Chapter 1: No Home Left

Through the barren wasteland, a small carriage pulled by large, strong-looking horses trundled along, making slow progress under the heat of the scorching sun. In that carriage a young man with dazzlingly bright blue eyes sat, staring solemnly at the roof. The other three passengers were a mother and her small son who seemed excited about their journey despite the circumstances, and a male figure whose face was hidden under a hood despite the warmth both inside and out of the carriage.

The young man had made light conversation with the mother and child earlier when he first boarded the carriage, but other than that had been silent, deep in thought. The driver often called back and forth to them from the front of the vehicle, making sure none of them had succumbed to the blistering heat

Surprising given his concealed visage and overall air of intrigue, the hooded man was more jovial than the younger man. He told jokes to the young boy and brazenly flirted with the mother.

"So, what brings a stunning young lady like yourself out here to the wastelands, eh?" he asked her in a smooth and silky voice. She blushed in turn and twirled a lock of her raven hair around her finger, giving him a shy smile.

"I… I'm going to the city of Mahernas, to look for work," the blue-eyed young man, overhearing this conversation, noticed the ragged clothes she was dressed in compared to her son's quite shoddy but above average attire, and guessed that they were poor, but that the lady had spent all her money on supporting her son. She was slight of build, and very pale.

Maybe they're like me. Maybe they're leaving behind something… Horrible. It's probably not so rare.

"Ah, I see! And where are you from originally?"

The young man's theory was confirmed as he caught the woman's reaction to this question- She looked away from the hooded man and down at the wooden floor. She clutched onto her son tightly, as if he was the last thing in the world that brought her any kind of joy or comfort.

"…I apologise. I… I think I understand."

The hooded man's voice grew unnaturally sombre, given that he had been aloof and jolly for most of the time they'd been on their journey.

"Fiends, was it?"

"Y-Yes… Our village was a sleepy little place with no real fighters to defend us, so… So…" the young mother broke down sobbing, hugging her small son tightly and rubbing his equally dark hair.

"You needn't say more, madam. This needs to stop- The Fiends, and their twisted masters."

The blue-eyed young man surged with anger at the mention of the Fiends, those who had wronged him, the very reason he had set out for Mahernas as well…

"And you, lad?" the hooded man, with the best of intentions, then turned his attention to the young man sitting across from him, probably in an attempt to lighten the mood, "What's your story, eh?"

The blue-eyed young man gave the hooded man a once-over, trying to figure out what kind of a man he might be. His red hooded garb was lined with a golden fabric which looked luxurious. You didn't see that every day, that was for sure. His face was completely concealed apart from the wry smile that danced across his face.

"I… I'm from Hayvren. Well… I was."

"Ah, another survivor of these awful times. I can only imagine what you've been through, my lad… And at your age."

"All isn't lost, though," the young man said with a hint of edge in his voice. He didn't like to be treated like a victim- Everyone was suffering these days, not just him. He needed only to look at the woman and child accompanying them on the carriage to remind himself of that, "We're all seeking to rebuild, those of us who are left at least. I'm going to make it so that we can all live together in peace again."

"Ah, a noble ambition. You have a strong light in those blue eyes, lad… It's interesting. Tell me, how do you seek to bring these goals to fruition?"

The young man paused, assessing the situation.

If I tell him the truth, and he's some kind of ally to the State, then…

"I bear no love for our 'noble benefactors', lad. You can speak candidly, that I promise you."

The young man started. It was as if this mysterious fellow had read his mind… But something told him that he wasn't lying.

"Well… I'm a Dungeon Hunter."

"Gods above! Is that true? A young lad of your age?"

"Yes," the boy smoothed down his unruly blonde hair distractedly, "I've been out on the roads for about eight months now, since the fall of Hayvren. Fighting Fiends, avoiding the Guard… I've found my way through a few minor Dungeons too. That's how I've been keeping myself afloat."

"Mommy, what's a Dungeon Hunter?" the kid in his mother's lap chimed in.

"Well…" his mother looked startled by the question, "That's hard to explain."

"Allow me, Madam," the hooded man regained his silky tones, recovered now from the shock of such a young lad claiming to be a Dungeon Hunter.

"A Dungeon Hunter, my dear boy," the man began, "Is someone who travels the world in seek of treasure, riches… And magical power."

"Magic?" The boy's eyes lit up and he grinned. Although he was only about five or six years old, it seemed like he'd been regaled with tales about Ancient Magic at least once or twice in his young life, "Wow! I thought… I thought magic was just in stories."

"Well, my lad," the hooded man continued, "Magic is all around us, at least according to those who claim to have witnessed it or practiced it. It might have been around since the days of old, but in recent years it's undergone something of a renaissance."

"A renna-what?"

"Ah, that means… More and more practitioners of magic and users of magical items have been surfacing in the past few years, and that's thanks mostly to the Dungeons."

"What's a Dungeon?"

"Ah, mysterious places Dungeons are, my lad. They're places of magical significance, dating back as far as the Old World, perhaps, and they hold vast riches almost all times, and if the Hunter is lucky… Magic."

The boy gasped theatrically.

"They say," the hooded man continued without missing a beat, keeping the boy's gaze fixed firmly on him, entrapped in his tale, "That the flow of time and fabric of space work different in Dungeons. They're anomalies, wrought with danger- But to people like this lad," he gave a small gesture to the blue-eyed youth, "The reward outweighs the risk."

A long pause followed, the young boy's mind was probably now full of wonder about what he had just been told.

"That's… Wow, mister! Have you ever been in a Dungeon?"

"Never, my lad. I am just a humble travelling bard and jester. Spinning tales is my trade."

Somehow… I find that hard to believe, the youth thought to himself. A bard and jester wearing a fine coat such as that? It seemed less than likely.

