Ever since the grand event that the king had held at the new dungeon town, a large number of people had been inspired to seek out the dungeon that had given B-rank adventurers a run for their money. Even with the drawback of having to take care of nobles and merchants, the strength of a B-rank adventurer was well recognized. Anyone that reached B-rank adventurer status could be considered a minor celebrity, capable of venturing in dangerous areas where most people would simply die within minutes.
The fact that a new dungeon was not conquered after a more than a hundred such adventurers ventured into it all at once was nothing short of outstanding. It stirred the hearts of the masses, causing many to dream of the fame and glory that would be associated with conquering such a place, not to mention that rumours had begun to spread about the loot that the dungeon could produce. In fact, since the return of the adventurers to the town of Nam, about two thirds of the adventures had taken their leave and spread across the country, talking about the wonders of the dungeon, including the equipment that they had found.
The equipment found on the fifth floor was such that even B-rank adventures would consider it excellent. It promised a tidy profit to any who sought to either sell the equipment, or use it for their own means. As the rumours spread, they normally would become more embellished, but given the stories of beauty that the adventurers told the rest of the populace, there really wasn’t much of difference when compared to reality. Those rumours, however, did give rise to many theories about the source of the beauty found in the dungeon.
Some would say that a goddess had blessed the dungeon personally, granting it unimaginable beauty. Others said that a devil was manipulating the dungeon, making a beautiful death trap, much like a siren would lure sailors to their death. Yet others would claim that the dungeon was alive, risen from the spirit of the world and given substance to create with the beauty of the spirits of the land.
Such rumours caught the attention of the Church of the Seven Gods and the Mages guild, who wished to find the truth behind the phenomena. Should it be due to a god or a devil, the Church of the Seven Gods would be there to praise the gods or vanquish the evil back to the depths of the underworld. Should the rumours of spirits be true, then the Mages guild was more than willing to risk life and limb to research the dungeon itself, or even better, form a contract with the powerful spirit that governed the dungeon.
Thus, the kingdom was witnessing a small exodus of people that were currently en route to the dungeon village of Nam.
But today was not the day when all these different factions would arrive at the village. Today was the day on which the king himself paid a visit to the dungeon village.
A bird had arrived at the town three days prior to announce the arrival of the king to Alester and Ikfes, who hurried to prepare for his and his family’s arrival. Though the village originally didn’t have much to offer in terms of luxury, the presence of the merchants that had already migrated to Nam proved useful now. Though neither the number of merchants nor the quality of their stock could be compared to that of the royal capital, they were still able to provide a modest number of luxuries.
The finest rooms in the new inn was set aside for the king and his daughters, and Alester had ensured that the best pillows and finest rugs were placed in the room (of course, they all had to match and be tastefully placed). Fresh flowers were picked and placed in carefully, locally crafted vases, and fresh towels of silk-like monster thread were placed in the room.
Alester flawlessly completed the renovation of the room in record time. Though that was only possible due to the fact that the king was not ‘high maintenance’, so to speak. As a matter of fact, King Vas was fond of the adventurer lifestyle. Never being one for overly dramatic performances or the excessive luxuries that the nobles tended to be so fond of, the king would be content with the inn’s room, regardless of the fact that it was quite rudimentary compared to the palace that he usually inhabited.
At about noon, the king’s carriage became visible to the people of the village. Ikfes, who had been on the lookout for the king and his entourage, spotted the group and swiftly alerted Alester and the town, encouraging the villagers to come out and greet the ruler of their nation.
By the time that the king and his people arrived, the main road was lined with people, waving at the royal guard and the carriage with wide eyes, as none of them had ever laid eyes on the royal guard, let alone the king himself. The royal guard wore their full plate armour, made of dwarven steel, as well as crimson capes of which the edges were embroidered with golden threads. Each armour had a ruby at the centre of their breast as a token to display their allegiance to the crown.
The king looked out the open window of his carriage on one side. On the other side, the princesses did the same. They waved to the villages that cheered for them as they made their way to the inn, smiling brightly at the villagers. It was their duty as royalty to at least greet the citizens of the humble village they had chosen to visit.
It didn’t take long for the royal family to arrive at the inn. The carriage pulled up in front of the establishment, where the crowd of people ended. A knight made his way towards the door, opening it after announcing the name of the king. A hush fell over the place as hundreds of people awaited for their king to descend from the vehicle, eager to see the famed Red Lion.
