The expedition had been proceeding smoothly so far, something Mirryn was exceedingly grateful for. The royal guards and the Legion had cooperated in the clearing of the upper levels and hundreds of lower levelled monsters had been destroyed in preparation for the wave.
It normally wouldn't take long for such high level warriors to move through this area of Dungeon. To the higher levelled Legionaries this place was simply no threat at all, they could probably walk through with six monsters hanging off them and hardly take any damage.
To be completely thorough and clear out every side tunnel, every passage and all of the branches systematically took a lot of time and effort. With two forces as sharp as the Guard, who only accepted the best, and the Deep Legion, who lived for this kind of fighting, the task was done as quickly as it realistically could be done.
"Don't they look relaxed over there" grumbled Donnelan, indicating the senior Legionaries standing by the tunnel wall chatting and laughing together.
"I wouldn't stare too much if I were you, and keep your voice down" Mirryn whispered back, keeping her hands on her crossbow and her eyes on the tunnel, "Aurillia is rumoured to have incredibly advanced hearing skills. If they hear you whining you'll be digging latrines into the rock".
"It just doesn't seem right that us lower levelled trainees with weaker jobs have to do all the heavy lifting whilst the full Legionaries stand about and watch. I've launched so many fireballs in the last ten hours my fingers have almost burnt black" Donnelan moaned.
Donnelan usually wasn't the type to whinge and complain when he was on the job but fighting monsters and being on constant alert for the better part of half a day was enough to get anyone in a foul mood. To make matters worse, even the trainees were high enough of a level that they received very little experience for using their skills or killing monsters this high up in the Dungeon.
"Hold on a little longer you sook" Mirryn admonished, "we'll make it down to the first Expanse soon and set up the advanced camp. We're scheduled to rest once the fortifications are in place".
"Great, more digging".
Mirryn could only roll her eyes at Donnelans' continual complaints. She couldn't blame him too much. Mages who specialised in fire magic like Donnelan were often called "Blast Mages" because they were effective in wiping out large amounts of lower levelled creatures, Donnelan had been forced to work much harder than she had.
"How are you two travelling? Managing to stay awake?" laughed one their Centurions, Alexi, as he approached to check on them.
The two trainees immediately saluted. "Just fine Centurion!" Donnelan declared, his voice full of vigour, "I'm ready to serve another ten hours, easily".
Alexi snorted. "No you're not, in another hour you'll be snoring on your feet."
The well-built officer gave them both an encouraging slap on the back.
"Remember, for you and the other trainees this mission is a rite of passage. Expect that you'll be worked extra hard. By the time we're done you'll feel dead and reborn at the same time".
Mirryn winced and Donnel audibly groaned, causing Alexi to laugh again.
"Don't worry too much, me and the old fogeys will start to pick up the slack once we reach the first Expanse", Alexi leaned closer to whisper conspiratorially, "you may not know this but us higher ranked Legionaries are built to function a lot deeper in the Dungeon than this, it hard to show our stuff up here".
Donnelan choked back a laugh. "What? Because the monsters are too weak?" he scoffed.
"Nooo", Alexi drawled, "because the mana up here is too thin. The ambient levels in the Expanse is just baaaaarely enough. You'll see some good stuff then. Watch out for the commander especially, he's a living legend for a reason you know".
"Alexi!" came a shout from across the tunnel.
The three of them immediately snapped to attention. "Yes Tribune Aurillia!"
The older woman was glaring at Alexi with a heat he could almost feel. "IF you're done running your mouth to the trainees centurion, then I suggest you take the trainees to the supply cart and locate three shovels. We'll need latrines dug once we reach the Expanse!"
Donnelan almost wept.
As the two trainees trudged away, cursing silently at their Centurion, Titus was chuckling quietly to himself.
"You think I shouldn't be so hard on them?" Aurillia asked, one eyebrow raised.
