“Look, I agree, its broken.” Dath was getting frustrated, was this fighter an idiot, the concepts were very basic. Maybe he should try as if explaining to a child?
“It hasn’t functioned as intended since day one, but most of it works, just not like the dungeons you’re probably used to.” He gestured off towards the entrance of the Nexus, hidden beyond the wall of the resting chamber. “The creatures that spawn here, well, they kind of took over.” Dath shrugged, blushing and staring down at the ground between the cots as he spoke. “You see, a dungeon needs adventurers! Like a room needs to be tidied and cleaned, you keep monster numbers down like a maid clears dirt and used crockery from a tavern common room. And there’s the whole process of finishing the dungeon. It’s all meant to be part of it. So, er, I need you to finish the dungeon.” Dath grinned, looking up to see the fighter grimacing even more. He went to say more, but the fighter stopped him from elaborating with a raised finger.
“Ok, two things,” he raised a second finger. “Firstly, you said your name is Dath? Who, or what are you?” The fighter eased into a more comfortable position, leaning against the headboard of the cot. Dath coughed as he quickly made eye contact and then stared back down at the same spot of the floor.
“Well, you see, that’s complicated, but I suppose you could think of me as an Echo, or fragment, of Meridath the great sage.” He smiled, looking up wistfully as the fighter grimaced. “I was created to guide those who venture into the dungeons depths, and to maintain the nexus.” He gestured around himself at the smoothly carved walls of the chamber. “What was the second thing?” He asked.
“Well, that’s a lot to take in, and I will have more questions on that. The second thing is.” the fighter paused to take a deep breath. Wincing as he settled against the wall for a second before continuing.
“Have you seen the fucking state of us! After the first few floors of this place, do you honestly think we could finish it, let alone get out of it alive?”
He seemed suddenly angry, frustrated, and in pain, Dath reconsidered his plan, but this was his only choice so pushed on regardless.
“Look, I get it, I do, you’ve had a rough start. But I can guide you, and from the nexus you can leave the dungeon, well, for a while.” He stood, gesturing out of the doorway of the room, the fighter looked confused.
“I can explain it in more detail later, but this was Meridath’s first try, he wanted ways to get to the lower levels fast. So, he made the Nexus, and I can show you how to use it.” Again, he gestured around, as if selling wares in a shop. “Also, like you said, this dungeon is broken, but we can use that to our advantage.” He could tell he’d piqued the fighter’s interest, mostly by the way he’d stopped swearing under his breath.
“I know it’s a lot, I do, but I really think we could all benefit from this. Do you know what happens when one of these larger dungeons is completed?” He asked, watching as the fighter shook his head.
“Well, as the first echo, I’m privy to a lot of Meridath’s memories and plans. Before this dungeon was severed form the cascade, I got to experience his plans for the next stage.” He floated from side to side, warming to the subject, he was actually enjoying talking to someone. It had been a long time since his last conversation.
“Smaller dungeons, with three or four floors, they repopulate regularly, spawning the monsters within and resetting traps on a timed basis. But the big ones, with lots of floors, well, once your past floor five they don’t respawn as often. Adventurers take longer getting through them, respawning on a daily basis swung the balance too far, so they reset when either a couple of floors are finished, or the final challenge is completed.” He proudly delivered his thoughts, oblivious to the blank look in the fighter’s eyes as he tried to digest what was being said. Dath felt the pride Meridath had in his creation, dungeons would never end war completely, but they would give the various countries and races of the world a focus, outside of themselves, where their need for struggle could be exercised.
“Sadly, this dungeon only has a master reset. Once the lowest floor is completed.” This was the gamble, he knew the question was coming, and resigned himself to it as the fighter sighed, rubbing his temples in frustration.
“So, how many floors does this dungeon have?” The fighter knew, he had to, he was obviously smarter than he looked, he had to know it would be a lot.
“Thirty-two floors.” Dath said, assertively. Putting his hands up defensively.
“Thirty-Two,” he exclaimed “and they get progressively harder? Harder than the floors we just barely survived? You’re fucking insane!” The fighter was getting agitated, coughing and wincing. Dath could hear one of his friends approaching from the other room.
