Hour Empty Child
Despite that the city of Triun is a bustling city filled with joyous citizens alike, there are always some parts of the city that are not as clean. One example was the abandoned warehouses and buildings where Kudo went to find Saka. Those were buildings that were once planned on being useful to the city, but due to budget constraints and complicated processes, those were abandoned.
The citizens called this area the ‘dead zone’, where none lived there but the homeless and the crazed. In there, supposedly, only criminals are said to gather. But since Triun is also the town where the famous Alpha Heart reside, there has not been a single criminal activity that surfaced.
But there were some who did not care and stayed in the city regardless.
Within one abandoned building, deep within the dead zone at the center, there were a group of people who stayed there for the time being. One of them, a bald man dressed in a sharp suit walked over the dirty floor and stepped in front of the cracked window glass. He looked out at the horizon, where the city shined the brightest compared to the dim and grim zone he was in.
“Considering this is the greatest city in the continent, even this place has some holes rats can go through. Aren’t we lucky?”
The bald man, Arnold, said despite himself being the so-called rat. He pushed his glasses up to his eyes as he turned back around.
He faced the rounded man that was currently on the floor, completely sprawled out with his arms stretched out. Wounds covered his body, but not from his visit with Kudo from before. His blood spilled, nearly covering the floor around him to make up a puddle. Arnold walked forward and looked down at the stout man. The man shook—Arnold’s sight on him was enough to rattle his very bones.
“You sure made a mess of things, didn’t you, slimey?” Arnold spoke in a casual tone, his cold smile never leaving his face. “You could have brought the entire knight squad on us, and even worse, the Alpha Heart. If you had just done your job, we wouldn’t have to be hiding out here like rats, now would we?”
“Y-Y-Yes,” The stout man stuttered, his teeth clattering behind closed lips. “I’m very sorry, Arnold. I was just—”
“You were just going after the girl blindly, and you couldn’t even face the Valkyria brat? What’s worse, you couldn’t even beat him in a fight, and you even had Dark Experience! What’s wrong with you?!”
Arnold raised his leg and kicked him in the stomach, causing the stout man to howl in pain as he turned to hold his pained stomach.
“I-I’m sorry, Arnold! But that kid was freaking scary! It was as if—”
“The brat was just a teenager! What’s so scary about a brat?!”
Arnold shouted, once again bringing the round man to whimper in fear as he turned over to his front, covering his head and rolling up to his knees to make a huddle. He shook like a turtle who went inside of his shell.
“God, you’re useless! You couldn’t even get the girl, even though she was right in front of you! Now she’s part of the Alpha Heart according to my sources. What’s a worse timing than that?”
Arnold clicked his tongue in fury, biting onto his thumb as he glared at the side. It was bad enough that one of his members got away, but now that member was part of a very troublesome group. His higher-ups would not like this one bit.
“Ah, Arnold, you’re worrying about it too much, man.”
Another man’s voice pierced through. Arnold turned back around, his glare lessening but not less than a furrowed brow at the man standing by the wall on one leg. He crossed his arms, with a sickening smile plastered on his face.
“We’ll get the girl, no problems,” The man said, his smile widening.
“Says the maniac,” Arnold replied harshly. “How come you’re so certain about it?”
“Because… the girl can never escape her past.”
The man said, getting Arnold’s attention. The man himself uncrossed his arms as he walked over to the same window Arnold looked over. He placed his hand on the glass, his hand stained in nothing but pure black.
“And those people will notice it, no matter how hard she tries to hide it. Eventually, her own guilt will catch up to her—it’s only a matter of time.”
“So, basically,” Arnold summarizes. “She’s just a runaway child?”
“Exactly!” The man replied happily. “You gotta understand what a child thinks, my man. They think the world revolves around them, so it makes sense to let them do whatever they want for a moment. Once the reality sinks in, she’ll realize their place and come back to us. Until then, we’ll have our open arms tucked away for now.”
“Mmh, just because you have experience raising a child, what makes you think she’ll do just that and not ruin everything for us?”
Arnold said, but the man stayed silent for a moment. He turned around, his black hair swishing about as he smiled again.
