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When one fell asleep, to them it seemed like a mere instant had passed by the time they woke up. Perhaps they could vaguely feel that a certain amount of time had passed. They could extrapolate from how high up the sun is, or how tired they felt.

By the time Neave opened his eyes, he had felt like an eternity had passed since he had died. It wasn’t like falling asleep. It wasn’t like passing out. There was an element of oblivion and destruction that severed his existence. Now he had arrived. At a place that he could only describe in a single word.

Hell.

When he finally opened his eyes he was standing upright. He felt relatively well rested. There was no fatigue, no muscular pain, no hunger, and no thirst. He still felt the vague aches that his body had suffered from all the beatings but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Neave, however, noticed exactly none of this. The only thing he felt was panic.

And despair.

The sky was clouded by gray, smoggy clouds with a red, ominous glow to them. The ground was rusty red, with pools of noxious liquids scattered here and there. In the distance, there were impossibly tall, jagged mountains. There was no growth, only obsidian bushes with sharp, jagged branches. The air stank of sulfur, blood, and smoke.

And rot.

Slowly shambling towards him was a creature. A vaguely humanoid creature with gray, rough skin, no eyes, and a large, toothy mouth.

A demon.

Neave immediately started running. He hadn't looked back and merely sprinted as fast as he could away from the thing chasing him. He had to dodge the pools of blood and avoid the rifts in the ground that led into abysses with jagged spikes protruding the walls and green, glowing gasses filling their bottoms.

He looked back constantly, but he was putting the demon further and further behind him. Neave neither relented nor slowed down. Instead, he constantly darted his eyes over the environment, looking for whatever other monstrosities might show up.

But there was nothing.

At a certain point, the adrenaline wore off and he collapsed onto the putrid, dusty soil on a small hill. He gasped for breath, choked on the noxious air, and took a second to calm down. The demon was far out of sight at this point. And there seemed to be nothing else chasing him. For now. He looked around the hellscape he now found himself trapped in. The sense of despair deepened.

No matter what direction he looked in, all he saw was the endless, rolling hills, jagged with spiky stone and obsidian growth. The only notable landmarks made the feelings of misery worse.

Mountains so tall they disappeared into the smoky atmosphere. Pools, and lakes of blood, pus, acid, and black ooze. Massive rifts lead into shimmering, glowing abysses filled with spikes, noxious gas, or just simply, pure darkness.

He was thirsty. Neave felt endlessly thirsty from the dry air dehydrating his mouth and the amount of sweat he spilled. But there was no water. He shuffled around his robes but he didn’t find the food pills either. Had he dropped them?

Neave had no idea where to begin. What to do from here? Where to go? He was sitting on a small hill, looking over the landscape he had passed so far. He sat there frozen, mind spinning and trying to come up with any solution whatsoever. There was no sense of time in this place, but Neave could tell from how thirsty he was that it had been a while.

Just as he thought he couldn’t possibly get any more desperate, he noticed a small, black dot moving towards him from afar. The creature was approaching him. He got up again and started running in the other direction. Neave stumbled into pools of blood and tripped over the sharp shrubbery that cut his legs. Several times, he just barely avoided dropping into pits of certain death.

He couldn't tell if he'd been running for hours or days.

And the thirst was driving him insane.

He felt his body stiffening. His eyes were so dehydrated his vision blurred. It was becoming impossible to breathe. The desperation was finally getting the better of him and he took a small sip from a pool of blood. It tasted of despair, rot, and death. He got up and walked for not even twenty seconds before dropping to the ground.

Dead.

When he finally opened his eyes he was standing upright. He felt relatively well rested. There was no fatigue, no muscular pain, no hunger, and no thirst. He still felt the vague aches that his body had suffered from all the beatings but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Neave, however, noticed exactly none of this. The only thing he felt was panic.

After all, he was back in the beginning. The demon was once again slowly stumbling towards him. Tears ran down his face and he ran. He ran like mad, but this time he tripped and fell into a pit. A jagged spike ran through his head and he died.

And then he woke up. Standing in the same place again. He felt madness creep into his mind, threatening to tear his very soul into pieces. And then, yet again, he started running. He ran and ran, as far as he could. Until he slipped off a rock and broke his neck. He didn’t die instantly, but rather sat there as his life slowly drained away.

