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.

Re: Interference Chapter 24- Two Lessons


AUTHOR’S NOTE: A random bonus chapter appears!

(Blog only, on RRL I will still upload only two chapters, that means, the blog will be 1 chapter ahead of RRL. Perhaps, even more in the future. Who knows? Well, enjoy reading)


 

Keep the farce going, don’t let your emotion show. That smile, that gaze. Don’t let them waver, do not show the emotions that run underneath.

It’s that simple, really. Instead of letting what you feel show, wear your lies like a mask.

Don’t let the opponent see that you’re afraid, that you might hesitate, even for a moment.

Especially against people that are two times stronger than you. If they know that you fear them, it’s your loss.

I repeat those words into my head, making them my own mantra as I smile, as I gaze my enemies.

Confuse them, make them think you’re stronger than they are.

If they see you act like this, even when they know your level is a third of their own, they will react in two ways.

First, they might take you for a fool. A cocky brat that does not know his place, and is in for a lesson.

And they will underestimate you, for that.

Or, they might see past your weakness, and think that you’re hiding something. They will be wary of your moves, and they will keep their guard high. And that’s the right time for you to strike, using guile instead of strenght. Confuse them, and it will be your win.

Well, it’s easier said than done. All my instinct are screaming at me, run away, and yet, here I am. Struggling against myself, showing a facade of strenght that I do not possess. The main concept here, is that my opponents do not know it.

One of them is already gone, gasping his last breath as blood flows from his severed jugular.

It’s as John said. Even if the opponent is two, or three times as strong as you are, they still are vulnerable if they cannot react fast enough.

Defense, no matter how high it is, is pointless if the blow overrides it. And, even a small amount of power can be devastating, if concentrated in a single spot.

The small knife I have in my hands still glows from the excessive mana I put into it, the blade cracked, falling apart. It served its purpose, and now it’s time to set it aside.

Confuse the enemy, use smarts instead of the strenght you lack.

I am alone against a group of eight people, all of them above level forty, the strongest having reached level fifty-two. A bit too much for this level, but they’ve been figthing here in order to power-level Leidus.

This level, it is a place where the monsters yield enough EXP to make one rapidly grow, without overcharging him with too much EXP.

In short, they’ve been doing the fights, using their higher stats and skills to easily kill the lower level monsters, while Leidus sat back and grew from level seventeen to forty-four.

Of the original nine members that accompanied him into this dungeon floor, only seven remeains. One fell to my surprise attack.

Another, it was Leidus who killed him. Something I did not account for, and that gave me a bigger advantage against the group. Perhaps, this Leidus guy is really nothing more than a mean idiot, after all.

Still, he took out one of his own men, and that plays to my favor. Eight people against one, the odds are definitely not in my favor.

A single hit, and I will be dead. Hell, why do I barge in these kind of situations?

Only, this time it’s not like the others. Since some time ago, I always fell into danger, swept by the flow of events and finding myself entangled in them, able only to react.

This time, it’s different.

I did not fell into danger. I sought it, I planned for it.

And I am well prepared.

As the enemies react to my first attack, jumping to my position with incredible speed, I ponder the next move.

They’re smart, trained to react to danger and act to achieve the best results. Four of them already jumped to my position, coming from different sides.

One, from the front, flamboyantly charging ahead. Of course, he does so to distract me from his three companions, two coming from the sides and one, cloaked and with a silent step, already closing in on my back, his dagger ready to strike.

I would like to see their face, when they realize I am no longer there.

Their blows strike the empty air. Another spell, using light to produce a mirage.

And, the next one is already activated, and it strikes.

Confuse the enemy, use guile instead of strenght. What would happen if they saw only one man attacking them, and suddenly, some arrows came flying from different directions? They would think it an ambush, of course.

As I said before, I came well prepared for this fight.

After blinking away before the four enemies managed to hit me, I left the mirage standing there. Then, I reappeared behind one of the rearguards, the three people that stood near Leidus during the attack.

I make it so my presence is felt, this time. As the three men turn around, I simultaneously strike with my weapon, and let my Inventory open up from three different positions.

Before coming here, I asked Levia’s master, Andria, to shoot some of her strongest arrows inside my Inventory.

As things are, items stored inside my Inventory store their properties, intact.

Like temperature, or freshness for when food is concerned. But, the skill has a much wider property. For example, things like inertia momentum, potential and kinetik energy also remain locked, without decaying or changing when the item crosses Inventory’s boundary and is stored in the “space” of the skill.

And, what would happen to an arrow, shot with incredible power, when it is stored into my Inventory? Of course, it would keep that power indefinitely, under the effect of a skill that defies the laws of physics.

There was a point, slightly after I came into this world. I remember making a small consideration, about my skill. I clearly said, that Inventory might have been my most overpowered skill.

Hell, I was right.

As I open Inventory in different places all around, the arrows stored in them are now free to resume their motion, following a straight path with their initial strenght and momentum.

Like they’ve just been released from a bow, by a number of strong archers hidden, surrounding the enemy party.

Of course, in the heat of battle, the enemies fail to perceive the minuscule flutter of mana that I need to spend to open or close my Inventory.

A quantity so negligible, that it becomes imperceptible, masked by the natural flow of mana that permeates each Dungeon floor.

Normally, any spell would have a definite trace, since the quantity of mana needed to both channel the structure and summon the concept of the spell would result in a turbulence in the natural flow, and skilled mage hunters or soldiers would train themselves to perceive even the slightest trace of said turbulence.

But, my spells are different. As I lack the need for complex structures, the quantity of mana I need to use for each spell is ridiculously low, as is the resulting turbulence.

Meaning, even a skilled mage hunter would not be able to be aware of the time or place of my spell’s activation.

The arrows fly from different directions. Even if they hold a considerable amount of power, the enemies manage to repel or avoid them.

The one I targeted also manages to avoid my blow, retaliating in a fraction of seconds.

Of course, that was also accounted for, since I already blinked away. It was a close call, but I managed.

And, now unrest is spreading among their ranks. The arrows had the effect of making my enemies aware of them, that someone else besides me might be in hiding, having surrounded the group and taking time to snipe at them from a distance.

What they thought before, seeing me waltz alone among their ranks, has been revealed to be a different situation in their eyes.

Instead of the reckless act of a lone, low level idiot, to them what is happening now appears to be a full fledged trap, laid down by a group rather than a single person.

In their vision, I was bait, to be sacrificed in order to take them down. At least, I hope they think it this way.

In short, they’re looking for people that are not there, imagining a number of enemies instead of a lone, low level guy.

With unrest it comes confusion, as they regroup and try to find a way to deal with the new danger.

This floor is nothing but a wide, open wasteland of scorching sands, with few hiding places and too many monsters.

Moreover, the position we’re fighting in is dangerously close to the central portion of the floor, near the nesting areas of Elite monsters, right on the edge of the Champion’s territory.

And I specifically chose to ambush them here.

Hiding in the subspace of my Inventory, I can still keep track of what is happening on the floor, using both Navi’s detection and the spell I cast on Leidus.

And the scent of blood has already spread, carried by the warm winds of this desert, to attract the attention of those things that lurk in this place.

Unsurprisingly, the Elite monsters are closing in on the group. Their numbers are twice those of Leidus’s group, but their levels are lower.

No matter, since they will serve as a distraction.

Another volley of arrows is released, missing its mark. This time, they come from completely different directions than before.

To increase the confusion, I am using arrows with different mana signatures. Ones that have been shot by Andria, Levia’s master. Ones that Levia herself shot. Even some carrying my mana, among with others without any mana on them.

This way, it’s like a number of people, each using different techniques is aiming for Leidus’s men.

And here come the monsters.

Large, black bodies that surpass four meters in length, their skin covered not in scales, but curved thorns, bent backwards. Their reptilian eyes have a bloodshot glint, and lines of mana flicker on their bodies.

Desert Scourge, the Elite monsters of this place. Their levels range from thirty-two to forty, the highest one being a larger lizard covered in scars.

With quick movements, they assault Leidus’s group.

Of course, for the soldiers these creatures are only small fries. But, even a group of small fries is a threath, after all.

Distracted by the group of monsters, the soldiers are trying their best to repel them while keeping wary of the surroundings.

Four of them, the ones that jumped on me earlier, are repelling the creatures. The remaining three, along with Leidus, are scanning the area, perhaps using some kind of detection skills.

Two of them are magicians, while one seems to deploy healing spells and skills, along with spells that increase his companion’s battle proficiency.

The two magicians alternate themselves to cast some sort of mana shield on their comrades. The only ones not being protected are Leidus, who is guarding from arrows with one of his skills, and the healer, who is protected by a higher-class mana shield of his own.

None of them is singled out, keeping thight formations without breaking ranks.

Their movements are good, forged after years of training and battle. Without any doubt, they’re experts, used to battle and well trained.

It will be difficult to kill them, and things might not go too smoothly for me.

I increase the number of arrows raining on the group, mixing in some spells I already prepared.

The occasional, low power fireball. The technique is the same as before, pre-made spells, locked in my Inventory and released at the moment.

This skill is terrifying, if used this way.

It almost makes me regret having relied too much on Black Fluid. If I think back to the battles I fought, I could have had a far easier time if I properly used all the weapons I had at my disposal.

Still, there’s no merit in wondering about “what if” scenarios.

Now, it’s time to strike.

I’ve not been idle during this time, using the distraction to prepare a spell myself.

Once again, I blink into the battlefield, unnoticed.

This spell that I am about to use requires quite the amount of mana. But, it’s worth every point spent.

Using the already hight temperature of this desertic floor, I convey my mana to the higher strates of air above. A cycle of cooling and heating, giving rise to an air current. Taking control of the flow, I make it spin in circles, giving rise to a self sustaining movement that gains speed, progressively.

The air spins, gaining velocity and giving rise to wind. It drags within thin particles of sand, first a handful of it, then more and more, until it becomes a sandstorm.

Well, its scale is not gigantic of course, roughly ten meters wide. Enough to be a nuisance, to impede vision, since it’s centered to be around Leidus and the three accompanying him, effectively cutting the line of sight between the group of four engaging the monsters and the others.

<<Fuck! Even this now?>>

One of them cusses, shouting imprecations as the winds howl around the small group. Still, I am quite pleased by the result of my little spell.

It’s making them more agitated, and the arrows raining on them are only aggravating their whole situation.

Agitated people make mistakes, and that’s what I am hoping. I am waiting, biding the time for when one of them singles himself out from the group.

The four melee attackers have already killed more than half of the elite monsters. One of them, however, has been wounded.

While he was striking the killing blow on one monster, he was caught by one of my arrows. Some of the arrows have a “piercing” mana added to them, allowing them to bypass shields.

Still the arrow lost much of its force when it came into contact with the mana shield, and, even if it went through, the impact when it hit its target had been decisively lessened.

The wound itself is not lethal, and it looks like the man has some kind of self-recovery skill.

Grunting, the soldier recomposes himself, yanking the arrow out of his left shoulder. The combination of his own healing skill, and the one used by their healer have already sealed the wound and stopped the bleeding.

But, the man stumbles on his feet. He’s swaying, struggling to raise his sword arm.

<<Hey, what is wrong with you? Get a hold of yourself>>

One of his companions grabs the man by his shoulders, shaking him in order to make him regain his senses. As an answer, his companion plunges his own sword in the man’s abdomen.

The confusing poison that I smeared on the arrowtips its showing its effects.

It was a gamble to use it, since I expected the group to have some kind of poison resistance skill, but, it seems I got a truly lucky hit here.

Well, one more down.

I hoped so, but the healer is doing work, here. The wounded man is immediately surrounded by a white light, his abdomen stops bleeding and regenerates, and the man is in fighting conditions once again. His companion, the one affected by the poison, he’s also being cured. He snaps out of confusion, a surprised look on his face.

<<Ohy! Drop the spells and increase those fuckin’ shields! I want double layers!>>

One of the soldiers shout, and the magician abide. Now, the barrier surrounding the melee fighters are two, shining around them every time they deflect a blow or incoming arrow.

Things will not go too smoothly, after all.

The small sandstorm subsides. It looks like the two magicians have used a combined spell, manipulating the air to disperse the swirling sands.

They stopped buffing their companions, switching to attack magic in order to deal with the rest of the elite monsters.

With the magician’s aide, the group of melee fighters eliminates the other monsters. Easily, if I must say so.

<<Is that all? Come on fucker, show your head and face us!>>

Leidus shouts, hoping to provoke me. The magicians are scanning the area around, I can feel their mana creep on the surroundings.

A low, bellowing roar claims the group’s attention.

Attracted by the noise and scent of blood, the final player of my little match decided to show its presence.

The sandstorm had its effect, distracting the group and forcing it to move, unaware of its surroundings.

<<Shit>>

One of them mutters, realizing that they’ve been led into the Champion’s territory.

The thing comes crashing into the group, using its large build to crush the soldiers.

Similiar to the Elite monsters, the Champion is almost double in size, and red in color.

A ridge of large spikes goes along its spine, running from its head to the tail that ends in a sharp blade.

Small crests of scaly skin adorn the sides of its head, and large fangs can be seen inside the thing’s mouth.

Red, level thirty-six. The Champion of this Dungeon’s thirty-fourth floor.

The lot of them are forced to direct their attention to the monster. Even if its level is lower than theirs, a blow from the gigantic lizard could easily spell their doom.

And that, is the moment for me to strike. The sandstorm did not only have the effect to cloud their vision. By making sand swirl in the wind, it would scrape on itself and the surroundings, and, causing attrition, produce static energy. Enough for me to accumulate, and use in the upcoming spell.

Concentrated into a single point, and amplified, the effect of it is that of a small taser gun. Once again, I blink into the fray.

This time, my target is the healer.

But…

<<Gotcha!>>

Dodging with a quick movement, the man quickly retaliates with a kick, sending me sprawling on the ground.

Leidus uses the moment to strike at me with my own skill.

It seems like I underestimated the healer too much. Since he had basically done nothing during the fight, I thought him a pure healer, but it looks like the man is an adept figther as well. Able to sense, dodge and retaliate in a split second.

That carelessness might have spelled my own doom, if Leidus used a skill that he was more adept in.

Instead, he chose to use my own skill against myself. Setting aside the fact that he already proved to be unable to use Black Fluid’s full potential, but…

I mean, I very well know how the skill works, its attack patterns and so on. Perhaps, he intended to mock me by killing me with my own skill. But, he did not account for the fact that I, being the original owner, know its patterns and movements with perfection.

He summons the skill from the right side. A tentacle of Black Fluid manifests. When used like this, it moves sweeping from right to left, the tip of the tentacle has a bladed part in this form.

Being one of Black Fluid’s most basic attacks, only the tip moves at high speed, and can cause harm. The base, closer to the user, moves slowly and has no mean to inflict harm. If used poorly, that is.

Knowing its pattern, it’s easy to avoid and retaliate

I’m slightly vexed that I need to use my spell to defend myself, but, oh well.

I avoid the blade of Black Fluid coming at me, dashing forward and reaching the base of the skill. As Leidus readies his own blade to slash at me, I touch the tentacle with my electricity-charged left hand.

Another thing I recently learnt, is that Black Fluid’s structure is particularly suited to conduct electricity.

The skill, it’s always connected physically to the user. In this instance, it “materialized” from Leidus’s right hand, and it’s connected to it.

Leidus shouts in pain, as the electric current travels along Black Fluid, reaching him and stunning the beast-man with a painful jolt.

My attack did nowhere enough damage to severely hurt Leidus, but it bought me time.

I use the small distraction to blink away, before Leidus’s companions manage to hit the spot where I stand. One of the spells unleashed by the magicians almost hits Leidus, sending him into a fit of rage.

I successfully avoided their retaliation, retreating once again into the space summoned by my Inventory skill. This time, however, I do not hide, appearing immediately behind one of the magicians.

He too avoids my attack, ready to discharge the spell he prepared on point-blank range. But, before he manages to do it…

<<Agh!>>

The healer shouts, falling on the sand with an arrow sprouting from his neck. Still alive, he uses his skills and spells to try and stop the bleeding as he yanks the arrow from his neck. If it were a normal arrow that struck him, he would manage to save his own life. But, his efforts are vain.

My attack on the magician was a feint, in order to attract their attention on a different spot than the one I intended to strike. Otherwise, my attack on the healer could have been intercepted and nullified.

As the group focused its attention on me, turning around to strike me as I re-appeared among them, I opened my Inventory near the healer’s neck, releasing one of the “special” arrows I had in my arsenal.

To allow it to bypass the man’s own mana shield, I had to tamper with it using a spell of my own. I injected my own mana into several points of the shield, making it vibrate with the opposite frequence.

In short, a phenomenon of wave interference, that nullified the shield in a single spot without disrupting it completely. If I destroyed it, the caster would know, and immediately activate a second one.

But, by doing like this, he could not detect the “sabotage” of his own shield, and react accordingly. Thankfully, all the precise calculations needed to pull off something like this, they’re being made with Navi’s support.

Well, she’s basically the one doing the hard work behind my spells. I am only supplying mana, and deciding the effect I desire.

Most likely, the healer noticed my arrow suddenly appearing. However, he relied on his shield, failing to notice how it was tampered with. After all, the “hole” I caused in it was only two centimeters wide, and it lasted for a single second.

But, that was enough to let my “special arrow” through.

This one, it held no mana in it. Instead, the arrowtip was made with a Fire Crystal. I worked hard to produce it, even harder to stabilize the Fire Crystal for enough time to safely shoot the arrow and store it in my Inventory. It’ s a one-of-a-kind item, kind of an “ace” in my possession.

Having opened my Inventory with few centimeters of distance from the man’s throath, it was impossible for him to evade the arrow that suddenly popped out of nowhere.

Of course, I did so in order to maximize the chances of this arrow hitting its mark. But, that’s bot the only reason. Given that the arrowhead is a Fire Crystal, I needed to minimize its interaction with any form of mana during the time between the arrow’s release and when it would hit its mark.

So, having released the arrow with few centimeters of distance from its target, it had too little time to interact with mana that lingered in the air.

Now, the peculiar thing about Fire Crystals, is their reaction whenever they are exposed to mana perturbations of any kind. Like the one that is running through the healer’s body, as he franctically tries to use both skills and spells to heal himself.

With a disgusting sound, the healer’s head popped in a grizzly explosion. The crystal reacted to the mana flowing inside the man, overcharging itself and causing an explosion, wide enough to blow the man’s head off.

One more down.

Once again, I blink away. This time however, one of the magicians managed to graze me with his spell. I received a nasty burn on my back.

<<Shit, that hurts!>>

I return to the Inventory space, applying some healing magic on myself. I did not think to come out of this fight unscathed, that’s for sure. After all, some injuries are to be accounted for when dealing with people stronger than you are, even when you have cheat-like abilities at your disposal.

It’s a bit strange, how I am able to move, and even breathe, inside this space built by my skill.

This kind of thing that I am doing, it’s only possible thanks to the recent level up of the skill. It was, once again, thanks to John’s advice that I managed to make it reach this level.

To his words, a skill grows faster when used in unusual ways. And, by using Inventory as a battle skill, I managed to make it level up quite fast. Before, it was a green- ranked skill.

High, but not overpowered. Now, it has become blue-ranked, after I maxed it up during last week’s intensive training. Sadly, the skill itself cannot grow more than this. But, I mean, it is already become something ridiculous.

As I wait for the healing effect to do its job, I follow the battle between the soldiers and the Champion.

Since their healer fell, the group is now struggling against the Champion. The monster is the one having it worse, as expected, but the soldiers are being wounded by its attacks.

The two magicians are exerting their strenght by shielding their companions, and in several occasions they have been forced to resort to mana potions.

I am still pestering them with arrows, this time mixing in explosive and freezing arrows as well.

They’re nothing more than a nuisance, however. Bouncing off of their mana shield, without inflicting damage. I hoped that the group would consider the incoming arrows a greater threath, perhaps splitting their ranks to survey the territory and find their point of origin.

Instead, they chose to focus on the immediate threath, the one they could see, while relying on the two magicians to shield them from the arrows.

Perhaps, they found out with some detection skill that there are no other humans in this floor, and my strategy has been seen through.

Still, arrow after arrow, their shield is being shaved off. It’s only a matter of time before the magicians run out of mana. Even if they have mana potions with them, it’s not like they can use them infinitely.

Sooner or later, they will reach their limits.

I, on the other hand, have been using only a minuscule fraction of my own mana pool, steadily recovered by my own regeneration and with the help of some mana potions. I have still plenty at my disposal, and, unlike them, I am fighting by using dirty tricks and hiding myself.

Given how some of them already fell, I wonder why they still have not tried to retreat from this battle. It would be the smartest move on their part, but, perhaps they still think themselves to be able to win this battle.

Leidus is actively attacking the hulking monster, jumping into the fray and using Black Fluid while at long range, and his blade skill when he charges.

His swordsmanship is no joke, and he uses a similar technique to my Vorpal Edge to increase his weapon’s damage.

He’s even able to mix in some wind spells, but, it looks like he relies on this world’s knowledge, with long casting times and the large amount of mana wasted on the spell’s structure.

Thankfully, although he holds the same title as me, he’s not an otherworlder, and he lacks that absurd knowledge that comes from being one.

Otherwise, this battle would have been gone in a different way.

Well, I would have never strarted it, that’s for sure.

With a roar, the Champion jumps back from the soldiers. Mana gathers around it, as the “second phase” of the fight begins.

Sands swirls, surrounding the monster, fusing itself with its scaly skin and giving rise to an armor around the creature. Its wounds healed, and the thing appears to move even faster. It’s standing on its hind legs, clawing, biting, swiping its tail in the attempt to kill the soldiers attacking it.

More than a lizard, now it looks like a wingless dragon.

Still, its blows are evaded, or parried. Some of them manage to inflict grazing wounds, but, it’s not enough to bring down the soldiers. Leidus is at distance from the melee group, using Black Fluid to limit the thing’s movements.

It looks like he’s learning, and fast.

I need to end things, and quickly.

I move my arms, checking if my skin is healed enough. There is no pain in my back, signaling that the spell did a good job. I am relieved, since healing, and all the matters that involve biology, are the ones where I am most lacking.

Well, I will learn how to use them, with enough time. I shudder, as the memory of the time when John demonstrated a biological-based spell returns to my mind.

Truly, a terrifying sight, akin to the use of those prohibited biological weapons of that world that was never my own.

Using mana to modify viruses or bacteria, giving them the ability to infect and literally melt anything living. A spell like those, it could sweep an entire country in a matter of days, leaving all infrastructure intact. Perfect for taking a city, for example. And, as John said, most likely someone among Aldora’s ranks will use something similar.

Still, no time to let myself be distracted by those thoughts. Now, I need to focus on the next move.

One lucky blow from the hulking lizard sends one of the soldiers flying away, and I take the time to act.

He adjusts his trajectory to land, but…

I open Inventory right where he’s falling, snatching him away.

A curious look is ingrained in his face, a mixture of fear and surprise. His body is under Inventory’s effect. Which is, now that I can take a closer look at the phenomenon, to stop an object’s “time”.

The soldier, a level forty-two man, fourty-three years old, named Marcus. An impressive list of skills, all of them above purple grade, but none over green.

Navi displays his Status window, along with the information about my prisoner. I could easily kill him now, but…

There are two reasons to steady my hand, and leave him alive, imprisoned into this sub-space.

First, I want to check if the man is here, fighting of his own volition, or if somehow he’s being controlled, by Alvares or Leidus.

Well, all army members are, in a way, since the drugs and spells used by Alvares affected all of them.

But, that effect only makes them see Alvares as a faterly figure, in a way that it makes them not question his authority or decisions. Their morality is not altered, so, if the man he’s here by his own volition, partaking in murder of innocent adventurers along with Leidus, his end will come by my hands.

But, in the slightest chance that he’s being somehow coherced into coming here, I could try and dispell him. After all, a good fighter like him would be a great loss if we manage to reclaim Sendria’s army, and hell we will need all the able fighters that we manage to gather, to fight Aldora.

<<So, you’re just human scum, huh?>>

There is no spell cast on him, and I can see how the man himself actually liked what he did here. Even worse, this man is a rapist, who takes his pleasure by forcing himself on young female adventurers, killing them afterwards, and, sometimes, during.

This new spell I used, it’s something similar to Telesia’s skill, that allows me to “read” my target’s thoughts, and therefore, memories, projecting them on a screen similar to the Status screen.

I must admit, this one is not something I would have been able to come up with, not even in a million years. Once again, it was my almighty master that gifted me with this ability. He sat with me, teaching me the theory behind it and the exact mental process to use in making this spell.

It has not a direct battle use, but, if combined with illusory type skills or spells, it could have devastating effects. Like showing illusions of a loved one, only to strike your opponent from them.

And other nasty things.

The other reason that compels me not to kill this man, is the list of his skills. Two green skills he owns,both passives that require no mana for their use. One that raises physical attributes, and another that grants a regeneration ability.

And, now that I saw the nature of this soldier, I am a bit relieved. I will have no remorse, when I will absorb him with Black Fluid.

I know, I swore to myself to never use that thing on humans.

But, let’s say that I have changed a bit from that time. To use an euphemism.

Still, one less soldier to worry about.

The remaining three melee attackers are pushing the Champion, dealing some serious damage on it while the magicians and Leidus attack from a distance.

However, both the magic shield that guards each member of the group, and the attack spells of the duo are showing significantly lower effects than before.

Now, only one of the magicians is actively attacking, while the other is both keeping the shield and using buffs to support the party.

I wonder what would happen if I do something here.

The new idea was not part of the plan, let’s just say that it came from an instant of inspiration of some sorts.

Using my Mana Absorption skill, I drain my prisoner’s mana pool.

The stolen mana is being used by me, molded into a healing spell.

Normally, for a healing spell, one would need to perfectly calibrate the amount of mana to inject into each single cell, in order to stimulate division at a steady rate without consuming too much of the target’s own energy..

At the same time, a portion of the mana used would be needed to stimulate the target’s immune system, in order to get rid of any possible infective agents in the wound.

Then, it would be the turn to stimulate collagen production, guiding it to recreate the properties of damaged tissues, like skin and muscles. Bone fractures are even harder to heal, since the delicate action of osteoblasts and osteoclasts would need to be sinchronized and directed.

The bigger risk, would be not failing to heal the person by using too little mana, but the opposite. An excessive amount of mana would cause an unbalanced cell growth and division, leading to different kind of damage, some even lethal.

The least, it would be an excessive growth of the regenerated parts, leading to malformations. A higher quantity of mana could lead to unbalances in cell cycle, leading to possible oncogenesis in the tissue. Namely, the healed part would develop a tumor.

And, the worst grade, the worst failure of a healing spell, it would be an uncontrolled, explosive cell division. It would consume the target’s own energies, withering it.

Some skilled healers are able to use healing spells this way, turning them into powerful offensive magic. Turn the body against itself, so to speak.

But, a healing spell used for its intended purpose, it needs to be balanced, with failsafes and checks to prevent an excess of mana to cause one of those three failures.

If you plan to do a good job, that is. Cutting out those security systems, results in a more powerful, and riskier healing spell.

The one I am preparing, it would kill a human.
But, my target is not human.

Blinking out of my Inventory, I cast the spell on the Champion. For good measure, I even added a small buff.

Nothing that requires too much mana. Just to experiment a bit.

The healing spell runs through the Champion’s body. Its wounds close almost instantly, nullifying the damage done by Leidus’s group.

What I did, it can only be defined like a dick move. To be fair, this whole fight has been a collection of dirty tricks and cowardly tactics from my part.

Well, I am the one at disadvantage here, facing off a group of people several levels above my own. So, I will use as many dirty methods as I can think of.

Now healed, the Champion attacks the group with renewed vigor. The buff I cast on him does not seem to show any noticeable effect, but, oh well, I already achieved the intended purpose.

What is left, is to wait for a perfect opportunity to strike.

One of the magicians yells to his companions, telling them to group up. He’s gathering his mana, sending it into a small spherical object that lies in his right hand. In short, he’s about to use a Transfer Stone.

If he does, it will be bad.

Before he manages to do it, I need to think something.

Much to my surprise, a group of scorpion-like monsters emerge from the sand. Their presence here, it only means something.

John has decided to give me a small hand. The monsters were not here, since Leidus had basically cleared all monsters beside the elites and the Champion.

There were not even hiding under the sand, since Navi’s detection showed no signals in that position. They have been spawned, right here, right now.

<<So, you’re watching…well, hope you enjoy the show, Master!>>

As the monsters ambush the magicians, I take this opportunity to snatch them away. It’s risky, since they could, somehow, be able to move into my Inventory space.

First, the one about to use the Transfer stone. I blink behind him, as the others are shifting their attention to the monsters emerging from the sands.

It happens in a split second, and the magician does not even have the time to retaliate.

Inside my Inventory, he’s frozen in position. His right hand still holds the almost activated Transfer Stone, shining a blue light from the mana charge it received.

The magician’s left hand is directed towards me, traces of mana frozen in time gathered on it, as the magician was about to strike me with a quick spell.

Now, it’s time for me to deal with the other magician. Instead of popping out of the Inventory space, I wait for the right opportunity to open the space underneath him.

In order for him to not notice, I do it under some centimeters of sand. He senses it, jumping away from the spot. Only to be caught midair by another opening of my skill.

Truly, this thing is terrifying if used in battle.

Another “statue” is added to my collection, another face whose expression shows frozen surprise and fear.

They look like they could move any moment now.

But, they can’t, much to my relief.

Now, on the battlefield, only Leidus and the remaining melee fighters remain.

Without the magician’s support, they cannot guard from the combined attacks from the Champion, the monsters and the rain of arrows that I am launching at them.

This time, it’s Leidus who tries to use a Transfer orb.

He runs off from the group, alone.

Seriously, he intends to abandon them here? How rotten is this guy?

Well, he could not make a more stupid move, not even if he tried.

Blinking out of my Inventory, I lunge at him, sword in hands. Using a combination of buffs, my Swordsmanship skill and some spells, I manage to get a clean hit on his right hand, cutting it off.

The severed hand falls on the sand-covered floor, and Transfer Orb rolls away from it, its mana charge almost complete.

<<FUCK! Damn you! Damn you!>>

Leidus rolls on the sand, clutching his severed hand.

For good measure, I open Inventory where the Transfer Orb is, cutting away Leidus’s possible escape.

The hulking lizard, Champion of this level, is in a critical state, almost dead. It seems like those three are more competent than I anticipated.

Discarding regards for their safety, they lunged at the monster with their full power.

They received some wounds from it, none of them too serious. One of the three, it seems he possess a minor healing skill, and he’s already using it on his two comrades.

The Champion, with its last strenght, manages to crush one of the attackers with its paw. The blow does not kill the man, but it maimes his right leg.

I can see how the beast is almost dead. The two remaining men are closing in from both sides, aiming for the killing blow.

If they kill it, they will level up, making things worse for me.

So, even if John advised me to not get too much experience in a single fight, I have to do it.

I use my strongest spell. Combining both electric manipulation with the spell version of Inventory, I realize a long, narrow space. A metal projectile in it, and magnetic force to propel it along the space, accelerating it to impossible speed and momentum.

In short, a railgun.

I release the bullet, and as it impacts on the Champion’s large frame, it blows its head off.

Navi’s message informs me of the monster’s death, and experience flows into me.

In this world, experience goes to the party that strikes the last blow.
So, kill stealing is a thing.

I manage to retreat to Inventory space once again, before the after-effect of the sudden level-up catches me.

An intense pain, like my own head is about to burst from the inside. Having killed a monster whose level is almost twice my own, and a Champion monster nonetheles, the amount of experience is huge.

The level thirty-four Champion granted me eight levels, making my own jump from twenty-two to thirty.

I will not be able to use the newly gained stat points immediately. But, if the other group managed to kill the monsters, they would be the ones to level up.

Even if their level was above that of the Champion, a monster of that calibre would grant a huge amount of experience. Definitely, at least one of them would increase his level. Perhaps, and most likely, all of them would.

