Re:Interference Chapter 19- Trial by Fire

The central chamber is right before our eyes, at the end of the dimly lit tunnel that we’re traversing.

Well rested, with our equipment in order, we advance towards the room.

Oddly, Navi’s detection is not showing any signal coming from the room.

Taking a deep breath, I step first into the large central chamber.

<<This is…magnificent>>

For a dangerous place, the Dungeon surely delivers some breathtaking scenery.

The central chamber is shaped like a circle, spanning a diameter of roughly two hundred meters, judging by eye.

The shape of it, and the architecture of the walls, reminds me of the Coliseum from my world.

More than a room, it looks like an ancient stadium, with empty rings of marble rising high until they meet the ceiling.

Some columns, worn by time, can be seen in the central portion of the room, where the floor is made of coarse, light brown sand instead of the usual paved floor that characterize this portion of the tenth floor.

Beside us, and the architectural elements of this place, there is nothing else here.

No Guardian, no other kind of monsters or traps.

Not even the Fire Crystals, so common in the rooms we’ve crossed yet absent in this one.

The silence of this place is astounding, broken only by our voice and the echo of them.

Definitely, this place is different from what I had expected.

Basing my assumptions on the previous floors, I expected that the Guardian would be in the central chamber, like the Champions of previous floors were.

And yet, there is nothing here, besides us.

<<Well, someone could have already killed it>>

Retel voices his remark, looking around while crossing his arms on his chest. He doesn’t seem worried by the sudden absence of monsters here.

Well, I am bothered by it. I rule out that the Guardian has already been defeated here.

There are no traces of battle in this place, and the damage we can see on the surrounding is due to time, not from some fierce battle.

If someone or something really fought here in recent times, there would be signs of the battle all over the place.

And yet, none of those can be seen. No traces on the ground, or spots destroyed by some kind of magical attack.

Even the flow of mana in this place looks exactly the same as the other rooms, without any sings of perturbation.

This is strange, too strange even for a weird place like this Dungeon.

We search around the place, looking for some kind of clue about what the hell is going on here.

From the central chamber, four hallways part, heading out into the four cardinal directions.

One of them is the hallway we came from, the south one.

The other three, all of them head into dead ends, towards three square rooms with nothing inside of them.

After exploring each room, we head back towards the central chamber.

I cannot shake off the sensation that we’re overlooking something here, that something is amiss in this place.

After all, I thought this place to be the site where the second trial would take place, but apparently I have been wrong.

Once again, I use Navi’s detection, probing the room to see if some kind of signal pops up.

Nothing at all, beside the signals coming from my companions.

I sit on the ground, holding my head between my hands as I try to think.

Perhaps, my suppositions about the second trial have been amiss.

It could be that this tenth floor is different from the others, and the Guardian could be hidden in another room, in a place we’ve yet to explore.

Or, the Guardian and the trial could be separate things after all.

Well, sitting on my ass here will not yield me a solution to this problem. I consult with the others, and we decide to head back the way we came.

Perhaps we overlooked something as we crossed the hallway, some kind of hidden switch or who knows what.

Or we’re just in the wrong part of this floor, and this large chamber is nothing but a pretty dead end.

With a sigh, I get up and head towards the south corridor.

We cross it once again. At its end, we will be in a small rectangular room, with three other paths departing from it.

One leads to the portion of the level we’ve already explored, so no point in going back there. The other two go sideways, circling the large central chamber.

One, the left path, leads to a room with a small amount of monsters. Another dead end. The other, the path on the right, leads towards a portion of this level we’ve yet to explore.

We’ll head there.

As we walk down the hallway, I check the place with Navi’s detection.

Thoroughly, every nook and cranny of this place.

The result is the same as the first time we passed by here.

Nothing at all, only bricks and the rock behind them.

Disappointed, and confused by whatever the hell is going on, I step inside the rectangular room, ready to turn right towards the other path.

As I do so, I hit my face to something that should not have been there. I fall back, landing on my ass on soft, sandy ground.

<<What the hell…>>

I get up and look around, my heart beating faster in a mix of fear and surprise. I just hit my head on a marble column.

Because, we’re back in the central chamber.

<<How could this happen?>>

Levia looks around, her words almost a broken whisper. We’re all thinking the same, feeling the same confusion about what just happened here.

We were moving away from this chamber, there’s no way we just turned back on our feet without noticing it.

There must be some kind of nasty trick at work here, and I do not like it.

Again, we try to leave the room. The other three paths are fine, we reach the dead ends at the end of them without any problems. The exit hallway, however, warps us back to the central room again.

Warps us. That’s the only thing I can make out of this.

We’re being somehow teleported back to the central chamber, without any noticeable spell or trap activating.

No perturbation of the mana that floats in the air, no hidden mechanisms clanging and clattering behind the walls.

I try to use Black Fluid, making an offshot and sending it towards the exit of this room.

Using the camera function, I make the offshot traverse the corridor, while seeing the place as if I was the one walking in there.

Much to my surprise, the offshot reaches the other room at the end of the corridor, without being transported back here.

<<Levia, I want to try something>>

I explain to Levia what I want to do, and leave the offshot in the other room, pointing it towards our direction.

Levia notches an arrow, and pulls the bowstring as strong as she can. She releases the shot, and the arrow flies whistling in the air.

It reaches the other room where my offshot is.

