Entin stepped out from the dungeon portal into a glowing blue room enclosed in curving glass. It was like stepping into a giant bubble. Beyond that bubble was a whole new world set deep underwater, a world of bright colors.
Schools of fish danced together, their scales shimmering in yellow and white. Starfish wrapped every jagged surface. Coral covered the seafloor—a forest of alien trees—each a different color and shape, housing tiny gobies that skittered from one nook to the next.
Percussive music played in the distance, casually rolling the pitch up and down the scale. Each note lingered and merged with the others, creating a haunting and mysterious soundscape.
Entin took a few steps away from the portal as to not block the entrance. The floor here wasn’t of brick, fancy rugs, or marble, but was rippled, white sand that shifted underfoot.
Glass orbs hovered about the walls, each housing a friendly flame. Some of them smiled, some cheered silently, though most of them seemed perpetually astonished. They slowly turned from side-to-side as if saying, No, not again. . . .
They really didn’t have much confidence in him. Perhaps his entire lack of armor, weapons, or any gear whatsoever, was their reasoning. Or maybe it was because they—assuming they were the same flames as before—had watched him shatter into bits of light, over and over.
“Eww!” Bailey said, stepping out from the portal and into the room. She swiped at her arms, but then found herself to be perfectly dry. She wrinkled her nose, then looked around. “Wow. . . .”
Triton emerged from the portal. He immediately crashed into Bailey, sending her stumbling forward into Entin’s arms.
“Bailey!” Triton said. “What part of the instructions weren’t clear? ‘Step in and away from the portal.’ And here I thought you had brain cells.”
Bailey humphed and crossed her arms. “Well, no one said I’d be walkin’ through cold Jello, and . . . well . . . I got distracted.” She motioned to the colorful world beyond the walls.
Triton raised an eyebrow. “We’re underwater?”
Aayra was the last to step through the portal and subsequently crashed into the back of Triton. She narrowed her eyes, lips pressed into a line.
“Blame Bailey!” Triton said, then added, pointing to Bailey, “I don’t want to hear it. Nope. Not from you.”
The glass wall from behind Aayra morphed and folded, filling in the space. The only indicator that the portal—their exit point—was still there was the soft outline of the portal’s icon: one large octahedron surrounded by four smaller ones.
“So this is a dungeon. . .?” Triton asked.
“Obviously,” Aayra said.
“Well, yeah. I wasn’t expecting it to be so colorful. Entin made it sound like doom and gloom, ya know?”
“They’re all different,” Entin said, remembering the moment he stepping into his first dungeon. The place was dark, mildewy, and full of mystery. This dungeon had a lot more charm going for it. “Don’t let your guard down just because it’s pretty.”
A large shadow shifted across the room, followed by a resonating low rumble that quickly climbed in pitch.
“Is that,” Bailey said, cupping her mouth, eyes wide, “a whale?” She nearly squeaked on the last word. “I’ve only seen pictures. It’s huge!”
The whale was a deep blue with knobby protrusions on its head and wavy grooves along its neck. A second whale swam around the first, emitting another of the long, humming sounds that seemed to complement the music.
Bailey turned. “You never told me dungeons were so cool. What else have you seen?”
“Monsters,” Entin said. “Lots of monsters that want to kill you.”
“Pfft. You’re no fun.”
“Maybe, just maybe,” Triton said, picking at his default shirt again, “you wouldn’t die so much if you actually had some armor. I know . . . I know. . . . What an odd concept, that.”
Entin let out an annoyed breath. They had no idea what a real dungeon was like. This entrance into a fascinating world was only a distraction. Distractions get you killed. “The next time we Run a dungeon, bring whatever you want. But if you lose it, don’t complain to me.”
“You at least brought your dagger, right?”
“Of course not!”
“I just think you could use the speed boost. That’s— Hey!” he yelled, his voice echoing. “Is that your secret with the speed runs? Got a little extra boost?”
“Shhh! You’re going to aggro the mobs. I haven’t been in this dungeon before, so I don’t know what we’re up against. And if we all die in this room, the mobs will still be here the moment we try to return.”
“Yeah-yeah, alright,” Triton said in a whisper. “So . . . have you been cheatin’ your Runs, haven’t you?”
