They soon escaped the mist, arising out of obscurity and into an overcast day, where neither of the two suns were visible. Seila had not spoken another word since, and only the bond between them hinted at the turmoil within her.
Outside of the mist, the others from their party stood ready – including captain Kindon. “My Lady,” said the captain in a grave tone, “Please reconsider going back to the dungeon. You say you’re fine, but you were clearly overtaxed yesterday. Even if nothing came of the investigations, and no one has noticed anything, there is clearly some danger down there.”
Seila said nothing, but just stared the man down until he stepped back. Then she spoke to all of them, “I am not content with staying at the test floor. There is nothing to be gained there. We will beat the chimera today, and descend into the labyrinth to have a look. Worry not, Captain, we will not be going far. As soon as we have reaped our first rewards, we will retreat. Is that acceptable?”
“It is, My Lady.”
She snorted and looked at the others. Cewin and Saber looked relaxed, even if they still wore some bandages from the battle yesterday. Izzy was looking at Ares with sparkling eyes, as was Alai, although it was difficult to discern anything from her completely white eyes.
As they resumed their procession, Izzy walked up to Ares’ side and said, “You’re back. That’s good. I was worried that… thing… was going to be fighting with us today. Anyway, master Baek installed some new weaponry in your left arm. He said I should explain it to you when you got back.”
Ares nodded absently, already pursuing his Equipment tab. In it, he found what looked to be a coil of some kind had been inserted into his arm-slot.
Wire Whip has been equipped and identified
The whip is produced from artificial muscle fiber, allowing for free manipulation in any position
The tip of the whip is made from material that can harden or soften at command, allowing it to function as a hook either for capture and retrieval, or for climbing and scaling.
Wire whip has been inserted into left hand weapon slot.
Be aware that lifeweave skills cannot be used alongside equipment
With wonder, Ares unfurled the whip ever so slightly, which made it look like a metallic tentacle erupted from his wrist. The description had been true; the whip felt like an extension of himself, and would move according to his command. He began by letting it gently sway from side to side, and found it an amusing sight.
When he concentrated on the tip of the whip, he could feel how pliable the material was. The tip was no longer than 15 centimeters, and with but the will of his mind, it would either be soft and elastic, or incredibly hard. With another bit of focus, he found that he could slightly alter the shape of the tip in specific ways, allowing it to twist into a hook form, extrude small spikes, or take the shape of a T.
The applications were readily clear to him: he would have all the reach and force of a whip, with none of the downsides that the weapon had, such as requiring space for free motion. He could use it as an ordinary whip, then use it to freely bind, pull, or throw his opponents with. He could even use it to increase his mobility, by hooking onto walls or ceilings and reel himself in.
Why did I not get this before? He wondered, although the dwarf had been very clear that a gradual introduction to weaponry was preferable to a sudden overload.
“I told master Baek about the enemies we encountered, and what you seemed to have the most trouble with,” Izzy continued, smiling at him, since she obviously could sense how pleased he was, “And he agreed that you needed a weapon to fight a swarm of opponents, like the arachnids. What do you think?”
“It is… Good,” he said, although he wanted to say it was excellent. His vocabulary was simply not up to par yet.
“Anyway, with this, most of the test floor should be a breeze, but the chimera is still a problem. It resisted most of your attacks yesterday, except that last one – which also hurt both you and Lady Seila. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but master Baek had to manually direct your repair protocols, since the damage to your circuitry was extensive.”
‘Is that true, Orca?’
“It is, master,” said his assistants chirpy voice, “Your self-repair is good at repairing damage from exterior sources, but when you attempt to use mana without system guidance, and with your unit in such a low level, the protocols are not efficient at dealing with that kind of internal damage. You should properly thank that funny-looking dwarf the next time you see him!”
“Thank you.. Izzy,” Ares said, his gruff voice molesting the fine tune of the elven language.
“Aww shucks, that’s what we’re here for, Ares! Just don’t do that thing again, it was honestly scary.”
“You pretty strong, though,” he said, offhandedly, thinking back at all the machinery the little gnome had brought to bear on their enemies. The gatling gun, especially, had been a nice touch.
“Th-thank you!” Her little face reddened, and her expression brightened to match the suns, especially in this gloomy weather.
They walked away from what Ares assumed was the local graveyard, and were soon back at the site of the dungeon. Again, the pavilions were stuffed with people, and he thought there might even be more on this day than before.
Like before, they got preferential treatment, and were promised the next departure slot. Ares asked Izzy how the departures worked, since he did not think everyone could simply wait for one team to exit the dungeon before the next entered, like they had done the day before.
