CH7 - Bowls of the Manquad
Though he delved into the dungeon with a confident stride, the dank air and oppressive atmosphere soon put a damper on his mood. Even nettled as he’d been on the way into the Tower, this place was eerie in a way caves on Earth had never been to him.
Unlike a traditional cave, these halls were carved in sharp triangles with large flat floors and jagged walls. He was tempted to call the projections stalactites, or stalagmites. But he knew neither of them projected themselves at an angle to cause impalement.
Several of them had blood on them, as well as other juices mixed together with the evidence of Men and Elves. Prime held out his hand, holding it close to the wall. He found it radiated heat, and not a hot dry heat like you’d expect to feel if you were deep underground.
This was more wet, living heat. It gave him the impression that he was standing in some great giant beast, some miles, and miles long living-thing with unknown depths and things. He could hear a scratching in the distance that set his hair standing straight, pressing deeper into the Tower now by some morbid curiosity.
Some deep desire to know what had created a place like this, and what might be housed in its depths. What monsters did these people face every day, in a continuous and determined war to silently protect their home.
He could hear the clash of arms in the distance, and many confused voices echoing through passages ahead. Before too long he came to a three-pointed fork, each bearing the same aggressive tooth-like shape of the initial passage.
He couldn’t tell from which the sounds of combat were coming from, so he instead elected to walk down the first tunnel to his left. He reasoned that whatever tunnel he traveled, the noise would naturally fade and come to a stop if the tunnel was incorrect for his purpose. As he traveled this first tunnel he found that it was beginning to narrow, it's paths leading him slowly closer to the edges of the walls.
Mindful of what he'd found earlier in the tunnels, he chose to give up on this first tunnel and retreat. He hadn't traveled it far enough to be certain about the sounds of battle, but if this was the correct path it was likely closed to him. His armor wasn't exactly the best money could buy, and was more geared towards freedom of movement.
It actually relied on the defendant to position himself properly to avoid serious damage, and obvious potential death. Returning to the original form he was shocked, because now there were five forks instead of three. That… shouldn't be. His memory wasn't faulty, he was sure of that. He'd never have made it this far without a decent memory to store his alternative paths.
Otherwise, all this really would have to be from square one, and he was losing his mind. Lacking any other choices, he simply chose a new tunnel at random and proceeded into its depths. This tunnel proceeded wider as he hiked into its depths, still taking care to keep well away from the walls. Until he reached a point where he could no longer see the walls.
The noises of combat remained as consistent as they ever were, so he decided to turn back and try one of the other tunnels. However, try as he might, he could no longer find the walls or entrance by which he’d come to this place.
He stood in a wide-open space, filled with darkness. Only a very dim light suffused the place with any level of directional sense, and that was a suffocating grey like the light wanted to cause discomfort to the eye. The ground was at least flat and level, but that also meant he couldn’t orient of measure himself against anything.
Well, with now being as good a time as any…
"My eyes that do not see are unseeing. They see not the light of life, nor the thread of fate, they cannot see the beauty of the Manaflow across the world. To the Lightless, let there be Light. To the Sightless, Let them See. In the Dark bring a Twig of Dawn to a Lost Brother."
A now familiar vibrancy filled the world again, only several hundred times more powerful than before. This place was awash with so much Mana that Prime would’ve been choking and dying slowly had it been a liquid or a gas. He watched it was along the floors and into the distance, the darkness no longer holding secrets from his eyes.
This was why he’d not been bothered by the lack of dark vision potions or the like, he was relatively certain this was the effect he’d attain in darkness with his self made spell. A thorough sweet around him saw a much larger room, with an exit on the farthest side from him. Two lakes lay to either side of him, cages off with more regular cave architecture.
He got the impression that something might live here, perhaps in the lakes. But he was so far away from them, he doubted anything without could possibly prove to be a threat without first approaching. He wasn’t tempted, he hasn’t come down here with a fishing rod. Plus his target was a plant that ran, the lakes weren’t likely to be its hiding place.
