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Woke as a Dungeon2
  1.  
  2. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  3. Interlude 2.tk
  4.  
  5.  
  6. A figure wearing an ankle-length black cloak stepped out from a dark alley between two broken houses. As he passed across the street, the wind rose, nauseatingly thick with the stench of Rot from the old dead woodlands that had provided for this town in the years before the death of its Dungeon. The man had to reach up to prevent his cowl from flipping off his head and revealing his face, and to block the cloud of dust the wind carried within itself.
  7.  
  8. This township, which went by the name of Temperance, had once been a nice place to live. Here and there, it was still possible to see signs of the peaceful hamlet it had once been. The cracked stone paths; the flakes of bright paints on what houses hadn't been destroyed by fire or decay; the remains of the old mill, with its waterwheel hanging over the dry bed of what had once been a snaking river; the dead skeletons of bushes and trees.
  9.  
  10. As the figure advanced toward the center of town, he caught sight of a somewhat fresh corpse hanging from one of those trees. A visitor, or perhaps one of the locals, who had run afoul of the wrong kind of people, no doubt.
  11.  
  12. Which ‘wrong kind of people’ was up for debate; there was no shortage of people who could go by that description here.
  13.  
  14. Closer to the center of town, more buildings stood in a somewhat better state of repair. Old shops, temples and administrative buildings, all of which had been built of sturdier materials, and had had the pleasure of being somewhat maintained by the barely-reputable businessmen who'd established themselves there. The hooded figure ignored the buildings themselves, instead finding his way between the old adventurer's guild and an abandoned shop of some kind.
  15.  
  16. The figure walked swiftly, purposefully, his footsteps noisy against the uneven stone walkway. A group of brigand-looking men stood at the alley’s far end, their heads turning to glare at him as he approached. He didn’t even seem to notice them. He didn’t give any sign that he noticed the men hidden amongst the broken shingles of the houses that framed the alley, armed with bows, crossbows and wands. He didn’t seem to care, either, that the alley’s other entrances had been roughly bricked shut, leaving but one entrance and exit.
  17.  
  18. All he seemed to care about was a single door built in the back of the adventurers' guild, about halfway through the alley.
  19.  
  20. A bear-like man stood next to the door, his massive arms crossed. A well-worn pair of metal claws hung from his wrists, glinting in the evening sunlight.
  21.  
  22. “Business is closed,” he rumbled.
  23.  
  24. “Urgent payment,” the figure replied. “I’m here to pay my due.” The guard startled for a moment, then, brow furrowed, nodded. His arms uncrossed, and he tapped against the door.
  25.  
  26. ‘Tap-tap tap tap-tap’
  27.  
  28. A few heartbeats later, the door unlatched noisily, then slowly swung open. The person behind the door was another cloaked figure, a woman, whose piercing yellow eyes stared at the figure suspiciously. There was a glint of recognition in those eyes, only for a moment, and she stepped aside to let him through. Beyond the door was a short hallway with boarded, open doors—more men stood visible beyond those doors—and a short flight of stairs heading directly into the basement.
  29.  
  30. The figure said nothing, walking past her, past the second row of guards, and down the stairs. He pushed the wooden door at the end of the stairs open and stepped into a cramped room of roughly-assembled wood. There was a small door on the left, locked tightly. A counter and a window of latticed wood plants in front, at waist-level. The figure had to bend down to see the room on the other side of the window; originally far more spacious, it was now full of all kinds of knick-knacks and more-or-less legally acquired more-or-less legal merchandise. A man sat at the other side of the window, glaring at him as he approached.
  31.  
  32. “Account?” he asked.
  33.  
  34. The figure reached into his pocket and dropped a small golden medal on the counter. The man slid the window open to grab the medal, inspected it for a second, glanced at the figure to see his face, and nodded to himself before returning the medal.
  35.  
  36. “Hand it over. Destination?”
  37.  
  38. “Highest peak,” he replied, reaching into his cloak for a rolled up scroll, which the man accepted.
  39.  
  40. Frowning, the man continued, “Urgency?”
  41.  
  42. “Critical,” the figure replied.
  43.  
  44. The man’s frown grew even as he inserted the scroll into a black wooden tube and sealed it. “You realize what will happen to you if the council decides this didn’t warrant such urgency, correct?”
  45.  
  46. The figure nodded. “It does.”
  47.  
  48. “On your neck, then,” the man scoffed. With a knife, he marked the tube with a specific pattern, then reached past the figure’s view and brought a locked box in front of the window. He manipulated the lock with several quick flicks, opened the box and pulled out a little red crystal. He clasped the crystal in his hands for a moment, just long enough for it to start glowing, and incanted after releasing it to float in mid-air,
  49.  
  50. “Paphèal tethalké-fa’m’emlèhk o’malì ta-ï tethalékia.”
  51.  
  52. The crystal did nothing, floating gently while glowing, until the man tapped it with the tube; intense flames immediately flowed from the crystal up the tube, engulfing the message and the man’s hand in an instant. A heartbeat later, the flames were gone, as was the tube. The man’s hand was unscathed.
  53.  
  54. “Thank you,” the figure said.
  55.  
  56. The man grinned with misshapen yellow teeth. “I hope for your sake that this was worth it.”
  57.  
  58. “It is,” he replied. “Death to the King.”
  59.  
  60. The man’s grin grew sharper as he replied,
  61.  
  62. “May his rule be short.”
  63.  
  64. ---
  65.  
  66. The village was in the middle of a transformation. Several tents had already been dismantled, the cloth and supports separated in different piles. Several carts had already been loaded, several more would be loaded the next morning, but for now the villagers rested. Most whose tents had been taken down were sharing with those whose tents were still standing. A few had chosen instead to spend the night under the stars, rolled up in warm furs, their heads covered by wool to prevent the dry sand of the wastes from filling their mouths and noses overnight.
  67.  
  68. It would take three more days to finish preparations, but not all of the village needed to wait. Nor, in fact, did the village possess enough beasts of burden to transport everyone's belongings; too many of the beasts were too young to carry loads, and many of those that had brought them here had been slaughtered for food, leather and bones. It had been agreed that a third of the village would leave the following evening, travel during the night and start setting up after sunrise.
  69.  
  70. Kamella would lead the first group. Ulfric’s group would be the second to leave. Tyr's would be the last, once he returned.
  71.  
  72. Although, Kamella mused with a wry smile as she and Ulfric entered Tyr's tent, her own daughter would probably find a way to get there before anyone else.
  73.  
  74. "You're in a good mood," Ulfric groused.
  75.  
  76. "Shouldn't I be?" she asked.
  77.  
  78. Ulfric grunted.
  79.  
  80. They sat down. She reached for the lamp, activated the fire crystal that sat on the spindly holder in the middle of the tent and turned it on with an incantation:
  81.  
  82. "Lharalke hum'nhake-m'emlèhk nhalè'y ulynake nhalè'hao."
  83.  
  84. The crystal started emitting a small amount of heat and light, less than a fire but far more than a candle. She sighed in contentment as the warm light chased the desert chill from her skin and flesh.
  85.  
  86. Her eyes met with Ulfric's frown and she smiled.
  87.  
  88. "Are you that angry about your beard, Ulfric?"
  89.  
  90. He hadn't shaved it yet. He would, though. Ulfric was many things, but a dishonest man he wasn't.
  91.  
  92. "Cut the crap, Kamella," he snapped. Patient or polite, he also wasn’t. "What the hell was that, back there?"
  93.  
  94. That was... a good question. One she had an answer for, but that answer raised more questions than it actually resolved.
  95.  
  96. "Was the dungeon saying what I think it was?" he finally asked, his voice quiet and uncertain. It didn't fit him, she thought.
  97.  
  98. "What do you think it was saying?" Kamella asked back. She pulled at the side of the rug to expose the dirt underneath and drew, roughly, the symbols the dungeon had drawn.
  99.  
  100. Three lines of a rectangle, with a circle above it. Some kind of symbol made of three lines; a long straight line and a pair of much shorter ones starting from the end of the first, at sharp angles along the length of it. A set of lines and a circle that, recognizably, represented a person.
  101.  
  102. Another circle, this time with the person inside.
  103.  
  104. "...I don't want to say it," Ulfric sighed.
  105.  
  106. “A core pedestal, and a human with a line connecting it to the core. A human inside a circle,” Kamella described. “The dungeon was telling us it’s a human being. Or, at the very least, that it has a human mind. And, from the language it has displayed, human memories as well.”
  107.  
  108. Ulfric’s curses this time were in low Khanite, a vernacular far too vulgar for Kamella to have paid much attention to.
  109.  
  110. “So,” Ulfric finally said, then faltered. “So.”
  111.  
  112. “So,” Kamella agreed.
  113.  
  114. There was a short silence. The village, normally so noisy, seemed eerily quiet tonight. Most likely nobody wanted to bother those who were sleeping without a roof over their heads. Kamella just found it annoying that it left her nothing to focus on except her own thoughts.
  115.  
  116. Thankfully, Ulfric spoke. “So how did that poor bastard end up in there? Did he try making a contract with a core and…” he trailed off, frowning.
  117.  
  118. “If that is the case, then we’re dealing with the kind of warlock that dread legends get written about,” Kamella replied lightly, “and I somewhat doubt someone like that would go in the middle of nowhere, here in Central, to make a contract with a newborn Dungeon, only to accidentally get swallowed in.” she shook her head, “I can’t even begin to guess how such a thing could even be accomplished. And, ignoring every argument we’ve shared last time against the probability of that dungeon having a warlock, there’s also the fact that it is clearly unaware of itself and what it represents.”
  119.  
  120. “If I remember correctly, you were the only one certain that there was no warlock,” Ulfric rumbled. “And what do you mean, unaware of itself?”
  121.  
  122. “Tell me, Ulfric Blackthorne; if you were a would-be warlock who somehow was absorbed by a dungeon core, would you tell anyone about it?”
  123.  
  124. He shook his head. “It’d be madness.”
  125.  
  126. “You Shall Not Suffer A Warlock To Live,” Kamella recited. “Anyone knowledgeable about dungeons and their cores to the point of attempting to make a contract with one would know about this law.”
  127.  
  128. “And he just went and told us about himself, just so you would stop treating it like a child.”
  129.  
  130. She smiled. “He has a lot of pride, that one. Or maybe she? It might be a girl dungeon.”
  131.  
  132. He didn’t answer anything, his brow furrowing darkly. He was, she was guessing, mulling over the insanity that was the thought of a gendered dungeon. She tittered.
  133.  
  134. “Whoever is in there isn’t from around here,” Ulfric noted. “Maybe their laws are different?”
  135.  
  136. “Or maybe,” she suggested calmly, “he, or she, wasn’t absorbed by the dungeon, but rather suddenly found themselves inside the core as it was forming.”
  137.  
  138. “That’s fucking ridiculous,” he snapped, loudly enough that he was probably heard outside of the tent despite its specially soundproofed material. “Are you suggesting… That’s…”
  139.  
  140. “Tell me, Ulfric; did the symbols on the pedestal look anything like this?”
  141.  
  142. She drew on the ground with her finger. She was working from memory, and with these symbols’ complexity it was always difficult to get things exactly right, but she got a fairly close approximation.
  143.  
  144. Filling an exact square about the size of her palm, made of over twenty overlapping, curving lines of various width organized with little care for geometry, she had written one of the few words she knew how to read in High Druidic. M’emlèhk. Spirit.
  145.  
  146. Ulfric nodded, slowly.
  147.  
  148. “Then, I have no doubt that the druids themselves are involved in this dungeon.” She smiled. “Perhaps the soul inside the core is one of them?”
  149.  
  150. “The druids have been dead for more than a millennium,” Ulfric groused. “They’ve rejoined the planet long ago, Kamella. I know you believe differently, but—”
  151.  
  152. “Oh, they are dead,” she smiled, “but who is to say that their souls aren’t swimming in the stream of life, welcoming their descendants to their final resting place?”
  153.  
  154. He shook his head and avoided the theological debate. Unlike her, he didn’t believe. Well, perhaps he was right. Perhaps he was wrong. Either way, both of them would discover the truth eventually.
  155.  
  156. And on that day, she would find him, and she would rub that truth in his face. Then she would give that big lug a hug.
  157.  
  158. Ulfric grumbled under his breath, then finally said, “I should have brought a drink. This is not a conversation I want to have sober.”
  159.  
  160. She tittlered. “Going without every now and then is good for you,” she said, and pointedly ignored his retorting glare. “More seriously, even if the druids are not involved, then the Planet itself has to be. High Druidic is said to be the language the druids and the Planet used to speak to one another. And only it can create dungeons, which it does at its own free will.”
  161.  
  162. He rolled his eyes. “So either we’re dealing with literal ghosts or with the source of all life in the world?” he shook his head. “I really fucking need that drink before we go into that. Kamella, this…” he sighed, ran a hair through his dreads, stared at her in the eyes and said, “this isn’t the kind of thing meant for mortal men. This is… this is so far above our heads, it belongs to the stars.”
  163.  
  164. "It is on our laps," she replied, folding her hands between her legs. "And I pity the fool who tries to claim ownership of it. I get the feeling they will have bargained for far more than they can take."
  165.  
  166. He croaked a laugh, "I do not pity the fool who tries; that level of foolishness is better left to its own pains! A dungeon with a human soul—the sheer madness this thing will produce… I’m starting to think Tyr might have had the right of it! Not to mention the way it possessed multiple minions back there."
  167.  
  168. Kamella raised an eyebrow. “Is that unusual?”
  169.  
  170. “It is,” Ulfric replied. “Minion possession is usually how you know the dungeon is pissed off at you specifically, and it’s high time you get the hell out. They usually start using it when you get into a path that leads to their core, or if you stick to the same level for too long. It’s not something they use all the time, and when they do use it, it’s on named or boss monsters.” He frowned thoughtfully, one of his hands tugging at the knots in his beard, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a dungeon possessing more than a handful at a time, and this one controlled the spider it used to talk with us, the wasps it blocked its core hall with, and the wasp that fought against Gwen. And the other monsters weren’t behaving normally, either.”
  171.  
  172. He shook his head. “I’m willing to bet that every single creature in that dungeon was under its direct control at the same time, and that scares the crap out of me. There’s strength in numbers, and whoever goes in there hoping to hurt this dungeon isn’t just going to be facing numbers, they’ll be facing an organized army, working on terrain specially prepared to fight in by a single mind that has perfect awareness of every movement they’re trying to make. They’d have a chance only because it doesn’t have anything stronger than a lesser insect right now, but the moment it starts growing stronger…”
  173.  
  174. She smiled, knowing he wasn’t being serious. “All the better reason to stay on their good side, isn’t it?”
  175.  
  176. Ulfric’s answer was a grunt. “Assuming it, or whoever is in that thing, doesn’t decide we’d be more useful as snacks than partners. I—” He interrupted himself suddenly, head pivoting toward the tent’s entrance.
  177.  
  178. An instant later, Legate Garlynn popped her head between the flaps. Her eyes met theirs and she stepped inside, slapping her heels together and hitting her right fist over her heart.
  179.  
  180. To say she was tall was a bit misleading; a more accurate term would have been 'statuesque'. She was a trained swordswoman and it showed in her lean and powerful arms and graceful legs. She was, as usual, wearing the top half of her armor, and while she had left the long greaves at home today, she had brought her helmet; she was carrying it, purple feathers and all, under her left arm. Her features were sharp and elfin, much like Tyr's own. Her hair was a dark blue, nearly black, and tied in a practical ponytail that left her bangs free to frame her face.
  181.  
  182. Although she was a striking woman, there wasn't a man in the village who would have tried something with her.
  183.  
  184. "Elder," she said to Kamella, as seriously as ever. Her voice dropped an octave as she continued. "Ulfric."
  185.  
  186. Ulfric greeted back with a grunt. The Legate's eyes narrowed.
  187.  
  188. Kamella cut in before blades could. "Legate, I assume the preparations are done?"
  189.  
  190. "Yes ma'am," replied Garlynn. "The volunteers have been chosen, the first and second groups will be well protected. I put Garmin in charge of the first cohort, and I will lead the second. I... am assuming the Commander will be back by the time the third group is ready to leave."
  191.  
  192. "That's what he told me," Kamella replied. “Trusting him has not led me astray so far.”
  193.  
  194. "You don't trust your commander, Legate?" Ulfric snipped.
  195.  
  196. "Of course I do," Garlynn protested immediately. "It's just..."
  197.  
  198. She trailed off. Kamella continued for her. "You wish you knew what he's doing."
  199.  
  200. "He shouldn't have gone alone," she frowned. "Leaving his post like that to send a message--I understand why he couldn't use a messenger, I'm not an idiot," she glared at Ulfric as the man grinned, "but he could have brought someone."
  201.  
  202. "You, you mean?" the man suggested suggestively.
  203.  
  204. "Shut it, you barbarian," she snapped. Ulfric's grin just grew bigger.
  205.  
  206. Her face was impassive, but her cheeks and ears had grown just a bit pinker.
  207.  
  208. "He told me he needed you to organize things, and trusted no one else with what he was going to do," Kamella said. "He hasn't even told me.”
  209.  
  210. “The only town close enough is Temperance. I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard… things,” Ulfric said with a furrowed brow. “I wouldn’t think it’s a good place to go to if you want a trustworthy messenger—or a trustworthy anything, actually—but Tyr knows what he’s doing.”
  211.  
  212. Legate Garlynn frowned, said nothing, and crossed her arms.
  213.  
  214. ---
  215.  
  216. When Tyr returned to the village, Ulfric had flask half-full of flowery-tasting brew in his hand, a scowl on his face, and no beard under his chin.
  217.  
  218. “Wait, it worked?” Tyr asked in disbelief.
  219.  
  220. Ulfric just grunted.
  221.  
  222. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  223. Interlude 2.m
  224.  
  225.  
  226. Court was in session, and the nobles of Central had assembled at the round table in one of the lounges of the Palace of Magnus to speak their grievances and suggestions. King Medyrsjn was listening with an air of boredom as the Right Honorable Duke Geilr gave an impassioned speech about the plight and pleas of the men and women in his duchy, in the northeastern corner of the country. He would have been more convincing, the king told himself, if he hadn’t been calling out famine with a protruding belly and complaining about poverty while covered in gold and jewels.
  227.  
  228. It was a well-known fact that none of the men and women at this table had seen or spoken to their would-be subjects in recent times, some of them ever, and yet the comedy continued. Duke Murnend, sitting next to the speaking man, was ordering a maid to fill his chalice with wine for the fourth time. On a daily basis, he could usually be found touring bars and taverns around the city. Geilr himself spent most of his time keeping his stomach full at the Khanite embassy. Lady Willfynn, sitting directly opposite to himself in her Velthian gown, had never left the city and, for the life of him, Medyrsjn couldn’t remember if she even had lands to rule over. The other nobles were no better.
  229.  
  230. None of that mattered. Geilr’s speech didn’t matter. Murnend’s alcoholism didn’t matter. Wealth didn’t matter. Central’s pitiful lands didn’t matter, and their own people didn’t matter either. The king himself didn’t matter.
  231.  
  232. Only one question, and topics relevant to that question, mattered: “On which side are you”.
  233.  
  234. Topics, or people, like the two beautiful women who sat at each side of the King.
  235.  
  236. Andrya Jorrskyr was the Velthian Ambassadress. Sitting to his left, the golden-haired beauty held herself with the dignity of a queen, the self-righteous arrogance of a princess, and the garbs of a high-class whore. Her gown was sheer to the point of transparency under the right light, its neckline plunging to her stomach and leaving her back exposed even lower. It was also a shade of olive that was close enough to her skin color that most men could not look just once when seeing her for the first time. Only a handful of cordons and strategically placed pads kept her modesty hidden, though with everything else that her clothing revealed, the secret was absolutely more enticing than straight exposition. She had legs that went forever and breasts generous enough to overflow a man’s hand, and her face was just as attractive with the nearly undetectable makeup she wore. He remembered seeing more of the underside of her pointy nose than the rest of it; not just because she was taller than him, but also because she seemed to always be trying to point it at the sky when talking to others.
  237.  
  238. The king wouldn’t bed her for all the wealth in Velthia. The king had refused to bed her for exactly that offer. A beautiful poisonous flower, this woman was, and any man foolish enough to approach her courted his death.
  239.  
  240. Eiseh Flametongue was her Khanite counterpart. Where Jorrskyr had the mannerisms of a courtesan (and likely had been one in the past), Flametongue had the behavior of a barbarian. Her skin was the color of tree bark and her hair, which she kept in a braid so long and thick she could probably use it as a club, was as black as coal. He had never seen her wear anything but dark leather and glinting steel, and had seen more of her boots than anyone else’s since he’d become king; even now, as she listened with half an ear while chewing on a stick with her startlingly white teeth, her feet were on the table next to a plate half-full of meat brochettes. Today, she’d chosen to wear a halter top and form-fitting half-calf leggings. She was beautiful as well, in much the same way as a panther or tiger.
  241.  
  242. She’d also come to him with a proposition he’d refused. In her case, she’d done so by entering his room in the dark of the night wearing nothing but a few scraps of some predator's skin, as well as its smile.
  243.  
  244. His wife, the Queen, was in attendance, but had said nothing and would say nothing. Quietly standing near her were her two handmaidens. The first had olive skin and orange hair. The second looked like she’d been carved out of a block of ebony. Both wore the uniform of the castle’s maids, a frilly black and white dress with a neck ribbon and long-legged boots. He also knew that both wore long, thin daggers on their garterbelts, which he suspected weren’t meant to be touched without a powerful antidote. He did his best not to meet his wife’s eyes, to avoid seeing the premature crow’s feet growing on her face.
  245.  
  246. Instead, Medyrsjn turned his attention back to Duke Geilr’s speech, which appeared to be winding to a close. He was describing how a man (who probably didn’t exist) had approached him.
  247.  
  248. “…and then he asked me, no, begged me,” Geilr was saying, “to use my influence upon this court to ask permission to use waters from the Lions’ stream so he could water his fields. Without those waters, he swore up and down that his village would face death from hunger.”
  249.  
  250. Lions’ stream, that sounded familiar—
  251.  
  252. Oh.
  253.  
  254. Oh. So that was the deal. The Lions’ stream, if he remembered correctly, was a stream that had once flowed near a dungeon in the southeast that had focused many of its levels on big cats, particularly lions, hence the name. It was an irrelevant stream, especially now that the dungeon was dead, but the important detail was that this stream flowed into Velthia, where it became the drinking water of a small trading outpost he couldn’t remember the name of.
  255.  
  256. And of course, Duke Geilr sided with the Khanites.
  257.  
  258. He was keenly aware of the sharp look Jorrskyr was shooting him.
  259.  
  260. “And so, my Lord, with your permission I would grant approval—”
  261.  
  262. “You will do no such thing,” King Medyrsjn interrupted, “until the consequences of draining water from this stream have been evaluated. Concerning the village’s water needs, I will authorize you to increase your debt toward the treasury. You may use this debt to import water from our neighbors.”
  263.  
  264. Stupid.
  265.  
  266. Idiotic.
  267.  
  268. Some men, perhaps unaware of his country’s true situation, would have had nothing but scorn for this edict. Those men would have agreed to divert the flow, or ordered the village to move closer to the stream. Those men would have taken a side.
  269.  
  270. Those men wouldn’t have realized the treasury meant nothing, either.
  271.  
  272. Those men would have died.
  273.  
  274. Flametongue’s boots went off the table and onto the ground. Her elbows replaced her feet as she leaned forward.
  275.  
  276. “The Emperor would be willing to provide his aid,” she said. “For enough gold, that is.”
  277.  
  278. Jorrskyr spoke next. “Your Empress would see this village fed, for the correct price.”
  279.  
  280. Both pretended they didn’t hear the other speak.
  281.  
  282. “Ah—ah, your generosity is… appreciated,” Geilr said, eyeing the Velthian ambassador. There was a nervous tremor in his voice. “I will… I will study the, uh… the offers. Offer,” he hastily corrected himself. “I am sure we—ah… we can come to an acceptable agreement.”
  283.  
  284. A shame, Medyrsjn thought to himself as the other assembled nobles averted their eyes. It appeared they were going to need a new Duke soon.
  285.  
  286. Again.
  287.  
  288. A sound caught his ear, and he turned his head to find a familiar blonde maid carrying a carafe step into the lounge. He didn’t prevent himself from genuinely smiling when he saw her as she bowed her thanks to the round-faced guard beside the door, then quietly walked into position behind him. He moved his chalice closer to the edge of the table. She poured into the cup for a moment, stopping when it was less than half full. Three of her long, slender fingers brushed against his arm.
  289.  
  290. On the opposite end of the table, Lady Willfynn saw this byplay, but other than a disapproving stare, said and did nothing.
  291.  
  292. His wife the Queen did as well. She stood hastily, then bowed and excused herself, storming away in a furious flurry of embroidery. Her handmaidens followed faithfully.
  293.  
  294. While no one was looking, the maid pulled back, gently bumping the carafe against his shoulder.
  295.  
  296. “Excuse me,” she muttered.
  297.  
  298. “Everything’s fine, my dear Naïlynn,” he replied.
  299.  
  300. He took a sip from his chalice. Water, with a hint of blackberry juice. He swallowed the rest rapidly, using the cup to hide his furrowed brow, holding it to his lips longer than he truly needed to as if the cup has been full. Finally, he put it down and addressed the nobles.
  301.  
  302. “Does anyone else have another topic to raise?”
  303.  
  304. He mentally counted. Three, two…
  305.  
  306. “Your Empress has noted that many of your lands seem to be harboring Khanite criminals,” said Jorrskyr, on cue, with the usual stare directly at Flametongue. “As you know, it is explicitly forbidden to harbor these criminals under severe penalties. She requests that all efforts be employed so that their scourge can be eradicated from Velthia’s lands once and for all.”
  307.  
  308. “All efforts are being employed,” he lied, as usual. “We do not have many men available to do the searching.”
  309.  
  310. “Your empress repeats her offer to send her men to inspect your villages and towns so that the Khanite criminals can be properly handled,” she replied, as usual.
  311.  
  312. Over my dead body, he thought.
  313.  
  314. “That would be a violation of the terms of the treaty of Magnus,” he replied, as usual, “neither empire is allowed to send their men into Central, even for the righteous purpose of ridding the world of the Khans.”
  315.  
  316. The words had made him ill, the first few times. Velthia had a broad definition of ‘criminal’, so long as the target had Khanite blood, and did not believe in mercy in that case. That the children and toddlers they put to the flame had nothing to do with the vast armies that had once conquered their lands was an insignificant detail. These days, the routine had dulled the horror down to a mild twist of his stomach.
  317.  
  318. “Any modifications to the treaty would have to be accepted by the Khanite empire,” he added, as usual.
  319.  
  320. “Your Emperor has forbidden any changes or attempts to renegotiate the treaty with a foreign power,” Flametongue sniped in, as usual. "To even consider this would be treasonous."
  321.  
  322. Jorskyrr nodded, as usual. “I will send word of your intransigence to your Empress,” she said coldly. “Know that her patience has limits.”
  323.  
  324. It had been eight years since the Empress had claimed the throne of Velthia. He’d been hearing this threat for two thirds of that time.
  325.  
  326. “I beseech her mercy,” he pleaded, as usual. “I hope she can understand that my refusal is through no fault of my own.”
  327.  
  328. She would, as usual.
  329.  
  330. “Does anyone else want to speak?” He asked again, preparing to stand. No one ever did.
  331.  
  332. This time was different.
  333.  
  334. “Yeah, I got something,” said Flametongue, pausing a moment to eat the last bite from her last brochette. She discarded the stick by carelessly throwing it behind her. She chewed, seemingly for years while the King tried to calm his own nerves, swallowed, then said, “Under the terms of the treaty, your Emperor demands that you give his court wizard access to the ruins of some of your dead dungeons.”
  335.  
  336. Medyrsjn frowned. This was new, and it couldn’t be anything good. He had no idea what that was about, and this worried him. He needed time to investigate. Since when did the Emperor of the Khans even have a court wizard?
  337.  
  338. “May I inquire on the purpose?”
  339.  
  340. “Why do you care?” she asked. “It’s just a bunch of dead holes in the ground. Who cares what he wants to do with them?”
  341.  
  342. “Even dead dungeons have their share of dangers,” he said. “I would not want to have the Khanite court wizard be hurt or die in Central, you understand.”
  343.  
  344. She thankfully accepted that excuse, but replied, “I don’t actually know what he wants to do with the ruins. I was merely tasked with getting your permission to let him in.”
  345.  
  346. This was unfortunate. “I would like to know which dungeons he would like to visit before I grant my approval.”
  347.  
  348. Outright refusal was a death sentence. Outright acceptance was a death sentence from the other direction. He needed to find a valid reason to refuse, and keep refusing. Jorskyrr's stare was growing colder by the second.
  349.  
  350. “I don’t have it right now,” Flametongue said, shrugging nonchalantly. “I’ll make sure to send the list over in the next few days.”
  351.  
  352. Good. That gave him time to investigate.
  353.  
  354. “Good,” he said. “I look forward to seeing this list."
  355.  
  356. From the corner of his eye, he eyed the guard standing next to the door on the right, the one Naïlynn had come from. He tilted his chalice to the side. The guard, a moment later, adjusted his belt slightly.
  357.  
  358. He nodded, both to himself and to the guard. "Then, if there are no further topics?" He asked, standing. When no one spoke up, he said, "then, I declare the end of this court. I will be retiring early." He turned to the maid behind him and said, "Come, Naïlynn."
  359.  
  360. He walked out of the lounge, the pretty maid following him closely. If anyone thought this was inappropriate, they didn't say anything.
  361.  
  362. ====
  363.  
  364. The king's chambers were on the sixth floor of the main wing of the palace. According to tradition, it should have been at the top of the central tower, the highest point of the building, a beautiful and luxurious room with an incomparable view of the countryside, but as his predecessor had fallen to his death after a mysterious failure of the thaumaturgic elevator, Medyrsjn thought it wise to relocate his sleeping quarters to a more grounded location.
  365.  
  366. He entered the room and walked to the five-candle chandelier that sat on a small countertop near the entrance. He picked up the box of matches, struck a match and lit up three of the five candles; the first two and the very last one. Then, he put the box down, the top side facing the wall.
  367.  
  368. The candles weren’t a message. The foreign agents running around in his castle thought it was one. The box, however, would tell tomorrow's room cleaning maid that there would be a message to his wife in one of the usual hiding spots. Unless, that is, that maid wasn't one of those trusted enough to know about it.
  369.  
  370. He sat on his bed, watching as Naïlynn went to each of his room's windows and slid the drapes aside to provide them with privacy. The sun hadn't fully set yet, but the thickness of these drapes, specially ordered by himself for the purpose of what was going to occur, plunged the room in near-total darkness.
  371.  
  372. Once the room had gone dark, he reached for the bed's headboard and applied pressure on the cushion. A moment later, the small crystal built into the center of the headboard started glowing with a pale flickering light.
  373.  
  374. She smiled at him. In the dim light, it was a bit harder to appreciate her sharp aristocratic features, but her beauty was still something to behold. Her blonde hair curled as it flowed down the sides of her face, accentuating the dimples on each side of her mouth. Her light blue eyes were bright, although not as playful as they normally were.
  375.  
  376. He frowned. "We have no time for your games tonight. Open up."
  377.  
  378. "Very well, my lord," she said, moving forward to put her knee on the bed.
  379.  
  380. Her dainty hands reached up to pull her ribbon, which came undone easily. Then she tugged at the buttons of her dress, popping each one by one. After the third, the pale skin of her collarbone and the jade pendant that hung from her neck was exposed. Her vest opened after the fifth, revealing her brassiere. She pulled at the clasp between the two generous cups, easily undid it and opened her bra. Something spilled out.
  381.  
  382. A handful of little wooden tubes, all sealed. Three white ones, a grey one, and a single black one.
  383.  
  384. The bra's cups were empty. The chest underneath was decidedly breastless. Shaking his head, King Medyrjn said, "You are entirely too good at pretending to be a woman, Maryk."
  385.  
  386. For an instant, the "maid"'s dainty smile turned into a boyish grin, which vanished so quickly it could just as well have been a trick of the light.
  387.  
  388. "I don't know what you're talking about, my lord," said Maryk, his voice light, airy and feminine. If anything, Maryk was showing far too much enjoyment in that disguise game he was playing with everyone but the Druids.
  389.  
  390. Shaking his head again, the king reached for the black tube. The insignia on it was unfamiliar, but belonged to one of his many trusted regional commanders. It wasn’t uncommon for urgent messages to make their way to him, but it was unfortunately rare that these message were good news. Not that good news was something he was in any way used to receiving.
  391.  
  392. He tugged at the tube's cap, breaking the seal and revealing the message inside. He unrolled it, handing the empty tube to Maryk.
  393.  
  394. "Find out who it's from," he told his 'maid'. The disguised boy nodded and started digging into his thigh-high stockings. A moment later, he pulled out a thin sheet of silk dusting cloth marked with a complex mosaic of multicolored threads. While he was comparing the patterns on the cloth with the one on the tube, the King started reading the message.
  395.  
  396. An instant later, he felt his heart skip a beat.
  397.  
  398. "My Lord?" Maryk asked. Apparently, he'd also gasped loudly enough for the boy to hear.
  399.  
  400. He read the message again, just to be sure. And again.
  401.  
  402. "A dungeon."
  403.  
  404. Maryk's eyes widened. Immediately, he returned to digging into the patterns, and a moment later nodded. "The message's sender is..." he furrowed his brow. The jade pendant around his neck gave a small glow, which flowed into his eyes, and a second later he said, "Tyr Mirrilyn. Commander of the southern legion's twelfth cohort."
  405.  
  406. "It's in the South-Eastern Crags. Morrigsjn's duchy," the king said. A king had to know where his legions were. "Velthian-friendly."
