54. The Attributed Whole
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Part 1 –

 

An inhuman groan ruptured the air. The sound travelled through the depths of the wide corridor, echoing dozens of times before it faded into nothingness. The owner of this sound was – surprisingly – a humanoid; though this one had long since abandoned their humanity.

Black’s patience had reached its final limit. Earlier they were led to believe that the <82nd Floor> was the last of this trial, but their celebrations were premature.

The obelisk teleported them into the entryway of a long corridor. There was no home, no grand discovery or anything to reward their wasted time. At least this was how Black saw it. It was just another floor.

The corridor was wide enough to accommodate at least 5 people; a stark contrast to the gear-shaped elevator in the <41st Floor> which could fit an entire army’s worth of men. Pale and black stone marvellously lined the surfaces of this place; the pale ones glowing with a serene light. They were pristine, untouched, and untainted by the ugliness of the floors above.

In any case – this place certainly felt like ‘the end’, or at least the prelude to it. Thinking of it this way, the others embraced this time to rekindle their companionship. There was no need to rush, for they all prioritised this above the completion of the trial for the time being.

Aside from Black, of course. That was not to say that she too wasn’t involved, nor curious to hear the recounts of their descent. She’d just rather hear it away from this agonisingly time-consuming place.

Another deranged groan left her parted lips. To quell the steam that erupted from her boiling blood, she set her attention to Exrite who led the pack at the front with Uru by his side.

Her eyes didn’t land on him by chance. Neither was she the only one. Everyone’s gazes fell onto him when he finally had the chance to retell his descent in all it’s... ‘glory’.

No page was left unturned, and every horrific event was recited with detail that some wished they didn’t hear. But they were drawn by it, intrigued by the series of events which sounded like something straight out of a nightmare.

None could break free from this binding spell. Even after he had concluded they continued to watch him until a voice brought them all back.

“Exrite...” It was Frosty’s voice.

He softly smiled, sensing the worry lock up in her throat.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. If you have any doubts, then feel free to beat some sense into me.” Exrite raised a thumb at the woman.

“Geez… how the hell can you still joke around? Don’t make me feel like worrying about you is a waste of time.” She retorted with a sigh.

“I think it’d be worse if I couldn’t joke about it.” He spoke. “Gotta see the bright side one way or another. It pushed me hard enough to become strong, and twice as hard to hate Gaia.”

“Thinking of returning the favour~?” Black asked with deadly intrigue.

“Depends.”

After a short period of silence, Uru spoke.

“Ho. So that trial was tailored for your descent.”

Indeed. From what he had heard beforehand, the others had gone through the same set of 41 floors that he did. However – there were exceptions.

Firstly, none had met the same odd creatures he did in both the <66th Floor> and the <76th Floor>. In extension, they also did not come across any [Gears].

Furthermore – the <70th Floor> in their descent did not contain any spatial anomalies. It was a normal, cracked and damp floor as far as they were concerned.

Aside from these key differences, their trials were mostly identical.

“Seems like it. But I can’t figure out for the life of me how someone else was able to come before me and not trigger any of the untouched creature’s I’ve come across.” Exrite strained his eyes.

“Maybe they reset. It’s not a farfetched reason, considering this is the Maiden of Time’s dungeon.” White said. “It’s likely to be correct since it was in your descent specifically.”

“Don’t forget that you weren’t the first Exrenity or probably the last to exist in this world” Black cleared her throat. “Saicry has a long history of the Exrenity. Given their proximity it might not be impossible that one of them wandered in here. Or, they were probably pointed to this place. The purpose of this trial was to strengthen the Exrenity, after all~”

“… that makes more sense. The person that came down here was also a Demi-human.” Exrite nodded, then looked at Khaos who read through the contents of a certain envelope.

He had given it to him prior to this conversation.

“Find anything?” Exrite asked.

“I don’t understand a single word.” His response came after a brief moment of him silently squinting at the envelope like how an old man does without their glasses. “Neither does Sis.”

“Of course I wouldn’t know.” She sighed.

Mused, Uru commented with: “Have you lost your Frostbitten tongue?”

“Never had it to begin with. Ecloma was always the easier option.” Khaos replied simply before he returned the letter to Exrite. “But you found a good haul. Milkazako’s going to be happy translating this.”

“Hopefully. By the way Khaos – isn’t there any other word you know in Frostbitten besides our names?” Exrite inquired all of a sudden as he slipped the letter into a safe container.

“Not really, haha. But there’s a few I’m sure I know.”

“Then what about ‘Eto’?”

Khaos’ face rose to the ceiling. It seemed like he had an idea on what it meant.

“Eto… Eto. Etooooooo –”

“Idiot, can you keep your thoughts in that thick skull of yours?” Frosty nearly snapped.

“– R-right.” He apologised. Then, he locked his eyes with Exrite’s. “’Eto’ doesn’t really mean anything. It’s more like, let’s see – a gesture in Frostbitten.”

“A gesture?” Exrite wondered what he meant by this.

“Yeah. A gesture of thanks.”

Exrite’s eyes instantly widened as a wave of surprised washed over him. Before long, his composure returned, and he faced the front after a briefly thanking Khaos.

This made no sense. As much as he did not want to admit it; Khaos must’ve been mistaken. He had to have been.

The creature which had waited down in the chamber of the <76th Floor> could not have written ‘thanks’ in its dying breaths. He refused to believe it. And if it did – then why? What did it thank him for?

He did nothing other than descend. The thought spiralled in his mind. Eventually, he placed a hand on the limeite box containing the envelope.

“I see. Thank you.” Regardless, Exrite took this with a grain of salt and believed him for now. Khaos wouldn’t lie, but it’d be a lie to say that Khaos was infallible.

He concluded that he’d have to wait until they returned to Saicry for further clarification. That was if his answer wasn’t waiting for him at the end of the long path.

That aside –

White showed perhaps the most intrigue with Exrite’s changes. Uru and Black were a close second, although their attention seemed to linger more on the objects that he armed himself with.

Light glinted from White’s eyes as she studied the changed man from head to toe. In accordance with his story; his changes seemed to make sense, considering he possessed the ‘adaptive’ trait that the Geared had.

His abilities aside – she was more interested in the biology behind his change. It was her field of expertise after all. Aside from minor physical changes, Exrite looked no different from his old self despite possessing an arsenal of resistances.

Keeping her thoughts to herself, Black spoke whatever came to mind as she caught up to Exrite.

“Hmhm~” Black began. “To think you’d be making firearms right after we left you alone. Ah~ You never cease to amuse me.”

She took the weapon from its sling, inspecting the massive rifle with a purple gleam in her eyes.

“Well, they’ve been treating me well since you first introduced me to them. Except for having one of my rifles explode on me out of nowhere.” He half-complained. “By the way Black, I forgot to ask you about why it exploded in the first place.”

She hummed, her eyes still reading the weapon as a grin rose. Black already knew the answer.

“You said that this happened underwater, correct?”

“Yes. Completely submerged –”

“You’re a moron.” She cut him off with a lethal interjection. “Oh sorry~ I meant to say that your world isn’t as advanced as others, so there’s no way that you could’ve known.”

Her voice was filled with barbs and jabs. If Exrite was anyone else, they’d undoubtably erupt in fury.

“Ahem. On a more serious note – Try to imagine a barrel filled with liquid. Now, imagine all that liquid expanding to more than twice its size in a split second from all the heat and firepower this thing spits.”

Exrite visualised it, and to his surprise, he suddenly understood the concept she was trying to teach.

“Not only that, but the fucking shockwave of the explosion will tear it apart anyway. I don’t know if you know this already, but explosions are fucking far deadlier underwater. Water is a denser medium than air, so energy travels really well, even rebounding in most cases.”

Black further explained. In short, Exrite’s hunch was correct. Explosions did indeed work better underwater. Also, he mentally ticked off the things Black explained as he recounted the events on the <66th floor>; particularly the ‘rebounding’ effect.

“They call it physics. I call it combat knowledge.” Black said proudly. “Also, I might have to teach you some more weapon designs. You’re a fast learner, and evidently a good listener if you somehow managed to make this.”

She brandished the weapon, its limite coat glistening in the light.

Exrite silently thanked her. As Black earnestly inspected his armoury one by one, Uru suddenly brought up the topic of [Spatial] magic. Coming from the Demon race, she was naturally interested in anything regarding the Maidens or their magic.

Interestingly though, the Demons – who were known to possess archives upon archives of knowledge concerning the Maidens – also did not know much about [Spatial] magic.

The same was apparently for [Wisdom] magic; the Maiden of Wisdom’s [Fifteenth Tiered] magic. Most of this was due to the state of their continent, which separated the Maiden of Wisdom and the Maiden of Space from Eastern Six Point.

It made sense for them to not know much. However, their knowledge was not negligible by any means. Compared to what the Humanoid knew – they easily possessed a hundredfold more.

In short – the effects that Exrite described added nothing to her grand library of knowledge. Thankfully, Uru was willing to share its contents.

She explained that [Spatial] magic, at the very core, was the power to command the rules of reality – or ‘physics’ as Otherworlders called it – to the Maiden of Space’s will. The gravity of this power was terrifyingly immense; so much so that it was used as a regional limiter for the Gods of Eastern Six Point.

The major function of the Domain of Space and in extension, [Spatial] magic, was to uphold and enact the rules of reality that were set by the Maiden of Wisdom. One such rule dictated that only one sun was to be in the sky; though there were some exceptions to this rule. Most notably was the Scorched, where nine suns ravaged the world with a heat so intense that metal armour was known to melt within an hour in that Region.

Suffice to say; it was not hard to see why it was of the [Fifteenth Tier].

“– and speaking of powerful magic; what have you imbued your largest [Gear] with? [Time] magic, I presume?” Uru wondered.

“I didn’t have time to imbue it, I’m afraid.” Exrite admitted. “Also, I doubt it’ll take [Time] magic. The second largest [Gear] only uses [Fifth Tiered] magic for reference, and this smaller one uses [Control]; a [Sixth Tiered] magic. Don’t forget that this same [Gear] is the exactly same size as the ones that are used for [Teleport] in the obelisks. Those are of the [Eight Tier].”

“Ho~ Then this is perhaps more than capable of handling most magic~ Shall I personally imbue it?” Uru’s voice oozed with excitement.

Exrite would be mad to not accept her magic. Aside from [Time], the only other magic that he considered ‘powerful’ in his arsenal was his triple layered [Physical Barrier]. Additionally, using a [Barrier]-type magic with a [Gear] seemed unnecessary now that his immortality had returned…

He asked if she could imbue it with [Solar Core]. However, she gave him an unfortunate look. All her magic beyond the [Seventh Tier] were tied with her being, and were not casted with chants, magical circles or through chantless methods. Rather, they were unique – almost like an ability. One could imagine it being akin to how a dragon is able to breathe fire.

In a sense, the higher tiered magic she possessed were not strictly magic but were more akin to a complex biological and magical process. The [Solar Core] was one of them, utilising her body’s natural ability to generate heat into a single point. The only magical process involved was the conversion of heat to mana through the engravings across her body. Once they reached her finger they would turn back into pure heat.

This should still be able to be replicated with a chant. However, Uru pressed that the [Gear] may not be able to use the magic correctly. In short – it will most likely self-destruct as a result of the [Gear]’s inability to compress the heat, control it, point it and discharge it. At best, the [Gear] would only be able to generate the heat and nothing more.

Overall, harnessing [Solar Core] would require massive tweaks with the [Gear] – something that Exrite unfamiliar with, considering his lacklustre experimentation and knowledge with them thus far.

His best chance of harnessing that power was after he learnt the secrets of the [Gears], and perhaps when he had acquired [Biomechanical] magic.

In any case – Exrite had two options.

One, he could imbue the [Gear] with his triple layered [Physical Barrier]; a [Ninth Tiered] magic, or; Uru could imbue it with [Explosive Orb] a [Sixth Tiered] magic. With this, Exrite would be able to create [Seekers] of his very own – the variation he called [Blue Bullet].

[Explosive Orb] was the obvious choice, though he wondered if Uru had anything of the [Seventh Tier] or potentially beyond. Unfortunately, her archives were filled with combination magic.

Despite these numerous hurdles, he was eternally thankful for her help.

The giant [Gear], which was twice as large as his torso, hovered gently in front of Uru. Her eyes lapped its very presence as she gently caressed its smooth surface, feel the gentle ticking. Her shivers of delight synchronised with the ticks.

Every one of her senses in this brief moment was burnt into memory, for this [Gear] was not only the largest she had seen under Exrite’s command, but also because she had the honour of bestowing it her magic once again.

That aside, Uru firmly placed a hand on one of the [Gear]’s teeth and began to utter a chant. A purple magical circle coated the [Gear], the strange Demonic text pulsating one by one with a faint glow.

Before long, the circle disappeared, and a strange warmth suddenly filled the [Gear]. He did not have to test it to figure out that it was a success… nor would he. The last thing he wanted was a cave-in here of all places. Let alone now.

With a firm thanks, Exrite brushed the [Gear] and smiled.

* * *

No one knew the purpose of Gaia’s trial in regards for the Geared. They were told that they descended to become ‘complete’ – to find themselves. But all they witnessed was inevitable self-destruction as the fell into despair.

Uru brought up an interesting theory; one that Exrite too had believed. This dungeon could have been a generator for Hope and Despair. It would make sense, as the Children of Balance created the Maidens, although this truth was now up in the air. Perhaps it was Gaia’s way of maintaining their power whilst they were locked up in their domains.

However – Uru also deeply scrutinised it, and as a result, she tore the theory to shreds.

The Gods could only harness power from within their respective Regions, whether through collecting souls, worship, rituals performed by their followers or by other means.

Basically, no matter how much hope and despair were created in this dungeon; the Children of Balance could not harness any of it.

There was also some uncertainty about the Geared in the <81st Floor>. No matter how close they were to reaching their desired hope, they did not allow themselves to break free from despair. It consumed them, chained them, and dragged them to their deaths as they fell into what was literally their Final Dive.

But even so – they must have seen the light at the end of the well. They must have known that hope was within reach…

White, amid the suffocating silence, asked something.

“Hey, have you heard of learned hopelessness?”

“Learned hopelessness?” Exrite quietly responded, turning his head to her. “No… I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”

“Neither.”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Those words are foreign to me.”

Frosty, Khaos and Uru respectively spoke. White brought a hand to her chin.

“I don’t blame you. It comes from our ‘Otherworldly’ knowledge. Well, from Black’s original world if you want to get more specific.”

Black held a hesitant look, but as the gazes gathered on her she eventually gave in with a sigh.

“It’s a stupid theory. It’s more like learning that you don’t have an option. Eventually, you reach a point where you can’t even perceive said option when it’s so blatantly in front of you. In this case, they wouldn’t even recognise hope when faced with it – at least that’s how the theory goes.”

She explained, then added:

“Once pessimism takes over you, then you’re completely fucked. Funnily enough, they lost all hope when they took their leap of faith.”

The concept was interesting to say the least. He certainly saw merit in it, but ultimately could not take it to heart. Exrite – who had constantly fought with despair in his decade of suffering – did not once believe that he was hopeless.

But the Geared were not like him. Neither was it an easy thing to do. They were – in the strictest sense – children in mind. Their emotions were pure and were driven solely to reach the bottom to find themselves… not to become monsters.

It was perhaps this realisation which had caused them this agony. Maybe there was something more to it.

No one truly knew. But what they did know was that the answers were all –

Exrite looked ahead instead of down for the first time. With a soft smile, he eagerly awaited to reach the end.

–  just ahead.

* * *

Part 2 –

 

Their strides eventually brought them to a grand hallway. A series of gasps and quiet sounds of awe slipped their lips as they froze at the entryway, their eyes all devouring the sight before them.

Dozens of monumental black and white pillars held up the far-reaching ceiling. One would have to lean all the way back to see the celling. The pillars were larger than the trees of the <46th Floor>, each one glowing a mysterious light which illuminated the hallways.

Not a single shadow was cast, no matter how obscure the place was.

Exrite took a deep breath and moved his gaze to the walls.

Many hundreds of red gauges densely lined the walls behind the pillars as they ran from one end to the other. At the far end was a door fitting for the grand hallway. The end was undoubtably through those doors.

