Yvlon Byres woke up and realized two things. Firstly, that Falene had hit her with a sleep spell. And secondly, that she’d been tied to her bed. With a spell. The magical bindings looked like they were barely more than strips of glowing cloth, but no matter how hard Yvlon struggled and cursed, she couldn’t make the crisscrossing bands of light shift at all. They were webbing her to her bed.
In armor. With the blankets covering her up to her neck. Someone had even put a pillow under her head. Ylawes, probably. Damn him. It was sweltering with both armor and blankets on—it was that heat and the unpleasant sweat that had woken Yvlon up. She struggled, cursed, and then noticed something right in front of her.
Someone else had put a sandwich right on her chest, so that Yvlon could tilt her head forwards and bite it if she was hungry. That was probably Dawil. Yvlon stared at it, and then swore.
Her scream of frustration went unanswered. Yvlon craned her head, trying to look around. The Silver Swords had put her in her room and judging by the three chairs, they’d been present for a good while. But they weren’t here now and Yvlon could see the sky was brighter. Rain was pattering against the window as always, but she would have bet anything it was morning.
“That damn half-Elf put me to sleep until morning? Falene! Take this spell off me! Ylawes! Where are you?”
Normally Yvlon would have expected her brother to be about. He always had thought of himself as her guardian, whether she liked it or not. But he didn’t arrive. And neither did anyone else.
Yvlon strained against the magical ropes holding her down. What was this spell? She hadn’t journeyed with many [Mages]—the Silver Spears hadn’t had any—and neither Ceria nor Pisces were on Falene’s level. Then again, maybe this was just a Tier 3 spell. The only problem was that the ropes bound Yvlon’s arms and legs so she couldn’t exert any real kind of force.
“Is anyone there? Let me out! Hello?”
Yvlon bellowed, but she couldn’t hear anyone. Where was Erin? Lyonette? …Bird? Had the Silver Swords convinced them not to let Yvlon go?
“I have to find Ceria! Let me go! She’s my teammate! If you can hear me—I really need to visit the outhouse!”
That last admission made Yvlon flush, but it was a real and growing concern. Yvlon screamed as loud as she could and, at last, the door opened.
“Hello Comrade Yvlon.”
Ksmvr walked into the room. He looked down at his feet and he was hunched over, appearing smaller than normal. Yvlon stared at him in surprise, then relief.
“Ksmvr! Help me break this enchantment!”
“Miss Falene told me not to. So did Mister Ylawes. They told me you would get yourself injured or hurt if I did.”
“What? That arrogant pointy-eared—ignore them. Ceria’s down below, Ksmvr! We need to save her!”
“But the Gold-rank teams are already in the dungeon.”
Yvlon swore. It was later than she’d thought. She twisted as hard as she could and succeeded in knocking the sandwich off her chest.
“Ksmvr, we need to enter the dungeon too.”
“We will not make a difference. We will only get hurt.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Ksmvr, come on.”
Yvlon frowned at Ksmvr. Agitated as she was, she could still tell that something was wrong with him. Normally the Antinium would be jumping to follow her slightest suggestions. She’d expected him to be trying to enter the dungeon on his own. But Ksmvr looked deflated.
“I cannot be a good part of the team, Yvlon. I will not be able to protect you or function as an adequate member of the Horns of Hammerad. I have failed our group twice now. I have no place here. I have been writing my letter of resignation.”
He looked down at his feet. Yvlon stared at him.
“Ksmvr, what are you talking about? You’re not a failure.”
The Antinium shook his head.
“I am. I am worthless. I went to Revalantor Klbkch for help, but I was unable to scratch him or persuade him to help me find Ceria. And it was my failure to stop the Raskghar that led to Captain Ceria’s abduction.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
Yvlon shouted. Ksmvr started. Yvlon’s face turned red as she heaved. She heard the bed crack, but the magical bindings did not.
“You—did—nothing—wrong! We were all there and we—failed—too! Damn! You went to see Klbkch? I got knocked out from a single spell by Falene! If you’re a failure, what does that make me? We both made mistakes, Ksmvr. But are you going to let Ceria die if no one else can find her? Are you her friend? Are you my teammate or not?”
Ksmvr stared at Yvlon. He looked down at his three hands, and then his shoulders straightened.
He shook his entire body as Yvlon smiled in relief. Ksmvr strode over to the bed and paused.
“What should I do, Yvlon?”
“Uh…pull this magic rope stuff off me!”
Ksmvr obediently reached for one of the shining streamers of magic. He pulled at it, but it was so tightly wrapped around Yvlon that he could barely get a grip on it. And when he did pull, he only dragged the bed and Yvlon a few feet across the room with a dull screeching sound. Yvlon grimaced.
“This isn’t working. Break the bed.”
“But the bed is Miss Erin’s property.”
“I’ll pay for it! Just break the bed, Ksmvr! Hit me! Jump on top of the bed! Give it a good kick, I don’t care! I’ve got armor on!”
Ksmvr hesitated, but he eventually clambered on top of the bed and began leaping on it. Yvlon heard the wooden frame creak and groan and then snap. She yelped and Ksmvr waved his arms and fell backwards as the bed collapsed in a heap. Yvlon heard the wood snap and tried to sit up—only to find that the magical bands had constricted even tighter around her.
“Silver and steel! You have got to be kidding me!”
She wriggled and tried to move, only to find that now she was stuck to part of the broken bed and the mattress. And the infernal covers! Ksmvr crawled into Yvlon’s line of sight, shaking his head.
“I have hit my head. It appears that the spell still remains in effect, Comrade Yvlon.”
She glared at him. Ksmvr reached out and grabbed her with three arms.
“I will attempt to pull you up.”
The Antinium heaved and Yvlon felt her body rise. She was impressed—Ksmvr was lifting both her, her armor, and the bed. He grunted and she stumbled. She was on her feet! Wrapped up like a caterpillar, true, but she was upright! She tried to walk and found her feet were tied together. She could only hop.
“Dead gods, I am going to murder Falene and my brother.”
Yvlon gritted her teeth. Ksmvr tilted his head.
“I believe you are in no shape to take offensive action whatsoever, Yvlon. How will we dispel this magic?”
The Human woman took a deep breath.
“There’s only one way we can do it. Where’s Pisces?”
“In his room. He has not left. Nor has he responded to anyone’s attempts to open the door. It is locked.”
“Help me get there.”
It was hard for Yvlon to say whether she was angry at Pisces or not. Last night she’d been in a panic, and he’d been—what? After he’d threatened the Goblin, he’d gone up to his room. And his face! Yvlon remembered the blank expression. What was that about? She didn’t know.
Yvlon was still angry. She was still filled with panic and dread and confusion with everything she’d learned. Calruz was leading the Raskghar? And he had Ceria? If she stopped to think about it all she’d go mad. So she clung to her fury as the only thing keeping her going. But even she felt quite, quite stupid as she hopped out of her room and down the hall with Ksmvr guiding her. The broken bed and mattress kept falling apart with each hop, and Yvlon left a trail of broken wood and feathers in her wake.
“Pisces! Open up!”
The [Wounded Warrior] shouted as she reached Pisces’ door. Ksmvr knocked politely. There was no response. Yvlon growled and raised her voice even louder.
“Pisces! I know you’re in there! What are you doing? Ceria is down there! Calruz is down there! Open the damn door!”
No response. Ksmvr knocked politely again.
“I am here too, Comrade Pisces. Please open the door.”
“He’s not answering. ”
Yvlon tried to kick the door, but she couldn’t. Instead, she tilted forwards and head-butted the door with all of her weight behind it. The thump left her seeing stars. Yvlon fell onto the floor and stared up at the ceiling, still bound, as Ksmvr tried to get her up.
“Damn it, Pisces! I trusted you! Why the hell are you hiding away? We’re teammates! If we can’t rely on you, then what—”
The door opened. Pisces stepped forwards, his white robes swirling around him. He stared at Yvlon and Ksmvr. His eyes were bloodshot and he was unsteady on his feet. Dust swirled around him, white, as if he’d been baking with flour. He paused.
“What are you doing?”
Yvlon glared at Pisces. She heaved again, but she was still trussed up. The mattress spat out some feathers as Ksmvr tried to pull her up and failed.
“Falene bound me with a magic spell. I can’t get it off.”
“Ah. That would explain things.”
Pisces rubbed at one eye. He blinked down at Yvlon. He looked like he hadn’t slept one bit since last night. She stared up at him.
“Well? Where the hell have you been?”
Pisces looked at Yvlon as if she were an idiot.
“To rescue Ceria, of course. What have you been doing? Sleeping? Ksmvr, stop attempting to lift Yvlon. Let’s dispel her enchantment and enter the dungeon. Ceria is alive. She’s contacted me twice. Calruz has her. He’s leading the Raskghar, just as the Cave Goblin said.”
Yvlon and Ksmvr gaped at Pisces. He didn’t pay them any attention as he squatted to inspect the bindings on Yvlon. She spluttered and tried to form a coherent question.
“Wait, how do you know that, Pisces? You spoke to Ceria?”
“Not in words. She sent me a coded message via a spell we know. She only described her location as a large, domed room and told me that she was a captive. And that Calruz killed a Gnoll. Mrsha is alive. Beyond that, we must find her.”