Now that he could see an exit, he felt a less urgent need to flee the area. This place could obviously shift and change in some manner because the door on the opposite end of the cavern was a door. He hadn’t passed through a door to reach this place, so he couldn’t have arrived from the only discernible exit.
Not a comfortable thought, Prime frowned. This was perhaps, not the best idea after all. Most of the time he wouldn’t mind being lost, but this place was supposedly dangerous. Evidence to the contrary thus far, but he hardly wanted to be in a situation where he couldn’t tell where he was without any method of finding his orientation. If he could do that then at least he could move in one direction consistently. But it would have to wait for a little while. This place was already so thick with Mana, he couldn’t resist the temptation to begin his development. Nothing was around and he was totally alone, so far as he could tell. This should be the perfect environment to begin.
He sat down simply with his legs crossed, as you do. And as the Archmage had taught he began to turn his mind inwards. He began with his breathing slowly measuring it in and out, measuring the life force, the exchange with the world around him. He began to measure his heart-beat, and feel the pressure of his blood surging fiercely in his veins.
As his sense of self slowly built through these meditative exercises, his mind slowly began to achieve a state of calm and peek in more detail at the world that was himself. His nerves lit up, a network of extreme speed throughout his body, the chemically driven reactions in many ways reassuringly familiar.
He began to enter a state of meditation so deep, it was akin to a waking dream. He was deep inside his own mind and subconscious. While it was a very interesting place, he wasn’t here to test or trial against his own mind to gain some self enlightenment, no. Instead, he was here for another reason.
For only from inside of the mind could you touch the soul, and yet only in person could the following magics and many others like them be achieved. To these people, this would be called weaving your border and gateway. It was set to determine how much of column a you’d get, and how much of column b.
Or more baldly, how much mana you have after the work was done. And how much it costs to manifest your True Magic, or personal magic as many called it. A large gateway or manifestation had a high cost, a large mana pool hogs resources and results in a smaller gateway.
This did have the benefit of lasting much longer, but also sharply decreased their usefulness in combat and defensive situations.
He wanted to keep the full advantage of his Mana Pool if possible given that it was freaking huge, that could only work out well for him.
At least this time he wouldn’t be chanting those awful tones that magic seemed to take as musical, or convincing somehow. Though if he was right, they would only actually work inside of this country or another with the very similar ethos and beliefs.
Inside of his mind, he stood at the base of a great tree. It was rooted deeply into the world, tearing scars and thrusting mountains into the barren lands around it. The ground here was infertile before the weight of the tree’s thirst, cast upon the world that lie under its boughs.
At the center of the tree, resting on its uppermost branches in a throne made for an impossible king, there was a large sphere of glowing water. Peaceful, still, and undisturbed it floated far above the ground. Protecting it seemingly many flowers, or something much like them.
The shocking purple of domination and coercion magic surged through their petals, and their stamens were the deep blue hues of alteration magic. Prime would’ve like to say that they weren’t reactive to him in a defensive way, but he could sense malice from them in spades.
It seemed that there were parts of himself that were hostile to tampering, and he’d probably just end up hurting himself as he tried. Still, his focus was the Mana Pool and his idea for Condensation. Mana came in through the roots of the world, rose through the whole of his being and came to his Mana Pool.
And from the Mana Pool his Mana also slowly evaporated, creating an exchange between himself and the world around him. Using a complex series of strings that would shock most mages of this world, but Prime called a simple wiring diagram, he sealed the Mana Pool in a streaking series of loose glowing white lines.
Weaving around the outside of the pool several times and intertwining several, once the network was complete it was pulled tight and anchored to the tree. The boundaries of his Mana Pool began to ripple and strain, and at this point his soul and self was becoming far more deeply uncomfortable with the idea of this process.
He soldiered on regardless, however, as he was the type that was rather dedicated to completing the tasks he put himself too. Within himself, he began to expand his once simple doorway for gathering mana from its realm. In this place with so much extra mana to re-enforce it with he could afford to spend more to create and even more grand torrent.
