The money from the bank that was used to get Mas a better sword and even some armour was money well spent in Serma’s opinion. There was always the issue of buying equipment for a growing boy, but he seemed skilled in the sword enough that his size barely slowed his own strikes.
“Thank ye kindly, Princess. Milady is too kind to spend money on us and the boy,” Xan, a dwarf priestess, said quietly. Serma shrugged.
“I’d rather be down a few coins than dead if Mas’ sword breaks at a bad time,” she explained as Mas showed off his armour. Zane grumbled as he showed Mas the best way to wear his sword.
Zane really wasn’t that bad when he didn’t mind someone or found them harmless. The man had bought Serma an ice-cream cone once because her mother had-
Serma cleared her throat. Very few Royal Knights were completely evil. Perhal came close. Jesha was another, and… her brother was a good contender when he pushed his way onto the roster. Gerima had really not taken mother’s departure well.
Sir Denomin the Rattis read a book while sitting on the shop’s comfy looking window seats. The sunlight shining through his white fur made him look divine for a moment before he neatly defaced the book with a sigh, muttering in a low tone about mistakes and out of date information. His equipment was updated and even a little bit better-maintained than that of the average adventurer. Between himself, Xan, and Mas... the group had to equal proper Bronze-3 rank in terms of experience and power.
Nearing the time of Serma’s first adventure… she felt a tickle of nervousness rise up. She truly understood that these strangers… would guard her life, and that she would guard theirs in return.
“Why are you frowning?” Mas appeared in her vision and Serma hid a yelp beneath a royal cough.
“I’m merely preparing myself for the Dungeon dive ahead,” she promised. Mas blinked.
“Prepare? You’re just going in to fight some monsters in a cave? Just some slashing and courage is all ya need!... right?” he said confused and Serma’s stomach dropped.
“Mas… you do know what a Dungeon is… correct?” she asked slowly and the weapon shop went quiet as Brilda nearly snapped a spear in half with her fingers alone in shocked horror.
Xans spoke up, hesitantly.
“Dear Mas was raised by Blood Apes… he was lost in the woods and I found him… Many things he doesn't understand,” Xan tried to diffuse the awkward silence.
Serma looked at Mas’ unashamed face and thought on how best to phrase this.
“You’re all fucked,” Zane said as he tried on an ogre helm for fun.
Serma led the group to the grand black marble gate. Two statues of knights crossing weapons formed the arch.
The entrance to the Royal Dungeon. Serma remembered when she was seven and her father brought her here. The room was cold and the black stone scared Serma as noises… inhuman noises flowed from the opened gate.
She had cried - and the Dungeon had gone quiet.
That had scared her more than anything so she ran away… ran to her mother.
That wasn’t an option anymore. She turned to the Royal Knights, who hesitated… well Zane glared at the gate and Brilda tried not to stand over and protect Serma.
“Mas needs some practise… just a few floors and we’ll come back,” she said quietly. Serma knew blackboards and textbooks would be as useful as zombie leeches for someone like Mas.
Mas would learn best by seeing… a touch of danger and a hint of challenge. Serma had often wished her own teachers would have done the same for her.
“I’m glad to see the princess stepping up,” a deep voice called. Serma spun to see a golden figure floating in the air. His body forming like the rising sun: legs first, then the torso and arms, finally the eyes
Every inch was a glorious golden aura like the night pierced by dawn. Yal… the Royal Dungeon’s personification had appeared before them.
Serma tried to do a polite bow but Mas was pointing his new silver sword at Yal.
“Serma is important! You don’t talk to her without being polite!” he growled.
Yal smirked and he tilted his head at Mas.
“How rude of me. Tell me… young warrior, will you be escorting the dear flower into my depths?” he asked. Mas puffed his chest up.
“Your Dungeon? You can look cool but that doesn’t make you lord of this here cave! Serma is going to kick ass and show how Team Ultra Dragon Exploders never backs down!” Mas said proudly. Xan was making odd choking noises as Serma’s knights were silent in awe of Mas’ bravado.
Yal looked down at Mas.
“Your expression… the courage of youth. I think I shall carve it for my hall,” Yal mused then met Serma’s eyes.
“Hurry to the 10th floor. There is a treasure unique to you waiting,” he commanded and then began to break up.
“I am glad to see you finally smiling… Hae will be-” the avatar faded and Serma felt her heart ache at the name.
“Mother?” she whispered but Mas turned with a grin.
“Serm, let’s show that snob ghost how we rock!” he offered. Xan sighed as Sir Denomin spoke up.
