Eight people sat around a table, each of them with a pair of monsters behind them, four on one side and four on the other. Armored wolf-warriors, many-eyed spiders, white mantises, and slender tree-people on one side faced lumpen humanoids, motile oozes, flame-bodied elementals, and slit-eyed gillmen on the other. The ones at the table were all strictly human, though they varied in size from the extremely petite, in the case of the hard-eyed woman with the spider guards, to the absolutely heroic, in the case of the ogre-backed man with a permanent sneer.
“Of course you think that pathetic fodder across the ocean is dangerous,” the sneering man said. Vok Lim. “They sent you running with your tail between your legs.”
“Fate-based weaponry is nothing to laugh about,” Tor Kot said, undaunted. “Nor is what the controller of my experiment has been able to accomplish. I believe his name is Blue, though that is surely an alias, and in less than four months his dungeon has advanced to the level of mana storage. By contrast, my dungeons there only achieved eighteen level reductions, so even if I tried for it, it’d take me two years.”
“For what purpose has this Blue been raising this dungeon?” The mage-king backed by the oozes spoke, the overlay offering his name as Tem Irn. “Simply to seize control of Tarnil from you and Vok Nal? Some outcast from the Council jealous of your opportunities?”
“I have no idea,” Tor Kot readily admitted. “But I doubt Blue is associated with us at all, given how far different his dungeon is from any of ours. As to purpose, I expect it is experimentation. His representative employed various weapons, and I recovered this from Miriam.” He took a vial from an inside pocket of its suit, inside of which was suspended a tiny silver speck. “You can run the divinations on it yourself, but it’s called [Firmament]. It has only one attribute – it is indestructible.”
“Not very indestructible if it’s just a tiny piece,” Vok Lim dismissed it.
“I believe Blue was making this. It’s not an artifact, simply a material, so Blue may be able to produce it in any size he wishes. More importantly, his agent was resistant or even immune to depletion. Between the two, he may well be able to completely ignore any force we bring to bear.”
“Excuses,” Vok Lim said. “We can’t allow any Controller to defy the authority of the council, nor can we ignore the death of a Vok!” Vok Lim didn’t appear to be much grieving over his son, his eyes cold and calculating.
“We can’t run the risk of destroying a potential source of Depletion immunity either,” said Yit Niv, the woman backed by the spider monsters and sitting at Vok Lim’s side. “Whether this Blue stumbled upon it by pure happenstance or he actually understands secrets we do not, it would be far better to open relations with him before taking any precipitous action.”
“Ah yes, because he was so talkative before.” Tem Irn snorted. “I know the type. He won’t listen until we’ve got our boot on his neck. That will be easier than trying to figure out what some strange rogue actually wants. Let alone giving it to him.”
“I can’t stop you,” Tor Kot said. “But if you go after him, don’t spare anything. There’s no telling what he’s capable of.”
“Giving us combat advice?” Bel Aci, the one with the blazing flame spirits, seemed nearly as contemptuous as Vok Lim. “You lost your whole army to a siege! I hardly think we have much to worry about in terms of combat from some brand-new dungeon. Even with extra mana.”
“Do you have anything useful to tell us?” Sen Rii, the one with the gill-necked humanoids asked. “Did you ever meet Blue? See his monsters? What level his cores are, how many reductions he’s gotten?”
“I never saw a single monster, which is suspicious in and of itself. The only person I met was Blue’s representative, whom I suspect had some incredibly powerful divination ward. Her capabilities did not match her Class and Level.”
“But she wasn’t a monster, or a mage-king?”
“Not a Controller, no.”
“Just one pseudo-monster isn’t much of a worry. Neither is a single fortress, when we’re bringing four.” Sen Rii crossed his arms, satisfied. Tor Kot shrugged.
“You know what you’re about.” He told them. Vok Lim’s side of the table exchanged glances and left, their contempt clear. Yit Niv immediately turned to Tor Kot.
“Do you think they’ll be able to subdue Blue?”
“I have no idea. They’re probably dealing with a fifth-tier or something like that, but four war-cores? I would hate to have to lay odds either way.” Tor Kot shook his head. “If we’re lucky, Blue will win. The Voks have endless people to put into their council slot, but Bel Aci? We can probably secure that one ourselves.”
