The stuff ahead made me feel very, very strange. There was some sort of visceral reaction I couldn’t quite pin down, twinging through my dungeon instincts and maybe even [Blue’s Sagacity]. Even without that I’d be able to tell it was important, considering how out of place it was relative to the natural cavern that surrounded us. Everything else was either covered in life or properly weathered, but the polished wall of weird stone ahead of us was perfectly pristine.
“Hold,” said Ansae, landing on my seed-ship again. “There is a lot of defensive magic bound up in that. A lot,” she repeated for emphasis.
“I can’t see through it,” Shayma admitted, holding position in the air just in front of the wall. “It’s not quite [Chimaeric Neutronium] but it’s pretty solid.” Ansae leaned forward, putting her claws on the wall, where they threw angry sparks. Even over the wind I could hear an angry keening buzz, loud enough to make Shayma wince.
“I think you’ll need to open it, Shayma,” Ansae decided. “We’ll need the Bane mana to crack this.”
“I can do that,” Shayma said with a grin, silver condensing on her claws as she tuned her armor as dense as she could.
“Follow these rune structures,” Ansae said. “Else we’ll be here for ages trying to deal with the backlash.” She gestured, and a spiraling array of symbols appeared superimposed over the wall, covering a circle somewhat over ten meters in diameter. It was only just large enough for us to fit through, nothing like the huge holes we’d blasted in the dungeon on our way to the core, but it was still a lot of area to cover. Shayma nodded, focused on the symbols, and started carving.
The wall bled a strange goopy grey, looking a little bit like a lighter version of my blood, which implied that the Great Dungeon was at least a little bit alive. At the very least, at the heart of it, it hadn’t rotted into a husk. All the storms flying about were proof enough of that without the blood, but with the sheer scale of the thing and the negentropic properties of mana, there was no guarantee a dungeon dying would actually result in stagnation. The corpse of something big enough to house planets might well support enough symbiotic or parasitic life that from the perspective of microbes it was still alive.
Shayma’s claws etched the runes describing the outline of the passage we wanted. Since I had no idea what any of the magic going on was, I was pretty curious what the ultimate effect would be. All I could see was various mana flows surging this way and that, in complicated patterns that meant fully articulated spells. Something I still couldn’t really pick apart.
Once she was finished, she pulled mana from my reserves to channel into the rune structure, and the bleeding rock sizzled and gave way. Everything described by the outer circle crumbled, revealing the wall was maybe half a meter thick, significantly thinner than any of the other barriers in the dungeon. On the scale of things, it was hardly any barrier at all.
The overlay couldn’t identify the stuff of course. I could make some guesses, but that was all, because unfortunately there was nothing in the mage-king literature to explain it. We’d gotten a lot of information on dungeons from Tor Kot, but red cores were so far different that most of it didn’t matter. For example, all the red cores could make floatstone from the outset, and of course I never had that capability at all.
Considering the size, calling it a core room was probably understating it, and besides it was hardly empty. There was a maze of stone winding this way and that, some of it floating, some of it growing from floor and ceiling. Instead of the wild greenery and ecology of the cavern layers outside, there was just bare rock with what looked like mana storage crystals embedded everywhere, ranging from the fist-sized versions like my portable kind, to monstrous ten-meter-tall versions that were bigger than my own core.
Instead of the wild weather of the outside, everything in the core room seemed to thrum with energy. Discharges of lightning danced between crystals and blasted into the rock, but weirdly made no sound. It certainly looked impressive, but on a second look a lot the mana crystals weren’t intact, let alone charged. Even some of the rock landscape showed signs of wear, with piles of scree and fissures here and there.
“You know, I don’t think this looks good. Even a slow dungeon should have been able to repair this by now. Heck, I don’t think my Climates even let this kind of degradation take place to begin with.” Even as I said that, I was pretty sure that there were no Climates or even Fields in place inside the core room. Big as it was, it was all under manual control, and neglected.
