of metres in width alone, and hundreds in length.

Randomly scattered pools of boiling water filled the bottom layer of these floors. From where the pools were being heated from was unknown, though Exrite suspected that it must’ve had something to do with the glowing crystals submerged within them.

There was no floor quite as bright as this one; as every crystal here emitted some sort of light. He excelled here, finding little challenge in the terrain and the Geared alike. However, there was no possible way an ordinary human – or humanoid for that matter – could survive down here for more than ten minutes.

Why was this so? The humidity here was so great that one would breathe more water than air. How did he know? This was simple – Exrite periodically needed to drain his lungs of fluid in order to combat the additional weight and ‘bloatedness’ which adversely affected his movement, as one would imagine.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the <65th Floor> where this ceased entirely, most likely as a result of an ‘adaptation’.

Another thing to consider here was the heat, although this was already nothing to worry about. Unless one was prepared beforehand, or knew appropriate magic to combat this, humanoids were certain to perish here.

Luckily, he was the only human in the group. The others could barely pass as humanoids, save for their appearances.

Uru was certainly the strangest of them all. After all, she had the ability to shape-shift. To what extent was unknown, and Uru’s secretive nature didn’t make this any easier.

Not to mention that there was little humans knew about the Demons in the first place. Most – if not all – of their knowledge came from prior conflicts dating back as far as tens of thousands of years ago. Likely more.

That aside –

After he had activated all 4 obelisks on this floor, he began to make his way towards where their beams pointed. A massive cloud of steam vented from the centre of the <66th Floor>. It could be seen from anywhere, even in the furthest reaches where Exrite currently was.

That was obviously where he had to go. His sniper rifle was primed and ready for whatever monster awaited him there, as he had come to realise that each Reservoir housed some sort of guardian to defend the doors.

It was also uncertain whether the others also had to go through something similar, or if any of the floors and obstacles were even remotely the same. His gut told him that it was likely. This was a trial, after all. For all of them… not just for him. Even the Geared were a part of this trial.

Their overarching goal was the same: to reach the bottom and attain the Attributed Whole. But some had already ‘found’ the bottom in these Reservoirs.

Some find something to latch onto along their fall, and they call that the bottom. This trial is just one big well. The further you fall, the more intense the despair becomes. That’s for the Geared though. I’ve already been through the worst, so it’s all just a matter of weaving through the obstacles in the well.

The term ‘blissful ignorance’ flashed before him and he sighed.

In the first place Exrite did not understand why the Geared despaired, or what they despaired. A part of it could be the brutal challenge of trying to survive until they reached the bottom, or the fact that they became abominations over time as they consumed one another.

Or – most importantly – did they know that they despaired?

Exrite thought of such things as he made his way to the centre of the floor. Being that there were no other monsters – the reason being that he had already eaten them – meant that was no harm in allowing his mind to wander.

In fact – he wished he could do so more often. Silence was a rare luxury. With no one to talk to, this was to be expected.

* * *

The steaming pool was far larger than he imagined. It laid in a deep sinkhole about as long as one of the cavern’s crystals. The steam made it difficult to find how far down the water’s surface rested. Even with his now honed eyesight, he could not make out the details on the other end of the sinkhole.

Above him was a similar hole. It led to nowhere, obscured entirely by steam and a ceiling somewhere within.

He surveyed the area with the eye of a hawk, yet still could not penetrate through the thick steam.

And so – Exrite pointed the barrel of his sniper rifle down into the sinkhole and pulled the trigger without a second thought. A massive column of steam instantly gushed out like a geyser as the water’s surface exploded into a pillar of foam.

Only the light of crystals faintly shone below. Other than that, there was nothing unusual to note. After he loaded another bullet, he jumped straight into the unknown with his gun cradled closely.

Into the water he went, and after a brief moment of disorientation – and his sniper rifle suddenly releasing a violent torrent of hot bubbles – he found himself in an underwater cavern that was far larger than the sinkhole alluded to.

Similarly, the glowing crystals which protruded from the underwater ceiling and walls only lined the places closest to the surface. One look beneath him revealed an endless abyss.

That was assuming Exrite lacked the appropriate ability for such an environment. [Dark Vision] revealed everything in these unmoving waters. But unbeknownst to him was that there was something else lurking here.

Unfortunately, by the time he could recognise what was going on – huge jaw caught his legs and began to jerk him from side to side. He was instantly ripped in two from the waist down and was thrown across the underwater chamber.

He could only look back through a cloud of blood as he began to sink further down due to the weight of his weapons. And when he caught a glimpse of his pale assailant – which looked like a serpent with a shark’s head – he tilted the barrel upwards at it and pulled the trigger.

– But nothing happened.

He clearly heard the trapdoor mechanism inside activate. Still, nothing happened. It wasn’t until he opened the chamber where he realised that his sniper rifle was completely submerged, including the reservoir which contained [Liquid Fire].

And to his dismay – [Liquid Fire] was necessary to fire a bullet, as he designed the sniper to use heat rather than a hammer to strike and ignite the bullets. In an act of desperation – and what seemed to be a good idea – Exrite swiftly poured [Liquid Fire] into the open chamber.

Water turned to vapour in an instant and violently heated the water around him to a sudden boil. After a split; second the bullet was set off.

However –

– His sniper rifle exploded.

A massive bubble of excited gas consumed him as blade-like fragments tore through was what left of his body. He entered freefall for a moment before the surrounding water came crashing back in to take him down with the rest of his broken equipment.

As if that wasn’t enough – a secondary shockwave hit him from underneath; almost as powerful as the first which knocked him back up into the oncoming jaws of the pale creature.

Exrite was shocked.

Not because of the pain or the catastrophic failure of his sniper rifle, but because of what he saw in the distance behind those set of jaws.

A long body followed its angler fish-like jaws. But it just kept on going and going until it tangled with many more similar bodies. There wasn’t one or two, or even ten. There was at least a hundred, many latched onto rocks while the rest were left suspended eerily.

A putrid mass larger than even the Decanid sat in the centre of it all, resembling nothing of this world. It boasted nothing but the hundred mouth-tipped arms which only knew how to consume.

Exrite could do nothing as he was torn and eaten by the beast. In the water he was nothing. Not even his [Gears] could save him.

Humans were never meant to reign over the depths of the ocean. No matter his strength, he could only move so much here – so much faster than the beast in this environment.

He was eternally thankful of his regenerative ability, which repeatedly restored his limbs and consciousness each time they were torn by teeth longer than his arms.

His last hope was to wait for it to undergo a gear overload so he could retreat to the surface.

He waited. And waited. Yet nothing had happened.

When… will it stop…? How much longer… will it keep eating…?

Exrite was confused.

Until now there was nothing that could match the power of the gears coursing through his veins. Not even the guardians of each Reservoir he conquered carried gears strong enough to illicit any negative reactions.

So why was this one so powerful? Why was there a sudden jump in gear strength?

He didn’t know. His mind was too focused on trying to scheme a plan that these thoughts were disregarded entirely. As he died thousands of times over and over and had his [Gears] stolen by its jaws, Exrite vowed to return the favour by tenfold.

All he had to do was wait.

* * *

And wait he did. Hours? Days? He didn’t know. His consciousness faded in and out like flickering lights. The pain was extraordinary, and he had no vessel to scream. But he was used to this from so long ago. This only added fuel to the inferno that was his rage.

Touch began to return. Then, the rest of his senses. The beast must’ve had its fill, considering that his body had completely regenerated. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the vast emptiness above.

Then, when he reached a hand for the surface, his fingers brushed along what felt like stone.

But this was not stone. Around him at the bottom of the pool was a bed of fragmented bones. There were thousands. How many times did he die just to sate the hunger of that thing?

The thought endlessly rattled in his mind as he rushed to the surface, fearing that it could become hungry and attack him once again. Along the way he watched the monster with an inseparable gaze. If he had the means to kill it now, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

However – there was only so much he could do without his weapons, especially in an underwater environment.

Suddenly, his eyes sharply narrowed.

One of its arms isn’t moving like the rest. It’s completely flaccid. There was one ‘arm’ close to the explosion, wasn’t there? Right. Yes. Yes, there was. But that explosion wasn’t anything too significant. Outside the water it wouldn’t have been enough to damage it… the ‘arm’ wasn’t within range.

Exrite wondered if explosions had some sort of a stronger effect underwater. It would explain why his rifle exploded in the first place, and why the blast felt like he had crashed into an invisible wall.

Finding a logical answer was difficult, but he couldn’t see this in any other way.

Regardless – Exrite adored this discovery. Black – the master of weapons – surely had an explanation for this. Until then, he would have to use this to his advantage against the beast.

He reached the surface and quickly scaled the sinkhole with nothing but his hands, feet and a demeanour that didn’t look like someone who had lost. Rather – it was one of a man who had already claimed victory.

A plan manifested in his mind, and it would involve explosive powder.

Massive amounts of explosive powder.

And thankfully, there was one place that housed more than enough for him to indulge in his path of destruction.

This place was none other than the <46th Floor>.

* * *

The hunt began. Piles of the explosive material were carried into the chamber of the <46th Floor>.

Most of the explosive, hardened gel was buried in mounds of steaming dirt and charred bark. When disturbed they would glow a violent orange, shoot out embers and release a substantial amount of heat. He had even seen fires restart as a result of a misplaced step.

In short – this place was a massive minefield.

Exrite thanked his [Threat Detection] for doing most of the work. Without it, there was no way he would have gathered so many without a single explosion.

Other Geared were also sighted here, although none lasted long enough to be considered a threat, let alone reach an obelisk. Every so often an explosion would go off, undoubtably being set off by a wandering Geared.

What a waste.

He’d mentally say every time without fail.

It wasn’t long before a massive pile of explosive rock was gathered in the centre of the chamber. He took a long look at the pile and estimated a yield of 6 kegs worth of explosive powder was possible. 7 if he was careful and he didn’t ground them too roughly or too quickly to cause an explosion.

He simulated the destructive might of the sheer number of explosives before him and nodded to himself. The thought of ‘overkill’ never crossed his mind. As unnecessarily destructive as it was, he could not see it as anything but necessary.

For reference of the explosive yield: Black’s missiles each contained 2 barrels of explosive powder each which was more than enough to destroy a war-ready airship.

In addition to the amplifying effect that water seemed to have with explosives – this was absolutely overkill.

An air-tight vessel would also be required for the explosive powder.

His eyes lit up as he looked to the carcass of the Megitavis.

What he saw was metal. More metal than his heart could ever ask for was sitting right before him. Realising this – and after mentally crafting a list of equipment to recreate – he quickly went to work.

Firstly – he laid out two massive areas where metals were to be heated in a pool of [Liquid Fire]. One was for the feathers of the Megitavis whereas the other was for limeite. In the meantime, he grounded the explosive rocks to powder in a corner furthest away from the heat.

A monotonous spiral of repetitive crushing consumed him for hours on end. The only time he managed to pull himself away from this constant grounding was when he had to dismantle his legs to take the femurs as material for a new sniper rifle.

And – for one more thing.

He needed a weapon that could be used underwater. Small projectiles were useless no matter how much power they possessed. They’d be stopped within a mere metre in the water as he found out.

With this in mind; a design sprung in his mind and he felt for his waist where an empty leather pouch once hung. There, he remembered the iron bolts of a certain crossbow.

But it would have to be large. Very, very large if it were to be effective underwater.

He kept his head down until every piece of explosive rock was grounded into a fine powder. By then the metal feathers had become white-hot and near liquid. Hollow balls larger than the size of his torso were created from this metal – although calling them ‘circles’ was generous at best.

Some were much smaller than the rest.

Until the metal cooled then the limeite softened, there was little else to be done.

Or so he thought.

It would be a waste to leave the upper floors untouched.

* * *

The sound of screeching metal echoed throughout the floors. It was a new sound; one that had never touched the walls of these caverns. Only the caverns witnessed this unfamiliar screech for everything else had died.

If a Geared were to follow this noise they’d find what would appear to be a giant, metal snail. But this was far from a snail. In fact, the metal shell was actually a huge bundle of metal spheres which were all held together in a fibrous net.

Furthermore, it was a mere human who carried it. Half of the bundle followed on the ground, scraping as the metal crushed whatever pebble or rock stood in its way.

He couldn’t tell how heavy the cargo was; only that they were difficult to hold altogether as a result of the spherical design which saw them roll and shift with every step he took.

A yield of roughly 2 barrels worth of explosive powder was collectively stored in these spheres. As a result, Exrite made additional trips from the <46th Floor> to the <66th Floor> until all 3 explosive bundles were brought to the very edge of the steaming sinkhole.

He gazed into its depths with a foot behind one of the explosive bundles. There was no doubt in his mind that this would kill that colossal Geared. Even one would suffice.

Now for the fuse.

An object was pulled from his crowded metal belt. In his hand was a long device comprised of metal, plant fibre and explosive powder. Simply put – this was a grenade.

Only a little amount of explosive powder resided at the bottom; a trade-off in order to extend the fuse length, hence the lengthy design of the grenade.

