Eight days have passed since they first set foot into the Maiden of Time’s dungeon. The monsters of the this grandeur place had gradually grown stronger and far more complex than the simple bison and fluffy sheep of the <Twentieth Floor>.
Groups of up to dozens of monsters were a common sight, often roaming together in tight packs.
It was no different here in the heart of the <Fortieth Floor>, where the potential of danger lurked in every step.
Here, the world was a meld of all the previous elements they’ve seen. The floors increasingly resembled an amalgamation of nature.
From the dense forests to scorching deserts, to now a frozen tundra; the group had been trailing on this floor for the past twenty hours. It would seem like Exrite was leading them astray, or to a much further obelisk. However, that was far from the case.
These floors were simply massive. So massive in fact that it nearly took an entire day just to traverse a single floor. The patience of the group, particularly Black’s, was tested to the extreme.
No longer could she tolerate a simple gaze from a stray creature. In the midst of the snow, a set of pale eyes made the fatal mistake of brushing over the pent-up Colour. As harmless as the small creature was; it was met with a bullet regardless of its intentions.
The thundering sound echoed across the snowy region, and seemed to rebound from the upcoming mountain. The sound startled many creatures both near and far as a faint rumbling emitted from the mountains.
It was enough to cause Exrite’s concentration to shatter. For a while now, she was whispering chants and using all sorts of magic during their lengthy travels across the snowy tundra.
A strange air surrounded encased her, and Uru avoided it at all costs as she carefully eyed the Maiden. The snowfall around her fell slowly, as if they were lighter. However, her lack of concentration ruined the bizarre field and in an instant, the slow snowfall fell in uniform with the world’s.
She knitted her eyebrows.
“Black… Don’t shoot your gun when we’re this close to the mountains. We don’t want a landslide of snow to attack us when we’re in the valley. I get you’re bored, but this is what you unfortunately signed up for.”
Exrite complained with a slightly irritated voice, causing Black to click her tongue.
The reason why the snow fell slower was because of [Time] magic. For the last few days Exrite had been fine tuning her magic wherever she could, including the dangerous [Time] magic. Her goal was to get a ‘feel’ for it, as well as to further her understanding of its concept.
Rather than freezing time, she found it easier to slow it down. However, the mana cost was still monumental, and not to mention how minuscule the degree of ‘slowing’ was. It was impractical as it stood, but she could already see the prospects of utilising [Time].
In addition, concentration was a key element for using magic, although it could be overwritten by a magical circle or another catalyst. But Exrite didn’t use either, nor did she need to.
[Time] wasn’t something a giant magical circle was going to catalyse, so she only needed to use her body. Or a large enough [Gear], eventually at least.
However it meant that a simple distraction would destroy her concentration, rendering her magic useless.
The simple gunshot caught her off guard, and destroyed the small field of ‘slowing’ [Time] magic; which she called – [Delay]. Her naming sense wasn’t perfect, but Exrite wasn’t the type who cared about names or appearances.
She was happy so long as it worked.
“So… we’re gonna charge through a potential avalanche, right?” Khaos spoke.
“Precisely. For a normal group, or even experienced travellers – an avalanche from those mountains would certainly spell their end. Then add the increasing snowfall, and that valley becomes a death trap. Only a fool would dare to venture through –”
Uru grinned as heat generated from the tips of her fingers.
“– A fool without the power of an almighty Demon, that is.”
“We won’t need anything if we don’t trigger it in the first place. But I doubt it’ll be so simple. We’re not the only ones on this floor, so we have a range of unknown triggers.” White added as she took a small sip from a crimson vial.
“In other-words; don’t let your guard down and don’t shoot your gun, Black.” Frosty glared daggers into the woman’s back.
She waved her hand backwards and sneered.
“Whatever you say. Funny how one can make so many enemies with a single gunshot. At least you’re on my side Khaos, aren’t you?”
“… y-yeah –”
“Well, for now at least~”
She winked at the towering man, sending a dangerous chill down his spine. Although, he knew Black was joking.
Or was she? Khaos truly didn’t know. But considering their circumstance, it was safe to bet that she was…
“Let’s hope it stays that way...”
As things cooled down in this winter region, Exrite relapsed into another trance. She caught a few curious eyes, particularly from Frosty who couldn’t tell if she was immersed in the trials of magic or was suffering from her Eye of Despair.
Fearing that it was the latter, Frosty caught up to the leading girl and pinched her cheek.
Exrite slowly turned to her with a soft smile.
“Can you stop dozing off? I can tell if the Eye of Despair is manifesting, or if you’re lost in thought half the time.”
Frosty spoke rashly after a short sight, although she smiled towards the end.
“Sorry. I know it’s a bad habit of mine, but I can’t help it. When I get fired up or lost in a train of thought, I kind of forget about my surroundings.” She softly spoke.
“Sounds like that’s bound to get you in a lot of trouble. Like now.” Frosty’s pinch increased, causing Exrite to whisper “Ow.” as she slightly winced.
“And good to know that you can still feel pain. Even with that ridiculously thick skin, you’re not immune to everything. At least that’ll stop you from doing something stupid.”
“Wait – Frosty –? Did I annoy you or something –?”