“Look, it’s not as bad as you think, and I know I can help. I can even help you take a break from the dungeon. Talk to your friends. I’ll be back in a bit.” He panicked, making himself incorporeal again, drifting up to the ceiling as one of the women walked in, the thief by the looks of it. She walked quickly into the room, the fighter still staring frustratedly at the empty space where he had been floating.
Antios’ head throbbed, everything hurt, and now the inner recesses of his brain were working overtime. So, this echo, Dath, could help them get out of the dungeon, but also wanted them to finish it, and it was massive.
The average dungeon was three levels, the largest he had ever heard of was ten floors, which was under a city down south. They had quickly established a guild and cashed in on the adventurers wanting to make a name for themselves there, but only a few ever reached the lower levels, he didn’t know if anyone ever finished it.
Antios had been part of a party that cleared a fifth level dungeon, when he first started. They had lost two members of the group during the boss fight, and everyone else needed serious healing afterwards. He’d been nothing more than a pack rat for that crawl, carrying bags and setting up camp. He got a few kills in on the low levels but it soon became apparent he needed to level up more to take a serious role in a deep crawl. He wasn’t going to lie, clearing a dungeon like this was appealing as all hell. Havia was coughing as she stormed into the room, one of the strange black stones from the pedestal outside clasped in her hand, she collapsed onto one off the other cots dramatically.
“Look, I’ve got news, big news, I know what that pedestal is outside.” She looked the room curiously. “Were you just talking to someone?” she asked, one eyebrow raised. “If you’re going to lose your marbles, could you do it when I’m feeling a bit better? I mean how inconsiderate are you? I can’t enjoy this at all.” She grinned, despite the lack of colour and coughing fit that followed.
“Ok, I have something to share as well, let’s hold off for a minute, and share with the others.” Antios nodded towards the doorway, where the approaching footfalls of Utig and Quink could be heard getting louder.
The barbarian walked into the room first, handing Havia a water skin before plonking himself down on the floor, back against the wall. Quink entered just behind him, looking Antios over before sitting on the cot nearest Utig. One hand resting on his shoulder affectionately. They all looked worn out, thin. It wasn’t that the creatures they had fought had been particularly hard, with the spiders they had been caught off guard, with the goblins it was numbers, and having Quink separated from them. The serpents were more annoying than anything else, and again their numbers didn’t help, but as encounters go, it wasn’t that bad. They were just woefully unprepared for anything more than a three-tier dungeon. Add the fact that this one was different, not your standard traps or layout, and you get a recipe for disaster.
But would having a guide help? Someone who knew how it was built and worked, that could warn the group to the subtle differences, maybe even a heads up on the dungeon’s denizens. Antios grinned, yeah, they might not be able to reach the boss, but they could give it a damn good go.
He looked them all in the eye, he loved this motley crew, trusted them with his life, and they wouldn’t do anything if it wasn’t unanimous.
“The corridor leads to another door, probably the next level of the dungeon.” Utig said, breaking the silence.
Antios nodded in his direction and coughed, which was more painful than he expected.
“So, while you were looking around, I had a visitor.” He announced, watching as they looked at each other, then back at him.
“He claimed to be an echo of Meridath, whatever that actually mean. Calls himself Dath.” Havia barked a laugh at that.
“Dath, that’s original, why not Meri? Or Meridath junior?” She sniggered while Antios continued.
“Well, he claims he can help us leave the dungeon, but also, he would like us to finish it. And, he told me how many floors it has.” They looked at him expectantly, he knew that curiosity. The deeper a dungeon the greater the rewards, that’s how it went. They had found a few bars of Emigran on the first floor, worth more than the average tier three dungeon rewards in total, gods only knew what would be waiting below. When in doubt, appeal to their greed.
“Thirty-Two floors!” He raised his hands as they all gasped. “I know, it’s more than I’ve ever heard of, but this is the proto dungeon. And he said he can help us, guide us. My first impression is that he just might be on to something.”
He turned painfully to look at them all.
“Thirty-two floors,” Havia banged her fist against the cot. “Are you fucking kidding me, we barely survived what, three floors?” She had a bit more colour in her cheeks as she scowled at Antios.
