“Three days without a Fond’sar attack.” Thana smirked as the trio made their way down the mountainside. “Not bad, I’d say.”
Franclin grimaced down at the disk in his hand. The chatter between the Fond’sar commander and the field leader, Sefferon, had continued to focus around the efforts to retrieve the realmship as well as keeping tabs on the king and his allies. Nothing had been mentioned about Barn and Franclin, which was… Both nice and a bit concerning. On one hand, the two of them weren’t being discussed. On the other hand, it was possible that the Fond’sar had caught on, and were trying to lull them into a false sense of security.
“Quit it.” Thana turned and smacked Franclin on the back of the head. “You’re worrying too much.”
“And here I thought I was the one who always told you to worry less.” Franclin muttered.
“I guess we’re both growing and developing.” Thana shrugged. “Come on, this is fun!”
Franclin just couldn’t understand her. When faced with an angel assault that could have wiped out the continent, she was willing to sit back and relax while the Realm Mages did who-knew-what. But when the Fond’sar were trying to kill them, she was ready to charge into battle against ghosts.
“This is most certainly not fun.” Barn spoke up from the ground, where he trundled along, far shorter than either of the humans. “We have Fond’sar, Dragon Hunters, and who-knows-what-else on our tail.”
“I second what the dwarf says.” Franclin sighed. “This can’t go over well.”
“Until we wind up dead, I’m going to keep moving.” Thana seemed unperturbed. “How much longer until we get to the fortress?”
Barn gestured forward. “The Ific fortress should be only half a mile or so ahead of us.” After a moment, Barn turned to look up at them. He now wore the robes of a wanderer, having stashed his clerical outfit underneath a rock the day earlier. “I must warn you, this will not likely be a pleasant experience. Dwarven fortresses are often designed to make other species feel unwelcome.”
“As are most fortresses. Or towns, really.” Franclin tried to make light of the situation. In front of him, the mountains stretched out for miles. The path that they were following led down the side, winding into the trees and vanishing from sight amidst the glorious pine forests of the hills. Eventually, the mountains would give way to the open plains that led down to the Inland Ocean, but that would have taken at least a day’s hard ride. “Elven cities have huge doorways to make everyone else feel short, dwarven cities have short doorways so other species have to stoop, humans just put up statues of themselves so everyone knows how great they are, aqahartis build everything underwater-”
“Avians just ignore you.” Thana chuckled. “Come on, how bad can it be?”
Given the haunting look in Barn’s eyes, Franclin assumed that it could be quite bad, indeed. In the distance, down the mountainside, Franclin caught a glimpse of the entrance to the city. Basalt rose from the mountainside in the midst of a group of trees, where several statues stood guard. Franclin slowly took a deep breath. Here, they would meet another agent, a willing member of the resistance against the Fond’sar. And then… Maybe things could finally start moving forward.
Barn closed his eyes as they came to the fork in the path that led to the fortress entrance. Though it wasn’t a wide or well-traveled path, it was still paved with granite cobblestones dredged up from the depths of the ground. A true dwarven fortress could do no less.
The Ific fortress, if Barn wasn’t mistaken, was one of the smaller fortresses in Taninor. The Ific family itself contained only a few hundred dwarves, a far cry from the thousands that some of the larger families sported. The path they were on wound across the mountain and to a small grove of trees, where the gate rose from the mountainside.
The gate itself was just as ornate as Barn would have expected. Obsidian formed an elaborate frame, etched with scenes of conquest and victory over goblins and other underground nightmares. Bars of pure steel hung on hinges that looked able to withstand an entire army. Two dwarven guards stood tall, one on each side, with battle axes at the ready. The two individuals crossed their aces ceremoniously as the trio approached.
“You come to the fortress of Lorific.” Both dwarves spoke in unison. “State your purpose.”
“We are weary travelers who wish to see the great fortress.” Barn walked forward and bent down, prostrating himself on the ground. “I am a pilgrim from Dirnor who despises his heritage and once more seeks to be united with the Internal Flame. With my great wealth, I have hired these mercenaries for protection through deadly hills, as I seek enlightenment underground.”
The dwarves seemed to hesitate. Barn couldn’t blame them one bit. It was their sworn duty to evaluate who was entering their fortress, to ensure the safety of their king. Overhead, Barn caught glimpses of latent enchantments flickering over the doorway.
“Is this man really as rich as he says?” One of the guards directed the question and Thana and Franclin.
In answer, Thana held up her hand and cast the Dragon Hunter spell, proudly displaying her status. Barn groaned and tried to wish the event out of existence. Thana was an excellent fighter, but she hadn’t yet quite grasped the concept of what they were dealing with.
