“I’m not sure I understand what you mean?” I asked, looking at the slightly irritated Xin.
“You wouldn’t understand.” Xin snorted. “Only a True Dungeon Diver can understand dungeons.”
“You’re a Dungeon Diver?” I said in surprise.
“A True Dungeon Diver!” She turned and pulled up the back of her shirt, revealing a tattoo just above her buttocks. “This is a dungeon blessing. Only someone who had defeated a dungeon can gain this.”
I had to admit I was impressed. I hadn’t known that she had done anything like that. Even Elaya had never defeated a dungeon, although I suppose one could say she was a Dungeon Master, which was impressive in its own right.
“To get one of these, one must complete the lore of a dungeon,” Xin explained. “To achieve this, I had to change the narrative, slowly edging this story to reach a suitable end. You must trick a dungeon into thinking it got what it wanted. I had this dungeon almost fooled, but then you lot appeared and now the dungeon is reacting violently. That must be part of the reason that it has infected you with karma and integrated you in the story.”
I frowned as she explained stuff I already knew a thing or two about, but since I had no tattoos on my body, even if I did tell her the truth, she probably wouldn’t believe me. Still, something about what she was saying irked me a bit.
“Isn’t the best way to complete a dungeon lore to satisfy the conditions laid out in the mural?” I asked.
“The dungeon is a curse on this land. You must never give the dungeon what it wants.” She responded.
“…” I didn’t know how to respond to that.
Had I been doing this incorrectly all along, or was she the confused one? I wondered how she’d react if she learned that Elaya was a dungeon boss. What if she knew I was a Dungeon Master? Would that make me her enemy? Well, those were just thoughts I was having. I was certainly not going to tell her any of that and risk my life.
“What was the point of the trials?” I asked.
She blushed at that. “It was a distraction. It was to slow anyone, like the Demon Aberis, down, as well as keep anyone else who entered this dungeon out of my way for a while.”
I nodded slowly. It made sense to me. Each one of those trials could take hours or days, and would severely hamper anyone’s conquering of the dungeon. Of course, then, as well as a physical obstacle, there was also the awards.
“What about the awards?” I asked curiously.
She snorted. “I’ve been in this dungeon for twenty years, I’ve acquired a mass of treasure many times. They’re nothing more than useless trinkets.”
As expected of a Hero, items I valued to the point I considered wasting weeks to gather were just trinkets to her. Well, one of her trinkets freed me from the spell the demon Aberis had cast on me, so I wouldn’t underestimate them even now.
“The trials don’t mean anything anymore.” Xin waved her hand dismissively.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Didn’t you notice when your friend was taken by that man masquerading as the prince?”
“You saw that?”
“I can see from quite a distance using Far Sight, but I wasn’t close enough to stop what happened.” She responded. “The point is, the dungeon has decided on him as the champion. It’s desperate to complete its lore, and it looks like it’s going to use him and your princess to achieve it!”
“Even so…” I responded stubbornly. “If we can get past Aberon, we can use the exit to leave, right? So, let’s beat the boss and leave the dungeon.”
“I’ve tried this before…”
“Before, this dungeon was disconnected from our world. He said that it exists in a subspace bubble. There is no entrance. That’s why I can’t use a Portal to get out of here.”
“You can’t use Portals to leave dungeons anyway!”
“I ca-could…” I changed what I was going to say, remembering that once again this was a result of one of my blessings.
I still didn’t believe that the blessings I had earned were bad. Xin had to be mistaken about that. Solving the lore and completing the story wasn’t inherently bad just because the curses were bad!
She shook her head and sighed. “I have defeated this dungeon before, at least I understand now why I didn’t return home. After defeating the boss, the dungeon core never presented itself, and I never got a chance to go home. The cycle just reset itself again.”
“The cycle… how long do they last?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Time seems to just pass here, and I don’t think it matches with the world outside. I can say that since I was tossed into this dungeon, I’ve lived through these events about a thousand times!”
“A thousand times!” I let out a cry. “Wait… if every day is a month, that means that this takes over half a year every cycle.”
