Ansae stayed closeted in her old lair like a sulky teenager. I wasn't sure what to think of that, and honestly I wasn't sure what had set her off before. Given her Status, though, all I could hope for was that she'd leave us alone.
I had given Shayma the rest of the day off after some profuse apologies on both sides, and she'd returned to the living area to reconnect with Iniri and de-stress. I still asked her to keep Ansae’s presence and nature under wraps, partly because there was nothing anyone could do about it and partly because the dragon was obviously trying to keep somewhat hidden. And I didn’t want to make her more annoyed by revealing that secret. In the meantime, I had things to do.
The three-layer stack was a resounding success, but it was horribly unfinished. Mostly due to the fact that after the expansion the layers had a hundred times the surface area and a thousand times the volume. Magma and ice were slowly filling themselves out, as the vibrant flowers produced more of their respective elements, but the middle layer needed help. Unless I wanted lichen and moss to cover most of it.
I poured out biomass like water to create a layer of dirt, adding little hills and gentle slopes, pulling channels off the main rivers to make more lakes and wandering streams. A few extra trees and patches of grass locked in the mana flow and started the greenery spreading across a mostly brown landscape. That reminded me that actual living creatures needed fresh air and while [Dungeon Ecology] might take care of that, it might not too. So I bothered Shayma long enough to ask her to tell me if the air ever felt wrong.
Some of my guests paused in conversation or cooking or sparring to watch my work, their little mound of green shifting and rippling outward. Then I began to pull apart the buildings, reworking them to freestanding structures rather than the ring of stone from before. An actual town, if a small one, with paved roads and modern amenities like storm drains. Not that there was rain, but it was the thought that counted.
Once I felt I could leave things to their own devices, I nudged Shayma a bit as she practiced [Illusion] with Cheya and Iniri. I was horribly ignorant about the world, still, and Ansae’s unexpected response showed me at least one area I needed context for. Between those three I could probably get any answers I needed.
“So how big a deal is curing Depletion?”
“It’s impossible,” Iniri said flatly. “There’s nothing to cure. It’s just a diminishment. It’s like trying to cure your height. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“If the fact that you can gets out, there will be trouble,” Cheya added from where she was throwing needles at illusionary Shaymas, forcing her to keep them together despite the disruption. “It’s the reason we came here, in the end.”
“Speaking of, what would it take to cure mine?” Iniri asked, her suddenly rigid posture belying the casual question.
“Uh, well, I can’t right now. It’d take 22,000 mana and I just don’t have that much yet.”
“Twenty-two thousand mana?” Shayma choked on my reply. She looked over to Iniri, wide-eyed. Shayma’s mana pool had only climbed by five points so far, practicing magic, and Iniri’s was barely north of eight hundred, despite all her levels and skills.
“...how much mana capacity do you have?” Iniri asked.
“...not enough.” Thinking of Ansae's reaction, I was suddenly a little wary of giving Iniri and Cheya too much information. Shayma was mine, but they weren't, and there was no guarantee they'd have my interests in mind. “Shayma took a little over three thousand though.”
“That much might be within the grasp of a combined effort,” Iniri mused. “If we knew what we were doing.”
Given that I didn't really know, there wasn't anything I could say to that. Instead I changed subjects. “What can you tell me about dragons?”
“Not many on this continent,” Cheya shrugged. “Mostly they gather around really powerful mana springs, and stick to their own business. There's a lightning dragon lairing in the Karstag range up north but that's the only one that's talked to people recently. Other than that, basically, don't mess with them.”
It seemed that Ansae was in hiding. Why, I wasn't sure, but it seemed like it would be important to know. So long as I could do it without revealing her presence. “Do you know what a Primal Dragon is?” I asked, pushing my luck.
“No…” Iniri frowned. “Usually dragons are titled by element or location. Have you seen one about?”
Clearly I wasn't going to answer that question. It was actually a little bit weird to me that they didn't seem to know about Ansae. By her stats alone, which was still all I could see of her Status, she was a godlike force of nature. Just her growl was enough to pulverize a thin layer of Stonesteel.
In fact, I'd asked Shayma not to even tell Iniri about the meeting. Not yet, anyway. I could probably use pointers on diplomacy, but after the Bargain with Shayma I was a little leery of anything that might result in another one. Or void the current one.
And speaking of that… “What do you plan to do about your city?”
