45. Deeper
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Gaia Timeless, the previous Maiden of Time.

In the world of Corozin, there was no being as fantastical and mythical than her. The Children of Balance – the Gods that were responsible for creating all six Maidens and twelve Overlords – were nowhere near as notorious her.

Her existence was entirely speculation ever since she set foot into the world, however long ago that was. The only source of her existence came from recorded encounters and visits from the Demons and the magical races of the north, including the Elves.

But this was unreliable. Knowledge from word of mouth tends to distort, and can be interpreted in an array of ways. Undoubtedly, whatever happened in the past is far different than what’s claimed today.

No one knew anything about her. But her teachings in the past was what forged the Demons and the magical races into what they are today. She was so prominent in the history of the Demons that they would not exist without her –

Yet they knew absolutely nothing about her, apart from her teachings.

Uru was like any other Demon. She believed in the Maidens as much as she did with their Gods; the Zelmori Fall. As a Demon, the existence of the Maiden of Time was absolute. To question or to say otherwise was blasphemy, and a betrayal to the Maidens and the Children of Balance.

Uru believed in the Maiden of Time unlike any other Demon. She was beyond absolute of her existence, to the point where she’d kill anyone who would dare to think otherwise.

An astounding Demon she was. An amalgamation of all ideals and beliefs forged into one indomitable being that shed the blood of tens of thousands in the name of the Maiden of Time.

But the threat of death never persuaded those she fought. The absolute truth she knew was something the world called a lie; a hoax crafted by the northern races.

For years, Uru spent her life enraged by the world’s ignorance.

But with no proof, the world could never grasp the truth.

Then it came to her one fateful night:

If she was going to prove the Maiden of Time’s existence to the world, then she needed ‘evidence’. And there was no proof greater than plucking it from the source.

The Children of Balance.

It was a task truly befitting of a Demon of her calibre. If she were to seek the Gods of Colight and their beloved Maidens, acquire the truth and spread it – Then the world would finally understand the truth.

But she was naive.

The moment she admitted that the only way to protect the Maiden of Time’s integrity, was to find proof of her existence.

But as a Demon, she failed to realise that doing so was synonymous to admitting that she didn’t exist.

Or that was at least how her closest companions put it to undermine her reign.

* * *

An explosion resounded throughout the <Thirty Fifth Floor>. A giant Sandworm that spanned more than ten metres in length was instantly annihilated by a [Seeker]. Chunky remains were scattered throughout the arid landscape, painting the dusty dunes in a coarse red as Exrite gave her a strange look.

“Hm? What’s wrong, Uru?” She asked with a raised brow.

Throughout their journey through the dungeon, Uru limited herself to a lesser form of magic. To unexpectedly summon a magical circle and fire a hailstorm of [Seekers] was jarring to say the least.

“Nothing. I merely thought it was an appropriately reply to the Sandworm for daring to point its disgusting mouth towards you.” Uru hummed as the rest of her [Seekers] spread out and struck whatever target they could find. “What a pitiful creature. Even its friends scattered after witnessing its death. How pathetic.”

As the others, primarily Black, marvelled at her destructive magic; Uru’s eyes mellowed onto Exrite. In the distance, a trail of shifting sand was struck by one of the purple beams of death. It was one of the few Sandworms that accompanied the one prior, but fled the moment they realised that the roaming figures weren’t prey – But predators.

The Sandworms were the apex predators of the <Thirty Fifth Floor>, and devoured all that dared to tread over the shifting sands. The other creatures were forced to travel across the grassy plains in the outskirts of the floor in order to avoid the gaping maws of these abominations.

“… Aren’t you getting too worked up, Uru? That wasn’t the first bunch of Sandworms to target us.”

Exrite spoke sternly as she observed the ravaged corpse of the beast when they passed it.

Uru didn’t reply. Instead, she wiped off a grain of sand underneath Exrite’s eye with a thumb. As she began to hum a pleasant song, Exrite sighed and spaced herself away from the Demon.

Whatever was on Uru’s mind must’ve ticked her off. It fed into Exrite’s curiosity, but she refrained from asking. That was none of her concern, however, she couldn’t help but to wonder whether it was indeed because of the Sandworm or a resurging memory.

