Smit’s eyes focused intensely as he continued to create his dungeon floors. Now reaching the eighth floor, the sparse forest of stone trees that he had begun on the sixth floor had become noticeably denser, stone trees actually rising from the ground as standalone features. The ravens were no longer small and harmless, but modified creatures that were at least twice larger than the norm, and their eyes seemed to be larger, better adapted to deal with the gloom of the cave, as well as more clear and penetrating.
Though they weren’t too impressive as far as their attack power went, their manoeuvrability was amongst the best. Smit had spent a total of thirty-six hours modifying the ravens extensively to improve its abilities. As a result, Smit had managed to create a breed of ravens that was significantly superior to the common dungeon raven. The ravens, which were already intelligent for bird standards, now had a larger and more intricate brain. Particularly the frontal lobe of their brain had increased in size, giving them greater problem-solving capacities. More than that, their vocal chords were made more flexible, which let them produce a variety of eerie sounds.
Beyond that, Smit had made certain to retain the manoeuvrability of the ravens despite their increase in size, making them agile fliers that could harass adventurers without taking damage. Furthermore, Smit had made some general upgrades to their beaks and claws, ensuring that they would have improved means to defend themselves with.
There was only feature of the birds that Smit struggled with in modifying: their appearance.
Anyone that knew him would have asserted that Smit was a first-class craftsman, capable of moulding almost any substance to his will. He loved to make things look exactly as he wished, and beauty was paramount in most of his creations. However, he now had to adjust his idea of beauty a little. A haunted forest couldn’t have perfectly beautiful birds flying around and singing love songs. It needed ominous, sinister birds whose voices messed with your mind.
So, Smit made their feathers a deep black, shiny as steel. Their eyes, though larger, held a spark of intelligence, which to some could be more terrifying than a mindless monster. Their claws curved majestically, able to cling to the limbs of trees as needed. And as a final touch, he made the tip of their tail feathers a smoky black look, to make them seem more ethereal against the gloom of the forest.
Only when Smit had been satisfied with their appearance had he let them loose in the forest on the eighth floor, and he would ensure that they would be present all the way until the tenth. By the time he had finished with these ravens, they were essentially a new species. Though time consuming to make and costing lot of mana, he figured that these creatures could become a force to be reckoned with in the future. He called these birds Night Ravens, due to their uncanny presence in the gloom of the forest.
Next, he set himself to work on the next type of monster he wanted to create. Unfortunately, due to restrictions in his current arsenal of monsters, he could not create true stone golems unless he did so by hand, like he had done with Echo, and that would simply take too long.
However, he could create wooden golems.
And petrified wood could be created.
Thus, Smit started messing with his golems, modifying their appearance to look like rock, and changing their material composition to be harder, denser, and more mineral rich than that of standard golems. The limbs were not thick like the brute’s nor sickly thin like the willow’s but instead they were long and rugged. The creatures had no face to speak of, save for a pair of broken slits amongst the textured surface, which acted as their eyes. The fingers were long and clawed, ending in sharp nail-like protrusions, perfect for stabbing. Their arms were particularly fast and capable of movement, requiring complex joints to function. Their legs, on the other hand, were thick. The reasoning behind this was that when the golem stood straight, they would look like part of the trunk of a tree. This of course, meant that they could not walk or run very quickly, but it made them very stable and difficult to knock over.
These petrified wood golems could look very much like the regular petrified trees, varying in size between two-and-a-half and four metres in height, making them by far the tallest creations that Smit had created in the dungeon. Though they could only move slowly, no faster than brisk walking speeds, deceiving appearance made them ideal for ambushing unsuspecting adventurers. Their long arms gave them impressive reach, making up for the sacrifice of their movement speed. Unlike regular willow golems in the maze level, though, their hands could inflict serious damage thanks to their sharp hands.
He started scattering his creations amongst the eighth floor, placing them amongst the original petrified wood trees, letting them remain dormant until they were needed. Smit idly considered the possibility of partnering the night ravens with the petrified wood golems, using the ravens to herd adventurers into a crowd of petrified wood golems.
