Poppy turned a page.
“Gently!” came a deep growl from the book. Poppy turned the book around, and her blank expression met the cover of the book where an etched face made of symbols and ink glared at her.
“Tom, I can’t go any gentler. Waiting for a breeze to turn you is taking forever, nyeh,” Poppy sighed. The book floated up of its own accord and shut at the same time.
“Most people would pay a kingdom’s worth of blood and gold to peek at even one of my pages!” he thundered and then sniffed.
“Reduced to a child’s entertainment novel, how droll,” he sighed and flopped back onto the bed. Poppy wanted to remind the book that it had done nothing but waste away in a bookstore in the middle of nowhere for many years but then decided it wasn’t worth another lecture.
Tom, or ‘Tome of Eternity’, was a rather grouchy book at any given moment. Poppy sat on her bed and poked him.
“Then how do I read you?” she asked, trying to put some actual curiosity in her voice but she was due for a nap soon and couldn’t help the yawn.
“Magic! Powerful energies that would let me reveal secrets to the user of appropriate strength. I highly doubt you’ll have much luck,” Tom began with enough smugness to make Poppy’s classmate, Grim, look humble.
Oh, Poppy could try that, she really wanted to read Tom. She stimulated the feeling of being big… marking the highest score on the exam… winning the race with Deo… finding the best skipping stones.
Superiority. Power. No peer to be found.
Her mouth cracked slightly and she grinned with fangs as her eyes went black with slitty glowing yellow irises. The feeling of being queen of all monsters and pitiful ants.
She was a dragon with no equal. She slashed a hand and the book gave a yelp as it turned to its middle section and filled with words. Poppy slowly began to push herself back into a calm state. Endless white… no hint of anything but just sleep and peace.
She felt heat fade and her Mana popped like a soap bubble. She sniffed and eyed her curtains which had turned to cinders as her bed looked blackened.
Nyeh. She’d have to get a new one now.
“W-w-w-what the Dicksons and Poes! I demand a reasonable explanation for that!” Tom questioned, voice high like a small boy.
“I ate a dragon tail once. My Dad cooked it with a spicy herb from a volcano and it was nice,” she shrugged. She leaned in to read as Tom blustered and spluttered.
“Are you some blue mage? What kind of child gets access to those type of meals?!” he screeched but Poppy was too busy reading.
The pages were of powerful monsters. Almost like a bestiary, it spoke of where and how to find these fearsome beasts. Their abilities… what Poppy could gain from them.
“Pass,” she sighed and turned another page. Tom was mumbling to himself furiously.
The next few pages came in and it showed a human girl with a glare on her face. The page filled in as Poppy found herself disliking the girl for some reason she couldn’t quite understand.
“Beta. The monster that devours monsters. Given the ability of Purple Magic with complete… control,” Poppy said and she stared at the picture of the creature in human skin.
“Rather new addition if I am correct. Odd creature. Usually, these things are not so sudden. The Great King of Monsters usually takes time to release such unnatural things into the world,” Tom hummed.
Poppy drew a moustache on Beta’s face. Tom didn’t even notice.
“Who’s the king of monsters?” she asked as she added curls to the face hair.
“He is the physical agent of the Brother of old. I would surmise he was the first monster and one that appears when monsters are pushed too far. It has been a long time since he has appeared,” Tom admitted.
“You think a king would be kinda hard to miss,” Poppy pointed out. Tom huffed.
“The King of Monsters breaks down into Mana and is reborn when an imbalance is skewed too far in either manner!” Tom lectured. Poppy poked the book.
“Show me what he looks like now,” she poked harder. Tom huffed but his pages turned again.
“If he is even around. There is no promise that he- Oh, he is around,” Tom’s voice went odd.
Poppy stared at the page.
“That is not a king… that’s adorable,” she smiled softly.
An orange slime was rolling down a grassy hill, bubbling in cheer and delight. It came to a stop in a bush of wildflowers. The slime bubbled as they danced in the wind. It giggled as a bee buzzed at it.
It buzzed back, it’s body shaking like jello, and the bee flew off. Nonplussed, it hopped along the tall grass and hummed out a warbling off-note song. The path behind it burst slightly into beautiful flowers and grass as the imprinted Mana left behind soaked into the ground.
The little orange blob stopped as it stared up at a massive tree with dangling apples.
“Usually you’re a bit more fire and brimstone with lots of people screaming,” a voice came from very far away. The blob turned and tilted so hard that it fell over.
It gurgled and blew bubbles.
“True, the balance is sort of fine. I didn’t expect you to be born as a slime but you always were an odd duck. So what’s the plan, Danmulecus?” the father asked. The slime thought about it and thought hard.
