Chapter 48 – Gratification

Seila was right. They stepped into the antechamber of the chimera’s room, just as the day before. Standing before the massive gate, the party quickly began their preparations for the battle.

“Alright,” Seila said, placing hands on hips, “We got butchered yesterday; you all know this. Although we failed, we also gained a lot of experience, so our main tactic will not change.” Pointing her dainty finger at Ares, she continued, “The construct will soak up the damage, and do it properly this time. That new toy of yours should enable you to keep the beast’s attention. Cedwin and Saber, keep distance and help control the beast, while Izzy and I provide support from the rear. Alai, you know what to do.”

They all nodded. This was it.

Ares felt he had something to prove this time around. Their plan of attack last time had mainly failed because he had been unable to keep the beast’s attention on him. The beast was clever enough to spot the physically weaker party-members, and had merely shrugged him off whenever he attempted to engage it.

His new whip might allow him a better chance, since he would be able to ensnare it when it tried to get away.

When everyone was ready, Ares stepped up to the massive gate and opened. The inside of the chamber was exactly as the day before: huge, circular, and with a raised platform in the middle. Only the beast itself had changed.

This time, it had a huge wolf’s head, two cat legs and two goat legs, with a tail two times longer than last time, but no longer in the shape of a snake. Instead, the thin tail circled around the beast as it lay on its side and observed the intruders, covered in small protrusions and ending in a rounded bulb at the end.

“Well, Construct. Time to prove your worth.”

Shaking his head, Ares ran at the beast. This time he did not attempt to circle around it, remembering how bad a result he had gotten from that. The only other choice was to charge head on, and so he did.

As he closed in, the beast gained its legs in an instant, opened its maw and roared at him. Ares unfurled his whip and turned in a circle, hardening the tip of the weapon slashing at the beast.

The beast drew back, avoiding the blow. The tip instead hammered into the ground, scoring a deep mark into the hard stone floor. The chimera’s yellow eyes narrowed, and it raised its tail up, still circling it like some kind of barrier.

Ares turned again, but instead of a slash, he went for a stab this time. With his minute control of the whip, he curled it back into his arm and unleashed, as if it was a spear. The beast met his strike with its own tail, deflecting the blow upwards. This, however, was useless against his control.

He closed in, bending the whip downwards, aiming straight for the eyes.

“Master! From the side!” Orca shouted in his head.

Before he hit his mark, a massive blow to his side sent him flying to the side. His barrier dispersed the damage from a single point, and he incurred little damage, but this was still about the worst thing that could happen.

Unless he held the beast down, they would lose the battle.

In response to his critical situation, the world slowed down around him. Gritting his teeth, Ares managed to curl his whip around the beast’s leg. As he went flying, the beast’s right cat-paw was forced with him, and they both fell upon the ground with a hollow boom.

That was when Saber struck. Appearing out of nowhere, the cat slashed the chimera’s side a number of times, avoiding its angry counterblows, and disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. As both Ares and the chimera gained their feet, arrows flew by the beast’s head, keeping it on the defensive.

Ares took the opportunity the two had granted him, as Seila’s fireballs and Izzy’s Little Eye attacked from above and below, and rushed in again. For the first time in the battle he used the whip as an actual whip, keeping his distance and shredding the air with sonic booms.

The beast roared and used its tail to defend, as it flowed and pulsed around it. Ares kept a close eye on it this time, especially the bulb at the very tip – which had been what sent him flying the last time. Whenever the beast debuffed his attacks and created an opening, he would use the blaster in his other hand to close the gap. Meanwhile, ranged attacks rained down from behind and sides; the Little Eye spun around the beast’s feet, cutting up the sensitive front paws, while small fireballs caused the beast’s fur to singe and burn.

It roared again, and, seeing it was in a losing position, it threw itself at Ares, aiming to simply use its weight against him.

However, Ares had prepared himself for this.

Retrieving his whip and blaster, he raised his hands and applied [Edge] on both. As the beast charged him, Ares met it in a charge of his own. Jumping, he avoided the bulb coming at him again, then twisted into the air. When the two forces met, Ares hit the top of the wolf’s head and was thrown over its neck. With his two sharpened hands, he stabbed into the side of the beast, gaining a shallow, yet firm purchase as he slid down its massive back.

His attack caused two long slices into the beast’s sturdy body, and apparently the pain was sufficient for the chimera to halt its charge. Rearing, the beast threw off Ares and turned on him – yellow eyes now reddened by anger.

Ares hit the ground and tumbled a bit, before turning with the motion onto his feet. He was about to reactivate his whip, only to stop when he saw the beast was not moving. Instead, it had begun… shaking?

It might have been from anger, but the beast’s shaking caused its unnaturally long tail to whip up a whirlwind as it went berserk. In this berserk state, a sudden soft scent assailed them.

