The Dungeon Party
Our party had been traveling down the underground dungeon corridor for nearly an hour. These underground ruins had never been explored and didn’t appear on any map of the area. But a vision our priest had, along with a reference to its existence found in a tome of ancient history, corresponded with Vandt’s information about ruins in this location. Otherwise, we never would have found it.
Oh, how I wish we never would have found it.
Although I had my suspicions about dark mages, Vandt had seemed to be straight-forward so far. He’d fought alongside us in our most recent encounter with bandits, even though I could tell he wanted to run. But my friend Ebersol vouched for him. And the existence of these ruins seemed to prove his credibility.
And the treasure itself? Nothing less than the entire treasury of a fallen kingdom. And much more: we uncovered evidence that an Antediluvian Shard lay within these ruins. Only two of these had ever been discovered, and they were incredibly valuable.
If the proper incantation was known, the possessor of a Shard could tap into the Great Library, a compilation of magic and knowledge that had been lost to time millennia ago and rumored to exist in another dimension. And the knowledge unlocked could lead to other ruins and treasures.
One of the two current Shard holders was now a ruler of a kingdom, the other a wealthy sage who lived by himself on a private island.
My name is Garret, and I’m the only non-noble in our exploring group. After the war, only the nobility had the spare time and funds to mount expeditions to explore ruins, or “dungeons” as most of us in the business refer to them. Common folk like me are just hired hands, but we still get a share of anything we discover.
As usual, I led the way. I’m not the party’s leader, just the scout. No, I’m not a thief, I hate that label. But to be honest, I can smell a trap a mile away, pick a lock in no time at all, and detect danger by instinct alone. The army had been able to make good use of my skills during the war.
Not that it had saved Ebersol and Vandt.
Right now, my danger instinct was pinging me hard that something wasn’t right. I paused, swiveled my head left and right, then drew my sturdy short sword from its sheath.
“What’s up, Garret?” our party’s leader said from behind me. Malissa was our best sword fighter, although she sounds like a member of the High Queen’s court when she speaks. Rumor said that she had, in fact, been thrown out of the court for ‘unexplained reasons.’
“You’re not leading us into another trap, are you?” she asked. Ever since the deaths, her usual condescending tone of voice had a dangerous edge to it.
Irritated, I turned around and faced her. “I don’t see or feel anything specific to worry about. Yet. I’m just being careful.” Malissa could be ruthless in pursuit of wealth and fame and she often grated on my nerves, but she carried her share of the load when it came to fighting. I depended on her as much as she depended on me, and someone like her who was raised from the age of seven to wield a sword was welcome in any adventurer’s group.
For our current task she wore her expensive form-fitting leather armor, reinforced with metal sleeves and greaves. For some bizarre reason, she also wore a short skirt. It was made out of leather, but still…
The katana she carried twitched lightly in her grasp, as if she was eager to put it to use. A rakish, wide-brimmed hat completed her ensemble. She pushed her long black hair off her shoulder in a bored manner, then waved her hand at me as if shooing a fly off her cheesecake. “Fine, fine. Let’s just keep moving.”
Behind her, Caterina, our cleric, picked her way carefully across the smooth marble floor of the corridor, using her staff to poke at suspicious irregularities. She wore a thin silver band with a single amethyst around her head to hold her long, blonde hair in place. Instead of armor she wore a white, open-fronted clerical robe reaching down to her ankles. It wasn’t just for show -- the robe was reinforced with magic and tough leather. Like the rest of us, she also wore sturdy knee boots and tights.
She lifted her head and gave me what I hoped was an encouraging smile before glancing down again. My heart beat a little faster. I know, I know, young priests aren’t supposed to pursue romance -- especially not with roguish types like me. But there’s always the exception here and there, and hope fueled my dreams of getting a little closer to her.
I turned back around and continued my careful advance, admiring the craftsmanship of the hallway as I proceeded. The ceiling was supported by carved marble columns and arches, and walled with precisely-cut blocks of granite . Definitely Akhadian design. That culture was so in love with style they even had intricately carved toilet seats. Ouch.
The Akhadian Empire had fallen centuries ago. In the hidden ruins left behind were incredible riches in the form of gold, magic, jewels, and especially knowledge. There were also magic traps, snares, and pitfalls that had kept their wealth secure centuries after the empire’s fall.
