<<So, care to tell me what happened there?>>
Heod asks us while preparing breakfast. He left his shop closed, to take care of us, saying that business could wait.
After all, we have been pretty shaken by what happened yesterday.
As we tell him what we went through, he listens in silence.
Sitting with us as we went through what we did.
The old man takes out his pipe, flickering lightly before stuffing it with the gray herbs he smokes.
As he lights it up, a sweet scent envelops the room.
<<It was a rainy day. I was traveling with a caravan on the highway. Hell, I was roughly your age, when it happened. We were camping on the roadside, in a place that was supposed to be safe. Well, it was not. Bandits attacked us, and I hid inside the cart, trembling among crates and barrels. I heard as those men killed my friends. And when I heard steps coming close to me, when I saw a shadow pass me by…I snapped, and I jumped from my hiding place. I grabbed the first thing near me and I smashed it on his head, again and again. That’s how I killed a person for the first time>>
Heod pauses for a moment, letting out a small cloud of dense, white smoke.
<<My point is…sometimes you need to kill for your own sake, boys. This world is harsh, more than you think. People will not hesitate to hurt you, and to defend yourself, to protect those who you care about, you will need to hurt someone else. And, it is right to do so, it is right to kill to protect your life or that of someone precious to you. Surely, you will feel bad about it. But, you must not let it consume you>>
We spent more time just sitting there, talking out our minds and listening to what counsel Heod had to offer us.
But, talking things out really managed to calm me down a bit. I spent the entire night just turning myself in my sheets, staring at the ceiling as I went through what I did in there, again and again.
Yes, it was all in order to survive…but, I had made clear promises to myself, to not ever use something so gruesome as Black Fluid on other people, and I ended up doing it nonetheless.
And, much to what I care to admit…some part of me enjoyed it. And I hate myself for that…shit, what the hell happened to the meek, non-violent me that lived in my world?
I lived my previous life without even having lifted a finger against another person! Still, that’s where the problem lies.
My moral code is still the same of my world, while the reality here is way harsher. Here, killing someone is…inevitable, sometimes.
Later that day, we were called back to the Guild to be questioned again. Apparently, the Guild launched a proper investigation on what happened, even more, they prohibited entrance into the Dungeon for a whole week.
The entire city was sent into unrest after the announcement.
Both for what happened, the shocking news about adventurers being killed right under the Guild’s nose.
Not only that, the economy in Sendria heavily relies on the Dungeon, both for materials harvested from it and for services catered to adventurers. Stopping Dungeon activities meant hindering business for a lot of people.
Still, it was a proper thing to do for the Guild, to show a swift response and take back control.
Several Sweeping expeditions were sent into the Dungeon, all composed by high-level adventurers especially selected and employed by the Guild to hunt down the criminals.
More than that, the Guild announced about an internal investigation on the employees, after we shared our suspects about an infiltration by Leidus’s group in the Guild’s ranks.
The investigation concluded with the public execution of four employees, accused of manipulating reports, fabricating evidence and leaking sensitive information to external groups.
Most shockingly, one of the persons involved was a higher up in the Guild’s hierarchy.
We were invited to attend the execution. More than an invitation, however, it was an order from the Guild itself.
The entire situation made us somewhat famous in Sendria, attracting both praise and blame to our group.
After the week went by, the Guild resumed normal activity in the Dungeon. They set up stricter regulations, going as far as sending daily search parties in the lowest levels.
<<Still, they did not find that Leidus guy>>
Marica is eating a small apple, sitting at our dining table next to Levia.
<<They found and arrested several members of his group, but the man himself…vanished, without leaving any trace>>
Her words give me a chill.
<<So, that guy may still be prowling around?>>
Retel asks with concern.
<<Well, if he’s smart he probably left the city all along. I mean, the entire guild is hunting for him, so…>>
Still, the fact that he has not been found concerns me, a lot. I have a really bad feeling about this.
The next day we make preparations to enter the Dungeon again. We took a whole week of respite, and it’s something we need to do it in order to grow, not only in strength but also in mentality.
This time however, we make better preparations. First, using funds from Heod’s shop, we bought the materials needed to complete the custom armors we ordered.
We dropped them off to the old lady’s shop on the first day of the Dungeon blockade, and apparently all three sets have been completed.
Baffled by such speed, we head to the shop to see our new equipment.
<<Well well, look who’s here>>
The old lady greets us with a wry smile. She’s smoking a long, thin pipe, keeping it sideways between her lips as she puffs small rings of smoke. Seriously, does every old person I meet smoke a pipe?
I clear my throat and ask her about the new armor.
<<Here, come with me. And stop calling me Madam, I have a name, boy>>
She disappears into the back of her store, leaving the sentence hanging. What is the point of scolding me to call you by your name, if you don’t even tell me what your name is?
Emerging from behind a curtain, she is holding the new equipment.
<<First, this is for the good looking snake boy. Treat it well, I took a long time to enchant it>>
Did I hear it right? Enchanted items?
Retel makes a small laugh, while Levia is distracted by the items on display, but I am looking at the armor with my eyes widened in surprise.
<<Is…is this a magic armor?>>
As I say so, the old woman bursts out a loud laughter.
<<Hm? Are you being serious, boy?>>
Now she’s the one looking at me with widened eyes.
She takes a deep breath and shakes her head.