It saw the weaving deaths of monsters and humans. The balance of sword against claw… it saw fire and blood. It saw where life should be stamped anew like a fire to a forest. To remove the old and give way to the new.
It also saw something else.
A girl with a tie and bright eyes.
Laughter tempered by will.
It bubbled and began hopping again.
“I’m not sure what that means exactly. The closest Dungeon to ‘educate’ would be Yal and I don’t think he needs the- Actually, ignore that. You should totally do that,” Father instructed.
The slime bubbled cheerfully.
“In fact, according to your auntie, there is this group of people you should use as meatshields… well let’s call them helpers. You need to show them you are wise and totally not the end of all they know. See if you can lead them to De- Well, you know where to go!”
The little singing ball of slime made a comment.
“Getting feisty? Fine fine, you’re the king. If you wanna be called an ass, go for it,” the voice faded and the slime cheered in agreement.
Thus began the tale of Mule.
The little slime that could… do a lot of damage.
Brother hummed as he fished his hook out with nought to show for it.
“Did Sister say to mess with the Princess and Yal or to leave them alone at this crucial step of Dungeon/human-relationship understanding?” he mused. He shrugged and stretched.
“I’m sure it was whatever I did. I’m always sort of right!” he admitted.
Skeletons in colourful clothes and makeup was a little…
Distracting. Which Delta guessed was a point in their favour as performers! Red stars over empty eye sockets. Clown smiles with no lips. Leotards with no muscles to stretch them.
All of them doing the same routine of dancing.
It was like a work out video from hell that was in the bargain bin. Delta weakly applauded a couple doing knife juggling. One went too far and fell right into the empty ribcage where it rattled on the inside.
Well, Delta guessed workplace accidents would be pretty hard to come by.
Renny began to correct forms for movements, he snapped at a skeleton who tried to climb the highwire with furious clicking at the safety net still rolled up.
He pulled a confused skeleton out of a colour cannon that had remained unlit. Delta wasn’t sure she had done the mime any favours by unleashing these boneheads on him. But as she reached out, she blinked at the slight glow around Renny.
He radiated annoyance, as expected, but there was also excitement and… purpose. He felt busy for the first time in a long time. Delta hid a smile and went to get his food stand ready. Since people would be arriving en masse from the second tunnel entrance, it would be a good place for the food to be sold.
She spent the DP and from the ground rose metal counters with swinging door. Mass formed together to give rise to various jugs of coloured fruit juice and a quiet popcorn machine that was visible through the glass under the service counter. Behind, poster frames rose but only one had anything in it.
It showed the skeleton crew in a triangle pose, like cards stacked upon each other. There was a single line at the bottom.
‘The Circus run by the Skeleton Crew. Come tickle your funny bone!’
The food stand was to the right of the entrance and had red and green stripes everywhere it could manage. The cash register had a grinning skull atop it and the popcorn ad next to it was a little bit ominous.
‘Delta’s Popcorn: It’s to die for… or because of!’
“What is it even made of?” she asked aloud and nearly shrieked as Fera answered her. The goblin just appeared from under the counter like a damn ninja.
“What else? Mushrooms bits and unspeakable horrors,” the goblin grinned.
“Is it… going to kill people?” Delta had to ask. Fera’ slight hesitation was telling.
“Not a lot. Just the old or sickly,” she said calmly.
Delta glared at her and dragged her menu opened.
She scanned the menu and her finger found the option she was looking for.
“Upgrade! Upgrade!” she chanted urgently.
The popcorn in the glass window began to give off a bright golden glow. Delta blinked and the menu quickly said its message, as if panting to keep up.
Delta lifted her finger off the upgrade button and carefully closed the menu.
She closed her eyes.
“Nothing bad will come of this. I didn’t do anything weird or strange. It will all be okay,” she said in a calming tone. Fera snorted.
“You keep telling yourself that,” she said, snacking on the food and going a little glassy-eyed.
Poppy blinked as her father paced in his kitchen. He was wild-eyed and his fingers trailed over the many jars and tins he had collected over the years.
“Dad?” she asked and he spun, a scary gleam in his eyes.
“Poppy… it has happened. I sense it! A powerful rival has created food beyond compare in its field. Tell your mother I shall be… busy,” he instructed as he clapped his hands, lighting the four stovetops in the room at once.
Poppy closed the door and yawned.
“Dad is such a weirdo,” she told Tom who was stuck under her arm.
“According to my pages, that man is the fabled 'Demonic Che-'” Tom almost squealed before Poppy cracked him open.
