“I’m so tired.
I’ve been here for too many years. I’ve seen too many young faces vanish into the clawing dark.
— It’s always the young ones. The old people, the ones who made it to maturity, they never die. There’s a cut-off period. I think that if you manage to get past twenty-eight as an adventurer, you’re likely to make it all the way to retirement. By then, you know the ropes, you know the game that’s being played, you know how much you can bite off.
But before that age, the numbers are…”
The man sighs.
The room is quiet.
“Given our recent economic success these last few generations, but the persistent crises on our doorsteps, families have been booming. The average family here has five kids, you know? I know a few folks who cracked a full dozen.”
He shakes his head.
“In the big cities, it isn’t disease that takes them. It isn’t usually hunger. It isn’t war or anything of the sort. It’s the dungeons.
Statistically, of every group of ten adventurers who enter a dungeon, four of them will die there before they turn twenty-eight.
But those who return bring such wealth and prosperity to our society that families just grieve and then return their focus to their remaining children, one of whom inevitably also wants to become an adventurer too, in honor of their dead siblings. I've seen it happen a hundred times.
Then it continues. It’s a meat-grinder.
Our entire economy, our cities, our houses, the bread we eat, the water we drink, the beds that I can’t fall asleep on at night anymore, they’re all paid for with the blood and the screams of the young. We just… we just throw them into the hole and say that it’s okay, because they chose to go there themselves.
But did they really? Do they really know what it’s like down there? Or do they only know what we tell them it's like?
Four out of ten young faces who enter a dungeon won’t make it back out.
How can anyone ever sleep at night? I don’t understand anymore.”
~ Interview with retired national minister of finance, Svetch Boldko, who had given up his post in order to look after his mental health
“…What the hell is this…?” asks Walundra, his voice echoing around the tense room. Nobody dares to say anything. Every shoulder, back and practice of posture is as stiff as the boards of the table that he smashes his fists against. The many crystals rattle. “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!” screams Walundra, grabbing the scryer by the hem of his robe.
“H- He fell off of the tower, sir!” says the terrified scryer, feeling Walundra’s eyes piercing into his. The scryer nervously looks to the other officers for help, but nobody dares to stand up to Walundra. He’s the ranking man, after all. The power-dynamic is entirely off. He has the authority to decimate not only the careers of each and every one of them, but also their personal lives as well. “He must have been careless and tripped, r-right?” asks the scryer. The other officers nod in quiet, fervent agreement. “J- just a careless mistake on his part!”
The grip around his collar tightens and the scryer gulps, before then falling back down into his chair a moment later, after he is released. It’s good that the chair is there, because he couldn’t stand up if he wanted to anymore from the way his legs are shaking.
Walundra looks back towards the other officers, who all sit up even straighter than before, before his gaze wanders to the crystals.
The monk is standing there, waiting for her orders.
They’re only on floor six and two level seventies are already dead. Level seventies don’t die. It just… doesn’t happen. The last time that one, let alone two died was during the era of the demon-king. If anyone ever hears about this, that this happened under his command, he’s through. Shameful retirement won’t even be an option, he’ll be cast out onto the street if he’s lucky.
“Proceed,” says Walundra.
The crystal on the monk’s forehead vibrates twice and she waves for her party to follow her as the three of them keep going.
Walundra turns his head. “Send in an auxiliary team after them,” he orders, looking at a junior officer.
The chosen man jumps to his feet and sprints out of the room. Perhaps happy to have been given an excuse to leave.
Another man raises his hand. “I have a suggestion!” he exclaims, closing his eyes in fear. Walundra glares his way.
Everyone looks towards him.
Isaiah hovers there in the sky, pleased.
“This is going well,” it says to itself. The uthra are still busy, setting everything else up. But with two of the intruders already dead and there still being a large mass of floors remaining, it seems that the numbers are on their side.
— Assuming they can keep this sort of trickery up. But they’re going to be far more cautious now.
The necromancer walks up the staircase, the priest in tow.
“…Is this a wise idea?” asks the priest.
He doesn’t bother responding. This place has been a disaster so far. Two deaths? He looks around the area.
The crystals on the back of their head vibrate and the two of them stop, turning around.
They head back down the staircase, apparently having new orders.
On floor six, the open-faced room where they just were, the monk stands in waiting. She points over her shoulder with her thumb, towards the open sky behind them.
The priest and the orc look at each other.
“- Is this a wise idea?” asks the necromancer, seeing what their new plan is.
The priest doesn’t bother responding.
The intruders have gone back downstairs to floor six. Are they retreating?
That seems unlikely.
Isaiah looks down at the tower, trying to figure out what their game is. As it stares down at it from above, a glimmer of glossy sunlight catches its eyes.
A prismatic, magical barrier, much like the one that the fake priestesses of the tower can cast, is spawned outside of its body at a slant.
Exiting from the open-faced floor six, the monk, the necromancer and the priest simply begin to walk up their own external staircase, bypassing the floors entirely as they walk along the magical wall, projected onto the outside of the tower.
“- Red,” says Isaiah. “RED!”
