The sky sure is blue…
Such an idle thought passed through Jen’s mind, no doubt prompted by the endless azure heavens that stretched out as far as her eyes could see. A group of white clouds had parked themselves just in front of the sun, absorbing its blazing rays before they could fall on Jen’s face. The woman didn’t like clouds. Sure, they looked fluffy and mysterious from afar, but up close they were nothing more than an unpleasant mist that always made her feel sweaty whenever she passed through them. They were also cold, but that she could just ignore, unlike the borderline slimy sensation they left on her skin.
Balls of condensed water aside, there did seem to be something else in view. Two things, to be exact. Long, narrow, and boring in coloration, they bobbed in and out of the bottom edge of her view. They looked suspiciously like feet, but that can’t have been right. Feet have no place up there. She could’ve just tilted her head to get a better look at these foreign objects, but didn’t feel like it. Not only was the sky so superbly blue today, but the wind whipping by her ears was ever so relaxing. She just wished she knew why her nose tasted of blood, or why her teeth-
Jen hit the ground head-first before she could finish that thought, putting an end to her brief flight. It was a fall that would’ve injured most people, but the Monk was left relatively unscathed. Her body was so inhumanly tough for its relatively light weight that she could fight off gravity magic that had been amplified to ten times its normal strength. Simply falling for ten or twenty meters wasn’t nearly enough to cause any lasting damage.
It still hurt like mad, though. Enough to snap her out of her groggy, borderline delusional state as she rose from the stone tiles her noggin had cracked. She began treating herself by applying her Healing Hand Skill to her dislocated jaw. She looked around, noticing a smirking feline-eared redhead staring at her while leaning against the wall of the old temple. Looking up a bit, Jen could just barely make out a cloud of dust and a new hole in the slanted roof of the building, no doubt made by her sudden departure from its premises.
“You alright over there?”
Jen didn’t dignify Keira’s gleeful taunt with a response as she was too busy trying to piece together how and why she found herself in this position. It took her slightly concussed brain a few moments, but she was able to remember she had just struck a deal with that mithril golem. Fizzy would assist her in conquering The Gauntlet, but only if Jen allowed her to take one free shot at her. She had clearly underestimated just how much power that tiny frame could put out, as she did not expect to vacate the area.
Thinking back on the swing itself though, the Monk couldn’t help but feel impressed. Her short-term memory was a bit spotty at the moment, but she was sure the blow was delivered with immaculate form. From start to finish, it was a perfect orthodox uppercut that would make her old hand-to-hand instructor grunt and nod in approval. There was no way she could be mad about such a pleasant surprise, as she had trouble remembering when was the last time she got hit that hard. If this was the sort of output that golem was capable of, then she would be a great fit for the actual dungeon run.
The radiant construct in question poked her shiny head out of a smashed-up window on the side of the church with a scowl on her shiny face.
“Tsk. Still kicking, huh?” she mumbled in a disappointed tone. “Deal’s a deal, I suppose. So, when do you wanna head out towards the dungeon, meatbag?”
“Requesting immediate departure,” Jen said in her usual flat tone.
“Fine by me. The sooner we get this over with, the better.”
The two women then set off into the jungle while Keira returned to town. That said, Boxxy hadn’t exactly left them alone, as it had both Xera and Drea accompany the pair. The djinn assumed the form of a mature elf huntress while the webstalker disappeared completely and escorted them from the shadows. Their master had told the angelic Monk in no uncertain terms that these two were there to support Fizzy should Jen get any stupid ideas. The human was not all too thrilled with that though, mostly because the demons in question were a sneaky assassin and a mystic trickster. Not the sort of people that would accept a head-to-head duel to pass the time.
Which was, to put it in a certain chest-obsessed monster’s words, not tasty.
The four of them made their way through the jungle, forging their way south at a rapid pace. According to Jen, The Gauntlet was several hundred kilometers away, deep in the heart of the jungle and would take more than a day’s travel to reach on foot. And, true to her word, it wasn’t until near sunset on the next day that the quartet arrived at their destination - a massive pyramid-shaped building that was roughly forty meters tall at its highest point. The stone structure was a dull orange in color, and had a depressingly long staircase leading to its zenith. It was also obviously much more than some random ruin, as the structure looked both ancient and in perfect condition at the same time.
