Sword and Shield

Unknown Dungeon 2

Shirou was in his happy place.

CLANG!-CLANG!-CLANG!

There was a roaring fire at his side, a hammer in his right hand, tongs in his left hand, and an anvil in front of him. Wearing only pants, his upper body was bare, and the heat of the flames was not bothering him at all as he worked with a single-minded focus on his newest project. Naturally, he was sweating rather profusely right now. However, if someone had spied him in this moment, his state of undress would have taken a backseat to the fact that Shirou was once again a young adult.

Which was honestly to be expected. It had been a solid week since he passed Level 20, and his body seemed to age even faster than it had done the first time around. Why that was, he didn't know, but he did prefer it this way. Shirou had long since grown comfortable with being an 'adult.' Moreover, the extra reach in combat was always a plus.

CLANG!-CLANG!-CLANG!

Off to the side sat Atla on the ground, her legs folded underneath her. Though one couldn't really tell on account of her eyes always being closed, she was deep in meditation. An intense aura of Life Force surrounded her, a pale white energy that ebbed and flowed. As time went on, the aura would intensify as Atla slowly but surely increased the purity of the concentration of the Life Force she was channeling outside her body.

For users of Hengen Musou, the exercise the demi-human girl was doing was something to be done daily. Well, it was for those users who had exceedingly comfortable mastery of Life Force, anyway. Take Shirou himself, for instance. Though incorporating Life Force into his attacks and performing a few basic Hengen Musou techniques was easy, the casual ease of use and flexibility Elrasla and even Atla had were an order of magnitude greater than Shirou. He had to think and consciously draw on his Life Force. Atla and Elrasla did the same without a thought, as easy as breathing.

And once you reach that state, simply intensifying the concentration of Life Force you could put out would make your every attack all the more deadly.

CLANG!-CLANG!-CLANG!

They hadn't left the room with the Rejuvenation Pool in the depths of the dungeon ever since they entered it. There were two interconnected reasons for this. Before they had confronted the Cackling Deadhead Knight, Shirou had already been growing again, and the slapdash armor he had made for himself had become uncomfortably tight. On top of that, he had seen and recorded the armor and weapon of the jester they had felled. Equipment who's forging and inner principles were ever so subtilely different compared to his own honed and borrowed techniques.

It had given him just enough insight to forge new weapons and armor in this world. Using his own skill and knowledge, combined with the insights gleaned from the Cackling Deadhead Knight's equipment, he was busy forging new equipment for his once again adult body.

This little project was a time-consuming one, though, so he and Atla had elected to stay put until it was finished. Though they both wished to leave the dungeon and somehow return to their own world, it behooved no one for them to rush. If Naofumi or any of the others were here, they would have advised them to do the exact same thing they were doing now.

Shirou, for his part, was just happy that his Item Box Gem contained all his forging and accessory crafting tools. It had been a stroke of luck that he literally took everything—including an anvil of all things—with him when they had set out for the Cal Mira archipelago.

CLANG!-CLANG!-CLANG!

The same held true for his Drop Item Gem. Before his current circumstances, Shirou hadn't had much use for it. Just like everyone else in the burgeoning army of the Holy Heroes, it had been simpler and more efficient to use his Item Box Gem to collect all the loot that he could before taking it back. All the loot everyone had gathered during their expeditions would then be piled up and fed to the Legendary Weapons, producing a ton of useful materials and wealth all at once.

Now, however, it was thanks to his Drop Item Gem that he had all the materials he needed. All the loot they had gained and stored away in his Item Box Gem while in this dungeon had been processed by his Drop Item Gem, creating a bevy of useful materials and drops. Which included, but was not limited to, metals, cloths, monster parts, and even everything he needed to create an improvised forge.

"Shirou-sama."

At Atla's call, Shirou's hammer halted mid-swing. Lips curling up, he placed down his tools, making sure that the material he was working on was at a stage where leaving it unattended for a while wouldn't negatively affect the final result. Not bothering to put on a shirt, Shirou turned on his heel and marched towards Atla, who stood up and had an eager look on her face as the visible aura of Life Force remained thick around her.

SHING!

With the sound of air being sliced, Shirou drew the Monohoshi-Zao strapped to his hip, sheathed into a plain white sheath he had made. The hilt of the extremely long, single-edged katana felt comfortable in his single-handed grip. Magical energy was pumped into the relatively fragile weapon, reinforcing it, and Life Force coated it, giving it a pale white glow that matched the silver of its steel.

"Same rules as usual?"

"Yes!"

The short exchange was the same as always. With that said, Atla took a combat-ready stance, the Life Force surrounding her flaring just a little brighter. Shirou lifted Monohoshi-Zao high, closing his other hand around the hilt and twisting the weapon around to point its killing edge towards the ceiling of the chamber.

Cut off from other people and most of their resources, this is what Shirou and Atla have been up to ever since reaching this safe room, and Shirou wasn't busy with forging: training and sparing constantly. Atla worked on her mastery of Life Force and Hengen Musou, while Shirou doubled down on dissociating the transcendent swordsmanship recorded in the Monohoshi-Zao.

It was something that he had already been doing for a long time now. Piece by piece, with regular practice and constant combat, the swordsmanship that could break reality was slowly but surely becoming his. Now, having little else better to do when he was not forging (or cooking), Shirou threw everything he had into becoming the best damn swordsman he could be.

"Give me everything you have, Shirou-sama!"

"Heh. As if I could do any less!"

SHING!-BANG!

Atla leaped forward, her Life Force-encased fist striking the cutting edge of Monohoshi-Zao as the blade sliced through the air, little more than a flash of quicksilver. With a bang, the opposing forces met and repelled each other.

Sharing smiles all the while, they began to spar, momentarily forgetting everything else in the process.


It was three days later that Shirou finished most of his work.

"Hah," a sigh of satisfaction. "These came out even better than I could have hoped for."

On the ground before him lay his 'newest' set of equipment. Using his malfunctioning armor and weapons as a base, he had reworked them with the knowledge gleaned from the armor and weapon of the Cackling Deadhead Knight.

