Things seemed to be going reasonably well. There were no disasters or impending calamities as far as I could tell. I had glimpses of the various rulers discussing the summit, and none of them were stating outright that they were going to try and sabotage anything, so that was good. Iniri had sent out messengers to the refugee bands I’d spotted, but only the Stoneborn had sent anyone. That might net me a new inhabitant species, which would be neat.
I was half-expecting to get Chiuxatli inhabitants as well. I hadn’t kept up with whatever negotiations were going on, but Iniri had ended up quartering them in one of the weather towers, and the two of them spent a lot of time up there meditating on their Primal Sources. At least I thought it was meditation, though there was enough air mana cycling through that they could have been practicing Skills, too.
They’d sent for a number of their kinsmen, though it would be some time before they arrived. It wouldn’t be before the summit, anyway. If enough of them came over I might have to expand, or Expand, the weather towers to do more than serve as waystops. The mental image of whole flocks of Chiuxatli hovering around the weather towers like crows about a roost was pretty amusing to me.
Over the same period Iniri’s people had finished their sweep of the flying fortress, so I’d started rearranging it. I knew that I’d have to completely redo all the linkages and enchantments and so on, so I figured I’d do all the coarse changes first and then refine them once we had time to start adding the magical elements.
The original layout was useless to me. I didn’t need any of the internal space, I didn’t need the central tower, I didn’t need an open courtyard, and I surely didn’t need fortress walls. The only way in and out would be teleportation, and I’d pattern the thing around actual air superiority rather than a mobile conventional fortress.
The first thing was shape. I settled on a regular twelve-sided polyhedron, mostly because I had twelve intact air engines and those needed to serve as the anchors for the eventual magical conduits anyway. Partly though, it was because regular polyhedra weren’t really natural and neither were pentagons so just seeing it would send prickles of unease through whoever beheld the fortress.
I tried several colors but ended up settling on black, partly because it looked nicely ominous that way and partly because a lot of the other colors just looked weird. All that stone rearranged into its new form wound up being about five kilometers in each dimension, which meant the air engines were closer together, but it didn’t seem to be unstable. The control room was more or less the same, even if it was unpowered. I didn’t know how much of it would translate to something Shayma could use but I wanted it in place for when we started hooking things back up.
That was as far as I could get on the new fortress before the summit, but it did look damn imposing from where it floated near my starforge mountain, more like a starship than a magical island. Depending on what weaponry I could swing for it I could actually have overlapping fire arcs, too, though hopefully I wouldn’t need them. Thus far the air power I’d seen was not really much to worry about or, in the case of The Hurricane, not something to be fought conventionally, but with actual flying species there had to be some air force equivalents out there.
While I was busy fiddling with that and regenerating the stocks eaten up by my massive Climates, The Village was fully invested in catering for the summit. When I’d brought it up, I was only thinking a few pies and muffins and maybe some examples of exotic spices, but Taelah had taken the idea and run with it. There were giant cuts of meat being slow-roasted, soups being made, salad ingredients being gathered, and of course the Piping Hot Pies working on desserts.
The adventuring group had taken meeting the Scalemind fairly well, though they had more reservations than anyone in The Village did. It took them a while to be comfortable working next to an aproned Cuts-Like-Cold, who was learning to chop meat and vegetables with her scythes. After they’d been properly cleaned and honed, anyway. She and One-Eye-Green and Dreams-Ahead were perfectly happy helping out around the village, even if Dreams Ahead had to have a special harness to carry things so he wouldn’t accidentally poison anyone, but I wasn’t sure if it was helping along the goal of getting them civilized and a Status.
Cuts-Like-Cold was really good at cutting. Admittedly I was sure magical butcher knives and the like could probably do a good job too, but due to monster magic or something her scythes were practically monomolecular edges. Dreams-Ahead, whose form I learned was called a Brother of Burden, was pretty damn strong and maybe broke physics a bit too with the loads he could pull. I could almost see how to get a useful division of labor but for the fact two of the three castes, or whatever, didn’t have hands.
