44. The Descent
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What do you want to see in the next Extras chapter?
  • A map of Six Point Votes: 1 50.0%
  • A wargame between Exrite and Frosty (Occurs on board the Commander's airship) Votes: 0 0.0%
  • A peak into Baily's everyday life at the cafe Votes: 1 50.0%
  • Progress on the Professor's airship Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Update/catch up with the Heroes Votes: 1 50.0%
  • A short with the Children of Balance wondering when Phase will return/where she ran off to Votes: 1 50.0%
  • A peak at what's happening at Mildly's Inn Votes: 1 50.0%
  • The Priestesses and Phase's life Votes: 2 100.0%
  • How the Guildmaster spends her free time Votes: 0 0.0%
Total voters: 2

Before we start, please be advised that this is easily the longest chapter I've written by a long shot.

It is about 17,000 words. I hope you can find the time to read it. I've split it up into 4 parts appropriately to make it easier to find where you left off.

Also, I'm going to be hosting a poll for the extras. If I finish the next chapter early, I'm considering to release it before the main chapter like what I've been doing in the past. If not, then I'll try to sneak it in where appropriate.

I'll be choosing the top 4 - 5 results (and of course, I'm open to any suggestions). If there's a draw or no one ends up voting, I'll just pick and choose whichever seems appropriate.

This will be hosted here and on Royal Road. I'll be counting the total from both sites.

Sorry for the inconvenience, and thank you for reading this far!

Part 1 –

A mana overload.

If there was anything in this world that was be feared by creature and men alike, it was this.

No amount of suffering could hold a candle to those who were unlucky enough to undergo a mana overload.

It was rare. Far rarer than one could imagine. In fact, the phenomenon had not been recorded for centuries in Colight and Enthile.

However, it was rare for all the wrong reasons. No one was willing to do it.

To pull off a mana overload was as simple as breathing. So long as one had a mana capacity, then they were always at risk of a mana overload.

But no one, not even those who sought to end their lives, would ever resort to a mana overload.

A mana capacity could be seen like a sealed glass jar.

If one’s mana reserves ever exceeded their capacity, then it would undoubtedly shatter.

This was also the same if one were to use more mana than their capacity allowed.

And to sate that hunger for mana which no longer existed in their capacity; it would turn to their bodies.

Needless to say, it was an excruciating process. Blood congeals, expands and tears through their blood vessel and drools from every orifice like a thick sludge. All senses would be heightened beyond imaginable as a searing heat would cook them from the inside out.

And above all – they could not die until the process was over.

They could be minced, cut, liquefied or disembowelled and they would still be alive until the very end.

Their fate was sealed the moment their mana capacity shattered.

In essence – a mana capacity was a shield that protected one’s body from being drained of mana.

It was why the Undead were born from these unfortunate mishaps.

Mana overloads were synonymous to calamities. If someone was insane enough to go through the ordeal, then they were more than likely prepared to go off with one final bang.

But despite what the world and the experts of magic – the Demons – knew about this, no one could decipher what happened to Exrite.

Not even Uru herself knew.

* * *

A scream tore through the <Tenth Floor>.

The unfamiliar sound startled the roaming creatures as they turned their heads in its direction. By instinct, many backed off and began to dash away in haste, fearing that it was the roar of a fearsome beast.

However – They failed to realise that the blood-curling screams came from the mouth of a man.

Or what was left of him.

In the span of mere minutes, Exrite’s body had changed so drastically that he could no longer be called ‘human’. The scream that left his mouth was befitting of a writhing abomination, and he even looked like on.

His flesh had been reduced to a black and white tar that pooled underneath his bare body. Whatever flesh remained on his twisted and overgrown bones were hardened like steel, and they dug deep into his body like knives.

All of his limbs were displaced and fragmented beyond belief. How he was still able to move them was beyond the comprehension of the shocked observers.

They stared, argued and fought over Exrite’s body. He could barely hear their voices. The crackling of his broken body, his ear-splitting howls and the congealed blood that clogged his ears made it almost impossible to make out their words.

And he could not read their lips, as his eyes had already been emptied from their sockets.

They wanted to finish him off – To spare him from his agony that far surpassed the eye-exchange with the Gods, and Phase’s meddling with his organs in the domain of the Gods.

No. It was more than that. Far more than one could imagine.

Those ordeals were nothing but a graze in comparison to the pain he had to endure here. If it weren’t for his many deaths in the past and some unknown force; he would’ve fallen into madness within the first few seconds.

It was nothing short of a miracle that he was still sane.

The arguments above him were wild and brutal. Many wanted to kill him off and spare him from his fate. However, there was only one person who had the final say.

And that was Uru.

She forbid them from killing Exrite, for she knew that it was pointless. More than anything, it would only add to Exrite’s suffering. His heightened senses and his inability to die made it impossible.

Realising this, Frosty and surprisingly Black were forced to pull their weapons away. As regrettable as it was –

There was nothing they could do.

Not even a God could save someone from such a terrible fate.

All they could do was watch in horror as Exrite’s being deteriorated right before their very eyes. It was as if a powerful acid had been poured over him, and was crushed by a boulder shortly after.

His screams never stopped, and the smell of burnt flesh stung their noses. It felt like gears were churning through the marrow of his bones, grinding away what was left of him.

He held onto what was left of his sanity as his invisible Eye of Despair burnt like molten rock. The bombardment of pain and his slipping sanity made it nearly impossible to comprehend the world around him.

Exrite knew that he was safe from death. He knew that no matter how much abuse he took, he could always fall back onto his Maidenly body.

But he was still afraid.

Beyond the pain, was the Eye of Despair that teased him with fleeting images of his ten-year hell. Accompanied with the pain, it suddenly felt like he was strapped to a familiar bed of nails.

He was teased with the prospect of death for what felt like hours on end. Every minute that lapsed betrayed his expectations of death over and over. The sickening madness only continued as time went on.

And when it seemed like everything would reach a grinding climax –

Everything disappeared without a trace.

The only thing in this empty void was the silent ticking of his shattered heart.

* * *

Silence befell the <Tenth Floor>.

The absence of Exrite’s cries invited in the wandering creatures towards the obelisk.

They tread carefully, and avoided the group of distinguished figures with their heads lowered, as if trying to hide among the short grass.

A high-pitched rumble rang once again. The creatures were steadily teleported in packs by the pale obelisk as a the spinning [Gear] whispered a humble ticking.

The ambience was deafening. All eyes were drawn to Exrite’s remains, which was nothing but crystallised remains. Blood, bones, flesh – It was all fused in a heaping mass that resembled something out of a nightmare.

However, they could find the recurring patterns of a gear. The surreal sight instilled horror in some, and awe in others.

Frosty and Khaos could not believe they had witnessed a mana overload before their very eyes.

It was the last thing they ever expected to encounter.

And to have it happen to Exrite was equally as terrifying as it was saddening.

Khaos remained silent throughout with clenched fists. Exrite had suffered and died in the past, but never had he been torn to this extent. Anger and sadness overwhelmed the giant man who could only stand there and stare down at what remained of his closest friend.

And to know that he would still be alive this wasn’t something they could all wrap their minds around.

Save for Black, who was far from concerned about Exrite’s well-being. Apart from his mental state, of course. There was a staggering difference between abandoning one’s humanity and losing one’s sanity.

Frosty’s face was hidden behind a veil of hair. Her hands were clasped into tight balls as her nails dug deep enough to draw blood. But as the silence lingered, her grip loosened and she began to sway to an invisible wind.

A solemn voice left her lips.

“Is… is it over?”

“Most likely. I don’t sense any mana coming from… Exrite.” Uru’s eyes gently narrowed as she spoke in a soft voice.

“Right… that’s what a mana overload does to you. It devours every last mana from your body and turns you into… that, I believe.” White’s calm voice held a hint of intrigue.

She lightly folded her arms and stared at the horrific image that struck her with awe and wonder. White was always fascinated and curious about the inner-workings of other beings, and Exrite was no exception.

She pitied him, however. She wasn’t as heartless as the other Colours, nor was Exrite someone she could easily allow to break.

But there was nothing they could do about this situation.

Underneath her breath, she whispered:

“This world is more unforgiving than I thought.”

“Hmhm~ Another thing to add to my list of reasons why I fucking despise magic. I didn’t think consuming such a small amount of mana could induce an overload. Unless, was his mana capacity that abysmally small?”

Black hummed, her gaze gliding over Uru.

As expected, the wise Demon had an answer.

However, it wasn’t exactly what she expected.

“You’d be correct. But mana isn’t absorbed from merely consuming it. Not for a human, as far as I know. The only feasible way for a human to induce a mana overload is to cast magic beyond their capabilities. In the end, the size of their capacities doesn’t matter.”

Uru spoke with grace as Frosty slowly dropped onto her knees.

The razor-sharp grass pricked her through her blue robes as she intently stared at Exrite’s remains. Her crimson eyes glowed like flames through a veil of hair that dangled in front of her face.

“So humans can’t eat mana, you say? I guess that makes sense. Well, apart from those mana restoring potions. Mind telling me why’s that, Uru? You’re not trying to hide anything from us, now are you~?”

Black’s gaze sharpened, suspecting that there was more to it.

“You’re awfully sharp. But that wasn’t my intention, unfortunately~” Uru began with a haughty hum, which caused Black to grin.

“By mana, I mean unrefined mana. If it was in a refined and pure form, then humans and their neighbouring humanoid races could consume it. But even if they drank more than their capacity allowed, they would never undergo a mana overload. All that excess mana would be rejected immediately.”

Indeed. Humans, unlike Demons and many other races, could not absorb more mana than their capacity allowed. Rather than their capacity breaking, it would overflow, resulting in a condition called ‘mana overflow’ – Unsurprisingly.

Victims would end up in a state of hyperactivity, although the excess mana would render any magic unstable or borderline unusable.

One could imagine a system of pipes which allowed mana to pass through. Too much, and it becomes clogged, jammed and near impossible to channel mana properly.

And just like clogged pipes – Tt could render spells useless because of the blocked passage or, at worse, suddenly eject a powerful surge of mana.

The lucky ones only suffer from a mana depletion. The others however, are killed by their amplified magic which at worst; could result in a mana overload.

But even with Uru’s explanation – No one could decipher why Exrite underwent a mana overload.

What Uru did notice however, was that Exrite’s mana overload was significantly different from the one’s she had witnessed in the past.

For starters – Exrite was reduced to black and white crystalline mass.

Normally, the aftermath rendered the afflicted person into a soft, dark corpse – Ready to be reborn as an Undead.