[Padded Leather Armor Mark II: Base Defence: 25 / Enchantment: Fire Resistance (Max) / Earth Resistance (Max) / Agility up: (High)] [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

[Amethyst Vambraces Mark II: Base Defence: 90 / Enchantment: Air Wake (Max) / Lightning Resistance (High) / Magic Recovery (Medium) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High / Low → Medium]

[Amethyst Hip Guards Mark II: Base Defence: 90 / Enchantment: Air Wake (Max) / Water Resistance (High) / Vitality Up (High) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

[Amethyst Greaves Mark II: Base Defence: 90 / Enchantment: Air Wake (Max) / Wind Resistance (High) / (Stamina Regeneration (High) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

[Dirk Mark II: Base Attack: 310 / Enchantment: Imbued Poison Effect (ingrained spell) [Blessing: High → Max]

[Wandering Cross Guard Gladius Mark II: Base Attack: 280 / Enchantment: Defence Up (Max) / Agility Up (High) / Explosion Damage Up (High) / Air Resistance Down (High) Sympathetic Link (ingrained spell) / Hardening (ingrained spell) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

Visually, his equipment had changed little. However, they were now markedly better on all counts, sporting a higher base Attack/Defence and having a few extra Enchantments worked in for good measure. Oh, and there was the small fact that they were functioning as intended now, couldn't forget about that.

Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to rework the Elite Power Bow and the Magical Quiver back into functionality. Given enough time, he was sure he could have done it, but it was an open question just how much time it would have taken. His bow and quiver were both far more intricate pieces of equipment than anything else on his person. On top of that, what little he had managed to gain concerning the fundamentals in this world so far did not really apply to bows and quivers.

It would have taken a lot of guesswork and touch and go experimentation with no guarantee that the final result would be usable or not. In the end, Shirou had given it up as a bad job and focused on the things he knew he could do. Besides, in the relatively cramped spaces of a dungeon, those pieces of equipment would be of limited use anyway.

Shirou donned the Padded Leather Armor and put the supplementary amethyst armor pieces on top of it. Just putting them on made him feel more secure. Meanwhile, the Dirk and the Wandering Cross Guard Gladius were stored in his Item Box Gem. Considering their intended purpose, it would be better to Project those weapons into existence as needed on the battlefield.

With that done, he picked up another three—this time completely original—pieces of equipment that he had also just put the finishing touches on moments ago. Shirou turned towards Atla, who looked giddy. Walking up to her, he held them out to her.

[White Fighter's Kimono: Base Defence: 145 / Enchantment: Attack Up (Max) / Life Force Regeneration (High) / Attack Endurance (High) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

[Protective Obi-Sash: Base Defence: 90 / Enchantment: Defence Up (Max) / Fire Resistance (Max) / Earth Resistance (High) / Lightning Resistance (Max) / Water Resistance (High) / Wind Resistance (Max) / Shock Resistance (High) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

[Zōri Sandals of Swiftness: Base Defence: 75 / Base Agility: 190 / Enchantment: Agility Up (Max) / Vitality Up (High) / Stamina Regeneration (High) [Blessing: High → Max / Medium → High]

Modeled after the equipment worn by their enemy Glass, Shirou had picked this style for Atla's first personal set of 'armor.' The reasons for this were twofold. One, as this set of equipment was made primarily out of cloth and silk—something that the Drops from the Albino Arachnoids had supplied them plenty of—it wouldn't be all that difficult to resize the pieces as soon as Atla began to grow.

As for the second reason? Well, Shirou honestly thought that Atla would look good in a kimono, so he went for it. He was just glad that, when he had visited the craftsmen in the capital of Melromarc, he had also visited the women who had made Filo's Transforming Clothes and others like her. Though he was not able to make something like Transforming Clothes, the experience and skills he had taken from their deft hands had allowed him to make a set of lightweight 'armor' perfectly suited to Atla.

"Thank you, Shirou-sama," Atla breathed. Though she perceived the world differently than others and, as such, did not quite 'see' the craftsmanship that had gone into the equipment Shirou had made for her, any gift from him was one she would treasure. "Would you help me put it on?"

Shirou blinked. Ah, right, he thought. It was not like Atla had ever seen clothing like this before. Kimono's and such required a little extra know-how to put on compared to ordinary armor and clothing. Realizing that this wasn't one of Atla's usual antics, he acquiesced.

"…Like this, Shirou-sama?"

"Yes. Put your hand through the sleeve...good. As for the obi, I'm tightening it now…"

A sigh. "It feels a little tight, but also just right. Strange."

"I know the feeling," a small laugh.

With Shirou's help, the kimono, obi, and sandals were quickly equipped to Atla's person. Once he saw the final result, Shirou's mouth suddenly went a little dry.

Ever since being cured of her illness, Atla had attained doll-like beauty: pristine white skin, perpetually closed eyes, and contrasting black and white tresses. However, combined with a pure white Japanese kimono, simple but functional sandals, and a colorful obi-sash tied around her middle that bore an intricate, tiger-like design outlined in black, yellow, and green, she appeared almost fairy-like to him. Throw in her pure white feline ears and black and white striped tail on top of that, and…

"And? What do you think, Shirou-sama?"

For once, the confident Atla was nowhere to be seen. Now, she appeared demure, 'looking' up at him shyly with a faint blush on her pale cheeks and her feline ears folded down on her head. Of course, there was no reason for her to ask, as she was perfectly aware of what Shirou thought of her appearance. After all, in lieu of her abilities, he would never be able to hide his feelings from her.

"You're…stunning, Atla. Truly stunning," Shirou said. In the back of his mind, tucked so far away that he himself didn't consciously recognize it, a desire was born for Atla to Level up as fast as possible. If she was this beautiful as a child, how beautiful would she be as an adult…?

At those words, Atla's usual cheeky grin reappeared on her face, her feline ears springing back up as her demure attitude disappeared like snow before the sun. "Again, thank you, Shirou-sama. I'll do my best to live up to this gift of yours."

"I'm sure you will," Shirou led out a breath and calming his thoughts and feelings with a force of will.

"And now? Are we setting out again?"

