As annoying as it was at the time, I decided to listen to Deiti. Corra was even more disappointed than I was that I decided against killing our intruder.
And so, I went to meet her.
I went to meet the most troublesome opponent I had – the woman who, as I said in the first volume, would prove to be the most dangerous threat my dungeon had faced thus far as well as be the one to teach me just how annoying humans were.
Standing at the main entrance to the dungeon was Ahti. She was guarding it and watching the woman while Corra came to inform me of the situation.
I didn’t even get to reach the edge of my territory before that woman’s head popped up from behind Ahti to stare at me.
“You – the reports did not do you justice,” she said.
Despite the fact that she was alone and faced by Ahti, Corra, and I, Lucia did not seem the slightest bit intimidated by the situation. Instead, she seemed only excited.
“Why did you come?” I asked.
Her eyes sparkled with even more excitement upon hearing me talk.
“You – you can speak the same language?” she asked. “I was already amazed that the girls could understand me, but you can actually speak our tongue?”
I found my head cocked to the side as I tried to understand what she was implying. As far as I was concerned, talking to my monsters, the kobolds, and now Lucia – everybody sounded the same. I never changed what language I was speaking in and it sounded like everybody spoke the same language to me.
“Have you forgotten about your Language Proficiency trait? It allows you to understand and speak all languages at a basic level. As for your monsters, they may be able to speak dragontongue, but I do not believe they are capable of speaking the human’s language. I am impressed they can even understand her,” Deiti explained to me.
If that was the case, Lucia was extremely lucky that they did not kill her.
“What language am I speaking?” I asked Lucia.
It was her turn to tilt her head. “The common language,” she answered.
I turned to Corra. “What language am I speaking?”
“Dragontongue, my lord! I think? We both used to speak kobold, but we have sounded different ever since you built your throne,” Corra explained.
In other words, without even meaning to, the language I spoke changed depending on who heard me speak, and everybody sounded the same to me as well.
It can be confusing to think about. All you need to understand is that I could, and still can, understand and speak all languages while they all sound the same to me.
“Interesting,” Lucia said, watching our interaction. “Between your unexplained arrival, your appearance, the ability to speak with human and monster alike – you’re the dungeon core, aren’t you?”
“You didn’t know already?” I asked.
“No. We received reports of a masculine monster unlike any recorded monster, but there was no telling whether you were a creation of the dungeon, a monster from the depth’s of the volcano, or something else. However… it should have been obvious to those fools just by looking at you that you are the dungeon – the dungeon’s core. I have never seen a being as… grand as you.”
“How did they see me?”
Lucia pulled a small contraption out from her bag and held it up. It looked like a small box that was already broken into, and inside was a cracked crystal and various other components that I did not recognize. “Observation devices. They have been placed around the volcano. This one was hidden between those rocks,” she paused to point at a couple of rocks directly across from the dungeon’s entrance. “They recorded you standing by the entrance. The receiving device connected to this one stored images of you and anything else to come this way. The traveling kobolds heading to and from your dungeon with those gnomes of black stone have also been recorded several times now. I doubt this will be a surprise to you but knowing that a dungeon has been meeting with the local monsters has caused some controversy at headquarters.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Why did I come here?”
“You may need to repeat yourself or interrupt me when I ramble. I will be the first to admit that I have a rambling problem.”
Great. There were two of them now. Deiti and Lucia.
“As for why I have come here… well, it was either imprisonment by humans or risking my life to meet with you. Imprisonment would have led to a trial which would have certainly found my guilty, so that was a guaranteed death. Trying to meet with you was only a probably-guaranteed death. Between a guaranteed death or being labeled a traitor while potentially surviving, the choice was easy.”
“Why would they kill you?”
“I led several hunters to their deaths. Of course, I tried to warn them, but that didn’t matter. The survivors from my attempts at acquiring you worked together to go over my head and get me in no insignificant amount of trouble. There were other rules that I broke, but they were mostly upset about my repeated, failed attempts at capturing you while not properly reporting the threat that you pose to this island.”
“Why didn’t you go somewhere else?”
“Where else would I go? The only way off of this island is by boat or the next guild airship, neither of which I am permitted to use. I am no hunter, so I would not survive for long in the island’s wilds. Trying to survive within the volcano is even more suicidal… unless I have protection.”
“You want me to protect you?”
Lucia clapped her hands together. “Precisely. I am not so attached to my race that I would not betray them for my own survival. There is far too much I wish to still experience and discover in this world to die so young.”
“This is when you ask her, ‘What reason do I have to believe that you will not betray me when it serves you?’” Deiti said.
“What reason do I have to believe that you will not betray me when it serves you?” I repeated to Lucia.
“None. I am not going to lie and say that such a thing is impossible. After all, I am already a traitor. It would be wise to assume that I am capable of betraying you as well. However, so long as you have no interest in imprisoning me nor killing me, I cannot think of any other reason worth betraying you over.”
“Why shouldn’t I kill you now?”
