Sword and Shield

Unknown Dungeon 3

"Hah," a sigh.

"Here we go again, Shirou-sama."

CREAK!

With the sound of old and unseen hinges creaking, the large stone gate leading into the next floor of the dungeon began to open. As it did so, Shirou cast his mind back to everything that had occurred ever since arriving in this dungeon in another world.

Waking up in a dark and cold place, de-aged and weak, with only Atla to help and anchor him. Forced to fight like ambush predators, painstakingly taking out monster after monster far more powerful than themselves in order to claw back the strength needed to be able to stand on their own merits again. The trials of a dank cave before they had entered the dungeon proper, capped off by a terrible jester.

The dungeon itself, floor upon floor of dangers, with each of said floors seemingly centered around a certain concept in order to test those who would conquer this underground deathtrap.

The first floor, an inexhaustible enemy horde. The second floor, a twisting maze of corridors filled with monsters that flat-out couldn't be hurt if you didn't have a high enough Attack Stat, even with the use of Life Force. The third floor, a maze identical to the second floor in appearance if not in layout, bursting with monsters whose attacks all ignored Defence. The fourth floor, a floor full of tricks and traps, with each and every monster using illusions, poisons, and any manner of dirty tactics one could think of. The fifth floor, a floor with a gimmick worked into the very air itself, that ensured that no attack could miss or be avoided.

Endurance. Attack. Evasion. Situational awareness. Defence. These were the things the first five floors of the dungeon were clearly made to test. But after that, the following floors had changed tack a little. Instead of different concepts of combat to test, each successive floor after the fifth was centered around a certain element.

The sixth floor, wide open rooms filled with swarms of monsters wielding the power of Wind. The seventh floor, submerged corridors and aquatic beasts using Water. The eight floor, modular rooms that housed constructs manipulating Earth. The ninth floor, spaces filled with enough static electricity one could feel at all times as Lightning spamming monsters prowled for prey.

And why was Shirou reminiscing on all that? In simple terms, it was because of a hunch.

The dank cave where they had arrived seemed to have been some sort of preamble before they had entered the dungeon proper. He assumed as much because the cave in question transitioned into corridors and rooms of smooth stone, leaving the haphazard layout of their entry point behind.

They had conquered nine whole floors of the dungeon, about to move on to the tenth floor. And though Shirou was perfectly aware that game logic wasn't always followed, even in worlds with game-like features, the notion that this dungeon might having a nice round number of floors had wormed itself into his mind and refused to leave.

Again, Shirou didn't have much evidence to back up the belief that he and Atla were in the final stretch. It was just a gut feeling, a gut feeling that had hardened into a conviction. Not that it mattered, really. They would conquer the tenth floor and see where it took them.

As for what said tenth floor would be about? Well, considering that the previous four floors had been centered around an element, it didn't take a lot of brainpower to work out in advance that they would be facing Fire on the tenth floor. A predication that was quickly proven to be true as an intense blast of heat hit both Shirou and Atla in the face as the gate to the tenth floor swung open.

Beyond the gate was a stone corridor, much the same as most every other floor they had traversed. The difference was that the ground, walls and ceiling of the corridor had narrow, red hot glowing lines crisscrossing all over them in seemingly random patterns, as if lava were infused into the very stone of the corridor. Errant embers drifted through the air as said air shimmered with visible heat, a heat that had made sweat spring forth immediately from Shirou's and Atla's brows.

"This would have been such a pain if we didn't have these," Shirou said, raising a potion and uncorking it. Beside him, Atla was doing the exact same thing.

[Potion of Heat Resistance (Blessed)]

The abilities of the Item Box Gem and the Drop Item Gem were a real lifesaver. Not only did they have quite a few Potions of Heat Resistance stored in the Item Box Gem from the very outset, made by Naofumi himself, they had even gotten quite a few of said potions as random drops ever since arriving in this dungeon thanks to the Drop Item gem.

Both demi-humans downed the potions in question. In the corner of Shirou's vision, a blinking pop-up appeared.

[Status: Heat Resistance = 01:30:00]

90 minutes that the heat wouldn't bother them. As experience had taught them, that would not nearly be enough time to conquer a dungeon floor, but with the sheer amount of Potions of Heat Resistance they had stored away that was not much of a problem.

Atla sighed in relief as the feeling of cloying heat suddenly disappeared, the previously warm air now feeling no different than a midday breeze. "Shall we?" she inclined her head forward.

Shirou's response was to walk forward. Atla matched his pace. Side by side, the two demi-humans entered the tenth, Fire based floor of the dungeon. Behind them the stone gate closed. Now, there was no other way but forward into – literally – the fire and flames ahead.

"…Atla, what do you see?" Shirou asked just a minute in. They had yet to encounter any monsters or any other threats.

"So far this floor looks much like the second floor in layout, a maze of corridors," Atla reported. Her face showed a focused expression as she extended the range of her sight as much as possible, a countenance highlighted by the errant embers floating by her face.

"Any monsters?"

"Not yet."

However, those words were spoken a moment too soon.

HISS!-CRACKLE!

With the sound of crackling flames, the embers floating through the air congregated in front of them and massively swelled in size. Both of them jumped back as a wall of flame suddenly blocked their path forward. The flames in question condensed into thin, but distinct figures.

[Ifreeta Lv: 78]

The flames took shape, forming three wiry and thin but distinctly female figures. The flames making up their bodies were for a majority a bright gold, including the brilliant mane of fire mimicking lush locks of hair streaming out behind them. Crimson fire broke up the gold, forming intricate 'markings' on the living fires' necks and faces, the crimson fire similarly forming the eyes of their otherwise featureless faces. Great, twisted horns sprouted from their heads, the flames making up said horns gradually shifting from gold to red the more it moved towards the tips, a pattern that also held for their hands and feet. Said feet did not touch the ground, the fire monsters floating an inch above the stone.

"…!"

The lead Ifreeta screeched a battle cry, the sound discordant and haunting yet alluring all the same. All three beasts of living flame raised their otherworldly voices high and fire leaped to their service at the call. White hot flames raced down the corridor at Shirou and Atla, nearly filling the entire space.

CLICK!

Was the sound as Shirou unsheathed Monohoshi-Zao just an inch from its sheath. He leaned forward and set his stance firmly, Atla getting behind him.

The white hot flames were almost on them-

WHOOSH!

Shirou exploded forward, a releasing a shockwave as he tore through the flames as though they weren't white hot. The lead Ifreeta's 'eyes' widened as Shirou rushed straight through her flames as if they weren't even there – dispersing them – and was all of a sudden in her face. Mere inches from each other, the Monohoshi-Zao left its sheath entirely in a draw-slice as quick as quick-silver as Shirou bisected the lead Ifreeta from head to groin with a Life Force infused strike, killing it instantly.

The other two Ifreeta barely had any time to react, either. Having followed in Shirou's wake, Atla's body was covered by thin layer of barely perceivable pale white energy as she lunged forward.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Tiger Bite!"

A fist covered with condensed Life Force in the form of a roaring tiger exploded the 'face' of the Ifreeta on the right, the flames making it up just as susceptible to the power of the Defence ignoring properties of Life Force as regular flesh and blood. The haunting yet alluring call of her voice halted immediately as the monster of living flames died on impact.

The Ifreeta on the left moved, swinging her crimson and clawed hands-

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: High Rising Kick!"

Only to get a sandal clad foot filled to the bursting with Life Force to her chin for its troubles. Just like its fellow earlier, the Ifreeta's 'face' exploded on contact, killed instantly.

A little further down the corridor, Shirou came to a sliding halt from his sudden blitz attack. Looking over his shoulder, all he saw was Atla standing in the midst of dying flames, her right leg still extended high in the air from her last attack.

Breathing out lightly, she lowered her leg and nodded at Shirou, who nodded back.

"You couldn't see them?" Shirou asked as they continued their track down the corridor.

"No," Atla shook her head. "Dispersed as they were, I couldn't make out there were monsters so close to us."

"Remaining on our toes even more than usual, then," Shirou muttered. He had gotten used to Atla being able to warn him in advance if enemies were approaching, but now that at least some monsters on this floor had proven to be capable of fooling her 'sight' he could no longer rely on that. Being ever more vigilant was the only option.

Thankfully, if the Ifreeta's they had encountered just now were the baseline of how strong the monsters were on this floor, they were more than capable of dealing with them. And that was because-

[Emiya Shirou Lv: 58]

[Atla Ga Fayon Lv: 58]

For every dungeon floor they conquered they had went out of their way to explore every nock and cranny of it, killing every monster they encountered until no other living creatures remained but themselves. The dungeon was filled to the bursting with monsters, while every successive floor the Level of the monsters only increased, which in turn translated into more EXP. And most importantly, they were still profiting from increased Stat growth with every Level they gained.

All of that combined, even without the increased EXP gain they usually had as the companions of a Hero, meant that they were once again starting to reach the level of power they had gained in their own world. Even without taking Life Force into consideration, Shirou and Atla were now much stronger than any monster the dungeon had thrown at them so far.

With confidence born through hard won experience, both literal and in the EXP sense, the two demi-humans continued their exploration of the tenth floor at a brisk pace. Just like the Ifreeta, the other monsters on this floor seemed to prefer ambush tactics.

Lava seeped out from the floor and walls to form basketball sized globes of red hot glowing molten stone that oozed and moved with speed one wouldn't expect. Deep, dark purple and narrowed pinpricks were their eyes, far more menacing than one would initially expect.

