Erin stood in her wrecked inn and looked around. Broken chairs, upended tables, spilled drinks and food marked what had been a very nice setup. She stared aimlessly at a chair lying on the ground with only one remaining leg and then spotted an unconscious Drake lying behind it. She stared around at the comatose bodies, the broken wood, and shook her head.
She knew it was traditional. In stories, that was. She knew it was normal for drunk people to be violent. Sometimes. But, and here was the thing…not everyone who drank got violent. In fact, the aggressive drunks quickly learned that there were some fights you shouldn’t pick. Especially in an inn with Hobgoblin bouncers. And in a world where healing potions cured all wounds but didn’t regrow teeth…being a jerk was a dangerous proposition.
“But here we are.”
Erin kicked at a mug and watched it skitter across the floor. Someone groaned. Erin ignored the sound. Right, so bar fights were traditional. And this wasn’t even the worst aftermath Erin had had to clean up. Just this month the inn had been full of dead moths for crying out loud! Alcohol stains were a lot more pleasant to wipe away than moth blood.
Still, she didn’t have to like it. And she really didn’t. Erin wondered how much it would cost to replace all her tables and chairs again. She mentally added up the damages of broken plates, mugs, bent silverware, and so on until someone interrupted her train of thought.
“So who won?”
She looked back over her shoulder. Relc was clumsily scribbling on a piece of parchment as he stood amidst the debris. Relc and five other [Guardsmen]—and three [Guardswomen]—had come after the fight had ended. They were now tossing people through the door to Liscor where the rain would wake up the unhappy unconscious Drakes, or forcing their Human counterparts to wait until the door could take them to Celum.
Almost all of the injured guests were Human or Drake and it was telling that Relc was one of only three Drakes that Zevara had sent to clean things up. The Gnolls had stayed out of the fighting by and large and had left peacefully once the fight had ended.
Relc clumsily dipped his quill in the inkpot he held in one huge clawed fist as he stared at Erin. She stared back.
“Yeah. There’s gotta be a winner in a fight like this, right? I’m so annoyed I missed it!”
The Drake looked around enviously, noting how many unconscious bodies were still there. Erin’s inn had been able to hold several dozen people comfortably within its walls before she obtained the [Grand Theatre] Skill and the room had been packed when the fight broke out. In fact, some people still hadn’t quite realized it was over. Relc spotted a Drake getting to his feet. The drunk Drake looked around, spotted a Human, and lurched towards Erin. Relc turned, punched the Drake off his feet and grinned in satisfaction before turning back to Erin.
“Come on, Erin. Don’t leave me hanging. This is for the report!”
Erin had to think back on the night’s events. Her gaze slid sideways towards the door as it opened. Oh. Griffon Hunt was leaving. They didn’t have a scratch on them. Whereas the Halfseekers had retired to their room with bruises, and both Gemhammer and the Horns of Hammerad had stumbled away looking for healing potions after they’d been woken up.
“I guess if you had to say anyone won, it was Wall Lord Ilvriss and his lot.”
“He was the one who started the fight. And he kept it going. He took out Headscratcher, Badarrow, Pisces, Ylawes…all with his bare hands!”
“Yeah. But he didn’t use his claws. I knew he was good because he was a Wall Lord and all, but he was good. The adventurers aren’t good with fighting with their hands. And all his cronies beat down anyone who attacked him. But still; he was knocking everyone around while I tried to get people to safety.”
What a mess that had been. Erin vaguely recalled punching Ilvriss in the stomach before Ceria and Yvlon had charged him to rescue her. Then it had been trying to restore order with her friends and employees while the main fighting burnt itself out. Erin scowled.
“We did a good job, but even four Hobgoblins had trouble keeping everything contained! In the end everything stopped once eighty percent of the people were knocked out.”
“Yeah, that generally happens in a fight. But what about the Wall Lord guy? I can’t imagine he’d stop fighting just because everyone else was down. I’d have tried to take out everyone standing and then run for it before the Watch showed up.”
Erin glanced sideways at Relc.
He stared at her expectantly. She decided not to ask and continued.
“Well, he was winning right up until he wasn’t. Mrsha was running around and she nearly got hurt. So then Moore got mad. He grabbed a table and started hitting people with it! Gently. I think Ilvriss tried to stop him—Moore picked him up and threw him across the room. That’s the wall he hit.”
Erin pointed at one of her walls. Relc peered at it. There wasn’t any visible damage thanks to another of Erin’s Skills, but there was a suspicious stain halfway up the wall, as if someone had thrown up a bit when they’d been hurled full-force into the wall. He grinned.
The young woman glared at him. Relc raised his claws innocently.
“What? It is! That is one of the coolest bar fights I’ve heard of in a while! And it started because they didn’t like your play?”
“Yup. They didn’t like it. Not one bit.”
Erin sighed. This entire affair had begun over Juliet and Romeo, a slightly updated take on the Shakespearian classic. Unfortunately, one of the updates had been casting a Drake as Juliet and a Human as Romeo. Both Wesle and Jasi had managed to escape the bar fight without many injuries, but the Players of Celum were understandably upset. Erin looked helplessly at Relc.
“Tell me I’m not going to have to replace all of my broken stuff? Please?”
“Nah, you’re cool.”
Relc finished scribbling on the piece of parchment, blew on it, and then tucked it into his leather armor. He waved a claw around carelessly as more people started waking up. It was just past dawn.
“Standard procedure is for us to compensate you for all your broken stuff. Fine the perpetrators all something or toss them in jail if they can’t pay. But since Wall Lord Ilvriss started the fight, we’ll probably just charge him.”
“Just like that?”
“He’s rich. And it’s easier that way.”
Relc shrugged nonchalantly. He spotted Ilvriss getting up—the Wall Lord had used a healing potion and so he looked furious but no worse for the wear. The Drake was having the rest of his retainers pick up the unconscious ones or kick the rest awake as Relc called out to him.
“Hey Wall Lord! We’ll tally the damages and send you a bill for it later, okay?”
Ilvriss looked up. He glared at Erin and shouted back, making most of the unconscious patrons groan and wake up.
“Do what you want! As for, you, Human—”
He jabbed a claw at Erin.
“That play is a disgrace! I demand it be changed!”
“No! Go away, you jerk!”
Erin shook a fist angrily at Ilvriss. She pointed back to her trashed stage.
“That was an innocent love story! What’s wrong with a Human loving a Drake?”
Ilvriss didn’t even deign to respond. His tail curled in contempt as he turned away.
“No self-respecting Drake in Liscor will visit your inn until that bile is taken off the stage! Out of my way!”
He stormed through the door to Liscor, glaring death at Numbtongue who was watching him and the other Drakes. The Hob had a table leg gripped in one hand. Erin shouted at Ilvriss’ back as he walked out into the night and rain.
“Yeah, go ahead and boycott my inn! It won’t be the first time!”
She turned back towards Relc and tried to shrug dismissively.
“He’ll come back after a week or something. No big deal.”
Relc looked skeptical as he glanced around the inn.
“I dunno about that. Drakes like Ilvriss get really touchy about stuff like that play. More than even getting insulted. You might lose a lot of Drake customers. Some Gnolls maybe.”
“So? I can manage. I’ve been a pariah before.”
Erin sighed. She felt tired, cranky, and she wanted to sleep. She gave Relc a pleading look.
“Look, is there anything else?”
“Nope! Looks open and shut to me. We’ll toss the rest of our people out and you can let the poor Humans go to Celum. Oh, and Erin?”