From the visual data it recorded, the arrow passed the hallway just fine, without anything strange happening at the end of the corridor.

I ask Marica to do the same with one of her spells. The result does not change, as the fireball flies into the rectangular room.

<<So, it’s only something that activates when living beings cross it, I suppose>>

Dahl shares his thoughts, furrowing as he tries to make sense of whatever is going on here.

<<Yeah, that must be it. I bet whoever or whatever set this thing here, is laughing at us right now>>

Retel kicks the ground in spite, lifting a puff of sand as he does so.

<<Well, what do we do now? We’re trapped in here, and I cannot see any way of resolving this>>

I look at each of my companions, one after the other.

Perhaps I hoped that, like it happens in movies, someone among them would mutter an absurd idea, a plan to lead us out of this situation.

It did not happen, and all of them are as confused as I am by whatever the hell is going on here.

<<Maybe we could look around once more, see if we manage to find some clue about what is happening. We’ve only looked on ground level, but we could head there>>

Levia is pointing her fingers towards the marble rings that circle the chamber.

Much like a stadium’s rings, there are several levels of them encircling the chamber, almost reaching the ceiling.

<<Yeah, we could do that. Only, let’s stick together please. No splitting up, I do not want this to end like some horror movie>>

As I say that line, my friends look at me with perplexed stares. I wave my hands, shrugging my shoulder in a gesture that says “just let this go”.

But I am serious about the splitting up part. This trick here, is clearly designed for two things.

First, to trap us inside this place. Second, and scarier, is to confuse us.

Whoever, or whatever is responsible for what is happening, wants us to panic about this situation, and perhaps split up in the attempt to cover more ground while looking for some clues.

And then, it would pick us one by one.

No, we definitely need to stick together here.

Heading towards the wall that circles this central chamber, we pass by the columns that stand in the center of this place.

Every time we tried to leave, we have been warped back into the chamber, standing still inside the column formation.

Perhaps, that place has something to do with all of this. But, I did not notice anything there out of the ordinary.

Still, it’s better to check the places we’ve not yet investigated, before we return our attention to the ground level.

As we reach the wall, I use Black Fluid to make a ladder, using it to cross the four meter tall wall.

On top of it, the first ring of marble seating.

Seeing it from a distance did not really convey how elaborate the structure is.

What seemed like plain marble is instead finely carved with figures and scenes of battle, ruined by time in a merciless way.

Some of the figures are so worn out that I can barely see their outline, while others resisted the course of time, still showing their splendor.

In all of them, human figures are entwined in battle against monsters.

No matter how pretty these carvings are, they will be of no help to us right now.

We proceed along the first ring of the arena-like structure, looking for anything that can give us even the smallest clue about what is going on in this place.

To no avail.

Even here, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, for how ordinary things could be inside some kind of ruins in a Dungeon floor.

Still, no sign of any kind of mana perturbation, or other things for that matter.

We ascend to the second ring, and the third one after that.

Until we reach the highest ring. Again, nothing of interest there, besides a pretty view of the arena below us.

I sit on the marble, looking down towards the arena. From this height, the column formation that stands in the center looks like a circle.

I did not notice that when we were at ground level, since some of the columns were collapsed, no more than scattered rubble on the floor.

But seeing them from this height, it is possible to see how they are placed, forming some kind of circle in the exact center of the arena.

Besides the way the column are arranged, I cannot see anything strange, or out of place, while looking down.

Perhaps, this is some kind of puzzle?

After staying in the upper ring for about one hour, staring down and trying to figure out whatever thing we’ve been overlooking, making hypothesis after hypothesis about how to deal with this situation, we head back down to ground level.

One promising point to investigate would be the column formation, but we already scouted that place, to no avail.

I cannot shake the feeling that something is amiss here, a bad sensation that’s making my skin tingle.

The worst part is that nothing changed, and we’ve been trapped here for hours now.

I expected some kind of ambush or attack, but instead nothing happened during all the time we spent here, just walking around and searching for something that isn’t here.

Having reached ground level again, we head out towards the column formations.

Seen from here, it really does seem that they are arranged in a random way, rather than in an ordinate shape.

As we get close to them, I absentmindedly stare at the marble columns.

From above, the formation counted twelve columns in total.

Seven of them destroyed, their pieces scattered around in the sand, so much that it made the circular formation unrecognizable from ground level, making it look like a bunch of randomly placed columns instead of them being arranged in a precise disposition.

The remaining five intact columns show different degrees of damage, with two of them being in pristine condition, one intact but blackened by dirt, and two cracked, a little leaning on their side.

Five columns, and there’s five of us here. I shake my head, sighing at this unreliable connection my mind just made.

This must be a coincidence after all, there’s no way in hell that our numbers and the columns are somehow related.

Still, when I first set foot inside this room I expected a completely different outcome. I was ready, prepared for battle both physically and mentally. Eager even, to challenge whatever this new trial was about to throw at me.

I was already wondering how would it go, if something would restrict my skills and stats like in the first trial, and how to take counter measures if it really went like that.

Instead, what I am facing here is a huge headache, and a situation that is more annoying than dangerous. Well, at least for now.

What if, instead of fighting us head on, whatever did this trick is just taking its time to starve us? That is also a possibility here, after all.

There’s no way that all the monsters inside this Dungeon are just plain dumb, resorting only to physical violence.