[Lave Slime Lv: 74]

Dogs the size of Great Danes. With fur so dark and red that it might as well have been black, forward facing and curved ivory horns, adorned with bone-spikes/bone-armor pieces and dark flames swirling in their wicked maws, these monsters more than lived up to their names.

[Hell Hound Lv: 77]

Unlike the Ifreeta and the Lava Slimes, the Hell Hounds couldn't disperse themselves and fool Atla's 'sight.' So they always knew that the dog-like monsters were coming in advance. The Hell Hounds made up for it with always attacking – laying in wait at chokepoints – in packs of at least two dozen hounds, while the Ifreeta and Lava Slimes never seemed to congregate in groups any larger than eight or nine individuals. This made the Hell Hounds the most dangerous monsters they had encountered on the tenth floor so far.

SHINK!-WHINE!

That, however, didn't mean that the dogs were actually dangerous to Shirou and Atla.

The Wandering Cross Guard Gladius pulled itself free from the Hell Hound's forehead, its blade slick with its steaming blood as the dog died with a pitiful whine. The floating gladius zipped back towards Shirou, who had just finished putting another Hell Hound to the sword with Monohoshi-Zao. Further down the corridor, Atla crushed with an audible crunch the skull of the last remaining alive Hell Hound with a vicious axe kick. The corridor in question was filled with the corpses of well over fifty of the demonic dogs, by far the largest pack they had encountered so far.

"Atla?" Shirou called.

"That was the last of them, Shirou-sama," was Atla's dutiful response. With that said, she beckoned Shirou over, who did so, idly swinging Monohoshi-Zao to fling off the blood covering its killing edge. Together, after collecting the remains in his Item Box Gem, they walked to the room at the end of the corridor.

BANG!

As soon as they entered the room in question, a wall dropped down from a unseen grove in the ceiling, sealing off the hallway they had just come from and trapping them. Torches lit up, illuminating the space even more than the narrow red lines embedded in the walls, floor and ceiling. For their part, neither Shirou or Atla were surprised. This whole spectacle had happened so many times by now that they had become numb to it.

To be clear, the whole spiel of 'getting trapped in a room and torches being lit' had been happening more and more the deeper they delved into the dungeon. Ever since the third floor, in fact. Hell, Shirou and Atla were going out of their way to get into these situations in the first place.

The room wasn't all that big, about the size of a large gymnasium, though it would be easier to move around in than the corridor they had come from. Something that they would be appreciate as the magic circle carved into the ground lit up with blue light, errant magical energy crackling over the floor in between the glowing geometric lines. With a flash of blinding energy, a monster was summoned.

[Dread Wyvern LV: 89]

Compared to the size of the room, the wyvern that emerged was huge as it reared up and roared its arrival, the top of its head almost touching the ceiling of the chamber. Its scales were the darkest of black, seeming to absorb the relatively dim light produced by the torches hanging from the walls. Two powerful wings stretched out, their leathery membranes visibly lengthening. Each wing had a single, long, wickedly sharp claw at its apex. Its reptilian head, adorned with a crest of spiky black horns, craned down towards them, regarding them with golden eyes that had slit pupils. Rows of razor-sharp teeth lined its powerful jaws, capable of crushing bone with ease as its tail, as long as its entire body, swung behind it, tipped with a barbed spike and honed to a razor's edge. Lean and tall, the wyvern's body rippled with powerful muscles, clearly made for both powerful bursts of energy and swift flight.

Swift flight, a capability wasted on it thanks to being in doors, though moving quickly would make it all the more deadly in the confined space they were in.

"Hidden Light Slash!"

The Dread Wyvern lunged, only for its reflexes to kick in as a narrow crescent of burning light flew straight for its face. Dropping to the floor with a shocking suddenness, the Hidden Light Slash only succeeded in slicing off the tip of one of its spiky black horns. The wyvern opened its maw lined with razor-sharp teeth wide as flames gathered in its gullet.

WHISTLE!

The eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses formed up behind Shirou's shoulder. Snapping up to point their tips at the enemy, they made the air whistle as they shot forward and the Dread Wyvern unleashed a torrent of flames.

The blades disappeared in the oncoming flames-

"Exploding Sword!"

If the Dread Wyvern hadn't heard those words, it would have thought that its own flames had turned on it as the stream of fire it was spitting exploded in its face. Though it was already crouched low to the ground, the shockwave was enough to make the wyvern close its eyes as it slid back, even as shrapnel pelted its tough scales and fire licked its form.

Growling deeply, the Dread Wyvern dug its claws into the floor and halted its backwards slide. It reared back up to its full height and spread it wings wide with another roar, the sheer power of that movement enough to blow away the flames covering it.

As the wyvern opened its eyes, however, it realized it had lost sight of its opponents. As its eyes darted around in their sockets, its nostrils sniffed the air, trying to catch the scent of Shirou and Atla it had been able to perceive just fine moments before. No such luck. The both of them had all of a sudden completely disappeared from its senses.

For a brief moment, the Dread Wyvern believed that its enemies had fled-

SHINK!-SQUELCH!-ROAR!

A believe that died as quickly as it had formed, as an unseen blade suddenly stabbed into its stomach. The full length of Monohoshi-Zao – wielded by an invisible, scentless and soundless Shirou – had pierced its gut, the excessively long blade almost having the length required to reach the wyvern's spine and punch out the monster's back.

Roaring in pain and fury, the Dread Wyvern's maw snapped back open as fire once again started swirling in its gullet. The monster craned its long neck downward, is opened maw aimed at the spot where it knew its unperceivable enemy had to be.

WHAM!

Only for the Dread Wyvern's head to viciously snap to the side, its ebony scales doing nothing against the Life Force infused hammer blow an imperceptible Atla had delivered to its cheek. That, however, didn't stop its attack. It merely changed its direction. Fire erupted from the Dread Wyvern's maw, washing over the far wall.

Twisting Monohoshi-Zao, Shirou dragged the unnaturally sharp blade sideways, doing terrible damage to the wyvern's insides. 'Bullets' peppered the Dread Wyvern's upper body, the Defence ignoring attack quickly stacking up the damage.

However, the flames didn't stop. In spite of the agony it was under, the Dread Wyvern merely opened its maw wider and increased its output of flames. The output continued to increase, higher and higher, until it looked more like the wyvern was firing a laser beam. A laser beam that raging fire erupted out of from the point of contact on the wall, like water from a geyser. And like water, the fire spread rapidly, threatening to fill the entire room with deadly flames. An indiscriminate, wide area of effect attack that could not be dodged.

SQUELCH!

With the sound of tearing meat, the invisible Monohoshi-Zao was ripped free from the Dread Wyvern's stomach. Shirou leaped back and sideways, being forced to abandon his position as flames washed over where he had been standing a moment before. In the meantime, even as Atla redoubled her assault, the wyvern merely swung its neck back and from side to side, seeking to cover the entire chamber in flames as quickly as possible.

Over the roar of the flames rapidly filling the room like a rising tide of water, the whistle of a new set of Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses was entirely lost. In a wide spread, the eight floating weapons speared down from above on the Dread Wyvern, who hunched itself down slightly – its flame spewing not stopping for a second – and closed its large, leathery wings over its body like a shield.

Or, at least, that's what it looked like.

A faint green hue settled over the Dread Wyvern's wings-

ROAR!

And with a terrible roar, the wyvern reared itself back up to its massive height, and spread its wings wide once more before giving a mighty and earsplitting flap of said wings.

WHOOSH!-CRACKLE!

A roaring gale filled the room, magical winds whipping and churning every bit of air in the chamber as the Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses were warded away, sent flying. The fire already filling the chamber surged to new heights, fanned by the whipping winds, covering literally every inch of the room, from the floor to the ceiling and every little nook and cranny.

In one second to the next, the chamber had turned into an convincing recreation of hell. Nowhere was save, not even for the Dread Wyvern. Though the monster was related to dragons, making fire less than effective against it, being literally engulfed in flames was sorely pushing said resistance to the limit. The fact of the matter was, however, was that the wyvern could deal with the flames far better than its opponents.

"ARGH!"

Over the roar of the flames a scream of muddled rage and pain could be heard. The Dread Wyvern's eyes darted to Shirou and Atla standing in the middle of the flames, the Enchantments and magic keeping them imperceivable having failed in the sudden hellscape they found themselves in. Both demi-humans were gritting their teeth in agony and the health bars above their heads dropped like a rock-

A green glow enveloped their figures. Health Regeneration, born from innate ability and Enchantments, kicked in.

Their health bars immediately filled right back up. It dropped back down again a second later, only for the health bars to refill again. And this process repeated itself again and again. Though the fire was harming them, their Health Regeneration was preventing it from doing any lasting damage.

It did little to prevent the pure agony of being on fire, however.

BA-BUMB!

Was the sound of the Dread Wyvern's heart as Shirou's and Atla's (closed) eyes met its own.

Angry and incensed, those words were wholly inadequate to describe what was being directed at the Dread Wyvern. A promise of death would be more accurate.

"…!"

The Dread Wyvern recoiled.

Atla was all of a sudden in its face, having moved so fast the beast had lost track of her.

SLICE!

Was the sound as Monohoshi-Zao sliced straight through the right knee joint of the Dread Wyvern. Shirou slid in between the wyvern's legs, having blitzed the monster with speed almost the equal of Atla.

