Ella strode confidently through the dungeon at a quick pace, side by side with James. Behind them, the team known as the Black Widows followed. Though they had a shady reputation amongst adventurers, they were also recognized as one of the teams to have risen to B rank the fastest over the last decades, managing to reach the B rank bracket in just a few years after the formation of the team. The Black Widows was an exemplary team, at least when it came to teamwork. The team consisted of three women, none of which specialized in direct offense like James or Ella. As a matter of fact, their composition was more suited towards infiltration than for direct confrontations.
The team members were essentially a witch, an assassin, and a ranger. An odd combination to be sure, especially for a high-level adventuring team. How they had reached B rank without a frontline teammate was a mystery to Ella. It gave them a certain aura of mystery, which was accentuated by the fact that they were wrapped from head to toe in black clothing, even going as far as wearing black veils to hide their faces. Considering that they all had similar body shapes, heights, and didn’t talk much, it made it hard for Ella to distinguish who was whom.
However, it was due to the fact that the Black Widows were reputedly such a strong team that Ella was confident in guiding them with James. The Black Widows may have been a B rank team, but their physical capabilities should not be on par with either her own or James’, and therefore, should trouble arise (for instance, should the Black Widows abandon them, or try to use them as bait), then James and Ella should have a decent chance of escaping if they worked together.
Moreover, they were protecting a very high profile nobleman who despite his floppy, and overweight appearance, certainly carried the aura of a man who was used to the finner things in life. Even his boots were an enchanted item that allowed him to move with ease, reducing the burden on his feet and knees. In the presence of such company, the Black Widows had no choice but to remain in their best behaviour. Such were Ella’s thoughts when she had agreed to guide them through the dungeon.
“That’s the last room of this floor,” Ella said, pointing ahead. “Beyond that, there is a stairwell that leads down to the second floor. That’s where we will find the hall of traps.”
Only silence met her words, but she did not mind. She knew that the Black Widows had heard her, they were simply the silent type. She had barely heard a handful of words come from them since they entered the dungeon, and most of them had been single word commands or warnings. Perhaps they were indeed silent by nature, or perhaps they had honed themselves to make as little noise as possible. What with their air, skillset, and team name, the latter made the most sense to Ella.
“Yes, yes. Get on with it.” Lord Ravoul said dismissively as he reaching for his puch and plucked from within it a handful of cashews. As far as Ella could tell, the bag itself was an enchanted artifact that allowed the user to store into the pouch much more than the volume of the puch suggested. Though she doubted it was something as grand as dimensional bag, it certainly had some spatial magic placed upon it, making it a very rare and expensive item nonetheless.
Nodding her head at him, Ella kept quiet and led the way forwards. The man clearly cared little for her or James, but that was of little consequence. The only thing that bothered her is that she would sometimes feel his gaze upon her figure, and it repulsed her… but that was something that she could ignore for now. She was a professional after all. Her thoughts were interrupted hen they got to the stairwell, as they all could hear distant booms and curses, making it fairly easy to determine what was happening.
“Seems like we are just behind the first groups,” James grunted as he started to make his way down the stairs. “Come, let's get downstairs. If we are lucky, we can get there before the traps reset.”
“Indeed,” Ella agreed, following after him, as she turned her head partially to talk to the Black Widows. “The hall up ahead is full of traps, as I am sure you know. However, we are not sure what the reset time for them is. We identified at least thirteen types of traps last time we were in there, but there might be more. It is in our best interest to get past that hall before all the traps reset.”
Nodding silently, their contractors move behind them, following as obediently as ducklings following their mother… If the ducklings were armed to the teeth with daggers, arrows, and all sorts of other nasty, pointy things, that is.
Despite their odd silence and eerie demeanor, even the Black Widows had to pause and gaze upon the epitome of beauty that was the stairwell. Ella thought she even heard tiny gasps coming from them at one point. That soft gasp made Ella chuckle lightly, even as she walked quickly down the stairs.
I suppose that even hardened veterans can’t suppress their every emotion, Ella thought to herself, Or at least, not when faced with something like this.
It was oddly refreshing to know that she wasn’t the only one to react so strongly to this dungeon. It served to reaffirm some sort of unknown feeling that was holed up inside her. Minor as that feeling may be, it was still pleasant to have it be affirmed.
“By the gods…” Ravoul muttered, his eyes hungrily drinking in the sight of the dungeon. “What is this sorcery? How can a mare dungeon create all of this!?”