I’d finally gotten a look at Vok Lim. He wasn’t quite as huge as Vok Nal had been, nor as big as his ogre guards, but still entirely oversized. The rest of the group was fascinating too, even if it wasn’t, by inference, the Council I’d heard about. It was unfortunate that I hadn’t gotten a good read on Tor Kot’s other two allies, Arn Tur with the wolves and Yun Sli with the barktearers, but their expressions of pained forbearance whenever Vok’s side spoke was probably good enough.
Plus, the conversation had given me a big hint that the level reduction stuff was really what I ought to be pursuing, though I still wasn’t fully certain what the best way was. Eating red cores, certainly, and I might be getting more of those, but it wasn’t a supply I could count on. I’d gotten a bit of credit from Companion Extraordinary Feats, however those were determined, but it seemed odd to me that I hadn’t gotten any feedback like that earlier. Considering I’d only gotten them from Taelah and Shayma I would bet only rank seven and over companions counted, which would explain why Iniri wiping out a whole army didn’t get me anything. Seven was when I started getting their experience, so that was when I probably got other benefits too. Maybe once Shayma hit Companion ten I’d have a better idea.
I didn’t much like the idea of having four “war cores” coming my way, but at least I could keep an eye out for where they were if they kept discussing me. I hoped they would, anyway, since I could now keep track of how close Vok Lim was whenever they invoked me. With any luck we’d have a decent warning before they turned up on my shores. I passed on all the information to my Companions and Ansae, though there wasn’t much to be done with it yet, other than make what preparations we could.
The knowledge that I’d have to deal with yet more mage-kings sooner rather than later drove me to consider my weaponry more closely. I didn’t know if I had days or weeks or months before they came, but I’d rather err on the side of caution and be prepared to stand off an invasion. I was far better prepared for that than before, since it wasn’t like they could cut me off or target vulnerable bits of me, but I had entire fortresses to deal with.
Electricity and magnetism opened up some useful things. Railguns might well be a possibility, if I built them point blank so aiming wasn’t a bother, just to breach whatever fortress walls I ended up facing, but something like Giorn’s ability on siege scales made that questionable. I definitely wanted something to stand them off from actually landing, since I didn’t want to tempt fate by coming into direct contact with a Red Core again. Even though I was a lot larger and older than before, that didn’t guarantee I would still retain my mind and I didn’t like my chances against a specialized war core.
One possibility was to make magnetrons, but I didn’t know if I could make them into actual siege weaponry, assuming I actually remembered how to do it right. The spatial collimating method would probably work, and it would be interesting to see if magic-darkness affected microwaves. A more ridiculous possibility, one that would absolutely need portals, would be a particle beam. I had lasers, I had electromagnetics, I was pretty sure I remembered how to cludge together a linear accelerator, and I had the room for it. What was even better was I could probably make it mana-rich by ionizing mana-heavy material, which would then actually punch through mana defenses. Maybe. Probably. Getting the frequencies right probably took more electrical theory than I remembered, but I might be able to finagle it.
A different approach entirely was metallic hydrogen. I could get the gas with electrolysis, and since I had high-powered magnets I could make the metastable stuff. Long enough to put into the Anvil and make actually stable, I hoped, and that would make me a very potent explosive since bulk chemical synthesis was not in my bag of tricks. I’d have to put it to Taelah; if anyone knew how to make explosives it’d be an alchemist.
If they actually deployed an army, electricity in and of itself would be useful. I had no doubt they had monsters that could shrug off a lightning bolt or two. Constant electrocution was another thing entirely, and I doubt they’d even mark wire as a threat at first. It was a brute-force sort of solution but, with what my industrial base was composed of, that was about what I could do.
On the topic of brute force, the mana waves from my Anvils might well be the kind of magic brute force I could use to stymie the mage-kings themselves, if I could figure out how to shape it. The gold cage didn’t actually resonate or reflect it, just sort of soaked up the initial blast of mana density shock. I’d have to ask Ansae for ideas on shaping it, but I was already thinking it’d have to be some sort of active mana to reflect anything. Maybe something to do with mana storage crystals. More tinkering to do, and probably explode a bunch while I was at it.
When I was discussing all this with Shayma, or more accurately complaining, she reminded me I didn’t have to do everything myself, and that she had a Companion Smithery and could very well tinker with things in ways I couldn’t. I promptly felt like an idiot and dropped all the [Reified Manastone] and [Firmament] that I’d made so far – including what I’d retrieved from the impromptu grenade – into her Smithery and let her go at it. The Smithery seemed to let Shayma actually work the [Firmament], even if she had only the tiniest amount, and with her Skill level and tools she could actually craft it more finely than I could.
