I opened my eyes quickly, sitting up and panting roughly. My whole body was still soaked, my clothes still wet from the seventh layer. I turned over onto my side and coughed a few times, spitting up the last of the water that stayed in me after dying. To my side, I saw Lilith lying there, unmoving.
At first, I thought she might have died from that residual water, but then she launched upwards with a gasp in the same way that I had. “Fuck!” She called out. “Why’d it have to be an ocean floor?”
I let myself cough a few more times, making sure that I had gotten it all out. “Could have been worse… if it was a lava floor, we wouldn’t have even kept our equipment.” Her face paled at that, as the implications set in.
“Right… Anyways, that should make this the eighth floor, right?” Lilith slowly pushed herself to her feet and looked around. With the moon high in the sky, it appeared to be night time. Though, this was a natural night, versus what was seen on the fifth layer. In the distance, we could even make out a small city. And, between us and the city were this layer’s monsters, which we were thankfully able to see fairly clearly.
The monsters of the eighth through tenth layers more closely resembled natural animals. In this case, wolves. Although they were a bit larger than normal wolves, they were still easily something that we could handle, now that we had everything we needed. “Well, shall we go meet the locals?” I asked with a dry smile as I got to my feet, pulling the unused longsword out of its sheath.
Lilith nodded with an absent smile, looking off into the distance as we walked forward. Before we made it half way, two of the large, white wolves noticed us and gave a howl as they charged. Thankfully, they were not able to catch us off guard like the shadow lurkers, or this could be an entirely different fight. As it stands, I was more than enough to handle them.
Now that I had a full set of equipment, I could use the Equipment Mastery skill to use the full range of movement techniques available for the light armor category. As I approached the first of the two charging wolves, my body began to sway slowly from left to right. When I came back to the left, the wolf lunged at me.
Just slightly, my body sped up, leaning further to the left while my sword arm came up in a flash, allowing me to dodge the claws of the wolf while cutting into its neck. Afterwards, I finished my spin and fell into that same slow walking stance. Behind me, I heard the loud thud of the wolf’s body crashing and sliding against the ground. This was something known as the Lazy Counter stance.
As long as I stayed moving, even just in this slow, steady rhythm, I could quickly bring my arm up to attack while the enemy tried to take advantage of me appearing off guard. Though really, I just chose it because of the name. Once the second wolf closed in, I dealt with it the same way as the first, and we continued moving as we had before. Lilith didn’t bother mentioning a single thing about the fight, which worried me a bit. But then, after we got to the town, I might not see her again.
The awkward atmosphere lasted until we reached the town, and we saw a mixed group of people walking around inside. Among them were elves, humans, even beastmen happily doing business with each other. Unlike the fifth layer, the town here did not have a strict guard, rather a single soldier on duty that allowed us entrance without even stopping us for a moment.
Once inside, I felt a small hand tugging on the back of my shirt. When I turned around, I saw Lilith, her face lowered. “I guess… this is where we part ways, huh?” She asked, not meeting my eyes.
“Well, you could stay with me if you wanted, you know?” I did my best to offer a comforting smile, but she still did not even look at me. Nonetheless, I saw her lips curve up slightly.
“Nah, I don’t think that would work out.” Finally, she lifted her head to look at me. I could tell that she didn’t want to leave, but something was stopping her from staying, as well. “Maybe I’ll see you around some day?”
I nodded, reaching out and pulling her into a tight hug. “Definitely. This is hell, after all. You really think you could get rid of me easily?” She gave a dry laugh at that, not offering another comment. She simply wrapped her arms around me, holding me for a few long moments before letting go.
Without letting me see her face, she turned around and walked off. She wasn’t moving in the direction to leave the city, so I guessed she wanted to get supplies first. Either way, it was hard to watch her walk off like that. Once she was out of sight, I shook my head slightly and began walking my own way.
For the next couple of hours, I talked with the various residents, looking for somewhere that I could find a place to live. I had the money from Drezon, so I should be able to afford my own house, or so I thought. However, there didn’t seem to be any vacancies. Rather, there were too many people here already, and not enough homes to put them all in.
As I was walking around, a woman with blonde hair and cat ears approached me. “Nya? Are you looking for something?” She asked in a cute voice, her arms behind her back.
“Uhm, yeah. I was looking for a place to stay. But, it seems like there’s not any houses up for sale around here.” I said with a somewhat bitter smile.
