Ari half-rolled, half-staggered to the ground as pain and nausea swamped his senses. He sank to his knees and retched. When he tried to breathe, a flare of pain made him convulse, gag, and vomit the rest of the breakfast. After there was nothing left in his stomach, Ari fell on his side and rolled over to stare at the stone-filled sky.
“Fuck,” he gasped, fighting for breath. More retching noises could be heard around him. At least I’m not alone.
“Wait a minute,” he whispered. His vision was still a bit blurry, and he blinked, trying to make sure that he was seeing right and not imagining things.
Instead of clouds, various shaped stones, some even as large as a house, floated high in the blue sky as if it was perfectly normal for them to do so. He blinked a few more times before asking, “Are you guys seeing this?”
“I see my breakfast,” Tasia responded wearily. “But not from the side, it should ever be seen. Fuck.” She cursed and retched again.
“No, no, I mean the sky. Look at the damn sky,” Ari said with a hint of panic in his voice.
A moment of silence followed, where he only heard his ragged breathing.
“What the fuck?” Elijah and Tasia shouted nearly in unison.
“Stop repeating after me,” the raven-haired woman hissed.
“I didn’t... do it on purpose,” Elijah complained as he tried to catch his breath.
“Just like you didn’t do anything during our sparing?”
“Shut up, both of you,” Ari barked. It quieted them down, but only for a minute. Then, they again jumped at each other’s throats, but not so loud, and he decided to ignore it.
The air was thick and humid, making it hard to breathe. Ari still felt a bit light-headed, but he managed to get onto his knees and somehow scrambled to his feet. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and carefully observed the surroundings. His whole team was here, and even the spider survived the passing through the rift. But the problem was with the here part.
Ignoring the flying stones, the landscape looked no less bizarre. They appeared near the mouth of a cave, located at the base of a mountain so tall, Ari couldn’t even see its peak. The entrance was wide enough for ten men to walk in at the same time and nearly seven meters tall. From where he stood, it looked like a massive gaping maw, which was ready to devour anything or anyone foolish enough to approach.
The area around the cave was overgrown by lush, green foliage, thick with huge trees rising hundreds of meters into the air. Ari listened in astonishment to the alien chirping and screeching sounds coming from the strange forest when a sudden roar startled him, and he jumped in alarm.
Elijah and Tasia stopped squabbling, and they all stared at the forest. Even his spider retreated toward the cave.
“What was that?” Elijah asked, his voice trembling.
“I hope we won’t find out,” Ari replied.
Both Tasia and Killian nodded at his remark.
“Is it normal for a dungeon to be so different from our world?” Ari asked. “I mean, look at the flying stones.”
“I only know that inside a dungeon, everything is possible,” Tasia replied.
In the meantime, the archer approached the cave and observed the ground at its entrance. After a few seconds, he raised one hand and waved them up. They hurried toward him, but Ari kept glancing over his shoulder, worried that something may appear between the trees. But when he joined Killian, he turned his attention toward the ground.
In no less than three places, there were extensive pools of gore and blood marks, which showed that something had been dragged inside the cave. Killian licked the tip of his finger and touched one of the spots, sniffed it, and moved toward his lips.
“Wait, what are you—” Elijah said, his voice filled with horror.
He hadn’t finished, because Killian licked the finger and made a sour face. “Human blood, and it’s fresh,” the archer said after a moment.
“I think I’m going to be sick again.” Elijah gagged. “How do you... No, I don’t even want to know.”
Ari eyed the blood marks when a squeaky cry came from the forest to their left, and they all froze. The bushes below the trees shuddered as something rustled within. A moment later, four creatures walked out of them. They were too occupied, chattering in some weird language, to notice Ari and his team standing not even twenty meters away.
The creatures were short, about the size of a seven-year-old child, their skin green with a tint of dirty brown. They had a malnourished look, with a head that was disproportionately large when compared with the rest of the body. Each wore a dingy gray tunic, with a leather strap running shoulder to waist.
The creature who walked at the head of the group had wide reddish eyes dancing wildly about as he repeatedly cried out toward his three companions, trotting a few steps behind. They carried overhead a filthy basket filled with spiky purple fruits, and from their sullen faces, it looked like they weren’t happy about it.
