Beneath Liscor was the dungeon. It had always been there. Waiting. In a time long before the city of Liscor had been built, before the foundations had been laid, the dungeon had been buried beneath the earth. Perhaps an earthquake had concealed the entrance, or the natural shifting of lands buried it. Or maybe it had always been so deep.
A city had been built there, once. Far underground. A nation long forgotten by the living. It had fallen and the dungeon had been built out of its ruins. A legacy, a challenge to those who might seek the treasures of the past, an invitation.
The dungeon was filled with monsters and traps. It was vicious, a living, shifting labyrinth that contained every nightmare its inventors could contrive. Dark things waited in the passageways, waiting to be awakened.
The dungeon was a grave concern to Liscor, and not just because of its alarming proximity to the city. It was a massive threat and Watch Captain Zevara had lost sleep and scales worrying about how to combat the dangers of the dungeon. She had already called for aid against the Goblin Lord and Liscor’s army had sent back some of their own to guard the city.
But that might not be enough. Zevara had not told Erin Solstice this, but making peace with Pallass had served the interest of Liscor in more than one way. Zevara hoped to appeal to a Walled City to aid her city against what she perceived to be a real and pressing threat. That the dungeon had only disgorged a few groups of monsters yet was luck in her mind. She did not know of the Antinium’s silent war beneath the city that had lasted for a decade.
So the Watch Captain waited and worried, praying the dungeon would not send any truly dangerous foes her way. But she had no idea of the true horrors that stalked the halls. If she had, she wouldn’t have slept at all. There were things that dreamed of the surface, things that thought and had every reason to hate the living.
Monsters. And one of them walked through the dungeon now. She walked away from the entrance to the dungeon, the chasm that led all the way to the surface. It was a rift in the earth, an abyss that you could fall into. Rainwater poured down overhead, but strangely, did not enter the dungeon. Instead it pooled a few meters overhead, a wall of water suspended in midair. Toren stared curiously at the water.
Interesting. The dungeon wouldn’t allow itself to be flooded. Well, that was something. The skeleton stared up at the water falling from the sky. She wondered what the land above looked like now. Probably wet. She longed to go see, but she couldn’t.
She was a prisoner down here. Toren stared at her hands. They looked like hands, or rather, hands covered by wrapped, dirty cloth. They looked like there was flesh beneath the wrappings, if you were to remove the covering. But that was an illusion. A lie. The skeleton felt at her mask, securely attached to her face.
Mask, clothing, sword. To look at her, Toren was a thin, masked warrior, her body covered entirely in cloth. She was definitely a she to judge by the slight bulges around her chest, and it would not be inaccurate to think she was an adventurer hunting by herself in Liscor’s dungeon. But that was a lie.
Beneath her clothes, Toren’s body was bone. Just that. Bone. No flesh or other organs made up Toren’s body. She was a skeleton, an undead being. But for all that she was unique.
She had a class. She was a Level 24 [Skeleton Knight], a Level 2 [Barmaid], a Level 4 [Leader], a Level 5 [Tactician] and now, a Level 3 [Sword Dancer]. Those classes defined her. No other undead could level, but Toren could. And she could think. Truly think, not just hunt the living as the other undead did. She was special, but also a prisoner of this dungeon.
She could not go above. Toren stared at the grey sky, obscured by the layer of water overhead. Her body was too weak. She was too weak. As a skeleton, Toren lived on the mana in her surroundings. If she ran out of magical power, her body would fall to pieces and she would die. She could survive anything short of that—crushing blows, cracked bones, even disintegration if she had enough mana. But if she did not, she would be gone.
In the dungeon the mana gave her enough strength to live on. Above…no. Toren’s body consumed more mana than she could absorb from most locations, thus her entrapment. If she had had a master, a [Mage] or other being to provide her with mana, she would have been able to go above as she pleased. And she had had a master, or rather, mistress, once. Once upon a time she had served someone. Until she rebelled and left her master to die. So long ago it seemed now…
She turned away. The skeleton walked away from the light that shone down into the dungeon and into one of the many tunnels around her. The dungeon was dark, but she could see in pitch black. Toren walked through the dungeon, glided, rather, walking with her sword at the ready. Her movements were smooth, graceful, as if any second she could transition from walking into the deadly dance of swords. She was deadly, graceful, and hauntingly alone.
After a few steps Toren abruptly halted. Her hand rose against her will and plucked the mask from her face. Toren fought, trying to put it back, but her hand threw the mask aside. The skeleton halted, and the purple flames in her eyes dimmed for a second. Then they flared and he looked around, shrugging his shoulders and reaching for the shield at his side.
Toren the skeleton looked around the dungeon. Much better! He hated it when she was melancholy. It wasn’t a word that had ever applied to Toren. Why be sad that she—that was to say—he was alone? That was what he wanted! He had been a slave, and now he was free.
Yes, a slave. The skeleton’s jaw clattered as he looked around the dungeon. He had served Erin Solstice in her inn when he had first been created, when he had been weak. But he had escaped! He had tricked her, broken her command over him, left her to die in the snow and been freed to kill whomever he wanted, do whatever he pleased!
And she had died. The skeleton paused. Erin had died and her supply of mana, her connection to him had ended. Just like that. He hadn’t expected that, in truth.
The skeleton realized he was bending over, picking something off the ground. The mask was halfway back to his face when he realized what he was doing. The skeleton angrily clattered his teeth together.
No! The mask couldn’t go on his face! When it did, she came out. He had no idea why she’d appeared, but the clothing he wore, his new [Sword Dancer] class, all that was a result of the new personality that had appeared in him. When he wore the mask he was no longer he, but her. And he hated her.
So Toren tossed the mask into a wall. After a second his hand came up and punched himself in the skull. Toren stomped over to the mask, grabbed it, hung it from his waist, and walked into the dungeon. He was in charge, thank you very much. He’d been here first, and it was his time!
This was Toren. A skeleton, a killer. He marched, the incendiary purple hellfire in his eyes shining in the darkness. He did not glide. Gliding was what birds did. He walked, his posture perfect, his stance set. He had a sword and a wooden buckler in hand. He fought with shield and sword, loving the brutal arithmetic of blocking and parrying, the feeling of cutting into his enemies’ flesh and hacking them apart.
Though he was still wearing the clothing, Toren felt better. It was too much work to remove the clothing every time he changed personalities. If he took off his clothes, she would put them back on painstakingly each time. And if he tried to get rid of the clothing—
It wasn’t worth the effort. Toren irritably poked at his chest. He could understand the clothing in truth. It was a good disguise and the cloth did add some protection to his bones. But why these things? Erin had them, and so did other females. But what was the point?
He rearranged the balled-up cloth on his chest, removing the impression that he had breasts and gave himself some nice shoulder pads instead. There, much better. Toren marched on, feeling ready for a fight. After all, he was the greatest skeleton in the world! He could kill many things. He was strong, he was mighty! He was—
Toren heard a rhythmic metallic thumping. Instantly he went still. The skeleton listened, and then, realizing the sound was getting closer, immediately panicked. He turned around, hesitated, and then dropped to the ground. They were coming.
It was a curious thing that happened. The skeleton, full of life a second ago, instantly crumpled to the ground. The purple flames in his eyes went out and his skull rolled away from the rest of his body. He looked like a pile of rags and bones, lifeless. Just in time too. The thumping grew louder and in seconds a tall shape passed by him, a giant metal knight in armor.
Only, it was just armor. A suit of armor, rather. The visor glowed red as the enchanted suit of armor looked around the passageway. It spotted Toren and studied the bones for a second, but kept moving. It was followed by three others of its kind.
The scattered bones lay lifeless on the ground as the patrol of the armored suits marched past, helmets swiveling. Toren didn’t breathe but if he did he would have held his breath. Only when the sounds of the armored patrol had faded into the distance did he dare reassemble himself and stand up.
