Melody was the first to meet Knetche and Cloud Dancer at the northern end of town as the sun was setting. They chatted while they waited for the last 2 team members. Jeor and Syth arrived together also chattering. None of them were the highest ranking but they had worked together in every combination. Knowing how your teammates reacted was invaluable.
“We will run through the night and should arrive at Riverside a few hours after.” Knetche told the group. The roads in Judor were pretty safe and any night predators would avoid a group. Making it safe to travel after dark.
The others nodded their agreement and they set off. The pace would be considered a brutal dead run to those low level or low dexterity but this group could keep the pace for hours without being winded. Knetche was leading as he had the least dexterity and would tire first. As his stamina fell he slacked the pace until it rose once more then sped them back up.
As he predicted they reached the eastern wall of Riverside about an hour after sunrise. The gates were already open and the town was waking up.
Cloud Dancer was given directions to Orym’s office from the gate guard.
“Good morning.” The elf greeted them with a smile. “Unfortunately you just missed your teammates.”
“They went on without us?” Melody asked
“They joined a group from Adortin to search for the dungeon. They will be in Hoggle by noon and will no doubt head into the forest by morning.” He replied.
“DO we have any chance of catching them?” Knetche asked
Orym smiled. “You could catch them if you made a hard run on the road but I don’t think that’s the best use of your skills.”
“What would you suggest?” Cloud Dancer asked looking at the elf suspiciously.
He laughed at the look. It was a bright and cheerful sound unlike the cold calculating laugh most elves would give.
“6 teams from the area, each with knowledge and experience in the forest will be searching. Their search area will be guided by a woman who has the sight. I am also sure at least one of the groups will come back through this city before heading north to enter the woods. Joining that team would give Judor the best chance of finding the dungeon before the Lineon or Eslan representatives arrive.” He explained.
“Will the others be safe with the team they joined?” Knetche asked. Mika and Feta were friends of theirs.
Orym gave them a soft understanding smile. “The team they joined is favored to find the dungeon. The twins leading the group probably know the forest better than anyone else. I would be more worried about your group. As a wizard and a healer you both will be hamstrung in the trees.”
“What do you mean?” Cloud Dancer asked worried about her mate.
“The Lost Forest is highly corrupted and magic is unreliable there. You will likely have trouble controlling spells even here.”
“May I cast?” Knetche asked, holding out his hands in a position to shape his mana. After Orym nodded, he cast a spell.
A chilly wind tried to pick up but soon sputtered out. “That’s concerning.” Knetche said looking down at his hands. Such a spell should have drastically dropped the air temperature the longer he channeled mana into it until everything froze over. That spell hadn’t shattered and failed in years.
“Since 2 of us are handycapped shouldn't we join our other teammates?” Melody asked.
“No he’d right.” Syth countered. “Joining another team would give us better chances. Running down the others would put us in worse condition and if we need assistance the fewer of us in a group the better. If we join the other team they might not have the numbers needed to watch all our backs in such an odd and unforminlar area.”
The others nodded in agreement with that logic.
“When do you think the teams will pass back through?” Knetche asked.
“Late afternoon.” he replied. “That gives you several hours to rest, plan and get supplies if you need them.”
With a final nod and thank they left to look around the city.
Knetche and Cloud Dancer were sunning in the park they had found waiting on the team they would be joining. Jeor was having a great time chatting with an apothecary they met while looking at the shops. Syth was up in a tree lazing while Melody had stayed at a pub for an arm wrestling contest. The people in the town looked odd, being all manner of species, but the friendly atmosphere reminded them each of home.
A group of mongrels approached the pair about 3 in the afternoon.
“Hi, I’m Ali. We met the rest of your team on the road to Hoggle. They all seem rather nice. The guard said you wanted to join our group in the dungeon hunt.”
Cloud Dancer rose and helped her mate to his feet. “Yes we do. How were the others?”
“Yenturis looked a bit nervous and out of place. I got the impression that he hasn’t traveled much and wasn’t used to being surrounded by trees.” She replied.
“The other 2 were nice enough and they seemed to get on well with the kids.” Another of the group added.
“Kids?” Syth questioned jumping down from the tree to join the others.
“Yeah the kids from Adortin. All right about 15.”
