Chapter 090-B
Grand Whistler

The tunnels Zach and Zorian were traversing were weird.

Not that there was a shortage of weird things this deep in the Dungeon, of course, but these tunnels were notable enough to make Zorian uneasy. They were completely covered in some kind of dark moss that formed a thick layer of soft vegetation on every wall, floor, and ceiling. Their feet sank into the dark mass with each step they took, making their progress slow and uncertain. The moss was harmless on its own, but who knows what hidden dangers lurked beneath it.

Still, Zach and Zorian were pretty resourceful and skilled, and would not be deterred by something this minor. They advanced cautiously, a number of glowing spheres trailing behind them to light their way. Some sections of the Dungeon were naturally illuminated by glowing crystal formations and other sources of light, but these moss tunnels were as dark as the night in their natural state. If there were any glowing crystals embedded in the surrounding rocks, they were completely covered by the moss.

"I can't believe nothing has attacked us yet," Zach suddenly said, stopping in the middle of the tunnel. He pressed his hand against the moss-covered wall to his left, and it easily sank into the spongy plant matter. "The moss is pretty deep. There could've definitely been predators hidden here, but we've been walking through this area for an hour and there's no trace of anything dangerous. Just minor bugs and the like that feed on the moss."

"It probably means there is some greater predator driving everything else away," Zorian offered.

"But where is it, then? I know the moss dampens the sound of our steps, but you'd think they would notice our arrival anyway. We have an entire lightshow following us. You experienced yourself how sensitive a lot of the native creatures are to any trace of light."

Zorian frowned. That was one of the more concerning things they had realized during this expedition – this deep in the Dungeon, almost everything was highly sensitive to any source of light, meaning anyone reliant on illuminating their surroundings to navigate around was broadcasting their position to absolutely everything in the area. If they had a way to navigate in total darkness, they would have suffered far fewer attacks.

Though navigating this giant death maze in total darkness for several weeks seemed like something that wouldn't be particularly healthy for his sanity. The stress was starting to get to him as it is.

"This was such a bad idea," Zorian could help but say.

"No, this was a perfect idea," Zach said, grinning. How did he maintain such good cheer in these circumstances? "When are we ever going to do something like this outside the time loop? Descending this deep into the Dungeon would be sheer lunacy in the real world. Neither of us would dare to do it. Just imagine what we could discover here! This is a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Zorian noticed a small bug flying clumsily at him. He immediately snatched the bug out of the air before it could collide with him and inspected it as it struggled in his hand. They already confirmed earlier that the bugs that lived in the moss were harmless to humans, so he wasn't particularly worried about handling it. He was wearing protective gloves, anyway, just like Zach.

The bug looked vaguely like a beetle, but with only four legs and something that looked like a giant compound eye on its back. It's front legs ended in something that looked disturbingly like tiny human hands, and its shell was covered in pale whitish markings that moved across the surface of the chitin like animated images.

He quickly threw the little monster away. It might be harmless, but it was also disturbing.

"Fine," he told Zach. His fellow time traveler was right. The danger and the stress were slowly getting to him, but he couldn't deny he shared Zach's burning curiosity about what they could find down here. "We go deeper."

"Always deeper," Zach said, nodding. "Until we die or reach the bottom."

The former being for more likely than the latter, in Zorian's opinion. No one had ever managed to reach the bottom of the dungeon, and some really capable and amazing people had tried over the centuries. Even with the time loop on their side, Zorian didn't think they could pull off something on that level.

But he didn't say any of that. Instead, he and Zach continued their journey through the moss-covered tunnels, in search of the overlord of this place. Of course, if they managed to cross the entire area without disturbing anything, that would be just as well. Their goal was to get as deep as possible, not to pick fights with powerful denizens of the Dungeon.

The mossy area was big and contained many similar-looking tunnels that intersected one another in various places. They got lost a couple of times, but eventually Zorian built a crude map of the place in his head and realized there was a pattern to the tunnels – they were all gently curving in a particular direction, despite looking remarkably straight to the naked eye, and seemed to consist of a bunch of spirals intersecting one another as they all slowly spiraled towards the point in the center.

It took them a while, but after a few hours they finally reached the place where the spirals converged and emerged into a vast stone chamber.

The place was breathtaking. The vast empty space in front of them was larger than any they had encountered since they started their descent, and it was well illuminated due to the strange construct in the center of it, allowing Zach and Zorian to easily study the entire chamber from the spot where they emerged into it. The place was roughly spherical, but with rough stone walls that still gave it a somewhat natural appearance. There was no moss covering here – it suddenly terminated at the spot where the tunnel ended and the chamber began. No moss grew in the vast chamber, not even small scattered patches near the entrance tunnel. All the walls were studded with a huge number of circular holes of very similar size. Different moss tunnels all leading towards this place, if Zorian were to guess.

