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There was a thing about love that Wyin knew well.

Stretching her branches out, some twigs snapping as new growths quickly stretched forth, Wyin inhaled her new home. She was the legendary tree of Wyin. A tree of magic and love. This was information that was branded into her very being.

The glowing orange woman on the ground before her gave Wyin’s warm beating core a flash of pleasant heat. As easy as knowing that fire burn, that gravity pull down, Wyin knew this was the Mother. The creator.

This was Delta.

Wyin knew that she didn’t love Delta as her Mother. She struggled through the sense of new feelings and sudden surging emotions. She was... protective of Delta. It was easy to mesh affection into the feeling but Wyin didn’t let herself have that fantasy.

There was an echo of love in her mind. Something painful but pure that this new feeling couldn’t match.

Wyin looked down as Delta paced with her face buried in her hands. Muffled screaming sounded out.

It wasn’t a bad thing, not to love something right away. It gave her a chance to fall in love.

That was something beautiful about love.

Wyin leaned down and smiled as her blackthorns sank back into her bark. She pushed down the violent storm of emotions and half-faded ghostly memories. One thing at a time.

“Mother, how may I serve? Whose beating hearts shall I gift to you? Which scum shall I hang from my branches? Tell me, how can I make you smile?” Wyin cooed, just a little. The avatar of Delta before her showed a young woman with wide eyes that screamed exactly what she was thinking. It was cute.

“No hearts! First rule of the dungeon! No senseless murder!” Mother pointed at Wyin’s innocent expression. Wyin brushed her branches near her Mother’s face. The tips passed through the orange form, but the air felt warm.

“Maybe just a few kidneys? Humans surely don’t need two!” Wyin suggested making her tone bright. She was rewarded with a horrified screech from Mother.

Oh... this was fun! Who knew a human face could contort into so many different expressions in mere seconds.

“No body-parts, period!” her Mother replied sharply. She paced and Wyin could feel a second presence behind her. Almost like a second shadow, Wyin saw an almost translucent blue box before it faded.

Like Mother, Wyin knew of this being. Knew how it could utterly suppress her if it so desired. The Moon to Mother’s Sun. The pale light that illuminated the darker parts of her new home. Then there was the giggling in the back of mind. A being beyond her understanding.

She focused on Mother as she began to talk.

“Listen, we have guests. We, as in the entire dungeon, don’t kill people. I mean, if they come at you with weapons or magic, defend yourself! I don’t expect you to just take it and die. That isn’t fair! But these people coming here soon are friends of mine... well maybe not Noland but he’s not to die either!” Mother rambled.

“I don’t need to kill,” Wyin agreed, her voice becoming smoother as she used it more. Mother gave her a flat look.

“No scarring, no removing of limbs, no toxic things, no poison, and no making people break down in tears!” she listed. Wyin still had options, but she wasn’t going to tell her Mother that.

“I will be the shining example of a second-floor boss that isn’t to do her duty!” Wyin beamed, covering her smile with her numerous branches to hide the large bloodthirsty grin she felt coming.

Her Mother looked up at her with a pleased smile.

“Thank you! And uh... sorry for making you... aware, if you were happier being a tree with no thoughts...” she added, her voice trailing off. Wyin blinked rapidly at the sudden change in subject.

Happier as.. a tree?

She was still a tree but Wyin was just being pedantic at that point. Was she happier now that she could think? Feel?

She closed her eyes.

Pain. Loss. Hurt. Love.

“No. I must thank you. I have... you have given me back something important. I feel it,” Wyin looked down at her Mother with a calm expression as her mind washed away the memories she wasn’t ready for.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is why I will keep these... pets of yours alive,” Wyin sighed as she stored her plan for accidental drowning for another time. Mother was just too...

The wide smile that stared up at her, the expressive face that hid nothing, the open eyes...

This was her Mother, her dungeon core, and her means of survival. Wyin had a lot of work to do to whip Delta into shape as a fine young woman...

The door of her room opened and Wyin hid her face behind her branches. The show was about to begin.

---

Maestro froze abruptly as a feeling tugged on his many roots.

He looked at the section that burrowed deep into the ground and led to the second floor. He tried to follow their path but as his mind trailed down the roots and into the earth, the space between floors stretched his awareness and made it difficult to see exactly what was around him until he reached the second floor.

Here was the paradise of songbirds, cascading waterfalls, yipping of creature's, the soft song of Devina... and now this uppity new star.

Maestro felt his roots reached the new boss room where he listened and watched as mushrooms bloomed around the edge of the room. His eternal eyes and ears!