“I wonder… you were the one telling us to keep our eyes open, so don’t go falling into a daze when we’re this deep in the dungeon. I’m not as pushy as Inkshard, but – I can make you wish she was here instead.”
She spoke sarcastically with a gentle smile.
Exrite quietly chuckled, her bright face sparking a calming warmth.
“I think you’re pretty close to be honest – Wah-oof!”
Khaos was met with a sudden elbow-strike to his gut. With a sigh, Frosty removed her hand from Exrite’s face and admired the pale world ahead.
Many creatures thrived in this frozen tundra. But there was a larger population that seemed to ignore them. They were the ‘evolved’ creatures. To see a sudden increase of them meant that they were close to the exit.
Although there were a few that stalked them from afar.
A family of giant-headed bunnies followed Exrite and her group’s trails like hunters.
They were hasty, and the ankle-deep snow did little to hinder the small creatures. Their numbers were easily in the dozens. Whenever White or someone else turned around, they would all dive deep into the snow and disappear without a trace.
But the individuals they stalked were far from naive. Frosty easily spotted their souls with a simple glance.
As she opened her mouth to warn the others, Black interrupted with a loud:
“Shhh! You’ll startle them~”
“Just leave them to us. Don’t worry, don’t worry~ We have this all under control.”
She grinned sadistically as she slowly reached for her handgun.
Likewise, White brushed a hand against her blade.
Khaos – who was at the very end of the group – wondered what they were talking about. Curious; he was about to ask before a sudden pattering rapidly approached him from behind.
He reflexively spun and swung his shield with him like a broadsword. Immediately, a bombardment of fist-sized rabbits flew towards him and White.
“Rabbits!?” He yelled in surprise. “We were being followed this whole time!?”
Before the rabbits could reach them, their heads suddenly peeled open like a banana, revealing flapping petals that were lined with razor-sharp teeth. They emitted a bone-chilling growl as they flooded both Khaos’ and White’s vision.
Their deaths were certain. The ‘rabbits’ could easily cover their entire bodies twofold if they tried.
However – in a fraction of a second, all the rabbits in front of White exploded with blood. They gracefully flopped around her, splitting into two as they skidded across the red snow.
Exrite didn’t know what happened, but judging from their bodies and White’s blood-stained blade, she had somehow bisected them in the blink of an eye.
It was astonishing. It was as if the rabbits willingly lunged to their deaths.
On the other side of the failed ambush; Black easily managed to spare Khaos from the man-eating rabbits. Her slashes were wild, frantic and far from clean. She left the rabbits in mutilated chunks, some still breathing to which aroused her inner sadist.
Only one managed to bite into Khaos shoulder. But it was negligible and he simply launched it to the side, which broke every bone in its body.
The bite left a perfect imprint on his shoulder-plate and severely warped it. It was surprisingly powerful for being such a small creature. Surely, if it bit into flesh and bone it would tear through it like wet paper.
But unfortunately, that sort of strength was nothing in comparison to the individuals they foolishly dared to attack.
They grovelled amongst their dead on a soft blanket of red snow. In an instant, they went from predator to prey. The speed of White’s blade and the relentless strikes of Black instilled fear in those that were lucky to survive.
But their survival was only temporary. The moment they bared their fangs towards the Commanders, was the moment they were deemed enemies.
And no enemy of the Commanders ever lives to tell the tale.
Black lurched over them and bathed in their fear. From their quivering eyes to their trembling limbs – she adored it all.
“Hmhm~ Twists are so cruel, aren’t they~ One second everything seems to go your way, then –” She abruptly paused and impaled her blade into a few. “– You realise that you were never the hunters.”
She flicked the blood from her blade to the side and grinned. Her boredom was suddenly quenched. The massacre filled her with joy as she promptly eliminated the rest of the monsters with ease.
“I doubt they understood anyway.” As White cleaned her blade with a pale cloth, she slowly turned to the group with a tired face. “It’s a shame. They’re not as weak as the other monsters, but they were blinded by emotion. Your kill earlier must’ve spark a vengeful hunt. Colour me surprised Black. You played with their emotions well.”
“Why else would I kill a random creature anyway~? Revenge isn’t always the brightest course of action. Well, not against us.”
Black sneered as she caught up to the group with White trailing closely behind. Her cunning demeanour disgusted Frosty, but she kept silent on the matter. As Khaos tried to manually bend his shoulder-plate back to normal, the group trailed through the snowy tundra once more.
“That’s… actually impressive if you knew that all along.” Exrite failed to hide her awe.
For Black to perfectly understand how the creatures would react to the death of their own kin was uncanny. Emotions and the strive for revenge were stirred in their hearts and forced them to pick an impossible fight.
Emotions were like a double-edged sword, now that she thought about it. Although what surprised her more was the fact that the creatures could express a complex thought like revenge.
It seemed like the creatures weren’t only getting stronger, but more intelligent.
This sparked an intriguing question; one that caused Exrite to doze off into a lulling trance.
Eventually, we might see something with sapience along the way. Or maybe that’s what rests at the bottom of Gaia’s trial… but what for? If the Biomech are made by [Biomechanical] magic, then what was she trying to do here? What was she trying to make?
