If floor twelve had been a "straight-forward" gravity maze, the thirteen wasn't straightforward at all. It was, in fact, the kind of nonsensical two-plane gravity-flipping maze that was best described with a picture, not with words. And no, I'm not going to draw you one. I never discovered the layout of the floor, because I could bypass it.
There were, basically, two mazes--floor and ceiling. The gravity flipper let you switch between them, going straight up, but whichever side you were on, the walls only went up so high so that you could get a good look at the opposite side of the maze, but unlike floor three of this dungeon, there was no invisible ceiling, so I could go over every wall I ran into. A little disappointing, but I was also frankly in a place, mentally, where I wanted to unload and process things for a while. Under different circumstances, I might have just camped out for a week or more until I got my head straight... but... Mel had responded saying they'd wait for us to catch up, and frankly, I was eager to get out of this place if only to get some real sleep.
At the same time, there was so much else to learn and do, and I was pretty sure I'd need experience and levels and... too much. Too much. I needed to clear my head. I relied on my intuition enough that when it was overwhelmed, I was overwhelmed. Merry would occasionally pipe up in my head with some little bit of trivia that she'd figured out that helped me wrap my head around things, but at this point, she was also something new that I had to integrate into my new life.
Anyway, Louise also ended up wanting a short break before we found the exit; she didn't actually seem all that comfortable with all of the telekinetic grabbing and flight stuff, which was a little disappointing, but understandable. So, we found a nice quiet corner and she practiced her spell singing for a bit--nothing ambitious, just using a song to carry the effects of a minor healing spell to the two of us. Cassie came out to help--not that she needed the help, but we both liked the little phoenix, and Cassie always seemed eager to be out. We learned a few things about the skill--for example, Louise could pick whatever song, but there seemed to be some kind of weird affinity between music and spells that was hard to map; meanwhile, the parts of the song where she wasn't singing, humming, or whistling still produced a magical effect, but much less, and it disappeared when her concentration slipped. Cassie, when she amplified the skill, would also add a little bit of background synth that apparently matched the music in Louise's head even if she wasn't singing, which was a neat trick.
Cassie, as an aside, seemed to be really happy that she was being used with musical skills. She did, to some degree, also seem to be missing me, as the little synth phoenix immediately came over to me and gave me a friendly headbutt when Louise released her, and again in between songs, clearly requesting--and receiving--some scratches. Merry seemed to think I was being overly sentimental, judging by her grumbling, but maybe she was just j--I'm not jealous. I grinned to myself, but didn't challenge the fairy.
That brief rest aside, I didn't find anything interesting about floor thirteen or our time in it. As often happened with exposure, the enemies had stopped being interesting, and they weren't enough of a challenge to me that I needed to go out of my way to master them--not except for a handful of Caesars that were scattered at major intersections in the maze, but these had been down-leveled enough that they were almost standard floor enemies. Their skills were still good, but they couldn't take the hits or deal the same damage, which meant they were no better to fight against than my own pocket Caesar would be when I got out of here.
I didn't honestly expect floor fourteen to be any more interesting, and the first part at least wasn't that much more complicated--this floor was extra tall, with two circular mazes opposite one another on the floor and ceiling, like the last level, but suspended in between the center of both mazes was a small floating rock that looked like a tiny island, and from what I could tell, you were supposed to actually solve the maze and arrive at that island from the exact center of the circle, which (I suppose) was normally hard to do, at least without a map. I mean, the maze wasn't that convoluted--it would be tough for those who couldn't see it, but once you had a map, it wasn't that confusing, with large sections that could be ruled out and even, I thought, some sections of the map that you just plain couldn't enter. I... recognized the potential for those to be secrets, but didn't care about that for now.
Now, you say, this floor sounds totally unfair, because most people can't see the map of the maze, right? Except you can. Once gravity switches, you look up at the maze on the other side. People with poor spatial intelligence might not be able to easily map the bridges from one side to the other, but at least theoretically, with time, paper, and pencil, you had everything you needed to crack the puzzle.
