The sound of rippling water, and a salty smell carried by a soft breeze, sweeping over the water and making it ripple in small waves.
From above, perched on a rock that rose above water level, Levia is waiting.
Slightly left of her position, Marica is muttering the last words to complete her incantation, keeping a direct line of sight towards my position.
All of us, we’re “wearing” a stronger version of her camouflages spell, that also masks the natural mana flow of a human body.
I confirm Retel’s position, still at the entrance, ready to charge in with his new skill. Dahl is also set on his target, already faded into his own skill.
I take one deep breath, clenching my fist as I steal a glance towards the enemy numbers.
Inside the large, circular room, waist deep waters cover the floor, only few dry spots emerging from it, covered in barnacles and algae that make them a slippery, treacherous place to fight on.
At the center of this room, the water is deeper, reaching three meters of eight. In there, its body emerging from the water, the Guardian sleeps. A hulking mass of muscles shaped in wriggling tentacles, the figure of it is that of a gigantic red octopus.
Unsurprisingly, the monster is named as Kraken, the Guardian of the thirtieth floor.
Around it, the Elite monsters, similar to it in appearance, looking like smaller copies of the Guardian itself.
In order for us to win this battle, we need a powerful first strike.
And, we’ve been preparing for this.
I confirm the others’ position, once more, just to be sure.
One more second passes, long like an eternity.
Navi’s communication carries my words along imperceptible lines of mana, reaching my companions and signaling to start our plan.
Marica unleashes the spell that she was weaving, and I do the same.
Using her structure to bolster my own spell, I let the energy swell, using it to separate, each particle of mana scraping and breaking the bonds that make up matter. Electrons are taken, amassed into a point, negative charge on the ceiling, positive remains on the floor. The difference of electric potential causes the air to crackle, more and more, until the structure is released and everything is left to its own nature, trying to recover the equilibrium that was lost.
Charges that have been forcibly removed return to their position, forced into a new path by those invisible shackles of mana that we’ve woven into the air.
Light flashes and dances into broken arching paths, shaking the air with the force of lightning.
Using air, rock and water as a source of electrons, the combined efforts of me and Marica give rise to a thunderstorm inside the cave.
The spell unleashed, and devastation follows.
Still, it’s not enough.
Monsters writhe in pain, some of them succumbing to the electricity running rampant inside their bodies, their twitching corpses convulsing in the shallow waters.
But, it is not enough.
The Guardian bellows, damaged, wounded by the crackling thunder that now runs rampant in the water, still going before the spell completely subsides.
To its cry, others respond. Those among the Elite monsters that survived our surprise strike, turning their attention to our positions, now unveiled.
The second part of the plan starts. Levia releases her arrows, targeting those monsters that seem to be in worst condition after the spell. Finishing off those that are weak, impeding them to regenerate and join the upcoming battle.
Quelling the enemies’ numbers with each arrow shot from her bow, she stands tall in that lone rock, Marica bolstering the strength of her arrows, charging her own mana along with Levia’s.
Retel shouts, pointing his lance towards the enemies that are now flocking towards us. A third of the Elite monsters has been taken down, but still a number of them remain, electricity still hurting them. But they push on, regenerating the wounds on their body while receiving some more.
And above all them, towering, the Guardian lashes its tentacle around, crushing rocks and splashing water in its rage, charging its own malicious mana into spheres of dark energy shot at us.
Retel’s spear glows red, and he charges forward with increasing momentum.
He abruptly stops, thrusting his spear forward. A translucent red line of energy shots from the spear, piercing all in its path.
It reaches the Guardian, burying itself in one of the thing’s tentacles, making the base of it explode into a splatter of maimed flesh and gore.
All around, I am releasing the spells I had on hold into my Inventory, targeting the lesser monsters.
More explosions are resounding in the air, as Dahl is using the grenades I lent him to take out groups of weakened Elite monsters.
Their numbers rapidly decrease, each signal disappearing from Navi’s map.
Still, it’s not enough.
The Guardian charges, its tentacles coming toward my position at staggering speed. I avoid them, blinking to another spot moments before the colossal lump of meat comes crushing on the rock where I stood.
For this battle, I asked Retel to specifically focus on guarding the others with his skill.
Having one less target to protect, will allow him to better focus the skill on the others, and himself.
After all, I can perfectly manage on my own.
Having used his attack skill, now Retel deploys his shield, activating Spike Counter each time he blocks enough attacks to charge the skill.
Dahl begins to move, closing in to the Guardian’s position while slashing at the Elite monsters in his path.
His new skill is better suited for him to act solo among enemy ranks.
Using Shoggoth, I claim the attention of the Guardian, restraining its movements with the skill while damaging it.
The Elite monsters are falling, left and right.
I am leaving their disposal to the others, focusing myself on the Kraken until all the smaller monsters are gone.
The beast roars, wriggling its tentacles in the air. A dark energy surrounds them, and they dance, as if the monster is weaving a spell with them.
Then, it comes.
The water recedes, being concentrated in a single point, shaped into a snake made of rippling waves.
It launches itself toward us, arching its liquid body until it crashes into powerful, sweeping waves.
Retel’s shield begins to crack, and before it does, I activate Inventory, pulling the others away from their position into the pocked dimension.
