Re:Interference Chapter 31- Ream (part 1)

The villagers have fought. Not well, but better than the first time. As a result, their levels rose, and those that gained a level up, received skills as a reward.

When each villager raised his or her level, a window popped into my view, stating my “pawn”’s statistics, skills.

Each window presented me with a choice, asking me which path I wanted their growth to follow.

It’s difficult to decide something like this, and in a normal situation, I would have consulted with each person before making the choice.

However, the situation we’re in demands a firm hand from me. What I need to do, is take the reins and decide in order to optimize our chances, in order for us to overcome the upcoming challenge.

First, we need a good and solid line of defense. Front line fighters, “tanks” capable of restraining the enemy’s advance and hold them in place.

Of the forty-five battle able villagers, I chose twenty to develop into front line fighters, dividing them into two groups.

The first group will be composed by tanks, counting twelve individuals whose stats were already shaped towards a more physical role.

I altered their grow pattern, making it possible for them to develop skills related to defense and survival rather than pure offense. Given how the dialogue window presented their choice, these people will most likely develop self-healing or minor group healing skills along with others related to battle.

The remaining eight people form the second melee group. Those that boasted high Agi and Str are part of this group, and their growth will shape them into swift melee attackers, capable of swooping in among enemy lines and dealing quick bursts of damage before retreating. Rogues, in short.

The first group will have a fighting style more similar to Retel, and I will put him in charge of their training.

Dahl will take care of the second unit, showing them how to fulfill their role in the battlefield.

Twenty-five people remain, to be assigned into different roles.

Ten will become magicians, their growth altered in order for them to develop mana related abilities and stats. Along with ten ranged fighters, they will compose the rear line of our defense, dealing massive damage while the front lines fighters keep the enemy at bay.

Five people remain, and those will receive the role of healers.

I look at the settlers, their faces both tired and satisfied after they overcame the first challenge. Some of them are already tampering with their new skills, those that they received after my tampering.

It should be an heartwarming scene, to see people grasp their own power. Instead, I am here, worrying about the crushing lack of numbers on our side.

My party will fight too during the Horde’s attack, but…will it be enough?

Still, that is a matter for later. Now, after a brief respite, I let the second wave of monsters out of Shoggoth.

<<Ready?>>

At the sound of my voice, the villagers once again assume their formations. The enemies this time are a mix of monsters, not just a single type of creature. Before completely releasing them, I let the villagers study the creatures a bit.

They assume their new formations, melee fighters forming a tight line, shoulder to shoulder, shields raised and spears pointed towards the enemy.

The second line of melee fighters is ready, weapons unsheathed, steel glistening under the morning sun.

Bowstrings being tensed resound in the air, while the magicians charge their simple spells, chanting unfamiliar words. This time, they decided to buff the archers’ arrows from the start, rather than wasting their mana on weak attacks.

The healers retreat from the spot, thinking their role too precious for them to be caught into the heat of the battle. Although it is partially true, our numbers do not allow for such thinking.

Rebuked by my words, they pick up their weapons once again, ready to enter the fray. I had to order them to do so, but it is necessary after all.

I let the monsters free, their forms shambling before they charge towards the villagers.

This time, the battle ended fairly quickly. Some people got wounded, and I had to intervene in order to save some lives.

Still, the group managed to overcome the creatures, and got a nice amount of experience as a reward. Their tactics are still lacking, their understanding of their own skills still vague. But they show potential.

I let the healers do their work, their minor healing skills mending skin and flesh with a constant mana expenditure, making the users sweat profusely.

Of course, it is the only way for them to increase their proficiency with skills after all. When their mana and Int will be high enough, I will teach them some useful healing spells, but for now, I need them to get accustomed to their own skills.

When the healers become too exhausted, potions do the rest. Mana, Health and Stamina are consumed rapidly, renewing the villagers’ strength.

Once more, after a brief respite, I release monsters from Shoggoth, each time increasing the number and difficulty of the challenge.

We go on like this for all morning, until the group of villagers finally reached level eight. It seems like the same phenomenon that happened to my party is happening to the villagers, as their level began to synchronize until they all reached the same growth rate.

Exhausted, and beginning to show the symptoms of Level Up sickness, the settlers headed back to their homes, allowing themselves some deserved rest and a meal.

After three hours, I will have them start training again, this time not against monsters.

Levia and Retel are back from their trip to Sendria, bringing much needed supplies with them.

I brief the two of them about the first bout of training for the villagers, leaving matter in their hands as I head away from Ream.

<<Meviel>>

Following my command, Meviel manifests, much like Shoggoth does when I use the skill. Black liquid flowing from my hand to the ground, then pooling, bubbling and shambling until it takes its final appearance.

I glance at the creature, a curios form of a bio mechanical moth, glistening black in its color.

The villagers are not the only ones that I will train in this short amount of time. Even if I myself am barred from increasing my level, that does not mean that my “units” cannot.

Together with my creation, I head into the Marsh, in the opposite direction from where the Hero is amassing his force.

The monster in this portion of the swamp are in the high thirties, with the strongest ones boasting level forty-five. Creatures that would normally tear Meviel apart, with its measly level ten.

Under normal circumstances, that is. Using Shoggoth to restrain the creatures, I snatch one of them at the time, letting Meviel attack it again and again until the monster drops dead.

As Meviel is my creation, I receive some experience from its kills, however, I can decide to let my minion have all the experience. Doing this, I am sure to not increase my own level, while powering up Meviel as a result.

Still, it seems that its growth rate is somewhat…slow.

Even after defeating a number of monsters trice its level, Meviel increased its own only by six levels.

With each level gained, the creature grows bigger, its form evolving as it grows, beginning to resemble less and less its original shape of a moth and becoming more…alien with each level up.

Truly, it looks like something evil spawned from a strange hell, and yet, I cannot feel anything but a swelling sensation of pride when looking at my own minion. I do not know where this feeling stems from, if it is something due to the fact that Meviel is my own creation, born from my own skill, and thus is something like an extension of my own self, or if it is something purely emotional, like the affection one would feel to his own dog.

As slow as it is, my minion is definitely growing, and seeing it grow pleases me.

Meanwhile, I keep tabs on the Hero’s movement, being wary of not letting my little spies being caught.

It seems like Damian’s only concern, for the moment, is strengthening his own little army of creatures. Not a single time, since I started observing his movements, he went off to increase his own level, nor he did meet or call someone from his homeland.

As Emilia said, it looks like Damian is alone in this “mission” of his, if it can even be called like this.

Perhaps, Aldora leaves him full control of his own actions, allowing the Hero to do as he pleases while in enemy territory.

A waste of a good resource, in my opinion. Sure, his actions could cause chaos and undermine the stability of the opposing regions and government, but, I feel like he could be best utilized if his actions were to be coordinated with the main army’s movements.

In truth, all that Aldora Kingdom is doing makes little sense to me. All that plotting against Sendria, with them planting a pawn in the government and army of the city, and yet Aldora has to make its move.

They basically have the upper hand in the conflict, as their own army is superior in numbers and quality, they could just march and crush opposition as they move.

The bigger picture still eludes me, if it even exists.

My own musings are interrupted by Heod’s voice, relayed to me from Navi’s communication function.

<<Hello, Roshal? You there boy?>>

I answer him, noting the tone of excitement that slightly creeps in his voice.

<<Yes Heod. Did something good happen?>>

<<Oh, you just wait and see. Come over, as fast as you can>>

Now his words made me really curious. I knew that his group was working on some kind of new project, could it be they already made significant progress on that?

Or is it something related to the older research that Heod was pursuing, perhaps?

Nonetheless, he would not leave me even a little hint, so, I recall back Meviel and head towards the old man’s laboratory.

Once there, he suddenly grabs me and literally drags me towards his workbench. On it, a familiar shape is resting over the coarse wooden table, surrounded by screws, scraps of metal and various pieces of wood.

The thing is a bit different in its design from what I can remember, but, undoubtedly, the metal cylinder that composes more than three quarters of its structure, the lever mechanisms, exposed in this prototype, its function clearly deducible from the shape and arrangement of components.

This is, without the slightest doubt, a rifle.

<<This…>>

Heod interrupts me, grinning from ear to ear.

<<I knew it! Your…the other world had something similar!>>

I look at him with a perplexed expression, and the old man pats my shoulder before he explains. To what I recall, I mentioned firearms in some conversation with him, but I never went into details or asked him to develop something similar.

As I try to think more about it, I notice how the knowledge itself that I possess on the subject is shallow, without any proper detail about how a firearm works, besides some notions picked up from movies and TV.

We did work, however, on a small bomb prototype. It used a mixture of chemistry and magic to work. Did the old man figure out the potential of it, and develop firearms as a consequence?

<<You see, this little project here made me think. A lot. An explosion, caused by igniting a mana charged compound with magic, then releasing it. Same power of a simple fire spell, an infinitely lesser amount of mana needed to achieve the same effect. And that, set things in motion. What if, we had the possibility of using no mana at all to have the same effect? So I sat down, and literally burned out my own brain to find a completely chemical way to do it. I mixed reagents, reaching a standstill in progress. I could not discover a formula stable enough to be safe for the user, as the resulting explosion was either too powerful, or insignificant. Then, in here, I found a material unknown to me. It’s a metallic ore, that the slaves…former slaves here were made to mine for Aldoran army. If processed, it provides stability to the formula>>

His eyes shine, as he goes into too much detail, starting to blabber chemical equations and mathematical formulas, going so far as to bring out parchments and scrolls scribbled with equations and graphs.

<<Ahem, perhaps I am delving a bit too much into detail. My point is, with this, the mixture is stable to transport, and the resulting explosion can be triggered by a simple event, like applying sudden force to the container, or a simple spark. No mana involved. And I thought, what if we used this explosion, contained in some way, to proper projectiles? And that thought led to this baby here>>

He lifted off the prototype rifle, caressing its barrel.

<<Now, would you like to test it?>>

I answer his grin with a smile of my own.

We stroll off from the laboratory, Heod carrying his prototype work and a closed satchel, metallic, tingling sounds coming from it every step Heod takes.

Projectiles, most likely. To think that he developed this all on his own, starting from a somewhat defective magical grenade, to this.

Truly, the old man did surprise me. I always thought him to be good in his craft, but now, he proved that he’s beyond good, He’s a true master, despite his old age, despite his low level.

We reach the area where the villagers were training, their numbers now engaging in a little respite from the intense physical training they are undergoing.

Our presence, and the strange thing that Heod carries, draws their curiosity. A small crowd forms around us, as we set out to the archery range.

<<Now, you load the bullets here, and close the mechanism. This part needs a lot of improvements, in my opinion. Still, it is ok for a prototype version. You point the barrel in the direction of your target and pull this lever here. Now, try it>>

As I press the trigger, nothing more than a crude metal lever, the inner mechanisms move, springs are released and gears move subsequently, until a metal piece hits the bullet chambered inside the rifle. The resulting force makes the powder stored inside the ammunition explode, the explosion contained inside the sturdy metal, the energy it unleashes forced into a single direction. Forward.

It propels the projectile, a booming found followed by a whistling, red track in the air, too fast even for my eyes.

My arms and shoulder jolt back from the recoil, and the dummy, a straw mannequin with some arrows protruding from its head and chest, is pierced by the bullet.

The straw head is no more, obliterated by the force and momentum of this new weapon.

With a proud stance and a smug smile, Heod laughs.

<<See? Isn’t it incredible? Were the weapons in the other world as powerful as this one?>>

I give back the prototype to him.

<<I must admit, this is truly impressive. But, it requires some more work before it is usable in battle. And, I do not want to undermine your findings, but this is nowhere near what we…what they had in that other place. It’s a step in the same direction, but the weapons there, they were on a whole another level. In time, maybe, if you dedicate yourself to this it would become usable. But for now, magic and archery are more effective>>

The weapon performed splendidly, drawing the attention and curiosity of the villagers, and even my companions are looking this way, weapons in hand and concerned expression, as they were alerted by the loud bang resounding in the village.

Yet, I feel like the weapon itself is still lacking. The recoil is too powerful, the mechanisms are clunky and the rifle itself is too heavy to be useful.

Moreover, even if the damage it did against a straw mannequin resulted in a flashy show, with the straw head basically exploding, I feel like against real enemies things would be difficult. A simple mana shield would block the projectile.

And the main problem lies in the production of this weapon. The reagents that make the gunpowder are rare, Heod said so himself. The metal required to produce each part is expensive, and the manufacture process for the smallest parts would be difficult for any artisan or blacksmith. It would require years to develop methods to actually produce these rifles, and, even if we did, they would still be overshadowed by spells or simple archery boosted by skills.

However, Heod’s grin deepened instead of fading.

<<Ah, you youngsters should have more faith in your elders. This, this is nothing but a failed, earlier version of my baby.>>

He now raises his voice, addressing the curious villagers as well.

<<Behold, the ultimate creation, the weapon that will change history itself!>>

And what he showed next was incredible.

Two days. To the man’s words, he took two full days without resting or even eating to complete it.

To him, it was all already there, in his own mind. He only needed that final piece to complete a picture that was missing only a tiny detail.

He worked like under a spell, like he was possessed. And the result of his mad study and experiments were three objects.

The first, a prototype, made to test his theory.

The second one, a finished, improved version of that prototype.

And the third, his masterpiece, as he called it.

The second gun was not even fired, as he glossed over it. Not because he felt like it was lacking, as Heod said, but because the final piece was so overpowering, that there was no point in losing time with its predecessor.

What he showed, his third work, his masterpiece, made a chill run in my spine.

The weapon had a black glint to its metallic part, looking sturdier than the prototype, yet lighter. There were no superfluous or over complicated mechanisms showing from it, all its gears, springs and levers hidden inside its frame.

Instead of inserting a single bullet inside the chamber, he loaded a clip into the weapon, much like a modern rifle from that place.

And he fired, repeatedly.

My jaws gaped in marvel, the impossibility of this thing striding against what I saw. Because, it was truly impossible that a single man, no matter how smart he was, developed such a weapon from scratch, in two single days.

And yet, here it was, gleaming black under sunlight, smoke still rising from its barrel.

<<And the best thing is, we have enough material and powder to produce more of these babies>>

Heod said, caressing his rifle like a father would do with his child.

<<Now, if you excuse me, I am going to rest a bit. I…may have exaggerated a bit, and now I feel like those two days of “mad science” may literally kill me if I do not eat and lay down a bit. Feel free to drop by tomorrow, for today, I want no one to disturb me.>>

And like that, he left, carrying the weapon with him.

I met Retel’s eyes among the crowd, seeing how he had the same dumbfounded expression that I had.

Still, this unexpected development could give us an edge over our enemies. No, I am sure that it will definitely become an advantage for our side. After all, firearms had an enormous impact in that world, their power so overwhelming that it revolutionized warfare.

And given how fast Heod was in theorizing first, then developing the weapon, I am sure that, if given enough time, he will produce something even more marvelous.

The villagers too are making progress on their side. Today, their training did not involve actual level up. Instead, my companions focused on improving each group’s skills.

Their proficiency is still too low to be of some use, but now, they can at least fight back.

Another notable thing is the constant flow of mana that I receive from this place. Since I claimed and named the village, Ream, the mana I spent on the process has already been regenerated by this flow.

Even more, the constant flow has increased in quantity and density since the villagers leveled up. I still have not decided on how to use it, and, for the moment, I am limiting myself to storing the excess mana.

Using it as a reserve, like some sort of backup mana battery would be the most simple solution. And yet, all this power flowing could be put to better use.

I have two options that I am currently considering. The first one, is to use this mana to weave some spells in advance, doing the same thing as when I faced off with Leidus.

The other option, however, is intriguing me more and more as time goes by. Instead of using this mana myself, I could try and affix it to Ream’s defenses.

Harder to implement a solution like this one, given how mana naturally escapes from objects. But, if the progress we made on enchanting materials could be transferred to larger, complex structures, it might not be impossible to achieve something like this.

Combining this second option with the use of firearms will give us an overwhelming advantage over the monster horde, as we could just barricade our numbers in the village behind strong defenses, and let offensive spells and bullets do the rest.

Of course, dealing with the Hero will be another thing altogether.

The following days flew, following the tight rhythm that I imposed on Ream and its population. The villagers have now risen to level thirty after five days of training.

A big change in the organization of the small force is that the ranged unit has ditched bows and crossbows, as Heod has provided them with firearms.

Using the materials at our disposal, he managed to produce a set of firearms for each person, consisting of two weapons.

A rifle, with high impact ammunition, capable of delivering strong blows with great accuracy.

And a shorter firearm for close ranged combat, lighter, capable of quick rates of fire, but the bullets themselves are not as powerful as the ones the rifles use.

With this setup, they should be able to handle combat in every situation.

Since then, Heod has holed himself up in his laboratory, telling everyone that he’s working on a new invention.

It seems like the old man’s spirit has flared up since his new discovery, and now, he’s dedicating every ounce of himself on this new project.

During my spare time, I alternate between leveling up Meviel and catching monsters to train the villagers with.

The main problem that I am facing right now is that the monsters around this area do not provide enough experience anymore, for both Meviel’s training and for the villagers. If it was possible, I would leave here and make a quick trip to the Dungeon, snatching some creature from John’s collection of monsters.

But, since the Trial basically ties me to this place, I cannot leave the area.

I will need to find a solution for this, or accept the fact that Ream’s villagers will be under-leveled when we face the monster horde.

My plan of using mana to strengthen the village’s defensive structures has still proven impossible to implement.

Mana simply flows away from the objects, and the more complex the material is, the more quickly it disperses mana.

I would need a constant supply of it in order to maintain even a single device, and most of the energy itself simply disperses right away.

Keeping it into small objects, especially metal alloys, is somewhat easy for a limited time, but larger objects are still impossible for now.

Following these unsatisfactory results, I decided to destine the mana received from Ream to two uses.

As backup resource, and to craft spells in advance.

Much to my surprise, it seems that Marica has found a way to give small magic effects on the metal projectiles that Heod’s firearms use. The alloy that composes them keeps mana for about two days, and, with a bit of patience, is possible to graft a spell onto it, much like magicians do with arrows.

It is temporary, of course, but a bullet enchanted with this method can pass right through a mana barrier, thus increasing its efficiency.

Of course, I do not expect them to be able to hurt the Hero, but against monsters, they will be more than enough.

Small improvements, one step at a time. During the lapse of time between the start of the trial and the designed battle, all the small steps will add up, all of them increasing our chance of victory.

In Ream, the tension is palpable. Tired from the training, the villagers slouch to their homes when night falls, after we all consume dinner in the large communal hall.

Our resources are well enough to feed the villagers, and they will last even under a siege. The outer defensive walls are now complete, two squares of stones surrounding the village, enclosing it into barriers that will hold against a powerful force.

All while the place is shrouded under the illusion I cast the first day. To my surprise, the Hero had begun to send some scouts from his army, small, quick creatures capable of some semblance of intelligent thoughts.

The illusion held, and the little spies had nothing to “report” to their master, besides the former fort still being populated by low level former slaves, unable to even build a proper fence around their home.

What will his expression be, when is forces will collide against two stone walls, each taller than four meters?

And what will he feel, when seeing his army of creatures felled one by one, each of his minion dying after a flash and a booming sound.

He will be enraged. Not because he cares, I am sure of it, but because of the sheer notion that mere slaves dare to resist him.

And that, will be the core of my strategy against him. All these days, I have observed the child Hero, how he behaves, how he reacts. Even his habits, even his dreams. What I learned, is that the mind inside of him is not that of a child. Much like me, he is something like a patchwork of memories, a mature mind stapled together from pieces of information taken from elsewhere.

Unlike me, he still has no idea about it. Instead, he grovels in this idea of being a Hero, in his mind, his gallant figure trumps over the bad memories he carried from the other world.

Hubris overflows from him. Sure, he is strong, stronger than I am, but he is too overconfident, thinking himself invincible, unbeatable.

And yet, he is vulnerable. Not in his body, protected by that absurd Blessing, or skill, that he owns, but in his mind.

I was able to scan his memories with spells, and he did not even notice. A fatal weakness, something that a person of his caliber should not have. His mental fortitude is lacking, much like my own was when I confronted John for the first time. A manufactured personality, like mine, John’s and even Damian’s, does not have the inner strength that a normal mind possess. Those words, that John said to me the first time he showed me the truth, are the only advantage I have against the Hero.

Using this defect that both me and him possess, this flaw in our “soul”, I managed to see glimpses of his past. The patchwork of memories he hold, the ones that he actually crafted for himself in this world. In all of them, Damian has proved himself to be quick to anger, careless and prideful.

Traits that have only been strengthened by his position as a Hero, and by the impressive strings of victories he achieved in battle.

The moment when John decided to share with me his knowledge on what he called “mind magic” still remains in me, his words echoing through my thoughts.

<<Much like Heroes and Demon Lords, magicians capable of using spells that influence the mind are rare. In all Sendria, as an example, only a handful of people possess such talent, be it due to Skills or spells, and only Telesia among them is proficient enough to use this ability effectively, beyond it being nothing more than a party trick.

Most of the rare “mind magicians” of Sendria are nothing more than swindlers with low powers, able to catch only a simple glance on someone else’s thoughts. Memories are almost impossible to be read using common magical knowledge, and altering someone’s own mind is basically impossible.

Even Telesia, being the powerful mage she is, can only use something like telepathy for a limited amount of time, and with limited uses. Or Alvares, for that matter. He too is one of the few individuals able to harness mind magic. And he’s powerful, too, and yet, you saw how feeble his magic was, his control over someone else’s mind, as you unraveled it, someone with half his level and knowledge, and yet, just by using your own mana, you dispelled your companion from Alvares’ magic. Not because you were powerful, but because his spell was lacking. He lacks the knowledge about what the brain is, about its structure, the chemistry that activates between neurons with each single thought or sensation. Without knowing those, every attempt at “mind magic” is nothing but a pitiful mockery.

As knowledge about how the brain actually works, in a biological way, significantly hinders the progress of this branch of magic, more focused on a spiritual way of seeing the world.

The spells I used, instead, treats the body as it is, a mixture of chemical reactions, of components that connect and interact one with the other. Knowing what neurons are, how they connect and interact between themselves allows for the interpretation of those connection, those signals, leading to the comprehension of the mind itself, and ultimately, to its secrets. Now, something like this, requires an astounding amount of calculations to be done at the same time, but I think that you possess something capable of that, do you?>>

In that moment, when I was still shaken by the revelation about my own nature, John decided to share with me a decisive element, something that, in his words, would allow me to be victorious against any foe, if I used it correctly and I prepared beforehand.

The spell itself is not costly in terms of mana expenditure, and it leaves a small trace of mana, almost undetectable.

By activating it sporadically, even at a distance, I managed to obtain glimpses of Damian’s mind, and using those, I understood his personality.

And the reason why he is so defenseless against this kind of magic. He lacks the knowledge of it. You cannot defend something that you are not aware of, and, as he is, Damian lacks both the understanding of himself, of how frail his own mind is, and the knowledge about how his body works. Otherwise, it would be incredibly easy to defend against this kind of spell, as I learned during my training with John. Using his advice, I was able to raise my resistance, just by being aware that my mind could be attacked instead of my body.

Of course, I do not expect all the Heroes to behave as Damian. Being a former Hero himself, John warned me of exceptional individuals that are among their ranks, people that even him would have trouble fighting with.

But, against Damian, his own mind will be my weapon.

Still, one thing is to have a clear path to follow, a course of action, so to speak. The difficult thing will actually be the implementation of this plan.

There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and I need to use what little time I have at my disposal to think and find a way to make it work.

The biggest obstacle will be removing Damian from the battle. Most likely, he himself will follow the Horde during the attack, and if he does, I fear that he might use his powers to control the people here.

Much like he did back in Nudria, when he forced Retel and Levia to attack me.

If the same thing happens here, the citizens of Ream will turn on me, becoming a weapon in my enemy’s hands instead of being my allies.

That is something that I need to prevent, at all cost.

From what I remember, he uses his own mana, injecting it into people or monsters and usurping control from them, leaving the “mind” of the controlled person intact, trapped in its own body as it becomes a plaything in the Hero’s hands.

Perhaps, it would be best to devise some sort of protection for the villagers and my companions. Thankfully, I have more than enough mana at my disposal to cast something, the only thing left to do is to figure out the exact spell I want to implement here.

And, what would happen if the one being controlled is me? I feel a huge headache coming up, slowly rising from the base of my neck, spreading through my head, riding on my anxiety and doubts for this whole mess that I put myself into.

Maybe, I am biting more that I can swallow, and all this will become a spectacular failure of a plan. And yet, there only thing I can do now, is to push forward. Retreating or fleeing will have the same outcome, which is my own death along with the destruction of this small settlement, of the hopes and freedom of each person that lives here.

No, I need to push those thoughts aside. Failure is not an option, and, as much as I would like to just run away, I need to shut down my fear, to erase my doubts.

My mind, my will, will be the only weapons I can effectively use against a monstrous enemy like Damian. If I let myself waver, defeat will be certain.

Time went by, each day following the same cycle of repetition for me and the villagers. Each passing day, the awareness that the attack will come grew, creeping in, spreading unrest among our ranks. From the weakest villager to my companions, battle hardened from the time we spent inside the Dungeon.

But this, this is completely different from facing monsters in an underground cave. Not only our lives are on the line here, but also those of each former slave, be it children or old.

Sometimes, during the rare moments of pause I had in this period of time, I wondered how things would have turned out here, if I just ignored the sensation that compelled me to come here.

I’d like to think that the villagers would be ok, that Damian would simply take his mass of controlled monsters elsewhere, perhaps leading them to Sendria or some other place. That this small settlement would be spared from the upcoming war, too small to even draw the smallest speck of interest for itself.

