Saga of the Soul Dungeon – 1.9 – Interlude – Mourning Prayers

“Between two worlds life hovers like a star, twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.”

-Lord Byron

“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.”

Saga of the Soul Dungeon – 1.8

Saga of the Soul Dungeon – Arc 2 – Parting of the Ways

Saga of the Soul Dungeon – 1.2 – Minor Evolutions

“If a man cannot buy his freedom, then all the world’s wealth shall be as a grain of sand by the sea”

-Istan Triant, after the great slave revolt of 1540 AC

Caden assessed his options. Without any mana to work with he was forced to admit they were more limited that he would like, other than spending AP. There were two skills that he had seen after his research that he did want to buy. The problem was that he was fairly certain that the man had some idea of his skills from analysis spells. That made everything harder and, for now, he decided to hold off on buying anything. However, that did not mean he couldn’t approach the situation as intelligently as possible. The first thing he tried to do was stop everything that he was doing by instinct. He stopped the flow of mana into him after a few minutes of trying. It felt very strange, almost akin to stopping in the middle of going pee. It felt natural to draw in mana continuously.

The mage perk up when he did this. Caden decided that since he could not understand the man he needed to give him a name. He was fairly certain he was going to call the man That Annoying Mage, or Tam for short.

Tam looked surprised, excited, and cast more spells into the air and examined Caden even closer. His dungeon half was even more agitated than before, if that was possible. He tried to start and stop the mana flow over and over again during the next few minutes. It was one of the few things that he was capable of doing, so he was going to learn to do it on command. Eventually, after an hour or two of practice, he could do it with a thought; it didn’t even feel all that uncomfortable anymore.

Now that he could turn it on and off reliably, he wanted to see if he could direct it and make it more efficient. The skills he could purchase had suggested that it was possible to resist mana drain, as well as harvest mana more efficiently. If he wanted to have any mana at all to work with then he would need one or both of those to happen. He decided that he would practice harvesting mana for as long as the man was in the room. Any time he wasn’t he was going to see if he could resist the mana drain.

—-

Not much had changed since he started work on controlling the mana flow. Tam had left a few times and come back. The lights on the ceiling would dim, presumably for the night, and then they would brighten a few minutes before he came back in the morning. The most exciting thing that had happened was Tam appearing with a chair and a book, actually more of a tome. It was thick, heavy, and handwritten with drawings that made zero sense to him. Shortly after sitting to read, as Tam was mumbling to himself and occasionally glancing up at Caden, he cast a spell.

From then on, this summed up all of Tam’s daily activity. He quickly grew used to the stiff sound of the pages rustling as they turned in Tam’s fingers. Tam’s breath, softly in and out, filled the room with a faint sound. The sound of Tam’s feet on the stone heralded his arrival, and followed his exit. Even the sound of his clothes softly swishing and sliding over skin made a noticeable sound. Without Tam in the room Caden found himself consigned to silence. Humans are never fully silent. The pulsing rush of blood in their veins, the high pitched sound the eardrums manufacture to fill the silence of a room; these were gone. Caden had no breath, he had no pulse, no stomach gurgling, or muscles tensing. In their absence he could hear the faintest of sounds, but the silence of isolation was almost maddening. So he had turned inward, focusing as much as possible on working.

When Tam was present Caden continued trying to pull mana from Tam’s direction. Tam constantly leaked mana into the air around him, though he had no idea why. Was it because Tam was a spell-caster, or did all living things do this? Since Tam was the only living thing around, it was impossible for him to say. Every time Tam cast a spell at him, he could see the structure. It was somewhat like looking at layered glowing glass, a translucent indefinite mess. These spells wrapped around Caden and delved into his crystal. He carefully examined what Tam was doing, even as he tried to pull the spells apart. The spells leaked some mana as they functioned, and dissolved into an even larger amount when they finally collapsed. By the end of the day when Tam went off, presumably to sleep, Caden had improved slightly. He could now exclude a tiny portion of the area around him from drawing mana. He had a long way to go before he could actually focus his mana feeding, but the fact that he had made any progress was encouraging.

He didn’t seem to need any sleep, an ability he would have found immensely useful in his old life, especially in college. He was no longer tired physically or mentally. Caden was not sure if he could even feel that way any more. He was sad about losing dreaming though, but at least he could stay awake and keep working. The constant pull of the mana draining down and out actually felt a lot like his own mana absorption, just in reverse. He knew how to turn that on and off so he tried doing that to the mana draining out of him. It didn’t seem to change anything, but he would need to practice a lot before he knew if he was going about it in the right way. This, he knew, could take some time.

It did. Caden spent days just focusing on this routine. Tam continued to show up and do… whatever it was he was doing. He considered trying to contact Tam by turning his mana absorption on and off in sequence, like doing the numbers, 1, 2, 3, etc… However, he decided that was a bad idea for the moment. He didn’t speak the language, so even if he made Tam realize he was intelligent they would not be able to communicate. Also Tam might get even more fascinated and or paranoid about Caden and change up his routine, which would make his escape even harder.

His skill with mana absorption kept getting better. After a few days he had finally gotten to the point where he could exclude one third of the room and while still drawing from the rest. As he got to that point he got a pop-up.

|

Your skill Mana Absorption I has changed and improved through your efforts. It is now:

Directed Mana Absorption I

Raw mana within your aura can be drawn into your core to increase your available mana. You can choose ro focus on the most mana rich areas to increase your efficiency.

|

|

You have been given a new title!