  407.  
  408. "The Khanites won't tolerate their enemies getting a new dungeon," Maryk remarked. "Should the duke suffer an accident?"
  409.  
  410. Medyrsjn shook his head. "No, that would raise attention. We need to keep this thing a secret..."
  411.  
  412. "Sir," the boy frowned, "there's no way in hell they won't find out eventually."
  413.  
  414. Druids burn that boy, he was right. Sighing, the king stood from the bed, keeping that accursed message in his hand. Looking out through the window was the kind of tell he normally wouldn't have risked, but his mind was churning too hard, trying to absorb the monumental size of the catastrophe that had befallen his plans. The view of the beautiful city he was the technical ruler of had always calmed him.
  415.  
  416. Home to the wasteland's last remaining dungeon, the city of Magnus was surrounded by a ring of forests and grasslands that stretched out for miles before surrendering to the desert. The city itself was a gem of white and gold, built from materials the dungeon provided in its early levels and planned by some of the Old Empire's greatest architects. It was a beautiful melding of Velthian and Khannite styles, a physical embodiment of the dreams of the Last True Emperor.
  417.  
  418. A shame about the rats that walked the walls of that dream, though.
  419.  
  420. From the window of his room, King Medyrsjn had an enviable view of the Garden, a wide park of shrubbery and trees. At some point, long ago, these stone paths and colorful flowering plants had been painstakingly maintained by a literal army of gardeners. These days, there was little difference between this place and the forests outside the city. Only the fact that it wasn't filled with monsters differentiated it from the wilderness inside the Magnus Dungeon itself. Beyond the iron fence that delimited the garden were several blocks of white and gold buildings, bustling with people and activity. Beyond those buildings was another set of woodlands, then a grassland, and a deceptively short-looking strip of yellowish-orange dirt that spread to the horizon.
  421.  
  422. Magnus had no permanent walls. What it had instead were the thaumaturgic masterworks of the Last Emperor's court wizard: a set of nine walls that could be activated at will, emitted from nine towers and fueled by the Dungeon's endless supply of pure mana. This wall was the only reason this city and this dungeon had escaped the rape and pillaging of the war. With all the Velthian and Khanite spies rummaging around the city, he wasn't sure they would still work next time.
  423.  
  424. He scoffed to himself, pulling the curtains shut.
  425.  
  426. His plans.
  427.  
  428. What plans?
  429.  
  430. What fucking plans?
  431.  
  432. What the hell did any of what he'd done so far matter? He grit his teeth.
  433.  
  434. "My Lord," Maryk was suddenly at his side, a soft hand falling on his shoulder. It was frightfully cold, and neatly shocked him out of the rut he'd gotten into. "This isn't the end."
  435.  
  436. "It's not," Merydsjn agreed, "But it might well be the start of it." He nudged the boy away, running a hand through his greying locks, and shook his head in frustration. "This is just... This..." he trailed off, sighing, and heavily sat on the foot of the bed. He tried to think of a way to explain, but found that his mind was too busy conjuring up every image of everything that could go wrong, on top of everything else that had been going wrong.
  437.  
  438. There was only one thing he could think of saying.
  439.  
  440. "Maryk, am I a good king?"
  441.  
  442. "You're the best we've ever had, sir," the boy replied immediately.
  443.  
  444. He rolled his eyes. "Now that's a high bar to reach. You know what they call the throne I'm sitting on, don't you?"
  445.  
  446. "The Iron Maiden," he replied. "Amongst other things."
  447.  
  448. "I've always been partial to the Bull's Saddle," said the King. "It knocks whoever is sitting on it straight into the abyss." He shook his head. "I've been king for half my kingdom's history, and I have five predecessors, Maryk. Being the best of a group of men who collectively barely had time to realize they were kings before they went down is not a accomplishment to be proud of, especially in these circumstances."
  449.  
  450. "I disagree, my lord," Maryk said. "You've managed to stay, and you've grown our military without either of our masters noticing. That's already impressive."
  451.  
  452. The King scoffed. "Grown our military... A few half-legions filled with disparate cohorts of footmen barely able to lift their swords, armed with whatever sub-standard Khanite and Velthian equipment could be smuggled here without raising eyebrows. They won't stand a chance if either kingdom decides they want to start the war again. Meanwhile, the nomads who have to house them in their caravans are starving to death one by one because I was too young and stupid to realize this plan was doomed to failure."
  453.  
  454. He shook his head again, sighing loudly, "and the worst thing is, I can't pull them back. Our 'masters', as you say, would notice if Central suddenly grew an army from out of nowhere. Both would accuse the other of breaking the treaty and would invade just to slaughter us. Our only value to them is as a warning bell in case the war starts. The last thing they want is for the bell to grow a sword and strike back.
  455.  
  456. "And now, there's this." he waved the message in his clenched fist. "A fucking dungeon has appeared in the crags. You're right; hiding it is going to be impossible. It's going to be a giant fucking green blot in the middle of nowhere. Someone will see it. Someone will want it."
  457.  
  458. "We could claim it for Central, as part of the Empire? Both of them claim us..."
  459.  
  460. "Both of them claim us because we're too poor to be worth rat shit. The moment that changes, that little political 'truth' is going to fly right out the window. And there is absolutely no way for them to simply let us have it. We're back in the 'armed warning bell' territory if they do."
  461.  
  462. "Could we reveal it, but say that it's a life spring?"
  463.  
  464. Medyrsjn stopped, considered it for a moment, then shook his head. "No. We can't. At some point, the adventurer guilds are going to start asking why they're not getting culling missions from that spring, and they'll investigate. It'll give us time, though, but not as much as you'd think. Not as much as we could get just by staying quiet about it." He shook his head again. "In the end, the result is the same. They find out, they get greedy, they fight and slaughter us. The war starts all over again."
  465.  
  466. He sighed loudly.
  467.  
  468. "Central's days are numbered. Either Velthia is going to win and all our Khanite citizens are going to be burned alive along with whoever tries to help them, or the Khans win and our Velts get chained and made into serfs and slaves."
  469.  
  470. Maryk frowned in deep thought. Meanwhile, having said the cold and hard Truth, Medyrsjn was left to think about what could be done to save his kingdom.
  471.  
  472. He could think of only one thing. There was no future in hiding, or being weak.
  473.  
  474. There was very little future in fighting back.
  475.  
  476. Very little was better than nothing.
  477.  
  478. Curse him a madman for even considering this, but curse the Druids to the burning pits, he could not think of a better solution. It was the only way his kingdom would survive.
  479.  
  480. Nodding to himself, he stood. Maryk's eyes widened in surprise, then a small smile came to his lips when he saw the determined look on his King's face.
  481.  
  482. The King walked to his work desk, pulled a sheet of paper and, with a quill, scribbled a short message. Then, he pulled the topmost drawer all the way out, reached his arm into the drawer hole, and found a small latch on the underside of the desk's top he'd only used once before. It flipped easily, allowing him to pull a sliding panel open. A small, hard object fell into his palm, and he pulled it back.
  483.  
  484. An amethyst ring. He looked at it for a moment, softly running his fingers over its smooth silver, feeling with his fingers at the name inscribed on the gem slot's underside, and closed his eyes.
  485.  
  486. A moment later, he turned to Maryk, putting the ring and messages in the boy's hand and closing his fingers around them.
  487.  
  488. "My dear Naïlynn, you must leave tonight," he said. "You will go to the Haunted Flagon. You will speak to an adventuress who lives there, by the name of Karjn. You will give her this ring and the message, and tell her that you are henceforth under her protection, by my command. I want her to escort you to this dungeon and stay with you. You will go into hiding amongst the nomads who found it."
  489.  
  490. "My Lord? But..."
  491.  
  492. "She is someone I trust with the future of this kingdom," he continued, ignoring the interruption. "You can tell her anything she needs to know; talk to her as you talk to me. She can bring however many people she feels she can trust with this. And please, my dear," he took the disguised boy's chin in his hand, "be discrete. It would not do for the wrong ears to hear about this." he felt a smile rise to his lips as he said, "The king's progeny must be protected, after all."
  493.  
  494. Maryk's thin eyebrows curved in incomprehension, then his pretty eyes widened in surprise as he realized the subterfuge. Then they narrowed again.
  495.  
  496. "But my Lord, why? I am not that important, and what about..." he motioned to the handkerchief, discarded on the bed, and the gemstone at his neck. The king shook his head.
  497.  
  498. "Keep them. You might need them. I have other methods of deciphering messages, and agents you do not know about." He smiled. "Do you trust me, Maryk?"
  499.  
  500. "I do, my Lord," the transvestite boy replied immediately.
  501.  
  502. "Then, trust me once more. Please. Go. Karjn will know what to do."
  503.  
  504. The boy frowned, then nodded to himself. The frown became a dainty smile, and she stepped away from him with small steps. Her delicate hands found her skirts, and she raised them in a curtsy.
  505.  
  506. "Death to the King," she said.
  507.  
  508. "Yes," replied the king with a wry smile. "May his reign be short."
  509.  
  510.  
  511.  
  512. A few guards later claimed to have seen the king's mistress flee the castle. Rumors would spread that she was with child, igniting some drama amongst the Court and anger between the Queen and the King. Those same guards would claim, even under threats, that the mistress had hired a few adventurers and guards for her protection, and proceeded to flee the city.
  513.  
  514. Specifically, through the north-west exit.
  515.  
  516.  
  517. ============
  518.  
  519. A/N: You have no idea how much I wanted to work “Buckinghorse palace” into the list of titles for the Throne of Central. Sadly, it made no sense because Buckingham Palace is an Earth thing, but I’ll share it here.
  520.  
  521. ---
  522.  
  523. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  524. Growth 3.1
  525.  
  526.  
  527. I was watching as a potential looming death approached, and everything was copacetic. I was finally back in familiar territory.
  528.  
  529. Well, not that familiar, mind you. I was no stranger to preparing for life or death situations, or being so deep down in shit creek that a snorkel was the only thing keeping me breathing, but I’d never fought an actual empire before, never mind two. These weren’t a bunch of self-aggrandizing bigots in search of relevance. These were real empires, with armies and generals and logistics chains and potentially thousands of people who would eventually, possibly, be walking up to my non-proverbial door (if I ended up building one), to try and loot me to death.
  530.  
  531. And I knew nothing about them, except their rough locations (North and South) and their names (respectively, the Velthian and Khanite Empires). I wasn't even sure they were threats. Who knew, maybe they'd expended their will to fight, and they'd let me be if only to avoid fighting with the local kingdom and possibly the other empire?
  532.  
  533. Probably not; I wasn't that lucky.
  534.  
  535. I was a single-floored dungeon, something perfectly ordinary in this world, with a bunch of lesser insects that could be pulped by an experienced adventurer, and which the locals would have liked to use to make cauldrons and pans with.
  536.  
  537. In terms of strength, I was already beaten.
  538.  
  539. In terms of information, I knew nothing, and they knew everything.
  540.  
  541. In terms of stealth, I was a giant green blot in a desert.
  542.  
  543. In terms of evasion, I was completely immobile.
  544.  
  545. By most standards, it was hopeless.
  546.  
  547. Like I said earlier, familiar territory.
  548.  
  549.  
  550. I had time to plan, but no intelligence to plan on. That would be my first priority, except for a combination of problems. I was immobile, with only my pixie capable of actually leaving my dungeon. I couldn’t see what it saw, and my communication with it was… basic, to say the least. It understood me, but trying to parse the threat represented by foreign empires from whistles, bleeps and chirps would be difficult, to say the least. With the villagers who would soon move next door, I had the opposite problem; I understood them just fine, but they didn’t understand me. I could ask them questions, but it would be difficult. They were still a better source of information than my pixie…
  551.  
  552. …but that could be changed.
  553.  
  554. My pixie was a contracted creature. I had access to several upgrades for it, two of which were directly relevant to my situation:
  555.  
  556. Eye See You, which would let me see through my pixie’s eyes, and Squad Leader, which would let my pixie “lead one of my minions outside the dungeon”. Having a wasp tag along with my pixie would provide it with protection, and provide it with a mount. It was a fast flier, but my wasps were faster, and something told me birds, which I probably would unlock soon, would be even faster.
  557.  
  558. Unfortunately, both of these upgrades were ridiculously expensive, with a cost of 100 mana and 50 impurities for the first, and 140 mana, 80 impurities for the second. To have the mana capacity to unlock these upgrades, it would take me thirty rooms for the first and forty-four rooms for the second, if my mental math was correct. Even if I built nothing but rooms, it would still put me at least nineteen mana in the red, more than double my mana regeneration.
  559.  
  560. It really came down to this: I had too little mana, and especially too little mana regeneration.
  561.  
  562. Fortunately, the villagers would be able to serve as a reliable mana source soon enough, which would let me somewhat safely throw my daily regeneration into the negatives. I was loath to put this plan into action without getting to know them better, though. Doing this would make me very dependent on them. I had no real leverage to keep them honest. They wanted my loot, but once they had their fill of it, what would stop them from just walking away, leaving me with too many rooms and no way to stop myself from starving? Putting my life in their hands like this was a leap of faith I was having a lot of trouble stomaching.
  563.  
  564. Talking about loot, I was going to have to hold up my side of the bargain, as well. I had access to two “loot” items so far; chests and special insects, both as room upgrades. I had a base description of both, but my info box had shown me that it wasn’t reliable multiple times in the past. What was in those chests? Which one was better? Would I get hit by a bad surprise if I made either one?
  565.  
  566. Additionally, both would potentially raise my daily upkeep by 4, throwing it in the negatives. The earlier problem reared its nose again.
  567.  
  568. If I built more rooms, the upkeep cost of those loot boxes would be decreased relative to my maximum mana (even as my actual upkeep would rise a bit). All I would have to do then would be mess around with the villagers until I had all my mana back. The upkeep cost of rooms versus maximum stocks rose linearly with the number of rooms; assuming I filled myself back up completely every day by sparring with the villagers, each new room would net me an additional two mana per room per day.
  569.  
  570. Either way, loot or not, I would have to increase my cap somehow if I wanted to take the contracted minion upgrades.
  571.  
  572. The impurity cost of those upgrades was harder to gauge. I knew I could get impurities from absorbing living things. Obviously, killing villagers was not and would never be an option. However, birds and offerings from villagers were a reliable source. They had already said they would bring offerings, but I could go one step further and demand tribute?
  573.  
  574. It would depend on what my new neighbors would do.
  575.  
  576. The other things on my list were to get minion spawners, build a spider lair to start upgrading my spiders (hopefully with webs), and build that pixie fountain.
  577.  
  578. I had no idea what spawners cost, but if it was anything like loot spawners, it would be about ten with one upkeep per respawn. It would protect my minions against accidents, which would inevitably happen because Murphy was a bitch. The cost to unlock those things wasn’t mana or impurities (for now at least); instead, it would cost Approval Points, which I would naturally get from spending impurities. This caused me a bit of a problem, though, because I wouldn’t get them until I spent at least thirty-eight more impurities, but I couldn’t spend impurities if I was saving for my pixie’s upgrades.
  579.  
  580. On the bright side, just getting one of those upgrades would be enough to push me right over that limit and start buying spawners, but then I was back with the problem that none of my creatures would respawn until that happened, and I would need to grow a lot of rooms in the meantime.
  581.  
  582. The spider lair would cost me 1 impurity to research, but I was willing to bet the upgrades themselves cost additional impurities. Meanwhile, it would raise my upkeep without raising my mana cap. Not altogether useful, unless I absolutely needed the webs right now. Which I didn’t.
  583.  
  584. The pixie fountain would make my pixie happy, which was a nice bonus, but would cost me 15 impurities to research and 30 mana to build. If I was saving for the upgrades, then I couldn’t do it right away. I had made a promise, but if I built its fountain and we were invaded and died, it wouldn’t have a fountain then, would it?
  585.  
  586. First and before everything else, though, I would need to dig a lot more rooms, and my earlier argument about having plenty of time to do it didn't stand anymore.
  587.  
  588. So I took the ant digging upgrade, for ten mana and two impurities. To my surprise, I felt like I had to focus on a single ant to actually do it, which I did. A cloud of green light motes grew from the loamy dirt. They floated toward my ant and softly deposited themselves on it. Within a few seconds, the number of motes had grown to the point where only a pair of twitching antennae were poking out of what looking like a radioactive green sheep; soon, even those were covered up. The motes then lost cohesion, spreading themselves onto my ant like a second skin... but not exactly. They grew darker, going full black before disappearing completely, leaving my ant transformed.
  589.  
  590. My ant's new form was maybe a smidgeon larger, with thicker legs and a larger head. Where they differed, however, were the mandibles. Whereas before, they'd looked like a pair of pointy scissors, these mandibles looked like someone had put a pair of salad spoons on my ant's nose. Certainly, this would make it better at digging, but I wasn't sure on the aesthetics. It looked a bit silly.
  591.  
  592. The other ants around it were exactly the same; upgrades apparently applied to only one minion at a time. For once the wording of the info box had been exactly accurate.
  593.  
  594. A few of my untransformed ants were touching their newly transformed companion with their antennae. From the emotions I was getting out of them, there were quite a few congratulations being thrown around. Apparently, the ants themselves didn't mind the nose scoops.
  595.  
  596. I glanced at my info box.
  597.  
  598.     Congratulations! \(*≧∀≦*)/
  599.  
  600.     Lesser Ant upgraded to Burrowing Lesser Ant!
  601.     Room unlocked: Ant Nursery Room!
  602.     Minion unlocked: Burrowing Lesser Ant can now be summoned!
  603.  
  604.  
  605. Wait, what?
  606.  
  607.     Rooms - Places that do stuff! ヾ(^∇^)
  608.  
  609.         Core Room -- can't have more than one!
  610.         Don't break this! :eek:
  611.         Converts life force into useful stuff and contains your core! Verrrry important! ♥
  612.         Ant Colony Room -- 20 mana (1 impurity to research), +4 upkeep
  613.         Makes all your Ants better! \(^o^)/
  614.         Ant Nursery Room -- 30 mana (2 impurities to research), +1 upkeep
  615.         Unlocks Ant evolution paths.
  616.         Don't worry, baby ants are quiet!
  617.         Bee Hive Room – 20 mana (1 impurity to research), +4 upkeep
  618.         Makes all your Bees better! \(^o^)/
  619.         Spider Lair– 30 mana (1 impurity to research), +2 upkeep
  620.         Provides more spider research options.
  621.         Wasp Nest Room – 20 mana (1 impurity to research), +4 upkeep
  622.         Makes all your wasps better. Might also make them angrier, who knows!
  623.         Boss Room (Insect) – 30 mana (1 impurity to research), +3 upkeep. Insect specialized floor only. [Stress room +3]
  624.         Provides special room for adventurers to do battle against super strong monsters!
  625.         (・`益´)==O)Д⊙`)
  626.         Grants 1 Boss Monster upgrade! Maximum of one per fifteen rooms.
  627.         Gauntlet Room – 25 mana (2 impurities to research), +2 upkeep [Stress room +2]
  628.         Provides a special room that locks adventurers inside until all monsters have been defeated! Maximum of one per ten rooms on floor.
  629.         Pixie Fountain– 30 mana (15 impurities to research), +1 upkeep
  630.         A resting area for pixies! ∩(︶▽︶)∩
  631.         Unlocks pixie evolution paths.
  632.         Makes pixies happier, makes pixies stronger!
  633.  
  634.     Click to expand...
  635.  
  636. Ant evolution paths--so then upgrading minions also unlocked the second room type?
  637.  
  638. I guess I'd been silly thinking that only contracted creatures could lead to those rooms. I had a limit of one contracted creature per floor, it would be cripplingly limiting if I had to look for a contract every time.
  639.  
  640. It said something about this system that I'd actually thought it worked that way in the first place, though.
  641.  
  642. ---
  643.  
  644. The effect of the digging upgrade was dramatic, to say the least. In the time my other ants took to dig up one 'square' of dirt, my burrowing ant grabbed three of them. It didn't move any faster, though, so I set up the digging chain I'd taught my first three ants, maximizing the time my specialized ant spent digging. Maybe I'd grab that movement speed upgrade for the other ones, too? For now, numbers seemed to do the job just fine.
  645.  
  646. By the end of the night, the rooms I'd ordered were ready, raising my mana cap up to 28. I considered adding another room, but decided not to for now; doing so would put my upkeep 0.5 over my regeneration, and I hadn't tested the whole 'training dungeon' shtick yet.
  647.  
  648. It was early morning, slightly past the point when the sky took its daytime color, that I spotted the villagers for the first time. To be more accurate, I spotted the cloud of dust their beasts and their carts raised as they approached; there was, by all evidence, a good number of them, but they were too distant to tell more. Their appearance filled me with nervousness, and I couldn't help but mentally prepare myself for a fight.
  649.  
  650. This 'immobile' thing was getting really old, really fast. I—
  651.  
  652. “BLEEK!”
  653.  
  654. The victorious scream of my pixie pulled my attention away. Apparently, without waiting for orders, it had gone off on its own to search for bugs, and as it came close enough I saw why it was celebrating so hard.
  655.  
  656. It had a black-shelled beetle almost as massive as itself hanging limply from its tiny arms. It wasted no time, flying into my entrance—pop went my infobox—and dropping the beetle onto my floor. Then it flew down, grabbed its head, put its tiny feet against the sides of its thorax and puuuuuulled…
  657.  
  658.  
  659.  
  660. After a moment of watching it toil uselessly, I moved a spider to the entrance and stabbed the beetle with a fang. Within seconds, the beetle’s corpse had disappeared.
  661.  
  662.     Congratulations! \(*≧∀≦*)/
  663.  
  664.     Beetles can now be researched!
  665.     Automatically acquired! (*^▽^)/ Beetle research is FREE due to Insect Mastery!
  666.     Small Lesser Beetle unlocked!
  667.  
  668.  
  669.     Minions - Your loyal servants! (°∀°)ゝ”
  670.  
  671.     Small Lesser Ant – 2 mana, +1 upkeep
  672.     The small, the brave, the loyal! (`・ω・´)ゞ
  673.     Special ability: Burrow – Ants can be used to dig hallways, rooms and other holes at no cost.
  674.  
  675.     Burrowing Lesser Ant – 7 mana, +1 upkeep
  676.     For all your burrowing needs! Earth-Aligned.
  677.     Special ability: Burrow Lv2 – Better at digging than regular ants!
  678.  
  679.     Small Lesser Bee – 2 mana, +1 upkeep
  680.     Hard-working, hard-stinging!
  681.  
  682.     Small Lesser Wasp – 2 mana, +1 upkeep
  683.     Always angry, all the time! ( ╬◣ 益◢)三ヽ ( ꒪д꒪ )ノ
  684.     Not very scary though!
  685.  
  686.     Small Normal Spider – 3 mana, +1 upkeep
  687.     Sneaky-sneaky webless-crawly!
  688.  
  689.     Small Lesser Beetle – 4 mana, +1 upkeep
  690.     Hard-shelled and hard-headed! Prefers sleeping over fighting! (*´﹃`*)
  691.  
  692.     Small Lesser Vine – 2 mana (10 impurities to research), +1 upkeep
  693.  
  694.     Not strong enough to crush, but at least strong enough to choke!
  695.     Special ability: Camouflage – Almost invisible to the naked eye!
  696.  
  697.     Lesser Bomber Bush – 6 mana (15 impurities to research), +2 upkeep
  698.     Shoots seeds from far away! They’re hard and they hurt!
  699.     Click to expand...
  700.  
  701.  
  702. I whooped with joy. Finally, a decent tank! My pixie, likewise, chirped and twirled on itself in celebration, spraying a shower of sparkles in every direction.
  703.  
  704. At four mana, it was the most expensive base minion I could make outright, but its upkeep cost of one meant, of course, that I could make as many as I wanted at no cost. I was absolutely going to keep one of those in my core room, just in case. My priorities had changed a bit, but I certainly felt better about my partnership with those villagers now that I had a way to bodyblock people who tried to get into my core room uninvited. I didn’t think it would stop Bob, but then I didn’t think I had a creature that could.
  705.  
  706. I was only missing a small amount of mana to summon one; morning had come, and my reserves had grown from 3 to 3.5. My pixie had earned a lot of rest and love with that move, so I sent an ant outside to gather some grass.
  707.  
  708. A thought ran through my head. The Pixie Fountain would unlock the pixie’s evolution paths. What if one of those evolution paths led me to a form that could speak clearly to me, or maybe translate what I was saying to the villagers? That alone would be worth far more than the contracted minion upgrades, at a far lower cost.
  709.  
  710. I had no idea how much time I had. I wasn’t a gambling woman, when I had a chance (which was, all things considered, something that happened depressingly rarely). How likely was such an evolution path to exist? Dungeons didn’t seem to be very talkative in nature, from what I’d heard, but they weren’t very smart, either. If their priority was killing people, then something as fragile as pixies wouldn’t be very appealing. A pixie whose special ability was to talk would be even less interesting for a normal dungeon. So the odds that such pixies were simply never made were fairly high. Or maybe they were made all the time, but regular Dungeons just never thought of the need to talk to their prey. Either way, I felt it tantalizingly likely that this evolution path existed.
  711.  
  712. I was willing to take those odds. In the worst case, it had taken me only a day or two to make the impurities I had in stock. It wouldn’t take me too long, especially with the villagers helping me, to get back to this point.
  713.  
  714. Plus, my pixie really deserved something nice right now.
  715.  
  716. ---
  717.  
  718. It took most of the day for the villagers to make their way to me. As they came closer, I was able to gauge their numbers to somewhere near a hundred people. They advanced in a column along the tiny road, spilling over on each side despite their relatively small number; along both sides were men and women bearing shields, swords or other makeshift weapons. Their armor had some level of standardisation, but even from afar it was easy to tell there wasn’t much organisation to that rag-tag bunch. The center of the column was walked by grey beasts and the carts they were pulling, which were full of cloth, lumber and other building materials. Leading the procession was one of the three dinosaurs they’d shown so far, the bronze one, and riding it was, recognizably, Kamella the village elder.
  719.  
  720. My first impression of the villagers was that someone had spilled a bag of giant Skittles across the crowd. Eclectic hair colors, from dull red to electric blue, seemed to be the norm here, at least amongst the majority of the village’s population. About a quarter of them were black-haired, but those who were, by majority, had notably darker skins and more grizzled faces in general compared to the light-to-darker browns and finer features of the rest. Their body languages were relaxed, festive almost, and the voices I heard from them were those of a crowd looking for or expecting a pleasant time.
  721.  
  722. Their beasts of burden looked like something Blasto or Panacea could have cooked up if they’d decided to mix an elephant, a bull and a rhinoceros together. They were grey-skinned and about the size of an SUV, and were pulling carts that were as large if not larger than themselves without too much effort. The carts were tied with multiple leather straps onto the enormous tusks that grew from their shoulders. A few had saddles with more supplies strapped on them. Many more, smaller and visibly younger, were instead being pulled by villagers by leashes tied to those same tusks. A few of the latter were large enough for saddles, and those who were had groups of small children sitting on them.
  723.  
  724. Every single one of those children were looking my way. Considering what Maryll had told me, this was probably the first time these kids had ever seen a patch of grass.
  725.  
  726. They didn’t walk all the way up to me. Instead, the convoy stopped about a hundred yards away, near the road side, at which point what could only be described as “organised chaos” happened, all orchestrated by Kamella. Carts were unloaded, supplies put in a pile while building materials were carried to locations she dictated. The villagers were divided into work groups, with most working on setting up their tents while others did things like tend to the beasts, which were untied and pulled my way, and corral the children.
  727.  
  728. I was somehow not surprised to see Maryll coming closer to me with a handful of kids, this time with a short bow hanging behind her hips. Gwen’s presence at her side, along with her shield and mace, was also unsurprising. As they approached, I heard the two of them arguing.
  729.  
  730. “…ink it’s safe for them.”
  731.  
  732. “Oh, come on, Gwen! This is a nice dungeon! I mean, you dealt with it, right?”
  733.  
  734. “I had Ulfric with me, of course it’s gonna be nice!”
  735.  
  736. “Well, I didn’t have him with me when I talked to it, and I petted one of its spiders.”
  737.  
  738. Gwen stopped walking, her eyes widening. “You came here and you didn’t tell me?”
  739.  
  740. “I’m telling you,” Maryll chirped back. “It didn’t hurt me then, it’s not going to—be careful Ailynn!”
  741.  
  742. The latter was addressed to a little dress-clad purple-haired girl, barely more than a toddler, that had decided to scamper up ahead, tripped and flopped on her knees when she’d found that grassy dirt wasn’t as flat or solid as the dry sand everywhere else. She grinned as Maryll picked her up.
  743.  
  744. “Din’ hur’!” said the little girl.
  745.  
  746. Maryll rolled her eyes, inspecting the child briefly before putting her back on her feet and patting the dress in a futile effort to remove the stain.
  747.  
  748. “I don’t think it’s coming off,” Gwen quipped.
  749.  
  750. “We’re going to have to find a way, all this grass isn’t going anywhere. Or maybe just paint their clothes green, spare ourselves the trouble.” She shook her head, ran a hand through her blue locks, then turned my way. I’d moved an ant closer to the entrance in preparation, and she saw it. “Oh, hello! Uh, I hope you don’t mind kids? Ah, don’t worry, I’m not planning on leaving them here,” she added with a grin.
  751.  
  752. “Wait, why would it think that?” Gwen asked. Maryll ignored her, instead walking up to my entrance and reaching out to my ant. “Ah—wait, Maryll!?”
  753.  
  754. I let her touch my ant’s head, between its large black eyes, and reciprocated with antennae pats to her cheeks; they couldn’t reach much further.
  755.  
  756. “See?” she told Gwen. “It’s perfectly safe, right?” she addressed that last word at me. I made my ant nod. Just like the spider earlier, my ant wasn’t all that enthused at being handled like this, so I gently nudged her away and let it scamper down the entrance. Maryll made a disappointed noise, but smiled again a moment later. “Sorry about the noise, we just need a place that’s a bit out of the way where they can play,” she motioned to the kids, some of whom had already started playing hide and seek in the taller bits of grass, “without getting in the way of everyone out there.”
  757.  
  758. “Also the Brauhms,” said Gwen with a careless wave in the direction of the beasts, many of which had already started grazing.
  759.  
  760. “Yeah, them,” Maryll nodded. “Those are probably staying near you. I hope that’s ok? You were fine with the hornhares, right?”
  761.  
  762. Gwen had a look of enlightenment on her face. “So that’s why we didn’t spend half an hour chasing those damn rabbits around this morning.”
  763.  
  764. Maryll grinned at her friend. “I planned ahead. Plus, they’re happy out here. I think. I hope.” She frowned for a moment, tapping her chin with a finger. “Well, not like anything’s fast enough to catch them out here, right?”
  765.  
  766. “Probably not,” Gwen shrugged, eyeing my grass field distractedly. “I think I’d better start doing my rounds, to make sure—”
  767.  
  768. There was a squawk, and a short scream, and a young boy scampered out of the tall grass. One of those four feet tall crane things popped out at his tail, wings wide, mouth open and tongue ready to strike. They were a good distance away, well outside the maximum range of my bugs.
  769.  
  770. Gwen’s reaction was instantaneous. She raised her shield and breathed in. I saw her boots and shield glow brightly, and—
  771.  
  772. CRACK
  773.  
  774. The next thing I knew, she was in the face of the crane thing and it was sent flying back like a truck had just hit it. It recovered quickly, though, flipping back to its feet, then responding to the challenge with an angry squawk. She raised her shield, just low enough so she didn’t lose sight of it, and prepared her mace. She was visibly nervous, but I knew from experience that these birds weren't very smart, and I'd fought her before. I was pretty sure she could handle it.
  775.  
  776. “Looma, medium bird,” Gwen was saying to herself. “Aggressive, uh… kicks, probably wings—what else--- uh…”
  777.  
  778. It extended its long neck toward her head and opened its mouth. Her eyes widened, and she barely had time to raise her shield the rest of the way before that bony spike in its mouth extended, hitting the wooden shield with a sharp thunk.
  779.  
  780. “Oh, bone tongue! Right! Okay, countermeasures… uh… um…” she blinked, then shrugged. “Ah, fuck it!”
  781.  
  782. She swung her mace. It leapt back, squawking, then leapt forward to kick at her shield. She took the hit without grunting and pushed, knocking the bird back. It landed on its legs and squawked again.
  783.  
  784. From the grass, two more squawks sounded out, and soon the Looma was joined with two more. Gwen took a step back.
  785.  
  786. “Uh… shit.”
  787.  
  788. Fuck it, I was helping. I ordered my pixie to get out there, but just as it was starting to leave its room, I heard Maryll shout,
  789.  
  790. “Down!”
  791.  
  792. Gwen bent down immediately. An arrow flew over her head and into the tiny head of one of the Loomas, which fell to the ground immediately. Maryll was already nocking another arrow, with two more sitting between the fingers of her right hand. With a grin, Gwen stood back up, in time to block another tongue dart, but in doing so she ignored the first one, which ignored her and went straight for the archer girl.
  793.  
  794. “Uh!!” Maryll made; her next arrow missed the incoming bird’s head by inches, and her eyes widened in alarm as the bird leapt to slash its legs at her—
  795.  
  796. And that’s when my pixie showed up, electric charge at the ready.
  797.  
  798. ZAP!
  799.  
  800. The crane thing squawked in surprise and pain and its kick went wild, missing Maryll by inches as she jumped to the side, almost tripping into my entrance as she did so. The bird turned to attack her again, but this time, it was close enough to me.
  801.  
  802. My spider leapt out of my range, for only a moment, long enough to stab its fangs into it. Within moments, it was dead and I pulled it back—along with rapidly dissolving spider—to drop it on my floor.
  803.  
