What has never been clearly understood is the connection between dungeons and the gods.
We know, from our scriptures and the teachings of our faith, that the gods reside in the heavens, far above our world. Yet dungeons are the antithesis of this fact. Dungeons dig down deep to where the worms sleep and to where the light can not reach.
So, are we to assume then, that these things, these dungeons, are the opposite of the divine?
If this is the case, then what can this say about our society as a whole? We rely on the dungeons for our food, for our wealth, for everything that we have. Without them, our world would be nothing.
— Only those who live their lives in dedication to the faith still venerate the gods.
Everyone else, the adventurers, the merchants, the ‘normal’ people of the world; they worship at the false altars of the dungeons for prosperity.
I can not help but wonder if the gods do not return to us, not because of some grand banishing that had occurred during the great ash, but perhaps because they have simply seen that there was nothing down here that was worth their time?
I am afraid to say. Instead, I will continue to pray for our souls in the hopes that it might help return us to the right path, even if only by a nudge.
~ Controversial speech held by renowned high-priest, Father Grangori, during the opening of a new adventurers’ guild.
Isaiah floats there with crossed arms, hovering high above the tower. It is as high up as it can go.
— Another one of the intruders has fallen off of the tower. The necromancer was thrown straight off of the tower either by the flood of water from the collapsed floor above, or by the dark-repelling effect of the ringing bell.
Yet the monk and the priest still remain. Still. This is fantastic.
“They really don’t have much kick to them, do they?” asks Red. Isaiah looks towards her. “I was expecting worse, honestly,” she explains. “After what happened to Emerald. But man, we’re just wiping the floor with these guys,” says the uthra. “I almost feel bad for them.”
“Do you really?” asks Crystal, flying in.
“I said ‘almost’,” replies Red, shaking her head. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re going to be just fine.” She places her hands on her hips, looking down at the tower. “And here we were worrying the whole time for nothing, like a bunch of idiots.”
“I wasn’t worrying,” says Black. Red rolls her eyes.
Isaiah nods, returning its gaze to the tower. With only two real intruders left remaining before even floor ten of the tower, which has almost thirty floors total at the moment, this match of theirs is already simply and decidedly over. The humans have suffered a crushing defeat.
There is just no other way to see it.
She nods, holding her finger against the crystal on her forehead as she runs in a full sprint, dragging the frantic priest behind her away as a gargantuan monstrosity screeches, tearing up the arena just behind them with a set of talons, each the size of a large carriage. The boss of floor ten is some massive bird, the size of a castle.
The walkways behind them explodes as it crashes into them, tearing them apart and just barely missing them. In a fair fight, she could probably kill a boss this low level by herself with no issue. But the boss-monster itself isn't the danger here. The arena is. The walkways are torn apart from the water and from its destruction. There's almost nowhere left to stand. It's too risky.
“Got it,” she says, easily leaping off to the next walkway over. The priest in her grasp screams a terrified scream, as they soar through the air and land on another platform.
- The one they had just been on explodes into a cascade of rubble, as the leviathan boss monster smashes its head into the walkway, before rising into the air and flying off to make another pass at them.
She bolts towards the staircase leading downstairs and jumps again, flying towards it.
A shadow looms over them from behind.
The two of them fly down the staircase, falling and tumbling over each other as they roll down the stone steps together.
The world behind them explodes, as a massive, taloned foot smashes in through the hole, reaching after them and tearing apart the stairwell.
The monk and the priest roll, coming to a stop as they hit a wall. In a daze, they look back up, dusting themselves and rubbing their bruises.
There is a door next to the stairwell, leading up to floor ten of the tower.
“A safe room,” says the monk, grabbing the handle and pulling it open.
Inside of the room is a beautiful, small chamber. It is fully stocked with ornate, decorative and kind furnishings. There is food and water and a bed in the back. There are simple tools to make minor repairs with and there are a small collection of low-level ingredients from the forest.
“- We’re going to wait here until the back-up arrives,” she explains, dragging the priest in behind her and slamming the door shut.
Isaiah’s eyes twitch, as it watches the fresh group of riders break in through the forest. Elite soldiers, all dressed in matching uniforms. They don’t bother stopping, blasting all the way through the grounds straight towards the entrance of the dungeon. They dismount and barrel inside the already cleared lower tower, quickly making their way up the staircases.
“Red,” says Isaiah.
“That’s the problem with humans,” says Red. “There are always more of them. They’re like rats.”
“Excuse me?” says Crystal. “We don’t have rats inside of the tower, thank you very much.”
Red looks at Isaiah. “Can we have giant rats for the tunnels?”
“No!” argues Crystal. “They’ll ruin the entire holy theme! We can't have giant rats!”
