To her chagrin, Alexander Curtiss’s humming was turning out not to be the most annoyingly distracting sound Lovia would have to suffer through on their journey. At least he knew how to carry a tune, to a certain extent. Unfortunately, while he’d left the area for the time being, the incessant dripping noise in the background hadn’t, and whereas it didn’t have any semblance of musical quality, it more than made up for that lack in being so profoundly irritating it made the ice mage want to encase the entire tunnel in a thick coating of frost.
Exhaling quietly, she stood up from her seat against the tunnel wall and turned her attention to the ceiling, searching the orange-tinted crags for the tell-tale glimmer of moisture, hoping that her lantern would reveal the source of the noise despite the dimming light it provided. As her first examination began to prove fruitless, she made a mental note to bring a better light source on her next mission- or, at the very least, some earplugs.
In the left corner of her vision, the girl leaning against the opposite wall shifted somewhat unsteadily, her movements only partially obscured by her voluminous purple cloak. “Sorry, would you mind not waving the lantern around?” she called out.
Halting mid-movement, Lovia turned her head towards the only one of her companions still present, who waved hesitantly before continuing, “It’s kind of distracting, and I’m not sure if it’s good for the fire.”
Lovia nodded, ignoring the two dozen or so rebuffs that arose in her mind, and gently set the lantern back where she’d picked it up before retaking her seat against the wall. Mirae murmured her thanks, but the other mage barely noticed, once again trying to determine precisely how much magic it would take to ice over the tunnel, the amount available for use being deemed a secondary concern.
“…and sweat is the real cost, thinking ceases; the truth is lost! Don’t you worry…”
Lovia’s head jerked up, all but forgetting the dripping. As faint as the singing was, the voice was clearly discernible as belonging to a human male, and came from the same end of the tunnel Curtiss had vanished into earlier- which, she belatedly noted, was beginning to look significantly less opaque and black than it had minutes before.
“The fires of greed will burn the weak, so we’ll make- ooh, wait a sec…”
The not-too-distant clatter of metal impacting stone echoed from the direction of the singing, and a few seconds later, a pair of silhouettes stepped into view from a nearby side passage, one tall and human, the other distinctly resembling that of a goblin. Glancing toward the two mages, the former individual waved and gave a shout of greeting before dipping back into the corridor he’d emerged from. He reappeared a moment later with a lantern of his own, then grabbed the arm of the being accompanying him and strode over to where his companions were resting.
Once he’d drawn close enough to Lovia and Mirae for his features to be distinguishable, Curtiss was easily recognizable by clothing alone, his bright red headband contrasting heavily with his gray-dyed hair and similarly colored uniform. The goblin he was dragging behind him, on the other hand, was more or less dressed as an average member of his species would, but the fact that Curtiss had forced him to come with was proof enough that he was their missing guide.
The scout abruptly yanked on the goblin’s arm, and the guide promptly stumbled a few steps ahead before steadying himself, shooting the human behind him a vindictive glare. Curtiss smirked. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You’re getting paid to take us through here; if you didn’t want to go, you could’ve easily said something back when we hired you.”
The goblin remained silent, but turned back towards the section of tunnel the group hadn’t explored yet. Frowning, Curtiss glanced over at the mages, both of which had repacked their gear and gotten to their feet. “Apologies for the wait,” he said. “The guy wasn’t actually too far out of the way when I found him, believe it or not. Didn’t even try to run for it again when he saw me. In hindsight, he seemed kinda freaked out about something.”
Lovia and Mirae exchanged glances. “Something like…?” the latter inquired.
Curtiss shrugged. “I don’t know, cave stuff? How am I supposed to judge how a goblin thinks? Does it really matter, anyways? We’ve got places to go, staircases to find, something like that.” He reached out and tapped the guide’s shoulder. “Right, you ready to do your job now?”
The goblin hissed and started down the tunnel. The three humans were quick to follow.
With silent steps, the white-clad figure slipped unnoticed between several standing stones, dropping down from his perch high above the broad entrance to the mines (Did they really think that the front door was the only way in? They obviously hadn’t checked on the newly exposed tunnels that had been opened by the recent explosions.) and landing softly upon the railing of a watchtower. The guard inside didn’t even hear the sound as the infiltrator hastily dropped down once again, catching himself on the ladder of the tower and sliding down it, dropping down amidst several supply crates stacked at the base of the wooden palisade surrounding the formidable gates into the goblins’ underground dwelling.
The thief smirked, ducking low as a patrol passed by, not even noticing him as he hid beneath the supplies. Which was... actually kind of surprising, considering that he hadn’t bothered to remove his rather gaudy coat. But, Seire thought to himself, it wouldn’t be any fun, sneaking into a heavily guarded subterranean fortress of isolationist goblins unless it was challenging. But, of course, the thrill of infiltrating a difficult target wasn’t the reason Seire was there. Or rather, it wasn’t the ONLY reason. The real purpose of his whimsical expedition into the cavernous city was to follow a certain group that had come there earlier. Of course, this brave party had actually bothered to enter legally, something Seire supposed he could have done too, save for the fact that it would have been long and boring, a prospect which would prove much less entertaining than his current infiltration.
And, besides. If he’d entered legally, he wouldn’t have the chance to... peruse... the goblins’ supplies while he was passing through. Grinning childishly, the thief slipped his scissors out of his sleeve and, sliding them into the lock of one of the crates, he poked around for a moment before at last hooking them within the admittedly well-made mechanism. With a flick of his wrist and a quiet click, he twisted the seal open, lifting the crate’s lid ever-so-slightly and reaching a hand inside. Grabbing a few packages of small, cylindrical objects that happened to meet his probing fingers, he swiftly removed them from the box and stuffed them into his large pockets.
The thief grinned, about to reach in and snatch some more... uh... whatever it was he was stealing, but, unfortunately, it seemed he didn’t have time for that. His golden eyes snapped up as the gently bobbing light of a distant lantern suddenly moved out of sight, fading around the winding curve of a tunnel across the cave. It seemed that his unwitting guides had finally begun to move. Well, then, he supposed that meant it was time for him to do so as well.
