Authors: Fujino Omori
The sound of the gravel crunching beneath their feet was deafening.
With each step he took, Bell wondered if it would be the one to reveal their position to any nearby monsters.
They had fallen to this floor. Of course the monsters down here would be stronger than the ones they had been fighting on the thirteenth. More of the trapdoors lined this tunnel on both sides. Careful to stay in the middle of the tunnel, every echo sounded like the
first warning of a monster’s approach. Bell couldn’t tell the difference between sounds anymore, his mind completely on edge. Only now did he realize his mouth was bone dry and desperate for some water.
Their path started to curve up toward an intersection. First they turned left, then right.
. All three adventurers’ eyes shot toward the source of the sound in unison. It was only a few small pebbles falling from the ceiling. It took all the willpower they had left to slow their racing hearts.
The sound of their own breathing filled their ears. They were tired, but that wasn’t the only reason for their shallow, ragged gasps.
It was fear, plain and simple.
Fear of the darkness, fear of what the Dungeon had in store.
Bell thought about how proud he’d felt when he leveled up and became an upper-class adventurer, his name spreading around Orario. He scornfully laughed at himself. Wasn’t it Eina who told him adventurers were in the most danger when they thought things were going smoothly?
They were in the deepest pits of hell, all because of one little hole.
Each of them was on the verge of being overwhelmed in a place so deep it had never seen sunlight.
“…A dead end.”
Bell managed to stop himself from saying “another.”
They were completely lost. Of all the dangers that lurked in the Dungeon, getting lost was the one thing that you needed to avoid at all costs.
The only road markers available to adventurers in the Dungeon were the staircases that linked each level together. However, Bell and the others had fallen through a hole. There were no landmarks or staircases to help them get their bearings. In addition, compasses and other magnetic field–based navigation equipment were completely useless in the Dungeon due to the presence of metals like adamantite in the Dungeon walls.
Without even a map to go by, Bell had no idea which direction would lead them out.
Bell’s and Welf’s eyes narrowed in frustration as they encountered yet another road block.
“Let’s take a rest for a moment.”
Lilly took a deep breath and made a proposal as the two young men stood, staring at the solid wall in front of them. They turned to face her and saw that she was soaked with sweat but was somehow forcing herself to remain calm.
By the same token, Lilly’s composed brown eyes had a calming effect on Bell and Welf. They were beginning to become desperate, and yet here was this small prum, barely half their size, who could keep a cool head. They both nodded and lowered their bodies to the ground.
Just as Lilly had proposed, the three of them stopped to catch their breath and started trying to figure out what to do from here.
“First, how many healing items do we have? Lilly has four potions and two antidotes. What about Mr. Bell? Mr. Welf?”
“I got nothing.”
“I still have a few potions in my leg holster.”
Lilly took the potions out of her backpack and passed them to the others. She kept only one for herself. Thinking of the road ahead, Welf was in the greatest need of the healing liquid.
“What about weapons? Lilly lost her bow gun during the fall. Mr. Welf’s sword is okay…”
“Bell, did you lose the shortsword, the buckler, and the broadsword?”
Bell was getting more and more anxious as their conversation continued.
The three of them were sitting in a small triangle at the end of the tunnel with only one exit. There was nowhere to run if the monsters found them. On top of that, they had no idea if or when monsters could be born out of the walls surrounding them. Bell did everything he could not to express the fear gripping his chest. Welf and Lilly were no doubt doing the same.
They kept their voices low to avoid attracting attention. Bell
reached behind his back and felt for the sheaths of his two weapons, the Hestia Knife and Ushiwakamaru.
“But both my knives are here.”
“And the salamander wool is still kickin’.”
“Okay…Taking all of this information into account, Lilly believes that our best chance of making it back to the surface alive is to avoid combat with monsters if possible. Only engage if we don’t have a choice.”
Bell was kneeling on the ground while Welf had his rear end firmly planted on the cold gravel, sticking his injured leg straight out. A fresh wave of sweat rolled down his face as Bell supported him, but he nodded in agreement.
Sitting in front of them, Lilly took another deep breath and worked up the courage to say what had been bothering her all this time.
“Mr. Bell, Mr. Welf, please listen closely. This is just Lilly’s gut feeling but…this could very well be the fifteenth floor.”
Their jaws went slack as Lilly continued her explanation.
“Taking into account how long we were falling, it’s very possible we went down two floors. Judging by the color of the walls, the width of the tunnels, lack of light, and complexity of the Dungeon layout, this area looks more like the fifteenth rather than the fourteenth or thirteenth.”
Bell remembered being surprised by how long the fall took as well. That was more than enough to convince him that she was right.
That would mean that the road to the surface just became staggeringly long. This was already a hopeless situation had they been on the fourteenth floor, but now they would have to wander around the Dungeon and hope to find the correct path through the fifteenth, fourteenth, and thirteenth floors in order to reach the upper levels. In their condition, that was impossible. They had to contend with strong monsters and complex terrain while dealing with a great deal of physical pain and exhaustion.
The words came from the back of Bell’s mind, a wave of cold dread washing over his body.
Lilly took another breath and kept going.
“This is the important part. It is true that our chances of survival going up are very bleak. However, we do have another option beneath us…We can take cover on the eighteenth floor.”
Bell didn’t quite understand what she said at first.
