༺ Cultist Nymph and Pluto’s Underground Labyrinth (9) ༻
The five of us sat around the blazing campfire, forming a circle in the process.
Currently, we were inside the temple of Ceres that had been abandoned for a long time.
And amidst the rustling of reeds— swaying with the breeze and illuminated by the soft light of the two ethereal moons.
As we sat around the fire, forming a circle as we placed ourselves on the ground, it felt like we had entered the center of some primitive superstitious community or a secretive gathering, and I could feel a tingling sensation running beneath my chest at that thought.
Crackle— Crackle— Flicker— Flicker—
With her usual composed expression, the ice mage, Velmina, placed branches into the campfire.
Only when the flames grew in height and became scathing hot did a faint smile appear on her lips; as if she was finally satisfied with the fire.
“That’s good. This should be enough. Ms. Paranoy, have you had any experience with fire divination before?”
In response to Velmina’s question, Paranoy remained silent and simply lowered her head.
When I looked into those scarlet-colored eyes, illuminated by the burning campfire, it was hard to tell whether it was curiosity or fear that flickered in those orbs of hers.
I found myself to also be in a similar state when I felt this mysterious sensation.
“What is fire divination exactly?”
“Fire divination is a privilege specifically held by the devotees of the goddess of the hearth. It creates a boundary around the campfire to ensure a peaceful night.”
Velmina soon began reciting a brief incantation.
“Oh, Lady Vesta, I invoke you in the name of Velmina Prodance. Bestow your blessings upon this gathering—”
When I listened carefully, it sounded more like a prayer than an incantation. Wondering what would unfold from that prayer, I stared at her with nervousness in my heart.
Even after several seconds passed by since the prayer ended, there were no apparent signs of anything transpiring. Velmina let out a frustrated huff after seeing that.
“As expected, without being a devotee of Vesta any form of prayer is useless. Ms. Paranoy, why don’t you try reciting the incantation prayer as I did? Among us, you are the only one who is a devotee of Vesta right now.”
“M-Me? I’ve never offered a prayer to Lady Vesta before. Even though I’ve offered plenty of prayers to Lord Pluto, I’ve never received a response to my prayers…”
“Come on. Just try.”
Pressured by the cold urging of the ice mage, the hesitant cultist nymph— Paranoy, looked around with nervousness in her eyes.
Perhaps due to being heavily tensed, sweat began to form on her forehead in large drops.
“Holy shh! Paranoy sure sweats a lot!”
As if eagerly awaiting that phenomenon, Luna opened the mouth of her leather water container and collected Paranoy’s sweat. Seeing her action, the sense of mystery surrounding this strange ritual immediately dissipated and I felt slightly relieved.
It seemed that Paranoy was feeling the same way as me. She let out a small sigh and began murmuring the incantation in a low voice.
“I-I am Paranoy, daughter of Demetra… Please hear my prayers. G-Grant us peace and tranquility in our night…”
With a small mosquito-like voice and the occasional stumbles and stutters in pronunciation, she spoke out her prayer. Seemingly, she felt embarrassed to offer a prayer before others.
And at that very moment…
The campfire, which had been burning steadily, suddenly erupted into a much larger flame, despite no wind blowing and no additional firewood being added.
Paranoy screamed and panicked when the campfire grew with such vigor; as if it would engulf everything surrounding it. Didier, the dwarf, burst into laughter at the sight.
“It’s indeed true that the gods and goddesses love nymphs. It seems like the benevolent goddess has accepted Paranoy’s prayer.”
“M-My prayer…? The goddess heard my prayer?”
Along with Didier’s laughter, Paranoy’s shoulders, trembling in fear and trepidation, began to relax.
At the same time, with eyes widened in disbelief – as if unable to believe what she had done – Paranoy fixed her gaze on the intensifying campfire. She had an expression reminiscent of a young child experiencing playing with fire for the first time.
“Lord Pluto had never responded to my prayers.”
“Well, anyway, the preparations for the fire divination are complete. This fire will not extinguish until tomorrow morning.”
I couldn’t believe it. This was an unquenchable campfire.
One of the responsibilities of the night watch was to ensure the campfire would not go out. It was quite convenient to not have to do that.
With a blazing fire like this, the wild beasts and monsters, that were out in the fields, would unlikely approach the campsite. It was because most of the nocturnal creatures had a fear of fire.
“Now, whose divination should we start with?”
“I’ll go first!”
At Velmina’s question, Luna, looking intently at the campfire, quickly raised her hand. Then, without hesitation, she sprinkled a handful of soil and sand, that she had gathered from the ground, and scattered it over the campfire, almost like she was seasoning it with salt and pepper.
I wondered what she was doing with this action.
At that moment, the campfire’s flames gradually turned darker, and they soon completely transformed into dark-black-hued fire.