“I’m not sure what could be worth attempting a dungeon that deep?” Quink interjected calmly. Utig remained silent nearby, but his expression was dark, brooding, worried.
“Look, usual party rules apply, if we’re not unanimous, we won’t do it. It’s just an idea right now, and I’m sure we can find a way out with or without Dath.”
He took in slow, deep breaths as he listened to them deliberate. They were all making fair arguments. Could they survive? Was the potential reward worth it? Could they even trust the apparition? It eventually became obvious that he would have to convince them. Damn the feeling in his stomach, the thought of talking to so many people made him sweat, or at least appear to sweat.
He made himself visible out in the centre of the Nexus, near the font. Then entered the chamber where the party were still discussing their options.
“Hello there, I felt it was time for me to contribute to this discussion.” He thought it was succinct, polite, friendly. He had practiced it in his head for a few minutes before apparating.
The barbarian jumped up, with unnerving speed the edge of his axe was at Dath’s throat.
“What the actual fuck, have you been listening to us this whole time?”
Dath nodded, letting the axe pass through him as he stepped further into the room.
“Yes, I am unable to leave the Nexus, and I hate to point this out, you lot are not particularly quiet.” The mage laughed nervously, while the barbarian lowered his axe.
“Do not fret, I am unable to cause you any harm. I am merely a guardian of this dungeon. Able to view most of its expanse from this chamber, and control certain facilities. It is with this ability I believe I can help you traverse its dangers and reap its vast rewards.” He had assessed that the main reason they were hesitant to help was because they didn’t know what loot was scattered throughout its many levels.
“As a gesture of friendship, I am willing to reveal the secrets of the Nexus, help you get the healing you require, and even provide levelling up services.”
He gestured out of the room, taking a few hesitant steps in that direction before stopping near the barbarian.
The thief gasped as she held one of the black stones up in front of her.
“I nearly forgot, I know what that damn thing is, it’s a font. Like in the guilds.” She flipped the stone in the air, grabbing it deftly with her left hand as she held the palm of her right hand forward.
“Damn thing changed my guild mark as well.”
In the palm of her hand was a fresh mark. Each font marked you with a guilds symbol, often a geometric pattern. Havia’s used to be a circle with two triangles inside, like an hourglass. now a diamond edged with silver and gold stood fresh and proud on the palm of her hand, like a new tattoo.
The thief allowed them to scrutinise her palm for a moment before fumbling with the smooth black stone in her left hand.
“What’s the deal with these stones then?” She asked, holding the black oval up in front of the bemused echo.
“Well, now that you have removed it from the plinth, it’s attuned to you, if you put it in a particular pocket or pouch upon your person it will return there if dropped or released.” Warming to the more technical aspects, Dath found himself talking more, despite still staring at the ceiling rather than the adventurers in front of him, avoiding eye contact seemed to help the growing anxiety he felt.
“The pebble, with a little help from myself, will allow you to travel out of the dungeon, and return, here to the nexus, which itself is connected to every floor. Although you need to unlock the waypoints as you go.” Feeling confident he proceeded with the next part of his plan, the bait.
“I have a small sample of what awaits you when you return.” He gestured over to an empty section of wall. The others stared at him for a moment before he coughed and gestured again, this time nodding his head towards the thief, Havia, he believed her name to be.
“If you would just examine this area of wall, please, you should find a compartment.” He gestured again, directing her towards a three-foot square section, where, without much trouble, the thief soon found a small crack in the wall. Pushing on it revealed a recess big enough for her to slide a finger in and pull on the whole section, which swung open revealing a two-foot-deep recess. it was full of small pouches.
Havia quickly assessed the hoard, mostly bags of gold, with a few bags of platinum thrown in. As she handed them out of the recess she whistled shrilly. unwrapping a small stack of emigran bars.
“Wow, this is a couple of years pay, and you say there’s more caches like this?” She looked up at the fighter and then the others, standing and stretching her back before laying the small ingots of the precious metal on a cot nearby.
“Ok, so let’s say he’s telling the truth. We can jump in and out of here at will, do a floor, jump out and rest. Come back the next day, or week and do another. if this is an indicator of the loot, I am in.” She counted the bars out loud, eight. Eight ingots of the most expensive magical enhancing material on the planet. There was enough here for one of them to retire.