"Not yet. Tomorrow, I think. Or whatever feels like tomorrow, anyway," Shirou answered. As they were underground, there was no way to tell if it was morning or evening. "There's still a single project I want to finish."

Shirou tore his eyes away from Atla, looking towards his improvised smithy. There, laying on the anvil, were his two hitherto missing weapons: the Monohoshi-Zao and the Magic Amethyst Longsword. He had yet to work on them, and he was about to attempt a little experiment…


CREAK!

With a loud creaking sound, the large stone gate leading into the next floor of the dungeon slowly swung open. Side by side, Shirou and Atla left the room they had stayed in for over a week and a half. Now that their preparations were complete, it was time to set out again.

Wordlessly, Shirou was about to cast Faust Light…

WHOOSH!-CRACKLE!-BANG!

With a loud crackling sound, torches on the walls abruptly lit themselves while the stone gate slammed itself shut behind them. Every few meters hung a lit torch, perfectly illuminating the corridor. Faust Light was forgotten as both Shirou and Atla tensed, readying themselves for combat. However, after a minute of nothing happening, the both of them marginally relaxed and began to move forwards.

Though they had yet to see any monsters, this floor was already quite a bit different compared to the previous one. The walls were smooth, as was the ceiling, while the ground was made out of perfectly cut tiles, creating a grid pattern of groves on the ground. In simple terms, while the first floor resembled nothing so much as an underground cave, this second floor so far was reminiscent of an actual man-made structure. The insides of a fortress, perhaps?

And they had yet to see any monsters, though Shirou was sure that was soon to change as Atla suddenly perked up at his side and called out in a warning tone, "Shirou-sama."

"Zweite Hiding."

Without missing a beat, Shirou cast the illusion spell and made them both invisible. Both demi-humans fed magical energy into their stealth rings, cancelled out their scent, and prevented anyone from being able to hear them. Even though they had once again attained the strength necessary to more or less face everything head-on, there was still no reason to fight, was there?

However, as Shirou felt the stone underneath his feet tremble ever so slightly, he realized that their opponents on this floor weren't about to fight fair either.

The corridor they were on stretched into the distance, far enough that they couldn't see the end of it in the dim torch light. At regular intervals, every 150 meters or so, two pathways would branch off from the main corridor, one going sharply to the left and the other to the right. As far as Shirou could see right now, he counted twelve possible paths they could take, excluding just going straight ahead.

That thought was pushed to the back of his mind as the trembling underneath his feet increased ever so slightly.

"Prepare yourself, Shirou-sama! We face an army!"

As soon as those words left Atla's mouth, monsters started pouring out from the first two branching paths in the corridor. They rounded the bend and ran straight towards them as if they were possessed. No, Shirou corrected himself. Not as if, they are possessed!

[Possessed Samurai Armor: Pikeman LV: 24]

[Possessed Samurai Armor: Swordsman LV: 27]

[Possessed Samurai Armor: Bowman LV: 26]

Intricate but worn and scuffed samurai armor sets in their hundreds ran towards them, sans actual people inside the armor in question. The samurai armor, though faded a bit in color, was still a vivid crimson with the occasional splotches of eye-catching yellow. Blood-red helmets enclosed the skull area, with masks in the shape of snarling oni hiding away what lay within as eldritch blue light could be seen through the helmets' eye slits and snarling mouths. Except for the weapons they bore, every single set of samurai armor was identical.

Without a word, Shirou dropped the Zweite Hiding spell. Clearly, these possessed pieces of armor had to have detected them. And even if they couldn't actually see Shirou and Atla, with a small army storming down a relatively narrow corridor, remaining hidden from sight was pointless. By just attacking forward en masse, the army of Possessed Samurai Armor would find them. By dropping the Zweite Hiding spell, he would at least conserve a little bit of his magical energy.

SHING!

With the sound of steel slicing air, Shirou drew his newest weapon. Though calling it 'new' wasn't really accurate.

[Monohoshi-Zao: the Killing Edge: Base Attack: 565 / Base Agility: 120 / Enchantment: Critical Hit Rate Up (High) / Attack Up (Max) / Hardening (ingrained Spell) / Curse: Wound Healing Impairment (ingrained spell) / Samurai's Grace (ingrained spell)]

An experiment he had tried in a fit of inspiration. The Magic Amethyst Longsword, the strongest weapon in his arsenal (sans the Legendary Weapon Replica, of course), melted down. Monohoshi-Zao, partially disassembled, was then imbued with the materials of the Magic Amethyst Longsword and reforged. All the while, Shirou had abused his Divinity born ability to Bless items to the fullest extent he was able, with as much magical energy and Life Force as he could spare being expended during the katana's reforging.

The result had blown away his expectations. The Monohoshi-Zao had always been an excellent blade in terms of the quality of its forging. But except for the history and transcendental skills recorded inside the weapon, something that only Shirou could perceive, that was all that the blade was: well forged. By the rules of game-like worlds, its attack power had been abysmal, and its steel was relatively brittle. In other words, it is unsuited for actual combat.

But now?

The Monohoshi-Zao, imbued with the materials and power of the Magic Amethyst Longsword. It's already much increased durability has increased even further with the Enchantment of Hardening, taken from the Wandering Cross Guard Gladius. Moreover, the adage 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' had proven true: a base Agility of 120 had appeared spontaneously, even as the base attack of the Monohoshi-Zao had skyrocketed. Enchantments and ingrained spells not intended by him were imbued into the final result as he expended more and more magical energy and Life Force during the reforging process, as if those powers had merely been hidden inside the katana, waiting for a blacksmith to bring them to the surface…

Appearance-wise, Monohoshi-Zao had changed significantly. Though its length remained unchanged and its killing edge had retained a clear silver color, the narrow 'spine' of the katana had turned a deep purple. The hilt had changed from blue and gold into red and white, as had the twin tassels dangling from the end of said hilt.

Without a word, Shirou reared the reforged katana back.

"Hidden Light Slash!"

