Ruli rested her form against what could only be another inner gate-like door.
You’d almost think these cult blokes and their monsters didn’t want people raiding their shit. Shame about that, Ruli was feeling rather neighbourly. Not that she had much strength left to swing a dirty look let alone the well-balanced sword at her side. The forces had just kept coming to the point that even with her demon blood boiling, she couldn’t keep the onslaught up for too much longer.
She thought she’d done well, though. The sheer amount of bodies that hit the floor would have given a new meaning to what her Mum would consider… messy.
That was when that nasally undead prick screamed so loudly that everything just stopped. A black cloud of energy with a face that could have been the captain’s rushed past and vanished through the cracks of the door she now rested against.
Delta and Fran had done the trick. Hard to imagine that soft-looking lass doing anything mean, but that was the kinda person Ruli avoided teasing too much. Nice ones and all that. They really blew a gasket when pushed too far and being a Dungeon just made it even more likely that weird things would happen.
Ruli managed to raise her head long enough to see a few skeletons standing still, while some fell apart bone by bone as the minutes ticked by. Their glowing eyes flickered and faded as that foul energy was sucked back into the ground and floors. Good thing too, because her fingers dropped the sword as even that was too much for her.
If Quiss saw her now… he’d laugh so hard and Ruli would burst a chakra point to stand and deck him in the jaw for it. Then again, if Quiss was here… Ruli wouldn’t have minded the backup. One of the more animated looking skeletons turned its head and shuffled towards her, boney finger tips gleaming.
“Fuck off, if I get knocked off by a bag of bones, I’ll be pissed. You’re just a really naked person, I wanna at least get my head crushed by a dragon or some shit,” Ruli spat. There wasn’t enough life or awareness left in the thing other than the undead’s desire to kill her.
Ruli began to push herself up, ignoring the dark stains she left on the door. A damn lucky bite in the side from a goat with fangs. Like Von’s dog, it was a creature that didn’t need those fangs or a desire for blood but this place was fucked up.
She reached down, fingers shaking, for the sword - and she almost fell to her knees. Her demon blood too busy filtering out the various poisons that she had been injected with. It was just as bad as the damn cold, making her body weak and feverish.
It was amazing that after everything Ruli fought… the damn common cold was the only foe keeping up with her.
The boney bastard exploded as one of the nine doors opened and the kobold from before stood there.
“You look like something Jeb chewed on and spat out,” the lizard commented. It was sweet music to Ruli’s ears. She could almost sense a fellow lover of dry wit and sarcasm.
He looked around and his jolly mood seemed to stutter for a moment.
“I haven’t seen this room in… oh must be about 70 years,” he mused. He was kicked forward as the feminine frog from before marched in. Ruli hadn’t met the frog folks of the second floor properly yet but it was on her list.
This monster reminded her of Dabberghast. If Dabberghast hadn’t taken her issues out on various deforesting companies and litter bugs. A type of small gremlin with too many legs that loved spreading as much mess as they could in the green places of the world.
“30… 50… NOW 70! Can you please stay consistent?” the woman demanded. She… was covered in some thick slimy red goop.
“Devina, don’t be mad just because you jammed up the fight,” Cois grunted with amusement. Ruli had never been so happy to see so many non-humans in her life.
“It was a blood elemental gone past its due date. It attacked me,” the woman glared at Cois. Ruli could smell the old blood now that she focused. No one seemed to meet her eyes but Rale the monstrously buff frog in what seemed to be swim shorts spoke.
“You did great! It exploded and you stomped the jam blob’s core so hard that it began to cry. You truly are an impressive warrior, my fellow frog!” he guffawed and slapped Devina hard on the back.
“Well at least Inchy is leaving me alone,” Devina mumbled. Everyone paused and looked back into the kitchen where a tiny shrill voice chanted endless jokes at a sobbing elemental core, if Ruli was following the conversation right.