“Red gauges…?” Exrite broke the silence with a near inaudible whisper as he took the first step into the hallway.

“Don’t be mistaken. I can smell the scent of blood through those glass containers.” White quickly corrected. She brought a gloved hand to her mouth, wiping away a string of saliva. “It smells like yours in a way.”

Exrite raised a brow. “Like my blood?”

She nodded. “Sort of. I’ve killed many thousands in the past and only few scents ever stood out to me. Yours most notably, and this one. Exrite, did you donate blood or something? This place looks like a blood bank.”

“No.” He simply replied. “I don’t recall having my blood taken from me… could this be Gaia’s blood?”

“Who knows. You can’t really tell what goes on in their minds.” Frosty said. “Does it matter? We’re almost out of here!”

“For once I agree with you Frosty~ Fuck the blood, the door’s right there. But~” Black drew her handgun and pointed it at the glass containers. “If it bothers you that much, then we can just destroy it~”

“Ho~ I’d refrain if I were you. Our reunion will be short lived~” Uru said in a threatening tone.

“Hmhm~ Is that so~?” Black hummed. “I didn’t come all this way to play Schrodinger’s blood.”

“You two – that’s enough.” Exrite firmly intervened, a [Gear] breaking their line of sight. “If White says that it smells similar to my blood, then that should be enough proof that it likely belongs to Gaia.”

Black slid her handgun away with playful reluctance as she said, “Fine~”

“No… I’m not so sure you’re right, Exrite.” White added as she took a step in the direction of a blood container. “It has a refined smell. A much more refined one than yours yet… it smells crude, and murky – just like the Geared. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine that the Maiden of Time’s blood smells like this.”

White, who was a Vampire, could distinguish blood from smell alone. The more prominent and defined the smell was, the more that blood possessed mana. This one was certainly prominent, and she could tell that it indeed carried a substantial amount of power – enough to make her salivate.

However, it also reeked with undistinguishable tones that only she could sense. In short – it had the same smell as that of a lowly rodent, or the Geared in this case.

Because of this, she could not believe that it belonged to the Maiden of Time – who was arguably one of the oldest beings in this world. If that were truly her blood, then the ebbs of time would have caused it to age like a master-class wine.

In any case – it was not like it mattered in the end.

“Another question to ask Gaia, I guess… so it must be from a Geared. One must’ve made it past here then, I’m assuming.” Exrite said.

“That’s what I’m thinking. It might even belong to the Demi-human you saw on the paper!” Khaos reminded.

“Could be~ It’d make sense for them to make it here than a lowly Geared… just how much fucking blood did they have in them then?” Black yawned.

“Enough to fill a hundred of these things.” Khaos quietly said to himself.

However, his voice was not silent enough.

“I. Can. See. That.” Black replied with an annoyed tone.

* * *

The massive doors grumbled like rolling thunder. At Exrite’s touch, a light shot from his hand across the doors like lightning. They followed a similar pattern to the obelisks. When the black and white doors were fully illumined by this zig-zag pattern of light – they began to slowly swing open.

The grinding sound of stone against stone reverberated infinitely. Dust clouds formed from the grounded stone like storm clouds. The scene was hardly an inviting one.

Finally, a passage wide enough for them all to proceed through was revealed. An [Explosive Orb] flew into the heights above them and exploded. The shockwave instantly disbursed the grey dust clouds as the group marched into the finale with hearts of steel.

The end was here.

Euphoria, hope, and all sorts of emotions flooded through Exrite. He couldn’t believe that they were finally at the end. He closed his eyes for a moment, hearing nothing but the breathing and patters of his closest friends who walked with him side by side.

His eyes slowly fluttered open.

They instantly widened, as did the eyes of his friends.

A mesmerising sight greeted them all as silent whispers of awe slipped their lips. The chamber within was massive. Staggeringly massive. It exceeded the size of the room that housed the hole leading into the <82nd Floor>, extending as far as a few kilometres. This included the ceiling, though in the centre of the was a chimney of some sort which seemed to lead somewhere.

However, it was not the size of this chamber which caught their eyes and caused their hearts to shudder. In the centre, past the many hundreds of towering pillars which split the chamber into three distinctive rings, was a pale object.

It throbbed with unknown power, hovering in the air with grace akin to an angel, although they could not shake off its ominous presence. The object was utterly massive, around 5 times the size of a Decanid. If they didn’t know any better – they’d imagine that it was no more than a giant egg.

The texture of its surface was like wax. It was partially see-through to some degree yet was opaque, nevertheless. They felt like it was… alive somehow.

Light shone like beacons from each pillar. Not a single shadow was cast here. But there was one in their hearts. This was certainly the finale, considering that there was no other exit in sight… save for the hole above the object.

The only other object in sight was the conspicuous gear-shaped platform beneath the egg. It sat slightly raised compared to the floor, otherwise, it wasn’t anything of major interest compared to the oversized egg.

Black was the first to sever the silence.

“… this is supposed to be Gaia’s home?” She expressed her doubt with pursed brows. “Exrite, mind explaining what I’m looking at?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. This is the end as far as I can tell…”

As Exrite’s voice drifted off, and as he took the first few steps into the chamber, another voice suddenly emerged.

“I remember the face of a girl who saw the stars for the first time.”

He instantly darted his eyes in every direction. It did not come from his friends, neither did it sound like anything remotely familiar. It was monotone yet held grandiose that was only fitting for a higher being.

He thought it was a mere voice in his head – an effect caused by his Eye of Despair. But he realised that he wasn’t the only one who heard it, as the others too scoured the environment for the source of the voice.

“The face that was reflected on that moonlight lake. I remember the beginning.”

He found it. His eyes naturally fell onto the egg. It pulsated with every word that was spoken through an invisible mouth.

“The stars were never plentiful. A meld of colours mashed in the night skies of our young world. The stars that were up there… they must’ve felt like they belonged somewhere in that world afar – more than she did in her own.”

Cryptic. No one understood what those words meant. Confusion likely skewered their sense of reason, as they couldn’t do anything else but to stare as the egg seemingly stared back at them.

The floor began to rumble.

“… Exrite, I’ll ask one more time – please explain to us what the fuck we’re looking at?” Black said, a hand ready to draw her Night’s Melody from her hip.

“You can’t expect me to know like it’s obvious.” He retorted, sensing a dangerous aura begin to leak from the colossal egg.

Exrite instinctively reached for his sniper rifle.

“So I asked myself in an auditorium filled with stars – what is this world?”

A crack opened in the centre of the egg. A gaping hole tore itself open, revealing a blue light that could only be described as holy. As awe enraptured them once again, they did not let their guard down. Not for a second. One by one, they drew their arms; save for Khaos who no longer wielded his carapace sword or Carbodix shield.

They had been lost long ago during his descent.

The hole widened until approximately a quarter of the egg was a blue hole. Within were [Gears]. Countless of turning [Gears]. It was like looking into the innards of a machine. A massive [Gear] encased the others in a ring, emanating a power and sheer size that Exrite felt like he had seen before.

It was like the [Gears] that were found in the Domain of Time.

Realising this, Exrite momentarily lowered his guard and opened his mouth in an attempt to speak. However –

That was a mistake. Before a word could leave his lips, a powerful beam of blue light was fired at them from the chest of the egg.

“Tch!”

“A surprise attack!?”

“Move! MOVE!”

“Get out of the way!”

“The audacity…!”

Black, White, Khaos, Frosty and Uru simultaneously cried.

They instantly scattered across the chamber, with Exrite barely dodging the beam by a hair. His near kiss with death instantly sparked a primal rage in the core of his heart, rekindling the heat in his Eye of Despair.

A massive crater was left where they once stood. There was no explosion or sound – just a beam that seemingly erased the floor from existence. Not even a single speck of dust floated in its wake.

“Even stars have a beginning – and an end. I asked myself – ‘I’m a star right’?”

Realising the situation, Exrite – as he skidded across the reflective surface after landing – chambered in a bullet. A dangerous chill ran down Uru’s spine. Despite never seeing the weapon in action before, her body sensed a destructive power dwelling within.

Perhaps it was because she had seen a similar weapon before. Indeed, she had seen the sniper rifle White used back when they assaulted the Endo invaders. Taking a single bullet was no easy task even for a Demon of her breed. But it was not something a powerful [Physical Barrier] could defend against.

This was where the sniper rifle’s advantage of ‘overwhelming power at a great distance’ came into play. A [Barrier] would have to be erected in anticipation. If she did not know – then there was a good chance she’d be injured.

However – the weapon Exrite wielded was of a different breed. She was convinced that it carried the potential to shatter her [Physical Barrier]; which was beyond the [Seventh Tier]. And he had not even fired it yet.

Her senses were honed well.

“First that dragon… and now this… This!” Exrite’s rage exceeded a threshold he once thought had already been transpired. A bellow that was his passion and eternal yearn to conclude this trial fuelled the weak ember in his Eye of Despair into a blazing inferno.

The heat was so immense that the others noticed the crimson glow from their great distance.

With a roar that put even a God’s command to shame, Exrite yelled at the top of his lungs.

“Everyone! Hit it with everything you have! Only this separates us from finishing this trial once and for all!”

And with the pull of a trigger – a symphony of destruction began. The war cries of his friends drowned in a series of explosions, gunshots and magic. No one dared to hold back. Not after hearing that the end was truly near…

But most of all, they could not help but to be riled up by his voice.

Between Black and White’s hailstorm of bullets, Frosty’s magical [Ice Shards] and Khaos who threw giant pieces of stone at the egg – a barrage of more than 50 [Seekers] bombarded the egg’s membrane like a swarm of locusts.

Normally, Uru kept her [Seekers] numbers below 15. Anymore was far too excessive. This was not the case this time. Uru had devoured the mana of countless Geared, multiplying her mana reservoir by nearly tenfold.

And besides, it was not like her [Seekers] used her mana anyway. She could rely on the external mana in this chamber.

This was only one of the reasons why she fired 40 [Seekers]. The other was mostly influenced by Exrite’s will, demeanour and his status as the Maiden of Time.

Uru couldn’t be more pleased to lend her strength.

So – where did the other 10 arrive from? This was from none other than Exrite.

His [Explosive Orb], [Control] and [Blue Beam] [Gears] combined into a contraption that fired 10 of his own [Seekers] – the [Blue Bullets]. This was why exactly 10 of them were a different colour to Uru’s infamous purple ones.

The Egg must’ve underestimated them by a catastrophic margin. Before long, a [Physical Barrier] was erected like a translucent veil around it, which managed to defend against most magical attacks. Its waxy membrane underneath showed significant damage, though they were all superficial at best.

Nevertheless, its humungous size meant that it was nothing more than a larger target for them. Its defence was pitiful –

– The sniper bullets pierced right through as if the veil were nothing more than a piece of plywood. Similarly, Black and White’s bullets passed through and continued to damage its exterior.

Yet strangely, despite all this: the voice still spoke in the same calm, monotone manner as if nothing had happened.

“But the face in the moonlight lake only smiled bitterly. The girl turned to the stars with starlit eyes and asked them why she fell. I remember the innocence that once filled those lunar eyes. I remember when the beginning began.”

Uru showed interest in its indecipherable murmurs. A single glance at Exrite revealed that he too wielded as similar frame of mind. However, their unrelenting drive to eradicate the Egg far outweighed curiosity.

Truth be told, it was regrettable. Uru pitied that they had to end it so soon. Amidst the chaos of destructive beams, projectiles, and explosive magic – Uru elegantly held out her right arm.

“To recite the memories of a time forgotten by time itself reveals your ancient origins. A Geared like yourself is closer to the Maiden of Time than any of your pitiful predecessors.”

Uru spoke with a tone heavily woven with strands of spite and applause. Then – her eyes sharpened like blades. At the same time, the [Physical Barrier] shattered entirely; as if by her doing.

“But you lack respect for the one who carries the blood of your very creator! For that alone – you must atone. Even maggots know their place.”

A [Solar Core] began to charge. Sensing the dangerous magic from Uru, a blue beam was immediately fired in her direction. But Uru was no sloth. In fact – it seemed like the Egg had further underestimated her.

She evaded it with ease, her speed instantly launching her across the outer ring.

“… and even maggots carry a functioning brain.”

Uru couldn’t be more infuriated. A mere insect should never bare its puny fangs at a tiger. This analogy was not derived from her pride. This was simply the rule of nature.

As an elusive heat enshrouded her vision, she pointed her collected claws at the Egg. Despite seeing nothing but a pale blob there was a zero percent chance of missing her target.

“My friends – brace yourselves~!”

The orb of pure, concentrated energy ejected a beam straight into its cavernous chest. A second later an all-consuming ball of pure heat devoured the egg. The temperature within the chamber instantly rose to that of a blast furnace.

Exrite had already retreated to the furthest end prior to her warning, fearing that the heat would set off yet another ‘[Solar Core]’.

Also, knowing Uru – it was only a matter of time before she pulled out [Solar Core], especially given the circumstance. Hiding behind an untouched pillar, Exrite watched the pillars of the inner ring have layers of stone peeled off by the immense heat.

“… ‘The girl’….” He muttered to himself, unaware that his voice was carried by the turbulent air.

“Hey… Hey! Exrite! You alright!?” Khaos yelled from another pillar, his voice nearly drowned out by a secondary explosion in the centre.

“I’m fine! What about you!? Who am I kidding – this kind of heat won’t even scratch you.”

“Not a chance from all the way here! Any closer and it’ll be a different story! But – haha! – this brings back some memories! I know it’s improper to blabber on in a battlefield, but – who the hell can blame me!?”

Exrite found himself stifling a laugh. Yes – this was the Khaos he sincerely remembered. However, he did not delve on this chatter too deeply. His eyes never left the ball of fire, which melted the stone beneath the Egg into a pool of molten rock. The only thing remaining was the giant gear-shaped platform which seemingly floated above the lava.

After a short, momentary silence, he responded.

“No one can. Not me at least…” He trailed off, his eyes suddenly narrowing.

“Something the matter Exrite!? You’re quiet all of a sudden!”

“… Nothing… I was just thinking that our last battle wasn’t so different from this.”

“In what way!?”

“Have a look. See that molten rock beneath it? How it hasn’t overflowed?” Exrite pointed with his eyes as Khaos tried to follow his train of thought.

“Yeah? What about it?”

“That means that only the stone has melted. The Egg is still in there.” He said with utmost certainty, his words cutting through the arid air like a blade.

Khaos did not doubt him. Not even for a second. Under the lens of a normal person, they’d say he was lying. Crazy even. How could an egg which appeared to be made of wax survive such an immense heat? Even if it were alive and a Geared – the strongest one they had faced could not survive even a second in the epicentre of Uru’s [Solar Core].

Also – Uru was vastly more powerful than she once was, thanks to a certain magic she possessed. Strictly speaking, it was impossible for her [Eight Tiered] magic to be resisted by a puny, pitiful, pale Egg.

However – such an assumption was not made by anyone here. They all were far from normal…

No, they were experienced – experienced enough to understand that anything regarding the Maidens or the Gods was never simple. Never black and white.

It’d be laughable if the gatekeeper of the finale perished so easily.

A high-pitched grumble shook the air again, rattling their bones and the debris. As loose stone rolled beneath their feet the molten ball shrivelled into oblivion, snatching away every trace of heat with it.

The newfound coolness replaced the heat. Though this was not a matter of obvious cause and effect. The coolness that rose sharply in their spines was a result of Egg which still floated in the centre of the room.

It was pristine. Untouched. For a second Exrite had to scrape his eyes to ensure that what he was looking at was reality. Alas, it was. The Egg had no traces of battle along its wax surface. It was as if their barrage of attacks never happened at all.

“[Healing] magic? Of… of w-what tier!?” Exrite said aloud in complete disbelief.

[Healing] magic was fundamentally a massive umbrella term for any magic that aided in the recovery of a person in any shape or form, whether it sped up said recovery or outright healed their wound.

It was no secret that healing magic that restored wounds over a short period of time was considered high-tiered magic. In fact, any [Healing] magic that could belonged in the [Fifth Tier] and above.

[Fifth Tiered] [Healing Magic] that possessed such an ability was called [Progressive Restoration] – a magic that allowed one to regrow small parts of their bodies. The [Seventh Tiered] variant called [Angel’s Touch] could regrow a limb over a week.

