“If things are that dangerous, can we leave the dungeon?” Kat asked, crossing her arms. The warm, knee deep water swirled past her legs as Kaleek approached.
“Unfortunately not,” Dorrik shook their head, pulling three slightly yellow crystals from their carrying satchel. “None of the return crystals are glowing. For some reason the Dungeon hasn’t recognized us as having met the conditions of their use. My bet would be that the dungeon thinks that we don’t have enough for all party members.”
Dorrik nodded at the pile of corpses in the hallway leading up to their room, “return crystals are meant to end a dungeon delve. Each remaining party member needs their own crystal and they can all only be activated at once, teleporting all surviving players to the dungeon gate. If the dungeon thinks there are six of us in here, we aren’t getting out without six return crystals or activating the altar.”
“We just treat it like a silver tier dungeon,” Kaleek shrugged. “It’s a shame that we’ll only walk away with a second wood ranked award rather than something fancy, but it was always only a matter of time and levels before we started challenging more dangerous dungeons.”
“Eventually,” Dorrik replied sternly, “but we both know that The Tower of Somnus doesn’t have iron or silver tier dungeons on the first level for a reason. Too many ambitious players would dive in over their heads and get themselves killed.”
“By the same stroke,” Dorrik continued, “there’s a reason that the dungeons force you to enter with your entire team. If the tower let you game the entrance requirements in order to artificially increase a dungeon’s difficulty and double your reward, a number of idiots would do it.”
“Idiots or not,” Kaleek grinned at the upset lizard person, “here we are. Plus, we both know those rules are in place mostly to protect new players. You and I can handle a first level iron or silver tier dungeon without breaking a sweat, and although Kat’s a bit new she can more than take care of herself.
“Lokkel do not sweat Kaleek,” Dorrik frowned.
“There we go,” Kaleek slapped Dorrik on the back cheerfully. “That’s the spirit.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any point in worrying about it,” Kat interjected, trying to placate her teammates. “If we’re stuck in here, worrying about it won’t change anything. We should just spend our time preparing for what comes next.”
Dorrik opened their mouth to say something back to Kaleek as the big otter grinned at him. Eventually, they just shook their head.
“You are correct Miss Kat,” Dorrik sighed. “Please let us know when your mana has returned to full so that we can continue. I’m afraid that we will have to lean on your skills for the time being as my build doesn’t appear to be terribly useful in this dungeon.”
“Build?” Kat asked as she shifted slightly in the foul water, trying not to think of the open wound on the back of her knee.
“Psi initiates are fairly flexible,” Kaleek answered for them. “Their major abilities tend to center around seeing and moving great distances, directly attacking the mind or soul, and enhancing their own bodies. Dorrik is an attacker, they have skills associated with invading and harming the minds of their enemies directly. Very useful for delivering almost unblockable attacks and confusing your enemies, but not all that great when your targets don’t have minds to attack.”
“I was planning on branching out into physical enhancement next,” Dorrik said, almost bashfully. “A sudden two to five points of body would go a long way toward being able to hack through a herd of plants or automatons.”
Kat nodded slowly before shooting a glance at Kaleek. “What about you?” She asked, inclining her head slightly to indicate the massive otter.
“I’m a thug and proud of it,” Kaleek grinned at her. “It’s a balanced fighting class, equally capable of taking a hit and dishing one out. None of the careful pruning and development you casters have to worry about. I hit things hard and try to get out of the way when they try and hit me back. Fairly simple really.”
“I suppose my focus on two handed weapons and heavier armor could be considered part of my build,” he mused, rapping his knuckles against the mud spattered breastplate. “They let me tangle with some of the larger and nastier things that you can find on the first level of the tower.”
“Unfortunately,” his face wrinkled in embarrassment, “they aren’t exactly conducive to dodging attacks or fighting large numbers of small, mobile opponents.”
“Thanks for the assist back there,” Kaleek muttered, not really making eye contact with Kat. “I got a little overconfident and almost paid the price for it. You’re a good entity to have at my back.”
“You’re welcome,” Kat smiled at him. It was a small thing, but it struck Kat how much of her everyday life passed without acknowledgement or praise. The company treated exemplary work like a bare minimum, only chastising those who failed to meet benchmarks, but never complimenting employees for surpassing goals.
