Their ascent went without harassment, all of the room’s prior occupants having become Essence for the procession. Despite the lack of enemies to hamper them, the trek to the top was stressful for all involved. Slick stairs didn’t treat the warriors’ steel greaves with favor.
As they approached the top, Arnold nearly took a dive off the side as faulty footing nearly claimed his life, but Roland used Red to anchor him into the ground and reacted quickly enough to stop the trainee warrior. With help from Maye and Lana, they pulled Arnold back up.
Taking shaky breathes, he nodded toward the two female warriors and Roland in thanks, recollecting himself in moments. Without any other incident, they reached the top platform. The platform was wide and anchored into the wall, and revealed a corridor that would take them deeper into the dungeon.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this dungeon seems far larger than it looks from the outside.
You’re correct. Instanced dungeons aren’t anchored to a physical location, so they’re able to manipulate their domains far easier than an invasive dungeon could, Roland explained.
“Take a moment to rest,” Mira prompted. The priests cast a wide-ranged skill that rejuvenated a lot of the minor injuries that the imps had caused, a few burns or scrapes here and there.
How do we know when the next layer begins? Red inquired, wondering if they would begin the second layer once they passed through the next corridor ahead.
We’ll pass through another portal like the one we entered through, and that will take us down to the second layer. Once we clear the next floor, we’ll step through the boundary to the third floor and take the portal that will be there out.
What would we do if the portal wasn’t there?
That shouldn’t happen, Roland immediately answered back. I suppose if an anomaly occurred, we would just have to return the way we came.
Red pondered that. Everything here seemed so structured, so carefully laid out. It made him wary. They trusted a dungeon to play fairly when it seemed like all it wanted to do was make them dead. It didn’t make much sense to him.
Once the priests’ spell ended, Hendricks beckoned for the procession to reform. The break hadn’t lasted any more than fifteen minutes, but all of the trainees seemed to have been restored back to top shape in the time.
Idly, Red wondered how many of the trainees would survive the ordeal, but then he returned his focus to the surrounding. As they passed through the corridor, they entered what looked like a tunnel system. Several tables formed of the cave’s floor, and each one had bloody stumps of meat - dyed black by devils’ blood - strewn across them haphazardly. A large boiling cauldron bubbled and boiled over a magical fire.
Stirring the pot with a large femur, a fiend at least double the size of those from before stared back at them. It tilted its head, its lips curling up into a malicious smile.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had fresh meat,” it hissed in Devilish.
Did you understand that, Red?
He’s happy to see you. A little too happy though, if you ask me.
A horned imp waddled up next to the fiend, looking in the direction the fiend was staring. Its wings, triple the size of the others, lit with hellfire that prickled the humans’ skin and caused it to sweat despite the vast distance between them.
It laughed maniacally, alerting the other occupants in the room that the visitors were on their doorstep. Red took the lull in combat to check the two.
Terror Fiend - Bronze
An evolved version of the fiend, it boasts a far sturdier frame and far sharper teeth and claws. Its speed and durability can’t be compared to that of its lesser form.
Terror Imp - Bronze
An evolved version of the imp, it boasts a far more powerful magical capability. Gone is the ability to simply sling fire, its hellfire is unparalleled in terms of destructive potential.
Red felt his battle lust returning. The devils in the room before barely issued any challenge before being slaughtered, but he had a feeling that these ones would put up a fight. There were far fewer, but the tradeoff didn’t bother him.
Yes, the Heir excitedly responded. It’s time to test what we’re capable of.
Roland waved the trainees forward, deciding to take a far more active approach this time around. Unbeknownst to the devils, Mira already stood among them. With her present to react in the case of an emergency, Roland was far less reserved, rushing forward ahead of the procession.
Hendricks’ voice boomed, “Keep moving formation, and archers on the imps!”
Wielding the large femur, the Terror Fiend rushed toward them, and the Terror Imp thrust its hand forward, spouting a massive geyser of hellfire. Leaping to the side, Roland dodged it, sending out a golden wave of energy to split the imp from head to toe.
