In Jason’s estimation, the return of the two scouting parties was a bit like someone kicking over an anthill. First, there was a commotion on the western half of the pavilion as the handful of Arnvalers who’d volunteered for sentry duty called an alarm on account of spotting movement in the swamp. That then provoked an immediate reaction from everyone else, as the massed adventurers surged to their feet and drew weapons in preparation for immediate contact.
Then Aurion had used his raid-alert skill to calm everyone down, and announced the return of both scouting parties. He called for everyone to divide up into their assigned teams, and then asked for the team leaders to join him and the other Black Thorns at the main table.
Jason tried to observe, but his decision to sit at the far edge of the pavilion was a double-edged sword: while it had been great for keeping away from everyone else, it made it more than a little difficult to see what was going on. He caught a few glimpses of people he recognized at the head table, such as the huge, bear-like man with the greatbow, and of course Kaerlin and Aurion, all involved in deep discussion with the two scout leaders while the other party leads listened in.
Unfortunately, he couldn't make much of the conversation out, so instead he decided to ask Ravs a question that had been bugging him.
“So, I’ve been wondering…” he began, turning to her. “I realize that this is all like… basically an exam and Aurion wants to test everyone’s knowledge and skills, but why doesn’t he have Kaerlin do that remote viewing thing to find out what the exact state of things is? I mean… why not just scry out the general layout and the entrance location?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Aldin interrupted. “Even I know that one. It’s because most teleportation and divination don’t work inside a dungeon’s claim.”
Ravs raised an eyebrow in Aldin’s direction with a faint smile. “So you do pay attention.”
“Most?” Jason asked.
“Yeah,” Aldin replied, ignoring Ravs’ verbal jab. “Stuff like Lumi’s [Dimension Slide] will still work, but you couldn’t have a Traveler’s Gate tune in on the dungeon and transport someone right the the core.”
“Got it,” Jason replied. “No teleporting death squads. And the scrying?”
Aldin trailed off and then looked at Ravs helplessly, giving a shrug. She rolled her eyes at him and continued in his stead.
“Its because dungeons aren’t quite properly part of the world,” she explained. “Once you step inside their Claim, the rules of nature can be…different, sometimes. Impossible structures, weird spatial loops, bizarre gravity… Sometimes, in underwater dungeons you can even just walk around at the bottom of the sea, moving and breathing just fine without the aid of magic. Nobody knows why.”
Jason pulled out one of the underwater movement rings he’d crafted. It held a small, cross-rose cut air shard, supported by tiny pillars of blue-green arcanite carved into what looked like flowing water.
He frowned, gesturing with the ring. “Wish I’d known that before I’d made these. Took me quite a few hours to make enough for all five of us. I’m going to be annoyed if it turns out I wastes a bunch of time.”
Ravs raised one finger in the air. “Some aquatic dungeons,” she emphasized. “We don’t know how this one will be until we’re in it. Being over-prepared is better than needing water breathing and not having it, and there’s always the possibility of water trapped-rooms.”
“Fair,” Jason replied, tilting his head in acknowledgment with a certain level of relief. “Which reminds me… here. These are for both of you.”
Jason pulled out the other spare ring, and handed one each to Aldin and Ravs. He’d already given Kera and Lumi theirs, but had gotten caught up with deconstructing the boats and had forgotten to hand them out. He handed over the two resistance rings he’d crafted for the them as well.
They looked at each other and Jason with wide eyes after examining the rings’ descriptions.
“Jason…” Ravs began, her eyebrows drawn together in uncertainty.
“Yes, yes… I’m aware of their value,” Jason said. “Nevertheless, they’re gifts.”
Jason shook his head. “No, they’re yours.”
He sighed. “Look, where I’m from… adventurers have a saying: ‘Need Before Greed.’ It means… well in this case it means that it's stupid for me to worry about wealth distribution when people’s lives are on the line, myself included.”