She turned, already heading over to Headscratcher so he could help expedite the cleanup process. She looked at him expectantly and Relc smiled again.
“Next time you put on that play, mind inviting me first? I’d love to bring a few of my buddies. Uh, but don’t tell Embria.”
Erin gave him a blank look. Then she turned and walked away. As she passed by an unconscious Human she kicked him in the side. Sort of gently.
The next day Griffon Hunt and the Pride of Kelia returned to The Wandering Inn for a standing breakfast. There were some tables, but since Mrsha and Lyonette occupied one with the Halfseekers, the Goblins had the second, and there weren’t enough chairs for the third, they elected to stand.
“We should have eaten somewhere else.”
Revi grumbled until Typhenous cast a spell that created a rotating disc of shimmering air for the others to put their bowls and cups onto. The Gold-rank adventurers ate in silence, eying the Pride of Kelia as the nine Gnolls munched on fatty bacon and sniffed the air.
“Still planning on entering the dungeon?”
Nailren looked up and grinned toothily at Revi, ignoring her acerbic tone of voice.
“A bar fight will not stop our team, Miss Revi. We await Gemhammer’s decision, but we will enter the dungeon today regardless of whether we will be joined. We invite you as well, if you wish it.”
Revi turned away and scowled at Halrac. He shook his head and Nailren nodded. The adventurers looked up and saw Erin hurry over with a plate of hot bacon.
“Sorry! Ow! Sorry! This is hot off the stove! Don’t grab for it, Mrsha! Anyone want seconds?”
Hands were raised across the inn. Erin came over to Griffon Hunt and placed a rasher of bacon on Halrac’s plate. The [Scout] grunted his thanks.
“So…I hear that Gemhammer’s resting up, but they’ll be coming to the inn around lunch and then going to the dungeon after they eat my horrible magic food. What are you guys doing?”
The [Innkeeper] slid into the conversation with all the grace of a bloated wyvern. Typhenous smiled and accepted a single slice of greasy bacon to go with his bread as he replied.
“Ah, thank you Miss Solstice. I believe we will continue our job. That is, untrapping the dungeon’s main entrance with the Halfseekers. If they’re recovered?”
He glanced at the three non-Humans. Jelaqua waved a claw, grinning.
“We’re good! Moore’s the only one who got hurt and that was only after the Drakes rushed him. I’d be more worried about the Silver Swords!”
“My brother’s fine.”
Yvlon spoke quietly from her seat. She kept adjusting the gauntlets on her arms, tapping at them and grimacing. By her side, Ceria was sharpening her dagger on a whetstone while Ksmvr ate. Pisces was reading from a spellbook. They looked like normal on the surface, but the [Necromancer]’s leg was jiggling and Ksmvr was gobbling his food a bit too fast.
“We’re planning on entering the dungeon too. Today, I mean.”
Ceria met Nailren’s eyes. The Gnoll nodded at her.
“Interesting. We would welcome a joint expedition. Unless you plan on entering through the trapped area?”
Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers frowned, but Ceria shook her head. She cast her head sideways and glanced at Pisces who stopped reading.
“We shall be using a different entrance.”
All the adventurers stared at Pisces. He sniffed smugly, clearly enjoying the situation. Revi leaned over and hissed at Halrac as Erin hurried into the kitchen, muttering about buying chairs in bulk from Celum.
“Another way in? How in the name of quilting did someone find—you don’t think they’ve got a leg up on us, do you?”
Halrac shook his head, his eyes flicking from Pisces’ face to Ceria’s nervous motions.
“If they have another entrance it doesn’t matter. We’re all entering the dungeon from different areas and no one knows where our objective is. They’ll be uncertain of their backs and that’s more dangerous than our route.”
“But we’re still untrapping—”
Revi broke off as the door opened. Watch Captain Zevara strode in—not from the magic door, but from the regular entrance that now led across the water. She shook water off her boots onto the rug as Erin poked her head out of the kitchen.
“Uh oh. Here comes trouble.”
“Not yet, Human.”
Zevara looked tired but resigned as she met Erin in the inn, looking around. The first thing she handed Erin was a bag of coins—payment for her broken furniture. Erin’s eyes went round.
“Wow, you’re sure? But I’m not a part of Liscor! Am I?”
The Watch Captain shrugged.
“You are not. But the fight was started by citizens of the city and Wall Lord Ilvriss. And Drake law is clear—we compensate business owners for damage.”
Erin eyed the Watch Captain.
“What about Krshia?”
The Drake looked blank.
“What about her? We compensated her for her shop and goods. As much as we could after appraising the magical items the thief—er, Miss Lyonette’s seized possessions. We don’t pay out of the city’s funds.”
“But what about the—”
Erin hesitated. She bit her tongue as Zevara peered at her suspiciously.
“Well, thanks! I guess Ilvriss has a lot of money.”
“He is a Wall Lord. What about Miss Krshia?”
“Nothing! So, why are you here, Watch Captain? Just to give me money?”
The Drake grunted, folding her arms and peering at Erin. After a while she gave up and shrugged.
“No, I am also investigating the cause of last night’s disturbance. This play. I’ve received a petition with a thousand signatures on it already. Can you arrange a viewing for me? Or recreate the offending scene?”
Erin sucked in her lips.
“Maybe. Let me see if I can find Wesle. If not…well, I’m no [Actor] but I could give it a shot.”
As it happened, Erin was able to send Lyonette into the city and locate Wesle within ten minutes thanks to Mrsha’s nose. By the time breakfast was over and the Halfseekers were conferring with Griffon Hunt, they saw Zevara watching Erin and Wesle acting out the controversial scene in question. The Watch Captain watched as Erin waved down at Wesle with a handkerchief and shook her head. Then the [Innkeeper] and [Actor] turned anxiously to Zevara. She looked at both of them and sighed.
“It’s not offensive.”
Both Humans sighed in relief. Watch Captain Zevara swished her tail as she studied Erin.
“This was played by a Drake, wasn’t it? Not offensive. Or rather, it’s not something I’d arrest anyone over. You can continue putting the play on. Just don’t expect many Drake visitors. Particularly the male ones. And consider staying out of the city for a day or two. There’s an uproar about the content of the play already.”
Erin scowled, but Zevara had already turned her attention to the two Gold-rank teams. The Halfseekers were getting ready to go and Griffon Hunt was already at the door. The Watch Captain stared at the fiery golden breastplate Jelaqua was carefully putting on.
“So Miss Selys really did lease the Heartflame Breastplate.”
Jelaqua turned, her pale body illuminated by the magical glow of the artifact. Every head in the room turned towards her. Zevara stared and then coughed.
“I’m told your group is entering the dungeon today? As is a pair of Silver-rank teams and the Horns of Hammerad?”
She stared at the other adventurers who looked wary. Jelaqua nodded carefully.
“That’s right. Do you have a problem with that?”
Zevara hesitated before grimacing and shaking her head.
“I’ve consulted with the Adventurer’s Guild and Guildmistress Tekshia has declined to intervene. I will do the same on a few conditions.”
She turned her head and stared around the room, finding each team leader’s eyes, save for the absent Silver Swords and Gemhammer.
“I don’t care if you lot live or die down in the dungeon. That’s not my role. But the defense of the city is my role, and that means that if you wake up anything in the dungeon, I will hold you accountable for whatever comes out. This is classified information, but a Silver-rank team was responsible for the attack on Liscor.”
Zevara waited for a response, but even the Pride of Kelia didn’t react. Revi rolled her eyes.
“We know. We told you.”
The Watch Captain silenced her with a withering look. She turned up her glare a few notches.
