Maestro’s room was in shadow. The usual glow moss and twinkling Starlight mushrooms had been dimmed, and the effort had made the cavernous room seem at rest… a place the world had forgotten… or chose to leave in peace.
Drips of falling water sounded like musical notes as the peaceful calm in the room swam over Delta. She floated gently up the stone stairs, past the slumbering Gutrots, Starlights, Tasty Mushrooms, and others.
She wanted to call out but this serene peaceful aura had stolen her voice. Delta didn’t want to ruin this wonderful feeling with something like mere words.
She reached the summit and the shadow of Maestro’s huge form was also still. It laid wrapped in many roots on the ceiling, so still. That was odd.
Delta had never seen Maestro still, let alone quiet. He didn’t seem to be in pain or at odds with the roots. In fact, he looked to be in deep comfort and safe.
Delta let herself space out and saw his roots… Maestro’s very mind was expanding into that odd space between floors where things didn’t quite make sense. His roots buried deep and began to find spots in the floors below. Potential stages, like the menu had informed her?
“He shan’t be long,” came the good natured voice of Lord Mushy. Delta saw him resting in a shadowed corner. She had unconsciously felt him there and didn’t flinch when he spoke.
“Looking out for him?” She teased. Lord Mushy hummed.
“I do worry about my flamboyant sibling. One tends to worry when family gets into rock and roll. I dread the after-parties to come,” he mock-sighed.
“No groupies until he’s at least two years old,” Delta said calmly but firmly. Lord Mushy gave his hearty chuckle once more.
“I shall make sure he is informed but I daresay we are as likely to stop that as we can stop Cois playing with fire or Boary eating mushrooms or Bacon from giving them back in gaseous form!” he said brightly.
The mushrooms around them began to stir and Delta looked up, excited to see Maestro and his new potential upgrades.
Maestro’s form cracked like an egg and Delta blinked straight up with wide alarm. Then it split open and green fluid rained like a waterfall and Delta gave a shriek as it passed over her and into the floor.
The room promptly got rid of it since it wasn’t supposed to be, but there was the scent of lingering cooked mushroom and her hair felt… oily.
From the shell that was Maestro, came glowing green mist that sparkled in the light of the Starlight Mushrooms. The mist showed a smaller shadow emerging.
It was about two feet shorter and maybe a little thinner. Connected still by a dozen roots, the figure lowered itself and Delta saw it had legs! Feet!
Fancy black shoes that looked nice until she saw they didn’t have lace nor show ankles. They seamlessly merged right into the black slacks as the figure continued to be lowered. The form remained shrouded in that deep green mist.
“Ladies and Gents, both and neither, and of course, all of the above. I welcome you tonight to the unveiling of a Star reborn! The mighty has become mightier. The sexy became sexier. Please avoid looking right at the star if you have a weak heart. Delta Dungeon Inc. is not liable for medical issues sustained by staring right at… Monsieur Maestro!” The figure said proudly.
Delta held her breath, wondering if a princely gentlemen that had been born from Maestro would soon grace them. Maestro touched down and Delta went pale, going limp and silent at the creature before her.
The white shirt and dinner jacket with a beautiful red mushroom in the jacket pocket was nice but everything shoulder up was a nightmare.
He flexed his wicked long fingers that now had black tips, and gripped a cane as he walked forward, his mass of roots trailing behind him like life support. His mushroom cap had remained and the odd hair inside trailed down his back in sleek black neatness, but his face had two wide, deep holes where dark red lights gleamed like twin fires in the dark. Much like a creature luring the unwary to a quick death.
At odd times, his inner glow filled both eyes or jumped between one or the other like a demented tennis ball while hise opened mouth was wide with a spiked wormy tongue that had tiny holes all around it.
His jaw was rigid with needle-like teeth that stood where his lips should have been and each one gave off a high note as they moved independently of each other like centipede legs. That was when the four other limbs emerged from his back to show tiny snapping mushroom heads at each end. Each the same black as his jacket.
Delta silently got up before excusing herself, walking calmly down the stone steps for a moment.
