Deo’s laughter was the most beautiful sound in the world.
She had heard the Ice Queen sing mournfully in her crystal hall. The thunderstorm cries of a newborn storm roc. The sound of her husband whispering sweet love to her.
Isanella had heard so many wonderful… and sad... things in this world. Every sound was a living creature. Every lilt of an accent a story to be told but never heard. Every word hid countless emotions.
It all became so very sad when the beauty of pure sound was locked behind restraint and regret.
But not her Deo. Every word he yelled was so honest. So beautifully...painfully honest. She would treasure him always.
The sound she heard now was not as beautiful as her boy, there was just no comparison but...
It was wonderful.
Deo’s hand took hers but Isanella did not slow down. Deo eased his grip to avoid pulling her back. She felt a surge of pride as her boy controlled his strength. There had been many accidental bruises and injuries during Deo’s childhood when he’d thrown temper tantrums but Isanella had never faltered.
She loved the men in her life. Her husband, his hands once so drenched in blood now turned to making things; and her son, so wonderfully Deo.
The tunnel before her became a little harder to navigate as weird roots and vines began to grow out of the walls. Eventually, the soil ground became nothing but roots; vines brushing her hair every second, though she pushed on regardless.
Every single one of the vines and roots all trembled with noise.
Every single one of them was trying to hold back a song.
It was almost painful to Isanella until she understood they were waiting for their cue. The worry and pain that filled her waned, replaced by a small smile and excitement.
Isanella loved music.
She was music in physical form.
Music was such a powerful force, so much like magic but entirely different at the same time. Isanella was... had been an adventurer. She had visited so many places where music filled the hearts of people, but also where music had withered to weeping cries.
In this tunnel of nature and darkness?
Isanella felt music.
Soon enough the tunnel ended and a huge dark space spread out before them. Isanella couldn’t see more than an arm’s length in front of her but she could hear Dabberghast scolding Quiss for trying to use fire. Isanella waited. She could feel it. This was it! As Noland trailed in last and the entire group was waiting in the dark, a tense moment grew as an awareness stared them down.
“What are we waiting for?” Noland hissed, his voice tense like cracking glass. Poor man was not trained for this, but his job demanded it of him.
And what the job wanted, the man seemed intent on doing.
Quiss looked to answer but was cut off as a low chuckle filled the large chamber.
“Waiting for? Why... you’re waiting for the show to begin! Boys? Are we living in the dark ages or what? Hit the lights!” a booming voice called, a deep baritone of a voice that could go in so many directions. The sound was like a puzzle to her ears.
The sound of sudden snapping rang out in rapid succession as mushrooms burst into bright flares of light, one by one up the side of a large stone structure until four mushrooms ignited at the corners of a great altar. The being resting at the top was something that Isanella’s immediate reaction to was a desire to freeze the horrible thing, but as it began to speak, her body lurched into excited shivers at the voice.
Noland was screaming and Quiss’ arms were engulfed in flames while Deo was staring open-mouthed.
The thing was some form of mushroom like the other one. But unlike Mr Mushy this fungus monster was torn straight from a nightmare. Demonic long fingers, a mouth filled with sharp teeth and a thorny tongue that licked pale flesh, no legs but at its base was countless mouthed growths and familiar gnarled roots digging into the plateau it rested on.
Its black eyes bored into her soul as countless vines flowed from its cap into the ceiling, walls, and floor; as if it was some central beating heart for all life in the dungeon.
Noland’s terrified high-pitched screeching suddenly cut off as Dabberghast pinched his nose. Effectively strangling Noland’s screaming, making the being laugh.
“Looks like the sir went from opera to a flat... well how about that?” it chortled. Isanella watched it move slightly, using the vines to swing its body slightly. It was a little hypnotic.
“Greater Mushy? Is that you?” Dabberghast called, her cheeks flushed and smile wide. Her eyes roamed his form and the room with such tenderness that Isanella was almost convinced the woman had fallen in love.
The monster ran one hand over its smooth cap.
“My, my, my if it isn’t Holly Dabberghast! It if hasn’t been a year and a day! Like what Mother’s done with the place? Me as well? What am I saying? Of course you do!” it laughed, one hand covering its mouth.
Isanella was impressed with how much emotion it conveyed with one action.
With mirth still in its voice, it leaned forward to look down at them.
