The golden glow faded, like a gentle awakening from an enjoyable, yet melancholy dream. A dull thud echoed around the party as the large marble doors closed behind them. It took a while for their sight to return, eventually revealing a rectangular chamber of neatly carved stone. Havia was the first to step forward. Blinking as she approached the centre of the chamber, where an octagonal pedestal stood. Smooth black stones rested atop it, like unsecured gems atop a crown of marble. She gave the pedestal a curious glance whilst stepping slowly passed. There were several doorways exiting the chamber, and the thief made sure to look through each one before returning to the group.
“We’ve got cots in the room to the east,” she pointed wearily at a doorway. “Storage, containing what looks like preserved food and water to the west. The third room on the west wall is some kind of common room, maybe? And then there’s a corridor leading to the north.” She reported, wavering slightly on her feet as she pointed of to the final doorway. Antios watched as she turned to carefully examine the pedestal. The dull golden glow still radiated softly from the ceiling, enhancing the shine of her short cut blonde hair. As she leaned in, he could clearly see the elven lineage in her features. The slight point to her ears, a certain angle to the eyes, although her brown irises betrayed her human heritage. Even the shape of her chin had a slightly elven point to it. Of course, he would never point out her heritage. Havia’s family was full of ambassadors, politicians, bureaucrats, and she hated them with a passion, part of why she became a thief. Always the rebel. Antios remembered fondly one of their nights of drunken bonding, not long after they had first met, it had ended up with the city guard being called. Havia had stood atop a rather ‘handsy’ inn patron, proclaiming loudly that none had the right to tell her what to do, and no one had the right to touch her without asking. The next morning, she had begrudgingly paid a healer to reattach the man’s fingers. The charges for breaking the peace had been dropped, thanks to her father’s intervention on the matter. She had cursed and sworn all day, until Antios had suggested they try their luck in one of the smaller cities, exploring the less popular dungeons, far away from her family’s influence. At the time he was unsure why he got on so well with the rambunctious thief, now he knew it was because she was a lot of things he wasn’t. He liked rules, logic, having a plan. She liked breaking the rules, defying logic, and going where the wind blows. Between the two of them they balanced out nicely, a friendship that had lasted years. Even though they never earned much, or got the experience needed to level up at any speed, he couldn’t ask for a better friend. They stood by each other, even when they disagreed. The memory was pleasing, but the light in the chamber was hurting, he shook his head, instantly regretting it as a bout of dizziness threatened to bring him to his knees.
“Thanks, let’s check the corridor, and then maybe rest here while we decide what to do next?” He gestured ahead, but wobbled on his feet, barely able to stand, let alone move forward.
Utig caught him as his knees buckled, scooping up the fighter as if he were a child.
“You’re not quite ready for that buddy, I’ll drop you on a cot and go check out the corridor, don’t want you getting any worse, wasting Quink’s magic and all.”
The barbarian chuckled as he carried him over to the eastern chamber, a large square room with six bunks lining two of the walls. He placed Antios down on the first bunk near the door, ducking back out and quickly returning with all their packs bundled in his arms, grunting as he dropped them near the entrance. There was a clattering as the broken hilt of Antios’s sword rattled against his breastplate and fell to the floor. Utig picked it up and placed it next to the fighter’s cot.
“Didn’t you say this was your grandfather’s sword? Maybe you can get a new blade forged for it? Anyway, I’ll go check that corridor, you rest.” He smiled warmly and headed out. Passing by Quink in the process, the mage paused briefly to reach up and kiss the barbarian on the cheek. It was such a gentle moment that Antios couldn’t help the stupid smile spreading on his face. She stroked Utig’s braided beard, now unruly and in need of combing, whilst staring into his piercing blue eyes. The barbarian leaning down to let Quink, dark hair framing her face, place her lips gently amongst the bristles on his cheek.
The spell-caster turned back to the room, catching Antios’s eye and winking mischievously. She had that knowing half smile she often wore, but also a rare blush upon the cheeks of her pretty, round face. Usually immaculately clean and powdered, she was now mud spotted, bruised and weary, yet she still had the energy to greet her friend with a laugh.
“Ha,” she exclaimed, “you can’t have him! I claim that big lug as my own personal property.” Gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb as Utig’s mammoth, fur-covered back receded. Her brow wrinkled briefly as a thought occurred to her.
“Huh, I don’t think I’ve ever found someone I wanted all to myself before?” Her cheeks suddenly flushed red as she realised, she had thought out loud. Antios smiled, enjoying a rare moment of vulnerability from the street mage.
“When I was lost, down that hole, I just wanted to get back to him, to stop him worrying.” She said defensively, her smile fading slightly at the memory. She shivered, shaking the melancholy off like a light summer rain.
“You say a word to him, and not only will I deny it, but I’ll also tell him you tried to come on to me.” Grinning devilishly, raising her hands above Antios to assess his broken body.
“The barbarian is all yours, he’s not my type” Antios conceded, laughing a little before wincing at the pain in his chest and shoulder.
“My lips are sealed.” He added, while Quink concentrated. The purple, star-filled glow of her magic radiated briefly from her hands before fading away. She frowned down at Antios, all humour dissipated form her mood.
“You over did it, dumbass! Whatever damage you did to your shoulder is refusing to heal, and that puncture to your lung is barely staying closed.” She admonished him, turning to their packs, rummaging around for a water skin and some dried rations.
“I know a single basic healing spell, and it’s keeping you from deaths door, but you need to see a proper healer. Here, stay in bed, eat, drink and DONT MOVE” she ordered raising her voice at the end before leaving to check on Havia. Antios was thankful she was on his side. staring up at the ceiling, his ragged breaths causing him to wince, he couldn’t move if he wanted to.
