But my grip on my sword is still tight as ever. It's a death grip on the only thing keeping me from death. And when I look up, it appears everything I did was exactly as planned--
The snarl-hound splits in half at the torso and falls to the ground in two pieces.
It takes me a minute to catch my breath before I can finally drop my sword and let out a massive sigh.
A familiar ding goes off. Another Destiny Point in the bank.
I look around me and see the battle dying down. The other snarl-hounds are being chased away, while the necromancer's horde has mostly been vanquished. Borguk is still tangling with a skeleton mauler, but Malia has already lowered her bow and the others have similarly relaxed.
Malia herself rushes over to me and withdraws a healing potion from her inventory, but I push it away before she can pour it on me.
"I'm alright," I say. "I've still got eight thousand LP."
She looks at me with those hazy elven eyes, some mixture of sadness and relief, and helps me back on my feet. "I'm glad you're okay, Eryk," she says.
I pick my sword back up and poof it back into my third inventory slot. I won't be needing that the rest of the day. Hopefully.
The battle ends the moment the necromancer's body fades into ashes... and the moment the smell of his flesh hits my nose.
"Dear Goddess," I mutter. "Couldn't you warn us before you do that?"
Our impish former Demon Queen, Miss M, giggles like a farm girl. "It would not be an iota as fun if I did not have an element of pain to inflict on all around me."
"Why do we keep her around...?" Thalia still over to the side of the arena reading from her spell book, asks.
I shrug. "She did kill the necromancer. Didn't you, Miss M?" I lean down and pinch her on the cheek. She bites my hand.
That actually cost me 3 LP. That actually physically hurt me enough to drain my Life Points.
I guess I've learned never to tease a demon queen, even if she's three feet tall at the moment...
Well, it doesn't take long for us to wrap things up here in the dungeon arena. Borguk loots through the dead bodies for scraps to sell, while Thalia seals the mana traps off. Malia and I discuss how things went, while Miss M tries to butt in on our conversation at any given moment.
It's been a great life for me here with Team Fanghook. Two years spent with my four teammates, traveling the Great Continents and raiding any dungeon that looks promising. We've fought pirates, captured giant beasts, settled political disputes... It's all been a really fun time.
Really fun, but... Why am I still here?
Not "here" as in this necromancer's lair. Team Fanghook came here to assassinate the resident rogue mage who has been causing a ruckus in the nearby towns with his skeleton hordes, and by the looks of the arena here, we did a pretty bang-up job.
"Here" as in, why am I still such a lowly member of the Adventurer's Guild, working on minor cases of mercenary action as a D-Rank [Adventurer], instead of performing true heroism to save the world?
Seemingly sensing my thoughts just through my expression, Malia puts a hand on my shoulder and gives me another one of those trademark mixed expressions. "You did a good job today," she reassures.
"I literally fell on my ass," I say.
"You're getting better every day. What's your level now?"
"You'll rank up in no time," Malia says. She lets go of my shoulder and poofs out a large, overfilled rucksack from her inventory. "Help me set up camp, will you?"
"We're not leaving to collect the bounty?"
Malia keeps her smile, but her pointed ears droop ever so slightly. "Let's let Borguk tell us about it later."
I look over to Borguk, still wrestling his meaty green arms all over every single downed skeleton in the lair. Then I look back at Malia. "Alright."
With a campfire started and the tents set up, Team Fanghook takes a short rest deep in the necromancer's dungeon lair.
Borguk, never one to waste an opportunity for his old [Chef] class abilities to shine, is cooking the remains of each and every slain snarl-hound. I've never really considered chowing down on a ravenous oversized wolf beast before, but it turns out snarl-hounds are a fairly decent meal when you need it to be. It is not too far from venison.
Malia sits down next to me with a whole chunk of meat on a stick in her hand. She scoots up close to me and brushes her hip against mine. Elves can come across cold, they say, but Malia's got little but warmth, in my experience. I scoot even closer in return, so now our shoulders rub up against each other.
Off to the side in our smallest tent, Miss M snores loudly. Poor girl's got to go to sleep early. She tires very easily, even if she's supposedly a three thousand year old demon queen--imp bodies have a very fast metabolism.
Borguk finishes roasting a snarl-hound torso and takes the whole thing himself. He sits down next to Thalia (who is still reading her spell book rather than eating) and bites in. It does appear he is eating the entire thing himself. That would have shocked me just two years ago. But then again, we don't have orcs where I'm from.
"So, Borguk," I say. "I liked the way you clobbered that Mawstopper earlier. Is that a new technique?"
He flashes a grin with his meat-filled teeth, and proceeds to say, "Hells yeah it is. I call it the 'Clean Kick Stomp.'"
"Perhaps you should reconsider the name," I say.
