“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends and what you put into it.
- Tom Lehrer
“Skills make all the difference. Prospectors will find gold in the stream were all others find only mud.”
- An Adventurer’s Guide to Prosperity
“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends and what you put into it.
“Skills make all the difference. Prospectors will find gold in the stream were all others find only mud.”
“And Otga, jealous of her brother’s light, stole a piece unto herself. Jealously she held it close to her body and treasured it, but the chaos of her grasp infected the light and it began to consume all, and thus fire entered the world.”
“All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.”
It is commonly acknowledged by the major religions that Yamash, the hermaphrodite God of balance, was the first of the gods to come into existence. The exact nature of his creation varies from account to account and religion to religion. The disparities are sufficiently varied that no uniform account can be created, though uniform accounts of his nature can. Some religions say he was born as a counterpoint to nothingness, from the need of the great and infinite void to be filled. Others claim that he has existed forever, or that he created himself. Still more insist that he was co-created with the universe. The origins of Shurum, God of order, and Otga, goddess of chaos, are equally convoluted.
Interestingly, accounts of the time of their and humankind’s creation share a particular phrase in multiple texts. This phrase, depending upon the source and translation, can read different ways. In certain sources Yamash covered himself in darkness when his partner Bynzug died, and Bynzug split apart to create Shurum and Otga. Other sources say his face was “shadowed with grief” when Shurum and Otga, his children in this account, fought over dominion of the universe. Different accounts claim he “hid his face in darkness,” in grief over the fall of humanity.
A third category of accounts diverges. Before the shadow, comes light. In some cases this is the birth of Shurum, followed by the darkness of Otga’s birth. Yet another account speaks of “celestial fire” which Yamash used to drive mankind from paradise after they had proved unfit stewards, and they found their new home filled with blessed darkness. A different text speaks of “the fires of creation,” used to make the world, which Yamash dimmed afterward to spare mankind destruction.
Regardless, there are a few consistencies which define the gods of the world.
Yamash is always the God of balance, and his dominion is the night, where he shows his glorified face. Unlike the other gods his position is eternal and unchanging, and though his face is bright it is not blinding, nor is it changeable like Otga. Though he rules the night, he has charged Otga and Shurum to maintain the balance of day.
Shurum is the God of order. He is the God of light, ice, and reason and his face is the sun. He provides light, but he is cold and distant, unless moved by the passion of his counterpoint.
Otga is the goddess of chaos. She shares the day with Shurum and is both fire and darkness. She represents passion and change, but is inherently unstable. Her passion would ignite the whole world, save that Shurum withdraws from her presence. Her face is the celestial maw.
“Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.”
“The vales were mankind’s first homes. Protected from the elements and capable of growing crops, each vale is still occupied by a human or Adar city. In these places, life thrives, and it does so in ways wholly foreign to the rest of the world.”
-From A History of Civilization
Gnaeus allowed his spell to dissipate with a sigh. Otga’s devouring maw, now what should he do? The core was gone. The room looked barren now, with sections of the wall stripped away to remove the statues, chair, and spell emblems. There was only one object that the core had left behind. It was the statue of himself examining a smaller Gnaeus even as that smaller self examined the core. However, it contained a new addition, a large copy of the core behind and above the larger statue of himself.
He had found the original statue amusing at the time. It seemed a simple ridiculous repetition caused by the core imitating what it saw. The statues had been exceptional in detail, even if they were rough stone, but other than some traps there had been no creativity; each copied something that the core had actually seen him do. He was less amused now. There had been signs the dungeon was something more, but he had been so sure that he had restricted everything the dungeon could do. Especially since the dungeon never attacked him directly. Who ever heard of a dungeon with enough self control not to lash out at someone so near its core? If it was capable of acting as much as it did it should have used it to attempt an assault long ago. And anyway, he had known that the core was something new and special, so he had just disregarded any anomalies.
He was sure the core had left behind the statue on purpose. He did not know what it really meant though. A taunt, that even as it was studied by Gnaeus, he had missed the fact that it was already completely aware and studied him back? Perhaps it had left it as a gift? This was the only one that he had laughed at after all. Or was it something else, from a mind that might be completely alien? Gnaeus shook his head, too many possibilities. He didn’t even know if it had been self aware from the beginning, or if its learning skill had accelerated its progress beyond all reason. He had pulled in a blank soul from some other place. Had it been more than it seemed?
He pulled a lump of folerth out and examined the bright silvery metal. He frowned at the extremely expensive metal before putting it away; getting more would be a pain. Well… it’s not like he needed to contain a dungeon core anymore. No doubt he would need to make more emblems in the near future, but he could take his time with those.
He felt briefly the aura that had been left drifting in the room. Somehow the dungeon core had shed much of its aura and left it behind. He had secured it with a spell, surprised at how far the aura had gone into the back wall. The aura had started to drift down into the earth by the time he secured it in place. Already he could feel differences in the aura. It was less controlled, raw, with flickers of pure mana sparking across it. He would study this later, for now he would check his precautions.
His staff made soft clicking echoes against the stone as he walked away from his former containment room. Gnaeus tried to not think about the core being free under a major city. He would have been happy living in the middle of nowhere, but the guild would have objected. It did not matter that the city had not been attacked for centuries; law and tradition were not to be trifled with. The guildmaster, Matonasucus, had been reluctant to build a lab for Gnaeus at first, citing the impracticability of the expense. Of course, Matonasucus had happily arranged for the facility to be built as soon as Gnaeus had mentioned the possibility of getting back into guild politics out of boredom. So predictable.
The plain stone shifted to tiled blue and cream marble on the walls. The rugs on the floor cushioned the sound, even as light enchantments hung in the air beneath an intricately painted ceiling. Gnaeus rolled his eyes for the thousandth time as he transitioned to the overstated opulence. The guildmaster’s subtle revenge involved telling the architects, workers, and stone shapers the dwelling had to match Gnaeus’s status. Or maybe Matonasucus thought the opulence was an appropriate bribe to keep him away from politics? Considering how much Matonasucus liked his own indulgences it was hard to tell.
He sighed. Even as he had come to check on the core this morning his spell has stayed quiescent, assuring him that everything was as it should be. He laughed. It was hard to imagine a situation further from fine. His laughter was short lived and faded with a hard edge. He kept walking through the useless opulence until he reached the central core of his subterranean home.
It was one of the few rooms he had taken the trouble to insist be plain. The center of the room was a grey stone platform raised to waist height. On the walls six spell emblems of folerth gathered mana. Each had a silver line of folerth connecting to the neighboring emblems and a line set into the wall, then the floor, that finally terminated at each of the six mana batteries set into the platform. His central shield was centered here. An intricate emblem created a three layered shield. One layer protected this central room, another covered every room except the dungeon core room, and a final shield. It was meant to be a last defense, to ensure that no matter what happened the dungeon would be contained. It had failed.
The dungeon core should simply have not been able to fit through the shield. The dungeon core. Was that even the right term anymore? Certainly it was more than merely that. Some of the ancient dungeons were self aware, and Gnaeus was not even supposed to know that much. The Adar he accidentally learned it from had sworn him to silence once he realized Gnaeus knew. Other than spell emblems, dungeons were Gnaeus’ specialty.
And neither specialty had been enough to contain this new dungeon he had infused with a human soul. And not just any human soul either… No he had needed to summon one from… somewhere else. Any human soul on this world refused to join with a core. Their abilities, their own nature, were already set. Even a new born child was incompatible. He had needed a truly blank slate. Gnaeus assumed he had managed to get a human soul with no knowledge or self of any kind. Maybe he had. He had assumed that was why the dungeon, while fast to develop, seemed mostly normal. Right up until it disappeared.
His face twisted into a scowl as he looked at his shield emblem. Ever piece of it said it was functioning perfectly. Useless. He turned on his heel and moved away, his staff clacking on stone with each step.
He walked to the stairs leading up to the surface. How long had it been since he had been out of this place, months? At the least. He wondered if Thaw had come yet, it should have, but some years it came late. He turned aside from the stairs and went to his bed chamber. There he changed into simple white robes. No doubt Matonasucus would be annoyed if he saw him, but Gnaeus was beyond caring. Had been for years.
His feet led him back to the stairs and he climbed up. He was far below the city here, and the interminable climb gave room for his thoughts.
He had wanted to make a true impact on the world. That was what this was all about. He had read the histories, seen the ancient tomes, and he knew. Civilizations had risen before, and they all fell. He was considered exceptional, but he expected his society to also fall in the end. It was a cycle, anyone could see it if they read and studied hard enough. And no one knew exactly why. The scholars did not talk much about it, and the ruling class ignored it. Gnaeus had been less sanguine.
How many decades was it now since he had felt that discontent? Three, no it was almost four now. Even then he had been considered special. So he had used his wealth and talents to leverage a meeting with the best Seer in the world. As was true of all Seers that was all she was called. Her name had been forgotten to the past even as she looked to the future. He would never forget what she told him however.