“Show me something cool,” she said and settled into a good armchair.
“Oh, you- Fine! Let’s see… How about the tale of Silver? The Fallen Dungeon?” he offered, a tall spire of silver forming on the blank page.
“Sounds depressing… anything happy?” she asked and she looked at the photo on the wall that showed her friends… Amanstar and Deo.
How it made her feel… not as blank.
“Hm, well let’s see… Ah, how about the tale of ‘Black Witch that fell in love’?” he asked. Poppy thought about it and then nodded.
“Once in a dark forest where only evil and cruelty could grow… there once was a witch of thorns…”
Poppy settled in and listened as Tom indulged her.
“One day, she fought the Knight of Glutton and was badly injured. That was when a man who had gotten lost by following a robin found her. She growled ‘End me or you shall be dead very soon!’” Tom said in horrible voice acting.
“The man then said with no fear ‘I cannot die twice for you already have taken my heart from my chest with your enchanting looks.’” the story went on and Poppy wondered what kind of dysfunctional couple this was.
Tom went on about the Witch guarding some Dungeon and the man nearly dying for her but Poppy drifted off to sleep before long.
Tom didn’t seem to notice at all.
“Thank you, Ruli,” Mr Dabberghast beamed as Ruli handed him the cut flowers with a glower.
“No problem. How’s the family?” she asked and Mr Dabberghast looked even merrier.
“You know Holly, absolutely mad over her garden now that the Mana levels let her grow some uh…interesting things!” he flushed. He hummed as the sound of childish fighting erupted above.
“The kids are kids. My eldest is currently floating between being a tree or a person. Teenagers!” he laughed and Ruli gave him an odd look but wasn’t sure she was equipped to handle that line of conversation.
“Trees are pretty uh… tall!” she said weakly and Mr Dabberghast nodded and leaned in.
“I’m sorry to bother you, I know you’re busy but you wouldn’t happen to know any talking trees? My eldest is nervous and Holly is taking a very teacher-like approach but I’m a softy and wouldn’t mind trying to get her support,” he asked quietly to make sure his wife didn’t hear.
“Well, there is one in Delta’s joint but-” Ruli was cut off as Mr Dabberghast’s face lit up.
“Really? Oh, that’s fantastic. I need to go tell my daughter!” He said excitedly and shut the door.
Ruli still had her hand up in protest.
“She’s kind of a nutjob!” She said in a defeated voice.
She paused and then scowled.
“That damn orange bird. Nutjob? She’s a murder tree and I’m making puns,” she sighed.
“I hate quests,” she turned and walked off. Delta was good to people. She would control the demon tree.
Ruli wanted a drink and she wanted it now but… her mother would know if she skipped on the other tasks before Ruli even made it 10 feet towards the pub.
She wished she had a way to do the tasks and drink…
“HI MISS RULI!” came the voice of a boy that could be told to do anything. Ruli smiled and slowly turned to Deo.
“Ah… my little helper!” she beamed. She leaned in.
“How would you like to borrow an epic sword for some mighty questing?” she asked and Magma began to steam in protest.
“Shut it and I’ll get you cheese later,” she hissed and the sword went quiet again.
“I WOULD LOVE TO HELP! I’LL GET ALL MY FRIENDS TO HELP AS WELL!” Deo said, red hair bouncing and smile turned up to eleven.
Perfect, it was like bribing one minion and getting three more for free!
“Deo, your heart is too pure for its own goo- for the good of mankind,” Ruli said solemnly.
Well, she was half-demon. Her nature had to kick in some time outside of battle. Taking advantage of the innocent was just one of those ways.
Delta carefully stepped back inside as Fera seemed to vanish into a trapdoor that… took her back up the first floor? Delta tried to peer inside and a space that had been twisted to be almost backwards stared back in tears.
She didn’t know what else to do so she threw some popcorn into the darkness and willed the trapdoor shut just before a distant burp echoed into the darkness between floors.
Renny finally had some of the skeletons doing some basic routines and Delta had to admit… the ghoul was good at it.
The skeletons didn’t speak and neither did Renny. It was… really… really quiet in the tent beside the clatter of bone and Renny’s finger-snapping. It was bad enough the visuals were hard to look at, the sound didn’t have to be so spooky.
She flushed some DP on Maestro and waited for the shaking or the earth splitting apart of maybe even Maestro rising from the shadows in his new… form.
But instead, Delta watched as a thin paper barrier was lowered from the ceiling on unseen ropes and pulleys. Then a shadow of a door open on the far side as lights lit up and gave of the clear profile of Maestro climbing to a small platform. His insect-like limbs and barely visible chittering mouth made Delta’s neck hair stand up in goosebumps.