He was starting to feel pale and sick now, but continued as he seized hold of a small point in the core of his Mana Pool and pulled inwards. Everything around it followed, the mana beginning to flow inwards in a sympathetic reaction. Prime pulled harder and the effect grew more intense.
Outside of him in the regular world, the atmosphere had begun to whip around him as it was pulled inwards. Air and his body was compressed and the oxygen density spiked as he continued his exercise. Water even began to creep out of the lakes, and vapor mist formed in the air to wash towards him in curious ribbons.
Within himself, Prime felt considerable pain as he at last pulled hard enough to shrink the Mana Pool. At this point it has begun collapsing on its own, and he was feeling distinctly sick as it shrank more and more. The sickness increased the more the edges of the pool moved away from their original positions, almost like his Mana Pool was being torn out of his soul.
He was breathing shallowly and rapidly now, the excess oxygen putting him on a high that was keeping him alert. His mind slammed into overdrive, and he took out the crystallized mana essence he’d been gifted earlier.
It shimmered as he tapped into it, and became a vast cloud of mana that vanished into his body almost instantly despite filling almost the whole of the cavern. Prime flinched as the dense mana passed through the barriers of his soul and washed over his Mana Pool, causing it to grow again and decrease the pain somewhat.
But also renewing the process.
He was aware that he was in some trouble now, and without further Mana to bolster and supplement his own he’d be in considerable trouble if he literally tore his Mana out of himself. The only silver cloud to this sudden disaster was, he could feel himself being tugged towards sources of Mana.
So without further adieu, he darted for the door at speeds he would’ve once marveled at. He barreled through the door and into the corridor beyond, barely stopping to notice the sudden transformation of the Cavern.
Now speeding through corridors of the most sickness-inducing Manse of all time, as they snaked and twisted with both ramps and stairs through labyrinthian corridors. Prime was like a bloodhound though, as he picked his way through the confusing corridors heading for the strongest source of Mana he could now feel tugging him towards it.
He burst through an ornate dark oak door, inlaid with silver and with unique sliding door handles instead of any knob he was familiar with. It was actually more of a clumsy mistake given the composition the handle, than an intentional grand entrance.
A shocked silence descended over the room.
It was about a hundred paces long, maybe more. Sterile stainless steel tables filled the center of the room, odd magical equipment was on the walls. Piled high on top of the tables, was powdered mana essence. That was being slowly fed by a belt into a vat, where it was being ‘reduced’ into crystallized mana essence.
Spread throughout the room were what looked like 4 technicians, though their attire of thick black lab coats with wood buttons was an unfamiliar style it wasn’t that hard to guess. Two of them were currently frozen in their operations, casting wary looks at Prime and nervous ones to the vials in their hands.
The more were next to the Vat, making sure that the powdered mana essence spread evenly throughout the mixture. They too had frozen, though they seemed much less concerned about their work then the two progressively more nervous wrecks standing before Prime.
The vials in their hands had started smoking and so had Prime’s dome piece, he was wondering just how unfortunate the outcome of that process interruption would be when it became suddenly irrelevant. The mixture was sucked through the air and into his body, vanishing in an instant to fuel the increasingly dense and hungry Mana Pool within.
Prime felt an instant of relief, followed by a surge of extreme panic. Almost everything contained within the room was now flying at him, causing him to wonder for a moment if he was about the be crushed and killed again. The technicians stared in mute horror as their weeks or months of labor began to vanish.
And as it did so, this little human monsters mana pool was growing from its already staggering value, through the realms of the obscene and approaching the levels of downright pants shittingly terrifying. Prime was mute, he had multiple conflicting sensations and the experience was punishing. The mana pool inside him shrank and expanded in the motions of a beating heart, though its purpose much different.
“That probably wasn’t the best idea,” one of the technicians commented surprisingly calmly.
Prime nodded, “I’d tend to agree, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter.” He lamented, “What are you guys doing down here anyway, I wasn’t expecting to find anyone else beyond the raid party. Let alone a lab setup refining mana resources.”
He looked over the group and the remaining equipment curiously, wondering at the purpose of the various pieces of machinery. Their calm voices belied the tense nature of the situation, and the wild movements of the atmosphere. Prime was continuing to suck down so much magic that the two couldn’t hope to cast until he was finished.
