“This doesn’t look all that intimidating,” David said as he waded through the shallow water on our way to the beach. The ship had remained anchored over the ocean some distance away, as the gentle incline of the seabed did not allow us to bring the boat anywhere close to the land.
“We just got here,” Sarah said, sitting cross-legged on her bear. Of our group, only David and Shiro had needed to get their feet wet, with me and Cameron opting to float and Alexis seemingly having glided over the water in a single bound, leaving to scout ahead.
“This is known as a broken dungeon,” I explained. “While the dungeon proper is deeper within the island, the surrounding area is infested with monsters that escaped its bounds.”
“And no one thought to clean it up?” Shiro asked.
“There wasn’t much point. Broken dungeons on the continent are dangerous, as they can expand continuously. When it’s just a single island, and one that’s long been abandoned at that…”
“Right. Not much to gain from it,” he concluded.
“No, there’s plenty to gain from it,” I said as I touched down on the beach. “But for most adventurers, the risk to reward ratio doesn’t make it worth it.”
The shuffling of leaves just past the beach drew my attention, and I turned to see as Alexis appeared from the thick foliage.
“Found anything interesting?” Cameron asked her as soon as she rejoined the group.
Alexis shook her head. “I didn’t get very far,” she said with a grimace. “The vegetation is thick as hell. There’s some snakes, and a bunch of crabs, but nothing that I’d call a monster.” She eyed me with skepticism.
“As I explained to the rest of the group,” I said, raising my eyebrows at the young woman, “This is a broken dungeon. It won’t follow the usual rules, not until we get to its original boundaries.”
“If we can even get there, wherever that is,” Alexis said, her voice dour. “I don’t see us making good time through this mess.”
“You forget you have mages with you,” Cameron said with a smirk. “Just leave it to us and we’ll have a path done in no time.”
Shiro grimaced. “Veto on the fire. I’ve had enough forest fires for a lifetime.”
“Who said anything about fires?” Cameron asked, a slight tilt to his head. “I was thinking along the line of using Matter magic to decompose the shrubbery.”
“A good approach,” I said with a nod. “You could also use Force as a cutting tool. Though I would begin by circling the jungle along the beach, for starters. We may be able to find a better path that way without expending all our energy just to move forward.”
“Yeah, let’s go with that,” Alexis said. “Better than charging in blindly.” She looked left and right, along both sides of the beach. “Which way?”
“You’re the best at tracking and pathfinding, shouldn’t that be your decision to make?” Sarah asked. She’d been uncharacteristically quiet so far, and it was good to hear her pipe up.
“Indeed,” I said. “Alexis, what would you suggest?”
The ranger looked taken aback by the question, not expecting to be put on the spot like that. “Um, I don’t think it makes a difference at this point,” she said, scratching the back of her head. She then turned around, squinting as she took a long glance at the treeline. “Maybe east? I can’t be sure, but it does seem like the foliage is thinner that way,” she said as she pointed into the distance.
Sarah squinted, following the path of Alexis’s finger. “Yeah, I can’t see shit, but you’re probably right. I mean, you’re the expert.”
“East it is, then.”
We began our trek through along the sandy beach in silence, the group splitting along the usual cliques — Shiro regaled Sarah with some story from his childhood, gesticulating with wide motions as he spoke. Alexis and David spoke in hushed tones some distance away, though the former sometimes broke from the group to scout ahead.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Cameron followed in my wake like a lost puppy — he wore a pensive frown, and I wondered what had soured his mood so.
“Are you alright?” I asked softly, as to not be overheard by the other members of our group.
“Hm? What, me?” he asked, startled at being addressed directly. “I’m fine, I was just, thinking.”
I nodded, and the silence stretched for a minute as the boy’s feelings clearly warred inside his head.
“Actually… I’ve been wondering… is it my fault we switched from the original plan?”
Now that question took me by surprise, and my eyebrows shot up my hairline. “What could you possibly mean by that?”
“You know… you said recent developments,” he said, bringing his hands into the air and making air quotes with his fingers, “were why we landed here. I thought you meant my failure with magic.”
“What? Of course not! If anything, I was deeply impressed by your performance.”
“Wait, really?” His eyes went wide. “Because I was sure you were gonna throw me off the boat at some point.”
I winced internally. “You’ve made some mistakes, for sure, but your rate of improvement has been nothing short of exceptional. I am merely… an exigent teacher, so to speak.” And woefully inexperienced in proper teaching methodologies, though my current approach did seem to be effective for the boy.
“You can say that again,” he muttered under his breath.
Pretending not to hear, I continued on. “No, the reason for this expedition is to get used to working as a team. While I’ve been part of an adventuring group before, the five of you have not. Going into the Cradle of the Gods with a completely green team is incredibly risky, despite all your individual prowess.”
“I didn’t think there’d be much an Archmage would find scary.”
“And you’d be wrong. On the continent, the only threat to an Archmage is another Archmage, for the most part—”
“Or a divine artifact of doom.”
“Or a divine artifact of doom. But around these parts… You’ll understand better when we get to the Floating City. I wouldn’t say Archmages are as common as fleas on a dog, because that would be patently false, but I will say that more of us live there than the entire continent combined. And there are adventuring parties based in the city that would give a dragon a run for its money.”