Malia's silent thanks to chewing through a chunk of snarl-hound, but I can tell she wants to say something. She looks at me like I should know what--ah, yes.
I turn again to Borguk and ask, "So, you have some explanation for why we're not returning to town yet?"
He trades glances with Malia, and then with Thalia, who manages to lift her gaze from the page just long enough to shift her glasses and stare at me.
"Eryk," Borguk begins. "We've found clues that this lair goes deeper than this floor. Even deeper than anywhere we've been since Team Fanghook was founded."
"We're already sixteen floors deep..."
"Exactly." He finishes his bite of snarl-hound and places the meat to the side. "We think this lair has a dragon at the bottom. A Maw Dragon, to be precise."
He continues. "We don't know any of this for sure, but if find some secret door on this floor, we're going to keep going all the way to the bottom. And..."
Malia swallows and puts her hand on my lap, like she's trying to win me over for something. "You've been really great on our team, Eryk. Truly."
"If we find a secret door and descend further in the lair," Borgurk says, "We want you to return to town without us. Take all the loot and cash in our quest with the guild authorities."
"It's a group decision," Malia says. "You're a valuable ally, but you're still a D-rank [Adventurer.] You don't have the skills or abilities we need to fight a Maw Dragon. You'll just get yourself hurt, and we can't have that."
"But... we're Team Fanghook!" I exclaim. "We don't split the party. We know never to split the party."
"We can't let a Maw Dragon roam free, if it exists," Bogurk says, "But we can't let you anywhere near a monster that dangerous. There will be no further discussion."
I try to respond--
But nothing comes out.
The words don't find themselves.
I sit by the campfire and continue to eat. The rest of the team chats idly about battle strategy and Thalia trades barbs with a newly-awake Miss M, but I remain silent for the rest of the evening.
Malia lays her head against me and runs her fingers through my chest hair. I hold her bare back in my arms and feel her steady breaths.
With the fire doused, the lair has already gotten quite cold. The blankets are barely enough to tide us over--our shared body heat must do the rest.
"How many Destiny Points do you have now, Eryk?" Malia asks me.
"Let me check." With Malia's beautiful face in my view, I pull up the HUD to my system interface and find the DP icon at the top right corner of my line of sight. "Twenty."
"Five away from a level-up," she says. "Isn't that nice?"
"Unless I spend the DP on more card pulls."
"You and your card hunting... You know, you'd be a B-rank by now if you just spent your DP more wisely."
"I'd be the weakest B-rank [Adventurer] North Spire ever produced, that's for sure," I say. I pull up my stat sheet and look at my current stats:
"Do you think someone who spends their Destiny Points badly would have a [Power] stat of 46? Do you?"
Malia laughs. "I just don't understand that... How in the Goddess's name could you have gotten such a stupidly lopsided skill chart?"
"I'm still at 5 for my [Speed] stat, even after two whole years..."
"Well, don't worry about that," Malia says. "I joined the system sixty-eight years ago. It took until six years ago for my [Charm] stat to pass 20. Some people grow differently. And after Rank C, things really speed up. You'll be fine."
"How... old are you, again?" I ask. "Is that a rude question?"
"For humans, perhaps." Malia raises her head from my chest and kisses my cheek. "I am one hundred and three. That puts me at about forty in your human lifespan, doesn't it?"
"I was never good at math."
"No, you pink-haired fools never are. You just know all about eating strange roots and farming on giant rocks."
"You have summed up the North Spire better than I ever could have..."
Malia and I lay together for a while longer before we fall asleep.
We never broach the topic of my returning to town. We don't want to get into a fight in the middle of a quest.
The sun hits my eyes for the first time in a day and a half, and for a moment I truly think I've gone blind this time. What a painful sensation!
Well, I've escaped the necromancer's lair.
The others found a secret door, indeed. From Thalia's best estimates, there are thirty-six sub-floors to this dungeon, and the chances of a Maw Dragon are close to a hundred percent.
Without any further argument, I took our loot and returned to the surface. It's all I'm good for so far, I guess.
I've killed more monsters, felled more goblins, pacified more barbarian camps than any kid from North Spire ever could have hoped to do, but I'm still a D-rank [Adventurer] with weak stats. I'm still not good enough.
When the Slayers attacked North Spire all those years ago, I swore to myself, to the Goddess herself, that I would avenge my friends and neighbors who died that day. I would become the strongest hero that the Mystix had ever seen. The first S-Rank hero in a millennium.
The day I accepted the system and began to level up, I started on that journey.
And I'm still in that journey's prologue, I think...
I walk back to town--not sure what the town is called, just that it's the ones that hired us out for this necromancer mission--and return the necromancer's soul gem to the Adventurer's Guild branch office.
"Quest cleared," the secretary says. "But where's your friends?"
