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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

1/1.  Another oversized chapter!

Meil fight not next week, but the week after.

It turned out that to transcribe Companion skills, they needed to be Companion rank 3. To transcribe my skills onto them, they had to be Companion rank 5. I had no idea how to actually advance ranks, though, since the only time I’d seen it happen was during a Bargain. So I wouldn’t be getting ahold of any juicy new Skills or Abilities, nor could I boost Iniri. Speaking of which, without the Bargain cheating for me, I couldn’t give Shayma as much of what I’d learned as I wanted. [Metalworking] gave her a single rank of [Smithing] and [Metallurgy] gave [Smelting], which didn’t seem all that useful, but might help with maintaining equipment. On the reverse side of transcription, her [Stealth] improved [Customization] very slightly.

Other than that I was pretty satisfied with how Iniri’s Purification had gone, and not just for the obvious reasons. First of all everyone was happy, which was something I’d been concerned about. It wouldn’t have surprised or offended me at all if Iniri had been wracked with guilt and disgust or curled into a little weeping ball after we were done, no matter how much she enjoyed it at the time. I wasn’t at all human and she wasn’t having sex with me because she wanted it, so a little emotional trauma wouldn’t have been out of line.

Nor was Shayma jealous, which was another concern I’d had. Actually she’d seemed downright proud of me as she sat with Iniri in the hot tub while the kirin-kin recovered from the experience, so that was another fear allayed. It had also given me the chance to watch the process with [Genius Loci] and [Mana Sight] to try and get a handle on what exactly was going on. The answer was that I still had no idea of the details but the Skill it’d given me filled in the general idea, at least.

[Soul Perception] - The Dungeon can detect some aspects of the soul.

That sounded pretty amazing except for the fact that I actually couldn’t. Or rather, I didn’t know where or how to look. Despite close examination of various people with [Genius Loci], I didn’t spot anything identifiable. I had thought I’d seen a brief glimpse of something at the very end of the Purification process, when the Skill had formed, but it didn’t last long enough to figure out what I was seeing.

I had to suspect that even with it automatically bumped to rank five it was a weak Skill indeed. Given that it was separate from Genius Loci, I might not be able to sense it through the normal channels. Which left only the breeding station as the potential sensor, but I hadn’t been able to spot anything out of the ordinary with Shayma. Then again, her soul was, apparently, already mine so who knew how that affected things.

I didn’t want to mention it to Ansae until I had done more experimentation and investigation. She really wasn’t in that much of a hurry and I didn’t want to tell her I kinda sorta knew something that was nothing until I’d chewed on it a bit more.

Besides, everyone was busy preparing for the assault on Meil, and that included me. My main role was digging the tunnel, since most of the other things I could do would only hurt the civilians still inside Meil, and I didn’t want to do that. Iniri wouldn’t thank me for it either, and more importantly, it’d upset Shayma. So I kept my attention on burrowing the passage, especially now that it was starting to flood due to aquifers or whatever, while I fiddled with a long-running project.

Ever since I’d gotten ahold of Illusion flowers, I’d been cultivating them specifically so I could make a Primal Source for Shayma. In fact I felt a little guilty about giving one to Ansae before I could give one to Shayma, but I didn’t want to just hand her a loose gem. I wanted it to be something meaningful, and if possible something that’d mark her authority under me. To that end, I’d been experimenting with Metallurgy, specifically Infusion and Alloying.

Infusing some of my more common Primals into steel had netted me a set of ingots. It was more or less what I expected.

Primal Firesteel: This steel has been infused with a Primal fire Source. Though not as potent as the original gem, it still retains the fundamental properties of Primal Sources.

Primal Earthsteel: This steel has been infused with a Primal earth Source. Though not as potent as the original gem, it still retains the fundamental properties of Primal Sources.

I also appreciated that the overlay was finally giving me something approaching useful in its descriptions. Maybe it was the [Tempered Wisdom] level-ups, or maybe it was because it was something I’d made myself. Checking the stuff that my tenants had still gave me descriptions like Tent or Cart without any further elaboration. As usual, the overlay was inconsistent and unhelpful. I wondered if it would show a description if I didn’t already know what tents or carts were.