I could only spend so much time pondering on that, because there was a lot to do even without the summit. When Ansae woke up she wanted to see the Leviathan, but she also wanted an actual chamber to meet him in. That was actually not a problem, even though I wasn’t sure about the scale of what I was putting underneath her tower. Even for Ansae it seemed overly large.
Of course, I should have realized she’d have more than one shapeshift form. If I’d thought her normal dragon form was big, her underwater form was absolutely titanic. I’m not sure why I was surprised that she could shift into something that dwarfed even a full-grown Leviathan, but I was. It was also enlightening to hear about the sheer amount of unfinished business left behind. Ansae hadn’t really discussed much of her past, so it was easy to think of it as being so long ago it no longer mattered, but that wasn’t actually the case. Though I doubted most human civilizations would hang onto someone’s artwork for five hundred years just in case they showed up again.
After that discussion she was in a cheerful mood, despite having spent a few points of her stats. Unfortunately the timer for [Revitalize] didn’t seem to be up yet; judging by what I could see in [Soul Sight] it would take closer to two or maybe even three days total for her system to recover, but just having the option was nice. The conversation had reminded me I’d completely forgotten to give Ansae a stellar Source though, so I snatched one from a handy flower and pushed it over to her.
“I know it’s a couple weeks late, but I do have them. It’s not a [Contained Star] but I don’t have enough of them just yet.”
“Hmm.” Ansae tapped the small blue-white Source with a claw. “I actually don’t think I’m ready for this yet. With my Primal Affinity I’ve needed to work hard to understand all the information and interpretations behind each Affinity, otherwise I can’t use it properly. For the other Affinities, I studied the Classes and Skills of the masters and high-tiers, as well as the mana itself.
“For stellar Affinity, there are no masters or high-tiers.” She tapped the piece of core crystal hanging around her neck with the same claw. “But I don’t need them. You’re the one who made the Affinity, so what I need is your knowledge.”
“I’m pretty sure that falls under the category of stuff I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“That was then, this is now.” Ansae snorted and waved it away. “You’ve put stellar Affinity into the world; the only question is how quickly I pull out its secrets.”
“Hm.” I considered it. Her original advice was pretty sound, and fusion was pretty near the top of the heap of concepts that were most dangerous to unleash, but it wasn’t like Ansae didn’t already have monstrous power. She had a moon, for goodness sakes, and could kill people just by telling them to die. Besides, she was right that she could wring fusion and whatnot from stellar if she wanted to. In fact, she probably had methods of interrogating the mana directly that I couldn’t even imagine.
“I’ll even ask nicely,” Ansae offered, and I laughed.
“Okay, okay. It’s not like you’re going to be any more dangerous.”
“Start with the lower-level Affinities,” Ansae suggested. “I can understand fire, but why gravity? Why wind?”
“Hoo boy. Okay.” I hadn’t really thought about it, but I’d internalized so much knowledge about stars that it hadn’t even occurred to me that the solar wind wouldn’t be obvious. Or the role that gravity and photon pressure played, and the balance between them that kept stars from exploding or collapsing. That fusion generated mostly high-energy photons, and it was their constant absorption and re-radiation that made stars act like blackbodies. Of course, all those explanations generated questions that needed to be answered, like what a blackbody even was.
Depending on whether stellar just embraced stars or all of space, there could be ice in it as well, from the swarms of frozen planetoids and comets that circled the stars at far and frigid distances. There was just an astounding amount of context to get through before I could even think about discussing the mechanics of what made stars, stars. What made them something more than just balls of fire.
I had to start with atomic theory, and was at least gratified that Ansae’s perceptions weren’t so good that she could see that natively. She immediately seized on the potential for transmutation and synthesis, despite professing she wasn’t a crafter, and I ended up filling out the periodic table as much as I could remember for her. The lanthanides and actinides and a lot of the stuff at the very bottom and corners of the table I didn’t much remember, and I wasn’t sure I got many of the higher elements right at all.
