The group huddled in around their leader.
“Take these.” Morghul held out four rings in the palm of his hand. Each was a band of silver carved with a single rune, the word of Return. “If you’re at risk of dying, it will pull you back the Magician’s Institute. Can’t guarantee they’ll save your life but you’ll certainly have better odds there.”
One by one, they took the rings, except Olkaz. The ogre made a few futile attempts to jam the little band of silver over his thick fingers, before handing it back with a shrug. “I just won’t die.”
And Morghul couldn’t help but notice Lady Grey only pretended to put hers on, before slipping it into a pocket.
“Alright then, your funeral. Lady Grey, lead the way.” Morghul shrugged. No skin off his nose if they wanted to play it risky.
"There, and there." The Lady pointed out two sections in the ground, and Olkaz walloped them with the spike on the back of his axes, breaking through a thin layer of earth disguising a pit trap. As he broke the second one open a puff of golden spores shot up, covering the ogre. Everyone froze, waiting for him to keel over, but Olkaz just sneezed.
“Hmph. Divine wind.” Lifting her hand Strix sent out a wave of golden wind that surrounded them. The drifting spores were simply pushed away as they advanced.
They wove through the ground on the Lady’s instruction, bypassing a small field of pitfalls. Colorful and glowing mushrooms crunched under their boots as they advanced. “Pretty.” Morghul noted. The compass in his hand was ticking slowly to the west. “It’s clearly intelligent.”
They stood in a wide cavern, the floor carpeted with the bubbling, frilled shapes of fungal life, in every color imaginable. Fat puffballs exploded into slime as Olkaz strode forward at the head of the group, stomping with glee on crooked-stemmed and flat-headed, ear-shaped and multi-colored, wisp-thin and translucent-as-glass.
Sniffing the air, he bent down and plucked a scarlet-colored cup from the ground, popping it between his crooked teeth and chewing. He turned to find the entire group staring at him with horror. “What? It tastes good. Delishush!” Olkaz said, mouth still full.
“Sort of small for a Dungeon, no?” The Lady Grey commented. It was best to change the subject from the wild stupidity they’d just seen.
“This one was retrieved and Bound before it matured. I’m surprised it has a mind at all.” Morghul said slowly. It was bothering him, actually. A Dungeon Core harvested before it was fully grown should be crippled even if escaped its bindings, left as a simple automaton that spat out the same creations and dug itself deeper endlessly. Nobody would risk wearing a sentient Mana rift on their fingers.
Or was Olin really that insane?
I boiled with helpless anger as I listened to them. The brute was stomping through my gardens with stupid glee, the woman had evaded my defenses with ease. As for the two shortstuffs lurking in the back I knew they were magical and had no idea where their capabilities ended.
In short, I felt a distinct, naseauting fear. I was not prepared for this. My creations were barely finding their footing in this world and already I was under pressure from forces far stronger than me.
The incense. I forced myself to focus. I needed to get that incense stick away from them. Now think. Think.
Lady Grey paused suddenly, the whole group lurching to a halt behind her. In the blink of an eye she leaped back as a viper shot from the mushroom fields, its teeth extended, its camouflaged skin becoming visible as it burst into motion.
It caught nothing but the air where she had been and a hurled knife, the dagger striking the serpent’s midsection and pinning it to the earth as it thrashed in dying pain.
The Lady Grey panted slightly, her eyes wide. That had been too close.
All around them, the little garden began to writhe.
She drew another knife from her belt and flung it out, killing another. Olkaz stepped forward with his axes and swept the ground around them bare with a scything blow, ensuring nothing could creep up on them.
And Morghul, Morghul began to weave complex knotted signs with his fingers, each motion creating another thread of golden light, until he had woven a complex and shining diagram in the space between his hands.
From its center a solitary flame bloomed into existence. “Stand clear!” He shouted, as that flame sprouted into a jet of raging blue fire, spraying off sparks as he drew it along the ground. Instantly the gardens around them were reduced to smoldering ruins, mushrooms hissing and bursting as the water within them was heated to steam. Any serpents caught by his spray of fire were reduced to burnt, charcoal-black things writhing as they were consumed.
