Most teams had marched directly to the dungeon the minute they were prepared and they managed to make good time. The craftsmen had decided to extract wood for all the new construction projects in such a way that it formed a path towards the dungeon. Though it was still incomplete, reaching only just past the halfway point towards the dungeon from the village, it reduced the time needed to reach dungeon dramatically. The reason why it usually took so long to reach the dungeon at normal speed was because of the number of detours and inconveniences that one had to take to reach the place. With a path, however, a great deal of these obstacles had been removed or circumvented in some way.
As a result, just about every team reached the dungeon within a day and they had all gathered near it to camp for the night. When morning arrived, the adventurers greeted the cool morning mountain breeze with eyes filled with determination. Many of them took a moment to admire the entrance to the dungeon in the morning sun, their eyes wide at the intricate work that laid bare before them. It was hard to believe that a brand new dungeon could create such intricate work, and it led many to wonder what they would find inside it. For if a dungeon could craft such a wonderful work of art, then what treasures would it hold?
This train of thought invigorated the adventures immensely. There was something akin to electricity in the air as the time to enter the dungeon approached; a tension that was almost tangible. Most adventurers did their best to contain themselves, spending what little time they had left polishing their weapons and armour, or by taking inventory of their items, or even by recapping their strategies with their teams.
On the other hand, the nobles had a more diverse range of emotions. Amongst the sea of adventurers, the nobles made for an interesting sight. Some of them lounged in luxurious tents, fed by slaves while they waited, while others sat in place, looking exasperated at the wait. Even a handful of them could be seen talking with their adventurers, going over potential plans and formations.
It was an odd mix, to say the least, but fortunately the wait was rather short for everyone.
Minutes after the sun passed the horizon in its entirety, the adventurers with the best hearing picked up a slight rumbling sound from the forest behind them. Turning their attention to it, they barely had time to mention it before the sound grew loud enough that others heard it. By the time most adventurers had turned around to find the source of the sound, a figure blasted out of the woods like an arrow, leaping into the air with a whooping shout of joy.
He spun in the air, flipping thrice almost lazily, as if he was gravity had a weaker hold on him, before he landed thirty meters forwards from where he had leapt as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Smiling broadly, Ikfes bowed at the crowd in a flamboyant way, like a clown that had just done some party trick. The surprising stunt caught the adventurers unawares, and some of them had already started to draw their weapons in their surprise, but promptly put them away as it dawned on them that the thing that had just leaped that inhumanly long distance, was none other than their revered guild master.
“Ah! Nothing like the mountain air and some morning exercise to get you going,” he said to no one in particular, stretching his arms back as he breathe in deeply, clearly savouring the moment. He allowed himself to exhale slowly after a second, bringing his hands down to his hips as he struck a refreshing pose, looking around at the adventurers.
“Alright lads! Are my adventurers ready for the event to start?!” He asked loudly, ensuring that everyone could hear him properly. A cheer rose from the ranks of adventurers, along with whistling and the clanging of weapons against shields. The noise made Ikfes grin widely, like a pixie who had just found someone to play a prank on.
“That’s what I like to hear!” He said with a grin. Bringing his hands up in the air to hush the crowd, taking a moment to look them over quietly, analyzing them briefly before continuing. “Right then. As you are all aware, the dungeon is suspected of having five levels. A basic map of the first floor has been made available through the guild. Though I’m fairly sure most of you were already aware of this, as I just found out that the guild has run out of copies to sell.”
A general chuckle rose from the crowd, along with nodding and knowing smirks.
“Good! That’s as it should be. However, for the purposes of the event we have not released all the details that are known about the dungeon. As such, you should always be prepared and arm yourself with whatever knowledge you can get your hands on. That’s the path to survival.” Ikfes reminded them, looking them over with a fatherly smile. However, the smile switched to a stern gaze a moment later, and his eyes skimmed the crowd.
There, amongst the nobles, he could see some of the unwanted guests. Lord Ravoul sat on his oversized rear upon a pile of expensive silken pillows, getting fanned by an expensive looking slave while he was fed by another. As always, he gave the impression of pig turned man, even as he was flaunting his wealth. Then there was lord Lerron. The man gave the impression of ferret or some other unsavoury rodent, his beady eyes magnified by his wide spectacles. A master at diplomacy, the man had a way of twisting words and weaving intricate scenarios that made him a terrifying political enemy. How he wished that that they would simply not come back from the dungeon… unfortunately, he knew their teams. Their chances of coming back were, unfortunately, high.
