After waking up and taking care of my morning routine, I give Heod a call using Navi’s communication system. The old man stays silent as I explain what happened yesterday.
I still feel the absurdity of this, it sounds even more nonsensical if I tell it out loud.
Still, the old man patiently listens, even when I start complaining about all that has happened.
As he sounds really concerned, I reassure him about our well being. I can almost imagine him, nervously smoking his pipe as he listens what we went through. I would not want to make him worry too much, but I feel like he deserves to know what is going on here.
More than that, I need his counsel on what to do next.
He agrees with my decision to not report things to the Guild, since we do not know how they will react to this kind of news.
In the end, he reassures me a bit, telling me to be careful while investigating what this “trial” thing is about.
After speaking with the old man, I reunite with the group.
Marica joins a bit later, as she walked away from the group alone.
Perhaps she was taking care of her womanly business, as she seems really embarrassed whens she comes back.
With our preparations and equipment maintenance done, we abandon our resting spot and resume our journey into the Dungeon.
As we decided yesterday, our Dungeon Dive continues. For now, our aim is set to the seventh floor.
There, a safepoint from the Guild is stationed, so we will decide what to do once we reach it.
Leaving the large room where we spent the night, we end up once again in the succession of corridors and chamber that characterize this floor.
I expected more battles in the rooms we went by, but the monsters became incredibly docile. Populated mostly by Ash Servants, these rooms do not have any useful materials or resources to be harvested.
Moreover, the Ash Servants themselves are behaving so differently from yesterday.
As we spotted the first group, I immediately prepared to receive their attack but…the things did not attack us.
Much to my surprise their reactions varied, with some of them blatantly ignoring us, while others scurried away to hide in the shadows. Hell, we even saw one of them come straight at us, smiling.
Behaving like a pet, it stood there in front of us, making strange noises as if begging for something.
I almost burst out laughing when it jumped to Levia like a puppy, almost begging to be caressed.
It was so different from what we experienced yesterday. Seeing them like this, without any trace of the malice and wilderness they were showing as we fought them, it almost makes me question everything I went through during the trial.
We decide to not mess with the monsters, leaving them be as we walk by.
The Ash Servant Levia befriended is still following us around from a distance.
Still, it’s best to keep wary of them, since I do not completely feel at ease, surrounded by monsters, even if they show a docile attitude.
Without any major battles, besides some encounters with small groups of Ash Wolves, we proceed in the winding tunnels and large chambers that form the fifth floor’s outskirts.
As we come near the center, we encounter some more traces of battle. Perhaps the other adventurers are near.
In the end, we finally meet the other adventurer group that was ahead of us. Inside a large chamber, a group of ten adventurers is taking some time to rest and do some small maintenance on their equipment. As soon as they spot us, they immediately assume a battle formation.
Maybe, they’re still wary of other groups, given the recent attacks that happened in the Dungeon.
We approach them, making sure to signal that we are not hostile.
Reassured, the group’s leader lowers his weapon, and his companions do the same.
A larger formation than ours, comprising seven active members with three baggage carriers. It seems that this kind of formation is the standard party suggested by the Guild, according to what the other party’s leader says.
The man, named Julius, is a level thirteen adventurer. Leading a mixed party of beast-kin and humans, he’s an ex soldier of Sendria who gave up military life to try and gain fortune inside the Dungeon.
At first, I thought that they would be somehow wary of us, even hostile. However, it turns out that they are a pretty nice bunch.
We shared a quick lunch with them, and Julius even gave us some suggestions and tips about hunting and locations in the fifth floor that have useful resources or rare monsters and materials.
The most important thing is that they informed us of their intended hunting route, in order to avoid interfering with their schedule. After all, two parties hunting in the same room will only hinder each other.
As a parting gift, I shared with them some of our provisions and drinking water. It feels good to be generous once in a while, and, since we over-prepared for this journey since our lack of baggage limitation, sharing a bit of provisions will not hurt us in the slightest.
Parting with Julius’s group, we head in the direction they suggested.
As it turns out, the first room we end up in contains some rare materials. Metal, to be precise. Although it is still a resource harvested from the “beginner floors” it is quite valuable.
I thank Julius in my mind, since his tips were really useful.
The monsters that we find in this new section of the fifth floor also prove to be quite the challenge. Not because of the danger they pose, but for their incredible sturdiness.
With charred black bodies, these kind of monsters resemble huge land turtles with rock-hard shells.
Ash Turtles, that’s how they are called.
Moving slowly around the room, these monsters do not flock together, thus making them easy targets.
The problem is their incredible durability.
Arrows and weapons simply bounce off their shells, and the only way to properly inflict damage is to use magic or attack-type skills.
During the fight against the turtles, I decide to experiment a bit with magic.
