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The party of adventurers peered through the hole in the shattered wall at the bottom of the mine. The soft light of the two magical orbs stopped barely a meter into the opening. Val sent his orb through the hole, revealing a tunnel built from square bricks of some dark stone. There was a burned-out torch lying on the floor, just on the other side of the hole.

 

Well, here we are. Shall we?” asked Jamus.

 

Yup,” Carten said, jumping down into the tunnel and landing on the tiled floor with a clank.

 

Val shot Rain a look. “You sure you don’t want to take that physical defense aura?”

 

Rain shook his head. “That would be a mistake. I can only use one aura at a time, and the percentage isn’t high enough. Even if I boosted it, I’m betting the efficiency would take a hit. No, it’s much better to just not get hit in the first place. This is why I wanted to wait a day or two. I’ll be okay, though. I’ve got my armor.” Rain knocked his hand against the side of his metal helmet to demonstrate.

 

That’s the spirit,” Val clapped him on the shoulder and jumped down. Rain went next, dropping the half-meter to the floor of the tunnel and looking both ways. Detection revealed nothing, but he was wary of trusting it after Jamus’s warning. Ameliah followed, then she and Val sent their lights zipping down the tunnels. They split off in opposite directions, leaving the group in momentary darkness.

 

The tunnel to the right stopped after a short distance, ending in a collapsed pile of rubble. The other direction appeared clear, however. The stalwart pool of light from the Lunar Orb looked tiny as it fought its way further into the oppressive darkness.

 

What’s the range on that thing?” Carten asked, looking at Ameliah as the orb continued down the tunnel.

 

A thousand stride,” Val answered. He nodded down the tunnel. “That one’s mine.”

 

Rain blinked and looked at the tiny light in the distance. Tallheart said he was about 3 stride tall. I’d put him at around 220cm, therefore a ‘stride’ is like 3/4 of a meter, more or less. So 750 meters at least for that spell. That’s…wow.

 

Not that I don’t believe you, but that seems excessive,” Jamus said. He was staring down at something in his hand, making a page-turning motion. What’s that about? Is he using his interface? Why does it look like he’s turning the pages of an invisible book?

 

It has its uses,” Ameliah said. “The spell has limited autonomy. You can assign it to follow someone, for example.”

 

Oh, I see,” Jamus said. “Here it is. Lunar Orb: Summon a biddable light spirit, low mana cost, extreme range,” he summarized, staring at his empty palm.

 

Yup, that’s his interface alright. He closed the book when he was done and everything. Why am I not surprised?

 

Ooh, hit a wall,” Val said, staring into the blackness. Rain couldn’t make out anything more than a faint glow of the Lunar Orb, now far in the distance.

 

How can ya tell?” Carten asked.

 

I can feel where the orb is. It can’t go through stuff, so I know there’s something there if it stops.”

 

Humm. Maybe it’s not so useless after all,” Carten said. “Well, let’s get going then. Rain, Velocity.”

 

Don’t waste mana,” Ameliah said, shaking her head.

 

Aww, but I wanna get ta the good part!” Carten whined.

 

The group set off toward the light in the distance. Val brought his orb back and kept it at around 20 meters in front of them so they could have a little warning if anything was coming. Ameliah’s orb was slowly orbiting above her head. The tunnel ceiling was high but still within the range of the light. Rain was periodically canvassing it for slimes as Carten led the way down the passage.

 

Can’t forget to look up.

 

The group crept on like this for quite a while in silence. The darkness was really starting to weigh on Rain’s nerves. If the others were affected by the atmosphere at all, they didn’t show it. Val in particular just looked eager to reach the lair.

 

Oi, there it is,” Carten said abruptly, pointing ahead.

 

Rain followed his finger to see that the light of the orb in front of them had stopped at a dark, translucent barrier blocking the tunnel. The output of the Lunar Orb seemed to fight against it, fizzing into gray smoke as it met the magical barrier.

 

That’s the lair?” Rain asked.