It took a few seconds for the cavern to be stiflingly hot, and forever changed. The earth was dried and black with ash.
But in those few seconds, the hissing roar of the fire was so overpowering that nobody saw Lady Grey’s eyes jump to the ceiling, or heard her shout ‘Above us!’
Argent ran through the narrow chamber I’d carved over the gardens, letting me guide her until she was directly overhead of the invading party. NOW, I commanded, and she jumped, flickering through the walls and into midair above the four intruders.
She turned herself as she fell, jumped again before her feet had even touched the ground, and landed on the masked priest’s shoulders. Before the girl could even blink the incense stick had been snatched from her hands.
And then Argent was gone in a flash of silver.
“Fuck!” Lady Grey’s thrown knife went wide as the rat vanished midair, reappearing on the ground and taking off in a silver streak.
Another knife flew from her hand, but this one missed as well - there was a flash of silver light and the rat leapt from one point in space to another in the blink of an eye, leaving a trail like a lightning bolt in her wake.
Swearing violently, the Lady Grey lunged after, drawing her rapier as she chased the rat towards the sunlight pouring from the breach in the walls.
A brown flash shot over her shoulder. The priest’s owl had burst into motion, wings beating as it swooped down with talons extended-
A grey blur crashed into it from the side. A tiny bat-headed homunculus seized hold of the owl’s right wing and sent it spiraling into a tailspin. The thief dashed past them both as they crashed into the ground and began to squabble.
The rat was vaulting up the roots of the great black tree that grew in the breach, leaping over the top of the hill to go sailing into the open air and daylight. She was headed right for the lake.
But the Lady was faster. Her rapier sung as it pierced through the air to skewer to the troublesome rodent.
“Got you ra-” The Lady Grey’s words ended in sudden, breathless gluck! as a branch of the black tree swung around and caught her across the throat with enough force to lift her boots from the ground.
Her feet kicked in midair as she was hoisted up, wooden tendrils winding their way around her neck and squeezing down into the soft flesh. Her face turned dark with trapped blood. Her lips were bared in a wild, terrified snarl.
Her hand struggled to find her pocket, to slip on the ring hidden inside.
There was a blue light that descended from the ceiling and then she was gone.
And below, Argent splashed into the lake with the incense stick clutched in her jaws.
Freedom. I could have sung with joy as the incense’s binding spell ended, as my mind was unclouded and my will freed; I had vengeance to do.
I reached out.
Living creatures had a field of magic around them that repelled my own, making it impossible to eat them without killing them first, making it impossible to directly mutate or twist the bodies of those who invaded my Dungeon. But one of them had made a mistake. He had eaten my mushrooms, taken creations of my Mana into his own body.
I reached for the spark of my own power within him.
I made it grow.
“I don’t feel so good.” Olkaz suddenly said, his face blanching white. “I feel... stomach-ache…” The ogre clutched his belly, and as Morghul turned to tell him it was his own damn fault for eating that mushroom, the ogre leaned forward and spat up a root.
It shot from his throat, turning back to crawl across his face as it grew and grew. “Ahhfeelshic..” Another sprout of green was winding its way out from under his eye. More and more creeping tendrils grew from his nose and mouth, forcing his jaws open, a deluge of thready vines pouring out from the edges of his eyes and making them bulge. The skin of his face began to writhe as roots pressed up from beneath.
And before their eyes, the hulking giant fell to his knees and was consumed by greenery, turning into a frozen statue beneath a thousand vines. He stirred and fought weakly, slowly twitching as the last tortured life faded. All that remained was a mound of piled vines, not even the rough shape of Olkaz visible beneath them.
“Oh.” Strix said, her voice shaking.
“Right. Time to end this.” Morghul snapped.
He was heading right for me. I’d long since closed the door to my Sanctum, hidden the only entrance in the heart of a flooded underground labyrinth.
None of it mattered. He knew where I was, and he placed his hand on the thin stone wall separating us. A flash of magic twisted through the warp and weave of my Mana as the wall was simply cracked open. Like an eggshell. Dust and rubble cascaded into the bottom of my Sanctum, and the wizard strode through the breach.