However, due to the nature of explosive powder, this amount was still considerably powerful and more than enough to detonate the other bombs.

… this place won’t collapse, will it?

The joke unsettled him slightly as a wry smile formed across his face. With a long sigh, he anchored his sight to the bottom once again.

Then, as his [Gears] hovered beside the fuse in preparation; Exrite methodically began to shove the bundles of explosives down into the sinkhole.

As this happened the grenade was lit, capped with a lid and then finally strapped onto the final batch before they disappeared into the white mist.

Silence thrived in the moments before the inevitable explosion. Constricting was no way to describe it. It was tantalising. Oddly deafening.

Seconds passed like minutes. He never dared to pull his eyes away from the sinkhole. In fact, they moved as if they were tracking the explosives through the impenetrable mist.

And then – the entire floor quaked.

In an instant the vapour was replaced with a massive column of water which nearly spanned the entirety of the sinkhole. It towered many metres above the edge where it fell with the force of a thousand boulders, splitting rock and crystals alike as if they were merely constructed of sand.

Massive fissures crept from the edge deep into land as the floor continued to shake as if everything was about to collapse. His instincts screamed at him, but before he could even blink –

The ground beneath him sunk.

No. It was not just the piece of land he stood on. It was the entire floor that encompassed the underwater ceiling beneath. The sheer power and movement of everything moving at once was utterly hypnotising.

But he could not afford to let it consume him. Not when he was amid the chaos. He swiftly escaped the falling world, jumping from one sliding debris to another as he battled with violent winds that tried to drag him down with the rest.

Eventually, he reached the safety of the wall where he anchored himself and watched in awe.

“Unbelievable…” He muttered. “The last thing on my mind was exactly this. Did… did I miscount somewhere? That does not look like 6- or 7-barrels worth of explosive powder. That’s like 50.”

He realised that the answer must have laid in the fact that this version of explosive powder was not quite the same as the one he and the rest of Eastern Six Point were familiar with. In large quantities it seemed that the explosive yield was significantly more than regular explosive powder, yet in smaller quantities they were relatively the same.

Thus, there was no reason for him to believe – let alone expect – that it would be any different on the other end of the scale. How wrong he was.

“… assumption is an insidious killer.”

Suffice to say – he was immensely surprised.

At the bottom of the wreckage there was a blue glow which caught his eye. It was there for only a fraction of a second. Or perhaps it was there from the start and he had only noticed it until now.

Then – a familiar scent assaulted his nose. It was the same as the smell that arrived before a looming storm. This was absurd, he thought. He was so far underground that this was simply impossible and more than likely a figment of his imagination.

What was that light?

He threw himself off when the chaos had finally subsided. The once vast space beneath was now a perilous maze of submerged stone, crystals and the limbs of the beast which were trapped in these spaces like giant eels.

It was dead, no doubt. Not a trace of life remained in any of the heads, and the way they softly swayed cemented this. Silence befell the world once again as he scanned the waters around him in search for the blue light.

Nothing. The light didn’t reappear. What he found instead was the malformed body of the monster, which rested on the bed of bones far beneath. It looked like a giant corpse flower from above, and the gaping centre seemed to watch him.

Did it come from there?

His gut told him this was correct. Otherwise where else did the light appear from? As he swam down into it, he was quickly taken aback by its true size.

No. That wasn’t it.

Its scale did not enrapture him so much as its appearance did.

This far down – or even further I wouldn’t be surprised to see Geared looking like this one. But not here. Not in the Reservoirs. This is supposed to be a sanctuary for the Geared. A place to escape despair.

The inhabitants of every Reservoir – including the ones that guarded their doors – possessed bodies that could only be described as ‘untainted’, unlike the rest of the Geared in this forsaken trial.

For the Geared: despair was reflected by how monstrous they appeared as a result of their adaptations. Compared to the ones of the Reservoir; their transformations were nothing short of abominable.

This knowledge was nothing new anyway. He already knew that the appearances of the Geared were linked to their state of despair; like a sick, living metaphor.

Exrite also had himself to prove this.

After all – he was still human in flesh, bone and… blood – to a certain extent. Despite being clad in despair he never allowed it to consume him.

Despair is wrong. I’m nothing like them.

He mentally affirmed.

Silence returned as he ventured further into the gaping wound. Soon, crimson water enshrouded him. This was likely the blood of the beast. With no vision or guide he could only move in the direction he believed was down.

… but… it’s not like we don’t share similarities. The Geared and I. Despair does turn people into monsters, no doubt. I probably looked like this to the people of the Katho Region. A monster.

Similar lines of thoughts clouded his mind as he blindly swam. The cavity was huge. Or it must’ve been, because he had yet to reach anything after minutes.

Then, he heard something.

It was the sound of ticking.

It was the sound of a [Gear].

He looked ahead and swam with urgency. Giant red structures began to pass by him in his peripheral vision. They were columns which seemed to stretch endlessly into the clouded water.

But as he drew close, they began to resemble sinews. In the distance an array of silhouettes seemed to tower and arch over him from behind the waters like a giant cage.

They looked like ribs.

An overwhelming sense of familiarity struck him from seemingly nowhere. The longer he embarked in this voyage, and as the pillars of sinew grew frequent, the more he began to somehow recognise this place.

A question rung at the back of his mind.

Why does this place feel so familiar? I’m… certain that I’ve never seen anything like this before. This isn’t a womb or some passage. It’s just the stomach of a monster… so why?

His heart ached wildly. He had killed so many Geared and seen the familiar sight of gore so many times yet not once had he felt this way. His heart told him he should’ve known at first glance.

Eventually, he reached the centre of this forsaken cavity. A red [Gear] the size of his torso hung suspended by a thick web of dozens of thick sinews. At the sight of the idle [Gear] – and in addition to his surroundings – he immediately knew what it truly was.

That [Gear] was this monster’s heart. Nothing could tell him otherwise.

The realisation mystified him, and he froze within an arm reach before it. His eyes instantly went from each looming pillar in the distance as he finally understood why this place felt so oddly familiar.

No. I thought I was inside of a monster this whole time, but… it feels more like the insides of another human. Everything falls into place so… recognisably.

He wondered if he was wrong, or if it was a trick of the mind. But soon he realised that he would be one of the last people to mistake the body – and the innards – of another human, no matter how grotesque it appeared.

Did this thing really mimic the insides of a human while it left its outer body looking like- whatever it was? I don’t believe it. Nothing so far shared any resemblance to a human. Nothing at all... not to mention this thing had a [Gear] for a heart. So – what the fuck is this then?

There was no answer. He could only hear the [Gear]’s subtle ticks and his non-existent breaths. The only other beings that had [Gears] for hearts were the Biomech and only the Biomech as far as he was concerned.

And that the was the problem. He was limited by his own knowledge so there was no avenue to search for an answer.

Except for one.

‘Down’. I have to go down. I only know that Gaia created the Biomech… and only they have hearts like this. But this isn’t a Biomech. I’m sure of it. She must’ve created this. There’s no other way. But I don’t know… How can I know when I’ve been told nothing and only given a single fucking direction to follow!?

He internally screamed as he ripped the [Gear] from its fleshy bounds in rage.

Minutes passed afterwards as he floated in place. When he seemed to calm down an invisible sigh left his mouth.

… I hate not knowing anything.

His eyes wandered to the [Gear] in hand and they softened, yet they seemed firm and held a fierce flame that not even the depths he swam in could ever dream to quell.

The [Gear] suddenly changed to a violent blue before he gained total control over it like another limb. A myriad of useful magic to infuse the [Gear] with came to mind. However, he held himself back from indulging as he set his sights to the floating sinew.

With the intention to consume them right here and now, he tore a lengthy piece and swallowed it alongside a stomach-full of bloodied water.

However –

– It this creature contained no gears.

* * *

Part 4 –

 

Exrite thoroughly prepared himself for the journey henceforth.

Only a select handful of his equipment which had sunk to the bottom of the <66th Floor> joined with his already crowded belt. Many were torn into metal ribbons by the jaws of the beast, others destroyed by the following explosions.

The limeite container which held the sniper’s bullets was torn from the inside out. Surprisingly, most bullets were left intact. Had only one of them exploded then he would’ve had to travel back to the <46th Floor> to create another batch. Not that he would’ve cared in the first place. What mattered more was that he was that he was able to recover Melody’s Gatestone from the ruins of the <66th Floor>.

When he found it amongst the rubble, his own bones and gore – a wave of relief washed over him from seemingly nowhere.

He didn’t see the object as some form of exit, or salvation. He saw it as something warm. Important. Not because it came from a Maiden, but rather because it was the only thing on him that belonged to the outside world.

With this in hand – and with all of his equipment strapped to his belt and back – he navigated through the maze of unstable debris and gore and departed from this floor.

The pool became an ocean. From the <67th Floor> to the <69th Floor> there was nothing but water and small islands at the surface. An empty void laid beneath all this water where sea-monsters lurked and struck at every chance they could.

In this underwater environment Exrite was at a severe disadvantage. How could a human possibly cope in such an overwhelming environment, let alone dominate it?

The answer was simple: tools.

It was here where Exrite was able to finally stretch the legs of an old, trusty weapon – the crossbow. Obviously, this was no ordinary crossbow. In fact, it could barely pass as one. If one had to describe it; it would be akin to a miniaturised handheld ballista.

The ‘crossbow’ rivalled the length of the sniper rifle and boasted a girth and weight which would require at least 3 men to operate. Limeite, his bones and tendons were used to construct this bulky weapon.

Upon sensing enemies with [Threat Detection], a bolt nearly as long as his entire body would be inserted into the crossbow. These were housed behind him with the sniper rifle and crossbow in a tight, quiver-like bag.

For something this size one would certainly require a lengthy wind-up process just to prime the crossbow.

However – Exrite was strong enough to do this singlehandedly. Reloading it was barely different than his old one-handed pull-load crossbow.

When fired the tendons cut through the water no different from air and left a violent vacuum in its wake. The same was for the over-sized bone-bolt which easily cruised more than 50 metres before it saw a sudden drop in speed.

But by then he had counted down 15 seconds as the unrecognisable creature rapidly approached like an ever-growing shadow. In the next moment the bolt violently exploded. The Geared – which appeared to be a cross between an octopus, shark and an eel – was ripped apart.

What had happened? It was simple: the bolt was filled with a small amount of explosive powder. The hollow structure of the bolt allowed him to insert explosive powder, a fuse and a tiny chamber which contained [Liquid Fire]. This chamber was designed to break when exposed to extreme motion or force.

To him – this was more complex than the snipe rifle, and if needed it can very well be a dozen times more powerful.

However, this was not his only weapon in his arsenal here. Indeed, the crossbow was a frighteningly powerful weapon in these waters, but it could only do so much against the more resilient Geared.

Not to mention those that can close the distance within the blink of an eye, or even the ones that had the capability to attack from out of his crossbow’s reach.

This was where the [Gear] he received from the <66th Floor> came in. Because of its size Exrite was tasked with imbuing it with the most powerful magic he currently possessed, which was [Blue Bullet].

However, [Blue Bullet] was not the magic that the [Gear] had accepted.

He latched onto the giant [Gear] as it dragged him through the water like a mount. The reason why he hadn’t been dragged down to the ocean bed was because of this.

From water to land, and from obelisk to obelisk he ventured whilst eliminating whatever Geared dared to challenge him. A ‘shark’ look-alike was his latest victim. The distant monster reeled its mouth open before a sudden flurry of powerful waves suddenly assaulted his body.

But Exrite was too sturdy to be affected by such a miniscule thing. If explosions had minimal effect on him then there was no hope for such an attack to succeed.

The largest of the three [Gears] took aim at the shark before a blue streak of light carved a hole from its mouth to its rear end in the blink of an eye. The hole rapid expanded and consumed a quarter of the shark in total.

This magic was the prototype [Seeker] he had created beforehand. This was [Blue Beam]; a [Heat Trail] without the heat. However, this was in some way an improved [Heat Trail]. Where that boasted fire, this boasted raw power.

To think this was only considered [Fifth Tiered] magic. Although, magic did scale with the strength of the user. Or in this case; the strength of the [Gear].

Exrite had spent a day – or even days – at the <66th Floor> chanting and ultimately undergoing yet another mana overload.

But this was a small price to pay to be able to cast magic indefinitely in a mana-less body like his.

That aside – Exrite carried on with haste, eventually reaching the foot of the exit of the <69th Floor> at the bottom of a trench somewhere in the ocean. It was here where the oceans subsided, and another section of the trial unravelled.

Water followed him down into the next floor. The streams were caught by numerous cracks in the dark staircase and subsequently drained. The staircase was longer than he expected. Far, far longer.

The abnormality raised some questions, but ultimately it wasn’t anything significant. However – when he reached the mouth of the <70th Floor> and looked back –

Impossible. The staircase isn’t that long.

Indeed. Its length was no different from the others. For some reason it took him longer – much longer – here.