Instead, the reality of things is that this place would have been wiped up completely. The Hero’s plan is fairly simple in its brutality. He was sent here, chosen for his peculiar abilities. An invincible protection cast on himself, and the ability to control his own enemies. He would advance from village to village, growing the force under his control, each time adding monsters and people, unwilling soldiers forced to march and kill. Until he would reach Sendria, his army thousands strong, opening the path to the Aldoran Army’s attack.

I calm myself, looking towards the Marsh while I wait. Coming here was the right thing to do, although, I have to admit, it was inevitable for me.

Yet, me being here means that this place, these people, will have a chance to survive. Perhaps, a victory here will be the small spark that will allow Sendria to be victorious in the end. I only hope that Alvarez does not chose to make his move right when we are fighting here. If he does, the option of us having some reinforcement from the Guild will disappear, lowering our chances not only of victory, but survival.

I can only hope that things go well on that front. For now, I need to concentrate myself to what is happening in front of me.

It’s raining today, a heavy downpour that drenches the very earth, raindrops being swayed in their trajectory by sudden gusts of cold wind, and the distant sound of thunder,, coming closer as the storm grows in intensity.

The cold is entering my bones, as my clothes, drenched with water, stick to my skin. I am standing on top of the defensive, inner wall that we built, overseeing the preparations.

Water is pooling on the stone near me, puddles that splash every time one of the villagers pass near me, each time reporting their status, or requesting some orders.

They move, their faces pale and tense, knowing that this day, under the heavy rain, could be the last.

It takes some time, before everything is ready, and all that is left is to wait. After all, this will be a defensive battle. No point in facing a force, superior in numbers and strength, out in the open.

No, we will wait, let them come to us.

The villagers are already set in their position, each of them trying his best to hide the nervous shaking of their hands, the darting glances that they throw at their surroundings. Warriors grip their weapons, their knuckles becoming white from the effort. But their eyes burn, determination and the will to survive in their gaze as sharp as blade.

The low humming of chanted spells comes from behind their ranks, from the magician division hidden behind the second wall of defense.

High on the walls, and on the wooden guard towers that we built for this occasion, the marksmen are cradling their rifles, waiting for the enemy to be in sight.

Hidden in the shadows, the rogues trained by Dahl wait, ready for their ambush.

I extend my consciousness outwards, checking the state of the several traps that we dispersed and set all around Ream.

No matter how I look at things, our numbers always seem too scarce, our defenses lacking and frail.

I would like to have more time, to build one more wall, to train the villagers one more level. And yet, that is no more possible.

I clench my fist, waiting.

Retel informs me that everything is ready on his end. The people he will lead will be our first line of defense, their shields will hold the monsters in place.

Confirmations come also from Marica and Levia. How different their voices sound in my head, the first one almost faint, trembling with insecurity, while Levia seems almost eager for this to finally start.

A tap on my shoulder, Dahl standing behind me as I turn around.

He does not say anything, just limiting himself to shake his head in denial.

I draw a sigh, disappointed by this outcome. The Guild will be unable to provide us with assistance, at least at this moment.

I would like to retort, to tell that old hag that if we lose here, there will be no other moments to help.

But I hold, I steel my mind. After all, I expected that things would go this way. The Guild has already their hands full with intelligence works and the internal situation in Sendria, it was unlikely that they could spare some hands to help us.

In the end, we will be alone in this battle.

And yet, besides all the doubts, all the fear that clouds my mind, I feel something rising from the deepest corner of my soul.

The part of my mind that is tied to another world screams, despairs itself to the prospect of this fight.
And yet, I catch a glimpse of my own reflection, my own image staring back at me from a shallow puddle of rain water, its form disturbed by the ripples caused by falling raindrops.

I am grinning.

Besides all doubts, beside the fear of failure I am experiencing, part of me looks forward to this confrontation. I want this battle, I ache for it. I fear it, and I want to flee. This duality of thought, almost as if my mind is being thorn apart, ripped in two halves that screams and wail at each other.

But the weak part of me, the one that was all my being when I first woke up into this world, is slowly fading away. It is still there, questioning my every decision, always whispering to my ear that I cannot do it, that it is too much. Its voice grows weaker with time, from the paralyzing imperative that it was, to the nuisance it is now.

I will not falter, not anymore.

As I look down from the defensive wall, the villagers of Ream look at me, waiting. I let the words flow, not even thinking about what I am really saying to them. I speak my mind, my voice resounding between the gusts of fierce wind, following the rhythm of falling rain and the forced pauses dictated by thunder.

It is a declaration of intent, the will to survive, to overturn the fate that would befell this place.

As the flow of words ends, I feel emptied, somehow, exhausted. A small pause, silence creeps, before the villagers respond to my intent with their own.

Even if their number is exiguous, their voices are powerful. It is their fight, as much as it is my own.

I do not know if their reaction was due to the strange spell my presence cast on this land, that influence I hold over each inhabitant of Ream. Or if my Charisma stat showed its effect, turning an incoherent speech into words that inspire warriors.

But I like to think that my words, without any effect or enhancement, truly reached their heart, igniting a spark of hope, as I keep up the act of extreme and utter confidence in our victory.

The result, no matter the circumstances, is the same. For a moment, these people left behind their anxiety, their worries, and truly believe that they, we, will overcome this predicament.

It lasts no more than thirty seconds. A distant noise, as if trees are being crushed, and a faint, weak muttering, much like voices strained by pain.

Growing stronger with each second, and hearing them, the first villager turns to the point from where the sounds are coming.

The battering rain makes it difficult to have a clear picture of what is happening, and the curtain of falling raindrops makes seeing past them almost impossible, shadowing the world behind countless, misshapen spheres, hiding the form of what is coming.

I take a deep breath, letting my power swell, controlling its flow to not let it run rampant, letting my mana flow gently, softly, adjusting it as it brushes each of the valiant, or perhaps foolish, warriors that now stand in this rain, ready to face their destiny.

I share with them what I can grasp, the representation of the battlefield, and the enemy’s position.

Now knowing where the enemies are, the villagers of Ream seem to leave behind their worries, steeling themselves for the upcoming fight.

I can feel their determination, the will to never yield. They will fight as long as they have breath in them, even more if they can.

The land trembles, first a soft shaking, almost imperceptible. Then, it becomes more intense, a rumbling sound, so similar and yet so different from the same thunder that shakes the sky.

The borders of my illusion, the one I cast on Ream, begin to sway and ripple, and the air is filled with ungodly sounds and wail. The earth shakes, as the stampede approaches, the muddy terrain stomped by countless legs and claws, ready to maim and crush.

Behind the veil of rain, misshapen form are now barely visible, shadows twisting and twitching, gleaming eyes and glistening fangs.

I bark my orders, without even a real necessity for them since Navi’s communication could simply rely my thoughts to each villager.

But I cannot help it, and so I scream and shout, telling them one and only thing.

Wait.

Wait for them to be inside. Do not let your fingers pull the trigger, do not let your mouths utter a spell.

Until they are inside, and the trap is ready to spring into action.

The illusion is holding up, as the first monsters begin to cross it.

And yet, I ask my men to wait. A crushing sound, the sound of splintered wood and shattered stone. The first trap goes off, taking two low leveled creatures with it.

This is the critical moment. If everything goes to plan, the illusion will hold, and the Hero will not catch a hint of what is happening inside of it.

No reaction. The creatures simply advance, mindless, enraged, seeking only to destroy. My frown becomes a grin, much like the one I had before.

It is starting, it is time to get loose. All the doubts, fear and hesitation, all of them are being washed away, as blood rushes to my head, my hearth pumping faster and faster.

I shout my order to the snipers, and a different kind of thunder resounds in the air. Every time it does, a signal disappears from the map, and a monstrous corpse hits the ground.

Its companions do not falter, simply pressing the lifeless husks of their kin into the mud, stomping over them, sometimes, even eating them.

The traps we set are springing into action, one after the other, each of them claiming its toll among the numbers of the opposing force.

Yet, they advance.

Again, a booming sound, and the noise of splintered wood, shattered stone. The first wall has gone down, crumpled and broken under the heavy blows from the advancing horde.

Monsters are coming.

The sharpshooters stationed in the guard towers rain bullets on the assailants, while the melee fighters begin to assemble behind the second line of defense.

Lightning illuminates the sky, followed by a more sinister light. The magicians raise their voices, all chanting the same words to increase the potency of the released spell.

As their voices suddenly cease, the spell is released. Using the storm’s own power, they summoned lightning to strike the creatures, electricity darting from monster to monster, spreading among their ranks riding on the water that drenches the terrain.

Some creatures fall, others, the majority of them, push onward, now looming over the second defensive line.

I would like to see how the battle will unfold from now on, but the sudden appearance of another, stronger signal on the map marks the time for me to leave the scene.

The Hero is about to join the fray.

<<I leave matters into your hands. Remember, no matter what, do not let anybody engage the Hero in battle>>

I relay my words to my companions, before leaving the spot and heading towards the Hero. I plan on intercepting him before he can enter Ream. If he does, this whole plan will come down crumbling.

I hesitate, for a split second, before heading towards this confrontation. Memories of what happened in Nudria begin to unfold, as I remember the rage I felt when he turned Retel and Levia against me, as I remember the sensation of utter powerlessness I felt when facing Damian for the first time.

One last glance towards Ream, the sound of clashing steel and screeching claws and teeth thundering from it.

Now, all they can do is fight their own battle, as I fight my own.

I slip into the dark space of Inventory, ready for the first, decisive move.

Damian stands tall, his clothes of an immaculate white. Raindrops seem to avoid his childlike appearance, and his clothes are dry, unsoiled, despite the mud splashing all around as the violent downpour increases in intensity.

He looks towards Ream, his face a mask of boredom. As if what he is witnessing, people struggling for their lives, is nothing more than a pointless, boring show for him.

<<Well, enough of this>>

He simply mutters to himself, raising his left hand and snapping his fingers. Mana erupts from him, violent, dense, it contorts itself and twists, forming chain that gleam purple.

With sudden speed, these chains fly towards the village.

<<Now, become mine!>>

He shouts, a delighted smile now showing on his face.

Silence falls.

He squints his eyes, seeing the villagers drop his weapons, one after the other. Some are still being attacked by the monsters, and Damian shakes his head, a bit disappointed by the loss of a few pawns.

With a sigh, he cancels the order he forced on those creatures, halting the attack.

Focusing further, he calls back his pawns, both human and monsters. A wry smile surfaces, when he sees their form in the distance. People, shambling without any will in their movement, slaves to his will.

<<Piece of cake. Now, where to go next?>>

He turns his back to the village, without even sending a second glance, utterly confident of his power.

He does not even question how the villagers reacted this fast. How were they able to perceive the threat, and even arm themselves. He has no need to, since whatever weak, pathetic resistance they could have mustered, is now gone, crushed by the power of his Blessing.

A slight hint of regret touches his mind, not for the lives of his fellow human beings, but for the chance he lost, the chance of perpetrating utter carnage.

But his orders bind him, and he cannot do as he pleases.

Again, boredom masks his expression, the wry smile slowly fading into a bland line. The only thing that is on his mind right now, is to reach the next village, and then the next. Advancing, from place to place, reaping, increasing his own private force until it is strong enough to crush Sendria along with the main force.

He does not notice the small details. He does not give too much thought to the slight, almost negligible pain that is drilling its way in his head, almost like if a needle is being slowly pushed in his gray matter.

He does not notice how the rain around him began to slow down, until it stopped. Or how the wind does not howl anymore.

Nor he notices how his thoughts feel heavier, slower.

It takes him some time before something actually clicks in his mind. He turns around, perplexed.

The villagers are still there, along with his creatures, slowly walking towards him.

But, they were distant, the same distance that they held when he first cast the spell.

He realizes that something is amiss. He starts to panic when he sees.

The chains are broken, his power did not have any effect. Instead of immediately questioning what he saw, he tries again, to no avail.

Then, his expression shifts, as the spark of understanding begins to take hold of his thoughts.

He holds his head, trying to trace back the imperceptible thread of mana, to no avail.

One of the memories I hold is that of an example, based on the image of a frog and a pot of boiling water. If you just put the frog into boiling water, it will jump away, sensing the danger it poses.

But, what happens if you put the frog in cold water, and then slowly increase the temperature? It will grow comfortable at first, not noticing the change until it will be too late for it to jump out.

This example was something supposed to explain how people resist sudden changes, with them being unable to notice smaller, more subtle changes.

Like Damian, he would have immediately fought back if I simply tried to pull himself into my own private dimension.

Or if I intruded his mind forcefully, instead of biding my time, slithering into his thoughts with a thin strand of mana, enforcing my illusion to him.

He saw what he expected, the predicted outcome, and did not question anything, while his surroundings slowly changed, as reality twisted around him, slowly, until the change was irreversible, and he fell into my grasp.

It surprises me how he can still move in this space, but I should expect no less from a Hero. After all, they are supposed to be existences that defy common sense, even in this world.

I am almost delighted in seeing him struggle, as he moves with all his speed, trying to reach the village in the distance.

And yet, no matter how much space he traverses, the place he wants to reach is always at the same distance from him.

Finally, he stops, his shoulders dropped, his fists clenched.

<<Reveal yourself>>

He shouts to the air, anger twisting his child features.

Only silence answers his cry.

I have played enough with him.

The distant village dissolves, becoming a thick, black mist. Upon seeing it, Damian’s lip twitches, and he leaps back, distancing himself from the mist.

<<I thought you died back in Nudria, you accursed abomination>>

<<Hello, Hero of Aldora>>

I greet my adversary, as I step out from the black mist.

Advertisements

Re: Interference Chapter 30- Pawns

[Navi: Fourth Trial- Trial of The Horde: In the Given time, Repel the Horde and Kill the Hero.

Trial Initializing- Done. Trial Started: during the upcoming two weeks, the Candidate will need to repel and defeat the Monster Horde unleashed by the Hero. The rules for this trial impose that the Candidate and his current Minions (Bishop, Knight, Rook, Queen) must not raise their level during the duration of the trial; The Candidate cannot retreat from the general area where the trial is taking place (current party members are free to move, but must be in the area when the Horde attacks). Bonus objective: killing or permanently incapacitating the Hero. Good Luck, Master!]

I gulp down my saliva, looking once again at the blinking list of rules for this trial. According to Navi’s message, we cannot train ourselves for the upcoming fight, and I am barred from leaving the general area where the trial will take place.

The area is represented by a red circle on Navi’s map, encompassing a wide portion of the Marsh and the territory around the former Aldora fort.

Crossing that red line will result in me losing my life.

However, the message did not contain only bad news.

My companions will be free to move in and out of the area, unless until the Horde will make its move.

That means, we can prepare for it, using strategy instead of just increasing our levels.

After the message is dismissed, a timer remains in my view, counting down the time until the Horde will start to move.

Two weeks from now, during which we will have to prepare as best as we can.

I take a deep breath, calming myself and beginning to sort out what it is that I need to do in this situation.

First, I need to assess the size of this monster Horde, and have some means to be informed at all times about it.

I open the map once again, looking at the place where the Horde is.

Signals are buzzing on the virtual map that Navi displays in my head, red dots pulsing, some small, some bigger.

The largest one is Damian, the Hero I had the misfortune to meet in Nudria village. He’s the one behind this event, amassing monsters as if to build his own private force.

To what end, I ask myself. Besides the former fort now inhabited by freed slaves, there is nothing here worth taking by force.

Perhaps he wants to retake the fort, but such a large force of creatures is definitely too much for a small camp surrounded by wooden walls.

Even a single creature would be enough to deal heavy losses in the encampment, two or three would definitely eradicate it.

Yet, Damian has already two hundred creatures under his control.

It seems too much, both for the strain of controlling them and for the sheer number of this force, just to retake back a small fort.

No, there must be something else at play here.

It could be that he’s simply gathering a monster force here, in preparation for the upcoming war with Sendria.

It’s the most plausible thing, to me.

Using monsters, he will have a disposable army, cannon fodder to use in order to spread chaos and weaken the enemy.

After that, the army will swoop in, ready to fight a weakened enemy.

And Aldora’ s Marsh is a place literally bursting with nasty creatures whose level is reasonably high.

Without any doubt, the Hero controlling them has also cast some kind of reinforcement on the creatures, making them deadlier than their wild counter part.

<<It looks like we have some trouble over there>>

I update Levia on the situation. Her eyes gape when she hears the Hero’s name, perhaps remembering the destruction of Nudria by his hands. Even if she hated that place, it was still her home for a long time.

But the most curious reaction is the one Emilia is displaying. She began to tremble, stuttering the Hero’s name.

Being herself from Aldora, she surely knows how powerful the Hero is.

As I ask her about it, looking to probe her for some scraps of information, she looks down on her feet, fidgeting with her sleeve as she speaks, her voice broken by tension.

<<They call him the Son of Radiance. His appearance is that of a small child, ten, perhaps eleven years old. But…he acts, and speaks, like someone much older. Even among the Heroes, he’s the one renowned the most for his cruelty. Mostly, he is sent away from Aldora, to act as a rogue and a spy in enemy territory. If he’s here, it only means that the Army is about to set on a March of Radiance. That means, they will invade this region, reclaiming back Aldora’s long lost territories>>

Her information about Damian is nothing useful.

Perhaps I held my hopes too high, expecting her to know something more about his powers, but it seems like she does not know.

To her words, Heroes never show their capabilities in Aldora, as there is simply no need.

And they are rarely dispatched in battle, and when they are, it ends so quickly that it is almost impossible to discern what the single Hero did.

<<Although, one thing I know. Of all the Heroes in Aldora, the Pantheon, as we call them, Damian is all but the lowest ranked, the last Hero to join Aldora in order of time. There was supposed to be another one after him, but I recall that something went wrong, some kind of interference blocked the summoning rite>>

I chuckle at her remark, receiving her scornful look as a reward.

<<It’s a long story, but…that was supposed to be me. And yes, something did really go wrong with all that shit. But I’m here now, and definitely I am not a Hero, or on Aldora’s side for that matter. Now, let me tell you what your former country is up to in this region>>

As I share with her what we experienced in Nudria, and the situation in Sendria, Emilia’s face grows paler with every word coming from my mouth.

Her expression grows heavier, as she learns about the possible scenario of an all out war between Sendria and Aldora.

<<It will be a massacre>>

She whisper, her hand to her lips.

<<Yes, it will be. On both sides, that’s for sure. And, whose side will you take, girl from Aldora?>>

Levia’s voice carries hostility, her eyes glaring at Emilia.

Emilia seems taken back by Levia’s hostility.

And I understand well what Levia is thinking at the moment. After all, Emilia is from Aldora, and she was a member of their army.

Of course Levia has some rightful doubts on her.

<<Of course, you’re doubting my good will. Do you think that as soon as the Army comes here, as soon as their banners will be in sight I will immediately go back to them?>>

Emilia’s face is now flustered, her hands tightened into fists that tremble near her thighs.

But the blonde woman recovers her composure, and she sustains Levia’s gaze.

<<I will fight for the people here, for those that have welcomed me. For all purposes, it is not possible for a person to leave the Aldoran Army. Either you die on duty, or you continue your mission until the end. I am a deserter for them now, having even lost my Blessing. Only death will wait for me in Aldora, and as soon as my former comrades in arms will see me, they will carry out capital punishment. I already said it to you, I no longer have any ties with Aldora or the Church. And even if you yourself do not trust me, that will not change my intentions, or my actions for that matter>>

It looks like sparks are about to fly between the two of them. I must admit, Emilia shows some guts in standing against Levia, someone that trumps her own level by a fair amount. In short, she’s talking back to someone that could just kill her without even breaking a sweat.

<<How nice your words are…truly. You want to fight to defend the people that welcomed you. As if. Tell the truth, girl from Aldora. You are only choosing the side that will allow you to save your own skin. If you go back, they will kill you on sight. If you fight for the people here, you may have a chance to survive. No need to embellish your selfishness with pretty words, because, in the end, you are choosing the side that will let you live. Still, do as you wish. If you will fight for us, your help will be welcomed. But I do not trust you, and I never will>>

Surprisingly, Levia is the first one to break away from locking stares, turning away as she finds a rock and sits on it, crossing her arms and legs with a tense face.

<<Your girlfriend does not seem to like me very much>>

As Emilia mutters her words to me, I turn to her with a serious expression. Although she was the first person to treat me kindly in this world, the situation has changed. I have changed, and I cannot take the risk to openly welcome her. If she earns my trust, perhaps, things will change, but for now, she’s someone I need to be wary of.

I clarify things with her, perhaps, I realize, being even too cold and harsh with my choice of words.

But, it is for the best.

<<Now, both of you, drop this little fight and listen well. There is the impending danger of an invasion from a monster horde, led by that fuckin Damian. We need to think about something, and fast even>>

As I ponder about things, I notice some change in the monsters’ signals.

Apparently, some of them had their level increased. I focus Navi on the zone, to have a better grasp of the situation.

It turns out, Damian is making his monsters fight the wild ones, thus leveling up his forces.

If he’s given enough time, he will build an impressive force out of these creatures. And I fear what he would do with them.

I clench my fist, going through my options.

Without any doubt, he must be stopped.

But, the opponent is a Hero. His level trumps mine by a large amount, and his ability makes his skin invulnerable.

When I met him the first time, I managed to wound him, taking him by surprise by using an attack he would not recognize, making him inhale Black Fluid in mist form and then striking from the inside of his body. Even when wounded, he just shrugged off the damage received and destroyed Nudria with a single attack.

Surely, the same trick will not work again.

In short, this is not an enemy I can beat head on. Even if the monster army was not there, he would be too much for me to confront.

If I fight head on, that is.

Still, the trial has already begun. And this time, it compels me to repel the monster horde, killing the Hero.

I imagine that the penalty for failing this are the same as the trials before, meaning, I will lose my life if I fail, or try to run away.

But, it’s not like I am completely harmless in this situation. I have already something planned for him, and I am sure it will work.

After all, Heroes are brought “here” by the same God that “summoned” me in the first place, before Azatoth’s meddling.

Now, the real problem here is a logistic one.

We could confront Damian inside the Marsh, ambushing his location. I could use the same strategy I used against several Champions and Guardians in the Dungeon, using Beelzebub to confuse the monsters into fighting among themselves, quelling their number.

I do not know how strong is Damian’s dominion over them, however. If he has total control of the creatures, then it will be futile to try and confuse them with poison after all.

A large force would be able to deal with the monsters, and we could concentrate on Damian himself.

Using Transfer Orbs, it would be possible to “summon” allies and surround the Hero. The rules of this trial did not explicitly forbid using reinforcements after all. So, it should be possible for me to call in some more fighters without incurring in any penalty. Surely, Telesia will be able to spare some adventurers for this occasion. After all, the opportunity to weaken the enemy by killing one of its precious Heroes is something that she would really appreciate.

And yet, I am not leaning toward this decision. Fighting inside the Marsh will be a double edged sword, since the difficult terrain is ill suited for battles. The monsters will have a clear advantage in that environment, without a single doubt.

We could try another approach, by waiting for Damian to move outside of the Marsh, and confront him on a prepared battlefield.

After all, we already have a perfect position for a fort in our hands…

And without a single doubt, the Hero will move toward the former fort in its path.

If we decide to fight the Horde on our terrain, the settlers will need to be evacuated to Sendria, perhaps.

But, I have the feeling that they could put themselves to use.

After all, if it is to defend their home…

The main problem with them fighting would be their level. At the present moment, no one among them has a sufficiently high level to even stand against a single level 30 monster. Much less the skills, and battle experience, to be of any use in battle.

And yet, why am I even considering this? Thinking about which ways to use to make them stronger, to prepare them?

My vision clouds, and I sway to the side for one moment. A sharp pain in my left temple, lasting a fleeting moment only.

<<Roshal…your nose is bleeding>>

Levia is looking at me with gaping eyes, and Emilia hurries to give me a piece of cloth.

My vision is still blurred, and my hands are shaking.

It was violent, even if it lasted for so little time.

And yet, that moment held a duplicity in it, both lasting a single second and an eternity.

For the first time, I heard him. Although, it should define the thing better. It pushed its thoughts into my head, intruding my psyche with astounding ease. I was defenseless, and yet, something deep inside of me rejoiced that presence, that moment, like a child seeing his mother’s smile.

It is hard to interpret the thoughts of a God, and even harder to sort them out if you hear them for the first time.

It was not a voice that spoke to me, more like a stream of images and notions, superimposed and entwined one onto the other, melted into something that transcend language, carrying pure meaning in its simplicity, as if the God struggled to make its thoughts comprehensible for a lesser creature like me, its humble servant, as it defined me.

The message carried in that single thought, it showed images of the fort, and the former slaves. Images of struggle, repetition, and improvement, growth. Smiles, images of curiosity, interest, and then happiness, fulfillment and expectation. Images of battle, and victory. And the concepts tied to those images, linked together.

Do it, lead them, raise them, bring victory to them.

Please your God.

As my mind processed it, hurting itself in the process, the meaning became clear. My intention to use the slaves to defeat the Hero drew Azatoth’s attention, and he found it amusing, compelling me to do it.

Before, I had some doubts about the divine nature of such beings. Both Azatoth and the one venerated in Aldora, they could just have been powerful creatures, without any ounce of divinity in them, if such thing exists. Now, I am not so sure. One of the defining quality of a divine being, is omnipotence, after all. The ability to impose its will, and reality will abide to it.

Now, I felt the weight of that will, something so strong that reality itself warps to accustom to it.

It lasted only a moment, and my body is still shaking, my mind is fixated on that objective, both screaming in pain and crying in joy.