Basically, I try again and again to convert my mana into some kind of attack.
Since the trial, I got some skills that helped me control my mana flow and handling but…it’s not enough.
The only thing I can do is making my mana do some kind of small explosions.
Marica asks me with a curious expression on her face.
Since our discussion yesterday, she has not spoken to me, keeping some distance as if being wary of me.
Well, it’s not like I don’t understand her behavior, so I don’t blame her at all.
<<That’s how this is called? I was just trying to experiment a bit with magic, but it seems I am failing a lot>>
<<Hm, is that so? It took me three whole years of training before I could get to that level, you know? It seems being a Demon Lord is really convenient>>
Although she’s joking a bit, I can still feel tension in the way she speaks to me.
I fear that after my “reveal”, things will be a bit awkward with her. More than that, Marica being wary of me might be really bad for our party as a whole.
Until now, we’re still cooperating well during battle and exploration.
But, who knows how things will end from now on? She might even decide to leave the group after all.
Sincerely, I do not want that.
She’s been a valuable addition to our group. Hell, she has even saved my life a couple times already! I have to find some way to reassure her about me, but…right now, I don’t know what to say to her.
Hell, I do not even know how all this trial thing will affect me in the end.
Until now, I had the feeling that stuff just happened randomly to me.
Since I got summoned into this world I immediately ran into danger, then I miraculously escaped and even got some sort of “power up” afterwards.
After that, I met with members of the Aldora kingdom, who are supposed to be my enemies in this world.
Again, the routine of extreme danger and escape due to nothing more than sheer luck.
Even against the Hero, the same pattern. But, after coming here in this Dungeon and facing off that trial, I’m starting to think that all I went through, and all the times I survived it, it was not due to mere and random luck.
So many things happened with the perfect timing, too many times to be simple coincidences.
Like I was supposed to be in that precise time and place, to experience what was happening in that situation. In the fort, when the Laughing Man massacred the soldiers, and were I learned about the slavery perpetuated by Aldora Kingdom.
In Nudria, where I faced off the Hero, and I saw his cruelty as he toyed with the minds of monsters and people alike.
And finally here. I came to Sendria to become stronger, and surprise, inside the Dungeon there are trials that are made to test and empower people like me.
It’s like I’m being led into some unknown path.
First, I encounter the “enemies” and learn how dangerous they are, thus taking the decision to become stronger in order to survive.
Then, as I decide out of free will to increase my level in the Dungeon, I randomly find these “trials”here, of all places?
Hell, I did never believe in destiny or such things, but I am really starting to think that all this, all the choices that led me here have not been entirely my own.
And that simple thought scares me, a lot.
Now that I think about it, of all the places where I could be summoned into I just had to appear here, conveniently near to the “bad guys” of Aldora, and a Dungeon that hosts something that has the sole function of “powering up” those who hold that ridiculous Demon Lord title?
The sole thought of all this is making my blood boil. To think that all my decisions were due to a path that has already been set for me, instead of them just being my own.
The illusion of free will.
And, if this kind of thinking is right, what do I need to do? Do I just follow this path until the end, play out my role in the script?
Or do I rebel against it? In that aspect, doing what Marica suggested would be trying to steer from the path.
Avoiding the second trial altogether, going to the Guild and figuring out with them what to do.
It would be so easy to do so.
The truth however, is that although I realize that I’m basically walking into danger, dragging my friends with me…part of me wants to do so.
It’s something I started to realize, battle after battle.
I enjoy winning, the sensation I get when something succumbs to my power.
It’s difficult to admit so, that I find pleasure in the death of something caused by my hands.
More than that, I enjoy power in itself. For all my previous life I’ve always been a wimp, unable to stand up for myself, unable to properly do something.
However, things are now starting to be different. Battles that no more than three weeks ago would have been life or death situations are now simple tasks.
My power grew, and it awakened something deep inside my mind, something that wants more.
Not for the sake of protection or to save my own life, but for the desire of power itself.
And that simple realization is tearing me apart.
One part of me wants to run away, to avoid the unnecessary danger that this “destined path” of mine would surely bring.
On the other hand, I want to pursue this path, to gain new power.
It would be easy to escape all this, to just run away and stick with being an adventurer, or even drop this dangerous life stile and settle, maybe become a farmer or something else.
Leading a quiet, safe life.
But deep down, I want more. I want power.
Hell, now I am starting to sound like a proper Demon Lord, am I?
The silliness of this thought makes me chuckle a bit.
Still, it’s not the time and place to abandon myself into introspection. It’s best to leave this thoughts for later, and focus on what lies ahead of me.
After we get out of the Dungeon again, I will need to have a serious conversation with my companions.
