“That was a heck of a party,” Grecian complimented Fred the morning after. The merchant leader surveyed the partially wrecked tavern with appreciative eyes, “I never thought I’d see the people so filled with hope after everything that’s happened.”
“Heh heh,” Fred chuckled, wiping a mug, “I have to agree with you there. The new ale really made last night something special, and the boys fighting was even better. Too bad they didn’t finish settling it; I lost my bet.”
“But you still made out with the lion’s share,” Grecian pointed out with a laugh, “10% of the pot? Your daughter is a certified genius with money. With her mind and abilities, she’d make a good partner with my boy don’t you think?”
“Oh quiet you old money-pincher,” Fred grumbled, “our boys already have a quarrel over that, no need for us old people getting involved. You and I are too old to be arguing over lovers. Not like back when we were young ay?”
“Please don’t mention that around my family,” Grecian coughed, “I was too hot-blooded back them; too eager to flip the coin for profit. Better to have a calm life resting on riches I’ve found.”
“Never thought I’d live to hear you say that,” Fred laughed, “Well, no matter I guess since I too have stored my sword. You’re here for the ale contract, right? Always were a quick slick for gold.”
“Since you have so much, surely giving me some to sell isn’t a bad idea?” Grecian pushed, “I’d be willing to pay triple for the recipe too.”
“Oh go bark up a tree you treasure-hound!”
“Listen here you toothless mutt!”
The two were interrupted by the tavern door opening. The two men turned to see two small, cloaked figures approach them.
“Is this The Knifed Zombie?” a young woman’s voice flowed from the taller figure.
“Ay, what’re you here for?” Fred asked cautiously.
The girl took off her hood, inciting a gasp from the two men.
“I need your help Sir Fred, and yours Sir Grecian,” spoke Hilda, her younger sister Shiva also taking her hood off, “It’s time we stopped hiding and stop them.”
“It hurts,” Rowen moaned as Milly slapped a piece of frozen meat onto his shoulder.
“I believe you,” Milly said dryly, “Who told you it would be a good idea to fight someone five years older than you and who’s good at martial techniques and magic while are only good at using magic? You’re lucky he took it easy on you.”
“Yeah right,” Rowen growled, “I got him good too! He didn’t walk away from that fight looking any better than I did.”
“Maybe, but I promise you he went to bed without any injuries,” Milly chuckled, “That’s the advantage of knowing healing spells. Maybe you should learn a few yourself if you’re going to be getting into these kinds of fights.”
Rowen turned his head and spat onto the ground, “Forget it. Healing magic doesn’t mesh well with either dark or necromancy magic. Best I can do is fix bones.”
“Ahem,” Claire interrupted as she flew between the two teens, “Doc sent me to tell you that the traps are fixed up and ready to go.”
“Finally!” Milly said excitedly, “I’ve been waiting for this since Rowen got kidnap . . . I mean brought here by his own free will.”
Rowen rolled his eyes.
The two teens were in Doc’s dungeon, having been brought there by Anadine early in the morning to undergo practice. As Rowen was recovering from the previous night, it was Milly’s turn to have a go at the trap rooms.
“Are you sure about this Milly?” Rowen asked again, “Let me remind you that I’ve suffered terribly at the hands of these traps before and after Doc adjusted them. Even these bruises don’t match what he gave me.”
Milly snorted and flicked Rowen’s forehead, causing him to lean back in surprise. “Oh hush you. I can take care of myself and you know it. Stop being so worried about me.”
“Don’t be like that Milly. I am really worried about your safety,” Rowen pleaded, “Doc could repair my body using the pink slimes or his mana, but if you are seriously hurt than only the slimes can help and they don’t heal big injuries quickly. You’re liable to bleed out before they finish.”
Milly said nothing, but smiled confidently at Rowen. To illustrate her point, she began flipped her throwing dagger and catching it repeatedly.
“I tried my best Fred,” Rowen muttered, closing his eyes as he lay back down against the cool stone.
The preparations are complete,” Doc announced through the room, “Would test subject two, I mean practice meat-bag, I mean adventurer trash . . . Claire tell those girls that even if we address adventurers like that within the family I don’t believe its polite to read it off during my speech. Terribly sorry Milly, if you could move to the starting line?”