“On average… we have a greater chance of reaching the 10th floor than not, but… tally ho, we shall surely win!” the ratman squeaked as Brilda glared at him, her spiky mana flowing over him.
Brilda came close and put a hand on Serma’s cheek. Her blonde hair and ice clear irises were soft... the softest Serma had ever seen them.
“I shall wait until you come back… I shall wait. Please come back, my little tadpole. If this Dungeon takes you… I will end it,” she said so quietly that only years of being with Brilda let Serma hear her.
The Princess smiled and clasped the hand over her cheek with affection.
“I shall make sure not to let you down. Knowing you are waiting means I have more than enough reason to come back, my protector,” Serma beamed.
Brilda gave the rarest of smiles and placed a chaste kiss on Serma’s forehead.
“May the AllMother’s spear guide you and may your heart be your light. I believe in you,” Brilda promised, and that… that was more encouragement than Serma had ever gotten out of her father in years.
A fire ignited in her heart, and she nodded stoutly.
“Brilda, prepare supper. I’ll be back shortly,” she commanded, and turned to walk towards the open gate.
“I’m betting on you kid… other knights, not so much, but you got good people,” Zane called. Mas waved at him as the dwarf priestess Xan and the Rattis Sir Denomin… Sir Deno… followed.
Mas, of course, took the lead.
Deno, no one but himself and his mother called him Deno, followed the group. He was a high ranking mage and he viewedhis current group with a mixed opinion. On one hand, the Priestess and the Princess were both of high quality and showed the proper attitude to Dungeon Diving.
On the other hand… Mas.
The boy was bright… cheerful… oblivious. If it wasn’t for his excellent sword skills, Deno would have protested…
Well, that and the Princess’s frosty glare at his suggestion to boot the child from the group.
Such young humans should be playing and enjoying life. Not diving into dangerous battles. But Deno was out-voted and now he had nothing on his mind but taking care of the boy. Mas was being covered by a sly protection seal at all times, and his sword was enchanted with sharpness.
Deno did not like to put children in danger, ratlings or humans. Deno liked children... he was almost a school teacher until the rattling civil war broke out. His math skills attracted attention and the higher ups forced him into advancing magic formulae for fireballs. His potential school had been razed in his absence.
Deno had left the underground shortly afterwards to seek brighter ventures. Children made him nervous. Too fragile… too young. Mas was skilled, though and Deno tried to make sure he respected that as they entered the Dungeon entrance area.
The entrance room of the Royal Dungeon was like a floating platform above a yawning abyss. Dungeons never upgraded their upper floors, but these types of rooms were the lone exceptions.
The darkness below was filled with skittering forms and traps. Once something was thrown in... nothing was coming back out. Oddly, Deno saw a side footpath being constructed, leading to a room blocked by a sign reading ‘Under Construction’..
The sign above the door simply read ‘Memorial’.
“A Dungeon with a memorial? Sounds kinda off to me,” Xan said briskly. Princess Serma eyed it but said nothing as she headed towards the lone corridor that lead on.
“Let me take the lead! I’m used to ambushes!” Mas promised. Deno looked at the room.
He had seen many Dungeons… more than a few ended up forming underground as stars crashed down to the middle layer of the world. They formed with the various races that lived there. This was new.
Dungeons did not care for the living.
Nor their memory.
This scared Deno. Like ants being noticed by a god. To be ignored and allowed to treat the Dungeon like a cave or a horrid pit let people... ignore the omnipresent being that they carved up and used their body for raw materials or training. The knowledge of an entirely alien being behind every door or in every shadow was too hash on the average person. To treat the dungeon as a place... not a person was easier.
There was comfort in that.
To not understand Dungeons, but… how could one feel when a Dungeon understood you?
Deno looked down at the abyss and saw not monsters but… parts of a being that was watching.
He hurried to catch up with the rest… he didn’t want to be alone in case those great eyes turned to him.
The main corridor was basic soil and rock. Serma stopped the group.
“I’ve studied the Dungeon with care over the years. I know the many trap placements and monster types,” Princess Serma said. That brought hope until a yawn sounded out.
No avatar appeared, but the Dungeon’s voice spoke out.
“Tsk… I changed… some things. Just a few small things. I loathe to mess with my history, but you are worth it,” Yal promised. Deno bowed low… magic ready to fly… to protect.
No more fire, no more blood… his magic sought to preserve life, not end it. Deno respected Princess Serma for not reacting to the voice… more than he cared to admit.
Mas stood straight.
“Bring it, you spook! Me and Serma got this in the bag!” he grinned, but Serma held up one hand.