She wondered what a sapient Geared creature would look like. Considering they can function and appear as any other creature in this world; it could be anything.
As she embraced the thought, a strange landscape began to form ahead.
* * *
The pointy trees of the tundra were nowhere to be seen. A thick veil of white snowfall enshrouded the winter world around them. The snowfall had increased significantly in the mere hour they spent travelling.
The snow they trudged through reached their knees. Their long, heavy steps were accompanied with loud scrunches and the unstoppable howling winds. The temperature was so cold, that frost began to build up on Khaos’ black-plated armour and shield.
Frosty and Exrite shivered, even in the presence of heat-generating magic. Their attires were unsuited for such extreme temperatures, and Frosty’s tolerance to cold was ironically low.
As for Exrite – despite her skin and resistance being high, she could still feel the wrath of the cold winds. It passed through her thick coat as if it were nothing more than paper, chilling her to the bone.
Red-hot orbs hovered beside them as they stuck closely to one another. Seeing the others plough through with little trouble reminded Exrite of her weakness, although she was happy that she could hold her own now.
In a Maiden’s body, that is.
Khaos hardly had any trouble pushing through the snow, and Uru’s body generated enough heat to instantly melt any ice that dared to stand in her way.
As for the Commanders, they had some trouble navigating through the snow, but nowhere near as much as Frosty and Exrite.
A long sigh left Exrite’s lips with a fierce vapour.
“I guess ‘Frosty’ doesn’t suit you that well, huh?” Exrite joked, her teeth rattling like drums.
“Huh? You’re one to talk, Frost. And how are you so cold in a Maiden’s body!?”
“Not too sure. I remember being able to withstand the heat of a furnace, but maybe because that was magic. I guess that would make more sense, since my mana capacity’s impossibly large… but you know – this is nice in a way.”
“What? Being so cold that you can’t stop hugging yourself? Don’t tell me your brain’s starting to freeze now.”
“Hmm… as weird as it sounds, this cold and my senses all remind me that I’m still vulnerable, no matter how tough my body is. I guess it helps me stay grounded as myself, even as the Exrenity and the Maiden of Time.” Exrite softly spoke, chuckling afterwards. “But pain and hardships like these aren’t going to stop me. Compared to the grand scheme of things, this is nothing.”
The passion in her eyes were admirable, and Frosty couldn’t help but sigh at the straightforwardness of Exrite. But amongst her strange look, she smiled.
“As much as I hate your recklessness – I’m not that different either. But I can’t help but believe you’re more of an idiot and a numbskull than Khaos is.”
“I can already tell why.” Exrite laughed, her eyes skimming over Uru and the Commanders.
No one in their right mind would ever dare to aquatint themselves with a Demon, let alone someone like the Commanders. In retrospect, it was stupid. At any time, Uru could’ve betrayed them.
But she hasn’t, and her provocative warnings were nothing more than her way of looking out for Exrite. There was a time when Uru was in a similar spot as Exrite. She was once surrounded by so many close figures, yet her downfall was ultimately caused by them.
Exrite was naive. She knew that herself. But she always had a knack for figuring out the nature of people, even if they seemed like the most unlikely person to trust. Uru and the Commanders were no exception.
It was baffling how long she was able to survive just by being the Exrenity and the Maiden of Time.
“But I can always count on you to stop me if I’m being too reckless – Ack!”
“Idiot. If you really did, then only three of us would be here.” Frosty struck Exrite’s arm.
“That’s not a bad thing, though is it Sis?” Khaos joined in from out of the blue.
“Huh? I didn’t say it was bad. It’s just...”
“Hmm. Just~” Uru devilishly hummed with a slightly tilted head.
It seemed like the Demon knew what was on Frosty’s mind. The woman lightly clenched her teeth and pondered if she should admit what was on her mind or not. Her face was riddled with the odd dilema, but after noticing Black and White’s patient eyes, she came to a sound conclusion.
“… At the very least, we would’ve still been at the capital without you three.”
“You’re not honest as always.”
“Khaos. Shut up.”
Her menacing voice only served as fuel for his hearty laughs. Soon, Exrite joined in and the atmosphere seemingly mellowed. Even in the midst of a snowstorm, the group were calm and at ease.
Surely, if it weren’t for the Commanders and Uru, they would never have come this far.
* * *
The snowfall only continued to increase as time went on. The mountains in the distance were nothing more than faint silhouettes amid the opaque winter veil.
Uru led a wide path cleared of snow for the party behind. Her legs emitted a vibrant heat which instantly melted the soft snow away into hundreds of fleeting particles. The intricate lines across her body glowed in duration.
Although the group was close behind, there was a figure was much closer to Uru than the rest. Locked in between the restraints of her arms was a wry-smiling girl.
This was Exrite, of course. Uru’s body warmth was strangely not too hot to harm her, but enough to melt the ice. Either it was due to Exrite’s phenomenal mana capacity, or Uru was extraordinary at controlling heat.
Occasionally, Exrite would look up to see a pair of black and gold eyes, which was accompanied with a seductive grin. Uru’s voluptuous bosom squeezed against the back of her neck as she wondered if the Demon was attempting to rouse lust inside of her.
Not that it would work anyway.