“If you think a Hunter is cheap, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Hunter.” The dwarves inclined their heads, then turned to Franclin. “Are you a Hunter as well.”
“I lack that description, unfortunately.” Franclin crossed his arms. “Doesn’t mean I’m not good.”
The dwarves glanced at each other, then nodded. “Dragon Hunters are to be allowed inside at all times. Once inside, rest assured that you will be watched.” Barn nodded and climbed back to his feet, feeling a bit odd when the dwarves didn’t move. After a moment, one of them prompted him. “There is a toll, of course.”
“Of course.” Barn nodded, as if it was obvious. Some of the larger fortresses charged a toll to enter, but most of the smaller ones couldn’t afford to turn people away. Apparently overstating his wealth hadn’t been the best idea. “Thana?”
Thana nodded and reached into her pockets, pulling out a handful of coins. She handed them to Barn, who handed them to the nearest guard. Slowly, the dwarves stepped back, away from the entrance. One of them waved his hand, causing the gate to slowly swing inward.
Inside, flickering torches led down into the ground, deep into the mountain. Barn nodded in thanks and swept forward, making his way into the tunnel. Both Franclin and Thana had to duck slightly as they made their way into the depths, highlighting the subtle ways that dwarves could make it difficult for other species.
Almost immediately, it became apparent that the fortress was far less wealthy than others. Mainstream dwarven fortresses would have staircases that went down at a constant angle, a straight shot that you could fire an arrow down. Here, the staircase wound down, a twisting, spiral staircase that made it far harder for enemies to penetrate.
It took nearly fifteen minutes to descend the stairs. Barn estimated that they were around five hundred feet below the ground, deep enough to be considered appropriate but not so deep as to exhaust their resources trying to maintain it. As they reached the landing at the bottom, they slowly stepped out into the first dwarven fortress that Barn had visited in years.
The landing was in the side of a cave, about fifty feet above a boiling and raging pool of lava. The cave itself was enormous, hundreds of feet high and thousands of feet across. In the center, perhaps a quarter-mile away, the fortress itself sat, suspended on four pillars above the magma. Several more bridges stretched off of that, leading to deeper parts of the cave, likely sinkshafts or other nearby fortresses.
Two more dwarven guards turned to look at them, confirmed that they couldn’t have fought their way through the upper gate, and nodded. Barn nodded back, then set out across the bridge. Though the bridge was nearly twenty feet wide, he found himself walking as close to the center of the expanse as possible. There were no guard rails, only a drop into the burning liquid. He knew that he technically had the protection of the Elementals, but he wasn’t in a great hurry to test out just how powerful that protection was.
“Now you both look like you’re going to pee yourselves.” Thana chuckled and walked up next to him. “Come on. I’m a girl and I’m doing better than you two.”
“You’re a girl that faked her death by having her phoenix blow up a mountainside and cause an avalanche.” Franclin muttered. “Doesn’t count if you’re a Hunter.”
“If you get to flirt with me, I get to pull the gender card.” Thana wagged her hips back and forth before grinning. “You actually haven’t done much of that this trip.”
“That’s because I’m focused on staying alive.” Franclin’s voice was tense. “Thana, please.”
Thana quieted down and resorted to clomping her boots harder than strictly necessary. It didn’t take long for the group to reach the fortress itself, where they walked through a third set of gates. Yet another set of guards glanced at them, more or less ignoring them at this point. All around them, dwarven architecture rose high above the street. Dwarves bustled back and forth, at home under the stone. Everything was made with black obsidian, massive slabs instead of cobblestone.
Thana walked up next to Barn and glanced down at him. “Alright, where are we meeting this contact?”
Barn frowned and nodded forward. The fortress had a massive wall surrounding the edge of the platform, preventing people from being haphazardly thrown into the lava. Inside that, the Ific city rose up, buildings and shops that allowed for casual business. Inside that, at the very center, the castle rose tall, nearly scraping the ceiling of the cave.
“He’s a bartender, near the castle itself.” Barn pointed in the rough direction. “It’s called the Fiery Mug, if I remember right.”
“Seems original.” Thana remarked sarcastically.
Barn ignored her and stalked forward. Mountain dwarves could hide in the cities of the plains dwarves easily enough, as they could pass for a somewhat shorter individual. Plains dwarves, though, stood out like a sore thumb in mountain fortresses. Barn stood a head taller than any of the surrounding dwarves, making it painfully obvious that he wasn’t supposed to be there. More than a few passing dwarves cast nasty looks in his direction, making him walk just a bit faster.
