□ 【Paladin】 Ray Starling
Right now, I was walking around inside the ＜Gravestone Labyrinth＞ with Nemesis in one hand, her sobs making her look like a cursed weapon. Since our first fight, we had already defeated twelve 【Zombies】, thirty 【Skeletons】 and even five of the monster called 【Haunted Spirit】. With all that EXP, I had leveled up twice and now I was on level 7, with my HP already exceeding the 1000 mark.
『Rotten flesh is all… the maggots are…』
My battle with the 【Zombies】 was worthy of a splatter film, and apparently its toll on Nemesis’ SAN points was too big. The saving grace of it was that the amount of EXP given by them was bigger than the 【Skeleton’s】, coupled with the higher encounter rate of the bone monsters. Oh, and best of all, it was great that the item drops were the only things that remained from those monsters after they were defeated; otherwise, Nemesis and my equipment would undoubtedly be in a terrible state right now, covered in pieces of flesh and body fluids.
『Uugh, to think you had this sadistic side to your personality…』
“Hey, I didn’t do it because of ‘sadism’. It’s just that it was something necessary.”
『…What about all those full swings? They felt weirdly “numerous”, you know…?』
“Don’t mind it.”
Probably because they were undead, their body structure was very frail and with just a blow from Nemesis they splendidly broke into tiny little pieces. Even considering all the gore it caused, you could say that a full swing from a long sword was a pretty effective attack. It also felt really refreshing, like playing some kind of western game.
By the way, compared to the 【Zombie’s】 groans, Nemesis’ screams when pieces of the monster’s flesh clung to her were much, much higher; along the way, I grew accustomed to them and treated those shrieks as mere BGM. Hm, maybe I got a little high on doing the role of a “main character from a zombie game”.
“Oh, I ended up using half of the 【Gems】 I had prepared in the fights against those monsters from the 【Spirit】 class.”
I could deal with 【Zombies】 and 【Skeletons】 on my own, but 【Spirits】 were a different story. With floating souls and ghost monsters as examples from that class, it had the special trait of being completely immune to physical attacks. In addition, instead of affecting our HP, their attacks caused abnormal status effects on the player, decreasing our MP and SP.
Essentially, I had the worst compatibility when going against them.
I hadn’t learned any kind of magical attack skill, so I couldn’t do anything. In theory, the skill 《Vengeance is Mine》 could affect their phantasmal bodies, but it wouldn’t work since that ability only returned the damage done to my HP in double—the damage to my MP and SP wasn’t covered by it. Incidentally, I mentioned “in theory” simply because I still wasn’t able to test the skill against them. Obviously, since 《Vengeance is Mine》 was one of Nemesis’ characteristic skills, the strategy sites didn’t have any information about it. It seemed like they only had the general outline about ＜Embryos＞.
After I had read in the wikis that 【Spirit】 monsters appeared in the ＜Gravestone Labyrinth＞, I instantly knew that I had to take measures against them. That was why, before coming here, I purchased some items that could combat those monsters.
Often seen in other games too, they were single-use items that allowed the player to launch magical attacks. And the item that was usually prepared to fight against 【Spirits】 was one that released, on use, a spear of light with the holy attribute. They had an instant effect on 【Spirit】 monsters, with the ones from this floor dying in one hit.
Named 【Gem – 《White Lance》】, this crystal-shaped, small item was sold at stores for 1000 lirs a piece. Come to think of it, spending about 10,000 yen for a single attack might have been pretty expensive, but I still bought 10 units of that item; maybe the amount I had spent with the 【Permit】 dulled my senses when it came to money.
Up until now I had used five 【Gems】 in my dungeon exploration: only half of the initial ten remained. If I were to take into consideration the trip back to the entrance, it was about time I returned.
『I wonder how much we will be able to make from all the items that dropped…』
That was exactly the problem.
I didn’t expect to get the money I had lost from buying the 【Permit】, but I wanted to at least get enough to pay for the 【Gems】. Otherwise, it would be harder to continue leveling up here since the funds from the 【Full Body Armor】 would eventually run out. The 【Zombie】 and 【Skeleton】 kind of monsters did indeed drop some loot, but they didn’t seem to be worth much in the market: there were items like ragged clothes and bone fragments—things that made you wonder just what use would they have for anyone.
Even the items that undead monsters typically used as equipment… weren’t included, sadly. The 【Zombies】 and 【Skeletons】 from this floor only had clothes with them, they didn’t hold any weapons. If there were animal monsters here, then they would at least leave something that could be sold, like their pelt or fangs, for example… but well, I couldn’t do anything about it, anyway.