And then woke up again. Ran. Fell into a pool of acid. Died.

And then woke up again. Ran. Then he died from thirst.

And then woke up again. Ran. Fell into a pit of noxious gas. Died.

And then woke up again. Ran. The skies broke and it started raining black ooze. It solidified on his skin and he suffocated, unable to move or breathe. And died.

Drowned in a river of blood.

Impaled on obsidian thorns.

Melted by acid rain.

Time and time again he woke up at the same start, ran in a random direction, and found nothing but new ways to die. But he went back every time. And ran. He ran in every single direction and explored every single bit of land he could reach before dying.

After some time he no longer fell into pits, he no longer tripped or stumbled into spiky bushes of death. He realized that when he died, the same events happen in the same order, so he knew where it would rain blood, acid, tar, or pus and avoided those places. But he could not outrun exhaustion or thirst.

He looked into his robes. The bottle of food pills wasn’t there even at the start.

His desperation clawed at him. He felt his misery deepening endlessly as the agony threatened to tear him apart. He ran at the demon and swung at it in his desperation. His tantrum punches were like soft taps on the demon’s tough flesh. It pulled its arm back and clawed his chest out.

He tried it again, but it grabbed his head.

“No… Please…”

Its claws sank into Neave’s skull and the demon pulled his head off by force.

Neave looked at the demon once again, shaking and stepping back in terror. He remembered the feeling of his spine being pulled out of his back together with his head and he screamed.

He sprinted away again. He ran so many times that the sense of time blurred. The demon was an ever-present threat behind his back, but it could only move so quickly. Eventually, he ran slower, so he could make it further before the exhaustion and thirst caught up. Then he walked instead, slowly, in every direction. He had even more time like this and he was still faster than the demon.

So he walked, now, in every direction, reaching further and discovering more. But he only discovered more death and despair. The never-ending torrent of suffering eventually subsided. The constant feeling of terror and dread got weaker and weaker as Neave habituated to it.

So he slowed down.

He slowed down until he was walking barely faster than the demon.

Then he slowed down until the demon was walking faster than he was.

The demon slashed at his back with sharp claws, tearing Neave’s back open. Neave screamed. It tore him apart and he died.

He appeared before the demon once again, taking a few shivering steps back. The demon grabbed his neck and bit his head off.

Once he appeared before the demon again he stood and shivered as the last vestiges of his motivation escaped him. The demon thrust its claws into his heart.

When he finally opened his eyes again he was standing upright. He felt relatively well rested. There was no fatigue, no muscular pain, no hunger, and no thirst. He still felt the vague aches that his body had suffered from all the beatings but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Neave, however, noticed exactly none of this. Not the demon walking towards him either. Not his impending doom. He just stood there. He stood as the demon tore him apart.

When he finally opened his eyes… He no longer felt anything at all.

***

Neave had noticed he was in some sort of trance. His thoughts were few and very far between, but he still thought sometimes. He wondered how long he had been here, he wondered how his father, his siblings, and everyone was doing. He at least hoped Hunter had died. Torn apart by some monster, or failed a spirit trial. From deep within him, his darkest thoughts wanted nothing but suffering for all those that tormented him. And soon enough, even these thoughts faded away…

He didn’t know how long it had been. He couldn’t know. You could tell when a day had passed because the sun had risen and set. There was no sun here. Or a moon. Or time. Just a loop. The same thing happened over and over and over and over, looping endlessly in circles. Had it been months since he had arrived here? Years? Decades? He couldn’t confidently say anything.

Neave wasn’t moving whatsoever, but the demon still walked a little differently each time. Just a tiny little bit. It was unusual, but not very useful information. Did this mean that it wasn’t time that reset, but rather when he died the entire world and himself were just returned to the same position?

Maybe time didn’t work how the scholars thought it did. Perhaps, if someone could go back in time, even if they didn’t change anything, things would still turn out differently. Was it chance? Maybe it was the interference of chaos. Who knew? Who cared?

Neave honestly felt this wasn’t particularly torturous. Not anymore at least. He was so used to pain and discomfort of every single type imaginable that this just felt tame in comparison. The demon would stumble towards him clumsily, taking about a minute or so to arrive, and then kill him in a few short seconds at most. Sometimes instantly with a well-placed strike.

