“How’s it looking down there?” Eveth shouted, tilting her neck for a better view. The rope beneath her swayed, Alem’s gear catching off the [Light] spells floating beside her.
“It’s alright.” She heard Dren shout back, a little further down. “My arms hurt, though.”
“That’s because you’re still carrying around a bit of extra weight.” Alem’s voice echoed. “About the belly, I reckon.”
“Monsters go for the pudgy one’s first, you know.” Eveth yelled.
“I think it’s funny.”
Eveth twitched, as the voice in her skull came to life. Hooking her feet on the next knot along the rope down, she stopped to adjust her grip.
“Warn me before you go and do that, could you? I’d rather not fall to my death.”
“Alright, alright... sheesh.” The voice fell away, sensation of healing magic subsiding.
Around her neck, warm scales shifted.
“Ssss.” The snake hissed.
“Gods!” She almost slipped again, as the magic returned with a vengeance.
“How’s that for a warning?”
“Could you just wait until we get to the ground?”
“It’s pretty far off, though. I figured I’d make small-talk.”
“Do you know how distracting it is to have magic running through your skull?”
“How the hell does Imra put up with you?”
“That’s a really good question.”
“Dren and Alem couldn’t carry you.” Eveth muttered. “No, best leave the magic snake to the Mage. She’s done it before, after all.”
“Yeah… Tuth’s really the only one with a good excuse.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll slither off your own way once we get down there?”
“No, I was thinking about having you carry me around for the bulk of this.”
“Speaking of what would be great: you still haven’t answered my questions.”
“Yeah… I’d be more focused on climbing, if I were you.”
“I am focused, thank you very much.” Eveth gritted her teeth, as she continued down another knot, descending. “
This was, the most difficult part of Dungeon diving. For Eveth, at least, considering she wasn’t built for it in the slightest. It wasn’t as though she was in poor form, but maybe instead of a pint between experiments, Eveth recognized that she could have dropped and done pushups, or something.
Mages were expected to carry a relatively heavy amount of gear. Her staff, several potions, a journal and ink-set. Then, there were her rations, water, her armor- however lightweight. Ropes and additional equipment. These things added up, considering Eveth had spent most of her younger years as a scholar. Unlike Alem, she’d never been conditioned to run obstacle courses as a matter of daily training or subjected to endless physical exercises for the sake of manifesting a useful [Skill] in service of the Empire. Although, climbing down fifty feet of rope, was enough to make her wonder if she should have.
Gods. Once this was over, she was going to have to climb back up this somehow.
“Imra says that you should train with her, after this.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, we’re still pretty close by, so she’s kind of watching… and judging.”
“Doesn’t have anything better to do?”
“No, not yet. All quiet up there.”
“That was a rhetorical question.”
“Mmm… she also says that if you fall and drop us, she’ll never forgive you.”
“Imra’s welcome to come down here, herself.”
“I gathered as much, although she never specifically told me why.”
“She never told me either.”
“Seriously?” Eveth slowed. “Even you don’t know?”
“If she can’t come down here, she can’t come down here.” The voice replied. “I’ll take her word for it.”
“You’re happy with that sort of explanation?”
“Sure.” The voice… shrugged, somehow. “My current assumption is she’ll either die, or get really sick due to the mana…”
“Well, I think there’s a small chance… really small, but still, a chance…”
“For Gods and light, out with it.”
“Well, she might turn into a Goblin, or a monster, or something sort of like that.”
“… shut up.”
“You say that.”
“No, that’s not a thing.”
“Exactly the kind of assumption I’ve learned to stop making, Eveth.”
“How could that be a thing?”
“How are you so sure it’s not?”
“You absolutely certain you don’t want to ride with Alem, or Dren? Hell, I could toss you down.”
“Nope.” The voice laughed. “Besides, Imra told me you’re the most likely to die. I’d rather be on-call for emergencies.”
“Thank her for the vote of confidence.”
“I would, but we’re almost out of range. Mana down here is playing havoc with our reception.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“First King, give me strength.” She sighed.
“Touched down, below! Looks safe!” Alem shouted. “You’ve got another fifteen paces, Eveth!”
“Understood.” Eveth replied, dropping another length as the cavern began to open around her. “What do you see?”
“Looks like an early layer, for sure. Not quite to the middle zone, but deeper than normal. We’ve got signs of someone else being down here, like we thought.” Alem called out. “Tuth’s scouting ahead.”
“Yeah, stone’s about right for that. No wonder your guy found so many crystals. Varar, or whoever.”
“The Guildmaster, you mean.”
“Yeah, him. Is he strong?”
“Like… Alem? Imra? Me?”
“Just stop talking for a minute.” Eveth muttered, as her foot reached for another knot in the rope, only to find stone. “Finally.” She sighed, setting her feet down.
Another glowing orb formed up, further brightening the area.
The entrance opened up along the ceiling in the far back of a large room which was several dozen paces wide, flattening out into a gentle slope. Despite what she expected, there wasn’t much in the way of a natural formation: ceiling flat, and walls that straightened out, made it seem as though it were molded by something else.
Focusing more mana to her spells, Eveth could see intricate carvings began to emerge along the borders. Runes and etchings catching the shadows with contrast.
“More than I was expecting.” Eveth agreed, squinting at them. “Looks like an ancient ruin. Maybe a portion of some old city that never caved in.”
“We’ve got more crates.” Dren spoke up as he helped Alem with the excess gear. “There’s stack of them here.”
“Seems as though Varar’s been busy.” Eveth replied, setting down her pack with the rest. “Good news?”