Honestly the idea that she could probably, with practice, transmute elements directly made my description of fusion a bit redundant, but it was important for understanding where the terrific energy of stars came from. The power involved in fusing hydrogen to helium, and how that fusion dictated the sun’s lifecycle. It took hours but I finally ended with talking about supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes, all of which made Ansae’s eyes sparkle like a kid seeing a candy store.
“There’s probably a lot of things related to stars that I don’t know,” I told her. “Like what the constellations are, or whether certain stars have special legends, or whatever. I imagine all that is as important to the magic as the actual physical basis.”
“Yes, and it’s going to be different from continent to continent,” Ansae nodded. “Even country to country. That can be filled in later. I think I have a fair handle on it now. Let’s see.” She extended a claw and a flare of light manifested at the tip, fusion bright.
“Yeah, that looks like—” I cut off as she flipped her claw and sent the bead of fusion zipping through the far wall, punching through the stone like it was nothing. It didn’t explode like I would have expected from a fusion bolt, instead whipping back through the hardened stone and returning to Ansae. The speck of nuclear fire orbited about her head, and while I wouldn’t have put stellar plasma so close to anything important, she clearly had it well in hand. “Yep looks like you have it.”
“Oh, this is barely scratching the surface,” Ansae told me. “Conjuring it as a blunt instrument. It will take time to become adept with its more subtle variations, even for me. Still, it’s a start.” She picked up the stellar Source and this time it melted away into her scales, blue-white ringing her horns for a moment as she absorbed it.
I checked my overlay to see if she was listed in the Stellar Affinity core, but she wasn’t. Apparently just being able to use stellar Affinity wasn’t enough, and considering she was Primal Affinity that probably superseded stellar anyway. Though it would be interesting to find out if other dragons that focused on stellar ended up in my list. For the foreseeable future any such hypothetical dragons would need to be here, though, and Ansae was the only one around.
Apparently, she wasn’t satisfied with her glowing marble of doom, and with a negligent flip of her wrist a long whip of tightly confined plasma lashed out, dense with stellar mana. She sent it snapping and snarling through the air, then pulled it back and dissipated it. That was all well and good, but the next thing she did was throw a complex spellform into the air, something that looked like a tree or a mushroom to my mana-vision. I didn’t understand what it did at first, until I saw that it blocked the sun and was channeling mana down to store at its base.
“Did you just make a mana solar panel?”
“I’m not sure what a solar panel is, but I’m guessing I did by the way you’re asking.” Ansae fed the mana it was collecting into one of her runes, letting it flow into the etching. “Pulling mana from sunlight is not very efficient, since it doesn’t have much to begin with. But with stellar Affinity I can remind it of all the energy of its distant progenitor.”
That actually wasn’t at all what a solar panel did but Ansae understood magic better than I did, and I could kind-of, sort-of understand what she was getting at. It was weird to realize that even after all my explanations she was still coming at stellar Affinity from a magical perspective, whereas I couldn’t really separate it from the physical and scientific one. For all that the entire world was magical, that still blindsided me. Yet, it was that same perspective that made me a Power, if my overlay was to be believed.
I was actually starting to have some suspicions about my presence in the world. Which was fairly unusual for me and in a sense against my nature, but the more I learned about dungeons in general the more perfectly coincidental some things seemed. Which reminded me that I had to ask Ansae a very important question.
“By the way, are the gods at all active? Do they do things?”
“It depends on what you mean by active.” Ansae replied, barely raising an eyeridge at the question. “They don’t manifest, but they supposedly still control the Great Dungeons. On rare occasion their blessing will come through the Class system, and even you and I would do well to be careful of that sort. The closest I’ve ever been to a living god was a thing that claimed to be the echo of a question one of the gods had asked. Now that was terrifying.”
If Ansae thought that was terrifying, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Though it did imply there were some unseen hands manipulating things, albeit at a significant remove. The gods being present yet so remote helped explain the lack of a strong religion, at least in Tarnil. Hell, it sounded like Ansae had more worshippers than the actual gods.
