Jason and Kera were among the last to arrive at the doors of the meeting hall, through which Jason could see that Ravs had clearly been busy. Geometric patterns drawn in some silvery substance decorated the floor in an excessively large ritual circle. Ravs herself stood in the center, mist rolling off of her shoulders. It pooled within the circle without leaving it, coating the floor and creating an effect otherworldly effect that Jason found quietly disturbing.
Aurion and Kaerlin waited to one side just outside the door, making sure no one entered just yet. A few moments after a handful of others arrived on Jason’s heels, Aurion turned to the seer and nodded.
“Clairvoyance,” Kaerlin commanded. A shimmering image of the battle at the gates appeared, causing Jason to draw in a sudden breath. The dungeon had sent hundreds of monsters to assault the walls of the town, and these were not the simple, mad-eyed creatures that had assaulted the square.
He saw ranks upon ranks of the spear-wielders, easily three hundred or more, in loose formations led by the massive, crocodilian sobeks. Huge numbers of frogoid corpses littered the battlefield and even the walls themselves. Jason even spotted something new scattered here and there: a strange breed of larger, crab-like creatures with dense shells.
Jason could scarcely believe they hadn’t been overrun already. But as the seer’s spell swept quickly over the battlefield, Jason quickly realized why: apparently, newly birthed dungeons were bad at tactics, and had apparently never heard of siege weapons.
Instead, the dungeon's ‘strategy’ appeared to rely solely on distraction: trying to use the frogoids to distract the defenders on the walls while the Sobeks bashed down the gate to let the murklings inside. That, and the merrow coming up in the middle of the city to attack the defenders from behind.
Arnvale, on the other hand, had had the services of a seer to warn them, a band of adventurers to train up a militia and reinforce the walls and gate, and Jason’s own ability to churn out magical weaponry. Thanks to those factors, a good quarter of the town stood upon the walls, armed to to teeth with enchanted arrows, flaming swords, and a scattering of wands.
As Jason and Kera watched, a volley of the storm-infused arrows Jason had created were loosed from the walls, blossoming in a riot of thunder and lighting, killing dozens of fishmen. Simultaneously, a flight of crossbow bolts was launched, flaring red in the sky as they suddenly turned impossibly and flew towards a pair of sobeks that had just reached the front gates. Every single one found a mark; Jason knew those would be the bloodstone-tipped heartseekers.
Aurion heaved a great sigh of relief. “Thank the heavens. Looks like the merrow was their only siege-class, and the only other thing we haven't before are those brakyura warriors.” he said.
“I see no shamans, either,” Kaerlin confirmed.
Aurion turned to the assembled adventurers.
“Most of you have never had any real experience facing a dungeon before,” he began. "Well, take a good look. Imagine for a moment what this dungeon’s forces would look like in another two or three month’s time, after having devoured this entire town. Hundreds and hundreds of murklings roaming the landscape. A dozen merrow patrolling the rivers. Brakyura shell-shamans inundating the land with rain and conjuring swarms of insects capable of blotting out the sun.”
A steady disquiet fell over the group.
Aurion raised his voice, pointing at the floating image. “This is what the Black Thorns stand for. This is why we work to study dungeons: to prevent this very situation from growing out of control, to stop dungeons before they become unstoppable.”
He lowered his voice back to normal levels. “I know it looks like there’s a lot of them out there. But I’ll remind you that they’re mostly only murklings, we’ve got range and surprise on our side, and we’ll be striking from the rear. Raelin and Denaire are commanding the townsfolk, and they know to watch for us. They’ll pile on the hurt the second we arrive. We can do this. Stick together, stay in formation, and keep your head about you and you’ll be fine.”
“Now let’s get out there, and show these bastards what the Black Thorns are made of!”
Aurion’s confidence in the trainees was well placed. Rav’s mass teleport dropped the adventurers behind enemy lines, where they immediately began to open fire on the rear ranks.
