'What's a dungeon? That is my eternal question.' sign post, Dungeon Man, Earthbound.
Fresh snow fell on the stones like the first resonances of a dream. The stark contrast between the shimmering white light that seared across the snow and the soft, warm womb of the torchlight made his eyes hurt. He blinked, yawned, shook the cave fungus out of his hair and glanced around once more at his beautiful creation.
Originally commissioned as a border dividing Winters in half, so that the children of Snow Wood Boarding School were not devoured in the night by the giant ants, sentient mushrooms, cave people and mad scientists known to live in the regions of Lilliput Steps and Stonehenge, it was his first ever complete dungeon. He had printed designs for 'Which Dungeon?' Magazine before that, or built dungeons from the designs of other people, or was commissioned by other artists to work on parts of collaborative dungeons. Building a dungeon from scratch, entirely independently, wasn't the sort of project an inexperienced dungeon designer could take on, even one as gifted as himself. It was a milestone in his career and in his life. Unlike so many of his memories, it had endured to this day. Solid stone and earth. Endless winding corridors. It was designed not to be fatal, but to be confusing and difficult to navigate. Because it contained most of the facilities a monster would need to enjoy a comfortable life, most monsters settled down to live there rather than bothering to try and find the exit. Higher class monsters tended not to bother entering the dungeon in the first place. It looked unimpressive, a starter dungeon, and their reputations among the highly hierarchical monstering community would be ruined if they were seen in such a dull place. Monster psychology was something you had to learn, to be a dungeon designer. Mad Ducks were his favourites. They made such adorable pets, with their soft feathers and comedic expressions.
It was clever and it did the job, while looking unobtrusive. Just like its designer. Nobody ever really noticed Brick Road, or if they did, they couldn't think of anything worth commenting on. Short and slightly pudgy, he had lost most of his hair to the quick onset of old age and repeated industrial accidents. His face permanently looked surprised, mostly because of the sheer number of things that could, and did, suddenly go fatally wrong during the process of dungeon maintenance. He always wore his faintly charred overalls, the ones full of big pockets for holding lots of things, because he was always at work. Sometimes he appeared in the school grounds to work part time as a caretaker, where he had a reputation for being reliable and trustworthy, as well as good at shooing off homicidal goats. He might be seen in the store once a month, stocking up on supplies. Mostly he just stayed in Southern Winters, where normal people just didn't live. He lived in a hut in the mountains like a crazy survivalist awaiting the end of the world. Sometimes, in the middle of a big project, he lived on Dr. Andonuts' sofa, or even in one of the hidden rooms inside the dungeon he was working on.
He stared up at the clear night sky, trying to spot UFOs. He wondered if he should go and talk to the mad scientist again. He wasn't going to be able to sleep. Something was bothering him. Or maybe he just needed to double-check that everything was okay in the dungeon. He had been down every corridor, resetting traps, refilling chests, relighting torches, cleaning out the monster lairs, checking the answer machine for saved games. All the sign posts were firmly staked down and pointed in the right direction. He walked over to the front door and knocked off the snow that was obscuring the sign hung over it. He straightened the sign. Three seconds later, he straightened it again, just to make sure.
He ran his hand over the contours of the rock. It was freezing cold but he could sense its warmth somewhere deep inside both its corridors and himself. It was alive and awake. And it was vast. A mountain, a machine, a Titan. He was part of it, as was every living soul inside it, and every part of it was connected to the rest, as vibrant as the whole. As he walked the corridors, he knew every inch of it, could tell from one hour to the next what was going to happen where, as if he had Godlike senses. The walls spoke to him alone.
He didn't want to leave, not because he thought there was still work to be done but because he hated being cut off from his creation that was a part of him. He realised that, now. It wasn't just an uncanny resemblance, the child of his mind, but it was the work itself that had his substance, his identity. Still, he really needed a strong coffee and another human being to share his day with, even if it was only a deranged scientist even older than himself who could not be made to understand that he was not a laboratory animal. Mostly he just needed the coffee. In his enthusiasm at monitoring the vital signs of his dungeon, he had failed to notice his own caffeine levels plummeting dangerously low.
