Chapter 22
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Inquisitor Baera looked up as a fist hammered on her office door. She frowned and put her pen down beside the reams of paperwork she had gradually been working through.

“You may enter.”

The door opened and a girl slumped through breathing hard. Her blonde hair was a tangled mess and lank with sweat. She looked as though she had run to her office from wherever she had come from. Judging from her appearance she was an active adventurer of the dungeon. Not that informative considering the town was built to service one. What was more curious was the huge patch of hair that appeared to have been ripped from her scalp leaving an angry red bleeding welt behind.

Baera leant to one side and rested her chin on her fist as she eyed the girl.

“Girl. What makes you think it wise to come to me in a state like this. You’re so out of breath you can barely get a word out and you look like you’ve been in a fight with a Barber’s wife.”

The girl shook her head and then seemed to steady herself. “I want to report a problem. Something new.”

“Please, go on. I am just in complete suspense to hear this,” said the Inquisitor so dryly that it made deserts appear as oceans.

The girl seemed to realise just who she was speaking to and cleared her throat awkwardly.

“Uhm, Right. I was on a trip into the dungeon, part of a slaving team that liked to focus on minor tribal monsters like Goblins-”

“To the point girl.”

“S-sorry. We were on our return trip when we came across a monster none of us had ever seen before. At first I only saw a glimpse of a shadowy figure, but later I saw it in full. It looked sort of like a bipedal wolf gone feral, with yellow eyes and black fur completely drenched in blood. Our team leader decided that he didn't want us to fight it and so we avoided it and went up two floors of the dungeon.”

“I hope that there is more to this story than just a sighting or I will have you cleaning out the stables for a month for wasting my time.”

“Yes! There’s more. We made camp in east quadrant and thought we were safe but soon after we had gone to sleep the creature attacked and set our slaves free. It killed our Hobgoblin scout and then killed the leader of our team, a powerful Aeromancer. But what came after was why I came here.”

She took a deep breath.

“The black furred monster attacked me, I fought back, and then it spoke to me. It told me that it used to be someone I knew, a human.”

Baera lent forward, her brow furrowing.

“I, or rather a prior group that I was with, were given permission by the town’s ranker to kill that person. We took him out to the dungeon for ease of disposal, killed him, and threw his remains in the big lake on the bottom floor. The black furred creature knew of this and named everyone who was there, it claimed that it was that human but returned from the dead and turned into a monster. He promised revenge, I only escaped due to my new unique magic.”

“Curious. It’s true I don't know of any monster or species with that physical description and I know more than most. A human leveler that became a monster?”

“Yes! That’s the thing, it sounds insane, but it’s real! He had some strange ability that allowed him to consume and absorb things, I didn’t get to see what he was capable of but he let slip that it's linked to growth.”

“And an ability I have also never heard of. Hrmm, if you did not seem so sincere I would suspect you were making this up.”

“Never! I would never lie to an Inquisitor, only a fool would do such a thing!”

“Quite. Very well, your name?”

“It’s Eliza. Uhm, t-there’s a reward right? It’s just I recently got a special Class and I lost my new water staff for th-that and you know how, they’re uhm, expensive.”

“Eliza. You did well to come to me. Inquisitors place high priority on seeking out dungeon anomalies before they become an issue and nipping them in the bud. If I can confirm your words, then yes, you will receive an appropriate reimbursement. However, I will command you not to breathe a singular word about this. If this truly is as you say a leveler somehow become monster then this is a… highly confidential matter. Now go and get yourself cleaned up and leave this with me.”

The girl hesitated, bowed, and then fled from the Inquisitor's presence.

Baera rubbed her chin. “A shadowy monster? Where did I read that recently?”