Murklings died by the score as fireballs lit up the battlefield. Lightning was called down from the heavens, spheres of darkness roiled their way across the surface, and chunks of stone tore their way from the earth only to fall back down again, crushing the enemy. From the walls came a new volley of storm arrows, further decimating the enemy numbers.
The fishmen's sobek leaders bellowed out commands even as they were struck down, causing the horde to turn and face the adventurers, but it was too late. In the time that it took the murkling ranks to reorient their forces to face the new threat, they lost more than half their number, and by the time they actually reached the adventurers' ranks, half again.
Jason joined Kera, Sylvia, and others among the front ranks as the last remnants of the dungeon’s assault crashed against the defenders. With healers and mages supporting them from behind, Jason fired his shotgun indiscriminately into the murkling ranks, leaving behind a trail of shattered, frozen corpses. His barrier failed once during an attempt to bash aside a murkling who’d gotten too close, but a quick reaction from Kera as she lashed out with a suddenly-appearing tail freed him long enough to jam a new shard into the bracer’s housing.
Jason then dropped back into the back ranks, switching his gauntlet into projection mode, but it proved unnecessary: suddenly the dungeon denizens were breaking away en-mass and fleeing as the mages cut them down from behind. Jason heard a ragged cheer rise from the wall of the town, and Aurion ordered the adventurers to strike down as many of the fleeing monsters as they could.
He complied, firing bolt after bolt of energy from his gauntlet into the fleeing army. Soon, no more than a handful remained, slipping away into the woods on their way to the river. Jason heaved a sigh of relief.
As the adrenaline left him, he flopped over onto his back in the dirt with a sigh, exhausted and drained of his mana. Many of the other adventurers around him were doing the same, either leaning over, hands on their knees, or simply falling back onto the dirt and grass like him. In the half-light of various mage-glows lighting the area, he caught sight of Kera stumbling towards him, concern written across her face.
“I’m fine,” he called out in a half mumble, waving a hand weakly. “Just tired. Might’ve overdone it a bit on that last push.”
Kera managed to wobbily seat herself down next to him, blowing out her own sigh of exhaustion. Her hair was plastered all over her face with sweat, and she made a half-hearted attempt at pushing it out of her eyes.
“Ugh. I am so going to be sore in the morning,” she complained.
“No kidding. My arms feel like jelly,” Jason replied.
“You need to invent aspirin.”
“Tell me about it,” he grumbled in response. “Too bad that numbing agent I made didn’t pan out as a way to make pain resistance potions. I think I need some kind of actual ‘Pain’ trait for it.”
Jason then groaned as he attempted to haul himself upright into a sitting position. He swayed a bit, struck with a sudden spell of dizziness. He realized he had a bit of a headache, checked his status, and saw that he was suffering from mana fatigue again.
He pulled out a least mana potion and started to open it, then hesitated. He’d already drank several potions. Supposedly the least potions didn’t have a limit to drinking them, but it suddenly occurred to him to question if that was only when you were using least potions.
“Something wrong?” Kera asked, seeing his sudden hesitation.
“Ah, maybe?” Jason scratched the back of his head with his spare hand. “It just suddenly occurred to me: If least potions can be drunk as much as needed without problems, why don’t healers use their big heals to bring people up to the point that they’re stable, and then just give them least healing potions until they’re fine?”
“Maybe the potions are too valuable?” Kera asked.
“Nah, that can’t be right.” Jason shook his head, and then held a hand to his head and winced as that sent an extra spike of headache through him.
“Ow,” he grumbled. “What I mean is, I know they’re not cheap, but we’ve been warned before about not doing any more healing past a certain point. Seems to me that if it was safe, the healers would have been keeping a small stash so they could make sure the tanks could be up for as long as possible.”
“Well, the leasts do take five minutes to do their work.”
“Eh, I think I’d rather ask Flora or Aldin first before I drink this,” Jason said. He replaced the vial back onto his belt before hauling himself to his feet with another groan. His head swam and he had to steady himself before continuing. “Better to be safe; I’ve got a case of mana fatigue according to my status, but I’ve drank several potions in the last half hour, so I want to get the all clear first.”
