43. The Beginning
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Just a heads up; I plan to skip the Intermissions and Extras until the end of this arc. I don't feel like it's a good time to take a break from the storyline (plus there's my slow uploads which'll further fragment the pacing).

Of course, if you want the intermissions/extras then please let me know. I'll do my best to write them alongside the main chapters (so there isn't a long pause in-between the main story).

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Part 1 –

The cave was silent. A cold air lingered by their ankles as they wandered to the nearby walls and investigated their surroundings. The ceiling rose far above them, and the rocky walls were incredibly wide.

Strange gemstones were plastered into the ceiling as they emitted a faint light. They appeared to continue deeper into the cave.

Exrite felt the smooth wall behind him and furrowed his eyes as he stared far into the tunnel ahead.

“A large yet simplistic cave… think the Maiden of Time carved this out herself?” White hummed with a hand on her chin.

“Likely. This is where we were teleported, so I’m gonna assume that’s the case.” Black spoke as she admired the strange glowing gems above.

“This… isn’t what I imagined the ‘home’ of the Maiden of Time would be.” Frosty muttered.

“Right? I thought it’d be more elegant or something like that.” Khaos added.

“Don’t forget that this is the Maiden of Time’s trial. Her home can’t possibly be as crude or shabby as a cave.” Uru haughtily spoke as she took the first step forward.

An eager grin formed on her face as she imagined the prospects of what laid ahead. The seemingly endless tunnel further enticed her to move before the group could find their bearings. Particularly Exrite, who felt his heart wrench.

Through the lens of his hazy eyes, he saw nothing but a daunting trail. The thought of Gaia’s home, the trial and whatever lurked ahead was shoved aside. Instead, the fear of clustered rocks and tight passages choked him as a soundless voice left his lips.

“Hey. It’ll be fine. If I can fit through these tunnels, then there’s no reason why you can’t.” Khaos lightly shook Exrite’s shoulder.

The man slowly recomposed himself with a hearty sigh and smiled.

“Yeah… yeah. You’re right. I just hope it doesn’t get any narrower than this.” Exrite began to walk which sparked the others to follow in suit. “Right. Let’s go. No point in getting cold feet this far in.”

With a renewed flame, he quickly caught up to Uru.

“Huh? Weren’t you getting cold feet just then?” Frosty sarcastically teased as walked beside him with folded arms. “Seriously, both you and that Khaos have the weirdest fears – Ah –! I mean – It is pretty daunting having to wander into a giant cave, isn’t it?”

Frosty’s eyes immediately lit up when she realised her slip up. Her attempt to mask it only further intrigued Black, White and Uru who wondered what she meant.

None of them aside from Khaos and Frosty knew of Exrite’s fear of tight spaces. However, with Exrite’s lack of resolve prior and Frosty’s slip up – White easily understood what she meant.

She stared at Exrite’s back with intrigue and softly grinned.

“You’re… acting kinda weird, Sis – Oof!”

“Hmm? Am I right, Khaos?”

After his chest was suddenly elbowed, a frighteningly sweet voice left his sister. In the brief moment she glanced back at him, he realised that if he failed to play along, then he’d most certainly be in for a world of pain.

“Y-yeah… ha… haha.” His awkward laugh only served to fuel Black and White’s interest.

Surprisingly, Black held back from sating her curiosity as she adored the strange gems overhead. Like limeite – which too had a strange glow – she wondered if those gems had some sort of magical properties, or could at least be used as a source of energy.

But that thought was soon met with disappointment after Uru confirmed that while they did in fact have mana, it was nowhere near as sufficient or sustainable as limeite. At best it would amount to a new born human’s mana reserves.

Other than the spacious interior and the glowing gems – there was nothing of significance. For a trial given by the Maiden of Time, they were expecting a more gruelling and unforgiving task.

They became curious as to whether or not they had even began the trial, while Exrite believed it was the calm before the storm.

After walking for some time, Uru’s golden eyes suddenly sharpened. With haste, she paused and held out an arm to block Exrite. Because she was at the front of the group, those behind were forced to stop and question what was wrong.

And by instinct, they primed themselves for combat.

That was unnecessary, however.

“As much as I am flattered to see you all bear your arms faster than my forgotten pawns – fear not. We’re only approaching the end of the tunnel, it seems.” Uru seductively spoke and turned to Exrite. “Be prepared. Especially you. It’s been far too quiet so far. Perhaps this is the Maiden of Time’s way of lowering our guard before a devilish encounter.”

“I honestly don’t doubt that. But you can never tell what goes through her mind… anyway – what else can you see?”

Exrite inquired as Uru allowed the group to progress onward.

“A large opening with stairs. I believe it leads down.”

“Down… Frosty –”

“Nothing. I don’t see a single thing under us.” Frosty quickly interjected, already knowing what Exrite was about to ask. “We’re safe for the most part. And Black, I can already hear you trying to tell me that ‘not ever creature has a soul’. As far as I’m concerned, there hasn’t been a single thing in the Shallows without a soul. Aside from the Biomech and you two.”

