Re:Interference Chapter 12- Ash Guardian

The fifth floor’s entrance is right in front of our eyes.

The first chamber, a large, circular room, is ridden with the charred remains of vegetation, twisted trunks rising up from the blackened ground.

All around us, snow-like particles float in the air, and a the persistent, pungent smell of smoke can be felt in each breath.

I extend my hand to touch the gray flakes that fly around, swept by a hot breeze that comes from the inner chambers of this floor. The flake crumbles in my hand, becoming a thin gray powder.

<<This is cinder>> I mutter, looking around into the charred room.

<<Yes, this fifth floor is called the Ash Field. It’s the natural environment here, a charred wasteland>>

Says Marica, shaking off the ashes from her coat. The falling cinder gives an eerie, sad feeling to this place. Red crystals shine their flame-like light, burning hot in the distance.

<<Fire Crystals…this is…unusual>>

Marica’s remark makes me curious. Emerging from the rocks, small clumps of red crystals are emanating a crimson light around the room, painting the surrounding environment in an eerie atmosphere.

<<Why are these unusual?>>

I ask to the magician, while I kneel down to examine one of the crystal formation.

Although it’s similar in structure to those crystals we found in the upper floor, the resemblance is only superficial. First, the Fire Crystals are emanating heat.

The air above them dances as it is distorted by heat, and I cannot bring my hand to touch them because of the excessive temperature emanating from them.

As I look closer at them, I can see the thin but persistent flow of mana, slowly seeping out of the crystals as it disperses into thin air.

<<These are basically clumps of mana. They are commonly described in the old records about the Dungeon, but…since the Dungeon has been under management, there has been not a single sighting of these things>>

And yet, here they are, right in front of us. Perhaps it is our luck, they surely will be a valuable item to collect and sell outside of the Dungeon…

As I try to harvest them using Black Fluid, the crystals immediately explode. The blast is not enough to inflict damage, but man, it did scare me for good.

<<It’s better to leave them be. Basically, they are clumps of natural mana that take the form of crystals. This makes them highly volatile, prone to explode at the slightest perturbation in the mana near them. To make things worse, it is reported that their instability becomes even worse when exposed to the surface’s air and sunlight. In short words, it’s useless to collect them>>

Following Marica’s remark, I walk away from the crystal’s remains. Useless, but they still make a pretty view…

We continue our advance inside the room. The first part is completely clear, but, as we come near the room’s end, there are recent signs of battle around.

No monsters in sight inside this room, but some stripped remains can be seen. Their bodies already covered in a thin layer of ash, it seems these monster have been killed recently.

<<Perhaps…the group that was ahead of us in the fourth floor?>>

We did take a longer route in order to avoid them, so it is possible that they entered the fifth floor before us.

Still, this new floor is really big, so it should be possible for two groups to hunt without interfering with each other.

As we thread on the ash covered soil, I use my new sonar skill to check the path ahead.

The sole corridor stemming from the large first chamber splits into two pathways, left and right.

From my skill’s signals, it seems that the left path has already been cleared out, as numerous monster corpses lay in that direction. Perhaps, that’s where the other group went.

The right path is still untouched, brimming with monsters whose level ranges between six and ten. It should be easy to deal with them.

So, we decided to start our hunt inside the right path.

Unlike the first four floors, here in the fifth even the corridors and pathways are pretty large, spanning several meters of width with high ceiling of barren, charred rock.

From them, the ash falls down, painting the burned soil with its cinder color.

We engage our first battle in this fifth floor. Against us, a small group of humanoid-like monsters.

Ash Servants, that’s what they are called.

Gaunt, children-like bodies the same color of cinder, with empty eye-sockets in their face, where a red, ember like light burns where the eyes should be.

Their skin is crossed by veins glowing in red, almost like their blood is made with flame.

They crawl on the floor, moving like animals while making a sinister wailing noise.

It’s a sight straight out of a horror movie…

<<Oh! Those are Ash Servants! Don’t worry, they are harmless…>>

Marica does not even manage to end her sentence. As soon as one of the monsters spots us, it lets out a piercing shriek from its tooth less mouth, its jaw gaping to an unnatural angle.

Quickly, they rush to attack us. Unlike the monsters from the floors above, it seems these possess some kind of coordination and intelligence, since they split off and try to flank us.

Although their frame is small, these things are quick and nimble. They jump at us, trying to slash with the long claws on their hands.

Still, we manage to fend off their assault, taking them down one by one. As we kill them, the light burning in their eyes and veins goes off, and the monsters crumble into piles of ash.

<<What the heck just happened here? These are supposed to be tame, for God’s sake!>>

Marica shouts in agitation.

<<Well, it seems they aren’t>>

She scoffs at my remark, crossing her arms while assuming a thoughtful expression.

<<It’s not so simple. I’ve been to this floor before, this path was safe to use. Heck, I’ve even see those type of monsters play with the adventurers, almost like tamed animals. Some even actually tamed the Ash Servants, using them as pets. Never, in all the time I spent being an adventurer, I have heard even the slightest rumor about adventurers attacked by Ash Servants>>

And that’s the second strange thing we encountered…coincidence, perhaps, but a bad feeling starts to linger in my mind.

Still, what is done is done. As the monsters have not left behind anything but ashes, it should be impossible to recover something useful from them.

Or at least, that’s how it looks from a superficial analysis.

As I take a pinch from the ash pile, Navi’s analysis reveals several useful properties of the thin dust.