Exrite could only scratch his head in disbelief. Eventually, he decided it was no use trying to decipher the trial’s anomalies. Not when he was promised answers at the very end.

But this was not an isolated case unfortunately. Throughout the <70th Floor> everything felt… wrong. Cracks riddled this place, with fissures and chasms reaching as far as tens of metres apart. Sometimes water could be seen draining through these into a darkness that not even [Dark Vision] could peer into.

Massive spaces filled this floor, all either empty or containing massive objects that couldn’t possibly be made by hand or by nature. Some of these objects were mirrors, and others were strange geometry which seemingly disappeared and reappeared into reality depending on where they were observed from.

They were like crystals. Or balls? Cubes? What were they? Exrite never arrived at a conclusion. He ventured through this chaotic floor feeling as though he was in an entirely different world with its own set of laws.

He described it like this because at times it seemed like everything in his vision came at him at once, and at times the scenery which he had just passed through came barrelling straight ahead of him as if the world could only exist in front of him; or if time was constantly moving back and forth.

But he knew that this was not the work of [Time] or some hallucination.

This was reality twisting and bending at the seams.

I’m not in another world or realm. That much I know. [Realm] magic can’t distort reality like this. It shouldn’t be able to.

Exrite dug deep into the recesses of his mind. His vow to forget about the anomalies of Gaia’s trial had been shattered by the sheer weight of his confusion and the torture which this distorted reality put his mind through.

Every book, every chapter, every page and every word in his library of memories were scrutinised to a terrifying degree. At this point he was less aware of his surroundings than he was of the isles in his mental library.

Dots were slowly connected. He narrowed it down to magic, and then, inevitably, the only magic that can alter the very essence of reality itself:

[Spatial] magic; the power of the Maiden of Space.

He was uncertain at first. Incredibly so. This was Gaia’s trial. She was the Maiden of Time. How could [Spatial] magic exist here, In a place that perhaps predated even the Children of Balance themselves.

Then the [Dimensional Mist] of the Shallows and of the <46th Floor> crept into the forefront of his mind, and his blood instantly froze.

… if Gaia also possessed [Realm] magic, then who is to say that she couldn’t use [Spatial] magic as well? This place was built during a time when the Maidens didn’t exist according to that [Gear]. A place even older than the Children of Balance if… if this is all true…

As Exrite watched various shapes dance in and out of reality around him he asked himself something he had asked countless of times in the past.

“What exactly is Gaia?”

He slowly shut his eyes as he treaded in the dark;

The only place that was ‘normal’ in this bizarre floor.

* * *

[Spatial] magic was one of the only [Fifteenth Tiered] magic that had its effects vaguely documented and seen throughout human literature. Even throughout the many human cultures and civilisations its effects and the stories varied significantly.

However, there was one characteristic of [Spatial] magic that repeatedly appeared in these vastly different groups. The consensus was –

– If the surroundings did not follow the rules and laws of this world; then [Spatial] magic was likely to be in effect.

This was obviously but a grain of sand compared to the true extent of [Spatial] magic, but this was all the humans and humanoid races knew. This extended to Exrite, who – as an avid reader of the magics – had come across numerous times.

It was how he was able to determine that the abnormalities of the <70th Floor> were caused by [Spatial] magic in the first place. He was impressed by their accuracy. Everything he experienced was exactly as he had read.

No one had ever witnessed, let alone experienced [Spatial] magic. Perhaps some have, but none had ever returned to tell the tale. And if someone did, how could one prove it?

For sure any ordinary person would have had their minds twisted and bent like the space around them.

Exrite was no exception either.

Thankfully, it wouldn’t be for long.

The exit was soon upon him at the end of a hallway he followed. The spatial anomalies gradually faded with each step. It wasn’t long before everything returned to normal.

He took a deep breath, his mind thanking him eternally.

The hallway twisted at odd angles. At each corner the cracked stone was slowly replaced by shards of some kind of reflective mineral. The walls and ceilings gradually took the form of the night sky, then a half-finished jigsaw puzzle.

By the time he had reached the final stretch every crumb of stone had been replaced with mirrors. The sound of crackling stone became quiet patters against the reflective floors. Not even the slightest fault or distortion could be found amongst these mirrors.

He reached the door at the end with an unreadable expression, his eyes focused more on his reflection than the gauges.

Exrite had seen himself so many times by using the doors surface. But this was the first time he was able to see himself so clearly ever since set foot into Gaia’s trial.

He felt compelled to look. Compelled to stare. It felt like he was in some sort of trance, but deep down he knew exactly why he needed to see himself in utmost clarity.

Then, after minutes of pure silence, Exrite broke into a soft smile.

He was relieved. Relieved that the person he saw in the mirror was still human. Little to nothing had changed physically since he first underwent the Final Dive in the <46th Floor>; apart from his height and somehow more muscular physique.

No matter how many he consumed or how many ‘adaptations’ he gained, he was still him.

He knew that of course, but it was different from seeing it from another’s perspective.

A mild sense of joy filled him. He was glad that despair hadn’t turned him into a monster like the rest of the Geared.

The doors opened and revealed a room composed of the same reflective mineral. Not even the stairs or the glowing gemstones were spared. He descended and reached the entrance of the <71st> floor.

And as expected – everything here was also entirely composed of mirrors.

A complex labyrinth unfolded. Judging by the floor, he estimated that completing this floor would take no less than 30 minutes.

However, navigating proved to be no easy task, although, it was considerably easier than the spatial anomalies. His mind thanked him once again.

The light here lacked any obvious origin or end. Not a single shadow was cast. The floor was silent despite the sound of shattering echoing infinitely around him. Like the light: it was impossible to accurately read where they came from even with his heightened senses.

He was mildly disoriented. Corners were never easy to find. The shorter walls were scaled or broken to reveal new passages as well as to relay his position to the lurking Geared.

However, his attempts were fruitless. No Geared ever came for him. In the end, it was him who had to hunt them down.

One source of shattering soon drew near. At the end of a long lane, he turned into a corner and was met with the first Geared of the floor.

His eyes instantly narrowed.

In the centre of a garden of mirrors was an amalgamation of so many different monsters that he couldn’t even begin to name them all. What he saw was a monster in the truest sense.

And it seemed like he wasn’t the only one who agreed.

The Geared threw itself at the mirrors that dared to cast its reflection. An emotional roar accompanied every mirror that was destroyed.

It was of anguish.

Exrite could tell. From the sound of its voice to the way it moved. He froze as he watched it hammer the mirrors down to fragments, only for them to suddenly regrow and have the entire cycle repeat itself. The same harrowing roar resounded without fail over and over.

Confusion and surprise hit him from both sides. It wasn’t the first time he had seen a Geared express emotion. Curiosity, attachment, anger, vengeance – he had seen them throughout his journey down here.

But none were like this. None were this intense. For the first time in a while Exrite felt like he was in the presence of… a person. Not a monster, despite how it looked. Why he felt this way irked him and stirred unnecessary emotions in his chest.

He spared its misery with a single ray of [Blue Beam]. The pitiful creature still attempted to beat the bed of shattered mirrors beneath it even in its last, dying breath.

No shred of emotion was shown on his face. He consumed it almost as quickly as he killed it and moved on. But the memory of the Geared festered in his mind, and it only continued as he ventured deeper into this forsaken Reservoir.

Soon it became apparent that that wasn’t some isolated case. Many of the Geared were tortured by the same endless cycle of anguish. None were even tempted to consume one another, and those that weren’t enraged dodged the others like the plague, seeking only for the obelisks.

The Reservoirs are the only place where the they can all escape from the trial. Even if it’s not necessarily true freedom or escape, it’s still better than turning into the abominable Geared in their eyes. At least they can still… hold onto a piece of themselves. That’s what I hope they think… and now it’s the other way around. This Reservoir is a hell for them…

Were they angered by their changes? Disheartened by how unrecognisable they had become? That the monster that stared back at them was undoubtably themselves?

He did not forget about the Attributed Whole, and what it meant for the Geared who descended past the central Reservoir. They sought to become ‘complete’. To become themselves in the strictest sense.

So, what happens when one finally sees themselves after so long, and realises that they had become a monster in the process? That they were so unrecognisable that their ambitions were burnt down by hatred and anguish from the depths of their hearts?

Of course they’d go mad. This was a hallmark of despair, and Exrite was no stranger to it. When blinded by despair: becoming a monster in the pursuit of a goal was inevitable. It was a road to inevitable self-destruction, for one could not see anything beyond the dark clad of despair save for hope and their ambition.

Never in his wildest dreams did Exrite imagine that he would ever sympathise with the Geared, yet here he was, remembering his journey through the Katho Region.

And as a result, he made an effort to kill the them off as swiftly as possible.

* * *

Eventually, Exrite found the final obelisk in a small clearing somewhere in the centre of the floor. His brows furrowed strangely a peculiar pile of giant ‘walnuts’ which rested nearby the obelisk and a sole mirror.

Each were about the size of an infant, and they shivered randomly as if they were alive. He approached them with curiosity; his [Gears] ready to annihilate them all at moments notice as he reached out for the obelisk.

They did not react. He was ignored, just as how he was by the other Geared. Perhaps they were ‘walnuts’ after all, though he sincerely doubted it.

He picked one up and was immediately surprised by its immense weight. Just from feeling it he could tell just how rigid its shell was. Curious to see what laid asleep within, he slid his thumbs into the slits of its shell and attempted to pry it open.

It did not budge. Even with his full strength the shell barely moved.

He then held it close to his ear as he wildly shook it. Only the sound of a faint, gentle heartbeat could be heard within. He pulled it closer; his ear now cupping the slit and he heard murmurs of some kind.

They were indistinguishable, incomprehensible and pure gibberish; like someone was constantly gurgling and choking simultaneously.

Had he finally found a sapient Geared? One that was capable of speech?

No. This was far from it. Nothing intelligent came out of its constant babbling, even when he spoke or asked:

“Can you hear me?”

“Can you understand me?”

It only shivered, never responding in any meaningful way.

… figures. Yeah. No Geared is going to be anything close to ‘normal’ down in these final floors. Not after the spatial anomalies… let alone after seeing what they had become.

Despite him thinking this way, Exrite sincerely believed that there was a point where the Geared would attain true sapience and intelligence. That only if they were able to… overcome these hurdles.

This creature was proof of the concept – or the beginning of it rather.

However, Exrite also feared that their understanding of themselves and this trial will bring upon their ultimate despair – just as how the Geared here broke when they realised what they had become.

What sort of stubborn being would it take to reach the bottom with their mind unbroken?

With the thought still fresh in his mind, Exrite dropped the walnut-Geared and pulled his crossbow. Two non-explosive bolts were then fired into its shell; both at the verge of being deflected.

They barely penetrated a centimetre through the slit. But this was more than enough. They served as leverage for him, and after minutes of prying with all his might – the shell snapped open.

A thousand eyes blinked back at him. They were plastered upon a giant, black heart which quivered disgustingly. The eyes stared at him; each one on a different part of his body before they all collectively drifted to his eyes.

If there was an image for fear, then this was undoubtably it.

The murmurs ceased as the sound of its throbbing heart gradually softened. At one point it felt like he was carrying a newborn. It felt so innocent in this state. The longer he held onto it, the more he was convinced that it was harmless.

But that didn’t change the fact that he had to kill and consume it.

In the end – Geared like you have no future if you’re just going to stay trapped in a place like this… but it’s not your fault to begin with.

As he was about to crush it into fine paste with his bare hands, its eyes wandered elsewhere. Then – in the next second – its heart spasmed violently.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

A blood-curling shriek deafened him. Every surrounding mirror shattered in complete silence as his eyes struggled to stay focused on the Geared in his hands, which had gruesomely swollen out of its now fractured shell.

And in the next moment – it exploded. Gore smothered his face as few fragments found themselves punctured in various places across his body.

But he didn’t move. He was shocked. Confused. Bewildered.

Not a single word came to mind; not until the other walnut-Geared began to open their shell one by one. Their eyes looked up at him, almost pleasingly. Then – the same thing happened as soon as their eyes fell upon a mirror.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA –”

The rest were abruptly silenced. They were reduced to dust one by one with [Blue Beam], whilst the final Geared met its end at the other side of his rifle’s barrel.

The explosion immediately drowned the screams – the screams that he should not have been able to hear.

There was rage… and now there is fear. Those shells… they weren’t there to protect them from the Geared at all. They were there to protect them from themselves. They shut off the world and blinded themselves to hide from their hideous changes… They couldn’t accept it… and why should they? What is the point of finding oneself if you’re just going to lose yourself along the way!?

A smouldering hatred for the Maiden of Time rose somewhere within his heart. Seeing the Geared suffer reminded him that he also was on a similar journey; and the inevitability of his insanity that he was fated to succumb to.

However, he believed that he could overcome it. So long as he wasn’t swallowed by despair as the Geared had, then there was little chance that he’d become like them.

Not after he had already experienced losing sight of himself once in the past.