Maybe, I did not have to do something like this. But, better safe than sorry.
Shoggoth is still wrestling with the giant octopus, and it is being overpowered.
The Guardian rips itself free from it, crushing the black mass of my skill, making it lose its shape.
But, it is all in vain. Being a skill, Shoggoth just returns to the form I molded it into, a black body that mirrors the Kraken itself, like a bio-mechanical, darker, smaller version of the Guardian.
It will not relent, or desist. It will not die until I die. It will not stop, no matter how many times the Guardian’s tentacles pummel it down, no matter how much damage the Kraken does to it.
Every time it falls, becoming nothing more than a puddle of black, bubbling matter, it rises again.
Moreover, I am surprised by seeing what the skill is doing. Without me instructing it to do it, the skill changes its form mid attack, turning tentacles to blades that shred the Guardian’s skin and muscles.
It’s like it is learning by fighting this monster. Shoggoth’s hunger grows with each strike, every time it plunges its black blades into the monster’s body, tasting its blood and flesh.
I am almost tempted to let it eat to its heart’s content, given the amount of work it is doing.
Sadly, I will not do it. The experience that the Guardian will yield, it is too much to just pass this opportunity.
There will be other preys waiting for Shoggoth along the path.
As the waves subsided, I hop out of Inventory once again.
Now, all the Elite monsters are gone, fallen to our attacks.
Only us and the Guardian inside the room.
Still, the monster, despite all the damage we did to it, has not even entered its second phase.
This will be a long battle.
Again, the monster uses the surrounding waters to its advantage. This time, instead of using it to attack, the Kraken surrounds itself into a bubble of water.
Infusing it with its own mana, the monster creates a fluid barrier, impervious to magic and resistant to physical attacks.
It starts regenerating its body while inside of there, wounds closing and parts that have been severed growing whole once more.
Roaring, the monster breaks the bubble, and the water, now free to flow again, sweeps the floor with waves.
Weaker than the previous attack, but still annoying given our limited footholds for this battle.
Its energies renewed, the monster begins to swipe its tentacles all around, rampaging in its fury.
The battle raged on, with us slowly whittling away at the monster, taking care of not receiving its attacks head on.
A single blow from those giant tentacles could easily kill us, even if our level is above that of the Guardian.
We cannot risk injury of any kind, or drag the battle for too long. We have potions at our disposal, in order to recover mana and stamina, but those supplies are limited, and using them here will mean having less of them whenever a tougher challenge emerges.
And, since we’re planning to dive further into the Dungeon after dealing with this floor, tougher opponents will surely emerge.
Our current plan is to reach at least the fortieth floor, before considering to turn back to the surface.
Depending on how things play out, we may even delve deeper than that.
Finally, the monster bellows in a painful cry, its large body comes crashing down in a shambling mess of twitching flesh.
It’s not the end, still, for the monster is still alive and charging its mana, ready to adapt in order to meet the challenge that we’re proving to be.
Mana swells within the creature, and its head opens, like a flower blooming. Inside of it, a humanoid figure starts to move.
Its upper half is that of a woman, bare, red skin and tentacles for hair. Facial features that seem to be sculpted such is their perfection, but the eyes that stare at us from that face are pitch black, dripping with malice as the thing smiles, revealing a set of sharp, needle like teeth beneath her wicked smile.
The lower half, from the thing’s navel and below, is warped into wriggling tentacles.
It opens its mouth, and a melodious voice resounds in the air, making it sway in a song as dangerous as it is beautiful.
The monster became a siren, allure and deceit instead of brute strength.
As the monster sings, water rises, swirling around the vaguely human figure and cladding it inside a
rings of floating water.
With each movement of its delicate fingers, the creature commands water into projectiles, shooting them at us with incredible speed and power.
Those that miss drill circular holes into the rock and the floor behind it.
Those that were well aimed, crash upon Retel’s barrier and my Shoggoth, that are barely able to repel them.
A Guardian’s second form is a different challenge from its original one. Before, we dealt with the Kraken’s brute strength. Now, the monster is relying on speed and magic in order to overcome us, that were able to push it to this point.
The Guardian moves, as if gracefully dancing in the air, avoiding each attack without effort. At least, it seems so.
But, each time it does so, the monster increases the power and frequency of its attacks, as if wanting to deal with us as soon as possible.
Perhaps, Guardians have limitations to their second forms. Maybe, their mana is quickly depleted, or other factors that I ignore are beginning to affect the monster, as it feels the need to quickly dispose of us.
But, the reason could be simpler than that. Perhaps, the monster just fears us, recognizing our group as a threat.
This new form it has taken, is definitely more dangerous and difficult to hit. But, lacking the hulking mass it boasted before, it relinquished its bulkiness and defense for more mobility and means of attack.
In short, if we manage to hit it when it is in this form, it will be easier to deal a decisive blow.
Since the “shell” of this monster is still in the chamber, and the new form of the Guardian has not left its vicinity, it may be the case that the monster might still need it.
No chances to be taken here. I order Shoggoth to envelop the former body of the Guardian, and consume it.
As my skill abides, the Guardian lets out a piercing shriek, rushing to its former body’s side.
It looks like I was right.
<<Keep it from reaching it!>>
I shout to the others, while releasing spells in order to chase the Guardian away. Retel deploys his shield around my skill, and the Guardian crashes onto it, being repelled.