“But on the stage, darling, you can call me MAESTRO!” he bellowed and every layer of the structure; on almost every wall, across the ceiling; everywhere there was room and space, strangely shaped mushrooms wriggled and moved.
The ones with mouths let loose a choir that echoed a wild crowd lost in throws of excitement.
A soft repeating drum beat began somewhere in the far end of the room. Dabberghast looked around and took the first step up the pyramid.
“Sorry, Holly. Me and you are going to have some tit for tat later but right now, I got some business with someone else. Quiss, put the fire out, you can't be as hot as me, so don’t even try!” Maestro winked. Dabberghast deflated, but she sat on the stairs and began to poke and prod the nearest mushrooms. Maestro turned to her after nodding at Holly.
“Little lady, you walk on to my dance floor, my ballroom, my little slice of heaven and don’t even shake your stuff? If I was a flower, I would be wilting right now!” it cried, covering its cap with another hand.
Isanella knew exactly what he meant.
He was a performer and he could see her. Being a dungeon monster and in a new dungeon at that? Maestro most likely had never had the pleasure of company, let alone meeting a fellow lover of the art.
She gave Deo’s hand a delicate squeeze before she let it go.
“YOU’RE SO COOL!” Deo yelled and the mushroom paused in his posturing.
“A fan? I... no, the art must come first! Jonathan, prepare the autographs just in case!” Maestro pointed to one of the countless mushrooms at his base. One wriggled and sang in acknowledgement. Several mushrooms around it began to help it do something out of sight.
Isanella blinked. Did they... all have names?
“Now, darling, will you give me the honor of your name? I’m just dying to hear it!” he crooned. Isanella inhaled.
The scent of damp earth and mushrooms was present but there were also nicer smells. Mostly from the mushrooms that glowed like stars across the ceiling, a soft hum emanating from their glowing cores.
Maestro himself smelled not of death or decay but of a rich enticing aroma not unlike that of a smoky room. Teasing hints of sweet wine, the caress of aromatic oils, the sound of barely contained passion flittered passed her ears.
“Isanella. Mother of Deo, beloved wife, ex-adventurer, Ex-guild leader, and a simple bard,” she smiled. She let her voice grow, feeling each word carry more and more weight and power. She could see Deo blissfully unaffected, but Dabberghast had to visibly steel herself; hands busy examining a black mushroom to the side.
Quiss stumbled, but he seemed to stand his ground. Noland however...
The man was on his knees, staring at her. Isanella guessed that the man’s mental strength was good, certainly above average. He stared at her in shock and a little wonder but he wasn’t a total slave to his impulses. She could handle the man easy enough but she’d rather not cause the dungeon’s case to be made worse by her own actions.
Maestro has closed his eyes.
“Yes… OH YESSSS!” he spread his long spindly arms out with a laugh of joy. Isanella watched as he opened that dark pit of a mouth.
The sound that came out was so deep, but it hurtled a powerful note held at a perfect pitch. Isanella felt her music being pushed back as the mushroom’s own stood its ground.
Bards, Songstresses, Pipers, Whistlers, Beguilers, Charmers, Shamans, and now, Mushrooms. Even something a simple as child songs sung around a playground could hold powerful energy if one knew how to tap into it.
Passion, pure utter passion, had to be inside the wielder’s heart. Music wasn’t like science with certain facts and good outcomes, nor like magic where enough energy could create just about whatever result was desired.
Music was a gift and you had to love it for it to be a power.
Even just a spark was enough.
Maestro had more than a mere spark. Isanella felt a bonfire of power being projected. It wasn’t being used for anything but if she had to guess...Maestro most likely didn’t even know what he was doing. He was just loving the music and Isanella could not help but let out delighted laughter.
The people who had sought her out to demand the art of music; all powerful warriors, or magi, and even some great engineers; they all lacked the very thing Maestro had developed.
Simple enjoyment of the art.
Isanella spread her arms out and looked over her shoulder at Quiss.
The man paled and began to direct Noland out of the room the way they came, the man not putting up much of a fight in his current state. Dabberghast sighed and also stood.
“I’ll be back!” she promised Maestro with a side smile. He bowed to her.
“Always welcome, my lovely Holly!” he smiled, with all his teeth. Deo eyes Quiss and looked unsure.
