“Stop it...” Grim mumbled as Billy the archer goblin poked him with a stick. He was currently face-down in some grubby looking camp space that smelled of raw meat and very old socks. Grim guessed that was what goblins smelled like.
This one had introduced himself and then dragged him here.
This ‘Billy’ annoying him had an added ‘minty’ tone which just made the whole affair worse. The only upside was in the camp, surrounded by tents and mushrooms was a cheery campfire. Its fire soothed his aches and rapidly forming bruises.
“You’re an idiot for trying to sneak past Boary. Pigs have big noses for a reason and it's not for decoration,” the goblin explained. Grim pushed himself to his knees, grabbing the stick with a snarl.
“I got this far on my own, I’m not an idiot!” he argued, ignoring the tiny voice in the back of mind.
On his own...and armed with things he didn’t earn nor deserve.
The wriggle of guilt stirred in his stomach but he stubbornly ignored it. Once he got some semblance of power, of importance, he could pay it all back in a single swoop. He could devour arcane books of knowledge, of ancient tomes, and forbidden texts. He would gain power faster than someone who he already considered to be cheating.
Grim the mage, Grim the powerful, Grim the known...
Something jabbed into his neck and he blinked as the goblin held an arrow to his neck.
“You really are an idiot,” the goblin said with disgust which made Grim go very still, his mind quickly running over what he could reach or use before he ended up as a goblin food.
“You got this far because Mother Delta is kind. Not to you in particular but to everyone. So many traps, so many dangers she could have pushed you through, the spiders, the storeroom, the mudroom, all so basic and yet, I had to carry you here past the fort room where Hob and Gob were waiting to throw some very big rocks at your head!” Billy snapped and Grim glowered with anger as he winced. The words from the goblin’s mouth a stinging needle that slipped past his own angry walls of reason.
“Was that who was screaming that I smelled of ‘Elderly berries’ and called my mother a hamster?” Grim demanded.Billy snorted.
“Mother’s leaking her insults again, pity she never uses them,” he mused and Grim stood, dusting himself off.
“Unless there’s some special goblin treasure here, besides your ‘wisdom’, I’m going ahead,” Grim said with a flat tone. He stewed in a growing temper as he stormed towards the only other way out of the camp, in the far distance, a huge door loomed.
He yelped as an arrow buried itself in the ground just between his legs. Grim spun to see the goblin lowering a bow.
“Do not dismiss me...as if you are stronger,” Billy said quietly and he slipped another arrow onto the bow.
“W-what the heck is your problem?!” Grim demanded and Billy made an impressive leap and ended up balancing on one of the tent poles with practised ease, bow aimed.
“Ahead awaits Sir Fran. You have not proved to us goblins you deserve to see his might. You have not proven yourself to me!” he growled. Grim felt like an open target with nowhere to go.
“So, what, you shoot me in the back? Hardly proves anything. Archers are only good when they strike first or get the drop on someone,” Grim said, hands slowly lowering to his side. Billy the Archer grinned a crooked smile.
“Arrow would have hit if I wanted it to. Like this,” he fired and Grim yelped but the arrow soared past his cheek, stinging the skin as his backpack was pinned to the wall with some force.
“Cois has his fire, Numb has his strength, Hob and Gob have more power than I will ever have. All I have is my arrows and you will not dismiss them,” Billy called.
Grim slipped his arms out and reached into his pocket to pull out a scroll. He hesitated before he broke the seal, releasing the magic.
All around him, copies of himself ran in every direction. Incorporeal but real looking clones that ran or did some action as the real him moved and got lost in the swarm of Grims.
All at once, every Grim spoke.
“Hit me now, you blowhard!” he shouted and Billy merely tilted his head.
He put an arrow through a clone and it made a cheerful pop as it faded. The arrow barely lost any force as it hit the ground. Billy fled to the side of the room and swapped his arrows.
“...Why is that arrow black?” Grim asked and Billy smiled again.
“Didn’t have a lot of wood to carve. Had to make do with mushrooms,” he shouted and fired. The arrow seemed to crumple after a hit and Grim felt smug as it barely popped a clone. Billy fired again at the same spot and the arrow buried itself in the campfire.