It was Cameron’s turn to be surprised. “Huh. I knew this was gonna be challenging, but I didn’t think we wouldn’t be the big fish anymore.”
“No, we’re still among the bigger fishes. The advantage granted by the System isn’t to be underestimated.”
“And, we’re going to be killing lots of monsters before we even get there, so that means some serious leveling, right?”
Our choice to follow along the beach paid off not even half an hour later, when the wall of trees to our right split into two to allow a humble creek to snake its way to the ocean.
“Follow along, yeah?” Alexis asked for confirmation as she took one tentative step into the jungle.
“That seems prudent,” I said as I took a good look at what awaited us in the jungle. The creek could barely be considered as such, but it had nonetheless cleared a path in its journey to the end of the island. What remained was a bed of rocks and mud that was just wide enough to allow us comfortable passage without having to chop our way deeper into the trees.
Alexis resumed her scouting duties, bounding ahead as if she’d been running on packed dirt, then suddenly disappearing from our vision.
“The hell, did she fall through a hole or something?” Sarah asked with alarm, summoning her sword and getting ready to run ahead to rescue the ranger.
“What? No, that’s just her camouflage skill,” David said with a puff of laughter. “This is, like, her whole shtick. Don’t worry about it.”
“A word of warning would have been nice,” Sarah grumbled, dismissing the sword to back from where it came.
David shrugged. “Get used to it, I guess.”
Sarah grunted in assent, and we continued along the path. A few minutes later, Alexis suddenly materialized in front of us.
“Haven’t found anything out of place,” she said without preamble. “Actually, no, that’s wrong. There’s just some snakes every now and then, when there should be at least some bigger animal running around. But there aren’t even, like, birds or anything.”
“That sounds promising,” Shiro said, frowning as he considered her words. “Maybe a sneaky predator going around killing most of the bigger fauna?”
Alexis was taken aback. “God, I hope not. Maybe they’re just scared of the area. It is supposed to be a dungeon, after all.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Cameron piped up. “The mana in the air is so thick, even I’m getting the heebie jeebies. Wouldn’t be surprised if it spooked the birds as well.”
“No, that shouldn’t happen,” I said. “Animals shouldn’t be any more sensitive to mana than non-mages. Something would have to be terribly wrong for the mana density to affect the wildlife.”
“So, back to the sneaky predator hypothesis. Maybe you should stick with the group,” David said, giving his friend a worried glance.
“Yeah, will do.”
We continued on in silence, everyone alert and ready to act, but the forest surrounding us remained quiet. After a while, the path along the creek began to widen, and Alexis took a few steps ahead of the group to get a better look.
As soon as she stepped past a stray vine, all the hells broke loose.
The vine coiled around her leg, then pulled back towards the forest, yanking the girl off her feet and trying to drag her into the trees. Before anyone else could react, David was upon the vine, his daggers in hand and trying to slice at the grassy tendril, but it was nimble and slippery, flowing around his attacks like a silken ribbon in the wind.
Meanwhile, Alexis used the moment of respite to twirl herself around, unsheathing a knife from her belt. She sliced at the vine, right where it had grabbed onto her leg, but the thick tendril was not so easily unlatched.
Moments later, the rest of our group burst into motion — Sarah had her sword out in a moment, charging at the tendril with a grunt, while Shiro had leaped onto the vine, grappling with it and bringing it down to the ground.
I began a quick working, weaving Force to immobilize the vine in its place but the other mage in our group was quicker, summoning forth a spell he’d practiced for so long in the past few days that it had become second nature.
A fireball burst in front of him, and despite the current danger, I was pleased to see he hadn’t relied on any of his usual crutches. But the spell had been hasty, done on impulse, and flew wide, missing the vine entirely and exploding against the trees in a shower of leaves and splinters.
The vine panicked, releasing its grip on Alexis’s leg before trying to retreat back into the treeline — but unlike its own, Shiro’s grip on the thing was iron, and all the vine could manage was to flail in place, doing its best to dodge the knives trying to slice it into pieces.
To its great misfortune, it was at that point that I completed my spell, and the vine went taut, frozen into place by the paralytic effect of my magic — after that, it took less than a second for David and Sarah’s blades to slice it into ribbons.
Alexis swore as she pushed herself off the ground. “Of course it had to be sentient vegetation.”
“Would you rather it have been something else?” I asked, tilting my head in genuine curiosity.”
She grimaced. “Something my arrows would be any good at would have been nice. If there’s more where that came from, I’m not gonna be very useful.”
“There is more where that came from,” Shiro said, his voice eerily quiet, as he lifted himself off the ground, disentangling his limbs from the remains of the vine.
“Hey, don’t be pessimistic,” Sarah said, giving the boy a hearty slap on the back. “Maybe we’ll get mutant lizards instead. I’m sure that would be fun.”
“No, I mean right now.” His voice had acquired a tinge of urgency.
My gaze went to the trees on my right just in time to see countless vines as they burst from their hiding spot, and I hastily fashioned the dregs of Force lying around me into a shield.
Leaves shuffled in all directions, and I knew that the same situation was unfolding behind me. Like Alexis, the first vine had been an eager scout.
And now the rest of their party was upon us.