We could have stumbled on something with large power to pull this off, and with enough intelligence, or craft, to not directly attack us and instead trap us here, biding its time until we die out of starvation, or boredom.

Mine are only speculations that do not lead to anything.

The truth here is that I do not have the slightest idea about what is going on at the moment, and this scares me even more than any monster we’ve faced thus far.

Because, no matter how powerful the enemy was, it was there, in front of us. But right now, whatever is doing this is hiding, unseen, unknown.

Perhaps waiting for us to make a mistake, biding time for the perfect occasion to strike.

All of us are feeling this tension, that something bad could happen at any time, and we’ve not the slightest idea of what or when something would happen.

And this situation is enervating me, wearing down my nerves as time passes by in this fake tranquility, this artificial calm and stillness.

<<Perhaps we could try and split out. Maybe if we do that, it will lure out whatever is playing its trick on us>>

Retel’s suggestion makes some sense, although what he proposes is dangerous.

Surely, if we divide our group we could lure out the responsible of this strange situation.

But, if that really happens, how would we fare? If something like the Guardian appears, I really doubt that any of us could stand a chance against it, alone.

As I am about to respond to him, I notice a flutter in the mana flow around me.

I’ve been careful until now to not get any of us separated from the group, sticking together in all situations up until now.

But, as we walked inside the column formation, I must have lagged down a bit, behind the group.

They’re no more than ten meters apart from me, but all of my companions are now outside of the column formation, while I am still inside of it.

And now, right between two of the still intact columns, I see the mana fluttering again.

Suddenly, the air around me flashes red, in a fiery blaze that envelops the space inside the column formation.

I try to shield myself with Black Fluid, but the sudden burst has taken me by surprise, and I see myself enveloped in the raging flames.

Much to my surprise, I cannot feel any pain from it, nor the heat of flame on my skin.

The flames surround me, and I cannot see the others outside of the circle formation.

I fell right into a trap, it seems. As I try to contact my friends with Navi, I receive only static in response.

Then, the usual voice of my Navigator pops in my mind, and announces something that makes my skin shiver.

[Navi: Routine Started- Trial of Flames (second trial)]

As Navi’s voice strops, multiple enemy signals begin to appear inside the room. More than twenty monsters are now visible in the map, and their number keeps increasing.

<<Oh brave soul that walks the path of Daemons, I welcome you to my fiery test>>

With a bone chilling voice, something spoke behind me. I turn my head around, and I notice the owner of that voice.

Its form is the same that I fought during the first trial, but the level of the monster is way higher than the first time.

Before my eyes, the monster named Thal makes his appearance. This time, its level is twenty, and his appearance is slightly different from what I remember.

His humanoid shape is now charred black, more skeletal and with some strange patterns of a fiery red color on his naked torso.

Instead of a staff, he’s holding a rusted broadsword.

Burning red eyes gleam in his face, and his head is crowned by hair and beard that look like they’re made of fire itself.

I immediately jump back, assuming a defensive position.

The first time I fought this monster, I was about to lose my life, overwhelmed by its power while the thing wailed on me, having sealed my skills and stats.

However, the monster does not react. He’s only looking at me, without moving from his spot.

He taps his sword on the sand, and, crossing his leg, the Guardian sits down on the spot.

Baffled, I look towards the monster, unable to wrap my head about what is going on.

Checking with Navi, I know that the monsters outside have not yet attacked my comrades.

They’re surrounded, but they’re still fine.

<<Please, child of man. Have a seat, for this trial is not a matter of combat. At least, not for you>>

Thal invites me to sit in front of him. I could try to attack him right now, but…

[Navi: Trial of Flames- During this trial, the Candidate is tested for his leadership and tactics. If the Candidate himself attacks or takes any offensive actions towards the monster(s) during the trial, it will result in failure, and the Candidate will forfeit his life along with his companions. If the Candidate refuses to comply to the trial’s demand, it will result in failure, and the Candidate, along with his companions, will lose their life. To complete the trial, limited communication with the Candidate’s Minions will be allowed. The Candidate will have to order his minions in battle, asserting the situation and guiding his subordinates to victory. No other actions other than orders will be allowed. Death of any of the Candidate’s minions will result in failure, and the Candidate, along with his remaining subordinates, will forfeit his life. Conditions to Clear the trial: all monsters must be taken down within the time limit of -two hours- to gain the right to challenge the Guardian. The Guardian must be defeated within – one hour- to successfully clear the trial. Inability to clear the trial in the given time limit will result in failure, and the Candidate will forfeit its life, along with his minions. Good luck, Master!]

After the long explanation, Navi goes silent, and my companions’ voices can be heard again. They’re panicking, as much as I am now. Surrounded by monsters, they have not taken any offensive action yet.

<<Roshal! Hey! We’re blocked here!>>

I hear Retel shouting in my head, the others too are mixing their voices to his, giving rise to a cacophony in my head.

I try to explain them what is going on, to calm them down a bit, and perhaps, to calm myself.

<<And please, try to speak one at the time. You’re making my head split open from your shouts!>>

<<Roshal? Are you ok?>>

Levia replies to my comment. This time, she’s the only one speaking.

<<Yes, more or less. What about your situation over there?>>

<<We are blocked. Some kind of spell, or skill, I do not know. But we cannot move a muscle here,and these monsters…God, there are at least thirty of them, and they’re just staring at us. Roshal, what is going on?>>

Dahl’s voice comes across. He sounds agitated, panicking.

