I let out a brief, although eminently masculine yelp before I overcame my panic. Whirling around, I raised my spear, preparing to face some deadly guardian who would claim my meddling life. Instead, a stout four and a half foot tall man placatingly raised his hands. “Woah, there! Now, I’m assuming you’re a new recruit and don’t know how things work around here, but I’m a librarian… not a monster.”
He tapped the tip of my spear. “Now, if you’ll kindly point that rank three weapon away from me, the visitors, and the books, I’ll be guiding one of your guides to the third level.” I hurriedly shifted my spear, trying to ignore the blush that had spread across my cheeks.
Coughing, I mumbled, “I’m supposed to take care of the bats.”
Without even bothering to look at me, the librarian started walking away. “Yes, yes. I know. I issued the request.”
Meekly following behind him, I listened as he pointed out each section of the library we passed. Nodding at a few curious bystanders, I politely asked, “How’d you get here? And, how do you know so much about this library?” I decided to ignore the question of whether he was even human because it seemed rude to assume a squat, short person would be a dwarf or something of the sort.
The man smirked. “Well, aren’t you a curious fellow. Keep it up, and you’ll either piss off someone powerful enough to roast you alive and depending on their nature, eat you, or end up literally sticking your nose into something capable of turning you into a pile of ash. However, since you ask, I am a dwarven librarian. If you must, you can refer to me as Polkin. I came to this dungeon in order to further my research and was granted this position based on my accomplishments in academia.”
I paused, incredulous. “Are you saying you voluntarily entered this place?”
The dwarf nodded. “Unlike you lower-class denizens, some of us have contracts in place where we donate our expertise for a few decades to the Dungeon and obtain rare resources in return.” He sneered. “Although most humans live far too short lives to ever hope to take advantage of such benefits.” I adjusted my spear. I wasn’t even sure whether to be offended. I’d never been told humans had short lives before… We passed through an archway and walked down a flight of stairs. After around twenty steps, the staircase ended at yet another arch.
“Wait, aren’t there supposed to be five floors?”
Polkin huffed in annoyance. “Stupid, think for a bit. Why would the library have the fifth floor be that easily accessible? Each floor beyond the first is carefully isolated and guarded, requiring its own separate gateway.”
“How was I supposed to know that?”
“Because you’re clearly well-liked by the upper echelons.”
“Wait, who’re they?” I asked, a bit nervous. Since when had I met these people and how did this dwarf know they liked me? Well, I figured it couldn’t be too bad if I was well-liked.
He turned around to carefully look at my gear. I met his gaze, trying to discover some clue from his expression. Finally, it seemed like he was unable to resist his curiosity, and he asked, “So, how do you have that gear… and who’d you offend?”
I gaped at him. “What? Uh, Bobbette gave it to me. Is it that good? I mean, she gave me this mission, but I don’t think I upset her or anything.”
Polkin paused before regaining his shorter stride. “Well, I’d ask for your name, human, but it doesn’t matter. I believe this’ll be the last I see or hear of you.” Humming to himself, he reordered a pair of errant books. Glancing back at me, he explained, “They weren’t in sequential order.” I nodded.
At least, one thing hadn’t changed despite the difference in worlds and cultures. Library systems were still as ornate and exacting as they were on Earth. I’d honestly half expected a collage of books littering the floor and unstable towers of spellbooks lying about the place surrounded by dangerous beasts willing to kill in order to protect the priceless magic when Bobette had mentioned a Dungeon library. With a little snicker, Polkin pointed through a dark hallway of bookshelves. “We’ll just walk through there, and then, we’ll be right on the third floor. Be wary of the bookworms! They like innocent warriors for dessert.”
With a gulp, I tightened my grip on the spear and edged into the darkness.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I never ventured past the first bookshelf as the entire Dungeon quaked for a brief second. Polkin turned to face me before noticing the shaking bookshelves. “Ogre’s balls!” Before I could ask him what was wrong, he sprinted toward the stone doorway.
Then, I saw what had made my librarian guardian, who had weathered shelves of man-eating monsters and survived legion of hostile book-eating pests, flee. From above, glowing books rained down. It made for a pretty sight, like fireworks on the fourth, and like many glowing fireworks, they came with a healthy torrent of explosions, flames, and magic, but not the awesome “woah” kind. Scratch that; it would have been pretty cool had I not been in the range where witnessing such a spectacle was lethal. From dozens of sources, a single voice formed that seemed to blare throughout the whole Dungeon as it echoed through the maze of shelves, “Sector E7 is under attack. Please report to battle stations. Initiating System Lockdown.”