“Cuz’ I know exactly what I’m talking about. She’ll return to us because there’s no other place for her here. Nowhere else—just with us. Make sure you remember that, Arnold.”
Arnold sighed. “Fine, whatever. I’ll wait, but I won’t take any blame. And you should remember what you need to do if we ever—””
“Sure, sure. Just take it easy man. In fact, why not let out your stress on the fat man trying to escape? It’ll be fun~”
The man pointed at the huddled man on the ground who flinched the moment he was mentioned. Arnold turned to notice the round man crawling away before he turned his head around, his entire fat body shaking profusely.
“Ah, you bastard! Take this!”
“W-Wait! Arnold, please, don’t! Aaaagh!”
Screams of incredible terror surfaced from outside the building as the man was seen through the window looking over at the horizon with a wide smile plastered over his face.
“Ah… what a wonderful day,” The man complimented. “And soon, it’ll be a great day…”
The Valkyria Ame drove over the streets at the large plains, picking up the dust from the wheels. The E-Plus were already away from the city of Triun a few kilometers away as they reach for the border of Roprase.
Despite the energy filling them for completing a dungeon, things were still awkward for the members. More particularly, Saka remained seated only near Kudo and Hinota at the center, staying silent and away from everyone else.
The other party members were seated on the other side, but one of them stood up. Mizuri stepped over, making sure of her footing, to try to talk with the silent girl who had her eyes closed throughout the trip.
“Hey, whatchu thinking ‘bout now?” Mizuri asked, a smile on her face.
“Be silent,” Saka replied. “My mind taketh time to formulate a plan for our upcoming death-bringing.”
Saka shot her down immediately, bringing Mizuri down as she headed back to her side with her head lowered and her spirit at the lowest. The other party members consoled her for a job well done despite it.
As Hinota and Kudo chuckled from the ordeal, Hinota asked to get out of the awkward slump; “I wonder how different the dungeon would be compared to Peranim?”
“Mmh,” Kudo placed his fingers to his chin. “Lerabelum is really difficult according to the adventurers, so maybe it’ll be a lot harder than usual?”
“Of course it is!” Kuki shouted, crossing his arms. “Dungeons in Lerabelum are no joke, y’know. It takes serious skill and resources to even plan on beating at least the first ten floors.”
“But I bet Mom can complete the dungeon with no sweat,” Kudo flashed a smile.
“Yeah, but that’s Hikari Valkyria we’re talking about!” Kuki pointed at Kudo, bringing a point.
“Well, that won’t be an issue. We’re trying to follow in her footsteps. Of course, we’re going to complete about half the floors, at the least.”
Hinota answered which only served to make Kuki’s jaw drop to the floor. Raika raised her hand and placed it on top of his shoulder.
“Forget it, Kuki. We can’t change their minds. The least we could do is just… follow them…”
“R-Rai! Stay with me! Don’t faint the moment you say those words!”
The two childhood friends made their play as Raika fell over, Kuki catching her in a dramatic fashion. Kudo couldn’t hold in his laughter as Hinota continued.
“To be honest, I’m more interested in the loot we’re going to have. This is a Lerabelum dungeon—it’s definitely going to be something worth selling.”
Hinota was more interested in the economic side of their dungeoneering, a smile similar to that of a vixen with an eye for cash.
“Man, I’m more interested in the equipment that might drop!” Tsuchi crossed his arms, nodding his head up and down. “Though it’ll probably won’t be that good compared to the one Kudo-chii gave me.”
“By the way,” Mizuri turned to Tsuchi, lowering her eyelids. “You ARE wearing your chainmail, are you?”
“O-Of course, I am! I wouldn’t leave home without it!” Tsuchi replied in a stuttered tone, bringing down Mizuri’s suspicious look on him.
“Good,” Mizuri turned her head, but she still had one eye on Tsuchi. That one eye got him to have a cold sweat.
“Take it easy, Mizuri,” Hinota held in her laughter. “You’re going to get an ulcer if you worry so much about him.”
