It would be a stretch to say Ansae had been scared, but she had certainly been concerned. Watching Blue’s various constructs fall apart one after the other was a lot like watching someone die, but since none of the mana that traced his actual body ever collapsed the straits weren’t too dire.
On the other paw it was fascinating to see dungeon-to-dungeon combat. She hadn’t known it was even something that happened and she wasn’t sure how Meil’s dungeon could infiltrate back this far, but it had. Little jabs of foreign mana manifested to disrupt Blue’s most complex constructs, or attached themselves to bits and pieces and slowly ate away at them.
She completely severed the connections to her lair once one of the probes tried to touch her cottage. Less to protect it than to keep any hint of a Red Core dungeon well away from her. That severed Blue’s connection too, but he would have to cope. Soon after that the mana flows inside her lair collapsed and the lights went out, but so long as everything else stayed intact that was fine.
If any of the foreign mana had shown a hint of being able to reach Blue’s actual core she would have ripped it out and taken it away, Blue’s wishes be damned. It was a wide world and she knew there were plenty of places to hide and recover that weren’t in striking distance of the mage-kings. Of course she thought this was such a place but that had been centuries ago.
What was really irritating was that she didn’t dare protect Blue directly. The foreign mana might well carry Depletion with it, and to put her own constructs in the way would be the same as disconnecting Blue from the front. She could only keep a close eye on things and be ready to act.
Eventually the counterattack stopped, but Blue stayed slow and sluggish and a little strange, showing none of the crisp command of dungeon biology or oddly sloppy mana control she was used to. The lights didn’t come back on, the mana dynamos didn’t get repaired, and what small bits of mana movement she did spot didn’t make sense. He did repair the severed mana link, but it was a sluggish and uncharacteristically tidy patch job and was left alone thereafter.
When the lights finally did come back on, it took her by surprise and she was perhaps less complimentary than she should have been, but at least Blue was back. Which meant that a mage-king was dead. Just a drop in the bucket as far as she was concerned, but a good start.
It annoyed her that she could merely watch on the sidelines, because she was the Silver Woe and by all the gods she had some woe to bring to them. Alas, she was not yet fit to contend with the world. But, she consoled herself, she would be soon. In years, not centuries, if Blue survived.
Speaking of which, she had more to do dissecting the Red Core fragment Blue had provided. It was the first time she’d seen any dungeon core close up, and it was a fascinating piece of magic. Or more specifically, it was an Artifact, for nothing else had that close interlinking of matter and mana. That wasn’t a surprise since the first Great Dungeons were, at least in legend, the direct creations of the gods. Blue and the Red Cores clearly weren’t. She wasn’t much of a god-botherer but she’d happily gut anyone who thought otherwise for blasphemy.
The fact that the Core fragment was an Artifact accorded with the fact that every single dungeon she knew of other than Blue was under someone’s control. Artifacts were things. Tools. Each had a purpose but none had a will. Unfortunately that helped not at all with understanding Blue, because it only made him more impossible.
The fragments she had were the same all way through. Complex, yes, beyond her ability to understand how they worked, but definitely the same, precise and rigid. Not only was it not in the nature of Artifacts to be thinking beings, Power or not, but if Blue’s Core was anything like these than he shouldn’t be so bad at controlling mana. He shouldn’t be capable.
He wasn’t likely to make jokes, either. Even bad ones. Especially bad ones. Then there was the way he let Shayma run around without any sort of leash, which would be inimical to something as strictly and finely tuned as the crystals she saw. It was a complete puzzle, which put her in quite a fine mood. The mysteries surrounding Blue seemed to never quite go away.
It seemed unlikely he was created a Dungeon Core. He’d phrased things in certain odd ways that made her think he was not simply a three-month-old dungeon. Shayma hadn’t seemed to notice, but the girl wasn’t stupid so either she was letting Blue keep his secrets or he didn’t want her to know. Given her species description, if Blue preferred Shayma not realize, she wouldn’t even if it were spelled out to her.
Ansae didn’t intend to pry too much though. That’d just ruin it, when maybe she could figure out his origins herself. Not that they mattered overmuch, given his capabilities. Especially given his capabilities, and his actions. The most logical guess for whatever he had been prior was another mage-king, but if that were the case he’d turned his coat thoroughly enough that she need not regard him under the guise of the Silver Woe.
She was still musing over the crystal shards when Blue’s teleport Field swirled back into existence and Shayma appeared by the cabin. That was a good sign. It would be awful difficult to discuss things with Blue if his representative had ended up bleeding out in Meil.