He reached out and touched the magic bindings with one hand, frowning. Yvlon tried to digest all of that and then gave up.
“Okay. Get this off me and let’s go! Dispel the enchantment!”
“I don’t know [Dispel Magic].”
“Are you serious?”
Yvlon began to thrash about, screaming furiously. Pisces raised his voice.
“Stop shouting, Yvlon! The bindings should be easy to break. Just have Ksmvr use your sword.”
Ksmvr and Yvlon stared at Pisces. Yvlon protested indignantly.
“That won’t work!”
The woman faltered.
“Because…they’re magic bindings?”
Pisces raised one eyebrow at Yvlon.
“Your sword is enchanted. The bonds shouldn’t be able to hold up to that much force. It’s only a Tier 4 spell, I believe.”
“But my sword has a weight enchantment on it. Not one that cuts magic!”
“And this magic is very physical. You’re wearing armor beneath all this, aren’t you? Then let Ksmvr cut at the bindings. Every enchantment has a limit to how much force it can take before breaking. I cannot imagine that Falene put that much energy into this spell.”
Pisces rose, dusting a feather off his robes. He stared disapprovingly at Ksmvr and Yvlon.
“Why didn’t you try that to begin with?”
Yvlon turned red. Ksmvr opened his mandibles and then decided not to speak. Silently, he went into Yvlon’s room and grabbed her sword. Pisces yawned as he listened to the dialogue between the two.
“Okay, cut right there.”
“I can’t see. Cut right by my side. Can you hit me there? Do it gently, gently—gah!”
He heard a thump, and then the sound of a compressed mattress unspringing all at once. Clattering wood as it hit the ground—and then two solid footsteps. Pisces turned. Yvlon lifted her sword. She looked angry.
“I really need to visit the outhouse. Give me five minutes and then we go. I hope you spent last night well?”
“I was not tied to a bed and magically asleep if that’s what you are asking.”
Yvlon stared at Pisces and then walked past him. Ksmvr followed. Pisces brought up the rear. The three said only a few words as they trooped down the stairs, but they were the right words.
“The Gold-ranks won’t be happy to see us in the dungeon.”
“I couldn’t care less about their opinion. Actually, let me rephrase that statement. I do not care about their opinion whatsoever.”
“Captain Ceria is alive?”
“There’s lots of monsters in the dungeon. Traps.”
“I have a plan. And you?”
“I am ready to die to rescue Captain Ceria.”
“I think she’d rather you live instead. I’ll risk anything. We’re a team. And we’re not losing anyone else to the dungeon. Pisces?”
“I concur. Ksmvr?”
“This team is the reason for my life. Let’s go.”
They walked down the stairs. Pisces in front, Yvlon behind and Ksmvr bringing up the rear. Pisces stepped into the common room and looked around.
Several dozen heads turned. Adventurers were sitting around at their tables, many nursing drinks. Few looked like they were willing to talk—many were progressively getting drunk. They looked defeated.
Lyonette was serving tables. She looked lost. A Drake [Barmaid] was helping her—not Drassi—but she was more keeping an eye on Lyonette. The [Barmaid] looked like a ghost, as if she were dreaming.
A Drake stood as Pisces strode across the room. He had black scales and was short. Insill of Vuliel Drae gulped when Pisces stared at him. Other adventurers got to their feet. Anith, Dasha, Insill, Larr, Pekona—the five members of Vuliel Drae blocked Pisces’ way. Earlia of Gemhammer and Nailren of the Pride of Kelia and a few other Silver-rank Captains stood to one side, not with Vuliel Drae, but watching.
Pisces didn’t stop walking. He raised a hand to push Insill out of the way, but he stopped when Larr’s arm shot out. The Gnoll stared down at Pisces.
“You’re not leaving.”
“You’re going to stop us?”
“It’s nothing personal, Horns. But the Silver Swords charged us with keeping you here.”
His eyes flicked to Pisces and Ksmvr, making it obvious that they’d assumed it would only be Yvlon they’d have to stop. Yvlon grimaced and put a hand on her sword hilt.
“Our Captain is kidnapped. We’re going in after her. Move or we’ll make you move.”
Dasha crossed her arms.
“Oh yeah? We’re Silver-ranks just like you, tall legs. And every Silver-rank team here got the same order.”
The Horns looked around. Earlia looked away and Nailren shook his head. The other Silver-rank adventurers looked at the Horns and then away. Yvlon counted heads.
“How many people are going to follow orders, then?”
Vuliel Drae glanced around for support. None came. Earlia leaned on a table.
“I remember being told what to do by a bunch of Gold-ranks. Funny, I didn’t become an adventurer to take orders. What about you Pallass teams?”
“We follow orders. That’s how things work in the south, Human.”
A Drake growled at Earlia. He was drinking from a mug. He had a fresh scar on his arm, a deep gouge of recently-healed flesh and scales. He made no move to rise. The Drake took another drink.
“Problem is, sometimes we have hearing problems. A team wants to die in the dungeon? Go ahead. That’s their Captain.”
Earlia nodded. Vuliel Drae wavered. None of the other adventurers were standing up. Yvlon’s hand tightened on her sword.
Pekona had a hand on her katana. She and Yvlon stared at each other, tensed. Ksmvr’s dagger and shortsword were both in his hands and Insill looked like he wanted to run. Anith raised his staff.
“This is for your own good. Please don’t make this difficult.”
Pisces had been blinking repeatedly. He rubbed at his eyes and muttered.
“Don’t bother with the sword, Yvlon. We don’t have time for this.”
He reached for his side. Vuliel Drae tensed. Pisces grabbed his bag of holding and they relaxed slightly. Too soon. He upended the bag and bones fell out.
Every adventurer turned and stared as a shower of yellow bones fell from Pisces’ bag of holding. The bones landed with a clatter on the floor. Lyonette, mechanically wiping a table over and over in the same spot, looked up. Insill stared at a bear’s skull.
Pekona unsheathed her sword in a flash. She was quick! But she hesitated. There wasn’t anything she could do short of cutting Pisces down. Yvlon drew her sword and cut. She didn’t hesitate. Pekona leapt back and Pisces pointed down at the bones.
Vuliel Drae scrambled back as the bones floated upwards. They stared as the bones rearranged themselves, flying into position, rotating, joining together. They looked down at the thing emerging and their heads tilted back. Anith gulped.
A beast of bone rose from the ground, eight feet tall, arms and body a mass of bone. It looked like some ancient predecessor of a bear, one that had been made of bone and given a spiky body armor. It had an oversized bite and almost nonexistent head. It had one solid, gaping hole for an ‘eye’ and a bright yellow flame burned in the socket. Its claws when it raised them were a solid weapon of bone.
Insill backed up fast. The [Rogue] was deathly pale. Vuliel Drae retreated as the other Silver-rank adventurers got to their feet or leaned back. Pisces walked forwards and the monstrosity lumbered forwards.
“Move out of the way.”
“You can’t leave the inn. The Gold-ranks—”
Pisces turned his head. Dasha choked on her words.
“Stop me. I’d like you to try.”
The [Necromancer] strode out of the inn. Lyonette starred at the Bone Horror following him. Yvlon stared at the huge armored monstrosity and the cold fear that had gripped her for a moment faded. That was Pisces’ creation. He had made it! She forced her legs to move.
“Pisces, hold up!”
The [Necromancer] paused at the door. The Bone Horror was too large to exit, but it was reconfiguring itself to squeeze out bone by bone. It was…impressive to watch. Yvlon nodded to it.
“That’s your secret weapon?”
“One of them.”
“One of—holy steel, what is that?”
Yvlon shouted the instant as she stepped outside. The adventurers swarmed to the windows and then recoiled. Another Bone Horror had come out of Pisces’ window. It was a giant spider made of bone, at least in basic shape. Each part of its legs and the thin abdomen was covered in barbed bone, sharpened to an edge. It crawled down as Pisces walked towards the boats.
“Two Bone Horrors?”
Ksmvr looked from undead to undead. Pisces shook his head. He was sweating and his eyes looked feverish.
Something crawled out of the water. Several somethings. They had come out of Liscor’s sewers. Drenched in slime, and muck and worse, they had climbed the walls and leapt from them, surprising Liscor’s [Guardsmen]. The rat-hunting Bone Horrors resembled rats themselves, but they had been redesigned to be stronger, bigger. And infinitely more deadly. The dead rat flesh and other scraps that hung from their scything jaw-tusks were a testament to their design.
The undead lined up in the rain. Pisces pointed and they turned. They walked or crawled or bounded into the water, sinking beneath the surface. They were headed towards the dungeon rift.
“How long can you control them?”
“Long enough. I have mana potions.”
Pisces walked towards the boats, stumbling a bit in the rain. Yvlon went to follow him and turned.
“Going to try and stop us?”
Vuliel Drae and the other Silver-rank adventurers were staring at her from the inn’s entrance, wide-eyed. At her question they looked at each other and backed up. Someone else pushed past them. Lyonette was still white, but she focused on the Horns.
“You’re going into the dungeon.”
It wasn’t a question. Yvlon nodded.
“We’re going in after Ceria. We’ll look for Mrsha, Lyonette. If we find her, we’ll bring her out.”