<<Wow, I was just joking about it, but you’re taking this seriously? I don’t know what tales have you heard, but you should know that such items are impossible, right? I mean, even the Guild has some courses that teaches newbie adventurers to avoid these “magic item” or “enchanted weapon” scams>>
A shocking truth. In a world where magic and skills exist, there are no enchanted items.
<<Wait, what are you saying here? I mean, enchanted items do exist, like Identity Stones and such, so…>>
She looks at me like I said some kind of profanity.
<<Boy, did you just fall form the sky, without knowing anything about things work?>>
<<You really are a bit dumb, aren’t ya? Well, those orbs things are made with magic. And that’s it. You can use spells to make small objects and give them some properties, but it’s impossible to give an existing item a magical property. Mana dissipates from non-living things. That’s just common knowledge…>>
<<Granny please, don’t be rude to customers>>
Martha, the shopkeeper’s nephew and assistant, comes in from the back of the store, carrying some items to put on display.
<<Yeah, yeah. I was just teasing the boy a bit>>
Martha looks at us, and a bright smile pops on her face.
<<Ooh! You’re the ones that ordered the custom armors! It was so funny to work on those, thank you!>>
She fidgets for a bit.
<<Well, what was your name again?>>
A bit disappointed, I introduce myself for the second time. The same goes for Retel and Levia.
<<Ah, right right…sorry, I’m not good with names. Well, time to get back to work…see you guys around>>
She scurries away, waving her hand at us.
The old lady clears her throat to claim attention.
<<Now, let’s give the armor a try, boys>>
She helps Retel to don his new equipment. Apparently, the armor must be worn over a specific set of clothes, designed to give extra protection.
Giving the clothes to Retel, she points him to a fitting room hidden by a thick tent.
As he comes out, my friend is donning a set of thick clothes, with some kind of leather jacket worn over them.
<<Hm, it fits you well, boy>>
The old lady says with a nod.
She then helps Retel put on his armor, showing him how to correctly wear and lock each individual piece. The armor itself is a wonderful work, a scale armor made with metal that shows the same shade of red as Retel’s own scales.
The important parts, like pauldrons, arm protectors and breastplate are made with large, tear shaped metal scales.
Retel’s figure completely changes as he wears the full set…hell, this armor is surely wasted on low level adventurers like us…
<<Girl, you’re next. Come here>>
The old lady beckons Levia to follow her into the back of the shop. For some reason, images of the skimpy female armors from games I played start to pop up in my mind…
When she steps out of the fitting room, Levia is clad in a studded leather armor. The design is still feminine, but it offers full protection without leaving any spot uncovered.
The leather parts are reinforced with metal scales, smaller than those of Retel’s armor. She’s also holding a composite bow and a new quiver, decorated with a scale pattern.
Approaching Retel, the shopkeeper presents him with new weapons as well. A polearm and a kite shield, with design similar to the scales on his armor.
Speechless, he clutches the new weapon.
To think that this old lady and her nephew made all these items by themselves, in only a week…
It’s astounding, really. I mean, is it even possible?
<<Boy, stop gaping your mouth and come here. It’s your turn>>
With a fling of her hand, the old shopkeeper orders me to follow her.
As for Retel,she gives me the clothes to keep under my armor. Unlike those she gave to my friend, these are lighter, a simple pair of thick cloth pants and a long sleeved shirt made with thick cloth.
My armor also differs greatly from Retel’s. I requested something sturdy but capable of high mobility, and the old lady delivered splendidly.
A set of composite armor, based on tanned, dark leather with a dense black color, reinforced by metal plaques that shine in silver. The metal is incredibly light, and I can move as if I’m wearing nothing but my own clothes.
<<These…are truly wonderful items, Ma’am.>>
The old lady smiles.
<<Of course they are, I made them. And stop it with this Madam nonsense…my name is Helena>>
I thank her profusely…still, I think that there has been some kind of mistake here. Because, given the quality of these items, I don’t think we can afford their price.
I mean, it will surely be different from what we contracted for in the first place, since the item’s quality is much more high than what we requested from her.
As I voice her my doubts, Helena just scoffs with an irritated look.
<<The items I craft, I do with the best of my ability. And, if I agree on an initial price, that stays the same, understand? Also, this is just a little…investment on my part>>
She brings out some of the items that she requested from us. Most of the materials were simply bought at the marketplace, but some were actually found and harvested by us inside the labyrinth.
<<Now, see the difference between these two little things here?>>
Pushing two identical patches of monster leather on the counter, she beckons me to give an answer.
Of course, the items only look identical at first glance. But, if I look with attention I can see the different specifics that the two patches have. Well, it’s mostly thanks to Navi that I manage to do this…
Telling her what I saw, she nods.
<<See? You are able to tell the difference. Now, this one, the better one, is something made with the monster hide that you guys gave me. You can clearly see the difference, even if the product itself is not completed still>>
She smiles and puts the items away.
<<You have good eyes for resources and materials…while also possessing something like an “harvesting” skill. No way in hell that young punks like you could be so precise and thorough in gathering materials. So, am I right?>>
I still cannot see her point, tho..
<<My point is…I want to put those skills of yours to good use. So, I took the liberty of changing your order a bit, and made you higher quality items. All in order to better persuade you lot to take an exclusive contract with my shop. I will give you those fine armors and weapon, and provide assistance and repair when needed, while in exchange you lucky boys will be my little gathering group for Dungeon materials. Of course, the first shipments will be given to me as thanks for letting you have my wonderful works of art. Understand?>>
Helena makes a wry smile.