The dead imp exploded into a heap of hellfire. Red hoped those behind him noticed, but there was nothing to do about it if they hadn’t. They would have to learn the hard way.
The Terror Fiend slammed forward with its bone club, but it moved far too slow. As Roland thrust Red through its chest, the Heir wrenched the sword free as he jumped back to dodge the assault of another Terror Fiend that had appeared. Thrusting his off-hand forward, Roland launched a ball into the second Terror Fiend.
The first managed to fight through the wound Roland caused, bodily rushing the Heir with a shoulder charge. It clipped his shoulder and sent him sliding away, but that didn’t stop his hand from reactivating the magic.
Lurching forward, Red entered and exited the second Terror Fiend’s skull, the body slumping forward limply. The remaining Terror Fiend looked uncertainly toward Roland. Deciding that it wasn’t worth it to fight them just yet, it chunked its impromptu bone club with as much force as it could and turned tail to run.
Three waves of red-gold cut it down, black blood puddling under its feet. Roland kicked the ground, a spark of gold aiding him, and barely managed to avoid another imp’s hellfire blast. Nimbly kicking off the air with another application of the gold magic, he flew through the air and slew the offending imp.
Grinning wildly, Roland waded through dozens of Terror Fiends and Imps indiscriminately, the black rivulets of lifeblood being sucked into Red, coloring his sword a red deeper than any he’d seen before.
Every time Roland killed one of the devils, Red felt the majority of the Essence flow into the Heir. Even though Roland gained the most Essence from the kills, the amount Red gained was nothing to scoff at, especially since the longer they fought, the more Roland pumped through their connection.
Getting lost in the euphoria of battle, Red allowed himself to truly drink in the blood of his enemies once again. To temper himself with the lives of his enemies.
Roland’s shoulders bounced as he breathed hard as exhaustion threatened to take his legs out from under him. Gripping Red in two hands, he groaned as he assumed a stance, the two dozen Terror Fiends rushing toward him looking like insurmountable odds.
Taking a more tactical approach, Roland had to order the mages and archers to focus their fire above, the Imps proving more intelligent than before. Red learned quickly that Roland could only do the air skip twice in rapid succession, but so did the Imps. Once they realized that Roland was limited in reach, they simply flew higher to where he couldn’t and bombarded their lines from above.
The battle had already lasted several times longer than the first, despite the enemies numbering far less than the Iron aura Fiends and Imps.
There were two key differences that Red noticed as they fought. The first, and the less annoying of the two, was the Fiends increased durability and speed. One attack was rarely enough to finish them off. They were fast enough to retreat with the help of their numbers so they could heal, coming back to fight again.
The second, and significantly more annoying of the two, was the change in the Imps intelligence and hellfire. They peppered the backline, forcing the priests to focus on keeping the mages and archers safe, leaving the warriors to fend for themselves against the Fiends. There were enough remaining that they could split focus on the undefended frontline, and without protection, their hellfire was starting to accumulate drastically.
If things didn’t change soon, Mira and Hendricks would have to step in to salvage the procession from a massive loss. Red wracked his head for what he could do, but then he realized that Roland had a second sword at his waist.
Roland, use Heartseeker and throw me into the middle of them.
What? the Heir asked, fatigue addling his mind.
Roland took a second to reassess their situation, looking over at Mira who was already prepared to leap into action at a moment’s notice, and resolved himself to trust Red. He narrowed his gaze at the horde of Terror Fiends rushing toward him, focusing on one dead center.
Their combined bloodlust focused on the unfortunate devil’s heart, and Roland launched Red forward into the mass of devils. His blade pierced into the body. The moment he felt a new tether establish itself, he manifested his human form with a copy of his blade in hand.
As a weapon spirit, he didn’t get tired.
Stabbing through the skull of an unsuspecting devil, he immediately claimed a life. Bloodred Blitz.
Two copies of his sword manifested, hovering to either side of the first, and each wave of his hand claimed a life. In the seconds it took for them to realize he was there, he claimed four of the devils’ lives for himself.
They split into two groups, half continuing their mad rush toward Roland while the other half turned to take down a presumably easier foe.