WHAM!-CRUNCH!

The Dread Wyvern couldn't properly process the fact that its right leg had suddenly lost the ability to support its weight, as Atla's sandal clad foot struck the wyvern's left eye, crushing the sensitive organ. Ocular fluid arched through the air, vaporizing almost instantly in the flames.

"…!"

Roaring in agony, the sound once again swallowed by the raging inferno, the Dread Wyvern almost fell flat on its face. It took a knee, hunching forward as-

WHAM!

Atla slammed down on the wyvern's skull from above, both feet crushing its crest of spiky black horns as the monster was driven into the ground. A small crater formed underneath the Dread Wyvern's jaw that was now partially buried into the stone floor.

Two massive broadswords pierced the leathery wings of the Dread Wyvern, nailing it to the floor. A bare second later, Shirou – having rebounded from the far wall – came down on the wyvern's back. Burning light magic and Life Force infused Monohoshi-Zao's killing edge as he run up the Dread Wyvern's back, slice after burning slice parting its scales and flesh with every swing of Shirou's sword arm.

WHAM!-WHAM!-WHAM!

Atla's fists hammered the Dread Wyvern's skull and neck relentlessly, Life Force piercing deep as she sought to a end the battle as quickly as possible.

ROAR!

With a roar that could be heard over the raging inferno, the Dread Wyvern wrenched its jaw free from the crater it had been driven into. Both Shirou and Atla were bucked into the air as the wyvern once again surged to stand tall amidst the flames, copious amount of blood dripping from its stomach, right knee, crushed eye socket, back and fractured skull. The leathery membranes of the Dread Wyvern's wings had been shredded, ripped apart in order to free itself from the broadswords nailing it to the floor, a sure sign of its desperation to escape its terrible situation.

Said desperation mixed together with rage and fury to give the Dread Wyvern the wherewithal to fight through the agony and strike at its opponents. Lurching forwards, its menacing jaws opened wide to catch the airborne Atla in them, seeking to crunch her into oblivion as she fell back down. It's incredibly long tail cracked like a whip, audible even over the inferno as its barbed tip speared up at flying Shirou with the clear intent to run him through.

The sole remaining eye of the Dread Wyvern gleamed victoriously as it's jaws were mere seconds from closing around Atla, just as the barbed tip of its whip-like tail intersected with Shirou in midair-

WHAM!-CRUNCH!-SHINK!

…It should have been expected, really. Though the Dread Wyvern itself, in its rage and desperation, seemed to have forgotten one very important fact about the opponents it was facing. All throughout this fight, except for the one attack that literally couldn't be avoided, everything it had tried had been countered with contemptuous ease as it was overpowered again and again. Why else would it believe that his one last desperate counterattack would work out when almost everything else it had tried had not?

A vicious kick from Atla broke the Dread Wyvern's jaws and shattered most of its terrible teeth. Just an inch from Shirou's chest, Monohoshi-Zao sliced straight through the Dread Wyvern's barbed tail. Said horrendously sharp natural weapon fell to the ground, useless.

"Trace, on!"

A Wandering Cross Guard Gladius manifested above Shirou in midair. Twisting himself upside down, he planted his feet on the broadside of it and used that as a springboard to launch himself back down at the reeling Dread Wyvern. He held Monohoshi-Zao wide and in a reverse grip at his side as light magic and Life Force melded perfectly on the weapon's killing edge.

SLICE!

The battle came to an abrupt end as Shirou unceremoniously beheaded the Dread Wyvern, cutting through the ebony scales, powerful muscles and thick bones all at once in order to sever its long neck from the base of its skull. Said skull fell to the ground, the sound of it doing so lost in the flames that thankfully immediately started to die down as soon as the wyvern was killed.

Shirou and Atla flipped to land on their feet, quickly rushing towards a corner of the room where the flames were dying the fastest. Both sighed in relief as soon as the flames covering them fell away, the green glow of their Health Regeneration continuing on for a little while longer until their health bars were full again and the burns covering their bodies were completely gone.

Unfortunately, the damage done to their clothes and armor remained. Though their equipment was far more resistant to fire than it had any right to be thanks to the quality of their make, Shirou's deft hand and the Enchantments he had applied, the equipment was by no means immune to being covered in flames for over several minutes. Still, this only translated into scorch marks covering their clothes and armor, and it did not diminish the protection afforded by the equipment in question.

"…That was a bit more of an experience than I was expecting," Shirou grumbled.

"Shirou-sama, look at the bright side: this battle did prove that your Health Regeneration Enchantments are everything they are advertised to be," Atla said, looking at the silver lining of the situation.

At the end of that short exchange the remaining fires in the room died down. Just as only a few more embers lingered in the air, the magic circle on the floor once more flared to life. The glow died down as soon as it had come, and the now familiar sight of a treasure chest appeared in the center of the now inert magic circle.

The corpse of the Dread Wyvern was first stored away in Shirou's Item Box Gem before they made their over to the treasure chest. And when they threw it open-

[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)]

A familiar sight greeted them. At this point, it was something they had come to expect.

Every treasure chest in this dungeon contained a bounty of Rare Candies and nothing else. No weapons, armor, equipment, potions, or riches. None of those kind of things were to be found in the treasure chests of the dungeon. The rewards for clearing a floor was always an ever increasing amount of Rare Candies.

And from the sixth floor onwards rooms containing what Shirou and Atla had since come to refer to as sub-boss monsters started to appear. Slaying them was also rewarded with Rare Candies. Of course, the reward for killing sub-boss monsters was less than clearing a floor, but the amount of Rare Candies awarded increased with each floor. The reward for defeating the Dread Wyvern? Thirty Rare Candies, fifteen for each combatant.

They were quick to divide the bounty, with both of them getting three of each type of Rare Candy.

"…I wonder how much these Rare Candies have increased our Stats if expressed in Levels?" Shirou said aloud as soon as he had swallowed the reward.

"Who knows? As soon as we are out of this dungeon and we have a free moment, it might be a good idea to sit down and add up the numbers," Atla mused in response.

With the sound of stone grinding on stone, the wall on the other side of the room rose into the ceiling, opening up a new path ahead ever deeper into the dungeon.

"Shall we?" Shirou inclined his head.

"Of course," Atla had already begun to walk.


They continued their exploration of the tenth floor, remaining weary all the while of the ambush tactics favored by most of the fire type monsters that could be found. The gate leading to the boss monster, the final challenge of the floor, was discovered early on, but Shirou and Atla chose to leave it be for now.

Just like on all the other floors, they went out of their way to explore every nock and cranny of it. This they did to both farm as much EXP as possible, but also in order to encounter and vanquish each and every sub-boss monster that was to be found. From the sixth floor onward, multiple sub-boss monsters could be found, but the tenth floor took the cake with a total of six sub-boss monsters.

Thankfully, the Dread Wyvern they encountered first was by far the most troublesome. Though, the second to last sub-boss monster on this floor – the Grand Lava Slime – was almost as bad with how it kept dividing with every hit, making the battle drag on frustratingly long.

Nonetheless, they had succeeded in clearing the floor. Having doubled back, Shirou and Atla could once again be found in front of the stone gate leading into the room containing the boss monster of the tenth floor.

Without a word, Shirou uncorked a Potion of Heat Resistance (Blessed) and downed it. As Atla did the same, he reached out and touched the stone gate.

CREAK!-BANG!

As soon as the sound of the gate swinging open finished echoing in their ears, they marched into the room beyond. For once, the torches lining the walls were already lit in advance. Moreover, though the room was no bigger than the room they had fought the Dread Wyvern in, there was no magic circle carved into the floor. The reason why was obvious: the boss monster was already waiting for them.

[Flame and Shadow Lord Lv: 100]

Standing straight and proud in the center of the room, the twisted silhouette of an over seven feet tall and mighty paladin stared them down, unmoving. The heavy but sleek armor it wore might once have been pure and holy, a symbol of righteousness, but now it stood as little more than a monument to corrupted power. What had once could have easily have been imagined as pure white armor had been inverted, having become pitch black, like charcoal, with barely perceivable red highlights. From the back of the helmet, a huge flaming crest made from pure orange fire that twisted and swayed in an almost hypnotic manner sprouted high into the air. A blood red cloak was affixed to the paladin's armored shoulders, swaying in an none-existent wind just an inch above the floor.

A double edged blade as wide and tall as the corrupted paladin himself was sunk into the floor beside him, tip first. The metal of the blade was as black as the armor of its wielder, even as dark red veins of energy could be seen faintly suffusing the alloy and its killing edge. The armored digits of the paladin's left hand rested on the rounded pommel of the demonic weapon.

And though the corrupted paladin could be mistaken for a statue with how still it was, the undulating movements of the fire sprouting from its helmet increased with every step that Atla and Shirou closed the distance. Like an animal baring its fangs in warning.

SHINK!

Was the sound, almost like a growl/hiss as the huge claymore was pulled free and pointed straight at them in a clear declaration of intent.

Shirou and Atla came to an abrupt halt, a few feet removed from the Flame and Shadow Lord. For his part, Shirou's eyes ever so briefly darted towards the dark weapon brought to bear at him. Eyes darting back up towards the eye-slits of the corrupted paladin's helmet, behind which a baleful pinpricks of eldritch fire could be seen, he lowered his head in respect, which caused the 'eyes' of the Flame and Shadow Lord to visibly waver in abject surprise. And while surprised by the respect shown to him, the grip of the corrupted paladin on his weapon of choice did not slacken.