Conveniently enough, the patrol chose that moment to continue its rounds. Even more conveniently, the guard on the opposite tower seemed to be sleeping.
Within five seconds, Seire had crossed the open space between him and his targets, and no one was any the wiser.
* * *
Lovia sighed in exasperation. The gray-haired, gray-clothed one was beginning to get on her nerves. Now that he had returned, that infernal humming was making it extremely difficult to think. She had been trying very hard to remain patient, however, enough was enough, in her opinion. “Please...could you stop doing that?” Lovia said at last, in her usually quiet fashion, trying her best to be polite as always in the face of grating nuisances such as this. Far from stopping, however, and much to the irritation of the green-eyed mage, the young man merely continued, if anything - louder. This is looking to be a long day, Lovia thought.
At about that moment, Curtiss’s voice cut in, somehow speaking over his own humming- “Okay, stop that, seriously. You still haven’t memorized the tune yet? Even though you’ve been following us for, what, since the guide ran away? Since we left the village? Whatever the case, I’m disappointed, man- truly, severely disappointed.”
“What in- who’s there?” Lovia asked, spinning around and finding herself face to face with, as she had expected, someone completely unknown to her. The newcomer’s amber eyes flashed brightly in the dim light of the tunnel as he cut his humming short, his mouth closing into a sardonic half-smile. “Are you talking to me?” The man asked, sweeping out his arm in a somewhat over-the-top gesture of self-introduction, his flowing, five-tailed white coat sweeping about him almost as though suspended by a conveniently timed gust of wind - although this, of course, was impossible, given that the small band was already well within the torchlit tunnels of the goblin mines, whose thick stone walls not even a gale could penetrate - as he took a courtly bow. Somehow, it seemed as though the raven-haired young man had rehearsed this gesture. Either that, or he had performed it many more times than most would consider “normal.” He didn’t seem to be concerned by this fact either, if his cheerful, carefree grin was anything to go by.
“Oh, I’m nobody to be concerned with,” The young man said as he bowed. “Just a passing yeoman who happened to hear at a certain tavern that a group of bold adventurers were daring enough to attempt to brave the gate leading into the next floor. Hearing that, I couldn’t help but be quite... interested. So, here I am - Seire Valefar, at your service.”
Lovia shook her head, making sure this man’s sudden appearance was not the result of sleep deprivation. Once her suspicions that this was a hallucination were cleared, the black-robed mage groaned inwardly, brushing a lock of her short, black hair out of her pale, girlish face. A showman...great. Just what we needed. “So you’ve been stalking us...for twenty miles now?” Lovia looked quizzically at the ludicrous man. What sort of fool would simply appear before a dangerous adventure, unbidden? This would only cause more complications to the mission, and annoying complications like Seire were not exactly what she had in mind when Lori sent her on this mission. “Find a way to the next level,” she had said. “Discover what secrets may lie there.” This mission was likely to be difficult enough without a wild card possibly mucking things up as well. Regardless, if this was the torment she had to endure for such an endeavor, then, she supposed, it would have to do. The sheer possibilities of knowledge were worth nearly any such nuisance.
The fourth member of the party now spoke. “If you’re no one to be concerned with, you won’t mind us leaving you here, then.” Might take a few broken legs -- and skull. Mirae wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. The fool appeared out of nowhere and stood there grinning.
“Well, that’s a rather rude way to greet someone who traveled all this way just to volunteer to help you,” The thief chuckled nervously, scratching his head. “In any case, I suppose that’s one way to put it, but I much prefer the phrase ‘followed without your knowledge or permission.’ The word ‘stalking’ just has all sorts of implications these days that really aren’t terribly relevant to our current situation. It’s much better to be clear on these matters, wouldn’t you say?”
“Maybe so.” Mirae suppressed a grimace; how could such a ridiculous man sport such an infectious smile? It almost made up for the start. Careful. “Shall we be clear, then? You follow us into an unknown, dangerous place, profess to be the leader of a guild of thieves, and claim to be doing this out of the goodness of your heart?”
“Well, it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?” Seire replied, grinning innocently as though he didn’t know himself.
Off to the side, Curtiss sighed loudly, rubbing his forehead. “Speaking as someone who’s had to talk with this particular man in the past,” he muttered, “I’d suggest we just deal with him tagging along. He is ridiculously obstinate, among other things, so if he wants to follow, I don’t think we’ll be able to change his mind.” He glanced uneasily at his pack, then added, “Might want to keep a close eye on your stuff, though. I wouldn’t put it past him to grab our bags and disappear again the second we aren’t looking.”
Seire turned to glare at the other scout, scowling in cartoonishly exaggerated indignation. “How rude! Are you seriously insinuating that I would accost an innocent citizen for his or her belongings? You wound me, sir, wound me deeply."
"Right,” Curtiss drawled. “And you most certainly didn't take anything from the goblins back at the town, I assume?"
"Of course not! If I had done that, I'd have been caught! Do you take me for a fool?” Seire paused for a moment to glance over at Curtiss, who was working his mouth in an apparent attempt to either come up with a retort or hold it back. Then, shrugging, he continued, “I just blindly stole a bunch of random things out of their supplies, nothing more. In fact, I’m not even sure what I stole myself!" He grinned broadly as though this absolved him of all guilt, not making it clear if this was actually the case in whatever bizarre code of “ethics” he held himself to, or if he was just trying to confuse and unnerve the party for his personal amusement, although anyone with even the least experience interacting with the carefree thief would know exactly which it was.
Curtiss groaned and let his head sag forward. The goblin looked like he wanted to strangle someone.
This was ridiculous - although Lovia couldn’t help but smile a little at the man’s antics. Clearly they weren’t going to be able to get rid of the annoying man. Either annoying man, the mage corrected, glancing towards the man who was once again humming his silly little tune. Lovia remained silent, however. Clearly this “Seire” individual wanted a cut of the profits. That would be acceptable - as four was a safer number than three, and Lovia sincerely doubted anyone else in here cared about the academic knowledge that could be brought from the third level. She looked at the two loud men, and amended that - safer, yes, more irritating, most definitely.
