Ikfes plopped down on his Alester’s comfortable couch at the Adventurers’ Guild with a large smirk, relaxing onto the new cushions. His mood clearly sky-high after his little performance when Alester was announcing the winners. There were very few times where he could brazenly intimidate nobles without fear of repercussions, but as in this occasion he was simply fulfilling the orders of the his majesty the king, he was well within his right to scare them a bit. Perhaps he would subtly apologize to some of the adventurers that had been caught in the crossfire, but he was confident that his adventurers would be fine even if he didn’t.
“That was quite the effect you had on the crowd, my friend.” Alester said as he took a seat regally in front of Ikfes, his demeanor inherently proper and refined even now behind closed doors. Years of upbringing in the royal capital had made sure that his manners were entrenched to effortlessly portray the appearance of the of a refined gentleman. “I dare say that you have managed to terrify more than a few people with that aura of yours.”
“Bah.” Ikfes replied with a dismissive hand gesture, still smiling like the cat that ate the canary. “They needed it. Besides, don’t tell me that you didn’t enjoy watching them be humbled? You have to deal with them all the time after all.”
Alesters Lips twitched upwards slightly as he refrained from mirroring the large smile on Ikfes’ face. It was true, the nobles were less than an ideal group of people to work with. Most of them were rats and vipers, sneaking around to gain more power or wealth with their political games. Maneuvering around their schemes or squashing them without getting caught in the nets of an other noble required exhausting amounts of brain power from Alester.
“Perhaps.” Alester allowed with a graceful nod, “But that still does not mean that they will forget this, let alone forgive it. Though the lesser nobles might meekly shy away from your display and reflect on it, the few big cats that were mixed in with the mice will simply let their hate fester inside them.”
“Let it fester within them then.” Ikfes replied with a disdainful sniff. “If they want to pick a fight, I’ll take them on. Poisoned cups don’t affect me too much anyways.”
Shaking his head, Alester sighed. “Well, as one of the most influential people in the kingdom it’s not as if they can brazenly fight with you Ikfes. Not to mention that you have the second largest force in the kingdom available at your disposal.”
“Hey now.” Ikfes said with a frown, “I am not running a military operation here, I am no king. I can hardly command everyone of my adventurers to attacked in a unified front.”
“Yes, yes, I know that.” Alester said dismissively. “But my thoughts don’t apply to other nobles. Half of them see you as a second military force for the kingdom, or similar to a mercenary band. I’ve even had to deal with people who want the Adventurers’ Guild brough under the control of the state you know? Though you may have no intention of using the adventurers as a paws, there are nobles would use them for their own schemes if they were given a chance.”
“Bah. Those nobles that think that are just a bunch of twats.” Ikfes said bluntly, his face serious as could be. Alester could not help but to chuckle at this. Only Ikfes would respond to such a thing with such mockery and indifference. But then again, he was a one man army. If there was anyone that should be allowed such brazenly aloof behaviour towards the nobility of an entire kingdom, it would be him. Even King Vas, who boasted of having a strength comparable to an ogre, could not compete with Ikfes. If Ikfes ever went rogue, the most the king would be able to do would be delay him. Alester suspected that it would require the king and his entire royal guard to take down Ikfes should that ever occur, and the casualties of such a clash would not be anything to sneeze at.
“Speaking of twats,” Ikfes said suddenly, snapping Alester out of his reviere, “Seems like one of the troublesome ones didn’t come back from the dungeon.”
“You speak of Lord Ravoul?” Alester frowned as he said the words out loud. The matter had been in his mind since Azure Arrow had returned. He had heard of how the noble had ruthlessly used them as bait to escape a violent group of monsters within the dungeon. Though not technically against the rules, the move had been so cutthroat and sly that Alester had been planning to have a word or two with the noble the moment that they stepped into town.
But as the days had passed and neither Lord Ravoul or his adventurers exit the dungeon. They simply did not come out of the dungeon, which led Alester to believe that Ravoul and his team had met a disastrous end.