However, Exrite’s body was hard, had traces of white and even had the resemblance of a gear. There was no doubt in her mind that this was perhaps a phenomenon exclusive to Exrite as the Maiden of Time.

She kept silent on the matter as Khaos soon joined his sister on the grass. The two patiently waited for Exrite to return to his Maidenly body, while Black and White moved towards the bison’s carcass.

Naturally, they needed to investigate the root of the problem.

“What do you think, White? What makes this any different from any other bison?”

“Apart from the mana, it’s completely normal. No anomalous signs, no traces of poison – Nothing.”

“Tch. Well I’m not convinced that’s correct.” Black easily squashed a loose organ with a boot. “If being mana overloaded was as easy as eating bad meat, then only half of the human population would be alive right now!”

“Black, shut up. For all we know, this is an idiopathic case.”

Both Khaos and Uru reacted to that unknown word.

“Idio-what?” Khaos confusedly muttered.

“Ho? Enlighten me, Colour.”

Black sighed and rubbed the back of her head.

“Basically, we don’t have a fucking clue on what caused the mana overload. We can only blame the bison. But, have a look –”

She pointed with her eyes into the distance, where a small feline-like creature ate from an abandoned carcass. It fell lifelessly within seconds.

Frosty and White also drew their attention towards the feline. After a minute of choking silence, its body began to throb and convulse before suddenly – Its legs grew a slight muscular mass.

It size had increased ever so slightly, but they could tell by just a glance. Soon, the feline was up again. Rather than being torn apart, it had grown stronger. And like the wolves from before, it joined the oncoming herd towards the obelisk.

“It’s not just Exrite. Everything on this floor changes when they consume another animal.”

She brought her attention back to Exrite’s remains, which began to emit a gentle glow.

“But it looks like his body wasn’t able to handle that change. Hmhm~ I wonder what your oh-so-beloved Maiden of Time wants in the end. Maybe her true intention was to watch Exrite suffer.”

Her teasing voice angered the silent Frosty, who couldn’t help but to agree.

Gaia and the Children of Balance had thrown Exrite into the unknown. They locked away every piece of knowledge and caused him to suffer an innumerable amount of times.

But there was nothing they could do to escape their authority.

Frosty suppressed her irritation. She thrust her rage aside and patiently watched Exrite’s body disappear into the light.

Soon, another body took his place. The repulsive, yet astonishing mass was replaced with the ever so beautiful body of his Maidenly body.

No one knew how to feel about the event. There was confusion, immense sadness and doubt in the air.

Uru felt like she failed as a Demon, for she couldn’t spare the Maiden of Time from his suffering, while Khaos and Frosty’s morale took a crippling hit.

His screams were something they could never forget.

The Colours were filled with endless curiosity. But of course, they were concerned about Exrite’s mental state.

To stay conscious and… sane to the very end was a feat in of itself.

But at what cost?

* * *

Exrite didn’t move.

Particles of light fled from her exposed body as she silently slept on the soft grass beneath them. Her gentle breaths were calm – Too calm for what had just occurred.

Their eyes were fixated on her. Even Khaos could not pry himself away out of embarrassment. To see Exrite return safe and sound moved him to tears.

He cried without blinking. A mixture of happiness and relief gushed through his being. He tightly clenched a fist and brought it close to his face.

Out of all the times Exrite had died; nothing could compare to this. It was traumatising, and they could only imagine what it was like for Exrite on the receiving end.

Frosty’s eyes were coated with moisture as they glistened with a gentle smile. As she slowly reached out to Exrite’s hands to cup them, she whispered:

“Thank Goodness…”

A whisper of relief fled her cracked lips. Her body trembled as she whole hardheartedly thanked that Exrite returned.

It wasn’t just them who were relieved. Uru warmly smiled as she gently brushed Exrite’s clothing clean, while Black and White stared with reserved gazes. They allowed Frosty and Khaos the time to recollect themselves and get over Exrite’s pseudo-death.

But they were still uneasy. Exrite had yet to awaken, and they didn’t know if the event had taken a toll on Exrite’s mind. There was no fate worse than a mana overload – And Exrite was the first to ever survive one.

They hung around her, waiting for her eyes to flutter open. But she never woke up. She didn’t even tumble or flinch in her sleep, as Exrite was known to do.

She appeared to be in a comatosed state, similar to when she suffered from a mana depletion.

With no indication of when she would wake up – Uru gently passed Exrite’s lower articles to Frosty.

“I’m beyond impressed that she’s able to sleep so soundly after that.” Uru hummed and admired the sleeping face of her beloved Maiden. “Hmm. Exrite continues to surprise an old Demon like myself. I can only pray to my Gods and the Children of Balance that her mind is still intact.”

“… I hope so too. Thanks, I’ll help get her dressed. But wait – Uru, I thought you wanted Exrite to break at one point?”

“Don’t be foolish. The difference between accepting a realistic mindset and falling into the depths of insanity are two entirely different things. I’m a Demon, Frosty. I would never dare to wish for our beloved Maiden of Time to break.”

“Ah – Is that so? Sorry –”

A lip suddenly hushed her.

“Don’t start to sound like Exrite just because she’s not with us~ you’ll make our reunion all that much harder if she does break.”

Frosty gulped. It seemed like she had misunderstood Uru’s intentions, and was more than glad to hear she was wrong. But a part of her still couldn’t trust the Demon entirely.

At the end of the day, Uru’s goal was vengeance. And to achieve it, she needed to spread the name of the Overlord of Desire across Six Point to be granted indomitable power.

There was no being better for the task than the Maiden of Time, whose name was known throughout the world of Corozin.

With a straight face, she gently began to dress the feminine Exrite. It felt strange having to dress someone who she knew was a man. But that thought was cut short when she managed to catch Uru lapping her lips like a starving animal.

Needless to say, it rubbed her the wrong way.

But she was one to talk.

At times, she’d leave a hand on Exrite’s stomach or other places longer than she needed to. Whether she was aware of it or not – Black couldn’t help but to be surprised by Frosty’s interest.

“I know this isn’t the time to joke, but… why the fuck do I feel like I’m watching a crime?”

Black wryly smiled.

* * *

The obelisk glowed and released a blue [Gear] for the hundredth time. However, it reacted to Exrite’s presence when she was carried by Uru into its activation range; which was roughly five metres away.

Everything went normally, as anticipated. The high-pitched rumble and gentle ticking lulled them as they awaited the magical circle – or rather; the magical magical gear – to form.

However, just as the circle formed underneath them – A blue jet of light was ejected straight into the air from the tip of the obelisk. The bright light reached every corner of the floor before they were suddenly teleported into presumably the <Eleventh Floor>.

Their surroundings changed in an instant. A flurry of long grass brushed alongside their shins as they briefly observed the spectacularly wide space.

It was virtually the same as the <Tenth Floor>, save for the longer grass.

It seemed like this was indeed a dungeon, albeit unique with the teleporting obelisks. They expected the creatures to grow stronger with every descent.

Although that risk was negligible to the group of fearsome individuals.

With Exrite held comfortably in Uru’s arms in a princess carry, the group did not waste any time and marched straight into the unknown floor.

They intended to descend through as many floors as possible before they needed to rest.

* * *

Part 2 –

Each floor was slightly different from the ones before, thought they remained mostly the same.

From trees that grew from the cavern walls to the abundance of wild plants – The dungeon felt more like an ecosystem. Or more specifically; like nature itself.

A sense of solidarity filled them with each step. The floors felt so natural that if one were to wander here with no prior knowledge of Gaia’s trial, they would not believe that this place was built by hand.

Dungeons were never complex structures. It was mostly comprised of carved stone and tight corridors which were designed to funnel trespassing challengers to their deaths.

But there were some exceptions, of course. Particularly those that were created by the Gods, Demi-Gods and Spirits.

<The King’s Gauntlet> was a good example

It was a dungeon specifically designed to train the soldiers of Enthile and the Kingdoms of the Enthoric region. Unlike traditional dungeons, it was wide, spacious and above all, a creation of the Enthoric God, Malum the Correct.

Regardless whether this place was a force of nature or a marvel created by the ancient Maiden of Time – It held splendour unlike any other place they had visited.

Frosty was awed with each encounter, reverting to her child-like persona. It lightened the mood, and Khaos ended up smiling alongside her.

Hope was slowly restored along their descent. Exrite would occasionally mumble a quiet: “I’m home.”, which served to confirm that her mind was thankfully still intact.

It had been a while since they last heard Exrite sleep talk. Khaos’ fondest memory of it was during their journey to the mountains.

Exrite’s words played like a nostalgic song in the back of his head.

We can only move forward.”

“At least the hard part’s over, right Exrite?” He spoke to himself as he caught a glimpse of her sleeping face. “You’d call this a ‘stepping stone’, because our goal is so big that something like this can’t possibly stop us.”

He laughed to himself.

White softly smiled when she heard Khaos. His words were like a small glimmer of hope. No matter how much they were forced to endure, it was nothing compared to their grand goal.

She adored his mindset, and respected the way Khaos admired Exrite. While she didn’t know the extent of their friendship, she could tell that they were inseparable.

“That’s one way to put it.” Black unexpectedly spoke from out of the blue, her hands stretched behind her head. “Good to hear that our morale hasn’t fallen. Well, not yet at least.”

At a side-long glance of Exrite’s sleeping face, she huffed her chest and sighed.

Exrite was insufferable, as far as she was concerned. After the mana overload, it was obvious that she should completely abandon her human body and stay with her superior Maidenly form.

But she could already hear Exrite’s pitiful excuse.

As much as she despised Exrite’s embrace on his humanity – A part of her oddly sympathised with her.

After all, Black was once in Exrite’s boots.

A creeping sense of regret forced her to softly smile. She quickly shoved the memory away and tilted her head back to face the blinding light high above.

As she calmly listened to Uru’s beautiful whistling, her eyes sealed shut.

They journeyed through floor after floor. The landscapes varied, but the greenery was always the common theme of the floors.

They encountered marsh-like environments, small hills and another meadow before creeks and lakes began to dot the landscapes of the next few floors.

Danger was negligible, even after travelling so far. The creatures were still passive and avoided the group like a plague. Although, there were a few that decided to bare their fangs at them –

But their foolishness would be promptly responded with either a bullet or an explosive orb.

It was comical how overkill their powers truly were in these floors.

Soon, four hours had lapsed and they found themselves in the <Nineteenth Floor>.

It was almost like a recreation of the valley near the Capital. A giant lake engulfed what looked like half of the entire floor, and the obelisk was oddly placed near a sandy bank far ahead, which was crowded by a mass of creatures.