She rifled through some minor reports at the side of her desk and pulled a paper free, a single sheet. A statement on the demise of half of a team of adventurers to a horde of Shroomlian monsters. Nothing unusual for this dungeon. Idiot levelers got themselves killed all the time. What was curious was that one of the survivors seemed convinced that they were being stalked by a black furred shadowy bipedal thing, and that it had caused the shroomlians to swarm and attack the team. An interesting data point perhaps grounding this Eliza girl’s story. She noted that the two survivors of the team were currently accusing each other of having murdered the team's healer. She put the report back from where she had retrieved it.

She tapped her pen on the table thinking.

An Inquisitor had many responsibilities as the Queen’s eyes and claws, ensuring that a dungeon didn’t become a problem was one of them. There were towns and cities wiped off the map when particularly powerful monsters escaped a dungeon, or a monster species had bred out of control and spilled out over the land.

Making up her mind she put her pen aside and stood from her desk. She opened her armoire and pulled on her favourite black pauldrons over her blouse and then affixed her black vambraces to her arms, then, at last, her favourite black gauntlets. High quality and lightweight, they were decorated around the edges with gold filigree, a gift from her mother. She affixed a ruby pommelled longsword to her hip, taking care to arrange it so it could be withdrawn with ease, a habit borne from long practice.

She checked herself in the mirror. A Human face, well, mostly, a pair of black Dragon horns emerged from atop her white wavy hair, a mark of her distant Dragon bloodline. She considered herself blessed to have even this small mark, her parents, both Human, had none as the mark was rarer to manifest so many descendants later. The horns gave her an imposing figure, not that she wasn’t already intimidatingly severe. She hummed contentedly with her appearance. Her parents had teased her about her vanity, she personally felt it appropriate as Dragons were known to be vain.

She spun on her heel and her armoured boots clicked as she left her office. 

She snapped her fingers as she passed through, the sound like a whipcrack that hurt the ears. A red-haired human girl who had been napping in a chair in the hallway squeaked and jumped to her feet looking around in fear.

“Come Jilli. We’re going to the dungeon to look into an anomalous report. Maybe you can learn a thing or two.”

“”Y-yes Inquisitor!” said the girl, flinching to attention and then hurriedly following after the striding Inquisitor as she blew past.

“Uhm, will it be dangerous? I have my sword, b-but.”

“I do not know, It may be nothing, though my instinct tells me something is afoot. It has been a while since the Queendom has seen a serious monster emergence from a dungeon, I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Of course Inquisitor!”

The pair clumped downstairs and emerged into a bustling room where scribes working under the Queen talked and exchanged paperwork. Baera strode up to the largest figure in the room, a Minotaur lazing on a chair, his hooves on the table. Several empty beer mugs lay strewn around him and a Goblin slave held a freshly filled one ready as the minotaur worked through his current one. He burped and gave the Inquisitor a sour look. 

“About that time huh? Coulda given me some warning, I ain't ate yet.”

“Then choose breakfast over beer next time you insufferable moron.”

“Oh! Never! The nectar of the gods fuels this body of mine!” 

He belched loudly and Jilli covered her nose and mouth in disgust.

“You won't be receiving coin to pay for said beer if you don’t get to your hooves and move Drumus.”

“Yeah yeah.” grumbled the Minotaur. He slugged back the last of the beer he was drinking and then grabbed the second beer from the Goblin slave causing her to stumble forward. He then chugged that to the dregs and belched lazily once more. Then with more effort than was probably warranted he slid his hooves off the table and climbed to his feet. He picked up a well worn mace from where it lay by his chair. 

“Roight, I’m ready. Let’s go fuck up whatever needs fucking up.”

The Inquisitor set her lips in a line. “We need to acquire one other before heading to the dungeon. Come.”

The Minotaur nodded then paused. “One sec.” He clubbed the Goblin slave over the head and she fell to the ground limp. He then grabbed her by a leg and picked her up in the air.

“Oh, Mister Drumus, Minotaur sir? Is- is that legal?”

“Don’t worry yourself lass, it’s just a rental,” said the Minotaur stomping out the building after Baera, Goblin dangling in hand.