I never heard him so, as he usually is the most calm and collected of us.

<<It’s some part of this trial bullshit. Hang on, I will try to fix things>>

As I say so, Thal’s voice resounds in the air.

<<Now, I do believe you’ve received an explanation about what is going to happen here. You cannot take any action, besides directing your minions, or “comrades” as you humans like to refer to the lesser beings that accompany you. Care to take a seat, so that we can start this?>>

A bit reluctant, I sit in front of the monster.

Thal flicks his fingers, and something materializes in front of us.

Some kind of board, on which I recognize a model of the room we’re in. The elliptical space, representing the room, is divided in a series of squares, and in some of the squares, there is a miniature of a monster.

The miniatures and their positions reflect the positions and types of the monsters inside the chamber.

Like in a tactical RPG, what I have in front of me is a representation of the map and enemy units.

At the center of the map, near a circular sign that represents the circle of columns where I am currently trapped, I can see some of the squares shine in a blue color.

Over them, miniatures representing four humans are flickering.

One looks like a mage, one holds a spear and shield. The third one holds two daggers, and the last one is an archer.

Of course, each miniature represents my companions.

<<The rules here are simple. You have your minions at your disposal, and you can arrange them in the battlefield. I will do the same with my own, of course. By giving them direct orders, you can have them move accordingly. Or, you can move their pieces on the board, and the trial’s spell will compel them to move and abide to your will. You choose whatever suits you better. First, you will need to ask their consent, if they want to take part in this trial as your “pieces”, or not>>

I look at the wry smile on Thal’s face. All of this, he looks like he’s enjoying it.

<<And what happens if they refuse?>>

The Guardian chuckles, but his unblinking eyes carve their burning gaze on me.

<<You will lose the piece, and your comrade. And, you cannot tell them about the condition if they refuse your plea. Now, child of men, let’s see how good your words are, if they sway hearts, or seal your defeat>>

Their life is basically in my hands right now. I use Navi to communicate with the others, explaining them the situation as best as I can.

I am trying to keep my voice from breaking, but I am failing, miserably so. A mix of emotions is swaying my head, anger, concern, contempt for the sadistic mind that birthed this monstrous mockery of a game.

<<I am sorry, for all of this. But, I cannot do otherwise, or we will die. All of us. Please, forgive me for having dragged you in this nonsense>>

I make a slight pause, catching my breath. What am I doing here, letting myself be swayed like this?

What is this weak plea, only apologies, when I should be the one reassuring them, guiding them in this situation? They’re here, in this mess, because of me. So, I need to steel my heart, and show some balls here.

<<Now, I owed you this apology. But let me get things straight. I trust you all, and I know that, even if the situation looks dire, you will win. What I want to say is, I count on you. I always did, since the first time I met you all. I put my trust in you, and you all always delivered, exceeding my expectations. And now, I need you lot to do the same with me. Trust me, fight with me>>

One after the other, my companions give their consent for this battle.

<<So be it. Let this battle start>>

As the Guardian’s voice bellows, the arena’s terrain shifts. From under the sand, pillars and walls emerge, changing the shape of the battlefield.

From the board, a small screen materializes in front of me, floating while relaying images from the battlefield.

I can cycle the view that the screen displays, from an aerial view of the entire battlefield, to close up shots of my companions.

The image can freely rotate around each of my comrades, as if a camera is flying around them, filming whatever happens to them.

The Guardian takes the first move, advancing his line of monsters towards my companions.

By the representation of the battle I have in front of me, the biggest danger to my companions is the high number of enemies they’re pitted against.

Thirty monsters in total, their level being between fifteen and eighteen.

Ten of them are the same kind of fire lizards we’ve already fought. Another ten are similar to the Ash Servants of the fifth floor, only these ones are carrying ranged weapons, with three of them equipped with shield and axes.

The other seven are carrying longbows.

The remaining ten monsters are Fire Spirits, probably some kind of spell-casters or monsters with long range fire attacks.

We’ve already fought each type of monster, but all of them being in the same place will be a problem.

Attacking them head on will only be suicide, so I need to direct my companions in a different way.

As the terrain has been changed, there are now walls that could be used for cover, as well as elevated places from where we could get the high ground.

However, the presence of monsters with high mobility like the lizards will basically nullify the advance of a high ground, if they manage to reach it.

The best thing to do here would be to find some kind of choke point, and lure the monsters there, forcing them to battle one on one instead of ganging up on my friends.

There is a point in the map that has those characteristics, but it’s a bit far from my friend’s position.

Reaching it will be an hazard, but to me it seem like the best option right now.

Now, the trial offered me two possibilities to face this battle. The first one, and the simplest, would be to take total control of the place, just by moving the miniatures that represent each of my comrades on the map. In short, if I do that, I will be using them like pawns.

I would be the one having total control of the battle, however I do not like this at all. The other choice is to relay my orders using Navi, and that leaves some degree of freedom to my companions’

actions.

Of course, I choose the second method.

I use Navi to communicate them my plan. First, Marica will use a spell to lock the closest enemies in ice.

Using that opportunity, the group will move towards the northwest portion of the map, where the new walls have formed some kind of closed room, with a single entrance.

From there, Retel will hold the choke-point, while Marica and Levia will attack the other monsters from a higher position.

