Chapter 13 - Creep
Tess is nearing the accepting death phase. Her face had been a beautiful spectrum of emotions over the past few hours, starting when a certain asshole threw a high-grade monster lure on her butt. First, her face had contorted into shocked denial. Failing to catch up to the culprit, she hid in a large crevice and smoothly entered the second phase, anger. Cursing while dodging a large variety of spiders and bats, she ran around the eighth floor for a while, making up new variations of; mother, fucker and damn. She used her flasks recklessly in this phase, something she regretted immensely now. Poison in order to thin the hordes just so she could get through and potions to heal her accumulating wounds.
She slipped into the next phase unnoticed when she felt her legs burning with fatigue. Honeyed words flowed from her lips, offering her everything to various mystical entities. Pleading, begging and grovelling where all expertly applied in this phase. After hours of crawling through the smallest cracks, she started to realise that she might be truly boned this time. While crawling around lethargically she flowed into the second to last stage, depression.
That had been a while ago now and she is losing the depressed sting that kept her going. Night has fallen some time ago, causing the lights to dim and the animals to become much stronger. Luckily for her, the spiders are satisfied to wait out the night in their spun webs while bats can't find her with their sensitive ears if she tucked herself into a crevice somewhere.
Patting herself down she realizes that there is no more poison left in her possession. All she has is a hand full of healing drafts and a single mana booster. All her stamina potions have been consumed in the now slightly hazy anger phase.
The previous floors contain various shortcuts and sneaky ways crisscrossing the complicated dungeon layout. These paths are an open secret in the sneak community. Tess has doubts that it can be called a community in the first place, there is simply too much backstabbing going on for any feeling of belonging. Getting through the eighth floor is the mark of a true sneak. Just beside the entrance to this floor is an abyssal drop, with the entrance to the next floor located on the bottom.
A multitude of rope fragments usually litters this spot. Tess had hung a fresh one for this trip. She had just touched the bottom when a small bottle hit her back. Looking back up she had only seen a disappearing leg, followed by her rope flopping down around her. This was the point where Tess reached phase one, denial.
That is all behind her now. Climbing back up without any support is only possible for those worry wart earth mages. And then only if they aren't covered in a pungent smelling ichor. Fighting her way through the dungeon normally is impossible for her during the day, at night she will be eaten within minutes.
The main reason she is now giving in to the depression phase is the fact that even her secret is abandoning her. She has always loved the shadows and the shadows seem to love her back. It was immensely beneficial to her job but even though there were shadows all around her now they don't listen anymore. There is a pervasive glow in the dungeon during the day, at night there is too little light to see but too much light to be blind. She is tired and hurt everywhere and the vague shadows don't listen to her anymore.
The light disappearing from her eyes indicates a complete traversal of the phases. No longer even depressed, she knows in her heart that one of the bigger spiders will eat her when the next patrol comes. If she is truly unlucky, the boss might join said patrol. Years of experiencing life and death situations have led her to be too aware of the dungeons inner workings to hope for anything else.
That's why when the weirdest angel she could ever have imagined shows up she just stares at it with dead eyes, slowly falling unconscious.
Walking through the eighth level is honestly a disappointment. Any spider I see gets a nice face full of qi while I mentally shout ‘BUUUURN BITCH BUUUUUURN’ as hard as I can. Seeing flames erupt from all of their eye sockets at once is still as satisfying as ever. Stepping over a still twitching bundle of legs I cast my reconnaissance spell. Lines burn themselves in the air half a meter apart and I hear a squeak from far away.
It seems like Lola is still freaked out by that usage of qi. She disappeared as soon as we reached the bottom of the stairs to this level. Good, she needs to cultivate some independence too. I make a lazy sweep with my stinger spear, splitting a couple of big bats open. These bats are brown. It could be their natural colouration or they could be using earth mana, hard to tell when bats tend to be brown anyway.
Looking at my map I see that these levels are getting bigger in height too. This level has a greatly increased verticality with some nasty drops. The exit is right below the entrance, that explains all the rope I saw lying around back there. Getting slightly bored I take the quickest way to the exit, killing everything attacking me on the way there.
Halfway there I stop and decide to experiment a bit. I haven't seen any signs of fighting so far which somewhat surprises me. Shouldn't there still be corpses of monsters or adventurers around? I saw loads of people entering and exiting here, one of the reasons I went at night. There should at least be some signs of a struggle but I can't even find any dust.
So I spit on the floor. Then I proceed to drip some qi-less blood right next to it. I take the worst dog pelt out of my ring and drop it next to the two puddles of liquid. A piece of wood follows along with some cloth scraps. I wave my spear again, shooting one of the sharp qi packets. A bat is laid next to the collection. I then just stare at the mess I made.
Half an hour later, nothing has changed. Is the dungeon shy? I walk away from my smelly experiment, moving around the nearest corner. I immediately turn back and a clean floor greets me. All the stuff I left there is gone without a trace. Is this a quantum dungeon, things can only be messed with when not observed?
I spit on the floor again, this time infusing some qi. The qi disappears immediately upon touching the floor. Frowning I place another dog pelt down and spit on it. The qi stays and I feel it slowly seeping into the fur. Taking a piece of wood from my ring I shove a large amount of qi inside of it and drop it on the pelt.
Focusing my all on the qi infused materials I walk around the corner again. The moment I am out of sight the connection to my qi is cut. Looking back, I see a spotless corridor. Smooth floor and rough walls without a trace of my stuff. I frown deeper, this is getting weird.
I take out a piece of wood and carve two symbols in it. The first one is the infinity symbol, a number eight on its side. The second one is a representation of me. According to science, DNA is pretty much the root of life as I know it, so a small twisting helix spelling my name represents me and all that I am. I should be able to feel this piece of wood from the other side of the world. These two symbols create a near permanent connection to me. Dropping it on the floor disconnects all the loose qi but the carved symbols keep on shining brightly in my mind.