And as he swung Monohoshi-Zao, the crescent of cutting light that leaped from its edge was different as well. Narrower, compressed into the extreme to be no thicker than a hairsbreadth, the cutting heat of the technique was an order of magnitude greater, and its attack power was much higher than it had any right to be. This was the power of the Samurai's Grace (ingrained spell). Not only would merely equipping the blade make the wielder's swordsmanship even more refined and deadly, as if an unseen hand were guiding them, techniques released through the blade would be powered up as well.

SCHING!-SIZZLE!

Several hundred Possessed Samurai Armors had rushed towards them, those equipped with bows hanging back as they drew back the bowstring and aimed down the corridor at them. Several hundred Possessed Samurai Armors were unceremoniously bisected as a Hidden Light Slash the mere breadth of hair traveled down the length of the corridor horizontally, the technique's edges leaving deep, red-hot, glowing furrows on the walls on either side. The archers in the back weren't spared either. They were bisected as well, with the Hidden Light Slash continuing to fly down the corridor unimpeded.

However, this didn't end the battle. Before the several hundred bisected samurai armor pieces could fall to the ground—the eldritch blue light peeking through their helmets eye slits and snarling mouths blinking out—they turned black in color, flaking away and disappearing like ash in the wind. Even as a rapid series of EXP-related notifications flashed by in the corner of Shirou's vision, the tide of Possessed Samurai Armor hadn't slowed down. Heedless of danger and incapable of fearing death, the animated armor pieces continued to stream out from the two branching pathways, like a rapid of water in a raging stream.

"Shirou-sama! We need to deal with these things at their source!"

At those words from Atla, Shirou suddenly had a pretty solid guess as to what they were dealing with.

"Atla! Cover me! I'll clear a path!"

"Yes!"

One, two, three. The air wheezed as Monohoshi-Zao was swung again, again, and again. Three crisscrossing Hidden Light Slashes traveled down the corridor, slicing straight through a dozen Possessed Samurai Armors every second. Shirou and Atla ran in the wake of the Hidden Light Slashes, the devastation being wrought ahead their key to advancing.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Bullet!"

A precious few arrows speared back at them. As they ran, Atla would knock those arrows down with a few well-placed, measured, and constant flurry of 'bullets' released by her fists. The stream of possessed enemies never slowed down, but as they continued to charge headlong into Shirou's Hidden Light Slashes, they didn't slow down the demi-humans advance either.

"Trace, on!"

Shirou chanted just as they reached the intersection where the main corridor met the two branching pathways. Over a hundred nameless but well-crafted blades speared down the pathway on the right in crisscrossing patterns, plowing through possessed armor pieces and lodging themselves into the stone floor and the walls. With a mesh of interlocking steel clogging up one of the pathways, Shirou was quick to reverse the grip on his blade, twist around, and-

"Hidden Light Slash!"

Launch several hair-tin crescents of cutting light down the other pathway, yet again felling Possessed Samurai Armors in their dozens. Behind Shirou, Atla slapped away several arrows coming down on him, firing through the gaps in the impromptu blockade. Without missing a beat, they both rushed down the unobstructed pathway.

With Shirou throwing everything into offense—made all the more deadly by the confined space and the sheer numbers of the enemy host making any kind of fancy maneuvering impossible—and Atla protecting him from the few attacks that managed to get through his assault, the two had very little trouble making their way to the end of the pathway. The end of said pathway opened up, the walls on either side and the ceiling pulling away all of a sudden into a fairly large room.

In the middle of said room was a crystal the size of a large suitcase, hewn into the shape of a perfect cylinder and placed smackdab in the center of a magic circle. The magic circle was glowing fiercely, feeding an enormous amount of magical energy to the crystal, which was in turn surrounded by an aura of crackling energy. Around the crystal, in flashes of blue, Possessed Samurai Armor were being spawned constantly in uncountable numbers.

"Light Swords!"

Shirou took one look at this scene and fired a dozen energy blades into the room, straight at the crystal.

CLANG!

Only for a clear barrier like thick glass to snap into existence, wrapping around the offending crystal. Empowered by Life force, though they were, the energy blades could not penetrate the barrier, their tips raging against but not puncturing the protective energy shield.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Large Caliber Piercing Bullet!"

Atla provided the extra push needed. In the middle of covering Shirou, a highly concentrated blast of oscillating Life Force left her fist, striking the barrier, which broke immediately.

SHATTER!

The crystal was struck, and it proved far more brittle than the barrier that had defended it. It exploded into a million pieces, scattering across the room in a display that no doubt would have been beautiful if Shirou and Atla had only had the time to appreciate it. Because even though the Possessed Samurai Armors spawned by this particular crystal vanished as soon as it had been destroyed, it didn't mean that all their opponents had vanished.

Turning on their heels and twisting around, they charged back the way they came, straight into the path of even more possessed armor pieces. Shirou's impromptu blockade had been trampled by a sheer weight of numbers in record time.

"Out of the way! Hidden Light Slash! Light Swords!"

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Bullet!"

Combining their assault, the duo was like a snowplow in winter, with momentum and mass (read: violence) allowing them to sweep aside the army bearing down on them. In record time, they had charged from one pathway into the other. Down said pathway, they found yet another cylindrical crystal, and the room it was placed in was identical to the first.

SHATTER!

A gratuitous bevy of techniques were flung into the room. This time, the barrier folded immediately, the crystal shattering like a mirror thrown against a wall. And with that, the army of Possessed Samurai Armor they were contending with blinked out of existence.

"Hah…hah," Shirou panted, a little bit of steam coming out of his mouth.

"Hah…" similarly, Atla took the opportunity to catch her breath.

Unfortunately, Shirou and Atla wouldn't get the chance to truly take a breather. Both of them stiffened in alarm when they once again felt the stone underneath their feet start to tremble. Without sharing a word, they ran back through the pathway and back into the main corridor.

"Damn," Shirou muttered.

Yet another army of Possessed Samurai Armor came charging down the corridor. As if the previous scene were repeating, the monsters poured out from the next 'intersection', flowing out from the two pathways like a flood.

"Shirou-sama! Let's switch! I attack! You defend!"

"My thoughts exactly! Trace, on!"