Ella turned back and gazed upon the lord, and observed that the man almost seemed to drool at the sight of it all. His hands reached out as if to grasp the spirits that danced in the air, his eyes darting to the walls and following the complex patterns hungrily.
“Yes… I must have this!” The man’s fat cheeks were shaking with excitement as he moved his head up and down, left and right, trying to absorb every detail of the scenery. “The colors! The design! It must be worth fifty, no, a hundred gold coins at the least! With the spirits even more! It’s worth a fortune. A fortune I say!”
Before anyone could say a thing, the noble looked at Ella and the Black Widows with hungry eyes, and the largest crooked smile she had ever seen. “Let us go! I must have this!”
The walk down the stairs was brisk but silent, giving Ella plenty of time to reflect on what needed to be done to survive the hall of traps. Her mind did stray a few times, wondering how the other half of her team was faring with the Panthers team, but such thoughts were short lived. Soon, they reached the second floor, and it was clear that someone had been through the place recently.
Patches of what seemed to be soot covered the ground sporadically, scattered debris hinted at explosive pillars, and even some darts remained strewn about the floor. There were even hints of blood and pieces of fabric left behind, indicating that even B rank adventurers were not immune to the hall of traps.
“Look,” James exclaimed, pointing at a half-destroyed pillar. The surface of it was smooth, despite being at the epicenter of one of the patches of debris. “It seems that it’s already restoring itself.”
“We are lucky then. Not all the traps have reset,” Ella nodded, and turned to look at the three women. “Come, let us take advantage of this. James will take the brunt of the damage, but we must follow closely.”
Without further ado, Ella and the rest surged forwards, rushing head long into the danger.
Two days into the king's challenge
Smit sighed as he observed the adventurers move deeper and deeper into the dungeon. The first groups had already worked their way into the fourth floor, while the rest were scattered around the third floor. Most teams had managed to survive the greeting hall without too many serious injuries, as Smit had predicted, but surprisingly, three adventurers had died already. The irony of the matter was that it wasn’t even really how Smit expected them to die at all. It was more of a series of unlucky events.
One of them had died from an infection, as silly as it sounds. A wound near the eye that the adventurer had deemed as minor, had ruptured during a fight with a simple kobold, blinding the adventurer as he was about to slay the beast. A few drops of the foul liquid from the wound landed on his eye, and that was all it took for him to shut his eyes in surprise, and fall towards the spear of the kobold, impaling his own throat on the weapon.
Truly a pitiful end for an adventurer.
Another adventurer had died simply because he had become drunk. The overconfident fool had brought mead into the dungeon instead of water. Unable to find proper balance, he was simply bitten to death by wolves as his partners tried to rescue him. How or why such an adventurer had even come into his dungeon it was a mystery to him. More than that, Smit felt offended at the fact that he had been underestimated so much that an adventurer had dared to drink so freely in his dungeon. True, the adventurer was strong, but that was no excuse to throw up in his dungeon, much less against one of his walls that he had crafted so carefully.
The last one was due to sabotage.
This one was the one that surprised Smit the most. He knew adventurers. True, they were historically competitive, he had expected them to trick one another, but he had never expected them to go as far as sabotage another team.
The event unfolded in a way that was peculiar. A team of adventurers identified one of Smit’s traps, a simple hallucinogenic dart trap. However, instead of just avoiding the trap, the team of adventurers had layered illusion magic over it, making it even more difficult to identify. In addition, they added a thin trip wire across the floor, just beyond the hallucinogenic dart trap. In itself, this alone shouldn’t have been enough to kill an adventurer.
Except that events unfolded unexpectedly.
The team that fell into the enhanced trap had a team member with the berserker job, a powerful specialty that allowed a man to turn himself into a killing machine, dulling the sense of pain and turning rage into pure bloodlust, allowing the user to fight without break for far longer than the average warrior.
This berserker was struck by the darts, and promptly fell nose first into the ground. Hallucinating and in pain, the berserker went into a frenzy, turning against her own comrades with vengeance. Though her teammates tried to restrain her, that endeavored backfired, causing her to panic and fight harder, fuelling her berserker rage. Her own team was forced to put her down after she seriously injured their healer. Their own noble, who had zero combat expertise, had died in the within seconds of the berserker going wild.
