The day dawned bright and clear.
That was pretty well expected as I hadn’t seen a drop of rain yet, at least where I was. From Meil I could see some dark and scudding clouds on the horizon, maybe something that The Hurricane could work with. Or maybe she didn’t need it. I didn’t know.
The closest I’d dared get to the city was taking over a slice of untouched wall over by the priest’s quarter, as far from the Red Core sections as I could manage. At least the fact that all the Red Core stuff was a nasty red-brown meant it was easy to avoid the main bulk of it. Which was to say, the rest of the city.
Since I was so used to setting up my teleport Fields I didn’t feel a need to do it ahead of time. My worry was more that someone might notice when I did it, or somehow accidentally wander in and get whisked away to the staging area. Because I actually had made a staging area, and not just connected things to the center of town.
Although I thought the odds of a counter-invasion were pretty low, there was always the chance something might happen, and there might be one or two elite monsters still hanging around. Not to mention that Shadow guy, who seemed a lot brighter than the rest of them. I couldn’t actually screen who went through teleports, which is why I still used Link for access to my Core room and Ansae’s chamber. They were a giant gaping indefensible hole, and I didn’t need Iniri’s advisors to tell me that.
I set up a bit of a killbox around the assault teleport instead. Not with traps, because most of mine weren’t exactly precise and I didn’t want to end up killing someone who was only trying to retreat. Instead I made hardened bunkers for the Classers, with little slits for arrows or spells, raised above eye level and set flush with the wall. Considering the things that might be thrown back at the defenders, like liquid flame or deadly gas or whatever, probably stuff other than arrows, I’d given them plenty of room to retreat.
The hall between the killbox and Refuge was guarded by a heavily fortified door of stonesteel and real steel, cannibalized from my core room protections. Making chain wasn’t beyond me but it was super annoying, and probably wouldn’t be robust enough anyway, so it was opened and closed through simple gears. Iniri assigned one of the third-tier Classers that was staying behind to be the door operator, a hugely muscled man even though I’d counterbalanced the door as best I could.
I probably could have used [Portal] instead of [Teleport] so the defenders could see what was coming, but I wanted to have as much mana reserve as possible for this so it was just [Teleport]. I’d also disabled all the other sustained Fields to have the maximum regeneration, which meant that everyone was in the main town habitation, save a few farmers who decided they’d rather be stuck with their fields and livestock for the duration.
“How’s it coming?” Even though I could see the various bits of milling-about that people were doing, second-, third-, and fourth-tiers alike, that didn’t mean I understood any of it. It looked like people were packing snacks and drinks, at least some of them, which I supposed made sense for the defenders at the teleport point but if it took that long there was probably something wrong.
“We’re almost finished rationing out the Affinity foods,” Shayma told me. “Not that we had much to begin with.”
“Wait, you have buff foods?”
“I...guess? You don’t want to overdo it but having a little extra Affinity mana in your system can make extended Skill use easier.”
“Oh. Well that makes sense.” More than I was thinking for buff foods anyway. For all that the Status used numbers and labels, the whole magic setup here seemed a lot more organic than that would indicate. Here in the mana dead zone I didn’t get much of a chance to see it in action, since I didn’t count my own mana works.
I noticed none of the fourth-tiers were taking any though, aside from The Hurricane packing a flask of tayantan-fruit juice. That was accompanied with a comment about having me inside her, which earned her another spray of cold water. It was like training a cat, only I wasn’t hopeful it’d actually work.
It made sense that they didn’t actually need it though. The higher level people were, the more concentrated the mana was in their bodies, so I figured the less external mana like the Affinity foods would affect them. It might also mean that spells and things wouldn’t affect them as much either, which would explain why they seemed incredibly robust. Though that might just be their hitpoint pool talking.
There wasn’t a strict strategy for the assault, more of a vague plan. When discussing about a tiny number of people doing their own independent things against a powerful enemy with any number of unknown skills, there’s not going to be much room for strict planning. Rather than any specific tasks, people had general roles that Iniri trusted them to fill.
The Hurricane, clearly, was there to force Vok Nal out of the sky. Taking care of the imps would just be a byproduct of what she could do with her winds. She might also take out the tower, but I doubted it, seeing how much magic was running through the thing. I bet it was made out of something sturdier than stonesteel, which made me think I needed to try fiddling with my materials again once this was all over.
Actually I would lay odds the core was inside the tower, but [Genius Loci] couldn’t actually tell me. I wasn’t sure if the opposing dungeon had something like [Warding] or it was just a natural dungeon thing due to our weird mana, but the mana flows in Meil were essentially opaque to me. And since, like with me, they went through the stone of the dungeon, that meant I couldn’t see any farther with my mana sight than my normal vision.
I was really spoiled by how great it was within my own structure.
