Being around people who weren’t trying to kill them turned out to be just what a whole lot of the [Adventurers] needed.
But not Tessa.
“I have never been so glad to pass through an [Instance Boundary],” she said from the comfortable inside of the [Dragonshire’s] local dungeon.
“The air feels different in here,” Rip said. Her whiskers were standing straight out and the fur on her arms was raised.
The door behind them was still open, its arch of knotted, thorny vines marking the border between the dungeon and the relatively tranquil forest outside.
Tessa knew the twisted trees of the forest were supposed to be more menacing and harbor more threats than what they’d faced on the trip to the dungeon, but they hadn’t been the first ones pass by along the path.
They’d seen the remains of some of the monsters which had tried to intercept the earlier [Adventurers] who’d come to brave the dungeon’s depths. There were many more that were simply missing though, a fact Obby suggested was attributable to the [Shadowed Starwalkers].
“I don’t think we’re the first ones to come in here, but we’re definitely the only people in here now,” Obby said. She pointed down one of the three corridors that lead out of the cavern they were standing in.
In the darkness, bleached bones gleamed and moved.
“Oh look, it’s a bread crumb trail for [Adventurers],” Tessa said, Pillowcase’s persona rising to meet the impending mayhem.
The prospect of fighting skeletons didn’t bother her, which she knew was probably a bad sign. It wasn’t that she’d lost her capacity to be terrified. All throughout the morning, she’d been uneasy, first from the news about how much the [Second Stars] guild had grown and then simply from the sheer press of people who’d been around them.
As the founders one of the biggest guild in the town and one of the higher level local players, people had been paying a lot more attention to Tessa than she was used to, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t until she got out of the city that she understood that though.
In retrospect it wasn’t a surprise. Being around thousands of people had never been Tessa preferred method of spending her time. It wasn’t until they entered the forest and the sonic tableau around them changed that she recognized how much effort she’d been unconsciously putting into blocking everything out.
Standing in a thirty foot diameter hemisphere of dirt and roots which was lit by the blue-white glow of a few dozen tiny [Faux Fires], Tessa felt more at home and relaxed than she’d felt even when she was back on earth, in bed and watching a movie on her laptop.
Even the slowing advancing [Skeleton Warriors] didn’t change that.
“That might be me,” Pillowcase said in the privacy of their mind. “Those things look like the first tutorial training foes the Consortium tested us out on. I barely had motor control at that point and they weren’t a challenge.”
“I don’t think it’s that,” Tessa replied. “I think after last night, I’m finally starting to feel like an [Adventurer] and not a victim who got swept up into all this against her will.”
“Those things seem kind of weak,” Matt said. “Shouldn’t the things in here be higher level? I thought this place was extra dangerous?”
“It is,” Rip said. She wasn’t looking at the [Skeleton Warriors]. Her gaze was searching the ceiling of the cavern they were in.
“She’s right,” Obby said, “Those things are much too low level. They’ve got to be [Watchmen mobs].”
Tessa chuckled. Of course the dungeon wasn’t safe and friendly. That was the point of dungeons. Even knowing that the [Skeleton Warriors] were a trap though, she was still inclined to engage them and see what perils they were hiding.
“Hold on there,” Lisa said on their private channel.
“What, I wasn’t attacking,” Tessa said, checking the forward motion she’d been starting to make.
“Right,” Lisa said, without even the hint that she believed Tessa’s claim. “Let’s get into a better formation before we trigger the spiders,” she added for the others to hear.
“Spiders?” Lady Midnight asked. “Do you see them in the dark? Or smell them?”
“No, I just know how these things go. A big natural area like this? There’s definitely going to be spiders in here somewhere.”
“She’s right.” Starchild said. “This lair has the right shape to support giant spiders, but there’s no webbing. I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
“Why wouldn’t a spiders lair have web?” Lady Midnight asked.
“They could be burrowing spiders, right?” Matt asked. “They’d be hiding under the floor and waiting to eat whoever walks over them.”
“That sounds right,” Rip said, her eyes were locked on the ground ahead of them but her gaze was distant.
“Can you sense them?” Tessa asked. “Scratch that, can any of us sense them. Pillowcase’s eyes are fantastic in the dark but they’re not meant to look through solid earth.”
“I can smell a lot of different things here, but I’m not getting anything that smells like a spider,” Lisa said. “Just bones. Lots of bones.”
“Miss Rip isn’t wrong,” Starchild said. “Things are waiting the in the earth. Large things.”
“How can you tell?” Lady Midnight asked.
“[Druids] call magic from the land,” Starchild said. “I can sense things about it with a moment of concentration.”
“That’s handy,” Lisa said. “Will you be able to tell if whatever it is starts to move?”
“If I can hold my concentration, then yes,” Starchild said.
“We have [Antidote] spells to spare, right?” Tessa asked.
“Ready to cast as soon as its needed,” Lady Midnight said.
“Let’s setup in front of the door,” Lisa said. “If we need to bail, the zone line is right there.”
“I’m guessing the ‘whatever they ares’ will only attack once we aggro the skeletons,” Tessa said. “I can try to pull some of them back.”
“This would be a lot easier if Glimmerglass was with us,” Rip said.