Lilly continued her explanation.
“Level eighteen is one of the few floors in the Dungeon where monsters cannot be born—a safe point. It is used as a staging area for expeditions going to the lower levels and beyond. Lilly believes we’ll be safe if we can get there.”
In a Dungeon infested with monsters, there were very few areas that could be considered “safe.” Adventurers had learned over the years that no monsters came out of the walls on the eighteenth floor, and so they used it as a rest area.
The eighteenth floor was the first safe point in the Dungeon after entering the first floor, so it was highly likely that adventurers much stronger than they were there right now. If they could somehow join a group that was heading back to the surface, that would guarantee them safe passage home.
“L-Lilly, wait a second. We have no idea if we can make it out of this floor. If we went farther down…”
“We’ll use the holes. There are hundreds of them, and they all lead down. With good luck we can reach our destination quickly. We’re lost. Lilly thinks we have a much better chance to find one of the holes than a staircase leading up.”
Lilly’s logic made sense. Bell had no counterargument and cleared his throat.
Welf fought back the pain in his leg long enough to open his eyes just enough to meet Lilly’s gaze and asked a question of his own.
“What do we do about the floor boss? Isn’t that massive son of a bitch on level seventeen?”
Even when faced with a thought of one of the most powerful monsters in the Dungeon, Lilly had an answer ready.
“On the day that Mr. Bell slew the Minotaur…Two weeks ago,
started an expedition. In order to protect a group that large, they would have defeated the monster head-on rather than try to avoid it.”
“H-how do you know?”
“Lilly’s heard that level seventeen’s floor boss, Goliath, is located in front of the entrance to the eighteenth floor. Many powerful adventurers belong to
. It would be easier for them as a group with the floor boss out of the way.”
Lilly went on to explain that leaving the Monster Rex untouched actually put the lower-level adventurers in their group in danger.
“Goliath respawns about every two weeks…There is a chance that we can make it to the eighteenth floor just before it emerges.”
There still might be time to pass through a boss-less level seventeen if they moved quickly.
That’s what Lilly was implying.
Not up, but down.
That would mean putting themselves in more danger in order to get home safely.
Welf was at a loss for words at the serious look on Lilly’s face.
He looked at her with a mixture of shock and awe that she was able to come up with such a daring strategy under the circumstances.
Bell, too, looked at her and wondered how so much courage and spirit could fit in such a small frame.
“…This is only an option. As Mr. Bell and Mr. Welf have said, trying to find a way up is the safer route. There is a chance that we could find another battle party just by walking around.”
However, that was completely up to chance.
While it was easy to find lower-level adventurers in the upper levels, the upper-class adventurers strong enough to prowl the middle levels were few and far between. To make matters worse, the layout of the middle levels included intertwining upper and lower tunnels while the higher floors were just one flat, circular maze. It would take a considerable amount of luck to find anyone. That was why
Lilly had mentioned that high-level adventurers gather on the eighteenth floor.
Lilly fell silent for a moment before looking up at Bell with unwavering resolve.
“Mr. Bell is the leader of this party. Lilly leaves the final decision up to you.”
All of the air suddenly left Bell’s lungs.
Her words ignited a fire within his belly that was hotter than anything he’d felt that day.
Every pore in his skin opened; cold sweat poured down his face.
Bell looked over at Welf. The young man was grimacing in pain but met his gaze and flashed a smile.
“It’s up to you. Whatever you choose, I won’t hold it against you.”
Those words showed just how deep their bond of trust ran.
And at the same time, they closed off any means of escape Bell had from making this decision.
His heart rate quickened.
Party leader…He was the only one who could fill that role.
Lilly the supporter and Welf the smith were lending their talents and abilities to Bell the adventurer. He was the leader, without a doubt.
He had no choice but to rise to this challenge.
His heart kept speeding up. It felt as though it would tear itself apart at this rate.
This decision would determine his party’s fate. He’d never felt such pressure before. His next words would determine whether his friends lived or died.
Fear of losing them made his knees shake. He wanted to cry, to run away, to beg for forgiveness, and to hide from the responsibility.
However—behind all this fear and anxiety, he understood that it was the party leader’s job to make decisions like this.
A solo adventurer never felt this much pressure. Every member of a battle party had to trust the leader with their lives.
The opposite was also true. Bell had to trust Lilly and Welf with
life. They were the ones who protected his blind side, the ones who covered his back. He had to have the utmost faith in them.
They chose him and believed in him. It would be sacrilege to abandon allies who held him in such high esteem. If there was a time to prove to them that he was worthy of their trust, this was it.
Bell clamped his jaws together and clenched his fists. He breathed in as deep as he could to steady himself.
He built up the courage. Now all that was left was to make the decision.
Go back or press forward.
Depend on luck or blaze their own path.
To go on an adventure or not.
Bell closed his eyes for a moment—opened them.
He looked at each of his party members in turn with confidence and said:
“Let’s push on.”
The clock on the wall showed that it was early evening.
Hestia was standing inside the Azure Pharmacy,
They sold potions and other healing items in this wooden building. Since many adventurers came here anyway, it worked well for a gathering spot to begin the quest. The preparations for rescuing Bell’s battle party had begun.
Along with Hestia, Miach, and Nahza, the crimson-haired goddess Hephaistos was also present.