“More evidence that the Great Dungeon is dead, or something like it.” Ansae said grimly. “On the other claw, I can only stretch my senses out maybe twenty miles without spending a lot of mana. It’s got defensive magics laced everywhere. It’s probably going to get dramatic at some point.”
“It’s not dramatic already?” Shayma asked, waving her hands at the stormy outside and the oppressive inside.
“Look,” Ansae said, and pulled some kind of crystal lens from her hoard, deftly sorting through the runes and lofting it over to Shayma. She took one look through it and whistled softly, which sounded weird coming from her current dragon form.
“What is it?”
“I honestly can’t tell what they do, but it looks like there’s dozens of Fields superimposed on each other,” Shayma told me.
“Well that’s cheating. I only get two.”
“Only we’re allowed to cheat, is it?”
“It’d be easier that way,” I admitted. “But I guess that a multiple-millennia-old Great Dungeon ought to have more stuff than I do. Speaking of, I’d better make some purchases before we go any further.” Considering my surfeit of trait points and cores from eating the entire rimwall, it was well worth it to buy up Dungeon Combat and Defense specialized cores and accompanying traits. Ansae could hold her own and so could Shayma, but in a weird way I was the weak link. Dungeon Combat especially was not something I was confident in, even with my additional levels and cores and insane mana regeneration.
As usual, once I purchased some specializations I got a few new traits, all of which I purchased. I didn’t have to worry about conserving my points anymore, that was certain.
Buffered Flows: Hampers mana intrusion attacks based on flow rate.
Sacrificial Cores: Can convert [Storage Crystals] to [Sacrificial Core] to absorb attacks.
Weaponized Mana: Mana attacks preferentially degrade vulnerable dungeon constructs.
Highlight Weakness: Shows gaps in dungeon defenses.
I kind of wished I’d had that first one earlier, but it was better late than never. Considering how much mana flux I had spread over everything, it should help me absorb a lot of attacks. Or one big one, perhaps. [Sacrificial Cores] was absolutely something I was going to take advantage of, now that I didn’t need to reserve huge numbers of my crystals for maximum mana. Some twenty or thirty of them seemed a good start.
[Highlight Weaknesses] didn’t help at all as we moved inside. Either there were no gaps in the dungeon’s defenses, or it didn’t actually take effect until I was engaged in dungeon combat. Considering that Ansae had needed Shayma to brute-force her way through the wall, I could well believe it was the former. Especially since the effects started to manifest as we began to make our way into the interior.
The dungeon’s preferred Affinities were, obviously, wind, storm, and a touch of mind, but apparently that didn’t mean it was restricted to those. The moment we crossed some invisible line a sudden storm of metal shrapnel erupted out of literally nowhere, manifesting in the air and exploding in our direction. I actually flinched despite not having anything that could possibly be hurt by such a display, it was just so unexpected.
With her armor, Shayma didn’t care about mere metal shrapnel, and Ansae didn’t seem to deem it a danger either, simply putting a thin field around my seed-ship to reduce the velocity of the incoming metal fragments. It seemed the internal defenses, or at least that protective Field in particular, was rather less dangerous than the outside environment, since that was all she did and just let the metal ping off the three of us. Amusingly, judging by the three distinct pitches from the impacts, Ansae’s scales were somehow slightly more rigid than the metal shell of the seed-ship, which I knew from experience was not always the case.
Of course, the defensive Fields weren’t limited to shrapnel. One was very much like [Hungering Dark], which was fairly well taken care of by simply extending [Greater Light], but the rest were not effects I recognized. Talons of ice clawed at our little bubble, and tiny pinpricks of fire that seemed to melt the very air swarmed about us.
Between them, Shayma and Ansae had it covered. Mostly, Ansae set up spellforms, and let Shayma fill them with Bane mana. My mana, channeled through her, backing Ansae’s insane spell control, seemed to do a pretty good job of annihilating anything that came at us. Though there was a fairly obvious all-around shield, Ansae tended toward point defense over armoring up. She clearly favored offense over defense, with spellbreakers sizzling outward to disrupt things both visible and not.