He had explained the problem to her and she had simply nodded. Apparently her sight of the future foresaw this. She could see the cycles, and how all the different threads of fate could be woven. That was the most important thing, why people came to see a Seer in the first place. The future was not fixed. It was a tapestry what was still being woven and a single thread moved in the right place could change all that was to come.
And so he had asked her how to break the cycle. She told him she had been asked this question before. For most, if they had a way, it was too tenuous a possibility for her to see. A few she had given answers. And to him she had given one possibility, and a warning. If he gave a dungeon core a human soul he would break the cycle for the world, but it could end with either growth, or destruction.
He had thought it an impossible task many times over the past decades. He had cursed himself for a fool, railed against fate, and always, in the end, returned to his quest. Was this what was meant to happen? Was this the way the cycle broke? He had no answer. He had assumed that the knowledge he gained from the dungeon would let him break the cycle. At the least he assumed the knowledge would be a help to some future hero. Perhaps that was hubris; it was the new dungeon core itself that would determine the future now.
He was roused from his thoughts as he reached the top of the stairs. He paused for a moment, his breathing slightly labored, and then opened the door.
The guild house was much as it always was. Young servants and apprentices scurried hither and thither for their masters. And everywhere was sound. It washed over him as he walked the corridors. The warm babble of indistinct voices echoed off every wall. He had been alone too long. For all that he still worried his breath came surer, and his stride more lively. He made his way to the exit and stepped out.
The sun, Shurum, was high in its arc, and the day was biting cold. Snow lay a few feet high in any shadowed place. It was not Thaw yet, it was late. A slight distance from the sun he could see the faintly glowing ring of the maw, Otga. Soon Otga would excite her husband Shurum to passion, and Thaw would come.
The ageless valley that sheltered Allalus was shrouded in snow. Few traveled in Freeze, though the roads would still carry merchants on their endless runs between cities, and adventurers would be tramping back and forth to the closest dungeon. As the sun glinted off the snow he reflected that all seemed as it always had.
Gnaeus’ eyes were drawn to the north. There lay the most spectacular sight of the whole city. A waterfall and a cliff. Of course it was not just any waterfall, it was the waterfall, Plucia. A cascade of water that fell down a mile high cliff of granite year round. Now in late Freeze the water was thin, but it was also magnificent. Water had frozen as it ran down the cliff into thousands of fantastical icicles and floes, and the light of morning and evening would light the whole edifice like a torch. The Frozen Flame, it was called, sacred to the followers of Otga, and it was reserved for just before and after her courting dance started.
Even now the glinting of the light in the water and ice was majestic, but Gnaeus found his eyes once more drawn to the heavens. Otga and Shurum what had he wrought, and will it be creation… or destruction?
With heavy steps Gnaeus turned and began to make his way towards Otga’s temple. More than ever in his whole life Gnaeus hoped the the lady of fire, darkness, and chaos heard his prayers. Finally he reached the temple, the walls gleaming with crimson and black. He made his way to the altar and made a brief, but heartfelt prayer.
“Otga, have mercy on us all.”
“And would you trust a dungeon?”
-Saying meaning “Are you a fool?”
Tam came back without his staff or rings, though the spells swirling about him remained. Caden tried to memorize the various spells, but they were intricate and he doubted he would remember them from this limited exposure. Tam entered his aura and he could sense the familiar chalk and metal. Tam turned to the beam array and twisted with his magic somehow. The threads lifted so they did not cover the floor anymore. He really wished he understood how that had worked. Tam knelt on the floor and started drawing on the ground with the chalk. He first created a circle that encompassed most of the room. Within he created a second circle around Caden. On the outside edge of this inner circle he drew runes, and then a second layer of runes farther out. The runes were still nonsense as far as he could tell, though he did notice a few of them were the same as in Tam’s other arrays.
Tam started the enchantment by burning the chalk into the stone. The empty symbols and the circles were soon filled with the familiar silver metal. Tam had brought a significantly larger chunk this time and he scowled at it as it shrank down to a tiny nugget. Maybe its expensive or hard to get? Caden certainly hoped so, then Tam would only use as much as was absolutely necessary. That would actually explain why Tam only applied his various precautions as needed, instead of having a whole series of them ready to go. This option was less safe, but had greater versatility and less cost. If Tam had planned out all the precautions he thought he would need in advance there would be no guarantee he would develop as Tam expected, and it would have taken far more material. He was really hoping that he would be able to work around this new precaution, but even if not immediately he would find a way eventually.
Tam began the ritual and infused the runes with his power. Afterwards, as the enchantments grew out of the runes, Caden tried to determine exactly what they did. The first discovery was that he simply could not manipulate the stone on the floor at all any more. He tried to make it grow, move, disappear … nothing. He could still manipulate the walls and the ceiling as far as he could tell. No, wait, the ceiling right above him could not be manipulated either. When he tried to extend a tiny tendril of stone into that area it stopped as though it hit a barrier, even when he grew the stone from the part not touching it. The beam array cleaned up the stone tendril a moment later.
Well, he might still be able to get out. It depended on whether or not it would let him out of the area. If it stopped him too then he would need to figure something out. For the moment he kept calm and just delayed by doing what Tam expected, and made small protrusions of stone to test the situation. Tam watched for hours, but his eyes drooped with his interrupted sleep. Tam cast a long lasting version of his analysis spell on Caden and then headed out of the room. At the doorway Tam cast another spell, a set of spiked and smooth bands embedded into the doorway on either side and stretched across in layers.
While Caden was not sure what these were for, he was guessing they were some type of defensive spell. He had no particular wish to test them out, and since they did not penetrate into the room he would just ignore them.
He had no idea if Tam planned on coming back again tonight. Tam had dimmed the lights, but he was not going to assume anything for now. So, he continued his practice with his various skills and kept extruding stone into the room at semi-regular intervals. Morning came and the magical lights brightened, casting pale shadows upon the stone. He still was not sure how the lights functioned. They were a spell, but they did not feel like any of the other other spells he had seen. Despite his progress, the gossamer wisps of the light spell had resolved very little; if they were not concentrated together he was not sure he would be able to see them at all. However, the light spell was still very low in his priorities for now.
In the morning Tam canceled the analysis spell before he cast another one. Anticipating this Caden had funneled the mana given off towards his mana storage to keep his absorption of the spell remnant secret. The largest impediment towards escaping was now the analysis spell that Tam would likely keep cast continually. This being the case he dedicated the entire day to learning as much as he possibly could about it. When he had mana available he concentrated some of it around the weave of the spell. He gradually examined different parts, trying to get a sense of how it worked. Much of it was focused on various aspects of himself. He could see strands connecting to various parts of his inner web, some to where his mana was stored, and to various other places. These strands connected in turn to a strand that connected back to Tam and the other half of the spell. After hours of study he was able to determine that the strands occasionally pulsed with mana, sending a signal back towards Tam. As far as he could tell, they only did this when his mana level changed. Presumably they could also see his skills and other characteristics, but those never changed while he watched so he could not tell for certain. He tried his hardest to observe but never detected any signals flowing towards himself from the spell.
That night when Tam cast his spell on Caden again, he examined it carefully. It appeared almost identical to the one used during the day. Taking a chance he worked the hooked portions of aura along the thread connecting back to Tam, trying to cut it. It took time but eventually he severed through the thread; the end drifted free. He waited, but there was no sign of Tam. Success.
He carefully moved the threads of the beam array away from his feeder with the hooks in his aura. Drawing on his storage he created stone out of the air, a skill he had carefully never shown Tam. The stone was attached to the feeder and he quickly pushed the activation button with a tendril of stone. He stopped keeping the threads away from it and let the beam array destroy the thin bit of stone. It had done its job; the feeder was on and he was not being monitored.
Caden was not expecting to escape tonight, but he was now able to do some tests that he would not have wanted Tam to see. When mana from the feeder dispersed into the air, He used part of it to create stone inside the circle with his core. When he tried pushing on the barrier from the inside the stone was still not able to move through it. After that he lifted himself with several tendrils of stone and tried to see if he could pass through the barrier. No luck.
Caden had expected this result, so he went on to his other tests. He expanded his aura from behind so that it would cover each of the aura anchors around the room. Seeing that he could cover them he then went and covered the beam anchor with his aura from the stone behind it. He extended his aura no farther than he had to. He did not want to discover that Tam had another alarm if he extended his aura farther into the complex. He could feel his own impatience and was very tempted to try to escape tonight, but wanted to have more mana in case he needed it, so he resolved to wait one more day. When the lights came on in the morning he quickly turned off the feeder and waited.
The day was torture. Caden kept expecting Tam to notice that something was wrong. If he had a body he would have been sweating from nervousness the entire time. Regardless of time’s perverse propensity to slow down when he was waiting, the day eventually, finally, managed to pass.
After a few minutes to make sure that Tam was gone, Caden started.
He first broke the strand on the spell reporting on him to Tam, and then reactivated the feeder; if all else failed, having more mana would be useful. Caden was still divided about what to do next. He had two equally viable options, to use the captured mana to effect his escape immediately or to level up and then escape.