<<I…I’m fine. Just a moment of weakness, nothing to worry yourselves about. Now, let’s head back to the settlement. We have much things to do>>

The two girls still are looking at me, like they just saw a ghost.

<<You were…laughing. We thought…are you sure you are ok, Roshal?>>

<<I said I’m fine. Let’s go now>>

I raise my voice, interrupting Emilia’ s concerned words.

I was laughing. And I have no recollection of it. Mad laughter…if that really happened…

My hand shakes, and I am forced to exert my will to stop it. The implications right now are crushing me, to the point that I feel my whole being cracking under the pressure.

Levia tries to reply, but I immediately open Inventory and drag the two girls with me.

Inside the dark space, I have some time to think, immersed in that wholesome silence.

First, the feeling of distress and impending crisis I felt before, now I know the reason for that. And, once again, it seems my decision to come here was not even my own, once again I have been led here. Perhaps, it is fate, or something more sinister at work.

Abiding to a God’s will must be the higher pleasure for someone of faith, but I think that if they felt what I am experiencing right now, they too would find the unpleasantness of this whole situation.

I came here chasing what I felt was my own sensation, only for it to reveal itself like another beacon, something imposed from a “superior being”. And this time, the feeling is even stronger. The God spoke to me, for the first time.

Its words, were not a suggestion, or an invitation. They were orders, and every fiber of my being needs to abide to them.

And of course, it’s not like I receive the most logical of tasks. Like evacuating the former fort, call in reinforcements and deal with the Hero and his monsters.

No, it would be too simple, of course. Not entertaining enough.

Because, the underlying feeling that the God transmitted, it was something like excitation, the same I would feel while reading a good book, or those rare times when a movie had a deep and well made plot.

Of course, I never lived those moments, but it is the strongest example I could think of.

In short, It, The Almighty Azatoth, He who Interferes with Rebirth, The one who is responsible for everything that happened, he wants to watch a good show.

And for that reason, he will have me take command of a bunch of former slaves, and make them confront a horde of monsters. Just because it thought it amusing.

I find the idea itself repulsing, but…on the other hand, I look forward to it. It is difficult to explain, it’s like every single cell, every molecule that composes me is leaning toward the same path, singing hymns of praise as I work to act in Its will.

And the curiosity I feel, about how will I be able to pull this off, is burning in my mind, along with several plans and strategies that are beginning to form themselves in my mind, almost like they have an existence on their own, and are not just strings of thought woven together by my mind.

It’s both terrifying and ecstatic.

To the point that I am both grinning and crying, feeling a cackling laughter rising from my stomach, and finally letting it out, a laughing man surrounded by blackness, headed to a mad task for a mad god.

As we reappear inside the settlement, passersby looks at us perplexed, some screaming in surprise.

The same, mixed expression of wonder and fear, is painted on Emilia’s own face, but it swiftly warps as the effect of being inside Inventory catch up to her.

She pukes, her face going beyond pale.

<<What…what did you do to me?>>

She asks, her left hand holding her cramping stomach.

I use a cleansing spell to clean her up, and relief a bit of her pain. It was sudden, and a bit rude to just hurl the both of them into Inventory after all.

<<Relax, it’s just some after effect of my transport skill. You’ll be fine in no time>>

I answer to her, taking a glance at Levia, who seems to fare better than Emilia. Perhaps the level difference between the two of them is mitigating the effects for Levia. Not that she is immune, she too has paled and looks like she’s resisting nausea.

Still, there are more pressing things to deal with at the moment.

I immediately contact the others, letting them know about the situation here. At the same time, I sent Meviel to monitor the monster horde and the Hero, ordering my minion to be as careful as possible in order for it to not be discovered.

It would be a shame to lose it so soon, and if it is discovered, it might alert Damian of our presence here, making him wary and thus losing our only advantage, surprise.

I check the visual feedback from it, asserting the situation of the monster horde.

At the moment, it still seem like Damian is not near the main body of the Horde. Instead, his signal comes from a point further towards the center of the Marsh, surrounded by those of lesser, low leveled monsters. Perhaps, the Hero is hunting them, looking for new additions to his little zoo, or for something to use to feed his other creatures.

I order Meviel to keep observing the Horde while remaining hidden, at least for the time being. Later, I will recall Meviel back, using offshoots instead to spy on the Horde and the Hero.

Having checked the situation of out enemies, I discuss with Levia about the next steps to take. She voices her opinion, that it would be best to evacuate the settlement and ask for reinforcements from the Guild. She is right, of course she is, but she does not seem to grasp correctly the situation I am in right now.

I take a deep breath, and ponder on how to let her know.

After taking my time, I decide to share with her the memory of the recent “chat” I had with a superior being.

Levia’s face pales, and she drops on her knees.

<<This…this is not a choice for us, right? It’s not even a suggestion, it’s…>>

<<It’s an order>>

I cut her words, smiling at her. She nods, now that she knows there is no other choice. Her eyes begin to set on the surroundings, as if she’s studying the people around us. Normal people, not warriors, not battle hardened adventurers. And yet, these very people will have to fight for their lives.

The “suggestion” I received was very clear about that. My role here, is to train and lead these people, making a force out of them, preparing them for battle.

<<Hm, it should be about time now>>

I mumble to myself, my words followed by a blue flash right in the settlement’s center.

Earlier, when I told the others about the situation here, we did accord on the schedule for them to come here. And it is about time for all to rejoin with us.

The first Transfer Stone goes off, and Heod appears from the blue ripple in space. He’s followed by two persons I do not know, a tall man with spectacles and blond hair, dressed in a white lab coat, and a short, curvy lady with ruffled hair and circular googles covering her eyes.

Both of them are carrying large backpacks.

<<So, this is the place then>>

Old Heod looks around, pausing his eyes on Emilia for a fleeting moment. She’s better now, but she seems to be in shock somehow.

<<Is the girl ok?>>

He asks, strolling to her side to help her get up.

<<She’ll be fine. It’s just Roshal’s weird skill taking its toll>>

Levia answers in my place, smiling to the old man.

<<Oh. Well, lady, drink this potion, it will help with the nausea. Now, lads, where can this old man set up his temporary laboratory?>>

We go with Heod and his assistants to the settlement’s chief. Apparently, there is no formal chain of command here, but the settlers have all agreed to follow the lead of a man, even without him being “officially” appointed as chief.

He simply showed himself capable enough, and the others followed.

He resides in the former barrack of the Aldoran commander, re-purposed as both home and office.

Sitting behind a crude wooden table, serving as his desk, the man welcomes us with a wide smile.

He looks over fifty years old, his bulky body still showing some of the strength he had in his youth, betrayed only by a bulging belly. Still, his arms are toned, his skin black as coal contrasting with the grayish white of his hair and mustache.

<<Welcome in my humble office. What can this old man do for you?>>

He introduces himself as Vadra, without any title or honorific to himself.

As I inform him about the imminent situation, his expression turns sour, his cordial smile slowly turning into a concerned frown.

<<Boy, I really hope this is just an elaborate joke>>

His voice is deep, carrying weight and pressure.

Of course, he has some doubts about my words.

<<Well, mister Vadra. It will be quicker if I show you>>

I use Navi to share the feedback from Meviel. Cold sweat begins to run on Vadra’s forehead, and he collapses on his chair, his head held between his hands.

<<That…that cannot be. We just escaped from the horror of slavery, and those Aldoran bastards are already coming for us>>

He recovers quickly from his moment of discomfort, however.

<<No, we will fight them this time. I have not tasted liberty once again just to let a Hero take it away from me again. Not this time>>

His spirit is right, but, as things are right now, they do not have a single chance to survive this.

We consult some more with Vadra, as I ask him the state the settlement is in. The amount of supplies, along with the number of individuals who are able to either build structures or wield a weapon.

Time is of the essence here. From what I gathered using Meviel’s recognition, the number and level of monsters is the same as before, without any changes. And according to the timer, we have plenty of time to think about a counter attack.

The real problem is how to deal with this whole situation. The best course would be to strengthen the settlement altogether, building defensive structures and strengthening the settlers themselves.

Out of seventy four former slaves that inhabit the settlement, forty-five of them are battle capable. The problem is that more than half of those are also the only ones with practical knowledge on building structures and crafting tools. Sparing some people to dedicate them to production of weapons and defensive structures will decrease the total fighting force. And vice versa.

Still, it’s the best thing to do at the moment.

I’m a bit surprised to see how Vadra is abiding to what I say, perhaps, it’s the effect of my Leadership skill working, more than my own words.

After some hour of consultations and discussion, we finally came up with a plan.

In the meantime, the others have also reached the settlement.

I left Levia the duty to inform them about the situation, while I concentrate on another task. If we want to succeed here, the enemy needs to be surprised by the settlement’s resistance.

In short, we need to conceal what we are doing here.

For that reason, I decided to cast an illusion on the settlement, reproducing its current form. It’s a complex illusion, that needs to show different images at the same time, some of them moving into the static scenario of the settlement. To do so, I will need a massive amount of mana. Casting the illusion is not enough, however.

It also needs to last enough, and most importantly, it must not be seen through.

As I am preparing myself to weave the illusion, using both spells and the illusory skills I picked up some time ago, Vadra is busy gathering his fellow settlers and explaining the situation to them.

The man works fast, his words undoubted by the villagers that swiftly put themselves to work, some heading to the nearest meadows to harvest the necessary woods, others heading to the single forge and beginning to smelt what little metal the place has in store.

Their limited resources will not be enough, of course. Luckily, I have still some useful items stored into my Inventory.

Weapons, armors and rare materials. If push comes to shove, we could use some of our funds to purchase goods from Sendria, and transfer them here using Transfer stones or my skill directly.

The remaining settlers are being divided into squads, starting from the men and young boys up to the age of thirteen. Those that will be able to hold a weapon in their hands. Much to Vadra’s displeasure, some of the women too are willing to join the battle force. His views on the matter here might be too much antiquated, as he is reluctant to let women fight. Still, this will be a battle for them all, and having some more hands in our fighting force will be useful without a single doubt.

After casting the illusion, my breath heavy and in disarray from the effort, I stroll to Vadra’s side and persuade him to let the women fight also.

The only people left are now children and old people, who will be reunited in the central building and kept safe there. The others will begin their tasks shortly.

To accelerate things, I set out to help gathering resources and build the defensive structures. Using Shoggoth makes it easier to gather large quantity of materials, and process it however I want.

With the help of my skill, and under the guidance of those among the settlers that know how to build, I construct a first defensive perimeter around the settlement, a square surrounding the entire fort.

That will be the base for further constructions.

In the meantime, the others are taking care of the settlers, instructing them on the basis of combat and dividing the people by using their aptitude as a criteria.

After some light sparring, during which each person has been tasked to try and use the weapon they feel more comfortable with, they are divided and assigned to one of my companions.

Those that show some aptitude towards the use of shield and spears are roughly half of the total force, destined to Retel’s care and instructions.

Fifteen people showed prowess with blades, their performance based more on speed and accuracy rather than stopping power. A fighting style similar to Dahl’s, and thus, he will be the one instructing them.

Some of the settlers showed little to no ability with standard weapons, but demonstrated a good and steady aim when offered the opportunity to use bows or crossbows.

Levia is taking care of those.

The only ones left are roughly twelve people, who were excluded from the weapon test. The reason for that is the thin, feeble quantity of mana that these people possess. Some of them are unaware of it, others, like Julia, are beginning to discover and nurture their powers.

To those people, Marica’s guidance will be precious.

I focus on the construction and organization of the battleground, leaving my companions to instruct the settlers as best as they can.

While processing materials and moving objects with Shoggoth, placing them and arranging the core of the new structures, I check the timer that has begun to display in my view.

This whole Trial, feels like a timed event now.

According to the decreasing numbers in my view, we have two weeks before the Hero will begin to march towards the settlement, and Sendria afterwards.

I thought that I had less time at my disposal, but that does not seem to be the case.

If the timer is correct, that is. I cannot rule out that possibility after all. But if it says the truth, then it will be possible for me, for us, to accurately prepare the settlers, and, perhaps, increase our levels in the process.

Using Shoggoth, I work until late at night, while the settlers give instructions and draft out blueprints for me to follow.

The first line of defense is now ready, a stone wall surrounding the settlement, now looking like a proper fort.

As I set the last stone, a notification pops up, announced by Navi’s voice.

[Navi: Congratulations! You’ve completed the first Building- Defensive Stone Wall- Completing the Building, gives you Ownership of the Land. To Claim it, stand in the place indicated in the map and

give your consent]

A blue signals pulses in the map that Navi displays, right at the center of the settlement.

Still, I wonder what this is all about. As I ask for more information about, she gives scamps of it, mumbling about some benefits to the settlers and power influence. As usual, the teasing personality of this disembodied voice irritates me.

Well, it does seem that “claiming” this place will lead to some benefits, and if I want to pass this next trial, I need all the small advantages I can get.

Following Navi’s instructions, I head to the center of the settlement. There, a notification window pops up, asking me if I want to claim ownership over the land.

<<Yes>>

I feel dizzy for an instant, then a pulse of blackness surges from me, expanding as if a sphere exploded from my body.

The passing surge of energy travels around, expanding, until it becomes a sphere surrounding the settlement and roughly three hundred meters of land around it. Most of my mana has been consumed by it, leaving me drained and fatigued.

[Navi: Congratulations! You’ve claimed your first Territory! The people living in this land are now under your command, be it gentle hand or iron fist! A passive experience boost (1.5%) has been granted to people under your command, and they are now registered as Pawns in the system. Pawns have a small chance of inheriting a version of your skills during Level Up, as well as receiving bonus STAT points Moreover, you can decide to set the “growth path” for each individual Pawn, thus altering the skills and Stats that they will receive. As the designed Lord of this Land, you are linked to it, and will receive a passive amount of mana and experience each hour. As the New Lord, would you like to Give a Name to this Land? Y/N]

I take some time to think of a proper name, then give my consent for the renaming process, allowing for a random name to be chosen. Of all the names I thought, all of them seemed too ridiculously pompous or frivolous, and so, I decided to let randomness decide it.

[Navi: Congratulations! Your Land has now been renamed as “Ream Village”]

Apart from the name of the village displayed in the map, nothing else changed. At least, I did not notice the change, until I spent some more time walking around.

Well, for starters, I immediately discovered, much to my surprise, that I can teleport instantly inside the village, without spending any mana.

It only works within the boundaries of that black sphere, which, apparently, only I can see.

As I claimed the land, some people, along with my companions, rushed to me to see what happened.

While Retel basically assaulted me with questions, the settlers that came up to me held a formal tone in their voice, their backs straightened like they were soldiers in the presence of their commander.

At first, it made me a bit uncomfortable, the absolute trust I can read in their eyes, how they listen to my words with the utmost attention.

It is definitely something due to this strange “ownership”, but something deep inside of me relishes this kind of obedience they display.

I tried to give some orders, just to see the boundaries of this new thing. Villagers seem compelled to follow a direct order from me. Even if it is something that would harm them, or the ones around them.

Not that I made them really do something dangerous or harmful, of course. But still, the words were enough to spring them to action.

Suggestions, however, had no effect whatsoever, remaining mere words that left the final decision to the subject, rather than binding them to do my will like an order would have done.

It is disturbing, but it could be useful in dire need. For example, if someone tries to flee from the battle, terrorized.

Or to prevent crime, and some other things. The magnitude of this effect seems to be enhanced by my Leadership skill, thus making the villagers basically powerless against a direct order from me. On the other hand, it seems like my words have also a big positve effect on them.

Still, for now, I will limit myself to suggestion, resorting to orders only as a last measure.

Another change that happened is more subtle, and it took me a while to realize it. The mana in this place changed, becoming denser, more attuned to my own.

In here, my spells seem to have a larger effect, and consume less mana.

The area itself is limited, so the actual advantage this might provide is small for now. But, it could be of some use, after all. I wonder what would happen if I manage to increase my sphere of influence.

That’s the term Navi used to describe the black bubble that surrounds the settlement…Ream. A Sphere of Influence, delimiting the territory under my control. As it would in a game, it is possible for it to increase, if people from my territory occupy adjacent territories, or the population increases enough. It is possible for it to decrease as well, if the number of villagers falls under a specific threshold.

And of course, it could disappear completely, if the village is conquered or destroyed.

While pondering about these things, I give some glances to Meviel’s visual feedback, to check the situation of the Monster Horde.

It seems the number of them has slightly decreased, the weakest monsters being used as food to let the others grow stronger.

Damian himself is not there, it seems. His signal is far away, deep in Aldora Forest, surrounded by monsters. Perhaps, he is gathering some new recruits to his little army.

The important thing here is that he did not catch wind of what is happening in Ream. If he sensed that something was amiss there, I am sure he would have investigated in person.

Fighting him without the monsters to back him up would be easier, but if he came here, there would

definitely casualties among the population.

It will be better to let things play out as intended, without forcing my hand for now.

After all, I really doubt that things would play out differently, thinking back on how all this started.

Divine will and all that. This feels more like some sort of game between two children, arranging their pieces on a board and moving them according to a set of rules defined only for their amusement, rather than this whole situation being a crisis between bordering territories.

And perhaps, this is the reality of this world. People that do not know their true purpose, fancying themselves kings, popes or heroes, while being nothing more than pieces on a cardboard, moved by invisible hands and whose fate is decided by a whim or the roll of a dice.

And even if this is the reality behind the world itself, what choice do I have? Rebel? Ignore the will of a God?

I’m sure it will be impossible for the current me. Considering the strain that receiving Azatoth’s thoughts put on my body, what would his wrath do to me?

I shake my head, returning my thoughts to more pressing matters. The villagers are reunited in the center of Ream, waiting. All of them tired, many showing bruises on their bodies, signs of the sparring they had with my companions.

Their expressions suggest how they learned the difference in power between them and a single individual with several levels above their own.

In this scenario, numbers don’t matter.

Still, right now it is time to let them rest, and have a filled stomach.

From Inventory, I take out some provisions to distribute. It’s not much, but it will suffice for dinner. Tomorrow, I will have to think about how to feed the whole village, and some ways to make it self sufficient too. The current crops and cultivated land is not enough, and it shows a low yield given how scarce the provisions are.

We need more, to support the settlers during the incoming battle, and after that as well.

However, those thoughts are for a later time. For now, it is better to let them enjoy the meal, after their hard work.

Tomorrow, the real training for them will start.

Heod has naturally taken charge of the cooking, several ladies and some men following his directions as they stir pots and cut vegetables and meat.

While preparations are being made, making it look more like a festival night rather than a tense preparation for an upcoming war, I wander alone, walking between the wooden huts that compose the settlement, now renamed Ream.

<<Too much noise in there?>>

Vadra’s voice calls me from behind. He’s smoking a pipe, similar to the one Heod uses.

<<Yeah, I needed a bit of silence. Just to sort out some things>>

<<Hm. You are not really what you seem, boy. Roshal, was it? How is it that every time you show up, some ridiculous things happen?>>

His remark makes me chuckle. Of course, he must have recognized me from the time I spent in the fort, before the Laughing Man…liberated them.

<<That, mister Vadra, is a question that I would pay to know the answer. It seems that trouble follows me, everywhere I go>>

This time, is the old man that chuckles to my remark.

We spend some time talking, and he shares his experience. From his words, I learn how the life of a man enslaved by Aldora was.

The complete deprivation of rights, dehumanization, the loss of your own name. Completely different from what I had surmised back then, when I saw the soldiers’ behavior around the slaves. They fed them, well enough, and there was not a hint of heavy repression of the slaves, the soldiers limiting to give them orders, without abusing their power on them.

I thought that, even in the horror and wrongness that is depriving someone of their freedom, the people from Aldora did not revel in the humiliation imposed onto the slaves.

But Vadra’s words carry a different story. As it is, the soldiers are forbidden to speak with the slaves.

<<”Like a man would not speak to cattle, or animals on the side of the road. Because they are nothing but animals, beneath the Holiness of our blood. And thus, you shall not speak to them, if not for giving firm and righteous orders. You shan’t touch them, if not for imparting discipline”and other shit like this. In short, we are not human for them. They fed us, oh yes, but the amount of it, and quality, was feeble and scarce. Drugged food, lined with herbs to increase stamina, and others to numb fatigue and judgment. To cloud your mind, so that the thought of rebellion would be too nebulous to be grasped>>

We stood there some more, as Vadra spoke about how regaining their freedom was at first overwhelming, then it became intoxicating. For me, he told, a day was just a day, spent doing whatever I wanted. For him, days before the Laughing Man came where the negation of his being, as he was nothing more than a tool to use, to build, to plow the fields, to clean, and wash the equipment.

<<But after the Man came, and his laughter resounded in the fort- said Vadra- every day is a blessing. It has uncertainty in it, true. I do not know if the food will be enough for us all, or if we will have enough wood for winter. But, one thing I know. Whatever we want to do, we are now free to do it. It’s difficult to explain this to someone like you, someone who has not been bound by another’s will. Now, we are free, and we will do everything to remain free>>

His words carry sorrow, but his eyes show a glint of determination, the one that is born under pressure and suffering. This man will not yield, to anything. Having tasted hell itself, having lost his freedom, his soul has been tempered, his will becoming stronger. If danger arises, he will fight for his people.

His determination is comforting to behold. It means that, no matter what, this man will fight, and inspire others to do it as well.

Perhaps, the situation here is not as dire as it seems.

If there is the will to fight, there is hope. The rest, is just a matter of teaching them how to fight, how to raise their own prowess and exploit their power.

Still, I wonder what is the point of it all. Why have I been guided here, in some sort of capricious twist of fate.

I already gave some considerations on the matter, but now, alone since Vadra went back to his fellow settlers, I have some proper time to think about this whole situation.

Ever since my life in this world started, I have felt like every decision I took did not matter in the end. All the crucial points, from that first encounter with the slimes, back there in the forest bordering the Marsh, to me being here, it feels like I have been swept by the current of fate, following it, unable to resist the flow.

Now more than ever, since the mind that willed me here has made itself manifest, binding me to an order. Earlier, Vadra told me that I could not understand what it means to be a slave, to be bound by another’s will, unable to resist it.

If only he knew how wrong he is…

I stand in there some more, thinking about this strange fate that befell me, that tied me to this place. First, as a bystander of cruelty, both subtle, like the one perpetrated by the Aldoran towards their slaves, with no apparent violence but filled with a more profound malice, the negation of their status as human being. Then, I witnessed the retribution they suffered for that cruelty, by a twisted violence, righteous in some aspects but brutal in its execution. The Laughing Man came and consumed, rending the slaves’ chains as he devoured the oppressors’ flesh.

And now, I find myself once more in here, this time forced to assume the role of a guide. It baffles me how the former slaves accepted my words, swindled by the effect of my Leadership skill. Under no normal circumstances a group of grown adults would listen to the words of someone like me, with the appearance of a teenager. And yet, they accepted me, my words, the promise I gave them of us standing together against the upcoming menace, and of us overcoming it.

For now, those words moved their hearts, igniting in them the will to fight. During the speech I raised to them, I appealed to their sense of freedom, to the underlying terror they have, seeing themselves once again under Aldora’s chains.

Now, I need to think how to deliver my promises.

<<This is truly a pain in the ass>>

I mutter to myself, strolling away from the spot where I stood, walking slowly towards the barracks that our group has occupied.

Tomorrow, the real preparations will start.

Morning came, and I went out with the first lights of the day. For now, I am assigning tasks to my companions, preparing our defenses before we start the actual training of the settlers.

I sent Retel and Levia back to Sendria, in order for them to gather some supplies. Food and ammunition are our primary concerns at the moment. Both of them are equipped with a new item, something I made using Shoggoth. Small, black rings, being themselves parts of Shoggoth, and capable of its own abilities, even in a limited way. In short, they act as an inferior version of Shoggoth’s Absorb and Gather abilities, with a minor version of Inventory added to the effect. They should be enough to gather the necessary materials and ammunition, arrows and bolts, to add to those I already possess. Using Transfer Orbs, my companions will be able to come back in no time after all.

Dahl and Marica will be the ones helping me today. Under our supervision, we will have the villagers taste their first battle against monsters.

Meviel will also have its first battle, as I intend to level it up as much as I can during these two weeks.

To check on the Hero and his pet army, I used some offshoots from Shoggoth, just to maintain visual contact and basic recognition.

The mana flow from these offshoots is minimal, coded in pulses to make it less detectable. The information I gather from them is not constant, having an interval of ten minutes between each transmission, but it is enough to give me a general grasp of the situation.

Meanwhile, I set Shoggoth free around the area. I restrained it, imparting two simple orders. Capture every monster it encounters, without devouring it, and collect each single alchemical ingredient it finds.

With this, I will be able to obtain the necessary creatures to train the villagers, and at the same time produce a stock of materials for Heod to craft and brew his potions and remedies.

After distributing some of the equipment from my Inventory to the villagers, it is time for the training to start. At the moment, the collective level of the villagers is low, below level eight. I need to balance their training well enough, raising their level enough to have a steady increase in their proficiency, but without having them incur into Level Up sickness.

Simply raising their level forcibly will not be enough, as they need to have a taste for battle, something they lacked.

As Shoggoth comes back, the first test starts.

I let it release the first batch of monsters, ten Marsh Worms. Their level is low, the highest being a level four worm.

Seeing their form brings me back to the time where I fought them, still inexperienced, basically a baby stumbling in this dangerous world.

The first batch of villagers comes forth to challenge the monsters. They move with confusion, some of them rushing ahead while others cower, their steps unsteady, their grip weak and trembling on their weapons.

Shouts resonate in the air, as the monsters claim the first blood. Perhaps, the villagers where expecting some kind of protection from me, from us. But, it will not come. I will not let them die, for sure, and I will take care of their wounds.

