The sun had risen over the horizon hours ago, and the entire village was alive with activity. Within the past four days, the population of the village had more than doubled, reaching a total of five hundred people. Adventurers from all corners of the kingdom and their patrons arrived daily, many seeking the fame and fortune that the dungeon promised. The majority of the adventurers were focused on the prizes that the king promised the victors of the event, dreaming about mighty weapons, gold, and magical items. All of these were rather enticing and might perhaps help them reach new heights of power. The cleverer ones saw more than that, though. They saw the opportunity to flaunt their talents, to spread their name across the nation and gain more glory, with the added benefit of getting close to a noble, should they win the event. This was a unique opportunity for many of them.
It wasn't just adventurers that had come to the village of Nam either. Merchants had come, as well as some of the nobles that jumped in to participate, along with their servants. Even Alester, the right hand of the king, had come to witness and monitor the event.
"What a stir this has caused," Ikfes chuckled as he looked out the window of his office. He couldn't help but admire the situation. Not even two months ago this place was scarcely more than an unknown village in the mountain side, not even the smallest blip in the grand schemes of the kingdom. And now it was the center of attention for the entire nation. "Even with all the preparations, we are still bursting at the seams. Who knew that this event would attract this many people? I would have thought that the remote location and the limitations of the game would have deterred more people."
"Come now, Ikfes," Alester, his voice merry and amused. The man relaxed on a comfortable chair, sipping from a finely carved wooden cup. "It would have been stranger if it hadn't cause a stir. The plan was to make a game out of it all, to make it seem more like the whim of a bored king. I would say it was partially successful in that aspect. But in hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to just assign someone to the territory and damn the consequences."
Ikfes smirked lightly at the reaction of his old friend and turned to look at him with an amused expression. Alester had always been clever and he understood perfectly well the situation with the power balance of the kingdom, but that wouldn't stop him from voicing his opinion amongst friends. "You don't truly mean that, do you? The plan itself is not that bad. I get to test my adventurers, the kingdom gets to see a new dungeon and attract trade, the nobles focus on the dungeon rather than the king, and the king might get himself a brand new loyal noble that can grow to support him. It's a fine game if you ask me, even if a bit risky."
Alester snorted, taking a swig of his drink before replying. "This plan is a bit too chaotic, even at the best of times. Sure, it can get us a lot of things if it plays out well, but like any game you play it has a chance of ending unfavourably. I don't like this, Ikfes, there are too many big players here. The big boys were supposed to see this as nothing more than a gimmick, a trifle that was not worth their time. Instead, they are right there, smack in the middle of the whole thing. Too convenient, I say. Especially with the teams they've gathered. Like I said, simply assigning a chosen individual to the position might have been preferable."
"You know better than anyone that there are more than just a few nobles that would have felt overlooked or ignored if we did that," Ikfes sighed. "There are a plethora of prideful fools that would have taken the matter personally, and certainly at least several who would have moved to oppose the matter. Moreover, it would not have been particularly inconspicuous if the the king were to assign a noble to an unknown village, which so very conveniently happened to be built right beside a brand new dungeon. It would have attracted quite a bit of attention."
Alester's merry disposition had devolved into a more brooding one, his head sinking towards his chest as he leaned back on the chair. "Yes, yes, I am aware. The faction of the nobles that opposes the king has grown too strong. With regard to political clout, they are almost on par with the king and his allies. Too close to an equal balance in power to squash outright, too necessary to purge, given our less than friendly neighbors. A pox on those fools and their houses, causing internal strife when our country can ill afford it."
"Now, now, Alester. Calm yourself," Ikfes replied. “Cursing at them won’t solve a thing. Instead of wasting your breath on such useless trifles, you should keep focused in the task at hand. With all these players on the field, I am sure that the king has already picked a few potential nobles to bring over to our side.”
“Yes, he already has a few in mind,” Alester said with a sigh. “What am I to do with such a whimsical king? He already has half a mind to support half of the lesser nobles entering this event, just to increase his odds of getting an ally. Had I not stopped him, I have no doubt he would have held a feast with them, just to ruffle the feathers of the opposing noble faction. Can you imagine, Ikfes? The king throwing a banquet exclusively with lower nobles? I can easily name more than a few who would turn purple in the face at not having been invited.”