He trudged across the white fields to the laboratory, his boots leaving large blocky prints in the crisp new layer of snow.
"You seem a little distracted," said Dr. Andonuts, tugging one of his white tufts of remaining hair thoughtfully. If Dr. Andonuts told you that you looked distracted, thought Brick Road, there must be something really wrong with you, "If you need stronger coffee than that, I brought a little something back from Moonside. Its always the night shift in Moonside, you know. They call their coffee 'Starstorm'."
"That's fascinating," muttered Brick Road, stirring unenthusiastically with his spoon, "I don't need more coffee."
The scientist raised a thick, bushy eyebrow. 'I don't need more coffee' wasn't a phrase he ever expected to hear Brick Road say.
"Are you ill?"
He shook his head, "Just a little depressed, I guess. I really don't know who I am any more."
"Maybe you need something to help you take your mind off it. Do you want to help me with an experiment? Its about psychic..."
The dungeon designer shook his head frantically, remembering the last experiment with the word 'psychic' in it. His ducks had been traumatised for weeks.
"All your experiments are about psychic activity these days. Don't you have anything mechanical lined up?" complained Brick Road, "I can't put psychic powers in my dungeon."
"Well, I'm still working on a time machine but I'm not having much luck. I can't find a power source," he said, "And I had this idea for a new machine. Its like a... sort of a booth that protects you from things. You can hide in it. Oh, and I made the camera guy a better flash lens."
"Hey, Dr. Andonuts?"
"What happened to the whole cyborg thing? You know, when you tried to connect your consciousness directly to a machine."
"Oh, that thing. I gave up years ago," he sighed, "I couldn't proceed to the next stage of my experiment."
"The next stage?"
"I couldn't get any human test subjects," he said, "It isn't something I can test on animals, even monkeys. Its debateable whether animals even have a proper consciousness. I don't really blame people for not wanting to help me with the project. I can't really guarantee that it would be reversible, or that it wouldn't hurt, or that they'd even survive it. I was a little worried about trying it on myself. It was the first thing I tried, of course, but I can't activate the machine and use it on myself at the same time. It would be like trying to operate on myself."
"Sounds lovely," said Brick Road, draining his coffee. The scientist poured him a refill from the percolator he had built himself. It somehow made coffee much stronger than normal. The Mr. Saturns they tested it on all had vivid hallucinations. They then bought ten crates of the stuff, "Hey, Dr. Andonuts..."
"Say, if it was to work... what kind of machine would it connect you to?"
"I was going to try it with small machines, such as toasters, and work my way up. Theoretically, it should run on any machine that has a microchip."
"What about the master controls of a larger system?"
"It'd probably kill you at your age," he said sharply, "And I don't even have a way to automate your dungeon yet. I'm having trouble with testing the spike traps. I keep running out of monkeys."
"But you will have designed something, by the time I've finished building the dungeon," he said, "I'm not crazy. I don't expect new technology to work with old structures. And I'm not going to upload my consciousness into something that can't move."
"Your voice sounds odd. Are you sure you don't need a few days off?" asked Dr. Andonuts.
He shook his head firmly, "Quite the opposite."
Over the following year, he decided to train up a level boss. It would be ideal insurance, in case he died or was cut off permanently from the outside world as a result of the experiment, and could no longer maintain his dungeons. There were plenty of monsters in the area who were a little more successful than average but who hadn't quite made the cut for Sanctuary Guardian. After all, there could only be eight of them. The aspiring Dark Lords would jump at the opportunity to manage a Brick Road dungeon, the latest in up-and-coming architectural fashion. Starter dungeons weren't quite as trendy but they were ideal for newly established bosses; they meant more novice adventurers, which meant more kills and more prestige. He chose a Mad Duck. He had always liked the ducks best. This one had grown to twice the usual size. Its telekinetic powers made it confident with heavy lifting, despite its regal appearance.
