Chapter 26 – Open Buffet
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We made our way down the staircase that was carved into the top of a hill. The narrow stairwell had Bill's shoulders rubbing against the walls causing the crumbly stones to break loose. I cursed a bunch and recast my armor spell to protect my feet after I stepped on one.

The stairway went down at least two floors. The walls started out moist as if the swamp above was leaking through them but as we continued down they dried out. It took us a good thirty minutes before we reached the bottom.

It led us into a large hallway. The walls were made out of rough field stones and the floor was mostly packed dirt with a few rocks. Since the hallway was large enough to fit two of us at a time, Lucas reformed the line so James and Bill were in the lead, me in the middle, and Lucas and Phil in the rear.

We walked down the hall with caution. Phil mentions claw and boots marks in the dirt. Plans of looting boots from the bad guys had me energized.  The hall snaked around a bit until we came to "T"; allowing us to go right or left.

Phil came forward and listened. After a while he said, "The left has monster noises and whimpers and the right has voices and maybe monster noises as well but it is hard to say." With that he walked back to his spot waiting on Lucas to make the decision.

"We split up. James and I will go right. The rest of you go left. Time is of the essence and every minute may mean another person surrendering to the temptation. It is all on us now, good luck." He gave a nice motivational speech before taking James and slowly moved down the right hand side.

My group headed down the left. I could not help myself so I whispered to Phil, "If we knew about this why did we not bring more of those people aiding us? I mean there seemed to be dozens of them. Why just us?"

Phil gave me an 'Are you an idiot?' look but at least answered, "Only certain people can enter dungeons. The magic is purer and for some it amplifies their magic. It is subtle in the early stages so you might not have noticed. Sadly, for most others it makes their magic go out of control. When that happens it is never pretty and death is probably the best case scenario. You will learn about this in the dungeon classes and you were already tested so do not worry about yourself."

I wondered if that was the purpose of the 'dungeon' we were sent into before school or if there was a secret test that I had no idea about.

As we moved down the hall the noises became easier to hear. There was indeed whimpering and muffled screams. "I am going to cast now," I warned the others just in case they were against it. They did not object, so I put 'Golden Armor' and 'Blessings of the Goddess' on both. I felt my mana slowly start to drain as I maintained five spells, if you counted the armor I had on myself. I pulled up their health windows and gave them a nod to indicate I was done.

Bill slowly moved forward, his footsteps growing louder as his skin turned to metal. He had his shield strapped to his back because of the hole in it but his hammer was in his hand ready to be used. I saw Phil plant something in the dirt with his hands and then the ground heaved and rolled as if something was alive under it. After everybody was ready, we made our entrance with the ground rumbling, light from the spells and Bill stomping his way down the hall. We were not the most subtle of groups. With that in mind I let my aura out. I might as well go all out.

The hallway led to a huge room. It looked like a cafeteria with a large double door leading out on the other side of the room. Twelve long tables with chairs around them were scattered around the room. Teenagers were strapped to the tables. Their mouths were gagged.  Bits of them had been cut away as if they were a rare delicacy to be consumed. Humanoids with animal parts grafted onto them, blood around their mouths or snouts, were around the children but looking at us. They did not seem surprised and some had their weapons drawn. Others had claws, pinchers or tails like scorpions stitched into their flesh. I saw one flashing fangs as she hissed at us. There were dozens of them.

Phil smirked, his green aura starting to emanate from him and with a stomp of his foot the floor rumbled to life. Like an explosion, roots shot out in every direction. Bill charged into the biggest cluster shouting "Cannonball Smash". Cracking noises could be heard as he collided with the abominations' bodies. I began to pull up all the kids' health windows. Only six of them were still alive. I quickly cast 'Minor Healing Light' on the most injured one. He was in critical condition and I was afraid he may not make it without help.

These abominations moved in jerky motions as if they were puppets on a string. Their attacks were slow but there were so many of them that being hit was unavoidable. I could hear loud clangs every time Bill was hit. They came at him in waves. His hammer knocked them away with every swing, only for them to get back up and come at him again. Hands and Claws hit on his metal armor and body forming tiny dents and scratches on them. I saw his hit points decreasing by a small amount.

Others were pierced by the roots that pinned them to the walls or floors. Blood, as thick as pudding, came out wherever the roots had stabbed. Unfortunately it only slowed them down briefly. They quickly ripped and cut the plants apart that held them. They ignored the thorns that cut into them, along with the puncture wounds, as if they felt no pain. They began to come after Phil once they broke free.

'I really need to learn an attack spell,' I thought as I looked at what was going on. Bill was still ok and Jim was forming a wall like he did in the dryad battle. Unless they could shred the denser roots he would probably be ok. Without much to do, I healed another kid strapped to the table.

They beat against the shield Phil had made but anything they ripped apart he would replace and then shoot out spikes to stab at them. Making them bleed but they still did not slow their attacks. Bill just beat them, snapping limbs every chance he could get. Only taking a few scratches in return. Since the monsters seemed unorganized in their attack, Bill and Phil took them all on. For my part I just healed those still alive in the room. I did not move to free them for two reasons. The monsters were ignoring them and I did not know if they were charmed. I doubted it since they were made to be food but better safe than sorry.

The battle went on like this for a while. These things were simple minded and without a plan they stood no chance of winning. +1 or +2 experience flashed as Bill took hits or as I healed the children. I ignored them as best I could.  I dropped the magic I had been maintaining as soon as the battle was over. I needed to conserve my mana.

