47. Fire, and Where the World Touches the Sky
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Part 1 –

Heat. Unbearable heat toasted the ruptured lands of the following floor. After their narrow escape from the avalanche, they suddenly found themselves in a world of fire and lava.

Cracked plateaus and perilous chasms broke the world as far as the eye could see. Lakes and rivers of flowing lava were as common as the creatures that dared to tread through these lands.

The <Forty First Floor> wasn’t like the previous floors. Rather than teleporting them to the far edge of the floor, they were sent somewhere closer to the centre.

Exrite wondered if this place was disconnected from the rest of the floor. She could feel two distinct tickings in the distance; one appearing to lead in the opposite direction of the scorched terrain, and the other going deeper into the fiery mounds.

It seemed like only a specific group of Geared creatures were sent here. But why that was the case however, was a mystery.

Perhaps they were caught up in the teleportation as well. Although, she found strange rock-like monsters roaming amongst the lava.

They were certainly inhabitants of this floor.

“From one extreme to the other. It’s pretty hot down here.” Black complained, wafting air into her Otherworldly attire. “But it barely amounts to a day in summer~ So. How are you holding up, Frosty? Khaos?”

“We’ll manage so long as we don’t wander into any lava pools.” Frosty calmly spoke as a dozen shards of ice materialised around the group and began to orbit around them.

“Whew! That’s some heat! I heard the bulkier you are the more prone you are to heat!” Khaos heartily cheered, a bead of sweat dripping down his forehead.

“Hardly a trade-off for that kind of strength. And what’s with the useless trivia?” Black swiftly spoke. “That aside – Exrite, have a clue on where to go from here?”

“Towards the centre like always… but expect this to a quick floor. For some reason, we were sent closer to the exit. I don’t need to remind you guys, but keep your eyes peeled. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Exrite gripped the new [Gear] in her palms as she sternly spoke. Her eyes were glued into the fiery horizon, where she could faintly make out the silhouettes of small hills which spewed molten rock.

“Closer, you say? How much closer are we talking about?” White wondered with a raised brow.

“Less than an hour. I think.” Exrite was certain despite her words. After the countless times she had trailed the ticking sensation of the obelisk, she was able to accurately tell how much distance remained.

“Ho. How unexpected. Perhaps we’re finally within reach of the end.” Uru spoke with some enthusiasm.

“Hopefully. We’ve been travelling non-stop for the last week or two. Anymore and I’ll have to go ‘meet’ with Gaia again.” Exrite muttered, beckoning the group to follow her suit. “I don’t think Gaia expected a group of Otherworlders, Frostbittens and a Demon to challenge her trial.”

“Did she believe her little human Maiden would be accompanied by other humans? Well, considering you’re from one of humanity’s basins – I don’t think anyone can blame her.” Black hummed. “But it’s strange. No human would be able to withstand this heat, let alone the previous floors. Unless – she was betting that you would be lucky enough to find people like us.”

“I don’t think that’s the case. With her foresight, I can’t picture the Maiden of Time as someone who would gamble with something – or someone as important as Exrite.” White added as the group followed Exrite through the deranged landscape.

“Neither.” Exrite muttered.

Nothing but obsidian and black rocks littered the land as far as the eye could see. The remnants easily cracked underneath their boots, searing the leather soles of Exrite, Khaos and Frosty.

Soon, the scent of burnt leather stung their nostrils. As awful as the scent was – it could not compare to the smell of sulphur and molten rock. The bubbling of a nearby lava lake drew a few curious eyes, including Exrite who had never seen such a thing so closely.

It was more fluid than molten metal and… strangely cooler.

She wondered if the heat came from the surrounding rock rather than the lava itself. It was intriguing to say the least, for Exrite that is. It reminded her of the Otherworldly concept of energy transfer – which she briefly heard about from Haiyoto back in the Capital.

That aside – their eyes were closely glued to their surroundings. Even White grew wary, for their predicament was significantly different than before. While the giant rock-like constructs could never dream of killing them, it didn’t mean that they weren’t a threat.

Exrite agreed with her sentiments, but brushed the risk of an attack aside. With them being so close to the obelisk, these creatures were most likely ‘evolved’ and on their way to the next floor.

Her proof was that they weren’t attacked the moment they first entered this floor. Even the creatures that were caught in the transportation were left to flee from this blistering plateu.

However – Exrite was still on guard. For all she knew; anything could happen.

The faint pulses of the [Gear] in her palms did little to derail her concentration. She would have to wait until they reached a more ‘safe’ place before she could even begin to tinker with it.

She could only hope that it was strong enough to harness the power of [Time].

* * *

Intoxicating fumes, the stench of crude powder and the blazing heat remained stagnant. The obelisk was in sight and surrounding it were – surprisingly – a handful of rock-like creatures.

Unlike the massive herds there was about a dozen of them who patiently waited around the pale obelisk. A magical circle formed underneath them as a high-pitched rumble reverberated throughout the floor.

And in an instant – after the loud ticking of the exposed [Gear] – they disappeared without a trace.

The crackles underneath their boots was all they could hear in the newfound silence.

Without a word, they approached the obelisk with stern and careful eyes. When they were within reach – Exrite drew her attention towards the [Gear] in her palms.

Her eyes softened as a small smile crept on her face.

“It’s still amazing, no matter how many times I see it.” The [Gears] fascinated Exrite. Even with how much she knew about them, there was still so much more hiding from plain sight.

Or as how the Otherworlds would say: it was merely the tip of the iceberg.