“I suppose you should know who we are as well.” Mirae was smiling now. “This is Miss Tevinter.” The green-eyed girl nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Curtiss, although he apparently seems to know you already. And I’m Mirae.” The shorter girl hesitated, glancing at the hunched figure of their guide, whom appeared to have abruptly forgotten his anger and fixed his gaze on the depths of the tunnel ahead. His agreement to lead the group to their destination hadn’t been forthcoming, even despite the promised reward, and this, combined with his current state of nervous wariness, could not but bode ominously for the path ahead of the group. She glanced hastily back at her group, deciding to focus on the interruption rather than the strangely unnerved goblin. “Well, I guess you’re joining us? We might need another set of eyes.”
“Well, if you’re inviting me, then how can I refuse?” The thief replied, giving a slight half-smile as he spoke. Although, it really couldn’t have been called an invitation, considering that he’d already stated rather plainly that he would be joining them regardless. And, judging by both his customary smirk and by his tone, he wasn’t even making a pretense of hiding this fact. Rather, it seemed more that he was using this seemingly innocuous comment as a means of proudly announcing that he now had an excuse to come along. It didn’t help that he wasn’t trying to conceal this, either.
No more diplomacy, then, Mirae thought, dropping her smile. She nodded to the thief, then turned away, careful to keep him and his suspicious confidence in sight. That meant facing the goblin again, though. He was still crouched against the wall, occasionally shooting them anxious looks, barely visible fingers tapping silently against his leg. The number of torches had decreased steadily since their breaking off from the main tunnel, until even Seire’s white coat was dim in the lantern’s meager light. They had been winding their way underground for what must have been hours by now, though Mirae could not tell whether it felt like minutes or days; the uniform stone walls played games with her sense of time.
She shifted her weight, feeling familiar blades swing her cloak. Exploration. That was why she had come, was it not? Probe each floor enough for a taste of its novelty, then continue. Even standing here for this long made her restless for a change of scene. There must be a ventilation shaft nearby, its soft hissing filling the tunnel. Mirae looked back, perhaps a little too eagerly. “Shall we?” Nodding, the thief took a few hastened steps to bring himself alongside the rest of the party, and then advanced silently, his keen golden eyes trained forward towards the darkness ahead of them. The nervous goblin guide seemed to flinch with every step he took, but, nevertheless, he, too, began to move, taking the lead of the party and advancing slowly into the winding tunnels ahead.
The group continued down the mine tunnel, Mirae dropping behind to watch their new companion as he delved into his coat pockets, occasionally flicking a grin across his face. It almost seemed like he knew as little about what was in there as Mirae did; she amused herself for a few steps by wondering about its contents. String. Compass. Nutmeg. Rainbow-dyed messenger pigeon. She automatically cocked her head to listen for birdsong before remembering where she was. The air carried no tunes. Even Curtiss had stopped humming some distance back.
“Ooh!” The sudden exclamation from the thief broke the silence of the tunnel as he held up a small package evidently produced from his pockets to the light of the gently swaying lantern.
Wincing, Curtiss looked away from the tunnel ahead to glance at his companion. “That was a bit loud,” he commented. “Mind toning it down next time? Or maybe sharing what you found with the rest of us, at least?”
The thief smiled in a manner that expressed an emotion somewhere between “childish glee” and “destructive mania” as he casually pocketed the large, dark red bundle he held once again. “Oh, just some fun new toys is all,” He said, still grinning in the same, rather unsettling manner.
Even as the package was returned to the depths of Seire’s oversized coat, a black symbol on its side caught Curtiss’s eye, and the gray-clothed scout almost tripped over his own feet as he remembered where else he’d seen it at the goblin village. “...Toys,” he murmured, suddenly wishing he’d packed some clothing suitably resistant to large amounts of heat, or shrapnel, or cave-ins. “Well, try to make sure nobody else is around when you’re playing with those, okay?”
The torchlight had disappeared by now, leaving only the flickering lantern to cast shadows in the maze. They danced across stone, briefly showing a crevice or turn before returning it to the dark. Their guide’s pace slowed, the shadow dance growing increasingly erratic as his hands trembled.
Mirae felt something short barrel past her and whirled, pulling a knife before halting, watching the rapidly retreating figure of their guide vanish up the path. The echoing clatter of a lantern hitting stone floor followed him back through the tunnel. The light shuddered crazily but remained.
Behind her, Curtiss grunted as he stretched his arms forwards. “Hey, coat-boy,” he muttered, elbowing Seire’s arm. “Looks like they’re not trying to hide anymore. I think they know we’re on to them.”
Mirae looked towards the two scouts. “Wha- hold on, what are you...?”
The more gaudily-dressed of the two merely grinned as her question died in her throat, stepping forward and casually laying hold of the hilt poking up over his shoulder. Then, with a shrill, faint whine of metal brushing against metal, he drew the black and white blade of his sword forth from its scabbard, leveling it towards the darkness ahead of them.
“This might be a bad time to mention this,” Seire said with a cheerful demeanor that clashed entirely with his poised sword, not to mention with the words he spoke so casually. “But we seem to be surrounded by those creatures your friend Curtiss heard whispering earlier. They’ve been following us for some time, and it seems our guide has just taken the last chance he had to run again.”
“You could have told us earlier,” Mirae replied irritably, drawing her own knives and stepping back as, sure enough, black shapes became visible in the flickering lantern light as they skulked about in the shadows, their giant eyes half-gleaming in the dark as the soft pattering of footfalls filled the tunnel. Scuttling echoed off the walls and ceiling as dust dropped from above the party, falling onto their heads from out of the darkness as innumerable small shapes poised themselves to plunge down upon their would-be prey from where they lurked in the shadows above.
“Well, it’s not like if we’d told you, we’d have any other path to go by. Plus, your guide probably would have run much sooner if he’d known. At least we’re closer to our goal now, are we not?” Seire smirked. “And besides... I’d say it’s a lot more fun this way.”
“Confident words for someone who’s outnumbered ten to one. Are you planning on backing that up? The thieves I know aren’t exactly renowned for their bravery.”