“Let’s try exploring it just a little bit more. I still didn’t find the stairs to the next floor.”
Maybe we could even discover a treasure chest along the way; this place was a dungeon but I hadn’t found a single one of those yet.
『Got it…… ah, by the way, Master.』
『When we return, I will have you clean me just as you have promised.』
I see, even though she was already free from the undead’s body fluids and pieces of flesh—that automatically disappeared moments after the monster’s defeat—Nemesis still felt, in her mind, that she had to clean herself.
Five minutes later, we found it. With the same design as the one we had used at the entrance to reach this dungeon level, it was the staircase that, most probably, led to the second floor.
“If the stairs are here, I guess we’ve finally reached the end of the first floor.”
『And there is no boss here…』
“I heard they only appeared every five floors.”
The aspect of the ＜Gravestone Labyrinth＞ changed after each group of five floors.
According to the information I had gathered, from the first to the fifth floors, not only the place was a den of undead, but the boss stationed at the end of the fifth level was also an undead monster; moreover, the boss that spawned there was randomly selected out of several possible options of bosses.
After the boss was defeated, the path to the sixth floor would open and, starting there, the place would continue as a home for plant monsters.
Incidentally, the type and strength of the monsters that appeared in the dungeon continued to change according to the number of floors traveled: the 11th-15th floors had beasts, while “oni” monsters dominated the 16th-20th floors. The strategy sites only had information up to the 45th floor, and apparently dragon class monsters appeared there. Since the boss of that floor as extraordinarily powerful, it hadn’t been defeated yet, so the area beyond it was called “untrodden land” by the players.
Well, it might’ve been called “untrodden”, but strictly speaking, we simply knew that, among the ones who contributed to the wikis or handled the strategy sites, no one had managed to beat the boss from that level. Maybe there are even those who decided to withhold information about the 46th floor and beyond just to keep that advantage to themselves.
Anyway, it was useless to think about a place I had no business with.
For now, let’s stop here and return. Although the EXP gained here was just right for me, the costs were quite high. After leveling up, I would need to go deeper in the dungeon—and the 【Spirits】 there would probably survive the strike from a 【Gem】, so my expenses might increase even further.
Just how I was supposed to deal with that…
While I was lost in thought, Nemesis called out to me.
From her tone, it was a warning.
『Someone is coming up these stairs.』
Immediately, I directed my attention at the staircase.
Clunk, clunk… as I strained my ears, I could hear the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down there. Since monsters weren’t supposed to move from floor to floor, the source of those sounds was a player, I guess. Maybe it was another player who was exploring the dungeon and had decided to return too.
However, there was something wrong with those footsteps.
Usually, if one was going to explore the dungeon—instead of just leveling up in the upper floors, like me—they were supposed to come in a party.
When that thought surfaced in my mind, the heavy footsteps… suddenly stopped.
——In the next instant, “something” extended from downstairs.
It was incredibly fast. Even with my distance from the stairway, I merely managed to sense it approaching me. And when my mind processed that, it was already before my eyes. The thing that came at such an astounding speed was, without a doubt, an attack launched against me.
“ 『《Counter Absorptioonn!》』 ”
As soon as Nemesis and I finished chanting the skill’s name, the thing crashed into the wall of light that was deployed.
It was a chain.
There was a pyramid-like protuberance attached to its end, and even though I had successfully protected myself against it, the intimidation I felt from that weapon was and continued to be intense; if it weren’t for the 《Counter Absorption》 wall, I was sure that my head would’ve been pulverized.
Nemesis cried out in anguish. She had never shown that kind of reaction when she defended from the Demi-Dragwurm’s and the bullet apparition’s attacks.
In other words, this strike was… a level above the others…!
『Any, more than, that and…!』
The wall of light, that had until now blocked all attacks it received, was revealing cracks little by little…….
Right before my barrier collapsed, the chain stopped and returned downstairs. However, that could only mean one thing…
『The second attack is coming! Get ready!』
It was a preparation for the next strike.
Sensing that, I promptly jumped backwards to gain some distance.
Still, I was at a loss. I only had one more stock left for 《Counter Absorption》, so I could only defend against the next assault from the chain. After that? I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
What was I supposed to do here…!?
Nonetheless, although I was fully prepared for the subsequent strike… it never came.
There were no signs of the chain appearing from the staircase; instead, the footsteps I’d been hearing before just restarted.
『Master… which one will you choose to do?』
I already knew what Nemesis was talking about. Are you going to turn around and run away right now? Or are you going to face whoever is coming up those stairs?
From the attack that started everything, I could grasp that our difference in strength was too great, and that winning against that enemy was simply hopeless. I felt they were even stronger than the PK I had vowed to obtain my revenge against. If possible, I wanted to finish things here without fighting.