  804. There was a shout, and a thunk. The third’s head went swinging from the force of Gwen’s mace strike against its neck. Then, she swung her mace again in an overhead strike that left a glowing line of yellow light in the air. The mace hit the bird between the shoulders, and it made a choking, final squawk as it collapsed. Most of its bones were probably shattered from that hit.
  805.  
  806. The three of us caught our breaths—metaphorically so, in my case. The boy who’d been rescued was looking at Gwen in awe, but he looked like he’d had far more fear than pain. None of the wildlife around them seemed eager to try their luck after that.
  807.  
  808. Gwen stood up, smiling wryly at Maryll. “Looks like we’ve got lunch.”
  809.  
  810. The blue-haired girl blinked, lowered her bow, then giggled. “Apparently so! Are you alright, Sarl?” she asked the boy.
  811.  
  812. He nodded with a huge grin, an enthusiastic nod and an exclamation of “That was so cool!”
  813.  
  814. “Pwetty,” the purple-haired (purplette? Seriously, I was going to have to make up a whole dictionary for all these hair colors) toddler from earlier said, eyes wide and pointing at my pixie. “Pwetty Ligh’!”
  815.  
  816. D’aww.
  817.  
  818. Maryll seemed to notice my pixie around this time, and likewise my pixie realized it was the center of attention.
  819.  
  820. “…A fairy?” Gwen mused out loud as she walked closer, then frowned. “No, too big, no wings—a pixie, I think? Did it help? I heard a crack…”
  821.  
  822. Maryll nodded. “It did.”
  823.  
  824. “It totally saved big sis,” one of the boys insisted with a grin. “It was all like ‘sweeeyoo’” he motioned with his hand, “and ‘CRACK!’” he clapped his hands, “like that!”
  825.  
  826. The noise alarmed my pixie, and it made a shrill whistle as it darted back into my entrance, to the children’s consternation.
  827.  
  828. “It was definitely outside the dungeon, though,” Gwen remarked. “Can it do that?”
  829.  
  830. Maryll shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is, the dungeon sent it to help me.” She smiled, “See? I told you it was a nice dungeon.”
  831.  
  832. “I knew that,” Gwen groused. She sighed, shook her head and, at my entrance, said, “Sorry for thinking you were only being nice because of Ulfric.”
  833.  
  834. Well, I didn’t know you thought that, but…
  835.  
  836. Apology accepted.
  837.  
  838.  
  839. ==========
  840.  
  841. No, Word, my aunt did not transform, but thank you for trying to help. Now stop.
  842.  
  843. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  844. Growth 3.2
  845.  
  846.  
  847. The speed at which the villagers had set themselves up was nothing short of impressive. And these weren’t small tents, they were big ones, with heavy tarps and thick supports that would hold up to a massive storm. The men did most of the heavy lifting while the women prepared the ground and dug the holes in which the supports would rest, although I spotted Gwen lifting a beam almost twice her height, probably intended to be a big tent’s central support, over her shoulder. By the time evening had come, they had erected the thirty or so tents they’d brought with them.
  848.  
  849. Then, some of them came to fetch the adult Brauhms, who’d been grazing and resting in my grass patch, put their reins back on, and guided them back toward the setting sun to where their old village had been set up.
  850.  
  851. “Only about a third of us came over,” Maryll had told me, sitting in the area of trimmed grass around my entrance with a lime-haired child napping in her lap.
  852.  
  853. She and Gwen had left me when the sky had started to redden, which let me focus on my own progress.
  854.  
  855. The first thing I noticed when my infobox had popped up was that my passive mana regeneration had risen once again; from eleven, it had popped up to thirteen. The only thing that had changed since this morning was the villagers’ arrival, so I took it as evidence that my earlier supposition had been correct; it was, in fact, linked to how much life I had going on above and around me. Did it stretch all the way to the village itself? If that was the case, then would the grass patch reach all the way there, too?
  856.  
  857. That bird I’d killed had been worth two mana points and one impurity. That left me with a whopping 5.5 mana to use. Still too low to do anything with at the moment.
  858.  
  859. I could, at least, use that extra mana regeneration to build two more rooms. Which I did, although I didn’t order the start of their construction right away. My burrowing ant would be busy. However, as I knew I was going to have a lot of visitors soon enough, I did not want to have my core room hallway directly exposed to the entrance. Although the villagers had been nothing but nice to me so far, experience told me that it would be naive to rely only on that for protection.
  860.  
  861. With that in mind, one of the two rooms I ordered the construction of was set up at the end of a snaking hallway in a setup similar to my current core room; I would migrate the core to that room once it was finished.
  862.  
  863. Just in case.
  864.  
  865. It was soon after the sun had disappeared over the horizon that I got my next visitor.
  866.  
  867. "I hope I am not intruding," said Kamella, her entire body glowing with that light magic from before, as she walked down my stairs. "I believe we have something we need to talk about."
  868.  
  869. My closest minion was a wasp. I made it land in front of her and nod.
  870.  
  871. She was alone. Considering Gwen hadn't been sure I wasn't going to eat the kids, I felt this was awfully trusting of her. It certainly put me at ease--not that I was forgetting for a moment the fact that she was able to cast magic spells.
  872.  
  873. She stopped at the entrance to my first room and took a look around.
  874.  
  875. "Deary me..." she made a face, then turned to my wasp, "You wouldn't happen to have a room that doesn't have bugs falling from the ceiling? I'd rather have this discussion without being interrupted."
  876.  
  877. I made my wasp nod, then guided her to the side room. My pixie was already there, flitting about in apparent boredom, and made a tingle of surprise when Kamella joined it.
  878.  
  879. "Oh, how precious!" she exclaimed, smiling at my contracted monster. "Is this one yours, too?"
  880.  
  881. I made my wasp nod.
  882.  
  883. "A fairy. I heard of fairy levels before, from Ulfric. As beautiful as they are deadly, he described it I believe." she looked up, at the ceiling. "It would be delightful if..." she interrupted herself, then shook her head. "Never you mind, dear. You should grow in the direction your heart guides you."
  884.  
  885. Hm?
  886.  
  887. Ah. She'd been about to ask me to give my next level a fairy specialization. Well, it wasn't like I could. For now, at least. Besides, my pixie wasn't a fairy.
  888.  
  889. "Now, then," she said as she settled herself to the ground, "there is one thing I would like to be absolutely sure about." She paused, her brow furrowing as she searched for the right words, before blurting out, "you are a human."
  890.  
  891. I felt a surge of hope rise in my metaphorical heart. I confirmed with a nod of my wasp's head.
  892.  
  893. She stared at my wasp for a moment, as if disbelieving that I'd actually said yes, then asked, "You have memories from before you were a dungeon, correct?" My wasp nodded. "Do you know how you became like this?"
  894.  
  895. I shook my wasp's head.
  896.  
  897. She smiled sadly. "Oh Druids, that must be terrible..." she patted my floor, not that I could feel it, "don't worry, we'll do what we can to make your life better. This partnership is about mutual benefits, after all."
  898.  
  899. She reminded me more and more of my grandmother on my dad's side.
  900.  
  901. She reminded me of my mom.
  902.  
  903. I could have hugged her.
  904.  
  905. "Then, ah..." she frowned, "were you a man or a woman?" How could I answer that one? She seemed to realize her mistake at the same time I did, and showed her hands in my wasp's direction. "Man," she wiggled her left hand, "Woman," with a wiggle of her right.
  906.  
  907. I reached her right hand, of course. She nodded.
  908.  
  909. "I'll make sure to tell the others to refer to you as a girl, then."
  910.  
  911. Appreciated.
  912.  
  913. "Then, on to the next topic: communication. It would be far more convenient for both of us if we could communicate better."
  914.  
  915. Oh, absolutely.
  916.  
  917. "So with that in mind, I thought I would teach you how to write in our tongue, if that is acceptable?"
  918.  
  919. My wasp nodded. Several times.
  920.  
  921. She tittered. "It's so nice to have an enthusiastic student! I have to twist poor Maryll's arm to teach her anything, and Cirys is somehow worse." She collected herself, then said, "Then, I'll begin with a simple sentence."
  922.  
  923. She tried to push a finger into my dirt floor, but found it hard and unyielding.
  924.  
  925. “Hm… I wonder if…”
  926.  
  927. She reached into her satchel and pulled out a green-tinted crystal. She made it float, then said, “Spirit of kindness, make this ground fertile!”
  928.  
  929. Green tendrils floated from the crystal and onto my floor, and I felt a weird tingle as the spell took effect, like I was being tickled by a dozen feathers behind my neck. A circle of ground around her became softer, which let her start to draw onto it.
  930.  
  931. “Not what I’d normally use this spell for, but it works for now, doesn’t it?” she said, tittering. “Now, a simple sentence.”
  932.  
  933. I watched as her finger started tracing lines with practiced ease, from left to right, then top to bottom. Strangeness happened immediately, however, as the symbols blurred as she was writing them, transforming into English words that piled on top of each other. ‘Action of’, ‘ocular organ’ and some other words I wasn’t able to read from the mess it made. An instant later, the mess had clarified and turned into the word “To observe”, in English.
  934.  
  935. This was going to be a problem.
  936.  
  937. “Words are made of several symbols that are put together to create a greater meaning,” she continued obliviously, “This here is a general symbol for ‘action’, words that have that are usually verbs,” she pointed at something I couldn’t see, a bit above the ‘b’, then moved her finger right so it sat above the ‘r’, “and this is the symbol for ‘eye’.” Below ‘b’, “this here means ‘distance’, or ‘far’, and the final one here is ‘thing'. So the entire symbol means ‘to look’. If you don’t know what a symbol means, you can look at the parts of it and figure out what it’s meant to be.” She paused. “Well, most of the time. Some words are just meant to look like things. Or they’re taken from another language.”
  938.  
  939. She shook her head. I felt like I should interrupt her and tell her about my problem, but this was honestly interesting, so I held back.
  940.  
  941. “Now, this next word is a very common one. It’s one of those that don’t follow the rules, so remember it,” she started drawing, this time her finger going over the entire symbol. In my eye, though, the symbol she was drawing was a blur of letters. Within moments, it clarified and became ‘this one’. “This word means ‘I’. You’ll see it often. And this last one means ‘clear sky’. So we have ‘distance’, ‘up’, ‘blue’, ‘sun’ and… ‘place’” she described, drawing while the words piled in my eyes into an incomprehensible mess.
  942.  
  943. When it clarified, it took the previous words with it, and the sentence ‘I look at the clear sky’ appeared.
  944.  
  945. I’d spoken to these people several times before, and only now did I realize their language followed a Verb Subject Object structure.
  946.  
  947. “Now, this is a simple example, and we’ll use it as a template. If you wanted to say, for instance, that the sky had clouds, you would…” she trailed off, staring at my wasp. “Is there a problem?”
  948.  
  949. How she had figured out I wasn’t able to follow her lesson plan, I did not know, but I used that opportunity to show her the problem. I traced the words as I saw them. She made a noise of surprise.
  950.  
  951. “Why are you writing on top—“ she interrupted herself, her mouth dropping as I made my wasp point at its own eye. “Oh! Are you…” she frowned, thinking carefully. “You can read it, but it appears in your original language?”
  952.  
  953. I nodded through my wasp.
  954.  
  955. “That… is a problem,” she said. One of her fingers found its way between her teeth as she thought for several seconds, and she finally sighed. “Then, if it’s not possible for you to learn our language, I will have to learn yours.” She eyed the letters I’d written. “…Assuming I can make heads or tails of this. I’m assuming the space between the symbols are word demarcations, then the symbols must be… sounds?” she crossed her arms, “And, of course, you have no way of telling me what each one sounds like.”
  956.  
  957. She and I spent several minutes trying to get her to learn English. I wrote the alphabet for her, and rewrote the sentence in the word order she expected to see (“What a strange idea, to have the action in the middle of the sentence…”), but as she’d exclaimed, I had no way to produce the correct sounds. Swarm-talking wasn’t a trick I’d mastered with the relatively small number of insects I had, not to mention these insects were much larger and produced entirely different sounds. I wished I could control the deco bugs in my other rooms, but I could not. We tried having her guess the sounds, but to my surprise I found I couldn’t even hear random syllables unless they were part of words or translatable expressions; and those expressions were translated.
  958.  
  959. In other words, this translation effect was very thorough and very helpful at making me not even realize they weren’t speaking English.
  960.  
  961. Whatever is doing this, stop helping. Please.
  962.  
  963. My plea was met with silence.
  964.  
  965. The best we could do, we found, was that she would write random words, and I would write the English translation, and she would try to memorize it. A few things came up; apparently, question marks qualified as words in their language and went before the verb, at the very start of the sentence. I'm pretty sure I managed to confuse the hell out of her when I tried to teach her the intricacies of the interrogative sentence. We finally ended that session with a mutual headache, and she told me, “I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to remember most of this.”
  966.  
  967. Sadly, I was not an English teacher. Maybe mom would have found a way.
  968.  
  969. “That said,” she continued while standing up, “it does appear we have a way for you to talk to us. If you had something like a wall on which our words are written, you would be able to use your minions to point us at what you want to say.”
  970.  
  971. I nodded. It was limited, but certainly better than pictograms. She nodded back in acknowledgement.
  972.  
  973. “I’ll get Maryll on that, since I’m terribly busy, and I’ve been told the two of you have hit it off quite well. Thanks for helping her earlier, by the way,” she put her fists together and bowed lightly, “as her mother, I greatly appreciate it.”
  974.  
  975. I bowed back with my wasp. It wasn’t any less awkward than last time. I think I needed humanoid minions. Did this world have some kind of bug-people?
  976.  
  977. “Then, if there’s nothing else, I’ll get some sleep. It’s a busy day for me tomorrow.”
  978.  
  979. There was something, actually, but as she said, it was late, and she was the leader of a village in the middle of a migration. At the very least, not having an exact picture of this country’s neighboring empires wouldn’t change my immediate plans. So I walked my wasp over to the collection of words we’d written and tapped “Yes” and “?” with my wasp's antennae, but lifted off and, gently, started pushing her out. She seemed to get the message easily enough.
  980.  
  981. “Very well, then I’ll come back tomorrow evening?”
  982.  
  983. I nodded in acceptance.
  984.  
  985. She was soon outside, leaving me to my thoughts and planning.
  986.  
  987. ---
  988.  
  989. Morning came, bringing with it 2.5 mana, bringing my total to 8. I started the construction of my new rooms and hallway. Between all the ants I had, it wouldn’t take too long for me to finish them, so I would probably be able to migrate my core room this evening, mana willing.
  990.  
  991. Mana and, I realized after the village started to wake up, a certain chatterbox's work interrupting everything.
  992.  
  993. Maryll hadn't come alone. Gwen had come with her, along with another man I didn't know, who'd been introduced as Lieutenant Garmin. He was a squat Velthian man, almost as wide as he was tall, but his exposed biceps and the way he carried himself in that heavy plate mail told me I'd be hard-pressed to find any fat on him. Although his jawline was square and pronounced, it was hard to tell exactly where his head began and his neck started. Unfortunately for him, nature had chosen to gift him with a... peculiar hair color; it flowed down to his shoulders like the mane of a lion, if that lion had just fallen into a vat of fuchsia paint.
  994.  
  995. His weapon... I didn't know if it was a sword, or some kind of kite shield someone had decided to stick a handle onto.
  996.  
  997. Gwen and Garmin had come to do battle against my minions, and I obliged them. They’d offered me the remains of yesterday’s birds as an offering, worth an impurity each.
  998.  
  999. Maryll, on the other hand, had told me, "I'm not an adventuress. I'll leave the minion-baiting to those two," and proceeded to start writing on one of my walls. She'd picked my pixie's room as a canvas, telling me "Your other walls are full of holes and bugs". The little creature didn't seem to enjoy her presence very much, and it didn't take too long before it decided to take off and fly outside.
  1000.  
  1001. "So, mom told me you’re a girl dungeon? That’s neat, does that mean there are boy dungeons too?" Maryll was saying while carving something into the wall with her knife. "Though, you’ve never met another dungeon, right? Think you could talk to one? I guess you wouldn’t know, either.”
  1002.  
  1003. I’d given up on trying to answer her questions after the first minute; she seemed satisfied with just having a spider nearby listening to her prattle on. In the other room, Gwen and Garmin were standing back to back, surrounded on all sides by my bugs. I was poking in, testing their defenses and avoiding their counterattacks much as I could. I kept my ants out of the fight, in case injuries happened, but the rest of my insects were fair game. Spiders, especially, were well adapted to this kind of surprise attack, and although I was refraining from actually stinging, the two were treating hits I was landing as if they had injured them, and “reset” if I killed them.
  1004.  
  1005. I’d hit Gwen five times so far, with two killing blows. On the bright side, she was very aware of getting struck from behind now, mostly by keeping her back to her ally. A sound strategy.
  1006.  
  1007. Garmin had only been hit once. It had taken three simultaneous attacks, and had cost him his right leg from a spider “bite” into the back of his kneecap. That spade-sword of his looked silly, but even though he was only using the flat sides of it, he was still able to swing it around like it weighed nothing.
  1008.  
  1009. I was getting a feel for his rhythm, though. Well, both of theirs; Gwen had already surprised me once by blocking a blow meant for him, which meant I needed to distract her first, which I did by throwing a spider at her shield and hanging on to it. Then, I feigned an attack with a high wasp in plain sight, knowing he would know it wasn’t real, so he would be wary for his sides, and when he swung with the sword to swat my wasp away, I precisely timed my real attack; a spider jumping from below directly at his face.
  1010.  
  1011. It landed. My spider’s limbs locked around his face and its fangs brushed against the sides of his neck, where his armor did not protect him.
  1012.  
  1013. He replied by punching my spider.
  1014.  
  1015. He was a strong man. It was a lesser spider. It didn’t die so much as it was pulverized.
  1016.  
  1017. Everyone froze.
  1018.  
  1019. “Oh… shit,” Garmin managed. His entire upper body was covered in haemolymph, but the sticky liquid was rapidly disappearing in little green motes of light.
  1020.  
  1021. “Is something wrong?” Maryll asked, looking down at the spider I’d left with her.
  1022.  
  1023. Garmin was staring nervously at my bugs, his fists tightening around his sword.
  1024.  
  1025. “Hey, apologize?” Gwen poked him. “We told it we wouldn’t kill its minions, you know.”
  1026.  
  1027. To be honest, I wasn’t all that mad. I had expected this would happen eventually. Maybe not on the second sparring session, and on the first one with someone who wasn’t a complete newbie, but I had expected to lose at least some of my minions in these spars. My other minions weren’t horrified or anything, they were just… there. Uncaring about the death of one of their own. Well, the wasps were angry, but that was their default mode of operation.
  1028.  
  1029. Besides, who wouldn’t react badly to having a three foot wide spider jumping into their face?
  1030.  
  1031. Garmin didn’t take his hands off his sword, but said, “My apologies, dungeon. I didn’t expect that, and…” he shrugged and lowered his sword, “in any other dungeon, that hit you just landed would have been crippling at best. That was… well done.”
  1032.  
  1033. Well, I wasn’t mad now. Now how could I…
  1034.  
  1035. Oh, of course.
  1036.  
  1037. I moved the spider I had in the pixie room--now I guess the dictionary wall room?—and walked to one of the words, which I tapped a leg.
  1038.  
  1039.  
  1040. I glanced at Maryll, and tapped the word again.
  1041.  
  1042. “Ah? Ah! Uh, guys? She’s saying ‘accept’ for some reason?”
  1043.  
  1044. Gwen looked in her direction. “She? You mean the dungeon?” She raised an eyebrow. “How does that even work?”
  1045.  
  1046. “Lass, if the friendly monster-maker tells you she’s a lady, then she’s a lady,” Garmin told Gwen. Then, with a shake of his head, he continued at my bugs, “I’m starting to get what the lass was saying about you. I’m pretty sure most adventurers would have been caught by that trick you played on me.”
  1047.  
  1048. “What did it—” Gwen began, then interrupted herself and started again, “I mean, she, what did she do, anyway? I was a bit busy trying to get that spider to let go of my shield without, y’know… hurting it.”
  1049.  
  1050. He gave a short explanation of what I’d done, then shook his head. “That was on me. I should have used the shaft of my weapon to block it, but I was overextended. Take that lesson at heart, lass,” he told Gwen, “bigger isn’t always better.”
  1051.  
  1052. “So why do you use that weapon, then?” she asked. I was a bit curious myself.
  1053.  
  1054. “Ah, long story,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “I—”
  1055.  
  1056. And a caterpillar fell on his forehead.
  1057.  
  1058.  
  1059. “…let’s take a break outside, I’ll tell you about it.”
  1060.  
  1061. “Let’s,” Gwen agreed.
  1062.  
  1063. Then she reached into her collar to extract a beetle, muttering, “had that in there for like five minutes, fuck me…”
  1064.  
  1065. ---
  1066.  
  1067. Maryll joined them, which finally let me get back to digging. I checked my mana stocks and found that I’d climbed all the way up to 25 with that sparring session alone. Enough mana to replace the spider I’d lost, as well as spawn both loot upgrades.
  1068.  
  1069. But rather than a spider, I wanted to see what my new minion was about.
  1070.  
  1071. So I summoned a beetle.
  1072.  
  1073.     Congratulations! \(*≧∀≦*)/
  1074.  
  1075.     Beetle Resting Room can now be researched!
  1076.     Beetle Upgrades can now be researched:
  1077.  
  1078.         Increased Size ヾ(@゜﹃゜@)ノ
  1079.         Improved Armor
  1080.         Improved Speed
  1081.         Sharpen antennae
  1082.  
  1083.     Click to expand...
  1084.  
  1085. I took a look at it and whistled metaphorically. Now that was one impressive bug. It was about the size of a greyhound—the dog, not the bus—with a shiny metal-blue carapace. It had a well-defined thorax and abdomen, long legs and a pair of wicked-looking barbed mandibles that were as long as its triangular head. A massive pair of shiny black eyes sat at the top corners of that head, a bit like a praying mantis, and a pair of antennae about as long as its entire body popped up between then, stretching backward. From the way they moved, I was fairly sure the beetle was able to move them forward and use them as whips or graspers.
  1086.  
  1087. Then, I touched its mind and found it was already looking for a place to lay down and sleep. It’s not like it could be lazy if I was in command. If anything, the mind inside that beetle seemed delighted at giving me control, and I felt it start to doze inside its own body. How lazy were these things?!
  1088.  
  1089. Well, no matter.
  1090.  
  1091. I still had quite a bit of mana after that, at twenty-one, so I checked the price list for beetle upgrades. Either armor or size would be good, if I wanted this to be a tank.
  1092.  
  1093.     Beetle
  1094.  
  1095.         Increased Size ヾ(@゜﹃゜@)ノ (20 mana, 3 impurities)
  1096.         Improved Armor (15 mana, 2 impurities)
  1097.         Improved Speed (12 mana, 1 impurity)
  1098.         Sharpen antennae (25 mana, 3 impurities)
  1099.  
  1100. Yeesh. I could get those, but it would stop me from getting anything else. Plus, upgrading my only beetle at those costs without having spawners didn’t seem like the best idea; this thing was meant to take hits for my other, squishier minions. If it died and I’d put a ton of mana into it, it would be an incredible waste.
  1101.  
  1102. Yeah, I was going to pass up on these for now.
  1103.  
  1104. The next thing on my list was loot. I could get both samples of loot right now, and I had enough mana regeneration to handle the cost assuming they only opened it once—that is, unless that info box hadn’t led me astray again. I decided to keep some mana in reserve, just in case, picked my furthest completed room, then thought of the chest upgrade. A transparent green chest showed up in my mind. I moved it along one of the walls, then ‘activated’ the upgrade. The green chest disappeared, and for a few breaths nothing happened, but then the ground shifted, and a moment later a shoddy-looking wood and iron chest had popped out of the loam. Sand and bugs flowed off of it.
  1105.  
  1106. My infobox had nothing to say, for once.
  1107.  
  1108. I was a bit disappointed.
  1109.  
  1110.  
  1111. ---
  1112.  
  1113. Fun fact: Whenever Gwen talks, she sounds British in my head.
  1114.  
  1115. She’s not supposed to.
  1116.  
  1117. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  1118. Growth 3.3
  1119.  
  1120.  
  1121. The second group of villagers arrived while the makeshift adventuring party was taking a break. Gwen and Garmin both decided to return to the village to help construction. Maryll stayed behind.
  1122.  
  1123. "Tell mom I'm busy carving the word wall, okay?"
  1124.  
  1125. Gwen's answer was an eye roll. "You're really fishing that excuse for all it's worth, aren't you?"
  1126.  
  1127. Maryll just grinned. By luck, my ants had just finished digging my latest room, so I didn't see a reason to stop her from reentering.
  1128.  
  1129. "I saw all those ants moving to the entrance, does it work like an anthill? You use your ants to dig?" she asked as she came down the stairs. "Can I see? I mean, I've never gone deeper than this. I kinda want to see the rest of you, that's not a problem, right?"
  1130.  
  1131. I didn't really mind. I shook the head of a nearby ant. She smiled and patted it on the head, then proceeded to walk deeper. My rooms were separated by inches-thick dirt walls through which simple openings were dug out, giving the whole... me, an earthy yet unnatural appearance.
  1132.  
  1133. In the second room, she glanced left at the entrance to the crawlspace where I kept my emergency bugs, high up on the wall, near the ceiling. She bent down to get a better view at its walls, then straightened up in surprise.
  1134.  
  1135. "Wait, do you keep even more bugs in there? How many do you have?"
  1136.  
  1137. A lot, I replied to myself. I had... something over fifty bugs right now, thanks to all the grass farming I did after I got my specialization? More than enough to stop anyone short of Bob so far.
  1138.  
  1139. "You're full of surprises, huh?" she grinned.
  1140.  
  1141. She got into the third room, which was... well, empty.
  1142.  
  1143. "You don't have a lot though? I guess you splurged on bugs and kept it light on other things, right?" she looked here and there, and pouted a little, "Ulfric always makes it sound like dungeons were full of all kinds of stuff, but you're kinda empty."
  1144.  
  1145. Hey, I was just starting off. You can't expect a new cape to have a badass costume to begin with, can't you? Same thing with dungeons. Besides, I had priorities. I'd have plenty of time to make myself welcoming later.
  1146.  
  1147. Or scary.
  1148.  
  1149. Selectively threatening? Amicably menacing?
  1150.  
  1151. Invitingly intimidating.
  1152.  
  1153. She continued to explore, turning right, and stopped when she spotted my brand new loot chest.
  1154.  
  1155. "Oh! That's new, isn't it?" I answered with a nod, she grinned and stepped forward.
  1156.  
  1157. Sorry Maryll, I like you, but...
  1158.  
  1159. I moved my beetle in her way.
  1160.  
  1161. "Uh...?" she stepped back, eyes widening, then gasped, "Oh, right!" a tap to the side of her head, "silly me, I need to fight you for it, right? Although..." she frowned, "I'm not much of a fighter. Oh! Hold on a second!"
  1162.  
  1163. She rushed outside, nearly tripping on one of my spiders along the way. She unhooked her short bow from her waist, and I guessed what she had in mind.
  1164.  
  1165. Sure enough, she came back about ten minutes later with two dead birds at the end of arrows--the little stealthy ones.
  1166.  
  1167. "I don't know how much you get from dead stuff versus fighting us, I hope that's okay?" she asked.
  1168.  
  1169. It would barely be enough in terms of mana, but the impurities and progression points were very welcome. I let her go in and watched with interest as she went back to the chest, pausing a moment to rub my beetle on the head--it actually didn't mind, to my surprise--before opening the chest. It was mostly empty, except for a little vial sitting by its lonesome at the bottom of the container.
  1170.  
  1171. That, for ten mana? I was pretty sure I had somehow ripped both of us off with that. Maryll's face told me she thought so at least a little, but her perennial grin came back an instant later.
  1172.  
  1173. "What did you give me?" she asked a nearby ant.
  1174.  
  1175. I had the interesting experience of trying to shrug through an ant's body.
  1176.  
  1177. "Oh, you don't even know? I guess you don't pick what goes in there, then..." She picked up her 'reward' and inspected it; it was full of some kind of smoky grey-white liquid. Every time she shook it, little motes of green light appeared, only to disappear a moment later. "Well, it's pretty at least. Who knows, maybe it's good? Oh! I'll go and ask mom what it is. I'll be right back!" she told my nearby bugs.
  1178.  
  1179. And just like that, Hurricane Maryll left once again.
  1180.  
  1181. ---
  1182.  
  1183. She only came back later in the day, along with Gwen, Cirys the spear and bow boy, and Bob. By then, my burrowing ant had done short work of the hallway and was getting started on my new core room.
  1184.  
  1185. Bob had shaved his beard, for some reason. It looked... better. Much better.
  1186.  
  1187. I sent out a wasp to greet them, and Maryll met it with a sheepish grin.
  1188.  
  1189. "Uh, hi. I got scolded."
  1190.  
  1191. "You shouldn't have been skipping work in the first place," Gwen chipped in. "What were you thinking, coming back with loot after I told her you were working on the wall?"
  1192.  
  1193. Maryll grinned sheepishly while pulling her tongue and tapping the side of her head with her knuckles.
  1194.  
  1195. "Where is that wall, anyway?" Bob asked, looking left and right. "It can't be too far, otherwise the dungeon won't be able to reach it."
  1196.  
  1197. "Ah, I built it downstairs, in that one clean room. Seemed like the right place to talk with her."
  1198.  
  1199. "Her--wait, you built it inside?"
  1200.  
  1201. Maryll blinked. "Uh... yeah? She even used it to talk to Garmin and Gwen earlier. It works."
  1202.  
  1203. "Is it still there?"
  1204.  
  1205. Huh?
  1206.  
  1207. "Huh? Yeah, well--I mean, I didn't touch it..."
  1208.  
  1209. Bob grunted a laugh, took a swig from his leather flask, then shook his head. "Dungeons fix themselves, Maryll. If you just carved words into a wall, those words are long gone by now."
  1210.  
  1211. Wait. For real?
  1212.  
  1213. I checked. He was right; my wall was pristine. So was the floor, even though Kamella and I had carved into it while writing to one another the previous day. How had I not noticed this?
  1214.  
  1215. "Wait, really?" she stood suddenly. Bob grabbed her hand before she could step inside the circle.
  1216.  
  1217. "Don't, you'll just bother it. Dungeon, is the wall still there?" I shook my wasp's head. Bob grunted. "See?"
  1218.  
  1219. "Can anything be done, though?" Gwen asked him. "That wall could be really useful."
  1220.  
  1221. "There is a way, yeah," he replied. "I know there's a spell that can let adventurers force a change on the dungeon, something it--or she, in this case, won't be able to change back easily. But I've only seen it done, I've never actually done it, and from what I can tell, it's pretty unpleasant for the dungeon."
  1222.  
  1223. I could take 'unpleasant', if it meant not having to work with pictograms to talk with them. Also, that sounded like a worrisome spell that I was really glad to learn about this way instead of by getting blindsided again.
  1224.  
  1225. "What was it?" Maryll asked. When Bob looked at her, she clarified, "the change that the adventurers forced on the dungeon?"
  1226.  
  1227. "Ah," Bob said. He took another drink, then grinned. "I can tell you the full story. I guess it's very relevant right now, especially with our audience over there," he thumbed at my wasp. "So, here's the story of Greyfeather Heights: The Dungeon That Fucked Up."
  1228.  
  1229. Cirys guffawed. "That sounds promising," he said.
  1230.  
  1231. Bob grunted another laugh, took a drink, then began.
  1232.  
  1233. "Greyfeather is your run of the mill dungeon out north, in the southern Khans. It's built high into the mountains, so it's not the most accessible place. The local folks had the bright idea to feed it a bunch of big wild birds, and when the dungeon started popping them out, they tamed the beasts and use them as mounts. It's not as nice as you think," he added when Maryll's mouth widened in a beaming smile, "giant birds aren't exactly the coziest rides around. It's also cold as balls, and the air is thin. You get tired real fast. Not a place for the faint of heart, Greyfeather."
  1234.  
  1235. A swig later, he continued, "The dungeon itself was pretty normal. Seventeen or eighteen floors deep, good loot, a lot of wide open levels, nothing too nasty. It wasn't exceptional, and there was nothing to really complain about, except level seven." He paused a moment for effect. "Level seven was a grass level. Normally, that's not so bad. Grasses are pretty weak in general, and so long as you've got antidotes and teammates to get you out of a bind, you're fine. The problem was, level six was a forest level, and level eight was a swamp. Because levels interact with each other to a point," he added to Maryll who looked like she was getting confused, "it meant that on top of fighting grasses, which are hard to spot to begin with and do a lot of stuff like grabbing, strangling and poisoning, we were slogging into mud up to our knees and surrounded by trees in all directions. Danger could come from anywhere, even from under the mud. And to make things worse, there were lots of birds eager to take a bite out of you if you weren’t looking up. Parties had to stick close together and be always ready to help each other, otherwise they were pretty sure to lose at least one member."
  1236.  
  1237. He took a swig... or at least tried to. It was empty. He put the skin aside with an annoyed grunt.
  1238.  
  1239. "So they found a way to make level seven not suck?" Cirys asked.
  1240.  
  1241. "Oh, no. Level seven still sucks to this day. But nobody goes there anymore." Bob grinned. "See, the dungeon's level fifteen was a slime level. Gwen, slimes."
  1242.  
  1243. "Ah? Ah--uh, slimes. Not smart, resistant to slashing and stabbing. Use ranged attack, or wide crushing blows, and stay as far from them as you can."
  1244.  
  1245. Bob nodded. "Good enough. The other thing about slimes? Their drops are fucking awesome. Catalysts, ingredients, gels... you can make all kinds of useful stuff from slime drops. They're also dumb as bricks and, more importantly, every single one of them is melee. You won't ever find a ranged slime. Now," he raised a hand, "they're still dangerous. They'll eat right through your equipment, and you might as well go naked for all the good armor will to for you if they grab you, but in general? Slime levels are good. So everyone loved level fifteen. Well, except the dungeon itself; it really didn't like that we were spending so much time there, killing its minions. So it decided to provide its slimes with some help.
