The afternoon of the day after the party of four had updated their progress to the fifty-ninth floor, Tsutomu headed to the meeting place in front of the Monitor later than the usual appointed time. Amy and Garm were already waiting there.
Garm carried with him a brand new tower shield of the usual design, and wore his usual set of silver armor. Amy wore light armor and carried her swords in the sheaths on her waist. These sharp dual blades, crafted from monster materials, had been a favorite of hers for three years now.
“Hello. Looks like we’re all ready to go.”
Garm nodded, and Amy pumped up her fist. Seeing how Amy seemed energetic enough, Tsutomu nodded in satisfaction; the three proceeded to the reception counter.
At the counter, they updated their Status Cards and formed a party of three. Tsutomu’s current level was forty-five, thanks to the effective leveling method he had used for a day and a half. His DEX and MND had gone up one rating level, making it easier for him to use his healing and supporting skills.
Garm’s level was sixty-five. Amy, having finally managed to overcome the wall that was level sixty, was now level sixty-two, and her AGI and STR had raised a level each. Thanks to yesterday’s practice in preparation for the Fire Dragon, Amy had already gotten used to the changes in her AGI and STR, and was able to move around with no issue.
While the three of them headed for the Magic Circle, Amy suddenly held out her hand to Tsutomu. Although Tsutomu couldn’t tell at first whatever she was trying to do, it didn’t take him long to figure out; he smiled and held her extended hand.
“This kind of reminds me of the first time we met.”
“You were scared as all hell when you started out, Tsutomu!”
“I’d never seen a person turn into particles with my own eyes before, after all.”
Tsutomu beckoned to Garm, who was to his left; he too held Tsutomu’s hand.
“But this time, it’s the other way around… Huh? Does that mean we should stop holding hands now?”
“…Quit messin’ around.”
Tsutomu grimaced as Amy extended out her claws and dug them into his hand. Amy then averted her gaze and loosened her hand, then pulled Tsutomu along into the Magic Circle.
“I thought I was bleeding for a second there… Now, teleport to the fifty-ninth layer.”
The bodies of the three were wrapped in light particles and blinked away. Tsutomu’s vision blacked out for a second, and then the next, he found himself plunging down onto a surface of reddish-brown earth. He and the two others landed safely on the ground.
“Okay then, let’s try to find the Black Gate within one hour. <<Fly>>.”
Amy, now applied with the effect of <<Fly>>, zoomed through the air and disappeared into the distance. As usual, Tsutomu started sorting through his Potions, and Garn started doing some warm-up exercises. Tsutomu then saw that some claw marks had been left on his hand, and was prompted to chuckle dryly because of it.
Since the party almost never had to use Green Potions lately, they had been switched out with Blue Potions. Tsutomu looked at the large bottle of Blue Potion; seeing that it was half-filled, he then portioned some of it into small bottles.
When Amy came back and gave the two others the information about the surrounding terrain, Tsutomu suggested that they first went to a vantage point where they could easily search for the Black Gate. Once the potions were distributed to Garm and Amy, the two agreed to Tsutomu’s proposal. Now the exploration of the fifty-ninth layer began.
Since Amy had already been informed of the team’s strategies in fighting the Fire Dragon, on the way, Tsutomu had her practice by sending her signals to watch out for flash bursts and breath attacks. While checking how well Amy could react upon hearing the word ‘breath attack,’ he also used Flash Bottles to help her get used to the timing.
Once they were finishing up the practice rounds and had climbed up to two high locations, on their way to the next vantage point, the ears on Garm and Amy’s heads twitched as if they were detecting something unusual.
Amy looked down the cliff and saw five pea-sized human figures and four Wyvern silhouettes. The people were a party of the Golden Tune Clan, led by the Golden Wolfman himself.
“Ugh, they’re coming at us from below.”
“…Looks like this is turning into a race. Let’s hurry and get going.”
Tsutomu’s team had already gone up two separate cliffs, and had been on the search for almost an hour now. Since it would be a bother if the other party were to capture the Black Gate, Tsutomu told the others to pick up the pace.
“Tsutomu. One of them is rushing ahead of the others — they’re probably trying to capture the Gate. Mind if I go on ahead by myself?”