The scents she bore with her as she appeared from [Ghost Step] were blood and burnt flesh, reeking of the aftermath of battle even from under the bandages. Considering the girl’s Abilities, it must have been some fire to actually burn her, and do enough damage that [Regeneration] still hadn’t fixed it. “You’re alive,” she greeted Shayma, setting aside her tools. “I’m glad to see it. I take it everything went well?”
“Not...not actually. We won, but it wasn’t easy. That’s part of the reason I’m here.” Shayma approached the workbench, hands held awkwardly at her sides. From the looks of things her hit points were not quite full, and it’d still take some time to heal through the status ailment. “Blue wants to have a meeting with you and me and Queen Iniri to talk through some things.”
“Oh?” She lifted her brows, finding this sudden change in policy...somewhat alarming. Not that she was worried about her ability to handle mortal nobility, but something might have spooked Blue rather badly. Understandable, but scared people made bad decisions. “What does he have in mind?”
“That you should know what’s been happening from his perspective, and know that the other knows it.” Shayma wasn’t listening for Blue’s prompting for this, given that her ears weren’t twitching, so clearly she’d already discussed it in depth. “You’re both invested in his future for very different reasons, so he hopes that you’ll at the very least respect each other’s goals. Plus he wants input on that future, since he has some decisions to make.”
“Oh, interesting.” The words she used were polite, but her curiosity was piqued. Blue had, thus far, been fairly reticent in sharing anything about himself. She could see his various workings but he rarely mentioned them, except for the few times when he sought her knowledge directly. Whatever had happened must have been severe, for him to change his habits so suddenly. “When? I will be there, of course.”
“In a few hours. He’s still recuperating, but by then he should have a room put together and the teleports up. Besides, he doesn’t want to interrupt what you’re doing.”
She snorted. It was probably more that any sooner time would sound like a summons rather than a meeting, and Blue had always seemed very conscious of her prerogatives. He treated her more like the Silver Woe, whereas Shayma had been quite friendly once she got over her initial fright. Besides, by spending a few points of stamina she could see the meeting room shaping up, and if Blue had teleported Shayma in he certainly had enough mana to teleport Ansae out. “I’m sure he doesn’t,” she said dryly, just to ensure Blue knew how she read that excuse. “What do you think of the meeting?”
Shayma hesitated. “I think he’s scared,” she said after a minute. “Of something that happened. I’ll let him explain it himself, but he was definitely in an odd mood when he woke up.”
“Don’t worry, even I have been frightened a time or two in my life, long ago. He’ll get over it,” she assured Shayma.
Surprisingly, Shayma stayed while they waited for Blue and Iniri to be ready. The girl seemed maybe a little lost, but given that Blue sounded uncertain that was no surprise. When she had servants herself, they’d pick up on her mood, and none of them had been bonded so closely to her as Shayma was to Blue.
She welcomed the company, actually. After a few centuries in seclusion she was still getting used to other people, and Shayma was tactful enough to simply exist quietly when Ansae was concentrating on something. In that companionship Shayma had been willing enough to answer anything Ansae asked, on the rare occasions she asked it, but hadn’t divulged a single one of Blue’s secrets. Ansae was certain that was because Shayma didn’t know any, rather than great skill at dissembling. Ansae didn’t make much progress either in her study or in conversation before Shayma cocked her head, ears twitching.
“Iniri’s on her way,” she reported, getting to her feet. A circle appeared just in front of her, Blue’s teleportation field flickering into existence. Even she found it rather ridiculous how much Blue used spatial translocation, given how mana-intensive anything of that nature was, but she had to admit it was a luxury she could get used to.
The room Blue had set up for the conference was simply a round table with three chairs. Hers was sized appropriately, something that humans and demihumans forgot about surprisingly often, but they all looked extremely comfortable. There was a pie and pitcher of juice on the table, which amused her, but aside from that there were no frills at all. The walls were solid and unadorned grey stone, and the ceiling was composed of those daylight-glow patches Blue preferred.
Ansae settled into the chair and picked up the pitcher, pouring it into the dragon-sized glass that spun itself into existence at her place and leaning back as she sipped it. She would have almost rather come in her full form, just because it made that much more of an impression. On the other hand, pie and juice. The room was too small for the full form anyway, and she preferred neutral ground to meeting in her lair.
Iniri popped out of the other teleport and gazed at Ansae with wide eyes. Ansae looked back, though she’d ‘seen’ Iniri before through some of her more esoteric senses, spending stamina to look straight through the stone. It was something she probably shouldn’t have done, since even with the excess mana Blue generated she wasn’t exactly gaining it back.