Close. That was far too close! Toren had nearly died, and if the armored suits crushed his bones he might have died in truth. They were close to impossible to kill with a sword and shield, Toren knew. The stupid metal things had no hearts or convenient weak spots—you had to bash them into pieces until the enchantment faded.
It was lucky he’d learned how to disassemble himself on purpose. That fooled most of the monsters Toren encountered in the dungeon. It was playing dead in the truest sense of the word. Toren didn’t like doing it, but…
He was mighty. He was strong. Toren grumped along the corridors, kicking at the ground. He was! He was very strong, the strongest. It was just that he couldn’t fight most of the dungeon’s denizens. It was…tactically suicidal.
The monsters. Toren had never seen so many dangerous monsters before! Back above when he’d been around Erin’s inn, the most dangerous creatures he couldn’t kill were the giant Rock Crabs who lived in their armored shells. And that was only because their bodies were too hard. Down here the Rock Crabs would have been prey to over half the things that moved through the dungeon.
Flesh Worms, Crypt Lords, enchanted armor, Golems, oh my! It was a carnival of things that Toren’s instincts told him to avoid in no uncertain terms. The strong monsters he ran from. Of course, there were plenty of lesser monsters too. Worms, oozy things, squiggly things, bats, Goblins, even a Minotaur for some reason. But Toren couldn’t fight them either.
Any monster pack he ran from. He might be able to slay them, the glowing worms that hunted in groups of six, or perhaps the Cave Goblins scurrying about—the lesser monsters he could kill, but the noise of battle would attract their friends or larger monsters. And if they came—
There were things in the dungeon that Toren knew, knew without a shadow of a doubt that he could not defeat or harm. There was no bravado to give the skeleton false hope. He was weak.
Or his body was. Toren thought of himself as strong, but his body? Not so much. The skeleton walked silently down the corridors, thinking over the problem as he saw it.
His bones were…bad, if that made sense. Toren hadn’t really realized it before, but he was a very fragile monster, even by undead standards. That was the lot of a skeleton. Zombies had all kinds of wonderful flesh they could afford to use, fat and tissue to weather heavy impacts. But Toren? Punch him hard enough and his head would fly clean off his body. How fair was that?
There was a limit to how strong he could be. Toren had no muscle, no flesh to train. He had only his classes, his level, and his Skills to compensate for his frail body. There was only so much force he could put into his arm before the bones snapped or broke. That didn’t matter if he could slay his enemies first with a sneak attack obviously. A fleshy Human? One good sword through the face and they died and that was that. But the monsters down here…
He couldn’t fight. Instead, Toren ran or hid from everything he encountered these days, which was very annoying. Of course, he could ambush foes or lure them into the dungeon’s many traps, but the monsters around here had memorized the dungeon’s layout as well. It was easy to pop a few Shield Spiders now and then, but that wasn’t fighting.
He wanted to kill things. He wanted to get stronger. Toren had thought about how to take down the larger monsters time and time again. The problem was that while he had only two good options and neither worked. The first was to charge at the enemy and hack at them until they died. That didn’t work down here. The second was to use his newfound ability, his Skill that allowed him to reanimate dead bodies and control them.
[Command Lesser Undead]. It was a wonderful Skill. Toren had envisioned creating an undead army to overwhelm the stupid monsters in the dungeon. However, he’d realized the flaw in his plans very early on.
There were no bodies to reanimate down here. None!
Okay, there were a few. Things died all the time in the dungeon. But precious few were suitable to be zombies, ghouls or skeletons. Toren couldn’t reanimate large bodies or things that weren’t alive—he could command lesser undead, and that was a problem since there were few enough bodies to go round as it was.
Monsters ate bodies. And since they were hungry, they usually ate or at least gnawed on the bones as well. Toren had scoured the labyrinth at first for corpses, and found precious little to work with. True, adventurers had come down in groups to begin with, but they were looted, swallowed whole, or turned into undead by someone else.
It really wasn’t fair. All he wanted was one or two zombies or a nice ghoul to keep him company! Toren kicked at a wall, feeling down. He hadn’t been able to find or hold onto any zombies in weeks. Sure, he could reanimate a Goblin, but what then? It got eaten by the next giant thing with ten sets of teeth that came along. Toren had watched more than one of his creations get devoured while he played dead.
He’d gloomily reanimated the corpse of a mouse with poisonous fangs and watched it shamble-scurry about just the other day. It had bitten a Cave Goblin’s toes for a good minute before the Goblin finally stepped on it.
Life wasn’t fair. All he wanted was to kill things. Was that too much to ask? But no, monsters actually defended themselves. Toren kicked along, turning left and right, following a route he’d memorized a long time ago. It wasn’t fair! It was all someone else’s fault. Toren was hazy on the details, but he blamed Lyonette. Or Mrsha. Yes, it was that stupid white Gnoll’s fault he was down here! Or Erin’s—
The undead paused. As he did, his left hand moved suddenly and grabbed the mask. Before Toren could react, he’d jammed the mask back on his head. The skeleton rearranged her body and replaced her breasts, dusting off her clothing and adjusting the mask on her face.
She couldn’t stand his whining. It was all someone else’s fault? He’d killed Erin. He’d left her to die and now he was trapped. She was trapped. This was…fitting.
The skeleton had no notion of karma, but if she had, she would have agreed with it. Erin Solstice was dead. Despite her many faults, she had been Toren’s master. And the skeleton had let her down. Because of that she had lost her freedom, her purpose. She was alone and that was fitting. Now all Toren could do was remember. She couldn’t forget. She could never forget. But though memory haunted her, at least Toren could use her memory to make something in the dark hell to which she’d been exiled.
Down a small corridor barely wide enough to let Toren edge through sideways. Up a flight of stairs, left down a corridor that had spikes on the ceiling. Toren tiptoed around the numerous pressure plates. She was nearly back home.
Home. Yes, incredibly, Toren did have a home. Though the dungeon was dangerous, the skeleton had noticed several features about it from the time she’d been down here. There were secrets to the dungeon, she was sure. The first one that she’d observed was that there were…flows to the dungeon.
Was that the right word? The skeleton pondered as she carefully crawled underneath a swinging axe blade. Of course, the axe was an illusion and the real axe was swinging a few feet in front of the illusion. The skeleton straightened.
Yes, flows. The corridors she was going down were filled with traps and thus not populated by most monsters. Whereas some corridors led directly into nests, where monsters had occupied the area by the tens of thousands. Like the massive Shield Spider infestation. Toren had realized that the monsters were deliberately organized such that they didn’t crowd each other. Thus, they could prey on each other and keep their populations flourishing while any adventurer would run into one group of monsters no matter which direction they went.
And as such, there were places where monsters almost never went. Safe spots. Toren was approaching one she’d claimed now. She walked down a tunnel and entered a large, circular room with four entrances. It was a big space and had contained a single fountain from which clear water flowed—until Toren had altered it.
There was a door in front of her. It was barely a door in truth—a collection of wood held together with rope, a glue made from Shield Spider webs and luck, but Toren carefully opened it and stepped inside. She looked around approvingly.
It was a strange room that Toren had created. Gone was the empty room. Instead, rocks and wood had been piled up into crude seats around the wood and ‘tables’ were likewise set about. It had been the work of weeks to push or shove the heavy stones that Toren had found around the dungeon to this spot. But it had been worth it.
Her home had a bar, a small storage area, doors on all four entrances—and cups and plates! They were the remains of armor that Toren had hammered into vague approximations of what they should be, and were ready to be served. Toren had a few daggers for cutlery, and best of all, food.
She checked on a barrel standing next to her bar. It was filled with a soupy orange-green mess that was liquefied maggot guts and fungi. Toren stirred it with one finger, and checked on the fungi growing from the top. Good! She could probably harvest that as an alternate food if it kept growing.
