A Strange Sky- Prologue

The man groaned, pain aching through all of his body.

He tried to open his eyes, but the world he saw was confused, out of focus, red and blue lights flashing in his view.

He had the strange impression of a distant, distorted voice whispering something in his head, but that was being overwhelmed by the loud, ringing noise that pierced his ears, numbing his thoughts to the point that he did not even remember his own name.

Waves of pain were constantly assaulting him, originating from the deepest part of his brain and surging, expanding, as if his own head was about to burst open.

He coughed, a sliver of saliva dribbling down his chin as his chest convulsed in that abrupt motion, sending new waves of pain as he gasped for air.

Again, a blue light flickered in his view, along with the semblance of words whispered through that ringing noise.

To him, it was the worst kind of pain he ever experienced. Much more than when he broke both his legs falling down a tree, or when, barely adolescent, he was hit by a car.

<<A car…my…car>>

He mumbled, shuddering as his own voice sounded weak, broken, nothing more than a whisper.

His mouth tasted like blood, he smelled it even.

He tried to lift himself up, realizing that he was lying supine on the ground, his face scraping dirt.

Another jolt of pain made him subside from his attempt, and he just laid there, aching.

His breathing was heavy, and he felt his heart beating, the slow thump pulsing in his temples, weak, irregular.

His senses were about to give up, sliding into that murky oblivion that he just woke up from.

Instead, he resisted it, forcing his consciousness away from that “place”.

He struggled to maintain himself awake, stopping his own consciousness from drifting into a murky sleep.

He needed to stay awake, he wanted to stay awake.

Another one of those strange blue flashes, and he felt better.

Slightly,but better.

Every breath still pained his body, and his head still hurt like hell.

Steeling himself, he moved his arms, trying to lift them, fearing them broken.

They hurt, but he managed to move them well enough. Grasping the earth with his fingers, he collected his will.

He tried to get up once again, failing once more since his legs were not moving.

A wave of panic hit him hard, making his heart race like it never had in a long, long time.

He forced himself once more, this time without attempting to immediately get up.

Instead, he struggled to turn himself around, from supine to prone.

And he did, collapsing on his back, exhausted with that simple motion.

His sight was slowly returning to him, his surroundings regaining focus, becoming proper objects rather than confused blurs of colors like some moments before.

Another of those blue lights flashed in his view, staying there from some moments.

He felt the impression that something was written in his view, but it quickly disappeared, becoming nothing more than a flickering blue light in the farthest corner of his view.

Hurting, confused to the point that he did not even manage to put one thought after the other, he laid there, his bare skin touching the cold, soft ground below, while a gentle breeze swept the air.

It carried the sound of rustling leaves, it carried the smell of wet terrain after rain. The smell of vegetation, both growing and decaying.

The smell of a forest.

His thoughts were beginning to clear up, and the man was beginning to remember.

Some things were still murky in his mind, and he struggled to get them, feeling like when a word slipped by his thoughts, its meaning clear but the name related to it hidden, but close, as if he was about to grasp it, and he was forced to struggle in order to remind himself of it.

Then, memories clicked, working as they should have been.

The man started to piece together what happened to him.

He was driving his car on the highway, half an hour after work and still fifteen minutes to drive before reaching home.

The road unusually empty, he remembered pushing his foot on the pedal a bit too hard, wanting to test the new “toy” that his expensive car was.

<<Did I crash my car?>>

He muttered, thinking himself to be in some kind of hospital, despite his senses suggested otherwise.

He remembered hearing on the TV, that sometimes acute cranial trauma would lead to sensory hallucinations, like weird smells or strange noises, or even the blue flickering light.

In his thoughts, he began to consider his situation like the aftermath of a car accident.

And what else, he thought, could have happened?

He was driving, his consciousness blacked out, and he woke up hurting like hell all over his body and head.

And yet, his hands touched cold, soft soil, and the gentle breeze that swept over his skin gave him real respite from the almost oppressive heat of that place.

Could those be hallucinations too, asked the man to himself.

It had to be something like this, he thought.

The blue light flickered once more, and he was forced to blink a few times before it went away. Now, the number of blinking blue dots on the lower corner of his vision was beginning to worry him a bit.

Still, he ignored them, thinking them some weird hallucination.

After all, he thought, he must have hit his head pretty fucking hard.

Once again, the man struggled to force himself up. Again, his legs did not move. Now, the man was beginning to fear the worst.

Which, to him, was not to be dead. He did not fear that, thinking that whenever it would happen, it would happen, without the need for him to fear it or worry too much.

What he feared, was becoming crippled, his mind working and fine trapped into a broken body. That thought made him shudder, bringing forth with it the last memory that the man had of his father.

A large, ever happy man that spent his life doing things all day long, restless.

Be it farming, crafting ,woodworking or even hunting and fishing, the old man, Albert, had a number of hobbies throughout his whole life.

But the last portion of it, ten years, Albert spent paralyzed in his bed, unable to move anything below his neck after a fall during one of his many activities.

And his son watched him in those conditions, the images of his father from before and after the accident overlapping in his mind.

He thought of his father, weeping in his bed as his legs did not want to move.

He steeled himself, using all the willpower he had to make his legs move.

His lips started to tremble, when nothing happened for the third time.

The man was beginning to give in to resignation, but, he forced himself once more.

He raised his upper body, his elbows lifting the weight, trembling, aching. He looked at his legs.

The expensive pair of jeans he wore were torn and tattered, dried blood mixed with dirt staining the tissue.

He lost one of his shoes, a pair of black boots, imitations of those that the Army’s soldiers wore.

<<Fuck>>

He muttered, trying once more to move his legs, this time focusing on a single finger, the big toe of his left, bare foot.

The man almost laughed hysterically, when the toe moved.

He tried to do the same with the other foot, feeling his toe scraping to the tip of the shoe.

With a sigh of relief, he abandoned himself down, ignoring the jolt of pain that happened when he did so.

He closed his eyes, breathing slowly to let both excitement and fear pass.

He would wait some more time, then try to move his legs with more decision. Still, he knew that the fact his toes moved was a good sign.

He did not exactly know how good that fact was, if it was the sign of the complete absence of a spinal lesion, or if it just meant that the damage, if there was any, was of minor entity than an injury leading to full leg paralysis.

He opened his eyes once more. Concerned as he was, he had let it slide, but now, he was starting to realize it.

Trees. He was surrounded by trees. Looming over him, their canopy masking the sky above them, letting only some rays of light to filter down.

He already realized that he was not inside an hospital, since he was lying face down on soft soil when he woke up.

But, in his head, he had surmised that the crash made him fly and land into some sort of garden, or one of the small patches of cultivated terrain.

One of those that surrounded the part of the highway he was driving on.

The strangest thing of all, was that there was not a single place with so many trees in the vicinity of that highway, for hundreds of meters all around.

Sure, some gardens and terrains had some trees, he knew that, but, what he was seeing at the moment, and even smelling, was not a pair of trees in someone’s garden.

Not even a park, for that matter.

The trees he saw were too many for it to be the case, and the smell, so different from that of a city park, more like that of a proper meadow, or even a forest, thought the man.

And, there was not a single spot near that highway that had trees in that quantity.

<<This must be some kind of hallucination. I had an accident in my car, and now I am seeing things. Perhaps I’m in a fucking coma, or my head has been messed up by the accident. Or, I may be dead>>

He muttered to himself, realizing that his voice now had more strength than before.

The man turned his head around, trying to see more of his surroundings. On his right, there was a rock, covered in moss, big enough for him to use it to help himself get up on his feet.

The place, everything, held a surreal aura to it, thought the man, feeling like inside a dream rather than properly awake. Although the smells, and the sensations he felt were too real for it to be a dream.

The two considerations clashed in his mind, but he shrugged them off, focusing on the more pressing stuff.

<<Ok, let’s try this now>>

He stretched his hands, turning his body as much as he could towards the boulder.

Grasping it with his hands, he pulled himself up, slowly, enduring the pain and the rising sensation of nausea and disorientation that assaulted him.

But, he managed to lift himself up using the boulder.

As he did, a sensation of vertigo almost made him fall back on the ground.

He closed his eyes, letting it pass before opening them again.

His stomach was clenching, his guts twisting, but he endured.

He recognized those symptoms. The ringing noise, nausea, it was all too similar to when he had another accident, and he hit his head pretty badly.

He was forced to stay awake at the hospital that very night.

<<Falling asleep with a brain concussion might be dangerous>>

He remembered a pretty nurse telling him those words. She was short, blonde. Thin legs and a big pair of…

He even sprouted a cocky line to her back then, giving his usual wry smile to the young woman.

Now, there were no pretty nurses around, only trees as far as the eye could see.

The man took a long, painful breath, and he forced himself to sit on the rock. He examined his own body.

His arms were fine, although dried blood and patches of black soil still stuck to his skin. He still had his clothes on him, only, they looked more like tatters than proper clothes.

Especially his sweater and the shirt below, they were nothing more than dirty, bloodstained rags. He tried to check his back, reaching backwards with his hands.

Another jolt of pain, but, lesser than what he felt when he got up.

His hands, both of them, touched bare skin and patches of clothing.

If the front of his sweater was torn, but still had somewhat the semblance of a sweater, the backside of it was completely torn open, leaving the man’s back exposed.

Luckily, he thought, his pants were somehow still a bit intact. They were an expensive pair of jeans, now riddled with tears and stains in the tissue, but somehow still passable.

And, he was missing a shoe.

He glanced around, trying to locate the missing item.

If he needed to trek for some time among the trees, doing it barefoot would be a bad idea.

His eyes darting around, he managed to find the shoe, some meters away from his position.

The soil between that lone, out of place shoe and the man’s position was covered in dried leaves, but some patches of terrain were clear, like something had been dragged over it, clearing a line on the ground.

<<Something, or someone>> thought the man, a chill running through his spine. He considered himself that something dragged down the forest, almost picturing the scene.

But, if that was the case, thought the man, there should have been some blood splattered around. Instead, the terrain below him, and that around, were void of any trace of blood, not even a single blood.

While his body, thought the man, was splattered by it, most likely his own.

That fact led the man to a single conclusion. The accident happened somewhere else, and he was transported there, maybe dragged down by someone.

Despite his thoughts were turning slightly darker, as he considered how he could be the “thing” that was dragged there, the man noted how he was feeling definitely better than before.

His chest no longer hurt when he breathed, and he could now freely move his legs, although his muscles still tensed with pain at the start of each movement.

With a deep breath, the man decided to try and get up on his feet.

He managed, for two seconds or so, before a sense of vertigo assaulted him with enough violence to almost make him tumble down on his butt.

He recovered, letting himself sit on the rock again.

Perhaps, he thought, it was a bit too early for him to stand up.

The man rummaged in his pockets, looking to find his phone. Now that he was feeling better, he thought, he could try and call for help.

Inside his right pocket, the phone was still there, pressing on his skin until he took it out of the pocket.

It was off, oddly, since the man never turned it off, never.

<<It must have been the impact>>

He tried to start the phone, but, as he pressed down the button, the phone exploded into sparks.

The sudden light made the man close his eyes, white and red impressed in his vision, with the latter more vivid and staying there, even with his eyes closed.

But it subsided, his vision returning to normal.

<<What the fuck was that?>>

The man shouted, looking his hand to search some signs of burns or cuts.

To his relief, he still had all his fingers, albeit a bit reddened and slightly burned by the sudden sparks.

He sighed, muttering an imprecation before rummaging further into his pockets.

The right one held the phone along with his wallet and the keys from his apartment.

The left one held a pack of rolling tobacco, along with filters and rolling paper, all of them new and sealed. Other than that, he had his lighter, a small pack of gummy candy and a little knife.

He smiled when looking at the small knife, the silver reflections of the tiny blade, no longer than his

thumb but sharp and well kept.

The handle of it was in polished horn, shining in the dim light that transpired from the trees above.

The first piece of his collection, the rest of it exposed on a shelf in his bedroom. A weird habit, but something he cherished. And that knife was special, it was a gift from his father, his first knife, tied to memories of his old man, of when he was still strong and full of life.

He put the knife in his pocket once again, and he started to examine the keys. Those for his own garage, his apartment, a large key for the Palace’s entrance.

The Palace, a high sounding name for the apartment complex where the man lived.

And the place itself, old and badly maintained, was the farthest thing from a real palace. It was cheap, and that’s all that the man needed when he moved in.

Things had changed during the years, and in recent times, he had begun to hunt for another place to live. Attached to the key ring, a small teddy bear made of plastic.

It was something that Carla, his girlfriend, bought him when she came back from Italy.

She did visit a small town, famous for its pocket knives, and, given that her loved one was a passionate collector of knives and sword replicas, she bought him a cute little thing instead.

They were still at the start of their relationship, two months since it started, that time where people stop wearing the masks that they put on when trying to impress the other person, and let their own self be known, taking all the risks involved.

Although that memory was sweet, his recent fights with Carla had made the two of them drift apart, and they decided to take a pause from each other.

It happened no more than two days ago, thought the man.

A low, grumbling noise distracted the man from his own thoughts. His own stomach, now more relaxed than when he woke up, was beginning to signal its need for food.

He took out the pack of gummy candy, eating some of those. Not enough to sate his hunger, but still, it was something. He let the candy melt a bit before starting to munch on it.

He always had a sweet tooth.

Without further thought, he opened the pack and ate a handful of candy. He saved the now half-empty small pack for later, savoring the sweet taste melting in his mouth.

Next, he rolled himself a cigarette. Not the smartest thing to do after an accident, when no more than twenty minutes ago he could not even breathe properly.

But man, he thought, he really needed one.

He lighted it on fire, keeping the lighter between his index and thumb, looking at it.

A cheap item, purple in color and made with a frail, semi-transparent plastic that allowed to see how much gas was left inside of it.

It was still half full. Still, thought the man, how come it did not even have a crack on it. After all, both his body and the cellphone suffered some kind of damage from whatever the hell happened, and yet, that small lighter was in pristine conditions.

He gave it not too much thought, considering it one of the marvels of random events.

Taking big puffs of white smoke, he enjoyed his self-rolled cigarette.

To kill time a bit, he opened his own wallet. Money, debit cards. His driver’s license. The picture on it always bugged him.

It was a really bad picture, and it made him look younger than he really was when he took it.

Five years had passed from when he was eighteen, and he got his license.

The face on that picture was roughly the same as it was now, slimmer, younger, with a stupid haircut and even more stupid attempt at growing a beard.

His cheekbones became more prominent as he grew older, and, unlike his eighteen years old self, he had no longer a long hair cut. Now, he kept them short, swept back and well trimmed.

More professional, he thought.

The stubble on his chin was also gone, as,each morning, he shaved his face.

He got rid of the piercing rings that he used to wear on his left ear, all three of them.

His first boss did not see those kind of things, tattoos and piercings, in a kind way.

And, so he got rid of the earrings, opting for a “cleaner” look.

Overall, his face did become more handsome with age and since he put on some weight.

Back then, he was too slim for his own height, the man thought.

Now, his seventy six kilograms were almost the ideal weight for his meter and eighty four of height.

The man studied the details of his past self, the image of which impressed in that plastic material.

His light brown eyes, that sometimes, under the right light, seemed almost yellow.

His eyebrows, that gave him an intense expression, black as his hair and naturally perfect, much to his satisfaction.

The eye portion of his face was what granted him most of his success with the ladies, at least, that’s what he always thought about himself.

That, and his voice, deep and warm, sometimes more interesting that the thing he said with it.

His nose, that was the feature he least liked of his own face. Back then, it was decent enough, but, when he was twenty years old, he had a fight and had his nose broken.

Now, the bridge of it was slightly bent to the left, as the broken bone failed to heal properly.

It was not a major defect, however, he was too much conscious of it.

He even thought about spending some bucks to fix it, but he always desisted from that idea.

He had enough vanity to consider it, not enough to actually go with that decision.

After all, it was still surgery, and surgery scared him a lot.

Inadvertently, he ran his left index on his nose, tracing the slight curvature that it had taken, his eyes studying the shape it had before, then going down.

His lips, his cocky smile, that never changed through the years.

And of course, his name, written besides the photo on the small, plasticized document.

Conrad Levine. He always loathed his name. Conrad, it always sounded old to him.

Clara loved it, that silly, beautiful Italian girl.

Again, she crossed Conrad’s thoughts. For a moment, he wanted to grab his phone and call her.

<<Ah, right>>

He said to himself, feeling slightly dumb. His phone after all, decided to explode right in his fingers.

Perhaps, he thought, even if he had a phone, who knew if it worked out here?

For what he knew, there could be no signal there.

<<And where the fuck is “here”?>>

He shouted in frustration. One thing was sure to him, as his last outburst had just confirmed. He definitely felt better than when he woke up.

He tried to stand up on his feet, and he did it without much effort, or pain, this time.

His side still hurt, but it was not enough to keep him from doing movements. Sure, thought Conrad, he could not be able to run a marathon or climb up a rock wall, but he could walk just fine.

Perhaps even run.

And so, he decided to start walking. No point in standing there.

First, he walked up to his missing shoe.

The sock was still inside of it, and Conrad bent, making a pained expression in the process, to pick it up and put it on.

The pair of shoe, black boots made with leather, were sturdy and warm.

Perfect for trekking inside a forest, he thought.

After having both shoes again, he considered what to do at the moment.

Conrad thought, the first thing he needed right now was to get out of the woods.

Judging from the light coming from above, he surmised that it was still morning out there, since the rays of light that managed to find their way between leaves were strong enough to well illuminate the place.

<<Noon? Perhaps?>>

He muttered his guess to himself.

Perhaps, he thought, he might be off by some hours in his consideration.

Still, Conrad thought to have enough time to maybe get out of the woods, or at least, understand where these woods were.

Moreover, he was now sure that he was not dead, or in a coma or some other strange dream state or hallucination.

He had considered those options, before, when pain and confusion numbed him down and clouded his thoughts, so much that he thought it all an hallucination of some kind.

But, as time went on, and he started to feel a bit better, the reality of his situation became more and more apparent.

And, he convinced himself of that, although it still confused him, a lot.

He looked around the place, seeing if he somehow managed to recognize it.

Adding to Conrad’s confusions, the surroundings were unknown to him, as the type of plants he observed around.

The place was nothing more than a patch of soil among trees, with a scarcer undergrowth due to the rocky nature of the terrain underneath the soft soil.

Gray rocks emerged here and there, the biggest of them the one where he was sitting some moments before.

All around, a carpet of dead leaves was scattered on the floor, excepts from some lines of clear soil, those that he believed to be the signs of something dragged on the ground.

Something as big as him, he thought while looking closer at those supposed tracks.

That, incidentally, led exactly to the point where he woke up.