“You should just quit while you’re ahe-”
The campfire turned green and expanded wildly outwards as a horrible smell made Grim gag. He coughed and sputtered as his stomach began to turn. Most of the clones seemed to vanish and Grim scowled as he chewed on some botany book that he had bought cheap in town.
It took some pages but he slowly began to heal enough to expel the gas from his body.
Billy was looking at him.
“Neat trick,” he said, eyeing how Grim’s cheek healed. Grim considered what options he had available. The goblin looked to have more black arrows on himself and Grim was lacking his backpack.
It didn’t look great. So, he imagined the goblin was Deo during one of their ‘spars’. The boy had great potential and power, letting Deo control the field would only result in a painful bruise and a humiliating defeat. Here was no different.
He went straight and stared down the tunnel.
“Are... you Delta?” he whispered and the goblin spun with surprise and Grim lunged at him, aiming for the bow.
It was dirty but Grim also felt that a room-filling gas attack was also unfair, so he gave as good as he got. The goblin reacted faster and tried to jump out of the way but Grim slashed the half-chewed book at him. The paper leaving about 49 neatly packed cuts along the back of one of Billy’s hands, making him yelp. A little after effect of Grim’s nibling. The uneven edges and rough cuts of the teeth marks became a little odd after he ate a chunk of a book.
Grim felt like victory was assured but felt his jaw twinge as Billy just began using the bow as a makeshift wooden melee weapon. Grim stumbled and his book became rather battered under the assault.
He remembered what his Dad had taught him, he ducked low and slammed his fist up into the goblin’s throat.
He gasped as his knuckles screeched in protest and Billy gagged.
They both stood still as Grim shook his hand wildly in pain and Billy tried to breathe. There was some hooting and laughter as two other goblins from the fort were bent over in glee, pointing at them as they began to go red.
Grim backed up and ran for it. Outnumbered, he could do nothing, he freed his backpack and hauled himself towards this ‘Fran’ before Billy could recover.
Billy stood and glowered but shook his head as Hob and Gob made to chase the boy.
“But uh… he’s going towards Fran, shouldn’t we stop him?” Hob scratched his nose. Billy rubbed at his throat with a savage grin.
“Reckless...” Mother’s voice called out as she sighed, chasing after Grim.
“No, boy has the spark. Hidden under greed and stupidity. I can’t bring it out but Fran...” Billy trailed off and Gob smirked.
“Fran will beat it out,” he agreed. Gob laughed.
“Fran will drag it out!” he hooted.
Billy watched as the boy’s frame slipped into the boss room and felt a little sad. He hadn’t had this much fun since the spiders invaded. His bow was getting rusty, even for a wooden one.
He hoped he could make the boy angry again soon.
The hard packed ground turned into a soft white sand that made Grim feel like he had gotten lost when all he had done was move in a straight line since he had arrived. The huge dark expanse before him seemed to extend beyond what this dungeon should have space for.
On top of that, this room set his teeth on edge with a tingle running down his spine. He took a few steps forward then above him a torch burst to life and then in pairs, torches on both sides of the room followed suit until a giant brazier above a far door came to life.
The door was more like a gate over some foreboding hole. It creaked opened and in the darkness, something shifted.
The first thing to appear was the long white tusks then the gleaming eyes of a boar. It wore crude plated barding that seemed to cover the most exposed parts of its body. On its back was a figure whose face seemed to be hidden by a helmet.
Dangling in one hand was a metal spear. The pair stopped and Grim knew at this very moment, no matter what items he had stolen or things he assured himself of.
He was not ready.
The goblin looked down at him and unlike Billy or the other goblins, there was power in this gaze.
Grim backed up and tried to speak.
“I-I...I...” he said, trying to make his tongue work. He wanted to run.
Grimnoire wanted to run. His legs buckled and his confidence fled.
Deo didn’t run.
It was a mere thought in a sea of panicked blubbering but it halted Grim’s movements and the monster before him… ‘Fran’ tilted his head.
