I wandered through the hallways, lighting them up as brightly as I reasonably could with [Lantern]. The rocks were glossy, and did a bit of reflecting, doing some trippy bending. Nothing I couldn’t handle - it was more neat than anything. I remember the dwarves mentioning something about the “Below levels”, and I was hoping I wasn’t there.
Light was tricky. On one hand, I needed light. On the other, it potentially gave away my position to monsters… or drove them away, since they spent their entire lives down here without a single ray of sunshine.
That’s what I was telling myself.
I tried to trace my steps back, to climb back out of what I was calling the “melted levels”, but failed. The tunnels had shifted around me, and finding my way back was just as hard as finding my way forward.
I’d occasionally hear voices echoing down the corridors. People talking. Monsters with a clever lure.
I avoided them. Early on, I’d tried to approach them, but after three near-misses in a row, I now avoided them. They were either orcs, who I couldn’t talk with and seemed fairly aggressive, monsters that mimicked speech, or dwarves, who had tried to capture me. It was possible, likely even, that they were dwarves from somewhere else - but seeing a strange creature down here, they might shoot first, and ask questions later, given the tension and state of war they were in.
Plus, like, I was inclined to think everything I bumped into down here was hostile. I couldn’t blame them for thinking the same.
Most Rangers I knew would also be inclined to shoot unknowns in hostile territory.
I did try to follow the sound of their voices at times, but the sound played tricks on me as often as it led me to a narrow crack where the noise came through.
I wandered for hours.
I’d grab water from the ever-present pools of water, the soft drip-drip a constant background noise to the rest of the noises from the mines. I was getting used to the noises in the tunnels, the different clicks, plinks, plonks, and clangs music to my ears. I knew when they were right, when everything was orderly and normal, and I could tell when there was something new, something close.
I discovered that the spiders did, somehow, know when I was around, and would scuttle over to me when I rested or slept. However, as long as I was in [Mantle], they’d only crowd around, seemingly confused by the barrier. They also wouldn’t come if I slept with the lights on, avoiding the light.
In other words - easy, disgusting food when I needed it.
I wandered for days.
While there were monsters down here, they were rare. Light didn’t make it down this far, which meant plants didn’t easily grow. The foundation of any ecosystem just didn’t exist, which made the entire area food-scarce. Clearly, the spiders and some other monsters were finding something to eat, but I could go hours without seeing another creature.
I did find some dead orcs at one point. Their arms were like skeletons, flesh pulled taut against bone, while their collarbones jutted out. I could count their ribs without even trying, and whatever monster had killed them had only bothered to eat their organs. It looked like they were in the middle of starving to death when they encountered some monster that took advantage of their weakened state.
Or more likely, they’d tried to bring down a monster for food, and failed because they were starving.
What did that say for the rest of orcish society? Were these just two orcs who had gotten lost, or were the orcs as a civilization being starved to death? The Khazardian dwarves tactic of sealing up every exit to the outside took on an ominous tone, and it forced me to re-think and re-evaluate the war that was going on between the two.
I suspected there was more to it than met the eye.
Either way, I was out of it for now, and I had no intention of getting back into it.
At the same time, I wanted to avoid their fate. Bone marrow was nutritious after all.
I wandered for weeks. Months?
Most monsters didn’t want to tangle with whatever I was. I smelled of metal, with burning light at my fingertips. An unknown, an oddity, down this far. Most predators hunted for their lunch, with a strange unknown not being the top choice to hunt down.
Not unless they were desperate, or starving.
With that being said, the most memorable encounters were with the ones who weren’t most. I’d barely escaped alive from those encounters, and it was only a matter of time before I fucked up hard enough to die.
Heck. I wouldn’t even need to screw up. It was possible to make no wrong moves, and still get eaten. That was life.
I locked eyes with some sort of beetle, large enough to mostly fill a tunnel itself. It was high level - over 700 - and clearly knew I was there.