<<What the hell is going on?>>

He muttered, some more strength in his voice.

Conrad’s thoughts were now running rampant, trying to think why and how he was dragged down here, from the highway and his car.

Perhaps, he crashed somewhere, and some kind soul dragged him out of the car and went to search for help.

But Conrad excluded that possibility, since there were no trace of a car around, nor those of another person.

It was like he, and that thought was so silly that it almost made him laugh, came crashing down from higher altitude, and slid on the leaf-covered soil until he stopped near the rock.

Of course, he knew that if something like this happened, his neck would have been snapped by the landing.

Not that he could completely rule out the fact that, having had an accident with his car, he was launched by the impact. In his mind, the possibility that he had a car accident was now a certainty, confirmed by his wounds.

Still, he did not manage to find a possible explanation for how he did end up in that place.

The thought that someone might have dragged him there was the most likely option, but he failed to understand why someone would take their time and struggle to drag almost eighty kilograms of man inside a forest, and leave him there.

Without even leaving a footprint around.

He decided to leave those thoughts alone for the moment, and focus on getting out of the trees. First, he would need to find a way to orient himself among them.

As he came closer to one, he was pleasantly surprised to see some moss growing on one side of the trunk.

Although he did not recognize the type of moss, and neither the tree, he knew from his days spent camping that he could use it to find the north.

To his knowledge, however, there weren’t any parks or meadows near the place where he was driving.

All city on the west side, and on the east side, land used for industrial purpose and further away, patches of land purposed for cultivation.

Only some small gardens around that part of the city.

But then, he came to the conclusion that, without knowing where he was, and without having some sort of landmark to use, there was no point in knowing about north or other cardinal points, for that matter.

What he needed to do, was to choose a direction, and move that way.

Perhaps, he thought, he could climb up a tree, but he dismissed that idea quickly, since it was too risky for him in those conditions.

The best thing to do, would be for him to find a high place, perhaps a hill of some sort, and hope that it was easy to climb up top, but high enough to grant him a better point of view, past the treetops and past the woods.

The terrain around him was slightly sloped, and he thought that if he followed that slope, perhaps he could find himself in a high position and see where this place was.

He followed the slope’s direction, heading east.

After roughly one hour of difficult march, Conrad was pleased by what he saw.

Exactly what he wanted. A hill, whose top rose higher than the trees. More than that, it looked easy to climb it, reaching the top.

And Conrad did so.

Step after step, stopping from time to time to catch his breath once more.

His vision was still riddled with those blue and red flickering points, flashing from the corner of his view.

Other than that, it was perfect, as was his hearing, now free of that annoying constant sound.

His head still pound with pain from time to time, especially when he accelerated his walk a bit too much.

It took him some time to get on top of it, a hill that had a height of roughly one hundred meters.

He checked the wristwatch he had on his left wrist, reading the time on the digital display.

Another item that, mysteriously, did not end up destroyed like his clothes and cellphone.

Looking at it, he felt a bit dumb.

The watch, beside displaying the hour, it had a small compass.

He laughed, shaking his head.

Then, he looked up to the hill, starting to trek up the sloped terrain.

It was a gentle slope, something that he would have been able to climb pretty quickly if he was in optimal conditions.

But, he wasn’t, and it took him some good time, and frequent stops, to get on top of it.

However,things went smoother than he initially surmised. Conrad thought his conditions worse than they were, or, he thought, he was getting better as time passed.

Once on top, he considered his conditions and felt like his suppositions were true. He felt fine, no pain coursing through his muscles.

And he knew, that the state he was in when he woke up was critical, something that would need weeks to heal, not mere hours.

Instead, the damage he had was gone.

Breathing no longer was painful, his vision worked perfectly and the ringing sounds in his ears was gone, as was the headache.

The flickering lights were still there, but that did not bother Conrad too much.

Other things had started to bother him, like the feeling of blood, sweat and dirt clinging to his skin, and the constant buzz of insects that had begun to swarm him.

They were tiny little critters, their bodies held a green, metallic shine. As he swatted one, he took the tiny corpse between two fingers, taking it closer to his eyes for a better inspection.

It was nothing like he had ever seen. Kind of an hybrid between a dragonfly and a mosquito, with a peculiar coloration, a deep metallic purple.

It had the bodily build and bulging eyes of a dragonfly, but it was much, much smaller, and had a stinger for a mouth, exactly like a mosquito.

And the little buggers stung him, too many times. His skin began to itch, and the bite-marks swelled and reddened, itching furiously.

He hoped that those little bugs were not something nasty, only mildly annoying. Otherwise, he would be in some deep trouble.

Still, after reaching the top, he forgot about the insects, and the dirt on his skin.

The sight from the hilltop was beautiful, stunning even, and it left Conrad speechless.

All around him, as far as his eyes could see, there was a green sea. Nothing but trees for miles and miles, in all directions.

A wide river slithered its way among the green of the forest, the treetops near it enveloped in a thin veil of mist.

Seen from above, the higher trees near the hill looked like they would reach half the height of it, but some other, seen in the distance, might have been taller than the hill itself.

As Conrad basked himself in the view, he thought it splendid, setting aside the implications that such a sight had, he simply let himself enjoy it, for a moment. The calm of it, the absence of any trace of humanity all around.

It should have been something to worry about, but, against all logic, the sight calmed him down.

He breathed in the slight breeze, the air so clean, like it was back when he was a child, and his family lived away from the city, their home in the countryside lost among nature.

No, it was even better than back then, and Conrad had the slight sensation, the feeling that the air of this place, it never had an ounce of the polluting smokes of human activity.

It was pure, free, alive. Untainted.

Even atop of the hill, with the slight breeze sweeping it, the air was warm enough for him to feel refreshed.

Conrad removed his tattered sweater and shirt, tying the two ragged clothes around his waist.

The two pieces of clothing were ruined enough that more than comfort, having them on was becoming a hassle, as the pieces of torn cloth swayed with the wind, sticking to the skin that they left largely exposed.

After doing so, Conrad gazed upwards, to the sky.

As he did, he shuddered, dread taking hold of its thoughts. The sky, it was different, so much that it left the man speechless, trembling.

It was blue, but…

Not a single cloud, and a strange, aurora-like luminosity was dancing on the sky above. Pulsing, it shone, the colors of it shifting, changing between shades of blue, green and purple.

The most stunning thing were the three lights glowing where the Sun should have been. Significantly smaller than the Sun, their light combined burned as brightly, blinding Conrad until he finally set his gaze elsewhere.

Maybe their combined size could reach that of the real Sun, he thought for a moment, perhaps in an attempt to escape the reality of what he saw.

Well, reality, he thought, might be the least correct term to use here.

His body, his sense of smell and touch, suggested that all of this was real.

The breeze on his skin, the smells lingering in the air.

Even the complex song that the huge sea of trees sang, with notes of birds and rustling leaves.

And yet, his sight suggested that this was not real. At least, not his usual “real”.

Conrad was standing on the top of a hill, surrounded by a sea of green, unknown trees.

Over his head, a strange sky where three small Suns shone and aurora lights danced in thousands of colors.

No trace of civilization all around, not a single sign of a road, or a settlement of some sorts.

Only nature, green as far as the eye could see. And the river, swimming its way in that sea of green that extended below the hill.

In the distance, a mountain ridge emerged lazily from the forest, growing in height as it grew more distant from the forest.

Some more hills emerged from the forest, between Conrad’s position and the mountain range, where the trees grew taller than the area where Conrad was.

This time, Conrad watched the compass on his wristwatch. To the north, he had the distant mountain ridge.

The rived followed the same direction for a trait, before taking a huge turn east and continuing its sinuous stream northwest of Conrad’s position. West, and south, more trees, unending, reaching as far as Conrad’s eyes could see.

<<This must be a fucking dream>>

He muttered to himself.

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Re:Interference Chapter 27- Further Down

The sound of rippling water, and a salty smell carried by a soft breeze, sweeping over the water and making it ripple in small waves.

From above, perched on a rock that rose above water level, Levia is waiting.

Slightly left of her position, Marica is muttering the last words to complete her incantation, keeping a direct line of sight towards my position.

All of us, we’re “wearing” a stronger version of her camouflages spell, that also masks the natural mana flow of a human body.

I confirm Retel’s position, still at the entrance, ready to charge in with his new skill. Dahl is also set on his target, already faded into his own skill.

I take one deep breath, clenching my fist as I steal a glance towards the enemy numbers.

Inside the large, circular room, waist deep waters cover the floor, only few dry spots emerging from it, covered in barnacles and algae that make them a slippery, treacherous place to fight on.

At the center of this room, the water is deeper, reaching three meters of eight. In there, its body emerging from the water, the Guardian sleeps. A hulking mass of muscles shaped in wriggling tentacles, the figure of it is that of a gigantic red octopus.

Unsurprisingly, the monster is named as Kraken, the Guardian of the thirtieth floor.

Around it, the Elite monsters, similar to it in appearance, looking like smaller copies of the Guardian itself.

In order for us to win this battle, we need a powerful first strike.

And, we’ve been preparing for this.

I confirm the others’ position, once more, just to be sure.

One more second passes, long like an eternity.

<<Now>>

Navi’s communication carries my words along imperceptible lines of mana, reaching my companions and signaling to start our plan.

Marica unleashes the spell that she was weaving, and I do the same.

Using her structure to bolster my own spell, I let the energy swell, using it to separate, each particle of mana scraping and breaking the bonds that make up matter. Electrons are taken, amassed into a point, negative charge on the ceiling, positive remains on the floor. The difference of electric potential causes the air to crackle, more and more, until the structure is released and everything is left to its own nature, trying to recover the equilibrium that was lost.

Charges that have been forcibly removed return to their position, forced into a new path by those invisible shackles of mana that we’ve woven into the air.

Light flashes and dances into broken arching paths, shaking the air with the force of lightning.

Using air, rock and water as a source of electrons, the combined efforts of me and Marica give rise to a thunderstorm inside the cave.

The spell unleashed, and devastation follows.

Still, it’s not enough.

Monsters writhe in pain, some of them succumbing to the electricity running rampant inside their bodies, their twitching corpses convulsing in the shallow waters.

But, it is not enough.

The Guardian bellows, damaged, wounded by the crackling thunder that now runs rampant in the water, still going before the spell completely subsides.

To its cry, others respond. Those among the Elite monsters that survived our surprise strike, turning their attention to our positions, now unveiled.

The second part of the plan starts. Levia releases her arrows, targeting those monsters that seem to be in worst condition after the spell. Finishing off those that are weak, impeding them to regenerate and join the upcoming battle.

Quelling the enemies’ numbers with each arrow shot from her bow, she stands tall in that lone rock, Marica bolstering the strength of her arrows, charging her own mana along with Levia’s.

Retel shouts, pointing his lance towards the enemies that are now flocking towards us. A third of the Elite monsters has been taken down, but still a number of them remain, electricity still hurting them. But they push on, regenerating the wounds on their body while receiving some more.

And above all them, towering, the Guardian lashes its tentacle around, crushing rocks and splashing water in its rage, charging its own malicious mana into spheres of dark energy shot at us.

Retel’s spear glows red, and he charges forward with increasing momentum.

He abruptly stops, thrusting his spear forward. A translucent red line of energy shots from the spear, piercing all in its path.

It reaches the Guardian, burying itself in one of the thing’s tentacles, making the base of it explode into a splatter of maimed flesh and gore.

All around, I am releasing the spells I had on hold into my Inventory, targeting the lesser monsters.

More explosions are resounding in the air, as Dahl is using the grenades I lent him to take out groups of weakened Elite monsters.

Their numbers rapidly decrease, each signal disappearing from Navi’s map.

Still, it’s not enough.

The Guardian charges, its tentacles coming toward my position at staggering speed. I avoid them, blinking to another spot moments before the colossal lump of meat comes crushing on the rock where I stood.

For this battle, I asked Retel to specifically focus on guarding the others with his skill.

Having one less target to protect, will allow him to better focus the skill on the others, and himself.

After all, I can perfectly manage on my own.

Having used his attack skill, now Retel deploys his shield, activating Spike Counter each time he blocks enough attacks to charge the skill.

Dahl begins to move, closing in to the Guardian’s position while slashing at the Elite monsters in his path.

His new skill is better suited for him to act solo among enemy ranks.

Using Shoggoth, I claim the attention of the Guardian, restraining its movements with the skill while damaging it.

The Elite monsters are falling, left and right.

I am leaving their disposal to the others, focusing myself on the Kraken until all the smaller monsters are gone.

The beast roars, wriggling its tentacles in the air. A dark energy surrounds them, and they dance, as if the monster is weaving a spell with them.

Then, it comes.

The water recedes, being concentrated in a single point, shaped into a snake made of rippling waves.

It launches itself toward us, arching its liquid body until it crashes into powerful, sweeping waves.

Retel’s shield begins to crack, and before it does, I activate Inventory, pulling the others away from their position into the pocked dimension.

Maybe, I did not have to do something like this. But, better safe than sorry.

Shoggoth is still wrestling with the giant octopus, and it is being overpowered.

The Guardian rips itself free from it, crushing the black mass of my skill, making it lose its shape.

But, it is all in vain. Being a skill, Shoggoth just returns to the form I molded it into, a black body that mirrors the Kraken itself, like a bio-mechanical, darker, smaller version of the Guardian.

It will not relent, or desist. It will not die until I die. It will not stop, no matter how many times the Guardian’s tentacles pummel it down, no matter how much damage the Kraken does to it.

Every time it falls, becoming nothing more than a puddle of black, bubbling matter, it rises again.

Moreover, I am surprised by seeing what the skill is doing. Without me instructing it to do it, the skill changes its form mid attack, turning tentacles to blades that shred the Guardian’s skin and muscles.

It’s like it is learning by fighting this monster. Shoggoth’s hunger grows with each strike, every time it plunges its black blades into the monster’s body, tasting its blood and flesh.

I am almost tempted to let it eat to its heart’s content, given the amount of work it is doing.

Sadly, I will not do it. The experience that the Guardian will yield, it is too much to just pass this opportunity.

There will be other preys waiting for Shoggoth along the path.

As the waves subsided, I hop out of Inventory once again.

Now, all the Elite monsters are gone, fallen to our attacks.
Only us and the Guardian inside the room.

Still, the monster, despite all the damage we did to it, has not even entered its second phase.

This will be a long battle.

Again, the monster uses the surrounding waters to its advantage. This time, instead of using it to attack, the Kraken surrounds itself into a bubble of water.

Infusing it with its own mana, the monster creates a fluid barrier, impervious to magic and resistant to physical attacks.

It starts regenerating its body while inside of there, wounds closing and parts that have been severed growing whole once more.

Roaring, the monster breaks the bubble, and the water, now free to flow again, sweeps the floor with waves.

Weaker than the previous attack, but still annoying given our limited footholds for this battle.

Its energies renewed, the monster begins to swipe its tentacles all around, rampaging in its fury.

The battle raged on, with us slowly whittling away at the monster, taking care of not receiving its attacks head on.

A single blow from those giant tentacles could easily kill us, even if our level is above that of the Guardian.

We cannot risk injury of any kind, or drag the battle for too long. We have potions at our disposal, in order to recover mana and stamina, but those supplies are limited, and using them here will mean having less of them whenever a tougher challenge emerges.

And, since we’re planning to dive further into the Dungeon after dealing with this floor, tougher opponents will surely emerge.

Our current plan is to reach at least the fortieth floor, before considering to turn back to the surface.

Depending on how things play out, we may even delve deeper than that.

Finally, the monster bellows in a painful cry, its large body comes crashing down in a shambling mess of twitching flesh.

It’s not the end, still, for the monster is still alive and charging its mana, ready to adapt in order to meet the challenge that we’re proving to be.

Mana swells within the creature, and its head opens, like a flower blooming. Inside of it, a humanoid figure starts to move.

Its upper half is that of a woman, bare, red skin and tentacles for hair. Facial features that seem to be sculpted such is their perfection, but the eyes that stare at us from that face are pitch black, dripping with malice as the thing smiles, revealing a set of sharp, needle like teeth beneath her wicked smile.

The lower half, from the thing’s navel and below, is warped into wriggling tentacles.

It opens its mouth, and a melodious voice resounds in the air, making it sway in a song as dangerous as it is beautiful.

The monster became a siren, allure and deceit instead of brute strength.

As the monster sings, water rises, swirling around the vaguely human figure and cladding it inside a

rings of floating water.

With each movement of its delicate fingers, the creature commands water into projectiles, shooting them at us with incredible speed and power.

Those that miss drill circular holes into the rock and the floor behind it.

Those that were well aimed, crash upon Retel’s barrier and my Shoggoth, that are barely able to repel them.

A Guardian’s second form is a different challenge from its original one. Before, we dealt with the Kraken’s brute strength. Now, the monster is relying on speed and magic in order to overcome us, that were able to push it to this point.

The Guardian moves, as if gracefully dancing in the air, avoiding each attack without effort. At least, it seems so.

But, each time it does so, the monster increases the power and frequency of its attacks, as if wanting to deal with us as soon as possible.

Perhaps, Guardians have limitations to their second forms. Maybe, their mana is quickly depleted, or other factors that I ignore are beginning to affect the monster, as it feels the need to quickly dispose of us.

But, the reason could be simpler than that. Perhaps, the monster just fears us, recognizing our group as a threat.

This new form it has taken, is definitely more dangerous and difficult to hit. But, lacking the hulking mass it boasted before, it relinquished its bulkiness and defense for more mobility and means of attack.

In short, if we manage to hit it when it is in this form, it will be easier to deal a decisive blow.

Since the “shell” of this monster is still in the chamber, and the new form of the Guardian has not left its vicinity, it may be the case that the monster might still need it.

No chances to be taken here. I order Shoggoth to envelop the former body of the Guardian, and consume it.

As my skill abides, the Guardian lets out a piercing shriek, rushing to its former body’s side.

It looks like I was right.

<<Keep it from reaching it!>>

I shout to the others, while releasing spells in order to chase the Guardian away. Retel deploys his shield around my skill, and the Guardian crashes onto it, being repelled.

It wails against it, and I can almost feel Retel’s grin shaping in his face, as he releases his Spike Counter on the Guardian.

Pierced by red, immaterial spears, this time the Guardian’ shout has painful notes in it.

It retreats, furiously releasing a black mist from its body, hiding into it.

The monster is nowhere to be seen, its signal has even disappeared from Navi’s map.

A powerful camouflage ability.

But, we also have someone with the same trick on our side.

Before the Guardian can strike from its hiding spot, Dahl deals a surprise attack on it. Another skill that he gained from the Assassin class, that allows him to see cloaked enemies, disregarding level or

spell effects.