That made me remember wire-drawing equipment and Shayma whipped some together herself after I mentioned it. True, there was far too little [Firmament] to do much with so far, but Shayma’s wire-drawing got the threads down to spider-silk thinness. She had to use [Legerdemain] to handle the stuff, especially after a mishap that sliced off the tip of one finger, but considering her regeneration that wasn’t a huge deal. As razor candyfloss, it was flexible if she manipulated it with her own mana, but was otherwise completely rigid even thin as it was. One strand took up half my total reserves, so she stowed that in her [Phantom Pocket] and left the other half in nugget form for my own dealings.
When I moved on to messing with infrastructure, Shayma and Annit and Keri went off adventuring beyond the walls of Wildwood. All of them needed experience and levels and practice with their Skills, even if Annit was fairly well crippled. So long as they kept close to the walls and didn’t go too deep, they weren’t in all that much danger. They weren’t anywhere near powerful enough to think about going to the Wildwood Tree itself, which I understood to be the domain of upper third-tier Classers at minimum. That said, Shayma was a right terror, teleporting at will around the battlefield, wielding claws or blades or whatever she liked. Her material of choice for shapeshifting was Cultivated Steel, and that level of armor and weaponry combined with her illusions meant she was almost impossible to hit, nearly impervious when she was, and truly lethal when she struck. The Firmament stayed hidden away, since nothing they were dealing with had need of that level of cutting power. Annit sniped and Keri healed and debuffed, meaning they punched well above their weight class even with Annit’s issues.
I still wasn’t fully certain how to do it, but since I could actually see their soul structures I kept an eye on Keri and Annit and puzzled at the problem of fixing Annit’s depletion between other things. Now that I had this sort of view I could actually see experience trickling in, not as new mana exactly but as a densification of the mana already inside which seemed to strengthen the connection between the soul framework and the body-mana. It wasn’t an exact art by any means, but it was visible growth that made me understand what the Status might actually reflect.
With The Hurricane and Liril around, I had people in tier two, three, and four to reference and get some idea of what the tiers did and were. If I had to call it anything, I’d call it somewhat of a phase transition, though mana didn’t actually have states like matter did. There were clear, non-incremental differences both between the mana itself and the integration of body and soul mana. When it came to Ansae, of course, there was no comparison. Her mana was probably the supermaterial version of the stuff, and I would bet that more of her being was magic than matter.
Shayma did have to return a couple times during all this, taking a break from ambushing unsuspecting wild beasts and taking their pelts and bones and meat, partly to let The Hurricane know she’d finished her task. The pylons had done their work and helped capture The Hurricane’s shoving of mana around and tied it in with the surface-bound mana types. The Hurricane actually seemed surprised when Shayma flagged her down. I think she had forgotten exactly what she was supposed to be doing and had just gotten involved in flinging storms about. That was fine, it had worked for me.
While it had worked in the end, I was pretty sure I’d screwed up a bit and Tarnil was going to be wetter than it was in years past, though I didn’t think Tarnil was known for dry-weather crops anyway. With food being an issue now, I probably wouldn’t get much in the way of complaints. The weather patterns had settled around my giant pylons, each one supporting a vague disk of semi-permanent cloud and storm. They seemed to wax and wane together, flaring into life to dump water onto pretty much the whole country and going quiescent again, leaving smears of cirrostratus. The flux wasn’t arbitrary, as it seemed some of the usual suspects fed into storm mana – heat, wind, fronts coming in from the ocean – but the synchronization and the way it expanded outward from the pylons was a little surreal.
It wasn’t exactly natural but that was from my perspective as someone who didn’t see mana as natural to begin with. I could peer over at Nivir from the Tarnil side of the mountain range that served as the border and its constant mist and cloud cover wasn’t natural either. They weren’t nearly warm enough or sunny enough to actually generate that much moisture in the air, and from the map they were a mountainous country so really any major weather patterns ought to have issues forming. So maybe the pylons weren’t too unusual or, if they were, they were something I could remove eventually.
Throughout all this I wasn’t the only one busy testing stuff. Taelah spent a good chunk of time fiddling with plants of various stripes in her Alchemistry, happily experimenting away with all the new stuff I had in my various Climates as well as the Chrystheniums. I was also spending that time giving her additional Affinities, but that was more in the nature of diversion than work. It did turn out that I needed to let the Affinities integrate for a while, a few days at least, but there wasn’t a need to rush that. I was worried there’d be a hard limit to the number of Affinities, but I hadn’t run into one yet.
