I pulled free from who I had been; I pulled free from the fear of returning to what had been. I pulled free from the trappings and chains that held me.
I found my freedom from fear.
In that single moment, I defeated the Aridae once and for all.
There would be no going back. The threads that had connected us were severed and snipped, vanished from existence as the Great Core’s power washed over me. The Cycle had found a new beginning.
It was exhilarating - far more than I had expected it to be.
My discarded scale-flesh rested on the stone beside me, glowing with the light of the Great Core. I could tell that it was just a little too small for me now, that I had grown slightly larger when I shed my scale-flesh. The Coreless, awed by the sight, could only stare with wonder. Their mouths worked ceaselessly, forming little noises of astonishment and awe.
I tuned it out, focusing instead on what the thought-light revealed.
Species: Snake, Ouroboros
Major Title: [The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail]
Minor Titles: [Minor Mana Core] [Venomous Retribution]
Innate Traits: [Venomous II]
Blooded Traits: [Paralyzing Venom IV] [Poisonous Blood III] [Illusion Spark III]
Resistances: [Piercing Resistance - Basic IV] [Venom Resistance - Intermediate II]
Trait Points: 3
Core Skills: [The Endless Cycle]
Lesser Core Skills: [Mana Manipulation V] [Mana Venom VI]
Description: A growing Ouroboros, symbol of the eternal.
The heat pressed against my scale-flesh, forcing me to push out tiny gouts of flame absorbed by [Illusion Spark] even as I examined the thought-light. It was growing slightly easier to manipulate the heat and light that I absorbed, though the reservoir itself had not grown since [Illusion Spark] last advanced. Still, if it were not for that, I would have already suffered heat-death. Even with [Illusion Spark] to fend off a portion of the heat, it was a cloying and dangerous thing, making my insides nearly boil from within.
I looked upwards, gazing at the Flame Wisps that floated at the cavern’s ceiling. They were out of my reach, but that might not be the same for others. There would be more.
I made a decision. The thought-light flickered in response.
Available Trait Points: 3
Use Trait Points To Upgrade A Trait?
A moment later, it flickered again.
3 Trait Points Required For Upgrade of [Illusion Spark III] to [Illusion Spark IV].
The heat upon my scales dimmed slightly as I changed, the reservoir of light and heat that I could hold within my scale-flesh growing further. For now, I kept the light within, saving it; the heat, though, I continued to remove. The gouts of flame that licked away from my scale-flesh grew slightly larger and more numerous, a sign of my growing strength.
It hadn’t been a difficult decision. While the points could have been used to increase [Venomous] or [Poisonous Blood], neither of those were necessary for my immediate survival - not as long as I used the Coreless to avoid the most dangerous of the bad-things. [Illusion Spark], however, was needed.
Despite the Great Core’s overwhelming wisdom and power, I wasn’t created with the ability to withstand the heat that the Dungeon was giving off. And if it only became worse as I slithered closer to the Core…
In the end, I needed it.
My tongue idly flicked from my mouth, tasting the fresh blood-scent that lingered in the air. It was...disappearing. Quickly.
It wasn’t a surprising development. As the creation of a Dungeon Core myself, I had a general idea how things worked, even though my own experience had been unique as the great Core’s only creation.
Dungeon Cores grew in a variety of ways. They absorbed latent mana from the air, the free-floating power that suffused the World Dungeon, released from the World Dungeon’s center. Some of that mana was lost again, spread outwards after it mixed with the flavor of the Core’s aspect. Some was kept and used, allowing the Core to spread its influence and create more defenders.
That was the slow, passive way that Cores gained in power.
It was not the main path they chose.
Theft was far, far faster.
That was the reason for the forever-war that raged on in the World Dungeon; Cores fought against one another, vying for supremacy and power. Competing for the mana that each had gained. Sending their bad-things to consume one another to remove competitors for that very same mana.
Yet, that too could be a source of mana for the defending Dungeon Cores.
It hadn’t been something that I had ever been able to take advantage of, alone as I was. Weak as I was. The best I had been able to do was scavenge the leftovers from the world outside, dragging forgotten corpses and damaged remains through the wall-cracks that led into my home.
My offerings to the Great Core had been small, just as I was.
Still, everytime that they disappeared, shifting into mana itself, I knew that they were appreciated. I knew that I was appreciated.
The same was happening now, though it was not my Core that salvaged the mana used to create the bad-things.
The blood that splashed across the floor - that which hadn’t boiled away as it encountered the fire-water - finally began to shift back into the mana that originally formed it, seeping into the floor as it returned to the Core.
Its efforts with the corpses were less successful. While I was distracted, the Coreless had already begun to harvest choice bits, cutting through the flesh to reach what lay underneath. From the largest of the bad-things, a giant red organ was removed, a larger version of what had been harvested from the first of the bad-things.
The male Coreless grunted, the hunk of ore-flesh retrieved from the fire-water’s surface undamaged by the heat and slung across his back once more. He walked back and forth near the fire-water, ignoring the sweat that dripped down his heavy brow, peering past it. Finally, he made noises at the other Coreless.
“We’ll have to find another way out. This one’s blocked off by the lava; looks like it spilled right into the exit tunnel.”
Whatever he said, the others didn’t appear happy about it. Still, none of them bared their teeth in challenge, so I assumed that they chose not to question his leadership - though why Needle had not been selected as the leader, I didn’t know. She was clearly wiser than the others, given the offerings that she had made to appease the Great Core.
The Coreless were strange.
The-female-that-was-not-Needle approached me, dropping to a knee and holding out a hand. She hissed softly, the sound once more coming out strangely. “Want to ride on my shoulder again, little cutie?”
She turned around, her hand still outstretched. “What?”
I slithered over, twining my way up her arm until I reached her shoulder. After what had happened earlier, I wanted to be as close as possible so that she could take any hits for me. That, and I was still mulling over the idea of biting her.
Needle was pointing at my discarded scale-flesh, making praise-noises at the light it gave off.
“You’re not worried about what just happened with its skin? That looked like an advancement to me. The snake could be a lot stronger now.”
I let out a gout of flame, releasing some of the heat that had built up in my scales. The female Coreless looked at me again, baring her teeth. I hissed when she tried to touch my head-scales again.
“It’s fine, Kala. He’s only attacked other monsters so far and I think that he’s warming up to me. Besides, it’s not like he can really do much.”
“If you say so…”
She reached out again, trying to scratch my scale-flesh once more. This time I let it happen, distracted by the sight of the disappearing bad-things. Slowly, they wisped away into streams of mana and disappeared.
“See? He likes me!”
The female reached into one of her skin-mouths, attempting another offering of strange flesh. Despite my distraction, I still made sure to spit it out.
She really needed to make better offerings.
“Valera, stop wasting the dried meats. It doesn’t want them.” The male-who-was-not-repentant made some noises. I turned and hissed at him, too. He was even worse than she was, despite her terrible excuses for offerings.
She grunted in response, with what I took to be an annoyed look on her face. With a few more noises that I didn’t bother to try to decipher, the Coreless began to move.
As we traveled through the cavern, I gazed longingly at the Flame Wisps that floated amongst the stone-spikes above. Every so often, I shot a few meaningful hisses at Needle, hoping that she would understand and provide me more offerings. She didn’t. I tried not to hold that against her.
I failed, at least a little bit.