The [Princess] nodded. Her hands were red from scrubbing and she didn’t seem to notice that she’d cut her finger. She clasped her fingers together.
“Please find her. Please—I’d go with you if I could.”
The Drake [Barmaid] gripped Lyonette’s shoulder tightly. Some of the other adventurers drew closer. Lyonette stared pleadingly at Yvlon.
“Find her? Bring her back?”
Yvlon nodded. Lyonette relaxed ever so slightly. The woman checked her sword hilt and eyed the outhouse.
“I’ll pee in the water. Let’s go, Ksmvr!”
The Antinium strode towards the boats. He actually stepped into the water and shuddered, but then he grabbed the edge of the boat and pulled himself in. Yvlon leapt into the boat and felt it rock.
Ksmvr pushed them off and Yvlon grabbed the oars. Pisces was sitting at the front of the boat. Well, lying, really. He was propped up on the stern and his eyes were blinking rapidly.
“You look exhausted.”
Pisces’ head jerked up a bit.
“I had to design the new combat forms. It took…a while. These ones are better. Should fight better. The armor form is virtually indestructible and the spider…thing is quick. The rat-hunting horrors are deadly despite their size.”
Yvlon didn’t know what else to say. She looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium was also drooping, nodding off and then sitting up. He rowed erratically with his oar.
“You were in the Antinium Hive, Ksmvr?”
“Trying to persuade Revalantor Klbkch, yes. Then I was dumped outside. I recovered from blood loss and returned to the inn two hours ago.”
Both Pisces and Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium yawned, opening his mandibles wide. Pisces turned to Yvlon. His expression was bleak, but he managed to raise an eyebrow.
“Were you sleeping all night?”
Yvlon looked from Ksmvr to Pisces. She opened her mouth and hesitated.
“I’ll row. You two get some sleep.”
The boat cut across the water as the rain fell. Yvlon rowed hard, letting her reinforced arms take the strain. It felt—good. Nothing broke and nothing bent. Her arms were heavier, but she could compensate for the weight. She turned her head to the right.
“Are you going to stop us?”
Earlia grinned as her team pulled alongside the boat Yvlon was rowing. Gemhammer was rowing hard and part of Nailren’s team was sharing their boat. Yvlon turned her head left and saw Nailren and other teams from Pallass following them. Earlia nodded towards Pisces.
“I didn’t much like hanging back, but I was pretty sure that half-Elf would hex our entire team if we argued. The other Gold-ranks were ready to knock anyone else out. Plus, they had a point. Our teams don’t have their firepower. But if you’re bringing that—”
One of the Bone Horrors—the spider—crawled onto a distant hill. There was a shout from Liscor’s walls. The Bone Horror leapt a good twelve feet into the water and Earlia shuddered.
“That looks like it could kill something. And if you’re going in, well, I think you could use some backup. We might not be Gold-ranks, but we can work together. Mind if we tag along?”
Yvlon looked around. Six teams had taken to the boats and were following her. She nodded.
“You know that we’re going to keep going until we find Ceria?”
“I had a feeling. Don’t slow for our sakes. We’ll see how far we get.”
The woman nodded and Yvlon grunted. She put her back into the oars. The Horns rowed to the dungeon entrance and dropped into the dungeon. They entered the Raskghar’s home, where monsters and traps promised an early death. However, they were not the first adventurers to enter the dungeon that day. The Gold-rank teams had been there since dawn. And they’d been fighting the entire time.
Bevussa, Captain of the Wings of Pallass, dropped from the air. There was little room to maneuver in the dungeon corridor, but her team was fighting in a spot with ten feet of clearance on the ceiling. There had been a trap up there—a device that dropped whirling blades to cut anyone below apart. It was neutralized, the mechanism gummed up by a thick orange paste. That hadn’t stopped the monsters from attacking, though.
A pair of large, stone ‘eyes’ were battering one of Bevussa’s teammates. These creatures were covered by a thick shell of stone and only their fronts—which resembled black eyes with white pupils—were exposed. They had long, wiry arms made out of the same stone shell that could easily break bone.
The monsters were Stone Starers and they looked deceptively simple. They could shoot beams from the white holes in their fronts. Those beams could pierce through weak enchanted metal and steel with ease. Going at them from the front was dangerous.
So Bevussa dropped. She flew downwards, angling her wings and calling for her teammate, Issa, to get back. The Drake flew backwards with a flap of her wings and Bevussa stopped her descent. The Stone Starer looked up, eye glowing, and Bevussa kicked.
The feet of the Garuda were talons. Bevussa’s were sharp and she’d trained her legs. Her claws went into the Stone Starer’s fleshy eye and drew blood. It screamed a muffled wailing sound, and fired a white beam at Bevussa. She twisted and dodged right, out of the way. Bevussa’s right hand came up and her shortsword stabbed, plunging hilt-deep into the Stone Starer’s eye.
The second Stone Starer was aiming at Bevussa. She immediately let go of her blade and back flipped. As she did she flapped, flying all the way up to the ceiling. The second beam missed her and Bevussa extended her hand.
Her sword ripped loose of the Stone Starer. It collapsed as brown blood spurted from its front. Bevussa saw Issa and Zassil land on the second Stone Starer. Before it could target them, they stabbed at it with spear and sword. It collapsed, pooling blood.
Bevussa landed, panting, flicking blood from the tip of her sword. Her other three teammates landed around her. They were sweaty, and their wings were sore. Bevussa checked all of them.
“Issa, you got tagged by one of the beams.”
The Drake grimaced. She flexed a wing and showed Bevussa a hole in her side.
“It’s nothing. The thing shot through my armor is all.”
“That’s enchanted leather. It should’ve blocked that!”
Zassil muttered unhappily. Bevussa inspected the injury as Issa pulled out a healing potion.
“Looks like it blocked some of it, otherwise Issa would have a hole going right through her. Watch the armor, Issa. I don’t know if the enchantment’s broken. Let’s pull back.”
“I can still fight!”
Issa protested, but Bevussa shook her head.
“We’re tired. How many monster groups is this?”
“Six in the last two hours.”
“We’re tired and I’ve had to use one of my Skills. We need a break. Come on.”
She led the way back down the corridor. The Wings of Pallass followed, stepping around the corpse of a third Stone Starer and more monsters. Bevussa’s arm wings ached. She’d been fighting since dawn, and even with the high-quality stamina potion she’d downed, she felt worn.
“Who goes there?”
A sharp voice shouted as the Wings of Pallass walked back the way they’d come. Bevussa instantly halted and raised a hand.
“Wings of Pallass! That you, Essa?”
“Come forwards slowly!”
The Wings walked forwards and saw a barricade had been erected in the tunnel. A team of Drakes and two Gnolls were standing behind a pair of wooden barriers fronted with metal. They checked over the Wings of Pallass, one of the Drakes, Essa, staring at them through a pair of enchanted spectacles.
“You’re clean. Come on back.”
“How’s the fighting?”
“We’ve seen action. You nearly had a pair of Flesh Worms hit you from behind. We scared them off, but we’re running low on enchanted arrows.”
Bevussa nodded. The Garuda leaned against one wall.
“Don’t think we’ll be here too much longer. My team’s tired. Yours?”
“We’ve just been sitting here shooting at anything that moves. We can keep going. Head on back. There’s a rally point right where the rift begins.”
Bevussa motioned and her team followed them. Essa’s team, the Scaleguards, stayed put. They were watching one of the choke points to the dungeon. The Gold-rank adventurers had taken no chances this time. They’d committed over half their numbers to holding tunnels, making sure that they were secure while their attack groups went forwards.
Bevussa’s group had been clearing tunnels for hours and they’d done…six…since they started. The problem wasn’t the monsters—well, it had been nonstop fighting—but it was also fighting and making sure they weren’t walking into traps.
“This is the worst dungeon I’ve seen. Ever.”
Issa murmured as she walked backwards. Bevussa shook her head.
“This is the only dungeon you’ve seen, Issa. The one south of Pallass doesn’t count. It’s been cleared for decades. This is a real dungeon. Unexplored. But you’re right. It’s a bad one. A vengeance dungeon. If it weren’t for it being right under Liscor and the missing Gnolls, I’d refuse to enter this place.”
“Think we’re making progress? We cleared six hallways.”
“It’s impossible to say. This dungeon could be vast for all we know. And these monster attacks are relentless. Each time we turn a corner we run into another group, always a different species of monster. It almost feels like—”
All of the adventurers froze. Bevussa’s team turned as one as they heard a dull roar. They immediately spread out, ready to fly backwards.
“What was that?”
“Fighting? Up ahead—”
“Let’s go. Watch for trap signs!”
Bevussa took wing. She and the Wings flew through the cramped corridor, flying around a marked trap. They landed and stopped as they saw what had caused the commotion.
“Enchanted armor! A platoon of them!”
A wave of animated suits of armor had smashed through a barricade set up by Gold-rank teams. Over forty of the metal giants strode forwards, carrying steel battleaxes, greatswords, maces—the Gold-rank team assigned to the spot was falling back, throwing Tripvine bags and shooting spells. But there were so many suits of armor that they had no choice but to run.
“Ancestors! Just what we need.”