“What? How long has it been out there?”
I looked down as she glared at me with a piercing gaze. “It’s been over twenty years.”
She shook for a second but then gave a nod. “I suppose, it would have had to be. Where has the time gone… How many more cycles before I can escape?”
“You have a rare opportunity now!” I responded. “The gladiators are part of a match. A portal is open between this world and our own. If we can get to the castle and past him, we can take the portal.”
“He’s thought of something!” She waved her hand dismissively.
“Does that mean we should just give up!” I shot back. “We have to take any opportunity we can get!”
“You’d be walking right into Aberis’s trap.” She snorted, disregarding my words.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down. I hadn’t expected Xin to be so obstinate and dismissive. Considering the memories, I had of her following Elaya, she was always demure as a cat. I wasn’t sure if that was a lesson about never meeting your heroes, or a statement on power dynamics, or what.
“What about the lore of this dungeon? What do you know about it?” I asked.
She glanced me up and down, and then sighed. “For respect of my Elaya, I brought you to safety. I’ve answered enough of your foolish questions. If you wish to survive until the end of this cycle, you must find some way to expel that karma, otherwise, you’ll become part of the dungeon and you won’t even know it. You’ll become a pawn of the dungeon’s lore and nothing more. I will start my work again. Next cycle, I hope things will be better.”
“H-hey! Wait!” I realized as she was talking, she had ended up next to the kiosk.
She touched it, and before I could get another word in, she disappeared. Like that, I was alone in the safe room.
I was in the safe room of a fort conquered by demons. As long as I was in here, no one in the dungeon would be able to notice me. I had attempted to become the commander of the skeleton army and wage a war against the demons, but now all the skeleton forces were defeated and scattered. I didn’t know what came of the reinforcements, but they’d arrive to find their primary foothold gone. The demons had sacrificed a nearly useless fort to wipe out our forces, which was ironically what I had tried to do as well.
Furthermore, although Xin was alive, and in this dungeon, and she was just as powerful as she had been in her prime, she wasn’t willing to help. A thousand failures had jaded her and she was looking down on me. I was starting to get how it felt for Edward Aberis. I had a feeling she looked down on all men, or maybe just all men that were weaker than her, which turned out to be all men. She sort of reminded me of Alysia. Maybe that was just a trait of Osterians, although I still wondered why she wasn’t as tall as her Osterian self.
The woman in my memories was around seven and a half feet tall, but this woman was only about six feet. Had the lore been wrong and expanded her size? I mean, technically, it made her a giant by the time I met her dungeon proxy. She did have many similarities with the giant. It was at a level where if someone told me they were sisters, ignoring size, I’d believe them.
After thinking about everything that had happened that day, I realized I had been waiting in the safe room until the night. I’d be here all month if I continued to err on the side of caution. I struggled to make decisions in my current state. It was pretty laughable that I thought I could be the commander of an army. It made much more sense that I just attack directly.
I go to the door and wait until there is a demon passing by. I leap out from my hidden spot and kill him like an assassin, cutting his throat before he can even let out a cry. I then consume his karma and steal his outfit. When I pull him into the safe room, he starts to disintegrate rapidly, the miasma dispersing. So, monsters from dungeons can enter safe rooms, but they seem to take some kind of light damage. At least, that’s how I interpreted the monster disappearing into ash.
Once I look karmically like a demon soldier, I lift my hand to create a Portal. Then, I freeze for a moment. I raise my hand and pull up my Map. Of course, my goal is to look for Carmine. She was exactly where I thought Bernard would bring her. She was in the demon castle. I start casting a Portal to the demon castle, but it failed. I let out a sigh. I had thought that would probably be the case.
The dungeon was protecting her now, so the demon castle was off-limits. With my blessings, I could probably ignore these limits, but me as I am at that moment, the dungeon wouldn’t let me take any shortcuts. I was starting to miss those blessings. I raised my hand and cast Portal to a different spot. My only chance if I wanted to beat this dungeon and save Carmine was to get stronger.