“You lot have no idea how glad we are to hear that bastard’s gone.” The man who introduced himself as Craluc threw his head back, laughing heartily. “Ain’t that right, boys?”
“Aye.” One of the others shouted.
“I’ve been a hired sword for plenty of years, but I never seen ‘nothing like it.”
“Killer of men.”
“Didn’t even realize what it was until the damn monster was tearing us apart. Couldn’t have been the first time it caught a group out in the open.” Leaning forward from his makeshift seat, on a crate, Craluc took a deep draw from the water skin. The box creaked in protest. “No clue how you dealt with that bastard, but I’m not complaining.”
“Tell me what happened, exactly.” Alem requested, capping the skin and passing it back to Dren. “From the beginning.”
“Well, journey out here was more of a bitch than it ought to have been. I’ll skip the boring bits” Craluc stretched his shoulders. “Not the far from the walls, truly, but Varar’s instructions were complete piss.”
“Aye, we managed to find him on the road though, so it started normal enough from there. Guild doesn’t waste money on just anything these days. Knew it had to be worth the effort.”
“Where is the fucker, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Who do you mean?”
“Who do you think I mean? Varar! Didn’t he come with you?”
“He… sent for us. Didn’t come himself.”
“Must have been more hurt than I thought, then.”
“No? Either that, or he wanted to clean up some personal matters.” Craluc shrugged. “I wanted to be on one of the crews in the city, originally. Heard they were getting the entertaining jobs, bloody sort. You lot one of the groups that finished up early?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Alem nodded, slowly. “You could say that.”
“Well, sorry about the introductions. This place… it plays with your head a bit. Just being in the dungeon can do that to some, but this is somethin’ more. Throw in no supplies…”
“Consider it water under the bridge.”
“Water… glad you brought some. Drinking piss ain’t worth the effort, and no light down here. I could swear it’s been weeks, but I know that’s madness.”
“Gods, yes. It’s like time doesn’t work right down here. Pull a full shift, or what feels like it. Come back up, and you find it’s only been a few hours. Moves quicker… or slower? I’ve never been much for diving, but some of the other men were saying as much just at the start of it, hauling up the first boxes.”
“Dungeon here is a weird one. Varar the scout he had with him: they were saying there’s a chance it’s blocked up somewhere. Not completely connected to the rest, due to a cave in, or some other such nonsense.” Glancing at Tuth beside them, Craluc frowned. “Doesn’t seem to be bothering any of you much, but a lot of our group thought this place was off.”
“Hmm.” Alem glanced around the room. “It is odd, considering the ruins. Ancient work could indicate there’s an artifact in place, somewhere.”
“Mayhaps.” Craluc turned to the side and spit, loudly. “Whatever it is, oddness of this damned place just helped the bastard. Beast slipped in slow, while all of our attention on the fucking Dungeon. Picked off a few, I think.”
“You lost someone, and didn’t realize it?”
“So, what if we were missing a body? We’d been scouting these bloody tunnels all day and night, and we were tired. What’s one man compared to a hot meal and some sleep?”
“Dead tired.” Beside Craluc, one of the other men nodded. “Straight and narrow: we’d worked hours filling boxes, pulling rubble.”
“That was just it. On and on, occasionally fending off whatever monster happened to wander in on account of the noise. Wasn’t our problem we were getting paid a bit extra for the trouble. No skin off our back.” Craluc leaned back, letting out a long huff. “That’s how it got us. All the while, it’d been sitting there, inching closer.”
“What was?” Alem asked.
“What’re you even asking for? The Stone Crab, of course!”
“The Stone Crab.” Alem nodded. “Of course.”
“Aye, maybe you’re right. That’s what it was, but that ain’t what any normal soul would call it. Beast of death be more likely a title.”
“Aye, bided time, it did. Waited for the most of us to settle in that last night. Then…”
“Damned creature hit us like an avalanche.” Craluc leaned forward, suddenly, eyes wild. “Took down three of us in seconds, and then it was all but death itself. Frenzy of stone, fiercer than any man. Claws that could lop a body in two, just so.”
