“With both Tor Kot and Yit Niv defecting to Blue, we are severely understrength in terms of usable cores for the next decade.” Rol Siw betrayed no more emotion than usual at the statement, his pale gray eyes considering the rest of the council coldly.
“Next decade? How are we going to ever make it up? We’ve lost an entire generation’s worth of cores to Blue. Regardless of whose fault it is, we can’t keep this up! Even if we’re sending the overflow Blue’s way that doesn’t solve anything.” Mil Tek looked around at the council members, many of whom had changed in the past few months. “I don’t know about the rest of you but we are eating into our reserves already, and there’s no end in sight.”
“The Silver Woe has left and gone elsewhere,” Lin Sar said, leaning forward. “Now would be a good time to strike against Blue and reclaim those cores.”
“Are you demented?” Mil Tek said, then glanced at Rol Siw, as if expecting censure from the council head. Rol Siw didn’t say anything, merely flicked his eyes from Mil Tek to Lin Sar. Encouraged, Mil Tek went on. “Every single time we’ve gone up against Blue – who is a Power, I might remind you – we’ve lost. Not just battles, not just Controllers, but cores. I’d think that even you would learn to leave well enough alone.”
“What do you suggest? We go begging hat in hand to Blue and say, please sir, give us back our cores?” Lin Sar sneered back.
“I’m saying we stop poking the viper’s nest and focus on internal issues, like how we’re going to stop the bleeding.”
“Gentlemen.” Rol Siw’s voice forestalled any further squabbling, cold and hard and precise. “That is sufficient. I believe it has been amply demonstrated that engaging with Blue in any capacity is an unacceptable risk. In any capacity, gentlemen.” He looked around the table. “We can afford no further defections.”
“Tor Kot and Yit Niv did leave most of their cores behind, at least,” another council member pointed out. “Just yank those and put them on the front lines. They’re leveled, aren’t they?”
“Leaving entire cities of people destitute and starving is not going to help our internal situation.”
“Our internal situation is that we’re spending monsters by the thousand that we can’t replenish!”
Watching the mage-king squabble over the hole they’d dug themselves was pretty satisfying, especially since I was going to be crashing their party in short order. It would have been the most satisfying thing to just sweep in and take them out all at once, but for better or worse we were doing things right. Which meant that we couldn’t simply flatten everything.
Well, not so much we as Ansae. I didn’t know exactly what she had been up to in the past week, but I’d felt the occasional flare of her Presence from however far away she was, so obviously she’d been reminding someone exactly who and what she was. Now that she had returned to the Caldera, we all agreed that she’d be leading the vanguard, to keep any dungeonbane weaponry away from me.
“I must say, my usual approach is just to annihilate everything.” Ansae seemed more amused than annoyed. “My style is a little bit cramped.”
“I gotta be honest, most of my caution at this point is to keep from having to deal with the entire planet turning out like Chiuxatlan. One country is bad enough. If the rift burst containment, I think everyone would be rightly upset with me.”
“That said, I think that inner ring of dungeons that Tor Kot mentioned are a good intermediate step. That means that you’d be the containment, and since you destroy depletion, you ought to be better containment,” Iniri pointed out.
“Plus, honestly, your Fields are going to be better at taking out blightbeasts than monsters could ever be.” Shayma shook her head. “Between [Hungering Dark] and [Corona], or even something like [Event Horizon], I don’t think any blightbeast horde is going to be an issue.”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “Before we do that, though, I’m thinking we grab Tor Kot’s and Yit Niv’s prior islands. It’s sounding like the mage-king council is intending to screw them over which I guess is understandable, but I feel like it’d be a bad idea to let them go ahead with that. I didn’t exactly promise it to Tor Kot or Yit Niv but I don’t think it’d be a good idea to just let their people get squashed in the mage-king’s death throes.”
“Obligations are important,” Ansae agreed. “Are we ready?”
“I think so. I’ve got my dungeon seed ships done.”
It had taken a little bit of work from Shayma and Taelah to make the mind Affinity metal do what I wanted, and it didn’t affect everyone equally, but it was good enough. Two shiny metallic spheres, hard to spot and hard to remember, floated at the edge of the Caldera. Unlike the Fortress, they were fast, the gravity metal drives making them incredibly zippy. I’d already slammed one into the mountain outside by accident, but between [Structural Mana Reinforcement], the metal coating, and [Firmament] threads woven into it by Shayma, it had remained unscathed.