… ‘Blissful Ignorance.’ He thought, remembering the words Despair described the Geared that chose to live in the Reservoirs.

This was the first time he had seen it in a literal sense. After all –

They couldn’t see anything past the clad of black, so they could only believe that they were still ‘normal’… that nothing was wrong. At all…

Exrite shook his head, swiftly sighing afterwards.

… dammit. I shouldn’t be feeling like this towards them. They’re my enemies. They’re my food. Down here, it’s eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. There are no exceptions…

As he swallowed his emotions, he turned his back to the slushy scraps of meat, which he considered inedible. However, his eyes were the last to leave them behind.

… but in the end, we’re all in the same boat. We are all suffering in these depths, one way or another.

He departed in the direction of the exit in utter silence. But that was only for a moment.

A scream sharply rang from somewhere. Then another joined. Then two. Then dozens. They filled the <71st Floor>. It was as if the floor itself was screaming.

* * *

There was nothing special about the <72nd Floor>. It was short. Incredibly short. The entire floor was just a single, cavernous corridor with obelisks haphazardly placed along the way. It stretched no more than a handful of kilometres.

It was also first floor where he was truly alone.

There was no Geared, let alone a spec of life. Dimly lit gemstones perfectly lined the walls. No matter where he looked, everything was the same. Silence was his only company, and it closely followed him into the <73rd Floor>.

His brows rose at the familiar sight.

Again? Where did they all go…?

He could not see a single trace of life no matter how far he looked into the corridor. Everything was the same as the previous floor. Identical in fact.

… this is still a different floor, however. That much I’m certain of.

Unhampered, Exrite pushed on to the next floor.

And the next.

And the next.

Eventually, he made it to the <75th Floor>.

Nothing had changed. The corridors were all the same. The Geared were absent. He was all alone, left with nothing but his wandering thoughts.

There was no way to understand what the purpose of these floors were. No matter how hard he tried to decipher it his mind would only move on to other things.

It wasn’t because he was confused or bewildered. The opposite was true. Exrite was calm. Relaxed. Excited even. The end was so close in sight, yet he didn’t feel like pushing through to the end as fast as possible, contrary to what he was supposed to do.

He indulged in this moment for the sole reason that he finally… found a place where he had time for himself. At least that’s how he felt. No Geared. No mind-bending anomalies. No tight spaces. No threats.

Just him and him alone.

Odd thoughts surrounded him as a result, some merely whizzing by while others struck him into breaking gentle smiles.

… less than 10 floors away… I’m almost there. I’m finally… finally, almost there… ha… ahaha. I can already see them now. Frosty will probably be in tears, and Khaos will laugh and tell me he knew I’d come all along so there was nothing to worry about.

He quietly laughed to himself.

When he settled, his eyes moved down. At the sight of his bare, bloodstained body, Exrite realised that a sudden problem was a hand.

I’ll probably need some clothes. Hopefully the Geared aren’t gone for good. I can use them for some good clothes. Maybe some armour as well. I think the last thing they’d want to see is me in this state. I don’t want to worry them anymore than I already have… hmm. I hope… they’re all there. I hope they’re safe.

Ironically, it was in these empty floors where Exrite truly felt confident that he was still himself. The fact that he could still laugh and have… simpler thoughts like these was more than enough proof of this.

Maybe this was the purpose of these floors. They were floors of self-reflection – or perhaps assurance. Where the <71st Floor> was purely physical, this challenged their mentality.

He found it hard to imagine a Geared easily convincing themselves that they were still them after that. The real challenge was in these isolated, lonely floors where they only had the company of their thoughts.

There was nothing here that could distract them or dispel those thoughts.

They could only listen and despair.

He wondered how many had made it to the other side with their minds still intact. How many of them had accepted themselves after their hideous transformations?

Surely many had chosen to die as a result of this mental torment.

Of course, the tragedy only had one person to blame.

The thought agonised him. Like them, Exrite also had that very same person to blame for his suffering. But he never allowed his emotions to blindsight him. As much as he despised Gaia, there was some… merit to all of this. A silver-lining, strangely enough.

He felt like he was a stronger person.

He felt like he was given a chance to fight back in a world that devalued the weak and the manaless. As someone who scraped the bottom of that barrel; as someone who had tried their best and was belittled for it – he couldn’t be more thankful.

But he could never, ever forgive her.

There was no regret in his heart. No what ifs. Only a vow that he swore to live by.

No one will ever dictate my future. Fate or whatever, I don’t care anymore. I just want to be with everyone. Really… I just want to find a place to call home.

It wouldn’t be easy. Far, far from it. In a world like Corozin, and with him being the Maiden of Time, even if he did find such a place it would be akin to living in a Reservoir.

Basically, like living in a bubble of false hope.

He softly sighed.

The exit was within reach now, and only 7 floors remained.

* * *

 

Part 5 –

 

Nothing spectacular stood out in the <76th Floor>. It was different, and a breath of fresh air compared to the last 5 floors. But there was something magical about this place.

Tall, luscious grass covered most the floor. A wide dirt path cut through the grass and joined with other similar paths. They looked to be created, showing obvious signs of manipulation and work. Furthermore, the soil here was suitable for grass to grow, yet none grew.

The surrounding grass reached as high as his neck, concealing everything save for small forests of willows and oaks, and the distant wall which encased the floor. A false sun hovered above, it’s glare almost identical to the real thing. To his surprise, it moved along the sky; very closely imitating a day-cycle.

Gentle winds blew from an unknown source, which often folded the lengths of grass in half. They looked like they were bowing.

There was no sight of any Geared here. It was as silent as the last few floors. He presumed it to be empty, but he wasn’t convinced. If the Geared were intelligent enough to construct paths, then perhaps they were also smart enough to execute ambushes.

It would explain the true purpose of the pathways.

His senses sharpened as he commanded his [Gears] to strike at anything that triggered [Threat Detection].

But nothing happened.

Eventually, he arrived at a narrower path. Trails of a creature were etched into the soil. He stopped to investigate, soon finding multiple imprints ranging from paws to smooth grooves. They were still warm, and the soil looked freshly disturbed.

A wave of confusion struck him. He looked down, then straight ahead where the trails continued. They never diverged or broke as far as he could tell.

Wait. The Geared use this path after all… or is this bait?

Unsure, Exrite stood back up and followed the trails regardless. In any case, he’d rather walk into an ambush than to search through every inch of grass for any lurking Geared.

Their strength didn’t matter. He was immortal, after all.

Or if he simply wanted to kill them and leave their bodies to rot – he could always incinerate this floor. The vast amounts of grass would certainly feed the fire well, although it wouldn’t be for long.

The grass was damp and would quell a fire quite easily.

He eventually reached a small thicket. The vegetation wasn’t thick by any means, yet it was still more than enough to conceal the movement of a large animal.

If there was a time to prepare for combat – it would be now.

But nothing happened to his surprise. Not even a single leaf fell from the overhanging canopy.

He exited the thicket and looked back with sharpened eyes.

I wasn’t expecting to get out of there without a fight. Weird… and it didn’t look like anything was garrisoned there. My [Threat Detection] would’ve told me. Are they waiting for a better opportunity?

There wasn’t any real way to tell.

* * *

The obelisks were easily activated without any encounters. It took longer here than the previous empty floors combined, as this place was illusively smaller than it seemed.

He followed the trail which led towards the exit at the other side of the floor. As the path narrowed and entered a fork something entered the corner of his eyes.

The grass sifted and gave way to something underneath. It rapidly approached him, though he didn’t pay any real heed. He was confident that his [Gears] would tear them apart.

However –

Tch!

His [Thread Detection] failed to trigger them.

A small creature lunged from the grass and landed clumsily in the path before him. It had the appearance of a goblin, save for its arms which were almost jelly-like and waved almost as clumsily as its balance.

It wasn’t spared a chance to recover.

Exrite swiftly pounced on it. Like lightning, he disappeared and reappeared on top of the creature with its face clutched the vice-grip of a hand. He drove it down into the soil and proceeded to crush it beneath his weight. A scream of terror left the little creature as its arms flopped and flailed in a futile attempt to get him off.

A single movement was all it would take to end its life here and now, and there was nothing it could do. It was weak. So incredibly weak that even a child of this size would put up a better fight.

But… he didn’t kill it immediately. A part of him instinctually hesitated to finish it off, and that moment of hesitation – something struck him from the side.

It wasn’t anything powerful. A slap would best describe the impact he felt on his arm.

He instantly turned his attention to the perpetrator with deadly nonchalance. A bit of confusion was mixed with his expression as he wondered why his [Thread Detection] failed to detect it. What he saw suddenly caused his brows to crumple.

A slightly larger Geared stood a few metres away in defiance, it’s starfish-like appendages curled into little fists. But its appearance was not what filled him with a sudden surge of emotion. It was its face. Despite having only, a single eye, Exrite saw immense terror.

It was as if it saw a monster.

He grit his teeth and squeezed the Geared beneath him harder. The starfish Geared desperately lunged and tried to pry him off with its appendages. No matter how hard it tried it was utterly futile.

Anymore and its head would explode. But he didn’t go any further. No. He simply couldn’t.

Something stopped him.

Was it the cries of the Geared beneath?

The terror and fear he saw in their eyes?

Or… was it their desperation?

In the entire time he had spent down here in Gaia’s trial, this was the first time he had ever seen a Geared exhibit fear towards him… and the stupidity the starfish showed by trying to stick around and fight something far stronger than itself.

But Exrite didn’t think it was stupid. For a bit, he thought it was brave.

Thought consumed him, though the pressure of his grip never loosened as the Geared struggled desperately.

They were Geared. He shouldn’t have to feel anything towards them. They were nothing more than food. They were enemies, weren’t they?

So why did he feel like he was the bad guy here?

He looked down at the terror-filled eyes of the goblin between the cracks of his grip. Tears streamed down its frightened face as it spoke in an unrecognisable tongue. It must’ve been begging for its life.

“… WHY – why are you still struggling when there’s nothing to live for in this place!?”

Exrite nearly roared. But something happened to him. At the peak of the first word he choked and never managed to utter another word after. He bit down on his tongue with a face of anguish as he refused to say these words.

He did not have the right to tell them this. Not after he had seen what the Geared above were driven to do because of despair.

No. It was all because of this descent. This damn trial that Gaia created!

And for what? To generate hope? To generate despair!? For whose sake are these Geared suffering for in the end!?

Fury engulfed him for a moment. Soon, the cries lulled his composure back.

Then – he unconditionally decided to spare their lives.

He released the Geared beneath him and walked off as if nothing had happened. The screams immediately ceased, and the starfish tenderly huddled with the goblin.

In the end, Exrite could not bring himself to kill them.

This place is their last bastion of hope now. I know they know it. They made it down so far and suffered through the worst of despair. I can’t take that little light away from them, even if it’s nothing but a lie… but then again, something as small as that can be enough to bring happiness. At least that’s what I think.

Plus… I hate those eyes. I guess to them I probably look like a monster.

Exrite muttered to himself:

“Tch… now my appetite is ruined.”

He didn’t think that he would become selective in which Geared to devour… But in the beginning, he had always thought of them as enemies; as equals to the ones who had tortured him endlessly in Enthile.

Those two were different. So much so that even his [Threat Detection] ignored their presence. Were they that weak? He entertained the thought and agreed, but even so; they should have activated his [Threat Detection].

Perhaps there was no malice in their intentions.

He wondered why the goblin appeared in the first place.

Suddenly, something tugged on his leg. Then something else grabbed the other. He stopped on his tracks not because of his tangled situation. In fact, he could easily continue to walk and ignore whatever held onto him.

Curiosity and a severe dash of confusion was what caused him to stop so abruptly. Before he could turn and look down at whatever it was that held onto him, the very same goblin tripped onto the path before him.

His primal instincts urged him to end its life. After all, it was all he had been doing up to this point. However, he stuck to his word to let them live and supressed his instincts.

If the Geared was willing to risk its life by showing its face again, then it must’ve had something important in mind.

With a small sigh, Exrite glanced down at the starfish and another plush-toy-like creature behind before slowly bringing his eyes to the goblin. When their eyes met it instantly froze and trembled. It was the impatience in his eyes which caused it to quiver.

Exrite’s face dropped all signs of emotion.

“I don’t know who or what the fuck you are, but if you think that by standing there with your arms out is going to stop me from leaving – then you’re wasting your life. Don’t throw it when I decided to spare you. Let go. Get the fuck off me and don’t show yourself again. Or else –”

A flash of [Blue Beam] skimmed the path beside the goblin, leaving a huge trail that burrowed far into the ground. At the same time, [Liquid Fire] incinerated a nearby tree. In mere seconds it melted away into the pool of fire.

He felt the Geared on his legs tremor in fear.

“– I’ll change my mind. Don’t make me kill you.”

His monotone voice was enough to make any man tremble in terror. It was the result of him trying to surpass his instinctual hatred for the Geared that dwelled in this cursed dungeon.