A curious Khaos noticed her entrancement and firmly placed a mighty hand on her shoulder. The girl twisted her head ever-so slightly, wondering what he wanted.

“Hm? Khaos?” She curiously asked.

“Don’t mind me. I just wanted to see what caught your eye.” He leaned in and studied the strange light-blue [Gear] in her palm. “The [Gears], right…? have any idea on how it’ll save the Biomech?”

“That’s probably where the [Biomechanical] magic comes in. But other than that – I’m just as clueless as anyone.” Her grip tightened. “Everything rests on what waits at the end of Gaia’s trial, unfortunately.”

“If we get there, that is.” Frosty muttered. “I just hope it doesn’t drag on anymore than it needs to. In just two weeks, I feel like I’ve been through more of the world than the four months we spent travelling to Colight. But that’s not so bad. At least we’re not stuck in a cave like the first few floors.”

Exrite wholeheartedly agreed as she awkwardly smiled.

“That’s one way to put it. Do you think she had the foresight to tell that her future Maiden of Time would be claustrophobic?” She joked, receiving a chuckle from Khaos and grunt from Frosty.

“I doubt it. But considering everything else, who the fuck knows? The Maiden of Time doesn’t strike me as someone responsible anyway. Not when she omits everything from you.” Frosty spoke with spite, her arms tightly folded.

Uru raised an annoyed brow. Surely, if those words left an outsider’s mouth, she would’ve kill them in an instant.

“You don’t know that Sis. As for me, I get the impression that she’s a kind-hearted Maiden.” Khaos added. “Or was at least.”

“Or maybe she never was~” Black waved a finger teasingly beside her face as she leaned against the pale obelisk. “I might be ignorant to many things in your world, but hearing that she abandoned the Maidens, disappeared throughout time, left that Biomech to rot alone on an oak tree and most importantly – thrust Exrite into her world without telling her why – I don’t think she was ‘kind’ at all. Well, maybe in light of things, she could be kind for granting Exrite her powers~”

“Ho? Indeed – to an Otherworlder she would appear in such a tasteless manner. The Maiden of Time certainly had a reason for her disappearance. No Maiden – or anything in this world for that matter – ever happens without a reason. Although, your recklessness is a different story.”

“Hmhm~ Maybe that’s because I’m not from this world to begin with. Joking aside – are we going to teleport or what?” Black nudged the unresponsive obelisk.

Nothing occurred in the few minutes they waited. Bizarre. The stillness and sustained ticking of the obelisk irked Exrite as she hastily approached the obelisk in confusion.

“… is… this supposed to happen?” She wondered if something was wrong.

“What’s wrong?” Khaos nonchalantly asked.

“What do you mean what’s wrong? The obelisk won’t activate, idiot.”

“Could it be that your gears aren’t strong enough to stimulate a response?” White asked, but was immediately rebutted by Uru and Exrite.

“Impossible.”

“That can’t be right. I’m the Maiden of Time, remember?”

It seemed like the obelisk was inactive, although Exrite refused to believe it. Moments ago they watched a group of creatures be transported away.

Something was wrong, or perhaps there was something more to the obelisk than to what meet the eye.

But what?

“The less you rely on blood the better it’ll be for us White. You’re too… human when you’re sane. If you’re forgetting such simple things then you’re as reliable as a goldfish~”

White ignored the woman’s foolish claim. As Black sneered and pulled herself away form the obelisk – a strange glow disappeared from its etched markings.

In an instant, Exrite loudly blurted out:

“– Hey– wait a second –! Black, touch the obelisk again. I thought I saw something.” Her voice was filled with both surprise and hope.

And it seemed like she wasn’t the only one who noticed it. Khaos and Frosty were mused by the phenomenon, while Uru drew closer to the obelisk to inspect it herself.

“Sounds like you figured something out. Sure, sure~ Here’s my hand.” Black easily complied, although she wondered what Exrite found exactly.

The moment her leather gloves met with the obelisk – the etchings began to faintly glow.

“Oh? Did eating all those Geared turn me into one of them~? As much as I love twists, there’s probably a reason behind this.” Black hummed, intrigued by the reaction. “Your turn Exrite. Let’s see what happens when you touch it.”

“Weird...” Exrite whispered as she gently touched the surface of the obelisk. She imagined that the light would be a tenfold stronger under her presence, however, the light only faintly increased. “Maybe the Geared doesn’t play a role with this obelisk. But then how did those creatures activate it?”

“Probably by touching it all at once.” White answered as she joined with a mused face. “Or maybe it’s because your the Maiden of Time that we have a different set of conditions.”

“Conditions?” Khaos wondered what she meant by that as he and Frosty joined.

“If Exrite doesn’t know, then we don’t know. The only thing we can do is try to figure this out on our own.” Frosty muttered with a spiteful voice.

The etchings grew luminous with every hand attached to it. All that remained now was Uru, who pondered on the strange mechanics of the obelisk with a strange tinge in her eye.

Then, after some thought, she elegantly joined them with a faint grin.

A deafening high-pitched rumble suddenly ripped through the smouldering air. Their vision flashed to white for a split second as the etchings began to violently glow.

But no one dared to remove themselves from the obelisk. Not even fear or caution would allow them to.

A [Gear] emerged from the tip of the obelisk, spinning as its wonderful ticks entranced them. As a magical circle formed underneath them, they braced themselves for the next floor.

However –

A blue beam fired straight past Uru’s face. Her pale hair was flung as if a gust of wind had attacked. The [Gear] – which pointed past Uru – abruptly disappeared back into the obelisk.