She warned Uru not to dig her fingers into her, to which she whole-heartedly complied. It was hardly a trade-off. To be given the honour of embracing a Maiden so closely was reserved for only a select few in this grand world.
This… is how Demons greet in Demora, if I recall.
Aside from Uru’s underlying intentions and her hunger for Exrite’s calming ticking – it meant more than anything for her to touch the Maiden of Time. Her life and belief revolved around her existence, so it was only natural that she was so obsessive.
Although Exrite didn’t know this about her.
During their journey through the snow, Uru brewed a conversation with the trapped Exrite. Her target was the girl’s [Time] magic – which was something Uru and Frosty forbid her from using ever since her mana depletion in the Capital.
But now, Exrite seemed to have a grasp on its inner workings…
Or a part of it, at least.
She would not be spared from a mana depletion if she tried to use large scale [Time] magic again. Her knowledge was far from perfect, but she discovered one important fundamental of time.
It was the constant movement of the world and everything it harboured. Time could only move forward, and was evident in how everything changes over time. It had no quantity, weight, appearance – or anything. It was simply an unstoppable flow, and everything in this world was subject to it might.
Because of this, it was nearly impossible to create an image of what ‘time’ exactly was.
Despite this however, she was able to determine that there were five conclusive states of time.
The natural flow of time.
The increase of time.
The slowing of time.
The freezing of time, and finally;
The reversal of time.
There was nothing else Exrite could imagine other than these five. Increasing time wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t simple either. At the very least, it was easier to manipulate time into fast-forwarding it than to slow it, as it followed the natural direction of time.
One could imagine a boulder rolling down a slope. It was far easier to make it go faster than to stop it, let alone push it back up the slope.
Except time felt like it was in an eternal free-fall.
“Time isn’t… like any other magic. It’s powerful in its own right. But even when I know this much, I feel like I know nothing at all.” She complained to Uru, who gently stroked her stomach.
“Magic of the [Fifteenth Tier] is a fundamental part of our world. From [Space] that governs the speed that we fall, to [Wisdom] that scribes and defines the rules of the world – it's so simple, yet it wields splendour that can’t even begin to be described.”
Uru hummed as a puff of smoke left her mouth and landed on Exrite’s head.
“The Gods fear the Maidens, because they control many aspects of this world. Likewise with the Overlords, although to a lesser degree. Magic is the essence of reality that we perceive and conjure. The less it affects our world, the easier it is to create. Regarding your power, it should come as no surprise that it can potentially kill you with a mana overload, considering you’re a human after all.”
“With our short lifespans, a human can’t really ‘understand’ what time is. That’s a given. But it’s far from impossible. Unlikely, but not impossible...” Exrite trailed off with a slight self-ridiculing smile. “I guess you could say ‘time will tell’… but… it’s interesting.”
“Ho? What is?”
“[Fifteenth Tier] magic. They’re like building blocks for other forms of magic. Think of [Healing] magic. Wouldn’t that be some derivative of [Time] magic? If it was reversed?”
Exrite sparked a glimmer in Uru’s eyes. She hadn’t thought of it like that.
[Healing] magic was essentially the reconstruction of wounds and injuries. If one were to think of it in the context of time, it would either reverse the injury, or fast forward time to when it healed.
It mused Uru. She never thought of it like that. But it wasn’t so simple. As a Demon – a race with mastery over magic – she knew that this was far from the truth.
“That’s a foolish thought, but I admire your way of thinking. The Gods long existed before the Maidens first arrived. They knew all forms of magic long before the Maidens bestowed Eastern Six Point with absolute order. Magic can only combine, not break. But the concept can diverge into many, many more.”
Exrite realised her oversight and laughed at herself.
“Yeah… I just realised. Sorry for asking something dumb, Uru. I thought I was getting somewhere for a second.”
“As foolish as it was, you’re weren’t on the wrong train of thought either. Compared to [Healing] magic, reversing time would undoubtedly surpass it.”
“Just like how that [Dimensional Barrier] can work better than most [Illusion]-based magic… but that got me thinking – how about [Combination] magic? Like if I were to combine [Time] and [Healing] magic together?”
Frosty overhead this and uttered:
“Exrite, you just said you don’t know much else about [Time] magic and now you’re thinking of combining it with another type of magic? You’re practically begging for a mana overload.”
“Precisely. But to answer your question my dear Maiden of Time – it can work, and may be far superior than just controlling [Time] alone. With only the wound site as the target, it can imagine it being fairly cost effective. But you’re nowhere near at that stage, Exrite. If you don’t understand both concepts and their interactions, then the mana cost will become astronomical.”
Her voice suddenly deepened as a finger softly slipped up Exrite’s body. The girl winced and growled at the awful sensation. She felt a sudden urge to snap at Uru, but she refrained and allowed the Demon to continue on.
She was almost at her neck anyway.
When Uru’s fingers finally reached her chin; she was forced to stare into the Demon’s soul-consuming eyes.
“I implore you, Exrite, do not overstep your boundaries. As much as I admire your lust for [Time], don’t forget that your life is on the line. You’re not a mere human amongst a few billion, or a grain of sand at a shoreline – you are the Maiden of Time.”