Despite the contents of her words, she spoke softly and glanced back at the Commanders with calm eyes.

Black laughed.

“Aha. So long as you understand, then I don’t need to keep drilling you for the same thing like a broken record. Sounds like you’re starting to warm up to me, Frosty~”

Frosty turned away with a repulsed face. She vented a loud sigh.

“Now, about your humanity, Exrite –”

“Please don’t start this again.”

“Black, please shut up.”

The voices came from Exrite and White respectively. Exrite didn’t need to hear Black talk about his ‘humanity’ for the thousandth time. Nor did White.

An awful sneer formed on Black’s face. Exrite’s irritation was amusing to say the least. It was proof that Exrite was at the very least conscious of her words. A delightful hum left her lips as she pulled out the colourless compass.

Its black hands spiralled like a violent vortex.

They were still within the boundaries of the Shallows. The compass couldn’t discern north from south, let alone pin-point the other Colours. She swiftly snapped the compass shut and shoved it deep into her pockets.

So far, they had only made contact with Yellow. The whereabouts of the others were unknown, even when the arrows managed to point in their direction. In addition, travelling in their general direction would be an arduous task due to how large Eastern Six Point was.

That was also ignoring the possibility that some of them may had emerged on the other thirds of the continent. As it stood, they needed a way to traverse the splits of the continent as well as a means to access their powers from the Colour Plane.

The Maiden of Realms was the wrench in the cogs of their plans – and there was little they could do to circumvent it.

However...

Her eyes embeded themselves into Exrite’s back. Before she knew it, a pleasant smile had grown across her face.

Whether they liked it or not, Exrite was an integral piece in this grand game of chess.

No. He was more than that. He was the king on the chessboard. And they were all pawns destined to protect him at all costs.

Because if he fell – then they all would most certainly follow.

“Aren’t I glad that I didn’t kill you earlier...” She whispered and lightly pinched in between her eyes.

“Did you say something?” Khaos slowly asked.

“Oh, don’t mind me. I was simply struck by a train of thought. Exrite, I think your ‘dozing-off-disease’ is infectious.”

“Really? I’m surprised you’re the one who caught it. Maybe you’re more of a human than a weapon after all.” Exrite lightly laughed and glanced back at the woman.

“Hmhm~ Be careful with your jokes, Exrite. I might accidentally fire back with a bullet.” She threatened, sending a dangerous chill down Exrite’s spine.

While he knew that Black wouldn’t kill him, his body could not help but to react in such a manner.

“Joking aside – I really wonder about that.” Black hummed with a light shrug.

She didn’t seem interested to continue the conversation. As her eyes wandered elsewhere, Exrite smiled to himself.

“You’re not alone.” He muttered and looked at her shoulders.

Her mantle was still missing.

* * *

They traversed through the wide staircase with little trouble and eventually found themselves inside of another cave reminiscent of the one prior. It was wide and spacious – with one predominant difference being the many stalagmites and stalactites.

Strangely however, there were still no enemies in sight, let alone a sliver of life.

They walked through the vast tunnel, admiring the tall deposits of limestone among other minerals. It was especially astonishing for Exrite, who had only read of the structures in books, and heard them from word of mouth.

A sparkle of interest shone in his contrasting eyes as he carefully studied his surroundings. By the time he realised that he had lost himself to the strange sight, Uru had already found the staircase far ahead.

He noticed the curious eyes that were firmly fixed on him. Some where of wonder and others out of pity. To be interested by mere rocks reflected the mundane life he had led prior to becoming the Exrenity, and how secluded from the world he truly was for those ten gruelling years.

Exrite kept silent while the group quietly spoke among themselves. He delved into deep thought, led by their voices and loud patters. Before long, they found themselves at the mouth of the next staircase and descended into yet another floor.

In the back of his mind, he drew similarities of the floor-by-floor pattern to a dungeon. Although the expanse felt far too natural to be considered a dungeon, and the lack of monsters didn’t help.

As the light of the next floor momentarily blinded them, an immediate flurry of crashing water echoed around them. A cold winter breeze swept by their ankles and chilled them to the bone.

The stone that once cracked with each step became splashes, for the entire floor was flooded with water. They instinctively froze by the entrance and immediately scoured their surroundings.

“Sounds like there’s a waterfall in here. The question is – are we above or below it?” Frosty whispered.

Khaos audibly gulped and squeezed the threaded handle of his shield.

“L-let’s hope it’s the latter.”

They studied the surrounding water; which was a rich, translucent turquoise. The water was so clear that they could see its shallow bottom, as well an array of gaping holes that endlessly fell into a sunken abyss.

Not even Uru could see where the holes led to.

It went without saying that it would be wise to avoid them.

With Frosty’s [Soul Sight], she confirmed that there was nothing below. And with that knowledge in mind, they began to carefully manoeuvre through what Black called a ‘minefield’.

“Fuck. Fuck… fuck. F-Frosty, aren’t you walking too close to that!?” Khaos yelled shakily as he closely followed Exrite like a clumsy shadow.

