Taurus 21, 10 A.M.
A trail of smoke came out of the palm of Surt’s gauntlets, pointing towards the charred corpses of monsters who had snuck up on him.
The alchemist closed and opened his hands repeatedly, cooling his equipment as he sighed before looking at a map he had drawn. The map itself however, was different from the one Surt brought whenever he explored along with his guild. Instead, it was a copy of it, with cleaner lines, as well as the overall quality of the parchment as proof.
Yet, there was an important difference between it and the original: A small, red circle which wrapped a certain portion near the center of the map; A reminder of a place Surt wanted to revisit on his own.
He had found truth in what Natalia had said, back when they figured out the crater they discovered had shrunk. It might have been a similar phenomenon to the forest itself being invulnerable to flames, therefore it wasn’t anything he should concern himself with. But still…He had to confirm that was the case.
However, when he reentered the area where the crater was supposed to be, he found something which made him gasp.
Not only had the crater shrunk down even more, to the point that it was nothing more than a small hole on the ground, but various people were surrounding the area: Guards scouting each and every corner with their lances ready, and Researchers wearing long coats and golden badges, signifying their status as Radha Officials.
The alchemist took a step forward, his curiosity reaching its peak, what would the Radha, Etria’s government, even be doing inside the labyrinth? Let alone in such a specific spot? He had to find out, as it was soon clear that the crater had been more than just an unexplainable anomaly.
But, before he could get any closer, a voice called out to him.
“Stop where you are!”
Surt stopped on his track as a guard ran towards him. The suspicious look on everyone else’s faces as they quietly stared at the alchemist made him shiver, and he gulped as sweat ran through his face.
“This is a restricted area!” The guard shouted, brandishing his weapon, “Unless given explicit permission from the Radha, you must return immediately!”
“What…?” Was all Surt could say. There was no way for him to get any closer without the guards apprehending him, or worse. The threatening stare the guard gave to Surt, along with his silence made it obvious that he wouldn’t answer any of the alchemist’s questions either.
Frustrated, the alchemist quickly left the area. He didn’t know whether Guild Boldhunt or Halcon remembered the crater or not, and given their drunken state the day prior, it was very unlikely that they did.
Either way, he was at a loss, and even as weeks passed, he couldn’t shake that scene off his head. There had to be an answer somewhere, even if the Radha themselves didn’t want him to reach it…
Chapter 11: Challenge
Tiger 19 – 6 A.M.
Guild Boldhunt was gathered at the end of the bottom second floor, their sights set on the stairs leading below. Yesterday’s victory was enough to tell them that they were ready to tackle whatever awaited them at the end of the stairs, yet their anxiousness was visible.
Lamia double checked her bag before entering the labyrinth, but even then she still looked at the contents of it, verifying she brought everything needed: Medicine, gauze, warp wires, a few half-eaten snacks even; They were all present.
The medic took a deep breath. She glanced at the rest of her guildmates before speaking, her voice getting their attention. “I know we're ready for even the worst but,” she said before shaking her head. "I can't help but feel anxious."
“It's alright, we all feel like that.” Ceas’ shoulders loosened up, and he put his hand on Lamia’s shoulder, taking the chance to caress the hair resting next to it. “But we haven’t fought all this time for nothing,” The protector said, before putting himself before the rest of his guild. He placed his hand on his chest, gripping his large, iron shield with the other.
“We’re Boldhunt! We can do this!” He shouted, raising his arm and energizing himself, and the others up. “If we’re not winning, then at the very least we’re not dying either!” He said, and the rest nodded.
Surt listened silently to his friend’s speech. Even if he didn’t want to admit to it, he was just as invigorated as the rest of his team.
Ceas put his hand in the middle of the group, asking them to put theirs above his. “We’re going down, beat the crap outta that monster…” And then, everyone raised the hands. “And then we get Surt to pay for everyone’s dinner!”
“Yeah!” Olivia shouted, ecstatic, before letting out a “Huh?” as she looked at Surt. He was glaring at Ceas.
“Eleven,” he muttered before taking a step down the stairs.
The alchemist instinctively counted down each tread he passed through, feeling the echo of his and his guildmates’ steps along with his own breathing, making his legs shake subtly.
Walking into a new, unexplored floor had been a sensation Guild Boldhunt hadn’t felt in a long while. That feeling of wonder, curiosity and even fear as they would soon traverse through uncharted territory was prevalent among each explorer, and their thoughts could only ask themselves what would lie ahead of them.
No…They have seen what awaited them at the entrance, and they knew none of their questions would be answered unless they cleared the large obstacle right in front of them. A minute passed, and Guild Boldhunt was now in the bottom third floor.
Surt held his breath when he felt grass underneath his feet, sunlight illuminating everyone’s path as now they were inside an open clearing within the labyrinth.
And there it was.
