We proceeded deeper into the island — and I could feel the mana growing thicker and thicker by the minute — not long after shaking off the nerves from our first ambush.
First, because we had barely gathered our bearings and regrouped before the second wave of plant monsters attacked — or doom veggies, as they’d been nicknamed.
The second time, though, we were prepared. It had been folly on my part, to allow the group its original haphazard march along the creek, but now that we knew what kind of enemies we were up against, I had decided to organize our group to maximize our chances of success.
As such, we had Shiro leading ahead, his ability to take damage second to none, while David followed closely behind, ready to flank whoever charged our protector. Up next, myself, Cameron and Alexis were clustered together, as the ranged component of our group.
Finally, Sarah held the back alongside her bear, as the plant monsters had already proved their propensity for sneak attacks from behind. That her bear had been near useless during the first few fights bothered me greatly, and I was currently going over its mind’s programming, trying to understand why it kept failing to react to the obvious threat.
The plan had been to wait until we were back on the ship before fiddling with the necromantic construct, but my curiosity had gotten the better of me — and in any case, there was no need for me to pay attention to our surroundings, with Alexis’s hawk-like eyes making sure nothing was amiss.
The bear’s mind was the standard wight fare. A framework of Soul and Mind, using the smallest possible mind that would allow the construct to move, parse simple instructions, and act on them — which was, interestingly, not that much mind. I had discovered during my research that the majority of an animal’s mind (and humans’ too, for that matter) was dedicated to the various unconscious processes keeping it alive. For an undead minion, that part could be safely cut, leaving behind only a fragment of its original size. But animals couldn’t understand spoken language, and there were few options to enable them to do so.
The first would have been to use a human mind, but that was… problematic, at the very least. Not to mention how impractical it was, given the size constraints. Human minds, even parts of them, required large souls to power them.
The second was to mimic the humans’ ability to process language, simplifying it down to something like a tree of decisions. I had chosen this option, and so far, I had only run into minor misfires.
Or maybe wights failing this way was a common occurrence that I hadn’t noticed. In any case, it was a problem in need of a fix, and now was as good of a time as any.
Delving into the inner reaches of its mind was an easy feat, and after a thorough analysis, the reason why the wight did not react to the vines’ attack became evident.
Apparently, I had specifically excluded plants from being considered enemies by the wights’ programming. A memory from a decade ago, from when the first prototypes were being tested, rose to the surface — myself in the forest, about to direct a proto-wight to attack a wolf when my robe had been snagged by a bramble. The wight had treated it as an attack on its ally and mercilessly chopped the offending weed to pieces.
Which led to me deliberately excluding plants and very small critters from being considered possible enemies. An embarrassing mistake, and annoyingly, one that had already been covered later on when I perfected the wights’ ability to detect hostile action.
Removing the exclusion took no time at all, and the result was readily apparent when the bear swatted a fly that had gotten too close from mid-air. Perhaps still a bit too sensitive, but that I would leave for when we were back on the ship.
“Is this a boss room?” Shiro asked as the jungle on our sides made way for a vast clearing.
Clearing was a misnomer, actually. Ancient columns were strewn about, some still standing, though most had collapsed ages ago. Beneath their moss and grime, a pearlescent white shone, and carvings peeked from under the debris. The ground itself was a mix of grass and stone — what remained of tiled floors, cracked and shifted by the ravages of time.
“Unlikely,” I said with a shake of my head, though I had wondered the same thing upon entering the clearing. “We’re still a ways off from the dungeon proper, judging by the mana density. These are merely ruins of what laid here before the dungeon broke out of its bounds.”
“This looks almost Greek,” Alexis murmured beside me. “I’ll go take a look around. There could be anything hiding here. Too much cover.”
I nodded, and she was gone.
“What do you think this was?” Cameron asked.
“Perhaps an outdoors temple?” Sarah said, jumping off Winnie and making her way to the rest of the group.
“It could be,” I said, nodding. “An open-air structure, at the very least.”
“I don’t think it’s a temple,” David said with a tilt of his head. “The shape reminds me of farmers’ markets back home. See how flooring is basically long rows?”
“It could very well be. The Circle of Stars had an entire city built around it. A market should be expected.”
Carefully, I stepped away from the group, crouching next to the remains of a column. With a quick invocation of Matter, the vegetation that had grown over it was gone, and I gingerly touched the carved surface.
The column was covered in drawings, carved scenes set one after another, forming a spiral from the top all the way to the bottom. The fragment before me was merely a fraction of a story — or recorded history, perhaps. The themes, at least, were familiar. Warriors fighting monsters. Warriors fighting other warriors. A king being crowned. More and more fighting, then people kneeling before a dragon.
The last one before this fragment ended was, surprisingly, a warrior fighting a dragon. Alone.
“Nothing out of sorts that I could see,” Alexis said as she appeared to materialize out of thin air. “Unless shadows can be dungeon monsters?”
“They can, but I wouldn’t count on them appearing in broad daylight. Light weakens them greatly.”
“Well, great. I’ll keep an eye out for moving shadows, in any case,” she said, placing her hand on her hips and shaking her head. “What’s this Circle of Stars supposed to be, anyway?”