But, the first thing they need to learn right now, is pain.

The feeling of it, the sensation of dread in front of a superior opponent. In this life, it is rare to experience such a thing and survive it. By realizing how much the enemy in front of them is dangerous, they will know the extent of their own fear.

Those that show a cocky attitude, will have the reality of their own weakness exposed in front of them.

Those that are too scared to even make a move, will have their cowardice be their undoing.

As the first test is concluded, I imprison the monsters into Inventory, before they can deliver any lethal blow to the villagers.

Using recovery magic we deal with the wounded, imparting them a cruel lesson. Using cruel words to make them come to terms with their own weakness, I go so far as to use illusions to show them what will happen if the Hero wins this battle.

The look of terror on their faces is something that touches my soul, and I almost feel like I am overstepping a bit.

Still, these people right now have been ensnared in this nonsensical conflict between the two Gods, the one revered in Aldora and the one pulling my strings. I chuckle at myself, as the thought I had about being a puppet for some playful and mad puppeteer seems the more apt definition for my current condition.

Using Leadership, I let my words sink in, motivating the villagers to stand up once again.

Their wounds healed, their stamina regenerated, they are now ready to show their worth. Before I release the monsters once more, me and my companions give our final piece of advice.

This time, the villagers will follow our directives during battle.

The first test was something that I left to their judgment, letting the people chose their role in battle and act as they pleased.

Now, with the help from Dahl and Marica, the previously unorganized bunch of people is being divided into small groups.

Formations are being taught to them. Those that show a melee predisposition occupy the front line, guarding the middle where ranged fighters are stationed.

These people still lack individuals with decent magical prowess, and healers. Of all the individuals that showed some magical disposition, healers were the scarcer, counting two people among the total population.

A bad situation, but it turns out, being the Lord of this village will let me tamper a bit with each individual’s growth.

In short, they can inherit some skills of my choosing, or I can decide which “direction” their growth will follow.

After this test, I will know who among the villagers has the proper disposition for each role. With the limited amount of people at my disposal, it will be imperative to have specialized individuals capable of covering determinate roles.

For now, however, the only thing I can do is sit back and wait.

The second test unfolds, this time being a more entertaining fight.

The villagers, now divided into proper formations, face the Worms with better movements and coordination among themselves.

Melee fighters shed their sweat as they guard their companions with shields, while other, more specialized in close quarter attacks, take advantage of their comrades distracting the monsters to land some slashes and blows.

Ranged fighters wait for the proper moment to release their arrows, and some, the ones with magical disposition, begin to release their spells, nothing more than mana sparks for the moment.

I smile when the first worm falls, and the premature cry of victory is choked by those of pain, as the severed parts of the worm spring into action, showing the regenerative ability of this nasty creature.

Using Leadership, I give precise orders to the people. The skill affects them in an astounding way, probably due to the major gap between our levels.

Still, their panic is gone, and they abide to my orders.

Melee fighters close their ranks, relying on blunt and piercing attacks rather than slashes to weaken the monsters, as the ranged fighters deal the decisive blows by piercing the worms with their arrows.

Following Marica’s directions, the few magicians stopped using direct attacks, using their mana instead to empower the archers, making their arrows crackle as the arrowheads are charged with temperature. A single one is not enough to set the monsters on fire, but the continued assault gives its fruit, as the first worm falls, its body twisting as flames lick its body, charring it black until it stops wriggling and thrashing, lying dead on the ground.

This time, the cry of victory resounding is true. I reclaim their attention, commanding them to focus on the remaining monsters.

Their struggle continues, until the last worm lies on the ground.


Author’s Note: Hi all, chapter 30 is finally out! Took a long time to write, edit and post, mostly because of IRL stuff. Still, it’s here, finally 😉

As usual, I will ask you for feedback on Re:Interference. What are your opinion on the story so far? What did you like about it, and what did you dislike? What could be improved, and which parts you think that were poorly written? Personally, I find several flaws in this first web novel of mine, and I need other people’s honest opinion to have a different perspective on my work.

Next chapter will release…well, I don’t know when. In the meantime, if you want, hop on and give a look to my other novels here:

A Strange Sky- Prologue

Glimmer of a Fallen Star-Prologue

Thank you for your time!

Re: Interference Chapter 29- Horde


Author’s note: Chapter 29 is here! Finally, managed to edit the whole piece, hopefully there are not too many errors in it. Well, enjoy!


<<So, are you sure you want to go like this? We could rent two horses and take some time to get there, no need to exert yourself. This is supposed to be a small vacation, after all>>

Levia looks at me, seemingly disappointed by my choice.

<<It will be fine. And it’s not like we’re going there in a single go, I will stop from time to time>>

She frowns a bit, then she shrugs her shoulders, giving up.

<<Fine. I hate that thing, you know? It feels weird every time>>

<<I will try and control it better, don’t worry>>

Saying so, I open the gate to the Inventory dimension.

<<After you>>

Levia scoffs to my invitation, but steps inside the black gap in the air that formed next to me. As she disappears behind it, I bid farewell to Heod, then jump inside the space.

The air closes behind me, leaving no trace of the tear I just crossed.

Inside the space, everything is the same as usual. The items I collected in there, floating lightly, suspended in that blackness that surrounds me.

Among them, Levia, frozen in time, her left foot still locked in midair as to complete the step she took before, her face slightly turned toward the direction where she came from.

Before doing anything, I check the feedback from the other offshoot I sent in advance, this time smaller than the first one, in order for it to sneak unnoticed.

It is still far, but I can see the settlement from a distance. Nothing more than a dot in a clearing, surrounded by a meadow and, further southwest from it, the Marsh.

Dismissing the feedback, I turn to Levia.

I take a deep breath, and touch her arm.

Slowly, I let a sliver of my mana run through her. After some moments, I can feel her pulse, and after some more, she blinks her eyes and draws a breath.

<<What?>>

She looks around, seemingly disoriented. Even if her time is flowing again, the effects of having it stopped in the first place are still there.

She sways, failing to find proper footing.

<<Relax. This place works in some weird ways. If you think you’ll fall, you’ll fall. If you think you have safe footing, you’ll simply stand up. There, good job>>

I support her, and then, with a bit of effort on her part, Levia manages to take hold of herself, and stand without my help.

<<It’s so…empty, and cold>>

She shivers, looking around.

<<It is>>

<<Does it end? I can’t see anything beside those things floating around>>

Her question makes me wonder a bit. Does it end? I do not have such answer. During the first experiments I did with Inventory, I tried to explore it, every time failing to reach the end of it, or some semblance of a border. No matter the direction I took, or the speed I used to move.

It really might be endless, or its limits are so far and wide that I could never reach them.

<<Perhaps. But, I think it just goes on and on>>

Levia does not even reply, her eyes wandering out to the dark emptiness.

<<And here I thought I would be enjoying some open fields…>>

I can hear her muttering under her lips. I know this was supposed to be a break, some sort of vacation to relief our stress a bit, but the feeling of concern I have about the slave settlement compels me to act otherwise.

Maybe it is all in my head, and once I get there, there is nothing going on. I seriously hope so. But I cannot rule out the other possibility, that something is happening or about to happen there.

Feeling a bit tired, I hop out of Inventory with Levia. We’re still far from our destination, having traveled to the Grasslands.

Memories about the last time we found ourselves in this place are coming in. Back then we just came out of the ruined Nudria, having barely survived that crazy Hero’s attack.

<<It seems so much time has passed since then, and yet, we were here, struggling against low level things, no more than some months ago>>

Levia is staring in the distance, over the lush green of the Grasslands. Her hair flutters in the wind, lightly, her clothes swaying with the same cadence. In the air, a strong scent of grass and pollen, something that slightly irritates my nose and eyes. It is a funny thought, a Demon Lord with allergies. All around, several signals are present in Navi’s detection, monsters, whose cries resound in the air. Still, they’re far, and too weak to pose nothing more than an annoyance. To think that back then we struggled against even a single one of these creatures, it really puts the progress we had into perspective. And it is not yet enough, of course.

Levia turns towards me, smiling, but I can read concern in her eyes.

<<Is there something troubling you?>>

To my question, she answers by nodding slightly, her eyes now fixed on the ground beneath her feet.

She fidgets a bit, a habit that she seemed to have lost since the first time I knew her.

Taking a deep breath, she expresses what is weighting on her mind.

<<Roshal, where are we going?>>

She ends with a question, one that makes me wonder. During all her talk, she expressed her concerns about all that has happened, from the first time we’ve met each other. What happened in Nudria, and before that, in the woods. Then, all the trouble we went through in Sendria.

Now, I realize that all that happened during that time was a series of events sprung by my own lack of a proper purpose, a goal in whatever this life is. I was still under the conviction, back then, that the person living in my memories was a real one, and thus, I abode to that “will”, my actions conformed to it.

And that “person” was nothing more than a loser, after all. Now, knowing that it was not “me”, I can see it from a bit of distance, separate myself, my true self from the person in my memories. Put into perspective, all that I had in my head was nothing more than a collection of frustration and ineptitude, towards life in general. It came with some useful knowledge, sure, but I wonder if that may be the true purpose of such memories.

Why should a God go to these lengths, construct an individual “soul” from scraps of recycled memories, only to give him, or it, a hellish and depressive past.

Was it to spring the creation to pursue some kind of redemption, following the chimera of a second occasion in this new world?

I do not think it plausible. Because, no matter how strong the desire to change might be, a weak mind will still be weak, even if given the chance to start anew.

Moreover, by carrying morality and taboos from another world, that person will be bound to make mistakes, to misjudge situations and acts, leading himself and others into danger, or worse.

Now, I can see that I acted that way, nothing more than a man-child running around aimlessly, too naive, too trusting of others to the point of being stupid.

This is how events unfolded for me, but I failed to see the other perspective about things, the one coming from people that I consider close to me.

It all started back then, after the Dryads, after we barely survived the Hero with a stroke of luck so incredible that it seems fake, constructed.

To me, it was natural to cling to the others, as I was alone, lost in this world that I failed to understand, longing for people to recognize me, to care for me.

But to the others, what happened back then, that compelled them to stick with me? What did they feel, how did they take that decision so lightly, sticking with me, a complete stranger?

To Levia’s words, it was something they felt compelled to do, as if driven by a sudden desire.

<<Like the time when we ran off to Nudria, after the first Dryad attacked. Even now I wonder, why we rushed back to that place? I hated it, hated the people living there, and every single moment I was belittled and insulted for the scales on my skin and the horns on my head. And yet, that time, I felt a sudden urge to go there. I believe it was the same for Retel>>

She shakes her head, pausing for a moment to collect her thoughts. Clearing her throat, she resumes her talk, gazing in my eyes with a serious expression.

<<But, things have changed from back then. I do not know if it happened all by chance, or if it is your doing. Or even if something bigger is going on, guiding our lives to this precise point. I’ve never been one to believe in destiny or such thing, and believe me, I have resented the Gods for all my life, loathing them for having made me different, a monster to the eyes of people like the ones who I used to live with. My whole world changed, from being a despised beast-kin, my brother and Heod the only people who would smile at me. Now, people look at me and see a member of the adventurer’s guild, one of the most powerful associations in Sendria. setting aside all that nonsense about Heroes and Demon lord. One part of me wants to thank you, since, no matter how many times you basically dragged us into danger, nothing would have changed without meeting you. On the other hand, I wonder if this, all that we did, all that we’re doing, is something we decided, or there is something else at play here, something that made us go with you, that made us meet you in the first place. And as we go on further with all this, the trials, Aldora about to invade Sendria, the struggle within the city and so on, I am leaning toward the second option. So, that is why I ask you…where are we going? Do you know something about all that is happening, do you have a plan?>>

Her eyes tell me she already knows the answer. After all, I do not know where we are going, nor do I have a plan for the future.

I take a deep breath, sorting out the words to answer her.

I tell her about how I had the same feeling, about being guided to something, some decisions I took not even making sense to me, after I lived through them and had the time to analyze them.

Perhaps there is really something, maybe it is even that abominable God that dragged me here in the first place, or the one who “rescued” me from being a puppet of Aldora.

And I suspect that even this need to visit the slave settlement is nothing more than an interference, once again, with my thought, with my life. I feel compelled to go there, a sensation of unrest growing in me every time I think about that place.

And, since that dream, I have been thinking about it a lot.

<<No, Levia, I do not have a plan. And I don’t know anything at all. Hell, at this point, I do not even know who I am>>

I ponder if I should tell her what John revealed to me, something I did not even share with Heod. Something I kept for myself, and that is now festering in my thoughts, that question, those three words that rise every moment of respite, every time I am idle.

I sigh, and begin to share with her the tale about a boy, fallen down from the sky with his head full of memories that were not his own.

She listens to my words, without even uttering a sound. It feels like the first time I revealed my “secret” to them, about me being from another world. And now, at this moment, I am telling the opposite of it.

Unlike then, when I trembled at the notion that they would take me for a fool, I do not fear her reactions. Simply, I am stating things as they are, without wrapping it in lies or omissions.

Levia snickers, explaining how she finds that I have changed a bit.

<<I’m not sure that I like this new “Roshal”>>

I let her words fall into silence, as something else has caught my attention.

Feedback from the offshoot I sent earlier to check the former slave encampment.

The visuals from my flying “spy” show a thriving settlement, born over the ruins of an Aldoran fort.

They used the wooden walls, destroyed by the Laughing Man’s fury, rebuilding them and turning what caged them before into something that protects them.

Inside, the hollowed and ruined buildings have been repaired and modified. Some, housing for the people, others have become shops or repositories for goods and provisions.

There is even a small forge set up, and a thick black smoke is rising from it.

Outside of the settlement, few patches of land appear to be cultivated. It is too soon for them to have a proper harvest, but plants are growing nicely on the dark soil, perhaps, the place will have a good harvest for the winter.

The situation of the settlement seems normal, even better than a village of former slaves should fare. Given how they had looted provisions stored from Aldoran soldiers, it goes without saying that their little village had a good amount of food to begin with, and most likely their only concern for the first month or so was rebuilding the place and give it some semblance of dignity.

I try to take a closer look, taking direct control of the offshoot and flying it near a patch of trees that

surrounds the village.

As soon as the offshoot nears the trees, the connection I have to it is severed. The last figure recorded from it, a dark silhouette and the silver flash of a blade.

<<This is not a good sign…>>

I mutter to myself.

Levia turns to me with an interrogative expression, but I simply open the Inventory again and drag her with me. The feeling of restlessness that takes hold every time my thoughts wander to that place have grown, almost becoming physical pain when that something or someone cut down my spy.

<<What happened?>>

Levia beckons me, her eyes wide as she stares at my concerned face. I keep my gaze to the distance, far away, pondering the most prudent move to take at this time.

Should I send some more scouts, to ascertain the situation? Or should I rush there? There is a high possibility that my scout has been mistaken for a monster and taken out by guards or some skilled villager.

I contact the others, letting them know that we’re moving closer to the village. Although I went alone with Levia, I left some transfer stones to each member of our party, in order for them to reach us immediately if trouble arises. Of course, the opposite is also true, although I do not think that Dahl or Retel and Marica would end up in troublesome situations, given how they decided to spend their free time.

<<My scout has been destroyed. It reached the village, then something cut it down>>

As I answer to her question, Levia’s expression turns serious.

<<What now?>>

<<First, I’ll do this>>

I summon Shoggoth once again, this time sending multiple, smaller offshoots to scout the area. I made them quicker than the first, in order for them to reach the village in a reasonable time.

<<Then, we’ll wait>>

The improved offshoots fly towards the village at incredible speed, their visual feedback nothing more than a blur of colors and forms distorted by speed.

In a single hour, they reach the place where their “brother” had met its end. Droning around, each of the single offshoots surveys the area around and above the small settlement.

Like the one I sent before, all of them fall, one by one.

Definitely this is not the work of some monster. Even someone like a guard would have considered the offshoots like some kind of bug, and disregard them completely. And yet, for someone to aptly take them out, it must be someone capable of sensing the mana flowing inside of them, and realizing that they were not living organisms, but something else.

<<Fuck it>>

Taken by curiosity, I give in to the compulsion to go there. Hopping into Inventory once more, let the black space open and close, letting me and Levia out right next to the slave settlement.

Seeing it up close, I realize how the new settlement is bigger than the Aldoran fort was. Perhaps, they have taken in some refugees fled from Nudria, or some traveling peddlers decided to settle here.

I enter the main gate, without anyone coming to stop, or even check me. All around, the people seem relaxed, only sending small, curious glances towards the two strangers that have just crossed the village’s doors.

<<It seem fairly normal to me>>

Levia mutters, her eyes wandering to the wooden houses and the dirt track roads. Of course, this place is significantly poor, relying not on a thriving economy but on agriculture as a mean to sustain themselves.

The shops here are nothing more than peddler’s carts, perhaps owned by some itinerant merchant that chose to come here to exchange some goods and refurbish on another. Despite its situation right now, the settlement is located in a favorable zone, having good land around it and abundance of some resources, like wood and water.

And, given how the Aldora Marsh is near, they could start gathering materials from there, given that some of the former slaves has or manages to gather enough levels to challenge the monsters there.

Still, I wonder why, but even seeing up close how the new settlement is faring, I cannot shake off this feeling of unrest, like something is about to happen here.

I look around, the curious stares of passersby, some of them with a spark of recognition in them, from the time they were in chains, and I was nothing more than a lost boy, half prisoner, half guest of those soldiers from Aldora.

Memories of that time are running in my head, this time real, not fabricated, inherited and inserted by some cosmic force.

I thread lightly on the dirt track roads, my feet bringing me to the place where Emilia shared her lessons with me, teaching how to speak the common tongue of this region.

Curious as it is, that people from Sendria share the same language and yet have so radical differences in their view of the world. I would be prone to consider a common language something that should unify, and yet, due to different religious belief, the two states could not be more apart one from the other.

In Aldora, the notion of inferiority among people is introduced, as people that hold magic or skills are discriminated, dehumanized.

These people here, they have experienced it first hand, the negation of their humanity, people seen as nothing more than tools, objects to be used.

How did I ever feel compassion to those from Aldora? Was it because of the kindness they showed me back then?

I wonder how the current me would have reacted, if by some strange twist of fate, I had to repeat the same experience that led me here, back then.

Would I just sit idly, thinking about myself while ignoring those eyes, the light in them slowly fading away, slowly, day after day of denied freedom and dehumanization.

Or would I fight, and perhaps die, to protect them, their right to possess their own lives?

I talk to Levia about what is running into my mind.

<<I cannot give an answer about what you would have done. But, if it were me, I would have rushed to their side. No matter how kind the soldiers were to you, I could never stand idly and watch others be persecuted>>

I nod, leaning on a low wooden fence, my eyes wandering to the house behind it. In there, the Soldier barracks used to be. Now, a row of small wooden huts took its place, and I have to admit, it is definitely better like this.

<<Still, if I went and challenged the soldiers, I would be dead by now, or made a slave myself. Back then, not only did I lack the power, but also the guts to actually do something. I recognize it now, how selfish and coward I have been. And thinking about how events unfolded in the end, my little rebellion would have been for naught. The slaves would have been freed either way, but since I did not act against the soldiers, I survived. And now I am here, again, wondering about the past, something that will not lead to anything I believe. And yet, I cannot stir my thoughts from that. Is it guilt?>>

I turn to Levia, as to wait for an answer from her.

Levia’s smile warms her face, her eyes looking at me kindly.

<<I think it’s simple growth. You’re maturing, and now you start to wonder, to try and find your own answers. Of course it will not change the past, but the conclusion you reach, it will change you.

You can believe to have acted in your interest, and stop dwelling on it. It is fine, most people do it.

Or you could dwell deeper on your action, analyze them, that sense of guilt, or regret you may be feeling. It could turn into something that will spring you to action, next time. Now that you have the power to do it, and the will>>

I smile at her, shaking my head a bit.

<<Well, and here I thought Heod was the philosopher among us>>

She snickers to my, I have to admit, lame joke. Her laughter is nice to hear, and reminds me of one memory from the other world, one of the rare nice ones.

About a girl, back in high school. I do not even know now if that girl existed, or if it is just some kind of projection. I remember her laughter, so clear, like the chiming sound of crystals, and I stood there, in the hallways, steps behind her and her friends, gazing from afar, with a warm feeling in my chest that soon turned sour, as she walked past me, without even noticing me.

But her laughter, and her smiling face, they were so good to admire, and that instant where she came towards me, it made my heart flutter, and for a moment I thought, hoped that she would rise her gaze and smile at me.

I do not even know if that scene is real, or the result of some patchwork, some crappy montage that should belong to D list movies. And yet, it is playing now in my head, superimposed to Levia’s own smile, to her laughter.

But, Levia is real, here, next to me. And her smile is enough to soothe me, making me forgive even why I came here.

She realizes the way I have been staring at her lips, and her smile wavers a bit, both her eyes and my own changing their direction, awkwardly.

A voice calls from behind.

As I turn, I see a figure I recognize.

<<Is that really you? You’ve come back!>>

Julia’s mother is holding a basket of freshly picked fruit, her hair tied up on her head leaving her neckline exposed.

I wave my hand at her, before approaching the woman.

She puts down her basket to greet me, asking me how I have been faring since then.

There is almost no trace left of the pale, malnourished woman that I used to sneak food to. Now, her body has fully recovered, as the light in her eyes has, burning bright almost as her smile.

She looks at me with concern, in her eyes, after all, I am nothing more than a kid, alone in the world.

She joins her hands in surprise when I show her my Identity stone from the Guild.

She compliments me, and I introduce Levia to her. The woman’s lips curl up a bit. Perhaps she misunderstood something here…

<<Where is Julia? I would like to say hello to the little girl>>
Noticing that her daughter is nowhere near, I ask her.

<<She must be out in the fields. Lately she’s playing along with that blonde girl and some other brats…too much, for my tastes, and too close to the forest out there. That place gives me the creeps>>

As she mentions the forest, I feel something in my chest tighten.

Again, that feeling of unrest comes up, filling my psyche like a wave. Now that I recall it, could it be Julia’s doing? She had some kind of mind-related ability, even being able to sense, or perhaps call, the Laughing Man.

But if that is the case, why me?

I rule out the possibility of this. Still, the forest seems to be a place I need to check.

Julia’s mother parts from us, excusing herself since she needs to go back to work. She strolls away, holding her basket under her folded right arm.

As a gift, she gave me and Levia two fruits. Round, red and squishy, these fruit let out a deeply sweet fragrance, that becomes an even sweeter flavor when I bite into it.

Levia is also eating hers, a trickle of juice flowing from her mouth to her chin.

As I make her note that, she frantically tries to wipe it with a towel,with the sole result of smearing her chin further.

<<Stop laughing! It’s not funny!>>

She protests and pouts, but then smiles again.

<<Now, what do you want to do about the forest? Want to check it out?>>

Levia asks me, sitting on a fallen log. We’ve gone outside of the settlement again, nearing the forest as we walked. I explained to her what I felt when the woman mentioned it, and she agreed that it was worth investigating.

<<Not in person. Not immediately at least>>

This time, the offshoot I am making is different. I am putting my concentration into it, trying to create not a puppet, but a living being.

It takes a huge amount of mana to do so, to will Shoggoth’s offshoot into the different cell structures, muscles and neural networks, skin and bones.

The aspect of the new creature is…weird. The motif to it it’s the usual bio-mechanical look, apparently the standard form for things created by using Shoggoth. It has the vague shape of a moth, four legs instead of six. Large as a cat, with black wings that have a red eye as a pattern.

The most interesting thing is how the head turned out to be. It looks like a globe, surrounded by three petal-like covers of hard shell. From the base of it, three pairs of thin antennae extend, wriggling around. The globe itself is composed by a myriad of tiny eyes, covered in a thin mucous layer that makes it glisten. The mouth of the creature is a vertical slit on its torso, lined with sharp teeth.

This creature, unlike my other creations, has a proper mind of its own. And with that, a level.

[Navi: Unit Creation Complete- Would you like to assign a name to your minion? Y/N]

I think the name, and wait for Navi’s reply.

[Navi: Unit Named Successfully! New Unit- Meviel (lvl 10) is now ready to follow your orders!

First Minion Created! For that reason, Meviel’s Stats have gained a 30% boost! Being your first Minion, Meviel will gain a passive amount of EXP every time you defeat an enemy, and a 30% EXP bonus every time it defeats an enemy on its own. New Navigator Function Available: Unit Command. With this, it is possible to produce, assign and control units you’ve created, and simplify creations of new ones! A huge step into becoming a true Demon Lord!]

<<Your skill gets weirder every time, Roshal>>

Levia says so, looking a bit disgusted by the giant moth resting perched on my hand. It’s nice to see how forced battles against spider, scorpions and other insects have forced her to win her fear of insects.

Still, I believe some of it remains, perhaps not fear, but definitely disgust.

<<Don’t look at her like that, she’s beautiful, see>>

Levia squirms, packing a punch to my shoulder.

Meviel turns its head to her, then to me, its antennae wiggling with quick movements and pauses.

I sense its intention, as it wonders if it needs to protect me from Levia.

It almost makes me chuckle. Still, I send my will to Meviel, and it calms down, turning its head to Levia and wriggling its antennae slowly, almost waving them at her.

<<God make it stop, please…>>

She looks away, a bit pale.

Still, I try to see in detail what I have created. I know the basic specifics of Meviel, since I made them, but it seems like Navi or the system interfered a bit with the process, and so, I need to check how things turned out to be.

I use Navi’s identification on Meviel.

[Navi: Identified- Meviel (lvl 10)- Race: Demon (Roshal’s Minion). Skills: Aerial Attack, Sonar, Infrared View, Identify, Sonic Cutter, Image Processing]

The list of Meviel’s stats shows only four, Str, Acc, Agi, Int, with the last two being the higher parameters.