“Hey… sorry to be a bother but don’t suppose any of you know some non-holy healing magic? I kinda wasted all my energy doing cool tricks with this sword. Also, where’s Delta?” she slumped back down to the ground, a bit annoyed she let a flash of pain show.
Devina frowned and her pissed expression turned calm and focused as she came close to peer at Ruli’s back. Cois twirled his staff with a dark smile.
“I can seal the wound but you’ll be cooked for a while?” he offered. Ruli was about to retort when she hissed as Devina prodded her wounds with a glowing green finger.
“You’re injured. Rale, use those muscles for something other than being distracting and help Miss Ruli to the core room. It’ll be easier for her body to recover away from the cursed touch of this place,” she ordered. Ruli glared at her.
“I can handle myself, I need no man to lift-” she began and Devina smacked her on the nose with a finger.
“Child, I swear to mother I will seal your mouth shut with this dried blood goop if I have to. This has been a very trying day for me. Shush and let me help you,” the frog growled back. Ruli bristled and then mumbled as she felt Rale lift her with ease.
“I’m sure I’m older than you by quite a lot of years,” she said finally. Devina merely raised her version of a brow.
“Then I dare say you will have to start acting like it, Miss Ruli,” the frog replied waspishly.
Ruli couldn’t retort to that so she turned to Rale.
“I think she needs some tadpoles to mother, get on that will you?” she said and Devina’s choking noises were like honey.
Cois’ cackles were just the cherry on top. Ruli smirked and her eyes fell…once… then twice as she felt that cold aura leave her body. She blinked with exhaustion up at the orange sized core of Delta. It acted like the setting sun and it made Ruli’s skin feel warm.
She looked down to see some giant goblin laying Delta’s sleeping avatar down on the ground which Rale placed Ruli next to.
“Is she okay?” she mumbled. The goblin peered at her and she stared as she finally saw it was Fran the boss.
He looked… bigger.
“Yes. She channeled her Mana that had gathered, eager to consume the feast hall, into me instead. It will take a day or so for the Dungeon to take over the hall now but Mother… pieced me back together at the last moment. It took a toll on her,” Fran frowned. He kneeled and, to Ruli’s surprise, brushed Delta’s hair out of her eyes.
“She risks far too much for us but we’d do the same for her,” Fran smiled. Rale nodded seriously.
“I’ll break anyone who makes her cry,” Rale agreed. Ruli snorted.
“It’s not sexy to be a bunch of momma’s boys,” she mumbled and Delta shifted and her hand was close to Ruli’s. Warm heat radiated off it and then Delta’s face began to twitch as if she was having a bad dream.
Ruli took the hand and after a few seconds of real physical contact… so real and human… Delta’s hand phased through her own and the avatar turned blurry and hard to see once more.
But the peace that Delta got from the contact was enough to make Ruli feel better.
She closed her own eyes…
Being so close to a Dungeon Core was the best medicine a demon could get.
Dungeons took Mana from the area and people, made it into potent and purified Mana before filtering it back into the world. Demon’s didn’t have Mana. Not like the people of the Deep World.
They were more easily affected by Dungeons than humans… but the Dungeons couldn’t take anything from them. It was unfair… Ruli didn’t want to be unfair to her… Dungeon.
She began to hum a stupid tune. Like the one her Mum sang for her when she was scared by the demon horns that sprouted from her head when she was a young girl… the claws… her father who looked so scary to a young Ruli.
That song followed her here to this moment and it slipped out with little care.
Ruli hummed and hummed. Delta’s shaken breathing soothed and became deep and gentle.
She never saw Rale leave as Fran settled in with his pig to guard them both.
Just a demon princess, a Dungeon Core, and a Pig Knight.
Nothing odd here.
Ruli smiled and sleep took her.
Fran watched as his Mother and Ruli slept, his form shrinking slowly as the power left him. Soon, he would be back to his base form. Then he would diminish more if he did not return to his boss room - but for now, he had time.
