Crouching in a giant fern, the many thin leaves on the drooping branches rubbing on my legs and tickling the back of my neck, I scratch my forehead and sigh. I didn’t want to believe Doc, well Leonard, who appeared before us, whispered to Doc and disappeared again when he said that there was no cave. Leonard is right. I reach into the bag at my waist, pull Bonesy out, and put my hand over his mouth.
“That’s not a cave Bonesy. That’s a fortress. And keep your voice down.” I take my hand off his mouth.
“You do realize that before you came around I’d been sitting on the floor of that building for a long time? How am I to know what has become of the ritual site? My initial inspection suggests you are correct. That’s a fortress.”
I’m standing on top of a small rise in the forest floor, perched above the five-meter tall cliffs of coffee brown exposed rock and root. The cliff continues in a rough circle around the fifty-meter wide and fifty-meter long circular depression. A massive tree grows at the opposite end of the depression. Five meters across and an uncountable number tall, it dwarfs all the pines I’ve seen in Incrementum. Numerous small black holes burrow in between the tree’s twisted roots, half as tall as a man. One large opening directly below the tree, black -- even now in the daylight -- draws my eye. There are three unmoving men standing in front of it, each holding a spear in one hand and nothing in the other. They are wearing large pieces of metal, covering everything except the heads. I can’t see their faces, but I imagine they are grimacing with discomfort.
Dan says, “So back when we agreed to help you incarnate Chronos, we were talking about a cave with an abandoned ritual. This...this is a bit much.”
I turn my head and shoulders and look back at Dan sitting on the opposite side of the fern. Doc lays next to him on his stomach. Kuruk stands beside them, not taking the cue to hunker down, an axe in each hand.
“Going back on your promises so soon, Dan? Come on, this looks like fun.” I say before standing and dusting off my knees. Kuruk rises and Dan grabs my hand.
“Not so fast, you were about to just run at those three guards weren’t you?” Dan says.
“...maybe,” I say, kicking a particularly offensive clump of dirt near my feet.
“If you run in there we all have to run in there. Just wait two seconds for us to come up with a plan, then you can have fun.”
“That’s not as much fun...sigh, have it your way, Dan.”
“I think we should walk around the edge here to the left, and then scale down into basin roughly fifty meters from the guards’ positions. We edge closer and prepare for battle. Does anyone have a bow or some ranged weapon?”
After the silence, Dan says, “I’ll take that as a no. Ok, so Samantha, you walk closer, grab a rock, and throw it at the guard that’s closest to us. We might be able to get them to fight us one at a time. That plate armor looks serious so I don’t think this will be an easy fight. Vitalia has blessed me with the inner fortitude to pull us through, of course, but it won’t be easy. I’ll keep Samantha alive with my god-given healing ability while the rest of you do damage.”
“What about Leonard?” I say.
Part of the fern takes on the shape of a small man. Leonard shakes his head, shows me his daggers and fades away again.
Doc says, “Leonard only has his daggers. No ranged weapons to his name. If he throws the rock he’ll lose his stealth advantage.”
Kuruk clears his throat. “I found these on the men that attacked Samantha. I was holding onto them for you, but after we woke up and these guys attacked me I didn’t have time to hand them over...”
He offers me a quiver of arrows, a bow, and wooden club. I take the quiver of arrows and the bow but shake my head at the wooden club.
“No thanks on the club. This bow looks awesome, thanks for saving it for me.” I stare at the bow and see a prompt:
Novice’s Oak Longbow
A well made but basic longbow.
Damage: 20-30 (15-20 with current Strength modifiers)
Well, maybe not that awesome but a bow nonetheless. I put an arrow on the string, pose like the black caped man who shot me and pull the string back. The string only makes it halfway to my ear before my arm shakes. I aim at the pine tree five meters behind us and let the cord go. The arrow hits the forest floor two meters from me and I almost fall down.
“I’ve decided to use a rock to get the guard’s attention,” I say.
Doc coughs into his hand and then stands up. “A rock is just the thing for a smart warrior like you.”
We walk around the edge of the cliff until we get to the place Dan indicated and climb down. The roots and rocks make the descent fairly easy. I look down at my sweater, again thankful that mud isn’t able to cling to it. We walk forward another twenty meters. We’re directly to the side of the guards now, with the nearest opening five meters above us and ten meters ahead.