Bevussa cursed. She drew her enchanted shortsword, wondering if they should retreat to the Scaleguards or fight. Her team was bad at fighting armored foes. The Wings of Pallass were lightly armored, meant for quick offensives and rapid retreats. She was on the verge of ordering her team into the fighting when she heard a call.
“Clear the tunnel! Flamewardens, breathe on my mark!”
Bevussa shouted. She saw another team running forwards and the heavy plate mail and Keldrass’ rasping voice identified them along with their name. She and the Wings of Pallass flew back. She saw the Flamewardens, all four of them, line up. The platoon of enchanted armor charged them, a wave of dull steel. The Flamewardens inhaled as one and Keldrass shouted.
Bevussa didn’t hear the rest. A roar and then a dull ringing filled her earholes as she recoiled. She saw a flash of bright flame burst from Keldrass’ mouth, and fiery red and orange flames leap from the other three. The flames shot down the tunnel, combining. The sound and wave of heat blasted the Wings where they stood. Bevussa turned away as the Flamewardens exhaled for fifteen straight seconds. When she looked back, the corridor was scorched beyond recognition. And the enchanted suits of armor?
They’d kept charging straight into the flame. The front row had just melted away. Black slag was all that remained of them. Bevussa could see rapidly cooling pools of metal, the scorched remains of a breastplate in the back—nothing else.
Zassil stared at the Flamewardens. His wings trembled before he folded them on his back.
“That’s a Gold-rank team? They have to be Named Adventurers! At least!”
He stared at the four Oldblood Drakes, as if forgetting he was Oldblood himself. Bevussa glanced at Zassil in amusement. He was the youngest of her team and sometimes showed his inexperience. Well, that wasn’t saying much, really. Bevussa was more experienced than the other three by a good bit.
“No, they’re Gold-rank. The Flamewardens have firepower, but they don’t have stamina. The curse of the Oldblood. See?”
She pointed as the Wings hesitantly approached. The Flamewardens were all doubled over. Keldrass was leaning against a wall, gasping for air. His breathing was shallow and it seemed as if he couldn’t take in enough air. He straightened as Bevussa approached, but she waved him back.
“Breathe. That was a hell of a display.”
For once, Keldrass’ words didn’t elicit a tongue of blue flame or smoke from his mouth. He’d used up his fires. He took a few deep breaths and reached out to touch the shoulder of one of his team members.
“Breathe, Nautia. In. Out. Slowly.”
The Drake nodded. She gulped in air and the color in her scales slowly returned. Bevussa eyed Keldrass’ team worriedly. It didn’t look like the first time they’d pulled off this trick today.
“Good job on the fire breath. We might have been overrun if the suits of armor had broken through. Your team should pull back, though.”
She nodded at the Gold-rank team who was returning, a bit shamefaced, to guard the tunnel. Keldrass shook his head.
“We…can keep going. We’ll rest for half an hour, burn another tunnel. Scorched ground. We can destroy traps and wipe out monsters this way.”
That was true. The Flamewardens were one of the best teams in the narrow dungeon corridors. But Bevussa was worried.
“Don’t push too far, Keldrass. Your team is tired. If you get ambushed after using your fire breath—”
The reason the Flamewardens weren’t a Named Team was because of their weakness. After they used their trump card, they were literally unable to breathe for a while. But Keldrass shook his head stubbornly.
“Can’t let those…northern teams show us up. They’re still fighting.”
Bevussa turned. She stared down another tunnel, where she could hear more fighting.
The roar came from Jelaqua’s lips as her team encountered the Raskghar. The Selphid shot towards the Raskghar team, who were visibly surprised to see them. Understandably—the Halfseekers had cut through fourteen corridors to get here. The Raskghar snarled and the Selphid recognized one of them. The Raskghar in armor. The one who had taken Mrsha.
Jelaqua ran towards the Raskghar, her flail spinning. She crashed into the Raskghar. He was leading a group of eight other Raskghar. They turned and raised their hide shields as the Selphid whirled into them. The Raskghar howled as the flail struck like lightning from every angle. Jelaqua’s body was a flaming cyclone of motion—the Heartflame Breastplate burned as she struck.
But her movements were slower. Dulled. Jelaqua’s spiked flail heads were deformed and a spike had broken off on one. She’d been fighting for hours and now, at the crucial moment, she was faltering. The Raskghar in armor raised his enchanted battleaxe and ignored the flail heads striking sparks off his armor. He swung and caught Jelaqua in the chest. The head of the axe skated off the armor, but the impact sent Jelaqua stumbling backwards. She swore and shouted.
The other Raskghar turned. A shadow jumped off the walls and Seborn lunged into a Raskghar. He stabbed with both of his long daggers, plunging them hilt-deep into the Raskghar’s chest. The wounded beast woman roared and threw Seborn backwards. Another jabbed at the [Rogue] and he rolled to safety. Jelaqua struck the Raskghar, but saw her flail bounce off its shield. The other Raskghar spread around her, jabbing at her armor, growling as their stone weapons failed to penetrate the magical flames on her armor. Jelaqua lashed out with her flail, and again a Raskghar blocked.
They were so strong! And smart! These weren’t anything like the unthinking brutes that Jelaqua had fought before. And then the Raskghar in armor struck Jelaqua again. The impact sent her stumbling back. She saw the Raskghar raise its battleaxe, aiming at her head. A huge hand covered in vines and thorns grabbed his chest and lifted him. The Raskghar howled in surprise. He twisted and Moore roared in his face.
“Where. Is. Mrsha!?”
The half-Giant was covered in light wounds. His face was dirty and streaked with sweat. His body was covered in thorns and vines, his [Thorn Armor] spell. The Raskghar snarled at him and the half-Giant roared, his mouth opening wider than the Raskghar’s entire head. The Raskghar froze. Moore lifted him and slammed the armored Raskghar into the wall.
“Where is Mrsha? Answer me!”
The Raskghar around him jabbed spears into Moore’s side, howling. The half-Giant ignored them, bashing the armored Raskghar into the wall as it struggled. He only let go when one of the Raskghar struck deep into his side. The spear broke and Moore let go.
Jelaqua smashed a Raskghar with her flail’s head and then turned. She abandoned her flail, grabbed a Raskghar charging at her, and threw it into a wall. She heard a snap. The Selphid felt her body’s muscles scream in agony, but she didn’t care. She pushed them past the limits and charged to Moore’s side, tackling a Raskghar to the ground. The half-Giant turned. His fist caught a Raskghar and the monster tumbled, bones broken. Moore grasped at the spear in his side, grimacing.
The other Raskghar howled as Seborn cut among them. The one in armor got up shakily. His magical gear had protected him from the impacts, but he looked dazed. He turned and ran on all fours, abandoning his battleaxe.
“Don’t let it escape!”
Moore and Jelaqua charged after it, ignoring their wounds and Jelaqua’s missing flail. The Raskghar ran as one, four instead of nine. They were quick! It was all Jelaqua could do to keep them in sight with the armor weighing her down. She pushed her muscles, ignoring the screaming that warned they might snap. Moore charged after her, roaring.
“Moore, Jelaqua! Stop!”
Seborn flickered into view and tackled Moore’s leg. The half-Giant slowed, but Jelaqua didn’t. She ran after the Raskghar and saw one of them leap over a suspiciously clean patch of the dungeon’s floor too late.
The explosion that engulfed Jelaqua threw Moore and Seborn back. It might have been some kind of fiery detonation—or maybe the air itself had exploded. Seborn rolled with the impact as Moore groaned and fell backwards. The Drowned Man got up, ears ringing and shouted.
He ran forwards, stopping where the trap had been. Something moved in the smoke. Jelaqua stumbled forwards, her body looking—torn. Flesh had been ripped up and she was missing scales along her tail, arms, face—every exposed part of her body. But she was intact. The magical flames engulfing her body had gone out, though.
“I’m okay. I’m—”
The Selphid wobbled. Seborn grabbed her with his Human hand and let go with an oath. Her armor was still searing hot. Jelaqua caught herself.
“I’m fine, Seborn. The armor…took the hit. Powerful stuff. Glad I wore it. Come on…they’re getting away.”
She tried to turn. Seborn held her with his claw arm.
“You are not fine. Moore’s injured. We have to fall back.”
“No—that was the one! You saw it, Seborn! We have to follow—”
“If we chase it, we’ll die.”
The Drowned Man pulled at Jelaqua. She stumbled.
She looked back at Moore. The half-Giant was sitting down. A red stain was spreading from his side. The stone spear had gone through his vine armor. Either the strike had been lucky or the Raskghar had found a gap. Jelaqua swore.
“Moore! Healing potion!”
“I’m trying. I’ll do it. You get the Raskghar.”
Moore mumbled as he gripped the spear. His hands were white. Jelaqua and Seborn rushed over to him.
“Get it out. We have to heal that wound.”
“Trying. I think the head’s spiked. Barbed.”
“Seborn, use one of your daggers. Cut it out. I’ll use the potion—”
Moore groaned as Seborn cut into his side, slicing the head of the barbed spear out. The half-Giant nearly screamed, but then he bit his arm rather than make a sound. Jelaqua poured an entire healing potion into the chunk of missing flesh and saw it begin to close. Seborn sat back, throwing aside the bloody spear. He looked at her. Jelaqua felt her body screaming, and knew he was right.
