“So, that was pretty anti-climatic,” Alexis said once we’d made our way through the shattered window. Sarah had run ahead to check on her bear, while the rest of us remained a good distance away from the smoldering tree.
The flames crackled as they greedily devoured the wood, and some of the tendrils still fumbled about, trying to put themselves out — to no success, alas. Magical fire was not so easily extinguished.
A bad move on their side. Or rather, its side? They were clearly connected to the tree, but I wasn’t yet sure whether the gargantuan willow was the main body, or the tendrils merely being parasites using it as a host.
A crack thundered as the willow split apart, sheared in half under its own weight. It toppled to the ground, sparks flying off as its branches turn to ash.
It was a striking contrast to the pristine marble underneath. Nearly pristine — now that I had the chance to take a closer look, it was obvious the tree hadn’t originally been part of the courtyard. The marble pavement had been torn asunder right in the center when the willow had erupted from the earth beneath it. And the gilded inlays that had made up the Circle of Stars’ famous Fate formation were damaged beyond repair — ripped out of place, curling toward the sky like the final breath of a giant spider.
I sighed. “What a waste.”
“What was that?” Cameron asked.
I spread my arms outward, gesturing at the courtyard. “I hoped the array would be intact, but this… Well, it doesn’t matter. There’s still a dungeon anchor to find.”
“About that — do you even know how to find it?” Shiro asked. “There wasn’t one at the Grotto.”
“We didn’t get to the end of the dungeon that time, if you’ll recall,” I said, causing Shiro to wince. “Moreover, I didn’t know what too look for at the time.”
“And you do now?”
“I believe so.” At least, I hoped. For one, from the accounts at he time, the Circle dungeon had appeared immediately following a grand ritual gone wrong — therefore, there was only one place where the anchor could be.
Sarah walked up to the group a minute later with a slightly singed bear in tow. “I don’t know what the hell possessed him to charge a giant fucking tree, of all things.”
“That, ah, is likely my fault,” I said as I scratched my chin, trying to avoid eye contact with the young knight. Even with a helmet on, her glares were quite effective. “I modified its enemy detection logic to include hostile plants, and well — this was the result.”
“But why the tree? There were plenty of veggies close to us.”
I shrugged. “I will have to take another look to make sure, but my guess is that it attacked what it deemed to be the biggest threat.”
Sarah was quiet for a few moments, then finally sighed. “Oh well. At least it worked out in the end. Look, I think the fire’s almost over.”
True to her word, the fire had mostly abated, the blaze no longer as bright with the tree now reduced to a burnt husk. Some embers still floated away, carried by the wind, but at least the heat had become tolerable.
It was time to put my theory to the test. Soul Sight was a dear old friend to me, and it snapped easily into place as I approached the center of the courtyard. But if it were that simple, some mage would have already uncovered the mystery of how dungeons were created. I coalesced a thin thread of Origin, pushing it into my existing spell, willing it to go further — and much like that time above the ocean, the world around me exploded in color.
The tree was magic in its entirety, though that much I had already known — but I had to avert my eyes, its glow nearly as bright as the sun. If I wasn’t mistaken, given its composition, it would soon…
…dissolve. Just as I thought it, the remains of the tree broke down into pure mana, its source of life too damaged to keep the maintain its shape. A few bright clusters popped up in its wake — the loot it left behind, almost certainly — but I had no interest in them at the moment. Instead, my eyes were drawn right to the center of the courtyard, to the exact same place where the willow had originally burst from the ground.
If the willow had been as bright as the sun, the palm-sized sphere that sat halfway into the dirt was a supernova. My steps measured, I walked up to the strange little object, squinting all the while.
Finally remembering that I was, in fact, not human anymore, I adjusted the intensity of my sensations until I could take a good look at the orb. It was fully made of Origin mana, I could see, and I was almost certain it was the dungeon anchor I had been looking for. Squatting down, I suppressed my Soul Sight for a moment, inspecting the anchor through my bare eyes.
I needn’t have bothered — with the Origin-empowered Soul Sight off, the anchor had simply disappeared, confirming my suspicions. It was no wonder no one had discovered them before, if one needed to use an Aspect most mages didn’t even believe could exist on this side of reality.
In hindsight, that was a silly assumption. Why had we been so sure mastery of the six aspects was the peak of magic?
Returning to the anchor, I brought my face closer to the small object. The magic around it was thicker than I had ever seen, a testament to how thoroughly the weeping willow had been mutated.
The voice of reason sounded quietly in my head, whispering something akin to ‘do not touch the dangerous, glowing orb of untold power’. I had invested quite a few points into intelligence, and I was fairly certain the sudden bout of caution was their contribution, but the warning fell on deaf ears — or rather, I chose to ignore it. I was almost certain this was the anchor, and I had already laid my hand on one before.
Before reason could assert control over my body, I placed a finger on the orb.
Nothing happened, except that I could feel the powerful waves of mana roiling under my touch. “Huh.” I lifted my hand, intent to see if it had been affected in anyway — and that was when the new screen popped up.