“Are we allowed to leave yet…?” Kera started to ask, looking around.
Jason didn’t need reply, because several groups were already breaking away from the formation, heading for the gates. Some of the healers were moving among the people who were sitting or laying on the ground, asking if anyone needed assistance, while others were helping haul their friends to the feet.
“Guess that answers my question,” Kera replied. She stood and then brushed at her skirt. “Let’s go then. I can check on Lumi while you ask someone.”
“Yes, let’s.” Jason started to turn, but he was beset by another minor wave of dizziness.
Kera grabbed him before he could fall over.
“I, uh, may need some help getting there though,” he said.
What with being busy spending all his time either crafting or training, Jason hadn’t actually seen what the town had set up at Flora’s request. The result was apparently something not unlike the old wartime hospitals Jason had heard about in school.
What clearly had once been a warehouse had been cleared out, and rows and rows of benches and beds had been installed. Every few beds there was a kind of curtain, little more than a wooden beam with a thin cloth sheet. Jason wondered who donated all the cloth, and was frankly surprised at the ‘luxury’ of a privacy barrier. Sure, modern hospitals had them in emergency rooms if they didn’t have outright separate rooms, but it wasn’t the sort of thing he expected to see in what amounted to a fantasy world. Even on Earth such things were relatively rare as late as a hundred years ago.
Somebody had apparently set up some kind of color-tag system as well; Jason could see that each ‘door’ had a swatch of colored cloth, essentially a dyed rag, pinned to it. He assumed that it related to severity of injury, and also perhaps whether or not the person had been seen to already, because there were a lot more colors than he could think of meanings for.
It occurred to him they might be status effects; Full-on mana exhaustion like he’d managed to inflict on himself with his first transmutation attmept wasn’t something you treated with a healing spell, after all.
Whatever the case, Kera helped Jason take a seat on a bench just inside the entrance, and then went in search of Lumi. As he simply looked tired rather than injured, it was a minute or two before someone spotted him.
“Injury, or looking for someone?” asked the short, mouse-brown haired girl who approached him.
“Uh, sort of both? I really just had a question for any of the healers, and my friend who came with me already went to look for our partner.”
“Ah, yeah, just a basic one, I think,” he explained tiredly. “I’m pretty new to adventuring. I’m mana fatigued, and I’ve got some least mana potions but I’ve already drank a bunch of other least-tier stuff during the fight on top of getting buffs and some minor heals from others. I don’t know how much is safe. For that matter, how do you all know how much healing is too much? That wasn’t clear to me.”
“Oh that’s easy,” the girl said. She put a hand on top of Jason’s head. “Analyze Injury.” she commanded firmly.
She dropped her hand, then smiled at him. “Ah, you're fine. Other than too much mana use, that is. You’re not even close to saturation. If they were mostly least potions, that’s to be expected. They don’t have zero impact, but it’s pretty negligible.”
“So all I need is just one least mana potion and some rest, right?” Jason asked.
Jason thanked her, and she left. As he unstopped his vial, Kera returned with a weary-looking Lumi in tow. Kera was carrying Lumi’s gear in her arms, with the other girl leaning heavily on her.
“Jason, I hope— ah, they OK’d it?” Kera asked.
He downed the vial and put it away. “They did. Didn’t really get an direct answer to my real question, though maybe an indirect one. Apparently the potions do have a non-zero effect on mana saturation. Give me a moment and I should be good.”
He felt the potion's effect kick in, and his headache faded quickly. After a few moments, he stood up.
The dizziness didn’t return, though he was still bone-tired. He decided to go ahead and take a stamina potion as well.
Afterwards, he was relatively clear-headed, if only somewhat refreshed. He took Lumi’s gear from Kera and put it away in his pack. Just as they were about to leave, he heard a familiar voice.
“Ah, you’re here already!”
Jason turned, only to see Ravs and Aldin entering the hospital.
