The exploration of the Dungeon begins, and the Chimeras and Elves begin to realize just how bad the situation in the dungeon currently is...
The only sounds for a long time were faint. The rustle of leaves above and behind us. The shallow and labored breaths of everyone around us through thicker face masks than normal. And… sounds. Other sounds. Unnatural sounds.
From… inside the dungeon?
Storm shifted next to me. There was… life inside the dungeon still. But… the aura was still one of death. I had my bow out and was ready to pull an arrow out, or to hook it on my bag’s strap and pull out my daggers. Storm had his sword at the ready, with his daggers and bow where he could reach them if needed. Valla, Rune, and Harold were all right behind us, and the other elves were standing around them, their weapons already drawn. Scout was somewhere far behind us, equally as uneasy as Storm and I… if not more so.
My eyes were locked on the scorched rocks, coated in a layer of glowing dust, seeming to spread from the glowing vines through every crack. The structure was tall; as tall as the tallest trees, as if it were a mountain. The trees around it seemed to use it to stand higher than they otherwise could. Glowing veins crawled down the bark and leaves of every tree that touched the dungeon, as if warning us all that it was the source of the dust, the sickness…
There were glowing vines inside as well. There had been no intentional windows in the dungeon, but there were some holes in the walls… where we had managed to find weak points and break through. Some parts of upper floors had collapsed because of that.
Sentinel was the first to speak.
“We need someone to take the first steps into the dungeon,” Sentinel said, raising his voice. “Remember our goals. A few groups will stay near the entrance, just in case. Most groups will scout out the dungeon and try to fend off… whatever may be lurking there still. If you have people who are not warriors in your group, take them to the upper levels of the dungeon if it is still structurally sound. If you aren’t certain, however, do not take the risk.”
There was a murmur of agreement among everyone. Most were still staring around, the weight of this mission finally beginning to come down on everyone. I closed my eyes and took a step forward.
“I can go first,” I said. Storm stepped up next to me.
“I’ll go with her,” he said. And then, Fayne stepped up next to him.
“I’ll be there, too,” he said, giving us a slight nod. “Just in case it’s dangerous.”
There was a loud thud from inside the dungeon; loud enough for everyone to turn their heads… muffled enough to be distant, despite that. Sentinel nodded.
“And the rest of our group will enter after them, and go as far down the first hallway as we can. Everyone else… stick together with your group, and use as much caution as possible.”
There was a slightly more confident murmur from the other groups again, and Storm, Fayne, and I all stepped forward, towards the largest hole, next to the bent and broken iron gate. I looked in through the hole. Nothing was visible in the long hallway, with tall arches, other than more glowing vines and collapsed supports. During the escape, I had been pinned under one of those…
I blinked, then narrowed my eyes. This was going to suck. But this had to be done…
I picked out an arrow, and put it to my bow, just in case. Then I put my foot on one of the fallen bricks. Storm put his hand right next to my head, where the side of the hole was.
I stepped onto the brick, and then over it, just to be greeted by the stench of rust, and stale blood, and old ash. I stepped to the side, keeping my back to the wall, looking around to get my bearings again. There were no cages in that room; as far as we knew, nobody had been actually held on the ground floor. It would have made escaping too easy. Of course, the dungeon had been designed to be confusing without a map… and none of us who were born there had seen the sky until we broke out. We never knew what time of day it was, or how long had passed, except by overhearing what the guards and scientists said.
As I shifted to my left more, I felt something crack under my foot, and looked down. Half-rotten flesh covered by moth-eaten white robes, with some strands of dry hair and empty eye sockets… a makeshift spear still through his torso.
“Watch out for corpses,” I hissed at Storm and Fayne. Storm nodded, and looked at the rest of the groups.
“Watch out for corpses; Gray just found one,” he yelled. I looked back at the corpse. He had gotten what he deserved, for what he had done to us. But something was… off.
We had escaped a year ago. How was his body so well preserved…? And more than that… I sensed an animal-like presence nearby. Was the scientist… alive? Somehow? For a moment I hesitated, before leaning over to it against my own disgust and lightly touching his clothing.
When I looked at the finger I had used… it had dust on it. The living presence seemed to shrink back in pain… shame. I quickly pulled out my water bottle and poured some water over my finger, and tore off a small piece of a bandage to wipe it off.
“What did you do?” Fayne asked, staring at me. Harold had started to come in.
“This corpse was killed by a weapon we made before we escaped. Yet he looks like he didn’t die a year ago. His clothes are absolutely covered in dust. And… there’s something, or someone, else here that we can’t see. I don’t know if any of those things have anything to do with each other at all, but something about it seems off.”