Dahl will have another role in the upcoming battle, and he will need to wait and charge his skill.

<<Ok, let’s do this!>>

As I relay my plan, the others begin to move.

Marica’s spell catches a good number of enemies, freezing them enough to pin them in place.

While moving towards the designated spot, Retel is keeping rearguard, using his shield skill to block the incoming arrows and fire spells from the monster group.

Levia is using her arrows to snipe the monsters that come too close to the party.

As they advance, I alert the group about incoming monsters or dead ends on their way.

Avoiding getting caught into the large number of creatures creeping up on them, my companions are steadily advancing towards the place I am guiding them to.

Up until now, neither my group nor the monsters have suffered fatal damage.

As my companions reach the place, I hear their surprise and complaining.

Since they do not have a clear grasp of the map’s layout, they did not know that the place I told them to reach was a dead end.

I try to calm them down, telling them my strategy about that place.

<<Yeah, good thinking, trapping us here. What is wrong with you,man?>>

Retel protests, shouting at me. But he regains his composure, and heads toward the choke-point.

<<Whatever. I am trusting you on this, Roshal. This thing might better work…>>

I draw a big breath, before relaying the next step of my plan.

<<Levia, Marica, get to high ground and begin to attack the monsters. Marica, you still have the crossbow and some of those freezing darts we obtained from the ninth floor right? Use them, and when you run out, use your spells>>

The two of them get into position. Levia is now standing on the three meters high wall, which she climbed with Retel’s help.

Marica has done the same, and she’s standing on the opposite wall. The two of them are on the sides of the u-shaped room, while the monsters are beginning to reach the area in front of the room.

<<Now, I chose this place for a reason. You see all the walls in front of you? If we use Marica’s spells, we can make ice barricades to lock some passages, and force the monsters to go the way we want them to go. In short, instead of facing them all head on, we will force them to advance one at the time. Retel, you will be the main part of this plan. Since’ you’re the one with the highest defense among us, you will be the one to take on the assault, using your shield to keep the monsters at bay while Levia and Marica attack them from high ground. And Dahl, listen closely…>>

Levia starts her suppressing fire as Marica is busy using her spells to make the ice barriers, obstructing some passages between walls while restricting the size of others.

In a short enough time, she manages to make a maze out of the small area around the place.

Unable to swarm up on my friends, the monsters are forced to separate their group in order to advance towards my companions.

The Fire Lizards are easily climbing the walls, and with their speed they will be the first ones to reach Retel’s position.

The Ash Servants, limited in their mobility, are forced to advance into the improvised maze built by Marica’s spells.

More than that, they do not have a clean line of sight for their arrows, and are left with two options. Retreat and look for a better position to snipe my companions, or advance and try to force their way through Retel.

Much to my surprise, they chose the latter option. Well, they did not choose it themselves.

Rather, Thal is controlling them like pawns, moving the pieces on the board. He does so with a blank, unreadable expression.

I try to ask him some questions, about all this trial bullshit that’s going on. But the monster simply gives me a wry smile, and returns his attention to the board.

Frustrated, I do the same.

The first casualties among the monster group are beginning to appear.

Two of them, caught by Levia’s precise arrows.

The large lizards have had their eyes pierced by Levia’s arrows. The mana charged shots dug into their skulls, exploding afterwards in a grizzly scene.

She’s prioritizing the enemies with high mobility, in order to quell their numbers before they manage to reach Retel.

As the Ash Servants advance inside the maze, I notice that some of them are being injured. That only means, Dahl has been successful in his role.

I had him sneak around, cloaked by Marica’s spell, moving into the maze-like structure to place some of the traps I had prepared beforehand.

When we were preparing for the fight against the Guardian, before all this happened, I had the spare time to craft some crude traps. Nothing more than tripwires, some linked to vials of poison, others to an explosive mixture of chemicals.

Of course, among the poisons I used there is the confusing toxin of the Whitestar flowers, although it looks like that one is not having an effect on the monsters.

Perhaps, that is happening because the monsters are not acting by their individual wills, but are following Thal’s command, bound by the strange spell of this trial.

Still, the other traps are showing their effectiveness, taking out some of the Ash Servants and severely weakening the others.

Now, the battlefield is under our control. The Ash Servants cannot utilize their weapons, since the maze blocks them from having a clear shot and the winding paths filled with traps are working to our favor.

Of all the ten Ash Servants that were initially attacking my group, only six remain.

An explosion rings in the distance.

Thal smiles, staring at me with his burning gaze.

The fire spirits have begun their assault, raining fireballs towards my group. Retel’s shield is doing a good work in deflecting the incoming spells, but even his skill has its limits.

<<Take this! Spike Counter!>>

Retel shouts as he activates his counter skill. But the Fire Spirits take little damage from it.

Still,Retel’s attack managed to make them flinch, stopping the next volley of fireballs from raining on the others.

Other monsters are jumping on Retel. Using the fireballs as distraction,t he Fire Lizards have reached his position, and are now jumping on Retel.

They have been wounded by Levia’s arrows, however they still pose a threat to my companion.

The bombardment starts again, and the remaining Ash Servants are now about to reach Retel’s position.

If they join with the lizards, it will be our loss here.

Initially, I would have tasked Dahl to eliminate the remaining servants from the rear, slowly working his way to Retel’s position in order to take the lizards in a pincer attack, while Levia and Marica would concentrate their attacks on the Fire Spirits in the back lines.

