The taste of defeat still soured Mei’s tongue, despite their good fortune of avoiding death. The fact that Ziggurd had to pay for their lives with his own was a bitter pill to swallow, and a tough memory to process. As much as she tried to put the memory aside and focus on leaving the dungeon, the memory would slip back to the forefront of her mind, making her question everything about the events that followed up to it.
Everything up to the point of his sacrifice was open grounds for criticism and self-loathing. If she could only have killed more monsters, then there would have been less damage dealt to her party. If she had avoided taking more damage, maybe he wouldn’t have had to sacrifice his life. If she was stronger, she could have protected her friends. If she knew magic, maybe she could have supported Ziggurd. If they hadn’t taken the job, they would have still been together. If. That word swarmed her mind, leading to a spiral of thoughts that seemed to never end.
It bounced in her brain without end, flying back and forth endlessly like flies buzzing over a festering wound. However, as much as these thoughts threatened to consume her, she knew that she was not the only one. Adder was uncharacteristically quiet, his movements dull, and a forlorn look dwelled in the depths of his eyes. Mei knew that Ziggurd and Adder were often at odds, but despite that they were the best of friends, competing and arguing about everything. Ella was even worse than Adder, her movements rigid even as her eyes strained to pierce deeper into the perpetual twilight that was maintained in the dungeon. Ella had quietly cried herself to sleep just the night before. She might have tried to hide it, but the sound reached Mei’s sensitive ears, as clear as a bell. Mei had opted to not mention the incident and let Ella grieve as she liked. All of them knew that she was trying to be strong for them, and Mei would not undermine her efforts by dragging a confession out of her. There would be time to talk after they left the dungeon.
James on the other hand, instead of mourning like the others had taken it upon himself to work tirelessly. Mei had never seen the giant of a man more fiercely focused, constantly at the ready while carrying the majority of their supplies. The man, who had always been the quietest member of Azure Arrow, had become almost mute for the last three days. He communicated mostly through grunts and gestures as he worked without rest. Mei could tell that he blamed himself the most out of all of them. He was the shield of the team, his role was to absorb the damage of the enemy while dishing out punishment when able. He had fallen while trying to protect Ziggurd, beaten down by one of those odd bears while a kobold struck him on his side.
To make matters worse, though they had tried to recover Ziggurd’s body, it had disappeared overnight. Everyone suspected that the dungeon had consumed it, just as it consumed all the other dead.
With the morale being as it was, Mei was extremely glad that the dungeon had seen it fit to keep its bargain and cleared their path from monsters. The only time they had seen a monster it had simply moved out of their way to let them through. Not that it mattered. James violently beat down the creature down in seconds as the golem put up no resistance.
The sight of it was almost vandalism in a sense. The golem might as well have been a statue for all the defence it put up and James happily took full advantage of that. Then again, Mei didn’t mind that. Perhaps it even did James some good, as it allowed him to vent some of his frustrations safely. Or as safely as pummelling wood with your fists could be. Despite his gauntlets, he managed to tear the skin of his knuckles in several places before he used his axe to finish the job.
The days passed in a blur as they searched to make their way back to the surface. Day and night becoming an indistinguishable blur. Sometimes Mei couldn’t tell if she had been awake for days or if everything had been a lucid dream. Up and down the stairs they moved, unsure where to go for what felt like an eternity. None of them sufficiently cognisant to recall the path they took to reach the fifth floor.
Mei had the feeling that despite walking through the halls for what felt like days, they had yet to approach the surface. Rather, it felt like they had gone deeper into the dungeon. The maze had no apparent rhyme or reason, just an indecipherable knot of passageways and rooms that defied logic.
“Heeeeeelp!” A feminine scream called from ahead, a voice that Mei had never heard before,
“Emergency up ahead!” Mei said instantly, her ears perking up as adrenaline started to move through her veins, forcing her to become alert.
“Report,” Ella commanded, tearing her gaze away from the empty space before her.
“Female scream, coming from the second tunnel on the right,” Mei reported, reading her bow as she spoke. “Sounds of struggle.”
“Move out,” Ella said sharply, her tone hard and commanding.
No one argued as everyone sprung into action. James led the charge with his shield in hand while the rest followed. Mei could feel the beat of her heart accelerate as the screams for help became more confused and terrified. Her mind was filled with shadowy visions of what might have been happening to the poor woman that they were hearing. Was she being torn apart limb from limb by wolves? Was it a willow golem whipping her skin raw? Were her bones being crushed by golem brute? Or were her companions being cut down by kobolds?
