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"Dammit, Nathan!" Samantha exclaimed as she entered the kitchen. "Can you at least let me do this?"

"No," Nathan answered as he flipped the bacon.

The morning before, he let her cook breakfast. Then he got in her way for lunch and dinner, much to the amusement of their fellow players.

"Fine," she groaned, hugging him from behind and giving him a kiss before a quick sniff. "Did you shower?"

"I was training earlier."

Samantha sighed, giving him another peck on the cheek. She wished he'd at least train with the rest of them, rather than right after he woke up. She knew he wanted to maximize the time spent working on his enchanting, which was why he trained when he first woke up rather than with the rest of them after breakfast.

The other seniors slowly woke up to the smell of the frying bacon, and they ate breakfast before getting to work on their activities, Nathan joining them to practice the force push spell, making little progress in advancing it.

After he decided to stop trying to break Keith's shield for the day, Nathan returned to the table with his enchanting projects. He and Keith managed to finish enchanting all of the Lego bricks after sorting through the supply drop the day before, all that was left was to assemble them and place the small mana crystals.

Praying to his father in the hopes that the prayer would be answered by some god, Nathan began assembling the two ships. He only had one more box of the small mana crystals, and they were expensive. As long as he didn't use the boxes in real life, he could keep bringing them into the game, but there was still a limited supply.

"Why are you doing that?" Michael sat across from Nathan, watching as the other teen carefully pushed a small mana crystal into the back of a cannon, watching with satisfaction as it linked into the runes.

As long as the ship didn't tilt too much, the mana crystal would remain there.

"To power the enchantments," Nathan answered as he pushed in the small plastic cannonball. Those weren't hard to obtain, they were just small plastic balls he'd bought that would fit into the Lego canons. "Help keep things running while the ships fight."

That wasn't an unknown way of using mana crystals – they often powered enchantments when fitted into a form of generator or anchoring enchantment. The real purpose was something only he, Keith, and Ichtvar knew, however.

"In the cannons?" Michael asked.

"Are you the enchanter or am I?"

Michael muttered under his breath and walked away, and Nathan returned to work, placing a few more mana crystals in the ship, other than just the cannons' ones. The ones in the cannons were part of a test for the improved guns Nathan and Keith were working on.

After nearly three hours of making sure each piece was exactly the right one, its runes and enchantments matching up with all those around it perfectly, Nathan had the first ship constructed, only to find Samantha already preparing lunch, William helping her.

Grumbling under his breath, Nathan began working on the second, stopping only to eat. He rated the homemade macaroni-and-cheese a one as he ate, and as soon as he finished, returned to working on the project.

When the second ship was finished, Nathan sat back in satisfaction, then triggered both, watching as they began warring. The little Lego figures scrambled across their decks and the levels of the ships, and he noted with satisfaction that they would pull the cannons in to replace the used cannonballs.

The cannonballs were what he focused on the most. They were enchanted, and the mana crystals in the cannons were there to empower them further. If it succeeded, it would be the first step in creating not just enchanted bullets, but a fully-enchanted gun that added extra power by mana crystals, something that no one had succeeded in yet – at least, in their universe.

But Nathan was confident they would succeed. He was also confident that something on that scale had not been developed – at least, nowhere the game was. The reason for that assumption was that the System lacked it completely.

If they were looking for powerhouses, then why did they not include something as simple as a gun? Regular bullets failed to work against the monsters, at least, in a large way, but magic bullets? Bullets that were-

Nathan's eyes widened as he realized something. What if the bullets weren't enchanted, but magic?

Scrambling to pull out more resources, he hollered for Keith to join him as he started sketching out his idea.

"So instead of using mana crystal ink," Keith said as he watched Nathan's sketching and note-taking. "To enchant the bullets, the bullets will be formed fully of magic? How do you plan on that? It would be insanely intensive for mana crystals, even if we did figure out a design for that."