“Hell,” Jason said with a gesture all around him. “Look at all this. We were just having a two-hour feast in the middle of a swamp. Your average adventurer can realistically live as soft a life as they’d like, because the danger pay is insane. I don’t need more coin; I’ve got it to spare. Besides, what good is it all if I’m murdered by a pack of wandering monsters we can’t handle? Better to make sure I’ve got allies who are as strong as possible than to be stingy with gear.”
Ravs scowled. “I get that, but charity is different.”
“It kind of isn’t charity, though,” Aldin pointed out. “His whole point is that by helping us, he’s helping himself. Right, Jason?”
Jason nodded. “Exactly, Think of it more like… self-interest on my part. I’m part of the group, so improving our ability to accomplish tasks as a whole helps me out more than just being selfish would.”
He grinned. “Self interest, appreciation gift… whatever you’d like to think of it as.”
She rolled her eyes with a snort, but slid the two rings on without further protest.
“So you’re bribing people overtly now?” Lumi’s amused voice came from behind Jason.
Kera, who until now had been sitting off to one side giving some much-needed attention to her pets, spoke up as Jason turned to face Lumi.
“Yep.” Kera said cheerfully. “Gotta get us thinking about how much we’ll miss out on if we screw him over, that way we won’t even consider blackmailing him.”
Jason spluttered a bit in indignation while Kera laughed at him. She placed Ceri on the table, and then got up and gave him a short hug.
“Kidding… kidding,” she said.
“So, whats the plan?” Jason asked Lumi after Kera released him.
“Brief summary…,” Lumi began, “the dungeon’s Claim isn’t expanding, but it’s been putting up structures and rooms all over the place at a furious rate. We’re—”
“Hang on, wait. Rooms?” Kera asked. “Like, on the surface? How does that work?”
Lumi shrugged. “It was in the books we were supposed to read. Just adventurer jargon, really. Dungeon surface Claims are usually completely overgrown or covered in hazardous terrain, so that people generally try to stick to the paths the dungeon carves into it. ‘Rooms’ in this case means big, open areas, usually with buildings or monsters in them, whether they’re buried ruins, caves, or forest clearings.”
“Ok, I think I get it,” Kera said. “Sorry, continue.”
Lumi took a breath. “Anyhow, Aurion’s got a vague map now, and we went over the essentials. The long and short of it is there’s a few different main routes through the Claim, lots of new buildings and monsters, and a variety of goals to compete for, like being first to find the entrance.”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘find?’” Jason asked.
“Uhh… well the scouting parties didn’t find it themselves,” Lumi said. “Or rather, they think they found it, as there’s a giant whirlpool right in the middle of the region, but they couldn’t get close enough to look on account of—”
She cut off suddenly, the shook her head. “Actually… no, wait. Look, this gets into exam territory. I’ll explain when it’s our turn, yeah? Aurion wants us to hold off on discussion until it’s our turn to go check out the map and head out. We’re up second, incidentally; we drew lots.”
“Second’s good, if we’re competing somehow,” commented Aldin.
Lumi nodded. “I’m actually betting the first group’s leader is going to make a mistake. I’ve bumped into Belris once or twice in training. He’s…”
She paused for a moment, as if searching for the right word.
“Hotheaded?” Ravs asked with a grin. “Trust me, we know. All his friends are too.”
“I think I would have chosen ‘gung-ho,’ but sure,” Lumi replied.
“I don’t know what that means,” Aldin replied.
“Basically enthusiastic and reckless, except usually specific to fighting someone,” Jason explained.
Aldin nodded sagely. “Ah….Yeah that about sums up Belris.”
Lumi nodded towards the center of the pavilion, where a small group was making a beeline for the docks. “Annnnnd there they go already,” she said. “Quicker than I expected, even.”
“Welp… guess that means we’re up already,” she said. “Aurion’s setting us out one at a time, but pretty much as fast as each group is ready to go.” She motioned for everyone to follow.
They made their way to middle of the pavilion, where Aurion was sitting at a large, circular table, upon which had been cast an illusory map of the area; presumably, the scouts’ work. Off to one side sat the remaining Black Thorns members, and Jason noted with interest that neither Kaerlin nor the greatbow archer were present. Jason wondered if their portion was done, or if the unnamed archer was the first group’s evaluator.