“I must also express my thanks, Miss Kat,” Dorrik inclined their head as well. “Without the timely use of your magic I am not sure I could have extricated myself from my predicament at all. There is no question that I wouldn’t have been able to free myself in time to save Kaleek.”
“Being broken down into base nutrients in a Cauldron Tree’s digestive receptacle is an awful fate,” Dorrik continued gravely. “I’m sure Kaleek’s screams would have haunted me.”
“My screams?” Kaleek grumbled. “I would have haunted you personally. I’d have hitched a flight over to-”
“My mana is full,” Kat interjected hastily, trying to cut off another round of good natured verbal sparring. “I’m ready to move on whenever you are.”
Kaleek cracked his neck, removing the two handed sword from his shoulder before walking to the room’s exit. He paused for a second as Dorrik drew both of their blades, motioning with one for Kat to take the space in between the two of them. Apparently, as the team’s only effective spellcaster, Kat was now consigned to the center of their formation where she was less likely to get hurt.
The door opened with a click, and Kaleek led the way, warning them both of the step up into shallower, ankle deep water as they crept forward. Once or twice he paused, prodding a suspect portion of the wall or floor with his sword, but not finding any traps.
Finally as they began to approach the next room, green light began to filter down the hallway, warring with the natural dim light that dungeon generated from the periodic impervious boxes mounted in the wall.
Kaleek put up one hand, calling for a halt. He splashed close to a wall, squinting at a slightly brighter patch of wood. Kat walked closer herself, noticing that there appeared to be a colony of some sort of bioluminescent algae or fungus growing on the wood of the dungeon walls.
“One of your throwing daggers if I may?” Kaleek asked, extending a hand to Kat, not taking his eyes from the knot of glowing wood.
Wordlessly she handed the knife to him, hilt first. Without any comment of his own, Kaleek pricked his palm, coaxing a bead of blood out onto the weapon before bringing it close to the dungeon wall.
The second the blood touched the glowing substance, it began hissing wildly and a foul stench filled the hallway. By the time Kaleek pulled the dagger back, all traces of his blood were gone.
Carefully, he rinsed the knife in the brackish water around their ankles before wiping it dry on a clean patch of the dungeon wall.
“The glowing stuff is carnophagic algae,” Kaleek said gravely, handing the throwing knife back to Kat. “It’s just like the stuff we encountered in the tide pool dungeon on level eight Dorrik. It works fast and can eat through most organic substances in a matter of seconds. If you get it on you, it’s honestly better to cut the infected part off and deal with the blood loss issues than to let it keep eating.”
“Amputation suggested,” Kat glanced at the dime sized patch of green light warily. “Got it. I think Dorrik might have been right about the increased difficulty level of this dungeon not being worth the awards.”
“Given the way the upcoming chamber is glowing green?” Kaleek asked rhetorically, jerking his head toward where the hallway began to open up ahead of them. “I’m inclined to agree, but there isn’t much we can do about it. Just make sure not to touch the walls and hope for the best.”
They walked for another half minute, their silence taking on a brooding tone as the walls of their tunnel became brighter, packed with the carnivorous algae. Where before they moved in a loose single file, now there was nothing loose about it. Kat and her companions walked in the absolute center of the tunnel, occasionally casting nervous glances at the glowing walls.
Finally, they stepped into the next room, and Kaleek immediately began swearing. Kat looked around them and her face fell.
Almost the entirety of the room was on an incline, the floor angling up toward a hill occupying its center. Slick, featureless, shiny rock made up most of the fairly steep ramp of the hill, a squat circular wooden plant, covered in dimples and indentations, occupying its apex.
The walls of the room glowed bright green with the algae. Anyone slipping or rolling down the incline would almost certainly slam into the flesh eating plants, exposing a broad area of their body to the substance.
“I’ll bet you five marks that hill is covered in oil or something,” Kaleek remarked sourly.
Kat just shook her head as she looked at the shiny, almost glass like rock. The trap was both obvious, and inevitable. There just wasn’t another way to get through the room to the exit without ascending the hill.
“I have no desire to lose my marks,” Dorrik shook their head. “The real question is how we pass by safely.”
“I think I have an idea,” Kat offered, eyeing the room carefully, “I’m not sure it will work, but-”
A thumping noise interrupted Kat, freezing her tongue as she tried to place the sound.