“You have a responsibility as adventurers. I want a [Message] spell sent to the local Mage’s Guild the instant you find anything…extremely dangerous. Something that could threaten Liscor. I don’t care about treasure or adventuring secrets—if there’s something down there like the moths I expect to hear about it.”
She stared around and then grudgingly nodded.
With that, she turned and strode out of the room. Erin looked around as Wesle walked back through the door to Celum. She smiled anxiously.
“So that was nice. You’re all going in then, huh?”
“We’re going right now. Good luck to you.”
Halrac nodded at the other adventurers. The Pride of Kelia came over to shake his hand. Typhenous touched staffs with a Gnoll wearing beads and feathers. A [Shaman]? The Halfseekers did likewise and Jelaqua grabbed Ceria’s hand.
“You stay behind the Silver Swords. They’re good. I’ve seen them in action. It’s never wrong to retreat.”
Ceria nodded, trying not to let her hands shake. To everyone’s surprise, Revi hugged the half-Elf fiercely and then did the same to Nailren.
“Don’t you dare die, you idiotic rookies. I hate having to learn new names.”
She left them at that. Griffon Hunt lined up next to the door to Liscor and the Halfseekers stepped over to join them. Moore looked at the small doorway with dismay and ducked his head.
Halrac glanced over. The others nodded. Erin cleared her throat as she set the door to Liscor.
“I’m going with you.”
The room went silent. Ksmvr choked on his bacon and Ceria nearly fell out of her chair. Erin looked around.
“Just to the entrance. I want to see. I’ll be back to see off the others.”
“Oh come on.”
Revi grumbled, but Halrac studied Erin’s face. She met his eyes and he nodded briefly.
Then he opened the door and stepped out into the rain.
The rain fell over Liscor. Unending. A torrent. It seemed some days as though it would never stop. But it would. It had been part of Liscor’s history since the city had been founded. And though the residents quickly grew accustomed to the gray skies, the never-ending background roar, the flooded waters, they never quite forgot the memory of clear skies. Of the sun.
And they were on the streets. Moving from building to building in clumps, or just giving up and letting the rain soak them. The Drakes and Gnolls of Liscor walked in a miserable fugue until they saw the fire.
It walked down the street. A burning, catching the eye. Light. Heat. A Drake walked forwards, her breastplate gleaming as her body burned. The Heartflame Breastplate shone as the Selphid walked down the street. But she was not alone.
A half-Giant walked by her side, his back stooped, a giant staff in his hands. He towered above the tallest Gnolls, made the fiercest warriors think twice about their strength. And in his shadow a Drowned Man dressed in black flickered between shadows. His hands never left the enchanted daggers at his side. One Human hand, one crustacean claw.
Next to them walked a man with a scowl on his face. An unfriendly Human, but one that attracted as many looks as the Heartflame Breastplate. Because his face was a hero’s. His bow did not shine but the arrows stowed in his quiver were magical. He walked silent through the rain. By his side strode a Stitch-Girl, tugging at the strings holding together her body. Next to her strode an old Human, white bearded, his eyes shining with magic.
Six adventurers. They walked out of a door at the western gates, headed straight through the center of the city without pause. The streets cleared before them. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was simply instinct. The citizens of Liscor watched the Gold-rank adventurers pass and felt the rain intensify as they passed. And they felt a chill. Of excitement? Or fear? It was impossible to say, but the passing of the adventurers struck a chord in those who saw them.
And behind them tripped a young woman, almost unnoticed by the crowds. She followed the adventurers to the northern gates—to the battlements and down a ladder, actually. There was another rope bridge leading north across the waters. The young woman stepped cautiously onto the bridge, watching her feet sink into the waters. Then she looked out at the distant plume of earth visible amid the flooded plains. She followed the adventurers as they headed across the bridge, looking around carefully for dangerous maritime life.
“Whoop, whoop. Whoa.”
Erin unsteadily walked across the bridge as it shifted slightly underwater. The footing was surprisingly firm given the downpour, but the dark skies and the way the bridge would sometimes move underfoot was unnerving. After a while, Revi glanced behind her and muttered to her companions.
“Why do we have to put up with her?”
The Halfseekers ignored her. So did Revi’s team at first. Her complaining was something they had gotten used to. But Halrac turned his head back to answer as they drew closer to the mound of earth guarded by a platoon of [Guardsmen] from Liscor.
“Because she’s helped us before. And because she sells us magical food cheap.”
Revi grimaced and tugged at her tongue as if she wanted to pull it out. Erin wondered if she actually could. Stitch-People did weird things. The Scale Soup she’d served the adventurers was certainly effective—according to Moore it was like a lesser [Barkskin] spell. But it was also about as appealing as eating a bunch of fish scales mixed with glue, which, it had to be said, were major components of the actual soup. Now her stitch-flesh was tough enough to withstand cuts from an unenchanted dagger. But it was still unpleasant.
“So that’s the entrance to the dungeon?”
Erin called out as she followed Griffon Hunt. There was a large gaping tunnel leading down into the earth at the end of the water bridge. And in front of it, ramparts made out of dirt and stone had been constructed. Drakes and Gnolls stood on the battlements, staring into the depths or peeking back at the approaching adventurers.
“That’s right. The Antinium dug up the ground around the entrance. It hasn’t begun to leak yet.”
Jelaqua called over her shoulder. Erin stared at the drenched fortifications ahead. She remembered the entrance sitting out in the open, surrounded by adventurers and [Merchants] eager to explore it.
Now the dungeon was a small dirt fort surrounded by water, abandoned by all but a few groups of adventurers. There was no sense of curiosity or excitement surrounding it anymore. It sat wetly in the pouring rain, the dark opening waiting. In that, Erin thought she liked the dungeon more now. It looked like what it was. A trap.
“Well, here we are. I don’t think you want to come further. You can go back now.”
Revi looked pointedly at Erin as the others began climbing the ramp leading up to the dungeon. The [Innkeeper] looked at the Stitch-Girl.
“You be careful, okay? If you’re in trouble send a [Message].”
“As if you could do anything about it.”
The [Summoner]’s harsh words were betrayed by the way she let Erin hug her. She patted Erin awkwardly on the shoulder and headed into the dungeon.
“Better not hug me. I’m on fire.”
Jelaqua grinned at Erin. She nodded and the girl tried to smile. Moore was next. Erin grabbed his hand. Typhenous let Erin hug him and Halrac merely nodded. Erin looked around and frowned.
She jumped. The Drowned Man stood behind Erin. The Human half of his face looked unreadable as ever. Erin looked at Seborn and tried to smile.
“So you’re going in. Are you nervous?”
“We’ve done this dozens of times before. Don’t worry about us.”
“So I should worry about the others? Will they be okay?”
Seborn paused as he checked his daggers. The others were talking with the [Guardsmen] on the ramparts.
“No one’s ever not nervous. But I think we’re determined to make progress today.”
“Because of what the others said?”
The Drowned Man half-smiled. It was a strange look, watching half his face twist while the other half remained still.
“Let’s just say that they reminded us we’re not alone. It’s not pleasant, being called a coward.”
“They didn’t say—”
“They didn’t need to. And they’re right, in a way.”
Erin had never heard Seborn talk this much. It was a sign of nerves. The Drowned Man nodded as he drew an enchanted dagger that sent a fiery spark into the waters.
“We could be more aggressive. It’s true. What the Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer is doing is dangerous. Exceptionally so. But it’s not more than what we did when we were Silver-rank.”
“You did stuff like that?”