He didn’t see a single other plains dwarf, and only a smattering of other species. An aqahartis swept through the crowd, a handful of dark elves stood behind stalls, but that was it. The ambient red light from the magma made the entire place just feel grim. Of course, Barn had come to associate underground locations with the Fond’sar, which likely didn’t help matters at all.
Barn and the king had gone over the maps of their informants dozens of times. As such, it wasn’t hard to find the Fiery Mug, a small pub tucked away in an alley near the castle wall. In fact, Barn was fairly certain that the establishment shared a wall with the castle wall. He glanced back and forth as they walked up, looking for anyone intent on killing or mugging hapless travelers.
“Here.” Barn nodded and pushed the door open, which was short enough that Franclin and Thana both had to crouch down. “Come on.”
Neither Dragon Hunter said a word, even as they walked inside, to a shop with ceilings so low that their heads scraped the stone when they stood up fully. Thankfully, there was no one else was visiting the bar, save the bartender himself.
“Welcome.” The dwarf dipped his head, a confused smile on his face. “I won’t turn away business, but I’m not used to seeing outsiders come this far into the city.”
It was a test, a code that the king had devised years earlier. “I never like to sample the food from the front of the city. It’s always best to find the places only a local would go.”
With that, the dwarf’s face fell. “You must be Highsand Barn.”
“And you must be Klorific.” Barn inclined his head. “I’ve heard great things about you.”
“And I, you.” Klorific glanced at the two Dragon Hunters. “You have some powerful companions.”
“We fight a powerful enemy.” Barn sighed. “Do you have somewhere secure we can talk?”
Klorific nodded and ran his hand along the surface of the bar. The door slammed shut and locked tightly. After a moment, part of the rear wall rotated out of the way, revealing a secret room. Klorific held out his hand, gesturing at the gap. Barn happily trotted through, with Franclin and Thana following. Klorific jogged around the bar and joined them, where he pressed a rune on the wall to made the door swing shut again.
Barn glanced around the small space as Klorific dropped into a stone chair. The room was tiny, only a few dozen feet on every side. The walls were covered in strange runes and maps, detailing dozens of dwarven fortresses. The only other features of the room were a few chairs and a small, circular stone table. Klorific ran his hands across the table, causing small totems to pop up from hidden compartments and begin glowing.
“And there we go.” Klorific nodded after a few seconds. He gestured to another of the stone chairs. “Please, have a seat. I’m sorry I don’t have sufficient furniture for your companions.”
Barn settled into another of the chairs and glanced up at Franclin and Thana, who, while they would certainly have fit into the chair, were large enough that it would have been quite awkward. They just shrugged and nodded at Barn to continue.
“Both have faced far worse conditions, I think.”
“Haven’t we all?” Klorific smiled softly, then sighed. “What poor tidings do I owe to this visit?”
“Actually, the exact opposite.” Barn turned and nodded at Franclin. “We have something for you.”
Franclin reached into the pouch where he kept the disks. As he pulled one out, Klorific’s eyes narrowed.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“That depends entirely on what you think it is.” Franclin smirked. “If you think it’s a long-range communications device, then…”
Klorific snatched the disk out of Franclin’s hands. He turned it over in his palms, an odd grin on his face.
“Someone actually did it.” He breathed. “Someone actually managed to do it. One of the wanderers, I presume?”
“Garnisic.” Barn nodded. “The King of Elsinor was able to convince him to build it, more or less on a dare. It’s really quite remarkable. Just make sure to keep it at least three feet from your mouth, or they’ll be able to hear you.”
Klorific nodded and turned to the wall. He pressed a small rune, causing another panel to slide aside. Without allowing Barn to see in, he shoved the disk inside and closed the panel.
“It will be safe in there.” He forced a smile. “At least until we are done with this conversation. Have you been able to listen in on Fond’sar communications?”
Barn nodded. “The primary Fond’sar only have two disks, one in the field and one in command. I don’t recognize the voice of the commander, he must be higher than I’ve been allowed to meet. The person in the field is someone named Sefferon.”
“Sefferon.” Klorific rolled the name around for a moment. “It sounds familiar. If it’s who I’m thinking of, he holds the rank of Rail.”
Barn winced. “That’s not good.”
Franclin held up a hand. “Can someone translate for the non-Fond’sar members here?”
“Right.” Barn turned slightly. “There are three individuals in the Fond’sar with the rank of Rail. They serve as high-level executioners and assassins, more or less.”
“They’re no one to mess with.” Klorific sighed and nodded. “I’ll keep my ear to the device every free moment I have. With such high-level communications, perhaps we can finally discover a way to topple their tyranny.”
“That would be our hope.” Barn nodded. “We’re distributing these disks to all our allies across Calsin. Perhaps, one day, this network will become our own.”
