The Wayside Guild had originally assigned Salazar to retrieve the younglings, but Salazar was on a charting expedition. Several noted groups had gone with him on that, way down in the the deeper dungeon. There were Mages and Paladins drafted up from the mercenary banded lists, he'd put more than a small amount of gold into the venture in the expectations of securing a reliable pay-out for the production of Deepest level maps. Had Zane not been at the 23rd Sanctuary during the Cursed-Serpent's Breach, this oversight might cost the Guild its newest members.
Three of the most precious of Guild resources were deep within dangerous territory. Youth that were intended to one day inherit the traditions and the teachings of their veteran members. The Secrets, the knowledge, the traditions of the Wayside Guild itself. What had begun as a time-honored routine of sending the newest members to retrieve a single Goblin Shaman's Staff, had turned into a terribly dangerous mission.
With the closest Sanctuary already under siege from the local monsters, forcing many to evacuate, the trio of younglings were five leagues farther from the next closest sanctuary- and if they retraced their route with intent to return, it would probably be over ten leagues depending on what route they took.
The 23rd Sanctuary was the last human refuge in the Northern Continent Labyrinth systems before the truly difficult floors began. Both back up towards the 22nd Sanctuary, and down towards the parallel zones of the 24th and 25th respectively, would be a terribly dangerous distance for new-Adventurers to attempt alone.
Even with more than a bit of luck on their side, the odds were not kind.
Zane knew this well. After all, it was why he volunteered.
As the strongest sword within the Wayside Guild, he had a duty to protect the future veterans. As the many years piled atop him, it would not be all that long before the final seasons of his prime were burnt away. Truthfully, most his age might have already settled into a retirement from the Dungeon expeditions. Many of his fellows were already taking their places above ground as a Guild caravan escort, or a low-risk desk worker for the Guild halls: but Zane felt strongly he could not leave the danger of this work just yet.
It even wasn't about the money. For a few it might be, but not him. With someone of his strength: Zane knew, there would need to be another to take his position before he could move on, and despite his hopes: a fitting candidate (even by his most generous standards) hadn't yet appeared.
Surrounded by three other veterans of over three-decades of combined experience now with him, and Zane would still be hard-pressed to deem any of them suitable replacement.
They hadn't fought the battles he'd fought. They hadn't risked themselves to the brink of death time and time again- they hadn't slain beasts that could decimate a full party.
But Zane had.
He had dived deeper than any of them, and it showed.
Should he step away from the Wayside's Dungeon Guild too early, there could be disastrous consequences.
Perhaps some of this was his own ego. Zane was not so arrogant as to ignore that he had one. As with all men of talent and skill, he felt more than just some small measure of pride for his capacity, but there was serious truth in the matter beyond his own personal feelings. When there was no one else the Guild could rely on, Zane was the final call.
The end of the line.
Be it dealing with a threat, or rescuing a comrade. He was the final safety net for the men and women who served the Guild: the sword in his hands often held between success and total disaster.
To take that away would mean the deaths of his companions, unless there was someone to take his place.
"Knox, any signs yet?" Zane continued his pace, pulling off left at the next division of the tunnel-ways, incline now sloping up in elevation towards the alienated region. They were close now, the Goblin inhabited area would begin once the caverns opened up in the massive expanse beneath the Great Forest. The root systems beneath those trees had been twisted and corrupted by the mana of the dungeon long-ago, since becoming as much of a ceiling as the stone they had once burrowed through. The signs were there now, cracks along the walls and earth.
"We're near the terrain, but I haven't seen any sign of recent camps. I don't think that they've come back this way yet." The archer replied with a shout from the back of the group. "Only a few markings, Goblins, and maybe some Tar-spiders.
"That's good, right?" Ryker cut in, heavy pace thumping on the stones beneath his boots echoing over Zane's shoulders. "Means we didn't miss them."
"Or it means they're still deep in the Gob-zone. We'll probably have to comb the damn place to find them." Daxton grumbled, short spears clacking softly in the leather on his back, steel lance leveled and ready beside him. "Not even the great Zane can cut down all the Gobs in the world."
Zane didn't reply to that, instead keeping his pace as the incline grew steeper, feet digging into the loose deposits of soil atop the tunnel floor. Now was not the time for conversation.
They were very close to their intended destination, and likely quite near the surface- not that any sane human would want to surface here. Being beneath the deep forest of the far North was preferable to emerging up within it. To his knowledge, there were few places above ground that were more dangerous.
Already, Zane could see the evidence of what lay above them.
The roots and soil, small tendrils of gnarled wood breaking through the walls of the wide tunnel and creeping further in. Along the floor many of these were more prevelant, forcing more careful steps as their paces slowed, eyes alert and watching for other signs of life. In a quarter league Zane knew their group would be at the next rally point. They would make camp there if the younglings weren't nearby, and the search would begin from there. Out into the massive nether-forest of roots and glowing fauna of mana bloat plants and poison in all shapes and forms.
Not something most would look forward to.
It had been years since Zane had been there, and for good reason. Even if the monsters of the area tended to be weaker: it was difficult, isolated, and unforgiving terrain. A true test of an adventurer's skills: A perfect confirmation of someone's readiness for the deeper dungeons.
But, in equal measure: absolutely not the ideal setting for a search party.
Already, Zane had a feeling this mission might grow complicated.