Everyone else got through the door safely, thanks in large part to my sister being scarily good at her job. Taylor’s shield was everywhere after that initial hit to Civette, deflecting blows from all angles. I was amazed she wasn’t injured.
“Shit, that was a clusterfuck,” Taylor groaned, leaning her back against one of the too-thin pillars of the room. It didn’t seem to mind. “I thought we were safe for a second there after Civette lost her footing, then all hell breaks loose. Again.”
“It was an accident,” Civette blurted defensively, crossing her arms and glaring challenge at the rest of the group.
“I know,” Taylor nodded, closing her eyes wearily. “I’m not blaming you for anything. It’s not like you got to choose where you were standing when the cat suddenly told us all to freeze.”
“Oh,” the healer blinked, looking almost bemused at the fact that no one was blaming her for what had just happened. “Right. Thanks.”
There was a few moments silence as everyone took the time to rest after the close call. Rusti seemed to still be on alert, eyes flicking between the entrance we had just come through, and the dark interior ahead of us. Millie wobbled over to Taylor and flopped into her arms, to the surprise of my sister who nevertheless wrapped the smaller girl up protectively.
Dawn and I sat near the entrance, her head resting on my shoulder pad, her eyes closed. “She’s staring at us again isn’t she?” she asked quietly.
“Yup,” I confirmed, brushing my eyes casually about the room.
While Civette was staring, I noticed Rusti stop gazing off out the door and turn their attention inwards. They moved slowly, their feet making no sound as they stepped across the gravel floor. They seemed to almost be looking for something, their eyes roaming first the floor, then the walls.
“Knew I smelled it, just a faint whiff. Poor bastard’s been dead a long time,” they said to no one in particular, staring at a spot on the wall opposite the entrance.
I squinted into the dark, trying to see what Rusti was talking about. There was something, a dark smudge on the far wall, but I couldn’t make out what it was. I tapped Dawn on the shoulder and pointed to where Rusti was staring.
“What is it?” I asked Rusti.
“About halfway up that wall is something dead, been dead a long time too. Something hit it so hard it got imbedded in the wall,” they replied, a smile in their tone. “I really hope whatever did that is dead and gone, but I doubt we’ll be that lucky. Or unlucky, since this is a game and hard to kill enemies are generally a sign of good loot.”
All of a sudden Dawn was standing and conjuring a ball of flame to hover above her head. She looked around, her eyes alight with interest.
“Look at the walls on either side,” she said quickly, moving towards a wall and pointing to one of many oddly shaped nooks in the walls. “This here, it’s approximately the same shape as the upper torso of the golems out there. I bet you it mirrors them below the gravel too.”
“What are you getting at?” Rusti asked, their ears swivelling to give her their attention.
“I think this was like, a barracks for them or whatever. A garage. They have them near the border with the republic too, basically a garage where they store the mechs and swarm bots when they aren’t in use,” she said excitedly.
“So this was like, a guard post?” I asked, standing up to follow her as she roamed the room.
“I think so?” she said, sounding unsure of herself now. “I mean, it’s just a guess, we’d need to explore further before I give anything more than wild guesses.”
“Shall we move on then? Deeper?” Taylor asked. “Is everyone rested?”
There were nods from everyone in the party, although Civette’s didn’t look all that enthusiastic. Oh well, she agreed to come, and she was sticking with us despite her bad attitude. Actually, if she was finding us more and more distasteful, why was she sticking around at all? It seemed weird, I’d need to clue Taylor into my suspicions at some point.
Since the group was going deeper, we all checked our gear, made sure we were ready for a fight and headed further in. The strange, delicate architecture continued as we progressed. It was almost jarringly at odds with both the stone it was carved from and my expectations of what an underground ruin should look like. When someone says, “Mountain entrance into a dark, ancient dungeon, winding down into the deep,” you think dwarves and their heavy stone architecture. This place had more in common with stereotypical elvish styles than anything else.
Beyond the room we found a corridor that sloped downwards into the mountain, sometimes switching back on itself. I was beginning to wonder if we were stuck in some sort of magical loop as the lengths of downward slanting hallway began to blend into one another, but my worries were proven wrong.
Ancient bodies began to litter the ground as we descended, and it became abundantly clear that this place had been ransacked. The bodies weren’t human either, on one side you had the golems, smashed and broken with their pieces scattered, and on the other side you had what looked like Aurellings of some kind, similar to Taylor’s race. At least the wings on them seemed to indicate such.
The bodies eventually culminated in a door that had long since been smashed in, probably during the conflict we were seeing around us. Signs of struggle were everywhere, the walls were littered with scorch marks and other spell impacts. The solid steel door itself looked almost melted.
Carefully stepping over the bodies and through the door, we found ourselves in a new, vast hallway. The ceiling was so high it receded into the darkness beyond Dawn’s fire, the huge columns set into the wall drawing lines up into the black.
