Smit stroked his beard slowly, thick fingers sliding against the odd texture of his facial hair. Despite his beard being made of seemingly metal and minerals, it still somehow was flexible enough to be stroked and move about, all be it feeling significantly heavier than what he was used to. Nonetheless, just being able to stroke his beard had a relaxing effect that he had not expected.
Despite this relaxing effect, the fact remained that he had a lot to work out. Out of the twenty some odd teams, thirteen remained, and that was far more than he would like to have had by this stage. With most of them having managed to solve at least part of the maze, moving down the correct paths either by ingenuity or accident (though there were more that had reached their point by accident rather than by ingenuity), he was starting to grow concerned about someone actually managing to reach him. Granted, it had only been ten days or so since the entire affair began, but the speed of their progress was formidable.
He had projected them to take at least another three or four days to reach their current location, but it seemed that he had underestimated their skills. Those that had detection abilities were particularly troublesome, as they could foresee ambushes and traps with much more ease. Moreover, it could even allow them to foresee pitfalls that allowed entrance to lower floors, hence speeding up their progress dramatically.
“Well this is going to be a pain.” Smit grunted before letting out a sigh. “I should have known. These adventurers aren’t greenhorns like the others we’ve seen so far. These are a different breed of adventurers. Now, question is… how do we deal with them?”
That was the real issue here. How did he go about bringing these adventurers to a grinding halt? Or better yet, force them to give up and return their king with nothing but frustration. Perhaps the word would spread, and he would be deemed too much trouble to be worth the bother. Hell, maybe he would just become a curiosity of sorts and people would dive in only to witness his works of art.
“…Ha.” The dwarf chuckled to himself. That was wishful thinking at its finest alright.
Rolling his shoulders, the dwarf left such thoughts behind him as he refocused on the issue at hand. He willed a simple chair of stone to grow out from the ground itself, and a desk to match it. Though they were “simple” creations, they held a certain subtle artistic quality. The edges were smooth and rounded, twisting slightly to accommodate his wide frame. The legs weren’t simple rods of stone that were stuck onto the seat like one would expect, but they were instead slightly s shaped, the foot each of them resembling the paws of a lion. The finishing touch was the backrest, which had the outline of a hammer carved out from the smooth surface of stone.
Creating something like this was trivial for him, getting both of the items in a matter of minutes. It occurred to him that if he wanted to, he could quite possibly create an entire fortress within his dungeon, if he had the time and space to do so. Perhaps that would be something to consider at a later date, when he didn’t have a horde of adventurers invading his halls.
Taking a seat, he created some parchment upon the table and crated a piece of charcoal upon his hand. Right now, he needed to organize his thoughts, and hopefully laying out his knowledge in an organized fashion would help him come up with an idea.
“Father?” Echo called out as she stepped into the room. “What are you doing now?”
“I am trying to make put an order to my thoughts.” Smit grunted as his hand moved freely, scribbling away on the new parchment.
“Why?” Echo continued as she observed curiously, trying to make heads or tails of the symbols that Smit was creating. “And what are those things you are drawing?”
“If you find yourself stuck, it is good to lay out your knowledge before you, Echo.” Smit grunted. “It may remind you of something you have overlooked, or help you make connections that you had not considered before. As for the symbols… they are called letters. Each one of them represents a letter, and together they create words.”
“Looks hard to do.” Echo quipped as she looked down at her fingers, flexing them slowly with a thoughtful expression.
“I will teach you at a later date. Right now, I must think.” Smit said flatly, clearly not interested in going into a teaching lesson on how to read and write at that particular moment.
Minutes passed as Echo watched over his shoulder quietly, observing him create columns of information, lines and arrows connecting ideas to facts and plans. Things became scratched off, circled or underlined before her eyes. Some parchments even became entirely trashed and thrown away, while others were kept on a neat little pile at the corner of the table.