That meant that most of his time here, he didn’t feel hungry, thirsty, tired, or injured.

In fact, he didn’t feel anything.

The smell no longer bothered him either. If you put it into a ratio then his experience here would equal mostly comfortable plus a minor bit of pain every few minutes. It was ironic. This ratio was almost better than his life before this nightmarish loop.

After he spent a completely unknowable amount of time standing idly, pondering, and just staring straight ahead, a stray idea crossed his mind. One that he had a few times before but he was far too scared to try and put into practice.

What if he tried killing the demon?

He had suppressed this thought so far. He still vividly remembered the way he felt when the demon had pulled his head off the first time. But he couldn’t bring himself to feel that same amount of terror again. The demon had killed him so many times in so many different ways that it almost felt tame in comparison.

As the demon approached him for the umpteenth time, Neave tried moving. And failed. It was like he had forgotten what mental commands were supposed to move which muscle, so he just awkwardly stiffened up a bit before the demon killed him.

Restart.

Neave kept trying to move again, but it felt awkward. Strange. He’d try to move his left hand but he’d turn his head right. He would try to move his legs forward but he’d lean backward.

Restart.

However, he slowly figured it out, and the demon approached him for the third time.

He dodged.

And then he got struck again immediately afterward.

Restart.

By now he had already slowly figured out how to walk, kind of. It was even clumsier than the demon’s fumbling but as he got into practice he improved. Rather than running at the demon, he instead decided to go for a stroll, reminiscing about his early days of running around the hellscape while practicing how to move his body again.

It was strange, looking at it now. He still remembered the endless terror he experienced, dying over and over again through this landscape. Now he just felt curiosity and fascination. To both his inner and his outer child, this place was kind of neat.

It seemed like the home of some demonic emperor or great monstrosity. Perhaps the realm of an evil god? Who knew? Maybe he would eventually find out.

For now, he felt he’d done a good enough job at relearning how to move and contemplated running back to the demon. He realized he was already getting kind of tired though and looking for the demon was a pain so… He just jumped into a pit.

Restart.

Facing off against the demon now, he pondered his options. He first walked up to the demon and tried to throw a punch.

Restart.

Well, that was pointless. Neave not only sucked at fighting, but he was also incredibly weak. Not even just weak, but his body was light, which meant his barehanded fighting had almost no momentum behind it. The demon was no pushover either. Its walk may seem clumsy but when it came to fighting, it was perfectly capable of tearing him to pieces.

So Neave looked for a weapon instead. He picked up a rock and threw it at the demon’s head. The demon paused for a fraction of a second, clearly affected by the blow. That was a good sign. Neave just walked backward, carefully so he wouldn’t step into anything unpleasant, and threw rocks at the demon.

Quite the cowardly fight this was, but Neave honestly enjoyed himself. It felt like payback for all the torment he’d suffered at the demon's hands. He almost wondered why he hadn’t done this before. The rational part of him knew why.

He was a damn kid. Naturally, he would be terrified of a place like this. It was easy to be brave now after he’d gotten used to everything. But the proud part of Neave still felt like he was a coward when he arrived here.

After a while of pelting the poor demon with rocks, Neave was getting rather tired of it. The demon looked… Bruised? It was hard to say, its entire body had a grayish bruised hue to it already, but he could swear that the demon's skin was looking darker now. One thing that was quite evident however was that the demon was tough. Exceptionally so. Neave intentionally picked jagged, sharp rocks, but it looked like nothing he had thrown so far had pierced the demon's skin.

Neave himself, however, was getting tired. His soft, weak hands were chaffed and his arms were sore. Even though he’d thrown countless rocks at the demon, the only thing he’d achieved by the end was slow the demon down a little. Eventually, his shoulder locked up. By then he was already both too tired and thirsty to keep fighting, so he just let the demon finish him off.

Restart.

This time he took a different approach. He grabbed a larger rock and threw it at one of the obsidian bushes. The crash sounded like a pile of glass getting thrown off a hill. Its branches were jagged and sharp, so after shattering the bush into pieces, he carefully picked out one of the larger branches with a spiky end and tried using it as a weapon against the demon.

