As Miria was running alongside the main, completely empty road, Umbra’s voice echoed in everyone’s heads.
~I’ve reached the first signs of battle. There are monsters everywhere.~
“Shit. Selene, hold me just in case. Umbra, I’m joining you.”
Without waiting for confirmation, Asterios started deepening their connection at the same time as Umbra did. After a second, their minds were almost in perfect sync, thanks to Umbra being quite skilled and experienced in that field.
Asterios instantly focused on completely fusing their vision and looked through Umbra’s eyes. It took him a moment to get accustomed to the weird, wide perspective and the constant jumps into and out of the darkness but he managed to control his urges to break the connection. What he saw confused him greatly.
A lot of monsters could be spotted in the part of the forest where Umbra was currently located, but the weird thing was the fact that there were no people around. Yet, the place couldn't be called anything other than a battlefield.
Monsters fought monsters. Beasts fought beasts. And monsters fought beasts. No person of a humanoid race was involved in any of the bouts. Urged by Asterios, Umbra swiftly moved from spot to spot but didn’t find anyone. It was just monsters.
~Is this normal in this realm?~ Umbra asked.
~Definitely not. Quickly, head for the town.~
While Asterios was thinking over the completely out-of-place situation, Umbra arrived in front of the wooden walls erected around Nebula. The gates were closed and they could spot people standing on top of them, holding spears, bows, magical staves, and other weapons, clearly ready for battle.
Yet, all of them looked utterly confused as much as they were scared. The people up there weren’t doing anything else besides staring at the spectacle unfolding below. In front of their eyes, in front of their gate, a small army of monsters was decimating itself, not even bothering to glance towards the human settlement.
Noticing a few arrows and charred spots over the battlefield, Asterios understood that whoever was in charge of defenses had made the correct call and stopped everyone from mindlessly attacking the monsters. Since they did not show any intentions of storming the town, it was best not to unnecessarily draw attention to the settlement, letting the monsters duke it out between themselves, for whatever reason.
Confirming that there was no immediate danger that required their quick intervention, Asterios asked Miria to slow down while he still observed the battle through Umbra’s eyes.
Without having to worry about potential casualties, for now, he was able to notice some patterns in the monsters’ behavior, even though it still all looked like one huge chaotic conflict.
Amongst the fighting creatures, he spotted monsters of the undead type. It was mostly Skeletons, Ghouls, Zombies, and various variants of these, ranging from humanoids to beasts. They were clearly on the same team.
After noticing that fact and observing the undead for a bit longer, Asterios came to the conclusion that there were more than two sides in this struggle.
It took him a moment to define the other ones besides the undead as they weren’t as distinctive, but in the end, he was almost sure that three groups fought in this battle—the undead, monsters and beasts that could be categorized as having reptile-like features, and monsters and beasts of the amphibious type.
All three types fought against each other, without consideration for anyone besides their own kind. Clearly, no alliances existed in this war.
The moment the word war appeared in Ast’s mind, he instantly recalled reading about such occurrences when he had been studying dungeons. He stopped looking through Umbra’s eyes and asked him to return.
“Miria, stop for now. We shouldn’t get any closer,” he ordered shortly after regaining his full capabilities.
She slowly came to a halt, letting the duo riding on her back jump off, and morphed into her humanoid form.
“What’s wrong, Master? We were almost there. The stench of blood is getting heavy,” she asked, slightly confused.
“Isn’t there anything weird about it?”
After hearing his question, Miria focused on her sense of smell and started sniffing the air around them with her eyes closed. Not even a few seconds had passed before they shot open in realization.
“There’s… only monster blood?”
She gave him a confused stare.
“I’ll explain in a moment. First, Umbra, get in touch with Guildmaster Suanori and let her know about the situation, including my thoughts and observations. Technically, there’s no immediate danger for Nebula, but she better starts preparing the paperwork. I will contact her after confirming some things.”
Umbra nodded his beak and disappeared into nothingness. Asterios then turned to the girls and sighed heavily. They all broadened their connection with each other and he shared with them some of the images.
“What we are looking at here is called a Dungeon War. I have no idea if we should call ourselves lucky or unlucky to show up in the middle of such a situation.”
“Dungeon War?” Selene glanced at him curiously.