"They're going deeper into the lair. They think there could be more, um, treasure." I'm not sure if they'd like to keep it a secret that there is probably a Maw Dragon at the bottom, in case word leaks and a whole war party descends to try and farm DP off the battle. Treasure isn't too good of a lie, though, either...
"Alright, then. Have a nice day here in Bellatrix. The weather is great today."
Bellatrix. So that's the name of the town.
I exit the Adventurer's Guild branch office and start looking for some food. The southern peninsula here is known for their excellent noodles, but we've been fighting so much since we got here that I've hardly gotten a chance to stop and eat some.
The town of Bellatrix is more bustling than I'd expect for a place terrorized by a necromancer for several consecutive months. We only just killed the damn guy, so I don't expect they should all know about it just yet. They sure are living a peaceful life like this.
Peaceful, and very busy. Several carriages stroll down the main road, and children play precariously close to them. I'd rather they not. I want to get noodles, not risk my neck scolding a bunch of dumb kids before their parents come to yell at me.
But first, if I already have the quest reward on me...
I enter the local equipment store. The door jingles as I enter, and a middle aged woman pops her head from behind an aisle to greet me. "Well, how do you--Oh, my."
The woman comes up next to me and stares at me like I'm a carnival exhibit. "Pink hair, pink eyes... My Goddess, you're a North Spiran."
Her face goes so bright that I'd say her skin has turned from dark brown to full-on candy red. "A North Spiran, all the way in Bellatrix. Why I never."
"Yes, I'm part of the Adventurer's Guild," I say. "Team Fanghook. We've killed your necromancer."
"That's just delightful," she says. "You know, I knew a girl from North Spire, a long time ago. She and I... Oh, boy, she and I. You don't get much like that in your life."
"Is it true, about you folk?"
"That all those haven roots you eat turn your hair and eyes pink?"
"No, that's not true. Haven roots are pink, and we farm haven roots, and we happen to be pink, but it's a coincidence, really. We had a big study from a mage's college once to test it out. No correlation. The roots are just normal roots, and our hair just normal hair."
The number of times I've had to tell people that is... I lost count a year ago. Their reactions never change. Hokey farmers with low intelligence, strange music, commendable bedroom abilities, and most of all, pink hair. That just about sums my entire people up if you want to make a terrible stereotype out of us.
And the woman doesn't seem to have understood what I told her, anyway.
I sigh, but try to carry on. "Um, ma'am, I wanted to see about your swords. Do you have many in stock?"
She switches into business mode quickly. "Of course, of course. What are you looking for?"
I poof out my current sword from my inventory slot and show her. "This one's a bit too heavy for me. I'm looking for something smaller and lighter." Anything that will prevent me from falling on my ass when I swing really hard is good to me. I don't say that to her.
"Ah, you want to trade that in for a nice short sword?"
"Not a short sword, just a... shorter sword. Er. Yeah."
The woman gives me that look people always give North Spirans. I hate this.
So after some haggling, trading in some of the loot I was carrying, and trying out several weapons, I found a new sword to help me in my adventures.
I probably could have gotten rid of the sword outright and left my third inventory slot open for something else. In fact, Malia always tells me that three inventory slots is a mighty big overkill for a D-rank [Adventurer,] since it leaves me with just four open card slots at any given time. But I like the extra security. One slot for my bow and arrows. One slot for my rucksack, currently filled with monster loot. And one slot for my trusty, or soon-to-be-trusty, new sword.
Now time for some noodles.
I take a look around the city square. This town is small, but it is very compact, and so anything of note should surely be in a close walking distance. There don't appear to be any noodle shops in the near vicinity, but I'm confident I'll find one soon.
Though, if this keeps up, I may not find anything until after the others have killed the Maw Dragon and come back up to meet me.
I wonder what floor they're on by now. Sub-floor twenty-five? Twenty-eight? I hope they're doing okay without me. Even if I'm only a D-Rank hero, I still have the--
Loud, shrill shrieks.
I turn to see what the commotion is, and it's three children, no older than six or seven, playing in the middle of the road and tossing wooden balls back and forth. Oh, children, why do you have to shriek all the time? I thought you were in danger from--
My senses lock up for a brief moment as I hear the growing sound of hooves against dirt. I look ahead in the road.
A carriage stampeding its way through town.
Right in this direction.
Right in the path of these idiot kids.
Only five, ten seconds before it reaches here.
Without thinking, I activate my skill card [Blinding Rush.]
I zoom ahead, grab the kids, and literally push them onto the ground, out of the road.
But I'm not fast enough for me. They're safe, and I'm not.
The carriage is right in front of me, and--
The last thing I see is the sky.
Wow. The weather really is beautiful today. I hope Malia and the others can see it. Because I can't see anything anymore.