It was one of those traps that had killed Ebersol and Vandt.
It was a stupid mistake. Ebersol had followed Vandt down a right-branching corridor when I’d been leading the party down the left branch. I’d warned them not to go that way, it wasn’t my fault that they decided to explore on their own. Even so, the incident still left me with a feeling of guilt, burning like sour wine deep in my gut.
But it also hurt that my friend, Ebersol, had decided to go with Vandt’s advice instead of mine. And it had cost him everything.
The two of them had fallen into a pit. There was something… hungry… at the bottom. Sometimes monsters wander into these ruins and take up residence or fall into traps.
Whatever was in the pit tore them limb from limb.
I wondered if Malissa still blamed me for their deaths. The nobles in our party had been a close-knit group, so the deaths of two of their number really hit them hard.
I was still thinking about the accusations Malissa had hurled at me when, at that moment, my sixth sense acted up again. The mages say my special insight isn’t magical, but they can’t explain why it’s so reliable, either. Caterina tells me it’s a gift from the gods.
I came to a halt in front of a short corridor on my right that led to a dead-end wall. “Everyone, stop. I need to look at something.” I unrolled Vandt’s map and studied it by torchlight.
The map showed the side corridor leading not to a dead end, but to a large room. But the hallway I was looking at ended after only ten feet.
There had to be a secret room behind the blank wall. And there’s always, always, something interesting to find behind a hidden door. I started to get excited.
Malissa and Caterina watched me closely from a safe distance. In fairness to them, I have to say that I do occasionally make mistakes, and rely on my reflexes and training to keep me out of trouble. Not to mention my special insight. And a helping of dumb luck as well, I’d have to admit.
But they were unusually focused on what I was doing, as if… waiting for something to happen. Malissa wore an expression of eager anticipation. Caterina seemed as if she were on the verge of saying something. I was so excited at the time that I didn't give it too much thought.
Concealed catches aren’t easy to find but I located the lever that opened the hidden door with little effort. It opened wide, revealing a dark interior that was just begging for the light of a ruin explorer’s torch. I hoisted mine up eagerly.
We all gasped, even the cynical Malissa.
Beyond the entrance dozens of gold bars were stacked neatly on shelves reaching from floor to ceiling. Thick cloth sacks on the floor had split open with age, letting their precious contents of gold coins pour out into mounds that glinted red and yellow in the torchlight. Best of all, a long, blood-red crystal about the size of my hand rested on a low podium.
We’d uncovered the treasure vault containing the third Antediluvian Shard.
With a wide grin, I looked behind me to share Caterina’s joy. Her face was in the shadows, but I could clearly see Malissa’s look of anticipation.
I was so eager to see what lay beyond that I made a serious mistake.
I’d missed the trap on the switch itself.
As I let go of the hidden lever, the floor underneath me split into two halves that shot into grooved recesses.
I didn’t fall far at all, but landed on something soft and squishy. To my horror, it sucked me down like quicksand. I reached out blindly and grabbed the edge of the pit before I went completely under.
A cube slime! my mind screamed at me.
The slime held me fast with only my head and hands free. I held on to the edge of the pit with all my strength, but was unable to pull myself up. All over my body I could feel a burning sensation as the thing’s digestive fluids went to work. And I could also feel a slow, relentless pull as the slime tried to drag me under.
Out of all the creatures in a dungeon, slimes are the least regarded. They’re easily killed by flames or a blade piercing their nucleus. Even the flat of a sword can kill one if you beat it against the slime hard enough.
Slimes are the vultures of the dungeon. They will absorb anything organic they come into contact with: Leather armor. Clothing. Skin, hair, internal organs. I’ve seen suits of metal armor lying in dungeons that were almost pristine, their deceased occupants completely absorbed by the lowly slime.
But a cube slime is enormous and almost impossible to kill. They’re cultivated specifically to act as a nasty trap. If they’re given enough time and food, they’ll expand to fill the entire space they occupy, even if it's a room.
Or a pit.
The torch of one of my companions blazed overhead as she came forward.
“Pull me out!” I shouted. “I’ve fallen into a giant slime! Get me out of here before it starts dissolving me!”