Even without leveling up he was fairly confident that he could escape with his current capabilities. However, if he gained additional control over the earth, some kind of movement skill, etc… then he might significantly improve his chances of escape.
Caden eventually decided on a compromise. He was going to enact the first part of his escape plan. If it worked, then everything else should work. The first part of his plan would remove the greatest obstacles anyway.
Gingerly using his aura Caden guided one of the threads of the beam array until it touched one of the runes set into the floor. A beam lanced out and with a faint ping the metal rune pinged out of the floor as the stone beneath it regrew. The runic array on the floor still shimmered with light. He really hoped that was enough that it wasn’t working anymore. He carefully extended a tendril of stone out towards the barrier around him. It was still there.
Caden quickly tried to see if the other effect of the array on the floor was still working. The floor grew stone at his command. He said a few quick prayers of thanks. He knew there was no way Tam would fail to notice the missing rune. He lifted other runes gently out of the stone, testing each time to see if the barrier still remained. After three more runes the barrier finally fell and he sunk himself and the stand into the floor. Once the stone completely covered both, he finally detached himself from the damned stand. He was free from mana drain for the first time in his new life.
The feeder dispersed mana into the air and Caden consumed it. Then he began to drain mana out of his testing area. Mana flowed into him until he felt an unfamiliar feeling. He looked at his status in confusion; he was full.
His mana trap was still about half full. He had gained far less than he had stored into it, but the mana wastage was not his biggest concern at the moment. He could level and have mana to spare. He leveled.
Your status has changed!
Name: N/A / Exsan
Type: Dungeon Core – Soul Hybrid
Crystal Status: 100% – Undamaged
Status Effects: None
Available Mana: 20/100
Passive Mana Generation: 31.5/Day
Next level: 60 Mana Cost
Subsections Available: 1
Ability Points: 900
Skills: Directed Mana Absorption I,
Limited Omniscience (Dungeon)
Soul Mana I
Dungeon Aura Expansion I
Manipulate Earth II
Enhanced Aura Perception I
Ambient Mana Manipulation I
Interdimensional Repository I
Titles: Reborn Soul
First of its Kind
Mana Specialist I
He pulled up the skill.
Interdimensional Repository I
Store and retrieve objects within your aura using a personal storage space.
Huh, no ability points this time. Though it looked like his mana regen had gone up.
Caden’s disappointment was mostly covered by a surge of greed. There were a number of things that he wanted to take, now that he had the option. However, he held his greed off for a moment. He did not actually know what, if anything, it would cost to store things. Well… there was nothing to do but try it.
He extended his focus toward one the silvery runes on the ground. With the tiniest bit of focus it disappeared. He examined his mana levels. As far as he could tell it had not cost anything at all. He grabbed the three other loose runes on the ground, again no change.
With an inner grin Caden grabbed something larger, the stand. It disappeared and this time he felt a faint thrumming in the threads of his aura. He looked at his status once more, nope, no sign of mana loss. With glee, he grabbed the four arrays holding his aura in place, the beam array, and the remains of the damaged array on the floor. When he was done he had lost only one mana; it appeared that storage costs were minimal. With a mental shrug he grabbed Tam’s chair and he took all the statues too, leaving only the recursive statue of Tam examining himself, examining Caden. He couldn’t resist adding one small detail to the statue though, he created a copy of himself writ large above and behind Tam.
Caden drained what remained within his improvised mana storage, bringing his mana back up to forty-six. He tried to take the lights on the ceiling but nothing happened. Oh well. He stored his feeder. While he would have liked more mana, he needed to get started.
He moved away, rushing as far as possible into the stone. As he approached the current limit of his aura he extended more ahead. There was a slight feeling of strain as he expanded his aura, but he ignored it. Until he came to an abrupt halt.
Caden strained to move farther and was unable to do so. He quickly moved up and down, and found that, while it was possible, his limits curved backwards toward Tam’s room. He experimented a bit. When he extended the aura in Tam’s room farther back he was dragged backward. Looked like he could only go so far from the edge of his aura.
Caden tried to pull his aura back into himself. No luck. He also had no luck simply telling the aura to disperse, disconnect, bunch up towards him, or unhook. Some of these methods felt like something very slight started to happen, but he did not have time to learn a new skill right now.
Caden calmed down to see if there were other options for escape. He could think of one, but it would likely be terrible even if it worked perfectly. He checked for something he could buy to help. Everything was either useless or too expensive.
Caden considered the full range of options he had. He could always go back and try to put everything back in place, but there was no way to hide that he had gained a level from Tam. That meant communicating and hoping for the best, not what he wanted. The other… well, if it didn’t work hopefully he would still be in good enough shape to go back. He hoped he was not making a huge mistake.
Caden began to gather the stretched out threads of his aura a dozen feet behind him. He condensed them into a circle and then began twisting until they were a tight spiral. The strain vibrated through him, even as he pushed harder, feeling like he was overextending a muscle. His alter ego Exsan began to stir within, he could feel an instinctual response warning caution. He only stopped when the spiraling threads would not condense any further. He paused a moment, keeping the threads contained even as he retried pulling in his aura. Nothing. There was no hope for it, he had to proceed. He directed the hooks in the spiral to start grinding against the other threads.
Caden had not felt pain in weeks; it was shocking, brutal. Exsan howled in his head. The primal need to stop the pain fighting his control. A few times he was pushed to the edge, even as he pressed on. He felt like blood should be spraying as his aura sawed against itself. Snap! Threads ruptured under the continued pressure, the outer threads going first, lashing away like whips. Crack! Caden could feel cracking inside him. Crack! Finally, the last of the threads snapped apart. For a moment he could still feel this disconnected aura, slowly drifting down and away.
Warning – Negative Status Change!
Crystal Status: 62% – Structure Compromised
You have forcibly activated a new skill!
Aura Mobility I
You may freely move within your aura. You may direct areas of aura you control to dissipate. Moving outside your aura’s established boundaries will automatically dissipate your aura, except in a limited sphere which will follow you.
Well, he couldn’t say that it wasn’t worth it. His remaining aura had reshaped itself into a sphere, he guessed it was about fifteen feet across. Not exactly a huge space, but it should be more than sufficient for getting away. That being the case, Caden continued on, moving the raw stone around him like a ship parting the sea.
Shortly after that he ran into a problem.
A wall. Not of something as insubstantial as stone. He wouldn’t be that lucky. No it was a wall of mana threads, shimmering in the way he had come to recognize as a permanent enchantment. His aura extended far enough that he could sense the faint curvature of the wall. If he had to guess, it was a sphere. The threads of the wall crisscrossed each other in different directions. It was not precisely uniform, but he could not see any gap small enough for him to simply slip through.
Resigned, he followed the wall in different directions, looking to find the biggest gap he could. He eventually found a gap that was reasonably larger than average, but still too small. Well, he knew how to manipulate the threads at least. He gingerly hooked the threads and began to pull them apart. Unlike the threads of the beam enchantment, these threads were meant to stay in one place and he could feel the strain.
Gradually he moved the threads farther apart. Just a few more inches until he could slip through. A bright thread from an active spell passed no more than a few feet from him. Shit! Tam must be searching for him. Threads of spell work trailed along the interior of the wall. At first only a few then a multitude. Frantically he guided the many threads around him, still trying to open up the wall. The strain on him grew, and his crystal cracked further. A few interminable minutes amid the sound of cracking and Caden finally slipped through the barrier.
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
Of course, nothing was ever that simple. Caden soon learned he did indeed have a limit to how much he could split his attention. He could only focus on a few things simultaneously. Only. He laughed to himself, if he could do that as a human he would be beyond a genius. However, he assumed that at some point this ability would improve drastically. He was only level two, was it related to that? Or would he be able to do more later with some skill at a level up? For now, he had no idea; he was just going to keep trying to add an extra perspective every now and then and see if he could make progress. For now he focused on what he could do.
Before the lights announced the next morning’s arrival, he could tell that he was making progress in a couple different areas. Caden’s aura had expanded slightly by using the mana that was constantly flowing into himself before it could drain away. He was not getting nearly all of it yet, but having a tiny flow of mana accessible was better than having none at all. If he let it sit in his mana pool it would just drain away.
Caden had not had any luck breaking the threads of enchantment down, but he had been able to move them a bit. This might eventually let him keep a portion of the room from being analyzed by the beam runes, which would let him grow some stone in the room.
He had also been able to get the hooks of his aura to embed themselves in stone. He had not seen any sign that the stone had been weakened, strengthened, or affected in any way, but he fully expected progress to be slow, so he was not discouraged.
The greatest success by far, however, was in moving around the mana in the air. Compared to holding mana in one place, moving loose currents of mana around the room was trivially easy. Shortly after practicing this Caleb got a couple pop-ups.
You have gained a new skill!
Ambient Mana Manipulation I
You can manipulate and make use of any ambient mana within your aura.