Checking things with Heod, it seems that this ash can be used to produce and refine several alchemical components.

According to him, these ashes could be considered a high class ingredient, but instead are rarely harvested from the Dungeon.

That’s because you need a lot of it in order to process it, something like ten kilograms of ash to produce five hundred grams of finished reagent.

In short words, the trouble of harvesting enough quantity to make a profit is too much, and so adventurers do not usually bother harvesting this material.

Usually, that is. Since I have no problem concerning the quantity of things I can carry, thanks to my cheat-like inventory skill, we can hoard these ashes and bring them to Heod for processing.

Another troublesome aspect of fighting these monsters is…they did not give any experience as we killed them. So, it is really wasted effort to fight and kill these things.

Well, now I know why the other party avoided this route. It is supposed to be a safer route, but it is longer than the other path, and there is basically no possibility of obtaining good loot or experience here.

But, since we’re here, let’s just continue on our path, maybe we’ll find something as we proceed.

After collecting all the materials, we push on inside the passage, making our way inside the passage. We encounter several other groups of Ash Servants, but they all behave the same way as those before. In short, they attack us.

Although their level is fairly low, these monsters are troublesome to deal with.

It’s because the monsters here possess something dreadful.

Intelligence.

They coordinate their attacks, set up ambushes and traps. Some groups are even smart enough to retreat and regroup with others of their kind as soon as some of them fall.

Luckily, it’s not something that we cannot manage, since we can avoid traps and ambushes by using my detection skill.

But, it gives me something to think about…if here, in a floor that can be considered “beginner level” the monsters already behave like this, what kind of battles await us in the lower levels of this Dungeon?

And to think that these Ash Servants were supposed to be harmless…hell, they attack us every single time…although, from battle to battle, I have the strange feeling that they are attacking me more than the others…perhaps it’s just my imagination. Yes, it must definitely be…

With our current strength we can manage well enough against these monsters, but…is it enough?

Given how the difficulty went straight up from the fourth floor, where the monsters acted alone and without showing any kind of strategy, to here, where they coordinate their attacks and plan properly…perhaps we are underestimating this place a bit?

Still, those are thoughts for a later time. For now, we still overpower the enemies, although with greater effort than before.

Perhaps I am just overthinking things, and we will manage fine even in the lower floors by just being more careful.

I hope so, sincerely.

Letting my troubles aside, I prepare the first strike on a group of monsters nearby.

As we are concealed by Marica’s magic, the group of creatures did not notice our presence.

[Navi: Detected- Ash Wolf x 5 (lvl 8)]

With their gray fur constantly dissolving into cinder, these wolf-like creatures look really intimidating.

Apparently, they are somewhat related to the Red Wolves I fought the first time I met Retel and Levia, as they possess the same skills as the Red Wolves.

Their appearance is also really similar.

It’s like in those games, where some monsters are just the re-skinned version of the same model…

<<Are those too supposed to be harmless?>>

I slightly tease Marica, to ease the tension a bit. In truth, I am bothered by what she said about the Ash Servants…I really have a bad feeling.

<<No, those are nasty dogs. Watch out, they might bite you>>

She replies, sticking out her tongue in a somewhat cute insult.

Still, we cannot take too much leisure and play around…the wolves spot us, launching an attack as they howl.

The enemies are of the fast and nimble type, so our best strategy is to prevent their movement before using the decisive strike.

We basically devised a standard strategy against this kind of enemy.

First, I use Black Fluid to encroach them, making the skill burst from the ground and holding the enemies down with the tentacles.

At the same time, Marica uses her freeze-fireball combo spell on the area. The surviving monsters are dealt by Levia and Retel, if the need arises.

We deal with the wold pack as expected.

The monsters, kept in place by my skill are severely weakened by Marica’s attack and finished off by Levia.

Retel did not even get any action this time. Well, it’s a good thing, even if he seems a bit disappointed by the lack of action…

He immediately regrets it, however. Another group of wolves is charging at us, attracted by the sounds of battle and the wailing cries of the other wolves.

I manage to restrain some of them, however two wolves manage to evade my skill and push through our group.

Marica is still recovering her strength she spent using the spell, so the wolves aim at her, since she’s in a weakened state.

Retel jumps in, intercepting the wolf’s attack with his shield.

While me and Levia deal with the rest of the wolf pack, he single-hand defeats two wolves.

Smiling, he turns his face to Marica, extending a hand to help her up.

I divert my eyes from the two of them flirting lightly.

Well, go for it Retel, I am rooting for your success! Still, I would appreciate if you kept the flirting for another time and place…

We wait enough for Marica to replenish her mana again.

It seems that the spells she uses take a heavy toll on her if used repeatedly like she’s been doing.

<<Please, be more careful. You can rely on us, no need to over exert yourself>>

Levia tells her with a concerned voice.

<<Yeah yeah I know…it’s just…I can’t help to act this way>>

Marica snickers a bit, shaking her head.

<<You scolded me with the same exact words my old party leader used>>

She’s still smiling, but I can see a glint of sadness in her eyes.

<<Well, enough rest for now. Shall we go?>>

Without waiting for our reply, she starts walking towards the corridor’s end. Levia gives a light push to Retel’s back, as if to encourage him to go after Marica.