But it was a monster, having never encountered whatever-I-was before. For all it knew, I was over level 1000. A lack of [Identify] gave it pause. I was strange, weird, and not aggressive. I wasn’t acting like food, and I wasn’t acting like a predator.
I didn’t turn my back on it and run. No, watching it, heart in my throat, I slowly slid into a crack in the wall, praying that there were no tiny spiders that would crawl into my long, matted hair.
I threw my [Mantle] across the crack. It wouldn’t stop the beetle trying to eat me, but it made me just a hair harder to detect. Skills, for example, couldn’t easily penetrate my [Mantle], which included detection skills.
The beetle lumbered off, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the first level 500+ monster I’d bumped into down here, and wouldn’t be the last. I was a believer in the Below Levels now, having seen the occasional monster come up.
I wandered through another tunnel, idly checking my status.
[Mana Regen: 260367 (+273193.2)]
[Free Stats: 34]
[Mana Regeneration: 32816 (+27319.32)]
[Magic Power: 15553 (+244959.75)]
[Magic Control: 15553 (+244959.75)]
[Class 1: [The Dawn Sentinel - Celestial: Lv 375]]
[Celestial Affinity: 375]
[Cosmic Presence: 286]
[Solar Infusion: 110]
[Center of the Universe: 375]
[Dance with the Heavens: 375]
[Wheel of Sun and Moon: 311]
[Mantle of the Stars: 375]
[Class 2: [Butterfly Mystic - Radiance: Lv 333]]
[Radiance Affinity: 333]
[Radiance Resistance: 333]
[Radiance Conjuration: 333]
[Sun's Heart: 333]
[Scintillating Ascent: 287]
[Class 3: Locked]
[Long-Range Identify: 368]
[Pristine Memories: 210]
[Bullet Time: 299]
[Oath of Elaine to Lyra: 315]
[Sentinel's Superiority: 375]
[Persistent Casting: 290]
[Passionate Learning: 358]
My status helpfully told me just how horribly lost I’d gotten myself. It was clearly summer - at least! - above ground, and I’d passed by a birthday, all while stuck down below here.
Did mom and dad celebrate without me? Did they throw a “Our little girl’s 20!” party? Did they put out a nice meal, hoping against hope that I’d pull off a miracle, and manage to drop in just in time?
Or was it a sad day, mom crying in my room, fearing, believing that she’d never see her baby girl again? Did dad believe I’d fallen victim to some horrible fate? Did he bug Night, checking once a week if I’d been found, if he’d heard any word of me?
I had to get out of here.
My musings were interrupted by a new sound, a wet squelching noise, unfamiliar to me. It was the most vile noise I’d ever heard, nothing excluded. A wet sack of excrement being slapped to the floor, a stomach filled with rotted meat being dragged. The mere sound of movement was enough to skeeve me out.
I wanted nothing to do with it.
I turned back, away from the noise, hitting a long corridor I’d passed by earlier. I turned the corner and froze.
At the other end of the corridor was a monstrosity. Like a fat slug worming its way through the tunnel, the pale grey fleshy thing scrunched up, then slowly slid forward, mucus, ooze, and deadly acid sliming its body. It had a number of reaching, grasping tentacles, waving in the air, patting all around the tunnel.
As I watched it, it scrunched up and slowly pushed itself forward, a maggot burrowing into flesh. The sound though?
It didn’t come from the monster. No, in perfect time with its movement, it echoed from deeper in the mines. Anything trying to flee from the monster based on sound would find itself turned around, running back to its grasp.
In front of the monster, which I hadn’t noticed until now due to the sheer grotesqueness of said slug, was a giant mole-like creature.
I said giant, but that was relative. It came maybe waist-high to me.
It had sweat pouring off of it, and it was panting as it struggled to put one foot in front of the next. I watched with hypnotic horror as it struggled to take a step, then limbs trembling, tried to slowly take another step.
