Chapter 40 – Hostile Work Environment

“Let’s get closer,” Seila said, her eyes spinning like mad.

The others did not bother arguing – they too were curious. Since his mistress was going, Ares too moved, forming the spearhead of their group as they moved into the crowd that had begun to gather. With his strength, pushing and shoving those in front was no issue, although it rewarded him with several glares from those aggrieved by his actions.

“Faster, Construct, the lord marshal has arrived! I need to hear what they are saying.”

Growling on the inside, Ares increased his effort until he finally broke free of the throng, and arrived at the small clearing around the newcomers. The lord marshal stood in the middle, before the three who were still –somewhat– on their feet, yelling commands to his soldiers.

“…and get these men to the bloody lazaret, already! Don’t dawdle, soldier; jump to it I say, jump!”

The two who had been holding each other up –a man and a woman, both with snakelike skin and drooping tails– collapsed into the arms of soldiers who came to help, leaving only the last to exit the portal on his feet. Though swaying back and forth, clearly exhausted, the man was tall and imposing, if a little awkward in stature, dressed in a solid leather jerkin over a shirt, studded with straps of leather. His facial features were monkey-like, flat with huge round eyes, now spinning around with exhaustion.

The bundle he had been dragging out of the portal with him now lay on the ground where he had clearly given up on it. With their proximity, Ares could see how it looked like another humanoid, but with the lower half missing. A trail of blood led back to the portal, which was currently consuming itself before disappearing without a sound, leaving only a smooth white surface behind.

The lord marshal looked at the remains that the monkey-man had clearly strained all of his power to retrieve; it was not a look of optimism. “Trent,” he said, grabbing the only standing member of the group by the shoulder, “What, by the Old Ones, happened in there?”

The crowd moved closer, excitement rising over the prospect of a bloody tale. The lord marshal noted the move, and looked over at the assembly with a stern glare, the force of which was alone for the crowd to retreat a few steps.

Except for Ares’ group, of course. Seila stepped forth, leading her companions towards the marshal and the man he called ‘Trent’. “My Lady–” the lord marshal began, but was cut off immediately by a wave of Seila’s hand. “No, Lord Marshal, I shall be present for the interrogation of this man. The Hyemend Dungeons are the property and responsibility of the Mingdale household; of all of the Mingdale household, especially me. Proceed.”

The bear-kin furrowed his bestial face, but finally shrugged and said, “As you will, My Lady.” Turning back on Trent, he asked, “Go on, Trent, tell us what happened. Go on.”

The lanky monkey swayed his eyes back and forth between the young mistress of Mingdale, and the lord marshall of the dungeons security force, before resolving to look into the distance and respond. “It was going well–” a coughing fit cut him short, and he kept coughing until the lord marshal commanded water be brought. “As I said, it was going well,” Trent finally continued, after nearly depleting the flagon he had received, “We breezed through the upper test floor and arrived into the labyrinth without incident, as per usual. As expected we took a few bruises following some encounters down there, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Only…”

“Only what?”

“From the moment we stepped into the lower layers, we felt something was wrong. We were being watched, see, we all felt it; like the prick of a knife on the spine that just won’t go away.”

“Do away with storytelling, Trent, tell me what happened,” said the marshal, although even his feral features could not hide away the unsettled expression he held.

“It was like this: one moment we was walking through a labyrinth passage in complete silence. The next moment, we heard a soft whistle growing louder and louder, until it struck.”

“It? Are you being purposefully vague now?” Seila snapped, butting into the conversation with force.

“Me– no My Lady, I wouldn’t dare. It’s just… we didn’t see much of it. I have no way of naming it, ‘for I have never seen anything like it.”

“You must have picked up something, at the very least,” Seila continued, clearly not satisfied with the explanation.

“My Lady, I mean this with the utmost respect, but I have been delving this dungeon for the last 7 years, and before that I walked merchant caravans between Al Mendor and the marshes. Trust me when I tell you that I have never seen anything like it, especially because I barely saw any of it.”

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, Ares took a step forward, to stand at his mistress’ side, and spoke in his most graveling elvish, “Sound. Heard sound, yes?”

Seila started beside him, turning to stare at him with fury, while Trent blinked, clearly confused about who, or what, Ares was, but when he answered he had suddenly renewed confidence. “Yes, yes that’s right! There was a sound, and a very distinct one at that!”