“Yes, I speak of that pompous pig.” Ikfes said as his face turned serious. Even as someone that had known Ikfes for many years at a personal level, it still fascinated Alester how his expressions could change so drastically. It was almost as if he was a separate person altogether depending on his mood. When he was mad he was a god of war, a dragon amongst men. When he was serious, he no longer was his easy going self but a leader of men. When he was enjoying himself, he was a jester that could reduce a man to clapping like a seal while he choked on his own tears of laughter.
Alester had known Ikfes long enough to know which version of Ikfes he was talking to at any given time, and right now, he wasn’t just speaking to his old friend, but to the Ikfes that dealt with the nobles and the crown for the better part of the last decade. The one that stared at the world objectively by subduing his own emotions.
“He didn’t come out of the dungeon.” Alester said as he entwined his fingers together, leaning back to stare up at the ceiling for a moment. “What are the odds of him still being down there?”
“Low.” Ikfes replied as he leaned forwards, his elbows resting on his thighs as he took a more brooding posture. “Specially with the Black Widows being his team. They are experts in infiltration and scouting. If anything, they should be able to move more quickly through the dungeon that the great majority of the other teams.”
“He could still be in there, hunting for some treasure.” Alester countered. “The man has an all consuming greed when it comes to things he finds beautiful. He might be doing his damn best to loot the place.”
“I doubt it.” Ikfes replied. “If he had reached the goal first and returned, he would have been able to take it all for himself. As greedy as he is, he has good foresight when it comes to these sorts of matters. He is more likely to have killed the other teams in order to capture the dungeon if his aim was to monopolize the dungeon.”
“True.” Alester allowed thoughtfully. Though the rules had forbidden the teams to kill each other, Ravoul was not above treachery to get his way with something like this. “Still, it strikes me as oddly convenient that one of the major players of the opposition just happened to die in the confines of a new dungeon.”
“Indeed.” Ikfes replied as his mouth twisted into an uneasy frown. “However, I can’t see a plausible plot for the nobles to take advantage of this. Even if they argued that this contest was a plot by the king to kill off his opposition, the fact that Lord Lerron survived would act as a counter argument for this theory.”
“I doubt that the nobles had any plot like that in the first place.” Alester added, “Ravoul would have never agreed to pretending to die, he is far too proud to play the part of a helpless victim, let alone actually die for the other nobles. The man is just as proud as he is greedy after all.”
A pause stretched between the two of them as they each contemplated possible scenarios, suspecting treachery from the noble faction that opposed the royal family. No theory fit quite right in their minds. Even if the noble faction should martyr Ravoul and villanise the crown to obtain more supports from the few nobles that support the royal family, Ravouls wealth and connections were worth far more than a few more allies.
The opposing noble faction already consisted of the majority of the upper nobility, and Alester had ample reason to believe that Ravoul had used his deep pockets and his influence to buy and blackmail the support of lesser nobles. With him gone, there would be more than one noble family that would leave the opposing faction and become neutral, or perhaps even join the king’s faction.
His death was a heavy blow for the opposing faction, and should they claim that the crown had a hand on it, there would be many nobles that would grow fearful and leave, further weakening the nobles that opposed the king.
Hence, it was reasonable to assume that the nobles did not have a hand in the disappearance of Lord Ravoul. Considering that neither Alester or Ikfes knew anything about an assassination either, that left only two options: Either Lord Ravoul was playing a game of his own by hiding away in the dungeon, or he was dead.
“He is dead.” Ikfes said suddenly, his voice filled with certainty. “The man can not bear to stay away from his luxurious lifestyle for long, nor did they carry enough supplies to make it past the deadline in a hostile environment. Perhaps if Ravoul was not involved then the Widows might be able to survive off the rat meat on the first floor and whatever little water they can gather from the ceiling for a week or so before the mana poisoning begins to take effect, but Ravoul would never lower himself to that.”
