After dealing with the Elite monsters, we head towards the towering figure of this floor’s Champion monster.
I check with the others, waiting for the mana potion I just gulped down to start its effects.
All in their respective positions, still shrouded by the concealing spell, the others signal their readiness.
Once again, I coordinate with Marica to start a fire-based magic. This time, the target is a single one, albeit powerful.
And so, we do not need a large area of effect, just a concentrated, high damaging burst of energy.
The structure is made, and the power charged into the spell. It ignites, propelling forward a blazing red spear of super-heated energy.
The spell pierces the Champion, that sends a bellowing cry.
How a plant-based monster like that can even cry leaves me a bit confused, but still, it is not even the weirdest thing I’ve seen so far.
Shaking, shambling the monster uproots itself.
It is a gigantic version of those cactus-like creatures, that immediately lashes its spike-ridden arms to crush the area around it.
That magical attack damaged it, leaving a flaming, gaping hole in the green mass of the monster’s body.
Still, the Champion will not be taken down by just a single hit.
The others start unleashing their respective techniques, and the proper battle starts.
It takes us one hour to finally bring the monster down. A relatively easy fight, given the monster’s weakness to fire.
As usual, it changed its form during the fight, the cactus rooting itself once again in the sandy terrain and blooming, rapidly drying its body as it focused its energy to change its form.
It became a humanoid, tall as a child and with winds made of leaves, switching its attack to magic based on sand and roots.
The really difficult thing about it was hitting it, given the small frame of the Champion’s second phase.
But, I only needed to use Shoggoth to restrain it, while the others did the rest.
The experience we got from it, combined with all that we gained in this level, made us rise to level forty-five.
As the monster lied down lifeless, we start the usual routine, clearing up the scene and taking some much needed rest.
Then, it is time to move forward, heading down into the next floor.
Halfway through the spiral staircase, we meet another group of adventurers, making their way back from the thirty-sixth floor. Apparently, they had explored up until that point, killing the Champions from levels thirty-three to thirty-five before retreating. The Champion residing in the thirty-sixth floor was too hard for them to deal with, and they decided to turn back to the safe zone.
Their group went in earlier than us, and for that reason we’ve been able to find each floor’s Champion, since they re-spawned after forty-eight hours had passed since their defeat.
But, it will not be the case for the upcoming two floors, since they defeated those monsters yesterday.
In short, the experience from those two Champions will not be available for us. I consult with the others, to see what they would want to do. We have two options, wait here for the monsters to re-spawn, or dive deeper.
Agreeing with me, the others choose the latter.
Without the Champion, and with most monsters cleared out of the way, traversing the two floors is definitely easier. The experience gained from slaying normal monsters is not even enough to yield us one level, given as we are several levels above the average of the monsters we find.
Diving deeper, the thirty-sixth floor is the first one to show a change in scenario. From a desert landscape, this one has an Aztec ruin environment.
A lush jungle, that seems to have grown over a large stone city, enveloping houses and stone temples in tangled roots and tall trees.
The monsters we find are treacherous, resorting to ambush rather than direct confrontation.
Several larger creatures roam the place, and, much to our surprise, it seems that the Silverback we fought back then, here it is just an Elite monster.
Several of those take residence among the trees, ruling their pack of smaller monkey creatures.
It’s surprising to see how we can deal easily with such monster now, when it gave us a lot of trouble the first time we fought it.
Surely, our levels and abilities have grown a lot since then.
The jungle is full of rare ingredients, especially a strange black wood, sturdier and harder than even metal.
Some of the Silverbacks use uprooted trees of that kind as weapons, that makes them a higher threat.
Still, they’re vulnerable to poison, especially the confusing poison I can use, and it is easy to make the monster slaughter themselves by poisoning them, and swooping in for the final blow on the survivors.
The levels here are still low, being thirty-six in average, although we’ve seen some rare, lone monsters whose levels rose up to forty.
Jaguar like creatures, with nimble bodies and the ability to blend into the forest. Their attacks are quick, and relentless.
But, it is easy to avoid an ambush, if you spot the enemy’s position way earlier than it sees you.
Each time, the monsters fall prey to Levia’s new skill. It’s a powerful, single target attack called “Snipe”. With it, she can focus all her mana into a single arrow, and deal massive damage to distant, unaware targets.
<<The downside is that it is useless when enemies become aware of you, or they are too close>>
She shrugs her shoulders while explaining the new power she recently gained.
We thread further on, entering the ruined city after trekking for a while inside the forest.
In there, humanoid creatures live among the stone houses.
Beast headed, with human bodies, those monsters are organized, and seem to communicate between themselves with a proper language, albeit one incomprehensible to us.
The largest building in this ruined city is where the Champion resides, since a strong, large signal seems to come from that direction.
Of course, it is a temple, tall and made of reddish stone. The steps that lead to the highest chamber are entangled in large roots that emerge from the stone itself.
Fighting inside the city will be difficult, with both Elite monsters and the strange humanoid creatures running rampant.
<<So, here’s the plan>>
As I illustrate what I intend to do, the others make strange faces, unhappy with the prospects of this plan. Still, it is the safest bet, and they abide by it.
A bit reluctant, each of my companion heads into the Inventory space, with me being the last to leave the “normal” space.