“I look forward to that day.” Klorific smiled and mimed hefting a glass. After a moment, he sighed. “Well, I don’t mean to rush you out, but we should keep this meeting as short as possible. Several Fond’sar agents have entered this fortress in the last several days, from the Ofir and Lice fortresses. If any of them enter this bar, we could be in trouble.”
Barn’s eyes narrowed. “Why is that?” Nothing that the Fond’sar were interested in could be good news.
Klorific shrugged. “There’s been some unusual seismic activity near one of the sinkshafts. A bunch of the locals think there’s something coming up from the deep, and though King Lorific isn’t taking it seriously, the Fond’sar feel compelled to investigate everything that seems somewhat out of place.”
Barn frowned. “You don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about?”
Klorific shook his head. “Every time someone sneezes they think it could be a new controller. I seriously doubt-”
“They think it’s a controller?” Barn cut in. “They think that one is here?”
“Like I said, they investigate everything.” Klorific held up his hands in a mock surrender. “I seriously don’t think it’s worth your time.”
Behind him, Franclin tapped the pommel of his sword. “Is a controller something to worry about? Compared to the realmship in terms of potential importance to the Fond’sar, what are we looking at?”
Barn took a deep breath. “The Fond’sar have been after controllers since the dawn of their creation. They would do anything to get their hands on one, far more than the effort they made to get the realmship. I encountered one not long ago, and the only reason the Fond’sar failed was because they became too ambitious.”
“Then we head that way.” Franclin took a deep breath and steeled his shoulders. “We head to the sinkshaft, we find it, and we kill it.”
“Oh, no.” Barn puffed out his chest and slowly turned around. “If there’s a controller here…” He paused for dramatic effect. “We’re building a resistance. We’re going to recruit it.”
Thana glanced back and forth as the individuals stepped out of the bar. Her armor clicked against the obsidian, reminding everyone around of their presence. Barn had tried to convince them not to wear their armor into the city, but neither Hunter had liked that idea. Both of them had their helmets retracted, allowing others to see their faces, but Thana wasn’t about to allow anyone else to get the drop on her.
“Lead the way, master dwarf.” Thana held out her hand.
Barn glanced up at her, an odd look in his eye. The dwarf set out after a moment, though, with Franclin trailing closely behind. Thana forced a smile to her face and did her best to look eager as they made their way into the city.
It hadn’t been an accident that she had tracked down Franclin in Rotgor. Of course, everything since that point had been a bit of a whirlwind. She had never imagined that the Fond’sar truly did exist, and getting to take a crack at the group was an opportunity that she couldn’t turn down. And yet…
And yet, she had been traveling through Donisil several weeks earlier, on a mission from the Hunter Council, when she had been attacked. She had nearly been defeated, nearly slaughtered, by a man who looked identical to Franclin, just wearing his older, damaged armor. She had been the one to alert the Hunter Council to the threat, believing that he had been corrupted by the angel magic. And, subsequently, she was the one who had realized just how wrong she had been.
“You look lost.” Franclin glanced at her.
She snapped back to reality. It was a rare moment for her, but something that she had been doing more and more. What had happened? Why were there two versions of Franclin? And how was she going to rectify her mistake? Franclin was annoying, but he was a solid Hunter. And if he got killed because of her rashness, it wasn’t going to reflect well on her. And there would still be a crazed murderer on the loose.
“You look a little too excited to be diving into a dwarven sinkshaft.” Thana countered. “Could it be that you’re enjoying the prospect of facing your problems head-on rather than in the shadows?”
Franclin turned and ground his teeth together so loudly that Thana could hear them. She snickered, then went back to walking. She was right, though, she was certain of it. Franclin was petrified, more so than any Hunter she had met in her entire life. It was strange, in a way. After her time traveling with them, she was fairly certain that she understood everything that they were facing. So why was he so terrified?
Unfortunately, answers remained elusive as they made their way across the city. She did her best to keep an eye out of danger as they walked, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Civilians living their lives under the oppressive thumb of the dwarven emperor in his castle high above them. A few traders, trying to sell both legal goods and more illicit substances. Young children, old men and women, everything you would normally see in any city across Calsin.
It took far longer than she would have suspected to wind their way across their city, to the long bridge that stretched out across the lava. Once again, both Franclin and Barn walked as closely to the middle of the bridge as they could manage. Once again, Thana taunted them as they walked, though inside her head, she desperately tried to figure out what was going on. Bridges were perfect places for ambushes, but… They had two Hunters and a dwarf with the protection of the Elementals. What was there to fear?