Trees sprouted sparsely across the floor, housing flocks of birds which chirped and migrated from tree to tree. But as they flew across the lake – A familiar sight suddenly worked Frosty up.

“Eh!? Bouldermites! They’re here as well!? Ha-haha!”

She found their obnoxious snapping both cute and hilarious. Her eyes sparkled like the lake’s surface as the others wore smiles and couldn’t help but to adore Frosty’s cheeriness.

Black made a surprised “Oh.” when she realised just how expansive this floor was.

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more fucking bizarre, it does. Really, what the fuck was the Maiden of Time trying to do here? Emulate nature?”

“Dunno. Exrite said this was trial, didn’t he- er… she?” Khaos answered, causing Black to turn around with a disappointing sigh.

“C’mon Khaos~ I thought you were a man of humour. You’re not supposed to answer back, you know?” Black teased with an awful grin. “Well, not that I can blame you. Listen – Try to Loosen up! I’m going to bite you!”

Khaos, who still had an intrinsic fear of the Commanders, shuddered when she raised her voice. However, her kind eyes seemed to cut through her dreadful aura, which caused him to slightly relax his tensed body.

“R-right. Got you.”

“We’re comrades! Comrades! Allies! Party members! I thought you lost your fear of me a while ago?”

“Ah – Haha. How is it possible to not be afraid of… you?” Khaos chose his words carefully and gulped.

He felt like he’d kiss a bullet if he made one wrong move.

Black sighed and took those words as a compliment before returning to the grand scenery ahead. Her purple eyes scanned the entirety of the lake’s surface, finding all sorts of aquatic creatures – Even those that should not exist in a lake.

For starters, there were turtles; although they were tiny. Serpent-like creatures swam in small schools and bobbed in and out of the water playfully.

As mesmerising and astonishing as it was – They could not deny that this kind of ecosystem was impossible this far underground; or wherever they were.

Uru was convinced that the [Gears] had the power to allow life to thrive in these floors.

Although her only evidence was the old Maiden of Time, who had existed since the beginning of time.

No one truly knew the nature of the [Gears]. The Demons only knew that it was a substance that ran through the Maiden of Time’s veins – A distinguishing characteristic of the peerless being.

It was unfortunate that not even Exrite had a clue on what they were, other than:

“They are the embodiment of everything and nothing.”

A deep thought absorbed her as she began to slowly lead the group towards the lake. Among the ambience of nature, the crackling of twigs and Frosty’s exuberant cheers – She heard a small whisper in her arms.

“Uru?”

“Hmm?”

Exrite spoke in her sleep.

Her eyes fell onto her, wondering what sort of dream Exrite was having. The girl’s face shifted between smiles and frowns, before she gently raised a weak hand into the air.

“Hey… why are you crying?”

Uru’s eyes broadened in surprise.

The girl caressed the air, like she was touching the cheek of an invisible person.

No… it was Uru. An Uru from her dreams. Or more specifically;

An Uru from the past.

She was aware of Exrite’s ability to see someone’s past. Physical contact was the only condition she knew of for the effect to occur, so it made perfect sense that she was the subject of Exrite’s dreams.

A part of her envied that imaginary self which was tended to by the Maiden’s delicate hands.

“You’re strange, Exrite. You’ll tend to Demon, despite being human yourself.”

Depending on where Exrite was in Uru’s lifespan – She could’ve been more of a Demon than she was now.

But Exrite didn’t seem to think that. In fact, it looked like she was trying to embrace the invisible Uru. However, her swaying hands caught nothing and fell onto her chest.

It was an amusing sight, but Uru fell prey to Exrite’s warmth.

Not that she would admit it, of course. Her pride as a Succubus wouldn’t allow her to admit that so easily.

Because the last time she did – She was betrayed by her lover; the past Exrenity.

She had seen what the Eye of Despair does to a person first hand.

And she did not want Exrite – the Maiden of Time – to follow that same fate.

But it was inevitable, so long as she was a human.

Although;

I don’t hate that part about you, Exrite. Show me that fate isn’t as intangible as the world deems it. Prove to me that you won’t falter.

With that, Uru led them to the edge of the lake. It seemed like now would be a good time to rest. A serene environment may aid in Exrite’s recovery, and plus –

A loud grumble emerged from Khaos’ gut. With a hearty laugh, he pounded his iron gut as the others turned to him with various faces.

It had been almost an entire day since they – No, Khaos last ate.

* * *

Tremendous splashes interrupted the serene atmosphere. The giant man charged through the shallow waters of the lake wearing only cloth trunks. His lumbering mass frightened all nearby life, save for the Bouldermites which didn’t know any better.

Although they were smart enough to reserve their snapping for smaller prey. The man’s furious lunges into the deeper parts of the water created tidal waves that no man or creature could easily accomplish.

“Woohooo! I caught another one!” Khaos yelled, holding a serpent-like fish high above like a trophy. “FROSTY! Here, catch!”

With a light heave, he threw it as his unsuspecting sister who was forced to pull herself away from a blissful stroll.

“Huh!? Wait – Don’t throw it so hard, idiot!” Her reflexes proved vital in catching the flying fish, which was nearly half the length of her body.

It flopped in her hands, and its slimy, fishy stench ruined her mood almost instantly.

“Geez! That’s the third time now! Just throw it to White for crying out loud!” She swung the fish behind her and threw it across the grassy lake-side at the pale-attired woman. “White! Here’s another one!”

“Can’t you two just bring it here normally?” White whispered to no one in particular. With a light sigh, she gracefully rose to her feet and perfectly skewered the fish with her pale blade.

It slid off with a simple flick, joining another pair of carcasses which had been neatly dissected. She quickly resumed her work, which was the simple task of investigating the inner-workings of these creatures.

There were two reasons for this:

One; she wanted to know why they were filled with mana despite not being able to utilise magic; and two:

Why did they undergo a sudden physical shift after consuming another creature?

But she found nothing abnormal about their bodies. With clean cuts, she eagerly gutted the fish only to be left with disappointment.

She delved in thought and tried to formulate ideas, but they only branched out into even more questions. The viscous cycle stumped her.

At the sound of a thunderous splash and a loud “Haha! That’s the fourth!”, she held out her blade to the side and felt it pierce something.

What was supposed to be a time of respite was instead a session of trying to answer an impossible equation.

As for the others however – They had a more pleasant time.

Frosty decided to take a stroll around the lake. As risky as one would imagine going out alone was, the creatures of this floor were harmless.

But most of all; they were cute, according to Frosty’s taste. She could be seen interacting with a stranded baby turtle. She picked up the upside down creature and kindly placed it back into the lake before waving it goodbye.

Khaos on the other-hand, was on a mission to fetch seafood for the group and specimens for White to dissect. His tremendous punches and kicks sent shock-waves into the water, and stunned any poor creatures that were unlucky enough to be within the vicinity.

They were so powerful, that ripples coated the entirety of the lake. Even Frosty noticed them along her walk at a hundred or so metres away. Suffice to say, he wasn’t holding back.

A steady spit-roast of a few squids and small fishes was set up at the sandy shorelines. The savoury, salty smell whetted his appetite, and he could barely wait for them to finish cooking over the open fire.

As for Uru and Black – They were busy meddling with a certain sleeping figure.

By now, they were certain that Exrite’s mind was intact. Her muddled mumbles were coherent, and the topic always stayed on the notion of ‘home’.

The two figures sat on either side of her, fondling her hair as they savoured her rhythmic ticking. Uru was enthralled by the smoothness of her hair, while Black pushed her thumbs into various places with furrowed brows.

“What an unfair body. You get the softness of a human, and the strength of fucking high tensile metal. I don’t think I could even pass a bullet through her.”

“Hmm. Not that you’d have the luxury to in the first place.” Uru hummed non-threateningly. “For a Maiden, I expect nothing less. They’re above all that exists in our world, and they need a body that’s capable of encapsulating their greatness. Even my Gods – the Zelmori Fall – are not above the Maidens.”

“So according to you, a Maiden is above a God?” She snickered and glared at Exrite.

Uru understood Black’s face and firmly nodded.

“Precisely. The Maidens are the sole reason why Eastern Six Point hasn’t fallen like the West. They brought order in a time of chaos, and sealed away the Gods in their regions – Including their creators, the Children of Balance.”

“Spare me the history lesson. I frankly don’t give a damn about this world and its gimmicks.” Black spoke with displeasure as she drew curls into Exrite’s hair. “But you said something pretty interesting. If they hold order and stability over this side of the continent, then why the fuck is a Demon like you trying to help Exrite destroy it.”

They were both aware what would happen the moment the Maiden of Realms left her Domain. The chaotic landscape from eons ago would return, for the Gods would be freed from their eternal prison.

However, a gleam in Uru’s eyes signified that she knew something something more to this.

Simply defeating the Maiden of Realms would not instantly result in their freedom, as one would expect. In fact, they would need to recover their lost power before they could manifest into the world from their realms.

And even then – They could not leave their regions.

A common misunderstanding was that the Maiden of Realms governed both the regions and the realms of the Gods, however, it was only the later.

Surprisingly, it was the Maiden of Space who governed the regions.

But this knowledge was limited to a select few Demons.

And Uru happened to be one of them.

“I don’t expect your kind to understand. This is the will of the previous Maiden of Time, and I am more than prepared to embark on Exrite’s journey, for I am a Demon who serves the Maidens before my Gods.”

Uru spoke with unwavering faith in the elusive past Maiden of Time’s rationale.

Black was about to protest, but as her mouth gaped, Uru continued:

“But I also have a goal myself, mind you. I’m not doing this for Exrite’s sake alone. Hmm. Are you surprised~?”

“Hard to when you’re always leering at your beloved Maiden of Time.” Black retorted before she lazily fell onto the grass. “Well, do what you want with your world. I’m only here to save mine, so I’ll shut up enjoy this little breather. Not that we needed one anyway. Oh well – What can you do with a bunch of human-raised Frostbitten?”

She turned to Exrite and groaned:

“And then there’s this human-raised Maiden.”

A soft breeze swept through the floor. It was a mystery where it originated from, but they welcomed it. The soft rustling of leaves from the nearby trees and the dancing grass was calming.

One could hardly believe this place was just a part of an underground dungeon.

Thinking such things, Black shifted to a more comfortable position. She closed her eyes and quietly listened to Uru’s gentle whistle.

Minutes elapsed in this blissful moment. The loud crashes from Khaos’ barbaric fishing had subsided, and the floor went quiet again.

And just as Uru and Black grew accommodated to the newfound silence –

A familiar voice whispered in between them.