“Geez. You’re such a baby. I’m not stupid enough to fall, you know.” Frosty sighed when she saw Khaos hold out a trembling hand towards her. “Look, do you want me to hold your hand?”

Khaos mumbled and kept his mouth shut. Despite Frosty’s sarcastic remark, she felt somewhat concerned for her lumbering brother. She found it ironic that such a towering man had an intense fear of heights.

As they grew closer to the source of the thundering crashes, Uru became interested in the holes.

“Hmm. Is there a reason why these holes are here? If there’s no creature inhabiting them, then I find it hard to justify their existence.”

Exrite became mused for a moment. In fact, he was surprised. To hear Uru ask such a question perplexed him more that it should have. He was sure that a Demon who had lived for more than a thousand years would have an understanding on what these holes were for.

“Is there something amusing about my face?” Uru hummed as she drew her curious gaze onto the dumbstruck Exrite.

“O-oh. No, sorry. Sorry. I just didn’t expect you to ask something like that.”

“Surprising, is it? I’m flattered that you expect so high of me, but I unfortunately don’t know anything about caves systems like these. Mind you, I was never so lowly that I had to step foot into a primitive cave. Such a task is reserved for the lesser pawns of my race. The only exception was my prison.”

Uru erected herself proudly as she spoke. The voluptuous Demon took a hard look at Exrite and grinned as she flaunted the status she once held so many years ago.

The man gulped and allowed to have her moment before he answered.

“Try to think of it logically. Let’s say we’re on the receiving end of the waterfall. Naturally, this place would become a reservoir for the water. Give it time, and it’ll completely go underwater. These holes act as a drain more than anything. But where they lead to isn’t something we’re going to know until we see it ourselves.”

“Ho. A drain, you say? I’m intrigued. Perhaps it would be too difficult of a cave to explore if it were entirely submerged. As expected of a Maiden to have the foresight to see such an inconvenience.”

“… would the Maiden of Time really call this a ‘trial’ if she removed a major inconvenience? This is clear water, presumably drinkable, so I’m betting that it probably trickles down to her ‘home’.”

Black chimed in, but was quickly rebutted by Uru:

“Impossible. A Maiden doesn’t live on food and water like the lesser beings we are.”

“So she made the holes to only drain this flooded cave? Sorry, but I can’t see that happening.” White doubtfully sighed.

They were left scratching their heads for an answer.

“I guess there’s only one way to find out.” Exrite steeled himself and continued to attach himself to Uru’s side.

After a long hour of traversing through the hundreds of pits, the path suddenly expanded far more than they could ever imagine. It was as if they entered yet another cave, for the vast expanse exceeded the space that shared the geared altar.

Mountainous rock formations and cliff-faces dribbled with fresh water from an unknown source. It crashed into the ocean before them, foam bubbling at the site as thousands of ripples washed over their legs.

A sole source of light shone from high above and highlighted the only path they could take. It was a path that consisted of hundreds of boulders they would have to hop over. Thankfully, it seemed like the water would only reach up to their waist if they fell, however, the same could not be said further away.

It would not be an exaggeration to call the surrounding sinkholes as bottomless craters.

Needless to say, it made Khaos weak in the knees and nauseous.

“Hmhm~ Smell that!? That’s the essence of fantasy in the air!” Black exclaimed enthusiastically.

Not even a blood-thirsty weapon could deny such unfathomable beauty.

As the others had their own moments, particularly Frosty who managed to suppress a childish squeal, Exrite took the first step with a vibrant smile.

And one by one, the others soon followed his stead across the shallow ocean.

* * *

The crossing went uneventful, as expected. Khaos managed to make it across with a grand sigh of relief. But their respite was short lived, as the staircase leading to the next floor was right in front of them.

Unlike the rest of the floor, the rocky platform stood over the water high enough to prevent water from spilling into the staircase. Once again, Uru admired the foresight by the previous Maiden of Time with a gentle hum.

They promptly followed her and Exrite down. The crashing waterfalls were soon dampened and muffled, and by the time they found themselves in the next floor, it had reduced to a faint whisper.

The floor was unspectacular. Hollow tubes hung from the ceiling like winter icicles, which dripped with fresh water. It was linear like the previous levels, and uninspiring.

They were once again subjected to a straightforward journey with hardly any danger.

The next floors came and went in the blink of an eye. They were all cave-like in nature, all consisting of interesting rock formations. But still, there were no monsters or any real danger.

By the time they reached the <Eigth Floor>, they began to question whether or not something was wrong. It was strange to not have any opposition in a trial, let alone some form of difficulty.

It served a whetstone for their senses – for it only honed them for whatever dared to impeded their progress.

his floor was oddly reminiscent of the first floor, save for a strange moss that grew on the surfaces of the exposed rocks.

“… I think we’re in for a wild ride. How many fucking floors are we going to descend until something interesting pops up?” Black vented her frustration with a loud growl.

She wasn’t the only one on edge. Even Frosty was beginning to curse underneath her breath after every empty floor they passed.

“Hey. What if this trial is all about patience?”

Khaos tried to lighten up the mood with a joke, only to receive a barrage of dangerous glares from a black-hearted weapon and a cold-hearted Frostbitten.