Before I do it, I summon Shoggoth, focusing my power to unleash one of its attacks.
Shoggoth’s form busts into a cloud of buzzing, darting shapes, that disperse themselves into the air at my command.
Instead of fighting head on, I will use the monsters against each other, quelling their numbers as much as I can before engaging them.
To wait things out in a safe space, I will use Inventory, providing some windows to assess the situation.
I step inside, the strange, momentary disorientation taking hold of me for a second as I cross the boundary between reality and that strange dimension.
The others are there, frozen in time.
I close the “gate” behind me, and start observing how things play out using Navi.
Each of the thousands of flies that compose the “Beelzebub” attack is infused with an improved version of the confusing poison, and I have added a spell effect to the skill, allowing me some degree of control over the increased aggressiveness of the monsters. In short, I can direct their rage towards specific targets if I want so.
It only works with creatures below my level, and some show a degree of resistance to it, but it’s a great tool to deal with large numbers of weaker monsters.
Each single fly finds its target, injecting the venom and activating the spell on it. Confusion spreads like a wave, the monsters that were living peacefully among themselves now turning on each other, wounding, killing, driven by madness into madness and violence.
I should shudder at this scene, despise it even, and yet, I do not feel what I should, what I think I should. Only a slight satisfaction for how things turned out, for how the plan went smoothly.
What I have become? Only a month ago, I would not be capable of something like this, a third rate trick to instigate murder on a large scale.
These creatures are sapient, even if they are monsters in a Dungeon. I would have felt empathy to them, even a slight amount of it, in the past.
And yet, there is no trace of it in me now.
And the most strange thing, is that it does not even disturb me. After all I went through, after those realizations about myself, about who I am and my relation to this world, to those memories I carry, the person that was “Roshal”, back in that forest, lost and thinking this new world nothing much than a game is now completely gone.
Back then, I swore to myself to never use such methods on humans, or something resembling it.
And yet, here I am, feeling prideful and satisfied about the scenes of slaughter playing out in front of me.
It is not because I think these creatures as lesser, at this point, I think I would do the same even if those were humans.
I did the same to humans, not for defense, but to gain an advantage.
Who have I become?
That question lingers in the back of my mind, resurfacing from time to time. I know I am not the human from my memories, those fake things that some playful creature decided to put into my head.
If that person is gone, however, that leaves place for the real me, for who or what I really am. Those lingering feeling I had, every time I managed to subdue an enemy, every time I overcame a challenge.
Pride towards the power I had, and the desire for more. Those are the two main points, what defines the “person” that Roshal is.
I want more, and I do not relent towards the mean to obtain it.
Who have I become? I now have some pieces of an answer, slowly forming itself with time and progression, as I delve deeper into this place, as I rise, beat my own limits or those I thought I had.
Still, that answer is incomplete, and sometimes, it is still confused, as I cannot totally part from who I believed to be, from that man residing in the memories of a past that was not mine.
It’s strange how I can bring myself to think about this, reflecting deeply while I stare, blankly, at a group of monsters slaughtering each other, turning their rage towards the creature they revered as a god.
The Champion bellows, swarmed by the lesser creatures it commanded.
Its shape shambles, killing dozens of monsters with each blow but receiving countless wounds, slowly whittling its health, adding small damage, small injury one after the others.
The scenario of carnage plays for two hours, until all noise is gone in those ruins enclosed by a forest.
The stone paved roads are littered with corpses, black flies buzzing around in triumph, their thousand eyes relaying to me the results of my choice.
On its temple’s staircase, the Champion’s figure lies sprawling, blood flowing down and painting the steps in a crimson cascade of life flowing away from it.
Its huge chest pants up and down, the wounds on its body slowly closing as it starts to regenerate, hundreds of spears embedded in its flesh, and all around it, heaps of bodies and torn limbs.
I force my mana into Shoggoth’s separated form, each single fly joining together with the thousands of others, forming the bubbling black shape once again, only to be forced into a new form, sharp and deadly, plunged into the Champion’s body to end its life.
In a blood soaked battlefield, I step out of the Inventory, bringing the others with me.
I dismiss the notification from Navi about the recent level up, this time a single level, bringing our total to forty six.
Diminishing returns, as our level rises, we need to kill much more creatures, or challenge stronger ones in order for us to grow.
With this rate, we will eventually catch up with the monsters’ levels, until the battle will be even between us and them. For now, and for some floors yet again, we will still be over-leveled, and thus, at an advantage.
The others look around, slightly disoriented, not by the display of violence but for the sheer after-effects of their time being forcibly stopped.
They too have been hardened during the journey, perhaps even more than I have. A group of youngsters turned into a proficient party of adventurers, a fancy way to call hunters and killers.
Still, it is a necessary thing to do. I refused to acknowledge it before, perhaps still unable to see how this world really was, taken back by the possibilities of it and not seeing the harsh reality of things.
The simple fact that this world has too many dangers waiting. Be it monsters, or the looming menace of war. And war will come, sooner or later. If I, if we did not change, did not harden our resolve and our minds, we would simply succumb to it, either to some soldier’s hand, or to the sheer madness of war itself.
And, it might not even be enough.
The next days are just a cycle of events that repeat themselves, as we dive further into the Dungeon,
carefully threading our way inside the treacherous floors.
