Chapter 584: Technical Prowess

—Shizune PoV at start o3o–

After progressing into the 5th Floor for a few minutes, Shizune came across the first group of monsters, a total of seven Killer Ants. Seeing their numbers, Shizune furrowed her tiny brows in contemplation before sinking low to the ground and concealing her figure. Killer Ants didn’t rely on the sight as much as other monsters and instead relied on pheromone trails and sensing things with their antennae. As long as she didn’t draw their attention, the Killer Ants were essentially blind to her presences. She used her [Stealth] and observed the Killer Ants for several minutes, getting a feel for their movement patterns and how they interacted with the environment around them.

Though she had studied about them in books, there was a big difference between reading about a monster and seeing them for the first time. Shizune didn’t want to make any mistakes so she didn’t mind observing them for several minutes while formulating a plan to eliminate them all without exposing herself to any real danger. An assassin wasn’t someone that fought head-on unless they had no other choice, so Shizune was waiting for the most opportune moment to deliver a decisive strike that would incapacitate the largest number of enemies…

Shizune watched as the ants felt around their environment before a slightly larger Killer Ant entered the room from one of the small tunnels in the walls. It was more engorged than the other ants and they immediately grouped up around it as the larger ant began ‘feeding’ the others through a process called trophallaxis. It regurgitated a strangely scentless liquid and the other Killer Ants would bring their mandibles close to each other to transfer the food directly. Shizune watched this play out with a straight face before reaching into the pouches at her back and pulling out what looked like a paper-wrapped sphere. With her other hand, Shizune grabbed an off-colored brown dagger before tossing the small sphere toward the gathering of Killer Ants.

When the sphere impacted the ground, a small rune activated on its surface before an explosion of grey particulates expanded outward in a small cloud of around 3m. It didn’t encompass the entire group of Killer Ants, but it was more than enough for Shizune’s purposes as she threw the brown dagger, not toward the Killer Ants themselves, but at the ground around their feet. The dagger was a specialized projectile weapon made almost entirely out of carved flint with abrasive edges that could easily make sparks. As for the paper-sphere Shizune tossed out earlier, it was full of a chemical powder produced by the Dwarves and was used to make explosives for mining purposes. Chloe had shown her how to compress it into a sphere and it was useful as both a smoke grenade or, in this case, the catalyst for an explosion.

As the flint dagger slid against the ground, it created a large spark that immediately caused the 3m cloud of powder to ignite, creating a large explosion and a flash of light. At the same time, Shizune had dashed forward and used the cover of a boulder to shield herself from the shockwave. After the pulse of energy passed over her, Shizune leaped over the rock and targetted the closest Killer Ant, stabbing at the back of its head at the area where its brain was located. The magic core of a Killer Ant was very small and it was much easier to hit the brain stem than it was to nick the core itself. Though they could even survive being decapitated for a short period of time, a direct hit to the brain typically did enough damage to kill even tenacious monsters.

After stabbing the Killer Ant, Shizune jumped to the side and brandished her dagger to dislodge any fluids that were clinging to the blade. Then, without any significant delay, she sprinted at the next Killer Ant and tried to stab it in the same spot. The explosion had managed to kill three of the monsters and it had disoriented the other five while also causing numerous injuries to their bodies. However, Killer Ants didn’t have a very complex nervous system and they didn’t experience pain the same way as most monsters. Though they were seriously injured, they still tried to attack Shizune after realizing they were under attack. To avoid getting swarmed by the monsters, Shizune evaded the sharp mandibles of a Killer Ant and simply turned around to run away.

Shizune’s parameters were still very low and her defensive equipment wasn’t that suitable for fighting monsters with pincers and sharp mandibles. She could deflect blades with her arm-guards, but there wasn’t much she could do against the serrated jaws of the ants that were easily large enough to grab around her thin waist. Though it was a little frustrating, Shizune didn’t waste any time trying to be ‘bold’ and immediately ran towards Vahn and Chloe. However, she didn’t forget the ‘proper’ steps she was supposed to take when fleeing and dropped two small smoke bombs behind her to obscure the senses of the Killer Ants further.

The eyesight of a Killer Ant wasn’t that great, to begin with, so there was no way they could detect her within the dense cloud of smoke. Since she had been careful not to get any of the pheromones on her weapons and armor, Shizune was easily able to escape. However, this didn’t stop more Killer Ants from beginning to swam the area since one of the defensive mechanisms of the ants themselves was to send out a ‘cloud’ of pheromones when they were stressed out. They also had a very shrill cry that could sound for several hundred meters with ease, calling their companions to come to their aid.

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Vahn received the heavily breathing Shizune with his arm and used his free hand to erect a barrier in the corridor that the Killer Ants had no hope of penetrating. Though he could easily deal with the horde, Vahn wanted to let their numbers build up a bit before he scorched them. Killer Ants were a bad matchup for the current Shizune because she wasn’t fast enough to outmaneuver them with her 370 Agility. Even Vahn had need nearly a thousand just to be able to cope with their numbers in the past, and that was with the enhancement of his Báihǔ form. While waiting for their numbers to build up, Vahn stroked the back of the heavily breathing Kitsune girl to help her calm down.