“J-just kidding… ahaha… ha.”

Frankly put – the two were not in the mood fool around.

It had already been more than seven hours since they were transferred into this place. A cave, a dungeon, a trial – it was all synonymous for all they cared. It felt like they were being led on for no reason other than to wear down their patience.

A small sigh left White’s lips as she watched the backs of Exrite and Uru. They were calm, and seemed unfazed by the lengthy trek. But that was to be expected. After all, the two had endured a far more gruelling sentence than a mere seven hour march

This was nothing in comparison. They could walk for days on end if they must.

A thick aura of tension and impatience surrounded Frosty and Black. The malevolent air irritated White, and left Khaos on edge. They festered thoroughly throughout the floor, making occasional remarks that spited the Maiden of Time and her trial.

Uru kept silent on this matter, focusing all of her attention ahead. If anyone were to utter such heresy, they would’ve been sliced into velvet ribbons.

A beautiful hum was all she could muster to ward away their nonsense.

* * *

Soon, they reached the end of the <Eight Floor>. They gathered into an identical staircase with mixed emotions.

No one knew what to expect anymore. The prospect of more caves was the likely outcome, but Exrite held on to a sliver of hope. He could not believe that Gaia’s trial was simply a tiresome walk through many caves.

She would not have warned him to be careful if that was the case. With this in mind, Exrite embraced the darkness for the eight time. After a deafening moment of loud rustles and heavy footsteps – they finally reached the <Ninth Floor>.

He was immediately taken aback as he observed the floor ahead. When the group came to an abrupt stop behind, they too were filled with surprise.

“Eh...? Grass? This deep underground?” Frosty muttered in disbelief.

Indeed. The entirety of the floor was covered with patches of grass. A fragrant scent of dew hung in the air as Exrite and Uru began to take careful steps ahead.

“Odd. But you can find them underground sometimes... Just not this fucking far.” Black clicked her tongue. “Have any clue what this place might be, Exrite?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Uru? White?”

“Sorry Exrite.” White softly spoke.

“My knowledge is lacking here, unfortunately.” Uru spoke with some defiance. “But I can tell you one thing – the grass should not be this green with this little amount of light.”

Exrite nodded in agreement. If grass were to be this deep, then it would have a more darker colouration. He wondered if the glowing gems sufficed to keep them healthy, despite their relatively low light compared to the sun.

There was no concrete answer. They were forced to accept that the anomaly was nothing more than a characteristic of the Maiden of Time’s bizarre dungeon.

White wondered if there was some sort of ‘theme’ for the trial. These caves must’ve served some sort of purpose in the grand scheme of things. But so far, their clues were severely limited.

She shared the thought with Exrite and the others, which sparked a lengthy conversation. They believed the same thing, and it seemed like Khaos’ joke could be very well be the ‘theme’.

Feeling defeated, Frosty let loose of a loud sigh. She lazily hung her head down and stared at the endless waves of grass underneath.

She was like this for a while, listening to the faint voices of her fellow friends and… allies.

For now, she realised that Black and White were trustworthy despite their sinister ideals and warped perceptions. But she didn’t know how long that would last.

Colours, by nature, live to fight – even if it’s among themselves. It was an instinctual drive; entrenched in the very essence of their beings.

She could not wholeheartedly trust being that could turn their backs against their own. And from what she gathered, Black and White had already killed many Colours in their world.

Her face soured to the thought.

But so long as Exrite was of use to them, then the chances of being back-stabbed was slim. However, there was no way to tell.

The last time she trusted someone with all her heart ended with her capture.

She did not want her trust to be betrayed again.

They found themselves nearing the exit. It was far sooner than they expected, but that was perhaps due to them being preoccupied for the majority of their journey. There was no way to tell how much time had passed.

If Exrite had to guess, it would be an hour. This was ironically the longest floor. As they soon drew close enough to make out the finer details of the carved entrance, Frosty made a surprising claim.

“I’m starting to see life down there. It’s tiny, but it’s something. What a relief.” She mellowed.

Normally, one’s reaction to finding potential enemies would be to hone their senses, however, she was filled with relief.

It turned out that the Maiden of Time hadn’t thrown them into an endless dungeon.

“About. Fucking. Time.” Black clicked her tongue. “Good timing too. So what is it, Frosty? What can you see down there with your [Soul Sight]?”

“Souls. Lots and lots of souls. They’re everywhere...” She was taken aback for a moment.

She was slightly nauseous by the cluster of souls underneath, but she could not pry her eyes away.

Exrite glanced back at her and asked:

“But they’re ‘tiny’ souls, right? Can you compare them to the Mononids?”

“No. Not anymore… sorry Exrite, give me a second…”

“Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m fine… I’m fine. It’s just whenever there’s a cluster of souls I get a bit dizzy.”

It was sickening. There were so many souls that she felt like she was back in streets of the crowded Capital.

And if this was only at the end of her twenty-or-so metre range – then she could only imagine how many more lurked underneath.