“Please focus,” says Isaiah, returning its gaze to the tower. “This is a problem.”
Irascaris grabs a small satchel of ingredients and an iron ingot that some dead goblins had laying on them. “Nice!” says Domi, scavenging another corpse. “We have enough loot to keep us going for another month at least,” he says. “See? It’s not a total loss.”
Caeli walks past them. “We’re not done yet,” says the battle-alchemist. “We’re not leaving this place until we have another two months on our account. Let’s go!” she says, throwing her collected items into her bag and waving to the two of them.
Boots thunder up the staircase behind them. He lets out an annoyed groan. More adventurers? They need to hurry, or they’ll take all of the loot before -
Irascaris stands up straight, watching as the troop of elite, noble soldiers run up the staircase. They’re wearing matching uniforms with platemail breastplates and the rest in dark leather, barring a small red, fabric wrap around their shoulders.
“Adventurers?” asks the officer of the unit, looking their way. Irascaris silently nods as his two party members move closer towards him. The officer nods, pointing to the staircase. “Congratulations. You’re drafted.”
“…Huh?” Caeli blinks. “We’re just here to -”
The guard puts a hand on his sword, attached to his waist. She becomes quiet. He nods his head to the staircase. “Move. Take the stairs.”
Caeli looks towards the staircase, leading up to the next floor. “But what if its trapped…?” she asks.
“Exactly,” replies the guard, nodding his head.
Irascaris narrows his eyes, but quietly takes the lead role and starts walking. He can feel that Caeli is about to argue, but this would be a very unwise idea with these people. He knows their type. “Come on,” he says quietly to the others, immediately doing as told.
There’s no point in arguing with these guys. They’re probably noble-blood, judging by their ornate uniforms. The three of them are lucky that they’re just being put out front to bait out monsters and traps. People have suffered far worse fates than that, given that these sorts of people are beyond repercussions of any kind for non-nobles like themselves, especially adventurers, who are on the bottom of the societal totem pole at their low individual rankings. He and Domi are both D-Ranked. Caeli is a C. In the noble-tier of society, they aren't even good enough to hire as unseen servants.
Looking behind them, he can see the other troop of adventurers from outside, being dragged along behind the guards to be the first ones hit in case of an ambush.
Isaiah rubs its forehead, thinking about what to do. It's out of tricks. They had damaged all of their floors and used up their inventory of not-trap traps already on the first party. This new group of humans is just running right through the now already cleared dungeon. There's nothing left to stop them.
They push their way through to floor six without a problem. Then, on floor seven, they simply massacre their way through the goblins. Barring a few odd straggler goblins who… seem to hide, for some reason?
The same for floor eight and by the time they get to floor nine, Isaiah has Red evacuate Beulah who was wandering the tower.
Then, the two new intruding parties meet up with the monk and the priest at the safe-room, before floor ten. They prepare themselves and then head up to the boss-arena as a massive unit of close to twenty people.
Isaiah crosses its arms, thinking. The boss, Garuda, will very likely only buy a little time with this many intruders. But they’ll be able to skip floor eleven because they had ruined most of it for the flood. This is all untested territory for the rest of the tower, but Isaiah has a feeling that there are more humans remaining than ambushes and mechanisms that they will be able to set up. A final confrontation seems unavoidable.
“Gray,” says Isaiah.
“Yes?” asks Gray, flying in.
“Make me a sword.”
Gray blinks. “You sure?”
Isaiah nods. “Make it look good.”
An hour passes.
The intruders are on floor sixteen, having smashed their way through everything before that. The newcomers are very varied in their makeup. But they have so much ranged damage that they can just blast away most problems from afar and given their high level of alertness, the few ambushes they try to set up fail mostly in spectacular fashion.
In one incident on floor eighteen, the shrine, Red almost gets caught after doing an odd favor for Beulah, but manages to escape.
— After that, Isaiah slows down the ambushes, not wanting to risk the uthra for this.
By the time the intruders get to the mid twenties, half of the new-intruders are dead. But the old two, the monk and the priest, plus the low level adventurers are still alive. Plus the other half of the soldier-group. There are still far too many people.
Isaiah rubs its head in frustration, watching them walk up the next staircase.
They are just about out of floors and just about out of time.
It sighs, looking at the uthra.
Nobody seems to have any ideas left either. A large section of the remaining floors are still under construction and unfilled, so they’re just empty rooms. Crystal and Green are still building new sections this very second, to buy them a little more time. But even at their higher level, they can’t make floors fast enough to beat the pace of people walking through an empty room.
“Listen,” says Red. “For what it’s worth, you were my favorite.” Isaiah looks at Red. “I’m gonna think about you on the next job.”