“We came in from a side entrance,” Dawn said, her expression thoughtful as she glanced around. “Possibly a sally port? I’m willing to bet the main entrance is at the top of this big hallway.”
“Yeah,” Millie said as she bent down to look at a pile on the ground near one of the walls. “This is fabric here, probably a banner that used to hang from the wall. This place is really old.”
“Or created to look old anyway. This game has only been out for a few months,” Civette said with a derisive roll of her eyes.
“Not entirely,” Rusti murmured absently, their eyes and ears scanning our surroundings intently. “The game hasn’t been available that long, sure, but that doesn’t mean this world hasn’t experienced these thousands of years. Simulated, sped up to a blistering pace compared to what humanity knows as time, but it still experienced it all.”
“How do you know that?” Civette asked, defensive but curious.
“Ah,” Rusti blinked, focusing on our healer and the conversation properly. “Reasons.”
“What reasons?” Civette pushed, frowning as Rusti tried to dodge the question.
Rusti opened their mouth, grimaced, then turned and went back to keeping their attention on the potential dangers of the dungeon. Their tail betrayed their agitation though, flicking this way and that irritably.
“Time to move,” Taylor told the rest of us, her voice echoing slightly in the huge cavernous space.
We followed her further down into the depths, the huge intricately decorated hallway leading ever downwards. It felt like we’d been going for hours, each step seeming like it gave us no progress, like we were just walking in place.
The only mark of our progress was once again the bodies, they were everywhere, golem parts strewn across the floor, Aurelling dead piled up in drifts alongside. It was downright creepy, and I was starting to get a little jumpy. The shadows were becoming empty canvases for my mind to paint enemies in.
So when Millie spoke up, Millie blurting, “What is that?!” I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I took a moment to give my heart time to calm down, then followed everyone over to what she’d found. At first I thought it was another dead angel, but almost as soon as my mind tried to make that connection, it was thrown out.
The humanoid was tall, almost seven feet, but it was also thin. Almost rail thin, not more than one and a half feet wide at the shoulders. It wore the remains of clothing too, but its skin was strange, shiny and faintly metallic.
“Holy shit,” Taylor muttered as she bent down for a closer look. “It’s made of metal. The whole thing!”
I knelt next to her, now incredibly curious. She was right, its muscles were finely woven cables, tightly packed, with impossibly intricate scale plates protecting broad portions across the limbs and torso. The whole damn thing was impossibly intricate, the more you looked, the more it became apparent that whatever this thing was, it was not made with any method that even humanity out in the real world could fathom.
“It’s like a metal person,” I said, moving my inspection up to its face, frozen in a very human expression of fear. Too human, given the strange, almost clockwork eyes it had.
“Who’s willing to bet that this is one of the people who used to live here,” Dawn asked, indicating the hallway. “The aesthetic of this place matches this thing’s lanky stature.”
“Yeah I think you’re right,” Taylor agreed, then she grinned. “I’m also willing to bet that a mechanical race like this has some pretty sweet weapons that we can loot.”
“Now that is my kind of thinking!” Rusti agreed, tapping one of Taylor’s pauldrons with a clawed finger happily. “I bet they made some crazy cool knives, just for me.”
With our sights set on loot, like any good band of adventurers, we moved off yet again with eager footsteps. I was hoping they had decided to make some sweet gauntlets for me way back in the day.
We saw a few more of the mechanical people, but none of them seemed like fighters. Just random civilians that had been caught by the invading angels. It was weird, but despite the way angels were typically displayed as the good guys in media, I found myself feeling sorry for the people who’d lived here instead.
If the carnage was any indication, they hadn’t gone down quietly either. The corpses of the Aurellings around us were mangled and broken, bones crushed, heads smashed. Those golems didn’t fuck around.
Some of the Aurelling bodies weren’t as destroyed though I noticed as I idly stared at one while we walked. It was creepy, the way the shadows made it look like they were moving a little.
“Guys,” I hissed, staring at the corpse I’d been watching. The corpse that I’d been watching as it watched back. “The Aurellings aren’t dead.”
Taylor was alert in an instant, staring around at the bodies warily. “They aren’t moving though.”
“Look at that one,” I said, pointing it out, my heart hammering in my chest. Was I crazy? It was following me, its sightless eye sockets holding my gaze.
Everyone turned to stare at the corpse I’d indicated, and it was Civette who spoke first, her voice a terrified whisper. “Almighty protect us. They’re all still alive. The one with its whole upper body crushed over there. It’s feet are twitching.”
That was when the one that had been watching me spoke, its voice an ethereal rasp as its ancient jaw moved. I couldn’t understand the strange musical language, but the intent was clear. It was laughing at us.
“What did it say? Did anyone understand it?” Taylor asked, her tone edged with tension, her sword hovering ready.