Caves, seaside, lush jungles. Each floor shows a different environment, with rare clusters that maintain a theme among them.
Each floor meets us with the same routine, chambers filled with monsters, and a tougher challenge waiting in the central portion, where Champions reside. As we advance, more and more, increasing our levels further, the limits of our group become apparent.
The challenges that monsters pose, grow in difficulty as we dive further into the depths of this strange place, as the level gap between ourselves and the creatures inhabiting the place is reduced.
Our strategy changes, adapting to the increased difficulty. Instead of dealing with large groups at once, we are forced to resort to more prudent tactics, by attacking small numbered groups each time.
We thread further into the Dungeon, reaching the fortieth floor. I wanted to push even deeper than this, but we’re reaching our limits here. Most likely, we will head back once we kill the Guardian residing here.
From grinding our way up until this floor, we managed to reach level forty-eight. Most likely, killing the Guardian will set us up to level fifty. Still, in these advanced floors, the gap of ten levels is not enough to let us be at ease.
We’re making the last preparations to face the Guardian residing here, in this floor. I can sense the large signal coming from it, a level forty beast surrounded by the Elite creatures of this floor.
The floor, as a whole, has an “arctic wasteland” theme. Cold winds sweep the open place, the only sanctuary from it being lone rock formations, dispersed in the gigantic, ice covered terrain of this floor.
Bear-like monsters roam the place, the Elites of this floor being similar in size and behavior to Shartu, another of the Champions we faced on the surface floors.
Thankfully, these monsters are rare, otherwise it would have been difficult for us to face off a number of them, given the open space of this floor and the difficulty of fighting with such low temperatures.
Other creatures also roam these frozen wastelands, some sort of penguins and seals, suddenly popping out from cracks in the ice that reveal flowing waters underneath it.
<<This is the last one. After we take it out, we head back>>
Retel reaffirms the plan, nodding to himself. All of us are starting to feel the fatigue from the intense rise in our levels. I thought that if we distributed the levels on a period of time, instead of power- leveling without any kind of respite, we would not feel the after-effects of the excessive energy absorbed and transformed by our bodies.
Apparently, I was a bit off with my reasoning. After all, we’ve increased by eighteen levels in less than three weeks, my companions even more since they started their Dive from the upper levels.
I thought that taking some time between each level up would eliminate the after-effects, but, it turns out that even rising two levels a day, each day, has some rebound on the body.
It’s not as severe as a sudden increase, like the one I suffered back when I fought Leidus, but we’re definitely feeling the increased fatigue from it.
Next time, it will be best to change our schedule, taking into account two or even three days of rest between levels.
Still, it’s something we will need to think in a later time.
For now, the Guardian awaits, and we’re ready to challenge it.
The monster is a unique type, something I’ve never seen in the upper levels. It has a gigantic frame, its hulking body covered in thick, brown fur.
The form of it is similar to an elephant, but with four, long and jagged tusks protruding from its head, one of which is broken in half.
A Mammoth, level forty. Navi’s detection identifies it as Tusk, the Guardian of the fortieth floor.
Its body is the origin of the sweeping, icy winds that plague this place, and with every step, the ground behind it freezes, leaving a trail of ice crystals.
Before we deal with it, we need to take care of the Elite monsters surrounding it.
During this time, I had the opportunity to absorb more and more creatures, thus powering Shoggoth up, increasing the size I can produce of it.
Once again, to deal with the large number of monsters I will resort to Beelzebub, in order to quell their numbers while keeping the distance. The others are already on standby, to deal the finishing blows on weakened creatures.
As they reach positions, and give me the signal, I start the attack.
Due to the recent rise in both my level and my skill levels, I can now use Beelzebub with only a part of Shoggoth, keeping most of it in the original form.
That is thanks to an updated, more powerful version of the “Offshoot body” I already had, a useful skill I managed to find again in the Dungeon, along with other, useful skills. All of them, I have Integrated into a single, blue ranked skill.
Phylogenesis. This skill lets me mold and produce living organisms made of Shoggoth, instead of just “puppets” controlled by Navi’s automated calculations.
In short, I can make autonomous creatures, that I still can control how I like. The power of it is limited, both in level and size, as the skill is terribly difficult to level up. But, with time…
For now, I have used it to improve the “bio-mechanical flies” that are brought forth with Beelzebub.
These ones require no control, acting on some sort of “instinct” that I can impress in their mind.
Thus, it leaves Navi’s calculations free to do other tasks, like assisting me in spell calculations, to give one example.
Or, in this case, to control the rest of Shoggoth’s mass, that will be our main “tank” in this battle.
Its size, even with half of it being transformed into a cloud of black insects, still rivals that of the Guardian of this floor, which is the biggest creature we’ve met up until this point.
Even bigger than the sea dwelling serpents we fought in the seaside floor, its size making it puzzling to consider how the Guardian does not just collapse under its own weight.
And, given some more time, I bet Shoggoth will expand even further. Perhaps, if I manage to survive and increase both my level and Shoggoth’s, it will reach the size of a city, or more.
Still, those are only guesses, for now. Perhaps, there are limits to this skill, although I haven’t even had a slight hint about them.
I release the swarm, before sending out Shoggoth into the resulting confusion.
The Elite monsters are throwing themselves against each other, maiming, biting, killing their brethren.