Eventually, Echo decided that staring blankly at those symbols without knowing what they meant was essentially a waste of time. Flicking her eyes away from the parchments, she looked at Smit in silence for a moment before speaking up. “Father, could you explain to me what these all say?”
Smit set down the small stub of charcoal, now reduced but to a fraction of what it was when he had began, and leaned back on his chair. Locking his fingers over his belly as he stared at the few remaining parchments, Smit remained quiet for a handful of seconds before answering.
“These parchments are the basics of the adventurers.” He said as he reached out and pointed at one of the larger parchments, filled to the brim with words. “It has the names of their teams, the number of members, and the jobs of those members.”
“That one,” he said as he pointed to the parchment right beside it, “contains a simplified breakdown of how I would classify the specialties of the teams. Recognisance, assassination, scavengers, brawlers, vanguards, hunters, long ranged fighters, generalists, etcetera. I tried to fit each team to a simplified one or two category labels based on their actions and their team composition. That one took some considering.”
Stroking his beard, he kept silent as he looked at the list frowning slightly at it. “I am still not fully satisfied with it, but it is impossible to put an exact label on every team, so it will have to do. Next is this.”
Reaching out with his thick fingers, Smit spread out the small pile of parchments he had set on the corner of his desk. Laying them out adequately, he started explaining them in detail. One of them had the traps in the maze, and other had the monsters available, and yet another one the loot that could be obtained. However, there Smit paused as his eyes lingered on a large parchment, ran his finger over its surface.
“And this…. This has all the ideas I was considering implementing. From trash ideas like creating a mob of wolves and just throwing them at the adventurers until they die, to creating a hall of traps that will almost guarantee the deaths of the nobles that are hanging around the adventurers. This parchment contains seventeen different ideas that have come to me so far to solve this, but I do not think any of them are the appropriate solution.”
Sighing, Smit leaned over the table and glanced over the parchment. “If I target the nobles exclusively, the adventurers will become suspicious. It would be too convenient to target that weak point. Worse, if they manage to counter that strategy, I will have few resources dedicated to slowing them down, which will make it extremely easy for them to progress through the maze undeterred. On the other hand, setting up stage for them to encounter other teams hopefully incite them into fighting has merit, except that there is a chance that they might work together, thereby making things harder for us.”
Smit tapped his finer on the table as he lost himself in thought, his voice trailing off as he offered and refuted his own ideas as they came to him. Echo had to admire the amount of thought that her Father put into all of these plans, constructing and tearing them down in a matter of minutes. Sure, most of them were simple in theory, creating “what if” scenarios that he could sort out, but the minute that one sounded plausible, Smit set himself to find every angle he could to make it work. And then he proceeded to try to tear it down when he found a flaw.
“Father, you are going in circles.” Echo said as she put a hand on his shoulder. “Every plan has a flaws. Should you toss out every idea because of one potential “what if” thought, there will be no plan that can be made on time.”
Smit sighed and slumped back on to his chair, grumbling as he stared at the parchment intensely. If Echo didn’t know any better, she would have thought that Smit was trying to burn a hole into the parchment.
“Hmph. Who would have thought that my own daughter would be imparting wisdom to me when she is so young?” Smit said with a snort, a smirk spreading on his face. “Aye, it is as you say Echo. I can fuss over details all day, but at the end of the day, every plan can have a weakness. I am not a strategist by trade, but I have a good noggin on me, if I do say so myself. The key of it all is making sure that the plan has the highest chance of success.”
Leaning forwards on his desk, Smit rested his head upon one of his thick fists, while the other hand stroked his long beard. “So, to break things down… the more complicated we make the plan, the higher the chances are that something deviates from the plan, which means higher chances of something going wrong. Any plan that relies on the adventurers following our steps to the letter is no good either, we don’t have enough information on them. Following that vein of thought, what we have the best control over is our own troops. So ideally, this plan should rest on the shoulders of the inhabitants of the dungeon.”