Inexperienced adventurers would surely face a tough situation, by being assaulted by agile birds and powerful swipes of his huge golems. That said, he wondered how effectively the ravens would be able to herd intelligent adventurers that were no strangers to the oddities of his dungeon. Humming thoughtfully, he simply presented the idea to his ravens via his skill ‘Bestow Knowledge’, though he did not present the night ravens with much detail on how to do so.
This lack of details was intentional. Smit wished to test the intelligence of his creations. Ravens were known to be highly intelligent, as far as common birds were concerned, at any rate. In his previous life, there had been some elven beast tamer that even claimed that ravens were the best creatures for espionage missions, as the birds had excellent cognitive abilities when compared to other animals.
Humming to himself with satisfaction, Smit smiled lightly, looking forwards to the results of his little experiment. With any luck, the night ravens would prove to be as intelligent and resourceful as he hoped, which might allow for more creative use of them in the future.
It was only after Smit had finished placing the night ravens across the eighth floor of the dungeon that Smit took a step back and observed his creation. The floor was quite large, dwarfing the size of any of the floors he had created so far. As a reference point, the fifth floor of his dungeon was a grand total of twelve squared kilometres, and at the time of its creation it had been the largest floor he had ever made. Since then, Smit had decided to expand his dungeon floor to its maximum size, creating something akin to a pyramid that extended deeply within the mountain range.
The eighth floor was more than twice the size of the fifth floor, flirting with the thirty square kilometre mark. The size alone was not sufficient to start looking like an actual forest however, so Smit had increased the density of the trees, making it so that it gave the illusion that every level one was delving deeper and deeper into a haunted forest. To top it off, Smit had taken the liberty to create small rivulets of water that allowed some plants to grow more easily.
Slowly but surely, his forest was becoming a more intricate masterpiece.
However, having just a few monsters here and complex appearance was not enough for Smit to feel confident about his chances of survival against B rank adventurers. Thus, he started to set up the terrain itself to make invaders stumble.
He started with simple things that could make one lose their balance, creating hazardous terrain. Loose rocks down a hill, gnarled roots protruding from his stone trees near the rivulets, and slick mosses dotting the terrain took care of that.
These things seemed trivial, but they could make all the difference in the world. An invader losing their footing on a hill could make said person ‘accidentally’ slide into a nest of petrified wood golems, a well camouflaged root in the only way out of an ambush could make someone breathe their last. All these were little details that could lead to great results, while requiring little effort from Smit.
Next, he set up proper traps. He started with simple but frivolous traps. He created deep and narrow pits at the bottom of a hills, covered by a thin film of stone. The hills, now dotted with loose rocks and slick moss, would cause the person to slide down to the bottom, where the pits would be waiting for them. The pits were only about two metres wide, but about five in depth, and they narrowed down the deeper you fell, like a funnel. This meant that if you fell feet first into it, your legs would get stuck under you, and you would have to try to crawl up using just your arms, if you could wedge yourself out from between the stone walls that held you in place, that is. Provided, of course, that the loose stone that came down with you didn’t plug the hole and suffocate you as a result.
And if someone was to fall head first into the hole? Well, they better hope that their friends could rescue them quickly.
The next type of trap he created was a little more complex, and equally more devious.
So far, he had not created treasure chests that were entirely protected by traps. Instead, they were a sort of reward for passing through a trial, such as the plant monster of the second floor, or solving a puzzle in the fifth floor. However, he was about to change that.
He created a hollow petrified wood tree, its trunk thick and gnarled. It was a little larger than most, but it didn’t stand out too much amongst the rest of the trees he had already created. Between its large, twisted roots could be found a hole that led inside of this tree. Coincidentally, the hole would be just large enough that your average man could crawl through it. Inside the tree there was enough space for two men to stand comfortably side by side, and it was in that hollow spot that Smit placed a treasure chest.
Directly above the treasure chest he placed a heavy stone spike, hanging by a thin strap made of rat leather. He created a simple mechanism which, if the chest was opened, would cause the person directly in front of the chest to have the stone spike smash against their skull. Of course, Smit was not entirely heartless. All one had to do was look up to see the spike hovering above their heads to avoid it and take the loot inside the treasure chest, but he wondered how many people would actually think to do that.