“I fear no changes. My group and I are strong and able to take your madness,” Serma promised. Yal didn’t respond, but a low growl sounded ahead in the darkness.
No torches here… dungeons did not like providing light to people. Deno focused, and light glowed from his perfectly straight, ruler-like, staff. Xan began to glow with the deep green colour of her god.
It was enough light to see the prowling of giant rats.
Deno scowled at his distant ancestors being reduced to walking on all fours, but he held back a grunt as Mas took up guard of the Princess.
“We got food stealers!” Mas called. Deno answered with a hefty fireball that killed one and disabled another.
The group was quickly covered in Stone Skin. An Earth spell of armour. Deno and Serma were gasping but Mas was clearly used to it. Xan finished her prayer.
“Stone Skin go! Bash their heads in you sons of a bucket!” she hollered. Deno was fire in person. He wasn’t as good as the World Tree Scorcher or even a dragon but... his fire had purpose, and he used it to remove rat foes with ease.
Mas was quick to cut feet and heads off as the Princess fired bolts of magic to blow up the remaining ones.
Xan stepped forward and grunted as a blunt arrow smashed into her stomach from hidden holes in the wall. The stone arrowhead easily broke on her defensive enchantment. The rats died and various arrows tried to skewer the party as they moved to the first room.
Deno grunted as he rolled, avoiding the last volley of arrows.
“Tough opening act,” Xan panted.
“Yal’s trial of arrows has always weeded the weak from those with potential,” Serma said as they eyed the first proper room of the Royal Dungeon. It was a messy mound of trap holes and spike traps where wooden poles would shoot up and impale the blind or the idiotic.
Deno waved a hand and a quick air spell that barely brushed the surface of the soil revealed most, if not all, of the traps to the human eye. The Dungeon must have really... fed on idiots to have grown off these traps.
No trap was equidistant nor the same size.
It was hideous.
The Princess quickly found the path to the end of the room by avoiding the holes and spikes. It ended up being a path that resembled a snake in many ways. Annoying, but easy to see with some patience.
Soon they all rested at a junction.
“The left leads to a dead end with a huge pitfall,” The princess said quietly and turned right. The corridor was quiet except for the odd… bloodstain.
“Legend has it that the first floor consumed so many… that they left their mark,” the Princess explained. Mas was quiet… finally feeling the difference in the air, his young face frowning at every shadow and potential mound.
Good… Dungeons were not holidays, nor were they kind.
The next room was a huge cavern with a thin path to travel.
“Shields up!” Serma warned, and her impressive garments turned solid as she edged on. More arrows shot out from the walls, leaving Serma to only guard from one side. Deno was impressed with her stout confidence.
He looked to the priestess and her stone spell was renewed, and they tried to cover the space as arrows broke on their skin. The Princess gasped as an arrow fired from a statue in the front of the path. She tried to raise her arms in defence, but it was Mas who slashed the arrow in half with a blank expression before it could hit the Princess. Impressive even if it was from the side and not down the middle like some childish idea.
“T-that wasn’t… that wasn’t in the history!” the Princess gasped.
“Serm… you know nothing. This Dungeon learned!” Mas said grimly. Serma shook her head.
“No! This has been… the paths have been the same for hundreds of years! An arrow here means that… I… I know nothing,” Serma began to gasp heavily. Deno moved forward, but it was Xan who heaved her up.
“Then you have a duty to your people to report these changes. Up and at it, you poor pebble,” the Dwarf urged.
“The Dungeon never changes… the only massive thing it did was take my mother…” Serma said hoarsely. Deno grimaced… he knew all about the Queen who fled into the Dungeon. Poor victim or treasure-seeking wretch?
He would soon find out.
Mas glared at the statue of the Dungeon avatar as the group was again faced with a choice of left or right to take.
“Left I think,” Serma said with uncertainty. The girl had been shaken. Deno took her exposed hand into his paw. Serma met his eyes with obvious fear.
“The chance of the Dungeon making so many changes that your knowledge becomes entirely obsolete is less than 2%. Your history… your lessons are gold. Do not fret, we are relying on you,” Deno said with confidence.
It was both the truth and a lie.
Dungeons defied reason, and Deno had no idea what it had changed to take the Princess out of her element. He couldn’t rely on the girl to provide accurate information, but he also knew that changes took time.
The Princess nodded solemnly.
“Brilda is waiting for me,” she answered, as if this was a charm to ward off unknown dangers.
“Yes she is. Now lead like the royal blood you possess!” Deno urged. The girl stood and rocketed off to stop Mas from opening the door with little care.
“Trust nothing! The doors can be trapped!” she reminded him with that atypical calm tone of the rich and noble.
