Titus stood huddled with his advisor in the center of the cramped chamber his axe resting on its head on the dirt. Donnelan was afraid of that axe. It had even invaded his dreams. The thick, bloodthirsty aura that seemed to roll of it in waves was suffocating, and ever present. It had burst into wakefulness suddenly during the wave defence. The trainees had felt a strange stirring of the mana in the air before that aura had burst out, making them feel as if a demon had their throats between its teeth.
And that’s how they had felt every moment of every day since.
The only blessing was that the beasts hated it as much as the trainees did. Ever since the axe had awakened they had ceased to attack the fort. Choosing instead to battle against each other, keeping their distance from the Legion. The line soldiers had been relieved that, even if they felt the spectre of death constantly, they no longer had to fight.
The endless tide of monsters that had clashed against their defences had claimed a few lives over the two week defence. For those young legionaries experiencing their first wave it was a sight they’d never forget. Thousands of monsters rolling forward like the tides. An endless sea of violence and death. Aiming hadn’t been important, it was impossible to miss, no matter what skill was used. They fought for hours without pause, until their arms were heavy as lead, their vision blurred and their heads afire. Then they’d stumble to their blankets where they’d sleep like the dead before waking up to do it again.
It had been hell.
Up until the axe. Donnelan had seen the looks on the officers faces when it had happened. The monsters immediately fled the walls but the brass had been shocked. Shocked and worried. The commander had raced to his tent where he’d left the axe and walked out with the thing slung over his shoulders and his eyes tight with worry.
Being a magician in training Donnelan had managed to puzzle out exactly why they were so unhappy. That shift in the mana, as if it were being sucked down a sinkhole. The axe had drunk it in like water, causing it to ‘awaken’. Putting aside the idea of a sleeping or waking weapon, something that Donnelan had never heard of, let alone thought possible, the reason why it was so strange was that it should not have happened. Not up here. Barely a few kilometres down the mana should never be as thick as this. Not even close. It had grown so dense that it was enough for the axe to pull in and rouse itself, something none of the officers, certainly not the commander, had expected to happen.
That left Donnelan with yet another worry. Why was the mana so dense? Why was it still rising?! He could feel it coming on now. Saturation sickness. Extended exposure to mana wasn’t natural for human kind. The diffuse levels of energy on the surface were normal for their bodies, they had adapted to it over thousands of years. The levels he was experiencing now were too high, he was getting sick. All of the trainees were getting sick.
If they didn’t get relief soon, they would suffer mana poisoning. If they weren’t treated then, they’d die.
They knew that, everyone knew that. So why were they going deeper?!
Whilst Donnelan chewed over his worries Titus was speaking to one of his specialist trackers. “Your certain of that Lisestus?” he asked.
The Legionary nodded. “That’s what my Dungeon Sense is telling me commander. Many ants died here in the chamber, along with a whole lot of other stuff. No ant has died here in the last week or so. Either they were all dead by that point, or packed off somewhere else”.
“What about the Queen? You should be able to tell if a monster that size was killed, surely?”
Lisestus’ face twisted a little as he concentrated, employing the skills of his secret class. “I can’t tell commander, she may have died here with the colony or not. Too many monsters have died in the meantime, I just can’t pinpoint her”.
“No worries man, thanks for trying” Titus clapped him on the shoulder and send him to rest. Dungeon Seers were a tremendous use to the Legion, able to detect the residual energies of monsters after they had passed away. Deploying those unique skills depleted mental energy at a rapid pace however. Lisestus’ would need a brief lie down after sensing this spot.
Titus looked around the tight dirt chamber. This had been where the ant colony had lived, presumably after the Queen had fled here from the lower levels, either chasing the young that had been stolen or fleeing from danger once her first nest had been uncovered.
He’d managed to locate the nest, but either the colony had been killed by the wave or had escaped. If they’d managed to flee then Titus had absolutely no idea where they could be. The matter was out of his hands now.
Whilst he pondered the legions next move he idly stretched his old bones. With the axe Anima Sitio having awakened, he didn’t need to continuously swat small fry. The weapon was constantly advertising it’s hunger, daring them to come. Only the stronger beasts would be able to step forward against that aura.
Titus froze and cocked his ear. Something was coming. He raised a hand to get the attention of his troops in the chamber with him and warned them “Hold yourselves!”.
As the Legionaries looked at their commander quizzically they began to feel it also. As if the air itself had grown thick, the pressure upon them growing until it squeezed their insides.
They heard it then, rumbling up from the tunnels leading below . A low growl that shook the dirt around them like an earthquake and drove several trainees to their knees. Many soldiers were forced to brace their hands to the walls to steady themselves as their legs seemed to have turned to porridge.
The tremoring growl faded away only to be followed by a rising hiss that blew the air through the tunnels as if it were a gale. In the wake of that terrifying rush of air the Dungeon grew completely quiet around them, every monster having ceased battling where they stood.
The stillness was eerie after two weeks of endless din.
Titus face was grim. He stared down at his axe, seemingly lost in thought. To most observers he appeared calm, but as she burst into the chamber and took him in, Aurillia knew that in his eyes the thirst for battle was burning.
“Commander!” she hissed, “Was that what I thought it was?”
Titus slowly walked to his weapon and picked it up as he spoke. “Garralosh. That bastard is coming up”.
Eyes wide with concern Aurillia pressed her commander. “What are your orders commander, will we move to intercept?”
Titus shook his head. “If we meet the old croc on the way down then I’ll happily take another arm from it but we mustn’t deviate from our mission” he turned to look his Tribune in the eye, “I know you worry about the situation on the surface but as bad as things are up there it is going to be ten times worse if we don’t reinforce the bulwark below. You know this Aurillia, we have to go down”.
Reluctantly the officer nods her head and leaves the chamber to organise the troops.
Donnelan shakes off the pressure that had nearly crushed his bones and approaches his commander. An action such as this would normally be unthinkable for the trainee, he loved to stay low key, but the panic rising in him overrode his judgement.
“Commander! Are we still going further down into the Dungeon?…. Sir?” he stammered, rushing forward to clutch at Titus’ arm.
The commander looked surprised to be accosted in this way but not irritated. “Donnelan isn’t it? Our fine young trainee. We have quite a ways down to go yet”.
“But the what of the mana sickness? What of the wave? It still hasn’t stopped! The mana levels are still rising! We have to get to the surface! We have to help them, or the whole city will be destroyed, my family, my friends! What about us trainees? If we stay here in the Dungeon then we’ll all die! You aren’t sick, I can tell, I can see it! But us? We’re all falling ill, the saturation is too much! You can’t let us die like this commander!” the trainee babbled.
Titus raised one of his thick hands and clamped it down on the young man’s shoulder, trying to steady him.
“Easy there boy! Easy! We won’t let you die of the sickness ok? You know I’m fine, the officers are fine, all of the full legionaries are fine. Once we get you down to HQ, you’ll be fine too, but we have to hurry. I don’t want to risk losing you to the saturation before we can get there. Now listen, we have a few days journey until we reach Periclasus’ stair. That’ll take us straight down twenty kilometers. From there it’ll be a short hop to the city and you’ll be right as rain”.
Donnelans’ head spun. “City?”
“You’ll understand when you see it. We’ve done what we can for the surface, two weeks we bought them. From here out they have to manage their own defence. If they can’t hold off the big croc then they’ll have to flee. Once we reach the city we can see about contacting your family. We have ways”.
Donnelan nodded, slowly calming himself down.
Titus clapped him on the back. “Hold it together a bit longer trainee. We’ve almost reached safety. Who knows? You might even get to see this axe take a chunk out of an Ancient monster on the way down”.