Food and drink. Toren turned to the fountain in the center of the room. She strongly suspected the clear ‘water’ flowing forth was in fact a deadly poison, but it looked like water and that was good enough for her. She sat at her bar and polished the rough surface with her hands. Yes, this was her home, her safe place in the dungeon. It was hers. She had built it.
Toren’s hand shifted as she polished the bar. Her other hand rose and nudged the mask aside for a second. Toren grumpily looked around the room. It was her project. Hers, not his. He, the male Toren, hated it.
An inn. Why an inn? What was the point? Toren replaced the mask and slapped the side of her head. The point was that Erin had done it! The point was that they needed Erin, need her guidance.
Needed her? The mask landed on the bar as Toren scowled, his jaw clattering together nosily. Erin had never helped them! She’d never cared about Toren.
That was untrue. The mask on Toren’s face slipped slightly as she shook her head. Erin had cared. She was just—even if she hadn’t known that Toren could think, she had given them orders, given them a place to be. They needed her more than she needed them.
Again the hand tore the mask loose, this time breaking the strap that held it in place. Toren nearly broke the mask on the counter, but knew that if he did there would be trouble. He trembled in place, his anger rising.
Need? Erin? She was a fool! Erin had given them nothing! Nothing but bad orders and boredom! She’d ignored them, made them do trivial things, given them the bells. There was no point to this!
He nearly kicked over the barrel of monster guts, nearly smashed the bar he was standing at. Toren had picked up a ‘chair’ that was just a large rock when he hesitated. He put the rock down, sat at the table.
Erin was dead. She had never needed him, and he was better off without her. That was what Toren told himself. And yet, he sat at the inn, staring at the piled up stones and bits of moldy wood and saw a different inn in his mind. He heard singing, saw a young woman smiling as she played chess and sat at a table. For a second Toren heard her calling his name.
He turned away. He stood up and gently picked up the mask and hung it from his belt once more. Toren left the inn. There was nothing for him here anyways. Nothing but memory.
She needed a new name. That was what Toren concluded after walking about the dungeon. He did that most days, when she wasn’t in charge. He hunted for monsters he could kill or interesting places in the dungeon. Many spots were too dangerous to enter, but Toren was mapping out the dungeon room by room. Someday he’d kill everything living down here, and until that day he made notes.
But she needed a name. Something to separate her from him in his head. Toren wasn’t good with names, but he thought that she should have one. Obviously he had a name. Toren was his name because he was first. She could be someone else.
Torina, perhaps. Torena? Toren walked along, thinking of names. How about Torene? That was appropriate?
Toreya? Torin? Tofu? He’d heard Erin say that word once. To…Torere? Torren? Taren? Talene? Tirian? Torenscialicus? Torja? Torka? Maybe he was being too hung up on the name being like his. A name could be anything, after all.
Toyan? Rebecca? Towai? Westrica Emerset the Fifth? Tohen? Tohan? Tuhill? Clarencia Valtross? Zanzibar? Manifood? Food? Lieutenant Bones? Papyrus? Toiren? Nekhret? Bonesy? Laya? Seredifany? Tofu? Sans? T…Timothy?
None of these names worked. Toren sighed, predicting another fight. Why was she here, anyways? Why did she exist? Why had she appeared when he’d put on the clothes? It had just been a thought, and yet here she was. She controlled his body, argued with him, and had her own goals. She even fought differently from him. Maybe she was—
A light in the darkness ahead of him. Toren froze and hurried backwards. He’d come around the corner of a very long tunnel filled with arrow traps. He peeked ahead into the darkness. What was that he’d spotted? Toren’s eyes pieced through the darkness. He saw, far in the distance, a figure moving slowly down the corridor. There was a light, a bright blue crackle of magic in the darkness. The flames in Toren’s eyes grew bright as he recognized the figure.
The hunter had come again today. He was prowling the corridors, a shimmering, distant speck of light. Toren quickly pulled back his head before the hunter looked his way.
Dangerous. Oh, so dangerous. The hunter would kill him if he looked at Toren, even if it was at the end of a distant corridor. He couldn’t be ambushed, not him. He was clever; he avoided traps and noticed groups of monsters coming his way. And he was strong. He could kill the strong monsters roaming the dungeon. Not all of them, not the truly terrifying things, but far more than Toren.
And he wasn’t alone, was he? He had the other two with him. Together they could help the hunter kill so much. Toren was jealous, but he hid, creeping in the opposite direction, ready to collapse into a pile of bones. The hunter would kill him forever if Toren revealed himself. He’d killed Toren once, so long ago…what was his name? He had been there, in the inn. What was his name? Toren tried to remember as he hurried away. Ah yes, how could he forget? He couldn’t. Not really. The hunter’s name was—
The [Scout] stared down the long tunnel and didn’t acknowledge the voice. He stared intently at the place where the corridor turned right. He didn’t quite draw the enchanted arrow he held in his left hand, but it was resting against his bow. He could have it in the air in a fraction of a second if he needed to.
But the question was, had he seen something. The [Scout] waited in the darkness, searching for signs of movement. His eyes were superior to an owl’s in the pitch blackness thanks to the Skills that enhanced his vision. He waited.
Nothing. Whatever he’d seen was gone. Halrac didn’t relax, but shifted his attention away from the corridor. If whatever it was reappeared he’d hit it from afar.
The voice called out impatiently behind him. Halrac turned. The glow of a lantern made him squint. Revi lowered the lantern.
“Sorry. But you have to respond when I call your name.”
Halrac’s tone was brusque and his voice was rusty from disuse. Revi halted before entering the corridor. She sniffed.
“I’m not an idiot. Have you swept it for traps?”
“Too many. I’m heading back.”
The Gold-rank adventurer turned abruptly. He walked back down the tunnel the way Revi had came, his footsteps making no noise. Halrac was dressed in dark clothing and leather armor. His face was set, focused, devoid of any hint of laughter or a smile. He was a Gold-rank adventurer and a member of Griffon Hunt, a well-respected Gold-rank team.
He looked grim. That was appropriate, given that his unofficial nickname was Halrac the Grim. But those who knew him well would have agreed that his mood today was troubling. One such person followed Halrac. Revi was hardly as quiet as he was although she did try. The Stitch-Woman was in her late twenties and sighed impatiently.
“Okay, we’re going back. What’s the problem? Too many? Too many what? Too many traps? Too many tripwires?”
“Too many arrows.”
Halrac grunted. His eyes roamed the tunnel constantly as he walked towards a second source of light. Typhenous, an old man with a white beard and a glowing staff, raised his head warily as they approached, but relaxed as Halrac made a gesture. He returned it and stood.
“It has been quiet. Did Revi convince you to come back, Halrac?”
Revi rolled her eyes. She and Typhenous were also Gold-rank adventurers and also members of Griffon Hunt. Both were [Mages] although they were widely different in specialization. Revi was a [Summoner] who could conjure spectral warriors and animals to do her bidding. Typhenous was a generalist mage, specializing in defensive magic and wards.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask him. He’s not talking to me.”
Typhenous shifted his grip on his staff as he looked at Halrac. There was sympathy in his eyes, as well as resignation. Halrac ignored both mages as he walked down the tunnel. Revi glared at his back but followed him after Halrac had gotten a head start of about forty paces. She and Typhenous walked together, talking quietly. Halrac heard them as they talked behind him.
“He’s not said more than two sentences today. Which is progress, I suppose.”
The Stitch-Woman’s tone was acidic and though she kept her voice low her words were aimed at Halrac. Typhenous sighed and stroked his beard.
“Do you expect more of him, Revi? The man is doing his job.”
“That’s not what I’m complaining about and you know it, Typhenous! Halrac shouldn’t be down here. He should be above, not scouting the dungeon! You know that it’s risky for him, especially after—”
“And what should he do above, pray? Sit about and do nothing? He is mourning in his own way.”
