What was a dungeon to someone who had no wish to set foot in one?
Dens of danger? Taker of loved ones? Stories to amuse oneself with?
Shapers of every facet of your life and culture?
Noland did not like nor did he dislike dungeons. On both hands, he was rather uncaring about the whole business. Maybe a hundred years ago or so when telling dungeon goods from natural resources was nigh impossible... his opinion would be different.
Without that tiny sliver of ‘dungeon’ embedded in objects, every coin, bar of metal, roll of fur’s value would be so skewed it would be like living in a world where the value of life’s joy was equal to how many levels of a dungeon you could conquer.
Sure, Noland could go to a dungeon and get a copper sword to sell.
But everyone and their father’s father had sold ten copper swords already. Merchants would refuse to even bargain.
A silver sword then... less common but still found in every store with a slight hitch in price.
A gold sword... not exactly a great weapon but it looked nice. He might get a good price for it but what would he have to exchange? Years of training? Dedication to a life of death and risk? Spending years on the road to master skills that would only be good for ending life?
If dungeon loot could not be given a fitting value then the world was done.
If there was no limit, then there was no need.
If a priceless relic could be farmed until it was common, it was no longer priceless.
An abundance of treasure was a lack of treasure.
If everyone was rich then no one was rich. A gold bar would not be worth even a slice of bread.
Noland had thought about it. He had really thought about it over the years. As he knocked on the doors of the people to collect the tax, he collected natural coins.
Verluan Coins made in the capital by metals formed in this world, the very soil. Not one trace of dungeon in them. If it was simply disliking dungeons then Noland could take comfort in his biases and understand that he was a potentially narrow-minded person, but it never felt that simple.
Dungeon treasure; loots, and gains; degraded.
Not instantly and definitely not fast enough to be pointless. A good magical item could last years if maintained and taken care of but compared to a naturally made item, it felt like a summer flower that was quickly eclipsed by the winter of time.
The items broke down into dungeon mana crystals, a dust-like substance that could be used for many things but overall...
No one wanted to build a kingdom on top of shifting sand when perfectly good solid stuff was just a few steps away.
“You get visitors, tributes, mana, ideas, potential lost property as rewards, and renown. What else can a dungeon exactly want?” he asked the grinning goblin. The wicked staff and burning eyes of the creature didn’t scare Noland. It wouldn’t be his first goblin.
He was accustomed to threats of various kinds on the road and actually felt better dealing with this ‘Cois’, than the druid. She scared Noland.
Most people of Durence did.
“Visitors? But we can’t tell people to leave... We’d get slaughtered and we can’t press charges? Our hard work gets stolen and we have to accept it?” Cois leered. Noland raised one eyebrow.
“Items that respawn as well as monsters that dying has no consequence for?” he asked lightly, knowing full well that dying was no small thing. He just wanted to see where the goblin would take this.
“Ever been shanked in the gut? Fancy getting that for just existing?” Cois scoffed and gestured around.
“Dungeons get no say. I know most are blockheads that eat people, Mother gets that. But she’s trying to be nice to people, no idea why. You’re all a bunch of gits,” the goblin grinned. Holly cleared her throat.
“Delta is asking for the rights that people are afforded. She was born in Verluan, she should get the same rights as any person,” she smiled. Her rosy cheeks seemed less like a blush and more akin to a face eager for a battle.
In the background, the woman sang with such a piercing note that his skin burst out into goosebumps. The noise was answered by a masculine wail as some metallic noise screeched out of a nearby mushroom. His heart began to pump despite the harsh music.
It was primal but not unlikeable.
“There are laws,” he shrugged. Noland wasn’t a lawyer but he knew enough of the law of the land to be aware of several key things.
“Laws can be changed,” Cois grinned savagely. Noland smiled pleasantly back.
“Not these laws. Rules of reality aren’t so easily ignored or, if you can, please let me know the last time your dungeon core took a walk outside or sealed herself off?” he inquired in the same tone. Dabberghast wrinkled her nose.
“Let us seal your throat shut and see how long you last, that is biology more than any magical law,” she countered.
“Then there is the fact that normal people don’t lure in monsters from every direction, infect the environment with mana, rapidly change any local economy, gather an army, have the potential of snapping and becoming a threat to the entire country-” Noland began to list with his fingers.
“People snap just as easily. You royal knights are hardly saints! Durence alone has enough stories to show that people are just as dang—” Dabberghast seemed to be gathering speed before Noland cut her off.
