Mana Soul: Chapter 33 - The Prisoner - Markus
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The clearing was eerily quiet. The silence was only broken by the hushed murmuring between the other adventurers and the sounds of bodies being dragged across the snow. The chimaera twins, Ulf and Bjorn, were in the process of gathering together the bodies of all the deceased adventurers to a patch of ground just outside the palisade.
Markus had initially intended to retrieve all of the bolts he had enchanted with mana drain, to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. However, free of the dungeon’s influence, the bodies of the deceased adventurers were now very very nearly frozen solid. Markus had to content himself with re-enchanting the bolt shafts so they would incinerate themselves. Heating the heads of the bolts may have warmed and loosened the surrounding flesh enough for the chimaera to pull the bolts free, but Markus didn’t think they had time for that.
“Can you go explain the situation to the nobles outside, so the twins can start removing the bodies?” Markus asked Hilda. The sooner they were dealt with, the better. There was no telling when the dungeon would attempt to control them again, or if it even had the power left to try, but he didn’t want to find out in either case.
Hilda nodded and sighed, obviously understanding both the necessity of the action and the likely reaction of the nobles gathered outside. “Give me a few minutes before sending the first bodies through,” she said gravely before stepping through the dungeon entrance and disappearing from sight.
Turning his attention away, Markus noticed Aela pacing back forth within their defensive perimeter. Very likely nervous and maybe even excited, he still did not think Aela would be nearly so animated in such a situation. Seeing her unprotected tail trailing across the ground, Markus realized what might be bothering her. “Aela?” He asked tentatively.
“Hrm?” Aela stopped pacing and immediately walked over to see what he wanted.
“How are you feeling?” Markus asked, somewhat worried about the low temperature making her ill or causing pain.
Aela was quiet for a moment, perhaps considering the question before making a reply, “A little worried,” she admitted.
Markus nodded, he understood the feeling, “Hopefully we will be finished with this dungeon soon."
Aela nodded and looked pointedly towards the manor up ahead, “Do you think the dungeon boss monster will still be able to put up a fight?” She asked worriedly.
“I’m not sure,” Markus admitted, “It is almost certainly weaker now than before we entered, but there is really no telling how strong it was in the first place.” He shrugged helplessly, “There is still the possibility that there is no boss monster,” Markus suggested half-heartedly. In a dungeon this strong, it was pretty much a given that the dungeon heart would be kept safe inside a boss monster and they both knew that.
“At least the manor is not particularly large,” Aela observed, “It should not take long to find the boss monster and we should be able to lure it outside if we need to."
Markus nodded. Looking at the manor, he was curious as to why the dungeon had created this place. Man-made structures and environments were by no means uncommon within dungeons, but it was still rather odd when he stopped to think about it.
With the suggested time now passed, Markus gave the twins the signal to begin removing bodies from the dungeon.
To their credit, they were not nearly so indelicate as Markus would have expected given their rather indifferent treatment of the dead when amassing them together in the first place.
The twins simply carried a body over each shoulder as if they were carrying sacks of grain and began the process of ferrying them out of the dungeon.
After removing the final body, Hilda returned shortly after the twins. As she was reaffixing her helmet, Markus saw the exasperated expression on her face.
“That bad huh?” Markus asked, having a pretty good idea of how the nobles were almost certainly trying to make the events of the dungeon ‘her fault’.
Hilda gave an affirmative grunt in reply, but as if it was obviously insufficient to express her anger, “Nothing but whining skirt-chasers!” She growled, “Sycophantic two-faced leeches!"
Markus nodded. He had expected the nearby nobles to be little more than political opportunists and relations of the dead eager to lay blame on anyone they could. Very few of them, if any, would have been waiting for a chance to actually enter and defeat the dungeon themselves.
“Is everyone ready to approach the manor?!” Hilda called out somewhat impatiently.
Phillipe, Kassandra and Tina all responded in the affirmative, while the twins and Aela fell in alongside Markus after retrieving their equipment.
“We're ready,” Markus replied after he was sure the twins and Aela were prepared.
“Good!” Hilda replied tersely, “Let us be moving out!” She growled, taking the lead positions and heading towards the manor.
Following along behind the others, Markus and Aela were at the rear of the formation.
Despite appearances, the manor had not been as close as they initially thought it was and it was now dark enough that they had to begin using enchanted light sources to banish the gathering shadows. It took them a good ten minutes or so of solid marching to reach the bottom of the hill and another five minutes to safely scale the hill itself.
Even more ominous up close, Markus could feel an imposing aura emanating off the manor. Strangely, all window shutters were closed, except for those on the third floor. Unsure of what it meant, if anything, Markus had no time to think about it. His attention had shifted to the manor’s front door. Although definitely weather-worn and neglected, the thick oak door still held a certain gravitas and respectability. Although... Markus moved closer, unsure of what he had seen.
There was a myriad of claw marks covering the surface of the door, which at a distance Markus had confused for general wear and splintering from the elements. As he was about to ask the others if they saw it as well, his voice caught in his throat.
With a theatrical groan, the large decrepit door to the manor had opened before them, seemingly of its own accord.
With the interior of the manor now revealed, Markus could see a modestly sized, yet fancifully styled staircase on the far side of the entry hall with a sizable landing above.