“Heh. Don’t insult me, my friend. If there’s one thing you should know about Seire Valefar, it’s that he never leaves his comrades, nor does he back down from a fight!” With this boisterous declaration, Seire leveled his sword as his words resounded throughout the tunnel, echoing back and forth between the walls and causing the enemies lurking in the shadows to momentarily hesitate. There was a faint rumbling heard throughout the cavern. Then, with a sudden, roaring crash, the ground around them shook. The creatures in the darkness behind them gave several panicked cries and began to rush frantically through the light, flailing about blindly as they dove deeper into the tunnel. Although several managed to stumble past the group - aside from one which was unfortunate enough to be offhandedly clotheslined and bisected by the rising blade of the thief’s sword as he struck a suitably heroic and confident pose - many more of those enemies attempting to cut off the party from behind were not as fortunate, for, in the next instant, with a groaning rumble that shook the cavern, the ceiling of the passage behind the group gave way, crushing large numbers of the creatures behind them. For a moment, the tunnel shook, and it seemed as though the rest of the ceiling would crumble atop the party as well. Thankfully, it seemed that the tunnel junction in which they now stood was somewhat sturdier than the passage they’d just exited, for, although several small stones came tumbling down from the roof high above, the ceiling held.
“Uh... I meant to do that,” Seire said, grinning sheepishly.
Beside him, Curtiss eyed the corpse at Seire’s feet, strands of sky-blue ichor still connecting its neck to the thief’s weapon. “They’re not going to be too happy about that,” he muttered, hands inching towards his knives. “Just so you know- they decide to attack, I blame you for it.”
One of the cave-dwellers inched forward and rotated its head towards the speaker, a fang-ridden smile larger than any human could manage spreading over its skeletal face. “Lucky find...” it rasped, its mouth laboring to pronounce pronounce words it was barely capable of. “This one is flesh, not rock. He can die.”
Seire grinned. Yes, he realized, this was exactly the sort of thing he’d been looking for when he had decided to follow the small party on their little mission. Well, that and being the first to reach the new floor so that he could hastily chart it out, claiming possible hideouts and strongholds for his own guild, and stealing whatever valuables might have been left there. But, to be honest, all of those plans were derived from one motivation, and one motivation alone. The thief had been bored, and some excitement was just what he needed to alleviate that irksome dullness!
With an ear-piercing shriek, one of the pale, hairless creatures dropped from the ceiling, plummeting down towards Seire only for him to casually step out of the way, swiping his sword straight up to meet the falling body as he did so. The falling monster found its howl cut off in its throat, and its head simply cut off. As it slumped to the floor, dead before it even hit the ground, the thief was already moving. Unlike the others, still gathered around the light of the fallen lamp, Seire lunged forward, delivering a linear strike aimed straight for the heart of the closest enemy he could find. With a scraping of steel against bone, he found his blade caught between the claws of his target, and yet, undeterred, Seire merely twisted his weapon downward, causing the creature to screech in agony as it found its hand split in half by the keen, biting blade of the thief. A moment later, the precise cut had changed directions, darting back up to plunge straight through the creature’s jugular, silencing it, too, in its turn.
Whipping his sword to the side, he half-severed his victim’s head, at the same time using his weapon as a lever to fling the collapsing body onto two of its comrades. Another instant, and his blade was already flashing in the half-light, trailing crimson ichor as it bisected the dead creature along with the two whom it had struck. The thief couldn’t help but laugh, smirking as he continued the slash, whirling around just in time to intercept another foe pouncing upon him from behind. Really? That was their strategy? Pile on top of him? The only way they’d manage to bury him in such a manner was beneath a hill of their own dead!
“So... predictable!” Seire cried triumphantly, splitting the small body of his unfortunate airborne assailant from hip to shoulder and sending it dropping to the floor in its death throes. The thief laughed once again as he casually swept his blade back over his shoulder with the force of his attack, deflecting an ill-aimed claw attack from behind and carrying another creature over with the impetus of its own charge, causing it to flop right into a rising reverse roundhouse kick that sent it hurtling through the air right into the ranks of its own comrades. The pests screamed and drew back in fright, murmuring and howling to themselves as the thief turned, sweeping down his blade and shaking the blood from its monochrome edge as he leveled it as his opponents, his amber eyes gleaming like burnished gold in the darkness of the cave, matching the piercing gazes of countless adversaries as he stood on the very edge of the light, as though daring the darkness to come and try to claim him. This battle was nothing more than his personal game, an old sport of strength in which he had excelled since his youth. The thrill of combat, the feeling of power and adrenaline coursing through his body... it was through these means that Seire had always worked to grow in strength.
“Hey!” He called over his shoulder with a cheerful grin. “Do you guys want any, or should I just keep going without you?”
Muttering a few of the more offensive cursewords he’d picked up over the years, Curtiss glanced around the room at the creatures nearest to him- rakes, they were called, if he remembered correctly. Smart enough to develop their own language and learn another through mere observation, which didn’t bode well for such a small group of mages and scouts; no matter how well-equipped and trained they were, a pack of sentient foes with terrain advantages and natural weapons would almost certainly have the upper hand.
His right foot scraped audibly against the floor as he turned to get a better view of the battle, then stopped when it hit something soft and moving and disturbingly warm. Instinctively he jerked around, a knife gripped in each hand, but the rake managed to act faster, wrapping itself around his leg like a toddler clinging to its parent and knocking him off balance. Another slammed into his other leg at high speed, forcing it to give, and he fell backwards.
Before he even hit the ground, three more rakes had already leaped at him. Two took hold of his arms, seizing his knives with their mouths and tossing them to the side with a shake of their heads, while the other landed square on his chest, slamming him to the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him and destroy any thought of putting up a fight, or of anything else, for the time being. Their skin felt grimy and oily where it touched his, their breath reminding him of week-old carrion, and even before his mind had fully cleared, he convulsed and struggled within their grip, only succeeding in prompting them to tighten their hold.
“Enough fight,” the lead rake rasped, and Curtiss’s head jerked back against the floor, hard, as he recoiled from the spittle expelled from the creature’s mouth with each word. “Stay down until that one-” the rake glared in Seire’s general direction- “is down. Then, we talk.”