After a few moments of pondering, Thana turned her mind back to the problem itself. Okay, they were afraid. What could possibly attack them? And how could that attack take place? The bridge they were on was longer than the entrance bridge, somewhere between a quarter and half a mile. At the center, it would take nearly ten seconds for anyone to reach them using standard speed spells, which was plenty of time to prepare. If they fell from the ceiling, the group would have about six seconds of warning. If attackers came from the lava…
But that was ridiculous. Franclin had managed to survive a brief dip in lava, but no one could survive lying in wait. They were in the safest position that they could possibly be in. Whatever Barn and Franclin were afraid of, it wasn’t going to be as bad as the Hunter Council if they were ever summoned before the dark and mysterious group.
It took several long minutes to cross the bridge, during which nothing at all seemed to happen of any importance. On the far side, the raised stones simply led up to a small hole in the chasm wall, no more than a dozen feet high and equally as wide. Franclin drew his sword as they entered, while Barn’s mouth moved in a silent prayer. Thana sighed and walked forward, taking the lead. She glanced back and forth at the walls, taking in the situation.
Unlike the smooth walls of a natural cave, the walls here were rough and jagged, showing the marks of a thousand pickaxes. This had been hewn from the ground by hand, not an easy task by any means. She frowned and glanced back and forth, frowning.
“Why is no one else here?” She crossed her arms and glanced back at Barn. “This obviously took a lot of work to build. I assume it’s the mine that provides for the fortress, so where is everyone?”
“That’s actually… Not quite correct.” Barn sighed and pushed forward, stalking down the tunnel. “The mines that actually support the fortress probably branch off of the tunnels that lead to the other dwarven fortresses. This tunnel leads to a sinkshaft, which means it probably hasn’t seen use in centuries.”
Thana frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Someone obviously didn’t pay attention in the Academy.” Franclin smirked, a smile gracing his face once more now that they weren’t over the lava. “Sinkshafts haven’t been used since the Dwarven Civil War.”
“Once again, not quite correct.” Barn sighed, correcting the Hunter. “Dwarves continued to use sinkshafts until a declaration by Jorilic the Gold that their continued use was too dangerous. That was… Oh, three hundred or so years ago. Of course, a few places still use them anyway, but not many.”
“Right.” Thana nodded slowly. “So what exactly is a sinkshaft and why were they considered so dangerous?”
Barn took a beep breath and pulled himself upright. “According to dwarven theory, Calsin exists as ten layers. The tenth and highest layer is the surface, the ninth is the soil, and the eighth is the bedrock. The Eighth Layer, of course, is where dwarven fortresses are built.”
“Okay?” Thana frowned. “And?”
“The bottom of the Eighth Layer is extraordinarily hot, and often consists of magma.” Barn shrugged. “It’s impossible to just tunnel down through it, making the Seventh Layer almost impossible to reach. Thus, sinkshafts. Constructs designed to drop down through the bottom of the Eighth Layer and into the seventh.”
Franclin frowned in thought as well. “I remember hearing reports when I was in the Academy. It’s pretty nasty down there, right?”
Barn nodded. “Gemstones are as abundant as gravel, but… The monsters down there eat stone to survive. Flesh is a luxury to them, a glorious taste that they happily consume. While most of these creatures can’t survive for long in the Eighth layer, they can last long enough to destroy a city. Not to mention that if the sinkshaft were to rupture, it could dump magma down into the Seventh Layer, ruining the precious gemstones, or causing an eruption that could destroy cities as well.”
Thana tapped her chin in thought. “Has anyone made it lower than the seventh layer?”
Barn sighed in defeat. “Yes, once. Back before the Civil War, someone took a sinkshaft and drove it down through the Seventh Layer and into the sixth. That’s actually where we found the Crysilin, and subsequently drove them to extinction.”
“Oh.” Thana paused. Nearly everyone in Calsin had heard of the Crysilin at some point in time. An entire sentient race of creatures, hunted to extinction because they were made from living crystals that the dwarves could use. “Interesting.”
“Not nearly as much as it could have been.” Barn shrugged and continued walking forward.
Thana decided not to voice any more concerns, and simply followed the dwarf as he made his way down the tunnel. It wasn’t difficult, as it ran perfectly straight into the distance. In fact, Thana suspected that the only reason she couldn’t see what was at the end was because it was so far away, though she could see a single point of light flickering in the darkness.
The only lighting came from glowing stones set into the wall, creating an odd sort of twilight. The deeper they went, the more eerie it became, until the light from the surging pool of magma had completely faded. Thana felt her own breath coming in shorter gasps as she tried to stay focused. In the darkness, an invisibility spell would be easy to miss, even one that hadn’t been put together well. To sate her own uneasiness, she began sending out pulses of detection magic, making it at least a bit harder for anyone to hide from them.