That was a problem for later. I didn’t much like the loss of potency in the infused steel, even if I wasn’t sure what that meant, but this was experimentation anyway. I decanted that stuff into the Alloy Crystal, where the mixture started to suck up mana. A lot of mana, for what I was doing, even if it was an amount I could handle. Normal steel took barely anything to make, but this pulled down over a thousand mana to finish. Apparently merging multiple Affinities was not quite as simple as just mixing them together.

Primal Dualsteel of Earth and Fire: This steel has been infused with two Primal Sources, earth and fire. Though not as potent as Source gems, this steel provides benefits to both Affinities.

That sounded really fancy, and I squirreled the ingots away for future use. Because what I wanted to use for Shayma was fancier still. Since I had descriptions for the exotics, I decided to go for the coolest-sounding stuff.

One was Dragon’s Silver, which the appraisal suggested was made by Ansae using her own blood as in ingredient in the alloy, and it was a little scary that just that much made it a unique and valuable metal. Of course, unlike with the steel I only used a tiny amount, a hundredth of a unit. Whatever a unit was. Since I had five of it, that was fine.

Primal Dragon’s Silver of Fire: Mixed with the blood of a Primal Dragon, this metal has been further infused with a Primal fire Source, making it a potent carrier of fire Affinity mana.

That was my second choice if my first choice didn’t work out, because my first choice didn’t even have the scant words of Dragon’s Silver. In fact it wasn’t even labeled the same way. The overlay called it “An Ingot Of Promise” and gave it no description whatsoever. It was black as night, so it seemed good enough to represent me.

I had Shayma ask Ansae if it was dangerous or anything before I started using it, of course without hinting what I was going to use it for, and when she answered in the negative I split off a teeny tiny amount. Even less than the Dragon’s Silver because I only had the one ingot, and when melted it amounted to slightly over two units of the stuff.

For Shayma I’d decided on Illusion and Kinetic Sources, for her magic and her combat respectively, along with Light and Dark if I could manage it. Mostly because they were precursors to Illusion and I figured they’d supercharge something like a pure light or darkness illusion, or at the very least help with stealth or something. It wouldn’t hurt anyway.

I thought the Dualsteel took a lot of mana, but the Affinity’d Promise was hungry. If I hadn’t spent time expanding my mana capacity with storage crystals I wouldn’t have been able to make it. All told each batch, one for each Affinity, sucked up eighteen thousand mana, which in hindsight really should have clued me in that I was doing something weird. Only people like Ansae and myself had tens of thousands of mana lying around for experiments.

The resulting tiny portion of metal was A Fourfold Promise of Paradox. I cast it into a ring shape, and put it into the Assembler with a matching and properly shaped piece of Core Lattice gem, so that the black band of metal was only just visible beneath the swirling, shifting blue of the Core Lattice. I figured that’d look pretty awesome and provide Shayma with the Primal gems she could use. I was kind of right.

[You have created an Artifact!]

[Acts as a Primal Source for Kinetic, Illusion, Light, and Shadow Affinities]

[Allows perfect vision under any conditions]

[Bearer represents Authority]

[Cannot be lost or stolen]

[A small portion of Illusions may be rendered tangible]

[A small portion of things hidden by Illusions may be rendered intangible]

[<Trait attuned to Bearer>]

[This Artifact grows with Bearer and Authority]

[Please name your Artifact.]

[...]

[You have obtained Promise!]

Well. Okay then. That was in a different sort of popup than the usual overlay, and the naming part was kind of weird since it just sort of happened without me consciously deciding on anything in particular. Though I did like the name. Simple, but evocative.

It was pretty obvious a capital-A Artifact was something special, if it had its own interface. At least the descriptions stayed when I examined it with [Genius Loci], instead of defaulting to the usual, terrible level of verbosity. Fortunately for me, Shayma was in Ansae’s lair, so I could give it to her and ask Ansae about it at the same time.

“...and this is a scythe cover from a Scalemind Abomination. If you have to use sword arms, this is a good model for how to shape them. I still suggest, if you’re using shifted tools, to aim for specialized forms like hooks or swordbreakers.”

“They’re a lot more complicated,” Shayma pointed out. “But I see what you mean. Getting enough reach is hard.”