Shayma repeated the question for the benefit of the others, then answered it herself. “We can take it back if we get the other two city-cubes. Vok Nal has one, and the other one is in Duenn. Further east, but held by a different mage-king.”
“We'd actually intended to get Vok Nal's cube before leaving, but he pulled a lot of his levelled monsters back and had them sweeping Meil,” Iniri said wryly. “We don't have enough Classers to deal with that many high-tier dungeon spawn.” She paused for a moment. “No offense meant to you, of course.
“Now, though, it's going to be awful difficult to sneak back in if they keep up the scrying for us.”
“They were looking for Shayma, actually. I can [Ward] her, plus [Illusionary Presence], so she should be able to stay under the radar.”
“...radar?” Shayma didn’t recognize the term, of course. I was actually surprised, I hadn’t run into that issue before. The overlay or something had to be translating things, and [Tempered Wisdom] gave me knowledge about the world, but nothing stopped me from using anachronistic euphemisms.
“You’ll be able to stay incognito.”
“Why were they after Shayma?” Iniri looked faintly offended. “I thought they were after me.”
“They were after the ‘Depletion Anomaly,’ so it has to be Shayma. Meil’s dungeon core probably noticed she was Depletion-immune. I can see at least a partial Status, so I’m betting it can too.”
“That would explain...some things.” Cheya observed, unperturbed as Shayma’s illusions moved from two to three copies of the fox spirit. “It makes sending in a strike team difficult, though.”
“We may not need to, now.” Iniri said. “Building an actual force within the city was impossible, but here?” She gestured at the massive chamber. “We’re out of sight and well-protected, but still within reasonable striking distance of Meil. The only issue is supply. Blue, would you grant us additional land for crops?”
I was torn. Setting up another area for crops was no issue, and helped me level up. I needed the volume anyway, and it was entirely possible bringing in plants from the outside world would unlock things for me, so it was all to the good. But I didn’t want to simply agree.
Given what they thought of me, a gift would seem more suspicious than demanding a cost. And I was afraid that if I did start giving people things, they’d start to expect it, which was not a position I wanted to be in less than three months into things. Plus I didn’t know how it would interact with Bargains or what drove them. For all I knew, any actual attempt to gift people things would be poisonous. A small cost was the safest thing.
“Give me a few days and I can make another one of these areas for crops, but I will want the Status sigil.”
“What?” Iniri was startled. “Why that?”
“Just tell them I don’t want to disclose my reasons, please, Shayma.” Mostly because I didn’t really have a good idea why. It just occurred to me as a valuable thing that they didn’t really need, and maybe I could study it. Unless I broke it down, they could still use it anyway.
“...very well. But for two of these spaces. Just one won’t be enough to sustain a significant population.”
“I will accept that, on the condition that there is ongoing payment. From time to time, you will provide me with unique items.”
It didn’t take long for Iniri to do the calculus herself. “Very well, though any additional...unique items may have to wait until we’re more established. Where is the Status sigil anyway?” She was asking Cheya, but Shayma was the one who produced it from [Phantom Pocket].
I was entirely happy with the negotiation. The fact that she was haggling meant that Iniri was neither terrified nor contemptuous of me, though given that she was a [Protector Queen] it was probably harder to intimidate her than most, and I didn’t want to end up either god or tyrant to any of these people. It was best to be a peer. And the landlord, I supposed.
Plus, it’d given me the idea to get more things like the Status sigils. I wasn’t sure I could extract anything useful from studying it, but eventually I’d find something that’d give me new ideas. Or would just flat-out unlock something from the overlay. Not that it really had so far, but the only things I’d gotten were a few random pieces of armor and ancient artifacts. Neither of which seemed likely to lead anywhere.
Now, I could just copy the current sandwich for the other two pieces of land I owed Iniri, but that was boring. Plus, I didn’t quite have the resources to just do that without thinking. Yes, my stone and biomass income was vastly improved from before, but it still wasn’t quite enough to sustain Expansion on three large chambers at the same time, let alone six. So I’d have to do it slowly. Since that was the case...
“Shayma, would you like to help me design the new spaces?”
“Sure! But, isn’t it just going to be a room full of dirt?”