Standing atop the landing was a middle-aged nobleman in a tailored suit with hardened predatory facial features. “Ah, my guests have finally arrived!” He stated loudly, descending two of the steps and opening his arms in greeting. “Please, do come in!” The man beckoned, “You shall catch your death of cold standing out there in the snow!"
Upon seeing the man, Markus had immediately felt the overwhelming sense of danger. Wanting nothing more than to turn and run, he found that it was easier said than done.
As if unaware of the danger, Hilda, Phillipe, Kassandra and Tina all crossed the threshold and entered the manor, neatly laying their weapons aside by the door and removing their helmets to reveal dazed expressions on their faces.
“The abyss are you d-” Aela began to yell, Hilda dropped her axe, then apparently saw what Markus had and recoiled. “They are bewitched!” She hissed, immediately placing herself between the man and Markus.
The twins each hefted their battleaxes and began carefully stalking towards the man on the staircase.
“Ah, well, that is not very polite!” The man hissed good-humouredly. “As diverting as the encounter would be, I am afraid I must insist you lower your weapons” He warned with a smile.
In response, Hilda and the others had each drawn a backup weapon and now held them against their own throats.
Unsure if the bewitchment would break if the monster was struck by the mana draining enchantment, Markus wasn’t willing to take the risk just yet, “Stand down!"
With visible reluctance, the twin’s did as Markus asked and backed away. Although they did not stow their weapons.
“Very curious,” the man drawled, his tone of voice suggesting he was rather entertained. “Always interesting to see hybrids running amok,” he laughed quietly as he descended a few more steps. “Then again, it is practically a given when facing an Overlord,” he commented absently, “And a strong one at that. You are the first in my known memory to successfully resist my magic. Quite an achievement I must assure you!” He commented conversationally.
Unable to understand what the monster was saying, Markus figured it was either insane or trying to distract him. With that in mind, he began thinking of how to free the others from its hypnotic ability. The most straightforward of which would be to re-enchant their brooches to drain dungeon mana and hope that the monster's ability would lose its strength or be dispelled outright. But if that was the case, handling their weapons should have performed similarly when they were first attacked.
The man’s words suddenly interrupted Markus’s thoughts, “-I want you to kill me."
Thrown off balance and definitely doubting what he had heard, Markus could do little more than stare at the monster as it slowly continued making its way down the staircase.
“That is what we are here to do!” Aela snarled, affirmative growls of support coming from the twins as they gripped their weapons tightly.
The man smiled broadly and laughed, “Ah, no, I think your servants misunderstand,” the man chuckled, halting his descent and leaning on the banister, “I want YOU-” He pointed at Markus, “-to kill me."
Suspecting a trap, Markus frowned. Was the boss monster trying to trick him into participating in an honour duel? No way in the abyss was Markus stupid enough to fall for that one-sided slaughter. Buying time to think Markus asked, “Why me?"
The man nodded and smiled, “A very good question. Tell me, what do you know of the soul?” Without giving Markus the opportunity to answer the man quickly spoke again, “Most would agree that in its purest sense, self-awareness and memory are the minimum requirements. Of course, I am sure that an Overlord of your ability is not entirely unfamiliar with this train of thought, especially given present company,” he stared pointedly at each of the chimaeras before returning his attention to Markus.
“So what do you want me to do?” Markus asked warily, unnerved by the prolonged interaction with the intelligent dungeon monster.
“I want you to transfer my consciousness from the dungeon heart and erase it entirely,” the man snapped somewhat angrily before smiling again. “I...am...tired...” He groaned wanly, “Tired of the monotony and pointless violence. At first, I revelled in the bloodshed, losing myself in the thrill of the hunt. But there was only so long before higher thought returned and I soon wanted out, but after escape eluded me for so long, I now just want it to end!” The man’s cheerful facade had slipped again and he truly looked and sounded quite pitiable.
“And what is in it for me?" Markus asked, still wary of the monster, suspecting some sort of trick,
The man was quiet for a moment then smirked, “I suppose it had been too much to assume you would act to save your servants,” he chuckled, glancing at Phillipe and the others. “I have a number of women of noble birth from your world currently enjoying my hospitality. I am sure the return of women of such elevated social positions would provide a suitable reward, or could perhaps be considered the reward themselves depending on your disposition and temperament,” he offered, “You will not find them without my assistance, I can assure you."
Markus frowned. The monster’s offer was also obviously another threat. It seemed to have no shortage of hostages and was making a point of being sure he was aware of it. “Alright, I’ll do it.” Markus agreed, seeing he had little choice but to see what trap the monster had prepared and hope his protections were sufficient to see him through it.
The man grinned from ear to ear, revealing razor-sharp teeth, “Excellent!” He crowed victoriously. With a flourish, the man withdrew a sizable ruby from his jacket’s inner waist pocket, “This should prove a sufficient vessel,” he tossed it lazily across the entry hall to Markus, who made no attempt to catch it, letting it land and roll across the ground.
Scanning it carefully both with his eyes, and the viewing port of his shield, Markus grudgingly determined that besides its size and value, there was otherwise nothing remarkable about the ruby. Picking up the ruby, Markus was a little confused regarding what the monster wanted him to do exactly.
Was the dungeon boss truly immortal? Markus didn’t think so. The guild’s naming convention for dungeons was to allow the first adventurers to encounter a new dungeon the opportunity to decide the name. Because no two dungeons' mana signatures are exactly the same, when a previously encountered dungeon is detected, the guild is able to provide the relevant information to prospective adventurers wanting to clear the dungeon.