He sat in the pulsing light of Mother’s core. Guarding and watching.
Both against the deeper evils of this place… and the gleaming sword leaning against the wall that appeared between one blink and another. That thing seemed to share the feeling Fran had. Of guarding something and Fran let this fellow protector stay… for now.
He petted Bacon who let Mother rest against his soft underbelly like a giant snoring pillow.
Fran closed his eyes and touched his chest where something odd now rested. A core of some kind. A tiny orb of Mother and… himself.
It rested just below his chest and it felt like a trapped bird slowly resting, the fluttering wings it had during battle now resting as the glow of the core washed over him.
This was his mother’s gift to Fran and he would protect it.
He felt warmth flow from the thing and he smiled to himself as Mother’s Mana seemed to coax something new from this object. A source of Mana that reminded Fran of clashing metal… and pigs.
It reminded Fran of… Fran.
Jack inhaled and exhaled.
The black fountain in the middle of this dark garden had stopped spluttering the gunk that flowed from the inner rooms of this place. He had been here… he couldn’t guess how long ago despite how much he liked to pretend he hadn’t lost awareness of his time and existence.
He wanted to believe… he prayed that it had only been a few years but his greying scales and loose sanity told him otherwise. His friends… his home… his wife…
Every scratch of a day mark on the bare walls felt like a win for Jack… until he finally noticed how the place kept removing days… how many had been stolen from him? How many marks were lost to a blind Jack?
He had vandalised books for journals… but the passages unwrote themselves. He tried to scar his own arms with marks but after so many years… even he too began to revert.
Then one day he just stopped and he lost.
Then he woke up one day and remembered.
He turned and there was an almighty boom as the fountain exploded from one of his bubbling bottles. He laughed with joy. Things were changing! The fountain was going to remain rubble! The rubble would turn to dust! The dust would be a memory!
Change… unstoppable change! It was beautiful.
“You’re a little mad,” Billy mused. Jack grinned.
“Nonsense. I am totally sane. I just forgot about it for a while!” he promised. This didn’t get him relieved looks of trust like Jack had hoped but he had time to work on that. Actual moving time… it was enough to make a lizard cry.
“So, when Miss Hero gets back up, we’ve got to choose what to go after next. You got here through the kitchen so that leaves us seven offshoots and the main party,” Jack looked around the inner garden. Everything had always felt fake about this place but Jack could see something now.
The plants began to move and grow. Their roots still looked blighted and their blossoms tainted from the black sludge the fountain had spewed. He grimaced at the rapidly fading black stains as the ground swallowed it up.
Hero wasn’t going to enjoy that. Jack hadn’t enjoyed it and he had been forced to drink it. Liquid nightmares it was.
Even after all these years, he had never quite made it to the innermost room where that black ooze flowed from.
And if Jack had to admit it… he didn’t even get close. He was just one lizard with some bombs and a screw-it attitude.
But now? Jack had support in the form of the weirdest people he had ever met.
Except Jeb, the troll was pretty normal for a troll.
“So, what’s in the other rooms?” Billy the archer asked. The goblin smelled of sweet tangy fumes. His quiver a bouquet of scents and promises of great pain. Jack pointed at one door before randomly picking another door with his other hand.
“About that ways we got resting quarters. Lots of dusty beds and Dust rabbits, skeletons of course. Over yonder is ballroom. More like an arena last time I saw it. Thatta way had lots of weird mages huddled around exploding potions or screaming things in tubes,” Jack paused to shake off the bad memory of wandering into that room in a panic during one escape attempt.
“How bad was it?” Devina asked, her usually nagging tone now soft like honey... Jack shrugged.
“I killed most of the things early on. Managed to get a lot of the poor buggers before the Revert set in. Didn’t make me popular with the mages,” he managed to push a generic smile out. Devina wasn’t buying it.