An obvious question. But Erin just wanted to let Seborn talk. He nodded.
“Silver-rank teams risk their lives to reach the level of Gold-rank adventurers. We’re more cautious with our lives because we have that much more to lose. It is cowardly, but it’s why we get to keep on living. Sometimes though, we have to remember to be bold. That’s what makes us Gold-rank. Not cowardice.”
“And Named Adventures? What makes them?”
Seborn paused. He looked at Erin and his gaze was…sad.
“They’re the ones who never stopped diving into the abyss. Some of them are heroes. Most are just insane.”
“Thank you for coming. I think the others appreciate it more than they’ll say. We’ve done this dozens of times, but adventurers are superstitious too.”
Erin stopped him as Seborn went for the entrance. He turned and she held out a hand.
“Come back safe.”
He blinked at her. He shifted his dagger but she waggled her hand. Slowly, the Drowned Man held out his claw hand. With exquisite care he closed the crab-like hand over Erin’s. She shook it, feeling the cold, hard shell under her skin. Seborn looked at her and then smiled.
“We truly were thankful to meet you. Keep a table open. I still like seafood, you know.”
Then he turned and walked up the ramp. Erin watched him go. The first group entered the dungeon. The second departed at lunch.
“We’re good. Thanks, Miss Solstice.”
“We’ve got boats. We’ve got rocks to sink with—hell, we could probably do it with what we’re carrying. If we get chewed up on the way down that’s that. But we bought a potion of water breathing and we’ll share it between us so we can get back up if we miss our target.”
“Indeed. Thank you for the soup.”
“I dunno if you should thank me. It’s awful, I know.”
“I’ve never found a potion that tasted great.”
Earlia smiled as she balanced in the rocking boat. Her team was already sitting and there were two more boats. Both were crewed by Drakes hired from Liscor. They were going to head straight for the rift.
“Like Zevara said, send a [Message] if you’re in trouble. You can use that spell, right?”
“Our [Gem Mage] can. Not sure about the Pride’s [Shaman] but we’ll stick together. This is just testing the waters. Maybe more if we get rolling. Alright, we’ve got to go before the boats fill up.”
Earlia nodded to Erin and headed to her boat. Nailren smiled at her.
“Do not be so anxious. Not for our sakes. We are acquaintances, yes? You barely know us.”
“I want to get to know you more. Come back, okay?”
“If we can, we will.”
The Gnoll’s eyes were calm but he gripped Erin’s hand tighter than he had before as he stepped towards the boats. She saw them cast off into the waters.
There were no waves. Only the churning rain. So the boats moved fairly quickly despite the load as the Drake [Rowers] carried the adventurers across the Floodplains. They attracted less attention. They did not shine. But a good number of Liscor’s population were on the walls. They cast fishing lines into the water or sat on the battlements as a social thing beneath temporary canopies. They watched the adventurers head to the rift in silence.
Silence and trepidation. The two teams looked so few in number and the waters swallowed their vessels the further away they got. They floated out further on the waters, where things lurked in the depths. The sky, the mountains around Liscor were tall. But how far down did the waters go? Uncertainty filled the hearts of many. But there were still some, children and adults both who stared at the Silver-rank teams with admiration as well as fear.
They dropped into the water as Erin watched. First one, and then in groups of three. Vanishing below without a trace. The boat Drakes watched the ripples fade and then rowed away. They would come back if the adventurers sent a request via spell. If they were contacted.
And then there was nothing. Erin went back into her inn and felt trepidation. She looked at the last group, at Ksmvr helping check Yvlon’s armor, at Pisces trying to fight Mrsha for her wand and then giving up despite Ceria’s scolding, at Ylawes rubbing his head and Dawil joking with Falene and her not joking back.
“Are you sure?”
Ceria hugged Erin, and then Lyonette, and then Mrsha. The Gnoll clung to her, not wanting to let go. She howled as the Horns of Hammerad walked outside. Not to go to Liscor, but to a pair of waiting boats. These ones had no Drakes attached—they’d been leased for the day. Yvlon was next. She held Erin’s hands, smiling.
“We’ll make it. This time is different.”
“I know. I know.”
Erin squeezed gently, trying not to look at Yvlon’s arms. Beneath their gauntlets they looked normal. But metal had become part of her flesh. And that had been in Albez. What would happen…?
“I will defend my team with my life. But I will not die and abandon them.”
Ksmvr nodded at Erin. She hugged him.
“That’s good. Just be careful, okay?”
“Caution is not always a valid strategy.”
She laughed. Next came Ylawes, Dawil, Falene. She didn’t know them as well so they didn’t try to hug her or shake her hand. But they smiled at her.
“We’ll take care of them, Miss Solstice.”
For once Falene’s touch of superiority was comforting. Erin looked at Ylawes.
“Be a good brother, okay?”
“I will try.”
He saluted her. Dawil thrust him aside.
“I’ll take a hug, thanks. It’s nice to be shorter! Humans are at a comfortable level for my head!”
He laughed raucously as Ylawes covered his face and Falene looked disgusted. Dawil’s head was at breast-height. The Dwarf meant it as a joke, but Erin hugged him fiercely anyways.
“You silly Dwarf! Come back and I’ll give you another hug.”
“Ah, lass. I’ve no intention of biting it in this dungeon. Dwarves prefer to die in stone. Which this dungeon has, mind you. But there’s too much water for my tastes. Keep a keg ready when we get back!”
And that was that. The Silver Swords walked out. Pisces was the last one. He stood, looking paler than usual. He smiled at Erin.
“Well Miss Solstice? Will you wish me well?”
“Of course I will.”
Erin hugged him. Pisces looked surprised.
“It feels like we met long ago. But it was not too long that I was threatening you for food, wasn’t it?”
“It does feel like that! And I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal of all this! Just come back, okay?”
Erin sniffed into Pisces’ robes. The [Necromancer] squeezed her ever so hesitantly and then stepped back.
“That you care matters. And this is the first time we are entering the dungeon. I…I will promise you this. It will not be the last.”
He turned and then hesitated. Pisces seemed to fight with himself for a moment and then turned back.
“We will be well.”
He left with that. No smug comments, no arrogance. Erin knew he really was worried. She sniffed as the Horns cast off with the Silver Swords following.
No one watched them go. A few people saw them head out but when they headed away from the dungeon’s rift, they assumed the adventurers weren’t bound for the dungeon. There were more boats cautiously fishing with nets and hooks in the water. The two teams passed all of them by. They headed north, past the city and then towards a hill partially submerged in rain. The adventurers disappeared into the crypt, a spot almost forgotten. The horrors of Skinner were long vanquished. What reason had they to be there? Only Erin knew. She watched as they went. Then she turned.
Lyonette was holding Mrsha as the Gnoll sniffed. Drassi was staring out into the rain anxiously. Behind them, the five Redfang Goblins looked restless. They straightened as Erin looked at them.
“Do you want to go in there too?”
They didn’t respond. But Headscratcher met Erin’s eyes for a second and then looked away. She nodded.
That was all they could do. So Erin sat at her table. Then she got up and pointed.
“I’m going out. Lyonette, wait there. I’ll be back. I need to set something up. Drassi, how would you like to be paid to sit and talk with people for an entire day?”
“Ooh, what did you have in mind?”
Erin opened the door to Liscor. She stepped out into the rain and strode through the streets. She was waiting. And in the dungeon three teams stepped into the darkness. And the darkness was waiting.
Three groups entered the dungeon. The first halted at a door tagged with glowing chalk. They formed up, Seborn and Halrac in front. The Drowned Man had a dagger in his hands. Halrac had an arrow glowing with frost drawn.
