Holly Dabberghast set the hot pie on the table.
It was a pie that Holly had made a dozen times with dozens of variants, but with just as much love put into each one.
One of her children, Yige the eldest, walked past with a hungry expression. The flowers she had braided into her long dark hair looked to be in full bloom, despite being cut from their stems for a short time.
Holly cut her a slice of pie without a word. Yige was going through a very important part of her life. As a natural born druid, Holly could be no prouder.
Yige picked up the pie and Holly saw that her skin had the hue of fresh tree bark. They did not speak because Holly did not want to force her to do such a human thing. Her husband slipped occasionally, but the man always directed his questions quickly to the nearest inanimate object.
Yige sighed with joy as the pie slice disappeared very quickly. She hugged her mother before leaving through the back door into the garden.
Holly smiled at her retreating back. She saw how Yige’s feet seemed to almost sink into the solid earth, as if it was welcoming her.
The approaching vibrancy of life let her know that her husband had entered the room, even if all physical senses didn’t pick him up.
“Any idea what is going to happen?” he asked softly.
The age-old question.
“Those with Nature’s blessing in them must choose. To walk as flesh and blood as a warrior or become as nature; a guardian with wood and sap. Yige is on a fine balance but in the end, the choice will continue to chase her. Every second is a reminder of both worlds,” Holly explained, she had lost count of how many times she’d had to.
Holly turned to look at Kota. The man was not impressive. He didn’t have a handsome face, nor impressive build. He wasn’t intelligent enough to change the world, nor charming enough to win any heart.
But he loved. And Holly couldn’t ask for more.
The fool had loved her even when she was ready to remove his head for insolence.
Holly smiled at the memory, her round cheeks flushing as she thought about how rash she had been.
Kota’s shaggy head and slightly befuddled features had grown like moss over Holly’s heart and it hadn’t been long before she had given him a special plant to show her affection.
The idiot planted it instead of using it for a potion like Holly had intended but the action just endeared him more to the retired archdruid.
Kota helped himself to a slice of pie as two furious voices above argued over something.
Treg, her middle child, screamed something about swords and her youngest, Saldr fired back about magic. Holly fanned the scent of pie towards the stairs of the house and waited.
“I just wish I could help,” Kota sighed as he stared out the door.
“Being a rock in this storm is all you can do. Influencing her towards one path or another is just... not something I will allow. Once you choose a life, it is all you have. If she chooses human to keep you happy... she’ll be gone regardless. The emptiness of the wrong choice has killed many a rash druid,” Holly stoked Kota’s head softly, removing tangled locks where she found them.
Treg rushed into the kitchen. The boy took after his father, hair down to his back and looking like he was dragged through a hedge backwards. Saldr waddled after, furiously determined to be first to the table.
Like Yige, they too would have to choose who they would be in the future.
Holly would love them no matter what, but she knew Kota would take it hard.
“Tell me why you stayed,” Kota whispered as he wrapped two arms around her waist. Holly raised one brow.
“You know why, I’ve told you that tale a dozen times,” she reminded. Kota grinned easily,, making a splotch of some chemical or solution stand out. Holly licked one thumb and cleaned the stain with a warm smile.
“A foolish human knocked on my forest hut’s door, seeking immortality in a bottle. He offended the arch-druid, almost killed himself, and then at the worst possible moment, that man told me I looked like a goddess. I’m very good at sensing lies. I decided that a human life had more treasures for me to find yet,” she whispered as her children devoured the pie. Holly, without looking, pulled two slices for her husband and herself to eat later.
“O’o! SS Uish!” Treg pointed out the window, mouth filled with pie. A nearby plant twisted into some horrific shape and Holly soothed it back to normal. Holy turned, a scowl on her face, ready to scold her child for speaking in tongues but froze when she saw Isanella, her son Deo, Quiss and an unknown man. She went closer to the window to get a better look.
The man turned to look around the village, a scowl on his face. One of his many trinkets glinted in the sunlight.
Holly went very still.
Every plant within the area stiffened. A slight rumble shook the house.
“Holly!” Kota rushed to her side. Holly grabbed his hand, a reaction to her feelings.
“Kota... watch the children. I am going out,” she told him. She had slipped into an old accent that let Kota know there would be no argument. Kota nodded but grabbed her hand as moved to leave.
