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They climbed the stone-cut stairs down to the third floor. The shining lake left Amelia’s eyes, replaced by the familiar sight of mana battery-lamps. The burning smell smogged up the stairs, narrow enough to have only room for two people side-by-side, and Amelia wondered about the health effects of such a concentrated exposure. For everyone but her, that was.

No one spoke much, likely in fear of inhaling too many mana fumes, but a palpable sense of anticipation bled out of the souls of two of the five party members.

Amelia, who wanted nothing more than to find the Fourland Growth Corporation’s hidden drug facility and destroy everything in sight. And Hummer, who sought to fulfill a life dream before she left Fleettwixt for good.

These two women certainly were made for each other in this moment, but Amelia knew there would be nothing but trouble if an inexperienced young woman were to tag along with her excursion. She was fine with taking damage herself, as long as it meant destroying her enemies. But if Hummer were to be injured or killed, it would be an unnecessary, pointless loss.

She would have to slip away not only from the group, but from this woman, too. It complicated things. Amelia hated complicated.

They finally reached the outpost by this entrance in Floor 3, and it was even more barren than the one in Floor 2. The lights were dimmer, the buildings not much more than thrown together shacks, and only a single glossal being Amelia could see: An elven man with dark blue skin and eyes, and a bored, flat face—not a sun elf, but some race from another continent—currently completely occupied with reading the newspaper.

The newspaper’s front page article touted a new deal reached with the North Sunwell Company’s Planning Committee about building a sky port near the Coliseum in preparation for airships to become safer and more popular in the next fifty years. But the real headline of note was off to the side: “Mystery assailants investigated by police.” Amelia glanced at the text below it and found an account of the massacre in a Fourland warehouse. The brutal beatings of employees and contractors. And a plea from the bureau chief to provide more information about whatever group must have been doing this.

Amelia nodded in self-pride. She could not help it, as she looked at the newspaper’s sensationalist reporting that somehow managed to underplay the truth of the matter. She had been so prolific these past month or so in her attacks that they genuinely thought there was a whole group involved. Hilarious.

The elven man finally noticed the group and looked up from the paper, mildly irritated that his reading session had been interrupted. “Can I help you?”

Mino stepped in and worked her charm. “We want a cart on the western track, please.”

He unfolded the newspaper and began reading. “Two silvers.”

“What?” Mino asked. “The carts are free.”

“Who are you going to take it up with? That?” Without looking, he gestured over to a rusted metal golem that stood against the wall of an abandoned shack. Or rather, the shell of a golem that once lived. “I’m in charge here, so I can order these carts in for maintenance at any time. Or, if I decide they’re working okay, I—”

Amelia reached in and grabbed the elf by his shirt collar. She pulled him up close until she could smell his putrid boiled egg breath. His quivering eyes stared right into the purple glow where her right eye would have been.

“Western track. Please.”

He nodded and then spun around his chair to a control panel. A few moments later, a cart pulled up on some tracks by the outpost and beeped to signal it was ready to load new passengers.

“Have a nice, um, trip,” the man said, no longer able to look directly at the group.

Aeo looked at Amelia with devilish glee. “We can always count on you,” she said.

Mino, on the other hand, was not extraordinarily amused. “I was handling it, Amelia. No need to resort to violence at every step.”

“It’s what she’s good at,” Aeo said. “Let the girl do her thing, and let us do ours.” She did not need the support, but she accepted it nonetheless.

“I feel kinda bad for him,” Phelia said. “It’s the off-season, so he’s probably just really bored and lonely. Maybe he just wanted to chat with us some more.”

“Which is why he tried to milk us out of money?” Aeo asked.

“Well... It’s a conversation starter.”

The five of them entered the cart, and the door closed. It sped away from the dimly lit outpost and their surroundings went almost completely dark. Aside from a few lamps on the walls here and there, and the cart’s headlight, Floor 3 was a genuine cavern. Or was this a cavern?

“Tell me about Floor 3,” Amelia said to Mino, which activated her tour guide mode once more.

“It’s sort of the black sheep of the Manadhmeth Dungeon,” Mino began. “The layout is filled with rocks and caverns, as you can see here, but no big lakes or cool structures, and it’s still not fully explored like the first two. Besides the treasure, of course. That’s all been licked clean.” Phelia groaned audibly at this comment. “A lot of people call it boring, but once we get to the viewing spot, you’re gonna see what’s so cool about this place.”

“We’re going to see melanoids, right?” Hummer asked.

“Yeah. I’ve got a great spot for us to look over a mel gathering spot near the coastal edge of the floor, and we can watch them doing their thing without any danger. We can have a picnic and watch the monsters.”

“No fighting,” Amelia said. “Just food?”

“Well...” Mino seemed to consider that this might not be the most exciting turn of events for someone of Amelia’s disposition. “Maybe a little fighting. If we can lure one away or something.”