And that would mean a full heal, and increased stats for my opponents.

So, I had to steal the kill for myself.

Still the consequences are painful. Luckily, I managed to retreat into my Inventory space, somewhere that “exists” without me needing to actively feed mana into the skill. The only thing I need to do is open or close the gate in a precise spot, and that’s it.

The place itself, it is unperturbed by my conditions, being the perfect safe haven and hiding spot.

I scream, convulsing in pain as I franctically try to counter the devastating effect that the excessive EXP is causing on my body.

I spit blood, and vomit. My nerves fail, triggering painful muscular contractions all over my body, almost making me lose my own consciousness.

To use the healing spells on myself, I am relying on Navi.

It all lasts no more than a couple of seconds, but, to me, it seemed like hours. Navi’s calculations made it possible for the spell to perfectly counterbalance the damage on my nerves, muscles and bones.

Only a lingering taste of blood in my mouth, and a ringing noise in my ears. That’s what remains of the whole process.

It was reckless, but I survived it. I dismiss the Status message informing me of the new level up, only giving it a quick glance.

I am pleasantly surprised to see that I have gained the passive skill Pain Resistance from the process.

It seems my luck works in some weird ways.

Having recovered from the excessive level up, I open Inventory under the wounded soldier, the one who had his leg crushed beyond repair by the monster.

Now, Leidus and two men remain.

Leidus, wounded and bleeding, his hand still twitching over the sand, severed from his body. The other two, slightly wounded but still able to put up a fight. And they do, killing the scorpions before they manage to reach Leidus.

I smile, spying the scene. If he tried to use Black Fluid on one of the monsters, he would cure himself and have a better chance to kill me.

Hell, I bet the bastard would not hesitate to use the skill on his “comrades”, taking their skills for himself.

The three of them regroup, and one of the soldiers, the one with a healing skill, begins to use it on Leidus.

But, as they are now, they’re easy to pick off.

First one, then the other. The two soldiers are now inside my private space, frozen in time as they float in pure blackness with their other friends.

Now, Leidus is alone, shouting my name and several curse words.

I chug down another mana potion, waiting for its effect to start before heading out once again.

Immediately, Leidus attacks the spot where I stand.

Still, it is easy to guard from my own skill.

He may not be aware of it, but it’s rather easy to disrupt it. It takes only a slight amount of mana in the right place, and the whole thing falls apart.

<<So, did you enjoy my skill? I have to say, you did a rather pitiful work of it>>

I taunt him, forcing myself to keep a strong front.

The whole time, I had my knees shaking from fear, thinking and overthinking about all the things that could have gone wrong in this instance.

But, the thing is, I did not let myself to be influenced from those thoughts. And the results, are right in front of my eyes.

Leidus is cowering, struggling to get away from me.

He’s using all his mana to send spell after spell, having now stopped using Black Fluid against me, seeing how it has been useless against its original owner.

It would be easy to kill him right away, but, I still hesitate a bit. Not out of pity, or indecisiveness, but…

Will I be able to recover the skill immediately if I outright kill him? Or I risk losing Black Fluid forever, unless I take a specific action.

Navi does not answer, so, I avoid dealing a decisive blow. Instead, I try to immobilize Leidus.

Well, rather than restrain him, I am cutting his limbs off, one at the time.

First, his left hand, as he tried to lunge at me with his sword.

Using blink, I avoided his blow, reappearing in the same spot to deliver my own attack.

Next, it was the turn of Leidus’s right leg.

And, as he crawled away, his left leg parted from his body.

It might seem needless torture, but…as I spied him from some time, to gather informations, I had been testimony to the atrocities this man did.

What I am doing to him now, he did it to the adventurers that were unlucky enough to cross his path.

The difference is, I am not laughing like he did back then. No more than a day ago, when a party of exhausted adventurers, returning from their expedition on the thirty-fifth floor was forced to go back on foot, having lost their single Transfer stone to a monster’s maws, along with the party member that held it.

He and his group mercilessly ambushed the other party, and, as his companions enjoyed themselves in rape and murder, he spent his time torturing and tormenting the party leader.

He made him watch as his female comrades, one of which was his sister, were violated by Leidus’s own men. And only then, he began to hurt the man.

He gave him a weapon, since he wanted the man to fight.

<<First, it was the right hand. Then, when you cut off his left one. When he tried to crawl away, it was his right leg to go, and then, when he started to beg, his left one. And you left him that way, after taking his skills for your own. You left him, among his friends’ lifeless remains, as monsters began to crawl their way to the corpses. And, you watched, and laughed. Now, how does it feel, to be on the receiving hand?>>

He does not answer, already having lost almost all blood from his wounds. A sad end, for a sad man. From this, I learned two lessons. First, the definite proof, that, in this world, levels are only numbers.

No matter how high it is, no matter how many pretty points your stats have, a well placed, well timed blow will still sever your arm, or slice open your neck.

It works for enemies, and it will work on me if I fail to be careful.

And the most important lesson of them all, is that I learned what I am truly capable of.

I do not feel remorse for what I have done, now that I have. Before, I had some doubts about all this, thinking myself unable to do it.

Repulsed by the idea of violence, or at least, that’s how I thought I would feel.

Instead, and much to my own disgust, I feel satisfied by this.

I won, by myself, against a stronger enemy. Against all odds, for the first time being the one behind an event, and not the one to react to it.

Instead of guarding from an attack, I was the one attacking.

Sure, I use cowardly tactics, underhanded tricks. I cheated, so to speak.

But, the coward stands, the cheater wins. And the one who was laughing before, now he’s panting his dying breath.

I am almost tempted to leave him like this, but, I take once again my sword in hands, ready to deliver the final blow.

If I left him to suffer like this, I would be no better than him.

However, Leidus is denied a merciful end.

[Navi: Success! Enemy Candidate Demon Lord-Leidus has been incapacitated! Victory goes to Master! Yay! Begin Remote Absorption Routine]

He shouts, as Black Fluid emerges from his mutilated body. The skill has been activated by Navi, or perhaps even by Azathot, for what I know.

Without anyone controlling it, it does what its nature is. To consume, whatever its target is.

In this case, Leidus.

The scene of it is different from when I use it. Like the time when, back then, the Laughing Man used the same skill as me to counsume the soldiers in that small Aldoran fort.

Instead of enveloping the target whole, and consuming it slowly, mouths are being formed by the skill, and they laugh, and eat, until nothing is left of that sorry man named Leidus.

Only a shambling black, a quivering mass of eyes and mouths that cackle in insanity is left, crawling towards me.

I sit on the ground, letting it come to me. Like it did the first time I saw that form, after I fell from the waterfall fleeing from the slimes.

I was wounded, back then. Diying. And it crawled, slowly, as I could not move, both from fear and my wounds.

This time, I do not fear the shambling mass, no. I relish its sight, the insanity of it.

I let myself be enveloped, smile as a touch that should be repulsing crawl on my skin, fusing with it, until all that is left, is a man sitting alone in a desert, blood and sand around him.

Navi’s voice resounds once again, surmounting my thoughts in a flamboyant announcement.

[Navi: Success! Trial by Greed complete (Third Trial)! Obtained Blessing of Greed: +7 stat bonus awarded to all stats (permanent, 35 points total); +6 stat bonus to all registered party members awarded (permanent, 24 points total); Acquired: Crown Fragment (Sendria, awarded for Trial’s completion) 11/100 ; Acquired: Crown Fragment 9/100 (previous possession of Candidate Demon Lord- Leidus- rewarded for defeating the opponent) (30/100 total fragments possessed).

New Title Awarded- Merciless: +10 points in both STR and ACC stats (permanent)

New Title Awarded-Deceiptful:+ 15 points in INT stat (permanent), new STAT unlocked- Charisma: each point spent in INT or STR stat grants one point in CHR stat. Acts like persuasion, cohercion, deception are improved with each point in CHR stat (impossible to normally allocate points in CHR stat)

New Title Awarded- Against all Odds: +15 points to LCK stat (permanent), increase the effect of LCK stat on several actions; Mana pool now is calculated taking the LCK skill in account

Congratulations for this great success, Master!]

And, after the usual message for trial’s completion…

[Navi: New Skill Acquired- Black Hand. Detected two Black-series skills. Begin Integration process- Black Fluid+ Black Hand. Conditions to start special Integration pattern- 30/100 Crown Fragments- Success, conditions met- Process started successfully]

I feel a surge of mana from within, the kind I had never felt before. Not even from John, and he’s level 999, so that says it all…

[Navi: Special Integration Pattern- Success- Black Fluid+ Black Hand→ Shoggoth (Cosmic Series-Combines and enhances effect from Black Fluid and Black Hand, replacing the two skills- separate effects can still be used as before)

Reward for having been able to Integrate a Cosmic series skill: +20 free STAT points (allocate on level up screen)

It’s your first step on the true road to power!]

God, that seems a bit…excessive? Not that I am complaining about things, but, my head hurts as I think about all those points. No, wait, it really hurts, and…

My consciousness fades, as I fall on the soft sand, exhausted.

<<My, my. What a useless disciple I have. Well, you offered a wonderful show to me, Roshal. So, let me be your Deus ex machina, and transport you to safety. This time, you deserve it>>

I seem to hear John’s voice in the distance, but I cannot quite understand what he says. Around me I can sense monsters gathering.

Shit, this might be bad…

Re: Interference Chapter 23- Black Hand

<<Why did you not tell us sooner, Levia?>>

I look at her, a surprised expression painted on my face. She looks down, and raises her shoulders as if to shrug my question.

<<I…suppose that I did not want to make you lot worry too much. And, if I told you what happened, I think Retel would have done something stupid, like running off to track those people. You do not know him enough, but he has that rash, irrational side that comes out when someone close to him gets hurt. It happened a lot back when we were still living in Nudria, he’d run off to confront people who bullied me, and he would return covered in bruises and wounds. Heod…I do not want to make him worry. I think we already gave him a fair share of heart ache, so…>>

<<Still- I interrupt her- you cannot just hold something like this from us, Levia. This, this is serious. I mean, I get your concerns, although I do not approve them, but, you could at least speak with me, or Marica, instead of sitting there, like nothing happened>>

She shakes here head, with a sad smile on her face.

<<Well, I’m speaking with you right now, so. And…it might be strange for you, but, after what happened with the Guild, I do not trust Marica enough to speak with her in these terms. I mean, I know you’ve forgiven her for what happened, and believe me, I’m trying hard to do the same, but I cannot bring myself to trust her after what she’s done. I do not know how you did it, since you’ve been the one most damaged by her stupid behaviour>>

I look at her, surprised by what I hear. That’s really something that I had not imagined. Up until now, she’s been spending time with Marica, and I thought the two of them had a strong bond forming between them. Apparently, I’ve been wrong. Very wrong.

<<This has nothing to do with what happened back then. And, for that matter, you seem to forget a little detail. She saved our lives, back when we were ambushed by those rogue adventurers. So…>>

This time, Levia interrupts my words. She raises her voice, only to lower it down after a moment. She’s blushing, angered.

<<I KNOW…I know…and that’s why I am trying. But every time, I fear that she might do something like that again. And it’s not only that, Roshal, all this situation we’re in, it’s just…absurd. First, the village, then here, Sendria, the Guild, the Dungeon…and now, Aldora, and war. War! Why is this happening to us? I do not want this, I…I want to be safe, I want Retel, Heod to be safe. And everything is going in the opposite direction since we met you>>

I sigh, deeply, sitting on my bed. She’s standing near the door, her arms crossed on her chest. Looking down, her breathing still in disarray, her face slowly losing the red tinge that her temper brought.

<<I…did not mean that. Sorry>>

She stutters, muttering an apology. Well, it’s not thas she’s not right. I’ve basically dragged them all with me, following this empty goal for whatever reason.

I smile to her, trying my best to sound, to be as secure as I can about what I am about to say.

<<No, it’s ok. But, think about it. Would things be different, if you decided to not be here?>>

This time, she looks at me, with a perplexed look in her eyes.

<<Of course they would>>

<<Yes. Most likely, no, definitely, I would be dead right now. This bed, this room, they would be empty. And you, Retel and Heod, you would still be in Nudria. Dead, most likely>>

She scoff, shaking her head.

I pause, for a moment. I need to choose my words carefully, right now.

<<Or, if you survived whatever happened back in Nudria. How would things be? You would be safe, for a while. But, no matter what, Aldora would still be here. Perhaps, if you were not there today, that group of soldiers would have attached someone else. Killed them even. Or worse, they could infiltrate the city, and do a lot more damage. Instead, because we met each other, and after all the stupid mistakes I made we found ourselves here, you were there today. And, even if those soldiers managed to wound your Master, you and her managed to send them running with their tail under their legs>>

She changes her position, her arms no longer crossed.

<<What I am trying to say is…no matter what we did, things would still be dangerous. Because this world is dangerous, and things far bigger than us are moving. Back then, they would have swept away, both me and you, and the people we care about. But, by being here, we grew stronger than before, Levia. Think about our situation, what we were when we came here in Sendria, and what we are now. Heod, he was a discriminated potion maker in Nudria. Now, he’s a famous alchemist, his product sell for tens of gold each. Retel, and you. What were you back in Nudria? How did people treat you?>>

To my question, she clenches her fist, biting her lip.

<<And now, what are you? Accomplished adventurers, with a good livelyhood. Taught by some of the best among the Guild’s own ranks. And what was I before, and what am I now? I woke up in that forest, and I was nobody. No family, friends. Money or a place where to live. A stupid boy thrown in the middle of nowhere. Hell, I did not even speak the language. And now, I have a place to live. I am making my livelyhood here in Sendria. And I have all of you. Perhaps you might think that things have been worse for you, since you met me. And, if that’s how you feel, that’s fine. But, I do not think that’s true. To me, it surely is not. I’ve changed since I met you, for the better I think. And I have been grateful to every single stupid decision I’ve made, to every danger that I stuck myself into, because it led me here, Levia. It’s something that I myself was not aware of. But, some recent events have forced me to think a lot, lately>>

I scratch my head, and after that, I change my position on the bed. I lay on it, my arms raised back and my hands joined under my head. I am no longer looking at Levia, setting my eyes on the ceiling instead.

<<This is not something I’ve told to the others>>

I laugh, smiling to that thought.

<<It seems we both had the same idea. Isn’t it fun?>>

I can almost imagine her face snarking at me right now.

<<Still, remember all those things I said, about me coming from another world? Well, I just discovered that it was nothing more than a load of bullshit. Sure, I have those memories, but, it turns out those are fake. My own memories, my personality. What I am. All built by some thing that calls itself God. To what purpose? Who knows. I was born like this, carrying memories that are not my own. And, all those decisions I took, all the things I did back then. I acted that way because of this. Basing my decisions on the man I was, here, in my head>>

I sigh, strecthing my limbs before starting to talk once again.

<<Now, how does this connect to what you said? It’s because, I feel the same as you, in a way. You, I think, are feeling trapped by all what happened. Like we lost control of the thing around us. The Guild, Aldora and all that. To me, it’s the same. Worse, if you really consider things>>

I get up from the bed, and go near Levia. This time, I look at her in the eyes.

<<The thing is, what we did, what we could have done. It does not matter. We’re here, right now.

And we can go on in two different ways. We can sit down, and mumble about things, complaining and pointing fingers. Or, we can push forward, and take things into control. I am trying to go the second way. And I will, no matter how difficult or dangerous it is. Forget about those silly “what if”, and “ if only” scenarios. Forget about pointing fingers, to me, to Marica. Honestly, I never would have guessed you for the type of person that would do this. Move forward, Levia, you need to. A storm is coming, and you will be swept if you still behave like this>>

<<Who do you think you are to speak like this? Move forward? To what, to get myself killed? To see my brother, or the man who cared for me like a father, get killed?>>

She’s shouting now, and I can hear some noises from the other rooms. She countinues to cuss at me, angered. She hits me, more and more.

There is no strenght behind her punches, and her hand stops after five, or six punches on my chest. She starts sobbing, grabbing my shirt as she rests her head on my chest. I can feel her tears wetting the fabric of my shirt, reaching the skin under it.

I let my hand caress her hair.

<<I am afraid. It’s not like when we’re inside the Dungeon, fighting monsters. If war breaks out, it will be a massacre here. I fear what could happen to Heod, to us all>>

<<I know. I am afraid too>>

<<I am sorry if I told you those things. I did not really mean them…it’s just…>>

<<I know. Things have been hard, and you’ve been keeping all this under your skin. It’s good that you got that out, and I do not blame you for that. Only, next time something happens, promise me that you will speak to us immediately. Do not keep all for yourself to deal with, Levia. I am here, we’re here for you. Remember that. Now, let’s go tell the others, and decide what to do afterwards>>

She dries her tears with her sleeve, nodding with her head afterwards.

After that, we head out of the room, waking up the others to let them know what happened.

The discussion goes on and on until morning. Retel was furious about what happened, and he was about to go out as Levia imagined.

It took a shout from Heod to make him cool his head, the first time I’ve ver heard the old man angered. He was furrowing, concerned and furious.

Still, he made us all sit down, and reason. He made us talk in turns, sorting out the things between us.

During the discussion, the thing between Levia and Marica came up. Heod forced them to clear things between themselves.

When I asked the old man about it, his answer surprised me.

<<I already imagined something was troubling my little girl here. But, to be fair, I eavesdropped on your conversation earlier>>

He said so, sharing a tired smile with me.

In the end, we decided to report matters to the guild. But, before we managed to actually go to them, an emissary from the Guild came knocking on our door.

He brought news about Levia’s Master. Apparently, she has woken up, and her wounds have been treated by the Guild’s best healers.

After giving us the news, that eased Levia’s mind in a visible way, the emissary told us that Levia’s presence was required by Telesia.

Outside of our house, a carriage was waiting. We boarded it, heading to the Guild’s Headquarters.

<<So, tell me once more what happened. Focus, and do not leave a single detail behind>>

Levia closed her eyes, taking a big breath to calm herself.

She then started her tale, telling what she did whitness the day before.

<<We were out in the forest, beyond the mountains. Master took me there in order for me to train, and we went there alone. Only me and her.

We began the usual training session. Do I need to tell you the details about that too?>>

Telesia shook her head, inviting Levia to proceed with a gesture from her hand.

<<Right. We spent roughly the entire day there. It was almost time to go back, one hour before the Sun set. It was then that Master heard something unusual moving through the woods>>

Raising his hand, Elith interrupted Levia’s tale.

<<I’m sorry, young miss. But this Master you speak of, she’s the one called Andria, am I right?Andria the Silver Arrow. If I correctly recall, she held, and still has, a perfect detection skill. So, are you implying that somehow, she failed to sense that enemies had already surrounded the area?>>

Although his tone is polite, his sharp eyes are glaring at Levia.

However, she does not back down, staring back at him.

<<I am not implying this. I am telling you that it happened. And not for lack of attention from my Master, or negligence on her part. It was because those people, they were immune to skills. And, it seemed like no one among their ranks used skills or magic, either. They were insanely strong, although their levels were fairly on the low side. They attacked us using only weapons, but, even when using only physical attacks, they managed to bypass Master’s defense and hurt her>>

<<So, it really was them>>

Elith muttered under his breath, looking down with a sad expression on his face.

<<Please, continue>>

Telesia once again beckoned Levia to finish.

<<When we realized their presence, it was already too late. Thankfully, Master managed to repel the brunt of their assault. But, those people hurt her. Badly, as you already know. And, like I said, they brushed off both Master’s and my own skills like it was nothing. She even used magic against them, to no avail. Only physical strength worked, and if I am here, I owe it to her arrows. When the assailants managed to wound her, I grabbed Master and ran away, as fast as I could. I used my skills, specialized on healing, to try and treat her injuries, but…>>

Although she maintained a strong front, Levia cracked when remembering her master’s wounds, how everything she tried did basically nothing.

Even when Andria herself reassured her, telling Levia that it was thanks to her skills that her life was saved.

I think, she’s being a bit too hard on herself right now.

She was still shocked, and she was trying to pull herself together. Although she only knew her master for a handful of days, she was deeply troubled by seeing someone so strong as the famous Andria fall like that.

Thankfully, Levia’s Master was out of danger, and she recovered quickly under the care of the Guild’s best healers.

She was in the room with us, listening to her pupil’s version of the story. Although she was standing, and seemed to be fine, the woman herself had no recollection of what happened after she fainted from her wounds.

And that was the reason that brought us here, in Telesia’s office.

They had already heard part of the story from Andria, but they still missed those moments after Andria lost consciousness.

During the night, I had convinced Levia to speak about this to the others, and then go to the Guild to denounce what happened. But, it seems like Telesia beat us on time.

After all, an involvment by the Guild in this matter was to be expected. And, frankly speaking, I expected the other higher ups of Sendria to show some interest in the matter. Perhaps Telesia is the one mediating the parts, assessing the situation before making what happened public domain.

I feel like sitting on the edge of a precipice, staring right down at it. The situation in Sendria might rapidly devolve into something nasty.

After hearing Levia’s version of what happened, Telesia dismisses us from her office. Before sending us off, she requested that each of us continue our usual activity with the appointed tutors from the Guild.

She did so with unusual concern behind her words. Perhaps, I did not think about this side of it. But, by assignign each of us to some trusted adventurers from her Guild, she’s probably both keeping an eye on our group, and protecting us.

Levia and her Master are to remain in the Guild’s main building. The others too were forced to relocate the site of their training, and their respective tutors were waiting for them right outside Telesia’s office.

We did not even have the time to discuss things among ourselves, as the Guild personnell pressed us to go on with our respective activities.

<<Focus. Is there something distracting you?>>

John shouts at me, marking his words by sending the three summoned beasts to beat me up. Since this morning, my head has been too much concerned by what happened, and I have been unable to focus on what is going on before my eyes.

My thoughts are running, returning to the discussion between me and Levia. Although she apologized, saying that she did not mean to say what she said, I think that her words were true. Perhaps, she spoke like that because of what happened to her yesterday.

The attack where she was involved, and barely escaped.

But, I think there might be some deeper reasons for her to behave like this. And, the fact is that I do not blame her. After all, I’ve been a mess of a leader until now.

That matter is only a small part of what is running through my mind at the moment. The sudden appearance of Aldora soldiers, that’s what is really concerning to me.

There might be a small chanche that the perpetrators of yesterday’s attack might only be sympathizers of Aldora, perhaps some locals that hold the same fate as those of that country. But that, it’s only whisful thinking.

Most likely, Aldora is ready to make its move, far quicker than Telesia anticipated,and, despite the Guild’s surveillance, they already reached Sendria.

Perhaps, they even managed to sneak some members of their army inside the city already, waiting for the right moment to strike.

So, excuse me if I am distracted. I have all the reason to do so. The simple thought of having even one of those so called Heroes rampage inside Sendria, it’s enough to make my skin crawl.

And there’s also that bastard Alvares, plotting who knows what from the shadows. All my instincts are screaming at me to run away, as far as I can from this place.

Of course, I know it will not solve anything at all. Because, no matter where I would run, war will rampage in this whole continent.

Back when we were in Telesia’s office, she let us on what was really going on. Aldora and Sendria were only a small part of the whole political picture.

There are two other large kingdoms in this continent, as Telesia told me when, this morning, we went to her to discuss the recent happening with Levia.

But, those two countries are currently “enjoying” war between each other. That situation lasted for about ten years, a large war of attrition, and both kingdoms are nowhere in shape to repel Aldora if they ever decided to attack them.

Sendria, along with some very small kingdoms and independent cities, are the only things standing between the already large Aldora Holy Kingdom and the two warring powers.

A total war between them is the most likely scenario, if Sendria falls.

That is not a given thou, it could be that Sendria somehow manages to repel Aldora for enough time for the other countries to recognize the danger and form a united front. If such thing is even possible. This too, it might just be whishful thinking.

The thing is, running away is not an option. And I ridicule myself to even think of it, after all that tall talk I did with Levia.

As I am distracted by my own thoughts, one of the summoned beasts lands a direct blow on me.

I fall to the ground, holding my stomach while resisting the urge to vomit.

<<Fuck…this hurts>>

I mutter, trying to get up on my feet again. John’s training has become something merciless. He increased the strenght of the spell he used on the room, and added two more summoned beasts to the mix.

Whenever I get hit, he heals me, and he strenghtens the beasts as punishment.

Moreover, I am forced to incapacitate them without using my skills or physical attacks.

In short, I need to use magic to win. Of course, things are not so simple. One beast, it can absorb electricity and use it to power up its own attacks.

Another, it can quickly absorb or disperse heat, nullifying any kind of spell that relies on heat manipulation.

The last one, it’s the thoughest so far. It has a long range attack, that is basically a stun shot made of compressed air.

I’ve been struggling against them for almost the entire day, and now I am beginning to be fed up by all this.

Again, John yells at me. He’s a demanding teacher, without any doubt.

Still, his annoying voice has managed to pull me from my thoughts, enough for me to find a solution that was basically staring me right in the air. The three monsters are the solution to each other. One counters the weakness of the other.

The only thing to do, is find the right way to attack one without letting the others interfere. After that, it will be a piece of cake.

I try several spells, managing even to combine two spells into a single attack.

A surge of electricity, and using the resulting heat from the movement of excessive negative charge to fuel the chemical reaction that would spark and ignite a fire.

The alternance of heat and cold on a single point, and using the resulting energy from the cycle, to move electrons toward the same point.

John is grinning, perhaps he’s enjoying the show.

I’ve also begun to practice one of the few practical advices that he shared to me.

Think little. Two simple words. Before even trying to think about large spells that handle huge quantities of magic, I need to learn how to focus a little amount of power to achieve the best result from it.

And so, although the spells I am using sound amazing, the whole thing happens in a space even smaller than the palm of my hand.

That does not reduce the danger they pose, however. Even if their scope and magnitude is small, or perhaps, exactly because of that, the destructive power they have in their limited range is high.

Instead of acting like the magicians of this world, the better understanding I can achieve with those “memories” of mine allows me for better control of effects and power, and the reduced scale, it amplifies the effect even more.

Moreover, it makes the spell more unpredictable. Launching a big fireball from your hand, no matter how quick you are, it always requires a gesture. The spell has a fixed origin point, and a predictable trajectory. In short, a skilled person can easily avoid it.

With larger scale magic, like the spells Marica uses, it’s roughly the same thing. The need to let your own mana flow into a large area, it makes it possible for the opponent to be aware of the flowing mana, and get away from the area.

Even if you manage to cancel the spell, some mana is still consumed in the process. And if your opponents repeatedly does the same thing, you will exhaust your mana before even landing a blow.

Whereas, when the spell are is small, less mana is required to trigger the spell, making it quicker. Without a clear starting point, since the reduced mana quantity makes it possible to activate the spell basically wherever you want, it is even more difficult to predict, almost making it impossible.

So, even if the spell has a small area of effect, it still packs quite the punch.

<<So, satisfied?>>

I shout at John, after defeating his three beasts.

<<Hm. Still lacking, my friend. Sloppy, and you took too much time to deal with them. A real opponent would have killed you one hundred times already>>

Thanks for telling me things I already know.

But, it seems he deems that the training was enough for today.

Before I head to the surface again, he forces me to sit down and tell him whatever was troubling me.

He listens, strangely without even uttering a single word.

<<Hm, they never change>>

Says John while shaking his head. After all, he should be from Aldora, if his tale is true.

Staring at me, he asks a question.

<<What do you want to do about it? And, before you answer, think. Not what you feel like to do, not what you would have done. Think, I want an answer from the real you. Not that jumble of a fake personality, but what lies underneath it, the true Roshal>>

As if something like that could even be possible. I tell him how I feel, how I want to run away.

His answer is a slap across my face, sending me sprawling on the floor.

<<Wrong answer. And if you saw the expression you have on your face, right now, you would know why. This, running away, this cowardice, stupidity even. This is not who you are. You keep doing the same mistake, over and over. You measure things not for what they are, but for how they relate to your previous experience, the mentality that you carry over from your memory. That is nothing more than a load of bullshit. Now, I can understand why you did so before, since I did the same when I did not know the truth. But now? You keep hiding yourself, even losing yourself behind that fake persona, Roshal. That man in your memories, that loser, he never existed. Even the same people that actually lived those memories, they did not behave like that all the time. So why should you? You are not like that. I know it, I see the face you have when you fight, when you struggle. And when you manage to win. That’s the real you, when you stop whining and actually do something. I know it, your friends know it. The only one that fails to understand who you should be, who you already are, is you. So, stop acting like a pussy, stop wanting to run away and tell me once again. What do you want to do about all this?>>

I clenched my fist, almost not believing the words that came out of my mouth.

John smiled, his first, real smile.

<<That’s a fucking good answer>>

He offered me his hand, helping me to raise on my feet.

<<Now, my dear pupil, open your ears widely and pay attention. The way I see things, you’ve been letting yourself to be swept away by events, up until now. We both know the reason, so there’s no need to dwell on it. You’ve always been passive about things, only reacting to things after they happened.But, now things are different. I do not know if you yourself have realized it, but you’re strong, Roshal. You have enough power to stand for yourself, and make your own path. You have the power to make things happen, Roshal. So, you have a choice here. Continue acting like a little bitch, or man up and take matters into your own hands>>

John stares at me, his arrogant, smug smile taunting me. But, hell he’s right. I’ve been cowering enough since I woke up in this world. It’s time to take matters into my own hands.

And that, it’s easier said than done.

There are two things right now that are directly menacing me and my group. The first, and most obvious threath is represented by Aldora, the looming threath of a large scale war between Sendria and the Holy Kingdom.

The second one, less obvious but not less dangerous, is represented by Alvares and whatever the hell that man might be plotting.

He’s directly responsible for the criminal acts in the Dungeon, by sheltering and arming Leidus’s group, and lately he’s rumored to have gained control of Sendria’s criminal underworld, using it to commit murder and spread unrest in the city.

Most likely, he wants the popolation to demand the Army to take control of things, offering him the opportunity to instate martial law and gain full contol of the city. Perhaps, he might even be in cahoot with someone from Aldora.

Although, if the is, he will be in for a nasty surprise. Being people that discriminate against magicians and skillholders, if they really are allied with Alvares, they will turn on him at the slightest chance.

The man himself is powerful, but perhaps that very power is causing him to act too arrogant.

Right now, I do not have the slightest clue as to what to do against Aldora. But for Alvares…

It was something that John showed me. If a spell was used as a connection, it needed to transfer information from one point to the other.

<<And, my friend, that means that the communication channel can be used both ways. Normally, it would take a very skilled magician to do something like that. And, if the original caster is someone smart enough, it would be a difficult, impossible task even. But, your circumstances are a bit different after all. So, take your time, think about a solution and dazzle me if you can>>

With that line, he suggested that the spell Alvares cast to spy on me, I could use it to do the same on him. During my permanence in the lowest floor of the Dungeon, John had been tampering with the spell, preventing Alvares from gaining intel on my whereabouts.

When I asked if he could remove it, he said yes, but he did not remove the spell. Now I know why. He wanted me to use it.

And, that’s exactly what I did.

<<Why are you helping me? Aside from the fact that you owe something to Telesia. But that’s just in regards to training me. The rest…why?>>

After scratching his head, he gave me an honest answer.

<<I actually like this place, Roshal. Set aside the fact that it keeps me alive. What would happen to the Dungeon, if Aldora won against Sendria? They would seal it. Cutting the mana flow from the surroundings, it would wither away. All the environments it stores, the creatures. All would wither.

So, that’s your reason here. If you manage to take out Alvares, Sendria will regain control of its army. And have a better chance to resist invasion, perhaps even win>>

<<Yeah. So, it’s just to save your own skin?>>

He laughs.

<<Well, you could say that>>

Seeing him laugh, what he said about the circumstances that brought him here come back to my memory.

John is bound to this place, unable to leave the lowest floor. If he gets too far from the Core, he dies. As simple as that. Back when he was still a human, he got ill. A brain tumor, something that, apparently, not even the highest class healing spell can cure.