“This the place, then?” Fizzy asked as she sized the architectural wonder up and down.
“Affirmative. Presenting the Temple of the First Crusader.”
“Sounds fancy. What’s it doing all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
The place was so remote that Xera and Drea could not follow them here because it was too far from their contractor. As for Boxxy, it said that it would be busy preparing to depart Velos, which was why it hadn’t come personally.
“Unknown,” Jen replied. “Assumed to be built and abandoned millennia ago by raptor ancestors.”
“Uh-huh. You say that, but isn’t that dwarven stonework?” the golem asked while stroking one of the countless smooth bricks. “Architecture may not be my strong point, but I’ve seen enough of their masonry to know it when I see it.”
“Irrelevant,” the Monk said flatly. “Requesting that we go inside.”
“Alright, but how? I don’t see a door or anything.”
“The Gauntlet is accessible from the apex.”
The angel then unfurled her wings and flew straight to the top, leaving Fizzy to climb up the old-fashioned way.
“Ugh, stairs. Why’d it have to be stairs?”
The golem wasn’t sure why, but agonizingly long staircases were more common in dungeons than one would think. Granted, she hadn’t been in all that many of them, but Boxxy had, and it confirmed her assertion that an average of two out of three dungeons had an overabundance of steps. And she hated every single one of them. They were never built with people of her stature in mind, which made climbing them an awkward and time-consuming process. Thankfully these steps were outside the dungeon itself, so there were no boobytraps, pitfalls, ambushes or the like to slow her down, allowing her to reach the top in a few minutes.
The temple’s apex was a small square platform about six meters wide on each side, with two circular pedestals in the middle of it. Jen was already standing on one of them, weapon in hand. Having lost her original staff during her last encounter with Boxxy’s crew, she had been forced to use a subpar substitute. It was still a pitch-black rod of solid adamantite, but the enchantments it held were nowhere near as potent. Most important of all, it lacked the unique property of being able to deflect magical projectiles, meaning her defense against Spells was much weaker than it used to be two years ago.
“So, what now?” the golem asked. “I stand in the circle and it’ll take us inside?”
Fizzy confidently stepped on the small round platform, making it click audibly under her weight. Most likely some sort of mechanism than it simply breaking. Jen then clapped her hands together, closed her eyes and began saying a long-winded prayer in a very dry and methodical manner. The flowery words she used basically boiled down to her requesting permission to enter Axel’s dungeon and undergo its trials. Meanwhile Fizzy just stood there and had a mind-chat with Null on the subject of creating a teleportation device for the express purpose of instantly going up and down stairs.
The internal dialogue was cut short when a ring of pale yellow light suddenly enveloped both her and Jen, instantly teleporting them to their destination.
You have entered The Gauntlet of Eb-Kurah.
The room the two of them found themselves in was tiny, almost like a prison cell. Every surface was made from the same flawless brickwork as the outside, and was also completely barren save for the two glowing circles on the floor and a lit torch on the far wall. The exit was an empty rectangular doorway, leading into a long, wide and tall hall with yet more torches lighting the way. Countless tiny holes dotted the length of the passage’s walls and ceiling, which caught Fizzy’s attention.
“Are those… dart traps?” she asked in disbelief. “Who uses freaking dart traps anymore!? Are you sure this is even a challenge?”
Jen reached into one of the pouches strapped to her waist and produced a small stone about the size of her fist. She casually tossed it through the doorway and into the hall, and in doing so triggered the traps strewn about the place. There was series of squirting and hissing noises as needle-thin jets of liquid shot out of the walls and ceiling, converging on the tiny projectile. A few of them hit spot on, dissolving it into a hissing pile of sludge before it even hit the ground. The foul liquid then disappeared moments after, leaving no evidence of the hallway being disturbed.
It would appear that, rather than fire poison tipped darts, these traps drenched their victims in an extremely caustic acid. This was a problem, as corrosive substances were one of Fizzy’s weaknesses. Technically it was more accurate to say it was one of the few ways to effectively damage her, but semantics aside it was still a relatively dangerous environment for her to walk into. The same naturally went for Jen, as imbuing her skin with Ki was not an effective defense against spray-type attacks.
Especially those of a magical nature, which this hallway undoubtedly employed.