He already had some plans for a giant humanoid dungeon that could move. It had been one of his more ambitious projects for a few years now, along with the floating dungeon, the underwater dungeon and the suburban dungeon that could fit neatly in the warehouse of a coffee shop in Fourside. He reserved some space in the Scarabian desert – it was the only place big enough to actually fit the thing inside and still give it space to move around freely. Because nobody lived there, he couldn't accidentally injure bystanders, and also because nobody lived there, it was full of monsters in need of homes.
As the days grew shorter and the deadline loomed closer, he felt himself consumed more and more with a deep sense of sadness. He was going to leave this world behind, the world of life and light and humanity. He hadn't really felt as though it was his world, or as if he had really been living life, but it was still difficult to say goodbye. He might never see any of the people in his life again; he wouldn't be able to watch the students shoving each other into the lake or setting the Chemistry lab on fire or being chased by goats. He wouldn't be able to help Dr. Andonuts and the Camera Guy with their crazy projects, and drink coffee until he was medically forced to stop.
No, he told himself firmly, they'd all come and visit him in the new dungeon. Dr. Andonuts would have to; he would be the only guy who understood the mechanical side of the project. The Camera Guy wouldn't be able to resist the photo opportunity. He would meet adventurers and lost wanderers, and maybe even the Chosen Four. The experiment was going to work. Everything was going to be fine.
On the final day, he went back to Winters and walked the corridors of his starter dungeon one last time. He checked that the duck was settling comfortably into its new job. It had already reset all the traps and refilled all the chests. The corridors had been cleaned and polished until they sparkled, which was odd, as stone wasn't supposed to sparkle. Obviously, the duck wanted to make a good impression on him. He knocked the snow off the front door signpost once more and walked to the lab.
"I have to ask you again, are you absolutely sure you want to go through with this?" asked Dr. Andonuts. Brick Road nodded.
"You need to understand that, whether or not it actually works, it will almost definitely be permanent. I haven't perfected the technology yet, and..."
"Its okay," said Brick Road.
"You don't want to wait for me to make sure everything works perfectly?"
"Your machines never work perfectly," he said with blunt honesty, "And it could take long. I don't think I could forgive myself if I missed such an opportunity."
"Why is it so important to you?"
"I like dungeons," he replied. There was no way he could possibly explain his feelings to the scientist. They both thought differently to others, he knew that, and it was why he liked talking to the man, but it didn't mean they were the same in how they differed from the norm. For instance, although neither of them really felt empathy towards other humans, Brick Road didn't think he could ever harm anyone, even if it was with their full consent. While the scientist had little in his life apart from his work, he didn't know what it was to be at one with his creations in the way that Brick Road did.
The scientist led him into the laboratory, where he had already laid out all the machines. He picked up an array of heavy black cables with jack plugs on the ends of them, "Once the implants are finished, these will connect to the base of your skull. You'll be able to control the dungeon's movement directly, as though it was your own body. Over this central connection, you'll be able to monitor and alter the conditions of every room in the dungeon, as well as track movement of life forms around the structure. You yourself will be in the control room, behind a shield. Its a prototype of the protection booth thingy I'm making. It has an in-built life support system designed to keep a person alive indefinitely."
His voice was reassuring in the frank way he described the procedure, wandering around the room like an excited artist showing off his latest sculptures, although Brick Road wished he would give the 'protection booth thingy' a proper name and stop making it sound so unappealing. "It sounds like I'd have difficulty moving my own body. How am I supposed to put in new sign posts?" he asked.
"You'll need to train subordinates. You'll have a way to communicate with others in the dungeon. Either that, or I built some small drones you could use."
"Ducks will be fine."
"Ducks. Right," Dr. Andonuts coughed nervously and scratched the back of his head, "I'll be honest with you, this first bit is going to really hurt. The rest of the procedure probably won't hurt, though."