“Sounds reasonable…?” Echo said uncertainly. She failed to see how a more complicated plan offered that much of an issue to be pulled off. All that they had to do was make sure that everything was executed perfectly. Surely that couldn’t be too hard… But if father said it could be an issue, then who was her to disagree with him? The rest of his argument was sound. Too little knowledge on the adventurers provided a shallow understanding of their possible reactions and actions, and thus make it difficult to guess their response. And it was certainly easier to command the inhabitants of the dungeon. Every single creature in the dungeon would give take their own lives if Smit gave the order.
“Smit looked at her and chuckled before looking back at all his plans. “So, based on that alone, most of these plans can be ignored entirely, leaving us with only five. If we are looking at the plausibility of it all, I would say that there are only three scenarios which would give us a satisfactory margin of safety. So… now the question is, which one would be the best?”
“Are you asking for my input to make a decision, Father?” Echo asked tentatively, unsure of what her role should be in this sort of situation.
“No.” Smit said bluntly. “I think I know what I will do. But let’s hear what you believe would be the best course of action to take.”
“The first plan is simple.” He said as he leaned back in his seat. “Make the traps more deadly. Simply chalk it up to them progressing deeper into the dungeon and thus it is becoming more difficult. Second plan, increase the penalty for wrong answers whenever they are doing a puzzle of sorts. Most of them are not very literate when it comes to such things anyways. Option three, create choke points to have them do battle my creations.”
“Hmm… The first plan sounds the most reasonable.” Echo said after a moment of thought. “They already think that Father’s dungeon is odd. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine that it could spontaneously become more difficult as well.”
“Not a bad analysis.” Smit said with a nod. “But I won’t do that.”
“They have penetrated too deep into the maze. If I suddenly change the difficulty of all the traps it would certainly look odd even for this dungeon. Moreover, the expense of mana is hardly worth the improvements at this point. In reality, the amount of mana I am spending daily to restock on creatures and reset traps on a daily basis is almost as much as I gain. Worse, I am not entirely sure that merely modifying traps will truly affect some of these teams at the moment. I would also have to redesign entire rooms and halls, and I doubt I have time for that.”
Echo nodded at this, simple accepting the explanation as a fact. To redesign and improve entire halls of traps would not be easy or inexpensive to do, not even with Smit’s massive mana reserves. The cost of redesigning one’s existing dungeon floors while adventurers traveled through said floors was much more expensive.
“Then what conclusion have you come to Father?”
Smirking, Smit looked into her eyes with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and a smile that didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes.
“Tell me Echo, how intelligent are normal dungeons that have only five floors.”
“Hmm… not terribly intelligent. They are still… immature.” Echo said as she found an appropriate term. “They have some concept of strategy, but these tactics are rather simple.”
Nodding Smit placed his hand on his belly as he leaned back on the chair. “Correct. However, the adventurers already suspect our dungeon of being odd. This works against us, since they have become more alert of their surroundings. So we can’t take advantage of this fact and lure them into a false sense of security, but we can take another approach. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean useless, and there are certainly methods to turn would-be simple traps into dangerous machinations. For instance, we can lock them in a room with creatures and make them fight. Its quite a simple trap, one that you would expect in any dungeon of moderate difficulty perhaps, is that not so?”
Nodding her head, Echo confirmed the assumption. Locking someone in a room until they completed a task was actually fairly common.
“Good. Now, can you think of any creatures that live in the dungeon that can challenge adventurers?”
“Well… as father said, just throwing a lot of creatures at these adventurers would be inefficient and maybe even dangerous. So… the wolves can posse a challenge in large enough groups if they have a good alpha… all our bears are strong enough to give them pause too. Specially those that stand on two legs, those you call hindbears. The golems are also really strong. The evolved kobolds could manage if they had support too.”
“And?” Smit prompted her.
“…And?” Echo mimicked him, not sure what to say.
“And who else could possibly fight the adventurers and live… with help of course.”
“Um…” Echo bit her lip as she thought, considering all the species in the dungeon. Surprisingly, it took her a moment to realize what Smit was implying, but once she figured it out, her face lit up with a smile. “Pala and Arturus!”
