Please note that this is the unedited first draft, and may undergo substantial revisions before the final version. Release date is to be determined.
Tira itched to open her doors and welcome adventurers to their doom. There were just a few minor details to take care of before she could. Namely, she had to finish the construction of her dungeon, summon her mobs, set her traps, create her boss, and design her entrance. And then open the entrance. So, basically everything. Also, she couldn’t exactly itch. Although Tira didn’t remember her life as a human except for one notably bad day, she could remember itching, and her new life as a core had its upsides. The lack of itches was high on that list, just under ‘ability to take bloody vengeance on a world that scorned you’, and just above ‘no need to expel bodily waste.’
It was a spectrum.
“Tira, I don’t mean to fuss, but are you sure you’re ready?” Pierre asked, fluttering about her core. The little dungeon wisp had gossamer wings that blurred when he flew. They should have created a tremendous buzzing that filled the little hollow where Tira resided, but the sound was muted and instead brought to mind a few autumn leaves blowing in a gentle breeze. His skin was bright green, in contrast to his rose-red hair, and he wore a black and white suit that Tira swore he’d stolen from a doll. “I hate to question at this point, we’re already so close, but…I mean, a little bit longer going over your options certainly couldn’t hurt, right?”
Responding to him verbally was impossible. One of the downsides – or upsides, depending on how you looked at it – of being a dungeon core was an inability to speak using vocalizations. No throat, no sound. However, she and Pierre were bonded. She sent him an image a face with a quirked eyebrow. She thought it was her face she was using for those, although she wasn’t certain. “And, just to be clear, how long would you have me wait and think?”
“Oh, not too long,” Pierre said with a forced lightness. “Just a couple.”
Impatience welled up in Tira, and she let it flow through their bond. “A couple of what?”
Pierre shrugged, as if the words were really of no great importance. “Decades. Centuries. Take your pick.”
She could have gotten annoyed at the wisp, but checked that emotion before it could grow too much. He meant well, and he was just worried about her safety. “I’ll be fine, I promise,” she said to him, sending him an image of a reassuring smile. “But no delays, okay?”
Pierre sighed and settled in to land on her core. “Fine. Have you finished the saturation?”
Tira checked. Refined mana was still flowing from her core, forming a light mist, energy directed into her by the four pylons in her core room. It seeped into the rock that surrounded her, stretching all the way to the surface. Already it was starting to leak into the open air. That was the real reason they couldn’t delay any more – Diviner would soon pick up on that, and Adventurers would come swarming. If Tira wasn’t ready, they might not realize she was a proper dungeon and extract her core, killing her in the process. Worse, she wouldn’t get to kill any of them.
She was very much looking forward to that.
“Finished,” she said. It had taken days to get the saturation to that point, and she was eager to be moving along. “Personal mana is full, external mana is at maximum saturation, and we are good to go.”
“Then,” he said, curling up his legs to set in a lotus position so he could watch. “At your leave, madam.”
Tira laughed at the formal title and began to pull on the stone around her. Since she had already saturated it with her refined mana, it dissolved easily into Earth corrupted elemental mana – or Earth Mana for short. The Earth Mana flowed towards her in a steady stream. The invisible barrier created by the four pylons in her core room caught the Earth mana before it could stretch too far, and it was sucked into her pylons.
She started small, a simple passage that would connect her core room to the rest of the dungeon. It was only a few inches wide, and had two bends so no one could use it to stab directly into her core room. Enough room for Pierra to maneuver, not enough to put her in danger. It was also enough room for the refined mana she generated to flow outwards and fill the rest of the complex.
As easy at it was now, Tira remembered how long it had taken Pierra to teach her that level of precision.
Once the passage was three feet long, with a reservoir attached so if anyone tried pouring acid in it would get trapped, Tira started to expand her excavation. There were a good fifty meters between her and the surface, and she hollowed it all out in a passage that was ten meters wide and that same distance in height. She stopped just before reaching the ground, not wanting to open herself up to the world yet. “Okay,” she said. “So I’m thinking four rooms.”
