Flight after flight, floor after floor, she climbed the stairs. She thought of nothing, she felt nothing, she focused solely on putting one boot in front of the other, over and over and over.
Round and round and round she went, forever turning clockwise. She kept her hand on the handle of her sword, ready for instant action, keeping to the outer edge of the stairs. The higher she climbed, the darker it grew, taking her further and further from the glow of the sea of Dust.
It didn’t matter. With her mental map, she could navigate the world even with her eyes closed. Indeed, she did just that, resting her mind and body, using only enough muscle and energy to keep her going, navigating solely by her mental map.
How long had she climbed? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t where she wanted to be, so she kept climbing. Onward, onward, always onward, heading to whatever awaited her at the top of the stairs.
The elevator descended.
Eyes still closed, she flexed the fingers of her hand. Rolled her shoulders back and forth. Checked her gauges.
Presently the elevator entered the edge of her consciousness. Inside it, she felt four living beings. Anguilline warriors, all armed with short spears. Also, a whole mess of blood splattered across the walls, floor and ceiling.
Two floors above her, the Anguillines spilled out. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder, two in front and two behind, they descended the stairs.
Now she opened her eyes.
Stopped at a landing.
And let them come to her.
They trooped down the stairs, huffing noisily, their eyes glinting in the gloom. They thrust their spears before them, advancing in lockstep, ready to run her through. When the frontliners spotted her, they issued a keen cry. All four Anguillines charged.
She stepped aside and gave the backliners a Telekinetic push.
All four monsters went tumbling.
Heads banged against railings. Feet scraped against steps. Limbs tangled up in each other. The Anguillines crashed into a confused heap at the foot of the steps. Luisa picked up a discarded bone spear and drove it into the back of a head.
And just like that, they were all dead.
She tossed the spear aside and searched the bodies, and found nothing of value to her. No water, no rations, no interest.
Her lips were cracked. Her muscles ached. Her belly growled. And one of Marco’s instructions came back to her.
“If you run out of water, there are always monsters.”
Grabbing an empty canteen, she knelt by the body of the largest, strongest Anguilline, and hoisted it up on the guardrail. She felt around the neck until she found its arteries. Then she uncapped the canteen and held it by its neck.
And drew her knife.
Hot blood splashed over her fingers, her hand, the canteen. She adjusted the canteen, catching the stream in the mouth of the canteen.
There was so much blood. The House had taught her how much blood circulated in a human body, and she had seen more than her fair share of corpses. But this time, she could actually measure how much blood she took—and how much more there was left.
The canteen overflowed. She took her other canteen, and continued harvesting blood. When that canteen filled to the brim, she placed both containers aside—and the body continued to bleed. She cleaned off her knife and sheathed it, and the body still bled.
Placing the canteens on the floor, she extended her hands over their open mouths.
Purify, she willed.
Red Dust drifted from her palms and settled into the blood. More and more and more Red Dust, until a thin layer appeared on the surface of the liquid. The blood frothed, the Red Dust killing all microbes within the liquid. When the bubbling stopped, she placed her lips to a canteen and drank.
Rich, warm, salty blood filled her mouth. Clots and clumps of Gray Dust drifted past her teeth and tongue. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed.
That wasn’t too bad.
Inert Dust was perfectly safe for human consumption. The body would pass it out with the rest of its biological waste. With the blood sanitized, there was no fear of disease. Nonetheless, drinking too much iron-rich blood too quickly could injure the stomach and intestines.
Luisa harvested the Red Dust from the bodies of the Anguillines, forming a second, smaller, phylactery, then stowed it in her pack. With renewed strength, she picked up the bodies and heaved them over the guardrail.
She didn’t hear the sound of impact.
She didn’t look down.
She climbed up.
The elevator was in motion again. She’d been so focused on harvesting the bodies that she’d lost track of it. When it re-entered her mental map, she sensed eight Anguillines inside the car, all of them armed to the teeth. She climbed up to a landing, took up position at the elevator doors, and waited.
And the elevator shot past her.
And climbed up.
What was that all about?
Were they making a second supply run? Maybe. They might be sending their Anguillines to drink of the Red Dust and evolve into higher-order beings. If so, they were too late. She stood head and shoulders above them all. Only an Aberration could stop her now.
Then the elevator came up to her.
And shot past.
But this time, there were only four Anguillines inside.
She headed up to the next landing and consulted her mental map.
Two floors down, a block of four Anguillines crept up the stairs.
Two floors above, four more Anguillines slunk out the elevator.
A pincer attack. They were learning. But they were weak.
She stood by the guardrail, sipped more blood, and let them come.
When they were one floor away, they attacked.
To her left, four Anguillines rushed down the stairs, spears leading the way. To her right, four Anguillines dashed up the stairs, behind a screen of spears. Every eye and every bone blade turned to her, ready to skewer her.
She reached out with her Telekinesis and pulled.
The back row of the block above her tripped. The front row of the block below her stumbled. The monsters pinwheeled and caromed about, crashing into each other, taking each other down. One of them dropped a bone spear. Another’s bone knife fell free. She seized them with Telekinesis and went to work.
