Chapter Ten – Tricksome
Metal Hunk whined about her name for what felt like a whole cycle. It was glorious. I’d never heard so much unique conversation!
Apparently Metal Hunk really didn’t like her name. I resolved to leave it as it was. If she hadn’t killed Overbear, maybe I would’ve tried to rename her. Stupid Jellybitch.
They were still instinct breakers and monsters though. Soon enough they continued with their grisly hunt.
The group took care of the Ghoul without much trouble, and looted Momma Bossbear’s body not long afterwards. Red Thorn moved like lightning. I knew I couldn’t keep up with her, and could only match her if I managed to surprise her. By comparison to her, the others might as well have been moving like ants. Still, enough ants were able to topple even Momma Bossbear. With Green Tooth’s healing lights removing the impact of any major hits, and with Beardy Wall and Metal Hunk distracting her, Red Thorn and Fire Tosser were able to kill Momma Bossbear with little trouble.
I felt the hate burn again. Hate at Ghoul and the Bugbears for not just waiting in the throne room and attacking the invaders together like a sensible family. Hate that I couldn’t stop loving these useless creatures that had been with me my entire life, even though they had all the depth of a puddle.
Momma Bossbear died. I’d seen Red Thorn kill her a few times now, but she didn’t try often. Apparently Momma Bossbear was still a challenge for her, but with the whole group, they had no trouble with her like they had the first time.
She died and the group exclaimed in exultant joy, looted the cave and her body, and left, taking their “discussion” and their “interesting” right along with them.
After that, Red Thorn didn’t come back for a long time.
A long time.
For the first ten cycles or so, it was like a dream. Dungeon Home had returned to its rightful way. The cycles returned to normal. Momma Bossbear, alive and well, sat on her throne and never moved. The Bugbears did nothing new. Skeleton and Skeledog still opened doors for me at the same time every cycle.
After twenty cycles, the dream began to grow stale.
At thirty, I was staring into the blue flames, changing my color to red in the hopes that I could provoke them to change. I never had figured out what it was that caused the invaders to come. Nor had I ever proved that the invaders weren’t the instinct’s way of punishing me for disobeying it. But…
I missed them.
Was it possible to miss something you hated? I missed Red Thorn coming. I hated what she did, hurting us. Killing us. Ever since I’d stopped participating in the fights though, Red Thorn’s visits were the only thing that ever changed in my entire life. She never did the same thing. Never followed the exact same route. She came mid cycle, near the end, or near the beginning completely randomly. She followed NO conceivable routine, save for the fact that her clothes were usually the same. Even those changed every now and then!
The only thing I could change was my color.
Red Thorn would never attack the same way. She’d fight one bugbear, then seek out the next, fighting them one by one in her search for me. Sometimes she’d gather them all together, though, again, never in exactly the same way.
It was as if her cycle was actually different every single time she invaded. Or… or… as if she didn’t have a cycle at all!
The thought was absurd. Everything had a cycle. The light from the Great Open could be bright, dark, twinkly, cloudy, or rainy but it followed a strict pattern that I had memorized long ago. I remembered being amazed by that too, at one point, until I discovered that the Great Open’s light cycle encompassed thirty four regular cycles. Sometimes it went off script randomly for a cycle, usually for severe weather.
Momma Bossbear would actually shift her chin from her left hand to her right hand on her throne every cycle. The bugbears followed the same path every cycle, either in a loop, or in a line and backtracking until they restarted at the beginning. Skeledog and Skeleton wandered, but their wanderings, random as they were, always happened at the same time each cycle.
Everything in my world had a cycle!
Red Thorn didn’t. Or if she did, it was so long that I couldn’t keep track of it.
By the fortieth cycle since the invaders’ raid, I was considering swearing a whole new oath to obey the instinct, this time just to bring Red Thorn back. Inside though, I knew I was lying, and I guess the instinct did too. I wouldn’t let myself be killed by following the instinct’s stupid rules. Never again.
So, Red Thorn didn’t come back.
I’d lost count of the cycles since the last invasion by the time I was bored enough to approach the Great Open again.
I floated there for whole cycles, staring out into the changing sky, trembling. I tried to make myself move that next foot towards the exit but my whole body seized up and terror shook me to my core. I couldn’t leave! But I couldn’t stay!
I hated it here!
I hated the mindless drones, slaves to the instinct! I hated dying even more, and dying seemed to be the only way to bring Red Thorn back.