Atla charged ahead, Life Force surging around her fists. Shirou followed in her wake, eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses manifesting around him. Arrows came to meet them half way, but the gladiuses overtook Atla, protecting her as they spun like the blades on a windmill, whacking aside any arrow that might have hit home.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Earth Shatter!"

Just as Atla and the frontline of the army of Possessed Samurai Armor were about to crash into each other, the demi-human came to a sliding halt, bringing her Life Force-encased left fist down on the stone floor.

CRUNCH!

Her fist punched through the floor in question like a hydraulic press through gelatin. Rapidly widening cracks raced outward and forward, pale white energy shining from the fissures as they spread out at a speed that was startling. The frontline of the army of Possessed Samurai Armor visibly faltered as the cracks destabilized their footing.

"HAH!"

CRACK!-CRUNCH!

With a cry of effort, Atla's fist sank even deeper into the ground, after which she twisted her limb viciously, Life Force now surging wildly all around her. The energy in the expanding fissures glowed ever more fiercely, and the ground then abruptly exploded. Life Force ruptured out from the ground, and what looked suspiciously like a chain reaction was triggered. The glowing fissures raced forward, tracing the floor and length of the corridor, which then overloaded and detonated the ground in its wake. Packed in tight as they were, hundreds of Possessed Samurai Armor were thrown around like ragdolls in a blender as the very ground they were charging over turned against them.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Fierce Claws!"

Tearing her arm free from the ground, Atla leaned forward, briefly looking like a predator about to pounce. She exploded ahead and seemed to claw at the very air.

SHING! SHING!-SHING!-SHING!-SHING!-SHING!

Only those with sharp eyes could have seen the barely perceivable blades of Life Force extending from Atla's every finger. As she clawed at the air again and again, every swipe launched small and difficult to see but dangerously sharp, and Defence ignoring crescents of Life Force. The army of Possessed Samurai Armor, already having taken a heavy hit, had no chance to react as Atla tore them all to shreds as dozens upon dozens of claw strikes ripped them and the corridor itself to pieces.

A few arrows managed to spear back at her in the chaos, but none of them got anywhere close to her. The Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses circled her constantly, knocking aside said arrows and protecting her under the guidance of Shirou's will.

With Atla's overwhelming assault and Shirou's stalwart defence, it didn't take long for them to reach the intersection, invade both pathways one after the other, and smash the monster-spawning crystals at the end of said pathways for a second time. This time, however, both of them were quick to book it back to the main corridor, already knowing what was going to happen.

"This is going to be more difficult than I thought," Shirou admitted.

For the third time, an army of Possessed Samurai Armor was surging down the corridor at them like a tidal wave, springing forth from the pathways of the third intersection.

"This floor, is it testing our endurance?" Atla questioned.

The possessed monsters being spawned weren't all that dangerous by themselves. The monsters' Stats were far lower than their own. On top of that, said monsters seemed to possess no special powers or abilities, while the sheer number of them and the confined space they were in literally made it as easy as shooting a fish in a barrel to strike them en masse. Couple that with Shirou's and Atla's attacks ignoring Defence, they were shredding the armies of Possessed Samurai Armor to pieces with contemptuous ease.

No, the real danger lay in the fact that this floor seemed to be a continues battle. There was no hiding away on this floor like one could on the previous one. There is no chance to catch your breath, and there is no opportunity to allow your stamina to recover naturally. If you weren't up to the task of fighting your way through all the way to the end of this floor in one go, exhaustion and the sheer weight of numbers would eventually do you in.

However, both Atla and Shirou had high Stats and excellent physical condition. Moreover, among the list of Enchantments that their equipment boasted, Stamina Regeneration was one of them. Finally, Atla could burn Life Force to quickly recover from exhaustion. With all of that combined, reaching the end of this floor was still very much doable.

"…What I wouldn't give to have Naofumi here right now," Shirou muttered.

Doable though it was, this floor would still be a challenge. A challenge that the Shield Hero, with his barrier Skills and his stamina recovering spells, would have utterly trivialized.

"Wishful thinking like that will do us no good, Shirou-sama," Atla reproached, walking forward and taking point. She crouched down, as if she were about to pounce. Small, barely perceivable energy claws once again sprouted from her fingers.

"I cannot deny that," Shirou sighed. Without a further word, he formed up behind her. Around them, the eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses twisted in the air, pointing their tips at the incoming horde, ready to both attack and defend if necessary.

The army of Possessed Samurai Armor was almost upon them-

"YAH!"

-only for Atla to burst forward, claw-strike after claw-strike rending the air as she ripped the horde to itty bitty pieces with a deluge of difficult-to-see cutting crescents of Life Force. Shirou followed in her wake, the Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses protecting her from everything and anything, allowing Atla to throw everything into offense.


"Hah…Hah…Hah…!"

"Shirou-sama! Switch!"

"Yes!"

Panting deeply and sweating profusely, Shirou fell back as Atla surged forward, taking point yet again. The maneuver had become so natural for them at this point that doing so didn't slow down their advance one iota.

Ever since realizing the true danger, they had worked out a set rhythm for tackling this floor. One would take point and annihilate the army of Possessed Samurai Armor, threatening to wash over them like an unending tide. The other would defend the one taking point. Periodically, they would switch, allowing the one doing the more taxing job of ripping opponents to shreds by the dozens to recover while the other took over the job of doing exactly that.

They could have just rushed down the corridor and left the Summoning Crystals spawning the unending tide unmolested, but that ran the risk of leaving an enemy at their back. Not to mention the chance that the dungeon would only allow them to advance to the next floor if they had smashed all the Summoning Crystals. If that were the case, it would mean that they would have to double back.

An extra expenditure of stamina. In other words, a risk not worth taking.

This strategy had paid off. By Shirou's count, they had crossed fifteen intersections and smashed thirty crystals. More importantly, they were now in the final stretch. He could see the end of the corridor: a large, dark open room outlined in blue by the crystal summoning ever more Possessed Samurai Armors, the shadows inside so deep that even his sharp eyes couldn't make out what was inside it.

No matter. The fact of the matter was that said room was where they had to go. Worst come to worst, he could simply cast some light magic or have Atla guide him in battle again.