The highest recorded tier of [Healing] magic in human history was [The Touch of the Devine] – an [Eight Tiered] magic which was used by an Otherworlder Hero centuries ago in the Boric Region. It was said to heal limbs over the course of a day and could obliterate a Demon.

However – these were still limited. Severely limited. Even [Eight Tiered] [Healing] magic lacked range and a considerable area of effect. In the best case – the area of effectiveness for rapid healing magic was about 3 metres at best.

General or large scale [Healing] magic was, as the name implied, for larger groups. But these were limited in their effectiveness. [Seventh Tiered] widescale [Healing] magic could only repair scars, bone, muscle and even vital wounds. They were also used for widescale cures in villages that had caught a disease.

But there was no such thing as [Healing] magic that combined scale and effectiveness. For this reason, Exrite found himself unable to grasp how it had healed itself in such a short amount of time.

Likewise, the others wore faces along the lines of confusion and bewilderment.

No one understood it; not even Uru.

Exrite wore a perplexed expression as the Egg recited another fragment of its mind.

“The flagrant Gods raped the world that had nurtured her for so long. The stars were plucked one by one, her shadow becoming her only companion. By every dusk she was alone beneath the moonlit lake, always wondering what ever happened to those stars.”

A high-pitch roar caused him to wince. The sensation was akin to an arrowhead being drilled into his skull. His sight was snatched by the Egg, and they shatply fell onto the giant [Gear] in its chest cavity.

“… Not even [Eight Tiered] magic is that strong… tch. What is it then? [Ninth Tiered]? [Tenth Tiered]!?”

The longer he stared, the quicker those tiers reached the all-mighty [Fifteen Tier]. Suddenly, realisation struck him as ice colder than a sunless world coursed through his veins.

He shuddered.

“Loneliness plagued the girl. Loneliness so overwhelming that the tears she wept into the lake shimmered like stars. In the world where none existed, she found happiness in the one she created in her little lake.”

The magic it used was not [Healing] magic. The [Gear] was imbued with a different kind of magic. A magic he was ever-so intertwined with.

“‘I can create my own stars! Even if they’re gone from the sky then they’ll still be here!’ The girl cried. Henceforth, the girl whose heart stopped beating turned for the first time since she fell into this lonely world…”

It was [Time] magic.

The creature had reversed time to heal its wounds.

“I remember the flowers. The meadows. The trees. I remember the grand oak tree that sheltered her from storms… I remember the girl who looked up to her as if she were the only star in her night sky from the base of the oak tree.”

No God or Maiden could ever dream of swaying him to believe otherwise. He made himself heard with a coarse roar which reached the far edges of the unnaturally massive chamber.

The result was unanimous. Shock filled their faces as they peered from their pillars, weapons in arms as they prepared for the next volley of attacks. Frosty was already on the move to deliberately make herself a harder target for the Egg’s attacks.

“Heh. So that’s why the craters are empty. It’s not disintegrating the stone; it’s fucking erasing it!” Black warned with a yell.

White and Frosty acknowledged her warning with a yell of their own. Without a second to lose, they all returned to bombarding the Egg with various forms of attacks.

Meanwhile – at Exrite’s pillar, Uru swiftly crashed down before his feet. Before he could comprehend what the minor explosion was, two immovable hands grabbed him from the shoulders and forced him to stare into a pair of all-consuming eyes.

“… Exrite. Exrite… Exrite. What am I looking at? What is that?” Uru’s face contorted wickedly as she spoke. She could no longer maintain her composure, and Exrite knew exactly why.

“Exactly what it looks like.” He sharply replied, dragging himself free as he turned to face the Egg. “Trust me, I’m just as confused as you are.”

“The [Gears] were solely meant for the Maiden of Time. No other being can ever dream of using such sacred artefacts… less they were the Maiden of Time themselves. Exrite…”

He stared back into her eyes.

“Are you trying to imply it’s another Maiden?”

“Preposterous! I’d tear my heart out than to dare imagine a putrid act of heresy!” She snapped, her voice easily slicing through the high-pitched rumble which only grew louder with each passing second. “There must be a commonality – a common ground between you and the Maiden of Time. I won’t believe it any other way.”

“The Geared became [Gears] themselves in the first Reservoir. As hard as it may be to stomach, it’s not farfetched for one to be able to gain control over them… but even so…” Exrite wore a pained expression. He truly had no explanation over this cryptic puzzle.

Neither did Uru. The fact that something other than the Maiden of Time was able to command the [Gears] completely severed any rational train of thought. Thousands of trains were derailed in her mind as she scrambled to understand this.

The Egg’s very existence was the antithesis of what her race believed.

However – as much as this truth agonised her, she was eternally grateful to uncover this new ‘truth’.

“… Gaia’s memories.” Exrite silently whispered. “Does it have something to do with it? The blood running through its veins?”

“Perhaps. The Geared are all creations of the Maiden of Time. But no other Geared exhibited this. Nothing did. Is this what the Attributed Whole grants?”

“I don’t know… but we’ll find out soon enough...” He trailed off, loading in another round into the rifle. A single pull of his trigger marked the end of the rumble. Instantly, the Egg pulsated as if something were moving underneath the semi-translucent membrane.

More [Gears] within its cavity spun with purpose. Then, as Uru too joined in the offensive – something emerged from the cavity.

“… wait – are you guys seeing this!?” Khaos called in the middle of throwing a massive piece of stone.

“Zelmori Fall – help me, for reality defies your teachings.” Uru hissed.

Dozens of pale golem-like creatures fell out of the cavity as if they were waiting behind a floodgate and it had just been released. They spilled and splashed, bouncing beneath the Egg into position.

Each of these golems were constructed with layers gear-shaped objects, each spinning like floating tornadoes. Their shapes vaguely resembled humanoids: each equipped with arms, a body, and head. Their legs were conjoined, hence why they appeared like tornadoes.

“The girl created, and the created looked up to the creator. Her tribulations, her suffering, and her errors had paved way to a new beginning – a beginning that began. The girl beneath the oak smiled like a thousand stars, and I cherished it. I finally created the stars which were vacant from the skies. I had finally… found someone else in this strange world.”

At that moment Exrite realised something vital. He tensed up as if his body had been frozen all over. It refused to budge, and similarly – Uru could not lift a single finger. The cavity seemed to point at them, ready to fire its erasing beam yet they did not move.

Without saying a word, they both shared the same conclusion.

The Egg possessed Gaia’s memories – to the point where it spoke as if it were Gaia herself. What the Egg represented was a snapshot of Gaia… a Gaia that predated time itself.

“… do you think you’re ‘Gaia’?” Exrite had to wonder why the Egg deluded itself in Gaia’s memories,

Was it because it had lost itself in the descent?

He didn’t know. How could he know? The promised answers were just a single fight away.

“… an unforgivable transgression…” Uru hissed. “For a creation to usurp its creator is an act only punishable by death. Although… death alone may not wash away that sin – Have you no respect, YOU MERE INSECT!”

A frightening roar ripped the air as a massive purple magical circle formed behind her. More than 100 [Seekers] whizzed by like bullets, their targets the golems and the Egg.

Similarly, Exrite launched his own barrage of [Blue Bullets]. The golems were torn apart by the explosions before they were given a chance to conduct an offensive. As craters littered the chamber floor in the tens –

The cavity never ceased spewing out the golems like blood gushing forth from a fresh wound.

Immediately they realised the situation at hand. If the golems weren’t rapidly dealt with then they’d be swarmed by an immeasurable sea of mindless constructs.

No command needed to be issued. Their prowess in combat excelled to the point where they understood each of their strengths in this battle. Black’s handgun collapsed from the Egg down towards the collection of golems as cruel smile flourished on her face.

“This keeps getting better and better. For us, of course. Hmph, do you think numbers will squash us? Overwhelm us?” Black seemed to be speaking to the Egg, though her words came across like a monologue. “Can you hear me? I guess not. You’re stuck in a delusion. How weak. But – maybe you’ll hear this!”

With the pull of a trigger, an entire mob of golems were shredded apart. The bullets, while not penetrative, tore entire chunks of [Gears] straight from their bodies. The additional shrapnel of scrap battered other neighbouring golems with terrifying power as they were knocked around like petals in a storm.

“Hmhm~ I love collateral. See that White? That’s what makes non-piercing rounds so fucking satisfying.”

“Be quiet.” White sighed, brandishing her Moon’s Rhythm in its blade form. “If you want to leave sooner then stop talking and start shooting.”

“You’re no fun~”

A barrage of bullets returned as soon as those words left Black’s lips. At the same time White charged into the fray at the second ring of pillars with her cold, pale blade held firmly in both palms. Her swings were a blur, an after imagine following each stroke which vertically bisected the golems faster than one could blink.

To send a horizontal strike was a mistake that only the foolish would make. The way the golems were configured meant that a blade could pass through the gaps between the layering [Gears].

They fell beneath her like scrap, their momentum thrusting them across the floor behind as they came one by one to their deaths. 20 golems were killed in mere seconds. As astonishing as her prowess was – she could not outpace the waterfall of golems alone.

As the frontline White took on the mass bulk of them, but because the chamber was circular in shape, and in addition to is colossal size – she could not cover every direction the golems flew.

However – black strands of hair covered her vision for a split second. In that moment, a person had passed her with speed that easily surpassed her own. The figure wearing blue robes swung their ethereal scythe with one clean movement, claiming the lives of dozens more.

It was as if the grim reaper itself had arrived to lend them a hand. The thought wasn’t farfetched. Frosty was a Reaper, after all – the only living, soul-consuming Frostbitten in all of Six Point.

Frosty’s face didn’t change. The golems didn’t contain any souls to tarnish her tastebuds, thankfully.

“Looks like Exrite wasn’t the only one who changed for the better!” White said aloud. “That speed… [Body Strengthening] magic isn’t some gimmick when it’s in good hands.”

“Is that supposed to be a complement!?”

“I’m not like a certain other Colour. You should know that by now.”

Frosty didn’t respond. Only a small smile formed on her face as they crossed paths. They orbited the Egg from the second ring of pillars, annihilating whatever golem dared to cross their path as bullets whizzed by.

Khaos patrolled the outer ring where some managed to slip through. After all – the golems were easily capable of flight. Surprisingly, only a few golems were able to bypass them entirely.

This was mostly the result of Frosty’s frightening leap – courtesy of [Body Enhancing] and [Body Strengthening] magic. She easily leapt more than 20 metres into the air, and like lightning, she struck the escaping golems with terrifying efficiency.

White joined her to a lesser degree. Though she too could leap to a similar height, she was not nearly as fast.

In any case – the escaped golems were instantly struck down by either a powerful bullet, or – by a massive piece of stone. It was as if a catapult or a trebuchet had fired at them, but no matter how hard they scoured there was nothing of the sort in sight.

That was until they saw a man casually pick up a stone more than 5 times his size with a single hand. Then, assuming the position a spear-thrower would take, he launched the rock straight into the air.

If the golems possessed emotions then they’d undoubtably retreat, surrender themselves or end their miserable, autonomous lives at their own hands. A squad of golems were instantly struck out of the air, launching straight through two pillars before becoming a part of the scrapyard beneath.

The only surviving golem in that squad seemingly froze, as if flooded by emotion for a split second. It must’ve felt fear. A moment later, it also felt a bullet clamber into its non-existent skull, ending its life as quickly as it began.

“Missed one. Put more muscle behind those throws Khaos!” Black playfully ordered.

“Easier said than done!” He replied. “Do I look like the throwing type to you!?”

“With that accuracy I’d fucking think so!” She laughed just as another barrage of purple and blue-trailed [Seekers] bombarded the Egg. “Amazing~! You’d think we were back in the Colour Plane with all this unhinged chaos!”

“Yeah!?”

“Tch. Not you! The chaos around us! Isn’t it marvellous!? Doesn’t it make your heart ache with delight!?”

“R-right.” Was all he could muster to say, else he’d risk a bullet coming his way.

“I remember the promises. The optimism in her eyes. She looked at me like I was a light in an empty world. I was her creator – and we were inseparable. I remember her metal-plagued voice, the language we birthed from our hidden sanctuary… I remember the oak tree where she always sat… watching the curtain of stars above.”

Exrite and Uru further pressed their assault. A glorious exchange of magic, explosive projectiles and devastating beams threatened to destroy the chamber entirely.

Scars formed with each beam that missed either figures, erasing pillars and carving its path into the walls. Uru dodged the beams with elegance fitting for a Demon of her calibre – to the point where it seemed as if she possessed a form of clairvoyance.

Exrite on the other hand had to react accordingly rather than plan out his movement. Strictly speaking – he moved solely out of instinct, utilising whatever his senses were able to devour as he ran around the outer ring with his rifle in hand.

[Threat Detection] worked against his favour, unfortunately. By the time he was alerted of the incoming attack it would already be too late. For this reason, he ignored it entirely and kept his eyes glued to the Egg, allowing his legs to blindly lead him.

Exrite fired a volley of [Blue Bullets] and released bullet after bullet into the cavity of the Egg. Their target was not the Egg itself this time, but the largest [Gear] that is possessed within its chest.

Considering the damage they had already inflicted to the Egg itself – one can easily make the judgement that they were close to pushing it to the brink of defeat. However, reality was far from the case.

Damaging the Egg itself did not matter if the [Gear] was still active. It could be torn into thousands of pieces, burnt to cinders and dripped into the acid of a giant beetle and still not die.

The [Gear] will just reset itself to a state where it was in perfect condition.

But even so – their focused attacks barely had any effect to the [Gear]. At first Exrite wondered if it was invulnerable, or if a [Barrier] of some sort was negating their attacks, only to soon realise that the surrounding [Gears] within the cavity were being chipped and whittled – but never to a significant extent.

Their attacks were working. Just not on the colossal [Gear].

“I… made so many promises. I filled her night sky with so many stars… and she didn’t know that they were all out of reach.”

The tone this time was sombre. There was emotion behind it.

Exrite scratched his head with an invisible hand, a perplexed look forming across his face.

“Just how tough are they!?” He yelled, his voice filled with an odd mixture of annoyance and awe. As strange as it sounded – Exrite could not help but to admire the sheer resilience the [Gears] exhibited, even under the most damning conditions.

The giant [Gear] sported resistance to magic seemingly up to the [Seventh Tier], as if they were created with a weaker alloy of carbodix. Not only that, but the possessed pure physical resilience like that of limeite.

Of course, limeite was nowhere near as strong but it was still a valid comparison, nevertheless. A single bullet or a good pinch of explosive powder can tear apart even magically enchanted limeite.

The giant [Gear] was on a different level entirely, and the smaller ones – while damaged – did not break. The [Time] [Gear] was constantly repairing them.

The massive [Gear] turned, and through sheer intuition he knew that he was its next target.

Exrite dove straight behind a pillar the same time a high-pitched roar erupted. With a hefty leap, he threw himself straight into its heights. His fingers burrowed into the stone, granting him leverage to thrust his body upwards against the already crumbling pillar, displaying inhuman-like agility.

The beam gave chase, never allowing the luxury to even blink. When he felt the ominous ticking reach the soles of his boots, he instantly twisted to the side and kicked himself away from the pillar.

Afterwards – using his largest [Gear] as footstool – he furthered himself from the deadly beam. Once it had fizzled away, Uru’s figure quickly filled his vision after a hefty landing.

“Uru, know any metals that combine the properties of limeite and carbodix!?” He yelled, the Demon slowing down to match his pace.

“Not many metals can replicate both physical and magical resistance to such a degree. Assuming you weren’t speaking out of sarcasm – does Devilium ring any bells to you? As a human?”

The unusual look on his face confirmed his answer.

“That show of pure resistance to physical impacts, in addition to magic of up to the [Eight Tier] is akin to Devilium.” She spoke.

Exrite considered it plausible, however, the fact that the [Time] [Gear] took zero damage ruled the [Gears] being metals of some sort out entirely.

The only other metal that remotely matched its characteristics was from an ill-known rumour among the upper echelons in the Enthile bureaucracy. It was a metal supposed to be so powerful that it nullified magic up to the [Tenth Tier], and a single kilogram was akin to half a ton of limeite, yet was mystically a mere a fraction of the weight.