“That’s Dun by the way.” Ali motioned to the man that had spoken. “These are Jub, Hain and Gelt.” She named each of the other group members.
“And they know the forest the best?” Cloud Dancer seemed skeptical.
Hain laughed, “Their mom all but raised them in the trees harvesting goodies. And Olive, the little hellon, loves to play there like it’s her own park.”
The other nodded and chuckled at memories of the teens. Cloud Dancer relaxed some. Having group members that knew the plants of the forest would be useful both in navigating and in exploring the dungeon.
“We need to gather our other 2 teammates and we’ll be ready to leave.” Knetche told them.
“Sounds good.” Dun replied.
It wasn’t long before they left the town by the only road and then turned north at the fork.
The team members from Judor were all a bit nervous as they felt like the trees on either side of the road were watching them. As if a large predator was stalking them ready to pounce.
“These trees feel… malevolent.” Jeor finally said.
Ali shrugged. “They are. Pretty much everything in the forest will try to kill you. From poisonous plants to vicious beasts. Not a lot of cute and cuddly under those boughs.”
“Trust nothing in the trees. Never wonder in the fog and don’t walk into the miasma. Test all water before drinking it and never follow a voice you can’t see.” Dun warned.
“That’s reassuring.” Melody replied sarcastically.
Gelt laughed. “We’re nearest to the ruins. The source of the corruption. Once the trees on our right clear the oppressive feeling will get loads less.”
“That will be in about an hour.” Hain added before the others could ask.
“Finding that source and stopping the corruption will likely be needed to protect the dungeon.” Knetche stated.
The other adventurers nodded.
“Why are you trying to protect the dungeon?” Ali asked. “I thought they were just treasure filled murder pits.”
It was Melody’s turn to laugh. “Hardly. While there can be treasure in a dungeon. The main reason to go there is the experience and the bragging rights. Adventurers will brag and boast about how deep they dived into the dungeon and what all they found there. But try to keep it vague so they don’t give other groups an advantage in the next dive.”
“Dungeons are the fastest way to level up.” Jeor added. “They are also unique and are capable of making and breeding new items, plants and animals. Their resources are nearly limitless. Once they have seen an item they can make it endlessly. Not that they will. You must earn the items by passing their challenges or defeating their monsters.”
There was a long silence as each of the mongrels thought over this new information.
Ali was the first to speak. “You know Olive is going to love that.” She had a fond smile on her face. The others chuckled at that. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it myself. A good source of ore would be nice.”
“It may not have ores available unless you feed it.” Cloud Dancer told them. “Feeding a dungeon can be a balancing act. Trying to turn the dungeon into your own personal cash cow will anger the guild but giving it basic materials to grow healthy is seen as a good thing.”
“The line between making offerings and bribing the dungeon is very gray and few agree on which is which.” Knetche added.
There was silence again as everyone was absorbed by their own thoughts. It didn’t last though and soon enough Melody broke the ice by asking the others about the area and themselves.
Time passed as the group got to know more about each other. As they had said within an hour the trees on the right thinned and then faded to grasslands. That area looked similar to their home country on the other side of the river. Which by now they were too far from to see or hear the Egles. The road kept turning west as the day passed. Soon enough the right side of the road sported farms of all sizes.
“We’ll stop at Fatima’s for the night and head into the forest in the morning.” Dun informed them as they were approaching a fork in the road.
“That’s the road to Adortin.” Ali told them motioning to the north turning fork. “Stopping there would let us sleep in an inn but it would mean we have more hiking in the morning.”
The beast-kind nodded. They trusted their guides' decisions.
Fatima’s turned out to be the last of the farms before the land turned back into plains. Fatima herself was a rotund woman with a commanding presence. She eyed the outsiders but didn't say anything. As far as she was concerned, what others did was their business so long as it didn’t affect her farm or her family. She let them set up their bedrolls in one of her barns.
Hain explained that this barn was for housing her animals while the others were filled with retting vats for the jute this farm produces.
Once they had all settled Gelt pulled out a map and showed them where they would be searching and where the rest of their group was. Their area included part of the river bank, which was a steep cliff face down to deadly waters. But the trees were thinner and visibility better in this area so they would be done faster than other teams. Dun estimated that they should have their section cleared in 3-4 days if they ran into the usual amount of trouble.
