The Asbel Mountain Range runs from the center of the Pandora continent to the northern side, drawing a large arc across the land.
In the group of city states along it, there are beautiful views of the snowy mountain range, but these mountains also have a dangerous side, being designated as Rank 5 Dungeons.
At this moment, there is a certain party of adventurers walking towards Asbel during these early days of winter.
“… Was there supposed to be a cave out here in a place like this?”
As the blizzard that was limiting their vision subsides, the mouth of a cave that has been dug into the side of the frozen cliff appears right in front of them.
The one who spoke is the person at the front of the line of adventurers, Jimmy. He is a man of the human race who has almost reached the age of thirty. He lives in Asbel Village, at the foot of a mountain within Avalon’s territory. The Asbel Mountain Range is his primary working field as an adventurer.
He only works in low-danger areas away from the habitats of Rank 5 monsters such as White Dragons, Fenrirs and Tundra Whales, however.
“Hey, hey, our guide shouldn’t be saying such clueless things! Weren’t you boasting about how Asbel is like your back yard?”
The one making fun of Jimmy is the party leader, Michael. He is a typical power-obsessed fool who calls himself the Golden Hero.
Indeed, the fact that he is foolishly equipped with full-plate armor made of gold that not even an upstart nobleman would think of having made is proof that being a fool is part of his inborn nature. Incidentally, the greatsword on his back has a blade of platinum.
Nevertheless, despite being made a fool of by a real fool, Jimmy is currently feeling bewildered rather than angry.
“No, I’ve definitely been around these parts multiple times,” he says. “I have a clear memory of this cliff, and I even know the shortest route to descend the mountain from here. But the last time I was here, there definitely wasn’t a big cave like this.”
Jimmy is a Rank 4 adventurer. He cannot enter the deepest parts of dangerous regions, but even so, he is a man who has spent long years walking around almost the entire Asbel Mountain Range.
He has only been hired temporarily to act as a guide for the Rank 4 party, ‘Golden Age,’ led by Michael. Jimmy’s knowledge of Asbel and his experience in climbing the mountains has even been officially certified in writing by the Adventurers’ Guild in Asbel Village. He is a professional, so to speak, when it comes to these mountains.
“Then it was dug by a monster, wasn’t it?” says Michael. “Heheh, if it could dig a huge hole like this, it must be a big one!”
There are many monsters capable of digging holes in the ground, such as Sand Worms and Mad Moles. The Elgrand Dragon, the supreme ruler of the Rank 5 Dungeon known as the ‘Elgrand Canyon,’ is powerful enough to dig a cave with a diameter of fifty meters just by passing through the ground.
But within the Dungeon that is the Asbel Mountain Range, there should be no monsters with digging abilities capable of creating such a cave.
“You’re planning to look inside it?!” Jimmy asks in surprise.
“Of course!” Michael replies, his face full of motivation.
Jimmy objects immediately. “It’s dangerous; you’re better off giving up on it. We’re currently equipped with gear for the snowy mountains; we’re not prepared to search a cave, are we? If you really want to go into the cave, we should go back to the village first, make preparations and –”
“Huh? As if we’re going to waste our time doing that!” Michael shouts. “There might be some crazy big prey in there; what if another party takes it while we’re gone!”
The chances of this happening are astronomically low. Though it is only the beginning of winter, the piled-up snow is already thick and Asbel Mountain Range has turned into a white snowscape. There are few adventurers who would go out of their way to venture up here.
Not to mention that if there really is big prey here, an enormous, high-Rank monster, adventurer parties who would be capable of defeating it immediately are rare.
“No, you can’t,” Jimmy insists. “It’s too dangerous. I can’t agree to searching the cave; I don’t want to go.”
“What did you say! I paid a lot of money to hire you, so why are you being such a coward! How can you call yourself a Rank 4 adventurer, the same as someone as great as me!”
“Now, now, calm down, Michael.”
Michael looks like he is about to attack Jimmy, but a young man steps in to gently stop him.
His name is Christopher. In contrast to Michael’s large build and grim expression, he is a handsome young man with a sweet, mask-like face that suits his soft, gentle smile.
“How about we perform a light search while Jimmy-san waits here?” Christopher suggests.
“Hey, hey, Chris, what do you mean by ‘light?’ Someone as great as me won’t be satisfied by anything less than a face-to-face interview with the boss in the deepest part of this place!” says Michael.