Dark Black flames. It felt incredibly intense and even sent shivers down my spine with its appearance alone. It felt as if I had encountered some wicked cult ritual. What in hell was this?
Velmina’s blue eyes widened in surprise as she observed the eerie side of the obsidian black flames. She even tried shaking her palm over the eldritch fire.
“I can’t believe this. The flames turned completely black. It’s probably the magical power of the Night. It seems you have received some affection and attention from the Goddess of the Night.”
“As expected, it’s Lady Knox!”
Luna was delighted as she looked at the black flames. As for me, I was just bewildered, wondering what was happening here.
It seemed that Didier, the dwarf sitting next to me, noticed my perplexed expression and began explaining the happenings in a low voice.
“Everyone in this world receives affection from the gods or goddesses. The amount of that affection may vary. This divination is to discover which god or goddess loves you the most.”
“What does that have to do with getting to know someone’s attribute?”
“It determines your compatibility with the gods or goddesses who pour their affection and attention onto you. It is beneficial for you to know when you are dealing with mana or such. Of course, this activity is just for fun unless you’re a mage or someone who must dabble into the art of handling mana.”
“Well… then, I’ll give it a try.” After Didier expressed the events and their meanings to me briefly, he took a handful of dirt and soil from near the campfire and threw them into the black flames, just like sprinkling seasoning on a dish.
Sizzle— Sizzle— Crackle—
As a result, the flames that had been burning black until just now returned to their original red color, taking the form of a regular campfire.
Didier clicked his tongue in response to my question. Then, he picked up another handful of soil and once again threw it into the campfire.
“Lady Ceres, didn’t I just polish your divine projection? Please remember this son of Troggzor, Didier—!”
As the sand was scattered into the campfire once more, a sudden crackling sound of sparks began to intensify into its fiery depths. Then, countless sparks resembling fireflies shot up into the sky.
Like when she acted during Luna’s divination, Velmina placed her palm in front of her, observing the scene.
“…It’s faint, but I can sense the powers of the earth and seasons. The goddess Ceres doesn’t easily bestow affection upon creations—”
“That wasn’t the case before. Until just before the prolonged winter, she was one of the most compassionate goddesses. Well, anyway, I’m satisfied that she remembers my name. So, next, shall we have Party Leader bro give it a try?”
“I’m curious too. I wonder which gods love this Samaritan from the faraway lands.”
“I’m curious as well. Hassan! Could it be the God of Light?”
As all the gazes turned towards me one by one, I felt a sudden heat rising to my face. It seemed that I had no immunity to others’ expectations of me.
However, I was also curious about my own attribute.
As Luna mentioned, it could be that the God of Light was watching over me. Or maybe Lady Knox, who might become my mother-in-law, was the one who showered me with affection and attention.
With mixed anticipation and the slightest hint of tension, I held some sand in my hand and scattered it over the campfire.
The scattered white sands fell like snow onto the blazing campfire.
As I stared at the flames, completely absorbed in what was about to unfold before me.
The campfire’s flames gradually diminished and extinguished in a pitiful manner; as though they disappeared after finishing their duty.
What the hell? Damn it! Why did the fire go out?
As I felt curious, Didier also touched the campfire’s ashes with his palm and asked in wonder.
“Well, Ms. Mage, the flames have gone out. In this case, what kind of god do you think he’s receiving affection from?”
Velmina furrowed her brows at that question.
She, too, spoke as if she couldn’t comprehend what was transpiring while caressing the extinguished remains of the campfire.
“Well, who knows? We could consider it as a form of magical power… Perhaps it’s because he scattered too much sand?”
“Hassan, maybe your enthusiasm got the better of you.”
“Is that so? Ah, damn, how embarrassing!”
It was as if I had poured cold water into the heated party hall, and somehow this situation felt extremely awkward for me. I thought I had grabbed just as much sand as the others did, but perhaps my hand was bigger than the others which resulted in the fire going out.
“Paranoy, you’re sweating again! Holy shh! I might end up filling all the water bottles! Hehe!”
“The campfire went out—”
Anyway, it was a pretty amusing manner of passing time on this tranquil night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Usually, mornings in the forests and woodlands can be quite damp and foggy.
I had considered this situation when we set up the tent, but the dew that fell overnight was far more than my expectations. And as a result, it caused the tent and the ground to become completely soaked.
Where did Luna go again?
As I made my way through the damp grassy forest ground, drenched in the morning dew that settled all over, Paranoy, who had been staring at the campfire intently, looked up at my face.
“W-What? Damn it!”
“I-I have done my night watch diligently! As you may be witnessing, I have also ensured the uninterrupted presence of the campfire throughout the night!!”
“Is that so…?”
Paranoy suddenly used formal language, which caught me entirely off guard.
Was it only now that she was starting to respect me as the party leader? But something about her didn’t seem right. She also didn’t look too well.