We follow them, keeping a bit of distance to let the two talk. Seriously, we’re taking too much leisure here…

<<So…it seems our dangerous Dungeon expedition just turned into a nice stroll>>

I say as I walk beside Levia. She laughs a bit, holding her hand in front of her mouth in a cute gesture.

<<But, they are a bit cute, don’t you think? I mean, Retel is a bit too oblivious and clumsy, but I never saw him spend so much time with a girl before…>>

<<Yes he is a bit clumsy…still, you can’t help it…for a boy his age, women are a mystery after all>>

Hell, I am really talking like an old man here…

<<For a guy his age…ah, yes. I sometimes forget all that stuff about you being actually older than us…I mean, it’s a bit confusing with all that “I am from another world” thing and such, also you don’t really act like an older person, it’s so easy to get along you that I always consider you to be same age as us….uhm, I never asked…but how old are you, really?>>

Her question makes me smile a bit. I guess I never really talked with my companions about my previous life…

<<Old enough. I was forty-two years old when I died. Gosh, when I think back about that time, about that world…it surely was different from here>>

And so, I took the leisure to chat a bit with Levia about myself and my previous life.

About the city I lived in, the soft breeze of the ocean that sometimes swept the walkway besides the port.

Of the car, racing on the road, with their light shining in the night as they made way through buildings high enough to reach the sky.

She marveled when I mentioned airplanes, her eyes sparkling at the notion of flight.

We took our sweet time before catching up with Marica and Retel, with me still going on, lost in remembrance.

Eventually, the other two join in our conversation, fascinated by tales of a world they could never imagine. As the room we’re in is relatively safe, we decide to make a small break as I finish my tale.

<<So, a world without magic? I find it hard to believe>>

Marica is a bit skeptic about my tale. But to think that, among all I said, the absence of magic in my world is what is troubling her…

As I voice my thoughts on her reaction, she just lifts her shoulder.

<<I mean, it’s not like I do not believe that you came from another world. After all, magical theory admits the possibility of travel between worlds…there are even the legends about Aldora kingdom’s Heroes coming from other worlds. But I cannot imagine a world where there is no magic. I mean, magic is the law of nature itself, a world without it would be simply…wrong>>

<<But…you do believe me when I say that I come from another world, right?>>

<<Not at all. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re a nice person and a good comrade. But I also think you’re a slightly touched in the head. No offense>>

She’s really the straightforward honest type uh…well, no matter. It’s not like I have any proof of my claim, really, since I do not posses items or other things that prove the fact that I came from another world.

Hell, I’ll think the same if someone else just came and told me something like this. I decide to let it go, for the moment.

<<So, enough of this talk for today. We’ve taken a bit of leisure, but we need to resume our Dive>>

Clapping her hands together, Marica invites us to resume our march.

She makes a point here… although it was really pleasant, we’ve wasted too much time chatting.

Resuming our exploration routine, we advance inside the long passage. After a while, the passage gives way to another large room.

Almost twice as big as the entrance room, this one is literally bursting with Ash Servants.

Divided into groups of five/ eight individuals, they are roaming around the room, harvesting the Fire Crystals that illuminate the area.

Among them, we can see some taller monsters. Their appearance is that of gaunt humans, with ashen skin and brazen eyes.

They wear pelts, probably from Ash Wolves, and hold crude weapons made with sharpened bones. One in particular is standing out among the others.

Wearing a white mask, it seems he’s giving orders to the other monsters around him.

A long, white staff lies in his hands, giving off a crimson light from the Fire Crystal embedded on the staff’s tip.

My heart skips a beat when the…thing turns towards us. He saw us, even if Marica’s spell should have rendered us invisible.

Roaring furiously, the thing sends his underlings to attack.

More than forty monsters are charging at us…this is too much to deal with!

<<Fuck! There’s too many of them, run!>>

Immediately, we bolt as fast as we can into the passageway that we just came from.

I can hear the monsters’ footsteps coming closer and closer…shit, they are fast!

Fighting them out in the open would be a really, really bad choice. So, it’s better for us to retreat into the tunnel, which looks a bit more defensible.

Although the monsters’ numbers overwhelm us, we might be able to win if we play our cards well.

First, we need to divide them somehow. Dealing with them in small groups will definitely increase our chances of victory.

As we run into the tunnel, I let the front of the monster horde follow us inside. After that, I immediately wall off the tunnel with Black Fluid, thus trapping a small number of monsters inside with us.

Next, it’s all left to my companions. Holding the barrier is taking all my strength away, but I need to endure this.

The small group of Ash Servants immediately start to attack us, but they are easily dealt with by Retel and Levia.

<<Marica, freeze the ground right before the wall!>>

This should help to slow their advance when I release the wall. As the group of monsters has been dealt with, we fall back and prepare for another wave.

I undo the first wall and prepare another, using the same strategy as before. As expected, the frozen and slippery ground slows the monster’s advance, and we can use this opportunity to kill some more of them.

We repeat the same strategy again and again, but there seems to be no end to the constant assault.

A bad feeling begins to take hold of me…

Using Navi, I try to assert the situation outside the tunnel. There are no more monsters coming from the room, however…the ones we took out are being resurrected.

I can even see it happen right besides us. From one of the ash piles left behind by one monster we just killed, another monster emerges.

If it continues like this, we will be tired out and overwhelmed.

Hell, what could we do in this situation…perhaps, if killing them does not solve the problem, we could try something else.

Using Navi, I transmit my plan to my companions.