Eventually, the light at the end of the tunnel began to get brighter. She felt a smile crack her face as the light from magic torches began to blaze brilliantly, casting its own light into the deep tunnel. Finally, after close to half an hour of walking, they came out into a room that could only be described as impressive.
Above them, a proper ceiling didn’t seem to exist, as a shaft simply rose through the stone towards the surface. She suspected that it had been covered up at the top, but it was high enough that she couldn’t see any distinct surface. The floor itself extended outward to form a circle roughly a hundred feet across. The exact center of the floor housed a rough metal dome, made from steel and rivets that had been pounded together to form an odd contraption indeed. A door sat in the side, which appeared to have been sealed shut with both magic and fire.
“Well, now.” Thana slowly walked up to the door and held up her hand, palm facing the metal. She then activated a latent enchantment, which caused a number of shimmering runes to appear in the air just above the back of her hand. “Let’s see. A lethal field that will kill anyone who touches the doorknob, fire spells, ice spells, restraint spells, alarm spells. They really don’t want anyone getting through here, do they?”
“No, I suspect not.” Barn walked up to the door and paused. “I presume you can scan for latent enchantments and spells with that device?”
Thana nodded and glanced at Franclin. “His armor can do the same thing. Anything you want us to look for?”
Barn glanced back and forth. “Klorific mentioned seismic activity. Can you scan to see if any of the latent enchantments might have been damaged anywhere? If the Fond’sar have been investigating here, they’ll have already found a way through.”
Thana nodded and started walking around the dome, slowly and purposefully. The runes changed as she moved, updating with her position. Franclin began doing the same thing, moving around the opposite side. Nothing seemed to jump out at her, just the same standard sets of enchantments that would be expected from something so heavily guarded.
At least, until the runes began to flicker more rapidly, strobing through a massive series of colors and shapes in a blur that made her head hurt.
“Franclin?” She glanced away from the runes. “Are you getting the same thing?”
“I assume so.” Franclin’s voice came back. Though she couldn’t see him, she could tell how nervous he was by the tremble that marked his tone. “Do you see anything you recognize?”
Thana frowned. “Nothing that-”
Her voice was cut off by a powerful screech as the dome simply rose up into the air, flashing up the shaft like a bird. In its place, a large hole, roughly twenty feet across, sat in the middle of the stone. Of course… That wasn’t the part she was concerned about.
No, the concerning part was the group of minotaurs that stood around the hole. Each at least nine feet tall, they were far different from anything she had seen before. Dwarves use minotaurs as slaves, that was well enough known, but these were plated in armor that shimmered with more latent enchantments than even the finest suit of Hunter armor.
Despite the entrance, the minotaurs didn’t move. Steam hissed from their joins, smoke curled up from their nostrils. Small crossbows on their arms made loud clicking noises as bolts were loaded through some sort of mechanical system. Spells on other parts of their bodies slowly charged up.
“Franclin?” Thana took a deep breath. “You ever seen anything like this before?”
“Nope.” Franclin actually sounded confident again. “But I bet I can kill them.”
“By the Elementals.” Barn’s voice shook. “This is a controller, then.”
“Can it be reasoned with?” Thana began activating her own enchantments and took a slow step forward. She addressed the nearest minotaur, dipping her head. “We mean you no harm.”
Faster than her eyes could track, the minotaur lashed out. A sword erupted from its forearm, extending its reach by a yard. Xenophile enchantments along Thana’s neck activated, allowing her helmet to expand from confinement and snap into existence around her head. The blade connected with the helmet before it finished deploying, snapping her head backwards and throwing her across the room.
She came crashing down to the ground several dozen feet away. Enchantments in her feet activated, bringing her back to an upright position. More enchantments locked her feet to the stone, giving her a far stronger stance than she would have been allowed otherwise.
Two of the minotaurs charged forward without hesitation, pounding across the room with steam and smoke belching from their metal bodies. The one on her left brought up its arm and unloosed a series of crossbow bolts, firing them in far more rapid succession than she would have liked. Meanwhile, the second minotaur simply snorted, sending out a concussive blast in her direction.
Thana didn’t even have to react as her enchantments did the work for her. A cocoon of stone rose from the ground and surrounded her in the blink of an eye. The deadly bolts bounced off with a series of loud pings, which was almost immediately followed by a resounding explosion that blew the stone off her body and tossed her backwards once more.
This time, though, she was ready.
