“Well, maybe we got lucky—”
Before Suanori could finish her sentence, a single ripple traveled through the splattered puddle of blood, and both Miria’s and Selene’s ears twitched. The former lunged closer to Asterios and covered him with her body and swords from his front while the latter pushed Suanori into his back and created a spiritual shield to cover the other side.
Tens of sharp spikes surged out of all the possible bloodstains and shot at them from numerous angles. The girls managed to block most of those that aimed at their vital spots, but some went through their guards and grazed their bodies at a few places, penetrating through the barrier that Asterios had laid over their skin.
After the initial attack, Selene joined her hands with a loud clap and extended them to the sides, erecting a circle of blue flames around them, cutting off the dangerous tendrils that infiltrated their defenses. Even Asterios and Suanori gained a few cuts and the Guildmaster’s mask had a small chunk of it ripped off.
The defensive wall was recalled and they took proper stances again, observing their enemy that was currently regathering its body back into one place.
“I’m sorry…” Suanori apologized.
“It’s not your fault. We’ve let our guards down,” Asterios replied.
Miria glared at the rising scarlet mountain with an intense gaze. “I’m going to evaporate every single drop of its body for hurting Master…”
“I concur,” Selene added, slightly squinting her eyes at the blob.
“Too bad I don’t have another Permafrost. It would make things so much easier.” Asterios sighed.
“I’ll deal with it myself. Miria, can you protect Master?” Selene entered the third stage of her awakening and asked, not even moving her gaze from the monster.
“Thanks. My Lord, may I ask for permission to act alone?” She glanced at him over her shoulder.
“Just be safe.” He nodded and she smiled at him softly.
“I’ll make it quick. Let’s see what these freezing flames can do.”
With a soft chuckle, Selene disappeared from their sight, leaving an afterimage in the form of a blue glow that quickly dissipated. Miria took a deep breath and pressed her back into Ast’s chest.
“I’m not letting you get hurt like the last time, Master. I will properly protect you. And Miss Suanori too. I’m not going to hold back.”
He stroked through her flaming hair. “I know.”
~You are not alone with this task, my friend.~ Umbra’s voice resounded in their heads.
Asterios and the rest focused their efforts on repelling occasional attacks that came from their enemy while leaving the main fight to Selene. Suanori sat down on the ground and started chanting a spell that slowly healed their shallow cuts. Umbra materialized himself from her shadow and formed a thick sphere around the Guildmaster, preventing any attacks from hurting her.
Miria’s ears twitched and she noticed a blob of blood falling onto them from above just in time to cut it in half with a wide swing, releasing sizzling sounds into the air alongside the smell of burnt blood. It seemed like the enemy hadn't sucked in all of its body back and left some of it to pester them.
The ambusher she cut also didn’t merge back and instead started launching tentacles at them from both bodies. She danced around Asterios and cut all of them while he supported her with Sensory Boost. Instructed not to strike back to avoid creating more copies of their enemy, she fully focused on defense.
Meanwhile, Selene was dodging the Monarch of Blood’s attempts to hit or capture her with grace. She could easily send flaming orbs that froze chunks of its body while doing so, but the enemy got already used to their attempts at freezing or evaporating it and quickly cut off the damaged blood to avoid spreading the frost. And its blood was hot enough to slowly melt what Selene had frozen.
Avoiding another pressurized jet of scarlet liquid, making sure she didn’t lead it towards the others but in the opposite way, she quickly shaped a spiritual javelin surrounded by swirling blue flames and sent it at her opponent right into the source of the deadly stream, freezing that part solid.
“I don’t want to overexert myself too much for you, but I’m sure my Lord will be kind enough to relieve my fatigue if I push myself a little bit too far, fufufu~ So, let us wrap it up and make sure you can’t revive again.”
With a deep breath, Selene spread her spiritual energy through her whole body and connected to both sets of her external circuits. The demonic apparitions appeared over her arms while also made out of the sapphire fire, retaining their previous shape. Her legs got covered by demonic-looking flaming greaves too, tightly wrapped around her calves and thighs.
“First things first, let’s prepare the finale.”
Her posture blurred and Selene appeared on the other side of the monster, immediately getting down to one knee before it had a chance to react. She started making hand signs faster than a human eye could perceive and slammed her hands into the ground just moments before a scarlet tendril shot towards her head, completing what she aimed for in time. She blurred again and left a blue glimmering seal in her place.
To buy some more time, she appeared above the enemy and conjured a huge greataxe of the cold flames, throwing it down onto her opponent right into its middle. Not even checking the result of her attack, she created a platform under her feet and pushed herself into a different spot on the ground the moment the spiritual weapon left her hands.