“I have about a dozen guests ready to take over any places Blue frees, in addition to five of my own.” Iniri grimaced. “I’d really rather the ratio was the other way around, but I’m stretched thin with Orrelin.”
“That’s fine,” I assured her. “We’ll make do.”
“Then let’s get going,” Ansae said, flexing her wings, the council chamber only barely big enough to fit them at full extension. “This’ll be fun!”
Ansae’s teleportation was not like mine. There was no field, no real buildup of magic. She just moved, and she was somewhere else. It was like the intervening space didn’t exist and she was simply taking one step forward. It turned out that she could take people with her, too, because both she and Shayma were abruptly high in the air over an island floating above the ocean.
I didn’t know how Ansae had figured out which particular island was Tor Kot’s, but it wasn’t like she had been idle in the week since she had been purified, and I’d already seen for myself that her sensory range was absolutely terrifying. She probably could eavesdrop halfway around the world. No doubt she’d already taken it into consideration that I’d have to visit Tor Kot’s lands first, and Yit Niv’s, before we’d even had the meeting.
The weird thing about Ansae’s step was that both of my seed-craft had been carried along too, despite not being anywhere near the meeting room. It was just casually powerful dragon shenanigans, I supposed. Though it was possible Ansae was showing off a little bit because she finally could, since she wasn’t hoarding every last scrap of stamina and mana. When she sat down primly on one of the seed-craft as if it were flat ground, I knew she was showing off.
“There’s no dungeon-bane down there,” she said, waving a claw at the island below. “Should be safe for you.” Of course she wasn’t going to go down herself. She was only on overwatch for such simple tasks as relocating entire islands. The Silver Woe had a certain reputation to maintain.
Shayma dove down toward the island, which had a familiar villa at one end, and a small city surrounded by a little bit of greenery in the middle. The city itself had distinct similarities to the weird, dystopian order of Tor Kot’s conquered cities, though it was a softer sort of authority. Things weren’t strictly colored, but there were obvious divisions nonetheless.
The city was built in a wheel shape, in the unnerving uniformity of a structure that was centrally planned rather than organically grown, with a central tower that unquestionably housed a core. While she was in Chiuxatli form to fly, she shifted back to fox-girl form as she landed on the roof of the tower. The only people who seemed to notice her were a gaggle of young women who pointed and whispered at each other.
“People of Okar-neth, the time of depletion is at an end. Your former master has begged the great Power, Blue, to aid you, and so he shall.” Shayma’s voice boomed out, echoing over the city. I didn’t even know it was called Okar-neth, which was a terrible name for a city anyway.
“So how did you want to do this?”
“I’ll just go in and get the core. If you convert it you’ll probably take over the whole island? Then you can just [Relocate] it, or most of it.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Shayma simply teleported through the wards on the central tower. I couldn’t help but remember very similar wards had been impossible for her to get through not so long ago, when the mage-kings were a serious threat. They weren’t quite as powerful as the wards in the war-cores, but still she basically ignored them and jaunted through the top few levels of the tower. I wasn’t sure exactly what rules governed the placement of cores in relation to its floors, if any, because I’d seen cores in all different positions in the towers.
This one was about three levels down, and as soon as Shayma’s hands touched it, I felt the familiar surge of ANATHEMA and the returning counter-surge of mana converted the core in less than a second. I wasn’t sure if it was level or mana capacity I was overcoming when I ate a red core, but either way being able to dump a hundred thousand mana at once made it simple and painless. Painless for me, less so for all the monster-oriented pieces of dungeon biology that melted as I spread out into the former dungeon’s city.
Level 28 core converted
2 trait points awarded
Dungeon gains additional Core.
Depletion source removed. Requirements for level advancement reduced.
There were surprisingly few monsters about. I knew that Tor Kot used them as a general peacekeeping force, so I’d been expecting to see them on every street corner, but there were maybe twenty all told scattered through a city of thirty thousand people or so. I didn’t know if that was because the others had been stripped away by the mage-kings or if Tor Kot really didn’t need many monsters to keep the peace in his cities.