The party quickly answered in the negative, with the exception of Rusti, who was silent.
“It’s calling us fools. It says they didn’t find… it. It says they didn’t find something, and that we won’t find it either,” they said quietly, then gave a shiver and purposefully looked away from the dead thing. Their usual jovial expression was gone, eyes now haunted with memory.
“I mean, that’s fine right?” Millie asked, her eyes darting between the members of the party. “We’re not here for anything in particular, and it’s not like we stay dead.”
As soon as she mentioned we wouldn’t stay dead, sightless eyesockets turned to stare from every direction. Stilled limbs began to move, dessicated husks rising shakily to their feet in a terrible wave, all hissing a single word in their strange language.
“What are they doing?” Civette asked shrilly. “What are they saying?”
“They’re saying… Blessed,” Rusti said, drawing their daggers.
It happened quickly, surprisingly quickly. The Aurelling corpses all at once began to rise, screeching that one word over and over, the cacophony reverberating down the hallway in an eerie and terrifying way. The air shook with it, undulated with the sound of it.
“Shit,” Taylor growled. “Everyone get ready, protect the squishies.”
“Squishies?” Civette asked, terror rising in her voice.
“That means you, because you can’t take a hit,” Taylor said brusquely, pushing her behind and into the middle as we formed up.
The first one to come at me was screaming, one arm was long since gone from its body, leaving just a single hand grasping at me. It was pretty obvious that these things needed to be pounded into dust before they would quit, so that's what I began to do. The single arm did nothing but scrabble uselessly against my armour, but I tore it out of the socket anyway, crushing it with my gauntlet.
A kick shattered a leg, and with it mostly incapacitated I threw it bodily into its companions. Then I hit the whole writhing mass with a bolt of lightning for good measure.
The next one was armed, swinging a strangely shaped sword at me with deceptively vicious speed. As I caught the blade on my armoured forearm, I remembered how not long ago I’d have had to dodge around that. I much preferred going toe to toe like this.
With the blow rendered harmless, I flashed forward slightly into its guard, pummeling blows into its ribcage until the whole thing fell apart in a clatter of bones. It seemed that they might be able to die after all, if they took enough damage? I wasn’t sure, so I kept punching and guarding my team’s backs. The undead were everywhere, and although my build was well suited for taking them down, the others were having a little more trouble.
Rusti’s knives were all but useless against the raggedly armoured skeletons that were attacking us, and it didn’t look like Dawn could get her fire hot enough to burn the bones. Taylor was having more success, her shield now a blunt weapon to crush and smash.
“Look for the shimmer!” Millie said suddenly and excitedly. “They have a little white shining bone or something in them, break that and they stay down!”
“Well isn’t that convoluted,” Dawn said between gasping breaths as she kicked the legs out from under a skeleton.
I followed Millie’s advice with the next enemy, and sure enough I could see one of the ribs had a sort of grey pearlescent quality to it. I lashed out quickly, not even bothering to square up and all the normal shit you do with a new foe. My fist smashed into it like it had bricks strapped to it, and suddenly the skeleton was just that, a loosely connected pile of bones.
I dashed forward now, smelling… well not blood in the water, they didn’t have any more of that, but something. Point was, now that punchy girl knew their weakness, they were fucked. I saw one had its skull shining, so I simply rammed my head into it, using one of my horns to smash the thing into a million glittering pieces. Maybe I should find a helmet again? Headbutting might be a fun addition to my moveset.
I got too cocky for a moment, taking a hit from an axe to my thigh, gasping out a cry of pain. Where the fuck did that come from? My hand whipped out almost instinctively to grasp the pelvis of the offending bone boy into my gauntlet. I squeezed, the brittle bone cracking and tearing until my angered grip.
Damn though, my leg hurt like hell and I knew I couldn’t rely on— The healing energy washed over me in a rush, surprising me almost as much as when I’d realised the skeletons were still alive. I looked back to see Civette turning away from me, her eyes already looking for the next wound to heal. As I stared, her eyes flicked to mine for half a second in recognition that she’d healed me. Why though?
Girl could you get any more confusing? Just when I thought she hated me and I wasn’t going to get any healing from her, bam. She heals me.
The fighting began to slow a minute or so later as we exhausted the local supply of batshit crazy undead and we were left panting as one or two particularly busted up skeletons tried to shamble suicidally towards us.
“Holy shit,” Dawn sighed, wiping her grimy, bone dust caked hand on her robes. “What the fuck do we do now?”
“We keep going down,” Taylor said with an amused smile, earning groans from the rest of the party, then with a laugh, she waved her hands in acknowledgement of our need to rest. “Okay, we’ll stop at the next door or whatever. We need flat ground for the house anyway.”
As much as I liked smashing skeletons, I was dreaming of a bath right about then. This was hard work.