“We fall back. But we find another team and tell them what we saw, alright?”
“Agreed. Come on, Moore. We have to get to a safe spot.”
Neither Seborn nor Jelaqua could pull the half-Giant up, but they supported him as best they could. The Halfseekers stumbled back the way they’d come, until they heard a shout.
As passphrases went, it was simple, but Jelaqua’s voice was enough to assure the other team that they weren’t monsters masquerading as adventurers. She saw a group approaching them and a bobbing [Light] spell, then recognized the group of three.
Falene exclaimed as the Silver Swords hurried down the tunnel. The three Gold-rank adventurers looked battered. Ylawes’ perfect armor was dirtied by blood and Falene’s face looked drawn. Dawil had a scratch on his cheek and the armor around his shoulder looked crumpled from an impact. They still looked a lot better than the Halfseekers.
Ylawes pointed at Moore’s armor. Jelaqua rasped.
“Barbed spear. We pulled it out. Ran into a Raskghar group. Same ones that got Ceria.”
“Down the tunnel. Past a trap.”
The Silver Swords stared the way Jelaqua was pointing. Ylawes raised his shield and then checked himself. He turned towards Falene.
“Falene, how many spells can you cast?”
“I’m…I’m nearly out of mana, Ylawes. I’ve used as many potions as I dare.”
Falene wobbled on her feet. She was using her staff for support. Dawil grabbed his beard.
“And I’ve only one Skill left to use. We could be walking into an ambush.”
“That’s the team. I’m sure of it. We can go back as soon as we get Moore to a safe spot. He can’t fight.”
Jelaqua insisted stubbornly. Moore mumbled.
“Just leave me and follow.”
All the adventurers said it at once. Moore was in no condition to do anything. If he passed out in the dungeon he’d be dead. Ylawes ran a finger through his hair. It was dirty with blood.
“I don’t know if we can follow right now. We’ve run into two Raskghar teams. Both groups were big. Thirty or more. We…barely fought off the first. The second we routed more easily, but they’re strong.”
“Then we go back for another group. There has to be one around here!”
Ylawes nodded. He strode past Jelaqua.
“I’ll support him.”
Seborn nodded. Ylawes grunted as he helped grab Moore. His head only came up to the half-Giant’s armpit. With Jelaqua, he helped Moore walk down the corridor. They passed by monster corpses, blasted to pieces, squashed, or battered to death. The Gold-rank teams had pushed into the dungeon with a vengeance. But they were losing steam. Jelaqua didn’t know how far they’d walked—it felt like hours to her exhausted mind—before they heard a shout.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
The counter phrase didn’t work as well on the Drake teams. There was a pause and then something appeared down the corridor. The Silver Swords and Halfseekers instinctively reached for their weapons, but it was Bevussa. The Garuda landed and shouted back the way they’d come.
“It’s the Halfseekers and Silver Swords! Get over here, I think the half-Giant’s wounded!”
“’M fine. Go after the Raskghar.”
Moore muttered. His face was pale. Despite the healing potion he was barely conscious from the blood loss and shock. Jelaqua saw more adventurers run forwards.
“We found Raskghar. We saw the ones that got Ceria! That way!”
She pointed back towards them. Bevussa’s eyes widened, but she shook her head after a second.
“We’ll see if we can pursue. But almost all of our teams are running low on supplies. And we’re trying to pull back another team.”
“Griffon Hunt! They’ve pushed in even further than you have! Come on, let’s get the half-Giant to our rest spot. What’s his name?”
“Charmed. Come on big fellow. Hey, we need more claws over here!”
It took nearly a dozen adventurers to half-drag, half-carry Moore past the barricades. The Gold-rank teams had set up in the area below the dungeon’s rift. They hadn’t put much there—just a few crates of healing potions, a spot for adventurers to rest before attempting the journey to the surface—and a table where a Gold-rank Gnoll with levels in [Cartographer] was trying to make sense of the adventurer’s reports.
Jelaqua saw Moore to the rest site and made sure he was being looked over. Then she forced her stiff body over to where Bevussa was conferring with Keldrass. The Drake was sitting—he looked like he’d run out of energy to stand.
“They’re down the tunnel. My team caught up—but we can’t get them to come back.”
“Damn. We need to get them to return! Jelaqua, is it?”
Bevussa turned to Jelaqua. The Selphid nodded. The Garuda stretched out her arm wings.
“Your friends, Griffon Hunt, are going in way too far. There’s no one guarding their backs and we’re too tired to fight. You need to recall them.”
“We can try. But the Raskghar—”
Keldrass coughed a bit of smoke out.
“Another team’s on that. A group of teams. The Horns, Gemhammer, Kelia’s Pride—”
Ylawes strode over. He looked shocked.
“You let the Horns enter the dungeon? Are you insane? We have to go after them!”
“They were already down here when I returned! We didn’t stop them because they were ready to fight to get past us! There’s six Silver-rank teams plus the Horns heading towards the spot the Halfseekers mentioned. Plus, that [Necromancer] had…things with him. Bone Horrors. They’re not who I’m worried about.”
Keldrass snapped at Ylawes. The [Knight] opened his mouth and Bevussa cut him off.
“Both Griffon Hunt and the Horns are in the same spot. I’m taking one of my team and a few other Gold-ranks who can still move. We need to grab both teams.”
“But the Raskghar…”
Jelaqua feebly protested. Bevussa turned and looked at her seriously. Her eyes were bright green. Bird’s eyes.
“Miss Jelaqua, they’re too far. We can barely hold the tunnels around here. We’ll pursue the Raskghar—tomorrow. But right now we’re looking at the very real possibility those teams will be ambushed. We have to pull back.”
Jelaqua knew she was right. The Selphid looked around for her flail and remembered that she’d left it buried in a Raskghar’s skull. She reached for her bag of holding.
“Let me grab a spare flail. I’m going with you.”
In the end, eight Gold-rank adventurers headed out to retrieve the Halfseekers. Jelaqua, Issa, Seborn, Bevussa, Ylawes, Dawil, Keldrass, and Essa moved down the corridor, following the direction Griffon Hunt had taken. They didn’t know their exact location, but it wasn’t hard to catch up. All they had to do was follow the bodies.
Halrac spotted the undead a moment before the others. The ranks of glowing Stitch-Warriors raised their weapons and Typhenous breathed heavily. He raised his staff and fired a glowing red-and-black orb into the crowd of ghouls and zombies and the Crypt Lord leading them. The orb burned a hole through a Ghoul’s chest and then detonated.
Typhenous turned his staff and shot another ball of magic at the undead. Halrac raised his bow and calmly shot a charging Ghoul through the head. He saw Revi’s summoned warriors and her Corusdeer fighting the zombies who lurched forwards and drew another arrow.
Revi called out in alarm, pointing. Halrac turned. The wall had opened up, revealing another tunnel hidden by an illusion spell or hidden mechanism. Another wave of undead poured through. Halrac’s eyes narrowed. He loosed an arrow as Revi’s summoned warriors shot spells and arrows in the same direction.
A Crypt Lord staggered as the first arrow struck it. Halrac grabbed for an arrow. This one was enchanted. The undead exploded as the fiery arrow penetrated its chest and then blew apart in a fireball.
Halrac’s team retreated as the undead flowed towards them from two directions. They let the undead bunch up and then Typhenous blew them apart and Halrac loosed another flaming arrow. Revi bent over and panted when the battle ended.
“Another group. Another…hold on, you two. I’m running out of mana. I can’t keep up this many summons.”
She shakily pulled a mana potion from her belt and gulped at it. Typehnous did the same. The old man’s face was drawn. Halrac glanced at both of them, not reaching for the stamina potion at his belt. His callused fingers burned, and his arm was fatigued, but he was unharmed.
“Can you still fight?”
Typhenous leaned on his staff. Revi wiped the mana potion’s bright orange liquid from her mouth and nodded.
“I can…I can do that.”
“Move on, then. Through the illusory tunnel.”
Halrac led the way. He had another arrow ready and as he walked, he reached for something at his side. Very carefully, he opened a small wooden container and dipped the head of his arrow into the mixture, coating it with a dark substance. Halrac raised his hand and his group slowed.
Halrac had heard the distant barking sound. He raised his bow and Typhenous lifted his staff. The Raskghar team was heading their way. Griffon Hunt moved stealthily ahead, Revi keeping her summoned creatures back lest their glow give the team away. Halrac’s eyes pierced the darkness ahead. The instant he saw movement he held up his hand. Typhenous raised his staff.
The Raskghar approached, sniffing the air warily. They were a group of archers, probably on reconnaissance. They didn’t smell Griffon Hunt in time. Halrac waited until he could see one of the Raskghar perfectly and then spoke.
He loosed the arrow at the same time Typhenous cast his spell. The arrow flew and caught a Raskghar in the shoulder. Typhenous’ staff spat black liquid which spattered across the corridor and hit two Raskghar. Not perfect, but it would do. The Raskghar howled in surprise and the one struck grabbed the arrow in his shoulder and tore it out.