Pierre frowned and looked down at her. “You’re still only Tin One, Tira. Even when you build pylons in the rooms outside and reach your ten maximum, that’s going to give you fifty command points. Assuming somewhere between ten and fifteen for the boss, you would have to spread your mobs pretty thin if you wanted to fill four rooms. Might make them too easy.”
“Easy is the last thing on my mind,” Tira said, already starting to raise the walls she needed. This, unlike hollowing out the space, forced her to spend mana – one point per five cubic feet she constructed. “The first room is going to have a few of those plants I unlocked with my specialization. Alchemists will want to experiment with them, since they’ve been extinct for…how long, again?”
Pierra rocked his hand back and forth. “About fifty million years, give or take fifteen million. Why would you want to give them something like that for free?”
Tira didn’t try to hide the smugness that radiated off her in waves. “I remember being human. They’re greedy. I’m only going to replenish the plants once a week. Once alchemists find something valuable, they’re going to fight over the plants. Right there, in the room. We’ll get free kills from them engaging in stupid interpersonal conflicts. And if they go deeper, the ones that replenish daily will be there.”
“Ah, I see.” Pierre nodded slowly as understanding realization. “Like normal loot, it will tempt them to push further. But since it’s daily, only the first group to go in will be able to get them. Meaning they’ll come in first thing in the morning, rushing, still groggy, and unprepared.”
“Exactly my thoughts.” The first room, as far from her core as possible, wasn’t going to be large. Just enough for a wide variety of prehistoric plants. She started to fill the room with one of everything she had found. Her favorite of them looked like ferns, but had thick trunks about as tall as person. They looked like stumpy palm trees. As far as Tira knew, there was nothing exactly like them alive today – which meant they’d be perfect for her purposes. People would immediately recognize them as something alien to this era. She mixed in a wide variety of other plants underneath them. All of them had unique seeds or fruits – the perfect thing to tempt the unwary dungeon delver. Without sunlight, they’d require her refined mana to continue to grow and prosper, but she’d have plenty to spare.
Next came the first real dungeon room. This one she filled with plants as well, leaving a winding path the heroes could walk if they wanted to avoid traipsing through the brush. “No traps in this room,” she said to Pierre after a moment’s thought. “I want them to think I don’t have any.”
Pierre grinned fiercely at the thought. “I say, Tira, I’m quite looking forward to it. Are you going to populate it now, or wait until you’ve finished the other rooms?” He hopped off her core and looked directly into it now. Whatever she was focused on, he could see reflected in her depths. She didn’t need to focus on any one thing, any more than a human needed to focus on their hand or foot – only worth doing if she was putting extra effort into a particular area. She made a point of focusing on whatever she was doing at the moment, so Pierre could follow along.
“Finish the mob rooms, then monsters,” Tira said after a moment’s hesitation. “Once I get started on mobs, I won’t want to stop. I’m going to do the boss last, then the boss room once I know what it can do.”
Pierre chuckled in understanding. “I am looking forward to that.”
The second real room was set up much like the first, but denser in terms of undergrowth. She had plans for this room, and it should be a really nasty piece of work for the unwary party. The path through the plants also had several dead ends, and she scattered a few special plants that didn’t quite qualify as mobs but were the next best thing. They were toxic and would reach out towards anything that stepped on the leaves they spread across the ground. The motion was automatic, like a flytrap snapping shut, so could be fooled by a stone. That made it a trap, not a mob.
Which meant it didn’t count against her command limit. A cheap workaround, and one that would hopefully spell doom for a few fools.
This room she started filling with other traps. Pits just wide enough for a foot with downward facing spikes lining the sides. A few places where crushing the wrong plant would send a rock spine dropping from the ceiling. Spheres of briars as large as a man that would spring up around you, biting into skin. If you stayed on the pre-set path, you’d find yourself triggering a trap every third or forth step. If you went through the underbrush, there would be fewer traps. She wanted to encourage adventurers to take that risk.
After all, things worse than traps could hide among the plants.
She formed a Mob Heart, a small crystal that would anchor her mobs without her needed to pump mana into them. From there, she attached images of her first mobs to the Heart.