Of course, I built this minion as a mean of recognition capable of some degree of combat. At the moment, level ten seems to be my limit, but with time, who knows?

I release it, giving out the impulse to search the forest. As the minion flies, hovering over the line of trees before disappearing from my sight, I wait with Levia, checking the feedback from Meviel as it flies.

This will serve two purposes. First, if common monsters are responsible for the destruction of my previous scouts, Meviel will be able to deal with them if their level is low enough, without me having to step into battle.

Even if the monsters in the forest are low level ones, they still could pose some kind of threat to the settlement.

But, if Meviel finds something else…

My train of thoughts is interrupted, as Meviel gives back the image of a clearing inside the forest. In there, a group of children are playing together, and among them, I spot Julia.

She stops for a moment, looking at Meviel’s direction before running again, pursuing one of her playmates towards the forest.

The scene is heartwarming, but I cannot help but think that these kids are pushing their luck by playing around in the forest, without supervision.

Another signal from Navi, this time stronger.

Smiling, I take note of it.

Beside that signal, there is nothing going on with the forest, strangely enough. Just to be sure, I am leaving Navi’s detection on, and later I will send Meviel to scout a larger area.

It seems that the signal has begun to attack Meviel. My minion has a high Agi stat, and it is being able to avoid the attacks, barely.

If things keep up like this, I will lose my first proper creation, and I do not want that.

I tell Levia about the situation, cautioning her to not take any offensive action. She looks at me with curiosity, but then she shrugs her shoulders and follows along.

Stepping inside the forest, we near the place where the battle is unfolding. Meviel has been wounded, now lying on the ground, wriggling its body as if to crawl to my direction.

In front of it, a woman stands, her rapier bared toward my minion, ready to strike at it.

It seems she did not notice us.

Extending my hand, I recall Meviel into Shoggoth. A tendril of blackness comes from my hand, connecting itself to my minion and absorbing it.

Seeing the scene, the woman jumps back, her eyes narrowing.

Then, she yells, surprised.

<<Roshal? Is…is that really you?>>

Emilia looks at me, lowering her rapier for one second before raising it again. I am glad to see her, and she’s doing ok. But she’s a member of Aldora, and her presence here could mean something bad is coming.

<<I thought I would never meet you again>>

I say, a sad smile on my face. Using Shoggoth, I bind her, surprising the girl with the sudden motion.

<<Wh…what are you doing? Roshal, please!>>

I harden my stare, and my grip on her.

<<I’m sorry Emilia, but this is something necessary. Are you here alone? Are there other people from Aldora returning here?>>

She looks at me, angered. Levia is beside me, her weapon still lowered as she tries to make out what is happening.

Shoggoth’s grip tightens again.

<<Roshal…please…you’re hurting me>>

Her voice weakens, but she still fails to answer my question. There are no other signals in the forest, beside animals and the children who are playing in the clearing. One of them is approaching, quickly.

I turn around in that direction, seeing Julia pop out of the vegetation.

She yells seeing Emilia and us, and she steps back. For a moment, before she collects her courage and shouts, this time with a firm voice.

<<Leave big sis alone!>>

Her words leave me puzzled, but more than words, it is her skill that affected me. I resisted it, but her shout was clearly a mental attack of some sort.

Apparently, little Julia has grown a bit since the last time I met her.

<<So, this is just a big misunderstanding, am I right?>>

Levia asks, her eyes wandering around. We’ve already come back to the settlement, along with Emilia and Julia.

It was the girl that convinced me to free Emilia, leading to a series of apologies that I was forced to make.

It turns out, Emilia is now living among the former slaves. After the Laughing Man, her unit was decimated while she was out on patrol duty.

Her group was ambushed by monsters, and her companions fell to them. Alone, wounded, she dragged herself back to the fort, only to find it destroyed, the army gone, the slaves freed.

<<I remember collapsing right in front of the gate, and when I woke up, Julia’s mother was nursing my wounds. I laid in bed for about two weeks, before I could move again>>

I listen to her story, studying her Status as she talks. I remember her level to be around forty, instead, right now, her status lists her as level twenty.

Moreover, she has no skills.

I want to ask her about it, but perhaps, not even Emilia has an answer for what happened to her.

Maybe she was so heavily wounded that her level dropped, although I do not think this is the case.

Giving in, I ask her.

She looks down, fidgeting with her hands.

Her voice is low when she starts talking, telling what happened during her stay in the settlement.

<<As I said before, I…my group was out, scouting a way in the Marsh for our supply chain to use. That fort was supposed to be an outpost, a base of operations of some sort. I do not know further details, after all, I am…I was nothing more than a simple soldier in the ranks of the Scouting division. Anyway, we were attacked by a large group of monsters, ambushed at night. It was awful>>

She stops, her voice trembling for a moment as she twists her hands one into the other, her shoulders dropping as if bearing a heavy weight.

<<I…was wounded, and ran away. I left them there, to die>>

She pauses again, biting her lips, her face slightly paler than before.

She clears her throat, trying to give some semblance of strength to her tone.

<<Wounded, and shocked, I walked back to the fort. Crawled, at some point. My vision fading, my strength slowly seeping away. I collapsed before reaching it, able to see the gates but without being able to reach them. When I woke up, I was lying in a bed, draped under a warm sheet of cloth and nursed by Verra, this brat’s mother>>

She pats Julia’s head, who in return smiles, hugging Emilia closer. We’re inside Verra’s house, and it seems that since Emilia fainted outside of the village, she’s been the one taking care of her. Healing her wounds first, then giving her shelter, and even a job.

<<It took me some time for my wounds to heal, but I recovered fully. And that’s when things changed. As I spent time in the village, I saw how they treated me. Me, a soldier from Aldora, one of the people that enslaved them, that used to look at them like nothing more than thrash. And yet, all they showed was kindness. They healed me, they fed me. They forgave me. At first, I resented it. Like a stupid, I expected them to hate me, I almost wanted them to. But time after time, day after day I spent with these wonderful people, their kindness made me open my eyes. Aldora’s ways are wrong. All that I believed, all that Aldora stands for, is nothing much than a pile of stupid precepts, made to oppress people. And when I realized it, when I realized the change in my thoughts, something snapped inside of me. My level went down, every day. It was painful at first, unbearable when it was about to reach one. Then, I really thought I was about to die. And yet, I did not. Something seeped out of my body, like a thick blue fog, and I was able to breathe again. Not only that, but I felt…different, better, like my head was clear for the first time. Since then, I trained myself back, hoping to reach the level I had before. And that’s it, Emilia’s recent history of redemption. So different from the lessons I used to give you, right?>>

She smiles, but sorrow is clear in her eyes. Now, she’s a person who has seen all she believed in as it truly was. Not religion, but oppression, tyranny. The former slaves, being people who deeply understand suffering, decided to do the most difficult act, something that speak so highly of them.

To forgive, to nurture who used to be your enemy.

<<And you? What you’ve been doing since all this time?>>

Emilia asks, with Julia peeking with curiosity from under her arm. It seems that the two of them grew close as Emilia spent time among the former slaves.

I smile back, proceeding to talk about my recent life as an adventurer. Levia joins in the talk too, perhaps she was feeling a bit left out from before.

As we talk, speaking about the Dungeon and the Adventurer’s Guild, I can see Julia’s eyes sparkle, enthralled as she was by the tale.

We spent the whole afternoon in Verra’s hut, and I managed to get a few information from her. Apparently, the small settlement is faring a bit worse than it seems. Crops are going bad, and some of the inhabitants seem to have gone missing. Five of them, with no relation to each other. The main talk is that they ventured too far inside the Marsh, perhaps trying to harvest some rare herbs from there, or even going as far as hunting monsters in the area.

It seems none of the villagers actually thought the matter to be something more serious, considering the recent deaths nothing more than accidents, due to the individuals’ carelessness.

Plausible, but I think it deserves some more investigation. Still, according to Verra’s words, the village lacks a proper guard corp, and every able hand is too busy with crops or other much needed work.

In short, nobody looked into the disappearances.

The settlement itself numbers seventy-three people, fifty males between ages fourteen and forty-five, sixteen women and seven children, three boys and four girls, one of them still a newborn.

None of them combat-trained, except Emilia, and all lacking even the tools to defend themselves.

<<How do you deal with stray monsters?>>

Levia’s question hits on point. Here, no matter how things are, it is still too close to the Marsh to be totally safe.

Back when it was a fort, the place had an ample number of combatants, well enough capable to take down a few monsters, or even a group of them.

And monsters are bound to roam near the village, attracted by the noise.

Verra pauses for a moment, recalling.

<<Actually, we’ve never seen a monster come up this close. Not even in the woods. Well, excluding those strange black creatures that Emilia killed the other day, but that happened recently>>

Levia looks at me and snickers, making a puzzled expression rise in Verra’s face.

<<It’s nothing. So, no monsters at all? What about brigands, bandits? There should be some group active in the area from what I recall>>

That is a lie, but I want to know if they spotted something suspicious, something that might be the cause for this sense of uneasiness that I still feel.

Verra shakes her head. If what she says is true, then this settlement has really been blessed with some good luck, given how it is ignored by monsters. Bandits are nowhere around the area, I checked that with Navi, but given how the Marsh is part of Aldora’s territory, it would not be strange to see some scouts head here, or even a full force trying to reclaim the fort for themselves, and the slaves inside of it.

I speak some more with Verra, while Julia has basically taken Levia as an hostage, bombarding her with questions and pestering the poor beast-kin to let her touch her horns.

<<Julia! Stop! It’s rude to ask something like this>>

The little girl pouts, but Levia smiles at her, taking her small hand and guiding it to her head.

A wide smile opens in Julia’s face, as she runs her fingers on the curved small horns that point out of Levia’s forehead.

Verra looks at her daughter, shaking her head but incapable of stopping her mouth to curve into a smile.

She offers to host us for dinner, and Levia accepts without even waiting for me to reply. Not that I would have refused, but…

Still, I take out some of the provisions stocked into Inventory, and present them to Verra. Although she refuses at first, I convince her to take them. Judging from how Julia looks at the pieces of meat I brought out, it should be a long time since they had some on their table. Perhaps, and given their past, it might be true, they never had meat as a meal.

Their home is poor, and having two extra mouths to feed, even for one night, might be too much. I also intend to leave them some more, or help them with some gold.

It would be nice if I could help the settlement as a whole, but I do not even know how to start on that.

Sure, I could give them gold, or items to sell, but I fear that might not be the best solutions. Even if the village is safe, giving them gold would give rise to some problems.

The average level of the settlers is four, far too low. It would be easy for someone to just rob them of the gold, or goods. It would just take a dishonest merchant, or some highway bandit and the help I would give them would be gone.

If I really want to be useful to them, I need to find something that will immediately profit the settlement, and for a long time.

But the land around here is not suitable for agriculture, barely being able to support basic cultivation, without giving much yield in terms of harvest.

The territory around has little game, and scarce natural resources besides wood. What this place has, and it is both an advantage and an impending danger, is its vicinity to the Marsh.

It has a strategic value, without a doubt, given how Aldora rushed to set up a base here. Sendria could do the same, perhaps aiding in the development of this settlement.

However, I fear that until Alvarez is still into power, the military will be something we cannot count on.

The Guild, on the other hand, could open a trade route with the small settlement, provided they have goods to propose.

If at least a group of villagers had higher levels, it would be possible for them to start harvesting materials from the Marsh, and I could convince Heod to purchase some of his stock of herbs from here. After all, he owes his success in Sendria to that strange mushroom I brought back with me, and the miraculous potion he obtained from it gained him fame and money in Sendria.

Night comes, and Verra offers us to stay at her place. Reluctantly, I need to decline. There is a specific reason that compelled me to come here, and it was not to pay a visit to the slaves.

If my sensations are right, something bad is going to happen here.

<<Ready?>>

Nodding, Levia follows after me, as we slip out of the settlement, heading into the woods.

I used Inventory, taking out some weapons for me and Levia to use. I do not want to be too conspicuous right now, and, if possible, I would like to refrain from using Shoggoth, unless the need for it arises.

Once again, I bring out Meviel, this time exerting myself to produce two of them. The process fails , with me being able to recall only the first, original one.

It seems this new ability needs a lot of perfecting before becoming truly useful for something more than simple scouting.

I release Meviel, heading out in the opposite direction. The minion flies towards the settlement and the clearing around it, with the order to monitor it and refer everything that happens. If monsters with level lower than its own appear, Meviel will take them out on itself, otherwise it will fly away.

Having left the settlement under monitoring, me and Levia thread towards the Marsh.

Just as a precaution, I called the others before, in order for them to be on standby if something happens.

If we are ambushed, their sudden appearance will surely be a huge surprise to whatever monster or other thing attacks us. Still, I would not like to resort to something like this, as I hope that everything will prove to be fine enough or just a minor nuisance that me and Levia are more than capable to handle.

A noise comes from behind us, and a signal from Navi, pulsing closer than it was before.

Sighing, I do not even turn around.

<<Hello again, Emilia>>

Levia has her arrow already notched, pointing it at her. It seems she is still wary of Emilia, after having learned how she is from Aldora.

A prudent reaction, to be fair. Still, the way she is now, Emilia does not pose any kind of threat to us.

Moreover, we could even use her for information. Learn something about Aldora’s own tactics, or troop movement. I doubt she may know some details about the whole big strategy of Aldora, but even the slightest information will be helpful against them.

Most likely, she followed us wanting to tag along. I already told Levia about this possibility, and she agreed to let her come with us, with the condition of immediately disposing of her if she tries something sketchy.

I would rather avoid this scenario, but if she truly tries something, I will not stay my hands.

I let the individual herself explain.

Emilia keeps her voice low while she explains why she followed us, and as I expected she express the will to follow us in the Marsh.

She nods gravely when we consent.

We start walking toward the Marsh’s edge. It would be faster for me to use Inventory, but given Emilia’s presence it is best to be a bit cautious, and not reveal one of my strongest skills. Just as a precaution.

Once we reach the border of Aldora’s Marsh, Emilia turns around.

<<As you know, the Marsh is a hostile territory. Follow me if you do not want to lose your…>>

Her words are interrupted by a splashing, loud sound, followed by a bellowing hiss that lacerates the air. From the water, a serpentine figure emerges.

Marsh Snake, level thirty-two. The monster is strange, however, a weird purple aura spreading in his body, encroaching its head like a web.

The snake hisses again, coiling its body before springing towards Emilia.

However, she has enough time to leap back and slash at it. Given the level difference, her attack did not much damage, leaving a shallow wound on the thick scaly hide.

Emerald eyes are fixed on Emilia, as the snake prepares for another attack.

In the blink of an eye, an arrow pierces the snake’s head, exploding in a white flash of light.

The snake’s body twitches, before collapsing, beheaded.

Levia is still in position, her right hand gripping tight at the bow, her left open, held at shoulder height.

Emilia looks at her with wide eyes, surprised to see the monster taken out with a single attack.

<<What level are you?>>

She asks, still perplexed by Levia’s sudden show of power.

<<Fifty>>

Levia says, before taking another arrow and notching it into her bowstring.

<<Shall we go?>>

She beckons, pointing her bow towards the Marsh.

<<Wait, I need to do something first>>

I say while approaching the snake’s carcass. This much meat will benefit the settlement after all, it is a waste to leave it here.

<<Do you want to take that with us? Isn’t it a bit too much to carry?>>

Emilia leans from behind me, curious about what I am doing with the corpse.

<<Just…stand back>>

To my reply, she shrugs her shoulders and make some steps backward.

I use Shoggoth, clearing the twenty meters long snake in an instant.

<<That…that is the same thing you used to block me before>>

Emilia is shocked by seeing my skill at work. Perhaps, she’s thinking about how I could have done the same to her, making her body disappear into a black, bubbling mass.

The way she looks at me now is a mixture of suspect and fear.

Her hand goes to her blade, but stops there.

Her voice low, firm, her legs parting to assume a combat stance.

Shall I humor her in this confrontation? As I ask myself this, Levia is already in position, ready to aptly strike at the first sign of danger.

Maybe Emilia does realize this, and she relaxes, her hand moving further away from her blade.

Smart thinking.

As she is, there’s no way she would pose a threat to me or Levia, even if we were alone.

<<I need to ask you something>>

She gazes at me, determined.

<<The timing of it, and seeing you now, using that skill. The fort…all the bodies disappeared from it. Without a single trace. Like the snake before. And the attack, it happened after we found you>>

She voices her thoughts, having reached a conclusion after seeing my skill at work.

I shake my head, knowing that it will not be enough. And so, in order to give her some kind of closure, I will make her see what happened that night.

Memory projection is something that Navi’s functions make possible, in some odd way, making it more convenient to use rather than a spell.

A spell of this kind would require incredible control and precision, with the risk of damaging both the caster and the target. Using Navi seems to be quicker, and less bothersome.

<<I will do something now. It will not harm you, I assure. But you will see things, and it will not be pleasant>>

Levia scoffs, crossing her arms while she wait.

I ignore her, activating Navi’s function to share my memory with Emilia, about the night where the Laughing Man consumed her companions.

It happens in a moment, and Emilia falls to her knees, crying.

Seeing the people she knew die in such gruesome way leaves its toll. Still, she rises, drying her tears on her sleeve.

<<Thank you for showing me the truth>>

She says. Without even doubting that it could have been an illusion of some kind.

<<The sl…the villagers do not speak about that night. It’s the only thing I resent them for. I mean, I changed, I realized the wrongdoings of my people, the absurdity behind my religion, but I wanted, I needed to know>>

<<And now that you know? What will you do? Go back and report? Or try and seek revenge?>>

Levia intervenes in the discussion, staring coldly at Emilia.

<<Why…never mind. I will not do anything. I will just continue my life, this time knowing what happened in that place. I will mourn them, perhaps build some empty graves to remember them, outside the village, far from indiscreet eyes. But revenge? Reporting to the Army? Those hold no more meaning for me. If I went back, I will be executed as a traitor, having lost the Blessing>>

Did I hear correctly? I stop Emilia from her reasoning.

<<Blessing? What is that?>>

She makes a face as if she’s going to not answer me, but the sound of Levia tensing her bow makes her reconsider.

<<It’s…a power. Some sort of it. When you join the Aldoran Church, the High Pope makes you cast away your Mana. Poison of the Earth, he calls it. Then, after every drop of it is gone, he prays for a Blessing to our God, and if the blessing is granted, you join the Army or the Church. The Blessing makes you stronger, you get far more Exp than a normal person, and twice the stats per level. That’s it>>

Mana is the core foundation for both spells and skills. Ripping it out of a person should mean killing them, and yet, this Blessing she spoke of lets them survive. Perhaps, the Blessing is the reason why Aldoran soldiers seem to be immune to skills and magic.

And having lost that, Emilia is now vulnerable to them.

Still, there must be more about it. First, it really sounds like some sort of skill that this High Pope may possess. He takes the Mana from people, then replaces it with something created by his own skill. Seems plausible to me. Or perhaps, the God is the one taking Mana for itself, and the Blessing is compensation for that.

The important information here is that people from Aldora do not have mana on their own. At least, normal people and soldiers. I fear that the Heroes will be a different matter altogether, along with this High Pope.

Still, if this Blessing gives immunity to Mana in all its form, and even doubles the stat gains on level up, it would mean that a single level thirty soldier from Aldora would be as strong as a level sixty warrior from Sendria, in terms of pure stats.

I will keep that in mind, and brief Telesia about it, if she still does not know. For now, we have a more pressing matter to attend, despite the small pause we took.

The purple energy that raged into the snake, I now remember where I first saw it. It was back when we were near Nudria, and the first Dryad attacked us.

The color of it is different, as the way it was shaped. But there is something peculiar that reminded me of that scene, seeing the threads of purple mana on the serpent.

The way it vibrates, it had the same distinctive vibration as those that controlled the Dryad back then. To confirm things without any doubt, I let Navi process the visual memory, trying to see if the scenes match.

Her answer confirm my suspicion.

Deep into the Marsh, the same Hero, Damian, is hiding.

I let Navi’s detection expand as much as I can, letting it go further and further.

At the center of the Marsh, near the border of Aldora Forest, a large group of monster is amassed. Among them, right at the center of the group, Damian’s signal pulses.

Level Eighty-four, surrounded by monsters ranging from level thirty to level fifty.

And they’re marching, headed towards the former fort.

As I am now aware of it, a notification pops up in my head.

[Navi: Fourth Trial- Trial of The Horde: In the Given time, Repel the Horde and Kill the Hero.

Trial Initializing- Done. Trial Started]

Re:Interference Chapter 28- Back to town

After dealing with the Elite monsters, we head towards the towering figure of this floor’s Champion monster.

<<Ready?>>

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.

<<Beelzebub>>

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.

Level fifty.

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.

Levia…

<<Another, please?>>

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.

But…

<<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.

Re:Interference Chapter 27- Further Down

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.

<<Now>>

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

spell effects.

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.

<<Move away!>>

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.

<<Yep>>

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.

They are…plants.

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.

Re: Interference Chapter 26- Dive

The Elite monsters that infest this floor’s central portion are humanoid shaped creatures, with hunched backs and fish-like features. They crawl from the water, holding barnacle encrusted, rusty metal weapons and gurgling their strange verses at us.

Their bodies disproportionate, their upper half, torso, head and arms, bigger than the lower half.

Shark like teeth, and their scaly skin varies in tone from individual to individual, showing different shades of green and blue.

Some individuals among them have more human-like features, with flat, nose-less faces adorned by gills and fins, upright posture and harmonious proportions. These ones hold red coral staffs, and are able to cast strange spells, specialized in manipulating water and sound.

Much like some other humanoid monsters we managed to encounter in the Dungeon, these seem intelligent, communicating between themselves with strange, gurgling sounds. In battle, they employ tactics and show a high degree of coordination.

For that reason, they’re a threat we need to eliminate before we start our confrontation with the Champion.

As the monsters attack in formation, their forward melee fighters supported by shields of bubbling water cast by rearguard magicians clash with Retel’s new skill, Rook’s Phalanx, a large scale mana shield that completely repels their assault.

With each strike that the enemy deal against the shield, Retel’s spear glows,more and more, a sparkling red aura swirling around it.

Then, with a sudden movement, Retel pierces the ground, releasing a large amount of mana from that action.

Countless red spears, made out of translucent mana burst out of the ground, skewering, piercing and impaling everything in their path.

That one, it was his old skill, Spike Counter. Apparently, the skill had changed since Retel gained both the title and his Rank Up. More powerful, with a larger scale and less activation time required.

The combination of those skills allow for some intensive crowd control, along with the defense provided on our group.

Dahl is using his own skills to circle around the front line, infiltrating among enemy ranks and doing quick and powerful attacks.

He’s targeting the magician-class enemies, taking the most advantage from his skills and his passive damage boost against mana.

In a single hit, he’s taking down each monster.

Being Elite creatures, these monsters we’re fighting at the moment grant a good amount of experience. Perhaps, by killing them alone, we will even manage to gain one level or two.

The big prize itself has yet to appear. Right in the center of this floor, there is a circular atoll, nothing more than a round strip of sand surrounding a deep blue sinkhole. Around it, stone pillars encrusted in barnacles and coral formations emerge.

From there, I can sense a large signal with Navi’s detection, several hundred meters under the deep blue waters.

In that spot, the Champion monster resides.

But, in order for us to reach it, we need to cut our way through the army of Elite monsters that infest the place.

Using Shoggoth, I bind the monsters with it, resisting the skill’s urge to consume the monsters. After

letting it rampage, the thing is still hungry, it seems. Still, it abides my will, limiting itself, engulfing the scaly creatures, crushing and slashing.

Levia’s arrows and Marica’s large scale spells do the rest, dealing the decisive blow against the monsters.

Dahl is still on the prowl, stalking the magician-type monsters without they can even manage to conjure their spells.

The bout lasts roughly one full hour, and at the end of it, the shallow sea and the scarce strips of sand are littered with scaly corpses.

Some monsters managed to retreat, diving into deeper waters. To no avail, since I send Shoggoth to hunt once more.

Its size now is comparable to that giant sea-serpent I fought earlier, and still growing. After chasing out and consuming the stragglers, I order the skill to clear out the corpses littered around.

Gleefully, the black bubbling substance loses its semblance of form, returning to its slime-like shape

The amount of it is now vastly higher than what I could produce with Black Fluid, and still growing.

Perhaps, I should let it consume more, larger monsters whenever I have the chance. But, big monsters have a tendency of yielding higher amounts of EXP, so the decision between empowering my skill, or gaining more experience and let everyone grow it’s an easy one.

Of course, I will take the experience.

Speaking of which, the bout against those fish-people granted our group enough experience to let us level up twice.

Now, we all stand at level thirty-two, and that’s before we confront the Champion. If we’re lucky, the experience from it will let us gain another level.

Definitely, we’re over-leveled for this area to be a true challenge. The monsters in this area are hardly above level twenty-eight, with most of them being level twenty-six or below.

It’s some kind of pattern I have noticed, the monster levels being almost the same as the floor number. There are some exceptions, perhaps monsters that are meant to be a tougher challenge.

Before heading out to the Champion’s location, we take a quick rest in order to recover some energy and prepare for the big fight itself.

I wonder what kind of monster holds the title of Champion in this floor. Judging from the surroundings, and the type of monsters we’ve already met, it has to be some kind of giant fish creature. Perhaps a whale, or sea serpent. Or even a giant version of the same fish-people we’ve already fought.

Using the spare time, I contact Heod to let him know how we’re faring, and show him some samples of the materials we gathered in this floor.