Ravs looked exhausted, and more pale than usual. Even her ears drooped a little. Aldin meanwhile had apparently not had time to clean himself up; while he didn’t have the same exhausted look that Ravs did, his clothes, and skin were stained with dirt and a large quantity of blood. Jason realized that a lot of the blood was probably Lumi’s.
“Need anything?” He asked Ravs, gesturing to the small few remaining vials on his belt.
She shook her head. “Not something a potion can cure. Only food and rest. My magic has… a price if I have to ask for extra help.”
Jason looked at her with concern, but she gave him a defiant look which communicated that this wasn’t something to inquire about further.
“What about you all?” Ravs asked after a moment. “You ok? You look worse than I do.”
Lumi gave a weak wheeze, and then nodded. “Well as I can be. Still feel really weak. Flora told me I needed to eat to help replace all the energy healing burns off.”
Jason looked at Ravs and Aldin, and realized he was fairly hungry himself, despite only having eaten a short two hours ago.
“You two want to come with us? It’s pretty late, but I’m willing to bet we could all use a hot meal.” he turned to Lumi and Kera. “Sound good to you as well?”
A chorus of affirmation was the reply.
Jason and the others made their way back slowly through Arnvale’s darkened streets. As Lumi wasn’t in any state to be exerting herself, even a little, Jason lit their way with one of the alchemical rods he’d put together for ‘just in case’ purposes. It was a thin bar of metal, perhaps a foot long, imbued with a simple potion that produced a fair amount light for an hour when shaken violently. Jason thought of it as essentially a glowstick.
He had refused Kera’s joking request to make different colored ones.
Upon arriving home, Jason set to work preparing a late, second dinner for everyone while Kera and Aldin assisted Lumi and Ravs. This time, Jason opted to get a little creative, as he still had plenty of frogoid meat remaining and he now had a bit of experience with cooking it. He also had a bit of a craving for pasta, as it was the sort of thing he’d yet to see in Arnvale. Recalling that he’d heard somewhere that frog legs actually went very well as part of a noodle bowl thanks to their chicken-and-fish flavor, Jason decided to his hand at it.
Frogoid meat had a flavor that lay more on the chicken side of things, and he actually had some frozen soup stock left over from his gelatin-making experiment, so it wasn’t long before he had a hearty soup of homemade noodles, cubed frog meat, wild onion, and some kind of springtime greens that seemed local to the region but worked as a decent alternative to bok choy.
The soup was served in large bowls alongside some fresh-baked bread, with chopsticks and soup spoons for utensils.
“Ok, I have to ask,” inquired Lumi as Jason slide her food in front of her, “How the hell did you manage to make these noodles? I know you didn’t buy them. And where on earth did you get the chopsticks?”
He grinned at her. “Noodles are actually trivial to make. They’re literally just dough, after all. Milk, eggs, flour… a little salt. What makes them noodles is just either squeezing them through a press, or rolling the dough out and slicing it into thin, flat strips. In this case, I cheated and conjured up a press with [Artifice], which is also where the chopsticks came from. In fact, all of the dishes are. Less cleanup that way afterwards.”
Lumi examined her bowl, which looked like it was plain, white ceramic. “What happened to the weird blue metal?”
“Apparently that’s just the default,” Jason said. “With more ranks in it, I’ve can do a few different materials, apparently.” Jason held up one of the chopsticks. He flicked it with a finger. “See? Looks and feels like wood. It isn’t really, but it’s a pretty good imitation.”
Ravs cleared her throat, and Jason turned to look at her. She was looking between her bowl and her chopsticks, holding one in each fist with a confused look on her face. Kera let out a soft snrk and covered her mouth, trying not to laugh.
Jason just barely managed not to grin. “Ah… right. I’m guessing you’ve never used chopsticks before. It’s pretty easy. Here, like this.”
He took a seat between both Ravs and Aldin, and set about demonstrating proper eating technique. Both of them picked up on it quite easily, and it wasn’t long before everyone was enjoying themselves, slurping up their noodles and greens with the chopsticks and using the soup spoons to ladle up broth.