“Wouldn’t have anything to do with the arm?”
“By the crates.”
“Ah… that was Kein.”
“Ain’t right we left him.” One of the other men muttered. “Ain’t right.”
“Shut it, we all know there weren’t no choice. First King’s mercy: anyone who laid eyes on that monstrosity knows. Fucker was the size of three wagons, stacked on high. Shell broke Yugar’s axe, easy as the pincer broke him in turn, and Kein… gods, the way he screamed. For so bloody long…”
“You left him to be eaten, then.” Alem nodded, slowly. “I take it, his arm fell down after that?”
“What, you worried about ghouls? Craluc spit again, sneering. “Light, you’re a fucking professional.”
“Confirming what I need to know, is all.”
“Shit… Varar spent some top coin on you, I can only imagine. That Mage you got real?”
“Mmm… I know your knife over here ain’t no pushover.” He nodded towards Tuth. “But, I can’t figure out the kid.” Craluc looked towards Dren. “There nobody else?”
“A healer is a healer.” Alem replied. “We mobilized in a hurry.”
“Seems like it.”
“Why is that?”
“Honestly, that was half the reason we panicked. Way Varar was yelling, thought he’d be coming back with the whole bloody company. Always figured there’d be more.”
“The whole company…” Alem frowned. “What about here. Is it just you three left?”
“Well, it’s hard to say.”
“Twelve was our number. Varar picked us from the lot himself, made sure we ‘ad what was needed. Not one of us green, but I figure we went and lost over half of in seconds of that bloody terror. We ‘only survived on account of the ropes, and haulin’ the last of the crates, and it was a close thing. Almost broke our necks for fallin’ down right, hands slipping on the blood.”
“So, in the end, you escaped the monster by coming down here.” Alem stroked at his approaching beard, considering. “Hiding in the dungeon, where it couldn’t follow. No one else made it down?”
“There was the scout.” One of the others spoke up. “Marjorie, was her name.”
“She wasn’t above ground when it happened.”
“Aye.” Craluc nodded. “She was the only one who didn’t hate it down here. More than happy to map out some of the tunnels. Barely came up for food and drink before she’d be back down.”
“Haven’t heard anything from them?”
“If they’re here and still alive, they haven’t come back to the entrance.” He shrugged. “Lass wasn’t right, you know? Moment she came down here, wasn’t us she was listening to.”
“Had a drop of Forest in her, I think.”
“Oh, shut it.” Craluc spit hocked, and spit. “You lot say that about any gal you fancy.”
“Just saying. Could see it in ‘er ears.”
“Just saying, nothing. Keep your trap shut.” Craluc muttered, turning back to Alem. “Just us three. We’re the only ones that I know of for sure. Some might have managed to run off with Varar, but no one else made it down into the Dungeon after us.”
“So, since then… you’ve just been waiting?”
“Well, they were was shouting about going for help as I was diving for the ropes. Wagon was moving- I know that much. After… the crab was too big to follow us. For all the strength it had, size did it no favors on the tunnel down.”
“We thought we might make a go of it.” One of the others whispered. “We’re far out enough from the city, but not like we’re making a trip to the coast. Figured we might settle in with whatever gear was left by the crates and wait, but…”
“It didn’t leave.” Alem finished their sentence. “I see.”
“Gods, no it didn’t. Instead, it just sat there. Plugging up the hole, jaws clacking, like it was laughing at us. Saw some light awhile before you came down, but we figured it was just a trick. Sitting on the edge for the first person stupid enough to climb back up there and stick their head out.” Craluc gestured towards the ceiling. “How’d you deal with it?”
“Don’t tell me you fucking killed it.” Craluc coughed in disbelief. “Gods! How much coin did Varar spend?”
“Consider that a trade secret.” Alem replied, standing up at motioning to Tuth. “Hold here for a moment.”
“Aye, no problem.” Craluc grimaced, as Tuth stepped forward to take Alem’s place, dagger glowing faintly in the dim. “Nice of you to ask, considering.” He muttered after. “Real nice.”