"Probably," repeated Brick Road. He looked dubiously at the operating table. Then he closed his eyes. Already, in his mind's eye he was wandering the corridors, listening to its song and feeling the tug of longing in his heart. His every dream had been like this since that day, when he realised that he was more dungeon than man.
There is no going back.
"AAAAARGH, we're all going to die!" Jeff bravely screamed at the top of his voice as he battled against a pretty pink UFO wrapped in a red silk ribbon. With a cute little 'beep', twin laser beams shot out of its sultry eyes, vaporising the Exit Mouse that fell out of his backpack as he quickly dove for cover behind the recumbent form of Ness.
"I said, PEE KAY LIFE-UP GAMMA!" yelled Poo, roughly shaking the boy in an attempt to rouse him from unconsciousness.
"Stop being idiots and retreat!" ordered Paula. They decided to follow her tactical advice. Dragging Ness carefully by the ankles, Poo ran to catch up with Jeff, who was already way ahead of them. They hurled themselves down a sand dune. When the dust clouds cleared, a menacing pink light hovered in the sky above them. Its eyes were trained on Jeff. He reached for his gun but knew he would never reach it in time.
Suddenly, there was a loud thud that shook more dust on top of Ness, followed by the sound of metal crunching and snapping. A gigantic stone pillar had spontaneously fallen on top of their enemy and crushed it to death. Jeff blinked and rubbed his eyes. His near-death-inspired hallucination wasn't going away.
"Its a huge person!" exclaimed Paula, pointing into the sky. Jeff looked up and saw that it was indeed the stubby leg of a giant humanoid figure. It stared down at them with a gormless expression on its face.
"It sort of looks like a... giant piece of rock with a building on top of it. With arms and legs," observed Paula poetically.
"What kind of twisted mind would spawn such a creation?" demanded Poo.
"There's a billboard on its foot," said Paula, running to read it.
"Wait, don't! What if its hostile?" Jeff tried to grab her but she had already scrambled up onto the dune.
"Its from Brick Road. It says... it says it IS Brick Road. Your father finally pulled it off," she said, pointing at the ponderous golem, "Behold. Dungeon Man."
"It looks sad," observed Jeff.
"I don't think its mouth moves," said Paula, "There are ducks flying in and out."
"Can we get inside? It looks safer in there than it is outside, Ness is half dead and I'm too exhausted to do anything for him," said Poo.
"Its locked," said Paula.
"Didn't we get a key that was for a giant dungeon?" asked Jeff.
"About that, I, um... I gave it to Escargo Express last time we made an order."
"You WHAT? Oh, great, this is gonna take forever!" complained Jeff.
"Hang in there, Ness," Poo reassured the boy's comatose form. While the mysterious foreign Prince teleported back to the town to try and find a pay phone, Jeff and Paula sat down on the dune and stared up at the giant figure.
"I don't think he looks sad," said Paula, "He just sort of looks... there. Maybe that's good enough, when you're a Dungeon Man."
"Can you tell what's in his mind at all?"
She shook her head, "Its like trying to read a machine's thoughts."
"So, he's a machine now?"
"I don't know. Maybe he's something else I can't read either. I can't feel any chaos, though. Even less chaos than a human."
"I hope he's okay. He's my dad's friend. I don't really know him well, but he's a good guy." said Jeff, "Hey... what d'you think my dad will make next? Hotel Man? Pizza Store Man?"
"If you suggest Pizza Store Man to him and builds it, I'll thump you," warned Paula.
"Man, I'm hungry," said Jeff, diplomatically changing the subject while rummaging around in his backpack.
"Are those lifenoodles? Did you leave Ness on the brink of death while you had Lifenoodles?" Paula glared at him.
"Uh... sorry! I forgot! Honestly! Don't thump me!"
Impassively, Dungeon Man watched the three children play in the sand. The front door sign is covered in sand again, he thought to himself.