The limb landed, but failed to hold its weight, the giant-mole-thing collapsing to the ground, glassy-eyed and panting with exhaustion. The big nope-sack slowly crawled forward, tentacles feeling over the giant mole who tried to push them off, but didn’t have the heart or the energy to do so.
It seemed resigned to its fate, as the horror slowly reeled it in, enveloping it in its flesh.
Not even bothering to kill it before starting to eat and digest it.
In my pity, I sent a single [Kaleidoscope] butterfly to the mole, landing it deep inside its mouth, frozen in a silent scream. I detonated it, getting a kill notification, putting the poor beast out of its misery.
The giant leech-like thing waved its tentacles around wildly, but I was far out of reach. I continued to watch in fascinated horror as it calmed down, and kept oozing forward.
Even as I watched, some of my tasty spider-chow frantically bailed from one of the numerous small cracks that they could impossibly fit into, the sound-based creatures running from the noise.
Directly into its flesh.
Getting glued on, oozed over as their frantic, high-pitched spider screams tried to warn their fellows of danger.
Some heeded it. Some recognized that something was wrong, and their “run away from the spiders yelling pain” was greater than their “run away from the noise of the monster” instinct.
Others weren’t so fortunate, and the monster feasted.
[Inevitable Shluggoth] [Long-Range Identify] brought back, and I had no idea where to even begin trying to classify something yellow.
I promptly activated [Scintillating Ascent], and let myself slowly drift away, not making a sound.
I thought I’d been seeing creatures from the Below Levels.
Now it was obvious that I’d been encountering the dregs, the rejects, the creatures that lurked at the edges of it. The Inevitable Shluggoth was the first creature that I could believe was a true denizen of the Below Levels, and I was no longer under any illusions.
It was one of the weaker members, to be so far out from the levels, to be so far alone.
I turned on my heel, and forced myself to walk into the sound of the monster, feeling myself get all sorts of jittery as I turned blind corners into the sound of impending death.
I rounded one corner, just to see a spider on the wall.
I didn’t quite scream, that instinct had been thoroughly beaten out of me, but I did unleash everything I had on it. It rapidly became too crispy to eat.
My heart was going a million miles an hour, and I couldn’t even wipe my sweaty palms against anything. Blasted armor was in the way.
I picked up the pace, moving at what was normally an unwise speed, around corners, looking to get higher up. Away from the Shluggoth.
Finally, after a few solid hours - or so I thought - of running, I slowed. I found a spot to rest, grabbed some water, and started munching on a spider-snack.
I had a somewhat relaxing meal of spider-and-water, along with something I caught along the way. Dunno what it was, but it was a tasty variation to my diet. I was starting to get concerned about scurvy, since my healing, for whatever reason, couldn’t fix a poor diet. Normally, I’d have developed scurvy ages ago, but I was guessing vitality was giving me a hand? I had fantastic Earth knowledge of medicine. I was clueless when it came to the interaction of stats - specifically vitality - on medicine.
That, or some of the classic signs - joint pain, bruises, bleeding gums, and the like - were instantly healed away as soon as they occurred.
Either way, I had a bit of a relaxing break. Not every moment was running, hiding, and fighting. I’d wear myself ragged if I tried to. No, I needed a bit of relaxation time here and there, even though there was practically nothing to do.
I finished my R&R time, and I was starting to settle in for a few hours of sleep when I heard the unmistakable noise of the Shluggoth. I blew a raspberry as I got up, invigorating myself with [Sunrise]. Off I go!
I took a sharp turn, then mostly went straight, getting myself out of the Shluggoth’s path. I settled down again, and was drifting off to sleep when I heard the sickening splattering noise again, as the Shluggoth wormed its way through the tunnels.
I huffed in annoyance. The sound misdirection it was running made it hard to tell which direction, exactly, I needed to go.
Still. I picked a direction, and used [Scintillating Ascent] to drift through the tunnels, not allowing my feet to touch the ground, minimizing my light usage. I wasn’t going to give any vibrations or the like to give away my position.
