The gargoyles kept coming throughout the night. They’d hidden well among the ruins, appearing to be just simple statues until anybody approached, when they’d morph into their true forms and fall upon their hapless victim.
At least, that was what I believed they were supposed to do. Our being undead seemed to interfere with the gargoyles’ ability to detect intruders, often losing the element of surprise in their attacks. The kids had taken to bantering about how poor the gargoyles’ tactics were, coming in single-file to their deaths instead of trying to capitalize on their greater number.
They had been in for a rude awakening not hours later when a pack of twenty gargoyles descended upon our group, resulting in a mad flurry just stay alive — but we’d made it through, if battered and bruised, and as the sun rose above the horizon, we finally reached our destination.
“I expected something more like an actual circle,” Sarah said, skepticism evident in her voice as we entered the open plaza before the Circle of Stars.
I understood her confusion. The building before us was anything but a circle — it was quite clearly rectangular, in fact, not much different from any other place of learning.
“The name refers to the Circle’s inner courtyard, where a grand scrying formation sits,” I said, enjoying my role as a walking encyclopedia. “If you were to look from above, you see the Circle of Stars is, in fact, a square with its center removed.”
“So, I assume that formation is where we want to go,” Alexis mused out loud.
“Quite possibly, yes. There are few dungeons that started out as actual inhabited places — most develop in cave systems or long-abandoned ruins. What we’re looking for are hints into what actually triggered the change, especially given how we know the System is involved in maintaining these dungeons.”
We walked up to the Circle’s grand entrance, the massive wooden doors looming over us like a pair of twin guardians. Shiro planted a step on the stairs, and the doors creaked opened, almost invitingly. He jumped back a step, David deftly sidestepping him before he could crash into the other boy.
“Yeah, that’s not ominous at all,” Cameron said, his eyebrows disappearing into his hairline.
“Bet you five bucks they’ll slam shut after we go in,” Sarah said.
“Yeah, yeah, I don’t have five bucks. Fine, five silver.” When nobody answered, she continued. “What, no one wanna take me up on it?”
“Who’d take you up on that? It’s basically a given,” Cameron retorted.
“I’ll take that bet,” I said with a smile, Soul Sight snapping neatly into place as I walked past the group to inspect the doors. Surely enough, a spell was engraved deeply into frame, one of Force meant to open the doors for visitors and close them once they entered.
I coalesced a thin thread of Origin, supplementing it with a stream of Force and channeling both into the existing spell. Surely enough, it unraveled readily, overpowered by the raw energy of Origin mana.
I returned to my place among the backline, earning a few quizzical glances along the way.
“Does that count as cheating?” Cameron whispered, and I was happy to see he’d also fallen into the habit of using Soul Sight whenever magic was being worked.
I shrugged. “I don’t see why it would. There was no clause against interfering with the door.”
He shook his head but remained silent, and I motioned for the group to proceed into the dungeon.
I walked past the threshold, and the difference between outside and inside was staggering. Mana permeated the entire island, of course, but once inside, it became so thick that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a colossus spontaneously manifesting in front of us. Beside me, Cameron shivered, but the other Heroes seemed unaffected.
We walked deeper into the entrance hall, a smirk tugging at my lips, and I was about to inform Sarah of my win when a rush of wind blew past us from behind. A powerful slam echoed throughout the halls, and I turned around to see the giant doors, neatly shut.
“Told you so!” Sarah said, her lips curling into a wide grin as she extended an arm. “Never bet against a dungeon being theatrical.”
Grumbling, I reached into my sleeve pocket, searching for anything remotely coin-shaped. Finally, I removed a gold coin and placed it into her expecting hand. “Keep the change,” I said, scowling.
“Don’t worry, I was going to.”
“In any case,” I said, clearing my throat in an attempt to salvage what I could of my dignity, “we should begin the exploration. The Circle is quite large and spread out, so it may take a while before we can find the entrance to the courtyard.”
“Should we spread out, maybe?” David asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said, accompanied by a chorus of ‘Hell no!’, ‘You kidding?’ and other assorted expressions of denial and disbelief. “Groups being split up — either voluntarily or not — is the leading cause of adventurer death, as per the Adventurer Manual.”
“Yikes, sorry, forget I asked.”
The room we were in was wide but short, opening into twin hallways on either side, both lined with doors every two dozen feet or so.
“Classrooms, I think,” Cameron said as he followed my sight, “or private studies and laboratories.”
“Administration offices, more likely,” I said, shaking my head. “Those are more likely to be near the main entrances.”
“Which way?” Alexis asked, gripping her bow tightly.
“Either way looks fine to me,” I said with a shrug. “It shouldn’t matter, too much.”
“Heads, we go right; tails, we go left,” Sarah said, throwing the gold coin high into the air — perhaps a bit higher than she’d intended, as the coin impacted the ceiling, flecks of paint falling off as the coin descended into her waiting palm. “It’s tails.”
I puffed out a laugh. “Left, it is,” I said, and we fell back into the usual formation and entered the corridor.