Deno nodded, sharing a look with Xan as Mas cut a wooden swinging axe that Serma accurately predicted in the corridor beyond.
Her knowledge was accurate to that level at least.
However, Deno was ready to fight that one unknown variable. Just one could cause chaos. Like the Amsamiran problem of numbers and reality. One wrong number made a solution into a paradox. Like those sheep loving priests who worshipped the two-left-eyes god.
Deno was mapping as he went and sent a prayer to the goat of the left and right. Order and numbers. His only defence against the chaos of life.
Brilda had Zane pinned to the wall of the cave with her spear glowing dangerously red to his throat.
“Take. It. Back.” she hissed. Zane looked unimpressed as he sighed.
“Listen, the girl is as good as dead. The boss is gonna chew her alive on the 10th floor. I’m just being honest,” he easily freed himself of Brilda’s grip. The red light turned black and Zane’s neck gained a long thin bleeding line. He blinked.
“No one made me bleed in… shit… well, fuck me. You actually like that young princess?” he joked as he wiped the dripping red line.
“Princess Serma will win and you will guard her with your life,” Brilda said with no room to argue, but Zane grunted as his neck healed on the spot.
“I don’t need a contract runt telling me what to do,” he said bluntly and grabbed her spear head as his hand burned at the contact.
“You wanna save her… should have stayed inside the Dungeon and been a good little boss,” Zane grinned. That made Brilda glare with shock.
“Who…?” she demanded. There was a hand on her shoulder.
“Brilda.” Lorsa was calm as ever.
Of course. Brilda let Zane walk off and she glared at the cloaked figure who was eerily calm. Brilda turned her fury on the woman.
“You let loose my past?” Brilda said quietly.
“Things slip. Being the third oldest makes people talk. Your name was well feared back in the day, ‘Brilda of the Spear’. How many warriors you pierced and removed before you emerged to suddenly take care of the Princess… odd but fortunate,” Lorsa said calmly.
There was no fortune about it. Brilda emerged to care for Princess Serma for one reason only. The woman who would command the Dungeon could easily make Brilda feel human again. She gave the woman purpose and that purpose was-
“Is this about the whore Queen?” Zane said, bored.
Brilda blinked and Zane was broken. His arms and torso were jutting out at odd angles. His breathing hitched and his eyes glazed over as Lorsa stood over him.
Utter death given to the man in less than seconds. Less time than Brilda could react to. Lorsa stared down and spoke quietly… oh ever so quietly.
“Do not… speak of the Queen without respect. I warn you once,” Lorsa said… the calm a facade to hide boiling fury.
“Yye-yess Com…mander Lorsa,” Zane said in a rasp as his lungs tried to inflate themselves. Brilda tried to breathe, but her throat didn’t work. The Mana choking her was old… ancient… tired.
She tried to make a noise but she couldn’t even tremble. Lorsa turned and her head tilted until she made a small noise.
“Oh… I am sorry. Brilda… please forgive me,” Lorsa asked with actual shame as the air became free of Lorsa’s power. Zane glared and Lorsa eyed the ceiling.
“Wait for her. I have no doubt Princess Serma will be back soon. Zane? You have a task tomorrow. Please make sure you check your mail,” Lorsa said distractedly.
“You smell of wine,” Zane said as his neck snapped back into position. Lorsa paused. She sounded amused suddenly.
“I saw an old friend today. Wine was the calmest part of it,” she admitted, then vanished between the seconds. Lorsa’s gifts. How Brilda feared them.
How could one run when distance and time meant nothing to your hunter? Brilda just decided not to anger the leader and fear those outcomes… it was easier on her mind.
On the hundredth floor of the Dungeon, a woman looked up as Lorsa walked out of the walls.
“Lorsy!” the woman beamed at her as she emerged from her bed. The hidden room was protected by three mini-bosses and one puzzle involving a king of ancient past. The woman hugged her as Yal appeared.
“You’re using too much Mana. I can only fill that shell with so much,” he said grouchily... distractedly as he chiseled at a hunk of rock. Lorsa ignored Yal.
Respect owed to the ancient being was easy to ignore when she herself was older. Lorsa smirked.
She was also a better Dungeon Core if things came down to childish arguments. Not that she had a Dungeon anymore.
Those Fairplay fools had seen to that.
“Hae, how are you?” she asked as Yal filled her physical shell with Mana. With no home of her own… she couldn’t produce Mana anymore. Being kindly neighbours, she had come to Yal for help, only to find a city growing around him.
That had been enough to make Lorsa curious, the rest was history.
She guided his human people and he in return fed her Mana.
