Stepping into the dungeon, I felt the temperature suddenly drop as we descended down a gradual slope. I stood adjacent to Brald, who had his shield up and his sword drawn.
Jasmine and I did some research on the Dire Tombs dungeon we were in now. It was a unique place, even amongst the mysterious dungeons. The beasts that made their homes here had been described in the records as “undead.” I’d never heard of mana beasts that could come back to life. Because of this, one of the hardest aspects of clearing this dungeon seemed to be the endless amount of undead mana beasts.
Digging deeper, some adventurers and mage guilds even speculated that inside the bottom of this dungeon might be a special artifact that was able to reanimate dead mana beasts, but no one had been able to prove it.
Clearing the dungeon meant that the area had to be explored. It was different from conquering the dungeon, where the mana beasts inside had been defeated and the treasures looted.
This dungeon had been cleared—or at least it was, until Brald had discovered the hidden passage—but never defeated.
“We’re approaching the first level of the dungeon, stay on guard. The mana beasts here aren’t strong, but there’ll be a lot of them. Don’t waste your time trying to collect the mana cores from the beasts…they don’t have one,” Brald declared, lowering his stance.
I heard a faint muttering from Oliver, our healer, who was already beginning to complain about the lack of rewards from this dungeon.
While the goal of defeating a dungeon was usually to loot the accumulated treasures high-level mana beasts had amassed through their lives, most of the profit usually came from collecting the beast cores on the way down. In most cases, even if parties couldn’t defeat or even clear a dungeon, they were still able to come out with a hefty sum from just the beast cores, which could be sold for a high price depending on their level.
One of the reasons this dungeon had been unpopular, and why our party was the only one inside the dungeon was because the mana beasts here had no cores. This meant a big chunk of revenue from trying to clear the dungeon would be gone.
Suddenly, a steady growl filled the dungeon hall.
Narrowing my eyes, I focused on the source of the sound. We had just reached the end of the descending passage and into an underground cave no larger than fifty meters in diameter. Looking around, the whole cave was glowing in a dim, blue color. Above us, the cave was covered in stalactites, threatening us with their sharp, gleaming tips.
Out from the spaces between the stalactites fell two dozen mana beasts that looked like large bats, except with four limbs replacing what normally would’ve been wings. The hollow body of the bat-like mana beasts had their ribs fully visible and inside it, where the beast core should’ve been, was a cracked rock.
I guess it was true.
“Batrunners! They’re not strong but they attack in groups. Minimizing the use of our mana is going to be the key inside this dungeon! Get ready!” Brald roared over the growling of the batrunners, all of whom were positioned to pounce, their patches of fur standing on end and their teeth bared.
“Form and torment the foes around! Fire Cyclone!” I heard a yell from behind me and I realized it was Lucas who had casted the spell.
Suddenly, four twisters of fire swirled to life around us, filling the cavern with a wave of heat.
As the fiery cyclones spread out, sharp yelps and pained whimpers echoed from the mana beasts.
Many of the batrunners had been engulfed by the fire tornadoes and were charred to ashes. The ones that were fortunate enough to escape the tornadoes had fled, trying to circle around and attack us.
I could hear Brald click his tongue, dissatisfied that Lucas had just ignored his orders and casted a spell that wasn’t necessary.
The fire cyclones had killed most of the batrunners and the ones left had been badly burned, making it easy to defeat the rest.
“Next time, follow orders and don’t waste mana like that. Your spell was overkill,” Brald growled over his shoulder before marching ahead.
Lucas just rolled his eyes, “I don’t see the problem. We killed them fast enough so that everyone else could save their mana.”
Shaking his head, Brald ushered us forward to the other end of the cave. As we continued forward to the location of the next room, the rather sickening sound of bones crunching and flesh gurgling made us all turn our heads back.
To my surprise and disgust, the batrunners that had just been killed began to reanimate, their bodies snapping into place as the ones that had been burned just seemed to rise up again from their ashes.
Dire Tombs…What an unfortunately fitting name for this dungeon.
We chose to ignore them and advanced into the next room while Elijah quietly casted an earthen wall over the entrance so that the batrunners couldn’t follow us.
The opening on the other side of the cave led us through another dark corridor just wide enough for four people to go through at once.
I could tell everyone was a bit more relaxed upon leaving the first cave but I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling.