Plus speakers for his music of course ,but sometimes he liked to watch the drama more than songwriting or performing. After Isanella... Isanella, the name made Maestro want to howl to the heavens out of sheer joy, had left, Maestro felt a tad ... lonely.

But now... now this prancing, showy tree of an attention seeker was about to make her debut. How green of this Wyin. Just waiting to show that she was able to move. Where was the draw? Where was the impression?

Urgh, this amateur was going to make the dungeon look bad!

He snapped his fingers and several mushrooms stood to attention, awaiting his orders.

“Elegance! We must provide elegance, bring me the strings and bring me the flutes! We shall welcome this new bratty sister of ours with a proper gift! Mushrooms, prepare the boss music!” Maestro roared, sending the room into action.

----

Holly lead the way.

Well, it was more like if the rest didn’t follow, Holly would leave them behind. As they had drawn closer, a powerful energy had begun to catch her attention.

Living, pulsing energy. It swirled like spring after a long winter. Life from death. Holly was inches away from commanding the jungle to part when she finally saw the boss door.

“Magnificent!” she breathed as the large tree grew into the wall, a tall oak of some sort. It easily reached to the ceiling. She looked down and saw a path that lead into a large empty space in between the roots. Holly closed her eyes and placed both arms over her chest.

“May the green return after white. May your young grow strong. May your roots dig deep,” Holly said to the towering tree. Her mana fluttered as it always did when she chanted.

The most basic of a druid’s blessings.

The blessing settled over the tree and Holly watched with interest. She had never blessed a dungeon before. Even the ones she had known in the past she had allowed to take their own course, but with Delta, the girl who kept on giving Holly more reason to love humanity and all that imitated it...

She couldn’t help but want to spoil her just a tad.

“IT’S HUGE! HOW COME ITS SO BIG!” Deo asked her with bright curiosity.

“Mana is a wonderful nutrient. To natural trees it may cause issues, but with dungeon trees? Oh, the sheer potential it holds!” she pointed to the roots where she showed Deo how mushrooms and the roots of other plants were coming in to curl around the oak’s roots as if greeting their new friend.

“MANA IS KINDA IMPORTANT TO A DUNGEON!” Deo nodded and looked to Quiss as the man stared up at the large tree with a dark expression before it passed.

“Mana is energy. It can do many things if applied right,” Quiss cleared his throat but Holly walked down into the dark space between the roots where a large circular opening covered with more roots waited on the far side. Holly walked right up to it and with a single touch the roots uncurled and snaked back into the solid earth to reveal a room beyond.

If the jungle had been wonderful and a paradise, this room was a dream.

“Delta... I told you to hide the tree...” Holly mused as she saw how the Wyin tree looked serene on its little island in the middle of the pond. She didn’t rush into the room, this was a boss room after all.

She was strong but all it would take would be some creature she had never seen before to surprise her and that was it. Not that she expected Delta to plan anything but the freedom she gave her monsters was vast. A new boss may not be so eager to let them pass as Fran had and even he had looked sour about it.

The room was large and round, almost every inch covered in some form of grass or wildflowers. The crystal water of the pond was still and tranquil. Looking down, she saw the star-like mushrooms and the black ones suddenly breach the ground and begin to spread onto the walls.

“Eager little sweeties...” she mused.

“What do we have? Invisible, submerged? Any hint of the boss?” Quiss asked behind her.

Holly closed her eyes. The only obvious energy was coming from the tree. Could it be hiding among its branches? Having a boss guard the tree would be quite cunning of Delta. More than Holly would hope.

The group slowly walked in as Devina took lead again.

“I see...” Devina replied to no one.

Maybe Delta. Maybe something else. The girl had the touch of the spirits about her.

Before Devina could speak, something odd happened to the mushrooms around them. They all went stiff. Then one by one, they began to beat and vibrate with music.

Haunting flutes and twanging of strings sounded out as a tiny amount of mist rose from the pond.

“Maestro!” Isanella said in a happy tone.

Holly gave the mushrooms a sharp glance. Was Maestro able to spread to other floors? That wasn’t normal... that was very not... normal. How delightful.

He did it to play music?

Holly let a smile play across her face.

How many dungeons would take the same power and apply it to death? To advance their own survival and here was Delta, using it to enhance the atmosphere of her dungeon. It really was just like the girl.

The flutes and string music hit some crescendo as the mist wrapped around the tree.

“My... what a ragtag bunch of cats Devina dragged in,” a voice called through the mist. A woman who spoke in a rich accent. Holly could tell a lot by the way people spoke. A habit of ransacking travelers who had defiled her forest once upon a time.