“Oh she’s getting emotional! Mushy! Isn’t this super!” Maestro gushed in that lovely voice of his. Well, he wasn’t wrong.
Delta closed her eyes, focused and reached out to feel that joy of life that was Maestro. The monster she had known and regularly sang songs with. It was still him and she forced herself to open her eyes and march back up those stairs.
She faltered at Maestro’s red eyes, expectant smile (God, those teeth…), and she moved jerkily forward like a zombie with arthritis. She raised her head and met those red eyes.
“Sing a song for… me?” she pleaded. Maestro bowed with so much grace she felt like a peasant. Worse was when all his extra limb heads bowed as well.
“Shall I go into familiar clubs or shall I spruce your heart and ears up with hidden cabarets and secret ballrooms?” he smiled.
“Surprise me!” she squeaked and glared at Mushy who was hiding a deep chuckle.
The thumping beat was followed by a long draw on a piano as Maestro slid all the way down his stone temple on one of the edges, moving at impossible angles. Each piano note seems to light up a step as Maestro passed it.
Red steps, blue steps, flashing neon green steps. One step just blinked hot pink and Delta tried not to look at that one as Maestro tapped his foot. Every mushroom in the room, even Mushy, began to sway to his step. Like a dance routine they had all practised.
“Drums!” Maestro commanded and the walls itself pulsed with a playful boom. He turned to the roof.
“Strings!” He flicked a long clawed hand and hidden spiderwebs began to twang and twing.
He gave a mighty bow to the stairs lined with mushrooms, the same stairs he just slid down.
“Percussion… back up choir, if you do please,” he grinned and the nightmarish image was only a little bit easier to deal with after a third sight. The Mushrooms, sorted by species, began to hum along to the beat and some echoed the instruments.
Delta giggled a little as each of them was still doing a little jig to Maestro’s beat.
“There was a sweet little gal. A little pal for you and me. Maybe you know of Delta… a sweeter princess than your Cinderella…” Maestro crooned as he began to climb one step at a time. Each step began to flash exotically at his foot.
Delta felt herself blush but she was laughing now.
Soon she was pulled into a swing by Lord Mushy and Delta ended up forgetting to be scared as the song played on.
Ruli watched as her Mum swung the red sword. It barely made a dent in the table when she tried to put effort into swing.
“Thing must be demon-friendly or it just doesn’t like me!” Mila huffed and placed the weapon back on the table.
“I can’t imagine how! Magma is such a sweet thing,” Ruli answered as she shoved cold cheese on bread into her mouth. Mila hit her on the back of her head.
“The sword is as sharp as your humor,” the woman said gruffly. Ruli reached for the blade but was cut off as her Mother spoke.
“If you cut my table to make a point, I will hunt you,” she said calmly. Ruli decided to reach for another sandwich instead.
“Well, I can confirm it’s Demon made. Feels like the knife your father once showed me,” Mila sighed. Ruli frowned, trying to remember this story but came up with nothing.
“We were not hating each other, well, I wasn’t hating him and in the middle of some romance, he threw up a dagger on me. He claimed he was stabbed earlier but forgot to remove the blade and so his body had taken natural action. I accused him of being an immature demon manchild and left,” Mila explained.
“First off, ew. You’re old and you don’t need romance. Second, do you still have that blade?” Ruli asked and her mother snorted.
“Lost it when I stabbed a Royal Knight who called me a ‘demon whore’. Somewhere between his third and fourth rib I think,” Mila smiled at the memory.
“I am lucky to be as normal as I am,” Ruli mumbled. Magma glowed and her cheese sandwich became a cheese toasty.
“Oh, the mighty cooking sword! I heard the mystical ‘Single tool of the Sagely Kitchen’ was lost, didn’t know I found it!” She grinned and devoured her sizzling cheese snack.
“That was a rolling pin and it was found in some stupid cooking tournament where the food literally had to be banned for causing inapproiate reactions in people,” Mila sipped her coffee and thought about it. “I heard it had been corrupted after being used to club an Ogre’s heads in, but that info is hard to confirm,” she added, shrugging.