“Durence was meant to be forgotten. You knew that as well as anyone when you came here. Durence the cursed town. Where monsters and heroes alike go to fade away because the world has no place for them. The dungeon bringing you all back to awareness is cruel. I’m surprised that none of you are trying to remove her. Some of you chose this existence if I remember,” Noland stood.
Cois picked at his fangs with annoyance at being left out of the conversation.
“Mother just wants to be respected and not hunted-” he began and Noland strode past him.
“I wish her luck. She should either destroy everything she has created and have nothing to offer to be forever left alone or learn to defend herself and hope her kindness can win over enough defenders. She already has one in the druid here,” Noland called without looking back.
“Is there nothing we can do?” the goblin’s voice turned quiet. Noland slowed, closing his eyes.
Noland didn’t care for dungeons.
They popped into existence and everything had to bend around them. He didn’t care for them because in all honesty they just didn’t care. They created, conjured, spawned, encroached, carved, destroyed anything without thought.
He stamped them as ‘not his problem’ on the paperwork. Now this one, this Delta, was asking him to just change everything about how the law, their understanding, their practices about dungeons worked because she wanted to have peace.
As if he had the power to do anything more than submit a report.
“Keep trying to be who you wish. I’m just a taxman. When people come, you’ll have to stick to your convictions or give up. That is when your desires will truly be tested. If I had any advice to give... You have a town of lunatics and madmen on your side that seem to respect you. It would be a good use of your time to fully open yourself to them. Learn all their names, their needs, their passions, their secrets. Learn how to sort them into the right places, where to push, where to submit. Learn to be an asset they cannot live without. If someone endangers you, be it physically or spiritually, then they will risk the wrath of the town,” Noland looked at the high ceiling.
“People avoided this place due to the lack of mana and the stories told. One is fading but the other is still here,” he shrugged and walked on.
“Dabberghast, may we continue?” he gestured to the door on the far end of the room.
There was a beat of silence.
“Of course. I would be delighted to see more of the dungeon... and to show you more as well,” an arm slipped into his as Dabberghast began to escort him. He blinked down at her.
The woman merely smiled ahead.
“Simply a taxman,” she quoted to herself. Noland fought a blush creeping up his neck.
“I think that is a bit more lie than truth, and after that rousing speech I'd like to find out just how much more. Ever consider moving to Durence, Noland? Lovely this time of year, the dungeon is in the full bloom of spring!” she giggled as Cois fell into step next to them.
“Smell of cooking spiders on the barbie adds some flavor to the air,” the goblin grinned as he began to beckon Mr Mushy to follow.
Noland needed to escape this town fast.
It was beginning to creep towards him in an unsettling manner.
Deo watched as his friend showed off the giant arch in the goblin camp. Numb bragged about what had changed in the camp.
Deo couldn’t exactly understand Numb, the fangs and inhuman face made it difficult to exactly made out what the goblin was saying in terms of words but Deo enjoyed the excitement and passion Numb now showed.
Before he was an easy going goblin but now, there was something new about his friend.
Like he was more alive than before. It was odd but that was just what Deo felt.
A hand rested on his shoulder, making Deo look up in confusion. Quiss’ face showed annoyance but his eyes were a little amused. Deo relaxed and gave the man his politest smile.
He should really not run away from his teacher.
“Guess art is on the schedule,” Quiss pointed to the arch and began to gesture to the array of colors.
“Which are the primary colors that we use as a basis for all others?” Quiss’ mouth formed the question and Deo had to repeat it several times to himself to make sure he understood it.
Mr Jones had said something about that in-between demonology and Poetry periods.
“Red... blue...” he listed calmly and hesitated as his mind went blank. Behind Quiss, Numb slowly pointed to a part of the arch with a wink.
“Yellow!” Deo said quickly. Quiss raised one brow, turning to look at Numb but the goblin had already begun to pick his nose in boredom.
Quiss nodded as he faced Deo again.
“We shall continue in a moment. I hear Dabberghast’s laughter. I assume their debate is over,” he frowned. Deo liked Mrs Dabberghast.
She gave him free apples that tasted delicious!
He would have to give one to Delta soon for helping him learn stuff! He closed his eyes as a tremble ran through the ground.
His Mum was singing her heart out. Deo had never heard her do it for so long and with so much gusto! She must really be having fun! It was a good thing; besides cooking and taking care of Deo and his Dad, his Mum never seemed to leave the house.
His Dad once told him that the world was too sad for her.
Which is why Deo was trying to make it a happier place so his Mum could go make some friends!
One person at a time!
