Chapter Thirty-seven: The Hunting Grounds
Being invaded was a complex feeling that was hard to explain. Unlike the sprites, Brandr did not need the viewing screens to see what was happening. He had the adventurers step over his threshold just as surely as they would someone stepping on their fingers, except, without the pain. When concentrating, he could feel the heat of their bodies, how they obstructed the flow of air and even the tiny wisps of essence that escaped their forms and into his grasp. Even without that level of concentration, he could feel the threat they pose to him and his domain.
That was the part that was hardest to describe. The coming and going to the sprites triggered no warnings. He did not even get the invaders alert. Whiles the entry of new animals could trigger the alert, he had succeeded in turning that off for most of the species that came in. Now, he relied mostly on the feeling of people coming in instead of the blue panel. Still, not even the entry of mice, crows or even the armoured bear had felt like this. There was a sort of surety in his gut that these adventurers were a threat–The greatest threat yet!
“I’m sorry Sieg but Ryan is right”, Coenbert told his cousin. “This is bigger than you think, trust me. Anything related to dungeon status and maintenance is considered A-ranked. I had to report it!”
The ranger hid a grimace. Sometimes, Coenbert made it clear that he should have become a paladin and not a guardian. Sieg had argued for them to stick with the original plan, loot what they could and then leave and come back when necessary.
“Don’t worry!” Coenbert said with a happy grin. “Old Ugmar is giving us a finders fee — twenty-five thousand gold!”
The word silenced any complaints before they had a chance to rise.
“You’re jossing me!” Ryan said in disbelief.
“Swear I’m not!” the guardian asserted. “He said he’d try and get us a little bonus on account of how far out of the way this place is as well as the danger involved. He wouldn’t even bring up why we’re up here!”
“Wait.., is that twenty-five thousand to split or a piece?” someone asked.
The others ignored him and his greed. A thousand golden basilians was more than six times the paycheck from a month-long, G-ranked escort mission. For most of them, it was the biggest bulk sum they had made in their lives.
“There’s more”, Coenbert and his flashy grin added. “He’s given us a D-ranked mission. We are to assess the dungeon and its area. He’ll be sending people to come check this place out but he wants us to do the prelims. All we have to do is map out the area and the dungeon, list the monsters, loot and attack patterns we find and we’re up another two hundred gold”, borrowing a page from Sieg’s book, he paused slightly for emphasis before adding the kicker. “…each! Anything we get to keep is ours and there will be further bonuses depending on how much we info we get and how accurate it is!”
“Anything we get?” Sieg asked in disbelief. “They would really do that?”
“Of course. They’re probably going to use that to check the respawn times of the monsters and materials”, one of the dwarves supplied helpfully.
“Well…” a suddenly enthusiastic Ryan asked. “What are we waiting for?”
At that cry, they marched straight into the dungeon and came face to face with their first obstacle.
There was a massive flat-faced marble stele just five metres into the dungeon. Three metres tall and two wide, it stood in the middle of the passageway and bared the way with a weak magical barrier. Carved into it was a simple sentence.
Please register your name or party before proceeding!
Embarrassingly, it took them longer than you would think to figure it out. The obelisk required a single person, a leader to place his or her hand on a marked portion and register a party of up to ten adventurers before proceeding.
Coenbert acted fast, calling the other four members of his team to his side. Adding the dwarves, who he was responsible for, his cousin, and one of the warriors he had invited gave him nine members who he quickly registered under the name Coenbert’s Defenders, before rushing ahead. Catching on, Ryan hurriedly registered his group of six as The Red Swords, leaving the remaining three independents to fend for themselves. Five metres and ten minutes into the dungeon and they were already divided. The dive had turned into an all-out scramble.
Anything they found would be theirs by right and the crafty Coenbert knew that rather than waste time mapping the floor or studying the monsters, the best way to earn coin would be to make a dash for the boss stopping only to loot items of value. Thus, the moment he was done registering his party, they shot forward; rangers in the lead, followed by warriors, dwarves in the middle, mage and cleric bringing up the rear with him at their side to protect them. His quick thinking and leadership skills made sure he well past the first bend by the time Ryan was wavering on whether or not to add the other three to his group or not.