At the same time, Jason was surprised to see Sylvia, the Lapid [Arcane Duelist], seated at the table alongside Aurion. She gave Jason a short, cheerful wave as the group approached.
She then looked Jason’s armor up and down briefly, followed by an equally brief examination of Kera and Lumi.
“Wow,” she exclaimed. “Aurion wasn’t kidding when he said you all had made some changes.”
“Uhhh… yeah. Just a bit,” Jason replied. “Good to see you again. Why…?”
Aurion interrupted. “Sylvia Arrowgale will be your evaluator today,” he said. “I believe some of you have met her already. She’ll be coming along of course, but do not rely on her for assistance. She will attempt to stay clear of any fighting, beyond defending her own person as necessary.”
“Now,” he continued with a gesture towards the map image hovering above the table, “as Lumiriel may have already informed you, we’ve established several potential goals. Which ones you choose to pursue are up to you, and unless you choose to cooperate with other groups, any magic items, currency, or useful materials you come across are yours to keep.”
Aurion cleared his throat for a moment. “Among the goals to pursue are specific harvesting quotas, diving the main dungeon and securing the core, and identifying and taking down any surface-level bosses that may be present.”
He gave Jason a look. “I’m assuming you’ll be wanting to pursue the core?”
Lumi nodded. “Absolutely,” she said.
“Then perhaps I should advise you that the previous group elected to take the direct route straight through the center of the region,” Aurion said. “Belris desired that his group be the first to attempt whatever final defenses the dungeon may have below.”
Lumi face-palmed. “I knew it,” she said. “Such an idiot.”
“Should you be telling us what everyone else is doing?” Jason asked. “I mean, if we’re competing and all?”
“Yes,” Aurion confirmed. “Part of the evaluation involves seeing how you analyze the other groups’ actions. Whether they impact your own goals, advantage and disadvantage of cleared routes, and so on.”
“Got it,” Jason said with a nod.
Sylvia tilted her head and looked at Lumi. “On that note… why do you think Belris’ decision was foolish? And you are not surprised that he chose a direct route?”
Lumi nodded. “Yeah. He was really into drawing first pick, practically bouncing in his seat while you went over the basic rules. He was ready to get out there, kept asking about looting rights, and didn't ask about the entrance or the camps.”
“Oh?” Sylvia asked with interest.
Lumi shrugged. “Belris clearly was after treasure, judging by his questions. And we all know bosses drop the best treasure, and the same goes for completion. Furthermore, Dreja and Sanders’ teams didn’t spot any obvious surface bosses, and to my knowledge you didn’t ask them to withhold anything. There could be some hiding underwater, or maybe chieftain-types in some of the bigger buildings, but with all the mana the dungeon must be slinging around, I doubt it. More likely, any bosses will be found inside the dungeon proper. If Belris wants the good loot, he needs to go for the bosses under the surface.”
Lumi leaned over the map, and began explaining the markers to Jason and the others. The surface Claim was divided into roughly five different sectors, as if the dungeon had felt a need to organize. In the center of the map stood the first sector, a circular region dominated by the whirlpool Lumi had mentioned, with an open space surrounding it that contained only a handful of squares that represented buildings. Beyond the central circle, the rest of the area seemed more or less divided into four distinct arcs. While there was some overlap, each was filled with squares and dots of a predominantly a single color: green to the east, which was closest to the staging grounds, blue to the south, red to the north, and a thin scattering of yellow to the far west. A great many of the squares pulsed slightly at various rates.
“Blue represents Murklings,” Lumi explained to them. “The red is the newer Brakyura, those crab-men, yellow is undetermined, and the green is, well, a variety of bigger reptile monsters. Sobeks, Lizardfolk, and something called ‘Grick’.
She looked inquiringly at Kera.