You have been given a new title!
Mana Specialist I
You have acquired multiple skills that direct, generate, and perceive mana. Your skills with mana are well above average, so go out and get even better.
+50 Ability Points
All skills dealing with mana are slightly more powerful
Caleb looked at his status and his mana generation had gone up to 21 per day. Only an increase of five percent, but every bit helped, even if he could not really use it at the moment. Also the fact that the title had a one in it implied it could get better.
On the other hand messing around with mana was much easier now. He had been focusing so much on simply holding mana in place and had done himself a disservice. He could hold a decent sized area of mana completely still, even in air, while swirling mana around it. The skill was obviously for doing general manipulation of mana, and he had been trying to accomplish only one specific task. However, even if he had not approached it in the best possible way, he now had one of the key elements he needed to enact his escape plan.
The largest obstacle to his escape was his inability to store and then use mana when Tam was not around. Now, he could work on storing mana. With his ability to move mana, he started to gather the free mana towards his practice cave. By morning the mana density was significantly higher there, though still minimal compared to any spell. Still, the proof of concept was working. Caden was able create a manual mana storage outside of himself.
Tam began his usual process later that morning. He did not hide his new ability at all, and Tam obviously detected that mana was swirling around more strongly than before. He cast his analysis spell and seemed happy enough for the moment. He reactivated the feeder and Caden practiced his significantly more vigorous itinerary. He also shunted some of the mana he was getting off it towards his hidden cave. As he poured more mana into it, it became harder to prevent it from leaking out, so he spent some mana to enlarge his practice area backwards. He practiced making a sculpture there, and it was ridiculously easy, the stone would perfectly replicate his imagination.
Tam perked up when he used some of the energy he was given to create sculptures in the walls. Caden tried to keep his creations rather crude. He also amused himself by replicating patterns that were in the room. A helix mimicking his stand here, faceted stones like himself, he even did some sculptures that looked like Tam. He also decided he was going to hide his studies of Tam’s spells in plain sight. He made copies of the analysis spells, some even interacted with the sculptures that resembled Tam. He also trapped everything that he possibly could, after all he was supposed to be a dungeon.
Some sculptures would tip over if touched. Corners on his art were hardened and razor sharp. Caden hid a large portion of marble sized stones behind part of a wall, they would spill if someone got too close. He had blades that would protrude from other pieces of art. He created guillotines in the ceiling, etc… Other than the overly sharp bits, he carefully arranged the traps so the beam array would disable anything that actually went off before Tam was injured. He could probably have actually injured Tam if he had tried to make traps that stayed only in the boundaries that the beam array did not mess with, but he did not actually want to injure Tam.
As it was, Tam was utterly fascinated by the various pieces of art. He was startled by a few of the traps, but utterly unharmed in the end. Some of the art was damaged by the beam array, but Caden considered that worthwhile, and he just repaired it later. It let him study the deconstruction process better anyway. After a while he was able to determine that there was definitely something very different about the way it deconstructed stone from the way he did it. There was a tiny flicker of something when Caden destroyed stone that was absent when the beam array did the same. For now he had no idea if it meant anything important, so he just kept an eye on things as best he could.
Several days passed like this and Caden’s manipulate earth ability finally moved to level II. Creation and destruction both got much easier, and moving stone became very easy. It barely cost anything now. He could not move very much stone when he tried to use just what was regenerating, but he could move enough that the next piece of his plan was in place. When he finally got out of the damn mana drain he would be able to at least move enough stone to push himself through the walls on regeneration alone, especially since he was using only a fraction of what he was generating before it was siphoned off.
By now there were various full sized statues of Tam in various poses along the walls. There were ones of him casting the various enchantments. There were ones where he sat with his omnipresent tome and chair. Caden had done his best to capture his face in the different emotional states he had seen Tam use. And since Tam really seemed to like examining his art, he had even included a stature of Tam examining a smaller version of himself. It was the first time he heard Tam really laugh. He immediately made a statue to capture the laughing man.
Tam had actually started bringing in various objects for Caden to examine. A carved wooden tree, a rug, a cup carved from bone, and more. He thought Tam liked the idea that he would replicate them around the room. He was glad, because it was nice to have some other things to look at besides the same stone, day after day. Besides, replicating the rug was an interesting challenge. In the end he had needed to twist together strands of stone like string and then arrange them in a lattice to replicate the warp and weft of the plush cloth. It was still stone though, so not exactly a comfortable place to sit down.
Caden had made more progress in other skills too. He could move the threads of enchantment around. He had a hard time grabbing enough to prevent the enchantment from eventually scanning what he was doing, but he could keep it from noticing things for a little while. More exciting was his progress in breaking down spells. He examined the analysis spell that Tam cast on him every day. He was eventually able to see that there were little bits of the spell that were just excess mana hanging off, because they changed every time the spell was cast. With some work over the course of the day he had been able to gradually break these pieces of the spell off. The mana would promptly dissolve and he would vacuum it in. The mana was negligible, but the ability to damage a spell was potentially a powerful tool.
Caden’s attempts to damage the enchantments, however, were so far utter failures. Either they regenerated, were simply much tougher than normal spells, or both.
He also ended up getting a skill that he should have been expecting and had utterly neglected to consider. Caden did not meditate every night, but he did so when he felt a little off. He kept seeing or feeling a flicker of something inside himself when he did it, too. Still, he was mainly just meditating for his sanity. One night he got the appropriate pop-up.
You have gained a new skill!
You can enter a state of internal self awareness. Enhances mana regeneration while you focus inwards.
If it had not been for the fact that it enhanced his mana regeneration Caden would have panicked. Tam was seeing what he expected to see, but a dungeon meditating seemed a little too much for him to ignore. He seemed very surprised the next morning, but while he seemed a little suspicious he still did not change any spells. Tam probably thought he instinctively did it to enhance his mana regen. In the end even if it had not helped him with his mana, he would have needed to meditate in order to stay sane. The irony was that because of the constant mana drain he had not even been aware that meditation helped him with his mana.
Nervous as he was from his close call, Caden was tempted to delay his plan, but he knew that he needed to start as soon as possible. He would always want to be more prepared for something this important, but at some point he just had to take the plunge. That night as he continued his practice he made a slight change. He used the tiny amount of mana he was able to use to move the stone inside the room instead, projecting a tiny spike out of the wall. The moment of truth came when the beam reacted and disintegrated it.
Now things could go two separate ways. Either Tam would detect it, or he wouldn’t. Caden was prepared for either eventuality. If Tam didn’t detect it, that was the easiest route, but if he did he had a plan.
Turned out it was good he had a plan because Tam came rushing in. Caden had never seen him like this before. Tam had glimmering rings on his fingers and a silvery metal staff held in both hands. He had spells wrapped around him in gleaming lines and swirls. He was prepared to do battle. Of course what he found was simply the room, and Caden sitting as normal on the stand. He cast a spell of analysis on him, and frowned when he saw the results. Obviously nothing had changed since the last time Tam saw him. He started using his trickle of mana to create another depression in the wall. It was slow but Tam noticed him making the change after a moment.
Tam’s alarm became slightly less pronounced when after several minutes it became obvious Caden was making another statue. This one showed Tam with his staff and rings. After it was done he started making another spike into the room and it was vaporized shortly thereafter.
Now was the moment of truth. Caden had some ability to redirect the threads of the beam enchantment, but he had no doubt that he was going to set it off at least once during his escape. He needed Tam to ignore it when it went off, but he was also certain Tam was going to make some additional precautions. If he could work around the precautions then he was set and could escape. If not, then he would need to find a way around them. Tam walked out of the room with a determined stride and Caden remained behind, waiting.
Wow! I am so sorry for the delay. Between work and mental health issues there was no way I was up to anything. However, don’t fret, I have no intention of abandoning this fic. We finally got some more help at work. Just to put it in perspective they hired three people that we were short. There were three of us doing the work of six. Of course we promptly had one of the new people quit when they realized the job entailed actual work. However, it is still a major improvement because now I get two days off most weeks instead of having only one day off a week since March.
Anyhow, none of you came for my rant/excuses/work madness, so without further ado I am posting the next chapter.
“Rule #50 – Though you have entered the same dungeon a thousand times, never assume that you are safe. For dungeons are terrible and treacherous.
– From 50 Rules for Dungeon Divers
The diagnostic spell attached to Caden must have told Tam about the acquisition of a new skill, as he did his usual song and dance. However, he was paying Tam only the slightest attention. He was far more focused on how much more he could suddenly see.
For the first time Caden could actually perceive parts of his aura clearly. It was a spider’s wet-dream. A vast intricate web that became ever finer. The thickest strands were, however, far finer than spider silk, and each of these was directly connected to Caden; thousands of them. Hooks, slightly thinner, branched tree-like from these main strands. Countless thinner strands were also attached to each strand, and each had their own hooks. And each strand had more strands, with more strands, until they went well past his ability to see them in an endless fractal pattern. Past a certain point all he could see was the faint glittering fog of their presence.