Behind the two trap experts stood Typhenous and Jelaqua. Revi and Moore brought up the rear. Seborn held up a hand as he inspected the door. They’d come through this door countless times but he still checked it. Not just for traps; for signs someone had opened it.
“Hay’s still there.”
He plucked a piece of straw out of the doorjamb. Halrac nodded. He held up three fingers and counted down. Seborn waited and then yanked the door open. Both adventurers looked into the room. Halrac trained his bow on the first thing he saw until he recognized it.
“Metal pillar. We’ve been here.”
He nodded at a mark made on the far wall. Seborn squinted at it.
Both [Scout] and [Rogue] used their Skills to check the room for changes. But there was no discernible difference so Halrac motioned.
“The pillar’s a blade trap. Stay to the edges. We disarmed it without you but you never know.”
Seborn nodded and Jelaqua relayed the quiet words to Moore and Revi.
“We can get Moore to hit it on the way back out if we have time.”
“He might be able to grow plants over the thing if he can make a gap. Or just break the mechanisms.”
The adventurers made their way through the room. Again, Halrac and Seborn checked the door. This time they didn’t speak as they made their way to the next corridor. The first room was done. The next one would be random as well. Such was the nature of this dungeon; each room was selected from a group of trapped rooms and so the layout was different every time. It was meant to frustrate anyone trying to enter the dungeon safely.
However, there was a flaw to that kind of dungeon making. With time and patience, a good team could neutralize every trapped room and proceed freely regardless of which room they got. The next room was similarly neutralized; Seborn recognized the narrow corridor.
“Pit trap. Metalbite Slimes. We took out the pressure plate.”
The two moved ahead. They spoke little, but their conversation alone hinted at the good relationship they had. They proceeded through the fourth room and fifth, each time running into a cleared trap.
“This is a record for us. You?”
“We made it this far before. Took out a trap that tried to boil us alive.”
“You mean burn.”
“Nope. Doubt we’ll get lucky again.”
The [Rogue] pushed open the door and nodded.
“Thought not. Look at that.”
This room was almost insultingly safe looking. A bed had been placed in the center of the room, a lovely-looking king-sized bed. It looked enchanted, which was probably the reason it had held up so long. Halrac grunted.
“They’re not even trying. What is—”
A hand blocked his view. Instantly Halrac jerked back. Seborn averted his gaze.
“Some kind of spell on the bedposts.”
Halrac had barely looked at the bed but he felt something sting his sensitive eyes. He drew back and Seborn shielded him from the doorway.
Jelaqua looked at the two. Halrac relayed news of what lay ahead. Typhenous stroked his beard.
“Rune trap magic, most likely. I can try to dispel it—”
“Don’t bother. It’s not the only trap. They want us to try and get close to the bed. I’m sure it’ll do something. Turn out to be an illusionary golem or something. We’ll take it out from afar.”
“Ah. Let me know if you need a spell.”
Halrac looked back at Seborn. The Drowned Man was fishing at his belt.
“We could use a [Sticky Webs] spell. Or do you think it’s too risky?”
“I was going to try activating the spell by hitting the post with something cutting. See what we’re up against. We can always block off the doorway.”
“You’ve got something that will work? I could shoot it.”
“Too risky. Might activate and damage your eyes. I’ll hit it blind. I’ve got these bags of flour from that [Alchemist]. I’ll fill the room and make a—”
“Dust explosion. I know.”
Halrac nodded. He was familiar with the idea. Back in his village he’d once seen a mill go up due to that very thing. It had been their only mill, in fact. They never built another one. Lost in thought, he waited, averting his eyes from the room beyond. There must have been a compulsion spell mixed in there too because he wanted to walk in there and lie on the bed. He did not.
Seborn busied himself, preparing the bags of densely packed powder. After a while Halrac spoke absently.
“It’s called straw, actually. Hay is feed. Dried grass, legumes. Straw is dead stalks.”
The Drowned Man looked up briefly.
“Really? I didn’t know that. We don’t get much straw at sea. What’s the difference between a hay bale and a straw one?”
“You don’t feed straw to animals.”
Halrac said nothing more. He waited as Seborn tossed the bags of flour over his shoulder. They fountained up, filling the room with fine particles. Typhenous sneezed as everyone moved back. Then Seborn pulled out a tightly stoppered flask.
The [Scout] nodded. He braced himself as Seborn lobbed the vial into the room. Then he slammed the door shut. Everyone waited. They heard a sound of something breaking, then a thump. Halrac waited behind the door calmly. The magical doorway held, but when he opened the door the room was in flames. There was something thrashing around in the center. Halrac took one look.
“Mimic. Looks like the wards are covered or obscured.”
“Let me cast a spell first.”
Typhenous stepped forwards. Halrac waited until the mage threw long ropes of sticky webs into the fire and then nodded at Seborn. He stepped out, aimed at the mimic and began loosing arrows. Typhenous threw a ball that ate part of the elongated mimic away and made it scream.
So far, so good.
One of the adventurers from Gemhammer snapped a warning. The Gnoll from the Pride of Kelia froze. The Human pointed.
“Loose stone. Take another handhold.”
The Gnoll nodded. The descent continued as the adventurers shook water that fell to the dungeon floor below. They weren’t far up, only fifteen feet or so from the place where water met dungeon. But a fall from that height was still dangerous.
Nailren was descending with Earlia. The Gnolls were less burdened and moved faster, but Gemhammer was moving well too. Earlia slowly climbed downwards, grunting, taking care not to let the water slip her up.
“Let us go first. We’ve got shields and your people can get up and down faster.”
The Gnoll grunted in agreement. He growled softly and the Gnolls below him paused to let the Humans go past. Curiously, Nailren stared at the Humans. Gemhammer chose their grips carefully. They were not good climbers compared to the Gnolls, but they seemed oddly certain.
“Not strange. They have Skills related to mining. We were all once [Miners] before we found out we could kill monsters with hammers and pickaxes.”
Earlia was about ten feet from the ground, next to an overhang that would expose her to the rest of the dungeon. She looked up. Nailren nodded and sniffed. He growled and made a gesture with his paws. He showed Earlia two fingers, then three.
She didn’t say anything more. She looked at the other adventurers that had paused with her at the overhang. Then she nodded. Earlia grabbed the next handhold and moved down. She slipped, cursed, and then dropped.
She screamed an order as the rest of Gemhammer dropped. The adventurers swore as they landed but three grabbed heavy shields and pulled them up. Just in time. Crude arrows shattered on the shields and one struck one of the adventurers in the arm. She cried out but the chainmail had absorbed the blow.
“Attack! Drop and take cover behind the Humans!”
Nailren roared as the rest of the Pride of Kelia scrambled down the cliff. He dropped, ignoring the pain of landing and rolled behind an adventurer with a shield. He saw Earlia dive as she tried to bring her shield up. Arrows were flying everywhere. One missed her head.
There were shapes in the darkness. Snarling. The Raskghar loosed arrows, unpleasantly surprised that they had been anticipated again. They attacked quietly, sniffing. The Gnolls growled as they smelled an ancient scent. They drew their bows and began to loose arrows, eliciting quiet howls.
Earlia kept her voice to a low snap. She grabbed her shield and raised it, hunkering behind it. The Humans formed a wall of their bodies and shields for the Gnolls.
“Hold the line! When the warriors come up, I want Timgal, Fea, and Blaik on me! The rest keep your shields up!”