“… I know that.” Exrite adamantly spoke. “And Uru – the next time you drag your fingers across my stomach, I’ll remove every last one of your ‘favour points’. I’m warning you; don’t do that again.”
Her sudden shift of tone was startling, but Uru seemed to enjoy it. She adored the menacing Exrite, and couldn’t help but to devilishly grin at the girl as she responded with a simple “Of course, my dear Maiden of Time~”
If Exrite was stronger – she would have struck Uru. It felt like a dagger was being dragged across her stomach; a sensation that she knew all too well.
Her Eye of Despair grew warm for only a split second.
She hoped that this would be the extent of it.
After a short moment, she calmed down with a long, tired sigh. She swatted Uru’s hand away from her chin and slouched forward, tired by her unexpected outburst. Along the soft snow, she noticed a strange icy surface amongst the trail and wondered if there was something beneath them.
It was translucent, like ice. Her mind wandered off as she tried to decipher what the texture was exactly. The Enthoric region had its fair share of snowfall during the winter season, but she never saw ice underneath any of that snow.
But that was more than a decade ago, and this place was nothing like her homeland.
Her eyes followed the newly revealed ice as Uru melted away the knee-deep snow. It caught White’s attention, and she warned:
“Watch your step here. I think we’re on an ice sheet, so there might be crevasses hiding in plain sight. At least you’re at the back with me Khaos. You won’t be falling anytime soon.”
Khaos hummed, wondering what she meant by that. As a man who had only seen snow a handful of times in his life, he had never heard of a crevasse before. But when White warned him of a potential fall – he realised it must’ve been a gaping hole of some sort.
His body chilled in an instant as he nervously gulped.
“Many thanks for the reassurance, but it might’ve been better if you didn’t tell me anything. What’s that saying – ignorance is a bliss?”
“How true. But in the end, do you want to unexpectedly fall twenty metres into a ridge?” Black spoke with a menacing voice.
“N-no thanks. Hey Exrite, if you see anything let me know right away –!”
His loud voice caused a rumble to emit somewhere far away. Exrite’s brows furrowed slightly as she sighed.
“Sure. Just please stop yelling. We’re not that far from the mountains anymore, so every bit of noise is going to count.”
“Oh right. My bad –!”
“Shhh! You’re way louder than the winds.” Frosty hushed him.
Apart from the howling winds and the scrunching of snow, it was silent. Exrite keenly focused on the unveiling ground for any sudden fractures. Her blood chilled at the thought of falling into a narrow crevasse.
Even with Uru clutching onto her, just looking at a tight passage would be enough to leave her breathless.
As she watched the ground, she noticed that the texture suddenly shifted from ice to a thick layer of snow. Her first few steps across it were fine, but as the weight of the others accumulated – the ground suddenly shuddered.
Out of sheer reflex, Exrite abruptly pushed back against Uru and forced her into a grinding halt.
“Ho? Are you afraid of a little tremor?”
“We’re on unstable ground, Uru. Of course I’m worried.”
A depression formed just in front of Exrite’s foot. It slowly sunk into an invisible hole like quicksand. Fearing that the floor could collapse at any moment, she immediately formed a thin [Physical Barrier] underneath them.
“Your worry should be non-existent with a Demon like myself by your side~ Although, I admire your use of a mere [Barrier]. I only wish you would lean on me more, Exrite.”
She brushed a finger across Exrite’s cheek. Suddenly, she was shoved forward when Black nonchalantly bumped into Uru.
“Sorry, sorry~ I didn’t see you there. So – any idea why we stopped? If you want to flirt, go do it somewhere else. Time isn’t on our side this time around.”
“You’re cunning. I wonder what would’ve happened to you if you weren’t in our party.” Uru haughtily warned, causing Black to sadistically sneer.
“Isn’t that a shame~ You’ll have to put up with me until we’re enemies. Now I’m getting side-tracked. So – what’s the deal?”
“To put it bluntly, I think there’s a chasm underneath us – but we won’t fall. I’ve already taken precautions for that.” Exrite sternly spoke, taking the first step.
Snow instantly fell underneath her boots, revealing a glimpse of the pitch-black abyss below. She could make out the narrow walls towards the bottom, which raised every hair on her body.
With a gulp, she uttered:
“Khaos… just don’t look the fuck down. Or close your eyes. It’s better if you don’t see it.”
“… Hey… just how fucking deep is it, Exrite? Hey? Exrite? Exrite –!?”
“Idiot. Can you shut up for one second?” Frosty moved back to Khaos and offered a hand. “Wanna hold my hand you big baby?”
“Gladly. I’ll do anything to get the fuck out of here.”
“O-ouch! Idiot, you’re crushing my hand!”
Amid the minor chaos, White seemed to be the only one who was ‘normal’. She sighed, hushing the two as they crossed the snow bridge over the crevasse, which was perfectly coated in a uniform layer of snow.
No one would be able to detect that a crevasse was here in the first place if it weren’t for Uru, who melted the thick layers of snow. As expected, the snow underneath them collapsed like broken rubble, revealing a gaping chasm that could devour them all with one fell swoop.
It felt weird walking on the air, but Exrite didn’t think about it. Her mind was somewhere else as she relentlessly tried to flush away the thoughts of being trapped within the chasm.