The thought stuck with her as she led the group further into the desert-like landscape.

Their boots sunk and fell into the loose sands. For the most part, it was no different from any other terrain. Their lightweight bodies were agile, and in fights, it was barely a hindrance.

However, the same could not be said for Khaos. The two metre-tall man who sported muscles that were like mountains was heavy enough. Add the weight of their cargo; and it was a recipe for disaster.

He stumbled and staggered around half the time. The sand easily gave in to the immense weight, which made it particularly risky to travel over and alongside the slopes of a sand dune.

Exrite wondered if Uru would be willing to carry Khaos across the floor. At first glance, it was a good idea. But add in Khaos’ phobia of heights and Uru’s mischievous grin that not even Talia could trust; and it turned out that it was once again, a recipe for disaster.

White remained at the back to support him. But rather for the sake of his well-being, White’s worry derived from the three remaining grenades alongside their cargo.

He was a ticking time bomb. With the scorching heat of the floor, and Uru’s spontaneous heat generation, she couldn’t afford to risk it. The explosion would undoubtedly kill half of the group instantaneously.

But there was also one more hazard. Surprisingly, it was Exrite. Her gaze fell onto the unsuspecting girl. Or, more specifically – the strange fist-sized object that hovered beside her.

It was the [Gear] she had acquired fifteen floors-ago. The blue object was always fascinating, no matter how many times she tried to decipher its inner workings. It followed and obeyed Exrite’s will like it was an extension of her own body – or like another limb, as Exrite described it.

The circular centre of the gear pointed wherever her eyes fell and at times, would slowly orbit Exrite.

Soon, multiple grassy land-bridge could be seen in the distance. They extended from the far outskirts of the floor and met in the centre like a spider’s web. Creatures of all sizes moved across the landmass as one, resisting the temptations of hunger and bloodshed.

Some of the smaller creatures could be seen riding on the backs of Giant Tortoises, which brought a pleasant smile to Frosty’s face.

“Amazing… but it’s kinda sad that they’ll be enemies on the next floor again.” Frosty couldn’t hide her sudden disappointment, but she spoke with a warm voice. “Still, I love how they can set aside their differences and move on as one, even if it’s for a bit.”

Exrite held back a small chuckle, and Black did so similarly. Her normally cold demeanour and distrustful nature made her words appear ironic.

“Unlike us~”

Black teased in a hum. She glanced at Frosty, checking if she managed to bait a reaction. At the sight of her steady smile, she hummed again and loudly stretched.

“That aside, do you really believe their cooperation comes from the goodness of their hearts? Herds this complacent don’t exist in nature. Especially when they’re walking alongside the evolved predators of this floor, and prey alike.”

Exrite understood what Black was getting at. Indeed, there was something else affecting their behaviour. Throughout their descent, the same behaviour arose immediately after they ‘changed’.

Everything pointed to the obelisks, although, they couldn’t explain why some creatures opted to cooperate with other species – even before the change, and at times, on the other proceeding floors.

“Huh? Haven’t we come across a few unorthodox groups already. We saw that pack of wolves and cats on the <Twenty Second Floor>, and every other floor until we lost them.”

“Probably an outlier, but you can’t tell what that Maiden of Time is thinking. Not when she’ll keep even her dear Exrite in the dark. If she wanted to simulate nature, then she should’ve ditched the floors and created one giant room. But I guess this is a trial at the end of the day – except it feels more like a processing plant.”

Black inadvertently complained with a loud, long lasting sigh. The crunching of sand played again as they traversed the flattest part of the dunes.

Then, she muttered:

“The question is – what rests at the bottom, after all these floors?”

“A monster, most likely. Or maybe a floor filled with them. All these strengthened monsters have to end up somewhere, right?” Khaos claimed, confident with his answer.

Uru firmly nodded in agreement, although:

“Don’t forget about the ‘home’ of the Maiden of Time. At the depths, likely after the final floor, we’ll reach it.”

“This far down? Hmm~ Makes you wonder what your acclaimed Maiden of Time was up to, if she hid her home so deep underground. I’m actually impressed that the temperature hasn’t skyrocketed by now.”

“Either she has the floors insulated with magic, or, it goes to show just how massive this world truly is...” White added as she surveyed the dusty ceiling.