Milly ignored Rowen’s fuming and feet stamping as she confidently cracked her neck and arms before getting in a ready position. Behind her, her throwing daggers floated in a rotating circle parallel to her back.
“I Milly call upon the lady of desire to bless me and my wants,” Milly prayed, “May she guide my path through the quickest road and empower me with her affection. Blessed be the lady, and blessed be my desire.”
“Go!” Doc announced cheerfully.
Milly grabbed hold of a dagger in each hand and ran into the open-topped room, the first stage of the obstacle course. As she hurried in, her eyes flashed from the floor to the top of the walls. She noted the opening slits.
“By the lady above, Shield of Desire!” Milly chanted, pointed her daggers at the slits she continued forward without stopping. Two red beams burst forth from her daggers, hitting the slits and covering them in a glowing red barrier.
“Fine,” Doc muttered, “fine, you stopped the trap. Next room!”
Milly slowed down as she spied the occupants of the next room. Her eyes examined the three furry slimes lodged in the far wall, all of which were growling at her with wagging tails.
“By my desire, Three Dagger formation!” she chanted again, this time summoning a third dagger from her back. It floated between her two hand-held daggers, and all three-glowed red. She crossed her arms, and then made an X-like motion, releasing the daggers. With a trio of small explosions, the furry slimes splattered across the room. Milly concentrated, and the daggers broke free of the floor and flew back to the formation around her back. She took hold of two of the daggers once more.
“. . . . You know Milly, this course was designed to test your speed and reflexes. Exploding my slimes is kind of the opposite of that.”
Milly made a rude hand gesture at the ceiling, “Hey, you just asked me to do the course Mr. Dungeon. I’m not a speed type; Sir Ganus classified my abilities in the markswomen category with clerical powers to bolster my defense and attack. Did you make these traps under the assumption that every adventurer is going to trip their way through your dungeon?”
Doc didn’t answer, but Anadine and Rowen were holding back their laughter.
“I’m right aren’t I?” Milly asked cheekily.
“Yes,” Doc finally relented, “I suppose I was concentrating on making these traps more entertaining than deadly. How would you change things then?”
“Make your slits wider, but more decorative to disguise them. Just having a pair of lone slits in an otherwise smooth wall dungeon is obvious. Those furry slimes would be deadlier if they weren’t waiting so obviously in the wall of the room. Why were they there anyway?”
“They were going to be launched; as it happens you destroyed the trap mechanism,” Doc complained.
“Well,” Milly reasoned, “That would certainly be an excellent choice of slime to attack with, but you should camouflage them into pretending to be rocks or even have a few rocks with them. That way the prouder adventurers wouldn’t try to avoid them.”
“I’ll think about,” was all Doc said as the door to the next room opened. Milly stepped through and found herself in a large arena style room.
The ground shook, and a large purple slime appeared in the center of the room.
“This is a boss poison slime,” Doc reported overhead, “I don’t have a place for it yet, but it makes for a excellent sample of what to expect from a higher tier slime boss. Good luck!”
The purple poison slime let out a torrent of purple liquid in Milly’s direction. The young woman leaped out of the way, narrowly avoiding the corrosive fluid that made the stone hiss as it hit the wall behind her.
Not wasting a moment, Milly began running around the slime, keeping herself far away from the boss’s tentacles attacks. Whenever the slime opened up to spew poison, she jumped a different direction to avoid the deadly substance.
As she ran, Milly chanted her prayer. “Mistress of Desire, I call upon my oath of desired protection. Let my will and wants merge together to form a wall against the weapon of my enemies. Let my daggers eliminate the power they hold. And let my faith drive burning inferno through their bodies as I emerge triumphant!”
Dodging another torrent of slime, Milly flicked her hand at the ground, causing a floating dagger to stab into the ground where ever she pointed. When six daggers lay buried around the slime, Milly folded her hands in prayer and knelt upon the ground.
“Fire of temptation!” she cried out.
The daggers shot out red light that enclosed the slime boss in a hexagram. The red light filled the hexagram, and then red lines connected the daggers with their adjacent counterpart. The entire inside of the magic diagram exploded as a fireball consumed the boss and everything else with it. The explosion was large enough to shake the dungeon floor.
A few minutes later, the smoke cleared and revealed only the daggers. The boss slime was defeated.
“That’s a real blow to my confidence,” Doc sighed overhead, “I was fully prepared with antidotes too. You are incredibly strong for an adventurer, even more so than Rowen.”