“That sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Aeo whined. “Can’t we just jump in and start smashing? Then we’ll have ourselves a picnic with a bunch of mel corpses. Wait, do mels leave corpses?”

“No, they just wither away. They don’t even have souls, as far as researchers have found.” Damn. Amelia’s interest in melanoids plummeted to near-zero just hearing about that. “There’ll probably only be a couple at the spot. We’re only on Floor 3 after all. So you know what? Maybe we can fight them, but only after our picnic, because I’m really hungry.”

“Already?” Aeo asked.

Hummer made several attempts to exchange knowing glances with Amelia, but she rebuffed them each time, refusing to move her eyes in any direction but forward.

The people mover began to shake and vibrate as if it had suddenly ran off its tracks. Everyone but Mino was surprised and grabbed onto their seats.

“Is it okay?” Hummer asked.

Mino nodded, then shook her head. “Not OKAY, but we’ll survive. They don’t do maintenance this deep very often anymore, so sometimes the tracks get a little...”

“Rickety?” Phelia suggested.

“That’s a good word to use. I was going to say ‘unsafe.’”

“How much longer until we get to the viewing spot, again?”

“Like ten more minutes. It’s not a big deal. These tracks are a lot less—”

Suddenly, the cart was rammed by a heavy force and toppled over. All five of them went tumbling out onto the cavern floor and most of them screamed.

Amelia skidded along the soft dirt and hard rock, scraping her left knee and elbow until blood came dripping from them.

For just an instant, she wondered if this was it. If this was the end of the line, and some mage enforcer had gotten the drop on her. It was just like that day in Netherhill, when that golemancer attacked her out of the blue and nearly killed her. Back then, she lost a friend. If it happened again, she would not be able to bear it.

But when her vision snapped into focus, she did not see an army of magic-wielding foes. Just one heavy breathing, wild-eyed vendor beast. Half the mushrooms on its back had been torn off, and not in any methodical fashion. It had been attacked, and it was running for its life—directly into them.

Amelia stood up and raised her right arm up, as if to ready an attack, but then she felt a pressure. She looked over and found Mino physically lowering her arm back down to her side.

“They’re not dangerous,” she pleaded. “They don’t attack glossals. It didn’t mean to hurt us.”

“Got it.” Amelia stood down and let Mino’s hand rest on her forearm for a moment.

As she predicted, the vendor beast barely regarded the group before lowering its head and stomping off in another direction.

This monster had been attacked, was being chased. The group was just collateral damage in its quest for survival against...?

“That was a little ominous,” Aeo said, pulling Phelia up to her feet and then dusting off her own clothes.

Hummer took one look at the cart and sighed. “It’s busted,” she said. “We’ll have to walk the rest of the way there. And back.”

Mino shrugged. Aeo groaned.

Their ten minute trip turned into a thirty minute walk, and by the end of it, there was no shortage of complaining and whining throughout the group. Not exactly the esteemed warriors that Amelia pictured dungeon diving with.

Along the cavern wall, a pale gecko crawled into view, then scampered away once it saw them. Aeo grinned. “Hey, Phelia, I think I saw your sister.”

“I am NOT a lizard!”

“Tail, snout, scales... Hmmm.”

“Someone, make her stop!”

“Yeah, someone, make me stop.”

Mino turned around. “Settle down, you two, or Mother’s going to have to put you in the time-out corner.”

Phelia grumbled. “She started it...”

Once they reached the platform they were originally supposed to exit from, they found a trail of dim orange mana lights that dotted several paths through dark rocky hills. They were not powerful enough to see what laid beyond their feet, but none of the party turned on their battery-lamps any longer. It might attract unwanted attention, they said.

The group took a path up the steepest way, so high that it felt like they were no longer truly on Floor 3 anymore.

Along the way, they spotted a narrow branching path, not lit with any mana lights, leading up to a small hut. The fireplace burned and smoke poured out of the chimney. An old human man sat out front on a rocking chair, looking at a crystalline rock with absolute absorption. They stopped to look at him, but he did not seem to even notice their existence.

Mino sighed and motioned for everyone to continue walking.

“Care to explain?” Amelia asked.

“It’s an old miner’s housing, but the crystal mines have mostly dried up by now, since the Dungeon Core isn’t here to create new ones. That man’s not ‘supposed’ to be down here, but who is going to stop him? It looks like those crystals were his whole life, and he’ll spend the rest of it with them.”

“Is he okay?” Phelia asked.

“No, but there’s nothing we can do. Or should.”

They continued moving.

Eventually, after a while longer of walking up a steep path with makeshift stairs carved in, they reached a flat surface nestled up near the top of Floor 4. It was a tiny enclave that could probably house two if converted into a home, with only one way in or out, but for today it would just be a picnic spot.