Blood geysered from slit throats. Heads crunched under hard impacts. One Anguilline tried to get up, and her knife neatly took its head off.
In the space of five breaths, they were all dead.
She wasn’t afraid any more. She was powerful. Powerful beyond compare. Only the weak had reason to fear. The strong would never feel afraid. Not of weaklings like this.
She gathered up the Red Dust from the bodies, then combined the phylacteries into a single large sphere. She tossed the bodies out of the way, and continued the climb.
This time, the elevator stayed put.
At last, she arrived at a door. She had reached the top of the stairs. She had climbed twenty stories high, more stories than she had ever climbed at once in her life, and all she felt was a pleasant twinge in her legs. She wasn’t even breathing hard. Was this what it meant to have such absurdly high stats?
If so, she could get used to it.
Past the door, she sensed a seething mob. Easily a score of Anguillines, maybe more. They formed a semicircle two ranks deep, trained on the door. The front rank, armed with spears, stood ready to thrust at the doorway. The second rank aimed crossbows, ready to riddle her with bolts.
She stood by the side of the door.
This close to the monsters, she tasted the fury and the surprise roiling off them. They’d expected her to stand in the middle of the doorway, where they could slaughter her in an instant. Instead, they saw only empty space.
Then she formed a Razor Mine and hurled it into the room.
There was a soft click.
Then a loud POP.
Silken sounds and sharp cracks filled her ears. Life signs vanished from her mental map. She rounded the corner and strode through the doorway.
And into darkness.
Her eyes saw only pitch black. Her mental map painted a picture for her. Gore and viscera dripped from the walls and ceiling. Severed limbs and bisected torsos lay scattered across the hall. Lakes of blood washed up at her boots. The scent of Dust and iron tickled her throat. At the edge of her perception, dead ahead, there was a large, heavy presence, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was yet.
On her left, an Anguilline moaned.
Everything below its belly was gone. Its left arm had been sheared off at the bicep, its right hand chopped off. Its eyes were a bleeding mess. It rasped weakly, blood spurting from its open mouth.
She stomped it in the throat.
She summoned the Red Dust from the bodies around her. She pulled off a pinch, then willed it to become a light.In the soft illumination, she saw that she was in an elevator lobby. Tables and cubicles and strange machines surrounded her, ravaged by time and beasts and now her Powers, forming three channels. It had to have been a security checkpoint of sorts. Past the checkpoint, a wide hall stretched to the other side of the structure. At regular intervals, corridors branched off, feeding into different sections.
At the far end, something crouched in darkness.
Stepping forward, she drew forth another pinch of Red Dust, ignited it into light, then tossed it into the darkness.
A bestial roar reverberated in the hall. A heavy mass undulated towards her, huge paws dragging its serpentine body towards her. The thing was enormous, its bulk spanning the breadth of the hall. As it passed into the light, Luisa saw a pair of enormous eyes, titanic jaws, scores of tentacles questing along the walls. With another roar, it hurtled towards her.
She Scanned it.
Powerful, even for an Ascendant. But for someone like her…
She extended her palm, calling the Dust to her. It gathered into a crimson mass, elongating into a long, sharp blade.
The Anguilline Guardian howled. Claws scrabbling at doorways and turns, muscles flowing like water, its skin shimmering in the light, it accelerated, opening its jaws wide, revealing a second set of jaws and a widening gullet.
The Blood Blade zipped into its open mouth. It shot past its oral jaws, past its pharyngeal jaws, disappearing into the darkness of its insides.
The Guardian screeched, this time in pain, expressing an intensity of agony and fury no human could begin to experience. The blade punched through it, tearing up everything in its path, perforating organs, cutting bone, going deeper, deeper, ever deeper—
The blast ripped the beast clean in half. Blood painted the hallway. More blood pumped from the separated halves. Bone fragments became shrapnel, ripping and tearing and shredding everything they touched. Paws kicked and clawed at the air, trying to gain purchase.
And the front half of the Anguilline closed in.
Howling in maddened anguish and hatred, what was left of the beast dragged itself forward, pale pink rivulets streaming from its eyes, its jaws dislocated and locked open.
“You’ve got heart,” she admitted.
Then fashioned a smaller Blood Blade and sent it flying into its open mouth.
This time, she spun it around vertically, orienting it towards its brain, and detonated.
It twitched. Slumped. Went still.
Wringing her hand, she regarded the body of the fallen beast. There was a time when it would have been the stuff of nightmares. Now… She had slain it as easily as breathing.
Did she stand a chance against Sabaia?
Even as she framed the question, a battle plan filled her head. Sabaia was enormous and enormously strong, capable of inhuman flexibility and stupendous speed. But its mass was also its weakness. Being much smaller and lighter, Luisa could outmaneuver it. So long as she stayed clear of its weapons…
She could do it.
But she needed one Power.
She harvested the Red Dust from the Guardian. Now she had a huge phylactery, as large as her head. With the sphere tucked under her arm, she squeezed past the corpse and headed down the hallway.