"The mana crystals would only help at the start," Nathan shook his head. "They'd be the basis for it. But what is something that we have an abundance of? A renewable resource?"

"I don't-" Keith cut off. "Mana! You mean to power it through mana?"

"Like the cards," Nathan nodded. "We simply enchant it so that it creates the bullets, but it draws on our mana to do so. Instead of a bullet magazine, we'd use a crystal magazine, and that would determine the type of bullet fired."

"That way," Keith said. "We wouldn't have to create a different type of gun for different types of bullets, we could have one enchanted gun and several enchanted magazines. Fire bullets? Fire mana crystal magazine. Wind bullets? Wind mana crystal magazine. Ice bullets? Water mana crystal magazine. We'd need to enchant the magazines, too, so that they'd also craft the bullets, and do it properly."

"Yeah," Nathan said as Keith sat down and started some sketching and notes for their new project. "I have one more box of regular mana crystals – those small ones you got me, so we can try and test it with that, but only if we're absolutely sure while here."

"If you'll actually go with me," Keith told Nathan. "We could probably get you more crystals. I did not feel comfortable using that card you gave me for any of the purchases, especially with how expensive they are."

Nathan began tapping his pen against his wrist as he thought over it. Keith was right, they were expensive. A crystal the size of a pea – the ones he was using in the cannons on the Lego ships – cost ten dollars each. They also held very little power – the ships had run out of those crystals' powers after only a few minutes, and were currently floating around on the power of the enchantments. Nathan's magic was potent enough they would last around half an hour, but that was it.

A single box of the crystals contained roughly one hundred crystals, and Keith had bought five of them. That was five thousand dollars. A crystal the size of a marble would cost somewhere around twenty-five to thirty dollars. To create a magazine with just one to three crystals would likely cost him around four hundred or so dollars.

It wasn't like the money would be a problem, considering his family was worth millions and his father was more than happy to supply the funds, but Nathan still didn't like spending too much when things were uncertain. That was part of why he wanted to use the game for his research.

According to Keith, how mana crystals formed were a mystery, they were simply found. Elemental-aligned ones were generally in areas dealing with those elements, but he still wasn't sure. It was known that high levels of magical activity was needed for it – magical creatures were often living there.

Nathan called Ichtvar to him through their bond. He, Keith's familiar, and Master Torzin likely had some idea of what caused the formation of mana crystals. Ichtvar had to – according to what Keith knew, there was an abundance of them around Yellowstone National Park, and even more of them near where Ichtvar lived and where he met with the agents.

The clearing where the two of them had met.

It wasn't an enormous amount, as they were still rare enough, but enough to suggest the resident phoenix knew the source of their formation.

"I'm busy," came the quick response.

Nathan snorted. Ichtvar wasn't killing very many monsters, which he knew because he was receiving almost no Points that day. Keith's familiar was performing most of the kills. He summoned Ichtvar again, and the phoenix grumbled before saying he was on the way.

Almost ten minutes later, the phoenix arrived as Nathan and Keith continued to sketch and plan for the new version of their guns.

"You two got an idea," the phoenix stated.

"Yes," Nathan looked at the phoenix. "What causes mana crystals to form?"

"Which kind are you talking about?" Ichtvar asked.

"All kinds."

"It varies."

"Fire mana crystals."

"Various methods," Ichtvar responded. "A regular mana crystal forms in a place with high levels of ambient mana, which typically occurs around places with magical creatures living there, or magical plants growing in abundance. The reason they form is when the ambient mana is shifted around enough that it starts crystallizing. This is a process that can take a few minutes to a few years, depending on the movements of the mana and the size of the crystal."

"And fire mana crystals, as I asked?"

"I'm getting there," the phoenix huffed. "Affinity mana crystals generally form the same way, only when there's a high level of its affinity there or imbued into the ambient mana. This is more likely in an area with creatures tuned to that affinity, which is why Yellowstone tended to have fire mana crystals. My presence and level of power caused the area to be saturated with mana tuned to fire. My cave actually had a magma mana crystal that I enjoyed nesting on. It was about four feet in height and three around, with the perfect dip in it for me to nest in. Well, I made the dip in the crystal, but that's irrelevant."