“A place of learning, from what I understand. An academy of magic, specializing in Fate magic — specifically scrying and divining. They called it the Circle of Stars because its purpose was to design a formation powerful enough to scry beyond our planet — or at least, that’s what present-day scholars believe. Information about the Ancient Times is scarce at best.”
Cameron sucked in a breath. “Did they succeed?”
“Not as far as I’m aware,” I said, shaking my head. “The academic consensus is that the great concentrations of mana that were observed here led to the dungeon coalescing.”
“But that doesn’t fit with the dungeon core thingy,” Sarah mused.
I gripped my staff tightly. “Indeed. Which is why I thought investigating this place could turn out to be pretty useful. In any case, take a few minutes to rest or explore, if you’d like. We’ll proceed further into the island after that.”
A chorus of grunts and affirmatives rang out, and the kids spread out to inspect the ruins. I made my way to the nearest intact column, curious if it held more of the pictographic stories.
It did. Much like the fragment I had analyzed earlier, the column was fully engraved with scenes of battles and beasts and rulers and dragons. But there was no pattern to their order, not that I could see. Were the scenes supposed to be mere works of fiction? Were they a record of some sort?
Or were they simply a design choice, the stories completely meaningless aside from adding some flourish to some otherwise plain columns?
It was unlikely I’d find an answer now, and moreover, there were answers to more useful questions hidden deeper within the island. I walked past the ruins, mentally marking down the more interesting ruins as I passed them, and stopped when I met the beginning of a paved road.
Or at least, what remained of it — the stone tiles had been ravaged by time, most cracked or shattered and displaced from their original positions. But roads have this interesting habit of leading to places, so I waited for the rest of the group to finish their exploration — and once they’d caught up, we followed the path of stone into the heart of the island.
We encountered many more ruins along the path, and with the jungle behind us, we were spared from having to deal with more of the plant monsters. Oddly enough, though, no new monsters appeared from the remains of the city — either they were concentrated in the island’s jungles, or they were the kind that avoided the daylight.
We’d left the boat around mid-morning, and had taken our time advancing through the thick foliage. On the horizon, the last rays of sunlight were giving their farewells, basking the world in a dim orange light.
If nocturnal monsters roamed the island, we would be finding out very soon.
The shadows lengthened as we walked, and beside me, Cameron shifted around as he cast an illumination spell. Good for nerves, if nothing more. Even if one was to mimic the sun’s rays entirely, dungeon monsters always knew the difference.
It was less than a second after the sun descended entirely past the horizon when the scraping of stone in the distance put me on guard. We were far enough away from any of the ruins, with only a lone shattered outhouse casting its shadow anywhere near us.
“Be on your guard,” I said softly, and I saw Shiro’s shoulders tense up.
“What can we expect? Shadelings?” Sarah asked, dropping from her bear’s back and advancing to walk along with the ranged group, her sword at the ready.
My eyes widened in surprise. “Unlikely that we’d find mere shadelings around here,” I said, suppressing a shiver as I remembered the close calls I had had with those monsters during my adventuring years. “How do you even know about them, though? Do you have them in your world?”
“Leon mentioned them,” Shiro said, his voice tinged with amusement. Why would he find the monsters funny. Leon knew as well as I how dangerous— ah. He must have told them of that time I fell asleep on watch and was kidnapped by shadelings.
I would have flushed red if my body allowed it, but thankfully it didn’t. “Ah. That,” I said instead. “Annoying creatures, but not nearly dangerous enough for a dungeon like the Circle. No, what we’ll find here—”
I was interrupted by the screeching of stone against stone, and I turned around just in time to see the small ruin we’d left behind — the outhouse — burst outward as something left its confines, heading at great speed towards us.
At great speed, for sure, but compared to its leafy brethren, it could have been a snail.
With no regard for anything else, Winnie charged the monster, leaving its rider behind. I couldn’t see what the creature was, yet, but the piercing sounds it released made me think of stone. Undead bear and stone monstrosity ran recklessly toward one another, meeting half-way as Winnie released a ghastly roar.
Not waiting to see the result, Sarah ran after her mount, the rest of hot on her trail. Alexis unslung her bow and picked an arrow from her quiver, ready to draw as soon as it was needed. David dashed past us, leaving Shiro alone in the rear, though he was making good time as well.
My eyes were drawn to the showdown between wight and monster, and I finally got a good look at what we were facing. A gargoyle, an imp-like creature of stone with the wings of a bat and claws of an eagle. It was currently lying on the ground after being blown away by the impact. The bear, however, was none the worse for the wear.
Sarah was there in an instant, her sword glistening in the moons-lit sky as she swung it in a wide arc, parting the gargoyle’s head from the rest of its body. Not even checking to see if her target was dead, she turned around, appearing an instant later next to her mount’s side.
“Winnie, thank god you’re okay!” She said, her face a frown and her voice full of worry. “Don’t run off like that! You could have been hurt.”
The undead bear merely watched her with its characteristic placidness.
Sarah turned around, her frown deepening as she took in all of our stares — some wide-eyed, but most simply amused. “What?”