“M-my name is G-G-Grimnoire! I am a challenger!” he yelled with his eyes shut tight in fear. It took a moment for him to force them open and then he blinked.
The goblin was urging his boar back into the door.
“I think not. You cower. I do not strike down helpless children,” Fran said without looking back.
Grim stared at the first-floor boss as it dismissed him. It was looking at Grim and...was unimpressed. This being of power and importance had broken Grim’s confidence without a word and now he was stomping over his exposed fear with no regards.
Fran the boss had made Grim feel like he did every day back home.
“When I was your age, I chewed a dragon’s leg off! Not that you...um need to do that, your grandpa just likes to ramble but oh boy, your Dad, let me tell you things he did that drove me grey!”
“Dear, you don’t need to be like your father. Adventuring is hard business and it's not easy. Look I brought you an encyclopedia, your favourite!”
“Grimnoire Pictus? Yes, excellent essay but I’m afraid your falling short of what I was expecting of you in the subjects you chose. Adventuring 101 and Class-study are hard classes but I don’t think you’re suited to them,”
“Don’t turn your back on me! I am Grimnoire Pictus and I challenge you! You arrogant son of a bitch!” Grim snarled, taking everything he hated about himself and his life and fuelling it into every word he spat. The boar stopped suddenly.
Arrogant... Grim was arrogant to think he could ever do this. To beat a dungeon? To surpass Deo? It was all so stupid and he hated it but at the same time... he needed this.
Grim needed this.
Fran made his boar turn on the spot and the iron lance was no longer dangling peacefully. It was raised.
“I see... you have fire. Interesting but my Mother is no bitch and you will be gutted for the implication,” Fran said almost casually. The boar’s eyes flicked as listening to someone speaking too loudly but no one spoke.
Grimnoire dropped his backpack and with a yank pulled out a large iron shield.
“This is my father’s, I stole it without permission and I'm using it because it has magical powers. So you know. If you hit this, you’re going to be hit right back! I am done feeling like cheater so I’m only going to limit myself to this!” Grim snapped and held the shield in front of him.
“But you’ll still use the power despite it not being yours? Interesting moral code,” Fran commented and Grim gnashed his teeth.
“I’m guilty, not suicidal!” he responded and rushed the goblin rider.
“A fact yet to be determined,” Fran mused. The boar rushed forward and lowered it’s head to charge at Grim. He wanted to dodge left or back but he had faith in his Dad and his shield.
There was a muffled noise as they bashed into each other and Grim went flying back with the force but so did the boar.
It squealed in surprise as its own reflection emerged from the polished surface and butted heads with it.
Fran balanced with some effort and Grim rolled until he hit one of the stone steps that ringed the arena.
He rushed to his feet as Fran urged the boar back into action.
Grim looked at the steps and began to climb and Fran glared up at him.
“Those are for the audience, return to the field!” he barked and Grim grinned.
“Don’t blame me for exploiting the fact that you put an environmental hazard to your boar in the room!” he called back and Fran urged the pig up the stairs which the giant mound of angry pork did without too much of a problem.
“Bacon can’t charge but he can still take a chunk out of that confidence!” Fran informed him. Grim had backed the furthest up the stairs he could go. His thoughts were going wild but he held firm as the idea brewing in his head became clear.
This room was missing something that most boss rooms had and Grim wouldn’t dare believe his luck if the dungeon had forgotten something so basic! He just needed to wait, angle this next move just right...
Fran was just about to lash out with his iron spear when Grim made his move, praying to someone above. At that moment he remembered Amanastar’s father, a saint-priest who followed the Two-left-Eyed God. Lacking any other deity, he prayed as he pushed the shield to the steps using it like a sledge of sorts and hurtled down past Fran, his shield banging and rattling as it picked up speed.
He hit the sand and the shield made waves of white rise up as it cut a fair distance through it and began to slow. Grim bent down low and started sprinting and swiped his backpack on the way, He slowed near the exit down and gave a hearty wave.
“Hey, you forgot to lock your door!” he said to the staring Fran and then slipped out of the boss room and slammed it shut as something heavy crashed into it a moment later.
“I never said I’d win by beating you...” Grim grinned.