One thing Taelah couldn’t do, at least not yet, was make me new Affinity flowers. One of the big ones I was missing was Metal Affinity, ignoring the exotics like Divination or, of course, Fate or Void. But she could cut-and-paste some of the exotic properties from one into the other, which was all kinds of broken considering a lot of alchemical fiddling was making different substances play nicely together. Half of that was magical integration and half was physical and saying Taelah could strictly cut-and-paste was oversimplifying it. [Phantasmal Gardener] was an incredibly difficult Skill to use and the way Taelah described it made me think about how I got different Climates to play well together, but it still meant that she could combine a frost-protection plant with a fire-protection plant and mix a treatment with protection from both temperature extremes.
She could combine more normal plants with my chrystheniums, but the results were underwhelming. They didn’t generate the amount of mana my chrystheniums did, even plugged into the dynamo, and what they did generate was the “dirty” sort, not my sort, so it didn’t really contribute back into the whole.
“I think when I get better at this I’ll be able to make plants that benefit more directly from the enormous mana flows you have,” Taelah told me as she examined two potted plants, one with enormous thorns and the other with seashell-curved leaves. “Though they might be too powerful. Your pure mana is amazing, but these regular plants can get overbearing rather quickly.”
“I’ll leave it to your expertise. I don’t exactly have the best reference for what might work.” Taelah couldn’t actually hear me, of course, but she did talk at me while she worked and I talked back, and she seemed to at least understand that I was paying attention. It wasn’t quite to the point of having actual conversations, but it was better than nothing. Especially when it came to her insights on some of my already-existing plants.
“These are attuned to really deep water, like the bottom of the ocean,” Taelah said of my Deepwater Chrysthenium. “If you make something like that, it should actually be able to do what it’s supposed to and improve your materials. Maybe set up a lot and see what happens?”
I hadn’t much thought about it since I had it, but it was easy enough to set up the experiment she suggested. A one-kilometer deep hole a meter across, Expanded to a hundred kilometers tall, was my start. I had to set it off to one side of my caldera, and make it out of Stonesteel to keep it stable, but it wasn’t too bad. I lined the bottom with Deepwater Chrystheniums and some storage crystals, as well as loose metal and stone, and started filling it with water. Plus, for the heck of it, some tantayantan wood and alchemical coal, which didn’t take well to the Anvil, plus a bunch of Iniri’s light ingots. It’d take a while to really get going but it might be a good alternative to the Anvil. For things that didn’t rust, anyway.
One of the useful things she found from the desert Climate was a root that she could use to make more quick-aging stuff for wood, which was great because I was about ready to start moving The Village up to the caldera and they’d need aged wood for building. Not that the caldera was anywhere near done, but I now had a spot a few hundred kilometers from the center where I could tinker with the Forest and Grassland Climates and turn it into the sort of thing we had discussed. I gave them a nice deep quarry of high-quality stone nearby too, basically blue-ish marble but less fragile. I assumed they knew how to cut rock, anyway.
I wasn’t just making stuff for The Village, either. Iniri’s palace had been a lot of fun to put together, but I was glad that I wasn’t doing architecture all the time. It got very fiddly very quickly, and I was still tweaking it here and there while they carted in furniture and rugs and other such things to turn an empty building into a place to live. Honestly, I’d thought that the thing would be huge and empty but even with an extremely diminished staff Iniri was populating some parts of it pretty well.
She was also taking a pretty hardline stance where diplomacy was concerned, making my prerogatives as an independent entity the entry point to any negotiations. That might have been a non-starter, considering that Tarnil wasn’t that big or important a kingdom, were it not for the hints she dropped about the things Tarnil could provide – or I could provide, if they were allowed access to me. She didn’t exactly ask before telling people they had to treat me as a Power or a kingdom before she’d refer them to me, but I didn’t have any objections and it was probably a good idea. I was sure the palace helped sell the idea, too. It might help sell the idea that Tarnil fended off the mage-kings because of might, not because the mage-king reputation was overblown.
The problem was at some point I would have to start trading out Primal Sources and supermaterials, and while they weren’t a problem for me to make I knew I was completely ignorant of their actual worth and the ramifications of having them out there and available to the world. Some of the supermaterials were of kingdom-killing value, so I’d want to be a little more assured before I allowed those to leak out, but I couldn’t exercise soft power if I never demonstrated I could make useful things. I’d have to trust Iniri had a better sense of such things, or knew someone who did, and could help Shayma with negotiations. Or maybe Taelah would be a better option? I could well imagine trying to haggle with her would be an ordeal.