As the axe slammed into the Monarch of Blood, she was already finished with the second seal, rushing to a different position while it focused on separating the frozen parts of its liquid matter. She got to place the third magical circle before the mass of blood opened like huge jaws and attempted to swallow her, escaping in time and leaving a frosty orb as a parting gift for her duel partner.
Just like that, the fourth one was of no issue too. But, during the placement of the fifth seal, the monster seemed to notice the pattern and prepared an ambush for her. The moment Selene showed up in the required spot, tens of sharp spikes surged at her from the ground. She obliterated most of them, but some did graze her skin.
She wiped off her own blood from the cut cheek; the wound stinging like hell from the acidic nature of the enemy’s fluid that found its way through the protective layer over her body.
“How dare you scar the face that belongs to my Lord…” Selene squinted her eyes at the huge glob of blood. “This is your end.”
She sent Asterios and the rest her intentions through the bond they shared and jumped into the air, avoiding a wide sweep of a thick tendril coming at her horizontally near the ground.
Miria turned around to face Asterios and pushed him onto the ground, strongly pressing her body into him. She drove both of her flaming swords into the stone ground while lying on top of him and he quickly hugged her as tightly as he could.
A moment later, they both tilted their heads towards the fight and saw Selene levitating in the middle of the chamber, not that far from the ceiling, with both her own arms and the spiritual appendages spread wide while slightly arched up. A huge orb of spiritual energy swirling in chaos could be spotted above her.
It suddenly pulsed and they felt a strong pull. Miria grunted, pushing her Physical Strengthening to its limits, keeping Asterios pinned down to the ground. He kept sending her more of his scorching mana to let her fuel it constantly. Suanori was still covered by Umbra's shadowy dome, protected from the strong pulling force.
The suction grew bit by bit until the point where even the bloodstains over the whole chamber began getting dragged into the artificial black hole and traveled through the air in red streams. The Monarch of Blood had been caught by it almost from the very start and could only swirl around the center point with no control over its body.
After confirming that every drop of blood had been sucked into a single point, Selene threw her arms down and the suction stopped. All the gathered blood fell down in the form of a huge ball of crimson liquid that dropped onto the ground, retaining its shape with some ripples passing through the semi-solid membrane.
Selene’s body flashed and she appeared on the floor too. The five seals she had placed glowed brightly, illuminating the whole chamber in bluish hue, and a complex array made its appearance, connecting all of them, with the Monarch of Blood in its center.
The demonic apparitions shrunk and covered her arms in the same way as her legs were wrapped with the bluish demonic flames. She clasped her hands together, sending a powerful ripple through the air.
“Five Flagpoles of Extremity: Everlasting Inferno of Heaven Freezing Flames!”
Just as she shouted, five spiritual pillars lit up in the places of the seals and created a pentagonal formation around the monster. Translucent energy surged from them after they reached the ceiling and it formed see-through walls, finishing the cage.
The moment the Monarch of Blood got tightly locked in a gap-less chamber of bluish spiritual energy, the whole array lit up even stronger and a gigantic tower of swirling flames of dark blue color shot up from the very middle, quickly engulfing the whole crimson blob and pushing against the spiritual fence.
Everyone watched the show of flashing lights and listened to the hum of violent flames trying to break out of the spiritual cage that restrained them while they rotated fiercely. Both the ceiling and the floor were being covered in thick frost more and more, spreading further with each second.
Selene stood in front of it with a tense expression, fueling the whole technique with her mana, not wanting to get distracted even for a split second. Unbothered by the cold atmosphere that escaped the array, she pressed on.
The powerful inferno retracted into the middle after fifteen seconds, dying out a moment later. Selene canceled the rest of the formation and the see-through walls and pillars escaped back into the ground. All the glowing sigils and formations faded out. Only the Monarch of Blood, frozen crystal solid, remained.
Selene took a deep breath while closing her eyes. Opening them abruptly, she pushed herself off the ground with a loud shout and expanded her ghostly apparitions, forming a huge flaming hammer above her head, which she grabbed with the demonic arms.
Three wide spiritual circles appeared one over another above the frozen Monarch of Blood. As the gigantic hammerhead passed through each of them, its speed and force gained another strong push. For the others, it looked like the weapon instantly slammed into the enemy after touching the topmost formation.
The whole chamber shook violently and small chunks of ceiling fell down from the intensity of the blow. Asterios managed to hug Miria’s head to his chest before the mighty blow and prevented her from getting hurt as their bodies bounced from the impact.
The Monarch of Blood got crushed into a thin mist that spread throughout the whole cave and hung in the air at knee-high, creating a slightly chilly atmosphere. The cloudy carpet of white caused Miria to sigh in amazement when she poked her head over the mystical layer.