 

Yes. Clearly dark aspect,” Jamus said.

 

How do we get through the barrier?”

 

Jamus paused to consider. “From what I’m told, you just walk through.”

 

From what you were told?” Rain said, incredulous. “You’ve never been in a lair before? I know I’m not one to talk, but…”

 

I had my awakening in the badlands,” Jamus said with a shrug. “I’ve heard all about them from Staavo, though.”

 

Same,” Carten said. “The badlands bit, anyway. No idea what a ‘Staavo’ is.”

 

Staavo is a ‘who’, Carten, not a ‘what’.”

 

Carten laughed. “That’s the joke, Jamus.”

 

Are we going in, or not?” Val said, cutting off Jamus’s response.

 

Wait,” Ameliah said. The group turned to look at her.

 

If none of you have been in a lair before, there are some things you should know.”

 

I think we can figure it out,” Val said.

 

No, Val. Just no. Go ahead, Ameliah,” Rain said. He was getting a little tired of the man’s overconfidence. Someone was finally going to explain something to him ahead of time for once, and he wanted to hear what she had to say.

 

Rain is right. You should listen to me if you want to stay alive,” she said.

 

Bah, we know what we’re about,” groused Carten. “I don’t need someone telling me how to walk through a shimmery wall. What makes you an’ expert, anyway? Sure, you’ve got a good grip, but…”

 

Carten trailed off as Ameliah wordlessly pulled out her Adventurer’s Guild plate, letting it fall outside of her tunic. The silver metal looked almost white in the pale magical light.

 

Oh,” Carten managed, staring at the plate.

 

Jamus whistled. “You’re a Silverplate. I had no idea.”

 

No more interruptions,” Ameliah said. “I’m here to teach Rain to not make the same mistakes as most adventurers. That means you. If I can correct some of your faults, all the better.”

 

Oh shit! Rain thought, suppressing a smile. I think they pissed her off. I haven’t seen that expression on her face since we were with Hegar’s party.

 

This,” she indicated the dark wall of magic, “is the barrier. Once we go past here, we’ll be in the lair. The first thing you’ll notice is the party display. You’ll be able to see the Health, Stamina, and Mana of your party members.” She held up a hand to forestall Jamus, who looked like he was about to ask a question.

 

Not the actual number, just how much they have relative to their cap. You’ll still be able to see it, even if you get split up. If someone’s name disappears, it means they left the lair. If someone’s health drops to nothing, it does not mean they are dead. Do not make that mistake. It may still be possible to save them. If they are down, but still alive, don’t try to move them. Use a scroll or a potion.” She paused, turning her head. “Yes?”

 

Jamus lowered his hand. “No offense, but this is a low-rank area. Aren’t you being a little overcautious? Since you’re a Silverplate, aren’t you more than strong enough to deal with anything we find in there?”

 

Do not underestimate a lair,” Ameliah said. She placed her hand against the barrier, and Rain jumped as a dark purple glyph shimmered into existence. He recognized it as the very first number he had learned: a ‘5’, written in stylized common.

 

This is the lair’s rank. Use it as a guide. Never enter a lair with a higher rank than the average level of your party, and never enter a lair alone. Don’t assume that the lair’s rank is that of the highest monster you can find inside. It is not. Watch your positioning and be careful about friendly fire. Use the environment to your—” Ameliah stopped and sighed. “What?”

 

Val lowered his hand. “How are you supposed to get stronger if you never take risks?”

 

With hard work, caution, and preparation,” Ameliah said, annoyance clear in her tone.

 

This all seems like overkill,” Val said. “It’s a dark lair, and I use light magic. I’ll blow them all away in one hit.”

 

And when you run out of mana?” Jamus asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

That’s what Rain’s for. Also, weren’t you on my side?”

 

She’s convinced me, what can I say?” Jamus shrugged. “We do it by the book.”

 

Fine,” Val said, with an enormous sigh. He looked at Ameliah. “We’ll do it your way. At least until we find a blue, that is. Then we do it my way. I get to fight it alone.”