As if to answer me, a barely-discernable click and faint whistle caught my attention.
I immediately drew my sword and sidestepped in front of Samantha.
My shortsword blurred as I instinctively parried the projectiles aimed towards Samantha, the sharp ring of metal on metal echoing through the dim corridor.
“Th-Thank you…” Samantha muttered mindlessly. Even under the dim blue lighting, I could tell that her face had paled as the metal spikes that almost killed her landed on the ground, harmlessly, beside her feet.
“Something’s wrong…there were no traps last time.” Brald picked up one of the pointed spikes to study it but was baffled.
“I don’t think they were traps but strategically placed mana beasts, which doesn’t make the situation better,” I said, noticing the faint scuttle of the small beasts on the walls.
“Stay alert, everyone,” Brald said, kicking the spikes to the side. Jasmine already had her twin daggers guarding her vitals before Reginald and Kriol readied their weapons. Samantha inched a bit closer to me, her hand pinching my sleeve as her free hand gripped tightly at her wand.
Fortunately, we reached the end of the hall with no other traps deterring us. The next cave was similar to the previous cave, but twice the size and littered with suspicious holes all over the ground.
“Don’t get near the holes. They’re geysers that shoot extremely hot streams of gas up. It should be fine as long as you’re not in direct proximity of the blast,” Brald announced as we all looked for any signs of mana beasts.
As if on cue, the cave trembled, shaking the sharp stalactites overhead to a nerve-wracking degree. Forcing my attention from the wobbling spikes, a large figure erupting from the ground.
“Was that here last time, Brald?” the pot-bellied Kriol asked in a worrying tone as we all peered up at the mana beast.
The creature resembled a worm, except it was thick enough to easily swallow any one of us here, whole. With a glowing red hide and countless rows of teeth encircling the hole that I assumed was the mouth, it was impossible to guess how long this creature was since its body was still mostly underground.
“N-No, it wasn’t—I don’t get what’s happening. It doesn’t make sense for new mana beast species to enter a dungeon like this.” Our handsome leader had a wavering look, his mask of confidence all but gone.
“Cheh. It’s not a big deal. It’s just an oversized insect,” Lucas quipped from behind.
We braced ourselves for its strike, but to our surprise, the gigantic red worm didn’t attack us. Instead, the beast burrowed back underground, leaving in its path another gaping hole.
“It doesn’t seem to be after us,” muttered Elijah while his sharp, bespectacled eyes studied the hole the giant worm had left.
The red worm-beast was now burrowing itself into the walls of the cave, creating more holes from all different angles, but it never confronted us.
“Are we just going to stand around watching the worm dig or are we going to go?” Oliver, our lanky emitter, shoved Brald out of the way, fearlessly taking the lead as he strode towards the other end of the cave.
It was obvious not just to me, but to everyone else that Oliver’s brazen attitude was to show off in front of a certain party member.
“Get back here! We need to assess what’s happening before we go across!” Brald barked, his face furrowed in agitation at the arrogance displayed by the conjurers. As our leader stepped forward to go after him, a thundering rumble shook as the entire cavern fizzed with the sound of a boiling kettle.
“Lucas! Heatwave Barrier, now!” I roared at the confused, blonde noble.
Just as I yelled out the command, fumes began filling the cavern.
The holes. The holes that were here since the beginning and the holes littered across the ground, roof, and walls made by the giant worm all trembled before released a fiery torrent of deadly gas.
“Damn it,” I cursed. The giant worm was making the holes in order to kill us, and we just let it happen.
I managed to pull Brald, who was just at arm’s length of me, back in before he had the chance to run after Oliver.
Just as the barrier was erected, a blast of a mustard-yellow gas bombarded us. Lucas’s barrier trembled against the pressure but Samantha managed to gather her wits in time to help him out with a water barrier of her own just beneath Lucas’s.
The two barriers of opposing elements sizzled, making the area inside the spell a makeshift sauna. Despite the crude teamwork, however, the barrier held, leaving us sweating but intact, until the blast of gas began to subside.
However, due to the strength of the gaseous blasts that filled the cavern, I lost sight of our idiot healer.
As both Lucas and Samantha released their barriers with stifled breaths, the horrid scene came into view.