Anyway, I skipped all that. Had some fights, when I felt like it, which was less and less right now. I went to the center on the side I started out on, and found a ten-man formation of lower-level Caesars standing guard over the front of the hallway. All of them were seated on Chairians. That sounded like a fun fight, right? Maybe I'd get to see what they actually did.
The Caesar at the front nodded to me, politely. "The Lord of All Chairs appreciates that you did not harm his underlings. You may pass."
I stared at him. He was serious. The chair under him, I realized belatedly, was made of gold. I... couldn't see most of the details because an ancient roman man was covering most of them, but there had to be, like, ornate carvings, jewels, that kind of thing, right? The lord of all chairs?
"You're not going to fight them?" whispered Louise, as though something must be seriously wrong with me.
I was sorely tempted, and I said so.
But in spite of healing quite a bit, my head hurt, and we were alone, and I really didn't think that the Lord of All Chairs was the boss monster of level 14--just a distraction that would mess me up in time for the boss fight. If they had decided to fight me of their own accord, I would have delighted in it, but as soon as I couldn't justify the fight as "necessary", I was just... tired.
I moved past the optional boss, feeling like I wanted to sulk. I was a battle maniac; I had realized that about myself long ago. But now I had a fairy and a girlfriend and I guess a pet phoenix, and a quest to kill and possibly save the life of at least one person, and an ability that apparently was rare enough that I was the first, which meant I had to go out and help the world...
I was tired. In a sense, this should have been what I wanted--an acknowledgement that I really was the kickass fighter I had faced death in order to become. So why the hell did being a fighter have to come with a schedule full of bullshit? Pains that had nothing to do with me failing a challenge, and everything to do with powers beyond my control? Social obligations that frankly, made no sense to me at all?
The end of the hallway wasn't a floor exit, as I'd guessed--just another gravity reversal. I stood and looked up at the island above, trying to determine what the next challenge would be, but it looked like the island above was actually a shrunk-down version of something larger, and I could make out no details.
"Are YOU ready?" I asked Louise, and she nodded, eagerly. As often as she'd been delighted by the Administrator's sense of whimsy, and given how I'd been successful at keeping her safe, she seemed to be fascinated rather than scared.
I just grunted and moved into the gravity-reversal field. As I thought, as we fell up towards the island, it seemed to grow beneath our feet, until we stood at the top of a ruined castle.
The entire island was full of ruins--stone buildings, every one, all ancient looking, Greek- or Roman-era buildings in a tightly packed city. The path between the ruined buildings was never straight; if you couldn't fly, you had better have been practicing your cornering from the mazes before, because I could see no four-way intersections, only corners and tees.
I had a nervous minute thinking there would be an involved combat in that stone warren. Maybe being hunted by a single agile predator; maybe a horde, like zombies, though my instincts immediately, and correctly, discarded that possibility simply because I couldn't come up with a single damned type of undead that ended in "-ian".
No, we quickly discovered that the whole island was the boss room, as a noise from behind forced us to turn around and revealed a goddamn nightmare. It was a wooden doll one hundred stories tall with little articulated joints, suspended from absolutely nothing by thin, shining wires. The head had no hair or face, although it was shaped with some accuracy--a flat space for the face to be drawn on, a ridged forehead, a prominent nose, bumps for ears, but no mouth. And... I could swear in the first moments I saw it, it was dabbing. After no more than a moment of that, though, its arms fell to its waist and it straightened, accompanied by the sound of rattling wood, and looked proudly out at its domain, that is to say, the ruined island. A moment later, a trident proportional to its height fell from nowhere and impacted the ground next to it, which it attempted to snag, but its hands had no finger joints.
In trying to catch the trident, it stumbled and fell over. Not only did the fall shake the island, but from our perch atop it, it was clear as it flopped around slightly that the ruins beneath it had been flattened, the stone becoming gravel or powder or just smashed into the ground beneath, hard to tell.
Not gonna tell you your business boss, but...