“… I see many different sizes, but none of them are bigger than a human’s soul, so I think we’ll manage. But why are there so fucking many?”

“A dungeon – no, it’s the beloved Maiden of Time’s trial. Did you truly believe that the path wouldn’t be riddled with such dangers?”

Uru hummed and clasped at her heart.

Her haughtiness was irritating, but they couldn’t deny her words. And much as Frosty wanted to mutter something crude – the Demon stood correct.

However, the sudden density was still suspicious.

* * *

Not long after, the group immersed themselves into the gaping staircase. They were armed and prepared for what was to come, all baring their weapons.

Uru only extended a single claw. She did not believe that the tiny-souled creatures could even leave a stain on her charcoal flesh. So long as Frosty’s call was correct, then they had little to fear in the next floor.

But even so – the others didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

It humoured her.

All they could see in the staircase was a faint light at the bottom, and the outlined backs of the people ahead. The darkness was strangely humid, unlike the previous floors.

Exrite wondered if it was because of how deep they were. But then again, the change was far too abrupt to link it to depth. The thought of what sort of creatures awaited was food for his mind.

An assortment of ideas, speculations and guess spiralled like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.

There was simply no way of telling what was to come.

Exrite gulped and braced himself as the light drew near. He closed his eyes prematurely and was sucked into the blinding chamber of the <Tenth Floor>.

It was unusually bright. So much so, that he was forced to wince and hide his face underneath the fabric of his coat.

He initially believed they had returned to the surface. The light was unmistakably brighter than the sun on a cloudless afternoon. However, he remembered that they left the Biomechanical Gardens during the afternoon.

Night would have already fallen by now.

He swiftly thrust his head outside of his coat expecting to see an array of monsters.

However, it was far different from that. The newfound world struck him with paralysing awe as he stood there with broadened eyes.

This floor was nothing like the previous nine. It was like a secluded meadow hidden underneath the shadows of a mountain. Flowers and luscious greenery covered the entirety of the floor like a fuzzy blanket as far as the eye could see.

An assortment of animals and familiar creatures flooded the floor, and paid no heed to their presence. In fact, it seemed like they avoided them and the entrance altogether.

A sole source of light hung from the ceiling, which was raised far higher than the canopies of the Shallow’s forest. It shone like the sun, painting the entirety of the floor with peerless light.

Truly, no one could blame Exrite for believing this was the surface at first glance – even if it was solely based on the light.

It seemed like Khaos had thought the same thing, as his face was torn in between awe and confusion.

Exrite’s body swayed to an invisible wind. Their attires mysteriously began to flutter to the side. He pushed away Frosty’s hair that licked his face with a soft smile.

And when his paralysis spell wore off, he took the first step into the memorising floor.

* * *

Part 2 –

“It’s… so beautiful. There’s so many animals, and creatures!” Frosty spoke like a giddy girl. A vibrant sparkle lit in her eyes as she stared at the many creatures with a bright smile.

It was always a welcome sight to see Frosty so energetic, especially for Khaos. The cold veil that she hid behind was effectively stripped away the moment a pack of adorable Sheball – which were fluffy, ball-like creatures – rolled into her gaze.

This was the real Frosty; a normal woman who genuinely enjoyed the lighter places of this dark world.

“A meadow underground… just what the fuck is going on anymore.” Black softly spoke before sighing. “They look like small game as well. Oh well, I guess they’ll make great target practice~”

She brushed a hand over her Night’s Melody teasingly.

“Eh? Wait, we can’t kill them! Not when they’re this cute – I mean harmless!”

Her recovery fell flat on its face. It was obvious why she didn’t want to kill the creatures.

Exrite found himself smiling to that as he keenly observed the colourful meadow.

“It’s easy biomass. But it’s not like we need energy anyway.” White said something dangerous.

She saw the creatures as nothing more than a potential source of energy. As Colours, or more specifically; as a Vampire, she could feed on their blood, flesh and biomass to replenish her mana reserves.

However, she would rather a live meal. And a human at that.

“You’re still gross, even when sane. Try not to eat in front of us, ok?”

“Like I said, Black, we don’t need the energy right now. Unless you do?”

“No. Do you think I need mana? Fuck no. I just need to eat something. Hmm… it’s probably the only way I’m going to replenish the energy I wasted on that annoying insect.”

Their conversation was intriguing. From it, Exrite gathered a few things regarding the Colours.

For starters, they were beings that needed energy to survive. Sources of energy could be absorbed from consumables, mana, or from objects. Strictly speaking, whatever emitted energy could be harnessed by the Colours.

However, it seemed each Colour had different… diets – if he could call it that.

For one, Black could naturally regenerate energy, whereas White could not.

White also couldn’t consume ‘normal’ food like Black or humans could. Only objects and biomass, including blood, was where she could acquire energy from.

Also, it was important to consider that ‘energy’ and ‘mana’ were mostly interchangeable. Even for Black, who mentioned that her body could convert mana into stored energy.

It reminded him of a mana-link, which were essentially tools used to convert mana into other forms of energy. Just like how the stoves in Truebirth ran on electricity rather than gas or kindle.