This creature was a prehistoric ancestor of the winged serpents that Tira would have to wait to unlock until a higher tier. It’s arms hadn’t turned into wings yet, and were instead small but powerful with wicked claws. They were a distant relative of the true dragons as well, but instead of those gorgeous monster’s breath weapons, possessed a deadly toxin in their fangs. At only three feet long, they would blend in perfectly among the shrubs.
She’d created her first Wyrm.
“It’s so beautiful,” Tira said as the serpentine reptile blinked a nictitating membrane. Pierre agreed. The green scales were vibrant when it was reared up like this, and had a yellow diamond pattern that made Tira yearn for fingers, so she could run them along the creature’s back. Its forked tongue leapt from behind its jaws, tasting the air. “I want to boop it’s little snoot,” she said.
Pierre chuckled at that phrasing. “Copper Tier, Tira. Get to Copper and you can possess your creatures. Then you can boop all you want.”
Tira sent him a imaginary smile at the thought, then got back to business. Each of the Wyrms would cost two Command Points. She created five in the room, setting them to slither randomly – until one of the plants got distrubed, then they’d converge on the unwary adventurers. “You’re sure they don’t feel pain?” she asked Pierre for the dozenth time. At least.
“As sure as I can be. When you possess them, you’ll be able to feel what they feel. Just remember until then that they act pained. But the actual sensation doesn’t seem to exist.”
Tira sent him understanding and then focused on the last touch in this room. Two pylons, hidden among the plants. They’d expand her command limit and allow her to harvest mana from these rooms. If adventurers found them, they’d smash the pylons for the precious metals contained within. She didn’t intend on making it easy for them.
Now to the room that would contain the bulk of her mobs. Having spent ten command points on the five wyrms, and wanting to reserve fifteen on her boss, she had twenty five to play with for first room adventurers would walk into. No Wyrms in this room – she didn’t want to give the adventurers any warning of what the next room held.
Instead, this room would mostly be monsters that would try their level best to murder anyone who dare trespassed.
She decided to go with two main mob types for this room. Raptors were three command points each, so Tira only planned to make three of them. These weren’t the birds of prey of the modern day, however. These creatures stood nearly as tall as a human’s knee and were as long as a man was tall. They had feathers on their arms and tail, in browns and greens that blended in perfectly with their surroundings. Most impressive was the sickle shaped claw they each had on one foot.
“Are you going to give them elemental abilities?” Pierre asked as Tira formed the mob hearts for the raptors.
“Not yet,” she said. “Once I get some more command points, maybe, but I think numbers will be my friend here.”
“I suppose that makes sense. Although it does mean you’ll have a harder time eliminating groups that enter. Elemental attacks are much better than claws and fangs for bypassing armor”
“True…” Tira sent him a mental shrug. “We’ll try more mobs first, but if it doesn’t get the results we want, I’ll look at the options. Elemental variants cost four command points, so that would seriously cut down my options for the other mobs in the room. And…everything else I have costs two. By sticking to the three point versions, I’ll be able to get more smaller ones.”
Pierre sighed and settled down. “I suppose I can wait to see one of those beautiful creatures breath fire.”
Tira could feel some frustration trickling through their bond, so decided to cheer him up. “If they had fire breath, they’d damage any wine the adventurers were carrying. This way, wine is more likely to stay intact.”
The frustration was almost immediately subsumed by elation, and Pierre’s face brightened. “Well, when you put in that way…what are you going to do with the other mobs in the room?”
“Going to keep it simple,” she said, creating the most basic mob type she had. These lizards lacked any kind of special ability, but they made up for that with greater bulk than anything else her mobs had. Even the larger raptors were more fragile, due to their bones being somewhat more vulnerable. They also had an extremely long tail they could whip around their body for a nasty strike against foes, and a powerful enough bite to deal damage if they could find gaps in armor.
They were called monitor lizards.