It wails against it, and I can almost feel Retel’s grin shaping in his face, as he releases his Spike Counter on the Guardian.
Pierced by red, immaterial spears, this time the Guardian’ shout has painful notes in it.
It retreats, furiously releasing a black mist from its body, hiding into it.
The monster is nowhere to be seen, its signal has even disappeared from Navi’s map.
A powerful camouflage ability.
But, we also have someone with the same trick on our side.
Before the Guardian can strike from its hiding spot, Dahl deals a surprise attack on it. Another skill that he gained from the Assassin class, that allows him to see cloaked enemies, disregarding level or
His surprise attack severs the Guardian’s arm, as the beast reacted at the last moment and dashed away.
Otherwise, Dahl’s slash would have been fatal to it.
The monster recoils, making the water surrounding it explode in the attempt to push back Dahl.
He disappears once again, avoiding the blades of water shot towards him.
Meantime, Shoggoth has successfully consumed the remains of the Guardian’s first form.
Navi’s notification informs me of a new skill absorbed by the monster. I dismiss it for later, since, right now, I have to deal with the dangerous monster in front of us.
Still, getting that notification meant that the Guardian’s first form was somehow still alive. Perhaps, it would have woken up later, making the battle more difficult for us.
Or, the second form could have used it to regenerate itself, or some other nasty trick that I am glad to have avoided.
Now, since the room is void of other dangers or distractions, I can fully concentrate on dealing with the second form.
I make Shoggoth change into mist form, something I did not use in a long time. Since the skill evolved, it is now more easy to control it, even in this form.
The black mist sweeps the room, and I can feel every movement inside of it, even if the monster is using its skill or spell to conceal itself.
With the slightest hint of its presence, I concentrate Shoggoth into the spot, changing the form once again to envelop the Guardian.
Now that it is way smaller than its first form, it is easier for Shoggoth to overpower it, entrapping the monster inside of it and dealing damage.
Blocked by my skill, the monster cannot defend itself from the combined attack of my party members.
Marica’s spell sends a sizzling dart of electricity, shocking the creature, while Retel and Dahl attack from the sides.
Levia shouts, while both Retel and Dahl dash away from the creature. In doing so, Retel deploys his shield skill around the monster, encasing it into a red dome of mana. The shield is open in the front, enough to let the charged arrow shot by Levia pass through before closing.
The arrow explodes into a blinding flash, a mana swirl that rips and shreds, its movements controlled by Marica’s structure and taken forth by her and Levia’s mana.
Contained by Retel’s barrier, the attack is concentrated on the monster’s body, its energy forced to stay in a confined space without having the chance to disperse on the surroundings.
By doing this, the energy from Levia and Marica’s combined attack is made more effective, dealing massive damage to the creature confined into the barrier.
At the same time, the recoiling energy charges Retel’s Spike Counter, that delivers the final blow on the monster.
Its mangled form collapses on the ground, lifeless.
Dahl charges to it, decapitating the creature’s body and piercing the head with his blade.
<<Just to be sure. I do not want nasty surprises at this point>>
Notifications pop up, informing us of the successful defeat of Kraken, the Guardian of this floor.
From the whole battle, we gained two levels, taking us to level thirty-nine.
Levia sits down with a sigh, her forehead pearled with sweat, black scales glinting with the strange blue light that permeates this level.
It was tiresome to deal with this monster, even considering how we were several levels above its own.
<<Well, usually the parties that challenge deeper floors have thrice the active members as ours, so, I guess it went ok?>>
Dahl comments on the victory, cleaning his blades with a towel.
<<Yeah. But, from now, things will be tougher to deal with. Perhaps we really should head back and find someone else to tag along>>
Levia voices her thoughts, taking a sip of water from the bottle I offered her. I am using Shoggoth to clean up the mess, bodies and the scattered materials that are in this huge room. Meantime, I am starting to set up for some rest and dinner.
Still a portion of this floor left to cross, before we reach the exit and find a safe spot where to properly rest and prepare for the next floor.
I go through Navi’s notifications, seeing which skill I gained from the process.
A single one, but blue ranked.
Well of Health. The description of it, read that the holder’s body becomes a source of regeneration for its kin.
I read it once again, trying to understand what the skill description means. Navi is silent when I ask her more information about the skill, and, it is not a good sign.
This skill might be dangerous, depending on how it works. From the way I understand it, it uses the holder’s health to make others regenerate their own.
If it works that way, that would explain why the Guardian kept its first form’s corpse “alive”. It would use this skill to provide health to the second form, healing it over time.
The skill itself is of the active type, so if I chose to keep it, I could experiment with it and see the effect for myself.
With a sigh, I decide to integrate it into Shoggoth.
I take out some health potions from Inventory, ready to test the skill.
As I do, a sharp pain shakes my body, and a red circle of mana expands from me, encasing a small radius around me.
My health starts to decrease, quickly.
<<Hey! What are you doing?>>
Marica shouts at me, strolling to my side as I start to sway, feeling weaker.
I immediately deactivate the skill, chugging down a health potion in order to recover myself. I am sweating, panting heavily.
<<A new skill I gained. Did…did it do something to you?>>
I ask the others that were caught in the circle.