Leaving such thoughts aside, he focused on continuing his speech. “However, do not underestimate this dungeon. Remember, the safety of your sponsor is at stake here. And though I am aware that for many of you, five levels of your average dungeon is not a particularly grueling challenge, remember that underestimating any situation can lead to death.”
A murmur spread through the crowd at his words, particularly from some of the nobles who seemed to pale at his words. Some people scoffed silently, others agreed in hushed tones with serious expressions, and yet others remained quiet. The atmosphere remained serious, almost solemn for a handful of seconds, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared the moment Ikfes’s serious expression dissolved into a smile. “Well then! Without further ado, let the event begin!”
A thunderous cheer exploded from the adventurers. An instant later, teams filed into the dungeon, chattering excitedly as they made their way forwards.
“Best of luck, adventurers,” Ikfes murmured as he watched them dive into the dungeon, his previous smile replaced by an unreadable expression. “And watch yourselves.”
Within the confines of the dungeon, groups of adventurers worked their ways down the tunnels of the dungeon. Multiple teams were forced down the same paths as they struggled to get ahead of each other through a multitude of tricks and skills. Though the rules basically boiled down to ‘don’t try to kill each other’ it left ample room for the adventurers to use their skills to get ahead of other teams. As a matter of fact, it was practically encouraged to use your own abilities to get ahead of the other adventurers.
Especially in the first floor, where the enemies were the weakest, the entire thing was more of a race to the second floor rather than a struggle to ward off monsters. Most monsters in the first floor presented little to no challenge to the B ranks, even though they were tasked with the protection of their nobles. Any critters that attempted to defend the dungeon were quickly mowed down by the wave of adventurers. At most, only a handful of minor scratches and scrapes were infected by the monsters.
That said, the first floor was arguably just a battlefield between adventurers. Fog spells, illusions, blending in shadows, lubricating oil grenades, and even blunt arrows were being tossed around like they were going out of style. With the noise of it all being funneled and echoed due to the walls of the dungeon, one would have thought that there were a hundred adventurer teams instead of a mere twenty-seven.
With such grand prizes on the line, in addition to the fact that they had been paid to participate, the adventurers pulled out any stops in an attempt to get ahead of the rest. As such, though the first floor should have been a breeze for adventurers of this calibre, it turned into a disorienting battlefield that caused many injuries to the competing adventurers. Fog spells caused people to fall into simple pit traps, low ceilings combined with oiled floors caused charging warriors to lose balance when their long swords struck the ceiling, illusions caused people to accidentally fire at allies.
Though very few serious injuries occurred, many people had their prides hurt as they would forever remember that they struggled to get though the very first floor of a young dungeon.
Despite the pandemonium that ensued, these adventurers were not amateurs that would simply roll over and give up. The few teams that managed to get ahead of the rest knew that wasting any of the head start they managed to create could, and most likely would, come back to bite them in the rear. The first team, an adventurer group known as the ‘Iron Belts’, reached the entrance to the second floor in less than an hour and were being followed by two more teams only a few seconds behind them.
Without thinking, they dove head first into the tunnel that led to the second floor, expecting a fight of some sort as they rushed down the stairwell. However, they encountered nothing of the sort. Instead of monsters and traps, they encountered the unimaginable beauty that only Smit himself could create. Mouths agape, eyes wider than a doe’s, the adventurers paused for a moment at the first step of the stairs to behold the beautiful work of art that seemed to be created by something much greater than a mere mortal. Even their mustached noble, Baronet Wilhelm, could not help but to stare in wonder.
Their reverie was broken by the sound of rushing feet behind them. Like cold water thrown on their face, the team once more began to advance, but their eyes would still occasionally stray, attempting to follow the intricate patterns that decorated the walls. As quick as their feet could take them, the adventurers made their way down the stairs, almost stumbling down them more than once in their rush.
As more teams of adventurers started to reach the entrance, they could hear gasps and exclamations of surprise. None were immune to the beauty before them. However, the sounds of hurried steps soon resumed.
Out of nowhere, the lead team saw something fall down the vertical hall, through the center of it. A team of three people plus their noblewoman was falling relatively slowly, surrounded by a bubble of some sort. Cursing under their breath, they could only watch as the three-man team waved them goodbye on their way down.
“Damn them,” the Wilhelm growled to himself, his thick mustache bristling while he glared at the noblewoman with a hooked nose who was giving him a smug look.
The group leader nodded without turning to look at the rotund man. Instead, he called out to his team with a roaring voice. “Move it lads! We won’t let them pretty boys be first!”