It was sweet and pleasant. Though Ares had no need for sleep, he suddenly felt he might be amenable to a nap…

“Don’t breathe it in,” Alai called, retrieved a flask and threw it onto the ground beneath the chimera’s feet. The flask burst and released its contents, oiling up the area and letting a new scent waft into the air. This one was bitter, and not at all soothing.

“Ugh…” Saber grunted and staggered, retreating as his feet collapsed beneath him. Cedwin cowered for the cat, sending multiple arrows flying to warn the beast. The chimera, however, had no one in its sight but Ares.

Slowly, the protrusions on its tail unfurled themselves, revealing flowers in a distinctly green hue. When the shaking finally subsided, the long tail was covered in the green flowers, and the chimera held out the end of its tail in front of it as the bulb slowly opened.

A huge green flower with a purple center opened itself up, and the sweet scent it produced was almost enough to annihilate the bitter substance Alai had thrown.

“It’s a wightflower!” Alai yelled, “Construct, you have to get rid of the flowers! You’re probably the only one who can resist their effect.”

Seila and Izzy were staggering, as was Cedwin. Alai had put bound a piece of cloth before her mouth, and was administering a similar remedy to the others, but she was also moving unsteadily. Although Ares felt the strange sleepiness, he felt no overpowering urge.

With his hands still sharpened, Ares charged into the frey. The beast retrieved its tail and took a swipe at him with its claws. He deftly avoided it, slid beneath the chimera’s belly and slashed at its tendons. The beast reacted minimally at the shallow cuts, but it was enough.

He released [Edge] on his left hand and activated his whip. While the Chimera was occupied by the pain in its front legs, Ares bound its hind legs together and rolled out from beneath it. Using all his might, all his upgraded strength, Ares pulled out the legs from beneath the chimera. As it ungracefully fell upon the ground, Ares jumped forward, aiming for where the tail and body met.

Although the tail was thin, it was as hard as everything else on the chimera. Ares hacked away while the beast howled, but only made a few marks. Howling, the beast twisted on the ground and swiped at him. Ares jumped to the side and released [Edge] completely.

Time to try something new.

With his right hand raised, Ares activated his new ability. A hum resonated through him, and Ares felt the unit draw upon the slight crack in his center. Out of his own clumsy control, only a slight trickle of mana slid through him and into his right arm, as it began glowing in a bloody red.

With a quick swipe, Ares unleashed [Mana Rift], right at the tail end.

The energy forced out of him was tremendous, and he felt himself sucking out lifeforce from the lifelink to compensate, although it was not as intrusive as the day before. Clearly, though, the results were worth it.

His fingers ripped through space, cracking it open and revealing it to… somewhere else. It sliced through the tail as if it was nothing, following through and cutting deeply into the topmost hind leg. The tail, which flowers had bloomed so beautifully now, fell dead upon the ground and almost immediately wilted up – strewing the floor with dried-out blossoms.

Screaming, the beast took another swipe at Ares, but he danced away, and the chimera instead hit the still-open rift. As if hitting a sharp knife, the beast’s claw was cut into twine, its paw falling onto the ground with a splat.

Ares still held the power of [Mana Rift] in his hand, and the beast was too occupied with pain and loss to protect itself. He jumped forward and slashed again, aiming this time at the beast’s neck. It split apart like butter before a warm knife, and the wolf’s head tumbled upon the ground.

The power drain this time was even greater, and pain shot through his arms as his fingers spasmed and cramped. He felt Seila alarm as lifeforce was sucked out of her to pay for the extravagant ability. He looked back towards her, and she was kneeling on the floor, gasping for breath.

Old Ones, you nearly took care of it yourself, Ares,” said Cedwin, stepping up beside him and looking down at the beast with a handkerchief put before his nose, “You should have started with that.”

“Do you not see the price that has to be paid for that power, you brute?” Alai said, her tone sharp as she forced liquids down Seila’s throat.

“I do… I do… Old Ones, I do,” Cedwin said, marveling, “Will you also be able to do stuff like that, Seila? I mean, once you’ve truly learned battlemagic?”

Seila fended off Alai, keeping her from emptying another vial into her mouth, before she stood up and said, “I… I don’t know if I can do that… But our strength will increase manyfold once I complete my training. Until then, I guess I’ll have to live with being a source of energy for this unruly construct..”

She glared at Ares, but he ignored her. Sensing her emotion was enough for him to know she was frustrated with the situation.

“Well, at least we have managed to get through this. It means we’re real dungeon delvers now, right, captain Kindon?”

The captain, who had kept out of the battle completely, nodded and stepped forward. With an expert’s gaze, he looked at the corpse of the Chimera and said,” Indeed, Master Cedwin. You have completed the test floor, and are thus eligible to enter the labyrinth below. Many of you are heavily drained though, and I suggest you only take a short peek for today. Once you’ve gotten your teamwork down to a place where you need not rely on Ares’s more ‘extravagant’ powers, you can begin exploring in truth.”

“Aww,” said Cedwin, pouting like a child, “We still haven’t really gained anything from all of this, since there are no rewards on the test floor. If we don’t go down to the labyrinth, we will have been working at a loss these two days.”