Tira took a moment to admire her creations. The monitor lizards were brown and a bit sluggish, but they were imposing creatures nonetheless. Without adventurers present, they would act like natural creatures – which meant that, for the moment, they were scurrying away from the raptors. Those three bipedal beauties were standing in a circle, inspecting each other. The slightly randomized nature of mob creation meant that they weren’t perfect clones of each other. The smallest of the three backed away, dipping its head down in a sign of submission. The other two kept their gazes locked on each other. One of them hissed, and then it was on.
The two raptors were walking towards each other now, flaring their arm feathers and ducking their heads. Their tails shot up into the air behind them, and they fanned the feathers on the tip, waving it back and forth. For the first time Tira noted the feathers had a pattern that looked like baleful green eyes glowering, and she made a mental note to have them try and intimidate adventures with that. Both were adding chirps to the display, making it sound like two argumentative birds the size of dogs.
“They’re not going to-” Tira started to say, but it was too late. The two raptors rushed each other. Tira tried to stop them, but she didn’t react quickly enough. They leapt at each other, and Tira waited to go through the process of remaking one of them.
That didn’t happen, however. In the air, they both flared their arms, flapping them like wings, which arrested their momentum. They didn’t have true wings, and they couldn’t fly, but they could stop a leap. That was good to know. They both settled onto the floor moments later. Apparently, that was all they needed. The one that had stayed airborne the longest chirped aggressively, apparently announcing its victory. The other one stopped its display and lowered its head. Curious, Tira watched as the victor walked up and put his sickle claw against the back of the challenger’s eck, resting the hook against the base of its skull. Moving so slow the motion was almost gentle, the winner forced the loser’s head down until it touched the dirt. Satisfied, the winner crowed like a rooster from hell and let its defeated foe back up again.
The one that had backed out of the contest at the beginning now approached, lowering its nose to the dirt before the victor – Tira supposed she should think of it as the alpha – could force its head down. The alpha walked over to the submitting raptor, and reached out with one clawed foot. This was only a quick bap on the top of its head, then the alpha chirped. All three were now standing upright, and began to rub the side of their necks together in a gesture that couldn’t be taken as anything other than affectionate.
“I love them.” Tira breathed the words in hushed tones. “Just…square off, do a little dance to see who is strongest, then the issue is fixed and they’re all at peace.”
Pierre smiled. “If only humans followed the same rules.”
“Humans don’t follow rules.” Tira would have clenched her hands into fists, if she still had them. Absent that, all she could do is let her anger carry on her words. They sounded like they were coming through clenched teeth she didn’t have. “Which is why we won’t either.”
“Well, rules that are rather silly things. Like limits on traps in the second room. Not the important rules.”
“Of course,” Tira said, waving away his concern. “Now, you.” This message was sent to the raptor that had proven to be dominant in their little contest. Its head popped up, and it looked directly in the direction of her core. “You won, so you’re top raptor. Except your not. I may just be a gemstone in a cave, but do you know what I am? I’m top raptor. No eating the monitor lizards. We’ll get bugs in here for you to eat as soon as we open the door, and then some tasty humans not long after. Understood?”
After a moment, the raptor bent down and touched its nose to the dirt. Tira took that as agreement.
The monitor lizards didn’t have any kind of pecking order. They seemed to function more like cats – having found a safe spot in a corner of the room, they huddled together in a single mass for warmth. Tira sent them a quick command to not fight each other or the raptors. Their only response was to sit there. After how interesting her raptors had been, the sluggish nature of the monitor lizards was…less than pleasing. “What’s wrong with them?” Tira asked.
“Ectotherms, remember?” Pierre said.
Tira wanted to smack a palm into her forehead. Of course. The raptors and wyrms were warm blooded creatures, endotherms. They didn’t need external heat. The monitor lizards absorbed heat, and they were used to deserts, not dungeons. It took so little effort to increase the heat in here, Tira didn’t even notice the decrease in mana. Moments later the monitor lizards were untangling from their cuddle pile and starting to move freely about the room. With her commands, they no longer feared the raptors, and Tira took some time to let her mana recharge and watch the two groups interact. Well, one particularly bold monitor lizard and the three raptors. They formed a semicircle in front of it, chirping at the lizard. It flicked its tongue at them, unimpressed. The alpha dashed forward a couple steps and chirped louder. The lizard’s tongue shot out, licking the raptor’s nose.