“Well, it’s not just the middle room...hang on.” I’d not really explored the whole thing with Shayma being part of the dungeon too much. Mostly, I didn’t want to hurt her or upset her. Even if I could technically, say, cover her skin in Stonesteel, I didn’t imagine that would be pleasant. For this I had in mind sharing what I could see through [Genius Loci]. Not everything, but the way the mana flowed through the three portions of the stack and how it wasn’t just the middle layer. The magma and the ice, the way the mana curling through each extra bit of complexity improved the whole.
But I didn’t want to overwhelm her. I had been overwhelmed, twice, trying to adjust to what was a matter of course now. So I had to make sure she only got a small, small amount of the omniscient viewpoint [Genius Loci] afforded me. So to start, only the little bubble around Shayma, iniri, and Cheya, the circle of grass, chairs, and people.
“Oh...whoah.” Shayma’s illusions snapped as she wobbled, eyes glazed. Cheya was there instantly, flickering from Shayma’s shadow to ease her onto one of the chairs. “You see like this all the time?”
“Yes, and I wanted to use it to show you what things look like from my perspective. Just tell me if there’s too much.” It was impossible to exactly describe how I was feeding Shayma the perspective, other than it felt like a fragile thing that could break at any moment.
Shayma waved a hand, watching it from the strange outside perspective. “Yeah, it’s...a lot.”
“Are you all right, Shayma?” Iniri asked anxiously, leaning forward in her seat.
“I’m fine. Blue is just showing me what he can see.”
“Okay, so let’s zoom out a bit and you can see what is going on.” For this, I kept the senses vague. She didn’t need to be able to see every blade of grass and scrap of mana. Mostly, I wanted her to see the broad strokes of the mana dynamo, the three chambers and the flow between them.
“Oh, wow,” she breathed. “This is all mana? How come I can’t see any of it normally?”
“I have no idea. But see, that flow increases my mana regen and resource generation, so I figure I want something like it for the farm areas. Only, I don’t know if the way it’s put together is even a good way to do it, and I also don’t know what any of your crops are like. So really, any ideas you have for what I ought to do for cropland are great.”
“I...don’t know much about farming,” Shayma admitted. “I guess I know most of the foods we have, but not how to grow them properly? I do know that the ice and fire places might be really useful. There are some herbs and fruits that only grow like that. Mostly in mana springs of the proper affinity.”
“So what are mana springs anyway?”
She smiled broadly. “One of the things adventuring Classers go for all the time. The mana gets all knotted and takes on a certain Affinity and then you get animals and plants and things coming from that area.”
“Are there any around here?” I was curious. I hadn’t seen anything outside the mundane since I was here, and if they were all localized to these mana springs, that might explain it.
“No. This area is practically mana-dead. Except for you, I guess. That’s one reason I was surprised to find a dungeon here. How could one form?”
“I also have no idea! But I’m pretty sure I do duplicate what mana springs do, at least.”
“Right, so, hmm. Farmland.”
It turned out they had a number of crops similar to ones I was familiar with, albeit with different names. Their rice still used terraces, but the grains were green and hexagonal. Something like potatoes were red and grew in circular patterns around the parent plant. So we had some little information to think about structuring the farmland.
Shayma suggested a sort of lobed structure, chopping it up into different areas for different crops with terraces for the rice and whatever else used them on the outer walls. The magma was turned into a far deeper and narrower chamber, reducing the heat so there’d be room at the top for growing things where humans could actually survive, while the ice was flattened out. More water, access to the cold area, and more wind. The end result of the plan was rather mushroom-like, which was at least vaguely appropriate for a farmland.
I really, really wished the overlay had a note function. Just text would be fine, but sketching or, even better, some sort of rendering ability would be amazing. I didn’t need the map anymore, not with [Genius Loci], but that fantastic skill just left me wanting more tools. Unfortunately for me, I had yet to run into anything that gave me even a hint how to do so. Though maybe that Status sigil would. It was the first time I’d seen overlay functions in the real world, so to speak.
Once it was clear Shayma could handle the input, Cheya and Iniri had headed off for a meeting with other members of her council, filling them in on the deal. So when we wrapped up our planning, she was more or less alone. She glanced around nonetheless, lowering her voice. “Blue? I know our Bargain is finished, but...are you ever going to take me again?”
Her tone of voice made it very clear she hoped the answer was yes. I’d not pushed because, given the circumstances, I wasn’t sure she even could say no, but now that she was asking I felt no little glee. “When you get home tonight, we can find out everything my breeding station can do,” I promised her with a laugh. “In fact, I’m sure exploring everything will take days.”