“Hey Shayma, I have something for you. You’ll want to show it to Ansae I think, because I’m betting she knows a lot about these things.”

“Just something, hmm? You and your surprises.”

“You know it. Check your left hand.”

Shayma glanced down and gasped. It was great that I could cheat and just dungeon-inventory Promise onto her finger. “This is gorgeous,” she said, reaching out to touch it with the fingers of her other hand. Then she froze. “This is an Artifact?” She demanded incredulously. “I didn’t even know the Status displayed by itself for anything other than getting a Class.”

I didn’t see anything, even through her eyes, so I could only suppose that Shayma actually did have an overlay and it was just invisible most of the time. Or didn’t have anything on it. Viewing it myself, the only thing that had changed was the [<Trait attuned to Bearer>].

[You may bring up to three additional people into [Ghost Step]]. Which was a pretty awesome trait, I had to admit. But I wasn’t exactly sure where all that extra amazing had come from.

“Yeah, I was hoping you and Ansae could enlighten me about Artifacts?”

“I assume you created this yourself?” Ansae said, craning her long neck to peer down at the shifting blue of the ring. “Yes, clearly.” She said, answering her own question. “For some reason I am not surprised.”

“Blue wants to know about Artifacts. Um, I know they’re powerful. The Adamant Fortress is one. I only know others by hearsay. Oh, the Sovereign’s Sword might be one but I’m not sure.” She looked up at Ansae as if hoping the dragon could fill in the gaps.

“Believe it or not, I am not all-knowing.” She chuckled. “Artifacts are a little like Powers. They’re incredibly powerful, yes, but exactly how they work and what constitutes one is uncertain. Though they’re somewhat more common. I have a few myself, and I’ve even made a few. Though not on purpose.”

“Hmm. Well I know how I made this one, I could theoretically make another. Or make one with different Affinities.”

“It might be possible, and even worth your while, but who would you give it to?” Ansae responded after Shayma repeated my musings. “Keep in mind that if you make an Artifact, you’re setting it loose into the world. Not only will it put a target on whoever you give it to, but it might be used against you in the future. Shayma might be relatively safe as your representative, but others won’t be.”

“...I hadn’t thought of that.” I really hadn’t. Mostly I’d been fixated on how cool it was, and I hadn’t considered the wider world.

To some extent I didn’t much care about the wider world. I had enough troubles and goings-on right here in my back yard. Provided I could push Vok Nal out of Meil, and the Adamant Fortress could push Tor Kot out of everywhere else, I’d be happy enough. There was more to the future than that, though, and more to the map than Iniri’s kingdom. So far the only map I’d seen was the one Shayma had brought on her trip, and that barely showed anything in my estimation.

“You could make it for yourself. But can you even use items?” Shayma wondered aloud. “You wouldn’t really be able to wear a ring like this I imagine.”

“So far as I can tell I can’t use items, no. Everything I get seems to count as a resource or just appears in my inventory.”

“I’m going to guess not,” Ansae said, not even waiting for Shayma to share my answer. “Not even the Great Dungeons seem to be much aware of items as such. Materials, yes, but it takes the monsters to make them into anything else. I’m not even sure how they’d use them.”

“Maybe a giant rune circle or something?” Shayma suggested. “Something you’d put in a building anyway?”

“An excellent idea, given Blue’s mana capacity, but he’d still need some Affinity control or Ritual skill. Unless he didn’t, of course. It is worth trying. How is your progress on spellcasting, Blue?”

“Nonexistent. I’ve tried everything I could think of based on what you told me, watched people cast, had Shayma do a bunch of magic for me, all of that. Can’t do anything with the stuff in my mana pool. Well, spellcasting-wise. Best I can do is move the mana threads from my [Dungeon Ecology] around, but I’m not sure how to harness that to do useful things yet.” It was really irritating. I had it next to communication on my mental list of things verboten.

The strange thing is that I was pretty sure [Warding] was spellcasting, but it acted more like a field. It didn’t need anchor points, but there wasn’t anything to it other than putting it in an area and feeding it mana. I couldn’t even plug it into the mana dynamo like I could fields, even if I normally didn’t because of the way doing so crippled mana production.