“Which is why she isn’t,” Lisa said.
“And why the Spacers aren’t with us,” Tessa said.
“We know of five teams who’ve tried this dungeon already and none of them have gotten past the third encounter,” Lisa said. “We could have easily come in here and wiped the place with Glimmerglass’s help, but since no one’s gotten to the final boss yet, we don’t have to wait for any sort of respawn time on any of the major encounters.”
“I know,” Rip said. “If she was with us, we wouldn’t get the credit or loot for defeating the final boss and we need to learn how to work as a efficient team on our own.”
“And she’s helping out some of the lower level players,” Tessa said. “It’s great that we managed to get caught up to the right level for the town but there’s all kind of tactics and real experience that we need to work on if we’re ever going to handle things at high levels.”
“Won’t Illuthiz and her crew need to know all that too?” Rip asked.
“Eventually, yeah,” Tessa said. “Initial dungeon runs are dangerous though. We’re probably going to die repeatedly in here and I’d like to hold off on dragging the Spacers into trouble until we know what the trouble is like and how to beat it.”
“Don’t worry. We can do it,” Matt said.
“I know we can,” Rip huffed back. “I just feel bad that they’re not going to be able to share in the loot.”
Even with her limited abilities at read people, Tessa could see that Rip wasn’t feeling as brave as she tried to appear. Tessa first instinct was to chalk that up to Rip still being a kid and fear being a perfectly natural and rational response to mortal peril.
Except Rip had already faced far worse things than anything that would be waiting for them in the dungeon.
That didn’t mean she necessarily had to be fearless. People had different breaking points, and trauma responses could easily wind up being delayed and might show up in all sorts of strange forms.
Watching Rip though, Tessa didn’t think that was what she was seeing. Rip wasn’t jumping at her own imagination. She sensed something.
“Can you tell anything about the things that are underground?” Tessa asked, nodding to Rip.
“No. I can’t hear them or see them,” she said, her gaze still tracking across the room, searching for something even Rip herself probably couldn’t be sure of.
“But you can feel something, right?” Tessa asked.
“No, yeah, I can’t explain it,” Rip said. “Something just feels wrong here. Like we’re in danger even standing here.”
“This cave’s empty though,” Matt said.
“Maybe it’s not,” Obby said, stretching her arm forward with her sword pointing out into the room,
Not until she tried to pull the sword up for a swing.
The blade fell apart into five irregular pieces.
“That would have been messy,” Obby said.
“I’m pretty sure none of our healing spells could fix that,” Lady Midnight said, backing away a half step.
“They put an insta-kill trap in the first room of the dungeon?” Lisa said. Her scowl held the rage of a player who’d endured the headaches of rushed and poorly thought out designs more times than they could count.
“None of the beta testers mentioned anything about a trap like this,” Tessa said. She was curious if her armor could stand up to the invisibly fine nanowires that apparently ran like webbing across the room. With what had happened to Obby’s sword though, Tessa held that curiosity in check.
“Maybe it’s new,” Lady Midnight said. “We know that the world is changing from what the beta testers saw. The Consortium event isn’t playing out like it was supposed to at all. Maybe this is another change.”
“It’s a sucky one if so,” Rip said. Her frown wasn’t as rage filled as Lisa’s was, and her shoulders were more relaxed than they had been.
“We’re lucky you’re with us,” Tessa said. “[Archers] aren’t trap finders like [Rogues] but I think you might be developing sense. If you start feeling like you were when we got in here, let us know okay. Listening to things like that is going to save us a lot of trips to the [Heart Fire].”
“You mean when we find the next dungeon?” Rip asked.
“No. I mean in here,” Tessa said. “This is just a trap. Yeah, it’s a nasty one, but we know it’s there. No reason to turn back now. This is the kind of thing [Adventurers] eat for breakfast.”
“You can’t chop through it,” Lisa warned. “We’ll need another method of getting past it.”
“I could try to [Fracture] the nanowires?” Tessa said. She passed her mace into her off hand so she could reach towards where Obby’s sword hand been cut.
Lisa grabbed her hand before he could extend it though.
“Be careful. Those things sliced through metal effortlessly,” she said. “Put your hand out too far and we’ll literally be sewing it back onto you.”
“I have an alternative,” Starchild said and cast [Moon Dust].
As spells went, new players frequently failed to understand why [Moondust] was considered an exciting capstone spell for level 25 Druids. That it revealed invisible foes regardless of their level or magic resistance was part of it – no one liked fighting things they couldn’t see. That the dust also suppressed low level enchantments was the other part. Low level enchantments weren’t particularly dangerous, usually, so new people tended to underestimate the usefulness of suppressing them too. In the room cavern though, [Moon Dust] showed it true worth.
There were some many deadly threads strung throughout the room that when the [Moon Dust] landed on them the cavern lit up brighter than the day.
And then the threads crumbled to dust, flaking away to pieces as the [Moon Dust] robbed them of the magic needed to maintain their strength given their impossibly thin cross section.
“There,” Starchild said. “Now it should be safe for us to continue exploring.”
She moved to take a step deeper into the room but Tessa caught her and stepped in front of her just in time to intercept the blow that would have skewered the [Druid] directly through the head.
The trap was sprung, and the fight was on.