Being a contract monster wasn’t so bad. He’d spent most of his new life outside Delta’s space. To be honest, other than his new gear, he honestly couldn’t feel a difference, but the monsters around him all remained quite… respectful to him.
Jack was a little freaked to see sentient monsters on some third-level Dame but to be honest… Talking to Delta was enough to let him know that this ain’t no normal Dungeon. The mushroom theme was interesting if nothing else.
He breathed in.
“I’d like to back out of that room, leave it to the resident arson expert,” he nodded to Cois who gave him a serious nod back.
They just… understood each other on a level. That level was the screaming of the flammable idiots of the world but it was still a legit connection for a friendship.
“Next up would be the menagerie. Think a petting zoo but the animals pet you,” Jack pointed to a slightly melted door.
“Lots of the beasties that the woman with the horns sliced up came from there… do you know if she's got a lover? A fling? My heart is still pumping at seeing the beasts who chewed me alive get turned to puree and I think I have a crush,” Jack asked, pretty sure he was serious but he couldn’t trust Jack.
Damn Kobold was madder than a hat.
“I think she’d break you by accident,” Numb pointed out. Jack shivered but got his grin under control.
“Last two I think are basic storage, with one being uh… a disposal area,” Jack finished. His tone had become clipped. Rale, who had returned, peered at the two doors.
“Why do you sound more upset at those than a potential nightmare laboratory?” Cois asked bluntly.
Jack shifted, trying not to think of the exact reasons. That… area…
“It’s just a hole for dumping things they unearth deeper down. They got some miners and skeleton crews constantly trying to relink the different forts,” Jack began to fidget. He really didn’t want to think on the exact reason which was upsetting him.
This don’t-think-of shit was harder in practise than theory.
Jack eyes darted about in need of a quick distraction.
“Does Delta pay? Do I get holidays?” he suddenly asked and everyone blinked.
“Pay?” Cois echoed.
“Ya know… for our services and company. Do we get pocket change?” Jack added.
“She gives us the lifeforce to exist and protection from being eroded by the World’s Mana. She made us and let us exist as people… and you want pay?” Devina asked blankly. Jack looked down.
“Well when you put it like that… yes! I exist very much on my own thank you and… well… I haven’t been employed in about 100 years,” he said with an embarrassed laugh.
Devina’s foot impacted into his face and Jack was reminded that, frog folk, even lovely figures like Devina, had big feet.
“Stop increasing the number of years!” she snarled.
“We get to annoy folks and free drinks. I get paid enough,” Cois agreed with Devina.
“I GET TO SWIM!” Rale flexed.
Jack blinked up at the dark ceiling. He was smiling.
He… felt… alive.
That was when Cois’ words finally registered.
“Free drinks?!” he shot up so fast he swore there was a bomb under his tail.
He wanted free drinks over stupid shiny pieces of metal.
As the monsters took up guard positions around the room, waiting for Delta to awaken… Jack worked on forgetting all about the thing that was upsetting him. The disposal room that hosted the ‘Empty Eye’ which was an unnecessarily fancy name for a single hole where dirt and trash was thrown in and fell until they fell out the bottom of the world and into the Silence below.
Jack forgot all about the fact that he had been forced to stare into that darkness and it had…stared….back. But Jack didn’t blink.
He simply plotted with Cois and planned with Devina.
Jack felt real again and he was going to be double plucked damned if he would let some memory of something he couldn’t remember take that away again!
As Delta rested under the watchful eye of the shrinking Fran, her Mana finally took the first steps into the feast hall. Finding no barrier this time, the Mana slunk forward. It was a hive of tiny orange particles. It was the glorious Mana of Delta!
It took a lost ball of dust and web and converted it. Victory! The first of many. It urged itself on to convert more! More things for the Delta! It came across a large foe. A chair.