“Guildmaster Suanori mentioned that Nebula is in the vicinity of three dungeons, remember? That also means that the dungeons are close to each other. And, as we all know, dungeons expand, especially underground. Then, what happens when they run into each other down there?”
“Oh! I know! They are going to fight for the territory and the resources, right?” Miria beamed a smile at him, sure that she was correct.
“Yes, that’s right.” Asterios petted her ears with a smile too. “Dungeons rarely can coexist together. They are often way too different for that to happen. And the Dungeon Cores are too greedy to share, usually.”
“That’s awfully similar to us. There have been wars between neighboring countries since the dawn of time,” Selene commented.
“That’s natural. It’s all driven by the same, primal principle—the desire to conquer for oneself. Even beasts create their own territories or hoard game.”
“But, what now, Master? Are we going to just wait until this war is over and then sail to the Demon Continent?” Miria tilted her head.
“There’s no guarantee that Nebula won’t be pulled into it at some point. Judging by the monsters that the dungeons have sent out, we are in the initial phase, the first bout. That would align with the fact that nothing like this was reported before, and it’s not really possible that a few battles took place while we were on our way here. Each side needs to recover like everyone else.”
“Then?” Selene raised a brow at him.
Asterios sighed. “I can’t really just close my eyes and walk away while knowing all of this is happening. And we are here on a mission from the guild anyway.”
“We can take advantage of this and get more monster cores for you, no?” Miria suggested.
“I would rather not poke a stick into this anthill and disrupt this chaos. But, we could take them from the monsters after the fight is over since the dungeons can’t absorb the remains outside of their domain,” Asterios pondered out loud. “Anyway, we shouldn’t involve ourselves in this battle and head to the town to observe it with the people in case something happens. Then, we should question the local Adventurer’s Guild about this. Dungeon Wars don’t just start overnight.”
The two nodded at him and noticed Umbra flying out of Ast’s shadow, perching on his shoulder.
~I bear a message from the guildmaster.~
~I give you my full authority to investigate this. Things like these don’t happen overnight. I’ll wait until midnight before submitting a mobilization request based on what you’ve told me so far,~ Umbra mimicked Suanori's voice.
Asterios smiled hearing his own words coming from the guildmaster.
~Also, if there’s a next time, please warn me about your familiar having the voice of an ancient archevil beforehand. I broke one of my favorite cups.~
He sighed again. “You are doing that on purpose.”
The shadowy raven sitting on his shoulder started tilting and moving its head like any normal, clueless bird, making Asterios roll his eyes. He definitely enjoyed messing with people.
“Alright. Let’s move on. We need a way to get to the town without having to run through all of these monsters.”
“But that would have been a great exercise…” Miria complained gloomily.
“We can just move above them,” Selene suggested with a mischievous grin, making eye contact with Asterios.
“Hm? Oh, gods, not again. Umbra, any chances that you can change sizes and let me ride you somehow?”
“Why must you hurt me this way, my Lord? Don’t you enjoy the feeling of your body rubbing against mine while I look at you from above, panting heavily as I move to the limits of my own endurance?” Selene stepped closer and ran her finger over Ast's chest.
A moment later, the figure of a woman with white hair could be spotted in the air, making her way through the sky by running over light blue platforms appearing under her feet while carrying a man in her arms. A proud smile of a victor adorned her lips while the passenger could only sigh at his fate.
Making use of their position, Asterios watched the unfolding battle from above as they slowly closed onto the port town of Nebula. Miria jumped back to her realm to wait for their arrival while Umbra flew by Selene’s side.
Around twenty minutes later, the guards on the walls noticed something weird heading their way, exactly at the height of their stations. They readied their bows, spears, and spells while calling for their leader.
How great was their surprise when the unidentified object got close enough for them to recognize the figure of a person carrying another, who was waving at them frantically. Ordered to stand down, they watched how a beautiful woman brought someone over the walls by running over semi-transparent platforms, not sure if they were stunned by her beauty or the hilarity of the situation.
They made some space for them to land on top of the gate and a man with short dark brown hair and beard, wearing studded armor and with a halberd in his hand, approached them. Most of his hair was covered by a yellow bandana with a metal plate that had a constellation of stars engraved on it. Asterios recognized the symbol as associated with the port town.
“Who might you two be, arriving here in such an… unusual way?” he asked them.