“I-I’m not worried! This idiot might go and kill himself if I take an eye off him, so I have to make sure!”
“Hehe, sure, you do~”
Hinota smiled deviously, leaving Mizuri to flinch at the possible chance that she was getting back at her for making fun of her a few days ago. Mizuri let out a puff of air in exasperation, leaving the topic behind.
“…This sure is a loud lot,” Saka muttered to herself, denying herself to sigh.
The party made their destination as the Ame slowed its pace to a crawl. They finally reached the city of Haeldom.
Once they got out of the Ame, Kudo and Hinota were met with nostalgia as the city of Haeldom was the same as the dungeon city of Peranim. Everywhere they see, they saw banners, signs, and even posters of the famous Haeldom Dungeon plastered everywhere in the city. The colorful buildings that were selling the dungeon merchandise, such as small statues of the dungeon itself as well as the popular monster dolls sold to children and young women alike—it was the same tourist attraction as is usually is.
“Some things never change, even if they were from different cultures,” Kudo said in a remark to the dungeon’s popularity.
“They gotta make a buck somehow, right?” Hinota smiled.
“Damn corporate businesses and their dirty tactics,” Kuki muttered under his breath.
“Kui, nobody cares. Just leave it be,” Raika harshly put him down.
The party thanked their driver, Chui, as she wished them good graces on their travels. For now, Chui will stay behind in the city, basking in the fun atmosphere the city was having.
The party then made their way towards the dungeon, which was at the farthest north side of the city. They weaved through the crowds, including the adventurers who were also there for the participation of the dungeon, as they managed to break through them and reach to the dungeon.
The dungeon itself was a tower that seemed to reach up to the very heavens. The top of the tower couldn’t even be seen through the clouds blocking the way. The adventurers all craned their necks at the huge size before returning to reality by heading towards it. Once they reached it, they noticed some of the stalls that crowded around the entrance side.
There were some booths that had the word ‘DMC’ on the title at the top. Inside these booths were personnel with the same uniform of a black vest and white shirt along with black pants and shoes. They were walking about, seemingly under heavy tasks as they rushed about around the entrance.
The entrance itself was huge double-doors that were metallic in color, and seemingly heavy to open. The entrance was barricaded with red stanchions, blocking any adventurer from entering without permission from the company.
“It doesn’t look like they’re open yet,” Raika said after noticing that the personnel were still running about with papers in hand.
“Maybe we can get in without waiting in the line!” Tsuchi said.
“Let’s ask then,” Kudo said before turning to the people at the booth. “Excuse me!”
The people at the booth finally stopped what they were doing and turned around to notice the adventurers walking towards them. One of them, a girl with short brown hair in the DMC uniform showed up before them with a proper form by placing her hands over her front side.
“O-Oh, please excuse us. We’re still finishing up on our business,” The girl said in a proper tone and manner. “Welcome to the Crystal Dungeon! Our town’s most proud dungeon known in history!”
“We were hoping we can enter the dungeon right now,” Kudo asked. “Is it possible?”
“Yes, actually,” The girl said with a smile. “We just finished up on the cleaning up and now we can open the Crystal Dungeon. We just need you to sign some papers and possibly some waivers before you can enter, is that okay?”
“Y-Yeah…” Kudo said, his smile stiffening. “Sure…”
Kudo was already getting tired of having to go through so many forms and papers to sign with, but this is how Lerabelum worked around here.
After being forced to sign over dozens of papers, including what would happen if they should lose their lives in the dungeon and how the DMC will not be responsible over that, the E-Plus finally made it to the double doors of the dungeon.
“Finally…” Kuki said out loud. “I didn’t think that just entering the dungeon would take so long…”
“It sure took a while…” Raika said in agreement.
“At least you guys didn’t have to sign anything,” Kudo said, his voice hoarse and mind beaten down. “But now we can enter with an extra party member.”
“Least they didn’t give us any problems regarding having a seventh member,” Mizuri said.
“Then,” Hinota stepped forward, grasping onto her katana on her hip. “Let’s head inside.”