Antios, swinging his legs over the side of his cot, took a shaky step, placing his hand on the barbarian’s shoulder for support.
“Here’s the deal, Dath, we take this lot.” He gestured at the coin purses and the emigran on the cot. “And you tell us how to use these pebbles, because let’s be honest, all greed aside, we only just survived so far.” Dath couldn’t help but feel crest fallen, here comes the refusal. Who could blame them, stumbling into a malfunctioning dungeon, one not even intended to be used. But he was desperate. Lonely. If they would agree to come back, clear the rest, he could reset the dungeon and start actually doing his job. The purpose he existed, fine tuning and improving the dungeon.
“We promise to consider returning, once we are healed.” The fighter added. He went to place his hand on the echo’s shoulder, but it passed through.
“Oh, sorry, look, what I’m saying is, this isn’t a no. Clearly you have appealed to our greed, which is valid, but were just not a high enough level to finish thirty-two floors.” The fighter was speaking the truth, Dath couldn’t deny that.
He grinned; this was the second part of the bait.
“Ok, Ok, Ok, great, so. I only know what happens in this dungeon, right. And I was privy to Meridath’s plan for earning ether in the other dungeons and being able to level up at your guilds. Is it safe to assume that’s how it works?” he looked around at the party. Eager for confirmation.
“Yeah, the guilds let us level up, they let us use a font, like yours, to review our level and assign any ether we gain during a delve.” The mage spoke up, she was smart, she could see where this was going.
“They also charge a pretty penny. I bet.” He addressed the mage, she seemed a touch more cerebral than the others, if not a little flirtatious.
“Yes, and they take a percentage of any haul from a guild dungeon, normally because they station a watch at the entrances to see what you drag out. It’s also a way for them to keep track of who’s in which party and what dungeons are being cleared.” She replied, putting a delicate hand to her chin.
“We only started this dungeon because its off the beaten path, no guards to cheat us out of the loot.” She looked at the others, seeing comprehension starting to dawn on the fighter’s face. Dath couldn’t contain his excitement.
“Ok, so what if I told you, that this Font is the first of its kind. Before they went into the guilds Meridath played with the idea of letting adventurers’ level up in the dungeons. I don’t know why he changed his mind, but this one still works. You put your hand in the middle and saw your stats, right?” He gestured at the thief, who hesitated slightly before nodding.
“So, what you’re saying is, we could farm this dungeon? Use each level to gain ether and level up until were good enough for the next?” The thief spoke slowly, as if only just realising the advantages of their own personal font. Dath smiled but shook his head.
“Sadly, no, well, yes and no. You can’t go backwards from the nexus. Once a level is clear, and you find a nexus entrance, you can’t go back to the previous level. But I can give you info on the levels ahead, and you could head off home, do a different dungeon elsewhere, but level up here, where you’re not charged for the privilege. It’s not perfect, and it won’t be fast, but I really need to reset this dungeon. Imagine being the first to clear a deep delve like this? And once cleared I can fix it in the restart.” He tried to hide the desperation in his voice. This was his first chance at sorting out the mess that had been left behind. If the dungeon reset, he might be able to re-establish contact with other echoes, he wouldn’t be alone. He looked at them all, gathered wearily around him, and decided to risk it.
“Look, the pebbles are easy, focus on it in your hand and repeat the following phrase,” he paused, holding his hand before him as if he too held a pebble.
“Homeward bound, safe and sound.” He smiled, resigning himself to whatever they decided. “It will take you to an old teleport site outside of the dungeon, I believe it’s near a town. And I know it’s still there as I can feel the connection.” He gestured at the packs on the floor nearby.
“Grab your things, go and find a healer, get yourselves fit and ready. Then come back, please. I think you will regret not taking the chance.” He stepped out of the room and faded from view, watching as they chatted amongst themselves. All of them attuned to the font, picking up a pebble and their packs, one by one blipping out of the nexus. The sudden onslaught of noise they had bought with them faded. His nexus was silent again, peaceful. And he already hated it.
Time would tell if they came back.