Though, after a moment, the Flame and Shadow Lord nevertheless lowered his head back at them as he reciprocated the gesture.

No words whatsoever were exchanged, however. Both sides knew words weren't needed.

Drawing Monohoshi-Zao an inch from its sheath, Shirou leaned forward in an aggressive stance. Behind him, eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses manifested with the briefest flash of his magical energy, forming up four a piece over each shoulder, like metallic wings. Beside him, Atla raised her fists and took a combat stance, Life Force surging visibly around her as her feline ears perked up and her white and black tresses swayed in the overflowing energy surrounding her petite frame.

For a heart stopping moment, everything was as silent as the grave.

BA-BUMB!-CLANG!-CRUNCH!

The sound of a far too loud heartbeat, followed by the noise of Monohoshi-Zao's killing edge meeting the corrupted paladin's terrible weapon. The floor cratered underneath Shirou's and the Flame and Shadow Lord's feet, both having closed the distance in an instant and swung at the other at the exact same time, seeking a killing blow from the get-go.

A rapid series of blows were exchanged, killing edge meeting killing edge again and again in the blink of an eye. In that brief instant, Atla had already lunged towards the Flame and Shadow Lord in the Boss Monster's blind spot, on the other side from its apparent dominant hand. A fist clad in Life Force shaped into the form of a roaring tiger led the way, intent on crushing the corrupted paladin's helmet and the skull underneath.

SHINK!

The shadow of the Flame and Shadow Lord suddenly rippled like water underneath his feet. Like a gelatinous liquid, though displaying speed far greater than any ambush predator could boast, a tendril of animated and solid shadow speared for Atla's face. Head snapping to the side, the Hakuko was able to dodge the counterattack and would have continued her assault if it wasn't for the dozen or so spikes suddenly erupting out of the initial tendril. Halting her momentum on a dime and jumping back, Atla got away with a few superficial scratches, including a long one on her cheek.

With a series of clanging sounds, all the Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses were unceremoniously knocked away and sent flying as they speared down on the corrupted paladin from every angle. Moving like a gelatinous liquid, the flying gladiuses were matched by an animated shadow tendril each, swatted away like annoying fly's.

Shirou grunted as all of said shadow tendrils extended with horrifying speed, curving around the Flame and Shadow Lord's body to run him through. Jumping away just like Atla had, he made distance, only for the shadow tendrils to follow, seemingly speeding up even more. Eyes narrowing, the blade of Monohoshi-Zao lit up with light magic as Shirou swung the absurdly long sword with swiftness every bit the equal of an assassin's knife, cutting through the tendrils that would have caught him and securing his escape.

"Hidden Light Slash!"

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

A trio of hair thin cutting crescents of focused light from one side. An oscillating sphere of compressed Life Force from the other. Attacks launched by Shirou and Atla in the midst of their sudden retreat.

SHINK!-BANG!

Attacks that were just as easily warded away as their first attack. Tendrils of animated shadow lashed out again, spearing through their techniques with points every bit as small and sharp as a monomolecular blade, causing the crescents of cutting light and the compressed Life Force sphere to explode before even making it halfway to their target.

"Hengen Musou!"

Atla intoned as soon as she came down, leaning forward like a predator and spreading her arms wide. The minor scratches she had received from her first failed attack had already disappeared, long since healed thanks to Shirou's Enchantment of Health Regeneration.

"Fierce Claws!"

Clawing at the air without pause, Atla unleashed a deluge of small and hard to perceive crescents of Life Force from each of her fingers with every swipe. Light Swords in their dozens speared towards the Flame and Shadow Lord, Shirou adding his weight to the assault.

However, the corrupted paladin showed no hint of fear or a thought of retreat. Underneath his feet, the large shadow cast by the imposing frame of the Flame and Shadow Lord once again rippled like water. A dozen shadow tendrils speared out, countering each and every attack as wide swings of even a single shadowy tendril would disrupt a dozen projectiles, the speed of their passage cracking the air like whips as they broke the sound barrier.

CRACK!-CRACK!-CRACK!

Was heard again and again as the dozen shadow tendrils cracked the air in a staccato rhythm one could almost dance to, protecting the corrupted paladin without fail.

Atla growled at the sight of this. Hard to perceive and numerous her attacks indeed were, it was a fact that the cutting crescents of Life Force were being intercepted with contemptuous ease. The same held true for Shirou's attacks. As that thought solidified in her mind, she felt Shirou's magical energy settle on her as Atla all of a sudden disappeared from view. With an unseen smile, the Hakuko activated her Jade Ring of Stealth, completely erasing her presence from mundane senses as she momentarily faded into the background of the ongoing battle.

If the Flame and Shadow Lord noticed this in the heat of combat was unknown, because his reaction was hidden behind his helmet and-

CLANG!

"Blade Breaker!"

Shirou had closed the distance yet again, seemingly teleporting straight into the Flame and Shadow Lord's face and leaving a shockwave in his wake. Having chosen the moment and angle of his charge perfectly, he sported only a few shallow cuts on his limbs inflicted by the whipping shadow tendrils as he brought Monohoshi-Zao down in a brutal two-handed overhead slice.

The Flame and Shadow Lord blocked the attack with no apparent trouble, raising his own blade to defend against the katana singing for his skull.

On contact, magical energy surged from Monohoshi-Zao into the demonic sword, seeking the inherent faults of the enemy weapon in order to destroy it from within. The dark red veins of energy that could be seen faintly suffusing the alloy and killing edge of the weapon visible thickened mere moments before a baleful flame erupted and covered the demonic blade, the release of energy countering the Blade Breaker technique and rendering it ineffective.

Shadow tendrils closed in on Shirou, boxing him in as those whips he had evaded moments before swung for him yet again. More tendrils erupted like spikes from the Flame and Shadow Lord's shadow, aimed death center for his heart.

"Trace, on!"

Eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses laid on the ground, discarded in Shirou's charge. Two dozen nameless blades manifested around the two fighters in a lose sphere, pointed at nothing in particular as said blades lit up with a fierce glow. This would not defend him from the shadow tendrils coming for him from the front and sides, but this nonetheless still left one way out: up.

Using the remaining momentum of his charge to his advantage, Shirou bent his legs to jump. Just as the shadow tendrils were about to run him through, he jumped with all the force his legs could muster, launching himself upwards and breaking the lock with the corrupted paladin's claymore with an audible clang.

"Exploding Sword!"

BOOM!

A massive fireball consumed the Flame and Shadow Lord, the following shockwave catching Shirou and propelling him with awesome force towards the ceiling in a chaotic tumble of limbs. With an effort of will and muscle power, even as he hacked up blood from internal damage, the demi-human reoriented himself even as he continued to shoot upwards. Just like Atla had once done in their battle with the Shogun Leviathan, he slammed into the ceiling feet first, cratering it as he bent his legs to absorb the impact and inertia briefly held him in place upside down.

Before gravity could reassert itself, Shirou let out another whet, wheezing cough filled with blood. He would have preferred to set off the detonation later, but if he had done that the blindingly quick shadow whips would have caught up with him. This way, the shockwave had carried him to safety, even as it did terrible damage to his insides, damage that was already beginning to heal as his Health Regeneration ability kicked in and a faint green glow enveloped his body.

"…!"

Below, before the smoke of the massive explosion could even begin to dissipate, a pillar of fire shot straight out of the devastation. Like a pillar of magma erupting out of an active volcano, it rose skyward with blinding suddenness and with Shirou the clear target. Bracing his legs and shifting his weight, he launched himself down and to the left, escaping the grasping hand of the pillar of flame that washed over the ceiling in his wake.

SHING!-SHING!-SHING!

With the sound of a massive blade parting the air, red sickles of cutting energy erupted out of the smoke, fired straight at the still in midair Shirou. Shirou's eyes darted towards the follow up attack, and he immediately realized the nature of this technique: fire compressed down into a cutting crescent not too dissimilar to his Hidden Light Slash technique, made all the more terribly hot as a result and making it every bit as sharp as a laser narrowed down to the width of a hair.

Three of such attacks – red sickles of cutting energy – were aimed at him with picture perfect accuracy. One following the other, Shirou managed to dodge the first within but an inch as he twisted in midair, the second scrapped his side, burning through his armor while only just missing his actual flesh underneath, while the third was right on target and which he had no hope of dodging.

The Flame and Shadow Lord burst out of the smoke, apparently no worse for wear as he reared his demonic sword back for yet another swing, just in time to see his opponent be burned by fire that could rival plasma in its properties and lethality.

Or, at least, that was the corrupted paladin's expectation.

Down below, the eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses discarded by Shirou earlier in the battle once again animated, Shirou's consciousness reaching out to them through the medium of magic. The short but powerful blades shot upwards, coming together in between Shirou and the final red sickle a bare second before it would have struck, forming an impromptu barrier.

The red sickle of plasma-like fire sliced through the gladiuses like a hot knife through butter, but it slowed down the attack just enough that Shirou managed to avoid it. Nonetheless, as the attack almost clipped him, the sheer heat of the passing attack was on its own enough for his skin to blister underneath his armor.

SHING!-SHING!-SHING!

