Dungeons were one thing, but dragons were another! Being in front of that Ansae Ziir was like being underwater. Under a lot of water. Blue had a little bit of that effect, but it wasn’t so concentrated.
On the other hand, she got to meet a dragon and it wasn’t trying to kill her or anything! No one would ever believe that. Though she had a feeling Ansae was a bit more willing to act dragon-y than Blue was to act dungeon-y.
Blue was currently being not-dungeon-y by presenting them with an icefield full of monsters they could just...kill. Keri stared in awe at the crystalline tunnels, the light from overhead softened by a thick coating of rime, her breath fogging the air. The [Armored Tunnel Crawlers] were perfectly preserved lumps, helpless against the three of them even if they were somehow still alive.
Annie began using her blowgun, which more or less exploded the monsters inside their icy prisons, but she didn’t seem particularly happy doing so. That made some sense; she preferred an actual fight to this sort of busywork, though gods help anyone who accused her of being battle-happy. She just wanted to be effective.
Shayma shifted her arm into a long pick, some sort of red-colored steel, punching through the ice to efficiently spear directly into the eyes of the immobilized tunnel crawlers. Keri thought it was quite disgusting, but those solidified illusions of hers were still limited to something like a dagger, which didn’t have anywhere near the force or reach. She kept glancing down the tunnels, as if afraid something might come up from them, where Blue’s light didn’t reach. Which was a reasonable worry!
For her own part, Keri was just applying her [Combat Healing] to everything in sight that wasn’t her friends. It was strange, keeping multiple mana lines open like that, since she was still not used to multitarget spells. Those were mostly relegated to the [Mage] evolutions, and while [Combat Healing] was a damage dealing spell she didn’t think it was anything like a fireball.
“Blue wants to know if you want any of the corpses or if he should dispose of them,” Shayma said, the comment coming out of nowhere as Blue’s messages often did. She knew, intellectually, that Blue could see them whenever he wanted to, but it was hard to really accept that was true when there was nobody else around. Especially since he could only talk through Shayma! It still bothered Annit though, which was a problem she hadn’t figured out how to solve yet.
“I think I’ll pass on these,” Annie said. “Probably Fire affinity, and I don’t think Crawlers have anything unusual anyway. Maybe exoskeleton, but after the freezing it’s probably worthless.”
“You just think it’s icky.” Keri grinned, picking her way over to where Annit was standing. The thick coating of ice on the floor wasn’t smooth, so it wasn’t as slick as it might have been, but it was still far too easy to lose her footing. “I’ve seen you gut giant civets no problem, but squashing bugs?”
“Keri…” Annit groaned as Keri attached herself to the other woman’s arm. “Not in front of Shayma.”
“Aww, but it’s not as fun to tease you then!”
“For what it’s worth,” Shayma called. “I’m on Annit’s side here! These things are awful! According to Blue I’m getting some combat experience but there’s no way to tell how much. Probably very little.”
“I’m curious why Blue didn’t finish these off himself.” Annit said, grimacing at the goo-filled ice pocket in front of her. “I appreciate him thinking of us, I’m just confused.”
“It’d take a lot of mana to control all these tunnels without risking collapsing them,” Shayma said. “He’s using most of his mana for experiments right now. Also he’s unsure how deep it’s a good idea to go right now.”
“I thought Great Dungeons went all the way down,” Keri said. “Wherever all the way down is.”
“I guess Blue’s just a pretty okay dungeon then,” Shayma said with a grin. Her ears flicked and she laughed. “Oh, stop it, you know I love you.”
Keri caught Annie’s attention, receiving a wide-eyed look in return. She still didn’t know how to deal with Shayma teasing Blue, but she’d learn. Keri elbowed her and grinned. “You should take lessons,” she said. “Blue isn’t that scary.”
Annie raised her brows and then looked pointedly around at the icefield and frozen monsters. “Not that scary, you say.”
“Actually Blue wants to know if we’re willing to take a look any deeper. The monsters will be a bit less frozen there.” Shayma carefully made her way over to them, rolling her eyes. “Also he says to tell Annit, in these words, that he’s not all-powerful...yet.”
Keri laughed. “She’ll come around eventually,” she assured Shayma. Which was probably true, but Annie never did much like unbending for anyone else.
“...if all these things are dead, we’ll see what else is down here. Could Blue melt some pathways for when we get back?”
Shayma tilted her head for a moment, then nodded. “He’ll have everything cleaned up by the time we get back.” She flipped her hand, conjuring a light to float down the darkened tunnel. It was still slicked with ice, but less of it. Paradoxically that made it even more slippery, as rivulets and spalling evened out, and Keri found herself hanging onto Annit to keep from taking a tumble.