“Did someone call for a romance to the ears? I, the forever dashing star, have answered the call but it’s so sad for the children in shows to come! I am behind a paper wall! If they wish to see my full gloriousness, they’ll just have to find me properly!” He laughed, and tooting horns sounded out with jingling bells.
Renny walked over and vanished behind the screen before his form stopped for a moment and Maestro’s purr of a voice sounded out.
“Even the cool soul of Renny can’t stop admiring my elegance now. Now now, we have a job to do!” Maestro leaned down to Renny. The Mime nodded jerkily and staggered back out from the screen towards Delta.
“I warned you,” she said blankly.
Renny just stood there as Maestro made haunting pipe organs breathe and jump in beat like a heart monitor.
“This is Maestro!” He cackled and the strum of an electric guitar made the skeletons shuffle in unison.
“Come now, boys and girls of every age! Would you like to see something strange?!” Maestro’s voice went high and demonic with glee.
The skeleton’s eyes glowed a supernatural red as if the music gave them power. Two began to flip and land with unnatural grace. Another one landed on the shoulders of another before they were launched by a seesaw into a barrel.
Delta wished she could hug Renny and cover her eyes, but the scene, while making her shake… mesmerised her. Something about the antics and show captured her eyes. The horror of the performers turning their existence into art.
Delta saw Renny wanted to control them or direct them but they seemed more in tune with the music than his own commands.
Delta could fix that. She opened her menu and tapped him.
“I can make you ringleader… if you’d like?” she offered. She didn’t want to push the upgrade on the mime without his agreement. Renny pulled outside so they could have more space and silence to hear each other.
She repeated her question and Renny froze. The pale face turned slowly until he was staring fully at the memorial statue of his father that Delta had made for him.
Under the many glinting Starlight Mushrooms that acted like stars… the statue looked mysterious, if not gentle. He wandered over to it and stared up at the stylish moustache and excited eyes.
He touched the tophat grasped in the man’s left hand that was held to the side of the statue.
“I think he’d be happy to know you carried on his legacy but you shouldn’t feel trapped by it either,” Delta told him gently. The Mime turned to her and he closed his eyes.
Delta felt a small tug as the contract bond between them seemed to vibrate with his feelings.
Conflicted… hope… sadness… fear.
Delta saw Renny’s father in a memory. She looked out of Renny’s eyes as the much younger ghoul stared up at the man.
He was handsome and had a wicked gleam in his eyes that promised adventure and stories to tell for years to come. He smiled and put his top hat on Renny’s head and it nearly swallowed Renny’s head due to being too big.
“You are my son. Be it a ringmaster or a free soul. I shall be here,” he tapped Renny’s chest which radiated warmth through Renny. The ringmaster then picked his son up.
“Come! We must see the new Snake charmers! I heard that being half snake lets this woman dance like no other! Charms the tips out of the crowd no doubt…”
The memory was strong and Delta had to blink away sudden wetness in her eyes as Renny looked back at his father.
“He was a great man,” she said with little doubt. Renny nodded and then turned to her. He got down on one knee and did a one-arm bow at the same time.
His wide grin which revealed black gums and teeth stretched wide. It said as clear as day.
Do your worst.
“No take backs!” She laughed and hit the upgrade button.
The flash of light swallowed Renny and even the circus stopped its music for that moment. It seemed to breathe in as if scenting its new proper master. Delta squinted until the light finally faded away and she had to give a long whistle.
“Renny… you look like a showman,” she laughed in delight, clapping her hands. Renny rolled his new black tophat down his arm before he bounced it with his wrist on to his head. The cane he leaned on had a crystal mushroom adorned atop of it.
His dark red jacket was criss-crossed with orange buttons and string. His dark pants and shiny shoes made him look like he had stepped out of a ballroom. His face had the dark fibres that acted as hair for ghouls, trimmed and tidy into facial hair like his father.
The beady eyes remained and the grin Renny had now could pass as human if you ignored the sharklike rows that glinted in the low light. He stretched his arms and gave Delta his full smile and Delta twitched.
It was like a gaping maw of fangs and black flesh.
“Let the show begin!” He howled and the tent behind them erupted into light and music. His new temporary powerup already fading without a show to keep the Ring Leader persona going. Renny would be a Mime again soon.
Still, his voice was captivating and would draw anyone's attention.
Delta wished their customers luck. She also needed to get Nu to make some legal waivers for customers to sign because this was not going to go well.
She gave a good-natured sight.
At least Renny was happy. That was all that mattered to Delta.