“So, this is what you meant when you said the dungeon changes to meet the challenger, huh?”
“Affirmative. Since we are both highly resistant to toxins, The Gauntlet is using acid. If the challenger was strong against acid as well, it would use something else.”
It was also safe to assume that whatever traps were employed, they would be scaled in intensity so that it was a real threat to both invaders. Fizzy scoffed lightly, as she was left with the impression that Axel was quite the busybody if he had the spare time to micromanage a dungeon to this extent. Well, either that or he had found himself a fanatically devoted dungeon master who didn’t mind wasting away in this remote location. Either way the female pair’s objective remained the same.
“So how do we get past that?” the golem asked warily.
Jen bolted through the door the instant she said those words. The countless traps started showering her with acid from all sides, forcing her to dodge and weave between the streams. It became apparent that only a dozen or so of the holes could fire at once, and there was a limit to how much of that nasty stuff they could shoot out before needing to recharge. They were also designed to aim for where the intruder was going rather than where they currently were.
Which was why running in a straight line was something Jen avoided doing. Though she was moving forward, she constantly changed direction in an uneven zig-zag pattern by sidestepping erratically. At one point she even stopped dead in her tracks, jerked back a few steps, then bolted forward while the traps in front were still recharging. However, the farther in she went, the more jets were simultaneously fired at her. She had to resort to jumping and bouncing from the walls and ceiling like a Level 100 rubber ball, and even then got sprayed a few times. She still made it to the end though, even if several patches of skin on her thigh, arm and neck were melted clean off.
While the Monk was treating her injuries as best she could, Fizzy was still thinking about what her own approach would be. Dodging and weaving through the passage like Jen did was not an option, as she was nowhere light enough on her feet to pull that off. Not to mention she couldn’t see the firing mechanisms themselves, so Champion of Chaos was not able to predict when and where those sprays would be coming from. That was fine though, as it was possible to not get hit even without dodging anything.
She just didn’t want to reveal what she was truly capable of in front of Jen if at all possible, but it seemed as if that wasn’t option. With a sigh, Fizzy activated her Physical Augmentation Module, making her body warp and transform into a new configuration. Her already impressive armored shell grew one size thicker and wider as the plates stretched to close as many of the gaps between them as possible. The power cables that ran in the gap between her outer and inner shells were completely concealed and her armor became so bulky that she looked more like a slightly malformed dwarf than a robotic gnome. A very short one at that, as this shape was fifteen centimeters or so below her usual one-thirty.
Fortress Mode is now active.
All damage taken reduced by 20%.
All damage dealt reduced by 20%.
The effectiveness of the AGI Attribute has been reduced by 20%.
Proficiency level decreased. Static Field is now Level 0. INT -40. WIS -20.
Proficiency level increased. Static Shield is now Level 10. INT +40. WIS +20.
Fizzy groaned once the P.A.M. had done its job, revealing that her metallic voice was now a few octaves lower to match her stockier form. Not wishing to spend more time like this than what was necessary, the dynamo golem channeled her MP into her internal power generator. A component that had also undergone a change to fit the new Skill that Static Field had transformed into. The saucer-like devices that had replaced her head attachments began to glow and hum, making the air around her crackle and shimmer as they did their thing.
After sufficiently charging the Static Shield, Fizzy began running forward as fast as her newly acquired bulk would allow her. The trap-ridden hallway began raining acid directly into her path, though not a drop of it landed on her radiant frame. The caustic fluid instead collided with the spherical cage of electricity she was projecting around herself, making it instantly evaporate amidst a deluge of sparks, steam, and hissing. The barrier in question was especially good at diffusing magical attacks, but was significantly less useful against physical objects. It could also be expanded in size to provide cover for three or four people besides Fizzy, though she never had a reason to do that considering who her companions were. Not to mention her MP was not infinite, though it was more than enough to see her safely through to the other side where Jen was waiting with a raised eyebrow.
It was faint, but it was the first sign of a facial expression this human had shown ever since the trip began.
“What, got a problem?” the golem asked aggressively.
“That seems… unfair,” Jen murmured while nodding at the Static Shield.
“The world isn’t a fair place, meatbag. I thought someone like you would have figured that out by now.”
“Indeed, but that is out there. Not in here.”