“Let’s see… All right, I’m counting on you.”
“You got it! I’ll definitely get there first! Oh, and can I have a <<Haste>>?”
“Ah, right, sorry. <<Haste>>.”
When one opened a Black Gate, the Gate’s ownership rights would be transferred to the party of which that person was a member. Tsutomu had never had to compete with anyone for a Black Gate before, so he left the decision-making to Amy this time.
Amy, after getting the <<Haste>> buff from Tsutomu, licked her dry lips and went ahead in an instantaneous burst of speed. With her AGI at its highest, the speed at which she streaked through the sky was tremendous.
However, the Golden Wolfman, Clan leader of the Golden Tune, had the same AGI status rating as Amy. Moreover, his unique skill allowed him to temporarily raise his AGI by two levels.
The blond man flew past Tsutomu and Garm in a flash. The wind pressure blew Tsutomu backward, throwing him a little off his stance, but he managed to quickly regain his balance. Looking at the man who had passed him like a golden falcon, he thought to himself that the man would catch up to Amy soon enough; regardless, Tsutomu and Garm continued up to the clifftop at their own pace.
After five more minutes, Tsutomu and Garm reached the top of the cliff; they walked for a little longer before seeing the Black Gate, the design and color of which clashed with the otherwise natural scenery that one would think it had been forcibly placed there with an editing software. Near it, Amy was lying face-down on the ground, breathing hard. And there was another person there — a man with nicely-trimmed blond hair, sitting on a boulder. Upon seeing Tsutomu and Garm, he casually raised his hand.
“Heh, she really got me good. Never knew when Amy girl’d even gotten this fast, man.”
In response to the man’s greeting, Tsutomu bowed slightly before rushing over to Amy. He assumed from the fact that Amy had gone so short of breath in such a short amount of time that she had rushed up the cliff with all her might, then immediately ran at full speed to get here.
“I-I did it, Tsutomu… I got it,” Amy told Tsutomu as she looked up with a breathless look on her face, and then faced down again, as if she had completely burned out.
Tsutomu cast <<Medic>> on her just to be safe, then stood up; at the same time, the man’s Golden Tune party rushed over, having finally caught up to their leader.
The man laughed, put his hands on his head, and told his party members — all women — that the Black Gate had been taken. The women turned to give Tsutomu’s group a reproachful look, while Tsutomu, thinking how they were as scary as ever, helped Amy up upon seeing that she was starting to catch her breath.
Then the man, the Clan Leader of Golden Tune — now already gone far away — shouted to Tsutomu’s team some words of encouragement, then proceeded to hop down the cliff, presumably done with exploring for the day. Tsutomu heaved a sigh, relieved that no conflict had taken place.
Then, after Amy had caught her breath and Tsutomu had fully recovered his mental energy, the party of three went over their strategies once again before putting on their red coats and entering the Black Gate to the sixtieth layer.
A dust storm swirled in the dented center of the bowl-shaped landscape. Tsutomu waved his white staff, casting support skills on Garm and Amy while the former glared at a distant clifftop and the latter twitched one of her ears in nervousness.
“<<Fly>>, <<Protect>>, <<Haste>>.”
The wind wrapped around the three while two masses of energy enveloped Garm and Amy’s bodies. Then, from the cliff that Garm was staring at, the Fire Dragon rose to the sky, its gigantic body shaking. It roared, the impact of its sound directly affecting the survival instincts of living beings.
In response, Tsutomu covered one of his ears while thinking how it was as noisy as ever, and Garm, though slightly intimidated, quickly regained his ready stance. Having defeated the Fire Dragon once, he no longer found himself cowering in fear.
But things were different for Amy — this time she wasn’t seeing it through a Monitor. She was standing on-site with her own two feet and directly taking in the Fire Dragon’s roar of pure murderous intent. Her cat ears folded all the way back, and her body was trembling.
“It’ll be all right.”
Amy’s shoulders twitched comically strongly in reaction to Tsutomu’s words. Amy looked up at Tsutomu beside her, and saw that his face had the usual smile.
“With the three of us working together, it’ll turn out just fine, Amy.”
Amy replied strongly, and Tsutomu patted her on the shoulder. Garm looked to check how Amy was holding up, then proceeded to groan up his nose.