Tira and Pierra shared a laugh as the startled raptor clawed at its nose, trying to wipe away the lizard’s touch. It chirped and batted the lizard on the top of its head with one of those terrible clawed feet.
The lizard just flicked its tongue again, still unimpressed.
“Okay, these monitor lizards get to say when I upgrade,” Tira said as her laughter died down. “Someone needs to make sure the raptors don’t get too uppity.”
“Oh, I agree wholeheartedly,” Pierre said, taking to the air. “Now, the boss?”
Tira projected a smile into his mind, created two pylons in the lizard room, and then turned to her boss room.
Then it would be time for the grand opening.
It would be inaccurate to say that the day Tira was set to be executed was the worst day of her life. The worst day had been when she’d told she was going to be executed. Or perhaps it was the first time she’d attempted to escape and failed. Or the second. They’d started the torture that day, which had definitely stood out. Definitely not the third, she’d gotten really close and had been sure she’d gotten a message out for rescue that day. The fourth, when no rescue had arrived, and her companion had been walked to the headsman’s axe, that was definitely up there.
Those would be the only days she’d remember in her next life as a Dungeon Core. Five days. Day one: Capture. Day two: first escape attempt, torture, being told she would be executed. Day three: second better attempt, more torture, no rescue. Day four: No rescue, and the execution of someone she cared about. That brought her to today, the day she was facing the headsman’s axe. Honestly, it was hard to rank them all, from most to least awful. However, there was a certain cold comfort in knowing that today, the day of her execution, was going to be the last worst day of her life.
She had become intimately familiar with her new cell. After her escape attempts had gotten so close to allowing her freedom, her captors had relocated her. This prison wasn’t custom built to hold her. Tira had no illusions she was important enough to justify that level of effort. She barely even warranted an execution in the first place.
That argument had, shockingly, failed to convince her captors to release her.
This room, however? The walls were Adamant reinforced Stone – and not just regular stone either, but stone that had been imbued with Dungeon purified Earth Mana, so was near unbreakable in its own right. The bars on her cell door were Verithil, and that regenerative metal could heal, far quicker than a file could weaken them. The door itself wasn’t a pure block of Adamant, but it did have Adamant hinges. The door was instead Cursed Steel. Anything she tried to do the door would happen to her. Trying to break out that way was a complex attempt to hasten her death. Sure, it was only as strong as steel. She, however, was only as strong as people, and something that could destroy steel was very good at destroying people.
This was a cell meant to hold someone of at least Gold tier. It might even be able to hold a Platinum tier.
In a way, Tira was perversely happy with the cell. She’d made herself such a nuisance that her captors had decided to put her in probably the most expensive room they had.
“Hey, buddy?” Tira said, leaning against the door and feeling a pressure on her own collarbones form the cursed steal. The guard outside wore gleaming white armor with black trim. His helmet was stylized to look like a blunted eagle’s beak, with small holes the only thing that let him see out. He wore a tabard that had a black sun with gold trim. At the time, Tira had known what that symbol had meant. That was lost to her as a Dungeon. “Wow, they’ve got a Gold tier guarding me? I must be important.”
The guard ignored her, but Tira thought she could hear him grinding his teeth behind his helm.
“You know, I figured the” and here Tira’s memory was extra obnoxious, because when she reflected back on this moment, the words following ‘the’ blurred into a muffled muttering, only to pick up after the proper noun, “would have something more important for someone of your rank to do. Like, oh, just off the top off my head? Literally anything else. That would be a better use of your time than guarding me.”
“Silence, spy.” The words slipped from the guard’s lips before he could think it through, and even though the helmet covered his face, it couldn’t hide the way he tensed up when he realized she’d mad him speak.
“I’m not a spy. Didn’t get high enough level to pick that mastery,” Tira said, pressing her face against the Verithil bars to make sure the guard could see her grin. If she could goad him into opening the door, or lashing out of it in fury… “Do you…know how classes work? I mean you’re gold tier, surely you’ve met someone who can read. If not, you can pick up a book that describes the classes. I’ll help you with the big words, like ‘the’ and ‘he.’”