“Because I can serve you. All of my knowledge is yours, should you protect me in exchange for it. Furthermore, I have this,” she paused, pulling another contraption out from her bag. It was a small box similar to the one that was used to record us… except that it was the receiving device rather than the observation device. Sticking up from the top of the box was a square, flat crystal that showed a live observation of the humans’ headquarters. “I placed it in a secure crack in the cliff overlooking the base camp. With this, we can see exactly what everybody at headquarters is up to – well, we can see everything aside from what happens inside of the buildings. More importantly, we can see the docks and airship landing. So, if there just so happens to be a military force that lands to try and eradicate you and your dungeon… we will see them coming and be able to prepare for them.”
I reached out to get a closer look only to be stopped by the invisible barrier preventing me from leaving my dungeon’s territory.
“So, you cannot leave, but the others can. Interesting. If you want this, and all of the other information that I have for you, you have to promise to protect me.”
I couldn’t leave my territory, but I could still lean my head closer until it was right behind the invisible barrier.
I desperately wanted a closer look.
A closer look at that moving, blue fluid rolling against the sandy shore in the distance of the display on the crystal.
“Is that the ocean?” I asked.
“I take it that you have never been outside of this volcano?” Lucia asked.
I nodded, my eyes locked onto the display.
“It is. During high tide, that water will reach up to almost the top of the docks, and most of the sand will be covered.”
“What are those?” I pointed at the side of the display – to the side of all the buildings.
“Palm trees. They are flexible trees that have evolved to withstand the storms that occasionally come over this island, and some varieties even grow fruits – well, fruits, seeds, or nuts depending on who you ask. I am more interested in aether research than botanical research, so I have no interest in arguing over the definition. The most technical term for them, I believe, is ‘drupe,’ but do not quote me on that.” – Lucia.
“She talks too much. At least her voice is pleasant to listen to, so long as I ignore her hair. Well, I suppose that it could be worse. A ponytail still looks short from the front. So long as we do not look behind her head, we will not be reminded of how long her hair is,” Deiti said, prompting me to ignore her.
“You want protection in exchange for information and that,” I said, pointing at the device.
“Precisely,” Lucia answered. “Well, I do wish to study you and the others as well. No human has ever had the opportunity to study a living dungeon before – well, not before destroying the core and turning it into an aether ruin first.”
“An aether ruin?”
“Dungeons that have their cores destroyed turn into aether ruins. All of the aether within the dungeon core has to go somewhere, after all. If it is not stored within something capable of withholding so much aether, then that aether seeps out into what used to be the dungeon to create a sort of… ruin locked in time. Aether ruins continuously try to recreate what they once had, but they are never capable of advancing beyond what they had before. All they can do is repair the same traps in the same spots while summoning the same monsters over, and over, and over again until the aether is eventually depleted. Some like to call them ‘ghost dungeons.’ Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to see one myself. The only few that have not had their aether depleted are kept under heavy guard.”
“Why were the cores destroyed?”
“Why do you think? Not once has a living dungeon ever been recorded as anything but a structure with only one desire: to expand. The fastest way to expand, we believe, is for dungeons to kill and assimilate all in their path.”
I placed my hand against the invisible barrier.
It was true. I did want to expand, but I only wanted to expand because I wished to see more of the world. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and I wanted my monsters to be by my side as I saw brand new sights.
There was nothing wrong with that. Expanding was simply a means to an end. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Of course, I don’t care if that is what you want. So long as I am not one of those killed, you may do whatever you wish,” Lucia said.
“I want to expand, but only because I want to see more,” I explained. “I want to see the ocean.”
“Interesting. You wish to expand, but you do not wish to only expand for the sake of expanding. Is that correct?”
“I used to, but not now. I want to see more of the world while protecting my monsters.”
“Curiosity and care – two things that have been theorized regarding dungeons but always refused by those who claim to know the most about them. Would it be alright for me to ask you a few questions?”
I was supposed to be the one interrogating her, but she was the one with all of the questions to ask.
But that was alright. Going along with her gave me insight on how humans thought and behaved. And, more importantly, listening to her gave me information on what humans thought about dungeons such as myself.
“Alright,” I answered.
Corra sighed, standing next to me. She wasn’t happy about a human, especially one to have caused us so much trouble, asking so much of me. Ahti, however, didn’t care and simply kept watch by looking down the tunnel that Lucia came from.
“Do you know what emotions are?” Lucia asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Could you please give me some examples?”
“I felt angered and annoyed when you kept on coming back here. I felt proud of my monsters when they defeated the other humans. I am worried when my monsters are hurt.”
“Amazing. Scholars would have us believe that dungeons lack all emotional intelligence – that dungeons are nothing more than things that only act off of base instinct and nothing more. Essentially, we have always believed that you are no more intelligent than insects. Tell me, when did these emotions start?”
“As early as I can remember, but they were simple.”
“I see. What about love? Do you understand what love is?”
“Love is… perhaps the strongest, most powerful emotion that there is. It has driven kingdoms to war with one another, it has caused peace, it unites people and keeps them together – it is the sort of feeling that parents have for their children, that husband and wife have for one another, and… it is harder to describe than I realized. Does what I said sound familiar at all?”
