Just as Xera had said, the heart of the dungeon was quite close by the little camp those adventurers had made. It was definitely marked on the hand-drawn map they had brought with them. A significant portion of the labyrinthine corridors had been mapped out in great detail, which looked odd considering with how uneven and smudged the lines on it were. It was legible, but barely.
Xera guessed this was something those four had copied for themselves, but that was besides the point. Even as poor quality as it was, the place where her master wanted to go was plainly visible. Their destination was the only unmapped portion of the dungeon, with the words ‘Do not enter’ scribbled in the blank space. And the two of them were standing at a T-shaped junction, right on the edge of that space.
Behind them was the way they came from. To the right was a path that would take them nowhere in particular. The way to the left stretched out into a straight corridor that led into the uncharted heart of this dungeon. It looked pretty much exactly like the rest of the underground maze - stone brick walls and floor, creepy statues and carvings visible along the wall and ghostly torches providing just enough blue light to make their presence known. It was easy to see how someone might enter this place by accident if they didn’t have one of these maps.
Which is probably why ‘DO NOT ENTER’ was written in large blocky letters on either side of the passage in question with an eye-catching yellow paint. Grimy and steadily peeling off, but eye-catching nonetheless.
“The core should be down this way, Master,” said the succubus.
The Mimic stopped playing with its expanded collection of gold coins and, much to her relief, shifted back into its combat stance, swords at the ready.
“Go in front,” it ordered.
It sent its familiar ahead so that she can be bait for any ambushes or traps. Even if she was much more fragile than itself, she could still be used as a meat shield. After all, she was expendable and her death would be an inconvenience at most.
Also, the Mimic was more than a little worried about friendly fire. It had plenty of opportunity to watch Xera use her magic throughout the dungeon, so it knew full well just how out of control those Pyroclasm Spells could get. Being in that pyromaniac’s line of fire was not an attractive prospect, to say the least. So it went against the common sense of adventuring parties and put the vulnerable Caster Job at the front.
The succubus walked about 15 meters in front of her master like she had been doing until now. However, unlike before, it was being strangely silent. She found herself looking over her shoulder a few times to make sure it was still following her. The way that animate chest followed made for a rather unsettling sight. Even the experienced demoness found the way it was quietly gliding along those eight spider legs to be a bit creepy. If someone were to see the two of them right now, they’d undoubtedly misunderstand the situation as a monster stalking an innocent young woman.
The corridor itself went on straight for a while and had several left turns, but there were no intersections with other tunnels. Rather than a maze, this part of the dungeon was more akin to a spiral. Eventually, the corridor ended in a rather plain stone archway with a wide hall on the other side of it. The rectangular chamber was far more spacious when compared to the rest of the dungeon, more than 30 meters on each side. Four wide stone columns were spaced out evenly around the interior, likely holding up the 4 meter tall ceiling.
And right in the middle of the room, on top of a circular marble altar, was the core. A glowing red crystal ball, roughly one meter in diameter. At first glance it seemed to be sitting on top of its pedestal, but closer a inspection revealed it was actually floating ever so slightly above it.
Xera entered the room boldly, her footsteps echoing throughout the chamber. Her master skittered in silently behind her shortly after. As the succubus approached the core on the Mimic’s orders, she heard a strange whimper and a rustling of chains. Looking to her right, she saw what appeared to be a young human girl that was still in her mid-to-late teens chained up against the pillar.
The prisoner was sitting on the ground with arms bound tightly above her head by thick, rusty shackles and chains. Her long, black, oily hair was stuck to her face, obscuring part of her features. She was wearing what appeared to be leather armor that was mostly in tatters and left much of her pale, bruised skin exposed. The odd posture she was in seemed to emphasize her moderately-sized, albeit perky breasts.
“Please! Help me!” she shouted with a voice halfway between a plea and a cry.
“Sure,” replied the ‘adventurer’ with a smile on her face.
“Really? You’ll release me?!”
“Yep! Release you from life, that is!”
The sudden Spell crashed into the stone pillar, wrapping the lowest part of it in a plume of bright red flames.
“What are you doing?!” screamed the prisoner.