For now on, let’s focus on continuing the Dungeon exploration.
We’re still in the outer rim of the fifth floor, after all. Still a long way to go before we reach the center, even more to the exit.
And this poses another problem. The “marked by ashes” effect that I got after the trial, which basically says “you’re gonna die in ten days unless you reach the second trial”.
Having already wasted one day after the trial, I only have nine days left to reach the second trial.
And I haven’t the slightest idea about where it is or what the hell will happen.
So, I’m on a time limit here, and I’m even unable to leave the Dungeon unless I complete the second trial.
No other choice than to push onward, it seems.
Still, it’s better for me to think about this when we can get a bit of respite. Right now, we’re still in hostile territory, so it’s best for me to focus on the surrounding.
The only good thing that’s happening right now is the slight progress we’re making in this Dungeon level.
Hunting the Ash Turtles, we finally manage to get good EXP and materials. Well, of course all this will be good only if I manage to get out alive from the Dungeon.
And to do that, I need to find out and pass the next trial.
Seriously, way to push some ridiculous burden onto someone. If I ever get hold of that idiot God again, I swear I will punch him in the face.
<<Hey, are you ok? You’re spacing out a bit too much, Roshal>>
Retel’s voice shakes me from my thoughts. He’s standing near to me, with a concerned look on his face. It seems I’ve been too silent for a while, although I feel like he just wants to talk for a bit.
As we walk together, he starts voicing his opinions on what happened yesterday.
<<Yes, I suppose it is, Retel. Look, even I do not know how this whole thing will affect us. Well, I suppose I owe you some apology for keeping it a secret. I didn’t even consider it to be something “real”, you know? That something would happen to me, to us, putting everybody in danger because of this stupid “Demon Lord” nonsense>>
I take a deep breath, dropping my shoulders.
<<It’s something so complicated, and I am starting to feel like I’m dragging you lot along with me on a path that I myself don’t want to take. But, at the same time, part of me wants to go on. Hell, it’s all so confused in my mind that I really cannot decide what the best course of action would be. Should I go on with this “trial” thing, and basically accept a task that has been suddenly forced onto me? Or should I go along with Marica’s suggestion and report all matters to the Guild? And what if things go badly? I mean, I am not doing this alone, you lot are with me and could end up suffering any bad decision or mistake I make>>
I go on and on, venting my doubts about what happened, what we’re doing here. Retel simply walks by my side, as I voice my fears about leading them all into danger.
Retel shakes his head.
His remark makes me snicker a bit. Really, it should not be something to laugh about, you know?
In the end, he really managed to cheer me up a bit. Step after step, he took the conversation from my nervous overthinking to silly jokes and locker room talk.
It was refreshing, and I really needed a good laugh.
More than that, our little chat made me realize how much Retel cares for the people around him.
He’s always there, acting like a jolly guy who jokes around, but he’s clearly feeling the tension that grew within our group, and he’s trying his best to not make our party drift apart.
Seriously, we need to have a big talk about things.
My reasoning is interrupted by a signal from Navi’s detection.
Monsters are approaching. A small group of five, moving fast in our direction.
I alert the others and prepare for the incoming battle.
I wonder how it is to explore this Dungeon without any detection skill, fearing an ambush every step. It truly must be a dreadful experience.
The monsters are now in our field of vision.
They look like large cats, with black fur and brazen eyes. Their levels ranging from eight to eleven, the monsters move swiftly inside the large hallway.
However, we are not their target.
Moving with feline agility, they surround a lone Ash Turtle, attacking it in turns.
A predatory scene. The cat-like monsters slowly whittle down the resilient turtle, who is too slow to keep up with their attack. In a matter of minutes, the turtle lies dead, and the cats start gorging on the carcass.
It seems nature finds its course even inside a Dungeon.
We try to avoid the monsters, distracted by their meal. However, as we come near them they start attacking, perhaps thinking that we’re aiming to steal their prey.
With their agility and swiftness, the monsters prove a bit difficult to deal with. Relentlessly, they evade our attacks and retaliate quickly.
In the end, we manage to emerge victorious, mostly thanks to Retel’s automatic counter-attack skill.
Still, no one raised their level after the battles we fought. I hope that our growth in that regard does not come to an alt due to the incremental EXP needed to level up.
We leave the room, delving into the intricate succession of winding hallways and identical large chambers.
As we progress towards the fifth floor’s center section, the number of hallways and corridors we encounter slowly decreases.
On the other hand, the chambers and rooms we find seem to increase in number, until the layout becomes a succession of chambers connected by short corridors, branching from a single room and connecting several others together.
Most of the corridors lead to chambers with no exit, some of them hosting monsters or some rare materials.
Inside one of such rooms, we find the remains of a long time deceased adventurer.