The only solution he found for it, was when he came to the lowest floor of the Dungeon. In here, the Core’s power are almost divine. In order to cure himself from the tumor, John thought of using the Core’s power, but something went wrong with the process. He was cured, but bound to the place.

He showed me what would happen to him if he ever left the place. That time, he walked me up to the last level’s exit. As soon as he set his hand outside the exit, it became ash instantly.

To live, he was forced to look for an unhortodox solution, and confined himself here as a result.

<<It’s not a hard life. To be fair, I quite enjoy myself. Seeing the adventurers fight against my creatures is better than any tv, and, when I am really bored, I can even take control of Champions or Guardians, and fight as if their body was my own. Oh, do not worry. When I do it, I make sure that the adventurers win. I’m a nice Dungeon Master>>

During the next days, I divided myself between training and information gathering.

It was difficult, at first, and many times I only managed to keep the connection for no more than a handful of seconds.

Day after day, however, I managed to make it more stable.

The spell itself is something smart, I have to admit. It relies on lines of mana, capable to convert the vibration of sound into electric signal, and transmit those signals at distance.

At first, I used the signal to locate Alvares. As my comprehension of magic grew with time, I was able to spy back on him first, then even tamper with the signals that the spell sent to him. In short, I’ve been using the spell to feed him false information, and to gather some of my own.

Of course, Telesia was thoroughly interested in what I did, even going so far as to come to my private training grounds inside the Dungeon to listen what info I managed to gather.

That man, Alvares, he’s needlessly prudent. Going so far as to use coded communication for his shadier dealings. Still, he did so by using spells, and it was fairly easy to deconstruct the code he used.

As to how I did it, let’s say that among the collection of fake memories that I have in my head, there are not only the acts of a loser.

From chemistry to physiscs, from biology to coding. For each memory of the fake “me” failing at that supposed, otherword life, there were shards of knowledge from that very world.

Now, with a bit of exercise, I can even see the real memories play in my mind. Like a movie of some sorts. The point of view is always mine, but now I see clearly how it was not me the one doing those actions.

Subtle differences between each memory, something that I had not noticed before, only recently after knowing what to look for.

Like, comparing some memories, the height of my supposed “old self” would be different. Or the way I moved. Even speech patterns.

And, although it sounds like a paradox, since I knew that those memories were not my own, I have been delving into them more frequently.

Only those that helped me with the right knowledge, that is.

It is still weird, since from time to time I still act basing my decisions on what I would do, using that morale that was never my own to begin with.

It’s even hard to explain, like being two different persons at the same time.

But, as time goes by, that person is becoming less and less, and I’m becoming me.

Hell, that sounds so stupid when said out loud. I wonder what a shrink would say about me.

Still, it’s undeniable that I am making progress here.

<<Although, you still lack a key ability, my dear pupil. You are too honest. When something happens, it immediately shows on your face. When you’re upset, your voice trembles. Man, you need to learn how to act>>

And so, besides lessons in magic, combat and refining the use of my skills, John has also begun teaching me acting.

How to act, and how to lie in a convincing way.

Two weeks have passed by, and I’m ready to make my move against Alvares. During that time, the others have already completed their training. Much to Telesia’s surprise, since she thought they required more time to do so.

Not that they are neglecting exercise right now, continuing to follow their respective Masters in order to hone their skills but, as things are right now, it’s something unnecessary.

They’re doing it in order to go further what was expected of them.

Also, during this time, things have been moving between my party members.

After being basically forced by Heod, Levia has made her peace with Marica. I lost the count of how many times Marica did apologize, but, right now, things between the two seem to have reached a stable point.

Well, they’re acting friendly with each other, at least. It might also be thanks to Retel, since he actually started going out with the little magician.

I have to admit, he surprised me. No more than some times ago, he did not even have the courage to speak to Marica alone for more than ten minutes, and now, he’s happily enjoying his newly budded romance.

Way to go, my scaly friend.

So, convinced by both Retel ad Heod, Levia began to face her problem with Marica, until the two of them came to an understanding.

And she also went out of her way to apologize to me. Although I did not consider what she said to be hurtful, or negative. Well, most of the things she said to me that night, I too found them true.

Still, she felt somehow like she owed me an apology. But, that’s it. She’s acting colder than she had before, barely even speaking to me.

And I do not know why.

One thing I know for sure. No matter if my memories are fake or not my own, I still do not understand a thing about women.

Still, I have more pressing things to think about at the moment. Thankfully, Aldora has not yet made a decisive move, aside from that attack last week.

But, that is due to a more sinister reason.

As Telesia feared, Alvares IS conspiring with Aldora. I do not know if that man is just a big fool, or if he’s arrogant enough to think that not only Aldora would respect the pact they made with him, but would also happily hand rule of all Sendria’s territory in Alvares’s hands.

He may be an arrogant fool, but his powers are definitely no joke. From what I gathered by using his spell in reverse, he has the Army under control not with legit methods, but by using a combination of drugs and spells.

It’s a plan worthy of a supervillain, let me tell you. By administering a strong drug to the regular members of the army, he induced them in a hypnotic state, manipulating them using dreams.

The drugs he used are undetectable, and the modification they induced into each man’s mind are subtle.

They do not change behavior or give rise to strange changes in personality. Rather, they work by activating some mechanisms into the brain, making each army member feel a sense of paternal authority rise from Alvares. They follow him as a father, loving him as such.

With spells, he increases the effect, being wary as to not overuse his magic, and to not leave traces.

By the way, he uses the same mechanism to control Leidus.

He’s keeping the other Candidate Demon Lord hidden. Alvares’s initial plan, was to have him kill adventurers inside the Dungeon, stealing their skills while increasing his own level. He was to be used as a weapon against Aldora, after Alvares rose to power in Sendria.

His plan is ambitious, albeit a bit too convoluted.

It played with two different scenarios, in Alvares’s mind.

The best-case scenario would be if he managed to obtain the rule of the city without requiring Aldora to invade.

He knew that, if the foreign army moved, Sendria would suffer a blow. He wanted to rule, but not over a pile of rabble.

He wanted a city, a functional one.

And so, he moved his pawns, both army and underground mob, in order to spread unrest in Sendria and its territory. Aldora would have the role to press at the borders, sending small but constant raiding parties.

A village here, a merchant caravan there. The attack near Sendria’s walls.

That, would spread unrest among the citizens, along with the rise in criminality. Next, Leidus’s party was supposed to take out adventurers, making it explicit that it was the work of other adventuers. Then, they would start operating outside of the Dungeon, attacking common people. That way, the citizens, already concerned by Aldora and criminals, would turn against the Guild, responsible for not keeping its adventurers under control.

The whole situation would lead to a demand for the Army’s intervention. The attacks near the city have already reached the result to allow Alvares to concentrate troops near Sendria, as protection, and forced the Guild to send out strong adventurers to patrol the borders. Aldora was supposed to do its part, and it did, by taking out those adventurers.

The increase in criminal activity would lead the people to demand a strong response from Sendria’s ruling class.

Hopefully, and he was working to that end with cohercion and bribery, the Council would pass the bill for him to enstate martial law upon the city. A matter of days, he thought. Weeks at most.

Then, he would deal the decisive blow against the Guild, using Leidus to stike the outposts in the Dungeon, and his net of criminals to assassinate those prominent adventurers still in Sendria.

After that, Aldora was supposed to invade, and lose to Alvares’s army. He would be deemed a hero then, the saviour of Sendria.

That was his best case scenario.

But, things had already gone in a different way. The Guild proved to be a thougher adversary than he thought, and Leidus’s party was hunted down, chased from the Dungeon after our involvement with them.

At the same time, although he actually managed to concentrate the army near Sendria, the adventurers dispatched from the Guild to border patrol were doing a better job than expected. Or, those Aldoran bastards were doing their jobs poorly.

In short, his best case scenario was already gone to shit.

What was left for him to do, was to wait for Aldora to invade, and let the army lose on purpose.

Even to me, it seemed like the dumbest thing he could think off. But, as I tapped in his conversations, I noticed something about the man.

He’s not himself. He is not even aware of this, but sometimes, a faint mana can be felt, entwined with his own.

In short, the man who is a master of control spells, he’s being controlled by someone.

Karma is a bitch, apparently.

The puppetteer is nothing but a puppet himself, and of course, Aldora is the one pulling strings from the shadows.

If things are left like they are, when Aldora attacks, it would be a true massacre.

Removing or killing Alvares would do nothing to prevent that. It could even backfire, given the affection that his spells have ingrained in the Army’s soldiers. They could rebel if Alvares is killed.

No, what has to be done, it’s something different.

The first move should be to regain control of the Army. Find and eliminate the supply of the drug, and think of a way to cleanse the army from it.

Thanks to my information, the Guild is already on the move on that front. They have already been able to locate and acquire samples of the drug, and a certain beast-kin alchemist is already working on a substance that would counter its effects.

Administering it to the soldiers, without letting Alvares know, would be difficult thou.

Next, the spells he cast on the soldiers need to be unraveled somehow.

And that will be a difficult thing to do, although a selected number of magicians from the Guild is working on that.

After those two objectives will be completed, it will be time to confront Alvares.

But, there’s something else to do, that involves me directly. To prevent Leidus from acting inside of Sendria.

Thanks to Alvares’s spell, I’ve been able to track down my fellow Candidate. And, I’ve used the same spell as Alvares cast on me, on his pupil. My version is modified, so that it should not be possible to track the spell or use it in reverse, like I did with Alvares.

And, I must admit to be rather proud of my own creation. Not even John was able to detect it when I cast the spell on him, so I strongly doubt that Alvares or Leidus could manage to do so.

At the moment, Leidus is once again inside the Dungeon. He is in the thirty-fourth floor, power-leveling himself thanks to some high level soldiers that Alvares “lent” to him.

His level is now forty-two, and growing still.

From time to time, he kills those adventurers that come into contact with him, stealing their skills before disposing of them. When we first met, he would have done the same to me, and who knows how things could have gone if he succeeded. Like the one I have, he too has a skill capable of “stealing” other skills. Unlike my Black Fluid, however, he actually steals skills from living opponents, without the need for absorbing them. And, judging from what I saw, his skill only works on humans. In short, he can only steal skills from adventurers. Like me, he passed both the first and second trial, gaining two “fragments” of the Crown, whatever the hell that means.

To pass the second trial, he used the information Alvares gathered from spying my fight in the tenth floor.

Strangely, he has not encountered any trial after that. And it frustrated him, oh so much.

I smile while thinking about it, since to me, the third trial has already been revealed. It’s a really fucked up system, I need to admit. To think that something like this would happen, that Azathot must surely have some loose screw in its own head.

If he even has a head.

The plan has already been laid out, and I am ready to set it in motion. First, thanks to my Dungeon Master friend, I will move to Leidus’s location inside the Dungeon.

It might seem rash, given my level and the high probability that not only Leidus and his party members, but also higher level monsters might attack me.

But that is no longer a problem.

I’ve tested myself inside the lowest level, and, even if my own level is still twenty-two, I managed to keep my own ground in there.

Rather, my level is still twenty-two because John prohibited me to kill the monsters I defeated. He did not forbid me to absorb them, however, and I gained some ridiculous skills after that. There was a good reason for John to stop me from gaining experience in the last floor.

Raising my level too much in a short amount of time, would kill me. Kind of what happened when Dahl used his over-powerful skill, my body would not be able to handle the excessive energy and it will disrupt itself.

What he suggested, is that I hold my current level until I manage to beat Leidus.

When I asked him why, he shrugged his shoulder and said.

<<To send a message. And, one more thing. When you do it, remember about Alvares>>

In short, I am supposed to challenge and defeat Leidus, alone, underleveled. And to make Alvares see, without tricks.

That John surely comes up with some nasty ideas.

Still, it’s time for the show to start. Sadly, the others are not involved in this new adventure. It was another of John’s impositions, and I had to abide to it.

After all, we fake souls have to listen to each other, and he’s my elder and master, so…

I close my eyes, and summon my mana. Using it, I pry open the veil of this dimention, slipping into the void beyond worlds.

It might seem too much powerful of a spell for the current me, but I had a similar ability since my first day in this world. After all, this spell works exactly like my skill “Inventory”, only some slight modification are required. And roughly the same mana cost.

Apparently, slipping between dimensions is easier than one would think. Who the hell would have imagined that.

I think about the destination where to open the veil again. I track my own mana, the sliver of it that I cast on Leidus.

Once I find it, I open the veil once again, stepping on solid stone.

The air in this Dungeon floor is oppressing, heavy with sand and heat. It’s a desert scenario, and Leidus’s party is busy fighting some giant scorpions.

Basically, Champion Serketh’s elder brothers. It seems that this Dungeon likes to recicle some of its monsters a bit.

They’re still unaware of my presence. But, as the last scorpion falls, Leidus notices me. As he does, I undo my tampering on Alvares’s spell, returning it to its original form.

<<Hi. Remember me?>>

I’m making use of John’s intensive acting course here. Although, deep inside, I am almost pissing myself in fear, I keep a straight face and a calm voice. And, the most important things, a piercing gaze and a cocky smile.

<<Seize that fucker>>

Leidus shouts, sending its own men to attack me. Of course, he wants me alive. I bet my balls that old Alvarez already told him about my skill, and his mouth is watering at the thought of getting it.

Well, come, fellow Candidate. It’s all yours.

As his men reach me, I do not resist too much. I try to fight back, but not too hard. One of them, a level forty- three warrior, punches my solar plexus. Of course, a blow from him would hurt me too much, so I use my mana to lessen the impact.

Not by making a shield, but literally altering the force of the impact itself. I know, this is too overpowered. Magic is really ridiculous. The only thing that scares me right now, is that the Heroes from Aldora have the same kind of knowledge and understanding of magic that I achieved. Most likely, even more.

Still, the blow hits me, although definitely less powerful than it was. I bend on myself, falling to my knees as I fake pain, even going so far as to spit blood from my mouth. Of course, it’s only Black Fluid with changed color and viscosity, but they do not know that.

The two men apprehend me, dragging me towards Leidus. The beastkin is smiling viciously. It seems he is one eye short than our last encounter. On the right side of his face, a large white scar comes down from his temple to the chin, going straight down in a vertical line.

His right eye, what’s left of it, is hidden under his forever closed eyelid.

He points at it, with a fierce expression on his maimed face.

<<You see this, fucker? That’s what happened to me when those dogs from the Guild chased me, after you and your little friends ruined my fun. But hey, apparently you’re so stupid to come and face me alone. Thank god, you’ve saved me the time to look for you. Rest easy, after I am done with you, I will look for your friends>>

He brags and treatens me, behaving like some low-life gangster. He then barks to his men to keep me still.

<<This is going to hurt, and I am going to enjoy every moment of it. Black Hand>>

I can feel him summon his own mana, that gathers on his left hand. A black flame envelops it, dancing in a sinister way. He plunges his hand into my chest, going through it.

A painful sensation spreads, and I manage all I can to endure it.

Smiling, he pulls his hand back. Taking something from inside of me. As he pulls his hand out, a black globe pulses in his palm, oozing a black fluid almost like it’s bleeding.

<<Disgusting>>

He says, furrowing at the black globe. But he starts eating it. When he’s done, he turns toward one of his lackeys, and shouts.

<<Black Fluid>>

My skill manifests from his hand. A large tentacle of black, shambling matter sprungs toward the man, taking hold of him, crushing him to a pulp. Leidus smiles, viciously, as he plays with the skill, changing its shape at will.

<<Impressive>>

A monster emerges from the sand. Another scorpion, that immediately rushes to Leidus.

I smile as he kills it with my own skill, slashing the thing into two.

<<It’s even more powerful than when I use it>>

After my comment, Leidus bursts out into laughter.

<<You’re really fucked up, you know that?>>

Well, he’s a bit wrong here. I am not the one who’s fucked up. Maybe, just a tiny bit. What’s really fucked up here, is this whole system.

As Leidus prepares himself to deal the killing blow on me, Navi’s message plays in my mind.

[Navi: Third Trial- Trial by Greed Initialized. Conditions to Start- Have your Black series skill stolen by the other Candidate Demon Lord- Condition Met.

Condition to Clear- Kill the other Candidate Demon Lord while he holds your Black-series skill

Condition to Fail- Own death. Failing to kill opponent: Leidus in given amount of time (2 hrs)

Good Luck, Master]

Yep. That is truly the most fucked up thing I could ever imagine. To win, I had to let my strongest skill be stolen from me.

Judging from how Leidus killed the monster earlier, he has no fuckin idea of my skill’s effect.

And, I think this trial might have been rigged in my favor. After all, poor Leidus could never even enter the trial. To do it, he should have let me absorb his skill, but, that would have killed him.

Seriously, what the hell is that Azathot thinking…

Before Leidus’s attack connects, I use one of the spells I developed with John’s guidance. Similiar to the spell I used to appear here, but with decreased range in favor of an almost instantaneous activation time.

<<Blink>>

I mutter, letting myself carried by momentum. My body disappears, reappearing behind one of Leidus’s lackeys, the farthest one from my previous position.

Unable to sense my sudden presence, his throath his easily pierced and ripped by the small knife I am using.

As the man collapses on the ground, I stare towards Leidus.

He turns toward my direction, hearing the muffled gurgling that comes from his subordinate’s slit throath.

I smile, ready for the next strike.

Glimmer of A Fallen Star: Chapter 5- The Village

All around, the forest whispered in hushed sounds. The trees, their branches swaying, dancing when caressed by a cold breeze, let out crackling, rustling sounds, as if speaking to each other in their mysterious language.

But there were other notes, hidden beneath the usual symphony of sounds that the forest sang. Sounds that should not have been there, that did not belong to that place. Or any place, given the nature of those sounds.

A low humming, which occasionally turned into chilling, ear piercing shrieks coming from the shadows beneath the trees.

Ignoring those sounds as best as they could, Marduk and Hadan ran, pushing through the low undergrowth of the forest.

A thick mist had risen, dampening their clothes with cold moisture. Clouding Hadan’s view, perhaps, he thought, for the best.

Because, things were hiding in that mist. And he was sure, that feeling their presence was one hundred time better than having to see one of those things again.

The sight of it, it had instilled a feeling of fear and repulsion in the young boy’s mind, almost making it crack.

For that thing, that shambling, white shapeless body, was not from this world.

Marduk took the boy’s hand, forcing him on his feet.

<<Now, we will run. As fast as we can, without turning back. Look at me, Hadan. Do not turn back>>

And they ran. As fast as they could, stumbling, scraping their clothes and skin on the vegetation, that seemed to reach out its branches to grab them, hold them still for the things to come and get them.

<<Be my eyes>>

Marduk told Hadan, not because he needed him to see the path, but to give something for the boy to do, to give him a purpose, hoping that it might distract him, keep his thoughts occupied might stop them from wandering to what Hadan had just whitnessed.

The boy was still shaken, and he had not spoken a single word since Marduk rescued him.

In the distance, loud noises could still be hears. And the very earth beneath their feet, it shook from time to time.

This time, the Starfall was going on strong, the biggest event of that type that Marduk ever experienced.

Still, he wondered, how could something of this scale happen without him even catching a hint of it? Before, his sight always showed this kind of event, with days, sometimes month, of advance.

And yet, this time, it happened unexpectedly. Like the attack on the village, like the presence of those things in the forest.

Perhaps, there was something wrong with his gift, Marduk thought. That, or old age had finally caught up to him, and his head was beginning to give up, to rot as it should have long time ago.

Marduk shook his head, trying to push back those thoughts. Right now, he only needed to think about moving his legs, one step after the other, as quick as he could.

The only positive thing about their situation, it was that those things hunting them were terribly slow, and lazy.

Rather than hunt, they would ambush. Luring their prey, mimicking words that they might find familiar.

But, that did not mean that the things would not follow them. They were slow, lazy, but relentless. They would follow them, keeping a slow pace, out of sight, but they would still be there, in the distance, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Nowhere inside the forest was safe, only outside, where daylight would burn their white and shriveled flesh, and the things soaring in the night sky would scare them away.

But, the forest was wide, and harsh to traverse.

At some point, Marduk found himself forced to carry Hadan in his arms, since the boy was beginning to fall behind.

He felt his heart beating, fast, too fast, and the boy was trembling, reeking of piss, tears and sweat. By no means, a boy his age should ever set sight on something so horrible. And the boy went through so much already, thought Marduk, holding his body tighter, feeling pity for Hadan.

He put more strenght into his legs, pushing forward through the mist that covered the path.

Exhausted, after running for who knows how much time, Marduk let himself collapse on the grassy ground.

They made it, they went through that accursed forest. The night sky on their head, was beginning to turn the color of dawn, as the Sun began to rise on the horizon.

Panting heavily, the old man closed his eyes, feeling his heartbeat slowly decelerate. Even for him, it was a heavy effort to run that distance, carrying Hadan’s weight.

The boy was sitting beside Marduk, cradling himself as he sighed.

Still shocked by what happened in there.

In the distance, inside of the mist, shapes were shambling, twisting their form and humming their songs, perhaps in anger for their prey’s successful escape.

<<Not today, you horrid things>>

Marduk muttered to himself, glad to have managed to escape that deadly trap. He could drive one of the creatures off, if cornered, and he did, when he found Hadan. But dealing with a number of them, it was something beyond his power.

That forest, it could easily have become their grave. Just a mistep, tripping over an exposed root. Or losing the way among the trees. Something like that, could have spelled their doom.

Instead, luck was on their side while running away.

After letting his body rest, and his rough breathing subside, become calm again, Marduk took Hadan’s hand, forcing him on his two feet.

They needed to go. Even the outskirts of the forest might become dangerous, with those things around. Who knows if a bold one was among their ranks, willing to face sunlight to quench their anger.

Surely, Marduk did not want to risk it.

And so, much to Hadan’s grunts of protest, they set on march again.

The view from their position, it might have been beautiful. But for the two, shaken as they were, it passed unnoticed, as they only paid attention to the path before them.

Finally, the village came into sight. It was a modest settlement, no more than a bunch of tents surrounding a wooden, shabby house.

Silence was heavy in that place, broken by Marduk’s voice.

<<Hey! Is anyone there! We bear no ill will>>

He sat on the dirt road that crossed the village, taking objects from his pouch. He set the vials and jars of potions and poultices in front of him, and drew the sign for “trade” in several languages, writing with his finger in the dirt.

<<We are here to trade! Medicine! Food and water in exchange for medicine!>>

His voice echoed, without an answer.

For a moment.

After some minutes, faces began to peek from the tents. Mostly, women, some shriveled by old face, their wrinkled, brown skin holding a dubious expression.

Some, were younger, old enough to be brides and bear children.

After a while, the first customers began to reach out, curious about the old man’s medicine.

They had a strange look in their eyes, and they moved in a sluggish way.

Their words, they sounded strange to Marduk. Hushed, mumbled, akin to words spoken by someone intoxicated by too much fermented fruit juice.

Perhaps, thought Marduk, he caught the village after some kind of celebration. It happened often in some tribes, that the whole village, comprising women and even children, would celebrate a successful hunt, or a marriage, by sharing intoxicating beverages, or even plants and mushrooms that held some inebriating properties. He too, sometimes, did partake in such activities. More than often, he would enjoy the compounds and substances of certain plants, able to dull the pain in his joints and his perception of reality.

Still, for them to be all in the same state, it was something that tingled his curiosity. He tried to ask, but the women answered vaguely, almost mechanically.

More than that, no one did look at him in the eyes, while their curiosity was directed toward Hadan.

Perhaps, the sight of a boy with an old man might be bizarre for them, or they might be seeing the sorry state that Hadan was in. After all, both Hadan and Marduk reeked of sweat and the scent of the forest. Poor Hadan had still his stained breeches on, so that was probably the reason for the villager’s curiosity.

Marduk asked some women for their kindness, if they had spare clothes to trade and a place where the boy could tidy himself up.

He offered even more of his potions in exchange for clothing. An old woman took the offer, scurrying off to her tent. She brought back some old clothing, perhaps some that did belong to her children.

The old lady guided Marduk and Hadan to a secluded part of the village, where they held some jars of water.

Much to Marduk’s surprise, they had a well, there, and some pieces of hard soap, the kind produced by boiling cinder and mixing it with animal fat.

It was a luxury item, even in the cities that Marduk did visit.

In short, it was something unexpected in a poor, remote village like this one. And it raised Marduk’s suspicion a bit.

Nonetheless, he took the soap and the water, and after undressing, he rinsed his body and washed himself.

Hadan did the same, tossing aside his soiled breeches and donning the new ones, when he was finally clean.

The whole visit to the village costed Marduk ten vials of healing potion, and five jars of herbal poultice.

Perhaps, he thought, he might be able to sell a bit more when the men of this village come back.

After all, he still had plenty of potions and other things of his craft.

The boy and Marduk consumed a light meal, mostly dried meat and hard bread, keeping themselves on the edge of the village.

Although the women accepted their trade, they did not welcome them in the village. As soon as the exchange was done, and after tolerating the two strangers using their water, they made it pretty clear.

With a harsh tone, the oldest among them pointed at the village’s outskirts.

<<We do not break our bread with strangers>>

The woman’s rudeness surprised Hadan a bit, but Marduk was used to it.

Even with the two of them being outside of the village, some of the women were still gazing on them.

<<Why did they chase us off?>>

<<Oh, so you talk again. Guess a full stomach does miracles, huh?>>

Marduk teased Hadan a bit, hoping that the boy would talk some more. Talking was good, especially after the shock that Hadan did suffer.

After the boy went silent again, Marduk sighed.

<<They do that, because they don’t trust strangers. And we are strangers to them, even if we do not bear ill will towards them. Think it this way. Their men are not here, and two suspicious persons show up. They do not know us. And, even if we’re only a boy and an old man, we could still be a danger to them. We could be scouts, sent by a larger group to see if their village is defended. If they let us in, we could give out a signal to someone, marking the village as undefended>>

Hadan looked in the distance, towards the group of ladies still keeping tabs on them.

<<I think they should be more concerned about the things in the forest, rather than worry about us>>

<<Did they scare you?>>

<<Of course they did. What…what were those things?>>

Hadan was still trembling, as the memory of the creatures brushed his thoughts.

<<Things that should not be here. They fell from afar, and now, they haunt, and hunt. This village it’s safe from them, since they’re mostly cowards who fear light and open spaces. The forest however, that’s another story. This place is fine, as long as they do not thread into the forest>>

But, Marduk thought, was it really fine? Was this place safe? A sensation of danger was tingling in his mind, his guts twisting as the feeling of impending danger could not leave his thoughts.

More than the forest, it was the villager’s behaviour that fueled his unrest.

Their behaviour was strange. Too strange. All the women, they spoke with the same cadence, the same slurred words.

Be it young or old, their eyes all had the same vague, almost drowsy stare.

Initially, Marduk thought it the aftermath of some celebration, or perhaps a religious ritual involving drugs, but now, he was not so sure about it.

If that was the case, each person would show different degrees of the same symptoms, with the youngest showing the least, and the oldest being more severely affected.

Instead, they all showed the same behavior, the same shambling way of walking. Even their hands shook with unrest, in a manner unbefitting for the younger women.

No, thought Marduk, something is really amiss in this place.

And the soap that was given to them, it was an item so out of place. During the brief time he spent inside the village, Marduk looked around, failing to find the necessary tools that might have produced that soap.

No sign of the brass recipients that would be needed to heat the mixture of cinder and water to boiling temperature. Of course, it could have been done in jars, but the only ones that Marduk found, they did have no signs of the process.

Being able to see those kind of traces, that was another of the perks of his gift.

And right now, it was properly working, unlike the time when it failed to see the Starfall.

Another thing that bugged Marduk was the absence of animals of any kind in the village. Some of the goods, that were offered to him during the trade, they were fresh. Like a pot of milk, still warm. But no trace of the animal where it came from. And the meat that he accepted, that was old, and salted, definitely coming from an animal that was hunted, not bred. It had that distinctive smell, that taste of lingering fear that all wild animals have in their meat when slain by a hunter’s weapon.

If he was alone, he might have gone to the women, and ask them some questions about it. Perhaps, there was some kind of illness breaking out in the village, although the women’s behavior was different from the symptoms of any kind of illness that Marduk knew about.

There could be some kind of poison in their water reserve, maybe some substance creeping in the water from underground. It happened sometimes when people used well water, that the water vein ran into some kind of nefarious underground deposits and poisoned the entire village.

But the water seemed fine to him, good even.

Or perhaps, and that thought was scaring Marduk, there was something else going on. The soap was surely from outside of the village. Maybe traded by some merchants. But, in this area, there were few places that had the knowledge to produce the substance.

And it was way too similar to that produced in that city.

What Marduk feared, was that the village had been visited by followers of the Starfallen King.

That thought, it terrified the old man. For several reasons, all of them good.

First, it would mean that the Starfallen King’s influence was spreading through the whole continent.

Although there is a whole sea between that kingdom and this place, they’re already here, as shown by what happened to Hadan’s people.

And perhaps, their march was even faster than what Marduk thoughts, and they already reached, if not conquered, large parts of this lands.

Or, it could just be a small group, sent to search something in this place. After all, there was a recent Starfall happening, and it might have been the reason for the Starfallen King’s men being here. The attack on Hadan’s village, it might have been a raid to secure resources, and sacrifices.

But then, why would this place be left standing, and not be just ground to ashes?

Too many things to think about. The Starfall, those things in the forest. This village, and what happened to Hadan’s own.

Marduk thought, hoped them to be all disjointed facts, only coincidences happening due to the random nature that governs this world.

But, that was only whisful thinking, and the old man knew it. More than that, he knew that his gift, his second sight, had failed him.

Twice. Once, for Hadan’s village. The next, for the Starfall, and the things in the forest. Perhaps, this place would mark the third time.

<<Let’s get out of here, as soon as we finish our meal. I do not feel safe in this place. If we continue to follow the cliff, we will reach another village, a sea-side one. Perhaps from there, we might even be able to take a boat, and cross the waters to reach the Isle>>

Marduk spoke while munching a round, reddish fruit. It left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, light enough to be pleasurable instead of unpleasant.

Hadan simply nodded. He did not have anything, anyone anymore. The old man was the only person he knew, and of course, he would follow him wherever he went.

Noise came from the village, as a group of people was coming from the opposite direction from the place where Hadan and Marduk were.

The men from the village were coming back home.

No more than twelve strong, most of them being middle aged, only few youths in their hunting party.

<<That is no hunting party>>

Hadan whispered, catching a glimpse of what the men brought back.

Instead of prey, the men were struggling to carry a large, black objects.

To haul the thing’s immense weight, they bound it with sturdy ropes, and laid rounded wood pieces in front of the object. That way, it would roll on the wood, making it a bit easier for the twelve men to drag it around.

<<Marduk, look, it shines like your pendant>>

Hadan only thought later about what he told to Marduk, inviting a blind man to look at something.

But Marduk already knew what Hadan was talking about. Although, he basically did not hear the boy’s voice. What he heard, what he felt, was a high pitched sound, and the thing on his neck, vibrating as if having a life of his own.

He grasped the necklace with his hand, raising quickly to his feet.

The point of a spear pierced his back, severing skin, blood vessels, digging its way up to his kidney and piercing it.

Marduk fell to his knees, as Hadan screamed his lungs off. From the vegetation around them, some children emerged.

They had roughly Hadan’s age, their expression vague, almost drowsy. Both boys and girls, all naked, their bodies painted with red stripes.

Mardul cursed, convulsing in pain.

He was right, before.

His sight did fail him for a third time.

Re: Interference Chapter 22- Rank Up

<<So, ready for the big day?>>

I ask the others while we share a quick breakfast before the big event. Retel seems eager to this new prospect, while Marica and Levia do not seem to make a big deal out of it.

Dahl is…well, let’s say he’s feeling the aftereffects of last night. I planned to tease him a bit today, but seeing his sorry state, I desisted.

I expected to find my companions a bit more nervous about what’s to happen. After all, this Rank Up should be a big deal for our party.

Supposedly, we will meet with some Guild representatives in the central building. From that point, what’s going to happen is a mystery, since they’ve kinda been scarce about the details.