“Another word and I will cut you down!” The guard snarled the words.
“Oh, you mean you’ll kill me now as opposed to once the sun rises? What a terrible thing to do to me. However shall I survive such a horrible fate?” Tira pressed the back of her hand to her head and mock swooned. “C’mon, you are supposed to be scary. Threaten me with something that’s not just ‘death, but sooner.’”
The guard stepped up to her door, and she could feel his hot breath coming through the slots in his helm. “You have two options. Silence until your death, or I will have your tongue seared from your mouth so you remain silent until that time. I would think you’d want to make peace with your dark gods in the time you have left.”
Tira stepped back, sweat springing from her brow. “Good threat,” she said, and pantomimed buttoning her lips. That last act of defiance lasted until the guard turned his back to her, and Tira let her knees give way.
Well, this was it. She was going to die.
“I see you’ve angered Girard,” said a voice from the door, and Tira tensed. It was an odd reaction to such a grandfatherly voice, but Tira had gotten terribly familiar with it over the few days of her captivity. He’d never given her a name, but Tira had heard others call him “Father.” Father sounded like he wanted you to sit by the fire while he told you tales of his youth. However, he was far more likely to throw you into the flames. Then use his power to heal the injuries he caused, so he could repeat the process.
There was a reason Tira feared the rack.
Tira motioned to the imaginary button her mouth helplessly. It was a flippant defiance, but it was born out of a fear her voice would crack if she spoke.
“Ah. Seems the cat’s got your tongue, my dear. Well, I can pull it out for you if you’d like, since you don’t need it.”
It was good she had barely been given food or water for days. It saved her from an embarrassment when fear made her body try to void any excess weight. “Please,” she whispered, defiance drained from her with those simple words. It wasn’t the threat itself. It was the way it was delivered. Calm, warm, and friendly. Like he actually was being generous with his offer. Like he actually believed he was being helpful.
“Please what, my dear?” The kindly old man with warm eyes smiled at her, and Tira started to shake. “Please spare you the axe? Then answer our questions.”
“I can’t!” Tira shouted, rage gripping her. How dare he sound so reasonable with everything he’d done to her. “I’ve screamed what I know to the heavens! I shouted until I had no voice, and then you tightened the screws! I bellowed my answers into the void, and you turned up the heat.” She hated the reminder, the things she’d admitted to under Father Oliscorp’s ministrations. But she had, and there was no point denying it. Caldor had tried to deny he’d spoken. He’d also denied they were actually captives, and that he was going to fly from this prison on the back of an eagle the size of a horse that spoke to him in his dreams. They’d had to drag him to execution block. Even Father’s magic couldn’t heal his mind after what they’d done to him.
He’d only spoken once, and that was to thank the Headsman.
“You told us only what we already knew, then started repeating variations on ‘I know nothing,’” Father said in those same poisonously reasonable tones. “Surely you can’t expect me to believe that.”
“It’s the truth!” Tira said.
“Tsk, tsk,” Father said in a tone of voice fit for a child that had their hand in the cookie jar, and then Father smiled at her. There was no attempt at refuting her words. He didn’t even try to. And it was then, she understood. There had never been any intention of releasing her. Caldor had been right to get it over with quickly. It was a type of magic. An ancient and sick magic. Human sacrifice for crowd appeal.
“Just take me to the block,” Tira said, slumping back to the floor. “Be done with me. Just let me die.”
“Oh, but my dear,” Father said, and keys jangled as he slid them into the lock. “That’s exactly what I’m here to do.”
Tira leapt for the door in a last desperate attempt to escape, but Father was Platinum. She’d be better off trying to dig through a mountain with her teeth. He just held out his hand, and bands of light wrapped around her neck. “Defiant to the end, I see. I’d expect nothing less from you.”
Tira spit in his face. Against a Platinum Saint, her spit was no more effective than her fury. It hit an invisible barrier in front of him and sizzled away.
