With the actual midwinter festival in just a few days, there was an amazing amount of preparation and decoration going on all across Tarnil. I hadn’t really paid attention to most of the cities since I’d driven off Tor Kot, and it was nice to see that despite the high depletion levels and general trauma of the populace, they were still gamely putting out carved pieces of wood topped with sprigs of some evergreen berry. Under the light of Iniri’s constructs, still floating in the streets, the greenery seemed to keep its life and vibrancy.
Still, Tarnil’s inhabitants were fairly subdued, especially since a goodly amount of the food being prepared and distributed and stored was imported and preserved, rather than freshly slaughtered meats or hothouse greens. People weren’t actually starving, but things were clearly being stretched more than anyone was comfortable with. It was a situation that was mirrored by the Chiuxatli in the Caldera, who seemed determined to hold their own celebrations. In their case, variously colored kites were flown from all the different residences.
I’d been doing some work myself, even if I wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the celebrations. I couldn’t just give out gifts like others were planning to do, nor swap food or tales or any of the other traditions that were being followed in Tarnil and the Caldera. That didn’t mean I was going to do nothing for the festival, I just had to focus on something that played to my particular strengths.
It was also good for me to get in practice, since I’d been slacking. I hadn’t been trying to flex any of my Skills of late, or really invent anything new, though I had a hard time thinking of what I needed to make that I didn’t have already covered. But it was pretty hypocritical of me to lecture the Scalemind on the cycle of tool use when I had a bunch of tools I hadn’t advanced. Even if I didn’t have any thoughts as to what the next evolution of [Temperature Finesse] would net me now, the event itself might spur some idea.
It wasn’t the only Skill I’d been slacking on. [Temperature Finesse], [Structural Mana Reinforcement], and [Mana Logic] could all benefit from actually trying to skill them up, and maybe even [Reclaim], though I had doubts about that one. Ever since I’d gotten Climates I’d hardly used any of the other stuff, and while I was getting pretty good with them, they weren’t an actual Skill.
I hadn’t even tried much in the way of manipulating Climates with those Skills, though logically they ought to play together well, considering they were all part of my system. Taelah’s request made me realize I needed to do so, and with Ansae’s comments I knew that the complex structures of the Climates were still overly simplistic. So I pinched and prodded the mana to try and guide it away from and around the Village and environs, realizing that my concepts of mana and flows were probably wildly divergent from what most people dealt with.
I moved rivers, when most people operated cups or even thimblefuls by comparison. That was ignoring the fact that I still didn’t have a great understanding of all the intricacies of mana. Not only was I impaired by not having any ability to impress intent upon it, meaning I couldn’t sense the intent, either, but I had technological prejudices blinding me to how some things worked. I still saw mana flows as liquid or gas and thermodynamics, though they really weren’t. It was probably for the best my intent couldn’t influence things, or I could have ruined quite a lot.
Even though I set out with practice in mind, I was still surprised when it actually paid off. It took literal days of pushing Skills, which really wasn’t something I’d had the chance to do before the current lull, and it only gave me a few points. At the Skill levels I had reached, though, even a few points were significant.
[Mana Finesse] advances to 10.
[Structural Mana Reinforcement] advances to 9.
[Temperature Finesse] advances to 8.
[Mana Logic] advances to 10. Skill merge with [Mana Finesse], [Mana Geometries]…Skill evolves to [Mana Mechanisms]. Rank set to 5.
[Mana Mechanisms]: Dungeon has extreme control over mana structures using mechanistic and logical principles. Structures are maintained with pure Dungeon mana.
My musings were borne out by the first new Skill in quite a while. It even came from merging Skills, which wasn’t something I’d seen outside of transcriptions of late. The Skill explicitly called out my perspective, which made [Mana Mechanisms] somewhat of a counterpoint to the Phantasmal Realm. Shayma had already noted that I was less visible in the Realm than one might expect given my mana generation, and the pure dungeon mana was probably why. The less intent there was, the less magic stuff it did.
My hope was that [Mana Mechanisms] would make it easier for me to interact with magic items, though I obviously still couldn’t control them as such. Even just feeding my own mana into the Status sigil practically overloaded the thing. But just having better options to power things like wards would be welcome. Though, as before, I wasn’t looking forward to having to construct anything complicated from basic logic switches. Some quick experimentation showed that it was far easier to make them, though, instead of the tedious struggle it had been before. It gave me a few ideas.
“Ansae? I have a question about warding.”
“I’ve almost finished your warding schema, so I hope you’re not intending to change it,” Ansae said, though her tone was amused rather than annoyed.
“No, I’m considering the Fortress. I’m just thinking, I can’t really control magical items the way they’re meant to be controlled. Just turn the power going to them on and off. But for something like point defense, would it be possible for a ward to tell something with offensive punch what to target? So I can just supply mana and it does the rest?”