“Get back!” Kaleek shouted, barely bringing his two handed sword up in time to deflect something the size of a baseball.
It rang off of his sword, rocking the big warrior back a step before landing in the water nearby. It was a large seedpod, roughly the shape and makeup of a coconut, a hardened wooden shell, sheared through where Kaleek’s sword had hit it to expose spongy white flesh beneath.
Then the sound clicked. It was a pneumatic tube, a transit device that used a buildup of air pressure propelling an object through a sealed space. Some of the labs used them to rapidly transport samples, or other small objects.
“It’s the plant on the hill,” Kaleek swung at another seedpod, missing with a grunt as it left a dent in his armor. “The attacks don’t do much damage but they still hit pretty hard. It’s more than enough to knock you off balance if you aren’t sure of your footing.”
Kat eyed the hill. Any attempt to scale it as is was doomed to failure. The angle was steep enough to make an unimpeded attempt to scale it dangerous, but if there were some sort of oil on it like everyone expected, even without the plant pelting them with seedpods, trying to charge up it was a foolhardy endevor.
Worse, each of them would only get one chance at this. Failure meant being eaten alive by the algae on the room’s walls. Maybe they could climb it normally once the plant at the top was removed, but until then-
Another seedpod slammed into Kaleek’s knee, denting the thinner armor there as his sword splashed into the water a half second too late to stop it. Kat caught him as he stumbled backward, dangerously close to the walls.
They didn’t have much time for her to plan out and test each step. Kat focused, using Dehydrate on the hill. It dulled slightly as the spell took hold, robbing whatever substance was slicking it of its moisture.
Kaleek pulled himself away from her, nodding his appreciation as he brought his sword back up into a defensive position. She repeated her spell, clearing another third of the hill.
The plant fired again. This time Kaleek got his sword up in time, bisecting it in one smooth stroke befitting the hero from an action movie. Of course, an action star wouldn’t have managed to get shot twice first, but not everyone could be perfect.
“Hurry up Kat!” Kaleek shouted as the halves of the seedpod splashed into the water near them. “I can see that you’re doing something, but I haven’t leveled this body much yet. About half of my defensive plan is skill, but the other is entirely luck.”
She didn’t respond, just gritting her teeth as she used Dehydrate a third time, clearing the summit of the hill. Then, Kat waited.
The plant fired a seedpod, thankfully it was off target, missing the entryway to their tunnel entirely. Immediately, mana flowed into Kaleek himself as she used Levitation on him.
“Go!” She shouted, pushing him from behind. “I’ve halved your weight and evaporated most of the hill. I’ll cancel the spell once you get up there so you can fight, but-”
She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Kaleek, glowing dull red for a brief moment, nimbly leapt into the air, clearing almost twenty percent of the hill in one jump. He landed with more agility than his armorclad form had any right displaying and proceeded to scramble up the incline in a low crouch.
As soon as he got to the top, Kat let her spell lapse and finally let out the breath that she didn’t even know that she was holding. Kaleek’s two handed sword slammed down on the plant just before it could fire another seedpod, damaging the indentation it had been firing the mini-coconuts from.
A second swing of Kaleek’s sword cut the thing in half entirely. He planted his sword deep in its remains for good measure before surveying the room.
“It’s clear!” Kaleek shouted down to them, his trademark grin back on his face. “Good thinking there Kat.”
“Agreed,” Dorrik spoke affably from behind her, resting a single claw on her shoulder. “That was the sort of fast thinking that separates quality teams from great ones. I am still unhappy that we ended up in these circumstances, but they seem to be bringing the best out in you.”
She let herself bask in their praise for a second before casting Levitation on herself and scrambling up the hill to join Kaleek. The room was a circle, the small space at the top of the hill the only flat spot. Kat grimaced as she made out a variety of gleaming white skeletons slumped against the walls in various spots around the perimeter. Evidently, the trap in this room was an effective one.
They finished off that room very slowly and carefully. First, waiting for Kat’s mana to recharge enough for her to Dehydrate a path down to the exit. Then they paused, chatting casually as they waited for enough of her mana to return so that they could descend the hill under the influence of Levitation, not trusting the steep grade of the hill even without the slippery biological oil that Dorrik had confirmed on another slope as soon as they reached the top.