The queen had come dressed for war, in the political sense, with spotless, high-Affinity clothing and jewelry, the crown marking her status as royalty. Though the dress was ornately embroided, white and pale blue, it was at least not one of the ridiculous confections that had been popular in empires past. Those made it impossible to move without using Skills and had, in fact, been the cause of a number of deaths by assassination.
“Um. Queen Iniri, this is Lady Ziir.” Shayma made the introductions, though the corner of her muzzle twitched at the appellation Shayma gave her. “Lady Ziir, this is Queen Iniri Tarnil, descendant of Teash Arn and ruler of the Kingdom of Tarnil.”
“A pleasure,” Iniri said, offering her hand. Something that took its own sort of courage, considering Ansae’s own wicked claws.
“Likewise,” Ansae replied, engulfing Iniri’s dainty fingers with her own massive paw. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the fifth-tiers from this continent, but I think I did hear of Teash once. He took down Tel-aeir, didn’t he?”
“Yes…” Iniri gave her a cautious look. “Though most people remember him as the Diamondhide. Are you a scholar, by chance, Lady Ziir?”
“Just long-lived.” She grinned, showing teeth, and released Iniri’s hand. Apparently Iniri didn’t recognize the name either. It did hurt her ego some that they didn’t simply recognize her on sight, but it had been centuries since she was last active and then not even on this continent. “No need to study history when you’ve been through it.”
“...of course.” Iniri gave her another look. With some people it was more fun to declare herself directly, and with others it was more fun to hint and wait for them to come to the conclusion themselves. Ansae judged Iniri was the latter.
“Um, Blue says go ahead and sit down.” Shayma waited until the two of them were seated before taking her own chair. “He says that the first thing you need to know is that he’s been grappling with dungeon instincts for a while. For the most part it’s been okay but there’s been some...issues.
“Like communication. He can speak to me but he can’t to anyone else, through any method he tries, even writing. It seems to be completely blocked off for him. The same with magic. It’s hard for him to even remember how these things are supposed to work.”
“I had wondered.” Iniri said. “Though I suppose if he started communicating directly, everyone would pester him.”
“I don’t imagine it’s that problem that brought on this meeting though,” Ansae observed. That sort of restriction was exactly the sort of thing she would have expected from the rigidity of an Artifact. Even if the rest of what he did violated it, at least it seemed likely that his core wasn’t too far from the Red Cores.
“No.” Shayma took a breath. “There are a lot of systems that dungeons deal with, and one of them is called ‘Anathema.’ It fills him with an artificial hatred - toward red cores, in this case.”
“Don’t really need artificial hate for those,” Iniri muttered, and Ansae nodded agreement.
“The problem is that when he contacts a Red Core dungeon, it completely consumes him. He doesn’t remember anything of the past day and had no control over it, which left the dungeon instincts in charge of everything. It seemed to be okay this time, but if it happens again the dungeon might try to attack you or something. Fortunately he doesn’t have monsters and the dungeon instincts seem too simple to understand his complex traps, but it could still be an issue.”
“And Depletion?” Ansae asked sharply, feeling very much less safe.
“The [Blue Core] and [Purifier] Titles have locked out any sort of Depletion options,” Shayma reassured her, “and the [Purifier’s Breeding Station] doesn’t have monster options. It doesn’t even work on someone who isn’t willing. The worst you’ll have to deal with is probably normal traps, but you should know about it. Plus, with all the teleporters shutting down he’s going to physically link up the chambers so nobody gets trapped again. Unless you object.”
“I expect most of us will be leaving. There’s room in Meil, and once the supply lines are back in place we won’t need to impose on you any longer.” Smart. Iniri was clearly paying Blue something for his hospitality, and it wasn’t wise to get any deeper in debt to a Power than was strictly necessary.
“We can discuss tunnels and such later,” Ansae said, helping herself to a slice of pie. “I sealed myself off for a reason.” Though so long as she stayed inside of Blue’s influence she didn’t have to worry about world mana carrying any sources of Depletion. It might actually be reasonable to consider hearing audiences again.
“Oh, you may have noticed Blue isn’t using the pseudo-sky anymore. Since he has to do all that manually, he says it makes him a lot slower and stupider to keep it up, so he’s cutting back on that. Plus some other things, though most of them won’t impact you much.”
“That’s fair enough,” Iniri said, though that description intrigued Ansae. It wasn’t that Blue was tired of doing those things, or lost interest, or even actively disliked them. It was that they impaired his thinking, which wasn’t even how elemental spirits acted. Admittedly, she was pretty certain Blue was something else already, but she couldn’t imagine what.