“You idiot, we still don’t know whether there really is a monster in this cave or not, do we? If we go inside, search the whole thing and there isn’t anything there, we’ll all look like idiots!” says a young woman, bitterly kicking the shining, golden armor at Michael’s shin with a clunk.
She is Jacqueline, the only female member of Golden Age.
With her small build and childlike face, she and Michael look like they might be parent and child, but surprisingly, she is actually the same age as him.
“That hurts!” Michael howls. “Damn it, damn it, my only weak point…”
“You’re full of weak points,” Jacqueline points out. “I wonder how many times you would have died by now if Chris and I weren’t with you. I mean, even the time you were kicked into the air by the Silent Sheep in the Iskia Hills –”
“Th-things from back when we were kids have nothing to do with this, do they!”
Michael looks enraged with tears in his eyes, while Jacqueline cackles. Christopher watches them with a smile. It seems that these three are childhood friends.
Two men and one woman is a party composition that typically causes the party to fail, but the fact that they have come as far as becoming Rank 4 adventurers together is a sign that they have built their relationships with each other incredibly well.
“Well then, we will go into the cave ourselves,” says Christopher, ignoring the bickering of the large man and young woman to come to a decision. “Let’s see, we’ll return in an hour. We won’t be gone for any longer than that; even if Michael throws a tantrum, we’ll make sure to drag him back.”
“An hour, huh… Alright, let’s do that,” says Jimmy, thinking that this compromise seems reasonable.
It would be cruel to tell these young adventurers, who are barely more than twenty years old, to not even take one step into an unexplored cave. He has no doubt that if he was the same age, he would have leapt into the cave in high spirits as well.
“I’ll leave this communication device with you,” says Christopher. “I’ll use this to report the situation in detail while we’re inside. Also, if the monsters who use this cave as their roost happen to return, please contact us right away so that we can do our best to rejoin you.”
He hands Jimmy an expensive Magic Item in the shape of a crystal ball that allows telepathic communication, which Jimmy gratefully accepts.
“Alright, let’s go, then! The first page of a new legend of the Golden Hero, Michael-sama, will be written here!” Michael declares.
“Shut up. Hurry up and go!” Jacqueline says impatiently.
“Well then, we are leaving,” says Christopher.
And so, the three members of Golden Age step into the cave.
As Jimmy keeps an eye out for monsters appearing from outside, the long-distance communication between him and the others begins.
“– How is it, Jimmy-san? Can you hear me?” Christopher asks.
“Yeah, the reception is good,” Jimmy replies.
The communication devices made of crystal are functioning with no problems. Less than ten minutes have passed since the others entered the cave, but Jimmy asks what the situation is like for now.
“There are plants resembling rose vines growing on the walls, but I can’t see anything else,” Christopher reports. “There aren’t any traces of monsters entering and exiting the cave, either.”
There is are no green plants to be found in Asbel during this harsh winter. Jimmy wonders whether there are plant-type monsters like Wood Golems or Dryads, but such monsters are generally weak to the cold.
At the very least, they haven’t been seen in the Asbel Mountain Range before.
“Be careful; there might be an unknown monster lurking in there,” Jimmy warns just in case, but his words are drowned out by Michael’s booming voice.
“Tch, it’s so empty,” he complains. “Aren’t there going to be a bunch of crystals coming out or something!”
“There’s no way you’d find crystals in a place like this, is there!” says Jacqueline.
It seems that these communication devices are shared by all members of the party. Of course, messages can be transmitted through strong thoughts, but with an open channel like this, speech is also transmitted exactly as it is spoken.
Jimmy wonders if he should warn them that they’re being too loud in an unexplored cave, but decides that it isn’t necessary and shuts his mouth.
The party of adventurers is already Rank 4; they are far above him when it comes to pure ability in combat and it isn’t a distant dream for them to be promoted to Rank 5. If they were the kind of adventurers who would let their guard down just because they’re talking, they would have undoubtedly lost their lives long ago.
“For now, there’s no signs of monsters appearing,” Jimmy reports. “The weather is stable. Well, take care down there.”
“Roger that – Ah, there is a fork in the path,” says Christopher. “There is a left and right path, both about the same size. We will try following the left one for now.”
It is possible that the cave has a complex structure with numerous branching paths, like an anthill.
“Don’t forget to make marks to remember the paths you’ve taken,” Jimmy reminds them.