I was pretty sure it was some disconnected mechanic or piece of physics I wasn’t really meant to interact with. Or was meant to not need. I didn’t eat or drink either, and that meant I couldn’t benefit from the restorative properties of the tayantan fruit, not that such things applied to me. It could be something like that, or it could be like the language thing and explicitly off limits. Impossible to say as yet.

“I suppose I’m not surprised. Dungeons use mana very differently, and even as a Power you’re no exception.”

“Yeah, and it’s starting to get irritating.” I considered, then reversed a previous decision. “So, I have another question. I got a skill called [Soul Perception] when I was trying to figure out Purification, but I can’t perceive anything. I don’t think everyone around here is soulless.”

“Soul Perception?” Shayma said, startled. “I guess it makes sense, but it still sounds a little creepy.”

“I haven’t dabbled in soul magic. It’s forbidden for a very good reason, though as a Dungeon maybe you’re exempt. The few practitioners I came across I killed, but from what little I understand to actually get a soul to be perceptible required...extreme measures. In your case, I imagine that means actual Purification. Though I suspect you should be able to at least see your own.”

“...now why didn’t I think of that?” I was feeling really dumb as I directed my perceptions at the crystal that I mostly ignored where it stood in the middle of Shayma’s cottage. To no avail. I felt a little less dumb when after concentrating on it I didn’t get any kind of read on it. Broadening my perspective and trying to take in everything at once, just in case my soul was spread out over the entire dungeon space, still returned nothing. Not that I really knew what I was looking for, since the only glimpse I’d had so far had lasted only a fraction of a second.

“Nope. Nothing.”

“Hmm. I wish I had a spare Core to look at. I don’t actually know much about them.”

“Oh. Oh! Hold that thought.”

“Hang on, I think Blue just figured something out.” Shayma sounded amused.

I was less amused. I’d completely forgotten about something that was probably important. My awakening cave, or whatever I wanted to call it, was still there, and still sealed off. But I didn’t need to avoid it now, so I spent a bit of effort to take it over and found that there were still some red crystal fragments among the debris on the floor. Four [Red Core Fragment] pieces, specifically.

ANATHEMA Core presence detected.

ANATHEMA Core Status: Destroyed. Processing…

2 Trait Points awarded.

Size Requirements reduced for next level advancement.

Absorb Core?

No. Absolutely not! I had no idea what would happen if I did that, and I was pretty mistrustful of something that was labeled ANATHEMA. It didn’t help that every time that word popped up, it was accompanied by that weird, completely artificial rage from when the moils invaded. I was no fan of the red cores but I really didn’t like it when the Dungeon-ness of what I was exerted itself. I didn’t like being controlled, and I didn’t want to give it any extra chances to do that.

Besides, why was I getting a reward for this? I’d just found them lying around, I hadn’t actually destroyed the Red Core myself. Had I? It could have been something that happened before I became aware. The Dungeon that I had started with had been half-built, after all, so clearly something had happened prior to my awakening. Maybe that had started this whole Red Core Anathema thing, somehow.

After safely rejecting the absorb prompt, I glanced at the Traits menu, because even if I didn’t know why I had gotten trait points, I was more than happy to spend them. Only, there were a few new entries.

Mana Efficiency: Improves flow of mana within the Dungeon. Higher flow provides larger benefits. (1)

Tracking: Your Companions can sense the location of your current ANATHEMA. (1)

Burrowing: Upgrades [Boring Tendril] into [Burrower]. (1)

Material Precision: Reduces size of minimum material increment. (1)

Field Potency: Increases the maximum effect of Fields. (1)

ANATHEMA Disruption: Your mana becomes a [Bane]. (2)

Abstract Ecology: Unlocks the ability to generate abstract Affinities with Dungeon Ecology. (2)

Dungeon Dwellers: Improves the species traits of inhabitants of the Dungeon. (3)

Spawn Core: Allows the Dungeon to generate additional Cores. (20)

Manifest: Allows the Dungeon to condense its mana into physical form. (30)

Antithesis: Your existence becomes inimical to your ANATHEMA. Contact results in annihilation. (35)

Apparently the ANATHEMA thing was a pretty big deal. If I’d tried to take the fragments way back when, would I have unlocked it earlier? Would I have been able to select traits at level zero? It felt like I was stumbling through whatever way a Dungeon was ‘supposed’ to work sideways and backward, though maybe that was for the best. If I’d run into this ANATHEMA impulse before I might not have been very clear-minded.