“Yes, I can imagine,” Ikfes said with a chuckle as he took a seat opposite to Alester, enjoying the feeling of mako-bird feathered cushions. It had taken him weeks, but he finally had a properly furnished office, and he could say goodbye to the stale look of hard wooden chairs. Granted, it had cost him more than he expected, but the cost was well worth it in his eyes. “Not to mention that it would no doubt rouse suspicion. A banquet with lower nobles right before such an event would undoubtedly set off alarms among those puffed up peacocks. Say what you will about their behavior, but a fair share of them have stayed in power through awareness and cunning, rather than power alone.”
“Unfortunately, you are right,” Alester grumbled. “A nest of venomous vipers, that’s what they are. Had the king not been forced to the front lines in the last war, perhaps they wouldn’t have grown to be such a nuisance.”
“Not much that can be done about that,” Ikfes sighed. “You know the saying: when the cat's away, the rats will come out to party.”
“I don’t think that’s how the saying goes,” Alester retorted with a grin. “but your point is well made. Sadly, these rats certainly knew what they were doing, grabbing hold of many wealthy merchants and building up their own defenses to support their whims.”
“True enough,” Ikfes agreed. “Now then, let’s put that aside. If this plan turns out well, we can turn the tables on those peacocks and remind them of their place.”
“If it doesn’t blow up in our faces,” Alester retorted. “I can’t believe I got so caught up in the moment that I agreed without thinking this through properly.”
“He is charismatic,” Ikfes pointed out gently. “Getting people to listen to him is probably one of his greatest qualities as a king. I doubt most people would have been able to resist being swept up in the moment.”
“I suppose you are right…” Alester sighed, swirling his cup lightly as he stared at its contents in a pensive form. “There is one more thing that concerns me, Ikfes.”
“And what would that be?”
“I can’t shake the feeling that the murder at the palace and the presence of some of these higher nobles are somehow connected.”
“I wouldn’t be shocked if that turns out to be the case,” Ikfes replied in a serious tone. “They have grown considerably more bold, recently.”
“However, we haven’t found hide or hair of the murderer.” Alester continued. “It concerns me, Ikfes. If the nobles found out, who else might have? What if the other kingdoms have been informed as well? How many are aware of the true reasons behind this game?”
“Come now, Alester,” Ikfes said with a soothing tone. “The other kingdoms are not such fools as to try to invade immediately. Furthermore, the title of lord of this region may only be granted to one of our people, there is no way for them to take this region by planting one of their own in that position.”
“You think too shallowly, Ikfes,” Alester said pointedly. “Pile up enough gold, and some of these people would gladly sell their own mother and sisters into slavery without batting an eye. We must be vigilant!”
“And that’s why you are here, isn’t it?” Ikfes replied with a toothy grin. “The king didn’t send you here just to referee the event. Do try to sponsor someone with some integrity, old friend.”
Slumping deeper into his cushioned chair, Alester made childish grumbling noises before nodding with a sigh. “Sometimes I curse having been assigned this position.”
“Blame your own wit and foresight,” Ikfes replied with a chuckle. “Ah that’s right, we need to make that announcement too. You must not forget.”
“The one about the dungeon creating a fifth floor?” Alester replied as he sat back up slowly, regaining his composure.
“Yes, that one. I suppose that will change the rules a bit.”
“Certainly. I do not wish to be sitting around for weeks in this village,” Alester replied. “Who knows what the king or those nobles will do in my absence.”
“I am sure the king can handle them,” Ikfes said with a laugh. “They won’t be foolish enough to riot in his presence.”
“You say that, but if they provoke the king too much, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them ended up with a healer or two standing over their beds for the next week.” Alester huffed. “He is a wise man, but he still has a temper when it comes to the nobles.”
“I guess you got your work cut out for you, then,” Ikfes said merrily.
“You don’t have to remind me,” Alester said as he picked up his glass and took a deep swig, downing it all in one go. “For the glory of the kingdom.”