Well, I do not think something unpleasant is on the way, so no need to be paranoid about things. I’ve had enough emotional distress during these two day, no point in worrying about even more things.

After breakfast, we all head out. Heod had the good thought of renting a carriage to get there. Much to my surprise, renting prices for a small carriage are not so expensive as I initially thought. Instead, it’s fairly cheap, and used as means of public transportation.

The reason as to why we could afford transportation with such low prices, it’s because we’re registered to the Guild. Not only us as adventurers, but also Heod, since he’s basically being hired as an alchemist for the Guild. Apparently, the transport service is partially covered by the Guild, in a way that merchants, craftsmen and adventurers affiliated to the Guild can use it to move rapidly inside of Sendria.

It is even possible to use outside of the city, according to the coachman’s words, but the transport fees increase quite a bit, depending on how much distance you want to travel.

Still, we’re not planning any trip outside the city soon, but knowing that we can rent transport with low fares is a nice thing.

Instead of walking for almost an hour, we arrive at the Guild’s main building in less than twenty minutes.

As we enter the building, a representative comes forward to meet us.

<<So, you must be the ones scheduled for Rank Up. Pleased to meet you. My name is Dana, and I will be your guide today. Please, follow me>>

We abide to the Guild representative’s words. She guides us through a side corridor that stems from the entrance hallway. In there, several paintings and statues are displayed. As we pass by them, the representative gives us a quick description of the works exposed there.

Most of them are artistic representation of famous adventurers and their gestures.

<<Although, if you really look up the Guild’s records, you will find that most of the people portrayed here were mediocre, but they came from rich or noble families. So, these are basically well painted lies and vanity>>

<<Well, they’re still a pretty view>>

<<I guess so. Still, some of them are the real deal. Like this one>>

She stops for a moment, pointing at a large painting. It depicts a scene of battle, painted with warm tones. A man, almost naked, is fighting bare-handed a lion-looking monster. The painting itself is truly a masterpiece, like those of the Renaissance masters of my…oh well, from the collections of memories I hold.

It kinda reminds me of Hercules’s story, when he fought the Lion of Nemea. Perhaps, the story behind this painting is similar to that one.

Still, we’re not here for a cultural visit. We’ve paused only for some moments to admire the paintings, and now Dana is hastening her pace.

Halfway through the hallway, she invites us to enter inside a room.

Inside, it looks like a small chapel, or temple of some kind. Long candles are lit, their flame wavering, dancing, as it illuminates some statues, perhaps icons of this place’s religion.

All of the statues inside the room represent a female figure with the same facial figures, sometimes holding a baby to her breast, other, the most of them, show the woman holding weapons, or a chalice.

One statue represents the woman as a beast-kin, with deer-like horns and scales on her body. This one is holding a weapon, a trident, and her pose is imperious.

Right next to it, the same face is on a human body, and the woman holds a chalice between her outstretched hands.

If I correctly recall, John mentioned this world’s original God. Skelj, that’s how he called the God of this place.

Kneeling down in front of a small altar, beside a big statue of the Goddess, there is an old man dressed in pure white garments.

Most likely, some kind of priest, devote to Skelj’s cult.

I had hoped to see something less religious and more practical, since I’ve already had my fair share of Gods and their meddling.

Still, this is all in order to make our party progress, so I cannot complain too much for this situation.

Beside the other party and ours, there are a few more people in the room. Judging from their behavior, they must be relatives or acquaintances of the other party’s members. I’m pretty sure that a couple of elderly people that is here with us must be the parents of one adventurer, a girl, since they’re looking at her with teary eyes, full of pride.

The girl herself looks slightly embarrassed by the situation.

As soon as we enter the room, the priest turns towards us. He says that the ceremony will start after some time, in order to wait for the latecomers.

Soon afterwards, the door to the small room opens once again. Telesia and a girl come inside the small chapel, apologizing for their lateness.

As soon as the girl enters the room, Dahl stiffens.

Looking at both of them, I notice some resemblance between Dahl and the girl. She’s obviously older than him, looking like she could be twenty, twenty-five years old. Not a pretty woman, but her physique looks athletic, well trained. More than that, her posture and demeanor are commanding, expressing an air of authority and power.

She comes forward, reaching out to Dahl with her left hand. She strokes his head, messing Dahl’s air in a somewhat awkward gesture.

<<Hello, little brother. Ready for your big day?>>

So, she’s his sister. Dahl grasps her hand, and smiles with determination in his eyes. Then he goes to Telesia’s side, greeting his grandmother.

After that, he moves back to the front seatings. All candidates for Rank Up are seated in the front rows, while relatives and acquaintances are seated in the back. Because the chapel is small, the room feels really cramped, but here, there are no more than twenty people.

Me and Heod are sitting in the last row of seats, near the door. Telesia and Dahl’s sister join us. The old woman makes a wry smile seeing me, seating herself next to Heod.

Seen like this, they look just like a normal couple of elderly people. Well, one of them is a skilled alchemist and a fine cook, the other is the scariest woman I’ve ever met, mind-reader, magician, and Guild Headmaster.

Dahl’s sister is sitting near me. To be sociable, I introduce myself.

Judging from her demeanor, and knowing her brother, I expected her to be cold and formal, but I’m mistaken.

After shaking my hand, she starts a stream of praise towards her little brother, talking so fast that I struggle to follow what she’s saying.

Hell, she speaks even faster than Levia when she’s agitated. The image of a conversation between the two of them pops up in my mind, a scene with words so fast that it could seem like seeing a fast-forwarded video.

I bite my lip, in order to not chuckle to my own silly thoughts.

<<So, care to tell me your name?>>

Dahl’s sister looks perplexed for a moment.

<<Ah! Sorry, I forgot! I’m Valentia, pleased to meet you!>>

Now that I think about it, I’ve already heard that name…from some adventurers, that were speaking out loud in the Dungeon Entrance building.

I could not help but overhear their conversation, since they were talking out loud with excited voices. They spoke about the new record set by the top Dive party, that just fully cleared the sixtieth floor and beat the Guardian, establishing a Guild outpost and a Safezone there.

Even if some parties managed to reach further into the Dungeon, it was the first time that one of the lower fifty floors was fully cleared. An amazing feat, accomplished by a party called Hellhounds. Although their name is a bit lame, those adventurers are a pretty strong party, numbering more than thirty members and led by a woman. Valentia, the Black Hound.

As I tell my considerations to Dahl’s sister, she makes a sad expression.

<<So, that nickname is still being used. Sigh. Oh well,it does not matter. To answer your question, yes, I am the leader of Hellhounds party>>

So, Dahl’s grandmother is Guild Headmaster, and his sister is the leader of one of the most prominent party in the Guild’s roster.

Impressive.

Conversing with Valentia, I make a blunder. I was praising Dahl about his important family, and I had the carelessness of asking about their parents.

Valentia gives me a sad smile, looking down before answering to my question.

<<They were both adventurers, like me and Dahl. And even Grandma, during her youth. But, they passed out two years ago>>

I apologize frantically after that.

It’s a mistake that sometimes happens in conversation with people that you know little about. I did not mean ill, but it makes me feel bad, nonetheless.

The priest’s voice resounds in the room, claiming our attention.

In his hands, a staff made of polished wood, reaching almost his height. The man himself is of large build, his body might have boasted powerful muscles, but now it’s become round and flaccid with age and too much food.

Despite his appearance, the glint in his eyes his sharp, and the priest’s voice is clear, strong.

Navi’s analysis identifies him as a level fifty-four, with many combat-related skills highlighted in his status, so he must be some retired adventurer.

<<Please, stop doing that on people. Especially the priest. Even if he’s continuing like nothing happened, he noticed your analysis>>

Telesia’s words whisper to my mind. She’s right but…isn’t she doing the same to me, reading my thoughts without even asking?

Still, the ceremony is starting. The priest beckons each of the candidates to stand up, guiding them towards the altar.

The first one to undergo the Rank Up is a frail looking man. He’s shaking a bit, taken by the emotion of having reached this goal in his career.

After all, not many people actually reach up to level twenty and beyond, in all their life.

His relatives are squirming from excitement, speaking his name with a soft but proud tone.

The priest makes the boy kneel before the altar.

Placing himself behind the boy, he lowers his hands on his head, muttering a prayer.

As he does, his hands begin to glow. As does the largest statue of the goddess, the one standing behind the altar. From the statue flocks of light, akin to snowflakes, begin to flutter, gathering themselves around the boy’s head. They shine,a weak blue color, pulsing while floating in the air.

In response to the priest’s words, the lights flicker, growing more and more intense as they gather, on the boy’s head.

They form a circle, converging, until they enter the boy. A flash of blue, cold light follows, growing in intensity until it subsides.

<<By the name of our Goddes, the Mother, the Warrior, the Virgin and the Blessed, Skelj, she who gives life. Receive her gift, oh brave soul, and rise in her light>>

The boy stands up, seemingly unchanged by the ceremony. He opens and closes his hands, looking at them, perplexed.

He mutters an incantation, and wind sweeps the chapel.

<<For the Goddess’s sake. Don’t try your magic here, boy!>>

A bit rudely, the priest reprimands him. But, judging from the boy’s smile, he’s pleased by his new power.

Perhaps, the Rank Up increased his magic power, or it allowed him to use magic.

I guess I will have to ask the others, about what changed in them after the ceremony.

The boy, still flustered, clears his throat and thanks the priest, strolling back to his seat.

Next, one after the other, the adventurers kneel in front of the altar in order to receive the blessing.

The ceremony is roughly the same for all of them, the only things that changes is the color and intensity of the light emanating from the statue.

Probably, that light itself it’s the blessing. But, as I see it more and more, I notice that it is just mana.

Powerful, so dense that it is clearly visible even without using a skill, but it’s mana after all.

More than that, I am surprised when I find out where that mana comes from. The statue itself, it’s nothing but a large crystal, similar in structure to the Fire Crystals or Ice Crystals that we found in the Dungeon.

Basically, its structure holds a lot of high purity mana, that is released in response to the priest’s own mana and chants, transferred to the adventurers.

In short, this looks like a religious ceremony, but it’s just a spell. A powerful one, capably of changing in a permanent way those that receive it, but still a spell.

Perhaps, the mana gathered in the statue is from the environment itself, or from the prayer of believers that pray in this chapel.

Finally, it’s my companions’ turn. The first in line is Marica, and she’s already kneeling down in front of the altar.

As soon as the priest starts chanting, a notification pops up in my mind.

[Navi: Warning-External Mana is attempting to overwrite minion “Marica”’s Status. The process will result in a Rank Up, modifying STATS, Skills. It’s possible to stop the process via Dream Navigator. Would you like to stop the process, or continue? (Advice- It will be beneficial to proceed with the process]

Of course, I choose to let the blessing do its work. Still, for me to be able to block the entire process, isn’t it a bit too much?

I tell Navi to not give me any notifications about the process anymore, and set all answers to “continue”. This way, I should avoid hearing Navi say the same line over and over.

[Navi: Hmpf! Well, if Master does not want to hear my voice…]

I simply ignore her, focusing on what is happening here. No time to listen to a disembodied voice’s rambling.

The light gathered around Marica is so intense it makes my eyes hurt. An intense blue color, swirling around her. The fluttering lights gather around her head, forming three circles that lightly pulse.

The priest pauses for a moment, smiling gladly for what he sees.

<<Oh, a Rare Class. It’s been years since I saw a person getting it>>

Curious about the priest’s words, I ask Navi about it. She’s sulking a bit, and I am forced to apologize to her in order to make her talk. Seriously, who the hell has ever been forced to apologize to voices in his head? Perhaps all this is just a bad case of schizophrenia. Yep, that would explain a lot of things…

Marica’s Rank Up is now done. She goes back to her seating, while Dahl takes her place near the altar.

He sends a small glance towards his sister. Valentia nods, and lifts her fingers in a victory pose.

As Marica did before him, Dahl kneels in front of the altar.

The priest himself seems taken back by the intensity of the mana that Dahl is absorbing. Up until now, it was Marica that held the record, but Dahl broke through that.

Dense purple light is gathered around his head, and three circles of fluttering lights are dancing around his head.

If the priest was surprised before, now he’s astonished.

A bit stuttering, he continues the process, until Dahl’s Rank Up is done.

<<As expected of the son of Matellia family…a Rare Class, like his sister. How jealous…>>

<<Yeah, and that light…it was purple, so a hybrid caster/fighter class? Could it be the Magic Swordsman?>>

Softspoken comments are beginning to rise from the audience. Beside the gossip around Dahl, I’ve learned something about the whole process.

The light’s color is related to whatever type of class that is being received, while the intensity is, of course, related to the received class’s power. In short, more light means more power. A red color indicates a melee class, which should be something specialized in combat, like a warrior or something similar. Blue stands for magic related class, while yellow stands for crafting classes, like alchemists. I know this thanks to Telesia’s explanation. Well, I managed to surmise that the meaning behind each color was something related to the specific class received, but I had no idea about the precise meaning of each color. Of course, “hybrid” classes are also present, symbolized by composite colors. For example, Dahl got a hybrid magic/melee class, and his color was purple, red plus blue. Green identifies a hybrid magic/crafting, orange melee/crafting. The circles that form around the candidate’s head were the most intriguing things to see. They are an indication of the class’s rarity. One, it means a basic class. The most common occurrence. Two, it’s an Uncommon class, that few people are able to get. Three are indication of a Rare class, something that happens only in few cases. As the name suggests.

Retel’s turn comes, and he too shows a Rare class, a pure melee one. The last one to go is Levia.

As she kneels in front of the altar, light begins to gather around her.

<<It’s…I’ve never seen something like this>>

The priest is at loss for words. The audience, even. Around Levia, a pure white light is gathering around, like snow blown by a gentle wind. It’s intense, cold and yet blinding to look at.

The old priest drops his staff, his eyes are almost moved to tears as he sees the image of Levia, the light reflecting on the black scales that adorn her skin.

It’s stunning, seeing her like this, she feels more like a mystical creature than a normal girl. Around her head, four circles of light have formed.

<<Please, would you continue with the ceremony? It’s a bit embarrassing, to be stared at like this>>

She beckons the priest to proceed with the blessing, her voice a bit strained by embarrassment.

The old man comes to his senses, and continues his chanting. He’s sending glances between Levia and the Goddess’s statue, and his hands are slightly trembling.

Please, do not tell me he’s gonna obsess over Levia, thinking her some kind of reincarnation of the Goddess.

Although, that would be a nice thing for a story. A Demon Lord traveling together with a reincarnated goddess. I bet there’s some japanese light novel with the same setting, in my…in that world. Hell, I need to drop this habit, of comparing the world of my fake memories with this one.

Setting aside my dumb considerations, four circles should mean some unique class, right? I mean, if even the priest was surprised to the point of almost having a mystical crisis, it should be something unprecedented.

Well, thankfully there weren’t many people inside the chapel, so there should not be much clamor about what happened here. Just in case, I ask Telesia to speak to the priest. Just to be on the safer side.

We leave the room, and both me and Heod congratulate with the others for the successful event.

<<Now, care to share what you all got? I’m dying of curiosity here>>

To my question, Retel laughs, answering with his usual, cocky tone.

<<Man, just look with your Navi thing. Or do you want a proper introduction? Should we do power poses too?>>

Levia lightly smacks his head, as he was starting to assume strange poses, like some kind of action hero.

Massaging his head, Retel is the first to share what changes the Rank Up brought.

<<So, my level did not change. That’s for sure. My stats…well, beside INT, STR and AGI have doubled, while ACC is the same. Hm, let’s see…my old skills grew in rank, I’ve got three new ones that I need to test, and then there’s the one from…oh, I will keep this a secret for a while. Ah, my class has become Guardian. Man, it sounds so cool!>>

Still, it seems like he’s picked up Dahl’s bad habit, hiding his skills from the group. I mean, I could easily see them using Navi, but, I would prefer if he shared them.

Well, perhaps he want to get the hang of them first. I will not pry further into this, since we’ll be avoiding fighting for some time. Of course, if this happened inside the Dungeon, it would be another matter.

Next, Marica is the one that shares her new specifics.

<<Right. Let’s see…Status window. Ah, it reads Elementia as the class. My stats are the same, beside INT that is basically tripled. As for Retel, my old skills have all increased in rank, and I gained a new one, Chantless. Huh, it says that I can cast magic up to intermediate without using a chant, and grant bonuses to magic that involves heat manipulation. Neat>>

Dahl is reserved as ever, only sharing the name of his new class.

<<Assassin>>

He mutters, almost ashamed by the sound of it.

Last, it’s Levia’s turn. She seems a bit hesitant about it.

<<Hm, well, it’s a bit strange, telling out loud. It sounds a bit too…stupid.>>

She sighs, dropping her shoulders. It’s just my impression, or the horns on her head have grown a bit?

<<Come on, don’t leave us hanging! It is something amazing, right?>>

Retel presses her, grabbing his sister’s shoulder and looking her with sparkling eyes.

<<Ok. Please, do not laugh. Please. So, it says…Dragoness>>

Retel swears not to laugh, and we’re forced to do the same.

Of course, Retel cannot keep his promise, and receives a punch on his stomach as retribution.

<<Sorry, sorry…to be fair, I’m laughing at the face you just made, not the name. It sounds kinda cool, in my opinion>>

The only one that looks a bit taken back is Heod. It might just be my impression, but it’s like a shadow passed on his face, for a split second.

He hides it well, however, and he congratulates with Levia and the others. Returning to his usual self, he offers to treat us to a big meal, in order to celebrate what just happened.

And so, we go to the Central Plaza.

Dahl’s sister is tagging along, while Telesia went back to the Guild after the ceremony. We all have the day off from our training today, so we can spend the day with leisure. Tomorrow, the harsh training will start again.

We share lunch in an open terrace, where some stalls are selling typical food from Sendria.

It’s basically a spicy meat skewer, served with mashed vegetables on the side. The food is fairly cheap, although tasty, but the best thing about this place is the view from the terrace.

From it, it is possible to see all of Sendria, up to the Northern Wall and the mountain range beyond it. The weather today is also nice, a clear, sunny day, perfect for a day off. Although, in the distance, some dark clouds can be seen. Perhaps, they will bring rain in the next days.

As I am basking in the view, Heod comes to my side.

<<Pretty view, isn’t it?>>

Judging from his voice, the man seems troubled by something. So, my intuition from before might be true after all.

<<Something troubling you?>>

As I ask him, he looks at me with a serious expression.

His voice is grave, sounds almost tired, heavy.

<<Did I ever tell you about the day when I found those two?>>

He nods toward Retel and Levia, who are still sitting at our table, talking with Marica, Dahl and Valentia.

<<Only few details. Is it something related to the Rank Up from earlier?>>

Heod nods, and continues his tale.

<<Yes, in a way. I…I have not been completely honest with you. So, this is both an apology, and an explanation. Please, bear with this old man’s silliness. Can you look at my status with your Navi?>>

Please, enough with the sudden revelations…I’ve had enough of those during these two days.

Still, I abide Heod’s request.

<<It’s the same as usual. Why did you ask?>>

<<Look again>>

As I do, what I see leaves me speechless.

<<What…what does it mean?>>

He smiles. A bitter smile, surrounded by wrinkles in his old skin.

<<Don’t let the number fools you, Roshal. Even if it is that high, I never had any combat ability whatsoever. Even when I was young, my stats were pitiful, and the only thing I could properly do was alchemy. It was hard to protect them like this, but you would be surprised to see what poison can do, even when the difference in levels is high. Still, that is not what I wanted to show you. Did you see my “race” displayed there?>>

I nod, unable to see where the discussion is going.

<<It says Dragonkin>>

<<Yes. It says so. As you may have wondered yourself, us beast-kin have different trait one from the other. Most human do not notice it, lumping us together as “filthy animals” when they hate us, or just referring to us as lizard-kin or snake-kin when they notice scales and reptilian traits. The truth is, there are many races among beast-kin. And some of them are more common, while others are rare. Mine is such an example. My race is so rare, that the vast majority of people do not even know it exists, and they just lump me together with other races. The fact that even among the same beast-kin race there is a high variability of traits between individuals also factors in this. And I’ve been using this fact to hide myself, passing for a member of a more common race. Do you know why?>>

His question is rhetorical, since there is no way I could ever know something like this.

Without waiting for my reply, he continues the story.

<<Because we’re hunted, Roshal. The kids, they do not know that, but our race, Dragonkin, are persecuted all over this continent. Cities like Sendria, or Nudria village where we lived, they are rare exceptions. But other countries, like Aldora and many others, too many, actually persecute our kind. And it’s not the usual discrimination that more common beast-kin suffer. Oh no, when someone like us is found, they kill us and make displays of our heads. So, that’s the reason why I hide it. Retel and Levia, they think themselves normal beast-kin, but they’re not. They’re the same as me>>

So, that’s the reason that made him react that way when Levia did rank up. As he continues, he explains that, for a moment, he feared that the priest would have recognized Levia for a Dragonkin.

It did not happen, since the priest most likely was just taken back by the unusual display of power from Levia’s rank up.

<<But, it could happen. Someday, someone will recognize them for what they are, and it would happen again. I’ve seen their parents die, Roshal, that accursed day. To avoid them falling to the same fate, I took them, raised them in hiding. Moving from town to town, sticking to those territories where people where ignorant enough to not know about Dragonkin, or they would tolerate them. It’s funny, even though they’re different, and they do think otherwise, Retel and Levia are actually brother and sister. The same Dragonkin blood runs through their veins>>

I swear to my name, to never reveal what the old man told me in this instance. He seems reassured, although I feel that it was not my promise, but having told the “secret” to someone else that lifted a weight from the old man’s mind.

We return to the others, acting like usual.

<<What were you talking about, over there?>>

As Levia asks, I smile to her.

<<Oh, just a bit of history lesson from the old man>>

The day flies by, as we spend it just loitering around, having fun. The old man left us, going to the Guild building to set up his new shop and laboratory.

Valentia also went away, since she would be preparing a Dungeon Dive with her party.

<<We’re supposed to depart in two days, so my schedule is a bit tight>>
She hugs Dahl, messing his hair one more time before she bids farewell to us.

<<I’m proud of you, pipsqueak>>

With a smile, she leaves us, heading towards the marketplace.

<<So, what should we do next?>>

There are still many parts of Sendria that we did not visit. In particular, I’ve caught words of two place that might be interesting.

The first, it’s a Museum. From what I heard, entry is free of charge, and it displays items from the history of Sendria, as well as a section dedicated to nature and monsters.

The other place, is the Arena. Although the name makes you think about gladiators and similar things, it is a place where sports are played. Nothing bloody, only monster-riding races and other team sports.

I propose the two choices to the others, waiting for opinion about where to head next.

In the end, we decide to head out to the museum.

The building is located in the old part of the city, among twisting roads and buildings consumed by age.

In there, the commoners of Sendria live their lives. Children can be seen playing in the narrow streets, while women walk the ways, often carrying groceries or jars filled with water.

Few men can be seen around, most of them still at work in some workshop or out in the fields.

If the richest, central part of the city gives off the feeling of a touristic city, this part of Sendria could be considered the “real”one, where people beside adventurers, nobles and tourists live.

The museum itself is located in a small plaza, in front of an old marble fountain adorned with some statues. A hidden gem of a place, surrounded by old houses.

In an style that greatly differs from the surrounding, the palace that hosts the Museum stands out, with its opulence that contrasts the bland appearance of the other buildings.

We enter inside, greeted by the guide. She’s a young beast-kin, looking slightly older than us. Her cheerful voice accompanies us during the visit, as she explains the objects exposed.

The first hall is dedicated to Sendria’s history, showing mainly statues, paintings and ancient objects of common use, dating back to before the city was built.

From it, the guide leads to another chamber, almost identical in size. In there, the displayed items are almost all related to war. Weapons, armors, even replicas of siege machinery. All of them depicting the past wars that Sendria waged and endured.

All in all, the visit was short, lasting no more than an hour.

After that, we go back to the central portion of the city. We spend some more time around, before going back to our home when the sun begins to set. After all, tomorrow we will all resume our training regime, so it’s wise to not spend too much time loitering around.

On the way back, we witness an unpleasant scene.

In a side alley, a woman is lying down in a puddle of her own blood. A small crowd of people is gathered around, commenting about the sad fate of the woman.

Apparently, she has been the victim of an assault, and the authorities are looking at the scene.

<<Another one. It’s the third this week>>

<<Yeah, but this time, it’s here, in the central quarters. They’re getting bolder>>

I overhear two officers discussing between themselves. This calls to mind what Telesia said about public order in Sendria, that it was rapidly getting worse.

If what the guards said is true, there have been two more victims during this week.

Perhaps, it might just be the work of some maniac, but I cannot shake an unpleasant feeling creeping out on me from that scene.

We leave the scene behind, since there’s no point in us adding to the crowd there. It’s a sad event just like it is, and the curious crowd only disrespects the poor victim, in my opinion.

As we get home, Heod is already there.

We discuss a bit with him of what we just witnessed, sharing our thoughts and preoccupations on the matter.

<<Yeah, I’ve heard some rumors too. Apparently, there are have been some victims even out in the slums. Although, no one cares about them, so the official count only considers bodies found within Sendria. But, from what I know, the total body count is ten. In a week. Boys, please be careful out there. I know you can handle yourself, but…>>

The old man is right in his concern. If a murderer is really on the prowl, that is something serious going on.

The discussion continues during dinner, and for some time after that. I end the day sharing a drink with the old man, before heading to bed early. Tomorrow, John will surely work me to the bone.

As the next day rises, I use the Transfer Stone to reach John’s place. The others have already gone out to their practice, and I was the last one to leave the house.

Well, technically I did not set foot outside of the house, but, whatever…

<<Morning>>

John replies to my greeting with a wave of his hand. To be kind, I brought him some food cooked by the old man.

During the time I spent with my “master”, I’ve noticed that his eating habits are just…terrible.

He’s grateful for the food, but more than the food itself, he is enjoying the wine I brought him.

<<It’s morning and you’re drinking alcohol already? You’re a bad role model for a youngster like me>>

<<Oh shut up, fake. It’s been one hundred and twenty-three years since I had a sip of good wine, so cut me some slack>>

He gulps the bottle, without even drawing breath.

After emptying the wine, he focuses his attention on the food I brought. The quantity of it, it should have been enough for breakfast and lunch for two people, but he messily ate everything. Everything.

<<So, how many centuries did pass from your last decent meal?>>

<<Oh, you have no idea. Man, I would die to have a cooking skill for myself, but I’ve never had such luck in my life. Want to laugh? I actually have the “poison cook” title. Everything I cook, no matter the recipe, turns into poison. Isn’t it great? Well, being a Dungeon Master means that in here, I am basically immortal, but even if the food does not harm me, it tastes bad>>

He’s more pitiful than I ever imagined.

To think that a man like him is the most powerful person I’ve ever met…

Soon after John’s meal, we start the training again. The first time, it was just physical exercises, but now, he’s adding something to the mix.

<<No way in hell I can do it. On the first try? You’re insane>>

<<Then go away, I’ve no time to lose with unmotivated people>>

What he’s telling me to do, is borderline impossible. Inside the high-gravity room, I am supposed to do push ups while chanting a spell.

Now, the push up part is easy enough. Tiresome, but something I can do. But chanting a spell? I do not even know how to chant a spell.

<<Oh, that’s the reason why. Man, all that mana you have, and you never ever gave it a try? Listen, because I will not repeat it. Magic is the easiest thing in this world. Fuck off all the books, delicate chants and so on. Those, are just rubbish. What you need here, is just three things. Mana, and you have well enough,structure and concept. Now, a magician from this world, usually spends two to three years in learning the words and pronunciations necessary to understand the concept they want to express with their mana. For example, if you would use a fire spell, you will need to understand the concept of temperature, and increase it with your mana. Some of the words they chant, they represent the concept of heat, other, the vast majority, give that concept a structure. So, the concept is heat, and the structure is where you want to send that heat, how much of it and so on.

But, that’s just useless my friend. Terribly so. Because, both their concept and structure are flawed. They do not know how reality works. About atoms and molecules, and the forces interacting with them and within them.

So, returning to the example of heat from before, they think it something like a fluid, flowing from hot objects to cold objects. And their concept works, mind you, it’s only highly inefficient. So, they need an overly complex, tiresome and energy consuming structure, to make their concept work enough to have some kind of effect.

Now, both me, and you, we have a far deeper understanding of the concept. The knowledge we have from that other world, even if it is not really ours, it’s something that allows for a deeper, more exact understanding of reality. You know, that heat is vibration of molecules, a way that energy expresses itself, and this energy, this vibration can transfer itself from a high energy molecule, or object, to a low energy one. You know about the different structures that allow or hinder the transfer of such energy. The concept you have, is far more developed and akin to reality than those of any magicians. And, thanks to that, the stucture you need is less complex, to the point of barely existing.

Now, focus, and set the air in your palm ablaze. Think about the concept of heat, and use your mana accordingly>>

I would lie if I told that the process went differently from what John explained. It was so…easy, so natural. I gazed at the flame, dancing in the palm of my hand. For a moment, it was there. I just had to route a bit of my mana into my palm, and control it, making it shake, vibrate, until the same energy was transferred to the air. As the concept was clear, I realized that not fire itself was not only heat, but a chemical reaction. Oxygen and other components of the athmosphere, reacting, producing energy itself, heat in the form of vibration. What I was doing, it was wrong. To produce flames, it would be easier to make the molecules react, rather than provide thermal energy.

And so I did. It lasted for an instant, but the flame was there.

<<Good start. Now, think about how to keep it there. And get on with those push ups!>>

Instead of using my hand, I transferred my mana to a point in front of me. Setting fire to something flammable would be too easy, said John, so I need to focus, invent my own method to set fire to the air in front of me, keeping the flame lit and under control. Too much power, and the gases in the room would all react, turning this place into a scorching inferno.

Too little, and the flame would not even start. Other than that, I need to keep a flux of reagents to the point where the reaction is happening, and thake away the products of combustion.

The notions about what to do, they’re fragments in my head, taken, robbed from whoever knows which human mind, to which people they belonged to in the beginning.

The memory of a filled classroom, where a wizened old man explains redox reactions to a well behaved classroom.

A memory about a professor, explaining to his colleagues his new findings about dymamics of gaseous fluids.

Like John said, all the memories I have are related to some notion about the world. Not enough to be able to change this one, only useful to be combined and used for magic, or skills.

Memories that allow not to build, but to destroy. To win, be it battle or war.

For example, I can easily imagine, and realize, a complex spell that uses electrons to produce a lightning discharge, but as I try to think about a way to harness electricity in a different way, like a motor or some circuit, it all crumbles away.

It’s more frustrating than I thought, the same feeling as when you try to say something, and that word, the one word that makes the difference between a proper sentence and a jambled mess, and you cannot find it, it stumbles on the tip of your tongue, unable to leave your mouth. It’s the same sensation, but with something deep into your own mind. Things that I could clearly think about, even to the point of being able to visualize them when I was thinking of an offensive spel, they fade away when I ponder about how to harness them to make a fuckin electric lamp.

<<Yeah, I know how it feels. It’s terrible, but, there’s nothing we can do about it>>

Still, I try to focus on the training itself, in order to not lose myself into frustration.

The fire spell was fairly simple to start, difficult to maintain. But, I did it in the end. After that, without even a word of praise, John commands me to think about an electric-based magic.

This one, it proves more tricky to use. The main problem lies in the nature of electricity itself. A movement of vast numbers of electrons, one of the basic particles that compose matter.

So, to make a flux of them, I need to take them from some place.

If I take them from myself, I will basically be hurting me in a pretty dumb way. Taking them from the environment seems the best and faster solution, but the first time I try it, I’m the one that receives the shock.

Being dumb as I am, I tried to pull the electrons toward my body, basically using an electric spell on myself.

Luckily, the intensity of it was laughable, otherwise I would have been burned to a crisp. Still, it’s not a pleasant sensation, not in the slightest.

John is still laughing his ass off, while I go on with the second, and third try.