It was beyond a kilometre high. If the winds picked up anymore sand and skewed their vision, it would undoubtedly appear as if they were in a desert somewhere in Six Point. Perhaps in the Scorched, except these temperatures were nowhere near as hot.

Then, she brought her gaze back onto the [Gear] following Exrite. The object endlessly fueled her curiosity. Black’s ‘plan B’ if Exrite failed to defeat the Maiden of Realms was to create weapons similar to theirs.

She wondered if it was possible, and after considering the Biomech and the evolving bodies of the Geared – it had every potential to work. Their weapons could be seen as something similar to Exrite’s [Gear]; they could control it at will, and it was an extension of themselves.

Except, they didn’t run on [Gears]. It ran purely on energy, and so long as it was intact, it would function. It could transform into an array of forms that were designed to best suit their wielder through an ability exclusive to the Colours.

This was [Materialisation]. It enabled them to directly convert energy into complex metals and materials that could shape the function and design of their weapons.

It explained how Black and White never seemed to run out of ammunition.

However, its use was extremely limited. Even more so that they had no access to the rest of their powers, which was locked away in the Colour Plane.

Suddenly, her train of thought was interrupted. In an instant, Exrite’s [Gear] was thrust in front of her, while Frosty proclaimed:

“Traplions! Watch your step, Exrite! There’s a bunch hiding in the sands just ahead!”

In an instant, or rather, before Frosty’s warning – Exrite had already come to a stop. She seemed to notice the strange ‘loose’ mounds ahead, which were wide enough to have four people squished in.

“Yeah, I saw that. Thanks. I just didn’t know if I was seeing things or not.” Exrite turned back and thanked her with a smile before shortly turning back to study the peculiar mounds.

Traplions were interesting creatures. They seemed to exist on the dryer areas of Six Point, and rarely in swamps according to Uru. These lurking creatures were like a breed between a trap-door spider and an antlion.

But rather than preying on lesser creatures, their primary source of food came from humanoids and other races that were foolish enough to tread over their gaping mouth, which lay hidden beneath the loose sand mounds.

Uru was tempted to annihilate them on the spot, but Exrite was one step ahead of her.

With her [Gear], which was already ten metres in the air, suddenly spun. From its centre, came forth a blazing liquid that easily coated the sands. As it spread, the death woes of the Traplions echoed in the empty air as the red-flaming liquid was poured into their mouths, and brunt them from inside out.

This was [Liquid Fire], or what the Commanders called, ‘makeshift napalm’. Despite being an elemental-type magic, it wasn’t anything Exrite had heard of before. And no one could blame her, as it was strangely a magic the Demons created.

Either way, it was an incredibly effective magic.

In what felt like seconds, the woes subsided and all that was left were sunken holes filled with molten sand, and a repulsive stench. More than a dozen Traplions had been killed in the blink of an eye, and it hardly cost Exrite anything.

“Doesn’t get boring, no matter how many times it. But your aim was a little off. Still, it’s an improvement alright. Worlds better than the first time you tried using it~”

Black hummed and mashed her shoulder against Exrite’s.

The first time Exrite tried to use the [Gear], and Uru’s magic that was imbued into it resulted in what could only be described as a ‘near miss incident’.

To summarise, Exrite nearly ignited the grenades in their cargo because she failed to point the [Gear] in the correct direction. Thankfully, she had an experimental [Hybrid Barrier] up, which was akin to the [Eight Tier].

At the time, her goal was to create a [Barrier] that would essentially be one-way, but ended up creating a three-layered [Hybrid Barrier].

That aside – like any other human, or other creature for that matter; one would find it difficult and disorientating if they suddenly found themselves able to control a ‘new’ limb.

Except this limb could not be felt, and can move like a disjointed part of the body. For the past two days and over fifteen floors, Exrite still found coordinating the [Gear] to be far more difficult than she imagined.

To control something freely through space and not feel a thing was disorienting. But for two days, she couldn’t help but feel somewhat proud of her progress.

With the [Gear] returning to her side, Uru slowly began to lead the group towards the pale obelisk only a kilometre ahead.