First thing first, though: getting there. Though Shirou was trying not to show it, he was quite exhausted, having difficulty steadying his breathing while all his muscles were aching from overexertion. He was fit, yes. He benefited from a Stamina Regeneration Enchantment, yes. But there was a limit to everything. And his limit was fast approaching.

Atla, for her part, was doing better on account of her ability to spend Life Force to recover stamina. Even though she was visibly getting tired.

"Almost there, Shirou-sama!" she managed to get out between heavy breaths.

Shirou didn't respond. He merely firmed his expression, calling on reserves of energy he didn't even know he had as he urged his aching legs onward.

SHING!

With every swing of her arms, Atla peppered everything in front of them with barely perceptible, cutting crescents of Life Force, devastating both the army of Possessed Samurai Armor that hadn't allowed them to have a moment's rest since entering this floor and the corridor itself. With a spirited shout, Atla tore a way open for them out of the narrow corridor and into the dark room.

Shirou's eyes darted around. Two Summoning Crystals, one on the left and the other on the right. The glow they released was enough for him to see them clearly, even in the gloom. Without a word, Atla and Shirou turned towards whichever crystal happened to be closer to them. For Shirou, that was the one on the left. For Atla, the one on the right.

"…!"

There was no calling out the names of techniques. No fancy movements or tactics. In their exhaustion, they simply threw everything they had at the Summoning Crystals with all the ferocity their bone-deep weariness would allow.

Like always, barriers snapped into existence as soon as they attacked the crystals. The crystal on the left was targeted by a cutting crescent of burning light the mere breadth of a hair, energy blades, and Life Force 'bullets.' The crystal on the right faced down well over a hundred flying Life Force-based claw strikes and a single Large Caliber Piercing Bullet, larger and more powerful than usual because Atla had pumped more Life Force into the technique than was usually recommended.

Said techniques and magic tore through the few remaining Possessed Samurai Armors in the way-

CRACK!

-and smashed the protective barriers, striking true. The Summoning Crystals unceremoniously exploded, their shards arching through the air. And before said shards even fell back down on the ground, all the remaining Possessed Samurai Armors disappeared, de-spawning as soon as the Summoning Crystals met their end.

"Hah…Hah…Hah…"

"Hah…Hah…"

For a moment, all that could be heard in the now completely dark room—the glow having disappeared—was Shirou's and Atla's heavy panting. The duo remained vigilant, their eyes and senses remaining sharp for any last-minute attack that might take them unaware.

"…Atla? Hah…Hah…"

"There are no remaining enemies—hah—in the room, Shirou-sama. Hah…hah…"

Again, everything briefly fell silent except for their slowly steadying breathing. The tension in their bodies slowly disappeared, the both of them slumping even as they remained standing and sweat dripped down their faces in thick rivulets.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Life Return," Atla muttered. Life Force surged underneath her skin, expended to restore her stamina and energy. Her breathing steadied immediately, and her complexion visibly improved as her stance firmed. With that done, she turned and made her way to Shirou, who was still breathing deeply and tottering a little on his legs. She was about to help him to the nearest wall so he could lean against it and recover…

BANG!-WHOOSH!

Only for the entrance they had come through to slam shut, a wall dropping down from a grove in the ceiling, trapping them. Torches lining the walls of the room lit up, illuminating the space. Though Atla had already known, this revealed to Shirou that the room was far bigger than he had first assumed.

Calling the space they were in a 'room' was not completely true, either. Colosseum was a bit more accurate, on account of its size and the fact that the walls curved to form a circle while the floor in the center of the room was sunken far below them. If this were a true colosseum, then Shirou and Atla would be in the bleachers while the sunken floor below was the arena.

"Damn, I thought we would have had more time," Atla muttered.

The meaning of her words was readily evident: on the sunken floor down below, a massive magic circle flared into existence, blue magical energy filling the groves in the floor as errant energy sparked over the surface between the groves.

"…!" in spite of himself, Shirou growled deep in the back of his throat, something that made Atla look up at him in surprise. It didn't take a lot of imagination to realize that Shirou was not happy with this development. However, he was nonetheless quick to sheath Monohoshi-Zao.

"Trace, on."

Visibly gathering himself and taking a deep breath as he firmed his stance, Shirou's Magic Circuits became visible on his skin, crackling magical energy gathering in the palm of his hands. Using anger to fuel himself and temporarily push away his exhaustion, he was quick to pull on a trump card he could not have used on the previous floor on account of the fact that his Level and, in turn, his magical energy capacity had been too low to do so.

[Emiya Shirou Lv: 38]

[Atla Ga Fayon Lv: 38]

Something that was no longer the case. Though this floor had been infuriating because it hadn't allowed them a moment's rest, the upside was that the several thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of Possessed Samurai Armors that they had felled had provided a constant stream of delicious EXP. Enough for them to have jumped 14 Levels at the end of said running battle.

Shirou brought his hands above his head, magical energy surging in between his palms as errant energy sparked up and down his form. Down below, the magic circle had finished preparing. In a blindingly bright flash of blue energy, the final challenge of this floor was summoned.

[Possessed Shogun Leviathan Lv: 66]

Yet again, what was summoned was a possessed armor set. The color scheme was the same, the majority crimson with the occasional splotch of yellow, though the armor was far more ornate and ostentatious than the previous opponents they had faced. The other major difference was this monster's sheer size. Even standing on the sunken floor, its helmet nearly brushed the ceiling, almost thirty meters tall. Ponderously, its right gauntlet reached for the massive katana on its back, unsheathing it with the hiss of steel as the Possessed Shogun Leviathan turned towards them, its steps making the floor quake-

"Brionac!"

Only to get blasted in the face by a massive, iridescent golden beam.

The newly Projected Legendary Weapon Replica, in spear-form, glinted in Shirou's hands, still glowing minutely after having unleashed the deadly recreation of the Brionac Skill.

As the Shogun Leviathan tottered back, the snarling oni mask that was its face steaming and damaged terribly, Shirou shouted, "Atla, I can't fight for much longer! I'll do as much as I can, but I need you to finish this quickly!" as soon as those words were out of his mouth, the eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses formed up around him, their tips pointed at their unbalanced enemy.