Entin sighed. “I haven’t done any market Runs since I got the dagger.” And he desperately didn’t want to return to the market. This was his last chance to make a big difference.
Triton cocked his head and squinted. “You sure. . .?”
“Triton, I’m still the fastest darn Runner, with or without the dagger.”
“You know, I’m gonna make you eat those words one of these days. No packages. Full Stamina. Nooo dagger. We’re going to have a race, you and me, from the Southern District to somewhere in the Upper West Bench.”
“And when you lose,” Entin said, “you’ll drop the matter?”
Aayra rolled her eyes. “No one cares who is the fastest. I make the most money, which is far more important.”
“Yeah?” Entin asked. “How much are you bringing in a day, Aayra?”
“126 chyps yesterday,” she said and tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear. “No timed runs, either. I don’t even have to use my skills beyond Sprint. Then I stack the jobs so I can make multiple deliveries at once.”
That was a significant chunk over what Entin had been getting, running his Stamina into the ground. But even so, and since this world had ten-day weeks, Aayra was still only making 12 scyl a week. “I think we can do better.”
Triton, at the promise of coin, energetically snapped to attention and saluted. “What’s the plan, boss?”
A loud whoosh of a sound echoed into the room. Everyone froze, eyes glued to the one and only opening to the rest of the dungeon: a wide archway. There was no physical door there, only a veil of thin energy giving off a pearlescent glow.
“What was that?” Bailey asked in a whisper.
Entin held up a finger, then walked to the archway. The veil shimmered in different colors, like oil on water. He tentatively tapped it, producing a ripple, but nothing else. It gave off no sensation whatsoever, a sort of illusion, or maybe a dungeon aesthetic.
The hallway was curved like a tube, half-filled with coarse, white sand. Various plant life brushed the glass from the outside. There wasn’t anything else there, nothing except for astonished flames waiting for the worst possible outcome.
“Do you know what that was?” Entin asked the nearest flame.
It closed its mouth and nodded.
“Is it dangerous?”
It pinched its eyes together in thought, then rocked left to right. It didn’t know. But that was better than a definitive Yes.
Bailey giggled, appearing next to him. “It’s so cute.” The flame smiled and nodded in agreement. “Can we take it out of the dungeon?” This time, the flame jerked back and shrunk, eyes wide. It shook its body vigorously and then extinguished itself, leaving the glass orb empty and that part of the hallway a little darker.
“Oh no,” Bailey said. “Come back little flame.”
“Way to offend it.”
“You know I didn’t mean to. Little flames like that could be so fun for the kids, is all.”
Entin smiled and poked her. “I’m teasing. It’s part of the dungeon. From what I’ve gathered, if it’s not loot, you can’t take it.”
“Suppose that makes sense.”
He turned back to his party. “Okay, we have the roles we practiced yesterday. Bailey is the Grabber—”
“I want to be a Distractor,” she said.
“Bailey, you’re the slowest one here.”
“I’m not slow!” She placed her hands on her hips.
“Shhh!” Triton added, oh so helpfully.
“No, you’re not,” Entin said. “But compared to Triton and Aayra? Besides, the Grabber has the most important job.” And when she didn’t seem convinced, he added, “When I go out with the adventurers, I’m their Grabber. I make sure that, no matter what terrible thing happens to the party, I get the loot out. That’s your job. Get the loot, get it out, stay alive.”
Bailey looked to the side, then nodded. Being insurance wasn’t the most fun of the jobs, though this wasn’t meant to be fun. This was Entin’s one and only chance to convince the others that being a Dungeon Runner was a valuable and worthwhile pursuit.
“And we’re the Distractors,” Triton said. “We’re going to laugh in Death’s face, over and over until he’s totally sick of us. That and pull the attention from Bailey so she can make us all rich.”
“Yes,” Entin said, “and I’m—”
“You’re the sneaky Scout that tells everyone else what to do, then sits back and watches.”
“I do a lot more than that, you dick.”
Aayra frowned. “Guys, I’ve never died before.”
“Sure you have,” Triton said. “You got your brain shoved through a juice maker, and now you’re here.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. I can still feel the grinding at the back of my skull.”
Bailey cupped her mouth. “You’ve got the Echo? That has to be terrible.”