As Exrite grinned at her success with utilising the [Gear] – which was essentially a remote magical circle – White glared at her and sighed.

“I hope the risk of friendly fire’s gone now. But I’m curious – does controlling and activating your [Gear] cost any mana?” She asked, catching a nod from Frosty as well. “If I remember correctly, weren’t you trying out all sorts of magic on the [Gear]? And even afterwards with Frosty and Uru?”

“Hm… I don’t think so. If it did, I would’ve fallen into a mana depletion by now.”

“Ho? And whose fault do you think that is?” Uru sternly spoke, a tinge of annoyance in her voice. “Did you truly believe a [Gear] of that size could handle the power of a Maiden’s magic?”

“No, but I wanted to gauge exactly what it can handle. I just didn’t think trying to slow down time was so damn expensive. Not in such a small radius.”

Exrite complained, although most of it derived from her inexperience and lack of knowledge regarding the concept of time.

While she had a small understanding of what it was compared to the last time; the cost was still far from usable.

As a result of countless trials and errors to fine tune it, she had lost a massive chunk of mana, and now sat on a fifth of her reserves left. However, that was where the [Gear] seemed to shine.

Its lack of mana cost seemed like the perfect counter to any mana deficit. She imagined that with an armament of [Gears], a mana depletion would be trivial – apart from being comatose, of course.

“But then again, it wouldn’t be magic of the [Fifteenth Tier] if it was so easy to use. I think if the [Gear] was slightly larger, I would’ve been able to imbue it with [Time] magic.”

“So a moving field that can slow down time? Hmhm~ Not bad. Not bad at all, Exrite.” Black spoke with some enthusiasm, marvelling at the concept of being able to slow down oncoming threats.

Then, her eyes wandered onto the molten sand as they passed.

“Tch. A burrowed trap-door monster grows what, exactly?”

“Legs?” Exrite spoke as they approached the edge of the grassy land-bridge. “The Sandworms grow legs when they change, so it might be similar for the Traplions.”

“Could be… it’s probably those big mouthed worms.” Frosty added, spotting a smaller variant of the Sandworm, which sported legs as it blended in with the distant herd.

The conversation continued as they followed Exrite towards the obelisk. While they couldn’t predict exactly what most creatures would morph into – they knew for certain that the input needed for the change had increased considerably.

Where it would only take a single bite to induce the transformation on the <Twentieth Floor>, it could take up to a dozen or more carcasses here in the <Thirty Fifth Floor>.

Also – the floors had grown so large that Uru couldn’t even detect the other side after an hour of scouring the skies. Perhaps the massive amount of creatures resulted in a more uniformed gear-strength, hence why they needed to consume more.

The floors seemed to have a fixed rate regarding how long it would take to complete them, granted they maintained a steadfast pace.

For starters, Exrite noticed that it took them a day to complete twenty floors; and another day to pass ten. Now, as they reached the end of the third day, they had barely completed five floors.

It seemed like every day that elapsed, they would travel half of what they managed the previous day.

And depending on how large this dungeon truly was – they could very well be stuck here for years.

She sincerely hoped this wasn’t the case.

* * *

The <Thirty Sixth Floor> seemed to slowly shift away from the arid landscape, and introduced large sections of shallow seas. Thankfully, there was a patch of land which led towards the obelisk.

Although, Exrite noticed something strange about this floor. The luring ticks didn’t come from a sole source. Instead, she could feel not one or three, but five distinct obelisks somewhere on this floor.

“Five obelisks…?” She whispered under her breath, catching the attention of the group near instantly.

“Five, you say? Hmm… maybe the floors are so big that getting to one obelisk is too tall an order for some of these creatures.” White spoke, her arms folded as Khaos leaned against a giant tree.

“You think so? - no, wait – you might be right actually. The Traplions and Sandworms might not be able to make it that far.” Khaos spoke with a deep voice, the tree creaking at his raw strength.

“… did the Maiden of Time really see through all of these setbacks?” Frosty failed to hide her bewilderment, sparking a proud smile to form across Uru’s face.

“Precisely. Her foresight still manages to surprise a Demon like myself.”

“From such a long time ago, as well… anyway, let’s keep going. We can rest in the next few floors if we need to.” Exrite spoke, turning back to the group with stern eyes.