Just before sunrise Jub woke everyone and they joined Fatima’s farm hands for breakfast. It was a hardy meal filled with laughter as the hands and their hostess shared stories.
Soon enough they were heading farther down the road and into the trees.
Iruwhip took a moment as the sisters were coming toward the gate to reflect on this team. They were a hodge podge that was sure. A half elf half human ranger, a drow gladiator, a half elf half giant swordsman and 2 pure elves, one a healer and the other a druid. While he’d worked with Ixamul and Bouzaglo in the past he hadn’t been on a team with both at the same time. Hopefully they didn’t clash.
“Everyone ready?” He asked once the sisters were in range that he didn’t have to shout.
Nods and grunts were his reply. He wasn’t stupid enough to think they were here for comradury or anything. They were all here for the gold, and bragging rights. Being on the discovery team meant instant respect. And usually came with a rank boost. He’d been stuck on S for 15 years. So few wanted a half elf on their team, and it wasn’t like he had the money to move to another country.
If all went well Iruwhip didn’t plan on coming back from this mission. He’d run the dungeon as often as he could get away with until the stiffs got there and enforced regulations. Then he’d take his prizes and start a new life far from the elven kingdom.
Ixamul wasn’t as dumb as people treated him. He’d been too big and too awkward his whole life. His grey skin and flat face had added to the stigma for being an impure orphan. So he’d joined the legion. Sure he was little more than a workhorse to the other elves but he got paid and learned to use a sword and shield. Soon enough he’d won their respect with sweat and blood. He’d survived, then he returned to the capitol thinking he’d get a hero's welcome. But all he got was half the pay he was owed and all his ‘shield siblings’ forgetting how they’d relied on each other for years.
Everytime he gripped his sword and saw the 2 fingers he’d lost in battle he was reminded of their betrayal. All he wanted now was a place of his own where he didn’t need to rely on anyone for anything. At least he knew Iruwhip and Bouzaglo could be trusted to fairly split the loot.
The last male also saw this mission as a way to achieve his dreams. Bouzaglo dreamed of being a professional gladiator. Not just dust ups in back alleys but sponsored fights with a 100,000 people chanting his name. This was the first step. Find this hole in the ground, claim the prize and the respect. Then get a sponsor. He could see it. This time next year he’d be in shinny plate training for his turn in the pit.
Remina and Hashira watched as the men were no doubt counting their prize. They had little need for the fame. Both being pure blooded elves and having professions that were often sought after. For them this was about discovery. They wanted to see a new part of the world.
After Iruwhip had left the sisters' house they split to find all the information they could about the Lost Forest. The roadblocks and dead ends they hit just raised their interest in the quest.
The group did little talking as they took the north road. They would follow it for half a day before they reached the end of the Lineon forest. Only then would they leave the road and cut across the plains to the north east in an almost straight line to Riverside.
Janet, one of Morgon’s aides, was the last to arrive at the jump gate in Eslan. She would be staying in Hen’zti’s Throne to gather builders and crafters to start the dungeon town, or at least a guild building.
Hashash nodded to the frazzled young human as she tried to apologize, straighten her papers and push her glasses up her nose at the same time.
“Ready?” He asked
Marius looked green even though he’d seen the man take a motion sickness potion just a minute ago.
Cynthia chuckled and slapped him on the back. The gleaming sun carved into her platinum plate armor shined as much as her white smile. Paladins of Piec always took pride in being clean and well kept.
Rose sighed at the meat heads and Rioux just smiled. Hashash wouldn’t doubt it if the bard worshiped a chaos deity as much fun as he seemed to have when trouble was brewing.
Thankfully Kevin could be relied on for calm company. With his nose in a book as thick as Hashash’s waist.
“Open the portal Kip.” Hashash told the gate guard. He was a young adventurer. Every noob took their turn guarding the gate and checking paperwork. Kip seemed like a good kid, a bit too naive. Nothing a few dungeon dives wouldn’t cure. Hopefully he’d choose a class that fit his build better than the over large axe strapped on his back.
A hum filled the air as Kip placed the mana crystal in the slot and the runes around the gate started to glow. At one point Hashash had thought about studying the runes but soon found he didn’t have the patience for it. Memorizing what each mark meant was bad enough as there are at least 1,500 of them but then learning all their combinations and interactions. No thank you.