“Well, my sword toasts things. What does your sword do?” Ruli taunted, feeling cheesy and like she was ten again. Her Mother snorted and gestured to the room.
“Which one? I got so many weapons I end up finding one in an unused sock drawer. I swear, I found my ‘Slicing Heaven Spear’ when I went looking for my spare broom,” the older woman shook her head.
Ruli smirked. “Broomstick flying was outlawed due to littering by the king,” she said nonchalantly. She was hit again by book her mother had thrown.
“Rude child!” Came the old retort. The book easily missed her. Ruli’s mother hadn’t aimed at her, but just threw it to warn her. Ruli caught the book and flipped through old pictures taken with a memory stone and sketcher. Cheap ones could only do black and white while coming out grainy.
Ruli was surprised to see crisp colourful pictures that spoke of a good model stone.
The downside to stones over the huge, unwieldy cameras that were slowly being brought into creation by smarter people than Ruli, was that the memory sketcher couldn’t sketch the person themselves since the memory would be first person.
But until these cameras could do more than one picture every 10 minutes and didn’t need chemicals and fluid to work… people would use the stones.
Pictures from her mother’s view were flipped through. It was obvious to see what memories were clear compared to the hazy ones that came out half-suggested and sometimes white in places. Memory stones were too easily misled like that.
Memories half-formed were never right, and people could swap in really vivid imaginations over memories, making them pointless in any court.
“Damn… Mr. Jones is haunting me,” she whispered, trying to empty her head of pointless knowledge like that to make room for beer later.
She slowed to a picture of three men. A rather goofy young Haldi, a strong glaring Pic… and a towering man who beamed at her mother with such earnest feelings that the space around the man’s face was a little blurry as if Mila almost didn’t remember right… or avoided it for too long.
The picture had neat writing under it.
“Me and the idiots. I would die for them if I don’t kill them first.” Ruli read and Mila snorted.
“Truer words were never spoken,” she agreed.
“You never told me how you lot ended up here, ya know?” Ruli said quietly. Mila chopped some vegetables with quick efficiently. Mila took time to mull the words over and over.
“Would you believe it all started with hunting some horned rabbits?” she said dryly. Ruli gave her a long look.
“Horned rabbits are made-up. Their biology sucks too much to be real. It’s like centaurs, if you think too much about it. Rabbits with anywhere near long enough horns could never burrow or eat properly!” Ruli argued. Mila pointed the kitchen knife at her daughter.
“You’re welcome. I helped wipe out those mistakes of nature,” she agreed.
“So, killing rabbits led you to making a town?” Ruli frowned. Mila pushed her grey hair back and her yellow eyes blinked once slightly.
“In a sense. Me and my idiots ended up being kind of successful and a little bit famous. We were recruited for the Knights and we laughed the offer off but the recruiter ended up sticking around for drinks. That damn ‘porter loves their booze,” Mila snorted at the memory. Ruli began to wipe down Magma with a well-used cloth. The sword was warm to the touch but Ruli knew it could burn her fingers to the bone at any second. It was like a wild animal who took a liking to Ruli.
“Well, the recruiter had some personal issues and we ended up meeting some creeps who tried to kill the recruiter. We barely blinked and they were dead. Lo-… Pinkie, that’s my name for them, was strong. I was impressed so I tried to smash her face in for the hell of it,” Mila scraped her cutting into a boiling stew.
“I woke up three days later and Pinkie was still around. I was bundled into the back of our wagon and covered in a blanket. I could have died from infection or bleeding out or… boredom. Whatever, but Pinkie had a talent for keeping people just barely alive…” Mila said calmly as if not speaking about her near death.
“Well, one thing led to another and we ended up here!” Mila said and slammed the pot lid on her stew. Ruli gave her a long look.
“I think you skipped a few pages due to your old age,” she said kindly. The air dropped in temperature.
“Well, I guess that’s just the story for now. Now, will you stop your damn sword that’s melting my table?” she asked bluntly. Ruli looked down to see Magma sinking into the wooden table like a hot blade in butter.