Some, however, resist the substance and the spell I used, and begin to charge our way. Their numbers are low, and the majority direct their hostility towards Shoggoth.
I make the skill resist the urge to consume, focusing on the need for Experience that we have.
Surprisingly, as the skill grew in power it became more “tame”, easier to control, almost to the point that I do not need any effort in order to impose my will on it.
Before, especially immediately after I obtained it, Shoggoth would pose a certain degree of resistance when I forbid it from eating something.
Now, it just abides, perhaps satisfied by earlier “meals”, or perhaps, knowing that there is a promise for more waiting for it.
As I look how things play out, I think absentmindedly about the first time I held Black Fluid’s power, the first time I saw what and how it worked. I remember feeling disgust, a slight hint of fear even.
It makes me chuckle to notice how much I have grown insensible to the skill’s peculiar aptitude, to the point of being proud of it every time it hunts and eats.
Like a parent, I feel the same satisfaction every time it grows, every time it comes back with a new “trick” to share with me.
Seriously, how could I even feel negative feelings toward it, toward this powerful gift that my crazy circumstances have brought me?
I cherish it, and I cannot see myself without it anymore.
It defines me, more than anything else. More than my memories, more than my personality itself.
As if reacting to my thoughts, Shoggoth changes shape, its black, bubbling surface bursts out into bio-mechanical tentacles, each ending with a curved, sharp blade that vibrates with impossible speed, blurring its shape as it slashes, and tears.
Levia’s arrows are finding their targets, each taking a life from the weakened monsters.
Retel’s red mana shield surrounds Shoggoth, and another portion of it cages the monsters with Shoggoth, acting both as a shield for it, and a prison for its prey.
Dahl has also sprung into action, slipping inside the barrier provided by Retel’s skill, his twin blades flickering for a moment before slicing through an enemy’s body.
As for me, I join Marica’s magical barrage, focusing my mana to support her own with energy.
We unleash a wide area electric spell, dealing the final blow on several monsters.
The Guardian has charged Shoggoth, entangling its frame with the black mass of my skill.
Only a few other bears remain around, their number dwindling each second as Levia and Dahl do their work.
When the last of them falls, it is time for us to concentrate our attack on the Guardian.
The raging winds around it become even more intense, as it charges its own mana into the air, summoning a hailstorm to freeze Shoggoth.
It works, and the Guardian shatters it with a blow of its tusks, each of them glowing with a sinister red aura.
The thick fur prevents our attacks to dig deep into the monster’s hide, shielding it from most of the damage we try to inflict upon it.
Shoggoth’s shattered, frozen forms begins to recover itself, now bolstered by the other half that, having completed its purpose, is now free to “join” the battle.
In a matter of seconds, Shoggoth regains its original form, once again ready to attack the Guardian.
The battle continues for two hours, until, for the first time, we’re forced to a tactical retreat.
The Guardian roars, bellowing its victory but refusing to chase us in our retreat, heading back to its lair in order to regenerate its health.
None of us suffered serious injuries, but if the battle continued, we would have faced defeat.
During the fight, we managed to whittle down the monster’s health, forcing it into its second phase.
As it changed its form, the Guardian summoned an ice armor around its body, making it impossible
for us to deal any significant damage.
In order to not lose in the battle of attrition between our group, and a monster with incredible defense and a regenerating health pool, we decided to retreat and rest, before challenging it once again.
The monsters in the area will not re-spawn for the next forty-eight hours, so we have time to think about a better strategy, and to recover our strength.
Of course, the Guardian will do the same.
In order to win, we need more powerful attacks, or better means of defense if we want to outlast it, although the second option seems to be the riskier one.
After one day of rest, during which we took care of our wounds and talked about another plan of attack, we head to challenge Tusk once again.
This time, without the other monsters to distract us, all of our energies are focused on killing the Guardian.
Instead of using Shoggoth to restrain it, this time I am using its form to deal damage, along with some spells I have been casting non-stop.
Marica and Retel are the ones acting to restrain the monster, with Retel’s shield serving as a cage to both impede the Guardian’s movement and to concentrate the power of each spell we throw against it.
Charged by both our attacks and the monster’s thrashing attempts to free itself, Retel’s Spike Counter is dealing damage to the monster, red translucent spears impaling the Guardian’s underbelly, painting the ice below it in deep red.
Once again, the monster summons its second phase.
As the ice creeps on its body, encasing it in an impenetrable armor, we’re ready to enact the counter-measures to it.
During most of the fight, both me and Marica had been saving our mana in order to prepare the next spell.
I open Inventory, releasing some of the pre-made spells I stored in it, while Marica completes her incantation.
Retel downs a mana potion, reinforcing his shield around the monster for the upcoming attack, reducing the size of it to enclose only the Guardian’s head.
Fire erupts around the monster’s head, confined by the barrier, burning brighter every second as Marica makes oxygen flow into the barrier, and I ignite it with a chemical reaction.
Until the flames burn blue, then white.
It’s like seeing a small sun, its light illuminating the surroundings with dancing reflexes in the ice.
Shoggoth is holding the monster in place, struggling to keep the giant body restrained as best as possible.
To further injure the creature, Dahl and Levia are taking turns in attacking its legs, targeting the same one until it collapses, joints and bones broken.