A searing scar was left on her face. But rather than anger or wary, she was rather pleased. If it weren’t for her regenerative powers, she would have vowed to keep it as a reminder of being grazed by the old Maiden of Time.

The obelisk fell silent as its lights disappeared without a trace. And in the distance Exrite could sense a new ticking sound – which was most likely another obelisk.

It came from the direction behind Uru – right where the beam was fired towards.

“Y-you… are you ok?” Exrite asked, but was met with a simple nod. “Good to hear… that beam… I think it was pointing to a new obelisk.”

“No teleportation then, huh? Maybe we’re already here on the final floor.” Frosty removed herself from the obelisk with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “But if there’s another obelisk…”

“Then we’re probably going to be pointed to yet another obelisk.” White sighed. “Or so I hope. If this is the last floor, then it makes sense that we weren’t teleported. Where else are we going to go?”

“The Maiden of Time’s home. Isn’t that the whole reason why we came down here in the first place?” Khaos reminded.

“Teleporting to her home means that the creatures have access to it. I doubt we can just simply teleport there.” White slowly spoke. “For someone with foresight like her, she wouldn’t have such a major security flaw.”

“But if the key is the Maiden of Time herself – then that’s a foolproof as security can get~” Black disagreed. “Try not to die Exrite. We’re already so close to the end.”

“That goes without saying… but with you, we’ll have to work even harder. Don’t do anything reckless, Black.” Exrite warned as she slowly began to lead them towards the next obelisk.

“It all depends on what happens here on our last expedition. But recklessness is nothing more than being at the tip of the spear. You either make the right call, or you miss and become open to counters. If anything, I’m more concerned about what will happen to you, now that you’ve lost that gear in your iris.”

“Then if you see me dozing off, feel free to hit me. I’d rather lose an arm than succumb to the Eye’s manifestations.”

Amid their back and forth conversations – Uru glanced back at the silent obelisk with curious eyes.

She was humbly thankful that no lives were lost thus far. It seemed like this trial was far more unforgiving than she could ever imagine.

No. Unforgiving would be an understatement.

Uru’s eyes narrowed as a devilish smile formed across her face. In a second of deep thought, she glanced over at her beloved Maiden of Time and whistled a faint song.

As her voice became one with the smouldering world around them – she imagined what would’ve happened had a single one of them had died along the way.

Or more importantly – if humans were the ones by Exrite’s side.

And at the thought, she brushed a finger by Exrite’s cheek.

* * *

Part 2 –

A series of obelisks soon followed. Past the plateau, they entered a far more uneven world. Silhouettes of mountains and other rocky structures hid behind the red sky. They were steadfast in their journey, and fought many hostile creatures which they initially believed were on their way towards an obelisk.

The heat drastically increased with each hour they spent trudging through the landscape, and soon, the luggage Khaos carried dropped in weight as they steadily consumed what was left of their food and water.

But it wasn’t like water was a problem anyway. It was easily replenishment with magic, but as for their food – it was nearly impossible to find any here on this floor. The handful of dried nuts were carefully rationed and split between Frosty and Khaos – who were the only ones that needed food to survive.

Exrite endured her hunger. Even as a being that didn’t need to eat, the sensation was still there. She was still a human after all.

The obelisks seemed to point towards a general location. And as time came and went, the skies seemed to grow dark. At first, Exrite wondered if this floor had a day and night cycle, but as they continued forward and activated more and more obelisks – she realised this was far from the case.

What stood at what seemed like the centre of the world was an enormous volcano. They all halted in awe to the supermassive volcano which filled their vision, and rose up as far as they eye could see.

“… That’s our destination, huh?” Frosty took a step back as her breath was snatched away from her.

“Unbelievable… even our airship doesn’t reach that high. Or even half of it.” White spoke in utter disbelief. “What happened to the floor’s ceiling? If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought we were on the surface. I’m at a lost for words.”

“To think we’re still underground... and to be faced with a volcano comparable to the stories of Mount Winterfall...” Exrite muttered in awe as her fists tightly clenched.

“You’re foolish Exrite. It’s barely a comparison. It is nothing but a grain in the vast desert of the Scorched when put side by side with our glorious Mount Winterfall. Although – its height is still surprising, especially for a place so far underground.”

Uru hummed as she nevertheless admired the bleeding volcano.

Mount Winterfall was the highest place in all of Six Point – and perhaps even in the rest of Corozin. No matter how high one flew, they would never see its elusive summit. It towered into the heavens itself and easily stood as a monument of universal awe and worship.

Not even the masters of magic – the Demons – could ever dream of scaling such a thing.

“Looks like our finale will be going off with a bang. Have a look at that swollen spot on the other side. I’m amazed that there’s more to this floor than to what meets the eye.” Black brought a hand to her chin, amused by how closely everything mimicked nature.

“Hmm? Swelling? Is that something we need to worry about?” Exrite was curious about the significance of the swelling. While she was somewhat well-versed with volcanoes, she had never heard of a ‘swelling’ or ‘bulge’.

“Of fucking course. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a volcano erupt – but they don’t happen over a single night. The swelling is obviously a sign of an inevitable eruption. And with one that large, I wouldn’t be surprised if it blew up in the next few weeks. Or, if we’re really unlucky, in the next few hours”

Black confidently spoke as if she knew from experience.

“Tell me Exrite – Uru – did the Maiden of Time have the foresight to also see this? Or are we just un-fucking-lucky?”

“This is intentional, without a doubt. This is all part of the Maiden of Time’s trial.” Uru sternly replied. “But in the event it does go off – I doubt we’d survive.”