Another trio of plasma-like red sickles of compressed fire were fired. The shadow of the Flame and Shadow Lord sprung to life once more, two dozen shadow whips erupting straight out from it like ever-extending spikes with the speed of a striking viper, aiming to catch the demi-human in midair before he could even reach the ground.

"Trace, on! Fire!"

Shirou countered, a mass of nameless blades manifesting around him before shooting towards the incoming assault as if they had been fired by a railgun. And as the attacks intersected-

"Exploding Sword!"

BOOM!

The nameless blades exploded in a ripple of fire and a series of shockwaves, eradicating the red sickles and dispersing the shadow whips.

Shirou reached the ground, a few errant pieces of shrapnel washing over him as he rolled to absorb the impact and used his momentum to get back up on his feet in the blink of an eye. Monohoshi-Zao was bared at the black smoke behind which the Flame and Shadow Lord was hidden, crimson eyes alert and darting around for yet another follow-up attack that might come.

However, no such attack came. The smoke cleared and when it did, the look in Shirou's eyes sharpened two-fold at what it revealed.

Because he saw how the Flame and Shadow Lord had survived the earlier explosion at blank range: his shadow. The shadow in question had sprung up to envelop its master completely, shielding him from the shrapnel that had similarly also struck Shirou, dropping back down just as the smoke cleared.

So that's how…that shadow is unnaturally tough, Shirou thought.

On a hunch, he stabbed the tip of Monohoshi-Zao into his own shadow with a smoothness that spoke of long experience. However, in response, no shadow-lined blade erupted out of the corrupted paladin's own shadow. The Flame and Shadow Lord merely continued to stare at Shirou, unperturbed and motionless as the Shadow Sneak Blade technique failed to manifest.

Shadow techniques are out, I guess, Shirou grumbled inwardly.

With the creaking of metal plating, the Flame and Shadow Lord slowly began to move again, raising up his demonic sword and clasping the hilt in both hands. In response, eight new Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses manifested around Shirou as he leaned forward in a battle ready stance, ready to meet the next assault head on.

They charged each other-

WHAM!-CRUNCH!

Only for the armor plating on the right side of the Flame and Shadow Lord's chest to cave in, a blow delivered by the invisible and imperceptible Atla at exactly the right moment. Charge interrupted, the corrupted paladin was knocked to the side and fell to a knee, the armored joint coming down on the stone floor with an audible clang.

Atla moved to follow up on her attack, bringing her fist down on the blackened knight's helmet-

SHINK!

Only to be forced to back off as shadow spikes once again erupted out of the Flame and Shadow Lord's silhouette on the floor with shocking suddenness. However, the speed was much greater than before, as was their spread.

"ARGH!" Atla let out a cry of pain, her invisibility interrupted. She had reversed course on a dime, jumping back, but it hadn't been enough. A single spike had pierced clean through her thigh, having thankfully missed her femur. Unfortunately, however, this had also halted her attempt to get clear of danger, the demi-human jerking to a halt mid retreat. The other shadow spikes became whips, swinging for the trapped Atla.

"Hidden Light Slash!"

A cutting crescent of compressed light severed the shadow whips and the spike piercing Atla and keeping her in place. Gritting her teeth in pain, she jumped back as soon as she was freed, once again going invisible and imperceptible as Shirou wordlessly recast his invisibility spell on her.

The Flame and Shadow Lord didn't get the chance to appreciate this, because Shirou had once again closed the distance. Looming over the kneeling blackened knight, Monohoshi-Zao was brought down like an executioner's blade, the blade aglow with light magic.

Spikes of solid shadow once again countered, spearing from down below in a wide spread, seeking to turn Shirou into a pincushion before he could bring his blade down. The eight Wandering Cross Guard Gladiuses maneuvered to protect Shirou, snapping into the paths of the shadow spikes and blocking them mere moments before they would have torn into the human turned demi-human.

SHINK!-SPLAT!

Or, at least, it did for most of them.

A single shadow spike sliced into Shirou's shoulder, tearing through his armor and flesh. With an audible splat, crimson blood erupted out of the wound and fell to the ground. But, though the pain was great, it didn't halt his attack. Monohoshi-Zao's killing edge was about to make contact-

CLANG!

Only to be brought to a halt as a wall of shadow manifested in between Shirou and the Flame and Shadow Lord. Even with its cutting power enhanced with light magic and Life Force, Monohoshi-Zao could not cut through the barrier of shadows. Moreover, the barrier in question rippled, just about to launch another set of spikes at point blank range.

Surprisingly, however, a small smirk twisted the corners of Shirou's mouth upwards.

In between the shadow barrier and its master, another Wandering Cross Guard Gladius manifested, Projected into existence by Shirou specifically to appear inside the Flame and Shadow Lord's defenses, who's flame-like 'eyes' flickered in shock. The Wandering Cross Guard Gladius promptly snapped forwards like a striking viper, tip first.

Jerking to the side, the corrupted paladin managed to avoid having the blade buried up to the hilt in his chest.

SHINK!

It did not, however, save him entirely. Instead, the gladius was now buried up to the hilt into the bicep of the Flame and Shadow Lord's left arm, having pierced clean through his armor and whatever lay underneath.

Outside the barrier, Shirou leaped back even as shadow spikes and whips chased him. Inside the barrier, the Wandering Cross Guard Gladius stuck in the blackened knight's arm began to glow. Even knowing what was about to happen, the Flame and Shadow Lord didn't attempt to remove the weapon piercing him, fully aware that it was pointless. Instead, he threw his full focus on catching Shirou and tearing him to shreds with his weaponized shadow.

BOOM!

Too late. The Wandering Cross Guard Gladius exploded, making the entire chamber tremble minutely as fire, force and agony consumed the Flame and Shadow Lord's world.

The shadow spikes and whips chasing Shirou abruptly disappeared, flaking into nothingness in the blink of an eye. Coming to a sliding halt, his body was once again consumed in a faint green glow as his Health Regeneration worked to heal his injuries. The demi-human darted forward, Monohoshi-Zao held at the ready at his side, seeking to ruthlessly pile on the damage.

WHAM!-CRUNCH!

A notion shared by Atla, apparently.

The Flame and Shadow Lord – missing his left arm entirely and a good chunk of his chest – came tumbling out of the smoke in an entirely different direction than the explosion ought to have sent him flying into, Atla's sudden blow having changed his trajectory. The imperceptible demi-human was hot on the heels of the tumbling corrupted paladin, pouncing on him.

WHAM!-CRUNCH!

It was kind of disturbing how the Flame and Shadow Lord remained deadly silent, even as Atla's hammer blow from above abruptly halted his unwilling flight. How, you might ask? The blackened knight was now wedged in between an invisible demi-human's iron fist driven into his stomach and the stone floor underneath him, which had cratered underneath his limp frame.

Experience having taught her well, Atla was already jumping back before spikes and whips of shadows erupted all around the prone Flame and Shadow Lord before they could properly manifest. As the deep wound on her thigh had already healed, she was more than fast enough to reach safety in time before the area around the blackened knight erupted with hideously dangerous, dark tendrils.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Fierce Claws!"

Claw strikes in their dozens rend the air, aiming straight for the prone Flame and Shadow Lord. As his shadow defended him, whips and spikes snapping outwards to counter each and every hard to see crescent of cutting Life Force, the blackened knight arduously forced himself back onto his feet.

Shirou rushed in yet again, Monohoshi-Zao held low to his side at the perfect angle to cut the head of the Flame and Shadow Lord clean off. However, the corrupted paladin instantly knew that the sword being brought to bear at him was but a faint. After all, Shirou had already shown that he had found a way around his defenses. The moment Shirou closed the distance-

CRACK!

Was the sound of the floor cracking as the blackened knight braced both feet against it. Though his left arm and a good chunk of his chest were gone, and several areas of his armor now bore scars and craters, his legs were perfectly fine still. With the few options left available to him, the Flame and Shadow Lord resolved himself for a full on assault, to kill the one who could and would kill him if given half a chance: Shirou.

Pushing off, the corrupted paladin rushed to meet the human turned demi-human head on in turn. The crest made of pure flames sprouting from the Flame and Shadow Lord's helmet flared and tripled in size, even as fire cloaked the blackened knight's entire warped form. With a clang, the demonic sword he had not once let go of since the start of the battle was left discarded on the ground, reducing the weight on his person and allowing him to move all the quicker for it.

And as fire spewed out from behind him, looking – and most importantly, acting – like the engine of a fighter jet, the Flame and Shadow Lord accelerated to such an extent that even Shirou's almost inhumanly sharp eyes completely lost track of him.

"ACK!"

Strong and experienced though he was, Shirou was not at all ready to deal with this level speed. By the time his eyes had begun to widen, the flame covered armored fist of the blackened knight's remaining right arm found Shirou's stomach with the force of an out of control wrecking ball.

CLANG!

Monohoshi-Zao fell to the ground, having been let go by suddenly nerveless fingers as it flew from Shirou's grip. The demi-human was carried along by the Flame and Shadow Lord's charge. Like a fly trapped on the window of a speeding car – or, more accurately, like dust on a raging comet – he was driven back further and further still, utterly uncapable of halting the corrupted paladin's flame covered charge until-

CRASH!

His back smashed into the far wall of the chamber, cratering it as cracks webbed throughout.

WHAM!-WHAM!-WHAM!

