Ikfes sat in his new office still as a rock, facing five adventurers before him with a pensive look upon his face. The report that they had brought back was fascinating. With his many years as an adventurer, he had assumed that he had long ago seen everything that the world had to offer when it came to dungeons and monsters. However, this dungeon just kept spitting out entirely new things mysteries his way one after another, and it had given no sign that it was about to slow on that front down any time soon.
“Fascinating,” Ikfes finally said after reading over the lyrics of the dungeon once again. In a lower tone, he quietly began to mutter to himself. “Not only does is it the dungeon sentient, it seems to have knowledge of the common tongue. Furthermore, it is certainly more intelligent than I expected to be able to compose a song.”
“Sir?” A slim man with dirty blonde hair spoke up. “Is something wrong?”
Ikfes looked up at the young adventurer. How old was this young one? Sixteen? Seventeen? Surely he couldn’t be past eighteen with a face and build like that. Despite that, he was already a D rank adventurer and showing promise.
“Nothing is wrong,” Ikfes replied smoothly, waving away the concern of the greenhorn with a simple hand motion. “It just seems that Azure Arrow discovered a number of interesting things. Apparently, treasure chests are now available in the dungeon’s second floor. Also, there are monstrous plants now as well. Quite fascinating.”
The man’s eyes opened wide, and so did the eyes of his comrades at the news. “There are treasure chests?”
“Hm?” Ikfes replied absentmindedly, clearly lost in thought. “Oh. Yes, so it would seem. Team Azure Arrow has retrieved a chest from the pond in the second floor of the dungeon. Apparently it contained leather bracers of superior quality. By all accounts, it seems like the workmanship on them is excellent as well. A shame that Azure Arrow was unable to come and show me. I would have loved to have had the bracers appraised.”
“Master Ikfes,” A female adventurer spoke up, “I was under the impression that… that treasure chests did not appear in dungeons until they had reached a certain age. How can this new dungeon have them? I thought it was a young dungeon.”
“You are partially correct, my dear,” Ikfes said with a carefree tone. “As far as we know, dungeons evolve, so to speak. They grow and develop, just like most organisms, but the way they do so is different to most organisms. I suppose that should be obvious though, I mean, they are clearly not like other organisms. They can create and destroy at will within their domain, and bring about a horde of creatures. I suppose it wouldn’t be wrong to say that they are creatures that are one step away from divinity, in a sense?”
Pausing for a second, Ikfes contemplated the thought of a dungeon being close to a god-like entity, but soon pushed the thought away. It was rude to leave his guests waiting.
“In any case, as far as we know, they don’t develop in a linear fashion like other creatures.”
“I don’t quite follow,” The girl spoke up again, blushing slightly.
“Hm…” Ikfes thought for a moment, trying to come up with an appropriate example. Finally, an example popped into his mind. “Well, there is nothing definitive in that subject to my knowledge, so perhaps we can save the speculations and theories for another time. For now, suffice to say that we are not clear on how they develop, but we suspect it’s some odd combination of evolution along with learned behaviour.”
“I am not quite sure I understand?” a lanky ranger piped up, asking the question that was lingering in the mind of the adventurers.
“Well, simply put, I am saying that dungeons are much more complex than you give them credit for. This particular dungeon might have followed a growth path that simply allowed it develop treasure chest sooner. Or perhaps it has an evolutionary speed that is abnormal. Or perhaps it’s a dungeon that specializes in handing out very specific types of treasure. There can be a dozen different reasons why there are treasure chest so early on. Regardless of the specific reason, we should be thankful for the treasure chests. It makes things a lot easier for you guys if you were to get your hands on some free equipment, right?”
A few of the adventurers nodded at the guild master, who gave them a pleasant smile for their participation.
“At any rate!” Ikfes continued energetically, “You all did well in bringing this to me. Have a break for now, before heading back to dungeon tomorrow.”
“Um… Guild master?” female witch with a bit of a more portly build interjected. “Will something be done to be able to reach the dungeon faster? This trip of a day and a half walking is rather inconvenient.”
Ikfes chuckled and nodded his head. He could see what she was saying easily. For most people, the hike was rather long at normal speeds. He suspected some of his higher ranking adventurers could do the trip in half the time, but it was still a rather long walk if you followed the normal path to the dungeon.