No matter how often you traveled by jump gate there was something awe inspiring about watching the translucent veil fill the arch. It seemed to grow from the stones until it was like a sheet covering the interior. There was a soft brown glow to it. The color depended on the destination. As Hen’zti’s Throne was underground it was brown. Whereas when coming to Eslan the bottom half was grey from the buildings and the top was the soft blue of the sky.
Once the hum had quieted into a soft background noise and there were no more ripples in the veil they were free to cross over. The team went first but they were followed by several merchants and travelers that took advantage of the open gate. Opening a jump gate was expensive. But if the guild was using it they would offer a steep discount to increase trade and good will toward the guild. Along with the gold they charged.
Several people were grumbling about not being given enough notice before the gate was used. Most of the time there was at least 3 days for anyone wanting to use the gate to get ready. But this time there had been less than 12 hours. Most merchants and travelers didn’t see the big deal about finding the dungeon quickly. Even fewer would believe you if you told them it was a living thing and not just a cash cow with teeth.
Rose didn’t say anything but she hoped they didn’t need to stop in Hen’zti’s Throne. There was something about the town that made her skin crawl. As if everyone there was sizing her up to eat. And not in a sexual manner. That she was used to. She also thought the whole place smelled stuffy and musty like an attic that hadn’t been opened in far too long. Though she’d never heard anyone else make that complant.
For his part Kevin didn’t look up from his tome. He knew Rioux well enough that the man wouldn’t lead him astray so just kept the royal blue cape in sight over his book and followed along.
They were quickly through the gate and headed to the northern exit. Hashash had decided that they would make better time following the road to Tornmer and crossing the small bridge at the Stampeding river. Adortin would be their only stop to look for news and a hot meal before starting the hunt.
Being S ranked and above meant that all their stats were higher than most non-adventurers could dream of. That let them eat up the miles to their destination. They made it to the Stampeding River without any issues.
“Why is it just a rope bridge?” Marius asked the question they were all thinking as they looked at the crossing.
It had to be the right one as they had taken the road from Tornmer straight here. Hashash had been expecting a small stone bridge or even wooden. But what was before them was a series of ropes spanning the 40ft gap. There weren’t even planks to walk across.
Rose looked over the edge. “It’s got to be 100, maybe even 150ft. And I don’t recommend falling in.” They could hear the roar of the fast moving, churning water. That sound was no doubt how this river got its name.
Their bard pulled out his onyx ocarina and started playing a tune. They could all feel the song of light steps activate. That would help them be more sure footed and move silently. The slight weight reduction aspect to the song would aid them here.
Hashash let out a sigh that was more of a hiss than he would like and took out over the ropes. The ropes held his weight and moved with his serpentine body better than he expected. It was as though it had been made with nagas in mind. Still he didn’t relax until the majority of his body weight was on the other side.
Taking a deep breath Rose set out next. Though about half way across a massive jet of water hit the ropes and sent them swaying. She held on for dear life, but again the bridge didn’t flip over or break as if that too was expected by the builders.
Marius crossed as soon as she was clear. Not wanting to chance another geyser tipping him over. He was much taller than her and even though the bridge didn’t flip there was a good chance he might fall over the edge.
“I think the rest of us best go together.” Cynthia said as Marius was nearly across. The river below had become louder as though it was alive and didn’t want them to cross.
Kevin nodded and even Rioux was affected as his eyes were wide. He seemed to play with more vigor to get them over this bridge as fast as possible.
Throwing caution to the wind the paladin sprinted onto the ropes, trusting her dexterity and the boost to keep her footing.
Cynthia cleared the pylings and Kevin had one foot on solid ground when there was a crack. The other side crumbled and that whole side of the bridge fell.
Rioux tossed his instrument trusting one of the others to catch it as he was focused on grabbing the rope bridge and climbing it as fast as possible. Marius had grabbed the ropes at this end so that if the ground holding them gave way then he wouldn’t fall. Rose helped Kevin up. Then once he was close enough Cynthia pulled Rioux the rest of the way to safety.
“I’m betting at least one of the teams that went missing here are at the bottom of that river.” Rose said as they were catching their breath from that adrenaline high.
“Yeah.” Marius commented. “Doesn’t matter how grossly overpowered we are for evaluating a dungeon if the land itself is trying to kill us.”
There was an air of cation in the group as they continued down the road.