Without pause the Flame an Shadow Lord pulled back and began laying in on Shirou with all that he had, hammer blow after hammer blow finding his stomach, chest and head repeatedly. From his place embedded in the wall, as his world shrank down to the demonic visage of his adversary and the agony being inflicted on him, Shirou could do little else but lay there and take it, completely overwhelmed. In the raging inferno covering them both – a fire that grew hotter by the second – time lost all meaning to Shirou. He tried to respond, tried to counter, but the hits were coming far too quickly. With his senses scrambled, the Flame and Shadow Lord had free reign to beat him to death.

WHAM!

Yet another blow to his skull compressed the back of his head into the wall he was embedded in, the head in question bouncing back from the impact as Shirou reeled and his vision began to fade. Though he was but semi-conscious now, he instinctually knew that the blackened knight was about to bring down his fist yet again, seeking to drive his armored and on fire knuckles straight into his face.

…And in that moment, Shirou acted, an aria on his split lips that was lost in the roar of the flames.

His mind and awareness were a mess, shattered by overwhelming pain, but he had always been good at dealing with pain. Moreover, it is also said that in desperate situations, when one draws on instinct more than thought to survive, a person might be able to achieve something they might not have been able to do under normal circumstances.

CRUNCH!

Somehow, inexplicably, the fist meant for Shirou's face instead found the wall beside his head, sinking in all the way up to the elbow. All of a sudden, the Flame and Shadow Lord's onslaught came to an abrupt halt. The corrupted paladin drew back in shock, utterly flummoxed at having missed.

Faust Illusion: a basic illusion spell, one that Raphtalia had mastered ages ago, but a spell Shirou had struggled with for months. Drawing on an instinctual need to use a class of magic he was not suited for, with his mind – and, more importantly, his usual way of thinking momentarily shattered – he managed to cast it, one that had subtly messed with the perception of the Flame an Shadow Lord and made him believe Shirou's head was a bit more to the left than it had actually been.

As far as illusions went that could be cast with Faust Illusion, it was as basic as it got, but in that moment it was more than enough.

Tearing himself free from the wall, Shirou's right fist lit up with as much Life Force as he could muster. Stepping in, he drove said fist full force into the Flame and Shadow Lord's gut. Screaming in rage in lieu of calling out the technique's name, he used Large Caliber Piercing Bullet at point blank range. The large, oscillating sphere of compressed Life Force buried itself in the blackened knight's stomach, ripping his arm free from the wall as it carried/blasted him away from a teetering Shirou.

"Shirou-sama!"

Atla's cry of concern went unnoticed as she rushed towards the raging conflagration Shirou and the Flame and Shadow Lord had disappeared into, imperceptible as she still was. However, she herself very much noticed when the flames suddenly parted and the corrupted paladin came flying out. Without hesitation, Atla leaped to meet their flying foe in the air.

"Hengen Musou, Hidden Technique: Tiger Bite!"

The Flame and Shadow Lord's flight came to an abrupt end, halting in midair as he was caught between two opposing forces: the Large Caliber Piercing Bullet raging against his stomach and Atla's Life Force empowered fist hammering into his back. The corrupted paladin's entire frame arched to an inhuman degree as cracks began to web throughout his entire frame.

WHAM!

Backflipping as soon as Shirou's Large Caliber Piercing Bullet sputtered to an end, Atla brought her heel down on the shoulder of the Flame and Shadow Lord, slamming him back towards the floor.

CRUNCH!

Was the sound as the female demi-human came down knee first on the blackened knight's already wrecked gut, utterly shattering the warped armor. Placing her full – and admittedly rather minor – weight on her prone foe, Atla drew back both her fists and clenched them tight.

WHAM!-WHAM!-WHAM!

Just like how the Flame and Shadow Lord had laid into Shirou moments before, Atla now laid into the Flame and Shadow Lord, driving home hit after Life Force empowered hit. Every blow warped and shattered armor, but this was by no means an uncoordinated beatdown. The first few blows had mangled the remaining arm of the corrupted paladin beyond use, and the following blows were meant to end the Flame and Shadow Lord as efficiently and as quickly as possible.

"Atla, that's enough."

Shirou's voice cut through the scene. Atop her head, Atla's feline ears twitched as she jumped away from the prone blackened knight. She didn't turn towards the slowly approaching Shirou behind her, keeping her full focus on the Flame and Shadow Lord, as she didn't need to do that on account of her unique 'sight.' It was because of that exact same ability that she had been perfectly able to 'see' what the Flame and Shadow Lord had done to Shirou, which correlated directly with how vicious she herself had inflicted damage on their enemy.

"Shirou-sama, you're a mess."

That, if anything, was an understatement. Though he wasn't quite limping, Shirou's approach was uncharacteristically slow as he held an arm over his abused stomach. Dark blue bruises, split lips, burn wounds and shattered armor. That would be a concise description of Shirou's appearance right now.

"I'll be fine shortly, you know that as well as I do."

Which was true. A faint green glow had enveloped Shirou's frame, his visible injuries rapidly healing in plain sight. Truly, Health Regeneration might be a bit plain as far as abilities and Enchantments went, but it proved to be a life saver again and again. That was what Shirou thought of it, anyway.

Shirou walked past Atla, going straight for the prone Flame and Shadow Lord.

"Shirou-sama?" Atla questioned, tensing as her fellow demi-human got right up to their fallen enemy.

"Don't worry. This fight is over."

With that said, Shirou sat down beside the perpetually silent Flame and Shadow Lord. The corrupted paladin was a wreck, most of his armor shattered and warped beyond recognition, exposing the fact that there was no body inside the blackened armor. The only thing that was more or less intact was the helmet, which had only received a few scuffmarks throughout the battle.

"I'm not sure if my words will mean anything to you, but…good job. You have fulfilled your duty."

The baleful pinpricks of eldritch fire behind the helmet's eye slits darted towards Shirou, holding his gaze for a meaningful moment. Behind Shirou, Atla let out a breath as she sensed but two emotions from their defeated foe: contentment and relief.

The next moment, the fire behind the helmet's eye slits winked out.

They staid put for a little while longer, allowing Shirou's injuries to heal.

"Let's go. We're done here," Shirou said as he stood up.

"Shirou-sama?"

"…I'll explain later, after I'm healed and I'm sure some of my bones aren't broken anymore."

"Fair enough."

As Shirou stored the broken remains of the Flame and Shadow Lord's armor and his demonic blade in his Item Box Gem, a gate appeared on the far wall with a surge of magical energy directed by a magic circle that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Making sure to retrieve Monohoshi-Zao first, the two demi-humans made for the gate when it became clear that no treasure chest would be spawning this time.

The gate swung open. The first thing they noticed was a faint breeze, one that carried with it a scent of water and flowers.

Side by side, Shirou and Atla stepped over the boundary.


On the other side of the gate, both of them stood still for a long moment, just taking in the view and basking in the warmth of the sun. Though, admittedly, it was not the real sun. It couldn't be, because they were still very much underground, but the light filling the chamber and heat that came with it was so similar to a pleasant midday sun's rays that it made little to no difference to them.

From the ceiling far above hung a giant canonical structure, with a dazzlingly bright orb hugging the cone's bottom side, from which the bright light and warmth filling the chamber came. The chamber in question was about the size of a baseball stadium. The wall in the far back was completely covered by a waterfall. Water fell from a thin slit in the ceiling that ran the entire length of the far wall, falling into a river basin below. The rush of the falling water created a refreshing breeze that blew pleasantly across their faces.

From the river basin two streams split apart in opposite directions. The two streams hugged the walls of the chamber and circled the entire room except for the small walkway Shirou and Atla were currently standing on after they had passed through the gate. The much missed sight of a lush green meadow laid beyond that water, filling almost the entirety of the baseball stadium sized chamber. The meadow in question was filled with flowers and an errant tree here or there.

In the center of the meadow was a huge raised platform, like a small pyramid cut in half. On top of said platform stood, surprisingly enough, what looked like a Japanese style temple, constructed from wood and with multiple elegantly curved roofs. A steep stone staircase hewn into the platform itself and leading up to a pure crimson torii gate finished the picture.

"…"

After an indeterminate amount of time, Shirou and Atla made their way forward. Both of them were utterly silent. It felt like they were on sacred ground, so both made a conscious effort to maintain a respectful composure as they headed for the temple in the distance.

It wasn't long before both of them were scaling the stone staircase. Together, they passed the torii gate into the temple grounds proper.

The temple in question was about medium size, with its multiple roofs covered with green tiles forming a striking contrast with the crimson color underneath the overhang and equally crimson support beams out in front. Before one crossed under the overhang a small area meant for combat practice, filled with pure white and fine sand, would have to be crossed.

Shirou and Atla moved to do exactly that, but the second their feet touched the white sand of the training area, both froze as they felt a surge of magical energy.

The sand moved of its own accord, forming the now familiar sight of a magic circle. Blue energy briefly filled the lines, but this time no treasure chest was summoned. Instead, with a faint grinding noise a pedestal emerged from the ground in the center of the training area. With the sound of trickling water, the wide bowl on top of the pedestal was filled with a deep silver liquid.

Shirou and Atla shared a look before making their way over to the pedestal. As they came to a stop in front of it, they noticed that the wide bowl on top of the pedestal was separated down the middle by a thin strip of stone, creating two separate repositories filled with deep silver liquid.

[God's Gift: Amplification Elixir]

Was the name that came up as they appraised the deep silver liquid.

