Delta had to admit one thing.
She felt a sense of amusement when Fera seemed to be eyeing each of the teens with a critical eye, giving their warmsoup-and-burger-with-a-side-of-mushroom-rings extra portions when no one was looking at her cooking through the kitchen window set in the back of the bar.
Deo and Poppy talked to a patient Numb about how their journey was going so far. Numb was good with kids, he nodded at the right bits and looked impressed when appropriate. Vas and Grim were playing some dice game with Billy. Billy was utterly cheating with fixed dice, sleight of hands and just plain luck.
Poppy, Amenster, and Kemy ended up talking to Cois about the benefits of fire.
Delta wasn’t sure she had known that each could have their favorite types, let alone the best kind to use per undead, holy being, or a warm holiday hearth.
Fera didn’t even write down a tab, shaking her head at the ‘charity’ she was running. She knew that challengers got a free meal before the boss. Delta left them to it for the moment. She zoomed past the second floor, making sure nothing terrible wrong was going on, but it seemed as tame as a jungle ever really got.
The third floor was quiet and that was worrying. Nu appeared a second later.
Not to be a bother but we may have a thing.
“Thing as in ‘oh, a thing’ or ‘oh… a thing’”? Delta asked slowly.
Bit of both.
Nu lead her to one of the doors that lead off the circular garden. Delta hadn’t even decided what to do with the old laboratory and now she had to deal with something else. Life was never dull for a Dungeon Core, it seemed. The guardgoyles were clustered around a large, dark iron door. The surface looked dented and damaged, but the unsettling thing, upon closer inspection, was that the dents extended towards them.
Like something was trying to get out. Her Mana seemed to be pushed back on a straight line. That explained why she hadn’t noticed it before. Her Mana was her domain. Outside it, things may as well be unseen.
Delta eyed it, she focused before she managed to stretch a weak Mana line to it and something inside her had a instinctual feeling of…
She blinked and had to balance herself as the feeling echoed off her very being.
I see you felt it as well.
“What is that?” Delta asked as her guardgoyles turned more aggressive at the implied threat.
I haven’t a clue. We can’t consume it or feel inside, so either there is a seal, a powerful enemy, or something else. I would just set everything on fire inside, but I have learned that fire is either hit, miss, or tends to makes things worse.
“Don’t let Cois hear you saying that,” Delta mumbled and wondered what to do. If she needed to send something in, then they had to be able to work without her Mana…
“I need Jack,” she said seriously before feeling a slight nervous shake go through her. Needing Jack was like using the big red button.
All other options had failed.
Delta appeared in the library as Jack sorted through piles of trashy looking books. He had some odd shrine in the corner of the room where a weird doll wore something that could have been a hideous dress robe or a bathrobe. The figure seemed to hold power over some rather well made miniature books and a plush armchair.
Honestly, it looked like some weirdo living in a basement surrounded by trashy smut and a comfy chair. All that was missing was the cats. Jack looked between two equally bad looking books.
“Werewolves or Ghost pirate husbands…” he mumbled. He discarded the werewolf book.
“Rarity adds to the value,” he decided.
“Jack, sorry to bother you in your… religious practises,” Delta said slowly. Jack turned with a toothy grin on his lizard-like face.
“Walking in on something you’d rather not see just adds to the spiritual-vibe, to be honest,” he explained.
“I prefer it when you blow things up,” Delta had to admit as she crossed her arms. Jack pulled out several glowing bottles.
“Give me a target! I’m a sinful sort,” Jack cackled.
The library around them seemed to be holding its breath and Delta knew the Libro Golem was about ten steps away from booting Jack out for public indecency with his book choice and now was panicking at the explosions. Delta lured Jack away with a mission…
Some needed breadcrumbs, others needed candy… Jack needed promises of destruction.
The door was heavy and inside was gloomy.
First impression was that Jack didn’t see anything that was worth blowing up. Honestly, his time was valuable… He walked in as the others watched from the open door. Being a contract gave Jack some benefits, he had to admit it. Being able to leave the Dungeon space was one, obviously. The second was after time, his bombs seemed to magically just reappear…
That was the best part.
