Chapter 10 – A Series of Questionable Life Choices
Three Known Types of Dungeons:
Ancient Ruins – While ruins may be caused by a number of factors (abandonment, destruction, collapse, etc.), we can agree that they all share one thing in common: The desolation of these forgotten places is notorious for attracting monsters, fanatics, and other unsavory types. A dutiful adventurer would do well to rid the world of these nuisances.
Sacred Dungeons – Sacred dungeons are unique as they are constructed intentionally by both gods and mankind. These dungeons are dedicated as a shrine to their chosen deity and are decorated with statues and ornate tapestries. They often serve both as catacombs and as tests of will for aspirants.
Naturally Occurring – A naturally occurring dungeon is one that appears in the wild. These are not built by man and, as such, there are no god or goddess statues to be found within. Instead, a vigilant adventurer might find a crystal core in the final room. It is the accepted belief that Jita generates these dungeons naturally over time.
– An Adventurer's Guide to Dungeoneering
“There is something you should know about the Catacombs,” Emi said around a mouthful of dubious stew.
Zed looked up quizzically from his bowl, spoon hanging from his mouth.
“The Ebonblade Catacombs were sealed generations ago after the last Dark Hero fell. He was overcome by an overwhelming evil and fell within the inner chamber. The High Priestess of that time was compelled to seal the Catacombs to save the overworld from the horrors within.”
“That sounds... bad. So it's a high level dungeon?”
I haven't been here even a month and already you're wanting me to go after the Big Baddie?
Emi furrowed her brow, taking time to finish her bite before answering.
“I... wouldn't think of it that way, exactly,” she began. “Each dungeon has its own unique challenges.”
She hasn't answered my question.
“Oooookay. So, better question: What exactly are we going to find in this dungeon?”
“It's hard for me to say.” She set her spoon down carefully, deliberately. “Look, Zed, I'm not trying to be purposely elusive here. All I really know is that the Catacombs are full of trials and tribulations. It's meant to test an aspirant's will. Or it was.”
Zed pushed his bowl aside, no longer interested in its contents. As much as he hated to admit it, Edgar's only claim to fame in the kitchen was his mastery of monster sausages and grilled meat.
“Tests of will,” he repeated, slowly nodding. “So what do we have to do to break the seal?”
“The Catacombs were sealed with a magical amulet. It's in my possession, stored safely away. Should be pretty easy to break...easy for me, I mean,” Emi quickly added, seeing the look on his face.
Zed nodded once, twice, thrice.
Fuck it. What, like I'll die?
“So let's go, then.”
“Wait, what? Now?!” She sounded incredulous.
“Yeah. I mean, why bother drawing it out? Let's get this over with.”
“Zed, it's late!” Emi protested. “At the very least, we should get a restful night's sleep and gather a few supplies. I would recommend starting with a brief exploratory mission after breakfast. No sooner.”
“Suit yourself, Priestess.” Zed smirked at Emi's pink and twitching ears.
Wordlessly, Zed left the table and sauntered back toward the residence halls, leaving Emi wide eyed and speechless. His pulse beat an aggressive shoomp-shoomp in his ears. Once past the wide arch he picked up his pace, practically sprinting back to his quarters. He shouldered the door closed and started pacing.
“I did not just do that,” he muttered to himself, running a hand down his very warm face. “I did not--”
The thick wooden door banged open and he turned back to see a stormy look on Emi's pale, beautiful face. Her ears, however, told another tale entirely and Zed fought to suppress a laugh.
Ooh, someone's riled!
“Calm down, Priestess. What, did you think I was going to break down the doors to the dungeon myself, all alone, in the dead of night?” He grinned.
Emi exploded. “Well, I don't know! On one hand, you possess ridiculously powerful magic that's practically cheating; on the other hand, you didn't even know how to hold a sword not but two weeks ago!” She sucked in a breath and continued her rant. “You've just popped in from Jita knows where with no knowledge of... well... anything! And now you want to take off into the depths of a dangerous, sealed off dungeon just like that? Zed, I'd follow you to the ends of the shadows but this--”
Emi's tirade was cut off as Zed's mouth met hers in an insistent, impromptu kiss. She froze, eyes popping open wide for a moment before melting a little and returning his kiss.
Zed reached up and traced a finger along the edge of Emi's long, pointed ear. She pulled away slightly, drawing in a deep, shuddering breath. He flashed a quick smile and retraced her ear once more, earning him a small, involuntary gasp.