I vaporized them with targeted applications of [Corona] before they could go crazy from having their connection to the core cut. It made little popping flares of light appear here and there as my mana washed out all the depletion-laden magic in the city. Which did have the unfortunate side effect of disabling wards and lifts and other magic-powered devices, but I’d already figured that would be the case. I did a quick scan to make sure nobody was stuck somewhere, then turned my attention back to Shayma.
“Give me a second and I’ll get a dungeon seed down there.” I took the seed-ship that Ansae wasn’t using for a perch and dropped it straight down to the tower, letting the dungeon seed take up the burden of connecting the island to myself. Shayma lifted her hand from the new core and flitted her way out of the tower.
“Need to find the governor,” she muttered, making a beeline for the big manor. In the meantime, I started a [Relocate] for the whole island. Actually, the dungeon hadn’t taken over the entire island, not quite. It seemed that Tor Kot had purposefully kept it away from his villa, which probably held his personal core, and not bothered driving it all the way to the bottom. Fortunately, with the expenditure of a bunch of mana, I could [Assimilate] everything the original dungeon hadn’t.
While Shayma explained the facts of life to the mayor of Okar-neth, I was busy making a place in my central sea for the island. Since I didn’t want to have my seed-ship stuck in place I needed to anchor it, at least for the moment, so I grew up a pillar and [Relocated] the island to atop it. Which still took a good few minutes, just due to size.
“Now that I’ve seen you at your normal strength, I guess all this moving giant landmasses around doesn’t seem so fantastical,” I told Ansae.
“No, it’s still somewhat absurd,” Ansae disagreed. “I could do it, yes, but I wouldn’t be as casual about it as you are.” I took note of the word choice. Even though Ansae was far more powerful than I was in a lot of ways, she didn’t have the insane mana regeneration I had, or the sheer scale of existence. She could blow up countries, but I was countries. “Do hurry up, though, I want to get to the middle of things.”
“I admit I’m a little surprised you haven’t gone yourself.”
“I’m impatient, not stupid.” Ansae flashed a toothy grin. “Without your mana I can’t be certain anything I do would actually contain depletion instead of spreading it. I’m the Silver Woe, ending threats to the world is what I do. After a few thousand years I know how to indulge in patience when I need to.”
“Exactly how many thousands of years old are you? Don’t answer that. I guess you’ve seen basically every existing civilization come to be.”
“And helped more than a few fall,” Ansae agreed. I assumed they deserved it, but I wasn’t going to ask. “Depletion is possibly one of the worst threats I’ve seen, solely because I couldn’t remove it of my own power. The soul damage aspect is not something I had practice dealing with, for obvious reasons.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re immune to all soul damage now, just depletion damage. One of my traits lets me make my inhabitants more resistant to soul manipulation stuff, so you’ll still have to be careful.”
“I intend to be,” Ansae said grimly. “I actually do want one of those soul prosthesis from you at some point, because I expect that would actually increase my resistance to any further soul meddling as well. “
“I hadn’t considered that, but you’re probably right. Though considering how expensive a prosthesis is for you it’s gonna be a while.” At some point I’d run out of an immediate need for supermaterials and could start stockpiling them for something like Ansae’s soul prosthesis but my goodness did it take a lot of materials for her. I’d checked, and it was even higher since I’d Purified her.
“I will certainly make it worth your while. But first, the rift.” Ansae scowled northward. I hadn’t really paid too much attention to exactly where Tor Kot’s island was, for some reason assuming it was basically on the west end, nearer to Tarnil, but now that I had the seed-ships it was easier to triangulate, and even see the haze of the rift on the horizon. I’d taken the smudges for ordinary clouds, before.
“Well, first, Yit Niv’s island, then the rift.” Ansae grunted agreement. Soon after, [Relocate] finished moving the island to my sea, and I teleported Shayma back to the seed-ship, which had remained behind. I had to wonder what the limit was on my companion recall, if I could have recalled Shayma instead and pulled the whole island with her, but that was probably not an experiment I needed to do.