In spite of that, the possibility of the chain assaulting me the moment I turned my back to the stairs crossed my mind, so I could simply stand still, ready to use Nemesis’ skill at any moment. Then, running away wasn’t an option anymore.
Things wouldn’t end well for me, no matter the option I chose.
I could only gamble on one thing.
After finally appearing and launching their next attack, I would nullify it and return to the enemy the damage of those two strikes, doubled. Would I score a hit? Would it be enough to defeat them? I honestly had no idea, but that was my only option left. Apparently, Nemesis had resolved herself too, our thoughts and feelings matching perfectly.
Finally, the footsteps grew louder… and the person appeared from the stairs.
He was young, but seemed to be older than me by a few years. Even though his face looked pretty good, his eyes were nearly completely shut—the so-called “slit-eyes”. Moreover, that man’s greatest peculiarity was that his outfit was just weird.
Clad in some lightweight metallic armor, similar to the 【Riot】 series I was using, for some reason he also wore a hakama around his waist. Then, his feet were protected by a pair of metallic greaves, and in each hand he held three chains—like the one from just a while ago—with a ring on all of his fingers. While a hat adorned with a feather was on his head, there was a fancy, blue overcoat casually hanging off his shoulders.
When looking at each of those articles of clothing separately, they seemed completely fine, but if I were to look at the whole picture, “weird” was the only word that appeared in my mind. It sure felt like something you would often see in games, when choosing to equip items for their great effects and ending up with some crazy appearance due to the outfit combination. Oh, why I would think they were great? Simply put, even to the untrained eye, the craftsmanship of every single one of them was nothing less than splendid.
That weird guy threw a glance at me and…
“…So it was really a person.”
Sighed after saying that.
“I was 100% sure that you were some sort of random spawn boss monster and attacked! Please forgive me! I’m really sorry!”
He was bowing and apologizing to me.
The guy in weird clothing and I had decided to talk in a chamber located at the staircase, with Nemesis also joining us in her human form. Oh right, that room was secure because he had used an item that created a monster-repellent boundary around it.
From what I quickly understood by talking with him, he wasn’t a PK or whatever. And it didn’t seem to be a lie, since both his tone and attitude struck me as something only a good person would probably display.
Now, as for the reason why he attacked me…
“In other words, you mistook me for a monster, right?”
“Yeah. There are boss monsters in this dungeon that, sometimes, act without any regard to logic and reason….. I’m really sorry.”
Apparently, when he was going up the stairs he had detected my presence. Then, the second he looked at the top of those stairs, he saw a silhouette blocking the light coming from the floor. Since that figure didn’t look human, the man said, he waited for a moment to observe it and finally launched an attack.
…Well yeah, I had the black long sword Nemesis coiled around my entire right arm. I guess my silhouette would come out as inhuman in that case.
“Is it even possible for a boss to appear on the first floor?”
“The probability for one to randomly spawn grows the deeper you go in the dungeon levels, but even in the upper floors the chance isn’t really 0.”
So not only the strategy sites had missed the information about the free entry for 【Paladins】, but they also had nothing about this.
“Whew, now I’m glad I didn’t encounter any of those while I was leveling up here.”
“Leveling up? Why are you doing this here? Your Level Total is 7… while you’re a lowbie, wouldn’t it be way better to farm in the rookie’s farming grounds? Ah, you seem to be a 【Paladin】, so you came here without needing to buy a 【Permit】, I sort of get it.”
…I ended up buying one, though…
Wait, how’s he able to look at my level?
“Didn’t you know? Currently, the farming places for beginners are all being terrorized.”
“Yes, since three days ago in the game, there have been ‘terrorist’ attacks aimed at us rookies.”
“…Man, I didn’t notice that at all. I’ve been going through this dungeon for the past five days.”
And I didn’t check it on the internet, he added.
“Five entire days in this ＜Gravestone Labyrinth＞!? For what purpose!?”
“It was a little gaming marathon, you could say. I wanted to see how far I could get by doing a solo run, and was just returning from it.”
I see, it was like speedrunning a game or doing some other sort of self-imposed challenge. Going by his equipment and the attack he did a while ago, he was most likely some high level player.
“How far did you manage to get in this run?”
I asked him merely out of curiosity, and…
“Up to the 48th floor. That’s just one more than the previous run I did.”
Nonchalantly, this guy right here just mentioned a simply unbelievable number of floors.
The brave people from the strategy sites had only reached the 45th floor, in a party. And now that man had told me that he was returning alive after going through the “untrodden land” completely alone?