“Bad sword. Melting is for flesh of my enemies and toast,” she sighed and yanked the blade out of the wood with a wet noise.
“Now, the stew will be about another hour before it’s right. You can run errands for me,” Mila said and Ruli stared at her.
“Excuse me? I am not your Bronze-1 errand girl eager for some coppers and bottles of sink water for a reward,” Ruli stood to leave.
“Shame, I was gonna throw in dessert and a bottle of my 55-year-old Ogre whiskey, oddly the same Ogres that might have been clubbed that I mentioned before.” Mila’s voice froze Ruli’s leg and she tried to overpower the temptation.
“Having to bribe your own daughter is pretty bad on your parenting,” Ruli said between clenched teeth. Mila snorted.
“Bribing your kids is parenting 101. It was taking you out hunting Gold-rank beasts that was the bad-parenting part,” her mother said dryly.
“I actually liked that bit,” Ruli said but turned back to her mother who had a list of requests.
“Elder duties go on despite rain, snow, and recently, falling spider parts,” Mila smirked. Ruli glared at the mundane tasks.
“Elders go on despite age, time, and reason,” she muttered.
The first task was simple.
Collect 5 yellow flowers with blue leaves then deliver them to Mr. Dabberghast.
“This is demeaning,” Ruli informed her mother.
“This is having a mother and a sweet tooth,” came the curt reply.
Ruli really couldn’t argue with that.
“Dad would have let me kill ten-foot demon eating plants for their sap,” she tried, going for the oldest weapon in her arsenal.
“Your father would have had an army following you and warned the plants that if they harmed you, he’d make them into chairs and give them to glutton demons for stress testing. Now go,” her mother waved a spoon at her.
Ruli’s expression was sour and she left the cottage.
She made it to the road that led to the heart of Durence. Between being imprisoned by Mr. Jones and beating up the army in the Dungeon, Ruli hadn’t really taken a look at her home.
Her red eyes traced patches of flowers that were springing up, the sounds of songbirds seemed distant but faintly coming closer. The air smelled clean and for the first time in ages, the weather wasn’t mundane pleasant but looked like it might actually rain.
Dungeon Mana was invasive and depending on what Dungeon you lived nearby… different things would happen.
Delta had made things come to life like before, but there was something just a little different. Ruli couldn’t quite put a finger on it.
A bee the size of an apple wandered nearby and gathered some pollen before floating off with a merry buzz.
Ruli gave it a long look.
“Dungeons were supposed to make monsters appear nearby or horrible mutants. Delta just made happy bees,” she snorted. Still, she might need to warn Quiss that things might get a bit weirder.
She kept an eye out, and after ten minutes in a field she found the flower she was looking for. Ruli was sure it was the right flower but it seemed to be double the size of the average kind. Ruli decided, in that case, she should only have to gather half the amount then.
She whistled as Magma easily removed the plant.
After this, Ruli had to go collect ten crabs from the river and then fetch sturdy branches for no reason that Ruli could see.
It was sad that Bronze rank folks lived for this kind of work.
She looked up to see someone heading towards Delta’s place with an apron and a defeated posture.
Wait until they saw the bar, that’d cheer them up.
“Excuse me, I need to do a shift here. Please… don’t… be angry!” Shy-Nina asked the webs from about five feet away from the room entrance.
The webs parted like curtains and Nina dashed through, covering her head as she ran into a wall in her haste. She bounced back and stumbled through the actual door.
The spider court all shared a look as the one holding the trip wire down slowly climbed back up.
“T-thank you,” Shy-Nina said faintly as she walked on, staggering from the blow.
Queen Dreamweaver the 3rd decreed that extra webbing would be used to soften the wall in the future.
There was the customary vote dance where they all agreed and then the celebration dance for passing the vote.
Shy-Nina didn’t see this as she took a small seat in the pond room.
“Owie…” she held the bump on her head.
“Why couldn’t Lazy-Nina go - or Paranoid-Nina? Why me?” She sniffed. Gruff-Nina told her why: Because out of the Ninas to form, she was the least likely to cause more trouble for Miss Fera.