 

Ameliah sighed. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

 

I’d rather die trying to be a legend than live to old age in mediocrity,” Val said, grinning.

 

One thing,” Carten said, “I’m here for experience first and money second.” He looked at Ameliah. “I don’t want you takin’ all my experience.”

 

I’ll hang back once we’re inside. I won’t intervene unless it looks like someone is going to die” she said, glancing at Val. “Depending on how well you do, I might break off to scout ahead, but I’m not doing that until I know you can handle it.”

 

Where’s your weapon at, anyway?” Carten asked. “You don’t look like a mage.”

 

I fight with my whole body, as well as magic. I used to be a Jack, but now I’m something else.”

 

Sounds like a monk. Granted, I haven’t actually seen her fight. For all I know, she might transform into a werewolf or summon a giant flaming sword.

 

Rain brought his focus back as Ameliah started speaking again.

 

A few more things. First, we don’t know what kind of lair this is, other than the aspect. I shouldn’t need to tell you this, but for Rain’s benefit, there are different kinds of lairs. Some are filled with traps that reset themselves, some contain hordes of monsters that come in waves, others are a maze. The possibilities are endless. Next, you see this?”

 

Looking where she was pointing, Rain saw a small bar underneath the large number floating in the middle of the barrier. He’d taken it for decorative scroll-work before.

 

This shows the state of the lair. The bar is full, so we can expect heavy resistance. Depending on the type of the lair, it might recover after a day, or not for several weeks. It depends on the size of the lair and the density of the monsters inside.”

 

She removed her hand from the barrier and the purple glyph and bar faded away.

 

Last, but not least, if we make it to the core, do not destroy it. We are here to farm the lair, not gamble for an uncertain reward. We’ll destroy it before we leave, but we might get three or four full runs in before we run out of supplies. I need everyone’s agreement on this. If someone breaks the core without consulting the others first, we’re going to have a problem.”

 

Agreed.”

 

I’m with ya’.”

 

Yup.”

 

Ameliah turned to Rain, waiting.

 

Rain nodded. “I agree, but what is the core? You mentioned a reward?”

 

Every lair has a core,” Jamus said. “Sometimes you might hear it called a ‘heart’, or a ‘nexus’. People have different names for it. The point is, breaking it will bring down the barrier and destroy the lair. The core will sometimes create an item when destroyed, or a mountain of Tel or Crysts. I’ve even heard stories of stranger things, like extra skill points and boosts to stats, but I’m not sure if those are just rumors.”

 

No, that’s true,” Ameliah said. “It isn’t common, but it can happen.”

 

Our very own lair!” Val smiled. “And nobody to stop us.”

 

Now that’s just askin’ fer trouble,” Carten said. “Remember, Lavarro or Mahria might’ve reported it to the guild. We could get company.”

 

Rain had been nodding along, but stopped as he suddenly remembered Tallheart. “Shit, should we go back and warn Tallheart? I know we already mentioned it to him before we even left the city, but…”

 

He’ll be fine,” Jamus said. “He should be able to deal with anyone who shows up. Nobody strong enough to be a problem for him would be interested in a low-rank lair like this.”

 

Still, we should—”

 

Oh, come on, Rain,” Val said. “Let’s go already!”

 

No, Rain is right,” Ameliah said. “Message: Tallheart. We are entering the lair. Be careful. It is possible that another party of adventurers may know about the mine.”

 

Rain raised an eyebrow. As soon as she had said Tallheart’s name, her voice had taken on a strange, echoing quality, as if it was coming from a great distance down the tunnel.

 

There,” she said, her voice back to normal. “I warned him.”

 

You really have a lot of different skills,” Rain said. “Is that something to do with your class?”

 

Yes,” she said, but didn’t explain further. “I’m going in. Give me thirty seconds to make sure it is safe, then follow. Once we’re inside, keep your mind on the task at hand. Tactical communication only. Chatter can wait until we are back at the camp.”