“Hmph, at least try not to hold us back.”
“And you better not die immediately! I won’t be able to attack if you do, after all!”
“I won’t die. Besides, I’m more concerned about whether or not your attacks are enough to defeat the Fire Dragon.”
“How ’bout you say that again, huh!?”
“Yeah, yeah, stop it already, you two. Breath attack incoming — hold your Fire Coats. I’ll be throwing a Flash Bottle, so get ready.”
As the two started their usual arguing routine, Tsutomu warned them. While pointing at the Fire Dragon, he reached his other hand into his Magic Bag and took out a Flash Bottle. The two others hurried to make sure their Fire Coats were covering them properly, hiding away their tails. Tsutomu fixed his eyes on the Fire Dragon as it rushed at his team with fire building up in its mouth.
[…This one’s a bit smaller. We’re in luck.]
Unlike in the game, monsters here had actual differences among their individuals. For instance, even the same type of monsters would vary in size and muscle mass. Relieved to see that the length of this Fire Dragon was shorter than the one last time, Tsutomu proceeded to shout,
Tsutomu shook the Flash Bottle, then threw it in front of the approaching Fire Dragon. Then he covered himself with his Fire Coat and got down.
The Flash Bottle glowed and explode, and alongside the burst of light, the Fire Dragon’s breath buffeted the team of three. The Explorers’ Red-thread Fire Coats did nullify most of the attack, however, while the Fire Dragon found its vision turned pure white.
After the breath attack died down, Tsutomu put his Fire Coat’s hood down, grabbed his hammer, and rose up to the sky with <<Fly>>. Then, once he made eye contact with Garm, the latter moved away.
At a location slightly separate from the two others, Garm slammed his tower shield on his armor, prompting the skill-airborne Fire Dragon to turn his way, despite its vision still being obscured. Tsutomu flew straight at the monster, aiming for its head.
As he passed by the Fire Dragon’s face, Tsutomu struck the crystal on its forehead with his hammer, shattering it right from its center. The Fire Dragon cried out in fury.
Then it spread its wings to its sides and rushed in the direction from which Garm was unleashing his <<Warrior Howl>>. Tsutomu softly landed on the ground and called out to Amy, who had been closely watching over his and Garm’s movements.
“All right, let’s get started. First, focus on its tail. And then–“
“I know. The usual, right?”
“Right. If aggro levels get dangerous, I’ll let you know. <<Haste>>.”
Amy pulled her dual blades from their sheaths, forced a smile for Tsutomu to see, then headed toward the Fire Dragon. The closer she got to it, the more intimidating its size and overwhelming aura became. The Fire Dragon — she was now skeptical of the fact that it could be defeated by just a group of three.
Amy, going deliberately at a slightly slower pace than usual, started not with a skill, but by simply stabbing into the scales of the Dragon’s tails with her swords.
The Fire Dragon’s scales were firm and hard, but also flexible. Amy’s attacks were easily repelled, causing her swords to bounce back. As long as she didn’t shave off those tough scales, she wouldn’t be able to deal any damage.
Amy struck the Fire Dragon a few more times, but the creature did not even turn her way. The Dragon had yet to regain its eyesight, so it only headed toward Garm, taunted by the sounds he was deliberately making.
And as soon as Amy slowed herself down due to a feeling that her <<Haste>> was about to run out, Tsutomu immediately shot her another one. The <<Haste>> spell effect was maintained, constantly keeping her AGI one level above her base.
[I really just have to do the usual, right?]
Amy suddenly reminded herself of that one point while she continued to wail on the monster’s tail like she had always done on other enemies. All the while, she also paid attention to the Fire Dragon’s actions and her <<Haste>> effect time. The Fire Dragon’s red scales were gradually being chipped off.
“Amy! Attack other spots and wear it down!” Tsutomu shouted his next instructions to Amy while shooting <<Protect>> and <<Heal>> for Garm from above.
Now that Amy had greatly weakened the scales on the Dragon’s tail, she moved on to tear off the scales on its legs. She would not be able to deal that much damage until the scales actually came off, so she didn’t generate that much aggro while she was currently attacking.
