“Rule #50 - Though you have entered the same dungeon a thousand times, never assume that you are safe. For dungeons are terrible and treacherous.
- From 50 Rules for Dungeon Divers
The diagnostic spell attached to Caden must have told Tam about the acquisition of a new skill, as he did his usual song and dance. However, he was paying Tam only the slightest attention. He was far more focused on how much more he could suddenly see.
For the first time Caden could actually perceive parts of his aura clearly. It was a spider's wet-dream. A vast intricate web that became ever finer. The thickest strands were, however, far finer than spider silk, and each of these was directly connected to Caden; thousands of them. Hooks, slightly thinner, branched tree-like from these main strands. Countless thinner strands were also attached to each strand, and each had their own hooks. And each strand had more strands, with more strands, until they went well past his ability to see them in an endless fractal pattern. Past a certain point all he could see was the faint glittering fog of their presence.
With this he could now see the ambient mana in the air. His aura waved its fine threads within the faint currents of mana like kelp beneath the sea. Amidst the mana currents he could see the glimmering threads sweeping about the room from the beam enchantment on the wall. He could also see how the other four runes on the wall had their own threads where they attached to the very ends of his aura.
His aura pulsed. It felt like a living entity in its own right. Faint pulses of mana streamed back and forth across it, and the faint flow of mana that he passively absorbed traveled within the strands until they finally reached him. And then there was Caden himself. For all the complexity of his aura it paled to the web inside his core. Caden could only detect the topmost layer or two, but there were no measly thousands of threads here. No, here there were millions, billions, of threads, each pulsing faintly with the mana racing between them. If Tam could have seen it Caden suspected he would cry for joy.
Caden was so lost in studying and learning that he even let the mana he had left drain away. It felt like hours before he dragged himself away from simply watching. Everything was beautiful beyond words. Still, Exsan's insistent nagging at the back of his mind eventually brought him back to himself. Exsan cared nothing for beauty, and barely seemed to even notice their increased sight. With a mental sigh, he got down to seeing what he could learn and do with this new capacity.
Now that he could see mana more clearly, he could see how the fronds of his aura unfurled and wrapped around an area when he was trying to keep mana still. Neighboring threads drew slightly closer to assist, their own extremities reaching out closer. In the end it looked like the area he was holding was caged in ever fainter gleaming threads, their hooks woven around each other to hold them in place against the pressure of the mana within.
This all happened automatically. When he saw a few threads poking out he tried to control them to get closer; nothing happened. Indeed, the structure was far from perfect; it was obvious that there was still room for improvement. However, as he focused on simply making that hold tighter, some of the strands were slowly bending themselves inwards. It appeared he had no direct control, but his aura as a whole bent to his will and improved.
When Caden had mana again, he was able to examine other aspects of his skills. His aura worked far more efficiently than the beam created to alter stone, but the process was similar. What happened on the finer levels was beyond him, but the little hooks would gather bits of stone and hold them together until they were fused, or the reverse. Caden could see mana pulsing down his aura both when he created and destroyed stone. This puzzled him. If he was using mana to create stone, surely he should gain mana when he destroyed it? The fact that this universe was different from his own was no surprise, but magic casually waving the middle finger at the conservation of energy would make finding how the rules worked even harder than he had originally thought.
By comparison, when he examined how his aura expanded it was much easier to understand. Mana poured from his core along the largest threads until it reached the end. There the mana was extruded as more thread, assisted by the smaller threads already present, which also helped form smaller threads, and so on. The ends of his largest threads within the room were being held by enchantments from the four runes, and when Caden tried to extend his aura they simply drained the mana away and glowed. Presumably they were converting his mana into light.
At the end of the day Caden took stock of himself. For all the progress that he was making he could tell that all was not well. His mind was perpetually clear and focused, inhumanly so, but he could feel his emotions roiling beneath the surface. It made it harder to ignore Exsan and function as he thought he ought to.
He was made to sleep. He was made to eat, and laugh, and communicate. He could feel the lack.
People rarely think about it, but they touch other people, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time. Caden had a sense of touch, and he could feel the stone, and air, and even himself and Tam, but it was not the same. And he was not communicating, not really. He had some limited interactions with Tam, but in so many ways it was as if he had been locked in solitary confinement. There is a reason that is considered a terrible punishment; humans don't merely like being around others a little, they require it.
Caden could tell that his latest actions were not all the best that he should be capable of. He was failing to think as clearly as he could, and in this situation that could lead to disaster.
He had looked into what he could do about it, but there were no real options, even in the AP store. There was an option for a body, but it was far far beyond what he was capable of paying now. And if he could make a body then being trapped here would presumably not be a big problem right now anyway. The only options he truly had were within his own mind.