With this he could now see the ambient mana in the air. His aura waved its fine threads within the faint currents of mana like kelp beneath the sea. Amidst the mana currents he could see the glimmering threads sweeping about the room from the beam enchantment on the wall. He could also see how the other four runes on the wall had their own threads where they attached to the very ends of his aura.
His aura pulsed. It felt like a living entity in its own right. Faint pulses of mana streamed back and forth across it, and the faint flow of mana that he passively absorbed traveled within the strands until they finally reached him. And then there was Caden himself. For all the complexity of his aura it paled to the web inside his core. Caden could only detect the topmost layer or two, but there were no measly thousands of threads here. No, here there were millions, billions, of threads, each pulsing faintly with the mana racing between them. If Tam could have seen it Caden suspected he would cry for joy.
Caden was so lost in studying and learning that he even let the mana he had left drain away. It felt like hours before he dragged himself away from simply watching. Everything was beautiful beyond words. Still, Exsan’s insistent nagging at the back of his mind eventually brought him back to himself. Exsan cared nothing for beauty, and barely seemed to even notice their increased sight. With a mental sigh, he got down to seeing what he could learn and do with this new capacity.
Now that he could see mana more clearly, he could see how the fronds of his aura unfurled and wrapped around an area when he was trying to keep mana still. Neighboring threads drew slightly closer to assist, their own extremities reaching out closer. In the end it looked like the area he was holding was caged in ever fainter gleaming threads, their hooks woven around each other to hold them in place against the pressure of the mana within.
This all happened automatically. When he saw a few threads poking out he tried to control them to get closer; nothing happened. Indeed, the structure was far from perfect; it was obvious that there was still room for improvement. However, as he focused on simply making that hold tighter, some of the strands were slowly bending themselves inwards. It appeared he had no direct control, but his aura as a whole bent to his will and improved.
When Caden had mana again, he was able to examine other aspects of his skills. His aura worked far more efficiently than the beam created to alter stone, but the process was similar. What happened on the finer levels was beyond him, but the little hooks would gather bits of stone and hold them together until they were fused, or the reverse. Caden could see mana pulsing down his aura both when he created and destroyed stone. This puzzled him. If he was using mana to create stone, surely he should gain mana when he destroyed it? The fact that this universe was different from his own was no surprise, but magic casually waving the middle finger at the conservation of energy would make finding how the rules worked even harder than he had originally thought.
By comparison, when he examined how his aura expanded it was much easier to understand. Mana poured from his core along the largest threads until it reached the end. There the mana was extruded as more thread, assisted by the smaller threads already present, which also helped form smaller threads, and so on. The ends of his largest threads within the room were being held by enchantments from the four runes, and when Caden tried to extend his aura they simply drained the mana away and glowed. Presumably they were converting his mana into light.
At the end of the day Caden took stock of himself. For all the progress that he was making he could tell that all was not well. His mind was perpetually clear and focused, inhumanly so, but he could feel his emotions roiling beneath the surface. It made it harder to ignore Exsan and function as he thought he ought to.
He was made to sleep. He was made to eat, and laugh, and communicate. He could feel the lack.
People rarely think about it, but they touch other people, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time. Caden had a sense of touch, and he could feel the stone, and air, and even himself and Tam, but it was not the same. And he was not communicating, not really. He had some limited interactions with Tam, but in so many ways it was as if he had been locked in solitary confinement. There is a reason that is considered a terrible punishment; humans don’t merely like being around others a little, they require it.
Caden could tell that his latest actions were not all the best that he should be capable of. He was failing to think as clearly as he could, and in this situation that could lead to disaster.
He had looked into what he could do about it, but there were no real options, even in the AP store. There was an option for a body, but it was far far beyond what he was capable of paying now. And if he could make a body then being trapped here would presumably not be a big problem right now anyway. The only options he truly had were within his own mind.
Caden meditated. Alone. The faint rush of mana all around him. He had no breath, but he stopped and started the absorption of mana. In and out. The life-giving flow of mana, in, pause and relax, repeat. He took all the time that he needed. He simply… let go. He had no body to itch, no hair to prickle in awareness. Eventually he stopped even bringing in mana. All his attention focused inward and after a few hours he finally reemerged. He had not felt this good for ages. He was always alert and clear, but now he also felt rested in a way he had desperately lacked.
He needed to take the time and think now. He would obviously need to do this again. Maybe he wouldn’t need to spend hours on it every single day, but for now Caden was going to do it at least a little. He also thought he had felt something, deep within the timeless awareness.
Regardless, now Caden could reexamine himself.
It was obvious some of the things he had been taking for granted. Caden had kept focusing on one thing at a time. For meditation, that was perfect, but was not something he needed to do all the time. Caden was not human anymore.
Humans, when all was said and done, were truly terrible at multitasking. What they really did was switch from task to task rapidly. That was not a problem that he suffered from anymore. Caden could practice multiple skills simultaneously without having to switch between them. He was focusing on a single task because it was what he was used to doing. It might take him some practice to train himself out of it, but it would be well worth it. That being the case he needed to focus on as many things as possible.
Caden was reasonably certain that he would run into some limit to his attention at some point. However, since a dungeon should be capable of handling, literally, hundreds to thousands of adventurers, monsters, and more details, that limit might well be more than he would ever need. Though that assumed that he gained access to that level of capacity right away.
Caden took a quick look at all the things it would be worth it for him to study. He needed to keep up his mana immobilization practice in many areas at the same time while also focusing the area as narrowly as possible and absorbing mana as swiftly as possible. He had made everything spheres, but he was going to try disks, toruses, and slices, and any odd shape that he could think of. He also needed to keep analyzing mana and his aura. In addition, he needed to continue studying his active uses of mana, expanding his aura and messing about with stone. And since he had so little of it, he needed to constantly try to use less of it anytime he spent it.
These things were all that Caden had already considered; he would simply now be working on all of them at the same time and in greater detail. However, he had also realized how many options he had left on the table.
Caden had tons of things available to study. Tam had thousands of threads of enchantment waving their merry way throughout his aura. He was going to study those; who knew what he might learn. Tam cast spells at him practically every day, and other than using them for mana he had been ignoring them. He should analyze and try to memorize their structure. In fact, if he had mana available at the time he should try to replicate the structure in hardened stone so he would have a record. If the spell had little variations he might be able to find out what really mattered for the spell.
Caden knew a lot about his aura now. It could hold, break apart, and fuse matter. It could also directly interact with mana. He should definitely make use of both of these. Caden was going to try to manipulate stone using the hooks directly. Even if he could not get a quick or spectacular result, doing it without mana would be a huge achievement. He also needed to start attacking every mana construct in range with his aura constantly. He had an enchantment that was always active right below him. Another fed him, though to be fair, he did not really want to mess too much with that one. Thousands of tiny enchantment threads waved through his aura; if he could disable those he would have a much better chance of escape. Other threads attached directly to some of his aura, removing those would allow him to expand directly in the room again. It might not be something that he needed at the moment, but it could be critical later.
Caden had mana constantly flowing into him. It might be immediately flowing out again, but it was possible that he might be able to use that mana before it was drained away. He was going to try to use that to constantly expand his aura. Also he had shown that he could limit mana’s flow. It was time to use that to try to hold any mana that tried to drain away, and try to hold mana in himself from draining in the first place. And if he could slow mana down, maybe he could do the reverse. He was going to try to accelerate the mana flow in the feeder. Another aspect of that ability was that Caden could probably just move mana from place to place. He fully intended to move mana around constantly. Mana was his lifeblood; anything he could do to improve using it was going to be helpful.
Tam and the crystals holding mana were still opaque to Caden for now. He was going to continually watch them and try to improve his perceptions. He needed to analyze the metal of the stand and try to break it apart with his aura.
And then there was the system itself. Were there other commands that he could make, other ways to use it? What more options might he gain from it?
These were not all of the things that Caden could do. He knew tons of things from his time in another world, and some of them were purely mental. However, because he did not want to tip Tam off, Caden was not going to do anything with them yet. As interesting as it would be to see what skills he would get from demonstrating math, map making, chemistry, physics, etc… it would likely be hard to hide that these skills required a thinking and self-aware mind. He was, however, going to start doing something that seemed fully in line with what a dungeon should do. He was going to make sculptures, art, traps; it would probably be good for his mental health to be creative. Who knows, if he got good enough at moving mana around he might be able to just make art out of mana. For now, it was time to get to practicing.
Hey all, thanks for reading! Just wanted to ask a quick question. We are coming up on the end of this arc and I am considering writing an interlude. Please put in the comments if you want, or don’t want an interlude. And if you want one, then put what you are most interested in having an interlude about.
“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.”
When Tam appeared again the next morning he gave Caden the usual cursory check. He had expected Tam to notice his increase in skill but there was no reaction. Huh, maybe he only sees the name of the skill but not how advanced it is? Caden used the mana from the spell and moved some earth and stone, but he still did not see how it worked. Tam, meanwhile, had started to draw with more chalk on the walls. He tried not to worry about it too much. The last few times Tam had done something he had gotten too worked up about it. Other than the rune array on the wall he had drawn last time, everything had been a pleasant surprise. Not like he had much choice about doing nothing anyway, so he might as well not stress too much.