In the end, we made a deal with her, signing the papers to make our agreement official. She then gave us a list of the required materials and quantities, and sent us off to our duty.
Donning the new equipment, we head to the Dungeon again. Inside the Gateway building, we meet up with Marica. She’s waiting for us at the reception desk.
We made a formal request to include her in our party in the past days, and now she’s being registered by the Guild into our group.
After compiling the necessary paperwork for Dive approval, we head once again inside the Dungeon.
At the counter, the receptionist gave us extra instructions about new safepoints that the Guild set up inside the Dungeon.
Every adventurer under level 20 needs to report to those safepoints during their permanence inside the Dungeon. After the briefing, the receptionist hands us a small red orb.
<<This thing here is a Communicator. It will allow you to contact the Rescue teams located at the nearest safepoint, in case you find yourself in trouble. By the Guild’s order, you need to report each time you advance in a new floor, and, if you encounter suspicious activity by adventurers or you are attacked, report immediately>>
Bidding farewell to the receptionist, we move towards the Gateway station.
There are considerably less adventurers going to the Dungeon, and most of them are advanced parties with high level members.
It seems that the attacks by Leidus’s group scared off most low level adventurers after the news spread.
Still, once again, we set foot inside the Dungeon.
The first three levels have been completely cleared, with a safepoint being set up on the third floor.
There, a group of level forty adventurers has been set up permanently, to provide assistance and prevent criminal activities.
We greet them and report our intentions and planned schedule.
After that, we head to the fourth floor entrance.
The environment here closely resembles the third floor, with stagnant water hindering each step and strange, green algae sticking to the rock walls.
From the entrance, we immediately enter a long, wide room. Several frog-like monsters are hopping around in the shallow water.
They are not aggressive, and they just stare at us for some moments before resuming their feeding on the small insects that are flying around.
Dragonflies and several other flying insects can be seen buzzing over the stagnant water. These are not monsters, however, just simple animals that found their way inside the Dungeon.
Exiting the large room, we are now inside a narrow passage, winding and turning as it leads away from the entrance room.
Marica is busy guiding us, pointing directions while taking glances at a map that she’s holding. It is a genuine map sold by the Guild, so it should be accurate enough to provide us with knowledge about the layout of this level.
<<Ok, the next room should be a large one>>
Marica instructs us before we step out of the passage.
I nod, and prepare myself to scout the room.
During the last week, I have been wondering about how to effectively detect enemies, even when they possess concealing abilities.
When we fought against Leidus’s group, I used Black Fluid in mist form to detect their movement. It was somewhat effective, but keeping it up for long time was too tiring.
Talking with Marica and some people in the Guild, I learned that most concealing magics only rely on obstructing sight, by refracting light or mimicking the surroundings, so it should be easy to detect someone using such skills if you rely on tactile detection.
And so, I decided to modify a bit my use of Black Fluid. Since the skill itself got leveled up after our last battle…I should be able to pull this off…
<<Ok, let’s do this>>
I release the skill inside the room, letting it expand as to fill the entire air. One of the skill’s properties lets me have tactile input from it, and, combining it with Navi’s detection, I can detect everything that the skill touches.
Without relying on sight. Of course, this method has several flaws…for example, I can effectively use it only inside closed spaces where there are no strong air currents, since the gas will disperse too much and air turbulence will tamper with detection.
Still, it’s useful here, in the closed, cramped Dungeon rooms.
In fact, as a result…
[Navi: Detected- Gray Toad x10 (lvl 4, passive); Gray Toad x4 (lvl 5,passive); Ash Centipede x3 (lvl 5, hostile); Ash Gecko x2 (lvl 7, hostile, hidden)]
The skill successfully detected two concealed monsters.
I could just go and use my skill to kill all enemies here…but, since we all need to gain better battle experience, I will use that as a last resort.
Hell, this skill became overpowered in this kind of environment…
We start our attack, focusing on the hostile monsters first. The centipedes are far away from the hidden monsters, so we plan to kill the hidden ones first.
I launch the first attack towards the reptile-looking monsters, shooting them with Black Fluid. As the skill hits, the splattered blood reveal the monster’s location.
After that, Marica and Levia follow with their combined attack. Marica freezes the two gecko, hindering their movement and making them easy targets for Levia’s arrows.
[Navi: Defeated! Ash Gecko x2! Acquired EXP]
The sounds of battle attract other monsters to our position. The centipedes are rushing towards us, their fangs dripping venom.
Retel intercepts them, guarding with his new shield as he fends off the attack.
He manages to push back one of them, and I hit the flinching monster with Black Fluid, stabbing it until it stops squirming.
Retel himself is dealing with another centipede, thrusting his spear into the hard shell while blocking the monster’s body against the rock wall.
The third one falls prey of Marica’s fire attack. Using the heat she took from the gecko, she forms a fireball and hurls it at the centipede, sending it ablaze.
An unpleasant smell fills the air, coming from the charred insect’s corpse.
[Navi: Defeated- Ash Centipede x3! Acquired EXP]
The toads turn their attention towards us. Or better, towards the insect corpses that are near us. Immediately, they jump to action, aiming to steal the bodies for themselves. Seriously…
They are weak individually, but their high numbers may pose a threat to us.
With their croaking resounding all around us, the monsters launch their attack.
Flickering with great speed, their tongues clad in poison bolt towards us, used like whips by the monsters.
Still, the attacks are easy to deal with. I can fend them off with Black Fluid, using the skill to guard from the blow and then immediately retaliate by extending blades from it.