  1246.  
  1247. "And the way it did so," he continued, "was by creating a connection between its level three and its level fifteen. Level three had Kobolds in it. Gwen?"
  1248.  
  1249. She'd expected it this time. "Kobolds. Humanoid minions, half-beasts. Weapon-users, can use magic?"
  1250.  
  1251. That sounded like the kind of minions I wanted to have.
  1252.  
  1253. "They can," he nodded. "They can also craft their own defenses and weapons. They're fragile, but they're a lot smarter than your average mobs. That's pretty normal with humanoids in general. Before Greyfeather was found by people, it was found by a bunch of wild Kobolds who'd started using it themselves. Not uncommon for dungeons in hard to reach places." He paused, shifting mental gears back to his story, "Now, the idea, I think, was that the slimes would give the kobolds something that would tank for them, and the kobolds would act as the ranged attackers that slimes were missing. Not a bad idea, for a dungeon, but... like I said, it fucked up."
  1254.  
  1255. "How?" Maryll asked.
  1256.  
  1257. "It opened up a passage between its level three and level fifteen," Cirys guessed. Bob grinned.
  1258.  
  1259. "Exactly. All we had to do was find where, in level three, the passage to level fifteen was hidden, and with every adventurer in town looking for it, we eventually found it. Now, the dungeon had thought about it, and the passage was protected by a really deep canyon that was filled with slimes. The kobolds used a bunch of zip-lines to get to the other side and back, and the slimes could just slide their way up the cliff to get to level three, but us humans? Too heavy for the zip-line, and jumping down was a fine idea if you felt like getting dissolved alive. So we couldn’t use the passage unless we somehow made a bridge over the canyon. Making a bridge is simple enough, there’s a spell for that. But inside the dungeon, the bridge will just collapse within hours. We needed a better solution, because none of us wanted to go through level seven ever again. So the town’s guild hired some mages to do what’s called a permanence spell.”
  1260.  
  1261. I tried to move closer.
  1262.  
  1263. Then I bounced off the dome.
  1264.  
  1265. Ow.
  1266.  
  1267. “Well, it was actually two spells,” Bob continued. “The first was just cast before we went in. I didn’t actually see it, but its purpose was to blow the party size limit wide open.”
  1268.  
  1269. Wait, what the fuck?! They could do that?!
  1270.  
  1271. “We went in after that, a good fifty high-level adventurers, and the dungeon went ballistic. It sent everything it had at us. Every bird, every kobold, every beast—I got stabbed by a hornhare of all things,” he told Maryll, whose face had taken on a troubled frown. “Unfortunately for it, we were ten parties’ worth of the highest-level adventurers in town. It didn’t really stand much of a chance.”
  1272.  
  1273. “I feel sorry for it,” Maryll commented. “Isn’t it kinda mean to do something like that?”
  1274.  
  1275. Yeah it is. How would my dungeon fare if two dozen or more people barged in? I was going to have to rethink my defensive plans.
  1276.  
  1277. Although, come to think about it, I’d be pretty screwed if Bob went in alone with the intent to kill me. I hadn’t got any creatures stronger than last 3 ants he’d pulped, I just had more of them. Maybe I could get him like I got Mannequin, but I didn’t have nearly the numbers I had back then even though my bugs were heavier.
  1278.  
  1279. “Do not pity the dungeon, because it will not have pity for you,” Gwen replied immediately, then froze and looked at my wasp. “Uh, present company excluded, I mean.”
  1280.  
  1281. “Don’t judge all dungeons based on this one, Maryll,” Bob said. “It—er, she, is very unusual. I’ve never seen a dungeon that doesn’t try to kill everything that gets inside it.—“Why are you calling it ‘she’?” Cirys asked.—”What Gwen said holds true for every other dungeon.”
  1282.  
  1283. Gwen whispered in Cirys’ ear, and his eyes widened. “Wait, for real?”
  1284.  
  1285. “Hn,” Maryll noised. Her frown did not go away.
  1286.  
  1287. “So what happened?” Gwen pushed. “Did your mages cast the permanence spell?”
  1288.  
  1289. “Well, first we had to build the bridge, which took us a good twenty minutes—it was a pretty big canyon—so we had to hold the line while all those mages were working. Let me tell you, the dungeon did not want them to finish their work. It even sent boss monsters from all of its floors after us, and—”
  1290.  
  1291. “It can do that?!” Gwen gasped. Turning to me, she asked “You can do that?”
  1292.  
  1293. Shrugging with a wasp was just as special as shrugging with an ant.
  1294.  
  1295. “She’s only got one level, she can’t have tried that, yet,” said Bob. “And normally, they can’t. Monsters are limited to their home floors and any floor immediately connected to it. But the spell that broke the size limit broke that, too.” He sniffed. “I’m pretty sure, anyway; nothing else makes sense.”
  1296.  
  1297. Gwen nodded.
  1298.  
  1299. “So here we were, three dozen adventurers against everything the dungeon could throw at us, and I mean everything. Greyfeather didn’t have a boss on every floor, but it was close, and mostly on the top floors; a Kobold King, a Queen Tarantula, a Great Rok, a Prince Stag… We barely managed to stop them from landing even a single blow on our mages, which would have interrupted the spell. After a while, it started sending mobs at us from the other side; floor sixteen was a fire floor. That day, I learned slimes don’t mind if they’re on fire, they’ll still crawl your way until they get you or die. Doesn’t make getting grabbed by them much worse than it already is, but it’s a thing to know and see. Oh, and fighting slimes when you can’t move away from where they’re coming? Absolutely awful. I do not recommend it.”
  1300.  
  1301. He reached for his flask, then remembered it was empty and grunted. “Well, that’s that. In the end, we succeeded. It gave it all it had, and we did lose a few people, but none of the mages were hurt, they finished the bridge and the permanence spell. We got a nifty bridge from level three to level fifteen, and made an absolute fortune selling all the drops we got from those bosses. And we never had to even get close to level seven ever again. And that’s the tale of Greyfeather; I left town soon after that.”
  1302.  
  1303. “Oh, come on!” Cirys groaned. “Really? That’s where it ends?”
  1304.  
  1305. I agreed. I poked him with my wasp’s mandibles. Tell me more about those spells!
  1306.  
  1307. Maryll saw this and giggled. “I think she wants more too, Ulfric.”
  1308.  
  1309. Yes, I do. I’ll even start calling you Ulfric if you tell me more. Not that you can hear me, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
  1310.  
  1311. “No shit she does,” he grunted. “You want to know how that permanence spell works, huh?”
  1312.  
  1313. I drew two lines on the ground.
  1314.  
  1315. I got three blank stares, and a couple of “uh…”s in response.
  1316.  
  1317. “I think she says ‘the other one too’,” Maryll said.
  1318.  
  1319. I nodded.
  1320.  
  1321. “Are you sure you didn’t become some kind of Dungeon Whisperer down there, Maryll?” Gwen quipped with an elbow in her friend's ribs.
  1322.  
  1323. She squeaked a giggling yelp, retaliated, then said, “Maybe I did? It’s just pretty obvious. I mean, what else could she mean?”
  1324.  
  1325. Bob—Ulfric grunted. “Well, for the first one, I can’t help you. I didn’t see it happen. All I know is that it’s not a simple spell; it’s a big ritual, with catalysts and everything. So’s the second one. I was understandably busy for that one, but I did hear some of what they were chanting. It sounded like ‘Planet, we stone twinkling swamp to control purple pure’, or something like that, repeated over and over.” He furrowed his brow. “I think. I’m not much of a spell caster. Never managed to pronounce it right.”
  1326.  
  1327. “Are you sure it’s planet?” Maryll asked. “The third word in spells is usually spirit. Or spirits, for stronger spells.”
  1328.  
  1329. “It didn’t sound a thing like spirits,” Ulfric replied. “And I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear child either. The only words I’m sure of are control and planet.”
  1330.  
  1331. I shook my head. Obviously, he was getting the spell wrong, and had no way to tell how.
  1332.  
  1333. “Do you think your mom might know?” Gwen asked Maryll, who hummed thoughtfully.
  1334.  
  1335. “She’s more interested in things like history and geography than spells or dungeons,” Maryll replied. “Maybe in one of her books?”
  1336.  
  1337. He grunted and stood up, stretching his back. The three teenagers did the same, Cirys wincing and kicking his leg to get the figurative ants out.
  1338.  
  1339. “I doubt it,” Ulfric said. “Spells like that aren’t something that the empire—either of them—advertise. We’d have to ask the Imperial college,” he bent down to pick up his flask from the ground, “…but that’s a bad idea right now. We’re trying to keep her existence a secret for now.”
  1340.  
  1341. …wait, how were they going to do that? I was in the middle of a giant green blot in a desert. I had a literal bullseye around me.
  1342.  
  1343. “But if we don’t have that, we can’t build the wall,” Maryll complained. “Do we just give up?”
  1344.  
  1345. “You can’t build it inside, just build it outside.” Ulfric turned to my wasp. “You can reach a short distance out of the dungeon, right?” I nodded. “So we just build a wall outside your entrance, and you can use it to talk to us.”
  1346.  
  1347. That… made sense. I nodded. Thanks, Ulfric.
  1348.  
  1349. He grinned. “Now, see? I actually got that. Maybe I’m a Dungeon Whisperer too?”
  1350.  
  1351. Yeah, no you are not, Bob.
  1352.  
  1353. ---
  1354.  
  1355. After they returned to the village, I was left alone to think of what I’d just heard. The fact that adventurers could force changes on me wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it was just something to consider while I built my defenses. I could not rely on something like a deep hole or a giant cliff to act as a long-term obstacle. The fact that they could break party size limit was worse; if I was going to fight an entire empire, the last thing I wanted was for them to be able to cram an army inside my dungeon, but it appeared this was a possibility. I would have to plan for that eventuality.
  1356.  
  1357. More interesting were the things he’d said obliquely. I knew floor specializations added things to levels and to their surroundings, but to hear Ulfric say it, those specializations could be mixed together to produce nasty, eminently defendable terrain. He’d also said that my bugs would be able to go into my second level when I got one, and that I would be able to create connections between deeper levels and this one. So, possibly, I could have several dozen levels’ worth of bugs, all connected to my level one, to throw at whoever tried to invade me. Unfortunately, that same connection could be used by those invaders to attack multiple levels at once, so I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea.
  1358.  
  1359. He’d spoken about wide open levels, too. So far, my existence as a dungeon had been one of small rooms and cramped hallways, but to hear him talk, it was possible to get entire forests in here. Vast spaces that made hiding things like minion reserves easy were an interesting possibility. Looking at my menus, I couldn’t find an option for ‘open floor’ or anything like that. There was the ‘support structure’ approval reward, for twenty AP, which would let me build ☆bigger☆ rooms, but I didn’t think that was it. There was also the ‘environment mutator’ upgrade, for fifty AP, which would apply a ‘terrain modification’ on a floor. This seemed like the more likely possibility.
  1360.  
  1361. It was also possible that open floors were something specific to some minion specializations.
  1362.  
  1363. I had access to insects and grasses. To hear Ulfric talk, grasses were mostly good at incapacitation, and not much else. My own experience with powers that disabled or hindered opponents told me they were amongst the most dangerous that existed, if they were used properly. I had a feeling most dungeons weren’t able to bring out the best from them.
  1364.  
  1365. I was not ‘most dungeons’.
  1366.  
  1367. Unfortunately, the system was fucking me over again; my insect specialization had bonuses for bugs which allowed me to have an essentially unlimited number of cheap insects, but it also had maluses for every other minion type, and a double cost malus for ‘vegetal minions’ which, because it was ‘global’, also applied to my next level. I wasn’t sure if grass counted as vegetal, but I was willing to bet it did. So, if I decided to make my next level a grass floor, then I was going to hurt myself because of that.
  1368.  
  1369. At the same time, if I made my next level a bird level instead, well… birds eat bugs. Was I going to hurt myself there, too?
  1370.  
  1371. My infobox was silent on that topic.
  1372.  
  1373. Because of course it was.
  1374.  
  1375. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  1376. Growth 3.4
  1377.  
  1378.  
  1379. The village’s boundary was about fifty yards away from my entrance. I was close enough to hear the villagers' voices and watch them go about, but not enough to understand what they were talking about. The new group had carried with them a good three dozen tents, most of which were already standing. This time they’d kept the Brauhms with me to graze and rest in the grass patch. The next and final group, it seemed, would be traveling light.
  1380.  
  1381. The village was a pleasant addition to my surroundings, especially at night. The voices of the people who were still awake and celebrating their fortune certainly made a better backdrop for stargazing than howling winds and light chirps of the birds who made my grass patch their home. As beautiful as the stars above me were, the flickering yellow light of lamps and the shadows the villagers threw at me as they bustled around were more interesting. I saw a few pairs of armed men and women here and there, discussing amongst themselves as they stood guard or walked in relaxed patrols. Even they appeared to be in good spirits.
  1382.  
  1383. I heard a boisterous laugh from deeper in the village.
  1384.  
  1385. It was nice. Relaxing. It reminded me of better days, of watching Chicago’s Wards mingle amongst themselves while I prepared for the incoming end of the world, or watching over the people of the boardwalk after the Nine's attack.
  1386.  
  1387.  
  1388. It occurred to me that I had low standards for ‘better days’.
  1389.  
  1390. I shook those thoughts away and focused my attention on my dungeon. The final room’s construction was done, and I had already migrated my core to its new room. My regular ants had begun construction of a pair of pitfalls similar to the setup I had in my original core hallway. My burrower ant I had diverted to the bug reserve hallway so I could begin construction of a connector to my new core hall. My mana reserves were… low, to say the least, but my mana cap had broken an important boundary; I now had 34 maximum mana, enough to buy my pixie’s fountain. I was only missing the impurities.
  1391.  
  1392. This would pop my daily upkeep into the negatives and make me dependent on the villagers. Until now, I'd still had the option of backing out, of using what force I had available to reject them. Once I took this step, that option would be gone…
  1393.  
  1394. Would that be such a bad thing?
  1395.  
  1396. I'd taken worse plunges before. Handing myself over to a bureaucracy I'd outspokenly wanted to change, after having killed someone who'd been both its chief director and one of the most prominent members of its sister organization, was a steep dive compared to this. So far, these people had been nothing but friendly, but would it stay this way?
  1397.  
  1398. I was operating in a complete information blackout. I knew there were two empires who possibly wanted to harm me. Did they, or did they not? For all I knew, I was overreacting, and I would spend the rest of my existence here, looking over these people and providing for them in the most direct way imaginable.
  1399.  
  1400. It wasn't a bad thought; I had always wanted to help.
  1401.  
  1402. But if my paranoia wasn't misplaced, and these empires would be coming for me, then what would happen? Would these people stand by me and help me? Would they flee and leave me behind?
  1403.  
  1404. In either case, I would need mana. I would need to grow.
  1405.  
  1406. I would need them.
  1407.  
  1408. I was still thinking about possibilities when Kamella showed up.
  1409.  
  1410.  
  1411. “I had some thoughts about our mutual communication problem today,” Kamella said. She hadn’t wasted any time. After I’d welcomed her inside, she’d gone straight for the clean room, used that fertilizer spell to soften my floor and sat down. “I think I may have a way for you to teach me the sounds of your language.”
  1412.  
  1413. Did she now? I tilted the head of the ant I’d chosen to use as a communicator this time.
  1414.  
  1415. “Could you write my name on the floor, please?” she asked.
  1416.  
  1417. Ah.
  1418.  
  1419. Ah!
  1420.  
  1421. Of course!
  1422.  
  1423. “As I thought, you can hear our names properly,” she said, smiling after I was done. “The sound of a name is itself the meaning of it. Now let’s see. That’s… more symbols than I expected, but—ah, a combination, of course. Then… this must be ‘--’, and with this one it becomes ‘--’…”
  1424.  
  1425. It was a bit strange watching her try to read the sounds without being able to hear the meaningless, wordless syllables she was making. I could not help or correct her in any way, so as I waited for her to finish dissecting her own name, I started drawing what I’d wanted to ask her yesterday, a rough copy of the ‘map’ Maryll had drawn for me a few days ago. She eventually looked up—“but I don’t know why this symbol is repeated”—and noticed what I was doing.
  1426.  
  1427. “Ah. So this is what you meant to ask me about. Our… neighbors.”
  1428.  
  1429. I nodded with my ant’s head.
  1430.  
  1431. “As unfortunate as it is to say, there is a reason for you to worry,” she told me, and I felt a chill run through my entire self as my worst fears were confirmed. “Your presence in our lands will eventually be noticed. Word will spread and neither Empire will simply accept your presence here. I believe Tyr asked for assistance from the Crown about you; we are still waiting for their answer.”
  1432.  
  1433. The Crown. Another thing to consider which I hadn't really thought about until now. This country had its own government. It was also a desolate wasteland flanked by two empires, both of which suddenly had a reason to look more closely. How was the Crown going to react? Would they get rid of the threat by trying to kill me, too? Or would they try to protect me for the wealth I would provide, even if that meant fighting a hopeless battle?
  1434.  
  1435. My own experience with large organizations wasn't the best, and a part of me dreaded the answer to that question.
  1436.  
  1437. “Maryll gave you a summary of our situation, correct?” she asked.
  1438.  
  1439. I wrote the names Khan, Velthia and Central in the correct territories on the map.
  1440.  
  1441. “Hm… the ‘--’ sound again, must be the Khans… so this must be ‘Central’ and ‘Velthia’, then.” She shook her head. “And I’m sure she’s told you there was a war, and most of our dungeons were drained to death.”
  1442.  
  1443. I nodded.
  1444.  
  1445. “Hm,” she noised, frowning. “That’s a good base to start with. The thing you have to know is that Velthians and the Khans have a long history of hating one another. Everyone knows this current peace we’ve been having for the past decade and a half is just a temporary lull before the killing starts again. Your presence here is most likely going to be the spark that gets it going, but by no means are you to blame for it.” She smiled sadly. “This war has been long in the making. At most, everyone has been preparing for the inevitable, and you provide us all with a unique opportunity to save our lives. Do not blame yourself, child.”
  1446.  
  1447. She paused.
  1448.  
  1449. “I call you child, but I don’t even know how old you are—or, were, when you were human.” I wrote 18 on the ground. She shook her head. “Save it for the day I try to learn your numbers, if that’s okay? I’d like to walk out of here without a headache this time.” She tittered. “I’ve been thinking of you as about Maryll’s age, is that correct?”
  1450.  
  1451. I replied with a nod.
  1452.  
  1453. “So young, to be trapped like this…" she trailed off with a frown. A moment later, she sighed and said, "In any case, as I said, the resources and materials we draw from you, like the catalyst Maryll brought back yesterday, may be our only chance of coming out of this war with our lives. At the very least, your mana will preserve us from immediate starvation. You have our thanks for that already.”
  1454.  
  1455. It was a bit ironic that I would be relying on them to stave off starvation myself.
  1456.  
  1457. Or, perhaps, the system was intended that way?
  1458.  
  1459. Maybe that was what the people who negotiated with the planet wanted from this deal. Probably, I corrected myself a moment later.
  1460.  
  1461. “Now, as for how we all got into this mess, I could tell you, if you’re interested.” At my nod, she smiled. “You’re the studious kind, aren’t you?”
  1462.  
  1463. I nodded. She smiled, took a breath, and started.
  1464.  
  1465. “Nearly three centuries ago, our lands, along with Velthia itself, were conquered by the First Khan and the Empress-In-All-But-Name. Well, to be precise, the First started it, and then the Empress finished the job after he fell in combat.” She frowned. “The Khans were not kind masters. They are slavers by culture; the First Khan was a hard and cruel man, and the empire he created follows his bloodstained ideals to this day. While not every Velthian in Khannite land is a slave or a serf, a large number are. At the very least, those whose lands were conquered or whose parents were slaves are enslaved themselves unless they can prove themselves in the arena.” Her eyes were very old when she added, “If at all possible, I would rather Maryll, or any of our children, avoid this fate.”
  1466.  
  1467. I agreed with the sentiment.
  1468.  
  1469. “While the Khans are numerous in their own lands, they’ve always been fewer in Velthia. The people there did not appreciate Khannite rule and rebelled frequently. The Khannites considered these lands to be their breadbox, and a convenient source of new slaves; in that sense, the kingdom itself was a slave, and an uppity one at that, and the Khans have clearly stated punishments for uppity slaves. In between attempts at invading the Arimans, the Khannite Emperors had to go down and burn some sense in their servants, which, as you can imagine, did not exactly endear them to one-another.
  1470.  
  1471. “Then, a hundred and forty years ago exactly this year, the One True Emperor, Magnyl the Wise, inherited the throne. Unlike the other Emperors, Magnyl was Velthian-born, the son of a slave who’d been noticed and upraised by his predecessor, and he sought unity for the Empire. He was beloved by the South and… respected in the north after he proved his mettle in combat. He moved the capital here, in Central, where he hoped the heart of the Empire would be from then on. Unfortunately, he left no children, and chose no successor; he wanted the Empire to be led equally by the North or the South, and found no one who would be unbiased enough to keep his Empire united. He divided the Empire into seven regions, three for the North, three for the South and a tiebreaker in Central, and decreed that each region would be led by a member of a Council of Equals.”
  1472.  
  1473. She shook her head. “It was ambitious of him, and proved to be a mistake. One of the northern councilors declared himself emperor, killed the rest of them, and launched a re-conquest. The Velthians allied with one another and sent their armies at Central, too. To ‘defend’ it.” She scoffed. “Bastards killed more of us than the Khans did, all in the name of ‘cleaning up bad blood’. My own parents died to them, on their pyres.”
  1474.  
  1475. She fell silent for a moment. Her eyes were staring at the words on the ground, but that wasn't what she was looking at. Had I had the ability to do so, I would have apologized for raising something painful like that. All I could do was gently nudge against her with my ant’s head.
  1476.  
  1477. “Oh, I’m sorry child. I didn’t mean to get lost in thought like that.” She shook her head. “Nearly everyone in the village lost someone to that war. We… we all prefer not to think about it too much.”
  1478.  
  1479. I nodded in understanding. She smiled and gave my ant an affectionate head pat.
  1480.  
  1481. “The war lasted eighteen years. Eighteen years of fleeing, hiding and watching their armies pillage our lands and people. They raided our dungeons to the point that they starved to death, left our lands barren of mana and life. And it was only after there was nothing left to pillage that they finally agreed to make peace. That was nineteen years ago.”
  1482.  
  1483. Nineteen years ago, and Central hadn’t even begun recovering.
  1484.  
  1485. No. Central was unable to recover, without dungeons. This world was centered around the mining of dungeons. These lands were barren, their dungeons dead. These people were desperate.
  1486.  
  1487. It was no wonder they were so happy to see me here, I realized. Even if my presence meant the war was likely to start over again, it also meant there was a path to recovery and better days.
  1488.  
  1489. I was their hope.
  1490.  
  1491. One does not, typically, destroy one's hope.
  1492.  
  1493. For now, at least, I could put my trust in them.
  1494.  
  1495. ---
  1496.  
  1497. Kamella stayed inside for a short time afterward. I wrote more names for her; Ulfric’s, Maryll’s, Cirys’ and Garmin’s. She agonized for a time over the letters—“Why are there two symbols for ‘—‘?!”—and, eventually, gave up with a growing headache while informing me that she found my language “dreadfully confusing”.
  1498.  
  1499. For her sake, I vowed to never introduce her to the name ‘Sean’.
  1500.  
  1501. She answered my own questions, particularly about the vial Maryll had picked up from my chest.
  1502.  
  1503. “It’s a catalyst, an essential ingredient for most magical crafting,” she’d explained. “The problem isn’t finding a use for it, it’s finding the right use for it. Most of our crafters told me they were interested in it, now I have to decide who will get it based on what they wanted to use it for.”
  1504.  
  1505. Limited resources, lots of things to do with them.
  1506.  
  1507. Somehow, that felt familiar.
  1508.  
  1509. I asked her, with much difficulty, about whether or not a bird floor would hurt my insect floor, and she of course redirected that question to Ulfric.
  1510.  
  1511. “Tyr will be coming tomorrow. Once he is here, the four of us—you included—will discuss our options. It is imperative that we grow stronger to survive the coming war, and for that, you need to grow stronger. I will put Ulfric in charge of helping you with your development, he'll be available to answer all your questions.”
  1512.  
  1513. So I was getting a helpful InfoBob after all.
  1514.  
  1515. She had frowned and glanced at the wall. “I had hoped the communication wall would be complete by now, or at least well underway, but our lack of knowledge seems to have thwarted that part of the plan. I’ll get more people to work on it tomorrow; it has become something of a priority for us all.
  1516.  
  1517. “I understand you have many questions, and I’m sorry for not being able to answer them all,” she’d added. “What I can do is provide you with access to my books and scrolls. I have a modest collection, not all of which I can read—a problem that won’t be yours, perhaps to our mutual benefit. I’ll also instruct Gwen to provide you with her bestiary; it should come in useful to you.” She had paused, then noted, “Well, it’s Ulfric’s bestiary, but he seems to have memorized it. I don’t think he’ll mind if you borrow it.”
  1518.  
  1519. Assuming the dungeon system let me borrow it instead of just eating it for scraps. Just in case, I was planning on blocking anyone who tried to drop a scroll or a book on my floor. The last thing I wanted to do was to destroy precious knowledge by mistake.
  1520.  
  1521. ---
  1522.  
  1523. Morning arrived with a sliver of blue over the horizon, a hint of the rising sun, and about a dozen sleepy-eyed villagers suddenly showing up around my entrance with tools and materials. Kamella was there with bags under her eyes, accompanied by Ulfric and Gwen, the latter of whom looked like she wasn't entirely sure if she was still sleeping or not. A few of the villagers carried basic construction tools and materials; bones and sheets, both evidently made from Brauhm bodies.
  1524.  
  1525. "The dungeon has a roaming area in which its first floor minions can wander around," Ulfric was saying. "Anything built in that area will disintegrate over time. We want to build the wall just outside that area so the dungeon's minions can reach it too. Thankfully, our dungeon was kind enough to make that area visible for us: it's this circle of trimmed grass we're walking on right now."
  1526.  
  1527. A male villager I'd never met spoke up, "Wait, does that mean the dungeon could get us right now if it wanted?"
  1528.  
  1529. "She's not going to," said Kamella. "Isn't that right?"
  1530.  
  1531. I popped an ant out of the entrance. I'm not sure which reaction was more extreme: when they saw my ant, or when they saw it nod.
  1532.  
  1533. "Yeah, this dungeon talks back," said Ulfric. "Get used to her. Some of you will be spending lots of time interacting with her."
  1534.  
  1535. "Her?" "The dungeon is a girl?"
  1536.  
  1537. I saw a pair of older men elbow into the ribs of a young adult, a scrawny man who looked like he'd barely finished a growth spurt despite being almost a head smaller than the other two. One was saying, "Hear that, Lil' Mill? You're actually going to get inside a woman!"
  1538.  
  1539. "They grow up so fast," the other replied, wiping a fake tear.
  1540.  
  1541. "Shut up," 'Mill' groused.
  1542.  
  1543. He didn't look too mad, but I still made a note to teach those two a lesson in civility. This whole 'having lots of men going around inside me' thing wasn't getting any better when worded like that.
  1544.  
  1545. Under Kamella's direction, the workers built a half-circle of bone struts on which they stretched the skins. Then, using brushes and dull brown paint, they started writing the words Kamella and Ulfric were dictating on those skins.
  1546.  
  1547. Gwen ended up sitting down next to my ant.
  1548.  
  1549. "I don't know how Ulfric does it. He was up all night writing that list," she told me. "I slept, and I'm conked out."
  1550.  
  1551. By the time they were done, less than half of the wall had been written on. The words chosen were common words, dungeon nouns like 'floor', 'room' or various types of monsters, or verbs I was likely to use. An entire row of the wall was occupied by numbers. Their number system was base ten, thankfully.
  1552.  
  1553. I made immediate use of it, walking my ant over to the words and tapping them with its antennae.
  1554.  
  1555. 'Thank you'.
  1556.  
  1557. A young woman spoke up. "I think I like her."
  1558.  
  1559.  
  1560. ====
  1561.  
  1562. Shoutout to Menolly. You know what you did.
  1563.  
  1564. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  1565. Growth 3.5
  1566.  
  1567. ---
  1568.  
  1569. "Thanks for the training, lass," said Garmin with a pat against my wall. Ahead of him, two men and one woman made tired grunts as they wordlessly ascended my stairs. In the past hour, I had managed to tag Garmin twice with killing blows. The three villagers, whom I had learned over the course of the last hour were members of the garrison, hadn't faired nearly as well, although they hadn't been pushovers by any stretch of the word. At the very least, they'd gained a certain level of mastery over their shields by the time I was done poking the holes in their defenses.
  1570.  
  1571. They weren't the only ones keeping busy. Some distance from my entrance, a dozen pairs of soldiers were doing drills under the severe instructions of a tall woman in a feather-plumed helmet. In the distance, east of the village, I could see Kamella overseeing the plowing of a field by a good two dozen men. Deeper in the grass patch, Cirys and Gwen were looking over the village's children, who were running around excitedly, picking up bugs and bringing them over to open bags closer to the village. The four old women looking over these bags seemed busier prattling amongst themselves than inspecting the bugs that were brought to them, but every now and then one of them would pick up a squirming insect and throw it out. When a bag was full, it was carried deeper into the village by some of the teenagers.
  1572.  
  1573. "I mean, they're edible," Maryll had said, "but I'm kinda looking forward to the day we can eat something else, right? Do you think you can make a pie level? Hm, probably not. Oh, a fruit level!"
  1574.  
  1575. Maryll herself was one of two people who weren't immediately busy, although I had a feeling she was supposed to be. She was laying down on her stomach next to one of my spiders barely outside the bounds of my control zone, just a few feet from the budding Tengrape tree she'd planted a few days ago, and together we were reading the bestiary Gwen had brought. Maryll was humming some song I didn't know while her legs drew little circles in the air. She seemed less interested in the text and more in the pretty pictures, but her presence was enjoyable enough.
  1576.  
  1577. To be fair, though, the pictures were pretty. They were clearly hand-drawn, but whoever had drawn them––the author was someone named 'Walfig Frostbreak'––had done so with a lot of love and an expert's hand. It was a pretty massive book, as long as an arm and as thick as the length of an open hand. When opened, it was about as wide as my whole spider. If I'd been human, I would have needed help just to lift it, and I hadn't been a weak woman.
  1578.  
  1579. Gwen had carried it under one arm.
  1580.  
  1581. The bestiary had more than just pretty pictures, though. It was loaded with information about all kinds of creatures and monsters, organized by type and element. Each monster had a basic description of their appearance and typical behaviors, along with warnings, valid countering tactics and common mistakes. There was even a list of some of the more precious 'drops' that could be scavenged from their corpses; not immediately useful, but which could absolutely become relevant once I got spawners and the ability to preserve my minions after death––assuming, that is, that I decided letting my minions die over and over was a good idea.
  1582.  
  1583. For a budding adventurer, that bestiary was a precious resource. For a dungeon, it was equally precious, although in the opposite direction. Ants, for instance, were countered by chopping at the top of their heads and avoiding the mandibles at all costs to prevent having your weapons grabbed. If this happened, the bestiary suggested abandoning the weapon and switching to another, or escaping; ant corpses continued holding whatever they'd grabbed even after death.
  1584.  
  1585. For me, this meant being ready to dodge hits from above or providing a distraction while I grabbed their shields or limbs was a counter-strategy to their counter-strategy.
  1586.  
  1587. It also listed things like evolution paths and variants, but not in a convenient form like a technology tree. Which made sense; this was a guide to adventuring, not dungeoning, and most adventurers aren't going to be interested in what evolution paths led to, say, Iron Beetles, or Broodmother Tarantulas. Even then, just knowing these things existed and what they could do gave me goals to plan towards.
  1588.  
  1589. Of course, reading the bestiary and training with the villagers weren't the only things I was doing. I had kept a few spiders near the Word Wall, and I'd spent quite a bit of time grilling Ulfric for information.
  1590.  
  1591. He was useful, but there were many things he didn't know either. He'd never been a dungeon himself. When I asked him about the possibility that a bird level would interfere with a bug level, he'd rubbed his beard and square jaw and said,
  1592.  
  1593. "I don't think so. Unless you're talking about big birds that might be tempted to snack on your bugs, I think it should be fine. Besides, you can control all your minions without problems, right? You could just stop them from eating your bugs. Anything smaller than a Roc shouldn't be able to eat them anyway."
  1594.  
  1595. ...explaining to him the rules behind upkeep and dungeon level synergies would be difficult with the limited vocabulary I had.
  1596.  
  1597. "I don't think I've ever seen a big bird level and an insect level side-by-side," he continued, seeming to sense that my question hadn't been answered to my satisfaction, "and dungeons–regular dungeons, that is–aren't very smart at all. So maybe there's some kind of instinct at play? Something that warns dungeons when they're about to make huge mistakes? Because I have seen mistakes before, but never to the point where immediately neighboring levels were hampering one another. That's usually the third level's fault."
  1598.  
  1599. That made sense. I'd encountered something before, at the very start; those 'gut feelings' that had told me what I could and could not do before my infobox had showed up. It was how I knew I could only have one entrance.
  1600.  
  1601. To make things better, I had a way to test this. My insect specialization had a set of maluses that would send the upkeep cost of any vegetal minion I tried to summon straight into the sky; a +1 for not being an insect, and a doubling for being vegetal. If they were unfed on top of that, and depending on what order the penalties were applied, it might shoot the cost up to eight for a single Grasping Vine. Absolutely a mistake.