Ansae stepped once again, and everyone wound up over Yit Niv’s old island, which barely brushed the tops of the waves. Shayma flew down to repeat the process while I grew another pillar. It was a little bit weird and surreal that it was simply a matter of course to hijack billion-ton islands and bring them into the Caldera, however many thousands of miles away.
“Now that we’re about to do this, I’m a little nervous,” I confessed. Considering that I was inherently anti-depletion, and Ansae covered literally everything else, I didn’t need to be. But the sheer scale of what I saw on the horizon was daunting. Yes, I was the size of multiple countries. So was the rift, and the rift had been there a lot longer than I’d been around.
“Mmm.” Ansae looked down at Yit Niv’s island, just in time for Shayma to convert that core as well. “If we have to tear out the entire continent, we’ll do it. I’ve done it before.”
“Okay, that is a story I’ve got to hear when you have the time.” I actually wanted to hear it immediately, but we were a little busy for what was probably a long story.
Level 33 core converted
3 trait points awarded
Dungeon gains additional Core.
Depletion source removed. Requirements for level advancement reduced.
“You didn’t think my moon came from nowhere, did you?” Ansae asked with a smoky grin.
“Okay, now that is really a story I’ve got to hear when you have the time.” [Relocate] went faster that time, possibly because I slammed a little extra mana into it, and Shayma appeared back at the seed-ship while Ansae was still grinning.
“I’ve told Iniri about it, so she’ll be ready to head in as soon as she gets together her people,” Shayma reported. I swapped my attention back to the Palace, finding it a little bit difficult to juggle all these perspectives, and opened portals for Iniri.
“The northern end of the courtyard leads to Okar-neth, the southern end leads to — what is it called, Shayma?”
“Okar-rou.” Shayma shrugged at the mage-kings’ naming sense.
“Right, southern end goes to Okar-rou.”
“Thank you, Blue,” said Iniri, busy at her desk overlooking the courtyard. “Does it look like we need to rush?”
“No, there’s no chaos, people just look confused. I killed the monsters so there are no guards or anything but considering each city had like twenty or so each I think those were more for appearances.”
“Good, then we can take our time. I have the information on who I need to contact from Shayma, so I think we’re fine here for the moment. I’ll let you know if there’s an emergency or something.”
“Great.” I spared a thought for the two ex-mage-kings, who were probably sitting on their farms sipping lemonade or something. They hadn’t discussed me enough for them to pop up on my radar since they moved in, maybe once or twice, so I didn’t know how they were doing. It was just a thought, though, then I turned my attention back to the task at hand.
“Here we go,” I told Shayma and Ansae, and accelerated the seed-ships toward the towering clouds on the horizon. Shayma flew along in dragon form, but Ansae stayed perched on top of her chosen seed-ship as if it were stationary, and not moving along at a hundred-plus kilometers per hour. I was pretty sure that was harder than just flying herself, but Ansae was clearly in a playful mood.
The cloud bank just got larger and larger, until I could see it was something like an enormous stationary hurricane, the cloud walls rotating slowly overtop a ragged, upthrust jut of stone. The central island continent looked, geologically, new. The stone cliffs were jagged-edged and rippled, plunging straight down to the ocean, like a circle of rock had simply been shoved up above the waves.
The cliffs were topped by walls. Very large walls, completely seamless and clearly made by magic. It was all greyish-brown, rain-washed stone. Very much rain-washed, since the place seemed to be under a permanent storm, the wind whipping past even outside the cloud walls. When we got even closer I could see a little spike of a tower and a hulking fortress, looking very much like the structures of the war-cores.
Beyond the fortress walls was a butcher’s yard. Corpses of monsters and blightbeasts rotted in the rain, blood-tainted streams running inland, as the flare of magic lit the clouds from above. Electric arcs and shining ice flechettes flew out over the walls to kill hulking, flying forms that were considerably larger than any of the dragons that I’d seen. They were very definitely not dragons, though, looking more like gargantuan versions of my [Burrowing Wyrms] with a bunch of radial bat-wings.
I wasn’t exactly sure how one fortress per several hundred miles could effectively block the sheer outpouring of blightbeasts, wall or not, but it was entirely possible the beasts were actually drawn to the cores. Or there were grand-scale magic to lure or guide the blightbeasts toward the defensive areas. The outer curtain wall was manned, or at least, monstered the whole way around though. It was the first time I’d seen properly mixed monsters, with rock elemental types next to metallic scorpions next to winged jackals.