Then, they switch to the next, repeating the same tactic until the monster sprawls on the ground, making it shake when its weight is discharged on the ice, cracks spreading through it like a spider’s web.
Meantime, my spell still burns, hotter and hotter, until Marica is forced to apply another layer to the barrier, as the one cast by Retel begins to crack, menacing to release the fury of the magical fire outward, in a fiery explosion.
I drain all my mana into it, and then some more, until I collapse on my knees, blood running from my nose from the excessive effort.
The others are in no better shape, but their wounds start to heal, thanks to the level up that results from the Guardian’s death.
I slowly use the remaining mana to quench the flames. Simply releasing the spell will make it rebound, damaging me further, and so I need to use my mana to drop the temperature and kill the flame by stopping the oxygen supply.
As the fire subsides, it reveals the charred skull of Tusk, its nominal fangs charred black, as the bones emerging from where skin and flesh should be.
The skull is ruined, but it will still serve as a proof that we beat the Guardian.
Panting heavily, I wipe the blood running from my nose with my sleeve, gulping down a restorative potion to mitigate fatigue and damage.
I dismiss Navi’s notification about the two level increase.
I collapse on the ground, exhausted.
Did I seriously think it safe to continue diving into the Dungeon after this? Thankfully, we did rethink our decisions.
After half an hour of rest, we start to clean up the area, as Shoggoth wipes the area from corpses and materials, heading to the gigantic frame of the Guardian and starting to slowly devour it.
Next, it will be the turn for the usual pile of objects that adorns the Guardian’s chamber. Later, we will have to sort them through, searching for useful items or something we could sell.
Mixed among the objects, there are some remains of unlucky adventurers that have met their fate against the Guardian.
Those too we will take with us, in order to give them back to their relatives or friends.
Exhausted, we all head back, using a transfer stone. I am too spent to use Inventory in this state, and I do not want to take risks.
The usual effect of those weird orbs takes hold, the scenery around us warping and twisting into blue light, shifting from the icy plains to the stone walls of the Dungeon’s entrance building, back in Sendria, back in the surface world.
We will deal with things tomorrow, for now, we head back to our home and a deserved good night of rest.
Once we step outside of the Guild building, daylight surprises us. After spending some time into the dimly lit environment of the Dungeon, it is a bit overwhelming.
Still, Sendria is still nice as ever, as if no trace of the internal struggle of power within it has reached the general population.
Perhaps this is something good, although I think that people should know what is really going on.
Besides, some rumors should at least have spread enough among the population to cause some concern, but it has not yet reached the proportion of a widespread panic, like the upcoming invasion of a foreign force should.
We head back home, walking by foot among Sendria’s crowded central streets.
People give our group glancing looks, used as they are to seeing armor-clad, armed adventurers cross the streets coming and going from and to the Dungeon.
Once we reach home, Heod greets us from the kitchen, his hands busy cutting up vegetables. It seems the old man took the day off as he caught wind of us coming back.
He stops, taking the time to hug Levia and give Retel a pat on his shoulder. His eyes have a proud look, as he stares at the two youngsters he considers like his own son and daughter.
Although, he’s more fit to be their grandfather, given the age gap.
I let them catch up a bit, heading upstairs to my room in order to take a bath and don some more comfortable clothes.
Taking my sweet time inside the warm water, I relax myself, enough to risk falling asleep. Thanks to Inventory, I can have my own private bath in my room, without the need for running water.
Still, it would be nice to have that commodity. I bet that now, after reclaiming the rewards from the Guild and selling materials and loot, we will have enough to buy a larger house here in Sendria.
And that is not even taking Heod’s earnings in consideration.
The old man’s voice resounds in the air, as he’s shouting to call me down, since lunch is ready.
After drying myself and donning some clothes, I head downstairs, my hair still wet.
The others are already eating, plates filled with a delicate stew, hot steam rising from them.
My stomach responds to the alluring smell, and I sit down and enjoy the meal.
Even if my own cooking is not bad, and I even have a Cooking skill, the old man is unbeatable when it comes to food.
Sharing lunch, we catch up with him, and he listens as each of us tells what happened in this Dive, often speaking one over the other to add something to the tale.
Like a bunch of high-spirited kids, but I guess this is just a way to blow off some of the accumulated tension.
Heod’s expression turns a bit too serious when Retel mentions feeling weak after leveling up, and Heod immediately cautions us about taking a full week of rest.
<<No Dungeon, no training. Just relax, you earned it. And your bodies need it. I will give you some medicine later, to help ease the fatigue you accumulated>>
His “concerned parent mode” switches off, and our talk returns to the recent Dungeon adventure. Heod’s eyes sparkle as I mention some of the new Ingredients I brought with me, especially those taken at the bottom of the “sea floors”.
<<Those might be never seen items, Roshal. No one dives into those waters, and thus, that portion of the Dungeon was unexplored up until now, the resources in it undiscovered. These might be worth a small fortune>>
He says so, pointing at the algae sample I took out of my inventory. Even with my Alchemy skill, and with Navi’s detection, I was not able to identify which properties they have.
But, seeing Heod’s reaction, it might be something special.
We spend the day at home, too exhausted to head out. After lunch, I take out a bottle of liquor from my Inventory.