This Well was no mere industrial facility, she realized. The Ancients had lived here once. Hallways led to dorms and toilets, storage rooms and offices. Signs helpfully described the function of every room. The largest room was the control center, packed with ancient artifacts and mysterious machines.
The beasts had claimed it for their own.
Droppings filled the corners of many rooms, the eye-watering odor cutting through even the scent of blood and death. Much furniture had been shattered to pieces. Claw and scratch marks showed where they had sharpened their weapons against hard metal. Only the control center had been left nearly pristine, as though the monsters had treated it with reverence, either out of primal instinct or more likely in obedience to Sabaia’s will.
At the end of the hall, Lucia faced another lobby. Identical in layout to the lobby on the other side, right down to the placement of the machines and cubicles. But the shafts here were much shorter. They extended for only one floor.
Up to the surface.
Cold crept into her fingers. She licked suddenly-dry lips and forced down a lungful of the stale, malodorous air.
Sabaia was waiting.
As soon as she stepped out the door, the Aberration would be upon her. During her long climb up the shaft, she had faced organized resistance. The monsters had to have some method of communication with each other. She had to assume that Sabaia was also in contact with her minions. Perhaps she had been controlling them from her lofty perch. Stranger things had happened out in the Wastes.
Luisa needed Flight. There was no question about it. It was the only way she would survive the coming battle.
This time the Goddess remained mute, offering neither warning nor encouragement. She was watching, Luisa knew, judging her every action. Would Luisa act in a way that honored the Goddess? Or would she violate Her laws and be cast down into madness and mutation?
Falling was not an option. Neither was not securing Flight.
She had to unlock Flight. She had no other choice. But she didn’t have to do it now.
She sat in a corner, retrieved a canteen, then gulped down a mouthful of blood. And another. And another. The blood had thickened, forming many clots. She swallowed as much as she dared, then drew her attention to her breath, and activated Vigilant Meditation.
Time ceased to hold meaning. The seconds ticked past, then the minutes. Her heartbeat slowed to a regular pace. Energy flowed into her, healing the little aches and sores she had built up during her ascent.
Her EP and RD gauges steadily restored themselves.
There were no more threats, no more dangers, no need to worry about anything other than replenishing herself. She would enter the next fight at the height of her powers, or at least, as close to it as she could. More and more fatigue retreated from her gauges, restoring her capacity.
She sat and breathed and meditated.
Her mind was perfectly, gloriously, calm. There was only a restful silence in which the soul could put itself back together. She moved only to sip some more from the canteen of blood, helping the process along.
And then, the restoration process ended.
The RD and EP bars capped out at 75% of their original capacity. That was all Vigilant Meditation could accomplish for her. But that was alright.
She had just enough RD and EP to squeeze out another level.
She had just enough to fly.
She thought she was ready. She believed her body had recovered. It wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
Fire scoured her from the inside out. Red Dust bloomed across her body. Sweat gushed from her pores. Her stomach rebelled. Fighting against waves of nausea, she swallowed hard, letting herself burn.
Millions of insects crawled and bit and kneaded, worming through her flesh, her bones, her very being. Her heart slammed against her chest in a deafening tattoo. Pain spiked through her brain, spitting her temples end to end. Her skin grew so hot, her sweat felt close to boiling. For a moment she thought that she was sweating blood.
The Goddess would protect her. She knew it deep in her heart. Mara would not fail her, not when she was this close to victory, not when she was ready to strike a blow against an Aberration and restore order to the world.
She persevered. She believed.
And then, it was over.
She slumped over, panting and heaving. She was completely, totally, spent. Her EP and RD gauges were totally empty—and blasted down to half their total size. Sweat caked her clothes to her skin. She drank more blood, hoping that her stomach could take it, that her guts could extract water from the warm liquid.
She breathed. She absorbed more Red Dust from her phylactery. Then she called up her Skill Web.
The last node glowed a pale blue. She cast her mind into the heavens, but again the Goddess was silent. The power was hers for the taking. Neither Goddess nor monster could stop her now.
She selected Flight.
And just like that, she became an Angel. An Ascendant empowered by the Goddess to fly.
It was a letdown. After everything she had been through to get to this point, she half-expected something more dramatic. But why would it be? How was this any different from all the other nodes she had bought to get to this point? It was a Power, one out of the many Powers she had at her disposal.
There was one more battle ahead of her. One more monster to cut down. Then the nightmare would be over. She had to be in top form for what was to come.
Sitting upright, she returned to Vigilant Meditation.
Time passed. How long, she neither knew nor cared. She simply sat in healing stillness, allowing her EP and RD to restore themselves. She thought the process was slower than before. Not that it mattered. She had all the time she needed to restore her strength.
Once more, her EP and RD gauges topped out at 75 percent of their original capacity. She tapped into her phylactery, replenishing her RD pool. When she was done, there was still plenty of Red Dust left. She stowed what was left in her pack.
She checked her blades, checked her backpack, then rose to her feet and entered the final stairwell.
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