“I could ask you the same thing, hmm?”
In the split second between chanting the Spell and it hitting its target, the black-haired girl had slipped out of her restraints and climbed up onto pillar to avoid it. She was sticking to the smooth stone bricks while upside down with her arms and legs spread out, like a cross between a human, a frog and a cockroach.
“Ah,” she exclaimed after realizing the position she was in. Xera simply smiled mischievously.
“Good evening, miss dungeon master.”
The ‘prisoner’ clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
“Tch, figured me out did you?”
“Puh-lease, honey. I knew the instant I heard you. You’re 500 years too early to try and deceive the likes of me!”
“Hyu hyu hyu hyu hyu!” came the odd laugh. “That’s why I love humans! They always spout such nonsense right before-”
The girl, or rather the thing that looked like a girl was rudely interrupted by another Fireball that flew straight at her face. She leaped off the pillar and landed to the ground with a small roll while implying Xera was prone to having intimate relations with a horse. Incidentally, there was that one time that involved a centaur, so technically speaking she was half-right.
The dungeon master then ran straight at the succubus, crossing the 10 or so meters between them in an instant. She punched her in the throat to interrupt her chanting and swept her feet in the next instant. Xera landed on her back with a thud and a yelp, dropping her staff in the process. Her attacked then immediately straddled her stomach and pinned her wrists to the floor. She loomed over her captive victim with a triumphant smile on her face.
“-right before I eat them,” she finished.
The black-haired woman’s mouth then opened unnaturally wide like her jaw had been unhinged. A slimy and oddly familiar tongue poured out of it. She probingly licked Xera’s face, then retracted the tentacle-like organ inside herself with a smack of her lips.
“Hyu hyu hyu hyu! You’re quite tasty, you know that?”
“I have been told that before, yes.”
The dungeon master’s eyes widened with surprise and she leapt forward, releasing Xera from her grip. A trio of blades then sliced through the space she was occupying mere moments before.
“Huck!” cursed the Mimic. Its ambush was dodged and the opportunity to use Assassinate was now gone. It wasted so much time maneuvering into the right position, too!
“Master?!” shouted Xera through the thought-link. “Why didn’t you use magic!?”
Xera could almost see the proverbial lightbulb go off in its mind when it did that. She silently asked herself if this retard had seriously forgotten that it could use magic, but immediately let go of that pointless question. Now was not the time for such thoughts. She quickly scrambled to her feet and picked up her staff.
The dungeon master had already retreated to a safe distance of about 18 meters. The creature before them had already reverted back to its base form, revealing its identity as a monster. The head, arms and legs still retained their human appearance. Even the hair was the same unruly collection of black strands that naturally draped over her face. However, the skin was so white and flawless that one could easily mistake it for porcelain. This illusion was solidified by the pure white eyes that had no irises.
However, what clearly set her apart as a monster was what she was ‘wearing.’ The ruined leather trappings had transformed into what appeared to be a pile of meat and bone masquerading as a loose-fitting strapless dress. A grotesque collection of blood-red muscles, distended blood vessels and even a few misshapen eyes covered its surface. They all seemed to crawl and pulsate all on their own. The horrifying garment had a short skirt made out of red flesh that had several misshapen human-like teeth poking out of it at random. It hung down to the monster’s knees, allowing the bare, pale feet underneath to practically shimmer in the dim lighting.
This was indeed, as Xera guessed, the dungeon master. She was a Fleshmaiden, an intelligent and cunning shapeshifter that liked dark and damp places. Once one of these had established a lair, they would practically shut themselves inside it. It was a reclusive species that did not enjoy being out in the open at all. However, those who would dare intrude on this monster’s sanctum would not be allowed to escape with their lives. Which is probably why the only entrance to the room was sealed shut by a stone slab that rose up from the ground.
“I see,” she said in a calm, clear monotone while glaring at the Mimic. “You brought one of mine.”