Jason judged the meal to have come out quite well, and an hour later saw him disposing of the remains. Which didn’t amount to much as they’d all quite eaten their fill, though he reflected again on the need to craft himself some kind of magical garbage disposal. Maybe some kind of incinerator? Regardless, it seemed barbaric to him to just be dumping waste into an open bucket and leaving it for later collection; it seemed to him to be a good way to attract rats and other problems.
It was as Jason was reflecting on this subject in the kitchen that suddenly Echo began howling from the other room. This was followed by the as-yet deconjured dishes rattling and skittering across the counters as the whole house suddenly began to shake heavily with a deafening noise.
Jason had lived in San Fransisco for years. Instinct and years of earthquake drills took over, and he immediately dived for the kitchen doorway and braced himself. Lumi meanwhile let out a yell of “Quake!” and dived beneath the kitchen table and held onto the table leg for dear life, hauling Kera down alongside her.
Ravs and Aldin didn’t react nearly as well, and Jason shouted at them from the doorframe to get under the table and hold on. Ravs managed to get under cover, but Aldin lost his balance and fell. Ravs shoved a chair out the way with one foot, and grabbed him by the shirt, dragging him under the table with the others.
The house continued to shake for several seconds. Jason didn’t even try to make it to the table, either: there simply wasn’t room for everyone. Dishes rattled their way to the floor, and a series of loud crashes echoed down from upstairs, but seemingly the house held.
As always, it felt like minutes to Jason, but in reality the earthquake only lasted seconds.
Lumi raised her voice. “Everyone OK?”
Jason however, swore loudly, and ran for the stairs. After a very cursory inspection of its stability, Jason dashed up to his lab.
It was a mess. Pots of mana crystals had fallen to the floor, one of his shelves had collapsed, spilling processed powders everywhere, and one of the crucibles had toppled over and spilled hot coals and ash all over the floor. Flames were beginning to catch at the wood, and Jason feared a true house fire would break out it moments.
Thankfully, he’d acquired a fair number of new runes over the past few days, and he hadn’t had anything strange cooking away in it. He snatched up a metal rod up that had rolled across the floor, and hastily imbued it with runes for water and ice projection.
Lumi and Kera made their way up the stairs just as he released a spray of slushy, freezing water across the crucible and its contents. It’s metal shell deformed under the sudden temperature change as steam flashed everywhere, but Jason was far enough back in the room to not be burned, though it was uncomfortably hot.
A quick wind cantrip from Lumi cleared the air. She sagged slightly afterwards.
Kera offered her some support, putting an arm around her. “OK, tomorrow you are going to enchant yourself a proper solid-substance fire extinguisher,” she declared firmly.
Jason grimaced. He should have done so when he first got the crucibles, but he’d been too excited to get started. It was a very good thing they hadn't had anything worse than leftover coals in it. Just using water could be dangerous, depending on the fire. He nodded tiredly to Kera in agreement.
Everyone took a quick inventory of the house, checking for further damage. Ravs asked about the ‘trained response’ Jason and Lumi had to the beginning of the quake, and Jason explained about having attended mandatory emergency drills throughout much of his life, and why you did various things during and after a quake. He in turn learned that Arnvale shouldn’t be the kind of place to experience them.
Just as Jason and the others were finishing up their damage-assessment, each of them pulled up short as they simultaneously received a system-delivered private message. Jason winced to think about how much arcane powder must have just been spent. He opened the message.
|Earthquake source determined to be surface level acquisition and rearrangement by dungeon. Emergency meeting of all guild candidates and associated adventurers to be convened at noon tomorrow at the town hall. Rest up. We attack in two days. — Aurion|
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Bio: I’m a disabled, semi-experienced amateur writer who’s decided to finally get off his bum and make use of all the wonderful self-publishing tools out there. I’ve joined the RoyalRoadL community with an eye to finally get my work out there in the world, hoping that feedback and criticism from real people will lead to people enjoying my work as it evolves, which will help motivate me to try and achieve my dream of becoming a professional writer.