Suddenly the group stopped, and the basket fell to the ground. The creature in front pulled a rotten, rusty dagger from beneath its tunic. It smiled a fixed, cruel smile that showed its sharp yellow teeth. Then, it cut its hand, and tainted essence flared around its small body.
The hairs on the back of Aris’s neck stood up. I can’t let him finish casting that spell! He gripped his scepter tightly and pointed it at the monster. Essence poured into the weapon, and a small storm raged in the blue-tinted gem at its top. A second later, a curved shaft of blue-white light discharged from it.
But it missed, horribly.
A hole appeared in the stone ground, maybe two meters to the left of the group.
After a moment of silence, interrupted only by the sound of pebbles hitting the ground, the green creature laughed. First, it was a chuckle that grew louder, turning into a cackle. Its companions joined in; their laughs were so much alike. But in an instant, the caster’s face twisted into a venomous snarl as it pointed a gnarly finger at Ari.
A whistling arrow flew through the air making its shrill sound and a hole, the size of a fist, appeared in the creature’s throat, nearly taking its oversized heads off. Before its body even hit the ground, Tasia’s figure dashed past Ari, her raven-colored long hair flowing behind her. In the span of two breaths, she crossed the distance between him and the creatures. He never saw anyone move in such a way — she was fast, and frightfully so. Her two-handed sword glowed golden as she swung it in a wide arc.
The creature to the left managed to pull its rusty hammer out, trying to block the swing. But Tasia’s sword turned into a blur, cutting straight through it as if the weapon was made out of paper. She finished the fluid motion, kneeling on one knee, and an eerie silence filled the air.
Did she get hit? Ari thought as he readied himself to fire another shot. But something was wrong, and he lowered the scepter.
The three creatures weren’t moving, the smiles on their creepy faces frozen. Not even a second later, their heads fell off their shoulders and rolled away, vanishing in the bushes. A few spurts of black slime-like blood gushed out of their necks before the headless bodies hit the ground with loud thuds.
Ari stood with his mouth hung open, trying to comprehend what just happened. Meanwhile, Tasia fished a white piece of cloth from her cloak and used it to clean the blade as she walked back toward the group.
“Next time, don’t miss, captain,” she said as she threw the slime-soaked cloth into his hands. Ari let it fall to the ground, disgusted by the stench.
Next, the woman approached Elijah, who had the same expression as Ari. She smirked and put a finger on his chest. “And you. Don’t be so slow.”
Realization dawned on his friend’s face, and Ari knew what was going on in his head. Roisin was right, Tasia could have won their duel easily.
Ari stared at the woman for another moment, lost in thoughts before he shook himself out of it. Then, he approached the bodies intending to learn something about the creatures.
From up close, they looked even more hideous, but also more fragile. With short, thin legs and arms, they shouldn’t be a threat in single combat because of the lack of reach. But, if ten or twenty attacked someone at the same time... Ari shivered and looked thoughtfully at the cave’s entrance. He noticed Tasia, as she tried to hide behind his other companions. When the woman thought no one was looking, she leaned on her sword, panting hard.
“Does anyone know what they are?” Ari asked. His teammates joined him a moment later.
“I’ve read about them, but before today I’ve never seen one with my own eyes,” Tasia said. “I think they are called—”
“Goblins,” Elijah finished the sentence for her.
Ari expected her to lash out, but the woman just nodded as she stared at the bodies. While there still was an aura of superiority and coldness about her, Ari was glad that she behaved like a human being when the situation called for it.
Killian crouched beside the goblin caster and picked up its knife. The blade was coated in a dense green substance, and the brown-haired man studied it with curiosity.
“I hope you won’t lick it too,” Elijah muttered.
The archer narrowed his eyes at the chubby man, but he refrained from saying anything and threw the knife back at the body.
“This dungeon won’t be an easy one,” Tasia sighed. “Goblins are one of the swarm monster types. While they’re weak and even a normal human would be able to kill one, their numbers are their biggest strength. That and the underhanded tactics they employ, like using poison and traps.” She kicked the goblin’s body with disgust.
They all stared at the raven-haired woman, and when she noticed it, she growled, “What? Books don’t bite, you should try reading some instead of being useless.”
Oh, I praised her too soon. But at least I was right about the creatures.
“Do you think the rest are inside the cave?” Ari changed the subject.
“I’m sure of it,” she replied.
“Let’s go then. The faster we find those goblins, the sooner we can return to our world,” Ari said.