His surprise attack severs the Guardian’s arm, as the beast reacted at the last moment and dashed away.

Otherwise, Dahl’s slash would have been fatal to it.

The monster recoils, making the water surrounding it explode in the attempt to push back Dahl.

He disappears once again, avoiding the blades of water shot towards him.

Meantime, Shoggoth has successfully consumed the remains of the Guardian’s first form.

Navi’s notification informs me of a new skill absorbed by the monster. I dismiss it for later, since, right now, I have to deal with the dangerous monster in front of us.

Still, getting that notification meant that the Guardian’s first form was somehow still alive. Perhaps, it would have woken up later, making the battle more difficult for us.

Or, the second form could have used it to regenerate itself, or some other nasty trick that I am glad to have avoided.

Now, since the room is void of other dangers or distractions, I can fully concentrate on dealing with the second form.

I make Shoggoth change into mist form, something I did not use in a long time. Since the skill evolved, it is now more easy to control it, even in this form.

The black mist sweeps the room, and I can feel every movement inside of it, even if the monster is using its skill or spell to conceal itself.

With the slightest hint of its presence, I concentrate Shoggoth into the spot, changing the form once again to envelop the Guardian.

Now that it is way smaller than its first form, it is easier for Shoggoth to overpower it, entrapping the monster inside of it and dealing damage.

Blocked by my skill, the monster cannot defend itself from the combined attack of my party members.

Marica’s spell sends a sizzling dart of electricity, shocking the creature, while Retel and Dahl attack from the sides.

<<Move away!>>

Levia shouts, while both Retel and Dahl dash away from the creature. In doing so, Retel deploys his shield skill around the monster, encasing it into a red dome of mana. The shield is open in the front, enough to let the charged arrow shot by Levia pass through before closing.

The arrow explodes into a blinding flash, a mana swirl that rips and shreds, its movements controlled by Marica’s structure and taken forth by her and Levia’s mana.

Contained by Retel’s barrier, the attack is concentrated on the monster’s body, its energy forced to stay in a confined space without having the chance to disperse on the surroundings.

By doing this, the energy from Levia and Marica’s combined attack is made more effective, dealing massive damage to the creature confined into the barrier.

At the same time, the recoiling energy charges Retel’s Spike Counter, that delivers the final blow on the monster.

Its mangled form collapses on the ground, lifeless.

Dahl charges to it, decapitating the creature’s body and piercing the head with his blade.

<<Just to be sure. I do not want nasty surprises at this point>>

Notifications pop up, informing us of the successful defeat of Kraken, the Guardian of this floor.

From the whole battle, we gained two levels, taking us to level thirty-nine.

Levia sits down with a sigh, her forehead pearled with sweat, black scales glinting with the strange blue light that permeates this level.

It was tiresome to deal with this monster, even considering how we were several levels above its own.

<<Well, usually the parties that challenge deeper floors have thrice the active members as ours, so, I guess it went ok?>>

Dahl comments on the victory, cleaning his blades with a towel.

<<Yeah. But, from now, things will be tougher to deal with. Perhaps we really should head back and find someone else to tag along>>

Levia voices her thoughts, taking a sip of water from the bottle I offered her. I am using Shoggoth to clean up the mess, bodies and the scattered materials that are in this huge room. Meantime, I am starting to set up for some rest and dinner.

Still a portion of this floor left to cross, before we reach the exit and find a safe spot where to properly rest and prepare for the next floor.

I go through Navi’s notifications, seeing which skill I gained from the process.

A single one, but blue ranked.

Well of Health. The description of it, read that the holder’s body becomes a source of regeneration for its kin.

I read it once again, trying to understand what the skill description means. Navi is silent when I ask her more information about the skill, and, it is not a good sign.

This skill might be dangerous, depending on how it works. From the way I understand it, it uses the holder’s health to make others regenerate their own.

If it works that way, that would explain why the Guardian kept its first form’s corpse “alive”. It would use this skill to provide health to the second form, healing it over time.

The skill itself is of the active type, so if I chose to keep it, I could experiment with it and see the effect for myself.

With a sigh, I decide to integrate it into Shoggoth.

I take out some health potions from Inventory, ready to test the skill.

As I do, a sharp pain shakes my body, and a red circle of mana expands from me, encasing a small radius around me.

My health starts to decrease, quickly.

<<Hey! What are you doing?>>

Marica shouts at me, strolling to my side as I start to sway, feeling weaker.

I immediately deactivate the skill, chugging down a health potion in order to recover myself. I am sweating, panting heavily.

<<A new skill I gained. Did…did it do something to you?>>

I ask the others that were caught in the circle.

From their words, the skill forcibly activated a high regeneration rate on their own health, as high as the decrease on mine was.

In short, this skill is dangerous. Perhaps, I could use it as a last resort, but, for now, I would refrain from using it.

Heod’s health potion does its work, restoring the amount I lost, while both Marica and Levia caution me about not carelessly trying skills like that one ever again.

They’re right, of course they are. Still, I am trying to find some use to it.

I ask Levia to try something. She shakes her head, abiding but still not convinced about it.

She activates her healing skill, targeting me. Then, once again, I use Well of Health.

This time, the decrease on my health is countered by Levia’s healing skill, a single target one.

<<Ok, now try the wide area one>>

<<Are you sure? Please, cancel it immediately if things do not work out>>

She looks at me worried. I smile to reassure her, and go with the next test.

Her body releases a white aura, that expands in a ring around her. From my own, a red one, smaller but more intense. The two intertwine without canceling out or interfering with each other.

The decrease on my health is significantly lessened by Levia’s skill.

<<Ok. Retel, now stand where the circles connect>>

He shrugs his shoulders, moving into the spot.

Surprised, he states that the two skills work in unison,increasing his health regeneration by a large amount.

I nod, canceling the skill and letting Levia restore the health I lost.

With this, my new skill has become somewhat usable. Still dangerous, but usable. And, if I manage to avoid damage altogether while keeping it, it could take us out of some nasty situation, if someone among the others ends up injured enough to require a powerful healing.

<<Please, be considerate if you ever use it>>

Levia beckons me, her hand on my shoulder, her eyes gazing in mine.

Smiling, she heads to Retel’s side. I take a deep breath, and return to focus my attention on the Status screen. I have still to allocate the points I got from this new level up. Still, level thirty-nine. It seems so high, now, as I remember the time I woke up in that forest, my stats being the lowest, without the slightest idea about this strange world.

In some ways, I still feel like that sometimes, although, I have definitely gone through some changes from that time.

Shaking my head, I dismiss those thoughts and focus on preparing dinner. The cooking skill I have has barely had any progress, since I have been relying on Heod’s food, cooked and stored in my Inventory.

Now that I think about it, I have been neglecting a lot of things that could help me gain an edge in battle.

My Alchemy skill, for example, or the Crafting one. If I trained them as well as I did with Black Fluid then, and Shoggoth now, perhaps I could produce something good for both me and the others.

The problem is, finding enough time to do everything. Especially here, where between battles the spare time at our disposal is taken for necessary rest and eating to recover our energies. Perhaps, after this Dive is done I should take some time to work on those two skills.

Although, having able people to rely on for item production, like Heod for potions and Helena for what concerns armor and weapons, has surely served me well until now.

We spend some more time by resting and then making preparations to head further into the thirtieth floor.

The last part, as usual, has less monsters roaming around before the exit is revealed to us.

Descending down the spiral staircase, we find the safe space halfway through it, and rest there for the “night”.

After making the usual reports, I give a call to Heod to let him know how things went on our part, and to have a general update on the situation.

I left reporting to the Guild to Dahl, and I asked him to propose to Telesia about adding someone to our group. Asking her would be the best choice, since she knows all notable adventurers in the Guild, and she may point us towards someone with both proficiency and experience in dealing with the Dungeon.

Taking someone with a low level and “power leveling” him or her would be an appealing idea, but the sheer time needed for something like this is too much, given the circumstances. Better rely on someone who is already close to our level.

I go to sleep, spending some time in that strange torpor state that coincides with my level up screen. The points I gained, I put them all into Intelligence.

Now, my stats are not distributed almost equally anymore, as my Int stat is now at one hundred and twenty points. Luck is at sixty, and Acc at fifty, with both Str and Agi being forty-five. Charisma, that weird, composite stat, is at one hundred and sixty five, being calculated as the sum of Intelligence and Strength.

Being done with the level up, I drift into proper sleep.

The next “day” goes as usual, with us entering the new floor and sweeping our way through. The thirty-first floor abandons the “sea” pattern, in favor of a “mountain range” scenario. Harsh rock as the floor, open spaces with scarce vegetation and a ceiling that shines blue, like a mocking version of a clear sky.

The monsters in here, are flying type creatures, all above level thirty.

We had to deal with flying enemies before, but that was back in the upper floors of the Dungeon, where the cramped spaces made it difficult for the creatures to maneuver their bodies in the air.

In here, however, the large, open space allow the flying creature to soar freely into the air, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for melee fighters like Dahl and Retel to do any harm to them.

Retel is using his shield non-stop, biding his time for when an attack by me, Levia or Marica knocks the monsters out of the air, and dealing the decisive blows along with Dahl.

These creatures here have frail, light bodies, more suited to avoiding attacks rather than defending from them.

Their health drops to zero with each strike from Retel’s spear, or Dahl’s blades.

Still, the toughest challenge here is not the monster or the difficult terrain. Much like on a true mountaintop, the air here is light, with a scarce quantity of oxygen.

Fatigue is mounting rapidly on us, since we’re not used to fighting in these conditions, and we’re forced to take breaks more often.

Cold air, hard to breathe, and the flock of flying monsters relentlessly attacking our group.

Moreover, a large shadow is moving above the fake clouds that cover the ceiling. Surely, the Champion of this level is there, flying in circles above the central portion of this place.

This floor does not only have unpleasant things in it, tho.

Rich mineral nodes are abundant in the rocky terrain, and some of the rare plants that grow in here are priced ingredients for mana recovery potions.

The monsters themselves, have feathers that are highly sought by the crafting masters of Sendria, along with a peculiar tree that grows here. Its trunk twisted and black, roughly reaching a height of three meters and with scarce leaves adorning its branches.

This tree provides a tough and flexible wood, used in the fabrication of high class bows and crossbows.

In short, the materials found here are worth the risk. But, above all else, the monsters here yield a decent amount of experience if compared to those of the floors above.

Still, we need to defeat a lot of them in order to level up, and given the difficult conditions we cannot go on with the same speed we had in the floors above.

There are not only flying monsters in this new floor, however. Some packs of mountain goats, with large horns that seem made out of rock itself roam the place, hopping from rock to rock with great agility and attacking whatever enters their field of view.

Rarer, but stronger than those, there are some large bull-like creatures, covered in a thick brown wool and boasting horns as long as a human body.

And, deadlier of them all, large mountain leopards, with their snowy fur and fierce claws, laying in wait under some rock’s shadow only to leap out in ambush.

A place full of hazards, where powerful magic can easily be a double edged sword, causing the rock to break and fall into an avalanche that could reveal itself lethal to the casters.

Moreover, the ground itself often ends in a ravine, and we’re forced to leap distances in order to cross them.

The more we get closer to the center, the more fragmented the terrain is, with wider gaps over towering heights that we need to cross in order to push forward.

We spent two entire days to cross the thirty-firs level, and twice the time to reach and surpass the thirty-second floor.

Battling the Champion monsters in those conditions was harsh and difficult, but we managed to bring them down nonetheless.

The thirty-second floor is home to a Safe zone held by the Guild. But, only the entrance room along with some others nearby are safely kept by the adventurers. The rest of it, a system of caves and galleries on a cliff, interconnected among them and dwelling with monsters, is still left in a “wild state”.

The thirty-second floor is organized in a weird way. The entrance and exits are on two opposite cliffs, separated by a huge chasm where flying monsters dwell.

Two routes are to be taken in order to surpass this level. The first one, is a suspended bridge that connects several stone pillars emerging from the ground below. It is the fastest route, but the most dangerous one.

The other way, is to climb down the cliff using a narrow mountain path, traverse the chasm’s bottom and climb up the other side of the cliff.

Longest, but simpler given that most monsters reside on the upper portion, and the even footing allows for a better battle ground.

It goes without saying that we took the quickest route.

The Champion of the thirty-second floor was a large Eagle monster, its level thirty-two. The thing attacked with gusts of wind from its wings, before swooping down with its talon to finish off prey.

We watched a group of adventurers fail to take it on, decimated by the creature so quickly that there was no time for us to do anything.

Still, much like the almost identical monster that was the Champion of the floor above, we managed to restrain it, forcing the monster on the limited ground and killing it there.

All in all, despite the awful fighting conditions, we managed well.

These two floors netted us a bounty of three levels, taking the group to level forty-two.

And now, floor number thirty-three opens before our eyes.

Instead of following the “mountain” environment, this one is a dry desert of red sands and dunes, the same as the floor below, where I fought Leidus’ group some time ago.

In here, scorpion monsters dwell above the sand, while snakes and lizard creatures wait below it, ready to jolt out in ambush.

The scorching heat makes it difficult to walk and fight in this place, but, using few spells is enough to deal with it.

Definitely better than the scarce air of the previous two floors, without a single doubt.

We’re advancing through floors with high speed, and, if we keep this up, we might be able to reach the fortieth floor before the estimated time.

And, if things go well there, we could even think about pushing further down.

During all this time spent in the Dungeon, I have not received any new notification or hint about a new Trial.

If I correctly recall, I have collected thirty pieces of that “Crown” thing that seems to be the focus of it.

And, I have been wondering about what the hell all this means. The trials, they seem to be fashioned in order to make a “Candidate Demon Lord” like me grow into a full fledged one. That, will happen whenever I, or someone else, manages to collect all the pieces of this “Crown” mentioned every time.

But, it’s not like it is a physical item, I suppose the pieces are to be considered more like a fragmented power rather than a proper item.

Although, for what I know, it could be that upon completion a fuckin’ Crown will be materialized before me.

This world is crazy enough for that to happen after all, says the guy with a skill that eat things alive.

And, when the trials will be completed, what will happen to me? Will I stay the same as I am now, will I still be Roshal, a human, a person, only with some insane power at my disposal?

After seeing other powerful people, namely John and that sorry being of the Laughing man, I cannot help but think about how there might be some catch to all this.

Ending up like John, confined into his Dungeon floor but with seemingly God-like abilities does not seem too bad of a fate.

But, and I fear that, my situation might have some more similarities with that of the Laughing Man.

I remember John calling him a “broken” Demon Lord. That time, I asked him what he meant with that, and he just shrugged his shoulders, saying something like the man bartered power for his sanity.

Will the same happen to me? I try to not think about it too far, to not let my mind dwell on such scenarios that are far in time from now, to focus on more pressing concerns.

But, that thought is always there, gnawing its way in my mind right as I close my eyes and try to drift asleep, during moments of respite from one battle and the other.

Along with the other things I have to worry about.

Still, we thread on in the desert floor, against the warm wind that sweeps clouds of sand towards us.

The flock of monsters attacking us from the desert sands, their attacks being based on poison and wind.

To this point, we’re easily tearing through groups of monsters, without breaking as much of a sweat.

It feels good for our, for my own ego, but, this security that we have it, it could easily become hubris and lead to some mistake. We need to keep our focus, otherwise we will end up in some bad situations.

That’s the main risk of the Dungeon, as a whole, something that has doomed many adventurers to a swift death, or worse, a slow one.

Overconfidence, especially for those groups like ours, that have started to gain some semblance of power and think themselves capable of handling each and every situation.

We’ve recently seen one such party, rushing through an area that was littered with monsters, below the adventurers’ level. And they rushed into it, ignoring the fact that the terrain was treacherous, thinking themselves powerful enough to not suffer any consequences. They fell to the Champion of that level, swooped away by gusts of wind or maimed by the bird creature’s giant talons.

It was a grizzly show, and it happened so fast that we could not do anything about it, other than remembering and reflecting about what happened before our eyes.

And so, even if we currently can rush through this floor, and take on multiple groups of monsters at the same time, we’re still playing it with caution, using the terrain to our advantage, leading monsters into choke-points between dunes of sand or exposed rock formations before dealing with them.

For now, it is enough, since the creatures attacking us, even those with some semblance of intelligence, do not resort to complex tactics or dirty strategies.

But, soon, perhaps even sooner than we can expect, we will have to face human opponents. Unlike the fight I had with Leidus’s party, the soldiers and Heroes from Aldora will pose a threat different from everything we’ve faced so far.

The army members seem to have some weird kind of skill or power that nullifies any magic or attacks based on mana, including enemy skills. And, from what I remember from the time I spent in that Aldoran fort, each soldier, even the younger recruits, are above level forty.

And that’s without even considering the Heroes. The one we barely survived was above level seventy, and perhaps, he’s now even stronger than that.

For that reason we need to increase our levels as fast as we can. Reaching at least level seventy, or, in the ideal case, level one hundred.

Although, I fear that even that goal might not be enough. After all, I know from seeing John that it is possible to go far beyond level one hundred, and he might be not the only one to have reached such high level. Most likely, someone among the Heroes has broken past that level, perhaps being on par with John himself.

From the information that Navi told me about the level system of this world, common people cannot break past level one hundred. By her words, there are exception to this rule, such as special existences, like me or the Heroes. Basically, to break past that point it is necessary to receive power from a God, a blessing of some sort.

In short, normal people would require special circumstances in order to rise above their limits.

That fact leads to some consideration. First, no matter how large the army of a country, it will have only a handful of people above level one hundred, but, a single one of those could easily rival a small elite force on his own, even hold power comparable to that of an entire army.

To the specific situation between Sendria and Aldora, the advantage, even if somehow Sendria’s army as a whole might have higher numbers and average higher level, it will all be nullified by the fact that Aldora has already several people with those “special circumstances”.

And, the situation is even worse, since Aldora ‘s army is definitely larger and more prepared than Sendria’s.

Even without taking into account what is happening with Alvarez, Sendria will start at great disadvantage if, or it is better to say, when war breaks out.

Even if our group manages to reach a high enough level, it will all be for naught if the Heroes and Aldora’s army focus their attack on Sendria.

Simply, we will be overwhelmed.

That will happen in the scenario of an open war, or a siege on Sendria. The only way for Sendria to survive a war against Aldora, would be to rely on guerrilla tactics in its territory, using small elite groups to hinder the Army’s advance.

But, all these are still empty considerations after all, made by someone like me, that lacks a clear grasp about what could happened and how it will.

For now, I have to focus on the worst case scenario, and work expecting that. In short, increase my level and that of my party, and end this trial thing as soon as I can.

The first part is “easy”, at least in its concept, since we have a perfect tool to abuse in order to achieve that goal.