As we come near the body, Marica suggests us to collect the bones and equipment.
I nod to her suggestion and start to collect the remains. After that, we explored some more rooms before stopping for a quick lunch.
After eliminating all the monsters in the surroundings, we decided to make camp inside one of the dead-end rooms.
As I prepare lunch, I take this occasion to make things clear with the others. I owe it to them, after all.
First, I explain again all my situation. I thin it’s about the third time I do so, but…this time I do not leave anything out of the story.
Every little detail, from my meeting with the God after my death, to my sudden awakening in this world.
No matter how many times I tell this story, it all seems so crazy and nonsensical.
This time, I use Navi to confirm every step of my story. Apparently, the little thing has some kind of limited memory-sharing option, of all things.
It would have been really helpful if she told me from the start…
Still, for good measure, I include even Heod in this discussion. Overusing Navi’s functions is making my head spin a bit, but I will endure.
After all, I need to be completely honest with my companions this time. Previously, I thought about having this discussion outside of the Dungeon, but I changed my mind.
First, because if someone decides to leave the group, this is the best time. Since we’re still in one of the earliest levels it will be easier for them to reach the surface, if that’s what they want.
But the main reason is…because I want to hear what my companions want to do. Even if Retel reassured me of his and Levia’s intentions, I still want to hear them say it to me.
Probably, Marica will be one leaving us behind. I do not know her motives for being an adventurer, but she’s made it clear what she thinks about all this situation.
As I talk, I often take glances to her. She seems more and more nervous as I speak. Although, I still hope that she sticks with us in the end.
Suddenly, I feel a cold touch to my neck.
A blade is grazing my skin. How…
<<We’ve found them. Report to the Guild>>
A gritting voice from behind my back, belonging to the one holding his blade against my neck.
Out of thin air, a man materialized behind my back. I did not sense him, not in the slightest. What the hell is going on here?
On the other side of the room, three more are coming towards us. All of them are clad in light metal armor. I cannot see their faces, since the helms they’re wearing cover their features.
<<Hey, what is the meaning of this?>>
Retel jumps to his feet, brandishing his spear towards the intruders.
<<Relax, boy. We came here in response to your companion’s distress signal. We’re with the Guild>>
As the man says so, I turn my head to Marica.
She’s looking down, trying to avoid my gaze.
<<I’m…I’m sorry, everyone. I was the one that called them>>
So, that’s why she left this morning, and she was behaving oddly all the time. To think that she went and called the Guild on her own, even when we agreed to wait.
Unbelievable. Her words leave me speechless. Not even anger is crossing my mind, just a cold, crushing sense of disappointment.
To think that she would go on her own and call the Guild on me…
I try to get up, but the man behind me pushes me down.
As Retel and Levia try to grab their weapons, the man’s companions move quickly to disarm them.
Holding my companions down on the ground, the two man tie their hands with some sort of shackles.
This is really bad…
As the man holding me speaks, one of his companions pulls out a small blue orb from a pouch that’s hanging on his waist.
The sphere glows, an intense light that paints the world around us in a light shade of blue. As the light grows more and more intense, the surroundings begin to twist and shake, disappearing into the swirling light.
[Navi: Warning- Unauthorized transfer: Unable to Resist. Leaving Dungeon (5th floor) Entering Sendria Guild Headquarters]
The world turns and twists into swirling blue light, until the shape of a room begins to form into view, first translucent then progressively more solid, more real.
After roughly thirty seconds, we are inside the room, far away from the Dungeon.
[Navi: Warning- Roshal left the Dungeon. Marked by Ashes-Effect activated. Intense pain- If Roshal does not return to the Dungeon in the next hour, the effect -Death Penalty will be applied. Hang on, Master!]
As Navi’s message clears from my mind, an intense, burning pain begins to sear my flesh.
I start screaming my lung off, panting for air and shaken by convulsions.
All around me I can feel voices ring in agitation, but the intense pain closes off my senses. I see Retel try to jump to my said, only to be knocked down by one of our captors.
After that, I lost my consciousness.
I do not know how much time passed after that. The only thing I feel is the pain, slowly fading as I regain consciousness.
As I open my eyes again, it takes a few moments before the world comes into focus again.
I am bound by my wrists, chained to the wall.
What the hell is going on? I seem to recognize the surroundings, but…it’s all so confused, so murky in my field of view.
Metal bars are in front of me, and the surroundings are illuminated by the dancing light of a torch. Is this a cage of some sort?
I can feel someone else ‘s presence on the other side of the cage.
My voice comes out weak, almost like a whisper.
<<Oh, it seems he’s awake. You did quite a number there, boy>>
An old woman, donning a dark, long dress is standing right in front of the cell.