He was fairly confident that the greediest of the bunch would fall for the trap easily, in truth. The best way to fool someone was to make them believe they were the cleverer party. He was willing to wager that more than one fool would think himself blessed by finding the ‘hidden’ treasure chest, and rush to get their price, instead of approaching the situation with a healthy amount of caution. He set three such traps on the eighth floor.
The last trap he created was arguably the most interesting one he had built so far, and it involved the use of spirits. To begin with, the spirits that Smit could summon were not capable of any complex thought. At most, they could follow simple instructions such as “Flow through here” or “Light this area up” or even “Stay in this room.” Thus, they could hardly be used for complex matters, such as “Ensnare any man that gets to close to this location by trapping their feet with vines” or anything like that.
That said, sometimes simplicity is best.
This trap he would set by the little streams he had created on the eighth floor. The streams were shallow, only a few inches deep, and about a foot wide. Barely worth calling a stream, really. The streams moved at lazy speed that was soothing to look at, and the water was cool and clear. It would be the perfect place to drink from and sate the thirst that would develop after fighting their way through the forest.
No one would expect a clump of water spirits to hold the water against their face, effectively suffocating the victim.
The trap itself was more brutal than any he had created so far, for the spirits within the water itself were not visible to most people. Moreover, the water itself was not sentient, and hence you couldn’t kill it and move on. The victim had to get rid of the water through other means to avoid suffocating to death, or be able to hold their breath until the spirits strength run out. Holding water against a struggling victim consumed a surprising amount of energy from the little spirits, so much so that just over a minute was all they could manage.
Enough time to knock out a person with an average or lower constitution, not necessarily enough to kill it.
Still, being knocked out in the middle of a dungeon that was crawling with creatures was definitely not a good situation to be in, especially near a stream, where creatures such as bears and wolves would come to drink.
Now, there was a drawback to this particular trap. Because it was dependent on the spirits, once the trap was triggered, the spirits would spend all their energy holding the water against the face of that person. They would not be able to do it again until they were rested and had recovered their energy, nor could they do more complex tasks. Because the spirits needed to regain strength on their own, the amount of time needed for them to be able to be used as a trap again was far longer than his usual traps.
Smit crossed his arms then, looking around at his completed floor. Truly a huge difference in the level of difficulty from his first floor, which had only basic creatures that posed little to no harm to any decent adventurer. This floor, on the other hand, was as unforgiving as the maze, or perhaps even more so. Despite the traps having less variety on the newest floor, they were certainly just as dangerous or more so than those in the maze.
All in all, Smit was quite satisfied with his work for this floor. It had been a lot of work, by far his most ambitious floor yet, but this was just a warm up for the tenth floor. In his mind’s eye, he had already imagined the lay out for the tenth floor, a sprawling area that would reach at least forty square kilometers, with ceilings reaching a good thirty meters above the ground, giving his birds all the extra space they needed to manoeuvre and then some.
Now the question was… what should he do about the floor master?
Once he reached the tenth floor, he could create a boss type monster to defend him once again, and he was still torn between a bird-type monster or a petrified wood golem-type monster. He also considered hindbears, but it seemed a little too rushed to create bear. He was certain he could evolve them into more useful and powerful creatures that would make for better bosses.
As for Pala, Echo, and Arturus, Smit wanted to eventually turn them into what he would name as “wandering floor masters” which meant that they would be boss type monsters that had total and complete freedom of movement, unbound to a single room in a floor. Technically, they were already wandering floor masters by that definition, but Smit felt that their skills were still lacking, and hence he had refrained from giving them a title.
“Wow, you really work fast.” A little soul floated over to him, looking around with interest. “You really are quite something, boss.”
“Boss, huh.” Smit said with a hum as he put his hands behind his back and stood ramrod straight, beholding his creation with a critical eye.
“Yes, uh… Smit… sir.” Ziggurd muttered with a bit of nervousness, still not entirely used to Smit and his behaviour. “Is… that okay to call you that? Boss, I mean.”