“So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, he has some options that...honestly it’s really strange. Dungeons don’t level up like we do, or get Skills like we do. So he actually has options he can decide on right now. They’re called traits, and he has four trait points. This is a transcription from his Status.” Shayma’s arms twitched, in an abortive flourish, and an illusion hung between them. It was sort of a faux Status, the lettering closer to Shayma’s normal scrawl.
Mana Efficiency: Improves flow of mana within the Dungeon. Higher flow provides larger benefits. (1)
Tracking: Companions can sense the location of the current ANATHEMA. (1)
Burrowing: Upgrades [Boring Tendril] into [Burrower]. (1)
Field Potency: Increases the maximum effect of Fields. (1)
Core Specialization: Ecology: Allows creation of additional resource types with [Dungeon Ecology]. Unlocks the ability to generate abstract Affinities with [Dungeon Ecology]. (4)
Core Specialization: Defense: Increases experience generated by defensive structures. Unlocks additional defensive materials. (4)
Core Specialization: Dungeon Combat: Increases potency of combat versions of Skills and structures. Unlocks additional combat Skills. (4)
Core Specialization: Habitation: Grants Dungeon Skills based on species of Dungeon inhabitants. Improves the species traits Dungeon inhabitants. (4)
Core Specialization: Companions: Unlocks additional Companion options. Increases rate of Companion advancement. (4)
Spawn Core: Allows the Dungeon to generate additional Cores. (20)
Manifest: Allows the Dungeon to condense its mana into physical form. (30)
Antithesis: The dungeon’s existence becomes inimical to its ANATHEMA. Contact results in annihilation. (35)
Ansae glanced over the options, brows lifting. Partly at the sheer scope and variety of what was offered, and partly at the descriptions being so sparse. [Manifest] and [Antithesis] sounded like something only the gods themselves would be able to do, but considering the brevity of the Skill descriptions, she couldn’t be certain.
“Dungeon Combat,” Iniri said immediately. “There’s still the rest of Tor Kot’s cities to deal with.”
“Blue says that since he probably won’t be in control and the dungeon instinct is stupid, more advanced options would probably be wasted. So while it might be useful, he’s not really certain.” Shayma shook her head. “I was thinking that if Blue was the one who powered the Adamant Fortress, at least for a little bit, maybe Mana Efficiency would help?”
“I would suggest not getting anything.” Ansae said, after considering the list.
“What?” Iniri blinked up at her.
“These descriptions are terrible,” she said bluntly, and Shayma abruptly flinched, ears flattening briefly as if someone had shouted.
“Blue agrees with that,” she put in.
“They’re terrible and they don’t really tell us what any of these things do. Doesn’t he have any insights into his own Skills? Anything to add to these descriptions? Did he obfuscate any of this himself?”
“Not really. Dungeon Ecology is what he uses to make sources, but that’s about all he can add. He says that his version of Status seems to be really bad. It’s also different from the way my Status or Iniri’s looks. He wants to know if dragons have anything comparable.”
“Hmm.” Ansae considered the question. It had been some time since she’d had to worry much about her own Status. “It may be that dragons are closer to dungeons when it comes to Status. We don’t have Classes, for example, and these trait points seem most similar to the evolutionary paths we can take.”
“I really don’t know much about dragons,” Iniri admitted. “We haven’t had any in Tarnil. Well, not recently at least. Wildwood is probably the only place they’d be interested in anyway.”
“You evolve your Classes. We evolve our whole beings.” She waved a dismissive claw. “Wildwood holds only wind and nature, which are not enticing to most dragons. Not when you could saturate yourself with volcanic or glacial or storm Affinities. There are choices to be made each time we move forward that seem a bit like the traits Blue has. The difference is, we actually know what each one does.”
“What is evolution like?” Shayma asked, fascinated.
“That’s a bit personal.” Ansae grinned and winked, making Shayma blush. “But the point is there are just too many questions. Can he have more than one core specialization? What do ‘additional Skills’ or ‘additional options’ even mean? Will anything he gets be immediately usable, or just allow for future growth?” She ticked off questions on her claws as she named them. “We have no way of knowing what the actual benefit of any of these choices is. Unless he has a specific need of one right now, wait until one seems useful and get it then.”
“With that sort of advice we didn’t need to meet in the first place,” Iniri pointed out, with some degree of humor. “But you’re right about how odd it is that the traits are so vague. When you first get your Class, you have some idea of what it does, and you know how to advance your Skills. At the very least you can tell when what you’re doing isn’t something that’s affiliated with your Skills.”
“Trickster wasn’t like that, though,” Shayma said. “I didn’t even know I had changed my Class until Blue said something. Then again, I hadn’t gotten very high level…”
“Probably because it’s a Dungeon-given class?” Iniri said, though Ansae would have guessed it was due to a Bargain. They were so individual and so idiosyncratic that it was even odds whether someone who wasn’t a Power would get any Status notification unless something drastic happened. True, changing Class and Species was drastic, but Shayma had been unconscious at the time from what she heard.