<<We’re in the Dungeon. Well, we were supposed to hold you in the Guild’s detention building, but that was impossible due to your…peculiar condition>>
<<So, is this the guy?>>
A man’s voice resounds in the room. As if forming right out of the shadows, he comes towards us. I did not notice him. It’s the second time that Navi’s detection fails today, now that I think about it.
I try to ask them the reason for this kind of treatment. I remember what happened in the Dungeon, we got transported into the Guild after those guys found us, but after that…
As the an shouts, a jolting current runs through my body.
<<Now, now Elith. There is no need to be this harsh with our guest>>
Following the old woman’s sentence, the man, Elith, releases his spell. I take a big, deep breath as the pain from the shock spell fades.
Still shaking, I try to raise my head and look at them.
The old woman is smiling, gazing at me like a child would do with a caged tiger.
<<I’m sorry for this silly man’s rudeness. But, you must understand our circumstances too, boy>>
I snicker to her remark.
<<It’s fine if you don’t feel like talking, boy. After all, we have other ways to achieve the information we want. For example, we could try and question your friends about it. Perhaps we could start with that cute beast-kin girl, what was her name…Levia, am I right?>>
<<Well, you’ve hurt me>>
This time, the old woman laughs to my remark. She shakes her head, letting the cowl that covers her hair sway a little as she moves.
Other candidates. That’s what she said. My eyes widen in surprise after hearing those words.
The old woman’s smile enlarges as she sees my reaction.
<<Oh, you thought to be the only one? Well, sorry to disappoint you. But enough of this talk, already. I want to know your story, before we continue discussing this matter. Would you be so kindly to entertain this old lady here?>>
I have the feeling that her words are not a request, but an order. Besides her, the man named Elith is standing silently, gazing at me with a cold eyes and a harsh expression. It’s almost like those interrogation scenes in movies, where two cops play the nice and bad cop respectively. Only, this is not a movie.
That’s just great. Of course I could not be tied down with simple iron shackles. It got to be some ridiculous thing.
Oh well, let’s play along with this charade.
Again, for the second time today, I go through my story. Every detail, every single fucking step I took in this world. I am already fed up with all of this.
I stare at them from within the cage. Although I would gladly beat the shit out of them I feel like even the old granny alone could easily overpower me.
<<Yes, Roshal. I would easily beat you, as you are now>>
The old woman laughs. Is she…
<<Reading your mind? Of course I am. And that’s why I know that you tell the truth, and pose no actual threat to our Guild. But, I was still forced to set up this little show for our audience, since they lack a bit of faith in my words>>
She spoke to me, but her lips did not move. Telepathy, that’s what it is. But I do not understand why she didn’t just tell these things herself instead of resorting to this trick.
As I think so, two more figures emerge from the room. What the hell? Wasn’t my detection ability supposed to work even against skills or magic?
Seeing them, I have the feeling I understand why the old woman used her trick. She does not want them to know of her ability. Although, I might be reading too much into this.
<<Well, time for formal introductions I guess. Roshal, these here are Alvares and Radva, two members of the Triumvirate that governs Sendria. Etiquette would require you to bow before them, but let’s forget that right now. And excuse me if I have not yet introduced myself…>>
She gives a small curtsy, pinching her dress with her fingers and slightly lifting it, like a medieval princess of some sort.
Well, I am not so impressed by the sudden revelation. It was pretty clear to me that the old lady was some sort of big shot. Hell, Headmaster or even president…who cares? They’re still keeping me in chains, for crying out loud!
The other two, Alvares and Radva, are looking straight at me with a stern look on their faces. Feeling their piercing gaze on me, I cower a bit. Their presence is enough to make me understand…these two are dangerous.
I’m unable to even imagine what is going on in their thoughts.
They could be capable of releasing me as well as executing me on the spot, for what I know.
<<Well, now that we’ve made proper introductions, it’s our turn to give a bit of explanation>>
Telesia steps away, as Radva comes near the cage.
He’s a tall man, with a well trained physique despite his age.
With balding gray hair, his look is more befitting of a retired warrior than a politician. Although, perhaps he is both.
His deep voice resounds in the small room, carrying the story he unfolds. About the Dungeon and the trials. And about the people that preceded me in these trials.
He told me about the real purpose behind the Guild. Founded after the Dungeon emerged for the first time, it was an association born by the will of the original Demon Lord that freed Sendria from the invasion of Aldora.
With his dying breath, he ordered the inhabitants of Sendria to protect the Dungeon, as it would be the place where a new Demon Lord would arise and claim power over the Dungeon.
Of course, the people that first founded the Guild kept this as a secret…but not too much.
They left hidden information in documents and stories, hinting at a wonderful possibility.