<<This is something that I found in the fortieth floor, among the pile of objects that was in the Guardian’s chamber>>
Heod examines the sealed bottle, cleaning the layer of thin dust that sticks to the glass.
<<This is…a high class spirit. Distilled in Aldora, probably fifty years ago>>
He looks at me, pausing for a moment.
<<A bottle of this liquor is worth fifty golds, something that nobles drink in their castles, Roshal>>
In short, it was a good find. When I found it, the bottle was sealed inside a metal casing, with fancy inscriptions in the metal itself. A strange item to find in a Dungeon, perhaps, it was something belonging to a rich adventurer, or some random noble’s son that challenged the Dungeon.
Still, the bottle was sealed, and the liquor inside of it is still good.
<<So, open it>>
Without even waiting for my sentence to end, the old man breaks the wax seal above the cork, proceeding then to open the bottle.
With a popping sound, the cork comes off, and Heod starts pouring the liquor to each of us.
It has a rich, sweet smell, and the taste of it is strong, like old rum, but with fruity aftertaste, sweeter.
Funny how I remember even the taste of something I, as a person, have never ever touched. Those memories surely make some weird moments for me.
Marica coughs, red in face, as the liquor seems to be a little too strong for her. Dahl sips it slowly, as does Retel.
The old man looks at her bright smile, his expression a bit dubious as he hesitates a bit, before shaking his head and pouring another glass to the girl.
We do the same, enjoying the liquor until it ends.
Apparently, Levia’s a strong drinker.
Perhaps, it’s some tolerance due to her race, given how both Retel and Heod seem to be unfazed by the liquor, while Dahl’s face is completely red, and he slurs a bit when talking.
Marica has even worse tolerance, forcing Retel to take her upstairs as she’s falling asleep.
I too am slightly drunk, perhaps a bit more than I realize.
Still, I am well enough to keep talking, and drinking, with the old man, Levia and Dahl.
Retel comes back down after a while, his face as red as his scales and a suspicious mark on his neck, that he clumsily tries to hide.
That too, is something that he had been forced to stop while being in the Dungeon. I guess this forced week of rest will allow him to deepen his relationship with Marica.
I hope so, but it looks like the man needs no more help right now. The difficult part has already been done by him, mustering up the courage to ask a girl out.
The rest comes easy.
I toast to him, making him redden a bit more and mutter something under his lips, until we all break into laughter.
To think that no more than some hours ago we were fighting for our lives, and here we are, drinking and laughing like nothing happened.
Or, perhaps it is exactly because we just risked our lives, that we’re letting ourselves go like this.
After all, it’s good to relieve stress, once in a while.
Marica comes back down after some hours, in time for dinner. She is holding her head, with Retel tending to her like she’s sick.
After dinner, we all call it a day. I promise to Heod to have a good talk about the situation in his laboratory and with the Guild, but for now, I am too tired for a serious talk.
Heading upstairs, I close the door to my room behind my back, take off my shoes and clothes and let myself fall on the bed, dropping asleep almost instantly.
Well, much to my dissatisfaction, the level up screen is there, waiting for me. I quickly allocate the points gained, taking a small glance at the total amount of stats I now have.
Fifty-five points in Strength, Agility, Accuracy, seventy into Luck and one hundred and forty in Intelligence. Charisma is at one hundred and ninety, my highest stat, although I do not even know what the hell it does.
After the stats have been distributed, I can finally drift into sleep.
The dreams I had that night, they were troubled and restless. I woke up in the middle of the night, sweat covering my body as I held onto the lingering image of that distant place, where the Laughing Man decimated an Aldoran fort and freed a group of slaves.
I dreamed of that place again, and during the dream, I walked among the former slaves’ houses and farms, their faces smiling at me.
Julia, the little girl that first told me about the Laughing man, came running towards me, hugging me and calling my name.
But the sensation I got from that dream, it was that of impending danger, and I glanced on the surroundings, where dark shapes twisted into thin mist.
I shake my head, heading to the small window that my room has.
Looking outside, I see the profile of Sendria, sleeping, almost devoid of sound and light. Further ahead, beyond the walls and cultivated lands outside, beyond the Grasslands, the small place where those former slaves have begun their lives again resides.
And I cannot shake off that sense of impending doom, as the Twin moons seems to illuminate the sky in that direction.
I go back to bed, trying to fall asleep once again, after making the resolution of paying a visit to the former slaves.
Morning came, and I am woken up by sunshine seeping in from the open window. I curse at myself for leaving that open last night, and, still drowsy, I head down for breakfast.
The others are all still asleep, even the old man.
I start preparing myself breakfast, decided to leave the house early. Today, I will have to head to the Guild, and then, after the business with them is done, I can leave the rest to the others and head to the former Aldoran fort.
Just to see for myself that they are ok, that the negative feeling I had was only due to the dream.
Although, deep down, I know that is not the case.
Just to feel more at ease, I make an offshoot with Shoggoth, a small, bird-like creature with bio-mechanical features and insect-like transparent wings, and send it off to find the village.
I close my eyes for a moment, receiving the visual feedback from my “minion”, before returning my attention to the stoves.
A sound of light steps distracts me again, as Levia is coming down, her hair still messy.
<<Did I do too much noise?>>
I ask her, giving her a warm smile.
She shakes her head, yawning and stretching her body.