A hundred different scenarios played out in her head, each worse than the last. It was a spiral of terror that only ended when they reached the small room from whence the sound emanated from. Bursting into the room, Azure Arrow was greeted with a sight far too similar to the one they had in their memories, albeit in a much smaller scale. The corpses of a few kobolds and wolves littered the floor, dead human bodies laid broken across the ground, their limbs missing or twisting at impossible angles. One of the corpses even had their entire jaw missing, as if it had been torn off by a brutal blow.
A wounded black bear laid on his side, breathing roughly as a spear protruded from his back. Under him, the crushed body of the adventurer who had speared him through the gut. A second bear, this one missing its left arm, huffed heavily as he lumbered painfully towards the only human figure that could still move.
The figure was feminine in nature, though taller than the average woman. She was a mess. Her flowing auburn hair was dirty and messy, her hazel eyes pink with tears that left clean trails on her dirt and blood splattered face. With trembling hands she held a short knife with a small sapphire on its decorated hilt, aiming at the bear. Judging by her apparel and lack of equipment, this one was part of the nobility.
“Charge!” Ella roared, and Azure arrow fell on the injured bear with vengeance, hacking and piercing at the creature violently until it fell dead, expiring before them.
In truth, they used the poor creature to vent out their frustrations, ripping through its flesh long after it had died until it’s pelt became unusable even if they had wanted to skin it. It made for a ghastly sight, and when they realized their actions, they at least had the grace to look ashamed.
Coughing awkwardly, the Ella looked towards the noblewoman. The lady looked to be young, perhaps a mere seventeen or eighteen years of age, old enough to be engaged or even married, but not so old that she would be considered too old for an arranged betrothal yet. It was curious nonetheless. There were only a handful of noble women in the tournament, all of them settled with children or married at least, and all of them above the age of thirty.
All but this one it seemed.
“My lady,” James said gruffly, causing the noble woman to flinch in response. An understandable reaction. Her nerves must have been frayed from the traumatic experience she had just gone through, and it clearly did not help that James was essentially a giant armoured man covered in blood at the moment. Ally or not, James made for an intimidating sight to anyone that didn’t know him when he was looking like that.
Hell, especially now that his armour looked so beat up, he looked like a sight out of a nightmare.
“James. Let me handle it,” Mei said as she stepped forwards. Being the shortest of the lot, she knew that she would be the least intimidating, especially since she was the most clean of them all. Such was the benefit of using a bow and arrow.
Hesitating slightly, James nodded and relented, allowing Mei to step forwards and reach out towards the noblewoman, approaching her as she would approach an injured deer in the woods.
“Hey- I… My lady,” She corrected herself. Even if the situation uncommon, it wouldn’t do to forget the minimum etiquette. “Are you alright, my lady? You are safe now.”
For a moment the lady opened her mouth and tried to work an answer, before finally giving up on that. She settled for giving Mei a weak nod.
“Good,” Mei said with a sigh, “My lady, we are on our way out of the dungeon. Would you like to come with us?”
Mei had never seen a noble woman nod so aggressively in her life.
Sighing, Smit watched as the last group, Azure Arrow finally exited the dungeon. It had been stressful to watch all of this develope. He had spent excessive amounts of mana trying to keep everything in order, and the recreation of so many monster consistently to keep the adventurers from reaching him had actually been surprisingly large. B class adventurers were not to be looked down upon, as they had managed to clear most of his powerful monsters. Only a handful of his more powerful monsters had survived through the entire ordeal.
As a matter of fact, he had had to ‘refill’ his dungeon of monsters on a daily basis to maintain the numbers of monsters for the first week and a half. This had created a huge mana drain for him. The reason for this being that the cost for creating a creature was nearly tripled if there were any adventurers on the same floor. Afterwards, as adventuring groups started to either die or retreat, it had become more manageable, and the deaths of adventurers had helped maintain his mana levels.
But by the gods, was he ever glad that they were all gone now. He could practically feel some of them growing in strength, as they spent time in his dungeon and absorbed a bit of the strength of the monsters they defeated each time. Little by little, the adventurers would get stronger, and that was terrifying. If those humans were already that strong, he was not sure he wanted to imagine how strong they could become. Or at least, not now, not while he was so… weak and vulnerable.