From their words, the skill forcibly activated a high regeneration rate on their own health, as high as the decrease on mine was.
In short, this skill is dangerous. Perhaps, I could use it as a last resort, but, for now, I would refrain from using it.
Heod’s health potion does its work, restoring the amount I lost, while both Marica and Levia caution me about not carelessly trying skills like that one ever again.
They’re right, of course they are. Still, I am trying to find some use to it.
I ask Levia to try something. She shakes her head, abiding but still not convinced about it.
She activates her healing skill, targeting me. Then, once again, I use Well of Health.
This time, the decrease on my health is countered by Levia’s healing skill, a single target one.
<<Ok, now try the wide area one>>
<<Are you sure? Please, cancel it immediately if things do not work out>>
She looks at me worried. I smile to reassure her, and go with the next test.
Her body releases a white aura, that expands in a ring around her. From my own, a red one, smaller but more intense. The two intertwine without canceling out or interfering with each other.
The decrease on my health is significantly lessened by Levia’s skill.
<<Ok. Retel, now stand where the circles connect>>
He shrugs his shoulders, moving into the spot.
Surprised, he states that the two skills work in unison,increasing his health regeneration by a large amount.
I nod, canceling the skill and letting Levia restore the health I lost.
With this, my new skill has become somewhat usable. Still dangerous, but usable. And, if I manage to avoid damage altogether while keeping it, it could take us out of some nasty situation, if someone among the others ends up injured enough to require a powerful healing.
<<Please, be considerate if you ever use it>>
Levia beckons me, her hand on my shoulder, her eyes gazing in mine.
Smiling, she heads to Retel’s side. I take a deep breath, and return to focus my attention on the Status screen. I have still to allocate the points I got from this new level up. Still, level thirty-nine. It seems so high, now, as I remember the time I woke up in that forest, my stats being the lowest, without the slightest idea about this strange world.
In some ways, I still feel like that sometimes, although, I have definitely gone through some changes from that time.
Shaking my head, I dismiss those thoughts and focus on preparing dinner. The cooking skill I have has barely had any progress, since I have been relying on Heod’s food, cooked and stored in my Inventory.
Now that I think about it, I have been neglecting a lot of things that could help me gain an edge in battle.
My Alchemy skill, for example, or the Crafting one. If I trained them as well as I did with Black Fluid then, and Shoggoth now, perhaps I could produce something good for both me and the others.
The problem is, finding enough time to do everything. Especially here, where between battles the spare time at our disposal is taken for necessary rest and eating to recover our energies. Perhaps, after this Dive is done I should take some time to work on those two skills.
Although, having able people to rely on for item production, like Heod for potions and Helena for what concerns armor and weapons, has surely served me well until now.
We spend some more time by resting and then making preparations to head further into the thirtieth floor.
The last part, as usual, has less monsters roaming around before the exit is revealed to us.
Descending down the spiral staircase, we find the safe space halfway through it, and rest there for the “night”.
After making the usual reports, I give a call to Heod to let him know how things went on our part, and to have a general update on the situation.
I left reporting to the Guild to Dahl, and I asked him to propose to Telesia about adding someone to our group. Asking her would be the best choice, since she knows all notable adventurers in the Guild, and she may point us towards someone with both proficiency and experience in dealing with the Dungeon.
Taking someone with a low level and “power leveling” him or her would be an appealing idea, but the sheer time needed for something like this is too much, given the circumstances. Better rely on someone who is already close to our level.
I go to sleep, spending some time in that strange torpor state that coincides with my level up screen. The points I gained, I put them all into Intelligence.
Now, my stats are not distributed almost equally anymore, as my Int stat is now at one hundred and twenty points. Luck is at sixty, and Acc at fifty, with both Str and Agi being forty-five. Charisma, that weird, composite stat, is at one hundred and sixty five, being calculated as the sum of Intelligence and Strength.
Being done with the level up, I drift into proper sleep.
The next “day” goes as usual, with us entering the new floor and sweeping our way through. The thirty-first floor abandons the “sea” pattern, in favor of a “mountain range” scenario. Harsh rock as the floor, open spaces with scarce vegetation and a ceiling that shines blue, like a mocking version of a clear sky.
The monsters in here, are flying type creatures, all above level thirty.
We had to deal with flying enemies before, but that was back in the upper floors of the Dungeon, where the cramped spaces made it difficult for the creatures to maneuver their bodies in the air.
In here, however, the large, open space allow the flying creature to soar freely into the air, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for melee fighters like Dahl and Retel to do any harm to them.
Retel is using his shield non-stop, biding his time for when an attack by me, Levia or Marica knocks the monsters out of the air, and dealing the decisive blows along with Dahl.
These creatures here have frail, light bodies, more suited to avoiding attacks rather than defending from them.
Their health drops to zero with each strike from Retel’s spear, or Dahl’s blades.
Still, the toughest challenge here is not the monster or the difficult terrain. Much like on a true mountaintop, the air here is light, with a scarce quantity of oxygen.
Fatigue is mounting rapidly on us, since we’re not used to fighting in these conditions, and we’re forced to take breaks more often.
Cold air, hard to breathe, and the flock of flying monsters relentlessly attacking our group.
