Taelah was pretty sure the dungeon had no idea what it was doing.
Certainly, it had listened to the suggestions they’d made to change the fields into something that could actually grow crops, but that didn’t mean that it had actually learned what normal landscapes were like. The main living chamber showed that, given the broad sweeps of grass and nothing else, with trees just randomly spotted around. Not to mention the lack of animals.
It was weird enough not hearing birds or spotting the occasional rodent, even at night. No rustling from the bushes or the trees, just the soft sounds of the faint, constant wind. But there were no insects at all. The lack of pests was a nice surprise, but there were no worms or beetles or flies or anything that buzzed or crawled. She suspected but couldn’t prove that some of the dogs that had come through the teleport had lost their ticks and fleas.
Still, birds and insects and rodents and all were necessary to actually keep the land healthy. Except the dungeon completely and totally was ignoring all that and even nature magic did not work that way! “You need to get yourself some animals or something, even if they are monsters,” she griped, walking along the edge of the living chamber. “It’s too quiet in here!”
The dungeon nonchalantly rustled its grass at her.
“Look, if you want to have healthy plants you can’t just magic them to grow,” she warned it. “Even if they are dungeon plants. Just because mana changes something doesn’t mean it stops making sense.”
The dungeon sighed disagreement with the wind passing through the leaves of a nearby tayantan tree. She scowled at it. Even though she had been told that the dungeon didn’t talk to anyone except through Shayma, she still felt like it was giving her lip half the time. Not to mention she was pretty sure it was taunting her with how fast the crops were growing now that they’d finally been sown.
The trick was a pale green lily that grew underneath the tayantan trees scattered throughout the farming area.
Green Chrysthenium: This variant of dungeon flower consumes any Affinity of dungeon mana and in return produces nature Affinity mana. Some of this produced mana is used to improve the growth and maturation of nearby plants. When picked, some of the mana settles into the petals of this flower, making them a potent Affinity ingredient.
She could practically feel [Plant Identification] ticking upward. The plants here were so unusual she could probably gain a Class level or two just from that experience, not to mention if she got her hands on it for testing with [Herbal Medicine] or [Novice Alchemy]. Given enough time she might actually be able to break through into the second tier without visiting a dungeon or mana spring. Well, a real dungeon, anyway. This one didn’t count.
Despite the description she was hesitant to actually pick any. Partly because without asking Shayma she wasn’t sure it was actually safe to. Mostly because she didn’t want to mess up any of the crops that were benefitting from the growth aura. If she plucked one there was no guarantee it would be replaced and food was more important than curiosity. Forage and stored supplies wouldn’t last forever.
Now that everything was planted - and wasn’t that fun, running the spring plantings twice in one year and the second time on fast-forward - she was poking around to find what else there was. [Plant Identification] said that the Green Chrysthenium was a variant, which meant there were more. Since she didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, she was out beyond the strange little town, examining some of the features it had set up.
The isolated rainstorms were proof that the dungeon was all confused. Why would it do that? What purpose did it serve? They didn’t even look marginally natural, while the rest of the landscape was sculpted. She frowned up at the cloud and down at the curtain of rain that started, very abruptly, two feet in front of her. Then jumped as a tiny bolt of lightning flashed and underpowered thunder sounded.
“Was that really necessary?” She demanded.
The dungeon’s rain hissed at her in amusement.
“Well it’s going to take more than that to keep me out,” she told it, pulling up the hood of her cloak and stepping into the tiny rainstorm. Not three steps in, an unexpected gust of wind blew water right into her face. She was pretty sure that was on purpose, but she wasn’t going to let annoying weather get to her, even if it was entirely strange that there were gusts here, whipping cold drops this way and that.
The alaer trees looked almost intimidating in the gloom, their leaves flying at the end of their long stems, but such trees couldn’t be generating the winds that tossed the rain about. Not that she’d seen them since she was a child, but [Plant Identification] told her they only produced enough of a breeze to keep their own leaves aloft. It wasn't until she drew closer that she spotted the culprits, just outside the looming silhouettes of the trees.
