Ruli opened her mother's icebox and rummaged for anything that hadn’t been seasoned to the point of inedibility. Her mother always did go with the method of ‘never too much spice’ when it came to her food.
Ruli prefered an abundance of sauce on her charred meat.
“Yup. A real mime buried in all the rubble and rock. Delta was just doing her thing and out it popped. A ghoul mime, if you could believe it,” Ruli pushed aside a Lure Lizard leg, a few Autumn Fox strips, a rather old Sword Stag rump, and finally...
“And the huntress strikes again!” she smirked as she pulled out the delicious Blood Hare Jerky. An elusive animal that even Ruli had a somewhat hard time tracking down without some serious effort.
But boy, they were mouth watering when lightly cooked to a juicy red.
Ruli licked back her drool as her mother walked around the small kitchen area with a scowl.
“A scavenger is more like. Coming into my home and helping yourself, I raised a wild animal,” she grabbed a small knife and began to cook the meat with some light veggies.
Ruli was highly tempted to remind her that Ruli raised Ruli. The ever altering landscapes of the Abyss and the beasts that resided there had made Ruli quite confident in her independence.
“Don’t give me that look. Your father made sure no harm came to you. He let you roam free within reason,” her mother said and that wasn’t exactly how Ruli remembered it but the outcome for this particular conversation tangent usually ended in screaming, some blade crossing and a few months of silence.
Ruli really wanted that lightly crisping meat first.
“Well, I’m only here because you ‘summoned’ me, oh wise elder,” Ruli muttered, not willing to just say nothing. The cooking slowed and her mother looked over her shoulder at Ruli. A golden eye glinted. A look that Ruli had not seen too much of since she had returned to Durence.
“Mana is getting to you, eh?” Ruli crossed her arms and Milla Jose let a crooked grin show. A dangerous one.
“Says the brat whose horns are scraping my ceiling,” she answered but turned fully, face growing slightly more neutral.
“The mime... how did it make you feel?” she asked and Ruli met the golden eyes with own dark red ones.
“A little pushed but the bugger has some weird powers, why?” Ruli replied, her tone matching the neutral expression. A silence dragged on for a small while as cooked meat filled the kitchen. A slightly spicy aftertaste.
“Is this related to the reason you banned me and Quiss from giving Delta the junk in our houses? You got pissed off I gave her a few dozen trees, and now you’re poking about after a mime. You and Pic are breathing down our necks more and more. You were furious Japes went near the entrance with all his jars. What’s the deal?” Ruli said without any more preamble.
“It is related. Here,” the older woman pushed a plate of glistening rabbit rashers at her.
Ruli devoured one whole and took her time to the next, waiting for her mother to continue. The other woman just moved around her house as if amused by it, as if not seeing it for a very long time.
“I forgot I had so many daggers,” she said and plucked a hidden acid blade from the inside of ‘Blade care. Volume 52’.
“I had forgotten so much...” her mother added with a little bit of pain leaking through. She turned to see Ruli put the empty plate on the nearby table.
“Ruli. That dungeon is to be watched. Anything happens, anything that sticks out, you report it to me straight away,” she finally said. Ruli raised one eyebrow.
“Like what?” Ruli said, a cold note slipping into her tone despite her trying to keep calm.
“Anything. First, despite your theories, we are still dealing with a dungeon. You cannot truly predict the plans or the games they play. Time is of no consequence to them. You’re already controlling and influencing it to a great degree with that damn fishing of yours, be lucky I’m allowing you entry at all!” Milla snapped.
Ruli crossed her arms. A fleeting image of a snapped homemade fishing rod pulling up her unpleasant anger.
“Lucky? I don’t need your permission to do what I want, I fought for that right. If I wanna go see Delta, I’ll go. I’m not telling you anything unless it’s important. You want information so badly, you can go visit Delta yourself,” Ruli loomed over her and Milla’s lips went thin.