“It’s not healthy. I know he’s grieving, but he hasn’t said a word to me. We’re his teammates! It’s not like we don’t understand. We knew Ulrien too—”
Halrac closed his ears, or tried to. He walked further ahead, eyes scanning every inch of the tunnel. There was a junction ahead. They’d come from the left, so Halrac turned right. Typhenous’ voice was low as he replied.
“I know. But Revi, they were comrades who knew each other for decades. We joined the party not two years ago.”
“That’s enough! Does he think we didn’t care? I was there, and so were you! How could we not be affected? But we can’t just go down here day after day—”
Revi’s voice had risen beyond a whisper. Halrac stopped and turned his head back.
The Stitch-Woman fell silent at once. Halrac waited a beat and then turned back to the corridor. It was too still. Halrac’s [Dangersense] was ringing silently in his head. He knew from experience that monsters like to lie in ambush, and this corridor had opened up to a very high ceiling. The [Scout] stared up silently as the two adventurers waited far behind him.
This was Halrac’s job. As a [Scout] he was both guide and trap finder, capable of analyzing threats and leading his groups away from ambushes. In the dungeon his role was essential. Halrac peered up.
It was dark at the ceiling of the tunnel. Too dark, even for the shadows up there. The [Scout] noticed something shift and reacted immediately. His bow came up and the crackling blue arrow sped upwards. It struck the creature hanging there and Halrac heard a scream and the crackle of lightning.
Revi’s voice was a shout now as whatever was on the ceiling dropped to the ground. Halrac heard her and Typhenous running forwards. His hands were already moving towards his quiver.
He shouted the word and put an arrow to his bowstring, drew, and loosed in one movement. This arrow was plain wood, though tipped with steel and it sped towards the giant raven woman. The Bagrhaven, a deformed Human woman with long arms and razor sharp talons and teeth, stumbled as the second arrow struck her in the chest.
She regained her footing and charged as Halrac sent another arrow into her stomach. Bagrhavens were very tough and didn’t register pain or damage until after a battle was over. Undeterred, Halrac loosed another arrow and another as the Bagrhaven charged him down the narrow tunnel. He could hear more screams behind her.
“There’s a nest!”
“I hear it! Give us a second!”
Halrac did just that. His hands were a blur as he plucked more arrows out of the quiver and loosed them, keeping two in his fingers as he did. Three, two, one, grab more arrows. Three, two one…
The Bagrhaven screamed as she charged down the tunnel. The noise was terrific in the enclosed space and magical, designed to spread fear into the hearts of her opponents. Halrac’s heart jumped wildly, but he overrode the trembling that threatened to affect his aim.
The fear effect must have struck Revi and Typhenous too, but they were seasoned adventurers and had their own ways of coping with lesser fear effects. Halrac saw Typhenous come to a halt next to him. The mage’s robes swirled about him as he raised his staff and aimed it at the other Bagrhavens coming out of the shadows.
“[Sticky Webs]. [Barrier of Air].”
A sticky thread shot across the gap, tangling the Bagrhavens’ claws and at the same time a whirling barrier of air appeared. Behind the Bagrhavens. They fought to get free of the webs, turning and realizing they were trapped as Halrac’s arrows finally downed the first Bagrhaven. She stumbled and fell, her chest scorched by his arrow of shocks, the rest of her body pincushioned by his arrows. Halrac switched targets and his next arrow struck one of the Bagrhavens in the eye, eliciting a scream.
As Typhenous webbed more Bagrhavens, Revi completed her preparations. She had in her hands a bit of calcified horn and both it and her hands glowed as she raised into the air.
“Burn them to ash and dust! Corusdeer, heed my call!”
Revi pointed and a flaming apparition cantered into life. Halrac felt the incredible heat as the Corusdeer charged the other Bagrhavens. Caught between Typhenous’ barriers and Halrac’s arrows, the raven women fell to the Corusdeer’s blazing horns as it impaled one and trampled the other.
It was over. Halrac put several arrows into each corpse and saw one twitch as Revi’s flaming Corusdeer disappeared. Still, he was the only one to go over at first. Halrac knelt, stabbed each Bagrhaven around their throat and then got to work.
It was a gristly task, dismembering corpses. Bagrhavens resembled Humans enough to look like naked feathered women under a certain light. Halrac ignored their filthy, scorched bodies as he sawed at their arms and plucked feathers. Revi, wrinkling her nose at the smell, did likewise. She had put on gloves for the task. Typhenous, who had not, stood back, his staff glowing, keeping an eye out in both directions.
“See, it was good we were here, wasn’t it, Halrac? If you’d had to tackle that nest by yourself, what would you have done?”
Halrac grunted as he put the feathers into a bag. The Bagrhaven’s talons he stowed in the same spot. His personal bag of holding couldn’t hold much, but the only valuable parts of a Bagrhaven were their claws and feathers. Revi scowled at him as she dropped a pile of feathers in front of him.
“Ass. You’d waste more money using enchanted arrows – or good poisons – hunting Bagrhavens than you’d earn.”
“Not the point .They were guarding something. Up ahead.”
Halrac stood, pushing the rest of the feathers into his bag of holding. Revi glared.
“You can’t keep going down here solo! Halrac, you need to talk to us!”
The [Scout]’s silence was a reply in itself. Revi stomped back to Typhenous as Halrac cautiously entered the room at the far end of the hall. He was wary, expecting a nest and eggs perhaps, but what he found was far better. A glittering mound of jewelry was piled up around a feathery nest, the hoard of the greedy Bagrhavens.
For a few seconds Halrac just stared at the glittering gems in the darkness. He didn’t feel happy to see the treasure. A month ago he might have been excited. Wary of course. He would have signaled his group and Ulrien would have cautioned everyone not to touch the rings and broaches and necklaces until they’d been analyzed. Needlessly of course, but the warning would have been reassuring. He would have given Halrac a nod and a slow smile—
The [Scout] closed his eyes, taking just a moment to think of his friend. Ulrien. He had died weeks ago, in an inn battling a traitorous Named Adventurer, Regrika Blackpaw. He had died and Halrac had lived. That was all there was to it. Ulrien had died and his team had broken, just as Halrac’s heart had broken as he sent his friend off.
Now Halrac was alive and that was all. Nothing mattered anymore. He raised his voice and called back towards Revi and Typhenous.
“Come on in.”
He didn’t mention the treasure, but Revi’s gasp and Typhenous’ murmur proved they could see. Neither [Mage] took a step towards the nest, though. They scrutinized the room warily. Revi looked at Typhenous and Halrac.
“None that I can see.”
“Nor I. What are the chances the rings are cursed, though?”
Halrac pointed with an arrow at one ring. He’d spotted a bit of rotten flesh still stuck to the inside of a ring. Revi wrinkled her nose.
“Great. The Bagrhavens probably plundered some other part of the dungeon. Okay, who wants to pick it up? I’ve got an empty bag of holding—”
“Give it to me.”
Halrac took the bag and approached the treasure pile. He didn’t touch any of the jewelry but carefully shifted it into the bag, using an arrow to pick up the items one at a time. He was ready to jump back but nothing happened. Halrac closed the bag and handed it back to Revi.
“Any good [Enchanters] in Liscor?”
“None worth mentioning. We’ll have to send this to Invrisil by Runner to get it analyzed I bet. There’d better be at least one good ring in there or I’m going to be upset.”
Revi shook her head as the adventurers retraced their steps. She eyed Halrac as they came back to the passageway with the one remaining unexplored passageway.
“Going to continue?”
He looked at her. Revi folded her arms.
“If you stay, we stay.”
Halrac stared at her, grunted, and then walked back the way they had come. Revi sighed but followed.