The rest of the dungeon wasn’t nearly as threatening as those first two rooms. It still probably would have been enough to shatter a less prepared party, but for the three of them it was more or less manageable now that they knew what to expect.
The next room contained a grove of something Dorrik called ‘noose vines.’ Loops hanging from the dungeon ceiling, obscured by paralytic spores, that would wrap themselves around the necks of unwary adventurers.
The concoction Dorrik had made them drink was more than enough to resist the spores, and from there it was a simple matter of crossing the room while slashing any of the nooses that drew to close.
After that room, a trap in the hallway showered them with intelligent thorns, but Dorrik pounced on them with an almost manic enthusiasm, excited to finally have a target for their psi abilities. Arrest Momentum dropped the legged thorns to the shallow water of the dungeon floor. Then, it was only a matter of crushing the likely venomous monsters under their collective boots before continuing.
Next were creatures Kaleek identified as compost creepers. They couldn’t move quickly normally, and with the help of Gravity’s Grasp they were able to separate one of the shambling piles of leaves and fungus from their pack at a time, whittling the herd down with minimal risk to themselves.
The final chamber before the boss was a bit more challenging. Chest deep water concealed squirming leech roots. Unfortunately, Dehydrate was literally useless, the power of the spell wasted on the water surrounding the roots. The good news was that the roots each had enough sapience for Dorrik’s ability to target them.
They gleefully picked them off with ego shard after ego shard, once again venting frustration over their minimal role in the dungeon so far.
Honestly? It cheered Kat up a little bit to see the unflappable Dorrik frustrated with their inability to contribute. It put her own concerns about her usefulness from earlier into the proper context.
Finally, they opened a door onto a broad field, a massive tree at its center. Dwarfed by the tree, the dungeon altar sat peacefully, calling to them.
“That tree is the boss isn’t it?” Kat asked as soon as she stepped into the room, grateful that her shoes were finally on dry soil.
“Yeaaaaah,” Kaleek drew the word out as he stretched his back. “That’s a treant if I’ve ever seen one. Big one too. This is going to be a bit of a fight.”
“Why is it even bothering to sit still?” Kat shook her head looking up and down the massive tree. “If everyone knows it's going to open up at them as soon as they step within range, why let the adventurers get themselves set up and pepper it with fireballs or something?”
“Likely as a reward for dragging a wizard or fire elementalist this far,” Dorrik replied as they stepped past her, looking at the tree thoughtfully. “The Tree of Somnus seeks to balance the classes it grants to players. As an example, although your abilities with a knife and my psi abilities are incredibly useful against living creatures, they are borderline worthless here.”
“By the same token,” Dorrik drew both of their swords with a quiet rasp. “A fire elementalist would struggle to harm dirt or metal based monsters as well as the drenched plant creatures that dwell here. Now, after multiple rooms of uselessness, carried by their party, they could help even the playing field with a first strike.”
“Dehydrate?” Kat asked, eyeing the tree up and down. “I don’t think gravity is going to help us all that much against that thing. Unless I’ve missed my guess it’s probably insanely strong physically. A slight increase in gravity would barely slow it.”
“That matches what I know,” Kaleek shrugged. “Water magic isn’t the best option against these things, that would obviously be fire. Still, they need flowing sap to move and live. I’m sure drying that out won’t exactly make the thing happy.”
She glanced back to Dorrik for his input. They nodded slightly.
“Kaleek is likely right,” they said evenly, “you may have the honors Miss Kat.”
Dagger in hand, as soon as she reached the maximum range of her abilities, Kat concentrated. A moment later, her mana dipped and the entire tree rippled as if an unseen gust of wind blew through its branches.
Her attention strayed up its trunk, easily finding another area unaffected by the first spell in its massive bulk. With a mental click, more mana entered the treant, flashdrying another chunk of its body.
A pair of great yellow eyes opened in its side staring sightlessly past Kat as they tried to focus on something as small and insignificant as her. The branches that made up its canopy creaked terribly as they angled themselves downward, four massive wooden battering clubs, each as big around as Kat at the waist.
Without waiting for a further response, Kat focused on one of its eyes, figuring that the great yellow orbs would be more susceptible to the spell than its huge wooden body. The click in her head was followed immediately by the eye shrinking visibly.