Smirking at the unusual behavior of his old friend, Ikfes poured himself a glass of wine, and rose it in the air. “For the glory of the kingdom.”
Taking a deep swig, Ikfes savored the taste of wine in the morning, glad that he didn’t have Alester’s job. All he had to do was beat down anyone that stepped out of line too much. An easy, straightforward job that required much less politics and forethought than what Alester had to deal with.
Just the way he liked it.
Ziggurd moved through the streets of Nam in a bit of a daze. So many new people had suddenly come out of seemingly nowhere, flooding the streets with people. The village of Nam, which originally had less than two hundred people, was now bursting at the seams. The population had seemingly doubled overnight as adventurers, nobles, servants, and even merchants flocked to the humble town at the edge of the kingdom.
Even with all the preparations that the king had set up, tents could be seen all over the outskirts of the village. The king had truly set up a great business venture already, with people buying up the houses far faster than they could be plotted. The merchants seemed particularly keen on grabbing a spot in the village, several of them even getting into arguments about who had their eye on a house first.
Merchants were truly opportunistic creatures, not letting any chance slip by them when they could make a profit out of it. That said, more than one had attempted to purchase more than one home, in hopes of reselling the building once the market value had increased, thereby increasing their profits. These merchants had been heavily disappointed when the guild master had put a stop to their schemes, stating that until further notice, there was a limit of how many houses one person could buy.
Ziggurd, however, felt that this was the right call to make, considering the number of people that were flooding into the village. He wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of it all the population swelled to well over three or four times the original size. Of course, that number would decrease once the event was over, but nonetheless, there would be a number of people who would remain to take advantage of the dungeon itself.
Ziggurd breathed in deeply and smiled, the cool mountain air filling his lungs with a cleanliness impossible to find in the larger cities. He truly loved the view and the air that these mountains provided. Those two things invigorated him far more than he could have imagined before he became an adventurer.
Getting beat up and almost killed with some frequency, on the other hand, were definitely not among the perks of living in these mountains as an adventurer. They had thoroughly underestimated the complexity of the dungeon when they had entered the maze. And they had nearly paid for their overconfidence with their lives. How the dungeon had created such a complex structure in the short span of time between their dungeon dives was something that he could not understand.
This dungeon simply did not cease amazing him. He felt like his common sense was being weathered away bit by bit every time he entered the dungeon. The experience that he had gained from his forays into other dungeons was being eroded with each new level of the Dungeon of Origins that he entered, and he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. In the words of a famous man: all he could do was observe, adapt, and overcome… or die. And he certainly did not intend to die.
As he let his thoughts wander, Ziggurd’s feet carried him to his destination, the tavern inn that had been erected by the order of the king himself: “The Jewel”. Ziggurd assumed that the name was a bit of a joke, as the tavern could be considered the hidden jewel of the village, due to its excellent ale. Or perhaps the owners simply liked jewels. Either way, the inn was well made and had a good presentation, making it a perfect meeting spot for adventurers and villagers alike.
Stepping into the inn, Ziggurd took a brief moment to observe the scene. The bottom floor was large, containing a kitchen, a bar, a multitude of tables for guests, and a few more private booths near the edges. A pair of wooden stairs that hugged the walls of the eastern and western walls led up to the second floor, were multiple private resting quarters could be rented. The entire place was simple in design, but elegant enough to give it a good atmosphere. Ziggurd had certainly rested at much worse locations during his adventures with his team.
“Hey, Zig! Over here!” The bell-like voice of Mei called out to him, and he turned to find his friends sitting in one of the more private booths, under one of the stairs. Smiling, Ziggurd waved at them and headed their way, taking a seat beside the half-elf.
“About time you got here,” Adder said with a smirk. “What happened? A pretty lady caught your eye again?”
“I am not like you, Adder,” Ziggurd countered, grinning slightly. “If I did find someone, I am sure I wouldn’t be slapped as much as you either.”
“So you say, but I bet you just heal the spot where you get hit,” Adder replied with a grin.
“Ay, put a boot in it, you two,” Ella interjected with an eye roll. “Let’s start. How is everyone’s condition?”
“Healed,” Ziggurd replied.
