With a distinct crunch, I crushed the skull of the ghoul with my gloved hand. Its body fell to the ground twitching, before beginning to dissolve into a fine black mist. The gore on my glove similarly evaporated, leaving my hands clean. I smiled happily to myself, although it was just in my mind.
Pulling a notepad out of my coat, I began to add the current location to my rough map. Behind me, several gunshots rang out, but I completely ignored them, as well as the disturbing hiss of more ghouls dissolving. As far as I could tell from my map, taking the left path from this junction would lead us back toward the entrance, while turning right would lead us further in. Naturally, I turned toward the right hand passage, and started moving forward.
“H, hey. Can we… can we take a break?” spoke a breathless voice behind me. I turned around to look at Irene Bellvaunt, who was currently leaning against the rough tunnel wall and panting slightly.
As expected, she held up pretty well. -Is this your limit? How disappointing.-
“Well… we can’t all… be undead monsters… right?” she said, not bothering to hide her frustration.
-I am not undead. I am dead.-
“Whatever.” She shook her head. She was starting to bring her breathing under control, but she still seemed a bit exhausted. “Hey. Could you please… explain what’s going on here?”
-What do you mean? We are exploring this place that you call The Project.-
“This is not The Project! The Project wasn’t nearly this big! It didn’t have long, empty tunnels! And it especially wasn’t crawling with zombies!”
-They are ghouls, not zombies.-
“Whatever! What the hell is going on!?” Irene shouted, nearly sobbing in frustration.
-Very well. Since it seems that you cannot continue, and since you will likely die if I leave you behind, I will take a moment to explain the current environment while you recover.-
Irene rolled her eyes, but did not directly respond to my words. She controls her fear quite well, for such an inexperienced little girl. -First. You have heard the term ‘monster lair’ before, correct?-
“Not once,” she said flatly.
-How troublesome. I must revise my estimate of the quality of your education downward once more.-
“I’ll be sure to mention it to my ‘teachers’,” she said drily. “So what is a monster lair?”
-It is the result of a distortion in the world caused by magic. A space is cut off and expanded, and replications of dangerous and malicious creatures begin to flow out.-
“Whoa, seriously? Does it happen a lot?”
-There were times when they were quite common, and caused major disruptions in every country. Naturally, the relative paucity of magic in the current era will inhibit the formation of such places.-
“…Honestly, it sounds like some sort of fantasy story,” Irene said, making a perplexed expression.
-It is not a story, but history,- I corrected her calmly. -If it seems unrealistic to you, that simply means that the threat has largely past. One of humanity’s greatest strengths is its short memory.-
“…Right. So, this is a monster lair, then?”
-No. I specified that a monster lair was naturally formed from magic. This space is similar, but differs in two important respects. First, it was formed from necrotic essence, not magic; second, it did not form naturally.-
-Attend carefully. Due to the gods, the energy of life is inseparable from the essence of magic. Therefore, when life is converted to death, the essence of magic is sheared off, converting it to the essence of death, necrotic essence. This essence is naturally benign, as unlike magic, it will not cause changes on its own. However, if a necromancer or similar being gathers this necrotic essence, they can manipulating it in a manner similar to magic, enforcing changes on the world that are also similar to magic. One application would be the space currently confining us.-
-Do not be mistaken, however,- I cautioned her. -Necrotic essence is not magic. Magic will cause damage on its own, without outside intervention; but the use of necrotic essence requires a living will. Do you understand?-
Irene thought about my words for a few moments, then resolutely nodded her head. “No, I don’t understand at all.”
-In short, someone from the Bellvaunt clan created this space as a trap.-
“Ah, that makes sense,” she replied, nodding. “How?”
-That is an excellent question. We are currently exploring this space to find the answer. And you are slowing us down.-
“…Yeah. I know.”
-It is time to continue. Prepare yourself.-
Irene sighed, and pushed herself away from the wall. “Alright, I’m ready. I’m running out of ammo, though.”
-Indeed, the ghouls are quite numerous. Perhaps a melee weapon would be more appropriate at this time.-
“I didn’t pack my sword,” she said, slightly sadly. “Otherwise I would be using it.”