Just, head down the Dungeon, beat things to death and increase your level. As simple as it gets, without the need to roam the land in search of creatures to slay, as it would have been the case without a Dungeon at our disposal.

The latter, however, completing the trials, will be more difficult to accomplish. First, because I do not have the slightest clue about how or where to start the next one. Not even Navi, or John, had information about them, although I suspect that Navi might be withholding something from me.

That thing has been really strange, sometimes helpful, sometimes purposefully keeping herself from telling me the information I needed, always with that cheerful and teasing tone. There might be more to that, but, it’s not like I can do something about it.

After all, I rely on that thing for several actions right now, and it has become somewhat indispensable for me.

Sighing, I return my attention to the place we’re in. For a while, we’re just walking in the desert, without any monster attacking us. The signals from Navi’s map are all listed as distant, far away in the remote parts of this floor.

It’s like this area is devoid of monsters, consisting in just a big walk into the sand.

In the distance, I can see some mirage. Palms and flowing water.

There might be some magic spell woven in there, since the images I see seem so realistic.

For normal parties, it could be dangerous. The long walk into the scorching desert, with limited supplies, and then, suddenly, an oasis in the distance. There’s even the sound of running water, and chirping birds. The air too, it smells like ripe fruits and wet sand.

But, of course, it is just an elaborate illusion, cast by the thing that waits under the mirage, its jaws open in the pit of swirling sand that the image conceals.

The signal from it is distant, one hundred meters below us, and the others are even further away.

<<So, fake oasis?>>

Retel asks, his eyes fixed on the distant shapes of trees and the promise of water. Perhaps, the effect of it might be enhanced when someone is dehydrated or hungry, but, since we have Inventory, provisions and water have never been a problem for our group.

And, most importantly, it seems like the others were able to see through the mirage easily, even without something like Navi telling them that those images are not real.

<<Yep>>

Dahl answers, picking up a stone and throwing it towards the oasis, now distant nothing more than forty meters.

The rock arcs its way up, flying with great speed before starting to descend its way down.

As it touches the “oasis”, it flies through a palm, passing through the trunk without even making a sound.

What does make a sound is the giant worm that erupts from the oasis, disrupting the illusion it cast and closing its maws with a loud noise, echoing in the air.

It returns in its pit, and the oasis appears again.

<<Are those monsters? Or some kind of trap?>>

Levia asks, straining her eyes to see past the oasis. There are more of them, scattered along the desert, surrounding the central portion of this floor.

<<I think, they are both. Creatures, without any doubt, but blind and deaf. Only react to touch, the minimum vibration inside or near their “lair” will make them burst out of the place, and close their maws on anything unfortunate enough to step near them>>

Dahl’s answer sheds some light on the creatures. As he continues, he shares that he learned this from his sister, that often shared to him stories about the monsters she fought in the Dungeon.

<<So, do we fight them?>>

Retel asks, stretching his limbs in anticipation. The boy likes to fight, perhaps a bit too much.

<<Not this one. The others, maybe. But, this one is mine>>

I step in, glad to have found a useful thing in this desert. The oasis is nothing more than the product of a skill, as Navi’s detection informed me. Three skills, to be precise.

I summon Shoggoth, using all its mass. The monster I need to take down is huge, although being a normal “mob” in this floor, not even an elite. A body length of several hundred meters, hidden below the sand, twisted on itself.

I wonder how the hell these things manage to grow so large in here, without a vast amount of creatures to feast on. Perhaps they survive by “eating” mana, it cannot be just from eating monsters and adventurers.

Still, it matters little.

I send Shoggoth into the oasis, letting it be eaten by the creature. It will be easier to consume it than trying to wrestle against the monster and absorb it.

Doing like this, Shoggoth can take its sweet time.

Half an hour. That’s how much time my skill needed to devour the level thirty-three monster.

From it, the skill has grown again, and I obtained a copy of the three skills I wanted. But, I think this time the experience will have to wait.

I send Shoggoth into another oasis, repeating the process.

First, these monsters are easy to kill with my skill. Without any doubt, their colossal bodies will have some kind of hard armor, on top of being hidden inside the sand, making them difficult targets to hit.

Attacking them from the inside, I can bypass all their defenses, and consume their bodies without having to force the beast out, or giving it the opportunity to move or retaliate.

From their bodies, I will gain a huge increase in Shoggoth’s mass. But the main reason that compels me to absorb more, is to have more copies of those three skills, in order to integrate them together and produce a stronger version of the skill for me to use.

I apologize to the others for the lost experience, but this egoistic decision is in order to gain some useful skill.

I let Shoggoth run rampant, devouring the monsters one after the other. Since this area is perceived as dangerous by the floor’s other creatures, it is safe once the worms have been dealt with.

The huge worms in this area were twenty, all of them ended up as food for Shoggoth. From the entire process, I gained a lot of new skills, some of them definitely useless, like one called “Sand Burrow”, that allows the user to dig a pit in sand.

But, the three skills I wanted, those have some good use.

All of them related to illusions, the only downside of them being their orange rank. And that was the reason that compelled me to send Shoggoth on an eating spree, in order to get the highest amount of each skill’s copy and Integrate them into a more powerful version.

The first one, it is called Phantasm Sound. It allows the holder to create sounds with mana, and “play” them in a selected location.

The next one is Phantasm Smell, similar, but concerning smell and scent rather than hearing.

And, the last one Phantom Illusion, that allows to project complex images using mana.

All three combined, used at the same time, allowed the worms to weave the realistic illusion of an oasis, masking their presence underneath them.

After discarding the useless skills I got from the monsters, it is time to start the Integration process. First, I take each single skill and fuse it with another copy of itself, taking each single skill to blue rank.

This could be enough, but I feel like pushing my luck further and trying something else. The three blue skills have compatibility among them, and it is possible for me to fuse them together into a single skill.

After taking a deep breath, I start the process.

It takes slightly longer than the other tries, making me fear for the worst outcome. Of course, I still have some copies of the skill saved, so I will not lose them completely if this does not go well, only, I would prefer to have the blue rank in them.

As Navi’s message signals me of the successful Integration, I breathe a sigh of relief.

The new skill, named Phantom Illusion, has a complete effect including sound, smell and sight.

I immediately try it, projecting a copy of myself. It is perfect in all details, except the lack of substance when I try to touch it.

Using more mana, I can summon more copies, or project different images, even going as far as making them interact with each other. The mana cost is a bit high for complex actions and sounds, but it’s manageable.

Grinning from ear to ear, I go back to the others, setting out towards the central portion of this floor.

This level’s Champion will help me test the skill into battle.

We thread on, walking distances on the shifting desert sand, stopping from time to time to deal with smaller monsters.

Slowly, as we thread further toward the central portion of this floor, the Elite monsters start to appear.

They are…plants.

For the first time, I see a plant monster. Specifically, they’re moving cactus plants, shaped into humanoid form and ambushing whatever comes close to them.

Their sap seems to have intense healing properties, especially against burns, so we quickly collect the monsters remains, careful to do the least amount of damage needed to kill them. No point in collecting the sap if we blast it all over this floor with a strong spell, or if we burn it down.

Thankfully, they are not so difficult to deal with, a hard enough blow on their “head” being enough to bring them down for good.

Still, these monsters seem to lack eyes or any kind of sensory system.

I try to absorb one, for good measure, and earn the skill “Infrared vision” from them. In short, they perceive things by their body heat.

Much to my surprise, as I try to Integrate the skill it gets incorporated into Navi instead, powering up her detection system.

I try the new mode out, and it is a bit weird, the way it warps my vision into shades of color instead of defined form. The world becomes blurred, blue, green, yellow orange and red taking over the softer, richer shades of color that characterize normal vision.

I deactivate it immediately, relegating the new function for Navi to use separately, like I did with ultrasound detection some times ago.

Still, it might show its usefulness somewhere down the road.

For now, I am fine with my old way of seeing the world.

Before heading further into the central portion, we take some times to clear the materials and resources around the place, along with some time dedicated to the usual preparations and respite before the battle.

This Champion could prove itself to be though challenge, we cannot just waltz in and confront it head on.

The central portion of this desert floor is different from the rest, tall red rocks that look similar to those seen in pictures of the Grand Canyon, only smaller in scale.

Emerging from the sands, they form a circular structure, like a ring of rock surrounding an open space.

Like an arena of some sort.

I send some offshoots from Shoggoth to survey the area, trying to ascertain the dangers in there, and what kind of Champion monster awaits us.

In there, immobile, the Elite monsters look like normal desert vegetation, their thorns slightly quivering the only thing that betray the cactus-like monsters.

Among them, a giant plant of the same species stands towering, deep green in color and with a pink flower on top.

I guess that, when the Champion will reveal itself, it will look like some ripoff of a popular monster from a long RPG series.

I sigh when seeing it, a bit disappointed and sure that the design of it must be the work of John.

As my “scout” identifies the monster, its status screen reveals the name of the Champion.

Yes, it is definitely a ripoff.

Shaking my head, I return my attention to the preparation for the upcoming fight. In there, I will use the new skill to see its effectiveness, although, I think that it will be of little use, given how the monsters do not rely on any of those senses to hunt. It was successful against the other kind of monsters in this floor, like the scorpions and snakes, but in this battle, it will be less successful unless I modify its use a bit.

I could try to add a spell to the illusions, mimicking bodily heat to each displayed illusion.

It will add to the total mana cost of the illusion, and it will be more difficult to coordinate everything and move it as I want.

But, it is an interesting idea, and I want to see it through.

I do some quick tests, realizing how by adding some more mana, I can even use the illusions to attack.

Not that the illusion themselves can, but, I could trick the opponent into thinking that the attack came from them, opening Inventory in their position to release a spell or arrow, or even casting directly a spell in their position.

Although, the latter will have more chances of me being exposed.

I try both strategies, and the first one proves to be the better solution. As the others complete their preparations, we head towards the rock formation, ready for the next battle.

Unlike the other times, the Champion does not react immediately. The Elite monsters do, uprooting themselves and launching their attacks on our figures.

Only, we’re not there. Masked by Marica’s spell, which dropped the temperature of the air around us, thus making it impossible for the monsters to actually “see” our bodies, we’re observing the scene from above the rocks.

What the monsters are attacking are my illusions, with the temperature spell added to them. The monster chase that fake body heat, basically launching their attacks on thin air.

Maybe, that is the reason why the Champion has yet to show any movement. Perhaps, it has some other way to discern its prey.

Still, the Elite monsters are being distracted by the illusions, and I can lead them away from the “big boss”.

Doing this, I can even round them up in a single place, and unleash an attack to kill a vast number of them.

And that’s exactly what we do.

Using fire this time, I weave a spell together with Marica. Her help in doing so greatly amplifies the output, since I can use the raw energy from my spell with her structure, and enhance it for more control.

She’s also beginning to learn some tricks by observing my spells, without me even sharing the knowledge from “that place”.

Perhaps, when we will head back to the surface, I will arrange her a meeting with John. Definitely, the Dungeon Master has deeper knowledge than me about both worlds, and Marica, or any magician for that matter, would greatly improve with his knowledge.

As the spell is ready, we start the attack, making the area where the Elite monsters stand erupt into fire.

Channeling winds to further fuel the flame and keep it under control, until a raging swirl of flames lit up the area.

Arrows from Levia deal with those monsters that were lucky, or had the last second reflex of getting out of the area.

The others are burnt to ashes.

A bit of a shame, given the materials destroyed in the process.

But, oh well, the experience is all we need after all.

Next, it is the Champion’s turn to fall.

Re: Interference Chapter 26- Dive

The Elite monsters that infest this floor’s central portion are humanoid shaped creatures, with hunched backs and fish-like features. They crawl from the water, holding barnacle encrusted, rusty metal weapons and gurgling their strange verses at us.

Their bodies disproportionate, their upper half, torso, head and arms, bigger than the lower half.

Shark like teeth, and their scaly skin varies in tone from individual to individual, showing different shades of green and blue.

Some individuals among them have more human-like features, with flat, nose-less faces adorned by gills and fins, upright posture and harmonious proportions. These ones hold red coral staffs, and are able to cast strange spells, specialized in manipulating water and sound.

Much like some other humanoid monsters we managed to encounter in the Dungeon, these seem intelligent, communicating between themselves with strange, gurgling sounds. In battle, they employ tactics and show a high degree of coordination.

For that reason, they’re a threat we need to eliminate before we start our confrontation with the Champion.

As the monsters attack in formation, their forward melee fighters supported by shields of bubbling water cast by rearguard magicians clash with Retel’s new skill, Rook’s Phalanx, a large scale mana shield that completely repels their assault.

With each strike that the enemy deal against the shield, Retel’s spear glows,more and more, a sparkling red aura swirling around it.

Then, with a sudden movement, Retel pierces the ground, releasing a large amount of mana from that action.

Countless red spears, made out of translucent mana burst out of the ground, skewering, piercing and impaling everything in their path.

That one, it was his old skill, Spike Counter. Apparently, the skill had changed since Retel gained both the title and his Rank Up. More powerful, with a larger scale and less activation time required.

The combination of those skills allow for some intensive crowd control, along with the defense provided on our group.

Dahl is using his own skills to circle around the front line, infiltrating among enemy ranks and doing quick and powerful attacks.

He’s targeting the magician-class enemies, taking the most advantage from his skills and his passive damage boost against mana.

In a single hit, he’s taking down each monster.

Being Elite creatures, these monsters we’re fighting at the moment grant a good amount of experience. Perhaps, by killing them alone, we will even manage to gain one level or two.

The big prize itself has yet to appear. Right in the center of this floor, there is a circular atoll, nothing more than a round strip of sand surrounding a deep blue sinkhole. Around it, stone pillars encrusted in barnacles and coral formations emerge.

From there, I can sense a large signal with Navi’s detection, several hundred meters under the deep blue waters.

In that spot, the Champion monster resides.

But, in order for us to reach it, we need to cut our way through the army of Elite monsters that infest the place.

Using Shoggoth, I bind the monsters with it, resisting the skill’s urge to consume the monsters. After

letting it rampage, the thing is still hungry, it seems. Still, it abides my will, limiting itself, engulfing the scaly creatures, crushing and slashing.

Levia’s arrows and Marica’s large scale spells do the rest, dealing the decisive blow against the monsters.

Dahl is still on the prowl, stalking the magician-type monsters without they can even manage to conjure their spells.

The bout lasts roughly one full hour, and at the end of it, the shallow sea and the scarce strips of sand are littered with scaly corpses.

Some monsters managed to retreat, diving into deeper waters. To no avail, since I send Shoggoth to hunt once more.

Its size now is comparable to that giant sea-serpent I fought earlier, and still growing. After chasing out and consuming the stragglers, I order the skill to clear out the corpses littered around.

Gleefully, the black bubbling substance loses its semblance of form, returning to its slime-like shape

The amount of it is now vastly higher than what I could produce with Black Fluid, and still growing.

Perhaps, I should let it consume more, larger monsters whenever I have the chance. But, big monsters have a tendency of yielding higher amounts of EXP, so the decision between empowering my skill, or gaining more experience and let everyone grow it’s an easy one.

Of course, I will take the experience.

Speaking of which, the bout against those fish-people granted our group enough experience to let us level up twice.

Now, we all stand at level thirty-two, and that’s before we confront the Champion. If we’re lucky, the experience from it will let us gain another level.

Definitely, we’re over-leveled for this area to be a true challenge. The monsters in this area are hardly above level twenty-eight, with most of them being level twenty-six or below.

It’s some kind of pattern I have noticed, the monster levels being almost the same as the floor number. There are some exceptions, perhaps monsters that are meant to be a tougher challenge.

Before heading out to the Champion’s location, we take a quick rest in order to recover some energy and prepare for the big fight itself.

I wonder what kind of monster holds the title of Champion in this floor. Judging from the surroundings, and the type of monsters we’ve already met, it has to be some kind of giant fish creature. Perhaps a whale, or sea serpent. Or even a giant version of the same fish-people we’ve already fought.

Using the spare time, I contact Heod to let him know how we’re faring, and show him some samples of the materials we gathered in this floor.

After chatting for some time with the old man, I bid him farewell. Next, it is time to report to the Guild, to announce our progression and the intent to challenge this floor’s Champion monsters.

There is a nice mechanic that the Guild has set up, for hunting the Champion and Guardian monsters from the twentieth floor and beyond.

It’s basically a bounty, set on the head of those powerful monsters. You need to communicate your intention to fight it to the Guild, and, if you successfully bring back the monster’s head, your party receives a reward.

In order to provide assistance, the Guild decides a time limit on the operation. If your party does not contact them after one hour, or if they receive a distress call, they will send a high-level party to the last location displayed by your Identity stone.

But, I highly doubt that we would need it. Not to sound too cocky, but our current strength is definitely above that of this floor’s Champion.

That’s for sure.

<<Time to go>>

Dahl is the first one to get up, and we follow. Heading out to that strange place.

In there, the wind does not blow, and there is a persistent smell of decay in the air.

Under the water, it is possible to see some bones, littering the small portion of shallow waters before the huge, gaping underwater abyss.

The floor rumbles, as waves begin to stir from the circular sinkhole. Bubbles are rapidly forming on the surface, as the Champion rises to meet its challengers.

Bursting out of the surface, the gigantic, serpentine figure roars, a bellowing sound that makes my chest tremble from its violence.

It is blue in color, scales as large as my own hand armor its body, water dripping from it.

A huge mouth, lined with rows of shark-like teeth, each as long as a sword and ready to tear and crush.

A large dorsal crest, and two wing-like fins protruding from the gigantic body, giving it the appearance of a water dwelling dragon.

Still, this thing is not a dragon, at least, not in the classification of it made by Navi.

Its status shows it as a King Serpent, the level twenty-eight Champion of this floor.

As the beast roars, electricity runs along its body, discharging from the front horn on the monster’s forehead.

It unleashes a wide area lightning attack, a warm welcome for our party.

Retel receives it with his Vanguard shield, that becomes cracked in the process. Still, it holds without breaking.

Smiling, he uses the energy absorbed by the skill to unleash his Spike Counter, but the Champion avoids it, diving into water once again.

As the Champion emerged before, the place has changed. Channels now connect the internal sinkhole with the water surrounding the atoll, allowing the monster to swim into the surrounding sea.

It re emerges, its form far away in the distance. Once again, it roars, thrashing its long body, its mana charging and releasing, affecting the water around its coiled body.

A large wave is produced, increasing in height and strength, looming on us as it is about to crash on the small strip of sand.

<<Sorry guys>>

I shout, activating Inventory to avoid being swept by the wave.

Inside that dark space, the forms of my companions are floating, their time frozen, surprised expressions locked on their faces.