Finally I manage to produce two spells. The first, I surround myself with my own mana, absorbing electrons from air and ground and storing them into my mana.

In short, it’s an electric field, or armor of some kind.

When something comes into contact with it, electricity is discharged.

The second spell is a more classic one. Using the same trick as before, I form a “bridge” of mana from me to the object I want to attack. Then, I let electricity flow into the bridge, absorbing it from the environment.

It’s not very powerful, but it’s something to start working on.

John has stopped laughing. The reason is, I’ve taken a bit of initiative myself. Using these new notions, I’ve applied them to my use of Black Fluid.

I had a temperature-based attack before, and the Vorpal Edge relied on vibrational energy to cut through things.

With the new notions, I improved the temperature based attacks, both cold and hot ones, by adding chemical reactions to the process.

Black Fluid can imitate anything it comes across, and that also means air, and gas substances.

That means, I can now set it on fire.

Strangely, or better, it was to be expected, the flame from Black Fluid burns black.

Well, now that I can use black flames, I only need a pair of red magic eyes and spiky black hair.

Using reactions to produce cold is the most difficult thing I had to do, and it reveals basically useless. Perhaps, the approach that I am taking is wrong.

The next thing I try, it makes me ashamed of myself.

Combining these new experiments with my poison making, I’ve produced a poison that freezes the body from the inside. The same goes with a “burning poison”. These two might be too nasty to ever use them in battle. No they definitely are.

Although, the freezing liquid could be used for some other purposes. Something like liquid nitrogen, it had a lot of uses in medicine if I correctly recall those not-memories of mine.

But, the most interesting experiment I did was with electricity. Using the same principle as the spells, I charged Black Fluid with electric currents. Since my control over Black Fluid is even stronger and more precise than the control I have of my own mana, I am able to precisely direct electricity within structures I make with the skill. I can even store charge in some structures, and release it at will.

It will be useful in battle, but there are many other interesting things that I can play with.

Still, I will need to experiment with it a lot in the next days. Thanks to my tampering with the skill, Black Fluid leveled up to level ten. The message from Navi rings in my head, informing of the new changes to the skill.

Basically, three things happened. First, the quantity of fluid I can now produce is doubled. If before I could produce roughly twenty liters of it, now it’s forty. Second, the quantity will increase proportionally to the mass of monsters absorbed. The increase percent seems a little bit lacking, being only 0.0001 percent of the absorbed enemy’s mass. So, if an enemy has a mass of one hundred kilos, my skill will increase in mass by one centigram. A measly quantity, at first. But, if I absorb large enemies, or a large number of them, well, the math will be different. And, the quantity itself is cumulative, so…

Third, and last, the absorbtion rate is doubled, and the chanche of getting multiple skills from a single monster has tripled.

In short, Black Fluid is rapidbly becoming so ridiculously overpowered that it makes my head hurt. I wonder how would it look, if I manage to reach level one hundred or more. As I think about it, the memory of the Laughing Man laying waste to the Aldora fort comes back into my mind.

I know what the skill could do at full power.

That thought, and that association, make me shudder.

John does not give me much time to think about things, however. He let me play a bit with my skills, to his own words, but now he’s starting to participate in the training.

Using what I have learned, without using my Black Fluid, I have to defeat a creature he summoned.

The level of it is roughly mine, and he assured me that the thing will not kill me. However, there are still risks here. First, the room has John’s spell cast on it, that increases gravity twofold. And next, even if the thing will not deal lethal blows, it will definitely hurt if it catches me.

To John’s signal, the battle starts.

Of course, the thing proves to be a formibable foe.

It moves swiftly, parrying my attacks and avoiding the magic I throw at it. Its thin body is a difficult target to hit, and the four arms on his frame unleash unpredictable attack patterns.

To attack it, I am using a sword an the skill “swordsmanship”. The effectiveness of the skill is highly lowered by the conditions here, and my own inexperience.

I go for almost two hours, unable to even land a single hit on the monster.

Its faceless features suddenly turn into a mocking face.

It seems that John is altering the summoned creature’s appearance. Just to piss me off.

<<Come on, Demon Lord! Is that all you can do?>>

Oh, the standard provocation line. Well, it’s working. You’ve successfully pissed me off.

I charge once again, straining myself in order to land at least a blow on this thing.

The day ends with me sprawling on the floor, unable to get up. The summoned creature is still in pristine conditions, prancing around like a big monkey.

John even added sounds to the abominable thing, and now, every time my attacks miss it or it lands a blow on me, a sound effect like those of a wrong answer in a tv quiz play.

<<There’s also a sound for successful attacks. But I doubt you’ll be able to hear them. Enough for today>>

With a click of his finger, John cancels the spells he cast. Gravity returns to normal, and the summoned thing evaporates into thin air.

<<So, what do you think about today? Satisfied?>>

He asks me with a smug smile. But, as a matter of facts, I am not satisfied by my performance. Not completely, at least. I was beginning to feel smug after my success with magic, but the battle practice actually made me realize that I still have a long way to go.

Before heading back, I ask John some more things about the Dungeon. In particular, I want to know about the trial thing.

If he’s the Dungeon Master, he must be somehow related to those, right?

<<I have not the slightest idea about those>>

His expression makes me almost fall over.

John explains himself with better words. According to what he says, the trials are not something that he decided. They were already set up when he entered the Dungeon, and are some of the few things that the Dungeon Core does not share any information about.

<<I’m sorry, but things are like this. I cannot help you in this>>

It looks like I will have to find them myself.

Out of curiosity, I ask him if he knows something about the other candidate Demon Lord, Leidus.

<<Hm, yeah, I remember that fellow. He was causing a ruckus here, some time ago if I recall correctly. Still, he’s no longer in the Dungeon. Telesia too asked me about his whereabouts, but he basically vanished after those incidents with the Guild. Perhaps, he’s still hiding in Sendria, or he left the city altogether>>

We spend some more time talking, before I head back home.

The others are already there, looking tired, almost drained. I too am in no condition to party right now, and I basically drag myself to a chair and collapse on it.

<<So, you lot had a good day?>>

Heod is the only one with the energies to talk. Almost like he’s the youngster, and we the old farts.

<<Hm, what good conversation partners I have. I am here, fixing you dinner, and you don’t even bother to humor this sweet old man. Ah, youths surely are ungrateful>>

Levia hughs him, kissing his cheek.

<<Thank you, Heod. But we’re soo tired today>>

<<Bah. Thanks the heaven, there’s at least one of you with enough head and kindness to thank me>>

Although he sounds like he’s complaining, the old man is just joking. After all, he understands our situation.

After dinner, I go towards my room. The others already did the same, but…

<<Hey, do you have a moment to talk?>>

Levia steps out of her room, whispering to me.

I will not lie. Seeing her like this, calling out to me with a hushed voice, it made my heart race a bit.

<<Sure. Come in>>

She steps into my room. Now that I think about it, it’s the first time that a girl enters my room in this world.

It should be a joyous event to me, but her serious expression makes me think otherwise.

<<What happened? Is there something troubling you?>>

After a moment of silence, she starts with her tale.

Almost without pausing, she tells about what happened that day. Levia is doing her training with a specialist of the Guild, and in order for them to properly exercise, they have been heading out of Sendria, in the forest beyond the city.

In there, she and her master have been attacked. Luckily, they managed to escape, but…

<<That’s what they said. Death to the Abominations. And they were not referring to me, as a beast-kin. They also targeted my master, and she’s human. The strangest thing about them is that they were insanely strong, but, none of them ever used a skill. Not even spells. Only pure physical abilities, but they were so strong that they pushed back my master, even managing to injure her. I managed to drag her away from there, but she’s gravely injured and she has not…she fainted and does not wake up>>

Her pretty face is beginning to glisten in tears. She’s biting her underlip, from the frustration about not being able to do anything but run away.

That’s what she’s whispering to herself, holding back tears.

But, even more pressing than her breakdown, it’s what she said before.

What she says, it rings a bell. No skills, no magic.

<<Did you see some uniforms? Symbols, anything>>

She took out a small necklace from her pouch.

<<I’ve not shown it to the others. And I did not even tell them the story at all. It’s…I do not want them to worry for me, but, at the same time, I wanted to speak about it. Sorry if I imposed on you, but>>

As I look at the necklace, I recognize the pendant attached to it. Grasping into my hands, I caress Levia’s face.

It’s a gentle gesture, a kind touch for a trobled friend. If there ever was some lewd intention by me when she entered the room, her tale chased it away.

What she went through, it’s something dangerous. Too dangerous to keep as a secret. We need to alert Telesia about it, and fast.

Because that necklace, it represents the symbol of Aldora.

Re: Interference Chapter 21- Master

The air is damp here, heavy with humidity. As I turn around, I can see how the man in front of me used this saferoom as his home, here in the deepest level of the Dungeon.

A messy bedroll is laying on the corner, beside a pile of clothes that look ragged, and dirty. A small table is on the opposite side, with some scattered object on it. A plate, still holding some food scraps.

A sack of coin, slightly open, revealing the glimmer of gold that it contains. Books, scattered all around, some new, some with dust covering them, their pages turned yellow from the course of time.

No trace of weapons, or other personal things that might give me some insight about this man’s character.

And, beside everything else, there’s the silence that has fallen into the room.

Thick, almost palpable.

The man named John is sitting on a small stool, roughly ten meters away from me. He avoids my eyes, the curiosity in them.

Still, I cannot believe what I just heard from his lips. The implications of his words made me shake, locking my mind in a swirl of emotions.

There’s anxiety in there, uncertainty.

Sounds are ringing in my head, from that accursed Navigator, her messages popping up in my mind like some obnoxious ringtone. Yet, I ignore them. I am sure, they will all be lies after all.

<<So, that’s how it is>>

I take the courage to break this silence, looking down on the floor, at my hands that are still trembling.

<<Sorry. But you needed to know>>

John’s voice echoes mine, with a short sentence, an apology.

He says I needed to know, but…can I trust his words? The implications, the weight behind what he revealed to me.

<<What…what should I do now?>>

Stuttering, I ask him for guidance. After all, that’s the reason that brought me here. Well, technically I was dragged here by that old lady, but…

Well, it does not matter right now. And perhaps, it was for the best.

<<That’s something for you to find. I cannot give you such answer, Roshal>>

He tries to smile, but I can see what’s really driving his expression. Behind his eyes, I can see pity, for me. Maybe, some of that pity is also for himself.

<<I suppose I should go now>>

Getting up on my feet, I announce my intentions to John. He simply nods, handing me a small, black orb. It’ a transfer stone, different from the ones I saw before. Smaller, the size of a marble, with a rough texture on its surface.

<<That will only work two times. One, for when you leave this place after our conversation. The other, for when you feel like coming back here. Not that I would like you to come back, but I made a promise to Telesia, to train you as best as I can. But, I will understand if you choose to not come back here. So, Roshal, see you. Or not>>

After handing me the small transfer stone, he gets up from his seat, heading out of the saferoom.

As he opens the door, a small air current from the Dungeon’s last floor flows in. The smell it carries, and the density of mana contained in that simple whiff of wind are enough to make me feel sick.

To think that John has been living here, secluding himself from the world above…

I grasp the transfer stone, activating it with a bit of my mana.

As it happened with Telesia, I am instantly moved from the saferoom to the Archives.

The air in here feels so light, so easy to breathe. The transfer stone in my hand has lost some of its brilliance, and I feel like it is a bit smaller right now. Well, it could just be my impression.

I head back from the Archives, without contacting the others. Walking out of the building, I realize that the Sun has already gone down, and only small torches are now lighting the way in front of me.

I’ve never seen Sendria during the night. Especially in this portion of the town, far away from the center and residential area, it looks like a completely different place than during the day.

Dimly lit roads, where prostitutes and drunkards can be seen roaming around. The number of homeless people I meet on the way back home is high.

Passing by them, I see the mutilations that their bodies carry. One man, begging for money under a porch, had his right eye and left leg missing, supporting himself on a crude wooden crutch.

Not so far away from him, a legless woman was begging for food, keeping her head low under her cowl, perhaps for shame.

More and more of them can be seen. The dark side of Sendria, the adventurers who failed.

They failed to win, and failed to die. Unable to sustain themselves with activities in the Dungeon, too injured to even try a normal job, these men and women are driven to extreme poverty, in a town that only cares for those who win.

In a spur of generosity, I let some coins fall into the plate that a young boy is holding out with his emaciated right hand.

<<Thank you>>

He mutters, lowering his head. I do not want to see his face, nor do I want to glance for more than one second at the sorry state that his body is in.

The thought that I could end up in this same situation, or that it could happen to some of my friends, is even more scary than death to me.

I chuckle, still thinking about fear and some other emotions. Like a proper human being, something I should not be allowed to do.

John’s face pops up in my mind, and with it the words he spoke to me. I clench my fists, accelerating my steps in the night of Sendria.

To no avail.

<<God damnit!>>

I punch the wall, in a secluded alley, alone, I let out the emotions that were boiling inside me, the frustration, the anger. Those that are easy to get rid of. But the others, stay deep, gnawing at me and the doubt of my very existence.

I lie my back on the wall, and let myself slide down, until I sit on the floor. My head hanging between my arms, while John’s words play out again in my memory.

At first, I was overjoyed when he told me that he too was an otherworlder. I immediately asked him some questions, aiming to find if John came from my world, or some other parallel world or something like that. It was a possibility to consider, and since my first time coming here, my mind has already been opened up to new possibilities. Where magic and skills exist, why shouldn’t there be parallel worlds?

John answered correctly to all my questions, proving that he indeed came from my old world. Although, our timeline was surely different. From what he said, it looked like he came to this world roughly ten years before the same thing happened to him.

Initially, we had a very nice conversation, about the state of the world, the advancements in it. Hell, he was overjoyed when I told him about the sequel to his favorite movie saga. I felt like we spoke for hours in there, just talking about movies and books.

But, as we talked, he had this expression in his eyes, a mix of sadness and pity.

<<Before we start with this, I need you to know some things. After all, I have the slight suspicion that Telesia just dragged your ass down here, without even giving you a proper explanation. First, I am doing this because I owe Telesia. She’s a good person,and all she desires is the well being of both Sendria and her Guild. But her methods are rude, and ruthless. Right now, she does not see you as a person, but as the Candidate Demon Lord, a weapon in her disposal. And she’ll do anything to use you for her means. Keep this in mind.>>

He paused for a bit, before asking me some questions. He wanted to know in detail how I came to this world, and what goal I decided to follow in here.

As I gave him my answers, he sighed, deeply.

<<So, it was that dick Azathot, huh? Well, it could have been worse>>

He muttered to himself.

<<Say, do you remember more details of your old life? Not the general things…what I am asking you is if you remember specific details. Like the name of your pet, if you had one. How your mother looked like. Something like that>>

I felt like his question was a bit weird. Of course, I was about to answer, of course I remember my mother’s face.

But then, I realized that I didn’t. When I recalled her, the image that formed in my mind was vague. The same happened when I tried to recall my old dog. I knew I had one, and yet, I could not recall its appearance, the color of its fur.

<<So, it’s as I thought. To me, is the same. I recall my general past, what happened during my time. Even things that I studied at school. But, the important things, those memories that define you as a person. Well, those are confused, and sometimes, they’re not even there. Even my name…this one, John Howards, it’s not my real name, only a cool sounding one I choose to call myself, when I first came into this world and I was nothing more than a young, foolish boy. My real name is lost to me>>

He was staring at the rocky wall of the safezone, but his gaze was fixed on something far away, locked in remembrance.

And he spoke about something that was bugging me since I came to this world. Because, even I did not remember my true name, the one that my parents gave me.

I thought it some kind of after effect of whatever the hell brought me to this world, some sort of post-summoning trauma. But, John’s words make it sound like it’s something far more concerning.

I told to him what I felt about that matter, that I believed it was some sort of after-effect from when I, we, were summoned here.

<<I thought the same. Initially, that is. But, I was not summoned here. I was reincarnated. In my old world, I died of sickness. A brain tumor. It’s strange…I remember the pain it caused me, the burning sensation of the chemotherapy running through my veins. And yet, I do not remember the face of my wife, that was there, holding my hand as I passed away. Not even her smile>>

He clenched his fist, like he was grasping something.

<<Say, Roshal. Do you know about summoning magic?>>

I nodded, unable to see the connection between what he said and this new question.

<<Well, that makes things easier to explain. If this could even be called easy. In summoning magic, the magician uses his mana to summon a creature. Now, the summoned creature is not something that exists, and is brought here in this world. It’s something created, patched up from memories and the caster’s imagination. That creature, does not exist. It never had>>

John turned around, staring at me. And I begin to understand his point.

<<Now, does this ring a bell, Roshal? To me, it was studying summoning magic that sparkled the question, and that question was the reason that brought me here in the end>>

John took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment before he resumed talking.

<<I started my life in this world by reincarnation. The usual thing that you would find in some crappy novels, one lame guy dies and the God offers him to reincarnate as a Hero of Justice.

It was almost comical, the haughty sounding voice, coming from a ball of light. And the first years of my new life, they were wonderful. I really, really believed the God’s words, you know? As soon as I came of age, I fought for the Kingdom, for Aldora, as a Hero. But then, I started to notice some discrepancies, some things that were not quite right. Both in the world, and in me>>

I tried to interrupt him, but he silenced me, lifting his finger in an imperious gesture.

<<Please, let me finish before asking your questions. I’m sure there will be plenty of them, so, be patient for a bit and listen to what I have to say>>

John cleared his throat, and continued his story.

<<When I asked the God, when I prayed, I never received a clear answer from him. It was all vague, telling me to not worry about things, that the God had a plan. I committed atrocities in that thing’s name, withholding my doubts, letting them rot inside me as I followed orders. But, as I went on, it gnawed me from the inside. I did my own research, about the Heroes first, then it came summoning magic. You know, I was the one to first formulate the new paradigm about that, to find out that summoning magic does not “summon”, it “constructs”something. I left Aldora, wandering from place to place, until I ended up in this Dungeon. In here, I was fascinated by how the monster revive with a set time. Do you know how it happens?>>

His words were difficult to follow, jumping from one topic to another, almost like he was trying to form a coherent story but failing at it.

<<No, but it’s something similar to RPG games that I played. I thought it could be based on that>>

John scratched his beard, looking thoughtful.

<<Well, that’s what happens, more or less. But how? That’s what I wanted to know. So, I delved into this Dungeon, hiding my identity from the Guild. It would have caused quite the uproar if they found out that a man from Aldora strolled right in the middle of town and entered their precious Dungeon, after all. Nonetheless, I came here, and studied the monsters and the Dungeon itself.

It’ all related. In some ways, it’s summoning magic. Only, the scale of it is vastly bigger. Instead of “constructing” a single creature, this Dungeon “builds” entire floors, limited, but complete biomes with their ecosystems. The creatures that you find here, are similar in nature as the summoned creatures. They do not exist, and are “built” from scratch from something, or someone’s memories>>

I shook my head in denial. What John said, it was fascinating, but it had something wrong to me.

<<Well, summoned creatures do not give experience when killed, while monsters in this Dungeon do. So, they’re definitely proper living creatures>>

My question made John smile.

<<Or, they could just be elaborated fakes>>

Up until then, he only limited his lesson to words. But then, he started showing me what he meant.

We went out of the saferoom. Inside the lowest floor of the Dungeon, he shielded me with some spells, basically erasing my presence.

As we advanced, the monsters in there made me question my sanity. It was like seeing pages of Lovecraftian fiction come to life, with wriggling masses of darkness, tentacles and powers beyond comprehension.

And yet, John cut straight into them, ensuring mine and his safety in less than a split second. The difference in power between me and him was something incredible to think at.

But that was not what he wanted to show me. He brought me to the central room of the floor. A chamber so wide and big that I failed to see the ceiling above, and the end of it was lost to my sight, shrouded in a distant mist. In there, instead of an insanely strong monster, there was something unbelievable.

Looking like an enormous trees of twisted, pulsing meat, it emerged from the ground. Rooted with vein-looking roots that emerged from the ground, the tree stood tall, gigantic in the otherwise empty room.

At the center of it, surrounded by a semi-transparent spherical mana barrier, there was a pulsing white brain of enormous size. Perhaps, it was even bigger than a whale.

<<Relax, there are no monsters here. This, is the final room of the Dungeon. It hosts the thing called Core. Not quite living, not quite dead, this thing supervises and implements all that happens in the Dungeon. Now, let’s go closer>>

As easy as breathing, he cast a spell on me. We took off in the air, levitating towards the pulsing white mass.

I was too overwhelmed to enjoy the sensation of flying up in the air. We rose and rose, for several hundred meters.

The air around us became cold as we ascended, and a loud humming noise was reverberating, growing in intensity as we neared the gigantic Core.

Its size was even greater than I imagined. I gawked as we came close to the barrier, its light slowly pulsing with the same frequency as the thing it protected.

<<Ok. Now, brace yourself>>

John made a gesture with his arms. Following it, his spell’s intensity grew, increasing the speed at which we were moving.

We closed the distance between us and the Core in an instant, traversing the barrier as if nothing was there.

Inside of it, the air had a metallic smell, and static electricity made my hair stand up.

<<Why are we here?>>

I asked to John, looking around while feeling both perplexed and concerned. This place was not somewhere suited to humans. That’s the impression I had.

Yet, John ignored my question. He distended his arm in front of him, pointing his palm towards the brain-like gigantic structure.

He was muttering words that I could not understand, mana flowing back and forth from him to the Core and vice-versa.

<<Don’t fight it>>

He said, his voice still being clear even over the noise from the Core. He pointed his finger at me. As he did, a dense string of mana sprouted from the Core, enveloping me.

Navi’s messages went critical, buzzing with static noise as my mind went blank.

Connected to the Core, I saw what it was doing. What it was. A recollection of memories, fabricated, patched up from whoever knows how many different creatures. It did not have a mind, working instead like a program, repeating its task over and over again. It absorbed and refined mana, working by absorbing the natural mana from the environment and converting it in a refined form, more dense, more suited to transport energy and information. Some, it would release into the Dungeon, the rest it would hold inside massive storing chambers, located in the tree-like structures below and above the Core itself.

It monitored, analyzing the flow of mana to know whatever happened inside the Dungeon. Each person that stepped inside of it, every monster that lived in the various floors. Each death that happened in there.

The Core registered it all.

And it intervened, according to the data it registered. To each monster’s death, it would respond by waiting for a set amount of time, forty- eight hours.

In that time, the Core would collect and refine mana, in a quantity decided by the type and level of the creature killed. It would use that mana to fabricate an identical copy of the creature, a “summoned creature” like those produced with summoning magic. But the process differed from the magic summoning.

The Core, using complex calculations, would also produce an array of behavior patterns, instincts and experiences. All of them synthetic, the products of innumerable calculations and simulations that happened instantaneously inside the Core.

In short, it crafted a personality, a “soul” to bestow on the newly created monster. What resulted, was a fake creature with a fake soul, but manufactured perfectly, making it almost indistinguishable from a proper, living creature. Then, the connection was broken, leaving me with a huge headache and a bleeding nose.

<<The copy is so perfect that it can trick this world’s system. It’s truly a messed up work…when you kill something, it condenses its feeling, instincts and experience, the whole mind or “soul” of the creature. All of it, it becomes energy, fed to you in the form of “Experience Points”. A cruel system, made by an even crueler God. But, this Core here, it can trick the system, giving you EXP without having to kill a real creature. Am I right?>>

Still shaken by the vision from the Core, I could not even respond to him.

Yet, John continued.

<<Now, I want you to think thoroughly about everything I said. The summoning magic, our circumstances, what you saw here, in the Core. And I want you to tell me your conclusions>>

One more time, he looked at me with those eyes, that look of pity he held.

And I did understand the reason behind that feeling he had, both for me and for himself.

Summoning magic, the “creation” of monsters by the Core. The latter could be called the perfected, evolved form of the other.

A summoner, with his limited, human mind, could construct a creature from his memory and imagination, bringing forth something that mimicked life, but was an imperfect copy of it. Useful for limited purposes.

A Dungeon Core, with its unimaginable processing power and mana flow, could do the same, while also constructing a mind, complete with behavior, instinct. Even a personality for the more advanced monsters, and to some, memory.

What John wanted to show me, was the process of mind creation from a Dungeon. And the implications of it, were terrible for someone like us.

Comprehension sparked inside my mind, as I linked what I learned here to my memories.

A mind can be created. Memories, can be created. And if something like a Dungeon Core could do it, it would be a menial task for something even more powerful. Like a God, for example.

What John wanted me to know, was the possibility that all I had, all I was, could be fake, constructed. Mere forgeries, built for whatever reason by a God.

All of my being refuted this notion, but, at the same time, I could not deny it.

It could be a possibility.

I shouted, protesting, throwing my anger at John for telling me something like this.

<<I too reacted that way, when I first came to that conclusion>>

He diverted his eyes from me, pointing them at the Core beside him.

<<And I searched for truth, for a definite proof of who I was. Of who I am. Want to know what I found? Nothing. Nothing at all. There was never a human being with the memories I hold, that lived the life I remember>>

John’s voice turned sour, angry, to the point that he lost control of his own mana flow, releasing all the power and fury he held in his body.

In that instant, I saw him for what he really was. If he really was a human, it was a long time ago.

The information that Navi displayed about him made me shudder.

[Navi: Detected- John Howards lvl 999- Race: Demon- Title: Broken Hero (Aldora), Dungeon Master (Mahal Dungeon)]

His form did not change, his aspect still that of a human. It was his nature that was different now, without the spells he used to hide it.

His voice now sounded more powerful, as if the Dungeon itself resonated with it.

<<With all the power I accumulated in my life, I found a way to peek at that world, the place where my soul should have been born. There was no trace of me, or of the Heroes that once were my companions. Not even that Broken Demon Lord, who laughs in his madness. And I have looked for you, Roshal. Thinking, hoping that you might be different, that your past would be really there. Let me show you what I found>>

Again, mana burst out of the Core, linking to me as it did before.

It showed me my own memories.

Shards of them, at least.

The pain I remember suffering while on my deathbed, it was from an old man from France.

The cherished memory of my first day of school, from a kid that grew up in North America.

All of the experiences I had in my…in what I believed to be me previous life, all of them were nothing more of a patchwork of different memories, taken from several people and patched together to mold a personality, to craft a mind. My own mind, nothing more than a construct, a fake.

<<I’m sorry but, it’s best for you to know. When Telesia told me about you, your situation, I felt like I needed to let you know about this. I could just go on without telling you, but…I prefer being honest to people. Of course, you could still think it a lie, and act otherwise. You could oppose what I just showed you, and retort that a God’s power should be able to bring a dead soul back to life, even transfer it into another world. But that reasoning contains one big mistake. The assumption that those who call themselves God are the real thing>>

I blacked out, and when I returned to my senses, John had brought me to the saferoom.

Those memories play again and again in my mind, as I sit there in the dark, thinking about the implications of them.

I feel the discrepancies that John mentioned, both in my memory and in my actions. If my mind, my soul was something created by the God, my desires, my feelings, are they really mine, or just a bunch of pre-programmed thoughts, nothing more than a code to make this body work as the God intended?

That would explain why I am following this path, trying to become stronger instead of doing the thing that a sane human being would do, avoiding danger altogether and living a quiet and tranquil life.

It makes me so fucking angry, and yet, this feeling does not seem artificial to me at all. Of course, that John could be just lying.

Voices are calling me, as I wallow in my thoughts, still lying on the floor with my head cradled between my hands.

As I lift my eyes, Marica and Levia are in front of me, with Retel and Heod following behind.

They seem concerned, perhaps they went out, looking for me in the night.

How much time did I spend here, just brooding about what happened in there? And…should I tell them?

I feel like talking to them would help me process things, but at the same time, I am not quite sure they will understand.

Deep down, I am clinging to the idea that John could be lying to me, that his was all an elaborate prank he played on me, only to laugh his ass off in that saferoom where he lives.

And yet, what he revealed to me has shaken me deeply. Hell, it’s like everything I believed has turned out wrong, one way or the other.

I go back with the others, keeping silent on the way. I do not want to concern them too much, so I repeat that I am fine, that I only needed some time to think about things.

Of course, they are not convinced by my poor acting. Hell, it must be showing on my face.

As we come back home, I wait for the others to go to their rooms, and I ask Heod to talk a bit with me.

Since I met him, the old man has always proved to be a good listener, and someone with enough insight to give me good advice.

He offers me one cup of his homebrew beer, while he sips from another cup.

Holding the cup in hand, I share with him what happened during the day.

For the first time since I met him, Heod does not have an answer to give me. Instead, he looks at me, with sadness in his eyes.

When he finally speaks, it’s something about me being me, regardless if I come from another world, or even if my mind was something artificial.

More than his words, it was talking to him that let me calm down a bit.

After I finish the beer, I say goodnight to the old man, and head to my room.

I hoped to sleep, but my mind was restless until dawn.

Getting up from my bed, I feel tired, but…

The sleepless night made me come to a conclusion. It’s rather simple, and it comes from an old school of thought that brought immense serenity all over the world. It can be summarized into two simple words.

Fuck it.

That’s it. Just fuck it. Even if my mind is a fake, that does not mean it does not exist. I exist, here, now. What I feel, is real. My anger burns, my tears are as wet as those of anyone else. My blood is as red, and my laughter sounds the same.

No matter if some God built me from scraps, or if it just pulled my soul from whatever Hell I was destined to fall into.

During breakfast, I apologize to the others and reassure them about my well being, this time without acting like last night.

It’s like I lifted a weight from my mind, having reached this resolution.

Heod seems pleased to see me laugh and joke with the others, and when we’re left alone in the room, he asks me how I feel.

I tell him that I’ve come to an understanding with myself, and I do not really care about that matter at all.

The only thing that’s still bugging me is what John said about the Gods.

<<Those calling themselves God might not be the real thing>>

That’s what he said. There is no denying that my being has been influenced, perhaps even created, by one of those things, but if whatever brought me here is not a God, then what is it? And why are they here, playing with lives as if they were mere toys, making their followers wage war one onto the other.

To answer these questions, I decided to head back to John’s side.

This time, I used the transfer stone from my home. It shattered after it transported me in the saferoom, breaking into pieces that vanished in thin air.

<<Back here so soon? I thought that you would at least take one day to process things, to find your answer to what I showed you>>

John’s voice came from the bedroll. It looks like I’ve surprised him in his sleep. He rises from his bed, still drowsy from sleep.

<<So, why are you here, fellow fake soul?>>

His voice sounds like he’s mocking me a bit. But, I give him my honest answer, one that I spend the whole night thinking about.

The simple conclusion that I came to, is that I do not care what my origins are. Sure, it pisses me off that my head is basically full of fake memories, most of them painful ones. But, that does not deny my existence here, in this world.

<<Hm. I see, that’s the conclusion you reached. Well, a normal person wound be devastated by this, knowing that all they are, memories, personality and desires, are just fabricated, fake. Your reaction right now, the will to live on, it only means that you’re a fool. And that makes two of us>>

John smiles, perhaps pleased by my answer, by the fact that I am standing here, instead of cowering from what he revealed.

<<I too came to the same conclusion, a long time ago. Well, my motives were a bit different from yours. During my life in this world, I always longed to go back, to that world I thought to be my home. And, when I achieved the means to do it, I was shocked to know the truth. That I did not belong in that place. Like I said before, a normal person would be devastated by something like this. Instead, to me, it did not matter. It almost felt like a liberation of some sort, like lifting a weight from my chest. I bet you felt the same way too. No longer tied up to that place, to those memories, I was able to forget the pain they brought, those shackles made by bad memories and unpleasant feelings. I do not why the God of Aldora uses those kind of memories when he “makes” personalities for his Heroes. Perhaps, he wants to fuel some sort of uneasiness, to make them try to “balance” their painful memories with gaining power in this world. Who knows what that thing is really thinking, what plan he has. I can only make guesses about it, after all, we’re talking about something “alien”, so different from us that trying to understand it will be impossible>>

John continued his monologue, introducing me on his theories about how and why our minds were fabricated like this.