Skill Evolution

You have altered a skill’s capabilities beyond normal through concerted effort. Use it to acquire your dreams, or just richer mana.

+100 Ability Points

Slightly easier to acquire merged or improved skills

|

Huh, that was not actually what Caden was expecting. He had expected to simply level up in his Mana Absorption skill. This meant that there was a different way to level it up. Actually… now that he thought about it, it was probably simply speed. He had tried to be more efficient in where he got the mana from, but drawing in mana faster would probably have worked just as well, if not better. Oh well. For the moment, his ignorance appeared to have worked out in his favor.

Now that he had this skill he decided he would try again, but only when Tam took one of his breaks. For now he did not try to change anything about his focus and just kept absorbing from Tam’s side of the room. he needed to work on his speed anyway.

As Tam continued about his routine he tried pulling the mana into himself faster. Caden felt it improve almost immediately; apparently he had not been using his maximum speed this entire time, either that or the new skill he got improved his speed. However, since his speed had not improved until he focused on it, Caden guessed that it was just his own fault for overlooking it.

Caden endured Tam as he poked and prodded at the crystal with magic in reaction to his sudden increased performance. Since Tam already knew that something had changed he decided to go for broke and started focusing his mana drain more.

The difference the skill made was amazing. He had pretty much just been teaching himself, fumbling about trying to master a skill on his own. Now directing his focus was so much simpler. It was like techniques and practice had been downloaded into his head, or well… crystal. It still was not perfect, but he could focus his entire drain onto a sphere no more than a foot wide.

Tam smiled in excitement as he put the book on the ground and stood up. He focused his entire attention on Caden and cast more spells. This time as he focused all his skill onto the spell something new happened. All seemed to be as normal at first, but when the spell ended he could feel the sudden influx of mana. He called up his status and was shocked. He had two mana.

The dungeon part of Caden shouted about summoning a monster, but Caden immediately tried expanding his aura. Since he had mana to power it, it felt effortless, easy. It could even expand in any direction selectively. He didn’t know how much he would be able to expand so he tried to work quickly, pouring the power in as fast as he could. He really did not want Tam to notice what he was doing, so he expanded down around the stand, trying to keep his aura as thin in diameter as possible. He quickly covered the entire stand, including the white crystal at the bottom, and then proceeded into the floor.

He could expand into the stone almost as easily as the air, but he could feel a distinct difference. The mana in the stone felt sluggish and thick. Caden decided he would focus on that later, and kept expanding his aura. He was actually pleasantly surprised with how far his aura was growing with the mana. He supposed it made sense since dungeons are often massive constructions in fantasy, but considering he knew nothing about how it actually worked in this world, it was nice to be getting so much for relatively little. Eventually he expanded a small foot wide corridor of his aura through the stone of the floor to the back wall. There he expanded his influence as much as he could without actually touching the surface of the wall. His mana ran out shortly after he expanded to the wall, but he did manage to cover an area behind the wall about three feet across.

As far as he could tell, Tam had not noticed anything. Caden felt slightly different. He could feel that the stream of mana entering him was slightly more than before, even when he was focusing his absorption elsewhere. It looked like there was some passive element to the absorption so long as he was letting mana in at all.

Tam looked like he was going to continue his routine, so he decided he would keep expanding his aura as spells ended. He briefly considered trying to save up mana to level up but decided it was a bad idea. His mana was still being absorbed, after all, and even if it wasn’t he was reasonably sure that the diagnostic spells Tam was casting on him would notice if he had any mana. He was trying really hard to look at the spells that Tam was casting, and then when it burst he frantically expanded his aura with the spent mana. By the end of the day Caden had covered the entire back wall. It had started getting difficult to expand his aura farther up though. He thought that perhaps his aura was becoming too stretched out to be efficient, so he decided that tomorrow he was going to expand his aura under the floor instead.

Tam went off to bed, and the lights in the room faded to a dull glow. Caden’s attempts to halt the mana flowing out of him had so far had no results, so he decided he needed to try a different approach. This time he decided to just watch for a while. He could actually see the outside of the white crystal very well now that it was in his aura, but he still had a hard time seeing inside. He knew that his mana was trapped inside, but that was it. He studied the runes on the stand. They still didn’t mean anything to him, but he could see his mana flowing through the metal towards the crystal. Actually Caden could see his mana flowing around something inside the metal. It was like invisible hands were guiding the mana down and away from him.

Caden couldn’t see whatever this was, but he was fairly certain he could learn more. There was mana passively moving towards him from his aura conduit through the floor. He tried to condense the mana flow around the stand and he could suddenly see gaps. The mana swirled like fog flowing around glass. He could not get very good detail, but the shapes of the mana were gradually becoming clearer as he focused on them.

He traced the invisible shapes upward until he reached the top of the stand. There he could see that they actually reached into his crystal and pulled power right out of where his mana was stored. Caden’s other half was outraged at this violation, but Caden ignored it as usual. He didn’t know how much this knowledge would help, but at least now he knew right where to start.

Saga of the Soul Dungeon – 1.1

Saga of the Soul Dungeon – 1.3

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.