“… where… are we?”

* * *

Part 3 –

Exrite’s eyes finally opened. She was met with the vibrant light high above, and a pair of golden eyes. She groggily groaned and slowly pushed herself up, ignoring the pale strands that tickled her cheeks.

“This is the <Nineteenth Floor>. We’ve made some progress while you were asleep.” Black answered and closely studied the seated Exrite. “Feeling fine? Or are you just sleepy?”

She swirled, almost like she was sick. Despite not being the active type post-rest, she was more groggy than usual. Uru carefully supported her from the side as Exrite brought her eyes to lake ahead.

Not a word left her mouth. Something stopped her from talking, and when she tried to respond – A sudden pressure shot up her throat. Immediately, she jolted awake and clasped her mouth shut.

“Exrite!? What’s the matter with you!?” Uru exclaimed, shoving her face into hers.

She wanted to vomit.

The resurging memory of the mana overload caused her stomach to wrench in disgust. Before Uru or Black could understand what was wrong, Exrite broke free and charged straight for the shoreline at a breakneck pace.

A flurry of grass exploded with each heavy step, and soon, it was sand. The coarse ground nearly tripped her, and the sudden movement only caused her to painfully gag.

She collapsed onto all fours once she reached the shoreline, where she hoarsely coughed and unloaded a painful mouthful of acidic vomit. It disappeared almost instantly in the water, and the contents were smaller than one would expect.

However, she felt like there was a molten ball lodged in her throat. Every agonising gag failed to eject the burning sensation. It felt like her gut was being struck by an invisible force every time she jolted in pain.

It only lasted for a minute, and she could feel a pair of warm hands behind her, as well as Khaos calling out her name. As soon as the sensation began to wear off, she drooled over the lake with hazy eyes and whispered:

“Ack… sorry.”

She was obviously fatigued from the ordeal.

“I… I think my body’s surprised that it’s still functioning after that mana overload – Blergh... sorry.”

She gagged and coughed once more as she tried to force a smile.

“I think I’m going to be sick again. But... don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m just a bit… shaken, that’s all.”

“Aha. Well, who wouldn’t. At least you managed to keep your mind, so I guess that’s all that matters.” Black patted the girl’s shoulder and hummed. “But honestly – I’m impressed that you’re still Exrite and not a shell of your former self.”

“– Thanks for having no faith in me.” She coughed in a low-pitched voice as she spat a slimy mouthful of saliva. “A-ack… sorry. I know this isn’t the time to joke.”

“Don’t apologise, Exrite. You’ve conquered a mana overload and lived to tell the tale. No one in this world has ever survived a mana overload, let alone remained sane within the first few minutes.”

Uru nearly sung. Her voice was filled with nothing but praise and astonishment. To mentally survive a mana overload was a testament to Exrite’s mental resilience.

Once again, she found herself adoring the Maiden of Time’s choice of choosing Exrite to be her next of kin.

However –

“… I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of. If it went on any longer, I probably would’ve lost myself.”

Exrite admitted from the bottom of her heart.

“But… no, nothing.” She grumbled.

Her nausea and pain began to subside. Only the lingering fatigue and weakness of her body kept her on her knees.

The unreachable climax of the mana overload reminded her of her endless torture in Enthile. For as long as she could remember – She was never aloud to break. The prospect of respite through breaking was something she so dearly yearned for in that ten-year hell.

The constant grief and suffering never stopped swelling. When she thought it would all reach a final point, she would be betrayed with another level of pure despair.

It was maddening, but it was also not.

She wondered if she could even break at all – Not that she wanted to. Truthfully, she believed that ‘ability’ disappeared when she acquired the Eye of Despair, but maybe that wasn’t the case.

After all – There was no way a normal human, even one who had suffered more than Exrite, could possibly stay sane after a mana overload.

But she wasn’t complaining.

Lost in her own world, she stared down at the calm surface of the lake and saw herself stare back.

And there, she saw something strange.

Her gear-shaped iris had reverted into an unidentifiable shape. Much like the one before it became a gear.

Does… despair eat away at the gear?

She didn’t know. But considering that she had rarely reminisced about her ‘home’ ever since the gear formed on her Eye of Hope – She had a hunch that the Eye of Despair would manifest more commonly now.

The footsteps of an approaching figure caught her ear, and she was instantly brought back to reality. However, she couldn’t muster the strength to turn to them as they called out her name.

It was Khaos. The juggernaut caused miniature earthquakes with each step. There was no way Exrite could mistake him for anyone else.

“HEY! EXRITE! IS EVERYTHING OK!?”

She quietly chuckled and sent him a side-long glance through her dangling hair.

“I’m fine, Khaos. I’m just a bit groggy.”

“Are you sure!? You don’t look fine at all!” The man crouched in front of him, half-submerged into the lake.

It was a humorous sight, and the man certainly knew how to liven up the mood.

“Like I said, I’m fine.” She affirmed with a small smile. “What about you, Khaos? I hope my screaming didn’t scare you.”

“Aha! You did more than just a scare!” He lightly laughed before he firmly clasped onto Exrite’s shoulders. “But please Exrite – Don’t push yourself, alright? You just came back from a mana overload, so please don’t get any wild ideas.”

His voice became solemn and sincere.

“Really. You have no idea just how worried Frosty and I were when we saw you… yeah. I know we’ve been together almost every step of the way since we escaped from Enthile, but I’ve never seen you in so much pain. Exrite, if I had a hundred years on my lifespan, then I’m sure as hell I’d be on my last one.”

Exrite couldn’t help but to laugh. But it was only for a brief moment. In the lake’s reflection, she saw Khaos’ sincere face and whispered:

“Mhm… sorry about that. But now I know not to eat anything here. I guess that’s the silver lining.”

In the end, it was purely experience.

And with it, she was able to confirm that there was nothing in this world worse than a mana overload.

In terms of pain, that is.

At the back of her mind, she wondered if Gaia intended for this to happen.

But the only explanation she could arrive at, was none other than Gaia’s philosophy of experience.

She wryly smiled.

* * *

On a grassy bed not so far away from the lake, sat Exrite, Frosty and Uru. They allowed the Maiden to have all the rest she needed while the others went about whatever they so desired.

In the glistening lake, Khaos continued to catch fish in a barbaric, yet effective manner whilst chewing on a piece of roasted squid. The sound of crashes echoed throughout the floor, but the perpetrator wasn’t just Khaos alone.

Somewhere among the trees, Black was busy terrorising the wildlife. Her boredom proved too much to be sated by the floor’s beauty alone, so she resorted to bloodshed.

Nothing could withstand the power of her Night’s Melody, which easily shredded through thick tree trunks, blew holes into the ground and annihilated whatever creature was unlucky enough to cross her path.

White continued with her investigation, but was nowhere to be seen. She had left into a nearby forest earlier to hunt for a wider range of specimens.

Exrite felt like if she took her time, this floor would most certainly become a barren wasteland.

That aside, her attention was drawn to a familiar object. In the nearby distance, the pale obelisk continued to attract all sorts of creatures with its gentle ticking.

It was strange. In the previous floor, the ticking was nowhere near as loud. At first, she imagined that the obelisks grew louder as they descended.

At the <Nineteenth Floor>, it would not be a surprise for it to be so loud.

However, when she asked Uru and Frosty if they too could hear it, she was immediately stuck with confusion.

They could not hear the passive ticking. Of course, they claimed that they could only when it activated and within a close proximity.

The obvious answer was simply because she was the Maiden of Time, but that sort of answer was also unreliable in a way. If the creatures were drawn to it, then maybe they could also hear it.

She believed that the creatures were similar to her in some way. It was merely speculation, and if Uru heard this – She would be scolded and reminded of her peerless status.

Exrite sighed as she stretched and rose to her feet.

“Ho? Eager to continue already?”

“What are you up to, Exrite?”

Uru and Frosty immediately questioned her intentions, causing her to wryly smile.

“Oh, I just want to figure out a few things.” She glanced at the obelisk. “So you guys really can’t hear it at all? The ticking?”

“Nothing. It’s probably an ability of yours to hear it at this distance. There’s a [Gear] inside of the obelisk, so maybe that’s why you can hear it.” Frosty answered and quickly joined Exrite. “Also, don’t you dare do something stupid. We’ve already had your mana overload, and now there’s a maniac tearing down the forest.”

Despite her words, she wore a warm smile.

“Quite crude of you, Frosty.” Uru hummed and followed them as they began to slowly follow the edges of the lake.

“So, I’m assuming you want to decipher why you underwent a mana overload. Hmm. Unfortunately, we have no clue other than their mana contents. But I doubt a human, particularly one with a mana capacity like yourself, can absorb unrefined mana. Unless – you can?”

“Not at all. I’d probably be dead by now.” Exrite claimed as she observed a two-headed fox tear a miniature boar apart with its razor-sharp fangs.

She was silent throughout the feeding process, and Frosty joined her with a silent: “Aww… bummer.”

After devouring chunks of its meat, the fox suddenly collapsed and began to convulse. It underwent a rapid process of change which involved another tail to sprout out from its backside, as well as a third eye on each head.

By the time the change was complete, it disregarded the barely eaten carcass and began to make its way towards the obelisk.

The sight jogged her memory.

“That’s exactly what happened when I took my first bite. I collapsed and couldn’t move at all. But I’m not so sure about those… changes.” She explained and brought a hand to her chin.

Frosty wore a conflicted face. She didn’t know how to tell Exrite that she became a fragmented mass of flesh before fusing into gear-shaped crystal.

Uru however, wasn’t as reserved.

“By change, I’m certain that yours was by far the most dramatic. You became nothing but rendered flesh and bone shards before fusing into an amalgamation of black and white crystals, which mildly resembled the shape of a gear. You don’t remember?”

“Not when I couldn’t see anything, let alone feel the shape of my body… maybe that’s what the churning sensation was. Turns out, I was becoming gear.” Exrite had a little moment of realisation, although it didn’t help much with their main question at hand.

Frosty was rather surprised that she could look back at the event so calmly. Although she wondered if that was truly the case. She noticed Exrite’s geared iris had deformed into a roughly shaped ball, which she knew was caused by the stress of the mana overload.

In fact, the others noticed this as well. When it was brought to Exrite’s attention, she warned them that the frequency of the Eye of Despair manifestations may increase.

Needless to say, it was worrying.

That aside –

“Although, your mana overload was quite peculiar. I’ve never seen someone become a crystal clump before.” Uru hummed and brushed a hand across Exrite’s delicate cheek. “To not become an Undead is bizarre in itself. The nature of a mana overload is to drain the body dry of mana, thus, turning one into an Undead.”