This woman had... culture to her words. A laughing noble who pitied the world outside her golden tower. To most, it might bug them but to Holly, it only made her more excited.

“I dragged no one. I was instructed to bring them here, just as you’ve been instructed to behave, I hope?” Devina’s tone was crisp, as she was unsure of this new being. The voice returned only a high peel of laughter.

“Me? I always behave. When I am good, I am very, very good, and when I’m bad... I’m the best!” the mist was swept away as the tree itself spread wide arm-like limbs. The glowing eyes stared down at them with a wide smirk on her face.

Holly’s mind just took in the tree, took this woman in. Her arms split into a dozen or so more tiny branches, which split again and again until they became impossible to count. Her body merged together at the waist to form a solid trunk of a tree instead of legs whose roots dove deep into the pond of water.

The face was detailed as if some carver had put his soul and life into each and every crease of wooden skin. The eyes that glowed in the mist sent a shiver down her spine.

It moved, it talked, it existed as a being between person and tree.

It was something she had tried to do herself... something she prayed for her daughter to seek and here it was.

Right before her very eyes.

“You are... perfect,” Holly whispered, her fingers reaching forward as her magic slipped her control slightly.

Each step of Holly’s caused the ground below to burst into huge overflowing patches of flowers and glowing roots. Holly only saw the tree before her, the perfect blend of her hopes and dreams. The druid’s impossible goal.

Dungeons were truly wonderful.

The tree looked utterly frozen as Holly approached. It was sensing her and Holly let her.

“I... enough!” the tree thundered and Holly’s power was broken as she was pushed back by a howl of mist.

“That is... quite enough!” the tree scowled at her. Devina lowered her hand from the trunk, her form easily crossing the surface of the water to reach the tree. The tree woman looked down at Devina with an odd expression.

“I had it under control, your help was not needed,” she gently pushed Devina away from herself as if the frog woman's touch affronted her.

Devina merely leapt and landed on a part of ground close to the group.

“Of course. Now, put away your thorns,” she requested. Holly idly noticed that the entire tree was now covered in curved and deadly blackthorns.

Blackthorns... the image was ironic. With a deep breath, she pulled her power back under control. She turned to Quiss, already expecting the deep scowl.

“You done?” he asked a little angrier than he wanted her to see. Holly bowed her head a little.

“I... yes,” she turned to the Wyin tree.

“Mighty tree. I apologize for pressing my will on to you. I was so overcome by your existence that I lost myself. You are simply beyond words,” Holly tucked her hair that had come loose back behind her ears.

There was a beat of silence as she awaited the tree’s response. Devina looked ready to leap to either their or the tree’s aid at a moment’s notice.

Holly did not want to be in her position. To be their guide but to be loyal to the dungeon.

“You brashness is only to be expected. My glory is not to be dismissed,” The Wyin tree admitted and brushed her hair, filled with white flowers, back with one section of her branches. Devina sighed quietly and relaxed.

Holly’s heart jumped a little as Deo moved forward, his mother too entranced by the tree to grip onto his shoulder in time.

“HI, YOU’RE A REALLY COOL TALKING TREE! MY NAME IS DEO, WHAT’S YOURS?” he greeted in his usual fashion. The Wyin tree blinked slowly three times at the boy.

“...Wyin. Must you spea-” she began but Deo was moving closer.

“I REALLY LIKE YOUR HAIR! IT HAS NICE FLOWERS IN IT! DO YOU KNOW DELTA?” he asked and the tree recoiled as if Deo was some toxic sludge from the purple lagoon.

“T-thank you for the compliment and yes, I know Mother quite well! Again you need not shout, I am right he-” she was cut off as Deo pointed to Delbird on his head.

“DO YOU LIKE PUNS?” he asked suddenly.

The room was quiet as Maestro’s distant laughter sounded through the mushrooms. Wyin... the Wyin tree paused.

“I’m... not against them,” she answered slowly. Noland was quickly jotting notes down, his drying hair matted to his face and made him appear far younger.

Deo beamed and Delbird puffed his chest out.

Holly was an archdruid, a cursed witch of the Blackthorn forest, an adventurer of great experience, and best of all, a mother.

So when she felt a chill go down her spine at Deo’s innocent expression, she felt the need to maybe say something to stop the event but at the same time...

It would be good for the Wyin to be challenged by nature, of all sorts.

Life only grew on harsh trials after all.

----

Noland fled out the far door as the Wyin tree screamed at them to get the hell out of her room and take ‘that damn bird’ with them.