The party moved forward at a steady pace towards the double doors. Kudo, being the leader, remained at the center as he pushed open the double doors with a lot of force. The doors creakily opened at a slow pace, getting everyone to feel the intensity of the dungeon reaching up to their cores.
“Alright,” Kudo said. “No matter what happens, everyone stays together. Got it?”
The group simultaneously responded. “Got it!”
As with that, the E-Plus entered into the dungeon, closing the double doors behind them resounding with a giant thud.
Darkness surrounded them. No matter what they turn to, they saw nothing but the color black everywhere they go. They couldn’t even see what was in front of them, so moving in a group together often made them topple and hit each other.
“Watch where you’re going!” Mizuri shouted.
“You watch where you’re going!” Tsuchi replied.
“Ow! Someone stepped on my foot!” Raika shouted.
“Oops, sorry,” Kuki said.
“I didn’t think we would face our own first challenge already, hahaha…” Kudo joked, but nobody bothered to laugh so he stayed silent.
Before long, the darkness finally lightened, brightening up everyone’s eyes as torches lit up. The torches lined up along the stone walls all the way towards the end of the path, which continued further into the darkness.
They entered into a hallway made entirely of stone. Lined blocks covered everything as the party slowly walked forward at a steady pace. Raika and Kuki have already pulled out their weapons, holding them tightly towards themselves in case an enemy popped out.
“Kinda reminds me of the first time we entered a dungeon, Hinota,” Kudo said with a bit of excitement in his tone.
“Yeah,” Hinota said honestly. “Though having more people with us gives me peace of mind.”
“Don’t worry, Hino,” Mizuri said, punching her chest with her fist. “You can rely on us to give you guys back up.”
“Good to hear,” Hinota replied with a smile.
“Saka, how’re you doing?” Kudo turned to his side, Saka walking up beside him throughout all the way.
“Hmph,” Saka scoffed. “I am an emissary of Darkness. Darkness is where I belong, so this is nothing to me.”
“Good to see that you’re not scared,” Kudo smiled at the young girl.
“D-Do not mistake for a little babe!” Saka protested.
The group had this pleasant conversation with one another despite already entering inside the dungeon. They continued to walk on the first hallway without any issue thanks to the lighting of the torches. However, as they continued to walk forward at a steady pace, the hallway seemed to expand in size, reaching over several meters in diameter.
Before long, they stopped in their tracks as they could no longer walk forward at a steady pace.
The entire area around them turned into a large hallway that had an incredible deep chasm between them at the final goal of the hallway. Kudo walked forward with slow steps to reach out near the edge of the chasm, looking down at the vast gap.
Nothing but darkness, but his eyes were able to pick out at least something thanks to his sensitivity. He noticed that at the very bottom of the deep chasm were spikes that had some things stuck to them—bones and clothing that seemed to belong to some people before.
(How can there be a body there already when this dungeon just showed up?) Kudo thought. (Unless… it was used before, and it was transported along with the dungeon? Scary…)
Kudo backed away from the deep chasm as he walked back to the party. “It looks like the path ends here.”
“How can we get across?” Mizuri asked, moving forward a bit to check out her surroundings. “We’re strong, I don’t think we can jump to the end.”
Mizuri pointed at the very end of the chasm. There was an open entrance with some sort of insignia around the edge of the square entrance. There was a torch at each side of the entrance, proving to be the exit of the first floor.
“So what do we do?” Raika asked, hoping that they wouldn’t need to jump over as Mizuri said.
“There should be some kind of clue that can get us there. We just need to find it.”
Kudo said as he already started looking around for the clue they needed. He walked over to the closest wall and placed his hands over the stone. He caressed the stone wall with his hand multiple times as if searching for something. Everyone else followed his example and did the same on the other parts of the wall.
After a couple of minutes of searching, Kudo managed to find something.
“Alright!” Kudo said, noticing that one of the tiles of the wall was shifting the moment he pushed it. “I think I found something!”
“We should have just left it to the boss,” Kuki said, letting out a breath of frustration. “He would have found it anyways.”
“You got a point,” Hinota agreed, chuckling at the line.