“So is this like delving into a dungeon?” Keri asked. She’d never been able to get into one aside from Blue, which didn’t count, and hadn’t even been into the higher-level areas on the other side of Wildwood. Until her class evolved, no group would have had a reason to take her along so this was all new to her.
“Yyeees,” Annie allowed, her face twisting slightly. “Though it feels wrong that we’re actually delving out of a dungeon.”
“You’ve been in a Great Dungeon?” Shayma looked back at Annie for a moment before returning her gaze to the front. She was usually the scout, since she had the best stealth and probably the best movement, though Annie could usually tell what was around by listening to the wind. Not that there was much wind down under the dungeon.
“Just to get my first evolution and become a Classer.” Annie shrugged. “Only the first couple floors of Nivir’s Great Dungeon, with a bunch of other low-level folk. It wasn’t exactly fun.”
“Nivir doesn’t have anything like Wildwood Retreat,” Keri put in wistfully. “Otherwise we would have just stayed there.”
“Why not?” Shayma asked. “It’s a Great Dungeon! It’s even bigger than Wildwood is.”
“Nivir’s Great Dungeon tends to Earth and Fire Affinity,” Annit said dryly. “A hundred square miles of bare ash doesn’t make for as rich a city as the Retreat.”
“Even so -”
“It’s the void Affinity,” Keri explained. “There’s not much, but it’ll shred any enchantments or runework in days or weeks. It’s why only low-levels bother with it. Nivir’s greatest non-asset, a Great Dungeon nobody wants to delve.” She sighed, mourning for her homeland. The story of the discovery of the Great Dungeon, and the subsequent founding of the country and disappointment, was something every Niverese child knew.
“Oh! My mother’s family came here for the void Affinity, but I didn’t realize it was that much of a problem.”
“What?” Keri’s foot slipped as she stared at Shayma, nearly pulling Annie with her as she stumbled. “Why would you want void Affinity?”
“Oh, mom’s family tends to use it,” Shayma said cheerfully, as if that wasn’t a ticket to an early grave. Then she noticed Keri’s look of horror and laughed. “Oh, no, she’s no caster. It’s a melee Class, so she doesn’t internalize any of it. Goes through weapons at quite a clip though.” Her ears flicked. “Of course,” she said, now talking to Blue. “Void Affinity mana destroys things.”
“Staying in Nivir’s Great Dungeon is like having permanent sunburn,” Annit grumbled. “And your clothing will fall apart in a few weeks. There’s waystations just outside the Dungeon’s terrain solely for changes of clothing. I don’t think anyone’s made it any deeper than the thirteenth floor.”
“Um.” Shayma stopped, her ears twitching. “Blue just asked me if all these fire and earth creatures down here are leaking from Nivir’s Great Dungeon.”
“I...have no idea.” Annie paused, stumped.
“Probably not unless there’s void Affinity here,” Keri put in. “But we don’t know how big the Dungeon gets more than a mile or two down. It spreads out, like a giant pyramid underground.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea.” Shayma said, then added for their benefit, “Blue is going to avoid digging any deeper until we know he’s not going to run into a Great Dungeon.”
“I’m pretty sure that’d turn out badly!” Keri agreed, trying to imagine something like a Great Dungeon fighting the way Blue and the Meil Dungeon had. It’d topple mountains. “I know that Tarnil doesn’t get along with Nivir all that well but I’d prefer my homeland not be wrecked by a Dungeon!”
“Blue doesn’t want to wreck Nivir either,” Shayma said soothingly. “This might all be speculation anyway. How far away is the Great Dungeon?”
“A few hundred miles,” Annie replied absently, paying attention to her footing. “I doubt it’s expanded this far, but I’ll let you know if I spot anything I recognize.”
Deeper they went, with Shayma’s little light-balls providing light far enough ahead to illuminate without blinding, though it took a couple of comments from Annit for Shayma to get just the right distance and color. Some of the advantages of her ring were disadvantages for her party.
They didn’t run into any monsters while there was still ice underfoot, thankfully. The frozen trail stretched several hundred yards down an at times quite steep tunnel. The tunnel walls bore the signs of claws and teeth, quite different form Blue’s pristine and smooth-planed corridors. Keri missed the familiar surroundings already. The ice crunched underfoot where it ended, leaving a long stretch of damp stone where meltwater trickled into the depths.
Annie heard them first, holding up a hand at a fork before Shayma could scout down one of the pathways. “We’ve got incoming. Lots of incoming. Sounds like a horde of small things.” She hefted her blowgun, [Wind Blade] hissing softly as she activated it. Shayma vanished to do whatever she did. Keri, for her part, lifted her hand to the Primal Source at her neck, ready to do an area cast. Technically she was the only one of them with an actual area Skill, though hers took a while to kill.