By conquering the Dungeon, an exceptionally gifted individual could gain unimaginable power. The information was not known to the vast public, but it could be known from old documents and records.
It was all in order to lure those smart enough to find it, to convince them to dive into the Dungeon and attempt to claim the power inside it.
<<That’s how your little magician friend found out about the trials. The information was hidden, but not enough to be buried and never to be found. After all, we needed someone to uncover it>>
All in order to raise a new Demon Lord, the sole existence able to repel the overwhelming power of the Heroes.
But, that plan was too shallow to begin with, and it was abandoned almost immediately for its naivety and inefficacy. Still, the Guild left the information available, since hiding it completely would not have brought any benefit to the Guild itself.
As the first plan was abandoned, they devised a new plan in order to nurture the birth of a new Demon Lord.
Instead of waiting to find someone who could piece together small scraps of information, they decided to let masses of people inside the Dungeon.
This way, some of them could eventually find and pass the trials, thus becoming a full fledged Demon Lord.
And, even if no one managed to succeed in the task, the people that entered the Dungeon could simply raise their levels there, becoming a powerful force in order to oppose the Heroes.
Thus, the Guild became the way it is now, an organization that oversees adventurers.
They built an economy centered around the Dungeon, advertising the wonders and treasures contained inside, waiting for the brave souls who would uncover them.
And so, people flocked to Sendria, following the mirage of richness and fame as they threw themselves inside the Dungeon.
Year after year, numbers of adventurers would fight for their life, growing in power as they advanced inside the Dungeon.
But the Guild’s real purpose was to raise warriors capable of standing their ground against the Aldora kingdom, and, eventually, find some exceptional person who would claim the Demon Lord’s heritage hidden inside the Dungeon.
All in order to oppose the eventual invasion from Aldora Kingdom.
As he speaks, Radva’s voice trembles in anger.
He continues, going on and on about what kind of disaster would be if Aldora conquered these lands, and how dire is this time now that the Heroes and the Aldora Army are moving again.
<<So, all of this, the Guild, the adventurers…all in order to raise a new Demon Lord, bound to help Sendria during times of crisis. If what you say is true…why keep me under arrest? Shouldn’t letting me go be more beneficial to your cause?>>
As I tell him so, Radva’s expression becomes suddenly colder.
He takes a small pause, as if pondering his next words.
The Laughing Man. So…that’s what I will become if I fail the trials. A shiver runs into my spine.
Radva steps away from the cage, nodding to his colleague, Alvares.
The man himself steps towards the cage. Short and fat, with a bald head covered by strange tattoos.
<<So, now you know our motives and intentions. What is left, is to hear your pledge of allegiance>>
His high pitched voice is unpleasant to hear, almost like the disgusted expression painted on his face.
I do not like him, not in the slightest. His mere presence gives a discomforting feeling…
He turns his back to the cage in a pompous motion, lifting his arms up to the ceiling. What the hell is he doing?
<<So, let’s begin>>
Abruptly, he turns his face again to me. His lips move as he’s mumbling something. A weak breeze starts to flow in the small room. Is he about to cast something?
The wind grows stronger, as particles of deep purple light begin to gather around Alvares.
He extend his hands, pointing his index towards me. Translucent snakes leave his hand, glowing purple as they slither in the air, making their way towards me.
I try to move away, struggling against the shackles that bind me. Of course, it is a fruitless effort.
The snakes come close, winding around my legs and arms, biting my flesh as they dissolve into thin air.
It’s not something painful, but my mind is assaulted by an extreme unpleasant sensation. Like being struck by a high fever and nausea at the same time. Cold shivers run through my body, as Alvares’s spell comes to completion.
[Navi: Sigillo di Schiavitù- Unable to resist effect. Effect applied- Bound by the Will]
<<Now, this little spell will ensure your loyal cooperation. First, you will be unable to harm me or the ones inside this room. Just as a precaution, although, with your level, I doubt you will be a threat to any of us. Next, with this little spell of mine, we can track your exact position, everywhere and whenever we want. So, you cannot run, or hide from us. This is just in order to keep you under control. Keep in mind that we could have resorted to other, more unpleasant methods>>
<<Oh, how kind of you all. So kind that it makes me want to puke>>
Alvares laughs at my remark. To him, I must just seem like a caged puppy barking to his master.
<<Well, I do not care how you feel. What I care about is that you do what we request of you. No more, no less>>
He sneers at me with his last sentence. Turning his back, he joins Radva again and the two of them begin to leave the room, beckoning, or perhaps ordering, Telesia to follow them outside.
I can faintly hear their voices as they discuss, however I cannot make what they are saying.
Only me and Elith are left in the room, and I can feel that man’s hostile stare on my skin. And all this is thanks to Marica.