To deal with the large number of monsters circling us, Retel activates both his skills. With his strength enhanced, and the toads paralyzed by his “Snake eyes”, he takes out several monsters with ease.
To think that no more than one month ago we were struggling against level 2 monsters…
We take a bit of respite after dealing with all the monsters. No one got a level up, yet…but we’re still at the start of our Dive, so it should be expected we struggle a bit more before that.
I am busy collecting the remains along with Marica, while Retel is busy cleaning his weapon and Levia is recovering the arrows she fired.
After making sure that all the bodies have been collected, we push onward.
From the room we’re in, three paths extend into different directions. According to Marica’s map, only the far left path will lead to another section, while the remaining two are dead ends leading into monster nests.
But…those kind of places may yield unexpected things. As I use Black Fluid to explore again…
[Navi: Detected- Ash Crystal (large)]
A rare resource that can be found in the fourth floor. There seems to be some in both the dead ends, and the monsters there are low level ones.
Moreover, there are some rare herbs growing in the passage, that could be useful for Heod’s business.
Since we are not limited by baggage or such, we can basically haul and hoard everything we find, so it’s only natural that we set our course inside the dead end, aiming to collect the rare items.
The first monster nest is inside a small, circular room. There, a big Gray Toad is sitting inside a shallow pool of stagnant water, guarding the juvenile toads that are swimming there. The young monsters are only level one, but the big toad…is level 15.
Several rusted weapons and armor are scattered around the monster, and, visible inside the shallow water, some skeletons lie, broken as if they have been trampled down.
Perhaps, some unlucky adventurers met their end against this monster.
As soon as it spots us, the Gray Toad attacks with lightning speed. I try to guard from the huge tongue, but the strength behind the attack sends me flying backwards. Luckily, I’m not injured…but damn, this thing hits hard!
Yelling to Retel, telling him to get away from the toad, Marica launches two spells in quick succession.
She tries to freeze the monster’s legs, hitting it with a fireball as the first spell manages only to freeze small patches of skin on the beast. Levia’s arrows seem to do no damage, but she manages to stick one inside the toad’s left eye.
Bellowing, the beast recoils backwards, exposing its belly as it squirms in pain.
Retel jumps in, yelling as he impales his spear inside the monster’s soft abdomen.
[Navi: Defeated- Gray Toad! Acquired EXP!]
Next, we collect the resources and items scattered around, ignoring the tadpoles swimming inside the pool.
It takes a while to consume the large toad with my skill, so I leave collecting herbs and the Crystals to my companions.
The harvested items are handed to me and stashed away in my inventory.
We head back to the big room, aiming to explore the second dead end.
There, the path is narrower than what we expected, and it gets even worse as we progress inside the passage. In one point, we are forced to go one by one to pass through.
This is definitely bad…almost like this room is made with the sole purpose of trapping people and preventing their escape.
Inside the room, the monsters all show low levels, with the highest one being level 3. Not something to worry about, or at least it should be.
The room is small and cramped, and these monsters are some kind of semi-moving fungi creatures.
According to Navi, they attack by releasing spores into the air, poisoning their target until it falls unconscious and they can safely eat it.
The problem is, they release the spores even if you hit them, and they possess strong regenerative ability. In short words, hitting them with weapons will only put you in danger.
So, man eating fungi are a thing in this world…
Since I do not want to deal with them, we simply combine attack with Marica and clear the whole room from a distance. Killing this kind of creature from a safe distance is the only safe way to deal with them.
Marica readies her spell, absorbing heat from the surrounding and concentrating it in a fireball, hovering above the monster group.
At the same time, I filled the room with Black Fluid in mist form, sealing the room’s entrance with the liquid form to prevent the spores from leaking in to our position.
Finishing her chant with flicker of her wrist, Marica releases her spell. The fireball falls onto the floor, exploding in a scorching blaze. The monsters start catching fire, squirming as they burn, releasing their poisonous spores into the air.
Using Black Fluid, I start absorbing everything inside the room. Since the skill is in dispersed form, it is severely difficult to control, and it drains my energies quickly.
Of course, for each complete absorption I get my energies back, so it’s not like I cannot pull this strategy off.
Still, it takes so much time before the room is effectively empty. I wonder how things would have gone if we did not weaken those monsters with Marica’s spell before I used my skill. It could have taken hours…
<<Wow, that was a truly amazing spell, Marica>>
I compliment her with my breath still in disarray.
<<Yeah…the only problem is that it’s not that effective in battle. It takes a long time to cast, it is tiresome to control and only works against stationary or trapped targets, since it is really easy to just evade it or run away>>
<<Even if it has some flaws, magic is surely convenient…>>
Levia joins the discussion, sitting beside us while she puts the collected arrows back in their quiver.
<<Well…it has certain advantages, but it’ s surely more difficult to learn and handle than a skill, that’s for sure. Hm, would you like to learn some? I have a few beginner level spell manuals in m home, I will be glad to lend them to you if you want, and even lend a hand if you seriously want to learn>>
Casually, she just offered to teach magic. Of course I jump back in, sparkling after hearing this sudden development.
And so, she agreed to teach the rudiments of magic to all of us.
Even if that thought makes me smile a little, I should focus on the task at hand.
We traced back our way, going into the large room once again before entering the central pathway. According to Marica’s map, this way should lead us into a series of three small caverns connected by a large corridor.
As we progress, the water progressively recedes, and we can walk on dry ground again. Exiting the passageway, we find ourselves into a completely different environment if compared to the room we were before.