Those words resonated with Exrite. In a brief moment of silence, delved into deep thought as Frosty battled with Khaos’ concerns.

On the <Fortieth Floor>, a long overdue avalanche destroyed any hopes of accessing that obelisk. And now – there’s the threat of this floor disappearing entirely. I don’t know what Gaia’s thinking, or what her plans are; but I’m sure of one thing –

Her trial wasn’t designed to be completed more than once…

So… everything was truly on my shoulders this entire time.

Exrite’s heart sunk. She knew this was the case. From the very start. But to realise the true extent of it felt like an inescapable was suddenly dropped onto her.

She slowly brought a hand to her ammunition pouch and felt the bulge of the Gatestone. There, she held the hopes and dreams of the Biomech and the Maiden of Realms.

It was calming. Reassuring even. But at the same time, it was a weight that was impossible for a mere human to hold on their own.

She softly smiled. It wasn’t self-ridiculing, or one of humour – it was of thankfulness. Because when she looked at her friends and companions – she was reminded that the weight wasn’t solely hers to bear.

With her composure returned – Exrite knew that there was only one thing she could do.

“Then let’s finish this before it even has the chance to erupt. I doubt we have as much leeway as a few weeks. Khaos, I hope you’re ready for the climb of your life.” She laughed.

“Fuck… Right. Wait –! Can’t Uru just carry us like before? You know, when we were escaping from the mountains?” Khaos suggested surprisingly.

Suddenly, all eyes fell onto the voluptuous Demon, who returned a mischievous stare.

“Uru, unless you’re willing to lose your abdomen again, we’ll be fine on foot –”

“For our circumstances, and by your will my dear Maiden of Time – I’m more than willing to sacrifice a part of my body for you.” Uru intervened as a small purple magical circle hovered over an outstretched palm.

Exrite hesitated, but after some thought, she gulped and placed a hand on Uru’s head.

“We’ll see where the obelisks take us first. And if they point towards that volcano – then we’re counting on you Uru.”

“Naturally~ This is proof of my loyalty to a being as perfect as the Maiden of Time!”

Exrite couldn’t help but to wryly smile.

A single [Seeker] was fired from her magical circle. As Uru thrust herself away, the homing beam struck her mid-flight. Smoke and pieces of debris flung out like the fragments of a grenade, and once it subsided, an Uru – who was missing a lower torso – emerged.

Held together by thick tendrils that acted as a spine, Uru approached the group with more tendrils sprouting behind her. To an outsider, it would appear as if a Goddess of Death or Demigod had descended upon them.

Although… they wouldn’t be far from the truth. After all, Uru was the Demon of Lust – a Succubus that devoured vitality through a creature’s most sough after desires.

“You… Uru, you didn’t need to do that now. Like I said – we still don’t know if the volcano really is our final destination.” Exrite sighed before she began to lead them towards the next obelisk.

Intrigue festered in White’s eyes as she stared at the Demon’s impossible anatomy. She already knew Uru was far from a normal being, but not to this extent. Even Black found herself pleasantly surprised.

“A Demon both in looks and within. I guess that explains how you’re able to shapeshift.” Black hummed, mused by the fact.

Uru only responded with a soothing whistle.

In the course of the next hour of chasing more obelisks, Frosty wondered where Black’s knowledge of volcanoes came from. She was sure the woman’s wisdom purely consisted of death, murder and destruction – so it came as a jarring surprise.

“So...” She began, trailing off as she tried to formulate her words. “… Black. How can you be so sure that the swelling means it’s about to erupt? That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of it.”

“Hm? I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or sincere. You live in a fantastical world with nature everywhere. That kind of knowledge should be obvious even to newborns.” Black sharply retorted.

“But because we’re close friends, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt~ Hmhm~ Just for you.”

Goosebumps riddled Frosty’s arm. She sighed and restrained herself from responding crudely.

“You just sounded like you knew a bit about volcanoes.”

“If only it were a bit. I had an enemy who thrived in a volcanic region of my world. I would’ve been a moron to storm in without knowing a thing or two about my battlefield.” Black answered, reminiscing the times she fought with that individual.

But, I also had previous knowledge from my old world. You see – my world was similar to yours in a lot of ways, save for your magic and our firearms.” She tapped her holstered Night’s Melody.

“We were centuries away from this sort of technology. Aha. I still remember the primitive me who couldn’t believe such that a small object could kill a person with the pull of a trigger.” She chuckled.

Slowly, her voice became solemn. A small glimmer of reminiscence shone in her purple eyes.

Exrite took interest in her words.

“Centuries? Wait, so you more than a few hundreds years old?”

“Be careful with who you say that to~ But if you really must know – I’m not. Time does not run uniformly across every world. The years in my old world were like seconds in the Colour Plane.”

“Ah… I see. then you’re probably a lot younger than I thought.”

“Hmm~? Exrite – care to tell me how old you believed I was? Depending on your answer, you may or may not have a bullet with your name one it~”

“… You’ll probably shoot me regardless.” She forced a silent laugh as she tried to avoid answering the viscous woman.

“A hundred is a stretch. In terms of how long Black became a Colour – she’s undoubtedly among the youngest. Or actually, the second youngest as of… recently.”

“Hmhm~ Greenheart, if I recall. We all saw her death coming, and I took the initiative to make it all a reality. A kingdom built on the foundations of peace in a world of war is moronic at best.”

“Sometimes you can say nice things, Black. But of course. A weapon can’t ever be rerouted to defy its sole purpose of being a tool for conflict.” White quietly spoke. “She was flawed, more than you were when you first became a Colour.”