After chatting for some time with the old man, I bid him farewell. Next, it is time to report to the Guild, to announce our progression and the intent to challenge this floor’s Champion monsters.

There is a nice mechanic that the Guild has set up, for hunting the Champion and Guardian monsters from the twentieth floor and beyond.

It’s basically a bounty, set on the head of those powerful monsters. You need to communicate your intention to fight it to the Guild, and, if you successfully bring back the monster’s head, your party receives a reward.

In order to provide assistance, the Guild decides a time limit on the operation. If your party does not contact them after one hour, or if they receive a distress call, they will send a high-level party to the last location displayed by your Identity stone.

But, I highly doubt that we would need it. Not to sound too cocky, but our current strength is definitely above that of this floor’s Champion.

That’s for sure.

<<Time to go>>

Dahl is the first one to get up, and we follow. Heading out to that strange place.

In there, the wind does not blow, and there is a persistent smell of decay in the air.

Under the water, it is possible to see some bones, littering the small portion of shallow waters before the huge, gaping underwater abyss.

The floor rumbles, as waves begin to stir from the circular sinkhole. Bubbles are rapidly forming on the surface, as the Champion rises to meet its challengers.

Bursting out of the surface, the gigantic, serpentine figure roars, a bellowing sound that makes my chest tremble from its violence.

It is blue in color, scales as large as my own hand armor its body, water dripping from it.

A huge mouth, lined with rows of shark-like teeth, each as long as a sword and ready to tear and crush.

A large dorsal crest, and two wing-like fins protruding from the gigantic body, giving it the appearance of a water dwelling dragon.

Still, this thing is not a dragon, at least, not in the classification of it made by Navi.

Its status shows it as a King Serpent, the level twenty-eight Champion of this floor.

As the beast roars, electricity runs along its body, discharging from the front horn on the monster’s forehead.

It unleashes a wide area lightning attack, a warm welcome for our party.

Retel receives it with his Vanguard shield, that becomes cracked in the process. Still, it holds without breaking.

Smiling, he uses the energy absorbed by the skill to unleash his Spike Counter, but the Champion avoids it, diving into water once again.

As the Champion emerged before, the place has changed. Channels now connect the internal sinkhole with the water surrounding the atoll, allowing the monster to swim into the surrounding sea.

It re emerges, its form far away in the distance. Once again, it roars, thrashing its long body, its mana charging and releasing, affecting the water around its coiled body.

A large wave is produced, increasing in height and strength, looming on us as it is about to crash on the small strip of sand.

<<Sorry guys>>

I shout, activating Inventory to avoid being swept by the wave.

Inside that dark space, the forms of my companions are floating, their time frozen, surprised expressions locked on their faces.

From there, I start charging my own spells, releasing them by opening small “gates” and unleashing the spell from them, aiming at the large serpentine form.

Once again, the thing dives into deep water, avoiding my attacks.

The best course of action, would be to lock that giant’s movements as best as we can. I doubt it could be damaged enough by lightning or fire spells, given that the monster itself can clad its body in electricity. And of course, being a water-based creature, using fire against it is out of the question.

Perhaps, I could try and use Shoggoth to restrain is movement and drag it out of the water.

As the waves subside, I hop out of Inventory, along with the others. This time, they do not seem to suffer severe after-effects, only mild nausea and momentary disorientation.

Still, the monster perceives our presence once more, and emerges from its original position, once again using his electric attack.

Retel uses his Vanguard to block once again, while I deploy Shoggoth to block the monster in place.

My skill wrestles with the creature, enveloping the serpentine body among black tentacles. It’s like seeing one of those battles between giant monsters of some B-movie.

Marica supports the process, using a freezing spell on the creature.

Now locked between pillars of ice, its body being wrapped and torn by Shoggoth, the King Serpent unleashes a sonic attack, shattering the ice around it and attempting to wrestle itself free from my skill.

However, a charged shot from Levia pierces its body, letting a huge spurt of blood paint the water in red.

Dahl is also on the move, dashing towards the creature at high speed.

He jumps, his figure blurred by speed, clad in a bluish aura.

His sudden slash leaves a blue trail in the air, and a long red gash on the Serpent’s scaly skin.

Shoggoth plunges its tentacles into the thing’s wounds, shredding the soft flesh underneath it and sending the monster into a fit of pain.

Levia stands, her mana gathering to a single point. The arrow she’s holding shines with white light, air twirling around the arrowhead in a spiral movement.

She releases it, a shock-wave following the arrow as it breaks past sonic speed.

With one single arrow, she blows away a part of the snake’s body, decapitating the beast.

Its head falls, splashing into the water, followed by a cascade of blood.

Still, the thing’s mana has yet to disappear. Moreover, it’s being channeled toward the wound.

The mana fluttering around begins to flow towards the beast, gathering itself into shining particles that flock to the monster.

Its body trembles, then it shakes, the wound bubbling, the flesh underneath it squirming, expanding, until two heads pop out from it.

<<You’ve got to be kidding>>

I hear Retel curse under his breath, while Marica voices her complaint in a more polite way.

The monster bellows at us, with twice the noise and fury.

One head unleashes a scalding breath, while the other shoots electricity darts.

All the wounds the monster had, they have been healed when it entered its second phase.

Retel’s Vanguard catches the attacks, cracking and breaking under the barrage.

For the first time in this fight, we’re forced to avoid the attacks. Even it its level is lower than ours, receiving a Champion’s attacks will deal significant damage. Lethal, most likely.

There is no room for carelessness on our part.

I channel one of my spells, while Shoggoth is still wrestling with the two-headed sea monster.

I channel my mana, condensing it on a single spot, pressing it until collapse point and then releasing the force at once.

The resulting attack is an unstable sphere of energy, flying at high speed towards the beast. It explodes on contact, sending a shock-wave from the resulting impact.

The monster roars in pain, wounded, but still alive.

<<We’ve got to end this…>>

Levia shouts, inciting us all to put more effort towards slaying the monster. Responding to its pain cries, monsters are flocking from the surrounding depths.

Surrounded, we are forced to divert our attention from the Champion in order to deal with the incoming waves of lesser creatures.

Retel deploys his Vanguard once again, this time spreading the barrier further to include all of us.

We tighten our ranks, as Retel guards each blow Levia, Marica and Dahl deal with the monsters crawling out of the sea.

If we drag this too much, it could turn into a bad situation. I definitely do not want that scenario to play.

For this fight, I wanted the others to slay the Champion by their hands. But, as the situation has changed, it seems like I will have to deal with the King Serpent.

After drinking a mana potion, I take some moments to let my mana recharge before weaving the next spell.

This time, I need to go with my strongest move. Shoggoth alone is a wonderful skill, but it is more suited to block and slowly consume the target, rather than dealing a massive amount of damage in short time.

Well, for it to have that effect, I need to use another method.

Channeling my own mana within the skill, I activate the “attack” that it is capable of. Its shape changes, tentacles sprouting blades that begin to vibrate, quicker and quicker, and with increased frequency they shred the flesh wrestling with them, as they dig deeper and deeper into the Champion’s body.

Shoggoth twitches, delving deeper its bio-mechanical looking tentacles into the King Serpent, ripping out chunks of flesh every time the monster tries to wrestle itself free.

The monster retaliates, discharging electricity to get rid of Shoggoth.

I struggle to maintain control of it, to not let the surge of energy disrupt its structure or even weaken it.

Of course, I took care to not let my own body be connected physically with the skill, in order to avoid receiving a huge electric shock.

Doing this decreased Shoggoth ‘s power, but it was for the best.

Still, Vorpal Edge is doing its work, rending the Serpent’s body, painting the water in red as the monster’s roars decrease in intensity, until they become nothing but low mumbles by a dying creature.

The others have already finished clearing the area of smaller creatures.

<<So, someone wants the final blow?>>

I ask, looking around to see if someone takes the honor.

Shrugging his shoulders, Dahl advances towards the dying monster, drawing his blade.

He pauses, letting his mana burn as he activates his skill. It wounds itself on the blade, a blue flame encroaching it.

He slashes, delivering the final blow on the serpentine creature.

This time, Navi’s notification informs us of the Champion’s death. From it, we gained a good amount of experience, enough to let our levels increase once more.

Now, our party has reached level thirty-three. And we still have a long way to go before stopping.

Perhaps, we should entirely skip some of the fights, and directly head toward a lower floor and the higher monsters it hosts.

But, the others wanted to progress “naturally” in this Dive. And so, they started sweeping their way from the first floor, to the point were I joined them.

And they still want to go.

The others rest while I let Shoggoth run amok, clearing the area from the remains of the monsters we slain during the last battle.

I take particular care when dealing with the King Serpent’s body, preserving both heads along with the first one that Levia severed, while the rest of the thing’s body is being devoured and dismantled by Shoggoth.

As it did when the skill was only “Black Fluid”, useful materials like skin, scales, bones are stored by the skill right into my own Inventory, while the rest is consumed by it. I can still select how much I want to keep, and how much of the “gathered” materials are to be consumed by the skill.

I only collect a rough ten percent of the total creature, unless it is something like a Champion or Guardian, since materials from those kind of monsters fetch for quite a high price, and can be used in crafting strong armor or used as a base to brew potions of great effect.

While I clear the area, the others are already directing their attention to the stash of treasure that this Champion had. It’s another of those constant elements of each Dungeon floor. A Champion monster’s chamber will have a pile of treasure, somewhere.

Sometimes, it’s just a heap of items collected from the bodies of fallen adventurers. Other times, it may be an area with nodes of rare minerals, or a clearing full of the rarest alchemical ingredient.

This time, it is an underwater grotto, filled with rare materials from the sea. To reach it, a normal adventurer would have to seat aside weapons and armor, since the water is rather deep and the extra weight might cause him to drown. Then, he would need to dive underwater, collect the materials and swim back up while taking a part of the loot with him. And repeat the process until his greed was satisfied.

Or, if a magician was in their party, they could use some spells to easily reach the underwater treasure.

Luckily, I have a handy skill to deal with this. Simply, I send Shoggoth in the underwater grotto, ignoring its mumbles of protest for the lack of meat there. Expanding itself, the skill absorbs everything in there beside the rock.

A system window appears, informing me of the acquired loot. Rare, precious corals that are used in refining and production of items related to sorcery, like catalysts and scepters, or even normal jewelry. Ores, among which a peculiar kind of coral that uses metal instead of calcium to produce its structure, giving rise to a bio-alloy with incredible properties, some of which I let Shoggoth consume to acquire said properties.

A curious form of crystal, molded by pressure into becoming denser, its structure perfect for absorbing and storing mana.

And other useful and interesting items. There’s also a lot of more classic materials, like pearls or precious shells.

After clearing the area, we move again.

The last part of this floor is the easiest one, with the least amount of monsters to encounter on the way out.

Battles are scarce during the next three hours of march, at the end of which we find ourselves near the rock wall that delimits this floor.

Embedded into it, the large opening that leads to descending stairs, the way out of this level, and the entrance to the next.

We descend the staircase, delving deeper into the earth as we step on a spiral staircase made of polished rock.

Halfway, there is a large space, a sort of room that we’re able to use as a base camp to spend the night.

Six hours of rest, then it is time to delve again into battle, as we will face the next floor of this Dungeon.

During sleep, I allocate the fifteen points gained from the level up in this floor. Fifteen more points, that I distribute into Intelligence and Luck, ten and five respectively.

Afterwards, I drift into proper, dreamless sleep.

Navi’s voice wakes me up six hours after, her “alarm function” working as intended. The others are already up, making their preparations to descend into the new floor of this Dungeon.

We spend half an hour between eating and completing our morning routine, then another hour and half is spent for the descent, stone step after the other, spiraling down further and further.

Once we reach the end of it, the staircase leads to a small antechamber, that opens into the first room of the twenty-seventh floor.

This one is also based on a “sea” theme, but rather than the open beach area that we admired in the previous floor, this one has the look of an undersea cave.

The walls are encrusted in algae and large barnacles, and puddles of waist-deep water litter the floor along with coral formations of different shape and color.

Large shells can be seen, some of them slightly opening and closing, almost like in a breathing motion.

The air has a strong, salty smell, and a chilly breeze comes from the deepest part of this floor, carrying notes of rot along with it. In the distance, high pitched, melodious sounds can be heard, almost like a song sung from the deepest part of these caves. It resembles a whale’s song, its melody

pleasant to the ear.

A blue light illuminates the place, coming from some of the deepest ponds. The underwater lights project strange, dancing reflexes on the rocks surrounding them, giving rise to a breathtaking spectacle.

I wonder if the Core is the one responsible for the composition and architecture of each floor, or if John is somehow behind these beautiful design. I doubt the latter to be the case, given that man’s lazy disposition. But, who know, he might have some kind of hidden artistic vein in him.

As usual, the first room is void of monsters, a kind of “buffer place”, to let adventurers acclimate to the environment before delving in.

I let Navi’s detection work, taking its time to scan the area and form the map.

The passages are narrow, connected to some large rooms, most of them flooded with ankle deep water, along with deeper spots.

Most monsters seem to concentrate in these rooms, although some can still be found in the corridors, patrolling them or simply resting in the narrow passages.

The quickest route, same as the other floors of this Dungeon, leads straight through the central chamber.

And that’s the one we will take.

Given how the corridors are narrow, roughly three meters from wall to wall, we advance in a single row, with Retel on the front and Dahl acting as rearguard. I follow immediately after Retel, with Levia and Marica behind me.

The monsters populating this floor are similar to those of the floor above, along with some new creatures.

Resembling large crabs and lobsters, these monsters boast a high defense and resistance to both slashing and piercing attacks.

Moreover, they use electricity as the base for their attacks, taking advantage of the wet floor to increase their area of effect.

Of course, these monsters are immune to electricity, since it simply runs along their metallic exoskeleton, discharging itself on the ground.

A rather peculiar method of “hunting” for these creatures, since it could damage their own allies as well as their prey.

It seems, however, that this floor has secluded populations of monsters. Unlike the floors above and beyond, where the monster population would either work as an ecosystem, with predators and prey, or work together as a community, this floor here is more game-like.

The monsters are idle in their positions, separated into each rooms according to their race. So, one room might have lobster-monsters, the other those strange fish-people, the following might host a population of crab creatures, and so on.

They do not seem to change positions, or do something else beside waiting.

As I think about the peculiar situation of this floor, John’s words come back to memory. During the time I spent training with him, he explained me something about the Dungeon.

Especially, he talked abut how the Dungeon itself was different before he managed to become Dungeon Master. In his word, the Dungeon before was more bland and easier for adventurers to deal with.

He was so proud of the way he changed it, working on each environment by adding new species, by granting them some semblance of a mind on their own, until the point when static floors, where monsters existed for the sole purpose of attacking adventurers, became thriving ecosystems, where monsters would live like proper wildlife.

In short, this floor was one of those that John had not yet modified, or perhaps, he was still working on it.

And the monsters here, they feel more…stupid. It’s like fighting robots, that repeat the same strategies ever and ever, acting in accordance to their program. There isn’t the slightest glint of life in them, although, by all means, they are living beings.

They do not fight for their life, and they do not attempt to flee when that life is in danger. They simply charge, following those patterns ingrained in their minds until they fall, or manage to kill some unaware adventurer.

Still, by taking some simple precautions it is possible to deal with them fairly easily, without incurring too many risks.

Definitely different from the monsters infesting the floors above, where a single mistake could spell your death, even when fighting against monsters below your own level.

This floor, and the original organization of the Dungeon that it represents, might have been easier for adventurers to conquer, and raise their level in a safer way. But, the new floor organization brought forth by John, it adds a new level of challenge, forcing the adventurers who dare to challenge them to think and plan before doing so, instead of rushing in and brute-force their way through the floor.

In some ways, the new organization is better, presenting a tougher challenge that ingrains caution into the adventurers.

Halfway through the floor, we begin to notice a change among the monster populations. Rooms have mixed races in them, and the monsters themselves seem more active, behaving like proper wildlife instead of standing around, waiting.

The mana flux inside this portion of the floor, it’s slightly different than that of the entrance.

It appears, that this floor is only halfway remodeled, the entrance left like it was before this place had a Dungeon Master, the entrance left as the original organization was.

Not only the monsters’ behavior, the layout of the place is also different. Traps are present in this portion of the floor. The peculiarity of them is that they’re not mechanical hazards ready to spring with the slightest movement.

They’re living creatures, akin to plants or sedentary animals that wait for their prey to come to them.

Some, lie in the shallow ponds, under a thin layer of mud and sand, ready to spring their tentacles closed at the slightest hint of movement or pressure above them.

As big as an adult person’s foot, they are not lethal, but inject a nasty toxin when they close their tentacles, clad in minuscule stingers.

It goes without saying that I absorbed some of them, to increase my collection of toxins and poison.

Also, the thing about these microscopic stingers might be helpful, if I manage to reproduce their structure.

As we advance, more kind of traps await. Some, similar to small pods, explode whenever something moves near them, releasing thin shells that have razor sharp edges. A closer examination of those shells, reveals that they’re some kind of worm, that burrows itself inside wounds, using its sharp shell to slice skin and muscle open as it gorges deeper into flesh.

Other traps release electric shock, or a gush of corrosive liquid.

There was one so bizarre, that it was almost comical. It sprayed Retel with a stinky liquid. No harm, no poison. It just had an awful smell. Later, when we walked into a room where monsters did reside, we learned that the smell was due to some kind of pheromone, that sent the monsters into heat.

In short, they chased Retel, trying to attack him in some disturbing ways.

<<Oh God! Get them off!>>

He shouted, struggling to keep the horny monsters at bay with his shield skill.

The most striking thing was that the “smell” persisted, no matter how many times he tried to wash the liquid off.

I had to resort to a spell to cleanse him of the pheromones, and even after that, he still felt the smell on him.

<<This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. I can deal with monsters trying to kill me, but this…this is too much>>

He was still shocked, trembling from a different kind of danger than what he was used to.

Strangely, it was Levia the one most amused by the situation, teasing her brother and making fun of him.

Marica looked at him, her eyes concerned but the corner of her lips kept twitching, as if she was trying her best to not burst out laughing at her boyfriend’s misadventures.

There goes without saying, that during all the remaining time we spent into that floor, Retel’s eyes were fixed on the ground, looking for any trace of that kind of trap.

And when he found one, he utterly destroyed the spot using his strongest attack.

Well, I would have done the same after living through this terrible joke.

Still, we avoided most of the traps, while the monsters themselves did not even pose much of a threat.

The only true challenge was the Champion of this level, a hulking version of the fish-people we fought earlier.

As a weapon, he brandished a large, rusty anchor, probably coming from the shipwrecks that littered his chamber.

How did those ship end up there, of all places, will always be a mystery to me. Perhaps, it was the Core that re-created them to add some decoration to the ocean floor themed level, or they could have been transported there with some kind of spell.

Still, they provided enough cover for us to hide when we approached the Champion, allowing for a concerted first strike that brought down the monsters without giving it time to retaliate.

The whole twenty-seventh floor netted us two more levels, setting our group to level thirty-five.

Given the result, I doubt that we will get much experience in the upcoming floors, at least until we manage to reach floor number thirty. From there, the experience given by the monsters should be higher, and also, instead of a Champion, the boss monster in that floor is a Guardian, that should give even more experience when defeated.

The thirty-first floor is one that hosts a Safe zone from the guild, although much of the floor itself is still untamed, the Safe zone only occupying some rooms of the actual floor.

Speaking with the others, we decide to rush the next three floors as quickly as we can, in order to challenge the Guardian and rest in the upcoming floor.

After a quick rest, we leave the twenty-seventh floor, heading down the usual spiral staircase.

The remaining floors until the thirtieth have the same ocean cave setting, only with slightly higher water as we progress down, and higher level monsters and traps. They have a feeling of re-hashed assets, with monsters that basically have the same appearance but different colors and statistics than the ones encountered before. The only difference is the layout, with rooms and chambers arranged in different ways, and the Champion monsters.

The one that resided in the twenty-eighth floor’s central portion, was a large hermit crab with incredible defense and a high-power water jet attack.

On the twenty-ninth floor, the Champion monster was some kind of sea urchin creature, that had a counter-attack skill much similar to the one Retel used.

It was a though fight, not because the monster itself posed a high threat, but because of its high defense and defensive skills were too much of a hassle to deal with.

The two floors combined, did only gave us enough experience to level up twice.

As we enter the thirtieth floor, our group is all at level thirty-seven.

This floor also follows the sea cave theme, only with more spacious rooms and waist deep waters to thread on.

Proper footholds are scarce, and the blue light that illuminates the surrounding is dimmer, letting ample sections of the corridors and rooms to be shadowed, perfect for monsters to hide and ambush from the shadows.

Serpentine figures swim in those shallow waters, often attacking from underneath the surface, undetected.

Well, that is not the case for us, since with Navi’s detection we can see the monster’s position before it approaches us, but this floor might be terribly dangerous for groups that do not possess any member with similar skills.

Although, I really doubt that parties like that would even venture so deep in the Dungeon.

This floor actually stands as the defining point, the line between a proficient party and an elite one. Surviving this floor and its Guardian is by itself an act recognized by the Guild. Slaying the Guardian would earn us public recognition, and a proper contract with the Guild. Each party that proved able to do so, is recognized into the Guild’s elite forces, and given a rank, along with benefits and a monthly wage.

Of course, being recognized by the Guild this way, it also means that your party is going to be used by the Guild.

Be it monster subjugation in the territory managed by Sendria, or, most likely, given the situation, scouting missions at the border and active patrols against Aldora’s scouting parties.

In short, if we report the success to the Guild, we will be entering their official forces, with the benefits and duties that are a direct consequence of that.

But, we do not plan to report immediately after.

Because, earning a rank is not our goal at the moment, nor it will be beneficial to us for now. Truth to be told, we still do not have decided whether to enter the Guild’s official ranks, or if we would fare better by keeping the current condition.

And, given my peculiar situation, the Guild, and Telesia herself, might give us a different treatment than the usual adventurer party.

Definitely, that is what will happen, although I do not know to what extent Telesia would alter thing for us.

We still plan to reach at least the fortieth floor during this Dive, without going back to the surface until we defeat the Guardian there.

After that, we will have a good talk about the next moves to take. For now, we need to focus ourselves into clearing this floor, and advancing to the next.

The monsters here are all above level twenty-nine, with some of them reaching even level thirty-tree.

A tougher challenge than the floors above, for sure.

Thankfully the levels we gained while clearing the previous floors have been really helpful, both for the total Stat raise of our group, and with the increased skill proficiency that the many battles yielded.

But, one thing is becoming more and more apparent as we progress further. We lack another member.

As we are now, our offense is fine, with Levia, Dahl, Marica and me dealing damage. I and Marica are also taking care of crowd control, limiting the monsters movements and attacks.

The lacking part is represented by sheer defense. Retel is the one taking the brunt of the monsters attacks, especially from melee fighters. He manages now, but in the lowest floor the pressure might be too much for him to shoulder alone.

I am participating in the defense using Shoggoth to guard some of the attacks, and all of us have either a mana shield skill or a defensive spell, but it would be nice to have another member specialized in defense, to increase our overall efficiency.

If that was the case, I could concentrate better on restraining and dealing damage, leaving defenses to two party members instead of Retel alone.

It was Dahl to first voice this missing piece in our party formation, and the recent, more difficult battles only made it more apparent.

For now, we can adapt our formation accordingly, either relying on support defense from me, or Marica.

The strategy we’re using is to take out monsters before they can overwhelm us, but, progressing deeper into the Dungeon, that will not be so easy.

First, as we delve deeper, the monsters are getting not only stronger, but smarter.

Employing tactics, they have proper “parties” that mirrors an adventurer party’s organization, with vanguard members, melee attackers and even ranged or spell casters. Sometimes, and more often than not, they even have healers, protected in the middle of their ranks.

When they’re not behaving intelligently, the monsters are more beastly, relying on large health pool and defenses for their lack of intelligence and tactics.

It seems a contradiction, but those are proving to be more difficult for us to deal with. Against an organized formation, our own formation works very well.

Retel clashes with vanguards, locking them in place while Dahl swiftly deals with their ranged or spell casters, infiltrating enemy ranks while they’re distracted by my attacks or Marica’s spells, defending themselves from the barrage of arrows that Levia unleashes, providing both means of offense and covering fire for Dahl to act undisturbed.

But, against groups of feral creatures, strategies go awry. Sometimes, they gang on Retel, quickly destroying his shield under the pressure of their beastly blows.

Other times, they simply charge through our lines, aiming for whoever they perceive as the weakest member, often the girls.

Dahl’s camouflage is most of the time useless, since the most feral monsters rely more on other senses rather than sight, quickly individuating him and singling him out.

For now, we’re encountering the two categories of enemies apart from each other, but in lower floors, it might not be the case.

Groups of intelligent monsters that use tamed, feral creatures would be difficult to deal with.

And, it is something good.

The situation forces us to come to terms with what we currently lack in terms of strategy and experience. Learning to fight against different types of enemies, in different conditions and environments.

In short, the truest purpose of the Dungeon, to simulate a wide number of situations and dangers in order to forge individuals, to increase their power and make them ready for battle.

The loot it contains, it is nothing more than incentive, using greed as a motivation to forcibly “train” those that dare to dive into its depths.

At least, that’s how I perceive it. And, given what little details John shared about this place, I might probably be right in my conclusions.

The fact that here, of all places, I found something related to that peculiar “title” that has been forced onto me, might only be the meddling of that outer God that interfered with my being.

Well, those are empty thoughts for now, considerations that I can make until I find some proper answers.

Still, the place does a good work in shaping warriors. Those who survive it, are leagues above the average person, in both power and experience.