So Markus knew that this particular dungeon had actually appeared four times before and had been defeated all four times, presumably by slaying the melodramatic monster on the staircase and shattering the dungeon heart. If that was the case, and it almost certainly was, then how was this monster being reincarnated? Did the dungeon heart’s have remote backups in case of destruction?
Markus couldn’t help but shiver at the thought of it. Particularly since it raised another question, was the monster he was currently talking to, already copied? He couldn’t really answer that without the monster's cooperation. “Have you died before?” Markus asked curiously, “And do you remember it?"
The monster’s smile faltered again as it winced, “Yes and yes,” it rubbed absently at its neck, perhaps recalling a mortal wound or execution.
Markus frowned. If the monster was telling the truth, then he could only assume that the dungeon heart being destroyed somehow transmitted its mana to a remote location of some kind. Which meant Markus could theoretically destroy this dungeon for good if he could trap or prevent its mana from leaving the vicinity.
“I don’t think I need this,” Markus said, holding out the ruby in his hand,
The monster frowned, “You already possess a suitable vessel?” It asked warily.
Markus nodded, “Bring out the hostages and answer my questions, then I will explain,” he offered.
The monster cocked its head slightly to one side, as if considering something, then nodded, ”Alright,” it agreed.
A couple of minutes later, ten women of various ages, heights and builds began arranging themselves outside. There was also a short young woman, with pale skin and an unkempt shock of red hair.
Markus honestly was not sure where they had come from. Only able to assume there was a cellar door hidden somewhere on the property.
Just about nearly surrounded by hostages at this point, Markus tried his best to stay calm. A difficult thing to do, considering that he was able to be attacked at any given moment by the people he was trying to rescue.
“I will answer three questions,” the monster suggested, taking a languid resting pose on the stairs.
“A-alright-” Markus cleared his throat to try and get a grip on his nerves, “You keep calling me an Overlord, who or what are they?”
The monster raised its brow in surprise, “You mean to say you are not?” It leaned forward in its chair and took a much keener interest. “Fair is fair, I will not hold this question against you if you indulge my curiosity in kind,” The monster offered.
Knowing he didn’t really have anything to lose since he already gave it away anyway, Markus shook his head, “I hadn’t heard of such a thing until you mentioned it.”
For a moment, the monster eyed Markus like he was little more than a cut of meat, but with visible effort, restrained itself. “Very curious…” It whispered. “I hold no loyalty to them or their agenda, so I will keep the terms of our agreement,” the monster insisted, seemingly speaking the words more for its own instruction than to put Markus at ease. “The Overlords are conquerors and unparalleled masters of shaping mana. It is not uncommon for them to surround themselves with hybrid sycophants or lab rats,” the monster explained distastefully.
Fearing the worst, but knowing he had to ask the question anyway, Markus took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “Why do the dungeons only appear near large groups of people?”
The monster smirked, “Well that’s an easy one. The dungeons are predators, and the humans are their prey. The very mana in their veins calls to us like the wailing of lost children on the wind.”
Markus shivered and felt his stomach turn. Somehow, he knew the monster was not discussing hypotheticals, but providing gruesome firsthand metaphor.
“What is your final question?” The monster asked eagerly, now quite excited and sitting on the edge of its seat in anticipation.
Trying to make his last question count, Markus put aside a host of lesser curiosities and focused on what might prove the most important in the long run. “Where do dungeons come from?”
The monster seemed almost disappointed, “Is that all?” It asked with a sigh, “But you could have already reasoned the answer for yourself...Oh well,” The monster shrugged helplessly, “The dungeons, as your people call them, are immense and intricate mana constructs forged by the Overlords. I thought you would simply assume as-”
“I meant, where, do they come from,” Markus clarified, hoping to get a freebie.
“Ah, still rather boring, but perhaps interesting to the right ears,” the monster mused quietly before settling back into its seat. “Why, the planets of the conquered, of course,” the monster replied with a broad toothy grin.
The unsettling implications hit Markus like a ton of bricks.
“I believe it’s time debts were honoured, don’t you agree?” The monster asked impatiently while rapping its thick nails against the armrest of its chair.
Markus took a moment to gather his wits and nodded, “Essentially, you wanted to be separated and erased, right?” He asked rhetorically, “But separating you first is actually unnecessary. You weren’t to know, but it seems like you would have gotten your wish even without needing to bargain with me."
The monster scowled unpleasantly, “Explain!” It demanded sourly.
Markus stowed the ruby in a belt pouch and held out his spear, “Tell me, monster, what do you feel when you look at this spear?"
“Angry,” the monster replied sharply. However, its expression then softened somewhat into confusion, “I feel danger..."
Markus smiled, “Exactly! Your instincts are telling you it's dangerous, which makes you angry. But honestly, how many times have you felt that? It can’t have been many I would think."
“Why?” The monster asked, now incredibly curious, “Why is it so dangerous?!"
“Because it can kill you,” Markus replied bluntly.
The monster was shocked into silence.
“In fact, every single weapon my companions and I have brought into this dungeon can kill you,” Markus stated boldly, “And I, of course, don’t just mean hacking you apart either. Every single one of these weapons is capable of erasing your existence permanently."
Overcoming its shock, the monster began to smile wanly as it got to its feet and dusted itself off, “Finally,” it rasped longingly, “Finally it will be over!"