Harold quickly stepped over to where I was. Storm had already turned around, and was watching down the hallway, scanning for any movement at all. Rune and Valla were climbing through the hole together. Valla glanced in my direction, but the moment she saw the corpse, she flinched and looked away.
Until that point, it hadn’t even occurred to me that she had possibly never seen the corpse of a human… or, human-like, being… until that moment. But the shudder it sent through her was enough to make me realize that. Rune, on the other hand, flicked his ears towards me, and also walked over.
“You’re right,” Rune said. “That’s strange. It… doesn’t seem to fit with what we know about dust. I don’t know. Can it maybe preserve the dead, somehow…?”
“That’s our best guess,” Harold said. “We’d need more information, however.”
I glanced at the hole, where the other elven guardians were beginning to step through. Safiena wasn’t paying attention to me, so I walked over towards Valla. She was holding her face mask up and leaning against a wall. I put my hand on her shoulder.
“If you need to step outside, nobody is going to be angry,” I said. She jumped a little bit, but relaxed when she realized it was me.
“I’m not going to back out of this,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I made this choice, and I’m sticking to it. Thank… thank you for your concern. I’ve… never… well…”
I nodded. It was clearly not easy for her… though I was having trouble even imagining what it would be like to not have seen multiple dead bodies before. It was different from dead prey, that I understood. But I couldn’t picture what her life had been like, to not have that experience.
Valla turned to me and gave me a weak smile, before looking at the corpse again with a deep breath. “You said there was a presence that we can’t see…?”
“My best guess is night souls.”
“How would the Chimeras not recognize a night soul?” Safiena asked, narrowing her eyes. “We’ve already described them once.”
“They’re not that simple,” Valla said, looking away. “And there’s also the dust. We have no way of knowing if the dust is something that has a presence in the non-physical realm.”
The talk of night souls and a non-physical realm didn’t interest me, but Rune seemed to track the conversation closely. “I know that Gray and Storm have both seen and sensed night souls, so that’s a good guess.”
“Is that true, Storm?” Harold asked, turning around to face him rapidly and looking at him with wide eyes. Storm was a little taken aback, but he didn’t get a chance to respond.
“Of course it is,” Safiena said. “They have those black markings.”
“I don’t even know what a night soul is beyond what you’ve all told me,” I snapped. “I can sense lives that can’t be seen and have seen creatures that others haven’t been able to, except for Storm. That’s what I know for a fact, okay?”
Safiena rolled her eyes at me, but Harold nodded.
“That sounds like you can see night souls to me,” he said. Sentinel and Snitch had come in, but not spoken; simply listened. Until that point.
“That’s one of the few things that threads many of the chimeras who were born in the dungeon together,” Sentinel said. “The ability to sense those lives. Yet, most chimeras who can sense them have never experienced a bond like the sorcerers and sorceresses of Sinaif have with those creatures. With… a few exceptions.”
“Exceptions such as?” Safiena challenged him. He glanced at Storm and I.
“Gray and Storm used to be bound to a night soul, when they were small. We… don’t know… what happened, however.”
There was a thick silence between the elves. “It was… removed?” Safiena asked.
“We don’t know,” Sentinel said. “All we know is that both Storm and Gray could see a creature that could only be even sensed by a few others, and then one day, they were both taken by the scientists, and when they recovered, they couldn’t find the creature anywhere and nobody could sense the creature any more.”
Storm had walked forward towards me, but turned around when Sentinel was done talking. “Before anyone asks, no, I don’t remember much more than that. Just the usual being strapped down, and something being injected into me, then being dragged down the hallway back to Mom’s cell, where Gray and I slept.”
I pointed at him. “And I don’t remember any more either,” I said. “We have no idea what they did to us, or… them.”
Safiena smiled, and I felt a pang of anger and unease. What was making her so happy about that…? She didn’t share her thoughts, however; simply moved on and kept looking around.
“So far this isn’t looking much like a dungeon, or a prison,” Safiena muttered, putting her hand on one of the flat stone walls.
“The cells were on other floors,” Scout said. His sudden presence shocked all the elves, but it only mildly surprised the rest of us. They weren’t as familiar with his powers as the rest of us. I’d be surprised if he had gone into another room, but… he probably knew where the other groups were going. “The ground floor was the only one that visitors were allowed on, so they kept it a lot cleaner… a lot nicer… than the others. That way, people would be less likely to-” There was a loud roar from farther inside the dungeon, and then even more. There was a cold silence over our group as everyone stopped moving. After minutes, it ceased, but we all looked at each other in trepidation.
“It’s from the end of the hallway,” Storm whispered. We began to creep closer and closer to the door, ready for a fight.
There were shuffling noises on the other side, and I could sense the presence of many invisible creatures. All of them… all of them were screaming in pain.