The areas Tam was drawing on were all outside of Caden’s aura. Each of the new designs was much smaller than the beam array. By the time Tam was done he had drawn four arrays, each of which was identical as far as he could tell. He tried his best to memorize them, but he suspected that a large portion of what went into them was in the spell Tam cast on them at the end. After making sure each one was perfect Tam burned them into the walls. He then repeated the same process he had done before, filling them with silvery metal and ridiculous amounts of mana. Caden could not notice any immediate difference.
Tam walked off again, but returned carrying something before Caden had even started to practice again. Tam set it on the floor nearby. It actually looked remarkably like the stand he was currently sitting on. It had a large white crystal on the bottom, and runes leading up to a small metal button with a rune on it. Above that was a clear egg shaped crystal held firmly in three prongs. He examined it. The white crystal seemed more or less identical to the one on his stand, and he could find nothing remarkable about the crystal on top at all. Tam cast one of his longer lasting diagnostic spells on Caden and then pressed the button.
Mana flowed up through the enchantment and into the crystal on top. The crystal gradually turned white and glowed. It also began to turn opaque to his vision, which was fascinating. He watched closely, trying to figure out how it filled the crystal. Caden tried to pull the mana in the crystal out, but had no more luck with that than he had with the crystal under him. It took quite some time, and Tam waited in his chair reading, but the crystal on top started to flash. Tam’s focus shifted away and his vision gained the far away look he had when was studying the input from a spell.
With a last flash the mana dissipated into the air and the crystal egg turned clear once more. Caden stopped in shock for a moment before sucking it all up. Was Tam feeding him? He was not sure what Tam was expecting, but he seemed to think everything was going well. With a mental shrug he proceeded on the plan he had decided earlier. Tam expected him to do something with the mana, so he started to work with it. He sent stone of out various parts of the walls, carefully studying the effects of the beam and what his skill was doing.
By the time Caden ran out of mana he could tell that the beam was doing the same thing he was when he destroyed stone. It was not disintegrating it so much as unmaking it into air, though where the extra mass was going was a mystery. There was only the tiniest ripple of displaced air as it worked, ruling out a one-to-one mass conversion. The feeder slowly filled up and he continued his mana practice while keeping an eye on it. This time when it flashed he was ready and consumed the mana as swiftly as he could. He wanted to see if he could figure out what the new runes on the wall were for so he expanded his aura towards one. At least he tried to. The runes all flashed and his aura would not move towards it. He tried from different points he had control of in the room, but he could not expand his aura. He then tried expanding an area of aura far back in the wall and that worked just fine He heaved a mental sigh of relief, at least that still worked.
With further testing he determined that he could not expand his aura anywhere within a decent sized sphere of himself. It covered all the sphere that Caden had already shown Tam within the room and then continued on for several feet. If Tam had erected these when Caden first came here he would have had practically no hope. He supposed he had to be grateful that Tam was doing more than merely trying to keep him captive. If that had been Tam’s goal from the beginning he had no doubt that Tam would have succeeded. No, Tam was obviously doing research, and for that he actually had to be able to do certain things. It was hard to research the growth of a new type of dungeon if it never grew.
Attempting to expand the aura, even with no results, had still burned up most of his mana as he verified exactly what his new limits were. With what little mana he had left he worked with small tendrils of stone and also expanded the farthest part of his aura in the wall even farther. If he had access to his mana regeneration he was fairly certain he could escape this moment, but it would be painfully slow. For now his best hope was to continue what he had already been doing.
The next time the device fed him, he simply held onto the mana to see what would happen. It fed Caden about ten mana each time. He slowly counted out the seconds to see how long it would take to drain a point of mana. He concluded that it was draining about a point of mana every five minutes. That was with his soul generating twenty points of mana a day. It was harder to determine how much mana was pulling in from everywhere else, but it felt like about half that. A couple of rough calculations showed that it was draining him at a rate of a little more than 300 mana per day. There was no way he was going to be generating mana at that rate any time soon.
The feeder released mana slow enough that he would be completely drained by the time it fed him again. So Caden started making stone in places that would be harder for the disintegration ray to reach. It came as no particular surprise when the beam curved to hit the manufactured stone. It would have been too much to assume that Tam had failed to take that into account. The beam curved to avoid anything and everything in the room as needed. After that he condensed the stone on the walls, making it as hard as he possibly could. The array left that alone. It seemed as long as he did not try to protrude into the room it ignored what he was doing.
He tried one last thing, since he doubted there was nothing in place to prevent it. He tried as slowly as possible to lower the stand he was on into the stone below. This was done with extreme caution since Caden did not want to tip over. Being made of crystal, the minor distance to the floor suddenly seemed like a major hazard. It would be stupid to be reborn into another world only to die by falling off his stand and shattering on the floor. After he had moved only the tiniest bit down, the beam started up again and regrew the floor he had been sinking into. Great. He had not expected that to work, but it would have been nice and made his eventual escape much easier.
Caden contemplated simply doing nothing to see what Tam would do about it, but for now getting practice shaping stone and using the mana to expand his aura farther and farther away was good for his chances of escaping. If at some point he stopped being able to make progress then he would consider boycotting Tam’s experiment. Tam seemed impatient to a certain degree anyway, so if he practiced and eventually seemed to run out of new things to do it was likely Tam would try to test something else. His only real concern was that Tam’s experiment might end with his destruction. If that seemed likely he would communicate for all he was worth; with earth manipulation he could probably even get something across in pictographs on the walls.
By the end of the day Caden had gotten a decent amount of practice in working with stone in various ways. He had tried to use as little mana as possible when doing the various tasks he assigned himself and actually seemed to be getting slightly more efficient at the creation of stone. All his attempts to make expanding the aura cheaper failed. Tam turned in for the night after dismissing the spell on him and turning off the feeder. Tam had watched him a lot more than usual today, though admittedly, he had mana to work with and was likely more interesting.
Since the feeder was off Caden went back to his nightly routine. He practiced holding mana in place as tightly as possible. He was trying harder to really see what was happening with the mana, but did not seem to be making any progress. It was hard to tell if it was just really difficult, or nothing was happening. His mana sight may not be getting better, but he was gradually getting a good grip on holding onto it.
The next day saw a continuation of the feeding sessions. Caden tried to see if he could overwhelm the runes on the wall by projecting stone from many locations at once, but it simply produced multiple beams. Even turning part of the ceiling into sand didn’t phase it. It produced a multitude of tiny beams and swept the cascading sand out of the air. Caden thought that the runes on the wall looked slightly fainter for a moment, but it might have been his imagination.
After that Caden tried protruding different kinds of stone to see if denser stone was harder to destroy. No noticeable difference. He crudely smoothed some of the walls where he could reach, giving them a slightly polished look. When he tried to do that to the floor the beam rebuilt them as they were. He supposed that made sense; Tam didn’t want him to build traps into the floor, or even polish it so much that it became slippery. He did not want to harm Tam anyway, but he didn’t know that. And Exsan was, well, less sanguine about the situation, judging by his blood-thirsty attitude.
Near the end of the day Caden thought he caught a glimpse of something a few times when the beam was working. He still did not see anything when he manipulated stone, but he was happy to make any progress. He saw more flashes the next day, and started to see something that looked vaguely like fog when he was holding mana stagnant the next night. The day after he caught his first decent glimpses of what was happening as the beam destroyed or created stone. When it destroyed the stone it formed a fine lattice of mana that then got finer and more intricate until it looked like fog. The creation process was the reverse, an ultra fine assembly gradually got coarser as the stone was assembled. Caden had no idea how this process worked, but was glad to at least be seeing something.
The fog he saw as he held onto mana grew more pronounced and Caden started to see fine wisps of that fog everywhere in his aura. Other aspects of mana sight seemed to gradually be getting better as well. The enchantments on the feeder and the stand he was on were no longer completely invisible. They were still like looking at perfect glass, but he could definitely see them. The threads that ran through his aura from the beam runes on the wall were more elusive, but he was starting to get a hint of them here and there. The actual enchantments on the walls that were outside of his aura were as invisible as ever, so it looked like he was using his aura to “see” the mana more clearly.
After a few more days Caden received a pop-up in the middle of the day while he was examining the beam repairing the floor.
You have gained a new skill!
Enhanced Aura Perception I
You can see your aura, and mana within your aura, more clearly.
Hope you enjoyed!
“From the lips of Yamash, The Word was spoken unto the world. For behold, The Word governs and defines all things. And in balance was it given, for even as The Word grants order and makes manifest the system of the world, so to in chaos shall all things be permitted to grow. For few things are holier than that a man shall progress in the levels of the world, and bring a greater piece of it unto their dominion.”