“I think you are right.” Alester said thoughtfully. “I am almost certain that Ravoul really did perish in the dungeon myself, however I still think we should be on the lookout for the next few days. Just in case that the man decides to crawl out of his hole.”
“Agreed.” Ikfes replied, “I’ll instruct the adventurers to keep their eyes open when they dive into the dungeon from now on and to report anything unusual. It’s a reasonable response on my end anyways, considering that so many people didn’t make it back.”
“It was rather unforeseen wasn’t it?” Alester replied. “I had not expected many deaths in truth. Two or three at most. But this amount… Well, considering that now we know that the dungeon is an actual feeling, thinking, intelligent creature, I suppose it makes more sense. With an army of monsters at its its disposal and with our adventuring teams divided, it certainly is possible to deal that sort of damage, especially if you are being underestimated by the enemy.”
“This should be a hard lesson for my adventurers.” Ikfes said sadly. “I warned them, but look. Still this many people died.”
“It’s a hard lesson.” Alester agreed as his expression softened. “But a much needed one. Even a child is capable of killing an adult if the adult is negligent. They underestimated the dungeon because of its age, and grew overconfident on their own strength. Because of this, they paid a hefty price.”
“Those are the true sins of battle aren’t they?” Ikfes said with a bitter smile. “Overconfidence in oneself, lack of preparation, and underestimating the opponent.”
“Yes. Though I suppose you could sum those up under the banner of one word: Arrogance.” Alester said as he leaned forwards again, letting his words hang there for a second. “Be that as it may, the dice have already been cast. We must move on and learn from our mistakes, just as the other adventurers must. Right now, we must consider how to approach the dungeon.”
“What’s wrong with our current approach?” Ikfes asked after a moment, “It doesn’t seem hostile against us.”
“Be that as it may, we are dealing with an intelligent creature here. And as with any intelligent creature, it has the ability to decide to change that.” Alester pointed out, “It would be best to make contingency plans. Perhaps there is a way to subdue the dungeon and put it under our control?”
“I don’t believe it has a reason to do that.” Ikfes replied thoughtfully. “The dungeon hasn’t been hostile to us despite sending in adventure regularly. In fact, did it not save most of the member of Azure Arrow? If it has not become hostile to us after such a large scale invasion, the chances of it ever becoming hostile to us are slim to none in my opinion.”
“There is still merit to being able to control a dungeon. Imagine all that we could earn! We could arm the entire army with fine weapons for next to nothing!” Alester said as excitement started to colour his voice, his mind drifting away with the possibilities.
“Easy now Alester.” Ikfes said with a small amused grin. “Who knows if it’s even possible to control this kind of dungeon fully? Though there are stories of powerful sorcerers influencing dungeons, who knows what sort of dark rituals they had to carry out to influence an existence like a dungeon. Furthermore, I can almost guarantee that those dungeons did not have a well defined ego like ours, let alone its level of intelligence.”
“But-” Alester tried to interrupt, his expression no doubtful as Ikfes spoke.
“More than that, even if we could control it there is no guarantee that it would be able to do as you imagine. More than that, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to find out what a resentful dungeon might be able to do if its hell bent on revenge. Dungeons don’t really have a lifespan like ours Alester. What is to it a few decades or centuries? Long after we are dead and buried and can do anything about it, it might exact its revenge.”
Alester stared at Ikfes for a moment crestfallen, before his expression turned sour, as if he had eaten a whole raw lime. “You could have let me dream a bit longer.” He grumbled as he crossed his arms.
Chuckling lightly at his friend’s antics, Ikfes sighed and leaned back on his seat. “Jokes aside, we should consult with his majesty about the current developments.”
“I’ve already sent a raven to the capital.” Alester replied. “With any luck, we will get a reply from the king within a few days.”
“Swift as always.”
“I wouldn’t be the right hand of the king if I wasn’t.”