You did a pretty number on me, girl. I feared her doing something like this, perhaps when we reached the safepoint inside the Dungeon.
But instead it was so sudden that it took me by surprise. Hell, I almost died back then, when they forced me to go outside the Dungeon. What the heck was she thinking…
Telesia and the two from the Triumvirate enter the room again. The old lady seems somewhat angry, but her expression shifts into an amiable smile as she starts speaking with Elith.
<<Now, dear, could you release our guest?>>
Did I hear correctly? Are they…letting me go?
<<Madame, are you sure?>>
Elith answers in a gritty and surprised tone.
<<Now, do not question orders, my dear.>>
Shaking his head in disappointment, Elith snaps his fingers. Not only the chains, but the cage also disappears into thin air. Without the restraints to lift me, I fall to the ground, hitting my knees on the rocky floor.
The man himself leaves the room, striding away.
<<So, you’re letting me go>>
She nods, smiling.
Telesia invites me to follow her outside the room. According to what she says, we are inside the first floor. After my fit when I was transported outside of the Dungeon, they had to relocate me in order to not let me die. That happened three days ago. Three whole days I spent in that cell, senseless…and that was from being out of the Dungeon for no more than an hour. And that leaves me with six days to start the second trial. During this time, I will need to traverse the Dungeon again and locate the trial. Things are looking very dire for me…
As we walk, she gives me some more information about what happened with the other “candidates”. It seems that out of the seven, only me and the Laughing Man were otherworlders. The others were just adventurers, strong enough to pass the first trial with their own power. But, in the end, their strength was not enough to let them survive or keep their sanity.
Apparently, that Leidus guy is the reason that compelled them to bind me with a spell. They left him unchecked, following Alvares’s suggestion, and the adventurer lost his sanity, proclaiming himself a Demon Lord and hiding inside the Dungeon. There, he formed a small cult and began attacking and killing other adventurers in his delirium of omnipotence.
<<So, you knew what was happening there all along?>>
Telesia does not answer my question.
Of course they knew…and they acted only when everything was made public. Seriously, there is something really wrong with this organization.
Telesia continues her explanation, telling me about how Alvares proposed to dispose of me. I have the slight feeling that she’s telling me to keep wary of him.
Well, she’s only voicing what I already felt when meeting the man himself. And I fear his little spell may be something more sinister than just a localization spell. I will have to find a way to get rid of it.
Led by the old woman, I traverse the small section of the Dungeon until we enter another small room. There, Heod, Retel and Levia are waiting for me.
I smile when I see them, unharmed.
Marica is not there. I expected so, given that all of this situation is due to her actions.
Telesia waits near the door as I reunite with my companions. Levia hugs me, while Retel smiles from a distance. I feel like his smile is a bit forced, perhaps he’s sad about Marica leaving the group?
Old Man Heod is checking me, asking if I feel well, if I ate enough…hell, he even brought food and drinks for me, fearing that the Guild would leave me to starve inside the cell.
Gladly, I accept the food.
As I am munching on the delicious sandwich Heod prepared, I notice…
Besides my companions, another person is in the room. A plain looking boy with short brown hair and a stern facial expression.
He is sitting in a dark corner of the room, staring at us with a bored expression. Donning a dark brown leather armor, he seems a bit older than me.
Telesia clears her throat to claim attention.
She introduces the boy in the room with us. Apparently, the Guild decided to send one of their most promising young adventurers with us, in order to strengthen our group.
They especially chose an adventurer whose level was near ours, but the individual himself possess some incredible abilities, according to Telesia.
During the introduction, our new “companion” just stood silent.
He’s a level eleven adventurer, specialized in melee combat. His name is Dahl.
Saying so, Telesia hands us a small blue orb. According to her, that is a priced item, called Transfer Orb. Using it, we will be able to travel directly to the sixth floor’s entrance, thus saving time in our exploration.
Inside the room, the Guild prepared all of our equipment and some provisions for the expedition. More than that, they left detailed maps and the supposed location of the second trial.
The tenth floor.
After a brief explanation of the items the Guild left us, Telesia bids us farewell and leaves the room
<<Be wary of Alvares, he is plotting something>>
A voice resounds in my head…
Great, that’s exactly what I needed right now, since having basically a death timer on my head was not enough, I will also have to deal with some sort of conspiracy.
We stay a bit more inside the room, as I go through all that has happened to me while I was imprisoned by the Guild.
The situation we’re in is not so different from before, at first glance. I still need to do this damned trial, but now we have less time at our disposal.
Although, it could all have gone much, much worse for us.
Before going again into the Dungeon I try to contact Marica with Navi’s communication system.
It seems she scurried away as soon as she saw me collapse inside the Guild’s headquarters.