Of course, the thing that was most amazing about this place was the thing in the center. Huge ribbon-like sections of stone floated in the center of the chamber in gravity-defying manner, spiraling chaotically towards a softly glowing blue sphere in the center. Together, the ribbons formed a strange sphere of tangled stone that glowed from within.

The immense sphere of tangled stone ribbons immediately captivated Zorian when he laid his eyes on it. However, when Zorian tried to focus on the structure and details of the construct, his eyes began to water and his vision turned blurry, forcing him to avert his eyes. The way the spirals intersected didn't make any sense, and Zorian was pretty sure the whole thing was geometrically impossible.

Some kind of dimensional magic? He couldn't imagine it being anything else. Perhaps he should-

He was broken out of his stupor by Zach grasping his shoulder roughly and shaking him. He looked towards Zach in askance, but found that Zach was looking behind him with a grim expression.

Zorian immediately turned to face whatever was making Zach so serious, and found himself looking at a large serpentine creature floating in front of him.

It was almost three times longer than Zorian was tall and pale white, with a body covered in iridescent scales. It had no eyes, or even a recognizable head – instead, it's body terminated in an intricate bony formation, like a disturbing rose made out of bone. Immediately behind this bone rose the creature sprouted four equidistant arms, reminiscent of human ones. Both the arms and the fingers had far too many joints and twitched constantly.

Despite the strange appearance, Zorian was unafraid. He had seen a lot of strange creatures in the past week or so, and this one was on the low end of the scale. Many deep dungeon denizens tended towards a serpentine body plan, probably because it made it easier to move through the narrower tunnels, so this was just another Weird Snakelike Thing in his book.

The unusual thing was that it was just watching them, and not attacking.

The tense standoff continued for a few seconds, the creature's four arms constantly moving. Zorian thought it might be trying to communicate with them, but if so, he didn't have the faintest idea of what it was saying. He didn't even try to read its mind. He had learned by now that it was a total waste of time. Trying to read the minds of deep dungeon denizens usually wasn't dangerous, but he couldn't interpret anything from them either, and they all had absurdly high magic resistance. Some, like the creature in front of him, were hard for him to even detect on his mind sense. It was a huge waste of mana for little gain.

Zach and Zorian stepped back. The creature floated forward slowly, maintaining its distance, but still not attacking.

Zorian frowned at the situation. He didn't want to get into an unnecessary fight, but he also didn't believe the creature in front of them was truly benign. Some of the dungeon denizens did leave them alone in the past, letting them pass by unmolested, but they had also ignored them completely. This one was clearly interested in them. Everything Zorian knew about the deep dungeon suggested this was never a good thing.

"I don't like this. I vote we just attack it," Zach said.

Zorian was about to agree when a series of loud, high-pitched sounds sounded in the distance. They reminded Zorian of a train whistle. The creature in front of them shrank back in obvious terror and immediately bolted into the nearest tunnel and disappeared into the darkness.

Zach and Zorian didn't bother saying anything. They didn't even share a look. They both wordlessly started running, bolting straight into the very same tunnel that the four-armed rose-headed snake-thing used to make its escape. The whistling was getting louder at a fast rate, which meant that whatever was producing it was approaching quickly. Neither of them wanted to face something that could terrify other monsters so easily.

Thankfully, whatever was producing the whistling didn't follow them into the moss-covered tunnel.

- break -

A few hours later, Zach and Zorian managed to find a way out of the mossy tunnel area. They never encountered the snake thing that had fled along with them – it had flown faster than they could run, and probably made different turns than they had in the mossy maze.

In any case, they decided to avoid the area in the future and go around it. The strange cave in the center was fascinating, but they weren't equipped to handle it at the moment. Their current goal was to see how far they could go if they traveled fast, and to note anything interesting they see along the way. They didn't want to linger at any particular place for too long. They marked the place on the map they were making and moved on.

Unfortunately, their journey into the depths suddenly became a lot more difficult for a reason they did not expect – water. Almost all of the paths in front of them were partially or totally flooded, and every attempt to avoid it and find another entrance into deeper levels led them to more flooded caves.

While magic could allow them to traverse the underwater for quite some time, both of them agreed that this should never be attempted. Dungeon creatures were hard enough to fend off on land. Trying to fight them in water was just begging to get unceremoniously drowned and eaten. Zach and Zorian were fine with dying here, but there was no need to be suicidal about it.

They were currently resting on an artificially made platform they attached to the ceiling of one of the larger caverns. This gave them a good position to spot any approaching threats while limiting the number of dungeon creatures that could reach them. A lot of creatures could fly or climb, but not all.