It was something straight out of a nightmare.
She heard Khaos repeatedly curse at the back. It was humorous, and managed to salvage a part of her mind. As she finally reached the safety of the other side, she sighed in relief while Khaos chanted:
“Fuck… fuck. Thank fuck that’s over. Thank you Sis, I owe you one –”
“Geez. Get a grip, will you?” Frosty sharply interjected.
Exrite laughed as her composure returned momentarily. She glanced back at the gaping crevasse and found herself silently thanking that it was over. However, they were still on the ice sheet.
She imagined that there would be more lurking underneath the blanket of snow. The group pressed on as they approached the entrance of the valley. The mountain walls stood over them like guards, casting a dark shadow which stretched far into the open valley.
It was only a few hundred metres away.
More crevasses were encountered, and easily overcome with Exrite’s [Barrier] bridges. But with each one they passed, Exrite’s fear became more and more obvious. It didn’t take a genius to realise that it was linked to the crevasses underneath them, and unlike Khaos; it wasn’t due to heights.
When they reached the grand entrance of the valley, Uru asked her a simple question.
“To be shaken by the crevasses feels like an insult. You never batted an eye when you were faced with my wrath, yet the holes were enough to leave you breathless. I suspect you have a reason, Exrite?”
Exrite, who looked worn down and defeated, narrowed her eyes as she hazily looked far into the horizon.
“I do. It’s a long story, stupid story – but I’m actually afraid of… tight spaces. Like caves, squeezing in between rubble – that sort of thing… it’s pathetic, but that’s my fear.” She muttered self-ridiculingly as she mustered a pleasant smile. “I can stand defiant to fate, but not so much against a tight passage… surprised?”
“Not really. I thought that was the case when we first arrived here. I didn’t think much of it at first, but your secret admirer Frosty made it obvious.”
White quickly harped in, stealing a glance from Frosty who clenched her teeth.
“But to think even you have something you’re afraid of. Sounds like a weird trade off to be honest. Stand fearless against the world, but have an Achilles heel – Ahem, I mean, one major flaw or a straw leg.”
“What a fucking surprise. Such an unexpected twist~ Well, it would’ve been if it wasn’t so fucking obvious. Like White said – Frosty unravelled your little weakness~”
She glared menacingly at Frosty, but the woman didn’t budge. Instead, she dug her fingers deep into her palms and sharply stared in return. The last thing she wanted was for the others to uncover Exrite’s soft-spot, which she feared would be used against her.
However – that wasn’t the case. Black’s eyes were filled with curiosity rather than pleasure at the knowledge of Exrite’s fear. In fact, one could find a sliver of empathy in her solemn smile.
Needless to say; it surprised Frosty.
“A strange fear indeed, although, it’s not an uncommon one. But it suits you, Exrite. For someone who strives to break the bounds of fate, fearing to be constricted only sounds natural. Like many things in this world, there’s always a shadow equivalent to one’s light.” Uru hummed.
It was truly a befitting fear, but it wasn’t something Exrite could proudly embrace.
Nor was that the reason why she being constrained.
“… that’s not a bad way to put it. But… I’m afraid that isn’t it. Nothing can be so black and white.”
The true reason resided elsewhere. Far, far away from the forsaken region of the Shallows, was a place Exrite once called home.
Her Eye of Despair became warm. But before she could fall into a cruel trance, Black spoke.
“Sounds like you know why you’re afraid of it. Hmm~ I recall you mentioning a ten-year hell you went through. I can guess what happened, but I want to hear the details. In my old world, a good way of destroying a phobia was to relive its case, even if it can destroy you in the process. It might not be a bad idea to severe that weakness right now.”
“And risk manifesting the Eye of Despair? Just what are you trying to pull?” Frosty furiously refuted. “Don’t listen to her Exrite..”
“… Black, if you already have an idea of my past, then that should be more than enough. For humans like me, ten years is a long time – and it’s something I can never forget. It’s ingrained into me, whether I like it or not.” She sternly spoke as she trudged through the melted path.
She expected Black to persist with an iron fist, but was stunned when she turned and saw… calm eyes? Surely, it was her Eye of Despair playing a devious trick on her. But as time went on, she realised it was genuine.
“You’re stubborn as hell, but not it’s not like you’ll listen to me anyway… Tch. It might even be too late for you, so who the fuck cares. How about this – I’ll give you a little backstory on myself for a taste of what happened to you during your ten years.”
“I don’t lie, Exrite. I’m murderous, cunning and a tyrant of my world – but I don’t lie. Not to a friend, at least.”
“Don’t do it Exrite!” Frosty’s voice caused rumbles to emit all around them as they ventured into the valley. She was desperate, and when it seemed like her voice reached deaf ears, she grit her teeth and prepared to shake some sense into Exrite.
But as she reached out for her –
“I’ll consider it. But don’t expect much. I already know what you want to do, and I know that I’m probably in a similar place as you once were… but I’m not alone.”
She suddenly froze. A small smile formed across Exrite’s face as Black sighed, scratching her head in annoyance.
“But if I was alone – then I’d gladly take your hand.”