Shiro opened the first door we encountered, peeking in cautiously as if ready for a monster to attack him. None did — the entire room was nothing but mostly rotten sheaves of paper, record books, and old scrolls. The next two doors were more of the same, and by the fourth, we opted to just ignore the side rooms for the time being.
As the door to our right burst open, I realized that might have been a mistake.
A literal whirlwind of paper and ink tore through the splintered remains of the door, and it took me an instant to realize the whirlwind was not a spell, but an elemental, a living amalgam of air and clerical supplies — the inanimate given life by the thick mana coursing through the dungeon.
Sarah leaped off her bear, running past me and engaging the whirlwind who’d separated Shiro from the group and begun to assault him with its implements. The bear itself tried to charge as well, but I sent it a mental command to stay put. The corridor was wide enough for three people, but there was no way the wight would make it past us in the middle of a battle.
“Shit!” Sarah exclaimed as she ineffectively poked with her sword. “How are you supposed to kill this?”
The elemental had no reason to wait for her to find out, pushing Shiro further away into the corridor as it sought to make mincemeat of the boy.
“Don’t go too far out,” Alexis yelled out over the gale, an arrow nocked and ready to fire, “You might trigger another one!”
Shiro grunted in assent, bracing as he rushed past the living wind, hugging the wall as best he could. He rejoined the group an instant later, a dozen of cuts already beginning to leak. At the same time, I finished my casting my opening spell, a low-intensity Haste snapping into place over the group.
“It’s not immune to normal weapons,” I said before Sarah could discard her sword. “It has a nexus — a body — somewhere inside those winds. Broad swipes should be effective.”
“But not arrows,” Alexis said, already releasing the tension on her bowstring.
“Not arrows, unless you’re very lucky,” I confirmed.
“Just my luck,” she muttered as she slung her bow over her shoulder and bent over to draw a long knife that had been strapped to her boot.
“What should—” Cameron said, but the elemental had had enough of being held back by Shiro, and the power of its winds intensified. For someone less sturdy, they’d have been subjected to a death of a thousand cuts by now, but Shiro merely punched in a wide arc, the force of his arm creating ripples throughout the elemental’s body.
“Bind it in place,” I said to Cameron as I began a working of my own. Sarah and David left their place of relative safety behind Shiro and began hacking at the elemental from the sides — but with the elemental constantly moving and twirling, it would be hard for them to do any lasting damage.
For once, though, this was an enemy where my specialty shined. I drew Soul, weaving threads into horrible, leech-like tentacles, and sent them forwards into the raging tempest.
The tentacles had the desired effect. At once I could feel them sucking away at the elemental’s essence, drawing its soul bit by bit as the creature’s thrashing intensified. Elementals were one of the few dungeon monsters Soul mages excelled at, as their souls and bodies were one, and poorly protected from outside influence. Its time was limited, it now knew. Unless he killed me and stopped the spell, he would wither away to nothing within minutes.
A thunderous roar erupted from the monster as it raged its enemies, and with no regard of those engaged in melee, it squeezed ahead, passing between the fighters, throwing its all into killing me.
It advanced, at a sedate pace to my hastened perception, despite the three fighters now stabbing at it through its back. Closer and closer, until finally, it stopped.
The winds picked up, but they were held back as if by a barrier as the elemental sought to escape its prison — but Cameron’s spell had trapped it in place, and despite his deficient finesse when casting, its raw power couldn’t be understated.
Trapped and continually being drained, the elemental had no more options than to spin in place, futilely attacking the binding keeping it stuck.
“Aw, damn,” Alexis said softly, and I notice she had taken a step forward and fallen into a defensive stance just in front of Cameron and me. “I almost feel bad about it now.”
Shiro snorted. “Don’t be. It was about to cut us into a million tiny pieces a few moments ago.”
“It still is,” Sarah said warily, squinting as she took a long look at the elemental. “Do you see a body in all that? I don’t.”
“It’s invisible,” I said, and through my leeching spell, I could feel its exact position. I pointed at the bulk of its nexus. “If you slice at that area, it should die. There’s nowhere else for it to go.”
Without any word, the knight brought her sword low in a powerful swipe, and I felt the spell unlatch as the nexus burst into pieces, already diffusing into the ambient mana. With nothing to fuel them, the winds dissipated, dropping the shredded paper and other assorted implements to the ground.
David knelt over the place the elemental’s body had been and rummaged through the trash. “Doesn’t look like it dropped any loot.”
“It’s a normal denizen of the dungeon. They rarely do,” I said, taking a peek at the discarded implements. Elementals did sometimes drop a kind of dust — crystallized mana — but it didn’t look like this one had done so.
“Is the whole dungeon going to be only elementals?” Alexis asked, absentmindedly stroking her bow.
I shrugged. “Hard to say yet, but it should be safe to assume we’ll meet more, at least in these parts.”
“Hurray,” she sighed as she rolled her eyes.
“Looks like we’ll have to check each room if we want to avoid getting ambushed like that,” Sarah said.
“Just a moment,” I said and turned around, taking a look at the corridor behind us. The entrance hall wasn’t too far, and Sarah’s bear still waited patiently for further instruction. “I might have just the right idea for this.”