As Sam slumbered, Ares awoke to the sight of daylight. He was walking along a road, following his mistress and her three friends. In front of them, Kindon the guard captain led the procession downwards, away from the city and towards the deeper end of the valley. Small streams of water flowed along, gathering together into an almost respectably sized river flowing gently by the wayside.
“It’s good that you’re back, Ares. I was beginning to worry.”
Beside him, Izzy walked briskly, carrying her big monkey wrench and a huge smile on her face. She was not the only one who greeted him with joy. “Master, I really missed you! That good-for-nothing sentinel program you leave running is perhaps the most boring piece of software I have ever encountered!”
It’s good to hear from you as well, Orca. Where are we?
“We left the city an hour ago, Master, and we are approaching some kind of structure. I have old records that indicate this is some kind of extraction site, although I have no idea what would have been extracted out here. I can only perform superficial scans, and nothing indicates there is anything of value out here.”
He turned to Izzy and tried to think pleasant thoughts as he said, “Hello, Izzy. Where we go?”
The little gnome smiled even warmer, even though his face had stayed as immobile as ever. Ares was really curious as to how her ability worked, and what she saw when she looked at him.
“We’re going to the Hyemend Dungeon, don’t you remember? That was all they could talk about last night – well, I’ll admit I find it very exciting myself.”
He did remember, of course, but he had been unable to ask any questions as to what a dungeon actually was, before now.
“What is… dungeon?” He tried, as the name in Elvish was too much of a tongue twister for him to feel comfortable attempting it.
“You don’t know? What am I saying, of course you don’t; you just woke up after all. What we call dungeons might have been called something completely different back when you were last awake. Alright, listen: the dungeons were left behind by the Old Ones, some say out of benevolence, while others say out of malice. They’re really valuable for the materials they produce, even if the retrieval of these materials is bloody difficult.”
“Retrieval? How so?”
“Well, the dungeon constantly produces special ores, powerful herbs, along with other valuable materials for the taking; only, it’s the ‘taking’ part that’s difficult. Along with materials, the dungeon spawns terrible beasts and monsters, so in order to get the materials you need to have the power to do so.
“It is said that the Old Ones believed that nothing should be gained without struggle, and that only those who proved worthy were allowed to take away the materials they produced. Master says that even those of their own had to take the trials if they wanted to reap any rewards, much less their servants – meaning us of the elven races.”
Ares nodded, accepting the strange whim of these ‘old ones’. They were clearly a strange people, having designed something like his current body. Does that tell you anything, Orca?
“It does, master!” Said the disembodied voice in his head, “It sounds like a training ground. I had the opportunity to experience them a few times with other masters, although that probably won’t help much. Each training ground was designed to be unique and challenge different skills.”
So it’s like, what; an obstacle course?
“In a manner of speaking, but a lot more deadly. It’s like the gnome said: monsters and beasts are common traits of a training ground. However, it may also include traps, puzzles, and feats of strength. It was meant as a challenge for those bonded, like yourself, or for the lesser races to acquire some of the more mundane products of the Makers.”
“When we there?” He asked, turning his attention back on Izzy.
“It won’t be long now,” said the gnome, twisting her body to look past the taller figures up front, “We’re nearly there, I think.”
Seila, his mistress, turned and looked at the gnome, eyes spinning with curiosity. Ares could sense her suspicion through the bond as she looked at the apprentice warsmith. “Are you talking with it again, Izzy? I mean, really, you hardly wanted to look at it when we took off, and now you’re all buddy buddy with it again. What’s going on?”
“Oh, ‘is nothing, Milady,” said the gnome trying to lower her head and look meek, “It’s just scary, sometimes.”
The young elf looked from the gnome to Ares, her suspicion growing steadily. Ares met her stare with calmness, which was easily achieved with his stiff face. Explaining how he lived in two different worlds would only make his head hurt, figuratively, especially with his low grasp of Elvish.
“Is it because it’s talkative now?” She asked, eyes boring into his, “I did notice you were awfully obedient this morning. You don’t have some kind of construct-fever now, do you, Construct?”
Still not using my name, I see, Ares sighed mentally. This mistress of his was insisting on being insufferable.
“Are you flirting with your construct again, Seila?” The sultry voice of the avore made Seila grow red in the face, and she snorted derisively before turning her back on Ares, resuming her haughty walk towards their destination. “I will not even dignify that with a response, Alai,” she said to the avore, throwing her hair over one shoulder as a screen between herself and her friend. The avore just giggled, looked over her shoulder, and winked at Ares.
“It’s a weapon,” said the cat-person up front, without looking back, “Don’t forget that, Seila.”
“As if I would forget that,” said Seila, and snorted once again.
The cat –Saber, if Ares recalled correctly– turned towards his mistress and looked at her with feline seriousness. “Weapons need to be respected, Seila. A weapon disrespected is a weapon undeserved.”
“What, is that another one of your famous sayings from the marsh, Saber,” laughed the other elf of the party, his blonde hair gleaming in the light of the two suns.