“Make like a tree and leaf it!” Delbird screamed as thorny branches chased them.

Quiss was the last one out as Devina stayed behind to sooth the raging tree, her glowing eyes a dark pulsing red now.

“Not a fan of puns now.” Holly guessed as the roots slithered closed to seal the room off. Noland collapsed to the ground with a heaving chest.

“Why does this dungeon have a mythical tree at its disposal? AND WHY IS IT A BOSS MONSTER?” Noland flailed in a panic. He tried to calm himself but the sight of such a monster, a nightmare of thorns and violent screaming made his heart hammer like a hummingbird.

“Luck and luck. I know Delta, she most likely stumbled into everything,” Quiss explained to him. The man mostly looked unfazed but his left eye twitched ever so slightly every few seconds.

“There is luck and then there is a legendary boss monster!” Noland snapped but froze as Isanella leaned down and gave him a soft smile.

“You need to breathe. Here, you dropped this,” she handed him his clipboard. The solid wood that held his notes looked untouched and he took it slowly.

“Thank you. I’d... hate to lose all my work so far,” he admitted. Standing, he took a look around to see they were in a short tunnel, the only way forward lead to...

“The core,” Holly breathed. Even to this woman who seemed to be unfazed by most things, there was a touch of reverence in her voice at the sight of the pulsing glowing orb.

The orange light made torches unneeded but enough of them lined the wall to give the room a cozy feeling.

The core rested in the middle of two spires of earth. The orange orb looked to be the size of a melon. It pulsed and Noland could see shapes floating in the light. A glaringly obvious four jumped out but there were other things.

The core sat upon a large stone altar with four stone mushrooms at each corner. At each side of the altar were two fish statues that gurgled clear water.

“This is decorative...” Noland said politely. Quiss eyed them and looked to Holly with a long look.

“Cores surround themselves with victories. A core room shows you the very heart of the dungeon. What it is. What it seeks. What it has done. Many of them come with trophies of their numerous kills and bosses,” Holly said, stroking the head of one of the boars of the first-floor boss, Fran. Two statues guarded the stairs up and as they watched, the topmost earthen spire was edged and smoothed. Flowing liquid rock hardened around the ore as the top spire became shaped like the Wyin tree.

Her roots creating an almost gazebo effect around the core, her haughty face looking down at them with one hand to her chin as if approving of their success to reach the goal.

“DELTA IS SO PRETTY!” Deo said as he climbed the stairs. He stumbled, catching one of the statue Bacon’s tusks for support and wiped his forehead as sweat began to collect on his skin. Isanella took him back down.

“This room has the most potent source of mana, you’re beginning to come down with a case of Mana Poisoning,” she frowned. She eyed the door where the real Wyin tree laid beyond. Steeling herself, she bowed to Delta’s core and moved to the door.

“Wait, it isn’t safe!” Noland protested but Isanella merely looked at him.

“My child is in danger. I will not be stopped,” she promised but Devina entered the room, her skin a little cut up from where thorns had lashed at her. She didn’t seem too bothered about it.

“Leaving?” she asked airily as if the event of a boss monster having a temper tantrum was no big deal.

“I need to get my son out,” Isanella said without missing a beat. Devina eyed the blearily staring Deo and frowned as she eyed the door back to the boss room.

“She should be calm but she’s rather new...” she commented. Isanella merely gave her a solid look that brooked no arguments.

“I want to leave with my son, pleas-” she was cut off as a flash of orange pulsed between all four of the stone mushrooms, bouncing like a charging beam of light and zapped Isanella and Deo.

The light was gone and so were Isanella and Deo. Noland’s eyes went wide.

“The core j-just... what happened?” he asked the remaining group with a little hysteria in his voice. Devina looked just as bewildered as him.

“Oh good, Delta’s warp is already working,” Quiss commented calmly. Holly merely patted the stone altar with a wide smile.

“A bit early. Usually, they don't kick in until floor 5. Then again Delta’s floors have more on them than most dungeons double her size. Could account for the early development,” she mused. Noland looked between them, words failing him. Devina managed to gather her wits before him.

“Mother is most distressed. She thinks she has... uh... zapped Lady Isanella and Deo,” she informed them. Quiss snorted as he eyed the core, looking deep into the orange light.

“Delta didn’t know she could warp people? Then again, who has actually been to her core?” he asked himself dryly. He shook his head and gestured to the room around them.