She moved her torch to one side. I was shocked as Malissa’s face came back into the light. It wasn’t a look of concern she was wearing.
The flickering torch revealed a demonic smile full of glee as she looked down at me.
“This isn’t funny, Malissa! I can’t move!” I shouted with pain as the beast’s stomach acids started to work on my legs.
Her smirk didn’t waver. “Oh really? Your mouth seems to be moving rather well.” She sheathed her sword and placed a hand on her hip. Then she laughed, a nasty sort of laugh you’d expect to hear from underworld criminals, not nobility. “Oh, this is rich! It’ll take hours for you to be consumed by that slime. And you’ll be screaming the whole time. It’s no less than what you deserve for killing Ebersol and Vandt.”
I was so shocked I forgot about the pain for a moment. “You still -- you still blame me for that?”
She shrugged indifferently. “Of course you killed them. You’re a thief. You three were in the lead, where the corridor branched. You went left and they went right. Catarina and I both saw it.”
“I told them they were going the wrong way! But they didn’t listen to me!”
“So you say, Garret. But no one heard what you said to them and they’re dead now. How very convenient for you.” She sniffed. “Honestly, though, I don't care at all about those two. More loot for the rest of us, as thieves like you are fond of saying.”
I was stunned by her callous statement. “I was a rogue and a scout, but never a thief! And never a murderer! Get me out of here!”
A shadow loomed out of the darkness as someone moved up next to her. Malissa passed the torch to the new arrival and disappeared back into the hallway. A white robe fluttered overhead, close enough to see the intricate designs stitched across the hem.
“Catarina!” Relief flooded through me. “I’m trapped in a cube slime! Help me out!”
The word hung in the air like a tone from a funeral bell.
Desperation started to set in. “Why not? Please, this isn’t a joke, I’m going to die if you don’t help me! For the sake of everything holy, get me out of here!”
“It’s for the sake of everything holy that I leave you to your fate, Garret. After Malissa told me you sent Ebersol and Vandt to their deaths --” She moved her torch and I could see both anger and sorrow on her face. “How could you? Ebersol and Vandt were our friends.”
“I didn’t kill them! I swear I didn’t kill them!” The pain all over my body was unbelievable. It felt like I’d been dropped into a cauldron of acid.
She ignored my interruption. “I prayed for guidance. I was given insight, and told to wait and see what judgment would be rendered this day.” She took a deep breath. With the voice of a magistrate delivering a burdensome but necessary verdict, she said. “Your guilt has been made clear beyond all doubt, as shown by the manner of your death.”
Malissa stepped back into the light carrying the map I’d left in the hallway. She looked down at me with amusement. “You know, I could stand here all day and watch you turn into the same kind of goo I scrape off my boots, but we’ve got a job to do. Vandt said there’d be a pit in front of a treasury room. Thanks for finding both the room and the trap.”
“Wait, what?” My mind was swimming with pain and confusion. “You mean -- Vandt knew about this pit? And you let me fall into it? But -- why?”
“I serve the goddess of Justice.” Catarina said. Her beautiful face, the face I dreamed about at night, had become a pitiless mask. “Her vision told me there would be a hidden pit. Vandt confirmed it, he just didn’t know where the Shard lay hidden. And the goddess told me that you would fall prey if you were guilty.” She shook her head, her eyes shut as if in pain. “I really didn’t want to believe it. But it’s true.”
Suddenly I realized how I’d been set up. “Catarina, listen to me. Your vision was created by Vandt using illusion magic! You yourself know that dark mages can cast a spell on a sleeping person, then delude their victim into thinking their dream was a vision!” I knew that the dream could be so convincing that some victims would even hand over all their land and property. “Why do you think they’re called dark mages?”
The stern look on Catarina’s face softened. I knew she realized I could be right.
She turned to Malissa. “Is this true? Did you see or hear Vandt last night after we went to bed?”
Malissa spoke with contempt. “Oh, he’s just lying to save his skin. Of course Vandt didn’t cast a spell on you. That spell is high-level, it’s too difficult for him to cast.”
My fingers started to slip. I scrabbled frantically to keep from losing my handhold and being dragged under. My leather armor and clothing were almost completely dissolved. I started to panic. “Please, just get me out of here!”