I was pretty determined to have as little to do with it as possible, due to how it affected me, but I couldn’t completely ignore it. Plus it seemed that red cores counted, or maybe even were the entirety of the ANATHEMA, and being able to deal with them better was likely to be useful. But [Tracking] didn’t seem valuable to me. I already knew where Meil was, and it wasn’t like the locations of the other cities were mysteries.

The rest of the mage-king civilization seemed to be across the ocean and I wasn’t about to go to actual war with them. [Antithesis] might be useful if it weren’t so ridiculously expensive, and [ANATHEMA Disruption]...had no explanation for what [Bane] was.

I could just spend my extra trait points on Field Potency or whatever, but it might be better to ask and see if anyone was familiar with either term. “Okay, so I had some Red Core fragments lying around. I’m pretty sure they’re inert, but you might want to be careful just in case.”

“Because of course you have Red Core fragments just ‘lying around.’ Is this a Power thing or is this a Blue thing?” Shayma complained to Ansae, mostly in jest.

“Oh it’s definitely a Power thing. Being mysterious and secretive is one of our great joys.”

I formed a wooden table to hold the bits and pieces and then deposited the chunks of red crystal. Ansae eyed them warily, shifting down to amazon form to prod them with an engraved rod she took from her rune-packaged hoard.

“You learned that pretty quickly despite not being a Power very long,” Shayma said, crossing to the other side of the table to look at the crystal bits but, like Ansae, not actually touching them.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk. Your game face when you talk to people for me is all about the mysterious!”

“That’s because it works!”

“Now you know why I do it.”

“Yeah, but do you have to do it to me?”

“But that’s the most fun!”

“One of these days that’s going to get you in trouble,” Shayma warned.

“Probably! Oh, I’ve got a couple other things to run by you two. Are you familiar with something being an ANATHEMA?”

“Gods above, Blue, it sounds like you’re chewing rocks.”

“I can’t help it! It’s some sort of Dungeon thing.”

“Blue wants to know if you’ve heard of something being an Anathema,” Shayma relayed to Ansae, who was still poking the Red Core remains. “I mean, I’ve heard the word, but the only time I can think of it being related to anything important is when I was imprisoned by the Flame Knights. One of them said something about not wanting to become Vok Nal’s anathema, which I thought was a pretty weird turn of phrase for them.”

“It does sound like it must be a dungeon-specific phenomenon, then. I’ve been in dungeons before, of course, but only the Great Dungeons and only for the riches and experience. You’re the first one I’ve dealt with in a more personal capacity.”

“Fair enough. Right now apparently Red Cores are my ANATHEMA and I’m kind of okay with that.” At least it implied it was a general Dungeon issue rather than just a Blue Core thing, but I hadn’t actually expected anything helpful. “What about something being a [Bane]?”

“Um.” Shayma glanced at Ansae. “The only [Bane] I know of is some [Dragon’s Bane] weapons in the kingdom’s armory. No offense,” she added.

“I’m not offended by the fact your kind needs special weapons to deal with those of my kind,” Ansae said, amused. “In fact I’d have harsh words for any dragon who didn’t inspire the creation of a [Bane]. As you can imagine, a [Bane] creates something similar to a mana Affinity, only it serves to disrupt the fundamental nature of its target. They’re powerful, but rare. Partly because there aren’t many targets worth the effort, and partly because summoning enough emotion while making the [Bane] in question isn’t easy.”

I was still a bit wary of anything labeled ANATHEMA, but if it was just that my mana would be harmful when I did run into a Red Core, I’d just take it right now. Since maybe it meant when I got to Meil I’d be able to ruin Vok Nal’s day. None of the other traits seemed as immediately useful, so I went ahead and purchased [ANATHEMA disruption]. With absolutely no fanfare, nothing happened. The trait was added to my overlay but nothing else.

“What sort of [Bane] are you asking about?” Ansae asked.

“Um, it says that my mana is a [Bane]. It doesn’t mention what type.”