Moreover, a large shadow is moving above the fake clouds that cover the ceiling. Surely, the Champion of this level is there, flying in circles above the central portion of this place.
This floor does not only have unpleasant things in it, tho.
Rich mineral nodes are abundant in the rocky terrain, and some of the rare plants that grow in here are priced ingredients for mana recovery potions.
The monsters themselves, have feathers that are highly sought by the crafting masters of Sendria, along with a peculiar tree that grows here. Its trunk twisted and black, roughly reaching a height of three meters and with scarce leaves adorning its branches.
This tree provides a tough and flexible wood, used in the fabrication of high class bows and crossbows.
In short, the materials found here are worth the risk. But, above all else, the monsters here yield a decent amount of experience if compared to those of the floors above.
Still, we need to defeat a lot of them in order to level up, and given the difficult conditions we cannot go on with the same speed we had in the floors above.
There are not only flying monsters in this new floor, however. Some packs of mountain goats, with large horns that seem made out of rock itself roam the place, hopping from rock to rock with great agility and attacking whatever enters their field of view.
Rarer, but stronger than those, there are some large bull-like creatures, covered in a thick brown wool and boasting horns as long as a human body.
And, deadlier of them all, large mountain leopards, with their snowy fur and fierce claws, laying in wait under some rock’s shadow only to leap out in ambush.
A place full of hazards, where powerful magic can easily be a double edged sword, causing the rock to break and fall into an avalanche that could reveal itself lethal to the casters.
Moreover, the ground itself often ends in a ravine, and we’re forced to leap distances in order to cross them.
The more we get closer to the center, the more fragmented the terrain is, with wider gaps over towering heights that we need to cross in order to push forward.
We spent two entire days to cross the thirty-firs level, and twice the time to reach and surpass the thirty-second floor.
Battling the Champion monsters in those conditions was harsh and difficult, but we managed to bring them down nonetheless.
The thirty-second floor is home to a Safe zone held by the Guild. But, only the entrance room along with some others nearby are safely kept by the adventurers. The rest of it, a system of caves and galleries on a cliff, interconnected among them and dwelling with monsters, is still left in a “wild state”.
The thirty-second floor is organized in a weird way. The entrance and exits are on two opposite cliffs, separated by a huge chasm where flying monsters dwell.
Two routes are to be taken in order to surpass this level. The first one, is a suspended bridge that connects several stone pillars emerging from the ground below. It is the fastest route, but the most dangerous one.
The other way, is to climb down the cliff using a narrow mountain path, traverse the chasm’s bottom and climb up the other side of the cliff.
Longest, but simpler given that most monsters reside on the upper portion, and the even footing allows for a better battle ground.
It goes without saying that we took the quickest route.
The Champion of the thirty-second floor was a large Eagle monster, its level thirty-two. The thing attacked with gusts of wind from its wings, before swooping down with its talon to finish off prey.
We watched a group of adventurers fail to take it on, decimated by the creature so quickly that there was no time for us to do anything.
Still, much like the almost identical monster that was the Champion of the floor above, we managed to restrain it, forcing the monster on the limited ground and killing it there.
All in all, despite the awful fighting conditions, we managed well.
These two floors netted us a bounty of three levels, taking the group to level forty-two.
And now, floor number thirty-three opens before our eyes.
Instead of following the “mountain” environment, this one is a dry desert of red sands and dunes, the same as the floor below, where I fought Leidus’ group some time ago.
In here, scorpion monsters dwell above the sand, while snakes and lizard creatures wait below it, ready to jolt out in ambush.
The scorching heat makes it difficult to walk and fight in this place, but, using few spells is enough to deal with it.
Definitely better than the scarce air of the previous two floors, without a single doubt.
We’re advancing through floors with high speed, and, if we keep this up, we might be able to reach the fortieth floor before the estimated time.
And, if things go well there, we could even think about pushing further down.
During all this time spent in the Dungeon, I have not received any new notification or hint about a new Trial.
If I correctly recall, I have collected thirty pieces of that “Crown” thing that seems to be the focus of it.
And, I have been wondering about what the hell all this means. The trials, they seem to be fashioned in order to make a “Candidate Demon Lord” like me grow into a full fledged one. That, will happen whenever I, or someone else, manages to collect all the pieces of this “Crown” mentioned every time.
But, it’s not like it is a physical item, I suppose the pieces are to be considered more like a fragmented power rather than a proper item.
Although, for what I know, it could be that upon completion a fuckin’ Crown will be materialized before me.
This world is crazy enough for that to happen after all, says the guy with a skill that eat things alive.
And, when the trials will be completed, what will happen to me? Will I stay the same as I am now, will I still be Roshal, a human, a person, only with some insane power at my disposal?
After seeing other powerful people, namely John and that sorry being of the Laughing man, I cannot help but think about how there might be some catch to all this.
Ending up like John, confined into his Dungeon floor but with seemingly God-like abilities does not seem too bad of a fate.
But, and I fear that, my situation might have some more similarities with that of the Laughing Man.
I remember John calling him a “broken” Demon Lord. That time, I asked him what he meant with that, and he just shrugged his shoulders, saying something like the man bartered power for his sanity.
Will the same happen to me? I try to not think about it too far, to not let my mind dwell on such scenarios that are far in time from now, to focus on more pressing concerns.