A terrible adversary, but they attacked all four legs at once and broke it down to be added to the collective. The war of the feast hall was going according to plan. What that plan entailed exactly was not as important as the great and amazing Delta’s conquest, who the Mana thought very highly of. They rabidly attacked a table and it bowed and fell to their mighty mana chompers.
This room was weak! It would fall to the mighty Deltaverse! The Mana was quite sure that the changing room it left behind was of no concern to it. The fabled System had taken effect but the Mana did not care for the puppet strings this system pulled. It was here for only one thing.
Another table fell to its purpose. Then it began to climb the walls.
Nowhere to hide! All would fall to Delta!
They stopped for a quick break and idly nibbled on wall slime and talked about Mana related things like converting and Delta. It was a very philosophical discussion that ended in the Mana reaching the ceiling with renewed eagerness.
In the deep shadows of this ceiling were countless shapes. The Mana paused.
This was different. Not slime or evil chairs. These shapes were… rough. It covered one and it took time to break it down and even then… they tasted lots of new things. The Mana reared back at the hint of resistance.
The mana attacked and the immobile object didn’t do much but the Mana knew it was screaming for mercy!
No mercy! Only GLORY! FOR DELTA!
Delta snored and Ruli matched her, like a violin being backed by a cello.
A nervous menu box appeared and Nu who was floating nearby turned and began to laugh.
Nu’s text rang with more laughter.
Delta turned in her sleep. Unaware of her various forces at work.
In Durence, a boy stopped sweeping. He turned slowly on the spot before looking down at his shiny shoes.
“You seem bothered by something,” a deeper voice called from the workstation on one side of the room.
Vas eyed his Master with a frown.
“Master Japes, I felt like someone… something is calling to me. Like...this feels silly but like family just appeared and then vanished. Fellow children of stone and earth,” Vas closed his eyes and for a moment, under his shirt came a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours that shined. Japes appeared and put a hand on Vas’ shoulder, stopping the glow.
“Do not wear your heart on your sleeve… it belongs to me after all,” Japes smiled and it was a human one instead of his normal face splitting one.
“I know, but it’s been getting harder to control now that Miss Delta is growing. Like I’m getting filled up,” he complained childishly.
Master Japes merely patted his head, making his cap go askew.
“Then you best go and spend some of that energy. It’s a nice day. Why don’t you go find that child, Deo, and go on an adventure!” Japes clapped his hands. Vas looked up at the Potter of Durence in despair.
“Go outside? Be around people? I'd much rather stand still in the garden!” Vas protested but he blinked and found himself outside the front door with his master closing the door.
“No sass. Be a good child and go be a child. I shall be gone for the day and I’ve turned on the wards so you can’t sneak in through the window… have fun! I have a lot to do with the samples I got from the Spider Domain. Shame it exploded, but this is Durence…” the cheerful evil voice of Vas’ master called before the door slammed shut.
Vas stared at the sunshine. At the passing animated people… at the very town coming to life.
He turned and began to hammer on the door.
“I’ll be a good golem! Don’t make me go outside!” he begged and he felt a chill as something loomed up behind him.
He turned to see the sun beaming down at him. The godly being spoke and windows rattled.
“HI VAS! MISTER JAPES SAID YOU WANTED TO HANG OUT! I GOT THE LETTER A MINUTE AGO! IT CAME INSIDE MY CHOCOLATE EGG INSTEAD OF THE TOY I WAS EXPECTING! HOW DID HE DO THAT?” Deo ‘spoke’.
Vas smiled weakly.
“Master Japes is very good at manipulating closed spaces,” he said politely then he said the worst thing he could have.
“I can also make some enchanted spaces and such,” he humbly bragged.
Deo’s smile reached his eyes and Vas cursed his master. Silently, deep inside… and backwards… just in case his master could hear.
Even then he apologized in his head.
“I GOT SO MANY SPIDER BITS I NEED TO HIDE BEFORE MY MUM SEARCHES MY CLOSET!” Deo carried Vas into the busy life of Durence.