After dealing with the last Ash Servant in our section of the tunnel, Levia and Retel run away while Marica starts to chant a spell.

The plan is simple. Marica will lock the tunnel by making an ice wall. To do so, I release the water I stored inside my inventory, making it pour on the Black Fluid wall.

Slowly, Marica’s spell forms an ice wall, thick enough to block the monsters’ advance for a bit.

The next step is letting the Black Fluid wall collapse on the monsters, and immediately activate the absorption ability.

It is a success. The struggling monsters make it really hard for me to control the skill, but in the end they succumb to Black Fluid. With this, a considerable number of them is gone.

Just as we thought about having won this battle, the ice wall made by Marica shatters.

Other monsters have pushed through, scaling the walls to avoid the Black Fluid that covers the floor.

The move like spiders, clinging to the vertical wall and even the ceiling.

Among them there are the taller, weapon wielding monsters we saw before.

According to Navi, those are called Ashen Warriors. There are ten of them in total, their levels ranging between eight and ten.

What’s troublesome about them, however, is a skill they possess. By their presence alone, they seem to have some kind of empowering effect on their lesser brethren, buffing their strength and making them more aggressive.

I don’t get it…why are those elite monsters coming out now of all times…they would have had better chances if they led the initial charge…

The battle against the reinforced Ash Servants and Ash Warriors continues, as we whittle them down enough to weaken them. One by one, I use Black Fluid to absorb them, while keeping the others at bay.

It’s strange, but with each monster absorbed I am not getting any skill. Hell, I am not even getting healed from it…what the hell is going on?

It seems like we dealt with all of them. No more monsters are coming from the room, so we just take a moment of respite, crushed by fatigue.

Levia is tending to Marica and Retel’s wounds, while I sit on the ground, catching my breath.

Still, this was…strange.

Not only the way that those things attacked made no sense to me, but…the fact that we did not get any experience from killing them, and also absorbing them with Black Fluid did not yield anything…it leaves me with some doubts in my mind.

After recovering our strength a bit, we decide to enter the large room once again. Previously bursting with monsters, the room is now empty, silent. Only the ash falling down the ceiling moves, dancing eerily into the red light.

Right at the center of the room, we see the tall, masked monster from before. He’s sitting down, his legs crossed. As if he’s waiting…perhaps, for us?

He notices us. This time, there is no piercing screech. The monster simply stares at us, calm in his position.

I widen my eyes in surprise as I see Navi’s information about the monster. It has a name.

Thal, the Ash Guardian.

His level is ten, but, somehow, this monster gives me the feeling of something far stronger than what his level suggests.

<<Come, oh child that walks the path of Daemons>>

Huh? A strange voice rings in my head…what is happening?

<<Come, let us test your worth>>

Suddenly, the monster named Thal rises from his position. Standing tall, he grabs his staff, slamming it into the ground.

As the staff impacts the floor, it releases a shock-wave, hurling me and my friends away. The ash covering the soil starts swirling in the air. From it, the form of Ash Servants and Ashen Warriors emerge.

Quicker than I would expect, they launch themselves towards our group. Ignoring me, they seize my companions, knocking them out on the spot.

They hold them, as the Ashen warriors point their bone spears to them, ready to strike.

I freeze on the spot. If I move, they will be killed right in front of me.

<<Your companions will be killed, unless you manage to defeat me here and now. If you try to free them, they will be killed. If you try to run away, they will be killed. If you do not fight, they will be killed. If you lose…>>

<<Yeah! I get it! Come then!>>

<<Such rudeness…as expected of a candidate Lord. But, will your arrogance be the same, without the gift that has been bestowed unto you?>>

Once again, Thal strikes his staff on the ground. This time, the crystal embedded on the staff’s tip shines red, and a crimson circle ripples on the ground. The ash swirls again, and envelops the entire room .

As if inside a sandstorm, the ash clouds the air, choking my breath…I feel my strength fade away.

It lasts for less than two seconds. The ash-storm subsides, and as the room returns to its normal condition. As I turn around to check my companions, however, I see that a small ring of floating ash is swirling around them.

<<What have you done to them?>>

Shouting in rage, I face the monster.

<<Only a little trick, to ensure no interference happens during our little test>>

What the hell is happening here…still, if all I need to do to get out of this mess is kill the Ash Guardian…

I start my attack, immediately using Black Fluid to quickly finish the monster.

<<Huh?>>

The skill did not activate.

I try again and again but…no response whatsoever.

Not even from Navi…nothing.

The monster laughs behind his white mask.

<<So, without the power bestowed unto you, a simple man against a monster. With the ones you care for bound and in danger, will you steel your hand and fight? Or will you fall…such is the trial that a Lord must face…>>

I must admit, this situation is really becoming too dangerous. No option to run, and my friends are being held hostage…

I do not even have the time to think. The monster named Thal starts attacking me with his staff. I try to avoid the blow but…I am too slow.

Why? It should not be like this…it’s almost like I lost the effect that STATS have on my physical abilities.

As I try to retaliate with a punch, I have the definitive confirmation of my doubt. The punch simply does no damage to the monster. My STATs are really gone!

With a kick, Thal sends me flying. I land on the hard floor, rolling in pain.

Again and again, the monster hits me. I am not able to defend, ending up in a pitiful state.

<<Weak, disappointing. How can someone claim the Lord’s title, when he cannot even defeat a single foe? Where is your will, child of mankind? Perhaps, you need a bit of…encouragement?>>

As he says so, Thal nods to his servants. A scream resounds in the air, as the monster holding Retel pushes his spear between the gaps of his armor.