"On it, Shirou-sama!"

With Life Force reinforcing her muscles, Atla leaped into the arena, the floor cracking underneath the force of her jump. She positively soared, shooting forward, up, and then downward in an arc that would take her to the midriff of the Shogun Leviathan. Still in midflight, the Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses overtook her and targeted various points on the monster's massive body.

SHINK!

With the sound of steel slicing through steel, the Defence ignoring weapons buried themselves all over the Shogun Leviathan's gargantuan form.

BOOM!

And then promptly exploded, causing the already unbalanced monster to ponderously start falling over onto its back as large chunks were ripped out of it. At that moment, Atla reached her target.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Tiger Bite!"

Leading with her Life Force-incased fist, she drove said fist full force into the Shogun Leviathan's midriff. If there had been any hope for the colossal monster to regain its balance, Atla drove the final nail into the coffin of that hope. With a terrible noise, the outsized possessed armor set fell down, its top half coming down on the 'bleachers' while its bottom half was still inside the arena itself. Beside it, its absurdly massive katana fell down into the arena, the Shogun Leviathan having lost its grip on it.

Atla landed on top of the monster and was quick to drive her fist yet again into the already damaged armor, shouting, "Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Earth Shatter!" white glowing lines spread out from the point of impact, which promptly detonated, wrecking large chunks of the Shogun Leviathan's midriff.

WHISTLE!-SHINK!-BOOM!

Accompanied by the sound of the air being cut, another batch of several dozen unnamed blades rained down on the legs of the Shogun Leviathan, burying in deep before exploding. The legs of the possessed colossus were blown to bits, utterly destroyed beyond the hope of repair.

With that, however, Shirou was done. The Legendary Weapon Replica fell from his nerveless fingers as he collapsed, his exhaustion and overuse of his Magic Circuits finally catching up with him.

Thanks to her unique and far reaching 'sight' Atla saw this happen even as she continued to lay into the colossal armor set with Life Force-infused blows, but no matter how much she wanted to return to Shirou's side, she could not. She had to make sure this Shogun Leviathan was down and out, because if it could somehow recover from the catastrophic damage they had been able to do or just find a way to fight back effectively, that would be that.

Shirou was out, while she herself was also rapidly reaching her limit. There was a reason that Shirou had gone all out from the start. He had realized that any kind of 'long' and/or 'measured' battle would end in their defeat as exhaustion did them in.

The final challenge on this floor had been crippled. Now it was up to her to finish it off.

"YAH!" with a war cry, Atla's fists struck the torso of the Shogun Leviathan again and again. From every blow, white glowing lines stretched out as they tore through and shattered the armor currently under possession. This rapid fire use of the 'Earth Shatter' technique wasn't as powerful when she used it as a single attack that required a little bit of prep time, but that was okay. What she needed right now was a lot of damage stacking atop other damage quickly, not a single massive attack.

With that thought in mind, she ran up the torso of the gigantic collapsed monster, raining down blows all the while with all her limbs. She left devastation in her wake, fissures filled with Life Force spreading like a cancer and shattering, shattering, and shattering some more armor with every hit.

Throughout all this, just like all the other armor sets they had contented with, the Shogun Leviathan remained eerily quiet. The difference, however, was that this huge variant wasn't going down in one hit.

WHAM!

Neither was it going to just lay there and take it. With shocking speed, considering its slow and ponderous movements from before, the gauntlet of the Shogun Leviathan slammed down where Atla had been a scant millisecond before. If she hadn't reacted quickly enough, she would have been pancaked by that blow, but she had jumped to the left and up just in the nick of time.

"Tch!" Atla let out an aggravated noise as the Shogun Leviathan's other arm swung up towards her, its armored fingers splayed out to catch her while she was still in the air. "Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Earth Shatter!" twisting in the air, she kicked the hand reaching for her, her sandal-clad foot landing on the massive pointer finger.

SHATTER!

White glowing lines spread out from the point of impact, slicing through the red of the outsized gauntlet before detonating, ripping said 'finger' apart as it fell to the ground in chunks. Twisting in the air yet again, Atla managed to slip through the newly created gap in the fingers grasping for her. Landing on the offending arm, she ran up it and towards the joint in its elbow.

"Woah!" Atla exclaimed as the Shogun Leviathan flung the arm she was running on with bone-crushing force. And bone-crushing was indeed the correct word. As if gravity had all of a sudden multiplied tenfold, Atla's legs buckled underneath her as she crashed face first against the armored limb, rattling her skull and dazing her, held in place for the briefest of moments by natural forces not too dissimilar to a person forced up and held against a wall by hurricane force winds.

Of course, and thankfully for Atla, this state of affairs ended quickly. At the apex of the 'swing' she was launched up and away, flying like a rocket towards the ceiling. Fighting through her vertigo and the hit to the head she had taken moments before, Atla flipped herself upside down and reinforced her leg muscles with Life Force.

CRASH!

Was the sound as she landed on the ceiling, her feet cratering the stone. Atla felt her teeth and bones rattle in her flesh, blood dripping from her head. For a brief moment, she remained standing on the ceiling, held in place by pure inertia. The moment inertia lost its hold on her, she kicked off and launched herself back down straight at the fallen Shogun Leviathan.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique!"

Both limbs of the Shogun Leviathan reached up for Atla, one seeking to catch and crush her into a fine past while the other came in swinging to swat her away like an overly annoying fly.

Angling her fall just right, Atla managed to dodge the backhand, threatening to leave her little more than a smear on the far wall. However, this resulted in the other hand managing to catch her. The armored digits closed around her entire body and immediately began to squeeze.

"HAAAH!"

Screaming in both rage and pain, the Life Force exploded out of Atla. An intense white glow surged out from in between the armored digits of the Shogun Leviathan.

CRACK!-SHATTER!

Said digits shattered, Life Force having been driven into each and every faultline and point of weakness. It was something that only Atla—on account of her unique 'sight' and incredible talent for Hengen Musou—could have accomplished as she expelled nearly all the remaining Life Force she had out of all of her own pressure points.