They were not disappointed.
Stepping down from his royal carriage, the king stretched his long, muscular limbs. A flowing mane of red hair danced behind him like a living flame as a gust of wind swept over him, enhancing the wild, yet dignified aura that emanated from him. Taller than the average man, and with a body forged in the fires of adventure and war, the king looked every bit as fierce as lion would.
Standing before him, Alester and Ikfes stood in attention, and gave the appropriate courtesy bow with a fist pressed against their hearts.
“Your Majesty,” Alester said before standing upright again, “welcome to the village of Nam. Your accommodations are ready.”
“Excellent!” The king boomed as he stepped towards Alester and Ikfes, putting a hand on each of their shoulders. “Come, my friends! We have much to talk about! I hope you have sent hunters and adventurers to gather us meat and food, for tonight we feast!”
Alester and Ikfes nodded, smiling at their old friend while a crowd behind them cheered for their king and his words. The townspeople felt electric excitement at the idea of a feast. Most of the villagers had never had a proper feast, and the idea of having a feast free of charge certainly did much to win them over. As the people cheered, the king and his friends stepped through the entrance of the inn, followed by the princess and their guard while servants unloaded the carriage.
That night was a merry one, full of dance and laughter as music filled the air. With food in every plate, and drink in every cup, the village celebrated like it had never before. No one noticed the two gnarled figures that observed the village from the distance. Perched amongst the trees, two twisted figures that covered themselves in dirty hooded robes stared at the village. They did not move, almost to the point that one would wonder if they even breathed at all. However, their beady eyes were focused on the village, simmering with anger as they took in the situation.
For now, they would wait.
Smit was very much aware of the presence of the king and his companions arriving to the village. Rather, it was impossible not to know. Since finishing the eighth floor, Smit had upgraded his ‘surveillance’ system. He had created a handful of ravens with magic cores inside them to keep an eye on the village of Nam. Between them and the mice, Smit had created a relatively solid information network that relied on a total of thirteen crows and fifteen mice.
Although he could have doubled that number with little effort, Smit currently had far more pressing matters to attend to.
Specifically, he was working like a madman to prepare for a king that was famed for his fighting prowess and his entire royal guard. As if having the Red Lion himself visit the doorstep of his home wasn’t stressful enough, each member of the royal guard was famous in their own right, a small elite force with enough fighting powers to take down a fortress with their combined might.
They were strong enough to make the B-rank adventurers that had visited him before look like a trivial matter. Even though B-rank adventurers numbered in the hundreds last time, they’d had a handicap and were also competing against each other. If the king decided to march down the dungeon himself, it would be all over for him.
That said, even if the chances of the king himself coming into his dungeon were slim, Smit was not about to take any chances. He was as stubborn as old stone, and refused to lay down and die.
So he set himself to work. Day and night he worked without sleep, his eyes alive with the fires with determination as he laboured relentlessly to create the last floor of his haunted forest. The tenth floor was by far the largest floor he had created. Though he had originally aimed for forty squared kilometres, he had ended up with a forty-five square kilometres, divided into three rooms of tremendous size.
With ceilings twenty metres high, which had large stalactites clinging to them, the haunted forest looked more haunting than ever. The density of the forest was far greater than it had been in the eighth floor as well, resembling the deep forest between the mountains of the kingdom. The haunted forest now had a proper river that coiled itself through the rooms and small cliffs where the ground suddenly dropped five to ten metres. Boulders were scattered near the walls of the dungeon, hiding nests of vipers and caves where hindbears dwelled. And at the end of it all, in the central and final room of the tenth floor, the river ended in a large fifteen meter tall waterfall that echoed through the room. At the foot of a waterfall, a large whirling pool of water acted as the end destination of the water of the tenth floor.
The waterfall was arguably Smit’s greatest environmental creation. The stone of the waterfall was a deep black basaltic rock, with smooth edges as if it had been weathered by hundreds of years of water. The crystalline water of the falls was pure and clean, filtered by the natural process of running through stones and sands before falling off the precipice. That was not all however. He had not left the land barren around it, adding blood moss around the edge of the pool, creating a fantastic contrast against the black stone.
Even the lighting of the room was different from that of the rest of the haunted forest, as the lighting seemed to play a trick on the eyes, accentuating the shadows of the forest while allowing the water of the waterfall to shine. Add to that random sculptures of men, dwarves, elves, and animals through the forest, and the end result was a setting that was as haunting as it was beautiful.