The ground is covered in thin soil, almost like sand. From it, pale grass grows in patches, while red bushes can be seen growing sparsely inside the room.
The bushes are slightly glowing, diffusing their red light on the surroundings.
<<So, it completely changes…this means we are getting nearer to the floor’s center room>>
Marica mutters so. Apparently, each Dungeon floor hosts its own micro-climate and environment.
Sometimes, one level can have a sort of hybrid environment, starting with the previous floor’s environment, which slowly changes into a new one inside the inner chambers of the floor.
The fourth floor seems to show this phenomenon.
Of course, the monsters also vary in accordance to the environment.
As we press on, we encounter several snake and lizard-like monsters. It seems that in this part of the level the monsters tend to not flock together, so it is easier to deal with them since they are mostly found alone or in really small groups.
Advancing inside the chambers, we finally manage to get some levels.
Well, me and Levia only went up by one, while Retel is still at level eight. Marica also did not gain any level, but it is expected since her level is higher than ours.
As she leveled up, Levia gained a new skill.
With a smile, she demonstrates her new ability.
This time, it is a skill related to archery.
Basically, she can now charge small amounts of mana into her arrows, increasing the damage and penetration of each shot.
More than that, if she concentrates enough, it seems her arrow can even produce a small explosion when they hit the target.
Way to go, Levia. After resting up a bit inside the room, we decide to make one last push before taking a lunch break.
Since there is no daylight here, we’re measuring time using a small hourglass. It works in a simple way. By toppling it over, the sand takes exactly one day to fill the other half.
Simple signs on the glass signals one hour of time, so when the sand reaches the sign we know that one hour passed.
Still, I would really prefer a watch…
We took a considerably little amount of time to reach the fourth floor, all thanks to the first three floors being cleared of monsters.
Of course, Marica’s maps made it way easier to find the correct way to advance. Still, the fourth floor is more difficult to navigate, for two main reasons.
The first and obvious is the presence of monsters. The second one is related to each floor’s size. Apparently, the floors become bigger and more intricate as you go down inside the Dungeon.
So, this fourth floor is already twice the size of the first one, and so on. It is said that the lowermost floors are as big as Sendria, or even more. A scary thought, basically a city full of high level monsters…
Still, it’s better not to think about it and just go on whit what we’re doing right now.
After shaking off a bit of fatigue, we resume once again our march inside the Dungeon.
We go on for two more hours, walking into winding, narrow paths which often reveal themselves to be dead ends. Luckily, the closer we get to the floor’s center, the more materials we find.
Rare herbs and Crystals, and even rocks containing some rare metal. Of course, these are all low level materials, but they fetch a good amount of money if sold to the Guild, since most of the herbs and metal are used in different crafts and are pretty required.
Although, since we took the contract with old Helena, we will end up giving the metal and monster skins to her, thus cutting our profit for this Dive a bit.
Well, it’s not like we will go bankrupt or anything, since we can count on Heod’s shop for our funds.
Finally, we manage to reach a place suitable to camp. After clearing one of the dead ends, a small circular room with only one entrance, we decide to make our rest spot for the time.
Setting up a small campfire we start to fix us a quick lunch. The room we’re in has a pretty high ceiling, so it’s safe to use fire in here.
Consuming the food I just made, we take this time to reflect a bit about our next moves.
Initially, we planned our Dive to end once we reach the tenth floor, going back without pushing further into the Dungeon.
The main reason that forced us to plan like this is that, beyond the tenth floor, monster levels and numbers increase significantly from what we’ve experienced.
So, it is better for us to take it easy and not push ourselves too much.
Since this Dive we’re making right now is mostly for us to get accustomed to fighting again, and to shake off the bad experience we had against Leidus’s group.
Like that old common saying from my world…if you fall from your horse, you get right back on. Re-entering the Dungeon as soon as we could was something we needed to grow.
Otherwise, we would just be sitting idly, wailing in fear of getting attacked again.
The battles we fought during this Dive managed to reassure us about what we can do, about our strength, lifting the group’s morale as we saw that we’re making a definite progress.
While I am considering these thoughts, the others are making small talks, bonding together. Especially, it seems that Retel and Marica are getting along pretty well…am I about to see some romance bud between them?
Still, it’s nice to see them laugh, it’s truly an heartwarming scene.
Marica seems to be integrating well with our group.
Besides having fought together, we did not have pretty much in common, so I feared that she would be somewhat distant from us.
Instead, she’s really an easygoing person, capable of joking around while being also reliable when it counts. Ins short words, I am happy that she chose to stick with us.
I join their conversation, enjoying a bit of leisure for a while before the time to resume our Dive comes.
We decided our schedule beforehand, agreeing on taking a two hours break for lunch and two smaller, one hour breaks between our march.
Of course, we will also need to consider the time to properly sleep and get rest, roughly seven hours considering the time needed to set up camp and prepare food.
That leaves us with roughly thirteen hours dedicated to hunt and exploration for each day.
It’s not a terribly tight schedule, but we need to stick to it if we want to make proper progress here. To be honest, it is a type of schedule proposed by the Guild.
According to their suggestion, we should be able to reach the tenth floor in about seven days like this, considering the fact that the first three floors have been cleared.
After collecting our things and extinguishing the campfire, we push on again towards the floor’s central chambers.
Tracing back our way from the resting spot, we then embark inside one of the winding paths, marked as a pathway towards the exit in Marica’s map.