He was too weak, still. That was the undeniable truth.
The only reason why he had survived the king’s ‘brilliant’ idea was because of his maze and because of the fact that the adventurers had to protect the nobles. Otherwise he was certain that someone would’ve eventually reached him.
It was extremely frustrating to realize this. He had managed to win, but only just barely.
Heaving a great sigh, Smit rested his rump on the stone chair, slumping in it. He had so much work to do still, but at least he wouldn’t be alone.
“Father?” Echo called out to him. Echo, Pala, and Arturus all filed into his room, smiling like fools. They didn’t realize how close it had all been to a total disaster, but that was fine.
“Father!” Arturus echoed, bounding towards him like a gigantic puppy. If a puppy could tear a man in half with a single bite, that is. Still, Smit found him endearing, and his personality made Smit love him all the more. Out of all his children, the one that displayed the most affection might be Arturus.
Arturus came to a skidding stop at his feet, and sat down before him, resting his head on the dwarf’s lap as he asked to be petted. That was another thing that Arturus had started to do. He wanted to be petted and he liked to have the back of his ears scratched by Smit, and Smit was only too happy to oblige.
“There you are, my children!” He said with a smile. “Well done. We have succeeded in repelling the adventurers despite the odds! Well done, you all!”
Smit congratulated his children, beaming warmly at them. They deserved to be congratulated. After all, they had worked hard for his sake. He would even go so far as to say that their presence had saved him on this occasion.
The three creatures beamed with pride, smiling as broadly as they physically could. Arturus wagged his proud tail wildly, as if he was trying to take off. Pala stood up straighter, his chest puffed out with pride. And Echo’s hands came together as she tried to keep herself from fidgeting. All of them were endearing in their own right.
“Well then,” Smit said with a smile, “I’d say that his calls for a celebration!”
“Celebration?” The three of them echoed. The word was foreign to them.
“When we commemorate a happy occasion by being merry!” Smit said with a chuckle. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any mead or drink. That’s a damn shame. Any celebration should have alcohol!”
“Does it?” Echo asked curiously.
“But of course!” Smit retorted, “Otherwise it makes for a sad party.”
Grumbling Smit cursed under his breath as he stroked his beard. Right. A distillery was needed. “I suppose we will keep the celebration on hold until the distillery is made.”
“A distillery?” The little glowing orb that was Ziggurd’s soul asked. “You can make that?”
Smit gave him an incredulous look, before speaking flatly. “Boy. I created this dungeon, all those traps, monsters, and even gave a soul to these three. Do you really think I can’t make a simple distillery for alcohol?”
There was a pause as Ziggurd considered this, before he meekly accepted those words and bobbed. “Right. Silly question.”
“Downright stupid,” Smit said with a nod.
Alester climbed up the stairs up to a small platform that had been erected just across the adventurer’s guild. The platform was not too tall, a mere four feet above the ground, but it was enough so that the people could gather around and see the speaker clearly. Beside him, Ikfes Massan stood, acting as both the guild representative and Alester’s guard.
Before the two of them, a crowd spread out, significantly smaller than before. A total of twenty-three were dead. An extremely high number deaths for a B rank group, even considering the handicap of keeping the nobles protected. Alester and Ikfes had both conferred with each other after hearing the reports from the adventurers, and they had come to the conclusion the dungeon was simply more complex than they expected.
Until they read the report from Azure Arrow.
The findings were extraordinary. The dungeon didn’t just have a will, it was fully sentient, capable of thought and communication. The level of intelligence displayed by it was far greater than they had even considered, and the fact that it could be negotiated with was outstanding. Who would have ever thought you could negotiate with a dungeon?
That information changed the entire outlook of their opinion of the dungeon. With that level of intelligence, it made them wonder if the dungeon had adapted to protect itself. Though the maze had been discovered previously, these choke points full of monsters (which were now being popularly called ‘monster houses’ by adventurers) were certainly new, and oddly convenient for dealing with large numbers of people. The fact that there just happened to be an extremely tough monster mingling in each of the reported monster houses seemed suspicious as well.