Truly a fitting setting for his new dungeon boss monster.
“Ziggurd,” Smit said as he stood atop the waterfall, beholding his creation. From the top of the waterfall, the view was transformed. Though the forest might stir the soul and make a man afraid while traversing its depths, from the top of the waterfall the haunted forest turned into a different scenery altogether, blending in the twilight lighting to form the shadows that seemed to bow reverently towards the mountain, giving whoever stop atop the waterfall the feeling of lording over the place.
“My lord,” Ziggurd replied as he kneeled on the floor behind Smit, flanked by Arturus and Pala on one side, and Echo on the other. Ever since he had obtained a body, his respect for Smit had drastically increased. While he had previously respected his skill and feared his power, he now saw Smit as a merciful being one step away from the gods, capable of creating miracles that should be impossible to any mortal. If anything, Ziggurd respected him more than most gods, for he doubted most gods would have deigned to make a pact with such an inconsequential mortal like him, much less given him a body again.
“This is your domain now,” Smit said without looking back at him. “You will command the five floors of the forest. Which reminds me… we have not properly named this place, have we?”
“You honour me, my lord,” Ziggurd replied, very aware that he was the very first floor master to have a designated position in the dungeon. While Pala, Echo, and Arturus were floor master-level creatures without a doubt, they were not assigned positions within the dungeon. Instead, they roamed the lowest floors, training and improving themselves to best protect Smit.
Ziggurd, however, was a seasoned adventurer in his past life. While he still had to experiment and develop his current powers, he was already far ahead of the other three when it came to combat experience and the use of magic. For this he was grateful, for it had allowed him to be welcomed into Smit’s plans quickly.
“I’m glad you like it,” Smit said with a nod as he stroked his beard, a pensive look on his face. “Let’s see… a name, a name…”
Ziggurd waited patiently, listening to his lord mutter to himself as he ran through a string of thought. Several words crossed Smit’s lips such as ‘haunted’, ‘deceitful’, ‘dark’, and ‘dead’, but they all failed to please the master craftsman. They didn’t sound right to him. ‘Deceitful’ was close, but while the crows and the petrified wood golems were deceiving in appearance, he deemed the name lacking.
Finally, Smit turned around and looked over Ziggurd, looking over his floor boss. Created of water and light, Ziggurd was essentially remade into a variant of the elemental spirit species. He The surface of his ‘skin’ was constantly moving slowly, swirling gently while little motes of lights seemed to twinkle like stars within it. His white eyes reminded him of white stars, and his voice reverberated pleasantly, like the sound of a stream through a meadow.
“Elusive,” Smit uttered at last. “These five floors shall be called the Elusive Forest. For just like your skin, it the floors have an elusive quality. It is not easy to define, nor does it feel entirely tangible and it is difficult to grasp. This shall be your domain now. It should be greatly suited for your new powers.”
“By your will,” Ziggurd replied, feeling a certain sense of pride swell in his heart. Before, he had been nothing more than a common C rank adventurer, unlikely to rise beyond the low B rank in the best of cases. Now he was reborn with a new purpose, master of five floors and serving a creature worthy of respect.
Though he did miss his team and the world beyond the dungeon, he found that he was growing fond of the dungeon. It was a much more appealing place when you weren’t at risk of dying in it at all times, especially when you could take your time and take in the beauty of it all.
“Ziggurd,” Smit called out to him, “I expect you to train regularly. With the king at our doorstep, even if he doesn’t come down into the dungeon, we are bound to attract the attention of more people now, which means that we are guaranteed to have more people visit the dungeon.”
“I see… My lord, if I may ask, what is your stance towards adventurers?” Ziggurd asked curiously. Smit was clearly not out for blood, but neither was he shying away from death. What was his purpose? Why did he grow so aggressively? And why was he so hell-bent on creating such unique floors?
Smit hummed quietly, stroking his beard slowly. “I wasn’t always a dungeon core you know? I used to a dwarven craftsman by the name of Mak’rit El Terra. Back in those days, I was known by many names, the Emperor of the Forge, the Craftsman King, the Sage of Stones… And many other such luxurious names that people one-sidedly forced upon me. Kings, queens, lords, and merchants, adventurers and knights, everyone knew my name and wanted me to craft for them.”