I didn't need to be told; even my hubris had its limits, and the seismic event created when the thing fell over was not minor. It was more like the entire island shifted several inches, which if it was really supposed to be floating in between the floors (though probably not literally), maybe it did actually get knocked around by the impact. Whichever it was, I grabbed Louise's hand and ran, using telekinesis to drop down off the castle in a single controlled bound towards some convenient cover.
"What the heck was that?" Louise asked, her voice having lost some of its wonder, as we ducked behind a section of wall slightly taller than either of us.
"Well, according to the words above its head," I said, trying my hardest to keep my sanity, "a Gargantuan Atlantean Barbarian Marion...ette. And another word, I think. Titan maybe? I was distracted." I paused, and then just echoed what Merry told me: "Thespian."
From the grinding noises, the Marionette got to its feet, and we risked a peek over a roughly shoulder-height section that was nearby. The monster put both hands to about where its cheeks should be, as though shocked. Then, swiftly, one hand went to its forehead, and the other outstretched, to the side, and it leaned away from it as though to ward away bad news. After a moment, it slumped just slightly and dropped its arms, as though... at that point, honestly, I kind of gave up on trying to read all of its overdramatic motions.
"How are you going to--"
"We aren't supposed to beat it. It's a stealth puzzle." I gestured around us to the walls, some full-human-height, some barely knee-high. "Unless that thing has astonishingly low health for its size, we're just supposed to find the exit or die trying."
Underscoring my words, the Marionette bent down and finally managed to grasp its trident, so quickly that it looked effortless, and spun around on one foot, dragging the points of it along the ground and throwing stone blocks... well, it was probably the equivalent of miles, honestly. It was a big room. After a revolution or two, it stopped, and suddenly pointed the trident at the castle where the two of us had first arrived. When it saw we weren't there, it dropped the tip of its spear and one hand went to where the mouth ought to be. It suddenly hopped into a wide stance, both hands going to the trident, as though it had just gotten serious and was now going to go hunting... or something.
Louise and I slinked back into cover. "Where should we start?"
My three guesses are the flip side of the island, behind it, or right where it's standing, offered Merry. The only other option is random, right? Gotta hope it's not that.
I silently agreed and looked at Louise. "Do you have Stealth?"
She shook her head. I paused and thought about it. I... had never actually tried this, but I shuffled around my powers for a moment before offering her a phantom Soulforged necklace. "This will let you activate the skill, but your level is going to be low. Stay close to me; it draws more mana the further you get away from me."
She took the necklace and slipped it on, frowning at something in her interface, but after a moment, her outline grew a little dimmer. "I told you I'm not going to let you leave me behind, Jerry. I'm not changing that now that my life depends on it."
Even as a party member, can she see you when you're stealthed? Maybe you should hold her hand.
I didn't actually need Merry's advice on that, as Louise and I slipped out into the ruins, hand in hand.
As a person who prided himself on facing death, I found that the longer I stared at the puppet, the more plausible it seemed that there was a canonical way to defeat it. Perhaps cutting the wires with ranged attacks; perhaps there was a section of the ruins that it could be lured to that would destroy it. But there was no question that the weight and power of that puppet was the real deal, and that getting caught under a foot, or caught by a weapon attack, was just flat out death. Perhaps if I was flying and just got hit by a swinging limb or something, I'd survive, but with the kind of power that the puppet was displaying just by existing, that seemed slim odds.
"Is this really just the third fucking biome of this dungeon," I asked, mostly rhetorically, under my breath as we found a place to take a look around. There were no obvious exits nearby, nor even an arrangement of rock that suggested there might be one. The most conspicuous features were the place the puppet had fallen, and the circle it had drawn with the trident, with a single circular clear point exactly in the center, where it had pivoted around its foot.
Just as Merry had suggested, that was the most likely candidate.
As we made our way there, the Marionette stomped around in a cartoonish mimicry of a hunter searching through the grasses for a rabbit or something. It... remained absolutely terrifying, even as I considered ways to kill it if need be, because the insane force of its footfalls shook the world around us, and as far as I could tell, it wasn't fake. It wasn't coming our direction, but if it did...
