Tessa stood before the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] and could smell the death and terror that waited inside. Every sensible instinct told her to turn around and flee. Or almost every instinct.
Let’s do this, Pillowcase whispered, her voice bright with anticipation.
Tessa closed her Clothwork hand into a fist and felt Pillowcase’s strength fill it.
Yeah, let’s, she said, replying to no one but herself.
“It like they left the door open for us,” Alice said, gesturing to the decorated arch around the cave mouth which lead into the ruins.
“Monsters just inside?” Tessa asked, looking to Alice for confirmation of the guess.
“Probably just a couple at most,” Alice said. “Once we get past them, we should find the [Heart Fire] brazier. They changed dungeon design to put one of them at the start of each map so you can attune to it right after you zone in.”
“Are we going to be zoning?” Matt asked. “I don’t think we have yet, have we?”
“We should have when we left [Sky’s Edge],” Alice said. “And then again at the farm house, probably, but since it didn’t happen there, it’s probably not going to happen here either.”
“This place does seem to be more ‘real’, for lack of a better term, than the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said. “Hmm, which means we can’t rely on escaping any of the dungeon’s monsters but fleeing outside. There’s no zone line to cut them off from following us.”
“What do we do if we have to run?” Matt asked.
“Backtrack as far as you can go,” Alice said. “If you can make it out, head as far away as you can. Even if they can chase you, the dungeon’s guardians may not be willing go too far from home.”
“And we’re all going to do that?” Rip asked.
“Eventually yeah,” Tessa said. “Depending on the danger we encounter, I may need to stay behind to hold them off.
“We can’t just let you die,” Rip said.
“You can, and you will,” Pillowcase said, her tone more solid and serious than Tessa’s had been a moment prior. “If we can’t win a fight, then we have to make sure we lose as little of it as possible.
“Losing you isn’t ‘losing a little’,” Rip said.
“It is if I am going to be lost anyways,” Pillowcase said.
“But you can just respawn, can’t you?” Matt asked.
“If there’s a [Heart Fire] in there, and if it’s not surrounded by enemies,” Pillowcase said.
“We’ll take it slow, and act like we’re going for a full clear,” Alice said. “No progress on the main path until we clear any side branches that we find. That’ll prevent anything from getting behind us.”
“What if the things we kill respawn at the [Heart Fire] and then wait there for us?” Rip asked. She didn’t have an arrow drawn back but she did have one loaded into her bow and she was paying keen attention to the darkness in the cave’s mouth.
“They shouldn’t be able to,” Alice said. “The first thing we do when we get inside is find the [Heart Fire] and attune it for our use and not theirs.”
“We can do that?” Matt asked. “Can they do the same to us?”
“It never came up in the game, but I can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t be able to,’ Tessa said. “Of course to do that, they’d have to get past us, and if they can do that, then we’ll probably be dead which will mean we can ghost back to it before them anyways.”
“Let’s head in,” Alice said. “We’ve already talked about most of the likely scenarios inside. The sooner we find out which one’s we’ve got ahead of us, the sooner we can start working out plans to beat them.”
“Ok, follow me then,” Tessa said, leading her team into the ruins, despite the trepidation she felt.
Inside the cave, the found a long tunnel which stretched into the darkness.
“The game never had full darkness conditions, did it?” Tessa asked, noticing that Rip’s Elven eyesight didn’t seem quite as comprehensive as [Dark VIsion] the rest of the party shared.
“No,” Alice said. “They’d talked about adding that for immersion sake but the hassle of adding torches and personal light sources always put it pretty far down on the feature list.”
“I don’t think the standard list of gear includes a lantern,” Tessa said, peering into the darkness yet seeing the details of the tunnel easily enough. In the distance, around a corner, she thought she could see a flickering blue light, but while [Dark Vision] showed her a lot, it wasn’t great with colors.
“I’ve got a lantern!” Rip said, rummaging in her pack.
“How?” Tessa asked. “I didn’t see any for sale in the shops we visited.”
“It was in the gear I started with,” Rip said. She waved her hand over the lantern’s face and it lit. Tessa watched the light spread around them as the lantern flickered from a small spark of illumination to being bright enough to light a room. What was strange was how the light shone from the lantern.
Rather than the lantern getting brighter (and therefor more difficult to look at), it was the room itself which was providing the local illumination.
Looking down at her feet, Tessa saw that she wasn’t casting a shadow. The lantern light was somehow radiating from many different points within its sphere of effect. Tessa couldn’t quite process how that was happening, but it did make the environment easier to see than the sharp contrasts a regular lantern light would produced.
“A magic lantern. Neat,” Alice said. “We should probably check out our supplies to make sure we know what we’re carrying.”
“I think I see the [Heart Fire] up ahead,” Tessa said, and stated moving forward.
She was ready for a fight or, even more likely, an ambush. With the monsters acting more like actual creatures, it seemed almost certain that they’d set a few defenders around the [Heart Fire], both to keep it safe for their own use and because that was the most likely place where they’d be able to dine on some juicy adventurer flesh.
With her sword held in a middle guard position and her shield braced to counter any attacks, Tessa crept forward, listening intently for sounds of movement.
She didn’t hear anything, or at least nothing nearby.
Which made sense.