This area also had one wide open area exposing a steep drop and sharp cliffs. One wrong move, and it was a two story drop to the ground. Amelia looked off over the edge—

And that was when she saw the melanoids for the first time.

Down at the bottom of the cliffs, down on ground level, there was one large hole that laid in the center of a rocky floor, that glowed a cool blue and occasionally pulsed with other inviting colors.

But this hole was surrounded by dozens and dozens of otherworldy creatures. Black, shimmering husks in the shapes of glossal beings, shambling around like their very form was so tenuous they might collapse at any moment. So dark that only in motion could they be seen, only their dull purple eyes that seemed to look at nothing in particular.

Some looked like corrupted humans. Others, like goblins, and others, like vendor beasts standing up on their hind legs. They were horrible, yet Amelia found herself unable to take her eyes off of them.

She activated her Scan Module just to see.

Mana readings are very strange.

Unknown signatures detected.

Scan Module may be faulty; will you run a diagnostic check?

No need for that, she thought to herself. The module was fine; it was the beings that were not.

Then—

A very light push against her back.

She turned around and stopped just inches from her stone fist colliding with Aeo’s face.

Still, the woman snickered. “Just kidding,” she said. “Be careful with that ledge. Step back, will you? Those things feed on soul energy, so if you’re not careful, you’ll end up an Amy Pancake.”

Amelia decided not to respond.

Mino laid out a quilted blanket from her bag and then pulled out a smaller sack filled with snacks. “Come and get you something,” she said.

But, like Amelia, Hummer and Phelia were mesmerized by all the melanoids stumbling in the darkness, all gathered around that large glowing opening.

“There’s so many of them,” Phelia said. “Is that normal?”

Mino’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?” She stood and walked over to the ledge, and gasped when she saw it. “N-no. That is NOT normal. I have no idea why there are so many here today. That’s, what, thirty?”

“That hole goes to Floor 4, doesn’t it?” Hummer asked.

“Yes. The mels come here because they’re attracted to the bright lights. Only, today they seem way more interested than usual.”

Two melanoids bumped into each other. They started attacking each other relentlessly, and the others simply stood and watched until one of them had died. It dissolved away from its glossal, felid-like form until it became a puddle of ooze on the ground. After a moment of waiting, a group of melanoids bent down and began consuming the puddle for energy.

“Gross!” Phelia shouted.

“Shhh.”

Despite the shushing, Phelia clearly took the creepy scene in stride.

“They’re eating each other. And then they’re gonna eat us,” Phelia said, miming the actions in a silly way. “Oh my G—”

Phelia slipped, as if to fall—

Then she flapped her wings and stepped away from the ledge. Laughed. “Hahaha, you guys.”

A few pebbles had fallen off, though, and tumbled down the rocks with tiny clangs.

Dozens of melanoids jerked their heads over and faced the ledge, all at once. Silently, but with those dull purple eyes staring at the group up above.

Everyone froze.

And then... After a moment, the melanoids turned back to their mindless wandering around the hole. Their attention spans had seemingly completely reset.

Mino glared at Phelia.

“Sorry...” Phelia said. “I didn’t mean to...”

“Yeah, let’s just be a little bit more careful, why don’t we?” Mino said in the most sarcastically mothering voice Amelia had ever heard.

“Phelia, this group only has room for one jokester,” Aeo said. “You aren’t usurping that position any time soon.”

“You’re not even funny,” Phelia replied.

“I was referring to Amelia.”

Amelia folded her arms.

Phelia nodded and seemed resigned to accept her embarrassing near-fall. She folded her arms, too. “I guess we can talk about mels more after the picn—”

With one step, the entire dungeon dive changed.

With one tiny pebble she had not noticed, Phelia’s foot gave out, and she tumbled off the cliff.

“—iiiiiiiiiiic!”

She flapped her wings furiously, seemingly hoping some miracle could save her and bring her back. But, as all kobolds knew, those wings were vestigial. They had no purpose other than to slow her descent, so that when she landed, at least she was not hurt.

But now she was surrounded by all of those melanoids, and she left her axe up at the viewing area. In unison, as if one singular being, they turned their heads in her direction. Several of them belted out dissonant screeches.

No hesitation.

Amelia jumped off the ledge, slid down the sharp cliffs as quickly as she could. The others rushed down the stairs, but they would not have the time.

Scan Module deactivating...

Be careful, Amelia! Unknown energy signatures detected.

Combat Module activating...

Boost Module activating...

She steeled herself and prepared to protect the idiot kobold.

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A note from Thedude3445

Today's shoutout: As the World Catches Fire, a political fantasy novel that also happens to be GL! I bet a lot of you have already read this though.

 


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Thedude3445

Bio: I like to watch movies.

Avatar art by Bryan Lee O'Malley.

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