“Don’t worry about that,” Ikfes replied, his voice containing subtle a singsong undertone. “The town plans to expand towards the dungeon, and there are plans set in motion to create a path from the village to the dungeon itself. The path will reduce the amount of twists and turns of the current paths, and reduce all sort of little inconveniences that are associated with hiking up that trail. If all goes to plan, we should be able to cut down the time needed to reach the dungeon by half, or perhaps even more.”
“Ah! That’s rather convenient,” She exclaimed, clearly a bit surprised by having her concerns already addressed.
“Not really,” Ikfes replied with a shrug. “Actually, most dungeon cities are built closer to the dungeon than this village. Some of them are even built around the entrance to the dungeon, so in reality this village is the odd one out. The village is too close to the dungeon to justify moving it and all its residents, and yet it is also just far enough to make it inconvenient to reach the dungeon quickly. It’s only natural to make a path to the dungeon at this point. In fact, if you have noticed how the carpenters have been cutting down wood, they have been clearing the woods in a near perfect line towards the north of the village, right in the direction of the dungeon.”
“Ah! I get it,” A warrior with a sword at his hip replied snapping his fingers. “They are killing two birds with one stone! Clear a path towards the dungeon, and build new residences! Clever.”
Ikfes chuckled at his comment, a merry look in his eyes as he looked at the adventurer. “I don’t know about clever, but it is definitely convenient. Oh, before I forget, did you all happen to hear anything unusual in the dungeon?”
The adventurers glanced at eachother for a moment before nodding their heads. “Now that you mention it sir, there was something. It was like the mountain was singing. But we couldn’t really comprehend it. It was too quiet, almost like a whisper.”
Ikfes tapped his cheek, considering the possibilities. Perhaps the dungeon hadn’t intended to broadcast his song to everyone then. No, perhaps it was singing for itself? If so, then it was all the more lucky that Azure Arrow had been within range to hear the song. Or perhaps the dungeon had intended them to hear it? That seemed unlikely to Ikfes. Why would a dungeon want an audience anyways?
“Hmm… I see. It seems that this dungeon is a bit more complex than I expected,” He commented, quickly adding a few words to the adventurers before they could start to speculate things. “Now, now, don’t you all worry. This dungeon simply seems to have a few quirks, just like most dungeons do. This one seems to occasionally like to create music. We haven’t determined if the music has any effects, or if its simply a side effect of some sort, but so far it seems harmless. Now then, off with you. I must take care of other things.”
The adventurers bowed to him and voiced their gratitude for his time, before disappearing down beyond the door to Ikfes office, carefully shutting the door close behind them.
Ikfes took a second to read yet again the hastily written letter sent by the hand of Ella, taking his time to analyse and think over every aspect of the letter. He truly found it both impressive and exciting that the dungeon had already created his third floor. Why, he had half a mind to just dive into the dungeon and explore it to his heart’s content. But alas, it was his duty to guard the area for now. At least until a new leader was selected. Perhaps once that was settled he could sneak into the dungeon and have a little look…
“Until then, little dungeon,” Ikfes said as he stared out a window that faced the north, giving him a clear view of the mountain that held the dungeon. “Don’t stop growing!”
Humming happily, Ikfes took a seat at his desk again. He picked up a quill and a piece of paper and began to write. If the dungeon had already three floors, it would be sufficient for trial that the king had in mind.
James followed led the way through the maze that he and his team found themselves in. They had been in it three days already without any end of it in sight. Winding corridors seemed to branch out in endless directions, leading to more corridors or empty rooms. Yet, throughout the entirety of the maze, he could not help but to feel awed at the workmanship of everything.
Every single wall was decorated, carved from virgin stone into a work of art. The walls contained the very depiction of nature, filled with trees, vines, shrubs and small animals hidden amongst the greenery. The trees had been detailed from start to finish into petrified replicas of the real thing, only different in the sense that the branches tended to expand more horizontally than the real thing, such that the branches wrapped curled to encompass the edges of the wall wonderfully. If one observed a little more closely, one could even notice that there were three separate "layers" of trees, giving a very realistic notion of depth to the sculptures, which created the impression that the dungeon had been formed from around an already existing petrified forest. This alone was enough to acclaim the workmanship as far beyond the realm of what could be described as simply ‘detailed’ and, in fact, James was certain that it stepped into the realm of what could be called inhumanly beautiful.
