A miniature explosion echoed through the stillness of the morning as Garth’s hwacha experiment detonated with a sound like an M-80.
“Maybe we should get a book on rocket science?” Wilson asked as Sandi whooped.
“A book on fireworks might be more appropriate.” Garth said, squinting against the dawn light reflecting off the stand of trees outside the dungeon entrance.
“Again, do it again!” Sandi said, jostling his shoulder.
At least Sandi’s having fun, Garth thought, creating a wood arrow packed with accelerant.
The concept had dawned on Garth when he’d spontaneously had the idea for the swarm of arrows. Garth’s mind had been considering how to deal with other mages when magical effects were erased when they got close to them.
The obvious answer was flinging non-magical objects at them magically, but until recently, Garth hadn’t been able to summon a swarm of arrows at the drop of a hat. That had honestly scared him a little, preforming a lot better than he’d expected. A dollop of Recursive casting layered over a carefully constructed Plant Growth and a dash of Design Plant had changed thousands of the billions of spores drifting around him into arrows near-instantly.
But there was a lot of room for improvement. It had been late that night when he’d stumbled on the simple idea of a two-stage rocket.
The concept: Fill the arrow with accelerant and light it, then delay the onset of ignition magically and fire it with magical propulsion, using a magical homing construct to steer.
When the arrow hits a Lantern’s area its homing, acceleration, and most importantly the spell dampening the burning of the accelerant, are all stripped away.
The rocket enters its second stage as the accelerant is allowed to burn at full force in the absence of magic.
Rather than being slowed down by a Lantern, the arrow speeds up. A simple trick that might save Garth some time and effort dealing with clan wizards. Add a bit of poison and maybe an explosive tip and you’ve got a recipe for a bad time. Of course if they were anything like Garth intended to be in a couple years, poking a hole in them might not be enough.
“Alright, just one more, okay?” Garth said, adjusting the size and shape of the nozzle in his head. He should be getting ready for Grok and his team to show up, but he had a hard time resisting attractive, enthusiastic women in low-cut jeans.
Garth held his hand out and used Design Plant and Plant growth on a spore above his hand. In moments, the arrow shed its bark in his hand in a cloud of ash and settled into a pen grip.
Garth checked the nozzle, mentally applied the fire suppression, then lit it.
With a telekinetic shove, the arrow sailed up into the air. When Garth judged it to be safe, he released the fire suppression.
The arrow leapt forward on a cloud of smoke, several times faster than Garth’s initial toss, before detonating a second or two later with another bang.
“Whoo!” Sandi shouted.
But why did it detonate mid-flight?
“Either the accelerant gummed up the engine with impurities or the wood carbonized under the heat, I’m thinking.” Wilson.
“Yeah, I should look into further temperature-proofing plant material, and smokeless gunpowder.
The accelerant was created through several experiments to refine tree sap into a lighter, more combustible material, aiming for rocket-fuel. Maybe if they changed to a more granulated form like gunpowder they’d get what they needed. They were basically fireworks, after all.
“Why don’t you just make a magic gun and be done with it, then.”
“Because people who make guns in a magic world have no class.” Garth said as Sandi rocked him from side to side and demanded he shoot off another.
“And rockets are okay then?”
Garth ignored him. “Last one, okay?” Garth said to Sandi’s beaming, innocent face, knowing that it probably wouldn’t be.
Garth designed the tree to be denser than iron and several times stronger, store a tiny amount of highly combustible organic compounds in the center, only grow about three feet long and a half inch wide. With Plant Growth and Control plant, he controlled every aspect of its development, resulting in an arrow encased in a thin shell of bark that turned into ash as he selectively drained growth magic out of it, revealing another perfect arrow.
Garth checked the nozzle, dampened fire and lighted it before tossing the arrow into the sky.
When he pulled the spell away, the rocket arrow surged into the air for an instant before detonating in another explosive failure.
Burning shrapnel hit the ground and caught the grass by Garth’s foot on fire, and he decided that was enough of that.
“One more?” Sandi asked with a pout.