Apparently, she has not contacted the group since, and she’s not answering me either.
Perhaps she’s feeling bad for what she did, and she does not want to face us right now.
Like hell I’m letting things go like this. Although our situation right now is like it is due to her meddling, I do not want to leave her behind.
She’s been a valuable companion, and I want to give her a second chance.
Even if she is not answering me, I can still track her position using Navi…
Since she’s outside the Dungeon, I send Retel to bring her here. Even by force, if necessary.
We wait, almost an hour goes by before Retel comes back with her.
She enters the room, staring down as not to meet my eyes.
An awkward silence falls between us, as the girl fidgets, unable to speak her mind.
I decide to make the first move, and go near her. Lifting her chin with my hands, I force her to look me in the eyes.
I say, with a tired smile.
I could be behaving in a different way, letting myself to be angry at her, driving her away from the group. But, that would not benefit any of us.
Right now, I need all the help and support that I can get. Both for surviving, and for my well being as well. Although we’ve had some bickering, I enjoyed having Marica around.
And I owe her, since she saved our lives in the Dungeon when we were being attacked by Leidus’s group.
So, it’s only natural for me to forgive her.
As she hears my words, she start crying, pouting apology after apology with her voice broken. She tells how badly she felt after the Guild basically kidnapped me, that I was right to not want to involve them.
We go on with our little reunion, as we try to convince Marica to travel with us again.
After resisting a bit, spouting some nonsense like she does not deserve to be with us again or something like that, Retel finally manages to persuade and reassure her.
Her presence is important for us as a whole, but the one that looks more satisfied by her presence is Retel himself.
I smile while looking the two of them clumsily chat. It’s an heartwarming scene, and right now I really need a bit of positive things around me.
After all, the world cannot just be darkness and relentless battles.
We take a bit more leisure before preparing ourselves to head into the Dungeon again. Taking the provisions offered by the Guild, and some more that Heod brought with him, we complete our preparations.
But, we cannot just sit idly here for too long. Time is ticking for me, for us, and so we need to once again dive into the Dungeon.
Bidding farewell to the old man, we activate the Transfer orb as soon as he leaves the room.
The sudden sensation of movement is a bit nauseating, and the blue light swirling around does not make things easier.
In front of our eyes, the room fades into blue light, and from it, the familiar environment of the fifth floor appears.
Once again, we resume our march.
The transfer orb transported us inside a large room. In the farthest wall, there is a circular opening in the rock.
That’s where we’re headed, since from there, we can descend into the sixth floor.
Delving inside the aperture in the wall, we walk down the staircase carved in rock. As we descend, the temperature starts increasing, more and more.
The air is becoming difficult to breathe, and I start sweating profusely.
When the staircase ends, we step foot into the sixth floor’s first room.
According to the guild’s maps, the floors below the fifth one have a similar organization. Right after the entrance, a large chamber, devoid of monsters, awaits. It is called an Antechamber, and it’s the first step into the level.
After the Antechamber, what awaits us is the usual mess of winding paths and small chambers interconnected one to another, leading to the central portion of the floor.
Unlike the floors above, from the sixth floor onward every central portion hosts a large room, where a strong monster, called Champion resides.
In special floors, like the tenth, twentieth and so on every ten levels, the Champion is called Guardian, and is exceptionally strong.
And, according to the info relayed by the Guild, what awaits me in the second trial is exactly the Guardian residing in the tenth floor.
This will be a difficult challenge, without any doubt.
But we need to press on.
The Antechamber is huge, and it takes some time before we actually manage to traverse it. The surrounding environment is so different from the fifth floor.
Instead of a barren, charred landscape, here in the sixth floor we are inside a lush, tropical forest, complete with trees and intricate undergrowth.
All around us, the plants and fruits seem to be useful ingredients for alchemy or other kind of preparations.
But, no monsters in sight. At least, not yet.
We cannot spend too much time collecting materials here, so we need to limit our gathering and just move on from the room.
As we exit the Antechamber, what lies in front of our eyes is beyond comprehension. Instead of the usual succession of narrow hallways and rooms, a proper forest is right in front of us.
The rock walls of this level extend for more than a hundred meters in height, reaching so high that the ceiling is barely visible from down under.
The trees themselves act as walls, barring the way as their erratic growth gives birth to proper corridors and rooms.
From all around us, sounds of wildlife perched inside the vegetation resound in the air.
In this kind of environment, who knows how many beasts are lurking beneath the trees, and the terrain itself will prove to be dangerous, since many plants and trees could be poisonous.
<<So, this is the sixth floor. It’s different from what I imagined>>
Retel mutters to himself as he looks around in wonder.
Still, there’s no time to just sit here and look at the pretty forest.
We need to traverse this level, and fast.