“Tch. Don’t remind me. Let’s cut this conversation short, shall we? The last thing I want is to reveal something about myself to Exrite unconditionally.” She purposefully spoke with a heightened voice. “Our little deal is still ongoing. Don’t keep me waiting too long.”

“I’ll consider it when we get out of here. For now – let’s focus on what’s ahead.” Exrite sternly replied.

“I can barely wait~”

* * *

Rock-like monsters. Slimes made out of lava. Giant insects coated with obsidian exoskeletons. These were only a few of the creatures they faced along their travels.

The hazardous trail was filled with deep pits and many pools of bubbling lava. Even a single misstep could spell their end – particularly for Khaos and Frosty. The garbs Black and White wore were more than capable to withstanding being submerged in lava – although not for very long – and uru and Exrite were almost entire immune to it.

However, Exrite wouldn’t be spared from the pain.

That aside – it had been over twelve hours since they arrived on this floor. The illusion of the volcano being so close was due to its sheer size, which effortlessly filled their field of view.

The heat was already hot enough to set any vegetation alight. Frosty and Khaos desperately relied on magic to keep cool, but even then – they struggled to keep themselves from profusely sweating.

Exrite stayed close and supported them with everything she could. From giant ice shards that followed the Frostbitten siblings to refilling empty jars of water for them.

And when things looked like they would take a turn for the worse – she would call for the group to stop and let the two rest until their stamina returned.

Such was the case now. They took refuge within a small opening that led underground. It was significantly cooler there despite the walls and floor being lukewarm.

The siblings lay themselves flat against a sea of ice shards. As they groaned and panted, Exrite sat herself closely beside them as she tinkered with her new [Gear].

It hovered a few inches away from her face, ready to conceive the [Time] magic she silently prepared. She planned to imbue it with [Delay]. But after a moment of fierce concentration, she broke into a dissatisfied sigh and cursed.

“Ahhh. Dammit. How much bigger does a [Gear] need to be before it can harness [Time] magic?” Her controlled irritation was met with curious glances.

“Perhaps your streamlining of the magic is ineffective. You barely know the concept of time, therefore the cost is far greater than what the [Gear] can handle.” Uru softly spoke as she sat herself across Exrite.

“I don’t think the [Gears] work like that. I think they’re solely dependent on the magic its imbued with, not how much a person knows about it. Time is [Fifteenth Tiered] magic, and the [Gears] used for [Teleportation] is roughly the same size as this… and that’s an [Eight Tiered] magic.”

“Then it’s a sign that only the Maiden of Time herself should have the honours of possessing such peerless power. Hmm~ A safeguard to keep the hands of the world off those [Gears].”

Exrite quietly hummed and brushed a thumb across the [Gear]’s surface.

“You know, that would actually be a great idea. And I’d believe you if I hadn’t been to the Domain of Time. Every [Gear] that spun in the sky were all controlling [Time]. But they were huge – and mesmerising… Aha. Now that I think about it, I guess it was dumb of me to expect [Time] would work on a [Gear] this small.”

She gently smiled and sighed.

“What a pitiful [Gear].” Uru resisted the urge to touch the strange object. “Out-shadowed by the powerful – just like the nature of this world.”

“But that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Even the smallest [Gears] play a role in a grand machine. It all depends on how you use it.”

“Hmhm~ Now that’s mindset I can agree on. But, the smallest pieces are usually the ones that are the easiest to replace. They’re cannon fodder in the grand scheme of things~” Black chimed in from the mouth of the cave, her voice echoing ominously.

Exrite wanted to disagree, but she knew in her heart that those words were true. However, she didn’t equate lives to the scale of [Gears], unlike Black who saw the weak and innocent as fodder.

Once again, she was glad that she was still a human, despite what she had gone through. But that very well may be a double edged sword. After all, she knew what humans were capable of when filled with intoxicating ambition and strive.

“Cannon fodder… Are you sure about that?”

“What are you trying to get at?”

“The way you treat the Demi-humans and the Biomech –”

Exrite, I wouldn’t say another word if I were you. If they were my enemies, it would be an entirely different story. But let’s leave it there so you can enjoy working on your little [Gear]. Don’t disappoint me.” She warned with a thundering tone.

Exrite continued to watched the woman for some time. Hidden in her voice was a hint of sincerity. Behind her veil of ravenous brutality – she had a soft-spot for the Demi-humans and the Biomech.

At that thought, Exrite turned back to Uru and began discussing what magic would be best suited for the [Gear]. And like the previous [Gear] – they decided that a [Seeker] would work perfectly.

And as Uru began to imbue the [Gear] with her purple beams of destruction – she suddenly found herself riddled with confusion. She blankly blinked and when Exrite realised what was wrong, she too was struck with perplexity.

“… Ho… did I make a mistake? Or are the [Gears] unable to handle combination magic?”

“… Uru, wh-what is this?”

The [Gear] appeared unchanged. However, it was imbued was a strange kind of magic – one that Exrite had only heard of once from Uru.

“[Control]. My [Seekers] are far from simple magic. They’re uniquely created by combining my [Explosive Orbs], [Heat Trail] and [Control]. The [Gear] must’ve conceived the strongest magic out of the combination… Exrite, I humbly apologise.”

“Please don’t… I had no fucking clue it couldn’t handle combination magic in the first place… Aha… I wish I could laugh right now. I hope we didn’t waste this [Gear].”

Exrite was almost at a lost for words. She tried to salvage whatever she could out of the situation by testing out the newly imbued [Gear]. It was different from the sensation of controlling a limb.