The hallway ahead looked torn apart in several places. It was mostly stone and metal rivets. It looked more like the innards of some boat that the Dwarf folk tended to make. Since they sank like rocks, they felt better being surrounded by the metal of earth when they had to travel the many flowing rivers of the world. Oddly the pure metal seemed stained with old substances seared into the surface.
Jack bent down and touched the black stains. It was too old for any clues, but Jack saw a pattern. Something had bled in several thick puddles over time. He narrowed his eyes as they seemed to make an almost… stepping-stone path over the metal. Jack moved in, a dagger drawn. He felt Delta’s worry and a slight connection. She was watching, so Jack had better perform his best.
The door at the end was torn apart from the inside, it was another dark metal door and several pieces looked blackened. Jack took a few steps forward and dark glowing symbols filled the hall.
“Hm. Well. Bugger,” Jack said calmly before he bolted. He ran as energy began to crackle in the space, turning the metal hall into the funnel of a storm. Several metal spikes erupted from the floor and walls, intending to pierce something much larger than Jack. He moved between them. The energy which had weirdly started at the exit side of the hall chased after him like a hungry beast.
Jack had to begin using the blood path as a marker for where the spikes didn’t pop out. He threw himself through the wrecked door and rolled to a stop. He kept still as he panted, quickly taking everything in. He had survived… more than 3… no definitely more than 7 years down here… no stupid trap was getting Jackie boy.
The room wasn’t exactly looking any better than the hall. Torn-apart creatures of metal and red stone laid scattered around. Some golem guards. Jack watched as the stones trembled, some terrible energy filling them. They reassembled themselves into stone beetle golems about the size of a human and a half. Six bending arms drew rapidly reforming curved blades.
They looked unsure of Jack. Their heads nothing more than two eyes of glowing yellow pits.
They spoke in unison. A choir of creepy stone bug guards. Well, Jack wasn’t going to be rude.
“Password?” he suggested. The yellow eyes turned a violent red.
“Incorrect. Attempts left: 0.”
Jack held up one hand and spoke, causing the guards to actually stop for a moment.
“I have a counter number for you. I have Attempts left: bombs,” he declared. There was no movement or reaction. Jack threw the first of his vials and two of the statues were reduced back to rubble.
He grinned maniacally as the top half of the statues spun like a twister of steel and death. He scoffed at them.
“I DON’T FEAR DEATH! HE READS TRASH!” Jack roared. Red stone and fire filled the chamber.
The door gleamed before them, the glaring boar and goblin inlay a warning… and an invitation.
“This is it,” Grim said quietly. He looked at the hand clasped on his shoulder.
“Don’t be getting cold feet,” Amenster said. Grim scoffed, shrugging the other boy’s hand-off. Amenster was someone Grim felt… actually neutral towards.
They were both the dark horses of the group and there was potential for a friendship between them, but they both knew they’d rather be friends with Deo, for different reasons.
Kemy inhaled and cast a group blessing.
“May your strikes be true,” she whispered. Grim nodded and pushed the doors open with both hands.
They moved like a burden. It was as if the door itself was testing them, tasting their strength to see if they were worthy to enter. It was different than before and just barely… Grim’s strength was enough to open the door.
Grim felt like if it was an ounce heavier, he would have failed.
A dark and sandy arena greeted them. The previous crack in the wall where the boss emerged had been replaced by a solid looking opening that was too dark to see inside.
Above them, a giant brazier ignited in red fire and the tinier copies around the edge of the circular cave lit up in synch like a countdown as they moved towards the far end. Mirrored perfectly, the braziers on each side gradually changed colour the farther away they were until it was a blazing blue above the boss entrance.
“This is… really cool,” Kemy breathed, obviously this must be her first time in this room. Grim didn’t really get to appreciate it for himself last time, but it was nice.
“Challengers of the surface. Welcome to the first trial,” a deep rumble sounded out as the forms of Fran and Bacon emerged slowly from the shadows. The sleek armour and dangerous looking lance were only enhanced by the amoured boar the knight rode.
Fran stopped and eyed them with a long look.
