The internet antenna array at the top of the mountain wasn't visible, one of a few locations that couldn't be seen until they were close. It was a little over a three hundred feet tall, and elevated almost eighteen thousand feet off the ground. At it's base, built to Melchsees specifications, was a painted white pillbox, a room made of thick concrete with a rectangular hole instead of a door.
“No hard feelings about the tourists?” Melchsee asked a final time.
“I haven't felt like myself in months, and I almost killed Ben,” Casimer responded “I've never felt this strong before. There's not going to be a better time to do this.”
Melchsee sat in a chair, in front of a computer, monitoring the central lake chamber, the hundreds of Poison Spike Crawlers visible on the walls. She pressed a key, and the camera changed view, a straight down shot into the lake. The water was clear as crystal, the dim blue lighting giving everything an electric quality. In the center of the lake, Casimer's core, his true self, sat in the geometric center of the lake, suspended and still. Orbiting it was the Veridian Core he had obtained in the Dungeon of Dungeons, it's path lit by a thin rail of bright purple light.
Somewhere on the mountain, a woman died, having been separated from her group and discovered a pack of giant mice. Melchsee absently hummed 'another one bites the dust', and zoomed in on the cores in the center.
Casimer's core pulsed with a deep purple light, then the Veridian core pulsed as well, in green. The lake of mana visibly rose several inches, and the steam in the chamber thickened. On the wall, it's body covered in a dew of liquid mana, a Poison Spike Crawler convulsed, split in half, and dropped a perfectly sphereical, smooth crystal down into the lake below.
“It's solid!” Melchsee said, eyes opening in surprise, zoomed in on the crystal below. Bubbles were forming, at a faster and faster rate, until the liquid mana was boiling around it, bubbles rising to the surface and making it churn. The chunk of crystal shot out of the water like a cork, a ball of bright blue flame, the same fire Casimer had seen consume the five invaders from another world. It burned, flared brightly like thermite or an acetylene torch for only a few moments, then exhausted itself in a tenth of a second, leaving a tiny spark in the air, and then nothing.
“Melmat's going to love this,” Melchsee mumbled, sending the video through secure channels. “You've got to stabilize this area better. We're really close,” she said aloud, knowing Casimer could hear her.
“This is the best I can do with two cores,” Casimer said, his voice sounding only in her mind. “We're going to have to go back, Melchsee. I can feel my third core, it's just sitting in that gateway to the Dungeon of Dungeons, doing nothing.”
“You've got a month left before you can try out Create Dungeon again,” Melchsee said “If that fails, and very well might, then we can head back.”
“In case you haven't noticed,” Casimer said, a note of panic in his voice “I can barely hold on to the mana I have, it just flows through me and I lose it. Anytime it starts to get even a little concentrated outside of a living creature, and to a lesser extent water, it burns up and evaporates. Ever since I got that second core, it's been easier. Do you have any idea how much waste there is around here?” Casimer paused, collecting his thoughts.
“It's like this. Living creatures, they have a stomach, right? All their food is dissolved there, and they get a little bit of benefit from it. Then, it goes to their intestines, where it sits. Their body absorbs nutrients and energy as needed from everything that sits in the intestines, and when it's expended, it's ejected from the body. I don't have any fucking intestines, or a goddamn stomach, Melchsee,” Casimer was growing angry “I eat my food and it rushes right out of me. I have to keep eating and eating, constantly eating, and it's never enough and my hunger never ends. I'm deformed!” He was shouting in her mind now.
“Calm down!” she yelled, and he relented.
“With three cores, I'm sure I'll be able to start concentrating mana and building up a reserve. As it stands, I might be able to last a month, but what if Create Dungeon fails, and I'm too weak to retrieve the core from the gateway? Then we're dead. We get it now, while I'm still strong enough, while there's still enough flowing through me that I can think straight.”
Melchsee replayed the mana crystal burning up on the computer screen, and whistled as she performed ballpark mental estimates of how much energy had been released. It was a lot.
“I'd always wondered why there wasn't any mana floating around outside of people,” she mused “And without any around to study, I had no way to know. Who would have guessed that it's just too damn hot in our universe, and it all burned up and evaporated?”
“It's not just going somewhere else,” Casimer said “most of it is going to the Dungeon of Dungeons.”
Melchsee thought hard about that statement for a long time, and in the distance, another flare shot into the air.
Casimer sat cross legged, still wearing Ben's body, eyes closed atop the mountain, near the second tallest peak, on a perfectly circular plateau covered in lush, thick grass. Casimer was aware of many things happening inside/around of him; of the way his winds carried natural grass seed and spread it far and wide; of the strange, snail like creatures he grew in the watery depths below, each burning with an inner, dangerous, atomic fire; of Ben and three women, two of which Casimer had seen before; of twenty four dead tourists; of a pack of giant hunting spiders that would bring the total up to thirty inside of ten minutes; of dens and warrens of natural animals, their bodies slowly mutating from the mana laced waters that flowed through the mountain, accelerating their evolution; of Ahr's futile race to save a group of six people from giant spiders.
But more than anything, more than the mana and life that surged into him with all the addictive force of food, Casimer could feel his third core, the one he had created. It was right there, the key to his survival, and he was out of patience.
“I wonder,” he said, voice ringing across the entirety of his domain, all the humans stopping in fear to look for the voice speaking into their ear “What will happen if I do. . . this?”
Casimer, almost as if guided by an outside force, reached out with his mind, reached towards his core caught in limbo. He felt it there, a plain rock that shone with yellow light. With hands made of thought, he reached through, pushing against the boundaries of the material universe, and grasped the core, pulling it into reality.
