Chapter 35: In the Maze
Staring out into darkness, Vich gripped his iron mace tightly with one hand, the other fidgeting with a pouch tied to his belt. Something about the dungeon unnerved him the further he went into it. Everything seemed so…. Perfect. So unnaturally well placed and distributed. Everything placed and arranged by expert design, crafted out of fine materials with flawless execution.
Where were the crude halls and the leaking ceilings? What happened to having crooked wooden supports or obvious paths? The simple traps and the stupid goblins were nowhere to be found either. Was this truly the fourth floor of a dungeon of not even a year in age? What kind of young dungeon had armed kobolds with balanced spears, or hallucinogenic darts that could turn a man insane, even if just for a moment?
To call this dungeon unnatural would be an understatement.
The dungeon itself was an enigma wrapped in surprises, most of which were quite painful or unpleasant. But those that were not, usually left him aghast with shock or surprise. Vich had never considered himself a man prone to art, and he considered craftsmanship little more than a trifling art that was reserved for those without the strength to serve at a real profession, such as an adventurer, a knight, or a mercenary.
However, since coming here he could not help but to let his eyes wander over the details of the dungeon. Not that he had much choice in the matter, the entirety of the dungeon was a giant gallery of art and danger, and he had plenty of time to admire it. Should he chose to not observe the artwork, he would pretty much have to close his eyes, which would more or less be an invitation for death to whisk his soul away from his body.
“Whatcha’ lookin’ at Vich?” A gruff voice called from behind. Turning his head to look at his comrade, Vich laid eyes upon Eric. A bear of a man covered in scale armour. His ice-blue eyes accentuated the lazy smile he carried on his face.
“Nothin’.” Vich grunted, turning his head back to look around him as he stroked his short, read beard.
“Come now, don’t be so cold to this old man.” Eric said as he stepped up beside him and clapped his broad shoulders.
“What’s wrong with you, Eric. Who calls ‘emselves an old man at a mere thirty years of age?” He grunted, his eyes still scanning his surroundings despite talking to the other man.
“I am thirty-two.” Eric connected as he rolled his shoulders. “A good five years older than you. Makes me feel old.”
“Noted.” Vich replied, his voice unaltered despite Eric’s efforts.
“Let me guess then.” Eric grunted with a sigh. He knew very well that when Vich became like this there was a good chance that he was worried with the task at hand. “It’s the dungeon isn’t it?”
“What else would it be?” Vich retorted. “This aint natural Eric. Not at all. I feel like there’s eyes on me all the time. It makes my skin crawl.”
“I feel it too.” Eric murmured in a gruff voice. “It’s like the walls are watching us. There aint a single reference point in this maze either. All the halls look the same, all the places seem to lead nowhere. We’ve been in this dungeon already a week or perhaps more, and we have barely made it to the fourth floor. It is as you say. It aint normal. This place be cursed, mark my words.”
“Bah. This place is about as cursed as your leathery rear end.” Vich snorted. “Don’t be daft. This place may be odd, but it ain’t cursed. The dungeon master would never send us to a cursed place without a proper warning.”
“Stop bickering boys.” A thick feminine voice interrupted their conversation. Behind them, their teammate, the black haired Yaldi with a crossbow, stared them down with her steely gaze. “Shelly’s spell is about expired and the countess is nearly ready as well. The moment the countess has finished, we will resume the mission.”
“That’s just an other thing about this damnable place.” Vich grunted with clear dissatisfaction. “Aint it weird that there are places that seemed designed for us to relieve ourselves?”
“Aye, that has been on my mind since the beginning.” Eirc replied with a nod. “Them rooms even have the atmosphere down to an art. Soft moss, dim lights, but not too dim, just right to relax and let you shit like a king I say. There are even plants in there to dampen the smell if you happen to have drop a big load. More than that, if you leave and come back, the shit has been all cleared away like nothing ever happened.”
“It’s like the dungeon wants to stay clean.” Vich added. “What do you think would happen if someone just shat on the hallway?”