But, as things are right now, that strategy is not possible. The long range attacks form the Fire Spirits are forcing Retel to constantly deploy his shield, and he’s splitting his attention on both the fire spells and the lizard that are now attacking him, without being able to focus on either of them.

I am facing a crucial decision here…

I could send Dahl to help Retel, having the two of them deal with the lizards, while Levia and Marica support them from behind the lines.

But that would leave the Fire Spirits free to rain their spells on them, leading to a bad situation. Or, I could send Dahl to the Fire Spirits, having him fight them.

Indecisiveness in this situation will only damage us, so I need to take a swift decision.

As I ponder about what to do, the attack from the Fire Spirits changes. Now, they switched from their fireball spells to something different.

Instead of multiple spells with low power, they’re focusing their mana into a singe, large fireball.

They release the spell, shattering Retel’s shield in a single blow. The impact is enough to deal damage to him, hitting Levia and Marica at the same time.

Luckily, they did not suffer fatal damage, only minor burns, as the brunt force of the spell was stopped by Retel’s skill.

Still, they’re already charging another shot, and the lizards are closing in on my friends.

It’s frustrating to see them struggle like this, unable to leave my place, locked in this fucking game.

My blood is boiling, and I am digging my own nail into my flesh for how strongly I am clenching my fists.

Now, the narrow space is proving to be an handicap to us, rather than an advantage. The Ash Servants have managed to surround the place, since the fire barrage from the spirits melted the ice barriers that Marica made.

From the sides, their arrows are starting to fly towards Retel and the others.

Dahl is shouting at me, flustered, angered. By this trial’s spell, he cannot take any action unless I order it, or I move the piece that represents him on the board.

I smash my hand into the soft sand, biting my lips as I see the monsters slowly overwhelming my friends.

This strategy, this formation, will not work right now. I need to think about something else.

First, I send Dahl towards the Fire Spirits. If he uses his skill, he could manage to take out a few of them, lessening the impact of their assault.

To support him, I tell Marica to start firing the ice darts, together with her spells.

At the same time, I tell Levia to jump on ground level, behind Retel. I make her deploy her healing field skill, in order to provide Retel with some means of recovery.

But, by doing this, Levia cannot provide support fire.

Dahl is steadily advancing towards the Fire Spirits. His battle will be difficult, since they outnumber him ten on one. And, until he gets into melee range, the enemies have an advantage over him.

Seeing how one of my companions is advancing towards them, some of the Fire Spirits focus on him, attacking Dahl with their fireballs.

With some of the Fire Spirits distracted by Dahl, the others cannot unleash the same level of destructive power as before.

Meanwhile, Marica is starting to attack the monsters with both her crossbow and spells.

The Fire Spirits move backwards, out of the crossbow’s range. She did not even manage to hit a single one of them.

And the arrows coming from the Ash Servants are preventing Marica to properly concentrate on her spells, as she’s focusing on evading them, since Retel is focusing his shield skill on himself in order to block the lizards from advancing.

He alone has managed to take out three of them, but the others are pressing on him, and his wounds from before have yet to heal.

<<Roshal…this will not work. I cannot stay here and just heal Retel. If we want to win, I need to get out there and assist the others with my arrows. Please, listen to me>>

Levia’s voice reaches me. I feel her frustration, her concern for the hard battle they’re all facing. What she proposes, it’s so dangerous that I would not want to consider it as an option.

But, I need to trust her judgment here.

She, all of them, are trusting mine, and my strategy already proved lacking.

<<Yes, do it. I believe in you, Levia>>

Without replying, she jumps over Retel’s shoulder, heading towards the group of monsters on the side.

She’s keeping her healing field active, and she’s charging at the enemies at the same time.

Levia is equipped with a composite short-bow, which allows for better maneuverability and overall agility in the battlefield than the longbows used by the Ash Servants.

What follows goes beyond my expectations.

Alone, Levia heads towards the group of Ash Servants.

She’s quick, much quicker than I ever thought.

During the battles we’ve fought together, she’s been a reliable member of our party, but she limited herself to the rear part of our formation, using her arrows to support the advanced attackers like Retel or Dahl.

But, as I see her fight right now, I think that her choice has stopped her from showing the true potential she possess.

Levia is darting through the place, jumping from cover to cover with incredible speed and agility. Her movements are taking the monsters by surprise, as they are unable to properly aim at her.

One by one, she kills the Ash Servants, planting her arrows in their bodies from almost melee range.

It’s like seeing another person fight, instead of the usual Levia.

She’s keeping her healing skill active, while dashing, jumping around and using her other skill to power her arrows.

Every time, I fear she might run out of stamina, but she’s relentlessly going on.

In a few minutes, she made short work of the Ash Servants, and she’s now heading to Retel’s side, in order to help her brother in dealing with the lizards.

Meanwhile, since the Ash Servants are no longer shooting their arrows at Marica, she’s now able to use her spells on the Fire Spirits.

She starts her chant, taking away the heat from the Flame Spirits, weakening them.

Usually, she would use the absorbed heat to cast a fire spell, but, since the monsters here have high resistance to fire, she is instead using another incantation.

Using the heat she absorbed, she’s creating an air current around the position where she, Retel and Levia are fighting.

<<Barriera d’Aria>>

She mutters the final part of her incantation, which reveals a swirling barrier of wind around their position.