“Do you accept the challenge?” He called. Grim looked at his team. Vas was placid and smiling, he looked amazingly happy, even after his tree thing had faded. Deo grinned excitedly. Poppy merely pushed her hood back a tad to meet Fran’s eyes.
He looked to his other side. Amenster was looking utterly focused. Kemy inhaled once and her cheerful look turned determined.
“I think we are. Are you?” Grim called. Fran’s smile wasn’t arrogant or cruel, merely excited.
“I was literally born ready, my wonderful challengers. Let it be known that as the first official team to enter my Mother’s Dungeon… I will forever hold you in my heart as a special memory. I say this now, for whatever happens, be it lose or win… I wish nothing but success and pride in your personal journeys,” Fran said and bowed once.
Grim bowed his own head, feeling his heart beat wildly with intense energy and excitement.
Now they all drew their weapons. Fran smiled.
“Sir Maestro, if you would…” he called and a slow thrum echoed out the walls. The beat was subtle and it was pulsing in time with his heart.
“Ladies and gentlemen, others and between, those without terms and those with too many… are you ready to rumble with the number one – by popular vote – hottest goblin to ever be? Place your bets, place your hopes, bet your dreams! Today, Team Hope of Tomorrow faces Fran the Knight-Protector, beginning in 10 seconds!” A soulful voice announced and Grim wasn’t sure about the team name.
Deo looked ready to protest too. The voice soaking into their very bones seemed to allow him to hear, as it were.
“Folks… it’s time to d-d-d-d-duel.”
A bell sounded and Grim had no more time to think about anything.
Neither about how he finally felt… finding where he belonged.
Jack inhaled and coughed as he felt a few of his ribs had been broken.
“That smarts,” he commented as two remaining beetle guards moved towards him. One had only two arms and a leg left… the other was missing all it’s lower half.
The rubble around them was slowly moving… just slow enough to be missed if Jack wasn’t so clever and keen-eyed. They were rebuilding themselves.
Endless freaking wave of bug statues. It was stupid. He reached for the last ten bombs he had. These weren’t exactly perfect. Three were gas and these things didn't breath. One was a flashbang and they weren’t affected by it. Two he had no idea what they did and that was a bit of a pickle.
He threw one and a statue burst into flower blossoms, making it look very pretty and it actually stopped to admire itself for all of five seconds. He threw the second one and the golem shuddered before a clone of itself split off like some sort of slime. They shared a look and nodded, resuming their walk towards Jack.
“Oh… well… that was my fault,” he admitted as he leaned back against the old brickwork inlaid with more bands of iron metal. Jack eyed the still crackling hallways. Escape wasn’t an option…
“I need something right now,” Jack admitted. He wasn’t eager to die again. It cost Delta a pretty penny to bring him back.
Damn it, Jack needed a miracle… he needed some asspull or something like-
-a swordfish! Jack frowned. He needed a what?
The golems froze and promptly collapsed into a messy pile of rocks and inert metal. Jack turned to see a giant thing standing in the frame of the previously closed door. A giant red thing with curved horns and a snarling face.
Next to that thing was a metal skeleton wearing a weird apron.
“Master, the bipedal gecko lives. Shall I correct that?” The skeleton clacked and the demon shook his massive head.
“No.” He replied and Jack was liking the demon.
“We can harvest his blood for materials over time,” he added. Jack corrected himself.
He really liked the demon.
“Hello, I’m the diplomat for Delta the Dungeon core, who is your neighbour,” Jack waved and jerked as he forgot about his ribs. The demon wore a giant leather kilt filled with tools and his muscular frame was bulky, but not an inch of fat could be seen anywhere.
“It speaks without permission. I shall remove its tongue and pickle it,” the skeleton said promptly only for the demon to pull it back.
“Robin… calm yourself. Are you qualified to barter treaties between powers?” The demon asked skeptically. Jack had to be honest.
“I am an expert in the Dungeon,” he promised solemnly. Delta was cheering in his head. Jack felt better knowing she was yelling in support for so long that it must have broken some record.
Jack liked blowing things up.
Bombs or boring planning… he wasn’t picky.