“Ah, my name’s Figaro. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Ray Starling and this one over here is Nemesis, my ＜Embryo＞……. ah!”
Figaro… I couldn’t recognize that name at first… but when I introduced myself, it “clicked”.
The 【Over-Gladiator】, Figaro.
That was… the name of the top ranker of the Alter Kingdom’s Duel Ranking.
“Are you… the ranker, Figaro-san?”
“Yep. I use the Arena a lot, you know.”
“Indeed, the Arena. Almost every country has one of those, with the Alter Kingdom’s Arena being located in the Dueling City of Gideon. If you duel in that kind of place, not only you won’t die even if you’re killed, but you can also earn prizes depending on the audience. It’s pretty fun.”
“What’s up with this ‘not dying even if killed’?”
“There’s a certain mechanism involving a boundary there. So you can freely perform dueling matches and entertain the audience. In addition, it’s a great spot for sightseeing and the whole city is full of energy. I recommend going there at least once.”
Although the country was on the verge of being destroyed, it seemed like there were places that still prospered without any problems by using one of humanity’s inherent desires.
“You should be able to reach Gideon as soon as you cross the mountains south of the Royal Capital… ah, that’s right. Since the rookie’s farming grounds can’t be used because of those ‘terrorists’, I guess the ＜Sauda Mountain Road＞ is also being blocked. Then, people can’t really come to the Dueling City from the Royal Capital… that’s quite troubling.”
After saying that and pausing for a moment to think…
“Alright. I’ll do something about it.”
“I still need to apologize for attacking you earlier. So I’ll try doing something about the PKs from the ＜Sauda Mountain Road＞ in the south.”
“I must ask, what are you going to do?”
I felt there was something behind his words.
“I believe it should be fine to use that place around tomorrow, so level up and then come visit the Dueling City. Usually, I’m either there or here in this dungeon.”
“Eh, ah, okay.”
“Well then, I’ll be leaving at once. Ah, please have this.”
Figaro-san took out a small jewel from his bag. It was the same kind of 【Gem】 I had been using, but its color was different—most probably a sign that the magic stored within it was also different.
“This gem allows you to use the 《Escape Gate》 magic to escape from the dungeon. I feel that today you should level up here and only leave after you’re completely spent.”
“Wha… are you really fine with it?”
“Of course. This is also part of my apology. If I had carelessly caused a beginner like you to go through the penalty for dying, it would have tarnished my name.”
“Thank you very much.”
I was really thankful. With this item, I would be able to farm monsters to the limits of my capacity without worrying about my way back.
As I thought, he seemed like a good person indeed.
“At any rate, Ray-kun and Nemesis-chan are pretty good, huh.”
“You withstood my attack, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but it was because I had a skill that could do exactly that.”
“This isn’t about the damage. I’m talking about how you didn’t back down even after I came from the stairs.”
I didn’t back down? What was he trying to say with that?
“I really like those who don’t back down. Hm, you picked my interest. After you’ve successfully leveled up, I want to try fighting you in the Arena…”
From what Figaro-san said about it, there was no penalty for dying in the Arena, so fighting him might end up being quite nice—I was also interested in the true strength of a genuine top ranker.
“Man, I’m going to enjoy it a lot. And in order to actually experience this joy in the future, I’ll do some cleaning up now.”
Saying that, he stood up.
“Well, see you later.”
“Yeah, thank you for the 【Gem】.”
With a broad and friendly smile on his face, Figaro-san waved his hand and left the room.
“Figaro, the Over-Gladiator, huh. I did not expect him to be like that.”
“Same here. When I listened to my brother talking about the war, I thought he would be someone more eccentric.”
If I wasn’t mistaken, his reason for refusing to participate in the war had been, “I’m not interested in a messy fight,” you know. That single line was enough to think of him as a somewhat arrogant individual, but taking into consideration his own personality now, I was sure that there had been some reason for Figaro-san to turn down the nation’s call to arms.
“Alright, we also have something to do here. I received this escape 【Gem】 from Figaro-san, so let’s farm monsters until we can’t anymore.”
“Aye. Compared to that person’s attack, the undead are nothing. I am not afraid of them anymore.”
Somehow, it seemed like her sense of fear had been numbed by that previous experience with Figaro-san’s strike.
Then that was just fine. I would be able to farm at a faster pace than before; one way or another, until now I had been holding myself back for Nemesis’ sake. But now I was going to bring in the gore train.
“Okay, back to farming!”
“Leave none alive!”
A few hours later, I ended up having to clean and polish a sobbing Nemesis—who had refused to return from her long sword form—until the dawn of the next day.