Not enough time passed for any meaningful amount of Essence to have accumulated, but Red still siphoned it into the quarter-full Durability anyway. Despite being meaningless, he still felt like they would need any boost they could get if they wanted to gain as much Essence as possible while they were in Devil’s Lair.
Red, it’s time.
Pulling his consciousness back to the outside world, he felt their bumpy descent down toward an open-mouthed cave. The LMTV were parked on the muddy beach, careful not to descend too close to the ocean.
Vanguard, and the palatial fortress, was built on a precipice, and the massive gate that opened for them when they departed was the only way in or out. The air was constantly humid and sticky, but the temperature didn’t vary much.
Red observed the cave mouth and its appearance - black and red veins covered its immediate surroundings and pulsed in a constant rhythm - and looked back toward the steep slope they’d just come from. He wasn’t the only one, but the rest of them looked with longing while he looked on with curiosity.
The dungeon was so close to Vanguard, yet it didn’t seem like the humans had any conflict with the inhabitants. Red felt an insidious aura oozing from the depths, beckoning for him to test his resolve against the monsters within.
And he could only smile.
Mira stepped up to her group of trainees and appraised them, while Artois simply ignored them all.
Roland, we still need to talk.
Better now than never, I suppose.
Red was caught off guard by the glum response. He ignored it, focusing on what was immediately important. Do you know what my abilities are or have any way of seeing them?
Oh right, that’s a thing. The Heir shook his head, clearing his mind to focus on matters at hand. Casting a longing gaze at Vanguard, the youth drew Red. Wow, I hadn’t even noticed you pushed through Silver in Power.
I have, and it gave me a skill - Bloodred Blitz. Red didn’t know if there were any limitations to how often he could cast his skills, so he tried to send a mental picture to Roland.
Focusing as hard as he could, he felt the general message passing to the Heir through their bond. Humming in interest, Roland slashed the spirit into the air and three red cuts sliced through the air.
Interestingly enough, it compounds with my own Essence abilities.
Well, glad you figured that out, ‘cause I had no idea, Red admitted.
Is that all?
One other. Do you remember the skill I used when we fought?
The instant kill one? How could I forget?
Red smiled internally, his pride sending red wisping ripples from his blade. That is Heartseeker, and the name is fairly self-explanatory. I only get the general idea, and since we’ve never used it together, I don’t know the extent of its capabilities. Like you saw when we fought, it condenses bloodlust and my blade gains increased piercing power.
Kind of ridiculous, can’t lie, Roland admitted in admiration. Is there anything else?
Just a Passive, outside of my ability to take human form. Nothing much to get excited over. Red didn’t think Reinforced was anything ground-breaking.
Tell me anyway.
Reinforced, but like I said -
Don’t take any skill for granted. Reinforced does more than make you harder. It’s a growth Passive that synergizes with your Power and Durability, essentially making both that much better. It makes more sense why you’re so strong already.
Oh, I wasn’t aware. Red didn’t feel any such synergy when he looked at the skill inside his inner palace, but maybe he just couldn’t comprehend the boost since it happened passively.
There’s nothing else?
That’s all, Red confirmed.
Roland nodded, giving Vanguard one final look before, then stepped forward to join Mira in front of the trainees.
“Today we’ll be diving twice. Squads one, two, and three will be diving first, and then the latter half will go second. Each dive lasts until we clear the two layers or if we have too many injured to continue.” Roland nodded along as she gave the debrief. “The dungeon boss is a Gold aura Devil Lord. It’s known to roam, so in the circumstance it shows up, I will delay it and everyone will retreat with the Royal Heir.”
She looked across the crowd twice, making sure that there was no lack of comprehension. Just for extra measure, she raised a brow, asking, “Is that understood?”
In unison, the two dozen trainees slammed their fists over their hearts, “Understood!”
“Those of you remaining behind will spend your time resting after an emergency recuperation point has been established.”