The goblin shivered. Sweat ran down its forehead as only its eyes moved to the steaming trail that had missed it by mere centimetres. If even a hair was grazed by the light it would have lost half of its body. That much it was certain of. At least that was what Exrite gathered by the look of its eyes.

He was confident that this would dismiss them. Who in their right mind would dare to continue? If they valued their life, then they’d leave as quickly as possible.

However – they did not move.

“Move. Get out of my way.” Exrite walked, the Geared still holding. The goblin ran ahead and threw its arms out to the side, signalling for him to stop.

“I said – get the fuck out of my way! A Geared like you is not going to stop me from seeing them again! GET OFF!”

He was furious. He was so close to reaching his friends that the thought of being held back was like a spit in the face.

He kicked them off and they crashed into the goblin one by one. But when they recovered, they all immediately stood before him and urged him to stop once more.

However, this time he could tell that they were at their mental limit. If he roared; they’d most likely flee this time. The goblin could barely stand at this point.

Exrite did not want to torment them anymore than he already had. If he was going to kill them, then he’d do so with swift precision. Letting prey bleed out was one thing but mentally breaking them was another.

These Geared did not come across as prey. They were… smart beings. Smart enough to try to ward him off from descending into irreversible despair.

However, he was not like them.

Exrite didn’t fear despair. He embraced it, understood it and acknowledged it. Otherwise, he never would’ve been able to see as far as his fingertips. In that case – these Geared would already be dead by now.

They were innocent. He sympathised with them. They obviously feared it and seemed to carry good intentions... especially if they were more than willing to risk their lives to ‘save’ him.

“… move. Please move.” Exrite’s voice was shallow, devoid of anger.

There was no way he could kill them. They were the first and the only Geared to be ‘peaceful’.

Their determination seemed to reach him.

It was jarring. The last thing he expected in a place so thick with despair and death was for someone to reach out a hand. Not that he needed it in the first place but…

I was offered a hand once… and I killed that person… I’ll hear them out. But – if they try to stop me from leaving when I’m done, then there’ll be no more chances. That much I’ll guarantee…

He deeply sighed after he came to his decision. They Geared seemed to take it as a sign of yield, but also sensed his lingering intentions. So, without wasting anymore time – they pointed in another direction.

“… Tch… fine. I take that you want me to go there, is that right? I’ll head there and get the fuck out. I don’t know what it is you want to show me, but don’t think I’m going to stay here. Don’t come near me.”

He said this as he promptly followed their directions. Glimmers of light glowed in their eyes as they spoke in strange grunts and growls. As he turned his back to them, he could have sworn to see a warm smile on the goblin’s face.

… I almost killed you, didn’t I?

For a second, he thought of how Uru must’ve felt when she first met him.

He sighed again.

The Geared had to force themselves to keep up with his pace. They returned to the fork in the path and went the other direction. It led towards the centre of the floor.

The little Geared conversed amongst themselves, and sometimes they even tried to gain his attention. But those efforts were ignored entirely. He was too caught up in trying to find a way to justify this little side-journey.

Eventually, he thought he could use this time to make some clothing. With [Blue Beam] at hand it was significantly less likely to have them burn, be torn apart or become dirtied. This also meant that if he had to consume the Geared in a ‘tidier’ fashion.

It was an effort he was willing to take in these final floors.

The same scenery of tall grass and distant trees repeated itself. There was a strange allure despite this. He believed that he had lost his ability to marvel at these floors ever since he began his Final Dive. However, that didn’t seem to be the case anymore.

He didn’t know why he felt this way. Not much thought was put into it, but if he had to put a finger on it; then it’d be because this floor wasn’t overwhelming in any way. There weren’t any giant trees, giant boulders, claustrophobic stalactites or giant crystals. The floor was plain, but that simplicity was magical to him because it reminded him of the surface.

As he thought of such things; his [Threat Detection] suddenly went off. Something moved in the grass nearby. He looked in its direction and saw a heavily disfigured wolf pounce at him from the long grass.

It didn’t last a single second. A ray of [Blue Beam] carved a hole straight from its disgusting muzzle through the other side. It collapsed, dead and broken at his feet.

So there are Geared that are still like this. Good to know.

Unamused, he reached down to feel its fur. There was potential for it to be used as a material to make clothing from. Unfortunately, he decided against it when he brushed his hands against it. The fur felt like knives. In the end, the beast was nothing more than a meal to him.

However, he did not eat it. Nor could he bring himself to. The reasoning was uncertain even to himself. Why could he not eat the Geared? He vowed that he’d get strong and eat whatever Geared dared to stand before him, just so he could meet his friends again.

There was more to it than that. He strove to utterly destroy every Geared her came across because they were no different from the ones who had tortured him endlessly in a similar place so long ago. A large portion of his motivation and anger was driven solely because it felt like everything was against him here.

But after his visit to the <71st Floor>, he realised that the Geared were also suffering as they descended. They were not perpetrators; they were victims.

Exrite’s stomach churned and he stepped over the corpse.

“I can see you eying it.” His heavy sigh startled them. “Take it. I have no use for it.”

After a few steps they crowded the carcass. The sound of gurgles and croaks erupt in what sounds like a minor celebration, or a gesture of thanks. They hurriedly dragged it along with them.

Exrite easily paced far ahead. The pathway only had a few twists and turns, otherwise it was more or less straight. At the end what appeared to the last turn he abruptly stopped in his tracks.

He squinted, then widened his eyes, and then flickered on [Dark Vision] just to see if his mind was playing a trick on him. Thankfully, it was no trick of the mind.

“A village…” A voice barely managed to pass his lips.

It truly existed, and as the little Geared caught up, they jumped in front of him and wildly pointed at it with child-like enthusiasm.

Realistically speaking, the village could barely pass as one. It was merely a community of well-hidden dirt mounts, huts made of sticks and one giant treehouse. The treehouse in particular caught his eye. It looked meticulously crafted and appeared like it took a great deal of craftsmanship to build.

Basically, the treehouse stuck out like a diamond amongst pieces of rocks.

His curiosity reached an all-time high. If there was a gauge to measure it, it’d most certainly be broken. Soon, he found himself walking towards it on his own accord.

Perhaps it was a good idea to follow the Geared after all. A blessing in disguise.

Tiny, moving figures then came into view. At first glance he thought nothing of them as his sole attention was focused on the treehouse. A village of that size must be home to a good number of Geared like the ones behind him, and in any case, he was not interested with interacting with them anymore than he already had.

But that strict and cold demeanour gradually melted away when he finally drew close enough to make out each individual Geared in the village. Suddenly, his throat was instantly clogged by an indigestible amount of surprise as a wave of disbelief held him in place.

In the back of his mind he thought the village was a ‘village’ only in appearance. His hopes for the Geared being anything more intelligent than an infant were terribly low. At best, they showed self-awareness and stupid bravery.

However, he couldn’t be more wrong. Before him was not a village only in appearance. It was one in every meaning of the word. A community of Geared flourished there, from big and small; and from tiny to massive. No two Geared were quite the same, save for the children that took after their parents.

Many roamed or sat around as they worked. Some were seen gathering berries and fruit from nearby thickets while some hauled sticks, stones and bones from place to place. Very Few were seen dismantling dead Geared, either for their meat or whatever useful materials they could claim… and very few were seen at the outskirts, frozen with their heads held down as they stood before a barren piece of land. There, he saw them throw dead Geared into pits before they were covered with soil.

The strange, oddly familiar sensation he gathered from this place wasn’t an unpleasant one. He welcomed it with open arms. Their terribly twisted and abominable appearance were shut away into the recesses of his mind once and for all. Exrite could no longer see the Geared in this place as monsters. Not even remotely anymore.

A good amount of time must have passed since he lost himself in a trance, because when he returned to his senses, he found himself surrounded by a group of Geared. Their chatters were unintelligible, and each of them had their own unique sound. How they were able to communicate boggled him, and he couldn’t help but to grin as he pondered on it.

There was some logic from what he gathered. They exaggerated, paused and tuned their pitch constantly throughout their conversations. At times like these, Exrite wished that he could use magic as freely as others in this body. What he’d do here was use [Ecloman Scriber], a [Sixth Tiered] magic.

This magic basically allowed the user to visualise Ecloman text to translate what was being said in another language. That being said, it isn’t really well known how to properly cast it. Most times it failed, and the visualised text ended up being whatever the user ‘felt’ was being said, rather than what ‘was’ – so he had heard and read in the past.

That aside, the Geared perched close but never too close that they’d risk angering him. It seemed like the little ones had passed on their little violent interaction. They sniffed his scent and furthered their conversation. Before long, they looked at each other, then back at him before one finally stood directly in front of him.

“Yes?” He said out of reflex.

The Geared – which easily outsized him – perked its ears like a happy dog before it pointed at the treehouse invitingly.

He looked at the others. One by one, they each began to point until they all were.

“You want me to head up there, I’m guessing?”

What for, though?

There was no way to understand why. Either way, he was already curious about the treehouse and being allowed to set foot into it was an added bonus. His body moved on its own towards the giant, ancient tree that held the massive structure atop its branches.

For a very brief moment Exrite stopped and glanced over his shoulder at the goblin.

“… thank you, by the way. Try not to be so reckless again.”

It smiled as if it understood him.

“Though I’m probably the last person who should be trying to lecture someone about recklessness.” He sighed to himself.

The tree was larger than the oak tree Auga rested on in the Biomechanical Gardens. Its bark armour was weathered and worn, although to the touch it felt as hard as steel. Large wooden platforms were inserted into cuts around the tree, spiralling upwards like a staircase. They’ve definitely seen better days.

Leaves surprisingly still grew on its branches despite its age. The brown colouration of the tree had long since dissolved into grey.

He slowly hopped from platform to platform. They were littered with holes, scratches and hardened blood, and gradually became worse as he moved up. The exterior of the treehouse appeared exquisite from afar, but as he finally reached the open entrance of the place, he soon realised that it was the complete opposite inside.

Bones, blood and carcasses littered the place. A powerful stench instantly assaulted his nostrils, though it wasn’t anything he was unfamiliar with. Wooden chairs, tables and kitchenware littered the place as if a storm had swept through.

Instantly, at the sight of these Exrite realised something.

“The Geared don’t know what a chair or a table is… wait- did someone else come down before me!?”

For a moment, he tried to recall just how long he had been down here. A few months was what he gathered thankfully, with one or two being stuck here in the second half of the trial. If it were years, then this place would’ve likely belonged to one of his friends.

However, one or two months wouldn’t warrant someone to create a temporary home like this. In fact, there wasn’t anyone out of his group that he believed could have made this in the first place. Perhaps the Commanders, as they were know to do bizarre things, but even then, there was immense doubt in his heart.

And besides – they’d meet at the very end anyway. Not somewhere in the middle of their descent.

So who did this belong to then?

Papers and large chunks of metals began to appear on the floor as he explored the other rooms. The treehouse had two floors and numerous rooms. The downstairs was generally filled with putrid, rotting flesh and other wares, whilst the upstairs held some peculiar items.

For one, pieces of machinery were found. In the scattered papers there were drawings and scribbles of schematics in a language he vaguely recognised. He held one such paper close to his face and studied it.

“… Frostbitten? Ecloma? Everything starts with that weird symbol that Frostbitten words do… but it’s not structured like any language I’ve seen before.”

One sure way to identify Frostbitten was through the strange tilted ‘E’ shaped symbol that every word began with. The same can be done for other of the other major languages, like the reversed ‘Z’ symbol for Demons, or the upside down ‘V’ symbol for the Elves.

However, each one had their own rules in literature. For Frostbitten, it was written and read from right to left. Ecloma from left to right. As for this – it went all over the place; from right to left and left to right, then in spirals and some were even mirrored. It was like the scribes of an insane person.

He put placed it down and studied the rest. The piles seemed to have slipped from under the door in a locked room adjacent to the one he was in. The closer the papers were to the door, the more insane and completely unrecognisable they became.

Scribbles were all he could see now on the rest of the papers.

“What the fuck happened to them?” He could only ask himself as took off the locked door and placed it aside.

The room was cluttered with metal parts and strange machinery. They reached his knees and hung loosely from dozens of shelves. Blood stained every part of this room, with the most on a benchtop where the last of the papers messily sat. He read through them, seeing nothing but incoherent scribbling until –

“… Oh… this… this is a drawing of them?”

On top of the pile was a beautiful drawing of a person. They looked remarkably similar to a Demi-human, given their animal ears and tail. Beside that drawing was a black bubble of scribbles again. It looked like they tried to draw someone else there but gave up in the end.

More drawings of the same Demi-human were found, but the same chaotic sprawls accompanied them without fail. They increasingly became worse with every page he threw aside. By the time he reached the final few pages, there was nothing but the dark smudge of charcoal and dark, damp stains that had dried up so long ago.

Exrite felt as if he was watching the process of someone’s descent into madness. Nothing but the sounds of flickering pages filled the room. Not even the noisy clambering outside reached his ears.

Finally, he reached the last of the drawings. A thickly folded page was all that remained on the benchtop. It was battered, stained and shredded in places. Carefully, he began to unfold the paper until something slid out.