“Do as you like.” He said simply. “Most creatures here already call me father. I had nothing to do with that by the way, they just decided to do it one day. Its fitting to be called boss by you I suppose.”
“I-I see. Good to know.” Ziggurd said with a nod that caused his entire body to bob up and down gently. There was a moment of silence during which Ziggurd was at a loss as to how to continue the conversation, so he took the only way out he could think of.
He changed the subject.
“So, how long does it take you to create a something like those new golems? They are new breed right?” Ziggurd said as he floated closer to one of the new petrified wood golems. Looking them over, the only reason why he could tell that the golems were not tree was because he had seen Smit create it. The way that the Golem stood to camouflage itself was ingenious. The golem simply had to keep its legs together and stand crookedly, with its limbs stretched out, and it would look like the real thing. What was more impressive was that each golem had upwards of two arms, some having as many as five arms to attack their prey. This diversity meant that adventurers couldn’t simply identify golems by the number of limbs that the tree had, and were forced to be on guard at all times.
Each and every golem masterfully designed to be the perfect ambush monster in this terrain. It was enough to make Ziggurd a little glad to be on the same side as Smit.
“It took about ten hours to figure out all the designs.” Smit said, “And seven more to create all the designs. After that, it is a simple matter to recreate the them from the templates I have already built.”
“Templates huh…” Ziggurd said thoughtfully. “Does that mean that you can recreate anything once you’ve made it once?”
“There is a limit.” Smit replied. “I can’t for instance, recreate floor masters exactly as the original, as they are an special existence. I can come close to them, but floor masters are … unique existences. Even if I tried to recreate Echo again, for instance, though the copies might look almost exactly the same as Echo, they won’t have the exact same abilities or the same strength.”
“Why?” Ziggurd asked curiously.
“Restrictions are in place.” Smit said offhandedly.
“What do you mean?” Ziggurd asked with curiosity, his interest increasing by the second.
“The gods.” Smit replied with a shrug. “The gods have placed limits on dungeons so that we do not go out of control. Imagine a creature that can create hordes of monsters. That’s a dungeon. Now imagine that the dungeon goes mad and orders those monster to raze a country to the ground.”
Ziggurd flinched at the thought. That sounded positively terrifying. Specially if the dungeon could create an unlimited number of boss monsters. Then that would a nightmare for any country, regardless of their fighting strength.
“That’s why there are so many restrictions in place.” Smit continued, “Theoretically, dungeons have the ability to rise a country from the ashes with the treasures and supplies they can create, or they can do the opposite, and bring a country to its knees. Hence, the gods placed restrictions on dungeons to avoid great chaos. This is why dungeons can’t expand beyond a certain area per level, and why there is only a limited amount of monsters that can be outside that area at the time, and also the reason why it is so incredibly difficult to change the dungeon during a dungeon dive. All of it is because of the restrictions put on us by the gods.”
“I can’t blame them.” Ziggurd said with a nervous chuckle. Smit had a point. Just a little logical thought was all that was needed to see how terrifying a single unbound dungeon could be if it went rogue. “Never really stopped to think about any of that.”
“I don’t blame you.” Smit said, not mentioning that hadn’t either when he had been a dwarf.
“So… how difficult is it to create a body?”
“It depends on several factors. What is the body made of? What is the essence of the creature? Will it have a soul? What abilities will it have?” Smit said as he counted with his fingers a list of different factors. “Is it large or small? Do I have base to work with? All these things play into the length of time needed.”
“Is… is that so?” Ziggurd said fidgetingly, his soul wiggling nervously. “Then… how long would it take to make a body for… say… me?”
There was a pause in which both were dead silent. If Ziggurd had had a beating heart at the moment, his heart would have been beating like a war drum, hard enough that he could have heard his own pulse in his ears.
“...Two hours.” Smit said, estimating the actual amount of time needed. “As long as I did it my way. If you had a request it would be longer. I have to be able to envision my creation.”