I whisper, “You guys ready?”
Dan says, “You don’t have to whisper. Talking hasn’t antagonized an enemy for me yet. Careful, the nametag on those guards are white to me which puts their level somewhere around twenty. Since you’re level nine they will probably hit you quite hard, like when you first fought Archie. Your glorious beacon of health,” he points to his own chest,” is here of course, but be careful.”
I shudder, remembering the post-Archibold-fight pain. I walk forward another five meters, kneel down, pick up a muddy rock and throw it at the nearest guard, now only ten meters away. The rock bounces at his feet and dirties his metal shoes. I pick up another rock and pull my arm back but stop when I hear the nearest guard speak.
“Hey, Rupert, am I imagining it or is that woman throwing rocks at me?”
The second guard leans forward and looks my way before he says “, Right you are Ram. She’s throwing rocks. Hey, Ross, come over here, look at this. A giantess, a giant, a fair-haired boy and an axeman. The giantess is throwing rocks.”
Ross’s armor clanks as he walks over to stand by Rupert.
“Are they dullards? Lady, why are you throwing rocks at us?” He pauses then says “, That’s a lot of blank looks Rupert. Should we sound the alarm?”
“If they’re throwing rocks I’m rather certain they aren’t a threat. Let’s see what they have to say,” says Rupert.
I look back at Dan and raise an eyebrow.
“Don’t look at me,” Dan says. “That would have worked in other games.”
I say, “Hi there, Rupert, Ram, and Ross. I was just trying to get Ram to come fight us by himself...any chance of that?”
Rupert says, “Why are you trying to fight Ram? I haven’t beat him in the practice circle for years so I put your odds at about zero.”
“We wanted to get into your fortress...can we come in?”
Rupert looks at Ram, Ram looks at Ross and then all three shrug.
Ross says, “Can’t see the harm in it but hold on, we have a procedure for this. Sorry, we don’t get southerners up here...well, ever.” He reaches into a brown leather bag strapped to his waist, pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading.
“Beware, ye who encroach on yonder Dark Pit of Despair, consider carefully before delving into its depths.” Ross glances up. “Sorry. Someone had a little too much fun writing this.” He clears his throat and says, “Do you agree to accept sole responsibility for entering this forsaken place, and all consequences up to and including loss of possessions, loss of life and loss of soul? I’m going to need a verbal yes from each of you.”
Ross looks up and waits.
“Wait, aren’t you here to keep us out?” I say.
“No,” Ram says. “We guard against the Corrupted Children of the Pit coming out, not fools seeking death.”
What a jerk. “Perfect, these fools will be heading in then. Right guys?”
I look back at Dan. His arms are behind him and he’s biting one lip. Leonard stands next to Doc and nods his head up and down rapidly. Doc shrugs and says, “We follow through on our agreements. Besides, this is the first dungeon Leonard and I have come across in Incrementum. Looks like fun.”
Kuruk steps up beside me and puts his hand on my shoulder, facing the three Pit Guardian. “I’m with you Samantha, you’re a party so far.” I shrug his arm off and give him a glare. “Hands off. Dan?”
“Fine, let’s do it. You need to be careful though Samantha, no running in blindly. You’re still only level 9 compared to my 20, Leonard and Doc’s 15 and Kuruk’s 12.”
Ross says “, Ehem, I need verbal yes’s. So again, Do you agree to accept sole responsibility for entering this forsaken place, and all consequences up to and Including loss of possessions, loss of life and loss of soul?”
“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.”
“Do you agree to remain in the Pit until it is cleansed or you are corrupted?”
“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.”
“Do you acknowledge that the Pit Guardians, “ Ross points to Ram, Rupert and himself and then says, “Do you acknowledge that the Pit Guardians of the Northern Reach may be forced to chop your corrupted bodies into little pieces and toss said pieces into the Pit should you be corrupted?”
“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.”
“That’s it then. We’re wishing you the best of luck. If you can cleanse this cursed place we get to go home. Word of advice, don’t listen to the voices.” Ross says.
“Voices?” Ross wiggles his eyebrows at me but stays silent.
I grin at the guys. “Come on, let’s do this.”
As we pass under the thick roots, our boots sinking into the soft mud, Doc says “, And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”