Ziggurd remained motionless, but the water that made up his body seemed to move more chaotically as he processed this information. He had never heard Smit talk about this to anyone, not even Echo, Pala, or Arturus. Though his new ‘siblings’ had not been addressed directly and had been politely quiet, Ziggurd had no doubt that they were paying close attention to every word that left Smit’s mouth. However, these words meant far more to Ziggurd than they did to the three other members of the group, as he recognized the name of Mak’rit.
The man had been a living legend, fabled to be desired by every kingdom and faction that had witnessed his work. He had single handedly created legendary weapons that could change the tide of wars, shields that had saved the lives of kings, and golems that had rescued sages from certain doom. It was said that he was so skilled that even demigods were willing to fight amongst themselves to acquire his works.
“However,” Smit continued, bringing back Ziggurd from his tumultuous thoughts, “I grew tired of them. Selfish kings, vain queens, greedy merchants, and power hungry factions all desired my works for their own purposes. Men and women unworthy of my works started to take possession of my creations, abusing them as they willed. I hated that and as a result, I grew to hate the society itself. I thought myself above them, and every other man and woman alive, and thus secluded myself to continue my work in in the solitude of this mountain.”
A pause stretched for a minute as Smit seemed to look away into the distance, remembering a different time and place, long before even Ziggurd’s father had been born. Mak’rit had created a name for himself so great that no king could afford to offend him, and thousands upon thousands had sought him out to become his apprentice. Not that Mak’rit had ever taught anyone enough to consider them an apprentice, but that didn’t deter people from trying anyways.
Finally, Smit looked down at his hand and rose it up for all to see. Upon it, a silver ring decorated by the engraving of twin hammers. He looked at the ring with a fond smile, before continuing. “In this ring I sealed my greatest creations with great care, taking several measures to ensure that they were not taken from me even in death… Do you know why I am telling you this?”
Smit’s question was met with silence.
“It’s because I realized something through those many years of solitude. I love to create things, I put my heart into it. However, the joy of creating is not complete if the creation can’t fulfill its purpose. What good is a sword that won’t ever be used to cut? Or a shield that will never protect? They are just overpriced decorations in that case.”
Looking at his four greatest creatures, Smit continued. “I have thought long and hard and I have come up with my own purpose. Though at first I was content with just surviving, I have decided that I want to keep creating more things. And those that are capable of surviving through my dungeon shall be rewarded accordingly as proof of their ability. That is my stance on the subject.”
There was a short silence, which was followed by voices of approval from his four creations, all seemingly content with his words. Seeing this, Smit smiled and added with a chuckle, “Though survival still takes priority, of course.”
“Naturally!” Pala replied at those words, looking up at Smit. “I will be Father’s protector!”
“And me!” Arturus joined in.
“And I too!” Echo said energetically.
“And me as well,” Ziggurd added reverently.
Chuckling lightly, Smit stroked his own beard. He was lucky to have such people supporting him. Had he known of this warmth, the feeling of having his own family support him, perhaps things would have been different in his life. Maybe.
“Good!” Smit said with a laugh, clapping his stomach in good cheer. “Now then! Back to work everyone, though I am not convinced that the king will come down in person, I’d rather be as ready as possible. Go! Let’s get stronger.”
Without needing to be prompted again, his creations bolted into action, leaving Smit to his own devices. Watching them run off to train, Smit hummed to himself pensively, before taking a step off the edge of the waterfall. He fell like a stone towards the pool of water below, letting his long beard and dance in the air around him as he gathered mana around him, and instructed the water of the waterfall to guide him as he fell, avoiding the boulders that stuck out.
He landed cleanly in the center of the pool, where the water that was under his command surged up from below his feet, propelling him upwards. Like a proud god he rose from the water, standing…. And promptly the water that kept him up started to wobble, until he fell backwards onto the pool like a starfish.
“Damnable thing…” Smit muttered as he regained enough control of the water to resurface, before starting to swim towards the waterfall. Even with his skill at mana manipulation, infusing the water with his power and then maintaining a high-pressure water flow to hold him upright was difficult.
Moments later he slid through tumultuous water that fell from the top of the cliff as it opened up for him like a curtain. Once through, the waterfall closed again, returning to its former state. Before Smit, a small cavern opened up, leading to his core room. Taking a seat in the center of his room, Smit crossed his legs and readied himself. Looking one last time at the ring, he smiled and closed his eyes as he began to cultivate once again.