From there, I start charging my own spells, releasing them by opening small “gates” and unleashing the spell from them, aiming at the large serpentine form.

Once again, the thing dives into deep water, avoiding my attacks.

The best course of action, would be to lock that giant’s movements as best as we can. I doubt it could be damaged enough by lightning or fire spells, given that the monster itself can clad its body in electricity. And of course, being a water-based creature, using fire against it is out of the question.

Perhaps, I could try and use Shoggoth to restrain is movement and drag it out of the water.

As the waves subside, I hop out of Inventory, along with the others. This time, they do not seem to suffer severe after-effects, only mild nausea and momentary disorientation.

Still, the monster perceives our presence once more, and emerges from its original position, once again using his electric attack.

Retel uses his Vanguard to block once again, while I deploy Shoggoth to block the monster in place.

My skill wrestles with the creature, enveloping the serpentine body among black tentacles. It’s like seeing one of those battles between giant monsters of some B-movie.

Marica supports the process, using a freezing spell on the creature.

Now locked between pillars of ice, its body being wrapped and torn by Shoggoth, the King Serpent unleashes a sonic attack, shattering the ice around it and attempting to wrestle itself free from my skill.

However, a charged shot from Levia pierces its body, letting a huge spurt of blood paint the water in red.

Dahl is also on the move, dashing towards the creature at high speed.

He jumps, his figure blurred by speed, clad in a bluish aura.

His sudden slash leaves a blue trail in the air, and a long red gash on the Serpent’s scaly skin.

Shoggoth plunges its tentacles into the thing’s wounds, shredding the soft flesh underneath it and sending the monster into a fit of pain.

Levia stands, her mana gathering to a single point. The arrow she’s holding shines with white light, air twirling around the arrowhead in a spiral movement.

She releases it, a shock-wave following the arrow as it breaks past sonic speed.

With one single arrow, she blows away a part of the snake’s body, decapitating the beast.

Its head falls, splashing into the water, followed by a cascade of blood.

Still, the thing’s mana has yet to disappear. Moreover, it’s being channeled toward the wound.

The mana fluttering around begins to flow towards the beast, gathering itself into shining particles that flock to the monster.

Its body trembles, then it shakes, the wound bubbling, the flesh underneath it squirming, expanding, until two heads pop out from it.

<<You’ve got to be kidding>>

I hear Retel curse under his breath, while Marica voices her complaint in a more polite way.

The monster bellows at us, with twice the noise and fury.

One head unleashes a scalding breath, while the other shoots electricity darts.

All the wounds the monster had, they have been healed when it entered its second phase.

Retel’s Vanguard catches the attacks, cracking and breaking under the barrage.

For the first time in this fight, we’re forced to avoid the attacks. Even it its level is lower than ours, receiving a Champion’s attacks will deal significant damage. Lethal, most likely.

There is no room for carelessness on our part.

I channel one of my spells, while Shoggoth is still wrestling with the two-headed sea monster.

I channel my mana, condensing it on a single spot, pressing it until collapse point and then releasing the force at once.

The resulting attack is an unstable sphere of energy, flying at high speed towards the beast. It explodes on contact, sending a shock-wave from the resulting impact.

The monster roars in pain, wounded, but still alive.

<<We’ve got to end this…>>

Levia shouts, inciting us all to put more effort towards slaying the monster. Responding to its pain cries, monsters are flocking from the surrounding depths.

Surrounded, we are forced to divert our attention from the Champion in order to deal with the incoming waves of lesser creatures.

Retel deploys his Vanguard once again, this time spreading the barrier further to include all of us.

We tighten our ranks, as Retel guards each blow Levia, Marica and Dahl deal with the monsters crawling out of the sea.

If we drag this too much, it could turn into a bad situation. I definitely do not want that scenario to play.

For this fight, I wanted the others to slay the Champion by their hands. But, as the situation has changed, it seems like I will have to deal with the King Serpent.

After drinking a mana potion, I take some moments to let my mana recharge before weaving the next spell.

This time, I need to go with my strongest move. Shoggoth alone is a wonderful skill, but it is more suited to block and slowly consume the target, rather than dealing a massive amount of damage in short time.

Well, for it to have that effect, I need to use another method.

Channeling my own mana within the skill, I activate the “attack” that it is capable of. Its shape changes, tentacles sprouting blades that begin to vibrate, quicker and quicker, and with increased frequency they shred the flesh wrestling with them, as they dig deeper and deeper into the Champion’s body.

Shoggoth twitches, delving deeper its bio-mechanical looking tentacles into the King Serpent, ripping out chunks of flesh every time the monster tries to wrestle itself free.

The monster retaliates, discharging electricity to get rid of Shoggoth.

I struggle to maintain control of it, to not let the surge of energy disrupt its structure or even weaken it.

Of course, I took care to not let my own body be connected physically with the skill, in order to avoid receiving a huge electric shock.

Doing this decreased Shoggoth ‘s power, but it was for the best.

Still, Vorpal Edge is doing its work, rending the Serpent’s body, painting the water in red as the monster’s roars decrease in intensity, until they become nothing but low mumbles by a dying creature.

The others have already finished clearing the area of smaller creatures.

<<So, someone wants the final blow?>>

I ask, looking around to see if someone takes the honor.

Shrugging his shoulders, Dahl advances towards the dying monster, drawing his blade.

He pauses, letting his mana burn as he activates his skill. It wounds itself on the blade, a blue flame encroaching it.

He slashes, delivering the final blow on the serpentine creature.

This time, Navi’s notification informs us of the Champion’s death. From it, we gained a good amount of experience, enough to let our levels increase once more.

Now, our party has reached level thirty-three. And we still have a long way to go before stopping.

Perhaps, we should entirely skip some of the fights, and directly head toward a lower floor and the higher monsters it hosts.

But, the others wanted to progress “naturally” in this Dive. And so, they started sweeping their way from the first floor, to the point were I joined them.

And they still want to go.

The others rest while I let Shoggoth run amok, clearing the area from the remains of the monsters we slain during the last battle.

I take particular care when dealing with the King Serpent’s body, preserving both heads along with the first one that Levia severed, while the rest of the thing’s body is being devoured and dismantled by Shoggoth.

As it did when the skill was only “Black Fluid”, useful materials like skin, scales, bones are stored by the skill right into my own Inventory, while the rest is consumed by it. I can still select how much I want to keep, and how much of the “gathered” materials are to be consumed by the skill.

I only collect a rough ten percent of the total creature, unless it is something like a Champion or Guardian, since materials from those kind of monsters fetch for quite a high price, and can be used in crafting strong armor or used as a base to brew potions of great effect.

While I clear the area, the others are already directing their attention to the stash of treasure that this Champion had. It’s another of those constant elements of each Dungeon floor. A Champion monster’s chamber will have a pile of treasure, somewhere.

Sometimes, it’s just a heap of items collected from the bodies of fallen adventurers. Other times, it may be an area with nodes of rare minerals, or a clearing full of the rarest alchemical ingredient.

This time, it is an underwater grotto, filled with rare materials from the sea. To reach it, a normal adventurer would have to seat aside weapons and armor, since the water is rather deep and the extra weight might cause him to drown. Then, he would need to dive underwater, collect the materials and swim back up while taking a part of the loot with him. And repeat the process until his greed was satisfied.

Or, if a magician was in their party, they could use some spells to easily reach the underwater treasure.

Luckily, I have a handy skill to deal with this. Simply, I send Shoggoth in the underwater grotto, ignoring its mumbles of protest for the lack of meat there. Expanding itself, the skill absorbs everything in there beside the rock.

A system window appears, informing me of the acquired loot. Rare, precious corals that are used in refining and production of items related to sorcery, like catalysts and scepters, or even normal jewelry. Ores, among which a peculiar kind of coral that uses metal instead of calcium to produce its structure, giving rise to a bio-alloy with incredible properties, some of which I let Shoggoth consume to acquire said properties.

A curious form of crystal, molded by pressure into becoming denser, its structure perfect for absorbing and storing mana.

And other useful and interesting items. There’s also a lot of more classic materials, like pearls or precious shells.

After clearing the area, we move again.

The last part of this floor is the easiest one, with the least amount of monsters to encounter on the way out.

Battles are scarce during the next three hours of march, at the end of which we find ourselves near the rock wall that delimits this floor.

Embedded into it, the large opening that leads to descending stairs, the way out of this level, and the entrance to the next.

We descend the staircase, delving deeper into the earth as we step on a spiral staircase made of polished rock.

Halfway, there is a large space, a sort of room that we’re able to use as a base camp to spend the night.

Six hours of rest, then it is time to delve again into battle, as we will face the next floor of this Dungeon.

During sleep, I allocate the fifteen points gained from the level up in this floor. Fifteen more points, that I distribute into Intelligence and Luck, ten and five respectively.

Afterwards, I drift into proper, dreamless sleep.

Navi’s voice wakes me up six hours after, her “alarm function” working as intended. The others are already up, making their preparations to descend into the new floor of this Dungeon.

We spend half an hour between eating and completing our morning routine, then another hour and half is spent for the descent, stone step after the other, spiraling down further and further.

Once we reach the end of it, the staircase leads to a small antechamber, that opens into the first room of the twenty-seventh floor.

This one is also based on a “sea” theme, but rather than the open beach area that we admired in the previous floor, this one has the look of an undersea cave.

The walls are encrusted in algae and large barnacles, and puddles of waist-deep water litter the floor along with coral formations of different shape and color.

Large shells can be seen, some of them slightly opening and closing, almost like in a breathing motion.

The air has a strong, salty smell, and a chilly breeze comes from the deepest part of this floor, carrying notes of rot along with it. In the distance, high pitched, melodious sounds can be heard, almost like a song sung from the deepest part of these caves. It resembles a whale’s song, its melody

pleasant to the ear.

A blue light illuminates the place, coming from some of the deepest ponds. The underwater lights project strange, dancing reflexes on the rocks surrounding them, giving rise to a breathtaking spectacle.

I wonder if the Core is the one responsible for the composition and architecture of each floor, or if John is somehow behind these beautiful design. I doubt the latter to be the case, given that man’s lazy disposition. But, who know, he might have some kind of hidden artistic vein in him.

As usual, the first room is void of monsters, a kind of “buffer place”, to let adventurers acclimate to the environment before delving in.

I let Navi’s detection work, taking its time to scan the area and form the map.

The passages are narrow, connected to some large rooms, most of them flooded with ankle deep water, along with deeper spots.

Most monsters seem to concentrate in these rooms, although some can still be found in the corridors, patrolling them or simply resting in the narrow passages.

The quickest route, same as the other floors of this Dungeon, leads straight through the central chamber.

And that’s the one we will take.

Given how the corridors are narrow, roughly three meters from wall to wall, we advance in a single row, with Retel on the front and Dahl acting as rearguard. I follow immediately after Retel, with Levia and Marica behind me.

The monsters populating this floor are similar to those of the floor above, along with some new creatures.

Resembling large crabs and lobsters, these monsters boast a high defense and resistance to both slashing and piercing attacks.

Moreover, they use electricity as the base for their attacks, taking advantage of the wet floor to increase their area of effect.

Of course, these monsters are immune to electricity, since it simply runs along their metallic exoskeleton, discharging itself on the ground.

A rather peculiar method of “hunting” for these creatures, since it could damage their own allies as well as their prey.

It seems, however, that this floor has secluded populations of monsters. Unlike the floors above and beyond, where the monster population would either work as an ecosystem, with predators and prey, or work together as a community, this floor here is more game-like.

The monsters are idle in their positions, separated into each rooms according to their race. So, one room might have lobster-monsters, the other those strange fish-people, the following might host a population of crab creatures, and so on.

They do not seem to change positions, or do something else beside waiting.

As I think about the peculiar situation of this floor, John’s words come back to memory. During the time I spent training with him, he explained me something about the Dungeon.

Especially, he talked abut how the Dungeon itself was different before he managed to become Dungeon Master. In his word, the Dungeon before was more bland and easier for adventurers to deal with.

He was so proud of the way he changed it, working on each environment by adding new species, by granting them some semblance of a mind on their own, until the point when static floors, where monsters existed for the sole purpose of attacking adventurers, became thriving ecosystems, where monsters would live like proper wildlife.

In short, this floor was one of those that John had not yet modified, or perhaps, he was still working on it.

And the monsters here, they feel more…stupid. It’s like fighting robots, that repeat the same strategies ever and ever, acting in accordance to their program. There isn’t the slightest glint of life in them, although, by all means, they are living beings.

They do not fight for their life, and they do not attempt to flee when that life is in danger. They simply charge, following those patterns ingrained in their minds until they fall, or manage to kill some unaware adventurer.

Still, by taking some simple precautions it is possible to deal with them fairly easily, without incurring too many risks.

Definitely different from the monsters infesting the floors above, where a single mistake could spell your death, even when fighting against monsters below your own level.

This floor, and the original organization of the Dungeon that it represents, might have been easier for adventurers to conquer, and raise their level in a safer way. But, the new floor organization brought forth by John, it adds a new level of challenge, forcing the adventurers who dare to challenge them to think and plan before doing so, instead of rushing in and brute-force their way through the floor.

In some ways, the new organization is better, presenting a tougher challenge that ingrains caution into the adventurers.

Halfway through the floor, we begin to notice a change among the monster populations. Rooms have mixed races in them, and the monsters themselves seem more active, behaving like proper wildlife instead of standing around, waiting.

The mana flux inside this portion of the floor, it’s slightly different than that of the entrance.

It appears, that this floor is only halfway remodeled, the entrance left like it was before this place had a Dungeon Master, the entrance left as the original organization was.

Not only the monsters’ behavior, the layout of the place is also different. Traps are present in this portion of the floor. The peculiarity of them is that they’re not mechanical hazards ready to spring with the slightest movement.

They’re living creatures, akin to plants or sedentary animals that wait for their prey to come to them.

Some, lie in the shallow ponds, under a thin layer of mud and sand, ready to spring their tentacles closed at the slightest hint of movement or pressure above them.

As big as an adult person’s foot, they are not lethal, but inject a nasty toxin when they close their tentacles, clad in minuscule stingers.

It goes without saying that I absorbed some of them, to increase my collection of toxins and poison.

Also, the thing about these microscopic stingers might be helpful, if I manage to reproduce their structure.

As we advance, more kind of traps await. Some, similar to small pods, explode whenever something moves near them, releasing thin shells that have razor sharp edges. A closer examination of those shells, reveals that they’re some kind of worm, that burrows itself inside wounds, using its sharp shell to slice skin and muscle open as it gorges deeper into flesh.

Other traps release electric shock, or a gush of corrosive liquid.

There was one so bizarre, that it was almost comical. It sprayed Retel with a stinky liquid. No harm, no poison. It just had an awful smell. Later, when we walked into a room where monsters did reside, we learned that the smell was due to some kind of pheromone, that sent the monsters into heat.

In short, they chased Retel, trying to attack him in some disturbing ways.

<<Oh God! Get them off!>>

He shouted, struggling to keep the horny monsters at bay with his shield skill.

The most striking thing was that the “smell” persisted, no matter how many times he tried to wash the liquid off.

I had to resort to a spell to cleanse him of the pheromones, and even after that, he still felt the smell on him.

<<This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. I can deal with monsters trying to kill me, but this…this is too much>>

He was still shocked, trembling from a different kind of danger than what he was used to.

Strangely, it was Levia the one most amused by the situation, teasing her brother and making fun of him.

Marica looked at him, her eyes concerned but the corner of her lips kept twitching, as if she was trying her best to not burst out laughing at her boyfriend’s misadventures.

There goes without saying, that during all the remaining time we spent into that floor, Retel’s eyes were fixed on the ground, looking for any trace of that kind of trap.

And when he found one, he utterly destroyed the spot using his strongest attack.

Well, I would have done the same after living through this terrible joke.

Still, we avoided most of the traps, while the monsters themselves did not even pose much of a threat.

The only true challenge was the Champion of this level, a hulking version of the fish-people we fought earlier.

As a weapon, he brandished a large, rusty anchor, probably coming from the shipwrecks that littered his chamber.

How did those ship end up there, of all places, will always be a mystery to me. Perhaps, it was the Core that re-created them to add some decoration to the ocean floor themed level, or they could have been transported there with some kind of spell.

Still, they provided enough cover for us to hide when we approached the Champion, allowing for a concerted first strike that brought down the monsters without giving it time to retaliate.

The whole twenty-seventh floor netted us two more levels, setting our group to level thirty-five.

Given the result, I doubt that we will get much experience in the upcoming floors, at least until we manage to reach floor number thirty. From there, the experience given by the monsters should be higher, and also, instead of a Champion, the boss monster in that floor is a Guardian, that should give even more experience when defeated.

The thirty-first floor is one that hosts a Safe zone from the guild, although much of the floor itself is still untamed, the Safe zone only occupying some rooms of the actual floor.

Speaking with the others, we decide to rush the next three floors as quickly as we can, in order to challenge the Guardian and rest in the upcoming floor.

After a quick rest, we leave the twenty-seventh floor, heading down the usual spiral staircase.

The remaining floors until the thirtieth have the same ocean cave setting, only with slightly higher water as we progress down, and higher level monsters and traps. They have a feeling of re-hashed assets, with monsters that basically have the same appearance but different colors and statistics than the ones encountered before. The only difference is the layout, with rooms and chambers arranged in different ways, and the Champion monsters.

The one that resided in the twenty-eighth floor’s central portion, was a large hermit crab with incredible defense and a high-power water jet attack.

On the twenty-ninth floor, the Champion monster was some kind of sea urchin creature, that had a counter-attack skill much similar to the one Retel used.

It was a though fight, not because the monster itself posed a high threat, but because of its high defense and defensive skills were too much of a hassle to deal with.

The two floors combined, did only gave us enough experience to level up twice.

As we enter the thirtieth floor, our group is all at level thirty-seven.

This floor also follows the sea cave theme, only with more spacious rooms and waist deep waters to thread on.

Proper footholds are scarce, and the blue light that illuminates the surrounding is dimmer, letting ample sections of the corridors and rooms to be shadowed, perfect for monsters to hide and ambush from the shadows.

Serpentine figures swim in those shallow waters, often attacking from underneath the surface, undetected.

Well, that is not the case for us, since with Navi’s detection we can see the monster’s position before it approaches us, but this floor might be terribly dangerous for groups that do not possess any member with similar skills.

Although, I really doubt that parties like that would even venture so deep in the Dungeon.

This floor actually stands as the defining point, the line between a proficient party and an elite one. Surviving this floor and its Guardian is by itself an act recognized by the Guild. Slaying the Guardian would earn us public recognition, and a proper contract with the Guild. Each party that proved able to do so, is recognized into the Guild’s elite forces, and given a rank, along with benefits and a monthly wage.