Faster than Markus could react, Phillipe, Tina, Kassandra and Hilda sprang across the room, launching themselves at the monster. At the same time, the monster leapt off the staircase and met them halfway, its arms and hands held open wide as the weapons of Markus’s companions were driven deep into its body.
Barely able to make out the form of the monster in their midst, Markus could see it was shivering with a mixture of fear and resignation on its face.
“Move them away!” Markus ordered, incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of his companions being so close to the dying monster.
Clearly, understanding his intent, the twins quickly jumped in and bodily dragged the others away to relative safety.
“I...I feel it! My true death!” The monster cried hoarsely in triumph.
Watching the monster's death throes, Markus didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment he had expected he would when he had first entered the dungeon. Even though the end result was the same, conversing with the monster and what he had learned in exchange for agreeing to help it die changed things. Markus was not sure what exactly, but that was part of what worried him.
Am I okay with this? How many other dungeon monsters could be reasoned with like this? Why did the monster keep so many hostages? Markus had no answers to these questions and it only made him more upset.
After a couple of minutes, the monster had stopped thrashing and rapidly began to disintegrate. Within seconds, nothing of its body remained, leaving only the dungeon heart behind. Even without using the mana detection function of his shield, Markus could tell that it was completely depleted.
With the monster no longer controlling their minds, Phillipe, Hilda, Kassandra and Tina slowly began returning to their senses.
Most of the hostages regained their senses as well and were visibly confused and understandably distraught, some of them collapsed and fell unconscious from exhaustion. The monster had kept some of them prisoner for a couple of weeks by this point. The accumulated stress alone made their reaction more than understandable.
“We need to leave!” Markus called out with as much authority as he could muster. With the dungeon heart depleted, the entrance to the dungeon would soon collapse and leave them trapped if they did not move fast enough.
Still visibly confused, his companions retrieved their equipment and staggered outside the manor.
Retrieving the depleted dungeon heart, Markus stowed it in his pack before turning his attention to Aela and the twins. “We need to leave, now!” He repeated firmly, all too aware of the covetous glances the twins had held for the dungeon heart. “It won’t work. It has no mana left.” Markus stated pointedly. “I need you to focus! We need to get out of the dungeon before the entrance collapses! Some of the captives are too weak to walk and some are unconscious, so I need the three of you to carry them!"
Aela reflexively bridled at his tone, her eyes flashing dangerously. However, she still did as Markus asked, lifting and carrying one of the unconscious women on her shoulder. Aela perhaps could have carried another on her other shoulder, but she still had to carry her pollaxe.
Thankfully, the twins followed Aela’s lead and carried a pair of women each, albeit over one shoulder to avoid injuring them on the javelins stowed on their backs. One of the women they were carrying was not even unconscious, just incredibly weak, but she thankfully did not put up a fuss.
With only the small red-haired young woman left, Markus awkwardly imitated the chimaeras and carried her over his left shoulder. Incredibly thin and very likely starved, she weighed far less than Markus had expected, carrying her was actually rather easy.
Frustrated by the slow pace of the group, Markus ordered the twins to quickly move ahead. He hoped that they would be able to drop the women off on the other side of the dungeon and return to carry the stragglers. However, Markus was honestly unsure whether they would be able to reenter the dungeon after leaving. In either case, he had to be content that at least about half of the missing female adventurers would be safely returned by doing so. Markus would have tried ordering Aela to do the same if he had thought she would listen.
Following his order, the twins sped across the open ground as if the women they carried weighed nothing at all. Within a couple of minutes, they had passed through the dungeon entrance and left the dungeon. Thankfully, a few short moments later they returned, their packs and superfluous equipment discarded. Now wearing only the gambeson and surcoats, they would be able to carry the rest of the rescued hostages on their own.
Despite a couple of the women grimacing or paling somewhat further, they made no complaints as they were lifted up and carried on the twin’s shoulders. Better the temporary indignity than remaining a prisoner of the dungeon.
Now free to move much faster, the group broke into a fast jog. Attempting to maintain some sort of defensive formation at this point was practically impossible. If it weren’t for the wet ground, Markus would have been running as fast as he was able. However, he had to content himself with the knowledge that they would soon be out of the dungeon.
Thankfully, although the dungeon entrance had noticeably shrunk, it was still more than big enough for even Aela to walk through without needing to duck. Sparing a moment to retrieve the beads from the palisades, Markus and Aela were the final two to leave the dungeon.
As he had expected, Jarl Sindre and his retinue had cordoned off the area around the dungeon entrance, save for an elderly woman who was tending to the rescued captives. Layng the young woman down near the others, Markus withdrew his tablet and began scrolling through the profiles of adventurers recorded to have entered the dungeon. After checking the list twice, he was now quite certain that she was not a missing adventurer.
Markus had initially determined that she was most likely the overconfident scion of some noble house being escorted through a dungeon. Yet he could find no trace of her amongst the list of adventurers operating in the region. Furthermore, he was shocked to find that the young woman had strange blue tattoos spread across her body. Markus was somewhat dumbfounded that he had not noticed them sooner and had to assume he had been otherwise distracted.
With the nagging thought that her tattoos were somehow familiar, Markus knelt down by her side to take a closer look. Although the patterns seemed random at first, he quickly realized why they seemed so familiar. Concentrating, Markus could now see the weak threads of mana flowing through the tattoos. He could hardly believe it, the young woman’s body was littered with enchanted tattoos!