“Well.. The first run is always different than others.” The gnome studied her mug of… liquid… as she talked, situated as they were in the same fancy pavilion as before, “Like the marshal said, the first is to remove the worst traps and other nastiness the dungeon might have concocted. After that, a team simply needs to complete the test floor before the next can be sent in. So, once you’re in the actual dungeon, you might stumble upon others, but it’s rare. These things are usually so huge that the chance of it happening is miniscule.”
“You go in many… dungeons?” He asked, surprised at how calmly she was taking this. He would not have expected it from a smith’s apprentice, not even in this world.
“Aye,” She said, smiling, “Al Mendor, the city I come from, has its own dungeon, you know. When the Old Ones left this world, their flying castles fell – and Al Mendor is built around one of these. Below it, are one of the most dangerous dungeons in Ammedina. Before I became Master’s apprentice, I used to do dungeon runs to stay fed… It’s a hard life Ares.”
He did not doubt that. He had heard what some of the other delvers had said about their party yesterday. To them, this looked like a frivolous expedition of the wealthy and privileged. Seila was in a caste for herself, but Cedwin was also highborn, and the purity of lineage was clearly important to this society. Aside from them, Saber was apparently from a different country entirely, with enough status to banter with Cedwin as an equal. And Alai? During their last delve, she had mostly stayed in the background, providing backup and support, but some of the concoctions she had thrown around were clearly very powerful, and therefore probably very expensive as well.
They were all privileged, while the rest of the women and men around them were most likely putting their life on the line simply to keep bread on the table.
Even here in fantasy land there are classes and class differences. Or perhaps it is even more obvious here…?
He did not get a lot of time to ponder it, for they were soon called up to enter the dungeon. The lord marshal looked as imposing as he had been the day before – his bear-like visage twisted in concern when he looked at Seila.
“My Lady..” He began, but she stopped him with a wave of her hand, “Enough, Lord Marshal. I appreciate your concern, but I am fine. I wish to enter.”
“Very well,” said the giant man, nodding to his subordinates to allow the through. This time, Seila completed the setup alone, and they entered into the same white halls as before. Like the day before, they quickly made it through the first few chambers without many incidents.
Though they did not encounter the arachnids again, Ares still took the opportunity to train his skill with the new whip. Getting the technique right was important. Although he could manipulate the whip at will, getting the tell-tale ‘snap’ of the whip right was only possible with the right throw and pull. He also had to be careful not to hit the others.
It did not take long before his Acquisition Software picked up a skill which interested him.
A new skill is ready for acquisition: Whip Mastery
classification: passive skill
The user has learned to use flexible weaponry as an extension of themselves. Integrating this skill into the unit structure will increase muscle memorization and provide a bonus to agility. Additionally, this skill can produce subroutines to automate the execution of the whip. Greater mastery will allow for greater agility bonus, as well as more complex subroutines.
Liforece cost 14%
It was expensive, but due to him having been stifled at his previous level, even after leveling up he was already at 20% total capacity. Without much hesitation, he paid the cost. Currently, he had four skills, but only two skill-slots, which meant he had to choose carefully. He decided to discard [Ranged Combat] for the moment, even with all the useful boons it provided. It did not add anything to his destructive power, and was mostly useful against smaller, agile opponents. Against the chimera, which was so big it was hard to miss even without the aid of the skill, Ares felt [Whip Mastery] was a better fit.
Besides this, he chose to keep [Edge], since it had been his most reliable skill to date. It would also provide him with a close-ranged attack, alongside the long-range of his blaster and mid-range of his whip. A trifecta of ranges, which he hoped would give him an advantage.
Another incentive for keeping [Edge] was that it’s mastery had reached 74%, and according to Orca, he would be able to upgrade skills once they reached a 100% mastery. To the current him, this test floor was a much-needed chance to test his skills and increase his mastery, one which he did not hesitate to go all out on.
After his skill-shuffling, they arrived at their fifth small chamber, where he got a chance to try out the ‘subroutine’ part of his new skill. This room was markedly different from anywhere else, since the otherwise pristine white tiles, which were the standard, were here marred by a big black spot in the center of each. Although this change did raise their alertness, the part nonetheless proceeded with Ares out front.
Barely had their path been blocked, as per usual, before a black shadow flew at them out of nowhere. Only Ares was quick enough to react; all his systems alerting him to the attack. With a hand, he managed to deflect the blow from splitting Cedwin’s head apart. Although he got in the way, the black shadow did not slow down, but simply changed trajectory, disappearing up into the ceiling – into one of the black spots.