Emi kissed him back, hard, then--
“Ouch!” She had bitten his bottom lip. The sharp, metallic tang of blood in his mouth brought Zed crashing back down to reality. He wiped at his mouth, starting to panic.
Oh God, I kissed her. I really kissed her.
“Well, shit,” he breathed, looking pointedly at his fingers. They were stained crimson. “That was intense.”
Silence. Why did silence always feel like impending doom? He looked up and saw Emi rubbing at her twitching ears, her breast heaving. She was very pink, indeed.
“Please don't touch my ears, Zed,” she pleaded. “I can't handle it!”
“I'm sorry.” He gulped. “Was that... wrong? Am I in trouble?”
She won't look at me. Why won't she look at me?
“N-no...” She cleared her throat and finally turned her eyes upon him. “I'm an elf, Zed.”
Zed stared blankly at her, head tilted in confusion. Emi sighed, perhaps somewhat impatiently, and continued.
“My ears are, without question, the most sensitive part of my entire body.” She looked away again. “One does not typically tease an elf's ears outside of a serious, committed relationship. It's... um, a little too soon, is all.”
“Oh. Oh...” Zed cringed. “I'm sorry.”
“It's okay. You didn't know.” She turned away, blushing. “I should go.”
“Was I... I mean, was it good for you, at least?”
Emi turned back, one hand on the door handle, and appeared to consider his question seriously for a moment.
“Intimacy is... discouraged within the Order. But... I'm a priestess, Zed. Not a prude.” She smiled, ears twitching furiously.
“Ah, but you didn't say it was explicitly forbidden.” He grinned triumphantly and, with some flair, stripped off his shirt for bed.
The effect was both immediate and glorious. Emi turned an improbable shade of red from the tips of her ears to her collarbone, let out a high pitched squeak, and fled into the night.
It's the Dawn of the 34th Day Without Caffeine.
Blasphemous rays of light pierced Zed's eyelids and assaulted his vision. Truly, no greater horror would ever be witnessed than pure unfiltered sunlight. He groaned, pulling his eyelids open with a not-insignificant amount of dread. Last night's call to adventure wasn't entirely as impulsive as Emi might have believed; Zed simply wasn't a morning person.
Here's your daily friendly reminder that you're no one else's bitch but your own. You chose this.
He stretched, dragged on a fresh set of clothing, and padded down to the dining hall in silence. Edgar had apparently heard about their plans and prepared a massive harpy egg omelette for two, stuffed with ground fresh harpy sausage and pungent cheese. A steaming cup of liquified beans completed the meal.
“Caw-fee! Right, Zeddy? Right?”
“Sure, Eddy!” He wrinkled his nose against the acrid steam.
What did I ever do wrong in my previous life?
Zed ate, savoring the rich umami of the dish. Each bite practically melted in his mouth and he couldn't help but to shovel in more food faster than he could possibly chew it. Strange, there was no Emi to be found anywhere within the hall. He wasn't particularly concerned; he understood that Emi's life was her own. Surely she was ironing out a few last minute details for their mission. No matter.
He burped contentedly, having eaten the entire double portion in record time. Edgar had really outdone himself this time, ULB (Unidentified Liquid Beans) excluded. The liquid blurped menacingly and Zed wondered to himself what might happen if he were to attempt to drink the foul concoction.
“Caw-fee”, 29th iteration
Brewed by “Chef” Edgar
Warning: Extremely toxic. Do not consume. May cause significant negative status effect(s).
Holy shit... negative status effects? Like what?!
A hand suddenly clamped down on his shoulder, and Zed jumped. The cup sailed out of his hand and smashed against the wall behind him. He could swear he heard a faint sizzle coming from the site of impact.
“We need to gear up,” Emi whispered brusquely in his ear. “Immediately.”
Zed rose and followed Emi out of the dining hall, jogging a little to keep up with her brisk stride. She was decked out in full blown battle armor, sleek black plate gleaming in the early morning candlelight. He attempted a quick detour to the armory but was promptly shut down.
“I've already prepared a set for you in the temple,” she explained.
They vacated the residences and crossed the temple grounds at breakneck speed, neither party uttering a single word. The atmosphere was fraught with tension; something was very wrong here. The air became more and more oppressive as they approached the temple. Zed stopped stock-still before they could enter the temple, suddenly feeling quite ill. The world wobbled on its axis.