The enchantments were a medley of common protective enchantments to dampen impacts and ward off extreme temperatures, nothing particularly noteworthy in and of themselves. Yet this was the first person Markus had seen bearing those enchantments on their skin.
Markus still remembered the conversation he had on the subject of enchanting one's own body and just how dangerous it was to do so. But here was a young woman who had done precisely that. Taking an even closer look at the young woman’s face, Markus nearly cried out in surprise as he noticed her long tapered ears. He had initially overlooked them because they were hidden by her hair, but now that he had seen them, he could not stop staring. This young woman was not human!
Quickly activating the mana sensing function of the tablet, Markus was stunned as he witnessed the flow of mana inside of her. Slightly similar to chimaeras, her mana was a strange shade that looked like rose gold, and he had not seen anything like it before. Far closer to humans than the chimaeras, there was still the undeniable presence of dungeon mana in her veins.
Noticing the old woman was doting on one of the other women they had rescued from the dungeon nearby, Markus hurriedly concealed the young redhead’s ears amidst her hair. With the memory of the villager’s reaction to the chimaeras still fresh in his mind, Markus thought it prudent to keep her true nature hidden until he was certain of her relationship with the dungeon.
Withdrawing the winter cloak from his pack, Markus bundled her up as much as possible and waved to Aela and the twins to get their attention.
“I need you to keep an eye on her,” he whispered quietly, careful so no one else would overhear him. Noticing their curious looks, Markus sighed and shook his head, “I can’t explain right now. If anyone asks, just say she is a chimaera that one of the deceased adventuring groups brought into the dungeon, alright?"
This only made them more curious, but they all silently agreed, inconspicuously taking up screening positions in case anyone tried to investigate.
Confident that the chimaeras would ward off at least casual observers, Markus quickly walked over to Phillipe and Hilda with the intent of bidding them farewell. Currently, in the middle of a conversation with Jarl Sindre, no one noticed his presence until he loudly cleared his throat to get their attention.
“Ah, Lord Farus!” Jarl Sindre welcomed Markus warmly, “The hero of the hour! We were just discussing the events that transpired within the dungeon!” He exclaimed enthusiastically.
Hilda and Phillipe glanced somewhat sheepishly at one another, the expressions on their faces making Markus curious about what exactly they had told him.
“Well, it was a team effort...” Markus replied humbly, wanting to move the conversation along. “I just wanted to let you know I was now intending to visit the Blood-Hunter clan-home to confirm the chimaeras’ treatment and finalize the agreement with his highness."
Jarl Sindre grew noticeably less festive at the mention of the chimaeras, but he was no less enthusiastic. “Ah, this is good! His highness Regar will be most pleased indeed! Not only was his niece safely returned from the dungeon, but soon he shall be the first royal to possess this most wondrous artifice!"
Markus felt cold sweat run down his back. A relative to the royal family had been taken hostage in the dungeon? Why in the abyss had they agreed to wait for him to arrive before attempting her rescue?! No wonder Hilda had been stressing out! Markus could feel himself on the verge of a nervous fit just thinking about it.
“You will be leaving so soon?” Phillipe asked, a little disappointed.
Markus nodded, “I really have to check the situation with Aela’s clan. I don’t have the time to stay long."
Jarl Sindre nodded, very likely mistaking his prudence for fast-tracking the deal with Prince Regar.
“Perhaps you will visit us afterwards,” Phillipe offered, rapidly acclimating to the situation, “We shall be staying in Skalisberg for the next month or so. I am certain that Hilda’s family will appreciate your visit."
Hilda nodded emphatically, “We shall hold a feast in your honour!” She added enthusiastically.
Thankful that his helmet masked his surprised expression, Markus could only bring himself to nod in vague agreement. “I need to get going,” he said, now somewhat flustered. Heading back towards Aela and the twins, Markus was suddenly intercepted by Tina.
“Hey!” She quickly imposed herself, blocking his path. “Remember what we talked about alright? My grandfather is serious about meeting with you!” Tina had removed her helmet, so her earnest expression was on prominent display.
As Markus was about to answer, the tablet in his hand chimed. Happy for even a momentary reprieve, Markus was not surprised to find that it was a message from Peabody.
[Peabody: “Benefactor, I have performed preliminary investigations into the identity of the Irongate family. Predominantly involved in mercantile trade and sponsoring their own mercenary company, the Irongate family has only one registered adventurer, Lady Tina Irongate. Their expressed interest in reclaiming their homeland has proven to be genuine thus far and I can confirm that their reported business dealings have been unexpectedly forthright. Meeting with the family Patriarch would likely prove beneficial in the long term claim of Deadlands territory."]
After reading the somewhat unexpected wall of text, Markus sighed and nodded, “I will be busy for the next few weeks at the least. Once everything is settled I can meet with your grandfather, alright?"
Perhaps having expected him to try and wriggle out of the engagement, Tina was visibly surprised for a moment. Quickly adjusting, she grinned broadly, “You have no idea what this means for us!” She cheered. “Those other geezers will regret not sponsoring my genius, hehe,” Tina muttered somewhat evilly, her mind now fixated on other things.
More than happy to capitalize on her distraction so he could slip away, Markus quickly rejoined Aela and the twins.
“Are we leaving now?” Aela asked quietly.