“Enough!” Yaldi barked at them with a stern voice, her voice not leaving any room for arguments. “There will be no talk of that in front of the countess. We want to gain her favour, not her disdain. Forget about the natural outhouses that the dungeon has placed too! Call it coincidence or intelligent design, or chalk it up to the damn core having a phobia, or to the influence of a powerful ancient mage. I don’t care what you do, but do not dare to shit in the hallways in front of the countess or I will hack off one of your balls.”
Shivering slightly, Eric nodded vigorously while Vich harrumphed loudly, but remained quiet, his eyes still flicking from place to place, scanning for shadows that had not been there before he was distracted.
“Well then.” Second womanly voice rang out, this one much more haughty and smooth than Yaldi’s heavy voice. A woman stepped out of the small room with small steps, bringing up a fan to her face. The woman was none other than Countess Malak, a wealthy noblewoman whose physique that was decidedly on the heavier side of the spectrum. “Thanks for waiting on me. Yaldi dearest, would you please get your spellmaster and let us get on our way? I would hate to keep the company idling away. It seems that their thoughts wander into unpleasant thoughts when they have time to use those withered minds.”
With a disdainful attitude, the woman looked over Vich and Eric with clear disgust in her eyes, despite her stone-cold demeanor and practiced elegant walk. Perhaps if she had not been their employer, rumored to dabble in the mysterious art of curses and jinxes. Countess Malak, had a reputation of inciting bad luck on her enemies, and though it had not been confirmed to be due to a curse or jinx, the suspicion clung to her like a dark shroud that refused to disappear.
“Of course, countess.” Yaldi said with a polite bow, and jogged a short distance over to a sickly-thin looking female dressed in purple robes.
“I hate her attitude.” Vich grumbled under his breath, his nose flaring out as he snorted in contempt.
“You’d think a noble lass like her would be more polite to tha’ people working under her.” Eric grunted. “We just be poor folk doing what we paid to do. Who’s she to mind what we talk about during our wee little breaks?”
“Lass? What lass?” Vich snorted before continuing in a hushed voice. “She hasn’t been a lass for a long ass time Eric. She could be your mother.”
“Bah. My mother is not stuffed like her.” Eric countered. “My mother was-”
“Ah!” A short scream interrupted the two friends as they turned around to see the countess holding her shoulder, a small trickle of blood slipping past her pale fingers.
“Enemies!” Vich roared, rizing his mace in the air as he leapt forwards towards the countess, smashing aside a snake that was launching itself towards her face. With Eric by his side, the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder, a wall between her and the assailants. Before them, two brute golems could be seen making their way towards them, lumbering onwards with heavy steps.
“Yaldi!” Vich called out loudly. “We have timber coming in!”
“Defensive positions! Prepare to engage the enemy head on while Shelly gets the corrosive spell ready! Prepare to-Agh!”
A shout emanated from her as a sharp pain penetrated into her back. Gasping for breath, Yaldi knelt forwards as she looked back. A slim hand disappeared into the shadows of the wall behind her, even as the blood began to flow from her back. She saw it for only an instant, but it was enough to confirm the sabotage.
“Yaldi!” Shelly shouted with concern, her spell interrupted just as Vich and Eric met the enemies head on.
“Focus!” Yaldi shouted back, “We don’t have time for distractions, the brutes hit too heavily to take them down with the countess this close. Your spell! Get it ready and fire it!”
With a mouth struggling to articulate words, Shelly merely nodded and swallowed her worry as she began to mutter arcane words at high speeds. She had to hurry and she knew it. The two boys, as imposing as they were with their weapons and armour, were dwarfed by the two golem brutes, and could only keep them from advancing. Their chances of actually defeating the brutes on their own were four in ten, or fifty-fifty at best.
“Any day now would be great lass!” Eric shouted as his axe bit into the shoulder of one of the wooden golems briefly, just before he was forced to retract the weapon, lest that he lost it to the enemy’s powerful movements.