  1602.  
  1603. So I tried to do that, focusing on creating a grasping vine right at my entrance. A ghostly green image of a long, swinging plant appeared in my sight. Immediately I felt a shock of horror that froze me in place. It felt like I'd been about to seriously hurt someone by mistake and had just caught myself at the last second.
  1604.  
  1605. I let the summon go, and that feeling vanished.
  1606.  
  1607. Right, well. His hunch had been right, it seemed. That was a weight off my shoulders. I wasn't going to accidentally make all of my insects suddenly have upkeep.
  1608.  
  1609. I gave him a bow and poked ‘thank you’ on the board.
  1610.  
  1611. He replied, with a gruff twist of his lips, "I don't know what you just tried, but… glad to be of service."
  1612.  
  1613. Come to think about it, I was full of mana right now, at thirty-four. If I did nothing with it, I would just be wasting my next sparring session.
  1614.  
  1615. I considered the pixie room. My plan had been to see if pixies had upgraded versions that could communicate better with the villagers, and while it would be nice to have those, I now had a cheaper way to do that.
  1616.  
  1617. My reading spider reached up and started shuffling through pages quickly, ignoring Maryll's squawk of protest.
  1618.  
  1619. Sadly, the categories were not in alphabetical order. Or maybe they were, in a completely foreign alphabet, which wasn't helping. I was stuck shuffling randomly until I stumbled on something that looked like a pixie. I only waited long enough to read the name of the monster before I went to the next. 'Tuskboar', 'Pumpkin Jack', 'Magma Treant', 'Will O' Wisp', 'Storm Hawk', 'Lesser Naga'... there were so many goddamn monsters in there, it was nearly impossible to find what I was looking for.
  1620.  
  1621. "Ulfric, I think she's looking for something," Maryll reported.
  1622.  
  1623. He glanced at my spiders. "Can I help?" `
  1624.  
  1625. I nodded and searched for my pixie. I found the poor thing in my old core room, floating idly in a corner. Its teal light was somehow even lonelier in this dark room, and my heart went out to it. It really didn't like the fact that the villagers were there, and the room I'd reserved for it was so close to the entrance that villagers were constantly poking their heads in.
  1626.  
  1627. Yeah, fuck it. It was getting its room even if none of the upgrade paths were interesting. In the meantime, I gave it an order and told it to show itself.
  1628.  
  1629. It hesitated for a moment, then finally lifted off and, slowly, waveringly, made its way to the surface. When it finally showed up, I pointed at it with one of my spiders' limbs.
  1630.  
  1631. "Ah, pixies," Ulfric said. "Pretty sure you skipped it." He made to change pages, then stopped with a frown. "Wait, you have a pixie?"
  1632.  
  1633. "It's so cute," Maryll chirped, moving closer. My pixie made an alarmed whistle and flew upward, far out of her reach. "Aww."
  1634.  
  1635. "...Ah, a contract, then." Ulfric smiled.
  1636.  
  1637. 'Yes,' I replied. He was too far away to notice, though.
  1638.  
  1639. Ulfric turned the pages several times, skipping backward. He paused at 'Blight Basilisk', then started going forward more slowly. Meanwhile, Maryll was reaching into her satchel while my pixie eyed her warily.
  1640.  
  1641. "Here girl," Maryll said, opening her hand to reveal a dried fruit. "Are you hungry?"
  1642.  
  1643. By all evidence it was, because it started moving closer. I hadn't had any food for it until it had showed up, it had been sustaining itself entirely on mana from the beginning. So it was frugivore then?
  1644.  
  1645. Maybe I was going to get that fruit level Maryll wanted.
  1646.  
  1647. "Here, catch!" she said, throwing the fruit upward. My pixie darted forward, grabbed the fruit with both of its tiny arms and escaped to the skies with its delicious loot. Maryll giggled and turned to one of my word wall spiders. “She’s so cute—does she have a name?”
  1648.  
  1649. I shook that spider’s body left and right.
  1650.  
  1651. “Ah, there it is,” said Ulfric, flipping the bestiary onto ‘Lesser Pixie’. I gave his arm a pat with my spider as thanks and started reading.
  1652.  
  1653. Physically weak, but agile and difficult to hit with ranged attacks, uses ‘stun bolt’, generally cowardly and avoids direct combat with entire parties. All things I knew. The book recommended the use of ‘Paralysis Cure’ potions–because of course this world had actual potions–padded armor and wooden equipment, and most of all to stick together as a group and not to show fear. The book included a list of drops as well, but I ignored it; I was going to fucking kill whoever attacked my pixie to tear off its wings.
  1654.  
  1655. Then I went on to the next few pages, rapidly reading through the text. Frost Pixie, Gale Pixie, Luminous Pixie, Greater Pixie, Lesser Dancer, Lesser Dervish, the latter two which had their own evolution trees… it certainly seemed like Pixies had a lot of potential forms, most of which came with similar warnings and counter strategies. One of those forms did catch my attention, though. Disregarding the increasingly cruel-looking Dervish forms—which apparently traded their ability to use natural spells in favor of becoming pint-sized flying blenders—I turned back to the Luminous Pixie.
  1656.  
  1657. The picture looked a bit like my pixie, in that it was vaguely insectoid with two arms and two legs. Instead of having four veiny wasp wings, however, the Luminous pixie had two ornate wings like a butterfly, which were covered by colorful fractal patterns. The light it emitted was also yellow-white to my pixie's pale teal.
  1658.  
  1659. What had caught my attention was the way to book described its abilities as 'minor illusions'.
  1660.  
  1661. "Luminous Pixies are usually considered minor nuisances at best, having traded the dangerous stun bolt of the Lesser Pixie for a considerably less powerful ability to incite extremely short-term illusions and hallucinations to unwary adventurers. These illusions vary from highly detailed moving illusions of attacking creatures, to more subtle tricks, but their short duration means they are generally used to distract adventurers while more dangerous creatures provide the actual threat. Killing them is generally not worth the effort, unless their wings are the goal of the quest."
  1662.  
  1663. My goal was to improve my ability to communicate with the villagers. It was disappointing that this form would not let me talk to them directly, but having the ability to directly illustrate what I wanted to say, combined with the wall for more subtle concepts, would be a definite step up over drawing in the dirt.
  1664.  
  1665. So I had my goal. I needed the pixie fountain.
  1666.  
  1667. For that, I needed 4 more impurities at least, plus however much would be needed for the evolution itself.
  1668.  
  1669. By now, Ulfric had returned to the word wall and was looking over Gwen and Cirys, both of whom had started sparring. I called for his attention with a poke of a spider's legs.
  1670.  
  1671. "Hm?" he grunted.
  1672.  
  1673. 'need me dead plural thing' I signed. I wasn't sure on the word order, or on the word choice, but hopefully he would get it.
  1674.  
  1675. "Hm? Ah, hold on–" out loud, he called "Take five, you two!" He waited until Gwen and Cirys disengaged and sat down with weary sighs, then told me with a gruff smile, "Garmin just finished sparring in you, and you're already hungry? You're a bit of a glutton, aren't you?"
  1676.  
  1677. I shook my spider. He apparently didn't know about impurities, then.
  1678.  
  1679. 'not mana,' I signed back. 'need me dead thing. grow.'
  1680.  
  1681. He tilted his head, not quite understanding.
  1682.  
  1683. 'is like mana water' I signed, hoping I got that word order right. 'is like dead thing eat'
  1684.  
  1685. His smile disappeared. He mulled the sentence in his head for several moments, asked me to repeat it twice, then finally guessed, "Mana is like water, dead things are food…?” I nodded. “...So you absolutely need corpses to grow, then. That's... bad." Ulfric frowned. "Obviously we're not going to sacrifice anyone in the village for that."
  1686.  
  1687. 'beasts good' I signed immediately. 'not eat me people'
  1688.  
  1689. "Beasts good, I eat don't people...” Oh for fuck’s sake, I’d screwed up the word order again. Fortunately, he seemed to grasp what I wanted to say and said, “Right. Obviously. So any animal corpse will do, then?"
  1690.  
  1691. "I'll get some!" Maryll chirped, abandoning her quest to get my pixie closer to herself. "Gimme a sec–oh," she patted behind her hips, then tapped the side of her head with a pull of her tongue, "silly, forgot my bow. I'll be back!"
  1692.  
  1693. And she ran off toward the village, almost stumbling on a little girl as she did so, then almost knocking a bag over while apologizing to the little girl. Then she walked into a tent side while apologizing to the old woman who'd been looking over the bag.
  1694.  
  1695. Ulfric snorted and shook his head. "That girl... it's hard to believe she's Kamella's daughter, sometimes." To my spider, he said, "You've got a plan, then?"
  1696.  
  1697. My spider nodded, pointing to the bestiary. Ulfric walked up to it and saw the page it was open on. He grimaced.
  1698.  
  1699. "Urgh. Are you sure?" he asked, returning to the wall, "We're not talking about powerful illusions, here. Luminous Pixies are pests at most. A royal pain in the ass to hunt, but on their own, they're not good at... well, anything."
  1700.  
  1701. 'plural', I replied. 'talk better me with people. not drawing'
  1702.  
  1703. "...using illusions to make us see what you want to talk about." He nodded. "I see. If you want to use them to communicate better, it's a good idea."
  1704.  
  1705. 'thank you' I replied.
  1706.  
  1707. "I guess your second floor will be pixies, then? Pixies and bugs. Not a common pairing, but I've seen it a few times."
  1708.  
  1709. "That sounds like a cue for a dungeon story," said Cirys as he and Gwen approached.
  1710.  
  1711. "Hm, Maybe it does," Ulfric agreed. "But you two aren't done training yet.”–"Oh crap," Cirys muttered–”So while I'm talking, the two of you should be doing pushups. Start now."
  1712.  
  1713. "I fucking knew it," the boy complained.
  1714.  
  1715. Gwen had already taken her shield off and thrown herself on her own hands.
  1716.  
  1717. "Now, which one should I talk about," Ulfric said, rubbing his beard for a second. "I guess I'll go with the Dread Thicket. That was a nice and dangerous dungeon."
  1718.  
  1719. "That–unf–doesn't sound like the kind of–unf–place I'd want to go into," Cirys said between pushups.
  1720.  
  1721. "If you can talk, you can push faster," Ufric sniped. "And no, it really wasn't. I've been in a lot of dangerous places, but few were as dangerous as that one–and not entirely because of the dungeon itself. See, the Dread Thicket is–or at least was, back when I was there–a pretty young dungeon. It was still in the process of figuring out its core from its entrance. Unfortunately for everyone in town, it had figured out pretty quick about this thing called ambushing."
  1722.  
  1723. He paused a second to gather his thoughts, then added, "It also didn't help that the dungeon itself was in Northern Velthia, close to the triple-point between us, the Velthians and the Arimans."
  1724.  
  1725. "But aren't you..." Gwen started, then hesitated, "I mean, the Velthians...?"
  1726.  
  1727. I noted that her own pushups were effortless. Cirys, at her side, was grunting with every push.
  1728.  
  1729. "Things are a bit more flexible up north, or at least they were back then. Wouldn't try that now with the current empress." he shook his head and continued, "It wasn't fun, by any means, but the others knew not to fuck with a party of high-level adventurers, even if we were all Khanites, and so long as we kept our heads down and brought back the loot, the local guild didn't fleece us too much and the guards were willing to pretend we didn't exist. We were amongst the few adventurers in town who could reach the bottom floor of that deathtrap, so that played in our favor. In the end, we were forced to run off before the Imperial Guard showed up, but until that point we did make some gold questing in there."
  1730.  
  1731. Gwen's next pushup was harder than it strictly needed to. Her face had become a scowl.
  1732.  
  1733. "Now, as I was saying, the Dread Thicket liked its ambushes. Its first few floors were one-three-five jungle-themed–ah," at me, he clarified, "that means the dungeon decided to have the same specialization for those three floors, probably because it had lack of early options. It's a common set-up, so we've taken to calling it one-three-five." At my nod, he continued. "The true hell of that dungeon started at level 5, because level 6 was a shadow level. Gwen, shades."
  1734.  
  1735. "Ah? Uh... Shades... uhm..." to her credit, the pace of her pushups hadn't even slowed. However, when she failed to answer, Ulfric grunted.
  1736.  
  1737. "Next ten pushups, do them one-handed."
  1738.  
  1739. "Yes, sir," Gwen replied dutifully, one of her hands immediately going to the small of her back.
  1740.  
  1741. "Shades are extremely stealthy monsters that can travel through any shadow that hasn't moved in the last minute. Most are melee, but some are able to use shadow whips, or even ranged shadow attacks. Usually, they pop in from out of sight and try to take a stab at you while you’re not looking, or if you make the mistake of not moving for too long, they’ll use your own shadow and swarm you. The correct counter against them is to use formations that cover as many attack angles as possible, and use ambient light spells, torches or other sources of light; they'll avoid you if you're shining. Unfortunately, that meant we'd draw in the rest of the floor's monsters like shit attracts flies. Those monsters were all the type that stalk and jump at you while you're not looking; spiders," he gave a pat on the head of my spider, "great cats, stalkers, squirrels... if it jumps at your back to eat through your skull, it was there."
  1742.  
  1743. ...squirrels?
  1744.  
  1745. "We didn't go past five very often, because below that, it was even worse. The shadow level was filled with shades, obviously, and below that was a bug level. The thing about shadow levels is that they fuck up any source of light you have. Torches are half as bright, light spells run out faster and don’t work as well, the whole thing. So we had to face leftover stalkers and beasts from the jungle floor above, on top of shades and swarms of bugs from below, mostly ants, spiders and roaches, with our lights fucking us over every second. Let me tell you, that level six? Not fun.”
  1746.  
  1747. He watched as Gwen completed her tenth one-handed push-up and switched back to using both hands. She was starting to breathe louder. Cirys, on the other hand, was visibly struggling to finish his last one, and his face had taken a red tint.
  1748.  
  1749. “Alright, take a break.”
  1750.  
  1751. Cirys collapsed on his chest with a relieved sigh. Gwen sighed too, but had the strength to push herself up to her knees. He watched them breathe for a few moments, then nodded and continued his story.
  1752.  
  1753. “In comparison,” he said, “level seven was a cakewalk. The first real break you got after level one, and the main reason for that was the pixies.”
  1754.  
  1755. “Are… are they that useless?” Cirys asked, still catching his breath. He had flipped himself over to his back and was in the process of sitting properly.
  1756.  
  1757. “Don’t underestimate them, but in this case, it was a pretty bad idea. Remember the shades, and how they don’t like lights?”
  1758.  
  1759. “Pixies glow,” Gwen remarked.
  1760.  
  1761. “Exactly,” Ulfric grunted. “It’s a common thing for pixie-type creatures. So long as we had pixies around, the shades couldn’t come close enough. Sadly for the dungeon, the little dummies didn’t get the message and stayed near us, waiting for one of us to get too far from the rest. So long as we stayed together, though? Only the bugs could get to us. The pixies were too scared to move closer, and the rest of the pixie floor’s creatures, wisps and sparks, are really easy to avoid if you can see them coming. And in a shadow level, those things were so bright they were almost like guide lights.”
  1762.  
  1763. I started shuffling through pages in the bestiary. Wisps and sparks?
  1764.  
  1765. “So… yeah, that’s another dungeon that fucked up. If it had decided to use another jungle level, or a swamp instead of a pixie level, level seven would have been just as bad as six.”
  1766.  
  1767. “But that’s not going to bother our dungeon, right?” said Gwen. “She’s not going for ambushes or shades or anything like that.”
  1768.  
  1769. “Or trying to kill us,” Cirys added.
  1770.  
  1771. Ulfric grunted. “It shouldn't. I’m actually curious what she’ll do with them.” He glanced at my spider. “Considering what she can do with a few lesser bugs–”
  1772.  
  1773. “I’m back! I got a few mirlows and two hornhares, I don’t recognize them so I’m pretty sure they aren’t–––oh, shoot, did I miss story time?”
  1774.  
  1775. We turned our heads, some of us more figuratively than others, and there was Maryll stepping out of the tall grass, with a bunch of dead animals in one hand, a single horned rabbit in the other, a piece of grass sitting in her blue hair and a dropped jaw of disappointment on her face.
  1776.  
  1777. “You totally did,” said Gwen.
  1778.  
  1779. “Another ‘Dungeon fucked up’ story,” Cirys resumed. “And our dungeon is going to get pixies.”
  1780.  
  1781. Maryll’s frown became a beaming grin in a second. “Awesome! Are they going to be as cute as your other one?” she said while walking up to my entrance. She walked down the first two steps, then dumped the corpses—four of those four-winged sparrow things, and two hornhares—down my stairs, where they immediately decomposed in fast-forward, scattering a cloud of green and blue motes until they were completely absorbed by my floor.
  1782.  
  1783. There were no messages and my mana count didn't move, but my impurity count jumped up from 11 to 17. I wasted no time, immediately grabbing the pixie room and applying it to the room that had been my core room before. As I did so, I felt a small moment of dread, but ignored it.
  1784.  
  1785. There were no messages from my info box.
  1786.  
  1787. Why? Wasn’t I supposed to unlock pixie upgrades from this? What the hell?
  1788.  
  1789. I glanced at the room, only to find–
  1790.  
  1791. “BLEEK! RiiingwheeeBLEEEEK!!”
  1792.  
  1793. ...my pixie, spinning, trilling and chirping excitedly around the room like its birthday had come early and Christmas had been moved to tomorrow. The room itself had transformed significantly; giant leafed plants had spontaneously grown from the dirt and the walls, both of which had visibly softened. The room's ceiling had quadrupled in height and the walls higher up were covered in colorful flowers. A tree with drooping branches, like a weeping willow with transparent leaves and multicolored flower buds, was growing at the center of the room, surrounded by a shimmering puddle of some kind. I watched as my pixie dove down at the liquid, then proceeded to drink from it with greedy gulps before resuming in its noisy celebrations.
  1794.  
  1795. This room would feed my pixie? That was awfully convenient; it meant the room's upkeep cost of 2 (one, plus another for not being an insect room on an insect floor) was partially offset by decreasing my pixie's upkeep. I checked my upkeep count anyway.
  1796.  
  1797. 12.75.
  1798.  
  1799. Yeah, that was what I expected. With the +1 malus for not being a bug room on a bug floor, it definitely could have been worse. I couldn't find a reason why I hadn't received any upgrades, though. Was it because my pixie progression wasn't done yet?
  1800.  
  1801. I glanced at the progression screen.
  1802.  
  1803.     Progression Status – How are you doing?
  1804.  
  1805.     Completed (°∀°)b
  1806.     Grasses
  1807.  
  1808.     Flowers – 7/100
  1809.     Small mammals – 3/20
  1810.     Small birds – 16/20
  1811.     Medium birds – 7/15
  1812.     Pixies – 17/20
  1813.  
  1814.     Approval: 19
  1815.     Click to expand...
  1816.  
  1817. If that was the case, then I was still missing 3 points in pixie progression. The seventeen I had at the moment all came from my contract with my pixie, which the infobox had informed me would grant me points as it grew stronger. So, if I trained up the little thing a bit, pixies would unlock. Hopefully, that would give me the upgrades I needed. Otherwise, I would simply have to summon one, or maybe enough to unlock a floor.
  1818.  
  1819. I spared a moment to cross my metaphorical fingers in hopes that I wouldn't need a floor specialization. Seriously, there had to be a limit to how many hoops this idiot-proof system would make me jump through before it gave me what I wanted.
  1820.  
  1821. As a curiosity, I glanced at the contracts list, something I hadn't done since that living night light had decided to barge in and make itself at home here.
  1822.  
  1823.     Contracts – Your special agents (̿▀̿ ̿Ĺ̯̿̿▀̿ ̿)̄
  1824.  
  1825.     Count: 1/1
  1826.  
  1827.     1. Small Lesser Pixie (Lv8) [Not doing anything! ¯\(▰˘v˘▰)/¯]
  1828.  
  1829.  
  1830. Level 8, huh? So I gained two points for every level it gained, which meant it only needed one and a half level, assuming this was how it worked. Now, how could I get it those missing levels?
  1831.  
  1832.     Contracts information – part 2 \(≡^∇^≡ )
  1833.  
  1834.     You can send your contracted minions on secret missions far from your entrances, to do things like bring back resources that you can’t find locally, or bring back yummy dead people for you to eat. It’s super convenient, but be careful! If your contracted minion dies, they can’t be brought back without paying their impurity cost!
  1835.  
  1836.     A dead minion frees up a contract slot, but taking on new contracts will replace your old ones. They’ll be gone for good! (꒪⌓꒪)
  1837.  
  1838.     Contracted Minions can refuse to obey your orders, if they are scared or just don’t feel like it. ヾ(o`ε´o)ノ
  1839.  
  1840.     If a contracted minion is too lazy, you can try to kill them, but that’s not a nice thing to do, so you probably shouldn’t do that. (′ʘ ∩ ʘ‵)
  1841.  
  1842.     Instead, you can use contract upgrades to make them braver, or make them able to bring their own little squad ٩(^ᴗ^)7 with them! Those upgrades can be applied multiple times on the same contracted minion to make them super brave, or able to command huge armies that will bring back a ton of stuff from around you! ٩(•̤̀ᵕ•̤́๑)૭✧
  1843.  
  1844.     Contracted minions have a reason to obey, though. As they do, they are rewarded with powers by the system. Contracted minions can become a lot stronger than wild creatures, which will help them complete your missions! ༼⌐■ل͜■༽
  1845.     Click to expand...
  1846.  
  1847.  
  1848. …so just sending it on missions was enough? Okay, so…
  1849.  
  1850. [Order sent: Small Lesser Pixie assigned to task [Scavenge]]
  1851.  
  1852. It floated to the middle of the room, gave an adorable military salute and a tinkling chime, then darted outside eagerly.
  1853.  
  1854. It really was adorable.
  1855.  
  1856. ---
  1857.  
  1858. ====
  1859. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  1860.  
  1861. Growth 3.6
  1862.  
  1863.  
  1864.  
  1865. The third and final group of villagers arrived around noontime with their arms full of luggage and their faces coated in sweat. At the head of the cohort was a bronze dinosaur being ridden by a man in light iron armor. Ulfric interrupted Gwen and Cirys' training to meet up with him. I spotted Kamella doing the same, with Garmin replacing her in overseeing the tilling.
  1866.  
  1867. His style was less gentle than hers; I could hear his voice shouting "Put your backs into it, lads!" from where I was.
  1868.  
  1869. Somehow, the plumed-helmet woman made it before either of them did. I watched curiously as they conferred for a moment, the woman whose name I did not know helping the man to disembark from the lizard while the rest of the group moved past them to rejoin their fellow villagers in merriment.
  1870.  
  1871. "Aren't you going to greet your dad?" Gwen asked Cirys.
  1872.  
  1873. "Too tired," bemoaned the teenage boy. He was flat on his back, gangly limbs spread wide. "'Sides, he's going to come here to talk with the dungeon, right?"
  1874.  
  1875. "Hm," was her reply. Her brow was furrowed just a little in disapproval.
  1876.  
  1877. Their discussion took a few moments, then they disappeared behind the tents. It took a few minutes before I saw them again, the four squeezing between villagers and loose supply bags on their way to me with Kamella leading the way. By that time, Cirys had managed to stand up and make himself somewhat less embarrassing, and when they came close enough he addressed the armored man with a wave and a grin.
  1878.  
  1879. "Hey dad," he said.
  1880.  
  1881. There was a definite resemblance there. Other than the fact that those two both had the same shade of bright platinum-blonde hair–surprisingly sensible colors for Velthians–they had the same delicateness of features, the same thin jawline and well-defined cheekbones, and the same lanky build. Cirys was smaller than his father by about a foot, but he was still tall; his father was just a beanpole, standing nearly two feet taller than Kamella and a few inches taller than Ulfric. Also, where Cirys had all the awkwardness of a boy in the middle of puberty, the man held himself with poise and grace. Although he was a bit effeminate for my tastes, he was absolutely someone who could be described as beautiful.
  1882.  
  1883. "Hey, son," the man replied with a fatherly smile and a hand mussing his son's locks. The boy protested, but not too hard. "I hope you didn't give Ulfric any trouble?"
  1884.  
  1885. "I swore an eternal oath of vengeance on him and his family," Ulfric said matter-of-factly. "You're second in line."
  1886.  
  1887. The eyes of the woman in a purple-feathered helmet widened in outrage.
  1888.  
  1889. "Terrifying," the man deadpanned.
  1890.  
  1891. It was the first time the woman with the plumed helmet came close enough for me to get a good look at her, and my first impression was that she reminded me of Narwhal, both in build and in how she held herself. She was tall and slim, with pointed features and eyes that looked like they were meant to shoot very sharp daggers. Her hair was nearly a normal color, indigo instead of black and bundled into a tight bun that would fit under her helmet. The helmet under her arm was made of grey shiny metal, either iron or steel, with protective bands for both sides of her face and a beak for her nose and face. It looked a little like a mix between a dove's head and a Roman helmet. Feathers extended from the helmet like a purple mohawk. Her armor was made of overlapping scales which at first glance looked metallic, but upon closer inspection looked a bit too uneven, too natural to be metal. Some kind of fish scale, maybe?
  1892.  
  1893. Her scale armor was very similar to the armor that Cirys' father was wearing. But where hers was metallic silver, his had a definite yellow tint that I hesitated to call golden only because gold was a terrible material for armor. The similarity in design extended to the greaves the two of them were wearing, both in materials that matched their respective scale mails.
  1894.  
  1895. Glancing at the soldiers resting in the grass patch about a hundred feet from me, I noted that several had the same armor type, but not all. Was it some kind of role specialization? Or maybe this country was just too poor to afford standardized equipment for its army.
  1896.  
  1897. Either way, this man was pretty obviously the commander of the local troops, which made this woman, most likely, either his aide-de-camp or second in command. Seeing as she'd been calling the drills earlier, I was inclined toward the latter.
  1898.  
  1899. Kamella walked toward my entrance, and the man stopped.
  1900.  
  1901. "Wait, we're going to be talking inside the dungeon?"
  1902.  
  1903. Ulfric chortled. "Safest place to talk, believe me."
  1904.  
  1905. "I told her we would include her in our talks," added Kamella. "She is, after all, to be part of any plan we'll be making."
  1906.  
  1907. "I... I see."
  1908.  
  1909. The man looked visibly nonplussed, and his bewilderment only grew when they reached my first room and were greeted by friendly dog-sized bugs. Behind them, the helmet-carrying woman stopped to stare curiously at the barrier that appeared behind her. She reached to touch it gingerly and when her hand went through it harmlessly, she turned her attention back to the dungeon itself.
  1910.  
  1911. "Come to think about it, this is the first time you've been here, isn't it?" Kamella said. "You probably should introduce yourself."
  1912.  
  1913. "...Right," the man said, turning to my insects. He did that two-handed salute and bowed lightly. "I am Commander Tyr Mirrilyn. This is my second, Legate Garlynn Sasamra."
  1914.  
  1915. The woman repeated his motion. I replied likewise with a wasp. He shook his head in disbelief and turned to Kamella. "I knew you'd managed to talk to it, but this is..."
  1916.  
  1917. "Her," Kamella insisted. "And, well, I really didn't do more than ask kindly. Isn't that right?" At my nod, she asked, "May we use the clean room from earlier for our discussion? It's a shame we cannot use the word wall on the surface, but some of the discussion we're about to have should be held as discreetly as possible."
  1918.  
  1919. I nodded and sent an ant to join them. The four of them made themselves comfortable, Tyr, Kamella and Ulfric sitting down on the ground in the middle of the room while Garlynn stood further back, near the entrance. I joined the three in the middle with my ant, settling it opposite of Tyr, while Kamella put one of those magic crystals on the ground in front of us. For a moment, I had a terrible feeling that my floor would just absorb it, but when nothing happened to it after a second, I metaphorically breathed a sigh of relief.
  1920.  
  1921. "Spirit of passion, provide us with your warmth," she chanted. The crystal became shrouded in a quarter-inch-thick fiery aura, which produced a flickering orange-yellow light. Through the aura, the words Fire, Light, Care, Purify were plainly visible, hovering and rotating gently around the crystal.
  1922.  
  1923. "That's better," Tyr commented.
  1924.  
  1925. "It is awfully dark down here," Kamella agreed.
  1926.  
  1927. "It's just bright outside," Ulfric replied. "Spend enough time down here and your eyes will adjust." He pointed at my ant, and added "She probably could make lights for us, but I'm guessing she has other priorities right now."
  1928.  
  1929. My ant nodded. I did have lights I could purchase, but I needed the AP for more important things.
  1930.  
  1931. There was a short lull, a moment of silence, then Tyr finally broke it. "So. Status report?"
  1932.  
  1933. Nods answered him.
  1934.  
  1935. "Our troops stand ready for trouble." Garlynn was the first to speak. "I took it upon myself to organize patrols and rotations, as I thought setting up a routine as soon as possible would be optimal for their training. The troops who came with you are already included; I put Lieutenant Garmin in charge of getting them up to speed. So far, I've got nothing more menacing than a handful of Loomas to report."
  1936.  
  1937. "That won't last," Ulfric noted. "This is the only source of pure mana in a huge area. Central doesn't have a lot of wild beasts, but it does have some."
  1938.  
  1939. I hadn't considered that. If dungeons were so essential for life, then it was highly likely my presence here would draw in everything that lived for miles. It had brought birds to me, as well as a pixie, so far. All creatures that could fly, and presumably could also sense mana from a long distance.
  1940.  
  1941. Considering some of the beasts I'd seen in the bestiary and the relative strength of the local soldiers, I had a bad feeling about this.
  1942.  
  1943. "We'll be ready for them," Tyr told him confidently, then smiled at Garlynn. "Very well done, Legate."
  1944.  
  1945. "Thank you, sir," she replied, standing just a bit more straightly. Were her cheeks getting red?
  1946.  
  1947. "The village has completely migrated," Tyr told the others, "there was nothing left behind at the grove. We didn't encounter anything on the way here, so I really have nothing to report."
  1948.  
  1949. There was a moment of silence, then everyone looked at Ulfric. He grunted.
  1950.  
  1951. "Kids' training is going well. Dungeon's kicking their asses five ways to season's end, but then the same can be said about your regulars."
  1952.  
  1953. Tyr's eyebrow rose.
  1954.  
  1955. "Apart from that," Ulfric continued, "the Dungeon's expressed a desire to get pixies for her second level, and asked about birds. Nothing else to report."
  1956.  
  1957. Four sets of eyes turned toward Kamella.
  1958.  
  1959. She had her eyes closed, paused a moment to drink from her flask, then, with a smile, said, "The dungeon has the soul of a young human woman controlling it."
  1960.  
  1961. ...
  1962.  
  1963. You could have heard a pin drop.
  1964.  
  1965. Ulfric's lips were doing their best not to break into a grin at Tyr's wide-eyed reaction.
  1966.  
  1967. After a moment, the commander seemed to find his voice and said, "What the hell?" Then he looked at my ant. I nodded in confirmation. If anything, his eyes grew wider. "What the hell?"
  1968.  
  1969. From her side of the room, the Legate nodded. "That makes sense."
  1970.  
  1971. “What part of this makes sense?” Tyr asked her.
  1972.  
  1973. “The part where there’s nothing about this dungeon that’s normal,” she replied, arms crossing. “Everything makes sense if it’s actually someone doing all this.”
  1974.  
  1975. "She told us so when we talked to her the first time," Ulfric said before Tyr could ask him. "At first I didn't think we got it right, but having talked to her for a while? There's no way she's a normal dungeon." He shrugged. "She's human, I guarantee it. Maryll probably suspects," he told Kamella. "She's been spending a lot of time talking with the dungeon's minions."
  1976.  
  1977. "It's the only thing she'll talk about," agreed Kamella. "I haven't seen her this excited about something since the day she got her first bow."
  1978.  
  1979. She took another drink from her flask while Tyr’s agitation fell to a kind of overwhelmed calm. Then, she said, "She–that is, the dungeon–has also been teaching me her language, or at least trying to."
  1980.  
  1981. Ulfric grunted. “Not going well, then?”
  1982.  
  1983. "It's... her language is… confusing," she replied. "There doesn't seem to be much coherence in the way things are written. It’s a purely phonetic language, which is odd to begin with, with an odd word order and multiple symbols for the same sound. And to make things worse, there seem to be somewhat arcane rules governing how those symbols should sound next to one another. It’s… complex."
  1984.  
  1985. The part of me that was the daughter of an English teacher felt like I should be protecting my mother tongue. The part of me that knew about the arbitrariness of English pronunciation could only agree with her.
  1986.  
  1987. "Other than that, we've looted a few resources that need to be distributed. The pressure has been... high," she made a pained face.
  1988.  
  1989. “You’ve certainly been busy,” Tyr commented.
  1990.  
  1991. She sighed and smiled wryly. “It’s been an adventure.”
  1992.  
  1993. "We should set up a Guild," Ulfric suggested. "Drop the loot at the Guild, crafters buy mats from it on a first come first served basis, or pay for gathering quests, like it's usually done."
  1994.  
  1995. "That sounds like a good idea," said Kamella, turning to Ulfric. "You're the only one with Guild experience in the village."
  1996.  
  1997. "Hell no," he replied immediately. "Spare me from administrating anything, and spare things from being administered by me. It's not that complicated, anyway. Maybe Legs over there could do it?" he said, jerking a thumb at Garlynn, who scowled at him.
  1998.  
  1999. "I need her for my troops," replied Tyr, ignoring the nickname. "We'll raise the point at the village gathering. Agreed?"
  2000.  
  2001. "Agreed," said Kamella.
  2002.  
  2003. "Yeah, sure," Ulfric grunted. "Are we done with the little stuff, now?"
  2004.  
  2005. "I think so," Tyr replied.
  2006.  