Though she hadn’t fought for very long at all, explosions were very taxing on a person’s mental state and Shizune had gone ‘toward’ the explosion before immediately engaging the ants. When things didn’t quite go as she expected, she made the correct decision to run away but the physical and mental exertion had been great during that short period of time. After all, she only had 219 Endurance and her stamina was somewhat lacking. Even during training, she could typically only fight for around ten minutes if she was conserving her energy. She could manage up to half an hour if she pushed herself to the limit, but this would typically cause her to pass out and it wasn’t healthy for a growing girl to strain their body so much.

Chloe watched Shizune for a little while and waited for her breathing to calm down a bit before saying, “Watching your enemy is a smart decision, especially if its something you’ve never encountered before. As for your use of the powder ball and the flint dagger, that was a good decision for most enemies. However, such attacks aren’t that useful against insectoid enemies with hard carapaces and dense fluid-like bodies. Most shockwaves can be absorbed by them pretty easily and it won’t be nearly as effective as it would be on other monsters…” Since Chloe was Shizune’s mentor, she spoke to her very seriously when giving evaluations of the young fox’s performance.

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Shizune had turned her purple eyes to match Chloe’s green eyes, listening attentively to each of her words while Vahn replenished her energy. This wasn’t the first ‘mistake’ she had made and Shizune knew she needed to rely on the wisdom and experience of others if she wanted to continue improving. She wasn’t an ‘instinct’ based fighter and focused more on the technical aspects and preparation phases of combat. Besides, she had a lot of trust in Vahn and it was very comfortable to be held in his arms while she was getting a lecture…

Chloe went on to explain how Shizune could have handled the situation better, primarily encouraging her to set up multiple layers of traps to cover potential paths of retreat and kiting the monsters around while controlling the terrain to her advantage. Though there wasn’t much she could do to prevent the Killer Ants from calling support when they were together, she could have whittled down their numbers a bit without exposing her presence at all. However, these were all things that should only be considered if killing a small group was her only goal. Since she was simply too weak to make use of other methods currently, Chloe just gave a brief summary before they turned to watch the ‘show’ Vahn was about to put on.

At this point, more than one-hundred Killer Ants had filled up the room and were trying to knock against Vahn’s barrier to get at the fleshy intruders beyond. Others had tried to attack from different locations but Vahn had been passively killing those that tried by infusing fire elemental energy into their bodies and burning them to death. Though he did his best not to try and act ‘cool’ anymore, Vahn still showed a calm expression to Shizune and explained, “There is nothing wrong with the fighting style you’re trying to adapt, Shizune…but you must keep in mind that there are no limits in the world that can’t be overcome. If you want, you can even become the type of person that can kill an entire room full of enemies with a wave of your hand…”

As his words fell, Vahn created a ball of fire on the other side of the barrier and began turning the entire room into a massive furnace by condensing wind elemental energy to fuel the fire. Shizune watched with unblinking eyes as Vahn slowly ‘waved’ his hand across and scorched the entire horde of Killer Ants without any serious effort on his part. She couldn’t help but swallow a bit of saliva to lubricate her dried throat, shocked and awed by the sight she was seeing before her. Since she had seen magic being used by other people, Shizune knew that Vahn’s words were true and that she could one day perform similar feats if she decided to become a Mage. Though she didn’t have the ‘talent’ for it, Vahn’s support would allow her to reach the peak of any path as long as she put in the effort…

Vahn could sense a subtle change in the aura of Shizune, immediately activating his [Eyes of Truth] to see if he could discern what was happening. He knew from experience that his [Mentor] Development Ability actually made those listening to his words more attentive to everything he said. He wanted to nurture Shizune and Tina to the point where they could naturally awaken their Innates since children were highly impressionable. Though Shizune was mentally an ‘adult’, she was treated as the daughter of Milan, the sister of Tina, and he also went out of his way to spoil her a bit and treat her like a child. This made her more receptive and impressionable than normal because her trust for him had already increased greatly.

He wasn’t quite sure what was happening, which was a good thing since it often implied something related to an Innate, but Vahn saw Shizune’s mana-flow change slightly as a result of her change. She already had a relatively rare ‘darkness’ elemental affinity, but now there were strands of a hazy purple and a light icy blue that intermixed with her mana. The most curious thing was that they still constituted a single stream and Vahn watched as what he believed to be ice elemental energy ‘shift’ into ‘darkness’ energy before once again transitioning into the hazy purple he couldn’t identify at all. It wasn’t impossible to convert pure mana into almost any element, but transitioning a specific type into another type was almost impossible unless they branched from the same ‘law’. Water could become ice, but it was almost impossible to make water into fire unless you had mastery over a higher law…

Since it was unlikely her Innate had awoken just yet, Vahn kept this information to himself for the time being and just intended to ‘encourage’ Shizune a bit more in the future. She seemed to be influenced by his display of power along with his words, so Vahn figured he could show her a few awe-inspiring sights to ‘trigger’ her awakening. It had been a while since he went ‘freefalling’ and she would probably be inspired by the view of the planet from above. Everyone that he had taken into the upper atmosphere with Fafnir had undergone a change in perspective and Vahn believed it would be even more effective on the younger girls.