I went for about an hour this time, tiredness and my increased speed making me feel like I could take a shortcut. I finally found a resting spot to take a quick catnap, and my eyes were shutting, sleep was closing in, when I heard a noise.
My eyes flew open, and I made it to one of the hallways, slowly walking as I considered.
The Shluggoth seemed to be chasing me. Normally, with its speed, I wouldn’t be concerned. However, its level, and what happened to that giant mole was still fresh in my mind.
It clicked when I considered its full name.
The Inevitable Shluggoth.
If I had any coins and anyone to bet with, I’d say it hunted by wearing its prey down to the point of exhaustion, then slowly eating it, or trapping its prey in a dead-end, then leisurely grabbing and eating its prey.
Now, it seemed to be targeting me.
I discarded the idea of it giving up chasing me. It was an endurance hunter, and my only hope was to get so far from it that it lost track of me, or I ended up somewhere it couldn’t go.
There might be a better decision, but I was going to make this one. I sprinted off, tearing around corners at inadvisable speeds, occasionally needing to flare [Scintillating Ascent] to make hairpin reversals as I turned the corner into another high-level monster - or just to float over one of the larger bodies of water.
There were things in the water. Things I’d never seen, just seen the edges of. It was why I avoided large bodies of water till now.
I didn’t feel I had a choice.
I ran, sprinted, and flew my way through the tunnels, furiously eating my spider snacks as quickly as I could to help fuel my gigantic mana usage - and to lighten my load!
Chest heaving, I stopped in a place I’d never been to before - not that that was hard to do. No, more importantly, the tunnels looked a little different, which was practically a miracle in and of itself.
While the old tunnels looked like they’d been melted and reformed, by lava - or, as I was thinking, by monsters like the Inevitable Shluggoth and its oozing, acidic skin, melting and reforming rock behind it - I was at the start of a new section, that looked blackened and charred, somehow burning rocks.
My mind immediately sprang to the dwarven forges. The huge constructs belched flames, and I could easily imagine them venting ‘waste’ into the tunnels. Sure, I was on the wrong end of them, but it was a promising start. If they somehow belched flame into the corridor while I was here, I was mostly confident that I could protect myself against flaming waste, between my shield, my healing, and the non-lethal nature of the “attack.”
Sure, it could be super-hot, and I might find myself in a bad spot, but the low risk, compared to the threat behind me, seemed to be an acceptable trade-off.
I noticed as I started to go in that there was a fine layer of ash on the ground. The ash started to grow thicker and heavier the deeper I went, encouraging me. The ash seemed mostly undisturbed, which to me suggested that the forges were not in active use.
My foot hit something in the deep ash, and I knelt down, dusting away the ash. Some twisted, melted metal emerged, bolstering my confidence. If metal could be blasted out, if it needed tunnels this large, maybe, just maybe, the vent of the forge was large enough that I could flat-out squeeze in, instead of banging on the outside.
Sure, it’d be awkward. “Hi, I’m a human sneaking in the backdoor from the forges. I’m covered in soot and haven’t had a bath in weeks. Mind letting me in?”
It was somewhat risky, but I figured I could shout from a distance, check where I was, and see if I could negotiate passage. I felt like this was a lot more doable than trying to yell at armed patrols in the mines, who were more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. My thinking was that smiths would be more inclined to be chatty, and have a nice conversation.
If nothing else, smiths were less lethal than [Warrior]s and [Mage]s of the same level.
My big fear was a closed forge vent, where I couldn’t get in, and the forge on the other side was too big for anyone to hear me pounding on it. That’d have to be one heck of a giant forge, but hey. Dwarves, skills, big architecture. Giant forges would be totally in-line. I figured smiths had a bunch of points in vitality, which would make hearing me easier.
I kept going down the charred tunnel, before reaching an incredibly obvious-looking intersection. The rocks were cracked and charred in this part of the tunnel, and the ash was fairly deep. At the same time, one portion of the wall suddenly, abruptly, looked exactly like a normal tunnel.