Alem ignored him, as he crossed the cavern, heading towards the far side.
Waiting quietly, Eveth stood by the Tunnel entrance at the edge of the room. Her staff readied with a faint humming glow, several orbs of light floated along some distance into the tunnel.
“It’s all ancient, from here on out.” Eveth stated, as Alem stopped beside her. Past her, a long arching hallway, stretched into the distance. Carvings and statues framing, all the way into the darkness beyond her reach. “Some side tunnels have broken in, evidence of mining, but it looks as though a whole stretch of city got buried here. Maybe in one of the old wars, or something close: swallowed up and forgotten. No telling what might be down there.”
“I’m not so worried about the Dungeon, right now.” Alem replied, peering down the hall. “No further movement, though?”
“Not that we could see.” Around Eveth’s neck, a quiet hiss settled. “I’m pretty sure they’re alone.”
"What do you think, then?" Alem asked, glancing back towards Tuth. The three men in front of him sat stone-faced: legs out and backs pressed to one another by the thick coil of rope tied around their torso. “Quite the story they’ve got.”
“It is.” Eveth agreed.
“What do you think?”
“Because I trust your judgement.”
"You already know what I think.” Eveth replied, tapping her staff against the stone floor. “You’re trying to get me to say something else.”
"Fine. What does he think?"
"Doesn't trust them."
"Not asking if the Basilisk trusts them, Eveth."
“He’s arrived at a similar conclusion.”
"You really think he sold us out.”
“I think…” Eveth sighed. “I think it seems likely.”
"Three men tied down over there seem to be saying otherwise. He was working with someone else to monetize this place."
"There’s some misunderstanding.” Alem shook his head. “Varar would never do that. The Guild-"
"Has been failing badly, Alem. For years, now." Eveth tapped her staff against the stone floor. “Think about it.”
"This could turn all of that around, though. Just think about how much these crates alone are worth. Just one haul, and we could pay off the lot of it."
"It’s worth a lot more without being used to prop up a dying legacy."
"You don't mean that."
"It's not a stretch, Alem." Eveth muttered. “Forget the first haul of crystals: if the Guild is gone, he can turn in the discovery of the entrance alone. Empire would pay out for years to whoever claimed this place.”
"You're telling me you think Varar would betray us? For coin? After all this time?"
"I’m not sure of anything." Eveth shook her head. "I’m just telling you it’s a real possibility."
"He took you in, Eveth. Under no small amount of risk, if I remember."
"Stared down an Archmage with nothing but a sheet of paper and a bit of wax."
“He’s looking at me funny. What did he say?”
"Snake's asking why Varar didn't have a bounty, Alem."
"Because we missed it. We left the city in a hurry, and we missed it"
"Or, maybe- just maybe: there isn't one."
"Is it?" Eveth raised a hand, counting on her fingers. “We haven’t seen him in ages. The Guild is burned to the ground and the license is close to lapsing. Do the math: what’s left in the way?”
“That would be us, Alem.” She cut him off. “No Farstrider Guild means no profit to split. All Varar needs to do is let things run their course. It fits.”
“I know what it looks like, but think of it this way: with all this, the Guild's problems are over. The debt, the loans… I’ll admit, it was deep- but with this? We could turn it all around. One good haul, then we turn the entrance over to the Empire, collect for the next couple decades-"
"What if Varar doesn’t want to turn it around?"
"You can’t be serious.”
"If he doesn’t want to turn it around: what then?”
“We’re like shit stuck on his boot, Alem.”
"That’s not true."
"You say that, but everyone else is gone. Everyone who could leave, left. Meanwhile, we’ve been stubbornly holding on. Keeping the Guild limping along-”
“Ssssss.” Around Eveth’s neck, the Basilisk’s scales took on the brief hue of healing magic. “Ssssss.” It repeated.
“What did he say?” Alem asked.
“It’s not important.” Eveth muttered.
“Ssssss.” The Basilisk flicked its tongue in Alem’s direction.
“Trust me: it’s not.”