“Very good!” Smit said with a smile. “Correct. Pala and Arturus can both command large groups of followers effectively, which we can use to grind down the strength of our dear adventuring guests. Though you forgot to mention one person.”
The confused look on her face made Smit grin as he shook his head at her. The girl was smart, but sometimes she lacked a bit of common sense. “You, Echo, you. You could definitely survive an encounter with them as you are now. Your body itself is the greatest shield within this dungeon.”
Staring at Smit like a deer in the headlights, Smit laughed merrily and looked at her with an undisguised grin. “Get ready Echo, you will be having your first real battle soon.”
Rubbing his hands, lord Ravoul smiled widely, his heavy jowls jiggling as he took slow steps forward. He was in a jolly mood, and didn’t even particularly mind the fact hat he was made to walk like a peasant through all these halls of stone. Granted, the luxurious magical boots he wore really aided his cause, lightening the burden of his massive bulge by more than half, allowing him to move almost as freely as the average man. Those boots, in conjunction with his belt of stamina ensured that he could keep at least a reasonable traveling speed through this dungeon.
The reason for his mood was two-fold. Firstly, they were well entrenched in the top five teams at this point of the competition, all but bringing him closer to his goal. Secondly, this dungeon was far more than he had dreamed, offering treasures of every sort creating a feast for the eyes the likes of which he had never witnessed before. And considering his status, that was truly saying something. No one would deny that lord Ravoul was a man that had tasted many pleasures and knew quite well what the word “excess” defined.
In the last few days, his dreams had been filled with visions of his success, dreams that depicted him triumphing over the dungeon and sending excursions to empty its halls of treasures and art to line his own castle with them. He dreamed of the very king coming to witness the grandeur of his abode, and the pleasure of watching the king turn green with jealousy, impotent before the wealth that Ravoul would amass with the aid of this dungeon.
Those dreams were sweet as sin, and they propelled Ravoul onwards in his quest. What was a little walking or the lack of his slaves for another week or two when he could earn so much more in return? As a man of wealth, he understood the idea of investing quite well, and this was an investment like no other.
A wheezing chuckle left Ravoul at this thought, his mind already a thousand miles away from the dungeon as he relived the memories of hiss dreams. So lost was he in his daydreaming, that he ran into one of his hired hands. He could not tell which of the black widows he had ran into, but nonetheless found himself winded as the elbow of the adventurer instinctively snapped upwards, causing him to drive the entirety his prodigious weight onto it.
Whizzing. His eyes flashed towards the adventurer angrily, his pride giving rise to anger before a silent motion from one of the other woman gave him pause. Everything had gone eerily still, even the very elemental spirits that were usually fleeting about lazily seemed to move much more slowly than normal. The entire ambiance made his heart beat faster.
As seconds ticked on by, Ravoul’s nervousness deteriorated, and his impatience started to bubble up to replace it. He looked slowly from side to side and saw nothing of note, his eyes only spying the same endless corridors that they had been traversing for over a week. A lesser man would have found it maddening to be in an enclosed space for so long, but he was accustomed to living in halls of stone, his castle, after all, had hundreds of those to offer.
“What is it woman?” He hissed as he shifted his humongous weight from one foot to another, uncertain of the situation. He was met with silence.
Unaccustomed to being ignored or left waiting, his face started to twist into an angry scowl, but before he could say a word, one of the other black widows spoke up with a wispy voice. “Noise. An odd one.”
“Odd how?” Ravoul enquired, his irritation put on hold for the moment.
“Uncertain.” She replied. “It’s too quiet to distinguish but its there. Rhythmic almost. But faint. It doesn’t seem to originate from any direction either. It surrounds us without origin. Its source is unknown.”
“How is that even possible?” Ravoul snorted, disdain tainting his voice. “Is that what unnerves you? A soft sound?”