  2007. "Not quite," Kamella interrupted. To my ant, she asked, "Do you have anything to say?"
  2008.  
  2009. I did not, but being included like this was absolutely appreciated. I shook my ant's head and pushed against her side lightly. She tittered.
  2010.  
  2011. "That's a no," she said. "So I guess we are done with the details."
  2012.  
  2013. "Hm," Ulfric grunted, then turned to stare at Tyr. "So what the fuck is going to happen next?"
  2014.  
  2015. "What he means by that is," Kamella said, "have we received a reply from Magnus?"
  2016.  
  2017. "Not one," Tyr replied. "I did receive confirmation that my message was read, however."
  2018.  
  2019. Well, there went one hope I hadn't actually considered until now. So the government of Central knew about me now.
  2020.  
  2021. "What do you think their response will be?" Kamella asked.
  2022.  
  2023. "I can't know for sure," Tyr replied. "Not enough to start making any plans, at least."
  2024.  
  2025. "Can you guess?" Ulfric pushed.
  2026.  
  2027. "I..." he frowned, then sighed. "I've... thought about it, some. Possibilities. I think the most likely is that we'll be ordered to take as much from the dungeon as we can while the Velts and Khannites don't know about her, keep things as quiet as possible, then kill her once we can't hide her anymore—which," he added quickly when I started to react, "I will not do."
  2028.  
  2029. "Oh? You'll disobey your King?" Ulfric asked.
  2030.  
  2031. Tyr had a hard smile on his face as he replied, "The orders come without knowledge of the fact that she's human. She was born here, as a dungeon at least, and her parents are unknown, which makes her an Orphan of Central. I have a duty to protect every citizen of Central with my life and the lives of my men." After a moment of hesitation, he reached over the glowing crystal to put his hand on top of my ant's head, between its antennae. "Additionally, the law does not allow the King to order extrajudicial killings unless it is in defense of innocent life. It is my judgement that, were he to order your death, that order would be illegal."
  2032.  
  2033. "It is witnessed," Garlynn piped up formally.
  2034.  
  2035. I breathed a mental sigh of relief. I did not want to end up fighting for my life against these people.
  2036.  
  2037. "Other than that," Tyr said, "it's also possible that he'll order us to leave, inform the empires himself and plead for them to declare this place to be neutral territory."
  2038.  
  2039. Yeah, like that was going to happen.
  2040.  
  2041. Ulfric scoffed. "Yeah, good luck with that.”
  2042.  
  2043. Kamella nodded. "I agree with Ulfric. I don't think that's likely to work. Perhaps if the empires were looking to avoid war, but we all know that's not the case."
  2044.  
  2045. "Velthian patrols have made their way into our lands several times in the last few years," Tyr added in agreement. "That's not the behavior of a country that doesn't seek escalation. And for the record, I think it's very unlikely those will be the king's orders, but I can't think of anything else."
  2046.  
  2047. Flight or capitulation.
  2048.  
  2049. I couldn't really blame them, considering the opposition they were facing. While a part of me was hoping the king was in a fighting mood, realistically speaking, fighting was not a valid option. If it came to a fight, how would that work out? Assuming the quality of the soldiers in this village was a representation of the kingdom’s, and the opposition were the kind you would expect from armies belonging to nations that could call themselves empires, then…
  2050.  
  2051. It wouldn’t just be a rout. It would be a massacre.
  2052.  
  2053. And the less said about the thought of those armies making their way here, the better. This village had, by rough estimate, maybe three hundred? Two-hundred fifty people? Against an actual army, their fighting chances were on the soft side of a snowball’s in hell. In that eventuality, a battle was impossible to win.
  2054.  
  2055. I would fight as hard as I could, of course. Immobility aside, the idea of sitting back and letting myself be killed was simply not something I was able to do. The thought of these villagers ending up in chains or on gallows was even worse.
  2056.  
  2057. Evacuating them wouldn’t work, either. Even if I increased the party size cap, even if I doubled it, it would take me at least thirty-two floors to house everyone. I wasn’t even close to that. Not to mention the party limit wasn’t a protection I could rely on, because there was a known spell that could break it wide open and let an entire army inside my walls. I couldn’t make a second entrance, either, so creating an escape route was out, even if I had a safe space to hide over two hundred people.
  2058.  
  2059. My minions couldn’t leave my control area. My ability to help them fight was limited at best. The only thing I could do was prepare the soldiers who trained here, provide them with the equipment they needed to fight back, and hope more than anything else that I wasn’t going to watch all of these people be brutally murdered without being able to act.
  2060.  
  2061. It was probably for the best I couldn’t sleep anymore. That was the kind of thought that would have kept me awake.
  2062.  
  2063. “For the moment, we’ll assume that we’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future,” said Kamella. The discussion had continued while I’d been distracted by my thoughts. “We need to keep her hidden for as long as possible. For that, we need to hide the grass she creates. I suggest the construction of a wall. Ulfric, how big is the patch going to be?”
  2064.  
  2065. He grunted and frowned. “…I honestly have no idea. Dungeons produce pure mana just by existing. It’s what they do, and the bigger they are, the more mana they produce.”
  2066.  
  2067. “The patch currently extends in a circle about two hundred yards wide around the entrance,” Garlynn noted.
  2068.  
  2069. Ulfric nodded at her, then turned back to Kamella. “And that’s while she’s still small. She’s going to grow a lot bigger than this.”
  2070.  
  2071. Kamella frowned. “What if she doesn’t grow? If she stays at this size and we wait until the grass stabilizes, then build a wall around her, we could probably make it look like we’ve found a patch of pure mana and built a stronghold around it.”
  2072.  
  2073. I shook my ant’s head at the same time as Tyr said, “That won’t work, Kamella. Even if we somehow managed to hide the grass patch, at some point the wrong set of ears are going to catch wind of what’s going on here. Pure mana doesn’t just pop out of nowhere. Questions will be raised.”
  2074.  
  2075. “If she doesn’t grow more than this, we won’t be able to get anything out of her,” Ulfric added. “She’s got a single low-stress chest, and won’t let us farm her minions. That’s twelve weak items a day at most. We’ll use her mana to grow crops and raise beasts and that’s fine to avoid starvation, but the village will eat through the resources she provides like a pack of dire boars.”
  2076.  
  2077. Not to mention staying small like this would leave me vulnerable as hell. If worst came to worst and I was found out, the empires’ armies would come and the villagers could flee. I couldn’t, and if all I had to protect myself were my current setup, I might as well just break my own core right then. I drew my objection on the ground with my ant’s mandibles as well as I could.
  2078.  
  2079. I settled on a circle with a square in the middle to represent me, with several stick people and a few rectangles at opposite sides. Lines were poking out of the long sides of the rectangles, pointed toward the center of the circle.
  2080.  
  2081. “Hm… army lines?” Tyr asked, pointing at the rectangles. I gave a nod.
  2082.  
  2083. “Then these people must be us escaping,” suggested Kamella. I nodded.
  2084.  
  2085. “…We can run, she can’t,” guessed Ulfric. I nodded. “Right. She needs the strength to protect herself.” At Kamella, he said, “We absolutely can’t ask her to stay small.”
  2086.  
  2087. Kamella sighed. “Very well… then what?”
  2088.  
  2089. I drew again. A straight line. Near the middle, a zigzagging line recognizable as stairs. A ball floating opposite of the stairs, and wavy lines coming from the ground and into the ball. A question mark.
  2090.  
  2091. “…The sun?” Tyr asked.
  2092.  
  2093. “Sun rays don’t bend,” Kamella commented, spending several moments inspecting my message. “You’re suggesting–no… you’re asking if we can somehow drain the mana you produce?”
  2094.  
  2095. I nodded, then tilted my ant’s head. Could that be done?
  2096.  
  2097. “…It… can be done,” Tyr said, staring at the ground with a frown. “I mean, absorbing ambient mana is one of the basics of thaumaturgy. But to control the output of a dungeon, even a small one…” He turned to Kamella. “Do we have anyone who knows how to do that on this scale?”
  2098.  
  2099. Kamella shook her head. “We haven’t had a thaumaturge since Sagulla and her son left us for the capital, and I am fairly certain a work of this scale would have been beyond her talents, in any case. That being said, it’s possible that someone who can be trusted has the knowledge we require. Could you inquire about this through your contacts? Quietly, of course.”
  2100.  
  2101. Tyr nodded in assent.
  2102.  
  2103. “Maybe there’s something about it in your books,” Ulfric suggested.
  2104.  
  2105. “None that I can read,” she said. “However, I cannot even read the titles of many of the tomes in my possession. Druids willing, the translation effect that affects our friend here,” she gave my ant a headpat, “will allow her to do this for us?”
  2106.  
  2107. I nodded in agreement. Gaining access to her books was already part of our deal, in any case.
  2108.  
  2109. “…In which case, perhaps the means to do something like this can be found there.”
  2110.  
  2111. “That’s not a certainty,” noted Garlynn. “We’re hoping we can find people or books containing that knowledge, and we’re hoping such a thing can be done quietly, and with the means we have available. The Planet reserves a sorry fate to those who solely rely on hope.”
  2112.  
  2113. That was a good point. Tyr and Kamella noised their assent. Ulfric grunted.
  2114.  
  2115. “We’ll assume it can’t be done for now,” Tyr declared. “It was a good idea, we just don’t know how feasible it is.” At my nod, he asked Ulfric, “Assuming she grows to a reasonable size–say, six or seven floors. How massive will her grass patch be?”
  2116.  
  2117. “Hard to tell,” replied Ulfric. “Most dungeons aren’t in wastelands where their effects are so obvious. I’d say… maybe a mile? Probably.”
  2118.  
  2119. Tyr winced. “That’s… a bit much. I was thinking about Kamella’s suggestion, with the wall, but…”
  2120.  
  2121. “Then let’s think about it differently,” said Kamella. “Our friend has only one floor, for now. Her area isn’t going to be that large for some time yet. We can build a smaller set of fortification for the moment–which will also resolve our immediate wild monster problem–and build more fortifications further away later, when we are all stronger than now. As for raw materials, hm… We could use kilns to make mud bricks. We can use dried bugs for fuel; we can’t only rely on life crystals.” She frowned. “That is, assuming we can find groundwater around here. I don’t think the old well can provide us with enough water.”
  2122.  
  2123. “She can provide water for us,” Ulfric said, pointing at my ant. “We just need to give her some to begin with, and she should be able to add those to some of her rooms?”
  2124.  
  2125. He glanced my way with that last one. I tilted my ant’s head sideway; I wasn’t sure, either.
  2126.  
  2127. “That would be heavenly,” Kamella said. “It’s been too long since I’ve had a clean drop, I think my blood is mostly tengrape juice and wine by now.”
  2128.  
  2129. Tyr mulled over that solution for a moment, then nodded in agreement. “It’ll do.” To my ant, he said, “Warn us before you expand, please? We don’t want your grass to grow much faster than our walls do.” I nodded, and he turned to Garlynn. “Is Hrog available?”
  2130.  
  2131. “He will be,” she replied. “You want him to draft the plan?”
  2132.  
  2133. “He’s the best man for it,” replied Tyr. “Get him working on that right away.”
  2134.  
  2135. “Sir,” she replied, tapping her heels and clenching a fist over her heart. She held the pose for a few heartbeats, then left the room.
  2136.  
  2137. “Well!” Kamella chirped with a smile. “That solves our medium-term defensive problems, Druids willing. Do we have any other topics to raise?”
  2138.  
  2139. "I got one, about your development," said Ulfric to my ant. "Is it hard for you to make more chests?"
  2140.  
  2141. I shook my ant's head. Chests cost ten mana to make. The only issue was upkeep, but I could just stop people from opening chests if the respawn cost got too high.
  2142.  
  2143. "Then, you need to get more of them if we're going to be able to defend you and ourselves." I nodded in agreement, and he continued. "The other issue is quality. So far, the chest you've made is... well, it's pretty bad. The highest drop we got was a weak catalyst. There's no way we'll be able to mount a defense on a chest of that quality."
  2144.  
  2145. Well, sorry, but it's not like I have an "upgrade chest" option.
  2146.  
  2147. ...Yet another thought I was suddenly glad Imp wasn't around to overhear.
  2148.  
  2149. I made my ant shrug.
  2150.  
  2151. "You can't do better, huh." Ulfric grimaced. "You don't have treasure rooms?" I shook my ant's head. "Boss rooms? Gauntlets?" Nods. He smiled. "Ah, that's good, then. We can use those."
  2152.  
  2153. I tilted my ant's head to the side.
  2154.  
  2155. "It's a well-established fact that chests that are hidden behind boss rooms and gauntlets are of higher quality than chests that are out in the open. Some say it's the dungeon's reward for fighting its floor boss, I think it's just bait."
  2156.  
  2157. I nodded at that. For normal dungeons, it was absolutely bait.
  2158.  
  2159. "Bait, huh. Heh." He grunted with a wry grin.
  2160.  
  2161. I had a feeling like he'd just one-upped someone from his past.
  2162.  
  2163. "So here's something you can do to make things better for all of us."
  2164.  
  2165. I did have one problem with his plan, though. I drew a stick person poking a bug with a stick.
  2166.  
  2167. "Hm." Ulfric grunted. "Yeah, that could be a problem."
  2168.  
  2169. Kamella cleared her throat. "I understand what a boss room is well enough, but what is a gauntlet?"
  2170.  
  2171. "A gauntlet is a room that locks itself when adventurers get inside and spawns monsters. It only opens up again when all the monsters are dead."
  2172.  
  2173. Kamella frowned. "Ulfric–"
  2174.  
  2175. "She's already made that point," he grunted. "I was sort of hoping she would have control over the gauntlet's door, but that's not a guarantee."
  2176.  
  2177. "Boss rooms don't lock themselves," Tyr pointed out. "She could make one, then we try to open the treasure room without killing the boss?"
  2178.  
  2179. Ulfric frowned. "I don't think anyone in the village has Lockpick. I guess if the boss doesn't try to stop us, we could just break the door down, though. That might work."
  2180.  
  2181. I nodded. That sounded like a good idea.
  2182.  
  2183. "Looks like she agrees," Kamella noted.
  2184.  
  2185. Ulfric grunted. "Good." He frowned thoughtfully, then said, "Have you given some thought about letting us kill your minions if they can respawn?"
  2186.  
  2187. "Ulfric," Kamella said warningly.
  2188.  
  2189. He stared at her in the eyes and said, "I know she cares about her minions, Kamella, but every resource is important, and the fact that she won't let us farm them for materials is–"
  2190.  
  2191. "Ulfric!" she snapped. "She is already doing us an enormous favor–many of them, in fact. I really don't appreciate the fact that you're trying to guilt trip her into–"
  2192.  
  2193. "I'm not guilt-tripping her," he grunted. "I'm just stating facts."
  2194.  
  2195. "Stating facts to make her uncomfortable and make her change her mind, that's called guilt-tripping, Ulfric Blackthorne!"
  2196.  
  2197. He winced.
  2198.  
  2199. There was something very amusing about this five foot nothing old woman making a huge black man with scars all over his skin cower.
  2200.  
  2201. "...Sorry. Ignore what I said," he told my ant, grudgingly.
  2202.  
  2203. Guilt tripping me he might have been, but he did have a point. If my life depended on these people being prepared for the incoming armies, then the idea of protecting my minions like this rung a bit hollow. The armies certainly weren't going to listen to me, and if I died, then it was very likely that they would, as well. They'd also shown very little care about watching their fellow monsters die without functional immortality, and my main argument against the idea was that they might not want to experience death repeatedly.
  2204.  
  2205. If they didn't care, then the one who would be making a mistake here was me.
  2206.  
  2207. I had no way to check without spawners, but...
  2208.  
  2209. I started drawing again. A question mark, a big bug against a stick person, the stick person poking the dead big bug with its weapon, and the big bug standing back up without a stick person.
  2210.  
  2211. That one took a few moments to decipher.
  2212.  
  2213. "Do bosses respawn?" Tyr was the one who guessed, and he sounded incredulous. "Of course they do."
  2214.  
  2215. I might as well have asked 'is the sky blue' from his reaction.
  2216.  
  2217. "She's not from around here," Kamella said. "She knows nothing about dungeons, despite being one."
  2218.  
  2219. "You'd think the Druids would have given her some kind of guide," Ulfric grunted. "And yeah, bosses respawn. Even in dungeons without spawners like you."
  2220.  
  2221. I nodded with my ant. Then, I was willing to try it once.
  2222.  
  2223. I erased the question mark as much as I could–which turned out to be not very well on this hard floor–then circled the first two pictograms and drew a single "1" on the ground.
  2224.  
  2225. "I... know that symbol, but it makes no sense, it's just '--'. The sound, I mean."
  2226.  
  2227. Argh, she was reading 'l'. Or maybe 'I'. I erased it, then drew a single dot on the ground next to it.
  2228.  
  2229. "...Uh..." Kamella frowned.
  2230.  
  2231. "One?" Tyr guessed. I nodded.
  2232.  
  2233. "So one is pronounced '--'...?" Kamella muttered to herself. "How..."
  2234.  
  2235. "So, the first two steps... one."
  2236.  
  2237. "...You'll let us do it once?" asked Ulfric.
  2238.  
  2239. Kamella's head whirled to him in a sharp glare, then she turned my ant with a much gentler look. "You don't have to do it. We can find other ways."
  2240.  
  2241. I shook my ant's head.
  2242.  
  2243. "She's not your daughter, Kamella," Tyr said. "If she says she wants us to–"
  2244.  
  2245. "She says she's Maryll's age," she snapped. "A girl that young is far too impressionable."
  2246.  
  2247. Okay, no. She might have been well-meaning, but I was way past the need for parental supervision. She was not going to start this shit with me.
  2248.  
  2249. "I will not let you–ah?"
  2250.  
  2251. I opened my ant's mandibles and gently but firmly squeezed her arm in admonishment. I saw Tyr reach for his sword. Ulfric blocked him with a single hand. When I released her, she cradled her arm in surprise and stared at my ant in shock.
  2252.  
  2253. "Don't do that again," Tyr told my ant coldly.
  2254.  
  2255. Don't coddle me again, I wanted to say. Instead, I just nodded with my ant. Then I made it touch the circled pictogram several times.
  2256.  
  2257. "Sounds to me like she's pretty sure about what she wants," Ulfric said with grunting guffaws. At Tyr, he said, "And you need to learn to trust her a bit. She knocked Gwen down and didn't kill her. She's not going to hurt Kamella either."
  2258.  
  2259. Tyr said nothing, but his eyes remained narrowed at my ant.
  2260.  
  2261. Kamella found her voice again. "I overstepped. You're right, I have no right to tell you what you can or can't do. I..." She sighed. "I apologize."
  2262.  
  2263. I gave her a nod, and a gentle push of my ant's head again.
  2264.  
  2265. I was an adult myself, and for the last four years I had basically been taking care of myself. I'd spent the last two years of my life arguing and trying to tiptoe around people who not only were older than me, but had direct power over me. I wasn't a child who needed to be protected from adult machinations; I was quite aware of them, thank you very much. Admittedly I'd made mistakes, and I could have used someone like her advising me when I'd decided to become a double agent against the Undersiders, but I wasn't that wet behind the ears girl who'd suddenly ended up way deeper than she'd intended to anymore.
  2266.  
  2267. "So when she gets her boss room, we'll kill it once, and then she'll decide," said Tyr. "Agreed?"
  2268.  
  2269. Ulfric grunted.
  2270.  
  2271. My ant nodded.
  2272.  
  2273. Kamella sighed. "Yes."
  2274.  
  2275. Nobody had anything to say after this. The meeting broke up soon after.
  2276.  
  2277. ======
  2278. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  2279. Growth 3.7
  2280.  
  2281.  
  2282. Our talk had taken a bit more than an hour, just enough time for the village's newcomers to be greeted back into the fold and bring their luggage into their new homes. Tyr, Ulfric and Kamella walked up my stairs under the curious glances of their fellows and the furious glare of the afternoon sun.
  2283.  
  2284. Finally able to build again, I ordered the construction of a new room, stretching from the corner room, which would become the new boss room. The new room would be the "official" treasure room, but the other one that the new boss room would connect to already contained a chest. If chest quality was improved by boss rooms, then doing this would maximize the return on investment I was doing.
  2285.  
  2286. The boss room itself would cost me a single impurity to research—thank you, Insect Mastery—but would cost me thirty mana to actually build, and would increase my upkeep by three... well, two, because of the insect level specialization. Not an insurmountable obstacle with the mana I was generating from all the sparring I'd been doing, but still an annoyance.
  2287.  
  2288. Kamella fished into her pouch and pulled out a bugle made of a compact circular horn. She put her mouth to the short end and blew, producing a long, strident note. Everyone in the village turned her way. Most immediately dropped their tools or whatever they were doing and started making their way to her. Those who were close enough sat down, bringing kids down with them whenever they could grab them. Here and there, parents recovered their children. The elderly women at the bags stayed right where they were.
  2289.  
  2290. By the time the assembly was complete, there were about three hundred pairs of eyes looking at her, assembled in a loosely packed half-circle in the fifty yards or so that separated me from the village proper. They weren’t much to look at, honestly. Quite a number of them were haggard, some even a bit emaciated. Their clothing was, to a one, primitive and simple, with tinted wool and leather being the main materials, robes and tunics being the main styles. I’d mostly interacted with Kamella, Ulfric and the teens so far, and it looked like they, as well as the soldiers themselves, had the first choice in garments. The soldiers themselves were recognizable from the roughshod chainmail they were wearing.
  2291.  
  2292. Tyr joined Kamella in the center of the circle, along with Garlynn and Garmin. Ulfric had found himself a sitting spot near the edge of the assembly, amongst the villagers, and Gwen joined him; she'd reclaimed her bestiary to protect it from getting trampled.
  2293.  
  2294. "Greetings," Kamella said with a Velthian salute that many in the crowd returned. "Welcome to your new home!"
  2295.  
  2296. Cheers answered her.
  2297.  
  2298. "It's been a long time, but we've finally found somewhere we can actually stay for longer than a few months," she continued. "Of course, a lot of work lies ahead of us to truly make this place our new home, but I'm confident that if we've survived scarcity for the last ten years, we can survive the abundance that's coming our way."
  2299.  
  2300. Chuckles, giggles and, in the case of one barrel-chested mustachioed orange-haired man in the back, a roaring laugh.
  2301.  
  2302. "Now, we have many things we need to tell you or ask your opinion about. I’m sure most of you have been thinking about funerals for your loved ones, now that we have access to a dungeon.” Her smile became a little melancholic. “Don’t worry, we will do just that after we’re done with today’s meeting. If you’d prefer doing it privately, you don’t have to do it now. This dungeon isn’t going anywhere, and neither are we.”
  2303.  
  2304. Dungeons had a place in their funeral arrangements, then. That was the least surprising thing I’d learned since I’d arrived here. I was literally a corpse-eating magic death box.
  2305.  
  2306. I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn what dead people tasted like, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to give up on free resources because I was a bit squeamish. There was a difference between sacrificing or killing the living, and just accepting the dead. And if their loved ones considered me to be their ideal resting place, then…
  2307.  
  2308. I focused back on the speech.
  2309.  
  2310. “We are still not safe," Kamella was saying, her voice somber. The crowd's joviality had stilled. "We are still weak, and this dungeon, while it represents opportunity, also represents danger."
  2311.  
  2312. Tyr took this as his cue and spoke. His voice was clear, every bit as imposing as Legend's or Chevalier's, and I found myself listening closely. "Beasts will be coming here, drawn by hunger. As will, more dangerously, the Velthian and Khannite empires."
  2313.  
  2314. Boos, jeers and hisses. Some expletives were also expressed, though harsh looks from mothers whose hands were covering their children's ears kept those from going too far.
  2315.  
  2316. "If," Tyr interrupted himself for effect. "No, when this dungeon is found, the empires will come to destroy it, and us. And each other."
  2317.  
  2318. "The war will start all over again," Garmin said somberly, "but we’re not saying anything you lads haven't figured out already."
  2319.  
  2320. Frightful looks and hugs. A scene I was unfortunately familiar with.
  2321.  
  2322. "Should we flee?" someone asked.
  2323.  
  2324. "That's not gonna stop them from finding it, stupid," someone else replied.
  2325.  
  2326. "We'll kill 'em!"
  2327.  
  2328. "You can't fight your way out of your own bedroll, and you want to fight armies?"
  2329.  
  2330. "We're all gonna die," was said matter-of-factly by a young grey-haired soldier on the front row.
  2331.  
  2332. I glanced at the faces I knew in the crowd. Gwen was silent, her eyes hard and her fists clenched between her legs. Cirys' eyes were set on his father's face, and they were every bit as resolute as the most hardened soldier in the group. Maryll was holding a black-skinned boy in her arms and had perhaps the first serious look I'd ever seen on her face. Ulfric... if his face had changed any, I wasn't seeing it. Maybe his brow was more furrowed than usual.
  2333.  
  2334. They were the minority. Most of the looks from the crowd weren't those of people ready to fight. They were terrified. Even the soldiers. Perhaps even, especially the soldiers.
  2335.  
  2336. Kamella spoke next. "We will do what we can, and enjoy the good times while they are here. We will make sure they last as long as possible. Perhaps, Planet willing, a solution will be found and we will remain here forever. But as our Mother reserves a fickle fate to those who solely rely on hope, we will pull every trick we can to make sure our good fortunes remain a secret."
  2337.  
  2338. "Starting with a set of fortifications," Garlynn said immediately. "I have instructed Hrog to plan our first set of walls, which will mostly serve to hide all this grass from view."
  2339.  
  2340. Several heads turned toward a mousy black-skinned man with a beak nose and black hair in a timid pigtail, who seemed to fold into himself at all the attention. He didn't look like a 'Hrog'. He looked like a 'Timmy', or a 'Greg'.
  2341.  
  2342. "Don't hesitate to ask for help, and don't hesitate to offer your help, either," Kamella said, directing her villagers. "His work will be absolutely important for our survival."
  2343.  
  2344. Several assenting voices rang out. Hrog himself received several encouraging shoves, and the small smile that came on his face told a different story than his shriveling frame.
  2345.  
  2346. "Some of us will move back to the old grove from whence we came—" she raised a hand when mutters started again, "temporarily. Our suppliers will expect to find us there, and they should. Once proper housing has been set up here—" She had to pause again to let the wave of excitement that little comment caused flow through. "Once we have proper housing, then we'll set the tents back up there. We'll pretend another caravan visited us just before they did, if they see anything odd. This should give us a bit of time."
  2347.  
  2348. Nods and resolute stares. Good.
  2349.  
  2350. "We also have another powerful ally to help us," she continued. "The Dungeon herself."
  2351.  
  2352. I took this as my cue and moved an ant closer to her side. I'd never felt confident or comfortable in front of crowds, but since it wasn't directly me who was up there, I at least had the luxury of pretending I was just a spectator. That made things easier, so long as I wasn't focusing on the ant's senses.
  2353.  
  2354. "Is it true?" someone asked from the front, a woman with long turquoise hair whose bony figure was hidden under a brown wool robe. "The dungeon talks back?"
  2355.  
  2356. "No, we built the word wall for fun," a man sniped from the back. He was shushed immediately, and the woman shot him a dark look.
  2357.  
  2358. "It is true," Kamella said, and I confirmed it myself with a nod of my ant's head. "She understands everything we say, but her own language is unknown to us—for the moment, at least."
  2359.  
  2360. I popped a wasp out of my entrance, moved it to the wall and started picking words. Kamella noticed, and recited out loud as I 'spoke'.
  2361.  
  2362. "I want to help you," I heard her say.
  2363.  
  2364. The sentence she was reciting changed as soon as I completed it. Or, at the very least, my awareness of it changed as soon as a complete sentence entered her mind. Even though I knew she had recited the words as I'd pointed them, I couldn't remember hearing the sentence in the 'wrong' word order.
  2365.  
  2366. Hm... how does one put a dungeon in M/S confinement?
  2367.  
  2368. The crowd started muttering amongst themselves. I saw Maryll grin widely and whisper something in the ear of the boy in her arms, and he gave her a smile that was missing a few baby teeth.
  2369.  
  2370. "How is this possible?" The same woman from earlier said. "Is it a warlock? I know the laws, you know."
  2371.  
  2372. Mutters and whispers from the crowd. Before they got too far, Tyr spoke up authoritatively.
  2373.  
  2374. "This dungeon does not have a warlock."
  2375.  
  2376. "She's got one level and a contracted Pixie," Ulfric spoke up. "Dungeons that small never have more than one contract."
  2377.  
  2378. "The reason she can talk to us," Kamella said while Tyr turned to stare at her, "...is that she is a human soul trapped within the core of the dungeon." Tyr's eyes widened with every word she said, but he was unable to react in time. The secret was out.
  2379.  
  2380. There was another pause. I saw Maryll's mouth open in a small 'o' for a moment, before it was hidden by her hand. Gwen's jaw dropped. Cirys' as well.
  2381.  
  2382. ...
  2383.  
  2384. ...
  2385.  
  2386. It stretched for a while.
  2387.  
  2388. ...
  2389.  
  2390. A baby started fussing.
  2391.  
  2392. ...
  2393.  
  2394. "...Yeah, that makes sense," someone finally decided.
  2395.  
  2396. "I guess?"
  2397.  
  2398. "Huh."
  2399.  
  2400. "You hear something new every day."
  2401.  
  2402. "I mean, we knew it was weird, right?"
  2403.  
  2404. Tyr's left eye had a kind of spasm. Kamella gave him an amused look. Ulfric's face was impassive, but the way his shoulders were shaking in constrained laughter was telling.
  2405.  
  2406. "So what's her name?"
  2407.  
  2408. Heads turned. Maryll was the one who asked that question, and she was standing up. "I mean, if she's human, then she has a name, right?"
  2409.  
  2410. "She does," Ulfric said. "We can't read it."
  2411.  
  2412. "I... might be able to...?" Kamella said, turning to my ant.
  2413.  
  2414. I wrote my name down.
  2415.  
  2416. Then, thinking about the pronunciation, I added 'Te lur'.
  2417.  
  2418. "'--'... '--'..." Kamella 'said', although I couldn't hear a thing. "...'-----'?"
  2419.  
  2420. I had a feeling that wasn't it.
  2421.  
  2422. I wrote some more, using words she would recognize and changing the relevant syllable. Katella, Lurlfric.
  2423.  
  2424. She tried several more times, and for a moment I thought that maybe she was getting right and I wasn't hearing it, but then...
  2425.  
  2426. "Taylor," I finally heard her say. "Did I get it right?"
  2427.  
  2428. I had no heart. I didn't have a chest for it to skip in, either. And yet, somehow, hearing that word after weeks of this new life of mine did something similar, my entire thought process going in frizzles over just those two syllables. Even if she got it a bit wrong, even if her 'tay' didn’t emphasize the ‘ay’ enough, and the U in 'lur' was a bit too pronounced, it was my name.
  2429.  
  2430. My name.
  2431.  
  2432. I nodded. Several times. I heard several villagers try it out, too.
  2433.  
  2434. Then finally, someone broke the mood.
  2435.  
  2436. "Doesn't sound very dungeon-like, does it?"
  2437.  
  2438. The one who said it was a wrinkled, bald, but stocky old man, the kind you normally see sitting in a rocking chair on their front porches with an American flag behind them, glaring cantankerously at the rascally brats who step onto their yards. He didn't have a rocking chair, nor did he have an American flag, nor did he have all of his teeth, but he did have a walking cane, an arched back, and an old woman who likely was his wife staring at him in outrage.
  2439.  
  2440. "He has a point," someone else said, a purple-haired man with a bent nose and a torso that looked like it had been carved from a massive oak. "I mean, we're a proper dungeon town now, right? We can't call our town 'the Taylors'. What even is a Taylor?"
  2441.  
  2442. Murmurs, murmurs. Maryll was shooting angry glares at everyone around her, and I heard her protest, "It's what she's called! We can't just rename her like that!"
  2443.  
  2444. Kamella let the discussion go on for a moment longer, then turned to Tyr and nodded. The commander brought fingers to his mouth and whistled.
  2445.  
  2446. That cut the discussion short right there. It probably cut every discussion for miles, too. I saw Kamella wince and rub at her ear. Garlynn and Garmin both withstood it stoically, but the tall woman's eyes were closed and her brow notably furrowed.
  2447.  
  2448. "Thank you," Kamella told him. "Now, we are not going to adopt a dungeon town name. We're trying to hide her existence, not announce her treasures and dangers to the world."
  2449.  
  2450. Mutters and whispers, and nods in realization. I heard someone grumble about having had good name ideas.
  2451.  
  2452. Tyr took over at this point. "It is true that we’ll need a name for ourselves, though, but it'll have to be a proper Centralian name. No reference to the dungeon, nothing too tongue in cheek, and nothing that's likely to draw the ire or the interest of our neighbors."
  2453.  
  2454. One of the soldiers, a sky-blue haired man with a scar under his right eye, had a tongue in cheek reply to that. "Ah, so we can't call ourselves the town of 'Fuck Bloody Sofja', then?"
  2455.  
  2456. I felt a jarring shock at that name. Sophia?
  2457.  
  2458. Then I shook my metaphorical head and scolded myself. There was no way in hell she was here. It had to be a coincidence.
  2459.  
  2460. "Absolutely not," Tyr replied with a ephemeral smile, while the rest of the village chuckled. Whoever this Sofja was, she apparently had the same level of general popularity as the Sophia I knew.
  2461.  
  2462. "We'll take ideas later. There's something else that has to be addressed first." Kamella turned to the left of the crowd. "Ulfric?"
  2463.  
  2464. The Khanite man grimaced. "Is it about the Guild thing? Because I was serious about the 'hell no' part."
  2465.  
  2466. "It is," Kamella confirmed with a patient smile. "And as much as I like you, I must concur with your opinion of yourself in that regard. I can hardly imagine you in front of a stack of forms without also seeing that stack on fire."