“I have defended your right to go laze about in the dungeon. Several people have questioned if they too are allowed to begin to influence the dungeon for their sports. This is a dangerous game we play with dungeons. Delta, the dungeon, is nothing like we have ever truly seen before. The elders have to make sure every step is accounted for. Least I send a bunch of children in there for study and the core turns. I’m not saying that is what will happen but I would be a fool to welcome such a thing with open arms. One step at a time nets you the hunt, not rushing blindly over a cliff,” Milla said with a calm voice and Ruli’s nostrils flared.
“Then what are you so afraid of her finding?” Ruli threw out and Milla’s face went stony.
“There is nothing left to find. Ask me no more! I refuse, listen to me, I refuse to expand on this. As has Haldi and Pic, I already know you went to see them,” Milla scowled and Ruli’s next words cut off as a pink flush ran up her neck.
“I thought I was subtle...” she shrugged, suddenly feeling like the 14-year girl who had been caught joyriding on her father’s Doom Mare. Milla snorted.
“Subtlety with beats you may have... with people, you are a brick that has been set on fire and then bashed into someone’s head, go! Take the nosy blond with you, he’s been stuck in that trap for the last ten minutes!” Milla dismissed and began to pull out more and more knives.
Ruli mumbled thanks for the food and left the house. Her mother’s silent stare piercing her back.
Quiss was indeed hanging upside down in some odd net. He grabbed the thing and smoke appeared from his fingers but the net held.
“You gotta turn the heat way up, she uses these things to hunt some really nasty buggers,” she called with a sigh as she bent down to avoid scratching the wooden arc that stood guard at her mother’s door. She reached down and undid the knot. Quiss crashed to the ground with a yelp and a poof of greyish smoke.
“I had that,” he said irritated. He pushed the net off and dusted his coat off with a frown.
“No luck?” he guessed seeing her glum expression.
“I thought I had her, just pissed enough to be sloppy but not too angry enough to be kicking my ass,” she neatly side stepped a trap that would have her shot over the fence onto a soft compost pile. She pulled Quiss out the way of another net trigger and they both stood on the street.
“So, three for three, all the elders are not speaking about something. I don’t think they’re part of a cult because Haldi won’t join anything that doesn’t have cheese involved and Pic spends all day in the second floor of the bar playing knuckles,” Quiss began to talk aloud as he paced.
“Are you sure Delta is sure that the... people that took the mime and his group were in the same space that her dungeon is in?” Quiss asked for the third time and Ruli felt the urge to pick him up and shake him until something came loose.
“Delta was pretty sure. The mime was...well, he didn’t disagree. I only went there this morning, did you know there is a door there now? The goblins had to let me in and let me tell you, you don’t feel like an idiot until a goblin has to show you the secret code of a dungeon door,” Ruli muttered. Quiss blinked but shook his head.
“This has to do with the void of mana in the lands until Delta came, even I was struggling to keep myself going around here,” Quiss added and Ruli looked around at the town of Durence.
She saw trees growing beyond meek attempts, flowers bursting through walls and ground, birds of all types now actively spending time in Durence, the people walking with animation instead of the same routines, saying the same words, some didn’t even move from a spot at times on bad days.
It had all become... a model of what a town should be and even Ruli had to take breaks from the town to make sure she wasn’t becoming some shell of herself.
“Why did you come to Durence, Quiss?” she asked quietly and the fire mage stopped rambling.
“You’ve never asked me that before, why the sudden interest?” Quiss’ tone didn’t go neutral, it was simply Quiss.
Ruli felt a tense part of herself relax at the sound of it.
“If we’re gonna unearth the secrets around here, might as well start with you,” she tried and Quiss mumbled a word and waved a hand over Ruli.
Nothing happened but Quiss looked like he had received some bad news.
“What?” Ruli asked quickly and Quiss met her eyes.
“Our friendship level isn’t high enough for you to hear my backstory, please buy me more gifts at the bar,” he said sagely. Ruli punched his arm and the blond man was sent crashing into a fence but Ruli was too busy grinning.
“You’re an ass, come on! I have an idea which may be ridiculously stupid!” she said and Quiss picked himself up and with a look of long-suffering trailed after her.