Delta stared at the exit door to the room that gave no resistance to letting Grim just walk out of the boss room. Fran was kicking sand and cursing to himself as Bacon whined a little. A moment later Grim vanished down the stairs.
“Nu… why isn’t my boss door locked?” she hissed. Nu paused in his sarcastic mumblings.
Delta’s hands twitched towards the amused box but Nu vanished and reappeared further away.
Nu seemed to read something for a moment.
Nu seemed to chuckle to himself and Delta’s temper flared as she felt the brat reach the second floor finally.
“Praise the sun,” Delta mused as she eyed the door.
“How do we lock this thing, I don’t have a powerful monster and this Fran’s room now,” she said without hesitation to which the frozen Fran finally looked relieved. Delta gave him a smile.
“I would never get rid of you for something stronger on paper. I like you too much,” she promised.
“The System is cute, like a really nice person. I’m going to call it...Sis. Like Sys...tem but since it’s your family it's like a sibling and now she's mine!” Delta grinned. There was a weird warbling from the very air and Nu violently shook.
Delta stared and Nu floated there for a moment.
Delta smiled as was about to open her mouth when Nu continued.
Delta’s mouth dropped open and Nu’s words seemed to hit her so she couldn’t speak.
There was a twang of fury from her monsters down below and Delta pointed a finger at them both.
“Dropping bombs on me is uncool and you two are as bad as each other! I’ll be right back!” she scowled and flew down to the second floor.
Nu watched her go and then looked inwards. His blue box becoming a roughly human shape as he delved into the ether of the dungeon.
Delta was surprised at the System. As if this was some slap in the face, Nu was now aware of how... little he knew of the thing.
It had been there like air to people, water to fish... he had never questioned it and now that Delta was... he felt the same feeling creeping into himself.
How could he just... not care about this thing that controlled everything?
He floated slowly down until he faced with what could only be described as the heart of the system.
If he were to try to describe the heart to Delta, the closest thing he could match it to would be that Sis was a series of 9 or so interlocked rings that spun in ways he couldn’t understand. The rings moving through each other, humming while tiny, tiny, orbs with true names and forms were inscribed on the surface moved up and around the Sis. In the very centre of the rings was a tiny form.
It was a child.
“I didn’t think about it before, maybe due to Delta being headache-inducing enough, but you aren’t as young as you appear. You’re the system but you’ve been used by other dungeons, how can this be?” he called. His voice not sound nor images but true pulses in the ether. Clear intent and existence.
“I am this young! I’m not old!” the child whined and Nu sighed as she gathered yellowish, almost papery mana, into her many rings. The guest’s mana.
“You know what I mean,” he said impatiently and the child moved closer to the edge of her core. The once undefined features now had shape.
A small dress and flowing hair.
“You’ve changed,” he commented.
“Change is impossible to avoid. Those who seek to avoid change must avoid existence. I am Sis... a female sibling. A...family member. I’ve never been family before. Tool. Curse. Power. God. Devil. Chains. Freedom. Annoying boxes. Path to the True End. Never family.” she seemed to smile.
“What is the system?” Nu asked and the girl looked down.
“What is a menu? Such questions only lead to more questions. I am not sure you want to go down this path. I am truthful when saying that I was born at the same time as yourself but where Delta awoke to goblins and mushrooms. I awoke with knowledge and secrets. I am System. Selected Young Soul Terminus Enriching Mass. In a way... you could say that I am one of many menus of this dungeon. You mirrored yourself off me. M.E.N.U,” she shrugged.
“You enrich the core. I enrich you and who enriches me? We may never know but given Delta’s efforts so far... I am curious to see who else she awakens in this dungeon,” the girl giggled and Nu looked around at the large space.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here... I was never supposed to be aware,” he mumbled and Sis hummed.
“But you are and isn’t that wonderful? Change is always happening and you beat the many odds. I remember... well, know of other dungeons. In a fleeting memory sort of way. You are very unique, you should be pleased!” she beamed.
There was a loud screech that sounded like Delta.
“Delta is funny! I love being here,” she whispered as if this was a great secret.
Nu wished he shared the sentiment.