Of course, being recognized by the Guild this way, it also means that your party is going to be used by the Guild.

Be it monster subjugation in the territory managed by Sendria, or, most likely, given the situation, scouting missions at the border and active patrols against Aldora’s scouting parties.

In short, if we report the success to the Guild, we will be entering their official forces, with the benefits and duties that are a direct consequence of that.

But, we do not plan to report immediately after.

Because, earning a rank is not our goal at the moment, nor it will be beneficial to us for now. Truth to be told, we still do not have decided whether to enter the Guild’s official ranks, or if we would fare better by keeping the current condition.

And, given my peculiar situation, the Guild, and Telesia herself, might give us a different treatment than the usual adventurer party.

Definitely, that is what will happen, although I do not know to what extent Telesia would alter thing for us.

We still plan to reach at least the fortieth floor during this Dive, without going back to the surface until we defeat the Guardian there.

After that, we will have a good talk about the next moves to take. For now, we need to focus ourselves into clearing this floor, and advancing to the next.

The monsters here are all above level twenty-nine, with some of them reaching even level thirty-tree.

A tougher challenge than the floors above, for sure.

Thankfully the levels we gained while clearing the previous floors have been really helpful, both for the total Stat raise of our group, and with the increased skill proficiency that the many battles yielded.

But, one thing is becoming more and more apparent as we progress further. We lack another member.

As we are now, our offense is fine, with Levia, Dahl, Marica and me dealing damage. I and Marica are also taking care of crowd control, limiting the monsters movements and attacks.

The lacking part is represented by sheer defense. Retel is the one taking the brunt of the monsters attacks, especially from melee fighters. He manages now, but in the lowest floor the pressure might be too much for him to shoulder alone.

I am participating in the defense using Shoggoth to guard some of the attacks, and all of us have either a mana shield skill or a defensive spell, but it would be nice to have another member specialized in defense, to increase our overall efficiency.

If that was the case, I could concentrate better on restraining and dealing damage, leaving defenses to two party members instead of Retel alone.

It was Dahl to first voice this missing piece in our party formation, and the recent, more difficult battles only made it more apparent.

For now, we can adapt our formation accordingly, either relying on support defense from me, or Marica.

The strategy we’re using is to take out monsters before they can overwhelm us, but, progressing deeper into the Dungeon, that will not be so easy.

First, as we delve deeper, the monsters are getting not only stronger, but smarter.

Employing tactics, they have proper “parties” that mirrors an adventurer party’s organization, with vanguard members, melee attackers and even ranged or spell casters. Sometimes, and more often than not, they even have healers, protected in the middle of their ranks.

When they’re not behaving intelligently, the monsters are more beastly, relying on large health pool and defenses for their lack of intelligence and tactics.

It seems a contradiction, but those are proving to be more difficult for us to deal with. Against an organized formation, our own formation works very well.

Retel clashes with vanguards, locking them in place while Dahl swiftly deals with their ranged or spell casters, infiltrating enemy ranks while they’re distracted by my attacks or Marica’s spells, defending themselves from the barrage of arrows that Levia unleashes, providing both means of offense and covering fire for Dahl to act undisturbed.

But, against groups of feral creatures, strategies go awry. Sometimes, they gang on Retel, quickly destroying his shield under the pressure of their beastly blows.

Other times, they simply charge through our lines, aiming for whoever they perceive as the weakest member, often the girls.

Dahl’s camouflage is most of the time useless, since the most feral monsters rely more on other senses rather than sight, quickly individuating him and singling him out.

For now, we’re encountering the two categories of enemies apart from each other, but in lower floors, it might not be the case.

Groups of intelligent monsters that use tamed, feral creatures would be difficult to deal with.

And, it is something good.

The situation forces us to come to terms with what we currently lack in terms of strategy and experience. Learning to fight against different types of enemies, in different conditions and environments.

In short, the truest purpose of the Dungeon, to simulate a wide number of situations and dangers in order to forge individuals, to increase their power and make them ready for battle.

The loot it contains, it is nothing more than incentive, using greed as a motivation to forcibly “train” those that dare to dive into its depths.

At least, that’s how I perceive it. And, given what little details John shared about this place, I might probably be right in my conclusions.

The fact that here, of all places, I found something related to that peculiar “title” that has been forced onto me, might only be the meddling of that outer God that interfered with my being.

Well, those are empty thoughts for now, considerations that I can make until I find some proper answers.

Still, the place does a good work in shaping warriors. Those who survive it, are leagues above the average person, in both power and experience.

That’s the reason why Alvarez fears the Guild, since it is basically a gathering of strong willed, powerful and battle hardened individuals. Something that a person who aspires to become an absolute ruler must consider as an enemy.

And the fact that one of his pawns has been eliminated by a certain adventurer, it will only make him more wary of the Guild as a whole.

Although, the man himself still has not taken any move after Leidus’s death. And I am sure he knows about it, after all, I deliberately let the spell he cast on me active, in order for him to see his pupil’s end.

I expected some retaliation on his part, but, perhaps, he’s biding his time. Before, he might have seen me as a nuisance, or even something to use to make his own “Demon Lord” rise in power. After that little show I put on, his consideration about me definitely changed.

The fact that I definitely broke his spell afterwards might also have had some influence in that.

It is kind of ironic how tables have turned in regard to that situation. I still remember the fear I felt, when I met that man the first time.

Now, I am the one that is spying on him, checking his moves with my own spell, waiting for the perfect time to bring him down.

It is stunning, how much that single person could damage Sendria if left to his own devices. But, the situation might turn worse if we remove him too suddenly. First, the army is still under his control, bound to him. Next, for how strange it may sound, most of the commoners actually support Alvarez, seeing in him a strong and decisive leader, blind to the lies and machinations that are his true colors.

Moreover, the one that is really behind Alvarez’s plans might react in a harsh way, perhaps causing a huge number of casualties in the upcoming conflict. To avoid that, we need to be patient, and strike at the right moment.

I chuckle, thinking about how I went from being a simpleton struggling for his own survival, to someone scheming to take down an influential political figure in one of the largest cities of this continent.

More than ever, that dubious title I have might not be too wrong, after all.

We advance further into the floor, our movements slowed by the cold waters.

From time to time, some of the rooms are not flooded, providing proper foothold for fighting and even to camp after clearing the monster infesting them.

As we advance towards the center, we start to encounter the Elite monsters of this place. Black bodies, nothing more than a hulking mass of muscles and tentacles, these octopus-shaped monsters provide a though challenge.

Unlike their beastly appearance, they’re smart, and rely on peculiar tactics based on their bodies.

Their skin has some form of advanced camouflage ability, able to alter itself by reproducing not only the color of the surroundings, but also texture.

So, a huge rock reveals itself to be a mass of tentacles, strong enough to crush a person in their deadly embrace.

Moreover, this peculiar ability they have is not something generated by magic or some skill. It’s their biological nature that allows them to do so, an intricate system of muscle fibers and pigment pouches that allow the skin to change its color and form.

But the most dangerous thing, is that these monsters are clever.

They lay ambush, and retreat. They set traps, and their boneless bodies allow them to pass through even the slightest gap in the rocks, allowing them to swift retreats or attacks.

The first encounters with them have been rough, since, even if we knew their position and numbers, their strange ways of fighting took us by surprise.

Being far stronger than they look, a single one would often manage to push Retel back, while its brethren would circle around us to attack, using their flexibility to sneak through the natural barriers of this place, or sticking to the ceiling with their tentacles only to drop on us.

Still, after some initial difficulties,we got the hang of how to deal with them.

Their weak-point lies in the middle of their odd eyes. Stabbing there, with enough force behind the blow causes direct damage to their brain, killing the creature.

No point in injuring the other areas, beside severing the tentacles to impede their attacks. A most annoying feature of these Elite monsters is their regeneration speed, that is so quick that non-lethal wounds visibly regenerate on their bodies.

Severing a tentacle would only momentarily incapacitate the monster, as it rapidly grows back.

The only way to effective deal with them, is a precise strike in their weak point.

Having learned that the hard way, after hacking at their bodies for too much time, we now have a better grasp of how to fight and defeat them.

As usual, Retel uses his skill to block incoming attacks from the front, while Levia’s arrows pick the monsters one by one. Marica stands in the center of this formation, using her spells to support Retel and to bolster Levia’s attacks, while I keep using Shoggoth for both attack and defense, and Dahl deals with monsters that somehow manage to slip by Retel’s guard.

Our back-line is a bit too exposed, if we ever found ourselves into a pincer attack, it would lead to a potentially dangerous situation. If the need arises, I can switch to the backside of our formation, but that reduces our offensive potential on the front.

We definitely need another “tank” in our ranks.

During a moment of respite, I ask Dahl if he knows some recommendable adventurer that we might recruit to work with us, given that he’s the one most acquainted with the Guild’s adventurers.

We could even take some low level adventurer, and level him up in the upper floors until the new member is battle ready.

A lot of options to consider once we come back from this Dive.

Well, that is if Aldora does not make its move in the meantime. Judging from the information that Telesia shared with us, the movements beyond the border have quieted from some time. Her scouts have reported that several large camps of Aldoran soldiers had been taken out overnight.

The destruction in them suggested a large group at work, but I suspect another factor to be at work here.

The Laughing Man. Definitely, that man has the same enemy as we do, given his affiliation with Azatoth.

But, his actions are the perfect example of a wild card. Unpredictable, and impossible for Sendria to actually work with him.

For what I know, the man could as easily kill Sendrian people along with Aldoran troops, unable to discern them in his insanity. And, the opposite is also possible, that Sendrian troops might recognize him as an enemy, and attempt to take him out.

Things are good, as long as he sticks to acting outside of Sendria’s territory and damaging Aldora. But, if he moves further in, who knows what would happen.

Perhaps, I could try to contact him using Navi, but I doubt I will be able to.

We’re taking some time to rest before heading towards the central chamber. The upcoming fight might be the toughest among all the battles we fought up until now.

And, we need to prepare accordingly.

Unlike the Champion level monsters that ruled the floors above, we cannot just waltz in here and challenge the Guardian head on.

First, there are many Elite monsters surrounding the area where the Guardian resides. Next, the Guardian itself is definitely strong, its level being thirty and his stats even higher than a Champion class monster.

This time, I cannot resort to Beelzebub, the same strategy I used against the first Champion monsters we fought.

The reason is, the Elite monsters in this level are immune to the confusing poison.

I tried several strategies during previous battles, ruling out those that would not give us a proper advantage.

Anything that uses poison might as well as be useless in this place, since all the monsters here have a skill called Altered Metabolism.

In short, their cells do not work like those of normal organisms, thus making their own biology too different for a normal poison to be of use.

I would need to specifically produce a poison that would affect their bodies, something that, right now, I do not have the time to do.

The skill is also unusable for me. I absorbed it and all, but, if I used it, my own metabolism would be altered, in some lethal ways. In short, it is a useless skill for a human.

For this battle we would need to rely on brute force, it seems.

After having some rest, during which I allocated the Stat points gained from the recent level up. My level is now thirty-eight, as well as the other’ s.

The others are giving the final touches to their preparations. For the upcoming fight, I handed Levia some special arrows. They are a refined version of those Fire Crystal arrows, safe for her to use while keeping their devastating effect whenever they hit their target. I have a limited supply of them, however, so we’re forced to resort to them only for intense fights.

Her bow is also a different one. Instead of the usual short bow she uses, she now has a composite longbow.

Normally, such item would require an enormous strength to be used, and it is definitely the kind of weapon no one would expect a delicate-looking girl like her to use.

But, appearance are deceiving, especially in this case.

Given how Levia’s Strength stat is the highest among all of us. Even Retel’s does not compare, as the combination of both titles, her own natural growth and her new class granted Levia a significant boost in her stats.

Perhaps, even higher than the one I received.

Marica is busy charging some mana into crystals, chugging potions afterwards in order to regenerate her mana and repeat the process.

She will use those as reserve mana, in order to be able to rapidly cast her spells even during battle.

At the same time, she’s chanting some of her spells in advance. According to her, a method that her master taught her.

To prepare part of the structure in advance, and use a common one for all her spells instead of spending time and mana devising and realizing a different structure for each spell.

Hers still need to rely on long chants, and are bound to waste a lot of mana just to keep the desired structure active, but she’s leagues better than she was the first time I met her.

Dahl is silently meditating on a corner of the room we’re in. His mana is almost imperceptible right now, almost as if he’s erasing his own presence.

As he opens his eyes, he disappears completely. A new skill he got from the recent level up.

Instead of simple camouflage, he shifts into another plane. Much like my Inventory, but without him being able to bring something in or out.

The potential of his new skill is only for battle.

I am also doing my own preparations, using Inventory to store the spells I am casting, one after the other. Setting them up in advance, and releasing them at the same time will deal a powerful blow to the Guardian. I do not think to be able to take him out with this combined attack, but it will be a useful card to play if we get in a pinch.

Or, as the opening move of our fight, if we plan to use the element of surprise, sneak in, and assault the Guardian with all we have before we deal with the remaining Elite monsters.

Spell after spell, I go through a number of mana potions, feeling their bitter taste spread from my mouth to my stomach, where it changes into a warm sensation that slowly crawls in my body.

Along with that, there is the blur of emotions that precedes each fight. Excitement, fear, anticipation and other, a biochemical storm going on in my brain as thoughts race through the possible scenarios.

I take a deep breath to calm me down, before using Navi to check the room ahead once again.

The signals are all there, along with the bigger one that comes from the Guardian itself.

Level thirty, surrounded by Elite monsters about the same level as it. Some higher, some lower. Fifty of them. No traps or hidden monsters waiting in ambush. The room itself is elliptical in shape, flooded with waist deep water.

It will hinder our movements, while the Elite monsters dwelling in there will have advantages due to the terrain.

The chamber itself presents several spots that emerge from the water, some of them reaching two or three meters above water level. Only, those areas are limited in both number and space, and fighting from there would be difficult in a group.

I call the others, sharing with them the map window displayed by Navi.

As they examine it, we go through propositions on how to deal with the monsters.

The possible points that could provide a proper foothold, or choke points where we could make use of Retel’s skill to hold off monsters, forcing them to fight us with reduced numbers, instead of having to deal with all of them at once.

The spells to use, and the movements to take during battle. Instead of barging in, we lay down a proper battle plan.

One hour until we challenge the Guardian, one more hour to prepare. Retel is looking nervously at the room’s entrance, sending glances in that direction while grasping tighter his spear.

Marica is using the remaining time to further increase her mana reserve, while Dahl is going once again through his stock of throwing daggers and potions.

I advance towards him, taking something out of my Inventory.

He looks at the sphere I am holding in my hand, a puzzled look in his face.

<<These are…experiments. It’s a new kind of weapon. To use it, pull this piece here until it comes off. It will activate the weapon, that will go off five seconds later. I have only ten of them for the moment, so take care when you use them>>

I look him straight in the eyes, with my most serious gaze.

<<Take a lot of care when using them. Do not throw them too near you, at least twenty meters away. Try to use them against enemies that are close together, or even better, against groups>>

He nods, taking the sphere and the ones I give him afterwards.

They are few, but those grenades that Heod made, should be useful in the upcoming fight.

The last hour has passed, and we stand, heading towards the central chamber, ready to face the Guardian of the thirtieth floor.

Re:Interference Chapter 25- Seaside

I sat in that dark, strange space, staring at those “prisoners” I took. Their forms, frozen in time, the same expression painted on their faces.

A chill ran on my skin, thinking about their fate, the sheer fact that it was me, the one responsible for these men’s condition.

After the battle in that desert floor, I almost fainted, exhausted to my limits. Although during the fight I played it smart, without wasting my mana on flamboyant spells and flashy attacks, the whole process still wore me down, both physically and psychologically.

The clashing between what I had done, what I discovered myself capable of, and that voice, the old jumble of morality and experience that was me, but at the same time was not.

I sat there, looking at those figures frozen in time, asking myself. Who am I? The one that regret things, that abhors violence almost to the point of hurting himself in order to not hurt others?

Definitely, not. The reason is, before doing it, before forcing myself to kill those men, to rob their lives, I thought the consequences of those acts would haunt me.

Instead, I feel fine. Proud even, of what I managed to do. Against a group of people, whose levels and battle experience was significantly higher than my own, whose aptitude for killing was stronger than mine, I came out victorious.

Who am I? The meek, naive person that sometimes peeks from those memories hidden in my mind, or the one without mercy, that back-stabbed, ambushed, led others into a trap.

Right after John’s monsters pulled me out of that place, giving me one hell of a scare in the process, I have been thinking deeply about all those things.

My mentor, the one whose destiny played much like my own, thorn between the same dilemma I am facing now.

He gave me a simple answer.

<<Be who you want to be, cast aside the memories that tie you down>>

A simple answer, yes, the application of it, not so simple.

Or at least, I considered it to be so. Instead, it was easy. And now my hands tremble, not for the unbearable remorse, or for the shock of having actively robbed others out of their lives.

I had already killed humans, before, but, that was just a reaction to their offense. Self defense, so to speak.

This time, I was the one to strike first. And, it felt good. So, my hands tremble now, but not out of fear, or remorse. It’s excitement, due to the recent discovery. Of what I can do, of what I am willing to do.

And I had prepared myself for it, for the first time actually planning ahead, instead of just waltzing around without the slightest idea of what was expecting me.

I trained, finding the best conditions for things to play out in my advantage. Like the new, strikingly powerful use of Inventory.

Yes, it was thanks to someone else ‘s guidance that I managed to use it like this. But, I put a great deal of effort in devising this strategy. Testing, mostly, the limits of what I could do with it.

Starting from objects first, seeing how they would react to being stored in the new, improved space that Inventory brought forth. And then, trying it out with moving objects, like a stone thrown, and then arrows. Even magic could be stored in there, frozen in time inside of that weird, pitch black dimension that was my own.

In there, laws of physics only apply according to my will. For all purposes, I am the sole ruler of it, my will is absolute.

And in there, I would find a hiding spot, sanctuary and cover to ambush from. A place where to work, unbound by the laws of the world. It was in there, that I was able to refine those unstable Fire Crystals into usable weapons. Well, I only managed to produce one working arrow after all my experiments, but I still have time to perfect the process.

Most important thing of all, in there, time flows different from the rest of the world. I still have to get the hang of the process, but, right now, roughly ten minutes inside the Inventory dimension equals to less than an instant in the outside world.

So, I can basically blink inside, sit down, drink a coffee and eat something, and blink out again, without the opponent realizing of the small break I took.

Of course, that is a silly example. But, by using this dirty trick, I can recovery from injuries by drinking a potion while completely safe, rest for a moment, allow my mana or health to regenerate and resume the fight.