Before I could answer, Corra tugged at me for my attention. “My lord! Love is – love is what I feel for you! Me, Ahti, and all of the others – we all love you! You are our creator, our lord, our protector – you are the most important part of our lives! Love is why my heart beats so fast when you hold me close like this. Love is why we are willing to do anything and everything for you!”
Deiti started to explain love on her own, but Lucia’s and Corra’s explanations were enough that I could ignore what the dragon wished to say.
“I understand,” I said.
“I love you, my lord!”
“I love you, Corra. And you, Ahti. I love you. I love all of you – all of my monsters. And myself.”
I officially understood what “love” meant, so of course I was going to love myself!
“I love you more, my lord!” Corra said.
“That’s impossible. I love you more,” I said.
Corra shook her head with a wide smile. “My lord! I love you, and you are always right when it comes to everything else, but not this time! I promise you that my love for you is greater than any other feeling in the entire volcano!”
“Nobody can love more than I can. I love you far more than you could ever love me.”
Corra’s smile grew even wider as she shook her head even faster.
This went on for a few more repetitions before Lucia finally spoke up again and said, “I can only understand one of you, but I feel like I am watching a couple of teenagers who just discovered what love means. More importantly… I have discovered that dungeons can, in fact, feel love. You are not just some emotionless thing only desiring to expand.”
“Of course my lord isn’t! Anybody who believes that deserves to be crushed under his heel!” Corra shouted at her.
Lucia might not have understood what Corra was saying, but she had enough of an idea to nod. “So, my offer. Will you protect me in exchange for me offering everything that I can?”
“Won’t more humans come to take you?”
“No. They have no interest in assaulting your territory right now, hence why they gave up pursuing me as soon as they made it past the checkpoint. However, they might be motivated to attack sooner than they are planning if they believe I am working with you.”
“Than they are planning?”
“Yes, an attack is being planned, and you will have a much higher chance of surviving if you let me work with you. First, we need to trick them into thinking that you have killed me. One of my hands might do the trick, and some of my clothes. It’s not as if I’ll be needing all of these clothes with how much I’m already sweating.”
“What do you think, Deiti?” I asked, making sure to keep my question to my thoughts.
“I am not sure. Letting the humans believe that she is dead will give them more reason to believe that you are what they already believe you are. While I do not particularly mind more humans coming for us to kill, it may… in all honesty, be better to pursue a different path. It may be better for the survival of you and the others to prove that you are not what they believe, even if it means less revenge for me,” Deiti answered.
I thought about it for a few seconds before asking Lucia, “Is it possible to change their minds?”
“The other humans?” Lucia asked.
“No. One, hunters have already been killed. They want their revenge. Two, they will hate you even more if they discover that you are emotionally intelligent. Not only will it mean that you were not acting purely out of instinct similar to how an insect would, but it would mean that you are smarter, more desperate, and more determined. They would use everything that they can to annihilate you. They would bring a force so overwhelmingly powerful that you would have no hope for survival. That is already likely to happen if their current plan fails, but we do not want them to jump straight into that.”
“They will want to kill us no matter what?”
“Without a shadow of a doubt, yes.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trap?” I asked.
“You don’t know. You can either place some faith in me and let me prove myself, or you can send me away, likely to my death, and face the upcoming assault all on your own,” she answered.
“We defended ourselves against humans before.”
“You defended against me and hired hunters. I am not a strategist. The next attack will be assisted by those who specialize in assaulting strongholds, and it is likely that a military detachment will accompany elite hunters for it. They will not pull their punches. Besides, I am placing more faith in you than you will have to place in me. I have no guarantee that you will not kill me after I give you what I have to offer. Not to mention that you have reason to despise me since the previous attacks were led by me. Hopefully, how foolishly suicidal I am being is enough to convince you that my intentions are as pure as they can be.”
“She has a point. If we suspect anything, we can kill her at any time. I believe that agreeing to protect her is our best option for now. Let us get as much information as possible from her, and then we will decide what to do with her,” Deiti told me.
“Alright. I will promise to protect you, and you will promise to tell us everything that you know,” I said to Lucia.
Lucia smiled and knelt down on one knee. “In that case, I, Lucia Visser, promise to share all of my knowledge with you, as well as offer you the device to watch the others, in exchange for your protection.”
“Lucia Visser. Is that your name?”
“Yes. Do you have a name?”
“CORE, with all capitals.”
“Core, with… all capitals?”
“All capital letters.”
“You know what letters are?”
“Yes. My name is spelled with all capital letters.”
“Is it an acronym?”
“What’s an acronym?”
“I – we will go over that later. For now, let us shake hands to finalize the deal.”
She stood up and offered me her hand.
If you would have told me back then that a human, Lucia especially, was going to come to me offering help in exchange for protection, I never would have believed it. Even more, I would not have believed that I would end up agreeing to it.
But I did, unknowing of what it would cause. Deiti did not offer any complaints, Lucia had nothing on her to harm us, and she knew of the humans’ upcoming plan to attack us.
All I had to do was protect her.
I shook her hand.