Hendricks walked over from Artois’ group, “I’ll be inspecting the preparations before the first group enters. Keep in mind, give your greatest effort. This is an instance-type dungeon, so each layer will have a gate to return any injured to the entrance. The dungeon boss is a Gold aura, so the amount of instances that can be run side-by-side is limited to two.”
What? Red asked, slightly confused by the explanation.
Roland explained, at Gold, dungeons can split themselves into two separate instances. Two different parties can fight the same monsters while never interacting with one another. At Diamond, they can run three side-by-side iterations.
That's - how is that possible?
Dungeon things, now focus, Roland reprimanded the spirit.
“This is true,” Mira confirmed. “Artois and I will be the instigators of the instances. What this means,” she said, looking over at Roland, “is that if you’re with my group, you’re staying with my group.”
He nodded once, accepting her subtle inquiry.
Turning back to the trainees, she continued her brief. “As mentioned before, there are two scheduled dives this week with a day of rest in-between. Now, squads four through six, break to establish the ERP.”
They left with Hendricks and immediately started pulling items from the back of the LMTV that Red didn’t recognize. He ignored them, too excited to care.
They would finally be fighting, gaining strength, and testing themselves in serious combat against foes stronger than them.
Red wisps distorted the air, his excitement uncontainable.
Mira raised a questioning brow, “Red is very excited.” Looking back at those lined up before her. “His excitement seems to be contagious, though.”
Roland observed the trainees before him - some of them older than he - and realized just how many of them were staring at the sword. Clearing his throat, he stepped forward and held up the sword.
“Red and I will be with you the entire time, fighting as comrades in arms.”
The warriors pounded their chests. Blasting forward with a red torrent in response, Red beamed.
Hendricks returned half an hour later, giving Mira a nod. Turning without a word, she stepped forward to the dungeon’s entrance, Roland standing by her side with his arms crossed. She held up a hand, and a connection formed between her and one of the massive rubies jutting out from above the cave’s mouth.
A spiral of Essence slowly filled the ruby. It gave a bright flash as it filled, and Mira turned around. She tilted her head, prompting Hendricks to march with the first group. Hendricks marched through with the trainees, leaving Mira, Roland, and Red to follow after.
Roland gripped Mira’s arm as she went to step through, “Before we go, I just want to say thank you. Father would’ve never agreed if you hadn’t convinced him.”
Red had to admit, Mira’s beaming smile was prettier than her scowling and glaring. Taking a moment to compose herself, she nodded toward Roland before stepping into the dungeon ahead of him.
The world warped into a kaleidoscope of swirling color before letting them out on the other side.
Red’s brain felt jumbled up as he tried to regain his sense of perception, the entire world continued to swirl despite having entered the dungeon. The awful passage through the dungeon was far more than jarring, but he had no idea how to articulate that thought.
- never want to do that again. That's worse than those death boxes.
Chuckling, Roland looked around at the floored trainees with a smarmy grin. “The first time’s always the worst.”
The sound of vomiting and gagging filled the air. Mira and Hendricks stood guard as the trainees recovered. Red was proud to see that Arnold recovered first, standing unsteadily. Seconds later, it was as if he had never experienced the disorientation from entering the dungeon.
Maye and Lana - the female pair - helped one another to their feet, using the other to steady themselves. Just like that, all of the warriors stood while the rest of the procession still filled the air with the noise of their vomitless gags.
Red couldn’t blame them, having experienced a similarly disorienting experience. It took several more moments before he recognized the black lettering that begged for his attention, its transparency only slightly blocking his vision. He wondered if everyone else saw a similar notice.
Welcome to Dungeon: Devil’s Lair!
Devil’s Lair - Gold
Instance Expires In: 6 Days, 23 Hours, 43 Minutes, 16 Seconds
This dungeon, ten floors in total, boasts an undefeated record. In its two and a half centuries, no challenger has managed to defeat the Devil Lord that the dungeon is named after.