“It’s not as bad as before. The first few days, I couldn’t do anything but lay in bed. Now it’s more of a distant grinding, only there if I think about it,” Aayra said, then touched the back of her head.
“Death isn’t bad,” Entin said.
“Says the masochist.”
“Don’t be a wimp,” Triton said, slapping Aayra on the back. “I’m sure death only feels like eternal agony for a few minutes.”
“Really?” Bailey asked, concern slipping into her voice.
“Guys,” Entin said, sighing, “I’ve died a dozen times. Your essence ascends to the Celestial Plane and you select your respawn location. There’s no agony besides the bit of pain we’ve all felt falling during a Run.”
Bailey slugged Triton. “You are a dick.”
Triton pointed to his arm, grinning. “Ha! Didn’t hurt a bit.”
Entin walked through the archway—through the energetic veil—and the others followed, murmuring one thing or another. He reminded them to be quiet—again—and let out a breath.
Lourne didn’t seem to have any problems being a leader. How did he go about it? Perhaps it was easier because Ruben and Jantonon understood what was at stake. To them, this was a job; to Entin’s party, it was an exciting field trip.
The end of the hallway had another veil of energy. Every archway probably had one. This one connected the hallway to a large orb, four stories high.
The curving walls were covered in shelves and books. Tall ladders on wheels were attached to the shelves, and on them . . . mobs: short, scaly, fish with arms and legs, wrapped in pale, thin, almost translucent clothing.
Entin immediately crouched, and the others, thankfully, followed his example. For the first time since they stepped into the dungeon, they were completely silent.
“This place stinks,” Triton whispered. “Like fish.”
“You don’t always have to say something,” Aayra said.
Bailey scrunched up her face. “The fish have legs.”
“Guys,” Entin said, letting the edge in his voice communicate all that was needed to be communicated. They fell silent again, and he moved into the room.
The main floor was covered in small desks strewn about with no eye to organization. Little flames hovered within orbs near the desks, all watching Entin to see in what magnificent fashion he would die this time.
If they could talk—rather than staring holes into him—they probably would be busy making bets. Instead, they lit the room in a soft glow, making it easy to count mobs.
There were eight mobs walking between shelves, carrying books to and from, stacking them on tables, then removing them from other tables, all acting in an endless, mindless cycle.
There were also fish warriors with heavy fish-scale armor, holding rods of sharpened coral as their weapons. These mobs stood at the sides of two other archways.
He quickly summoned an Information Box on a fish that just finish stacking and clearing books from a table for the third time.
Pronunciation [nay · tam · bue · low]
This member of the Natambulo species is a low-ranked apprentice. However, do not let that fool you. Apprentices, unlike the [Natambulo Guard], have learned a few water-based spells from the [Natambulo Pruden].
- Collect 0/20 Natambulo scales. [Learn More]
- Kill 0/5 Natambulo Apprentices. [Learn More]
- Health: (unknown)
- Armor: (unknown)
- Strength: (unknown)
- Speed: (unknown)
- Resource: (unknown)
- Stamina: (unknown)
- Familiar Energy: (unknown)
So they used magic like the Osaylas. And their patrol route between shelves and desks, circled a small, weathered chest that sat at the center of the room.
It was a golden opportunity to run some tests. Whether or not they found one of the five treasure rooms—and whether or not they succeeded in extracting the treasure—this would at least get them something.
He crept back to the others and waved them close. “Alright, we don’t know a lot about the Natambulo or—”
“The what?” Triton asked.
“That’s what the fish people are called. Anyway, we need information, and there’s a chest in this room. Triton and Aayra, congratulations, you get to die.”
“Look,” he said, “every time you frown like that, you’re telling me that you’re not ready for this. I get that you’re scared. I was scared my first time. The fastest way over that is to just see what it’s like.”
“I’ve lost health before,” Aayra said.
“That’s all that’s going to happen. It’s not pleasant, though it’s not bad. If it makes you feel any better, go ahead and kick one in the face before you make your grand departure.”
“What do I do?” Triton asked, brushing back his blue hair, grinning. He seemed to be putting on a front to impress Aayra, or . . . show her up? Knowing him, probably the latter: I can die better than you!