<<Now, every time you will fall to your knees, those friends of yours will be hurt. Let’s see if you will put up a better show from now on>>

<<Why…why is this happening? What is the point?>>

I shout in rage, but the monster does not answer and resumes his attacks. I need to think, and quickly.

Counting too much on my skill, I do not even have a weapon with me, since I cannot use my inventory where the weapons I possess are stored.

Bleeding, beaten black and blue, I am at my wit’s end. More than that, every time the monster hits me, Retel, Levia and Marica are getting hurt. Tortured because of my incompetence.

Still, what can I do in this situation? No skills, no weapons to attack.

No places to hide either…although, I really doubt that hiding will prove useful in this situation.

There’s only me, barren rock, monsters and those eerie Fire Crystals…

Yes…those things explode if handled poorly.

If I correctly recall, Marica said that the unstable Fire Crystals explode if the mana around them is perturbed. So, in theory, I should be able to use them, somehow.

Of course, I am not able to use my mana from a distance. But, I have been able to control and infuse mana on near objects, like when I was practicing with the small knife.

I smile a little. This plan I am thinking about might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done…hell, I feel like I’ve already said this phrase to myself too much times since I came into this world.

Now, what I need to do is position myself near the crystals.

There is a formation of them big enough, almost twenty meters away from me on the right side. Avoiding Thal’s attacks as best as I can, I try to move towards the crystals.

I need to do this without the monster realizing what I’m trying to do. So, instead of running straight towards the crystals, I am jumping, tumbling and slipping all around, slowly falling back towards the red formation.

We’re near enough. I am at my limits, but I need to endure.

The Fire Crystals are now behind me, few steps away. I can feel the heat coming from them…now, all I need to do is just lure a single attack from Thal. One more.

Of course, the difficult part comes right after…

As the monster lifts his staff in the air, ready to strike down, I try to look as beat up and tired as possible. I need him to underestimate my remaining strength.

It’s the only possibility left to me.

Staggering, holding my belly with my right hand. Letting my eyes close, as if succumbing to pain and fatigue.

<<Pathetic>>

With his insult, Thal jumps to deliver his final blow.

Mustering all the strength left in me, I avoid his blow, evading to the side as I kick his shin, tripping the monster. At the same time, I grabbed his arm, aiming to throw him down into the Fire Crystals.

Surprised by my sudden counter-attack, the monster does not manage to evade in time, and I successfully manage to throw him down on the Crystals.

Surely, a mere clumsy throw is not enough to defeat this monster. As it falls, I immediately jump on his chest, blocking him down with my weight. Even for a single moment.

After all, a moment is all I need.

I push his face down with my right hand, holding it over the crystals while I let my scarce mana pour from me into the air.

As the mana reacts with the Crystals, a blinding light erupts, followed by the blast. A sharp pain burns in my right hand, as the force of the explosion pushes me away, making me land on my back, hitting the hard rock floor.

The pain is unbearable…my arm shakes and twitches, but I cannot bring myself to watch it, to see what became of my hand.

Still, that blast should have been enough to severely injure the monster…

Or at least, that’s what I thought.

From the smoke left by the explosion, the gaunt figure of Thal emerges. His mask lies on the ground, charred and shattered. However, the monster himself seems unhurt.

<<Clever, but useless>>

Raising his staff, he points it at me.

A blinding light follows, and I feel my body tormented by an intense discharge of pain.

I fall to the ground, shaking uncontrollably as the electric current traverses my body, burning the skin and disrupting my nerves.

Hell, this thing can even use electric magic…this is a little too unfair for my taste.

Struggling to get up again, with smoke rising from my body and my vision clouded, I am almost considering to give up, here and now.

It would be so easy…to just let this end.

Close my eyes, and let the monster give the finishing blow.

Too many times already I have been at exactly this point, unable to fight back in front of an impending doom.

It would be so easy to just let everything go…but I cannot bring myself to do it.

Biting the inner side of my cheek, I struggle again and get up on my feet.

I am staggering, swaying and my body aches basically everywhere. But, I will not give up.

Although…that’s easier said than done. The truth is…I don’t know what to do against Thal.

For an instant, I really thought that my trick with the Fire Crystals did actually get him but…that is not the case here.

Since there are more Crystals scattered around, I could try and to the same thing again, but I really doubt it will be effective for a second time.

As if reading my thoughts, the monster launches a spell, destroying the Crystals that are inside the room. Without the Fire Crystals, the surroundings plunge into total darkness.

With the world around me now devoid of light, panic begins to take hold of me.

Before, I could see the attacks, even avoid them in time.

But now, robbed of my sight…I start to shudder, trembling when confronted with an imminent danger that I cannot see.

The only light left in the room comes from the dozen of eyes staring at me, brazing dots of burning red light, coldly gazing at my demise.

<<Now, devoid of sight…how will you fare into the Darkness?>>

Thal speaks again, his eyes burning bright in the darkness around, as he walks, circling me. Suddenly, the lights are gone.

He closed his eyes, disappearing into the surrounding shadow.

The monster even relinquished his staff, leaving it on the ground.

Of course, it is a trap…perhaps he aims to lure me, thinking that I will rush to take the staff while he waits that moment to strike me…

<<Let us see, oh child of man, if your claim to the Lord’s throne has any worth>>

His voice echoes inside the large room, almost as if thousands of monsters are speaking the same sentence over and over, mocking me as they wait in the shadow…

I cannot feel Thal’s presence.