An envelope fell to the floor.

* * *

Afterwards, as an artificial sunset befell the floor, Exrite dropped from the mouth of the treehouse. The heavy thud of his landing roused the attention of a few nearby Geared. Curiosity instantly filled their eyes as they approached.

His attire, which was created on the benchtop, was something they had never seen before. No. They simply had never seen clothing before, or even knew the concept of it.

What he wore was a messy weave of leather, cloth and pelt. It looked like a jigsaw puzzle. It was far from ideal, but he was happy with it regardless. At least he had something to wear in front of his friends.

Curious, the Geared stuck around him for a while as he stood there with a solemn expression. His attention was focused on the envelope in his hand.

It was easily as old as the treehouse itself. Also, it was the only piece of writing that wasn’t a sprawl of chaos. In his hand was an envelope that came from a time when that person was sane.

He promised himself to pass it on to Khaos. He’d most likely find a use out of the Frostbitten text in it. If he couldn’t translate it then Milkazako Exri; the blind Frostbitten was his next best option.

As for now, the next task was to finally leave this place. Nothing else of value was to gain here. As if able to sense his intentions, the Geared drew away. A familiar starfish-looking one stood in front of him with a strangely happy look and pointed somewhere beyond the village.

“The door. Good. I don’t know why you wanted to bring me here in the first place, but I guess it turned out to be a good thing. For me at least. Thank you-”

Before he could finish, a scream tore through the air. In an instant, his body threw itself in the direction with frightening speed. Under normal circumstances, he couldn’t care less if a Geared died. However, he recognised the owner of this scream.

He blitzed through the grass, his [Gears] shaving them as the screams drew near. At the source, he saw the same goblin that had stopped him from descending earlier trembling at the edge of the path. It watched in terror as one of its companions – which was a multiarmed, almost plush-toy-like creature – had every orifice assaulted by another much larger Geared.

It shoved its appendages into its mouth, ears, stomach, nostrils and whatever hole it had in its body. By the time Exrite arrived it was already too late. The appendages wrapped the little Geared and squeezed its swollen body.

A violent torrent of crimson jelly exploded from every orifice before it shrivelled away into nothing but skin and bones.

With a single hand, Exrite crushed the assailant Geared’s skull to a pulp. Then, to make sure it was dead, he tore off every single one of its appendages. Somehow as blood poured out of its limbs like a hose none splashed onto his attire.

The goblin trembled in terror as it clutched the bony stub that was once its right arm. Very slowly, and without a shred of emotion, Exrite’s moved his attention to the goblin.

“… I arrived too late.”

There was hardly any emotion in his voice. In this situation there was no way to help it other than to quickly stop the bleeding. The appendage of the fallen creature was used as tourniquet to minimise the flow of blood. Afterwards, with a minute of muttering, he healed it with simple [Healing] magic.

The goblin didn’t react at all to him. It could not tear itself away from its friend’s corpse, which had become nothing but skin and bones. Exrite watched it as he stood back up again. The intentions and reasons as to why the smaller Geared of the village – who he had come to believe were only children – were out here struck him as odd.

The danger of being killed was terrifyingly high. They should have known something like this was an inevitability.

But he did not dare to blame it. Whatever their purpose was, was not something he could judge. He existed as a mere visitor on this floor, and a destroyer on the others. Ultimately, Exrite didn’t care for anything else but to find his friends and leave this forsaken place.

… yet why did his heart wrench in front of this creature?

For the nth time an internal battle rocked the cold demeanour and prejudice he held for the longest time against the Geared. In the end, he placed his eyes somewhere into the distance and prepared to leave.

He had no words of comfort, nor did he dare to make any. However –

“Take this. It’ll help ease the burden you’ll carry in the future.”

A metal weapon with a green, metallic sheen fell beside it. It was his limeite pick-hatchet. It was bound to hold well against most Geared in this floor, though he doubted a child like the goblin could make good use out of it.

That is why Exrite mentioned the future. Perhaps at that time, it’d help it push through with whatever losses or hardships it will certainly come to face.

He didn’t have any particular reason to help it.

But strangely, its tenacity even in the face of certain death was something he couldn’t help but to admire. If it carried those traits moving on, then maybe it could reach the Attributed Whole…

That was wishful thinking.

“You showed me something different in this miserable place, so it’s yours now.” Exrite’s voice softened towards the end as he slowly made his departure. “… sorry for your loss.”

Nothing more could be said. He hoped his words were heard. He never looked back as he paced through the floor, his destination being none other than the door.

Exrite, for the first time, sincerely wished for a Geared to live.

* * *

A dark tunnel eventually led him to a cavernous place. The various rock formations were no strangers here, and the sound of drips echoed infinitely with his heavy steps.

Eventually, he reached his destination. In front of him was where a pair of double doors were supposed to stand and gate whatever creature laid beyond it in its chamber. However, they were embedded into the walls, opened beyond their hinges allowed them to and were severely damaged.

If he so happened to graze it there was no doubt in his mind that it would crumble away.

The doorway was also significantly wider than the doors themselves. Whatever passed through must’ve been huge. No light reached the depths of the chamber, so [Dark Vision] was used to scout it from the outside.

Within the chamber he saw something familiar and his eyes instantly widened with shock.

A massive creature sat in the centre of the room, far too large to even move through the doors anymore. It was a swollen mass of metal and flesh that vaguely resembled the top half of a person, with the other half crushed underneath its sheer weight.

But this was not why he was shocked…

The creature was wearing the same suit which was drawn in the papers.

Its entire body was clad in metal. From its head to its fingers, it looked like a giant machine. However, between the cracks and welding’s of the metal leaked copious amounts of pink flesh which hung like overgrown vines. Its lower body was surrounded by countless of metal scrap.

Exrite had the impression that at some point in the past it could walk, and that its lower body too was armoured. But something happened to it. He didn’t have time to speculate, however. Nor the luxury to. For all he knew, this was an enemy…

Or was it?

Exrite saw the traces of a past battle in this chamber. Never had he seen something like this in any of the Reservoirs. After a careful examination, he found that the corpse of the past Geared that resided here was submerged within the scrap beneath it.

This meant that this creature had defeated it. If he was correct, then this was the first thing to kill a Reservoir Geared other than himself.

Then, his eyes then fell onto something in its chest, right where one’s heart would be. A massive [Gear] resided there. The size of it was easily double of his most recent [Gear].

He held his breath.

If that [Gear] was its heart, then it was not a Geared. The only beings he knew of that possessed [Gears] for hearts were the [Biomech]…

And whatever that creature in the <46th Floor> was.

Another one…

Suddenly, a dim, blue glow emanated from its eyes like orbs.

Exrite instinctually took a defensive stance, though the beast took no other action than to just stare at him.

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but before long, its eyes then seemingly fell onto something behind him.

A hand that had not been moved for countless years then moved up to reach for whatever it was that robbed its attention. Exrite didn’t move. It would have attacked at this point. This one didn’t even make an attempt.

For this reason, he found himself trusting that it would not attack him. Furthermore, his [Threat Detection] did not react to the approaching hand.

Thankfully, he was correct.

It touched the [Gear] that he had acquired from the <66th Floor>; the [Gear] that was the heart of another similar creature. The beast held it then looked at him as if asking for permission to take it.

A wave of reluctance hit him, but so long as he had his sniper and other tools, reclaiming it would be no problem should this creature turn hostile. He was not underwater this time and the odds were overwhelmingly in his favour.

Besides, it was clearly not capable of fighting given its state of wear. At least not anymore.

It carefully took it as if handling a child.

“… can you understand me? Ecloma?” Exrite asked in the darkness.

There was no response. Either it had no ears due to its horrific body, or the metal had sealed its sense of hearing, or it simply did not understand him.

“Frostbitten?” He added. It still didn’t respond. All its attention went to the [Gear] in hand, which was closely held to its face.

He did know if this creature was the one who had written on the paper or was the one who that person designed the suit for. Whoever it was, Frostbitten was his only last option of communication.

“Exrite?” He said the only piece of Frostbitten he knew. Nothing happened.

Some time had passed, and the creature eventually placed its hand on its lap. Its thumb made gentle circles around the [Gear] in the well of its palms, the light ever so slightly dimming in its eyes.

“Are you done?” Exrite spoke all of a sudden, his patience beginning to wear thin. Normally he was a patient person but given how close he was to reaching the end, he did not wish to stay any longer.

Suddenly, as if understanding him, the creature moved its eyes to him. They were gentle despite its overwhelming size. After minutes, its hand offered the [Gear] back.

“I have others I want to see again. They’re waiting for me at the end.” He said as he drew close enough to reclaim the [Gear]. Up close it was truly monumental. Not quite like a Decanid, but it wasn’t far off either.

That same hand then slowly moved towards Exrite’s face. Then, for whatever reason, it suddenly froze. It hesitated. Perhaps it already knew that he would undoubtably destroy that hand if even grazed him, however, he sensed that there was more to it than that.

The creature’s fist curled and dejectedly returned to its side; the metal gauntlet screeching as loose flesh that was caught in between were severed.

It’s other hand then awoke from its slumber. Without any warning, it crudely plucked the [Gear] from its chest and its eyes instantly flickered weakly.

“Wait– what are you –!?”

Before he could utter another word, the creature placed the [Gear] beside the one it had inspected above him. Then with haste and with what little life it had left, it dragged a finger into the stone, writing words in the tongue of the Frostbitten.

“… Eto.” Exrite managed to read.

The light in the creature’s eyes died almost immediately after, its hand slumping beside the message. The life had left it, and the newly acquired [Gear] faintly warmed up.

He did not understand its meaning…

But he understood how precious those words were. He etched it into his mind and body as a hand gently traced each letter.

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you chose to die now of all times.” He looked up at the unmoving creature, then at the [Gear] above him. “You could’ve given up a long time ago… so what were you waiting for?”

No one but the creature itself knew.

After the brief thought, he quietly moved towards the doors.

“… rest well. You’ve suffered enough.” His voice silently echoed. He never turned again after he had taken the first step away. “… and thanks.”

For the first time in his descent he did not dare to think about what his next meal would be.

* * *

Part 6 –

 

Agony. Anguish. Grief. Hopelessness. Despair.

Nothing else could describe the floors after the <76th Floor>.

The tunnels wept; water trickled through the stone walls in the caverns of the <77th Floor> through to the <80th Floor>. He didn’t eat anything, though blood stained his hands more than any other floor.

Here, the Geared didn’t fight. They didn’t roar. They didn’t feed.

They wept. They wandered. They despaired.

None fought in these dark floors. They only wandered through the caverns aimlessly, whilst others huddled in random corners or cracks. They could not endure to go on any further.

He felt like he had entered a collective limbo. There was no end in sight, and they could only wander until they found the only obelisk on the floor. But even then, he had seen many ignore it – some even fearing it.

The amount of Geared in this place were in the thousands; and far more than most Reservoirs. This was especially true in the <81st Floor>.

A massive labyrinth of cavernous tunnels trapped many thousands of broken Geared. The entire floor was ominously silent, save for the sound of an unknown howling somewhere.

It was the sound of wind. Exrite followed it and avoided touching any of the Geared. There was no point in killing them anymore. He could not stomach them, nor did he feel like it was necessary to slaughter every single Geared here.

They were so close to achieving the Attributed Whole…

However, only few chased it. No matter how destroyed their body, mind and and soul were; they were still determined to chase after the goal they had set for themselves ever since they slipped into the <42nd Floor>.

He walked with another two Geared towards the howling. Eventually, as it grew loud enough to shake the walls, they entered a massive chamber…

Massive was a severe understatement. Not even the field filled with black pillars outside of Gaia’s trial compared to this place. It was featureless, barren and empty save for one thing.

There was a hole in the centre of the chamber. It was huge. So huge in fact that he had to completely turn his head from one side to the other to completely examine it.

The hole took up a third of the chamber. Geared roamed the edges in a collective march, with a few deciding to leap into the void. Others simply walked to the edge and dropped without a second thought.

Exrite immediately knew that the hole directly led to the <82nd Floor>. The Geared beside him walked up and peered over the edge. He followed their suit and saw nothing but pure darkness. Before long, he couldn’t tell if he was blinking anymore.

One of the Geared suddenly jumped. It disappeared almost instantly into the void, never to be heard of ever again. The other one beside him made an attempt, but hesitated and fell backwards, weeping as it clawed into the flesh of its face.

He looked around. Atthe edges he saw the same thing. Half were willing, and the other were too afraid to take what was a literal leap of faith into what he considered to be the physical embodiment of the Final Dive.

A Geared jumped and hesitated just before its feet left the ground. As a result, it scraped against the walls of the hole, its flesh torn as a trail of smeared blood followed.

One had to commit fully into the leap if they were to see through it to the end; that was what he believed. But that didn’t matter to him the slightest. His entire descent from the <46th Floor> onwards was his Final Dive. This was nothing new or special…

The Void was darker anyway.