But, that thought is always there, gnawing its way in my mind right as I close my eyes and try to drift asleep, during moments of respite from one battle and the other.
Along with the other things I have to worry about.
Still, we thread on in the desert floor, against the warm wind that sweeps clouds of sand towards us.
The flock of monsters attacking us from the desert sands, their attacks being based on poison and wind.
To this point, we’re easily tearing through groups of monsters, without breaking as much of a sweat.
It feels good for our, for my own ego, but, this security that we have it, it could easily become hubris and lead to some mistake. We need to keep our focus, otherwise we will end up in some bad situations.
That’s the main risk of the Dungeon, as a whole, something that has doomed many adventurers to a swift death, or worse, a slow one.
Overconfidence, especially for those groups like ours, that have started to gain some semblance of power and think themselves capable of handling each and every situation.
We’ve recently seen one such party, rushing through an area that was littered with monsters, below the adventurers’ level. And they rushed into it, ignoring the fact that the terrain was treacherous, thinking themselves powerful enough to not suffer any consequences. They fell to the Champion of that level, swooped away by gusts of wind or maimed by the bird creature’s giant talons.
It was a grizzly show, and it happened so fast that we could not do anything about it, other than remembering and reflecting about what happened before our eyes.
And so, even if we currently can rush through this floor, and take on multiple groups of monsters at the same time, we’re still playing it with caution, using the terrain to our advantage, leading monsters into choke-points between dunes of sand or exposed rock formations before dealing with them.
For now, it is enough, since the creatures attacking us, even those with some semblance of intelligence, do not resort to complex tactics or dirty strategies.
But, soon, perhaps even sooner than we can expect, we will have to face human opponents. Unlike the fight I had with Leidus’s party, the soldiers and Heroes from Aldora will pose a threat different from everything we’ve faced so far.
The army members seem to have some weird kind of skill or power that nullifies any magic or attacks based on mana, including enemy skills. And, from what I remember from the time I spent in that Aldoran fort, each soldier, even the younger recruits, are above level forty.
And that’s without even considering the Heroes. The one we barely survived was above level seventy, and perhaps, he’s now even stronger than that.
For that reason we need to increase our levels as fast as we can. Reaching at least level seventy, or, in the ideal case, level one hundred.
Although, I fear that even that goal might not be enough. After all, I know from seeing John that it is possible to go far beyond level one hundred, and he might be not the only one to have reached such high level. Most likely, someone among the Heroes has broken past that level, perhaps being on par with John himself.
From the information that Navi told me about the level system of this world, common people cannot break past level one hundred. By her words, there are exception to this rule, such as special existences, like me or the Heroes. Basically, to break past that point it is necessary to receive power from a God, a blessing of some sort.
In short, normal people would require special circumstances in order to rise above their limits.
That fact leads to some consideration. First, no matter how large the army of a country, it will have only a handful of people above level one hundred, but, a single one of those could easily rival a small elite force on his own, even hold power comparable to that of an entire army.
To the specific situation between Sendria and Aldora, the advantage, even if somehow Sendria’s army as a whole might have higher numbers and average higher level, it will all be nullified by the fact that Aldora has already several people with those “special circumstances”.
And, the situation is even worse, since Aldora ‘s army is definitely larger and more prepared than Sendria’s.
Even without taking into account what is happening with Alvarez, Sendria will start at great disadvantage if, or it is better to say, when war breaks out.
Even if our group manages to reach a high enough level, it will all be for naught if the Heroes and Aldora’s army focus their attack on Sendria.
Simply, we will be overwhelmed.
That will happen in the scenario of an open war, or a siege on Sendria. The only way for Sendria to survive a war against Aldora, would be to rely on guerrilla tactics in its territory, using small elite groups to hinder the Army’s advance.
But, all these are still empty considerations after all, made by someone like me, that lacks a clear grasp about what could happened and how it will.
For now, I have to focus on the worst case scenario, and work expecting that. In short, increase my level and that of my party, and end this trial thing as soon as I can.
The first part is “easy”, at least in its concept, since we have a perfect tool to abuse in order to achieve that goal.
Just, head down the Dungeon, beat things to death and increase your level. As simple as it gets, without the need to roam the land in search of creatures to slay, as it would have been the case without a Dungeon at our disposal.
The latter, however, completing the trials, will be more difficult to accomplish. First, because I do not have the slightest clue about how or where to start the next one. Not even Navi, or John, had information about them, although I suspect that Navi might be withholding something from me.
That thing has been really strange, sometimes helpful, sometimes purposefully keeping herself from telling me the information I needed, always with that cheerful and teasing tone. There might be more to that, but, it’s not like I can do something about it.
After all, I rely on that thing for several actions right now, and it has become somewhat indispensable for me.
Sighing, I return my attention to the place we’re in. For a while, we’re just walking in the desert, without any monster attacking us. The signals from Navi’s map are all listed as distant, far away in the remote parts of this floor.
It’s like this area is devoid of monsters, consisting in just a big walk into the sand.
In the distance, I can see some mirage. Palms and flowing water.
There might be some magic spell woven in there, since the images I see seem so realistic.
For normal parties, it could be dangerous. The long walk into the scorching desert, with limited supplies, and then, suddenly, an oasis in the distance. There’s even the sound of running water, and chirping birds. The air too, it smells like ripe fruits and wet sand.