Halrac snapped. Revi charged forwards and her summoned warriors and Corusdeer filled the hallway. The Raskghar spotted the Gold-rank team and hesitated. There were ten of them, but Revi’s summons evened the odds. They yipped loudly and howled before fleeing. Halrac drew another arrow and aimed high. The Raskghar fled as his arrow flew past them. Halrac didn’t bother drawing another arrow.
He turned to the others. Revi nodded. She was looking paler than before. The Stitch-Woman’s dark skin looked far too light, and Halrac recognized it as the first symptom of mana exhaustion. Typhenous looked worse. The [Mage] seemed to lurch, and then he spat out a stream of liquid. It took Halrac a moment to realize that Typhenous had thrown up.
“Are you alright?”
Typhenous wavered before saying ‘fine’. Halrac stared at him and then at Revi. He knew they should fall back. But his mind refused to say it.
“One more corridor. If we can ambush another group…”
Revi and Typhenous didn’t protest. Griffon Hunt made their way back down the corridor rather than pursue this group of Raskghar. Revi kept stumbling as she walked, though she refused help from anyone, even her summoned warriors. Halrac found his gaze unfocusing and he had to remind himself to watch ahead.
They were exhausted. Griffon Hunt had pushed further and farther than any team. Enough so that they’d began running into the Raskghar. But now they were in a dangerous situation. Halrac wanted to keep going. He knew that finding the Raskghar again would be difficult. But his team—
“Who goes there?”
Someone shouted the words up ahead. Halrac’s head snapped up. He grabbed for the arrow, realized he hadn’t poisoned it, and cursed. He shouted.
“At last! Don’t fire!”
Halrac saw a group appear in the darkness. He should have spotted them—the dim glow of their lanterns and [Light] spells gave them away. Eight adventurers appeared. He recognized Jelaqua, Ylawes in his stupid reflective armor, Dawil, Bevussa…the adventurers looked relieved to see him.
“Dead gods, Halrac! We thought we’d never catch up! You must have cleared twenty corridors!”
“What are you doing here?”
Halrac snapped at them. He felt uneasy. If they’d been Raskghar, they would have ambushed his team. He shifted as Jelaqua strode towards him.
“We spotted the bastard that got Ceria.”
Griffon Hunt immediately jerked to attention. Halrac focused on Jelaqua.
“A few corridors back. But no one’s going after them. We need to leave the dungeon. And get that damn group of Silver-ranks!”
Bevussa interrupted Jelaqua. The Garuda eyed Typhenous and Revi and turned to Halrac.
“You need to come with us.”
“No. We’ll go after the Raskghar.”
“You’ll do no such thing. Your [Mages] are nearly dead and you’re tired. If you go after the Raskghar they’ll ambush you. There’s too many of them. We had to fight through a group of twenty. And if they’re sending out scouting teams that big, there must be hundreds or thousands of them, just like that Cave Goblin claimed.”
Bevussa folded her feathery arms. Halrac knew she was right. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood and looked at Revi. She swayed.
“I can go.”
Halrac said it and felt the energy leave his arms. He looked at Bevussa and the other adventurers.
“We’ll go back. What’s this about Silver-rank teams?”
“The Horns entered the dungeon. This idiot—”
Ylawes turned towards Keldrass. The Drake gave him an affronted look.
“—didn’t stop them. They went after the Raskghar that Jelaqua saw. We need to go after Yv—after them!”
Jelaqua nodded wearily.
“They can’t have gone far. There’s monsters everywhere. We’ll run after them, pull them out.”
Keldrass growled, eying Ylawes.
“They might have gone farther than you think. I told you, that [Necromancer] had Bone Horrors. At least six of them!”
Halrac’s face twisted. Bevussa nodded.
“All the more reason to grab them. They’ll be a huge target.”
“We need to get them fast.”
Revi bent as the others looked at her. She straightened, still looking pale.
“Bone Horrors probably suck mana way more than lesser undead. I can barely summon that many spirits and I’m an expert. Pisces won’t be able to maintain that many undead for long. He’s probably pushed himself too far. Idiot.”
No one paused to dwell on the hypocrisy of her statement. The Gold-rank adventurers turned. Bevussa looked at Halrac.
“Can your old [Mage] move or do we have to split our team?”
Typhenous frowned at her slightly cross-eyed.
“I…am quite able to keep up, you feathery young lady. Lead on!”
Halrac nodded. Bevussa hesitated, and then turned.
“Okay. We’re searching for the Horns! Follow me!”
They set off at a jog through the dungeon.
Issa muttered as she passed by another group of dead monsters. This one was a cluster of worms—ordinary earthworms, really—except that they were twice as long as she was and had barbs along their body. It was another group of monsters that Griffon Hunt had slain. She thought of the six corridors her team had killed and felt a bit embarrassed. The Oldblood Drake chanced a glance back at Halrac, Typhenous, and Revi. They were lagging behind the brisk pace the others had set, but they were still keeping up.
“They killed that many monsters? Are you sure they’re only a Gold-rank team, Bevussa?”
She leaned towards her Captain, Bevussa. The Garuda was someone Issa looked up to and admired greatly. Ironically, it was Issa who was tasked with pretending to be the captain of the Wings of Pallass in public. It just wouldn’t do for a Garuda to lead a team of Oldblood Drakes, no matter how much more qualified she was. Bevussa turned her head and regarded Halrac.
“They’re good. I’ll give them that. If there’s any team ideally suited for this dungeon, it’s probably theirs. That [Scout] especially. I’ve heard of his name. They call him Halrac the Grim.”
“He’s even got a title? He must be a Named Adventurer, or nearabouts!”
Bevussa nodded as she glanced ahead down the corridor.
“And apparently they lost a team member. One of the better Gold-rank teams. But it doesn’t surprise me they’re not Named Adventurers yet, or that Halrac isn’t.”
“Look at the monsters they killed. That group.”
Bevussa pointed. Issa stared at several crumpled forms they passed.
“Face-Eater Moths. Not too big.”
Not compared to the ones attacking Liscor. These ones were ‘only’ the size of ponies. Bevussa nodded and eyed them.
“Right. But that’s not the important bit. Look at how they died. No spells, only an arrow to their abdomens—they were poisoned.”
Issa looked back at Halrac. Bevussa nodded.
“They said they were using a tactic they employed against Griffins. I asked about it at the Adventurer’s Guild. One of the [Receptionists] looked up what that might be.”
Bevussa shrugged her feathery shoulders.
“Around three years ago, there was a massive Griffin colony plaguing the Nameless Heights—that’s a group of hills and valleys in the north eastern part of the Human lands. Hundreds of Griffins. Apparently a group migrated across from Terandria and they had a massive mating season the year before. Well, they began destroying farms and villages and even attacking cities. Griffon Hunt was one of the teams called in to kill them. They managed to wipe out over two hundred Griffins by themselves, but they were fined and nearly lost their Gold-rank status.”
Issa gaped at her Captain.
“Plague and poison.”
Both Drake and Garuda jumped. Typhenous had caught up with them. The [Mage] looked weary, but true to his word he’d caught up with the group. He raised one grey eyebrow at the two adventurers.
“If you wish to know about the event in question, why not ask us?”
Issa’s scales turned bright red and her wings quivered in embarrassment. Bevussa ducked her head.
“My apologies, Mister…Typhenous, is it? We were curious.”
The [Mage] bared his teeth in a very Drakeish smile. Issa had to remind herself that Humans didn’t smile like that to be friendly.
“Many are. The truth is simple. Our team was called upon to deal with this crisis. As experts in Griffin Hunting, Halrac and Ulrien contracted my services and Revi’s. We dealt with the Griffins as we felt we had to when it became clear that the adventurers and local armies couldn’t handle the Griffins.”
“So you poisoned them. And spread diseases. I take it that there were consequences?”
“We poisoned their nests and killed hundreds of Griffins. But the plague got out of control. My spells…I used the wrong ones. The resulting sickness killed off almost every livestock animal and three cities and numerous settlements fell ill. We were lucky to keep our Gold-rank status.”
“But you killed the Griffins!”
Issa felt that wasn’t fair. But then she remembered the strict standards Gold-ranks were held to. Typhenous shook his head.
“We erred and people died for it, Miss…”
“Miss Issa. Thank you. We made mistakes no Gold-ranks should have and were punished accordingly. The cost…drove away some of our former members. Halrac and Ulrien stayed with Revi and I, and we have worked hard to regain our status. I never thought we would employ the same tactics in the dungeon, but the Raskghar are not Griffins. And the cause is dire, despite the consequences.”
The entire short story made Issa want to protest on Typhenous’ behalf. In Drake cities, his team would probably have been commended, even if people had fallen sick. Two hundred Griffins versus a plague? But she bit her tongue on her reply. Typhenous walked next to her, looking weary, but determined. He had probably adventured three times longer than she had. Issa had risen to Gold-rank so quickly in part due to her Oldblood heritage and joining Bevussa’s group.
“Apologies. We didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s important that you know. We’ve attacked three Raskghar groups and let them run each time. We hope they’ll bring the poison and sickness back to their camps.”
“What about the Gnoll prisoners?”
Typhenous hesitated and glanced at Bevussa.