“Throw ‘em!” An unknown feminine voice yelled from above, and a handful of hand-sized balls, probably made out of hardened clay, started to fall down the middle of the hall.
Cursing, the leader of the Iron belts shouted out as he recognized the items. “Close yer eyes!”
There was no time to say more than that as the small jars of pottery exploded with a bright flash. Surprised screeching filled the air as the group of three was blinded, being hit at point blank with by the flash grenade. His own team barely had time to close their eyes, but even then little bright dots danced before their eyes, clouding their vision and forcing the Iron Belts to slow down.
They ended up in far better condition than the three that had been levitating down the hall, however, as the mage of that party had lost control of the spell due to the flash of light. His casting had become jerky and unstable, causing their bubble to start zipping left and right around the vertical hall before finally popping about four meters above ground. Not a particularly deadly height, but definitely enough to injure and maim.
And given the cursing from one of the members of the team, it looked like at least one of them had landed poorly. Perhaps even broken an ankle.
The leader of the Iron Belts could only hope.
Smit slowly went through a series of slow stretching exercises, acclimatising his mind to his new body while simultaneously testing what his new body was capable of. A true blacksmith knew and understood his body in detail, allowing the blacksmith to manipulate it to time the strikes of his hammer, the strength of the blow, the speed at which he had to retract metal from the coals, and the accuracy to deliver every single strike of the hammer with absolute precision. In truth, any true master of their art, be it a swordsman, a blacksmith, or dancer, as long as your body was the tool that was required to carry out the job, had to know their body intimately to perform as a true master of their craft should.
Smit understood this well and thus endeavored to understand this new body of his. It was similar to the one that he had once had in another life, but it was still different. He started with simple movements, stretching his fingers carefully, every digit tested slowly for its range of motion, then stretched in a practiced manner. But even as he did his exercises, a part of his mind was always aware of what was going in his dungeon.
He was ever aware of sudden flood of people that had dived into his dungeon and he had to admit, despite his disgruntlement at the sudden influx of high level adventurers, that it was so far going better than he expected. What Smit had failed to consider was that the adventurers would be competing against each other in addition to fighting their way through his dungeon, which made things considerably easier for him compared to the organized ranks of people that he had envisioned systematically tearing apart his dungeon.
Even in the first floor there had already been numerous injuries and accidents, which had delayed a number of teams. As the situation had progressed, several teams had managed to reach his greeting hall in the second floor, competing down the entire flight of stairs. It was quite surprising that no one had fallen off the stairs and plummeted to their deaths, specialy while protecting some snobbish noble, but at least he caught a glimpse of their strategies and skills.
The one saving grace he had through this ordeal was the nobles themselves. It was ironic really. The nobles themselves were competing for the rights to the area around his dungeon, which had caused this problem in the first place. However, it is also true since the nobles had to be protected, it helped restrict the abilities of the adventurers to a degree.
Even with this ‘restriction,’ it was truly a scramble to get ahead as teams practically resorted to elbowing each other while they rushed through the entrance. Smit could not blame them, really. His mice had recorded the entire greeting ceremony that had gone down in the village, and he had to admit, the awards were rather good. Add to that the fact that they had a chance to make contacts with nobles, and perhaps spread their name across the kingdom, and you understandably got yourself a group of people willing to bet their life and pride at the drop of a hat.
On the other hand, he was slightly peeved that they thought so little of his dungeon that they thought they could afford to pull at each other’s beards while running towards the entrance his greeting hall. Mighty adventurers they might be, and they might have been competing, but there still should have been some basic level respect for a dungeon that is filled with monsters and traps. Especially if the dungeon had made a clear effort to look good. Unless you could literally stroll pass everything with the ease of walking through a sunny meadow, that was just basic decorum and common sense.
“Father?” A feminine voice chimed in, bringing his attention back to his immediate surroundings. Echo, who had spoken, stood to his left, her arms outstretched as she attempted a lunging position. Pala stood to his right, also in the same position as Echo. “Is everything alright?”
Smit grunted and shook his head as he stood up straight, relaxing his body from the current stretching position. “Nothing is wrong, but in truth, some of these adventurers are far too competitive for their own good.”
Waving his hand, Smit willed mana to congeal into a holographic image of the adventurers in the second floor. Taking the opportunity to create a teaching moment on a whim, Smit ordered his children to cease their stretching, even calling out to Arturus who was meditating nearby.
“Now, look at these people,” Smit instructed. There were only twelve adventurers, but that was already more than twice the amount that had ever passed through the greeting hall at once. “There are three separate teams of adventurers here. What are your first impressions of them?”