Another half an hour later I am slightly pissed. I don't like getting upset but this dungeon must be fucking with me. Anything I leave behind disappears without a trace. I tried carved symbols, qi nullifiers, formations, even improvised voodoo. Everything disappears the moment it has no line of sight to me. The only conclusion I can draw can that the dungeon has the ability to separate anything unobserved into its base components. Whether it simply deletes everything or absorbs it somehow, I don't know.
As I walk on towards the next floor entrance, my bad mood causes the tone of my my thoughts to spiral down. Rushing into a completely unknown dungeon while not even a week on this planet is not a smart move. I fully realize that but I had to keep myself busy somehow. Eavesdropping on an entire city is a great way to get to know the place. That includes all the good and the bad, and this city seems to have an overflow of the latter.
You can't learn a language from people without learning a lot about said people. Those adventuring parties I saw going in and out of this place for example? I enjoyed that trope a lot more back when I didn't know about the slaves. The term they use is something like an indentured servant or meritorious reward, but that term seems too light for cheap and purposely bought dungeon fodder. The fact that racism seems alive and well is also not helping my mood. I thought that the hooded people were just shy, it turns out there are beastkin-like people here and they are seen as a lower species.
The tower I sat on while stalking half the city is used as a magical prep school. Instead of learning about the elements or runes, the training is torture. Instead of learning to control mana these poor kids are put into situations engineered to make them feel a negative emotion. The moment they physically express said emotion the collar on their neck gives them pain. And the ones with collars have it good, most are just stabbed or burned by their trainers. Being constantly made angry without being able to even feel the emotion because that would increase your heart rate. Being so scared you want to die but unable to even shiver without waves of pain.
The countryside and slums are seen and used as breeding grounds for more slaves, in more than one sense. I haven't seen a single book. Mages are strictly controlled with collars and other accessories, put under the complete control of their so-called betters. People are starving left and right. I could go on but at this rate the snippets of information I accidentally picked up through the language make me want to burn this city to the ground. There is a dark, sick feeling to this place and its people. Did the overflow of dark mana cause this or vice versa? I really want to have a talk with the guys upstairs about their management style.
Haaah, I'm working myself into a frenzy this way. Deep breath through the nose, out through the mouth along with all the negative shit. Taking a few more deep breaths I calm myself down. I learned all of this while focused on deciphering the language. I need to go through the rest of the gathered intel sometime, but I want to make some preparations first. This is a fun dungeon dive! Yes, just a fun exploration adventure!
Walking on, I consciously leave my previous thought process behind. While I'm busy doing that a shape appears from the distance. Oh god, it's a big spider. Jerking my spear up I shoot all the remaining qi packets from the spear point to the big creepy beast. My apprehension fades as the meter-high crawler disintegrates, falling apart from a multitude of cuts. Looking at the heap of gore on the floor an idea strikes me.
I dash back around the nearest corner. Walking forwards again I am greeted by a spic and span stretch of tunnel. My face widens in a smile. My experiments were good for something at least. I'll leave the discussion about my healthy apprehension for anything small and potentially poisonous for later, I've had enough depressing thoughts for today.
I increase my pace to the exit. I haven't heard a thing from Lola since I scanned this floor. Independence is good and all but she is just a few days old after all. What if this dungeon has some dude with a van with the words ‘free carrots’ on the side? What if there is another night dungeoneer around with a taste for rabbit meat? She’d probably head-butt both of them before they even knew what had hit them, I conclude.
The room before the exit has a surprise for me. I let out a gir... manly shriek as I pump half my qi into my spear.
“ROAST IN HELLLL WAAAA DIE AND BUUUUURN!”
As I shout the last word I throw the spear with all my might. It shoots through the chamber still reverberating with my yell, shooting with tremendous force to the eight-legged, four-meter high abomination in front of me.
A glorious explosion made up of blue flame makes the world a slightly better place. One less monster spider is a wonderful thing. The fact that I only need to be wary of small spiders does nothing to stop my mental jittering. Big spiders are not that dangerous, even if they have poison or venom. I just hope that no form of poison/venom cultivation or magic exists here. Especially venomous insect tamers, they can fuck right off.
Having beaten this level's boss, I quickly walk on, keeping my sight as straight as possible. I don't give the charred heap of spider legs another glance as I walk through the last tunnel of this level
Then I realize that bad things might indeed come in threes. First I learn about how morally skewed this city is. Then I discover that there are spiders in the dungeon. And now Lola is head-butting a dark shape. It sticks from the wall, seemingly humanoid.
This last room is tens of meters wide. The walls are the same rough stone with cracks as before and high above I see the place where I entered this level. Halfway in between natural and designed, the increasing vertically is truly being put on display here.
Sticking out of one of the wall cracks is a dark shape. Huddled in a crouch, it seems to be a dirty human. Long black hair peeks from under a cap, so it's a girl then. So far it's all fine by me. If I had come across said person anytime I would have probably helped them a bit and send them on their way. The problem here is Lola...
I sweep my qi through her body, seeing various old wounds and an exhausted frame. Scrapes everywhere and rail thin. Various deep wounds seem to have scabbed over and a vile stench is wafting from her.
With a complicated look, I stare at the crux of the problem, the rabbit. She was head-butting the female without any force. Beautifully executed, the head-butts were fine by me, it's the bursts of qi that the dumb fluffy critter projected that I have a problem with. Another scan shows me the qi quickly integrating into the girl's cells. Taking the energies back by force would kill her at this point, she is too worn out and would have probably died half an hour ago without it.
So do I kill the girl to save myself immense amounts of potential trouble or do I never let her out of my sight again?
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