Yeah. Sure. This one moderate portion of the tunnel JUST SO HAPPENED to be completely untouched by whatever terrible flames regularly went through here.
I also got to see what my [Lantern] skill meant by “minor illusion detection.” Looking at the wall, I felt a tiny, subtle itch in the back of my mind. I might not have noticed it without already being on the lookout for illusions, but now that I was thinking about it?
Yeah, totally obvious. This was an illusion if I’d ever seen one. It was like the creator made a perfect illusion for how the stone had been once upon a time, but didn’t consider what it’d be like after a ton of flames went through.
I pressed my hand up against the Mirage wall, frowning as it felt exactly like solid stone. It didn’t let me pass through it, which was weird. I didn’t think illusions could become solid - and when I’d talked with Magic about it, he’d confirmed something similar to me.
I focused [Lantern] on the wall, briefly turning it to moderate-power. I didn’t want to blow my mana.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 261->262]
Aww yes, that’s what I was talking about.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 262->263]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 264->265]
I made a split-second decision to maximize how much power I was putting in. This experience was insane! I wanted to milk it for all it was worth.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 265->266]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 266->267]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 267->268]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 268->269]
Wow, this was crazy. The illusion was holding as well, the Inscriptions had to be crazy good!
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 269->270]
Or fueled by a ton of Arcanite.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 270->271]
I hope it wasn’t fueled by a ton of Arcanite. There might legit be more mana fueling it than I could counter.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 271->272]
Even considering that I’d forced the illusion to spend hundreds or thousands of points of mana for every point I spent breaking it.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 272->273]
Oh, but the experience was so good.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 273->274]
Maybe I’d ask them if I could train my skills here a bit?
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 274->275]
They might not be too happy if it cost them a ton of Arcanite though.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 275->276]
Even if it recharged.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 276->277]
Unless there was a master Mirage classer on the other side.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 277->278]
They might be ok with me training skills with them.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 278->279]
I can’t imagine how high of a level they must have for [Lantern] to struggle so much with their illusion.
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 279->280]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 280->281]
Master Mirage classer?
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 281->282]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 282->283]
Fiery remains of ash and metal?
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 283->284]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 284->285]
[*Ding!* [Lantern] leveled up! 332->333]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [The Dawn Sentinel] has leveled up to level 375->377! +3 Dexterity, +24 Speed, +24 Vitality, +170 Mana, +170 Mana Regen, +48 Magic power, +48 Magic Control from your Class per level! +1 Free Stat for being Human per level! +1 Mana, +1 Mana Regen from your Element per level!]
[*ding!* Congratulations! [Butterfly Mystic] has leveled up to level 333->338! +8 Strength, +8 Dexterity, +70 Speed, +70 Vitality, +70 Mana, +70 Mana Regen, +70 Magic power, +70 Magic Control from your Class per level! +1 Free Stat for being Human per level! +1 Strength, +1 Mana Regen from your Element per level!]
[*Ding!* [Passionate Learning] leveled up! 358->360]
[*Ding!* [Sneaking] leveled up! 211->215]
The rest of my notifications were compressed, capped skills re-capping.
My heart dropped, grabbing my stomach as both plunged into my toes. At the speed of thought, just a hair too late, I turned off [Lantern].
It was too late.
The Mirage had broken, a sloppy, slap-dash job taking nearly all my remaining mana to break.
But it had broken, and I could see behind it, revealing the horrific truth.
I started sweating and trembling, considered fleeing, taking my chances with the [Inevitable Shluggoth]. My odds would be a million times better than what laid in front of me.
I stifled a laugh of despair, one that would surely be my last.
Through the hole in the wall, briefly narrowing into a crack, I stared into the lair of Lun’Kat.
I stared at Lun’Kat, The Stygian Deceiver, sleeping deep in her lair.
And she was hurt.