The inconsistencies of the rumours made it hard to gauge whether it was real or not. Not a single text – not even the literature reserved for the royalty of Enthile – uttered such a thing.

He entertained the thought, allowing the metal to be real for a moment. Unsurprisingly, he still could not compare it to the [Time] [Gear].

The reason was as clear as day –

If they were all made from the same metal, then they’d all be taking damage regardless. It did not make sense that the smaller [Gears] were weaker than the larger ones if the wishful metal allowed them to reject damage from magic of the same tier.

In the end, another question was raised as a result.

What are the [Gears] made from then…?

His face contorted. As he opened his mouth and returned to reality, he quickly realised that Uru had repeatedly called his name during his short train of thought.

“Exrite! This is no time to lose track of your surroundings!”

“I know –!”

“Then open your ears. Clear your mind! Listen to my voice. The [Gears] are resistant, but not immune. Our [Seekers] are of the [Seventh Tier] and leave signs of wear. That alone is enough to prove it. However, that isn’t the issue. The [Gears] are in a state of perpetual repair!”

“Tch. The root of all of this is the giant [Gear]… The one thing we can’t even scratch!”

“Precisely –”

“We were… inseparable. Like the stars of a binary system – we were interlocked in a dance of orbit. But we were naive… I was naïve.”

Uru was cut off unexpectedly. At the same time, the golems began to emerge in colours both black and white.

Something was changing.

“Uru – your [Solar Core], when can you use it?”

Her brow raised conspicuously, already knowing what he was requesting.

“The results won’t change –”

“No. Trust me. The golems didn’t start attacking until it restored itself. Now, the golems are a mix of black and white. I don’t know what it means – what any of it means – but all I know is that what we’re doing now is doing something at the very fucking least!”

Uru avoided his eyes. The conviction brimming within was something she feared would infect her. Instead, she fell silent for a moment as they both stuck together and avoided the occasional beam.

Eventually, she broke into a small grin and spoke.

“Ho… In other words – our priority must shift back to the Egg itself rather than the [Gears]. Hmm. Mind you, I realised that this fight bares resemblance to the three-headed dragon.”

“Meaning its forms probably cycles with each death. We’ll damage it enough to push it into restoring itself again. It’s close enough already. A single [Solar Core] will finish it! From there, something else must change… it has to… Uru – I’m grasping at straws, and I’m already sinking.”

“Then learn to swim. Reeds won’t save you in a turbulent river. The answer was the obvious one in the end. Destruction. Allow me a minute – my [Solar Core] will be ready soon.”

He nodded, and just as he prepared to diverge – Uru gently touched his face. When he looked into her black and gold eyes, he instantly knew what she wanted.

Because somewhere in the deepest cavities of his heart, he too desired the same thing…

“Although – Shall we listen to the memories of our past beloved Maiden of Time for a little longer~?”

* * *

Part 3 –

 

Something sinister began to fester inside the Egg. It pulsated with every dark golem it spat, quivering almost. The waxy membrane deformed as if clusters of golems sought to escape by penetrating through. The writhing was shallow, nowhere near the force needed to break the membrane.

But a change of this elusive insignificance captured their attention. Frosty – with her unique [Soul Sight] ability – saw something within.

She saw a soul. A damaged soul. A soul so far beyond repair that her body instinctually locked up as she glided in the air. In Frosty’s lifetime she had only seen a handful of souls that were whittled down to a similar state.

But none were broken to this extent.

However, that was not why Frosty’s body refused the commands of her mind. No. There was more to the Egg than what met the eye. Far, far more.

The soul within the Egg was not corrupted or tainted – it was pure. So incredibly pure that not even a star-gazing child could ever dream to compare.

This was the only Geared past the <76th Floor> that had its… purity retained. What was left of it – as she saw but a twinkle of light in a cloud of darkness.

Frosty’s tastebuds tingled. Then, with a single chomp, the taste of iron coated her tongue.

It was a shame. Her tongue had instantly been sullied, just as she had finally tasted the bitterness of air after countless days of consuming agonisingly sweet souls.

The golems that fell to her scythe failed to ravage her tongue with the sickly-sweet taste she had always despised, and she couldn’t be more thankful that they were soulless and mere automations in every sense of the word.

She savoured the taste of iron as she carved countless golems apart, both black and white. To her surprise the colours didn’t seem to change them in any meaningful manner, contrary to what she and the others initially believed.

But they’d be fools to dismiss them so painfully easily. Through tempered experienced they knew that that the smallest discrepancies were often early indicators of the largest change.

In this case it was uncertain. The blackness cascaded over the white like a virus, eventually outnumbering them. The more damage Exrite and Uru dealt to the Egg, the more the golems emerged in their dark counterparts.

The Egg groaned.

“She was my first creation. She was the Original. The Fractured… the Incomplete. A creation will never assume true freedom… or selfishness, or individuality when faced with their creator. Somewhere along the way, the star that shed light in the darkness of her world – became – her world.”

And – to their dismay – more golems began to spill from the cavity. A simultaneous growl slipped the lips of both White and Frosty as the hoards quickly grew thicker.

“She lived for me. She was my moon, and I was her world. She called me ‘Gaia’. In turn, I called her ‘Auga’, a broken name derived from ‘Exauga’, meaning ‘Original’. Beneath the leaves of the oak she compared me to the stars. That if they ever disappear, they were always destined to return, whether as a giant red star, or a small white dolt in the night sky. No matter how long it takes, they always return in one way or another… always.”

Its tone sharply lowered.

“But deep down, I always knew that I was not a star. Even stars have a beginning and an end. The heavens did not birth me, neither did this world. I, who had had no beginning, who had no end, was no star. I was an enigma in a world ravaged by wars… a parentless child searching for a purpose – for someone – anyone – anything – in a lonely world.”

Suddenly, the eyes of the dark golems glowed a violent shade of red.

“The stars that I filled my world never felt more distant. The girl who sat at the oak never moved, for an anchor tied her down to the place that the world called the Biomechanical Gardens. In my selfish strive to create a star I had damned my beloved creation to an eternal prison. But she never complained… she never stopped singing on the stage of that grand auditorium. She never stopped living for me.”

Metal screeched as Frosty’s scythe spat thousands of blue sparks. Her momentum was nearly halted, as if she ran straight into an iron wall. The reason for this was not due to fatigue or magic. The trial had further honed her already superhuman endurance, and not to mention the additional effects of [Body Enhancing] and [Body Strengthening] magic.

Instead, the golems saw a drastic increase in resistance. Her scythe unexpectedly bit halfway into a dark one, ceasing her momentum near entirely before she was forced to leverage her weight into the attack. Thankfully, the golem was bisected without much issue.

Her teeth clashed.

“Just die already!”

She yelled; her scythe too unable to completely slay the next golem. As a result, a barrage of [Ice Shards] impaled the unsuspecting hoard, rendering many immobile and skewered with one another.

“Is it just me or did they get stronger all of a sudden!?” Her anger-driven question was targeted at no one, almost muted by the explosions as she ventured the closest to the epicentre of the chaos.

Unsurprising, White was the only one who answered to her frustrations.

“You’re not alone! But by strength I assume you mean their numbers! Unless – you’re having trouble eliminating them now?”

“Why else would I ask!? My scythe isn’t exactly made to kill constructs or machines!”

Indeed. The weapon the Reapers – or Reaper in this context – possessed were specifically purposed for reaping souls, tuned to obliterate those that possessed one whether mentally, spiritually, or physically; living or non-living.

It did not matter whether they were an insect or a God – the bite of a Reaper’s weapon was never a mere prick of a needle, or a shallow graze.

No, it was far worse than that.

In any case, Frosty was at a significant disadvantage against the golems. As a Reaper, beings or automations that lacked a soul were immeasurably harder to defeat. The only reason that she was able to carve through them with ease beforehand was due to her own strength and magic.

Without them, the golems were an immovable wall, an unstoppable force.

At this rate she’d be left redundant from the fight… or, in the worst case – an obstacle. A liability.

White sighed.

“There is no such thing a weapon that isn’t designed to kill! If your scythe is blunt, then it has no right to litter our battlefield! Do whatever you can to make up the difference in strength! For now – Frosty – please keep off the floor!”

“Huh –!?”

“– Final warning.”

Her chilling tone cut through the chaos like a knife. Without a second thought, Frosty launched herself into the air.

A second later, White’s blade began to irradiate a pale glow, consuming the length of the weapon. Immediately Frosty understood why White warned her to vacate the floor.

Midway through White’s swing, the light enshrouding the blade suddenly stretched to as far as 30 metres. In a splendid show of speed, White dragged the streak of light in a wide circle, kicking debris, scrap, and dust as both pillars and golems fell alike. The pillars hung for dear life on the ceiling, becoming massive stalagmites. Some surrendered and fell, crushing dozens more golems.

As soon as the dust clouded and consumed the chamber, the explosions immediately disbursed them. Not a single fragment of dirt was given the luxury to settle.

Frosty quietly watched in awe from the skies as White’s blade endlessly bisected countless golems apart. Her blade seemed to permanently assume the form of a blinding beam, its light easily controlling the centre of the chamber.

Normally, White reserved this attack for more… stronger enemies – enemies that were impossibly large or those that were able to resist the bite of her blade.

Furthermore – though the attack was not costly energy wise – because she did not possess her true body which resided in the Colour Plane the cost suddenly became staggering.

Thankfully, her pockets were deep. After too consuming the Geared like Exrite, she had banked a substantial amount of energy.

But even so – it still had a bottom.

It was not an exaggeration to say that White was not holding back.

Frosty’s eyes then shifted to Black as the world seemingly slowed down.

The Colour which had previously been attacking from afar was now waist-deep in battle from all sides. She thrived in the chaos, her body moving with no purpose other than to kill whatever golem was unfortunate enough to approach.

Her Night’s Melody shifted forms constantly, both annihilating them with brazen swings to obliterating hoards with a barrage of bullets. She grappled one, flipped behind it and hoisted it as a shield to soak the sharpened arms of its fellow constructs – all while laughing sinisterly.

Realistically, Black could have taken the hit head on. After all, her garbs offered more than enough protection to defend against her own bullets. Defence was arbitrary, but Black’s mind worked differently than others.

In other words, what fun would it be if she were only limited to her sword and handgun? It’d be a shame to not give it her all in the finale. The end was so near, and every golem she crushed under the soles of her boots only brought it closer.

Needless to say, she enjoyed the carnage.

The chamber shook. A wave of disorientation struck her in mid-air as her eyes searched for the origin. When they landed at an ever-so familiar man her blood suddenly ran warm.

Her brother proudly stood amid a new cluster of golems, battering them with nothing but his body. With an iron-grip, he grappled onto two golems and used them as clubs. Each swing was devastating, wielding the force equivalent to the giant hammers of a Dwarven forge.

Craters formed underneath his legs, and larger ones where the golems smashed into. Nothing was left of them, save for hundreds of metal shrapnel.

In the briefest moment of respite, Khaos drilled his foot into the ground with a crushing roar and launched himself straight into the hoard of golems with nothing but his body.

Compared to the rest he was by far the slowest. However, that did not mean he was by any means slow. Furthermore, where he lacked lightning speed, he made up for it with pure, unrelenting strength.

He ploughed through the hoard like how a meteor carves its trail into the dirt. Thousands of metallic scraps spat all around him, leaving hundreds of scratches against his mountainous body. Had anyone else been subject to the shrapnel, they’d undoubtably be torn apart.

Frosty’s lips quivered at the spectacle.

No matter where she looked there was someone giving it their all.

The thoughts of energy conservation, mana reserves and efficiency were all second thoughts to the single most important goal. Victory… no. Victory too was a second thought.

They all simply wanted to leave. To return to the surface.

Their brimming passion and fleeting emotions reached her through the chaos high above. The woman who despised harnessing the power of the souls she had devoured, considered it for the first time in her life. If they were to survive – if they were to reach the surface and conquer this trial – then she too needed to give it her all.

The taste of iron flooded her mouth again, countering the sickly-sweet notes that ravaged her tongue as an unfamiliar warmth surged through her entire body.

Her face twisted. The floodgates were finally open.

“Just this once. For their sake… for the sake of all the Geared that suffered down here because of the Maiden of Time – I won’t let your souls disappear in vein!” She cried with a roar filled with emotion.

There was nothing more in this world that she despised more than depleting a soul. Devouring them was one thing but draining them till they disappeared was another.

Strictly speaking – the soul was destroyed in the process, as opposed to being recycled by the Gods of Corozin. Harvesting souls in this manner meant that a single soul was equivalent to a hundred.

In comparison, the method the Gods enlisted was akin to squeezing the juice of a lemon. A Reaper extracted all, caring not for the bitter skin or the hard seeds, for in the end it was merely mana.

This was one of a thousand reasons as to why the Reapers were so widely feared in ancient Corozin. Only they – the true harbingers of death – could destroy a soul. This was irreversible. Not even a God had that kind of power, let alone the authority.

In any case – Frosty’s body irradiated a powerful aura, instantly catching the attention of Uru and White. The sudden appearance of the overflowing mana led them to instantly believe that it was yet another enemy, hence their immediate reactions. To their surprise – and a welcoming one at that – the newfound power was on their side.

“You all kept falling to the bottom in hopes of finding yourself! But you were damned to a hellish existence instead! Your hatred… your despair – I can feel it! The sadness, the suffering…!”

Frosty yelled at the top of her lungs as a surge of foreign emotions invaded her body. These were the collective emotions of the Geared she had devoured. Never had Frosty experienced the bizarre sensation of harbouring the thoughts and emotions of thousands of individuals.

Yet it came as natural as breathing to her.

“Become my weapon, become my strength… I promise I won’t let any of you disappear until you see the light of the world above!”

At her command, an explosion of mana coursed through her arms and into her scythe. Tears felt from the woman’s eyes, meshing with the countless cyan sparks that spat all around her like the embers of a flame.

Uru donned a wicked smile as she watched the woman freefall into a blanket of golems, her ethereal scythe grandly expanding like the wings of a blue phoenix.

“Ho. So she finally unravelled that hidden power.” Uru whispered, then suddenly yelled: “Unbelievable! Her mana reserves have already surpassed half of mine! Behold, Exrite! Behold and marvel the sight that the Gods dread and what the world had wrongly forgotten!”

Exrite, unable to tear himself from Frosty, could only mutter to himself.

“… what… kind of power is that…?”

Uru, who was more than a hundred metres away somehow smelt the stench of his bewilderment. With a grin, she cut her speed and spoke as soon as she joined with him.

“The power of a dying soul. There is no purer mana than one that bleeds from the death of the soul itself, for mana is the essence of the living. A soul holds everything that makes beings like us, us. Not your body, nor our minds. Extracting the complex emotions, personalities and memories bears fruit to the sweetest form of mana.”

“She’s erasing the souls for strength?”

“Precisely.”

Exrite watched solemnly at the woman who cleaved through hundreds of golems with her gigantic scythe in a spectacular fashion. Amongst the dust, crystallised fragments of metal and filings – he saw tears.

“… Frosty…”

“Does your heart grind for the Geared?”

“No – I’m sure the Geared would rather become a weapon pointed against the trial that damned them and disappear than to lament for all eternity!” He replied almost instantly, the words gushing from his mouth.

His unexpected yell caught Uru off guard, causing her grin to expand devilishly.

“It is their final attempt to erase the pain that plagued them. This is the world that stripped them of themselves, after all. Compose yourself Exrite! Don’t forget that we are upon a battlefield.”

“You don’t need to remind me. Anyway – Uru – is your [Solar Core] ready yet?”

“Almost. I advise that you break away from me now. Your explosives may have whittled down, but the risk of an unexpected explosion is still high. Unless – you desire to add a few more souls to Frosty’s reservoir?”

Uru’s crude remark caused him to softly sigh. She did not have to warn him twice. Without a word, Exrite’s momentum was broken by his largest [Gear], which he used to inhumanly kick himself in the opposite direction.

The purple [Seekers] disappeared after the final dozen bombarded the Egg. Only the streaks of Exrite’s [Blue Bullet] filled the air like shooting stars, each penetrating deeply into the Egg’s membrane without fail.