“Yes, of course,” Christopher replies.
Jimmy feels a little anxiety at the fact that the first branching path appeared so early on, but the search of the cave proceeds smoothly from thereon.
Jimmy quietly waits for time to pass, giving the report of, “Nothing unusual here,” every few minutes while listening to the boisterous yet amusing conversation between Michael and Jacqueline.
“– There really is nothing but vines here,” says Christopher. “It seems that thirty minutes have already passed since we came in, so we will turn back now.”
“Oi, it looks like this cave continues quite a bit deeper than this,” says Michael.
“Be honest, you’re tired of this as well, right?” Jacqueline asks him. “There’s really nothing here at all.”
For now, Jimmy feels relief at the fact that all of the party members are going to be returning with no disagreement. There was nothing on the path they took, and since he has been watching the entrance, that means that no monsters have entered. There was only one branch in the path at the start, so there is no chance that they will get lost, either.
Their safety is guaranteed – or at least, it was supposed to be.
“… They still haven’t come back?”
Far more than thirty minutes have passed since the last message from the party saying that they were coming back. Jimmy doesn’t have something as high-class as a personal pocket watch, so he is making estimates based on his sense of time as an adventurer and the position of the sun, but there is no way that he has made a large error in his estimation.
The reason no further communications have been sent is because they were simply coming back and there was nothing else to report. The party members also knew that there was no danger; considering how Michael and Jacqueline were acting earlier, they might be walking leisurely back out of the cave while having friendly conversation.
Jimmy can think of any number of reasons why they might be so late to return. But it is also true that he can feel anxiety slowly expanding in his mind.
Fortunately, however, Jimmy has an item that can immediately check whether they are safe. He simply needs to contact them from his end.
“Umm, how do I use this again…”
He did hear an explanation on how to use it once, but he has no confidence, possibly because it is a Magic Item that he is not accustomed to using, or perhaps due to his age. He wants to believe that it’s the former.
“– Oi, can you hear me, Christopher?” he asks.
“Yes, what is it, Jimmy-san? Is there something wrong?”
Jimmy gives a sigh of relief upon hearing a voice coming from the crystal ball. This one sentence is enough to tell him that nothing unusual has happened on the other end.
“No, I was just thinking that you’re taking a while to come back, so I wanted to check up on you just in case,” he says.
“I’m sorry, we’ll be coming back soon, so please don’t worry,” says Christopher. “Ah, we’ve come back to where the fork in the path was, so we’ll reach the entrance soon.”
It seems that Jimmy has been worrying needlessly.
Just as he wonders whether he is so prone to worrying because of his age –
A message from Christopher arrives. Not even a minute has passed since the last message. Is there something that he forgot to say?
Jimmy responds without any particular misgivings. “Yeah, what is it?”
“It seems that thirty minutes have already passed since we came in, so we will turn back now.”
Jimmy heard this sentence thirty minutes ago. He doesn’t understand. “What are you saying?” he asks.
Is it some kind of joke? Even if it is, Jimmy has no intention to play along right now.
But the next response from the communication device is not an apology from Christopher.
“Oi, it looks like this cave continues quite a bit deeper than this.”
“Be honest, you’re tired of this as well, right? There’s really nothing here at all.”
It’s the same. It’s the exact same exchange that took place between Michael and Jacqueline thirty minutes ago.
“Oi, what’s wrong! If this is a joke, it’s in poor taste –”
“… What… you… –mmy-san…”
Jimmy hears an intermittent voice in response to his shouted question. He is just able to tell that it belongs to Christopher, but he can’t understand anything that it is saying.
“W-what is it?! Oi, what’s wrong, Christopher! Give me an answer!” Jimmy demands.
Instead of Christopher’s voice, Jimmy can only hear the ominous sound of rushing water coming from the crystal ball. Finally, communication becomes completely impossible.
“Shit, broken at a time like this?!” Jimmy curses. “This is why you can’t rely on Magic Items!”
It has been decades since Jimmy became an adventurer. His sense as a veteran is telling him that the current situation is dangerous to the point of no return.
The message that was identical to the one thirty minutes before it. The Magic Item that suddenly broke. Jimmy isn’t so optimistic to believe that a poor joke and this misfortune has simply happened to have occurred simultaneously.
“Shit, what do I do…”
He feels reluctant to enter the cave himself to meet the others.