Add to that that there were elemental spirits creating exquisite displays of light and contrast, and the entire atmosphere made one feel as if they were in a fairytale of some sort. And that was without even talking about the creatures that seemed to be imbedded amongst the branches and leaves! The creatures had the same level of details as the ones they had seen in the previous floor, except for their eyes. For whatever reason, James could not shake the feeling that the eyes of the sculptures were even more... vivid. They had a certain spark to them that he couldn't quite name or pinpoint, but it was certainly there. Truthfully, it unnerved him a little. It made him feel like his movements were being watched by the walls themselves and, though he was not a particularly shy person, the feeling of being constantly watched was not something he was comfortable with.
When he had voiced his thoughts to Mei, she had said something about the elemental spirits sitting around the eyes of the sculptures. But this begged the question, why would they do that? Mei could not answer the question, which made him wonder if the dungeon had had a hand on the matter. Also, where had all these elemental spirits come from? Were they naturally occurring spirits from the mountain, or had the dungeon formed a contract with some higher being? Or perhaps the dungeon itself had managed to summon them. If the dungeon had created these spirits, how was the dungeon able to control so many different types of monsters so soon? Most dungeons did not have too much variety in the first few floors.
James shook his head and sighed. Questions that only lead to more questions, creating a different kind of maze in his mind. Putting those thoughts aside, James focused on the halls of stone. They had already fallen once in a trap when a dart had disoriented Ella and they had gone after her. They did not wish to go through that again, but as Ella had said once she had recovered: at least they found out that the dungeon didn’t have just three floors, but four.
Which was terrifying in itself, in James’ mind. By the looks of things, the dungeon had created a monstrously large maze that extended into more than one floor and he wasn’t sure how they would make it back to the surface, even with Adder’s maps. The path was simply too incomplete and too convoluted.
“Would you quit that?” Adder suddenly spoke up behind him, causing James to glance back at the rogue.
“Quit what?” Ziggurd replied with a confused look.
“Humming!” Ziggurd grumbled back. “You’ve been humming that damn song for the last hour at least! Quit it!”
“It’s stuck in my head, what do you want me to do about it?” Ziggurd huffed back. “Besides, you liked it too. Why are you complaining?”
“Because it’s not the same! The dungeon can definitely sing like a prodigy. Hearing you hum it non-stop is going to ruin it for me.”
“Oh, like you could sing it better,” Ziggurd retorted. “You couldn’t even hold a candle to that voice. Hell, even if you waited 50 years your voice would only be a pale imitation of that ancient voice!”
“You little stick waving snot, who said I can’t sing?!” Adder replied indignantly, sniffing with disdain.
“Actually, you can’t,” Mei interjected flatly. “My ears are the most sensitive here, and I have to tell you, you are borderline tonedeaf.”
“Who asked you?!” Adder snapped at her, crossing his arms.
“No one. But it’s true,” Mei replied with a happy hum. “Besides, sound is my area of expertise more than yours.”
Grumbling, Adder dropped the conversation while Ziggurd gave a wink to Mei, who returned the gesture. The silence, however, was not meant to last.
“What do you guys think it means?” Ella asked out loud after a few minutes.
“What do you mean?” Adder asked, expressing some mild curiosity as he kept an eye out for traps.
“The song. What do you think the song means?”
“The song? What about it?” He asked dismissively.
“What do you mean “what about it?” Adder?” She asked in a disbelieving tone. “A dungeon just wrote a song and sang it. There has to be more to it than just a random song.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” he said sarcastically. “I am still getting over the fact that the dungeon itself is alive and its aware of us. Oh and the fact that it grows faster than a weed, that’s important too.”
“All dungeons are alive, Adder,” Mei interjected.
“Yeah but this one is alive alive,” Adder emphasized. “It knows stuff you know? You can’t tell me it was born with an artistic sense out of nowhere. No dungeon does that!”
“And how do you know that?” Mei questioned. “We’ve barely been to three dungeons including this one.”
“No, he is right,” Ziggurd pitched in. “I’ve heard of dungeons with great architecture, but those are dungeons that have either appeared in an abandoned castle or absorbed ancient towns. I’ve never heard of a dungeon that actually creates masterpieces, let alone create them consistently or in such a grand scale.”
“Point taken,” Mei relented. “It is pretty odd that a common dungeon is able to do all… this.” She said as she gestured around her.
“Which is my point,” Ella jumped in. “If the dungeon knows things, how did it learn them? Does it know what it’s saying? Or did he just throw together a bunch of words because they sounded pretty? And if it does know what it’s saying, is there any meaning to those words?”