Curtiss groaned and tried to inhale again, his captor’s words barely registering. Apart from the pain, which was enough to keep him down by itself, his fall and the rake restraining his torso were making breathing nearly impossible, and he was half certain that a rib or three had fractured or dislocated in the process. The growing pool of liquid beneath his head didn’t bode well for the status of his skull, either.
An iridescent bolt of energy arced above and to the right of him- evidently, the mages were also busy with their attackers- and one of the rakes holding down his limbs hissed. It would probably be for the best, he imagined, that he went along with the rakes’ demands; with the team’s healers occupied, he certainly wouldn’t be in a position to fight back anytime soon...
Lovia inwardly groaned at the newcomer’s bravado. Great, another idiotic thrill-seeker, she thought. Our chances have just been downgraded from slim to almost nil. Her train of thought was interrupted, as the beasts were upon them. Drawing her dark grey sword, Lovia prepared to freeze those humanoids, when she saw one up close, and froze.
No amount of book learning could prepare her for how...monstrous that thing was.
More beast than man, the horrific creatures gazed upon her with dead, predatory eyes. Though their form resembled that of a man, their eyes, their movements, would be more in keeping with the demeanor of some ravenous, starved dog than any intelligent, thinking being. Their horribly twisted mouths were open, revealing pointed, yellowed teeth. Saliva dripped from their gaping mouths at the thought of devouring the flesh of four young and foolish humans, or so Lovia assumed. She wasn’t going to take any chances with these creatures.
Lovia shook her head of her fear, and raised her left hand as one of them came close to her, clawing at her with its yellowed, dirty claws, and a blast of cold filled the cave. Lovia gritted her teeth due to the chill, although her heavy black robe absorbed most of the cold. The same couldn’t be said for the creatures. The closest three to her stopped moving, dropping to the floor, dead from hypothermia, their skin turned from pale to even paler blue as their faces stayed in their horrible, twisted grins. The rest of the horde that were close to her took a step back in fear. Lovia noted their reactions - sluggish, shivering - of course! Those beasts would be weak to such cold - as they lacked any sort of visible insulation - hairless, unclothed. Lovia couldn’t help suppressing a little smirk, as she placed her left hand against her sword, her magic chilling the sword until it shone with a white sheen, as the water droplets in the air froze as they touched the sword.
Lovia silently thanked her father for her heavy black leather gloves, keeping her hands mostly insulated against the freezing cold, as she raised her sword, slicing through another creature’s neck, and parrying another’s claw strike, its hands...front legs...whatever you’d want to call them, froze, causing it to fall to the floor. Lovia gripped her longsword in both hands, and stabbed the horrible thing in the back. A third got too close, and very nearly bit her left hand, but was waylaid by another blast of cold. The things were retreating, in fear of the cold and the bitter bite of the sword.
Lovia adjusted her grip on the sword, looking to see how her companions had fared. Her fellow mage seemed to be doing well, a few creatures lying at her feet, though the short girl winced as her knives sliced through grey flesh. One creature, catapulting off of another’s back in some bizarre form of leapfrog, collided with her as she fended off one of its fellows, finding an easy foothold in her lowered hood. Caught by surprise, Mirae spun, allowing the other to wrap its thin arms tightly around her leg. A moment later, both of the atrocities inexplicably released their hold. They were soon followed by flashes of metal, the cuts turning red with burns.
Slowly, the horde was moving back -- or at least, Mirae’s group was moving forward. Curtiss had dropped out of sight, but the others were with her. They seemed to be intimidating the small creatures, as for each that continued to lash at the humans, another slinked along the side, scurrying back along the tunnel. Yelps echoed from the front, one caught by the edge of Lovia’s cold or nicked by Seire’s sword; the latter never lasted long. Each additional step brought more of these cries, from pain or . . . Panic?
“Run!” The shout came from behind Mirae. She started, giving the creature attacking her an opening. It had lunged, its claws were already outstretched, but it simply hit the ground on all fours and continued past her. In fact, all of their opponents were now fleeing up the tunnel, not even trying to swerve around outcrops or humans. Within moments, they were alone.
The cavern widened not far from them, the ceiling rising to where it was lost in shadow. Curving down the side were a set of stone steps, carved neatly into the wall. More worrying than an apparent lack of railings, to Mirae, at least, was what was sitting in front of the staircase.
Streaks of harsh white light met the yellow of the lantern, emanating from a mass of rock. It reminded Mirae of nothing so much as a cairn, though a poorly made one; instead of smoothly harmonious stones, it was made of rough boulders, not a one of the same kind as another, and all kept in place by the white shining through the gaps. Spines jutted out from its irregular mound, some so thin they seemed to sway in the wavering light.
Wait- They were moving. The stones at the bottom of the cairn shifted, moving straight out from the pile. The white followed, tracing out columns that were almost like . . . limbs. Two points of light blinked into existence in a broad piece of granite near the top of a newly defined head. Several small rocks drifted apart, forming a mouth ringed with stone teeth.
Seire glanced about the cavern, giving a quiet whistle as he observed the rising form of the golem. Granted he didn’t have much experience with magical constructs, but from what he recalled from a certain piece of recent (stolen) reading material - who knew a grimoire titled simply “The Ordinary Book” could contain so much relevant information? - this thing wasn’t exactly... well, ordinary, for lack of a better word. On the one hand, it seemed much smaller than even the simple, lumbering giants of golems he’d read about, being about the size of the average statue, but on the other, it was much more crude than even those basic constructs, looking more like a moving stone pillar than a humanoid shape. From what the thief could tell, the thing’s lower body and the floor were essentially the same thing, while its arms and head were more like solid blocks of granite with vaguely anthropomorphic features crudely beaten into them. Stalagmites protruded like extra limbs from within its form, jutting out at random angles. It looked more like a mass of random stones that had whimsically aspired to be a human being, but hadn’t bothered to even take on the form it failed to imitate.
Nevertheless, crude though it might have been, it was most certainly powerfully and sturdily built, and, most notably, it was positioned right in their way. With its huge arms and spined body to reckon with, it was fairly evident that, if the golem didn’t want them to pass, the small party wouldn’t be able to until the giant construct in their way was dismantled. And, considering its positioning and the fact that the Rakes had evidently run in fear of it open being forced back into its room, Seire had a feeling that the golem wasn’t simply going to remain idle while they slipped past it.