She licked her lips.

“And I became a crystal, not a drained corpse… any idea- No. Right. We don’t have a clue, do we?”

“Believe me Exrite, I would tell you if I knew. But out of the many hundreds of years I spent in this world, I have never seen or heard of such a thing. It contradicts what a mana overload is, to the point where I can barely call it a mana overload.”

“So we’re still stuck in the dark? Couldn’t the Maiden of Time be bothered explaining even a little bit to you?” Frosty spat, annoyed that they were making no progress. “Honestly, I despise her almost as much as those damned Gods. Like creator, like creation – I guess.”

“… you’re not wrong.” Exrite added. “So, could you say my body wasn’t able to handle the change, which resulted in the mana overload?”

“Black said something similar. But the real question is – Why?” Uru dug her thumb into Exrite’s cheek. “We’re missing an important piece of this puzzle, and without it we won’t be able to decipher this grand mystery.”

“… just what makes you so similar to them…?” Frosty whispered as she watched a pack of twin-tailed wolves scurry into the surrounding trees.

“Ho? Let me reword that for you. Rather than similar to them, what makes them similar to you, Exrite? If it’s not the mana, nor your race – Then what is it?”

Exrite fell into deep thought. There was nothing she could think of at the top of her head. It was frustrating. She felt like the answer was right in front of her, but she was too oblivious to see it.

Then, she remembered something.

It was the taste of the bison’s meat.

“Actually, there’s one thing I can think of.” She muttered and wryly smiled. “That bison – What did taste like to you guys?”

“Like normal meat?” Frosty tilted her head curiously.

“Meat.” Uru nonchalantly replied.

Yeah… I thought so. Why did I even ask?

“Ah… well. Bear with me for a bit, because I’m about to say something absurd.” She set the tone and felt their stares pierce through her skin. “That bison didn’t taste anything like meat. It was exactly like my own flesh. I don’t know how orwhy, but that’s what exactly it tasted like.”

“… eh? Come again?”

“Ho? You claim it had the taste of your flesh?”

“Exactly. And before I knew it, I was already on the ground.”

Needless to say, Uru and Frosty were equally intrigued as they were shocked. At first, Frosty didn’t believe her, but soon realised that Exrite was telling the truth.

She remembered his face, which was soured and wrenched with utter disgust.

This information revealed an important clue. There was something in the creatures that Exrite also had inside of her.

And that could only be one thing.

Exrite instantly froze. Her blood ran like ice as a terrifying chill ran down her spine. The realisation struck her like lightning as Uru and Frosty were forced to stop and wonder what was wrong.

Gears… Wait. Do all the creatures in this dungeon have gears running through their veins…? Or am I just overthinking things?

There was only one way to find out. At the sight of a nearby rabbit, which was easily twice the size of a toddler, she wondered if it emitted the same ticking that she and the Biomech did as beings with Gears coursing through them.

Or at least the sensation of gears passing through.

As she carefully began to approach it, she whispered:

“Hey… you didn’t feel any ticking or running gears when you touched one of the animals, did you?”

“No. I didn’t notice anything. They’re normal creatures as far as I’m concerned – And they have souls too. They’re not like the Biomech, Exrite.”

“Precisely. That soothing, splendid ticking is reserved for the Maiden of Time’s most valued creations – The Biomech; and the Maiden of Time herself. I doubt these creatures are anything close to being as perfect as the Biomech.”

Exrite couldn’t help but to think otherwise. She gestured for the two to leave her as she stalked the rabbit. The bison failed to emit anything, so she wondered if the creature needed to be alive.

She uttered a chant underneath her breath as the rabbit roamed across the grassland in peace.

But that was short lived.

“– [Stone Barrier]!”

In an instant, a cage of boulders encased the poor thing. A single hole the size of a head was the only point of entry, apart for the chimney that stood three metres tall.

She didn’t have to worry about being injured, for she knew that a mere rabbit couldn’t dream of penetrating the skin of a Maiden. And the rabbit understood this vast difference of power.

It trembled in its cage and shoved itself into the corner in fear. As Exrite reached to touch it, it drew it head away and expected a horrific death.

But Exrite wasn’t so cruel.

Her hand was gentle. She caressed its furry head and ears with light strokes. Surprise washed over the oversized bunny as it quickly mellowed to her gentleness.

However – The rabbit’s surprise was nothing compared to hers.

At the tip of her fingers, she felt the bumpy sensation of gears.

And to be certain of it – She patted all sorts of places. Soon, her movements became frantic before she stroked it one last time and slid her had away.

She stumbled backwards, her eyes swollen with awe and numbing realisation.

“It… It has gears!?”

Exrite exclaimed as she stood there, stunned by surprise.

“Sorry?”

“Impossible.”

The reason for her surprise was simple – She did not expect her suspicion to be true. As far as she was concerned, only her, the Biomech and presumably Gaia had gears coursing through them.

No creature should have the gears, unless Gaia created them herself.

However – She didn’t know if that was the only criteria. After all, the Biomech children were birthed by Auga, thus, weren’t the direct creations of Gaia.

Perhaps it was the same with these creatures. But Exrite was still left scratching her head.

They were not machines like the Biomech. They were identical to animals; from behaviour to blood.

So why would they need gears in the first place? To function? To live? To mimic those animals?

Exrite grounded her teeth. The two soon joined her, with Frosty quickly freeing the bunny from its stone prison. She cradled the giant creature and laughed at it muzzled against her cheek.

And there, she finally found her answer.

During her mental unravelling, she failed to notice Uru’s presence behind her.

“Exrite? Are you ignoring me~? Or were you lying about that outrageous claim?” Uru whispered into her ear, expecting the girl to jolt in surprise.

But she never flinched, let alone batted an eye away from the oversized bunny.

“Ho? Funny. You mentioned that your manifestations would increase, but I didn’t expect one to happen so soon –”

“Uru, I think I found our answer. The taste, the changes, why I was affected –”

She wore a proud grin and turned to the Demon with an ember in her eyes.

“It was all right in front of us from the start!”

Needless to say, Exrite was fired up.

* * *

Part 4 –

Unbelievable.

No one expected that the missing piece of the puzzle would be the gears. Or rather, that should’ve been expected; as strangle as that was.

This was Gaia’s dungeon and trial, after all. And the centrepiece of it all was Exrite.

But still, it was bizarre. For them to contain gears despite not being a Biomech caused them to turn to Exrite for answers. Unfortunately, she knew nothing about them, and was also surprised about the discovery.

The creatures were quickly dubbed as the ‘Geared’ – Which were any beings that contained gears but weren’t a Biomech.

Exrite was the only exception, of course.

It perfectly explained why the bison’s flesh tasted like her own. Even back in her ten-year prison, she had the gears.

She wondered the taste of a creature’s flesh was always overwritten by the gears. If that was so, then it was no wonder her and the bison tasted the same.

Next, was the ‘change’ that the Geared would undergo after eating another. To her knowledge, the entire purpose of the gears was to allow them to ‘evolve’ and use the obelisk to enter the next floor.

Exrite spent three hours investigating the difference between the Geared before and after they ate. She tested the theory on an array of animals and found that the passing gears felt stronger in the latter.

Although it was an expected result.

Perhaps the Geared grew by absorbing the gears of their prey. It would explain why the sensation was stronger.

But more interestingly, was that they would also be drawn to the obelisk. It seemed like having a higher quality of gears affected one’s affinity to the obelisk.

And like those creatures, Exrite was not excluded from its tempting calls.

Essentially, the obelisks were a mechanism to maintain a certain power balance in each floor.

She found herself marvelling at Gaia’s foresight.

Despite all she knew however – She still couldn’t understand why she underwent a mana overload in the first place.

In a perfect scenario, she would’ve been physically enhanced like the Geared, unless that characteristic didn’t apply to her for some reason. But like Uru said; her mana overload was unusual.

Exrite imagined that she was undergoing the change, but for some reason, her body was torn apart and thus; a mana overload had occurred – As little sense as that made.

She dejectedly sighed.

In an hour’s time, the group was already prepared to leave to the next floor. Exrite’s suggestion from the <Tenth Floor> to consume a beast was never required at all. So long as she was the Maiden of Time, then the obelisk would always react.

Although the same couldn’t be said about her human body. Surely, if she changed back, she would have to devour a Geared creature to progress. After all, the obelisk seemed to only activate in the presence of a certain gear quality or strength.

But that was if Uru didn’t kill her first.

Even if she was the most insufferable human to ever exist in Corozin – She was not willing to endure another mana overload.

The mere thought of it gnawed at her stomach. The sour, acidic aftertaste came back to haunt her as she grit her teeth.

She set finally her sights onto the obelisk.

And with everyone prepared and Khaos’ stomach filled – They entered the <Twentieth Floor>.

* * *

The luscious landscape was a sight to behold.

It was a meadow, with lonely green trees sitting atop generously spaced hills. Compared to the previous floors, this place felt far more spacious.

Sweet pollen perfumed the air as chest-sized bees spread it across the floor. They hovered ever so close to the floor, licking the flowers with their antennas as they passed by.

“Insects… how fucking disgust-”

“Adorable~!”

Frosty interrupted with an exuberant voice. The fuzzy balls of floating mass were easily among the cutest things so far. A constant hum filled the air, annoying some while Exrite and the others found it rather enjoyable.

But it couldn’t drown the faint ticking she felt arriving from the great distance ahead. Not even Uru could make out just how expansive this floor was.

“I don’t get your tastes, Frosty. If you love insects so much, then why don’t you go give it a hug? I’m sure that barb is just for show~.” Black teased with a grin, and flicked her colourless compass out. “Tch. Still jammed, huh?”

“Hey, what’s wrong with calling something cute, cute?” Frosty protested unexpectedly.

“Well I’m glad you asked~.” Black stretched as she matched Frosty’s pace. They were now a shoulder’s width apart, and Exrite could already sense something brewing.

But before he could conceive of an idea to defuse the two, White suddenly shoved herself in between them. Her arms were tightly folded, and her tempered gaze never strayed from the trail ahead.

Her presence alone seemed to shut them up.

Dissatisfied, Black clicked her tongue and swiftly stowed the dysfunctional compass away.

It was humorous in a way. While Exrite held back a small laugh, she gently brushed a hand across her waist and fiddled with her ammunition pouch. There, she felt a strange bulge and gently smiled to herself.

Thankfully, the Gatestone was still in her possession.

The immensely powerful object was their last resort. Should they ever be faced with an impossible feat – They would be able to escape back to the Biomechanical Gardens in an instant.