The three most dangerous monsters had been identified as the Blue Golem, the Kobold Lord, and the Saint Bear-Wolf. Three high class monsters that boasted of different strengths, and all of them deadly to encounter as they were always backed up by a small army of creatures. According to the reports, Alester and Ikfes believed that these monsters were tough enough to be Floor Masters, otherwise known as the ‘Boss’ of certain floors. Boss monsters were terrifying existences that far surpassed the the average strength of the monsters in a floor. They typically appeared every set number of floors, such as every fifth or tenth floor in most dungeons. The fact that his dungeon had three of them located in five floors was nothing short of ridiculous. How or why these creatures were present was a mystery to even Ikfes.
Alester coughed as he pushed aside those thoughts. The hows and whys could wait until this was over and done with. As amazing as the dungeon was, it couldn’t grow feet and walk away. There would be plenty of time to figure it all out.
“Adventurers! Nobles! Men and women!” Alester called out with a magically enhanced voice, making sure that everyone could hear him. “Congratulations on coming back from the Dungeon of Origins!”
A cheer rose from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause at his words. The crowd was already charged with energy and he had barely said more than a couple of words.
“Then, let us conclude this event now! Three days ago the last representatives returned from the dungeon and the competition has come to an end. Let us announce the winners!”
More cheers flew from the audience, but this time it was short lived. The minute that Alester started unrolling the scroll of the winners. “In fifth place, the Iron Belts!”
A cheer followed the statement, just as he knew as he knew it would happen. He idly recalled the price for fifth place… it was pretty generous in truth. Fifty gold coins could certainly give a common man a lot of luxuries, and a mid-grade potion would be enough to regrow a severed hand or an eyeball lost in combat.
He continued to recite the names of the winners, and cheers rose after every name. The Barbed Shields, the Three Axes of Blum, the Bears of Rivun, all of them were greeted with cheers and applause.
“And for the final price… Originally it was tie between two teams, however the Fire Stalkers unfortunately perished in the dungeon.” A quiet murmur spread through the crowd. “However,” Alester continued as if nothing was amiss. “The ones who reached the deepest into the dungeon are… the members of Azure Arrow!”
A mix of cheers and shock spread through the crowd, nearly creating a frenzy as the crowd went wild. Some adventurers cursed and called out for a redo, nobles pointed at each other angrily, and the villagers that came to watch had no clue what to do, lost in the chaos.
“Enough!” Ikfes boomed, his presence expanding to make everyone feel like a tiger was before them, baring its teeth at them. At that moment, everyone felt as if they were the prey of a lethal predator, freezing on the spot. A moment later the pressure they felt melted away, fading like the ghost of a memory. “Now then. Before you riot again, let me assure you that there is no mistake. They reached deeper than anyone else, and they paid a high price for it. Now all of you, behave, and graciously accept your defeat,” his words were hard and cold, directed especially towards the adventurers who had claimed unfairness. “If you are dissatisfied by your defeat, then become stronger.”
Clearing his throat, Alester pulled the attention of the crowd back towards himself now. His enchanted voice now seeming a little less impressive after Ikfes display. Internally, Alester was chuckling however. Given his outer appearance, no one would ever suspect Ikfes was the strongest man in the kingdom. Those that knew, like the adventurers now, sometimes forgot that, as well. And Ikfes had just given them a fierce reminder of why he was an S rank adventurer.
“As I was saying. The winners are Azure Arrow, and their noblewoman, Lady Dian Vela Rossa, daughter of Baron Vela Rossa!”
And the cheers began once again, and this time, they went un interrupted for a long time.
|Species: True Dungeon||Rank: 3|
|Name: Smit||Age: 5 months|
|Mana: 123,144||Anima: 739|
|Mana Reg.: 862 MP/h||Anima Reg.: 19.27 AP/day|
|Floors: 5 (Max Floors available: 10)||Inhabitants: 83 Species|
|Titles: Creator of Dungeon laws; Creator; Guide of the Bloody Evolution; Legendary Craftsman;Master of Concentration; Reincarnated One;|
|Abilities: Absorb matter; Alter environment; Bestow Knowledge; Break down components; Craftsmanship; Creation; Digging; Destroy creation; Dungeon Laws; Enhancement; Equivalent exchange; Ether manipulation; Evolution; Interdimensional Storage; Life bestowal; Life-energy harnessing; Loot Craft; Luck of the draw; Mana absorption; Masterful mana manipulation; Modification of creations; Monster Link; Telepathy; Selective Speciation; Trap building; Transfer dungeon; Treasure Management.|
|Resistances: Magic (general); Mind control|