Wiping the blood from the blade of his sword, he glanced back into the darkness behind them, watching as the last traces of the enemy vanished into the shadows from whence they’d come. Well, that was fortunate, at least. It would be troublesome to deal with such a powerful enemy as the golem on its own, let alone to do the same with those clawed nuisances hounding the party’s heels. Still, the appearance of this artificial enemy here did explain why those beasts had fought so desperately as he had rushed upon them, and why they had retreated so suddenly. It also resolved any doubt that might have still lurked in the thief’s mind about the hostile nature of this strange guardian, and its intentions to hinder their passing.
“Great,” The thief said, smirking as he casually slung his sword over his shoulder. “We have to kill a boulder. Should be easy!”
“Oh, yes, like flying through a wildfire. No problem.” Mirae seemed recovered from seeing a piece of earth suddenly animate. She looked at Seire through the corner of her eye, mouth twitching.
“Oh? And would you know that from experience?” The thief asked, shooting a grin back over his shoulder.
“I may have tried once or twice.” Her own grin spread across her face. “Nothing quite like imminent severe injury to make an interesting day. Though, I must say, I never expected it to come from a bunch of pebbles.”
“Heh. Don’t make me laugh. That big lug’s probably too slow to hit a particularly energetic turtle. It’ll take a lot more than a few rocks to catch this phantom thief!” Speaking confidently, Seire leveled his blade once again, gazing fearlessly at the said rocks, which, for their part, glared back as the lumbering golem slowly retrieved its arms from the ground, closing its oversized hands into fists. Either the thief didn’t notice that his sword would be quite limited in its effectiveness against such a foe, or he simply didn’t care, for his usual enthusiasm didn’t waver for an instant as he faced off against his artificial adversary.
Lovia stepped back, evidently not sharing her comrade’s enthusiasm for battling such a formidable foe. The golem was, thankfully, distracted by the man who seemed to have caught some sort of insanity, allowing Lovia some breathing room. She looked around, ensuring neither of her other allies had fled in terror - and considered the action herself. Perhaps it would be the wisest course of action in this case...no. She had vowed to find what secrets lay on the third tier of this castle, and thus she would see the mission through to the end. Steeling herself, she stepped forward and began to weave her enchantments.
* * *
Bright flashes drowned out the golem’s light as bolts of lightning struck. The mage herself leaned against a wall near the entryway, keeping far out of the way of the melee fighters. Dark channels twisted their way down the animated rock as the lightning wound into the spikes and, just as quickly, vanished, leaving rough glass to mark its path. The path always faded before reaching one of the glowing junctures that webbed the golem’s back; in fact, Mirae could see hardly any white lines on the spikes. They seemed more like whole stalagmites than boulders cobbled together.
One particularly thin spindle exploded as her attack struck, sending shards of rock flying against the cave’s orange walls. A good many flew into the corners, skittering across the ground, but others came towards the small group. As far as Mirae could tell, none hit her companions, although she thought she saw Lovia hastily cast up a shield. The sudden loss didn’t seem to cause the golem any pain, but it was clearly annoyed. It quickly recovered as attacks came from other quarters, but it still paused every so often, shifting uncomfortably.
Seeing an opening, Lovia outstretched her black-sleeved hand, an icy chill coming from her fingertips and encasing one of the golem’s joints in a block of ice, slowing the huge, stone thing a bit. It hammered down on the black-robed mage’s shield of ice, cracking it, but the cold and the frozen joint slowed it enough for Lovia to dive out of the way...right into a sweeping blow from its other arm. The small, girlish mage was knocked against the wall, heavily bruised by the golem’s assault, and slumped. The ice magic she prepared misfired, putting a thin coating of ice across the cavern floor.
The golem, seeing its chance to finish off one of its adversaries, opened its stone-fanged maw wide, the white light within its body burning ever brighter as, with a mighty roar, it lunged forward with its head, releasing a sudden blast of magic from its throat, a lance of sorts that swiftly coalesced into a mass of razor-sharp, gleaming crystals. This glistening projectile streaked towards its target with tremendous force, crossing the distance in an instant and plunging towards the fallen mage... only to be abruptly deflected as, with a roar to match the golem’s own, a monochrome shape leaped into the path of the incoming projectile, his flowing coat sweeping out around him as he stood his ground, ripping forth his scabbard from his back and swinging it with all his might at the crystalline lance. With a groaning and cracking both of wood and crystal, the two met with overwhelming force as the scabbard collided with the piercing javelin’s tip, knocking it to the side at the last second and sending it crashing harmlessly into the wall of the cavern next to where the magus lay.BGM: Mezame - Yuki Kajiura
Seire released his grip on his broken scabbard, allowing it to clatter to the ground in pieces as he raised his sword once more, pointing it straight at the golem, which gave a mindless, angry snarl. A fire burned in the thief’s eyes as he stood fast, his expression somewhere between joy at the prospect of a good fight, and rage at the gall of this beast for trying to slay his comrade while she couldn’t even defend herself. “Hey...!” Seire growled, amber eyes flashing as though to match the arcane luminescence of the cave’s protector. “Hey you!” He repeated, louder this time, as he took a step forward. The golem stopped for a moment, as though confused by this small Human’s inexplicable confidence.
“Yeah, that’s right, you! I’m talkin’ to you, you big, worthless pile of pebbles! You must think you’re really something, acting all high and mighty like that!” The thief continued his advance, his voice rising in volume as he did so until his words were resounding throughout the entire cavern, echoing back with renewed strength like the voice of an angry god. “Well, I hate to break it to you, pal, but if you think you can just go around crushing just anybody, then you’re wrong! Dead wrong! You better clean out whatever passes for ears on that stupid looking head of yours, and listen well, because I’m only going to say this once!” The golem cocked its aforementioned stupid-looking head to the side, as though confused by the fact that a lone, unarmored Human was now challenging it so confidently with only a sword to back his words up.