“I can’t take all the credit,” Milly grinned up at the ceiling, “unlike Rowen, my magic is dependent on my relationship with the goddess. If I hadn’t learned the necessary chants, spells, and rituals, I’d be dead in the water, or dungeon in this case. If it makes you feel better, I can only use the ‘Fire of Temptation’ spell twice a day. Perhaps I can make it up to you by helping you make a priest slime or something.”
“That’s a great idea! I’ll . . . hang on . . .” Doc paused.
“Claire, return at once to the dungeon and bring the girls,” Doc suddenly turned serious, “Anadine and Rowen, prepare for an attack. Milly . . . I’m sorry but I’ll have to ask you to stay on the 26th floor to hide.”
“What’s happening lord?” Anadine stood at attention, “Are the adventurers returning?”
“No,” Doc said seriously, “But my tunnels in the town are sensing a lot of movement heading this way. I think we may be facing an invasion. Everyone, prepare for battle!”
The march of the soldiers was quiet, not a word spoken. They marched together in rows, each step the mirror of his brother in-arms. The mid-day sun sun shone down on their armored bodies, their swords and shield reflecting the light. This was the march of the last of armies of Nehatra, a mere few thousand men, the only survivors. Yet they marched for war.
One of the soldiers near the front looked up toward the generals leading the lines. They rode horses, and their armor seemed to glitter as if new. Unlike the comatose seriousness of the soldiers, these few leaders of men seemed more jovial; their moods and countenances that of interest and desire. Yet, they were so few in the eyes of the soldier.
“Is this right?” a neighboring soldier asked, “Are we really going to attack the dungeon?”
“Pipe down!” another soldier hissed, “we have our orders! We just have to follow them.”
“We’re leaving the down defenseless,” another soldier muttered in anger, “the rangers are down, the adventurers are all injured; who’s left to fight against a demon attack?”
“Shut it, we’re soldiers. We don’t make decisions, we just listen to orders. Stop over thinking it.”
“Then, where are the other generals? Where is the prince?”
The line of men whispered these conversations as they marched through the gate connecting Tent City to Iron Town. The streets were empty, and the dust was settling. However, the air seemed to say it would not last.
The army followed the main road down to the Adventurer Guild. A lone figure waited for it, her pale face even paler as she sat patiently in a chair. The three receptionists waited behind her, their eyes cold and angry as they watched the approaching army.
One of the generals rode forward to meet her. He laughed loudly as he looked down on her.
“Master Mary,” he said with a mocking bow, “Are you well? I was certain that you were still . . . recovering.”
Mary looked up and smiled softly, “Thank-you for your concern general, but I am as well as ever.”
The general scoffed. “In that case, why have you blocked our way? Do you mean to interfere with official crown business?” With that said, he unsheathed his sword and pointed it at the half-elf. The receptionists behind the chair tensed.
Mary continued to smile, “I am not impeding your path general. I am merely sitting here enjoying the morning sunrise. Is it a crime to sit in front of a building?”
The general examined her with narrowed eyes. After a moment of consideration, he sheathed his sword. The receptionists relaxed.
“If you are not here to stop us, then we will be on our way,” he declared. With a wave of his hand, the other generals split the army and walked around the guild, taking the circular roads and reforming the ranks on the other side.
The four waited until the last of the soldiers were gone.
“Master Mary,” Ally spoke tentatively, “Are you sure this is alright?”
Mary slowly closed her eyes, “Now is not the time for civil war, especially when so many of my adventurers lie injured and battered. They need time to heal, and time is something we are running out of. Have the church priests been summoned?”
Bella nodded, “Priest Horace has sent 15 priests to help heal the wounded. The temple knights have also been deployed; he says that it is time the church take a stand.”
“But Master,” Clara interrupted, “What about the dungeon? Surely you do not wish for its destruction?”
Mary’s eyes shot open and she gave Clara an even look, “I do not; you three should know that by now.”
Under the Guild-master’s stare, Clara took a step back, her face slightly guilty. However, she continued to speak.
“If that’s so, then why aren’t we doing anything?” she protested, “We three could . . .”
