Of all things David had expected of his first real dungeon dive, boredom was not one of them.
He had to admit, using the bear to make the elementals charge single-file into traps was an effective tactic, but to David it felt… cheap. Cheating, even. And even as they downed their third group this way, he was almost certain he wasn’t feeling this just because he was confined to sitting on the sidelines while Alexis, Cam, and Julian had all the fun.
Well, that would have been a lie. He’d most definitely had enough of sitting on his bum, waiting for one of the twirlies to get past the blockades — and luckily for him, on the four attempt to do the same tactic, Winnie blitzed through the corridor, followed by… nothing.
“Maybe the area’s clear,” Sarah said, poking cautiously at one of the doors.
“Wouldn’t bet on it,” Alexis snorted. “You open that door and something’s gonna attack. The plaster on the wall, maybe. Or the curtains.”
“It’s likely we’ve entered a different wing of the dungeon,” Julian said, ever scholarly. “Conventionally, that means the kinds of monsters we encounter will change.”
“Won’t know what it is till we check it out,” Sarah said, motioning with her hand for everyone to stand back. She directed Winnie towards the first door, and made a gesture with her fingers. The door splintered as the bear charged through it unimpeded, crashing to the ground with a thundering sound. The dust settled some seconds later, rays of light streaming through the broken doorframe, and David peeked over Sarah’s shoulder, peering into the room.
“A classroom,” Shiro said. “No monsters, though.” He stepped into the room, his eyes swiveling in his sockets as he scanned for danger, then turned around and gave the group an all-clear.
David and the rest of the group filed in, taking stock of their surroundings. A grand blackboard hung from one of the walls, a box still filled with chalk attached to its frame. Some two dozen desks had been arrayed in the room, now good for little more than firewood after being flattened by Winnie.
Julian rushed past David as he made a bee-line for the windows, startling the boy. David frowned, then he followed the older man, eyes widening as he noticed the great tree just outside.
“That should be the inner courtyard,” Julian said, voice filled with excitement. “If there’s anything worthwhile to be found in this dungeon, it will be there.”
“How do we get there?” David asked as he approached the windowsill. “It doesn’t look like these windows can open at all.”
“Hmm…” Julian’s eyes gained an eerie intensity as he looked at the glass — David had seen that look before when Julian was doing magic. “The glass is magically reinforced,” he said after a few seconds. “Not quite unbreakable, but it should require significant force to shatter. Quite an interesting method, as well. I’ll give it a closer look on our way back.”
“Some other way, then?” David squinted, trying to see past the gargantuan weeping willow blocking most of the view. “Might be a proper entrance somewhere.”
“If that’s the final boss room, shouldn’t there be a final boss?” Sarah asked, startling David again. He forced himself to relax — he was among allies, as much as his mind refused to believe it.
“That’s… a good point,” Julian said with a tilt of his head. “There should be a guardian near the source of the dungeon. Perhaps on the other side of the tree?”
Swift motion to the side caught David’s attention, but when he looked closer, there was nothing there. Were his nerves playing tricks on him, he wondered?
But as his eyes were drawn to the willow’s branches, the mystery of the missing box finally clicked inside David’s head. “The tree — the boss is the tree,” he said, and the branches suddenly moved, more than simply swaying in the wind, surging toward the team’s position. “Duck!”
Moving like the wind, David tackled Sarah and Julian to the ground. He didn’t have time to see whether the other three had listened to him before the windows were blasted inward as nearly a dozen tendrils smashed into the room.
He scrambled to his feet, smoothly drawing his daggers from their hidden sheaths, throwing Julian and Sarah a quick glance before searching for the others. Sarah was already stumbling to her feet, while Julian still seemed to be gathering his bearings — they wouldn’t move nearly as fast as David’s dexterity allowed him, but they were momentarily safe.
“The hell?” Alexis coughed out as she climbed to her feet, using the bear to prop herself up — it had shielded her from the blast. Cameron was behind her, some shards of glass embedded in his head, squinting through blood-slicked eyes. He hadn’t reacted in time, and Shiro — Shiro had gotten the worst of it, close to the window as he’d been yet too slow to react. But that only served to make the boy more dangerous, anyway. David knew he had no reason to worry.
A fraction of a second was all David had needed to finish his survey, and already the tendrils were spreading out and assuming a proper formation. Ten versus six. Or seven, he supposed, if he counted the undead construct. They’d already fought more than that in the jungles, but that time they hadn’t been caught off guard and—
A glance outside the window made David’s eyes go wide. Ten tendrils had made it inside the room, sure, but dozens more lurked outside, waiting for their chance — maybe even hundreds, David having easily lost track of the count. They needed to get the upper hand soon, or they’d be overwhelmed.
David activated Flash step, appearing right behind a cluster of three tendrils, daggers already mid-swing. He’d gotten the skill when he’d dinged level 40, and even though it consumed a ridiculous amount of energy, David knew he had no choice but to risk it.
Each swipe took the tips (heads? feelers? David had no idea what to call them) of a tendril, and before the cluster could turn around to deal with him, the backswing chopped them even further.