“Really?!” Ziggurd said with a gasp. He had thought that Smit would need far longer than that. Half a day, or maybe a full day, but he was saying that it could be completed in the span of time that one needed to go to the market and shop for the essentials of a camping trip. It was almost too good to be true.
“Obviously.” Smit snorted. “It’s an estimate but that should be about right.”
“Can we do it now?” Ziggurd asked eagerly, practically bouncing around Smit with excitement. He had only been without a body for just under two weeks, but he missed being corporeal intensely. “What were you thinking for the body?”
“An elemental spirit.” Smit said at once, his mind already sorting things out.
“Wait… not a human?” Ziggurd said as he stopped bouncing instantly. His mood changing in a heartbeat.
“I can’t create humans, or elves, or dwarves, or any species created by one of the main gods really. It’s one of their restrictions.” Smit explained calmly, not bothered at all by Ziggurd’s change in excitement.
“I… see.” Ziggurd sank in thought for a moment, carefully considering the possibilities. He could have a body, but it would be far different than the one he had before. Was he okay with that?
“Well? Do you still want a body?” Smit said after a handful of minutes went by, and he started to get impatient. “If you need to think say so, I have work to do.”
“I…” Ziggurd hesitated for a moment, but then his tone changed, and his spherical flame appearance suddenly looked more determined, if that was even possible. “I want one. Please go ahead and make me a body, boss.”
“... Male body please?” Ziggurd asked with a nervous chuckle. As much as he admired Smit’s skills, he would really prefer to stay as a man. He needed some consistency with his previous body, even if only in gender.
Chuckling, Smit nodded and reached out with his mana, making it consolidate and swirl lazily around zigurd. “Now… don’t move. I need to focus. This is the first time I have tried to create an elemental-spirit type body. I need full focus.”
Nodding nervously, Ziggurd stood as still as he could, focusing intensely on what was happening. The mana coiled around, creating ghostly feet, then legs, swirling slowly upwards to encase his soul.
And as the mana circled upwards, little blue and white dots seemed to come towards it, attaching themselves to the wisps of mana like dust attaching to sticky surface. They started to show up in small numbers, like errant feathers carried by the wind, but in a matter of minutes it was as if great wind had swept a cloud of these little lights towards him. Ziggurd focused on these lights that drifted towards him, and he realized that each and everyone of them was a tiny little spirit of water or light. They must have been drawn to his affinity of water and light when he was alive.
Slowly, gently, mana and spirits filled the space that Smit had designated as a humanoid body. The body was roughly that of a male, with broad shoulders and average height. His belly flat, and his chest decently defined. He wasn’t tall, nor was he short, rather he was of a perfectly average height for a man. His nose was similar to that which he had when a man, but he had no mouth nor did he have fine features. Rather, it was like a man mannequin which was made of brilliant dust particles had come to life. His eyes were a solid white color, but yet he could see through them only blurrily.
He looked at his hands and saw long, slender fingers, like those of a pianist, and between his legs he saw… nothing. He was effectively genderless down there. Still, that did not bother him, for he was, as far as spirits went, clearly male.
“Ugh… “ Smit grunted as he squinted and grit his teeth, causing Ziggurd to look up at him with worry.
“Hey, boss are-”
“Shut it. I need… to focus.” Smit said as he rose both hands and seemed to physically strain himself to do… something.
At first Ziggurd couldn’t fathom what he was trying to do. But then he felt it. Like a thread weaving its way through his body, he felt something tug at all the spirits, merging them. They were… being bound into one somehow, tethered to his soul and condensed into a single being. It was terrifying at first, for he felt a trickle of emotions and knowledge leak into him with every spirit that was linked to his soul, but after a while the sensation grew to be soothing. The spirits really didn’t have a consciousness, but they had feelings. They were… happy.
Ziggurd allowed himself to drift in the sensation of gentle contentment until a force suddenly squeezed him. He felt his entire being be consolidated into one, the little strings that had bound his soul to the spirits all but solidified, and they weren't strings anymore. Rather it felt like they didn’t exist, because they didn’t need to exist.
He wasn’t just Ziggurd and the spirits. They had all become one.