“What the hell are you doing?” came a rough orc voice from the paved walkway leading into the park. The dungeon itself was in the center of a park, with a high stone wall around it, a beautiful place in peacetime, and a nice open area to shoot rampaging monsters from high walls in case the dungeon ever spilled over into the city proper.
Unlike what Garth thought, there wasn’t a lot of people trying to hawk goods to adventuring parties coming and going outside the dungeon entrance. Anybody who didn’t buy exactly what they needed before going into a dungeon wasn’t going to live that long anyway.
Besides, Garth thought it might be illegal to build inside the park. There were plenty of chintzy Sanatite4cash vendors just outside the walls, after all. The shops selling goods were all arranged like outfitting warehouses, rather than street vendors. Very professional.
“Perfecting a new spell?” Garth said.
“Well the man at the gate stopped me and asked some very pointed questions. You do know that as the leader of this party, I’m responsible for any damages to the property?”
Garth discretely put his foot over the bit of smoking grass, smothering the flame and wincing at the heat.
“I swear to fully compensate you for any monetary damages my actions may cause.” He said.
Grok eyed him a moment before nodding. “Alright. I’ll hold you to that.” He glanced back at the five other members of the party and motioned for them to come.
There were two Corio women with light armor, crossbows and sabers. Sisters, maybe? A benkei woman with what appeared to be wands strapped to her tight leather clothes…
Sandi pinched him.
Another male Orc frontliner, and a burly shinta man with an astonishingly thick recurve bow over his shoulder. That must be Bulad.
A real diverse crowd, Garth thought, glancing at the Orc man in charge as he made introductions.
Garth and Sandi smiled and introduced themselves. Grok and Kath were the two orc frontliners, the corio sisters Melaa and Hesie were middle range fighters. Bulad provided a constant stream of high power projectiles wherever they were needed, and Junten was their Benkei spellslinger.
She focused more on using powerful spells with unique attributes to trump strong monsters with well-defined weaknesses. She had very few utility spells, so they were glad to have Garth along, and Sandi was more than welcome. Never can have too many frontliners.
Although nearly everyone lost a bit of time staring at Sandi with a hint of lust. Even, to a lesser extent, the woman in the party.
“Alright, alright,” Garth said, grabbing Sandi’s Lure by the shoulders and holding her in front of him. “You might as well get it out of your system now, before you get caught staring at her ass while something’s sneaking up on you.”
They glanced at Grok, who shrugged and nodded. A moment later, Sandi was surrounded by all five of the adventurers, crowding Garth out.
“Don’t you wear armor?”
“How long have you been gold ranked?”
“Are you dating anyone?”
“Are you into girls?”
Garth resisted the temptation to continue listening to the barrage of questions and headed over to Grok. To her credit, Sandi was calm as could be, fielding questions like a pro. To be fair, she’d been the most attractive person in the room her entire life. Well, her Lure was.
“So, can you brief me on what the dungeon is like and how to behave? I admit I don’t have much experience.” Garth said.
“How many dives you been on…”
“Including the one in L.A.?” Garth asked, thinking back to the tiny one floor dungeon he’d waltzed into.
Grok blinked, his tusked jaw loosening in amazement.
He whispered, “Then how did you become Gold ranked?”
Garth shrugged. “Passed the combat tests with flying colors and a healthy bribe.”
Grok glanced around before pulling Garth in close. “Alright, look. We’ll say you’ve been on eight or so dives, alright? They’ll treat you like a newbie, but they won’t assume you’re gonna get them killed.”
He poked Garth in the chest. “In return, you are gonna keep your head down, stay in the center of the pack, learn fast, and not do anything without being told, okay? Same goes for your girl.”
“Fair enough. I’m here to learn.” Garth said. He was interested in how people managed dungeons and he’d already learned a bunch, but he’d never been in one before. Before he went and regulated his own dungeons, he felt like this was a god sent opportunity. Sure, it hadn’t been Sandi’s intention, but it was working out nicely.