“For your sake, don’t say I didn’t fucking warn you. You’ll bite this hand that tried feeding you one day if you keep relying on your friends to save you from that Eye of Despair. Looking at you, I can’t tell if you’re trying to discard the past or embrace it. Between you and me, I know you’ll be torn apart in between the two. You’ll end up just like me. But what that means however – Is. All. Up. To. Time~”
Her sinister grin returned as she fixed her black peaked cap.
“My offer remains, just for you. Don’t go wasting my kindness for your false hope~”
“… like I said; I’ll consider it when things die down. I want to hear your side of the story.”
“You’d be surprised.” She glanced over at White, who rolled her eyes and sighed.
“She was less annoying, if that means anything.”
“That’s not something to be giddy over.”
White couldn’t help but to sigh once more as a hand covered her face.
As the two bickered amongst themselves, Frosty moved to Exrite’s side with a conflicted face. Despite the girl heeding her warning, she still considered revealing her dangerous past to Black. It wasn’t that she wanted Exrite to hide it, but rather, she didn’t want her to suffer from the Eye of Despair.
“You’re not going to tell her everything, right? So much for listening to me.” She pouted, nudging Exrite lightly.
She detested Exrite’s bizarre decisions. Just like when Uru first joined, Exrite went against Frosty’s judgement. It was infuriating. But when she heard Exrite admit that the difference between Black and herself were her friends – a sudden warmth surged through her.
“Sorry Frosty, but I’ll be fine. I’ve already told Talia what happened to me back then, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem. You’ll be there as well, so I won’t have to worry –”
“Don’t forget that you also have me at your disposal, Exrite.” Uru chimed in with a hum as faint rumbling resounded from the snow-caked mountains, which surrounded them like the towering walls of a city.
“I’ll definitely be there, and I’ll give Khaos the honours of beating you awake. Doze off once, and you’ll be unconscious for an entire day.” She warned with folded arms, causing Exrite to softly smile and thank her.
Another rumble emitted.
Khaos’ eyes darted around. The summits of the kilometre-tall mountains were covered in a thick blanket of snow. There were many herds of creatures in this vast valley, which was shaped like a bowl.
Everything seemed to travel towards the centre, where Uru managed to spot the ring-shaped obelisk. It sat upon a pristine platform made of granite and obsidian, where the ‘changed’ creatures vanished into the next floor without a trace.
Out of all the obelisks they’ve come across, it was only the <Twentieth Floor> and here where it was in a ring-like shape. When Uru informed Exrite of this, the girl was certain that there would be another [Gear].
It was strange, however. Were the other obelisks on this floor the same as this one, or did they stumble upon it by mere chance simply because it was closer? She didn’t know.
However, because the other obelisks were found in water or other uncharted areas of the floor, she guessed that this would be the only one with a [Gear] to offer. Specific creatures such as fish or high-altitude birds had their own separate obelisks, as it would be impossible for them to traverse through land.
Once again, she admired Gaia’s foresight.
But now wasn’t the time for such thoughts. The rumblings returned, but were far more gruelling than before. The ground slightly shuddered as the world became a blur for a moment.
“… we better hurry, huh.” Frosty muttered, her eyes darting around as mounds of snow slowly cracked at the tips of the snow-caps.
It was only a matter of time before everything would come flooding down. But as long as nothing disturbed the peerless amounts of snow hanging far on the mountain-tops, they’d be safe.
A dry explosion erupted behind them. And in an instant – the world violently shook. The sound of crashing rocks and churning rubble assaulted them from every direction. The thrashing echoes startled many beasts, causing them to swing their heads around to find the source of the hideous noise.
The moment the witnessed a tsunami of snow fall no matter where their eyes took them – they began to flee. The obelisk was soon crowded by hundreds of creatures.
Exrite grit her teeth as all eyes immediately fell onto the perpetrator, who teasingly waved her gun. Black wore a cunning smile and bathed in the surrounding chaos.
But before anyone could properly react – she hummed:
“I got bored. Better be quick, Exrite, or that obelisk is going to be buried beneath hundreds of tons of snow~”
“And who’s fucking fault is that!?” Frosty yelled.
“Oi! Start running before we get buried! You’re gonna die fighting Sis!” Khaos cried as his feet suddenly took off before he knew it.
“One step ahead of you!” White spoke with some enthusiasm, matching her pace with the man who shook the world with each step.
“Fear not – for my magic will –”
“Good luck stopping all that snow without killing us in the process! We might be able to get away with it if we create a [Barrier], but we absolutely can’t brute-force through this!” Exrite immediately rebutted Uru.
The sheer amount of snow far exceeded what she initially imagined. It was as if the flurry of snow was infinite. It amassed to a point where not even Uru’s [Ninth Tiered] [Solar Core] – which was used to superheat the Decanid’s armour – could effectively ward off the snow without injuring or killing everyone in the process.
Exrite stared into Uru’s defiant eyes for a moment before she suddenly shoved herself into Uru’s arms and ordered:
“Take us straight for the obelisk! If we can activate it now then there won’t be a need for a last stand! Everyone – you have at least a minute before the snow encases us!”
“How generous of you~ Aha! Now this is more my pace!” Black laughed in the distance as she ran alongside Frosty. Their speed was impeccable, and they overtook Khaos and White in seconds.