Until now the Egg had yet to restore itself. Hundreds of scars and craters riddled its entire mass, though it never seemed to be affected in any meaningful manner. What stunned them the most was the fact that no matter how deep some of the wounds were, they could not see anything underneath but a bright, blinding light.

The damaged Egg appeared like something out of a holy scripture – an Egg floating with lights piercing through the cracks of its shell. What was supposed to be a grand, inspiring scene filled them with uncertainty – save for one thing: victory.

“An epiphany reached the crying girl one faithful night. She thought what happens if she wasn’t there. If the star she was – the light in their darkness – the world that nourished them disappeared – then maybe… maybe they’d find themselves that way. They’d live for themselves. They’d no longer be tied down to her; their creator when they could be up there, amongst the stars.”

The voice recited.

Exrite’s wore a dark expression as he thrust himself to the furthest part of the chamber. He took cover behind a surprisingly untouched pillar as Uru ordered the others to vacate the centre. Silence slowly filled his ears, the chaos drowning to his inner voice.

Gaia… you abandoned her. Did you really believe that leaving Auga to wait behind would save her?

The realisation locked him in place. He refused to believe it, but if the words that left the invisible mouth of the Egg were truly derived from Gaia’s memories then they she was irredeemable in his eyes.

However – as much as he despised the cruel Maiden – he remembered the face she made when he brough up Auga’s name back in the Domain of Time.

There was more to the picture than what met the eye. The sum of the pieces of the puzzle was greater than the whole itself. Whatever her reasoning was – Gaia promised that Auga can become ‘complete’ again.

So why didn’t she do it herself?

“What were you thinking Gaia…?” He muttered to himself, watching from the pillar as the others dispersed into the edges of the chamber.

The golems appeared stunned for a second, confused as to why they had suddenly ceased their seemingly non-stop attacks. Then, as they turned to the direction of Uru, fear settled into their non-existent souls when the realisation hailed onto them.

The ball of concentrated heat between Uru’s claws was the reason for their despair.

Their fear reeked with a potent stench. The cold steel constructs gained self-awareness in their final moments. They ceased spilling from the cavity of the Egg, all crowding within to save themselves from the destruction that was about to unfold.

Unfortunately for them that only guaranteed their deaths.

The thin beam fired at the Egg. Not a second later a fireball of pure heat engulfed the entire Egg once again. Liquid slag dripped from underneath like yolk into the ever-growing crater, quickly overflowing into neighbouring cracks.

Not even the golems that were past the second row of pillars were able to withstand the immense heat. From the thinnest parts of their bodies to the thickest; they were heated till bright orange.

They rushed to the outer pillars out of desperation. But they didn’t make it far.

A barrage of bullets and magic swiftly struck them down the very next moment. Their display of cowardice severely annoyed Black, causing her to click her tongue.

“Don’t you dare try to run. Life has no meaning to a fucking construct made from metal and rock. Your purpose is to fight, not live.” She sneered, planting boot atop the face of a surviving golem.

She crushed its head, snuffing out the light in its eyes before kicking its body into the molten pool of slag at the centre.

A smug smile formed across her face.

“I agree.” White’s voice came from behind.  “There was no such thing as a cowardly construct in the Colour Plane. Unless you can count Green Heart.”

“No thank you. Green barely passed as a Colour. Well, so did I~” Black hummed. “Pacifists have no right to exist in a world of conflict. Hmhm~ I wonder who taught me that?”

White sighed and ignored the woman’s remark. Her attention fell elsewhere. In the corner of her eye, she saw Frosty stagger as she slowly approached them. Her movement was sluggish, and every step was a gamble of whether she’d topple over or not.

In an instant, White dashed to her aid with Black following suit not a second later. Each clutched an arm on either side, almost toppling with Frosty as she lost balance for a split second.

“W-woah!? Why the fuck are you so heavy!? Hey, are you ok Frosty!?” Black said, unable to hide her surprise.

“It’s the scythe!” White immediately pointed out.

Indeed, most of the unfounded weight was due to the scythe Frosty still held onto the scythe despite her condition. White made an attempt to rid it from her, trying to pry her fingers away but to no avail. Frosty’s grip was surprisingly strong, far stronger than she had anticipated. Even with the additional effort of Black they could not move even a single finger.

“Tch. To think she was this powerful all along.” Black complained, though she seemed quite pleased with the revelation. “Frosty, let go. The scythe is too fucking heavy for us to help you up. Look at yourself! You have time to breathe until Uru’s [Solar Core] wears off.”

The Commanders were by no exaggeration physically stronger than many of the most trained warriors combined. The fact that Frosty was able to resist them was a testament to the power which she had harnessed from the souls of the Geared.

She clutched onto the scythe like her life depended on it, urging them to cease.

“No… Don’t take it away from me! This scythe carries the will… of a hundred Geared!” She painfully groaned through her blood-drenched teeth. “I can’t let it go… not until we reach the surface…”

Black gave a her a look of nonsense. “Don’t burden yourself with something unnecessary. You can’t drag the Geared up with us when they couldn’t even reach the fucking bottom in the first place.”

“I’m not cruel like you. This is the least I can do in exchange for their power… do you know what it means to consume a soul? There is nothing in this world that can reverse it. They’ll disappear as soon as I let go of my scythe… bwargh… it’s… it’s not… the weight that’s so nauseating… it’s their emotions…”

Frosty puked a torrent of blood and partly digested food.

“It’s… their hatred. And the taste of trash… why is it so sweet…?”

White immediately slit her thumb against her fang and smothered the droplet of blood into one of Frosty’s open wounds. Seconds later the taste that clogged her throat disappeared, and the nausea soon subsided as if it had never existed.

Light instantly filled her clouded eyes as she gave a silent thanks to her saviour.

“Can you stand?” White asked.

“I can now. Dammit… your blood can’t heal the stuff in my mind, huh?”

“If it could then Black over there wouldn’t be so infuriating in the first place.” She softly joked. “On a serious note – no. I can’t. My blood can do many things but meddling with the psychological isn’t one of them.”

“Well, not directly~” Black hummed. “So – hatred, hm? Isn’t it a beautiful drive? By the look of your scythe, I can tell that you weaponised their emotions well.”

She marvelled at it. The weapon was easily five times her size, baring nothing but a slender handle and a curved blade. The simplicity only added to its mesmerising beauty.

“I’m guessing their hatred is pointed towards this hell-hole. Correct?

“No… not exactly.” Frosty muttered, pushing herself up with a silent heave.

“What do you mean, not exactly?” White pressed, following Frosty’s gaze which was soldiered onto the burning egg. “What else is there for them to despise? Unless…”

After what seemed like minutes, Frosty answered.

“Their creator. The Maiden of Time.”

The chaotic ripping of air seemingly subsided as those left her, as if the world itself yearned to hear her voice.

“The very person who began this whole fucking nightmare. I’m not surprised.” Black sighed.

“… So much hatred… so much spite.” Frosty spoke slowly.

The sheer amount of hatred was far beyond what she believed was possible for a living being to possess. It was pure and it bubbled from the depths of their souls, stirred by a single drive that caused her to ground her teeth when she strung it all together.

“White. Black. I think there’s more to their anger.” She uttered.

“And what’s that?” White asked with fascination glowing in her sky-blue eyes.

“Everything… everything is all pointed at the Maiden of Time. It was never about this trial, no matter how much it’s scarred them. How much it’s made them suffer. Because in the beginning – someone had damned them.”

The eyes of both Commanders bloomed. They knew what her next words were, reacting with understanding nods and –

“They all want to kill the Maiden of Time.”

– an intrigued smile from Black.

* * *

Part 4 –

 

Gaia’s trial was an elusive paradise. The floors above were bountiful. Beautiful. So lush and full of life that there was nothing more that the Geared could ever want. But something called them. Something in the deepest recesses of their mind compelled them to descend from their paradise.

It was the yearn to find themselves. To become something more than their mere animalistic bodies. To understand who they truly were.

In a sense, the Attributed Whole was their endeavour to become ‘complete’.

But this unknown strive did not belong to them. Somewhere and somehow – the ‘thought’ of finding themselves crept into their mind. Like a slow acting poison, it began to kill them from the inside without them ever knowing it.

“But I couldn’t be more wrong. My blood runs deeper than the rivers of valleys. Auga was cursed to live for me – to be tied down to the very roots of the oak tree. To wait for all eternity for her star to be reborn. However…” The Egg spoke with uncanny sombre.

The [Solar Core] suddenly fizzled away prematurely. The Egg rapidly pulsated as a thick aura of malevolence oozed from the cavity. Heated air that could melt metal in mere seconds was instantly cooled. At the same time, the central pillars which were once destroyed by battle stood upright without a single scratch in sight.

The Egg had not only reverted itself, but its surroundings as well. Furthermore – a transparent [Barrier] surrounded it. To Exrite, Black, Khaos and Frosty it was nothing more than an additional nuisance.

But this was far from the truth. White stood still, as if frozen in time as Uru’s entire body burnt with equal amounts of terror and delight. What could have caused them both to display such unnatural reactions?

Normally, both could easily tell the tier of magic one was using. They were beings with immense mana, with the other of immense energy – though she was still technically a mage, nevertheless. Identifying an opponent’s mana capacity and reserves, as well as their strength was paramount and a task that was as natural as breathing.

It was a process that had never failed them before.

This was different, however. In the past Uru had some difficulty analysing the mana of magic beyond that of the [Eleventh Tier]. As for White – difficulty was absent in her experiences.

And now – for the first time both beings of monstrous power experienced the bitter taste of weakness. That magic was without a doubt beyond the [Eleventh Tier] – a tier of magic said to belong to only those who were the closest to the Gods, for lesser beings save for the Demi-Gods could ever dream of possessing such power.

This tier of magic included priests and priestesses, among an unknown, select-few number of others.

The highest an individual could ever reach alone was of the [Tenth Tier], far surpassing the supposed natural limit of the [Seventh Tier]. These beings were considered legends among legends, anomalies and perhaps even fiction.

In nature beings tended to naturally be able to manipulate magic beneath the [Seventh Tier], with humans being as far down as the [Third Tier]. Heroes were the most famous for naturally being able to reach the [Seventh Tier].

However, magical races – such as the Elves, Dark Elves and the Demons – were easily able to wield magic of elusive [Seventh Tier]. This was due to their ever-growing mana reserves, for they did not possess mana capacities.

Despite this, there were truly not many beings that could go further than the [Seventh Tier] without undergoing a catastrophic mana overload. Demons on the otherhand risked undergoing fatal mana depletions.

After all, they were one of the only races that did not possess a mana capacity.

Silence befell the chamber. Seconds dragged out to what felt like hours as Uru and White simply stared at the Egg. The chatters of those beside them fell onto deaf ears.

Black noticed the constrained face White made. She read her well, and instantly knew the situation at hand. Yet despite being faced with the unknown there was no fear in White’s eyes. Neither in Black’s. In fact, Black adored the newfound threat with a cunning smile.

“Frosty – try not to run into that thing. Avoid the centre at all costs.” White warned from seemingly nowhere, causing the woman to blankly blink with some confusion.

“Huh…” Frosty momentarily trailed off. “I’d normally ask you why – but considering it’s a warning from you I guess I’ll keep that in mind.”

She then turned to Khaos, who busily crushed a pillar in preparation for the next phase of battle.

“Khaos! Don’t go anywhere near the centre! There’s some sort of [Barrier] there!”

“Yeah! Hear you loud and clear, Sis!” He raised a thumb somewhere through the dust. Though he did not understand why, he obeyed the warning and kept it to heart.

“Finally warming up to us~?” Black teased.

“Just to White.” She firmly answered, causing the black-garbed Commander to laugh in a teasing manner.

Both Frosty and White rolled their eyes in response, sighing afterwards.

Then – after moments of hideous writhing – the Egg spoke.

“… the others I created – the beings that had replaced my [Gears] for beating hearts were cursed to live as me.” Its tone sharply dropped. “My memories. My hopes. My despair – they were doomed to inherit my heart. As they fell and began to understand themselves, my blood clashed with theirs. In the end, they did not know who they were. What they lived for… Why they were damned to a place where ‘up’ had no meaning. Or why they were so infatuated with the descent.”

The voice was deprived of emotion, sounding monotone like the voice of the Biomech. Yet behind every word Exrite felt crushing lament, and a despair so rich that his Eye of Despair flared up as the cavity suddenly burst with hundreds of dark golems.

The revelation caused Exrite’s heart to sink so deep into his gut that he felt like his entire body would soon follow. Everything came hurdling to him at once as the cries of battle failed to reach him, for his thoughts clogged the world around him.

Only the Egg remained stagnant in the chaos of explosions, magic, and battle.

He finally understood the true meaning of the giant [Gear]’s words which resided in the very first Reservoir; of how it held the memories of its creator. While he always knew that the Geared possessed some level of Gaia’s memories and emotions, never did he imagine that it was to the point where it skewed their sense of self.

The despair of futility, the loss of their identity, and suffering combined with Gaia’s despair annihilated every Geared that fell past the first Reservoir.

This was why none ever made it to the end, despite countless of them…

Save for this one.

It was the only Geared to have ever achieved the Attributed Whole.

Yet in the end it still did not find itself.

Exrite’s senses returned to him by tenfold. The flames of rage bellowed his heart back into his chest. No matter the despair and lament Gaia faced, she could never be forgiven. Not by him, and neither by the Geared she had abandoned and left to endlessly repeat the same futile cycle of despair.

Perhaps they were not so different after all. Both were pit into despair by the very same hand.

With his loaded sniper rifle, he pointed its barrel towards the mass of golems and tore a hole into their ranks. A wound was left in the mass, which slowly repaired itself as more golems flooded out of the unknown [Barrier].

As he loaded in another round, he noticed something was awry.

His brows wrinkled.

“It disappeared!?” He exclaimed, realising that the bullet did not reach the Egg, let alone the other side of the chamber.

It had vanished into thin air the moment it passed through the translucent [Barrier].

Regardless, Exrite continued to release round after round into the hoard of golems as the others collectively threw everything they had at them. A gallant Khaos fought beside Black in close quarters with a combination of chiselled rock and his fist, whilst Frosty and White tore many apart with their oversized weapons. Uru on the other hand was nowhere to be seen. That was until her voice suddenly appeared beside him along with a furious gust of hot air.

Without ever turning to face her, he reflexively asked:

“Uru, do you have any idea what that tier that [Barrier] is!? Even a [Ninth Tiered] [Physical Barrier] wouldn’t be able to disintegrate my bullet just like that!”

“Obviously, that means it’s above the [Ninth Tier].” Uru stated the obvious with a teasing tone.

Sensing Exrite’s growing rage, Uru continued.

“So far beyond the [Ninth Tier] that not even I can begin to comprehend its majesty. It’s beautiful. Such benevolence was only recited in in scripture and in battles predating countless generations of Six Point!”

She almost sang, continuing soon after.

“Although, that [Barrier] is not quite a [Physical Barrier]. Look closely. I’m afraid it’s worse than we think.”

He carefully peered through the fog of battle ahead. With the eyes of a hawk, he noticed oddities with every magic, every bullet and every little spec of scrap that dared to enter the [Barrier].

“A [Hybrid Barrier]!?” Exrite wondered aloud, quickly taking notice that the [Ice Shards] Frosty constantly hailed upon the battlefield were also disappearing once they ventured past the [Barrier].

What made this strange was that Frosty’s [Ice Shards] were only of the [Third Tier], yet they were still passing through its ‘wall’.

“Wait… no. That doesn’t make any sense. [Hybrid Barriers] are meant to disperse unrefined mana in magic beneath the [Seventh Tier]. It’s supposed to be stopped before it enters the [Barrier]!”

Indeed. [Barriers], whether [Physical], [Hybrid], or [Magical] all operated like instant, portable walls. Their purpose was simple; prevent whatever they were intended to stop from penetrating their walls. In rare cases they were used to prevent things from exiting, like a magical-makeshift trap.

There was no other function. Once something passed through its protective walls then there was nothing else it could do. Yet here Frosty’s [Ice Shards] easily passed through the [Barrier]’s walls without resistance, only to disappear immediately once inside.

The same was true with his bullets, and whatever shrapnel or golem was launched into the bizarre [Barrier].

Realising this; the prospect of a [Hybrid Barrier] – or any contemporary [Barrier] he and Uru knew of was completely ruled out.