They settled into a comfortable silence for a while then, each lost in their own thoughts, staring into the distance as they both became lost in their own thoughts.
At the heart of the kingdom of Mussol, the royal capital of Hyspa stood proudly. Protected by walls of stone and noble warriors, the city was the crowning jewel of the entire kingdom. At its heart, the royal palace stood, it’s dark towers crafted of basaltic stone reached up into the sky, giving archers an excellent vantage point should they ever need to defend the palace.
It was within this architectural marvel that one could hear the roaring laughter of King Vas as he celebrated the contents of the letter he had just received. Though the death of so many talented individuals was a sad moment for the adventurers, the fact that Ravoul had disappeared and potentially died was cause for celebration. The man had his hands in a variety of shady deals, ranging from illegal slavery to trafficking of restricted items.
In other words, he was a real pain on the side of the kingdom. The only reason why the authorities had been unable to apprehend him was because there had never been quite enough evidence to convict him, and people that were intended to testify against him tended to mysteriously disappear.
As a king, Vas wanted nothing more than to behead him and be rid of him for once and for all, but the noble man had his hands in too many pockets and had too much power. Moreover, he had the ability to influence a large number of merchants. Attacking him or killing him brazenly without any solid proof would cause an uproar amongst nobles, and it would terrify merchants who saw him as one of their own.
The man had caused Vas more headaches than he cared to remember, and long had he dreamed of ridding himself of the arrogant noble. And now, it seemed that his wish had been granted, and by a dungeon no less! A young dungeon had done what no man in the kingdom had managed to do, leaving the crown free of any direct association to his death.
The occurrence was a god-sent gift. Sure, he would have to find a way to maneuver around the political unrest that would inevitably follow the death of person that had such a large influence in the kingdom, but for all intents and purposes this was a golden opportunity for him to swoop in and pick up those newly untethered connections that Ravould had had in his pocket for so long. The merchants were willy bunch and they would not trust him easily, but they were clever. He had little doubt that at the very least a number of the most influential traders would be more than happy to align themselves with him (and his deep pockets that led to the royal treasure room) now that Ravoul was gone.
“Good. Good!” King Vas boomed merrily as he smiled as he spoke to his empty studio. He took a minute to bask in the happy thought of not having to deal with Ravoul before he continued to read the letter. The contents of the letter grew more interesting as he read on.
Alester had kindly provided a summary of the events that had transpired in the contest, and the king found himself engrossed in the tale that he was reading. Even with all his experience, he had never seen or heard of a tale such as this. The dungeon was much more than he had dared to hope, and he was certain that this little dungeon at the edges of his kingdom belong to the upper echelons of the categorization for dungeons. This dungeon had to be the beginnings of a Heroic dungeon at least, if not a Legendary one.
Thus, the importance of this dungeon had suddenly escalated to become far more than a national resource, becoming a national treasure in the King’s mind.
Yet, how could he deal with it without arousing suspicion?
He was certain that it wouldn’t be long before the neighbouring nations caught wind of the result of the contest, and if he suddenly sent an armed force to the edge of his kingdom it would arouse suspicion, or worse, it could be mistaken as a his kingdom readying for war. On the other hand, should anyone figure out the true worth of the dungeon then it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that many countries would be more than happy to start a war to acquire it.
Rather, since the dungeon was so close to the border of the kingdom it would be an easy target. It would be more weird if the neighbouring countries didn’t try to take the dungeon upon discovering it’s potential.
The king sat and brooded over the situation, pondering the best course of action when the doors to his studio swung open gently. Looking up from his luxurious seat, the king made eye contact with the bronze-skinned beauty that was his wife. Even after all these years her beauty had not faded. Her eyes were a deep brown that sparkled in the sunlight, and her wavy hair was as dark as night. High cheekbones and delicate nose complimented her gentle features, making her look somewhat like a fairy. Her body itself was lithe and feminine, covered by a silk dress coloured with royal blue and threaded with gold string.