He lay still, letting the exhaustion take over, his eyes closing slowly. The muted sound of Havia, complaining loudly about Quink’s examination, lulled him quickly to sleep.
They were in his Nexus, HIS nexus. That meant they were adventurers, right? This is what he was here for, created for, and yet, he was hesitant. He hadn’t spoken to an adventurer before, and he had no idea how long it had been since he last spoke to anyone, but he had to make contact. Slowly, he walked through one of the walls.
The big one was walking off down the corridor leading to the lower dungeon, the two women were arguing. The magic user was trying to cast a healing spell on the one who was examining the pedestal. They swore a lot. When had the populace become so uncouth?
The fighter was in a bad way, he lay asleep on the cot. The hilt of a broken sword next to him on the floor. His breast plate had been removed so they could tend his wounds, it lay amongst their belongings, two vicious holes punctured through its thick metal.
He was the least likely to attack if Dath made himself visible. He was probably the leader by the way the others treated him, the fighter was his best bet.
He cautiously made his way into the room, settling himself on the cot opposite where the fighter lay, and watched for a moment. The fighters shallow, ragged breaths were inconsistent, hesitant, he was clearly in pain. He considered what they must have gone through to get this far. The last time he had sent his awareness out of the nexus a community of goblins had settled in the tunnels that snaked between floors four and five. Not to mention the serpents, which had been intended as residents of the fourth floors lake, had spread throughout the lower tunnels and grown oversized. It would be nice if someone finished this dungeon, he could then reset it, fix it, improve it.
This group though, the only group to enter his dungeon, were they up to it?
Currently the answer was obviously no. But maybe. If he bent the rules a little. An idea formed, Dath smiled as he made himself corporeal. Brushing his robes straight as he coughed loudly.
After a minute he coughed again.
A few more minutes of coughing and he eventually stood and leant over the fighter, making sure he hadn’t died in the interim.
“Hey, hey you. Wake up, I need to talk to you.” He hoped his voice didn’t bring the others in. The idea of talking to so many people at once after this long alone, well, it was terrifying, and he lived in a dungeon.
“Look, I know you need your rest, but I need to speak to someone, and well, your friends are a bit much for me.”
He reached an ethereal hand out, as if to shake the fighter’s shoulder, and thought better of it.
Eventually his eyes fluttered open, he looked around the room, finally focusing on Dath as he was returning to his seat on the cot opposite.
“Hello, I’m Dath, the dungeon guardian.” He announced in what he hoped was his most confident tone.
“Your fucking annoying is what you are. I’m at deaths door, and trying to sleep.” The fighter grunted loudly as he manoeuvred himself to sit, propped up on the cot. Massaging his temples with one hand as he looked Dath up and down. His eyes, a cold, slate grey, taking in every detail, this guy was clearly intelligent, thoughtful, yes, the plan could work.
Dath rearranged his robes, a deep blue with starlight glimmering deep within the weave. He looked the very picture of a High-Mage. He stroked at his beard, and coughed, feeling a little intimidated by the fighter’s scrutiny and out of his depth.
‘I, look, I haven’t had to do this before. You’re the first party to reach me.” The fighter grinned, nodding slightly as Dath continued.
“I heard you, outside the door, and you’re right. This is Meridath’s first, and untested, dungeon. The Proto-Dungeon.” Dath liked that name, he had come up with it himself. “And, well, how to put this?” He paused, mid beard stroke, trying to think of a delicate way to surmise the situation.
“It doesn’t work properly, and he never finished it?” The fighter concluded for him.
Dath nodded, somewhat embarrassed.
“Well, yes. And I need your help sorting it out.”
Havia stepped back towards the pedestal, something about the smooth black stones, arranged around its top, was familiar. A thread of memory that she intended to pull on. Her fingers itched to touch, to examine every surface. But a coughing fit broke her concentration. She was in no state to disarm a trap, if she found one, and chances were in this state she would set it off before she knew what was happening.
Quink had finished fussing over her, telling her to head to a cot straight away for a good long rest, as if that would cure everything. She reluctantly agreed, admitting that she did still feel even worse now she had moved around a bit, bouts of nausea and dizziness accompanied with a frustrating itch under her skin. She’d been poisoned before, part of the trade when your main job is finding and disarming traps. So far, this was worse than anything she had suffered before. But she wanted to satisfy her curiosity a little before giving in to the toxin attacking her from within.
The shiny black stones were each positioned in a recess on the pedestals top, from the side only the rounded tops of each stone were visible, like a predator’s eyes peeking out of the water. It reminded Havia of the giant spider on the second floor, sending a shiver up her spine, she pulled a disgusted face at the thought of the beast. In the centre of the pedestal a circle had been carved, its sculpted edge gracing each stones recess slightly, connecting them all.
In a heartbeat she remembered where she’d seen this type of layout before, the stones were new, but the circle, she knew what it was. But she had to be sure. Reaching out she put her hand palm down in the centre of the circle, nothing happened.
“Shit,” she exclaimed, and without thinking picked up one of the stones. Its ice-cold surface pulsed with warmth for the briefest of moments, and she heard a voice in her head.
“Fulcrum recognised, attunement successful, Nexus facilities unlocked. Existing Ether has been assessed and can be spent using the Nexus-Font.”
Havia was speechless, she couldn’t remember the last time she was speechless. The warmth from the stone faded and Havia was aware that the palm of her hand, still in the centre of the circle, was equally as warm. She looked around for someone to tell, but Quink and Utig had walked off to what they assumed was a common room. Behind her, in the room with the cots, she heard voices, as if Antios was speaking with someone.
“Fuck!” she muttered, pocketing the stone before heading towards the sounds of conversation.