“I didn’t use the same spells as…previously. This spell spreads by contact. The Raskghar will rot from within and convey the sickness to anything that touches their infected parts. Unless they’re close to the Gnolls, they should be fine. The disease takes days to kill. If we reach the prisoners, we can cure them. And if not…”
If not, the Gnolls would be dead either way. Issa shuddered, and then wondered what Tier that spell was. And how did Typhenous know it? She opened her mouth to ask and then paused. Ahead of them, Seborn had raised a hand.
The eleven adventurers paused. Halrac walked forwards and then he and Seborn motioned. The adventurers moved ahead warily and then they saw it. Issa gasped.
“Dead gods. What is that?”
Something was walking down the corridor towards them. Something tall—six or seven feet—but far wider. A—a spider made of bone was the best way Issa could describe it. Only, the spider’s legs were meant to stab and cut, and it had no head, no eyes. It had been designed to kill, not ever to live. It was an undead creation. A Bone Horror.
Bevussa stared at the undead in alarm and disgust. The headless spider turned towards them. Its razor-sharp, barbed legs were covered in gore. It scuttled towards them, fast. The adventurers tensed, and then they heard a shout.
The undead spider paused. The adventurers saw someone appear from behind it. Yvlon Byres walked forwards. She held her enchanted sword in both hands. Her arms and blade were bloody. Behind her, a giant monstrosity of bone opened its jaws. An armored bear-thing twice as large as it should be lumbered forwards, its spikes covered in blood. Issa imagined what would happen if it charged and rammed into her team. She gulped.
Ylawes’ voice was disbelieving. He stared at the Bone Horrors, absolutely appalled, and then called out to Yvlon.
“Yvlon! Are you unharmed?”
“We’re alright. We’ve been fighting down this way. Is the route behind you clear? Pisces! It’s the Gold-ranks! Everyone, get over here!”
Yvlon shouted back the way they’d come. The Gold-rank adventurers saw a wave of Silver-rank adventurers behind them. They all looked like they’d seen combat, but, amazingly, the teams were all in one piece. It looked like they’d been heading down this corridor, fighting everything they came across. And by the amount of gore on their weapons, they’d found a lot.
“Dead gods. We told you Silver-ranks to stay put!”
Bevussa exclaimed as she saw that several adventurers had recently healed wounds—bad ones. Earlia grinned as she lifted her warhammer.
“Well, you know us. We don’t listen to orders all the time. Glad we found your team, though. We’ve been fighting an hour and I think Pisces isn’t doing so well.”
She gestured behind her. Issa saw a pale young man walking forwards with white robes. There was nothing sinister about Pisces’ appearance—he looked like any other Human male, really. But she shuddered. A [Necromancer]. Even so, Pisces looked quite pale and unwell. Someone—an Antinium, another shudder-provoking sight—was supporting him by one shoulder.
“What’s wrong with him?”
Revi tried to push Ylawes out of the way and failed. She walked around him and strode up to Pisces. She stared at both Bone Horrors, appalled, and then at the smaller ones.
“You’ve got too many creations summoned! Look at the size of that thing! Get rid of them or you’ll burn yourself out!”
Pisces’ eyelids flickered as he glared up at Revi. She glared back.
“You’re about to burn yourself out. You can’t sustain this! If you keep going you’ll injure yourself. Or die.”
The other adventurers turned to look at him, concerned. Yvlon wavered.
“Revi’s right, Pisces. We’ve been fighting over an hour and you haven’t slept. We can rest, try again in a bit.”
Pisces shook his head violently.
“I can keep going. I can—”
He faltered. Revi looked around, then made a fist. Before anyone could stop her, she punched Pisces in the side of the face.
It wasn’t a good punch. In fact, as punches went, it was more like being hit by a very soft rock. But it was enough. Pisces blinked, and then lost control.
One of the Bone Horrors took a step. The armored monster raised a foot and it broke apart. Bone scattered across the floor and the undead collapsed. Yvlon caught Pisces as he dropped.
“He’s out of mana. Someone give me another potion—”
“Don’t. He’s had too many already. He needs rest. Someone gather up those bones and let’s get him out of here. I’m nearly tapped myself.”
Revi wavered. Ksmvr lifted Pisces up.
“I can carry him, Miss Yvlon. Please take my buckler.”
He offered her a buckler which was surrounded by a shining force field. Yvlon shook her head.
“Deactivate it. You keep it, Ksmvr. I can’t fight with it as well. My arms are slower—I’ll use this.”
She lifted her sword in both hands. Ylawes frowned at her.
“You weren’t taught how to fight like that, Yv. A sword and shield is how the Byres family fights!”
“Shut up, Ylawes!”
Yvlon rounded on him. Ylawes opened his mouth to argue. Dawil clapped his hands together sharply. Everyone turned towards him. He frowned at Ylawes and Yvlon.
“Argue as much as you want, you two, but do it when we’re safe! While we’re all standing here braiding our beards, we’ve got monsters climbing up our arses! Back to the dungeon entrance!”
The adventurers looked at each other, but no one argued. They turned and followed the way the Silver-ranks had come. Only when they reached an intersection did Halrac turn.
“We have fresher adventurers. The Silver-rank can support me. I’ll head forwards with Jelaqua and pursue that armored Raskghar.”
Exasperated, Bevussa tried to argue with him. But the [Scout] was already heading down the corridor. Jelaqua and Seborn followed him. The other adventurers wavered for one second and then Keldrass, Yvlon, Dawil, Ylawes, Earlia, and a whole host of Silver-ranks followed. That left only a handful of adventurers behind and after they realized that, they followed too.
“We have injured here! And Pisces is unconscious!”
“Then head back. I want to find that armored Raskghar.”
“You’re going too far! We’ll all die if we go any further and get ambushed!”
Halrac ignored the truth of Bevussa’s statement. He checked his bow and poisoned arrow.
“We have to be close to the Raskghar. We must be.”
He strode down the corridor, past the spot where Jelaqua had stepped on the trap. Halrac rounded a corridor, barely pausing to check for traps. He reached another intersection and cursed.
Halrac squinted at the ground, looking for fur, tracks, anything. He knelt, wobbled, and braced himself on the ground. Then he scanned the intersection. The adventurers came to a halt. Halrac bit his lip as he tried to make out clues. He was moving too fast and his mind was fuzzy. But they were close. They had to be.
As the other adventurers waited, they leaned against walls or even sat, too tired to maintain their guards. Yvlon tried to keep alert—they’d only fought for an hour, after all—but her arms were weary. She didn’t know how the Gold-ranks had lasted this long, stamina potions or not. The fighting had been relentless! She’d chopped through at least fifteen monsters with her blade alone.
As for Pisces’ Bone Horrors, they’d been scarily efficient. The one team of Raskghar that they’d run into had been slaughtered in minutes by the spider-thing, and the armored Bone Horror had been hit by a boulder and barely needed a few repairs from Pisces which he’d done on the spot. But the toll on Pisces had been immense. Yvlon leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. If they couldn’t find Ceria after all this—she paused as her ears picked something up, on the edge of hearing.
“What’s that sound?”
Everyone looked up. Yvlon frowned as she stared down the left corridor. Something was echoing down the corridor. Something…familiar. She straightened and looked at the others.
“What’s down there?”
Halrac got to his feet. He frowned ahead and motioned.
The adventurers trooped down the corridor. They made it ten feet and Halrac inhaled. They froze, but he moved forwards. In a few seconds they saw what he had.
A dead Flesh Worm lay on the ground. It was very dead—blood had pooled and dried around it. It was not nearly as big as Skinner had been, and it had no layered armor of skin, but it was still terrifying, a red, serpentine worm monster with teeth and long feelers that could snatch away flesh. But it was dead. Someone had killed it.
The Flesh Worm’s hide was riddled with arrows. It had been shot over a hundred times, and as Yvlon walked forwards, she saw that its eyes—the two protruding bulbs that hung from the top of its head—had been shot off. The Flesh Worm lay on its side, curled up. And a few feet past it—
“Who did this?”
Bevussa stared at a pair of dead Stone Starers, their eyes shot through with an arrow each. Beyond them lay a group of maggots, riddled with arrows. And just past them—
At first, Yvlon nearly missed him. He was sitting against a wall, partially covered by the corpse of a Face-Eater Moth. He was so still that she mistook him for another corpse among the dead monsters surrounding him. Only when Bird began to sing did she spot him.
“No birds in the ground, no birds in the rain. No birds, no flying, only pain. Pain, pain, fly away. Come again another day. No birds underground, no flying here. Only Bird and pain and singing and—oh, hello Miss Yvlon.”
Bird was lying against the wall, covered by the Face-Eater Moth. His new bow sat beside him, propped up against a wall. A small hunting knife was in Bird’s hand and he had armed himself with three sharp rocks in his other three hands. He looked up at Yvlon as she stared at him.
“That is me. Hello.”
Bird waved the knife-holding hand at Yvlon. He sounded cheerful, but there was a tension to his voice that Yvlon had never heard before. Bird shifted.
“I am trapped. I thought you were a monster coming to kill me. I cannot move. Can you help me move?”
Yvlon nodded. She turned and saw the adventurers were staring. Revi pointed dumbly at the Antinium.
“Is that Bird?”
“How did he get here?”
“I walked in.”
“How—never mind that! Someone give me a hand!”