“… please wait just a little longer. I’m almost there.”

He prayed that his voice would somehow reach them. Soon, he took a step into the darkness and leapt into the void. All went dark. The howling immediately disappeared, and the expected rush of air was absent.

He felt like he was suspended in nothingness. But he had hope… no, he had trust that he’d make it to the very end. The flame in his eyes never weakened, the determination in his heart never wavered and his will to reach his friends proved to be unbreakable.

An unknown amount of time passed. Minutes turned to what felt like days. If he didn’t know any better, then he’d believe that he was stuck here for all of eternity.

During this time, he only thought of their faces. Their voices. Their smiles. Exrite softly grinned every time without fail. His longing to see them grew exponentially. He was, after all, only one floor away now after so long.

The pain he had endured became a faint memory in comparison, though that ache never left him. Nothing in this world could compare to the simultaneous pain of a Mana Overload and a Gear Overload. Even the Gods feared it with their life.

A mortal… no, a human like him had already endured the worst. Yet still he dreaded the agony of losing his friends more.

His crimson eye ignited. The flames were bellowed with these thoughts. Suddenly, its light cut through the thick veil of darkness like a fine blade. At the same time the exit revealed itself in the form of a simple orb of light.

It rapidly grew. He braced himself for the landing and considered using his sniper rifle to lessen the impact of his free-fall.

But there was no need.

Light instantly blinded him when he finally reached the final floor. When his eyes quickly adjusted – his throat instantly locked.

A golden ocean revealed itself; its vastness so grand that not even he could see the end in any direction. Another kilometre separated him from the ocean. He turned back and saw the gaping hole high above, joined by countless others in the hazy distance.

This floor was truly monumental.

Tiny dots, which he soon realised were Geared, fell through just like him. They landed in the water and were never to be seen again.

A single pillar of light shone from what appeared to be the centre of the floor. It was a vast distance away, and it loomed behind the yellow air like a beacon of hope.

He immediately knew that was his destination…

The water swallowed him with little effort. It felt warm, yet oddly cold. He fell deeply into it as the world underneath revealed itself. Like an anchor, his heart sunk at the sight…

Thousands… no, maybe hundreds of thousands of Geared were submerged in the ocean of gold. The water was so clear that he could see the true extent of the ocean’s depth. It was kilometres deep, and bodies plagued those unreachable depths.

Exrite froze in place as his mortal mind attempted to digest everything at once.

Everything was dead. Nothing moved. This place served as a graveyard for the Geared… The impact clearly didn’t kill them. The water took him in surprisingly well.

He looked up again. The gaping hole continued to spit out a Geared every so often, but they never moved as they fell.

They were already dead before they had even arrived.

… why? This is where they’ll finally find themselves. This is the place they tried so hard to reach! The Attributed Whole is so close, so why are they all dead!? I don’t understand…

Exrite took to the surface, passing through countless Geared before the yellow air washed over his face. He followed the beam of light as he swam across the ocean, never daring to look down again.

The howls of wind rushing through the holes above and the sound of splashing water were the only sounds in the entire floor. The beam of light had an ominous feel to it now. That beacon of hope shone in the truest depths of despair… but it served no purpose for the dead. He was the only thing that swam towards it in this entire floor.

Gaia… what did you do? What the was the point of making this trial if the Geared were destined to die? … I finally understand Despair’s words now. My murderous spree saved those from this fate… a fate that you dictated for them, Gaia.

Exrite had to clamp down on his tongue in order to prevent himself from yelling. He, above all, tried to keep himself sombre. They suffered enough. The tragic sight was something not even a cruel God or Goddess could imagine, nor smile upon.

For now, he placed the rest of his attention to the light. When the time comes, he’d speak to Gaia. Whether she was willing to reveal anything or not was a different, but not an untold story.

He swam across the motionless ocean, thinking only about his friends who were waiting for him at the base of that light…

An island slowly emerged from the haze. It was massive, and the pale obelisk which fired the pale beam was as large as one of the giant trees from the <46th Floor>.

With nothing but hope and unparalleled excitement, he set foot on its gravel shoreline, his gaze endlessly sweeping the island for any signs of life.

No one was here. Perhaps they were behind the obelisk; was what he thought. He ran around in circles once, then twice, then five times until the realisation sapped him of his smile.

He was alone.

Exrite refused to believe for even a second that they went on without him. There was a chance, no matter how slim, that he arrived here first. He strictly believed in it, allowing nothing to place doubt in his mind.

The grass scrunched beneath his feet as flowers seemingly parted to avoid being crushed by his boots. He found a pleasant flowerbed to seat himself to wait for the others to arrive.

His blood never felt warm. It was in a constant state of ice, as if his body refused to submit to his mental reassurance. Eventually, after nearly a day of waiting, disturbing thoughts of something happening to them snuck in and his face went dark.

However, he was willing to wait forever until each and every single one of them came. And if something did in fact happen… then he’d enter each and every hole across this floor just to find them.

They’d surely do the same for him… surely…

Exrite couldn’t stop shaking at these thoughts.

Soon enough, he stopped watching the ocean and placed his eyes on the flowers between his lap. It was not a sign of defeat, never mind him giving up.

Rather… he just felt tired. Fatigued… worried.

There was never a moment where he didn’t wish that they were all ok.

“… please come soon… please be safe…” He meekly whispered. “Please don’t leave me here all alone.”

Exrite closed his eyes and waited with tears welling at the corner of his eyes.

Suddenly, the sound of scrunching gravel reached his ears. Slowly, his eyes opened, and he saw the silhouette of a person arriving ashore.

It was Frosty. There was no possible way he could not recognise that figure.

Was this an illusion? A cruel figment of his imagination? Exrite didn’t know, but either way, tears would not stop from welling in the corners of his eyes as the woman strained her soaked clothes. She still hadn’t noticed him there, which was why he believed it was merely an illusion.

Though in her defence, there was a considerable gap between them. Frosty’s eyesight and Khaos for that matter weren’t the best, especially given the hazy atmosphere.

“… Frosty…” Exrite’s voice croaked.

He shoved himself up to his feet and then shouted her name out with everything he had.

“FROSTY!”

His voice broke the air like thunder.

She jolted, her head rapidly darting all over the place for the source. He could tell that she recognised his voice, given the way she moved. Tears were already streaming down his face as he ran towards her, yelling out her name until her crimson eyes finally fell onto him.

Suddenly, the confusion in her face lifted into a heartfelt smile.

“Exrite!”

The tears fell harder. The fact that she recognised him immediately validated that he didn’t change at all like the other Geared. As stupid and obvious as it was, it made him happy.

She stood there with her head tilted, and eyes glistening with happiness. Her legs didn’t let her move, so she simply held her arms out and invited him for an embrace.

He gladly took it. Though it probably wasn’t as how she expected it to be. The embrace was one sided, as Exrite’s arms locked hers by her side. Though she didn’t seem to mind. Rather… she was happy.

Their warmth mixed and melded, and tears were shared. Frosty gripped onto his clothes and she buried her face into his chest, also crying in happiness.

Exrite didn’t know if any of this was real or not. For all he knew this all could be an illusion similar to Uru’s [Curse of Desire]. But he didn’t care… no, the warmth was too real to be any illusion. It’d be cruel to say that Frosty’s tears which soaked his chest were fake.

“Frosty… Frosty… it’s really you…” Exrite cried uncontrollably. There had been a few times where he had wept, but she had never seen him so distraught like this.

Immediately she knew that Exrite had longed to see them more than she had… and perhaps more than everyone combined. By the time her tears stopped and was reduced to sniffles, she allowed him to stay like that for as long as he needed to.

“It’s fine. It’s over now.” She tenderly cooed. “I’m here, Exrite. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“… thank you.”

“Geez… you’re such a handful… I’m glad you’re still you.” She softly laughed. “I arrived expecting to beat you into shape as soon as you rocked up. Thank goodness you’re ok. And don’t ask about me. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. The descent was nothing special. Just had a bad time with my tastebuds.”

Exrite broke into a soft laugh. A part of him worried about her and wanted to ask, but he held back. From her body and her voice, he could tell that she was telling the truth.

It made him eternally glad, though there was no way to express it with words. Only a groggy croak would leave his parted lips whenever he tried to speak. She laughed at it.

“Hey, you’re going to make me start crying again… Calm down… everything’s over now. Let’s talk. I’m sure you have a lot of things you want to say… just don’t apologise.”

“… yeah. I missed you so much. A-aha…” Exrite tried to laugh as he calmed down.

“Huh? We all did! Exrite, we were all in this together. You weren’t really alone in there if you think about it. Like my meathead of a brother said, ‘we’re all with each other in our hearts!’”

“That’s true…”

“Maybe I really should beat some sense into you now.” She joked. “But you’ve sure changed, huh.”

“If you can still recognise me, then isn’t it fine?”

“I guess so. Anyway, what about you? You didn’t run into trouble in there, did you?”

Some time passed before Exrite answered.

“… a lot. I’ll tell you about it soon. For now, please let me stay like this. I’m scared that if I let go you’ll disappear, haha…”

“Idiot. I’m not gonna disappear.” She gently punched his side.

Later, his composure returned. It still felt unreal, but in a good way. An endless flow of euphoria coursed through him. Wiping away the last set of tears with his shoulder, he broke away from Frosty, her warmth still lingering on him.

“You haven’t changed at all Frosty. It’s been… two months, has it?” He said.

“No clue. You’re the Maiden of Time, aren’t you? And what about yourself!? You’ve gotten somewhat… bigger, I think? I’m not just misremembering you, am I?”

She shoved her face into his as she inspected his body.

“And your eyes! Your iris is moving!”

“It’s a long story… but in short; I kinda met Despair.”

“Kinda?” Frosty raised a brow.

She was about to add something, but suddenly, another voice interjected.

“Ho? Despair herself came to personally bless her beloved Exrenity?”

Only one person spoke in that manner. The mature, and ever so tantalising voice robbed their attention. Two heartfelt smiles turned to the dark-skinned Demon who found herself unable to hide hers any longer.

“URU!”

“Uru!”

Their simultaneous voices caused her to firmly nod.

“Yes, it is I. Hmm, I’m impressed that you made it to the end before me, Frosty. Never mind you Exrite –”

Suddenly, Exrite embraced her. Although, Uru was fast enough to keep her arms from being trapped by his. With gentle hands, she cupped his face and deeply stared into his eyes with a smile unlike her.

“You missed me, I presume?”

“What are you saying Uru? Of course I did!”

“You should have trusted that I would have made it regardless~ Your worry was wasted on me. But – I’m glad that you feel so strongly about me. And you Frosty~? Did you miss me as well?” She teased.

Frosty sighed.

“Yeah, yeah. I did, and so what? Good to know you didn’t change a bit.” Despite her words, Frosty seemed happy.

Sensing this, Uru hummed; “Likewise~”

The three of them stood together underneath the shadow of the obelisk, all a good amount away from the towering structure. Exrite kept the most distance between the obelisk, fearing that he may somehow activate it prematurely.

Not everyone was here just yet.

“As for you Exrite – you’ve changed considerably since the last time we met.”

Uru said in a complementing manner, her dark eyes constantly moving between his [Gears], body, eyes and at the weapons he donned. All these changes took them by surprise, and they wondered what exactly happened to him during his trial.

“Yet in the end you’re still somehow you. How a stubborn human like you managed to preserve against the odds of the trial is beyond the comprehension of a Demon like myself.”

Uru placed a hand on his face, a thumb gently pressed against the bottom of his crimson eye.

“But I’d be lying to myself if I said that I wasn’t thankful that you didn’t change. Maybe it was that stubbornness that brought you down here in the end.” She hummed.

“Stubbornness doesn’t come close to describing it.” Exrite laughed, his voice soon trailing off. “A lot of things happened… far too many things… Yes? Uru? Are you wondering what’s happening with my eye?”

Her look of interest roused this question from seemingly out of the blue. Uru was mesmerised by his animated eye.

“Uru –?”

“Beautiful… it moves like a turning gear. Despair must have played a hand in this, I presume. You mentioned that you met Her. Although I find that difficult to believe.” She said.

The Gods, including the Children of Balance, could not leave the realms which they were bind to. Furthermore, they could not leave the Region which they governed. More than eons ago this was possible, but with the Maidens in place it was impossible for a God to appear elsewhere.

This was why messengers, priests or other beings – such as spirits – were used to communicate or do their bidding outside of their domains.

Because of this it was not a surprise that Uru did not readily believe him. As a Demon she knew well that such a thing was impossible.

Exrite nodded. “She wasn’t there entirely, if that makes any sense. The Despair that I met up there was just an extension of her; like a projection. Think of it like Melody’s case where her real body’s still in the Domain of Realms.”

“Interesting. Usually a catalyst of some kind is used for certain projections. I’m assuming that was your eye?”

“Most likely. It was originally her eye after all. Both of my eyes are linked to them anyway. Depending on my state of mind, one of them will end up talking to me. I just didn’t expect to see her. So much for calling it the Voice of Despair.”