“I supposed that is something,” The lord marshal mumbled, “What did it sound like, this sound of yours?”

“Like a ‘whoosh’, I’d say. Yes, like the sound of whistling wood when you swing it above your head.”

“You realize that isn’t much to go one,” Seila said, her eyes still on Ares, but now narrowed.

“I know, My Lady. My comrades might have taken note of something, once–” Mid-speech, Trent turned around to wave at the halved body he had dragged out of the portal, but once he saw the full scope of damage, his blurry eyes widened to impressive proportions, and his knees gave in beneath him. “S-Sannesh.. No… No, it can’t be.. I,” he began stammering, before his eyes first watered, then whitened and he collapsed on the ground.

The lord marshal waved some nearby soldiers forward, “Take him to the lazaret and see him taken care of. Then get the… remains over there cleaned up and prepared to be either claimed or buried.” Once the order was carried out, he turned back to Seila, saying, “My Lady, with this in mind, I think it best we postpone your baptism. I will get an elite squad together for a reconnaissance mission into the labyrinth, but until then we must cancel all private delving into the dungeon.”

Seila had abandoned her scrutiny of Ares, and was now staring at the marble-white building with a pondering look on her face. Finally, he said, “No, Lord Marshal, that will not be necessary.”

“But, My Lady–”

“I am not being rash, Lord Marshal, I am being perfectly rational. Trent and his group were among the best here, correct?”

“Yes, but–”

“If that is so,” she continued, paying no heed to the man, “Then the delvers back there will be speculating heavily on what happened. There will be rumors, Lord Marshal, gossip and speculation. These will be exaggerated, wild, and unfounded. Add this to the sudden closing of the dungeon, an elite task-force being sent down there, and especially the fact that the high lady of House Mingdale suddenly retreats back to the cozy safety of the city. Combine these factors, and surely you will recognize the panic and reputation this will incur.”

“I do, but, My Lady, I cannot in good conscience send you into the dungeon with such a danger present. Your father will put my head on a pike if anything happens to you.”

“There is no danger, Lord Marshal, did you not just hear what was reported?” Seila turned to the bear-kin, her eyes showering the ground before her with sparkles like falling stars, “According to our witness, they only began sensing the danger after they entered into the labyrinth. Captain Kindon!”

The captain, who had been trailing behind the group, shadowing them and keeping any bystanders from getting too close, stepped up at attention at the command.

“As a group of beginners,” Seila said, speaking to the captain, “What do you estimate our chances are of clearing the test floor.”

The green skinned captain did not even blink before responding, “At best, I’d say you would make it to the final chamber, before you’d have to retreat, My Lady.”

“There, you see, Lord Marshal? As I understand it, there is a very clear border between the testfloor and the labyrinth, one that ensures nothing from below can escape. Thus, I promise you that, even if we should manage to defeat the beast of the final chamber, we will not go further into the labyrinth.”

The lord marshal stroked his chin, looking Seila’s group over, resting his gaze a little longer on Ares than the others. “I suppose,” he muttered without visible enthusiasm.

Seila smiled and rested a hand on the massive bear-kin’s arm, since she could not reach his shoulder without demeaning her dignity. “This gives you three advantages, Lord Marshal. First, and foremost, time: sending us down there will give you time to assemble your team, control the message to our delvers, and the possibility of gathering more information from Trent’s team, without something as auspicious as a shut-down. Second, if you are seen to allow the young lady of House Mingdale into the dungeon, then clearly the danger cannot be so severe, since a group of beginners can brave it. Third, and final, this shows immediate action and preparation –as if we have always expected something like this could happen– rather than the events taking us by surprise. Business as usual is a sign of responsibility.”

The lord marshal sighed and shook his head with resignation. “You are wise, Lady Seila, much wiser than I. My duty is that of a soldier; I protect or attack, depending on the wishes of my Lord. In that capacity, I should stop you and send you back, but I suspect you have your father’s head for politics. I will have to notify him, though, keep that in mind; both of the attack, and of your actions.”

“I understand, Lord Marshal, have no fear. Tell him what I told you, and I am certain he will agree to my actions, as well as understand that I pressured you into this.” The last, she said with a smile and a mischievous glint in her eye.

