[Warning: Dungeon Core overloaded.]
That wasn’t good. The entrance was sealed, and the core was glowing bright white. I was pretty sure that wasn’t supposed to happen.
[Critical core failure in ??? seconds.]
This was only my second dungeon outing! It wasn’t fair. I only just got started, why was I going to die now?
“Hey, Lucas, are we going to be okay?”
I turned my attention towards the voice. Right. It wasn’t just my life on the line here. I’d somehow managed to land the only set of adventurers in the entire Guild that had less experience than me.
“You’re going to be alright, kid.” I wasn’t sure if I believed my own words, but the boy wielding a sword too large for his size clearly did; he calmed visibly.
This dungeon was supposed to be an easy one. The call had been for new adventurers only, and it had turned out to be brutally wrong. Even with my remarkable proficiency for healing magic, it had taken everything I’d had to keep us alive.
And it had been exhilarating. As much as it should have been utterly terrifying, I’d found it fun to push myself to my limits, to manage my healing and keep each and every one of my teammates alive.
My team… wasn’t the best. They were all teenagers like me, but I was pretty sure we differed in that they hadn’t been born on Earth, raised on too many MMORPGs, and then ultimately sent to be respawned in a fantasy world. There were two boys and one girl, and all three of them were on their first adventure. A [Wizard], a [Swordsman], and a [Flame Knight], respectively.
I could see their potential, but it had taken multiple life-or-death situations for them to actually unlock any of it. We’d managed to get a good rhythm going by the end of the dungeon, even taking down the [Cave Troll] that we were definitely underleveled for.
After that, though…
[Critical core failure imminent.]
“Dungeons don’t usually do this, right?” K’lon asked. The [Swordsman] who still wasn’t quite used to his sword.
The cave entrance had fallen in behind us after we’d slain the dungeon’s boss and no exit had opened.
“They don’t,” Ashley replied. Our [Flame Knight] who had finally managed to get over her fear of fire halfway through the dungeon. “The Guild never mentioned anything about this, at least.”
The Dungeon Core was growing increasingly bright, now almost painful to look at. A glance back revealed that no, the boulders blocking the only exit had not moved.
“I’m scared,” Thorn said. As the party’s [Wizard], he’d been the one with the most expertise coming in.
“It’s going to be alright,” I lied. Rounding us out, I was the [Healer], one that was far too good at my job for someone who was only level 2.
We hadn’t even gotten the experience that clearing a dungeon would normally net us. There were many things wrong here, and nobody knew how to sort this situation out, least of all me.
The spherical Dungeon Core was glowing even brighter now.
[Core integrity failing.]
Fuck. I didn’t even have a mage-type class, but even I could sense the mana spiking from that thing.
What was there that could be done? It sounded like this thing was going to explode. We didn’t have any methods to deal with it.
A thought formed in the back of my mind. A stupid, useless idea that was practically guaranteed to do nothing and get me killed, but I couldn’t shake it.
“Hey,” I said, stepping towards the painfully bright core. “It was a fun dungeon, right?”
“Yeah!” Ashley said, her characteristic enthusiasm holding even in this situation. “It definitely was.”
“Find another [Healer] for me, will you?” I asked. As I stepped closer, I could feel how dense the mana was, making the air thicker and thicker the nearer I was to the core.
“What… what are you doing?” Thorn asked.
I don’t know. “I’m doing my job.”
Why was I doing this? I had gotten a second chance to live my life, and here I was throwing it away.
Still, looking at those three, lost souls trying to find their place in the world… it seemed familiar. It was like a mirror through time, a reminder of who I’d been in the past.
I’ll be there for you. I hadn’t made it through those dark times myself. People had made sacrifices for me. They’d been there when I didn’t have the power to lift myself out of the holes I’d dug myself into, helped me in ways I couldn’t repay.
Was this a repayment? Probably not, but…
Don’t worry about me. “Just pay it forward,” I whispered, completing the thought.
“Lucas?” Even Ashley sounded nervous.
I took another step forward. It was getting harder to walk now, the mana so thick in the air that it was creating a physical barrier.
Another step closer and the Dungeon Core started actively fighting me. Lances of pain—real pain, not the tingling sensation that I normally got these days—struck through my body, but I continued onward, linking a [Healing Stream] to myself.
Behind me, someone was shouting at me, telling me to stop. It might have been all of them.