Wow, what an uneventful first day of work. I glanced back at the stone doorway, only to find it was no longer a doorway; instead, it had transformed into more of a wall decorated with an out-of-place arch. Polkin hadn’t been kidding about crazy safety measures. Tilting my head up, I shielded most of my face with the blue shield and tried to dodge the most glowy books since I assumed those would have the most magic. Well, at least the bookshelves began a fair bit away from the arch, so I’d only gone a few in. Coming up with a desperate plan, I copied what Polkin had done… except far too late.
I scuttled forward like some diminutive crab, my trusty shield hoisted above my head. Thump! I nearly dropped the shield as a book literally exploded on it. Edging around a few burning books I crept toward the end of these lethal books. Yelping as a glowing tome burst into flames by my feet, I hopped toward the end. Wait, no, that’s not what happened. [Note by Rhodovus: Clayton is full of sh!^] I heroically stabbed through a falling tome, deactivating the brilliant swirl of mana around it. Knocking a book out of the air with my shield, I jumped over an explosion, the concussive force blasting me forward. Stumbling and barely catching my balance in time, I ducked and rolled beneath a cloud of lightning, adjusting my shield to catch the aftershocks that struck toward my back. Jabbing another grimoire out of the way, I slid to the side as another book slammed in front of me before ending my perilous adventure. Upon reaching the now-wall, I kicked at it, trying to figure out the mechanism to open it. [Note by Rhodovus: This is more like Clayton, giving up at the first wall] Finally, I sank against the wall, feeling the weight of the truth finally sink in: I had been abandoned in a room filled with falling words of death.
Rhodovus was tired. The soldiers streamed in through the five-person wide gap he’d created in the Dungeon’s grey hide, but the mana exhaustion had really gotten to him. While mana batteries could provide much of the mana he needed for a spell, the last bit had had to come from him, and without ambient mana, that last bit grew exponentially. At least, he’d met the conditions required to declare his Graduation Quest complete by successfully bringing the army into the inside of the Dungeon. Sure, there was a huge bonus for assuring they got out and a colossal treasure for actually defeating the Dungeon, but he’d already passed.
Captain Thomas reached out to pat his shoulder before following his men inside. He gruffly said, “Thanks. You saved us out here. Take a well-deserved rest before heading in with the other mages to support the main infantry. Give those buggers a run for their money, eh?”
Rhodovus concealed a smirk. As if he were going to risk his life any longer on this foolish quest. Instead, he simply solemnly nodded his head and took a swig from his waterskin. Pulling out his sword he said, “Don’t fear, Commander. I’ll join the vanguard as soon as I shake off this mana burn.” Inwardly, he praised his acting skills: he’d very nearly convinced himself that he truly was some fearless hero. Guffawing, the commander roared, “Get in there suckers! Prove that Rhodovus’s heroic effort was not in vain!” Unfortunately, the knight ruined it by finishing, “He may be an elvish prick, but he’s a damn brave one!”
Charging through, Sir Thomas left the weary elf behind as his reinvigorated men poured into the Dungeon’s gaping maw. In fact, Rhodovus could find no other words to describe this hall surrounded by dome-shaped buildings manned by fearless warriors who sniped at the intruders and fought to the last man. Dungeon denizens were natural warriors who could exert strength far beyond what their natural race and body type would suggest. While the Hewther Kingdom’s soldiers were on average rather formidable third level qi users, the Dungeon denizens still successfully left an equal number of armored corpses adorned in Hewther’s crimson uniform due to their ferocity and home-field advantage. Even after several minutes, the soldiers had only penetrated into a score or so of the guard domes as they tried to secure their footing within the hostile Dungeon. Leaning on his sword’s pommel, Rhodovus trailed after the group in relative safety, slowly gaining distance from the commander at the forefront before surreptitiously pasting a small rune paper onto his war robes. The focused soldiers never even noticed when he blended into the shadows like some Krishig assassin trained in the shadow arts.
Standing behind one of the conquered forts, Rhodovus took out the sensing Artifact the Academy had given him. According to his research, this Dungeon ought to have some rare tomes and materials stocked nearby because several Demons around the outside of this part of the Dungeon had been observed carrying books inside. To be fair, Rhodovus hadn’t been completely certain about his reconnaissance since Demons simply merged through the Dungeon’s walls and were impossible to track once inside. Nevertheless, elvish archmages had long noted that Demons avoided entering the Dungeon unless they had an explicit purpose to do so. While it wasn’t an exact prediction, Dungeons liked organizing their internal components in specific ways, so Rhodovus desperately hoped that they’d been bringing tomes for a burgeoning library.