“It’s a common enough saying, Cedwin,” said Saber, “The saying in the marshes is a little different: ‘Speak ill of your mother thrice, your father twice, your brother once; never of the sword you live by’.”
“Poppycock,” laughed Cedwin, his pleasant voice belying the arrogance it contained, “What does that even mean? That you should speak ill of your mother? And three times at that… Surely you Marshfolk aren’t as crude as that.”
Saber shook his triangular head, either in dismay or disappointment. “No, you’re missing the point. You can speak ill of your mother three times, because she will forgive harsh words spoken in haste. You should only do so twice to your father, since he will warn you after the first and punish you only after the second. Your brother, you can speak ill of only once before such words will be returned in kind. In each of these cases, your actions may have consequences, but familial bonds will not fail you.
“However, if you neglect your sword, allowing it to rust, or if you let rot infest your arrows such that they will break upon your string, or disregard the training which you rely on; no familial bond will protect you when your weapon fails. You must always strive to understand the weapon you wield, or you may only blame yourself when it fails to protect you.”
“Hmph,” the elven warrior snorted, brushing away an imaginary spot of dust from his shoulder, “Isn’t that just common sense? Why do you marshfolk always endeavor to put such obvious truths into complicated allegories? Isn’t it enough to say: keep your damn sword in order or it will break?”
“I shouldn’t expect you Queenfolk to understand,” sighed the cat, still shaking his head, “You simply do not understand family.”
The two kept bickering about family and swords, turning into a strange discussion on how the proper respect was supposed to be shown to weaponry. Strange, because it was really Cedwin who put forth all the arguments, and Saber who merely shook his head and kept repeating: ‘Foolish Queenfolk’.
The discussion occupied most of the remaining journey, right up and til they arrived at an otherwise unremarkable post, barring the way towards an odd and circular building just beyond. Two men, tall as all the other guards Ares had seen protecting the stronghold, who had nearly the same stature of Cedwin and Seila, stood guard the post, challenging them when they approached. Although they looked similar to the more ‘noble’ specimens of their band, Ares could detect the differences as clear as day.
Their ears were nowhere near as full as the thick ears that marked the highborn, nor were they nearly as sharp. Their hair too, although kept long and in a similar style to that of the Lord Mingdale, their strands did not glisten in quite the same brilliant manner as either Cedwin’s or Seila’s.
“The Lady Seila Mingdale is to enter the Hyemend Dungeon, on the orders of our Lord Mingdale,” Said Kindon, offering a sealed piece of parchment. The first of the guards –a dark-haired man with remarkably thick eyebrows– took the parchment, unsealed it and read it over.
“Of course, captain Kindon,” said the man, after a short read-through, “It is an honor to receive the High Lady.” The man proffered a bow to their young mistress, and the other guard followed suit. “Your papers are in order, please proceed to the dungeon entrance. Lord marshal Heredrin has command, and will want to inspect the papers personally.”
“Thank you, Guardsman,” said Kindon, giving the man a courteous nod, without showing undue deference. The guardsman nodded back, then returned to their post without another word. Leading them forward, Kindon stepped briskly towards the strange building.
“My Lady,” he said, as they came closer, “Please allow me to speak for your party, as there are certain formalities we must observe, even if you are his Lordship’s daughter and heir.”
“Of course, Kindon,” said Seila, waving the concern away, “That is what you’re here for.”
The entered into the shadow of the circular building, which to Ares looked like the conical shell of a snail, or perhaps one of those sea conches that sometimes washed ashore. Whatever it was, he could see no entrance into the building, or any sign of occupation. No windows were in its sides, or decorations of any kind. Instead, it was just one big, white protrusion on the earth, as alien to the nature surrounding it as a city in the middle of a forest.
“Ahh Kindon, I heard you were coming, of course, but I had expected you on the morrow. Is his Lordship in so much haste?”
A broad man, clearly more bear than elf, walked towards them with a broad smile on his face. He was an obvious departure from the, otherwise, stereotypical guardsman, as far as Ares had observed. Where most other guardsmen looked almost as well-bred as his mistress, this one was clearly someone of the lower races.
“Lord Marshal,” said Kindon, bowing deferentially, “Lady Seila desired to get her baptism over with as soon as possible. I hope it won’t inconvenience you too much.”
The bear-man’s high rank was a surprise. Everything Ares had seen, indicated that the pure elves in this society was some kind of upper class. For the lord marshal to be such an outlier, indicated either skill, luck, or an extraordinary backing. Which it was, Ares could only guess.
“Hmm, no, it won’t be too much of a problem,” said the lord marshal, stroking his furry chin and showing a magnificent set of fangs in a grin, “Although I will have to upturn the schedule a little bit. The next group of delvers are a lousy lot anyway who barely managed to get out the last time around. I’ll tell them they can take the nightshift if they want a run today.”
“I am sorry for inconveniencing you, Lord Marshall,” said Seila, stepping up beside Kindon and placing hands on hips.