“Ssssss.” The serpent turned to Eveth, pulling back, to shoot forward in a clumsy, but effective, headbutt.
“Gods! Alright, for light’s sake. Enough.” Eveth sighed, exasperated. “He has a question for you.”
“What is it?”
“The snake wants to know…” Eveth paused, looked back at the basilisk. “You’re serious, right?” she asked it. “This isn’t some joke, or prank, or something?”
“Fine.” Eveth sighed, exasperated. “The snake wants to know if the men we caught said anything more about frogs.”
“Frogs?” Alem blinked.
No small amount of effort on my part, but I finally got the team back on task.
Took me a solid twenty minutes to convince them to just leave Tuth on guard duty for the people we’ve got tied up, so we could move on deeper into the Dungeon and see what we can find.
Swear to Tiny Snake God, keeping these guys moving is like herding cats.
Really strange, potentially dangerous, cats.
Imra and I are almost always on the same wavelength. There’s never much conflict or backtracking, or alterative suggestions on what we should or should not do. In comparison, this is a bit exhausting.
It’s a lot like juggling.
Managing the humans, while keeping an eye out for danger. That’s one thing.
Managing the humans, while keeping an eye out for danger and listening to non-stop rambling of another voice in my head… yeah. That’s another, entirely.
Ever since I came down here, the other guy has been completely freaking out.
Absolutely constant rambling.
But- it’s weird rambling. Well, weirder, if that makes any sense. Enough so that I’m trying listen a bit more closely.
I can hear it saying all sorts of stuff, but the voice is far-off.
None of it is directed at me. Instead, it’s almost as if the voice is speaking to someone on the phone, and I’m listening from another room.
It gives me that sort of sensation.
Which, is not ideal.
I don’t like it.
Is it talking to someone? I mean, how? This place is like a dead-zone, I haven’t been able to reach Imra since the way down. It’s not her, that’s for sure.
Am I about to have two voices in my head?
I’d really rather not, if possible.
I’ve tried asking, but the other guy won’t answer with anything that confirms or denies. Just mutters more potentially ominous statements…
So, consider my guard officially up.
We’re on full Tiny Snake Alert.
[Leviathan Breath] is at the ready. [Heal] is prepped for immediate use. Even my Earth magic is readied the casting equivalent of pocket sand.
Anything comes at us, it’s going to deeply regret some life choices.
Not that I’ve seen much that has, or even seems to be willing to show itself…
This place is like one grand hall, only it’s one that never ends.
Tall ceilings, arching up. Ancient looking carvings, all with incredible detail. Some of monsters, some of people in armor.
Recently there have been statues, too.
They’re realistic as hell.
I accidentally set one on fire, thinking it was real. Spooked the hell out of everyone.
Looked a lot like a centipede.
Everyone was pretty on edge after that, even if their response time was sluggish. I mean, sure, it was a false-alarm, but come on.
This is the exact definition of the danger zone.
Their heads aren’t in the game right now. I’m ready for battle here, but the rest of these guys are… distracted.
Not saying that Eveth isn’t doing her job. She’s keeping the tunnel lit up with those [Light] spells, and Dren looks ready enough. Alem has his hammer over the shoulder and is keeping a wary eye out for traps and danger.
To his credit, he did smack the statue I set on fire pretty hard with that thing, which was cool, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re not quite with me here.
Lead pointlessly astray by… I don’t even know how to sum it up.
I mean, we’re in the Dungeon, people.
This place is like… pure fucking evil. Compared to the this, Varar the mysteriously missing Guildmaster doesn’t matter.
Sure, he’s a member of the Farstrider Guild, so by divine serpent and froggy proclamation he’s my responsibility. I’m not trying to slither out of that, but the people we caught said he left to go get help.
Left, as in: he’s not here.
So, while maybe he’s betrayed the Guild, or is out looking for the Guild in the city, or is involved with some conspiracy, or whatever- something else: it not relevant right now.
It’s not that I don’t care. Not what I’m saying.
He’s just not the priority.