Ignoring the comment’s slander, the woman kept a monotone voice as she proceeded explaining, like his words were nought but empty air. “My lord,” her words were hollow of any reverence, “the trouble arises from the lack of understanding. While we are confident in our abilities of sabotage and assassination, knowledge has always been a cherished weapon of ours. Lack of understanding could complicate matters. Pleased do not be perturbed, our skills are not mere talk, as you have witnessed.”
“Humph. It is true that the stunt you pulled with those shadows and that knife was expertly performed. A formidable use of illusion magic.” He admitted. “And those of those adventurers as bait was excellently planned as well... since you are so confident in your skills, we should be free to move forwards, correct?”
Hesitating briefly, the woman nodded lightly. “Certainly. Given the volume of the sound, whatever is causing it must be either very small or very far away. It could even be in the floor below us.”
“Fantastic, let us proceed.” Ravoul said brusquely, clearly in a less that pleasant mood, and the dull pain of his abdomen where the black widow’s elbow had struck him was not helping.
“As you wish, my lord.” She replied, and the group moved onwards again. But as they moved, a sound seemed to hum through the dungeon. Ravoul realized that this must have been the sound that his Black Widows must have detected earlier on. Indeed, the sound was not normal, but rather melodious, a reverberation in the air that moved gently, slowly, with a dark tune. It was an unearthly sound that seemed to stroke his mind with sweet touches and chill his skin all at once. As if the reaper himself sang the sweetest lullaby.
The very thought made his skin crawl.
“What is it?” Ravoul asked, his words not directed at anyone for he knew that the Widows knew not. “What machination could create such haunting melody? It burrows into my mind and flutters around my skull like a startled bird. Is it sorcery?”
“We do not detect any magic of the sort.” One of the women said, “No spell, no curse, no charm, not even runic magic. It seems that this is purely the effect of sound produced by something.”
“Then this must be the resting place of some demigod whose spirit still haunts these halls.” Ravoul snorted. “I can not imagine what could create this melody.”
“Ghosts would be a possibility.” The widow to his right gave her opinion. “Perhaps Banshees or singing white maidens could create haunting melodies that might charm the ears of men. But though they can create sound, this seems far too much for a mere ghost.”
Ravoul paled slightly at the mention of restless souls. He was never a religious man, but few things could turn a man god-fearing than the creatures from the realm of the dead. While Ravoul understood well the matters of the living, the dead and the undead were a separate story altogether. For the most part, they could not be reasoned with or bribed. They were damned souls that only seek to rend the flesh of the living. It was said that the undead hated the living, for they could feel, taste, and touch and they could not. They felt hatred out of jealousy of what had been denied to them.
And Ravoul had experienced more than most men.
Every pleasure that he had found he had experienced, tasting wines, foods, and women from every corner of the kingdom, even dabbling in some concoctions crafted by alchemists that were said to change the mind momentarily to alter the perception of the world.
How much more would the undead hate him than the rest?
“Lord Ravoul.” A voice snapped him back from his thoughts, bringing him back to their present reality. He looked at her with wide eyes, startled, but promptly calmed himself. This dungeon had not shown a single inkling of possessing undead creatures. Surely there would be no such thing as ghosts within it.
“What is it?” He asked far too quickly for his liking. Cursing himself inwardly, he put on his diplomat face, and gazed at the woman who had just spoken.
“This hall ends here.” The woman said as she turned to him. “Perhaps we should seek another way.”
“Nonsense, there is a door there.” Ravoul said as he gestured to the oak door before them. “Look, it has a warning, just like all the other doors. It probably is one of those puzzles again.”
The sign only read: Brave souls beware, the room up ahead is not bare. Ready thy mind and hand, if by the end you wish to stand.
The widow nodded at his words. “It is true that this is likely only another puzzle room, but the music… Perhaps its not mere coincidence that it has began just before us finding this room. Even though there is no source for this sound, its volume has increased steadily as we approached.”