Once the room had been cleared, Vahn created a circular vortex of wind within the room with his left hand before infusing water elemental energy into the vortex to cool things down and air out the smell of burned corpses. Vahn gently ruffled Shizune’s head, even though she was wearing her cloak, and said, “That should have been all the Killer Ants around for a few hundred meters. Everything else should be either Frog Shooters, War Shadows, and potentially something like Needle Rabbits, though they would be uncommon on this Floor. We’ll follow behind, so do your best, Shizune.”

Shizune nodded her head, completely unaware of the subtle changes in her body and just focused on the warm energy in Vahn’s palm and his encouraging words. When he pulled his hand away, her eyes became more focused and she started making her way deeper into the Floor. As long as she could avoid getting surrounded by the ants, Shizune was confident she could kill most of them with her crossbow from a distance. If she pulled them to a chokepoint, she could probably eliminate a similarly sized group and just whittle down their reinforcements while moving to other areas of the Dungeon. As long as they couldn’t get a trace on her location, she could avoid the horde and continue forward without making the same mistake again.

Fortunately, as Vahn had speculated, the next encounter was an entirely new enemy and Shizune wasn’t forced to put her ‘theory’ to the test so soon. This time, her target was a group of three Frog Shooters, enemies that weren’t that difficult to deal with as long as you could evade their tongues. They could spit them out at a very fast speed, but the trajectory was easy to read if you were paying attention to the angle of their head. Since they only had one large eye, the Frog Shooters would focus on a specific point and shoot out their tongues at the same direction their eye was facing. They didn’t have a lot of mobility with their neck so this often meant their head faced the same direction and you could even bait their tongues out and severe them if you were properly prepared.

After watching the group for a few minutes, Shizune pulled out a small brackish-green ball and activated the rune on it before throwing it high up into the air. The Frog Shooters had keen dynamic vision and immediately turned their three large eyes toward the object flying through the air. Before they understood what was happening, a blinding flash of light burst forth from the small ball and completely robbed the monsters of their vision. Shizune had already started moving forward at this point, using her small crossbow to pepper the Frog Shoots with bolts, aiming for their eyes and throats. Unable to see where their attacker was, the monsters entered a panicked frenzy and even shot their tongues at each other after sensing movement.

Shizune observed their movements closely and, when one of the Frog Shooters shot out its tongue toward its ally, she stepped in agile footwork and sliced across the back of its head with her dagger, several the connection of its brain to the rest of its body. She wanted to use the monsters as cover so hadn’t immediately killed it, allowing the ‘counterattack’ of the other Frog Shooter to slam into the one she just paralyzed. Using the frog’s body as leverage, Shizune flipped over the other two as the first one was knocked away. She couldn’t jump too high just yet, but her balance had increased greatly with the advancement of her [Featherfoot] skill.

Shizune managed to land atop the Frog Shooter that just attacked its companion and buried her dagger into its eyes before twisting and pulling it out in a practiced motion. This time, the Frog Shooter died almost immediately so Shizune fell toward the ground and kicked away to get her distance, turning to glance at the last Frog Shooter to see where its head was angled. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to have been able to track her position just yet and instead looked toward where the paralyzed Frog Shooter was twitching around. Without any ‘inhibitions’, it shot its tongue blindly at the flailing frog and created a large puncture wound in its body. Finding purchase, the Frog Shooter continued to shoot out its tongue several more times, allowing Shizune ample opportunity to get right behind it and pierce it in the back of the head…

Once all the enemies were dead, Shizune looked around before dashing to cover and observing her surroundings. One of the ‘drills’ that Chloe had been teaching her was to never remain exposed, even if you think you’ve already defeated your enemy. The greatest threat to an assassin’s life was complacency and things weren’t over until you had eliminated the target and escaped successfully. There was almost no such thing as a ‘famous’ assassin since, the more well-known you were, the less ‘successful’ you had been in your job. Your name should be a ‘rumor’ and all of your ‘success’ should be speculative, spoken in hushed tones amongst your enemies and employers. Chloe herself had made the mistake of letting herself become complacent in the past, taking a job to hunt down Ryuu only to find that she had been lured into a trap by their shared enemies…

After waiting for around two minutes, Shizune came out of hiding and picked up the spoils of her battle before running over and handing them to Vahn. She could have come out even earlier but had used the time to recover her breathing and calm down from the adrenaline rush of combat. Vahn accepted the three monster cores and the small piece of frog hide that had dropped before wiping away his hands and petting Shizune on the head, saying, “Well done, Shizune. I don’t think there were any problems in how you handled the situation…” As he spoke, Vahn phrased his words like a question and looked to Chloe for her input. She nodded her head in agreement but a mischevious look appeared in her eyes and she asked in a playful tone, “What happens when you run out of consumable items~nya?”

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