“Isn’t it fitting that you die in a pit, just like Ebersol and Vandt?” With a vicious smile, Malissa stamped hard on the fingers of my right hand. I shouted in pain and jerked my injured hand away. The rubbery surface of the slime’s bulk closed over it.
Malissa raised her foot again, but stopped short as if she’d had a better idea. “Catarina, as a representative of the goddess of Justice, it’s only fitting that you be given a role in the judgment of the gods.”
Our cleric’s face clouded with confusion. “What do you mean?”
“You yourself said your vision was divine guidance.” Malissa pointed down at me as I tried desperately to hold on with my remaining hand. “The goddess has delivered her verdict, but you as her representative should carry out the sentence. Don’t the warrior-clerics in your order often welcome criminals to the afterlife with their own hands?”
Caterina still looked uncertain. Malissa pressed her argument. “And the Shard lies in front of us, along with the treasury of an entire kingdom. Just as your vision said.”
Wait! How did Malissa know what Catarina’s dream was about?
Catarina glanced past me, beyond the pit, taking in the sight of the immense riches and vast knowledge filling the hidden room. Something I’d never seen in her face before, a look of desire and avarice, flickered briefly in her eyes.
Malissa knew she’d won. Her mouth split into a predator’s grin, all teeth and venom. “Do your duty, priest.”
Slowly, Caterina nodded, then looked down at me. Her expression was both both frightening and merciless.
“Caterina, no! Ask her how she knew what was in your vision, she couldn’t know unless Vandt told her! Because he put that vision in your head! Don’t let her lie to you, don’t --”
“I can hardly believe that I once thought of you as a friend, Garret.” Catarina’s voice dropped to a whisper that only I could hear. “And maybe even as more than a friend. What a fool I was.” She took a step forward and ground my fingers under her heel. With a strangled cry, I released my hold and sank further into the slime’s bulk. Now only my head was untouched by the fluids starting to render the flesh from my bones.
Malissa was searching for something along the wall. “Where is that switch? Ah, here it is.” Taking no notice of my agony, she reached for the same treacherous lever that had ended my life. She looked down and gave me one last, spiteful smile. “A pity you won’t get to share any of the treasure with us, Garret. But like you thieves always say, that just leaves more loot for the rest of us.”
I think having the last word was almost as important to Malissa as acquiring the Shard.
The flames of the torches faded away as the floor closed back over my head, plunging me into total darkness.
I’d heard of people so ruthless they’d step over the dead bodies of their own friends to achieve their goals. But as I heard the footsteps of my former comrades pass over me, I never dreamed that I’d actually witness such cold-blooded cruelty carried out so literally.
The two of them walked forward eagerly into the room concealing the Shard and untold wealth, ignoring the screams coming from underneath the floor as the slime ate me alive.
I struggled to wake up, feeling like a diver running short on oxygen who’s fighting his way to the surface.
With a gasp, I came fully awake, flailing my arms around me and knocking my computer mouse and empty soda cans onto the floor.
Oh no, did I save my work?
I punched keys like a madman and heaved a sigh of relief as my creation filled the screen. It was the image of my priest character, Caterina. I wasn’t surprised to see that the image was identical to that of the cleric in my nightmare. I’d been working on the character for hours before I fell asleep at my keyboard, it would’ve been unusual if I hadn’t dreamed about her.
I’d created Caterina weeks ago, then built up some kind of weird obsession over her. I frequently stayed up late working on her appearance. And then I’d have a nightmare, one that I’d forget about shortly after waking.
The nightmare faded quickly from memory. I turned Caterina’s image around in the character creation software for the dungeon game I was playing, making sure there were no flaws. It was probably the best part of the game, to be honest. I could spend hours making fantasy characters.
No wonder I won’t get chocolates on Valentine’s Day. The date was coming up fast, but the only girls I really knew were 2-D.
I didn’t count Yoshida Hayami, a girl Takeda had taken an interest in, as a girl I knew. Yoshida didn’t seem to like me that much, but she tolerated me. Plus, we had the best voices when it came to after-school karaoke. That had to count for something.
I was so focused on checking my character save status I didn’t notice the time until my phone buzzed. I scooped it up one-handed while tapping keys with the other.
Waiting outside, nerd the text read.
I noticed the time on the lock screen. “Urk!”