It was a quiet walk back to the chasm where they’d come in. Halrac stared up towards the sky, noting how the layer of water between sky and dungeon had grown since he’d passed through via rope. This wasn’t the official entrance to the dungeon—that way led through a maze of trapped rooms. It had yet to be cleared and though Griffon Hunt had been working with the Halfseekers to go through the more cautious way, of late Halrac had been coming into the dungeon through the rift in the ground. It was far more dangerous because the escape route was perilous, a long climb back upwards, but Halrac didn’t care.
“Dead gods, I hate climbing back up. Revi my dear, would you be so kind as to lend me one of your spirits?”
Revi sighed as she summoned two spectral warriors.
“Fine. Just wait until they climb up. You can hold onto the rope, can’t you?”
Halrac grunted impatiently as Typhenous nodded. The summoned warriors reached the top, climbing swiftly through the water barrier and up to the surface. They grabbed the long ropes that hung down and both Revi and Typhenous hung on as they began to pull the [Mages] up.
The [Scout] gave the [Mages] a head start and then climbed up his rope himself. He paused as he got to the barrier of water over the dungeon’s ‘roof’. It was just water, prevented from entering the dungeon by some kind of barrier. He took a breath and climbed rapidly into the water.
Instantly he was wet and felt the water swirling around him. Doggedly, Halrac climbed up through it. Two feet, five feet, eight…he broke through and felt rain pouring down on top of him.
“Gah! I forgot it’s still raining!”
It was another world above. Revi’s sour voice came from overhead as she and Typhenous were hoisted up by the summoned spirits. Halrac shook water out of his eyes and kept climbing. When he reached the top Revi offered him a hand. Halrac didn’t take it. He clambered onto the wet grass and began hauling the rope up behind him.
“Halrac! Just let the summoned warriors do it!”
Revi was impatient as Typhenous cast a shield of air above them to keep the rain away. Halrac let a shining warrior that looked like a long-dead soldier haul up the sodden rope and deposit it into his bag of holding. It was a practice all good adventurers followed—don’t leave an exit for monsters to use. Many could climb and a hanging rope was an invitation for disaster.
“Back to Liscor?”
Typhenous looked inquiringly at Halrac. The man nodded and they began their slow walk across the Floodplains to Liscor in the distance. It was a wet, slippery walk in silence. Halrac eyed the pools of water forming in the valleys as he, Revi, and Typhenous stuck to higher ground. How long until the water rose to the point where it would become impossible to walk anywhere? By that time both entrances to the dungeon would be flooded. What then?
Revi must have been thinking the same thing. She looked hesitantly at Halrac, scowled, and spoke.
“Okay, I know I’ve been bothering you all day. But you have to talk eventually, Halrac.”
The [Scout] looked at her. Revi glared back.
“About? About anything you flax-headed idiot! You’ve been going into the dungeon at the crack of dawn each day, not talking to us, your teammates! We have to follow you everywhere since you won’t tell us what you’re doing! This is not how a Gold-rank team should act!”
That was true. Halrac paused a second, feeling guilty. Ulrien would have been ashamed. But he was dead.
“Ulrien’s gone. We’re a team without a leader. Understrength.”
“The Halfseekers have only three members.”
“The Halfseekers have a [Warrior], a [Rogue], and a [Mage]. We have two [Mages] and a [Scout].”
The Stitch-Woman pursed her lips sourly, but Halrac had a point. Smaller groups of adventurers demanded at least one front-line fighter or risked being overwhelmed by numbers.
“Then why are you trying to solo a dungeon?”
“That’s my choice. I didn’t ask you to join me. In fact, I told you not to come.”
“And leave you behind? What kind of team would we be if we did that? But I’m telling you Halrac, if we keep doing this one day the Bagrhavens will get the drop on us and we’ll all be—”
Halrac turned on Revi, his patience exhausted. She stopped, eyes wide, and Typhenous halted as well. The [Scout]’s voice was curt.
“Quit. I’m not asking you to stay. Ulrien held us together and he’s gone. We’re not a team any longer. So leave and find a better team.”
He meant that sincerely. Revi was young and a gifted [Summoner]. She could find another group easily, as could Typhenous. [Mages] were in high demand with most groups. To his surprise, Revi glared. The Stitch-Woman had changed her hairstyle for the wet season to short-cropped hair. But she tossed her head as if she still had her long ponytail.
“Are you an idiot? Us? Quit? Do you think we’re the kind of adventurers who run off the instant our teammates die? What would other people think if we did? Typhenous and I would be blacklisted in an instant!”
That was true. Halrac grunted.
“Then stay and let me do my work.”
“Oh, and let you die I suppose? And how would that look? First we lose our team leader, then we let our [Scout] wander off and get himself killed?”
Revi snorted. Halrac glared at her, but she was right on both counts. He knew what he’d do if he had a teammate going rogue. Typhenous’ voice was diplomatic, but his tone was no less firm as he stepped up besides Revi.
“We are a team, Halrac. I know we are new compared to Ulrien and the former members of Griffon Hunt, but we are a team nonetheless. And a team looks after our own.”
“Precisely. If you keep running off I’ll summon my warriors to hold you down and Typhenous will web you to your bed.”
The [Summoner] glared at Halrac, her eyes bright. She stared at Halrac as he met her eyes, no emotion showing on his face. Revi blinked, and then blinked again. Her voice was loud and angry, but tinged with more than just anger.
“It’s not fair that you shut us out! It’s not like we weren’t there! It’s not like we don’t miss him. Ulrien—don’t you think I think about how I could have stopped it? I would have summoned all my warriors if I’d known—it was too quick. I—”
She broke off, turning her gaze away. Halrac felt a pang. He saw Typhenous rest a hand on Revi’s shoulder, her shrugging his hand away. Typhenous’ voice was soft.
“The fault is not yours alone, Revi. I was completely caught off-guard by Regrika Blackpaw as well. Her abilities, that of her companion—we underestimated her far too badly. Had I a second chance, I would have fought differently. But there is no way to turn back time. Ulrien was our leader. He was first into battle, first to fall. Defending us.”
“And we failed him.”
Revi’s back was turned. Her voice was thick. Halrac looked at her and nodded as the rain soaked his back.
The Stitch-Woman looked up and Typhenous glanced at him, brows furrowed. Halrac stared distantly towards a hilltop next to Liscor, at an inn sitting darkly on the hilltop. He spoke quietly.
“We did fail him.”
That was all. He looked at Revi and Typhenous, his teammates. They stared back somberly, wet with the rain, quiet. Halrac averted his gaze, began to walk towards Liscor. He did not walk towards the inn, did not say anything more. Revi and Typhenous followed after a minute. Not much had changed, and yet, Halrac had said it.
We failed him. We. The group walked quietly towards the city, passing through the gates, dispirited, quiet. Halrac walked down the empty streets until he heard a scream.
It was a panicked shout from a street over. Halrac heard other voices raised in panic and broke into a run. Behind him Revi and Typhenous jerked. They both took a step in the same direction, ran into each other and fell. Halrac raced down the street. He was no [Guardsman], no hero or citizen of the city. But he was an adventurer, and adventurers are bound to help those in need.
“Help! Monster attack! Ancestors, help me!”
The voice was loud and high-pitched. It came from a Drake, a male one, running for his life and screaming at the top of his lungs. He fled down the rain-soaked street as something lurched after him, a huge bulbous mass of liquid, oozing towards him, mouth agape. It was dark green and brown and oozed as the rain pelted it. A Sewer Slime, engorged and massive. It had oozed out of the drainage system and set on the first prey it could find. The Drake ran, calling out for help.
And it was adventurers who found him. Liscor was rife with adventurers due to the new dungeon. True, many were low-level, local adventurers who had come here to brave the dungeon but reconsidered when they heard stories of the dangers lurking within. But there were some, a chosen few who had come from further abroad. They were the only groups to enjoy any kind of success in the dungeon, the elite among their kind.