Annit had been wrong. It wasn’t a horde of small things. What came out of the tunnel was a tangle of stone-thorned vines, colored and textured like dirt but writhing like a knot of furious vipers. It also sprayed frigid water everywhere as it quested toward them at a speed that was very unplantlike. Keri had no idea what it was but started casting at it anyway, letting [Combat Healing] guide her mana.
It went to hundreds and thousands of little specks throughout the vast bulk of the creature, or plant, or whatever it was. The thing went deep into the tunnel, spreading out into the stone beneath their feet. Her mana dropped as the spell went to work, while Annie and Shayma started fighting the thing’s questing thorns. “Level 38 [Earthpipe Burrower],” Shayma reported as she parried a blind thrust by a stone-covered tendril, either using her own talents or Blue’s.
“That’s a lot higher level than I like, especially for something I don’t know anything about.” Annie frowned, gesturing for a fighting retreat. It was a lot higher level than them, but it wasn’t as fast as it might be, though neither Shayma’s sword-arm nor Annie’s wind blade did much but cut small chunks from it. So long as it didn’t get even more aggressive they could get away from it, at least, though her mana was draining quickly as it fought against the Burrower’s health. Fractions of the buffers she’d put on the other two were shaved off with every hit, making up for the bruising recoil of blows against stony skin.
“I’m doing...something!” She said, since she was! It wasn’t like she could tell how effective it was, only how much effort she’d put into it.
“Blue says its health is dropping! Hang on, he’s got an idea.” For a moment the only sound was the scratching of stone on stone and the crunching of little bits of Burrower being hacked off the dirt-colored vines. “Right then, this might get weird.”
A single tone came from just in front of Shayma as she scrambled backward and away from the thorned vines, starting out low-pitched and then dropping deeper. Then deeper still, vibrating into her bones and echoing off the tunnel walls. Suddenly the actual sound vanished, but the pressure remained, settling into her lungs like she had just run miles.
“What in the Abyss—” Annie gasped out, matching Keri’s thoughts exactly. It didn’t help that it came with a sudden deep foreboding, the feeling that something awful was creeping up on her, but if she hated it, the Burrower hated it more.
Suddenly the thing went berserk, thrashing about and bashing against the ceiling and floor. It wasn’t advancing on them anymore, or driving thorned vines at Shayma and Annie, it was just wildly hurling itself about the narrow tunnel. The ground trembled from the force of its convulsions, and the three of them backed up further, scrambling away from the plant.
Despite the ominous premonitions Keri kept the [Combat Healing] going. Shayma had warned them it might get a little strange, and Keri trusted that if there was something she really needed to worry about either Annie or Shayma would say something.
“Back!” Annie called suddenly over the din, waving for the three of them to retreat even further, and they scrambled up the tunnel, up to the edge of the ice.
The spots and patches that Keri had been feeding with her mana reached a critical point, and there was a cracking, creaking groan that had nothing to do with Shayma’s illusion. The Burrower suddenly stilled and the tunnel beyond shuddered and sank six inches, rock and dust falling from the walls and ceiling. Then the weird feeling Shayma was causing vanished.
“I’m going to veto down here for now. That’s way too high a level for just three of us.” Annie said, matter-of-fact. “Also, what in the Abyss was that, Shayma?”
“Infrasound, Blue says. He thought it was probably sensing vibration so really low pitched sounds would blind it. I guess it did a bit more than that.”
“I’ll say! Even I felt it, it’s so weird. It’s just illusion?”
“It’s just sound!” Shayma shook her head. “Though I didn’t think sound could do...that.” Her ears flicked and her eyes narrowed. “According to Blue, sound can do all kinds of things like...shake buildings apart?”
“I’ve heard of sound Affinity but I’ve never actually seen it in action. It’s not very popular.” Annie frowned. Keri knew what she was thinking. Just like sound Affinity was merely a fraction of proper illusion Affinity, her own wind Affinity was strictly inferior to storm Affinity. Unfortunately, evolving Affinities was even more difficult than evolving Classes. It had been a sore point with Annie for a long time, even if Keri didn’t mind, and while the new blowgun had helped, seeing The Hurricane had done the opposite.
Still, they were on good terms with a Power. She’d have a talk with Shayma and find out if something could be done. It wasn’t like Annie would ever ask!
“Anyway, apologies to Blue, but until we get some more levels it’s just too dangerous down here. We should at least wait for our new equipment.”
“That’s fine,” Shayma agreed. “Blue didn’t realize it’d be like this, and he doesn’t want us getting in over our heads anyway.”
“Don’t suppose he has any lower level areas he can send us to?” Annit asked wistfully. “If he did have monsters like a Great Dungeon…”
“Not right now,” Shayma shook her head. “Maybe when he expands, but for the moment we’ll have to stick to sparring.”
Annie grimaced. “At least until we head down to Duenn. I only hope we can deal with any of Tor Kot’s forces we find on the way there.”