“How is that any different from your normal ideas?” he asked and Ruli made a show of thinking about it.
“We may end up going to a hellish plane,” she said quite seriously. Quiss gave her a long look.
“The Abyss?” he said with a quiet tone and Ruli’s face fell.
“I wish... No, we’re going back to school,” she said back, sounding almost afraid. Quiss looked confused but followed her as Ruli psyched herself up for the confrontation to come.
“Quiss, how quickly can you do 15-year-old geography homework?” she asked, sounding defeated.
“I am pretty sure that Chronomancers can only affect their own time clock, actual time travel is beyond possible. Maybe a version of yourself who did will appear?” he replied dryly as the schoolhouse loomed silently closer.
Ruli slowed and her feet almost rebelled as she saw the same old welcome sign and simplistic schoolyard with climbing frames and a sandbox.
He was already waiting.
“Miss Ruli ‘Muntarui’ Jose DemonBane, I do believe you are very late to class,” Mr Jones smiled down at her. His perfect hair and firm pressed shirt looked like it was legendary in defence against wrinkles. His tie never seemed to be out of place.
“Mr Jones... we need to talk,” Ruli grabbed the retreating Quiss’ arm without looking back at him.
“Miss Ruli, please, I am your teacher. I always have time for you,” he turned and walked into the school building.
Ruli knew it, the building before her was not right. It looked like an atypical chapel turned into a school but there was something about it that never quite fit into this reality. The windows always seemed to be completely unconnected to the rooms on the inside instead appearing where ever they liked.
The inside never changed so much as it shifted. There had been a few times Mr Jones lead them to a hall or a swimming pool despite the fact that no student could find those rooms or the understand how the building could hold them. The few times the number of students were higher than normal, the building somehow had just enough room for everyone.
It was the paint that got to Ruli the most.
It was the same coat that had been there since she had been a bad student of this place.
Like Mr Jones, the building itself was unaging in its quest to educate the young.
It was red. The paint was a deep, deep, red and it made something inside her head pulse with a warmth that even now, she wasn’t sure she understood.
“Your plan is to try to get information...out of a knowledge demon? Not just anyone, but one that has never had a failed student in the entire history of Durence?” Quiss hissed and Ruli looked at him, a weak smile on her face.
“Not... quite right. He has had one failed student...” she laughed nervously and Quiss just gave her a wide-eyed look.
“He’s not going to let you leave until you pass, you cannot go in there. You’re an idiot and can’t do tests!” he said furiously and Ruli looked at the building. She couldn’t argue... a bead of sweat travelled down her neck.
“He’s going just run circles around you, we need a bargaining chip. I failed so many times, I went over the age of 18 and you know what happens when Mr Jones has to teach adults, all the safety shit comes off and he gets... serious,” Ruli climbed the first step and then took a deep breath as Quiss was at her side, no longer hesitating.
“Well, you’re in luck. You have a strong chance of passing any test for one reason,” Quiss rolled his neck.
“Oh yeah?” Ruli smiled softly and Quiss grinned, making his face turn youthful and handsome, a fire making his eyes pulse with heat.
“You got the top ranking student from one of the grandest magic schools in the land at your disposal,” he said and Ruli felt hope rise in her chest.
“You... you-” Ruli’s smile froze as Quiss turned a little sheepish.
“Seth is sadly at the inn but if you can’t get out, I’ll go grab him. I swear on my honour as the 497th ranking wizard of my school,” he nodded with pride.
Ruli closed her eyes and counted to 10.
She walloped Quiss after 4.
Delta spun slightly as she stared towards the ceiling.
Trees arched so high, they almost brushed the fake sky above. The Great Jungle room has finally delivered on its name.
Delta floated up and with a smile, landed at the entrance of the room.
From the door, she could no longer see the far away wall or the river. The trees had grown to their full potential. She looked at the shimmering Wylin tree above, the green mana flaking off making the scene look mystical.