“Is this… really all there is?” I asked aloud, facing my Dungeon Home and wishing it were like out there. “If I can’t go out there, then can’t something good come here? P-please?”
“Hello?” came a sudden high-pitched voice, and I leapt into the air, horrified. “Who are you, little light?”
I turned, and to my shock, a small boy, no taller than Beardy Wall, stood in the mouth of the cave, looking right at me.
I remained frozen, unable to move. The instinct had no precedent for me, for if I followed it I would never even be here. It caught up on the situation quickly and demanded that I hide and prepare to attack.
But… the small creature had talked to me. To me. It had said words meant for me.
“It’s okay. Are you trapped in this cave?” the boy asked.
I was so shocked, I answered without thinking. “I guess so. This cave is my home. But I want to go outside. I… want to search for a better home. But I can’t. I’m… bound here.”
“Oh… oh wow. I didn’t know the developers had put speaking NPCs in off dungeons!” the little boy exclaimed gleefully. “God I love this game.”
For some reason I felt annoyed at that. The other invaders had referred to this… their invasions, their lives, my life, as a game too.
“My life isn’t a game, invader. What do you want? Here to kill me too, like the others?” I asked, bitterly. “Go ahead, fine. Apparently my body is great loot to you sick monsters!”
The boy blinked, taken aback. “I uhh… Oh...kay? I don’t know how to respond to that.”
He seemed genuinely confused.
“You’re… not here to kill me?” I asked, tentatively optimistic.
“Well. Full disclosure, I totally was. That was before I knew you could talk though. If you're like a regular NPC… well. Killing those is possible, but it's a big no-no. Ruins your reputation,” the boy said.
“And… assuming, one has never heard of them, how does one become one of these… En Pee See’s?” I asked. Ruining someones… reputation sounded like a poor defense against death but I’d take anything at this point.
“You… are you serious? What the hell, most NPC’s just ignore out of context crap like that,” the boy breathed, talking to himself in the middle of our conversation. “What… are you? You’re registering as hostile but you’re not attacking.”
“I’m not hostile! It’s you invaders who are hostile, always coming into my Dungeon Home where you aren’t wanted! Is it so much to ask to not be attacked every cycle?
“Whoa, sorry, sorry. Didn’t mean to strike a nerve. Tell me, what’s your name then?”
I paused before responding, trying to hide my excitement, but I couldn’t. This was my first real conversation! I was talking with someone who could talk back!
“My name is Gell. I’m a Jellyfae. What are you?” I asked, trying not to let my excitement show too much.
The boy grinned. “Well, Gell the Jellyfae, I’m Viperling_the_Bold! Halfling Beastmaster at your service!”
“I am never going to remember that,” I said dryly.
I looked the man over, annoyed that I hadn’t realized he wasn’t a boy at all, but a Halfling. Then again, it had taken a little while for me to recall the races of Green Tooth and Beardy Wall. The Halfling was short and had a childish face, but I knew intuitively that their kind were usually older than they looked. This ‘boy’ was likely as old or older than any of Red Thorn’s group.
Then again, Green Tooth sounded like a whiny child, so I decided to reserve judgement.
He wore a rather plain pair of travelers clothes. A whip hung off his belt and he carried a large dagger, which looked like a sword on his small body. Curly black hair framed a childish face with deep blue eyes. Around his back he had a huge pack that looked like it could hold a bugbear. He beamed at me, seemingly as overjoyed to be talking with me as I was to be talking with anyone.
“No… it’s not.. It’s just Viperling_the_Bold. But yeah, even that’s a mouthful. I honestly didn’t really expect to ever have to use the name. Most players end up getting referred to by their classnames anyway, so I get called BM, for Beastmaster more than anyone ever tries to use my name,” he replied, actually sounding somewhat distraught.
“That’s okay… you’re the first person I’ve ever actually spoken to. I’ll try to remember it, but is it okay if I just call you Half Bold instead?”
“Half Bold… huh. I actually kinda like it. Describes me well too!” he replied, jovially.
“Great! The other invaders didn’t like the names I gave them as much.” I shrugged morosely, trying to convey the satisfaction.
“Others have found this dungeon before? Right. Wasn’t Treading the Sky before I reached it. So I guess that means other players have met you before?” he asked, sitting down on a big rock that I remembered spinning around while waiting for Bugbear to arrive here on his cycle.