His earlier assessment that the demon was tough got a massive confirmation. The sharp edge of the obsidian branch was no joke, but it still just barely pierced the demon's skin. It hadn't even drawn blood, assuming the demon had any. This was still progress, however, even though the demon knocked Neave’s weapon away with relative ease and tore his throat out.

Restart.

This time he was repeating the same strategy, but he tried to cut where he assumed the demon's weak points might be. His first target was the jugular vein. To Neave’s great surprise, this time the demon dodged his strike. Dodge might be too strong a word, maybe just ‘leaned to the side’ of his strike would be more accurate. That was still massive progress in Neave’s book. Neave’s surprise however proved to be an unwelcome distraction.

Restart.

This time Neave was relentless. He kept pacing backward, punishing the demon. Neave used its defensive reflex against itself, capitalizing on its tendency to move away to get a clear shot at its torso. One time, the demon leaned a bit too far back and Neave put his whole body into striking its stomach.

The tip of the branch pierced its skin, causing a bit of red blood to flow out. Huh, so it bled red… For some reason Neave hadn't expected that, nor had he expected the demon's violent reflex to its injury. It grabbed his arm, pulled him towards itself, and then sank its claws into his face.

Restart.

Neave kept repeating the same strategy and he was starting to feel like he was making progress. Not enough progress, however. At a certain point, he felt himself stagnating rather hard. The demon was just that much stronger than he was. It was faster, tougher, and heavier and its weapons, or rather its claws were a much more reliable weapon than his obsidian branch that kept breaking or cutting his own hands.

Neave was no warrior and he had no idea how to use a weapon. Through improvisation, trial and error, he could perhaps eventually develop some sort of martial art, but he was quickly losing hope that it would matter. The biggest problem was his lack of physical weight and the poor quality of his weapons. Not to mention the fact that every time Neave died, he went back in time. That meant there was no progress of any kind regarding his physical strength. While he could injure the demon, no matter how many shallow cuts he landed, the demon simply refused to die.

He had even finally managed to land a strike on what looked like a major artery. The demon bled rather profusely for a couple of seconds but the bleeding stopped rather quickly. It seemed like he’d have to land a much better strike several times in a row to kill the demon. Maybe that would be plausible with a better weapon, but the fucking shitty branches kept breaking. So he instead dropped the branch on the ground and decided to try a different strategy.

He ran from the demon until he reached a steep incline. Then he climbed, until he reached a foothold, grabbed the biggest rock he could hold, and threw it down on the demon's head. The deep thunk made Neave feel like the demon's skull must have been cracked open and the demon collapsed onto the ground. However, it quickly got up to its feet.

This stubborn…

Before it had the time to get up, Neave was already grabbing another stone and throwing it down at the demon. The demon blocked the stone with its arm. Neave paused in shock and grabbed another stone. The demon had already gotten up by now and was already walking forward. Neave threw the stone down at the demon, but it smacked the stone aside with its arm.

It was at this moment that Neave realized he was stuck halfway up a steep incline and his only two options were to either jump off the incline and break his legs or get killed by the demon. He looked around for another rock to throw at the demon but found none. And the demon was already climbing up the hill…

Oh well…

Restart.

Neave decided to change his strategy again. He led the demon toward a somewhat deep pool of blood. Then he approached it and tried pushing it in.

Restart.

That was a stupid idea. This time, rather than pushing the demon into the pool of blood, he grabbed a branch and tried pushing it back like that. The demon was way too heavy to just get pushed over by a small child, so Neave tried to get it out of balance by striking at its jugular vein, which usually got it to lean backward.

Restart.

And also retaliate by caving Neave’s skull in.

Brilliant.

Now this time Neave picked up a relatively heavy stone, baited the demon over to the pool, and then threw the large stone at its head. To Neave’s tremendous surprise, this managed to topple the demon backward and it fell into the pool of blood. And then it just swam out.

“Okay, what the hell! I’m certain the blood is immensely poisonous! Your big stupid gaping mouth must have gurgled half a basin of it in there! Don’t you dare try to get back out!”

Neave angrily stomped over to the demon and kicked its face to get it back into the pool. The demon just opened its gaping maw, bit Neave’s leg, and dragged him into the pool with it.

Restart.

“That’s how you want to play huh?”