"How is our food situation?" Zorian asked, before taking a bit out of the dry ration they'd packed for the journey. It tasted pretty bad, but everyone knew that eating anything found down here was foolhardy, and they'd already eaten all the fancier stuff they had.

"We packed many, many crates of this stuff before we set off," Zach said, twirling a familiar glass globe in his left hand. "I think we've got nothing to worry about. I just wish we'd brought some variety instead of buying so much identical crap."

'That was Zach's fault,' Zorian thought to himself, chewing on his ration. The other time traveler came up with this idea seemingly on a whim, forcing them to quickly organize things without any kind of deeper research. It was amazing things were going as well as they were, all things considered.

Zorian placed a small pyramid of glass and gold on the platform they were resting on and cast an illusion spell. A three-dimensional image of the path they had traversed to get here materialized in the air as a semi-transparent, translucent sculpture of light.

Because they had been continuously seeking a path downward so far, the map was very vertical and narrow, like a wobbly irregular cylinder. In certain places, like the mossy maze, or that creepy cavern full of bones, it extended horizontally due to them taking a while to make sense of the area and find a way down, but by far the largest explored layer was at the bottom. They had been at this for a while, trying to find a way down that wasn't blocked by water.

"Maybe we should give up the spiral search pattern and just pick a direction to go in," Zorian said. "Clearly this whole area is unsuitable."

"You mean we just go straight in a random direction until we're as far away from this place as possible?" Zach asked, rubbing his chin. Zorian nodded. "Yeah, that sounds good. Even if we find a way down, we'll probably find an underground lake or something down there."

"There has to be a reason why every tunnel down here is flooded," Zorian said, agreeing with his conclusion.

"It's just frustrating," Zach sighed, throwing the glass orb in his hand lightly into the air and catching it on the way down. He repeated the motion again and again. "We were making such good time, and then this! But I guess we don't actually have a destination in mind, and it's unreasonable to expect no issues on our first attempt."

First attempt… indeed, while Zorian was far more unnerved and stressed out by this place, he too agreed that there should be more attempts like this in the future. He didn't think this whole thing was going to be particularly helpful in escaping the time loop – the original justification that Zach had for this endeavor – but it was certainly exciting and a nice change of pace from their usual routine.

He did hope they could convince more people to join them when they attempted this in the future. If only so he had someone other than Zach to talk to in times like this.

Zorian's musings were interrupted by a commotion coming from the bottom of the cavern. Zach and Zorian immediately set aside what they were doing and leaned over the edge of their platform to see what was happening down there. The cavern was dim and its floor was studded by large rock formations, but they had a birds-eye view of the situation and their sight was magically enhanced with potions to cope with the poor illumination of the place.

Two dungeon creatures appeared to be having a confrontation. They weren't looking upwards, apparently oblivious to Zach and Zorian on their ceiling platform, and were instead facing each other and trading growls and hisses.

The first creature was pale yellow, with a very large eyeless head. It's bottom seemed to be a tangle of legs and tentacles, mixed together in such a way that Zorian had trouble counting them. It's skin was glossy and slimy, and when it opened its large mouth it revealed two rows of predatory, triangular teeth.

The second one looked somewhat like a large dog with a bird's head. A relatively simple quadruped with a familiar body plan. However, it's body was translucent and jelly-like, with its bones and internal organs easily visible through its skin. It was hissing up a storm, occasionally shooting its long, thin, bright red tongue at the yellow tentacle beast.

Zorian found it more than a little suspicious that these two were having a fight right below them. He suspected that they had heard Zach and Zorian having a conversation between each other up on the ceiling and came here to check it out, only to find competition from the other upon arrival.

Zorian had erected a sound barrier around their platform when they made it, but he wouldn't be surprised if it was partially or totally ineffective. Dungeon creatures had strange senses and abilities, especially ones found this deep. These creatures were so exotic they didn't even have names.

Finally, the yellow tentacle creature seemed to have had enough. It made the first move, swinging several of its tentacles at the jelly-dog with lightning fast movement. Although the monster were considerable distance apart, and the tentacles didn't even come close to connecting with the jelly-dog, white ghostly whips of magical force extended out from the tips of the tentacles and crossed the distance between them in an instant. They lashed at the jelly dog, who tried to jump back but failed to react in time.

However, even though the jelly-dog failed to evade the whips, it didn't matter. The ghostly whips cut deep groves in the stone of the cavern, but when they actually tried to slice into the jelly-dog itself they encountered an invisible spherical barrier around the creature and slid right off and dealt no damage to it.

Seemingly emboldened by this, the jelly-dog opened its beaked mouth wide and produced an expanding wave of multicolored light. The wave quickly blasted the entire area where the yellow tentacle beast was at, harmlessly passing through everything. Though it seemed to do no damage to the tentacle beast, it immediately became visibly skittish. It started to inch backwards, clearly trying to retreat.