The tree shuddered in pain, creaking and groaning like it was in the middle of a hurricane. A massive branch swung through the air toward the three of them, enough force to level a wall behind its deceptively fast arc.
They scattered, Kaleek running toward the tree itself while Dorrik and Kat both broke to the right and left respectively. The dirt of the dungeon floor roiled and bucked under Kat as the branch slammed down just behind her.
“Sapient enough for me!” Dorrik shouted, leaping onto the branch before it could lift itself from the ground and pinning both of their swords into it. “Ego shard”
A bolt of purple energy struck the trunk of the treant. For a fraction of a second, the eye that Kat hadn’t attacked clouded as the ability attempted to corrode its mind, but then the creature shook with fury once more, raising another branch to swat Dorrik from its body.
She focused once more, ignoring the blue ‘low mana’ alert that appeared in the lower left of her vision as her final Dehydrate hit its remaining eye. The massive yellow oval shriveled, drying and cracking until it was little more than a dark yellow plate laid into the trees rough bark.
It shook with rage once more, distracted from its attack on Dorrik by the destruction of its other eye. Kat grinned widely and began running, completely unsurprised by the blind flailing of two of the creature’s massive branches pounding into and sweeping the prairie around where she had once stood.
Kaleek began pounding into its trunk, a faint red glow lighting his sword as he burned stamina to empower the blows. Each strike bit deep, wood spraying like shrapnel from an explosion with each slash.
Kat glanced down at her knife ruefully. As useful as it was against humanoids, Kat wasn’t foolish enough to try it against a monster whose bark was thicker than the entirety of its blade.
She’d probably contributed more to their victory than the rest of the hunting group already by using Dehydrate, but it was disappointing to functionally be sidelined this early. Maybe if the battle lasted four to five more minutes, she’d regain enough mana to use Dehydrate again, but until then her job was to simply watch the battle and pull anyone out who was too injured to continue.
Luckily, it wasn’t necessary. Dissolving its eyes had done the trick, and neither of her companions were neophytes. Both of them kept moving, Kaleek in a circle around its trunk, driving his sword deeper and deeper into its heartwood while the treant frantically and ineffectually swiped at him.
Meanwhile Dorrik was the star of the show, leaping from branch to branch in its canopy, stabbing their swords deep into its wooden limbs and peppering it with ego shards every time it tried to focus on Kaleek, buying the thug enough time to sidestep yet another massive branch.
Kat only managed to regain a single point of mana before the tree slumped slightly, its large branches stilling. Kaleek didn’t stop, continuing to hack away at its side as he tried to fell it entirely.
A smile erupted on her face as the tower itself confirmed their victory.
You have reached Level 5 in the skill Water I, you have received the following reward:
You may now double cast spells known with Water I. Double cast spells may be maintained or used simultaneously with another double cast spell.
That seemed useful. Anticipation filled her. She’d need to work on Gravity I next. If it granted the same ability, her spellcasting ability would literally be doubled.
“We appear to be victorious Miss Kat,” Dorrik limped over to her.
“Are you all right?” She asked hurriedly, glancing at the leg that her companion was favoring.
“Nothing more than a twisted ankle while performing some ill advised acrobatics,” Dorrik’s attempt at a grin ended in a wince of pain. “The damage will be reset once I re-enter the tower, and at this point we have used up most of the night. As of right now I would classify it as a waste of a sage leaf.”
“If you say so,” Kat agreed reluctantly.
“Although I would prefer to avoid a dungeon raid this… adventurous on the first five to ten levels,” Dorrik began limping toward the altar. “We have more than earned our awards. Let Kaleek have his fun. Eventually he’ll get tired of hacking away at it and join us.”
Dorrik placed one of their clawed hands on the altar, a cocoon of rainbow energy surrounding them. They smiled slightly, inclining their head and then vanished.
It had been a long night, and the three of them would have a long walk back to town. Kat glanced at Kaleek gleefully chopping away at the treant. She might as well get someplace dry where she could try and get some of the stench of the bog out of her clothes before they started back.
She put her hand on the altar.
You have completed the Wood Tier Level One Dungeon, Bog of Chernok.
Six party members were recommended for this delve. Please recruit more before your next delve!
Three of [Error Report Submitted For Review] party members surviving. Better luck next time!
The world dissolved into rainbows and warmth.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night