How many kings and queens had she guided? Too many, but Hae was special. Hae had seen Lorsa for the creature she was.
“I am good! How’s my babies… how are my children,” Hae demanded. Lorsa tried not to flinch. Such honest earnesty.
“Serma turned sixteen…” she said slowly. Yal closed his eyes. Hae looked like she had been struck.
“Six… sixteen? No… she was… she was- eight! She was only eight a short while ago! Tell me time hasn’t passed that much!?” Hae begged and grabbed Lorsa’s cloak. Lorsa let her.
Lorsa would always let her.
“She is wonderful… so beautiful and brave,” Lorsa pulled out sketches she had made of the girl. Hae grasped at them like a drowning man at air.
“My child! My baby…” Hae gasped and fell to her knees, hugged them to her chest… crumpling them. Lorsa tried not to flee... not to run from the consequences of Yal… hers… and the Sister’s actions.
The words floated back to Lorsa.
“-a human model. Brother wants more details on people! We need to know about people and Dungeons when they don’t kill each other!”
Sister. So cheery… so monstrous.
“Not so much now. Sis has learned consequences… Delta has made her see,” Yal promised. Lorsa looked up at the figure who had his carving tools idle and still.
“Was this ‘Delta’ worth it?” she asked bluntly as Hae sobbed.
“Yes. She has changed much, and if you were still connected… I would not have to speak. Delta has brought ambition… joy… potential. Humans make more sense… no, that is wrong,” Yal mused, and turned with a smile.
“Delta has been a path we all follow. Things make sense. People have reasons... ideas! Now I see this. They aren’t just food to feed my goals, but creatures of passion!” Yal held his hands up and then eyed Hae, who looked surprised to see the man talking so much.
“Hae had supplied the System information on a detailed… complicated human, for Sister to allow the data and Dungeon System to… accommodate such a being,” Yal mused. He bent down and patted Hae kindly.
“Delta is our daughter in the realm of ideals. She is wonderful,” He beamed. Her face blank, Lorsa raised one foot, and the Dungeon shook as she whacked his core with a mighty kick.
“Creep. Hae, ignore him. I’ll see this ‘Delta’ soon. I’ll make sure she won’t be an issue,” Lorsa promised. Hae held pictures of Serma close.
“Can… I go home soon?” she asked hopefully. Lorsa’s voice failed her.
A box appeared and they all eyed it with slight fear.
Soon. Very soon. Delta is your key and you are needed outside.
The box faded and Sister’s words were soon gone. But… Lorsa had never seen such an orange box. Hae blinked, but Lorsa tried to grab the box.
“Look at me!” she demanded. Her current physical form was no issue, but the core that acted as her heart was.Sister didn’t even hesitate as it vanished. Lorsa almost screamed in frustration but controlled herself.
“You’re disconnected. Sis and Bro won’t even look at you,” Yal sighed.
“I’ve done nothing but help them,” Lorsa said quietly. Yal frowned then spoke up.
“Can’t look at you then. You know Vers is disconnected and he won’t take it lying down. They might just be careful,” Yal offered. That name sent many emotions flying around Lorsa’s mind.
That was one cracked chicken egg if Lorsa had ever seen one. A Dungeon core that escaped the rules and expected to be praised for it. It was lucky it hadn’t been hunted down and removed. Brother was not the kind, forgiving type.
“He vanished. No one… no Dungeon has felt a hint from it in ages,” Lorsa pointed out.
“Spooks and angry teens don’t fade away. Silver is biding his time. Bet on it,” Yal said firmly. Lorsa of the Ghost Dungeon sighed.
“True,” she admitted. Yal suddenly grinned.
“Hae… your kid is about to enter the first boss room,” he announced in a sing-song voice. Hae rushed over to a mirror, which she smashed her fist into. The surface rippled like water and a far-away scene appeared.
The scene showed a group of two eager teens, a stoic dwarf, and a nervous Rattis versus Yal’s first boss.
A giant bug.
“I hate that thing. It’s like the most generic first boss creature ever,” Lorsa muttered. Princess Serma raised a hand and magic demolished one of the centipede-spider creature’s nine eyes.
“Yes! Go Sermy! Make Momma proud!” Hae hooted. Yal blinked.
“You had tea with Hector last week!” he accused, glaring at Hae and pointing at the confused bug as it tried to eat a stone covered dwarf. Hae eyed him with a grin.
“Daughters before monsters,” she winked.
Lorsa leaned back and enjoyed the show. Despite the monsters she sent to Durence and the ones she recruited into the Knights…
There was something fun about seeing novices panic as the bug grew a second head.