“You are going too deep, Ella,” Adder snorted.
“Bet no one has ever said that to you before,” James said out of the blue, not even looking back to see the expressions of his team mates. But judging from the sudden rounds of snickering and laughter, he guessed that everyone had understood what he meant.
“Where the hell did that come from?!” Adder replied indignantly, unable to formulate a comeback to the sudden joke.
“Who knows,” James said with a hum as he kept scanning the area, though now a small smirk adorned his face. It felt good to get the rogue once in awhile. Gods knew that he deserved it.
“I think what Adder meant,” Mei said as she took a few deep breaths to stifle her giggles, “was that you are thinking too much about it, Ella. Whether this dungeon is sentient or not is not really relevant to us right now. It doesn’t seem either overly hostile or friendly and we are not here to find out. It’s not really our place to make it our business if the dungeon is sentient or not.”
“How could it not be any of our business?” Ella retorted. “We are literally inside of it. And I don’t know about you, but a dungeon that is intelligent sounds a lot more dangerous to me than one that doesn’t think at a human level. Think about it, between fighting a dog or fighting a mastermind who can plot, who is more dangerous?”
“…Good point,” Mey relented.
“Which brings me back to my question… what did you all think of the song?”
“Incoming!” James shouted as a loud clang was heard, something clearly striking his shield at high speed. All chatter ceased instantly as the team regained its bearings in less than a second, focusing on the threat.
Before them, two wooden creatures were found with glowing green eyes.
“Are those golems?” Adder asked with eyes wide open, his knives at the ready.
“Sure looks like it,” Ziggurd said with a grunt as he started to ready his magic.
“Well this ought to be fun,” Mei said sarcastically. “Normal piercing attacks won’t be as effective on those bodies.”
No more time to chat, the thinner of the creatures whipped its hands and a barrage of vine-like whips came towards them, too fast to avoid all of them at the same time. James took the brunt of the impact with his shield, letting the whips bounce harmlessly off it.
The other golem was the antithesis to the first one. It was broad, slow, and clearly a power based creature. It approached James and lifted its massive fists to smash him like ant. However, James was not so soft as to crumble to the golem.
“Ngh!” Bearing the impact, James felt the creature rattle his bones with the force of the impact while his free hand grabbed hold of his war hammer. “Careful, this one hits hard!”
“You don’t say!” Adder shouted back sarcastically, throwing a knife at the eye of the brutish golem, only to have it swatted out of the air by the willowy golem.
“Great,” Adder muttered. “They have teamwork. Just great.”
The battle unfolded into a chaotic back and forth between the two sides as they struggled for dominance. The corridors of the maze restricted the adventurer’s ability to maneuver around the enemies effectively, but at the same it limited the whip golem's ability to make the most effective use of his whips.
Back and forth they struggled for five long minutes, until Ella successfully began to slice off the whips of the thin golem. One by one the whips were cut down, reducing the effective range of the golem’s weapons. It was a tiring task to cut the whips, as it required a significant speed buff from Ziggurd, and the use of several skills between Ella and Adder to cut even one of the whips. But in the end, the strategy was successful.
With the whips’ range and power reduced, they were able to attack the brutish golem as a team. James, whose shield sported a few new dents, was finally able to make use of his hammer by crushing the head of the golem hard enough to incapacitate it. From there, it was easy to make short work of the thin golem and finish off the large one.
Still, the ordeal left them tired and with their hearts pounding. Never in their lives had they expected golems to be a part of the dungeon.
“That,” Mei spoke up, “Was terrifying. We need to come up with countermeasures for those guys.”
“Agreed,” Ella said as she leaned against a wall. “Their vitality is really something else. And we don’t have much in the way of cutting power. An axe would have definitely been a good idea to have here.”
“Tell me about it,” James grunted. “Even with my hammer, the big one could take a lot of hits.”
“We are just going to have to adapt,” Ella said with a sigh. “It won’t be fun, but as long as not many of them show up, we should be able to deal with this. Let’s get moving. The sooner we can figure out a way out of here, the better.”
“Let’s try to find more treasure chests if we can,” Adder added after a moment. “These bracers probably saved me from a nasty wound from the whip golem.”
Adder lifted his hand to emphasize the point. “Damn thing hit me right in the forearm, and it stung pretty bad, but look. Barely a scratch on it. With any luck, maybe we can find a sword or an axe in one of the chests.”