"Is there a way to artificially create mana crystals?" Nathan asked.

"Yes," the phoenix responded. "Though it was only figured out by Merlin. At least, for this world, not sure if others have figured it out. If Master Torzin knows, he's never mentioned it. It's how I made the magma mana crystal."

"How?" Nathan asked.

"Two methods," the phoenix responded. "The first is using a mana crystal seed, the second is to manually shift it around."

"Manually shift it around?" Keith asked.

"Yes," the phoenix nodded. "A powerful enough magician is able to draw on the ambient mana around them – not to cast spells, but for enchantments. Your passive recovery enchantments do it. You utilize a similar principle, only without putting it into an enchantment. Depending on the level of ambient mana, it would take Merlin anywhere from fifteen to eighty minutes to manually make one the size of the tiny ones you're using here. It requires constant concentration, or you might break it. Or drop it."

"Mana crystals continue to draw in mana, right?" Nathan asked. "Even after they form? That's how they grow larger?"

"No," the phoenix shook its head, finally landing and looking at the gun's design. "Interesting item," it looked back at Nathan. "Once the crystal itself forms, it's complete. How big of one and its dimensions is based on the 'core' of the shifting ambient mana – that's what turns into the crystal. The bigger the crystal, the rarer it is to form, as it requires more space and ambient mana."

Nathan thought over that. It sounded tedious just to get something to work.

"And the mana crystal seeds?" He asked.

"Ah, those," the phoenix chuckled. "Merlin hated having to do the work himself while he was busy helping Arthur and Mordred deal with some nasties. So he devised a way to not need to shift mana around. It was truly revolutionary.

"He took a few years," the phoenix continued. "But figured out how to create a 'seed'. You know how, when you plant a seed, if it's not a dud and has the right resources, it grows into a tree?"

"Yes," the two seniors responded.

"The mana crystal seeds are something similar," he told them. "It acts as the core itself, drawing mana into it. Once it builds up enough, it turns into the crystal. And it starts off with nothing more than a stone that's been enchanted.

"There are, however, some catches," the phoenix said. "At least, that's what I think the term is. The enchantment is easier to perform on a larger stone. However, the larger the stone, the more ambient mana you need around if you want it to succeed. Then there is time. It can't take too long, or it fails to complete, and the ambient mana is dispersed back around as the enchantments fade. That's part of why the larger ones need more ambient mana in the area – to ensure it happens quickly enough."

"What causes ambient mana?" Nathan asked. "Is there any here?"

"Ambient mana," the phoenix said. "Is dependent on many factors. Some of it comes from magic usage, some of it comes simply from the presence of magical creatures. A dragon's shit, fertilizing the ground, can cause an immense amount of ambient mana to form, until it's drawn away into enchantments or fades away. Unlike most things, mana does, in fact, disappear, turning into nothing. Ambient mana is the most guilty of this.

"And before you cite that whole 'you can't turn something into absolutely nothing, it has to go somewhere', we're talking about magic. It can become nothing. That's why void magic is as dangerous as it is. There's no other end, it simply erases the very presence and existence of something. Luckily, I doubt there are many capable of wielding it. Even Master Torzin can't."

"And the other question?" Nathan asked. "How much ambient mana is here? Could we potentially create a decent supply of-"

"No," the phoenix destroyed that chain of thought. "There is absolutely no ambient mana here at all, which is odd, considering this place is one big magical construct. The Survival Challenge you were in and the Dungeon you entered both contained it. Oddly, neither of those were magical constructs. Those were some well-crafted passages into other worlds and dimensions."

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About the author

Matthew Thorne

  • A very dark place.
  • Lurking Dragon

Bio: I think I see a light. It keeps flickering in and out.

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