We feel like we hold memories of another life, and the knowledge that has been embedded in our minds is the real thing, no doubt about it. But, as he says, none of us actually holds the knowledge or concepts to actually change this world with notions from that other.

<<For example, even if we know about nuclear power, we do not have the knowledge to actually build a reactor. The knowledge we have, is limited, useful only to do some tricks with magic. For example, you could think of a spell that separates protons and neutrons, giving rise to a catastrophic explosion. But, no matter what, you, and I, we will never be able to piece together this notion in order to build something, to harness this “otherwordly” concept to change the world. The same goes for electricity, or computers. I’ve met “reincarnated” people that were electricians, or engineers, or even computer programmers. They made incredible spells and abilities, using their “knowledge”, but no one among them was even capable to build an instrument like a cellphone, or a computer. Even when during their “previous lives” they did that as a job>>

According to John’s words, the memories that are chosen to “build” an otherworlder’s mind are those that will give him an edge in battle. Nothing that could really impact the world outside of a battlefield.

<<It’s strange. I mean, if the God really wanted to win his war, he could use the technology to his advantage, make people build our world’s weaponry and such>>

In response to my words, John chuckles and shakes his head.

<<Sorry, it’s just…you’re still saying “our world” like it’s a fact. Well, I guess it will take some time for you to adjust to the concept. Still, you’re right. Partially. Yes, it could be easier to do as you said, but, I have the strong feeling that the Gods need this world to be right as it is. Think about it. What happened when science became the answer to all humanity’s questions? What was the most thing that was hurt by this?>>

<<Religion>>

John claps his hands, smiling.

<<Exactly. If science explains why it rains, and it becomes advanced enough to predict when precipitation would happen, why should people pray for rain? If science has an explanation for sickness, and a cure for it, why should people pray God for forgiveness, and raise sacrifice to have his favor? Now, in this world, prayers are not just chants and words. When someone prays, their mana is put into it. And guess where all that mana goes?>>

What he’s saying has some pretty heavy connotations. I am left speechless, unable to even answer.

<<It goes to the Gods. Well, we still call them with that name for the lack of a better name. They’re definitely not Gods in the proper term. First, they’re incredibly powerful, but not omnipotent. Me and you, we’re proof that their will is not absolute. It is possible to interfere with their plans, although it requires a lot of power to do it. Well, in your case it was another God that meddled in, but…you get what I’m saying right? Second, they need people to pray them. Perhaps they feed on mana, or their power is proportional to the people that pray them. That’s the reason why this world’s original God is weaker than that of Aldora, for example. Third, and most important, they are not eternal, or immortal. They are physical beings, hidden, extremely powerful, but they can be wounded and killed>>

He waits a bit after the last sentence, letting silence settle between us, as his word sink in. He then shows me the reason of his claim.

The Dungeon Core register everything, not only what happens in the Dungeon itself, but in the world as well. And it is ancient, even more than the structure where it is, even more than Aldora, or Sendria.

In an ancient time, when it was buried underground, when this world’s original God was still strong and powerful. Before the Aldora God came, there were others who attempted to conquer this world, and the Core registered the battle between two Gods, this world’s and a rogue usurper.

The rogue was defeated, killed. But, it wasn’t another God who did the killing. It was a man, holding incredible, unfathomable power.

<<As you saw, a mortal, a human, killed that thing. Before, the Gods would challenge themselves into battle. But, as time went by, they changed their strategy, raising minions, humans, giving them fancy titles like Hero or Demon Lord and sending them into battle. Building them with false, painful memories, in order to drive them to strife for becoming better than their “old self”. Making them thirsty for strength, to overwrite the memories of their pathetic “previous life”. That’s why Heroes, Demon Lords, me and you, all of us strive for power. It’s ingrained in us, we’re made to become more powerful, with the ultimate goal of slaying the enemy God. For me, Azathot and the God that ruled this world were the target. For you, it’s the God of Aldora. All that happens in the middle, it’s there to take you to that final moment. If either of us fails, the Gods would simply build another one, and another after that. Until one succeeds>>

<<So, you’re basically saying that these Gods are the bad guys and we need to get rid of them?>>

John makes a displeased face, shaking his head in denial.

<<Not really. Some of them are good. Take this world’s “original” God, for example. She, I think her name was Skelj, she harbors good feelings towards her creatures, she grants prayers and all that stuff. Your friend, Azathot, he’s a bit weird, definitely mad, but what he tries to do, chase out the rogue Gods and helping the ones that actually care for their worlds, it’s a good thing. Maybe his methods are a bit strange, but he tries to balance things out. The God of Aldora, well he’s a ruthless bastard, aiming to erase magic and enslave worlds to his will. He did that with our “old world”, too, but it backfired, since there science grew to suppress faith and he basically lost that world. Well, enough with this topic, it’s already making my head hurt. Now, let’s start with your training, and we will talk some more in a later time>>

I am a bit thankful when I hear his words. I really was on the verge of a severe headache wit all the notions and talks about Gods and stuff. It’s something I will need to elaborate slowly, without burning out my mind in order to sort things out.

John snaps his fingers, and a door appears on the saferoom ‘s wall. We head in, finding ourselves into a large, empty room. It appears that John, being the Dungeon Master, can create and alter the Dungeon at will thanks to his connection to the Core. Sadly, according to him, the same connection prevents him for ever leaving the Dungeon.

That should be one hell of a story, how and why someone like him ended up trapping himself forever in this place.

Still, I do not have the time to ponder about things, for his training starts immediately.

He used the same spell as the first time I met him, when he forced me on the ground with some kind of increased gravity, or air pressure.

The room where we are becomes imbued with it, making my movements almost impossible. Breathing in here is hard, and I am struggling just to keep myself standing upright. What the hell is this, a training room for Saiyan?

In there, he makes me start with basic movements and exercise. To his words, he will not help me raise my level during this training. What we will do together, is increase my stats by physical training, then work on my skills and finally, he will teach me how to use magic.

It seems something simple while said like this, but the smile John’s making, makes me feel like what he’s preparing is truly a hellish training.

After five hours spent in that room, I return to the surface, exhausted. My muscles ache all over, and even taking a single step is excruciating.

But, the sense of fatigue, it has given me time to clear my head a bit. As I focused on the exercises John made me do, I didn’t let my mind dwell on the notions I learned during these two days.

Which is fine, I think.

Having used the Transfer Orb that John has given me, I returned into our house, surprising the others with my sudden appearance. Well, I suppose it would have been better to warn them first, but oh well.

Much to my surprise, Dahl is here with the others. His wounds healed, he’s sitting at the table trying to stop Heod from putting more cake in his plate.

<<It’s a battle you will not win, Dahl>>

I say, smiling at that scene. Yes, all that exercise definitely improved my mood, although it drained my energies.

Even if I feel exhausted, I decide to go out with the others. Right now, I want to enjoy a bit of time with them, without monsters trying to kill us or Dungeon floors to explore. Just a bunch of people hanging out, speaking about what they did during the day.

Before we go, Heod stops me, checking out how I feel. Our talk yesterday night must have been concerning to him.

I reassure him of my well being. The old man smiles, patting my shoulder, telling me that whenever I want to talk, about anything, he’s there.

It’s refreshing to see that there are people here who are ready to support me, listening to my insecurities and complaints with patience. Seriously, I don’t know how things would have been without Heod’s support.

Thanking the old man, and promising him a treat of good liquor when I come back, I part from him, heading out to join the others on our night out in Sendria.

Unlike the alleys I saw yesterday, the Central plaza is something beautiful to see at night. No trace of poverty or desperation here, only people doing their business and others willing to spend their coins in exchange for good food, alcohol and a bit of fun.

We decide to grab a bite at the foodstalls, and we walk around seeing what Sendria has to offer at night.

Several stalls and taverns are willingly serving alcohol to us, since here there is basically no concept of minor or adolescents. After you get older than thirteen, you stop being a child and are treated like an adult, with all the good and bad sides that come from it.

Surprisingly, Dahl seems to be rather weak to alcohol. We’ve taken a few rounds of beer, and he’s already red in the face and talking funny.

And he’s talking too much, it’s like seeing another person from the usual, calm and collected Dahl.

Well, the first impression he made might have been a strange one, but he’s gradually growing on me. He’s a nice guy, and reliable, most of all.

Each of us is talking about what happened with their respective trainers. Retel is really pleased with

Rupert. Although they haven’t yet started a proper physical training course, the retired adventurer has begun to give him some theory notions about proper martial forms, and the use of weapon and shield.

<<Things like how to properly hold out your shield, how to maximize impact deflection and so on. Lots of complicated, but interesting stuff>>

When it comes to Marica’s turn, her face turns pale while she recalls the huge amount of books that she has been forced to study. Apparently, her tutor is somewhat of a strict one.

<<Well, after all magic is about knowledge, and you can only acquire that with hard study>>

She empties her cup, cleaning her mouth from the beer foam with her sleeve in an unfeminine gesture.

Levia too has begun to study some basic magic tomes. Her tutor is someone that specialized in both archery and magic, combining the two in battle.

Judging from the way she speaks of her, she holds her new master in great consideration already.

When it comes to my turn, I omit the ridiculous part of what happened, like the level of my new master and his circumstances.

They try to pry about what happened yesterday, what could have possibly saddened me so much. But, I divert the topic, saying that I just felt a bit homesick. Nostalgia for my old world. Well, that’s one hell of an excuse, coming from my own mouth.

But, I do not want to ruin the atmosphere right now. We’re having fun, no point in bringing some depressing topic out.

When the right time comes, I will talk to them properly. But for now, we’re having fun, and I do not want to ruin that.

I am taking this occasion to push Retel to make his move with Marica. It’s almost painful to look at them, as they steal glances one from the other, embarrassed, unable to properly stand up and tell each other what they feel.

Every time Retel looks at her, Marica’s face becomes red, and she diverts her eyes. Mostly, she looks down and fidgets with her hands, or she turns to Levia to talk.

Not that Retel is doing something different. He’s being his usual self, joking out loudly, but since we’ve been here, he never directly spoke to Marica.

We spent another hour in that tavern, before heading back home. Sadly, me and Retel had to carry back Dahl. He’s really too much weak to alcohol, and he fell asleep on the table.

<<Well, I guess it’s enough for this night. Tomorrow, you all have stuff to do after all>>

I smile to them, reminding them of the upcoming Rank-Up ceremony. Since Dahl was discharged earlier from the Hospital, Telesia decided to hasten things and do the Rank Up tomorrow morning.

Since I have different circumstances, I cannot participate to the ceremony, but I will attend it together with the old man.

After all, it should be an important day for adventurers, worthy of celebration.

With Retel, we lift up Dahl from his seat, and we start heading home.

<<Wow, he’s still asleep even now. Are you sure he’s not dead?>>

Retel asks, a bit concerned. Of course Dahl is still alive, he’s just passed out. Perhaps, this was his first time drinking alcohol?

<<I guess he’ll wake up tomorrow with a nice headache>>.

Since there’s a spare room in hour house, we brought him back with us. It’s a bit strange, if I think about it, but none of us actually know where he lives. The only personal thing we know about him is that Telesia is his grandmother, and that’s it. Nothing about the rest of his family.

Well, I figured out he might just be a shy person after all, reserved about his whereabouts.

Taking him up the stairs was a bit of a chore to do, since, even if passed out, he was still moving in his sleep, making it difficult for us to carry him.

I’ll take my revenge on him tomorrow, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, he didn’t puke, or this situation could have become seriously worse than it is.

After laying him on the bed, we left the room. Marica and Levia are already in their rooms, while Heod is downstairs in his improvised laboratory. He’s probably making his inventory, since he will need to move to the new lab that the Guild has provided him.

We decided to pay him a visit. After all, I promised some good liquor to the old man.

He’s glad to see the bottle. Personally, I never tasted the liquor inside of it, and I bought it by Levia’s suggestion.

She said that it was a long time favorite of Heod, and often, back when they lived in Nudria, he would buy the liquor and sip it after each meal.

Although he enjoys liquor, he is not a drunkard at all. More like a connoisseur, enjoying the thing without letting it become a vice.

We stay some time with the old man, helping him to move and pack things.

<<Hm, I guess it’s enough for today. Go to bed, lads. Tomorrow will be a great day, you need to rest a bit>>

He sends us off with a smile.

Once in my room, I take off my clothes and collapse on the bed. Hell, I feel tired. That bastard John really worked me to the bone.

Still, I’ve been trying to avoid the topic with myself, in order to not crack the resolve I found yesterday. But, it returns, always, coming back from the corners of my consciousness, no matter in how many menial tasks or conversations I try to bury myself.

It’s not something a normal person should be able to process in only one day. Well, John’s words were right about that.

Hell, I do not know if it will take me a lifetime to come to terms with this. I tried to ask Navi about how things really are for me.

After staying silent for a while, her voice rings in my head. Her usual mocking tone is not there, instead, the voice she makes sounds apologetic.

[Navi: Yes, it’s all true. Sorry, if we kept it hidden from you, but something like this could cause severe psychological instability, even crush your mind. We could not risk something like this happening]

Well, she admits things are as John told me. And what’s this “we” she’s talking about?

[Navi: This conversation was authorized by Azathot. Since he does not want to lose another subject, this time it was allowed to share the details, in order to avoid the same accident that happened with the Laughing One]

So, the God is listening, huh? Well, that makes two of them out to spy me, Alvares and my old friend.

I feel like those VIPs from old movies, paranoid about microphones and spy-cams being set in their office.

Well, I hope they enjoy the show, seeing a man facing doubts about his very existence. Although, since Navi confirmed it, I guess they’re not doubts anymore.

All the memories I have, the life I thought to be my own. Nothing more than forgeries, things put together to build my personality.

All the decisions I took in this world, they all stem from the way I was constructed. Even me being here, it’s nothing more than a desire already “programmed” into me when I was created.

All that talk about becoming stronger, it was not really my decision, but something ingrained in me, pre-set, a path I was supposed to chose for myself and follow, thinking it like a decision I took. While it was not.

And all the times I considered to turn back, abandon whatever I was attempting to do and live a quiet life here, those were empty consideration, only possible to make this whole thing more plausible, like I had a proper inner dialogue with myself.

It makes me laugh, thinking about how really messed up this situation is.

I roll over in my bed, trying to let myself fall asleep. After all, I already took a decision about how I would deal with all this. Yes, this whole situation is so messed up, but, I cannot change. No matter what I do, it will not change the fact that my head is full of memories that are not mine, and that whatever I am, I am tied to whatever game these Gods are playing.

So, what should I do? The answer is simple. Continue what I am already doing. I will continue training with John, and after that, I will resume the exploration of the Dungeon and the trials hidden within. Somehow, I will deal with things, like I’ve always had up to this point. Perhaps, if I really become strong, I will have the occasion to look one of these supposed Gods in the face, and let him taste a bit of pain.

Hell, I really sound like a proper, stereotypical Demon Lord right now! Well, it’s the Gods’ fault, since they made me this way.

Finally, sleep comes to silence my thoughts. After all, tomorrow will be a great day. No point in spending another sleepless night, brooding over things that I cannot possibly change.

Re:Interference Chapter 20- Rest

A knock on the door, light, but persistent. I open my eyes, still drowsy from the first good night of sleep I had in a while.

Navi’s clock signals noon. I smile, thinking about the straight fourteen hours that I spent sleeping.

Well, my body needed some rest, after all.

Having allocated all my points from the recent level up, I drifted into proper, good sleep for the first time since I’ve set foot into Sendria.

<<I’m coming down!>>

I shout while suppressing a yawn. Man, I feel still sleepy, that sensation when you oversleep and yet you feel even more tired than when you went to sleep.

Before going downstairs, I do a quick trip to the bathroom. After refreshing my face a bit, I head down.

The others are already awake, and they’re sharing lunch, sitting at the large table located in the kitchen. The only one that is not here is Dahl, since he’s still in the Healer’s care. After all, his injuries were no joke, and he will need some days before the Healers will let him out of the Hospital.

<<Morning…everybody>>

Sluggishly, I take a seat at the table.

<<Morning? It’s noon already. Damn, you like to oversleep huh?>>

Retel teases me a bit, while sipping a bit of wine from his cup.

<<Hey, aren’t you a bit too young to drink that?>>

I retort to him. Still, he’s underage, right? Even in this world, letting someone his age drink alcohol should be prohibited.

<<Oh shut up! We’re celebrating right now!>>

He raises his cup, spilling a bit of wine on the table.

<<Cheers! For our first successful Dive in that hideous place!>>

Well, he is right. Although, I am more interested in the food rather than drinking wine right now.

The meal in front of me is something wonderful. Far better than the things I prepare, for sure. And I have the “cooking” skill, so…

As I take a bite from the meat served in my plate, I mentally praise the old man’s cooking prowess.

He’s still in the back of the kitchen, tinkering with stoves and ingredients.

<<Hey, Heod! What are you cooking in there?>>

I ask him, but the old man denies my curiosity.

<<Oh, just wait…you’ll see when it is ready>>

What he brings back, is one of the most delicious cakes I ever tasted.

We stayed there, enjoying the meal and taking the time to catch up a bit with Heod.

He wanted to know what happened inside the Dungeon, all the details of the battles we fought.

From his part, he shared how his alchemy shop was faring during our absence. It seems that his potions are selling well in the city, and he has already made a name for himself.

<<Soon, I will need to hire some new people and open a stall in the Central Marketplace. You know, I’ve received a good offer for a collaboration with my shop. Soon, I will move the business from this house, and I will have a proper laboratory. You’ll see, this old man will make you never worry about money in your life!>>

The man himself seems really pleased with how good his business is doing, although, it seemed like he’s a bit troubled by something. It could just be my imagination, after all.

<<Oh, that reminds me…we found a lot of ingredients there in the Dungeon. You might want to see them>>
After lunch, I head to the old man’s laboratory in the basement.

From my Inventory, I unload the ingredients from the Dungeon. Heod sorted through the ones he requested, while some of the plant samples from the sixth level were unknown even to him.

<<Hm, I will need to study these later. Say, Roshal…what are you going to do next?>>

<<Well, first off I need to visit the Guild building and drop some things there. Then, I need to go to the armor shop, and perhaps to the Hospital building to visit Dahl>>

Heod chuckled.

<<No, I meant in general. You know, you mentioned that you would like to take some time off from the Dungeon, after all. What are you planning to do, and how long would you like to stay in the city?>>

<<Hm…I haven’t decided about it yet. Two weeks, perhaps? I need to consult the others, see what they would like to do>>

<<Can I give you some advice? Take your time. Right now, you’ve grown incredibly fast by fighting in that place. Yet, you still lack something, all of you. Both as individuals and as a group. If you want my honest opinion, you should take at least a month to sort out things, learn some new tricks before you decide to head in the Dungeon again>>

The old man has a point there. I myself was thinking about something like this, take a pause from the Dungeon and focus on honing our skills here, without having to risk our lives everyday.

I part from him, still thinking about what he said.

A bit of proper training will be beneficial to us. I remember that the Guild gives out free courses an training to adventurers, while more advanced training courses cost a pretty sum of money.

Well, the old man said to not worry about money, since he will take care of it for us.

Of course, we can have our own funding, from the loot we obtained during this Dive we will probably gain quite a good amount of money.

First things first, I need to go to the Guild now. I will worry about what to do in a later time.

The girls went out on their own, taking the day to do some errands and spend some “girl time” on their own.

Levia seemed particularly glad when Marica asked her. The old man was almost moved to tears, seeing his little girl head out with a human friend for the first time.

I usually do not give it much thought, to the fact that Heod, Retel and Levia are from a different race. But for them, who tasted discrimination from who knows how much time, it is something to cherish when people treat them as equals, as friends.

<<So, shall we go to the Guild?>>

Retel distracts me from my thoughts.

<<Sure. We need to drop by the armor shop after that, and then we meet up with the girls and head to the Hospital. Do you want to stop anywhere else on the way?>>

<<Nah, I’m ok. Maybe later, after we deal with business first>>

We go towards the Guild building, chatting about small talk on the way there.

<<So, what would you like to do from now on? The old man suggested we take a bit of rest from the Dungeon for a while. What do you think about it?>>

Retel ponders a bit to my question.

<<I wanted to ask you the same thing. All that happened in there, it made me reflect on some things. Sure, we won, and we got stronger. But, that’s just counting levels and skills, right? I don’t know about you, but I would like to properly learn how to fight. I was a bit pissed off when Dahl called me an amateur the first time, when he criticized my moves…but, after thinking about it, I know he was right. I mean, I know how to swing a spear around and lift my shield up, but…>>

<<Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. I too have the same feeling, that somehow I am still lacking on several aspects here. After all, what am I doing in battle? I use my skill, and that’s it. Maybe it will be the right choice for us to stop a bit from going inside the Dungeon, and focus on some real and proper training for a while?>>

As we head towards the Guild, we continue speaking about what to do in the near future.

<<And…why haven’t you spoken with her about it?>>

Retel blushes, blabbering some excuses. It makes me laugh a bit, and it only makes his blabbering worse.

<<Relax, I don’t think it will go that badly. Just go and speak to her. Invite her somewhere, maybe buy some pretty things as a gift>>

Before we realize it, the Guild Headquarters stand right in front of us. We drop the talk we’ve been having, and I feel like Retel took a sigh of relief.

<<Well, let’s get on with it>>

I open the large, wooden door. Stepping inside, we’re welcomed by one of the receptionist.

As I look around, I notice that the building is almost empty, only a few adventurers are in there.

<<It looks like we got lucky this time. No line, and almost all receptionists are free>>

Retel smiles, heading towards the reception desks.

Greeting the female receptionist, a blonde woman with freckles and light green eyes, we make our official report to the Guild.

After taking care of the paperwork, we ask her about selling the materials we got from the Dungeon.

Of course, I will not sell all the loot and materials we obtained. Some of them, I have them promised to the old lady’s armor shop. The rarest ones, we will keep them for ourselves, while the rest I will split in two, and sell them to the Guild and at the Central Marketplace.

But, what interests me the most right now, is seeing if there is a reward for the Champion and Guardian monsters we’ve slain.

The receptionists points us to another desk, situated in the back part of the building.

Entering there, the strong smell of blood and animal envelops the air. At the counter, a rough looking man is weighting some monster parts on a scale, while some adventurers wait in line.

<<So, with this and the skins from before…I’d say ten gold coins>>

As the man gives his price, the adventurers make a sad face. Perhaps they expected more from the monster parts they brought back from the Dungeon.

Still, without protesting out loud, they accept the money and head away from the building.

Another adventurer party advances to the counter, delivering their bounty of bones, teeth and monster shells to the old man.

We’re standing in line, behind another party.

Waiting for our turn, we look around and comment about the things exposed in this shop. This counter serves adventurers, selling and buying monster parts. It also is the place where you can exchange proof of having taken down a Champion monster for the appropriate reward.

<<Next>>

The middle aged man at the counter calls for the next in line.

This time, the adventurers make a ruckus out of the price that the old man offered. One of them even takes out his weapon, trying to threaten the receptionist.

The old man crosses his large, muscular arms. His face is not showing anything but disappointment towards the adventurers.

He cleans his hand on the white, blood stained apron that covers his large belly.

<<Huh…you never learn. I’ll say one more time. These are the prices here. The items you brought, are only low level materials from the easiest floors. And this is the best price for them you’ll get in all Sendria. Now, for the last time. Stop being childish, take the money and get the fuck out of my sight>>

His deep voice resounds in the air. Despite him being visibly angry, the receptionist is trying with all his might to sound gentle to the protesting adventurers.

<<Tch. As if we’d settle for this measly amount of money, old bastard. Nevermind the price for this loot, give me all the money you have here>>

Nearing his face to the receptionist, the protesting adventurer points his dagger at the man’s throat.

The others behind him have also taken their weapons in hand.

<<Well, it looks like words do not work with scum like you. Whatever>>

Lifting his shoulders, the old man looks like he’s giving up.

The leader of the protesting party seems pleased by what he’s seeing. Strangely, none of the people working behind the counter seem to do anything about this situation.

Almost as if they do not even consider this a dangerous situation, they simply gave a sorrowful look to the adventurers, and then resumed their work.

The receptionist smiles.

In a flash, the adventurer that was threatening him flies off, crashing to the wall with an unpleasant crackling sound.

He screams, lifting up his arm.

It is broken, bent in an unnatural direction.

The other adventurers look at their leader, before they charge towards the counter.

Again, with a movement faster than my eyes could see, the receptionist takes care of them.

Five crashing sounds, and now six voices are screaming in pain from the floor of this building.

<<Martha, take these rascals out of my sight please. Next!>>

A girl comes out from behind the counter. Smiling, she grabs the rebellious adventurers by the collar, all six of them, and drags them away from the building.

As I look at her, I notice that the girl’s level exceeds fifty.

The receptionist himself, he’s at level sixty-five. Definitely not a match for those adventurers, who could not reach his level not even if they combined all theirs.

A bit scared by him, I greet the receptionist.

<<Oh, new faces. Well, I hope you enjoyed the show from before, and learned from it>>

He smiles, but his eyes are a bit cold.

Definitely a scary man.

<<Yeah…you don’t often see a man breaking six arms in the blink of an eye. I am impressed>>

Retel praises the receptionist with sincere admiration.

The man laughs, a hearty, bellowing sound.

<<Heh, scum like that are not even worth my time,lads. You know, once I was an adventurer like you…>>

Please, don’t say that you took an arrow in the knee…

<<Then I got married, and I retired from the field. Now, I manage this place, since this damned Guild could not let me go. Well, my name is Rupert, Rupert the Rock as they called me back then>>

<<So, mister Rupert, I am Retel and this one here is my friend Roshal. We would like to sell some materials, and also…>>

Rupert’s eyes widen as I empty my inventory in front of him.

<<Wow, it has been ages since I saw one of those skills. It surely is convenient eh?>>

He praises my Inventory, smiling.

But his expression slowly turns into surprise, and then astonishment.

<<You…how? This much materials, and all in pristine conditions. And wait, these are…lads, did you bring the heads, also?>>

I nod, and take out the heads of the Champion level monsters we killed.

<<So, Silverback, Serketh and Shartu. All three of them…another party brought back Elthor, the Champion from the eighth level…but to think a group of youngsters like you managed to take out those three in a short amount of time>>

His mouth was about to fall off when I presented the Guardian’s head.

<<Even this one…lads, I am impressed>>

Incredulous, he looked back and forth from us to the materials, then to our Identity stones. In there, there was recorded the duration of our last Dive.

Usually, a party would take at least four days to clear levels beyond the fifth one, even more for the successive ones.

The tenth level was especially rough for newcomers, and since our party registered to the Guild less than two months ago, we’re basically newcomers to the Guild’s ranks.

One of the other workers comes near the counter, and whispers something to Rupert’s ears.

He looks at us again, and a wry smile opens up in his face.

<<Oh, so you are those guys. Well, Telesia did speak about some youngsters with peculiar circumstances. Huh, I thought you lot looked different. Wait, there should be more of you, right? Two girls and that little brat, Dahl…where are they?>>

We share the whereabouts of the other members. Rupert seems saddened to hear that Dahl was injured.

<<So, he’s at the Hospital right now…well, I’ll pay him a visit later. Now, let’s get to business>>

As he did for the other adventurers, Rupert weights all the materials we brought back.

The corpses from the monsters have already been dismantled by my skill, so he does not need to take the corpses apart himself.

<<Huh, you surely made my job convenient boys. Well, definitely a lot cleaner>>

He laughs again. Definitely, he feels like a fine person. As he does his work, separating the monster materials, weighting them and registering them, he shares a bit of his old stories from the time he was the one slaying the monsters.

Since the materials we brought were a large amount, we had the occasion to talk with Rupert for some time.

His stories are really interesting, and none of them feels like the empty boasting of a retired adventurer.

He even claim to have fought against a Dragon, and I totally believe him.

<<Damn, that beast was the foulest thing I ever set my eyes upon. It smelled of sulfur, and its roar made me literally piss my pants. That was one of the turning points for me, lads. When we fled from it, we lost two thirds of our party. Only me, my wife and two others survived, from a party of twelve adventurers well over level fifty. Our leader was level seventy-six, and he got munched like a snack by that overgrown lizard>>

<<So, how high was the Dragon’s level?>>
Retel asks, leaning on the counter.

Rupert turns around with a dramatic air.

<<It was level one>>

Without a word, he turns back to his work.

<<You’re kidding right? Level one?>>

Retel is incredulous about Rupert’s words. I too am surprised by what I heard. First, Dragons do exist in this world. Well, it is a fantasy world, so it’s only logical that they exist here, if logic can even apply to this place.

But the most shocking part, was about the Dragon’s level.

<<Lads, let me get things clear. Level is not an absolute. Sure, it’s a measure of power, but it can be tricky sometimes. What really counts, are skills and stats. So, a level one with good skills and stats can easily beat a level ten with sub-par abilities. And, when it comes to Dragons, they’re naturally born with the strongest skills and ridiculous stats. Many adventurers lost their lives, thinking that just because their levels were much higher than the Dragon they dare to face, they could have an easy time against it. If you want to know more about those beasts, I believe there’s something in the Guild’s library>>

We continue to chat a bit whit Rupert.

He finishes inspecting the materials we brought, and he writes the sum for them on a sheet of paper, stamping it with the Guild’s seal.

<<Here. It’s better if you take this to the Treasury, instead of taking the coin with you. It’s a fine amount, mind you, and it comprises the rewards for these beauties here>>

Pointing at the heads of the Champions and Guardian we’ve slain, he gives us a big smile before sending us off.

<<Take care, lads. And drop by sometimes!>>

As we head out of the building, we pass to the main reception desk to ask the Treasury’s whereabouts.

The receptionist gives us direction to the detached building. It’s near the main building, in a side alley.

We exit the main building, heading out in the street again.

Levia and Marica were waiting for us outside of the Guild, since we took too much time to sell our loot and they already finished their tour of the city.

Together, we head towards the Treasury.

On the road there, we share with them what happened during the afternoon.

The Treasury is a luxurious building, which shows the opulence and wealth of the Guild. Inside, the marble floor is adorned with mosaics representing warriors and monsters.

The receptionists there all have a professional and dignified look, and the adventurers waiting in line all have splendid armors and the aura of strength around them.

A familiar voice beckon to us as we stand in line.

<<Oh, look who’s here>>

Telesia herself greets us. Surrounded by attendants that scurry behind her, carrying packs of documents while showing a concerned and frustrated expressions while they try to get the old lady’s attention.

We greet her, telling her what business brings us here.

With a wink, she guides us to a private office, raising some mumbles of protest from the other adventurers in line.

<<Oh shut up you lot!>>

She snaps at the adventurers, bringing silence again in the large hall of the Treasury.

Inside the small private office, a receptionist takes care of the sum we’ve come to claim. Instead of paying us upfront, she makes us open an account in the Guild’s bank.

With this, according to the receptionist, we’ll be able to deposit or withdraw money just by presenting our Identity stones to the counter. Definitely more convenient than having all the money with you. Well, not that something like that is a problem for me, since I can store the money into my Inventory after all.

Taking advantage of the situation, I immediately deposit some of the funds I had in the Inventory into the Guild’s account.

The receptionist makes a surprised face, while Telesia smiles to us.

<<Well, aren’t you full of surprises…>>
She beckons the receptionist to speed up the practice, and then she basically drags us out of the office.

<<Now, follow me>>

Unable to deny her request, we follow the Guildmaster into her own office. The place is a mess, with documents scattered all around without any sense of order.

It would give nightmares to my old boss and his OCD.

That thought makes me chuckle a bit. Well, it’s also because we’ve made a huge profit today, and we still have some loot to sell.

Telesia cuts straight to the point. She wants to hear the details about what happened with Dahl and me on the sixth floor.

<<I already asked Dahl what happened, but I would like to hear your version too>>

And so, I tell her about what happened in the flower field, when Dahl attacked me under Alvares’s spell, and how I did unravel the magic cast on him and me both.