“We need to know the aggro distance of the apprentices and guards. We also need to know how fast they move, the range of their attacks, the effects of those attacks, and how much damage they do. Besides those things, we don’t have any information about the dungeon, the layout, or any other potential mobs.”
“So. . . .” Triton said.
Entin sighed. “Just run through the room and down the left hall there. After you die, come back and let me know what you’ve found. I’ll do my best to figure out everything else.”
“Brilliant!” he yelled, and all the mobs turned, one dropped its books, which made a muffled sound against the sand, and two others started wiggling the oddly flat heads back and forth, mouths gaping, as if they were fish out of water . . . which they were. . . .
“Go!” Entin said and Triton jumped forward onto a desk. He ran across the tops, knocking books to the ground and ramming through floating orbs. The flames inside those orbs shouted silent curses as they spun in the air.
“What about me?” Aayra asked. She had her yellow notebook out with a list: aggro distance, speed, attack range, effects, damage, layout, other mobs.
Entin motioned to the notebook. “Brains are better than speed. And you can tell Triton I said that.” She smiled a rare smile, and was that a blush? “Take the right hallway.”
She nodded, then her notebook dispersed into yellow pixels. Unlike inventory items—items that would drop upon her death in a dungeon—the notebook was a System feature of her game screen.
She waited for a count of five, then sprinted around the right side of the curving wall to the now unguarded archway.
Small vortexes of water formed above the apprentices, then blasts of blue light launched across the room, slicing into Triton. Some of them had to have been forty feet away, drawing forth -80s and -110s.
Bailey moved forward, eyes locked on the chest.
Entin grabbed her arm. “First rule of loot, only pick it up when it’s completely safe. Even if it’s dropped loot, it’ll stay there for an hour.”
She nodded. A few seconds later, both Triton and Aayra were through the archways, leaving the room empty, except for the flames that were still spinning, now with twirling dizzy lines above their heads.
“Now?” Bailey asked.
Entin nodded and she ran to her first chest. This was always the best part of any dungeon, the loot, the chests: boxes like presents, full of value or junk, and not knowing which it would be made tapping them all the more exciting.
She climbed over the desks, little flames near her winking out as if to escape some terrible monster trying to steal them from their home. She didn’t seem to notice.
Were he alone, he wouldn’t have been able to get the chest. Were he alone, it’d take a chunk of time to evaluate the mobs, their abilities, damage, and everything else. Having fodder to throw at the dungeon sure made things easier.
The music had changed. The tempo was quicker as if they were in battle, even though no one was in the room anymore. It was probably because Triton and Aayra were being attacked.
Entin scanned the giant orb of a room, always keeping an eye out for a hidden treasure bead. Just a little shimmer would do, but all the shelves and books made it difficult to search. Then again, what were the odds of finding a treasure room so close to the entrance?
There was no telling how long the mobs would be gone. They may simply stay wherever Triton and Aayra died, or rush back to their original positions, returning to their mundane cycles. This was yet another bit of information to gather and use to exploit the dungeon.
Bailey climbed over another table near the center and eagerly tapped the old treasure chest. It probably had nothing more than a sea slug or old toenail clippings. Treasures were enigmas, containing an eccentric assortment of possibilities.
Instead of a game screen revealing the chest’s inventory, a small blue dialogue box appeared in front of her. She shrugged, looking a bit confused, and tapped it.
“What was that?” Entin asked, making his way toward her.
Parts of the treasure chest started to flake away. The orange-brown rust turned to streams of pixels, lifting up into the air, and leaving polished steel behind. The wood cracked and grew. Little swirls of decoration danced across the surface.
Bailey’s eyes were wide. “Did I screw it up?”
“What did the dialogue box say?”
“Don’t know, it was a poem or somethin’. Eh . . . I just hit the Accept button.”
A poem. . .? A riddle! “Do you remember what it said?”
She clenched her teeth and sucked in a breath, then clicked her tongue. “No? Not really. Somethin’ about books and hooks. What do—”
Entin held up a hand to quiet her. The chest had stopped changing, now having a purple diamond at the center with a large red lock on it. It was an epic level chest, better than anything he had ever seen.
But there was also a tiny sound: something close, constant, a sound that promised nothing good.
Click. Click. Click.
It sounded like a timer. . . .