If he happened to win at dungeons and become a master swordsman in the meantime, all the better! Mr Noland appeared, escorted by Mrs Dabberghast. The man looked a little pale as Cois said something.
Numb twitched one ear as if listening to someone. Deo was guessing it was Delta.
The goblin reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a wooden key. He took the opportunity to slide the key into an unseen hole inside one of the wooden goblins’ mouths while everyone was busy watching Cois brag about something. The floor shuddered.
Numb gave them a thumbs up.
“A trap? Delta actually took some advice?” Quiss asked with a dubious look on his face. Deo agreed.
Delta would never make a trap on purpose. Numb grinned and Deo was beginning to see the words a little more clearly.
“Nu... instead of Mother... better for all of us,” he nodded.
Deo peered into the tunnel and didn’t see any obvious traps but Numb strode ahead so Deo fell into line with him.
Anywhere Numb went, Deo trusted him enough to follow.
He felt his heart begin to race as the boss door loomed ahead. It looked even more awesome than before. A glaring boar and goblin stared down at them, rubies for eyes.
He almost wanted to ask if he could fight Sir Fran again, but he held back as he knew he wasn’t here to goof off but learn to help Ruli! Still, even seeing the knight would be so cool!
Dabberghast and Quiss seemed to be admiring the ceiling and some tiny holes there. Maybe it was something that would leak chocolate milk or cool water in case people got thirsty... Delta was kind like that.
The boss door slid open as Cois knocked a few times.
He turned and Deo focused as hard as he could to understand him.
“Fran knows you get a freebie, doors unlocked on the other side,” Cois grunted and walked inside.
Fran was so awesome and nice.
The large room looked almost the same bar a few changes. The ring of torches that ignited one by one and the cave opening that Fran rode out of on Bacon was new but Deo was beaming from the memories of when he was last here with Amanstar and Poppy.
Spiders, goblins, Bacon farts... good times.
The second floor that Ruli had found the secret tunnel to was also just as awesome. Deo couldn’t wait to see what Delta had done with it!
Maybe she had some mushroom tigers or some giant elephants or maybe the Mime had some mime friends?
As Deo pondered this he barely noticed Fran challenge the scribbling Noland to a duel in which Quiss hastily deflected. He watched as Dabberghast seemed to whisper to the wall while Noland was distracted, her face turning serious as she mouthed something almost too quiet for normal folks.
Deo guessed it was a good thing he could read lips!
“The Wyin tree, you cannot let Noland see it! It’s beyond rare and it will encourage some very unsavory folk to come after you. You must hide it at all costs,” the woman urged before she straightened and walked towards the suddenly staring Noland.
Her face the picture of innocence.
Deo itched his nose and decided he wouldn’t bring it up. His mother always told him to be more tacky.
Speaking off... he wondered how his Mum was getting on?
Isanella stood atop of the pillar. Sweat coated her entire body and her heart pumped like a wild bird but she felt alive.
The beast before her was panting, remaining upright mostly due to his many roots but Isanella could see him tiring rapidly.
“No Encore?” she taunted, unable to help the old habits of her adventuring life. Maestro harrumphed and straightened to his full height.
“Encore! The main event isn’t over yet, after all... It ain’t over until the fat fungi sings!” he pointed dramatically to the ceiling. All the star-like mushrooms glowed to the best of their power. The entire room’s light focused on Maestro. Isanella flicked a stray hair out of her face.
“Then sing for me!” she beckoned. Maestro’s dark eyes met hers.
“Hunny, you got a season pass to this next show. I hate to be a diva but you really bring out the naughty mushroom in me,” he shook his head as if amused by his own mood.
“I have to thank you... before I send you to the curb,” he admitted. Isanella tilted her head in curiosity at his words. What was he up to?
“I’ve never been tested... I’ve never interacted with a human so well before. They were always the target of my acid, my bile... my hatred. But now?” Maestro laughed with a demonic hand to his mouth.
“Ha ha ha! A human has become the target of my passion!” he smiled that smile of his. At first it was nightmarish, and still was in some regards, but Isanella could see past that first look.
There was actual joy to the monster’s actions.
“Then as a fellow artist, let me thank you for showing me that my knowledge of music was still so lacking,” she bowed her head to Maestro.
The harshness of the beastly sounds. The heartbeat of a thunderstorm. The wailing of of once soft sounds turned on their head.
It made Isanella feel like a novice all over again as she stared at the tasks before her, the mountains still left to climb. She closed her eyes.
She may have broken music itself in the darkest moment of her time adventuring, but here in this hole normally meant for death?
Isanella found beauty.