“No,” Mary’s voice came close to a shout, “You three are too important to be used for this matter. At this time, the army is going to fight the dungeon. No one in this town has the strength to stop them, so we will have to wait and watch their fight. The only thing we can do is save as many survivors as possible, that is why I’ve sent the few uninjured adventurers and the temple knights to the dungeon entrance. Make no mistake, no one is going to win this fight but plenty will die. The dungeon will likely never forget this either.”
Her speech complete, Mary leaned back into the chair, looking weaker than before.
“I’m sorry to trouble you girls, but please help me to the entrance,” Mary mumbled, “I need to see what happens with my own eyes, for this is another of my sins.”
The three receptionist chanted magic, and the chair holding Mary floated slightly above the ground. The four moved together down the road, following the army at a distance.
The army continued its march to the palisade gate facing the dungeon. From there, every soldier could see the dungeon entrance in the distance, a sight that would only take a few minutes of marching to reach. A few soldiers nudged their companions as they noticed a group of adventurers and temple knights waiting next to the gate.
“What is your business here?” a general called out in question.
“We are only here to treat the wounded,” Orso called out in reply. The head temple knight stood at attention as he stared the general down. The general backed down and rejoined his fellows. The rescuers formed a small group and walked alongside the line of soldiers. The few adventurers shot the generals dirty looks, but said nothing.
The three greatest organizations walked together toward the dungeon: the army, the church, and the adventurers. One group set out on a mission to destroy, the other two doing nothing yet to stop them. However, none of them expected the reception waiting for them.
To the shock of the soldiers and the generals, a great horde of people stood in their way of the army. The people walked out of the dungeon, holding anything and everything they could to use as a weapon. Merchants, builders, miners, bakers, hunters, cloth washers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and many others stood side by side, staring down the approaching army.
At the front of the group Grecian the merchant head, Fred the tavern owner, and the other heads of business in town stood tall.
“You are not welcome here!” Fred’s booming voice echoed across the plains, “Take your men and leave here!”
The generals, after recovering from the shock, grew angry and raised their voices.
“Get out of our way!”
“Go home peasants! This is the will of your leader!”
“Bugger off ye daisies!” a few miners cried out in insult, which caused the soldiers to burst out in anger. They shouted their own insults at the miners, and soon the two sides were filled with the sound of insults most vile, raising the red blush on many ears.
“Silence!” Fred bellowed, and the noise dried up.
One of the generals rode forward on his horse and glared at Grecian.
“Why is the head of the merchant guild blocking our path?” he asked coldly, “Surely you have not paid these poor citizens to block our path?”
Grecian chuckled and gestures around him, “Oh, you mean these good citizens around me? General, you should know that we merchants never do anything that does not bring forth profit. However, I am not here as the head of the guild, but instead a part of this town. Neither I nor anyone here has paid another to also be here. We are united in this endeavor.”
“And what exactly are you all united for?” the generals asked bluntly.
Fred unsheathed his old sword and pointed it at the general, “After a long discussion, we citizens have come here to stop you from doing harm to the dungeon. You and your men will leave.”
At this announcement, the other generals rode forward and joined their companion in front of the crowd.
“This is an order from your king!” one of them barked, “Move aside!”
The crowd glared at the general. A few lifted their weapons threateningly; as threatening as a pot or broken broom could be.
One of the quiet generals smiled at the crowd and held his hands out toward the townspeople, “Come now good people, we are only here in order to help you. We are not here to harm you. Our investigation has proved that the beheading murderer is a monster from this dungeon. In order to protect you good people, our loyal and kind king has ordered the threat eliminated so all of you can sleep well it night. Please move aside so we can do our jobs, if not for you then for your children.”
A number of townspeople looked conflicted at the eloquent general’s speech.
Henry, a miner, snorted and took a step out of the crowd. “Hey, shiny!” he called out, “You sound nice and all, but you shouldn’t take us for fools! That prince hasn’t even been crowned yet!”
Instantly, every soldier removed their sword and pointed it at the miner. The generals grinned evilly at the miner.
“How dare you insult our king!” a general roared, “He was crowned last night in a private ceremony! There is no one else more capable or deserving than him!”
“What about us?” a soft voice came from the crowd, who parted as two young figures came forward.
“Prin . . . Princesses Hilda and Shiva!” a general gasped in shock. Standing next to Fred and Grecian, the two young princesses stood together with their heads held high. Shiva held onto Hilda’s skirt, but the youngest member did not falter under the stares of the army.