They passed by a wooden slave bin with the words ‘Temp-slave drop off’ marked on the side and he tossed the Goblin inside and closed the lid.

“See, their problem now.”

Jilli raised a hand as though to protest but the Minotaur ignored her and stomped after Baera

Baera stalked through the streets, passing pedestrians leaping to get out of her way when they noticed who she was. The trio arrived at an inn and without preamble she kicked open the door. 

The noisy interior went silent as she stepped inside and looked around, a hundred eyes watching her in surprise or fear, beers halfway to mouths, coins held in the air mid-transaction.

Her violet eyes came to rest on one large table covered in cards and coins. Her eyes narrowed seeing a shirtless Halfling lying atop a mound of coin, a pipe in his mouth.

“Ah, shit.” said the Halfling.

Baera snapped her armoured fingers causing half the inn to flinch and Drumus charged toward the table. The Halfling tried to scramble away but a large meaty hand came down and grabbed him by the seat of his pants and yanked him into the air.

Baera beckoned and they began to leave. She paused at the door and glanced back. 

“As you were.” 

The inn moved back into motion and a number of fights started over the coin the Halfling had left behind.

They stepped back into the street and continued.

“Hey hey hey! What's the big idea you can't just kidnap me!”

“You know as well as I do Fosco that you are under contract to the Queen. If you do not wish to have your debauchery interrupted then I suggest you write a letter and have your contract voided. For the moment however you are mine and I am not pleased with your previous convenient disappearances whenever an excursion into the dungeon is planned. I suggest you make an example of yourself or I will use my superior level to end you. No one will stop me and I will face no repercussions.”

The halfling quit struggling and gulped.

“Good. Now here we are.”

The group pulled into the towns stable, a huge thing due to the number of travellers who came to try the dungeon. 

It only took a moment for a simpering stable master to find the Inquisitor and offer the group their best horses. Five minutes later the group galloped out of town and rode through the surrounding forest until they came upon the Inquisitor's intended destination, the dungeon.

They tied down their mounts outside and entered on foot.

“Not that I’m complaining but would somebody tell me why we are here? How am I supposed to know what I’m tracking If I don’t know what I’m tracking? I’m pretty good but I’m not that good,” grumbled the Halfling.

They were descending one of the massive stairs that lead between floors as he spoke. Baera paused then nodded.

“You are here to track down a new monster that has been reported on as of recent events. Black fur, wolf-like, bipedal.”

“Alright, I can work with that. There are no wolves in this dungeon, nearest would be mountain wolves but they are a hundred miles away at least, so If it really is wolf-like as you say then its tracks should be distinct from everything else in this dungeon. Anything else?”

She paused. “It’s reported to be drenched entirely in blood.”

“Really? That’s a bit gruesome. You know I’m not much good in a fight right? You better protect my half-ass”

“Myself and Drumus are enough to deal with any threat.”

The Halfling eyed the minotaur. “I suppose that is… comforting. Anyway, I have a skill that gives me an enhanced sense of smell. If this monster really is covered in blood as you say then I should be able to smell it.”

They went on in silence until Baera held up an armoured hand. “We’re here. This Is the floor it was last sighted on. Come, it should be in this direction. Be aware of your surroundings. This new potential monster is not the only threat in the dungeon.”

“Yeah yeah I know, monsters, dungeon shit, whatever,” said the minotaur picking his teeth with a knife.

“Hey,” said the Halfling. “I can already smell something, come on, just follow me.”

The group followed as the Halfling led the way through twisting passages until at last they exited onto a sandy causeway tunnel lit by mosslight, much broader than the ones they had arrived through. A medley of footprints marked the sand as though many webbed feet had passed by.

“Hrmm. Looks Piscine. I know there are some lake tribes around here. Guess they must come through here for whatever reason.”

“Oh! I found something! This might be it!” exclaimed Jilli pointing at a footprint.

The Halfling shuffled over and peered down. “Curious.”