Just like that, the clash seemed to have been decided. Zorian was kind of disappointed, he had been hoping-

"Boo!" Zach yelled loudly. "I wanted to see more! What kind of coward retreats after just one exchange like that!?"

To punctuate his statement, he fired a force ray at the rock formation behind the tentacle beast, causing it to explode into a multitude of rock splinters.

"Zach! What are you doing!?" Zorian protested. He originally wanted to whisper, but it came out louder than he intended. Not that it mattered at this point.

"They came here for us, anyway," Zach told him. "I'd rather they tire themselves out and show us all their skills before we have to take one of them on."

That… okay, that did make a lot of sense, Zorian had to admit.

The two monsters kept glancing at each other and then at the platform at the ceiling, unsure what to do. Zach launched another two spells at the terrain around them, trying to push them to fight, but they seemed smarter than Zach gave them credit for, and merely circled each other, occasionally throwing glances at the platform in the sky.

Zorian guessed they were either looking for the right moment to both flee, or they wanted to unite and bring the annoying prey down to the ground somehow.

This is when a third challenger barged into the scene. An absolutely massive creature entered into the caverns from one of the two tunnels leading into it, slowly making its way to the center of the cavern. Zorian would describe it as a crawling tree, or maybe a branching worm. It was black, but densely covered in glowing blue spots and stripes, A variety of oddly-shaped "fruits" hung from its branches, some contracting and expanding like a multitude of hearts, some unfolding and closing like petals of a flower, and some letting out feelers that probably let it perceive the world around it.

It was slow and looked pretty clumsy, but it advanced towards the two monsters fearlessly, showing no concern at taking on two opponents at once.

Zorian was tempted to conclude the poor creature simply didn't know what it was stumbling into, but that idea was soon dispelled. Just like before, the tentacle beast seemed to be the more aggressive and impatient of the two monsters, and it reacted to the newcomer's brazen appearance by attacking it with its force whips.

Much like before, those whips were ineffective, but not because of any barrier. Instead, the whips deformed the black, rubbery flesh of the crawling tree, but dealt no actual damage to it. The thing didn't even slow down, and instead pounced forward in a blindingly fast maneuver that seemed completely at odds with what such a seemingly slow, clumsy-looking creature should possess.

Before either of the two creatures could react, the crawling tree landed right into middle of them and made a sweeping motion, snatching both of them into its branches.

The tentacle beast fared the worst. It wailed horribly as a multitude of branches stuck to it like glue, restraining it. A number of strange organs Zorian spotted earlier unfolded into toothy mouths that bit into its flesh, tearing chunks of it while it was still alive.

As for the jelly-dog, the black tree failed to restrain it effectively due to its magical shield. Whatever the tree-thing was using to make its branches stick to the tentacle beast, it didn't work too well on magical constructs. However, the thing had many branches and though the jelly dog was too slippery for it to effectively restrain, it couldn't get away.

But the tree-like dungeon denizen wasn't finished. It caught two creatures to eat, but it apparently wanted more. It planted its trunk-like main body onto the stone floor of the cavern, gluing itself to it, and then raised its branches into the sky, the two other dungeon beasts still struggling and howling in its grasp.

It extended its branches towards the stone platform on the ceiling.

Swearing a curse, Zorian immediately jumped backwards, erecting a spherical shield around him and activating a flight spell. Zach did the same thing, but was much calmer about it and didn't bother cursing. The branches of the creature swiped at the stone platform, ripping it off from the ceiling and brushing lightly over Zorian's shield. However, they slid off harmlessly off the sphere of magical force, unable to find a purchase on it.

They both flew away from the rampaging creature, throwing a variety of spells to dissuade it from following them. These spells were disappointingly ineffective for the most part, as the black tree shrugged off everything they threw at it, but it didn't matter. Rooted as it currently was to the floor of the cavern, the tree monster seemed incapable of pursuing them.

They quickly made their escape before that could change. The terrified shrieks of the two creatures caught in the tree's branches echoed behind them for a long time afterwards.

- break -

One of my earlier ideas for the story included an extensive expedition by Zach and Zorian into the depths of the dungeon. That would eventually culminate in a meeting with a powerful creature that Zorian names 'Grand Whistler' (hence the name of the chapter). I didn't have any ideas where to lead the whole thing afterwards, though, and it was kind of a weird tangent so I cut it out of the story plan pretty early on.

Also! The second arc of Mother of Learning is getting a physical book through Kickstarter! This includes both hardcover and paperback, and you can also order the first book if you missed it during the first Kickstarter. I cannot put up any links here on Fictionpress, but I'm sure you can find it on your own easily enough. I have faith in you!