Delta hadn’t had to wait long for the Jungle to spread, with floors and thick foliage hiding the bees and the waterfall. A short path led into the jungle where it began to curve with around some trees and vanished. It would lead those who followed it towards the log and the river after a few excessive twists and turns, a fake path led off an looped to give a sense of grandness to the place. A side path led to the circus and she planned to make others leading to various tunnels when she made them.
To be nice, Delta put a few small wooden benches with a clear view to the ceiling for those who needed rest after getting turned around, about 5 or so all the way to the far end of the room.
Delta drifted and saw the river, once exposed like a vein, now had shadows and branches overhead to make it almost a tunnel at places. The wood and nature letting the Starlight Mushrooms to light up the area a little at a time until from above, it looked like dozens of stars dancing among the trees.
The Starlight Mushrooms had done wonderfully and fought with efficient methods against the Bloodcurdling Mushrooms. A few times, she let the black fungi grow under dense trees or in the darkest of shadows.
She was trying to control them, not lead them to rebellion. Delta just kept a close eye on them for now.
The log across the river now had a simple bridge next to it. Thankfully, Nu knew how to make a bridge work after some experimentation.
Delta’s just broke like a hard cookie when she sent Rale across it.
But the log remained because Delta had a challenge planned for it. She had a lot of challenges planned for this place now.
A small shape darted pass and Delta bent down to pet the sniffing crimson rabbit, it’s large ears twitched but it accepted the touch, a very faint feeling.
Delta laughed as Renny’s powers allowed such a wonderful thing. She got something from that contract too, physical contact, however weak, with her monsters.
The little bunny twitches its nose and Delta steeled herself. She knew she was setting them up to be hunted but like the fish... the creature wasn’t to upset when she informed it of what she had planned.
“It’s just weird but I’m sort of happy they’re okay with it,” Delta stood as the Blood Hare rushed off.
Delta hummed in agreement and went to one of the far sides of the room, and rose gently up to the point she was almost equal to some of the treetops. A single cave-like corridor was set into the high elevation, like some secret nest only a bird could find. Delta floated into a large room with almost the entire space devoted to a pond.
Except for the single path the lead to the middle of a pond. It held two statues. Rale and Devina crossing spears over stairs that lead down into the deepest part of the pond.
This pond didn’t look like the river or like the one above on the first floor. There was no fish in this pond, only large thick lily pads that floated gently over a lot of the surface. The water glowed a deep green, the clear water showed a smooth basin with still silt at the bottom.
Delta had been messing about and with some experimentation found if she put a pond into a lair room and added some statues of her frogs, it unlocked the Frog Pond.
The Frog Pond had a feeling of some powerful shrine and Delta felt a little like an intruder but Devina walked casually up the pond stairs, her large eyes focused at the entrance.
“Mother. The water is great... I feel so refreshed,” Devina sounded pleased as she rested casually against Rale’s statue, admiring the defined muscles of the statue for a moment.
“I’m glad! Where is Rale?” Delta wondered and Devina rolled her eyes.
“Where else? That gym you gave him... he’s been lifting those rocks like his life depends on it,” she said with a sigh.
“It’s not too high up here, is it?” Delta changed the subject as she rather let them work out whatever was going on between Rale and Devina.
“No, it is perfectly reachable via the trees and some quickly climbing. I have such a grand view of the jungle,” she said and peered out at the tops of trees and glowing points of the mushrooms.
“I feel like I can almost hear a new side to the jungle I could not before...” Devina closed her eyes.
“Are you going to become a Witch Doctor?” Delta asked, remembering one of the base classes the frog people could become. Devina tilted her head.
I think so... it is almost as if the jungle whispers to me,” she tried to explain and Delta opened her upgrade menu.
Delta eyed her resources.
“Do you want to evolve?” Delta asked gently and Devina smiled widely, her face looking peaceful at the the thought.
“I would like that very much,” Devina answered and Delta lightly grasped Devina’s hand, making the frog woman gasped at the contact.
Delta hit the menu and Devina glowed.
“Maybe... he’ll finally look at me?” Devina mused as her features were lost in the glowing light.