The four scientists breathed sighs of relief, however, as the atmospheric chaos had slowly begun to ebb away and lose its strength. This guy would be done soon.
And indeed they were correct, within him everything had come to a critical point. The Mana at the center point of the compression began to fuse and go wild at its maximum potential, igniting all of the magic around it into a sustained mana-fusing reaction that burst out to the limits of his boundaries and strained to remain contained.
Ignoring the technicians for the moment, as he had no choice, he focused on the battle within himself to contain this new Manastar. It was naturally part of himself, so he began to suffuse it with a deeper bond and chain it to the tree symbiotically rather than literally. It launched into the sky as the tree released it, its limits expanding and the pool stretching to accommodate this new light-bringer.
He sighed as relief finally washed over him and the process came to a halt. That was a wild ride, suffering through both sickness like discomfort and the mental backlash of contentment so powerful you just wanted to sit down and chill out for a few. He cracked his neck and stretched happily as the process closed out, glancing at the still motionless technicians.
“So what now then?” He asked them.
The only technician to speak thus far just shook his head.
“You. Little. Bastard.”
A heavy and powerful voice echoed in his mind, attempting to oppress his personality and will with its size and sheer power.
“Why don’t you go and enjoy the company of your kind, Human!”
The floor shifted suddenly and violently pitched him towards the opposite wall. He braced himself impact as he picked up speed, but the wall simply parted before him and he was carried deeper into the shifting Tower. He was pulled deeper into the shifting tower, the sounds of battle becoming louder and more prevalent again.
He could hear the raw-throated shouts of men, women, elves, and Man he assumed. They weren’t all using the same language to talk to each other, he wondered if they were coordinated at all or just fighting for their lives at this point. The last wall to open before him revealed the scene.
Elves and Men both lay lying on the floor, their bodies split or shattered. Blood and viscera were spattered liberally about the large almost stage-like area. Internal organs spilled across a white and grey marble floor, with a low bowl carved into the center of the platform. Blood was collecting there now, that bowl was slowly filling.
Of the men strewn about the floor, both men and women lay broken and crushed. Organs and entrails poked out of pieces of armor and hung corpses at odd angles off the rooms jagged walls. The smell of spilled guts was strong on the air, with the deeper odors of evacuated bowls and the acrid odor of stomach contents.
Of the more than two hundred people who’d taken part of this raid, a scant few remained. Ten people stood before him, still fighting the Monsters valiantly with their backs to the wall. Three of the Regiment Captains still lived, fighting abreast each othering and acting as the front line for their more spell-based companions.
Behind them stood five women. Five human ladies with the power of spells and magic on their side, as they whipped spells past the meat wall in front of them to blow Monsters to pieces as they came upon them. Which was growing less frequent as time went on, but still often enough to keep them alert and strained. Slowly tiring them out.
Beside the five humans was an elven woman Prime thought he recognized, but he wasn’t certain with her back turned to his as it was. She threw fireballs that looked standard, but clung to the ground and became pooling traps of incineration that only destroyed things above them.
Prime looked down to his right, at the young lady who’d reached out to steady him as he’d come to a standstill. She was looking deeply and curiously at him now, as she could sense the familiarity within his mind. He stepped back and severed physical contact.
And the situation suddenly lost its surreal tone, and he snapped back down to reality to fully absorb what had happened down here. This was not a fun place, he scowled and draw both his long and short saber in each hand. “Just stay behind me Artoria.” He said thoughtlessly.
He walked forwards and set his shoulder next to the Regiment Commander on the far right, giving him a terse nod. “Prime.”
The now was returned curtly, “Va’lur! Where were you hiding!”
Prime just shook his head, gesturing at the approaching problem. “We have other things to discuss at the moment, The hell is that, and how do we kill it?”
He gestured at the four-legged, two-armed, three-faced Monster headed towards them. Skittering across the floor with hands for feet, and three pincer claws as hands. Each head had a different type of mouth, and they were arranged in a fan shape. The ventral mouth was the most human, but had big blocky teeth twice the thickness of a human tooth.