“Hey, did you not get any sleep at all?”
“I-I have not! As you can observe, I have a duty to protect this sacred campfire—!”
Since she realized that the Goddess of the Hearth had answered her prayers, Paranoy had been in a peculiar state of mind. It seemed like she was in awe and had been deeply moved by the fact that the goddess had responded to her prayers.
However, her abnormal behavior was slightly out of my expectations since she hadn’t even slept a wink while guarding the campfire.
“Hey, we’re going into the labyrinth soon. How will you manage to keep up with us without sleeping?”
“I-I will be a-alright… Even if I do not sleep for three days… I will be perfectly alright…”
Come to think of it, Paranoy had a higher level than me, didn’t she?
I thought it was around level 20 or so. Also, she was a strong fellow who could endure being trapped in an underground prison for several days without breaking down, even while starving throughout the process.
Considering that, she should be fine even without sleep for another day. But I still wanted all the party members to enter the labyrinth in peak condition if possible.
Since it was already morning, I had no choice but to let it be though.
“Let’s prepare for breakfast.”
“Party leader bro, leave the breakfast to me. While cleaning the temple yesterday, I caught a wild pigeon and prepared it overnight. It’ll taste really good if we boil it and eat it with a clear broth.”
“Then let’s do that.”
I felt relieved that I didn’t have to prepare breakfast myself.
While placing my shoulders and legs on the damp rocks, I stretched my entire body, which had become stiff from sleeping in a crouching position inside the cramped tent last night.
“Hassan, look at this!”
At that moment, Luna appeared in the distance, waving her hand.
“A Night Canary! I caught this little guy just now! Isn’t it amazing?”
In Luna’s hand was a bird with scarlet feathers with a bright red tint along the edges. She caught a frog during the previous quest and it was a bird this time.
Birds have wings, so it’s not easy to catch them unless she had a bow or a sling. I’m curious how she managed to do it.
“Huh? What? How did you catch it?”
“I was following the trail of moonlight during the dawn, and it was just sitting there quietly and obediently! It must be a gift from Lady Knox! It must be!”
“It’s so impressive that the bird stayed still.”
I could already feel my stomach rumbling at the thought of eating a stew with lots of bird meat. It turned out that Luna had a talent for hunting.
“The bird meat must be delicious.”
“N-No, you’re not supposed to eat this, Hassan!”
“If it’s not for eating, then why did you catch it?”
“I’m going to make a threat detection totem with this Night Canary.”
“What kind of totem did you say?”
Instead of responding to my words, Luna started pulling the reeds growing next to the ruins of Ceres’ temple. She then began weaving the tough and sturdy stems together, forming a structure that resembled a small cage.
“Are you trying to make a birdcage?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll put the bird in there. The night canaries make a lot of noise when monsters are nearby.”
So it seemed that Luna intended to use the canary she put in the cage as some kind of alarm.
Come to think of it, I had heard stories of adventurers, exploring Pluto’s Labyrinth, that tamed animals like this and used them as allies.
The difficulty of exploring the labyrinth only increased with the number of ‘human’ members. There were also some hunters who tamed animals to aid them in conquering the labyrinth.
Anyway, after having some good breakfast, we squeezed our way through the tall reeds that were long enough to reach above our heads and cover us with their breadth.
After wandering for a while, we finally managed to find the entrance to Pluto’s Labyrinth where I had previously clashed with the cultist called Koma.
The entrance to the ruins gave off the impression that the earth had opened its dreary maws through the fields of shining reeds in the gentle morning glow.
From inside, I could hear sounds resembling the grievous cries of beasts. At the entrance, chains and stakes were embedded like a fence to control access into the space beyond the entrance.
Seeing the lock with the Mars Guild’s sword emblem on top, it was clear that this was a magical seal that had been placed on the entrance of this labyrinth by the Mars Guild.
I unlocked the seal with the key I received from Hippolyte. As I went through with that action, the chains fell to the ground with a loud clattering noise.
And so, it began.
The seal of the labyrinth was thus broken.
“Hassan, t-this is my first time entering a labyrinth. Is it going to be okay?”
“To be honest, it’s my first time too. Damn, the veritable entrance to hell. Frankly speaking, it’s quite terrifying.”
“Labyrinth exploration is usually the task of silver-tier adventurers, after all. I’ve read a lot about it in books of the Ivory Tower.”
Were they all newbies to labyrinth exploration? Did that mean I was the only one with experience in conquering labyrinths? Of course, even if I called it experience, all I had done was work as a porter of Elfriede’s group. However, I still knew a thing or two about how labyrinths worked, unlike the rest.
“Well then, I’ll give you a brief explanation. Listen carefully. The most important things to watch out for in the labyrinth are the monsters and traps. And also, be cautious of carelessness and contraptions of any kind.”
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