“What is it?”

“There are two sets both with wolf-like aspects, one was made a little after the other. The odd thing is that the newer set is from a larger pair of paws.” He got down on his knees and stared closely at the two, switching between them every so often. “If I were an inferior tracker I would tell you that we are facing two of this monster… But these paws are functionally identical, they do not have any of the micro deviations in anatomy that occur between different people of a single species.”

“Oh stop trying to make yourself look good and get to the damn point Halfling,” grumbled Drumus.

The Halfling glared at him irritably. “It’s the same monster but grown larger.”

Baera crossed her arms. “Hrmm.”

“I know, it sounds strange. I suspect we are against a monster that is absurdly quickly growing in size.”

“There was speculation of something like this in the report. It seems like this could indeed become a problem if left alone. Very well, please continue.”

The Halfling finished his inspection of the tracking and gestured for them to follow. He led them further down the tunnel then round a corner. He paused.

“That blood smell, it’s gotten, uh, quite strong.”

“You think the monster is near?”

“No, this is too strong a smell for just one monster, I’m not sure what it is exactly I’m smelling.”

They continued onward, passing by a part of the tunnel closed off by piled up rocks. They slowed as they came across a gap in the sand.

“Gods! The smell! it’s so strong! I, I believe it's coming from that chasm.”

The group edged nearer and peered over the edge,

“Wha-What, what is that? Is that all blood?” said Jilli, her face paling.

“Dear gods it’s like someone painted the floor and walls in the stuff! How many must have died for this?”

“More importantly… Where are the bodies…”

“I.. I don’t like this, we should go,” whispered Jilli.

“Wait, hold on, where's the Minotaur?”

Baera blinked at the Halfling and turned from the hole to look behind. No Minotaur.

“That idiot probably got bored and wandered off to take a nap. You’re a tracker aren’t you, let's retrace our steps and see where we got separated.

They edged away from the hole, perhaps a little too thankful to no longer be near it, and began to make their way back.

It wasn't long before the Halfling found hoof prints and indeed they diverged from their path and went down a dark side tunnel.

“I’m going to strip a line of hide out of that Minotaur when I find him,” growled Baera. 

“I just want to find him again… I don't like these gloomy caves,” shivered Jilli.

The trio entered the narrower near pitch dark passage. They had no lantern as the Minotaur had taken it with him. It wasn't long before they started to hear something. Crying.

The Halfling and Inquisitor exchanged a puzzled glance then crept around the corner. 

A Goblin sat against the wall, hugging its legs and openly weeping.

“Look, that Goblin is a slave, see the slave collar?”

“Tchh. Maybe this is what drew Drumus’s attention.”

“Well, why isn't he here?”

“I don’t know, ask the Goblin.”

Fosco gave her an annoyed look but crept toward the crying Goblin.

“Heyyy, Goblin girl, did you happen to see a Minotaur come by here?”

The Goblin looked up at the Halfling with bloodshot crazed eyes.

“He ate them, He ate everyone! He’s Going To Eat Us! He’s CoMinG To eAt Us ALl!” The Goblin shrieked and darted into a crack in the wall disappearing from sight.

“Oh, okay.” said the Halfling in the still silence that followed.

“C-can we go?” keened Jilli.

“No, look, there are tracks over here. Fosco come look,” said the Inquisitor.

“I hate to admit it but I’m starting to get just a little unsettled. Maybe the girl is right.”

“Just look,” sighed the Inquisitor.

The Halfling grumbled and stepped over and began tracking. He beckoned the others to follow. He paused after a few meters.

“Something happened here. It looks like there was a struggle. Wait, I see blood.”

The group moved warily forward and out of the gloom a bloody track appeared, a gouge in the sand as though a large body had been dragged. Then it stopped. Baera leant down and picked up the Minotaur’s mace. It along with a few pieces of the Minotaur’s armour and clothing lay scattered around a patch of blood and gore. There was nothing else. 