“Thank you, Red,” says Isaiah, looking back down towards the tower. “But you will be here a while longer, I am afraid,” it states.
Red shakes her head, flying next to it. “Look, chief. I like your optimism,” she says, placing a tiny hand on Isaiah’s shoulder. “But they’re almost all the way through. When they get up to the roost and trigger the final boss-fight, you’re not gonna be able to avoid it,” she explains, looking around the sky. “Even up here.”
Isaiah nods, lowering itself down towards the roost of the tower. It looks at Red. “Please make sure the eggs are safe,” it says, before hovering down to the tower and closing its eyes, looking through the eyes of a small statue on a tree.
The small blackbird sits in its nest.
He lifts a wing, staring down towards the eggs and then back up and around the area.
They are just about ready.
Caeli walks on in annoyance, treading up another staircase, feeling the sharp tip of the lance basically pressing against the small of her back.
This is a mess. They really should have just taken what they had and gotten out of here earlier, but now…
Irascaris walks ahead of her, entering into the next room, which is far too dangerous for an adventurer of his level and rank to be entering first, let alone by himself. The higher level, noble guards are behind them, pressing them forward. The other adventuring party is in the back, basically tethered with rope as human shields against ambushers.
“Keep walking,” says the guard with the spear, pressing it against her back. She lets out a hissing breath, feeling the small cut and takes another quick step up the next step.
— The brick beneath her foot slips loose on the staircase and she stumbles, falling forward. The stonework on the staircase seems to have been damaged. Caeli catches herself, her palms gripping the step before herself. But a potion rattles loose from her potion-belt, strapped around her body. Her eyes open wide as she sees the bright, bubbling yellow vial strike against the step with a clink. She flinches.
It doesn’t explode.
Caeli sighs in relief.
That’s odd. Aren’t her explosive potions usually -
“GET UP!” yells the guardsman and she feels the tip of the spear pressing against her thigh. Letting out an annoyed yelp, she rises to her feet and… simply doesn’t say anything about the potion that fell down. They don't seem to have noticed it.
Caeli narrows her eyes, walking after Domi and Irascaris, leaving the explosive potion exactly where it is on the loose step.
Metal boots thud loudly behind herself as she makes it up the staircase, a little quicker now than before. As she rounds the bend to the door to the next room, the crunching of glass can be heard, as someone with a pair of metal boots steps on the potion.
“RUN!” she yells, grabbing her two party-members and bolting on ahead.
The stairwell behind explodes, rubble flying in through the doorway.
“What the hell did you do?!” yells Irascaris as they bolt through the entirely empty rooms towards the next staircase.
“I didn’t do shit!” replies Caeli. “Not my fault they stepped on that!” she yells, the sensitive potions attached to her body bubbling as she sprints.
“We’re fucked!” shouts Domi. “They’re going to kill us! You know that, right?!”
They make their way to the next staircase, heading up.
“Not if we get out of here!” she says, as they escape.
Irascaris looks her way as they listen to the shouts and yells from behind them. “I hate to tell you this,” he says. “But you know that there’s nowhere to go but up, right?!”
“Then we’re going up!” replies Caeli.
These are high level guards with a lot of health-points and stat values. But an explosive potion won’t just damage them. It’ll damage the tower too, especially since it looked like the stonework there was sub-par, for some reason. It's really lucky for them. She bet that the staircase was blown clean away and a few of them fell down to the floor below, at the very least.
“Come on! Hurry up, long-ears!” barks Red. Rorate runs after her glowing silhouette, barging into the tower and then into the shortcut that leads up to the top area. “We don’t have long!”
Lights of many colors shoot off into all directions, as the other uthra are sent off to gather what they need for this to work.
Rorate sprints as fast she can, glass clinking in her rucksack, her face and hair soaked with sweat. She had run all the way back from the city.
This is her chance to prove herself to Isaiah, once and for all.
“Enough,” says Walundra. “I’ve had ENOUGH!” screams the man, smashing his fists against the table. “What the hell is wrong with this place?!” he shouts, looking at the officers.
Nobody dares to say a word.
“It’s bad enough that this abomination is killing my people, but now some low-life degenerates are too?!” He points at a man. “FIND OUT WHO THEY ARE! NOW!”
“Y- yes, sir!” shouts the nervous junior officer, far too loudly as he jumps out of his seat, tangling his leg in his chair and pulling it to the side. He awkwardly runs out of the room, losing the chair only a few steps into his escape. It almost feels like its clinging to him, desperate to get him to take it with him.
Walundra leans into the scrying crystals. “Find the core. Finish. This,” he hisses through clenched teeth.
The monk on the other end, perhaps feeling the bulging of his eyes and the venom of his voice, simply quietly confirms and proceeds, leaving the dead where they lie.