 

Man am I glad she’s here. She really seems to know what she’s doing, now that she finally took charge. Jamus, Carten, and Val look like amateurs by comparison. Ha, what’s that make me?

 

Ameliah stepped through the barrier and disappeared into the darkness. Carten turned to Jamus and laughed. “How do you keep finding these crazy women, Jamus? First you find me a job workin’ with Lavarro, and now her.”

 

She’s nothing like Lavarro, Carten. Lavarro doesn’t explain anything. She just glares at you until you do what she wants.”

 

Haha, yeah. You’re not wrong about that. Still, I’d love a woman who could bend me over her knee. It’s hot. Think I’ve got a shot?”

 

Not a chance,” Val said, placing his hand against the barrier. The glowing purple number reappeared, but instead of the scrollwork bar below it, another glyph appeared, one Rain didn’t recognize.

 

Huh.

 

Val inspected the glyph for a second, then nodded and pushed through the barrier. As he passed through, the light from his spell winked out abruptly, leaving them in darkness. Thinking quickly, Rain activated Purify. The light was even dimmer than that of Lunar Orb, but it was better than nothing.

 

You’re next, Rain,” Jamus said.

 

Rain steeled himself, then placed his hand on the barrier. To his surprise, instead of the common glyph for five, a stylized Arabic numeral formed instead, as well as a small circle with 100% written within it.

 

The depths is that symbol?” said Carten, staring at the five.

 

Just a number, Carten. Looks like the barrier adapts to the person. These are the glyphs we use in my language,” Rain said.

 

Humm, curious,” Jamus said. “Anyway, go on, Rain. We’ll be right behind you.”

 

Rain took a deep breath, held it, then stepped through the barrier. The magic was cold against his skin, but fortunately the barrier wasn’t very thick. He stepped out into a small room with an arched stone ceiling around three meters overhead. Before he could register much more than that, a strange sensation pressed against his mind. He felt something give way, and a new panel appeared in front of him in a burst of static.

 

Unnamed Lair e492c91f

Rank 5

100%

 

Party

 

Ameliah

Health: 100%

Stamina: 99%

Mana: 99%

 

Val

Health: 100%

Stamina: 90%

Mana: 95%


What the heck was that pressure?

 

Rain decided not to dwell on it, quickly resizing the window so it didn’t fill his entire view. He’d customize it to be a bit more unobtrusive once he took stock of his surroundings; getting it out of the way was enough for now. Jamus and Carten came through the barrier as Rain looked around the room. Their names were added to the party menu as they entered.

 

Ameliah and Val were standing on the far side near a tunnel leading into the darkness. Other than the tunnel and the barrier, there was nothing very exciting to look at. The floor and walls were made of the same black tiles as the hallway outside had been, and there were no defining features to hint at the room’s purpose beyond being an entrance.

 

What’s with the name of the lair? That looks like hexadecimal…Again with the computer theme. I haven’t done any programming since I dropped out, and yet… Well, I suppose it makes more sense than everything being blueprints or something. It wasn’t like I was in charge of designing the buildings, just putting them together. Wait, I’m making an assumption here.

 

Can I ask a question?” Rain said, looking at Ameliah.

 

You just did,” Carten pointed out unhelpfully. Ameliah rolled her eyes and nodded.

 

Does anyone else see the name of the lair as ‘Unnamed Lair e492c91f’?”

 

I do now,” Jamus said. “Odd. The bit on the end wasn’t there before.”

 

It means that we’re the first ones here,” Ameliah said. “The name of a lair isn’t set until it’s been discovered. We get to name it. Not that it matters, as we’ll be destroying it when we’re done.”

 

Ooh! Dark…Mine!” Carten said. “The Dark Mine! That’s a good name.”

 

As Carten said this, Rain watched the heading of the new panel fuzz and change, spelling out the title Carten had selected.