“Blue says it seems that everything to do with Dungeon Status, or at least his Status, is pretty vague.”
“It may be related to him being a Power,” Ansae mused. “It’s not like Powers tread normal paths. If it’s vague, it may be that he’s simply treading new ground. In which case, waiting might actually result in more knowledge as things ripple out into the world.”
“The problem with waiting is that we can’t plan for whatever these traits would unlock,” Iniri objected. “In an emergency there’s not going to be time to adapt to whatever he gets, especially since he can’t talk to anyone but Shayma.”
“What is an emergency for you is not by necessity an emergency for him,” Ansae pointed out. This was something she was familiar with. Mortals rarely understood that Powers generally had greater concerns than their little power struggles. Or that their choices would be ones they’d have to deal with for a very long time. Even if most of them weren’t immortal like she was, they did tend to last longer than any human or demihumain strain. “How does Blue get these trait points?”
“So far, by leveling up and defeating Red Cores.”
“Well, he doesn’t know if something else will give him trait points yet.”
“Mmm. Then, pragmatically, they’re limited.” Ansae considered the illusion again. “If it weren’t for the issues with dungeon combat, that would be a clear winner, since that’s a good way to get more points. With those issues...it might even be a net negative. Some of the best weapons have to be managed carefully so you don’t hurt yourself.”
“Blue was not careful,” Iniri agreed. “Now that I know that wasn’t intentional it’s...less irritating, but still worrisome.”
“I take it Meil suffered some damage?”
“It’s two-thirds destroyed,” Iniri frowned at her.
“I imagine if Blue were more powerful it’d be all the way destroyed,” Ansae said mildly. Really, cities were so fragile. It was amazing mortals still got mad when they were smashed. “If we were to select one now, it might be the Dungeon Ecology specialization. He could empower more individuals, if he chose to do so. Or...you’re both Companions now, yes? If you’re truly committed to a long term relationship, that may be an option.”
“Hmm. I’ll be dealing with him for a long time yet but, no offense Blue, I’m not sure I want to become so indebted to a Power I’ll have to spend all of this life and the next digging myself out.”
“None taken,” Shayma responded absently, ears flicking. “He says he’s partial to either the field potency or ecology options himself, but he was so used to how little the descriptions told him that he didn’t think about just...waiting.”
“If the Adamant Fortress works, he may not have to actually fight the other dungeons anyway,” Iniri observed. “Without Tor Kot, we could go after the cores directly.”
“Even if it doesn’t, Blue says it’s not a good idea to rely on him attacking dungeon-to-dungeon if you can just go after the cores. Trait points aren’t worth the risk, and since I can find the cores with [Seeker] targeting them is actually possible for us.”
Ansae nodded approvingly. Young dragons often fell into trouble because they thought they were more powerful than anything, which was manifestly untrue. Paradoxically, they would also chase after any gain in power no matter the risk, which was manifestly stupid. It was a trap she’d nearly been killed by once or twice before learning better, and while Blue wasn’t a dragon it was a sure bet burgeoning Powers had the same temptations.
“Would Blue share his full Status?” Iniri asked, contemplating the trait list again. “I might have more cogent advice if I saw everything else.”
“Yes, and nobody has ever seen a Dungeon’s Status so far as I know.” Ansae leaned forward. “It would be fascinating to see.”
Shayma canted her head, ears flicking slightly as she listened to Blue’s instructions. “He’s willing to share it, but only with us three, privately. He’ll get to it later, because it’s really long and it’d be easier for me to write it down than try and do it from memory. Maybe just make one copy you can come down and look at.”
“That seems reasonable.” Not that it would stop either of them from duplicating it from memory, but the fewer physical copies produced the less likely it was that one of them would end up where it wasn’t supposed to.
“Maybe the core room?” Iniri suggested. “If Blue’s still willing to keep it open to me. Or...does Miss Ziir have access?”
“Not yet,” Ansae said. “But for this I may ask for it.” For other reasons too. She had some ideas for a down payment on compensating for Blue rendering her immune to Depletion. The fact that she was curious for her own sake was pure profit.
“Is there anything else?” Iniri asked, sipping her own glass of juice. “That was a lot shorter a meeting than I expected.”
“Than Blue was expecting too,” Shayma agreed.
“Before you leave, though, I do have a request for Blue. I might be able to help with some of his issues, or at least shed light on them. But to do it I’m going to need a piece of his Core.”