Exrite cleared his throat after his sudden burst of spite towards the end. His complaint roused their curiosity, especially Frosty whose face soured at the mention of Despair.

“Did that damned God do anything to you?” She worriedly approached.

“Let’s just say that she helped me out this time.”

Frost stared at his face for some time. Afterwards, she let loose of a heavy sign.

“Despair helped you in the middle of despair? That doesn’t sound right. But then again, no one knows what goes through the mind of a God. Nothing good, that’s for sure. Exrite, please tell us what happened.” She sighed once more as she folded her arms sternly.

“You’re right in a way. She didn’t tell me much other than I’d become stronger if I kept going down. She called it my Final Dive. I held her hand, trusted her and then she threw me into a despair that almost broke me.”

Exrite recalled how Despair omitted the details of the Final Dive as she led him down into the <46th Floor> whilst taunting him in an attempt to whittle his resolve.

“It was only then when I realised that my Final Dive had truly began. And it still has yet to end. She tore my mind apart and announced revelation after revelation. You know my immortality? How that was all supposed to be a thing of the past?”

Frosty’s eyes suddenly widened.

“Your curse… don’t tell me –”

“I was never cured. I couldn’t even change forms after I passed the first few floors.” He revealed.

Frosty was rendered speechless. A large part of their journey together in the past was dedicated to reaching the Children of Balance where his curse would be cured. For it to still be here after everything they had gone through felt like her heart had been stabbed with a knife.

The knife turned.

Uru and Frosty both realised what this meant. The changes he exhibited could not happen so quickly. Only the Geared possessed this ability and they did so by devouring others, as they had seen throughout their descent. Exrite shared that same trait, though he was far too weak to even last a second before his body was destroyed in the most painful way imaginable.

However – if he could not die, and his body was in a state of perpetual repair; then that one second would stretch to the entire duration of the change.

Realising this, Uru’s impression of Exrite drastically changed. Awe struck every fibre of her being as another overwhelming emotion caused her lips to curve upwards into a grin.

This emotion was immense respect.

Exrite, a measly human, had endured what the Gods of Eastern Six Point feared the most. The sheer indomitable will that he possessed was unrivalled in her eyes. The vow he made to defy fate and retain his humanity was unbreakable, and this finally proved it to her.

Although at this point one had to wonder whether he was still considered a human anymore.

As Frosty struggled to gather her thoughts, Uru softly spoke.

“Your stubbornness knows no bounds. I pray that your suffering bears no lasting wound on your mind.” She cupped his face again. “That demeanour in your eyes became stronger. I’m sure they guided you well through the darkness of despair.”

“Nothing is going to happen to you, right?” Frosty asked worriedly.

He turned to her, placed a hand on her head and warmly smiled.

“Never. Not while I’m here with you now. Knowing you, you won’t let anything happen to me.”

“Of course not.” She grabbed his hand and clutched it tightly. “Of course not…”

Her hands faintly shook as she stared up at him with glistening eyes. Tears swelled like the worry that stirred in her heart. He pulled her into his chest and kept her there for as long as she needed, just as she did for him.

To Frosty, Exrite was like another brother to her. He was family, and the second person she had ever come to fully trust in her life…

Uru left them alone. Now was not the time to act mischievous. She softly hummed a familiar tune as she kept her gaze out to the vast ocean.

Then, she suddenly stopped, and her lips blossomed into a large smile.

Amongst the ocean of dead; only three figures moved. They were remarkably familiar, and from Uru’s grand distance she could see the colours of black, white and something in between.

She did not have to see their faces to tell who they were.

With a hum, she pointed in their direction with a long finger.

“Ho~ Ease your worries Frosty. Now is not the time to cry, but to be rejoice. Have a look~ Our friends have all returned safe and sound.”

Exrite and Frosty immediately darted their eyes in the direction of her finger, with Frosty wiping her tears with the back of her hand as she suddenly yelled.

“Where!? I don’t see them.”

“You’ll see them in time. All three of them. Although… it seems like your brother’s struggling to swim~”

Exrite squinted and saw nothing moving along the vast golden ocean. No matter how hard he tried he still could not see the figures Uru pointed at.

By no means was his eyesight bad. In fact, his constant feeding on the Geared and the descent overall had honed it to a frightening degree. Despite this however, they were still considerably inferior to Uru’s; a Demon.

Frosty on the other hand never had great eyesight. The same went for Khaos. They were similar to a human’s, though in the dark it was an absolute nightmare for them.

He continued to stare into the distance, never daring to break away. Each second that passed felt like minutes. Not a single word left his lips, for all he could think of were the faces of his friends.

And then, just for a second, he saw something move among the countless black dots in the vast ocean. Countless emotions soon flooded his heart as the figures finally came into view.

The faces of the friends he so dearly missed emerged one by one. With a vibrant smile and swollen eyes; Exrite broke into tears. Relief, happiness and nothing but thanks filled him to the very brim.

After everything he had gone through; and after the suffering he had endured; and after the despair he been plunged into – he could finally say for certain that it was all worth it.

No one was lost this time… he didn’t choose the route of temporary respite like he did before. He chose to face it all so that he wouldn’t lose the people he loved once again.

Exrite wasn’t alone anymore.

The cycle had finally been broken. Amid these fleeting emotion – amid his hope – the flames that forever burnt in his crimson eye finally quelled, for he had found the hope at the end of despair.

This marked the end of the Final Dive, and the Attributed Whole was only one obelisk away from being achieved.

The end was within reach.

* * *

Smiles, tears and laughter were shared amongst them on the island. Khaos, after kissing the gravel in relief, immediately rushed to Exrite where they clashed hands together.

“I knew you’d make it down here in one piece!” He exclaimed with a hearty laugh.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d make it no matter what?” Exrite said, sniffing as he wiped away any remaining tears. “It’s so fucking great to see you again.”

“Haha! Same here! We crushed this trial! See, there wasn’t a need to worry at all because this is nothing compared what we have to face in the future!”

Exrite missed that hearty voice and that free-spirited personality he had. He quickly found himself laughing alongside him. Khaos always was the kind of person who could bring people to smile, no matter what.

“What’s the matter Exrite? You’re not so talkative this time! Hey, your growth didn’t affect how you talk, right?” Khaos asked, obviously joking though there was a bit of concern in there.

But upon seeing Exrite’s face, that disappeared entirely.

“No. That isn’t it. It’s the opposite. I have so many things I want to say, and so many things I want to ask but I’m just… so happy right now. I’m speechless, really. You have no idea how glad I am to see you again.”

Khaos’ smile broadened at those words.

“What are you saying? We were always together here in our hearts! Exrite, this is the only the beginning of our grand journey! A small step in the big picture! Because our goal is so impossibly big that this trial can’t even compare to it!”

He reminded him as he laughed at the top of his lungs.

Khaos was right. This trial was – in the grand scheme of things – immeasurably small. Their goal was massive, insane and far more dangerous than this. Gaia’s trial was, above all, their first true step towards that goal.

Exrite’s smile softened as his eyes slowly closed.

 “Yeah. You’re right.”

“But you know; I wish this was the last time we’d get separated like this. I actually had a hard moving through some floors.” He broke from the handshake and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “But anything’s possible with a good punch!”

Suddenly, he let out a pained ‘oof’ when a fist found its way into his sides, the owner being none other than Frosty.

“Idiot.”

She didn’t say anything after that. Her face fell onto his back as she leaned on him. Khaos’ mouth parted, ready to say something but suddenly froze and clamped them shut.

Something warm touched his ice-cold back. Frosty shivered; her hands slowly reaching for Khaos’ shredded, dripping clothing. The strings of cloth and fibre could barely hold on to her weak grip. Her silent whimpers and sniffles hushed everyone.

Two months of separation was a lot to endure for her. Frosty had never left her brother’s side for even a day. They had always been together ever since they were small. Through ups and downs, their parent’s abandonment and the tribulations they faced as Frostbitten – they were always side by side.

Before they met Exrite it was only them against the world.

Khaos was the most important person in her life, despite how she often acted around him.

“I’m back Sis.” He gripped one of her hands. “We all made it.”

Only faint, meek cries could leave her lips. The muffled sounds were nostalgic, and that warm yet cold damp patch behind him was the result of Frosty’s love and longing to see him after so long.

Khaos continued to coo her with a voice so calm that even Exrite found himself surprised. It was the first time he had heard him in such a tone. Smiling, he looked aside at Black and White who in return shifted their attention to him.

White smiled pleasantly. By the blue colour of her irises she was thankfully the ‘sane’ White.

“Look who made it. And here I was wondering where you were when I ran into Black and Khaos back there.” White said. “Good to see that you haven’t lost yourself just yet. Not bad, Exrite. It means you’re all the more closer to taking that Maiden out. What do you think Black? Think it’s enough to take on Melody head on?”

She said in a joking manner.

“You think so? The trial was a joke. It wasn’t up to my standards anyway.” Black played along. “On a serious note – what the fuck happened to you Exrite? You’ve grown taller, somehow put on more muscle and look like a moving armoury.”

“You should know the answer. For someone like me, the trial wasn’t anywhere near as easy as you think.” Exrite eluded to an answer that only Black knew. Immediately, she hummed to herself and gave a firm nod. “I got thrown into the deep end.” He added.

“Swimming isn’t hard. It’s the ocean that engulfs you with makes it difficult. Sometimes, it’s better off to just drown.” Black glanced at the golden ocean to the side, then dragged them back to him. “Tell me something Exrite – did your emotions drive you down here, or was it desperation that taught you how to swim in this medium?”

Black marched closer as she spoke, eventually standing before him with an iron grin. Her all-consuming gaze swallowed him. If a man stared too deeply into those purple eyes, they’d undoubtably break down in terror.

He saw the yearning behind those eyes. Black’s curiosity outweighed all else. The motive behind this was one that was covered back in the first Reservoir…

On that faithful night when Black too revealed that she had underwent a similar process to his trial which led her to abandon her humanity and adopt her newfound self – one that strove to survive in a world that knew nothing but endless conflict.

A human could never persist in there.

Here it was no different. They’d have to be a monster to conquer the trial. However – the fact that Exrite stood here, still able to talk like his normal self, proved her wrong.

“Both.” Exrite said. “I hit a point where I was desperate enough to follow Despair herself… and for the longest time wanted nothing more than to destroy every Geared and everything on the floors. All for the sake of attaining strength and to never let something like this happen again. I longed to see you all again.”

He admitted, Black’s brow raising with critique.

“I know what you’re going to say. I’m naïve. It’ll only get worse the closer we get to our goals. But I’m not so weak anymore. I’ll be able to get myself out of places like this alone now, at the very least.”

Exrite quickly added, Black’s face then morphing into a cunning grin.

“Correct. The whole reason for this fucking long trial was to make sure we ‘Exrenities’ are strong enough to stand alone. The fact that you’re here says it all. Well, congratulations. You’re officially the most hard-headed and stubborn human I’ve ever had the displeasure of coming across.”

She flung an arm around his neck and hung close.

“But that’s not to say I’m not fucking glad. Don’t forget I was rooting for you ever since our little chat. No one deserves to have anything stripped from them, but sometimes it can’t be helped. In your case; it’s all up in the air. Haaaaaah~ Listen closely; cherish that humanity, will you? Don’t you dare fucking lose it on my watch. Not after you did what I couldn’t. Got it?”

“You don’t have to worry. My humanity’s the last thing I’ll ever lose. That much I’m certain of.” Exrite assured.

“I figured as much. You never did strike me as weak willed, but I always hated that you were so defiant with zero strength to match. In this world, words are futile. Force is the way to go around getting things done.” She said, Uru nodding in agreement.

“Precisely.”

“Well, as much as I’d love to test that strength for myself – I’d rather we get out of here first. We’ve been down here for far longer than we needed to.” She complained and walked straight towards the obelisk. “I almost miss the surface~”

“Clearly this trial was worth it if it strengthened him. Patience means nothing to you, does it?” White sighed and followed suit. “Exrite, I have no way to gauge your strength, so I can only hope that it’s leagues beyond your old self. Our only proof right now is that you’re here. Do show us a bit some time. When we leave, that is.”

“Yeah…” Exrite, at the mention of the surface, could not think of anything else but the prospect of leaving this wretched trial.

As he watched Uru also make her way towards the obelisk, and as Khaos and Frosty brought themselves back together, a single question slid into the forefront of his mind.

Where was Gaia’s home?

They were so close to the end. Perhaps there was another floor, just like the first Reservoir. Maybe her home resided there; and in extension –

– All of the answers he so dearly sought.

Eventually the floor went quiet as they gathered beneath the obelisk. With a single touch, the pale object shot countless streaks of light up its body. A high-pitched grumble then resounded from within as the ground suddenly began to shake.

The pillar of light consumed the world with one violent flash. Everything from the holes above to the depths of the sea below were touched by the light. Gradually, the light died down and nothing was left beneath the obelisk.

They had all successfully left the <82nd Floor> – the final floor.

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