 

Don’t you think that’s a bit too on the nose, Carten?” Jamus said. “How about something like, ‘Everdeep Fortress’ or ‘The Glooming City’?”

 

Humm, the first one’s not bad,” Val said. The title on the panel fuzzed again, changing to match.

 

What? No! I liked mine better,” Carten said. “Change it back!”

 

Enough,” Ameliah said. “What did I say? Stay focused.”

 

No, this is important,” Carten protested.

 

Be quiet, or I’ll bend you over my knee,” Ameliah said with a knowing smirk.

 

Oh my,” Jamus said. “I believe she heard you, Carten. I guess the barrier doesn’t block sound.”

 

Rain laughed as Carten turned beet red and looked down at the floor, swearing under his breath.

 

Ok, enough screwing around,” Ameliah said. “Carten in front, be ready for anything. Check for traps. The rest of you, stay a little ways back and be ready to fight if something comes. Remember to conserve your mana and stamina.” She looked back at Carten. “And stay quiet.”

 

Carten grimaced and moved to the front, waiting for the others to get into position before he started to creep down the tunnel, shields held at the ready. Val sent his orb floating in front of him, the light revealing the unadorned black stone of the passage. Jamus went next and Rain followed, carrying his staff lifted off the ground to avoid the sound of the wood striking the stone as he walked.

 

Belatedly, Rain realized that he was still using Purify. The skill was barely visible. Rather than shining with its own light as usual, the effect was subdued, only appearing as a barely perceptible mist that faded to invisibility outside the range of the two Lunar Orbs.

 

I guess that’s the effect of the lair’s dark aspect.

 

Rain deactivated the skill and switched back to Winter, seeing that a few of his companions could do with the mana. He messed around with the new panel, removing the blue background and converting his companions’ vitals into bars like his own. He shrunk them down and arranged them on the left side of his field of view where they wouldn’t get in the way. The lair info got the same treatment. He broke it away from the party information and moved it over to the bottom right.

 

He darkened all of the elements of his HUD, decreasing the brightness and transparency until they didn’t distract from his gloomy surroundings. The interface didn’t light his environment at all, but it was perfectly capable of destroying his night vision. His eyes slowly reacclimated to the darkness in the absence of the brilliant blue panel.

 

The lair was dead silent as they moved down the tunnel, only the sound of Carten’s metal shod boots breaking the oppressive stillness. Suddenly, Carten came to a halt, motioning for the others to wait. “Val, Ameliah, kill the lights,” he whispered, staring into the darkness. The orb above Ameliah’s head winked out, followed by Val’s after a few seconds, plunging the tunnel into complete darkness. Rain gulped. He couldn’t see a single thing.

 

Thought I saw somethin’ ahead,” Carten whispered. “Eyes. In the darkness.”

 

Rain, do you sense anything?”

 

Berating himself for not doing so already, Rain triggered a pulse of his Detection aura, searching for monsters. Immediately, he got a fuzzy signal coming from the tunnel in front of them. It was amorphous and difficult to localize, like smoke. “Something there,” he whispered, boosting the power and trying again. The signal was a bit clearer the second time, but he still couldn’t get an exact lock on it. “I think it’s blocking my skill somehow. I can tell it’s there, but not how far away it is.”

 

Shh. I see it,” Jamus said, from somewhere to the left. Rain moved his head to the side, trying to see past Carten’s invisible bulk. As he did so, he found himself looking into two red eyes staring back at him out of the darkness.

 

I see it,” Val said softly. “Watch your eyes.”

 

Rain blinked as a bright flash of white light lit the tunnel. There was a startled yelp, followed by the thump of a body collapsing to the ground.

 

Got it. Easy,” Val said smugly. He re-summoned his light and started walking down the tunnel, but Carten stopped him with a hand.

 

Stick to the plan. There could be more,” the big man said. His tone was serious in contrast to how he had been speaking before. It seemed that the reality of the situation was finally starting to get through to him. He resumed his slow progress down the tunnel. Quickly, Rain checked his notification log as he followed.