As much as he wanted to delve into thought, he noticed something about the creatures of the floor. He expected them to be more… hostile than docile. There was nothing strange about them, and they acted like normal beasts.

They had small herds, played with one another, foraged for food and even hunted the other species of the floor.

A pale rabbit was strangled by the jaws of a wolf. It snapped its neck apart before dragging it away to its puppies, which eagerly fed on its quivering carcass like it was their last meal.

“Poor guy...” Frosty whispered, saddened by its death.

However, Exrite was oddly drawn by it. Because soon after the wolves had swallowed a few mouthfuls, they suddenly collapsed, as if they were puppets that had their strings severed.

“A poisonous rabbit, huh. I guess looks can be deceiving~” Black laughed.

“Yeah… Let’s try not to take things at face value then.” Khaos spoke heavily. “And I was getting hungry too.”

“When are you not hungry?” Frosty retorted before turning to Exrite. “What about you, Exrite? We’ve been walking for hours, so if anyone needs to catch a break, it’d be you.”

Indeed. It had been eight or nine hours since they arrived. In addition to their departure, it was easily over twelve. A mere human would find this a feat on its own.

But Exrite was no normal human. He had an exceptionally high resistance to fatigue, and could very well go on for another few hours without rest. His countless deaths, physically build, near non-existent mana capacity, and, most of all – his unwavering strive only allowed him to keep pushing forward.

Of course, he wasn’t the only human with this level of endurance. High-ranking adventurers or the Greater Knights of the Kingdoms may even be sturdier than he was. But that was a given. After all, they had contributed countless years to becoming strong.

Exrite could only wryly smile to himself.

And as per Exrite, he responded with a cliched:

“I’m fine.”

Frosty growled. But just as she was about to strike him with an elbow –

“But I’d be an idiot to pass on this chance. It’s only going to get tougher, so I don’t think we’re going to find another floor as peaceful as this.”

A sigh of relief left Frosty before she tapped him and quietly hummed.

“Good. You didn’t have a choice anyway.”

“Ahaha. Yeah, I figured. Thanks for worrying about me.”

“Idiot. If you’re not going to look out for yourself, then who is? I’m doing you a favour Exrite, since you just don’t know when to quit.”

He laughed again and turned to Frosty. In the background, Uru broke off from the group and found a pleasant bed of roses.

“Mhm. Thanks –”

“Can you stop thanking me. You’re almost as embarrassing as Khaos is.”

She looked like she was pouting, but her warm smile said otherwise.

“Hey~ If you want to flirt, then go do it in private. We’re still here, you know~” Black hummed teasingly, causing Frosty to glance back with a tired face. “Or, you can always flirt with me if you feel like it. C’mon, let’s deepen our friendship –”

“No thanks. I’d rather bite my tongue off.”

White – who also became annoyed with Black – slowly shook her head and sighed.

“I’m so sorry about her.”

* * *

Exrite focused on the surrounding wildlife. While the others roamed the vast meadow in admiration, he remained seated on a bed of pale flowers. In a palm, he ate dry fruit and took small sips of water from a class container.

He did not want to waste anything. He was not as fatigued to need a fulfilling meal or sleep at the moment. Even in times of what should be respite, he was always drowned by thought.

It was actually quite suffocating at times.

That aside, his focus fell back onto the small pack of wolves. Previously, he thought they had been poisoned by the rabbit, but now, it seemed like they were perfectly fine.

Actually, they were slightly larger than before. Their fur was thickened, and their legs grew a thicker mass of muscle. The time it would take for a creature to exhibit those kind of changes would be days, or weeks even.

But this happened in the span of only an hour.

And this was not limited to those wolves. In fact, any creature that ate the flesh of another sudden fell and underwent the same change.

It was as if they were evolving before his very eyes.

“… weird. Maybe [Time] magic has something to do with that...”

That was the only logical explanation. Although the source of the magic and why it occurred post meal only served as kindle to his heated thoughts.

It was possible that time was being accelerated at a breakneck pace.

But there was no way to tell.

After he finished his small meal, he rose and dusted himself before he left to roam into the meadow. He slowly followed the wolves, a hand cautiously hovering over his cobalt handgun.

The smell of pollen attacked his nostrils with each passing metre. Before he knew it, he could no longer find his resting place. Thankfully, this floor was still linear. If he happened to be lost, he could always turn around.

But he wasn’t going to.

The curious man wanted to know where the wolves were headed. He was discrete, yet it seemed like the creatures knew he was on their trial. But they paid him no heed, as if their task was far more important than a potential threat.

They’re not scared of me, are they?

He wondered if his presence played a part on their departure. But as time went on, more and more creatures began to join them. They were all slightly larger variants of the other beasts on this floor, and they all walked together like a herd.

And they’re not attacking each other either… are they drawn to something ahead?

There was only one way to find out.

* * *

In the distance, he saw what appeared to be an obelisk. It was a pale structure, and was no larger than a human. Yet something about it drew the beasts towards it.