<<Hm. I see. But, you’ve been a bit too naive, Roshal>>

She flicks her fingers, and around me, for a brief moment, purple snakes coiled around my body manifest.

<<You did not break the spell on yourself. Even with Dahl, I had to ask for the help of a close friend to actually break the spell on him. Alvares is one of the strongest magicians in Sendria, perhaps the strongest one. There’s no way someone of your level could have broken free from his spell>>

My face pales as she tells me so.

I really thought that I had somehow broken the spell, but I was mistaken.

<<Still…why make me think that it worked?>>

<<Perhaps he wanted you to lower your guard. After all, he’s using this to spy on you. If he wanted you dead, if he really wanted something like this, I think nothing would stop him. Oh, do not worry. In here, his spell does not work, so we can have a little chat. And, let me reassure you, his spell does not have any harmful effect>>

Telesia continues, explaining how the situation in Sendria is right now.

According to her words, more and more scouts from Aldora have been spotted in Sendria territory. But that’s the only movement their troops have shown so far. Even the attack on Nudria has been the only offensive action they had taken towards Sendria’s territory.

<<It’s like they’re waiting for something, and we do not know what they’re waiting for. I have some suspicions, however. But, without any kind of proof, I cannot do anything about them>>

She shares some more details about what is going on in Sendria. She seems worried, crushed by the heavy implications of some of the recent happenings.

Well, what she says is really something to lose your sleep on.

Besides from the movement of Aldora’s scouts, there is also the matter with the Triumvirate. Alvares is behaving more and more aggressively during the Council reunion, and he’s pressing the other members of the Triumvirate to make his own law propositions pass.

Criminal activity is spiking in Sendria, and people are demanding the Army to take matters in hands.

<<In a normal situation, this would be something disadvantageous to Alvares. But, there are strong suspicions of him being the one behind the underground activities in Sendria. More than suspicions, it’s certain to me that he’s the one holding the reins here, but without proof I cannot bring him down after all. Still, he’s the one causing the problem, while he holds the solution in hands. Soon, the criminal activity will become too much, and the Triumvirate will be forced to call for martial law in the city. It’s inevitable, and I have the strong feeling that Alvares will use that opportunity to deal a blow against the Guild. Perhaps, he has already a plan to pin some false accusations to us>>

The news she’s sharing to us make me worry, but I do not understand the reason why she’s sharing some delicate matters to us.

First, even if we’re registered to the Guild, we are in no position to hear some delicate state matters. And, as she said before, I am still under Alvares’s spell. So, there is a high probability that, no matter the precautions she took in here, Alvares might use me to…

<<You’re worrying about that? Well, it is considerate of you, but I have my reasons here. And, I already told you to not worry about that spell. Nothing I will tell you here will reach Alvares, of that I assure you>>

Right. I forgot that she’s a mind reader, after all.

<<As the reason why I am sharing things with you…well, let’s say that I plan to make use of you lot. Oh don’t make that face. Of course I will use all my assets against that old bastard, and you are one of those assets. Right now, my most trusted parties are busy doing some secret operations all around the territory that Sendria manages. Mostly, we’re doing sabotage and intel gathering, but we’re stretched thin here. What I want to say is…I will rely on you, in the future. And, in order to do that, I will need you lot to be informed first, and then to grow a little bit more>>

She ends her sentence with a wry smile.

This woman is scary…

She talks some more about the current situation in Sendria, about the Guild and whatever is goig on behind the scenes.

In short, Alvares is the biggest threat to Sendria, and the Guild itself. Even more than Aldora, since Alvares could easily strike from inside Sendria. Telesia even hints at some suspicious rumors, about Alvares being in contact with Aldora itself.

According to her, he’s using his influence to destabilize Sendria, while using money and coercion to take total control of the Council, effectively ruling out the other two members of the Triumvirate.

But, he is taking his time, in order to not stir things too fast.

<<In two or three months, however, he will make his move. I know it, and I am preparing for that. Along with you, I am raising some promising individuals. It’s some kind of a private army of the Guild. Of course, every notion about it is kept in secret, so do not go blabbering anything about it>>

She winks, and then she hands out to each of us a bundle of paper.

<<There, you will find your first orders an assignment. Relax, right now you’re way too weak to be of use in the field. What I will have you do, is a hellish training course for the next two months. But, before that, we will take care of your Rank Up>>

Again, she gives us her smile. It could even look the amiable smile of an old lady, but her eyes betray the sly intelligence behind that smile.

I look at her, puzzled by her words. The others too look like they did not understand the last part of her sentence.

Telesia sighs, while holding her head with one hand.

<<So, you lot don’t even know about this, right? Well, I expected this from the otherworlder but…>>

<<Wait how do you…ah, mind reading. Of course>>

I jumped up from my seat when she said that word, but then my reasoning clicked in. If she can read minds, of course she would knew about my circumstances.

This woman is not scary, she’s terrifying…and I fear that we’ve been caught into something far greater and dangerous than anything we’ve faced before.

<<Hey, what is this “rank up” thing that you mentioned?>>

Retel asks Telesia a question, his tone being a bit rude to the old woman.

She sighs again, and begins explaining about it.

<<All of you, you already surpassed level twenty, right? It should be common knowledge, but once you break past level twenty, it is possible to undergo a special ritual, that will reward you with something called “class”. By ranking up, and receiving a class, your stats will go up and you will gain new skills in accordance to the class awarded. So, we will have you all undergo the rank up ceremony>>

I ask Navi to confirm Telesia’s words. The Navigator explains the process, using almost the same words that Telesia used.

Unfortunately, according to Navi I cannot “rank up” normally. She tries to be evasive about it, but my own “rank up” will happen in relation to how many trials I manage to pass.

Leaving me outside of the picture, the others will be able to have a significant increase in their power. Which is a good thing.

Still, Telesia says that the “rank up” will be held when Dahl will be discharged from the Hospital.

She makes a sad face when she mentions his injuries, looking like a loving grandmother for a small moment.

The impression around her disappears, when she orders us our new training schedule.

To all of my companions, she appointed a specialist from the Guild. Retired adventurers, who were the best in their specializations when they were still active.

I do not know if I should feel honored for this opportunity, or I should be despairing, since my plans about “some weeks of relax in Sendria” have just gone out of the window.

Well, looking at things from a different perspective, Telesia’s intervention resolved my doubts about what to do in the near future.

And it’s not like we could refuse her, after all. She did not make any explicit threat about what would happen if we refuse her generous offer, still, I can imagine how crossing her would be really unpleasant, and dangerous.

Well, I came here to Sendria in order to become stronger, and she’s basically serving that opportunity on a silver plate for us.

I will consult things with Heod first, however.

<<Oh don’t sweat it. I’ve already spoken with that grumpy old man>>

Again, the thought reading thing. Telesia hands me a sheet of paper. On it, there is a formal contract between Heod’s alchemy shop and the Guild.

<<So, the old man sold us…>>

<<It’s not like that. Well, I may have convinced him about the fate of his shop if he refused, and it’s all for giving you guys the economic support that you need. But enough of that. We were talking about your training…>>

She goes on, telling us where to find our new trainers and when to meet them. For now, before the rank-up, we will only have an informal meeting with them, and the true training will start after the rank-up ceremony.

Telesia dismisses us, turning her attention to the documents scattered on her desk. One of her attendants comes into the room, to escort us out of the office.

Still a bit shocked, we leave Telesia’s office, heading out to the armor shop to drop the materials they had requested from us.

Since we will be staying in Sendria for a while, we also decided to drop our weapons and armor for an upgrade. After all, when this “training” will end, we will need better gear to protect ourselves.

On the road there, we speak about the sudden development that happened with Telesia.

<<To think that she went and organized us this tight schedule…>>

Retel is mumbling, reading the papers that Telesia handed to him back in the office. To each of us, she gave instructions about the supposed training regime we have to follow.

A specialist from the Guild will train each of us, individually. For Retel, the retired adventurer that should be his new master is Rupert, the man we’ve met when we exchanged the monster parts.

Marica was excited as soon as she saw the name of her new master. According to her, she would be studying with one of the most famous magicians in Sendria. Among all of us, she’s the most eager to start this new thing.

<<I don’t know what to think about this. I mean, it’s somewhat a good thing, we will be able to study and learn from some strong people, but, I feel like we’re being trapped into doing this>>

Levia is fidgeting a bit with her hair, an habit of her. She does this whenever she’s feeling a bit anxious.

<<Well, no point in overthinking about this. I think that, all considered, this will be a good opportunity. I mean, usually you would have to pay a pretty sum of money to get this kind of specialist to train you, right? And, we did come here to get stronger, for how empty that goal sounds. If we follow what Telesia said, we will get stronger, and with considerably less risks than just strolling down in the Dungeon>>

Levia nods and smiles to Retel’s words. But, no matter what her brother says, she seems like she’s not really sure about what to do.

Even I am a bit conflicted about all of this. I am angry at Telesia, she basically pushed her agenda on us, without even bothering to ask first.

Seriously, my experience with the Guild and the people managing it is a bit too much convoluted for my tastes.

They made a good first impression, feeling like a competent organization. Then, that matter with the trial happened, and they decided to kidnap me. And now, this development with Telesia.

To think I was getting ready to have two weeks of relax in Sendria…

We finally reach the old lady’s armor shop.

As we enter, her young assistant greets us, before she strolls to the back room, calling her grandmother.

Helena peeks out of the curtains that separate her shop from the back of the building. From the looks of it, she was working on some project right now, judging from the smears of oil that are on her face.

She smiles at us, and comes forward in order to properly greet her “dear customers”.

<<So, back from that funny place, aren’t ya? Well, did you bring the materials I asked?>>

To her request, I respond with a nod. As I take out the materials from my inventory, she makes a pleased expression, examining them with quick glances.

<<Good, good. Hm? You even brought back some materials from Champion monsters? How thoughtful of you!>>

Her eyes sparkle as she looks at the rare materials. In particular, Shartu’s hide is catching her attention.

But, as she browses through the items…

<<Say…where did you find that?>>

She’s pointing at a small knife I have, hanged to the leather belt I am wearing around my waist. It was one of the experiments I did with my crafting skill.

<<This? Oh, I made it myself>>

She gestures me to give her my knife. As I take the weapon and present it to her, Helena practically snatches the item from my hands.

She is gazing at the small knife, running her fingers on the blade and handle.

<<Boy, do you have a crafting skill?>>

She asks while staring at me.

<<Yes. Why?>>

<<Tch. Damn cheaters…and here I thought that you had actual talent with crafting. Oh well. So, did ya come here just to drop the materials? Or do ya need something else?>>

As usual, she’s a bit rude, but there’s no denying that the items she makes are pretty good.

I leave the armors and weapons to her, asking Helena if she can strengthen them.

<<Hm. Yes, I can modify the armor, although, if you really want something more performing, it would be better if I craft some new sets altogether. For the weapons, it’s the same>>

We decide for the new items. She will base them on the old design, using improved materials for both armor and weapons.

Helena goes through each of us, asking which kind of equipment would suit us better, which modification she should do to the armor and such.

Like we agreed on the first time she made items for us, part of her payment will be in monster material from the Dungeon.

After giving her an advance payment for material costs and small expenses, we head out of her shop.

Having taken care of the armor business, we set out to the Hospital.

The building is near the entrance to the Dungeon. It’s a bland building, with a single wooden sign that explains its purpose.

Many people can be seen entering and going away from the building. Visitors, probably, here to have some news on their acquaintances that are being treated in the Hospital.

Inside the building, the air is filled with a strong smell of alcohol. It’s nice to know that, even in this world, they’re using something like a disinfectant in an Hospital.

The inner ambient looks clean, with white being the dominant color all around. Medical personnel can be seen all around, scurrying from room to room.

Right after the entrance, we find ourselves into the waiting room. At the center of it, there is an information desk manned by a young female nurse. She’s wearing a white, large robe. Slightly chubby and short, she has light brown hair and a gentle smile.

The nurse greets us, asking what business brought us here in the Hospital.

With her, we go through the necessary paperwork to be able to visit Dahl.

When she’s done, she calls another nurse. The new nurse guides us through the patient’s rooms, pointing the one where Dahl is resting.

The room is small, with a clean appearance and a large windows that lets daylight in.

Dahl is laying on a bed, reading a book.

We spend some time there, just talking about some small things. I am being a bit quieter than usual, since hospitals always had a bad effect on me. I do not know why, even in my old world, I always felt an unpleasant feeling while visiting a sick friend in hospital. Probably the strong smell of disinfectant, or something more profound, like a mental association between that place and sickness, suffering, it always made me feel strange about it.

Nonetheless, I try to endure the sensation.

Dahl is feeling significantly better now. He should be able to be discharged tomorrow, since his recovery has been much faster than anticipated.

<<It’s good that you’re feeling better but…your skill is really dangerous. Please, do not use it anymore>>

Levia voices our doubts. To all of us, it was a shocking moment, seeing what that skill could do. A double-edged sword, that could easily kill.

<<Yeah. The Healers said that I really did risk too much. Thankfully, I managed to level up after the battle, and that repaired a bit of the damage done by the skill. That, and your efforts, have saved my life>>

He makes a sour expression, perhaps blaming himself for this situation.

Well, there was no other option in that moment, and it all played well in the end.

We try to cheer him up a bit, and we stay with him until visiting hours end. The nurse comes back, inviting us to leave the room.

Parting from Dahl, we exit the room.

After our visit to the Hospital, we decide to stay out for the night. I contact Heod to let him know that we will be eating dinner outside.

The old man sounds a bit disappointed, and he recommends us to be careful.

He really sounds like a concerned grandfather.

From the Hospital, we head to the Central Market. In there, we spend some time loitering around, doing our first “touristic visit” of Sendria.

The central road, and the plaza where the marketplace is, are full of people. Tourists, but also locals and adventurers, all of them busy in their activities.

Food stalls and restaurants are open, almost all of them full of people. Sendria is really lovely at night, almost a different place than what Telesia has told us before. We stay out for a bit, without even catching a glimpse of disorders or criminals around.

To be fair, we just spent our time in the rich portion of the city. Perhaps, in the poorer quarters the situation is different, like in all cities.

We spent a nice evening, having a relaxing walk out for the first time since I came to this world.

After we head back home, I spend some time with the old man. To him, I tell everything that happened during the day. He apologizes for the matter with Telesia, saying that he signed the contract thinking about our future.

Well, I understand what Heod thought in that moment, but I would have appreciated if he told us about it.

After apologizing, the old man gives me his thoughts about the matter with Telesia. Reasoning with him, he makes me see the potential opportunity that lies in this situation. To learn from some of the best adventurers, it’s a rare opportunity that should be treasured. Even if Telesia herself is just using us to her advantage.

However, he is concerned about the situation of Sendria as a whole. He too has caught some rumors about the Underworld of Sendria beginning to stir. And, around the city, there are hushed rumors about people disappearing, and scouts from Aldora being seen in the outskirts from time to time.

We speak some more about the current situation, what it could lead to. The prospect of a war between Aldora and Sendria is a scary one, without any doubt.

It would be best to leave the city as soon as we can, but that would mean losing the shop and the Guild’s support.

<<Well, Telesia was sure that Alvares would not make his move until two or three months right? W can start to make some preparations about it. Although, I really doubt that the Guild would let us go. And there is also that matter with Alvares. I’m still under his spell, after all. Who know what he will do if I leave the Guild’s protection>>

It’s surely a complicated situation right now, so much that is making my head hurt. Seriously.

I part from the old man, heading to my room for the night.

Unlike last night, my sleep is agitated, ridden by nightmares.

As the new day comes, we all head out to meet our respective trainers.

To me, Telesia has assigned a specialist from the Guild. I have to meet him in the Archives, a detached building from the Guild Headquarters.

The others will head out to different part of the city, since the various specialists are scattered in all buildings of the Guild.

Retel will go to the monster part exchange building, since he will be having lessons from Rupert.

Levia is supposed to go to the Hospital, while Marica is also going to the Archives.

Retel gives me a jealous look as I head out with Marica. Well, to be fair, since yesterday I have been trying to support him in his “battle”. Although Retel himself seems oblivious about it, Marica does have feelings for him. It’s just that Retel does not make his move, and neither does she.

Well, they’re young, and this is probably the thing called “first love” for both of them.

Of course, I cannot criticize Retel’s behavior with women, since in my old life I was pretty clumsy with them. To the point of being ridiculous, sometimes.

Not that right now I am any better…

Still, during the walk towards the Archives, I talk with Marica about a few things.

First, she apologized again for the matter with the Guild, when she reported me. Hell, I lost the count of how many times she did apologize.

I can see how she still feels guilty about it, since the treatment that they gave me at the start but…well, it’s all in the past for me.

No point in dwelling about it. I decided to forgive her, focusing on what good she did to me instead of the one bad thing.

As we walk, I begin to stir the conversation towards her considerations about Retel. She blushes a bit when I mention him.

I tease her a bit, pondering if I should already tell her about what Retel feels for her. In the end, I decide to desist about it. It would be better for both of them if they talk with each other, without me meddling into things. It will make them grow.

Well, that does not stop me from praising Retel with her. If I can manage to win him some points, why not do it?

As we arrive to the Archives, we need to part our ways.

Her tutor is waiting in front of the building. I expected him to be an old man, the classic appearance of a magician, with a long, white beard, staff and pointed hat.

Instead, the adventurer that should look after Marica is a woman. She looks no more than ten years older than Marica, perhaps even less.

Her appearance makes me wonder why she’s retired, but, as she turns around, I realize the reason.

She’s missing her left arm, cut to the shoulder. Her left cheek is scarred, ruining the beauty of her face.

Perhaps, she noticed me staring at her scars, as she starts glaring at me.

<<It’s rude to stare at someone else’s scars, don’t you know?>>

Her voice is cold, almost as her blue eyes.

<<Sorry. I have been rude, and I apologize for that>>

After my apologies, I introduce myself out of courtesy. Well, I already made a bad impression on her. Way to go, Roshal.

I leave Marica and her new teacher, heading into the Archive building.

I expected to see something impressive in here, like vast rooms stuffed with columns of rare tomes and scrolls, but the reality of this place is a bit underwhelming.

It looks like the place itself is in the middle of reconstruction, with large black stains on the walls and floor.

No trace of books, or scrolls.

As I look around, a bit disappointed, a hand taps my shoulder.

<<Roshal? Please follow me>>

It’s one of Telesia’s assistants. She beckons me to follow her, and I abide.

<<This place is like this because of a recent fire. It happened three months ago, and destroyed the vast majority of our tomes. It was a shame, all that knowledge lost in a moment>>

She sounds sorrowful as she speaks. Well, I can imagine why she is. After all, seeing those books become cinder must have been terrible. Perhaps, there were some lives lost in the fire, too.

As we walk in the Archives, I see how extensive the damage was. Beautiful murals that adorned the walls have become charred black, lost forever. The same goes with the books that should have been there, some of the furniture that housed them still visible in the rooms, or at least, what is left of it.

Blackened, broken pieces of wood, stacked in the corners of the rooms, left there after the fire that devastated this place.

The damage becomes even more as we head further inside the building. One room in particular is in terrible state, completely blackened, the ceiling broken, collapsed as the fire raged into the room.

Perhaps, the fire originated there.

<<We’ve arrived. Please, go downstairs to meet your new instructor>>

I part from Telesia’s assitant, heading down the stairs into the ruined room.

There is nothing there, besides the thrashed and burned wood, leftover from the recent arson that destroyed this place.

<<Great. Now I have to wait in here>>

Minutes pass, without anything happening inside the room. No one is passing by, the only sound in there being some distant voices from other parts of the building.

Bored, I look around, trying to imagine how the place would be at its best conditions, without the charred spots on the walls. When the fresco paintings on the walls were still fully visible in all their glory.

Perhaps this place had been full of people, all of them reading the stories and knowledge hidden inside dusty tomes.

Of course, none of that remained in the room, being now empty and ruined. A sad ending for a place of knowledge.

<<Yes. It is indeed sad>>

The voice comes from behind. I sigh, without turning around.

<<Hello again, Telesia. Or, should I call you Headmaster?>>

She surprised me, appearing from nowhere. Again, someone managed to get near me without alerting my detection. It’s fine since Telesia does not harbor any ill will against me, but, it’s worthless to possess a detection skill if it fails like this.

<<Well, that will be part of your training. Now, follow me. And no, I will not stop reading your mind>>

I immediately close my mouth, as I was about to ask her to drop this mind-reading shenanigans.

Seriously, this old lady terrifies me.

She takes out a Transfer Orb from her purse, activating it without a warning.

Unlike the ones I’ve used before, this orb transfers us instantly, without any pretty light or strange effects.

<<Where are we?>>

She smiles, in her usual wry expression.

<<Can’t you tell? Feel the mana here, Roshal>>

The Dungeon. The flow of mana here is unmistakable but…it’s much more dense than the what I remember, so much that it makes breathing difficult.

Wait, don’t tell me…

<<Yes. This is far below any floor you’ve managed to reach. Few people know of this place. Officially, no one ever reached this depths. This is Mahal Dungeon’s last floor, Roshal. A saferoom, to be precise. Well, not even I can be safe against the things that dwell on this floor, so I had to take some unorthodox measures in order to bring you here>>

She claps her hands.

<<Well, I’m done here. See you around, Demon Lord>>

And with that, she disappears.

<<You’ve got to be kidding me!>>

I shout at the empty air where Telesia was. What the hell is happening here?

Did she set me up? Trapping me here after she separated me from my companions. Of course she has, and I did fall in her trap like a damn idiot.

<<So, you’re the one that Telesia mentioned…>>

A man is now inside the saferoom with me. Once again, Navi’s detection does not show anything.

<<So, who might you be? And what the hell is that old hag thinking, leaving me here?>>

The man sighs, scratching his beard before he answers me, as if thinking the appropriate answer.

<<First, never , ever talk about Telesia in that tone. She’s a wonderful person, and I will not tolerate some random brat badmouthing her. Second, she begged me to take you as a disciple, so try and be more grateful to her, next time you see her. And third…>>

The atmosphere around him changes, literally. It’s like gravity itself increased in the room, forcing me on my knees with tremendous pressure.

My ears feel like they’re about to explode, and I cannot even breathe, crushed by the pressure.

<<You will address properly to me. Understood?>>

<<Y…yes>>

<<Yes what?>>

<<Yes, Master>>

He releases whatever the hell he was doing, and the place turns back to normal.

I cough, gasping for air.

Who the hell is this monster here?

<<Now, your name>>

He offers his hand to help me get up.

<<Roshal>>

He helps me get on my feet, basically lifting me up without much effort. He’s almost as tall as me, a bit short for a grown up. Black hair, and an unkempt beard grows around his thin lips. His nose looks like it had been broken at least a dozen times. Brown eyes, and a plain face that makes him look like the most common person.

His appearance is the exact opposite of the power he just showed.

<<Well, Roshal. My name is John Howards. Now, stick to whatever I tell you, and…wait, why are you looking at me like this?>>

John Howards. A name so different from those of this world, almost as if…

I hesitate a bit, staring at him before I ask him the crucial question.

But, should I ask it bluntly? There is a possibility that his name might just be a coincidence after all, or some invented name.

Perhaps, I should be indirect here, maybe dropping some reference during conversation, something that a normal person should not be able to understand.

In the end, I choose to be direct.

John’s eyes widen in surprise, as I ask him my doubt. Again, he strokes his beard, pausing, weighting his words before giving me an answer.

<<Ah, Telesia…you’ve really found somebody else. Yes, boy. I come from another world>>

Glimmer of A Fallen Star: Chapter 4- The Forest (Part 2)

Hadan squinted his eyes, shielding them from the excessive light by holding his hand slightly above his brow. Outside of the forest’s shadow, daylight shone brightly.

Too brightly, for Hadan, now that his eyes had been accustomed to the dim light of the forest.

They were still in the forest, him and Marduk, still far away from the little village that should be the destination of their travel, at least for now.

Hadan was just scurrying around, while Marduk was resting his old bones, sitting on a moss covered rock.

The boy could still see the old man if he wanted to, and he could even hear his mutterings, a bad habit that the old man showed from time to time.

But Hadan was far more interested in what lied beyond the forest. The line of tall trees abruptly ended on the edge of a cliff, creating a strange contrast between the shadowy ambient under the treetops and the clearing beyond it, illuminated by a light so strong that it hurt Hadan’s eyes.

And beyond the small clearing, beyond the cliff where the clearing ended, lied the biggest body of water that Hadan had ever seen in his life.

He had been to the river, sometimes, when he and his friends felt brave enough to go there in their games, playing hunters and prey while using wooden sticks and pretending them to be lances and spears.

One time, his father brought him in one of his hunting trips, along with Wahsu, and they followed the river upstream until they found themselves in front of the lake, as his father had described the big “puddle”, chuckling as Hadan described with that term the huge amount of water he saw.

But now, what lied before Hadan’s eyes was even bigger than the “lake”, and far prettier than the lake had been. Reflecting the golden rays of sunlight on its almost flat surface, extending as far as the eyes could see, with a color that changed from a light cerulean to a deep shade of blue, far away from the place Hadan was.

Surprised as he was, Hadan didn’t realize that he had dropped the small wooden stick he held in his hand. He used the stick to fight away his boredom a bit, before he decided to explore the surroundings, before he was rewarded for his choice by finding a treasure of a view.

Excited, he scurried back to Marduk’s side. He tripped on an exposed root on his way back, bruising his knee. For an instant, the memory of the sound his leg made when it broke resurfaced in his mind. But, it was only an instant, and Hadan brushed it away as he did with the dirt and leaves that were clinging to his clothes.

<<Marduk! I saw water! Lots of it!>>

Shouting, the boy reached Marduk, pulling his sleeve to guide him towards the pretty sight. He stopped, almost immediately.

Turning towards the old man, Hadan blushed as he realized that he had overlooked something.

Marduk was blind, after all. It was still confusing to Hadan, since the old man proved many times that he could somehow “see” stuff, but Hadan was not sure if Marduk could see, or if there was something else going on. He had never mustered the courage to ask him, and he found it kind of rude to bluntly ask something like this to a man far older than him.

He explained what he saw to the old man, and, using this occasion, Hadan asked to Marduk about that.

The old man paused a bit before answering to Hadan, and the boy thought that Marduk’s silence was somehow due to the old man being offended by what he said.

Marduk caressed Hadan’s head, ruffling his hair a bit. The boy disliked when Marduk did so, and he did it on purpose, to mess him up a bit.

<<No, Hadan. I cannot see see. It’s…complicated, and I myself do not properly know how it works. Sometimes, I can see what happens faraway from where I am. Most of the times, I can see what I want to see. But, it does not happen with my eyes. It’s all in here>>

He said, tapping his left temple with a finger.

<<Now, for the second thing you asked…that is called a “Sea”. It’s water, lots of it. So much that you cannot even imagine how much it is. When we will reach the village, you’ll see it up close. Now, let’s go. We’ve spent already too much time inside this forest>>

The boy nodded with vigor, strolling off while Marduk followed him in his usual slow pace.

His mind was agitated enough, and he did not want Hadan to be concerned as well.

Since they entered the forest, a strange sensation took hold of Marduk’s mind. He felt uneasy under those trees, agitated. It was a long time ago, the last time he felt a similar sensation.

His suspicions only grew worse with every step they took inside the forest. It was quiet, too quiet for a place like this.

Usually, birds would chirp, hidden in the highest branches above, and small animals would occasionally cross their path. This one was not a dangerous forest, by all means. At least, that’s how Marduk remembered it.

He still thought it safe, when they entered the outskirts of the forest. There, birds would sing their songs, and they found animals, albeit few of them. The boy even managed to catch some as prey, and they ate them for lunch. Small things, they were, and the lack of larger animals did not make Marduk suspect that something was amiss in the forest.

But, as they reached deeper into the trees, they encountered less and less, until the silence grew strong, the absence of noise looming on them.

And Marduk, albeit a bit suspicious, still thought it safe, for a while.

Now, he was not so sure. The usual sounds of bird singing their songs was not there, and he did not catch a single noise, nor the slightest scent of any of the animals that should be there.

Instead, there was an unnatural silence in the air, only broken by Hadan’s voice and the sound of their own steps, crackling over the dead foliage that littered the ground.

And the smells of the forest, they were not right.

There was the usual scent of vegetation and musk, the scent of wilderness and humid shadows where leaves rotted over growing mushrooms.

But there was another scent mixed in there, faint, wrong. Like a misplaced note in a well written song, that smell was breaking the harmony of the place, leaving a bad sensation with its sole presence.

The smell of death, faint but heavy in its implications.

As they threaded further into the forest, Marduk’s uneasiness only grew stronger.

Hadan was walking in front of the old man, sending glances back to him from time to time. He did not want to leave Marduk behind, mainly because Hadan did not knew where to go, and he feared getting lost into the forest on his own.

He feared being left alone, since, after all that happened with his village, Marduk was the only person that cared about Hadan.

That though made him waver a bit, and he bit his lips to not let tear rise once again to wet his eyes.

He kept his tears to himself, only letting them go at night, when he was sure that the old man was sound asleep.

The wound in his heart ached still, less than it did before, but it was there, not quite healed yet.

There were moments that made the boy forget, for a time, and he was without concern again. Seeing the “sea” for the first time was one of those moments, and he would treasure it for the time being.

But, other moments were difficult for him, as memories of his now deceased family would assail him without prior notice. Sometimes, a simple gesture, or even some smells or noises, reminded him of the days spent at the village, of his friends and tribesmen.

And the most difficult moments were those when the realization that all of them were now gone, when the thought of him being alone, struck him.

Hadan knew he was letting his mind go there, in one of those moments. He could still stop it, and he did, thinking back about the sea, and what wonders it would hide inside.

He escaped from memories, diving into his fantasy. After all, he was still a child, and he had plenty of that.

The boy imagined himself, bathing in that cerulean water, and then swimming across the colors until he would reach the deepest shade of blue. What things could inhabit that place, how deep would those waters be under his feet?

Following those thoughts, he distracted himself, steering his mind away from dangerous and sorrowful remembrance.

Lost as he was in his thoughts, he almost hit his nose on a fallen tree, stopping his feet right before his face could have an encounter with the coarse bark.

He turned around, a bit flustered by his own clumsiness. He searched for the old man behind him, but, much to his surprise, Marduk was nowhere to be found.

Hadan’s heart skipped a beat. Only now that he was alone, he noticed how the forest around him was silent.

Not a trace of the usual noises that would liven the air. Not a single bird, not the clattering sounds of insects doing who knows what in the undergrowth of the forest.

Feeling his uneasiness rise, as fast as his own heart was beating, Hadan went back on his feet, not quite walking, not quite running.

He hoped to catch a glimpse of the old man’s silhouette among the trees, but with every turn he took, every bush or fallen branch he passed, his agitation only grew as he saw no trace of the old man.

The day was now growing even darker than before, and a thick mist was beginning to creep into the forest’s undergrowth.

The stench of rotten leaves and humid ground grew stronger with every step, and there was something else mixed in it, an unpleasant smell that Hadan could not identify. But he felt that it was wrong, and dangerous. A smell that should not be there.

He began to run, lifting pieces of dried leaves with every stride he took. He began calling the old man, shouting his name, as panic was gripping his throat in his cold fingers.

Lost inside a place he did not know, the boy ran.

He neglected to check the proper direction, as he was too scared to think straight. He passed the trees and the moss growing upon them, without even spending a speck of his time to glimpse at them.

Hadan was more concerned by the sudden darkening of the place, and the rising mist that was now thick in front of his eyes.

The trees became specters, their branches devilish hands ready to claw his skin with gaunt and skeletal fingers.

And the eerie silence only made things worse.

Conceited as he was, fleeing from the confused shapes inside the mist, Hadan misplaced his feet, and tripped onto something, landing on the dead foliage that littered the ground.

He muttered an imprecation, rising to his feet once again. He did not even bother to shake off the leaves and dirt on his clothes, more concerned with looking at whatever made him trip.

He recoiled in fear, seeing the white thing protrude from the ground, half buried in it.

It was a bone, half gnawed by something.