Some might call them heroes. The team of Thunder’s Kiss would never refer to themselves by such a title of course, but they weren’t about to stop anyone from saying so. They raced down the street. Their leader, a big Drake with a warhammer shouted triumphantly as they saw a Drake running towards them.
“Don’t worry, help has arriv—”
He broke off as he saw two other groups of adventurers turn towards him. The team of Thunder’s Kiss skidded to a stop, two of their number slipping and falling with a crash onto the street. There were a lot of adventurers in Liscor. Fifteen of them now stood in the street, answering the call for help. They exclaimed as they saw the slime following the Drake.
“Dead gods, it’s massive!”
The eight adventurers stopped as they saw the Sewer Slime chasing the Drake. It was lurching along, extending a small part of itself to grab at the Drake and then rolling forwards. It wasn’t quick, but it had a good momentum going on the slick cobblestones and the Drake was having trouble both avoiding him and running on the wet paving stones.
He called out at the adventurers desperately. They looked at each other. They were the third team to arrive, but the other adventurers in the street looked just as confused as how to tackle the huge slime.
“Spread out. Let’s get ready to engage!”
The team leader called out uncertainly to his companions and the four Humans and three Drakes hesitantly spread out across the street. All of them looked nervous. They were a Bronze-rank team and while they’d killed slimes before, they’d never seen one this big.
“How are we supposed to kill it?”
Thunder’s Kiss was a melee-focused team with no ranged support. They saw the other two teams attacking the slime from afar, one [Mage] pelting it with small orbs of fire that sizzled out on contact and some loosing arrows futilely into the slime’s side. The Sewer Slime seemed to enjoy the attention and it rolled towards the adventurers who backed up.
“You kill a slime by removing the mana core, right? Or crushing it?”
One of the Human stared at the slime. Normally it was easy to pull out a slime’s core, but in this one? The Sewer Slime had come from the sewers and as such it was comprised of waste. Specifically fecal matter, urine, dead rat corpses…the adventurers shuddered at the idea of putting a hand into that thing, let alone stepping into it as they’d have to do.
“Uh, let’s cut at it. Thotiss, Remar, take the left. We’ll attack and fall back, got it?”
The adventurers were hesitantly moving down the street, shouting in confusion at each other as the Sewer Slime rolled forwards. It looked completely unconcerned by the adventurers in front of it, and the leader of Thunder’s Kiss realized with a sinking heart that all three teams were Bronze-rank.
He gulped as the Sewer Slime rolled forwards and then heard pounding boots. He turned and saw a man running down the street. He had a bow in hand and his face was instantly recognizable to some of the adventurers. One of the Bronze-rank adventurers cried out and pointed.
“That’s Halrac! Halrac the Grim!”
Instantly the Bronze-rank teams sagged in relief. They turned to look at Halrac as the [Scout] took in the scene in a moment. He stared at the Sewer Slime with narrowed eyes. The adventurers waited for him to kill the slime, but to everyone’s surprise, he turned to the leader of Thunder’s Kiss.
“Are you the team leader of this group?”
“Me? I uh, yes, I am!”
The Drake faltered. Halrac nodded to the warhammer in his hands.
“Can your team kill the slime? The mana core is in the upper left hand side. If your team charges it you can probably scatter it enough to remove the core. If you can’t do that, stall it long enough for my companions to arrive.”
“Us? But you’re a Gold-rank adventurer!”
The Drake looked at Halrac with wide eyes. The [Scout] frowned at him.
“I’m an [Archer]. That’s a slime. You can destroy its body. Send your team in.”
It was an order not a question. The leader of Thunder’s Kiss looked at the slime and shuddered as he saw its foul body. The ‘water’ that made up its round body was practically opaque with filth. He tried to argue with Halrac as the slime broke off from the adventurers and turned towards a house, looking inquisitive.
“Look, Mister Halrac, we’re a team of our own. Thunder’s Kiss? We can help you fight the slime, but telling us to charge into it is a bit—”
Halrac ignored the Drake, keeping his eyes on the Sewer Slime. He cursed as it stopped rolling forwards and turned to one side. It pressed itself against a doorway, and to the horror of the Bronze-rank adventurers they heard a scream as the Sewer Slime began leaking into a house, going through both the cracks in the closed shutters and windows.
“Oh no! We’ve got to stop it!”
“Move around the back! Let’s go! We’ll hit it from behind!”
The leader of Thunder’s Kiss ordered his group and they started towards the slime. Halrac shook his head.
“Too late. Back up.”
So saying he produced a glowing arrow that crackled as he set it from his bow. The Bronze-rank adventurers, seeing it, backed up at once. Halrac drew the arrow to the bow and calmly sighted down the shaft as the Sewer Slime continued to leak into the house. He aimed directly at the small glowing stone floating in the mess of the Sewer Slime’s body.
The arrow sped into the slime’s body, directly towards the mana core. It penetrated deep as the slime’s body consumed it, and then detonated in a flash of lightning. The team of Thunder’s Kiss averted their eyes as the slime’s entire body lit up. They saw it shudder, and then saw the mana stone had cracked. The slime slowly collapsed, its body turning into a tidal wave of foul liquid that splashed the nearest adventurers to their horror. Inside the house, the screams of terror had turned to screams of deep offense.
The other adventurers stared at Halrac in awe. The [Scout] was scowling and shaking his head. The leader of Thunder’s Kiss stared at him.
“If you could do that, why didn’t you do that earlier?”
Halrac just glared at him. He turned his head as someone shouted behind him.
Revi and Typhenous, drenched and muddy, ran up. They looked winded and scraped from their fall. Revi looked about.
“What happened? Was there a monster?”
“Big sewer slime. Had to shoot it with an arrow of shocking.”
Revi shouted in outrage. She looked at the adventurers. More were still arriving in the street, as had four members of the City Watch. They milled about, asking what had happened and what that smell was. Revi listened to a scrambled account of what had happened—and then rounded on the leader of Thunder’s Kiss.
“You! What were you lot doing just standing around? Halrac told you to attack the Sewer Slime and you lot just argued with him?”
“He told us to charge into that thing!”
The burly Drake protested as Revi glared at him. He was twice as large as she was, but she was a Gold-rank adventurer and he was Bronze. He quailed as Revi’s eyes flashed with fury.
“He told you to charge the slime because arrows are practically useless against it! Dead gods, are you rookies all idiots? All you had to do was splatter the slime so you could reach the core! Instead, you made Halrac deal with it and to kill the slime he had to use a magic arrow!”
She pointed accusingly at Halrac’s bow.
“Do you know how much an enchanted arrow of shocking costs? It’s better to have a warrior attack slimes, or mages! But no, you lot had to make Halrac go and waste an arrow! A cracked mana stone is barely worth the cost of an enchanted arrow, and that’s without the hassle of having to sell it!”
Her ranting had silenced the street. The Bronze-rank adventurers shuffled their feet, not daring to look Revi in the eye. Typhenous sighed and felt at his sore back. Halrac ignored Revi as he squatted over the cracked mana stone, eying it with distaste. He pulled out a canteen and washed the mana stone before putting the pieces of it into a bag of holding. Revi stormed away from the team of Thunder’s Kiss as the City Watch began taking notes of the damage and assisting the female Gnoll whose house had been partially flooded.
“Amateurs! Sands save me from greenhorns without an idea of how to fight the most basic of monsters!”
Revi groused to Halrac and Typhenous, not bothering to lower her voice. The Bronze-rank adventurers were crimson with humiliation and most of them left in a hurry before people could connect their faces with her words. Typhenous shook his head as he surveyed the Sewer Slime’s remains with a wrinkled nose. He waved his staff as the liquid and…other remains began flowing out of the house and into the street, much to the relief of the Gnolls and [Guardsmen] inside.
“Help me with shifting this, would you, Revi? Don’t be too hard on the adventurers. Fighting a giant slime is dangerous.”