"…Any guess what this will do, Shirou-sama?" Atla asked, finally breaking the long held silence.

"No clue," Shirou admitted. "It's definitely not poison, but that's all I can say for certain."

Both of them didn't ponder it for long. Much like the Rare Candies before, this was clearly the prize for reaching the presumed end of the dungeon. So if nothing else, they could be certain that imbibing this deep silver liquid would have no ill effects.

Together, they stepped up to the pedestal and wide bowl atop it, bending down to drink from the two separate repositories. And as soon as they had both completely drained the silver liquid-

"Woah/Hah!"

Shirou and Atla gasped in surprise as a rush of silvery energy enveloped them. An almost painfully warm feeling made itself known in the pits of their stomachs, which quickly spread outwards to fill every single cell in their body, the warmth becoming soothing as the energy enveloping them calmed down a tad.

A series of notifications popped up in their Menu's. The first pop-up was the same for them both.

[Accumulated Rare Candy Stat Gain = Amplified X 3]

The Stats they had gained from all the Rare Candies they had earned in the dungeon tripled, increasing their base power by an order of magnitude.

After that, however, the pop-ups they received diverged.

For Shirou:

[Shadow Magic Affinity: Amplified X 5]

[Light Magic Affinity: Amplified X 3]

[Life Force Mastery: Amplified X 5]

[Divinity Stat: Amplified X 4]

[Origin/Nature Harmonization: X 10]

As for Atla:

[Holy Magic Affinity: Amplified X 7]

[Agility Stat: Amplified X 3]

[Music/Singing Talent: Amplified X 9]

[Life Force Mastery: Amplified X 7]

[Attack Stat: Amplified X 3]

It took a little while, but eventually the energy surging out from both Shirou and Atla died down. Shirou took a deep breath while Atla opened and closed her hands as she clenched her fingers, both of them trying to come down from the rather exhilarating experience they had just undergone.

"Well…that just happened," was all that Shirou managed to say.

"Hah," Atla let out a deep breath. "I feel, no, I am so much stronger now…"

A moment of silence.

"I no longer regret coming to this world and this dungeon, Shirou-sama," she followed up. "Do you think we might be able to go through this dungeon multiple times and reap the same rewards? If so, I insist we do so."

Atla seemed very keen on the idea. Shirou, for his part, deadpanned at the battle junky.

"…I reckon the odds of that being rather slim," he said dryly.

"We'll at least check, right?"

"Of course."

Though Shirou was not one to accumulate power for power's sake, his goals in life demanded he be as strong as possible. It went without saying that he would check if Atla's suggestion had merit or not.

With that done and taking a moment to collect themselves, both demi-humans entered the temple proper.

The main chamber of the ground floor they had entered was almost exclusively filled with tatami mats covering the floor. However, at the very back of the large room was a dais made of pristine white limestone, on top of which appeared to be an elaborate alter of sorts. In the middle of said alter was a diminutive table, atop which but a single thing was placed. A wooden, intricately carved katana holder, naturally used to put a katana on display.

Unfortunately, the most important thing was missing from the scene: a katana. The katana holder was empty.

"Atla?"

"There is nothing of worth to be found on or near the alter, Shirou-sama," with her unique 'sight' Atla had been able to determine that fact at a 'glance.'

Shirou frowned. An alter with an empty katana holder…if that wasn't a clear clue that a katana of great worth had once been housed here, he didn't know what would be. Unfortunately, it appeared that someone had beaten them to punch.

They continued to search the ground floor, but found nothing useful. The smaller rooms connected to the main chamber housed a few interesting statues, paintings and bookshelves filled with books and scrolls that contained a written language entirely unknown to them. As mentioned: nothing useful.

"Shirou-sama," Atla spoke up as they were ascending a staircase in one of the side rooms that led to the first floor.

"Yes?"

"What do you know about that paladin we fought earlier?"

"…Not as much as I would like," Shirou admitted. "I managed to more or less piece together his story from the history contained in his blade."

And as that story was relevant to their current situation, Shirou began to elaborate as they continued to search the temple for anything they might be able to use.

To be concise, before the Flame and Shadow Lord had come into possession of his demonic blade the man in question had long since been a warrior of great acclaim. On account of the fact that Shirou could only read the history of weapons that was all he could say for certain, though considering his armor – warped and twisted though it had been – the Flame and Shadow Lord had probably been a knight and/or paladin in the service of a knightly order or maybe even a nation state.

As for his demonic blade, once it had merely been an extremely well crafted sword, made by a blacksmith of great renown out of exceptionally rare materials provided by the Flame and Shadow Lord himself. This blade, a huge silvery claymore of such incredible weight that most regular men could not even hope to lift it, had been named the Fire Bright Blade: a weapon that bore and amplified the Elements of Fire and Light. In other words, a perfect match for the then Flame and Shadow Lord's own innate attributes and skills.

The man had used the Fire Bright Blade to defeat many foes, traveling the land and doing many great deeds in service of other people. In other words, being the quintessential knight.

Eventually, the future Flame and Shadow Lord challenged this dungeon, managing to clear it just as Shirou and Atla had. Admittedly, from what Shirou got out of the Fire Bright Blade's history, the dungeon hadn't been anywhere near as dangerous back then as it was today.

However, clearing the dungeon was not the end all be all. Once having achieved that feat, the future Flame and Shadow Lord had come to reside in the temple Shirou and Atla were exploring right now, joining a retinue of many other great swordsmen who had similarly bested the dungeon, who went on to train and spar together continuously, day in and day out.

For what purpose the knight had come here, Shirou could not say exactly. His ability to read the history of a given weapon did not give him insight into its wielder's intentions, after all.

This, however, together with a bit of speculation, did reveal the purpose of the dungeon they found themselves in: to weed out the weak. Only those sufficiently strong could reach the temple at the very end and join a cohort of at least equally capable swordsmen. Here, they practiced their swordsmanship, driving their skill to ever greater heights by pitting themselves against each other.

In this context, the purpose of the Rare Candies to be found on the dungeon floors and the God's Gift: Amplification Elixir they had imbibed became clear. Advertisement, to draw swordsmen from across the world to this temple and have them join with their fellow practitioners of the art of the sword.

"Truly?" Atla cocked her head, fascinated by the tale. "What an intriguing place this is turning out to be."

"Quite so," Shirou nodded. "Which makes it all the more of a shame, as it all went up in smoke…"

Again, with his limited insight, Shirou could not say with 100% certainty what happened in the end, but he could make a rough guess. One day, for a reason unknown to him, the swordsmen had turned on each other. For many years, they had lived, sparred and trained together. All of a sudden, however, they became hostile to each other, baring their blades on their fellow disciples not with the intention to hone their skills, but to murder.

The final result of this tragedy will probably remain a mystery to them forever. Nonetheless, what became of the paladin in the aftermath was clear: tainted and twisted, he became the Flame and Shadow Lord, his flesh and blood body having perished and his soul bound to his blackened and warped armor. Whatever foul means had been used to bind his soul and taint the Flame and Shadow Lord had similarly infected the Fire Bright Blade, replacing its inherent Light Element attribute with the Shadow Element, creating a hideously dangerous demonic blade.

The Flame and Shadow Lord was then stationed in the final chamber before reaching the temple, the final obstacle before one reached the end point of the dungeon, bound to the dungeon itself and incapable of leaving.

And he did his job exceedingly well. For centuries the Flame and Shadow Lord stood guard and the few people who managed to get to him never made it past him, the temple at his back that he was protecting clearly long since abandoned.

It was impossible to know how much had been left of the mind and soul of the man that had become the Flame and Shadow Lord, but it was undeniable that he still very much had possessed a will of his own till the very end. A will few could match, having done his duty of protecting the temple for literal centuries.

"…"

After Shirou finished the tale, Atla joined him in falling silent, both idly wondering what had exactly happened here in the past as they continued to explore the temple.

Unfortunately, their search did not answer their questions, nor did they find anything particularly useful for their purposes, either. Clearly, the temple had been abandoned and cleared out ages ago, with most rooms completely empty with only a few curious trinkets to be found here or there.

In the end, after having used the opportunity to clean themselves in the stream outside, Shirou and Atla retired to a dorm-like room on the second floor. Surprisingly well kept beds – obviously some kind of magic was at play that ensured that the beds were resistant to wear, tear and filth, much like the rest of the temple – were to be found there. After all that time in the dungeon, both of them were rather eager to avail themselves of the soft mattresses and accompanying silken sheets.

Having stripped down into his undergarments, Shirou laid down on a bed in the corner of the room, sighing deeply at the long missed feeling of a mattress. Though the temple was basked in perpetual 'daylight' the room they were in was mostly dark, with the closed blinds barely even letting a sliver of light in.

"Goodnight, Shirou-sama."

Were Atla's words as she curled up beside him and rested her head on his chest. Just like Shirou, she had stripped down to her undergarments as she joined him in bed.

In the past, Shirou would have insisted that Atla had to go sleep somewhere else, especially because there was more than one bed in this room. But out in the dungeon it had become the norm for them to curl up together before going to sleep and in spite of himself, he had grown used to it. And now, he was loath to try and push her away. Instead, he just said-

"Goodnight, Atla."

And closed his eyes, quickly falling into a deep slumber. Atla joined him soon after, both of them blissfully snoozing.