Back in the jungle, that would have been enough, but maybe because they were so close to the boss, the crippled tendrils weren’t nearly out of the fight yet. They spun themselves around the one remaining tendril, throwing their might behind it.
The one good tendril, now looking almost muscular with its brethren wrapped around it, attacked with renewed fury, and David was barely able to raise his daggers to parry in time, and he had to take a step back under the strength of their combined strike. David’s plan, if it could even be called that, relied on being able to thin their numbers before they could turn on him, but the tendrils clearly had declined to play along.
David hastily blocked another attack, but he was trapped. He couldn’t use Flash Step in quick succession, at least not when he’d expended so much energy. Each block drained his energy even further, and the cluster of tendrils wasn’t giving him any chance to attack. He needed help, and soon, or he’d—
Just as the super-tendril was winding up to finish him off, a blur passed before David — Shiro was on the tendril, pinning it to the wall with an iron grip. David had forgotten how fast the other boy could get when was all bloodied up, and he had to repress a shiver.
Shiro twisted around, pulling the tendril over his shoulder, nearly extending it past its breaking point. Nearly, but not quite, as Shiro sent David a meaningful glance. David’s grip tightened on his daggers, and with a leap, he brought both his weapons down, slicing cleanly through all three at once.
The remains untwisted themselves as they fell back through the window, and a single overly ambitious tendril fought through to take their place — only to find itself punched into the closest thing to unconsciousness plant monsters could experience.
Were they even individuals? Or just limbs of the giant willow outside? David had no idea, but in any case, that punch of Shiro’s had knocked the wind out of the poor plant monster. Then, Shiro turned around to face David, a shit-eating grin on his face as he wordlessly bragged about his feat.
David blanched, for once knowing what a deer felt when it saw a truck coming straight at it on the highway. He pushed away his unease, giving Shiro a thankful nod. As much as it shocked him to see his killer save his life, the more rational part of his brain knew they were allies now.
The familiar magical aura of Haste snapped into place around David. He still wasn’t exactly fond of Julian, but if the man kept giving him the good stuff… well, he thought he might end up changing his opinion.
The sound of something heavy scraping on the wooden floor broke David and Shiro from their moment, and David looked up just in time to see Winnie place his considerable bulk on a set of tendrils while holding down another with his paw. Alexis was still fumbling with her bow, as useless as it was in tight quarters, but Sarah wasted no time bringing her sword down on the immobilized tendrils.
Another three remained, keeping close to the ceiling to avoid their brethren’s fate, but Cam had had a different plan for them — flames burst out from his outstretched arms, turning the tendrils crispy. Bits of plaster fell off the ceiling as the paint cracked under the heat, and Shiro took a step forward to smack the boy lightly over the back of his head — just as Julian slapped away Cam’s hands.
“No crutches,” Julian said with a stern look on his face, and although David couldn’t see Cam’s face, he could imagine the boy’s exasperation.
“And really? Fire in a closed space? Have you seen how much wood’s around here?” Shiro asked, gesturing at the floors and benches.
“That too,” Julian added.
“Is now the best time?” Cam threw his hands up in protest.
Winnie clearly agreed, and David barely had time to push Shiro out of the way as Winnie jumped through the window, soaring through the air like a bird, if that bird happened to be a several tons heavy bear. David stepped up to the window, managing to catch a peek of Winnie just as it barreled into the weeping willow’s trunk.
As large as the bear was, the tree dwarfed him, and its charge had served to do little more than anger the plant monsters — or plant monster? The tendrils drew back from the window, converging in the air to launch a group attack on the bear.
Sarah rushed forward, leaning over the broken glass. “No!” she yelled out, and turned to grab Julian’s arm. “Just, do something. More fire!” There was desperation in her voice.
Julian remained still, to Sarah’s clearly rising fury, but David recognized that look in Julian’s eyes he had when casting magic. Sarah turned around, moving to grab Cam’s arm instead, but stopped when she saw the fireball coalescing before him.
It grew bigger and bigger, yet Cam still waited to launch it. David wondered if he was afraid of hitting the bear, but the real reason became apparent as the mass of tendrils froze in place less than a couple of feet away from the bear.
“Now!” Julian said, his voice quiet — but the words echoed through the room. Cam released his fireball, now a good three feet across, and it blazed forward with deceptive speed, impacting the bundle of tendrils at their greatest concentration.
The immobilizing spell only held for a few moments more before the tendrils began thrashing wildly, but it was enough for the magical fire to spread from vine to vine. They struggled to put it out, but they might as well not have bothered — the fire ate away at the plant monsters all the same.
Another burst of fire flashed before David’s eyes — but not a fireball. A lance, hot-white and angry, extending all the way to Julian, whose brow was furrowed in concentration. It hit the trunk dead center, where the bark had been weakened by Winnie’s charge, and ate through the protective layer in seconds. And with the fire spreading to the base of the tendrils, the trunk of the tree was soon smoldering, branches falling off as they burned from within.