The dungeon’s insides were even more insidious than the outside, and an unpleasant aura emanated from the very walls - a promise of pain and suffering lingered in the very air they breathed. Several of the trainees were already shaking from fright.
Red could only barely feel the roof of the cave, and he figured he could stack three Hendricks and have some wiggle room at the top.
Speaking of the battlemaster, he turned back to address the disorganized trainees, “Get in formation, warriors! Staggered formation mages and archers, and be sure to watch your aim. No friendly fire today! Priests, ready yourselves, because something tells me this dungeon isn’t very friendly.”
The trainees lined up and began pushing forward into the depths, Hendricks and Mira positioning themselves in the center of either side of the formation. Roland looked at Mira, slightly confused about where he should be.
She looked back at him, raising a brow as if to ask if he was serious, and then motioned for him to take the lead.
Get up there. You’re the Royal Heir, right? Lead them into battle from the front, Red urged.
You just want to be the first to spill blood, Roland retorted with a snort, rolling his eyes. He quickly took his position at the front of the procession, his eyes darting every which way. Red, be sure to -
Duh. There’s nothing here, but be ready up ahead.
Roland confidently walked forward, seeing a short corridor that passed into a massive chamber. Condensing a ball of golden Essence in his off-hand, he carefully stepped forward into the large arch’s frame with the line of warriors hot on his heels.
They’re kind of cute in a sick and twisted way, Red joked as his perception reached into the room.
The cavernous room expanded outward and upward with a spiraling staircase to either side of the arched entrance, interconnecting at multiple points as it ascended to the top of the cave. Platforms connected to the stairways, and the walls looked as if they’d been hollowed out, large enough to act as housing for smaller creatures.
I'd call them many things, but cute is not one, Roland thought back sarcastically.
Red-skinned creatures wandered around the first floor. Some meandered about aimlessly, others hissed in a language that might as well be gibberish, and many lay about in piles of intermingled limbs. Some ascended the stairs to the platforms above. All of their bodies were thin and lanky with pointed faces and sharp ears that extended way beyond their head. Their eyes were orbs of black, but it matched the doom and gloom atmosphere of the rest of the dungeon so far.
What are those? Red asked.
Red noticed a few smaller forms that flit about on long wings, their heads making up half of their body. Bug-eyed and gangly, they flit in and out of the hollowed wall.
What about the black ones with the big heads and wings?
“And there’s so many,” Roland muttered quietly. The Heir looked around the room, realizing quickly that they would be outnumbered if they were to enter. Turning around, he looked at the warrior line and the assortment that waited behind them.
I’m all ears if you have any ideas.
It’s obvious though? Red responded back, genuinely confused. Have the warriors draw them here and hold the line while the mages and archers pick them off. There may be a lot, but this looks more of a quantity challenge rather than quality.
Roland gave Mira an uncertain look, but she just smiled back. “Warriors, set your swords to shields. We need to draw them to us.”
Without hesitation, the warriors began kicking up a unified clamor, drawing the attention of the room’s inhabitants. Roland thrust his off-hand forward, launching his condensed Essence into the air where it exploded. The sound echoed within the vast cavern.
Oh, shi -
Angered shrieking filled the air, reverberating the very walls as hundreds - no, thousands of voices raged. Thundering footsteps rushed toward them from the ground floor as fiends came by the dozens as more streamed down from the stairs as fast as they could, some even getting trampled in the process if they tripped or were too slow.
The sound of flapping wings resonated with the numerous footsteps as imps poured out of the walls.
Now we’re talking! Things are getting exciting now, Red howled, a maelstrom of crimson wisps radiating outward.
The first wave of devils met a quick demise at the behest of the trio of mages. With joined hands, they combined their casting ability to create a field of spikes that the fiends impaled themselves on. The archers utilized their volley skill to reduce the threat from the fire-tossing imps.
Much to Red’s chagrin, Roland stepped behind the warrior line and launched spells and the occasional Bloodred Blitz. The spirit drank in the Essence that lingered in the air, but it was far less than he thought it should’ve been with how many of the imps and fiends were dying.