A moment later, something flew at them again, but from a different angle. Now aware of the danger, Ares discerned that the attacks were coming from those dark spots, although he was still unable to identify the attacker.
Again he circled around and deflected, this time saving Alai’s face, but a moment later Saber collapsed on the ground after he was hit in the back of the head.
“Together!” Seila commanded while taking a hold of Saber and dragging him into their closing circle, “Don’t get too far apart. Construct, you defend us!”
That’s what I’m doing, little mistress, Ares shook off his irritation and focused on defending the group, a task made difficult because of the multitude of black spots all over the place. The attack could apparently come from anywhere, and only he was quick enough to deflect the blows, not catch them. If he could control the rate of time-perception he might be able to do more, but until now it had been an automated system response to when he was the most in danger – not something he had any power over.
The party members were not much help themselves. None of them were fast enough, except for perhaps Saber, and he was currently down. Gritting his teeth, Ares prepared to go all out when Orca called out to him, “Master, I may have a solution to your current problem!”
‘Oh? Do tell.’
He deflected another attack, which this time flew onto the ground and slid into the closest black spot. He just barely managed to recognize an elongated body, before it had wriggled into obscurity. His proximity map lit up with red only when the attack flew out of the holes, but as soon as it escaped back into them, the map picked up nothing.
“With the help of your [Whip Mastery] I can program some simple subroutines for your whip. It has to be simple though, like ‘block’ or ‘attack’ with set conditions. I might be able to set it to ‘catch’, although I’m pretty sure that’s too complex..”
‘Set it to block. If I can focus on capture, that’ll be enough.’
“Right-O. One blocking subroutine, coming right up!”
He blocked another attack with the flick of his hand, as he felt Orca meddling about. With a snap, the subroutine –and an understanding of it in his mind– was put into action, and just in time too. The black shadow flew right at them, aiming for Alai, when his unfurled whip took on a life of its own. It felt like a jerking reflex, as the whip twisted around and hit the attack so hard the sound of the collision reverberated between the white walls.
Flung aside, the black shadow hit the wall with a crunching sound. For a moment, Ares thought this alone might have killed it, but it soon twitched and scurried into one of the black spots. This time, though, he got a good look. It had the appearance of a snake, but its body was unusually twisted and edged, and when it moved it did so like a spring: coiling itself together and unfurling explosively.
Now prepared, Ares waited patiently. A slightly longer pause than before signified some wariness on the part of the attacker, but it soon had to act as its role on the test floor commanded.
He noticed the appearance of the little red dot on his proximity map before he saw it with his own eyes. As soon as it was registering on his map, the whip took on a life of its own, responding to the attack that it immediately launched. It smashed into the black shadow, and, in that instant, Ares moved as well.
His artificial muscles burst with power as he threw himself to his right, just as the attacker was smashed into the wall once more.
Luck was on his side; the creature hit the wall right where four corners met, meaning it was as far away from any one black spot as possible. Although it moved with alacrity, Ares was quicker. Forging his hand into a sharp blade with [Edge], Ares stabbed the thing with all his might, splitting it into two.
It screamed hideously as it slid down the wall, black ooze trailing it and spreading around its final resting place.
“A windworm,” Izzy breathed, overwhelmed by the incredibly fast events, as well as the outcome.
“Such a vicious thing,” Cedwin said, snorting, “Good thing your construct is fast, Seila. By the Old Ones, I could barely see the thing!”
“Yes,” Seila said, eying Ares, “It does come in handy from time to time.”
“What do you mean, ‘from time to time’,” Alai laughed and flew at Ares, enveloping him in a sudden embrace, “That was just magnificent! Did you not see the way he moved? Ares, dear, you’ve saved this maiden’s life.. How should I repay you, hmm?”
“What ‘maiden’? Don’t tell me you think of yourself as a maiden, Alai” Cedwin laughed, and received a very cold glare from Alai. “Shut up, Cedwin. This is between me and Ares, so stay out of it.”
In all of this, Ares stood completely still, his stoic face as emotionless as ever. Why on earth did Alai insist on flirting with him like that? He was a machine, after all.
“That’s enough playing, Alai,” Seila said, red-faced from both anger and embarrassment, “We’re a party, so it’s only natural that we save one another from time to time. Are you going to react like that every time someone saves you?”
“No,” Said Alai playfully while winking to Ares, “Just when he does it.”
Sighing, his mistress turned to the exit, which had just opened. “Please get your priorities straight. If it’s the same as yesterday, the next chamber should be the final test.”
Alai instantly let go of Ares, and all her playfulness vanished into thin air, replaced with a serious expression.
“Let’s go. It’s time to face the chimera again.”