Really the biggest question was whether Vok Nal would come out and fight or hide inside the tower. There was no telling which, since while he was a mage-king and incredibly powerful, he’d also just seen his army destroyed and his elites killed. We’d just have to play it by ear.
Liril’s job was to destroy all the layers of magical protections Vok Nal had around himself and the tower. His flames burned magic, though thankfully he’d never used them on any of mine, and with such a specialization I didn’t know how he’d managed to become a fourth-tier. Or maybe that was so powerful that was the reason he had. Almost everyone and everything used some amount of mana, and to simply annihilate it was a little strange.
From what I saw, given enough mana his fire might be able sustain itself without Liril’s own direction, which made Liril really scary to a dungeon like me. Even if the stone itself wouldn’t catch it might actually be able to burn the dungeon-flesh inside, and that would be all kinds of no fun. I wasn’t entirely certain I should mention that to him, unless we really needed to destroy the Meil dungeon and I couldn’t do it.
That was my role, aside from the transport. With the [Bane] I had and [Assimilation], I might be able to eat away at the Meil dungeon and maybe weaken it and thus Vok Nal. I was more or less planning on that anyway but with ANATHEMA I was going to wait on that until everything was set up in case I was too distracted to properly make a teleport field once I poked that hornet’s nest.
I was pretty worried about it, actually. I considered myself better than Red Cores on principle, but the fact was that the mage-kings were more experienced with dungeons in general. Presumably, they knew what they were doing, and it was entirely possible the Meil dungeon had access to a range of foundational Skills and Categories I’d missed entirely. Or that there was some way to level up aside from growing really huge, and the Meil dungeon was some level thirty monstrosity with an enormous array of traits already purchased. Maybe my speed and alteration and ecology setup was a stupid gimped build that had no significant power in the real world.
Ultimately I was just stumbling my way through things and did what I could, but the mage-kings had to be familiar with all kinds of intricacies of dungeons and cores and how they worked. True, red cores focused on monsters and Depletion and all sorts of nastiness I’d sworn off, so maybe there was no real comparison. But it was still possible I was effectively a civilian wandering into a duel with a warrior.
These efforts were all in aid of supporting Yamal, or Yas as Iniri called him, who had the job of smashing Vok Nal in the face. I still wasn’t able to tell whether his blade was an artifact and Shayma didn’t want to ask unless it was really important, but he seemed pretty confident that he could get and hold Vok Nal’s attention. It was a boast I could believe, because while The Hurricane looked flashier, I could actually feel Yamal’s slashes when he was dueling the golems. There was more power there than belied by his movements.
Finally, Iniri’s role was to keep everyone safe. Really, everyone. It wasn’t just Vok Nal’s attacks they were worried about, but the collateral damage to the city from fourth tiers and a mage king fighting. Now that she had her [Shield of Tarnil] back, she was capable of that.
I’d gotten to see her practicing with it, and it was a very weird looking piece of magic. Genuinely two-dimensional, which was something that needed [Genius Loci] to fully appreciate. It was a thing of width and height but no thickness, transparent from one side and distorted from the other. The side that faced toward the enemy just showed colored smears that bore vague resemblance to what it was hiding.
I actually thought it was the most magic thing I’d seen since coming here. Even teleports and phasing and all that kind of sort of seemed to fit in with the world and interacted in normal ways. I could rationalize the logic. But this was some sort of weird maxwell’s demon sitting in a magic window of actually zero volume. What’s more, while I couldn’t generally read people’s mana flows to begin with I could at least see what they were doing in a general sense. Not so with [Shield of Tarnil].
“By the way, Shayma. What does the Lineage thing mean in [Lineage: Shield of Tarnil]? Is that why it’s so...well, weird?”
“I wouldn’t exactly say it’s weird, but it’s a skill inherited from her ancestor. When people manage to make fifth tier, they tend to found kingdoms, and almost always they pass down one of their Skills to their bloodline. So their descendents get a fifth-tier Skill...but it does influence what Classes they can take.”
“...I didn’t even know there were fifth-tiers. I thought four was the limit.”
“It’s really rare! I only think there's one in all of Orn, and not one near here. Teash died over eight hundred years ago, so it’s not like he was even recent. But Tarnil used to be larger, too.”
I supposed that made sense. Fifth tier, probably above level one hundred to judge from the pattern, was probably nigh-godlike and maybe not even entirely human anymore. Not actually a Power, as I understood Powers, since fifth-tiers were still human Classers, but scary nonetheless. It suggested to me that these fifth-tiers rose, founded kingdoms, and those kingdoms slowly split apart or were winnowed away until another fifth-tier established a new one. At some point I’d have to see what a map of the whole continent looked like, not just a slice of Iniri’s kingdom.
Iniri’s mages were coming along for divination support, since I didn’t have [Genius Loci] around the whole city. Shayma, of course, was my representative, so I could coordinate with the fourth-tiers and Iniri. I hadn’t given her any instructions of my own, since I figured she’d know what she was doing at the moment better than I would.