“Stay firm, stay green,” he said before he kissed her. Holly softened for a moment.
“I’ll be back,” she promised and gathered her things to quickly catch up to the group.
She knew exactly where they were heading.
She would not let Delta fall. She would not let her become a cow for the slaughter.
Waiting for more Mana was boring. Delta loved Hob and Gob for being such hard workers but the wait was going to be hard. So in the meantime, she drew up some ideas.
“We’ll grow more apples or the healing herbs, then we can set up a trade with Durence. I mean if we produced enough of a variety in the jungle, we could sell them to Mrs. Dabberghast; or Ruli if she wants to hunt some of the critters later. The hot spring, the rest area... we just need to market them.
“Not exactly like I can go for a stroll and introduce myself,” she reminded him. Nu merely glowed for a moment.
“What do you suggest?” Delta asked instead of arguing. Nu looked to the entrance, his new hands clasping together as he thought aloud.
Delta looked at the closed entrance door and frowned.
“I guessed since Ruli and Cram, that lumberjack, cut down the forest around here, they ran away...” she admitted but Nu turned to her.
“I dunno, we defeated the ones that came when Deo first visited then... they just stopped. Why are you suddenly worried? Maybe Durence sent someone to get rid of them?” she pointed out. Nu was quiet for a moment.
Delta turned to him with a startled look.
The words were tempting but Delta also knew that Nu had a good enough feel for her character to manipulate her slightly.
“And if we kick some nest and start a war with the spiders?” she prodded with one finger.
Nu through both hands up in a triumphant manner.
“How exactly will we go about this? Lure them in?” Delta ignored Nu’s previous words for a moment.
“You need to stop playing those imaginary games with Devina and Renny, I dunno even why I showed you guys fantasy board games...” Delta smiled softly at Nu’s grumblings.
Delta pushed back a giggle and floated down the tunnel. Nu had some good points but jumping from growing mushrooms and trading right into monster hunting...
It was going to take her a little time to get used to the idea. Nu made it seem good but there were drawbacks.
If the spiders were already dead then it would be a promising plan dashed to pieces. If something killed them all and it wasn’t someone from Durence... then that would just bring that thing to her door. Delta felt safe, but there were too many unknowns about the world outside for her to be truly confident in her defences.
If the spiders were still around, then the fact they were keeping to themselves was another thing. What if they pulled back after seeing how outmatched they were? Would that not be enough awareness to warrant thinking before mass murdering them all?
Did her gobs not steal some of their eggs first?
If the spiders only fed on the animals in the forest and were doing their best to avoid Delta... she wasn’t sure she could just walk up and order their deaths. Being a giant spider monster alone didn’t exactly warrant a death sentence.
If Ruli was here, maybe the woman could let Delta know how much of a pain the spiders had been. If they were eating lost children, feeding on livestock, making people live in fear, then Delta would make a stand. She would do her best to remove such a danger. On the other hand, if they were just minding their own business could she honestly justify simply attacking them unprovoked?
No. Nu was right.
Delta didn’t know anything about what laid just outside her door. She had dived into making her home safe, better, a home for all. But there was one thing she could do without any regret.
“Hi Numb!” she called out the goblin that was lifting one of Mr’s pots, filled with mud, over his head. The goblin camp looked much better with Nu’s arch now set into the tunnel entrance. It added a character to the room.
The goblin rippled with muscles that the other goblins didn’t have at all. Even Hob and Gob in their Delta forms were just bigger, but not so buff. Numb slowly eased the pot down.
Cois was nearby and he yawned.
“58, new record,” he called as he slowly made the campfire shape the flames into a rough goblin head. Numb grinned, the wooden key around his neck worn with pride.
“How can i helps!” Numb saluted, sweat dripping off his face.
“I just thought it was high time you guys were due a check-up, see what’s appeared in your menus!” Delta explained as she began to pull up windows. She saw Billy slink out from the shadows, his curiosity peaked.
Cois snapped his head up.
“More fire!” he cackled. Delta pursed her lips.
“We’ll see,” she answered noncommittally.
She looked at Numb’s menu first.
Delta stared for a long moment.
“Numb... that’s so cool!” she beamed. Numb laughed with a proud grin, then slowed until he was just blinking.
“Uh... what did I do?” he asked confused.