He remained as far as his eyes would allow, observing the strange gathering with a sharpened gaze. He never dropped his guard, and was more than prepared to retaliate in case the animals suddenly turned on him, or if the object was a threat.

However, his worries were soon answered.

In the blink of an eye, the obelisk suddenly emitted a high-pitched rumble. Light exploded across its rectangular body like streaks of lightning, resembling the markings on Uru’s body.

The creatures were just as fascinated by it as he was. The sound was soothing, and it lulled him.

It was nearly as comforting as the ticking of his heart.

When the light converged at its pointy tip; it split open like petals of a blossoming flower.

And there, emerged a blue [Gear].

It was roughly the size of a fist, hovering ominously like some kind of forbidden artefact.

The sound of ticking could be heard. And it wasn’t from his throbbing heart.

In the next second, it spun like a cog before suddenly – a magical circle formed underneath the obelisk.

This circle was in the formation of a gear. It coated more than five metres of the surrounding space, and before Exrite could unravel exactly what was going on –

The beasts vanished without a trace.

He was left to gather what had happened. Confusion had never struck him harder than now, but amongst the chaos, he managed to confirm one thing.

It was most likely a teleporter of some sort.

If there was no exit on this floor, then the obelisk would be it.

Realising this, he backed away with haste.

The last thing he wanted was to be transported to the next floor alone.

And as the fury of scrunching grass rung – he suddenly bumped into a soft wall behind.

It was a dangerously familiar feeling. Exrite didn’t need to look back to know what – or rather – who it was.

“Ho? Are you finally giving into your carnal desires~?”

“Uru… how long have you been there for?”

She pressed her voluptuous bosom against his back and whispered:

Maybe [Time] magic has something to do with that.”

“Wait – weren’t you singing to yourself in a flowerbed? Ah – you know what, why am I even surprised. So it’s not only your eyes that are exceptional...”

“Are you praising me~? You should know better than anyone that a Demon doesn’t reveal their secrets.”

Figures. There was still much that Exrite didn’t know about her. If he asked, he would either be met with silence, a hum or a whistle. Or, if he was in his Maidenly body, she’d clamp his mouth shut.

Exrite was certain of it.

“… Uru… do you have any idea why those creatures where drawn to it?”

“If it were a living thing, then I might have an idea. But that’s no more than an artefact created by the Maiden of Time. Perhaps the ticking drew them in –”

She brushed a thumb against his cheek seductively.

“– Just like yours~”

“… yeah, I can see that happening.” He shook Uru’s thumb away. “But who knows… Uru, do you think you can fly to the other side of this floor?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I want to make sure of something. I have a gut feeling about that thing being the exit to this floor.”

“I see. So, you want me to fly to the other to check for a staircase, hmm~?” She dug another finger into his cheek as she pressed her face against his.

Precisely. Exrite wanted to confirm the existence of the staircase. If there wasn’t one, then the only logical exit would be the obelisk.

Uru lapped her lips and hummed:

“For my beloved Maiden of Time, I’ll do anything~ However, you’ll add another favour point for me. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about our little secret.”

What a Demon.

Exrite couldn’t help but to sigh as he gave in.

“Sure. I’ll gather the others here. We might as well leave this floor while we can.”

“Won’t that annoy that hot-headed Frosty?”

“We can rest on the next floor if we need to. Just be careful, Uru.”

“I’m flattered by your concern, but try to remember exactly who I am, Exrite.”

He thought for a moment, and remembered the name Phase used to call her.

And without thinking, he casually spoke:

“Zeluru –mmph!?”

“Hush!”

In an instant, his mouth was sealed by a dark hand. Her grip was like iron, far stronger than anything that had ever silenced him.

“Exrite. While I don’t mind you calling me by that name, you don’t hear me calling you Frost, now do you?”

She hummed and let him free.

“But I suppose I can’t blame you for not knowing. After all, I haven’t told you that Zeluru was my old name… hmm... a very, very old name indeed.”

Uru became sombre towards the end. Her gaze wandered off into the distance, staring at nothing in particular. It was as if she was staring back into a distant memory. It must’ve been pleasant, for a small smile formed across her face.

“… I’m sorry.”

A hand suddenly found itself on her head. It gently caressed her pale hair as a comforting warmth flushed through her. If it were any other person, she would have severed their hand.

Exrite was the only exception.

He softly stared at her with apologetic eyes and smiled.

If Uru could, she would stay here for hours on end just to savour his comforting warmth. For a Succubus, it was rather ironic that she was the one being drawn into his touch.

It was just a shame that Exrite lacked a libido.

Reluctantly, she removed his hand and flew off into the other direction. A storm of petals hung in the invisible wind as Exrite silently watched her.

“… Uru, just who were you a thousand years ago?”

His whisper reached no one.

* * *

It was not long until Exrite had gathered everyone by the obelisk. Due to a small argument with Frosty regarding his health, it took longer than he would’ve liked. By the time he led them back to the obelisk, Uru had already returned from the other side.

According to her, there was no staircase. The only exit they had was the obelisk. However, nothing happened when they approached it.

Exrite imagined that it would activate in the presence of the Maiden of Time – but that clearly was not the case. Touching it did nothing either.