In fact, it felt like the [Gear] was like a servant than a limb. At her will, it flawlessly orbited and flew around the small cave.

[Control] was a fundamental magic for the magical races of the north, and was widely used in combination-based magic. Despite being of the [Sixth Tier], it allowed the user to ‘control’ magic after it had been cast – whether it was movement, direction, shape or form.

The [Gear] obeyed her every command. But it could only do so much as a standalone [Gear]. Then, the prospect of combination magic struck her with a wild idea.

“… Wait. Actually, Uru – this could be a blessing in disguise. If the [Gears] can break down combination magic, then what happens if I combine two [Gears] together?”

“Ho? With [Liquid Fire]?”

“Mhm. Maybe with this, I’ll be able to control the output. Black, White – please watch over Frosty and Khaos. We’ll just be outside to test something out.”

“Sure. Or even better – we’ll get them ready to leave –”

“No. We’ll wait until their condition improves, even if it takes another hour. We’re only a few hours away from the base of the volcano and there’s no telling what will happen from here on out.” White swiftly interjected Black as the two entered the cave.

“You’re forgetting who the hell we are. But sure, we’ll loiter for a while longer. Just don’t blame me if we go up in flames~” Black hummed.

A groggy Frosty tried to respond, but her parched throat made it difficult to speak. Quickly, Exrite offered her a jar of water straight from a few melted ice-shards. She hoarsely coughed and growled:

“We’ll be fine. The sooner we get off this floor, the better. This fucking heat is something else.”

“Haha… Even the Scorched isn’t this hot!” Khaos laughed.

“Believe me, you wouldn’t survive even a second within the Scorched. This isn’t even a fraction of the heat beneath its nine suns.” Uru sighed.

“… fuck. Then let’s hope we won’t have to travel there. Ever.” He faintly spoke as he slowly brought himself upright. Soon, both him and Frosty were on their feet – albeit unsteady.

Exrite warily stayed near the two, both arms ready to catch them should they fall. But it seemed like they were fairly fine. It was a good call to move while they could. No one had the magic to effectively combat the heat, so staying here would only whittle down their stamina and strength.

They were on a timer – or at least Frosty and Khaos were. Exrite was lucky that the blistering heat was only painful and had little to no other effects on her body.

She could not imagine what would’ve happened if she was in her other human form.

But at the very least it, it was nothing compared to a mana overload.

* * *

A blazing fire spewed from the mouth of her [Gear]. It destroyed the few rock-constructs that dared to stand against them. The two-metre tall creatures fell into clumps of shattered rock, which burst with black fumes.

Exrite held face of admiration in the wake of the oozing flames. But she didn’t adore the destruction – but rather – her [Gears].

The [Control] [Gear] allowed for her to not only control its output, but to command it as if it had a mind of its own. At the thought of protecting the group – the combined [Gears] would follow them like a puppet. It surveyed the air, spraying as much [Liquid Fire] that was necessary to annihilate her foes.

By the time they were reduced to nothing but pebbles, it was already searching for its next prey. She was surprised by how complex the commands could be, although, it certainly did have its limits.

But that was solely because all it could do was spew [Liquid Fire]. She had no doubts that the prospect of [Control] was limitless.

[Control] was a magic in a class of its own. A lesser variant was [Simple Control], which gave the combined magic a condition it must follow. Such as and ice shard set to explode after travelling a certain distance.

In addition, it had superior variants – some even reaching up to the [Eleventh Tier], which was magic said to be the absolute limit of normal beings; including Heroes.

This magic was called [Statement] – the same thing Phase used to subdue Khaos.

“… It… still takes a bit of concentration to get used to. [Control] only works so long as I’m awake, right Uru?”

“Precisely. But if you’re seeking for a more proficient version, look no further than [Command]. Whether you’re conscious or not – it will carry out your will like a slave. I’m more than willing to show you my chant if you’re curious to try it.”

Needless to say – Exrite was thankful for the offer.

The group pushed forward after the insignificant battle. With every few minutes arrived another pack of creatures, which were immediately met with either a barrage of bullets, an [Explosive Orb] or a spray of [Liquid Fire].

It was humorous, now that Exrite thought about it. She honestly thought that [Liquid Fire] would do little to these molten creatures. But it seemed to only apply to the lava-based monsters – particularly the Lava Slimes which would leave a runny pool of lava upon its death.

Giant turtles, flocks of flaming bats, and the occasional Magma Worm were only a fraction of the creatures that attacked them during the last few hours. It seemed like the further they went, the more viscous the world became.

And the heat never stopped rising.

Black stayed with Frosty, offering her an arm to which the woman reluctantly took. White did the same for Khaos. With a lighter cargo, she was confident in her strength to support Khaos in the event he toppled over.

And speaking of cargo – the two final grenades were thrown out earlier as a precaution. The last thing they wanted was for them to be unknowingly ignited by the surrounding heat.

As they pushed through the precarious terrain and went from obelisk to obelisk – they eventually reached the final obelisk at the base of the volcano.

Pools of lava dribbled from the steep slopes above, resembling veins. The massive bulge was far larger than any of them could imagine. Surely, if it went off, the entire floor could go down in flames with it.

Exrite gulped.

“Last one… finally. Fucking finally.” Frosty groaned as she swiftly placed a hand on the obelisk. “Please – we need to get off this floor as soon as possible.”

“No kidding… none of us would survive an eruption. And here I thought Uru’s magic was a marvel to behold...” Black threw her hand in.