“Go!” I shouted, not looking back. “Take what cover you can!”
They still had so many adventures ahead of them.
I wish I could be there with you.
I was hurting more now, the core’s mana stabbing into me, but pain was just that. A [Rejuvenating Pulse] and [Healing Zone] would be enough to keep me from dying.
One of the few things I’d been good at back on Earth had been minmaxing the shit out of clerics, and that wasn’t going to stop now.
One more step, and I was on the core. It wasn’t that large—maybe the size of a kid’s basketball.
Definitely small enough for me to surround. The Dungeon Core was just lying there on the ground, having been unearthed at some point during our last fight, and even though it was tearing me apart with every passing moment, I wasn’t going to let it stop me.
I laid down on top of it and everything went white.
[Core integrity breached.]
[Oh, it’s you again.]
[You humans are so odd…]
[Who even does that?]
[Compensating for anomaly.]
[Thanks for making my job harder. I can’t even kill you properly like this.]
[Determined course: integration.]
[Core-human integration initiated.]
[If I put you in the middle of nowhere, will you behave?]
[Location set: 1304.2494, 2934.1103, 12.994]
[Executing core-human integration.]
[You’re a pain, but I’ll give you credit, it was a good attempt. That deserves recognition of some kind.]
I blinked. Had that been a dream? Everything had gone white, and then I’d seen a huge list of messages from the interface, and then…
I was here now. In a cave wholly different from the one that my makeshift party had just completed a dungeon in. Different material, different shape, different paths…
And I could feel those paths, I realized. Sense how the cave was made, where exits and entrances were, every little being inside. It felt intuitive in the same way that casting spells from my [Healer] class did, and—
Hold on just a second. I wasn’t stupid. I could put two and two together. Assuming that last bit hadn’t been a dream, there’d been something about a “core-human integration?”
I looked around me in the cave, but I already knew where my target was.
Lying on the floor next to me was a very noticeably not detonated Dungeon Core, its bright light faded out enough that it just looked like a particularly bright gem.
I knelt down and touched it, and as I did, my hackles raised as if someone had just poured a trickle of cold water onto the back of my neck.
Alright. That was disconcerting, to say the least, but I had an idea of what had happened now.
Still looking at the core, I felt out the ground around me, and I made it move.
…I could do that?
Effect: Change your own shape.
As I watched, the earth swallowed the core, filling in the hole it made and smoothing over it like nothing had ever happened.
I had done that. That was me. And the interface had told me that I was changing my own shape. Not only that, but the formatting of the spell was different from what I was used to.
…had I gained the properties of the dungeon? It seemed far-fetched, but then again, so was being sent to a fantasy world from my everyday mundane life.
The human mind has a great tolerance for adapting to bullshit. When I’d been sent here, I’d freaked out for a solid few minutes, but once I’d been done with that, I’d accepted my reality for what it was. With such a BS event to set the baseline for my tolerance, this was nothing.
Okay, so I was part dungeon now. What did that mean?
It felt like I’d taken a blindfold off. The area I could perceive was so much bigger now, and somehow I knew that I could apply mana to achieve certain effects inside this dungeon. Expanded skills that I hadn’t had access to before.
[Spawn Monster], I ordered, flavoring the mana so that I could control what came out. Not many options right now, and by not many I meant one.
[Spawn Monster] became [Spawn Snake], and as my mana levels dropped, I created life.
Out of thin air, my mana crystallized into an outline, one that was given blood and mana of its own by the system that many called the Will of the Goddess.
At my feet, a three-foot long snake flopped to the ground and hissed.
“Huh,” I vocalized. “Wild.”
Before long, I’d spawned another four of them. My mana reserves were apparently not that high as a part-time dungeon, unfortunately, since I got the feeling I wouldn’t be able to raise any more for a bit.
Instead, I used that matter manipulation trick that I’d gained—[Reshape], according to the interface—pushing a square of rock into the ground to keep the snakes in. I doubted that they were going to get away from me, but it was cool to do anyway.
I found myself walking through the halls almost unconsciously, my eyes closed but my steps sure. The innate spatial awareness granted by my new condition was enough to keep me going on the right track. Soon enough, I was at the dungeon’s exit. This one was on the side of a mountain, apparently, carved into the rock.
It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, the wind was blowing, and the meadow just beyond the edge of the dungeon looked inviting like nothing else.
I took another step, and—
[Warning: due to core-human integration, you may not leave the dungeon limits.]