“Yeah, whatever,” Kudo said while rolling his eyes, knowing that his luck would usually find the things he needed. “Okay, let’s see what this thing can do.”
“Hope that it’s not a trap instead,” Tsuchi said with a smile on his face.
“P-Please don’t say that!” Raika pleaded.
“Welp, let’s see then.”
Kudo said as he pushed the tile with his hand.
The hallway around them started to rumble, causing Raika and Kuki to whimper as the earth shook with mild intensity. In front of their eyes, some of the stone floors between the huge gap between them and the entrance to the next floor stage began to rise from the darkest depths, making several floors with a wide gap between them.
But they didn’t stop there. Once they reached to the top, the multiple floors began to move to the side, moving left and right in a continuous motion.
“Is this…” Kudo said, studying the moving floors.
“It’s possible that it’s a jump quest,” Hinota surmised. “We got to jump on them to get to the next floor.”
“J-Jump!?” Raika said, her tone becoming meek and small.
“So that means that we might have a chance to fall over and get impaled…” Mizuri said in amazement as she gazed over at the dark abyss below once again to notice the spikes at the bottom.
“Then all we gotta do is avoid that,” Kudo stepped forward, getting close to the edge of the stone floor. “I’ll go on ahead first to see if it’s safe, then—”
Before Kudo could continue, Saka ran forward and jumped off the edge of the stone floor. Kudo became agape as soon as Saka got into the air, then landed on the moving platform with ease.
She continued to jump further ahead, leaving the party behind.
“W-Wait! Saka! Hold on!”
Kudo shouted as he bended his knees and jumped forward. His leg strength is already enough to cover some distance as he managed to jump onto the moving platform as well, albeit that he staggered a little when he did. He had no choice, however, as he continued to move forward by jumping ahead to catch up to Saka.
“We can’t get left behind!” Hinota shouted to the party. “Let’s move ahead!”
The party simultaneously agreed as they followed their co-leader to the next floor.
The party managed to jump ahead a few platforms with no underlying issue at hand. Kudo was still jumping ahead of everyone else to try to catch up to Saka who was moving faster ahead of them.
As the party caught up, Hinota jumped to the side where Kudo was after he stayed behind a while to catch his breath.
“Everything okay?” Hinota asked, taking out a small water bottle from her inventory screen to drink from.
“Yeah…” Kudo said in between breaths. “It’s a lot more tiring than I thought. I didn’t think that Saka could have that much energy…”
“She is powerful,” Hinota mentioned. “She beat the Extreme Boss on her own.”
“That’s true… How’s everyone else?”
“They’re catching up to us. Especially Tsuchi and Mizuri.”
Hinota said while pointing at the two behind them with her chin. Kudo turned over his head to check out the two jumping to where they were.
Mizuri and Tsuchi were jumping in sync with one another, not getting tired at all. Kudo figured that for Tsuchi, his Vitality stat was high so he had tons of leftover stamina. But it was surprising to see Mizuri catching up with no issue at all despite having more Intelligence stat than her Vitality.
It must be due to their extensive training to keep their bodies fit, Kudo thought. He turned his attention to the ones behind them.
Raika jumped ahead with as much ease as the two ahead. Her beastfolk body attributed to her physical ability, especially when her jumping is akin to that of a bunny. She practically glided over to the next platform, landing with such precision that it seemed natural for her to jump so high and serene.
Unfortunately, Kuki wasn’t as graceful. He struggled to get to the next platform from how much time he’s taking to get to the next side. As it was moving, he had to make sure not to time it wrong, or otherwise he would miss.
“Come on, Kui. We’re gonna get left behind!” Raika shouted, keeping her balance despite being on a moving platform.
“S-Shut up! I know that! J-Just give me a moment!”
Kuki shouted back, his legs shaking and his face riddled with sweat. Kudo stood up in worry after noticing how long Kuki was taking to reach to the next platform.
As Kuki waited for the platform to move, he swallowed his saliva as the moving platform finally moved to the side he wanted to jump on. He bended his knees and jumped off from the ledge to get to the side.