“Its a scaled, beaked, snake-squid thing with lots of tentacles and suckers for a face,” Kera supplied. She paused a moment. “Not really unlike that Merrow now that I think of it. Except a snake.”
“Gross,” Lumi commented firmly. “Anyhow, the scouts reported that there’s all sorts of new… uh, evolutions I guess, of each species type, so we’ll be up against lots of stuff we haven’t seen before. The pulsing there refers to various activity rates in the area.”
“As you can see,” Lumi gestured, “there’s some pretty major concentrations of buildings stretching from the southwest to the northeast, with the section east of the center holding the greatest concentration of species overlap. Meanwhile, the western quarter is almost completely undeveloped except for a single one of those big sunken-temple kind of things and a handful of small, unknown buildings surrounding it.”
Lumi leaned traced a line that slightly zigzagged through the section of swamp closest to the staging grounds.
“As for Belris… this path here pretty much cuts straight through monster central towards the middle, where that giant whirlpool sits there screaming ‘dungeon entrance here’.
“And that’s a problem, why?” Sylvia asked with a small, knowing smile.
“Well,” Lumi replied, First, he’ll have to fight his way through loads of monsters, and more importantly—-”
“That’s not where the entrance is,” Jason said suddenly, nodding.
“You see it too?” Lumi asked him.
He nodded. “Definitely. May I?”
Lumi stood back. “Be my guest.”
“It’s a couple of things that immediately jump out at me,” Jason said. “First is that mixture closest to us. Other than the far side, it’s the only place that holds all three, uh, factions, we’ll call it. But we already know that the Sobeks are like, leader types for the raids, right? And that uh… community, I guess, sits right smack along what used to be the main river.”
He traced a line from north to south, slightly off center on the eastern side, where a wide, open swathe was visible. Once the line he traced passed out of the Claim, it was clear it connected on both ends to the river that ran parallel to the road.
“I’d guess that’s probably where the dungeon was first planted,” Jason said. “The thing is… two days ago after the quake, Aurion informed us that the dungeon had moved the entrance somewhere else. Well, technically he said it was moved underwater, but the important takeaway is that the entrance can be moved. That means it may not still be in the same place, right?”
Aurion nodded along with a smile of his own. “Correct.”
Jason nodded. “Right. So the obvious place it would be is in the middle of that whirlpool, like some kind of giant siphon. But… we already know the dungeon likes distractions, and an educated guess pegs that big mixed population as probably a leftover from the initial Claim.”
Jason tapped the western temple building. “In the meantime…there’s this conundrum. A small mixed-species nexus with a major underwater building, positioned not too far away from two newer, major ‘room’ networks on either side, meaning a lot of activity in and around the edges of an area that looks like it’s been largely ignored. That region is seeing nearly as much activity as the old river, where the first of the surface buildings probably went up, and we don’t know what this place is for.”
“That certainly sounds like an entrance to me,” Aldin commented. “Its on the opposite side though. Do we just go around the long way?”
Lumi shook her head. “No, that would probably take quite awhile. We’d be forcing our way through deep forest, in the rain and mud, probably without boats, and then have to swim for almost a half-mile. No way.”
A thought occurred to Jason.
“Hey Ravs… you’ve got that teleport spell that makes all that mist, and I’ve seen some of you other spells do something similar. I don’t suppose you have some kind of dense fog spell, do you?”
“I can cast Obscuring Mist. It’ll make a wide-area fog bank that follows me around. Why?”
Jason grinned at her. “That’ll do nicely.”
He turned to Lumi. “I think I’ve got a plan. Let’s cut through slightly to our south. We can head west, ambush a few of those scattered pockets, sneak our way through the main Murkling camp, and then make a line straight for that submerged building on the far side. We take out anything in the area, and if it turns out to not be the entrance’s hiding spot, we can still head back inwards towards the whirlpool afterwards.”
Lumi’s eyebrows rose. “You think we can sneak through one of the main camps?”
“Absolutely,” Jason said firmly.
“Alright, then,” Lumi said. She turned to Aurion. “Looks like we have our route.”
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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.