Markus nodded, “Make sure we have all of our equipment then we can leave."
Ulf and Bjorn quickly retrieved their equipment, Aela returned the borrowed crossbow and its accessories and Markus rather hurriedly altered the enchanted beads still attached to their companion’s equipment to remove the mana draining ability. He would have preferred retrieving the beads as well, but that would almost certainly delay their departure even further.
With Ulf discreetly carrying the short knife-eared woman over his shoulder, the four of them struck out into the woods and away from the adventurer encampment.
After the village and dirt road came into view, “Where are we going?" Aela asked curiously.
Realizing he seemed to have told everyone except his intended travelling companions, Markus blushed a little, “I thought it would be best to check on the clan and your mother,” he explained somewhat sheepishly.
“Oh,” Aela was a little surprised. “I didn't think you actually intended to go. I thought you were just… never mind." After they stepped out onto the road, Aela turned to her siblings, “North-west you think?” She asked somewhat dubiously.
Ulf looked to the northwest for a moment before absently scratching at his ear and nodding, “Maybe a week,” he suggested in reply.
Aela nodded and led them off the dirt road and into the woods.
They kept walking for another couple of hours before stopping for a break, which Markus was thankful for. Despite enchanting his armour to be lighter, the steel plates of his brigandine were drawing in a great deal of the cold carried on the wind and his helmet made it hard to see where he was going sometimes.
Seeing that Aela was carefully removing her brigandine, Markus could only assume she had similar sentiments and promptly followed her lead. Leaving the padded coif to keep his head warm, Markus bundled away the brigandine into his pack before taking a nice stretch.
“Are you going to explain the reason for kidnapping that young woman now?” Aela asked rather abruptly. There was an almost jealous tone in her voice that suggested Markus should explain himself with great care.
Nervously clearing his throat, Markus motioned for Ulf to put the woman down. “She isn’t human,” he explained rather nervously, kneeling down beside her and drawing the hair away from her ears to prove the claim.
Aela and the twins were shocked. Whatever they had expected, this was not it.
“She isn’t a chimaera either, so far as I can tell,” Markus hastily added. “But she is something similar, although I am not sure what she is or even where she came from. I was hoping we could ask her some questions after nursing her back to health."
“You think maybe she comes from the same place as the dungeons?” Aela asked, demonstrating her familiarity with Markus’s trains of thought.
Markus nodded, “It’s possible. We did find her in a dungeon after all and her tattoos are enchanted as well. This isn’t the sort of thing someone would just come up with on their own, there are probably more like her and they might have answers about the cause of the dungeons."
Ulf gave Bjorn a rather discrete shove and then the twins shared a telling look with one another. Bjorn then took a step closer, “What about the dungeon heart?” He asked, the intent of both twins now abundantly clear.
Markus shook his head, “I wasn’t lying, the dungeon heart truly is depleted. You know I would have let you have it if it wasn’t,” he explained sympathetically.
The twins were crestfallen. Understandable given that the dungeon heart would have allowed one of them the opportunity at having a child, an important rite of passage amongst chimaeras.
Feeling bad for them, Markus tried lifting their spirits, “Uhm, I am fairly confident I could replicate the effects of destroying the dungeon heart, with the right supplies,” he reminded them. It was an area of research Markus had already spent a rather considerable amount of mental energy on. Confident he could follow through on the claim, the more telling factor was whether he could create an artifice that could bestow fertility to chimaeras without it being destroyed to activate.
Suddenly quite boisterous, Bjorn and Ulf began to wrestle with one another, their tails wagging in obvious happiness.
“You can really do it?” Aela asked, clearly shocked.
Markus nodded, “I will need to test it, of course, but I am fairly certain that I have it figured out."
Aela smiled, “I am sure the twins will be more than happy to try it,” she laughed.
Markus knew Aela wasn’t wrong. In fact, Markus suspected that their willingness to test all of his previous artifices was in the hope of just such an opportunity.
“I thought you needed more time to figure out the enchantments?” Aela asked, her tone making it clear she was impressed.
Shaking his head, Markus blushed a little, “The enchantments were not the problem. Well...they were at first, but then I realized what the real problem was..."
Aela sidled up closer, the expectation in her eyes making Markus feel all the more uncomfortable regarding what he needed to explain.
“Well...I err, remembering what your mother told me, that first night after the dungeon...” Markus awkwardly cleared his throat before continuing, “The problem was thinking that chimaeras are different to humans, or even animals...” He could see he was losing Aela and quickly pressed on, “Ah so, I realized why female chimaeras only need the one dungeon heart and males lost their fertility after just one..erm...coupling...” Thoroughly red in the face at this point, Markus could no longer look her in the eye, “It’s a matter of biology!"
Aela blinked, very clearly not knowing what he was talking about. “Biology?” Her tongue tripped over the unfamiliar word.
“It’s, er, the study of living things, like your body and things your body does,” Markus tried to explain. “Well, uhm, anyway, after reading some...informative...textbooks. I realized that male fertility was only temporary, because...uh, it isn’t their body being affected by the dungeon heart, it's, ahem, something their body makes..."
Aela looked just about as lost as before, but the twins, who had been keenly listening in, shared knowing looks with one another and a dawning realization.
“So! The artifice I intend to make would need to be able to be reused each time a male wanted to try and have another child. Otherwise, the expended materials would quickly become a nightmare with all that broken glass around,” Markus explained as a means of slightly changing the subject.
