Ares woke up once more on the road. The party had set out early, aiming to enter second.
Although his mind was still occupied with what Sam had put into motion on the other side, Ares decided he would take the chance to help out a little, at least until he would descend into life-or-death battles again.
“Master, will you not let me see the other side?” Orca asked, as they walked towards the dungeon. He had forcefully closed their connection when it had flared up, and Sam had actually felt a bit guilty about that. Ares, however, had no inclination to care. ‘Why do you want to see it?’
“Because it’s Master’s world, of course! Just based on this language alone, it must be so exciting! Oh I can’t wait to see a word different from the same old, same old…!”
He realized this might be a new world to him, but Orca had been observing this particular rock for thousands of years. No matter how fantastical it seemed to him, to her it was surely getting boring.
‘I’ll try… I think there are some things you could help me with, over there.’
“Really?! Thank you, Master! Whatever you need, I’ll do my best to perform!”
‘Tell me, then, how much do you know about lifeforce? Why does this unit absorb it, and what could cause a resistance to it?”
“I know a bit, but it’s not my speciality. The reason the unit absorbs it is of course to help you grow, Master. To you it might seem strange and powerful, but the Makers just gathered it to increase their lifespan, really. Their true power lay in the manipulation of mana, and the strongest among them could even draw on mana without using a unit as a sheath.”
‘A sheath? Like a sword sheath?’
“Yes, that was how they thought of it. The units were their way to protect themselves against the backlash of using mana. You should have felt it yourself, when you tried to use it freely last time; playing with mana is no joke.”
‘Indeed it is not… Then what’s the deal about user levels?’
“It was to ensure the individual Maker did not exceed their capacity for mana manipulation. The user levels ensured the Maker would only have access to skills and abilities appropriate for their mental and physical strength. Skills are for training general skills, like combat, language, or social interaction; while abilities are separate because they are tutorials in the use of mana manipulation. Instead of risking manual overload, the unit guides the flow of mana in the user’s stead. This increases safety and allows for a more steady growth than simply grasping at straws.”
‘I see… Then, do you think it is possible for me to use mana in my biological form?’
“I would really not recommend it, Master. Though your biology might be changing ever so slowly, along with your synchronization rate and emulation, if you attempted to forcefully wield mana you’d probably just blow up.”
‘Fine… What about resistance then? Why would there be resistance to lifeforce where I come from, when everyone can wield it freely here?’
“Well, this is mostly a guess, but lifeforce here is not just an energy source, it is more like a manifestation of the will to live. It’s also not just in living creatures, but is found all over the place. The entire planet is covered in flows of it, as if it was one great living being. If your world does not have this kind of natural acclimation to it, it might instead resist this alien force.”
Ares nodded. It sounded crazy, of course; everything in this world was crazy. However, maybe he was growing a little crazy himself. After all, it did give him an idea… but that would have to wait.
They arrived at the white conch, and took a short break at the pavilions. There appeared to be markedly fewer patrons at the moment, something Seila finally decided to ask about. “Captain Kindon, is there any reason for the amount of delvers dwindling?”
The captain looked around and sighed, “Yes, My Lady, there is. A few teams have not been seen again since descending into the labyrinth yesterday. Coupled with what happened two days ago, some have chosen to stay away for the time being.”
“But, didn’t you say some delves can take days, or even weeks?”
“Only for the best of teams, My Lady. Those that have gone missing are those who can only just clear the test-floor and get to the closest safezone in the labyrinth. None of these teams would normally spend more than a few hours in the dungeon.”
“Does my father know?” There was uncertainty in her voice. Ares thought he detected a hint of fear through their connection.
“Yes, your father is aware of the situation, which is why I am still going with you. Since you have succeeded in clearing the test floor, you should be able to handle anything within the dungeon, however with this development I will not leave you just yet.”
Seila breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly, she had feared the news would make her father ban her from delving any further.
“Well, then what are we waiting for?” Cedwin said, as usual the most boisterous of the group, “Let’s get going. See, the first team has already exited the dungeon. We should go up next!”