“None of that now,” he said. “Come with me.”
With the light around her neck, she could scarcely do anything else. She walked along with the Father, not dragging her feet. If she was going to die, it was going to be with some dignity.
As a last desperate measure, she glanced at the back of her right hand. The prisoner’s garb they had her in was a simple sleeveless tunic that lacked sleeves that kept her from hiding any knives or weapons on them. On the plus side, it didn’t stop her from seeing her Compass. The tattoo on the back of her hand showed her rank, Copper Four. Her blue bar, showing her mana, was near empty. The green bar from her stamina was permanently reduced from the torture she’d endured. She didn’t even bother looking at the gold bar on top that would show her progress to the next rank. At the bottom, the final point of the compass, was not a bar, but a rune for her elemental affinity. Fire.
She wouldn’t live long enough to fill that bar.
She only had one ability she could use. A healing spells he could only use on herself. Cauterize. It was painful, but it was effective to seal bleeding injuries. Beyond that…it was useless. Well, not entirely. There was one thing she could do with Self-Cauterize. But she wasn’t that desperate yet. Immolating yourself to escape execution was a rather pointless gesture. If she was going back to the torture chamber, she would be considering it. She had just enough mana to pull it off.
Still, that wasn’t where she was going, and even in the face of torture, she hadn’t completely let go of hope yet. But the fake, sad smile on Father’s lips, he knew that. He was counting on it. The fact that he expected her to reach the executioner’s axe suddenly made the prospect of dying on her own terms more appealing.
Then someone rounded the corner, and all thoughts of interfering with her own life were wiped away by that golden hair, those piercing blue eyes, that strong chin, and those bulging arms.
“You bastard!” Tira screamed, surging at the man with all the speed she could muster. Her limited stamina ticked down rapidly with every step as she enhanced her speed, moving far faster than she ever could have run without using that power. She was faster than her target could react. He was Copper, like her, and had been caught off guard.
But Father was Platinum tier. Even catching him off guard, his reaction time was superhumanly fast, and Tira found herself halted in her tracks by the band around her neck. The sudden whiplash as her body tried to keep moving after her neck had stopped would have killed her, if not for the fact that the light was healing her as it contained her.
The beautiful man before her gave her a sad shake of his head. His name was burned into her soul, and she would carry it with her until her rebirth. Gregor Lightheart.
“Ah. I see today’s the day, Father?” Gregor asked.
“It is. My best efforts have convinced her to change her mind. All that’s left is the axe for her.”
Gregor stepped over to Tira, who was regaining feeling in her arms and legs again as her broken neck healed. It should have hurt, but the band of light was stopping the pain. She reached towards Gregor, and new bands clamped around her wrists before her hands could close around his throat.
“I truly am sorry,” Gregor said. Father frowned just slightly, and Gregor quickly clarified, “That you didn’t choose to answer. Although you are my foe, I hate to see you suffer for your stubbornness.”
“I am going to feed you your own entrails, you dickless coward,” Tira spat the words at him.
“Eloquent as always,” Gregor said with a laugh. “After the execution,” he said to Father, “I assume am to resume my mission?”
Oliscorp nodded. “You did well here, child. Stay for the night to drink in your reward. Tomorrow you return. Sadly, you were unable to rescue this one in time.”
Gregor frowned, the picture of consternation. “If only we’d gotten her message sooner, I might have made it.”
They should have laughed, in Tira’s opinion. Some maniacal cackling like a Dungeon boss to let her know they were being sadistic for the sake of cruelty. They shouldn’t look like they honestly regretted the words they were saying.
No one should be able to lie without the Creators striking them down.
Unfortunately, the Creators showed their disinterest in the world by allowing Father to lead her along.
The execution arena was also used for gladiatorial matches, purification rituals, and basically any kind of bloodsport the Sunborne could think of to appease the masses that had flocked to their banner. The stands weren’t full today. The execution of another Fire mana adventurer wasn’t a huge event. Only a couple hundred people, which was small by the scores the Sunborn had gathered to their banner. They still made quite the cheer when they saw her.