Red grinned, happy to educate them of their folly. With a little prompting toward the copies of his blade, he could control them individually. It made the process significantly easier.
Most of the Terror Fiends wildly slashed out with blackened claws or lurched forward to try to grasp and bite his limbs with their razor-sharp teeth. A few carried bone clubs, same as the first had. The bones were surprisingly sturdy, blocking and parrying his blows with relative ease.
However, after they committed to blocking the first strike, they were left helpless before the copies. In the thirty seconds the skill was active, he cut down all of those that turned to face him. Rushing forward, he reached the boundary of the tether, his true form still binding him to the body of the first Fiend Roland slew with Heartseeker.
Infuriatingly, he was two paces too far to be able to help Roland as he was pressured by the Imps above and the Fiends in front. Channeling a portion of the newly acquired Essence to the length of his blade, he imitated Roland’s action and slashed forward, releasing the attack into the undefended backs of the Terror Fiends.
Despite his reduction in power, he still managed to slay one and injure another. Focusing a bit harder, condensing even more Essence into his blade, he struck out once more. Two more devils fell at his behest, leaving Roland and the trainee warriors to face off against a significantly smaller group totaling five uninjured Fiends and one injured.
Even tired, Roland and the warriors dismantled the half-dozen remaining Fiends with vicious ferocity. Once the last Fiend met its end by Roland’s original blade, the Imps swarmed forward in a blazing sacrifice of hellfire.
But the priests were ready this time around, a shield of silver bearing the brunt of the Imps’ final efforts. Only two made it through, but the trainees shot them out of the air and distanced themselves from the following explosion.
Roland slumped against the ground, beyond exhausted, while Red paced around. He sank his blade into any pools of blood he could find, absorbing as much of the lifeblood as he could.
He’d realized two things in that fight. The sword he wielded wasn’t a copy of his sword, he just summoned it from where it was tethered. It meant he actively used Two Forms. What Emperor Abernathy said before made much more sense.
The second realization he had was that he moved in both forms, but he literally couldn’t affect his tethered position in any way, shape, or form no matter how hard he tried.
I knew a wielder was important, it’s something that I awakened knowing, but I didn’t realize just how important they are. Mira didn’t explain any of this, he grumbled to himself internally.
The priests cast their rejuvenation field, then rested themselves. After that fight, they rested for nearly an hour before moving forward, Red returning to his sword form as Roland wrenched the weapon spirit from the Terror Fiend’s chest cavity. While they traveled through the cave system, they fought a Terror Fiend or Imp here and there, but it appeared as though they took out a majority of them in the first confrontation.
It took them an hour to clear the cave system, finding the portal forward in the last room they checked. The portal was similar to the one they entered through, but it lacked the ruby at the top. They passed through it with far less trouble than the first time around, and the cave that greeted them next was far more red than black.
“It’s so unnatural,” a shaky male voice whispered from behind Roland and Red. “The aura - it got stronger.”
“Very much so,” Roland agreed, goosebumps running down his spine.
Scared? Red asked derisively.
Of course not, it’s just - I feel something watching me.
What are you - Red paused mid-thought, his mind blanking. Thinking quietly, as though their watcher could hear his very thoughts, the dungeon is watching us. It -
It wants you, Roland finished, staring down at Red where he was sheathed. We should inform Mira.
No! If we do that, then she’ll evacuate you and end the dive, Red refuted. That’s what they’re here for, right? To watch over the procession while they dive and to keep you safe.
Roland’s uncertainty was palpable to Red.
Let’s just clear this layer. If nothing happens, we come back with the second group. If it happens again, we should inform Mira then. Red didn’t want the trip to end prematurely. Not only was he gaining a lot of Essence, the trainees were getting stronger, but even more importantly, he and Roland were getting invaluable combat experience.
Roland went silent as he thought. Red really thought the Heir would pull the plug on the whole operation then and there, but contrary to his expectation, Roland resolved his will to push forward.
We’ll stay. Worst comes to worst, I’ll leave the dungeon so that the trainees can stay and train with Mira and Hendricks.