-From the Holy Text of Higrath
Despite how excited Caden was at the thought of finally making some progress and gaining a level, Tam continued at a slow pace. Admittedly he had no way of showing his excitement, so it’s not like Tam knew. Showing his excitement would actually be a bad idea, because it would show that he understood what Tam was doing. Tam was obviously studying him, and as much as being a research subject sounded like so much fun; he would rather not. Tam cast a couple more of the longer lasting analytical spells that he was fairly certain measured his aura boundaries. It was a good thing he had left gaps in much of the room so Tam thought his aura was limited. For the moment, he was not going to try expanding his aura anywhere he thought Tam might sense it.
As Tam made his preparations, Caden made his own. He opened up both his status and the AP purchase menu. He was going to try to level up and buy a skill at almost exactly the same time. Hopefully Tam would think it came from his level up, not because he was actively planning how to get better. He thought Tam believed he should have done something special by now. Admittedly learning directional mana control might well be abnormal, but he thought Tam might have attributed that to his situation. Caden had nothing else to do but practice absorbing mana.
Or, who knows, maybe lots of dungeons eventually learned that kind of skill. He had no idea how long dungeons typically lived, but Caden would not be surprised if they essentially lived forever unless someone killed them. He was a being of crystal now, it’s not exactly like he would age the same way as flesh and blood. If many dungeons became as old as he thought they were, there was no limit to the number of skills they might have gained. He, however, assumed most dungeons were not particularly bright. It’s not like his other half had conversations with him; He simply felt its base knee jerk reactions.
Hmm, maybe he should give his other half a name. If he were still human naming a voice in his head that wanted to kill people would probably be a bad idea. As it was, Caden doubted it would make it any worse. Okay, so his other half is a blood-thirsty brute, what name goes with that? Blood, blood, he knew the Latin root for that right? It was on the tip of his metaphorical tongue. Sanguine, that was it. As in, exsanguinate, to remove all the blood from a body. Actually if he shortened that, it would make a decent name. Exsan, that’s the name he was giving to his other half.
Tam was still making preparations of some kind. Despite his impatience, he found it difficult to blame Tam for being cautious. If Exsan was a typical example of what a dungeon was like, that caution was more than fully justified. Caden just wanted to escape to get his freedom. Exsan wanted to murder or control everything nearby until he had a decent lair.
Tam finally seemed to be finishing up with his preparations. Tam cast a last spell on him, and he focused all his attention on the mice-bugs. Tam looked to the side and cast a ball of fire towards the cage. The cage vaporized, and he was flooded with mana. He had absorbed even more than he thought because of the dissipating fireball, and now had slightly more than eighteen mana. He immediately leveled and purchased the skill simultaneously.
Your status has changed!
Name: N/A / Exsan
Type: Dungeon Core – Soul Hybrid
Crystal Status: 100% – Undamaged
Status Effects: Mana Drain
Available Mana: 3/50
Passive Mana Generation: 20/Day
Next level: 30 Mana Cost
Subsections Available: 1
Ability Points: 850
Directed Mana Absorption I,
Limited Omniscience (Dungeon)
Soul Mana I
Dungeon Aura Expansion I
Manipulate Earth I
First of its Kind
A part of Caden worried that the name he had given his other half had shown up on his status screen. At least it didn’t put it as his whole name.
He pulled up his two new skills to see what they did.
Manipulate Earth I
Move, loosen, condense, generate, or destroy earth and stone within your aura using available mana.
All other skills are slightly easier to acquire and or learn. Slightly lowers the AP cost of all non-summon skills
Caden had bought Learning for 200 AP and it was everything that he was hoping for. He now had a leg up on all other skills, forever. It might only be a tiny bonus, but that kind of bonus would add up over time. And the lowering of the AP cost was probably going to more than pay itself off in the future. As for Manipulate Earth, he had assumed he would get a skill like this at some point. Dungeons were generally depicted as large labyrinths in the earth, they had to make tunnels and such somehow. He would admit that he had worried he would only be able to do expand by summoning monsters to dig, but he was glad to see he had an inherent ability instead.
Caden brought the AP menu up and looked for another skill like learning. There was one, but it only applied to summons. He debated grabbing it right now, but monsters and plants were not in his current plan to escape, and Tam might have already seen the status change. He really did not want Tam to be any more careful.
Caden still had some mana, so it was time to test out his new ability. If he could manage to manipulate stone well enough then he could grab himself and run. Admittedly his mana gen was still not high, but it was double what it was before. Telling the stone to move turned out to be like expanding his aura; it was easy. All the knowledge he needed was already there in his head. Admittedly, he did not have a head anymore, but that was beside the point. He was able to extend a tiny space on the wall by half an inch before the runes in the wall burst into action.
The entire array lit up with light. Then from the center a beam of light emerged and disintegrated the stone Caden had raised. He stopped for a moment. This, this was going to make things more difficult. For the moment he focused his attention farther away and destroyed a section of the earth hidden well behind the wall so he had somewhere to work with. When he ran out of mana he had an empty globe about three feet across and some hundred feet away from him behind the back of the wall. There was air in the pocket… it really ought to be vacuum. Of course he didn’t know why he was expecting anything different. He had, quite literally, dematerialized stone into nothing, or at least, air. Right, it’s magic, not like it has to make sense. He wanted to have his body back just so he could bang his head against the wall.
While Caden was commiserating with himself about physics and ridiculous magic, Tam seemed overjoyed with how things had gone. He seemed utterly unsurprised by the beam of light, and smiled as he dismissed the various spells. When he dismissed the last one, Caden once again got some mana to work with. For the moment he just moved stone around in his practice chamber. He could turn stone into dirt and back again without any trouble. Condensing the stone was slightly more intensive than turning stone into dirt or sand. Creating any material out of nothing proved to drain mana very quickly. Fortunately, he had plenty of stone to work with. Unfortunately, he ran out of mana fairly quickly.
Tam had walked out again while he was working. He went back to his normal mana absorption practice. It was slow, but he was gradually making progress. Night came and the lights dimmed without him seeing Tam again. He continued his practice and contemplated what he should do if Tam gave him mana again. Obviously if he gave him enough to level then that was first priority, but he wasn’t sure what to do with any other mana Tam knew about.
Caden did not want Tam finding out that his aura had expanded quite a bit behind the wall. That meant he really did not want to expand his aura near anywhere Tam could even potentially feel it. He had been hoping he would find an actual cavern somewhere that he could expand into, but he had not found any spaces bigger than tiny geodes. If he found something with life, he would be able to gather mana from the deaths of creatures living there. There might be any number of possibilities, but he would not know until he could experiment.
For the moment Caden decided that he would show Tam that he was “learning.” It’s what his skill said and what Tam would probably be expecting. He would just protrude stone from different locations and see what happened. Maybe he would make the room look nicer; something to show Tam he was experimenting, even while he was doing something else with any excess mana. Also, he wanted to study what the heck that beam was doing and what his own skill did when it moved the stone around. The more he could learn, the more options he would have. He still had no idea how his own aura worked; calling it magic and just leaving it alone was not going to cut it for him. It might take him a while, but he was going to learn how the hell everything actually worked.
Despite his determination, Caden had not made very much progress when morning came around. Tam came in, looked around and cast a spell at him and the disintegration enchantment. He absorbed the dregs of the spell cast on himself and practiced with his earth skill out of sight, trying to watch what was happening as carefully as he could. He could not see anything, but he simply added this to his list of things to practice. When he tried to hold mana in place in the future, he was also going to watch the place he was holding as carefully as possible. He was not going to accept that it just happened without something making it happen. Things needed to be acted upon in some manner for them to change. If that was no longer true, then figuring out the new rules might be truly impossible, so he was not going to accept that until he had proof.
Tam was gone the rest of that day and all of the next. Caden did not seem to be getting any closer to seeing what the heck he was doing, but he was getting better at holding the mana in place, even if his speed of absorption had not changed at all, despite all his practice. That night he got a pop-up, much to his relief.
Your skill Directed Mana Absorption has increased in level. It is now Directed Mana Absorption II
Caden looked at his skill to see if it gave more details, but its description was unchanged. That being the case, he started experimenting with what had changed. The area he could focus on was once again smaller, allowing him to focus slightly tighter on an area. His speed of absorption had drastically changed; it was twice as fast. When he tried to see if he could hold mana in place better, there was no difference. That made him stop for a moment and think.
Caden had been continuously trying to up his speed, but that had not changed until he gained a level in the skill. Freezing mana in place, however, had gradually improved. It did not seem to have changed as a result of his skill gain. He had been in a similar situation before when he gained Directed Mana Absorption the first time. He was now slowly developing a theory as to how skills and skill gain worked. In his world the theory would have been insane, but this world operated in a way similar to a game. If he gained a separate skill from his practice holding the mana in place then he would have good evidence for how some of it worked.