Something was missing.

Then, after a few moments of thought, Exrite remembered the beasts. All of them had eaten the flesh of another creature before wandering to the obelisk. He didn’t know if that was truly the missing piece of the puzzle, but it didn’t hurt to try.

As soon as the others were informed of this – a dry explosion suddenly sounded. It came from Black’s handgun, and where she pointed remained the fallen carcass of a six-legged bison.

“Why didn’t you say so earlier! We just have to eat a monster’s flesh, correct?” Black nearly laughed as she dangerously waved her handgun.

“I hope so.” Exrite sighed and approached the beast.

“Will it be fine to eat? You saw what happened to those wolves.” Frosty questioned.

“That was the rabbit. But if does turn out to be poisonous, then we still should be fine.”

Exrite’s claim was bold for a human. As he knelt beside the bison’s carcass, a White asked:

“What about you? Will you be fine eating something poisonous?”

“I should be. I have confidence in my poison resistance. But that’s the least of my concerns. I just hope this works. If I do die, then please drag my corpse with you.”

His dagger finally found its chance to shine. He masterfully butchered sizeable chunks of meat from the bison’s carcass. Exrite knew his way in the bodies of creatures, particularly ones that had a similar anatomy to humans.

If the ten years of suffering taught him anything – it was this.

The carved meat was passed to Uru, who cooked it in seconds using her heated palms. And of course, a raw piece of meat was left for White.

It was… unappetising to say the least. The smell of blood and pollen made it hard for them to even consider eating the red chunk of overcooked meat.

White however, was fine with it; although she wished she could eat it straight from the source.

But despite their complaints, Black was the first to bite into it.

And the moment her teeth sunk into the tough meat – her eyes lit up.

“W-what’s this!?” She yelled muffledly.

At first, they thought it was the taste. It must’ve been spectacularly delicious to garner such a reaction from Black.

And so, everyone simultaneous bit in…

It was disgusting. Revolting even. Exrite compared it to the taste of his own charred flesh as he physically gagged.

However, everyone else thought otherwise.

“Wait – this is rich in mana!?” White exclaimed, utterly surprised.

“Impossible! I didn’t detect any mana at all! It’s unrefined too… just what are these creatures!?” Uru proved to be even more perplexed.

Needless to say; the meat of the bison was filled with mana.

It was impossible for them to not discover this.

How it went unnoticed baffled Uru more than the mana-plagued meat.

“This is tasty! Exrite, think you can hack out another piece for me?”

“Idiot. If you want more, then have mine.” Frosty shoved hers into Khaos’ palms, to which he gladly accepted. “I can’t store the excess mana anyway.”

what? Am I missing something…?

Exrite’s face said it all. He was far more confused than the baffled Uru. They were all praising the hideous piece of meat. Aside from the mana – which Exrite couldn’t tell if it contained any in the first place – he did not know why the didn’t notice the taste.

He froze as he watched them eat to the last bite.

Was this a joke?

With shaky hands, he brought the foul meat to his mouth and took another bite. With each chew the flavour only intensified. As much as he wanted to spit it out, he needed to consume it if he wanted to get off this floor.

His face warped in agony, for the taste was precisely like his own flesh.

He could not mistake it for anything else.

And soon, he garnered their attention. Curious eyes fell onto the man who stared at his food in disdain, as if it was his mortal enemy.

“You’re kinda slow. Don’t tell me your appetite as a girl transfer over.” White joked and licked the blood from her blood-soaked gloves.

“Is there something wrong? You’re a bit pale.” Frosty approached him with a look of concern.

Exrite didn’t answer.

No. He couldn’t in the first place. A sudden numbness overtook his body as he silently stared at the others with broadened eyes.

In the next moment, just as the others began to sense something was wrong – he fell limp like a corpse. Every ounce of strength he once had disappeared from his body.

eh…?

“Exrite!?” Frosty cried and thrust herself into him. She managed to catch him just before he fell before laying him down against the soft bed of flowers. “Hey!? Exrite!? What’s wrong!?”

He responded with a slurred groan. It was the only thing he could manage at this point.

Even Frosty’s cries were quiet, almost like a gentle buzz in his ears. His vision became hazy as more and more faces hovered over him like distorted blobs.

His breathing became unstable, matching the pace of quivering limbs. Every muscle in his body suddenly began to spasm uncontrollably. He watched the world shake all around him in utter silence for what felt like minutes on end.

But only ten seconds had elapsed.

And then, his senses returned.

But this time – they were frighteningly heightened.

The sound of his heartbeat were like blasting drums, and he could feel every gear that ran through his veins. He felt them grind, churn and scrape his vessel walls as they rushed across his body.

However, it felt like it was trying to escape him.

“… ah… hah… wait, no –”

Exrite’s quiet pants were pitiful.

He immediately realised what this sensation was.

But before he could erupt into a cry of agony – his vision suddenly cut black.

There was nothing that could save him from his fate.

For these symptoms were the same as that of a mana overload.

And in the midst of his harrowing screams –

His crystal heart shattered.

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