As we push forward, we notice the lack of monsters in the way. Several corpses are scattered on the floor, however. All of them stripped of skin and other materials, like teeth and claws.
<<So, someone else is hunting in these chambers>>
Marica mutters her conclusion. Of course, it is expected to find some other parties in the Dungeon.
Usually, the Guild etiquette demands that the first party to find a group of monsters has priority of rights on said monsters.
So, it is good custom to not butt in into another group’s battles, since it could lead to disputes for materials and such, or to experience theft if the monsters attacked by a party are slain by another.
Such disputes are heavily punished by the Guild, and if evidence of incorrect conduct is reported, the culprits can even be expelled from the Guild’s ranks and denied further entry inside the Dungeon.
For most parties, that rely on the Dungeon to earn their livelihood, it is a deterrent big enough to keep them from stealing kills.
The only circumstance where interference is admitted is in the event that the engaging party is in no condition to deal with the monsters. In short, you can butt in only to save someone’s life.
Still, it seems that this is not the case right here.
The monsters have been dealt with splendidly, and it looks like the other party has considerable experience in extracting materials both from monsters and natural Dungeon resources, given the state of the room.
Unanimously, we decided to head another way, without risking to trouble the other party.
To do so, we are forced to take a big deviation from our initial route, skipping several large rooms that could have provided some useful loot.
After a while, we find monsters again.
The same kind that we fought before, snakes and lizard creatures hissing at us whenever we approach.
Well, it’s not like they are difficult to deal with, even more so now that Levia can basically one-shot them with her arrows.
Girl, you’re becoming scary…says the one with a skill that basically eats things alive.
Well, speaking of things eaten alive…
As we enter another large room, almost identical to the ones we set foot in before…
Moving incredibly fast, a shadow is flying right at us.
[Navi: Detected- Ash Bat x 4 (lvl7)]
Following the initial attack, the group of flying monsters circle around us, swirling in the air as they avoid any attack we manage to throw at them.
The environment here plays to their favor, since the room’s ceiling is incredibly high, allowing the bats to just fly over us out of our reach.
Well, their attacks are relatively weak, since they cannot bite or otherwise hit us unless they get close, and they are only resorting to some kind of sonar wave attack that does not do much damage.
More than dangerous they are just…annoying.
Retel cries in frustration as the bat swirls near him, evading his spear with quick turns before going back up.
It’s basically a stalemate, where nether the monsters nor our group can properly inflict damage on the other…
Still, I wonder how they are managing to evade our attacks…I mean, they swiftly avoid even Levia’s arrows and my shots, almost like they’re predicting their trajectory…
Wait, perhaps that’s what they’re doing. Of course, being bats they should have some kind of sonar that allows them to pinpoint whatever we throw at them and allows the monsters to properly react and evade.
So, if we do something to disrupt their sonar…
As I voice my hunch to my companions, Levia immediately finds a solution.
<<Take this, you flying rats!>>
Shouting a nonsensical insult, she shots arrows overcharged with energy. Missing their target, the arrows impact against the stone wall.
However, unlike before, the arrows explode on impact producing a small shock-wave.
<<You missed them!>> says Retel with a disappointed tone.
However, the bats are affected by the explosion. Not damaged, they seem to lose their sense of orientation, swaying in the air and crashing on the rocky wall.
Before, Levia was focusing the mana put in her arrows to enhance their piercing power, but she changed strategy. By putting more mana inside each arrow, she produced less accurate shots that caused small explosions when hitting their target.
The explosions themselves are not enough to cause serious damage, however the shock-wave and noise produced managed to disrupt the bats’ sonar perception, thus confusing them.
It seems they completely lost the ability to maneuver, ending up blindly thrashing around and falling to the floor.
After that, it is easy to deal with them. Retel stabs one of the large bats with his spear, while Marica deals with another.
I am tempted to just kill it and get the EXP, but…
Those things have some kind of sonar, perhaps it’s even a skill they possess. So, if I manage to absorb that skill from the bat…
<<Ah, fuck it!>>
I use Black Fluid and absorb the bat. As the skill finishes the gruesome routine…
[Navi: Success! Ash Bat absorbed! New skills obtained: Ultrasound Emission, Ultrasound Perception, Ultrasound Mapping. New abilities unable to be used (restricted to race: monster). Detected compatibility between new skills and Black Fluid. Would you like to Integrate?]
I choose not to. At least, I do not want to integrate them immediately with Black Fluid. I still start up the routine, in order to test something.
Before, I learned that Luck stat influences the Integration process, so the probability of it failing should be less now that I raised my luck stat.
So, in order to test how much the chance of failure is reduced, I decide to test run Integration with these three new skills first.
To start, I fuse Ultrasound Perception and Ultrasound Mapping. The process fails, spectacularly. Due to the Integration failure, I immediately lose the Ultrasound Mapping ability.
Still, it’s no big deal, since it seems that different groups of Ash Bats can be found in this section of the Dungeon. I just need to absorb them again to regain the skills…or at least, I hope so.
As we push on, we encounter more bats. We kill them with efficiency now that we have a proper way to counter their annoying flight prowess. Of course, I take one of them for myself.
As I suspected, absorbing the bat gives me back the skill I lost before. I do not earn double “copies” of the skills I already possess from it, tho.
Again, I repeat the Integration routine. This time, it’s a success.
I went on like this, losing and regaining the skill until I was satisfied with the result. After dabbling a bit with it, I learned several useful things.