If this were a monstrously powerful [Hybrid Barrier], then both his bullets, [Blue Bullets] and Frosty’s [Ice Shards] would have been reduced to thousands of pieces the moment it grazed its wall.

More than anything –

“It’s almost like Melody’s [Dimensional Barrier].” He admitted, causing Uru made a distasteful sound, signifying her disapproval. “Almost. For all we know it could be a [Time Barrier] – however that works.” He added.

Uru pondered for a bit before a satisfied hum roused from her.

“I believe you may be correct. The other side would have to be completely disconnected from this reality. But that isn’t what’s happening here. We can see the golems spill out from the Egg within the [Barrier]. Like any ordinary [Barrier] its walls are a window to the inside. A [Dimensional Barrier] on the other hand won’t ever let you peer in. That alone severs the possibility of [Realm] magic, to our dismay. Bizarre. The only thing that bares any similarity is when something enters it disappears. I can only imagine why~”

Uru tested Exrite, wondering if he too had an idea on what the magic in play was. Unsurprisingly, the answer fell into place as naturally as he breathed.

“So [Time] is our only answer again… Makes sense. There’s only one [Gear] capable of holding [Tier Fifteen] magic and we already confirmed it’s [Time].” He sighed, digging a hand into his ammunition pouch.

He was quickly running low on ammunition. With a click of his tongue, he loaded in one more bullet and spoke.

“Uru, correct me if I’m wrong but if the [Time] [Gear] was constantly keeping the Egg in a state of perpetual repair, then couldn’t it do the same on a larger scale? I can see that working like a [Barrier] or a field of some sort if paired with the right [Gears]. Well, that’s only if that thing really is a [Time Barrier].” He eventually came to call the magic as such.

“A fitting name. Indeed. That would explain the sheer magnitude of its majesty. Unbelievable… to think I’d witness so many events showcasing the power of the Maiden of Time…” Uru reached for the [Barrier] as one would towards the glistening stars in the darkest of night skies.

“As cursed as we are, this is truly a blessing in disguise. Wonderful.”

“You’re awfully happy about this. For once you’re the one with the hopeful outlook. Ah, I think can see why I tend rub you the wrong way sometimes.” Exrite sighed, releasing a bombardment of [Blue Bullets] against the ever-growing hoard of golems.

“Ho? Implying that you see no way out of this?” She teased.

Exrite couldn’t help but to smirk at those words. With eyes that not even fate could topple, he spoke from the bottom of his heart.

“Would I even be me if I didn’t think we’d win?”

His words were simple, burning with an inextinguishable flame. It resonated within Uru’s fiery heart, causing the Demon to briefly smile.

“Stubborn to the core. Truly a foolish human. But – I’ve grown to adore that part of you!”

Suddenly, the lines riddling her body beautiful illuminated like streaks of lighting. Massive purple magical circles formed above her like the feathers of a peacock, reaching into the dozens.

Everyone stopped to stare at it for a second amid their battles before instantly, and perhaps out of instinct, retreated to the second ring of pillars, abandoning the golems entirely. The golems paused momentarily, wondering what had happened before they simply chased them down with no regard for what was to come.

The others instantly knew what those magical circles were. Just one of them were formidable enough. Five or so was fantastic spectacle of destruction. But a few dozen was terrifying to put it lightly.

The magical circles were, of course, for Uru’s [Seekers].

The mana required for such an enormous magic was utterly staggering, amounting to nearly 2 [Solar Cores]. In context, a single [Solar Core] required at least a percent of Uru’s mana reserves… when she was in her prime a thousand years ago.

Her reserves were currently beneath a fifteenth of her past self. Relying on such powerful magic was unsustainable and idiotic at best. However, this mana did not directly come from her reserves.

Uru was far from stupid…

No, she was a master at her craft.

The mana was syphoned from the chamber itself, powering the magical circles containing at least 400 [Seekers].

Uru only needed to utter a single phrase to consume an enormous amount of external mana, resulting in a temporary mana vacuum in the immediate area. To cast a vast amount of [Seekers] in an instant through a single phrase displayed Uru’s level of mastery over her magic.

… No. Perhaps mastery was also an understatement.

As Exrite stared up in awe at the spectacle, all 400 [Seekers] fired from the magical circles simultaneously like the arrows of a hwacha, save these were a thousand times more powerful.

Each one targeted an individual golem, ripping both them and neighbouring ones to nothing but seared dust and, if they were lucky, fragments. It was like watching the tentacles of a giant purple jellyfish sting its countless prey from above with an explosive toxin.

The combined explosion was so great that the floor shook for nearly ten seconds straight. For a moment Exrite thought that the entire chamber would collapse.

During this, he noticed that the Golems which were launched back by the shockwave did not disappear when they fell into the [Barrier], yet those that were presumably killed disappeared as did everything else.

The thought distracted him as he endured the most painful ten seconds thus far.

Thankfully, his heart could be at ease again as the chamber settled soon after. It was now reformed with a massive moat of molten metal which immediately surrounded the Egg’s [Barrier]. Additionally, there was no golem in sight, excluding the ones that were already within the [Barrier].

“That’ll buy us some time to brew a perfect a plan.” Uru said afterwards, her voice echoing in the disturbing silence.

“… yeah…” Exrite slowly brough himself back. “I didn’t think about it before, but you never had the chance to stretch your magic. Shit… was the dragon really that weak?”

“Are you forgetting our battle already? The dragon only had one phase that was susceptible to magic. Not even the pitiful Phase was met with my greatest magic. I don’t mind being excessive, especially in the gauntlet blessed by the Maiden of Time. But neither do I enjoy wasting mana. External mana is precious, particularly here.”

Uru was correct. This place was first and foremost a confined space, sectioned off from every place save for the strange hole above the Egg. No matter how vast it was no external mana could ever leak into this chamber, meaning that the mana here was limited.

“You may not sense it, but my magic has already consumed a considerable amount of mana. It’s hardly sustainable in this kind of environment. It was never plentiful to begin with. Not only that, but my magic does not discriminate between friend or foe. The risk of ‘friendly fire’ in Black’s vocabulary is significant when used like this.”

Before long, the others quickly returned to the forefront of the battlefield, decimating the golems just as they appeared from the [Barrier] with frightening efficiency.

They would be insane to allow the golems to number in the hundreds again. However, their efforts were not enough to completely keep them at bay; even with Exrite’s endless barrage of [Blue Bullets].

He could not afford to continue wasting the precious time Uru had bought for them. They only had minutes before the scattered golems return to the size of a small army.

His composure returned as he quickly spoke.

“Uru. There’s one question we still haven’t figured out. It’s also our biggest clue to overcoming that [Barrier].”

“I’m listening.”

“The golems. Time is constantly being reset yet the golems can freely move inside. As far as I can tell they’re only erased once they die, just like everything else.”

“Ho. Our plan already has a central key then. What matters now is how we’ll use this key. Or –” Uru turned to him with a hand reaching for his face. “Perhaps it’s a matter of who uses it.”

Her [Seekers] aided in the battle. They were far from the splendour of 50, now numbering in the few digits for obvious reasons.

“Is there something you’re not telling me?” Exrite asked.

“Nothing. With what little time we have left not even I would play such a daring game.” She affirmed before setting her attention back to the [Barrier]. “Their construction bears no significance to the [Barrier]. Since the golems disappear when they’re torn apart, that means their existence is what exempts them from being erased.”

Suddenly, Exrite’s eyes widened.

“… like some sort of a condition. That probably explains why it hasn’t used it’s beam yet. It can’t pass through the [Barrier] at all! If that’s the case, then the golems are the only things allowed to enter and leave.”

Uru then hummed with a tone that said otherwise.

“You’re only half correct.”

“… what do you mean?” He slowly turned to her with a face riddled with confusion.

“I suppose [Golemancy] in the human world is severely under practiced considering you of all people don’t know. The eastern Regions are pathetically human-centric.”

She jabbed before explaining further.

“A ‘golem’ isn’t necessarily the whole construct. It’s an amalgamation of parts. All of them – no matter how miniscule – are considered ‘golems’ in the ever-growing lens of magic.”

Precisely. Golem were essentially constructs of many smaller ‘golems’. The more golems that were a part of the bigger picture; the more complex and proficient it was. Skilled Golemancers blessed with suitable mana capacities and outfitted with intricate knowledge of their art were able to push it to its absolute limit.

Liquids like water and the finest powder of pulverised iron were the smallest known ‘golems’ that could be used to create a construct. However, this magic was immensely powerful. To create a construct out of such tiny materials required hundreds of thousands, even millions to create a sizable golem.

Usually, these golems required hundreds, perhaps even thousands of esteemed mages to erect.

One such magic capable of this was a [Ninth Tiered] spell called [Elemental Flux].

But what did this all mean in the end?

It was quite simple; the reason that the golems were not being erased was because the condition was not ‘golems’, but something else. If it were then their torn-off parts should not have disappeared inside of the [Barrier].

The realisation was like a gust of wind. The strands of thoughts in his mind were thrown away as he scrambled to pluck something – anything from the air.

Then, he caught something.

As if directed by fate, both he and Uru arrived at the same conclusion.

However, Uru was the one to voice their exact thoughts with a voice so drenched in emotion that the etchings in her body flared in response.

“As much as I refuse to utter these words, I have no other choice; the Egg believes that it is the Maiden of Time. You’ve heard that insolent usurper recite Her memories as if it were its own… tch. And if that’s truly how warped it is – then the condition isn’t the golems. It’s her creations. The very things She created. The golems are no different. The Egg is no different either.”

Exrite didn’t say another word. Neither did he have time to. Within seconds, Uru spoke once again.

“Exrite. Perhaps you may be able to bypass that [Barrier]. The previous Maiden of Time’s heart lives within you, and you are the current Maiden of Time. The [Time Barrier] should not affect you.”

“No. That’s not how it works, I’m afraid. Look at me Uru. I’m a human. If you told me that in my other body, then I’d agree. My authority over [Time] doesn’t extend to this body. It’s just the [Gears].” He sternly answered.

Then, a small smile grew on his face.

“But – that doesn’t mean I won’t charge in there.”

“Ho? Even though you know well that only those created by Her can enter?” Uru questioned his sanity with a perplexing look. “… what could you possibly have in mind now?”

“You said it yourself earlier. The golems are our key.” He reminded her as he dropped his weapons. “I just have to bring one along with me.”

She could not believe the nonsense that left his mouth. His words were beyond indecipherable. However – Exrite had reason to believe that this may just work.

On the <40th Floor> Exrite had experimented with the effects of [Time Magic] on a lesser scale. During his observations he noticed that the slow-falling snowflakes returned to their normal speed as soon as they touched his palm, which was also within the field of [Delay] – his time-slowing magic.

Basically, Exrite believed he could resist the effects of the [Time Barrier] if he were in contact with something that was immune to it; just as how the snow resumed time as soon as it touched his Maidenly palms.

He explained all of this in detail, athough it was not enough for Uru’s to remove her shadow of doubt which remained casted over him like a looming storm.

“To twist my words in such a way… I suppose you are a human after all.” She painfully sighed.

“Was there any doubt? Aha. Uru – I understand the risks. All of it. Worst comes to worst, I’ll completely disappear. But –”

Exrite turned to her with eyes brimming with confidence.

“I’m immortal right now. realistically, I’ll end up going through a loop of being erased and revived. And in the best case I’ll die and transform.”

The Demon was rendered speechless. Never had she encountered such madness before. His sheer recklessness knew no bounds.

Before she could utter a word Exrite continued with an oddly comforting voice.

“Uru. What other choice do we have? Out of all of us I’m the most likely to survive this.”

“… you fool. Your consequences are fantastical speculations. Fate is worser than that.”

“Fate doesn’t mean anything to me. You know that by now. I’ve endured a pain far worse than anything the Gods ever had, over and over. Being killed and revived until you guys eventually find a way to break the [Barrier] doesn’t sound so bad. That’s if I fail, that is.”

Precious seconds phased by as an agonising silence choked the Demon. Muddled in thought, Uru hesitantly agreed with his sentiments.

“… I didn’t realise your sense of self-preservation was this incompetent. But you’re right. Out of all of us you’re the most likely to succeed. For your sake and the rest of us – do not fail.”

Uru hissed as she cupped his face in between her palms, her grip tighter than any vice known to man. He could only stare into the golden pupils of the Demon.

And with a voice brimming with utmost confidence, he spoke.

“Of course. Leave it to me, Uru.”

“… let me believe you also have a plan once you’re through.”

“Vaguely, but I’ll figure something out. For now – I have my eyes set on the [Gear].”

“Ho? Explain.”

“Its magic isn’t casted. Remember, they’re all imbued onto [Gears]. If I get close enough, I just might be able to take control over it and disable the [Barrier]. I’m sure you guys will know what to do after.”

“’Might’… I think I can sympathise with Frosty and Khaos now. You’re far too reckless for your own good.”

‘Might’ was an understatement. Quite frankly Exrite did not know whether it would work or not. The only lead he had was the fact that he possessed the Heart of the Maiden of Time… the very heart that once belonged to Gaia herself; the creator of the Geared and the [Gears].

But even so – it was still a gamble.

A gamble he was more than willing to take.

“As cheesy as it sounds – nothing’s going to change if no one braves head on.”

“The absence of fear is not bravery. Don’t mix it up with stupidity. However – I don’t disagree with you.”

Her hands fell to her sides as they turned to the Egg with hopeful eyes.

“I pray for your success. And –” She poked his cheek. “Remember to add a few hundred ‘favour points’ to my collection.”

With a brazen smile and an unbreakable demeanour –

– Exrite nodded.

“But first, there’s something I need to do. A lot of my tricks are going to be useless inside. So – I’m going to have to improvise.”

“Improvise? With what?”

“Just some unused crossbow bolts.” He grinned.

* * *

Part 5 –

 

The battlefield stood silent for the first time. The explosions that once riddled the chamber disappeared without a trace, the blue and purple streaks of light nowhere to be seen.

Although silent was an odd way to describe the chamber. The screams of severed metal and the countless heavy steps which trampled over the remains of the golems were nowhere near quiet.

Regardless of this, four that fought bravely at the edge of the molten moat could not help but to feel like everything around them had suddenly went mute.

Khaos looked around, scouring the floor in search for a certain duo. Nothing but the sprawling golems filled his vision as he crushed those around with his bare fists, tearing their bodies apart like slow-cooked meat.

He looked again. Nothing still. The others soon began to search the chamber for the two but to no avail. Confusion quickly plagued them as they wondered where they had disappeared to.

But that was only for a moment.

Suddenly – and from seemingly nowhere – a creature snatched an unsuspecting golem straight from its pack. A turbulent release of hot air swept through the area where the golem once stood, heating the clustered black constructs to a faint orange glow.

One turned to fifty. Fifty became a hundred. The heat transferred like a plague, reddening their metal bodies as a massive haze of distortion concealed that part of the chamber, rendering it impossible to see through.

Black watched the chaos unfold, her hands moving on their own before she stared up at the creature which held the capture golem in its talons.

A sadistic smile fell onto her face.

“Just what on Earth are you two up to now?”

Those talons were arms. Human arms. Ones that belonged to none other than Exrite. Additionally, [Gears] aided in the restraint of the golem.

The golems were an odd construct, comprising of multiple gear-shaped objects. Not only that, but they spun with enough force to shred their enemies apart. Holding onto them with his bare hands was futile and quite frankly an odd way to have his organs churned, so he used his [Gears] to jam each layer of its spinning body.

This prevented it from struggling. As for its arms – a thick, black vine strapped them to its body. This was one of Uru’s charcoal tentacles which her true body was composed of. A single glance at the Demon revealed a severed hand with writhing tentacles acting as her newly formed digits.

In short, the golem was rendered utterly helpless.

Uru soared through the chamber with Exrite hanging further down on her tentacles. Before long, the others took notice of the bizarre sight and couldn’t help but to pry themselves away from battle. Most were an effort to make sure they weren’t seeing things.

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this.” Frosty murmured to herself.

“Hey… aren’t they coming here a little too fast?” Khaos spoke in another end of the battlefield.