The Gnolls kept loosing arrows and the Raskghar moved back. One began to beat the walls in a quick rhythm with a stone mace. The sound echoed down the corridor.
“Calling for reinforcements.”
Nairlen’s voice was tight as he aimed and loosed. He snarled as his [Double Shot] made a Raskghar fall with two arrows in his chest. Earlia snarled herself.
“It was an ambush! Just like the [Innkeeper] said! Hold tight! We’re getting through this!”
The adventurers and Raskghar fought, the sounds echoing but not too far. Both sides kept quiet for fear of what they might attract. But they were already being watched. And as more shapes moved out of the darkness, the adventurers realized there were a lot of Raskghar. And then the brutal ancient cousins of Gnolls moved in for the attack.
“So this is the secret entrance you were talking about.”
Falene shook her head as she stared down the dark shaft of stone leading down that Pisces and Olesm had found. She peered into the darkness and looked back.
“I assume you checked for traps?”
“We did. Conduct your own investigation if you are so concerned.”
Pisces snapped back. He stepped to the edge as Falene whispered a spell. Behind him Ceria looked on with Ylawes.
“Incredible. A third entrance to the dungeon and this one connects to the crypts. One wonders how extensive this dungeon is.”
Ylawes stared into the pit, looking troubled. Dawil was more practical. He grunted as he squatted down over the edge, not bothered by the drop.
“That’s far down. What’s the plan for getting down there? Jump and [Featherfall]? Or rope?”
“It’s dangerous to leave an exit for monsters to get out of.”
“More dangerous than cutting off our escape route?”
Ceria countered, looking at Ylawes. He shrugged.
“I’d be more comfortable letting Falene toss a rope back up when we need to go. She can do it with [Telekinesis].”
“What if she’s dead? Or hurt?”
The [Knight] paused.
“She won’t be.”
Ceria exchanged a glance with Yvlon. The female warrior looked troubled.
“And if she is?”
Ylawes frowned, but in the end agreed to put down a rope for a quick exit. He waited until Ksmvr had declared it secure with Dawil’s approval before nodding.
“You take that rope down. We’ll go in first.”
“I insist. We’re a Gold-rank team and prepared to deal with whatever is down there.”
“There should be just bones. Isn’t that right, Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] sniffed.
“There are bones. It is a burial chamber for the Raskghar. I scouted it with a Shield Spider before and one is down there now.”
Everyone stared at him. Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, come now. Did you expect us to enter a dungeon without proper scouting?”
He looked pointedly at the Silver Swords. Falene narrowed her eyes slightly. Ylawes looked put out.
“So you intend to scout with…undead?”
“Far better than living beings. Unless one of you has a class specializing in trap detection? How were you planning on exploring the dungeon?”
Falene raised her eyebrows.
“I am quite capable of detecting magic.”
“And floor traps?”
Pisces didn’t wait for a response. He looked at Ceria and Yvlon.
“Once we arrive below I intend to reanimate at least eight of the skeletons. They will form an advance guard and scout ahead. I can also fashion a Bone Horror.”
“One of those things?”
Ylawes looked appalled. Ceria just exchanged a glance with Yvlon. The blonde woman nodded. Her mouth compressed to a tight line but she did nod.
“Do it, Pisces.”
The [Necromancer] smiled briefly and began climbing down the rope. Caught off-guard, the Silver Swords watched him climb down and then saw Ksmvr hurry after him. Ylawes gripped his sword hilt, frustrated.
“Incredible. Are you actually serious about this, Yvlon?”
“You knew he was a [Necromancer], Ylawes. What’s the point in having a teammate with that ability if we don’t use it to survive? His undead have saved our lives more than once.”
The Horns of Hammerad descended one at a time while the Silver Swords took a more direct method. They jumped and slowly floated down. Ceria rolled her eyes as Falene drifted past her, Dawil grumbling about his stomach. When they were in the burial chamber they saw Pisces had already gotten to work. Six Raskghar were standing and two more were striding out of the entrance.
Dawil wrinkled his nose but Pisces ignored him. He pointed.
“There is a trap ahead. It destroyed my Shield Spider the first time. I suggest we proceed carefully down the corridor checking for traps. There may be more that are only attuned to the living.”
“Indeed. I will inspect the trap, then.”
Falene strode forwards but Pisces held an arm out. Affronted, she stared at him. He looked pointedly at Ylawes.
“Should not a warrior go first? In case of ambush? Perhaps Sir Ylawes and Dawil?”
Ceria nodded in agreement. Ylawes looked irate at being ordered, but he stepped forwards with Dawil. He held his shield up as the Dwarf gripped his hammer.
“Alright! Let’s explore this damn dungeon already!”
Dawil’s voice boomed down the corridor. Ceria nearly bit her tongue.
“Shut up! Do you want to attract attention?”
“What? Oh. Sorry.”
The Dwarf mitigated his voice a bit. Ylawes strode forwards, his eyes searching every direction. Ceria stared as Falene followed after them. Pisces blew out his cheeks and Yvlon paused as Ksmvr brought up the rear.
“Hey Ceria. You don’t think—”
“I think so. Rot, rot, rot. How did we not think of this?”
“They never said!”
Ksmvr was watching the rear as he had volunteered to do. He glanced at Ceria and Yvlon as they conferred. Pisces was watching the two with a frown on his face. The Antinium glanced at his teammates and shook his head. He had a bow in his hand and the enchanted dagger in the other.
“I never understand what is going on.”
Earlia didn’t know when she began shouting. She flung a bag filled with spreading vines ahead and watched the Tripvine Bag engulf a charging Raskghar. The huge not-Gnoll tripped as it tried to leap at her with club in hand. The club was crude stone and wood, but the monster was huge! A head taller than a Gnoll and a third again as wide! Its head was too small, and its claws could lay open her skin as it thrashed wildly.
No time to hesitate. No time to be afraid. Earlia charged with a shout.
She rushed the Raskghar. It was fighting to get free. It struggled up as she raised the warhammer and saw the metal head falling. It raised an arm. Too slow. Too late. The blow cracked the arm and the thing howled.
Again! Earlia’s arms strained as she lifted the warhammer. She brought it down hard. This time the blow cracked the Raskghar’s head. It made a horrible gurgling sound and slumped. The Tripvines continued to spread as Earlia staggered back. Something hit her chest—an arrow, breaking on her chainmail.
A hand yanked her backwards. Earlia fell back behind the group of her people holding shields. She felt at her chest. The chainmail had held. If it had been a better bow, or if the arrow tips had been made of anything but crude stone—
The Raskghar were assaulting their position. The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer were entrenched, exchanging shots while the [Warriors] held their ground. But they were outnumbered and frankly, outmatched. The Raskghar were terrifyingly huge and strong. Earlia wasn’t sure if she’d have been able to beat the one in front of her in a fair fight. But there was still a way to victory.
“Hit them with a Pepperspray Potion!”
She roared at one of her teammates. The man fumbled for a potion and the charging forms visibly hesitated. They retreated, howling, as the man lifted the potion. Earlia grinned savagely.
Yes, that was it! The Raskghar didn’t have potions or alchemical equipment. And they didn’t have levels. One of the Gnolls behind her snatched at the air. Nailren lifted the arrow he’d caught and put it to his bowstring and sent it back into the darkness. There was another howl.
“How’re we doing?”
Earlia shouted at him. Nailren’s ears switched as he sniffed the air.
“Many are here! Many more—coming! They are howling for support!”
“Damn! They really want us dead!”
The Human woman cursed, glancing around. They knew they’d be walking into an ambush, but the innkeeper, Erin, had told her that the Goblins had fought off only a handful of Raskghar. Had they lied? Or had the monsters doubled their watch?