 

Your party has defeated [Dark Hound], Level 4

Your Contribution: 0%

0 Experience Earned


Huh. Zero contribution? Either one of the others got the credit for spotting it, or the rules are different in here. I didn’t do shit against the Musk Wolf and it still gave me ‘<1%’. Wait a minute…

 

Something had been bothering him for quite a while now, but he hadn’t been able to put his finger on it. Thinking of the battle with the Musk Wolf had shaken the thought loose from his subconscious and brought it out into the open.

 

That fight was way too easy. Hegar and the others killed that thing with only a few hits despite the fact that it was level 18 and an essence monster to boot. I’d accept that their skills did way more damage than they seemed to, but still…That wolf must have had tons of health. How the hell did they kill it so easily?

 

Carten held up a hand to signal the party once more as the light of Val’s orb revealed the downed Dark Hound. Carten stepped over it, then planted his shields in the ground. “Rain, do the thing,” he said, looking over his shoulder. Rain nodded and activated purify, keeping the intensity at a low level. He wanted the time to ask a question.

 

Ameliah, something’s bothering me,” he said quietly.

 

What?” she asked. “Did you sense something?”

 

No, it’s sort-of unrelated. Something doesn’t add up.”

 

Fine. Make it quick,” she said softly. Rain glanced at the slowly evaporating Dark Hound before continuing. The effect of his aura seemed undiminished, even if it no longer generated light.

 

When I first got here, Hegar and the others killed that huge Musk Wolf in only a few hits. Why was it so easy?”

 

Monsters aren’t like us,” Ameliah said. “They can’t survive without enough mana in the air. Something like that wolf would have been weakened immensely on the surface. It would probably have died on its own eventually.”

 

Oh,” Rain said. “That makes sense I suppose. So then those Kin…”

 

Shh. Stop stalling,” she said. Rain thought she looked a little uneasy in the dim light, but she quickly controlled her expression. “I know your aura is stronger than that. Hurry up and finish. Ask your questions later.”

 

Chagrined, Rain increased the power until the Dark Hound disappeared completely, leaving a single Tel glinting on the ground. He picked it up and added it to the others in the bag before re-fastening it on his belt. “Ready,” he said, switching back to Winter.

 

The group continued down the tunnel until they came to a black stone door barring their path. Carten walked up to it, setting one shield down and reaching for the door. Ameliah hissed at him, and he paused with his hand hovering just above the handle.

 

What?” he asked, turning to look at her.

 

Check for traps,” she said.

 

I am checkin’ for traps,” he said, grasping the handle firmly. There was a sudden rushing sound and a bolt of dark lightning flashed from the handle, tracing arcing patterns across Carten’s armor as it shot through him. Rain jumped back in alarm, but the lightning stopped after only a few seconds. The man’s health had barely budged according to the party window.

 

There, trap dealt with,” Carten said with a grin.

 

And if it had dropped you into a bottomless pit instead?” Jamus asked.

 

Oh. Hadn’t thought of that,” Carten said. He paused for a second, then shrugged.

 

Wait, can that happen?” Val asked. “It seems a little unfair.”

 

I told you, don’t underestimate anything in here,” Ameliah said to Carten before glancing at Val. “And since when is life fair?”

 

Good point,” Val conceded.

 

Carten pulled the door open with an ominous creak, revealing a low-ceilinged passage made of the same dark tiles. The door was set into one of the walls of the new tunnel, the darkness extending in both directions. There was a faint sound of water dripping in the distance.

 

Left or right?” Carten asked, stepping out into the tunnel. Rain activated Detection again, but he didn’t feel anything in either direction. “Left,” he said with a shrug.

 

You sense something?” Jamus asked.

 

Rain shook his head. “No, it’s just that left is always right.”

 

Huh?” Carten said, blinking at Rain in the darkness.

 

Sorry, it makes more sense in English. The word for ‘right’ also means ‘correct’, so when I said…oh, never mind. I’ll explain it later.”