“He does what he likes, and lives as he pleases! If he wants it, he’ll take it! If you try to take it from him, then he’ll kick your ass and steal from you instead! With courage, fortitude, and his burning heart, he’s the one who dictates what will and will not be!” At this point, the ice mage had come to, and was wondering why in the Underground the fool was grandstanding against such a formidable foe. “He doesn’t back down, not in the face of fate or even the impossible! And above all else, he doesn’t tolerate punks like you messing with his comrades! He’s the man who’s about to teach you the meaning of pain! Who is he, you ask? HE’S ME, THE ONE AND ONLY SEIRE VALE-!”
The thief’s bombastic declaration, although impressive, was regrettably left unfinished. The golem, evidently quite unperturbed by the thief’s ultimatum, decided enough was enough, and, raising its fist, brought it crashing down right atop the thief, who was forced to cut off his little monologue and hurl himself to the side, only barely escaping being crushed by sliding across the ice, rolling once, and then planting his sword and skidding to a stop several feet away. The cavern shook with the force of the golem’s mighty blow, and dust began to rain down from the ceiling. Yet, Seire didn’t seem to notice this display of his enemy’s overwhelming strength. Rather, he simply stood up, his hands slowly clenching into fists as his golden eyes glowered murderously from beneath his raven hair. But, most notably of all was one simple change that, in the case of anyone else, would have seemed completely unremarkable.
Seire was no longer smiling.
“You cheeky bastard...” The thief hissed, ripping his sword out of the ice and dropping into a fighting posture. The golem raised its giant fist once again, preparing to bring it down, only to stop mid-swing, for, to the guardian’s surprise - or what approximated it - in the instant that the giant’s vision had been obscured by its own hand, the thief had vanished. The golem looked about in momentary confusion, before abruptly going stock still and then giving a roar of what might have been surprise, for the thief had somehow crossed the distance between them before it could even bring its hand down, sweeping up his sword with an angry roar.
“I!” His blade grazed across the surface of the golem’s body, only to curve straight back down again as his first strike flowed into his second. “WASN’T!” This time, his blade struck a joint in the construct’s waist and cut away a small chunk of stone as Seire stepped forward, reversing his strike once again to plunge his blade straight into the gap he’d just created. “FINISHED!” With this final snarl, he stabbed through the golem’s armor and into the energy making up its core. The guardian howled with anger, yet, to the thief’s annoyance, the surging arcane field in the center of his enemy’s body resisted his piercing blade, sending him stumbling backward as his sword was forced out of the gash it had just created just in time for the golem to deal a frenzied stroke towards its stumbling enemy. Yet, Seire was far from willing to let himself be smashed to bits. Launching himself with the force of his own sword, he allowed himself to slide on the ice, skidding backward and spinning around just in time to whirl out of the way of the golem’s horizontal blow, at the same time completing his rotation to bring his sword up from his side, slashing with the full force of his previous stroke, its deflection, and his retreat all focused into the blade of his rising weapon. His aim was true, for with a grating sound and a flash of light, he cut precisely into the golem’s exposed elbow joint, once again connecting with the magic at its heart. Yet, in the next instant, his sword was once again turned aside as the golem opened its mouth, releasing a mighty roar as it launched another crystalline projectile at the thief.
Bracing himself as best he could upon the ice, Seire leaped upward, flipping head over heels as the crystal lance passed below him, crashing violently into the ground where he had been standing as he himself landed right where he’d intended to: atop the golem’s overextended arm. In an instant, Seire had recovered his balance even as the golem swiped its arm downwards, attempting to knock the thief from his perch. Yet, it was as Seire had already said. The guardian was far, far too slow.
Leaping once more, Seire flipped over the golem’s head, plunging his blade downward and hooking it within the golem’s forehead. Using this as a lever, he caught himself mid-flight, hanging off of the back of the stone guardian’s head. His enemy howled angrily, trying to swat him with his hand, only for Seire to swing casually to the side, causing it to instead strike itself in the side of the head with its own oversized appendage. Recoiling from the might of its own careless blow, the clumsy golem gave an infuriated howl and tried again with the other hand, only for Seire to swing to the opposite side, yielding the same results. “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Why are you still hitting yourself?” The thief taunted, laughing with a slight hint of psychotic hysteria evident in his voice. The angry giant’s roars only grew louder as, enraged, it employed a different strategy, flailing its head suddenly forward as it tried to buck its unwelcome passenger off of it. Seire, however, had been prepared for this, and, even as his unwilling mount attempted to hurl him from where he hung, he had already pulled himself up, flipping over to stand atop his own sword’s hilt, then leaping upward, kicking his blade out from within the golem’s head as he did so, causing the weapon to go flying to the side, ricocheting off the wall and spiraling up towards him even as he righted himself in mid air, extending his hand just in time to snag the hilt of his falchion. Giving a triumphant roar, he descended, at the same time dealing a mighty two-handed slash with all of his strength straight across the reeling golem’s torso. Small stones were shorn from its body, scattering into the air as Seire’s sword carved across its body from its shoulder to its hip, whining as it ground against the stone body of the golem. And yet, once again, to the thief’s mounting rage, the enemy still completely failed to show any signs of damage.
Once more the golem brought down its fist, forcing Seire to draw back his blade and roll out of the way as the formidable hand of the golem crashed down where he had just been standing, only to do the same again a moment later as its second hand descended. Hurling himself to the side, Seire rose only just in time to bring up his sword and bisect another crystal as the golem began a frenzied assault, evidently pained, if not outright harmed, by the thief’s attacks. Well, then... Seire thought, taking a deep breath and preparing to once more leap into the fray. I’ll make it regret this, even if I can’t kill it outright!
“Is that all you’ve got!?” The thief bellowed, darting to the side as the golem answered with another crystalline lance. Skidding out of the creature’s reach, Seire allowed himself to slide over to ice, only to catch himself on a stalagmite and launch himself right back, lunging forward to deal another stab right into the hole he’d carved in the beast’s stomach, made even wider by his last attack. “Don’t make me laugh!” Seire roared. Light flashed wildly throughout the chamber as Seire stabbed once, twice, three times, then spun out of the way as though dancing around the base of the immobile golem, hacking at its side, then at its back as it tried in vain to keep up with his wild and swift assault. Small chips of stone rained down from the construct’s back as Seire dealt a staggering flurry of cuts to its exposed rear, only to dart nimbly out of the way as it retaliated by launching several of the spikes protruding from its body as projectiles which embedded themselves uselessly in the walls, unable to keep up with the thief’s rapid assault.