When will he attack? From where? Behind my back, or will it be from my side?

The loud chattering of monsters makes it impossible for me to hear Thal’s footsteps, thus making me unable to react to his moves.

Suddenly, I’m hit on my shoulder, then comes a blow to my stomach. The strength of it makes me fall, spitting blood on the ground while I squirm in pain.

The monster is resorting to hand to hand combat. Still, even without a weapon, his strength is totally no joke.

What the hell can I do in this situation…

Focus, I need to focus. Lead away unnecessary thoughts, clear my mind.

As if something like that is easy! Numbed by pain and fear, and the constant understanding of my own inferiority in this fight…how the hell am I supposed to calm myself?

Angry, I begin to flail my arms around at the slightest sound. Every time I only hit empty air, with my frustration increasing as the monster mocks me.

His blows are strong, but none of them is decisive.

Almost as if he’s playing around…no, he definitely is.

I mean, Thal could just have ended me many times over.

And yet…now that I think of it, he was blabbering some nonsense about testing me.

Child who walks the path of Demons”…that’s how he called me. And all that nonsense about claiming the Lord’s title and so on. Is this shit happening because of that bogus “ Candidate Demon lord” title that I got?

The fight continues, as a one sided beating, that is.

Still, I struggle with all my willpower to not fall again. Because if I do, it will be the end, not only for me but for my friends also.

I am now bleeding profusely from a wound on my forehead. I can feel the blood flowing from it, hot as it runs down to my eyes, flowing down my cheek and staining my clothes as it falls.

Perhaps, I will pass out soon from the beating. I already feel my consciousness wavering, fading as I sway, struggling to stand on my feet.

Life itself is flowing from me…flowing.

Too concerned about what was happening to me, I failed to notice something during the fight.

Something flowing…from me, from Thal.

Mana. It’s faint, but…every time I move, some of it flows from my body.

That’s how Thal is locating me in this darkness. He senses my mana.

Perhaps…

Yes, now it is clear. As Thal moves, a small amount of mana seeps away from him. Faint, almost unnoticeable if you do not pay attention to it…but it’s there.

I clutch my fists, as I prepare for Thal’s next attack.

Thanks to his mana, I have now a general grasp of his position.

The monster is still quicker than me, but I manage to dodge the blow, albeit with a clumsy movement. Failing the first attack, he immediately changes his stance to strike me with a kick.

Again, I manage to evade. More and more, I am getting a grasp of his movement.

It seems that whenever he is about to attack, the monster concentrates a small amount of mana in his fist, or his leg when he’s going to kick.

There is a small gap of time between the mana flow and the actual attack.

Shit, if I noticed it sooner, I could have surely avoided getting injured so much.

Now, I can properly evade but…for how long? I’m already past my limit here, it’s only a matter of time before I make a mistake or I fall to exhaustion.

To end this, I have to find a way to retaliate against him.

I took too much damage to try and attack him with punches and kicks…hell, even if I was at peak condition Thal would still kick my butt.

Simply, his physical strength and overall martial prowess are way superior to mine, an amateur with the undeveloped body of a fifteen year old boy.

Without my STATS to boost me, I cannot do anything in hand to hand combat.

My skills are also out of order…that leaves me with only one option to attack. I have to use my mana.

I do not have nearly enough control to use a spell, hell, I do not even know any spell or the way to use them…but, I can accumulate mana to a certain degree, and perhaps…obviously it’s a desperate, moronic plan.

The monster will surely find out what I’m trying to do. Even if the doesn’t, it’s unlikely that I will manage to pull this off.

Still, it’s the only card I’ve left to play…

Biting the inner part of my cheek, I force myself once again to endure, evading the attacks as best as I can while I try to collect my mana.

It’s more difficult than I thought. Collecting the mana, controlling its flow feels like scooping up water with my bare hands. I manage to keep some, but most of it flows away.

We go on like this for some minutes, as I concentrate my energy while avoiding the monster’s attacks.

But this is it…I don’t think I will be able to resist anymore. So, I stake it all in one attack.

Waiting for Thal’s attack, I avoid it and punch the monster with my left hand, charged with mana.

I don’t know why, but as I hit Thal’s stomach I think about the magic he used on me earlier.

Most of all, I remember the sensation of it, the discharge flowing through my body, making me unable to move, to think.

I bet my life and that of my companions in this single, clumsy attack.

I manage to hit Thal.

Perhaps he’s underestimating me, or I somehow managed to catch him out of guard, my attack connects, and I release the mana I’ve been accumulating in my hand.

A sparkle of light illuminates the surrounding, for a single moment before the darkness takes hold once again.

The “spell” I used failed. I thought about converting my scarce mana into electricity, aiming to shock Thal and disrupt his movements, but I did not manage to produce the result I wanted.

As I hit the monster, my mana that I’ve been accumulating simply burst out, producing a flash.

It could be considered a failure, but…somehow, it played to my favor.

I don’t know exactly what happened, but as I released my mana, it must have caused some kind of interference with Thal’s own mana.

Yes, that must be the case. Otherwise, I’d have to think about some kind of miracle happening here…

Because, right after I hit the monster…I got my skills back.

Yelling out loud, I activated Black Fluid, striking Thal again and again, piercing his body until my anger was spent.