The massive bear-kin bowed his head slightly, then turned to captain Kindon. “Captain, I rest their safety in your capable hands. You will be going as their guide, correct?”

“I will protect them with my life, if needs be, Lord Marshal.”

“Well, yes, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. You know the procedure, yes? Then I will see to this damned mess out here. Good hunting, Lady Seila, I wish you and your team the best of luck.”

With those words, the massive man turned on his heels and walked back towards his command post, shouting orders and sending the whole area into a buzzing hive of action.

“Well, Lady Seila, shall we?” Captain Kindon said, gesturing towards the massive conch. “We shall,” the Lady responded and walked forward.

They walked up to the featureless wall, passing a few guards who nodded when they showed their papers. Once they were right by it, Kindon put his hand on the white surface, where a sudden interface sprung up. He stepped aside and allowed Seila to approach, and guided her through the setup, initializing the ‘baptism’. When it was done, light erupted into a thin line to scan them from top to bottom. This made Orca sigh in Ares’ mind, as if it was a pleasant experience. ‘What is it, Orca?’

“It’s nothing, master, it’s just been a long time since I’ve interacted properly with other systems of the Makers.” She said in a satisfied tone.

Before them, the white surface broke and twisted into a similar dark portal as before. Seila commanded Ares to go first, and he obeyed without much internal grumbling. He was probably the one who could sustain the most damage, in case there was any immediate danger.

He stepped through the portal, followed by a moment of dizziness as all sensory apparatuses left him, before springing back with a sudden jolt when he found himself standing on the floor of a huge chamber with walls as white as the exterior. Taking a few tentative steps forward and looking around, he found no dangers, nor a single piece of furnishing within the chamber. It was as barren as it was white, and every step he took echoed into that emptiness.

‘Orca, you still there?’

“Yes master!” She said, her voice only slightly unstable, “I am patching into the training ground network right now, so there should be no issue with our connection, even if you go into the lower floors.”

‘Good. What can you tell me about this place?’

“At the moment, not much. It has clearly been a long time since anyone has attempted to get into this system. There’s a lot of corrupted data, and I’m having a hard time circumventing it. Just a moment.”

Behind him, the rest of the group followed, Seila stepping in only moments after himself, followed by Cedwin and Saber before Alai and Izzy arrived.

“Right,” Seila said, hands on hips, “Let’s get our formation sorted.” Captain Kindon walked last through the portal, and stepped aside, apart from the group, with hands ready to draw his weapon. “Captain Kindon will act as our guide, but will not be participating in battle unless we screw up, so he will be our centre.” The others nodded, as did the captain, and Seila continued, “We will be relying much on the same formation as our excursions into the Ammedian Forest, only with a few tweaks. Cedwin, you are usually in front as our forward scout, but here we cannot afford to be separated. The dungeon may suddenly shift walls in between us, or unleash enemies in between our position to cut us off from one another, thus your place will be support to our vanguard.”

She waved a lazy hand towards Ares, who realized his place in this whole thing would be as a figurative meat wall.

“Understood, My Lady,” said the flamboyant elf, who bowed and swept the floor with his feathered beret.

“Saber, you will be our rearguard,” said Seila, to which the cat-man nodded, “In here, we can be attacked from the front as well from behind at any moment. It is your duty to keep an eye on our back, and intercept anyone who targets our center. Izzy, you will be Saber’s support.”

“Aye aye, My Lady!” Said Izzy, grinning and bobbing her head up and down, such her pink puff-ball hair rolled around atop her head.

“Alai is our medic and healer, and will walk behind captain Kindon. When we are attacked, Alai, make sure to always keep the captain between yourself and the action. If an enemy makes it to her, Captain, it will be your que to interfere.”

Both nodded with serious expressions on their faces. “Finally, I will be in front of the captain. I cannot use battlemagic as of yet, but I will support you as best I can using basic casting, and otherwise command the effort. Are we all ready?”

They all nodded, even Ares, resigning himself to his duty of shield to the group. With their formation ready, they all lined up to proceed the only pathway out of the white chamber, down a narrow corridor. Barely had Ares stepped into the passage, before Orca’s voice intruded into his mind.

“Master… I think we’ve got a problem.”