Soon, they had left the narrow passageway’s behind and made their way into a large cavern. For a moment they were still, all in awe at their surroundings, golden sunlight poured down from above. Seas of grass as high as their knees covered the ground and a gentle breeze was in the air. The moment was not to last for they soon noticed rustling in the grass next to them.
Instantly, they readied themselves for whichever creature would show itself. It was good that they did. It came out slowly, grey-furred and clawed, revealing a body the size of a wolfhound and a fanged mouth that held tight to a corpse that still dripped with blood. Stunned, Coenbert’s party made no moves to back away causing the new arrival to become startled and dart back into the cover of the tall grass leaving a visible furrow as it ran away.
“Was that a badger?” the group’s only other ranger asked in disbelief.
“A very big badger? Yes!” Sieg answered.
Coenbert was already in pursuit, “Stop yapping and chase it!”
Funnyclaw ran like nighthounds were after her. Her instincts, however, told her her pursuers were much worse. ‘Invaders!’ something deep with her blared out. This feeling, it was like having your burrow infiltrated. She felt her hackles rise at the thought as well as the urge to turn around and chase them out of her home. Unfortunately, there was this certainty in her gut that such an attempt will not go well. ‘Perhaps if there were others…’ she mused.
Funnyclaw had had a hunt go south on her before but this… this was bad. She felt rather than saw the grass to her right part before a large armoured foot impacted her side. It hurt but she rolled with the impact, lessening it before attempting to stand. Sadly, the time she spent doing so was all her attackers needed to surround her. Tossing her kill to the side she growled a warning and tried backing away. Maybe, they would let her go. The fanciful thought was immediately driven from her head by the dagger that bit into her hip. It was only luck that prevented the blade from finding her spine or kidneys.
She yelped in pain, twisting around and biting at her attacker but he was too fast quickly retreating after his strike failed. Even in failure, he had succeeded. Funnyclaw could no longer put any weight on that leg. Blood run freely down that ham and the pain made thinking of anything besides flight difficult. With that pain came fear. It smothered her, holding her in a harsh grip. She spun about, vainly trying to keep all of them in her sights. That was when she saw it. The way they looked at her. There was no hunger. No pride in their kill. Was this what the invaders were, predators that killed indiscriminately?
The giant badger drew deep pulling on the power. In response, she felt her hide strengthen, growing warm and tough. Her claws gained an imperceptible sheen. She doubted it would be enough but all she truly needed was one last chance to make a run for it. She chose her target– one of the short ones– and bolted towards him as fast as her bum leg could carry her. Its eyes widened, not expecting the sudden burst of speed. He swung at her but only scored a glancing blow, the sharp end of his pickaxe merely scratching her mana-infused hide. Unfortunately, he did not move away like Funnyclaw had hoped. Snarling, she pounced on him, taking them both to the ground.
Her claws, the primary weapon and digging tool of a badger went to work, trying to scoop out his innards. Regrettably, one of her hind legs was unresponsive. The other got hooked on his belt, the same belt from which the dwarf drew a dagger. Two thrusts later and Funnyclaw was left twitching weakly on the ground whiles her killer backed away. Lifeblood ebbing she made one last pained crawl away before she knew no more.
“No! Don’t!” Coenbert warned the ranger. “Carve that thing and it will not drop any loot. In fact, it might drop nothing at all!”
Leaving the man to watch the corpse he walked to the dwarf currently being attended to by the healer. The craftsman’s gambeson had saved him from the worst of it. Still, he had gotten several deep scratches and a nasty bite on his arm. Coenbert spared a glance behind him at the dead badger. He had never seen any like it. Dungeon variants were always bigger and meaner but that speed and ferocity? The resilience it showed near the end was another thing?
Hopefully, that encounter was the worst they would have on this floor.