All while not even a single second has passed in the normal flow of time.

Perhaps, with training and more mana at my disposal, I could even make this effect stronger, making the time-lapse last hours, days even.

Still, the control I have over this aspect of the skill is limited, but again, I have time to grow.

One thing that puzzled me was that I was able to use the improved inventory, which is now a blue ranked skill, without any repercussions on my body.

It turns out, only those skills that have an effect over your body, forcibly raising stats, have that nasty after-effect.

Blue skills that do not affect your body have the only risk of burning out your mana in a single use, but, given Inventory’s low activation cost, it was something that did not happen.

I said it some more times, but, this Inventory skill is definitely the strongest I have.

And, speaking of strength, I have something to do before dedicating my attention to my prisoners here…

I summon my Status Screen, glancing at the growth that this battle netted me. Of course, this system does not grant levels for killing a member of sentient, humanoid species. The only things I can get from murder are skills and equipment.

Still, between the skill I stole from Leidus, and the STAT bonuses netted from the Trial’s completion, added to the level up from killing the floor Champion, I reaped quite the benefit from this fight.

After John took me out from the desert thirty-fourth floor, I took some time to rest and give a through look at my own stats.

And, they were a bit of a mess, to be honest. Mostly, I distributed them without a general direction, keeping them as even as I could, since, during battles, I did not commit to a specific role. I mostly used my skill, Black Fluid, sometimes acting as ranged support, others as crowd control, or scouting ahead and so on. Well, I did not have the option of magic back then, so I spent more points on those stats that I thought useful for strengthening my primary skill, namely the Luck stat, while keeping the others rather even. None of them lacking, but, surely, none of them was clearly my strong point.

Since I plan on relying heavily on spells and mana during the future, and given the insanely large amount of points gathered from both leveling up to thirty and the trial, I decided to modify my own build a bit. After all, I gain five STAT points per level up, and the experience from killing the Champion gave me eight levels, for a total of 40 points. To those, I have to add thirty five bonus points for each STAT, granted by the Trial’s successful completion, and another twenty for having Integrated a Cosmic series skill. Whatever the hell that might mean. So, if math still works in this world, I have ninety-five points to freely spend. To those, I have to add the extra ten points already assigned to both Strength and Accuracy stats as an effect of the trial. In short, this battle granted me the ridiculously huge amount of one hundred and fifteen total stat points.

Of course, I will not complain, since I worked really hard to get them.

I allocate the points according to my own needs. I still plan to rise Luck to a decent level, since, judging from the system message that I received after the trial, it looks like this stat will be more determinant in the future for me.

So, I rose the stat up to fifty.

Next, the physical stats, Strength and Agility. Those will be set at both forty-five, as will be Accuracy. All the points left, I dump them into Intelligence stat, that changes from my lowest stat to the highest one, boasting ninety points in it.

The change after allocating all those points into a single level up session is like a jolt of electricity, that wakes me up immediately from the short nap I took. Before doing it, I asked Navi for advice, and she reassured me about the absence of painful consequences in doing so. The only thing dangerous about leveling up too much in a single fight, was the moment when you get the EXP and your body converts it into energy. That was the dangerous moment, that could easily cost one’s own life if not treated accordingly. Mostly, because it would incapacitate you for some time, leaving you open for attacks while your body adjusted.

And, given that most level up events appear in battle, the danger of it is well apparent.

Still, it was not painful rising my stats so much, only…weird.

For good measure, I try to summon a minor spell. Just a flicker of sparks from my fingers, nothing too…

The resulting heat almost burns my hair off my head.

It seems I will need some time to adjust to the new mana pool.

All considered, my stats are something ridiculous already. Most of the stat points I got comes from the Trials, who granted me over one hundred bonus points after completing three of them. And, I only have thirty fragments of that “Crown” mentioned each time, with one hundred pieces in total.

So, I think there should be at least two more trials for me to complete, and given how each of them has had increasing bonuses added each time…

A normal person in this world gains four stat points with each level up, having four stats to where the points are distributed. So, it means that a person my level has about one hundred and twenty points, to add to the single points each stat has when a person is level one. A total amount of one hundred twenty four points. Maybe more, if we account for skills or other special circumstances that I may not be aware of.

Let’s say that an exceptional individual, he might go up to one hundred and seventy points, having fifty or so more than the normal human being.

I, on the other hand, have gained more than two hundred points, exactly two hundred and seventy five. Taking into account that I gain five points, but I also have another stat, Luck. If I take out the Luck stat from the picture, with it having fifty points, the remaining four stats have two hundred and twenty five points distributed into them.

Almost double the amount of a normal person my level, the same as one whose level is double my own.

So, yeah, I think I might be leaning into the overpowered side of things. And, that is without taking skills into any account. Just to speak, the new title I gained added a synergy between luck and intelligence, and now my mana pool is calculated by taking both into consideration. Or the new charisma skill, which is impossible for me to allocate point in, but grows of a single point for each stat point I invest in either strength or intelligence.

I just hope that all this does not get to my head, and makes me behave arrogantly. It’s best I do not forget those times where I struggles, least that I do some stupid mistake that could be avoided by being careful.

I return my attention to my captives. Now, it’s time for the serious experiments.

I look at my skill list, my sight fixed on the new one that the trial, and resulting process afterwards, granted.

It has both the effects of Black Hand and Black Fluid, and it is listed as a Cosmic skill.

The name of it, highlighted in black characters, flickering with light on my status screen.

Shoggoth.

I try to summon it first, hidden away in my own private space.

The sensation that comes with the skill’s invocation, it’s different from Black Fluid. My skill, it consumed some mana whenever I used. It was a negligible amount, the reason that allowed me to use it so extensively.

But now, no mana is spent from it. Instead, what I feel coming from the skill…

The appearance of it is the same, but the black mass I summoned is slightly different. The same color, but the substance of it is altered, thicker, it pulses with its own strength, a different mana flowing through it.

It has its own, like a living thing. And with that, emotions, and a will comes from the thing, reaching out to me.

I can feel its curiosity, its needs. Above all, an insatiable hunger emanates from the thing.

An eye opens in the middle of the bubbling black mass, staring back at me with two connected irises, their color the same as my own, the pupils of them intersected as to form a eight shape.

I will the eye to blink, and the shape of the thing to change. It still responds to my commands, perhaps, no, definitely even better than it did before.

Still, no mana is spent on my part, no matter how the shape changes and shifts, bound to my will while keeping its own.

Before, there was some grade of resistance from the skill, I still had to put some effort into shaping it and moving it as I wanted.

Now, that resistance is gone, as the thing itself complies to my orders, feeling almost as if it is glad to follow my will, and the promise that lies at their end.

And I know it, I do not know why, but I know.

That the thing abides, because if it follows my orders, it will lead to it eating once again.

Before, I would have shuddered at that sight, recoiled in disgust from it, as I did the first time I saw what Black Fluid was capable of.

Instead, now a smile is painted on my face, as I play around with the skill, as I make it wiggle and change its shape.

Of course, I already know that it can do everything that Black Fluid could, to a better degree.

What I am curious about, is to see how the skill I stole from Leidus comes into play, how it changes my possibilities.

With my heart thumping in my chest, I advance towards the first prisoner.

The face of the magician, frozen in time, without having the slightest idea of what is going to happen to him.

I take a deep breath, my hands shaking.

First, I want to try the effects of that “Black Hand” skill.

Willing the new Shoggoth to abide, it wraps onto my right hand, like a glove. It dissolves into a pulse of blackness, and the same flame that was once in possession of Leidus now envelops my hand.

I touch the chest of the magician, muttering the name of the skill.

A Status window opens in front of me, showing the prisoner’s list of skills and attributes.

As it turns out, this skill allows me to select one from my target, and take it as my own. Without the need to kill him during the process. A gentler, more precise way of getting new skills than my Black Fluid. Although, this one only works on humans. And, it does not need to kill, but the extraction process is painful for the target, as I have experienced on my own skin.

But, the power of this skill is not limited to that. I can steal the target’s mana, or temporarily add a quarter of its stats to my own.

Or even steal the target’s health.

Each thing listed on the screen has a percent near it, indicating the percent of success if I try to “snatch” the specific skill or attribute. As I ask Navi to inform me on the details, I learn that this percent is calculated taking the Luck stat into account. Failure makes the target lose the skill, without me taking it.

So, it can even be used to make someone else lose their precious skills, even if the process fails and I do not get the selected skill.

It makes me realize the risk I took in letting myself to be the target of it. If Leidus chose not to rob me of Black Fluid, and went for my health instead…well, there would be a different Demon Lord in Sendria.

Still, the gamble I played was well placed. By spying on Leidus, I knew that he would steal the skill and then kill me.

He did so a number of time, acting otherwise only when the target did not have any peculiar or strong skill to select.

And that was definitely not my case.

I undo the skill, since the magician does not have anything that I particularly want. Copies of skills related to mana control, inferior to the ones I already possess.

Still, I will consume him the same.

This time, I will Shoggoth into existence once again. The skill squirms happily at the sight of the bodies, and I can almost hear a sound of joy come from it after I mutter a word.

<<Eat>>

Blackness spreads from my hand, taking its old on the immobile prisoner, as the skill crushes and gnashes.

Of course, it consumes the target. Not like Black Fluid did, dissolving it slowly. It still enveloped itself around the prey, covering its body into a bubbling black veil.

But, judging by the sounds coming from it, it is eating.

With mouths and teeth, gorging themselves in gore.

Quicker than Black Fluid was, the consumption takes place and ends in almost twenty seconds.

As it is done, a message window pops up, similar to the one that came when I used Black Hand.

Unlike the absorption with Black Fluid, it looks like I get all the skills from the target, instead of a random selection of them like it happened with Black Fluid.

The only disadvantage is that I can only keep three of the skills absorbed, the others being lost forever.

So, with this new power up, I can avoid getting weak or useless skills, and focus on the ones that will be an advantage to me.

As with Black Fluid, Shoggoth increases its size with each successful absorption. Which is an incredibly good thing, since it has basically regressed to its original size. With the last level of Black Fluid, I could summon more than twenty liters of it.

Now, the Shoggoth I can bring forth could fill a bucket, but that’s it. It is stronger, and quicker than Black Fluid, but the less quantity might be disadvantageous for a while, until I manage to absorb more enemies and return it to its original quantity. Perhaps, even more.

I turn my attention to the other prisoners, hearing a low grumbling noise come from Shoggoth.

It’s almost like a pet now, squirming in excitement while it looks at its food.

The cruelty of my own thoughts should have repulsed me, instead, I find it almost a funny sight to spectate.

One after the other, the blackness eats those men.

Murderers, rapists. I sit back and watch. Who am I?

That question has been drilling itself into my thoughts, and the answer is opening its way through misconceptions and fears, through cowardice and doubt.

It brings with it new aspects of me, like ruthlessness, and cruelty. Not something that I did not have, but rather, some aspects of me that I did not want to look at, that I did not want to acknowledge.

Who am I? A nice guy, easygoing to the point of forgiving, neglecting the things that might have killed him? Or the one that’s smiling at the sight of gnawed flesh and lives being ended?

The answer is simple, and yet complex.

I am both, and none of them.

I am not yet, but, I am becoming.

I will be merciful, when it would give me a gain. I will be cruel, when needed.

Who am I?

I still do not know the answer yet, but it’s coming to me.

Setting those thoughts aside, I focus on the window screen floating in my view. In it, the skills I decided to keep from my recent bounty are listed.

A mild passive health regeneration skill, and one that grants a minor boost to both strength and agility were the only two skills that I found interesting. The others were copies of skills I already have, like mana control or swordsmanship, or smaller versions of skills that passively enhance attributes, like speed or attack, without working directly on stats. The increase they gave was too little for the continuous mana cost, and I chose to acquire the only skill that offered a permanent stat boost, without having any mana usage.

And, of course, the last skill I acquired is that weird mana shield that each of the warriors had. I would have liked to “snatch” the one that the healer guy had, I even brought his corpse back. But, as it was before, I cannot obtain skills from corpses. Only from live subjects. Oh well, it’s a bit of a waste. Still, I gained some new, useful abilities from all this. The mana shield I got is useful. I initially thought it was some kind of spell, given its peculiarity, but, it turns out, that it is a proper skill.

It’s not only a shielding skill, that activates unconsciously whenever killing intent is directed on the owner, but it also grant a regenerative ability when activated. Of course, it is possible to activate the skill at will, using a bit of mana to activate it. Still, it’s a good acquisition.

In short, it’s a really useful ability.

After obtaining the new skills, I immediately try the new shield. Instead of a glowing bubble of light, like the one that the original owners boasted, mine is more of a thin, white aura surrounding my body. Of course, the original owner had the skill leveled up quite far, I suppose it was almost maxed out.

With a sigh, I head out of my Inventory space.

<<So, how much time?>>

John asks me, while laying down on the grass that covers the ground. The place we’re in, it is still the last floor of this Dungeon, the safe room. Today, I do not know why, he’s wearing a hat over his face, to block out sunlight.

Apparently, John changes the layout of the place according to his mood. And today, he wanted to rest on a patch of green grass, with sunlight on his skin. The Dungeon changed accordingly, even shining blinding daylight from the rocky ceiling.

<<Fifteen minutes. Still a long time to go before it becomes what I want. On your end?>>

<<Zero point one seconds. Enough for most people to not even notice, still too much time if you find yourself against a Hero>>

He replies, without even sending a glance to me.

<<Well, it was zero point five yesterday, before the attack. So, I have improved>>

<<Yes, you have. But not enough, my friend. Never enough>>

He flicked his fingers, and in his left hand appeared a weapon. One of my weapons, one of those shabby spears I crafted during my first days in this world.

<<Impressive. Is that your way to show me that this trick I have can be easily dealt with? I already know>>

John laughs. He slightly lifts his hat, looking at me straight in the eye.

<<Use it again>>

As he asks, I abide, curious to see where this is going.

I feel myself slipping into the Inventory space. Where I use to relocate myself, I do not need to open a “gate” for it. I simply slip into that strange dimension.

But, as I am there, I feel a sharp pain, and a sensation of being pulled.

It happens in a slip second, and I am once again in front of John.

<<Interesting. Under thousand?>>

I ask John, who is now enjoying a cocktail. A “modern world” cocktail, served in a proper glass.

<<Under five hundred, and I could even do less. And five hundred, or even a thousand, two thousand points of mana, they’re nothing to a Hero. Remember that, and the way that mana works for them. If you are prudent, and aware of their strengths and your own weakness, you will manage to survive. Not win, not yet, but survive. So, what’s next, Roshal? Plan to pay Alvares a visit? Or do you want to have some fun into my Dungeon?>>

Yeah, the way mana works around Heroes. Being a former one, John demonstrated that to me. And it was not pretty, making me realize several things. First of all, how I have been lucky against Damien, the child Hero that attacked Nudria.

More than luck, I now have the certainty it was divine intervention of some sort.

Perhaps, old Azatoth really cares about me, and he’s just shy to admit it.

Navi giggles to my thought, without replying. Thankfully.

<<Right now, I want to head into the Dungeon for a while, with the others. Our levels are still on the lower side, so I want to use what time we have left to raise it as much as we can. Speaking of which…>>

Ignoring John for some moments, I check on the others using Navi’s communication. During the time I was dealing with Leidus and his men, the others have not been sitting idly, going into the Dungeon on their own. For safety, I asked John to keep an eye out for them, but given their response, there has been no need.

Currently, they are inside the Safe zone that the Guild set up on the twenty second floor. All in order to increase their levels, and to test the new abilities they gained from training and from the bonuses that the second trial granted them.

<<So, how did it go? Well I suppose, since, you know, you’re still alive>>

Retel is the first one to answer, before Levia cuts in the communication.

<<Roshal! What the…where are you? What were you thinking, going alone was the stupidest, idiotic, dumb…>>

And she continues in a crescendo of insult. Well, it’s her way to vent out frustration.

<<Yeah, sorry, in the end she got it out from me. My bad>>

Retel apologizes, as he let his mouth slip up, revealing what I was up to. Still, I asked him to keep it a secret from Levia, since she would certainly oppose my decision.

But, it was something I needed to do on my own, after all. Not only because John threatened to beat me black and blue if I didn’t, but also of my own volition. Although the threats helped to motivate me, a lot more than I would like to admit.

<<Yeah. Don’t worry about that. How are things on your end? How many?>>

<<Six, and we are keeping the number from going up too quickly. The thing that adjust experience gain is still active, even if you are not here, so we’re leveling up at the same rate. All of us. You?>>

This time, it was Marica to cut in the discussion. Her voice seems fatigued, tired. Perhaps they’re overexerting themselves too much.

<<Eight. I’m level thirty right now. So, four more levels on your part, and then we will meet. Give me a call when you’re ready>>

<<Understood. Oh, and drop by the old man before you come, he has something to discuss with you. Retel out!>>

And with that, he cuts communication.

Well, using Navi I can see both their position and status, so I didn’t actually need to ask them. But I wanted to hear their voices, nonetheless.

<<So, I guess I will head out for a bit. I’ll come back later. See you, Master>>

Flicking his hand in a lazy gesture, John mutters a goodbye…or was it “good riddance” he said?

Well, it does not matter. Once again, I slip up into the Inventory space, reopening it inside Heod’s new laboratory.

Surrounded by bubbling glass vials and tubes, the old man is bent over one of the most sophisticated equipment, muttering curses as he scribbles notes into some parchment.

<< Wrong time?>>

I ask him, looking over the old man’s shoulder to take a peek at what he’s working on.

<<Wrong everything, my dear Roshal. The reagents from this batch were poorly harvested and transported worse, making them less useful than they should have been. The new formula is a mess, and those pesky adventurers keep pressing for more healing potions than ever. I would need twice the ingredients and four time as many instruments to even hope to meet the demand. And of course, there’s not enough money for the new projects. There’s never enough money to find something new>>

He draws a big sigh, calming himself from the frustration of handling a large laboratory that took public commissions.

<<Could these help?>>

I hand him some ingredients that John gave me permission to gather.

The old man smiled, shaking his head.

<<Ah, that’s cheating, you little brat. Give ’em here. Quick, before Telesia comes to snap my neck. That woman is scary, let me tell you>>

I follow him to the repository, where he keeps the samples and ingredients. Unloading my Inventory from the plants and mushrooms gathered, I ask him about what he wanted to discuss.

<<Oh, that. We’ve tested it, and it works in a marvelous way>>

This time, I am the one who smiles widely.

Of all the time I spent in the Dungeon, training was not the only thing I did. I also used some time to sit down and think about something that would give us a clear advantage over Aldora.