But, of course, it is just an elaborate illusion, cast by the thing that waits under the mirage, its jaws open in the pit of swirling sand that the image conceals.
The signal from it is distant, one hundred meters below us, and the others are even further away.
<<So, fake oasis?>>
Retel asks, his eyes fixed on the distant shapes of trees and the promise of water. Perhaps, the effect of it might be enhanced when someone is dehydrated or hungry, but, since we have Inventory, provisions and water have never been a problem for our group.
And, most importantly, it seems like the others were able to see through the mirage easily, even without something like Navi telling them that those images are not real.
Dahl answers, picking up a stone and throwing it towards the oasis, now distant nothing more than forty meters.
The rock arcs its way up, flying with great speed before starting to descend its way down.
As it touches the “oasis”, it flies through a palm, passing through the trunk without even making a sound.
What does make a sound is the giant worm that erupts from the oasis, disrupting the illusion it cast and closing its maws with a loud noise, echoing in the air.
It returns in its pit, and the oasis appears again.
<<Are those monsters? Or some kind of trap?>>
Levia asks, straining her eyes to see past the oasis. There are more of them, scattered along the desert, surrounding the central portion of this floor.
<<I think, they are both. Creatures, without any doubt, but blind and deaf. Only react to touch, the minimum vibration inside or near their “lair” will make them burst out of the place, and close their maws on anything unfortunate enough to step near them>>
Dahl’s answer sheds some light on the creatures. As he continues, he shares that he learned this from his sister, that often shared to him stories about the monsters she fought in the Dungeon.
<<So, do we fight them?>>
Retel asks, stretching his limbs in anticipation. The boy likes to fight, perhaps a bit too much.
<<Not this one. The others, maybe. But, this one is mine>>
I step in, glad to have found a useful thing in this desert. The oasis is nothing more than the product of a skill, as Navi’s detection informed me. Three skills, to be precise.
I summon Shoggoth, using all its mass. The monster I need to take down is huge, although being a normal “mob” in this floor, not even an elite. A body length of several hundred meters, hidden below the sand, twisted on itself.
I wonder how the hell these things manage to grow so large in here, without a vast amount of creatures to feast on. Perhaps they survive by “eating” mana, it cannot be just from eating monsters and adventurers.
Still, it matters little.
I send Shoggoth into the oasis, letting it be eaten by the creature. It will be easier to consume it than trying to wrestle against the monster and absorb it.
Doing like this, Shoggoth can take its sweet time.
Half an hour. That’s how much time my skill needed to devour the level thirty-three monster.
From it, the skill has grown again, and I obtained a copy of the three skills I wanted. But, I think this time the experience will have to wait.
I send Shoggoth into another oasis, repeating the process.
First, these monsters are easy to kill with my skill. Without any doubt, their colossal bodies will have some kind of hard armor, on top of being hidden inside the sand, making them difficult targets to hit.
Attacking them from the inside, I can bypass all their defenses, and consume their bodies without having to force the beast out, or giving it the opportunity to move or retaliate.
From their bodies, I will gain a huge increase in Shoggoth’s mass. But the main reason that compels me to absorb more, is to have more copies of those three skills, in order to integrate them together and produce a stronger version of the skill for me to use.
I apologize to the others for the lost experience, but this egoistic decision is in order to gain some useful skill.
I let Shoggoth run rampant, devouring the monsters one after the other. Since this area is perceived as dangerous by the floor’s other creatures, it is safe once the worms have been dealt with.
The huge worms in this area were twenty, all of them ended up as food for Shoggoth. From the entire process, I gained a lot of new skills, some of them definitely useless, like one called “Sand Burrow”, that allows the user to dig a pit in sand.
But, the three skills I wanted, those have some good use.
All of them related to illusions, the only downside of them being their orange rank. And that was the reason that compelled me to send Shoggoth on an eating spree, in order to get the highest amount of each skill’s copy and Integrate them into a more powerful version.
The first one, it is called Phantasm Sound. It allows the holder to create sounds with mana, and “play” them in a selected location.
The next one is Phantasm Smell, similar, but concerning smell and scent rather than hearing.
And, the last one Phantom Illusion, that allows to project complex images using mana.
All three combined, used at the same time, allowed the worms to weave the realistic illusion of an oasis, masking their presence underneath them.
After discarding the useless skills I got from the monsters, it is time to start the Integration process. First, I take each single skill and fuse it with another copy of itself, taking each single skill to blue rank.
This could be enough, but I feel like pushing my luck further and trying something else. The three blue skills have compatibility among them, and it is possible for me to fuse them together into a single skill.
After taking a deep breath, I start the process.
It takes slightly longer than the other tries, making me fear for the worst outcome. Of course, I still have some copies of the skill saved, so I will not lose them completely if this does not go well, only, I would prefer to have the blue rank in them.
As Navi’s message signals me of the successful Integration, I breathe a sigh of relief.
The new skill, named Phantom Illusion, has a complete effect including sound, smell and sight.
I immediately try it, projecting a copy of myself. It is perfect in all details, except the lack of substance when I try to touch it.
Using more mana, I can summon more copies, or project different images, even going as far as making them interact with each other. The mana cost is a bit high for complex actions and sounds, but it’s manageable.