Countless repeated impacts echoed throughout the cavern as the thief streaked around his target at dizzying speeds, one moment striking at its side, the next bounding along its arm to slash its shoulder. Seire was little more than a blur dancing across and around the surface of the guardian, his blade a monochrome bullet by his sides that struck with overwhelming force, was turned aside, then struck yet again with redoubled force, its rapid impacts like the beating of rain upon its hapless victim. The golem roared and flailed, lashing out wildly, but in vain. And yet, its attempts to defend itself didn’t have to be successful, for even though it could not stop Seire from striking it, the thief could not actually harm it, no matter how many blows he landed upon its body or inside its core. But, it could not be denied that Seire’s attacks had left a mark on it, for the gaps between its joints were much wider now, and glowed much more brightly, pulsing more quickly as though somehow agitated.
Not entirely useless, then, Seire thought, leaping back and flipping head over heels as another fist, followed by several aimless crystalline projectiles, whistled through the air towards him. Three times, his blade flashed in the arcane light of the cave, and in the next instant, three of the incoming projectiles were reduced to harmless shards that scattered around him, while the others flew wide of his position, and the golem’s reach fell short of his retreating form. Landing once more, he skidded across the ice, sliding to a stop alongside his comrades. “Tch,” He spat, swiping the dust off his blade as he slowly rose once again, evidently unphased by his attacks’ lack of results, as, determined as ever, he dropped once more into a battle stance.
Mirae helped Lovia slowly stand up, as golden light spilled over the dark-haired mage’s injured side, mending her wounds. She had hastily stopped her barrage of lightning when the thief entered the fray at close range, preferring to remedy one injury instead of causing another. Lovia smiled shyly at the shorter girl, mumbling a soft “..thank you” before turning her attentions to the huge golem, which still seemed to be focused on the scout who attempted the ill-advised attack. It was evident that the golem would not go down from a frontal assault, even one as powerful as Seire’s. The group needed a plan. The main issue lay in the thing’s stone exterior - bypass that, and it would go down fast. The question was, how would one bypass it?
“Psst... Hello? People?” His skin pale enough to resemble that of a corpse, Curtiss edged around the corner of the entrance passageway, barely kept on his feet by the wall he was clutching at. “Kind of need a little help here, okay?”
The thief, just about to leap once more at the golem, stopped in his tracks, turning to shoot a momentary glare back at the unwelcome interruption from behind him. He was currently quite busy teaching a giant rock the meaning of pain, and being called out by a teammate who, as of yet, hadn’t helped him complete this task was the last thing he wanted to have delay his as-of-yet-futile assault. “What?” Seire hissed, abruptly sweeping up his sword to bisect an incoming crystal even as he turned to face Curtiss, not even bothering to look at the shattered projectile. “In case you hadn’t noticed, some of us are busy he- Er... Whoa... what the hell even happened to you?”
“Not-” Curtiss coughed, then winced as the pain in his ribs momentarily spiked. “Not you, you idiot.” He stumbled further into the passage, still leaning heavily on the wall as he scanned the cavern ahead for the team’s mages. “Hey, medic one and medic two, you hear me? Yeah, I still need some, uh, medic-ing for my head and back and stuff.”
Mirae was beside him before he could let out another groan, cloak rippling from running over. “Go and get yourself injured, of course,” she muttered as she looked quickly over Curtiss’s wounds. “I can slow the bleeding and take the edge off the pain, but other than that, you’re on your own.” Mirae made a mental note to get him to a proper healer once they were through; these were far beyond what she or Lovia could heal.
“Y-y’know, you could have just tried doing something before you decided to fight the, uh-” Curtiss craned his head towards the chamber again. “...what are you guys fighting, again?”
“And you could have avoided smashing your head into a rock. Stop moving.”
“Hey, remember who you’re talking to, here. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me, ever. If I get knocked down, it’s because there’s no way, at all, to not get knocked down. You want to blame someone? Blame Seire and the rakes.”
Mirae snorted. “You’re sounding better already. And Seire is kind of the one letting us have this leisurely conversation instead of being impaled.”
“What, the rock monster over there? From what I can see, that thing could aim at a non-moving target point-blank and still miss entirely. You’re giving coat-boy too much credit.”
The glare that Lovia gave Curtiss would have sprouted icicles were it any chillier. She bit back a sharp retort, as the pain in her side flared up again. As good of a healer as Mirae was, there was still some internal damage that would have to be healed naturally. She winced, as she took a step to the side. One of her ribs was probably broken - she had better not exert herself overly during the rest of this battle. Now, where was she...ah yes. How would they take out the golem? It was too tough for even lightning to so much as put a dent in it. So there had to be a way to weaken it, but how...
Curtiss rolled his eyes and shrugged, frowned, shrugged again. “Oh, hey, I can move properly again, that’s nice.” He took a few experimental deep breaths and nodded at the resulting lack of pain, then tensed as a sensation akin to being bludgeoned with an iron club invaded the back of his head. “...still got a killer headache, though. Eh, at least I can think straight now, so I guess that’s good enough.”
Ignoring Lovia’s protest, he leaped back to his feet and jogged back to the mouth of the tunnel, taking care not to move his head too much as he peered into the golem’s chamber, only to duck back as several shards of crystal slammed into the wall only a few feet from where he stood as Seire once more slashed his sword right into the path of one of the ubiquitous projectiles, destroying it with ease and scattering its many pieces away from their intended target: himself. It seemed he had made the golem quite angry, and, moreover, that he intended to continue his attack despite this fact, if his stance was any indication. But despite his evident determination to continue hacking away at the stone golem until either it died or his sword broke, it seemed he had done very little to the enemy aside from earning its ire.
No progress, then. In that case, Curtiss decided, they might as well pull out the big guns sooner rather than later. “Hey, coat-boy!”
“What now?!” The thief asked irritably, stopping in his tracks and shooting another glare back at his teammate...
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