Bill and Phil could not decide on what to do with the kids, so Phil had taken out a rectangular bright purple crystal. It was smooth on every side except the bottom which was jagged. He then began to tap on it in a random manor. It would become dull with every tap and then brighten again. After a bit the crystal then flashed erratically. He gave a nod as if he had decided something and said "Free them."

"Are you sure?" I had to ask. Yes, they are kids and yes they are still banged up, even with healing, but why have an unknown quantity at our back? They could be dangerous.

"Yes, we will free them and they can stay in the stairway until we are done. If they follow us we will consider them enemies and if they stay put we will help them transverse the swamp." He spoke loud enough so that they all could hear him.

"Ok," I said and began to loosen the ropes holding them down. I saw Bill helping others while Phil just stood guard. I had some of the healthier students help those with missing appendages. I currently did not have anything that would regenerate their missing parts. I could just close the wounds.

Once they were all freed, a couple of the boys grabbed some of the crude weapons the monsters were using but made sure to not make any aggressive actions as they were led back to the stairway. We left them there and headed back to the blood-spattered room we had just freed them from.

"Do we rest or continue?" I figured I would ask. My mana was still over half but I did not know how much they had left.

"I am fine," Bill said and Phil echoed him after chugging a clear potion. I continued to use my aura since the lighting was iffy and I let Bill open the door.

Another hallway greeted us with one double wide door on the left and one on the right. We first went to the door on the right.

The room was once an office. The once expensive items were destroyed. The rug was ripped, the desk smashed, and even the stones had deep scratchs on them. The only thing of interest was a notebook that was placed lovingly on the smashed desk. I moved to grab it up and flipping to random pages to see what it was.

I read random entries so the others would know as well.

1 year ago ~ "My friend from school came to visit me yesterday. His son was injured in the last great war and magic could not restore his limbs. He asked me if I could find a way to help restore his limbs to a functional state."

11 months ago ~ "I failed. Every experiment I have tried has been rejected by his body. The dark energy seems to counter any normal healing magic. I will try to find another way."

10 months ago ~ "I found a backer for my research. I think I am onto something, but I will need resources. With any luck I will be able to cure his son soon and maybe bring about a better world where everybody can be healed of their wounds."

9 Months ago ~ "My backer found me a place for my studies. It is more secluded so I can get more done."

8 Months ago ~ "I am at an impasse. Light magic and Dark magic may need to work together. I know it is taboo to use dark magic but I can feel I am close. My backer has offered more resources if I can show any progress. For humanity, I will just use it a little to see if I am on the right track."

6 Months ago ~ "I DID IT. I just needed to balance the energies. I grafted an arm onto my friend's son and he can use it perfectly! Perhaps I can make it stronger with a few more trials. My backer was pleased and gave me some more gold and a vial that may be of use. Who knew that Dark and Light magic meshed so well? Balance is the key!"

4 Months ago ~ "I drank the liquid in the vial. I put it off for so long. Why did I even hesitate? I can think more clearly now. Why stick with human parts? They would only break again. I should make him stronger. Yes. That is what humanity needs; to be strong like the monsters. I can be the one to help humanity obtain perfection."

3 months ago ~ "he screamed when I took his limbs off. Why would he not want to be stronger? Maybe his brain is broken and needs to be replaced as well. My friend will be so happy when he sees his son. He will be coming back soon."

2 months ago ~ "He screamed at me? ME! The one who helped his son become so much better. The nerve of somebody yelling at the man saving humanity! He stopped screaming once my guards came. He must be ok now."

2 months ago ~ "My backer must have dropped off another body today. It will be useful for my experiments. Weird that my friend just left. Maybe my backer took him out to lunch or something."

1 month ago ~ "It is nice to have students again. They are so lively shouting out their questions. I will be able to help them as well. Little Johnny will be even better with a beak and sally could use some claws. Yes having students is for the best. The last batch left so quickly after I helped them."

2 Weeks ago ~ "Humanity is flawed. I can see it now. We need to become better. Perhaps I should just utilize the heads."

1 Week ago ~ It worked. Of course it did I am a genius. Now my creations have the strength of monsters and human magic together. Who knew that dark magic would be the key? I just need them to use it. Yes, everybody will thank me for my contributions …."

Yesterday ~ "My backer gave me another vial that will help me, it is even darker and stronger than the last one. Once I complete my operations, I will drink it to clear my mind. My students are graduating and I should make a request for more. I will put out a feast for them tomorrow to celebrate their advancement to greatness."

Creeped out I put it away and got ready to see what awaited us in the next room. I put a 'Golden Armor' on Phil and a 'coat of Arms' up on Bill but it was dim and the symbols were so fuzzy that I could not make them out. Not sure what that meant I just hoped for the best. Bill put back up his 'Armored Skin' spell and then broke the door with a kick sending it crashing down as the hinges broke.

It was a lab that Frankenstein would be proud of. Cages lined the wall, beakers and glass tubes were set on the tables in an organized fashion and an operation table was right in the middle of the room. I knew it was an operating table because an older man was behind it cutting into a teenager. From the screams, he was awake and the doctor was not using any pain killers.

Looking up as if we knocked politely, he lowered the mask he was wearing and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, no, no, it is too soon for more students. Did they greet the old students? Fine, fine, take them back to the buffet. Maybe they are hungry as well. Oh, and clean up that door." He waved his hands at us in a shooing gesture and turned back to begin cutting into the boy on the table. I briefly wondered who he was talking to but with loud thuds black shapes hit the ground as things began dropping from the ceiling.