It seems that the Integration process has a rough seventy percent success probability, so, seven times out of ten it should be successful.
However, the chance of failure increases as you try to Integrate three or more skills together at the same time.
I guess I have really, really been lucky when I managed to use it the first time. Also, every time you lose a skill, you end up losing the lowest level one.
For instance, if I would Integrate Black Fluid with a lvl 1 skill, if the process fails I will end up losing the lvl 1 skill, while keeping Black Fluid as it is.
This information reassures me a bit, since I will not lose my important skill even in the event of a failed integration.
In the end, I managed to fuse the three skills obtained from the bats, producing the Sonar skill which holds properties of all three, with increased effectiveness.
Next, I fused the Sonar with Black Fluid. It was successful, and now all the effects of Sonar should be integrated in my Black Fluid.
In short words, since Navi can use and control Black Fluid, I basically have a Sonar scan at my disposal, combined with Navi’s detection property.
And it works splendidly. I just need to form a membrane with Black Fluid and make it vibrate to produce a suitable sound frequency. Of course I can just make Navi do all the process.
The important thing is that this method consumes way less energy than my previous trick with the gas form Black Fluid, has a better detection range and allows me to get information on the layout of the Dungeon other than identifying monsters or materials.
And, more than that, it can be useful even outside.
Well, it seem I got a reliable power up. More than that, I can even use the produced ultrasounds to attack, although the damage I can inflict with this kind of attack seems to be really low.
Still, it’s really useful.
As we proceed inside the Dungeon, the new detection ability proves fantastic, both in enemy detection and in mapping the room and chamber’s layout.
We go on, clearing each chamber until nighttime. Well, until the hourglass signals nighttime, since it is impossible to distinguish night and day otherwise.
After finding a suitable spot to set up our camp, we make the necessary preparations for the night, setting up the usual traps and guard duties.
After today’s hunt, we managed to raise our levels more. Retel is now at level nine, while me and Levia got up to ten. Marica is still the higher level member of our party, since she leveled up to level eleven.
Fatigue is really piling up on us all, and so we just consume dinner before going to sleep, entrusting the camp to Levia since she’s the first on guard duty tonight.
As I sleep, I go through the level up routine once more. This time, I have ten stat points to allocate, since I gained two levels today.
I decide to dump four points into the INT stat, since after this Dive I will start my initiation to magic with Marica. Well, not knowing how well I will fare with magic, I do not plan to raise this stat too much for the moment. In the future…who knows?
Of course, I did not neglect my other stats, distributing the remaining six points into STR, ACC, AGI, two to each stat. This time, the LCK stat will stay as it is.
I manage to get a few hours of good sleep before Levia wakes me up to take her place on guard duty. We organized the shifts, splitting each day among the four members of the party.
So, tonight, guard duty falls on me and Levia, while Marica and Retel get a full night of rest. Tomorrow, it will be the opposite, and so on.
As I sluggishly wake up I send a tired smile to Levia. Her eyes show the signs of fatigue and her hair is a bit of a mess. But, I must admit, she truly is beautiful, even in the dim light from the waning campfire.
Instead of going straight to bed, she stays with me for a while, talking with a low voice, almost whispering while we speak.
She’s cute when she tries to not laugh after a silly joke I made, and my heart flutters a bit as I indulge my eyes on her curves.
We stay like this some more time, just sharing some small talk and jokes, before she heads to her sleeping bag. I have not felt this way since my youth in my previous life.
Well…as an adult man I should not indulge in these little thoughts, since, for all purposes, she’s way younger than me, even if my current body is that of a young boy the same age as her.
Still, it’s not like in my previous life I was popular with women…hell, I spent my adolescence without even having a girlfriend! So I just went with the flow and enjoyed this brief moment with her.
Of course, I am not so desperate as to immediately fall for her after we talked for some time. But, if she perhaps feels the same way…
I try to shake off my overthinking of things. Hell, I did the same even in my previous life, whenever a girl showed a bit of kindness or interest my mind just wandered off, overthinking and misreading simple kindness or friendship as something more.
And it is definitely not the time or place to have such thoughts. Yep, it definitely isn’t.
To distract myself, I try crafting some objects. Focusing on small tasks has always absorbed me, and I often dedicated myself to small hobbies like woodcraft or drawing to distract myself from other thoughts.
Well, obviously I’m not neglecting my guard duties here, since I am using Black Fluid to keep the area under surveillance.
As I focus on crafting, I start to recall what the old lady from the armor shop said. In this world, it is impossible to produce an enchanted item.
Since I raised my INT stat a bit, it seem I have gained a bit of control over my mana. Before, I was barely able to visualize it with the help of skills, like that time against the controlled Dryads, when I was able to see the mana strings produced by the Hero’s brainwashing ability.
After the level up, I can properly see my own mana if I concentrate hard enough. It’s in disarray, flowing with uneven movements from me to the Black Fluid that I scattered around our resting point.
Basically it looks like some kind of smoke leaking out of my body. A lot of it is just getting dispersed around, vanishing in thin air.
Part of it is flowing towards the Black Fluid, but the movement and quantity are not fluid and uniform. One moment the flow is low, the next one faster and more agitated.
It is troublesome to look at. I mean, even if I am ignorant about magic and mana control, it is clear that something is not quite right with the way my mana behaves. I will have to ask Marica about that as soon as she wakes up.
Setting that thought aside, I try to let my own mana flow inside the small knife I just crafted.