It was all Melody could do to help them.

And Exrite was thankful from the bottom of her heart.

The pressure of Melody’s wishes and Auga’s humble plead to save her children came back to her all at once. There was so much riding on her success that it felt suffocating at times, but for now, she was glad that people had faith in her.

Failure was not an option – Not that she believed it was possible, anyway. No matter how arduous or inevitable the dead ends of fate were, she strove to break through them regardless.

The future was never set in stone, so long as they lived in the present.

This was Exrite’s philosophy.

As she led them towards the gentle ticking, the topic of the mana overload resurfaced the moment they caught sight of a few insect-like creatures undergoing a miniature ‘evolution’.

“Hmm. How intriguing. Oversized insects can withstand the changing process, yet you were destroyed, then reassembled into a beautiful crystal mass.” Uru spoke in a hum as she loomed over Exrite like a spectre. “Perhaps a human body is too fragile to handle such a rapid change, or your body is already at its limit.”

Exrite didn’t deny that possibility. Of course, being a human could’ve been the sole reason why she was underwent the mana overload. However, she found that was extremely unlikely.

Even with a body that not many humans could achieve naturally, there was Kalis – The Greater White Knight who mentored the Otherwordly Heroes of Truebirth; and the legendary Mildly Taniawort – Who pushed what was initially thought of a human’s capabilities to the absolute limit.

In no way was Exrite at the limit of his race’s growth. But then again, no human was ever created equally.

“I doubt it. You’ve seen what the Greater White and Black knights are like, and I’m nowhere near their strength. But who knows. It’s not like Gaia or the Children of Balance are going to make it any easier to figure this out.”

Exrite complained, slightly annoyed. She sighed and reluctantly allowed Uru to brush a thumb across her cheek.

“So soothing. It’s beautiful, Exrite. I can’t feel the ticking in anything save for the Biomech and yourself. Perhaps there is a difference between the gears that we don’t know of. But regardless of that, yours most certainly stands above them all~.”

She stared into Exrite’s eyes seductively.

It was a valid explanation. Perhaps that was the reason why only she could sense their gears.

Although, she couldn’t imagine there were ‘classes’ of gears. Not when they tasted exactly like hers.

“You make a good point. Maybe, just like blood, it’s a compatibility issue.”

White chimed in from out of the blue.

Her Otherworldly knowledge was further explained. Essentially, incompatible blood or in this case gears, could yield adverse effects. It was beyond interesting, because Exrite never knew that transfusing the wrong type of blood could ultimately destroy someone from inside out.

Regardless of this mind-boggling knowledge – She didn’t think this was the case, nor did White after thinking it through.

Exrite definitely changed, but not in the way intended. It was as if the gears took over her body, which ultimately resulted in her transformation into a crystalline, gear-like object.

Then it struck her.

“… wait… what if it had something to do with the strength of my gears compared to that bison’s?” Exrite suddenly blurted out in surprise.

As they passed by a gentle creek, one could find Black’s head nodding viciously in its reflection.

“Hmhm~ So in other words, your gears were so fucking weak, that consuming the bison was more than enough to overwhelm what you’re body’s used to.”

Black hit a bullseye.

Indeed. The gap between her gears and the bison’s must’ve been staggeringly different if her body ended up being destroyed. The reason why the creatures changed when they consumed the gears wasn’t solely to become stronger, but to be able to accommodate it.

However, if the gears were far too strong for the host, then it would destroy them – Just like what happened to her.

The floor-by-floor system suddenly made a lot of sense. If a creature from the <Tenth Floor> was sent to the <Twentieth Floor>, she imagined they would suffer the same fate.

It reminded her of deep sea monsters, and how they adapted to pressure changes.

They could not simply rise to the surface in a short amount of time, less they wanted to explode. Their bodies needed to adapt to the pressure changes at a moderate pace, as well as allow their bodies to accommodate it.

Needless to say, going from one extreme to another would result in death.

She laughed. To have a body with presumably the most powerful gears, and one that was no better than a mere tiny bison was almost comical.

Once again, she was reminded of her weakness as a human.

“Yeah. My body probably couldn’t handle it. If you strip away my heart and eyes, I’m just a normal human.” She claimed. “Not that I mind.”

“For now~” Black nudged her.

This was all purely speculation, however. Exrite wanted to try one final experiment before she could confirm that the gears had varying levels of strength, and that hers was truly above all.

She wanted to know what would happen if a creature absorbed her gears.

* * *

Soon, the moderately hilly meadow became flat for a brief period. In the distance, they could see the outlines of many massive hills. Animals of all sorts roamed the tips of those mounds.

Herds of sheep-like beasts rolled like a stampede of boulders up, down and across the landscape. As they threw petals and stems into the air, giant birds would snatch one from the herd and drop them from a great height before feasting on their crushed innards.

As beautiful as the floor was, there was a darker side of equal proportion.

In an hours time of idle talk and a hurried pace, they were soon among the hills. Here, the density of creatures was staggeringly high. The featherless birds in particular were the most abundant of them all.

The sheep, bees and other four legged beasts hid in burrows or underneath the trees whenever a squad swooped by. They terrorised the meadow, and killed for fun at times.

However – They were somewhat wary of the unknown figures who entered their territory.

For birds, they were mildly intelligent. From the blue patterns of their leathery skin, to their beaks which were easily as long and sharp as a rapier – Exrite seemed to recognise them

They were Swordbirds; which a rare species found Katho region. By the shape of their bodies and beak, it wasn’t hard to understand how they acquired such a name.

Adventurers that were unfortunate to encounter these beasts would have to rely on magic. Swordbirds were infamous for their speed, and the sword-like swings of their beak which could easily bisect a man in two.

Alone, it may be possible for a C-ranked adventurer to survive an encounter. However, they were always in twos or fours.

Not even a B-ranked adventurer could hold their own, let alone survive for a minute.

Khaos would sigh every time one would swoop close in a threatening manner. As someone who travelled through Katho, he had once squared off with a gang of them.

While the details were hazy at the top of his mind, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine what a Frostbitten with enough strength to uproot fully grown oak trees could to to a man-sized bird.

The group acknowledged their presence, but ignored them for the most part.

This seemed to enrage a specific squad of four. Provoked by they turned backs, they suddenly nosedived towards the group from a more than two hundred metres in the air.

In seconds, they elapsed almost half of the distance. It was a sure kill, and their targets seemed to be a certain black-haired Otherworlder and Frostbitten. With near zero resistance and their backs still turned – They were sure that there was nothing that could stop them, even if they were to suddenly retaliate.

However –

“Like an insect to honey. Couldn’t resist our backs, could you?” Black sadistically sneered.

Their beaks shattered like glass. An invisible wall instantly killed two of the four Swordbirds. They horrific collision caused a mangled thud to echo throughout the meadow, like a warning call.

Exrite wasn’t so naive to allow their backs to be completely exposed – Especially not when they were in the territory of the Swordbirds. A [Hybrid Barrier] was erected ever since they set foot into these hills.

But not only to protect them, however.

Exrite wanted a test subject for her planned experiment. But she didn’t want an innocent creature to suffer because of her curiosity; although she wouldn’t mind if it came down to it.

Frosty mostly influenced this decision. If a creature was going to suffer, then it was because they brought it upon themselves – That was her only condition.

Of course, Exrite would have to ignore it if the Swordbirds failed to take the bait. But thankfully, it all went her way.

And she even snagged a second one.

Their hollow faces bled like a fountain, and their wings were as twisted the roots of a dead tree. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they died within the next few seconds.

But White didn’t allow that. She was the only person here who could cast [Healing] magic at a competent level. Her target however, was to only stop their bleeding and prologue their life.

The pain and comorbidites were left alone.

She couldn’t care less about her enemies.

They screeched, calling for their friends to come to their aid.

But no one dared to approach the group. The Swordbirds were smart enough to understand that if they messed with them, then they would most certainly be killed.

At the sight of no one, the birds trembled as their split eyes broadened in terror.

Exrite couldn’t feel an ounce of pity, even if she tried. Had they left them alone; then they wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.

If they had known just who these people were, they would’ve never dared to think of spilling their blood.

With their fate sealed, Khaos easily plucked them with a single hand as they continued their journey through the <Twentieth Floor>.

However –

“We only need one for this. You can leave it there if you want, Khaos.” Exrite softly spoke as she turned to the lumbering man.

“Right. Sorry buddy, but you kinda earned that.”

As he spoke to the birds, he gently left the more ‘battered’ of the two behind.

They expected its friends to come rescue it, but that never happened.

What awaited was a far crueller fate. The price for daring to attack not only the Colours and a Demon, but also the Maiden of Time was only death.

At the absence of White’s magic, blood began to escape its hollow face once again. As it writhed in a pool of its life, it screeched in an attempt to plead for help.

However, this caused the opposite to occur. Instead of its friend coming to its side, the lesser beings its kind preyed on appeared one by one from their burrows and the nearby trees.

They feasted on it, like it was their last meal.

“So, think it’s about time you tell us what you’re plan is, Exrite? I held back an itchy trigger finger just. For. You~” Black grinned as she bumped her shoulder against hers.

“Yeah… I’m curious as well. You didn’t tell us anything aside from wanting to experiment on something. Geez, Exrite… you’re always like this. Unless you don’t trust us, huh. Is that why?”

Frosty spoke with a very specific degree of banter and sarcasm. While Exrite understood her intentions, she couldn’t help but to regret keeping in them in the dark.

“… Sorry. I just didn’t know if Uru would agree with me if I said it too early. But then again, what makes it any different saying it now.” She turned to Uru with stern eyes.

“Hmm? Ho. How surprising. While I’m flattered that you, the Maiden of Time, values the opinion a Demon like myself so highly –” Uru spoke like she was reciting scripture.

But her eyes suddenly narrowed and clashed with Exrite’s gaze. With a devilish grin, she bared her razor-sharp fangs and licked them clean.

“– But why do I feel like you’re up to something dubious? Exrite, you know nothing brings me more pain that to watch my beloved Maiden of Time compromise herself.”

“I’m not compromising anything, Uru. I only want test the strength of my gears on the Swordbird – Mmph!?”

“Exrite. I heard you correctly, didn’t I? You plan to feed a part of your sacred body to a something that can’t even compare to a grain of sand?”

There was no time for Exrite to react. Before she could even blink, her mouth was already sealed by Uru’s iron grip.

But it was… surprisingly gentle? Surely, if she tried, she could pry her hand away with relative ease. But she wanted to hear the rest of what Uru had to say.

