Chapter Fifty-six: Trickery
The key to keeping an opponent off balance has little to do with surprising them at every turn. The trick is to subvert their unconscious expectations. You cannot stick to a routine or rely on sudden abrupt changes. Jump out a bush once and you might have a guaranteed scare but do so four times in a row and you will simply look foolish to your nonplused targets no matter how unprepared they were when you launched your ambush. No! Keep their world unfamiliar and off-kilter and they will be as well. The Bloodsoaked Foxes proved this to a very pleased Brandr.
Not even the elder who accompanied them had realised that they never actually took the standard portal from the fourth floor to the fifth. When they eventually did so, he doubted they would realise the significance of the action. They never defeated a guardian and so the customary portal never appeared. Instead, their transport talismans were attuned to the next floor as if they had gained their passage the normal way when they clearly had not.
Did that mean there was no guardian to defeat, no monsters? Of course not.
Suffice it to say, the dungeon core was incredibly proud of himself. He had subverted not just the expectations of the adventurers but also the very system he was working with. There were no living creatures on the fourth floor and no undead ones either. However, there was still a guardian and that guardian was a formation he had set up himself. Should his dungeon come under threat or should any foolhardy adventurers attempt to bulldoze their way through the fourth floor, the formation will bring every single statue and sculpture to life as part of an invincible army of rank three and four constructs.
When the formation was inactive the primary node – the bright lion – only possessed enough spirituality to give successful adventurers their rewards and send to the next floor. When active, the suppression field would intensify and every sculpture would gain a life of its own. The Bright Lion would go from being the usher to the fifth floor to the guardian of the fourth floor, a legion type defender. In truth, the entire fourth floor was a death trap. Should his dungeon ever be breached by individuals with clearly murderous intentions, this floor would probably be the furthest they would get. He was confident in its ability to fend off nascent soul equivalents like that elder.
While the transport talismans remained an exploitable vulnerability, they could be rendered useless and inoperable or even redirected with a single thought, marooning invaders and preventing them from accessing his more vital floors. All in all, Brandr was quite proud of his innovation. The elder accompanying the adventurers had been able to sniff out every obstacle so far and even spot the wisps when they hid in the aether but he was completely stumped by the fourth floor. If it works on the seniors it would definitely work on the juniors. With luck, the rest of his schemes would have similar success.
This is the greatest thing ever!” Sirai exclaimed. His daggers flashed into his hands for a second before disappearing back into his new spatial ring. A second later, he had a short sword in his hands. Then, some beef jerky. The assassin was the perhaps the most vocally appreciative of his newfound artefact though, Verrin was a close second. He was, however, the quickest to adapt to their use. Unfortunately, he would not stop messing with it. Something that distracted and anno0yed his party to no end.
“You’re acting like you’ve never seen storage device before!” Teca said contemptuously. “We’ve had a bag of holding for ages!”
“Yes! One bag of holding, shared between six people!” he pointed out. “Plus, this one is so much better. It is smaller in size but bigger on the inside. No need for babying or reaching in for what you want. You just think…”
He stretched out his left hand, the one that bore the ring. With a thought, his signature daggers appeared exactly where and how he envisioned them. Snatching out of the air with his right, he allowed the other to fall smoothly into his waiting, open palmed left.
“Praesto!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
“How are you doing that?” Verrin asked in amazement. Her curious eyes were focused on his display of skill trying to piece together how it worked, the same thing she had been doing to the her own since she got it.
Unlike Athart, a sorcerer who focused mainly on destructive skills, she was an actual mage. Comparatively, she was a true scholar and practitioner of the arcane whereas he was merely someone gifted with affinity to the elements, not that she would say that to his face. It showed in their styles. She cast spells she had obtained through study and research and possessed a great range of abilities spanning no less than four of the ten magical disciplines and five of the nine systems.
Admittedly, her counterpart was more powerful than she was but besides a strong innate connection to the elemental forces, he had little that she did not. She had studied for most of her life in an actual college of wizards and he had picked up his craft from family member and hired tutors who focused more on teaching him to wield his powers than the actual craft of magic. Systems? Disciplines? Athart knew little of that! His skills and proficiencies were more of a mishmash than any structured study and yet he was the one who was given the Staff of Dark Lightning.
Verrin cast her eyes on the sorcerer and the masterwork staff he cradled in his arms and felt another lance from the evil green beast pierce her heart. The things she could learn from it, do with it. Perhaps, this was her chance to break into a new tier in her craft but no… it was given to someone who would use it as the magical equivalent of a club. The very thought was enough to make this normally composed mage furious. The only thing that stopped her from contesting the decision was the presence of the warden. For now, she could only grind her teeth and lament her luck but later she would…
Teca stopped the party, something had flagged on her detection skill.
Sweeping the area, she found a trap. A tripwire had been suspended in the grass just before the opening of the next tunnel. Having gotten used to the dangerous and magical suction pits and tunnel spikes, they had nearly missed this trap simply because of how sloppy and simple it was. A further search revealed a long blade stuck in the ground in such a way that anyone tripped by the wire would be cut by it. Her sharp eyes spotted some discolouration on the blade and a cursory skill check revealed it to be dried poison.
“Is that what I think it is?” Geoffrey asked as he looked over her shoulder.
There was an excited tone to his voice. He too recognized the construction that went into the trap. It was something most seasoned adventurers would be able to identify due to the sheer frequency of their appearance. Knowing this, Teca nodded in confirmation and stood. If the simplicity and shoddy construction were not enough, the fact that the poisoned blade was only a metre away from the wire was evidence enough. One measly metre. That was neck height to these creatures.
“We’ve got goblins!” she announced.
Geoffrey gave an excited whoop. He was not the only one. Finally, something they knew how to fight. Ordinarily, he would be annoyed at the prospect of facing yet another lineup of child-sized, ankle biters but now, he was ready to welcome the ratty-eared, raggedy, orange-skinned man things with open arms. Loosening his sword, he stepped over the trip wire and prepared to cut down a few of the pests. Perhaps, that would help with the bad day he had been having. The warmonger was so excited that he did not even notice the attack until after being sprayed by the blood splatter.
His eyes widened with shock, body too paralysed to do anything but watch as the pathfinder fell backwards with an expression of shock that mirrored his own. Geoffrey’s mind, however, was working overtime; capturing and logging every detail with such speed and precision it was like the moment would never end. Not that that helped him. There was only one thing he could think of.
‘BALLS! BALLS! IT’S IN HER EYE! THAT ARROW IS IN HER EYE!’