“Same here,” Adder said with a nod. “Them bracers really saved my skin.”
“I am fine,” Mei said in a sing-song voice. “The dislocated shoulder healed well.”
“I am alright,” James said with a relaxed expression. “And my armor should be fixed by tomorrow.”
“And I am well too,” Ella said as she looked down at one hand and moved her fingers slowly. “Luckily, it was nothing that magic couldn’t fix. Thanks for that, Zig.”
“Don’t mention it, boss,” He replied with a smile.
“Now then, let's get down to business,” Ella continued. “Last time we really got smacked around the dungeon. I am thinking that with our current strength, defeating the fifth floor is at best a fifty to fifty chance, and only if we risk it all.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the team, with Ziggurd looking pensive as he nodded to himself. The estimate was a bit generous in his mind. The chance of all of them making it out alive would be maybe forty-five to fifty-five, maybe. If the dungeon had a dungeon boss already, which he wouldn’t be surprised if the kobold lord was turned into one, then the chance of all of them making it out dropped considerably. Fighting that kobold and his minions after being exhausted from the maze would be a real challenge.
“If we prepared properly,” Ella continued, “our chances might rise to a six to four chance of survival. Not the best odds in my opinion. Just a bit better than a coin toss really.”
“So,” Adder interjected, “you are saying we shouldn’t enter the contest that the king set up? That would be a damn waste. We have the best knowledge of the dungeon even if we are not the strongest adventurers here anymore!”
“Not quite,” Ella interrupted. “I am saying we shouldn’t dive in by ourselves.”
That caught the attention of everyone, their eyes focusing on Ella with curiosity as she gave them a wicked smirk.
“I am sure you all are aware that, even though we are one of the top ranked high C teams, we would be considered the weakest of the B teams at best, and even that might be generous. The B ranks present are low B to mid B ranks, so we won’t be able to compete with them directly in terms of strength. However, we have the opportunity to offer our services to some of these teams.”
“I see,” Adder spoke up, a wicked grin spreading across his mouth. “Boss lady, I think I am rubbing off on you. I see where you are going with this.”
Ella nodded and continued. “Putting it bluntly, we can act as guides. I have already gotten a few lords and even a few teams that have requested our aid. There is a total of five requests for our help. Quite convenient that there is five of us, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, Ella,” James replied. “Spreading ourselves out like that… If anything happens and our employers retreat, we might be the ones left behind.”
“Just my thoughts,” Ella nodded. “So, I say we take two of these requests, and split into two groups. Then we come back and divide the total sum of the profits. What do you think?”
There was a moment of murmuring and debating between the other four team members, but eventually, they came to agree with their boss. Though they might not really have a chance of winning, realistically speaking, they could try to make a profit out of this easily.
“I don’t know, boss. Maybe it’s better if we stuck together,” Adder pointed out. “Let’s hear the offers first, before we decide.”
“Alright,” Ella replied. It was an understandable concern. Azure Arrow was a very tight knit group, carefully balancing each other in a fight. Dividing their team could be a serious drawback. “The first offer comes from Lord Lerron.”
In the dungeon, Smit had all but isolated himself from the world, going as far as ordering his children to leave him in peace as he cultivated feverishly. His breaks growing shorter and less frequent as the days slipped by like grains of sand in an hourglass. He had sealed his new ability for now, voluntarily disregarding it in its entirety in order to focus on cultivating like a madman.
However, every now and then he resurfaced just enough that he could check on the developments of his creatures. Pala certainly was moving more fluidly, his strikes becoming more ferocious thanks to the non-stop training he had put himself through. Echo moved more like an unstoppable force of nature. A reaper. A dealer of death through sheer power. There was still little technique to speak of, that would come with time. Even Arturus was making surprising leaps in his own development. He had managed to create a new technique that concentrated holy energy in his claws and fangs for a brief period of time. Though the effect was short lived, it boosted his physical capabilities enough that his bites could bite off an entire section of one of his brute golems’ arms.
An impressive feat considering that the arms of those golems were almost as wide in circumference as a human’s torso.