So they did. They entered the dungeon and swept easily through the test floor. The past two days had ingrained certain habits in their collective fighting, and the smaller rooms proved no challenge to them any longer.
Neither, it turned out, did the chimera. It was similar to the first time they had encountered it, but Ares’ control and strength had grown exponentially. He held down the beast even more effectively than the day before, but did not have to resort to using [Mana Rift] this time. Instead, it was his mistress who squeezed mana out of him and fired off a massive fiery blast that took out the beast’s head.
Apparently she had been practicing her control a lot while he had left the sentinel in control. She looked at him with a superior expression on her face. He had been drawing on her for the past few days, something that surely grated on her honor as the supposed ‘mistress’ of their lifelink.
Ares ignored it. All the better that he did not have to do as much. He gathered up their reward, like the day before, and they descended into the labyrinth with everyone in good condition.
Nothing appeared to have changed down in the labyrinth. The vast expanse of paths was open to them, lit up by the pulsing red light. Although they could see the labyrinth unfold before them, the red light was not an optimal illuminator, and so beyond a certain threshold everything just looked like red mush. Aside from this, only the stalactites and stalagmites were any real hindrance to their vision.
“Very well, let’s get going,” Seila said, “Construct, you’re out in front. We still need to stay together, so Cedwin you stay with the group. Saber, watch our back. Everyone ready? Good, then let’s go.”
They set off at a calm pace, everyone scouting the area around them carefully. It looked like nothing was around, but Orca had informed Ares the area was positively teaming with creatures, and so he dared not let his guard down. Add to this the strange sensation he had gotten last time, and Ares was at his greatest state of alarm.
The initial path led downwards towards the first chasm. Here, three different connectors led onto three different paths. “We go left,” Seila commanded. No one objected, since at the moment one path was as good as the other.
As they approached the connector, Ares thought it looked like a massive iron pillar, flattened at the top for ease of transition. What was not-so-easy, was the reality of the deep chasm beneath while they began crossing. A slight wind stirred from the depths, tugging ever so slightly at them.
Ares thought it would have been a good idea to tie the group together, although he also saw the possibility of it being a huge disaster. The only way it would work, was if they had rope long enough for only one or two to cross at a time, leaving the rest ready to catch those who fell down.
As it was, he was possibly the only one who could save those who fell. His whip was at most five meters long, though, leaving little room for error.
As the vanguard, Ares crossed first, taking care not to look down… much. In the end he could not resist a peek, and felt lucky he had no instinctual reaction to the deep abyss below. Instead he was reminded of a rather unpleasant memory – two unpleasant memories, in fact. He did not want to take another fall like that.
He made it across whole, and the group followed quickly after. Just as Saber ran across with feline grace, a slight rumble turned their attention on their surroundings. Rocks flew up into the air, as shadows emerged from dark tunnels.
It looked like salamanders, or just plain lizards, in giant form. Their scaly skin was emblazoned in colors of orange and red, making them look as if they were on fire. Ares immediately opened fire upon them. The blaster burned holes through their bodies, and he felled about three in an instant, but there were a dozen out already, and more coming from beneath the surface.
Izzy’s Little Eye rolled across the ground, slicing into the lizards who attempted to catch the little ball. Meanwhile, Saber flitted in between them, cutting left and right with his short swords. Cedwin had his daggers out, while Seila was throwing small fireballs around. In short, no matter the amount of lizards, they were simply not a challenge to their party at this point.
Ares decided not to waste a lot of ammunition on these creatures, seeing how weak they were, and instead elected to train his [Edge] mastery. At this point, the mastery was approaching 90%, and he wanted to see what kind of upgrade the skill would get.
With his legs, he cut up another wave of lizards, completely devastating the enemy at the front. In another few minutes it was over, and the group stopped to marvel at their handiwork.
“Whoa,” Izzy said, picking up something from within the lizards, “These things have actual cores. No wonder the Hyemend dungeon is so popular, with creatures at this level already having cores…”
“Of course my family’s Hyemend Dungeon is impressive,” said Seila and stuck up her nose. Ares picked up a core of his own and studied it.