“Your mana is a [Bane]? That sounds intimidating,” Shayma said. “But how can you even have a [Bane] if it’s not aimed at something?”

“You can’t.” Ansae said. She’d given up on her inspection of the shards for the moment to regard Shayma, or rather, more likely me through Shayma, with a toothy smile. “Nor have I ever heard mana itself being a Bane. I said it was something like an Affinity, but it requires structure, much like rune-workings. Tell me, Blue, how many laws of magic are you planning to break?”

“It’s not my fault!” Shayma giggled at my protest. “So what does this even mean, then?”

“Assuming it’s not useless, being aimed at nothing, it may be anything. Everything. If you could target your [Bane] at whatever you wanted…” Ansae paused, contemplating. “Well, even I would be a little bit intimidated.”

“I’m assuming you don’t feel anything right now? You’re not under the effects of a [Bane]? Have you noticed any changes in my mana?” I certainly hadn’t when I’d taken the trait.

“Well, it’s certainly not aimed at me.” Ansae closed her eyes, breathing in deep. As I’d noticed before, she was actually inhaling the spare mana cycling through the dynamo, little streamers pulling away and getting sucked into her maw. “Your mana is so pure it’s difficult to tell, but I think there’s a little bit of spice there now. It’s actually quite good. Refreshing, even.”

“I’m a little jealous,” Shayma said. “I can’t taste his mana.”

“Don’t feel too bad, I’ll let you taste me later,” I told Shayma, and was rewarded with a snicker.

“What do you mean by ‘pure,’ anyway?” Shayma asked, pre-empting my own, identical question.

“Whenever someone touches mana, they leave at least a small impression of themselves behind. This is as true for plants as it is for people, so any mana you find in the world has been colored by all the pieces of life and nature it has flowed through. Blue’s mana has none of that. It’s as if he cannot touch his own mana, even though it is clearly not the case. It’s wonderfully unusual.”

Then another kind-of-sort-of trait activated. I’d mostly forgotten about it because so far hardly anyone out in the world knew my name, but Thul Monat did. When the mote of perception snapped into existence, he was confiding to Lockert that he hadn’t been completely straight with two fox-kin folks who had asked after Shayma.

“I underplayed her connection to Blue,” he said. “There wasn’t anything they could do and I didn’t want to worry them. I don’t fully understand what’s going on there, myself.”

“I’d have told them,” the windbeast said staunchly. “She’s not my daughter, so I don’t really care how much she’s under thrall to a dungeon.”

“As always, your tact knows no bounds.”

It was just a brief glimpse, as the conversation turned to other things and the remote viewing closed, but it was enough. “Speaking of being all mysterious, I can tell you with my mysterious powers that your parents made it back to Wildwood and are on their way here.”

“Oh good! Though I expect they’ll be grumpy about missing all the excitement.”

“I’d be perfectly happy about missing the ‘excitement’ of assaulting a city, myself. But it kind of has to be done.”

“Well, you know. Adventurers.”

“No, you say it like this,” Ansae put in. “Adventurers.” She managed to make her tone resigned and disgusted at the same time.

“Hey, these are my parents we’re talking about.” Shayma chided her.

“Then you say it like this. Adventurers.” This time it was amused and exasperated instead.

“...yes, that's about right.”

I was a little surprised at how well the two of them were getting along. Considering their first meeting I could see Shayma keeping things entirely formal. Ansae, too, for that matter. But maybe associating with me had numbed her to dealing with the powerful. I didn’t know what Ansae’s reason was, but maybe she was just happy to have someone to talk to after what had probably been a very long isolation.

“I’m going to call this session early. You need to practice and I have some presents to play with.” Ansae declared. “How much longer until you assault Meil?”

“Three or four days? Blue’s still tunneling.”

“Yeah I...think I’ll make it in that time. Once I can actually see Meil I’ll know better.”

“With so little time, you may be better served getting used to your new Artifact than worrying about perfecting shapeshifting. There will be time enough for that later.”

“You’re right,” Shayma said. “Thank you, Ansae.”

“You’re welcome,” Ansae replied, turning back to the crystal fragments. “And Shayma?” She added dryly. “Don’t die.”

 

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