“Apologies for not coming through the gate like any normal person would, but your neighbors aren’t exactly allowing us to approach through normal means,” Asterios responded, causing the men behind and in front of them to chuckle heartily.
“A funny one, eh? I’m Jorn, the captain of Nebula’s watchmen. I would kindly ask you to state your intentions.”
“Asterios, D-rank adventurer. I have been sent here from Rosewind to check on the reported monster sightings but I didn’t expect a whole show by the time I arrived.” Asterios tapped the plate on his shoulder. “How long has this been going for?”
“About five hours now. We’ve been scared shitless by a swarm of monsters suddenly showing up from every single side except the sea at first but they have been like this since the very beginning. The atmosphere is still tense. Gods know what we should think about this.”
“They should disperse after having enough, but better stay on guard. You can never know if some stray won’t try sneaking in.”
“Oh? A monster expert? Where does that confidence come from?” The captain raised a brow at him.
“You don’t usually destroy the thing that you are fighting over with others, right, Captain? Especially if it’s your favorite food.”
The men started looking weirdly at him, including the leader of the guards, perhaps not really getting Ast’s analogy.
He sighed. “Anyway, my goal is the Adventurer’s Guild. May I know its location and head there or do we have to follow some procedures?”
“No, we don’t. Especially under the current circumstances. We are obliged to shelter people from this… incident. It was just a formality. Tresh! Show them the way! Not like we have anything else to do right now.”
Asterios nodded at the captain and followed the man chosen as their guide. As expected, albeit still nervous, people had gotten used to the hours of fighting that didn’t have any direct relation to their town and continued with their lives, often sending glances towards the walls or the bell towers meant to sound an alarm.
Of course, it definitely wasn’t everyone. They could see people looking through the windows of their homes, most likely waiting for a clear confirmation that the danger was gone. Amongst those who walked the streets, most were guards or adventurers; people who could protect themselves to a certain extent.
Surprising their temporary companion, Miria jumped out of the gate and joined them. Umbra was still keeping watch over the gates to report any changes firsthand. It was great to have eyes over the battlefield that could quickly relay reliable information.
After arriving in front of the Adventurer’s Guild building, the guard started heading back to the gates. They could hear the heated discussions happening inside even before going in. As expected, countless adventurers were sitting in the inn section and standing around the whole lobby; some clearly unhappy about not being able to join the fight.
Since no one really cared about their entrance, Asterios walked toward a free receptionist. An elf woman with dark brown hair smiled at them professionally.
“I apologize, but I don’t know when the guildmaster might change the orders for the adventurers to stay put. We’ll let everyone know immediately after a new decision is made.”
Asterios shook his head with a wry smile. A lot of people must have bothered them with countless questions like that for the receptionists to start conversations with such a line.
“We are not here to inquire about that. We’ve just arrived in Nebula on a quest and wanted to ask a few questions.”
“Oh. I’m sorry! Even though the services are currently limited, I’ll try to help as much as I can! My name is Raziel.” The receptionist bowed at them as an apology.
“It’s okay. That reaction is understandable. I’m Asterios. Here’s the quest form.”
Raziel took the piece of paper from him and checked it thoroughly.
“I see. Yes, I’ve read about this. It seems that you’ve wasted your time traveling here to investigate the sightings, considering all that’s happening now.”
“I wouldn’t say so. While it is obvious now why there were visible changes to the surrounding ecosystem, making my main purpose no longer valid, I still need to get to the bottom of this. Could you tell me in detail when the first report about the unusual behavior had been filed?”
“Ummm… I’m afraid that I can’t provide such information… Besides, it says nothing about that in your quest…”
Asterios reached into one of his inner pockets and brought Suanori’s token out, handing it to the receptionist.
“There was a change of plans. I’m in direct contact with Guildmaster Suanori from Rosewind. So?”
Only silence answered him. Asterios was sure that Raziel recognized the token but still refused to talk. They could all feel the tense atmosphere around the receptionist. Something was clearly going on.
Asterios sighed. “Take me to your guildmaster.”
“He is currently bus—”
“Do yourself a favor and don’t obstruct an investigation authorized by another guildmaster. I might not have the right to order you, but you can’t deny my request to meet the person in charge of this branch.”