“OY!” Someone shouted as they passed the first farm.
They stopped near the fence. “Can we help you?” Rose asked with a small smile.
The woman that shouted came over. “Did you lot cross the bridge?” She asked motioning back down the road.
“We did. Is that a problem?” Rose was using her high charisma to try and make a good first impression.
“No need to bat your eyes at me.” She replied. “Anyone fall in?”
“No ma’am.” Rose replied, switching to a more professional tone. “But it was close. One side of the bridge collapsed.”
The farmer shook her head. She pulled out a small note pad and wrote a quick message. “Give this to Minny when you get to town. First building on the right, just inside the gates. She can tell you what we know about the dungeon too.”
“How do you know we’re looking for the dungeon?” Cynthia asked
She just looked the group over. “Bunch of outsiders, why else would you be here. If you came through Tornmer they would have warned you about the bridge. Now I have work to get back too. Good luck. Try not to die.” With a dismissive wave she headed back over to what she had been doing.
Hashash shook his head and took the note. “Bridge out. Outsiders will pay.” Was all it said. “Let’s keep moving.”
As they passed with farms on one side and trees on the other they felt eyes on them. From both sides of the road. The farmers were easy to spot. Most of them stopped to look at the group but didn’t say anything before going back to their chores. The forest however felt like it was waiting, and hungry.
Soon enough they could see the city walls. Adortin’s outer walls were 30ft tall, made of a light colored stone and the entrance was a massive kill box that was home to 4 portcullis and dozens of murder holes.
“It wasn’t this big on the map.” Kevin stated the obvious as they walked under the first open portcullis. And saw several stalls set up in the kill box selling produce.
“I’d guess that map is as useful as damp toilet paper.” Marius replied.
“This is the first building.” Cynthia motioned to the door with a sign that was just a shield with a sword across it. Though the building looked like it had been built as part of the walls instead of seperate.
As they crossed the threshold a small bell rang. On the left side of the room was a long counter with an old woman seated behind it. She had her nose in a book but looked up at the bell. The whole right wall was dominated by a job board.
“Hello ma’am. Are you Minny?” Rose greeted politely.
“I am child, but I’d rather chat with your leader.” She looked dead at Hashash. Her eyes had the weight of experience and skill.
Hashash slithered closer.
“It’s been a very long time since an assassin came through my door.” He was a level 26 in concealment there was no way she could know his real class. “Who else would put so much effort into hiding their identity?”
“You are very skilled. I didn’t expect anyone here to know much about adventuring ranks.” He confessed.
Minny chuckled. “We all have quite a laugh at how little everyone knows about this part of the world. Here’s a real map of the area.” She handed over a rolled up piece of linen.
They moved to one of the tables in the middle of the room and studied it. Not only was Riverside and Aglooe in the wrong place in their map. This one showed that Adortin was really a circular city.
“You can keep that and I’ll add a city map for 5 coin.” She interrupted.
“A farmer also gave us this.” Hashash told her, handing over the note.
Minny chuckled. “I know just who should get this job.” She laid it in any empty try on her desk. “The bridge repair and the maps will be 20 coins.” His face must have told a story because she replied to his unasked question. “There’s a reason it’s made of rope. Not sure who or what pissed off that river but it destroys anything stronger. And as you saw. It doesn’t like to be crossed.”
“I see. We were hoping to get more information on the new dungeon that just opened.” He asked, handing over the coins.
She unrolled a bigger map that just showed the main forest. It had a grid on it with 30 squares. “There are 6 teams in the forest hunting for it. They are searching these 18 squares. It will take them another 3-5 days to search the whole area. I can’t stop you from going into the forest and searching as well. But if you kill any of the teams out there we will put prices on your heads and take action with the guilds.”
Hashash looked her in the eye. It was obvious by now that they were in deeper than they thought. He didn’t want this whole city and who knows how many other people that called this place home looking for blood. Hunting for this dungeon on their own could do more harm than good. Leaving it for 5 days would have this group chomping at the bit though.
“Can we get that map as well?” He asked
Minny looked at him skeptically. “5”
He handed over the additional coins. “We are going to get some lunch and discuss our next move.”
She nodded. Then took the note out of the tray on her desk and started writing it up.
He turned and led them out of the building and deeper into this unknown town.