I was surprised when she told me about this new spell she wanted to try, and she could not use it directly without my instruction, given the circumstance of this trial.

I wish she would have told me sooner about it, it could have been useful during the fight before. Still,I am pleased by the result showed by her new spell.

The air barrier is proving enough to deviate the spells that the Fire Spirits are still launching on the group.

They stop, however, when Dahl finally manages to reach them. He unleashes his skill, taking the spirits down one after the other.

At the same time, Retel and Levia kill the last of the lizards.

This battle has been our victory.

Marica drops to her knees, exhausted as her mana was completely drained by the last spell. Retel is injured, but Levia is already at work on him with her healing skill.

I look towards Thal, to see how he reacts to his defeat. The monster just smiles, and with a gesture of his hand…

Dahl shouts in the distance.

He’s lying on the floor, his left leg enveloped in flames. Rolling on the sand floor, he manages to put out the fire, but his leg is injured, badly.

Something is emerging from the place where the Fire Spirits have been slain.

The board in front of me flickers, as the miniatures of Thal’s monsters glow and disappear into ashes.

In their place, five red spheres have appeared on the board. Two near Dahl, three are converging on the others.

Flame Slimes, each level twenty.

<<The battle has only begun, oh child of men>>

Shit. To think that other monsters would immediately appear…

Moreover, Dahl has been caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the Slimes.

The distance between him and the group is too much for his injured leg, and the others are also in bad shape.

They will not reach him in time, nor can he flee or fight with his leg in that condition.

<<Damn it. There is no other choice then…Roshal, listen carefully. Here’s what you need to order me…>>

I cannot believe his words. Up until now, he always kept his skills a secret, and now I know the reason behind his reasoning.

But, if we want to survive this, I need to make him use it.

<<Levia, be ready with some potions and your healing skill. Marica, we will need your spells soon. Ignore the monsters, and be ready>>

I feel still a bit reluctant to do so, but we’re left with no other choice. The Slimes are already looming on Dahl, there’s no other way to save him.

<<Now! Dahl, use it>>

It happens in a flash. A slight tremor shakes the place, as Dahl unleashes his skill.

According to what he said, Dahl’s new skill is a blue ranked one. The highest grade, something akin to a legendary power.

But, for the one who holds it, it is a double edged sword. Since his level is still too low, he cannot control the sudden power that the skill grants, and his body suffers severe damage after he uses the skill.

Even if he uses it for some seconds.

And if he uses it, few seconds is all that he needs.

Basically, his skill is a stat multiplier. Strength, speed, attack power, all depend on stats in this world. So, if Dahl’s stats, which are already considerable in his normal state, get raised…

His skill, Full Drive, applies a five time multiplier. That means, his stats when he uses the skill are on par with level one hundred.

Incredible power, with a terrible after effect. Something to use only during desperate situations

Five seconds. That’s all it takes to him to take out the slimes and head towards the others.

As he arrives there, I order him to stop his skill.

He’s screaming, thrashing around as the after effects of his skill begin to take hold.

<<Now! Marica, use your spell to disperse the heat from Dahl’s body! Levia, make him drink the potions and use your healing skill. Retel…try to keep him still while the girls treat him>>

The close up of Dahl that is being shown on the small screen is something painful to look at.

His skin is bursting open, like if some kind of acid has been poured all over him.

Smoke, or steam, is raising from his body, and his screams have now become a low wailing, as his voice is broken from pain.

Levia forces him to drink the restorative potions, while using her healing skill to counter-balance the damage.

Marica is working to lower Dahl’s temperature, taking care to use her spell with the right balance, in order to not damage further Dahl’s body.

The whole process lasts only four minutes, but it feels like an eternity.

To save him, we’ve basically burned through all of our healing potions, and Levia overexerted herself using her healing skills, activating all of her skills at the same time.

But, thanks to her effort, Dahl’s condition has improved considerably. The damage he sustained is still extensive, however he will not lose his life now.

<<Good work, oh child of men. Your pawns proved to be strong enough to be of some use to a Demon Lord. Now, let us set apart this childish play. Your pawns have been tested, now it is your turn>>

As Thal says so, the fire circle that is around us expands from the column formation, tripling its size

<<Come, and show me your worth>>

Navi’s communication has been cut, and the Guardian begins to charge at me. I avoid the blow, and retaliate using Black Fluid.

This time, my powers have not been sealed, and I can use my skills and stats during the fight.

However, the monster before me is not the same one that I fought on the fifth floor. Perhaps, the Guardian’s powers were also sealed, or it has received a power-up in this fight.

Still, it does not matter right now. The only important thing is that I am going to kill this thing here and now.

Unlike what happened during the first trial, this time I am the one pushing Thal back.

Not that the Guardian is putting up a good fight, hell, his attacks and magic are really nothing to joke about.

It’s just that Black Fluid has become something ridiculously powerful. The Guardian’s fire attacks are being nullified by my skill’s cold, and my attacks are piercing through the monster’s defense.

Wounded, Thal jumps backwards. He clasps his broadsword, lifting it high above his head while charging magical power in the blade.

<<As if I’ll let you do it>>

I shout so, concentrating all my power into the next attack.

Taken by the flow, I cannot stop myself from shouting the attack’s name. Well, I’ll have enough time to feel dumb for it when I finish this battle. For now, all I need to do is win.