She drew her sword even as she fell through the air, and landed in a perfect stance. The minotaurs both leapt forward, fire flickering across their metal bodies. It was a move that she had seen before in creatures so large and powerful that they didn’t fear harm. If they physically slammed into their opponent and disabled them, as long as they weren’t disabled more, it was a win.
At least, in theory.
Thana threw herself forward, ducking to the side as the monsters plowed forward. As she spun out of the way, she slung her sword with all her might, enhancing the strength of the swing with a number of powerful enchantments. Metal struck against metal as the minotaur barreled past her, eliciting a loud ping.
As she finished her spin, she took a deep breath and tried to analyze what damage she had just done. Both minotaurs came out of their charge and spun to face her, steam once more pouring from their joints. A large scratch stood out on the metal of Minotaur 1, but that was all the damage she had done.
Both minotaurs drew to a stop, pausing for a brief moment. In that instant, it struck her: They had to recharge. Whatever magic was fueling the monsters, they could only go for so long before being forced to stop and regain their energy. A smile cracked across her face, and she flexed her fingers. Maybe they would be beatable after all.
Minotaur 1 lunged forward, tearing across the ground in a blur. Minotaur 2 hung back, though Thana could tell that it was primed and loaded. It was waiting to see where she would go. Well, that meant it was time to shine.
She jumped upward, activating several enchantments up and down her legs. The ground rose up with her, carrying her on a pillar that erupted from the stone floor. Minotaur 1 slammed into the pillar just beneath her feet, smashing it to smithereens. As her perch crumbled, Thana saw Minotaur 2 lurch forward, aiming for the kill.
With a snap of her fingers, a sharp wall rose in front of her, a stone barrier several feet thick. It cracked nearly in two as the minotaur struck it, but the wall held, which was something. Steam hissed as both creatures paused for a breath, and she held out her hands. Minotaur 1 stood fifteen feet from her, ready to charge as soon as it filled up again. Minotaur 2 was only five feet from her, though it was hidden behind the stone wall. The only features in the area was the stone wall, the wall of the cave nearly fifty feet away, and the sinkshaft itself around forty feet in the other direction.
Enchantments danced across her palms as she cast her human magic through the dwarven gemstones. In response, sigils appeared across the ground in a rough circle around Minotaur 1. They lit up with a burning energy, casting beams of light up to the ceiling so high above. The minotaur winced and covered its eyes, then began to howl in pain. Thana grinned and turned back to Minotaur 2. The prison sigils would keep Minotaur 1 occupied for long enough.
With that, she flicked her fingers again, causing three green sigils to appear across the ground nearby: One around twenty feet off to her right, one just a few feet to her left, and on almost directly in front of her feet.
The moment that the sigils were in place, she waved her hands, causing the stone wall to sink back into the ground. Minotaur 2 brought up its arm, releasing a flurry of crossbow bolts. Enchantments in Thana’s helmet activated, causing a wind to sweep up around her body, flinging the bolts away.
The creature roared and jumped forward. The sigil just in front of Thana’s feet activated, causing a pillar to erupt from the ground, striking the minotaur on the side of its chest. Metal crunched inward, eliciting a powerful roar. In pain, the minotaur stumbled to Thana’s left, where the second sigil activated.
A resounding crack shook the room as a boulder burst from the stone, smashing into the monster and tossing it up into the air. Thana held her breath, hoping that she had calculated correctly. She smiled once more as she saw the monster coming down exactly on top of her third sigil. The glowing shape activated, and a stone spike burst from the floor. It drove through the metal with a loud crunch, spearing the minotaur through the chest. The creature roared, shaking the room, before the noise drifted off into a whimper and it went limp, dangling from the spike several feet off the ground.
Thana grinned and spun back to Minotaur 1, which had fallen to its knees. Smoke poured from every gap in the metal armor that it wore as it desperately tried to escape. That was the beauty of the trap, of the sigils that she had designed herself. If you didn’t struggle at all, it would be pathetically easy to simply walk free from the confinement of the sigils. If you fought the initial pain, though, you would soon find yourself in an ever-growing world of torture.
Before the creature could find a way to escape, Thana cast a sigil onto the ground underneath Minotaur 1. She activated it almost immediately, causing a gout of lava to erupt up from the stone and cover the minotaur. It continued to bellow as the lava was sucked back into the ground, pulling the creature with it.
With her own creatures gone, Thana turned to face the rest of the room. Highsand Barn stood to the side, apparently invisible to the raging creatures. Meanwhile, Franclin was attempting to keep four of them at bay, and more or less failing miserably. As she watched, he ran up the sides of the cave wall, conjuring small pockets of ice to use as footholds. With that, he just started racing along the wall, skirting away from the monsters.