About three quarters of the way to the circle, our luck ran out. Louise had been unable to hold the Stealth ability, though she did keep trying. I... honestly wasn't sure that was the reason, and I wouldn't, couldn't blame her for it, but suddenly, the giant puppet jumped, and when we looked back, it was looking in our direction, and started running at us.
"STEALTH!" I hissed, and we dived behind a wall. I racked my brain, trying to think, but...
If it's playing dumb, and I think it is, it will come over here and look around, offered Merry. Probably not actually stand on you. This is early in the tower, right? It can't be THAT bad.
I clutched Louise to me and we hid behind a wall, in stealth, hoping that we were not going to be crushed by a foot or a gigantic trident. The shaking footfalls came closer; a brick fell on my head. The damage of that barely even registered, but the impact on my psyche of something touching me from above just about gave me a damn heart attack.
And then the noises stopped. We weren't dead. We didn't dare breathe, though. I could feel Louise trembling. I really didn't feel like looking up to see if it was there.
There was a single footfall and the sound of rattling wood. I was pretty sure it that meant it had turned, but I dared not trust the instinct. Slowly, very slowly, I got up and turned to look, still as deep in stealth as I could be.
It had turned about forty five degrees, yeah, and was looking off to my left, its head sweeping back and forth in comically wide arcs, the trident still held in both hands as though ready to stab something... well, something its size and immediately in front of it. It was a thespian, not a real hunter.
It suddenly turned ninety degrees so it was searching to my right. We remained in place, silently, me growing increasingly certain that with my good stealth and the partial cover, I wouldn't be seen.
Even so, when it suddenly stood up straight, I wanted to freak out. But it placed the butt of the trident on the ground and pretended to scratch its head, and then it turned and wandered off in another direction.
"We're okay," I told Louise, and we both started breathing again. "How about we go a little slower and take a break whenever your stealth drops like that, though."
Louise nodded emphatically, still breathing heavily. "Right... just... give me a minute. Hooh... boy."
We proceeded, at a slower pace, and successfully failed to get the marionette's attention.
When we got to the circle that the trident had etched into the island, we found another good sign that we were going in the right direction--normal-people-sized marionette guards. They were spaced about a hundred feet apart, and the three I could see were all different models--a fat one that slouched, one that stomped around restlessly, and one that stood rigidly at attention, labeled Heavyset, Upset, and Cadet Marionettes. We paused behind a wall so Louise could take a breather, then snuck past them without incident. It bugged me, a little, but at this point I was fully dedicated to just getting by.
The closer we got to the center of the circle--and it was a big circle, so it still took another ten minutes after we entered--the more guard puppets we saw, but now that I had telekinetic sense as a passive skill, we had no fear of literally running into one around a corner, and Louise's stealth was apparently good enough at more than twenty or so feet to fool them. None of them patrolled; they just stood there, looking in one direction for a while, and then turning with a loud wooden clatter--or in the case of the Upset Marionettes, they stomped around in a very narrow circle, pausing briefly about every ninety degrees, but more or less constantly shifting. I could see how it would actually be a thrilling puzzle for someone without the extra sense, but well, I just wasn't that into it.
And then there was a giant circular-ish crater with an exit in the center of it. A bunch of marionettes danced around the edge of the clearing, but we just ignored them and dashed for the exit and dove in.
Support "Soulforged Dungeoneer"
- Pseudonymous bastard
A lost soul looking for a path through life. My history has not provided a stable foundation quite yet, so who knows when it will all collapse. Hopefully not soon!
I have been writing stories since I was a child but I wasn't really encouraged or taught. I have developed bad habits and gotten lost inside myself, but still intend to keep fighting and trying to get myself set upright. Fortunately and not, I am not quite alone, but it's always hard to have the wrong kind of help, isn't it?
Best of luck to anyone silly enough to find this page. Work hard and don't end up like me. It has its upsides, but it's really not worth it...