“Far too fast. They can’t be thinking of trying to pass through the [Barrier]!” White, who was the closest to him, blurted out. “What kind of plan does he have in mind!?”

“Dunno... But if there’s anything I’m certain of – he’ll see through this ordeal to the end. I believe in him.”

“You sound confident. You’re not worried that this might end unexpectedly tragic?”

“No.” He answered sternly. “What kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t believe in him? Make no mistake – my brain’s shouting at me. Screaming at me to freeze and brace for the worst. But I’ve been with him long enough that my heart can only beat at a steady pace now!”

Khaos erupted unexpectedly, his voice shaking the air like the rumbles of thunder. The skulls of golems disintegrated in his grip one by one until he stood alone in a small clearing of headless constructs.

Without turning, he spoke.

“Am I worried about him dying? Yes. Believe me when I say this; seeing him die with nothing but that damn smile of his is the worst. But am I worried about him failing? No. I’ve never seen him fail. He might’ve lost over and over in the beginning, but he eventually overcame it all because he persisted even after his countless deaths. That is not failure in my eyes!”

White patiently listened to him as the flying duo grew closer to the [Barrier].

“Besides, I’m in no position to tell how strong that [Barrier] is. This is probably what they mean by ignorance is bliss.”

Khaos hid his smile as he wiped the sweat and dirt from his face.

“… that’s not supposed to sound convincing.” White sighed defeatedly as she too stood still in a clearing. “But I’m also not complaining. We were the ones who roped Exrite into this in the first place. The fact that Black… and I believed Exrite had a fighting chance against the Maiden of Realms is even more insane.”

“It’s hard to judge us when you’re also in the same boat, haha- Oh- Er… sorry.”

White instantly shot him a look of what he thought was distaste. The smile disappeared from his face in an instant, fearing that he had incurred the wrath of the Colour.

However, this was far from true.

She was not that menacing. Not like a certain other Colour. That was at least when she donned her blue eyes.

Her gaze mellowed for a moment as she shrugged and pulled her attention back to the zooming duo.

“No. You’re not wrong.” White softly smiled. “Companionship does strange things to people. Colours aren’t immune either, as heartless or cold as we might seem, unfortunately.”

Her gaze softly moved to Black’s back.

“Anyway, we’re going to need a whole lot more of it if we want to get anywhere near our end goal. For better or worse.”

“Spoken like one of us, huh.”

White only smiled in response.

Seconds later the sounds of battle returned as the golems quickly swarmed the vacant space, only to join their fallen comrades among the broken ground.

All they had to do now was wait.

* * *

They flew towards the [Barrier] at a speed that shattered the air around them, creating ripples as they passed like a giant bullet.

With their plan in action, Exrite braced himself as Uru propelled herself towards the blazing haze. The heat she discharged earlier was not for show. Neither was it an effort to cleanse as many golems as possible during their brief absence from the battlefield.

It served a purpose. The thick, illusive haze was near impossible to peer through, distorting everything around it. This was nothing more than a simple guise to conceal Exrite’s imminent approach.

They’d have little to no warning of his arrival.

This was perhaps the most vital part of the plan, aside from entering and reaching the cavity containing the [Time] [Gear]. With the golems unaware he’d be able to cover some ground with minimal resistance.

Also – he could not afford to be stopped the very moment he entered. Not when he was alone against the full brunt of the golem menace with most of his tools rendered useless.

Therefore, he needed as little resistance from the golems as possible. Even if it was only at the beginning. Just a single free second was enough.

From there all he had to do was push forward and reach the cavity…

Although, believing it was anywhere near easy was wishful thinking. The cavity was where they spilled from in the hundreds. It was beyond an uphill battle. He was up against an immovable mountain.

Yet nothing but an unstoppable flame burnt in his eyes.

“… I pray that your wager pays off.” Uru said. “We’ll begin preparations once you’re through. Do not let it all go to vain, Exrite.”

“That goes without saying. I’ll be back, Uru. Watch me.”

Uru sharply hummed to herself in response, the rushing air nearly silencing her. The [Barrier] was now close enough to engulf every corner of their eyes as Uru prepared to fling him straight into its untouched heights.

“With pleasure.”

With one swift motion, Uru suddenly flew upwards, and Exrite was propelled like the boulder of a trebuchet straight into the [Barrier] with the golem tightly pressed against his chest.

He began to utter something beneath his breath as the Egg spoke.

“The golden bed that was meant to welcome them became the grave of thousands. I witnessed the death of a thousand of stars, suspended indefinitely in an unmoving mirror of the night sky I loved.”

It all happened in an instant. The sudden explosion of air instantly disappeared once he passed through the translucent wall. The scenery hadn’t changed the slightest. Somehow, he felt like he was gliding through the air far faster.

Many golems beneath failed to notice his approach. Only few airborne squads noticed and gave immediate chase. But they were too slow to keep up, trailing behind as his speed quickly picked up during his gradual descent.

Only a hundred metres of air separated him from the ground, and another 500 separated him from the endlessly spilling cavity. From this distance it looked like a wound gushing with black, writhing blood.

The ground rapidly approached. 50 metres were covered in the blink of an eye. In his last few seconds, he shoved the golem behind him as he braced himself for his crashlanding.

I only have one shot at this!

With grit teeth and his entire body motioning for impact, he crashed against the ground with a shattering quake. The trajectory of his landing was like that of a meteor, and as a result, Exrite trailed across the ground with the soles of his shredded leather boots crushing the stone as he gradually came to a halt.

However, he did not allow himself to stop.

Shoving his bare foot into the stone, he poised himself forward and instantly launched himself forward. The trails and cracks of the stone disappeared as quickly as they appeared, the fumes of dust returning to air as if it never existed.

Not a single scratch was left on him, although this was nothing compared to the grand heights of the <46th Floor>. But even so, it was a testament to his strength.

Few of the airborne golems crashed into the ground, unable to redirect their speed into his direction. They did not expect him to be so agile, especially with a golem glued to his back.

However – Exrite was not faster than them.

The sound of marching metal ceased all around him for a split second before suddenly growing closer. Suddenly, every golem began to target him, completely ignoring the others on the other side of the [Barrier].

They responded far faster than he anticipated.

Their eyes burnt a violet red, the bizarre clanking of their metallic bodies reaching ear-splitting levels as they all began to converge on him. He saw them come from every direction, with the golems spilling from the cavity flooding straight for him like an avalanche.

There were thousands. They were immovable. And he was only one.

The scene was like a tale from legends, where the hero would undoubtably slaughter all his countless foes with a single strike.

But Exrite was no hero.

Neither did he have any means to annihilate them all with the flick of his wrist.

Once one tore off the heroic lens from this scene and peered through the lens of reality, they’d see nothing more than a man with a death wish…

Though neither were the case.

Exrite was – first and foremost – a human trying to survive the cruel talons of fate.

And to escape it, he needed to delve deeper into its clutches, right to the very heart where all the golems spewed from.

The clanking grew closer. The avalanche also drew near. The impending blackness promised to swallow him with one exaggerated gulp. As the golem reached for him with a blade-like hand from behind, he instantly dropped his speed.

The blade missed him by mere inches as he collided with the golem. In that split second of mass confusion, a pale bone was punched straight into its chest. Amid the clanks and mechanical clamber, there was a faint hiss emanating from the bone.

This was of course the sound of a burning fuse.

The golem looked down at its indented chest with a perplexed expression, a split second before Exrite tore himself away by leaping into the air. A string of confusion littered the surrounding golems one by one, some frozen by the bizarre attack while others stared at the Exrite who cruised 10 metres into the air above the oncoming avalanche.

Out of all things they expected the puny human to do, this was easily among the scraps at the bottom of the barrel. They did not expect him to be able to be capable of such a grand leap.

They flocked to him immediately, many throwing themselves to swat him out of the sky through brute force. Hundreds rose from the ground in an instant, some curled while others directed their drill-like feet towards him like missiles.

His [Threat Detection]’s scream rattled his soul as he grit his teeth. Escape seemed impossible. A human like him had no natural means of manoeuvring in the air.

However, that was assuming Exrite was an ordinary human. He never looked down at the inevitable, but instead firmly kept his eyes on the cavity. Only less than 500 metres separated him from ending this all for good.

There was of course only one thing to do.

… 30 seconds… that’s all I need!

Exrite began a mental countdown as he ripped his second largest [Gear] – [Blue Beam] – from the captive golem. It swirled onto the soles of his feet as he crouched down further than he ever had, tilted forwards, and then –

– He launched himself forward.

His body disappeared in the blink of an eye as the golems collided with one another, resulting an explosion of metal filings. They quickly scrambled towards the human bullet after an embarrassing recovery.

Gravity was no longer pulling against him, and with the strange lacklustre resistance in this [Time Barrier], he was propelled nearly fifty metres forward.

But that wasn’t enough. If he didn’t maintain his pace he’d quickly be overrun. The uncontrolled gear of the golem strapped to him began to violently spin, its teeth grinding into his flesh as he fell into a lightly concentrated section of the chamber.

25!

He instantly pulled out his bone bolts from the only limeite box on his hip, one in each hand as he punched them straight into the chests of whatever golem crossed his path. From two to a dozen – to 30 bone bolts. Until he scraped the bottom of his limeite container did he leap once more into the air as the concentration of golems grew too thick.

This time, their resistance was staggering. They were going to stop him at all costs. A giant net of golems converged at his point. Even if he propelled himself forward again, he’d be met with enough force to knock him straight back.

It was like being at the bottom of massive tidal wave. Yet Exrite could only smile brazenly at he tore another [Gear] from the golem. This one was his largest, and the last that could act as a footstool.

But he wouldn’t need to. Exrite, firmly holding the shredding golem in front of him, reached far behind him with the giant [Gear] in hand. If his speed was not enough to break through, then he simply needed to be faster.

Explosively faster.

That’s why – he detonated his precious [Gear]. The [Explosive Orb]’s shockwave dragged him by the gut as he barrelled through the net of golems, crashing into numerous with destructive force. The golem in his arm suffered majorly, missing massive chunks of its body, with the rest beginning to emit a soft glow. It wouldn’t survive another collision, let alone another explosion.

15!

Only 200 metres remained. He needed another golem. Exrite desperately looked around for another one to snatch as soon as he landed, but none chose to approach. Instead, every golem before him retreated into the cavity, alongside the hundreds that he had already passed. They flew above and beside him like a fleet of bats, darkening the chamber until they all converged at the cavity.

The golems were at their thickest concentration now. Black dots riddled the world ahead. It was like looking at the surface of a cluttered hornet’s nest; every single one of them crawling above one another until they fit perfectly into a giant spherical lattice.

This was their final stand. Seeing them so desperately defend the cavity – and the [Gear] in extension – caused him to nod with satisfaction. Relief surged through him, combating the wariness of his nearly broken golem at hand as he couldn’t help but to softly smile.

The ‘might’ in his plan to take over the [Gear] was all but certain now.

They clearly saw him as a threat to the [Gear], meaning the ‘might’ in his plan – his reckless gamble – was correct after all.

Hah! What should I call this? Luck? Fate? Whatever it is – I’m going to need more of it for the finale!

Exrite seemed abnormally ecstatic. The wall of golems before him was not as lenient as the last. It was the physical manifestation of a [Physical Barrier], tuned to the highest degree. Of course, this was all because the golems were clustered so closely to one another…

And that was precisely why he was ecstatic.

His luck didn’t only stem from his gamble, but also from the golems themselves. 30 of them carried an explosive payload. In comparison to the bullets of his sniper rifle, they were far, far more destructive.

In the beginning he had expected them to take a final stand at some point. However, he did not think for a second that all golems would choose to defend the Egg. Not to this grand extent.

Simply put – this was a blessing in disguise.

And if there’s anything he had learnt from this trial–

5!

– It was that the explosive powder in those bone bolts superseded the one the world knew of.

Exrite threw himself into the air one last time with his fellow golem, which never ceased grounding his flesh and organs into mince. With an arm thrust behind him like last time, it was finally time to end his awaited chant.

“– [Explosive orb]!”

A pale orb of condensed heat formed in his palm for a split second before it abruptly detonated. It propelled him forward with the same force as his late [Gear], sending him straight for the wall of golems ahead.

How was Exrite able to cast the [Explosive Orb] – a [Sixth Tiered] magic – in near under a minute?

It was simple.

The [Explosive Orb] he casted was what scholars of magic considered ‘incomplete’.

In magic, it was possible to perform what is known as a ‘half cast’, or more commonly called an ‘incomplete cast’. As the term implied, an incomplete cast occurred when one managed to cast an intended magic but with the incorrect chant.

This was by far the most common mistake in students and beginners of magic. While the concept could be had, it was up to one to recite them as perfectly as they understood it. Unless of course, they were geniuses who were able to perform a chantless cast.

One clear-cut way of replicating this was to ignore a section of a chant, meaning the casted magic would lack said attribute of the intended magic. An example would be [Water Spear]. Ignoring the chant related to the spear part would create water which lacked any form.

In Exrite’s case, he ignored the [Explosive Orb]’s… ‘orb’ part, hence why it did not retain its form for more than a single second.

In any case –

3!

– He braced himself, already breaking through 50 metres. Just 150 more remained.

2!

100.

1!

50 –

*KABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!*

The sound rippled through his bones. One fireball multiplied to several more before combining into one massive orb of flames. The sheer amount of metal significantly reduced the shockwave, allowing him to cruse straight into the flaming cavity with his red-hot golem in his only arm.

However, it was unfortunately just enough to knock his last two [Gears] from the golem.

But that mattered little. By now it had already stopped struggling.

The heat disappeared as quickly as it appeared, the same with the countless golems it decimated. An empty void filled separated him from the [Gear] now.

Nothing could stop him.

He fell straight towards the base of the cavity, right where the giant [Gear] rested and spun. Golems appeared from seemingly nowhere high above him and instantly gave chase, one managing to thrust an arm straight through his stomach right before he landed.

It’s right there! Just… A FEW MORE STEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEPS!

Exrite grit his teeth to its absolute limit, fracturing the steel bones of his jaw as he trudged through the golems that desperately gave it their all to destroy the man who knew no fear nor death.

Death did not desire him. Not yet. In fact – it feared him. His steps were heavy, moving the weight of countless kilograms as more than dozens of blades had already skewered him, some penetrating the flesh of his face and neck.

Under normal circumstances, Exrite could have easily lunged for the [Gear]. His injuries were trivial. However, there was something else that took a bigger toll than the golems.

It was a mana overload.

There was no possible way a human like him would be able to walk away after using [Sixth Tier] magic without a magic circle. Yet he did. The very fact that he was still able to stand upright was a miracle…

No. Miracles are granted by the Gods.

And there was no God that could withstand a mana overload.

Exrite was in a different realm of tolerance.

The tempering of his soul on the anvil of Gaia’s trial, pummelled by the hammer of despair and bellowed by the flames of the past forged his unbreakable fortitude.

Physically? Yes and no. He was on the verge of collapsing.

Mentally? Most certainly so.

The golem in his arms fell as he reached out for the [Gear] with twisted fingers.

“PUUUUUUUUUUUUSH!” He hoarsely gargled.

With one final creep forward, the sensation of a connected limb shot through his heart like an electric current. A flash of bright light consumed his Eye of Hope, then his entire body as the [Gear] fell to his authority.

There was no other climatic scream or joyous cry.

He simply did what he needed to.

He stopped the [Gear] from spinning, completely deactivating the [Time Barrier].

When the light softly died, the very first thing to be revealed was the figure of a certain Demon, who was surrounded by countless metal fragments. In that short amount of time, she had shredded the golems around him a dozen times over.

He smiled.

Behind Uru’s face of nothing but relief and pride were countless purple magical circles…

Enough to fire 800 [Seekers].

“… aha… and I thought… 400 was going all out.” He spoke, the wounds already healing.

Uru pressed a finger on his lips, erecting a purple [Physical Barrier] around him.

“Save your strength… you showed me a good sight. Truly… a good sight…”

Was it pity he saw in her eyes? Admiration? Inspiration? He didn’t know. Whatever it was, it compelled Uru into casting all the [Seekers] she could muster.

Uru intended to not just kill the Egg once and for all, but to utterly obliterate it.