This continuous chain of attacks was one trick Camille couldn’t do; individual attacks with her greatsword may undoubtedly be exceedingly powerful, and she could be considered a top Attacker if she has handled well, but her aggressiveness was too much for a party of three to manage.
In comparison, Amy dished out more hits with less attack power, making it easier for her to manage aggro. As a result, unlike Camille who had to resort to hit-and-run, she could continuously attack the Fire Dragon; that was exactly what the team needed for tearing off the Fire Dragon’s scales.
After 30 minutes had passed, Tsutomu put up a <<Barrier>> to stop the Fire Dragon for about ten seconds, the time during which he could cast <<Medic>> for Garm and let him drink some water. By the time they repeated this twice, the scales on the Fire Dragon’s legs and tail scales had been mostly torn off.
“Amy, go for the tail now. Take your time to cut it off.”
Hearing Tsutomu’s order, Amy lightly tapped the toes of her leather shoes on the ground to spring her jump toward the Fire Dragon. Then, she thrust her dual blades into the opened gaps between the monster’s scales. From the Fire Dragon’s perspective, it looked like it had been bitten by an insect… But those seemingly insignificant scratches accumulated, producing serious cuts.
As Amy continued to juke around the Fire Dragon’s feet and cut into its tail, the Dragon eventually turned to Amy, but then…
Garm’s red aura wrapped around the monster. The Fire Dragon ducked its long neck and tried to bite Garm, as if it was being deeply offended by a little bug crawling on the ground.
But Garm had already looked at the monster’s movements for almost eight hours; he easily saw through the obviously telegraphed bite. With him still having plenty of stamina to spare, he easily dodged it, and even managed to land a counter with his tower shield on the Fire Dragon’s face. His aggro-generating skill had an effect on his regular attacks, too; with him hitting the Fire Dragon in its weak point, the monster’s aim was locked on to Garm even more fixedly.
Then it swung its tail, knocking Garm away despite him blocking it with his tower shield. Gram scraped along the ground for a while before slowing down, managing to stop without collapsing. Then he immediately ran toward the Fire Dragon again.
Tsutomu, noticing that Garm’s <<Protect>> was running low on effect time, shot him another one and waited a while before mending his wounds with a <<Heal>>. He then turned to Amy, thinking that it should be about ten seconds before her <<Haste>> effect wore off, and saw that she was moving slightly away from the Fire Dragon while slowing her movement down.
Tsutomu was quite appreciative of that consideration. Back when he had Camille as the team’s Attacker, he’d had to cast her <<Hastes>> a fair bit before the full effect time, so as to never let the effect run out. Moreover, since he had yet to get used to skill placements, the resulting effect’s duration had been shorter despite using up the same amount of mental energy as his skill shots.
But since he could use his familiar skill shots with Amy, he didn’t need to account for the effect duration wasted on the safety margins. That in turn resulted in Tsutomu preserving his energy and generating less aggro from monsters, giving him more flexibility in the actions he could take.
As such, Tsutomu was also able to join in on the attack. The blades of wind he shot out hit the Fire Dragon’s hind legs, damaging its remaining scales. The Dragon’s attention was glued on to Garm; it did not turn around.
Tsutomu put up another <<Barrier>> and switched out Garm’s tattered tower shield before sending the latter out again. By this time, a lot of the scales on the back half of the Fire Dragon’s body had been scraped off, and the flesh of its tail had been almost completely exposed. Amy continued to make small cuts on the monster, knocking off more scales and adjusting the aggro level on her. Several drops of the Fire Dragon’s blood dripped from its tail onto the ground.
The more she repeated the process, the more the Fire Dragon bled from its tail, hind legs, and back. The monster was now under the Bleeding status effect.
Since Camille’s attacks had been heavy single hits, the last Fire Dragon had been able to sear its wounds and stop its bleeding with its own breath attacks. This one, however, was bleeding from three separate spots. Once the Fire Dragon tried to sear them all at once, Amy exploited the opening to hop on to its head and leave a wound on its face.
Additionally, Amy’s attacks on the seared wounds never stopped. The monster’s wounds were quickly reopened, causing it to bleed again. Finally, after two hours since the start of the battle, the Fire Dragon’s long tail was severed, sending the creature into a berserk state.