“ALSO YOU NEED TO MEET KEMY! SHE’S REALLY NICE!”
Vas prayed that his Master would get bored and come for him soon.
“SHE’S WITH QUISS IN THE BAR RIGHT NOW!”
On the other hand, Vas really had not been outside in a while and it would do his complexion good to soak up some heat.
Wyin watched as Sir Fran climbed the stairs and entered her boss room.
Such a scene… every fibre of her being protested that this should not be. Two bosses in one room when they were not part of a pair? It wasn’t even like Mother Delta had a boss rush mode… this just felt alien.
She opened her mouth… closed it then tried again. But no words would come. Damn it. She was a boss too so why was she so flustered around Sir Fran?
The first… of them all. In so many ways. How could Wyin even bother to try to live up to that. It wasn’t like many folks would make it past Sir Fran and the jungle to reach her.
She was just a needed element but Fran was wonderful. A true boss.
“May we sit and chat?” Sir Fran asked politely. Wyin cleared the mist and with some minor effort, pushed two roundish root knots up for Fran and Mister Bacon to sit. Mister Bacon settled down and blinked up at her.
What a cute little pig. It was Sir Fran’s, so of course it would be cute.
“How can I help you?” Wyin aimed for casual calmness and came off as frigid. She wanted to hit herself with a thorny branch as Fran seemed to hesitate..
“I want to apologise,” Fran began and Wyin’s mind went blank. Apologise? To Wyin?
Had Wyin missed some letter or maybe Fran tried to talk to her before?! No, Wyin would have known… she was always hoping to get a message from the other Boss when her own floor monsters didn’t seem to interact with her outside of Luna. That energetic frog was lovely if not a bit of a child at times.
“I meant to congratulate you on becoming a fellow boss and should have asked if you needed help or tips, but thankfully it seems like that won’t be needed,” the knight peered around and smiled at her room. Wyin was glad she had bark. She felt sap flowing to her cheeks.
“You and Mother did a great job. This is a lovely grove for a boss,” he praised. Wyin gave a choked laugh and tried not to look or sound too pleased as she made nonsense words and smacked Fran lightly in jest.
The poor knight was sent flying and Wyin felt her world screech to a halt as he bounced three times. Mister Bacon watched this, tail wagging as if amused.
Sir Fran stood and stretched.
“And strong as I expected. I feel quite happy, Lady Wyin. I know that the lower floors are safe under your protection,” the knight grinned, a little fang sticking out from his lip and Wyin wanted to grow legs and run.
Maybe she could?
She focused but all she got was the feeling of her roots curling in nervous glee.
“I was thinking that perhaps we could start daily meetings? For the bosses that can move. I can come down and we can discuss issues that only us bosses would feel would be important, if that’s okay?” The knight asked and Wyin blinked.
A meeting…for bosses?
A union? Or Bosses Anonymous?
It meant spending more time with Sir Fran…
“I would be fine with that but do remember to knock, I am a lady after all,” Wyin tried to look sultry and Fran bowed, missing the look.
“Perhaps I should sit outside the room and we can talk from a distance. I do not want you to feel like I am invading you,” Fran mused.
“NO! I mean… a waste of time and energy. I shall prepare a meeting table and refreshments. Honey…fruit… rabbit haunches. We shall feast in glorious success of bloodshed and victory!” Wyin crooned then froze as she rethought what she just said.
Damn it, she had promised Mother Delta not to kill!
“I’d like that. I’ll bring fish and booze,” Fran agreed with another one of those fanged smiles.
He bowed once more.
“Until next time, Lady Wyin of the second floor,” Sir Fran left, Mister Bacon trotting after him.
Wyin gathered her mist so no one could see her smile.
“And to you…Sir Fran of the first Floor.”
Maestro began to play some slow dance music, but Wyin’s frosty glare muted him after a few seconds.