God, how long had it been since I’d done that now?
“If by met, you mean, killed me over and over again, then yes. I’ve met other invaders,” I said bitterly.
“Well… did you try to ask them to stop?” he asked.
“N-no. It… talking is against the rules,” I said somberly.
“You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” he prodded, patting the rock beside him and inviting me to lay my tentacled form down next to him.
“I don’t know… why that is. My instinct has never let me talk to the invaders before. Uhm. M-maybe it's because you’re outside Dungeon Home, so technically not an invader yet? You’re not like the other invaders, are you? I don’t like dying. It… hurts,” I complained, suddenly feeling embarrassed for some reason.
“I’m… sorry to hear that, Gell,” the beastmaster said sympathetically. “Listen. One of my powers as a Beastmaster allows me to actually talk to… things that normally can’t. Maybe that’s why it's okay for you to talk to me?”
“It… could be,” I said, apprehensive. Why wasn’t the instinct interfering?
“Well. I know you don’t like being stuck here. How would you like to come with me? Out of the dungeon?”
If I’d had a heart, it would’ve leapt. As it was, my colors flashed through a myriad of emotions. Excitement, trepidation, joy, fear, happiness, loneliness, worry. I felt them all. Would my Bugbears be alright without me? Would they… notice if I left?
Could I trust Half Bold?
“I… would like that very much,” I breathed. “The instinct though. It will insist I stay. Every time I’ve tried to go into the Great Open on my own I… just couldn’t do it.”
“I can fix that!” He said, his tone still jovial. Something in his expression bothered me though.
“It really won’t insist I stay here? I-if I go with you?”
“It's never failed before!” he said jubilantly. He kicked his feet back and lay down on the huge rock, affecting careless freedom in a way that I’d never been able to grasp. The way Red Thorn did. The way all invaders did.
“Would… I be able to come back and visit?” I asked, tentatively.
“This little dungeon ain’t going anywhere. I don’t see why we couldn’t drop back every now and then,” he said flippantly. “That’s actually why I came in here. I’m pretty weak on my own, so I befriend mons… er… people, like you, Gell, to help protect me, and that I can protect in turn! I’m nowhere near strong enough to challenge the bosses in a dungeon this level, but I was hoping to come across a friend just like you!”
I flushed with delight. “R-really? You came here… to meet me? Not to kill me?”
I was dazzled by the idea. Sure, Red Thorn wanted me. But she’d never wanted to meet me. This — what was his name? Viperling? — this Halfling seemed genuinely interested in me! In doing the conversation with me!
If I was being honest, just talking to him was the most fun I could ever remember having in my entire life. And the instinct wasn’t getting in the way, though gods only knew why.
“Of course I did, or someone like you. Like I said, I befriend… dungeon dwellers.” There was a noticeable pause to his words, like he’d been about to say something else.
“I change their instincts, and make it so they can follow me instead of those horrible rules they were created with,” he said as he hopped down off the rock and strode over to me. I suddenly realized I’d never accepted his invitation to float near him and suddenly felt guilty.
“That… that sounds wonderful,” I said.
“Only one catch though. Honestly, I’m not sure I can do it to such a beautiful Jellyfae,” he said with a distressed sigh.
“Catch… wait, what catch? What would you have to do?” I asked.
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid you’d just lump me in with the other invaders, and I’d be left without your company,” he said. “But it’s… my own rules I guess. I can’t bring a monster along with me, unless I defeat him. Or her, as it were.” He sighed again, shoulders slumping.
I hesitated. Defeat me? But for the price of one more death, I might go free without the instinct’s powerful compulsion?
“S-so… after just one more death, I can go out of here? The instinct won’t hold me back anymore?” I asked, anxious and fearful.
“Death!? No no no! Defeat! Killing you wouldn’t help at all! I only need to damage you until your health is low,” he said, aghast. “As soon as you become my capt...errr… as soon as you become my companion, I can heal you back to full health with my own powers. Then, we can go explore the world together!”
It sounded wonderful. To be able to leave. To be able to go with this boy. This first person I’d ever truly spoken to. But… something held me back. Something primal. The instinct was insisting I attack him like normal, but something beneath it told me that fighting this Halfling would be no different than fighting the Red Thorn.
That same feeling told me that agreeing to be defeated by him would be even worse, somehow. The instinct was there, always lingering in the back of my mind, but it was an old and familiar leash. Somehow I knew that this creature’s rules would not be so simple to break.