He would be lying if he had said that she didn’t take his breath away.
He smiled at her warmly, and promptly stood with his arms outstretched towards her, pulling her into big hug while their lips met in a kiss.
“My beloved,” he said, “what brings the queen of my heart here?”
“You sappy old lion.” The queen said with a chuckle, as she leaned into the embrace. “I came looking for my dear husband who has been locked away in this room since lunch. I heard you laugh all the way from down the hall. You were laughing so hard I was worried that you had suffocated yourself by forgetting how to draw breath between your howls of laughter.”
“Bah, you underestimate me.” The king said dismissively, his lips still smiling at her. “I am not yet so feeble minded as to forget to breath.”
“As you say, beloved.” She said teasingly before she parted from the embrace. “So tell me, what was it that had you bursting at the seams with merriment? I haven’t heard you laugh like that since Emma set fire to Alester’s rear end by accident when she was nine.”
“Ah yes, I remember that.” Vas said with a chuckle. “Poor Alester’s favourite breachers were left with a rather shameful burn mark and had to be disposed of.”
The king smiled at the memory, but soon returned back to the present. “Here, have a look at this.”
The queen received the card from the King’s hands, and started to read. As a scholar and enchantress, her attention to detail was one of the best he had ever seen. Within minutes she had read and reread the entire letter, committing it to memory.
“That’s quite a lot of news.” Shana said thoughtfully. “Are they certain that Ravoul is dead?”
“There is no body to prove it,” the king said, “but their arguments are sound. I can’t imagine Ravoul faking his death for anything or anyone, nor can I imagine that the Nobles have become so short sighted as to assassinate one of their key players for some minor gain in the short term. To me, this seems like a very legitimate incident. Ravoul is most likely dead. I would say the odds are twenty to one that he was truly killed by the dungeon, and every day that passes, those odds increasingly favour his death.”
“And what do you plan to do with the dungeon?”
“I am still thinking about that one.” The king admitted. “As much as I would like to send in our forces to protect it, I can’t send a large force to protect it. If I did, I have no doubt that it might be seen as preparation for a war of some sort. That would only antagonize our neighbours and invite them to attack.”
“The army?” The queen asked incredulously, “My love, you can’t truly have considered them. Even if this dungeon is as rare as we think it is, the risk is too great. More importantly, if the dungeon is completely self-aware and as intelligent as the reports make it out to be, then could you imagine what it would think if it found itself surrounded by an armed force? Not only would we have a potential war in our hands, but we might turn the dungeon hostile to us.”
“How would the dungeon know that it’s surrounded by the army?”The king asked curiously.
“I am not sure,” the queen admitted, “but there is something awfully strange about the speed at which it prepared itself to deal with the adventurers. We are talking of staving of well over a hundred B rank adventurers here. It must have some sort of sensory ability that provides it with at least marginal knowledge of what goes on around it.”
“Hmm… I had not considered that.” The king admitted. “Perhaps you are right. All the more reason to avoid that route.”
“I think that you should just send some undercover agents for now to keep an eye on the dungeon.” The queen spoke up, “And and ask Ikfes to stay there for a while, at least until the we have had a word with the new lording lady of the area. Then if we could station a few court mages and some strong captains at the village they would be more inconspicuous than an entire army.”
“Hmm… place a few key individuals to hold the line huh… “ The king said thoughtfully, mulling the idea over, “if they are met by a large force of skilled individuals it could be trouble, but that should work fine as long as they remain undercover.”
“That’s the idea.” The queen said with a smile. “Now, isn’t it about time you sent a letter to Lady Dian Vela Rossa? She wasn’t one of the nobles we backed so we better hurry bringing her over to our side, before the nobles catch wind of it.”
“Yes we should get on that.” The king nodded with a sigh. “Right then. I suppose it’s time to schedule a royal visit to the Village of Nam, isn’t it?”