Although this world is one based on RPG and magic, it lacks a fundamental, staple kind of item. Magic items.

It is possible to imbue items with mana, but only for a short time before it disperses. Items like magic swords, or enchanted armor are impossible to make, using this world’s knowledge and methods.

Several scholars tried, using different approaches. The one that came closest to something like an enchanted item, managed to make a slab of gold to keep mana in it for one entire hour, before it dispersed.

As I follow Heod, he leads me into a smaller chamber, separated from the rest of the laboratory.

In it, behind a glass panel, a single bar of steel is suspended between two pedestals, a blueish glint on its surface.

<<So, how many?>>

<<Thirty-two hours, and still going. Without loss. It is still far from completion, but this method shows promise, without a doubt. And, we’ve successfully reproduced it, even on composite materials. The efficiency is a bit lower, but, the margins of improvement are really wide. In a month, perhaps even less if Telesia approves my request, we will be able to have usable pieces>>

In short, although it’s still far from the wonders of a flaming sword, or an enchanted armor impervious to any blow, this steel bar is the first step towards an enchanted item.

Thanks to John and Heod’s combined efforts, we’ve managed to theorize, and then realize, a method to make mana flow inside an item, without leaking out and dispersing to the winds.

The key for the process was Black Fluid. Using the skill to produce microscopic channels into the metal, and filling them with a porous material whose microscopic structure can transmit mana, it was possible to store it inside the item, and make it circle instead of dispersing to the environment.

By using external mana, it was possible to influence that stored into the item, making it flow outward, or rapidly leave the item. Even empty it and charge it anew.

Right as it is, the item is no more than a mana sponge, able to absorb it and release it when “squeezed”. But, there’s time for improvement, and the will to pursue it.

The trick to it, was to devise a method precise enough to produce the tiny channels and the material to fill them.

Any imperfection would result in a defective product, like it had one too many time in the early stages.

Channels too big would make the metal brittle, and it would shatter under the strength of mana, even in minimal quantities. Channels that are too narrow, would clog and impede the flow, causing the mana to congest and ultimately burst out.

Satisfied by the results, I restocked my supplies of potions from the old man’s private reserve, the ones he prepared for our group.

<<And, about that other thing?>>

He grumbles, taking his eyes from the shiny metal and setting them on my figure. Heod’s face looks older than he is, his eyes tired but showing a glint of determination.

<<Deep shit, that’s how things are. The compound that Alvares used is hard to isolate, even harder to analyze. To this date, we’ve only managed to get few samples, and all of them deteriorated or contaminated. It’s bad, and if we do not get a pristine sample soon, a countermeasure would be impossible to develop>>

So, good news and bad news. The good being advancement on the enchanted materials, bad news concern the more pressing matter, freeing the army from Alvares’s influence.

Drugs and magic, that’s how he controlled them all.

<<I could try and get…>>

Heod stops me, lifting his finger to silence me.

<<You won’t try anything. I think you have tried to do enough dangerous and reckless things for now. Don’t get me wrong, but, I think it’s better to leave this matter to the Guild for now. Focus on going on with that training, or level up, or whatever you youngsters are up to during these days>>

With a smile, I part from the old man, leaving him with the promise of sharing a bottle of good liquor together.

After parting from Heod, I travel to the armor shop. In there, Martha is dealing with some clients, two grizzly looking adventurers with bulky bodies and bulging muscles.

One of them pushes a small satchel on the wooden counter, emptying it in front of Martha and counting the coins.

With a wide smile, Martha takes the money, handing a small receipt to the duo.

<<Your armor will be ready in six days. See you soon!>>

The two leave, taking a quick, measuring glance at me before heading out of the shop.

<<Busy day?>>

I ask Martha, who greets me by waving her hand.

<<No, just four customers, today, counting you. But, affairs have been good these past four weeks>>

<<Good for you. Is your grandma here?>>

She simply turns toward the back-store and shouts her granny’s name.

The old lady peeks from the curtains that separate the two areas of the shop.

<<Who’s there? Oh, it’s that brat. Came to pick up yer armor?>>

As usual, her voice greets me with the usual rudeness. Still, old Helena’s items are top tier for their cost, and they served me well in previous battles.

<<Yes. Is it done?>>

She comes forward, her hands still dirty with a dark substance.

As I look at her, she makes a shrug with her shoulders.

<<Tanning paint. To dye leather. It smells, and it’s hard to scrub from your own skin. Oh, yes, your armor is ready. Come, pick it up>>

I follow Helena behind those black curtains. In there, wooden tables are arranged around, a variety of items littered above them and all around the dimly lit room.

Pieces of metalwork, stripes of leather and sheets of various tissues. All around, the place is nothing but a mess.

Blueprints drawn on yellow scrolls are lying on a table, among with measurement instruments, lenses and other tools made for precision drawing.

Crates, containing metal plates, scales or simple parts, along with others, more specialized, like mechanisms apt to lock pieces in place, rivets and buckles, and many other items I do not recognize. And, further from them, in another table surrounded by wooden mannequins, the half- assembled pieces, on their way to become armors.

The final pieces are further from there, displayed on full figure mannequins. There is a full plate armor, shining silver under a blue coat of arms. Next to it, a crude set of breastplate, gauntlets and thigh protectors, painted in the color of blood.

<<These were commissions, nothing more than pieces to display in a noble’s house. No actual purpose other than being pretty, or intimidating. Here, this one is yours. Your friends already came to pick up theirs, and arranged payment for that. Try it on>>

The design of it is similar to the previous version of the armor. Materials are different, using sturdier, higher quality leather that comes from Shartu, the bear Champion of the ninth floor.

Plaques of silver metal reinforce the black leather, a blueish glint in their silver shine.

<<This is moonsteel, an alloy of steel and moonstone. It costs quite a bit, but it’s an excellent item. Light, sturdy without being too rigid. It resists well against blunt blows, performs splendidly against piercing and slashing>>

The moonsteel is fashioned into a lorica for the torso portion, its design made to ease movements as much as possible, while keeping the amount of metal high enough to provide a good defense.

It’s kind of an hybrid between a proper lorica and a leather armor, with smaller, thinner plates grafted onto the dark leather.

Unlike the previous version, this one has pauldrons, and reinforced gauntlets. Same for the leg portion, that in the previous version was nothing more than a pair of tanned leather pants studded with some plaques of metal.

Although they’re far lighter than those of a full metal set of armor, the pauldrons and arm guards are almost all moonsteel. Curved plates of metal, arranged as big scales to cover the top portion of shoulder are, leaving the armpit free for better movement.

The legs are roughly the same, leaving the groin area exposed, with metal plaques running down thighs, covering the knee area and continuing down on the shin. Boots are also comprised in the set, along with two belts, some satchels and pouches, a large, dark mantle and a helmet.

Fashioned in the same way as the armor, dark leather and moonsteel, the helmet is simple in design, offering enough protection without being too encumbering or limiting vision.

Instructed by Helena, I learn how to wear the armor and the protection to wear underneath it.

She gives me some more recommendations on how to run maintenance on each piece, which instruments to use when cleaning it and how to maintain the leather parts in good conditions.

I purchase some extra products for necessary repairs and general maintenance.

Before I head out, Helena makes me stop. She rummages into a chest, coming back with an item enveloped into a piece of cloth.

<<Here. A gift, to one of our best customers>>

Inside the sheet of cloth, there is a straight sword.

<<It’s moonsteel, light and sharp. Use it, and keep it in good state. Otherwise…>>

I thank the old lady with a smile, admiring the new sword. Not that I have the need for it, but such a fine item can only be accepted with gratitude.

Navi’s analysis identifies it as a mastercrafted sword, perhaps, it might even wasted in my hands.

I fasten the scabbard to my belt, on the left side.

Now properly equipped, I head out of the store.

Still some time left to spend, as I wait for the others to advance into the Dungeon.

Once again, I head back to John’s side, to train some more before actually challenging the more advanced floors of the Dungeon.

<<Back so soon?>>

The view in the safe room has changed once again, now being a warm beach, complete with sand and even crystal clear water.

Even a light breeze. Well, it looks like being a Dungeon Master shows its perks, if you can bear the loneliness of it, that is.

<<Yeah. Any news?>>

<<Hm. Your group is now out of the Safe zone, traversing the twenty-third floor. Still at the beginning of it, tho. Alvarez made a little trip to the thirty-fourth floor, and he was frantic about something. Still, he went back, with a sour look on his face. Now, enough with the idle talking>>

All in all, two more days I spent training with John.

The new skill is working fine, the only defect of it being the small quantity I can summon. Although, it is slowly increasing, as I absorb some of the Summoned creatures brought forth by John.

Time finally has come for me to join the others once again. Having reached the twenty-sixth floor by themselves, they now are all level thirty.

I search for their position with Navi, opening the Inventory space right where their signal points.

This twenty-sixth floor is like a sea-side coast, with shallow waters and coral-covered rocks emerging from the water.

As I step out of the Inventory, I take a deep breath in the salty breeze that caresses this place.

<<Oh, welcome back. Took your sweet time, huh?>>

Retel is the first one to notice me. He’s sitting on the large corpse of a scaly creature, that looks like a hybrid between a fish and a lizard, having fin-like protrusions on its legs and tail, and gills on the side of its head.

My friend is wearing his new armor, a full plate of reddish metal. His shield and spear are also different from before. Instead of the kite shield he was using before, he now has a tower shield, its eight more than half of Retel’s. The spear that is resting on his shoulder, is longer and has a wider spearhead than the one he used before.

Marica and Levia come out from behind the beast, waving their hands at me. The two of them donning new equipment and weapons.

<<Yeah, let’s say so. Well, ready to start? Hm? Where is Dahl?>>

To my question, Retel lifts his shoulder. Behind me, I hear a step, and by reflex I jump back, ready to counter whatever was creeping up behind me.

Undoing his cloaking skill, Dahl appears.

<<Oh, did I scare you?>>

I recompose my stance, shaking my head. Since when was he the type to play pranks on people?

Finally together, we start to move towards the central portion of this new floor. All around, patches of white sand emerge from the water, small isles linked together by thin strings, paths made out of sand or small rocks.

The water near the isles is shallow, ankle high, but it grows deeper as you go further from the isles.

Monsters are lurking on the isles, resting on the warm sand, soaking in the artificial sun that illuminates this place.

As soon as they see us, they change their positions, charging at us after alerting their group.

Their levels are lower than ours, the highest among their ranks being a level twenty-six merman.

Still, they immediately dove into water, hoping to use it to conceal themselves and ambush our group from it.

I start an electric based spell, but…

<<Schiocco di tuono>>

Marica’s own spell precedes me. Apparently, the title she gained from the second trial, Bishop, granted her a boost in power for magic attacks, as well as mana regeneration and increased control of it.

A single spell was enough to clear out the group of eight monsters. Being lesser level than us, the monsters yield a low amount of exp.

What we’re really aiming for, during this trip, is to hunt down Elites and Champions. Even when lower leveled, they grant a good amount of experience. And of course, the Champion, being the strongest challenge of each floor, it grants a ridiculous amount of experience.

Perfect for grinding levels.

We thread on into this weird space, so out of place when confronted with the distant rocky ceiling and walls, all shining with a strange luminescence, intense enough that the place looks like it is basked in sunlight.

The variety of monsters in this place is stunning, several different species of fish-like creatures, and crab-like monsters crawling out of the sea to ambush us.

To be fair, I still have done nothing to take them out, aside clearing the corpses with Shoggoth. The skill mumbles in dissatisfaction, as I feel its need for live prey.

Still, if I absorb them with Shoggoth, the EXP would be lost, so I think my new skill will have to wait a long time before having some live prey served to it.

Although, if I manage to find something with useful skills, things might go differently.

As we near the central portion, the number of monsters increases, and the environment slightly changes. The isles are less frequent, but those that we encounter are wider, and even have some coconut-like tree on them. The fruits they produce look like pineapples, with a hard shell and soft pulp inside.

To my surprise, it looks like these fruits have a high effect on mana recovery. Perhaps, if refined, they could yield a high quality mana potion.

I decide to stash a number of them into my Inventory, perhaps old Heod will find some good use for them.

The materials gained from the sea monsters here, scales and hard shells, might fetch for a good price.

One truly nice thing about this floor, it’s the lack of winding paths and corridors. It’s basically a wide open space, half of it covered in deep waters.

There is no chance to be lost here, since the exit from the level is in clear view all the time, albeit looking so small in the distance.

The difficulty of this place is not the winding paths, but the sheer size of this place. The map of it, it’s double the size of the thirty-fourth level I visited before.

Not that most adventurers would explore the entirety of this place, since it’s mostly deep waters. Although, in the distance, there are some remote islets to be seen, perhaps to lure adventurers with the promise of treasure, with danger waiting below deep waters.

To others, that is.

Since, well, I can just hop there using Inventory.

On one of such islets, I found some nodes of rare metal. Even gold, mixed along with other materials of more common use. The first time I hopped on one isle, I took the others with me. It was a bit strange, seeing them frozen into Inventory space. It looks like I need to actively will them to be able to move here, otherwise, they are just treated as everything else.

But, the after effect of them moving with me, are bad.

Retel crouched down, puking. The others are also feeling some symptoms, from headache to disorientation.

It looks like transporting others might still be outside of my capabilities, if I do not think of a method to lessen the side effects.

The first islet I visited, it was devoid of monsters.

But the others…

I went there alone, leaving the rest of the group to deal with the monsters on the normal path.

As I went out on the remote isles, I found several, large type of sea creatures that burst out of the sea to attack me.

One, it was like a huge sea serpent. Although gigantic in size, its level was only twenty-two.

It had no interesting skills, but its size would grant Shoggoth a nice increase. And so, much to the hungry skill’s happiness, I ordered it to devour the monster.

Given the size of it, it took more than ten minutes for Shoggoth to consume it. It gained several material properties, both biological and not. Like the possibility to form pressure resistant muscles, or eyes that work underwater and in low luminosity.

Curiously, since it evolved into Shoggoth, the skill can now perfectly mimic a creature, assuming size, behavior, stats and much to my surprise, skills.

A skill that hold skills.

Interesting concept,isn’t it?

I wonder about the possibility of this new aptitude of my skill. Perhaps, I could let it assume the sea serpent’s form, and roam the waters in search of prey.

I doubt that anything in this level could pose a threat to it, and decide to go with the plan.

Only, the form it assumes is perfectly the same as the serpent, but black in color. And the size of it, is roughly longer than two meters. Not anything near to the gigantic, more than twenty meters long snake that attacked me.

Still, I release it into the waters.

Much to my surprise, a window opens into my view, letting me see what Shoggoth sees, and listing its stats on the side.

Immediately after scurrying into the water, Shoggoth starts its eating spree, latching itself on bigger creatures and changing its form in order to better consume them.

I head back to the others, letting Shoggoth rampage as much as it can.

Parting from my strongest skill would have been foolish, but, I have other means of offense after all.

Combining magic and Swordsmanship skill, I test both my new spells and the new weapon that Helena gifted.

The sword performs magnificently, and , given that moonsteel has a high affinity with mana, it is possible to shortly infuse it with mana to increase the power of each slash.

Much like Vorpal Edge, I am using mana to make the blade vibrate at high frequency, making it cut deeper than a normal weapon.

To the point I gained a new skill, the first one of my own ability since a long time.

Vorpal Slash, a green ranked skill.

From time to time, I turn an eye to whatever the hell Shoggoth is doing. Right now, it has been eaten by a large, squid-like monster.

It makes me pause for a moment, but, the feedback I get from Shoggoth can only be interpreted in a single way. Happiness.

Inside the large monster’s stomach, it starts eating again. It carves its way out of the monster, and then starts munching on it, growing bigger with every bite until the squid monster is no more.

After four hours, we stand in a small islet, resting for a moment before confronting the Champion of this level.

Shoggoth has returned, having basically cleared all monsters in the area.

It gains a zero point one percent of the mass it consumes, and given the large size of each monster in the area…well, let’s say it has grown. A lot.

<<So, what’s the plan?>>

Retel asks, munching on a roasted fish that he’s eating with his bare hands.

<<We kill the Champion then head to the next floor. And repeat. And repeat. Fairly simple>>

Levia replies to him. Well, she’s not wrong, since that’s basically what we set out to do with this Dive.

I look at them, remembering how we all were the first time we encountered each other. Retel, barely being able to keep up against a level two mob monster, and now single hand blocking the blows of monsters ten times his size. His title, Rook, tremendously boosted his strength, allowing him to withstand and even push back monsters. Combined with his new skills granted by the class Guardian, he’s basically capable of preventing any monster from even landing a single attack on us.

Levia, she’s become a force to reckon with in the battlefield. Her arrows rain, literally, on enemies. Each charged with mana, with different effects. Piercing shots, some that explode with a shock-wave. I even saw her using electric magic with her arrows, using it to both accelerate the arrows and deliver a stunning jolt when they strike.

And she’s constantly deploying her area healing skill, all the time. Like she does it unconsciously. Moreover, her new title boosted attack speed, power and her overall movement. Like the titular chess piece, the Queen. Still, I have yet to see her new skills, both from the title and the class she obtained.

Dahl is…well, he was strong even the first time I met him. Now, he has refined his style. Which is basically striking enemies from the shadow, slipping among their lines to kill those targets that may be troublesome, like monsters with healing powers or even capable of using magic. It seems like the title he got from the second trial, along with his class received after ranking up, granted him two peculiar skills. One, it allows him to become perfectly invisible, as long as he does not take any offensive action. This one comes from the title “Knight” gained from the trial, along with a boost in movement speed and evasiveness. The next one, it is a passive damage boost against anything that has mana. Another blue skill that he possess, and one gifted to him by the recent rank-up process.

And, the more mana the thing has, the more it is hurt by Dahl’s attacks. Especially nasty against magician types.

Marica’s spells have increased in power and scale. Different from my spells, she uses large quantities of mana to summon flashy effects, like thunderbolts of pillars of flame, often requiring long incantation time to unleash indiscriminate destruction on the enemies. The typical fantasy magician, so to speak. Well, I guess that for someone from this world, she reached quite the power in relation to her level. One very good thing is that she’s no longer limiting herself to heat-based spells, increasing her variety to better respond to different situations.

Although, I still have to see most of the new tricks my companions learned from their training and growth during these days. And vice-versa.

What we lack now, is neither power nor determination, but levels and sheer battle experience. Since, the looming menace of Aldora is there, closer with each passing day. It might go well, if Telesia manages to regain control of the army, and the situation in Sendria does not deteriorate too much.

But, the thing I want to see most is how we’ve grown in this time, what we really can achieve.

Well, the upcoming fight with the Champion of this level will probably provide that opportunity.

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.