“Kolath, I hope this doesn’t see us rotting in the lower levels,” he whispered, running his fingers through a mane of black hair. “If I feel the slightest bit nervous about your performance, I reserve the right to bring us back up.”
“Agreed.” Garth lied.
They assembled in front of the dungeon entrance, a large gate made of what seemed to be quartz crystals grown straight out of the ground. It was beautiful and ominous, the opening a solid blackness.
The grown-up dungeon had a lot more pizzaz than Garth’s baby ones.
Grox lead the way, walking fearlessly into the darkness, followed by his second frontliner, then Garth and Sandi. Garth took a deep breath and walked through the blackness. He found himself standing in a narrow tunnel
The interior of the dungeon wasn’t much to look at, dark blueish brown rock with the occasional lumps sticking out here and there. The ceiling was a bit low, and Sandi seemed uncomfortable as she navigated the passages, crouching as she walked.
“The creatures that inhabit a dungeon respond to the energy that the core gives off.” Grok said for their benefit as they walked, keeping his eyes forward.
“So a mutated dungeon like this one has a different class of creature than a normal dungeon. You’ll get creatures more focused on regeneration and endurance in a sanatite cave, like trolls, insect swarms, killer plants, and gods forbid you run into a hydra on the lower levels.”
“Almost everything in here can recover in a matter of minutes or seconds, so your best bet is to cause a massive amount of irreversible damage.” He thumbed an enchantment on the hilt of his blade and it began to glow a cherry red.
I guess that means fire, or more specifically cauterization, is how they handle regeneration.
One of the corio women put her crossbow back on its sling and passed Garth to whisper something in Grok’s ear.
“Not a bad idea,” he said, glancing back at Garth and Sandi.
“You two want to take the front and show us how you fight while it’s still a cakewalk?”
Garth shared a glance with Sandi and shrugged. “Sure.”
Sandi and Garth shifted in place to the lead.
A few minutes later a swarm of rats spilled out of a side tunnel, skittering toward them with crazed eyes.
Garth reduced the size on his combat dodder and caught the swarm in its tangling vines before they closed the distance. The group moved past the rats, Bulad and the corio sisters gawking at the tangled up mess of blood-drained rats. The benkei magician sniffed and walked past with an I’ve done better attitude. Nothing like some healthy competition.
As they walked, the passageways opened up, becoming wider and taller, allowing for three of them to walk abreast and Sandi to stand up straight, if barely.
A few minutes later they saw a group of three blue-green men with loincloths. They had bulbous foreheads and wielded clubs the size of a man’s leg. They spotted Garth and charged with a hungry gleam in their eyes. They were no bigger than a human male, and Sandi made short work of them. At least the first time.
Sandi pounced on the three of them, skewering them with her legs, but a moment later, they started getting up again, pulling their way up her legs despite being impaled. Sandi panicked, tearing the regenerating monsters to tiny pieces in a wild thrashing reminiscent of an ‘ew ewe ew, get it off!’ episode. Garth didn’t mention it, and no one else seemed to notice, they were too impressed by Sandi in Blender Mode.
“We call them troll-blooded. Not as strong or smart as an average troll, but a damn sight more dangerous than your typical gobs too.”
“Ah, neat,” Garth said, lighting the quivering chunks of flesh on fire and trying to peel Sandi’s lure off him.
“So what do you need Sanatite for, anyway?” Bulad asked as they crept on through the tunnels. The upper levels giving them leeway to talk quietly without too much danger.
“Sandi wants some heirloom jewelry, I suppose. I’m more interested in how a mutant dungeon is policed and what it’s like on the inside. My city has a few baby dungeons so I want to be able to offer some experienced insight on how they should be managed.”
“Oh? Bulad asked. “You guys are from the Outer Sphere?”
“I am, Sandi’s not native.”
“That’s cool, what’s it like?”
“Mostly it’s been plains and desert that I’ve seen, but Garth cleared out a nice, nearly tropical city with great weather, sunny every day and a great beach. Once the mountains are raised and they route the rivers through, the people moving in shouldn’t have any trouble with water either.” Sandi said cheerily.