Looks like I’m going to be stuck here for a while.
It was time to see what I could do.
Three weeks later…
Adventurers were at the door to the dungeon, and I was only just barely ready.
One final check—the snakes were in the right places, the traps loaded properly, and the final boss was ready and primed for a dramatic fight—and I was sure that everything was good to go.
The rock of the cave melted around me as I stepped out of my little hidey hole where I’d stored the human half of me. I brushed off an errant strand or two of cave dust, reabsorbing it into the dungeon in order to use as material later.
A week or so ago, someone from the Guild had come by. I’d been busy tinkering with my skills at that point, and I hadn’t noticed their presence until they were already gone. Their contribution hadn’t been that much, but it had been a step towards marking me as a proper dungeon. I couldn’t actually read the sign from the inside of the dungeon bounds, but I was familiar with the formatting. It most likely said something along the lines of New Dungeon, Level Unknown or some other official Guild language like that.
Voices were coming from ahead of me, and I jumped to attention. The entrance area hadn’t been completely set up properly, but I had made at least some semblance of a safe room before the actual killy parts of the dungeon started.
I could feel them as they crossed the threshold, I realized. Sense them in ways that I definitely wouldn’t have been able to before.
A [Knight], an [Apprentice Mage], and a [Bard]. All of them level 1. They must’ve been a new adventuring party. Really new, if they hadn’t even managed to find a fourth to round them out.
I frowned. No [Healer] or [Cleric] or any of that type of class? That was just asking for a party wipe on the first go. From what I could perceive from them—and my abilities as a part-dungeon let me perceive a lot—they didn’t seem organized at all, what with their ill-fitting equipment and all. They reminded me a bit of the party that had gotten me into this situation in the first place, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for them.
Could I actually justify killing them? Absolutely not. Most Dungeon Cores were threats to the lives of every last person that entered them, and I wasn’t sure I could match that level of ferocity. Yes, I might have been integrated into this place, but it wasn’t like I’d lost my humanity or anything. There were two halves to me now, and while one of those halves was very much inhuman, I still thought with the half that had just wanted to adventure.
Sure, I couldn’t deny that there was some level of satisfaction in creating a dungeon of my very own. I’d made a fair number of them with pen and paper in my past life, my role as the eternal DM something that I’d grown to enjoy with time. Now, with the ability to manifest those designs in reality? It was practically heaven.
But still… I didn’t think I could watch this party just bumble in here and die to fucking snakes. I’d made quite a bit out of not that many skills, and I was pretty sure that even with only a single mob, these guys wouldn’t make it.
I’d already made my decision, I realized. There was a reason I’d broken myself out of that wall, a reason that I had been slowly making my way to the entrance room.
If these kids weren’t going to be able to do this dungeon, then I would show them.
It didn’t take long to get there. How could it? This was my dungeon, after all.
Two boys and a girl, just like my party had been. Not much older than me, potentially even younger. They weren’t even wearing armor, the poor saps.
“Hi there!” I said, greeting them with a cheery wave.
“What the fuck?” the auburn-haired [Knight] shouted, stumbling back so hard that he nearly tripped on his own sword. “Are you a dungeon monster?”
“No,” I sighed. “I’m, uh…”
What could I say? He was technically right, and saying something like “I’m the Dungeon Master” was pretty creepy and really didn’t help my case as someone that wanted to not scare these adventurers off.
“I’m the tour guide,” I settled. “I’m here to help you on your way.”
“Tour guide?” the [Bard] asked, narrowing her eyes at me. “What kind of a class is that?”
“I’m bound to this place,” I sighed, giving her a half-truth. “Here, let me tell you this: if you just go in as you are right now without a plan, you will die. I guarantee it.”
“We have a plan,” the [Apprentice Mage] said, crossing his arms.
“Do you now.”
“Rose sings, I cast, and Ryan slashes!” Aww, he looked so excited about it too…
“That’s not going to cut it,” I said. “Look, I can help you get through this dungeon or I can let you do it yourselves. It’s up to you.”
“I don’t trust you,” the [Knight] said.
Did I look that untrustworthy? Okay, to be fair, I might have looked a little haggard. I’d figured out how to [Create Water] and wash myself, but there hadn’t been anything to preserve my clothes during my time here. That might not have helped.
“What if you lure us in there to kill us?” the [Apprentice Mage] asked.