<<Vorpal Edge!>>

I shout, letting out my strongest move with Black Fluid. All the mass I can produce from my skill is being converted into a flexible tentacle.

I use some of the skill to mimic strong muscles, using their contraction to make the tentacle swipe with the maximum amount of strength I can exert from it.

While in motion, I change the shape of the skill, turning the end portion into a blade. I exert myself to make the edge as sharp as I can, and then I activate the Vorpal Slash.

Every molecule of my skill resonates, vibrating at incredible frequency. The sound it makes is deafening, and it makes me feel a bit dizzy, nauseated as the high frequency vibrations reach my eardrums.

Nonetheless, I endure it. The attack connects, right before the Guardian manages to unleash his own move.

If this was a movie, the scene would have been one of those where time slows, and the hero sees the bad guy reaching for his gun.

He would react in surprise, reaching for his own weapon and shooting faster than the bad guy.

But, this is not a movie. All of it happened in a fraction of seconds. I unleashed my skill, and if I had been only a split second later, it would have been Thal’s victory.

Instead, my attack was faster, and that’s all that matters.

My Black Fluid blade slashed through the Guardian’s body in a rising slash, hitting his right flank and rising up to his left shoulder.

The top portion of the Guardian’s body falls over, while his torso and legs stand still in their position for a moment, before falling down.

It’s my victory.

Using Black Fluid again, I absorb the Guardian’s lifeless body.

[Navi: Communication routine restored- Success! Trial by Fire complete (Second Trial)! Obtained Blessing of Flames: +6 stat bonus awarded to all stats (permanent, 30 points total); +5 stat bonus to all registered party members awarded (permanent, 20 points total); Effect of status: Marked by Ashes- Removed. No new status acquired, restrictions lifted. Acquired: Crown Fragment (Sendria) 9/100 (10/100 total fragments possessed).

Awarded “Titles” to each registered party members: Retel- Rook; Marica- Bishop; Dahl- Knight; Levia- Queen

New skills awarded to each registered party member according to their acquired title

New skill awarded- Lord’s Aura: Raises attack, defense, mana and health regeneration rates for registered party members (passive)

New Navigator Functions Revealed- EXP Harmonizer: Controls and applies adjustments to acquired EXP, in order to keep the party’s growth balanced; Map Scan: Uses a mana pulse to analyze the map, reproduces a 2-D image of the analyzed terrain, highlighting in real-time enemy and ally position, stats and level

Advanced Thought Processing: Using the Navigator’s functions, it is possible to enhance normal thoughts speed and memory abilities beyond human limits.

Congratulations for this great success, Master!]

Following the huge status message from Navi, the notification of level up and skill level up pop up in my mind.

As the aftermath of the battle, all of us had our levels raised to level twenty two.

Apparently, it was one of Navi’s functions that was interfering with our group’s level up, adjusting the amount of exp we gained to keep us all at the same level.

I do not know if this system has been beneficial or detrimental to our group, but at least now I know the reason behind those weird level up patterns.

Ignoring the messages, I rush to my companions’ side.

The terrain inside the central chamber has returned to the condition before the trial began, the walls returning underneath the sand.

I leave the scattered corpses of monsters all around, since I want to make sure of my comrades’ conditions before everything else.

As I get to their side, I notice how Dahl’s conditions have improved.

He’s asleep, probably fainted, but his breath is regular and he no longer looks in pain.

His left leg still has the signs of the recent burn, and his skin is still showing several small plagues and injuries, the aftermath of his dangerous, double- edged skill.

Still, he will not die from this, thanks to Levia’s healing skills.

After greeting my companions, and commenting a bit about what just happened, I take out the Transfer Stone that Telesia gave us.

It has one more charge, the necessary power to take us out of the Dungeon.

<<Ready?>>

I ask my companions if they’re ready to move. All of them appear severely fatigued, especially Marica and Levia.

<<Oh yes. Let’s head back, and please, no more Dungeon for at least one week>>

Retel’s comment makes me chuckle a bit.

<<Yeah. Let’s make it two weeks>>

As I say so, I activate the stone.

The sudden sensation of movement leaves me a bit nauseated and dizzy, and my head starts to hurt a bit. Nothing in comparison to when the Guild’s party forcefully took me out of the Dungeon, that time it was definitely worse.

The effect from the Transfer Stone ends, revealing the Guild’s scenery as the blue light fades. We’re inside the Dungeon entrance building, near the reception desks.

I go and make the report about our successful Dive inside the Dungeon, before we head back to old man Heod’s place.

Tomorrow, we will go back to the Guild to sell materials and all that stuff, but right now, the only things that I want to see are a warm bath and a soft bed.

When we arrive to our house, Heod jumps towards us, almost tearful. We’ve contacted him as soon as we came back from the Dungeon, and he has been fixing us a meal while waiting for us to arrive.

Before coming home, we left Dahl in one of the emergency treatment buildings that the Guild hosts.

Telesia herself came to see her nephew’s conditions, and she’s strictly overseeing his treatment. I am a bit concerned about him, but we left him in good hands.

While having dinner, I share with Heod everything that happened. Levia and Marica seem too tired to join the conversation, while Retel is just burying his face in his plate, overjoyed by the meal that Heod has prepared for us.

I would like to stay and chat a little bit more with the old man, but I too am at my limits. Parting from him, I head to my bedroom, and collapse on my bed, exhausted.

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