The magic came from fourth-tier monsters and an actual mage-king standing on the wall, ignoring the wind and the rain to target the big blightbeasts. It seemed a little convenient that we’d arrived right in the middle of a pitched battle, but judging by the state of the dead bodies on the ground it was something that had been going on for a very long time. Weeks, at least.
If the mage-kings had kept to their defense then they probably wouldn’t have been an issue. Though, considering that they were theoretically still feeding the depletion even while containing it, that might not have been true. Either way, it was far too late for such what-ifs. We were here to take care of things permanently.
Ansae flicked a claw and a ball of stellar fire flew outward, arcing out over the walls and then exploding into hundreds of identical balls of plasma. The sparks immediately homed in on everything nearby, vaporizing holes in monsters and blightbeasts alike. The complexity of the spell was beyond my understanding, but I did see it siphoned some mana from its targets, and some of the balls split again, going off to find more targets. In short order there were probably thousands of target-seeking things flitting about, putting half-meter holes in everything. It was a horrifying piece of magic, a self-propagating swarm, and I told Ansae so.
“It’s not as bad as it seems. It will exhaust itself eventually, and of course I can turn it off any time I want.” She pointed at the swarm of lights that was spreading its way long the curtain wall. Some of them were punching straight through walls to take care of anything she deemed potentially dangerous to me, in preparation for when I took it all over. “There have been some people who have tried to make these without any controls, and that is a very bad idea.”
“Yeah, hegemonizing swarms are pretty nasty no matter how they work.” One made out of magic was even worse than the physical counterpart, since it could sidestep a lot of the complications that slowed self-replicating machines down. “I’m surprised you didn’t just sort of annihilate everything like you did with Chiuxatlan though.”
“Pushing through all this depletion-heavy magic is not pleasant,” Ansae replied. “Besides which, I’m looking for dungeonbane items, not just living things. If I destroyed everything, you wouldn’t have the remains to take over and keep things contained.” Her muzzle twisted in distaste. “There’s also the fact that stellar magic isn’t constantly being eroded by the depletion here. That immunity makes it much easier to work with.”
“Wow, and I thought my Skills were powerful,” Shayma remarked, staring at the swarm of lights systematically destroying everyone and everything in their way. I felt maybe a little bad for the mage-kings in the path of Ansae’s destruction, but trying to individually convince each of them to disconnect from their cores, not call in reinforcements, and not try to hit me with dungeon-bane weaponry would be a slog at best. At worst, they might purposely sabotage the containment and make me run around trying to curb it.
“In a few thousand years you might get there too,” Ansae said encouragingly. “We can move in on this section.”
“Right.” I sent my seed-ships forward, and Ansae frowned at the depletion-laden wind and water and storm Affinity mana whipping around the hulls. It had to be odd for her to be immune to it now, especially since it wasn’t even something most people would notice. Without ANATHEMA, I surely wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from ordinary mana, and even with it I couldn’t tell whether there was more depletion or less, just that it was there.
The mana density rose sharply as I crossed the wall, to the point where I was pretty sure that any normal person would have wound up fully depleted in minutes, if not seconds. The storm carried so much mana that it was obvious there was something like a mana spring at the center of it, probably the rift itself. If it weren’t for the fact that my mana had shown that it thoroughly trumped depletion I would have been worried about being overwhelmed with sheer quantity. Which, considering that it was me, was quite a thing to worry about.
“Right, I bet all that is dungeon so I’m just going to drop a seed-ship down.” I followed the words with actions, basically just smacking the seed-ship into the side of the tower, which had a number of holes in it from Ansae’s swarm. Instantly I was struck by the ANATHEMA sensation of being in contact with another dungeon, but I’d grown enough used to it, or just grown enough, that it didn’t make me completely lose my mind.
I could have had Shayma go directly to the core as she had done before, but it was worth it to test if I could take things over in the intended way. If the containment was contiguous, and I could just burn through the existing red core dungeon biology to hijack their cores, then I wouldn’t need to have Shayma go around to each individual one. I’d only have to wait for Ansae’s horrifying death swarm.