Ansae was sanguine about the whole affair. It was clear she couldn’t afford to get within a fifty kilometers of the mage-kings given her Depletion, but given my importance to fixing it she was probably willing to defend me personally. Within reason.
“Are we ready?” I asked, even though I could very well see they weren’t yet. I just couldn’t help myself, being impatient and antsy and other words for being eager to get going. Not that I was looking forward to it, but if we were going to do this I wanted to do it.
“Eager to be off?” Shayma laughed. “Well, not off if your case. You’re already there. Do you want me to bother Iniri?”
“No, I guess I didn’t realize there was so much preparation involved in what sounded like a pretty straightforward fight.” I’d even given them four days notice! Of course, most people had only woken up an hour or two before and The Hurricane, at least, was not a morning person. I was very tempted to spray her with water again to stop her incessant griping but she was weird enough that she might consider that flirting by now.
“It won’t be long,” Shayma promised.
In fact, it wasn’t. After another half an hour or so of milling about suddenly everything was organized. Iniri stepped forward, looking over the people assembled outside the staging chamber, with the fourth-tiers and Shayma at her back.
“Today,” she began. “We take back Meil. Vok Nal will fall.” This brought cheers, and I could tell she’d put mana into her voice, both for volume and for the bonuses it provided. “Our benefactor, Blue, has restored to me [Shield of Tarnil] and will himself be taking part in the assault. He has no more love of the mage-kings dungeons than you or I.”
Shayma waved cheerfully, and there were shouts here and there throughout the gathered host.
“We are joined by no less than three fourth-tiers. The Sovereign of the Thousand-Blessed Blade, The Theurge of the Purifying Flames, and The Hurricane. When we put Tor Kot’s head on a pike, it will be a warning that the mage kings are not welcome here. Not in this kingdom, not on this continent. We will destroy them and their Red Core dungeons, and drive them back to the god-cursed land they call home.”
I wasn’t a political genius by any stretch but I did notice how she cast a fairly desperate and impromptu assault as a coordinated front by combined powers. I appreciated being put firmly on the opposite side of the Red Core dungeons but I wasn’t sure how other rulers would take being given the same role. Not that any of them would be friendly toward the mage-kings if they were sane, but the tacit acceptance of the fourth-tiers there, the ones that weren’t Iniri’s, was probably pretty close to official policy.
That said, it wasn’t like this was a speech given at the capital to an adoring crowd of thousands. The audience was relatively small and mostly composed of the adventuring parties from Wildwood. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were all nobles or related to nobles, since it’d be easier to get to higher levels with the support of wealth and connections.
Fortunately the speech didn’t go on much longer. That was probably as much a desire to be brief as the strain of using her Skill, but it suited my impatience. I was itching to do something even while I worried over whether I would be able to do something. The suspense was slowly driving me mad.
People filed into their positions around the killbox. Keri and Annit took their positions behind it. I’d made a more appropriately located hospital, since I’d turned the teleports off, and decorated it with the regenerative-pollen flowers. Plus I’d told them about the healing moss, so there was plenty of it harvested and stored. Keri’s mana would only go so far.
If there were injured, they were likely to be inhabitants of Meil rather than any of our combatants. That was the consensus, anyway. Without many monsters the second- and third-tiers raiding the Meil dungeon wouldn’t be in too much trouble, but the forces that fourth-tiers and mage-kings could wield weren’t likely to be too kind to the residents, even with Iniri helping out.
“All right, Blue.” Iniri said. “We’re ready.”
I created the teleport field, linking the central platform of the staging area to a small patch of stone just inside Meil’s outer wall. The first group through was the fourth-tiers, Iniri, and Shayma, along with Joce and Keel. A [Shield of Tarnil] immediately went up between the teleport and the tower, while The Hurricane raised her staff and pulled lightning from the sky.
WIth one flash and crack, the dozen or so imps hanging around the top of the tower fell, smoking as they tumbled toward the ground. At the same time, the second- and third-tier adventuring groups came through the teleport, fanning out behind Iniri’s [Shield of Tarnil] while Joce and Keel looked for entrances into Meil’s dungeon.
“All right, Shayma, I’m going to see what I can do.”
“You too! I know you don’t like it, but I’m telling you now I’ll pull you back to the Core if I have to. But I’ll try not to do that.”
Shayma snorted. “You worry about your own part. I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me borrow your confidence for the day, I’ll give it back, I promise.”
“Just go!” She laughed, and Iniri looked back at her. “Blue’s starting,” she told the queen, and I made good on her words by using [Assimilation] to move forward into the space the Meil dungeon took up.
The contact was a shock. Almost literally, there was a jolt and a buzzing spread through me at the touch with the other dungeon’s territory, rising up to -