Nobody opposed, and they ventured toward the entrance. Stalactites hung like spears from the top of the cave. Drops of water dripped down from them occasionally as they landed in tiny puddles. Rays of sunlight shone through the opening, allowing Ari to glance across the far side, where he noticed three different sized tunnels. The walls were covered in some kind of glowing, red moss, which illuminated the parts of the cave where the sun hadn’t reached.
Tasia was the first one to enter. She held her weapon tightly as she glanced left and right. “We need to go deeper,” she said a moment later.
Ari commanded his spider to follow him, and the group headed slowly toward the far end of the cave, their footsteps echoing ominously in the cavernous space.
“Which one?” Elijah whispered when they reached the tunnels. In the darkness, his sword’s blade glowed dimly red, and the rose etched above the guard pulsed with essence.
Killian looked uncertainly at each tunnel and moved toward the one on the right. He again pulled his finger across the stone ground and sniffed it. “This one.”
They pushed forward and entered the narrow tunnel. The humid air changed as a musty, nearly lifeless scent replaced it. While it was darker inside, the glowing moss provided enough light to walk without tripping over the uneven ground. The tunnel wound slowly downward, ever deeper into the mountain, with other ones occasionally joining it and splitting again.
A few minutes later, Elijah sniffed and said in a hushed voice, “Is that beef?”
The group paused, and Ari smelled it too — an acrid scent, similar to meat being cooked over a fire. “We must be close,” he whispered.
Gradually, the ceiling became higher, and they heard faint sounds of chatter and laughter growing louder with each step. Soon, they emerged into a cavern so vast it took Ari’s breath away. The walls were overgrown with the same red glowing moss, but here it was so bright he had to cover his eyes because he felt as if he was back on the surface.
He gawked at the spectacular view, but Tasia’s voice broke him out of his trance. “Come here, you idiot.”
Ari ducked and hurried to join the group behind a large rock pile placed at the end of the tunnel. Tasia gave him a stern look, but she hadn’t said anything, and he turned his attention to what lay in front.
The tunnel ended near a long, hideous chasm, emitting rapid columns of steam and smoke. Two goblins carrying a basket approached it as close as they dared and threw whatever they had in it inside. A rattling sound followed as something tumbled down the chasm. The creatures retreated hurriedly toward a large rock formation, located maybe a hundred meters away from the tunnel. There, shoddy, mud-walled huts were scattered haphazardly around it. Ari counted eight of those weird buildings, but what worried him more was the number of goblins surrounding a bone altar raised in front of the rock.
There were at least twenty of those creatures, dressed the same as the ones they killed outside. But one looked different. He was huskier and twice as tall as the smaller one, with a chest the size of a barrel. He wore a black steel cuirass, which saw better days as it was partially covered in rust, and two cruel-looking jagged swords were strapped to his back. The creature walked with purpose, and all the smaller goblins got out of his way as fast as they could.
But one was too slow, and the husky creature kicked it so hard, it flew straight at the altar, where an enormous red-furred boar rested. Tusks, sharp and deadly as spear points, were placed on either side of its mouth. It seemed that each was as long and thick as Ari's leg, but it was hard to gauge from the distance.
Disturbed by the sounds made by the disoriented goblin, the red boar opened its eyes and chomped down on the creature, nearly swallowing it in one bite as only two little feet remained. The other goblins cheered and laughed at the misfortune of their comrade.
“There’s so many of them.” Elijah whispered.
Tasia nodded. “I think the boar is the dungeon’s boss. Its aura is the strongest among all the monsters in the cavern.”
Ari Read the giant monster’s aura, and while it was still gray, numerous white strands were floating around its body. He sighed and said, “We need a plan. We can’t take them all in a frontal attack. Maybe we can lure some to the tunnel and—”
He paused after he noticed a goblin with a curved horn in its little hand, staggering in their direction. It approached the pile of rocks, hiccuped, and started relieving itself just a few meters away. Ari held his breath, not daring to make even the slightest of sounds.
The goblin finished its deed and was about to turn back. But after tilting its head, it squinted at the group hiding behind the rock. A shriek escaped the creature's toothy mouth, but it was cut short when an arrow struck its throat.
Silence fell upon the cavern, broken only by the gurgling sounds made by the goblin, as it was drowning in its own blood.
Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then a bright ball of flame crashed into the ceiling above the group.