 

Well, why not? Left it is,” Jamus said, motioning for Carten to lead the way.

 

Rain,” Ameliah said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

 

Yeah?”

 

Pretend I’m not here. You’re last, so watch out behind the party and warn them if something comes.”

 

Got it,” Rain said nervously. The dark passage behind him stretched on ominously, and he thought he felt a slight breeze blowing. It could just have been his imagination. He used Detection again, the total lack of a response doing little to soothe his growing unease. He walked backward, following the others and keeping a lookout behind them. Ameliah moved into the center of the group, but left her light trailing behind them, an action for which Rain was immeasurably grateful.

 

Another intersection,” Jamus whispered from behind him. “Left again, Carten.”

 

Rain looked over his shoulder, making sure not to lose the others as he crept down the tunnel after them. The darkness and the silence were oppressive, pressing in against the light, as well as his sanity. Somehow, the lack of monsters was even worse than the eyes glowing in the darkness had been.

 

I don’t like this. I reeeeally don’t like this.

 

Reaching the intersection, he edged around the corner, sticking as close to it as he could. The darkness down the other tunnel was impenetrable, concealing unknown horrors in the murky blackness where their lights didn’t reach. Ameliah’s orb soon rounded the corner, following Rain as he scuttled backward. He kept pinging with Detection, faster than he needed to based on the speed at which they were moving. Still, there was nothing, only the darkness and the silence. The sound of the dripping water had stopped, and the air felt like it was getting colder. Rain shivered, clutching his staff tightly.

 

That’s odd,” Jamus said softly. Rain looked over his shoulder just in time to avoid bumping into him. Val’s light revealed another intersection in front of them. “Which way now?” Jamus asked. “Left should be a dead end. There weren’t any doors on the side of the first passage.”

 

Let’s check it,” Carten said, turning left and moving down the tunnel. Rain repeated his action from before, edging around the corner and trying to watch both tunnels at once. He winced as the metal of his chain shirt clinked against the stone. They continued on for a few minutes before Val spoke, breaking the silence.

 

I don’t understand. We should have hit the end by now. We turned left three times, so this tunnel should intersect with the wall of the first one, but…”

 

Yes, it’s been too long,” Jamus said.

 

Keep going,” Val said. “It must be just ahead.”

 

They continued in silence for a few more minutes, but the tunnel didn’t end or come to another intersection. Rain was struggling to control his imagination as he stared into the darkness beyond their feeble pool of light. “Guys, I think something is very wrong here,” he said.

 

Back the way we came?” Carten asked.

 

Might as well test it,” Jamus said.

 

The group turned around, Carten moving past Rain and leading the way back down the tunnel. Rain let Val take the rear, following closely in the shadow of the hulking form of Carten. He needed to give his nerves a rest in the relative safety of the center of the group. Though he kept trying, Detection still revealed nothing.

 

Carten halted abruptly and Rain bumped into him with a clatter of metal links against plate. Jamus shushed him, then swore when he saw the reason that Carten had stopped. By the pale light, Rain could see that the tunnel in front of them turned sharply to the left. However, the passage that should have been to the right was missing.

 

Oh no,” Jamus said.

 

It changed,” said Val, unease clear in his voice. Rain peered around the corner, staring into the darkness. He backed up, feeling for the opposite wall that had replaced the passage they had used before. It was solid, not an illusion or a magical barrier. Suddenly, Rain caught a signal on his Detection aura coming towards them down the tunnel.

 

Uh, guys,” he whispered urgently. “Something’s there.”

 

He snapped his head back towards where Val was standing as he got another hit. Then another. And another. The signals were rapidly closing in from both directions. Rain strained his ears, faintly making out the sound of nails clicking against the stone of the floor. In the darkness, a pair of red eyes flashed open, staring straight at him. A wailing howl shattered the silence and dozens more sets of eyes blinked open, burning like angry coals in the darkness.

 

They were coming.

 

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