This time, rather than pushing the demon into a pool of blood, he instead tried to get the demon to step close to the ledge of a pit. However, the demon simply refused to get baited into a situation like that.

“Okay, what the fucking shit now, are you afraid of heights or something, you pussy? Huh? The big tough demon can’t handle a little hole?” Neave was furious. He walked over to the demon, jumped, and slapped it on the top of its bald head.

Restart.

Now this time he’d get the demon. He was going to push the demon over into a pit of tar, rather than a blood pool. He got the demon into position, threw a rock at its head and it fell into the pool.

“Ha… Hahaha. HAHAHAHA. Serves you right! You fucking bitch. Eat my shit.” He then pulled his robes back and swung his backside at the demon with a flourish. It was rolling around in the pit of black liquid, clearly struggling to move, but it was most certainly still moving. And to Neave’s great distress, it started crawling back out onto the surface.

“No, no, no, no, back. BACK!” Neave pushed the demon into the pit with his entire body. However, the black ooze hardened and he got stuck to the demon. The demon just slowly moved its hand to Neave’s neck, then strangled him.

Restart.

Neave repeated the same thing, however, this time, instead of pushing the demon back, he just let it walk back out. He forgot that the ooze hardened when exposed to air, so the demon would just get trapped and suffocate. Which was exactly what happened. Well, the trapped part did at least. For a while. The demon did get trapped in the now solid black substance, but it shuffled in its black casing until it crumbled away and it again started walking over to Neave. Neave jumped into the pool of tar.

Restart.

This time, rather than let the demon leave, Neave had decided he would pile stones up onto the demon to keep it from leaving the pool. He did that, but the demon just refused to die. It hadn't seemed to need any air, so all he achieved was trapping the demon. As the demon wiggled around for a long, long time in the black pool, Neave realized he would quite literally die from thirst again before the demon died in the pool of tar.

Sigh…

He wasn’t out of ideas, however. He had replicated the same thing, this time with a pool of acid. The demon fell into the pool of acid. After it casually swam back out it looked… Shiny. Brand new, even. Neave only then realized that the demon was dirty. And the pool of acid was little more than a lovely bath. Its dirty, discolored gray was now replaced with a much prettier metallic color. Neave jumped, this time into the pool of acid.

Restart.

Not a single one of the things he’d tried so hard had worked. Was this demon immortal? He had to wonder. He could have also tried throwing it into the pool of pus, but he didn’t hold very high hopes for that. He thought it was a funny idea, though. Neave thought back to where the closest pool of pus was. They were significantly rarer than all the other liquids. There was one relatively nearby after crossing that suspension bridge. It was a bit of a jog but...

Wait a minute.

The suspension bridge! How had he forgotten about that!? If he could get the demon to walk onto the suspension bridge, he just had to cut the ropes!

The suspension bridge hung over a long ravine that stretched into the horizon in both directions. Neave peeked down into the ravine, failing to see the bottom of it. Quite a few jagged spikes were protruding from the walls. If his plan worked, the demon would get sliced apart and torn to shreds. Neave moved over to the other side of the bridge and waited with trepidation.

It approached. And took a step onto the bridge. Then another. And then another. And Neave then, with one of the obsidian branches, cut the ropes. The demon plummeted into the abyss below. Neave saw it fly into a jagged spike as it tore its side out. The demon fell a bit further downwards, what remained of its body impaled on a sharp protrusion. And then it stopped moving. Neave shook in joy. He finally…

Step…

Step…

Neave turned around.

There were two demons, just like the first one, walking toward him.

Restart.

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A note from Robert Blaise

[SHOUT-OUT] 

Aesca Lampi was a skilled MMO player and raid leader, but she never could have predicted the turn her life would take when she died and was reborn as Aetheria, a chosen hero tasked with overthrowing the Goddess of Misery and bringing hope to the suffering world of Grief. Armed with the power of regeneration and a fierce determination, Aetheria sets out to climb the Ten Towers and fulfill her destiny. But with danger and distractions at every turn, will she be able to complete her quest and bring about a new age of peace and prosperity?

After all, who can avoid the danger and cuteness of dragon-cat fairies?

////////

Go check out Odyssey of the Ethereal! 


About the author

Robert Blaise

Bio: Man do I love recursion. Man do I love recursion. Man do I love recursion. Man do I love...

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