“I… don’t think I want to let you defeat me. It sounds painful. I’ve had enough pain,” I said pointedly.
“Only the one time though. After that, you’d never have to be hurt again,” he said. There was an eagerness to him now that scared me. He was so much smaller than the other invaders, but none of them made me… uneasy like this Halfling did.
“I don’t want to do that. I’ve been breaking the rules on my own up until now. Sooner or later, I’ll be able to push past the one keeping me here,” I said, staring out at the Great Open again. “Please don’t be mad? I just… I want to do it on my own.”
I was about to ask if he might visit me every now and then but was shocked when I turned and saw his face. His pleasant demeanor had vanished, a nasty grin turning his boyish features into something imp-like and terrible.
“Well... That’s too bad,” he said maliciously. He’d withdrawn two items and held one in each hand. A horn and a net.
He raised his right hand and threw the net at me with blinding speed. I panicked and flowed away from the net, but somehow the thing acted on its own. The magic net floated in the air, four weights at each corner leading a parachute of mesh.
I dodged it but was tagged by one of the flying weights and sent reeling, tumbling through the air. Before I could reorient myself, the net had swept back around for another assault.
Half Bold hadn’t remained idle while the net attacked me though. A horn call echoed, and to my horror, a huge bat appeared from nowhere!
I was shocked when I saw it. It looked just like a bigger version of the little bats that sat down in the third level dead end, but it stared at me with hatred. Black fur covered wings that were as big as my body and it had fangs as big as Momma Bossbear’s. But it was clearly like me! Had Half Bold somehow imprisoned this creature inside that horn? Had he stolen the bat from its own family?
I spun in the air and flicked my shocker, batting the net away from another attempt at capturing me, before turning to glare at Half Bold.
“Did you steal that bat from another dungeon home?” I asked, putting as much menace into my words as I could.
The Halfling was left blinking, surprised that I’d been able to deflect his net. “H-how did you do that?”
“Did you steal the bat!?” I screamed, my voice echoing through the cave.
Half Bold hadn’t actually stepped into the cave yet, instead standing just outside it. “Nah. This bat was free roaming. Didn’t come from one of the dungeons. Does that make you mad, little Jellyfae?”
My color bled red. How… how dare he! How dare he! That bat had what I could only dream of, and this… this… bitch had kidnapped it and sealed it inside a horn!? Was that what he’d wanted to do to me!?
I’d fought defensively before. I’d fought to save my life. I’d also fought under the influence of the instinct. Through all my trials though, I’d never felt such a thirst to kill.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be joining him soon enough! A talking mob! This is going to be so great,” he cackled.
I blasted towards him, intent on electrocuting him with my shocker, but stopped, frozen in place. I grit my teeth in impotent rage. The exit of the cave. I… I couldn’t leave.
“Hahah! Little glitch I found. I don’t have to enter dungeons to send my monsters inside!” He pointed at me and the bat snarled, its fangs looking huge compared to my tiny body. “Sic’em!”
The bat let loose a screech that chilled me to the bone. I flinched as it rushed me, but managed to dodge back into the cave just in time, leaving the bat to flail on its missed bite. The instinct demanded that I shock the bat but… but I couldn’t!
He was like me! Only worse! I couldn’t look at the bat and see anything but the bugbears that I’d once considered family. How easily might they fall under Half Bold’s instinct? To me, the bat looked no different.
The bat followed me but I dodged, too fast for it to catch with its unyielding wings. The net I’d batted aside remained inert but the Beastmaster readied another one and threw it into the fray. The magical net joined the bat as both of them tried to capture me, but I was too fast.
Again I dodged the net, but could do nothing about the bat. I wasn’t used to fighting alone! The instinct had always wanted me to fight with the bugbears or Ghoul, but since the invader hadn’t actually come in, none of them were coming!
I didn’t panic though. Through my anger, I couldn’t find it in me to be afraid. I turned to glare at the grinning Halfling, as the inkling of a plan began to form in my mind.
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I'm Materia-Blade. I've been a long time fanfiction writer, and have recently decided to toss my hat into the original fiction arena. I love fantasy, sci-fi, and Lit-RPG's and have read hundreds of books from each genre.
My new story Artificial Jelly has released and is currently being pretty well received! Excited for it to hit trending! Thanks to those who support it, and me, and I hope it continues to impress!
Hope to hear from you soon!