“That’s somewhat dangerous,” Ansae said, which wasn’t a no. “Even the best tuned wards are going to have issues distinguishing friend from foe, or dealing with complex magic. Or even an oversaturation of mana on the battlefield. Attacking anything nearby is less difficult, but comes with obvious downsides.”
“Oh yeah. I’m thinking more about the outside of the Fortress. No allies should ever be on the sides of the thing, and if I can turn things on and off, I could always just disable the defenses in the area if for some strange reason I need to. Plus I might have a few ideas about connecting the wards to the weapons.” Even though magitek was fairly well advanced, that didn’t mean they knew all the tricks when it came to dealing with information. Not that I did either, but it wouldn’t hurt to collaborate.
“Ah, perhaps so. On the surface you will have your Fields, but you are somewhat restricted.”
“Yeah, I’m more thinking something to fill in the gaps between my actual domain and whatever I’m aiming a [Contained Star] at.”
“I hope you’re not intending to use wards to decide where one of those [Starlances] go.”
“No, that’s just asking for very bad things to happen. To be honest I’m hoping not to have to use one again but better to have the threat than not. Speaking of which, at some point we’re going to have to test-fire whatever we come up with to make [Starlance] less generally catastrophic. Is straight up okay? I don’t want to accidentally fire on someone like the Leviathans that I didn’t know existed.”
“So far as I know, nobody lives up there, no,” Ansae said in amusement. “Though I would suggest you make sure neither of the moons is in your path.” I wanted to protest that it was unlikely I’d be able to hit either moon, given the scales involved, but considering there was magic about I didn’t want to make assumptions. Ansae’s moon was fairly low, and it might be even closer than it seemed. It was obviously magical and orbital dynamics might not apply.
“I will do that,” I assured her, though it would be some time yet before we had the [Starlance] weapon ready. It was going to need a lot of [Firmament]. Which I was working on, along with everything else to go into the Fortress. Since I was able to watch the Chiuxatli debate and design, I could get a feel for what supermaterials or regular materials I needed to be focusing on other than everything with stellar and gravity Affinities.
Their plans were looking grandiose, but that’s what they wanted and that’s what they were intending to build, with only minimal involvement from me, so it didn’t worry me. Once I got the wards and weapons on it, the interior could be built on the fly. Literally so.
“By the way, I’m going to be doing something after sunset for Midwinter,” I told Ansae. “I told my Companions and you probably saw me practicing but I thought I’d let you know anyway. Just keep an eye on the sky.”
“You’re being mysterious at me? Starting to take being a Power seriously, hmm?”
“Less being mysterious, more I just want it to be a surprise.”
“Your record on surprises this past year has been quite good, so I think you have nothing to fear on that score,” Ansae said, though I couldn’t tell if she knew what I had in mind or not.
Since my Midwinter surprise was in the sky, none of the Scalemind would really get to appreciate it. One-Eye-Green didn’t even have the concept of Midwinter, or really any holidays at all, which made sense. The Underneath wasn’t exactly seasonal, and even if it were, the Scalemind hadn’t done anything that could settle into a recurring celebration.
In lieu of that, I was using my newly evolved [Burrowing Wyrms] to make tunnels under the ocean I’d found. They had ended up being big, limbless, scaled things some fifty meters long and ten meters across, more worm than wyrm, capable of devouring rock and transmuting the walls of their passage into a thin shell of [Adamant Stone]. When they returned to their station they disgorged bits of magical minerals and metals, though considering their size and the speeds they could reach the total amounts were not insignificant. Even I could use extra magicite, and some of the metals and minerals they brought back were unique, though nothing I got from boring through the Underneath was particularly unusual.
The [Adamant Stone] walls cost almost nothing for [Assimilation], making me think that the Wyrms were how dungeons typically expanded. I hadn’t seen anything like that out of the mage-king cores, but they were obviously being aimed toward other ends. There was clear monster specialization there, so utility might fall by the wayside. Either way, I was carving out some nice tunnels through a bunch of pockets of Underneath so the Scalemind could make voyages out into the wilderness again. Not coincidentally, growing down into that area netted me some new Climate stuff.
Underforest Climate unlocked.
Cirren Bush unlocked.
Earthberry Creeper unlocked.
Enkindle Flower unlocked.
I had to resist the urge to redecorate the Scalemind area immediately, since my improvement of their space was intended specifically for Midwinter. Considering how magic worked, something that was a country-wide, or even continent-wide celebration had to have some sort of magical import. Since all the civilized races had a gift-giving tradition, I knew that at least I wouldn’t mess anything up by adding to it, and it would be neat to see if my contribution actually did anything magically.
For the most part I watched. Taelah led the elders in tending a bonfire in the middle of the Village, Iniri lit up the Palace even more than usual, and the Chiuxatli solemnly ferried a fire in a basket, carrying it around the perimeter of each settlement and city. Shayma went back and forth between Taelah and Iniri, a semi-official presence as Iniri illuminated the massive carved pole in front of the palace in defiance of the dark and the snow, and a more relaxed one as she chatted with Taelah in front of the bonfire.