Alai stepped up to the highborn elf and scrutinized his condition as she said, “Don’t be an idiot, Cedwin. Our lives are more important than any reward we may gain down here, don’t forget that.”

“Also, this battle has not been completely in vain,” said Kindon as he swept up his hand to the chamber exit, which had now opened. Behind, a dark chest stood in stark contrast to the white walls. “You have completed the test floor, and are thus rewarded.”

The party quickly ignored their exhaustion and approached the chest, opening it to reveal several compartments with differing objects. There were ores, leather, some teeth, and few pearls. All in all, Ares thought it a fine haul, although he knew nothing of their value.

“Indeed, the captain was right. This is a rich reward for merely completing the test floor,” Cedwin said, letting his fingers run down a piece of leather, “I can understand why so many can sustain themselves on dungeon delving with merely this. Aldeers are barely found anywhere on the surface, but here is a richly tanned piece of aldeer leather, just waiting to be turned into armor or clothing.”

“If this is the reward for the test floor, think of what we might gain in the labyrinth!” Seila said, smiling gleefully, having completely forgotten about her exhaustion.

“I vote we go down and take a peak,” Cedwin said, resolutely. “I agree,” said Saber, succinctly, while inspecting one of the pearls. “You boys are forgetting something,” Alai said, putting up a finger, “Someone needs to carry this. Someone manly needs to carry this.”

The boys groaned, and looked at the women, who had all sudden taken on a look of fragile weakness. Even Izzy looked like she might fall apart if she had to carry any more than she already did.

Just as they were about to split the items up between them, Ares stepped forward and put his hand on the chest. He had not tried this yet, but the system responded to his will. With but a thought, his storage opened, and the chest was sucked in, disappearing as if it had never been there.

“What?” They all exclaimed, even Seila, looking at him with shocked expression.

“I carry,” he said, turning to them and shrugged.

“Oh, he is good,” Alai laughed, licking her blue lips.

With the problem resolved, and after a short rest, the party members agreed to enter the labyrinth for a short peek. Ares was silent, knowing his mistress would not care the least about his opinion. In any case, killing the chimera had been a good opportunity to test out his new ability and weaponry, as well as gain a good amount of lifeforce for his next levelup. Now, if he could only figure out how to increase the level of the unit. Surely Orca knew the answer…

Along with the chest, the room led to an even small chamber, which to Ares looked like an elevator. The moment they stepped in, the doors closed behind them, and a slight shift told them they were descending. Before long, the movement stopped, and the white doors opened up into a shadowy landscape.

They were clearly underground; that much was evident from the cavernous ceiling and the many stalagmites and stalactites that littered the scenery, like trees in a forest. Ares had imagined the ‘labyrinth’ would be a walled construction, with geometric paths and littered with traps. Instead –although the latter might still be true– there were no walls here, but deep and wide chasms, interspersed with some kind of bridges. From a distance, it was hard to make out what the bridges were made of, but they most certainly did not look natural. The light, as well, was nothing natural. Red light suffused the air, as if the air itself was the source. Like the light within the test floor, it seemed as if it came from everywhere and absolutely nowhere.

“This is the labyrinth?” Seila asked, furrowing her brows, “I had imagined something… different.”

Kindon laughed and said, “Yes, it’s a bit of a misnomer. Nonetheless it is a labyrinth in a certain sense, since there are a myriad of paths, and they each lead in various directions and locations. Do you see the connectors? Those shift around every so often, meaning you may not be able to find your way back once you’ve chosen your path.”

“Then, how do we get out? I should think this place isn’t as accommodating as the test floor; surely we cannot simply exit wherever we please.”

“Indeed not, My Lady. While the paths lead in wildly different directions, there are always safezones set up with varying intervals. You can exit the dungeon from there, if you wish, or simply rest up before braving on. From here on out, some delvers stay in the labyrinth for days, or even weeks, depending on how good their team is.”

Seila nodded, as she looked over the desolate landscape. Ares, however, had a strange tingling sensation down his back. He knew with certainty that the little elevator at their backs was empty, and they stood on, perhaps, the safest place in this dungeon currently; and yet he could not shake the sensation that something was behind him.

He did not like it. ‘Orca, are you picking up any life signals down here?’

“Oh, plenty,” she said joyfully, “This place is really stuffed. Whatever these delvers are doing, they are not nearly depleting the training ground’s stores at the rate it was built to deal with. I’d say it’s overcrowded down here!”

‘Is that a problem?’

“I don’t think so, no… I am a bit restricted in my access, though, so I can only see the surface-level situation. As you advance, I too advance in the system, and may be able to uncover more information for you.”

‘For now, can you see anything strange? Anything that sticks out to you?’

“Hmm… no, not really. Why do you ask, Master?”

‘Because, I’m pretty sure whatever attacked those delvers down here, yesterday, is looking at us right now.’