Lofty Chrysthenium: This variant of dungeon flower consumes any Affinity of mana and in return produces wind Affinity mana. Some of this produced mana is used to generate wind. When picked, some of the mana settles into the petals of this flower, making them a potent Affinity ingredient.
They looked much like the alaer trees themselves, but the stems were far longer, and the leaves broader, swaying and trembling wildly in their own wayward air currents. She couldn’t tell how where exactly the wind was coming from, but it probably didn’t much matter. The wind Affinity flowers were accompanied by a second variant with broad, sail-like petals, rotating this way and that.
Kinetic Chrysthenium: This variant of dungeon flower consumes any Affinity of mana and in return produces kinetic Affinity mana. The flower’s motion can also be used by the dungeon to generate energy. When picked, some of the mana settles into the petals of this flower, making them a potent Affinity ingredient.
That was the most tantalizing description so far. Generate energy for the dungeon? Maybe that was why it’d made these little patches of storm, though she couldn’t imagine that the enormous amount of power it had shown came from such small things. Then again…
She crouched down in the rainstorm, carefully touching the pinwheel flower. Even though the description had prepared her for something with force behind it, the petals stopped easily enough. Even though each of the two petal-sails was the size of her hand, they were as soft as any flower might be, to the point she was afraid of tearing them by preventing them from moving in the wind.
Once she had one captured, she closed her eyes, letting her consciousness seep into the flower, the active portion of [Plant Identification] giving her more than a simple description. Immediately she could tell that despite surface appearances this was not really related to any of the flowers she knew, mundane or magical. It was certainly a plant, but it bore as much resemblance to a common daisy as a diamond did to coal.
It was dense and complex and she was pretty sure that if she picked the flower it’d be heavier than it looked. The mechanism by which the petals rotated freely around the stem wasn’t comprehensible to her even with [Plant Identification] draining her anemic mana pool, but that was just the least of what she didn’t understand.
Normally she could feel the pulse of a plant as it breathed, drew water through its roots, basked in the sun. This was basking in...something else. It had water aplenty, and it was using it, and maybe its leaves could draw nourishment from the sun, but there was a deeper core that was thirstily drawing on something she couldn’t see. Mana.
She didn’t have [Mana Sight], and as an [Herbalist] she didn’t have a chance of developing anything like that, not until her Class evolved. Not that she missed it most of the time. The other senses her Skills gave her were enough for her purposes, and told her things simple [Mana Sight] would miss. In this case though, it seemed like the flower mostly lived on mana, and...bore fruit from mana? That didn’t seem right.
It didn’t seem right but it was what [Plant Identification] told her. She was already starting to get a headache as her mana dropped too low, so she hastily moved her focus down to the root of the plant. Mostly so she would know how much work it would be to transplant a live specimen, but partly because she wondered if it was attached to some actual mana source she could spot even without the sense. Where the roots dug into the ground, the plant did touch something, but the moment she focused on it, her Skill shattered, knocking her flat on her back.
“That wasn’t a plant.” She objected. The only response was the cold rain spattering her face and dripping down the inside of her hood. Grumbling, she scrambled back to her feet, shaking fingers still slightly numbed from the feedback, and blinked at the flower she’d been examining. On her way down she’d apparently had too strong a hold on it, and half-ripped the stem. Unless the flower had incredible self-healing properties, it wasn’t going to live much longer.
“Hmm.” No bolt of lightning came down to smite her. “Mind if I pick that one?” The silence seemed assent, so she freed it the rest of the way and tucked it into her pouch. As she expected, it had a heft more like wood than flower. Still nothing happened, but she felt somewhat...watched. Though surely that was her imagination.
The voice made her jump, though she recognized it a moment later as one of the Classers, a [Gale Knight] with the very southern name of Loren Imt, that regularly kept watch from the air. He was a lot younger than a third tier ought to be and excruciatingly polite. Especially because he regularly checked up on her as she wandered around the dungeon’s interior.
“Yes, here.” She called, hastily closing her pouch and taking a few steps to escape the rain. Loren dropped down to ground level, the swirling winds depositing him gently on the grass. He was twenty years her senior and he gave her exactly the same look her parents had given her when she was twelve and snuck out after bedtime.