The sound attracted several glowing lights. Mana Cores. They were to Dungeons what mice were to humans – of the same type, but far simpler. They looked like glowing orbs in the dawn air, flickering balls that could only absorb a single element type and release it in its refined form. Most of them were unnaturally dark or putrid greens and yellows. Elemental Dark and Decay. They were attracted to places of death.
How many executions had happened here?
Tira kept her eye out for any Fire Cores. They won’t common in the air without something burning nearby to attract them, but they did appear sometimes, wandering and searching for a souce of flame. If she could put her hand in that field of refined mana, the churning flames would make her flesh sear in a matter of seconds, but she could also absorb every drop of it. She could then use her affinity to…
The bands on her wrist tugged, and she realized absolutely nothing.
At the center of the arena was a wooden stage. There was a flat stone on it, white marble that had been stained with blood. A basket lay in front of it, ready to catch her head when it fell.
“My people!” Father shouted to the adoration of the crowd. Their cheers swelled, and the rest of his speech was lost to Tira’s memory. At some point the crowd’s noise had deepened as cheers turned to jeers and admonishments directed at her. Something Father said had struck Tira as funny, and she’d tried to laugh in defiance. She would have, if not for the band around her throat tightening, cutting off her ability to make any sound. It forced her neck to bend, eyes directed towards the dirt, giving the appearance she was hanging her head in shame. Her shaking could easily be taken as fear or tears, not the suppressed laughter of the soon to be damned.
It was insanity.
“Thanks,” she croaked out with what little volume she could muster. “If I’m going to die today, I needed the laugh.”
Only Father could have heard her, but if he did, he gave no sign of it.He was in full swing, riling up the masses with his talk of…whatever it had been. She remembered a bit about the importance of everyone joining together against a common foe, who apparently Tira worked for.
Tira wasn’t listening. If these were here last moments alive, she wanted to spend them watching the mana cores floating through the air, dancing balls of raw elemental power. It was a rare sight to see so many gathered together. They were beautiful, even with so many Dark and Decay cores, and Tira wanted her last sight to be of them.
Her contemplation was interrupted by a tug at her bonds. She was being led up the stairs right now. It was time to die.
The execution was a hooded giant of a man. Of could he was strong – he had the strength to cut through bone with that axe, and had probably sent dozens of heroes to their death. People, like all life, released a burst of experience when they died. That mana would fly back towards whoever had landed the killing blow, even at a distance.
Outside of farming a dungeon it was the most efficient way to gain ranks. People who didn’t have a dungeon and weren’t psychopaths would cultivate from the mana released by mana cores or just find somewhere far from other people to draw ambient mana out of the air. She couldn’t see anything denoting the executioner’s tier, but he had to be silver at least. She’d be a light snack for his power.
Tira came to a decision as her neck was pressed against the bloodstained marble. The bond around her throat pulled back, although Father was not going to be stupid enough to allow her to speak. Instead it crept up to cover her mouth, and the ones at her wrists pulled her hands behind her back.
A tiny bit of fire mana was all she had left.
It was enough. As the headsman raised back his axe, she reached deep into herself, grabbing at the little remaining mana, and activated Cauterize. By the time the axe was swinging forward, the pain was so great Tira was ready to black out, and steam was rising from her pores. If it wasn’t for the bond of Light over her mouth she’d be screaming, and if not for the healing energy those bonds contained she’d already be dead.
Death came the instant the axe touched her flesh, before it had a chance to complete its trip to anything fatal. She burst into flame, and pain became so great that it stopped mattering altogether, her nerves either shutting down or, more likely, being burned out to the point where they couldn’t inform her that she was dying.
Before she died, she heard a single phrase echo through her mind.
It would be inaccurate to say the worst time to try and understand a strange greeting in your head was at the exact second you self-immolate to take control of your own death.
However, there was a certain cold comfort in knowing this would be the last worst time.
Want to read more? Dinosaur Dungeon: Wrath does not have a release date yet, but I’ll be posting full events (between 10-20 thousand words on average, with 8 per book) on my patron for $5 and above if you don’t want to wait!