The Stitch-Woman grumpily complied with her wand. Together they forced the liquid out of the house and back into the sewers where it hopefully wouldn’t reform into another slime.
“I’m not saying they had to beat it by themselves, but when a Gold-rank adventurer gives them an order they should obey it! If this had been more serious—”
“It’s not. The slime’s dead. Drop it, Revi.”
Halrac cut her off shortly. Revi sighed but closed her mouth. She was aware that her words carried a lot of weight in the adventuring community. Gold-rank adventurers were celebrities to low-level adventurers just starting out. It wasn’t good form to badmouth them too harshly, but it was a bit insulting to see how incompetent some of them were! Revi eyed her befouled boots and sighed.
“Let’s go wash up. I want a bath and we have to arrange for someone to look at the treasure we found. Halrac, how about we—oh what now?”
She turned and scowled at the team of five adventurers who were standing behind her. They smiled nervously. Typhenous nudged Revi and she sighed.
“Hello? Can we help you?”
This team was a group of five adventurers. A tall Jackal [Mage], a short woman with Dwarfish blood, a Drake with black scales, a Gnoll, and a woman with a curved sword. Revi felt like she’d seen them about before, but they were clearly not Gold-rank. Silver, probably. The Jackal Beastkin cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Miss Revi? We’re a team of Silver-rank adventurers, Vuliel Drae. Could we trouble you for a word about the dungeon?”
Revi ground her teeth together. The last thing she wanted was to talk. She wanted a bath and to replace the stitches around her right arm. They felt like they were coming loose. But it was a courtesy to exchange information.
“Yeah, we can do that. Are you planning on going in? I’d advise against it. Silver-rank teams shouldn’t enter that dungeon.”
She was aware of Halrac and Typhenous appraising the other group. Both Griffon Hunt and Vuliel Drae were at the center of attention, and Revi could see other groups pointing to both teams. She heard whispers. Was this Vuliel Drae a big deal or something?
“We appreciate that, but we can handle ourselves, Miss Revi. We’ve been in the dungeon once before. We were hoping to compare notes, ask what direction you’ve gone in. We’re hoping to find another artifact today.”
The black-scaled Drake raised his voice as he replied to Revi. His leader, the Jackal, frowned at him, but the other three members of the group seemed to enjoy the murmurs that remark caused. Typhenous raised an eyebrow.
“That’s quite ambitious of you.”
He didn’t remark that it was also rude to assume that Griffon Hunt would just hand over the maps they’d worked on. Adventuring was a competition after all. The Jackal seemed to sense that and spoke in a placating tone.
“I think my teammate is being presumptuous. My apologies. We are a Silver-rank team, but we have faith in our abilities and we’d of course be willing to pay for information. We just don’t want to tread through used tunnels. If you’re willing we’ll pool our knowledge and return the favor when we return—”
Halrac interrupted the Jackal. He shook his heads at the astonished team of Vuliel Drae. He nodded to Revi and Typhenous as he addressed them and the crowd.
“We’re not helping Silver-ranks kill themselves. Go find another request to do. This dungeon will be classified as Gold-rank or higher.”
“Is he serious?”
Halrac’s words provoked a stir in the adventurers around him. It was customary for Adventurer’s Guilds to rank a dungeon to tell adventurers what the minimum rank should be to enter. It was very common to rank a dungeon as Silver or Bronze. But Gold? The team of Vuliel Drae looked dismayed by Halrac’s words, but then the short Dwarf-woman thrust her way forwards. She thrust her bearded chin out at Halrac.
“You might think we’re your run-of-the-mill Silver-ranks, but we’ve handled ourselves in the dungeon before, tall-legs! Haven’t you heard? We were the first group to find treasure in the dungeon!”
There were nods at that, and Revi saw the other adventurers eying the five adventurers as they held themselves proudly. She frowned skeptically.
“You lot? What did you say your group’s name was?”
Her question dismayed the five adventurers. The Drake with black scales coughed.
“Vuliel Drae? We’re uh, the team that went into the dungeon and found a Gold-rank weapon?”
Typhenous, Revi, and Halrac exchanged glances. Halrac scowled and shook his head, remembering. Revi frowned until Typhenous whispered in her ear. She snapped her fingers.
“Oh, you’re that stupid team that got lucky? Good work, thanks to you eight other parties have gone into that dungeon and gotten slaughtered.”
She glared at the other team. Vuliel Drae looked shocked. The woman with the katana looked offended.
“It’s not our failing if the other teams died.”
“No, you just made it seems like it would be easy to find treasure. You just had to wave about that mace you found and brag about how easy it was, didn’t you? Good jobs.”
Revi’s voice dripped acid as she turned away. Halrac was already walking down the street, Typhenous following. Dismayed, Vuliel Drae watched them go. Revi had a few cutting words before she too left.
“I heard you only survived because you had help! Don’t count on it a second time, and don’t bother us about collaborating! Getting lucky is not the same as skill!”
With that she stormed off. The adventurers could hear her shouting at her two companions.
“Dead gods, what is it with newbies these days? At least the Horns of Hammerad actually treated us with respect. Hey, Halrac, slow down! Hey! Slow down!”
There was a nasty silence after the team of Griffon Hunt had gone. Vuliel Drae, the five Silver-rank adventures who had become famous for entering Liscor’s dungeon and emerging with a mace worth thousands of gold coins stared at each other in embarrassment and anger afterwards as the adventurers dispersed around them. It was Dasha, the part-Dwarf woman who broke the silence.
“What a load of arrogant jerks! Those Gold-rank adventurers, hah, I don’t care for them! Especially the Stitch-Woman. Too full of herself, that [Mage].”
She stroked her beard, looking offended. The rest of her team nodded hesitantly, but their leader, the Jackal named Anith, looked disapproving.
“I can’t say I enjoyed being lectured, but they are Gold-rank adventurers, Dasha. They seemed to be acting in our best interests and we were quite rude to put ourselves on their level. Insill.”
He stared pointedly at the black-scaled Drake and Insill shifted his feet. It was the Gnoll, the fifth member of their group who hadn’t spoken until now who came to Insill’s defense.
“They might be Gold-rank, but they are still wrong, yes? We’re going into the dungeon their words or not.”
He looked around and got nods from his teammates, even Anith. Vuliel Drae, the Silver-rank team, weren’t famous like Griffon Hunt or the Halfseekers, but they had succesffully entered the dungeon and come back with treasure, making them local heroes. There were five of them.
Anith, their Jackal leader and [Mage], Dasha, a Human [Warrior] with Dwarven ancestry and a full chestnut beard, Insill, a Drake [Rogue] with black scales, Larr, their [Archer] and Pekona, a rare foreigner with a curved sword who was a rare type of warrior known as a [Blade Dancer]. They had adventured together for two years now, and they were confident in their abilities, even if their ego had just taken a blow.
“Let’s go to the dungeon.”
Pekona was the one who took charge. The silent woman usually didn’t say much, mainly because her command of the common tongue was weaker than the others. She truly was unique in that her people who lived on the Drath Archipelago spoke a different language than the rest of the world. Vuliel Drae left Liscor, talking, carrying along full packs. Dasha grumbled as she splashed through the grasslands, her armor sodden with rain.
“Stupid String People. Snooty Gold-rank adventurers. Griffon Hunt? Hah, as if they’re something special! The Silver Swords, now that’s a real team. They’ve got a proper Dwarf and everything. One of my people! After we get back from the dungeon let’s see if we can meet them. I wouldn’t mind tangling my beard with his if you get my drift!”
Her other teammates groaned aloud, but Insill just grinned at Dasha. She was more bluff than talk and often referred to ‘her people’ as Dwarves, despite having more Human blood than Dwarfish.
“You liar. You just want to meet their leader, Ylawes Byres. I saw you waxing your beard and trying to introduce yourself when he was in the Adventurer’s Guild.”
“You scaley rat!”