“Although, that’s ultimately your decision. Rejoice, Exrite. I can only hope you will come to understand that even a single strand of hair from your body is worth more than the lives of a thousand races.”

She spoke with a sombre voice. As a Demon, it was her duty and obligation to guide Exrite into becoming a Maiden worthy of the world’s respect.

But the problem was; Exrite had no desire for such a thing. Status and prestige was a toxin that Exrite wanted to avoid like the plague. She would much rather be close to a group that could argue with her ideals, than people who nonchalantly agreed to every word she uttered.

She despised such an ungenuine way of living.

Reluctantly, Uru’s hand moved back to her side. So did her gaze, which reeked with perpetual disappointment. As much as she despised Exrite’s way of handling herself as the Maiden of Time, there was no way to stop her.

An awkward silence befell the group. The scrunching of grass and petals was all that played in the ambience of this floor. Soon, the hills began to make way and revealed a flat expanse that led to a strange platform of broken pillars and debris.

Judging by the many creatures that wandered there – It was most likely where the obelisk resided.

Exrite understood how Uru felt, but couldn’t empathise with her. Was status so important that it didn’t matter who the person was?

In other words, Exrite wanted to be Exrite – Not the Maiden of Time or the Exrenity.

She valued the person over their status, their prestige, their linage – Everything.

As they began travelling towards the broken pillars, Exrite whispered something to her.

“… Uru. Gaia chose me of all people to become the Maiden of Time and the Exrenity. If she really wanted someone to take over and become a Maiden who truly upheld those values – Then why did she choose me?”

Uru didn’t turn to her. But she seemed like she was listening.

“I’m just as confused as you are, Uru. I never wanted to become the Maiden of Time. The Exrenity. To challenge the Maidens of Six Point. I was thrown into all of this with no indication of where to go next. The difference between us is that I don’t value my title as much as you do. I don’t know what it truly means, because I am a human…”

Exrite’s eyes softened as they dazzled like gems underneath the light.

“But maybe that’s why Gaia chose me in the first place.”

She laughed at herself.

As if it was that simple.

Anyone could fit the role better than her.

But at least she had a vague idea of Gaia’s reasoning.

It was annoying. Irritating. Stressful. And sad.

She was never told anything, and was thrown into a series of events that felt like it came straight out of someone’s whimsical dream. It was funny.

And she laughed rightfully so. But a part of her was pained, saddened because in the end, she was fulfilling everyone else’ goals, wishes and dreams – And not hers.

Not now, at least. She had high hopes- No. She was certain that some day, her goals would finally be realised.

But she wondered – If it was so easy for everyone to tell her what to do for their sake, then why couldn’t anyone tell her anything for her simple wish of finding a place to call home?

The thought stuck with her, but she didn’t let it fester. It was nothing but a side-thought. A pebble on the side of the road. The simple flutter of a butterfly’s wing.

* * *

The ruined platform was very reminiscent to the space where they fought the Decanid, but also very different. Everything here was mostly comprised of strange yellow bricks and stone. One could easily mistake it for sandstone, as Exrite did until Uru revealed that it was in fact limestone.

The pillars were scattered throughout the platform unevenly, and reached no higher than five metres. They were ruined, chipped and eroded. There wasn’t a single pillar that was in perfect condition.

The same gear-shaped etchings they found on the ruins of the Biomechanical Garden could be found here. What they meant however, wasn’t something they could understand.

That aside – Exrite began the preparations of her test.

In a clearing, Khaos laid out the Swordbird in the centre of the group. It remained there, unmoving as it watched Exrite swiftly draw her dagger. She pointed it at the back of her palm, intending to only draw as little blood as possible for Uru’s sake.

She slashed it against her skin, and nothing happened. She tried again. Twice, thrice – six times with an appropriate amount of strength, but still couldn’t pierce through her flesh.

The blade was easily one of the sharpest weapons she had the pleasure of possessing, and the strength she put behind it wasn’t exactly weak either.

The site stung as if she had slashed open a shallow wound. But the pain was negligible.

“Let’s make things easier. Exrite, please hold still.” White suggested as she suddenly pulled out her pale blade.

Because it was White, she wholeheartedly entrusted her body to her. White didn’t waste any time and instantly sent a slash to the back of Exrite’s palm.

However, Exrite’s hand was taken with thrown up with the tip of her blade. Rather than slicing, White had smacked the Maiden’s hand way with a blade that could cut through carbodix with ease.

The pain was severe, but Exrite brushed it off and simply shook her hand before repositioning it.

“Seriously…? Just how tough is your skin?”

“I don’t know myself –”

White struck mind sentence. She thought that perhaps the Maiden’s had a defensive mechanism that could thicken their skin if they were expected to take damage.

However, Exrite’s hand was slapped upwards once again.

She needed to put more power into her next strike.

“Sorry if the wound’s bigger than normal. I can try to heal you afterwards, if you’d like.” White kindly offered.

“Good luck with that.” Black crudely muttered.

White focused intently on Exrite’s palm. Her grip tightened as she prepared to strike Exrite with half of her full strength. With a slash so fast that even the air cracked in its wake – A small gash finally formed on her hand.

It was much smaller than she thought, actually. If she could compare the strength of her strike to bullets, it would’ve been a hundred times that of her handgun. To only leave such a small wound, superficial wound was a testament to the strength of a Maiden’s body.

Thankfully though, she bled. Although only a droplet of blood managed to be squeezed outr.

But it was more than enough to test her theory.

While they couldn’t actually see the droplet of blood, White could barely hold herself back from licking Exrite’s hand dry. The scent was unlike any other. It was divine. It was truly blood suitable for a being akin to a Maiden.

She immediately blocked out her sense of smell, taste and natural ability to detect blood. But the effort was in vain. The scent had already been ingrained into her mind.

The next time she reverted to her blood-thirsty self, Exrite would most certainly be on the menu.

Uru wore a pained face. To see her beloved Maiden of Time injured was agonising. But there was little she could do.

Exrite gently tipped her hand over. The drop of blood fell like a crystal bead, except this had an infinite value, for it was the very essence of the Maiden of Time herself.

It fell into the Swordbird’s hollow face with a gentle thud and easily slid down its damaged throat.

And when it finally entered its bloodstream –

It began to convulse.

The bird which had been unmoving since its collision was suddenly invigorated with life. This was only for a moment, however. It did not take even five seconds before the bird suddenly froze and turned pale.

But that wasn’t a mere expression; Its bluish skin, crimson blood and silver eyes all turned as pale as snow.

Its body then vibrated in the most bizarre manner. Like the ripples of a lake, its body shook and trembled rapidly as if it was a liquid.

The reaction caught everyone off guard. The change was so sudden and quick, that they could feel a roaring heat emit from the creature’s tortured body.

Or what was left of by now.

By the time ten seconds elapsed, the bird had reduced to a paste that stuck to the platform like glue. To a random observer, it would appear like someone had spilt white paint.

But this paint was all that remained of the Swordbird. Its bones, organs, blood and flesh were rendered down its purest form. The bird didn’t even have the luxury to cry one last time.

It was dead before anyone could realise it.

The mana overload, or what Exrite called; a ‘gear overload’, happened so fast that no one could believe it at first. It was hard to fathom that the pale splatter underneath them was once a creature not ten seconds ago.

“Aha! It became a fucking slime. Good riddance as well. I just wished we could’ve played with it a bit longer~” Black was ecstatic by its spontaneous death.

The opaque liquid failed to reflect her cunning smile.

“I absolutely love watching things give into hopelessness. There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing the fear settle into someone’s eyes, especially when they realise just who they made themselves the enemy of.”

“Keep your monologue to yourself.”

White sighed as briefly inspected her blade. To her surprise, there wasn’t a stand of Exrite’s blood anywhere to be found.

“Anyway, this proves your ‘gear power’ theory, doesn’t it Exrite? If ten seconds was all it took to destroy its body, then its obvious your gears are far more powerful.”

It was no surprise. After all, Exrite was the Maiden of Time.

“No kidding...” Khaos muttered in disbelief.

Its body could not accommodate her gears. The only option it had was to self-destruct, which was caused by the rapid change its body attempted to undergo. But alas, it was nowhere near enough.

And all it took was a single drop of blood.

“Two extremes results in this, huh…? Does it really have to be so cruel?”

“Did you forget the world you live in? This is Six Point, Frosty. The world you so dearly adore boasts a shadow of an equal proportion.”

Uru spoke with some edge in her voice as she stared at Exrite’s wound.

“To think that this world is full of miracles, and to follow the foolish ideals of hope will lead to despair. You’re a juvenile Frostbitten, but a Frostbitten nevertheless. In due time, you’ll come to understand that cruelty is what keeps us grounded to reality.”

“Huh? I don’t speak Demon, Uru. What do you know about us? If cruelty really keeps us grounded like you say, then it’s no wonder we’re attracted to the light of hope. Deep down, we all just want to escape –”

“Sis. Uru. Can we please stop and focus on what’s in front us?” Khaos attempted to defuse the two.

Frosty didn’t avert her gaze from Uru. While they agreed to shut their mouths, Frosty found herself at odds with the Demon once again.

Their ideals were polar opposites. Uru believed in the absolute nature of the world and its cruelty, while Frosty clung onto the faint strands of hope. To her, hope was an inspiration that could test the odds and even fate itself.

And to Uru – Hope was nothing but a false wish. A self-imploding desire that would ultimately break an individual when they were finally faced with the cruelty of fate.

But the two never despised each other. It was only their ideals, and a few other quirks that they disliked. In the end, Frosty sighed and turned to Exrite.

She stared back and gave her a soft smile, as if thanking her for holding her frustrations back.

“Honestly… I don’t get you Exrite.” She muttered, nearly breaking into a smile when Exrite lightly chuckled.

“Neither. But at least we know what to expect from now on.” She turned to the direction of the ticking, and her eyes sharpened. “Well, there is still one more question we haven’t answered.”

“Hmhm~” Black eagerly nodded and bumped her shoulder against Exrite’s. “Correct! The real question is; how many fucking floors are left now?”

“Only one way to find out. Let’s go.” Frosty gestured before she stole a glance at Uru.

She still wore a disgusted face, and her eyes never left her injured hand. Although, the wound had already closed it seemed. There was only the faint outline of a scratch.

But that scratch alone was like an eternal smear in Uru’s eyes. She could not simply overlook it.

“Uru. I’m sorry, but I want answers more than anything. I’m not going to play along with the illusion of status, and risk knowing nothing. This is Gaia’s trial, and the last thing we want is to be stumped because we were too busy worrying about protecting my non-existent integrity as a Maiden.”