In his rush to attain another breakthrough, Smit hardly even noticed that his modified bears finally evolved into hind bears, granting them superior reach and strength. This was a dual gain for Smit, as it confirmed that if you modified a creature to have certain attributes, its chances of evolving into a creature that naturally had those attributes were greater than when the creature was not modified. And it gave Smit hind bears.
Hind bears were monster animals, whose skeletal structure was between that of a bear and a gorilla, providing them with a vastly improved range of movement of their joints and allowing them to stand on their hind legs. This allows them to attack with their forearms far more effectively and to use their arms to defend themselves from incoming attacks. Not only that, but their hides were thicker. They even had pseudo thumbs that allowed them better grip. Overall, the creature was considered more dangerous than your average bear, and Smit couldn’t be happier about their appearance.
As Smit’s experiments and cultivation continued, days slipped by in an odd mix of slowness and unbelievable speed, blurring together into an indistinguishable continuum of time. He could not tell if he had been cultivating for an hour, a day, or a minute. He was fully dedicated to push himself to the limit of his capabilities, pulling in more power than he had thought possible.
|Congratulations! You have reached your third breakthrough!|
|Conditions met, general abilities improved. Species list updated. Five floors unlocked.|
|Congratulations! Due to your new status, you may create an [Avatar] for yourself. Restrictions to the [Avatar] will apply.|
|Warning! Restrictions lifted! As a high tiered dungeon, your ability [Equivalent Exchange] has had restrictions lifted. According to performance of invaders, they may now gain a small fraction of the power of creatures defeated.|
|Assessing titles. Assessing achievements. Complete. Congratulations! Restriction lifted! As a high tiered dungeon with multiple titles and achievements, you have the right to [???].|
“Warning, first [Avatar] body will form automatically. High tiered dungeon conditions accepted. High mental capacity detected. Cognitive motor conditions found. Commencing process now.”
Smit gasped as energy left him, and he felt himself change. He had no time to process the entirety of the events, he only felt a torrent of power leave him. Thousands of point of mana simply gushed out of his body, lifting his core higher into the air until he was floating in mid-air.
The mana weaved around him, so thick and energetic that even a normal person would have felt its presence a hundred meters away. The first thing to form was the torso, which formed itself around the dungeon heart. Thick stone and metal seemed to condense out of nothing, forming hard bones made of inorganic material. The ribcage was next, followed by the spine. Taut wires of metal formed muscles and strong ores filled the insides. A mix of raw common ores melted and reformed, creating a metallic bronze skin for him. Threads of a flexible alloy of silver and iron formed his hair. Everything formed bit by bit.
It felt like it took hours, but in reality, it was over within fifteen minutes.
At the end of it all, an artificial body of a dwarven man was seen. He was just a meter and twenty centimeters tall, but his body left no doubt that he was a grown man. The strong jawline and long beard saw to that, if his proud manhood itself was not enough of a dead giveaway. His arms were those of a man that had worked the forge for years.
And for the first time in a long time, Smit opened his eyes. Grey irises seeming to be made of molten metal saw the world. Those eyes that seemed almost organic in nature. Like a god of a mountain made flesh, Smit smiled and for the first time in forever, he let out a resounding, jovial laugh.
|Species: True Dungeon||Rank: 3|
|Name: Smit||Age: 4 months|
|Mana: 153,120||Anima: 539|
|Mana Reg.: 861 MP/h||Anima Reg.: 19.27 AP/day|
|Floors: 5 (Max Floors available: 10)||Inhabitants: 83 Species|
|Titles: Creator of Dungeon laws; Creator; Guide of the Bloody Evolution; Legendary Craftsman;Master of Concentration; Reincarnated One;|
|Abilities: Absorb matter; Alter environment; Bestow Knowledge; Break down components; Craftsmanship; Creation; Digging; Destroy creation; Dungeon Laws; Enhancement; Equivalent exchange; Ether manipulation; Evolution; Interdimensional Storage; Life bestowal; Life-energy harnessing; Loot Craft; Luck of the draw; Mana absorption; Masterful mana manipulation; Modification of creations; Monster Link; Telepathy; Selective Speciation; Trap building; Transfer dungeon; Treasure Management.|
|Resistances: Magic (general); Mind control|