That’s the reason why Alvarez fears the Guild, since it is basically a gathering of strong willed, powerful and battle hardened individuals. Something that a person who aspires to become an absolute ruler must consider as an enemy.

And the fact that one of his pawns has been eliminated by a certain adventurer, it will only make him more wary of the Guild as a whole.

Although, the man himself still has not taken any move after Leidus’s death. And I am sure he knows about it, after all, I deliberately let the spell he cast on me active, in order for him to see his pupil’s end.

I expected some retaliation on his part, but, perhaps, he’s biding his time. Before, he might have seen me as a nuisance, or even something to use to make his own “Demon Lord” rise in power. After that little show I put on, his consideration about me definitely changed.

The fact that I definitely broke his spell afterwards might also have had some influence in that.

It is kind of ironic how tables have turned in regard to that situation. I still remember the fear I felt, when I met that man the first time.

Now, I am the one that is spying on him, checking his moves with my own spell, waiting for the perfect time to bring him down.

It is stunning, how much that single person could damage Sendria if left to his own devices. But, the situation might turn worse if we remove him too suddenly. First, the army is still under his control, bound to him. Next, for how strange it may sound, most of the commoners actually support Alvarez, seeing in him a strong and decisive leader, blind to the lies and machinations that are his true colors.

Moreover, the one that is really behind Alvarez’s plans might react in a harsh way, perhaps causing a huge number of casualties in the upcoming conflict. To avoid that, we need to be patient, and strike at the right moment.

I chuckle, thinking about how I went from being a simpleton struggling for his own survival, to someone scheming to take down an influential political figure in one of the largest cities of this continent.

More than ever, that dubious title I have might not be too wrong, after all.

We advance further into the floor, our movements slowed by the cold waters.

From time to time, some of the rooms are not flooded, providing proper foothold for fighting and even to camp after clearing the monster infesting them.

As we advance towards the center, we start to encounter the Elite monsters of this place. Black bodies, nothing more than a hulking mass of muscles and tentacles, these octopus-shaped monsters provide a though challenge.

Unlike their beastly appearance, they’re smart, and rely on peculiar tactics based on their bodies.

Their skin has some form of advanced camouflage ability, able to alter itself by reproducing not only the color of the surroundings, but also texture.

So, a huge rock reveals itself to be a mass of tentacles, strong enough to crush a person in their deadly embrace.

Moreover, this peculiar ability they have is not something generated by magic or some skill. It’s their biological nature that allows them to do so, an intricate system of muscle fibers and pigment pouches that allow the skin to change its color and form.

But the most dangerous thing, is that these monsters are clever.

They lay ambush, and retreat. They set traps, and their boneless bodies allow them to pass through even the slightest gap in the rocks, allowing them to swift retreats or attacks.

The first encounters with them have been rough, since, even if we knew their position and numbers, their strange ways of fighting took us by surprise.

Being far stronger than they look, a single one would often manage to push Retel back, while its brethren would circle around us to attack, using their flexibility to sneak through the natural barriers of this place, or sticking to the ceiling with their tentacles only to drop on us.

Still, after some initial difficulties,we got the hang of how to deal with them.

Their weak-point lies in the middle of their odd eyes. Stabbing there, with enough force behind the blow causes direct damage to their brain, killing the creature.

No point in injuring the other areas, beside severing the tentacles to impede their attacks. A most annoying feature of these Elite monsters is their regeneration speed, that is so quick that non-lethal wounds visibly regenerate on their bodies.

Severing a tentacle would only momentarily incapacitate the monster, as it rapidly grows back.

The only way to effective deal with them, is a precise strike in their weak point.

Having learned that the hard way, after hacking at their bodies for too much time, we now have a better grasp of how to fight and defeat them.

As usual, Retel uses his skill to block incoming attacks from the front, while Levia’s arrows pick the monsters one by one. Marica stands in the center of this formation, using her spells to support Retel and to bolster Levia’s attacks, while I keep using Shoggoth for both attack and defense, and Dahl deals with monsters that somehow manage to slip by Retel’s guard.

Our back-line is a bit too exposed, if we ever found ourselves into a pincer attack, it would lead to a potentially dangerous situation. If the need arises, I can switch to the backside of our formation, but that reduces our offensive potential on the front.

We definitely need another “tank” in our ranks.

During a moment of respite, I ask Dahl if he knows some recommendable adventurer that we might recruit to work with us, given that he’s the one most acquainted with the Guild’s adventurers.

We could even take some low level adventurer, and level him up in the upper floors until the new member is battle ready.

A lot of options to consider once we come back from this Dive.

Well, that is if Aldora does not make its move in the meantime. Judging from the information that Telesia shared with us, the movements beyond the border have quieted from some time. Her scouts have reported that several large camps of Aldoran soldiers had been taken out overnight.

The destruction in them suggested a large group at work, but I suspect another factor to be at work here.

The Laughing Man. Definitely, that man has the same enemy as we do, given his affiliation with Azatoth.

But, his actions are the perfect example of a wild card. Unpredictable, and impossible for Sendria to actually work with him.

For what I know, the man could as easily kill Sendrian people along with Aldoran troops, unable to discern them in his insanity. And, the opposite is also possible, that Sendrian troops might recognize him as an enemy, and attempt to take him out.

Things are good, as long as he sticks to acting outside of Sendria’s territory and damaging Aldora. But, if he moves further in, who knows what would happen.

Perhaps, I could try to contact him using Navi, but I doubt I will be able to.

We’re taking some time to rest before heading towards the central chamber. The upcoming fight might be the toughest among all the battles we fought up until now.

And, we need to prepare accordingly.

Unlike the Champion level monsters that ruled the floors above, we cannot just waltz in here and challenge the Guardian head on.

First, there are many Elite monsters surrounding the area where the Guardian resides. Next, the Guardian itself is definitely strong, its level being thirty and his stats even higher than a Champion class monster.

This time, I cannot resort to Beelzebub, the same strategy I used against the first Champion monsters we fought.

The reason is, the Elite monsters in this level are immune to the confusing poison.

I tried several strategies during previous battles, ruling out those that would not give us a proper advantage.

Anything that uses poison might as well as be useless in this place, since all the monsters here have a skill called Altered Metabolism.

In short, their cells do not work like those of normal organisms, thus making their own biology too different for a normal poison to be of use.

I would need to specifically produce a poison that would affect their bodies, something that, right now, I do not have the time to do.

The skill is also unusable for me. I absorbed it and all, but, if I used it, my own metabolism would be altered, in some lethal ways. In short, it is a useless skill for a human.

For this battle we would need to rely on brute force, it seems.

After having some rest, during which I allocated the Stat points gained from the recent level up. My level is now thirty-eight, as well as the other’ s.

The others are giving the final touches to their preparations. For the upcoming fight, I handed Levia some special arrows. They are a refined version of those Fire Crystal arrows, safe for her to use while keeping their devastating effect whenever they hit their target. I have a limited supply of them, however, so we’re forced to resort to them only for intense fights.

Her bow is also a different one. Instead of the usual short bow she uses, she now has a composite longbow.

Normally, such item would require an enormous strength to be used, and it is definitely the kind of weapon no one would expect a delicate-looking girl like her to use.

But, appearance are deceiving, especially in this case.

Given how Levia’s Strength stat is the highest among all of us. Even Retel’s does not compare, as the combination of both titles, her own natural growth and her new class granted Levia a significant boost in her stats.

Perhaps, even higher than the one I received.

Marica is busy charging some mana into crystals, chugging potions afterwards in order to regenerate her mana and repeat the process.

She will use those as reserve mana, in order to be able to rapidly cast her spells even during battle.

At the same time, she’s chanting some of her spells in advance. According to her, a method that her master taught her.

To prepare part of the structure in advance, and use a common one for all her spells instead of spending time and mana devising and realizing a different structure for each spell.

Hers still need to rely on long chants, and are bound to waste a lot of mana just to keep the desired structure active, but she’s leagues better than she was the first time I met her.

Dahl is silently meditating on a corner of the room we’re in. His mana is almost imperceptible right now, almost as if he’s erasing his own presence.

As he opens his eyes, he disappears completely. A new skill he got from the recent level up.

Instead of simple camouflage, he shifts into another plane. Much like my Inventory, but without him being able to bring something in or out.

The potential of his new skill is only for battle.

I am also doing my own preparations, using Inventory to store the spells I am casting, one after the other. Setting them up in advance, and releasing them at the same time will deal a powerful blow to the Guardian. I do not think to be able to take him out with this combined attack, but it will be a useful card to play if we get in a pinch.

Or, as the opening move of our fight, if we plan to use the element of surprise, sneak in, and assault the Guardian with all we have before we deal with the remaining Elite monsters.

Spell after spell, I go through a number of mana potions, feeling their bitter taste spread from my mouth to my stomach, where it changes into a warm sensation that slowly crawls in my body.

Along with that, there is the blur of emotions that precedes each fight. Excitement, fear, anticipation and other, a biochemical storm going on in my brain as thoughts race through the possible scenarios.

I take a deep breath to calm me down, before using Navi to check the room ahead once again.

The signals are all there, along with the bigger one that comes from the Guardian itself.

Level thirty, surrounded by Elite monsters about the same level as it. Some higher, some lower. Fifty of them. No traps or hidden monsters waiting in ambush. The room itself is elliptical in shape, flooded with waist deep water.

It will hinder our movements, while the Elite monsters dwelling in there will have advantages due to the terrain.

The chamber itself presents several spots that emerge from the water, some of them reaching two or three meters above water level. Only, those areas are limited in both number and space, and fighting from there would be difficult in a group.

I call the others, sharing with them the map window displayed by Navi.

As they examine it, we go through propositions on how to deal with the monsters.

The possible points that could provide a proper foothold, or choke points where we could make use of Retel’s skill to hold off monsters, forcing them to fight us with reduced numbers, instead of having to deal with all of them at once.

The spells to use, and the movements to take during battle. Instead of barging in, we lay down a proper battle plan.

One hour until we challenge the Guardian, one more hour to prepare. Retel is looking nervously at the room’s entrance, sending glances in that direction while grasping tighter his spear.

Marica is using the remaining time to further increase her mana reserve, while Dahl is going once again through his stock of throwing daggers and potions.

I advance towards him, taking something out of my Inventory.

He looks at the sphere I am holding in my hand, a puzzled look in his face.

<<These are…experiments. It’s a new kind of weapon. To use it, pull this piece here until it comes off. It will activate the weapon, that will go off five seconds later. I have only ten of them for the moment, so take care when you use them>>

I look him straight in the eyes, with my most serious gaze.

<<Take a lot of care when using them. Do not throw them too near you, at least twenty meters away. Try to use them against enemies that are close together, or even better, against groups>>

He nods, taking the sphere and the ones I give him afterwards.

They are few, but those grenades that Heod made, should be useful in the upcoming fight.

The last hour has passed, and we stand, heading towards the central chamber, ready to face the Guardian of the thirtieth floor.

Re:Interference Chapter 25- Seaside

I sat in that dark, strange space, staring at those “prisoners” I took. Their forms, frozen in time, the same expression painted on their faces.

A chill ran on my skin, thinking about their fate, the sheer fact that it was me, the one responsible for these men’s condition.

After the battle in that desert floor, I almost fainted, exhausted to my limits. Although during the fight I played it smart, without wasting my mana on flamboyant spells and flashy attacks, the whole process still wore me down, both physically and psychologically.

The clashing between what I had done, what I discovered myself capable of, and that voice, the old jumble of morality and experience that was me, but at the same time was not.

I sat there, looking at those figures frozen in time, asking myself. Who am I? The one that regret things, that abhors violence almost to the point of hurting himself in order to not hurt others?

Definitely, not. The reason is, before doing it, before forcing myself to kill those men, to rob their lives, I thought the consequences of those acts would haunt me.

Instead, I feel fine. Proud even, of what I managed to do. Against a group of people, whose levels and battle experience was significantly higher than my own, whose aptitude for killing was stronger than mine, I came out victorious.

Who am I? The meek, naive person that sometimes peeks from those memories hidden in my mind, or the one without mercy, that back-stabbed, ambushed, led others into a trap.

Right after John’s monsters pulled me out of that place, giving me one hell of a scare in the process, I have been thinking deeply about all those things.

My mentor, the one whose destiny played much like my own, thorn between the same dilemma I am facing now.

He gave me a simple answer.

<<Be who you want to be, cast aside the memories that tie you down>>

A simple answer, yes, the application of it, not so simple.

Or at least, I considered it to be so. Instead, it was easy. And now my hands tremble, not for the unbearable remorse, or for the shock of having actively robbed others out of their lives.

I had already killed humans, before, but, that was just a reaction to their offense. Self defense, so to speak.

This time, I was the one to strike first. And, it felt good. So, my hands tremble now, but not out of fear, or remorse. It’s excitement, due to the recent discovery. Of what I can do, of what I am willing to do.

And I had prepared myself for it, for the first time actually planning ahead, instead of just waltzing around without the slightest idea of what was expecting me.

I trained, finding the best conditions for things to play out in my advantage. Like the new, strikingly powerful use of Inventory.

Yes, it was thanks to someone else ‘s guidance that I managed to use it like this. But, I put a great deal of effort in devising this strategy. Testing, mostly, the limits of what I could do with it.

Starting from objects first, seeing how they would react to being stored in the new, improved space that Inventory brought forth. And then, trying it out with moving objects, like a stone thrown, and then arrows. Even magic could be stored in there, frozen in time inside of that weird, pitch black dimension that was my own.

In there, laws of physics only apply according to my will. For all purposes, I am the sole ruler of it, my will is absolute.

And in there, I would find a hiding spot, sanctuary and cover to ambush from. A place where to work, unbound by the laws of the world. It was in there, that I was able to refine those unstable Fire Crystals into usable weapons. Well, I only managed to produce one working arrow after all my experiments, but I still have time to perfect the process.

Most important thing of all, in there, time flows different from the rest of the world. I still have to get the hang of the process, but, right now, roughly ten minutes inside the Inventory dimension equals to less than an instant in the outside world.

So, I can basically blink inside, sit down, drink a coffee and eat something, and blink out again, without the opponent realizing of the small break I took.

Of course, that is a silly example. But, by using this dirty trick, I can recovery from injuries by drinking a potion while completely safe, rest for a moment, allow my mana or health to regenerate and resume the fight.

All while not even a single second has passed in the normal flow of time.

Perhaps, with training and more mana at my disposal, I could even make this effect stronger, making the time-lapse last hours, days even.

Still, the control I have over this aspect of the skill is limited, but again, I have time to grow.

One thing that puzzled me was that I was able to use the improved inventory, which is now a blue ranked skill, without any repercussions on my body.

It turns out, only those skills that have an effect over your body, forcibly raising stats, have that nasty after-effect.

Blue skills that do not affect your body have the only risk of burning out your mana in a single use, but, given Inventory’s low activation cost, it was something that did not happen.

I said it some more times, but, this Inventory skill is definitely the strongest I have.

And, speaking of strength, I have something to do before dedicating my attention to my prisoners here…

I summon my Status Screen, glancing at the growth that this battle netted me. Of course, this system does not grant levels for killing a member of sentient, humanoid species. The only things I can get from murder are skills and equipment.

Still, between the skill I stole from Leidus, and the STAT bonuses netted from the Trial’s completion, added to the level up from killing the floor Champion, I reaped quite the benefit from this fight.

After John took me out from the desert thirty-fourth floor, I took some time to rest and give a through look at my own stats.

And, they were a bit of a mess, to be honest. Mostly, I distributed them without a general direction, keeping them as even as I could, since, during battles, I did not commit to a specific role. I mostly used my skill, Black Fluid, sometimes acting as ranged support, others as crowd control, or scouting ahead and so on. Well, I did not have the option of magic back then, so I spent more points on those stats that I thought useful for strengthening my primary skill, namely the Luck stat, while keeping the others rather even. None of them lacking, but, surely, none of them was clearly my strong point.

Since I plan on relying heavily on spells and mana during the future, and given the insanely large amount of points gathered from both leveling up to thirty and the trial, I decided to modify my own build a bit. After all, I gain five STAT points per level up, and the experience from killing the Champion gave me eight levels, for a total of 40 points. To those, I have to add thirty five bonus points for each STAT, granted by the Trial’s successful completion, and another twenty for having Integrated a Cosmic series skill. Whatever the hell that might mean. So, if math still works in this world, I have ninety-five points to freely spend. To those, I have to add the extra ten points already assigned to both Strength and Accuracy stats as an effect of the trial. In short, this battle granted me the ridiculously huge amount of one hundred and fifteen total stat points.

Of course, I will not complain, since I worked really hard to get them.

I allocate the points according to my own needs. I still plan to rise Luck to a decent level, since, judging from the system message that I received after the trial, it looks like this stat will be more determinant in the future for me.

So, I rose the stat up to fifty.

Next, the physical stats, Strength and Agility. Those will be set at both forty-five, as will be Accuracy. All the points left, I dump them into Intelligence stat, that changes from my lowest stat to the highest one, boasting ninety points in it.

The change after allocating all those points into a single level up session is like a jolt of electricity, that wakes me up immediately from the short nap I took. Before doing it, I asked Navi for advice, and she reassured me about the absence of painful consequences in doing so. The only thing dangerous about leveling up too much in a single fight, was the moment when you get the EXP and your body converts it into energy. That was the dangerous moment, that could easily cost one’s own life if not treated accordingly. Mostly, because it would incapacitate you for some time, leaving you open for attacks while your body adjusted.

And, given that most level up events appear in battle, the danger of it is well apparent.

Still, it was not painful rising my stats so much, only…weird.

For good measure, I try to summon a minor spell. Just a flicker of sparks from my fingers, nothing too…

The resulting heat almost burns my hair off my head.

It seems I will need some time to adjust to the new mana pool.

All considered, my stats are something ridiculous already. Most of the stat points I got comes from the Trials, who granted me over one hundred bonus points after completing three of them. And, I only have thirty fragments of that “Crown” mentioned each time, with one hundred pieces in total.

So, I think there should be at least two more trials for me to complete, and given how each of them has had increasing bonuses added each time…

A normal person in this world gains four stat points with each level up, having four stats to where the points are distributed. So, it means that a person my level has about one hundred and twenty points, to add to the single points each stat has when a person is level one. A total amount of one hundred twenty four points. Maybe more, if we account for skills or other special circumstances that I may not be aware of.

Let’s say that an exceptional individual, he might go up to one hundred and seventy points, having fifty or so more than the normal human being.

I, on the other hand, have gained more than two hundred points, exactly two hundred and seventy five. Taking into account that I gain five points, but I also have another stat, Luck. If I take out the Luck stat from the picture, with it having fifty points, the remaining four stats have two hundred and twenty five points distributed into them.

Almost double the amount of a normal person my level, the same as one whose level is double my own.

So, yeah, I think I might be leaning into the overpowered side of things. And, that is without taking skills into any account. Just to speak, the new title I gained added a synergy between luck and intelligence, and now my mana pool is calculated by taking both into consideration. Or the new charisma skill, which is impossible for me to allocate point in, but grows of a single point for each stat point I invest in either strength or intelligence.

I just hope that all this does not get to my head, and makes me behave arrogantly. It’s best I do not forget those times where I struggles, least that I do some stupid mistake that could be avoided by being careful.

I return my attention to my captives. Now, it’s time for the serious experiments.

I look at my skill list, my sight fixed on the new one that the trial, and resulting process afterwards, granted.

It has both the effects of Black Hand and Black Fluid, and it is listed as a Cosmic skill.

The name of it, highlighted in black characters, flickering with light on my status screen.

Shoggoth.

I try to summon it first, hidden away in my own private space.

The sensation that comes with the skill’s invocation, it’s different from Black Fluid. My skill, it consumed some mana whenever I used. It was a negligible amount, the reason that allowed me to use it so extensively.

But now, no mana is spent from it. Instead, what I feel coming from the skill…

The appearance of it is the same, but the black mass I summoned is slightly different. The same color, but the substance of it is altered, thicker, it pulses with its own strength, a different mana flowing through it.

It has its own, like a living thing. And with that, emotions, and a will comes from the thing, reaching out to me.

I can feel its curiosity, its needs. Above all, an insatiable hunger emanates from the thing.

An eye opens in the middle of the bubbling black mass, staring back at me with two connected irises, their color the same as my own, the pupils of them intersected as to form a eight shape.

I will the eye to blink, and the shape of the thing to change. It still responds to my commands, perhaps, no, definitely even better than it did before.

Still, no mana is spent on my part, no matter how the shape changes and shifts, bound to my will while keeping its own.

Before, there was some grade of resistance from the skill, I still had to put some effort into shaping it and moving it as I wanted.

Now, that resistance is gone, as the thing itself complies to my orders, feeling almost as if it is glad to follow my will, and the promise that lies at their end.

And I know it, I do not know why, but I know.

That the thing abides, because if it follows my orders, it will lead to it eating once again.

Before, I would have shuddered at that sight, recoiled in disgust from it, as I did the first time I saw what Black Fluid was capable of.

Instead, now a smile is painted on my face, as I play around with the skill, as I make it wiggle and change its shape.

Of course, I already know that it can do everything that Black Fluid could, to a better degree.

What I am curious about, is to see how the skill I stole from Leidus comes into play, how it changes my possibilities.

With my heart thumping in my chest, I advance towards the first prisoner.

The face of the magician, frozen in time, without having the slightest idea of what is going to happen to him.

I take a deep breath, my hands shaking.

First, I want to try the effects of that “Black Hand” skill.

Willing the new Shoggoth to abide, it wraps onto my right hand, like a glove. It dissolves into a pulse of blackness, and the same flame that was once in possession of Leidus now envelops my hand.

I touch the chest of the magician, muttering the name of the skill.

A Status window opens in front of me, showing the prisoner’s list of skills and attributes.

As it turns out, this skill allows me to select one from my target, and take it as my own. Without the need to kill him during the process. A gentler, more precise way of getting new skills than my Black Fluid. Although, this one only works on humans. And, it does not need to kill, but the extraction process is painful for the target, as I have experienced on my own skin.

But, the power of this skill is not limited to that. I can steal the target’s mana, or temporarily add a quarter of its stats to my own.

Or even steal the target’s health.

Each thing listed on the screen has a percent near it, indicating the percent of success if I try to “snatch” the specific skill or attribute. As I ask Navi to inform me on the details, I learn that this percent is calculated taking the Luck stat into account. Failure makes the target lose the skill, without me taking it.

So, it can even be used to make someone else lose their precious skills, even if the process fails and I do not get the selected skill.

It makes me realize the risk I took in letting myself to be the target of it. If Leidus chose not to rob me of Black Fluid, and went for my health instead…well, there would be a different Demon Lord in Sendria.

Still, the gamble I played was well placed. By spying on Leidus, I knew that he would steal the skill and then kill me.

He did so a number of time, acting otherwise only when the target did not have any peculiar or strong skill to select.

And that was definitely not my case.

I undo the skill, since the magician does not have anything that I particularly want. Copies of skills related to mana control, inferior to the ones I already possess.

Still, I will consume him the same.

This time, I will Shoggoth into existence once again. The skill squirms happily at the sight of the bodies, and I can almost hear a sound of joy come from it after I mutter a word.

<<Eat>>

Blackness spreads from my hand, taking its old on the immobile prisoner, as the skill crushes and gnashes.

Of course, it consumes the target. Not like Black Fluid did, dissolving it slowly. It still enveloped itself around the prey, covering its body into a bubbling black veil.

But, judging by the sounds coming from it, it is eating.

With mouths and teeth, gorging themselves in gore.

Quicker than Black Fluid was, the consumption takes place and ends in almost twenty seconds.

As it is done, a message window pops up, similar to the one that came when I used Black Hand.

Unlike the absorption with Black Fluid, it looks like I get all the skills from the target, instead of a random selection of them like it happened with Black Fluid.

The only disadvantage is that I can only keep three of the skills absorbed, the others being lost forever.

So, with this new power up, I can avoid getting weak or useless skills, and focus on the ones that will be an advantage to me.

As with Black Fluid, Shoggoth increases its size with each successful absorption. Which is an incredibly good thing, since it has basically regressed to its original size. With the last level of Black Fluid, I could summon more than twenty liters of it.

Now, the Shoggoth I can bring forth could fill a bucket, but that’s it. It is stronger, and quicker than Black Fluid, but the less quantity might be disadvantageous for a while, until I manage to absorb more enemies and return it to its original quantity. Perhaps, even more.

I turn my attention to the other prisoners, hearing a low grumbling noise come from Shoggoth.

It’s almost like a pet now, squirming in excitement while it looks at its food.

The cruelty of my own thoughts should have repulsed me, instead, I find it almost a funny sight to spectate.

One after the other, the blackness eats those men.

Murderers, rapists. I sit back and watch. Who am I?

That question has been drilling itself into my thoughts, and the answer is opening its way through misconceptions and fears, through cowardice and doubt.

It brings with it new aspects of me, like ruthlessness, and cruelty. Not something that I did not have, but rather, some aspects of me that I did not want to look at, that I did not want to acknowledge.

Who am I? A nice guy, easygoing to the point of forgiving, neglecting the things that might have killed him? Or the one that’s smiling at the sight of gnawed flesh and lives being ended?

The answer is simple, and yet complex.

I am both, and none of them.

I am not yet, but, I am becoming.

I will be merciful, when it would give me a gain. I will be cruel, when needed.

Who am I?

I still do not know the answer yet, but it’s coming to me.

Setting those thoughts aside, I focus on the window screen floating in my view. In it, the skills I decided to keep from my recent bounty are listed.