“Less talking more hacking ya motherless twat!” Vich shouted at him as he knocked away a blow that had been direct at his head, before countering with his own blow to the elbow. His mighty smash connected, and the wooden joint creaked and cracked under the force, but it didn’t even slow down the brute’s follow up strike, forcing Vich to defend once more.
“Hang in there!” Yaldi said as she grit her teeth. Proping herself on her knees and lifting her crossbow, she leveled the sight and took aim. “Countess, please duck now!”
No time to argue, the panicking countess threw herself on the floor unceremoniously, flatting her face against the floor in an unsightly position. Two seconds later an arrow flew from Yaldi’s crossbow, and embedded itself in the eye of Eric’s enemy, partially blinding him as smoke started to emanate from the injury.
“The arrow has corrosive properties Eric! It won’t be able to heal!” She shouted as she panted for breath. She suspected that she had been struck by a knife, and judging by the burning sensation, she felt on her back, it had an unpleasantly sharp serrated end
Not even bothering to reply, Yaldi looked back at Shelly as she weaved her hands in complex patterns, her mana gathering into a purple mist on her hands that glowed ominously. The seconds flew by as she observed the spell caster, and in mere moments, the eyes of Shelly sprung open.
“Jump back boys!” Yaldi roared, and the two defenders leaped to the side like well trained dogs, just in time to let two ghostly, purple fists smash into the golems’ faces.
Groaning, the golems let out hollow moans as their faces started to decay slowly, the wood rotting as the seconds slipped by. Without missing a beat, the two defenders rushed the distracted golems, and struck them mercilessly, beating at their joints with their weapons to cripple them as the spell gradually ate away at them.
In a matter of minutes, the golems were reduced to little more than pieces of kindling and shattered wood, the only remaining part of their bodies that was intact was their cores.
Taking a deep breath, Vich looked over at Yaldi, who was sweating profusely, barely managing to stay focused on what was happening before her.
“Eric, get the cores.” Vich grunted as he rushed towards Yaldi with three large strides. He kneeled before her, and looked her over, pressing his large hand on her forehead.
“She is burning up.” Vich grunted as Shelly leaned over her, and observed a wickedly curved knife protruding from her back.
“It’s poisoned.” Shelly said urgently as she waved her hands over Yaldi, her hands glowing a soft green. “I can slow it down quite a bit, but I can’t stop it. We need to get her out of here and looked after.”
“That settles it then.” Vich sighed. “We are getting out of here. Do what you can to stabilize her.”
“What about… the prize…?” Yaldi gasped out.
“Doubt we can make it in here without you boss.” Vich replied simply. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“Now, hold on just a moment here you you… savage!” The countess said hysterically as she got up from the ground as if nothing had ever happened, “I paid you to-”
“You paid us to keep you safe.” Vich said as he turned around like lightning. “And right now, I am telling ye, it isn’t safe. Imagine, if this happened with four of us, what will happen with just three. Now, I am going to do what you paid me for, and get you out of here safely. Am I clear, madam?”
Vich narrowed his eyes at the countess, who became pale at his words, before meekly nodding, much to Vich’s satisfaction.
“Good.” He grunted simply as he turned back to Yaldi and Shelly. “Wrap up that wound. Don’t move the knife. I don’t want her bleeding out while she is poisoned too.”
Smit hummed as he watched over the events, nodding at the entire proceedings. Though he was dissatisfied with the seeming sabotage from the lady in black, he couldn’t complain at the results. Since the beginning of the contest a week ago, a total of six teams had fallen out, and now with this one, a seventh team joined the other six in departing from his dungeon.
However, he still felt uneasy. Clearly the remaining teams would not fall as easily. Most of them were still stuck in his maze, wandering around as they tried to move forwards. But soon, some of them would start to notice that they were becoming a bit stronger with every kill of his creatures. Just as his creatures could become stronger while killing, so could the adventurers now that his dungeon core had reached a new breakthrough level. He shuddered to think what would happen if the adventurers began to exploit this.
He had to come up with a way to challenge them, and fast, or this would spiral beyond his control.