As time moved on toward midnight, I noticed a sort of flutter in the mana flows. It was subtle, and nothing I could really localize, but it was definite and was everywhere. Even within the Caldera there was a sort of slowing and dampening of the mana as it circulated. Nothing about it set off [Blue’s Sagacity], and I was expecting some import, and thus magic, to be attached to midwinter anyway. Even the [Contained Stars] seemed to be quieter, though no less bright.
Then midnight hit, and the magical ebb turned into a crest. Again, it was subtle, and probably more composed of intent than of physical mana changes, but the renewal of the new year was obvious from my country-wide perspective. Even the [Contained Stars] flared, new prominences rising from their surfaces and giving me my cue to start the show.
I lit up the night.
While grinding up Skills I’d been practicing to gain finesse with my Climates, not just altering them through the way the Climate itself was structured but by feeding in external mana or manual adjustment of things inside them. That way I could keep Taelah’s request in mind for all of Tarnil, since it would hardly do to give the next generation mana poisoning, as well as try to be more nuanced than just exploding things with Volcano Climate. Along the way, I’d figured out how to manipulate some of the stellar effects that occasionally played through the skies of my Climates.
An enormous curtain of light glimmered in the air as a rainbowed aurora bloomed over the whole area of the Caldera, the edges sparking dancing streamers of false fire from Chiuxatli buildings near the top of the cliffs. My people had seen an aurora before, but not one so pervasive or immense, covering the entire sky. Great glowing sheets dripped down to brush along the ground, making those children still awake run around and laugh with glee as their hair stood on end from electrostatic repulsion and harmless whorls of light dripped off the ends of their fingers. Some Chiuxatli watched in silent awe, while others raced through the air, drawing luminous contrails behind them.
Then the meteor shower started. Lines of fire and light cut their way down from the heavens into the Caldera, some of them ending in a soundless burst of white, but others crashing into the Caldera walls and floor, glinting meteorites digging craters into rock and earth or splashing into the great inland sea. I left them where they lay, for some enterprising soul to dig out in the future.
While I’d planned for that, I hadn’t expected the actual moon to get involved. Not Ansae’s, but the large primary moon known as The Sister. It seemed localized to the Caldera, so it wasn’t affecting things worldwide, but the light from the waning gibbous phase crystallized into [Moon Snow], drifting down and dusting the ground. Delicate flakes glinted in rainbow colors, people threw hastily-made [Moon Snowballs], and Taelah surreptitiously gathered some samples and put them in one of the magical freezers.
Beneath the Caldera, I spread the Underforest Climate around where the Scalemind lived, transforming into a sudden riot of various colored mosses, fungi, trees, shrubs, and creepers. While they were busy being startled and pleased about that, I opened a hole down to where I’d had my [Burrowing Wyrms] digging, a long spiral ramp into the depths. One-Eye-Green was asleep, having tired herself out running around with the children aboveground, but the Scalemind didn’t need her to know what the gift was about. Parties of Scythe-Sisters went down to explore only minutes after I finished it.
Iniri joined Shayma and Taelah a little bit after she finished presiding over the Tarnil ceremonies, looking up at the sky with her breath steaming in the air, standing close to the bonfire to ward off the chill. Ansae stared at the sky for a little bit before taking wing, going to visit each of the dragon pairs in turn and giving them a blessing for the coming year. There wasn’t any spellcasting as such involved, but considering that it was Ansae, I could practically feel the crystallized intent settle over my draconic residents.
I eventually let the light show fade, the aurora and meteors and crystallized moonlight vanishing with it, most of the kids already asleep. The hour was incredibly late, and almost everyone but the Elders and Iniri were headed off to bed. The Chiuxatli had all finished their borders, closing each loop with fire and light, and we were all ready for the new year.
“Are you certain about this?” Yit Niv betrayed some concern, frowning at Tor Kot as they stood facing out a balcony, looking over an expanse of water and islands. Some floated, some did not. “If you don’t bring a core, you’ll be far too vulnerable.”
“Under the circumstances I don’t think they’ll let me put an island outside Ir, nor let me tote one around in a transport bubble. Besides, if Blue is in fact a sapient dungeon, it won’t do me any favors to parade around while sucking the teat of one of his enslaved brethren.” Tor Kot tapped his cane against the floor for emphasis. “Besides, you know how other places are about monsters. They were polite enough not to object to me taking along my staff.”
“I wouldn’t let you go if you didn’t have some of your own monsters along,” Yit Niv said bluntly. “You’re hopeless without them.”
“I’m hurt!” Tor Kot said, not hurt at all. “Miriam doesn’t do everything for me, just most things.” He chuckled and patted her hand. “I’ll be fine, Niv. Even if things go badly, I’m taking Recall charms. I’ll be able to get back no matter what disaster there is.”