“Nothing on purpose,” Billy commented. Numb seemed to take that as a compliment and beamed again.
Delta bent down until she was face to face with Numb. She hadn’t noticed it before, but as she kept building the second floor her monsters had slowly become able to see her more clearly. Numb looked straight at her.
“Numb, would you like to evolve? I don’t know what you’ll become exactly but...” she trailed off, but Numb had gone wide-eyed.
“Me? I... I can evolve?” he whispered, his clawed hands clasped tightly to his sides. Delta nodded gently.
“Only if you want,” she promised. Numb looked down at the ground for a moment. Billy smirked and looked away, even Cois was silent for the moment.
“I worked... really hard! I really want it! I trained with Rale and big hell worm!” Numb spoke quickly, not looking up.
With some effort, Numb met Delta’s eyes. She had never seen a goblin in tears, but Numb looked... soft.
“Please!” he begged. Delta gently put a hand on his head.
“Of course, now hold still!” she winked. Why let Numb’s hard work go to waste?
Sure it cost more but if Delta had one bad habit, it was taking risky choices. She hit the Goblin Disciple option. Numb was surrounded in a corona of orange light like some warm cocoon.
It whipped up a gust of wind as the energy encircled tighter and tighter before it suddenly broke apart with a thunderous crash. Numb stood before her, but it was not the goblin she had known. The rough fur pelts were gone. The spiky club was gone. The slightly goofy expression was gone.
In its place was a goblin that gave her a soft smile.
“Mother...” he said, his voice flowing like a soft breeze. He flexed his hands.
They were wrapped in a red cloth, but his fingers didn’t seem restricted. He slowly began to flex the rest of his body.
The muscled torso that looked far more straight and human than the hunched stance of a goblin. The face, once slightly goofy, now looked firm and serious. Numb had hair now, a pulled back ponytail. The hair looked coarse but long. She looked down at the long flowing cotton trousers. He was barefooted, but even his feet looked like they pulsed with energy.
He moved forward and the air seemed to tense then flow around his body. Numb closed his eyes and there was a slight glow around his hands.
“Numb, you look...” Delta trailed off, not sure what to say.
Numb grinned and it was both comforting, but also made Numb look like his old self; the sweet being that she knew from before.
He was still himself, but there was so much more now.
This was the result of Numb’s hard work.
A box appeared.
Delta watched as Numb did a soft strike into the air. There was a soft ripple.
“I-I mean... that’s pretty... interesting but don’t hit me or I’ll burn you,” Cois sniffed and Numb gave him a look before the grin reappeared.
“I would never harm a brother,” he promised. Cois gave him a sour look.
“What makes us brothers? Please, I am your magical leader,” Cois sniped back. Numb raised one brow before he bowed slightly, one hand pushed into a palm.
“Oh do forgive me, oh magical leader. I do believe your campfire is burning your mushrooms,” Numb commented. Cois screeched as the blackened mushroom crumbled before his eyes.
Delta giggled as Cois stomped towards the mushroom grove, muttering to himself.
“How do you feel?” Delta asked brightly. Numb looked at his hands.
“Alive. I feel alive. Power is flowing through me and I can feel something bubbling just under my skin. Power with a cost but so much of it. I could lose it all in moment, but I know... I need to stay in control. Forgive me, mother, I need to go relax. I need to go stand under the waterfall on the second floor. I need to thank... I need to thank another brother,” Numb bowed and turned, rushing down the tunnel in a burst of speed that the goblin had never had before.
“Wait! I wanted to check your new menu!” Delta called, but the goblin had already rushed into the boss room and shut the door.
“Still Numb, if you know what to look for,” Billy commented. Delta sighed but she couldn’t help but feel happy. To see one of her first monsters grow into such a form made a deep pride rise up within her.
There were some really bad things about being a dungeon core. The isolation at the start, the trapped feeling, the idea that you were subhuman...
But there were always upsides.
Delta turned to Billy who straightened up.
“I’m ready,” he said, voice calm. Delta opened the menu and looked.
Delta read them aloud and Billy just stared.
She eyed the options, the words teasing her like a temptress of the night. Random pet.
She felt the itch to pick it, but she looked at Billy.
“Well?” she asked with a smile, but the tone felt a little nervous. She cleared her throat and waited.