Still unsure what exactly he was talking about, it only served to make Aela more impressed than she had been before.
Keen to distance himself from the previous topic, Markus removed a blank bead from his belt pouch and redirected some mana from the large crystal reservoirs into the bead. Once the bead was full, Markus took out his knife and made some experimental scratches into the surface of the bead.
Intending to create a modified version of the mana emanation enchantment he had created for Skadi, the bead would continuously emanate small amounts of mana into the person wearing it. The bead would also draw small amounts of mana from the reservoir to refill itself over time. Standard protective enchantments and the rather unique mana signature would also make it possible for Markus’s tablet or golems to unerringly locate the wearer, who would be unable to remove it due to the cord being rendered near indestructible.
Threading some cord through the bead, Markus tied it loosely around the redhead’s neck. He hoped that similar to chimaeras, her recovery would be assisted by the mana infusion.
The twins had been somewhat disappointed seeing Markus give the bead away. They had no doubt expected him to craft the promised artifice then and there.
Having a reasonable idea of just how...eager...chimaeras would become after becoming fertile, Markus had no intentions of commencing the fertility experiments without access to a heavily enchanted barred door and a room within which to hide.
After Markus had finished chewing through a couple of sticks of dried meat and washing them down with some water, Aela and the twins were eager to be on the move again.
They did not stop for another break until the late evening. Possessing none of the wilderness skills necessary to contribute, Markus could only watch as Aela and her brothers efficiently set up camp and erected a suitable shelter for them all to spend the night in.
It was truly impressive to witness the high level of skills on display and the unexpectedly high craftsmanship of the finished shelter. Despite only being made from collected branches and a few young trees, the shelter was just about completely proof against the fierce wind that had begun blowing sometime in the early afternoon. Combined with a nice fire outside the shelter, it was actually a rather pleasant experience.
After establishing the camp and shelter, the twins had removed their surcoats and gambesons, carefully stowing them in their packs. Afterwards, they had taken a pair of javelins each and headed out into the forest to hunt.
Sometime later, they had returned with a thoroughly dead and bloodied boar. Watching the pair of them mechanically disassemble the poor animal, Markus was convinced he was going to have nightmares. However, once it was roasted on the fire, he couldn’t help but admit that it smelled and tasted delicious. The twins had even foraged for wild herbs to season it with to enhance the flavour. The whole experience forced Markus to reflect that he had never actually witnessed an animal being prepared for consumption before and that was probably what made him so squeamish.
Heating the bones in the coals, Markus drained the cooked marrow and used it to feed their captive. Markus had few illusions about what he was doing. He was holding the young woman against her will. Just because she was currently unconscious, didn’t mean the overall situation would change all that much if she was awake. Until Markus was satisfied that she could be trusted and was not a threat to humans and chimaeras, he had no intentions of letting her go free.
With the twins taking turns keeping watch, Markus settled down next to Aela and fell asleep.
In the morning, they ate the remainder of the cooked boar meat and then continued travelling.
Chatting with Aela as they walked, she made a point of reminding Markus that their clan will very likely keep their distance from him until certain of his intentions.
With the recent hostilities evoked from the protracted dungeon elimination, the chimaera within the clan-home would be on edge and suspicious of outsiders. Even assuming Hilda’s mother, the Jarl of Skalisberg, had dispatched troops to keep the peace. The chimaera had no way of knowing for sure that the soldiers deployed for their protection were not actually there to serve as executioners.
Listening to stories from Aela’s childhood as they travelled, Markus was surprised to find that she had been so sheltered. According to her, Aela had not been allowed out of the family shelter unless accompanied by Svala or Njal. The first he had heard of him, Markus had at first assumed Njal was perhaps an uncle or close friend of their family. However, he later learned that Njal was Svala’s first life-mate and was the biological father of Beowulf and the twins.
Njal had died inside a dungeon, whether he had been betrayed by the noble he had bribed or fallen to the inherent dangers of the dungeon, they didn't know. Bjorn and Ulf had shared a few stories of their father with Markus after explaining who he was. They wanted to express just how grateful they were for Markus not only allowing their family to accompany him in the dungeons, but doing what he could to keep them safe. All the more so after how their older brother and mother had treated him in return.
Markus considered it ironic, given that his enchantments, usually, were not the determining factor in their survival. If anything, it was the insane strength and skill of the chimaeras that ensured Markus was still in one piece.
Having seen firsthand the single-minded mania chimaeras had regarding the pursuit of children, it was downright depressing to learn that more than half of male chimaeras would die attempting to have a single chance at offspring. Half as many again would die attempting to have a second. The objective odds would continue plummeting until even the luckiest male chimaeras would fail to return. If female chimaeras had been required to enter the dungeon as often as males, their species would have long gone extinct rather than their present protracted decline.
With the burden of the chimaeras species hanging in the balance, Markus felt an immense obligation to intervene. Offering chimaeras the fertility treatment would not solve the overarching problems. In order to provide the treatment, Markus needed dungeon mana specifically. He had originally thought that repurposing harvested chimaera mana would work, but if that were true, they wouldn't have the fertility problem in the first place.