There was something black in front of her and she pulled her legs up on the rock as a duck stared up at her.
Shy-Nina didn’t have great memory and so the original trip down was a little hazy after the Great-Split in the bar. Had they met this thing before?
“Shoo! Please don’t bite me. I don’t have bread,” Shy-Nina whispered. The duck gave her a long piercing look. Nina retreated into her safe ball a bit more, face almost hidden behind her knees. It quacked once and waddled off before turning back to stare at her. Shy-Nina had a feeling it was waiting for her.
Shy-Nina wasn’t sure she should follow a random duck-
“Quack!” the duck said firmly and Shy-Nina shrieked and jogged to catch up.
“I’m sorry!” She bowed her head and the duck walked off and lead her down the hallway away from the mudpit.
The duck lead her into a room with many shelves. It looked like a dead end and Shy-Nina gave the odd snoozing mouse inside a bowl of jelly a long look. That mouse gave her a bad vibe.
The duck approached the back wall that opened on its own accord. The air flowing out of this dark space was hot and made her senses grow a bit hazy.
She wandered in as the duck turned once more and the red eyes had gone… a little softer.
“Quack…” the duck assured her.
Shy-Nina had gone mad and her madness was a duck in a dungeon.
Well, after the clam monster (which all Ninas remembered quite clearly) how bad could this tunnel be?
She walked for some time and odd mist began to curl around her feet. The heat seemed to seep into her body and she soon stood before a stone building of some sort.
“I dare say that today is a good day to be you. You come, my little maiden, to see the fabulous rising star in action. Come closer and see a debut like no other!” a man seemed to call from the top.
Nina could handle this. It wasn’t so bad.
She took a step forward, sleeves covering her face as she neared a stranger. He took a few steps down and he seemed to have thick vines attached to him… or roots?
The mist thinned as he walked down with a cane in hand. Shy-Nina’s body went rigid as the eye bounced between eyeholes. The odd hat she thought he wore was a part of his head. Then the rip in his face opened with dancing needle legs.
Shy-Nina fell back and landed hard on her rear as she stared, eyes wide as her mind turned itself off to protect itself.
“Star struck, I can hardly blame you! Welcome to the number one dungeon in the land. I shall be your man of the hour, Monsieur Maestro,” the thing bowed and Shy-Nina turned and saw the duck was gone.
“Ple…plee…” she stumbled, on the verge of tears. The monster leaned down and it looked demonic in its nature. It went for her and Shy-Nina prayed it be quick.
She felt something light pressed into her hands. She looked down at it.
It was a bizarre piece of pottery with the words ‘I met Maestro’ stamped on the side in an elegant penmanship.
“You need not beg or look so happy with tears, of course you can have my autograph!” The being said cheerfully and pulled her to her feet.
“My brother made the pot, I have yet to ask for paper and ink from Mother, but she is ever so busy sometimes,” the creature nodded. It spoke and those needle lips clicked and twanged with music notes as if some insect was conducting from inside.
Shy-Nina forced a question out.
“Need… work… Fera?” She gasped out. Maybe if she said she was under Fera’s protection, she would be safe? The man pressed her forward and the strength was strong enough that she was actually lifted off the ground, almost gliding across the ground.
“Ah yes, that lovely lass did mention hiring an outsider. Very juicy gossip. We’re all so excited!” The thing… Maestro said and leaned down. Shy-Nina nearly broke into tears at being so near to his face.
“Mother will take care of you, she is very fond of people and if anyone gives you hassle you tell Maestro here and I will bring down the wrath of the likes never seen or heard before! Or I shall tell my brother and stand smugly at the side as he lectures them,” he said airily.
Shy-Nina felt like crushing her body would be so easy for Maestro and his mist… it seemed to come from his body like an aura and it made things hazy in Shy-Nina’s head.
“For your first shift, I shall dedicate the music for tonight to your effort! What blues sing to you? What pop makes you bob? Tell Maestro the Wonderful, what music sings to your soul?” He pressed and had her in a one-armed hug.