Speaking of Ansae, watching her play around and learn new things reminded me I needed to work on one the projects I’d left on the backburner. Specifically, one that I might have a better chance of accomplishing now that I had more practice with supermaterials and better [Soul Sight]. I hadn’t actually forgotten about Annit’s depletion, and her soul was still at a low enough level that I could actually see most of what was going on there even if I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t going to fix it manually, that would be absurd and probably kill her, but with Argentum I might be able to outsource Purification a bit. Maybe.
I still didn’t have a lot of the stuff to work with, especially since I was still mostly piling up [Contained Star] materials, and I needed more since I knew I wouldn’t succeed right off, but I had to start somewhere. Mimicking a Field into the Argentum was far, far different from mimicking a breeding option into the Argentum. I couldn’t just try and ape mana patterns, I’d have to try and shove an entire dungeon system into it.
My first attempts were pretty disastrous. Well, my very first attempts didn’t do anything, since just trying to will a piece of the overlay into the Argentum wasn’t enough. Not that I had expected it, given my inability to put intent into mana, but I could never quite tell with the dungeon system.
Trying to effectively shove a breeding station inside a tiny strand of Argentum just resulted in a mess and destroyed the Argentum. It wasn’t what I would have called fun in any respect, and meant that I was going about things the wrong way. Annoying, but considering the amount of work that would be going on with the new fortress maybe I would get more ideas from watching people work. It didn’t help that I was out of Argentum, and since it explicitly carried dungeon Skills, I wasn’t going to be able to do much without it.
Although I loved my supermaterial Mana Diamond Anvils, they were starting to really cut into my free time. They had a reset or cooldown of about an hour, and I had to manually unload, load and fire them every time, which was maybe ten seconds for each Anvil. That meant that only thirty of the things was five solid minutes out of every sixty. Five very tedious minutes out of every sixty, and that number would only climb as I made more. I was probably very close to the maximum practical amount I could use, though having a huge array if I needed to grind through a bunch of supermaterials all at once wasn’t a bad idea.
What I really needed was automation for them, but I wasn’t really sure how to upgrade my already obscenely powerful forges. Possibly by reconstructing them with supermaterials and maybe a neutron [Contained Star]. The crushing gravity of one of those was probably a lot higher than the compression forces I could make normally. I was reserving the ones I had for Iniri’s Artifact, though after her evolution I was less certain she needed the one I’d planned for her.
While I was muddling about with various crafting and letting everyone else do the heavy lifting for the summit, another aspect of the Stellar Core Specialization revealed itself. It was probably something I should have seen coming, given that I supposedly governed the stellar Affinity, but it still surprised me when the overlay gave me a prompt. Which in and of itself was strange, since my overlay usually didn’t give me an option.
Suna Lin has qualified for Class: [Skywatcher]
[Sunlight]: Bring the light of day.
[Moonless Night]: Become as trackless as a moonless night.
[Skywhisper]: Unlocks mana use. Listen to the secrets the sky tells.
It took me a little bit to figure out who the heck Suna Lin was. The name was familiar, so I knew it wasn’t some random person on the other side of the world, but it took me a bit of casting about to find that it was someone from inside the Village. Specifically, it was a girl who was pretty young to be getting a Class in my opinion, but it wasn’t like I knew what was normal for that.
“Hey, Taelah? Got a bit of a minor crisis here.”
“Uh oh,” Taelah said, wiping off her hands from where she was helping wash dishes. “What is it?”
“I’m getting a notification here that Suna Lin is qualified for a stellar Affinity Class. It’s asking me if I want to give it to her, and I don’t know how time-sensitive it is or if I ought to consult her parents first or what.”
“What?” Taelah blinked, and I knew that she wasn’t so much asking me to repeat myself as simply reacting to what I’d told her. “Could you teleport me to where she is? No, wait, Tessa’s right over there. Could you bring Suna to me?”
“Of course.” I grabbed her off the tree she’d climbed – not the fate tree, just one of the ones lining the road to the ranches – and plopped her down beside Taelah. She squeaked and looked around, blinking, before Taelah crouched down to talk to her.
“Hello, sweetie. I had Blue bring you here.”
“Hi, Missus Elder Taelah. Am I in trouble?”