Caden meditated. Alone. The faint rush of mana all around him. He had no breath, but he stopped and started the absorption of mana. In and out. The life-giving flow of mana, in, pause and relax, repeat. He took all the time that he needed. He simply... let go. He had no body to itch, no hair to prickle in awareness. Eventually he stopped even bringing in mana. All his attention focused inward and after a few hours he finally reemerged. He had not felt this good for ages. He was always alert and clear, but now he also felt rested in a way he had desperately lacked.
He needed to take the time and think now. He would obviously need to do this again. Maybe he wouldn't need to spend hours on it every single day, but for now Caden was going to do it at least a little. He also thought he had felt something, deep within the timeless awareness.
Regardless, now Caden could reexamine himself.
It was obvious some of the things he had been taking for granted. Caden had kept focusing on one thing at a time. For meditation, that was perfect, but was not something he needed to do all the time. Caden was not human anymore.
Humans, when all was said and done, were truly terrible at multitasking. What they really did was switch from task to task rapidly. That was not a problem that he suffered from anymore. Caden could practice multiple skills simultaneously without having to switch between them. He was focusing on a single task because it was what he was used to doing. It might take him some practice to train himself out of it, but it would be well worth it. That being the case he needed to focus on as many things as possible.
Caden was reasonably certain that he would run into some limit to his attention at some point. However, since a dungeon should be capable of handling, literally, hundreds to thousands of adventurers, monsters, and more details, that limit might well be more than he would ever need. Though that assumed that he gained access to that level of capacity right away.
Caden took a quick look at all the things it would be worth it for him to study. He needed to keep up his mana immobilization practice in many areas at the same time while also focusing the area as narrowly as possible and absorbing mana as swiftly as possible. He had made everything spheres, but he was going to try disks, toruses, and slices, and any odd shape that he could think of. He also needed to keep analyzing mana and his aura. In addition, he needed to continue studying his active uses of mana, expanding his aura and messing about with stone. And since he had so little of it, he needed to constantly try to use less of it anytime he spent it.
These things were all that Caden had already considered; he would simply now be working on all of them at the same time and in greater detail. However, he had also realized how many options he had left on the table.
Caden had tons of things available to study. Tam had thousands of threads of enchantment waving their merry way throughout his aura. He was going to study those; who knew what he might learn. Tam cast spells at him practically every day, and other than using them for mana he had been ignoring them. He should analyze and try to memorize their structure. In fact, if he had mana available at the time he should try to replicate the structure in hardened stone so he would have a record. If the spell had little variations he might be able to find out what really mattered for the spell.
Caden knew a lot about his aura now. It could hold, break apart, and fuse matter. It could also directly interact with mana. He should definitely make use of both of these. Caden was going to try to manipulate stone using the hooks directly. Even if he could not get a quick or spectacular result, doing it without mana would be a huge achievement. He also needed to start attacking every mana construct in range with his aura constantly. He had an enchantment that was always active right below him. Another fed him, though to be fair, he did not really want to mess too much with that one. Thousands of tiny enchantment threads waved through his aura; if he could disable those he would have a much better chance of escape. Other threads attached directly to some of his aura, removing those would allow him to expand directly in the room again. It might not be something that he needed at the moment, but it could be critical later.
Caden had mana constantly flowing into him. It might be immediately flowing out again, but it was possible that he might be able to use that mana before it was drained away. He was going to try to use that to constantly expand his aura. Also he had shown that he could limit mana's flow. It was time to use that to try to hold any mana that tried to drain away, and try to hold mana in himself from draining in the first place. And if he could slow mana down, maybe he could do the reverse. He was going to try to accelerate the mana flow in the feeder. Another aspect of that ability was that Caden could probably just move mana from place to place. He fully intended to move mana around constantly. Mana was his lifeblood; anything he could do to improve using it was going to be helpful.
Tam and the crystals holding mana were still opaque to Caden for now. He was going to continually watch them and try to improve his perceptions. He needed to analyze the metal of the stand and try to break it apart with his aura.
And then there was the system itself. Were there other commands that he could make, other ways to use it? What more options might he gain from it?
These were not all of the things that Caden could do. He knew tons of things from his time in another world, and some of them were purely mental. However, because he did not want to tip Tam off, Caden was not going to do anything with them yet. As interesting as it would be to see what skills he would get from demonstrating math, map making, chemistry, physics, etc... it would likely be hard to hide that these skills required a thinking and self-aware mind. He was, however, going to start doing something that seemed fully in line with what a dungeon should do. He was going to make sculptures, art, traps; it would probably be good for his mental health to be creative. Who knows, if he got good enough at moving mana around he might be able to just make art out of mana. For now, it was time to get to practicing.