Huffing like a disgruntled hog, Ravoul harrumphed loudly, and looked at them with a serious expression. All an act to cover his own nervousness, but it was certainly a good act. One did not survive the dirty backdoor politics of the nobles without some acting skills. “It’s a mere puzzle room. This dungeon is not even a year old, I doubt that contains anything that could truly pose a threat to the mighty Black Widows. Besides, you would have me loose our advantage and backtrack? What nonsense is this? I hired you specifically due to your high skills.”
The widows looked at each other, unanimously coming to consensus that he was not privy to. Nonetheless, the result was what he desired. He had no wish to lose his position, as he was certain his team was one of the ones who had penetrated the deepest into the dungeon thus far. To turn back in favour of searching randomly for another access point to the dungeon was utter nonsense to him.
Besides, these traps had little in the way of true enemies even if they failed the challenge. Kobolds, snakes, maybe some wolves. Hardly anything worth worrying about by now. He had seen the widows singlehandedly break the neck of common kobolds with their bare hands, and he had watched them work in concert to take down two bears simultaneously too. There was probably nothing in this dungeon that they could not deal with.
The lord and the Widows opened the heavy wooden door, whose wood was half as thick as Ravoul’s fat hand, and stepped through it. The minute that last of them had stepped beyond it, the door immediately swung close with a mighty thudding sound, and a clicking sound followed, signifying that the door had locked.
Chuckling at how childish it was to be locked by a mere door, Ravould dusted his sleeves and looked around him, surprised to find that the round room was a lot wider than he thought it would be. Perhaps three times the size of what he expected, or maybe even four. The most peculiar feature of it was the archways that lined the walls. Every few feet a tall archway would be present, with torches lit right above them. The aperture of the archway laid covered by a heavy wooden door that hid whatever was behind it.
In the centre of the room, a large tile of black stone stood out amongst the rest of the grey floor. Warily looking around, the Widows cautiously examined the room, carefully observing before touching anything. Ten minutes past and the three women had inspected the entire perimeter of the room. Ten more and they could still not find any clue as to the purpose of the room, which agitated lord Ravoul all the more.
“What is the hold up?” He barked eventually, his floppy cheeks trembling with his voice.
“Just the standard search for traps or hidden switches, my lord.” One of them replied. “We can not find any. It is our conclusion we must stand on the tile to activate whatever this room is designed to do.”
“Get on with it then.” Ravoul said, leading the way towards the large stone tile. The wait was starting to fray his nerves, though he would never admit it.
His flashy robes hid the rolls of fat well as he stomped towards the tile, standing squarely in the middle of it. The minute he did so, the soft song that had been in the background exploded outwards as a deep voice joined in and a bright amber appeared in thin air, dancing to the tune, crafting words with its blazing trail.
Oh ye wayward sheep
For thy lives I weep
For greed and sorrow
Will soon come follow
The traitorous hand
And murderous band
Let all creation hear
This warning so dear
This dungeon so rare
The cruel wont spare
Its guardians three
Will deal devour ye
Come, human, dwarf, or elf,
Come and defend yourself!
With eyes wide open, Ravoul gasped as the ancient voice finished its song, vanishing in a crescendo along with the floating ember as the wooden gates rose, revealing that the archways were in truth nothing but holding places for a number of creatures from the dungeon. Bears and wolves sauntered out into the open arena, about a dozen in all. But that was not all, there, right before them, the largest gate rose, and revealed a mighty creature the likes of which Ravoul had never laid eyes on.
Its size was prodigious, towering over some of the bears present. Ravoul didn’t know what to call the monstrous wolf before him, but he had no doubt that it was a king amongst his other canine kin. The creature let out a low, rumbling growl, and bared its massive teeth, each as long as one of Ravoul’s fingers, glinting in the torchlight. For the first time in the entire journey, Ravoul wondered if coming to the dungeon was a good idea.
The creature coiled up as if it was about to spring, and then it reared up, howling powerfully as if to deny Ravoul and his crew.
And then they all charged towards him and the Black Widows.
The last he knew was blood and pain.