With all my extra dynamos I just dumped mana into the opposing dungeon, [Combat Assimilation] letting me chew through the red core’s biological threading inside the stone. It took less than a minute to find the actual core and convert it, which certainly was longer than Shayma’s shortcut but not terrible. Then my influence expanded outward, driving down into the ground and outward along the walls, following the lines of the previously-red core.
Level 53 core converted
4 trait points awarded
Dungeon gains additional Core.
Depletion source removed. Requirements for level advancement reduced.
What I wasn’t expecting was an immense pressure from the riftward side, where my mana clashed with the rift’s mana. I’d known it was dense, but this was some other effect. It was maybe rather like Ansae’s Presence, or my own, but without any real feel of a person behind it, just an outward push. Containment was exactly the right word to describe what the ringwall was doing.
Each dungeon-claimed region had been bounded by a thin section that had once been some other kind of structure — likely anti-dungeon magic, considering that Ansae’s spell had burned out what looked to be complicated three-dimensional runes and enchantments. The plasma swarm had left scorched, slagged, and vaporized rock behind, but there was still enough there for me to bridge through to the neighboring core regions.
However the dungeon seed worked, it didn’t throttle my capacity to throw mana around, so I just overwhelmed first one core, then the next. Their attempts to fight back by throwing their own mana at me were annoying, but more on the scale of desultory slaps than anything truly threatening. It didn’t matter if I was terrible at fighting if I outmassed and outranged them by orders of magnitude.
I took it slow, since I didn’t want to get ahead of Ansae’s wave of destruction and end up getting dungeonbane’d again. What I found interesting was that there were literally no other humans around but the mage-kings themselves. It was just monsters, which seemed maybe a little extreme to me, but the oppressive mana density and depletion would probably be lethal to anyone other than a dungeon-connected type in short order.
Like dominoes falling, one by one I ate up the cores of the border wall.
Level 46 core converted
Level 48 core converted
Level 54 core converted
Level 51 core converted
It went on for a while. The border wall was thousands of kilometers, and even with the cores stretched to over a two hundred kilometers of wall apiece, it took a lot of infrastructure to defend it. The number of cores was not matched by the number of mage-kings, though. Judging by Ansae’s comments and my own observations, it was maybe one mage-king for every four or five cores. There were, though, thousands upon thousands of monsters.
Any place there wasn’t an active battle between monsters and blightbeasts, I could see that the corpses had been set up for dumping into dungeon maws to recycle the biomass. Which explained some of how they managed to keep up massive, constant fights. Between the monster corpses and the blightbeast remains, there was probably enough to churn out monsters almost eternally, depending on the mechanics of how new monsters were made. It clearly wasn’t completely sustainable if outer rings had to contribute monsters, but without dungeons and immense hordes of expendable fighters, it wouldn’t have been possible.
For me, it was a lot easier. I just used [Hungering Dark] and [Corona] as area denial and destruction. Even before I finished the ring, the scale was large enough that I had to make dedicated dynamos just to support the massive area. Everything I could see was essentially rough, bare, rain-scoured rock, sloping slowly in toward the center. It was a little bit like some horrible mockery of my Caldera, considering its size and my estimation that the middle of the continent had to be well under sea level.
Shayma teleported from fortress to fortress and ransacked them for anything useful for Cheya. The actual magical stuff didn’t last too long in my mana field, so most of it was only valuable as scrap. While I was mostly busy with the actual takeover, I did have time to notice that Ansae wasn’t being touched by the wind and rain, which was an amusing bit of magical protection.
Hour by hour, I took over the containing walls. Aside from the cores, the fortresses were empty of life, shattered and scorched by the hunter-seeker spell. With every kilometer I took, the pressure from the rift grew, increasing as I shouldered more of the burden. That was another reason to add more dynamos, to combat the flow of the rift’s mana by overloading it with my own. Once I was done, it would be time to attack the rift itself.
“We’ve lost all communication from the containment fortresses.” Rol Siw surveyed the somewhat ragged array of men sitting around the table. “The Silver Woe is there, and we assume Blue is as well, but that’s all we know. Options, gentlemen?”
The only reply was silence.