If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already. I didn’t vocalize the thought. It wouldn’t be productive.
“Hey, come on, Troy,” the [Bard]—no, Rose—said. “He’s kind of weird, but this kind of thing isn’t completely unheard of. I hear some adventurers do jobs like this. I don’t think he would just stand there offering when he could attack us.”
“…fine,” Troy said, turning away from her. Was he blushing? “You better lead us right, uh…”
“Tour guide is fine,” I said. “Lucas, if you’d prefer, but I don’t mind.”
“Tour guide,” Troy decided. “If you trick us, I’ll make sure you regret it.”
That probably would’ve been a lot more intimidating coming from someone that wasn’t wearing the equivalent of a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.
“Sure, sure,” I said. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
The first iteration of this dungeon was still pretty basic. There were only three rooms past the entrance. I’d run out of mana to use [Spawn Monster] any more times, and I hadn’t wanted my first work to be huge and grand before I could even figure out what I wanted to do with the place. I’d learned that killing the snakes restored my mana some, but I hadn’t actually gained any yet.
As such, it stayed modest, but I’d kept it true to my design principles, slowly increasing in difficulty with no two rooms the same. The first room just had monsters, the second added in traps, and the last one mixed it up with a single final boss.
“Welcome to this dungeon’s first room!” I announced, not having crossed the threshold into the room proper. “There’s enemies and challenging terrain to deal with. Be wary—the enemies are venomous snakes, and they will bite.”
“I can deal with snakes no sweat,” Rose snorted. “We get those at home all the time.”
“Be my guest,” I said, gesturing at the door-like tunnel I’d created. “Come on in.”
“You’re not going in first?”
“Nope. I’m a guide, not a fighter.” That part was at least partially true.
Rose glanced at me suspiciously, but she gestured towards her party anyway, and the three of them made their way through the entrance.
Almost immediately, I heard one of the boys—was it Ryan or Troy? I couldn’t quite tell—screech. It took everything I had to stifle a laugh before stepping in myself.
The first room wasn’t that large yet, maybe thirty feet by thirty feet, but I’d made up for the size by adding obstacles. There were stone poles placed at regular intervals of around five feet, and elevated platforms abounded, sticking out from walls and poles. It wasn’t a lot of walkable ground, but it did give quite a bit of room for the snakes—the only monster I’d figured out how to spawn consistently—to climb around and pounce from.
As I watched, a snake uncoiled itself from around a pole and dove, falling straight for Ryan the [Knight]. With a herculean effort, he swept his sword upwards, burning a little mana and executing a skill that I could now perceive as a [Lunging Strike].
He missed entirely, and the snake hit him straight in the chest. A moment later, it met its demise at the hand of Troy’s [Lesser Firestrike], but it had managed to bite him at some point. I could actually feel the life draining away from him, converting itself into way more mana than I thought it should have.
Fuck, I couldn’t justify killing him even if it gave me mana. He was still human, and I wasn’t about to betray my own species just for a few more magic points.
“You three,” I said, pointing at the trio. They’d taken cover in a corner, Troy the [Apprentice Mage] trying to stave off incoming snakes while the [Bard] fruitlessly attempted to heal Ryan with a goddamn mundane first aid kid.
“What?” Rose asked, almost accusatory. “You didn’t say anything about this!”
“I warned you,” I sighed. “And also—you don’t have a healer. That unbalances your party comp.”
“Ryan is fucking dying!” Rose shouted, the force of her words enough to make Troy flinch. “I don’t care!”
With a long-suffering sigh, I made my way over.
[Antivenom], I ordered, and the interface accepted, consuming some small part of my mana to purge the venom from his body.
I cast a [Healing Stream] for good measure, restoring the little damage that had been done to the boy in moments.
“Wha… thank you,” he said.
“Who the hells are you?” Rose asked, turning her attention back to the fight even as she asked.
“I told you,” I said, watching as the three of them got back into the rhythm of it. They still weren’t working together as well as they should have, but they had an understanding of their enemies now. Good.
“I’m just a tour guide.”
I took a deep breath before speaking again, a familiar warm feeling sprouting in my chest.
I was pretty sure they weren’t listening, but a well-timed [Rejuvenating Pulse] cast as they grew tired from continually fending off of the snakes from above brought their attention back to me.
A smile touched my lips as they turned towards me.
Despite it all, this was fun.
“But what kind of tour guide lets their tour die on them?”