Thana sighed and flicked her hands, forming another series of sigils along the wall near her. She didn’t even have to call out to him, he simply bolted in her direction, flying along the side of the cave like his life depended on it. Which… It kinda did. The four minotaurs charged after him, firing bolts and fireballs at him in a desperate bid to take him down. Ice formed out of midair and intercepted all the projectiles, but Thana suspected that it would simply take something a bit more powerful to be able to break through.
In any event, it didn’t take long for Franclin to come racing above her sigils, continuing to stay above the minotaurs. The creatures raced past, activating the glowing symbols one by one. Lava gushed out from the wall, spike shot up from the floor, boulders fell from the sky. Within a few moments, all the minotaurs were dead or dying. Franclin jumped back down to the ground, a bit red in the face, slowly walking over to her.
“That fancy new armor doesn’t seem to be serving you that well.” She glanced at the shiny blue metal, feeling a twinge of jealousy. He had destroyed his own suit, and they had just rewarded him with a new one. Oh, well. It wasn’t her place to confront the Hunter Council about their decisions. “I’d be willing to switch if you were interested.”
“I’ll pass.” Franclin glared up at her for a moment before turning to Barn. “And I think we’d both like to have some of your magical protection.”
Barn shrugged. “Alas, it is not mine to give.”
“So what are these things?” Thana walked up to the minotaur that she had killed on the spike. Blood and oil dripped down onto the ground, mingling in an odd, browning pool. “You sounded like you’d seen these before.”
“I have.” Barn sighed and stepped forward, gazing up at the dead beast. “Only once in person, though I’ve seen dozens of sketches and paintings.”
“I didn’t even think it was possible to infuse this many enchantments into something.” Thana slowly held up her hand, activating her scanning enchantments. Once again, the glowing runes blurred past far faster than she could track. “I’m seeing dozens, if not hundreds. And they’re all infused into the metal itself.” She turned and frowned at Barn. “One enchantment per object. Isn’t that the limit? We Hunters can get away with it because we enchant smaller pieces of metal and gemstones and then press it all together, but this…” She shrugged. “This is actually showing multiple enchantments on the same piece of metal.”
Barn just sighed and stroked his beard. “There’s a reason that the Fond’sar want to get their hands on controllers.”
Thana felt her blood begin to chill. The Hunters had learned to cheat the system, but the complexity of armor that they could create with multiple enchantments per piece of metal would make them unparalleled warriors. “You’re saying that a controller created these things?”
“I’m saying that the only minotaurs I’ve seen like this were created by a controller, yes.” Barn nodded. “Please believe me when I say that they’re nothing to mess around with.”
“I believe you.” Thana breathed. After a few long moments, she shrugged and nodded at the hole in the ground. “So, downward we go?”
“Actually, I think not.” Barn shook his head. “If this is a controller, and I’m seeing more and more evidence to suggest that it is, the Fond’sar will have dozens of enchantments watching this place. The battle that we just endured will likely have set off dozens of warnings across the city.” He nodded at Thana. “I need you to stand guard. Prevent anyone from following us.”
Thana nodded shortly. She was better in a fight against the minotaurs, obviously, but… Franclin obviously wasn’t going to be any help at all when it came to directly fighting the Fond’sar. “I’ll do it.”
“Good.” Barn slowly walked up to the edge of the hole, where a small platform rose into the air, powered by more simple dwarven enchantments. Both he and Franclin stepped on board, where Barn gave a short wave. “Be safe, Thana. I expect to find both you and the city intact by the time we return.”
Thana nodded and flashed a crooked grin. With that, Barn and Franclin dropped down into the depths, vanishing below. With a screech, the dome fell back out of the sky, sealing the entrance shut and nearly crushing Thana in the process.
With that, she slowly turned back around to face the entrance. Slowly, she raised her hand and snapped her fingers, causing a sharp wall of stone to rise up and seal the tunnel. Once that was done, she began casting sigils across the stone, ensuring that nothing would be able to get through it without a fight.
She was still in the process of placing the sigils when a small red light began to flash inside her helmet. She frowned, curious what that meant. It was a warning light, an indicator that someone was nearby. Slowly, she reached up and tapped her helmet, activating the enchantment. She wasn’t sure if the curious light had ever turned on in her time as a Hunter, making her feel more than a bit uneasy.
With a pulse, the light began to pulse faster, allowing a crackling voice to emerge from the enchantments.
“Hello, Thana.” It was the voice of the Hunter Council Leader. She didn’t know his name, no one did, and that made his voice ever more terrifying. “If you are hearing this message, it means that one of the Hunter Council is nearby. They are sending out a page for help. You are to report to them… Now.”
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