“Your city?” Bulad clarified.
“There’s a lot of room for upward mobility when half of everyone turns into monsters and eats half of whoever’s left.” Garth said with a shrug.
“I guess so,” Bulad said, shaking his head while Garth now found himself at the center of attention rather than Sandi. It felt weird.
The first floor took a solid five hours to navigate to the hand-carved stairs leading down, and they stopped for the night at the end of the second floor.
Once they passed the third floor, Grok had them switch out with the Corio sisters, who were skilled rangers and capable of finding any new traps the dungeon might have created in their absence.
It was mostly a formality, since the traps didn’t change that often, but it wasn’t worth risking someone’s life on either.
Past the fifth floor, they put Garth and Sandi on support, and Garth got to see trolls up close. The nine-foot tall giants seemed capable of tearing grown men in half and wielded stone weapons that would turn them into paste.
Grok’s favorite move against these huge creatures was to charge inside their reach, sever a leg with his glowing blade, and then decapitate the fallen creature. Garth saw the orc employ the tactic so often he was able to call up memories of the event and superimpose them on each other, noting very little variation in the orc’s form.
Swoop, roar, chop. Two hits, one dead troll. It was very respectable.
The most annoying thing was going out of their way to avoid traps. Garth helped with a few wooden bridges over pressure plates, or gumming up the trap mechanisms, or filling the tiger pits with wood.
Grok was grateful for the assist, saying it never hurt to have a safe way to retreat.
After a business week, they had become a well-oiled machine, reaching the end of the eighth floor and the typical limit of how far Grok’s party delved on a typical basis.
Four days later they made camp in front of the Boss Room on the tenth floor. There were a few minor scrapes, cuts and burns, but garth had them back in fighting shape in no time. The team seemed eager to break the tenth floor and plunder the riches that only the Mythril ranked teams ever saw.
“This’ll decide whether or not we’ll be aiming for the fifteenth floor,” Grok said, tightening his hands around the grip of his greatsword. “Should be the hardest fight of the whole trip. If we come out of this in good shape, we’ll keep going, otherwise we’re headed back up. We’ve already gotten a decent haul.” He eyed the small satchel filled with Sanatite crystals.
“Afterwards, I can make fava bean chili to celebrate.”
“Please Garth, no more beans.” Junten said, rolling her eyes. it had taken most of the first five days for the mage to open up to them, but it had happened eventually. There’s something about pooping in the same room to avoid being ambushed that brings people closer together.
“Sweet corn on the cob?”
“No,” Hesie said.
“Fried rice with broccoli and strips of whatever meat you guys have left?”
“Do you have anything else?” Bulad asked, his bow half-drawn, half aimed at Garth.
“Real people food would be good.” Grok said.
“I tell you what,” Garth said, rearranging plant-based foods in his mind. “I’ve got all the ingredients to make you guys a nice veggie burger with sliced peppers and guacamole.”
“Whatever,” Melaa said rolling her eyes.
Kath was stoic as usual. Sandi didn’t really bother entering the conversation, since she’d eaten monsters on the way down.
“You’ll like guacamole, trust me.”
“Alright, get ready.” Grok said.
They shut up, turning their attention to the door. A moment later Grok opened the door, leading the way in. Junten slid one of her wands out of its holster and fired a flare up onto the ceiling.
Junten’s wands, Garth had learned, were keyed to specific types of mana, making casting specific spells more fuel-efficient by doing a bit of the mental work of drawing in and separating specific types of mana. She sheathed the light-wand and pulled out a fire-wand, the one she spent the most time with.
Strangely she never used a Lantern. Garth was starting to suspect the technique was more unusual than he assumed. The only people he’d seen using it were clan-based magicians.
The light climbed up to the ceiling revealing the hundreds of feet of scaly necks, attached to blue-green dragon heads that were waking up from the sudden intrusion. The heads peered at them, groggy at first, then angrily, hissing as they recognized them as intruders.
“That’s a big hydra.” Garth heard Grok whisper before the door slammed shut behind them.