At the very least, there is no doubt that they are physically unharmed. It doesn’t seem like they have been attacked by monsters or become wounded in some unforeseen accident.
Even so, something unusual is going on. But the scarier thing is that they are not aware that anything is unusual.
“Christopher, please respond. Michael, Jacqueline, can you hear my voice?”
In the end, unable to make any careless moves, Jimmy has no choice but to continue trying to call out to them through the broken communication device.
Communication has not been cut completely; he can hear something that sounds like voices, mixed in with noise. Right now, he can only place his bets on the hope that communication can be restored.
“Please, give me a response!” he says desperately.
At that moment, the noise finally disappears, and a clear voice replies to Jimmy once more.
“We’re connected! Oi, Christopher, what’s the situation down there –”
“Ah, we’ve come back to where the fork in the path was, so we’ll reach the entrance soon.”
At this point, Jimmy’s feeling that something is wrong turns into certain belief.
“Get a hold of yourself, Christopher! You’re saying the exact same thing as you said before! Wake up, damn it!” Uneasiness welling up inside him, Jimmy shouts and tries to tell Christopher about the unusual phenomenon that is occurring.
“Alright, let’s go, then! The first page of a new legend of the Golden Hero, Michael-sama, will be written here!”
“You idiot, we still don’t know whether there really is a monster in this cave or not, do we? If we go inside, search the whole thing and there isn’t anything there, we’ll all look like idiots!”
The only responses Jimmy hears are repeats of past sentences. The conversation between Michael and Jacqueline isn’t even connected anymore.
They’ve gone mad. That’s the only thing that Jimmy can understand.
“Shit, what is this… What the hell is going – UWAH?!”
As Jimmy is dumbfounded at this exceptionally strange situation, smoke suddenly rises from the cave that he has been staring into and envelops him. It is not the black smoke that accompanies combustion, but an ominous smoke with a vivid pink color.
“What is this, poisonous gas?!”
Despite his long years as an adventurer, this is the first time Jimmy has seen this. But even a child from the village would be able to tell that this shocking-pink-colored smoke is dangerous.
Jimmy knows this as well. He is now out of options other than to escape from the cave.
Using Air Walker, he somehow barely manages to succeed in escaping the pink gas that has filled up the cavern’s entrance in the blink of an eye.
Just as Jimmy hurls himself into the pure-white snow, the dense smoke billows out from the cave’s entrance as if there is a large fire burning inside.
“Haah… haah… Christopher, Michael, Jacqueline… Please… respond…”
With nothing to lose, Jimmy calls out to the crystal ball that he is tightly grasping, still lying in the snow.
There is no noise. Communication is stable. But the words that immediately come from the other side are completely ‘abnormal.’
“Ah, Mama… Mama, look, I’ve become a hero… I’m the strongest in the world, sparkling and gold, the coolest in the world… So, Mama, praise me, praise me more and hug me tightly.”
These words that sound like those of a spoilt young child, could they perhaps be Michael’s? It is unimaginable considering his grim appearance and proud attitude, but the deep tone of the voice makes it unquestionably clear that it is indeed him speaking.
“Fufu, ufufu, stop it, you two… Don’t fight over me… I just want to get along with you two, just like when we were children… It makes me happy to know that you feel that way, but… Fufu, I’m sorry for causing a misunderstanding.”
The next voice Jimmy hears is Jacqueline’s. These are the words of a foolish, conceited woman who is pretending to be troubled by two different men courting her. The two men fighting over her are Michael and Christopher, perhaps? There is no way to confirm this now.
“I’m happy, Michael… You’ve finally noticed my feelings, haven’t you… Yes, yes, that’s right, we don’t need a woman like that anymore. From now on, it’ll just be the two of us, we’ll be fine with just the two of us… I love you.”
Is Christopher’s voice speaking his true feelings? Jimmy desperately hopes that Christopher is simply blurting out false words due to his current crazy mental state.
“Haha… Damn it, everyone’s gone mad –” Letting out a dry laugh, Jimmy slowly gets to his feet.
He looks at the cave to see that the pink smoke spouting out has completely vanished and the cave has returned to its original, gaping appearance. At a glance, it looks just like any other cave.
“– Damn it! What the hell happened!”
Jimmy can’t make sense of anything at all.
The only thing that he is certain of is that those three young, promising adventurers will never come back alive.