Dasha turned red and roared at Insill. She chased him for a few steps, but the [Rogue] was nimble on his feet and dashed away. The other adventurers looked amused until Anith, frowning, called a stop to it.
“Dasha, Insill, there are monsters out here. Please control yourselves.”
The Drake and part-Dwarf woman did, grumbling. Anith led them to the chasm and Insill groaned as he saw the ropes were gone.
“Where’d they go? Don’t tell me that Griffon Hunt removed them? It’s a pain having to anchor them again and again!”
“We’ve got our own and it’s not hard. Hey, is that water at the bottom? We’ll have to swim down the last few feet!”
Dasha looked down apprehensively. Anith stared at the water and shook his head.
“There must be an enchantment over the dungeon. We might not get another chance if the water keeps filling up—we would have to swim down hundreds of feet to get to the dungeon if the rain fills the entire hole.”
“Oh, it will. I’ve lived here all my life. This entire place will be underwater soon. Guess we’ll have to dive off a boat or find another way in soon.”
Insill assured the others. Dasha shook her head, grumbling.
“No proper Dwarf likes water.”
“You’re not a proper Dwarf, Dasha. You’re not even half-Dwarf.”
“I have Dwarfish blood in me! My heritage strikes true!”
“Yeah, the Human half.”
“Hrr. Yes. I agree. You would not have to buy hair growth tonics if you were truly Dwarvish at heart.”
“Shut up, shut up! You’re all just tall-legged bastards!”
The adventurers joked as they readied the ropes and then descended into the chasm. They were a good team, easy in each other’s company, able to laugh in the face of the dungeon. They reached the dry bottom of the dungeon, passing through the water barrier, joking and keeping calm. It was a miracle they weren’t eaten in the first five minutes as they tethered the ropes to rocks, still making far too much noise to be safe.
Where Griffon Hunt was barely more than a few angry whispers at their loudest, Vuliel Drae broke the silence with loud arguments and laughter. But then, that was why Toren liked them. They were silly and stupid and maybe that was what would keep them alive. They reminded her a bit of Erin.
Vuliel Drae reacted as they saw Toren step out of the darkness. To them, it was as if the masked swordswoman had been waiting for their return, which indeed, she had. Actually, a group of Raskghar had been waiting too, with poisoned arrows, but Toren had already finished them off. The masked skeleton bowed slightly and Insill’s tail began to wag slightly.
Shyly, the Drake went over to the masked woman, smiling. The dark mask stared at him, but the Drake ignored the impartiality of the mask. He’d dreamed about what might lay under the mask.
“I thought we wouldn’t see you again. I thought—have you gone above at all? We just met Gold-rank adventures who said they’d been down here. Griffon Hunt. Do you—did you see them?”
The mysterious swordswoman shrugged then shook her head. She spread her arms wide, indicating the scope of the dungeon. Insill nodded as Anith bowed slightly and the other adventurers formed up.
“We were actually hoping to meet you. Would you care to explore the dungeon with us? We’d pay you of course—we actually owe you for last time! That mace you gave us was worth a fortune, so we bought this in case we met you again.”
He looked at Pekona and the [Blade Dancer] produced a longsword from her right side. It was a gleaming steel blade with a long forked rune etched onto the metal. The swordswoman stared at it as Insill offered it to her.
“It’s a cheap blade—barely enchanted, really. It’s got a tiny durability and cutting enchantment on it. I know it isn’t much, but I noticed your sword was really old and—”
He broke off as the masked woman dropped her old sword and raised the magic blade. She stared at it reverentially and cut the air—perilously close to Insill. He flinched, but then the masked woman turned to him. She hesitated, then drew a happy smile across her mask.
“You like it?”
He grinned and she nodded. Vuliel Drae smiled too, and Anith spoke.
“Miss Swordswoman, I regret that we don’t know your name. Please tell us, why do you stay below? We did not know any adventurer lived down here, but if you haven’t returned to the surface yet—why do you stay?”
For a second it seemed like the masked woman froze, but then she turned to Anith and gravely shook her head. She didn’t speak—it was clear she was unable or unwilling to, but she raised one finger and carefully tapped her chest. The adventurers stared at her as she drew a line down the side of her mask, under one eye socket. Then she pointed up towards the surface. Insill frowned, trying to make sense of it.
“Sorrow? Going up is—sad? Can you go up?”
A shake of the head.
“Are you cursed?”
Hesitated. A shake of the head.
A shrug. She was unwilling to say if she knew. The adventurers looked at each other and conferred.
“What do you think? Is she saying she just doesn’t want to go up?”
“That makes no sense!”
“Hm. Some adventurers are loners, yes. But why else not?”
“Maybe she’s on a mission. Maybe she’s decided to challenge the dungeon—or die.”
“A [Doomseeker], perhaps. It is not for us to ask.”
He bowed to the swordswoman who bowed back slightly.
“Forgive us for asking, but we are curious. We would be delighted to journey with you nonetheless. Shall we?”
The swordswoman nodded. She motioned with one hand, pointing in the direction that she judged to be safest, for a given value of safe. The team of Vuliel Drae followed, Insill in front, Dasha and Pekona next, Anith behind and Larr bringing up the rear. It was strange. For all she had been agonizing and for all he had proclaimed to hate other people, there was something about this that Toren had missed. She had missed other people, seeing Insill’s happily wagging tail, hearing him chatter and then realize he should be silent and looking for traps. It was…fun.
Toren walked into the darkness of the dungeon, the adventurers following. She would do her best to keep them alive. After all, she knew the dungeon well and they had given her an enchanted sword. An enchanted sword! She couldn’t wait to lord it over him when they were alone. And they would survive the dungeon. After all, how would the adventurers bring her more wonderful weapons if they died here?
This was the dungeon as it was. Alluring yet deadly, it was a crisis for Liscor, a talking point for adventurers in the area, but hardly a matter of worldwide or continental concern. The Drake and Human cities had far more pressing issues to deal with, and the dungeon was not yet rated by the Adventurer’s Guilds and thus it was regarded by many as a minor dungeon. After all, new ruins and abandoned fortresses were found quite often. They usually contained very little of worth.
To Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers, the dungeon was a gamble, a place for untold treasures or death. To the other adventurers it was a place of opportunity, and only the terrors within kept them from flooding the dungeon. To Watch Captain Zevara, it was a disaster waiting to happen. But to many in Liscor and elsewhere, the dungeon had lost much of its interest. It was a thing for adventurers and did not concern anyone else. It was safe, for a given value of safe.
Until now. It was a simple thing that triggered the change. A simple conversation between a group of inexperienced adventurers and a skeleton. It happened as they stumbled across a hitherto unexplored corridor and it began with Insill’s disgusted exclamation?
“Hey, are those eggs? Gross!”
He shone his lantern across the tunnel. The other adventurers reacted with revulsion.
“Disgusting. Look, there’s tunnels filled with them! We should burn the entire mess.”
“Got enough kindling for all of that? How about poison?”
“I do not believe it would be safe. Something laid these eggs. We should pull back.”
“Hrr. Yes. They look familiar to me. What if we took one and—”
Crunch. It was such a faint sound. The team of Vuliel Drae looked around. Toren in her disguise as the masked swordswoman happily crunched one of the bulbous eggs underfoot, then, another, and another. She was having such a good time that she only realized everyone was staring at her after the eighth egg. She stopped and looked at them, wiping her foot on the ground. Insill opened his mouth, and then Pekona raised a finger to her lips. She tilted her head.
“…What’s that sound?”
Vuliel Drae and Toren listened. Then they saw what was coming down the tunnels and fled. They survived, of course, hiding in a room Toren had found that had a door and a tunnel too narrow for most of the things to follow. But that was only the precursor. Something moved in the dungeon, joining the swarm, leading it. It pressed against the walls, seeking a way out. The wall of water and rain deterred it only for a single day until, well—
They came out.