Then he thought to check their aura.
Fiend - Iron
A newly spawned devil. This type of devil focuses on their physical capability.
Imp - Iron
A newly spawned devil. This type of devil focuses on their magical capability.
Seeing the strength of their auras, it made more sense to Red. Thinking back to his lessons with Mira, she said things with an Iron aura were the weakest of the weak. He imagined the only reason any Essence stemmed from their kills had to do with the time the devils spent in the dungeon absorbing the thick miasmic Essence that lingered in the air and the sheer amount of them.
The imps blasted the earth spikes into rubble, their numbers thinning from the archers’ continued assault. The fiends rushed forward now that their way forward was clear. The warriors hunkered down behind their shields and poised to stab forward with their weapons.
Never once did the mages stop chanting. They completed another spell, lobbing a skull-sized crystal into the middle of the mass of fiends. Rupturing into a blizzard, fiends were thrown about or flash frozen. Only those at the far front escaped the death by ice, but they met the shield wall and suffered a similar fate, their black blood slickening the warriors’ swords.
Roland, Red started.
What is it?
That felt too easy.
Trust me, that could have been way worse if we tried to fight from within the room.
The imps glared down, hissing in fear as they witnessed the massacre of their brethren. Collectively, they dive-bombed toward the row of warriors. Red thought they were being foolishly reckless, and he was right - but also wrong.
An arrow bore through one of the imps and it slammed into a waiting shield, exploding into a torrent of fire. Not a single imp tried to preserve themselves, sacrificing their lives in a fiery torrential tribute for their dungeon.
The imps were numerous still, diving down by the dozens. One passed the warrior line unscathed, clinging to the chest of an archer as it detonated itself.
Thus, the procession received their first casualty.
Roland thrust forward with both hands, a stream of golden Essence forming an impermeable net that rippled like water each time an imp crashed into it. Contrary to Red’s expectation, the imps didn’t immeiately die on impact. Instead, their momentum was stolen, amplified, and then returned to act on the imps in full force.
It was a sight to see, black blood streaming from the imps as they flew through their air with broken wings, painting the ground in arcing smatterings, to splatter on the opposite wall.
As the final imp was deflected, Roland turned back to look at the archer that was being rushed out of the dungeon, but Red could tell it was already too late.
I should’ve -
You didn’t know, Red halted the Heir before he allowed the seed of guilt to settle within his heart.
But I -
No Roland, don’t. You need to collect yourself. Look behind you.
Roland slowly turned, realizing that everyone either stared at him or at the spot where the archer had fallen. Mixed emotions ran rampant within the trainees, a somber silence filling the corridor. Shaking his head, he pat the closest warrior on the back and cleared his throat.
“Listen up,” he started, looking around at each trainee before continuing. “It may be hard to hear this, but you all did well. It may not seem like it, as your fellow comrade has fallen. However, they fell fighting for a chance for a better life, a chance for a better future. Do not let their sacrifice be in vain. Keep your heads up, your hearts steady, and your minds clear of guilt.”
Half-hearted nods came from the two remaining archers, but a thunderous stomp rebounded through the enclosed space, originating from the warriors.
Arnold stepped forward, bowing toward Roland, and looked around. “We are the hope of Vanguard. We must continue forward. There will be time to mourn Rodrick’s passing once we’ve completed the second layer.”
The young man held his clenched first tightly over his heart, thumping three times in respect for the fallen. Everyone present emulated his action - even Hendricks and Mira, much to the man’s surprise.
Returning to his own position, Roland took a deep breath then, stepping through the archway. As he advanced, he took great care to avoid the shrapnel of earthen spikes and slippery ice strewn across the floor. He looked - searched relentlessly - but the way forward was unclear.
“The only way left is up,” he stated after the entire ground floor had been investigated. He tilted his head over his shoulder and hollered to the following trainees, “Single file! Watch your steps and stay vigilant.”