This... this is bad. VERY bad.
“Emi, stop!” He doubled over and took several deep breaths to keep from vomiting. “I'm going to be sick. What happened?”
She turned, eyes blazing and nostrils flaring.
“They-- wait, what?! Who's dead? What the hell happened here?”
“I broke the seal, Zed. Before dawn. No, don't look at me like that! We needed to know what we were getting ourselves into so I sent an advance party to scout ahead.” She paused, digging the heel of her boot into the dirt. “They... didn't return.”
“That's not necessarily a--,” he stopped, seeing her darkened expression. “Okay. What... makes you think they're dead? They could be delayed, or trapped, or...”
She shook her head vehemently.
“The first floor's clear, from what I can see. They even breached the second floor. After... nothing. My connection with the party leader was severed. I felt his very life essence snuffed out in an instant. If he has fallen, so too have they.”
Zed swallowed. Suddenly his mouth was very dry.
“Who's dead? How many?”
Zed sucked in a sharp breath.
“And a group of three lesser fellows he recruited for the task. Eiji, Jasper, Theo. Their blood is on my hands now. I should never have sent them.”
“W-what do we do now? Cancel the mission? Recover the bodies? Seal the doors?”
She looked at him blankly for a few moments, uncompredending.
“The mission remains unchanged, Zed,” she said flatly. “There is perhaps greater danger than we imagined, but this evil must be addressed. It has been fed, however accidentally. It must not be allowed to grow.”
Emi threw the temple doors open and stalked inside. Zed followed in a daze... left, right, through another set of heavy doors. A bundle of dark padded armor was thrust squarely into his chest. She widened her eyes at him and turned away pointedly.
I'm supposed to dress? Here?
Zed obeyed, fumbling a little with his numb, dumb fingers.
“I'll take the lead,” Emi said, arms crossed. “Zed, keep to the safety of the shadows. Understand?”
“The shadows? Since when has...” He trailed off, remembering the first notification he received when he first woke in this strange new world.
Boon Received: Dark Divinity
Zed Thorn receives 'Protection of the World'.
In Jita, shadows were supposed to be safe. They were not known for harboring dangers of any kind. Evil was so bold as to show itself in plain sight.
“I'll accept any help you can offer, especially if it involves those deadly flaming threads.” She turned back to him, a murderous look on her face. “We have another objective today: Avenging our friends. Edall wills it.”
Zed nodded thoughtfully. He hadn't had many interactions with Yusai personally, but they weren't on unfriendly terms by any means. Though he didn't view himself as particularly religious, the Ebonblade Order's views regarding justice were starting to sound rather... attractive. He finished pulling on his borrowed soft-soled leather boots. A little snug, but serviceable.
“Right, you can turn around, I suppose,” he said, feeling a little self conscious.
Emi turned, eyeing him from top to bottom with approval.
“Are you ready?” Zed nodded. “Then let's go. Stand back, please.”
The high priestess approached the overlarge arched double doors to the catacombs. The doors were massive, standing nearly as tall as two men. They appeared to be made of the same black wood as the forest around them and were decorated with...
Yes, the doors were embellished with a lot of ornate twisting, interlocking metal tentacles. Several of which criss-crossed the center of the doors. There were so many tentacles, in fact, that the black wood of the door was barely visible. Zed blinked in confusion. Emi had said that the doors had already been unsealed. How exactly were they meant to enter?
As if to answer his unspoken question, the high priestess extended her left hand and began channelling mana into the tentacles. Her right hand gripped the base of her odachi, a grim reminder of the seriousness of the situation.
Unbelievably, the tentacles immediately began to react to this infusion. They convulsed, clanking loudly, and withdrew from the center of the doors, arranging themselves artfully to either side. The doors creaked slowly open, exposing the great chamber within.
Impressive. I'll have to ask her about teaching me that one.
Emi stalked inside, scanning the chamber with her own eyes before turning back to Zed one final time.
“Clear, but be wary. We don't know what exactly the party encountered before...,” she trailed off.
“Right behind you.” He hesitated, not quite knowing what to say. He swallowed past the lump in his thoat. “We'll avenge them, Emi. I promise. Vengeance, right? In Edall's name.”
She returned a wan smile.
“As she wills it.”