“Uru, take us up there as soon as we’re done. I’m not sure how long Frosty and Khaos are going to last.”

“We’re still good enough for a fight! But don’t count too much on us, yeah!?” Khaos roared, his fist reaching the obelisk.

“I hope it won’t have to come to that.” White sincerely spoke as the final hands activated the obelisk.

And the moment the beam fired straight towards the peak of the volcano – Uru’s tendrils wrapped around each of their waists.

“Don’t grasp onto my tentacles. Especially you Khaos. You wouldn’t want to fall, correct?”

Before anyone could grow comfortable – or realise what was happening – the floor suddenly disappeared underneath them. She hazy smoke whizzed by like a gale as Uru dragged them through the skies.

In a matter of seconds, the obelisk was no less than the size of an ant. The vast world was a mesmerising sight. Even from this height, they couldn’t see the ceiling, let alone the supposed walls of the floor.

It truly was as if they were on the outside world.

“Be careful of whiplash Uru! As much as I appreciate your aid – Frosty’s neck may snap!” Black battled the thunderous winds with a cry.

“There’s no such issue! Be at ease, Black! My speed is incompatibly lower than the last time I carried her!”

“So long as you don’t make a fast turn, she’ll be fine… but the question is – what’s the atmosphere like up there!?” White pondered.

“The air should be fine! Just expect a lung-full of sulphur!” Black confidently replied.

“… like this wasn’t enough already.” Khaos’s voice was nearly lost in the wind.

The heated air already made breathing difficult. With the added acidic scent of sulphur and heavy dust – it all made for a deadly recipe.

Thankfully, the Frostbitten were built to be resilient to such hazards. But even the elusive race had their limits.

The ticking sensation grew stronger as they flew towards summit. It was strong – stronger than any other source of ticking she had ever felt. No one knew what they would uncover at the top – or if that ticking came from an obelisk for that matter.

She just hoped nothing would go awry. But she knew that was a pipe dream. If this truly was the final floor – then she would have to brace herself at all costs.

The summit was soon within reach. The frightening howls of the wind subsided and was replaced with an eerie bubbling from within the crater of the volcano. It was massive.

No, ‘massive’ could not describe how large it truly was. It was as if the world had sunk into a rocky whirlpool, where an ocean of lava sat at its bedrock. It spanned as far as the eye could see, and the slopes leading down were as far as two kilometres deep.

For a moment, they forgot the threat, the pain and arduous world as the crater’s splendour took over their bodies. Even Black was left utterly dumbfounded; for it was a volcano that surpassed anything she had ever witnessed.

“So – can someone remind me on how the fuck a place like this can exist so far underground!?” Black exclaimed.

Magic. The answer to one hundred percent of all mysteries.” Frosty grunted as Khaos could be heard repeatedly cursing in the background.

“Nonsense. This is a dungeon created by the Maiden of Time herself. Only she can carry the glory of such a feat. Not even billions of years of nature could create such a bewildering sight.” Uru hummed.

“Uru… Bewildering is a stretch. It’s more terrifying than anything.” White muttered as she took the first few steps towards the burning crater. “Any idea on what we’re supposed to do, Exrite?”

The girl in question joined her, and brought a hand to her chin.

“Down. The ticking is coming from somewhere inside of the lava.” She struck Uru with a quick glance. “A [Barrier] won’t work. Not even my triple layered one… Uru! How’s your resistance to lava again?”

“Paramount~ lava is as traversal as water for a Demon like myself. Although, I won’t be able to see a thing down there.” She immediately replied. “Our best option would be to approach the ocean and see what happens.”

“Yeah… we’ll see what happens from there then. Frosty, Khaos – please hold on a little longer. We’re almost at the end.”

“I’m still kicking. Something like this can’t possibly stop us after we’ve come so far!” Frosty hoarsely cried.

“Haha! You underestimate us Exrite! We’ve gone through a harsher trial than this before!” Khaos heartily laughed as she struck the air with an iron fist.

As newfound hope and enthusiasm filled the air, Exrite softly smiled and led them down the steep slope towards the pool below.

But before she could even take a step down –

“E-eh? What’s going on!?”

“Hey… hey! We’re not too late, are we!?”

“Ho!? An eruption!?”

“Huh!? That damn Maiden of Time! I had a hunch that this would happen the moment we got close enough!”

“An impending carnage awaits us… and there may be nothing we can do about it.”

“Tch! Speak for yourself! Uru! Take us the fuck away from here ASAP unless you all want to fucking die here!?”

The world shook like never before. The surge of movement was enough to instantly drown a man with nausea and topple them over like a measly tree. The swelling on the other side pulsated rapidly as it suddenly grew in size.

Needless to say – pandemonium spread across the group like a plague.

Gravel, rock and boulders tumbled down into the lava. The unsteady ground threw Frosty onto her knees, and disorientated the others. The swelling on the other side of the crater grew increasingly massive, seemingly about to explode at a moment’s notice.

“U-Uru! Go! Get us away from here! White, Frosty – erect your strongest [Barrier] behind us!”

“Of course! Keep one around as as well, Exrite!” White cried and before long – they were all snatched by Uru who swiftly lunged straight into the opposite direction.

“On it!” Frosty yelled as she created a translucent [Barrier] behind them.

They flew like a tightly compact ball. A spherical [Barrier] of light encased them from behind, which was reinforced with Frosty’s. In the mere seconds that elapsed, Uru had already travelled a significant distance.

She couldn’t afford to hold back on her speed. A single deviation of movement had the potential to cause major injuries among the group. But they all trusted Uru with their lives.