“No, not at all. It’s kind of the opposite, you have a surprise coming, but we should go talk to your mom first.” Suna made a face when Taelah suggested that, but nodded anyway. Taelah stood and extended her hand, and Suna took it obediently as Taelah led her around the washing station and toward the sewing circle where Tessa was making brand new potholders and mats.
“Tessa? A moment?” From the look on her face Tessa thought that Suna was in trouble too, but Taelah set them both straight as soon as they were a little bit away from the others.
“Blue just told me that Suna qualified for a stellar Affinity Class,” Taelah told them. “I thought you’d want to be there when she got it.” It was a shame Suna’s father couldn’t be there to see it, but he’d been out trading and vanished during the war.
“I get a Class!?” Suna squealed, suddenly bouncing up and down while Tessa looked stunned.
“Yes, sweetie. Are you ready? It’s a little strange when your Status just pops up on its own.”
“Yes!” Suna said, and Tessa clasped her hands together.
“Okay, I’m going to approve it.” I told Taelah, and signaled assent to my overlay. Suna’s eyes crossed as she looked at a Status window only she could see, then a little spark of stellar Affinity kindled inside her. What was really strange was that I could see her soul structure, even though she didn’t have a Primal. Compared to any others I’d seen it was incredibly simple, though given that Suna was only level one with three Skills that was to be expected.
[Soul Sight advances to 8]
It was still a complicated three-dimensional structure, but it was the first one where I could actually make out all the details and actually track the bits that governed Skills and Abilities and even the stats. The only reason I could come up with for that was that my governance of stellar Affinity granted me more insight into people who used that Affinity.
I checked the Stellar Core overlay and Suna was listed there, so that checked out. A brief look at my mana showed me that my Stellar Core was giving me a grand total of four more mana than before. Four. Every little bit helped, but considering my total capacity that was a little underwhelming.
It also meant that Iniri wasn’t giving me any mana capacity, despite being a high level Stellar user, nor was Shayma for having the Affinity. The only reason I could think of for that was that she more or less got stellar Affinity artificially, and all her Skills were still very heavily light flavored, while Shayma didn’t have much of any stellar flavor at all. Suna’s first three skills referred to the sun, the moon, and the sky, so she definitely had a very direct stellar Affinity.
“I’m a Skywatcher!” Suna cheered, and immediately was illuminated by a beam of sunlight. Considering it was still daytime the effect wasn’t that dramatic, but it was still obvious.
“Oh, Suna, I’m so proud of you!” Tessa just reached down and scooped her up into a hug, making the little girl squeal and giggle. While they celebrated, I grabbed a stellar Primal and put it on a chain. It wasn’t the fanciest of jewelry, but I figured that my first new stellar Class ought to come with the appropriate Source. I pushed up a small pedestal next to the trio and manifested the stellar Affinity necklace on it.
“That’s for Suna,” I told Taelah.
“That’s very nice of you, Blue,” Taelah said, picking up the necklace and holding it out to Suna. “This is from Blue, sweetie.”
“Oooh!” The little girl gripped it tightly, looking at the Source as it changed to a star-spangled black.
“What do we say?” Tessa prompted, looking at the Source.
“Thank you, mister Blue!”
“You’re welcome. Oh, let me get you that sigil stone so you can see her Class.” Shayma was down below with the Scalemind again, but it was the work of a moment for her to pull the stone out of her [Phantom Pocket] for me. I made it appear on the same pedestal, and Tessa let Suna down so she could check out her Status.
Level 1 Skywatcher
Stellar Class – Immune to Depletion
[Sunlight]: Bring the light of day.
[Moonless Night]: Become as trackless as a moonless night.
[Skywhisper]: Unlocks mana use. Listen to the secrets the sky tells.
“Oh, wow.” Taelah raised her eyebrows as she looked it over. “Stellar Classes are immune to Depletion?”
“I guess?” I was a little stunned too. There were a lot of implications there. “Hey Ansae, it turns out that stellar Affinity Classes are immune to depletion too.” I knew she paid attention to a lot of things, but probably had missed this one.