  2467.  
  2468. Ulfric chuckled gutturally. A corner of his lips went up. "Alright. So then what?"
  2469.  
  2470. "Well, we do need some experience about how guilds operate. Very few of us remember clearly a time when these lands still had dungeons, and none of us were adventurers with your experience. If you're not going to administer it, then at the very least you can tell us how they normally work."
  2471.  
  2472. Ulfric's brow furrowed. He grunted again. "I can do that. It'll take a while, though. It's not a simple topic."
  2473.  
  2474. Kamella nodded. "Thank you." At her villagers, she said, "If anyone is interested in becoming workers in the guild, then come to Ulfric after this."
  2475.  
  2476. "Unless you were in the fields before," Garmin interjected. "You knuckle-heads ain't getting yourselves out of work so easily by pretending you can use your noggins."
  2477.  
  2478. Grumbles and protests. "You suck, Garmin!"
  2479.  
  2480. The fuchsia-maned man just grinned shamelessly.
  2481.  
  2482. Kamella chuckled. "Now, to get back on the topic of the dungeon—of Taylor herself—she has agreed to let us farm her materials in exchange for short, non-lethal sparring sessions. However, there is one rule that must not be broken: you must not kill her minions. That's part of our agreement with her."
  2483.  
  2484. "Wait, how do we get mats if we can't harvest its minions?" asked a gruff-looking man whose bright orange hair made it appear his whole head was on fire.
  2485.  
  2486. "You don't," Ulfric replied.
  2487.  
  2488. "We're aware of the problem," Kamella said before the fire-head could pump up more steam. "There's a possible solution on the horizon, but for now we'll have to make do with the contents of her chests."
  2489.  
  2490. Grumbles, grumbles.
  2491.  
  2492. "What about taming?"
  2493.  
  2494. The one who spoke was a one of the old women at the bags, black-skinned and dark-grey haired. Several heads turned her way. She had a very nice pair of lungs, for a lady her age; even though she was a good fifty yards away, her voice still carried clearly.
  2495.  
  2496. "Yes, Thogra?" Kamella, by comparison, was probably barely heard over the whispers in the crowd from that distance.
  2497.  
  2498. "What about taming?” The old lady named Thogra repeated her question. “Can we do that?"
  2499.  
  2500. Taming? My ant glanced at Ulfric with a tilt to the side.
  2501.  
  2502. "We haven't discussed that," he replied to her. "Didn't think anyone in the village could do it."
  2503.  
  2504. "I can," she said. "So can my grandson," she added, pointing at Maryll and the boy she was holding. "I've taught him how on one of that girl's bunnies about a year ago."
  2505.  
  2506. The bluette frowned, then made an outraged sound and held the boy at arms length to stare into his face. "You're the reason Marasel disappeared?! I looked for him all over!!"
  2507.  
  2508. The old lady cackled. “Girl, remember who gave you that first pair you nearly killed. Just think of it as interest on that loan!”
  2509.  
  2510. There were a few chuckles from the crowd. Maryll pouted at her with an annoyed growl. The best she could do was ‘angry kitten’. The boy in her arms was returned to her lap, although this time he was protesting about it.
  2511.  
  2512. Kamella cleared her throat. “To answer your question, it will have to be something we’ll discuss with the dungeon. We—oh?”
  2513.  
  2514. The interruption was because my ant had nudged her leg. With my wasp, I picked words from the wall.
  2515.  
  2516. “…’? It will help’,” Garlynn read, somewhat confusedly, then corrected me, “Oh, ‘Will it help?’!”
  2517.  
  2518. “You put the question mark at the end, lass,” Garmin said. “That’s not where it goes.”
  2519.  
  2520. I ignored that.
  2521.  
  2522. “As for whether or not it’ll help, well, we could use the manpower—bugpower to build the wall faster,” said Tyr, a hand on his own chin. “A few ants would be nice to have, right?” The question was addressed at Hrog, who made a thoughtful sound.
  2523.  
  2524. “We could use their digging power to make a moat. And canals.” He made a thoughtful sound. “Hm. We could get an actual waterworks system going, actually.”
  2525.  
  2526. Kamella nodded. “That sounds very good, but,” she turned to my ant, “we don’t want to force you to do anything, Taylor.”
  2527.  
  2528. A few murmurs from the crowd. Apparently they didn’t quite share her feelings. Well, that was expected. I did want to help them, though, although I had no idea what ‘taming’ entailed.
  2529.  
  2530. I wrote ‘1’ on the ground, and circled it.
  2531.  
  2532. Kamella looked at it for a moment, then said, “You’ll let us do it once, and then we’ll see?”
  2533.  
  2534. I nodded with my ant’s head.
  2535.  
  2536. “I see. If that’s what you want, then.” Turning to the old woman, Kamella repeated my proposal, then asked, “Is that satisfactory?”
  2537.  
  2538. “It’ll do,” the old woman replied. “Horzel!” The boy in Maryll’s arms immediately looked her way. “Gather the materials. Let’s see if you still remember.”
  2539.  
  2540. “Un!” the boy noised, disentangling himself from Maryll and making for the village proper.
  2541.  
  2542. Kamella nodded. “Then, I believe that’s all we had to say. Unless someone has something they want to speak about, I propose we get our loved ones’ urns now. They’ve waited long enough.”
  2543.  
  2544. The crowd muttered, groaned and chattered as they stood. I heard someone in there grumble, “Well, shit. Can’t ask about it now, I’ll look like a dick.”
  2545.  
  2546. Kamella herself crossed eyes with Maryll and gave her a nod. The bluette nodded back, stood in a single bounce and made her way into the crowd.
  2547.  
  2548. Ulfric joined the group inside my control area. He looked down at my ant.
  2549.  
  2550. “That should give you a good load of resources to work with. Use them wisely.”
  2551.  
  2552. I felt awkward acknowledging that the corpses of these people’s loved ones would become the building blocks for my next expansions, but it was the truth. I must have hesitated a little, because Kamella bent down to touch my ant on the head and look into its eyes.
  2553.  
  2554. “I prefer to look at this way: all these people who cared for and loved us are doing all they can to protect us, even in death.”
  2555.  
  2556. She gave my ant a head rub, then stood.
  2557.  
  2558. Presented like that, the idea had some appeal, I had to admit.
  2559.  
  2560. ---
  2561.  
  2562. Although Kamella offered to go last, the villagers unanimously pushed her and Maryll to the forefront of the queue that assembled in front of my entrance. Maryll had returned with an ornate brown and blue pot, large enough that she had to carry it with both arms. Many of the villagers, what felt like a third or a fourth of them, had an urn or two. The Velthians in the group mostly had urns that were brightly colored. Many of the Khanites did as well. Those that did not had instead long black cylinders hefted over their shoulders.
  2563.  
  2564. Although the villagers were here to put their loved ones in their final resting place—essentially my stomach—the atmosphere wasn’t morose or fatalist. There was, instead, an air of joviality and joy. Wet eyes were the minority here.
  2565.  
  2566. Gwen was in the crowd. She had two Velthian-style urns, one painted bright red, the other a warm pink. Her eyes were amongst the wet ones.
  2567.  
  2568. Kamella and Maryll were no different. They came down my stairs with the urn, and once inside the first room, stopped.
  2569.  
  2570. They shared a look. Kamella opened her arms. Maryll nodded.
  2571.  
  2572. “Bye, dad,” she said, handing the urn over to Kamella. Then she stepped back a few steps.
  2573.  
  2574. “Goodbye, my love,” Kamella whispered. “We’ll find each other in the stream.”
  2575.  
  2576. She pushed at the urn’s stopper, twisted, then pulled. The plug came off easily. She flipped the urn over, and ashes fell out.
  2577.  
  2578. They disappeared into my floor as soon as they touched it, like salt into warm water.
  2579.  
  2580. It tasted sweet, like honey or syrup. If I had a face, I would have grimaced. I would have preferred if it hadn’t tasted good.
  2581.  
  2582. She waited until no more ashes fell, then dropped the urn on the floor. I picked it up with one of my spiders to clear the way.
  2583.  
  2584. “Thank you, Taylor,” Kamella said. “Thanks to you, my husband is finally where he belongs now.”
  2585.  
  2586. “Yeah, thanks,” Maryll added, bowing with a clasped-fist salute that her mother copied. “I hope it helps you, too.”
  2587.  
  2588. It probably would.
  2589.  
  2590. They left, and I took the opportunity to look at my menus as soon as they were out of my stairs. My mana had not budged, which was unfortunate. I had gained no progression at all, which surprised me a little.
  2591.  
  2592. My impurity count had gone up to six. I’d gotten four impurities from that one urn.
  2593.  
  2594. How many people was this? Maybe a hundred? Was I going to get four hundred impurities from this? Never mind the sweetness, my metaphorical mouth was watering at the thought of all I could do with that.
  2595.  
  2596. Well, it turns out I was a bit wrong. Kamella’s husband gave me four, but he was on the high end. Most gave me just two or three. A few even gave me just one; those tended to be small urns. Children, then. An adult’s grandfather (“Go and give Grandma a hard time again, you grumpy old geezer.”) gave me two impurities. An older woman’s grandson (“Find your mom, and tell her her mother will want some answers.”) gave me three.
  2597.  
  2598. The Khanites weren’t the same as the Velthians.
  2599.  
  2600. The first that came up were a group of three, two men and one woman, all of whom were carrying one of those long black cylinders. One of the men was carrying two on his shoulders.
  2601.  
  2602. “Bring us to your strongest beast,” the woman ordered.
  2603.  
  2604. I had no “strongest beast”, technically, but I guessed my beetle would do? I made it walk to the soon-to-be boss room and guided them to it. Just in case, I got a bunch of wasps ready in case I needed to act to save it.
  2605.  
  2606. I worried for nothing. They came before the beetle, then stabbed the cylinders down into the ground.
  2607.  
  2608. “Normally, we would kill the beast and bathe the graves in its blood,” the woman explained. “But I understand you don’t want us to do that.”
  2609.  
  2610. I made my beetle shake its head. For some reason, it felt a bit sluggish and unresp—
  2611.  
  2612. Oh goddamnit, was it asleep?!
  2613.  
  2614. For fuck’s sake…
  2615.  
  2616. “We’ll leave them in your care, instead,” one of the men said.
  2617.  
  2618. “Be the bridge that guides them to the life stream,” the other added.
  2619.  
  2620. And they left. The graves remained until the group completely left the stairs at which point they started falling apart, freeing the ashes within for my floor to absorb.
  2621.  
  2622. Then, it was Gwen’s turn.
  2623.  
  2624. She didn’t open her urns. Her face was hard. Her fists were clenched hard around each of the urns’ handles. She took a deep breath…
  2625.  
  2626. “RRRRAAHHHHH!!”
  2627.  
  2628. And threw the urns as hard as she could at my walls. They shattered in a cloud of hard clay and funeral ashes.
  2629.  
  2630. She stayed there for a moment, watching as the ashes vanished. She gave a clenched fist salute, wiped her eyes, then turned around and left.
  2631.  
  2632.  
  2633. Even if I’d been able to speak, I wouldn’t have found words.
  2634.  
  2635. ---
  2636.  
  2637. In the end, I came out of it with two-hundred and eighty-seven impurities.
  2638.  
  2639. That was… a lot. Like, it was enough for me to buy every single upgrade I could get, with the exception of the hideously expensive contract upgrades.
  2640.  
  2641. However, I wasn’t going to go on a spending spree. This was strictly a one-time thing; several years, maybe even a decade of bodies accumulated by all these people, given to me in a single load. Even assuming more would be coming to have their own private funerals, there clearly wouldn’t be that many more. I had to use them carefully.
  2642.  
  2643. At the very least, I wanted to take the Eye See You and Squad Leader contract upgrades for my pixie. That right there was a hundred and thirty impurities reserved. I also had to consider that, when I finally got pixies, I wouldn’t have the luxury of having Pixie Mastery to go with it. Their research costs would not be cut by ninety percent, and pixies themselves would not be free. I had no basis of comparison to know how high base pixie research costs would be, since my insects had been free to begin with, but rooms should cost between ten and twenty impurities, and minion upgrades would cost anywhere between ten to thirty, with an average of twenty. The pixie fountain itself had cost me fifteen.
  2644.  
  2645. With people giving between two to four impurities per corpse, those prices were not unreasonable for a normal murderous dungeon. They were blatantly unfair for the peaceful, friendly dungeon that I was.
  2646.  
  2647. But thankfully, with this many impurities piled up, the only thing I needed to think about was mana reserves and mana costs.
  2648.  
  2649. So now, I needed rooms.
  2650.  
  2651. Lots of rooms.
  2652.  
  2653. I summoned a new burrowing ant with my nine mana.
  2654.  
  2655. ---
  2656.  
  2657. “So, is it our turn yet?”
  2658.  
  2659. From up close, Thogra the old lady looked didn’t look old at all. She had a few wrinkles on her face and skin, and her teeth needed the care of a medical expert like Panacea or Bonesaw, but between her upright posture, the thickness of her arms and neck, and the strength of her deep voice, she was the picture of perfect health. Something sharp had raked across her face a long time ago, leaving behind a ragged scar and taking her right eye, but giving her the kind of appearance that would have had the street’s kids whispering dark stories to each other about ‘Blackbeard’s grandmother’ or something. Her hair had the barest tinge of grey splattered across its strands, and was braided into several tight dreads which were tied up in a single ponytail that she kept sitting over her shoulder.
  2660.  
  2661. I was also pretty sure she would have been able to bench-press me in my old body.
  2662.  
  2663. Horzel, in comparison, had a kind of boyish awkwardness to him. Judging by his body proportions, he was right at the start of his first growth spurts, with all the clumsiness and knobby joints that this implied. His hair was black, like other Khannites, and surprisingly long. Just like his grandmother, they were tied in tight dreads, but unlike hers, he kept his loose, where they reached to the small of his back. Unlike other Khannites, however, his eyes were a startling orange instead of duller, blacker colors.
  2664.  
  2665. He was carrying a large wool bag over his shoulders, which, at his grandmother’s question, he gladly dropped to the grass of my control circle with a sigh of relief. It made a bunch of clicking sounds.
  2666.  
  2667. “Yes it is,” Kamella replied, smiling at Horzel as he caught his breath. “Taylor? Could you get us a minion you won’t miss too much, please?”
  2668.  
  2669. I picked an ant. While I needed them to dig, I could spare at least one, and if it turned out I didn’t want them to grab any more of my bugs for themselves, then at least they would have something that would help them build their defenses and infrastructure. The boy made a startled squeak as the ant skittered out of my staircase. I made it stop a few feet from them. A good number of villagers stopped what they were doing to look at the scene.
  2670.  
  2671. The boy stared at my ant for a good moment, until his grandmother’s massive hand whapped him behind the head.
  2672.  
  2673. “Well, boy? Get working already!”
  2674.  
  2675. The boy nodded and frantically pulled the bag open. Inside the bag were… gold coins? He took one and closed both hands around it, just like I’d seen Kamella and Maryll do with the spell crystals, and he said,
  2676.  
  2677. “Planet, I ask for your help to control your creation.” And he dropped the coin while reaching for another. The coin fell through the ground like it didn’t exist, creating a short-lived water-like ripple in the dirt, and––
  2678.  
  2679. Fwoosh
  2680.  
  2681. There was a sound like a gas torch lighting up. A bright white heptagram appeared around the boy’s feet, the same symbol that was represented by Kamella’s necklace. Both his and the old woman’s eyes widened in surprise.
  2682.  
  2683. “Drop the coin, boy! Second phase, now!”
  2684.  
  2685. He did so, moving both hands so they were aimed at my ant. He took a deep breath and furrowed his brow in concentration. A moment later, his hands started glowing softly, little motes of white-beige light floating up from them. He took another breath, then said,
  2686.  
  2687. “Planet, this child of yours begs you to please link this filter’s child to my soul, make us one in spirit and free it from its parent!”
  2688.  
  2689. A felt a hackle rise in the back of my mind, the same kind of I-must-stop-this-now pressure that I knew would come up when I was about to make a mistake. My ant’s mind rebelled as well, struggling uselessly against my control. I felt its wish to attack the boy, to try and rip him in half, and its feeling of betrayal when I held it back and allowed him to continue his work. The pressure mounted as he repeated the sentence again, and then a third time, every time pushing more mana from his hands into my ant. A drop of sweat dripped from his forehead to the tip of his nose.
  2690.  
  2691. And then…
  2692.  
  2693. …I lost control of my ant. The boy’s eyes widened in shock, and he fell to the ground as his legs suddenly gave out from under him. I heard a few people in the crowd make noises of alarm.
  2694.  
  2695. My ant approached the fallen boy, even as he tried to scamper away. For a moment, I was afraid the taming had failed and that the ant would go after the boy’s life, but it didn’t. Instead, it tilted its head left and right and moved its antennae to curiously touch the boy’s legs, then chest, then face. Nervously, he reached over and touched it, and the ant, contrary to those I controlled, seemed to revel in the contact, pushing its hard-shelled head against his palm. The boy’s nervousness dissipated, and within moments he was chuckling, then laughing merrily.
  2696.  
  2697. The adults stared at Horzel and the ant… his ant, with smiles, grins and, in Ulfric’s case, a lopsided smirk.
  2698.  
  2699. “A success, then,” he grunted.
  2700.  
  2701. It was. But that had been quite unpleasant. I wasn’t eager to repeat the experience, especially since my minions did not like it. I wasn’t able to feel its emotions anymore, so there was no way for me to tell if its current puppy-like behavior was coming from itself, or if it was some kind of master effect that left the ant’s mind prisoner in its own body.
  2702.  
  2703. That was… an unpleasant thought.
  2704.  
  2705. “Is something wrong, Thogra?” I heard Kamella ask quietly.
  2706.  
  2707. The boy’s grandmother wasn’t smiling. Her grizzled face appeared troubled instead. She looked at Kamella in the eyes.
  2708.  
  2709. “Did he do it wrong, somehow?” the village leader pressed.
  2710.  
  2711. “No, he did fine,” she replied. Her voice was rougher, almost frog-like when she was trying to be quiet. “The thing is, it took only one coin. Rituals never take only one coin. I expected him to use up most of the bag.”
  2712.  
  2713. Kamella frowned. “I… I am not well versed in ritual magic. What does it mean?”
  2714.  
  2715. The old woman shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
  2716.  
  2717. “Maybe it’s because because Taylor was cooperating?” Kamella suggested. “Maybe she accepted the price immediately?”
  2718.  
  2719. Thogra croaked an acknowledgement. “That could be it.”
  2720.  
  2721. It wasn’t, and I used a wasp to tell them so. The option of accepting or refusing the ritual hadn’t even come up. From the wording of the first part of the ritual, I had a feeling it wasn’t exactly an option.
  2722.  
  2723. Planet, I ask for your help to control your creation, he’d said. ‘Your creation’, in this context, referred to me. So the first part of the ritual was meant to ask the planet to alter the rules of the dungeon system somehow? To let them do things to the dungeon––to me––that they weren’t supposed to be able to? I wasn’t sure I liked that.
  2724.  
  2725. Maryll had said, what felt like months ago, that she believed the planet had a plan for me.
  2726.  
  2727. The fact that it had only taken one request for the planet to respond seemed to give credence to that theory. I remembered the ghost of a conversation I’d felt more than heard back during those early days, when I’d been confused about my new situation. Had that been the planet? Who had it been talking to?
  2728.  
  2729. My passenger? Were they both there, in the back of my mind, watching my every move? Or was it something else? The Druids, maybe?
  2730.  
  2731. And in any case, what was the planet’s plan for me?
  2732.  
  2733. I received, of course, no answer.
  2734.  
  2735.  
  2736. It was only about an hour later, when I realized I was still seeing Horzel through my ant’s eyes, that I learned the true potential of taming.
  2737.  
  2738.  
  2739. Boom.
  2740. =======
  2741.  
  2742. I Woke Up As a Dungeon; Now What?
  2743. Growth 3.8
  2744.  
  2745.  
  2746. The week had passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. The villagers had built several dozen kilns, which they were fueling with dried bug shells, dried bone fragments, the occasional spell and leftover firewood, and from those kilns they were producing bricks at a rapid pace. However, between the wall, the houses and the somewhat larger building that would eventually become the guild house, their production wasn’t nearly fast enough. The air was thick with dust and smoke, and most of the villagers chose to wear their shawls over their mouths to protect their lungs. On my end, the week had been spent expanding as quickly as I could, with just a few detours to see if I could help the villagers a little more. Sadly, until now, no one had actually seen any of my work, since every pair of hands was either busy making or transporting materials, tending to the kids, or to the fields.
  2747.  
  2748. This was about to change.
  2749.  
  2750. "What is your mission?"
  2751.  
  2752. "E-Exploration, sir!"
  2753.  
  2754. Gwen was standing stiff as a rod as she replied to Ulfric's question. She was wearing her full dungeon-diving equipment, by which I meant her leather armor, shield, mace and nervous dutifulness, in preparation for her coming dive into me. She'd tied most of her forest-green hair up in a ponytail. She maintained eye contact with her mentor, and when he continued staring at her for a few heartbeats, I noted one of her feet started digging a furrow into the ground as she fidgeted.
  2755.  
  2756. Cirys, in comparison, looked like he'd come for a beach trip. He had his bow and his spear, but he'd traded the leather for a scale armor apparently borrowed from one of the soldiers under his father's command––or maybe his father himself. He was smiling carelessly, apparently certain that, because I was a nice dungeon, he was going to come out of me completely unscathed. An infantile part of me started thinking of the best ways to make him regret that overconfidence, but I ignored its ideas. He wasn't wrong in thinking I didn't really want to hurt him.
  2757.  
  2758. But I did want to wipe that smug grin off his face.
  2759.  
  2760. Rounding out the party were two boys I already knew. Horzel the tamer, with the same ant he'd tamed from me standing near his hip, was armed with a small shield and a dagger. He was so small the dagger looked like a short sword in his little fist. He was staring with wide eyes at my entrance, as if not quite registering the fact that yes, he was actually going to step into a dungeon for the first time.
  2761.  
  2762. The other boy I had thought of only as familiar until Gwen had dropped his name for me. Samel, the same Khannite boy who'd come with Gwen, Cirys and Ulfric the first time my halls had been explored. He didn't look any older than before; he was, in fact, younger and smaller than Horzel, and if a part of me wondered in hindsight why the hell they'd brought him instead of, say, Tyr or Garmin on that first dive, the fact remained that he was less visibly nervous about stepping down my stairs than Horzel. He was armed with a shortbow and a set of leather armor that seemed to be a few sizes too big for him. A woven satchel hung from a leather strap slung over his shoulder. A small quiver contained a handful of stubby arrows and sat at his leg.
  2763.  
  2764. "That's right," Ulfric replied. "In a normal dungeon, it's pretty typical for guilds to assign exploration missions. These are routine jobs, and a good way to build up your reputation with the guild, assuming the information you bring back is any good. The goal is to figure out what the dungeon has been doing, and to see if any new farming or looting opportunities have shown up, or if there's new threats or environmental hazards guild members need to worry about while farming. This is extremely important for earlier levels, because that's where less experienced adventurers end up, and usually end if your information is wrong.
  2765.  
  2766. "Now, Taylor has only one level," he continued, "and there have been plenty of people going around in there every day, but most of us have stuck to the main hall and the rooms directly connected to it. We know Taylor has been a busy little honeybee this last week. She's told us some of what she's been doing, but we've all been understandably too busy to take notes, what with the fortifications, the guild and the house building. Your primary mission is to map out her level in its entirety––excluding her core room, of course. If she shows you she doesn’t want you to go down a path, stop." He bent down so he was looking into her eyes. "This is an extremely important mission. The data you bring back is going to be the basis on which the guild will build its knowledge about Taylor and her progress. Don't fuck up."
  2767.  
  2768. Gwen nodded in what she was probably hoping looked like assurance. "Yes, sir."
  2769.  
  2770. One of her bangs fell on top of her face. She pulled it back behind her ear.
  2771.  
  2772. "Taylor has given us permission to kill her boss again," he said, standing back up. "However, she also told us to expect a fight, so don't think for a moment that it'll be easy."
  2773.  
  2774. "Shouldn't you be here, then?" Asked Cirys. "I mean, or someone, y'know... not the kids?"
  2775.  
  2776. Samel fidgeted. Horzel scowled. "Hey, Nedagg and I can handle ourselves! Right?" he addressed the last bit at the ant at his side.
  2777.  
  2778. The ant tilted its head up toward him and wiggled its antennae. Whether that was a yes or a no was up to anyone's guess.
  2779.  
  2780. "No, you can't," Ulfric grumped. To Cyris, he said, "Tyr and I agree that it should be good experience for you and Gwen, and that you should be able to handle at least the boss on your own. The main reason Horzel is going is because his grandmother wants him to get some experience working with his ant. They should do what they can to help out. Samel is going so he can draw the map while the rest of you are fighting, and to Harvest from the dead boss. This is an opportunity that might not come again, so we want to make the most out of it. Consider him to be your VIP for that mission. Don't let him get hurt."
  2781.  
  2782. "Do explorers normally bring VIPs along?" complained Cirys.
  2783.  
  2784. Ulfric ignored him. "Are you ready?"
  2785.  
  2786. "Yes, sir," Gwen replied.
  2787.  
  2788. "Then go. You're wasting adventuring time. You still have..." he glanced at the sun, "...maybe fifty minutes."
  2789.  
  2790. "Sir!" Gwen clenched-fist-saluted, then turned to her party. "Let's get going."
  2791.  
  2792. Ulfric grunted. "Oh, and Taylor? Don't go too easy on them."
  2793.  
  2794. He had turned his back on her, which was how he completely missed Gwen's look of outrage.
  2795.  
  2796. ---
  2797.  
  2798. "We'll start with the right side, then the left, and finally clear the main hall," Gwen stated. "That should cover most of the unknown ground in as little time as possible." Cirys and Samel nodded while Horzel gingerly cleared the final step of my stairs. Seeing their assent, she continued. "Samel in center. Cirys is back-right. Horzel, back-left, I'll take point. Keep in mind Taylor likes to jump people when she thinks they aren’t paying attention." She glanced up at the ceiling. "And, look, I know Ulfric said not to take it easy, but... please?"
  2799.  
  2800. I gave no sign that I heard the request. I wasn't going to go full eighth plague on them, but I knew she could take a bit more abuse than the soldiers who sparred against my bugs, and I intended to get all the mana I could out of her. At this point, I'd finally reached the point where a single training session wasn't quite enough to cap my reserves, unless one of the higher-ups was involved. The party size upgrade was looking very appealing, but sadly its hefty price, 130 approval points, was not.
  2801.  
  2802. Samel, coming in behind Gwen, had unfolded a piece of leather taken from his satchel and was scribbling on it with a piece of coal. They stopped a moment while Samel drew––his tongue was poking out from the corner of his mouth––and let their eyes adjust to the darkness.
  2803.  
  2804. At some point, Cirys looked up, froze, then said, "So, we're supposed to list things that we notice, right?"
  2805.  
  2806. "Things that are different from the guild's knowledge, which..." Gwen trailed off, then sighed. "Well, just note everything."
  2807.  
  2808. "Then, uh…” he pointed up, “Well, there's a big honking hole in the ceiling, and I think it really shouldn’t be that high.”
  2809.  
  2810. And there was. My bugs could, with some difficulty because of their mass, climb up walls and ceilings, especially if those walls and ceilings were full of bug crawling holes. Humans couldn't do it nearly as easily because the loam walls broke apart easily. In other words, crawlspaces built into the ceiling were absolutely unassailable by adventurers.
  2811.  
  2812. They also, I had noticed, did not count as rooms, but neither did the system consider them to be valid paths. I couldn't build rooms up there.
  2813.  
  2814. As for how I'd built them, well, it turned out that floors and ceilings were viable surfaces for hallway building. As well as room-building, although in those cases the system helpfully provided stairs. And so, I had built a network of hallways, filled with bugs, with openings only at the top of certain strategically placed rooms. With the number of bugs I had crammed in there, whoever decided to invade me would be in for a hard time, for a very long time.
  2815.  
  2816. Gwen nodded. "Dungeons don’t follow physics. Remember the ocean dungeon Ulfric told us about?”
  2817.  
  2818. “Uh, is that the one where they had to walk along a beach, then climb up a tower into the sky and ended up over a molten lava pit?” he paused. “Oh yeah, that one. Right.”
  2819.  
  2820. Gwen palmed her face for a moment, then sighed. “Well, those holes have been there for a few days, and they’re full of bugs. Mostly spiders and wasps, from what I've seen."
  2821.  
  2822. Wasps could just fly in there. Spiders had extremely dexterous limbs. Beetles and ants, though, were clumsier and heavier, so getting them up there usually wasn't worth the trouble. They also didn't have good ways of coming down, whereas.... well, wasps flew, and my jumping spiders were meant to jump.
  2823.  
  2824. My beetles also didn't like the idea of climbing up there. It went against their goal of spending as few daily calories as possible.
  2825.  
  2826. "Samel, are you done?" Gwen asked.
  2827.  
  2828. The boy nodded and showed her the map, which currently had one straight line about an inch in length, connected to a square with three lines poking out of its sides, representing the three paths they could take from here.
  2829.  
  2830. "Good. Make a mark for the ceiling hole, you pick what it'll be, but make sure you remember. We're going this way, next."
  2831.  
  2832. She pointed toward the room that had once been my core room, then my clean room, and which I now referred to as the water room. They walked in.
  2833.  
  2834. "Uh, well, there's the water source," Cirys said, pointing at the pond that filled up about three quarters of the room.
  2835.  
  2836. A room type, worth ten mana, ten impurities and a single upkeep point, which I'd acquired as an option after one of the villagers had used one of those spell crystals to shoot water at my floor. That upkeep cost was an irritation, but it was worth providing the village with the water they needed, both to drink––I'd never seen a party where people celebrated not drinking alcohol before––and to make mud bricks. I was willing to bet not many dungeons chose to make one of these. The water wasn't deep at all, reaching maybe the middle of someone's calf if they were standing in it. The flavor text was a tepid "Shallow and lukewarm. Won't even give adventurers colds.", which was about the most unexcited I'd seen the info box get.
  2837.  
  2838. For five mana and another upkeep point, I could apparently make it deeper, although the info box hinted that I'd need to "hold their heads down".
  2839.  
  2840. Well, drowning people wasn't my goal, but thanks for the advice, info box.
  2841.  
  2842. Gwen glanced up. "No ceiling hole, and very little room. That water is probably a bigger hindrance to her bugs than to us, so if we need to fight, this is a good place..." she trailed off, then added, "I think."
  2843.  
  2844. Well, she wasn't wrong about my ants, but this water wasn't deep enough to bother the rest of my bugs. Spiders could just stand higher on their legs, beetles were more than tall enough to begin with, and wasps could fly. The whole point of this solo dive was to serve as a teaching experience for her, so I decided to prove her assertion wrong.
  2845.  
  2846. I dropped five of my spiders down from the entrance room’s ceiling hole.
  2847.  
  2848. "Nedagg!" Horzel was the first to react, surprisingly, throwing his arm forward. His ant started running forward at my spiders. Unfortunately for them, it really wasn't very fast. My spiders were much faster and more agile, so they had no trouble at all staying out of its range. There was a reason I mostly used ants to control areas or as an anvil for my other bugs to push people toward.
  2849.  
  2850. Gwen was there first, shield up and glowing. She shouted and waved her shield, and my spiders were flung backward by a burst of wind, giving the party the time they needed to get back into something that looked like the right formation.
  2851.  
  2852. Both Cyris and Samel shot their bows at my bugs. The arrows they used were tipped with small bags of sand, and my spiders' exoskeletons were able to block them unless one of their joints was hit. With my control and complete awareness, it was basically impossible for a hit like that to happen.
  2853.  
  2854. Cyris' arrow bounced off a thorax. That spider flipped upside-down, 'dead'; had this been a real arrow, it would have been dead. Samel’s arrow hit the ground about halfway to the spiders. A moment later, my spiders were in range and leapt, two of them at Gwen, one at Cirys and the last at Samel.
  2855.  
  2856. "Awp!" the boy squeaked as he was shoved butt-first into the pond. He managed to catch himself before his back hit the water. Then he realized he had about half his body weight in giant spider standing on his lap and started screaming. My spider’s fangs gently touched the front of his tunic, just hard enough for him to feel it.
  2857.  
  2858. "Lettimgooo!!" Horzel shrieked, wildly swinging his dagger at my spider. I had to jump off the boy and take to the walls while Nedagg the ant returned to protect its tamer.
  2859.  
  2860. Cirys, meanwhile, had dropped his bow and switched to his spear, and now he was in a standoff with my spider. His spear had been tipped with a sandbag as well, so he wasn't hesitating much as he stabbed and stabbed. Again, though, I had full control and full awareness, dodging his blows was pretty easy. Not to mention he was telegraphing them quite a bit.
  2861.  
  2862. Gwen was handling herself much better, in comparison. She had her shield at one spider and her mace at the other, and she'd maneuvered so her back was against the wall, preventing me from flanking her.
  2863.  
  2864. Well, she forgot one thing.
  2865.  
  2866. One of those two spiders changed target, going for Samel and Horzel instead.
  2867.  
  2868. "H-Hey––Look out!" Her warning came way too late.
  2869.  
  2870. It was Horzel's turn to get half his body weight in spider thrown at him, and unlike his friend he was shoved fully into the water. My spider raised its fangs and brought them down at his ribs, then raised them back up again as it swayed left and right in a victory dance.
  2871.  
  2872. Another 'killing blow'.
  2873.  