Asterios stood up with her help and lifted Suanori too after Umbra retracted his shadow and entered his raven form. All of them were fine, with no injuries. The previous ones were healed by the Guildmaster before Selene’s attack.
“Incredible,” she whispered. “Such power. I don’t think it had any chances of surviving.”
“And that wasn’t even the best she could do!” Miria commented, proud of her friend.
“Come on. Let’s check on her first. And stay alert.” Asterios scratched behind Miria’s still flaming ear and passed her, heading towards the roughly breathing Selene, resting on one knee.
“Selene!” Miria shouted instantly after both of them heard the first sounds of cracking stone.
She lunged towards Suanori since the Guildmaster was closer and picked up her shortswords along the way, throwing them at the nearby wall as she ran. Selene turned around even before Miria’s shout reached her ears and appeared in front of Asterios, picking him up into her arms.
Louder cracking followed, perceivable now also by him and Suanori, and Miria pushed herself off the ground the moment it crumbled into bits. She caught the Guildmaster before she began falling and they slammed into the wall between the two weapons Miria had lodged in it earlier. She caught onto one while holding the woman with her other arm.
After some rumbling and the noise of stone pieces bouncing off each other and the walls faded out in the distance, the whitish mist also dispersed and revealed a gaping hole underneath them. Almost the whole chamber now had no footing.
Selene stood in the middle of it on a spiritual platform with Asterios in a princess-carry, still panting slightly.
“Thank you.” He smiled wryly after glancing up at her.
She chuckled softly between the heavy breaths and nodded. With a few steps over the translucent platforms, Selene reached the hanging duo, now also held to the wall by Umbra’s shadowy tendrils, and let them step onto the temporary foothold too.
“Looks like I might have used a little bit too much of my strength there.” She chuckled again after all of them stood together. Both Miria and her deactivated the formations turning them into flaming beastgirls.
Asterios gently ruffled through Selene’s hair and pointed to their feet. “I don’t think boss chamber floors are normally this thin and with such a huge dropdown. This thing goes deeper than we can see.”
“I agree. I would go as far as to theorize that this was prepared specifically for us and would crumble after we took enough time to fight the Monarch. It surely eroded the surface with its acidic liquid too. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found something like sharp spikes on the bottom of this pit,” Suanori added and nodded at Asterios.
“For us?” Miria tilted her head.
“This Core seems quite smart, remember? If it noticed the pattern in the destruction of its structure, it might have also realized that we are the only ones moving through its premises, which clearly poses a threat to it in the current situation. The fifteenth floor is far enough for it to have time to spice things up a little before we reach it if it has deemed us a threat early on.”
“I do think destroying two sets of Gates by force does earn us that label, my Lord,” Selene added, slowly calming her breathing.
“Right. But, we could possibly use this to our advantage and skip some floors, if there’s any other exit leading out of this pit at any level.” Suanori stroked her chin.
Asterios turned to Selene and wiped some sweat off her face. “How are you hanging?”
She reduced her Awakening to the first stage, retracting the two additional tails. “I’m fine, my Lord. I can keep these platforms up consistently while in the first stage, which doesn’t strain me that much anymore. An hour or so should be okay. I would prefer to rest a little after that. I did expend a bit of my energy recently.”
“Got it. Team decision. Are we going down and looking for a spot to recuperate a bit or do we push through the Gate on this level and camp in the safe zone on the sixteenth floor?”
“I think we should try heading down,” Suanori answered.
“I concur,” Selene replied.
“I’m fine with whatever Master decides, but I also think we should make use of this failed trap if there’s a chance we can safely skip some floors.” Miria nodded at him.
~Just give me a moment and I’ll check it out. The interference is increasing the deeper it goes so I can’t scan it with my senses or report back through telepathy,~ Umbra spoke in their minds and flew down the hole.
While the Lord of Shadows scouted the vertical tunnel, the others took a quick sip of cool water and Suanori dealt with Selene’s cuts and bruises since she had been out of the range of her spells earlier. After three minutes, the shadowy raven returned.
~By my own judgment and calculations based on the fifteen floors we have traversed so far, this well reaches somewhere between the thirtieth and fortieth floors. And I can sense the ominous condensed energy from that point. As the Guildmaster said, there are countless huge spikes at the bottom. There are also various holes throughout the whole structure.~
“Let’s try getting as low as we can then,” Suanori suggested.
Everyone nodded and both she and Asterios were picked up by the girls into a princess-carry. Miria insisted on holding him this time so Selene ended up with Suanori in her arms.
Then, the beastfolk duo jumped from one platform to another while traversing down the huge hole. It took them ten minutes to reach the beginning of the sharp spikes. Umbra led them to a ledge with an exit somewhere around the floor thirty-two or so, as he judged by the distance.