“Captain! More coming from the left!”
A wail came from Fea. The girl was the youngest and her finger trembled as she pointed around her shield. Earlia saw a group of eight Raskghar approaching.
“Dead gods. Get me another Tripvine bag! Or one of our explosives! Hurry!”
She saw the adventurers fumbling as the Gnolls began showering the Raskghar with arrows. But the huge hulking creatures were tough! They charged, howling, impervious to arrows. Earlia shouted and Gemhammer rushed forwards. Their warriors met the Raskghar in a melee of blows.
Earlia used her Skill too early to crush a Rasgkhar’s guard and break the screaming monster’s ribs. The Raskghar were everywhere, hurling Blaik to the ground, fighting with the Gnolls who’d drawn their own weapons. And there was another group coming back on the right! Earlia’s heart beat faster and faster as she swung, keeping the Raskghar off Blaik. Too many!
Then she saw a flicker. Something raced out of the shadows and stabbed through a Raskghar about to leap at her. A masked woman pirouetted and slashed another Raskghar across the back. Earlia gaped.
“Who the hell are you?”
She received no answer. The adventurers closed ranks as the Raskghar howled. Several seemed to recognize the masked woman and beat more frantically on the walls. Gemhammer launched a desperate counterattack with the Pride of Kelia as the masked swordswoman cut and danced gracefully through the battle. She was good! But the fight wasn’t over yet. More were coming.
A lot more. Earlia knew they could beat them if the Raskghar bunched up. They had potions! Alchemy weapons! Spells! She was about to shout at the [Gem Mage] in their company to break a topaz and blast the Raskghar when she saw something move in the darkness.
Something moved. A giant Raskghar roared as he charged forwards. He was wearing armor. Not crude hide armor, not corroded metal or bone. Real armor. It shone and Earlia knew it was enchanted. And then she saw the Raskghar with the bow. He raised it but she couldn’t see an arrow. He made a gesture as if loosing something and she didn’t see the arrow. But something struck her in the chest. It went right through her chainmail. She staggered and saw nothing. And she fell as more Raskghar charged. And behind them were Goblins.
Lots of Goblins.
“Room eight. Think it’ll be another trap?”
“Unless we have to go through all of them, there has to be an end to it. We know there are monsters, even if we’ve only seen the ones in traps.”
“Right. Get ready.”
This time Halrac and Seborn stood well back from the door. Their clothing was ruffled. The last trap had been activated, but the razorblades of wind had nearly cut both men. They were on guard as they swung the door open to reveal—
“A path down.”
Halrac stared at the ramp heading down into the darkness. His internal sense of danger that was separate from his [Dangersense] immediately rang an alarm. Behind hm Jelaqua slowly breathed out.
“Looks like it’s my turn. Change formations. Unless you think it’s a trap?”
“I’ve got nothing. Halrac?”
“No. How do you want to do this?”
Jelaqua pursed her lips. She stared down into the darkness. Halrac’s eyes could see further but even his sight had a limit. There was a larger room below. This might be another trapped room, but his instincts told him they were in another part of the dungeon. They’d done it. The seven layers of randomly generated rooms at an end. Which meant that anything could be beyond.
“Let me and Seborn do it. I’ve got the armor and Seborn’s quick.”
Halrac wanted to argue but he didn’t. That made sense. You sent a [Warrior] forwards when you thought you might run into monsters, with a [Rogue] or [Scout] or [Treasure Hunter] or whatever you had following close behind. He elected to move back to the rear of the group since his bow was useful at all ranges. Moore stayed with him as Revi and Typhenous took the middle.
That was the other thing. You watched the rear as well. Halrac had the group pause at this new juncture to go over tactics.
“First sign of major trouble and we retreat to the doorway. Delaying spells?”
“[Sticky Webs] for me and Revi uses her Face-Eater Moth or Corusdeer summons. Moore, do you have a barrier spell?”
“I could grow vines similar to a Tripvine Bag. It isn’t the most useful spell, though.”
“Huh. You don’t have another one?”
Moore shook his head.
“Not my specialty. Typhenous?”
“I know [Force Barrier]. Should I use it?”
“That spell is horrible. Barrier spells aren’t good at sealing off large spots. Not if something’s coming at us fast! Just web and let Moore use [Thorn Spray] or something.”
Revi objected and the other adventurers nodded. Halrac checked his belongings. He had his own prepared weapons and potions. He nodded at Jelaqua and Seborn.
“Then we leave it to you.”
“Right. Let’s go. Seborn, tell me if I’m tripping on anything.”
Jelaqua stepped forwards, Seborn right behind her. She did not stride forwards but rather walked cautiously, at a slow pace so Seborn could check for traps. If he so much as spoke or tapped her she immediately froze. Halrac was reassured to see that—it was a sign of Jelaqua’s seniority. She did not rush forwards in a panic, and neither was she afraid to press on. The group moved down slowly into the room when they saw—
Revi breathed the word as the adventurers stopped. They’d come to a large, winding corridor full of stone statues. Between them were scattered pedestals with gleaming necklaces. Only there were a few odd discrepancies. Halrac saw three instantly.
The adventurers paused as he pointed out what he’d seen in the murk.
“Some of the pedestals are missing the necklaces.”
“You’re right. Hey, has someone come down here before? Or is that part of the trap? We’re assuming those statues are going to come to life, right?”
“Without a doubt.”
Typhenous peered over his staff at the pedestals. It did indeed seem like someone had been here before. Halrac confirmed this by pointing out the other two things he’d seen.
“Look there. The wall is caved in. It’s been resealed with rocks and dirt. But there was someone here. And I think I know how. Goblins.”
He pointed to a small pile of bones next to one of the statues. It was hard to see, but he thought the statue’s fingers still had blood on the tips. Jelaqua muttered an oath.
“Great. Goblins. Well, we knew they were down there. Wonder if they took all the loot.”
“If they did the statues scared them off. I’m sure some of them are enchanted to attack if we get close.”
“What’s the plan then? Hit one and draw back? I can try to bash them up but my flail is not enchanted and they could be pretty hard.”
“They don’t look like good Golems. Why don’t we change up our formation? How about—”
The corridor full of stone statues was still as the adventurers conferred. The deadly stone golems frozen in place did not move. They awaited their victims. When something finally triggered the spell to activate them, the stone statues moved at once. They surged to deadly attention—
Jelaqua’s flail smashed the first one in the face, cracking the crude stone and sending fractures down the body. She immediately whirled and struck another of the statues that had come to life. The humanoid things reached for her but she was already moving back. Her flail whirled, striking repeatedly as a flaming, spectral Corusdeer slammed into another statue.
“[Sticky Webs]. Ah, what a lovely spell.”
More of the Golems found themselves caught in a barrier as Typhenous poured on the webbing. Behind him Halrac calmly shot one statue with an arrow using his [Piercing Shot] Skill and watched it crumble. He waited as the other adventurers fought. Behind Jelaqua, Seborn flicked out of shadows, cutting at the golems and chipping away their bodies and jumping away. The adventurers weren’t doing much damage and the Golems were pushing out of the web. One punched Jelaqua in the chest and his fist cracked. The Selphid grinned.
“I didn’t feel that! This armor is good! Hey Moore, your turn.”
The stone statue raised another fist and a giant hand engulfed its arm. Moore lifted the statue up with a groan and hurled it into its fellows. The adventurers heard a crack and then the half-Giant waded forwards. He brought his quarterstaff down like an avalanche on a statue’s head, swung a vine and thorn-covered fist into a second, and backed up by Jelaqua and Revi’s Corusdeer, began smashing the rest.