“Please return to Refuge.” They’d finally named it! She was wondering when the town was going to get called something other than ‘the town.’ “Queen Iniri has been informed that an army is marching on our position.”
The news doused her spirits far more surely than the rain had. “What do you need me to do?” One of the reasons she’d become village elder at such a young age was that she had a firm grasp on what she couldn’t do, and combat was one of those things. In fact she was pretty sure some actual crafters had come through, either from the borderlands or Wildwood, so even her [Novice Alchemy] didn’t contribute much. Anton Village was good at making food, but for anything else, Classers were better.
“Account for your people. We’re evacuating the eastern farming chamber.”
“Oh.” Why just that one chamber? Though it wasn’t like she had a good grasp of the internal layout, not with all the teleports. Maybe that one was the closest to the surface, or maybe it was just because that was the one furthest from the mountains. “I’ll start back now.” She was a good half-mile from the town, which just drove home how absolutely enormous these areas were, so it’d still take her a little bit to hike back. Unfortunately she didn’t have any physical Skills that could help her cover that ground better.
Loren just rolled his eyes. “Come on, I’ll take you,” he said, and a gale of wind picked her up. She had actually been hoping he’d do that, but she wasn’t going to just ask. Taking another person along with his Skill couldn’t be easy. The trip didn’t last more than a few seconds though, and Loren deposited her practically on top of Elder James, who was hobbling away from the teleport circle.
“Oh, there you are.” He squinted at her, completely unfazed by her descent from the sky. “What th’hell is going on?”
“An attack,” she said shortly, trying to count heads as the others streamed out of the teleport. When Nan Mulle arrived with the gaggle of children in tow, she relaxed. Not that she doubted Nan Mulle, but certain little boys and girls were the ones most likely to be off hiding somewhere when the alarms sounded, and seeing them all safe was a relief.
James grunted. “Should’ve brought my sword.”
“You aren’t going to go out and fight,” she told him. “Now help me make sure everyone’s here.”
Everyone wasn’t. Some people probably had to run from the terraces by the wall, so it was no surprise they were delayed. The teleport circle continued to spit out farmers and craftsmen in dribs and drabs, and not always from Anton’s Village. Shayma had picked up other people along the way, but they weren’t her responsibility. Maybe they were a little bit, since they were helping with farming and all, but for the most part they could handle themselves.
“Where’s Glenn?” She grumbled, tempted to step into the teleport herself to see what was going on on the other end.
“Probably -” James started, but stopped as the ground trembled.
Taelah blinked. That wasn’t a good sign, but when she inspected the walls and ceiling she couldn’t see any cracks or plumes of dust.
“They’re fighting in there!” Stephan blurted as he stepped out of the teleport, the cuffs of his pants soaked in water.
“Who’s fighting?” She asked the [Farmer]. The kid had only taken a Class a few months ago, so they’d set him to the rice fields to learn and level. That meant he should be one of the last.
“Miss The Hurricane and Mister Theurge and Mister Sword Sovereign are fighting with monsters!”
Taeleh shared a look with James. If the fourth-tiers were actually fighting monsters and not just wiping them out, anyone still in the chamber would be lucky to escape unscathed. By her count there were still sixteen people missing, including Glenn. There was another distant rumble, and the next few people through were soaked from head to toe with water and blood.
She started to swear, then bit it off when she realized the children were still in the area. Instead she barked orders to have the others give the injured space, and get them padding to lie on, and started fumbling in her pouch for herbs. The flower she’d picked was on top of everything else and she cursed as she shoved it to the side, probably ruining it entirely but this was more important. Maybe they could use one of the surrounding buildings for a makeshift infirmary. Surely not all of them were occupied.
“Excuse me! Healer here!” With astounding timing, a Nivirese girl came through the crowd, preceded by a taller woman who had no compunctions about pushing people out of the way. Just about the same time, Glenn hauled the last two people she hadn’t accounted for through the teleport, muttering dark things under his breath, and the [Healer] immediately changed course for him.