“Go on, I’m going to stay here... and sing some songs,” Isanella gently pushed Deo towards the retreating group. Deo frowned but then smiled.
“Let me hear them later! Where you make the song go inside my heart?” he begged. Isanella made a show of thinking about it then smiled as Deo’s face began to fall.
“Always my little sunshine,” she kissed him on the forehead. The boy laughed and ran after Quiss.
“Delta likes him very much,” Maestro called. Isanella turned and tilted her head.
“Deo likes Delta. I am beginning to see why,” she moved forward and put a foot on the bottom of the stone steps.
The air seemed to change in an instant. The almost casual overtone Maestro had been projecting now felt charged.
“Now, I’ve been hearing you speak and speak but hunny, I want to hear you sing. This place has been too calm for too long. Rrrready? It’s showtime!” Maestro flexed and the mushrooms around the room began to flash in a series of patterns and colors.
“Take a bow, human! The king of soul is here to show you his stuff!” Maestro clicked one finger as various odd-shaped mushrooms began to twitch and music erupted around the room.
Isanella took off her cozy sweater and dropped it to the ground. Her arms were compact but covered in scars. With ease, she removed the hair tie keeping her long hair up.
The beat was electrifying. It should have sounded harsh, like metal in a storm but it carried such a need to make her dance that Isanella loved it.
“Techno is a little harsh but if we start slow then I’m just not respecting you, sugar!” Maestro pointed down at her.
“I accept your challenge, but please... call me Isanella,” she requested and began to climb the stairs; however, to her surprise, a row of mushrooms blocked her path.
A trio of mushrooms looked up at her and let loose a series of sounds.
“Come now, Nella, if you want to reach the king, you must get through his vassals! Show me your heart!” Maestro cried with joy.
She looked down at them and with one note, made them bow in defeat. The next row held 5 mushrooms and Isanella strode towards them confidently.
She was having immense amounts of fun. She would have to bake so much when she got home just to keep her emotions under control.
Her husband’s waist was going to regret marrying her at this rate.
Isanella giggled and let the music take her.
“So you got through the mudroom? Not bad, I mean pretty simple but that’s the beauty of it,” Ruli watched as Grim marked the fake platforms from the real ones by memory alone.
“I’ll have to check if the fakes change position or the like but it was an easy room if you use logic,” Grim boasted a little.
“Easy for now. You do know Delta makes everything better soon enough. Just watch, it’ll get something to make it all ‘Delta-ish’,” Ruli defended the room.
From what she had figured out from Delta’s character in the passing of words between Delta’s monsters and that brief appearance of her avatar when the mime appeared...
It was kind of lucky Delta had defenceses at all; but then again there was that snot-nosed brat, Nu, that appeared once in a while.
He seemed to have his head up his ass but at least it was going in the right direction. Though Delta maybe had to keep Nu from decking the place out in sharp spikes and evil overlord thrones.
Evil thrones were so last season.
“Only an idiot would struggle with this,” he stated.
“How can you not know which is the real one? Did you not cross this yourself?” Noland asked with exasperation.
Dabberghast lingered behind to talk to Deo. They diverted into the pond room for a moment, saying something about the plants at the bottom of the pond.
Quiss opened his mouth but didn’t feel like telling the man that he had been pushed in and just climbed out the other end.
“It’s been a while. Besides, Mr Mushy and Numb here can help,” he suggested. He looked to the two monsters. Mr Mushy gave him a thumbs up and walked forward with cheer.
Quiss watched blankly as Mr Mushy simply hopped into the mud pit and began to make his way across with a cheerful stride.
“I should have expected that. Numb?” he tried the goblin next. Numb raised one brow.
“Asking for hints? Is not the whole point of the room, to try and fail then try and pass?” Numb asked innocently; but at Quiss’ glare he shrugged and, a little quicker than Quiss expected, hopped across the three centre platforms.
The middle one had bobbed but the goblin had moved too quickly for it to dip any lower. Numb stood on the other side staring at his hands with utter delight.
“Still getting used to this body, who knew I could do that?”
Quiss could see how the challenge of this room would be a pain.
“Can’t you just use magic to get us across?” Noland tried. Quiss turned to him and in his driest tone spoke slowly.
“Yes, let me just make a bridge made of fire for you, your majesty,” he stressed. Noland growled.