The sight only worsened Hadan’s fears. In his mind, that bone was human, probably from another careless child that wandered in this forest, getting lost and then found by something hungry. And it was coming for him too, no doubt about that.

As he ran these thoughts, Hadan did not even realize he began to tremble, shaking as his face paled.

Suddenly, a voice called his name.

The boy looked around, unsure if his mind was playing him some kind of nasty trick. Then the voice called again, this time stronger, nearer.

He sighed, deeply, as he recognized the old man’s voice calling him.

Hadan rose up on his feet, his knees still weak from the sudden scare he had.

Moving towards the direction from when the voice seemed to come, he did not run this time.

Advancing in the mist, he heard the voice again. One, two , three times the voice called his name, each time stronger than the previous one.

The boy rejoiced in his heart, as he knew he was getting closer to it.

Following the voice inside the mist, he found himself into a clearing inside the forest. The trees around formed a ring, and a patch of the sky could be easily seen above his head.

Night had fallen, and the sky, black in his color, was traced by the silver lights of falling stars. Many of them fell, as much as Hadan never saw, as much as he never thought possible.

Like they all together decided to leave the blackness of the night sky, and fall to the earth below.

Far in the distance, a loud noise boomed, and the ground shook with vigor. It happened some more times, every time after one of the stars traced its way down to the earth, in the distance.

A flash of light, the sound and then the earth itself trembled.

It should have been a beautiful sight, but Hadan could only feel a strange, mixed feeling of fear and uneasiness from the spectacle before his eyes.

Something like this should never happen, the boy thought. The stars should stay in the sky, not fall down here.

Immersed as he was in his thoughts, his eyes pointed to the night sky, Hadan failed to notice the shape that was standing in the clearing.

It was only when the voice called his name again, that Hadan noticed.

The clearing itself was enveloped in mist, bathed into moonlight and a heavy silence. Illuminated by the Two Moons above, someone was standing right in the middle of the clearing. His clothes in tatters, and he did not move. There was no wind rustling the leaves, but the tattered clothes of the one standing in the clearing were fluttering, like if they were being swayed by a wind that was not there.

Hadan took a step closer, but he wanted to take one hundred in the opposite direction.

He thought that the one calling him was the old man.

Now, he was not so sure. No, he thought, that man is definitely not Marduk.

Another thought brushed his mind, that whatever was standing there, was not even a man.

Again, the voice called Hadan.

This time, he was close enough to hear it.

It was a wet sound, gargling, muddy and wrong. It gave chills to Hadan, repulsing him and terrifying him at the same time.

Definitely, that thing was not human.

It moved, turning towards Hadan. Slowly, its head began to bend until it reached an unnatural angle.

Before the boy’s eyes, the thing revealed itself.

How could he not see it clearly from the start, Hadan thought. How could he even mistake something like that for a human being?

The color of it, a repulsing shade of white, the same of the liquid that sometimes oozes from rotten wounds.

And the shape of that thing, it was so wrong to look at. Hadan already had encountered some dangerous and feral animals, he already felt the terror that comes from being so near to a predator, an animal so far stronger and fiercer than you, that the only reaction to it is cower in fear.

However, it was not the same kind of fear that was taking hold of him now. This fear, was stronger.

Because no matter how scary, or dangerous, the animal was, it was still an animal, something from this world, something that is defined, real.

This thing, it was not defined, no more than a shambling, shifting mass of body parts bent to unnatural angles, shapes that Hadan could only recognize as absurd.

It had the vague outline of an insect, but its body looked soft, like that of a slug, having even the same glint of it.

It swelled, pulsed, as if the thing was breathing. Six, or eight legs were sustaining its body, joint-less, smooth, like worms sprouting out of the thing’s body.

An upright torso sprouted from the thing’s body, lined with a number of smaller, wriggling appendages similar to those sustaining the thing, but different in a way that Hadan could not understand.

It had no eyes, only strange, bulbous growths that pulsed with a dancing, rhythmic light.

<<Haaaadaaan>>

The sound gurgled again, coming from the thing itself. Its body trembled, rippled, and the upright torso split at the center, revealing a gaping mouth dripping with saliva, its inside red and lined with squirming, needle-like teeth.

Hadan screamed his lungs off.

In response, the thing began to move towards him, gurgling the boy’s name with every slow step it took.

Terrified, Hadan was trembling, unable to move, paralyzed as the strongest fear he ever felt held its grip on him.

It was coming closer, step by step, taking its time, almost if it was enjoying the boy’s fearful screams, reveling in his terror.

Hadan screamed, again and again, until his voice broke, until his lung hurt.

Until the thing reached him, and gaped its mouth.

A foul smell of rot engulfed Hadan, and he felt a warm sensation spread on his groin and legs.

It was the end, found inside the jaws of whatever that thing was.

<<Hadan!>>

A familiar voice echoed in the clearing, shouting words that Hadan could not understand.

A flash of light followed, and an horrible sound, a piercing shriek full of pain and hatred.

And then, the world fell silent again.

<<Hadan!>>

The voice was now there, and Hadan opened his eyes again. This time, it was really Marduk that was calling his name, and Hadan jumped to his neck, holding tight as he cried all his tears.

The old man embraced him back, before prying the boy away to check if he was hurt somehow.

Hadan was shocked, without any doubt, and he was trembling from fear.

Well, Marduk thought, of course the boy was trembling. Something like that, could make even the toughest hunters piss their pants and cry like little babies.

The old man was glad that Hadan was not injured, but that thing’s presence here could only mean more trouble on their road.

Because, if there was one, there would be more.

The old man lifted his face, staring at the night sky with his blind eyes.

<<What is going on?>>

He asked to the sky, without expecting an answer.

Re:Interference Chapter 19- Trial by Fire

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

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

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

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

<<This is…magnificent>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Guardian, no other kind of monsters or traps.

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

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

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

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

And yet, there is nothing here, besides us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll head there.

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

Thoroughly, every nook and cranny of this place.

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

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

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

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

<<What the hell…>>

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

Because, we’re back in the central chamber.

<<How could this happen?>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Levia, I want to try something>>

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

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

It reaches the other room where my offshot is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, it would pick us one by one.

No, we definitely need to stick together here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To no avail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, this is some kind of puzzle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From above, the formation counted twelve columns in total.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine are only speculations that do not lead to anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I immediately jump back, assuming a defensive position.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Roshal! Hey! We’re blocked here!>>

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

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

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

<<Roshal? Are you ok?>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over them, miniatures representing four humans are flickering.

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

Of course, each miniature represents my companions.

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

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

<<And what happens if they refuse?>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other seven are carrying longbows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

actions.

Of course, I choose the second method.

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

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

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

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

<<Ok, let’s do this!>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frustrated, I do the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An explosion rings in the distance.

Thal smiles, staring at me with his burning gaze.

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

<<Take this! Spike Counter!>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am facing a crucial decision here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, I need to trust her judgment here.

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

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

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

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

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

What follows goes beyond my expectations.

Alone, Levia heads towards the group of Ash Servants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Barriera d’Aria>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

This battle has been our victory.

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

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

Dahl shouts in the distance.

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

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

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

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

Flame Slimes, each level twenty.

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

Shit. To think that other monsters would immediately appear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Now! Dahl, use it>>

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

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

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

Even if he uses it for some seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Come, and show me your worth>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<As if I’ll let you do it>>

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

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

<<Vorpal Edge!>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s my victory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations for this great success, Master!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<Ready?>>

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

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

Retel’s comment makes me chuckle a bit.

<<Yeah. Let’s make it two weeks>>

As I say so, I activate the stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glimmer of A Fallen Star: Chapter 3- The Forest (part 1)

Marduk woke up, covered in sweat as fragments of a nightmare still haunted his mind. In the past nights, he often saw those eyes again, in his dreams.

He tried to calm the unrest beating in his chest, to no avail.

He felt terrified, a sensation that he had not experienced since long time ago.

<<This must not be a coincidence>> he muttered to himself, trying to chase away the bad sensation that was slowly taking hold of his thoughts, creeping in, nightmare after nightmare.

He grabbed the pendant that hanged from his neck, caressing its lines with his old, shriveled fingers.

That gesture had some calming effect on his mind, and he often found himself fidgeting with the pendant, searching its smooth surface whenever he felt unrest, or, in this case, fear.

And the nightmares he had were always tied to the moment he got that object.

He closed his eyes in remembrance, thinking about the short time after his tribe was taken.

For some time, he remained with them. Not by his choice, but he could not refuse the will of the thing that he called from the stars.

When it awakened, taking possession of the young warrior’s body, opening blackened eyes to see this world for the first time, the thing cast a spell on Marduk.

A gift, that’s how it called what was done to Marduk. Although, it was more of a curse.

And Marduk could not resist it, bound by a will so different from his own, alien and powerful in ways that a mere human could not understand.

He was forced to stay, to see what had become of his fellow tribesmen. And it was wonderful, to see what the thing from the stars accomplished.

In a single year, the starving tribe that Marduk knew was no more. They moved away from the barren lands of their exile, migrating north towards their former sacred lands. And they reclaimed it,

less than two hundred men against a tribe of two thousands and three hundred fifty people. Those that exiled them in the first place.

Marduk saw, as the men of his tribe battled, and conquered. Trampling down their former brethren, showing a strength out of this world.

Even Marduk took place in the battle.

Even with his old, shriveled body, he could easily overpower the strongest enemy warriors.

He remembered how some of them dragged him away from the temple, before the exile, when they found out his crime, his conspiracy.

Marduk’s attempt to take power for himself, to dethrone the elders failed even before he could set it in motion.

And the same warriors that chased him out of the temple, the same that rounded up his men and banished from the sacred lands, were now falling like flies under his blows, unable to oppose the unnatural strength that flowed in his body.

He felt powerful, like he never had, his old, shriveled body was free of any pain, he could move like when he did when he himself was a warrior of the tribe.

In that night, he had his revenge against those that cast him down. And, much to his later sorrow, he felt good about it.

Led by the thing he called from the stars, the exiles conquered the sacred land.

And that was only the first of the miracles Marduk witnessed.

In a short amount of years, a splendid kingdom was born.

The Starfallen King, as the thing from the stars chose to be called, guided his people to a age of scientific wonders.

The former tribesmen, who wore crude leather and brandished weapons of wood and bone, were gifted the secrets of fire and stone.

They made tools and weapons from it, melting rare rocks in grand ovens, until the elements combined and formed something that had the hardness of stone, but could be molded like clay.

And it shone like stars, like the sun itself.

The Starfallen called it “metal”, and gifted his people with the knowledge and method to produce it.

Various form of this “metal” could be obtained, mixing different kind of rocks, to obtain various kinds of metal for different purposes.

The king taught how to grow crops and cultivate the land, and how to capture and tame animals instead of hunting.

And that was the turning point for Marduk, the point where marvel became suspect first, horror later.

For the King taught his people not only to enslave beasts, but men alike.

From time to time, the tribe’s warriors left their city, roaming the land not to hunt beasts, but to hunt men.

In chains, they brought them back to the city, forcing them to work in their place.

Slaves, they became.

Exploiting their work, the tribe grew even more.

Their tents and houses made of wood, became houses of stone.

Paved roads were set, and monuments were built with the lives and sweat of thousands slaves.

Marduk, who greatly valued freedom, abhorred the slavery. But he noticed something even darker than that.

Most of the people caught during the raids, were thrown into slavery. But some, mainly children and women, were reserved a different fate.

Dragged on top of the altars that slaves built, they were laid down on stones during the nights were the two moons overlapped, forming a dark ring in the darkest nights.

And thy were slain on the altars, their hearts offered to the Starfallen.

With each sacrifice, the king’s power grew, and Marduk felt that growth.

With each life offered, new strength flowed inside the old man’s body, the same strength that came from the Starfallen.

Marduk grew restless, his mind torn by what he witnessed. He always held the old customs of his tribe, and their God would never demand the sacrifice of human lives. And yet, the same God that spoke to him, the same that he called into this world and became king of men, was reveling in sacrifice, demanding more and more as time went by.

The steps of the altars became painted in deep crimson, and the number of sacrifices increased even more.

Until the city itself took the smell of rotting, burning flesh.

Until Marduk could not recognize his fellow tribesmen as human anymore.

Not only those that were brought back by the Starfallen, but the others, normal people, woman and children, old and young alike.

They revered their Starfallen king, they cheered when the sacrifice’s heart was held high towards the night sky by the priests, only to be burned in offering to the God king.

At that point, Marduk decided to end the horror he brought. He plotted to take the king’s life, if something like that was even possible.

He still had the knife, made with the same matter as the Idol back then.

He waited for the perfect moment, for when the king would send word for him, inviting him to his palace made of that strange metal they called “gold”.

Often, the God king would summon him, taking pleasure in talking to the old man. Marduk always felt repulsed by that thing with the form of a man.

In all the year that passed, the body of the Starfallen remained the same, a young boy in his prime age.

And whenever Marduk saw him, those eyes, black like night itself, made his body shiver in terror.

He often saw that appearance, the light brown skin slightly covered by rich vests, the golden crown and mask that the king wore in public set aside on his throne.

And the pendant, always dangling from the God king’s neck, shining black piece of the Sky itself.

Marduk believed the pendant to be some kind of amulet, a source of power for the king.

It was something the king obtained recently, but since then, he never parted from it.

As Marduk recalled, one night, the same kind of night when stars fell down from the sky, as they did when Marduk held the rite to call the God into this world.

The Starfallen king left the palace, taking few men with him.

One of them was Marduk himself.

They rode towards a distant land, until the king ordered his men to stop.

He proceeded alone, into a barren wasteland, following a star that fell.

The following days, tremor shook the land, and the sky went black until day and night were no more, both painted in the same absence of light.

When the king came back, his body was injured, his precious clothes tattered.

And he had that pendant on his neck, the symbol of victory over his mortal foe.

Because, Marduk knew, what took place in the barren wasteland was a battle between being not of this world.

That moment, he learned two things.

There were more beings like the Starfallen god, perhaps even more powerful than the king himself.

Marduk shuddered after seeing the aftermath of the battle, the wasteland turned into a desert, land and rock became sand, as black as night.

The battle shaped the land, turning mountains into black dust. Some was scattered by the wind, coming from the outskirts of the place, those not touched by the brunt of the battle.

The center of the land was twisted into something out of any logic. Black stone, that shone like glass, twisted into forms that defied geometry.

And the air itself became poison. That place became forbidden, a lifeless desert that became known as the Black Sands, avoided and feared even by the Starfallen king’s own people.

That time, Marduk learned of the king’s power, and that were other things akin to him. But, at the same time, he learned that the king could be wounded, perhaps even killed.

When he was summoned for the last time, Marduk attempted at the king’s life.

He came close to him, to it, and plunged the knife into his neck.

Marduk used his old knife, made out of the same strange matter that composed the Idol he revered.

He figured out, that if something could take the life of the king, it must have been something not from this world. And he was right, at least he thought.

It was unexpectedly easy. He looked at the king’s corpse, his blackened eyes gazing towards the ceiling, still as lifeless as before.

In a moment of spite, Marduk snatched the pendant from the king’s body, and ran as fast as he could.

He was still inside the palace, when he heard the laughter, the voice resounding in his head. He looked back, from a moment.

And he saw it, creeping out of the young corpse, the Starfallen in its true form. If it even had a proper form.

A black mass, so dark that it seemed like it was negating light itself, shambling, twisting tentacles.

Marduk had the impression of seeing a gaping mouth, lines of sharp teeth twisted into what could only be a malicious smile.

And the eyes of that thing, gazing Marduk with a hatred older than the world, fierce, ancient and powerful. He saw those black eyes, the stars swirling in them.

Feeling his mind shattering, Marduk cried his lungs out, running as fast as he could from the thing.

He fell, scraping his hands and knees, he ran and fell again.

He ran for how much he could not even remember, he ran until half the world was between him and that thing, until minutes or centuries went by and he felt safe again.

He ran, his mind clouded in madness, his eyes seeing the unseen, the things between worlds that must never be revealed to human eyes.

Because, from the moment he set his eyes on the true form of the Starfallen God, the veil of reality was shattered for him.

Within every shadow, strange shapes were shifting, stalking him relentlessly.

Nights were even worse, and he could not even bear to gaze up to the stars anymore, knowing the horrors that fluttered between them.

Until he could not take it anymore, until he robbed himself of his eyes, to stop seeing those things.

But he was changed forever, first by the God’s gift, then by his reveal.

Even blind, Marduk could see.

It was different than before.

He could not choose what to see, at the beginning.

He often found himself assaulted by some vision of distant lands, or he could see what happened below his feet, between the minuscule grain of sands, see the creatures that dwelt and lived in that world of diminutive size.

Sometimes, visions of a strange past took hold of his mind, and he spied strange creatures running away from monstrous predators, their scaly hides and fanged mouth feeling as real as the ground beneath his feet.

He saw other races, so different from humans and yet capable of the same intellect, the same cruelty. He saw wars, both past and future.

He saw strange birds letting something fall on what looked like a city, and a fire so intense that it burned everything to ashes, rising up in the sky and taking the bizarre form of a blazing mushroom.

He saw the void of space, and what lies beneath.

With time, he learned to control the visions, to direct them towards what he wanted to see.

Sometimes, he even pondered to take a look at him, but he always desisted that thought. After all, Marduk felt safe, having fled half the world in order to not see that thing again, and he knew that seeking it would only break his safety.

He thought himself to be safe, but the recent events proved him wrong.

The attack on the village, was without any doubt perpetrated by the Starfallen King’s warriors.

“Men dressed in light”, that’s how Hadan called the attackers. What the boy saw, were people wearing metal armor.

And that meant, the Starfallen was getting close to him.

Could his forces have already enslaved half the world?

Marduk tortured himself with that question, often spending sleepless nights over it, sometimes, his worries seeped into his dreams, painting in them the color of nightmares.

More and more, as they left the ravine, the nightmares took hold of Marduk’s mind.

First, they were confused, a jumbled mess of memories and scenes.

Then, they became more clear. They were not memories, they were messages.

Threats. More and more, he saw the Starfallen, both in his human shell and in his true appearance.

The Starfallen taunted Marduk, threatened him, like he did when Marduk fled the city. For a long time, the harassing ceased, but now, it started again.

That could not be a coincidence, thought Marduk.

For the dreams to start again, right after the Starfallen’s men showed up near him.

It could not be a coincidence, and that terrified Marduk.

He grasped the pendant tighter, and he let out a deep sigh.

<<A bad dream?>>

Hadan’s tired voice shook Marduk out of his thoughts.

The night was about to end, sunlight began to spread towards the horizon.

Probably, thought Marduk, he woke up the boy by making some noise, perhaps he even started to mutter to himself, absorbed in thoughts like he was.

<<Yeah. It happens at my age>>

Marduk stood up, giving a faint and tired smile to Hadan.

Since they were both awake, there was no point in lying there.

He started to fix some breakfast, as the boy went out to relieve himself.

Soon, they would resume their march toward the forest, and the sea beyond it.

After taking care of their meal, the two extinguished the remains of their campfire and set out on the road again.

The forest was now visible, tall trees that seemed so little from distance now showed all their gigantic size, their tops shrouded in a thin veil of mist.

Hadan looked at them in marvel, until his neck hurt from looking up too much.

He never saw trees like those, tall, with trunks so large that it would take ten or twenty people to join their hands together and embrace a single one of them.

The old bark from some of them was falling off, and Hadan could see the new bark growing in those scars.

Marduk walked closer to one of the trees, and he made an incision in one of the scars, storing the thick, white sap that flowed from it inside a small bottle.

<<This sap has healing properties, especially good when treating burns and infection. The bark itself, can become a remedy for pain and fever, if you dry it and grind it into a fine powder. Care to tell me what tree is this one?>>

Marduk asked the boy. Sharing his lessons to Hadan made him relax a bit, taking his mind away from his woes and worries, focused as he was in teaching something.

That’s something he always liked to do, and, sometimes, he wondered how his life would have gone, if he stuck to being a teacher instead of following his twisted aspirations of power.

<<Salabat. Although I pictured them to a bit…different. Smaller>>

Hadan’s answer made Marduk smile.

The boy identified a tree he never saw before, just by remembering the properties of sap and bark.

He had a good memory, for sure.

And for someone who deals with plants and potions, that’s one of the most important qualities.

The ability to memorize different plants, recall their effects and recognize them from their parts.

Of course, the boy’s ability was still lacking, but he had time to grow, and Marduk had the will and patience to teach.

More than that, teaching helped against boredom.

As the two of them walked into the forest, Marduk showed Hadan several types of herbs and mushrooms, useful for concoctions and potions.

He questioned the boy, to probe his understanding.

The forest was wide, shadowed by the tall trees.

Although the sun shone brightly that day, the air inside the forest was damp and cold, and Hadan shivered in the shadow of the trees.

His hands were dirty with soil and sap, as he was made to collect roots from the undergrowth of the forest.

He hummed a song while he did so, but it choked in his mouth as the violent memory of his father, who thought him that song, blazed in his memory.

Since he survived what happened to his village, he often found himself prey to those moments, memories of the ones he lost.

It made him physically hurt, cutting his breath and making his heart pound as if it attempted to burst out of his chest, to leave behind those painful memories.

As before, he tried to push back the tears, feeling like his throat had been tied into a tight knot.

He diverted his thoughts on Marduk’s lessons, repeating the ingredients and properties of plants he had found in this forest.

It wasn’t much, but it helped Hadan to distract a bit from his pain.

He immersed himself into the task that the old man had given him. Soon, they would reach a village , beyond the forest.

There, if they wanted to enter the village, they would need some goods to trade.

Since Marduk’s craft was something rare, he only needed to gather and prepare some ingredients, and the village would gladly admit entrance to a healer and his potions.

And so, the boy was sent to gather the roots and herbs around, taking them back to the old man.

When he collected enough, Hadan sat beside Marduk, looking as the old man processed the ingredients with his hands.

He ground roots and bark together, mixing water and sap to the poultice.

The two of them were in a small clearing, where Marduk had set a small, controlled campfire.

There, he was heating water on the fireplace, in a small clay pot suspended on the flames with wooden sticks.

A bit ineffective and crude, as the old man lamented, but it would suffice for their purpose.

Hadan looked intensely as the old man mixed precise quantities of sap and poultice into the boiling water, and waited as Marduk stirred the liquid.

The steam coming from the pot had a bitter, grassy smell.

After a while, most of the water had evaporated, leaving a thick, red colored soup inside the pot.

<<Now, we need something to make it sweet to the taste. Come with me, boy>>

Hadan followed the old blind man into the forest. He was no more bothered by the fact that a blind man was behaving like he could see, even better than how Hadan did.

Now, without a doubt in his heart, Hadan knew that the old man had something supernatural in him, some kind of power outside of his understanding, that allowed his blind eyes to see the world in mysterious ways.

And Hadan did not care about it, not the slightest.

Well, he thought, to be fair he was curious about it, but he never directly asked Marduk about it, out of respect for the old man.

Hadan himself was slightly amused by how his consideration for Marduk changed so quickly and so many times since he first met the man.

At first, he was grateful to him, then he was scared bloodless when he heard his name. Now, after he knew him better, Hadan felt a profound respect towards the old man.

The things he knew, and those that he shared to Hadan, were precious to the boy.

They sated his curiosity, not like those old stories that the elders of tribes told, or the vague answers they gave him when he raised his hand during lessons, and he asked his questions.

Hadan remembered those times, with a smirk on his face.

First, he never liked the elders.

The tent where they held lessons to the children of the tribe smelled of old sweat and mold.

Their stares were always sour and angry at the children, every time they surprised them sharing a laughter.

Even worse when a child told something that went against their teaching, or made some question that they did not like.

Hadan recalled the time when he asked about the nature of stars.

<<They are the souls of our ancestors, taken by the embrace of our Mother, to forever be held under the loving gaze of her Eyes>>

That answer disappointed Hadan, deeply.

When he asked Marduk the same thing, the answer he got was different, entirely so.

The old man spoke of incredible distances, of the dark void between worlds.

He spoke about worlds, not just one, different, infinite in number.

And the stars in his words were not the burning souls of long dead warriors, they were burning, yes, but gigantic masses of something he called “gas”.

Even the Father, or as Marduk called it, the “Sun” was but one of them, another star, another ever-burning eternal mass of energy.

Another boy would have laughed at that answer, thinking those words the product of a senile mind.

An adult of his tribe would have thought them blasphemy, towards the Father and the ancestors that gazed from the sky.

But to Hadan, those words were wonders, vastly more interesting than the old tales of ancestors and Gods that lived in the immutable sky.

<<Here will do. Now, do as I say, and be very, very careful>>

Marduk’s voice called Hadan back from his thoughts. He led the boy towards a fallen tree, and from the rotting trunk, covered by moss and large, reddish mushrooms, there was a buzzing sound coming.

As Hadan came closer, he saw the origin of that sound.

Big as his index finger, insects were swarming around a ball-shaped brown “thing”.

The insects, buzzing around, gave him a bad feeling.

<<Now, those are Ohla. Watch out, do not step closer to their nest. You will enrage them, and they will swarm on you, stinging everything they can see. And they see a lot. Their poison does not kill, but it hurts like hell>>

Marduk made a wry smile to Hadan, seeing as the boy recoiled a bit in fear.

<<Why did we come here?>>

Hadan asked, his voice slightly trembling.

<<To collect something from their nest, of course>>

Marduk’s answer sent a shiver down Hadan’s spine.

The old man took out a rag and some dry branches, and he dropped some kind of liquid on the rag, from a small clay bottle he took out of his pouch.

A strange smell diffused in the air, making Hadan’s nose itch.

<<Now, this liquid here is flammable. It means, that it takes fire very quickly. When it burns, the liquid lets out a thick smoke. Harmless to us, toxic to them>>

Said Marduk, pointing towards the Ohla nest.

He wrapped the cloth on the wooden stick, handing it to Hadan along with two fire-stones.

<<Well, time to start>>

The boy sighed, and he crouched down, laying the stick on the ground as he smashed the fire-stones one onto the other, letting out sparks as the two stones collided.

The sparks flew over the cloth, and it burst into flame.

Hadan fell backwards, surprised by the intense heat coming from the cloth.

Marduk let out a hearty laughter, and shook his head.

<<You need to be cautious with that, or you’ll burn yourself along with the cloth>>

Hadan dropped his shoulder, feeling a bit offended by the old man’s mocking tone.

Still, he took the torch in his hands, taking care of keeping the burning part away from his face.

<<Now?>>

He asked, holding the flaming torch.

From its end, a thick black smoke was released, making the young boy cough and squint his eyes.

<<Now you push that under the nest, and wait>>

Feeling a bit insecure, Hadan followed Marduk’s instructions.

He went near the nest, taking slow steps in order to not upset the swarming insects.

He placed the torch beneath the nest, almost tossing it when one of the creatures landed on his arm.

He swatted it away, letting out a small squirm of disgust.

Having completed his task, he went back towards Marduk. And they waited for the smoke to take effect.

After some minutes, the two of them went back towards the nest.

The buzzing noise was gone, and as they came closer, they saw the insects laying down on the ground and inside the hollow trunk.

Overturned, with their ten legs squirming and jerking in the air.

Their bodies had a strange, shining black-reddish color.

Wings, twice as long as their bodies, sprouted from the back of those creatures, and they had long, elongated eyes that looked like stripes, yellow in color.

Their hind part looked like a big, soft sack, that ended in a curve stinger almost as long as the body itself.

Hadan imagined how it would feel to be stung by one of those things, and he was sure that it would have been unpleasant.

As Hadan fearfully looked the insects, Marduk collected their nest, shaking off the few insects still clinging to it.

With a smile, he showed the nest to Hadan.

It was round, made with a strange, wax-like substance that had a deep brown color.

As Hadan took it in his own hands, he was surprised to feel how light it was. From it, a sweet, fruity scent enveloped Hadan’s nose, making his mouth water.

<<If you crack this open, you will find a thick yellow syrup. It’s called “honey”, something these little things here produce. Here, you break the nest like this and take out these yellow bits. Have a taste>>

Marduk took back the hive from Hadan’s hands.

Carefully, he broke the nest, taking something from inside of it. Some kind of stick, or spike, oozing a thick, yellow liquid.

As Marduk gave Hadan the yellow “thing”, the sweet scent grew stronger.

Hadan took a small bite from it, and a sweet sensations spread in his mouth.

It was the most delicious thing he ever tasted, even more than the sweet fruits his father sometimes brought back from his hunts.

He gulped down the entire thing, chewing it down and letting the savoriness spread on his tongue.

He wanted more, but Marduk denied it.

After all, the old man said, they needed the honey to finish the medicine he was preparing.

The two of them headed back to the fireplace.

There, Marduk broke the rest of the hive, and threw the yellow bits inside the pot.

Again, he added a bit of water and some more herbs, stirring the mixture over the fire.

After a while, the medicine was ready. It became a brown syrup, giving off an intense sweet smell.

<<This here, it cures common cold, fever and sore throat. It’s easy to make, and it sells well. The only difficult thing about this recipe is procuring honey, but you saw where it is possible to find some. Now, do you remember the other ingredients and how to prepare them?>>

Hadan nodded, but Marduk made him repeat the whole process again, stopping the boy as he repeated the step, making him random questions about each ingredient’s properties, where to find them and how to prepare them.

When Hadan finished, Marduk was pleased by his words. He patted the boy’s head, and he gave him the last bit of honey from the hive.

Then, he collected the medicine from the pot, storing it inside some of the small, sleek bottles made of clay that he always brought with him.

Having collected all the medicine he could, he gave the big pot to Hadan, sending him off to clean the pot and collect more water from the nearby stream.

They had chosen that place for their camp, since it was clear from vegetation, perfect for lighting a fire without risking to burn down the entire forest, and because a small stream of crystal clear water was flowing nearby.

Hadan reached the stream, and he immersed the pot in it. He shivered when his hands touched the cold waters, but he endured the cold.

The boy cleaned the pot as best as he could, then he filled the waterskins that Marduk gave him. He headed back, after he drank his share of the cold water and collected a pretty stone from the stream.

As Hadan returned, Marduk took the pot and used it again. Inside of it, he put the waxy hive. Hadan looked at him with a raised brow, baffled by what the old man did.

<<I’m not cooking it, Hadan. Here, look>>

He flicked his finger, signaling Hadan to come closer. As the boy looked inside the pot, he let out a sound of surprise.

The hive was melting down from the heat, becoming a clear, semi-transparent liquid.

<<You can use this to seal things. It’s waterproof, that means water cannot get past it. So, you can seal bottles and pots containing liquid, and even wounds if you boil the wax enough and mix it with some disinfecting herbs>>

Hadan knew what wax was, he had seen it in his village. What he did not know, was that wax could be melted, and that it came from those hives.

Marduk explained him that the wax his tribe used was different from this one, coming from mixed oils and plants instead of insects like this one.

<<Sometimes I will teach you how to make it, perhaps. Not today, lessons are over for now. We need to set on march again, boy>>

Nodding to Marduk’s words, the boy collected his belongings. Marduk did the same. They quenched the fire, taking care of dousing it with enough water, in order to not leave some embers still lit.

They left the place behind, heading in the direction that, according to Marduk, would lead to a village beyond the forest.

As Marduk taught him, Hadan looked at the giant trees, looking for the brown and gray moss that grew on their trunks, near the roots.

The brown and gray moss where the same kind of moss, only the gray one grew in the part of the trees that faced north, the brown one on the south part.

It confused Hadan first, as he still had no grasp of cardinal points and general directions. He always oriented himself as the tribe hunters taught him to do, judging from the sun’s position during the day and using the stars at night.

But Marduk taught him different methods, to use in different situations.

Here, in the forest, the sun could not be seen, since the trees covered blocked the view.

And so, he needed to rely on this trick, seeing where the moss grew on the trees and judging his position and direction from them.

It was difficult, at first, but Hadan got the hang of it after a while.

Together with the old man, they headed in the direction that Marduk called “east”, the same where the Sun would rise.