The only thing left of Oliver was bones, as blood and pieces of flesh still stuck to parts of his charred skeleton. All of his possessions had been completely destroyed by the acidic gas except for the bright-emerald gem that was once embedded at the tip of his staff.
“Shit!” Brald cursed, gnashing his teeth as Samantha stumbled backward from the ghastly sight.
Oliver didn’t mean much to us as a person but he was our healer. That idiot ran off, not even casting a protection spell on himself.
“Let’s move out!” I ordered as everyone remained silent. I went ahead and picked up the gem, studying it before comparing it to the gem that Lucas and Samantha had on their weapons.
The gem embedded on Lucas’s staff was of much higher quality than the gem Oliver had. However, there were apparent flaws on the sapphire gem fashioned to the tip of Samantha’s wand, so I tossed the emerald stone to her, telling her to replace it with his gem.
“Note is right, we need to move before another eruption occurs. That giant worm beast is making more holes. I don’t think our barriers will hold for another wave,” our leader stated as he stepped in charge once more.
I glanced back at Jasmine who just solemnly nodded at me. Even if her face remained expressionless, her knuckles were white from clutching too tightly to her daggers; it wasn’t just me that was frustrated by the turn of events.
We were halfway through the cave when Elijah, who was behind me, asked, “How did you know that the cave was going to explode with steam like that?” Everyone’s eyes shifted toward me, waiting for my answer.
“I didn’t,” I replied without turning back. “I knew that something was about to happen, but even I didn’t know exactly what.”
The giant worm that had been constantly burrowing in and out of the cave, creating more holes, suddenly stopped in front of us, blocking the exit. Without warning, it whipped its head forward and smashed at the ground we were standing on.
Kriol, who was positioned at the back, lunged forward and, with surprising harmony with Samantha, created a water barrier that cushioned the blow before they were sent tumbling back. However, this gave enough time for Elijah to erect a large ring of rock to erupt, cuffing the worm to the ground.
“Impact Blast!” Reginald bellowed as his giant hammer glowed a bright yellow. Jumping up, he spun his body, creating momentum before smashing his hammer directly at the worm’s head.
With a deafening explosion, the worm’s whole body shook as Reginald’s mana-infused attack sent a shockwave to the beast’s body, creating ripples on its red hide.
However, the attack did little but destroy the earthen binding that Elijah had conjured, freeing the giant worm. The giant mana beast flailed its body, knocking away Reginald and Brald, who was also nearby.
I managed to pull Elijah out of harm’s way before charging at the beast myself. The giant worm shivered, then unleashed a shower of acid spittle at me.
I drowned out the panicked yells of my comrades, telling me to run away, as I advanced toward the worm. I dipped and weaved my body, sidestepping the deadly globs of yellow saliva that landed inches away from my body.
Once I was close enough, I drew my shortsword, willing flames to surround the blade as I activated mana rotation.
“Sear,” I muttered under my breath.
The flames that surrounded my blade wisped away, leaving the metal glowing a fiery-red.
I swung my red blade at an incoming blob, scattering it away with the flat of my blade. The beast’s acid spit scattered, some of it burning through my clothes but leaving me otherwise unharmed.
Making one last lunge, I tore through the underside of the worm, welding the wound as my blade burned through the flesh.
The worm let out a shrill screech as it began flailing wildly. Jasmine followed up and jumped over me as she stabbed her two daggers into the smoldering gash that I had just created.
With another shriek, the giant worm escaped back into the hole it had emerged from.
“The oversized worm wasn’t even strong.” Lucas just shook his head, disappointed, when all of a sudden, we heard another rumble.
I was afraid of this; the worm wasn’t trying to kill us—it was trying to delay us in time for another eruption from the holes.
The familiar howl of a boiling kettle once again reverberated throughout the cavern.
I whipped my head to Lucas but just from a single glance, I knew he couldn’t erect his barrier in time as he stared blankly at the walls.
Muttering the incantation, I leaped toward the blonde brat.
A surge of a dark-red fire surrounded my body, protecting me and Lucas against the deadly gas. I looked back in relief to see that Jasmine had erected a swirling aura of wind around her that dissipated the torrent of acid steam.
As the howl of gas quieted and the room cleared, my team started coming back into view, one by one.
Kriold came into view first; he had managed to protect Elijah under his gigantic shield augmented with water. Both of them had red sores on their bodies and some on their faces but they were relatively uninjured.