The burst of snow behind them created a dazzling fog. But now wasn’t the time to be admiring such things.
Uru naturally wrapped Exrite with her arms. If her vile tendrils were out, she could have taken the others with her. But she wasn’t injured, nor was she willing to damage her beloved body.
Unless the Maiden of Time ordered, of course.
She lapped her lips, drew her mouth close to Exrite’s ear whispered:
“Of course, my dear Exrite.”
Exrite wryly smiled as a strange chill ran down her spine. But that sensation was overthrown when her legs were instantly swept by Uru. Held comfortably in a princess-carry, the Demon suddenly launched herself forward like a bullet.
A gust of air threw her hair back as Uru surged through the snow like a bullet. They were like a blur to the others, and an anomaly to the creatures they passed. The speed was something no human could ever dream to endure. It would instantly render them unconscious, or worse, twist their neck due to severe whiplash.
Compared to when they escaped from the hole in the mountains – it was far faster.
By the time Exrite realised it; they were already at the obelisk.
Uru gracefully let her down onto the black platform. It was only fitting for the idolised being. But true to Exrite – she crudely threw herself out with no regard to her status. She tripped, but easily recovered as she clawed at the ground and made a break for the ticking obelisk.
“Such disregard for your bountiful body… You really do infuriate me sometimes.”
“If it can’t get scratched, then what’s the point of staying safe!?” She retorted half-jokingly.
The ringed obelisk instantly reacted. The strange veil of colours began to cycle through as a high-pitched rumble screamed through the air. Surely, if it weren’t for Black’s bullet, it would’ve triggered the avalanche.
She stood in front of it with broadened eyes. The many creatures suddenly backed away from the platform, fearing the obelisk’s anomalous behaviour. As the noise grew loud enough to subdue the rumbles of the encircling snow; a thought suddenly came to mind.
… Wait… why make so much noise in the centre of this valley? It’s almost like this was done on purpose. Is this a one-way obelisk?
She couldn’t be so sure. Surely at some point in the past, an avalanche of a similar calibre would’ve swept through and devoured the strange obsidian and granite platform.
But the thought was interesting. Regarding Gaia’s perfect foresight; it only made this all the more suspicious.
Black pillars made of cracked granite suddenly erupted all around her. She turned left and right, surrounded by a maze of pillars which fired beams of blue light into the floor’s sky. The world bathed in its light as the colours of the obelisk cycled like a kaleidoscope.
When everything seemed to reach a climax, she felt the presence of a [Gear]. She could tell that it was stronger than the previous. She had high hopes that it would be able to support her [Time] magic, or at least Uru’s [Seekers].
But that thought aside – the veil suddenly converged into a single point and created the [Gear]. The lights disappeared, leaving millions of particles suspended in the air and melded perfectly with the falling snow.
Now, all she needed to do was to take the [Gear].
But not until the others were here.
She turned towards Uru’s last place and found nothing but the eyes of frightened creatures. Past their bodies and the encasing towers, she saw the Demon charge straight for Khaos.
The man, despite his surprising speed, was nowhere near fast enough. Uru took it upon herself to rescue him from his predicament. She swooped him from his feet like a hawk and towed the heavy man to the obsidian platform.
He was dropped beside Exrite with a thundering thud. The ground cracked underneath him as he yelled:
“S-shit! Fucking thanks – but did you have to go up so high!?”
“Blame the pillars. Although, that would be a dishonour to the Maiden of Time who created them.” Uru nonchalantly spoke as the sound of approaching footsteps rang behind them.
In the next moment, Frosty and Black emerged from behind a black pillar, which was soon followed by White. The hoarse cries of terrified creatures echoed as the rumblings and quakes grew louder and louder.
“In the nick of time, huh!?” Frosty yelled, her voice nearly drowned by the chaotic noises.
“Only just! Good thing you went straight here, Exrite!” Said White, although her eyes were drilled into Black.
“Aha! We made it safe, and at a good time too! Now – don’t make us wait any longer Exrite! Grab that [Gear] before our little shortcut goes to waste!”
The height of the snow-wall stood a horrifying ten metres tall. It would take a masterful [Barrier] to block off the force from every direction. While she didn’t think it was impossible with Uru and herself, she didn’t want to test it.
The cluster of snow was now within reach. An icy breeze swept through the platform as Black admired what she started. Surely, if it was someone else, then Uru, White and perhaps even Exrite would’ve killed them.
Exrite didn’t waste any time. At the confirmation that everyone was present, she quickly grasped the [Gear] and prepared a powerful [Ninth Tiered] [Physical Barrier] just in case it was too late.
The pillars were consumed, and they would be next. But they knew this was all but a simple obstacle. The sound of crackling and cries melded into a symphony of chaos; and Black savoured it all with a victorious grin.
Exrite grit her teeth. The [Gear] resonated with her, glowing light blue as the strange sensation of an extra limb returned. As a magical gear-shaped circle formed underneath them, the wall of snow was quickly reaching the centre of the platform.
And when it seemed like they would be consumed – Exrite instantly erected her [Barrier]. But at that moment –
The world went black.
But the darkness wasn’t cold. It was warm. No – it was hot.