With a firm nod, and gesture of the hand, she began to lead them towards the nearest obelisk. The expected time it would take was now around eight to twelve hours, and that was if they didn’t encounter any creatures along the way.

However, this wasn’t like the previous floors where there would be one or two incidents. The creatures here possessed uncanny teamwork and cooperation, and boasted packs larger than a dozen.

Across the land-bridge, they encountered various creatures that relentlessly struck them from the depths of the surrounding seas. An assault of razor-sharp turtle shells came flying out of the water in an attempt to bisect the group from the waist-up.

It seemed like they had the element of surprise on their side. But they failed to realise that the group already had their sights set on them before they even left the waters.

Frosty anticipated an ambush using her [Soul Sight]. In an instant, they were met with a barrage of bullets from three figures mid air as Uru yawned at their futile attempt.

Khaos easily parried them with his cracked Carbodix shield with so much strength, that their shells were obliterated, leaving their fleshy bodies to be exposed to the world. As the remaining, defenceless turtles fell with a mangled thud beneath them, Black sadistically sneered and crushed their bodies beneath her boots.

“Pitiful. Pitiful. Pitiful~ Weak can’t even begin to describe these lesser creatures.” Uru spat, not even granting them the honour of her gaze.

“But it’s fun, and great target practise for our little Exrenity. But I wonder – how many bullets are you on now?” Black waved her gun and stylishly holstered it by her waist.

“Ah – fifty, if I’m counting correctly. I might have to go back to my trusty crossbow if I run out of ammo… ahah- hey, hold on –! I was kidding!” Exrite suddenly jolted when Frosty pinched her cheeks.

“Knowing you Exrite, you’re definitely the type to go back to that crossbow.” Frosty spoke with some annoyance in her voice, although her smile said otherwise. “Geez… I completely forgot you still had that on you.”

“It’s kinda like a good luck charm, or maybe even a last resort.”

Exrite laughed, brushing away Frosty’s hand as Black continued to brutally execute the armour-less turtles; which were easily larger than the head of a grown man.

Frosty sighed, rechecking the waters in case something else was lurking in wait. At the sight of nothing but its untouched surface, she sighed once more and turned to Exrite.

But before she could say another word, Black suddenly growled:

“Sounds like dead weight, if you ask me~”

“No one asked.” White, and surprisingly Frosty, spoke with perfect unison, causing the woman to hum her characteristic “Hmhm~”

Aside from their battle, or rather, the one sided slaughter – Uru was interested in Exrite’s decision to not erect a [Barrier]. In these situations, she would usually have one up in anticipation of an attack.

When she asked Exrite’s reasoning, she answered with:

“It was unnecessary. The [Barrier] would've made them bounce back into the sea. And plus, we can’t attack them through it. Uru, there’s a reason why I’m trying to create a one-way [Barrier]; because the moment I set up any ordinary [Barrier], is the moment we’re stuck in a defensive battle.”

Indeed. Because most of Uru’s magic was above the [Seventh Tier], and Exrite herself opted to use her weapons most of the time – a [Physical Barrier] would stop both sides from attacking, apart from Frosty who could efficiently use [Fourth] to [Fifth Tier] magic.

Even Exrite’s magic would be stopped by her own [Barrier], for they were of the [Seventh Tier] by now. Unless of course, she struck them from the other side, which wasn’t a difficult thing to do for an experienced magic user.

While Exrite was far from experienced, she always had a knack for it. Even with her abysmal mana capacity, she found ways to circumvent it and use magic in an effective manner, like the time she created a [Physical Barrier] to counter Uru’s orbs.

But now that Exrite had access to a body with near a near bottomless mana capacity – the sky was the limit, although she didn’t want to outdo herself.

She knew all too well that with such immense power, comes corruption. Before she was the Maiden of Time, she was the Exrenity. But most importantly – a normal human.

She couldn’t forget the faces of those who tortured her just for a taste of immortality. The thought stuck to her like a vile parasite, draining what was left of her smile away as a slight frown morphed on her face.

As she brought them closer and closer towards the obelisk, none managed to notice that her eyes weren’t on the world ahead, but in a world far crueller than here.

It was the place she had once called ‘home’.