Grinning from ear to ear, I go back to the others, setting out towards the central portion of this floor.
This level’s Champion will help me test the skill into battle.
We thread on, walking distances on the shifting desert sand, stopping from time to time to deal with smaller monsters.
Slowly, as we thread further toward the central portion of this floor, the Elite monsters start to appear.
For the first time, I see a plant monster. Specifically, they’re moving cactus plants, shaped into humanoid form and ambushing whatever comes close to them.
Their sap seems to have intense healing properties, especially against burns, so we quickly collect the monsters remains, careful to do the least amount of damage needed to kill them. No point in collecting the sap if we blast it all over this floor with a strong spell, or if we burn it down.
Thankfully, they are not so difficult to deal with, a hard enough blow on their “head” being enough to bring them down for good.
Still, these monsters seem to lack eyes or any kind of sensory system.
I try to absorb one, for good measure, and earn the skill “Infrared vision” from them. In short, they perceive things by their body heat.
Much to my surprise, as I try to Integrate the skill it gets incorporated into Navi instead, powering up her detection system.
I try the new mode out, and it is a bit weird, the way it warps my vision into shades of color instead of defined form. The world becomes blurred, blue, green, yellow orange and red taking over the softer, richer shades of color that characterize normal vision.
I deactivate it immediately, relegating the new function for Navi to use separately, like I did with ultrasound detection some times ago.
Still, it might show its usefulness somewhere down the road.
For now, I am fine with my old way of seeing the world.
Before heading further into the central portion, we take some times to clear the materials and resources around the place, along with some time dedicated to the usual preparations and respite before the battle.
This Champion could prove itself to be though challenge, we cannot just waltz in and confront it head on.
The central portion of this desert floor is different from the rest, tall red rocks that look similar to those seen in pictures of the Grand Canyon, only smaller in scale.
Emerging from the sands, they form a circular structure, like a ring of rock surrounding an open space.
Like an arena of some sort.
I send some offshoots from Shoggoth to survey the area, trying to ascertain the dangers in there, and what kind of Champion monster awaits us.
In there, immobile, the Elite monsters look like normal desert vegetation, their thorns slightly quivering the only thing that betray the cactus-like monsters.
Among them, a giant plant of the same species stands towering, deep green in color and with a pink flower on top.
I guess that, when the Champion will reveal itself, it will look like some ripoff of a popular monster from a long RPG series.
I sigh when seeing it, a bit disappointed and sure that the design of it must be the work of John.
As my “scout” identifies the monster, its status screen reveals the name of the Champion.
Yes, it is definitely a ripoff.
Shaking my head, I return my attention to the preparation for the upcoming fight. In there, I will use the new skill to see its effectiveness, although, I think that it will be of little use, given how the monsters do not rely on any of those senses to hunt. It was successful against the other kind of monsters in this floor, like the scorpions and snakes, but in this battle, it will be less successful unless I modify its use a bit.
I could try to add a spell to the illusions, mimicking bodily heat to each displayed illusion.
It will add to the total mana cost of the illusion, and it will be more difficult to coordinate everything and move it as I want.
But, it is an interesting idea, and I want to see it through.
I do some quick tests, realizing how by adding some more mana, I can even use the illusions to attack.
Not that the illusion themselves can, but, I could trick the opponent into thinking that the attack came from them, opening Inventory in their position to release a spell or arrow, or even casting directly a spell in their position.
Although, the latter will have more chances of me being exposed.
I try both strategies, and the first one proves to be the better solution. As the others complete their preparations, we head towards the rock formation, ready for the next battle.
Unlike the other times, the Champion does not react immediately. The Elite monsters do, uprooting themselves and launching their attacks on our figures.
Only, we’re not there. Masked by Marica’s spell, which dropped the temperature of the air around us, thus making it impossible for the monsters to actually “see” our bodies, we’re observing the scene from above the rocks.
What the monsters are attacking are my illusions, with the temperature spell added to them. The monster chase that fake body heat, basically launching their attacks on thin air.
Maybe, that is the reason why the Champion has yet to show any movement. Perhaps, it has some other way to discern its prey.
Still, the Elite monsters are being distracted by the illusions, and I can lead them away from the “big boss”.
Doing this, I can even round them up in a single place, and unleash an attack to kill a vast number of them.
And that’s exactly what we do.
Using fire this time, I weave a spell together with Marica. Her help in doing so greatly amplifies the output, since I can use the raw energy from my spell with her structure, and enhance it for more control.
She’s also beginning to learn some tricks by observing my spells, without me even sharing the knowledge from “that place”.
Perhaps, when we will head back to the surface, I will arrange her a meeting with John. Definitely, the Dungeon Master has deeper knowledge than me about both worlds, and Marica, or any magician for that matter, would greatly improve with his knowledge.
As the spell is ready, we start the attack, making the area where the Elite monsters stand erupt into fire.
Channeling winds to further fuel the flame and keep it under control, until a raging swirl of flames lit up the area.
Arrows from Levia deal with those monsters that were lucky, or had the last second reflex of getting out of the area.
The others are burnt to ashes.
A bit of a shame, given the materials destroyed in the process.
But, oh well, the experience is all we need after all.
Next, it is the Champion’s turn to fall.