“Aye.” Alem replied, setting a pack down atop several stacked chests. “From what we’ve checked, they’re all filled.”
“How many?” Eveth recognized the boxes, matching in size to what had been found above. “Ten? Twenty?”
“Enough to match what we found up above.” Alem tossed a hoop of netting at Eveth’s feet. “Now we know why they were so small. Must be a real pleasure hauling these things up.”
“We’re going to need a pully system.” Eveth agreed. “Not a bad haul, though.”
“Ah!” Dren shouted, falling back.
“What is it?” Alem had his hammer out in an instant, stopping as he reached the boy. “Oh.” He lowered the weapon. “I see.”
“Did you find something?” Eveth asked, bringing another [Light] spell to life, casting it overhead. “Sign of Varar?”
“Hope not.” Alem kicked a box aside. Beside his boot, a disembodied arm slumped stiffly to the ground. “Though, our Stone Crab theory is holding a bit more weight.”
“Sss.” Around Eveth’s neck, the Basilisk flicked its tongue. “Blood.”
“Oh.” Eveth whispered. “Someone had a bad day.”
“Aye.” Alem replied. “Brutal, but quick. I’d say mandibles of some kind, crunched right through the bone. Sheared it right then and there, here… and here.”
“So that’s the smell.” Dren backed away, grimacing. “Thought maybe the Dungeon was just like that.”
“Sometimes it is.” Alem nudged it with his weapon, wrinkling his nose. “Tattoo on the forearm here, some sort of symbol. Can’t make it out well, but this isn’t Varar’s.”
“Let me see.” Eveth brought the nearest [Light] closer. “Looks like a crest of some sort… You think another Guild came down here?”
“I’m more worried about the rest of the body.” Alem replied. “Rather not have to deal with a Ghoul.”
“Ssss.” Eveth felt the snake pull at her, redirecting her attention. “Eveth.”
“I just heard something, close by.”
“What kind of something?” Eveth asked.
“You’re sure?” Eveth asked. “Alem, I think-“
She didn’t get a chance to finish, as the man turned.
“Who’s there?” Alem shouted.
“Don’t play with me, I sense at least three of you!” Alem’s voice boomed. He directed his hammer, towards the tunnel, nodding. “Best come out, now!”
Eveth spread out the [Light] spells, strengthening them to reveal the full scope of the room. As the darkness receded, tighter lines of shadow cutting against illuminated stone and the full tunnel entrance became visible. It was enough of a masterpiece to pull Eveth’s attention: the carved archway to the tunnel was formed entirely of sculptures in a scene of battle.
They stood, bravely. Soldiers in elegant armor, wielding swords against untold numbers of monsters. Their faces seemed fixed in grim determination, no matter how many teeth were eternally fixed upon their stony flesh.
Beneath this, something moved.
“I said, come out.” Alem repeated. “Now.”
In the distance of the tunnel: shadows stood. Silhouettes just out of the magic’s reach, waiting in eerie stillness.
Still, no one replied.
“Step forward and drop your weapons.” Alem commanded. “We’ve got a Mage with us. If you don’t start listening, we’ll assume you’re all ghouls and won’t hesitate to torch the lot of you.”
The silhouettes turned to one another from a brief moment, before one of them stepped forward.
“Torch us, eh?” Came a reply, as one of the figures stepped forward. “Who sent you? We ain’t dropping shit until you tell us that much.”
It was a large man, heavy axe in hand. Steel chain hung over his chest, stained with splotches of red and rust, matching the peeling paint on a domed shield. He glared at them, this beard crusted with grime.
“Weapons down first.” Alem commanded, a second time. “All of you.”
“And if we don’t?” The man replied, waving his companions forward. Two other men, equally rough in stature, emerge from the darkness, weapons raised to block the glow of Eveth’s [Light] spells. “Told you, we ain’t dropping shit until I know who you are.”
“Best reconsider.” Alem replied, as Tuth emerged from the recess of the doorway. Stepping from the faintest patch of shadow, his dagger pressed to the first man’s throat with a deadly glow.
“Piss and vinegar.” The man cursed. “Fuckin’ spook.”
“The Mage we’ve got with us can do a hell of a lot more than [Light] spells, while we’re at it. So, drop them.”
“Alright, for fuck’s sake.” The man shouted back, dropping his axe and shield to raise his hands. “If you’re going to be like that.”
“The other’s, as well.” Alem moved forward. “Everything on the ground and keep your hands up.”
Grumbles and curses followed, as metal clattered on stone.
“After all the shit we’ve been through on this job, getting robbed and murdered to top it off?” The man spit, fighting against Tuth’s hold. The dagger pressed harder, stopping him.
“Not if you cooperate.” Alem replied.
“Oh, sure. You’ll just let us go when this is all said and done.”
“Lead us here to die, the bastard. What with the monster killing half our men, the tunnels, the fucking frogs!”
“Did he just say frogs?”
“Not now.” Eveth whispered back.
“He just said frogs, I know he did.”
“Why the hell does that matter?” Eveth hissed under her breath. “Shut up.”
“I swear to the Light itself, if I get out of here-“ The man fought against Tuth, efforts ceasing as the dagger pressed, just hard enough to draw a faint line of red. “Damn you.”
“Enough.” Alem said. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Who are we? Who are WE?” The man’s struggling increased, almost enough to lift Tuth off the ground as he struggled to step towards Alem, face contorting with rage. “We’re the fucks who were stupid enough to trust Varar! Who the hell are you?”