The head’s to either side had a lance-like proboscis and the other had fangs like a spider. Didn’t look like the friendliest thing in the world, especially given the chant it was muttering loudly as it approached. “Kill and eat and crush and squish and gather up guts into the dish and break the bones to suck them hard and rip the skin to get the lard and smash the ones that fight back hard but play with the helpless and give them harm!”
It cackled gleefully, repeating its chant again with its ponderous and almost childlike voice. He’d hate to encounter one of these things in the dark, especially if it said something other than extremely disturbing warnings to stay the hell away from it.
“Bri’ar!” Va’lur said, “How do we kill that one?”
Bri’ar scowled, looking both grim and disappointed as he hefted his spear. “That one you stab right in the taint, its brain is cradled in the bowl-shaped pelvis supporting all those legs.”
“Have they been coming one at a time for a while?” Prime asked. Va’lur and Bri’ar nodded, as did the other Regiment Commander who remained.
“Enough with the introductions!” The bossy lead mage said suddenly, “Tiffany, Sirano, Liona, Aya, Sway!” She said, then “Anri and Artoria!” pointing towards Anri who he hadn’t glanced at on his way past. For the first series, she, the bossy leader was Sway. Her appearance was mostly covered by her battle-garb, but one could tell easily that she was shapely. Her companions were similarly attired, and Prime could only really identify them by their various sized and shapes more than their personal physical appearance.
Of Aya he could only see fiery hair poking out around her witchy hat, though the five-point formation of fireballs added quite a bit of punch to her introduction. She ran into a superior firing position with lithe and athletic grace. They shot across the battlefield and struck at the strange monster's claws, leaving her hands with a characteristically fiery roar.
The next was a raven-haired young woman named Tiffany with an easy laugh, her spells were like whipping strings tying her to her target. She physically pulled the strings to activate their effects, attempting to trip the monster at the ankles. She only managed to pull herself off-balance, but it was interesting all the same. She was easy to overlook due to her especially tiny stature, but her intense violet eyes caught the light even behind her overgrown hat.
With a howl of the wind, a more lightly armored mage struck out with her fists. The space in front of her slowly stored more and more energy as she hammered it, shimmering with yet to be tapped potential. Sirano palmed the mass gently, gathering into her palm a wild and threatening force but waiting quietly for her moment.
The last mage Liona, she hung well back and cowered against the wall apparently horrified by the proceedings. Prime didn't have any time to spare further thought for her condition though, as this creeping and homicidal monster bore down on them with imminent intensity. He braced himself, the Knights beside him braced gracefully into a shield wall.
Right before impact, a stone on a violet thread flee through the air and landed right under monsters leading step. It collapsed on top of them, causing them all to break ranks and scatter around the thing.
"Strike at the Manquads calves, disable its legs so we can tip it over and kill it! The quick way never works with these, they're very durable and mildly magic resistant!" Bri'ar shouted, flourishing his spear and charging in on the Manquad as it recovered. His spear lanced deeply into the body of the monster and sought to sever the ligaments.
Lyrill Zxa charged into the melee with his thick and short footman's lance, an obvious monster and beast fighting weapon designed for heavy stabbing. Well practiced for coordination, he struck at the same point as Bri'ar had, low on the calf. Blood fountained from the wound.
Va'lur and Prime, however, were in a bit more trouble, being armed with more traditional humanoid melee weapons. You need a big sword for a big monster. Neither Primes strike nor Va'lurs made any impression on the tough hide, with the first being deflected and the second stopping impotently at the flesh.
Va'lur laughed, "Put your back into it! Charge Blade!" His weapon glowed primary blue and penetrated into the flesh, causing a further fountain of blood. The Manquad reacted, flailing its arms around to send the melee fighters flying. Three fighters were forced back, with Prime ducking the blow and closing again on the Manquad.
Several determined strikes landed, the persistent forms and speed taking him back to his childhood for a moment. No impression on this one despite the heavy nature of the long Blade, he wasn't making a dent. It casually backhanded him out of range a moment later, despite his resistance.