Almost all Layer Bosses would go into an enraged state at some point. During such times, the mechanics of aggro would take less effect; the Fire Dragon would now be indiscriminately attacking anyone in its way.
Tsutomu, seeing the Dragon grow crazy, quickly ascended into the sky. Seeing that movement, the Fire Dragon launched a breath attack at Tsutomu, but the latter managed to nullify it with the red coat he wore. Garm and Amy on the ground, after receiving support skills from Tsutomu, proceeded to attack the Fire Dragon again.
Although the monster was in a state of madness, that didn’t mean the general mechanics of aggro was completely ignored. The effects did get watered down, however, this just meant Tsutomu was in more danger of getting hit; as such, he had fled up into the sky.
The Fire Dragon would occasionally glide onto the clifftop to try and bite Tsutomu, but he was always able to avoid getting hit without difficulty. After an hour or so, the Dragon’s enraged state ended, and its aggro mechanics started working properly again. Garm proceeded to unleash his <<Combat Cry>>.
Amy kept her chain of light attacks going, maintaining the Fire Dragon’s bleeding status effect. Garm kept the Fire Dragon’s attention glued to the ground, and kept standing up again and again no matter how many attacks he had to block. Tsutomu issued his instructions to the two as he cast healing and support skills for them.
Tsutomu drank his Blue Potion and kept an eye on the battle below. Things were going smoothly. Then he tucked the empty bottle into his belt and raised the corner of his mouth.
[Now this is us in our perfect form.]
Garm, Amy, and himself — Tsutomu was convinced that this was the most efficient battle performance a party of three could achieve. Watching the battle situation from the sky as things went on perfectly smoothly, Tsutomu cast his healing and supporting skills for his teammates, continuing to do what he could do best, while also recalling some memories of when he’d had fun playing and getting better at the game.
Then, four hours after the battle had commenced… Amy clung to the Fire Dragon’s wobbling head and thrust her dual blades into the creature’s golden eye. The Dragon flailed its head about in rage. Another twenty minutes later, the Fire Dragon lost its other eye, turning its vision completely dark. Now it was completely powerless.
And then, five and a half hours since the start… the Fire Dragon silently lowered its gigantic body to the ground. Its blood soaked the ground dark red, and light particles started leaking from the surface.
Amy, despite seeing the particles, kept vigilant and held up her dual blades. But then, when the mass of particles grew larger and started enveloping the Fire Dragon’s face, she shook the blood off her blades and sheathed them. Garm also exhaled loudly as if to ward off his fatigue, holstered his tower shield on his back, then approached Tsutomu and raised his hand without saying a word.
Tsutomu gave Garm a high-five with one hand, then rushed over to Amy and raised his other hand with a smile. Amy only stared at Tsutomu’s raised hand.
Through the Monitor, she had seen Tsutomu give high-fives to Garm and Camille, with them looking quite happy while doing so. She had cursed her circumstances at the time, alone in her Guild Dormitory room, wishing that she could have been there with them.
Now Tsutomu’s hand was being held up in front of her. That fact made Amy irrepressibly happy.
And so Amy gave Tsutomu a high-five… with all her strength. And with how strong she was, Tsutomu couldn’t help but flinch back. Tsutomu shook his arm, feeling a sting as if he had just been hit by a giant man.
“C-come on, Garm and Amy. High-five,” Tsutomu said, prompting Garm to make a face as if he had just swallowed down a bitter bug.
Regardless, Garm raised his hand, albeit reluctantly, greatly surprising Amy.
“What, really? You out of your mind?”
“…Hmph. It’s thanks to Tsutomu’s and my attacks that we were able to defeat it so quickly. You’re not hogging all the glory.”
“Bah… yeah, yeah. Yay,” Amy said, sounding quite uncomfortable, before giving Garm a high-five.
Garm, with a serious look on his face, continued to speak,
“But I’d never thought we would be able to defeat the Fire Dragon this quickly… I suppose this is in part thanks to your contribution.”
“…Uh, that kinda awkward, coming from you. Sure you didn’t hit your head back there?”
Garm closed his eyes and went silent as Amy moved away from him and hid behind Tsutomu. In the middle of the scene, Tsutomu cracked a dry smile.
Then, once they retrieved the red Large Magic Stone, the three returned to the Guild, hand in hand.