Unnamed Automated Dungeon #25,964,951
Status: Active, Operational
Owner: System Partition #376
“Well, that’s certainly a big number.”
“What was that?” Sarah’s voice called out, and I turned my head to see her crouched not too far away, pouring intently over the glowing spoils of the tree. “Oh, this thing is nice…”
“I believe I found the dungeon anchor.”
“Wait, really?” She promptly rose to her feet, taking large strides toward me. “Where?”
I pointed towards the glowing orb before I realized she would be unable to see it. A memory of her explaining the System rose to the surface, and I willed the screen to become publicly visible.
A whistle echoed inside her helmet as she stopped right next to me. “That’s a lot of dungeons.”
“It is indeed,” I said, frowning. “Much more than I believed existed.”
“Really? How many did you expect?”
“Nearly a thousand dungeons have been identified across the planet, including those in the Archipelagos,” I said with a tilt of my head. “To think so many of them were missed…”
“Uh, who’s to say they were missed? Maybe they’re somewhere else.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Elsewhere where?”
“Um, other continents, maybe? Or just other worlds?”
“No, the planet has already been fully mapped out,” I said, trying to deny her words — and I froze when I realized I could not refute the second part. “Other worlds? How odd! I have never considered the possibility of there being other worlds out there.”
“Really? What about Earth?”
‘That doesn’t count,’ I wanted to say, but the words remained stuck in my throat. Why would they not count? Why had I been so sure we were the only place to exist?
A shiver went down my spine as I considered the possibilities, and I dismissed my Soul Sight, drawing Mind instead and empowering it with the now-free thread of Origin. I willed to see all that there was to see, and dove into the deepest recesses of my mind—
—and found nothing out of place. Nothing had been tampered with, no construct had been placed to stop me from considering the thought. Nothing except my own beliefs and biases.
But someone would surely have considered the idea by now, wouldn’t they? In hindsight, it was obvious. The existence of Earth was well known, so why did nobody connect the dots further, to the logical conclusion?
I tried to think back on my Academy days, sifting through the endless lectures to find an explanation. Had the idea been forcefully suppressed, our education carefully worded as to avoid this line of thought? But no, a grand conspiracy like that made little sense, even if gods had been involved.
“So, how could an entire planet have failed to consider the possibility that there could be other worlds out there?” I mused out loud.
“Maybe people did, but didn’t tell anyone, or nobody cared,” Sarah suggested. But she hadn’t been privy to my thoughts.
“No, some of my peers have made the study of reality their entire purpose in life. They would not have kept something this big under wraps. No, I think… it must have been the System that suppressed it. There’s nothing else with the same reach.”
“That seems like a stretch. Why would it stop now?”
Why indeed? Maybe it hadn’t — maybe it had simply made an exception for me once the idea was planted by somebody else. Or maybe, with her words, Sarah had broken the suppression for everyone at once.
Or maybe there had been no suppression in the first place, and it was all one strange coincidence.
I shrugged. “I can only speculate — but what’s important is that this orb here seems to suggest that not only do other worlds exist, but that ours is a tiny drop in a bucket compared with what’s out there.”
“Yeah, a thousand dungeons out of… what’s that? 25 million? Either the other worlds are really big or there’s a lot of them out there.”
“Or perhaps both. Still, this is… unbelievable.”
“We have whole books and movies and all that about different worlds, back home. It doesn’t seem that surprising to me. Anyway, do you think that thingy gives you control over the dungeon?”
I blinked in surprise. “Possibly? I haven’t tried.”
Summoning my Soul Sight back, I concentrated on the orb and tried to will it to do various things. To change, to respond, to become mine—
Error: User is not authorized to access Dungeon Core #25,964,951. Please contact the nearest System Administrator for assistance. This incident will be logged.
“Apparently not,” I said wryly. “In any case, did you find anything interesting among the loot? The final boss of a dungeon usually drops some very powerful items.”
“Well, it’s a tree. So it’s basically all wood.” She summoned an average-sized chunk she had stashed in her pocket dimension.
My eyebrows went up in surprise. “That’s steelwood. If it sounds weak, or uninteresting — it isn’t. If you had a set of armor made out of it, it’d put your current plate mail to shame.”
“Really? This little thing’s so strong?”
“Huh. Good thing there’s a lot more where this came from. Might have enough for a full set, and then some.”
“That’s good, because it shouldn’t take too much to fashion me a bow,” Alexis said as she walked up to us. “I feel like it would make a very powerful weapon.”
“It might end up too hard to draw — but I suppose, in that case you can simply invest some points into Strength,” I said, nodding. “Jenna, my lawyer friend, had something similar back when we were adventurers. Not quite as fancy — the dungeons we did didn’t drop items this good. Bronzewood, I believe. I remember trying to pull the string and failing completely.”
Alexis snorted. “I can believe that. But yeah, if we can make some weapons out of that too…”
“I don’t believe it holds an edge very well. But yes, we will look into finding a crafter once we get to the Floating City.”
“That our next stop?”
“It is indeed. Now, let us see what else you have found here…”