It was a brisk fight. It might have been a bad one but for Moore. The stone statues were relentless, but the half-Giant had the strength to break each one to pieces while the others covered him. By the time the last statue lay in pieces on the ground, Moore was sweating, and dusty. Jelaqua offered him two stamina potions which the half-Giant gulped down.
“Amazing work, Moore.”
“That was impressive.”
Typhenous blinked around at the statues. Moore had crushed the one nearest him by swinging the thing into the dungeons’ wall repeatedly until it broke. Typhenous looked back at Halrac.
“Well, it seems these traps are getting simpler. Or am I simply becoming more naïve in my old age?”
Halrac shook his head.
“As traps went that wasn’t bad. It would have been a bad fight if we’d picked it alone. Only Revi’s summons and your spells would have done any work.”
“And I suspect most adventurers armed with a warhammer aren’t as adept at fighting eight stone golems at once. Ah, yes. I see your point. But we have emerged victorious and to the victors go the spoils. I don’t suppose there’s even a chance these ones are safe, are they?”
“Don’t touch them.”
Typhenous nodded. The remaining pedestals did indeed hold wonderfully beautiful necklaces and jewelry, but all six Gold-rank adventurers would have rather gone back and fought twice as many stone golems as touch them. They were too inviting.
“I’m positive they’re cursed. How do you want to transport them? Should we?”
Typhenous peered at a necklace set with a huge diamond and tsked unhappily. Halrac reached for his belt.
“I’ve an empty bag of holding. Push it in here. Unless Revi can use her summons?”
“Stuff that idea! I don’t want to lose one to a cursed artifact!”
In the end, Halrac nudged each cursed ornament into his bag of holding, after Typhenous and Moore had decided they weren’t going to explode on being handled, of course. The adventurers took a rest in the destroyed corridor and nodded to each other then. Jelaqua grinned.
“Now isn’t this a welcome surprise? Actual progress! And look at that entrance! I wonder if we could excavate it, maybe find a real shortcut into the dungeon? Because we know exactly where we are now. What do you think?”
“Maybe don’t give monsters an alternate route in.”
“True. In that case we need to shore up the wall. Damn. That’s a lot of work. A project for today, you think? We’ve already explored two more sets of rooms which I’m sure will be full with traps the next go around. And we have treasure! If we can get it disenchanted those jewels and the gold will go for something.”
Both teams knew they’d done a good day’s work. They’d earned money—deferred, true, but a good amount with the cursed loot which might not be cursed if they were extremely lucky—and gotten to a new part of the dungeon. A wise team would do just what Jelaqua had said and resume untrapping the dungeon before proceeding. However…
It was Seborn who gave voice to their thoughts. The [Rogue] lifted a flask of water and drained half of it.
“Let’s go a bit farther. See what else we can find. We’re all in good shape.”
The other adventurers looked at each other. No one said it. But they were all thinking of what Seborn had told Erin. The other Silver-rank teams. The unspoken accusation.
Cowards. The Halfseekers looked at each other. Griffon Hunt turned to Halrac. He nodded.
The adventurers got up and headed down the corridor in higher spirits. They came to an opening to their left, inside of which was a huge, circular room. It was vast, a half-dome with an extraordinarily flat floor. While the walls and ceiling of the domed room looked weathered by time, the floor was perfect.
Too perfect. And while there was a door on the far side, the adventurers weren’t about to try crossing the floor to get to it.
“This is clearly a product of bad dungeon making. Look at the walls and ceiling! They might have fooled adventurers centuries ago, but whoever enchanted the floor didn’t think to account for the decay of stone and moss and lichen and so forth.”
Typhenous shook his head sadly as he peered at the floor. Halrac nodded. He stared at the door on the far side.
“What kind of trap are we looking at here, Seborn? Classic pit trap?”
“Something to do with the floor. Want to see what happens?”
The Halfseekers enjoyed setting off traps. Griffon Hunt did not, but Halrac respected the idea. A trap could be deadly, but not knowing what it did could be just as deadly. He nodded.
“Everyone stands up the corridor. We trigger it and get ready to run. Agreed?”
“Let’s do it.”
Seborn waited until the others pulled back, and then found a good chunk of the stone statues. He lifted it, nodded at Halrac, and hurled the stone into the center of the room. It bounced off the suspicious floor and tumbled a bit. Halrac watched it with narrowed eyes.
“No good. Looks like the trigger’s something else. Revi?”
“I don’t want to lose a summon!”
“You only lose your ancestral spirits permanently. What about the Corusdeer?”
“I won’t be able to call on it for a week if the spirit is destroyed!”
“Good enough. Summon it.”
Revi cursed but did as Halrac asked. The [Scout] leaned back as the flaming spirit cantered down the hallway. Seborn, to whom fire and dryness were doubly unwelcome, moved further back. The Corusdeer walked slowly into the center of the dome as Revi crouched by them, controlling it and frowning. The summoned creature pawed at the ground and nudged the stone.
“Nothing. Do you think it’s a trap that reacts to living things?”
“Could be. Or it could be that the trap’s activated by the door. Can you—?”
The Corusdeer walked over to the door. It lowered its head and butted the door a few times. Halrac waited, his breath held in his chest. The Corusdeer awkwardly scraped its antlers against the door, and then Revi made it bow its head. The handle was a lever and the tall deer’s horns pushed against it gently. Halrac heard a click—
And the floor disappeared. Halrac jerked back as the Corusdeer plummeted, its fiery body falling into the depths. That wasn’t surprising. He’d expected something like that. What was surprising, what made Halrac shiver and Seborn curse and Revi panic was what they saw below.
The half-dome was a huge room. Large enough to hold Erin’s entire [Grand Theatre] and then some. It was also a pit trap. And it went down a long way. But that wasn’t dangerous. Not to a good Gold-rank team or even a decent Silver-rank one. And the dungeon architects had to know that. So they had put something else in there. Something that looked up and sensed the prey above them as the Corusdeer fell into their nest.
Halrac had the best vision. He was standing closest to the newly revealed pit. And the Corusdeer was still falling. He saw it fall down, down, and down past huge webs, past gigantic scuttling shapes that turned and looked up. Halrac stared down a mile of darkness as the Corusdeer fell past a Shield Spider the size of a house, past a giant spider twice as large as Erin’s inn, past thousands, tens of thousands of smaller Shield Spiders, down, until it landed on a web. Instantly, hundreds of smaller shapes smothered the blazing deer, tore it apart. Halrac stared at the spiders as they all looked up. Straight at him. And then they began to scuttle upwards in a silent rush.
“It’s a lair!”
Revi screamed. Seborn tossed a bottle down and Halrac saw the explosion kick off a dozen spiders from the walls. There were several thousand for everyone that fell. He had an arrow in his hands. He was loosing it before he could think. He shouted desperately.
“It’s a lair! A monster lair! It’s part of the damn dungeon!”
Jelaqua charged down the corridor with Typhenous and Moore. Halrac was too busy loosing arrows and retreating to explain. But it was all clear. The huge, spiraling pit. The traps which were easy—a bit too easy. And the monsters who’d been given time, thousands of years in fact, to reproduce. To grow to unnatural sizes.
The Shield Spiders were here. The Face-Eater Moths had probably been in another trap like this one. And now they were coming out. Halrac’s arrow took the first giant spider that crawled out of the pit and sent it falling back down. A horde followed. And after that came tens of thousands more.