A twenty-sided [Physical Barrier] materialised above him. Demonic symbols elegantly ran across its entire surface in a beautiful spiral-like pattern. Many more similar [Barriers] were erected around him, completely shielding him from the golems.

At the same time – a pale [Physical Barrier] surrounded him, as did another blue [Physical Barrier]. Looking down past Uru’s shoulder, he saw Frosty and White, both staring at him with burning eyes.

“… Exrite. Please hold on just a little longer. So long as you’re standing the [Gear] won’t be able to prevent its death. As heavy as it is for me to say this; you must endure to the very end.”

Uru began with a heavy voice before moving her only hand to Exrite’s cheek.

“We’ll end this as quickly as possible. For your sake.”

“… do it. I came here… with the conviction to die. Ack… how many times will that make it now, Uru? Three times you’ve killed me now? Four?”

The Demon’s eyes widened, then, they softly closed as she backed away.

“You’re truly unbelievable. Joking whilst undergoing a mana overload… I’m convinced you lost your humanity long before we met.”

“Don’t make me laugh… this is exactly… what makes me human.” His voice was groggy, like the croaks of a dying man, yet the emotions within resounded with utmost clarity.

Uru couldn’t help but to softly sigh in response. Then, with a small smile, she retreated from the [Barriers], shattering a few before quickly erecting them again.

“Precisely. Do not fall, Exrite. You’ll finally be able to rest soon enough.”

With that said, she parted ways and retreated to the others, who were already unleashing countless barrages of bullets, magic, and massive pieces of stone. As much as they desired to take down the Egg with the knuckles of their fists and the edges of their weapons, none of them were able to come close.

Not when Uru intended to annihilate every fibre of the Egg’s pitiful being.

The [Physical Barriers] silenced the world outside. Frosty’s mouth spoke yet no voice reached him. But even so, he smiled as if understanding those absent words.

“… sorry for always worrying you, Frosty.” He whispered, pivoting his head towards the [Gear] above.

Countless golems appeared again, all trying to break through the impossibly thick array of [Barriers]. They worked spectacularly at repelling them. Unfortunately, however, they were not intended to protect him from the golems.

It was all for the sake of defending him against the wrath of 800 [Seekers].

His body repeated an endless loop of destruction and repair, his muscles tearing at the seams, his bones snapping like twigs. The heightened sensation that accompanied the mana overload was not one that was easy to ignore and only continued to get worse.

But his demeanour never changed. Whilst he winced and growled to combat the soul-tearing agony, his mind remained crystal clear and focused on nothing more than to simply stand.

And then – the lights Uru’s [Seekers] engulfed the chamber. In batches of 50, the [Seekers] splendidly cruised through the air compactly, appearing like a giant purple comet which smashed straight into the vulnerable surface of the Egg.

The world shook. Each hit caused the inner walls of the cavity to tear under its sheer destructive might. 200 quickly passed and the Egg bared more craters than the surface of the moon, each bleeding and pulsating with something darker than the abyss beneath.

Uru’s [Barriers] shattered without fail each time. Not even the combined strength of Uru, Frosty and White was able to withstand its might as the fireball, heat and force reached him in the depths of the cavity.

A few lone [Seekers] even attacked the cavity directly, alongside precise bullets and deadly [Ice Shards], and within less than a minute, the cavity had become grotesquely damaged.

Black sinew held broken pieces of its waxy flesh, dangling precariously, and swaying with each explosion. Fallen chunks crashed into the [Gear], the ceiling drooping dangerously as the Egg was on the verge of collapsing in on itself.

The [Gear]’s vibrant blue colour quickly decayed to a dead-grey, cracks beginning to riddle its impossibly powerful structure. To see a [Gear] capable of wielding magic of the [Fifteenth Tier] cracking under its sheer weight surprised Exrite immensely.

What kind of pressure… no, what kind of force is needed to destroy a [Gear] like that?

None of the magic or attacks they used were able to dent it. It was simply the sheer weight of the Egg that was destroying it.

In contrast, the hundreds of [Gears] scattered within the gaping maw of the largest [Gear] were all but destroyed thanks to their relentless barrage of attacks. With no [Time] [Gear] to repair their damages persistently, their deaths became inevitable.

Seeing this all up close, Exrite suddenly realised the rules dictating resistance of the [Gears].

Every [Gear] seemed to be equally as susceptible to magic as they were to physical force. What allowed them to resist damage was simply dictated by what tier of magic the [Gear] was capable of handling.

For example, a [Seventh Tiered] [Gear] would not be able to resist [Eight Tiered] magic, nor any physical force akin to that kind of power. However, [Sixth Tiered] magic would do little to nothing. This was because the [Gears] possessed a limitless pool of mana.

It was akin to dropping a match into an ocean.

An example was Frosty’s [Ice Shards] which failed to inflict anything meaningful to most of the [Gears], whilst Uru’s [Seekers] decimated many.

But there were some exceptions, most notably Exrite’s [Gear] which was easily capable of [Eight Tier] magic yet was destroyed by a mere [Explosive Orb] – a [Sixth Tiered] magic.

The reasoning behind this was unknown.

In any case, the [Gears] seemed to function like mana capacities with the bonus of resisting physical damage. It perfectly explained why Uru’s [Seekers] were unable to destroy some of the larger [Gears], whereas Black and White’s bullets easily shattered them.

With that all aside – the Egg spoke.

“In the process of trying to save Auga – I damned countless. And in the end, I failed, repeating the very same thing I did to her. The creatures that thrived below my home were never destined to see the light of day, never to become the stars to fill our desolate night skies.”

Its voice croaked, black chunks of its body falling like tears. By now 750 [Seekers] had ravaged the Egg, rending all its pale exterior down to its darkest innards. It dripped disgustingly with viscous black blood…

And as it further collapsed into itself like a dying star, its dark blood turned red. The [Gear] shattered. A metallic roar instantly shattered every [Physical Barrier] surrounding Exrite as everything came crashing down.

The Egg’s final moments were upon them. And similarly, so was Exrite’s. He closed his eyes, his arm finally falling to his side limply.

“We did it.” He whispered just before the world turned dark.

* * *

Everything disappeared in that moment. The Egg collapsed into itself, forming a spherical ball of darkness. Silence instantly filled the chamber as it hovered there, unmoving to any further stimulus.

No one spoke in these final moments. No matter the emotions that were at the verge of rupturing deep within their chest, they could not afford to celebrate too soon.

Not until they were certain that the end was upon them.

Then, as the group slowly began to retract their attacks, the Egg spoke its final words.

“I was naive… I was a child. The world above compared not to the Shallows I enshrouded, or the Trial that sat beneath my home. If none could ever make it to the surface – then maybe it was for the best… as much as my heart tried to swallow it all.”

Silence befell them once again. Seconds became agonisingly long minutes.

It continued.

“Wishes don’t exist. The stars were already long gone before Auga came to this world. The magic I cultivated in the tabletop above the Shallows hid the nightmare of the void where the stars once shone. I unveiled the illusive curtains from the skies of the Biomechanical Garden and she smiled… she promised that she’d wait at the base oak tree for the stars to return… and for her beloved Creator to be reborn.”

And then – they heard Gaia’s voice.

“I made a wish and departed from the Shallows. Auga would one day see the stars again. I promised her that. But I wouldn’t be among them. I was never a star to begin with, no matter how much life and light I gave to my dear… dear Auga.”

The black Egg began to crack. Fissures ran from each length across, a violent glow of white shining through. Sounds of broken glass resounded from its core as the cracks continued until it was at the verge of crumbling.

A faint feeling of accomplishment began to spread among them, some shedding smiles, and sounds of relief.

But none ever dared to pry their attention from the Egg. They had played Gaia’s game long enough to understand that the end was never so simple. Believing this was the end would only submit them to a rude awakening.

Yet they hoped this was the end. It should be the end… it had to be. The Egg was certainly defeated. However, nothing changed…

Not until the pale light within began to shine a light blue.

They instantly recognised the light. It belonged to Exrite. One by one, the broken shells of the Egg collapsed onto the gear-shaped platform beneath, revealing a holy light that caressed the entire chamber.

That bright light hovered in the air like a giant orb.

A figure fell from the light with a faint glow that somehow rivalled the orb above.

That figure was unquestionably Exrite.

Uru instantly launched forward, catching her with elegance unsuitable for her immense speed. Beneath the orb of light Uru hovered in the air with Exrite in herarms, her entire body exploding with nothing but pure elation.

After all, the naked being in her arms was the Maiden of Time…

And maybe it was also because this was simply Exrite, although she tried to deny that possibility. She was happy regardless. The tender touch, the ticking – how long has it been since she felt this bliss?

The orb returned to its pale colour. The light slowly shrunk to a single faint point. No one knew what was to come next. Uru was precariously close to the light, but she felt – no, she knew that their fight was already over.

Its energy dwindled rapidly, the luminosity dying like a pitiful ember. Then, before the light disappeared, a voice spoke.

“… who… am I…?”

Uru’s blinked twice. The voice wasn’t the previous Maiden of Time’s. Neither was it the stale monotone voice that she had grown to despise. No. This voice belonged to someone else.

It belonged to the Geared.

What was left of its light died off unceremoniously. In its place fell a black object. It tumbled in the air, falling onto the chest of the sleeping Exrite in her arms.

The object was a single black hand-sized [Gear].

“Ho?” Uru curiously touched it, feeling an intense ticking laying somewhere within the [Gear]. It ticked like a beating heart. Whether it was actually Exrite’s heart she could hear or the [Gear]’s was unknown.

Though that didn’t matter much. There was something far more important than a little [Gear].

Her gaze fell to the others.

Yes. Her fellow companions – the Exrenity – were infinitely more important.

There was a triumphant roar.

“AH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! IT’S OVER! WE FINALLY WON!” Khaos erupted, striking the air with enough force to create turbulence.

“Yeah… yeah we did.” Frosty solemnly smiled before her brother’s uncontainable energy began to rub off on her, causing her lips to further widen. “Like we’d ever fail. We’re one step closer to reaching our goal!”

“Damn right! Haha! See what I meant, White!? Doubt only leads to defeat!”

“No, doubt leads to precaution, so no one has to die needlessly.” White spoke with a small sigh, quietly chuckling soon after. “But those are rules for normal people. I’ve learnt that we’re all not as normal as we think the hard way. Just make sure to yell at him for me. You two are good at that.”

“Good at knocking, but he’s just not good at… well, retaining. You know, I sometimes wonder if he does it on purpose.” Frosty complained, laughing, though there was a part of her that spoke out of true concern. “… but it’s like Khaos said – it’s hard to doubt Exrite. It’s just that it’s easy to worry… yeah… I’m going to yell at him. Probably beat him senseless this time.”

They laughed, even somehow managing to wrestle a stifled laugh from Black.

Frosty stared at the figure in Uru’s arm, then, she stared up at the ceiling.

“One step down, a couple thousand more to go. It feels like… we can finally reach it now.” She said, her tone suddenly becoming sombre.

“Hm? I thought you always believed you could.” Black inquired.

“No. I mean… this feels more like a… how do you say it? Like an achievement? A victory? No… what was it?”

“The word you’re looking for is probably confirmation.” Black said.

“That’s the one… yep. Like a confirmation. You know, we never had any way of knowing if we were headed in the right direction… until you guys came along… however stupid that sounds…” The pauses between her words gradually became longer as her breathing became laboured.

“You ok Sis?” Khaos offered a hand to support her.

“I’m fine… I think my fatigue’s finally catching up to me.”

“Even with all that strength?” White said with surprise.

“Sorry to disappoint you… but this is… an expected side effect… when being strengthened… with magic… mana… whatever… especially when… things… die… down…”

Indeed. Strengthening oneself with magic or through raw mana was a double-edged sword and was often used as a last resort. Other times it was a means to finish a battle quickly or was used very mildly.

Every living body has its limit. Magic allowed for one to bypass their physical limits with spells such as [Body Strengthening] and [Body Enhancing] magic.

However, if one pushed beyond their limit then they’d reach another limit faster. This was stamina. Although the body was significantly stronger, it did not mean that their tolerance or stamina was improved.

Furthermore, the following strain and fatigue would be devastating depending on how powerful the magic was.

Of course, there existed some magic that allowed one to bypass this flaw, but they weren’t nearly as powerful. The strongest known kind of physical-strengthening magic was called [Override]; a magic belonging to the [Sixth Tier].

Needless to say; its side effects were gruelling.

“Don’t say anything Sis. C’mon. I’ll carry you.”

With a nod, Khaos carried her in her arms, only to find himself suddenly struggling with her sheer weight.

“W-woah!? When did you get so heavy!?”

If Frosty had the strength to hit him, she would’ve undoubtably done so. A vein popped on her forehead as she glared daggers into his soul.

“H-haha… just kidding.”

The scent of victory was fresh. No matter how debilitated Frosty was, or how relieved that this trial was finally over – they could not help but to cherish this moment.

After Exrite’s scattered equipment was recovered, they began to move towards a patient Uru in the centre of the chamber. Looking at the platform now, and the hole situated above it, they could tell that this was without a doubt an elevator.

Where did it lead to?

The surface.

There was no doubt on their minds that this will bring them out of the dungeon once and for all.

“Finally…. We can finally leave this shit hole. I can’t believe we spent – what? 3 months cooped down here?” Black complained, crushing stone chunks in her path. “3 months… 3 fucking months. FUCK!”

“You seem happy.” White said uncharacteristically playfully, only to be ignored entirely by the marching Black.

Surprisingly, White wasn’t joking when she said that. No matter how bitter Black’s emotions were, there was a significant amount of other strange emotions that outweighed it.

The strongest one was relief. Not because the trial had finally been conquered. No. It was because of Exrite.

He did not break even when faced with overwhelming odds… even to the very end.

Their situations were vastly different, and suffering was all relative to the person subject to endure it. However – that did not change that they both were pit into a world that required them to surrender every ounce of their humanity to survive.

Exrite was a human pit into the worlds of the Maidens and the Gods.

Black was a human thrown into a world where combat defined one’s existence.

The night they spent on the very first reservoir returned to her like a nostalgic memory.

No matter the pain. No matter the suffering. No matter the emotions that had unquestionably consumed him – Exrite did not break. He was still Exrite through and through.

She loudly sighed.

“… you’re one stubborn human. Maybe you were there in the Colour Plane with me, I probably wouldn’t have lost so much of myself. But that’s all just one big fucking fantasy. Hopefully yours stays as a reality. Don’t you dare lose it on my watch, Exrite.” She muttered, shaking her head. Between the strands of swaying hair, one could see a faint grin.

A hand dove into her breast pocket. What she pulled out was a small 12-sided insignia.

“Hmhm~ Exrenity does have a nice ring to it, now that I think about it.”

“I thought you said you didn’t want to ‘play’ Exrenity?” White said.

“Who knows. We might as well use it while we’re still in this world. Remember White – after Melody’s gone, we’ll have to find the others as well before we return to ours.”

Black pulled out the colourless compass and delicately brushed a thumb over it.

“Exrenity goes hand in hand with the Children of Balance. Think about it. Pathfist Commanders? The Commanders of Pathfist? What does that mean to the Kingdoms far outside of Colight? Now slap Exrenity into the mix and we’re suddenly either feared or looked up to. Wouldn’t that make future endeavours a little more… interesting~?” She hummed and boarded the elevator.

White paused for a moment, staring at the back of the departing Black. Then, for un unexplainable reason, she smiled.

“Are you sure that’s the only reason?” Her whisper thankfully went unnoticed.

Soon, everyone was gathered at the centre of the platform. A black and white obelisk laid in the middle of them all. Uru gently placed Exrite’s hand on it –

But nothing happened.

“Well, you know what to do. Everyone put your hands in!” Black yelled.

One by one their hands met with the warm surface of the obelisk. It activated with a single, resounding tick. Instantly, the white ate away at the black until the obelisk stood a glowing pale.

Unsurprisingly, Gaia expected all the Exrenity to make it to the very end.

After all, they were only as strong as the individuals that made it.

The platform shifted upwards. With smiles, a few tears and faces of hope – they all began to ascend.

They had finally achieved the Attributed Whole.

They were finally going to leave Gaia’s trial.

“Rest well Exrite.” Uru hummed, brushing the hair away from the face of the Maiden in her arms.

All that awaited now was Gaia’s home.

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