  2874. And with that, I disengaged. I flipped the ‘dead’ one back to its feet, then moved my spiders to the entrance they’d come from. Horzel shot my retreating spider a glare as he wiped water off his face. Cirys stayed on the offense for a moment longer, then lowered his spear and cursed. Gwen lowered her shield, glanced at her party, then sighed.
  2875.  
  2876. “Samel, were you hit?”
  2877.  
  2878. “Un,” the boy noised. Gwen sighed.
  2879.  
  2880. “VIP killed.” She looked up at the ceiling. “So that’s how you want to play it, Taylor?”
  2881.  
  2882. I had no bug nearby to reply with, but I made a few of my wasps buzz in the reserve halls. The sound reverberated across my entire floor. I saw Cirys shudder.
  2883.  
  2884. “I think that’s a yeah,” he said. “So… uh… she’s not giving us much of a chance, is she.”
  2885.  
  2886. Gwen gave him a look. “Remember when Ulfric was testing our resolve?”
  2887.  
  2888. “Uh… I guess?”
  2889.  
  2890. “Well, this is going to be a bit like the sand walk.”
  2891.  
  2892. Cirys stared at her for a moment, then gave a longing look toward the entrance and sighed.
  2893.  
  2894. “Fuck me…”
  2895.  
  2896. “We still have a mission,” Gwen said, turning to the kids. “Let’s keep going straight forward. We’ll be ready next time.”
  2897.  
  2898. They would not be.
  2899.  
  2900.  
  2901. The room past the water room had been my first attempt at making a room that wasn’t the smallest possible size, just to see if it gave me more mana reserves. It had not, but it also hadn’t cost me any additional upkeep, so that made it a more convenient way of acquiring space to build into than making a hallway. It was, otherwise, completely ordinary, with loamy, insect-rich ground, walls and ceiling just like the rest of my first and only floor. Because so much of my time had been spent sparring with the locals, I’d actually started using my mana to make rooms instead of relying on my ants. They mostly worked at night, when the village was asleep and I was free to build up.
  2902.  
  2903. The makeshift adventuring party made it about mid-way through the room before they faltered.
  2904.  
  2905. “It’s… really dark in here,” Cirys commented. “Can’t you make torches, Taylor?”
  2906.  
  2907. Gwen glared at him. “Cyr, just… please don’t bring her down on us again?”
  2908.  
  2909. “Ah… never mind! Uh, love the decorating. It’s very, uhm… buggy, but, I mean, it’s a good look, really brings that whole ‘dark and creepy and you could get attacked at any moment’ vibe, you know?”
  2910.  
  2911. I made my wasps buzz again. He blanched.
  2912.  
  2913. “Shutting up, now.”
  2914.  
  2915. “Thanks, Taylor,” Gwen chirped.
  2916.  
  2917. No problem.
  2918.  
  2919. “He does have a point, though,” she added. “We’re going to have to burn through our torches down here. It’s just too dark.”
  2920.  
  2921. Sadly, I had other priorities, but point noted. It wasn’t a very expensive upgrade, in any case.
  2922.  
  2923. And torches they burned, for a certain definition of torches. I mean, the kind you see in movies are always those massive sticks with burning swabs at the end. Now, I wasn’t sure how much of that was Hollywood magic, but I certainly hadn’t been expecting them to pull out what looked like red sticks of chalk about the length of a hand. They had a single hole at one end from which a rope hoop was hanging, and another rope wrapped around something black at the other end.
  2924.  
  2925. I watched curiously as they slung the hoops around their wrists––the kids had to twist the rope and wrap it around their smaller wrists a second time––and pulled at the other rope, which they dropped to the floor. With a sound like a match being struck, the red chalk sticks started glowing, just enough to illuminate an area about ten feet wide around them. There weren’t any flames involved, but I saw little bits of black dust start dripping from the sticks.
  2926.  
  2927. Huh. I guess a world whose economy and ecosystem centered around exploring dark places had smart solutions for lighting.
  2928.  
  2929. They continued, turning right at the end of the room, and entered... another empty room, which contained nothing.
  2930.  
  2931. Gwen looked in every direction, then shrugged. "Dead end."
  2932.  
  2933. I wasn't exactly starved for resources, but I wasn't going to waste what I had for no reason, either. I had been tempted to buy an Ant Nursery, just to see what it would give me, but resisted. Mana I didn't use making rooms was mana I wasn't using to expand my cap and get the contract upgrades I wanted.
  2934.  
  2935. "I guess we're going back to the water room," Gwen said, moving past her party to reclaim the pointman position.
  2936.  
  2937. The other path from the water room was a more recent addition, a set of rooms I'd built for no reason other than to increase my mana cap. It started off with an elongated, rectangular room like the other one. The party noted the ceiling hole I'd built in the far end of the elongated room and continued. Past that room was a three-by-three grid of interconnected square rooms that were, for the most part, empty.
  2938.  
  2939. Well, except for two of them.
  2940.  
  2941. "Uh, spider webs to our left," Cirys said.
  2942.  
  2943. "Spider webs at our right," Horzel warned.
  2944.  
  2945. "I noticed," said Gwen. "Samel, stop mapping for a second, we might need to fight."
  2946.  
  2947. The boy nodded, put the map back in his bag, then pulled his bow from its holster and nocked an arrow. They grouped together, readying for a fight that I did not provide. After a moment, they lowered their guards.
  2948.  
  2949. "...We'll go right first, then left," Gwen decided. "Eyes peeled, guys."
  2950.  
  2951. To their right was my Spider Lair, the upgrade building for spiders. Although I had resisted the urge to check ant upgrades, I actually had a reason to check for spiders'; namely, how damn useful spider web could be, and what the villagers could use it for. I knew from experience that weaving armor from spider silk was a time-consuming process, so the earlier they started with it, the better equipped these people would be once the war started again. I thought maybe I'd even be able to help out by making the equipment and handing it over to the soldiers myself. For two impurities, some mana and one upkeep per day, it was, I had decided, a good tradeoff.
  2952.  
  2953. Well, it would have been, if the upgrades in question had included spider webs. Which they had not. Instead, buying this building had given me a set of expensive combat-oriented upgrades that weren’t all that useful for me currently. I hadn't selected any of them so far, either. Buying this room had unlocked the spider evolution room, the Spider Hatchery, so it hadn't been a total waste, and it had also decreased the upkeep cost for “all normal spiders” by one. That last bit wasn’t all that good considering I had effectively free spiders, but if the same logic applied to higher cost minions, then buying their upgrade rooms could effectively grant me an infinite number of them.
  2954.  
  2955. The room itself was about what one would expect of a spider-themed grotto. The walls and ceiling had lost their bug holes and instead turned into smooth stone, which was covered by a thin sheet of webs. The floor was remarkably cleaner and the party seemed to enjoy not having their feet sink into inches of sand and bugs as they stepped on its cobblestones. The main points of attraction of the room were web cocoons that hung from the ceiling or lay against the sides of the room. These were spider webs, certainly, but the silk that made up these cocoons wasn’t the insanely tough dragline silk I’d made costumes and nets from. It was instead tubuliform silk, the stiff and weak web female spiders made egg sacks from. Which really made no sense, because these weren’t egg pods. The webs on the wall weren’t in a usable form, being a mix of several web types both fragile and strong.
  2956.  
  2957. "Spider Hatchery... no," Gwen corrected herself. "No egg pods. A Spider Lair, then. Expect upgraded versions of various spider species."
  2958.  
  2959. "Haven't seen anything except the usual ones, though," Cirys said.
  2960.  
  2961. Gwen noised an affirmation. By now, they'd spread out across the room, each inspecting their own corner of the room. Samel had stayed near the entrance. The map was hanging from his left arm, and with his right hand he was scribbling onto it. I floated closer to take a look, and found that it was surprisingly well done considering the boy's age and the fact that he was writing in these conditions. He was writing a series of symbols, and the symbols became words: 'spider', ‘normal’, 'house', 'location'––and just like that, the word suddenly became "Spider Lair" in my vision.
  2962.  
  2963. That was never going to be not creepy.
  2964.  
  2965. Gwen pointed at one of the hanging cocoons. "Cyr, can you poke that? I'd like to see what's in there."
  2966.  
  2967. "Why me?"
  2968.  
  2969. "You're the one with the spear," she pointed out.
  2970.  
  2971. He conceded the point and, carefully, poked the butt-end of his spear against the cocoon. The web resisted puncturing for a moment before giving suddenly and without warning. The spear dug several inches into the cocoon. Some kind of transparent blue goop started flowing out in small sticky-looking rivulets that crawled down the length of the spear.
  2972.  
  2973. "Ew!" he said, immediately pulling his weapon out.
  2974.  
  2975. He was rewarded with a splash of blue goop in his face as the cocoon started emptying in earnest. He tried to wipe it off his face, yet somehow it only seemed to make the mess worse. As the puddle spread on the ground, Horzel yelped and climbed on one of the ground-based cocoons, only to jump off with both feet into the mess when it started giving under his weight. His feet slid out from under him and he fell butt-first into the goop.
  2976.  
  2977. "Ewwww!" Horzel complained.
  2978.  
  2979. "I... was about to tell you not to do that," Gwen told Cirys, unhelpfully. She didn't seem to care much that her boots were getting goop all over.
  2980.  
  2981. Samel had simply left the room, stepping back through the entrance they'd entered from. Wise boy.
  2982.  
  2983. "Thanks," Cirys groused. "You think Taylor will mind if we dip into the pond on the way out?"
  2984.  
  2985. I made my wasps buzz in a rhythmic pattern.
  2986.  
  2987. The four of them stayed quiet for a moment, then Gwen said, "I think she's laughing at you."
  2988.  
  2989. I was.
  2990.  
  2991. Though to be fair, I wasn't sure what that goop was. All I knew is that my spiders absolutely loved it, and it wasn't uncommon for me to spot spiders I wasn't controlling scamper to this room so they could sink their fangs into the cocoons and gorge themselves. After gorging themselves, they were noticeably more responsive and agile, at least until they were done digesting.
  2992.  
  2993. Gwen told Samel to collect some of the goop––"It might be worth something to someone, who knows?"––as well as some webbing from the walls and the surface of the cocoons. He did the former by using a glass vial from his satchel, and the latter with a small knife. Both times, he stopped just before actually taking the sample to focus, and it was with lightly glowing instruments––glowing like Gwen’s shield and boots whenever she used her supernatural abilities––that he took his samples. Once he was done, Gwen took her party across the empty room to my other spider room.
  2994.  
  2995. "Okay, that is a hatchery," she declared assuredly, and she was right.
  2996.  
  2997. Although to be fair, it was an easy guess. It had the same cobblestone ground and rock walls as the Lair, and the same layer of webs that covered the latter, but that's where the similarities ended. The center of the room was a column of rock covered with webs, and that pillar was crawling with thousands of spiders, none larger than a thumb. More tiny spiders ran across the ground, and the walls, and the ceiling.
  2998.  
  2999. I had hoped that this room would unlock spider webs for me, somehow. Instead, I'd received options to research and start summoning Greater Spiders, Small Tarantulas and Small Lesser Taratects, the latter of which seemed to have their own evolution tree and were, based on the bestiary's description, "weaker than their small normal baseline, but a warning sign for guilds whose dungeons start summoning them, as their greater forms stand at the summit of what spiders are capable of.”
  3000.  
  3001. Which was, admittedly, something interesting and worth investigating. However, it hadn't been webs. Sure enough, I'd found what I was looking for in the bestiary: "Small Webweaving Spider". Which, it turned out, this place apparently considered an entirely different species. So my "normal spiders" couldn't provide me with webs, if you excluded those that were found in these rooms. That one was on me; I really should have checked the bestiary instead of just assuming this place made sense. Lesson learned.
  3002.  
  3003. It also explained why my spiders were listed as "Small Normal Spider" whereas all the other bugs I had were "Small Lesser X".
  3004.  
  3005. I'd already sent my pixie out to find a wild webweaver for me, and had told Ulfric I was on the hunt for one. So far, no luck. The adults in the village were busy with all the construction, and if they didn’t want the kids to carelessly manipulate wild spiders, I understood that quite well, depending on what the local breeds were like.
  3006.  
  3007. I watched as Gwen walked to the center of the column and started inspecting it closely, uncaring of the spiders that shuffled about within inches of her face. Cirys, meanwhile, had elected to stand far back, and was eying the spiders that scampered on the ground warily. Samel had picked one up and stored it in a glass vial. Nedagg was skittering about, trying to catch and eat them. It was failing most of the time, but succeeding just enough so that the game stayed interesting. It reminded me a bit of a puppy scampering after a rolling ball.
  3008.  
  3009. "I think... yeah, I see eggs." She reached for her mace, then pulled at the webs so the eggs underneath were revealed. The spiders in the mass ruthlessly attacked the mace, but of course they weren't hurting it.
  3010.  
  3011. She reached in with her gloved hand and fished out a pinch of eggs. Her hand came back covered in angry spiders that were biting the hard leather.
  3012.  
  3013. "Hm... I'm guessing Taylor isn't controlling those. That's important to note. Samel, vial please."
  3014.  
  3015. "U–Un," he noised, reaching into his satchel. How many of those vials was he carrying, anyway?
  3016.  
  3017. Cyris had a dubious look on his face when the tiny pinch of spider eggs was dropped into the vial. “Are you sure that’s worth taking?”
  3018.  
  3019. “Eggs and monster parts almost always have a use for someone,” Gwen explained. “We’re supposed to bring back samples of everything the dungeon produces.”
  3020.  
  3021. He conceded the point.
  3022.  
  3023. They spend a few more minutes in this area of my dungeon, finding nothing. Which would be because, except for those two rooms, there was nothing here.
  3024.  
  3025. “Man, Ulfric always makes it sound like dungeons are full of monsters at every corner,” Cirys complained. “You’re kinda empty, aren’––”
  3026.  
  3027. “Cirys, do you want her to jump us? Because that’s how you get her to jump us,” Gwen admonished him.
  3028.  
  3029. Cirys’ mouth shut with an audible click.
  3030.  
  3031. I jumped them on the way back. They fared about as well on the second fight as they did on the first.
  3032.  
  3033. ---
  3034.  
  3035. “Cyr, I swear to the fucking planet, if you open your mouth and get her to hit us again…”
  3036.  
  3037. “Lesson learned,” the boy replied, kneeling at the edge of my pond with a wince at his tender ankle. I hadn’t meant to trip him up like that, but loam floor didn’t provide the most stable footing, and he’d taken an unexpected step back just before taking a faceful of spider. At his side, Horzel was washing dried blue goop off of his moccasins in the pond, while Samel took off his shirt and washed it, then used it as a wet rag to wipe his face and arms. I didn’t have to grab his ankle with an ant and drag him face-first on the sand toward the bulk of my bugs, but they didn’t have to let me do that, either.
  3038.  
  3039. “I hope she doesn’t mind that we’re dirtying up her water pond,” Horzel commented.
  3040.  
  3041. I didn’t mind. Anything adventurers did to my dungeon fixed itself as soon as they walked out. I’d had many people come to that room to fill up water pots for consumption or as material for bricks, and those pots weren’t always clean. Even then, the pond was always full and pristine whenever someone came to use it. Thankfully, dungeon resetting appeared to be the only thing in this whole system that didn’t cost me any upkeep. That I couldn’t control this resetting to, for instance, set up something like a pump on the surface to drain from this pond, was an annoyance, but one both me and the villagers could live with.
  3042.  
  3043. Once they were moderately clean, the party gathered to the entrance room, and stopped in front of the hallway opposite of the water room.
  3044.  
  3045. “Can we go down that way?” Gwen asked out loud, looking up at the ceiling hole.
  3046.  
  3047. I made a wasp fly down and nod in assent. My core hadn’t been down that hallway in quite a while, but so far nobody had dared go down that way. They would be the first since… well, themselves, to do so.
  3048.  
  3049. They ventured down the hall. At the first curve, which still had a pitfall occupying most of the floor, they stopped.
  3050.  
  3051. “Samel, are you noting this down?”
  3052.  
  3053. “Un,” the boy noised. “Big hole in the floor.”
  3054.  
  3055. “A pitfall,” Gwen corrected. “About… uh… fifteen feet deep?”
  3056.  
  3057. Roughly, yes.
  3058.  
  3059. “And full of bugs, of course,” Cirys grumbled.
  3060.  
  3061. Gwen ignored him, raising her arm so her torch would illuminate the wall opposite the ledge that allowed passage to the other side of the pitfall. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted the ceiling-bound crack that led to my bug reserve hallway in this room.
  3062.  
  3063. “…Another bug hole here,” she told Samel, pointing at the crack. She gave him a moment to draw, then turned to her party. “We’ll go one by one. Cirys, spear, stay near the crack and hit anything that tries to get through. You’re going last. I’ll go first, then Samel, then Horzel. Okay?”
  3064.  
  3065. There were no objections, and her plan was followed through.
  3066.  
  3067. “Do we have to go through here?” Cirys complained with his back against the wall when it was his turn.
  3068.  
  3069. When I let them get through unmolested, they seemed to release a unified sigh of relief. Then they spotted the second pitfall, and the bug crawlspace on the opposite wall of that ledge, and that relief turned into a deep and perceptible sense of foreboding.
  3070.  
  3071. “She’s going to sandwich us,” Cirys guessed.
  3072.  
  3073. “Probably,” Gwen agreed. “Same plan. Horzel, eyes to our back. Let’s hurry.”
  3074.  
  3075. She stepped on the ledge. That’s when I started moving. From the pitfall they’d already crossed, I quietly brought spiders forward. I had planned on revealing them by jumping on Horzel, but, proof that no plan survives contact with the enemy, something tipped him off, and he ended up throwing his torch down the hall, revealing my spiders early.
  3076.  
  3077. “Incoming!”
  3078.  
  3079. Oh well, Gwen was already halfway through, anyway. I waited until Cirys had turned his head, then I popped a spider out of the crawl hole.
  3080.  
  3081. Gwen stared at it.
  3082.  
  3083. My ambushing spider raised its front legs and prepared its three back pairs.
  3084.  
  3085. “…Oh no.” Gwen muttered, raising her shield.
  3086.  
  3087. To her credit, her shield blocked the spider, and she managed to push it off before it could get a grip on it.
  3088.  
  3089. Unfortunately for her, the ledge didn’t give her much maneuvering room to avoid the wasps that followed that spider, or the beetle that came in to attack her from the other end of the hallway.
  3090.  
  3091. ---
  3092.  
  3093. “Taylor, please don’t take it personally, but I really hate you right now,” Cirys said as he took hold of one of my beetle’s whip-like antennae so he could be pulled out of the pitfall’s crawling depths.
  3094.  
  3095. The rest of the party seemed to share the sentiment, though they didn’t do it out loud. Horzel and Samel had been pulled out first, and with the help of Nedagg’s mandibles, they’d mostly gotten the pitfall bugs out of their clothes and hair. Gwen hadn’t fallen off despite my best attempts, but it had been a close call. As it was, she’d managed to get herself to safety before one of my spiders had leapt at her back and shoved her face-first in buggy sand. She had a bright red mark on her cheek where she’d fallen on her shield’s hardened edge.
  3096.  
  3097. My beetle started walking backwards. Cirys was a lot heavier than the kids had been, but the tanky insect had relatively little trouble lifting him to safety.
  3098.  
  3099. “So that’s three times we fought her, three times we lost,” he said once he was on relatively less squirmy ground. “I don’t think we’re doing this right.”
  3100.  
  3101. Gwen sighed. “Hate to admit it, but you’re right. This just isn’t working. Even if we have a VIP to protect and a complete rookie…” she trailed off, then reached up to take a small spider off of Cirys’ hair. “We shouldn’t be getting our asses kicked like that by lesser bugs.”
  3102.  
  3103. Nice of you to notice.
  3104.  
  3105. “They’re really fast,” Horzel complained. “I try to hit them, but they just jump out of the way.”
  3106.  
  3107. That would be because he wasn’t so much ‘trying to hit them’ as he was ‘wildly swinging, hoping to hit them’. Considering how many fights I’d been in, predicting his swings was elementary.
  3108.  
  3109. “I stopped trying to not kill them,” Cirys admitted grumpily. “It’s not helping.”
  3110.  
  3111. Samel said nothing. He had pulled up his map and was drawing the hallway. Apparently, he’d decided I wasn’t going to attack so soon after trouncing them again.
  3112.  
  3113. Gwen noised an agreement. She’d held herself back, and so far she had the highest number of ‘kills’ on my bugs with stalled blows from her mace, but I’d been able to tell she wasn’t holding back all that much.
  3114.  
  3115. “…Right,” she said. “I want to try something. I––”
  3116.  
  3117. “Whoa!” The rest of the party turned to the curve at end of the hallway, where Samel had stopped with his mouth wide open. The boy started walking forward with an utterance of “So cool!!” and the others jogged to catch up.
  3118.  
  3119. “Whoaaaaa,” Horzel breathed.
  3120.  
  3121. “That is awesome,” Cirys said, looking up, and up, at the majestic rainbow-leafed tree that stood in the middle of my pixie fountain. “Doesn’t feel like the rest of this floor.”
  3122.  
  3123. Gwen, whose eyes had narrowed in focus as her teeth chewed on her lower lip, widened her eyes. “Of course––it’s from that pixie! Uh…” she looked left and right, taking in all the details of the room, and said, “…doesn’t feel like a clearing, so this must be a pixie… uh… tree?”
  3124.  
  3125. Ulfric wasn't near the word wall, so I made a note to tell him she needed to study more when he came close.
  3126.  
  3127. “Who cares, it’s awesome!” Cirys insisted. “Taylor, if your pixie floor looks anything like this, I will never, ever complain about it, ever.”
  3128.  
  3129. “I bet she’s going to make you regret that,” Horzel commented, kneeling down. Nedagg had skittered ahead of him and was now sipping from the fountain’s nectar pool. The tamer curiously dipped a finger in the pool, then licked it for a taste and nearly leapt back in shock while spitting.
  3130.  
  3131. “Nasty?” Cirys asked.
  3132.  
  3133. Horzel shook his head. “Too sweet! It’s like… like a thousand dried tengrape fruits!” Glancing at his ant, he asked, “How can you even drink that, Nedagg?”
  3134.  
  3135. It didn't answer, partly because it was drinking, and partly because it couldn't talk. Ants liked sweet things. They just did. And talking about bugs that liked sweet things, one of my bees independently walked into the room, completely ignoring the adventuring party, and started taking greedy gulps from the pool as well.
  3136.  
  3137. “Small Lesser Bee,” Gwen said, standing between the bee and the rest of her party. “Passive, lesser danger, but C-class paralysis poison that can be lethal in large numbers, and will attack in swarms if someone messes with their stuff. Ignore, or cull their numbers before attempting to take anything from them.”
  3138.  
  3139. She had, at the very least, studied everything there was to learn about bug minions and their rooms.
  3140.  
  3141. Bees had been amongst my better minions back when I’d had a body. They had powerful stingers, were agile and reproduced very quickly, especially with a bit of guidance. Along with wasps, spiders, bullet ants and cockroaches (and butterflies), they had been my main offensive bugs. The fact that they tended to die after stinging had been their one true weakness and one of the reasons I’d mostly turned to wasps and hornets when I had the opportunity.
  3142.  
  3143. They were much bigger, which was par for the course with my minions, about two thirds of the size of my wasps, which made them about the size of a floppy toddler. They had a distinct thorax and abdomen, but the large amount of hair on the bee’s thorax meant that their body looked like it had no division. Their legs were stocky, much stockier than the honeybees I was used to. They had two sets of wings, huge and shiny black eyes, thin antennae and adorable little mandibles. They looked a bit like someone had mixed together a honeybee and a bumblebee, and the end result had been an anorexic version of the latter, all in the honeybee’s golden-yellow and black shades.
  3144.  
  3145. Their stockiness and mass made them much slower than my wasps, so in terms of combat ability, they were much weaker. They were too fragile to take hits, too slow to dodge, and too small to be intimidating, so for a while I thought there wasn’t much of a point in getting them, except providing the villagers––and my pixie––with honey.
  3146.  
  3147. Then I’d checked the bestiary for their evolved forms, and I changed my mind when I saw the Harrier Bee evolution line.
  3148.  
  3149. In short? Bees that could fire their stingers. My first ranged attackers.
  3150.  
  3151. Unlocking them meant getting a bee, then building the upgrade room––the Honey Store––or applying a minion upgrade to a bee. Either method would have unlocked the Bee Queen’s Chamber, which would let me start making Harrier Bees. I had, after thinking about it a bit, chosen the room over the minion upgrade, mostly to see what other upgrades it would unlock.
  3152.  
  3153. Amongst them was an upgrade I hadn’t expected to receive, but planned on grabbing as soon as I had the mana for it.
  3154.  
  3155.         Add Ability “Produce Wax” to lesser bees (60 mana, 6 impurities)
  3156.         Makes your bees able to make stuff around your dungeon!
  3157.  
  3158. If my bees were able to make stuff around my dungeon, then I would be able to make stuff around my dungeon. If this let me build defenses and structures as I wanted, without having to fight the dungeon system all the way through, then this upgrade would be more than worth the cost. The bestiary mentioned that “deeper dungeons with bees sometimes have wax structures built by the bees themselves, which can generally be ignored or used to trigger bee swarms in prepared killing grounds”, which implied they had the ability to build permanent, if inconsequential, structures.
  3159.  
  3160. Well, my structures weren’t going to be inconsequential.
  3161.  
  3162. In the meantime, though, I had rooms to make. 60 mana was three rooms, nine points on my mana cap and, on average, about one and a quarter training session. Not exactly something I was able to afford at the moment if I wanted to get Squad Leader. I’d had plenty of time in the last week to consider the best course of action, and getting the ability to interact with the world at large still seemed like the most valuable choice. Mana would be easy to get once I had the upgrade I wanted, in any case.
  3163.  
  3164. While I’d been lost in thought, Gwen had gathered her party and started to explore the room beyond the fountain. Another new room, and another that I’d built larger than the normal size, mostly because I was curious to see if room effects would take up the entire room, or just part of it. I’d built this room to be three times the size of a normal room in every direction, including up and down. The Honey Store had used all of this room to make a massive three-level hive of wax-floored honeycomb-walled bee paradise with flights of hard wax spiral staircases––an unusual sight in a beehive––giving access to the upper and lower floors in the central section of the room. Walls had spontaneously been created as well, without my direction, dividing each floor into nine smaller sub-rooms. Some of the combs in the walls, which were large enough to fit a human head into, were sealed off.
  3165.  
  3166. “Ulfric wasn’t kidding when he said she’s been a busy honeybee,” Cirys quipped.
  3167.  
  3168. “You’re asking for pain, Cyr,” Gwen warned. That shut him up, if temporarily.
  3169.  
  3170. They explored all three levels, wary of the bees that they crossed. I was controlling the bees, but other than monitoring their state of mind, I was mostly doing what they felt like doing at the time, effectively leaving them to their own devices. They were mostly uncaring about the intruders’ presence in their hive, although at any point in time, at least one bee kept track of them. In the middle subsection of the upper floor, they noted the presence of another ‘bug chute’––a good name which I was stealing from now on––and once they were done exploring, they returned to the middle floor and gathered in front one of the sealed off honeycombs that was near a corner of the room, as far as possible from my fairy fountain.
  3171.  
  3172. “Alright, shields up, get ready for a fight. I'll take our left flank, Horzel and Nedagg take the right. Horzel, make sure your ant doesn't run off this time. Cirys, you're on middle-guard, pay more attention to Horzel's side. I can handle myself. Samel, when you're done taking samples, use your bow to help out. Everyone got that?” She waited for their nods, then turned to Samel and said, “Do it."
  3173.  
  3174. The boy nodded nervously and reached into his satchel for his knife and a vial. He focused for a moment until his knife and vial had begun glowing, then carefully pierced the sealed off comb. A trickle of golden-brown liquid started flowing, and he started collecting it in a vial.
  3175.  
  3176. The result was instantaneous. Whereas before, the bees looking at them had been happy to passively observe, their entire brains were suddenly flooded by a powerful rage which took me by surprise. I allowed those bees to act on their own for a moment longer than I should have, which let them start shaking their abdomens and wings rapidly enough to create a shrill buzzing whistle. The other bees in the colony immediately reacted, and I soon had a dozen absolutely enraged bugs whose minds were blaring their desire to murder the kids.
  3177.  
  3178. Sadly for them, I wasn’t going to let them, but I was at least going to oblige both them and the kids with a fight. I took full control of the bees and coordinated their attack. Those closest to the adventurers felt outrage that I was holding them back, up to the point where their hivemates joined them and I launched the attack proper. Trailing behind the fliers was the beetle from the hallway, whose mind was refreshingly docile in comparison.
  3179.  
  3180. "Damn good thing we didn't fight closer to the entrance," Cirys said, taking aim with his bow. His arrow flew straight, missing my bees and heading for my beetle's head. I made it whip an antennae forward at just the right time and place to throw the arrow off-course. "Oh, that's just bullshit!"
  3181.  
  3182. "What were you expecting?!" Gwen asked. Her shield glowed, then she waved it ahead with a shout. My bees flew both above and below, narrowly dodging the air wave that had blown my spiders back earlier. The beetle just tanked it and barely slowed down. "Bullshit!"
  3183.  
  3184. "Hah!" Cirys barked a laugh.
  3185.  
  3186. Then the bees were on them. Five on Gwen, five on Horzel.
  3187.  
  3188. Nedagg acted, standing up on its four hind legs to grab one of my bees from the air before it could reach Horzel. A spear hit dispatched another. The boy focused mostly on defense, and his dagger didn't move much. As a result, it was damn hard to actually get past him, with the support he had. On her side, Gwen was doing a fine job. She was forcing my bees away from her weapon arm and the vulnerable center of their formation, and toward her shield which she used more as a battering weapon than as a defense mechanism. Already, one of my bees had taken a hit strong enough to stagger it, which I considered a "kill" in our little game.
  3189.  
  3190. The bees I took away from the battle did not appreciate it, but they were just going to have to tolerate it. I wasn't going to let them die over something like this.
  3191.  
  3192. "Done!" Samel said, storing the full vial in his satchel and pulling his bow.
  3193.  
  3194. Which was about the time my beetle came in range of the party. Its antennae whipped forward with crushing speed, smashing into Gwen's shield, then Horzel's. The girl grunted and took the hit, but the boy was thrown cleanly off his feet into the rest of his party, which let the two bees who'd still been fighting him reach Cirys and Samel.
  3195.  
  3196. Samel let his arrow fly, and its beanbag head bounced off the center of one of the bees, 'killing' it. The other reached Cirys and was about to plunge its stinger into his side––or at least pretend to do so––when Nedagg acted, plucking that bee off of the teenager and taking it to the ground. The other bee it had attacked crawled away with a broken wing, a missing antenna and a leg halfway torn off. Fortunately, I knew from experience that my minions healed quickly.
  3197.  
  3198. Gwen swung her mace and smacked one of my bees down––a bit harder than necessary, but she was getting pushed––and then turned to her party.
  3199.  
  3200. "You guys handle these, I'll take the beetle!"
  3201.  
  3202. She waited a moment for Horzel to scramble to his feet, smacking a bee back with her shield, then took a deep breath. Her feet started glowing with mana expenditure, and she raised her shield toward the beetle. An instant later, she... missed, because I had made the beetle step to the side to avoid her predictable charge. That left the rest of her party against three bees, and her on her own against the beetle.
  3203.  
  3204. Unfortunately, my minions were lesser minions, and in equal numbers, I didn't have much of a chance. I could have brought reinforcements, but after curb stomping them three times in a row, I was willing to let them have this one. Despite the odds, I could sense the excitement that filled the beetle at the thought of this fight. Beetles might have been lazy louts most of the time, they were still minions, and fighting adventurers was what they were made for.
  3205.  
  3206. I attacked first, throwing my beetle's antennae forward and attacking her from both directions. She responded correctly, if predictably, by ducking under the whips, then used her posture to push herself up and forward, shield-first at my beetle's face. I stepped back, absorbing most of the hit, then moved to her left to make it more awkward for her to use her mace. This put my beetle's side toward the rest of her party, but they were too busy to help her out at the moment.
  3207.  
  3208. One of Cirys' spear thrusts struck one of my bees in the wing and grounded it. Two left in fighting shape. Horzel was doing a halfway decent job with his shield, but the real problem was Nedagg; I couldn't get close without entering its range, and it was merciless. The second bee it had caught was now crawling away with a bleeding gash on its thorax, two missing legs and a bad case of crippling rage.
  3209.  
  3210. Gwen tried to step to the side to bring her mace to bear, but I extended a whip-antenna to her shield arm to force her back. She did force me to step back, though, so that was a point in her favor.
  3211.  
  3212. Or... well, no. It wasn't. And I showed her why a moment later when I extended my beetle's left antenna forward, then whipped it hard to the side.
  3213.  
  3214. This wasn't something my beetle would have been able to do normally. Its muscles weren't especially well adapted to hitting in that direction, which made the hit weak, relatively speaking. However, it did have some force, and combined with movement from the beetle's neck, it was enough. Cirys, Horzel and Samel never saw it coming, and they made surprised yelps when the antenna smashed into them with enough force to push them against the wall. My two bees easily made it past the disabled front line to land on Samel. Much as they wanted to plunge their stingers into the boy, I held them back.
  3215.  
  3216. Then Nedagg scampered at them, mandibles open, and I made them fly off. My beetle also disengaged, turning to the side and walking away while Gwen blinked in confusion. A moment later...
  3217.  
  3218. "Fuck!"
  3219.  
  3220. ...she realized what had happened when she saw the state of her party. Glancing up at the ceiling, she said, "That was dirty, Taylor!"
  3221.  
  3222. If she hadn't realized 'fighting clean' wasn't exactly my thing, nor was it the thing of anyone who wanted to win, then she clearly needed more training.
  3223.  
  3224. Taylor: 4.
  3225.  
  3226. Rookies: 0.
Parsed in 0.806 seconds