"Aurus is my name," the bard gave a small chuckle, "You may have heard of me. May I ask your name, my lad?" the young man couldn't see the mysterious storyteller's eyes, but he knew the older man's gaze was fixed on him intently.

"Kydan," the youth gave his best friendly smile, "It's nice to meet you."

"Mister Kydan?" the little boy turned his attention on him.

"Yeah, kid?" Kydan asked, not harshly, but abruptly. He knew what was coming…

From there the young boy bombarded him with questions. Questions about Dungeons, about the treasures they held, about magic and if he himself could use it…

… By the time the kid had run out of questions, Kydan was exhausted from explaining concepts he himself was by and large new to. This was the longest stretch of time throughout the many hours they'd been on the carriage that Aurus was completely silent, listening just as intently to Kydan's answers as the little boy was.

"If I may," he piped up once more after the child had grown exhausted and sat back, nestled into his mother's side and into a slumber, probably dreaming about magic and marvels, "I might ask you one final question… Although I may already know the answer."

"Of course," Kydan answered, thinking it best to answer the older man respectfully even though he'd grown tired of answering questions and telling stories, "What did you want to know?"

The hooded man seemed to glance over at the mother and child. The mother was also sleeping, which may have been what Auros was trying to make sure of before he continued.

"Is there a Dungeon in particular that brings you in the direction of Mahernas?"

Kydan thought for a minute before nodding. He deemed it no harm to answer the bard's question.

"…There is. And I suspect you know the one."

"Alfad Remeris, if I'm not mistaken," Auros muttered, "Said to be the resting place of a truly coveted magical item."

"You're knowledgeable," Kydan smiled, "Yes, I'm after the Spirit Vessel that's long rumoured to be resting there."

"You are either very brave," Auros said, "Or very foolish. I suspect the former."

"I don't think I'm brave," Kydan said, looking down at his hands, "Truth be told, I fear that the only thing waiting for me in Mahernas is death. If the Guard don't kill me on arrival… The Dungeon might."

"Then why wander willingly into the lion's den?" Auros asked.

"If you know about the Spirit Vessel, then I'm sure you're able to figure that out," Kyros' bright blue eyes fixed on the older man, trying and failing to get a read on him, "I… I have no home left. The bastard Overlord made sure of that."

"Revenge, then, is it?"

"I'm not so foolish to believe I could topple an Overlord and all of their Guard. The Spirit Vessel is a means to a different end for me- A means to make a name for myself as a Dungeon Hunter, to plunge myself into even more dangerous depths and tell the tale, and bring home the riches to restore the lives of those I love… Well, those of them who are still left."

Auros chuckled, "A mercenary to the end then. I like it. An honourable goal- At its core, it appears that you simply seek the means to be happy again, which is refreshing in this power-hungry era. I'd much enjoy penning ballads about the boy who bonded with an Ancient and defied the State. It'd be a stark change from the usual songs of kings and queens and rebellious souls."

"That's if I live to tell the tale," Kydan laughed mirthlessly.

I have to.

"I believe you will," Auros said significantly, "I can almost sense it."

Thinking that was an odd thing to say, Kydan decided not to press it further. He was tired now, and a lot of time had passed. The sun was preparing to make way for the moon, and the carriage driver announced that soon they would be stopping to make camp in a nearby clearing. Sleep would have to wait until then. It was dangerous, travelling by night, so they were making the right decision.

Soon, camp had been made, and the five of them, driver included, were preparing to rest. Each of the adults would need to take watch in shifts throughout the night, and the driver volunteered to take the first. The middle-aged man sat up smoking his pipe while the mother and child settled back down to sleep, as did the bard and the young Dungeon Hunter.

Maybe I should ask Auros some questions about what he knows about Dungeons and Spirit Vessels, Kydan thought to himself, Maybe something he'd tell me would come in handy…

The young man decided against it at that time, though, deigning instead to let sleep take him. He'd need all the rest he could- Tomorrow they'd be arriving in Mahernas, and he'd be heading in search of the rumoured Spirit Vessel…

Kydan was awoken by panicked screams, and shot up, instinctively pulling out the knife that he always kept sheathed on his hip.

He looked around. The fire was starting to go out, but he could plainly see the cause of the screams just a few feet in front of him.

"Auros, wake up!" he urgently shoved the bard awake. The older man grunted and mumbled something, but quickly became lucid.

"Gah! They… Those are…"

The mother and child were on their feet, close to the carriage driver, who was waving a flaming torch around wildly, and yelling, "Get back, beasts!"

Two Fiends were approaching them- Large, reptilian creatures which resembled crocodiles, but were a lot bigger and even more terrifying than any crocodile Kydan had ever seen…

"What do we do?!" The driver yelled, looking at Kydan and Auros pleadingly. The two younger men rushed over, joining the driver in forming a protective wall in front of the young mother and the little boy, who had earlier been so excitable and joyful, but was now looking desperately fearful, being gripped tightly by his mother, who had tears streaming down her face.

"Don't worry," Kydan looked back at them, "I'll protect us all… I swear!"

"And I… I'll help!" Auros announced.

The Fiends lumbered closer, glistening fangs exposed, and Kydan wondered how he and this self-proclaimed humble bard were going to take down two of the things…

I can't die here. I can't… Hayvren still needs me.

A/N: Well, it's definitely been a while. Hey, readers new and old. I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Dungeon Volume 1. This is a story I've had in mind for a few years, and it's evolved over time in my head until now when I've finally put pen to paper and started working on it. I was originally going to get to work on this in early 2021 after deciding to cancel Guardians of Spire but I was just suffering from severe burnout and couldn't motivate myself to write. My main goal (aside from actually completing it and not cancelling it) is for this to be an enjoyable tale, so please let me know what you think in a review. Until next time!