-You can use a spear, correct?- I asked. Reaching into the pocket of my coat, I withdrew an ordinary-looking spear. -You should use this.-
Her eyes widened once again. “Did you… did you actually just pull that out of your pocket? No, where the hell were you carrying that?”
-The technical details are unimportant.- And I never got a good explanation either, so give up. -Can you use this spear?-
Irene looked a little uncomfortable. “I can use it, yes. But, I’m not sure I can kill a zom– a ghoul, with it. Don’t you have to destroy their heads?”
-Did you have to destroy their heads with your guns?-
“No, but I was using anti-undead bullets– Oh.” Her eyes widened in realization.
-Indeed. You will find the spear sufficient.-
I handed her the weapon, and strode off down the right-hand corridor, ignoring the muttered words behind me. “No, but seriously, why is he carrying an anti-undead spear around in his pocket…?”
I probably shouldn’t mention the other forty-five spears, then. Or the other blessed and cursed weapons, or the armor, or… Ah, almost forgot. I spun around suddenly, and Irene, who was glaring at the spear in her hand, nearly walked into me.
“Ah, s-sorry. What…” she began to ask, but stopped as I reached inside my coat and pulled out the shotgun I had taken from the female constable.
-Do you know how this operates?-
“That… Isn’t that a police-issue Dertech Autoshot III!? Where did you get that?”
-From the police, obviously. Can you operate it?-
“Um, yeah, one of my instructors taught me how they work, but it’s illegal to carry–”
-Excellent. Demonstrate its function to me.-
–Now, Miss Bellvaunt.-
“…This switch unlocks the ammunition stockpile. The gun won’t shoot while the chamber is unlocked…”
I tested the weapon on the next group of ghouls to attempt to ambush us. It was truly easy to use, and the recoil was surprisingly minimal. In return, the item was difficult to maintain, but I had no intention of preserving it, so that wasn’t a problem. The ammo I had collected with the unusual weapon wasn’t precisely strong, but it was enough for these monstrous imitations.
I did not have a great deal of ammo, of course, so I mostly left the fighting to Irene. She had adapted very quickly to the Inso Spear I lent her, although the expression on her face when the first ghoul she stabbed exploded was priceless; internally, I couldn’t stop laughing. But her skills, combined with an effective weapon, were more than enough to completely suppress the weak undead infesting that space. I only stepped in when the numbers were truly overwhelming.
“Why are there so many of them?” Irene eventually complained. It had been about another hour since our impromptu break, and she was beginning to look exhausted again.
-You are correct, the number of monsters is unusual. It hasn’t been long since this facility was converted into a dungeon; the density is strangely high, although the strength they demonstrate is convincingly low.-
“Yeah, right… Wait, dungeon?” she suddenly asked.
-A common term for a space converted by necrotic essence. It was based on a euphemism: necromancers would create dungeons and force their enemies inside, but rather than imprisoning them, it was a form of indirect execution.-
“Nice guys,” Irene said, shaking her head.
-There is an older term. These spaces were once known as ‘death lairs’, reflecting the terminology of monster lairs.-
“…I was thinking this before, but you really like languages, huh?”
Now where the hell did that come from? -Not at all. A grasp of communication is necessary for me to properly pursue my duties.-
“Uh huh.” Irene gave me a sidelong look that I couldn’t read.
-Ah, we have arrived,- I said suddenly.
“Huh? Arrived where?” Irene blinked, and peered into the darkness in front of us.
-Although the structure has been cut off, it still exists. We have finally penetrated through the twisted spaces to the original structure.-
“You mean…” she began, narrowing her eyes.
-Yes. If there is information to be had, it will be here, in your Project.-
- A day late. Sorry. 😦
- This chapter ended up feeling very RPG, which is a departure in tone, but I couldn’t make myself scrap the whole thing and re-write it. Sorry. 😦
- Should I mention that Irene asked a bunch of questions when they first entered, and Zedda completely ignored her? Or is it OK to leave it to be assumed? 😐
- The suspicious inventory system is built into Zedda’s coat, he can’t do anything similar himself. Except by cheating. The coat was made by… No, never mind, it might come up in the story, let’s just wait. 😛