Still, his earlier mana exhaustion had not been faked. He massaged his temples as he sent a tendril of mana toward the shadow concealment rune on his robes to check how long he had. Even though he had calculated that he still had 90% of its charge left, a single mistake at an inopportune time could easily cost him his life. Although there was more ambient mana within the Dungeon, it also meant that his opponents too could wield the powerful resource, not to mention that he was already in a mana fatigued state from channeling so much impure battery mana and had already depleted his personal mana storages. All the ambient mana in the world wouldn’t mean a damn if he were too exhausted to make use of it. If he wasn’t careful and met a difficult opponent, well, he wouldn’t have much of a chance. He carefully scanned his surroundings, using the same meticulousness that he applied whenever he made a spell.
Once again, his teacher Firenze’s words echoed in his head: there’s no such thing as bad luck, just carelessness. A small squad of humans wearing cheap-looking iron armor wandered past him. Hidden in the shadows behind a dome fort, Rhodovus stood still so as to avoid their attention. His heartbeat quieted to an imperceptible murmur as he hypercharged the concealment part of his rune.
Dungeon inhabitants were dangerous, fearless soldiers who would swiftly eliminate any invaders, but all that wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t find him. The soldiers started turning left at the crossroad a few domes ahead when one of them stumbled. To his surprise, the soldiers paused as one and seemed to glance at each other in confusion before scanning their surroundings. Rhodovus crouched into the shadows while gritting his teeth to force more mana through his rune. Could they have found him already?
Finally unable to bear the tension, he peeked around the corner, only to find the group charging at him!
Rhodovus cursed. Despite all his various attempts and shadow concealment magic, it had all been for naught. Did that group have a mage of some sort? Reaching into his bag of holding, he grabbed a smoke potion and threw it at the group before switching hiding spots by sprinting toward the next corner. The hacking coughs from within assured his anxious mind; he’d gotten the drop on them!
In that brief moment, he examined the tracking Artifact again. If he stood at various positions within the Dungeon, the Artifact would pinpoint the exact location of the nearest collection of Artifacts through triangulating its position. Looking back at the cloud of smoke, he really wished that the tracker would’ve worked outside as he could’ve spared himself this perilous ordeal, but something about Dungeons tended to mess with spells that involved space, and time, only further proving that these abominations that had formed only a few decades before him were truly not something that belonged in their dimension.
Unfortunately for him, although he knew his exact position in comparison to the Artifact collection, he had gotten lost in these dim misty alleys while fleeing from the Dungeon squadron. While he could hear a clash to his right that was no doubt Sir Thomas’s army, he had little desire to join an even more noticeable target surrounded by a literal horde of Dungeon denizens. Caught at a fork, he glanced at the tracking Artifact again. However, before he could figure out which path led more directly to the trove, another squad of humans solved his conundrum for him. No doubt planning to join the fray against the invaders to their home, a second squad was jogging in from the left, and just like the squad lost in the smoke bomb at the entrance to the alley, they instantly discovered him despite his shadow cloaking rune. Diverting their course, the soldiers hefted their spears and charged straight for him. Rhodovus cursed. Was his luck really that bad? Perhaps the only fortunate piece of news for him was that the Artifact trove was only two alleys away, and based on what his sensitive elvish ears told him, smack dab between himself and Sir Thomas’s army, so any passing denizens would probably ignore him in favor of the greater threat.
Dashing behind a third building, the Artifact beeped, meaning that it had finally locked onto his target. Just as a wave of excitement welled inside him, he heard some shouts and clanking armor behind him. The annoying Dungeon humans had already found him through the smoke bomb! Rhodovus remained calm, remembering all the lessons his etiquette teacher in the Summer Court had taught him so long ago. Rule one of the hunt: whether you be prey or predator at the moment, always be the predator in the end. While dashing around a corner, Rhodovus cast a glance over his shoulder at the two chasing groups and decided he wasn’t confident about his chances against even these poorly armored squads with his current mana reserves. Luckily, he was already quite close to the Artifact storage point, and the path to it was relatively clear since both squadrons were chasing him from the direction opposite his goal. Feeling a rush of elation propel him forward, Rhodovus barely controlled a whoop of glee.
Wait! Rhodovus paled. He’d let his greed get the better of him! A decade and a half of training had systematically stamped out uninhibited joy, that alone could kill. His life was not worth any Artifact! What was he doing here?
Also, how come the only free path was toward the valuable collection of Artifacts? A sick feeling rose in his stomach, had he been enthralled by some spell? He rallied his mental reserves and released a three-stride radius ring of mana, but found nothing, meaning that there were no magics he was capable of detecting at work within touching distance of himself. Panting as his mind raced for a solution even as his legs, unused to extreme physical exertion, sought to keep him out of the clutches of the chasing Dungeon humans, Rhodovus realized this Dungeon would probably be his grave.