“Alright. Let’s focus on finding the safe zone first, even if we have to backtrack a little to the passage leading to the level above. And, we need to stay alert. The monsters and traps present here definitely aren’t anything to scoff at.”
Everyone nodded at Ast’s words and they walked through the natural-looking cave until they encountered a stone brick wall. Selene had to bring out the third stage of her Awakening again to destroy it and they stepped back into the proper corridor of the dungeon.
Fortunately, there were no monsters on the other side, so they started moving immediately, sending Umbra forward to scout for the resting chamber. The first enemy they encountered was an actual Death Knight. A monster around three meters tall and wide like a muscular person. It wore heavy black armor and wielded a greatsword and a huge shield.
Since it was alone, the party used it to test themselves against such an opponent and took their time dealing with it. Miria’s sharpened blades barely scratched the metal and Selene’s punches with the first stage of her Awakening couldn’t even dent it.
The difference between it and the monsters they had previously fought was huge. They instantly agreed that a rest was necessary before they continued so that Selene and Miria could be at their full strength.
While they were fighting, Umbra found the spacious chamber near the stairs and Asterios finished the monster with a Runic Chip that heated his blade with a Phoenix's Blaze spell, beheading it after Suanori restrained the Death Knight with her vines.
Thanks to Umbra’s guidance, they avoided any other encounters and reached the safe room with no more fights. Well, while it was often called safe, this deep in the dungeon certainly wasn’t as safe as high up. This was the depth where the Core would definitely think of anyone as a grave danger. But, it was the best place to rest.
Miria brought out a picnic mat and they shared a meal together after Suanori sealed off all the exits with her Earth Magic and set up vines that would release loud noises when something touched them on the other side. Seeing that the chamber was slightly illuminated by green crystals in the stone walls, Asterios withdrew his transformation for a moment.
“How are your circuits, Selene?” he asked afterward.
“That little stunt did put some strain on them and I won’t be able to enter the highest stage now without repercussions, but I only spent around thirty-five percent of my mana during that fight, thanks to your support. And you, my Lord?”
“Around twenty percent, I think. I should regain most of it with a quick rest. I also have a few concoctions that should help with it. Miria?”
“I’m fine. I didn’t do that much and mostly used your hot energy, Master.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m the least spent out of all of us so I’ll take the watch while you guys rest a bit,” Suanori suggested.
“Thank you.” Asterios nodded and turned back to Selene.
~Do you want me to help you reduce that strain? Or maybe get rid of it completely since that’s a possibility?~ he asked her mentally.
Selene’s eyes widened a little but she quickly composed herself. ~Does this mean…~
~Are you okay with this, my Lord? What about Guildmaster Suanori?~
~Your well-being is my utmost priority. If you are fine with it, I don’t mind it. And I do think you’ve earned yourself a little reward.~ He smiled at her.
~Then, I would very much oblige, my Lord, fufufu,~ Selene chuckled softly.
Suanori then watched how the three of them stood up and Miria jumped into the crimson gate, bringing out some camping equipment. They quickly set up a spacious tent and Asterios then thanked her again with Selene before they moved inside. Miria plopped down by the Guildmaster’s side and Umbra perched on her shoulder.
“Is that tent really needed? I didn’t take Asterios or Selene as someone this shy,” Suanori asked the panthergirl, glancing at the portable material shelter.
Miria giggled quietly while taking a bite of a sandwich. “It’s not for them but for us. Master is going to help Selene recover faster.”
Suanori furrowed her brows in slight confusion. She didn’t really mind them kissing in front of her. But, she concluded that maybe they didn’t want to make her too uncomfortable.
“You are not going to join them?”
Miria shook her head. “I don’t really need it. And, during the last time, when it was supposed to be Selene’s night, I couldn’t hold back and they took me in, so I want Selene to have a chance to enjoy some time alone with Master,” she answered with a faint blush.
Noticing it, Suanori recalled Selene’s words from earlier when they had been taking a short rest after the boss fight and instantly realized what she had meant back then; her eyes widening a little.
“I see… You are a very kind and considerate person.”
Miria giggled again at the compliment and nodded. They sat in silence for a few minutes and Suanori glanced towards the tent behind them.
“Aren’t they going to start? Do you think they’ve fallen asleep?”
Miria stared into the distance with an absent gaze and instantly turned completely crimson, smiling wryly.
“Umm… They… They did…” She started twirling her tail. “Master can mute the sounds around him with a spell, so...”
Hearing that, Suanori’s cheeks also showed a tinge of rosiness and she moved her eyes back to the front, trying not to think about the scenes occurring inside the tent behind them that could cause Miria to blush so heavily this fast.