Stories didn’t do the dungeon justice. After all, how to explain what it felt like to have time itself ripple through you? The Samsonstone Guardians would charge, only to be slowed almost to a stop. Then they would rush forward at a comparatively break-neck speed, because Shayla herself would be caught in the timewave’s swell.
Reymond and the others had run the dungeon countless times before completing it though, and even years later they remembered the strategies they’d devised. Lord Reymond filled the air near the floor with swirling particles of ice that glittered over the marble floors in Daida’s light. Shayla watched in fascination as the temporal ripples became perfectly visible, demarcated by an eerie linear slowing to the swirl of the flecks of ice over the floor.
“Left,” Reymond announced, and Torgun nodded. Shayla watched them wait for the right moment, until just after the latest crest passed over them and the rest of the room became a wild frenzy of ice, and then the slowing faded. The men dashed away in a pincer maneuver. Shayla gritted her teeth in anticipation of the clash.
She needn’t have worried. The two men aligned themselves perfectly along the axis of the oncoming timewave, never allowing the golem a moment off-sync to rush them. Instead, all three slowed together, then joined in a frenetic blur. Daida danced, sure to keep perpendicular to every wave so she would slow simultaneously. In truth her job was harder, but she was the best of the best. After a few passes, Shayla caught the pattern, following Daida from here to there and trying to keep out of the way.
Reymond’s sword and shield groaned and sang as blue ice met steel-gray stone, leaving frozen scars behind wherever they cut. Shayla could feel the cold from a distance, beyond what the ice particles themselves had brought.
The Gardener King’s plants didn’t mind the cold, not if it meant they got to be with him. They sprung up around his wrists and ankles to ensnare the golem even while securing Torgun’s feet to the ground. While Reymond chipped away at the stone, Torgun’s vines and roots found every crevice, doing the work of any plant—growing against all odds.
Golem after golem fell in the same way until there was only the boss left.
Alone in a vast, marbled hall of his own, the Grand Guardian stood directly between them and the far door.
The heroes didn’t pause, and Shayla once again stood impotently to the side. She’d played Prissy Princess with the other kids when she was younger, but she’d never enjoyed being the focus of the Quest. She’d rather be in the vanguard, protecting the prissy princess—girl or boy—from the opposing team. Now she was the prissy princess for real, following along helplessly on an honest-to-goodness escort quest. Her embarrassment was almost enough to overwhelm the feeling of stars swarming inside her.
With a final shout, Torgun drove his fist deep into the golem’s mouth, burying his arm nearly up to the elbow. Shayla winced at the crack of bone when the stone closed around his meaty forearm. Because of the timewaves, Torgun couldn’t pull back toward the women, and instead had to move even farther away, putting him out of reach of Daida’s healing. Shayla started to go to him, but Daida put out an arm to hold her back. Both she and the druid watched the golem, waiting for—
Vines erupted from between the stones of the boss’s chest, expanding in seconds to crack the stone.
“Those plants sure do like his blood,” Daida murmured.
Indeed they must have, because by then they were bursting from the golem’s mouth, branches seeking the sky and roots seeking the earth, tearing stone apart wherever it got in their way.
Torgun held the stump of his right arm with his left, staunching the flow of blood. Not entirely though; with every patter of blood hitting stone, plants of every kind sprang up, leaving a trail of green behind the bleeding gardener.
As soon as he was back within range, Daida closed the wound and set the hand regrowing.
“That’s one place Int comes in handy for healing,” Daida noted, and indeed Torgun’s hand was regrowing at an amazing speed, even though it would take hours and a massive amount of stamina to finish. The druid was ready with a stamina potion though. The matter-of-fact way the heroes reacted to the loss of the limb hinted to Shayla that this wasn’t the first time Torgun had left part of himself down a monster’s gullet.
The rooms beyond the final golem only grew more grand, transitioning from marble to porphyry and then to fluxstone. Each room held a new boss, and beyond each boss was a locked door. Shayla ran her fingers down the surface of the first. Was it stone? Metal? She’d never seen anything like it, nothing so black.
After a few seconds, Reynold produced an unusual cylindrical key and, after running his gauntleted palms over the surface to find the keyhole, he slid it in. Without a sound the door disappeared.
Four others opened the same way in response to four separate keys.
Beyond the fifth door was blackness. In fact, Shayla wasn’t convinced the door was gone until she put her hand through where it had been.
The three heroes stepped forward into—or onto—the void. They walked without sound, and Shayla trailed along after them. She could feel the moment approaching, and though her feet didn’t slow, she couldn’t stop her heart from racing and her palms from sweating.
Using the light from the door as a reference, the four walked farther in. There they could ignore the effects of the timewaves, Daida said. The room held no enemies, and so whomever was left behind one moment would be able to speed ahead the next.
Their destination was a single square, as white a white as the black was black. There was no way to tell how far the square truly was, but when the heroes stopped, Shayla did as well. For a moment they each stared at the shape, but Shayla didn’t see any need to drag things out. She made to approach the cube, but Daida caught her arm.
“Not yet you don’t,” she said, turning Shayla around. “Kneel.”
Secretly, Shayla was glad for the delay, but she resented it all the more for that. Why make her screw up the courage twice?
“Reymond, your sword?” Daida requested, and the man moved to hand it to her. Torgun came close as well, right in line with Reymond for the next timewave.
Ceremoniously, Daida lowered the sword to touch the blade to Shayla’s shoulders. She didn’t speak, but the announcement spoke for itself.
Wilson A. Bateman was raised all around the world, but predominately in Utah. Never able to constrain his interests to one field, he has degrees in German, Biology, Professional Writing, and Computer Science. He thrives on mixing Psychology and Philosophy into his work, and has recently made his debut in the Fantasy and LitRPG genres with his books: Auger & Augment and Serpent & Spirit.
He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his beautiful husband and their three hideous children.