“Those six are… ugly,” Echo said bluntly, making Smit chuckle slightly, smirking at Echo. His smile was due to more than just finding her comment entertaining, however. Echo had only very recently started to judge things on her own, based on her own particular set of what she liked and disliked. This, though seemingly minor, was a huge step forwards in her personality. Previously, though she would display emotion, there were very few things that she would have classified as cute, ugly, visually pleasing, annoying, or even bland. As a matter of fact, with the exception of Smit, her siblings, and the dungeon, Echo used to have very little opinion on anything else. It was good to see that this was starting to change, even if it was just at a superficial level. “Specially the bald one with the mustache.”
“Russshed,” Pala added as he observed them. “They are literally five sssteps from the archway that opens up into the hall, but they’re too busy arguing.”
“Disorganized,” Arturus commented. “Look, even though they’ve come to an agreement of sorts, they scramble towards the entrance in such distrusting way. Why? Are they not all part of the same pack?”
Smit nodded at his children, stroking his beard in a sagely manner, instantly feeling a sense of mild satisfaction from the simple gesture. It was quite something to finally have a beard again after so long. It might not have been as lush and impressive as is original one, but he found it soothing nonetheless.
“Good, good,” he replied as he kept his eyes on the hologram. The adventurers had finally stepped into the greeting hall proper, their eyes opening wide for a moment as they beheld his work. Smit snorted at this, nodding slightly. At least they had some degree of appreciation for beauty. “And no, they are not quite, Arturus. They are under the same group, but they are separate… packs.”
“Now,” Smit said, “those are good things to notice, however, I want you to pay close attention to them. None of you have ever met B rank adventurer, and these guys are all in the B rank bracket. Observe them closely, process their moves and decisions, and learn from it.”
Gesturing at them to sit on the floor, Smit himself took a seat on the floor himself, his legs crossed as he leaned towards the hologram. This was an opportunity for him too. Though he had crafted many things for adventures of just about every rank there was, he had seldom had the opportunity to watch high ranked adventurers fight. Sure, it had happened on the rare occasion, but he had not really had any need to study them in action often.
However, things were different now. He needed information. He needed to build at least a reference point for the future, so that he could work with it. What traps would be effective against these people? How effective were they? How could he tip the scales in his favour? All these questions required him to know more about his enemies and this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
The greeting hall was essentially a minefield of traps, most of which had the ability to hit more than one target at the time. The adventurers lost no time in rushing forth, whilst using a variety of skills and methods to harass the other teams. Pillars of black stone erupted with fire, darts flew through the air, spears shot from the ground, explosions rang through the room, and that was just the traps that Smit set up. The adventurers themselves added yet another level of difficulty with their competitive spirits.
There was a clear difference in level compared to Azure Arrow in terms of skill. Though Azure Arrow had been a high C rank group, these B ranks surpassed them in skill. The B ranks were clearly more specialized in their fields, utilizing their abilities to create opportunities for their other teammates to use their skills while allowing them to keep the nobles safe.
For instance, the leaping ability and reflexes of one of the men in the group was extraordinary, allowing him to dodge several gouts of flames and even leap from one pillar to the next. Because his speed and ability were combined with the sorcerer’s speed magic, it allowed him to trigger traps ahead of time and escape nearly unscathed, clearing some of the danger for his team that followed him a few meters away. This was a particularly effective method of clearing the way while protecting their noble, as the lumbering man clearly did not have much martial prowess to speak of.
That is not to say that none of the traps were successful, because many of them certainly hit. However, most of them did not work nearly as well as he intended them to. The most successful traps were the most sudden ones, such as the exploding pillars, along with the ones with wide range of damage like the gouts of fire. This was not particularly surprising, as it was hard to avoid something when you were essentially fired upon at point-blank range. He was particularly pleased to see the mustached noble’s proud facial hair catch fire on only one side.
Out of the entire thing though, only six adventurers received proper injuries out of the twelve, whereas the rest only received minor scrapes and wounds. Clicking his tongue, Smit grumbled as he considered the implications. Six out of twelve and even then only because of the competition between them, in addition to the need of protecting the nobles. If he had to guess, it was likely that it would have been only two or three out of the twelve, if there had been no competition between the teams. That was much lower than he had hoped, especially when the greeting hall was supposed to be more deadly when higher numbers of people entered it.
Stroking his beard slowly, Smit sighed deeply, grumbling complaints about the king and his ‘brilliant ideas’ under his breath.
He was going to have to step up his game.