<<Die, bastard…>>

I spit to the ground, kicking the monster’s body who’s laying lifeless on the floor.

Suddenly, a blinding light erupts from Thal’s body.

All around me, the Ash monsters begin to dissolve into cinder, swirling around in the air. Even Thal’s corpse becomes ashes…don’t know why, but I have a really bad feeling about this.

The ashes scattered in the air converge to a point above my head, condensing into a spherical shape.

When will this shit end…

<<Oh, child of man who walks the path of Daemon…>>

A thunderous voice resounds from the ashen sphere floating in the air…but I ignore it, rushing to my companions. I have other priorities rather than listening to the mumbling of this thing right now.

After drinking a healing potion, I hurry to tend to my injured friends.

Marica and Levia are just unconscious, but Retel is heavily wounded.

I splash a bit of potion directly on his wound, before making him drink the rest of it. He’s weak, but the potion’s effect should be enough to heal him.

Next, I go to Levia and Marica’s side. For good measure, I use potions on them too.

As Levia recovers consciousness, I tell her to hurry off to Retel’s side. The potion I gave him should be enough, but with Levia’s assistance he will heal faster.

Now…let’s see what the hell is going on with this ash ball.

<<Ehi! What the hell was this all about? Answer me!>>

In response to my words, the ball compresses and falls to the ground. It takes a humanoid form…hell, don’t tell me I have to fight again!

<<Child of man who walks the path of Daemons, your trial is complete. Receive the Ash’s blessing, and strive to claim the Lord’s crown>>

The figure that emerged from ashes comes near me. I…cannot move, but somehow I got the feeling that whatever that thing is going to do, it will not attack me. At least, I hope so.

Extending a hand, the thing drags his thumb across my forehead.

<<With this, I anoint you with Ashes. The next trial awaits…oh child of man who walks the path of Daemons>>

The form of ashes scatters once again. From the ground where it stood, a large Fire Crystal emerges, illuminating the room in its crimson light.

No trace of monsters left all around us…it seems this madness really ended.

[Navi: Communication routine restored- Success! Trial of Ashes complete (First Trial)! Obtained Blessing of Ashes: for the next ten days (or until completion of Trial by Fire-Second trial) a health regeneration passive ability is awarded; +15 INT stat bonus awarded (permanent); New skill: Mana Perception, Mana Control, Mana infusion awarded (permanent, passive,not compatible with Integration system).

Acquired Status: Marked by Ashes-Effect: For the next 10 days, or until Second Trial (Trial by Fire) is completed, candidate Roshal cannot leave the Dungeon; Unless Second Trial (Trial by Fire) is started in the next 10 days, a lethal effect will be applied.

Acquired: Crown Fragment (Sendria) 1/100. Congratulations on succeeding in your first step in claiming the Demon Lord’s Crown, Master!]

Huh? What the hell is this “trial” nonsense! Sudden developments like this should happen only in crappy novels or poorly inspired games, right? The hell, it’s basically forcing me to do these “trial things” without me even knowing!

<<Roshal!>>

Hearing my name, I turn around, seeing my companions lined up with preoccupied expressions on their faces.

I scurry to their side. First, I need to check out if they are ok.

However, Marica immediately interrupts me.

<<Hey, care to explain what is going on here? What is this nonsense about trials and Demon Lord thing? Is this some kind of stupid joke?>>

She seems wary of me…wait a moment, did she hear what Navi said to me?

[Navi: Yes Master, to celebrate the completion of the Trial, the joyous news has been broadcast to your minions! All hail the next Demon Lord!]

I just…drop my shoulders. I was taking my sweet time to tell them about this thing, hell, I would even kept it a secret from them, since it’s something really…stupid to say out loud.

But, it seems Navi had a different idea.

And wait, I still do not understand this Navi thing…is she alive, taking decisions and such, or is it just a program? Well, I have more pressing things to think about…

Retel and Levia do not seem too concerned with the news, but…Marica seems really scared.

<<Are…are you serious? You? A Demon Lord?>>

I tell her everything I know about this silly sounding title. How I obtained it, the stuff about the God that brought me here, the Laughing man and such.

Shocked, the magician girl drops to her knees.

<<This, this is madness…tell me, I have gone mad, please…to speak of legendary figures like this, Heroes, Demon lord, even the Laughing Man…he’s a damn story told to scare children, for fuc…for God’s sake!>>

She’s holding her head between her hands, shaking her head in denial. Girl, I should be the one doing this all the time since the first moment I set foot in this world.

<<We…we need to go back, report these matters to the Guild. The Ash servants attacking, that…ambush, the…Demon Lord over there. It’s dangerous, too dangerous to let things go unchecked>>.

Retel shakes his head in denial.

<<I think it’s better for us if we keep this between us, for now. I mean, who knows how the Guild will react if we report? They could even go as far as imprisoning Roshal, or even worse, consider him some sort of threat and…>>

Marica gets up on her feet, shaking.

<<You cannot be serious! Look at all that’s happened here! What if it…damn, we do not even know what is going on here…but this, this is definitely not normal! I tell you, we need to go back ad report to the Guild, ask for their assistance>>

<<Well, it’s not so simple, Marica>>.

Interrupting her sentence, I show them my right palm. On it, a gray mark has appeared.