‘Orca, can you tell me what this is?’
“Of course, Master! It’s a solidified core of pure lifeforce! You won’t find that anywhere on the surface; only the Makers knew how to breed creatures which could form these cores.”
He felt a strangely familiar sense from the cores, and soon realized that these were very similar to the cores he had sensed within the kertal on Earth. Of course, that was also the technology of these ‘Makers’, but the fact that the Makers bred for this kind of core made it seem as if the same was true about the kertal.
He crushed one, feeling the same kind of rush he had felt on the other side. His lifeforce gauge went up as well. Killing the creatures had granted a little bit of lifeforce, but drawing upon it from a single core had been that much more potent.
“This was just the beginning. Let’s move on and see if we can’t find more challenges.”
As they continued, they were assailed one more time by the lizards, with no difference in result. They only gathered up the cores, and left the corpses to rot. Apparently, this was proper protocol.
They encountered another connector and crossed it, stepping onto a new path with a lot more stalactites in particular. They only just managed to cross, when a rumble caused the earth to shake, and the group gathered together. After a short wait, they noticed how the connector was moving, cutting off their way back and leaving them stranded upon their chosen rock. The move took only a short time, considering how heavy the connector would have to be.
“Well, then we can only move forward,” Seila said, her tone confident. Only Ares knew the undercurrent of nerves the mistress felt at the moment, and only because of their lifelink. They kept walking, as the stony forest around began to close in.
The path forward was still clear, but the many shadows between the stalagmites and stalactites grew deeper and deeper. Ares began increasingly to suspect something was wrong the closer he got to inspect the stones. Drawing on his Earth-knowledge, these stones should have formed by water dripping down and leaving small amounts of chalk behind to form the pillars.
However, there was no sign of water dripping anywhere. The whole place was as dry as an arid plain, and as they continued walking Ares felt it getting slowly hotter. Without water, how had these formed?
He got a partial answer moments later, when stalactites cracked and began falling from the ceiling. However, rather than falling straight down, these were clearly aiming for the party.
Unfurling his whip, Ares deflected the first few attacks. The next instant, though, the spikes on the ground began turning on them and shooting up, as if they had rockets strapped to their bottom. The whole area soon became a shooting gallery of descending and ascending spikes, and Ares had a hard time defending against it.
“Group together!” Izzy called, and threw something on the ground. In an instant, a kinetic barrier erupted around them, and the spikes began harmlessly hitting the shield. “It won’t hold for long,” the gnome said apologetically, “But it’ll buy us some time.”
“What the blazes is going on?” Cedwin called, flinching as a spike hammered into the barrier inches from his pristine face.
“These are obviously not natural occurrences,” said Alai, studying the spikes as they flew at them from everywhere, “I think all of these rocky spikes are formed by the dungeon as a defensive measure.”
“If so, we’re completely surrounded,” Seila said, furrowing her brow, “I’m not sure we can make it if we just run. How long have we got, Izzy?”
“A few minutes, three at most, My Lady,” said Izzy, her wide eyes darting back and forth in wonder.
“Can you move the barrier?”
“I’m sorry, but no. This is a one-use item that Master made me, and they’re completely stationary. I’ve got two more, but I’m not sure how much it helps.”
“I might be enough. Construct, you will have to defend us as we run. Izzy, when you see the construct is no longer able to keep up protecting us, you’ll have to lay down another barrier and give us a rest, clear?”
The little gnome nodded, and Ares distinctly noticed his mistress not looking to him to see if he was prepared. Perhaps it was a kind of trust? He did not count on it though.
His own defenses against these kinds of attacks were nearly impenetrable. He had a constant kinetic barrier surrounding him, and could probably get out of this without a scratch. The others, though…
He prepared himself mentally, then nodded to Izzy. The little gnome raised up for fingers, then counted down.
Four. Three. Two. One…
As the barrier spluttered and collapsed, Ares unleashed his whip, aided with a subroutine for blocking. As the group began running, he had only to notice the spikes coming at them, and the whip had already gone into action. When there were more than one coming at a time, he had to use his body to defend, but the spikes did no damage as long as his shield held.