“All cores can give victors a fast warp back to their entrance. The sheer amount of food and resources it would take to make it down to a core and back when the dungeon has, say, a 100 floors? It would be annoying, to say the least. Dungeons get people out with their loot so they don’t slaughter all the respawning monsters on the way back and make them even more defenseless when the next group comes. The people show off their shiny toys and that draws more people in, weaker people. It ends up working for the dungeon more than it does for people when you think about it,” Holly added kindly as she left a rolled up packet before Delta’s core.

“Traditionalist,” Quiss accused but Holly just smiled.

“Thank you for the adventure,” Holly praised. She looked back at the boss room door with a small smile before she looked at the core.

“May I leave?” she requested and just as before, the mushrooms glowed as the core shot that crackling energy at Holly. She was gone the next second.

“Does it hurt?” Noland asked Quiss with a wary voice. He had never heard of being warped but his expertise usually lay in horseback, not magical methods that the core itself didn’t know about.

“Nah, tingles for a few days. Some people actually get addicted to it. It feels like... going on a very fast ride as your blood pumps faster and your head goes light. I like it but it's not really my thing,” Quiss stretched and gave Delta’s core a salute.

“Noland, you ready to go or do you want to make more notes?” Quiss asked without much interest. Noland looked around at the statues and smooth walls.

“Should I say thanks too?” he muttered and Quiss’ long stare was his only answer.

He looked at Devina’s serene smile and felt the pressure building. He took a few steps up and awkwardly waved.

“Uh... thank you for not killing me,” he said quickly. Quiss snorted and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Delta, let me and the esteemed Noland leave,” he asked. Noland’s eyes bugged out as the energy crackled loudly and began to charge.

“Never mind, I’ll walk back. Let me go, plea-” Noland’s words were cut off as the orange light struck his form.

He was falling.

He was flying.

Noland was soaring through an orange ocean of warmth and gentle breezes. He spun and looked up at the Sun. A giant orange orb with a woman inside it.

Her shoulder length hair, her crisp shirt, and tie. Her kind smile as she waved.

The ocean surged and the sky claimed Noland.

Then the world settled around him as he landed roughly in the entrance room of the dungeon. The tribute tables and actual daylight, fading fast, allowed him to recognize—

“Easy does it,” Quiss said as Noland’s body shuddered. He stood, his knees shaking. He breathed as his head pounded with feelings. He leaned on Quiss for a moment before he caught his balance.

“I...” he panted and Quiss gave him a small but friendly smile.

“First time is a rush,” he spoke gently, almost with empathy.

Noland was so startled by the warp, the boss monster, the core, Quiss... he choked and threw up all over Quiss.

There was a silence that Noland felt as he managed to inhale some air.

“Quiss. My apologies, I-” he looked up into the dark expression of Quiss as steam hissed from the man’s nostrils.

“Dear, don’t forget your pot!” Holly added cheerfully as she pushed the ugly piece of pottery into his hands.

Noland looked down at it and wished he’d had it about two minutes earlier.

“I just went through a dungeon... and all I got was this pot and mental scarring,” he whimpered to himself and began to climb the stairs out of the dungeon.

Holly’s voice followed him.

“Ah, the sight of greenhorns always did cheer me up. Now, stand still Quiss. I need to make sure to scrape as much of this off of you for Delta. Stomach acid and... what seems to be carrots!” she said with delight.

Noland mourned the loss of his breakfast.

Why did anyone enjoy this?

Why would anyone want to come back to this?!

His feet slowed as something floated back to him. Some droning voice of a teacher. His lessons in the kingdom’s law.

The voice nagged at Noland’s mind. Something... important.

The taxman that discovers a dungeon will be assigned as that dungeon’s inspector. Please note that unless you have other family duties, you will be required to make daily visits to the dungeon. You may, of course, appeal. If the area is desirable enough, many people might undertake the task...”

A dungeon in Durence.

He stopped walking and with jerky movements looked back at the dungeon entrance.

Daily... visits.

Noland hugged his pot and his clipboard as he felt another choked sensation rising.

He had to appeal!

He had to... take a long way home. The longer he delayed the report, the longer he didn’t need to come back!

Noland closed his eyes. It was for that reason he would take the extra routes and side villages.

Really quite practical that Durence had that sudden law forbidding magical mail. He would just have to wait till he could hand the report over in person, right? If Delta had more time to build herself up, that was quite frankly none of Noland’s business. He thought back to the warm smile of that warp. Delta.

A dungeon that didn’t kill.

He honestly wished her luck in her journey. He sighed as he dragged himself back to the Inn. He had no doubt he was going to see the dungeon again before too long.

It would just be his luck.

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