“Don’t you know any other magic?” he asked, sounding a little desperate. Quiss knew how to summon ducks, but he guessed that wouldn’t really help unless he summoned a lot.
“Nope,” he lied and that was when the dungeon shook. The walls, the floors, the very air seemed to tremble as music filled tunnels.
A duet of male and female sang words that he couldn’t quite hear, but the force seeped into Quiss’ bones.
Isanella was singing.
She hadn’t done that, if his research was right, since the Ulane. The castle now famous for having no sound at all. Those who lived there and those who passed through experienced no sound. They weren’t deaf but sound just didn’t work. The ingredients for music and song were now gone.
Removed by Isanella.
For what reason, Quiss had never asked. He would have to offer his story in trade and he had no inclination to do so.
Quiss pushed Noland on to the first platform in the middle and it held.
“First part done, now if we keep this up, we’ll be across in no time,” Quiss nodded and before Noland could protest, he pushed Noland on to the next one.
It sank and there was a splat.
The somehow pristine clipboard came floating along the surface of the mud a moment later.
“Well, not that one,” Quiss said helpfully as Noland turned slowly to glare at him.
He climbed out of the pit and Quiss just stood there with a huge smile on his face. It was mean he knew, but he couldn’t help enjoying it. He knew exactly what path to take but he just wanted to see the man suffe-
Something jabbed into his side and Quiss turned to see a wooden log pushing out of the nearby wall and into said side.
He wobbled and toppled over.
When... had Delta put those in?
The mud around Quiss began to bubble with heat.
“Stop laughing!” Grim demanded as Ruli wiped at her eyes.
“S-sorry but you got rammed up the ass by Boary? Why didn’t you just sneak past or feed it some mushrooms?” she asked. Grim opened his mouth but shut it with a click when no answer came.
“So you got the grove and got chased around for ages. Anything else in the room or is it same ole, same ole? Can’t expect Delta to make everything better. Sometimes you gotta call something done for the day or you’ll never get anything else done,” she nodded at her own wisdom.
“Mushrooms, pigs, goblins, and me running for my life. Same ole...same ole,” Grim muttered. His pen drew a snoozing Boary next to the room.
“As you can see Deo, such a fertile area can support many mushrooms!” Dabberghast beamed as they stood just before the grove. Deo looked around.
“I REMEMBER BEING NEARLY EATEN BY A SPIDER HERE!” he agreed.
Noland looked at the towel that Numb had fetched for him and shook his head.
“This dungeon likes its mushrooms. Is there any reason for this?” he asked Quiss.
Delta liked mushrooms because...
“She just does. I mean why do you like that clipboard so much?” he deflected. Noland snorted.
“Written documents are the foundation of history and society. A good document can neatly cover a kingdoms wealth, population, and any other issues. A great document can change them. It has purpose, importance, use. Mushrooms are important to the ecosystem and nature but overall, as a city dweller, I find very little use for them,” he informed Quiss neatly.
There was snuffling sound and Quiss watched as the boar that lived in the area lazily walked out of a nearby bush. Deo cheered and rushed over. Quiss watched, less sure of this particular monster. It never left the grove nor did it express the same level of personality as the others.
Deo began to pet the pig. With a sigh, the monster laid down to give Deo extra reach. The mushrooms growing on its back twitched as well. It was a little grotesque if he thought too hard about what it meant for the mushrooms to be there.
Dabberghast, of course, disagreed and she rushed over to get a better look.
“Ah, grows into the fur...doesn't seem to pierce skin. It can afford to since it lives off of the ambient mana. You must sleep a lot if they had time to settle in,” Dabberghast said with a teasing tone to the snoozing pig.
Quiss watched but he felt... there was something else here.
He turned and saw a slightly swaying mushroom cap.
The mushroom forest around them, now that he was thinking about, cast a lot of shadows and offered a lot of high ground if one could navigate it.
Noland looked at his clipboard, in particular, the large hole near the top where it could be hung off a nail or a hook.
“Still mud in there,” he grumbled, holding the clipboard higher to get a better look.
A black arrow whistled from the darkness and yanked the clipboard out of Noland’s hand, burying itself into the large mushroom stalk behind Quiss.
The clipboard was undamaged as the arrow had a very narrow head and somehow went through the hole like a needle.
Quiss looked up as a goblin emerged from the shadows high above.
It wasn’t just Numb that had changed...