“We will grab them if we come across them,” Ella decided quickly. “I am not going to go exploring every single hallway and room, however. We could be here for weeks by the looks of it and we don’t have the rations to manage that.”
“Sounds good boss,” Adder nodded, “The dungeon just got a hell of a lot more dangerous, and I am not looking to die by starvation.”
“Alright then. Let’s move out.”
King Vas sat behind his grand desk, reading the letter that had arrived from Ikfes. He had a million and one questions floating about his mind about the dungeon, and he had the nagging suspicion that there was something that they were overlooking about the dungeon, but he pushed these thoughts aside for now. The situation seemed to have developed more quickly than he expected, and there was a need to take action. Fortunately, preparations were in place, and he had made contact with several promising lesser nobility families that were in his faction of the political spectrum, and he had already dispatched more adventurers to the dungeon town. They should be arriving within days now, which would give them a week or two to get acquainted with the dungeon.
“Servants!” He called out loudly, and in seconds, three people entered the room. “You, get me Alester immediately. You, go grab me a scribe. And you there, carry out the preparations necessary for a grand announcement. Go!”
He said nothing further as the servants scrambled out of the room, bolting like frightened rabbits to heed the words of their king. Smiling, the king turned to look out the window with a hum. “Little dungeon, I hope you are ready. Sentient or not, you will help put my kingdom on the map.”
Gat strutted proudly across the town, his head held high with a smile plastered across his face. His steps had a little bounce to them as he walked, and if one was to pay attention, they would notice a new short sword lightly swinging at his hip.
“Gat! What has you on such a merry mood?” A young woman asked as she saw him walk by, “Haven’t seen you that happy since your coming of age ceremony.”
Flashing her a refreshing smile, Gat made his way to her and showed her a brand new dog tag around his neck. “Guess who just became an adventurer?”
“Gat, you didn’t!?” She asked with surprise, her eyes widening. “How did you even get that?”
“I took the test and registered at the guild of course.” He said as he puffed up his chest. “Passed the test no problem and got accepted as an E-rank adventurer.”
“Wonderful! Oh my dear boy, well done!” She said with a bright smile. “The first town-born adventurer. I have to tell everyone!”
With that the conversation ended as she rushed off, while Gat simply beamed at the world. Looking up at the mountain were the dungeon was, his eyes were lit with youthful energy. His mind filled with the promise of riches and adventure, he grinned. “I am coming.”
Three days after the king received the letter, the kingdom exploded with excitement as news of a brand-new dungeon of unknown ranking had been discovered. Within days the entire kingdom had heard about it and the people could not stop making it a topic of conversation. Most of them had never lived through a discovery of a dungeon, as it was a rare thing to happen. As such, tongues wagged faster than it was possible to track.
All sorts of speculations or ideas were thrown about from ear to ear. Some said that the mountain was home to an ancient god that had placed a dungeon to amuse itself. Others said that the dungeon was in fact created by a sorcerer of great power, who had been consumed by the dungeon itself, and yet others said that the dungeon had been a manifestation of the earth itself.
Some spoke of unspeakable horrors inside the dungeon, while others painted pictures of unimaginable beauty, and many more spun their own versions of the story. Few things were known about the dungeon in truth, but most stories shared a commonality: The dungeon itself was supposed to be beautiful. So beautiful that kings would weep in envy at the beauties found within its earthen halls.
It was also said that the dungeon was not normal. That it had odd powers, or even the ability to learn from those that entered it. Some stories had some truth to them, possibly due to the meddling of a certain king that wished to stir up the public, but that was a separate issue altogether.
Aside from the dungeon itself, the news of the contest involving it was almost as big of a topic. Many wondered why the king had even taken this approach, but a few of those that knew the politics of the court saw it for what it was: a shrewd move to avoid false claims and a chance for multiple factions to increase their power. A gamble of sorts, but one that was well disguised under the pretext of entertainment.
The rules of the contest were simple. Any one of stature could enter the contest, be it the lowliest of honorary nobles to the loftiest of or lords with generations in the higher echelons of lordship. Any could enter, all they had to do was select a group of adventurers from B rank or lower and conquer the dungeon. The winner would be awarded the title of lord of the area, and would be tasked to develop the town. The adventurers that won would also be offered numerous prices.
In the end, what mattered was that the dungeon captured the hearts and minds of the people of the kingdom.