“I stand here do I not?” Hilda refuted the generals, “Yet I was not invited to my brother’s coronation, and neither was my sister. Who lay the crown upon his head? Who was there to praise his name? Where is he, so that I may ask these of him?”
“Princess, pleases stand aside,” the eloquent general recovered first, “Your brother wishes nothing but happiness and safety.”
“So then why order this?” Hilda cried out, “You have heard his words; this place is the sacred resting place of our sister and brother! Not only that, but my brother would never sacrifice his men for such a worthless cause!”
“Are you questioning the king?” a different general growled, “Princess, know that even you are not safe from the fate of traitors if you keep this up.”
“You threaten me?” Hilda murmured sadly, “But who are the true traitors here? You lead your men on this mission of destruction, yet you leave we people behind! Are we not in a state of siege? Are there not demons waiting just out of sight for an opportunity to attack? Tell me, who is left to defend this town when you are gone? You take an army of a thousand and leave behind a people of twice that, the only survivors of a city of a million!”
“Not only that,” Hilda’s voice rose with each word, “but how do you expect to destroy this dungeon with your men when they have never been trained to fight in close quarters? The enemy will come from every direction at any time, and the floors will separate your men with its magic! How many will be lost before the battle is won? But, is that not your desire?”
At this, every general unsheathed their swords and pointed them out the crowd.
“We shall not say it again,” a general shouted, “Move, or die!”
“Soldiers!” Shiva finally spoke from beside Hilda, “Your generals have ordered you to slaughter the very people you have sworn to protect! Your families are here among us: children, wives, husbands, parents! Will you slay them!”
“Forward march!” The generals cried out.
The rescuers tensed, the townsfolk tensed, and the generals waited.
Not a soldier moved.
The generals turned to glare at their men.
“Move into the dungeon!” they ordered again.
A soldier took a step forward and looked up at his general.
“Where are the other generals?” he asked.
“Your job is to obey!” his general screeched, “Not to question orders! Move!”
The soldier drew his sword, and dropped it on the ground. “I shall not,” he said. Behind him, the other soldiers also dropped their weapons, their eyes defying the men on horseback before them.
A sudden blur painted the sunlight red, and the first soldier’s head flew off. One of the generals shook the blood off his blade. Everyone looked on, stunned.
The eloquent general smiled evilly. He took out a symbol of sort and blew onto it. Instantly, every weapon and piece of armor enchanted with the new dungeon-bane magic glowed, and the soldiers all lost the light in their eyes.
“Pick up your sword and rejoin the line,” the general ordered. The soldiers obeyed and picked up their weapons, returning themselves back into their former ranks.
“What have you done?” Hilda asked gravely, her face paling.
The eloquent general laughed, “We were concerned about reaching every person, so the plan was to let the demons take care of you. However, since you all gathered here so easily, why wait anymore? Witches, come forth!”
The air shook around the generals, and the missing witches appeared around them, all wearing the same glassy expression as the soldiers.
“The masters need the dungeon core, and we need you all gone,” the general laughed, “So let’s eliminate everyone together! All hail the Empire! Soldiers, witches, prepare to fight!”
In one, fluid motion, the thousand soldiers took battle-ready positions and the witches surrounding the generals began chanting their curses.
Fred pushed the princesses back into the protective crowd as he prepared to fight. The men and women around him gripped their make-shift weapons, but fear was rampart as they beheld the mind-controlled army before them.
“Fall back into the dungeon,” Grecian cried out, drawing his sword, “Retreat to the center of the mines!”
“You will never make it there!” a general laughed, only to be stopped as he blocked an attack from Orso. The temple knight growled as he was pushed back by the traitor general.
“We’ll hold them back,” Orso called to Fred and Grecian, “You regroup the people and we’ll join you when we can!”
“You won’t survive this temple fool,” the eloquent general growled, “We are blessed by the Empire! Our mortal bodies course with their power!”
“You mean stink of demons!” Orso shot back, “I know this technique; you’re fused demons into your bodies to supplement your strength. How foolish!”
Orso gave his men a quick look. “Adventurers, help the town-people retreat. Men, assist me while we hold these traitors back. For Nehatra!”
“FOR NEHATRA!” The temple knights cried together. The two groups, generals and knights, struck out their weapons and clashed as the fight truly began.