It is much more difficult than I thought, as collecting and making the evanescent, smoke-like substance do as I wish is really tiresome.
Often, it ends up just dispersing around, draining my energy. The more I try it, however, the more I get close to actually making it flow inside the knife.
Finally, after two good hours spent trying to do so, I manage to make my mana flow inside the knife.
The sharpened bone I used to make the blade part glows faintly for some second, before the light it emits grows dimmer and dimmer until it vanishes.
Next, I try the same with a metal knife I took from my inventory, but the results are even worse. Inserting the mana in the metal is easy enough, but it just evaporates away in two seconds.
Perhaps metal, while being a good conductor for mana, is also too good in dissipating it.
All this thought about conduction and dissipation is starting to form an idea in my mind. I mean, it is just a rough concept for now, but, if I manage to learn proper mana control, perhaps…
I go on with my experiments until the time comes for me to wake up the others.
After starting the fire again to fix us breakfast, I call to them using Navi.
[Navi: Time to wake up!]
Wow, Navi even added a small ringtone-like jingle to that message…
Laughing a bit as Retell basically jumps out from his bedroll, I start eating my breakfast while the others slowly shake off their drowsiness.
After breakfast, I head to a secluded part of the room to set up a small curtain. The reason is… I want to take a shower.
Experimenting with my Inventory skill, I found out that it is possible to store indefinite amounts of water inside, and, since everything stored in my Inventory keeps its temperature….well, I can have hot water inside the Dungeon.
Just by opening the Inventory slightly above my head, I can make the water fall on me, like a proper shower. Commodities like soap and deodorant are something common in this world, usually produced by alchemists, so I asked old Heod to produce some for our personal use.
Still, it feels a bit weird taking a shower inside the Dungeon.
After drying myself and putting on clean clothes, I let the others take turn to use the improvised refreshment room. Of course, I am still there operating the “shower”.
I must admit, the desire to take a peek when Levia or Marica took their turn was really, really high, but the feeling of snake eyes staring at me with murderous intent made me desist…
Being done with the morning routine, we set up our equipment again and resumed the Dungeon exploration.
This time, we decided to make Retel catch up to our level. So, until he levels up, we disbanded the party and just limited ourselves to support him while he fights and kills the monsters.
I must admit, even without our assistance he is really showing his strength. It seems his proficiency with the spear is better than the first time we met, and, supporting himself with his two skills, he can easily deal with monsters even some level higher than his, if he fights one on one.
We limit ourselves to support role, just making sure that no group of monsters gang up on him, while Levia provides the occasional healing.
Luckily, and mostly thanks to the splendid armor made by old Helena, the injuries he gets are only shallow cuts on the few gaps that the armor possess.
After a series of battles that took almost three hours, he finally manages to get to level ten.
He shouts in joy when he levels up. According to Levia, it was a longtime goal of him to reach level ten.
With overflowing enthusiasm, he starts to show the new skills he got with the level up.
<<Aha! Check this out! I got two new skills…>>
Without even resting a bit, he jumps right back into battle, eager to test his new abilities.
The first skill he got is related to defense. As he activates it, his shield glows in red light. The lizard-like monster that he’s facing starts a sweeping attack with its tail, but, as the tail strikes the shield…
With a high pitched shriek, the lizard recoils in pain, as part of its tail lies on the ground, squirming after being severed.
Apparently, this new skill that Retel owns is some kind of shield counter-attack.
<<Wait! I’m not done with you yet!>>
The snake-boy shouts towards the fleeing lizard, activating his paralyzing skill to keep the monster from running away.
Retel jumps, drawing back his spear arm as he charges the next attack.
This time, the tip of his spear starts giving a red glow.
Retel shouts as he unleashes his attack. The glowing spear pierces the lizard’s head, going through flesh and bone almost as if cutting through water. The monster drops down, dead after a single hit.
Boasting a big smile, Retel comes back to us.
<<So, what do you think about this? Cool, right?>>
I have the slight impression that his eyes are looking at Marica more than me and Levia…but oh well…
Still, it was really impressive. He basically one-shot a level twelve monster, just like that. As we form up the party again, he explains how the two skills are linked together.
Basically, he can use the spear strike only after a successful counter-attack with his shield.
As we march on, he continues boasting in high spirit.
We go on and on, fighting our way inside the inner chambers, stopping from time to time to keep fatigue from piling up.
Fighting in the central part of the fourth floor is not so difficult as I initially thought.
Yes, there are some monsters with their level exceeding ten roaming around, but their number is really scarce and they do not show any kind of cooperation with other monsters.
Hell, we even saw some of the stronger monsters predating on the lower level ones. We observed the scene from a safe distance, waiting for the high level monster to finish off the small fry before making our move.
Huh…small fry…now I am starting to sound too cocky, even for my own tastes. Well, it’s not like anyone can hear my inner monologue, so I do not have to fear anyone’s judgment on the things I think…
At the end of the day, after going through all the central section of the fourth floor, we advanced even more, sacrificing our small breaks to push on in our march.
Once again, the environment is starting to change as we near the floor’s exit. The monsters are the same as the central parts, only the rocks and vegetation start to show some subtle variations.
Finally, we manage to reach the floor’s exit. As usual, it is a hole in the ground. From the edge, we can see a staircase carved into the rock, spiraling down in the darkness. After those stairs, the fifth floor awaits us.
Finishing our report to the Guild, we set our steps into the spiral staircase, setting our course towards the fifth floor.