<<No, I just had trouble sleeping. I came down for a glass of water, but, since you’re making breakfast…>>
I start cooking her share too. Pan fried eggs and slices of meat, along with some fruit and tea.
As I offer her the cup, she looks at me intensely.
<<Is there something troubling you?>>
I snicker, surprised by how, every time, all that I think is just readable on my face.
Sitting down in front of her, I start sharing the dream I had last night, and the intention to visit the village afterward.
<<Want me to tag along?>>
I did not consider to bring the others with me, thinking about going alone.
But, before I can answer, she speaks again.
<<Wait, let me rephrase it. I want to come too. I…>>
She struggles a bit with her words, looking down, fidgeting with her hands.
<<I feel like I need to talk. With you, alone. From that day, I have been a bit weird with you, I know that, and I want to make up to it>>
She claps her hands, returning to her cheerful smile.
<<It will be like a nice trip on the countryside, just the two of us!>>
And she leaves, without letting me even answer her.
I shake my head, noticing that she has not even touched her breakfast.
Well, it’s not like I can even begin to understand women, given how all the experience I have in treating with them, comes from those pathetic scenes that are my memories. And, since I sprung into existence being already grown up, it’s not like I had the time to properly build my confidence or anything.
Still, beside the fluttering feeling in my chest, I know that what she wants, is just to recover the friendly relation between me and her.
I finish my breakfast, and leave a small note to the others as I go to the Guild.
Using my spell, Blink, is definitely faster than walking, but I feel like taking a stroll today.
The morning air feels nice, and I even stop and spend some coin on a stall that sells fried candy.
The sweet taste spreads in my mouth, and I walk in the city, absentmindedly taking some glances of what the offshoot I cast earlier sees.
It is still distant from the village, perhaps halfway.
I stop the view, realizing that I was about to bump into a person, as I walked without too much care.
After walking some more, this time paying attention to where I am going, I finally manage to reach the Guild’s main building. In there, I hand out the report for the successful Dungeon Dive. Then, I take the time to stop to Rupert’s counter, in order to drop the monster materials, and claim the rewards for the Champions and Guardians we slain.
As I head there, a young man is manning the desk, with no trace of Rupert’s bulky figure.
Although young, perhaps few years older than me, the man is capable and has nice manners. I see him interact with the other adventurers, swaying with skilled words those that wanted to make a ruckus and wring more money from the receptionist.
To those that insist, he sends subtle threats, backed by a singular shine in the man’s eyes. In order to treat with the roughest adventurers, this counter has to be manned by individuals both skilled in dealing with people, and powerful enough to make troublemakers stand down.
As I use Navi to check the young receptionist, I am surprised to find that he’s level sixty. Still, his stats are below mine, but otherwise impressive. Well, I have some special circumstances to me, so I should consider his stats to be top class among “normal adventurers”.
The line before me is not too long, and the receptionist is quick at work. After twenty minutes, my turn comes.
Greeting the receptionist, I take the forms he hands me, and start compiling them.
I can see him snicker when I write what I will be selling to the counter.
Perhaps, he’s thinking something like “this boy is trying to pull some scam on me”. Well, that reaction should be expected if someone just bases his assumptions on my age and looks.
After all, I am a boy in casual clothes, writing down ridiculous amounts of materials, and even claiming to have slain several Champions and two Guardians.
Of course the man before me would think it a scam.
<<B..Boss! We need some people at the counter here!>>
The man calls for help, as his counter is overwhelmed by the quantity I took out from Inventory.
<<Oh, you again. Roshal, right? Where’s that little snake?>>
Rupert comes out of the back side of the shop, wearing a bloodstained apron that covers his chest and belly.
He yells to someone, and his assistants flock to the counter, each taking care of a part of the materials I am handing down.
<<He’s still asleep. We came back yesterday from the last Dive, and this is the loot we brought back>>
Rupert comes out of the counter, and pats my back with his huge hands.
<<Good job! You brought back a lot this time! And man, that skill you have is surely wonderful. If you do not mind, I could use your help sometimes, to move shipments to the marketplace. I’m sure we will be done in no time with your help>>
I agree to helping him, on a later date, since I intend to visit the former slaves after I will be done here.
As I am still unloading the materials, it finally comes the turn for me to take out the big trophies we gained from this Dive.
One after the other, I take out the parts I’ve saved from each Champion we’ve slain, finishing with the heads of the two Guardians.
<<Boy…are those? What level are you now?>>
I smile, and give Rupert my answer.
He takes me aside, and starts giving me a serious lesson about the risks of quick level up. He even goes as far as sharing his secret remedy for “level hangover”, the way he calls the strange sickness due to too much experience in too little time.
<<But, I have to admit, you’ve grown a lot, reaching the fortieth level and defeating that Tusk. Ah, it brings so much memories back! Here, wait a moment, will you?>>
His is a rhetoric question, and he strolls back to the back side of the building without waiting for my answer.
He comes back holding a long, white spear in his hands.
<<See this beauty? I call it Leanne. She’s made from that thing’s tusks>>
He points to the Guardian’s charred skull. Rupert draws a nostalgic sigh while holding the weapon in hands.