Kicking, whipping, and slapping flying spikes away, Ares defended the group as they ran. Though he was secure, he soon found himself drawing more and more heavily on the lifelink, which became apparent as his mistress began stumbling.
“Seila! We need to stop. Izzy, throw down another barrier!” Alai called, and Izzy did as she was told. The barrier went up in an instant, and Seila fell upon her knees, gasping.
“Use… use the energy more sparingly, dammit,” she gasped, staring daggers at Ares. He, in turn, furrowed his brow. He did not feel like he was using up too much energy, and yet she was already like this? Carefully he probed at the lifelink, and to his surprise he found that Seila was almost completely void of lifeforce.
‘Orca, what’s going on? She has not really spent that much lifeforce today, has she?’
“I think the elf has been overtaxing herself, master. You did force massive drains upon her, especially the first time you went into the training ground. She’s pretty powerful, but after using mana like this three days in a row, I think the backlash has completely exhausted her.”
‘Why would she keep it up, then? Why not take a day of rest?’
Orca was silent, and Ares understood why. They were here because war was brewing, and in war there was no place for weakness. He could read it in her face now, just as he could sense her cold determination through their bond.
Damn… She’s just being unreasonable now.
“Less energy,” he agreed, then looked at the others, “less defence. Prepare.” Everyone nodded as Izzy began counting down again.
Four. Three. Two. One…
They ran. Ares pulled the whip back in, and began only using his body to defend with. He could keep this up for a lot longer without draining too much energy. The downside was that he could no longer defend the entire group with his limited reach. As the spikes flew at them from all sides, the others had to use their own methods to deflect the attacks.
Saber was quick enough to intercept with his swords, although the rocks caused massive chipping to the blades. Cedwin, however, had to rely on a circular shield that he had unfurled from his right bracer. Izzy’s small size meant few spikes targeted her, but she used her monkey wrench to defend against the few that did. Alai extended her hand, from whence a transculescent, blue barrier protected her and the staggering Seila. Though it protected them, Ares noticed how Alai had to gulp down some kind of potion every minute to keep up the strain.
Kindon was the only one, aside from Ares, who looked not to mind the rain of stone. Whenever a stone came at him, a green pentagon appeared at the exact point of contact, shattering the spike.
It was still too much, though. Ares could feel his mistress growing weaker, despite the stubborn willpower she projected through their bond. If it continued like that, he knew she would run dry. Although he did not know how bad that would be, he presumed it would be less than ideal.
“Break,” he called, but Seila overruled him. “No! There’s a safezone up ahead. We keep going!” Izzy had raised her hand, ready to deploy the barrier, looking from Ares to Seila with uncertainty. Ares gritted his teeth and slowed to turn off his barrier in order to preserve as much energy as he could.
The instant he did, the damage from the spikes suddenly became very real. Seila was right, though, an area of white tiles was just ahead, which clearly looked like a safezone. If they could make it there, the attacks would presumably stop.
Seila stumbled. Alai tried to catch her, but Ares was faster. He was not entirely sure what was currently driving him, but he felt somewhat… culpable for her situation. Scooping the girl up in his arms, he disregarded the spikes completely and ran at full speed forward.
He heard the sounds of spikes biting into his back more than he felt them. The pain was nothing, not compared to the steely determination that pulsed through him from the lifelink.
“Put.. Put me down,” the little girl in his arms said. Her voice was weak, and yet it rumbled through his head like thunder. If she had used a command, he would have disobeyed her right then and there, severed the lifelink without a second thought, and damn the consequences. Wherever this ‘protector’s instinct’ came from, it felt more right than anything he had ever felt before in this body. Even the red-hot anger was merely an affectation in the face of the sense of responsibility that drove him forward.
A spike caught him in the leg. He kept running. Another in his shoulder. He kept running. A third in his hip. He kept running. A fourth. Run. A fifth. Run… A sixth. Run…!