The adventurers crowded around Bird. Yvlon bent down and heaved with the others. The Face-Eater Moth was surprisingly difficult to lift. It was sodden with blood. When they got it off Bird, they found he really couldn’t move. His left leg was partially crushed. Dried green blood and pieces of his carapace lay around on the ground.
“Ow. Ow. I am much ouch.”
Bird spoke cheerfully, but the way he jerked when Yvlon reached for his leg made it clear how much pain he was in. The woman bent.
“I have a healing potion. Hold still, Bird.”
“Oh. That feels very nice. Thank you, Miss Yvlon.”
Bird relaxed as she poured the healing potion onto his leg. He tried to get up, but still couldn’t. Yvlon caught him.
“Steady. What are you doing down here, Bird?”
He cocked his head at her.
“I am looking for Mrsha, of course. She was taken by the Raskghar. So I went after her. I did not find her. I found many monsters, though. Hello Mister Halrac.”
He waved at Halrac. The [Scout] was staring around at the carnage.
“You did this, Bird?”
The Antinium nodded.
“I had my bow. It is a very good bow because it killed everything. But I ran out of arrows. So I used my knife.”
He waved the knife. Yvlon stared at the Face-Eater Moth corpse. It looked like Bird had hacked its head apart with the knife. She looked at Bird.
“But why? Bird, this is so dangerous!”
Bevussa made a sound. Yvlon turned her head and the Garuda stared pointedly at Yvlon. Bird stared at her.
“What? Oh. I did it because Mrsha is missing and it is a bad thing. And I did a bad thing, so I had to do a good thing to make up for it. And because everyone else went.”
His simple explanation confused Yvlon, but Halrac seemed to understand it. The [Scout] knelt and looked at Bird.
“You did this because you wanted to make amends?”
Bird looked up at Halrac. He nodded slowly.
“I am very sorry, Mister Halrac. I did not find Mrsha, but I tried. Did I do bad?”
He quivered. Halrac paused.
“No. Not at all. You did a—a good thing, Bird.”
“Oh. That is very good. I am happy.”
Bird relaxed. Halrac straightened. He looked at Bird and then turned to Bevussa. He looked around and blinked a few times. For the first time, a bit of sanity seemed to enter his vision. Halrac shook his head.
“We’re pulling out for the day. Let’s go. Revi—have your summons carry Bird.”
Bevussa sighed in relief. Yvlon looked at Halrac. She wanted to argue, but when she stared at Bird, she realized how insane this was. They were way too far in the dungeon. The other Gold-ranks were at the entrance. And if there really were hundreds or thousands of Raskghar ahead—
“We’ll get you up. Can you walk, Bird?”
Bird stood up with the help of two adventurers. He hobbled a bit.
“I can walk. Yes, this is good. I will not die like everyone. That would make Erin very sad and I would not like to make her sad again. All the others died and she cried, you know.”
He looked brightly around at the adventurers. Yvlon frowned, but it was Ksmvr who opened his mandibles.
“What do you mean, ‘everyone’, Bird?”
The Antinium Worker tilted his head.
“Everyone, former Prognugator Ksmvr. They are over there. Everyone died. Or most of everyone. I did not see Revalantor Klbkch die, but many others did.”
He pointed down the corridor. The adventurers gazed into the darkness. They looked at each other. Yvlon walked forwards carefully, and then her breath caught. She stared at the first shape lying on the ground, another smashed against the wall like a—an insect, and the dead Crypt Lord. And then she saw more shapes, lying still, motionless. She whispered as the other adventurers came forwards and gasped.
They lay where they had fallen. Broken, some in pieces, others melted or scorched or…the Antinium had died hard. None of them had less than a dozen wounds on their bodies and the monsters that lay around them were a testament to the battle that had taken place.
No, not a battle. A war had gone on in the dungeon. And by the looks of it, the Antinium had lost. Or at least, they’d paid the price.
Hallway after hallway was filled with Antinium corpses. Usually it wasn’t more than a handful, but there were places in which a trap had wiped out dozens. And as the adventurers moved forwards, the numbers of the dead Soldiers and Workers kept increasing.
“There have to be at least a thousand dead Antinium here. At least!”
Bevussa had no skin or scales that could turn pale, but her feathers all fluffed out as she stared at the dead Antinium in shock and horror. Bird reached out and tried to touch her feathers, but the Garuda was too agitated. She whirled and turned to Keldrass and Ylawes.
“This is—the Antinium must have attacked the dungeon at the same time we did. Did they send their entire Hive down here?”
Halrac shook his head grimly.
“There are thousands of Antinium in a Hive. This was just a wave. But it was destroyed. And look—they met Raskghar as well.”
Over a hundred Raskghar were dead in one corridor, and three times as many Soldiers and Workers. It looked like they’d slaughtered each other in the narrow space. Halrac inspected one dead Raskghar and rose, shaking his head.
“We should report this when we return. And…make plans. If the dungeon can handle a thousand Soldiers, if the Raskghar can—we can’t find Ceria or the Gnolls today. We’re heading back.”
No one argued with him. Nevertheless, Yvlon couldn’t help but stare back at the dead Antinium. She gripped her sword’s hilt helplessly. Halrac was right. And yet—
“We’re so close. We must be.”
No one answered her. Yvlon walked back through the dungeon. She felt as though Ceria were just around the corridor. But there was nothing she could do. She walked back, head hung low. All they’d done, all they’d accomplished—it hadn’t been enough. Adventurers, Pisces, the Antinium…the dungeon had swallowed all their efforts.
“You see? Do you see?”
Calruz laughed as he stood over his war table. It was a slab of stone and the crude parchment and drawings he’d made were a mockery of the detailed plans Ceria remembered him poring over before. But there was something familiar about it. Something close to what she remembered the Minotaur being. She stood by his side, her ears drooping, quiet. Defeated.
The Minotaur turned towards her, his eyes alight with triumph. He had overseen the invasion of both the Antinium and adventurers, moving most of his Raskghar out of the way, sending kill teams to take out vulnerable groups like the Halfseekers. Their failure had sent him into a rage, but now he was triumphant.
“Thousands of Antinium! Gold-rank teams—even undead led by that [Necromancer]! All failed to come close to my outermost camps! And by tomorrow we’ll have repositioned. Send the order to the forward camps! I want them moving by nightfall! Baskel!”
He barked an order at the Raskghar who growled and loped off. Ceria watched it go. Calruz looked at her, grinning through his yellow teeth.
“You see? They’ll never make it this far into the dungeon. It assails them at every turn. It hunts them. It…thinks.”
“I see that. But why doesn’t it hunt you?”
“Because I—I know it. No. I’m alone. Yes, that’s what it is. You and I are a small group. We don’t attract attention. And the Raskghar are part of the dungeon. But adventurers? They disturb it. So do the Antinium. The dungeon resists them. But my warriors will be able to conquer it. I told you, Ceria.”
Calruz didn’t notice the half-Elf’s tone. He grinned elatedly.
“You and I have work to do. Tonight, we will assail a part of the dungeon. I’ve considered how to use your [Ice Walls] to the best advantage. We’ll begin our work and then—the adventurers will be months reaching us, if they even manage to clear out enough space to get here. And by that time we’ll have penetrated the heart of the dungeon. We’ll come out covered in treasure and glory!”
The Minotaur paced back and forth, talking excitedly. He didn’t seem to care how many Raskghar had died to the adventurers, or how many Goblins had perished as the monsters had fled the adventurer’s approach and clashed with his warriors. Ceria saw the Raskghar pacing in the background behind Calruz, eying the Gnolls, their Chieftain. Her. The Raskghar who’d performed the ritual was sitting among the largest Raskghar, clearly above the rest. She stared at Ceria. The half-Elf met her gaze and then looked at Calruz.
“I think…you might be making a mistake, Calruz. Everything might not go your way.”
The Minotaur’s face twisted into a scowl. He stared at his map, his eyes too wide.
“They’ll never reach here. Never. My plans are flawless. No foreign presence can enter the dungeon. Only I…only I have the Skill. Everything else is hunted. Except for you. You will be part of my tribe. Yes, that’s how it is. That is how it will be. Nothing is wrong. You are incorrect, Ceria.”
“Whatever you say, Calruz.”
The Minotaur looked up sharply. Ceria looked away. He grunted and rolled up his maps.
“Come. We have work to do.”
In some respects, Calruz was correct. The dungeon was aware, in some sense of the word. And he was right that it hunted. Or things in it hunted. All foreign presences were accounted for. They were…of notice. Not Calruz, but others. Including Ceria.
But what the Minotaur hadn’t accounted for, what he hadn’t thought of was that the dungeon was in some ways, stupid. It only looked at the base nature of things and didn’t account for exceptions. To the dungeon, a Human was a Human. A half-Elf was a half-Elf and a Selphid was a Selphid, dead body or not.
And a Goblin was a Goblin. After all, what was the difference? The adventurers retreated from the dungeon, battered, exhausted. Not beaten, but stalemated. The Antinium survivors returned to their Hive. Pisces left the dungeon unconscious, slipping into dreams where Ceria’s corpse stood in front of him, grinning and asking if this was what he had wanted all along. But one group remained.
On the same day, the Redfang Warriors descended into the dungeon. They had a far, far different experience than the adventurers.