It was so sudden of a question, Shy-Nina just answered it.
“I like Orchestra,” she said and covered her mouth in horror. The demon man’s face broke into something that had to be a smile.
That smile was going to be in Shy-Nina’s nightmares for many days to come.
“She’ll be fine. Maestro is not so bad once you stop looking at him head on,” Delta promised Renny. The Mime gave her that black smile that tore open his face.
“Yeah sorry, after Maestro, you’re downright handsome,” she said dryly. Renny dropped the grin in a huff but he gestured curiously at the circus before them.
“I’m taking the day off from battling the forces of evil and unspeakable horror to decorate,” she explained.
She opened her menu and browsed the options.
“I’ll share what I can do and see if we can make it closer to your home,” she offered and the Mime looked away for a moment at the statue of his father before he nodded.
Delta read these out and Renny gave her a long look. His features didn’t move but he held up a finger then no more.
“First option or one at a time so we can see how it goes?” she inquired. Renny motioned to the second option. Delta grinned, eager to see how this would turn out.
Dungeons could have deadly traps or godly monsters. Delta had a circus and thus, she won by default.
She purchased the skeleton crew.
There was a slight rumble and Delta looked around to see if she could see monsters forming or more likely, the skeletons would be considered critters, not true monsters. Then as if in unison, ten boney hands broke through the ground.
Renny walked over, hands splayed, as if commanding them to rise. Nearby, Maestro’s mushrooms began to tremble with a tune.
“Oh my God,” she whispered as the skeletons rose in various dirty articles of clown dress or loose leotards. They stood in a rough triangle formation and Renny flexed his fingers, like casting a fishing line. Each of the boned creatures began to stomp forward in time.
“Renny… the circus is supposed to make people happy and delighted… not have nightmares,” she cried as Renny marched his warriors forward, their firm movements in time with the beat. Renny waggled his finger.
“The mime is right. The circus is supposed to be unforgettable!” Maestro laughed with delight.
“What kind of people want to visit a circus of the dancing damned?!” She demanded aloud.
Von frowned as he recounted the coins. The Vampire banker was not happy. People coming to the town meant the easy job of counting money that never changed was now becoming a pain. He might need to make a ghoul for this soon.
All this Mana in the air was making him peckish but he had made an agreement with Mila. Von was good but Mila was… well…
Von didn’t like the word ‘fear’, it didn’t quite explain things.
‘Admired cautiously’ would be better suited. Still, a man had needs. Before when Mana was low, his powers barely needed food. Now? He was itchy.
He could fly to the capital and grab food but those knights were so bothersome. He tapped a finger on his chin. Durence was off limits. The capital was annoying. Von needed more than one’s average blood. The problem of being old enough to have been around before some mountains was that his body tended to need a bit more spice in his meals.
He opened a drawer and pulled out a contact book with addresses and dates.
“Regal… oh he was beheaded a few years back. Never understood why he loved cows. Lily vanished into the ocean after climate change, that she didn’t believe in, eroded her cliff, good riddance,” Von turned the page.
“Edmund is creepy and stalks teenage girls. Reported him ages ago. Roger would help but I don’t think I know where he is. Desiree was staked on her own dancer’s pole. Hamish got lost in a castle and then it collapsed. Morian went on vacation in the Abyss, lucky woman. Jolene was killed after she took someone’s man. I swear vampires are a dying breed,” he sighed.
He paused at a name.
“Sarah… now there’s a pity case I haven’t thought of in years. I wonder if she ever got those mirrors working. Her castle would be beyond the capital and in the woods. Well, it's either her or crazy vegan Victor. I don’t know how he turns trees into ghouls and I want no part of it,” he slammed the book shut.
Mr. Von got his hat, his coat, and his apprentice he had trapped in the basement to fight some rats.
“Master, they’re bigger than horses!” She screamed from below. He merely looked down at her.
“I still hear chittering. Kill at least two more and I’ll let you out,” he said kindly. He then went to make some calls.