Red flies up a few moments later. “What?” she asks. “We’re just setting up everything on floor-” Her eyes wander down to the tower. “Oh. Huh…” She plants her arms on her hips. “Well, fuck me, I guess. Smart bastards.”
“What should we do?” asks Isaiah, watching as they just… skip floor seven. “Can they do this? Is it allowed?”
Red shrugs. “I’m going to say it’s a gray zone,” she replies. “There aren’t really rules about towers, because, you know, there have never been any.”
“Did somebody call me?” asks a voice. Gray pops up. Red sighs.
“Oh, hey, they’re climbing the tower,” says Gray, noticing too. “Hey, Crystal!”
Crystal pops up after a second. “Huh? What?” he asks. Gray points down and his eyes wander to the adventurers, who are now walking past floor eight. “Wow. Talk about cheesing the system,” says the uthra. “Rude. I worked so hard on those floors too.”
“I guess we should have planned for people climbing the tower,” says Red. “It’s a big flaw of the design, now that I think about it.”
“Well, they won’t be able to get past the boss arena, I think,” says Crystal. “At least not without triggering the fight.”
Isaiah clenches its fists in annoyance, looking at the ‘inspection’ team, who are just simply walking right up their slanted, magical walkway. The priest just makes a new segment each time as they move along, the old ones behind them vanishing.
“Flood floor eleven,” says Isaiah.
“Huh?” asks Crystal. “Floor eleven? That’s where the fire area starts though.”
Isaiah lifts out its hand. “Flood it. Go! Hurry!”
The uthra shoot off and do as they’re told, as the intruders make their way to floor nine.
She walks along the pathway, doing her best to keep her footing. Magical walls are sleek, glassy constructions. So they’re not great traction.
Her eyes wander down through the prismatic barrier, staring towards the very distant ground below themselves that she can see between her feet, as she keeps walking.
What a mess this mission is turning out to be. Two dead under her watch is a very bad look. She’s going to have to go back to training after this.
They keep walking.
Once they grab this mutant dungeon-core and extract it, she’s really going to go back home and return to her meditations and training. She’s clearly in need of it. Forget the whole inspection team thing. This gig isn't what she wanted to do. She just kind of ended up in it.
They reach floor ten and look towards it from the outside. It’s another open-faced arena, lined with pillars. This one has the giant bell in the center, a trickle of water runs down over it from above. Dozens of criss-crossing walkways moving in all directions around the bell. The ceiling of the floor looks like a series of metal grids, that have hastily been sealed off by the worst brickwork she has ever seen. How odd. It's very out of place for the tower, which so far has been very elegantly designed. “Don’t step onto the floor,” she says, warning the others. “You’ll trigger the boss.” She nods her head.
The others nod back and the priest lifts his hands to cast the next magical barrier, so that they can continue their ascent.
— The tower shakes.
She steadies her footing, grabbing the priest and holding her balance. The orc clambers to a stone pillar. A hissing can be heard coming from the center of the tower. The bell in the middle of the arena of floor ten begins to sway as the trickle of water coming from above it shoots down with a pressure that wasn’t there before. Loose bricks fall down from the ceiling, striking against the metal construction. The base of floor eleven, the roof of floor ten, collapses.
A cascading torrent of water rushes down through the gaps of the ceiling above. Water crashes down onto the bell and streams down the pointed, jagged slant below them, rushing off of the side of the tower. Water runs along the many walkways of floor ten, channeling out into all directions with violent force.
The massive bell crashes downward, landing on the tip of the spire with a deafening gong. The sky, once visible in her vision on the other side of the open arena, is now replaced with a wall of solid blue of the same tinge as it it. But there are no clouds. There is no sunlight. A giant wave of water surges towards them.
She steps into the arena and yanks the priest inside with herself, as she clambers onto a walkway, pressing their backs against a pillar, as the water crushes them against it on its way out of the tower.
Between the deafening roar and the harpy shriek of something giant in the air, she hears a scream of a voice, falling off of the tower behind them.
The humming man walks with a slow, leisurely pace, as he wanders up the many exotic floors of the tower.
The monsters never bother him and he spares as much time as he feels like he wants to, in order to admire them and the architecture.
Everything is about to wrap up, however. He should get to where he needs to be, thinks the humming man, as he wanders up the next staircase to floor twenty.
— He stops, looking back behind himself for a moment. The man tilts his head and then bends downward, holding a hand against a single brick on the staircase. With a nudge, he adjusts it, tilting it just an inch to the right for no externally obvious reason. Then he holds his other hand to the stonework beneath it.
At first nothing happens, the stone simply turning darker and darker. But then, after a moment, the once strong bricks beneath his hand all turn loose and sedimentary.
Satisfied, he nods, sliding the upper brick back into place, so that nobody can see what has been changed. He continues to hum as he heads up the staircase towards the creature that awaits him, towards the thing that has what he wants. As a man with all of the time in the world, he often finds that it's difficult to find new goals to aim for, new things to want.
After all, what could you possibly spend your lifetime doing after you've already gotten everything that you want in life?
The answer is, of course, to get whatever else is left.
The humming man hums, heading up to the final arena. It's all about to fall into place. Adjusting his hat, he slips through the door, having arrived right on time.