“Exrite!? How long are you going to take on your [Barriers]!? It’s about to fucking blow!”

“Almost done! I just need another few seconds!”

“We don’t have another few seconds –!”

And in that moment – the world flashed a horrific shade of red. The massive swelling sunk into itself before exploding into tens of thousands of debris, which flew like meteorites.

Surprisingly – it was solely the other side of the volcano which exploded. The crater was strangely left intact. However – that wasn’t their main focus.

The sheer amount of material it ejected was something that couldn’t be described by words alone.

“EXRITE!”

“HURRY!”

“– [BARRIER]!”

In an instant, seemingly right before the shockwave could hit – an opaque light-blue shell surrounded them. Another five followed them behind, deflecting the supersonic material that tried to swat them from the skies.

It was a modified [Physical Barrier] – but this one was akin to that of the [Ninth Tier]. But even these were not invincible. The rocks that struck seemed to leave behind cracks along the intricate gear-like designs of the shell.

Within seconds, the volcano was enshrouded with a monumental wall of black smoke. The world within Exrite’s shell was horrifyingly quiet, and made for a jarring contrast to the world outside.

Then – the silence was broken.

“Saved… by a hair… Exrite – any slower, and we would’ve lost our sight, ears and fucking lives!” Black gripped Exrite by her collar threateningly.

“This isn’t the time to fight with me, Black. And we’re far from saved! We’re still being chased by that smoke!”

“Drop her, Black! We have bigger things to worry about!” White cried as she thrust the barrel of her handgun against Black’s head. “And how can a wall of smoke move so fast!? That should be impossible!”

“… Normally, that’s true. But if the Maiden of Time foresaw an attempt to escape by air, then that’s probably why it’s so fast!” Frosty pointed out.

The smoke wall was almost five times faster than Uru. Frankly, it was impossible unless magic was involved. And if what Frosty said was true – then Gaia had all exits closed.

“Did that Maiden of Time lure us all into a death trap!?” Black grit her teeth in rage.

“… she couldn’t have. If the smoke’s moving that fast, then she must’ve wanted us to stay here on this floor at all costs.” Exrite calmly replied.

“To fucking die!?” Black shoved her face into Exrite’s, causing her to suddenly yell in her own fit of rage:

“To finish this fucking trial! I can still feel the ticking back there! As impossible as this sounds, I think the volcano top is still intact!”

Exrite’s Eye of Despair grew feverishly hot. The combined [Gears] pointed straight for Black, as if threatening to douse her with [Liquid Fire]. And in turn, Black thrust her handgun against Exrite’s head.

But before things spiral out of control between them – the smoke smothered the world around them. Darkness encased them as boulders continued to strike their shells with frightening strength.

“… I got this...” Frosty muttered as small orb of light illuminated their little bubble.

“We’re… in the thick of it now, hey…?” Khaos slowly spoke.

“More than that. We’re now betting on Exrite’s claim to salvage our lives. For your sake, we better have a way of getting off this floor!” Black spat in a fit of rage.

“We do. But we’re not going to escape – we have to finish this. There’s no way we’ll be able to return here! All those obelisks we followed are probably destroyed by now –!”

“Can you two shut up for a moment!? Khaos, Uru – Frosty – did you hear that?” White yelled as she turned to the three.

“Ho? I’m surprised you noticed. There seems to be more than just rocks outside.”

“It sounded like a roar… maybe its the death throes of all the creatures caught up in the explosion.” Frosty uttered, a hand gliding over to Khaos’ shoulder.

“I hope so… but that didn’t sound like a normal monster.”

Both Exrite and Black were dumbstruck for a moment. They suddenly set their angers aside and wondered what they meant. Then, just as Exrite was about to ask – they heard it again.

“BWAAAAAAAAARGH!”

It was a roar.

A roar so loud, that it somehow surpassed the shockwave that was entirely mitigated by their [Barriers].

This couldn’t belong to a measly monster.

It must’ve been massive.

Uru slowly brought them to a standstill as they faced the direction of the volcano. Suddenly, a pair of dim lights shone through the smoke.

“… so… is that something we need to chase?” Black whispered, her anger vanquished almost entirely.

The red lights were like the eyes of a massive beast. Then – two more pairs joined in. A total of six strange lights lurked in the distance before suddenly – another roar tore through the air.

“BWAAAAAAAARGH!”

In an instant, the smoke surrounding them was dispelled by the sheer sound. The clearance revealed the red sky, the volcano – which was surprisingly still intact – and the ravaged world beneath them which was struck by a torrent of flaming debris.

However –

There was something else here.

The light revealed that those red-lights were in fact eyes.

And they belonged to a trio of dragon-like heads. Their necks were connected with the world below them, and reached up as far as a few dozen kilometres. It was impossible, uncanny and something straight out of a nightmare.

With rocky scales, teeth of obsidian and innards of viscous lava – these creatures were the embodiment of this flaming floor.

“… chase, fight – close enough. Our finale arrived in the form of a battle! Hmhm~!”

And as it roared mightily for the final time, Exrite quickly pointed back at the volcano and cried:

“Uru! Take us back to the volcano! If we want to fight, we’ll need to do it there! A single strike will take us all down!”

Battle was imminent and inevitable. But no one wanted to do it in the air – not when they had no control of their movements. In the wake of Uru’s retreat back to the volcano – the heads snapped at the air tauntingly before suddenly giving chase.

Their speed was incredible. Terrifying even.

This fight would be no mere pushover like the entirety of Gaia’s dungeon.

And with Khaos and Frosty in a weakened state – it could not drag on.

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