Casimer opened his eyes, the brightly glowing stone sitting in his cupped hands, heating up as the mana inside of it interacted with the properties of the new dimension it found itself in. With an effort of will, Casimer held it together, his body breaking apart, the core moving through the stone and soil of the mountain like moving through air, until it punched into a vein of the underground streams and made it's way to the lake, the center of it all.
The third core joined the second one in it's orbit around Casimer, and with it's power added to his own, he exerted his will on reality. Something like a cold, cold wind began to blow outward, flowing through the fabric of the universe rather than the atoms of the air. Mana, like dew at night, accumulated in the space around them. It was so thin that it was barely there. But it was there, and it was stable. He had done it. Very slowly, Casimer began to pull mana into his core, and like water into a sponge it permeated his being and soothed his pain. It was cool and gentle, and it did not go away. He was going to survive after all.
Then, all at once, Casimer felt something in the primitive, greedy, evil part of his being, like an intense pressure. In the distance, Melchsee began to vomit, and then, Casimer did something remarkably similar. The feeling of pressure grew so strong that it clouded Casimer's mind, and he psychically flailed about, chunks of mountain falling in an avalanche of stone, finally unleashing a psychic scream that brought all living creatures to their knees.
The sky above tore open in dozens of rifts that shone with red, crystalline light. Out of the rifts fell black and red lizards, scaled like alligators and as large as hippos, with six legs and eighteen eyes that ran along the length of their bodies. Casimer did not know where they had come from, and could not control them even the slightest. They were invaders. The pressure inside of him grew and grew to an unbearable intensity, and Casimer was gone, his core going dim.
The lizards hissed, a dry raspy sound, and began running down the sides of the mountain.
With the sound of cracking stone, Ben watched in disbelief as the mountain grew visibly taller and greener. On instinct, he activated Analyze, and saw, highlighted in clear lines and boundaries, that the dungeon was undergoing a massive expansion, and it's acceleration upward. Mountains, Ben thought, should never have an upward acceleration associated with them. Like a rushing circle, the outer edge, which Ben had done his best to keep the girls near, spread far, five miles added to the radius. He knew it would grow even more in the coming weeks and months.
“What's happening!” Alice screamed, pointing at the mountain as it grew in groaning fits of deafening thundercracks, massive pieces looking perilously close to collapsing and causing a rockslide down the mountain, yet they never quite fell. Clouds like smoke from a steam volcano rose from where Ben knew the central chamber to be. They rose high into the air and spread out, rainbow lightning strikes inside of them a dim cacophony of noise compared to the growth of the mountain, and soon the sun was blotted out entirely. More than anything else, however, Ben felt something in the air. Everything felt cooler somehow, like he'd been burning under the sun his whole life and had accidentally stepped into the shade. A look at the girls told him that they felt it too.
When the first drop of rain hit Ben's hand, he knew it was time to take cover.
“Girls,” He shouted, grabbing Polk and Louden by the shirt and dragging them “We are getting out of here, right fucking now!”
“Get your fucking hands off of me,” Louden shouted, struggling “Holy shit when did you get ripped,” she said in an abrupt change of tone, alarmingly turned on, feeling the iron grip of his arm not even registering her struggle. Polk gave Louden one hell of a dirty look, then started running to the ATV on her own. More droplets fell, and Alice, with a final look of longing towards the mountain, ran to the vehicle.
“Buckle up!” Ben shouted, and, for the first time in a long time, activated the Drive skill.
It did not make him an incredible driver, something that had seriously bummed him out when the skill had first appeared. Instead, whenever it was active, it seemed to record the very best or most effective impulses used when driving. Ahr, for instance, was as good a driver as Ben had ever been while he used Drive. The skill wasn't very advanced yet, but the more they used it, the better the skill itself got for anyone else who got it. Ben wanted to walk down the familiar mental paths he used to explore how skills worked, but found it more prudent to focus.
The rain started in earnest now, and the droplets were hot, soaking through their clothing and evaporating as fast as rubbing alcohol. Still Analyzing things, Ben saw that the evaporated rain only rose so high before reforming as a new droplet.
“Is it raining drugs, because I'm starting to get some serious tingles,” Louden said, sounding nervous, scratching her arms and face.
“No, the rain has a high concentration of mana,” Ben said, then started to explain “Mana,”
“Jesus don't explain what mana is you fucking werido,” Louden yelled, “Just drive, Drive dammit! You got me all freaked out, now I'm feeling all fucking weird, so let's just get out of this place.”
Ben hit the gas in silence. He couldn't say exactly what had happened to that bus full of people, or why Casimer was suddenly making major moves, but he had a good guess.
“Melchsee,” Ben growled under his breath.
His whole life, Leeroy had struggled with the dark, violent emotions that raged inside of him, and more collectively, in the hearts of all men. More than one man had destroyed his own life or the life of another, possessed by a dark storm of emotion, a storm which lingered over the shared soul of man like a curse. Once, in a fit of despair he had cried out and cursed God, asking him why, why, why. Why did we fight one another in wars? Why did we hate one another? Why did we endlessly kill our brothers?
As he stood, shielding a young boy against the distant glare of a demon lizard hanging from a cliff face, with Chaos Eidechse, Chaos Lizard, written in his native german in solid red light above it's head, he understood why the darkness existed inside of men, and he wished he hadn't asked.
“I think I hate this place!” he shouted charging the monster to defend the child.