The monstrous woman thought of herself as the mother of all creatures in this dungeon. That notion was not entirely true, but it wasn’t entirely false either. Indeed, the only reason that mimics started appearing in this dungeon was because because the Fleshmaiden had taken control of its core. The glowing crystal ball that served as the heart of this place was influenced by its new owner, prompting the dungeon to spawn the only shapeshifting species of monster it could. That was, of course, merely the beginning. Eventually the whole underground labyrinth would evolve and change to suit its new ruler, including the walls and layout of the place.
“ A strong one, too,” she continued. “Isn’t this the same child that grew too large for this place? You’re controlling it, aren’t you?!”
“Found me out, did you?” smiled Xera. This creature in front of her was clearly misunderstanding the way their master-servant relationship worked and the succubus had no intention of dispelling it.
Her master, on the other hand, was too busy sizing up its prey to bother with the chit chat. The thing in front was clearly not human, but a shapeshifter much like itself. This meant the insides were vastly different from the outside, so traditional weak points like the heart, head, throat and lungs were unlikely to work.
The Fleshmaiden reached inside the folds of her ‘dress’ and pulled out a pair of mithril daggers, one in each hand. The silver-like blades glistened forebodingly with an oddly green sheen.
“You whore!” she wailed while lowering her stance. “How dare you take what is mine?!”
She charged forward with the same abnormal speed she displayed earlier, clearly aiming to finish off the troublesome magic user first. However, she was blocked by the same trio of blades she dodged less than a minute ago. They thrust through the space she was going to be in if she didn’t immediately skid to a halt.
The Fleshmaiden’s mind rapidly changed gears at that. Even though the swords themselves were not that great, the one wielding them could not be underestimated. If the Assassination attempt from earlier succeeded then she would undoubtedly be in a bad spot. However, one does not simply sneak up on a Fleshmaiden. They’re way too paranoid to trust only one pair of eyes and always have an extra two or three of them along their bodies, covering all possible angles. Indeed, she had picked out the skulking chest almost immediately, but did not expect it to attack her rather than the person she was holding down.
And the Mimic would do that again. It took the initiative and pressed the attack. The flurry of tentacle-guided blades struck at the Fleshmaiden, but they were all repelled. She had parried all the blows beautifully even though she only had two blades to the Mimic’s three. It didn’t stop there and kept swinging wildly at her, coming at her from all sorts of awkward angles. All its previous opponents were overwhelmed by this approach, but they were only human. The Fleshmaiden’s arms and hands moved with superior speed and skill while bending and stretching in ways no human arm could ever manage. She was able to stand her ground against the chaotic onslaught.
The two kept exchanging blows as sparks flew off and metal-on-metal clanging reverberated through the chamber. Xera was left with nothing to do in the meantime. Her master had given her a strict order to not use any magic near it, so she was unable to do anything in this situation. Indeed, the chaotic nature of her flames was one of the ways she used to ‘accidentally’ torch one of her previous masters. But that was then, this is now. And right now she was left with no way of attacking, regardless of her intentions. This was also likely the Fleshmaiden’s plan since Casters would hesitate to fire on their own allies.
However, it still meant that Xera was left undisturbed for the moment. She seized her chance and ran off towards the core, clearly aiming to secure her prize while the current dungeon master was held at bay.
Her intentions did not slip the Fleshmaiden’s notice. The dagger-wielding monster decided to kick things up a notch and stop that infuriating woman from trying anything funny. Truthfully, even though she appeared to have her hands full, she was simply taking a cautious wait-and-see approach with her opponent. Her superior speed and excellent kinetic vision actually gave her quite a bit of breathing room.
She saw a gap within the Mimic’s wild swings and managed to thrust her dagger through it. The sharp blade cut into the tongue on her left, sinking in about halfway through it and causing it to stop its movements. She then followed up with another strike to the same place, severing it completely. The slimy red tongue and the sword it was gripping both fell to the ground with a sputter of gooey yellow blood.
One down, two to go.
Reeling at the sudden loss of limb, the Mimic didn’t have time to react before the middle one was sliced off with three successive strikes. It realized the opponent’s aim and reeled in the last tentacle while pulling back, but the Fleshmaiden would not allow that. She swung down fiercely with her whole upper body, chopping it off just moments before it had disappeared inside the Mimic’s mouth.