The large mantis they spotted weeks ago was levitating around the area, its wings creating a sickening flapping sound as leaves were blown away from its body. Ceas grumbled and took a step back, but then he shook his head. Without looking back, he sighed.
Her bow held tightly, and her hat fixed, the survivalist quietly moved across the clearing and entered deep into the forest surrounding it. All noise she made as she began to climb atop one of the trees felt loud, a tense feeling, like sneaking through a room filled with sleeping lions, ached her. She held her breath, her heart beating fast.
“Olivia, Surt, Lamia.”
The landsknecht, alchemist and medic respectively followed Ceas from behind without saying a word, their movements just as careful as Natalia. Lamia gripped her bag, her hand placed on its button.
The incessant flapping of the monster’s transparent wings became louder and louder, almost overtaking their voices once the explorers neared it. Yet, they stood tall against the F.O.E, even as its large, bright eyes stared directly at them.
They had reached the point of no return.
Olivia shrieked in disgust as the monster opened its large mandibles, spattering a dark, viscous substance which tainted its long scythes along with the ground. The landsknecht however soon faced her fears, and turned her axe on it.
The beast’s body immediately leaned towards them, one of its scythes raised while the other razed through the grass. Olivia and Ceas answered by running towards the monster as well, thus giving Natalia a signal to strike. An arrow closed towards the side of the creature’s face, but as if it had foreseen it, the F.O.E spun vertically in place, blocking the projectile with its limbs as dirt and grass flied around and covered its body.
The two explorers, who hadn’t reached the mantis yet, jumped back in surprise. Olivia’s feet slipped after touching the ground, but Ceas quickly caught her in his arm mid-fall, pulling her towards the rest of the group.
“So this one ain’t as dumb!” The protector groaned, holding back insults to lash out at the monster, and instead focusing on its movements as the F.O.E began to fly towards around them. Its movement was erratic, as if it were dancing around the field, dodging and blocking all projectiles fired at it as the remaining explorers couldn’t move near it. It was clear that it wouldn’t give up its prey nor leave them any chance of escape.
And then it struck.
Ceas groaned as his shield and body could barely maintain the weight of one of the monster’s scythes, which now struggled to overpower the protector. Ceas didn’t relent, however, and yelled to the top of his lungs as he began to push back the limb. The mantis recoiled, its other scythe attempted to block the many flames and arrows sent its way, but some managed to reach its body, forcing it to hiss in pain.
Olivia moved for the finishing blow, her axe ready to take down the F.O.E.
But the mantis acted.
As if the monster had braved through the wounds inflicted by Surt and Natalia, it let go of Ceas’ shield and instead twirled in the spot. Olivia gasped; The same scythe that kept Ceas in place was now moving at a fast pace towards the protector’s back.
Lamia gripped her bag, her eyes wide opened and her pupils constricted. She screamed at Ceas, her warnings barely reaching him as the protector managed to look behind to see the scythe about to take his life.
His shield, however, was still in front of him.
Ceas fell to the ground, a weak yell coming from him as his body felt the cold grass caressing him. Lamia blinked a few times, silently. She put her glowing hands over her mouth, tears forming on her eyes.
But soon enough, the glowing faded, and her hands lowered.
Ceas let out various fast breaths as he turned around, looking at his body for any injuries. Instead, he found Olivia grabbing his legs, with her heart beating just as fast as him. “You’re really heavy,” the landsknecht complained before quickly running backwards towards the medic. Ceas shook his head, and fixed his shield.
There, he saw the monster’s scythe embedded in the floor. The mantis pulled it out, attempting to kill Ceas as the arm swung towards him like a buzzsaw. He rolled to Lamia’s side in time and he stood up, his shield ready like before.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” the protector said to the medic as he could hear a few whimpers coming from her, keeping a close eye on the F.O.E. “Olivia?”
Ceas sighed in relief, the adrenaline in his body subsiding as he stared directly at the monster. Its body was riddled with arrows and burn marks, yet it continued to fly around, blocking oncoming projectiles as if they hadn’t hurt it in the first place.
“So what now?” Olivia asked, holding her axe. While she did so, Surt ran back to them, panting as he barely dodged an attack from the F.O.E.
Surt couldn’t think of anything that would help defeat the monster. Having Ceas stop it again would only risk the protector’s life, given the creature’s agility, and as far as the alchemist guessed, the F.O.E could very well resist his flames.
So what could they do…? Surt couldn’t rationalize still nor ponder calmly on any possible solution as he soon jumped back, a gash forming on his arm as he barely dodged a slash from the monster. He braved through the pain and fire came out of his fingertips, but the F.O.E quickly covered its body with its scythes, blocking it. Amidst the flames, Surt could see an arrow stabbing the side of the monster’s body.
The alchemist’s eyes then widened. It was so obvious.