She nodded after a moment and led them to the higher level. After knocking on the door to the guildmaster’s office, they all went inside. A quite hefty man sat behind a fancy desk. At the first glance, Asterios could tell that he was a non-combatant.
“What’s this about, Raziel?” the man asked.
“We apologize for showing up unannounced.” Asterios bowed his head lightly. “We were sent here by Guildmaster Suanori from Rosewind to investigate the unusual sightings.”
“Ah, yes, I remember that one. Looks like you arrived late, unfortunately. We are in quite a predicament currently.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed. And that’s why I wanted to ask why you haven’t done anything to prevent it.”
“Huh?” The Guildmaster blinked at him in confusion.
Asterios threw at him the metal token and rolled his eyes. “Let’s not play dumb. You are smart enough to withdraw everyone from attacking shortly after the battle started. Just answer honestly and I’ll be sure to note down your voluntary cooperation. When were the first sightings reported?”
“I think you are misunderstanding something…”
“I think not.” Asterios crossed his arms over his chest. “Why did you conceal information about monsters from lower floors showing up on the higher ones?”
~His pulse just spiked, Master,~ Selene informed him telepathically.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. Where did you even hear that from?” the guildmaster asked, glancing at Raziel for a brief moment.
“It doesn’t matter. Why did you not report finding corpses of monsters from the other dungeons inside the ones that clearly don’t fit their type?”
~And again. He is good at hiding his emotions, but he’s clearly getting nervous,~ Selene noted.
~Looks like my guess was right,~ he answered her.
“Listen, I have no idea—”
“No, you listen,” Asterios interrupted the man while walking closer and slamming his hands onto his desk. “If you don’t stop this farce, I swear I’ll use whatever means necessary to bring you down completely. This is a conscious—if not deliberate—exposure of civilians to mortal danger by concealing critical information. It won’t end with just demotion.”
Unbeknownst to him, Ast’s eyes changed to fiery red with vertical pupils, intimidating the guildmaster greatly as he stared right at him. Miria and Selene could feel that Asterios wasn’t just putting up a show but got really angry at the man for his actions.
“A-Alright… I’ll talk… It was around a month ago…”
“Fuck…” Asterios cursed and turned around, placing his hands on his hips. “And?”
“Some people reported beasts migrating back and forth from West to East and from South to either. It was all weird and we couldn’t understand the reason behind it.”
“Until some adventurers started noticing monsters from lower floors appearing on higher ones. It went like that for two weeks. Then, they started finding monsters from the other dungeons inside environments that didn’t really match their characteristics, as you said.”
Asterios turned again to face the man. “Care to tell me then why none of this made it to the interguild network? I don’t believe that you forgot.”
The guildmaster was visibly hesitant to speak but finally broke the silence with a heavy sigh.
“Monsters from lower floors appearing on higher ones made it so much easier to kill them for materials and cores. Outside of their usual habitats, and in much smaller numbers, sometimes even alone, made it possible for even lower-ranked adventurers to take care of them. Our profits started to skyrocket with three dungeons doing that…”
“Good gods…” Asterios rubbed his temples. “You ignored the first signs of a Monster Outbreak for such idiotic reasons? How did no one figure it out?”
“I’ve ordered the staff to bribe the adventurers to keep silent about it whenever someone noticed something wrong inside the dungeons…”
“And caused Nebula to end up in the middle of a three-way Dungeon War! For what?! More money?!”
Asterios threw his hands into the air and exhaled heavily after a brief moment, turning away from the guildmaster again. After a few seconds of silence, the man spoke up hesitantly.
“So… You are going to keep your word, right?”
He threw the guildmaster a glare over his shoulder. “You better start working your ass off fixing this shit or you’ll never be able to see the sun again.”
Asterios left the office without looking back and stopped only after getting outside of the guild. Miria and Selene appeared by his side from a crimson gate.
“I can’t believe that man…” the panthergirl commented with a disgusted expression. “What now, Master?”
“I’m going to let Guildmaster Suanori know about this. Then, we have to figure out how to stop this war or the lands in front of Nebula will stay unsafe for who knows how many months. Monsters will keep constantly moving between the dungeons and battles like the current one will also happen, unable to be predicted.”
“To lead one’s settlement to such a predicament while knowing well the possible consequences of not taking action…” Selene shook her head.
“One step at a time. First, I need to calm myself down. I can feel my energy influencing my emotions again.”