It was wonderful!
“Maestro, patron of music! Sing to me!” she ordered with a laugh, a pure clear sound. Maestro turned his face up slightly.
“Darling, it’s like me asking you to breath, I’m going to do it with or without your say so!” he sniffed.
There was a beat of deadly silence before a long sound began in Maestro’s mouth.
It was low and haunting before it rapidly became a sound of creation and emotion.
Isanella basked in it and then she allowed it to overwhelm her.
Sis watched with interest as Delta panicked.
From her orb in the layers between the screens Sis couldn’t ‘see’ as much as know what was happening. Still, she liked to pretend she could. Delta was so lovely and easy to picture. A slightly orange figure who would be rambling to herself and having a meltdown about something rather benign. It was very cute.
Nu would be... ah, there he was. Nu was a nice counter to Delta. He prevented her from doing anything too self-destructive and encouraged her to act despite her worries.
As far as a wild system went, Delta was rather stable. Not that Sis didn’t take a little pride in helping where she could.
Sure, she could have reigned Nu in... and yes, she assumed far more about Delta’s phrasing than the girl would probably like but it was all for a good cause! Granted it was often just to see what would happen but curiosity should never be punished.
To be honest... it wasn’t like Sis could control Delta. Nor would she want to. Nu, Sis, the various parts to the dungeon that even Nu wasn’t aware of... they were all subservient to Delta. Loyal to a fault.
Delta impressed her despite this. Programmed loyalty was once thing in her monsters and Nu but they actually did like her as a core. That wasn’t something programming could sustain over a long period to someone who could at times be perceptive...
Delta had an effect on people and Sis was a little stumped at how it kept breaking things such as rules and basic physics.
She giggled as Delta just lifted the whole Wyin tree in a panic. The thing groaned and soil went flying everywhere. Sis quickly just filled that hole in as Delta flew off.
She planted a new apple tree in its place so as not to look too oddly empty to the incoming visitors. She convinced the system to do it as a reward for moving a big enough tree.
The system processed it. A task and a reward. It was accepted.
Even she had to follow the rules at times.
Sis watched as Delta tried to hide the tree in the Pygmy hole but it didn’t quite fit... There was a moment that Sis half-expected the hole to morph to fit Delta’s desires but it thankfully remained true to the rules of an entrance.
Sis turned in her sphere to watched the guests for a moment. This giant blue orb where she had awoken. This self-contained world.
The girl in the middle was nothing more than something for parts of the system to interact with. An avatar. Sis was the sphere in its entirety.
Still, it felt good to have something to exercise.
She watched as a simple streak of orange flittered over the surface, quickly swallowed by the blue.
“Delta the girl who was a dungeon who acted like a human. How lovely!” she giggled. For someone who was supposed to micromanage everything, Sis felt a liberation and a sense of pride at Delta.
The girl who named her.
With fondness, she had to laugh as Delta planted the tree in the only free space that might not be found as Delta tried to plant various signs reading ‘Do not Enter’ and ‘Work in progress, no peeking!’
The faith Delta had in humanity was a little heartbreaking.
The tree’s roots settled into the empty boss room and Delta froze as a notification appeared.
Sis frowned as the system demanded a huge price for converting such a powerful magic tree into a boss.
Delta was going to decline, the thoughts on what needed to be done and her dedication to her other monsters was going to force her to decline. That would be a shame, Sis really wanted to see what would happen.
She looked around, a little guilty, as she focused. A tiny part of her sphere rippled as a streak of deep blue was replaced by a simmering orange.
Sis could stand to give up a little more control.
The screen before Delta flickered as if it had bad reception. Delta blinked at the much...much cheaper cost of the boss purchase.
Sis beamed. Delta couldn’t just pick any ole frog or mushroom. Delta had to have a tree of legend as her second floor boss!
She watched as the template control for monster summoning went a little wonky without the part she was using to control it. Sis guessed it was about 85% function with various parts still as ‘Sis’. Nu and Delta would have to try and control the rest on their own until she regained it.
After all, as Delta grew so did Sis.
It should be nothing devastating. Just that the chance of getting the same shape and size for the same purchase of monster types was a little off.
Besides, who needed every goblin or mushroom to look exactly the same?
Sis watched with pleasure as Delta hit the confirm button. She sang as it was processed and the tree shook violently.
“Wyin tree has become a boss monster! The Wyin tree becomes the Wyin of Legend!” she giggled and watched as her sphere expanded.
Delta was like a little bug in her system.
But Sis knew full well that a good bug was just a feature waiting to happen.