“This is bad isn't it, this is really bad,” whimpered Jilli. 

Baera said nothing but drew her longsword and looked around, staring into the darkness.

“We need to leave. Now,” said the Halfling, his voice strained.

“Start retreating. Carefully. If you see anything, call out.”

They began to shuffle backwards, weapons drawn and pointing outward. The dark was quiet and oppressive.

“I… I think something is wrong,” said the Halfling pausing.

“What? Forget it, we’re leaving.”

The Halfling turned and looked at the other two. He gulped. “I can still smell Drumus’s blood nearby.”

A set of teeth appeared from the dark and closed on the back of the Halfling’s head side on. 

His skull immediately collapsed under the pressure, his face grossly distending as his head was crushed inward. One of his eyeballs burst from his eye socket as it caved in and landed on Jilli’s cleavage. The trainee Inquisitor screamed her lungs out and fled into the darkness as fast as her legs could carry her.

A longsword that was now glowing a faint blue suddenly thrust through the air as though propelled by a bolt of lightning. It pierced through the Halfling’s head and almost skewered the shadowy creature on the other side if not for it moving at the last possible moment. It disappeared back into the dark.

Baera withdrew her blade and let the tracker's corpse flop to the ground. 

She eyed the shadows. 

“I’ve heard you can speak, monster.” 

A deep bass growl of anger was her reply, so deep and heavy that the very air vibrated and Baera could feel it trembling the ground through her boots. The sound echoed around the tunnel giving it an unclear origin.

“Angry? You do not like the one who told me that, do you? Do not worry, I will end your life and relieve you of your grudge.”

“You can try.” gravelled a deep voice.

Motion in the corner of her eye made her move and she twisted her sword up just in time. The creature's teeth momentarily bit down on her blade before it let go. She twisted her weapon and slashed, scoring a minor hit. A spray of blood and a shallower cut than expected. Tough body, resistant to blades. The creature vanished back into the shadows.

She held her sword up in one hand tracking where she thought it fled. Her eyes momentarily crossed her blade and she was surprised to see teeth marks on the steel somehow despite the spells she had cast on it to strengthen and sharpen the metal. Its teeth are extremely hard, shocking jaw strength.

A scuffing sound from behind and she spun. A knife flew out of the gloom aimed at her head. She parried it sending it flying through the air to clatter against the cave wall. It uses weapons? No, doesn't fit, this is a trap!

She swung her sword and twisted around as bloody teeth lunged at the back of her neck. Her sword arm came up, but too late to hit, only enough to block. The brutal trap of its maw came down on her forearm. Teeth dented metal and she looked on in shock as her prided vambraces abruptly buckled under its jaws, an unstoppable bite pressing down with such force that the squealing deforming metal dug deep into her arm. She screamed and thrashed as skin and flesh and muscle was squeezed apart under the unstoppable pressure, her sword dropped from her hand as she lost feeling, clanging as it hit the sand. She pounded at the monster's head with her free fist but nothing slowed it. Her bones began to splinter then split apart as the squeezing force of her own vambrace ground them down. The monster bass growled and savaged her arm, shaking its head and violently dragging her, Baera desperately tried to resist but the breathtaking agony was causing her to falter. 

She set her teeth. It wasnt going to let her go. No choice. She slapped her hand down on the vambrace and twisted it then kicked out at the monster. Her arm felt like it was on fire, but with a wordless scream, and the grisly sickening parting of flesh, she pulled a ragged shredded stump free from her vambrace. The monster gave her a look of surprise before she pulled a device from her belt, closed her eyes, and threw it to the ground. An explosive ear-shattering sound and an eye-searing flash of light and the monster yelped. The Inquisitor opened her eyes. Her ears were ringing but she could see well enough in the dark to run and escape down the tunnel away from the thing that had maimed her.

She cradled the ruin of her arm as she fled and promised revenge, no, Extermination.