I mean, those dudes we’ve got Tuth babysitting mentioned Frogs. How does nobody see how important that is? This is like Tiny Snake God 101 here, people.
We’re in the right place, and now we just need to keep moving.
“You ever seen anything like this?”
Eveth and Alem are talking, slowing down our pace a bit. One of the [Light] spells is focused in on a side door.
There have been a couple of these.
They seem to be completely made from stone, and fused to the rest of the wall… but they’re shaped like doors, so I’ve been considering them doors. Although, I don’t really know if they open.
They might just be extremely elaborate pieces of art, meant to look like doors?
I’m not sure.
“Snake, how about you?”
Ah, I’m being consulted… feels sort of nice.
No, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
“Notice anything odd about them?”
They look like someone used magic to make them.
“I was thinking the same.”
Eveth’s pretty sharp.
She makes some stupid decisions, and she’s got and arrogant streak, but she notices the important details.
It’s not just the doors, though. Bit more subtle, but all of the stone down here is just a little bit weird.
Like, the cavern we came down into: that was normal dungeon rock.
I gave it a good look-over, pretty much what I expected. Maybe there’s a bit of regional differences, it wasn’t exactly the same as I remembered, but it was close. Right at the start, there seemed to be a few branching tunnels near that main archway that broke through the wall. That looked more like a normal dungeon set up. Cave formations, rough walls, natural feel to things… those lead into similar catacombs, of mostly regular rock. Much of which seemed to have some evidence of mining, probably from whoever Varar hired.
But this hallway?
Someone made this.
What’s more, is there’s a… pull...
It matches the stone, as if everything here has been aligned, just so. Like a current pulled itself down and froze- but all at once.
None of the humans have mentioned it, but I know the other voice feels this too. At the rate it’s been yammering away, I think it might be getting a stronger dose than I am.
There’s something off about this place.
The farther in we go, I feel like the pull is getting stronger, louder. Not that it’s noise, really. Though, the other guy in my head has been shouting to compensate for it, to the point where I’m having a hard time focusing.
The presence of this sensation is growing.
The walls, too. At first, I figured it had to be some ancient Mage or something. If this was a human city from a long time ago, maybe they made things with magic back then, but now I’m really starting to winder. The whole hall hasn’t changed shape, so much as the pattern in the stone has gotten… uniform.
All the pieces have gotten… strained. Like someone broke it all down and rebuilt it, flowing the rock and letting the material settle. Not just one piece at a time, either: but all of them, at once.
The only thing I know that does this, is Earth Magic.
Strong Earth Magic.
What’s more, is considering we’ve been walking for a decent distance and this hallway still hasn’t ended, I’ve got to wonder how.
There’s just… a lot.
Even if I ate nothing but mana crystals for weeks, I don’t even want to know how long this would take to create. Frankly, it puts the Tiny Snake staircase I once made to shame.
Not quite the quality, but… well, the difference, is scale.
This place is huge.
That’s all I can say.
Fifteen slithers to the ceiling, at least two thirds of that wide. There’s a gradual slope has been taking us deeper since I noticed the change in the walls, but it’s only a few degrees. Not enough that you would need stairs, or trip and fall. Just enough so there’s a slow descent, deeper. With a slight twist, which reminds me of some massive winding tower, going deeper into the earth.
And these carvings?
I’m the last one to want to admit this, but they’re extremely detailed. Possibly equal to what I could do, if not a little better.
Whoever made these had some serious talent.
Ssss… there he goes again.
FOR SO LONG, IT HAS WAITED…
Waited for what, exactly?
The pull might as well be palpable, at this point.
We’re moving up from Tiny Snake High Alert, to Tiny Snake DEFCON 1.
I’m a hundred percent sure: this isn’t just the combination of a normal Dungeon atmosphere and a few ominous Earth Sculpted details. Something else is happening.
Some sort of magic, or skill or…
Well, that’s interesting.
“Are those really…?”
The statues from here on out are frogs.
Tell me again, what’s it waiting for?
IT WAITS FOR US.
That’s what I thought.