However, an hour or two later, in the midst of their sleep, something curious was happening: Atla began to toss and turn, her sleep becoming a fitful one. It spoke to how tired they both were that neither Shirou nor Atla woke up, though in Atla's case, the green glow of healing that had enveloped her body might have had something to do with it…


When awareness and thought first returned to Shirou, he was no longer in bed. Instead, he seemed to be standing in an entirely different plane of existence, with Atla nowhere to be seen.

"This place again, huh?"

However, this did not alarm him. This was hardly the first time he visited this place in his dreams, after all. The first time he found himself here was after going to bed in Riyute Village shortly after the first Wave he had participated in. It was in that moment that he unlocked more of his abilities related to his Origin and Element of Sword, attaining the records/history of the Legendary Sword and Legendary Spear and their inherent Strengthening Methods.

Since that day he had dreamed of this place periodically, appearing atop the lone hill in the very center of this plane. And as Shirou cast his gaze outward into the distance, he noted what had staid the same and what had changed ever since the first time he had found himself in this realm of infinite blades.

The hill atop which he stood was the same, utterly barren of life with bladed weapons of every type covering it, driven into the dirt tip first. Most of these weapons were common and nothing special, but there were a few that stood out and always drew his eyes when Shirou found himself here. The same held true for the many weapons dotting the rest of the plane in all directions, beyond even the horizon.

A few great, slowly spinning gears of titanic size could be found floating in the air. These gears had been present from the beginning as well, but there were markedly less of them now than before. About half of their original number remained.

The crimson sky of an eternal twilight had changed. Now, a full moon – far bigger than it ever could be in real life – now hung above in the dark night sky, twinkling stars filling in the backdrop. The crimson sun of twilight was still there, but it had dropped further in the sky, only the top half of it peaking out over the horizon. The sun provided a comforting warmth, its crimson rays reflected in the steel of every weapon to be found in the plane.

Except for that, the only change to be seen was the vividly green grasses sprouting out of the ground here or there. Slowly but surely, life was starting to fill and cover this otherwise barren realm.

These changes had come about gradually. Every time Shirou inexplicably found himself back here in his dreams the plane had changed just a little bit, until ever so slowly, something fundamental about this place seemed to have shifted. The core purpose and meaning of this realm was still the same – for that could never change, as Shirou knew instinctually – but still, it could not be denied that something foundational had changed, and changed for the better at that.

Oddly enough, it had not been the full moon overhead that had the most impact on Shirou, but the fields of lush grasses slowly but surely covering the hitherto barren plane. The fact that life could now be found here, that something could live here…

The first time he saw it, the sight had almost brought him to tears, and he could not understand why.

And now, something had changed yet again. This time, however, this realm of infinite blades hadn't changed, but he himself had. Or maybe it was his perception of the plane that had shifted?

Everything seemed more real, more vivid. As if this wasn't a dream of some sort anymore, but actual reality. Honestly, he felt no different than when he was awake, and perfectly awake at that: lucid and capable of taking in and experiencing this world for all that it was.

"…"

A sigh of contentment escaped him. This place never failed to put him at ease, a feeling that increased over time as the changes took hold more and more.

Shirou sat down on the very top of the hill, taking the opportunity to observe the tapestry in front of him. Now that he felt no separation anymore between himself and this place, he was determined to carve every nuance of it into his heart and soul.

His own little world.


The next morning, or whatever counted for morning underground, Shirou blinked awake. It took a few moments for him to realize that something was amiss.

Heavy, was the thought he had. There was something relatively heavy laying on top of him, a sensation foreign to him. That something heavy, however, was equally soft – in fact, one of his arms was slung around the heavy but soft thing, his fingers digging into the softness – nor did it trigger any kind of alarm bells in his mind.

Still not quite fully awake, Shirou reached out with his free hand towards the closed blinds above the bed he was laying in, only just managing to reach it as he pulled the blinds open. Bright 'sunlight' filtered into the room, illuminating the scene for all to see.

The sheets had been thrown aside, laying on the floor. Shirou was on his back, and Atla was now fully on top of him, her cheek resting against his chest and her legs entwined with his.

Blinking slowly, it took Shirou a long moment for him to realize that something was off about Atla. For one, she was far heavier than he remembered her being. On top of that, did her legs always reach that far down…?

"Ahn," Atla moaned in her sleep as, in his surprise, Shirou unconsciously squeezed the softness his fingers were digging into. The sound made him pull his hand away as if it had been burned, some distant part of Shirou's mind realizing that his fingers had been squeezing his bed partner's derriere.

This, in turn, resulted in Atla suddenly waking up.

"Shirou-sama," Atla murmured into his chest. "Is it time to get up already? I want to stay in bed a little bit longer…"

It was only when she realized that Shirou wasn't responding that Atla's higher mental faculties started to kick in. Bracing herself on his chest with the palms of her hands, she got up, her knees on either side of Shirou's hips as she unknowingly straddled him.

"What's wrong, Shirou-sama…?" Atla trailed off, 'looking' down on him as she cocked her head and a look of wonderment came over her face.

From Shirou, she felt abject and total surprise. Atla was not much better that in that regard. Because ever so slowly, she realized that she was quite a bit taller now than she remembered being when she went to sleep the day before.

Still laying on his back, Shirou could do little else but stare up at Atla. Gone was the small, prepubescent demi-human girl. In her place was a young woman in the bloom of youth, appearing to be about eighteen years old.

Atla remained rather petite. If she and Shirou had been standing up, she would have reached no further than his breastbone. However, though she maintained her doll-like appearance, with pale white skin, black and white tresses that hung all the way down to her hips and perpetually closed eyelids, she had filled out in all the right places. Her hips had widened, her still quite firm derriere having expanded into a large heart shape while her breasts were now a big C-cup. Features that her petite frame only emphasized further.

Atop her head, Atla's feline ears were twitching madly as her black and white stripped tail, having lengthened considerably, swayed idly from side to side. As she realized what had happened to her in her sleep, the now more or less full grown demi-human slowly ran her hands over her own body as she mapped out and came to terms with the changes to her body.

It should be noted at this point that Atla was entirely naked. Her sudden and inexplicable growth spurt had torn the undergarments she had gone to sleep with to shreds, their torn up remains scattered around the bed.

Down below her Shirou could not tear his eyes away from the 'show' Atla was unknowingly giving him, eyes wide and a rapidly spreading blush across his cheeks. But when Atla cupped one of her own breasts while her other hand ran across one of her hips, the sudden burst of lust not her own she felt from Shirou firmly took command of all her attention, like a kid taking ahold of the joystick to his favorite game.

The two demi-humans stared at each other.

"Uhm," Shirou managed to get out, still staring at Atla with wide eyes and flushed cheeks. "You might want to put something on…?"

Everything fell silent after that. For a long moment, neither said anything.

"…!" Shirou gasped, eyes widening as his back arched. Atop his head, his raccoon ears were twitching like mad.

Atla's tail, far longer than before and much longer than his own bushy tail, had looped multiple times around said bushy tail, wrapping it up tightly. Shirou's eyes became half lidded, breathing deeply and slowly, actions that Atla was mimicking, whose cheeks were now also flushing a deep crimson.

A tremble went through Shirou's body. Though he had not been born a demi-human, he had long since acclimated himself to the cultural nuances to being one. For demi-humans, holding and intertwining each other's tails – by and large the most sensitive body part for most demi-humans – was only done between lovers.

In this situation, wrapping her tail around his own was nothing less than a declaration of Atla's intent. An intent that, considering her actions and words before this very moment, shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

"Shirou-sama," Atla almost seemed to sing his name, a deep purr in the back of her throat as she sat down, placing her full weight on Shirou. Only the thin layer of fabric that were Shirou's boxers separated the two now.

It took a long moment before Shirou managed to find any words, "Atla, I…I don't think…that…"

"Oh?" Atla cocked her head, giving him her usual smirk that showed off her fangs. With the blush on her cheeks, the expression was downright erotic. As she idly ran her warm hands over Shirou's firm chest muscles, Atla said, "If you want this to stop, Shirou-sama, you only need to push me away."

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Several long seconds came and went, but Shirou made no move to do so.

With a happy purr, Atla took her hands from Shirou's chest and placed them on either side of his head as she laid down on top of him. Shirou for his part, shivered as Atla's silky smooth skin and her even more soft mammaries pressed down on him, the two demi-humans sharing their warmth like they had done many times before, but now with barely any fabric worth speaking of separating them.

Shirou's arms had closed around Atla's waist. Atla's arms wrapped around his neck, pulling herself even more flush with him, their breaths mingling as their lips approached each other.

And when they kissed, any remaining sense of rational thought left them both, chased away by a wanton desire for the other.


So, uh, apologies for the long wait.

I did say that the next chapter might take a bit longer, but even I am surprised at how long it took to write this chapter.

You won't believe how busy it has been on my end. Birthdays. Family occasions. My brother's wedding. And, you know, the little factoid that I've bought my very first house…

MY FIRST HOUSE! A HOME OF MY OWN! FINALLY!

Apologies. I needed to get that off my chest.

Anyway, I hope that this chapter in which the end of the dungeon has been reached, Atla has finally attained an adult body, resulting in her being proactive like usual and taking her and Shirou's relationship to the next level, was worth the wait.

I am excited to hear what all of you think in the reviews.

Stay tuned for the next chapter!

Which, you know, will probably take a bit longer to write than normal, too. Because, well, moving into a new house takes some time and quite a bit of preparation and work.

Wish me luck!