“My Lady,” said the bear-man, and bowed deeply, “As I said: it is no problem – your father’s wish is my command. Although you will have to wait until the current group returns from their delve, you will have the second run of the day. It is by far the safest, and a good position for your baptism. The first run is always the most dangerous, and is only done by our most experienced delvers. They will have taken out the more sinister traps and beasts the dungeon has devised overnight, the kind that takes time to implement. Although it is never ‘safe’ to enter a dungeon, it should be a good learning experience for your first time.”
“Very good,” said Seila, eyeing the pavilions off the side, where several groups of armed men and women enjoyed a drink and respite from the sun. “Captain Kindon, I leave the details to you. My party and I will be resting over by the pavilion until it is our time to enter the dungeon.”
The captain bowed his head, as Seila and her friends walked off. Ares followed dutifully, feeling something akin to excitement about the whole affair. Although the sensation was subdued, he was still glad it was there.
There were several pavilions, in different sizes and forms, but Seila walked purposefully towards the largest, and the most decorated, of them all. Here, Ares observed, the groups were all well armed, in well-kept armor and with the air of professionals. It was rowdy, to be sure, but it was a subdued rowdiness, tinged with the surety of those confident in their prowess and mortality.
As the group seated themselves, several pairs of eyes followed them curiously – most showing deference, although there were a few who displayed misgivings or downright hostility. Ares made to seat himself alongside the others, before a very stern glare from his mistress reminded him that this was absolutely not his place.
As you wish, My Lady, he thought sarcastically in his mind. Standing up was no issue for him, not with mechanical legs, and instead he took to observe the surrounding patrons more closely.
The pavilion was dressed with a bar, staffed with a few waiters who served drinks and light foodstuffs to the assembled warriors. It appeared to be a sort of way station, for those who waited to enter the dungeon, or for those who might have just left. Not far-off, something that looked like a felt lazaret occupied a prominent spot close to the circular building. With his good vision, Ares could see a few bandaged figures inside, along with what he presumed to be medical staffers walking to and from the field mattresses.
“I say,” his attention was caught by a gruff voice nearby, “Is that the young lady of Mingdale? Lady Seila, I mean… What’s she doing out here in the roughs?”
“Aye,” said a comrade of the voice, leaning into the table and lowering his voice, such that Ares had to strain his ears to hear, “Didn’t you hear? Lord Mingdale has given her permission to enter the dungeon!”
“Why, by the Old Ones, would she want to delve the dungeons?” Said a third voice, high pitched and nasal, “She’s of the noble ‘high breed’ after all. It is only us peons who need risk our lives to live well; she already has all the wealth and luxury one could ever want!”
“Hush Dantel, don’t talk so loud. You want the bloody guard coming down on us?” Another hissed and pushed the earlier speaker.
“Do I speak a word of untruth, Laurl?” Asked Dantel in his nasal voice, “Why should the guard care for simple truth?”
“It is not the truth of the words,” said Laurl, a small fellow with an impish look, “It is the tone in which these truths are spoken. The lord Mingdale may be more lenient than most of the highborn, but even here there are limits!”
“Hush the both of you,” said a deeper, more authoritarian voice, “You’re both drawing attention. Seize your prattling.”
Ares could not see the last speaker, not without visibly turning his head, only the chastised reactions to the command. His own party was cheerfully occupied with a conversation on the quality of the wine at the pavilion – a topic much championed by Cedwin, who boisterously proclaimed, “Wine is the essence of life, my friends, and a single life is a bottle of wine.”
“Queenfolk nonsense,” retorted Saber, Cedwins usual, verbal sparring partner, “Wine is nothing but contaminated water, and a bottle is a twisted product of unnatural manufacture. If that is life to you, Ced, then you are living poorly.”
“Aw shut up, you plebeian,” retorted Cedwin, “Only the finest grapes, processed and concentrated by tradition, stored and ordered by age and rank, such that only the most exquisite liquid emerges from the best containers. This is the epitome of life as it should be: Orderly, structured, and hierarchical.”
“You’re talking past one another,” said Alai in an audibly bored tone of voice, “And besides, wine is just wine. Don’t–”
Whatever she had been about to say drowned in the sudden commotion that broke out. At first, it was not obvious to Ares what was going on, only that several patrons had suddenly taken to their feet. The murmuring crowd turned to the conch-like building, which now had a massive dark spot protruding on its face.
“What’s going on?” Asked Seila, looking between her comrades, before gaining her feet as well.
With his good eyesight, Ares could see something moving inside the dark spot, or perhaps ‘portal’ was a more apt description. One figure emerged from within, took a few staggering steps, then collapsed on the ground. Soon, the event was repeated with another figure, and a third. None of these made it very far before they were on the ground in a heap.
Finally, two figures emerged, holding each other up, barely managing to stay their feet, followed by a final form dragging something behind.
“By the Old Ones,” someone said, voice breathy and weak, “Is that Trent? Did the first group get wiped out?”