The first trial of the dungeon was supposed to test one’s ability to avoid danger. Or at least that was what the Monk had told Fizzy on the way over here, though she wasn’t aware what shape that would take before seeing it for herself. And though the golem did indeed ‘avoid danger,’ the seemingly effortless way she had done so just seemed like cheating.
“And?” the Paladin shrugged. “If Axel or whoever he left in charge of this place can’t handle cutting edge technology, then that’s their problem. Not mine.”
Part of her wanted to mention it was Jen that brought her here in the first place, but she kept that remark to herself since she didn’t want to push her luck. There was no telling who was watching and/or listening, after all.
“Besides, any Wizard worth their salt would be able to block this stuff with a good Mana Shield,” she added confidently.
“… Understood,” the Monk conceded. “Requesting that we move forward.”
“Lead the way, meatbag.”
Fizzy reshaped herself back into her basic ‘Skirmisher Mode’ and continued pushing deeper into the dungeon. The next room, a wide cylindrical chamber, was a test of strength. Which was a nice way of saying the ceiling pressed down on them and threatened to crush them both if they didn’t work together to hold it up. Indeed, it was so heavy that even Jen’s ridiculously powerful muscles couldn’t bear it. It forced her to go down on one knee, at which point her much shorter and shinier companion was finally able to reach the receding ceiling.
The two continued to push upwards for several minutes until the floor under their feet began to crumble and crack. At first this seemed to be caused by the absurd forces involved pressing down on it, but that was immediately proven to have been by design. The ground gave way completely, making them fall into the circular cavern underneath. They splashed down into a massive whirlpool with a current so strong that even Fizzy’s ridiculously heavy body was swept away in it.
That said, it wasn’t enough to keep the golem afloat for long, as she hit rock bottom after only a slight delay. It was so deep that she could barely even see anything. Thankfully she had her Tactical Readout Skill to rely on. This War Golem Skill augmented her eyesight, allowing her to process visual information in new and exciting ways. It included features such as target tracking, firing solutions for projectile weaponry, thermal vision, and a built-in compass to name a few. All this data would be collected and analyzed in real time, then transmitted to her mind in the form of glowing images, diagrams and numbers that only she could see.
Or at least it would eventually. At present the Skill was barely at Level 2, so the only things it could do was provide night vision and image magnification. The former of which was how the golem was able to get her bearings and spot the underwater tunnel that sat in the middle of the flooded chamber’s floor, almost like a drain. Jen swam down to meet her shortly afterwards, though she had to fight the currents the hard way - by holding her breath and swimming like her life depended on it. She was also wearing a set of enchanted leather goggles with glowing lenses, presumably designed to let her see in the dark.
After exchanging nods, the two of them descended into the tunnel and went deeper. Fizzy sank and Jen swam for about a hundred meters downward until they finally noticed a dim light coming from below. Another twenty meters or so more and they suddenly found themselves falling through the air and landing in the middle of another large room. Looking up at the ceiling, it became apparent that the dungeon was using some unseen force to prevent the water from spilling out of the hole.
“Okay, now that’s impressive,” Fizzy commented while looking up at the surreal sight. “If I didn’t know any better I’d think that was an upside down well.”
“Koff!” Jen sputtered as she gasped for air. “Koff, koff, koff!”
“Oh, right. Meatbags need to breathe, don’t they?”
That was understatement. All living things required air, and depriving them of this vital resource was usually seen as ‘the great equalizer.’ It didn’t matter if one was large or small, old or young, strong or weak - they would all die the same without this basic need. Unless, of course, magic entered the equation, as Skills, Spells and enchanted gear could all be used to help circumvent asphyxiation.
In Jen’s case she had momentarily surfaced to consume a high-quality Gillsprout Elixir that was supposed to let her breathe underwater for up to five minutes. She hadn’t brought it for any particular reason other than common sense, as there was no telling what would happen when exploring an unknown dungeon. Unfortunately, there was something in the water that nullified the potion’s effects much sooner than anticipated, which was what led to her nearly drowning. Most likely a countermeasure meant to prevent challengers from circumventing The Gauntlet’s trial of endurance.