<<You heard it from Navi, this…marked by ashes something…I cannot leave the Dungeon for the next ten days, and if I do not start this second trial shit in the due time…I will die>>

Telling this out loud makes it sound so stupid…and yet, I fear that is exactly how things are right now.

The discussion between us goes on and on, with tones heating up until we end up yelling at each other.

Infighting is the last thing that we need right now, given the situation.

I try to make Marica reason for a bit, calming her down.

Hell, as if I am calm myself.

This sudden development is really troubling me…I am basically locked here until I manage to find this second trial. Given how the first one went, I fear what will happen to me, to us.

In the end, I manage to calm our tones down, convincing Marica to not just run immediately to the surface and report matters to the Guild.

<<We can make a compromise here. There is a safepoint in the seventh floor, right? We can reach there, and report to the Guild personnel stationed in the safepoint. So, I’m just asking you to wait a bit, see how things go instead of just running straight to the surface>>

Still a bit wary, she agrees to my proposal.

Since the day is already gone to shit, we decide to camp in the now empty room.

We consume dinner in silence, all of us avoiding to talk about what just happened.

Hell, we should not behave like this, not at all…but, I myself cannot think about something to say to them.

I do not even know how to process what happened here, so many things without explanation.

First, from what the Laughing man told me, monsters and such were transported in this world by the “enemy God” that is in opposition to the one that transported me here and gave me power, right? But, if that’s the case here, why there are these “trials”in the Dungeon?

It’s something related to the Demon Lords, and, from my limited understanding of things, it should not have anything to do with monsters and Dungeons.

Yet, here we are. Perhaps I am just making the wrong assumptions here, but I cannot wrap my mind around this…

After dinner, I start the first turn of guard duty. Levia and Retel are already in bed, but Marica is staying up late.

I approach her, in order to speak about the discussion we had earlier. Now that we’ve all calmed down a bit, I want to know why she reacted the way she did.

And maybe, since she has more experience than me concerning the Dungeon and all, she could provide me with a different point of view.

<<Look, I am not asking for an apology or anything. I just want to know your honest opinion on this matter. Why does it scare you so much?>>

Taking a big breath, she starts explaining her reasons.

More than that, she gives me some sort of “history lesson” about the Dungeons.

According to what she says, the public information about this Sendria Dungeon is wrong, a story fabricated by the Guild.

To the public, it is told that the Dungeon has always been there, full of monsters ready to burst out and spread calamity.

But it was conquered in the end, by some powerful warriors who later founded the Guild and Sendria city itself. A nice story, inspiring for the common people. But the truth is something different.

<<It’s not a common knowledge, but first reports about the Dungeon started no more than two hundred years ago. During that time, Sendria was at war against the Aldora Holy Kingdom…and it was not going well. Supposedly, the Dungeon appeared right when Aldora ‘s army managed to invade the city, releasing hordes of monsters from its depths and thus driving the army away. From there, the Dungeon grew quiet, and the rulers of Sendria eventually formed the Guild in order to explore and investigate the Dungeon>>

So…if what she’s saying is right, the Dungeon might be related to my old omnipotent friend.

Still…

<<How did you find out about this? If what you say is not common knowledge, I mean, it should be something classified or kept secret by the Guild, don’t you think?>>

She makes a wry smile.

<<It’s thanks to my father. You see, he was a custodian of records in the Guild’s library…and often, he would bring me on the job. Often, I would sneak away from him, burying myself in old volumes and manuscripts. That’s where I found those records>>

She continues with the story. Apparently, the monster army emerged from the Dungeon was led by some sort of ruler…

<<Let me guess, it was a Demon Lord. Am I right?>>

Interrupting her, I voice my question.

<<Yes. So, your sudden claim about being a Demon Lord or such really startled me. Supposedly, the Demon Lord of old got killed in the battle against Aldora, and the Dungeon grew dormant since then. But now that you set foot here…it seems it’s waking up again>>

<<What makes you think so?>>

<<Oh, don’t be like this. I told you before…the Fire Crystals. Those things have been reported only during the first Dungeon expeditions, right after the battle against Aldora ended. After that, no more mention of it. Also, that Ash Guardian you fought…I personally never saw it, but it is known to be one of the floor guardians that appear in the tenth floor. And yet, we found it here on the fifth floor, and it challenged you. It talked to you…yes, I heard something during the battle. It’s just…we do not know what we’re dealing with, Roshal. I mean, I am fine with battles against monsters, but this? I think it’s a little beyond us…for God’s sake we were almost all killed during that trial thing!>>

<<I see your point. I really do…but…it’s me we’re talking about here. What do you think would happen to me if the Guild found out what’s happening here? As Retel said, they could consider me some kind of threat, even kill me…>>

<<Yes, I know…and that’s why I don’t have already called the Guild and reported this matter. But…think about it. Sooner or later, someone will find out about the new, unexplained activity in the Dungeon. The Guild itself is already in alert because of that Leidus guy, so…it’s only a matter of time before someone finds that things are a bit strange down here…don’t you think?>>

She makes a fair point but…I really do not think the Guild will treat me kindly if we report something.

Parting from me, Marica goes to her bedroll to spend the night.

Left alone, I try to ask Navi about what happened, maybe the Navigator has some more information about all this nonsense that’s happening to me.

My guard turn goes like this, with me mumbling about things that I do not understand. As Levia comes to give me the change on guard duty, I go to bed, exhausted.

As I lay down, I try to get some sleep, feeling like a protagonist of some stupidly bad story that does not make any sense.

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