<<Those were good times, lad>>
He talks some more about his past as an adventurer, sharing a detailed tale of the time he himself challenged Tusk in the fortieth floor. According to what he says, he was the one to deal the finishing blow, breaking his lance in the process. And his party members gifted him with a spear made from the monster’s tusks, Leanne, as he called it.
After some more talk, during which his assistants weight and collect the materials I brought, he’s finally ready to make calculations and communicate the amount that the Guild owes me.
It will be paid to the account we have with the Guild, but I am just curious to see how much we earned this time.
The amount written on the small piece of paper that Rupert passes to me, it is enough to make my head spin.
It includes the “bounties” for taking down Champions and Guardians, but still…
Rupert sends one of his assistants to carry the forms to the Treasury counter. After doing that, he hands me some other forms.
<<These are modules required if you want to candidate your party for a Rank Up. You’ve already cleared the requirements until rank B, so it is only a formality at this point. Still, it’s your choice if you lot want to be listed as a ranked party, or just stay as you are right now>>
I nod, taking the forms with me before bidding farewell to Rupert and his assistants.
After that, I give Heod a call, since he should be already awake at this time.
Speaking with the old man, I tell him to meet me at his laboratory. He confirms, telling me that he should be there in an hour or so.
That means, I have some time to spare before meeting him.
Once again, I give a look at my offshoot, seeing how it has reached the Grasslands. Perhaps, when I will be done with these errands, it will have already reached the former slaves’ settlement. At least, I hope.
I take the spare time to drop by Helena’s armor shop, giving her the quota of materials that we owe her as payment.
Chatting with the old lady, I mention the fact that our party will accept the rank up from the Guild. It is something my companions have already accepted, and we just need to hand the forms to the Guild.
Learning the news, she takes the liberty to craft some new armor and weapons for us all.
<<Since you will ranking up, you donning my armor and weapon will provide good advertisement for my little shop, boy. It’s a win-win situation, you will get a discount on high-quality goods, and I will have my creations publicly used by a high-level adventurer party>>
She gives a wry smile, signaling me to come to the back of the shop in order to drop the items.
I anticipated that she would do something like that, and, if she didn’t, I would have requested new gear from her anyways.
And for that reason, I conserved some of the highest-class materials from the Guardians, along with some rare metals and wood from the Dungeon floors.
Her eyes sparkle when she sees the rare materials, her expression more befitting of a kid in a candy shop rather than an old master of the crafting arts.
Still, I suspect that the joy she feels when given the opportunity to work with rare materials is the same.
I leave her to her craft, taking note of when the new items will be ready. Then, I head to the old man’s laboratory, for the final errand of this morning.
The others are also there, tagging along with the old man, who’s eager to show his new workplace to them.
It turns out, he has already hired some assistants for his work, and the alchemical workshop is busy with activity.
People of all ages, wearing white, thick coats over tunics of the same color, are handling vials filled with liquids of various color, while others are preparing raw materials or tending to the equipment.
Heod signals one of the assistants to catalog and stash the materials I have brought with me, and the assistant invites me to follow him into the material storage.
I abide, opening Inventory at the designed location and letting the materials out.
Then, I part from the assistant, leaving him to his task.
The others have already finished the guided tour, and now, it is time for Heod to show me the progress he’s made.
With a wide smile, the first thing he brings out is the completed form of the mana storing metal. As it is now, it can hold the mana in it for weeks, without leaking even a slight amount of it.
The prototype itself is revolutionary, as it allows storage and extraction without dispersion of power.
It could be used as a magical battery to power-up spells, or as a reserve for battle magicians or healers.
But, the end-line product is still a bit faraway, although closer with this advancement.
Sadly, there is little progress on the drug used by Alvarez to control the army. The more pressing matter is the one where the Guild, and Heod, are falling behind.
It’s mostly due to the difficulty of obtaining samples of the substance. We have some blood taken by an accomplice healer, that managed to smuggle it from the Army’s Healing center, but the sample is limited in both amount and quality.
In order to individuate the substance, Heod’s laboratory would need either a pure sample of it, or some better samples of soldier’s blood.
But the Army closely guards both the Healing center, and its members, so it is difficult to obtain the latter, and , without knowing what they’re exactly looking for, it is even harder to procure pure samples of the drug.
If I had known this earlier, I would have used the “prisoners” from Leidus’ s group in a different way, instead of consuming their bodies with Shoggoth.
Perhaps, I could manage to “abduct” some soldier if I am careful enough…
But I quickly dismiss that idea. It will only bring more trouble if some soldiers suddenly become missing, and perhaps, it will give the excuse for Alvarez to pin the accident to the Guild, somehow.
After the briefing, I speak with the others about my intentions to visit the former slave settlement.
It seems all of them have already made separate plans for the upcoming days, with Dahl going to visit his sister since she too is taking a week off, and Retel has plans to spend time with Marica.
Levia is still of the idea of tagging along with me, so I guess the two of us will head there.
I decide to hold off on selling the remaining loot, and anticipate my departure a bit.
With that settled, me and Levia head to the city’s walls, ready to leave Sendria for some time.
As we walk, I take a glance to the visual feedback from the offshoot I sent earlier.
Nothing. It has been destroyed, the last record from it being a distant image of the settlement.
Perhaps some wild monster, or even a normal animal could have attacked it, but I cannot shake off the feeling that something wrong is going on in that place.