However, while it was by no means a bad move to disarm her opponent, she ended up narrowing her attention on the swords a bit too much. Her rushed downward swing had left her slightly off balance and within centimeters of the Mimic’s natural weapons. It swiftly tied the its other two tongue-tentacles around her shoulder and neck, pulling on her fiercely while lunging forward. It sank its jagged, misaligned teeth deep into her side.
The Fleshmaiden wailed in agony. Her right arm, shoulder and the side of her torso were all inside the Mimic’s maw. But so was her dagger. She thrust it upwards, piercing clean through the roof of its mouth. The mithril blade stuck out from the inside of the imitation wood lid like an oversized nail. Satisfied with the hiss of pain from her opponent, the Fleshmaiden tried to pull it out and keep stabbing the insides of its mouth.
However, it wouldn’t budge. The monster had reflexively tightened the muscles around it, locking it in place. It also wasn’t quite done with the piece of meat stuck in its teeth. It reared up on its spider legs, lifting the captive Fleshmaiden off the ground. It then swung her around to its side like a wet rag before slamming her down on the floor with a disgusting wet thud. The force of the impact severed what little flesh connected the right side of its victim’s upper torso to the rest of her.
At least that’s what it seemed like. The Fleshmaiden had willingly detached herself from those jaws, much like a lizard shedding its tail to escape. She rolled on the ground and scrambled to her feet. Her quick wits once again re-evaluated the situation. While she did have the upper hand in speed and dexterity, her opponent had her outclassed when it came to raw power and durability. Facing it head-on was not impossible, but it was a much wiser decision to cut off its reason to fight. Her new position put her in a perfect spot to bypass the still-reeling Mimic and take care of that troublesome Pyromancer.
The woman in question was busy banging on the transparent pink barrier the dungeon core had thrown up to protect itself. It was an automated security system of sorts. There’s no way the core would allow anyone except its rightful owner approach it, after all. And while it wasn’t capable of keeping that shield up indefinitely, it would still take a long time to break through.
The Fleshmaiden made up her mind and charged swiftly at the girl. Xera noticed her approach and immediately began chanting a Spell, but she didn’t make it in time. The gap between them was closed in almost an instant and a mithril dagger was stuck deep into her chest. Right where her heart would have been if she was human.
“I will have you pay for what you’ve done!” growled the Fleshmaiden while twisting her blade further inside her target. However, the face her victim made wasn’t one twisted by pain or the fear of death. Quite the opposite in fact. She was smiling with a wide, shit-eating grin that was proud of pulling off an elaborate prank. She dropped her staff and gripped the dumbfounded Fleshmaiden’s arm with both hands.
“Inferno,” she said, finishing her chant.
A swirling mass of fire enveloped them, burning away at both of their bodies. And even though they got the same treatment, they had wildly different reactions. The Fleshmaiden wailed in pain while the demon laughed maniacally.
That’s the trouble when dealing with immortal beings - they don’t hesitate to self-destruct. It didn’t help that the being in question was also a masochistic pyromaniac on top of being a summoned demon. If anything, it’s a surprise she lasted an entire week since her ‘awakening’ before she thought of setting herself on fire.
The Inferno did not last long, however. The Fleshmaiden was a resilient monster that would not give in so easily. She pulled her hand free and stabbed the succubus three more times in rapid succession before her HP was completely depleted, cutting the effects of the Spell short. Xera’s charred body fell to the ground while giving her killer the finger in a final act of defiance. It then broke apart into bright purple particles that faded away into nothingness.
The Mimic had already recovered as best as it could. The cut off tentacles were regrown and the mithril dagger was safely put away into Storage. It hesitated to approach the burning figure of the Fleshmaiden, however. Fire was a natural enemy of both wooden treasure chests and living things in general, so it was wary of approaching her.
When Xera’s Devouring Flames faded away a few seconds later, it revealed a shocking scene. The Fleshmaiden’s burnt and charred skin was healing itself. The bitten off portion of her torso as well as her right arm were growing back rapidly. She raised her left arm, pointing the dagger towards the Mimic.
“You’re next, traitor!” she bellowed.
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