The tall woman took one of the men Glenn was supporting, lifting him with the easy strength of a high-level Classer before easing him down as the [Healer]’s hands lit with mana. Taelah had never seen an actual [Healer] in action, given how rare the Class was, and it was astonishing to see gouges that were gushing blood simply close on their own. Neither Jorenn or Roan seemed entirely healed by the time she was done, but they weren’t the only ones that needed tending.
Nobody introduced themselves, but that didn’t seem necessary under the circumstances. Instead Taelah dug in her pouch and got out some restorative herbs to follow up the healing. With [Herbal Medicine], even the dried stuff packed enough punch to get them awake and aware, if still groggy.
A massive crack made everybody jump, a searing light outshining the dungeon’s false day for a moment. “What in the abyss…?” Taelah looked around but couldn’t spot exactly what had done it.
“Probably The Hurricane,” the tall woman grunted, looking sour and sere. “Storm magic.”
“...are they winning?”
“I hope so.” It was the [Healer] that answered, and the tall woman didn’t contradict her.
A few minutes later, after some more rumbling and shaking, the fourth-tiers emerged from the teleport point. The [Healer] immediately went to them, but Taelah made a beeline for the teleporter itself. All her injured were as well as could be without rest, and she had to see for herself what the damage had been to their farms.
The world flashed around her and it turned out the damage was total. There was probably not a full intact acre left. Soil had been stripped away until it exposed bedrock, fields had been flooded, ice and fire had scorched or frozen whatever plants were left, and that didn’t count the massive chunks of rock gouged out of the walls and ceiling that had ended up scattered about. Muddy water lapped at her ankles, but she barely noticed it.
If there was any saving grace, it was that the barns appeared to have been protected, with rock walls that sheltered them from the worst of it. They were still partly flooded, but platehoofs and chickens would survive being wet and they didn’t have anything stored in the silos yet anyway. “...so much for the farms.” It was like ice in her guts, seeing the devastation and the loss of all their hard work. Most of their seeds had been sewn in there and were half-grown, so they didn’t even have enough seed stock to recover.
She wanted to cry. She didn’t, but she wanted to. They would persevere, Anton’s Village always did, but it was still crushing. It hadn’t happened in her lifetime, but there had been times when whole harvests had been lost to calamity and they’d still recovered. It wasn’t impossible, but…
But something was happening. Blue had worked quickly before, but the sheer scale of things was boggling. The entire lake of matted soil and muddy water was draining visibly. The ceiling and walls began to heal, chunks of rock melted back into the floor, and dirt lifted up like a cresting wave. Taelah couldn’t help but watch, transfixed, as the farms knitted themselves back together.
“Elder Taelah, what —” Glenn’s question faded as he gaped alongside her, stopped before he even left the teleport circle. It wasn’t every day one got to see acres of land reshape itself. When the dungeon started to add greenery though, Taelah bestirred herself. The dungeon clearly had a different understanding when it came to flora, and while she was pretty sure that difference was just ignorance, maybe it did have some insight she didn’t.
Maybe she could learn something.
What she found most odd was that it didn’t start with grass or smaller plants, but with the trees, starting from the edges and working inward, tiny saplings poking through the freshly-conjured soil. At each of these points one of those lilies sprouted, tiny and immature, but they didn’t stay that way for long. Once these little plants had been established, the dungeon did something, because she could feel the sudden wave of life as both tree and flower matured visibly, the tayan grass spreading outward from the little islands until they stopped at the edges of the fields.
The two plants clearly fed into each other, and maybe the grass did too. No wonder things looked so sparse, they weren’t really acting like a normal field. They were closer to one single plant, which was probably partly magic, but only partly. She’d seen what chrystheniums looked like on the inside and even if they ate mana they still worked very much like any other sort of flora. It made her wonder if she could do that with any of the actual crops they grew.
When they grew crops again. Even if they were mostly repaired, the fields themselves were still bare, and still needed to be worked and planted with the few stores they had left. It was a daunting task to consider and...and tiny little sprouts were popping up in neat rows all along the bare dirt.
When the dungeon fixed something, it didn’t do half measures.
“Um,” she said, maybe feeling a little bit bad for ranting at it. “Thanks."