Atla continued on her path downward as gravity took hold, the remains of the Shogun Leviathan's fingers falling alongside her. She flipped, going from falling face first to feet first towards her fallen enemy that was laid out on the ground underneath her.

"Earth Shatter!"

Both of Atla's sandal-clad feet struck the throat of the Shogun Leviathan simultaneously, punching through the armor as she pumped every bit of her remaining Life Force into the attack. And as white glowing fissures spread out greedily into every direction from the point of impact, just like with Shirou earlier, exhaustion and overexertion caught up with Atla as she blacked out.

SHATTER!


Atla came to an indeterminate amount of time later. She found herself next to the decapitated remains of the Shogun Leviathan, which, for some reason, hadn't disappeared like every other possessed set of armor had the moment it had been slain. Though, to be fair, she barely took note of that. Why? The fact that she was in Shirou's lap, her cheek resting up against his broad chest with his arms wrapped around her while Shirou himself was laid back against a large chunk of intact Shogun Leviathan armor, took precedence.

"…I do like waking up like this," Atla purred.

A sigh, one of supreme relief. "…Of course that's the first thing to come out of your mouth."

"It's not like I have made any secrets of my preferences, Shirou-sama."

That, Shirou could not deny. Atla didn't do anything subtle after all. And to be precise, ever since they had found themselves in this dungeon, they had been curling up together whenever they went to sleep at Atla's insistence.

For a brief moment, they shared a companiable silence.

"…How are you feeling, Atla?"

"Just perfect," another purr. "…A little tired, though."

The question was mostly perfunctory. Shirou's own minor wounds had long since disappeared thanks to his Enchantments, as had Atla's for the same reason. It did little for the weariness and exhaustion that felt as if it had sunk straight into the marrow of their bones and that would probably linger for quite a while yet.

Chuckling, Shirou stood up without letting go of Atla, catching her off-guard as she squawked.

"Shirou-sama, what are you…?"

"Carrying you, of course."

"That won't be necessary."

"I insist. I have had longer to rest than you did, after all. And you did say that you were tired."

Atla closed her mouth, blushing as she accepted the kindness for what it was.

Carrying his companion bridal style, Shirou walked around the remains of the Shogun Leviathan. As soon as they rounded the remains, a treasure chest came into view and sat in the very center of the arena floor. Getting right up to it, Shirou kneeled down and allowed Atla to reach out and throw the lid of the treasure chest open. On the inside, they found something familiar.

[Rare Candy: Attack (+ 50 Attack)]

[Rare Candy: Defence (+ 50 Defence)]

[Rare Candy: Agility (+ 50 Agility)]

[Rare Candy: Magic (+ 50 Magic)]

[Rare Candy: Vitality (+ 50 Vitality)]

There was one difference, however: there were two of each Rare Candy type.

In spite of herself, Atla let out a short laugh. "Whoever made this dungeon mustn't have much originality when it comes to rewards."

"I can't say I'm about to complain, though," Shirou added.

This time, how they were going to split the Rare Candies was easy. They both got one of each. Shirou and Atla were quick to gather the cough drop-sized Stat-boosting items and swallow them. As the pop-ups confirming the Stat increases fired off in the corner of their vision, the gate leading to the next floor became visible, appearing as blue glowing lines on the wall of the arena to their right. Said glow was as quick to disappear as it appeared, leaving only the newly manifested gate behind.

Before heading that way, Shirou moved to gather up the shattered pieces of the Shogun Leviathan and the massive katana. Even Shirou himself, who had made the Item Box Gem in the first place, took a moment to gather himself when he saw the katana the size of a small building disappear in one breath to the next, stored away inside the Item Box Gem. After that, he made damn sure to recover the shattered pieces of the Summoning Crystals. If he could reverse engineer the workings of those...

With those thoughts swirling in the back of his mind and still carrying Atla, Shirou finally made his way toward the gate. The gate in question opened automatically and revealed a room identical to the one they had staid in before entering this floor: mostly featureless, ringed by lit torches, and a Rejuvenation Pool situated in the center of the room.

"I could really go for a bath right about now," Atla muttered as soon as they had entered the room and the gate had closed behind them. After the running battle they had gone through, it was safe to say that both Atla and Shirou were rather filthy at the moment.

Somehow, incredulously, her wishes were answered. The Rejuvenation Pool sank into the floor, after which the floor pulled away in all directions from the spot where the Rejuvenation Pool had been placed, creating a cube-shaped hole in the ground. It was quickly filled with crystal-clear, healing water.

Shirou's jaw dropped at the sight. "The hell…?" he said, caught completely off guard. They hadn't known the Rejuvenation Pool could do that while in the previous room. And did the Rejuvenation Pool, or maybe the dungeon itself, seriously just respond to Atla's request just now?

"Great!" Atla, for her part, took it in stride. She wiggled free from Shirou's grip, landing on her sandals as she made a beeline for the newly formed bath. "Let's get in together, Shirou-sama!"

"Uh. What?" was Shirou's intelligent response.

Not waiting for a response that could be called consent or not, Atla was quick to begin discarding her clothes. Shirou was just as quick to avert his gaze. Not long after, a splash could be heard as Atla jumped into the water.

"Come on, Shirou-sama. Join me! The water temperature is perfect!"

"No, I'll wash myself after you are done," Shirou muttered, stalwartly focusing his eyes on a torch flickering merrily on the wall to his right.

"Aw! Stop being so shy, Shirou-sama! It's nothing you haven't seen before," Atla continued to try and cajole him. "You helped me get dressed earlier, remember?"

"That's different, and you know it!"

With that, their latest challenge in the dungeon came to an end, the capstone being a (good-natured) quarrel that resulted primarily in quite a bit of amusement for them both.


And that ends this chapter. It was a little shorter than normal and a lot shorter than the previous monster of a chapter, but I still hope that everyone enjoyed it.

By the way, I'm having a lot of special occasions and birthday parties on my plate in the coming month, my own included. So, don't be surprised if the next chapter takes a little longer. It might not actually take longer; I'm just saying to not be surprised if it does end up taking a bit longer than usual this time.

Stay tuned for the next chapter!