Billy looked down for a moment.
“Stalker. I want to be a stalker,” he admitted. Delta felt relief. Random picks had been... interesting for her heart. It would be good to have a stable choice for once.
“Hold onto your hat!” Delta cheered and hit the option.
The light swirled again, but the orange was much darker this time. It didn’t shatter like before but instead flaked away like autumn leafs.
Billy had looked cute with his little green hat and arrows.
Now? Billy looked like a nightmare that lived in the darkness of the trees.
A dark hood barely showed two red eyes, the shadows hid most of the face. A thin mouth was licked by a black tongue.
Two large thin ears pierced through the hood and both were pierced by two iron rings. The form was hunched over as if ready to launch into a sudden burst of speed.
Cruel arrows of dark metal filled the quiver, the dark bow made from some odd wood and tight string.
The hands that held it had dark nails, showing the power that could fire an arrow from unseen distances.
Billy stood straight and Delta squeaked at how he almost reached the same level as her chin.
Lanky, but so tall.
Billy pulled back the hood, the skin a darker shade of green than before. The face, now fully shown, was almost the same as Billy’s previous form but it was more angular. It made his smile wilder.
“This is... nice,” Billy stated. His voice was much deeper.
Delta laughed nervously and almost wished she had convinced Billy to spin the random wheel.
Billy ran a hand over a series of pouches and items on his body. Rope, vials, folded nets. Billy was decked out for war.
“H-how do you feel?” Delta asked meekly and Billy pulled out a wicked dagger. He began to flip and catch it as if he’d done so all his life.
“I feel like this was the right choice. Mother... I thank you,” Billy bowed and pulled the hood back over his head. Delta stepped closer and looked him over.
“You look scary,” she had to let him know. Billy laughed.
“Even better. Excuse me, I need to go test this body. I want to scare the ever-loving crap out of Cois,” Billy grinned, the expression enough to give small children nightmares.
How did the excitable Numb become serene and the calm Billy become creepy?
They were still her gobs and like any good parent, she would support them in any phase they went through but it didn’t mean she had to be calm about it!
“H-have fun!” Delta waved as Billy stalked off.
It took her a moment to notice that Billy had escaped before she could check his menu.
He was only going down the hall but Delta needed a moment to herself.
“I swear if I evolve Mr Mushy and he turns into something like Maestro, I’ll scream,” she muttered to herself.
Then she paused.
“If I evolve the Pygmies... will they still be cute?” she whispered.
She was starting to have a minor panic attack when sudden loud arguing filled her head.
People had come into the dungeon, and two of them were screaming at each other.
She was at the entrance in a blink.
“You’re a dog for a kingdom that grows fat off enslaved creatures!” Holly Dabberghast snapped, her usual cheery face, white with anger. A man Delta had never seen before was turning redder than was healthy.
“They’re hardly innocent. Monster attacks, mana infections and fluctuations, draw people in with treasure to eat them? Yes, innocent,” the man drawled with sarcasm. Holly narrowed her eyes and a necklace around her neck glowed green.
Quiss strode in between them.
“Holly, calm down before I send you home. Noland, shut the hell up,” he said bluntly. They both looked at him.
“Quiss, he’s here to size Delta up for the rest of the world. This is the beginning of it all,” Dabberghast snapped and then took a deep breath.
She looked around at the entrance hall. Read the signs. Suddenly, she looked sad.
“Please... Delta doesn’t deserve this,” she looked at Quiss. The man just met her eyes for a long time. Dabberghast looked at the Peacekeeper badge on his chest.
“Of course... you have no choice,” she nodded. Noland just sniffed and looked around.
“I must say, I’m not impress-” he was cut off as he was knocked out of the way as Deo tripped into the dungeon with a yelp.
“Deo, sweetie, please be careful,” a beautiful voice called. Delta had to clear away a slight fog for a moment as the woman’s voice bounced along the dungeon walls.
Delta stared at the party that had come to her dungeon.
It was... a weird one.
A fire mage, a druid, Deo, Deo’s mother(?), and some asshole.
“Welcome to my dungeon?” Delta tried to sound confident.
All of them seemed to feel something as Delta spoke.
“HI DELTA! I’VE COME TO DO MY HOMEWORK!” he called. Delta had a feeling it wouldn’t be quite so simple...