Exrite slowly spoke, her voice in between being scolding and gentle.

The group followed her suit as they left behind the remains of the Swordbird. Uru kept close to Exrite. Despite the clear annoyance on her face, she keenly listened to her voice.

“And it’s not like Gaia told me anything either. Uru, if no one’s going to tell me anything – Then I am willing to take the initiative to find everything out myself.”

She turned back to the world ahead with stern eyes.

“I just don’t like being left alone in the dark.”

“Whatever you say, Exrite. I just hope you’re not mistaking ‘willingness’ with ‘recklessness’. The world is watching you, Exrite. People are aware of the Maiden of Time’s return – And I can only hope that you won’t fall prey to their desires.”

She pushed a thumb onto Exrite’s lips.

“Add a hundred points for me. Maybe then, I’ll be able to forgive you~”

A dangerous chill ran down Exrite’s spine. However, it seemed like Uru wouldn’t be satisfied without her ‘reward’. Reluctantly, she mumbled:

“Half.”

And Uru lapped the offer with a devilish grin.

She didn’t know what Uru was saving her ‘favour points’ for, but it didn’t take a genius to know that it was for no good. Ultimately, it was all under Exrite’s discretion.

A long sigh left her. They continued their journey through the many dilapidated pillars. The ticking grew stronger with every step, and soon, they finally found the pale obelisk.

However, it was different from the previous iterations. Rather than boasting a thin, pillar-like shape; it was a giant hollow ring. It easily dwarfed them, as it stood more than ten metres tall.

A high-pitched noise was emitted every time a creature walked through the glowing ring. The static veil was like the fogs of the Shallows, devouring all that dared to venture through.

They approached it cautiously. It was the first time they had seen a different type of obelisk – if it could still be called one – and they didn’t know what to expect.

But like the previous obelisks, it reacted to Exrite’s presence. The lines that were etched into its thin frame illuminated as a magical circle suddenly appeared underneath them.

“So we’ll still be transported by a magical circle, huh?” Frosty commented.

“Let’s not be hasty. We haven’t teleported yet.” White said.

The strange veil that filled the ring suddenly shifted into a myriad of colours. It flickered through like how one would sift through the pages of a thick book. With each passing second, the ticking intensified to the point where it numbed their senses.

Animals and creatures that planned to pass onto the next floor hid behind the pillars, wondering what the phenomenon was. The amplified ticking seemed to ward them more than it drew them in.

Or perhaps they were among the few who witnessed them kill the Swordbirds without lifting a single finger.

Either way – It did not change that they opted to stay out of plain sight.

When the ticking and high-pitched rumble reached a climax, beams of light suddenly shot through the tips of the surrounding pillars. The world was illuminated in an intense light blue as the group searched left and right in case something was off.

Save for Exrite, who was drawn to strange object. She could hear- No, sense a [Gear] from inside. It was faint, and far weaker than the [Gears] of the previous obelisks.

The veil then suddenly turned grey and converged into a single point in the centre of the ring. With one final rumble, the entire floor was painted blue before everything slowly began to die down.

The lights faded away into millions of particles that hung in the air like gentle snow. The animals emerged one by one, amazed by the strange event.

In the centre of the obelisk, was a single blue [Gear]. It hovered there mysteriously, emitting a gentle glow.

It was beautiful. Exrite found herself drawn to it more than any other [Gear] she had come across. As it sat there in deafening silence, the magical circle underneath them flickered all of a sudden.

They braced themselves, preparing to be teleported to the <Twenty-First Floor>.

But their expectations were betrayed. A voice seemingly spoke from out of nowhere.

Pick up the [Gear], Exrenity.”

It seemed like it wasn’t just Exrite who heard it. Everyone was stunned, almost bewildered by the beautiful voice.

It belonged to Gaia. However, there was no other presence besides themselves and lurking creatures here.

“Hey… I’m not going insane, right? Did anyone else hear that voice?” Khaos uttered.

“No. I heard it too.” White replied as she ran her gaze across every direction.

“We all did. Any idea on what that was, Exrite? It sounded like they were talking to you.”

Exrite blankly blinked. As she wiped away a stray hair from her face, she slowly whispered:

“That… was Gaia. The previous Maiden of Time… She must’ve left a message here for us.”

Uru was instantly moved. The voice that could capture the hearts of any living being was truly befitting of the previous Maiden.

She fell to her knees in utmost respect, cracking the platform with an impossible strength.

Her face was filled with nothing short of pure bliss as she stared at Exrite’s figure.

Even if it was a pre-recorded message – The voice still belonged to the ancient Maiden of Time.

“The Maiden of Time…?” Frosty whispered in utter disbelief.

No one knew how to feel. The Colours didn’t know the significance of this discovery, but they did admire the tantalising beauty of Gaia’s voice.

As for the others – They knew just how monumental it was to hear the voice of such an ancient Maiden. Gaia had existed ever since time began, and her whereabouts were lost in time for the majority of her life as a Maiden.

There was so little proof of her existence that many wondered if she existed in the first place.

This was the oldest footprint of the Maiden of Time. It was proof that Gaia had once roamed Six Point, however long ago that was.

“It’s just her voice, isn’t it? You’ve got the real deal in front of you, so don’t act so surprised!” Black laughed. “But then again; what do we know about your world. C’mon, Exrite. You’re stalling now.”

“Ah- Yeah… right.” Exrite shook her head as she returned to reality.

Unlike the others, it wasn’t the Maiden of Time’s voice that struck her with awe.

It was the lonely [Gear].

“Pick it up, she said… I wonder what will happen when I – Eh? Uru!?”

“We finally found her!” From seemingly nowhere, the voluptuous Demon suddenly embraced Exrite from the side.

Her hands wrapped her tightly, as she shoved her face into Exrite’s neck. The girl was lifted from the floor as Uru arched backwards. Their loud commotion and celebratory yells startled the animals away ever so adorably.

Soon, Uru dragged Exrite down to their knees. Her weight was too much for Exrite to fend off. As she drew a hand up to pry herself away from the uncharacteristically cheerful Demon, Uru cried.

“Thank you! From the bottom of my heart, thank you Exrite!”

Her hand froze midway.

She felt something moist on her neck. Uru was crying. Not out of sadness, but of happiness.

The comfort of her ticking heart mellowed the Demon as a surge of innocent emotions slipped through the cracks of her heart. She adored every Maiden with all her heart, but nowhere near as much as the Maiden of Time.

As Exrite wondered what was wrong, she lowered her hand and allowed Uru to embrace her.

Just what did the Maiden of Time mean to Uru, if hearing her voice was enough to push her to tears? Like the dream she had, Exrite softly smiled and slowly brought the same hand to Uru’s head.

For a little longer, she let the Demon embrace her. The memory of when Uru broke into cheerful tears in the valley’s lake made her softly hum. Her gentle pats, her motherly warmth and soothing ticking all helped Uru regain her compsure.

For a short while, the two were intertwined as the others stood around. Some with smiles, and others in surprise. Uru was the last person anyone would expect to cry, or to have a sudden outburst of emotion.

It felt like an hour passed before she finally parted with a thankful smile. Exrite eagerly returned it and spoke.

“Uru. Let’s get going, shall we?”

“Hmm. Lead the way, Exrite.” She smiled. “The last thing I expected was to find proof of the Maiden of Time… not that I never believed she existed. To believe in a Maiden with no proof was a feat for my kind, and we kept it up for so many years… and to finally find proof of her existence here in her dungeon no less – I’m eternally thankful for meeting you, Exrite.”

Exrite stood up and offered her a hand.

“Uru. That’s a strange way of saying you’re happy. Let’s go.”

“Of course, my beloved Maiden of Time~”

She took Exrite’s hand and elegantly rose to her feet. They smiled at each other for a moment before Exrite approached the [Gear].

Once again, Black and White wondered what their relationship was. With a sigh, Black muttered:

“Fucking. Finally. I was starting to grow impatient. Try to get a room next time, you two.”

“Hmm. Not a bad suggestion, Colour.”

Frosty crossed her arms and whispered:

“A perverted Succubus and murderous machines… Really, I want to know what’s goes through her mind half the time.” She sighed and shut her eyes. “But at least she has a leash on Uru.”

“Sis, you really like to complain a lot.”

“Huh?”

“Or let me rephrase that – You’re not really honest with yourself. Good to know you haven’t changed a bit!”

Khaos laughed and brought a giant fist to his face.

“Trust isn’t easy for us. We went through some tough times in the past, but now – We’re stronger than ever. If things don’t go our way, we can always punch through our problems – One fist at a time!”

White inadvertently chuckled when she heard that. Even Frosty found herself unable to conceal her smile.

“Geez… you’re such an idiot! Why do you feel the need to be so embarrassing sometimes?”

“It’s my way of showing how much I love you Sis – Ouch!”

“Shut up!”

Their commotion sparked some unrest. Under Frosty’s hidden face, White found a kind smile and adored it. Soon, Uru and Black joined in the fray before suddenly –

“Come join us, White. Exrite’s nearly done over there!”

Khaos reached out his own hand to her. Surprised by his gesture, she eagerly took it and listened to the banter of the group, like a mother watching over her children.

At the ringed obelisk, Exrite stood at its base and reached out for the blue [Gear]. When her delicate fingertips encased the palm-sized [Gear] like the railings of a cage –

Their surroundings were instantly changed. The limestone platform became soft soil, with some patches of coarse crass.

By the heat of the sun and the exclusionary waves in the distance – This was without a doubt a savanna.

Slowly, Exrite opened her palms and saw the beautiful object.

The [Gear] gently glowed, and was warm to touch.

A mysterious power emanated from it, and strangely; It felt like it was a part of her.

Like it was another limb. An eye. A vessel of herself.

This was her first [Gear].

Her eyes held a gentle sheen. Now that she finally had a [Gear] in her possession, she could begin to unravel the secrets that Gaia intentional omitted.

The embodiment of everything and nothing. Magical objects that had a limitless source of mana, and could serve as physical magical circles. What should I do with this [Gear]?

As a myriad of ideas surged through her mind, she set her sights into the distance.

And before she knew it, her legs began to lead her towards the obelisk of the <Twenty-First Floor>.

Hello! I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for the incredibly late upload schedule over the past two months or so. I don't have an excuse for this.

As to why this chapter is so long - I don't like uploading what I feel are incomplete chapters. For some reason, I wasn't satisfied until the characters finally acquired the gear.

If you enjoyed this chapter, then I've done my job and I'm happy. Thanks for reading!

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