Walundra looks over at the crystals of the primary inspection team.
Of the five, only one remains active.
Wooden beads rattle as she stomps up the staircase.
Her clothes are frayed. Her skin is burnt. Her face is covered in ash and her hands are covered in blood, her ears — full of screams.
Pulling herself together, clenching her fists, narrowing her eyes in focus, she tries to drown all of that out as she ascends. The bow and arrows that she has confiscated from an adventurer rub against her back as she walks and walks, heading through empty room after empty room.
The air becomes lighter.
The atmosphere around herself becomes brighter.
There is a safe room on floor twenty-nine, before the final boss arena and she decides to stop inside to pick up any healing items. She opens the door and the monk stops, looking at the person standing there, inside of the room. A priestess stands there, entirely silent and unmoving.
A homunculus? Inside of a safe room? Unusual.
She warily eyes the robed and hooded priestess, who is simply standing there with her arms held inside of her sleeves and her head down. Without saying anything, the priestess stiffly gestures towards a trove of items, sitting atop the desk nearby.
— Is this some sort of unfinished quest mechanic? That would explain why the design of the tower is so odd. Floor three was basically empty. Plus with all of these empty rooms here too... It's probably some kind of mechanical scrap that hasn't been completed yet. Weird.
The monks looks at the items there. They seem like perfectly normal things. A fair amount of Obols, some trinkets and baubles and, to her great relief, a health-potion.
The monk grabs it and shuts the door behind herself, not wanting to bother with the fake. Killing them is always depressing. She knows that they aren't real, but still.
A gust presses against her face as she, the last one to make it this far, reaches the very end of the tower. She guzzles down what looks like a standard health-potion, setting the bottle down to the side of the stairwell.
Her face is the first thing greeted by the air of a kind day as she reaches the very top of the tower.
The monk’s eyes wander around the place she finds herself at. The top of the tower is an open platform with no railings of any sort. It is covered in grass and rocks and flowers, as if it were a piece of the forest floor below. On the side, near the ledge, is a tree of significant size. The three adventurers are there, having had nowhere else to run.
She steps onto the platform.
A silhouette catches her eyes, flying in the sky. The rays of the sun shining past its body give credence to the presence of something that is clearly other.
“I am sorry for your friends,” says the voice, coming from above. “Understand that this was not my choice, but rather, my need.”
A communication? Not too unusual for a core. The Emerald was a real talker, she heard. Babbled all the way to the edge of the territory.
She cracks her neck, feeling the potion hit her stomach. Her skin, burnt, begins to heal and her energy returns somewhat. Dungeons love their safe-rooms, but it always comes back to bite them in the end.
She rolls her shoulders.
It speaks again. “I will ask you; is there no alternative?” asks the core. “Do you not see that it is my will to co-exist with your kind?” Its wings span out, stretching through the sky like drifting clouds. “Look around you. I know of humans, I was once a man. I know of the church, I was once of them,” it says. “Tell them of the name of Isaiah. They will know of me. Please.”
The monk presses a finger against her scrying crystal, waiting for a response as she walks to the center of the arena.
It’s quiet for a moment and then it vibrates once.
The choice has been made. She honestly hadn’t expected anything else.
She reaches to her back and grabs the bow, as the entity lowers itself down with wings like a harpy, with talons like an eagle, with a face like a broken, porcelain doll adorned with haunting, glowing, golden eyes and in its hands is a sword that looks as if it had once belonged to a grand paladin of a forgotten era, with a hilt of gold and a blade that is so polished and clean, that it seems to cut the sunlight itself, spreading rays out in all directions, almost blinding her.
She squints, her vision wobbling all of a sudden. The light of the sun feels unusually bright, actually.
The entity shifts and changes shape in a way that she can’t describe. The ground beneath her feet begins to wobble. The stones and the soil unnaturally waving, as if it were the surface of the ocean. But it isn’t just that. The floor of the arena, the waving boughs of the large tree, the sky, the clouds, everything… changes. It all morphs and blends and she feels a lightness in her head, while her body feels increasingly heavy at the same time.
What the hell is going on? She blinks hard, trying to stabilize herself. Her vision of the world splits and changes, dripping into an indiscernible mess of gooey patterns.
“Very well,” says the divine entity, assuming a fighting stance as it flies down. As it pulls its arm back, another hundred sprout from its shoulder, each of them carrying a blade that is so dazzling, that she has to look away, as if she were staring straight into the sun. Why is it so bright?! “It is a shame,” it says, landing before her and readying itself. She looks at the monster with ten-thousand faces as it gazes her way. Just as many golden eyes pierce into her core, projected from a being that is inseparable from the sun behind itself. It is one and the same. “- Summer will be good this year.”
— It lunges.