“Hmm…” She brought one clawed finger up to her chin. “Well… Maybe I could help? I know my way around, nya? Maybe I could help you find an inn to stay at?”
“Thanks, that’d be a huge help.” I nodded my head. “I’m Grim, what’s your name?”
“Belinda~!” She called out, abruptly turning around to lead the way. “Come on, this way!” She ran out down the street, her tail swaying behind her.
I could only chuckle slightly, moving along with her and trying to keep pace. She was a very energetic girl, and seemed friendly enough. For another hour or so, we went around and talked to various innkeepers. Although they were reserved around me, seeing Belinda seemed to ease their mood a bit. Though, that did not change the fact that there were no rooms available.
We were just on our way to the last inn in town, when I saw him. Someone who should not have possibly been here, could not possibly be here. Someone that I knew died over a year ago, before the Layers of Hell game even came out.
Sitting outside a small restaurant, holding a tin cup out in front of him to get enough money for a meal, I saw a boy in his late teens. He couldn’t have been older than seventeen, with a completely shaved head. I knew who he was, I was at his funeral. My cousin, Kevin Blake. He died of leukemia just after his sixteenth birthday. I’d never be able to forget his face.
I felt like a puppet with my strings cut when I saw him. So many things seemed to be falling into place, things I hadn’t even considered before. But first, I had to be sure. He wouldn’t recognize me as Grim Styles, but I had to make sure it was him.
“Hmm? Grim, everything alright?” I heard Belinda call out from behind me.
Slowly, with an almost mechanical step, I walked over to the man whose bed I sat beside for over a year while he went through chemo, his condition getting worse with every day. I could still remember him smiling bravely to his parents, telling them that everything would be okay, that he was just one more round from getting better. Always just one more.
“Grim?” She called again, this time her voice laced with confusion. Part of me wanted to turn around and run away, leave this town and pretend I didn’t see anything. But, my feet would only bring me closer to him.
“Hello…” I said to him, not even aware how long I had been standing there before I spoke. At some point, Belinda had walked over to stand next to me, looking curiously between me and the beggar.
He turned his eyes to look at me, those same eyes that had held such warmth in life, even when he was on his deathbed. Now, they just seemed empty, as if he had held onto the hope of a better place until the bitter end, only to wind up in this hell of endless death, where he had to beg on the side of a dirt street for enough coin to feed himself.
“Do you know him?” The catgirl next to me asked, but again I couldn’t muster up the energy to answer her.
I reached into the bag I had been given, pulling out a fistful of coins without even bothering to count them. I simply dropped them into the tin cup he had in his hands. “Can you tell me your name, kid?” I heard Belinda give a small gasp in surprise as she saw the amount of coins I had taken out.
I was hoping, praying for him to say anything except for what he did. His eyes widened when he saw the amount of coins in his cup, and it took him some time to register my question. But when he did, he confirmed my worst fears. “I-I’m Kevin, sir. Is there a problem?”
At that moment, I felt like something inside of me had broken. I couldn’t speak, and only shook my head before turning to leave. I barely heard him calling out his thanks from behind me before rushing into the store. Why… why this?
If he was here… if this was really hell… if Layers of Hell was real… I remembered back to the storyline that I had discovered, that led me to the 999th layer. If this was all real…
“Grim? Something wrong?” The words of the girl that had been showing me around town registered as I was backing away from Kevin. I couldn’t be sure what expression I was making at the time.
My mind was flashing through all of the information I had acquired in Layers of Hell, how it all had almost perfectly lined up. And, more importantly, what the rest of the information I knew meant. “Grim? Where are you going?”
I barely even heard Belinda’s voice as I turned, fleeing the scene in a mad dash. I can’t let that happen. I had almost thrown away my life and the people I cared for before coming here, but now, now they were in danger. How could I just stay here and do nothing? How could I casually live my life, knowing that everyone I knew might be subjected to that level of pain and cruelty.
So I ran. All through the town I ran, asking questions. I found the same people I had talked to earlier about finding a home, and I asked them if they had seen anyone matching Lilith’s description. It didn’t take long to learn that she had left town just a short while before. So, I ran again. This time, I left town as fast as I could in the direction she left. The landscape here was fairly flat, so I was able to see her shortly after I left the walls of the town.