In between all these things was setting up Fields for the farmers out in Tarnil proper and expanding my dynamos. It turned out I didn’t exactly have a soft cap on how many I could have, it was just that expanding too quickly was a strain. Which was fair enough, even ignoring Bargain-eating Tarnil I hadn’t ever added as many things as quickly as I had in the recent days, and needing some time for my biology to adjust was reasonable. It was easy to forget I was still a four-month-old dungeon and, for that matter, a low-level one. There was still a lot I didn’t know. Strike that, there was very little I did know and finding a few clever things did very little to offset that.
On the topic of things I didn’t know, I was still puzzling over the Scaleminds. They’d spread out and set up camp in the lower chamber I’d set up for them. I glanced their way every once in a while, and took note of the hunting parties they’d send out every so often. Hunts which were for obvious reasons pretty damn successful. Mind magic was terrifying, and I was glad I was immune. Or at least, cut off. Even if it would have been very useful, it’d probably both violate the ban on communication I seemed to have and give me vulnerabilities I had no idea how to patch.
I had two puzzles; how to fulfill their request to get a proper Status, and what to do with them now that they were here. Despite their monstrous forms they didn’t seem particularly unpleasant as a people, the younger ones even cute from a certain perspective. It was more like watching apex predators gambol and play – adorable, but you didn’t want to get too close. The lack of verbal communication beyond a few involuntary noises made it hard to think of them as people, that and the scanty use of clothing.
The most useful thing about them, from my perspective, was their knowledge of the Depths. The one sort-of-child could communicate a little, and Shayma’s circlet meant she could talk mind-to-mind even if she wasn’t a big fan of it, but it was going to be a tedious process to get anything useful from them. I’d have to send them out to scout out the local Depths before I expanded there, too. I didn’t want to run into the Nivir Great Dungeon by accident, and if by some chance there was an actual civilization, I didn’t want to eat them without permission. Chances were they wouldn’t be too much of a threat but I should probably treat them with as much respect as my neighbors on the surface.
If I was going to start using them to do stuff for me though, I wanted to civilize them a bit. Partly because primitivism was way overrated and it was going to irritate me whenever I checked in on them, but partly because I didn’t want to be represented by a bunch of savages if I sent them down into the Deeps. The mental image of dressing one of those three-meter scythe types in a suit helped, too.
The question was, if I was going to use them, how I was going to control them. I felt rather iffy about the notion of yet another Bargain, especially one that would be nearly identical to the one for the Village considering I’d made two in close succession. I didn’t know how to actually give them what they’d want to Bargain for, either. Besides, I wasn’t even sure monsters could do Bargains; they didn’t seem to quite register as people in the first place. They didn’t have a Depletion statistic on their Status, but they definitely weren’t Purified either. Maybe I didn’t need a Bargain though. It wasn’t like they had anywhere else to go and normal people could rely on normal oaths instead of magically binding ones.
Any decision at all depended on me being able to communicate with them better, and since there were difficulties on both sides it was probably going to be a pain. It was also unlikely this was a topic I’d get any insight on by being able to eavesdrop on Tor Kot. I couldn’t imagine he’d conveniently raise the issue in a discussion about me, though I had to imagine he knew something. The Shadow monster had clearly sent the Scalemind in this direction at some point, walking around under the ocean and away from mage-king territory.
Still and all, it was nice to have a solid week where there were no crises or terrible threats. I’d nearly forgotten what that was like, since it felt like I’d been in a state of one emergency or another since I’d taken in Iniri. Calling the imminent threat of a mage-king invasion relaxing was a sorry reflection on the state of things, but I’d take what I could get.
With things being peaceful and calm, I knew eventually something would come up but I was expecting some sort of horrible monster incursion from below or one of the nearby countries forming up another army. For some reason I had completely discounted the idea of a political threat even when I was trying to establish myself as a polity. But when I saw the extremely fancy ship sailing up the coast, I knew there was trouble.
Not only was the ship ornately carved, clad in gold and silver and bedecked with gems, but it was no simple sailing ship. In fact, it lacked masts entirely. Instead there were four flat panels that projected out of the bottom of the ship, like sideways rudders, rune-stamped and thick with water magic. It seemed to control the water around it rather than depending on wind, creating its own current and riding it rather than properly sailing. All that bespoke wealth and access to high level magical crafting, which was only to be expected because it flew the flag of Ir.