“Its arms!” He yelled to the rest of his guildmates before diving sideways to the floor, dodging the creature’s tackle attempt. “Get its arms!” The alchemist repeated, now aiming directly at the scythes. The monster slashed the ground, tearing dirt and grass on its path to Surt, yet he continued to dodge and fire.
It wasn’t until Ceas stepped in that Surt could finally get some breathing room. The protector kept his distance, blocking the tip of the F.O.E’s scythes so as to not corner himself again. Lamia rushed to Surt and grabbed his arm, healing it. Olivia and Natalia continued fighting on the meanwhile, the latter distracting the monster while the former attempted to reach its head. Surt yelled.
“Its arms! Idiot! Break them!” The alchemist quickly stood up, brushing a surprised Lamia away as powerful flames engulfed the monster’s scythes. Olivia stepped to the side, avoiding the flames as she turned to see a frowning Surt glaring at her.
Olivia didn’t say anything; she was amused, and a small laugh escaped her. Nevertheless, the landsknecht dashed through the field and towards the mantis as it blocked Surt’s fire with its scythes. Her axe collided with one of the scythes, and the mantis attempted to get away, but by then it realized that it was surrounded.
Natalia’s last arrow punctured the back of the monster’s head, causing it to groan in pain as Ceas, from the opposite side of Olivia, tackled the F.O.E with his shield. Natalia jumped off the tree, a dagger she brought for gathering purposes in hand, and quickly jumped to the back of the monster as she began to stab it.
The survivalist flailed around as the monster attempted to get her off it, but by then, a loud crack was heard.
Olivia stepped back as the scythe she attacked broke in half. The F.O.E grunted, as if it were paralyzed, which gave Natalia and opportunity to stab directly into its head.
The mantis did not move. Its body fell to the ground like a statue, creating a thud as Natalia backed away. Her clothes were covered in red, and sweat continued to run across her face as she dropped her bloodied dagger to the floor.
“We did it…”
“We really did it!”
“I KNEW IT!” Everyone turned around and looked at Surt, their expressions being that of surprise. Surt faked a few coughs as he walked towards the F.O.E’s corpse, his face reddened and trying hard to seem genuinely stoic. “It was a close fight,” he stuttered. He examined the broken scythe on the floor, its heavy weight barely letting him lift it.
“Are you guys alright? Any injuries?” Lamia quickly asked each of her guildmates, healing any injuries she could see. Until she reached Ceas. She kept silent as she looked directly at him, before throwing herself on the protector, hugging him. Ceas smiled with sympathy.
“Gave you quite a scare, huh?” He hugged her back, removing his gauntlet as his bare hand caressed her hair and back. “Sorry,” he closed his eyes, and kissed her. The others grinned, Olivia especially, before turning her attention towards something she found rather curious.
“Hey, guys?” She pointed at the corner of the field. Hidden beneath the many trees of the forests was what seemed to be a wall, and upon inspecting it closer she realized something was placed there. “What’s this…?”
A golden door, covered in vines and rocks. One which neither she nor the rest of her guild have seen in their time exploring. She attempted to open it on her own, but it wouldn’t budge no matter how much she pushed. It wasn’t until the rest of her guild followed her that she could open it. Natalia stepped in and attempted to slide it.
More of the same forest awaited them at the other side of the door.
Olivia stared confused at the object. Why was it there? It clearly wasn’t natural, but then again neither were the stairs connecting each floor. Just…What was the labyrinth? Her questions were interrupted, however, as a familiar flapping sound came from the other side of the door.
Natalia glimpsed at the origin, but as the landsknecht attempted to do the same, the survivalist shut the door immediately. “Of course it wasn’t the only one,” she said.
“Another big insect, I mean.”
It took a few seconds before it dawned on her, she stepped away from the door along with the survivalist. “I’d call it a day if I were you,” she muttered to Ceas without looking away from the gate.
“So would I,” Ceas nodded. “I really hope there’s nothing stronger than that thing…”
A bright flash of light soon engulfed the field, and Guild Boldhunt escaped the labyrinth. The third floor’s entrance was now empty, only the corpse of the mantis F.O.E, now lacking the broken scythe, being visible in the middle of it.
That was all she could see as she soon figured out no one would step there soon. The flame haired girl gripped her bunny plush on her arms as she climbed down the tree she was on, her hands, pale as a corpse, holding the wood.
“They defeated it,” she whispered to the person next to her. A female ronin with long, dark hair and a large scar on her forehead. The ronin hummed, without saying anything else. “Ren?”
“Tlachtga,” the ronin, Ren, said. “I understand.” Tlachtga nodded.
“He was with them as well,” The girl said, putting her plush inside her dark robes. “The alchemist.”
Ren stood silently, and stared at her sheathed katana with a frown. She shook her head, and sighed as she looked at the F.O.E once again. “We must report back,” the ronin said, “The chieftain might know what to do now.”
And another flash soon appeared, the third floor’s entrance now completely devoid of people…