He slid to a stop as several spells streaked past him, impacting on the Manquad with subdued magical fury. Fire burned from its claws and dust clouded its vision, an orange magical barrier slammed down on it from above. It's heads bent and spit as they resisted the force from above, bowing its back as the fighters darted in again.
"You going to use any of that crazy magic you've got there Chief?" Sway shouted urgently. She scowled as the monster resisted her barrier, pushing her man's consumption higher than she'd like. "We could use the help you know!"
Prime was a little busy dodging as he continued to assault its legs. Not being very bright, Prime could at least distract the dimwitted monster as the others carried out a more effective assault. "Can't, specialized for item magic!" Prime barked, sliding away from a kick as Lyrill slammed his Lance into the back if it's knees.
"Take this then," Anri said while curiously throwing him a staff. Prime stopped it with a knee while putting his weapons away, reaching for the staff with both mind and soul. It blazed bright and powerful in his mind, Zions Ramsgate it proclaimed itself! Prime pointed the staff at the ground while opening a doorway to his Manastar.
The light was sucked out of the room, gathering before the staff. A Zion Ram built itself from the darkness, shaggy with menacing horns and white-tipped red fur. Its hooves clipped the ground, kicking up dust.
"Baaa." It said with menace! Normally non-threatening, its effect was far more interesting at this size. A black vapor filled the room and began to focus around the Manquads head, choking it and worsening its vision farther.
“Alright that’s got it!” Bri’ar shouted grimly, attempting to charge under the Manquad. It squatted down and slammed solidly into the ground however, partially slamming Bri’ar into the ground. Lyrill cussed and abandoned his attack, pulling Bri’ar back towards Liona.
The Manquad howled then, its skin turning from a muted brown to a far more intense glowing green. The claws on its tripincers turned to a form of metallic liquid and extended like tentacles, whipping around energy that evaporated the stone in its vicinity.
The room was filled with a green hue of light as the Manquad Squared off against the giant Zion Ram with its black horns emitting their vapors. “Delicious Ram we want to kill slaughter you fast and make our kill your guts and blood we love to spill so now hold still we’ll kill kill kill!”
The Ram bleated aggressively, more and more black vapor filled the room and concentrated slowly every more heavily around everyone there. Prime’s fellow combatants started choking and coughing, before Anri decided to flick her finger and cast a ward against gasses.
Everyones breathing imiidiately cleared, through Prime was a little too busy to notice. This thing wanted a lot of mana and it was beyond the limits of his simple doorway spell to support, he was having to intentionally and actively modify it to stop the mana-flow from going wild and causing some unintended consequence.
He growled as the Ram charged, pulling yet more Mana from him as it barreled across the room and slammed into the Manquad Monster. It responded by wrapping its whiplike tendrils around the Ram, who ignored it and continued to barrel across the room and slam it into the wall before exploding violently.
The vapor spread through the room ignited as well, slamming everyone bodily into walls, shields, and barriers as they desperately attempted to break their forceful falls. Prime slammed back into the wall, the staff flying clear of his hand as he slammed into the ground.
He signed with relief as the Ram dissolved, and the flow of Mana eased. It seemed despite his intentions, there was still a method by which he could be strained. Feeling drained, he looked around at the situation his fellows had fallen into. He looked over the Manbeast, smashed into the wall so thoroughly it could barely twitch and move to express its pain.
He nodded, that probably wasn't a problem, so he got on with the more important concern of checking on everyone else. Once everyone was up, they gathered to discuss the situation and figure out what had led them all here in the first place. The raiders were under the impression that this wasn't a normal event, and the regiment captains agreed with the sentiment to an extreme.
Something else was going on here, and they wanted to find out what it was. Prime was less certain about that idea, given the remaining numbers of their party, but the girls were generally all for it. So eventually, they all decided to stick together and press deeper into the dungeon. Prime thought this was ill-advised, but he was outvoted and he wasn't certain about his chances against something like that on his own.
So seeking security, he headed into an even more dangerous future.