A mild passive health regeneration skill, and one that grants a minor boost to both strength and agility were the only two skills that I found interesting. The others were copies of skills I already have, like mana control or swordsmanship, or smaller versions of skills that passively enhance attributes, like speed or attack, without working directly on stats. The increase they gave was too little for the continuous mana cost, and I chose to acquire the only skill that offered a permanent stat boost, without having any mana usage.

And, of course, the last skill I acquired is that weird mana shield that each of the warriors had. I would have liked to “snatch” the one that the healer guy had, I even brought his corpse back. But, as it was before, I cannot obtain skills from corpses. Only from live subjects. Oh well, it’s a bit of a waste. Still, I gained some new, useful abilities from all this. The mana shield I got is useful. I initially thought it was some kind of spell, given its peculiarity, but, it turns out, that it is a proper skill.

It’s not only a shielding skill, that activates unconsciously whenever killing intent is directed on the owner, but it also grant a regenerative ability when activated. Of course, it is possible to activate the skill at will, using a bit of mana to activate it. Still, it’s a good acquisition.

In short, it’s a really useful ability.

After obtaining the new skills, I immediately try the new shield. Instead of a glowing bubble of light, like the one that the original owners boasted, mine is more of a thin, white aura surrounding my body. Of course, the original owner had the skill leveled up quite far, I suppose it was almost maxed out.

With a sigh, I head out of my Inventory space.

<<So, how much time?>>

John asks me, while laying down on the grass that covers the ground. The place we’re in, it is still the last floor of this Dungeon, the safe room. Today, I do not know why, he’s wearing a hat over his face, to block out sunlight.

Apparently, John changes the layout of the place according to his mood. And today, he wanted to rest on a patch of green grass, with sunlight on his skin. The Dungeon changed accordingly, even shining blinding daylight from the rocky ceiling.

<<Fifteen minutes. Still a long time to go before it becomes what I want. On your end?>>

<<Zero point one seconds. Enough for most people to not even notice, still too much time if you find yourself against a Hero>>

He replies, without even sending a glance to me.

<<Well, it was zero point five yesterday, before the attack. So, I have improved>>

<<Yes, you have. But not enough, my friend. Never enough>>

He flicked his fingers, and in his left hand appeared a weapon. One of my weapons, one of those shabby spears I crafted during my first days in this world.

<<Impressive. Is that your way to show me that this trick I have can be easily dealt with? I already know>>

John laughs. He slightly lifts his hat, looking at me straight in the eye.

<<Use it again>>

As he asks, I abide, curious to see where this is going.

I feel myself slipping into the Inventory space. Where I use to relocate myself, I do not need to open a “gate” for it. I simply slip into that strange dimension.

But, as I am there, I feel a sharp pain, and a sensation of being pulled.

It happens in a slip second, and I am once again in front of John.

<<Interesting. Under thousand?>>

I ask John, who is now enjoying a cocktail. A “modern world” cocktail, served in a proper glass.

<<Under five hundred, and I could even do less. And five hundred, or even a thousand, two thousand points of mana, they’re nothing to a Hero. Remember that, and the way that mana works for them. If you are prudent, and aware of their strengths and your own weakness, you will manage to survive. Not win, not yet, but survive. So, what’s next, Roshal? Plan to pay Alvares a visit? Or do you want to have some fun into my Dungeon?>>

Yeah, the way mana works around Heroes. Being a former one, John demonstrated that to me. And it was not pretty, making me realize several things. First of all, how I have been lucky against Damien, the child Hero that attacked Nudria.

More than luck, I now have the certainty it was divine intervention of some sort.

Perhaps, old Azatoth really cares about me, and he’s just shy to admit it.

Navi giggles to my thought, without replying. Thankfully.

<<Right now, I want to head into the Dungeon for a while, with the others. Our levels are still on the lower side, so I want to use what time we have left to raise it as much as we can. Speaking of which…>>

Ignoring John for some moments, I check on the others using Navi’s communication. During the time I was dealing with Leidus and his men, the others have not been sitting idly, going into the Dungeon on their own. For safety, I asked John to keep an eye out for them, but given their response, there has been no need.

Currently, they are inside the Safe zone that the Guild set up on the twenty second floor. All in order to increase their levels, and to test the new abilities they gained from training and from the bonuses that the second trial granted them.

<<So, how did it go? Well I suppose, since, you know, you’re still alive>>

Retel is the first one to answer, before Levia cuts in the communication.

<<Roshal! What the…where are you? What were you thinking, going alone was the stupidest, idiotic, dumb…>>

And she continues in a crescendo of insult. Well, it’s her way to vent out frustration.

<<Yeah, sorry, in the end she got it out from me. My bad>>

Retel apologizes, as he let his mouth slip up, revealing what I was up to. Still, I asked him to keep it a secret from Levia, since she would certainly oppose my decision.

But, it was something I needed to do on my own, after all. Not only because John threatened to beat me black and blue if I didn’t, but also of my own volition. Although the threats helped to motivate me, a lot more than I would like to admit.

<<Yeah. Don’t worry about that. How are things on your end? How many?>>

<<Six, and we are keeping the number from going up too quickly. The thing that adjust experience gain is still active, even if you are not here, so we’re leveling up at the same rate. All of us. You?>>

This time, it was Marica to cut in the discussion. Her voice seems fatigued, tired. Perhaps they’re overexerting themselves too much.

<<Eight. I’m level thirty right now. So, four more levels on your part, and then we will meet. Give me a call when you’re ready>>

<<Understood. Oh, and drop by the old man before you come, he has something to discuss with you. Retel out!>>

And with that, he cuts communication.

Well, using Navi I can see both their position and status, so I didn’t actually need to ask them. But I wanted to hear their voices, nonetheless.

<<So, I guess I will head out for a bit. I’ll come back later. See you, Master>>

Flicking his hand in a lazy gesture, John mutters a goodbye…or was it “good riddance” he said?

Well, it does not matter. Once again, I slip up into the Inventory space, reopening it inside Heod’s new laboratory.

Surrounded by bubbling glass vials and tubes, the old man is bent over one of the most sophisticated equipment, muttering curses as he scribbles notes into some parchment.

<< Wrong time?>>

I ask him, looking over the old man’s shoulder to take a peek at what he’s working on.

<<Wrong everything, my dear Roshal. The reagents from this batch were poorly harvested and transported worse, making them less useful than they should have been. The new formula is a mess, and those pesky adventurers keep pressing for more healing potions than ever. I would need twice the ingredients and four time as many instruments to even hope to meet the demand. And of course, there’s not enough money for the new projects. There’s never enough money to find something new>>

He draws a big sigh, calming himself from the frustration of handling a large laboratory that took public commissions.

<<Could these help?>>

I hand him some ingredients that John gave me permission to gather.

The old man smiled, shaking his head.

<<Ah, that’s cheating, you little brat. Give ’em here. Quick, before Telesia comes to snap my neck. That woman is scary, let me tell you>>

I follow him to the repository, where he keeps the samples and ingredients. Unloading my Inventory from the plants and mushrooms gathered, I ask him about what he wanted to discuss.

<<Oh, that. We’ve tested it, and it works in a marvelous way>>

This time, I am the one who smiles widely.

Of all the time I spent in the Dungeon, training was not the only thing I did. I also used some time to sit down and think about something that would give us a clear advantage over Aldora.

Although this world is one based on RPG and magic, it lacks a fundamental, staple kind of item. Magic items.

It is possible to imbue items with mana, but only for a short time before it disperses. Items like magic swords, or enchanted armor are impossible to make, using this world’s knowledge and methods.

Several scholars tried, using different approaches. The one that came closest to something like an enchanted item, managed to make a slab of gold to keep mana in it for one entire hour, before it dispersed.

As I follow Heod, he leads me into a smaller chamber, separated from the rest of the laboratory.

In it, behind a glass panel, a single bar of steel is suspended between two pedestals, a blueish glint on its surface.

<<So, how many?>>

<<Thirty-two hours, and still going. Without loss. It is still far from completion, but this method shows promise, without a doubt. And, we’ve successfully reproduced it, even on composite materials. The efficiency is a bit lower, but, the margins of improvement are really wide. In a month, perhaps even less if Telesia approves my request, we will be able to have usable pieces>>

In short, although it’s still far from the wonders of a flaming sword, or an enchanted armor impervious to any blow, this steel bar is the first step towards an enchanted item.

Thanks to John and Heod’s combined efforts, we’ve managed to theorize, and then realize, a method to make mana flow inside an item, without leaking out and dispersing to the winds.

The key for the process was Black Fluid. Using the skill to produce microscopic channels into the metal, and filling them with a porous material whose microscopic structure can transmit mana, it was possible to store it inside the item, and make it circle instead of dispersing to the environment.

By using external mana, it was possible to influence that stored into the item, making it flow outward, or rapidly leave the item. Even empty it and charge it anew.

Right as it is, the item is no more than a mana sponge, able to absorb it and release it when “squeezed”. But, there’s time for improvement, and the will to pursue it.

The trick to it, was to devise a method precise enough to produce the tiny channels and the material to fill them.

Any imperfection would result in a defective product, like it had one too many time in the early stages.

Channels too big would make the metal brittle, and it would shatter under the strength of mana, even in minimal quantities. Channels that are too narrow, would clog and impede the flow, causing the mana to congest and ultimately burst out.

Satisfied by the results, I restocked my supplies of potions from the old man’s private reserve, the ones he prepared for our group.

<<And, about that other thing?>>

He grumbles, taking his eyes from the shiny metal and setting them on my figure. Heod’s face looks older than he is, his eyes tired but showing a glint of determination.

<<Deep shit, that’s how things are. The compound that Alvares used is hard to isolate, even harder to analyze. To this date, we’ve only managed to get few samples, and all of them deteriorated or contaminated. It’s bad, and if we do not get a pristine sample soon, a countermeasure would be impossible to develop>>

So, good news and bad news. The good being advancement on the enchanted materials, bad news concern the more pressing matter, freeing the army from Alvares’s influence.

Drugs and magic, that’s how he controlled them all.

<<I could try and get…>>

Heod stops me, lifting his finger to silence me.

<<You won’t try anything. I think you have tried to do enough dangerous and reckless things for now. Don’t get me wrong, but, I think it’s better to leave this matter to the Guild for now. Focus on going on with that training, or level up, or whatever you youngsters are up to during these days>>

With a smile, I part from the old man, leaving him with the promise of sharing a bottle of good liquor together.

After parting from Heod, I travel to the armor shop. In there, Martha is dealing with some clients, two grizzly looking adventurers with bulky bodies and bulging muscles.

One of them pushes a small satchel on the wooden counter, emptying it in front of Martha and counting the coins.

With a wide smile, Martha takes the money, handing a small receipt to the duo.

<<Your armor will be ready in six days. See you soon!>>

The two leave, taking a quick, measuring glance at me before heading out of the shop.

<<Busy day?>>

I ask Martha, who greets me by waving her hand.

<<No, just four customers, today, counting you. But, affairs have been good these past four weeks>>

<<Good for you. Is your grandma here?>>

She simply turns toward the back-store and shouts her granny’s name.

The old lady peeks from the curtains that separate the two areas of the shop.

<<Who’s there? Oh, it’s that brat. Came to pick up yer armor?>>

As usual, her voice greets me with the usual rudeness. Still, old Helena’s items are top tier for their cost, and they served me well in previous battles.

<<Yes. Is it done?>>

She comes forward, her hands still dirty with a dark substance.

As I look at her, she makes a shrug with her shoulders.

<<Tanning paint. To dye leather. It smells, and it’s hard to scrub from your own skin. Oh, yes, your armor is ready. Come, pick it up>>

I follow Helena behind those black curtains. In there, wooden tables are arranged around, a variety of items littered above them and all around the dimly lit room.

Pieces of metalwork, stripes of leather and sheets of various tissues. All around, the place is nothing but a mess.

Blueprints drawn on yellow scrolls are lying on a table, among with measurement instruments, lenses and other tools made for precision drawing.

Crates, containing metal plates, scales or simple parts, along with others, more specialized, like mechanisms apt to lock pieces in place, rivets and buckles, and many other items I do not recognize. And, further from them, in another table surrounded by wooden mannequins, the half- assembled pieces, on their way to become armors.

The final pieces are further from there, displayed on full figure mannequins. There is a full plate armor, shining silver under a blue coat of arms. Next to it, a crude set of breastplate, gauntlets and thigh protectors, painted in the color of blood.

<<These were commissions, nothing more than pieces to display in a noble’s house. No actual purpose other than being pretty, or intimidating. Here, this one is yours. Your friends already came to pick up theirs, and arranged payment for that. Try it on>>

The design of it is similar to the previous version of the armor. Materials are different, using sturdier, higher quality leather that comes from Shartu, the bear Champion of the ninth floor.

Plaques of silver metal reinforce the black leather, a blueish glint in their silver shine.

<<This is moonsteel, an alloy of steel and moonstone. It costs quite a bit, but it’s an excellent item. Light, sturdy without being too rigid. It resists well against blunt blows, performs splendidly against piercing and slashing>>

The moonsteel is fashioned into a lorica for the torso portion, its design made to ease movements as much as possible, while keeping the amount of metal high enough to provide a good defense.

It’s kind of an hybrid between a proper lorica and a leather armor, with smaller, thinner plates grafted onto the dark leather.

Unlike the previous version, this one has pauldrons, and reinforced gauntlets. Same for the leg portion, that in the previous version was nothing more than a pair of tanned leather pants studded with some plaques of metal.

Although they’re far lighter than those of a full metal set of armor, the pauldrons and arm guards are almost all moonsteel. Curved plates of metal, arranged as big scales to cover the top portion of shoulder are, leaving the armpit free for better movement.

The legs are roughly the same, leaving the groin area exposed, with metal plaques running down thighs, covering the knee area and continuing down on the shin. Boots are also comprised in the set, along with two belts, some satchels and pouches, a large, dark mantle and a helmet.

Fashioned in the same way as the armor, dark leather and moonsteel, the helmet is simple in design, offering enough protection without being too encumbering or limiting vision.

Instructed by Helena, I learn how to wear the armor and the protection to wear underneath it.

She gives me some more recommendations on how to run maintenance on each piece, which instruments to use when cleaning it and how to maintain the leather parts in good conditions.

I purchase some extra products for necessary repairs and general maintenance.

Before I head out, Helena makes me stop. She rummages into a chest, coming back with an item enveloped into a piece of cloth.

<<Here. A gift, to one of our best customers>>

Inside the sheet of cloth, there is a straight sword.

<<It’s moonsteel, light and sharp. Use it, and keep it in good state. Otherwise…>>

I thank the old lady with a smile, admiring the new sword. Not that I have the need for it, but such a fine item can only be accepted with gratitude.

Navi’s analysis identifies it as a mastercrafted sword, perhaps, it might even wasted in my hands.

I fasten the scabbard to my belt, on the left side.

Now properly equipped, I head out of the store.

Still some time left to spend, as I wait for the others to advance into the Dungeon.

Once again, I head back to John’s side, to train some more before actually challenging the more advanced floors of the Dungeon.

<<Back so soon?>>

The view in the safe room has changed once again, now being a warm beach, complete with sand and even crystal clear water.

Even a light breeze. Well, it looks like being a Dungeon Master shows its perks, if you can bear the loneliness of it, that is.

<<Yeah. Any news?>>

<<Hm. Your group is now out of the Safe zone, traversing the twenty-third floor. Still at the beginning of it, tho. Alvarez made a little trip to the thirty-fourth floor, and he was frantic about something. Still, he went back, with a sour look on his face. Now, enough with the idle talking>>

All in all, two more days I spent training with John.

The new skill is working fine, the only defect of it being the small quantity I can summon. Although, it is slowly increasing, as I absorb some of the Summoned creatures brought forth by John.

Time finally has come for me to join the others once again. Having reached the twenty-sixth floor by themselves, they now are all level thirty.

I search for their position with Navi, opening the Inventory space right where their signal points.

This twenty-sixth floor is like a sea-side coast, with shallow waters and coral-covered rocks emerging from the water.

As I step out of the Inventory, I take a deep breath in the salty breeze that caresses this place.

<<Oh, welcome back. Took your sweet time, huh?>>

Retel is the first one to notice me. He’s sitting on the large corpse of a scaly creature, that looks like a hybrid between a fish and a lizard, having fin-like protrusions on its legs and tail, and gills on the side of its head.

My friend is wearing his new armor, a full plate of reddish metal. His shield and spear are also different from before. Instead of the kite shield he was using before, he now has a tower shield, its eight more than half of Retel’s. The spear that is resting on his shoulder, is longer and has a wider spearhead than the one he used before.

Marica and Levia come out from behind the beast, waving their hands at me. The two of them donning new equipment and weapons.

<<Yeah, let’s say so. Well, ready to start? Hm? Where is Dahl?>>

To my question, Retel lifts his shoulder. Behind me, I hear a step, and by reflex I jump back, ready to counter whatever was creeping up behind me.

Undoing his cloaking skill, Dahl appears.

<<Oh, did I scare you?>>

I recompose my stance, shaking my head. Since when was he the type to play pranks on people?

Finally together, we start to move towards the central portion of this new floor. All around, patches of white sand emerge from the water, small isles linked together by thin strings, paths made out of sand or small rocks.

The water near the isles is shallow, ankle high, but it grows deeper as you go further from the isles.

Monsters are lurking on the isles, resting on the warm sand, soaking in the artificial sun that illuminates this place.

As soon as they see us, they change their positions, charging at us after alerting their group.

Their levels are lower than ours, the highest among their ranks being a level twenty-six merman.

Still, they immediately dove into water, hoping to use it to conceal themselves and ambush our group from it.

I start an electric based spell, but…

<<Schiocco di tuono>>

Marica’s own spell precedes me. Apparently, the title she gained from the second trial, Bishop, granted her a boost in power for magic attacks, as well as mana regeneration and increased control of it.

A single spell was enough to clear out the group of eight monsters. Being lesser level than us, the monsters yield a low amount of exp.

What we’re really aiming for, during this trip, is to hunt down Elites and Champions. Even when lower leveled, they grant a good amount of experience. And of course, the Champion, being the strongest challenge of each floor, it grants a ridiculous amount of experience.

Perfect for grinding levels.

We thread on into this weird space, so out of place when confronted with the distant rocky ceiling and walls, all shining with a strange luminescence, intense enough that the place looks like it is basked in sunlight.

The variety of monsters in this place is stunning, several different species of fish-like creatures, and crab-like monsters crawling out of the sea to ambush us.

To be fair, I still have done nothing to take them out, aside clearing the corpses with Shoggoth. The skill mumbles in dissatisfaction, as I feel its need for live prey.

Still, if I absorb them with Shoggoth, the EXP would be lost, so I think my new skill will have to wait a long time before having some live prey served to it.

Although, if I manage to find something with useful skills, things might go differently.

As we near the central portion, the number of monsters increases, and the environment slightly changes. The isles are less frequent, but those that we encounter are wider, and even have some coconut-like tree on them. The fruits they produce look like pineapples, with a hard shell and soft pulp inside.

To my surprise, it looks like these fruits have a high effect on mana recovery. Perhaps, if refined, they could yield a high quality mana potion.

I decide to stash a number of them into my Inventory, perhaps old Heod will find some good use for them.

The materials gained from the sea monsters here, scales and hard shells, might fetch for a good price.

One truly nice thing about this floor, it’s the lack of winding paths and corridors. It’s basically a wide open space, half of it covered in deep waters.

There is no chance to be lost here, since the exit from the level is in clear view all the time, albeit looking so small in the distance.

The difficulty of this place is not the winding paths, but the sheer size of this place. The map of it, it’s double the size of the thirty-fourth level I visited before.

Not that most adventurers would explore the entirety of this place, since it’s mostly deep waters. Although, in the distance, there are some remote islets to be seen, perhaps to lure adventurers with the promise of treasure, with danger waiting below deep waters.

To others, that is.

Since, well, I can just hop there using Inventory.

On one of such islets, I found some nodes of rare metal. Even gold, mixed along with other materials of more common use. The first time I hopped on one isle, I took the others with me. It was a bit strange, seeing them frozen into Inventory space. It looks like I need to actively will them to be able to move here, otherwise, they are just treated as everything else.

But, the after effect of them moving with me, are bad.

Retel crouched down, puking. The others are also feeling some symptoms, from headache to disorientation.

It looks like transporting others might still be outside of my capabilities, if I do not think of a method to lessen the side effects.

The first islet I visited, it was devoid of monsters.

But the others…

I went there alone, leaving the rest of the group to deal with the monsters on the normal path.

As I went out on the remote isles, I found several, large type of sea creatures that burst out of the sea to attack me.

One, it was like a huge sea serpent. Although gigantic in size, its level was only twenty-two.

It had no interesting skills, but its size would grant Shoggoth a nice increase. And so, much to the hungry skill’s happiness, I ordered it to devour the monster.

Given the size of it, it took more than ten minutes for Shoggoth to consume it. It gained several material properties, both biological and not. Like the possibility to form pressure resistant muscles, or eyes that work underwater and in low luminosity.

Curiously, since it evolved into Shoggoth, the skill can now perfectly mimic a creature, assuming size, behavior, stats and much to my surprise, skills.

A skill that hold skills.

Interesting concept,isn’t it?

I wonder about the possibility of this new aptitude of my skill. Perhaps, I could let it assume the sea serpent’s form, and roam the waters in search of prey.

I doubt that anything in this level could pose a threat to it, and decide to go with the plan.

Only, the form it assumes is perfectly the same as the serpent, but black in color. And the size of it, is roughly longer than two meters. Not anything near to the gigantic, more than twenty meters long snake that attacked me.

Still, I release it into the waters.

Much to my surprise, a window opens into my view, letting me see what Shoggoth sees, and listing its stats on the side.

Immediately after scurrying into the water, Shoggoth starts its eating spree, latching itself on bigger creatures and changing its form in order to better consume them.

I head back to the others, letting Shoggoth rampage as much as it can.

Parting from my strongest skill would have been foolish, but, I have other means of offense after all.

Combining magic and Swordsmanship skill, I test both my new spells and the new weapon that Helena gifted.

The sword performs magnificently, and , given that moonsteel has a high affinity with mana, it is possible to shortly infuse it with mana to increase the power of each slash.

Much like Vorpal Edge, I am using mana to make the blade vibrate at high frequency, making it cut deeper than a normal weapon.

To the point I gained a new skill, the first one of my own ability since a long time.

Vorpal Slash, a green ranked skill.

From time to time, I turn an eye to whatever the hell Shoggoth is doing. Right now, it has been eaten by a large, squid-like monster.

It makes me pause for a moment, but, the feedback I get from Shoggoth can only be interpreted in a single way. Happiness.

Inside the large monster’s stomach, it starts eating again. It carves its way out of the monster, and then starts munching on it, growing bigger with every bite until the squid monster is no more.

After four hours, we stand in a small islet, resting for a moment before confronting the Champion of this level.

Shoggoth has returned, having basically cleared all monsters in the area.

It gains a zero point one percent of the mass it consumes, and given the large size of each monster in the area…well, let’s say it has grown. A lot.

<<So, what’s the plan?>>

Retel asks, munching on a roasted fish that he’s eating with his bare hands.

<<We kill the Champion then head to the next floor. And repeat. And repeat. Fairly simple>>

Levia replies to him. Well, she’s not wrong, since that’s basically what we set out to do with this Dive.

I look at them, remembering how we all were the first time we encountered each other. Retel, barely being able to keep up against a level two mob monster, and now single hand blocking the blows of monsters ten times his size. His title, Rook, tremendously boosted his strength, allowing him to withstand and even push back monsters. Combined with his new skills granted by the class Guardian, he’s basically capable of preventing any monster from even landing a single attack on us.

Levia, she’s become a force to reckon with in the battlefield. Her arrows rain, literally, on enemies. Each charged with mana, with different effects. Piercing shots, some that explode with a shock-wave. I even saw her using electric magic with her arrows, using it to both accelerate the arrows and deliver a stunning jolt when they strike.

And she’s constantly deploying her area healing skill, all the time. Like she does it unconsciously. Moreover, her new title boosted attack speed, power and her overall movement. Like the titular chess piece, the Queen. Still, I have yet to see her new skills, both from the title and the class she obtained.

Dahl is…well, he was strong even the first time I met him. Now, he has refined his style. Which is basically striking enemies from the shadow, slipping among their lines to kill those targets that may be troublesome, like monsters with healing powers or even capable of using magic. It seems like the title he got from the second trial, along with his class received after ranking up, granted him two peculiar skills. One, it allows him to become perfectly invisible, as long as he does not take any offensive action. This one comes from the title “Knight” gained from the trial, along with a boost in movement speed and evasiveness. The next one, it is a passive damage boost against anything that has mana. Another blue skill that he possess, and one gifted to him by the recent rank-up process.

And, the more mana the thing has, the more it is hurt by Dahl’s attacks. Especially nasty against magician types.

Marica’s spells have increased in power and scale. Different from my spells, she uses large quantities of mana to summon flashy effects, like thunderbolts of pillars of flame, often requiring long incantation time to unleash indiscriminate destruction on the enemies. The typical fantasy magician, so to speak. Well, I guess that for someone from this world, she reached quite the power in relation to her level. One very good thing is that she’s no longer limiting herself to heat-based spells, increasing her variety to better respond to different situations.

Although, I still have to see most of the new tricks my companions learned from their training and growth during these days. And vice-versa.

What we lack now, is neither power nor determination, but levels and sheer battle experience. Since, the looming menace of Aldora is there, closer with each passing day. It might go well, if Telesia manages to regain control of the army, and the situation in Sendria does not deteriorate too much.

But, the thing I want to see most is how we’ve grown in this time, what we really can achieve.

Well, the upcoming fight with the Champion of this level will probably provide that opportunity.