The only place to get dungeon mana was, unsurprisingly, from a dungeon. Without performing a number of tests to determine how much mana was required for each fertility treatment, Markus wasn’t sure how many chimaeras he could treat per dungeon conquered and harvested. The scarcity of dungeons within an acceptable level of danger would rapidly become a recurring problem. Sooner or later, Markus would be unlucky and meet his end inside a dungeon himself, his good intentions serving as a poor shield against the monsters.
Markus changed his angle of approach. If he could somehow force the lower level dungeons to spawn in a fixed place, it would solve the mana supply issue while presenting only minimal risk. However, there was a problem. Dungeons only spawned near human settlements.
Although multiple studies had been made regarding the phenomenon, very little was actually accomplished. The only thing researchers agreed upon was higher level dungeons spawning close to larger concentrations of humans. It was the reason why novice adventurers were forced to prowl periphery villages and towns in order to increase their strength before returning to mid to high-level dungeon’s spawning near their family’s domain.
Recalling the unsettling conversation he had with the dungeon boss monster, Markus was convinced that the Overlords the monster had mentioned, were directing the dungeons for some greater malign purpose. Conquerors, the monster had called them.
Knowing that he could not be sure until questioning their captive, Markus still thought that the line of thought had a possible solution for his current problem.
If someone was sending dungeons to attack them, then it made sense that the dungeons had to have a way of tracking their prey. Were the dungeon’s tracking humans using mana? It was possible. But how did the dungeons determine their final target? Were the low-level dungeons deliberately choosing weak locations because it raised their chance of succeeding? Or was it because the more powerful dungeons drove them away? There were plenty of unknowns and no real answers.
Contemplating the problem while travelling, Markus wondered if he could draw a dungeon to a specific location in a similar way to how mana could be transmitted from one place to another. After all, it was not the physical location of the dungeon he needed to transfer, just the gateway itself. Markus figured that since the gateway was made of mana, it had to be at least theoretically possible to redirect it with the right enchantments.
It was definitely something he wanted to experiment with when the situation presented itself. The thought of intercepting dozens of low-level dungeons to plunder their mana almost made him giddy.
There was more to it than securing dungeon mana for fertility treatments of course.
Assuming Markus could secure his own territory in the deadlands, he would inevitably have to deal with dungeons that threaten the settlers he could coax into living there. Reliably redirecting dungeons to predetermined locations would mean he could establish fortified kill zones to prevent monsters from escaping the dungeons. Furthermore, the consolidated and reliable location for the dungeons would allow Markus to efficiently prosecute farming them for their mana.
Markus temporarily detoured from these thoughts as a peripheral thought came to mind. “Do the twins have prospective life-mate’s already?” Markus asked Aela, curious because he hadn’t heard them mention anyone despite being exceptionally keen to become temporarily fertile by destroying the dungeon heart.
A little surprised by the abruptness of the question, she thought about it for a short while before answering. “It is probably Freja and Frigg,” Aela replied somewhat uncertainly, “They are twins as well, although a little older."
“Do you know if they have already defeated dungeons and become fertile?” Markus asked a little awkwardly, unused to having such direct conversations about such things.
Aela shrugged, and he could see some colour flush to her cheeks as well, “I don't think so, but I haven't been back in a long time." After a short while, Aela glanced over at him, her expression was perplexed and a little worried, “Why did you want to know that?” She asked with a hint of jealousy.
“I will need volunteers for testing fertility treatments,” Markus explained hastily, wanting to clear up the misunderstanding. “With the twins being keen to participate. I still need at least a couple of female chimaeras to participate to make sure I can develop the most efficient fertility treatment enchantments. I just figured that if the twins were already promised like Beowulf and Skadi were, it would be simpler."
Aela’s expression softened nearly immediately, “Oh,” she said and began giving it some more thought.
The twins were both currently foraging somewhere in the surrounding woodland while Aela carried the prisoner.
After a while, Aela simply shrugged again, ”You will have to ask them,” she stated apologetically.
Markus nodded and resolved to do just that.
As they stopped to set up camp on the second evening, Markus had his chance. “Bjorn? Ulf?” He asked to get their attention.
The twin’s half turned towards him to show they were listening.
“Do you guys have anyone special waiting for you at the clan-home?” Markus asked somewhat tactfully.
The puzzled look they gave him in return was not what Markus had expected.
“A promised or prospective life-mate,” Markus clarified quickly.
“Freja,” Bjorn replied.
“Frigg,” Ulf replied.
The twin’s immediate response had also been simultaneous and strangely compulsive.
A little off-balance from their reaction, Markus was slower in asking his follow up question than he had intended. “Do you know if they have conquered dungeons of their own yet?” He asked.
The twins both shook their heads, “Hildr won’t let them go without mother’s guarantee and mentorship.” Ulf elaborated.
“Was going to be years, waiting for our turn,” Bjorn added.
Before even asking the question, Markus could see the anticipation in Ulf’s eyes. “Do you think they would volunteer for the fertility treat-” He began to ask and was almost immediately interrupted.
“YES!” Ulf snapped, apparently too eager to let Markus finish.
Even though he had expected an enthusiastic reaction, Markus was still taken slightly aback. “Ah, okay. Good...Alright.” he tried to get his thoughts together, “Ah, try not to tell anyone what we are doing. I only have a limited amount of dungeon mana to work with after all."
The twins nodded emphatically, fierce territorial expressions on their faces.
Sincerely hoping the twins would limit themselves to remaining silent and not resorting to more drastic means, Markus tried his best to put their frightening expressions from his mind.