Brald appeared on the ground, his right arm clutching his other arm that I couldn’t quite see. Upon closer look, I couldn’t help but curse aloud. It seemed like Brald only augmented his shield in flames instead of his whole body to protect Samantha because his sword arm was obliterated from the elbow down. Reginald looked a bit worse than Kriold and Elijah, but Brald was by far in the worst shape.
Our leader’s sword was on the ground as his stump of an arm had been burned black at the end.
“Let’s go!” Brald yelled through gritted teeth. He slung the shield on his back and picked up the sword with his remaining hand.
We immediately made a break for the exit to arrive in another dim hallway, much wider than the last one.
Everyone remained silent as we tried to gather our breaths. Samantha had ripped out a part of her robe and was fashioning a bandage for what was left of Brald’s right arm. Kriol slumped against his shield as Reginald and Jasmine sat upright against the rock walls.
Looking around, everyone’s faces had sunken. We weren’t even halfway through the dungeon but had already incurred such damages, with our healer dead and our leader critically injured.
“This is why I said to stay alert, Lucas! If you had stayed focused and reacted in time to set up a barrier, we wouldn’t be in this state—I wouldn’t be in this state!” Brald lashed out venomously but with good reason. His career as an adventurer was probably gone after this. He’d most likely be demoted from his class once the guild found out about his crippling injury.
“Don’t blame me! It was your fault you couldn’t protect yourself in time!” he spat back, standing up.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Note had to save your ass! You didn’t do shit and you’re saying it’s my fault?” Brald snarled, picking up his sword.
“Enough!” I roared, instilling mana into my voice.The large corridor echoed with my voice, as both Brald and Lucas immediately snapped their mouths shut in surprise.
“There are a couple of choices we need to make. Reginald’s body is a bit burnt. I don’t think it’s that bad but Brald, you need to make the choice of whether you want to continue or not. We’re only a bit more than an hour from the surface so you can probably make it back up by yourself,” I stated, staring at our leader through the slits of my mask.
“I’ll keep going. This will probably be my last dungeon raid so I might as well make it last,” he grumbled, cradling his right stump.
I turned my gaze to the noble boy who had his chin held high and proud as if he’d done nothing wrong. “Lucas, get your act together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a dark-yellow core or God himself. Right now, the only thing you are is a liability. If you’re going to continue acting out on your own, you might as well just go on by yourself.”
He glared back at me with a baleful look but kept to himself, whipping his head away from the group.
“Samantha and Elijah. We need you guys to stay focused and alert to set up a barrier at a moment’s notice,” I continued, getting a nod of affirmation from the two of them.
“Let’s get a couple hours of rest before we continue on.” I sat down next to Jasmine, taking out a sack of water from my bag.
The group remained silent as my gaze kept turning to Brald. Through the hours that some of us had used to sleep, our leader had been reduced to a state of dread and angst.
Suddenly, Brald got up from where he was seated and walked over to me. “I think you should take charge of the group.”
Looking up at him for a moment, I studied the lifeless eyes of our leader. “Okay.”
After a few hours, we got up with our mana somewhat replenished and continued marching down. This hall wasn’t as long as the previous ones but at the end of the hall was a large, double door with unfamiliar runes etched all over it.
“I-I don’t get it. Even this part is different. There was never a door here,” Brald groaned, shaking his head.
“The only thing that was the same was the first cave, where the batrunners had been,” he continued, analyzing the runes. He tried to touch it but with his dominant hand gone, he just swung his stub hollowly at the air. After he realized what he was doing, he cursed aloud and walked to the back.
“Well, no use complaining about it now,” Reginald shrugged, lifting up his hammer. “I don’t know what those runes or symbols are but there are cracks all over them. I doubt they’ll do much now,” he said as he swung his hammer.
The impact his silver hammer made against the old, metal doors created a shower of sparks as a deep thud boomed.
Reginald was visibly shocked by the sturdiness of the door as it lay intact.
“Impact Blast!” The door shuddered this time, but stayed firm.
“Impact Blast!” The blow this time was harder and the door clicked before opening just a little. Stepping forward, Reginald gripped at the slight opening and pried the doors open.
I couldn’t see what was on the other side, but the burly augmenter took a step back as he muttered, “What in the…”