“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
-George Washington Carver
With most of the night still ahead, Caden focused on controlling his mana. Turning the flow on and off had produced no progress in halting the mana drain, but he thought he might actually get some help from his new and improved Directed Mana Absorption. It appeared he had actually tried to improve his skill backwards. Now he was going to try to hold onto the mana in a small area and stop it from moving while draining actively from everywhere else in his aura.
He started with a section of stone in the back wall. The mana was more sluggish in the stone anyway, so he figured it might be easier to keep it from moving. At first he did not notice any improvement, but by morning the mana he was concentrating on was moving incrementally slower than the mana around it. He was essentially a captive, so any success in getting better was a step towards freedom, even if it was minor. He was not practically rabid over being trapped like his dungeon instincts, but freedom was his first and most important goal.
When Tam came in the room, Caden was surprised to see him carrying something alive in a cage. He had never seen anything like it. It had an insect-like exoskeleton, all black and prismatic reflections, but was shaped more like a mouse. When Tam held it near him, he focused his senses and mana drain on the creature, trying to figure it out. He didn’t feel any particular mana coming off of the creature, but that could be because of the mana flowing from Tam, which overwhelmed the background mana by far. The man nodded in seeming satisfaction, though Caden had no idea what Tam was thinking about.
Tam proceeded to cast some spells. These ones were different from what he had seen before. They hovered at various places within the room. Then Tam cast another spell at him, but this one seemed to have more power than normal and stayed in place. His heart sank. Did Tam notice when his aura expanded? Hopefully not, more monitoring would make his life even harder. After casting all these spells Tam picked up the cage and held it near Caden again. He didn’t bother to focus on it again, instead trying to focus on Tam’s mana as much as possible.
Tam frowned and moved the cage around the crystal. Maybe he wanted Caden to focus on it? He decided he might as well, maybe he would learn something. Nothing about the creature seemed particularly remarkable. A moment later Tam smiled again when he was focused on the creature again. Tam spoke a word and gestured with his other hand. A bolt of fire flew from his hand and incinerated the creature.
Mana. The creature’s death released a burst of raw mana greater than he had ever experienced. After a mere moment he had slightly more than five mana. He almost started to expand his aura under the floor, as he was used to doing, but stopped when he realized Tam knew he had mana and was expecting to see or feel Caden do something with it. So he did.
Caden expanded his aura out in a sphere from his core. He pushed it out as swiftly as possible, not wanting to waste any of the precious mana due to mana drain. His world expanded; by the time he was done he had covered most of the room and connected to the floor, ceiling, and the middle of all the walls. He had been seeing the room every day for weeks, but now he felt everything. He could feel the grain of the wood in the chair Tam sat in so often, the roughness of the unpolished stone, the slight heat given off by the light globes on the ceiling. This sense wasn’t exactly like touch, but it was close, and he had had no idea how much he needed it. He would have cried if he could. He had been feeling the same things for days; being able to feel new sensations was beyond blissful.
Tam seemed to be happy about it too, and stared off into space as he dismissed each spell in turn. Caden missed noticing the first few, though he still got a tiny bit of mana from them. Once he realized that the spells were being dismissed, he decided to hold off focusing on the fading spells. The spell directly attached to him had not yet been dismissed and was likely still monitoring his mana levels. Instead he just waited and focused on that spell, so that when Tam dismissed it he could get as much mana out of it as possible.
That spell was dismissed last, but it was worth it. Tam had made this spell with more mana than usual, so when it was dismissed there was, by Caden’s standards, a ton of mana. He drained it eagerly and ended up with almost seven mana. He quickly started using it to expand into the ceiling, walls, and floor now that he was connected to each of them openly, though he took great pains not to expand into the open space where Tam might notice,
Caden had never felt anything quite like his aura when he was human. As he expanded into the stone he was aware of so much information. His senses did not extend down into the microscopic world, at least for now, but he could feel the overall stresses in the stone. The pressure of literal tons of stone pressing down from above. He felt the slight imperfections in the structure of the stone, the places different types of stone met, how each bowed under the pressure differently. He could even feel the faint temperature gradient in the stone caused by meeting the air in the room. And the more stone he expanded into the more he could understand over all. Really, if Caden had needed any proof that he was not human any more, this was it. No human could process this much information, this awareness. Hell, human brains already cheated to give them the amount of sensory detail they thought they had.
Caden was so caught up in the sheer joy of sensation that he almost neglected to notice Tam leaving. He wondered absently what Tam was doing, but simply enjoyed himself for a bit. After a few minutes he calmed down again and got back to focusing on keeping mana immobile in one spot even while he pulled mana from everywhere else within his reach.
He didn’t get in much practice before Tam returned and continued his examination of his tome. The only difference was that now Tam also cast spells at Caden’s aura border near the front of the room. He was fairly sure Tam was testing if his aura was still expanding. Taking advantage of this, he focused on each of the spells and drained the dregs that remained afterwards. Using this he continued expanding his aura in the walls and tried to reach as far away as he could. As he did, he discovered that as long as he kept his aura at least a couple feet wide he didn’t seem to run into any problems expanding.
There was a certain irony in using the power of the spells Tam was using to check on him to power his own expansion. Tam only seemed to be able to tell where he was draining when he was really close to him, so as long as he was careful he might actually be able to escape… eventually. Between spells, he focused on his practice and by the end of the day the mana he was focusing on holding in the stone was barely moving. He continued through the night, until finally he got the mana to not move at all.
Now it was time for a switch. He focused on the air at the back of the room and started the same process. The mana in the air was much harder to hold onto and it barely slowed at all as he held onto it. Oh well, at least he could see that he was making some progress.
Not much had changed by the time Tam came back in the morning. Instead of doing his normal routine with the tome he first cast an analytic spell on Caden. After he got the results he simply leaned forward in his chair and stared at him. If he had been capable of sweating, the floor under his crystal would have been puddled with it. Why was he staring at him like that? Did he discover how much area he had gained control of? Did he know everything he was doing and was just humoring him before?
After a while Tam started muttering to himself. He seemed to be arguing with himself. He was really hoping Tam was not thinking about destroying him. He really, really wished there had been language skills in the AP store. His mind was quite capable of coming up with worse ideas than anything Tam might actually be saying. Tam seemed to come to decision after a while and he left the room.
When he came back he was carrying the same chalk he had used on the ritual that bound him into the core. This time he could sense that the chalk was packed with mana. Tam didn’t walk toward him though. He walked toward one of the walls and started drawing on it. He drew a large diamond, then a smaller circle inside it that did not touch the diamond. He then started drawing out runes in precise strokes. Tam was finished after only a few minutes. He inspected each rune carefully and then nodded in satisfaction when he was done. With a gesture the chalk burned with light and when he was finished the chalk was gone, but where it had been was burned half an inch into the wall. Tam pulled out a small hunk of the same silvery metal that made up the stand.
Oh please don’t let this be a larger and more powerful version of the mana drain enchantment. He was barely managing to do anything with the one he was dealing with already.
Tam made a couple of small gestures accompanied by mana and a stream of metal flew and filled in the entire diagram. When he was done, he put what little remained of the metal into a pocket and then began to gather mana together. The mana first glimmered faintly, and then grew brighter and brighter until it was blindingly bright. Caden guessed it was hundreds of times more mana than he had ever seen him use for any spell. He fed the gathered mana into the metal and the metal began to glow with the mana it held. With a flash the runes glowed intensely bright and then faded down to a slight shimmer.
As far as Caden’s senses could tell, the mana had simply disappeared. He was fairly sure that like the runes on the stand, it had simply become invisible. Mana was moving faintly toward the rune structure on the wall, but it was barely noticeable and certainly was not pulled directly from him. He was not entirely sure what the rune was for, but at least it wasn’t for that. He thickened the mana around himself to see if he could feel anything. He thought he felt a flicker of something, but then it was gone. And then it happened again. It felt like, maybe, threads? Little strands of magic drifting through the room. Caden feared the worst and immediately concentrated magic in his aura as deep into the stone as he had reached. He waited and felt for far longer than before, but he felt no flicker of the invisible threads passing through it.
Okay, now he really had no idea what it was for. It didn’t seem to be measuring the places where his aura was or draining his mana. And it wasn’t just focused on him, it was constantly passing over the entire room. Tam had meanwhile cast a few spells on the runes on the wall. After a few minutes he nodded and left the room again. He might have no idea what it was for, but apparently it was working.
Tam returned with a cage. This time there were three of the strange creature inside. For his own convenience he decided to call them mice-bugs. He considered the mice-bugs. Each was worth a little more than five mana to him when it died. Did Tam plan to sacrifice them too? That would give him over fifteen mana. Wait, he remembered that number being important. Caden opened up his status. If he got fifteen mana, he could level up!
Please feel free to comment.
There are what I am always most interested in hearing:
1. What promises have I made to the reader?
2. What do you think is going to happen?
3. What confuses you?
4. What do you like, so that I can be sure not to edit it out?
5. Misc issues in grammar, spelling, etc…
And of course, general discussion about everything else.
Comments on the series as a whole may be placed on the Table of Contents, spoilers are allowed there.