Truly a sad fate, but Smit could not help but wonder why the team did not have counter measures against her. Berserkers were known to sometimes lose themselves so deeply in their bloodlust that they could not distinguish friend from foe. What on earth could have possessed that team for them to think that precautions were not necessary?
At any rate, Smit was pleased to see that though his more common monsters were no match for the adventurers, the puzzles and the compound traps were proving to be a match for them. Some of the teams were truly composed of just muscle heads that tried to brute force their way through several obstacles, which served to exhaust them and, more often than not, make them regret trying to force their way through without thinking.
For instance, the Iron Belt team had been in the lead for the majority of the challenge so far, but had fallen behind when they were trying to solve one of the puzzles that opened the way towards the second floor. Frustrated by a simple riddle, they attempted to break down the door that block their way after just an hour of guessing randomly. They succeeded in breaking the door down, but they had not expected a group of ten wolves and five kobolds mages to be waiting for them, pouncing on them from the other side as soon as the door opened.
They paid dearly for their stupidity, sustaining multiple injuries, the worst of which involved one of their members losing an arm in the process.
It truly baffled Smit how they thought that there would be no repercussions for ignoring the riddle and simply breaking down the door. The puzzle literally had a warning against ignoring the puzzle. He didn’t put the warnings up just for fun, they were meant to be read.
Or could it be that they were too stupid to read…?
Dear god, I hope not, Smit thought, aghast. High rank adventurers are surely not that incompetent. Right?
After pausing to think about it, it was more likely that they had underestimated Smit, or perhaps they had forgotten about the warning in their frustration. Either way, that would teach them a lesson.
Grumbling to himself, smit crossed his arms as he sank in thought.
“Father!” Arturs said as he bounded up to him, his furry tail wagging happy as could be. “I have done it!”
Pulling himself away from his thoughts, Smit turned to his newest child and blinked. “Oh? Already? I did not think you would work out a solution this quick. Tell me, what have you come up with?”
Puffing out his chest, Arturus sat down proudly. “It was hard managing two separate species at once, but once you realize you don’t need to relay orders to both constantly, it’s a lot easier. I can just give the wolves some set of instructions to follow and then the bears another. Then, as the situation changes, I can just switch back and forth between instructing them.”
“Hmm… sounds reasonable,” Smit said thoughtfully. “But what if the situation changes too quickly? Wouldn’t having to switch back and forth between the two species take too long?”
Arturus nodded vigorously, agreeing with Smit. “Yes and no. I figured out that as long as I can see my units, I can pretty much contact them instantly. But if I can’t see them directly, my instructions are not as clear and take a few seconds longer to reach them. I am not sure why it works like that, but as long as I can see them, it should be fine.”
“Hm…” Smit hummed out, looking over Arturus. “I see. Still, I would work on your spatial awareness if that’s the case. The more and better aware you are of your surroundings, the better.”
The look of confusion was clear from just his words, but the face of giant bear-wolf tilted to the side with curious eyes was rather… disconcerting. In an adorable kind of way.
“As I said, it’s your awareness of what is happening around you at all times. This skill is very useful for warriors, but in your case, it is even more so. The more aware of you are of the battlefield, the more information you will have at your disposal, allowing you to make better decisions and subsequently gain the upper hand.”
Wagging his tail excitedly, Arturs nodded his head seriously, taking care to remember that. “And how do I work on that?”
Smit laughed at that question, and shook his head. “Your senses boy, your senses. You must train your sense of hearing, sight, and smell. Feel the air around you. Be aware of everything. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Yes! I will start on that right away!” And with those words, Arturus bolted out of the room, leaving Smit to shake his head at him with a smile.
“So, this is what its like to have children… Not bad,” he chuckled as he stretched his hands before him.
“Right, that’s enough examining the situation. Those adventurers should be stuck there for a while,” he said to himself as he rolled his shoulders. “Let’s begin the expansion.”
Next up, a distillery!
Clearing his throat, Smit began to hum a tune, letting his voice bounce through the walls. A thought sneaked into his head as he felt the mana gather up around him, getting ready to do his bidding. Perhaps he should make gifts for his children? They had no concept of what a birthday was, but he felt that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to introduce it to them. However, the actual date of their births troubled him a bit. Should he celebrate when he first created them? Or when they had finally gained full sentience? Or maybe the day he had accepted them as his children?
Chuckling to himself, Smit guided his mana outwards, and began to carve a new room right beside his core room. A distillery would be very welcome during a birthday party.
Happy days were coming.