Titus shifted his grip on the massive axe resting on his shoulder. Instead of answering the question he asked one. "Do you remember your promotion expedition?" he said.
Aurillia grunted. "How could I forget, you ground us into paste, put us back together and then ground us down again".
Her answer drew a fearsome grin from the commander. "Now you're one of the finest officers I've ever seen. We don't coddle Legionaries Aurillia, we liquefy them so we can pour them into our mould. If those kids aren't crying themselves to sleep tonight we haven't worked hard enough".
"…" Titus frowned, "I'll have a word with our chatty Centurion myself".
Aurilla winced. After a 'chat' with commander Titus, Alexi wouldn't be speaking for some time. The healing alone might take weeks.
"Is the Royal Guard clear on their duties until the wave, Tribune?" Titus asked.
"Yes commander. We can leave protecting the Dungeon entrance and the upper tunnels to them. I'll have to thank the Queen personally when we get back, her Guards really know their stuff".
Titus grunted. It was true the Guard where highly skilled, but he wasn't sure it was necessarily the best idea for the Queen to send her most competent defenders into the Dungeon to manage the upper tunnels.
With all of the upper tunnels swept it was time to make the push into the Expanse. This is where the true strength of the Dungeon began to reveal itself, as well as its wealth. Monster cores were just one of the valuable materials that could be harvested from the depths, minerals, powerful crystals as well as the raw XP the monsters provided all commanded a price.
The deeper the expedition progressed into the Dungeon, the easier Titus began to move. After so many years of campaigning, it was difficult for him to spend such an extended amount of time on the surface. He wasn't built for up there, writing letters and managing the budget. With his axe in hand and the mana burning in his veins he felt much more comfortable.
Within the hour the expedition was prepared to advance further into the Dungeon. Titus positioned himself at the head of the caravan, leading his Legionaries towards the forest.
After ten minutes of marching with the occasional pause to crush a few monsters that came their way the tunnel opened wide suddenly to reveal the vast underground space that had been named the Forest Expanse.
The glowing forest spread before them in a wide arc, their faces illuminated by the blue light of the forest.
In orderly fashion the Legionaries moved swiftly to set up camp.
Earth mages moved quickly to raise walls using their powerful spells to create temporary barriers made of the soft earth of the cavern floor. The trainees were charged with unloading the supplies from the carts, erecting the tents and of course, digging the latrines.
Titus watched his troops go about their tasks with a critical eye. One hundred Legionaries made up this expedition, twenty of those were trainees on their promotion delve, the remaining were full Legionaries. Twenty five auxiliaries were also part of the force, responsible for medical aid, logistics and of course, the cook.
The Deep Legion would construct a forward fort here, barricading the tunnel leading towards the city of Liria and defending it during the wave.
From here they would also launch their scouting missions to locate the ant colony.
Suddenly Titus heard a monstrous roar from the edge of the forest. Bursting through the trees was a mature Lightning Fist Ape, its huge gorilla like fists thumping into the stone as it charged, full of rage towards the Legionary force.
The commander could only sigh. This high in the Dungeon it was common to see monsters with stunningly low Cunning. He was hardly surprised to see a Lightning Ape engaged in such a suicidal charge, of the evolutions possible to the spark chimp, the Lightning Fist Ape was the only one that actually lost cunning in the process.
In exchange they gained tremendous Might and a strong affinity to Electric mana shaping, which they usually discharged through their fists.
As the monster hurled closer the rest of the Legion showed no reaction as the commander stepped slowly forward. When the beast was directly in front him, its fetid breath washing over his face, Titus finally moved.
With one hand he hauled his famed axe, the enormous blade more a block of steel that a refined weapon, before he brought it down just in front of the charging monster.
When the axe impacted the rock there was a thud, then a pause, before a massive roar erupted, as if a meteor had struck the earth.
When the dust settled a thirty metre long groove had been cut into the cavern floor, the severed corpse of the Ape, cut directly in half straight between the eyes, lay either side of the cut.