Everything nearby was already dead.
“What am I seeing here?” she asked as she stepped over the bodies of several weird sort-of moth-like creatures, stabbing each as she went by them.
The stabbing wasn’t strictly necessary. It was meant to help her detect if any of the [Gloom Drinkers] were either faking their condition or, worse, turning into undead versions of themselves, but it wasn’t a foolproof test. None of the moths stirred, but Pillowcase’s senses remained on high alert. The best time to spring a trap was after you’d convinced your foe that you were harmless after all, and the best defense against that was to never be convinced that you were completely safe.
“It could be set dressing,” Alice said as she picked a path through the [Gloom Drinker] bodies.
“Set dressing?” Matt asked.
“In the game, the developers would sometimes decorate rooms with dead bodies to add to the ambiance,” Tessa said. “And to hide the occasional undead ambush.”
“These are still oozing,” Rip said.
“Should I burn them to be safe?” Matt asked. He was holding Rip’s lantern in one hand, to allow her to keep both hands on her bow.
“Let’s get the [Heart Fire] attuned first,” Alice said. “A lot of mistakes become less of a problem if we have a nearby respawn point.”
Around a corner, the tunnel opened into a wide ‘entrance room’ cavern, which was surprisingly clear of [Gloom Drinker] corpses.
Pillowcase paused, letting her full senses search out waiting foes.
She could see without issue in the darkness ahead, and her hearing seemed to be far sharper than it had been. Even with those two and an inexplicably better sense of smell (inexplicable because her nose was cloth and cotton as far as she could tell), she couldn’t make out the presence of any lurking foes.
All she could see was the flickering light of the of the [Heart Fire], all she could hear was the snap and crackle of its burning, and all she could smell was blood and bile.
“No foes yet,” Pillowcase said as she stepped into the room, fully expecting to be attacked the moment she did so.
“I think the moths were setup as an early DPS check,” Alice said and then turned to Rip and Matt to explain. “DPS is short for damage per second, it’s a measure of how hard you and the party in general can hit consistently. To make sure you’re up to par for a dungeon, a lot of them will start off with an encounter that simply tests if you can do enough damage to even have a chance of getting through the tougher fights.”
“I get it, so if you can’t beat the moths, then you really have no business coming into this dungeon in the first place,” Rip said.
“Wouldn’t you find that out anyways later though?” Matt asked.
“Eventually,” Alice said. “The devs found that people weren’t as cranky if they lost a minute or two of play before they discovered that they couldn’t finish a dungeon rather than being a half hour into it before they had to give up hope.”
“Alice, could you check me on something,” Tessa asked. She was standing at the [Heart Fire] and wondering if even more had changed in the game than she’d been aware of.
“What’s wrong?” Alice asked stepping in closer to the brazier.
“I think I’m in range, but I’m not getting the option to attune the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “What am I doing wrong?”
Alice glances at the brazier, her expression turning puzzled and then wary.
“Nothing,” she said. “You’re not doing anything wrong. You can’t attune this one because it’s already attuned for our use.”
“That sounds good, but you look worried,” Matt said.
“It’s something unusual,” Alice said, “and anything unusual in a dungeon is generally dangerous.”
“Could it be a fake?” Tessa asked. “Maybe this isn’t a real [Heart Fire] and if we try to use it we’ll wind up in a prison realm instead?”
“That can happen?” Rip didn’t bother to hide her shock.
“In some places,” Alice said. “There’s usually some warning though.”
“Like a pile of dead bugs?” Matt asked.
“No, more like protection runes that define the area which is under the control of whoever’s put the redirect on the [Heart Fire],” Alice said.
“I didn’t see any runes in the tunnel,” Rip said.
“There weren’t any visible ones,” Pillowcase said. “None in here either.”
“It’s a low level dungeon, or at least it’s supposed to be,” Alice said. “They didn’t usually start hitting you with trap dungeons until level 20 or so, and even those weren’t too bad. You’d respawn in a prison, but the prisons are all empty and the doors are easy to knock down.”
“Maybe they’re just taking things easy on us here too then?” Rip asked. “Give us the first [Heart Fire] for free?”
“That doesn’t make sense with the moths in the tunnel though,” Pillowcase said. “Anyone who was defeated by them would be able to come here and respawn, and if they really weren’t able to fight through the [Gloom Drinkers] then they’d be stuck with no one option for leaving.”
“A design that traps players in the dungeon and doesn’t let them flee isn’t the kind of thing a developer would do, but it’s exactly what a real dungeon maker would design for,” Alice said, the thoughts that were spinning through her head deepening her frown the more connections she made.
“The smart play would be to leave and compare notes with Aiemethia and Zibby,” Tessa said. “They didn’t mention the [Gloom Drinkers] but if the moths are set dressing, then they might have overlooked them.”
“I just asked them,” Alice said. “We’re telepathic now, remember? They didn’t see any moth creatures when they came through, and they didn’t think to check the [Heart Fire] before they went on.”
“So this is a trap then?” Matt asked.
In the far distance, Pillowcase heard a dim cry and the sound of a blade striking steel.
“Or someone else is in here now too,” she said before turning to confer with Alice.
A shared nod was all it took.
They had answers to get and the only path to get them led onwards and inwards.