“Huff, huff, huff…”
Having finished coughing up water, Jen panted heavily as she gathered her wits. After a few seconds she stood up, once again giving Fizzy that dirty look from earlier. Unlike her, the golem had not used any means of magical respiration because she didn’t need it in the first place. It very nearly made Jen want to call her an unfair existence for a second time, but she didn’t get the chance to say anything before the next test began.
At least this one seemed to be relatively simple, as it consisted of various monsters popping out of hidden doors in the walls and floor. Mostly species native to Velos, such as hydras, orcs, several types of giant insects and sentient man-eating plants. And since the dungeon scaled in difficulty to the challengers’ power level, all of them were much stronger than their wild counterparts. The orcs, for instance, fought at near-warlord levels despite being clearly common grunts, and the massive multi-headed lizards were at least three times faster and tougher than Opia’s pet, Spittles.
Ultimately this just meant that the ensuing fight took a lot longer to resolve than it would have otherwise. Even if they were stronger across the board, their attack patterns were highly predictable. And since Jen and Fizzy had access to eerily similar prediction abilities in the shape of Disciple of War and Champion of Chaos, they could beat down the supercharged rabble without much issue. The only real concern was staying out of each other’s way, something that both of them agreed to without exchanging a single word.
“Well, that was fun,” Fizzy said as she brushed giant beetle ichor off of her wrench. “Was almost worried this place would have no actual fighting.”
“You are not tired?” the Monk asked while checking the perimeter. “Do golems even get tired?”
The fighting had dragged on for over an hour since exceptionally durable enemies kept pouring into the room, so it was a legitimate concern. Especially since it had been a while since Jen fought alongside someone that could keep up with her monstrous stamina.
“Technically we do, but I can literally do this stuff for four days straight before I have to worry about getting exhausted.”
It was no mere boast, but demonstrable fact. War golems, as the name implied, were designed for prolonged military engagements. They could still get exhausted and enter a lethargic low-power state like lesser species of their kind, but it took considerably more effort to reach that point. That wasn’t even considering Fizzy’s near-legendary END Attribute. And the reason why the golem knew her limit was ‘four days’ was because she once tried to pull an all-weeker while practicing her Blacksmith Job. Which was like an all-nighter, except it lasted the full week.
That said, Jen felt confident her own fitness levels were not far behind, though she doubted whether her wits and concentration would last as long as her body in that sort of extreme scenario. Even if she was someone who could easily be described as ‘superhuman,’ that still meant she was at least part ‘human.’
Having dealt with the latest challenge, the pair proceeded forward through the only door that remained open. The rest of the dungeon seemed to follow the same pattern of presenting them with various traps and challenges occasionally broken down by bouts of arduous combat. However, it soon became apparent that The Gauntlet favored fighter types over magic users. Even if some of the rooms could easily be solved by a skilled Wizard, others were practically impossible for a weak-bodied twinkle-fingers to complete.
Another observation that could be made was that even though Axel despised monsters, he was clearly not above using them as a means of testing those that entered his dungeon. Fizzy inwardly mused whether he might take pleasure in watching these creatures get beaten to a bloody pulp, but she sincerely doubted that was the case. The God of War and Combat seemed like too much of a control freak to bother with silly things like ‘fun’ or ‘entertainment.’
After about twelve rooms that tested various aspects of Jen and Fizzy’s physical and mental condition, the pair finally arrived at a place that seemed to be a change of pace. Unlike the bare and featureless stone brick chambers before, this space actually had some decor and flair to it. It was oddly reminiscent of the dwarven arenas the golem used to fight in, as it was a flattened circular space surrounded by a tall wall. The seats beyond it were filled by clay statues in various cheering poses and numerous banners with colorful heraldries on them were hanging off of tall poles. There was even a VIP box where one would expect to see a guest of honor.
It was that last thing that drew Jen and Fizzy’s attention the most, as they could see something glowing within, though it was too hazy to make out. As they approached the curious sight, the thing leapt from its perch and landed silently near the edge of the arena. The challengers raised their guard, but this stranger didn’t seem interested in fighting them right at that moment. Drawing warily closer, the golem could make out the glowing entity’s general shape. It seemed to be made of solidified bright blue light bordering on white and was also slightly translucent, making it abundantly clear this was not a person despite looking like one.
More precisely, like a very specific individual that Fizzy couldn’t help but recognize.
“… Hesk? Is that you?”