However, when he jumped, the platform ahead of him have already started to move. Kuki’s eyes widened when he noticed that he was getting closer to the edge rather than on the center.
As he landed, his feet only touched the edge, and thanks to his incoming balance falling towards the platform, his feet missed the mark and fell over to the edge.
Raika shrieked in terror as the party looked back in shock to find Kuki falling to the darkest abyss. Kudo ran forward already thanks to his [Sixth Sense] giving him an advanced warning. He jumped over several platforms in a hurry and shouted.
He released a continuous stream of white chains from his hand into the dark abyss below. During his fall, within to the very darkness where his death was imminent, Kuki screamed for his life. Then, in amidst of his terror, he witnessed the flying chain of light falling towards him. He took this chance as he reached out his hand to the chain, and grabbed it with his life depending on it.
His fall ceased as his weight practically stretched his arms, but otherwise, he managed to stop in time before he could feel the sharp point of the spike below the sole of his boot. He looked down, and noticed the giant spike that could have ended his life.
And the skull that was pierced by the spike.
“A-Aaaah! Get me up! Get me up, please!”
Kuki pleaded, shaking the chain as Kudo from up above did as he told and pulled him up with his incredible strength. As he pulled by absorbing the white chain, Kudo managed to pull Kuki up to the edge, getting him on top of the moving platform with exaggerated breathing.
Raika screamed as she reached to Kuki and knelt down, grabbing onto him as tears began to fall from her eyes.
“Kui! You idiot! Why did you almost fall?!”
“N-Not like I wanted to do it!”
Raika screamed, tears continuing to well from her eyes as Kuki sighed a breath of relief. Kudo did so as well, wiping off the sweat from his forehead as everyone else reached to where they were.
“That was too close for comfort,” Mizuri said, also beginning to sweat from the nerves piling up inside her.
“This seemed easy, but it won’t matter if everyone is left behind,” Tsuchi said, scratching the side of his cheek.
“Yeah… let’s go on ahead with a steady pace.”
As Kudo said, the party this time went ahead at a slow pace. To make sure not to repeat what happened, Raika grabbed onto Kuki and forced him to jump along with her to each platform. Kuki didn’t like it, but as Kudo ordered, he had no choice.
And finally, they reached to the final platform. Kudo was the last to jump onto where the entrance gate was along with everyone else who was there.
“Is everyone accounted for?” Kudo knew the answer but asked either way.
“All accounted for, boss,” Kuki said in a displeased tone. A grumbling expression on his face.
“Stop sulking,” Kudo said, putting on a smile. But then his smile disappeared when he noticed Saka waiting near the entrance gate.
“Hath everyone made it now?” Saka spoke with a slightly annoyed tone. “It took you all some time.”
“There was no other choice,” Kudo said. “Kuki fell over and we needed to help him out.”
Saka scoffed. “How can anyone fall in such a simple floor? How could anyone be that disgraceful?”
Saka’s words cut deep into Kuki’s chest as he pursed his lips. He knew full well how lame it was for him to fall despite how slow moving the platforms were.
“Hey!” Mizuri stepped forward, pointing at Saka. “Don’t you dare say crap to Kii! It’s not like you did anything to help! You just went ahead without even waiting for us!”
“As an Emissary of Darkness,” Saka intervened. “I go on alone on my own path. There isn’t any reason for me to trudge along the path along with everyone else. Doing so will only slow me.”
Mizuri was about to move ahead towards Saka, but Tsuchi pulled her back to him by tugging on her shoulder. She looked back at Tsuchi who shook his head silently, leaving her exasperated as she scoffed out air.
Raika herself didn’t show a good expression as she furrowed her eyes at Saka. Meanwhile, Kuki kept gazing downwards, still affected by what she said.
Kudo continued staring at the scene with swimming eyes, trying to figure out how to dissolve this fuse that lit up somehow between them. He switched attention to Hinota, who remained silent but knowing how bad things were getting despite this being the first floor.
“L-Let’s move on ahead already.”
Kudo figured that this was the only way to lead without making everything blow up on their faces. As the party silently agreed, the two leaders moved on ahead, leading the party to the entrance gate.