Quiss subtly moved in front of Noland as Dabberghast put one hand on the ground, making the gesture look casual as Deo jumped up and waved.
“BILLY! IS THAT YOU BILLY?” he yelled. There was a pause before the goblin leapt and bounced off another mushroom to land in a crouch.
Billy had been a little silly looking before. A green hat and a bow that belonged to a child.
Now, Billy looked like he’d snuck out of some child’s nightmare. Numb snorted.
“Show off!” he called to the goblin in the hood. Red eyes glowed in the shadows it cast.
Long claws casually brushed a belt of items, and black arrows filled his quiver.
“They woke me up from my nap, a gob can get a little angsty,” Billy’s tone was like the warning rattle of a snake. Each word with a barely held back laugh.
Numb went to stand next to his brother as Dabberghast removed her hand, a glow of green fading. She had been taken by surprise as well. She was a druid but Quiss guessed that in a dungeon, even she could be tricked by the local nature if it suited the dungeon.
Quiss counted two goblins. Now, where was the last one?
“Oi, you people done making a ruckus?” a snooty voice called and Quiss’ migraine came back with a vengeance.
Cois stomped up to Quiss and Noland. Noland took a few steps back as Cois eyed him.
“Who’s the git?” he asked bluntly and Noland’s eyes bugged out.
“Excuse me?!” he demanded, fear forgotten as his pride became a little too bruised.
Cois pointed a sharp claw at Noland.
“You. Dressing like you’re off to a ball. You got a silver spoon so far into that mouth you’re scooping whatever is left of your brains out. YOU! Who are you, ya buggering git!” Cois’ nostrils flared. Billy itched his nose.
“Pretty sure he’s the guest Mother said we had to be on our best behavior around,” he commented and Cois paused.
“Is he?” he asked Billy in a displeased tone. Numb grinned.
“You gonna be stuck tasting new mushrooms for ages at this rate,” he informed Cois. The music thrummed and Cois growled.
“Who set off the preening fool?” he called but no answer came. Cois turned but choked out a gurgle as Deo picked him up to hug him with both arms.
“COIS! HOW ARE YOU!” Deo said. Cois turned an alarming shade of purple before Deo loosened his grip slightly. Quiss was developing an unhealthy habit of enjoying watching other people's suffering.
“Release me child! I command you!” Cois warned. Deo did so and the fiery goblin adjusted himself and made sure his staff hadn’t been crushed.
“What do you want?” Cois asked Noland.
“I am here to examine the dungeon under kingdom law. I am here to look for danger, threats, opportunities, worth of operations, and how much potential this dungeon holds for the kingdom at large,” Noland quoted perfectly. Cois narrowed his eyes but then suddenly smiled.
It was... not a nice look. Quiss almost told Noland to run, but something held his tongue.
Cois walked forward, claws behind his back.
“I was almost a diplomat in another life,” Cois stated almost casually.
“I could never tell,” Noland muttered. Cois ignored that and sat on a low mushroom. Gesturing for Noland to take the one across from him.
“I like the way you think Noland and I can appreciate a man with a good eye for business...” Cois tried to look benevolent but the expression came across as bloodthirsty.
“As you said, you wanna see what Mother’s dungeon can do for your kingdom. Great, love it. Now, in return, I wanna know... for good ole curiosity sake... what can your kingdom do for the dungeon?” Cois’ tone turned into a sharp weapon that Noland was not prepared for.
Quiss took a step back.
Noland’s expression was suddenly guarded but... interested. This was more his domain than mud pits and mushroom monsters. Quiss curled one lip at the scene as a political battle began. A battle that was the most important thing Delta had ever fought and all she had was Cois.
He hoped Delta had something else up her sleeve. Noland was an ass but...He was one of the finest taxmen in the country. Dabberghast neatly planted herself slightly behind Cois and smiled at Noland.
...Well, now that was just unfair.
Quiss watched as Numb and Billy rushed off with Deo into the fort room. His ‘incoming double migraine’ warning began to signal and he had to choose. Business meeting that may start a war with the kingdom or small mischief caused by Deo? Which one to stop?
Quiss turned and moved after Deo.
Dabberghast was an adult with an agenda that aligned with his, for now, she could handle this. If not, Quiss could always just hide in his shack for the next few years.
It wouldn’t be the first time.