“Oh, really?” Ansae’s head snapped up and she grinned suddenly. “Isn’t that interesting?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that imply that the depletion immunity is linked to my authority as a dungeon?” Obviously Purifying people was different; that was a complicated operation. But being immune to it in the first place only made sense if it was my governance of stellar that did it. “Plus, my Stellar Core asked me if I wanted to grant the Class in the first place, so I guess dungeons do govern Classes after all.”
“Perhaps that’s why you’re not properly registered in the Akasha,” Ansae mused. “If you control it, you can’t be bound by it. The mage-kings must never have discovered this aspect of dungeons, and it’s certainly something that shouldn’t get out. If they could figure out how to affect other people’s Classes…”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t control anything about the Akasha. Well, except the Class thing, and I guess I did add a new Affinity, but aside from that…”
“Most people don’t control their own heartbeat or digestion, either,” Ansae said.
“Fair point.” If dungeons controlled the mana and the Akasha, to a greater or lesser extent, that pretty much confirmed why I couldn’t talk or do magic. That kind of feedback loop could be anywhere from merely exploitative to world-ending, depending on the details. Just being able to give people a heads-up about new Classes was probably a problem somewhere, but I wasn’t going to stop.
My musings were interrupted by another notification from the overlay, though this one had nothing to do with stellar Affinity.
Companion Taelah Marn advances to Rank 10.
100,000 experience gained for advancing a companion to rank 10.
5 trait points awarded.
Dungeon has reached level 11!
1 trait point awarded.
“Taelah! You just hit Companion rank 10!” Taelah blinked, a smile on her face as she watched the Lins celebrate Suna’s new Class. “ Any particular reason?”
“I’m not sure,” Taelah said after a moment. “It was just nice seeing Suna so happy,” she added, putting her hand on her belly. I could fill in the blanks, probably. I’d assuaged any doubts about how I’d treat her children, maybe doubts she didn’t realize she even had. That was actually more important to me than the traits and levels, but it was really nice to see those anyway.
I had an embarrassment of riches, and I’d have to call another quick meeting on what to spend them on prior to the summit. Maybe there was something that would be useful for the meeting directly, but if not, that was fine. It wasn’t going to be a war, so hopefully the only real conflict would be people shouting at each other.
“So, I know you’ve all been really busy, but how is everyone taking the catering thing?” Taelah had been the one that volunteered the Village for it, and it looked to me like everyone was enjoying themselves despite the work involved, but I didn’t know to what degree the Village had the resources to spare.
“Oh, it’s a good excuse to get everyone together,” Taelah said, making her way back to where big cast-iron pots and cauldrons were being scoured. “Just as long as we don’t have to actually host the Emperor!”
“No, I don’t think anyone from the Village wants to go through all the rigamarole needed for entertaining royalty. Shayma’s the one who gets to do that. But I will make sure they know where the food came from!” I hadn’t even thought of it when I suggested the initial muffins, but if I provided all the food that neatly solved any potential health-related political hazards. There weren’t going to be any spies or saboteurs sneaking into my kitchens.
There were, sadly, spies and saboteurs sneaking into Iniri’s. Cheya had gotten five different agents already, though fortunately none of them seemed to have been sent by any of the countries involved with the summit. One was Anell’s agent, and the others seemed to be from minor houses in Ir. I was pretty sure Iniri was keeping them to give to Wright when he arrived, and wouldn’t that be fun?
Shayma was actually spending a good chunk of her time with Iniri and her staff rather than out adventuring to catch up on etiquette. Not that I insisted on it – a lot of the expected modes of address and the like were irrelevant to me, and if Shayma called people by their first names that was fine with me – but Shayma wanted to learn. Mostly to not make a fool of herself, which I understood. If she was going to break protocol it was going to be because she wanted to, not because she was ignorant.
All of which reminded me I actually hadn’t quite finished my contribution to the summit, which was to say, the actual conference complex. I was still poking at it, trying to get it exactly right, but the clock was running down. It would be awful embarrassing if I was the only one who wasn’t ready when the time came.