I couldn’t tell if she could actually break the Fields themselves, like she could mine, but my guess was that it wasn’t worth it if so. Ansae was the foremost mage on the planet, but quantity was a quality all of its own and one we were unhappily on the wrong end of. I could see Ansae’s mana reserves ticking up and down, as she obviously kept herself restrained to something sustainable, just on the off chance she’d need to do heavier lifting.
While I approved of the sentiment, it did mean that it felt a little claustrophobic as attacks only vanished near us, with a mana-heavy hellscape visible beyond it. If there was one encouraging factor, it was that it couldn’t spring every Field on us at once without them starting to interfere with each other. At least, that was my guess, since I could see some of the various energies cancelling each other out on the edge of perception.
The winding tunnels of bare stone didn’t have any real landmarks, aside from larger or smaller mana crystals, but we simply aimed for the center of the sphere. Between the three of us, we had more than enough power to punch straight through, since the interior wasn’t all made of that ridiculous grey core stone stuff, so we did. I didn’t trust the tunnels anyway.
The smaller mana crystals crackled like dry leaves, exploding just from the wash of the Sungun as Shayma plied it against the nearest wall, while the larger ones detonated with enough force to leave craters. Ansae snapped something forward that shattered the spellwork wound within and throughout the stone, and I bulldozed forward with [Event Horizon]. Even after preparatory work done by the two of them, it chewed through mana something fierce for the Field to remove the rubble blocking our path. I wasn’t confident using a [Starlance] in case we destroyed something we really wanted to keep, but we made good enough time without it.
The weirdly corrugated core room reminded me, if anything, of the wrinkles in a brain, lending a distinctly organic air to the otherwise inert ridges of stone. I knew that was just imagination, since I was pretty well proof that a dungeon’s mind, as much as dungeons had minds, was part of the core. None of my sprawling landscape did any thinking for me, which was unfortunate.
As we got deeper, the appearance of decay unaccountably strengthened, as if were seeing several extra centuries every kilometer or so. Part of me wondered if it was due to Fields going off, considering the energetic nature of the defenses, but it turned out that none of the wild storms of elements or metals or hissing storms of acid did anything to the stone. It certainly wasn’t because the stone was particularly durable, but more that it was protected from the dungeon’s own magic. A neat trick that I could hopefully learn, possibly when I got more levels and bought more traits.
“There’s a big chamber ahead,” Ansae reported, and gathered together a spell in one claw that burst through the wall in a single go. Apparently she was getting impatient with the slow and steady pace, or perhaps she just didn’t want to be right next to all the mana crystals that were probably projecting and fueling the Fields that swirled around us, blocking off any real view. That assault cut off sharply as soon as we passed into the inner chamber, so I could actually see what it held.
There was a core there as big as a skyscraper, and it was dead.
The huge, faceted crystal stood in the center of a sphere four or five kilometers in diameter, rooted deeply in the floor and stretching up toward the ceiling a good two hundred or so meters. Instead of being lit, it was dull and grey, but the reason why was no mystery. Some time in ages past, an enormous wedge-shaped chunk of rock had fallen from the ceiling and cloven it nearly in twain. The rock in question was still stuck there, embedded in the dead crystal.
The biggest core crystal was dead, but that didn’t mean the dungeon was, because there was more than one crystal there. Flanking the huge, building sized crystal were house sized cores, glowing white. From those several lines of cores spiraled outward, with a variety of different colors. Orange, green, violet, black, and of course, red. There were no blue cores in the Great Dungeon’s array, but it had plenty of others, implying a specialization of functions I hadn’t considered.
“Huh. So Great Dungeons have all kinds of colors of cores.”
“And no wonder this one is having issues. But after all that, the reason this Great Dungeon is broken is because a rock fell on it?” Shayma sounded incredulous. “I can even see where it came from!”
“Rocks can fall, or they can be made to fall,” Ansae said grimly. “This must have happened at the dawn of the world, though. Who knows how many dungeons actually survived the throes of creation? Perhaps this one, broken and yet not, is even a relic of an earlier age?” She snorted silver fire. “Not that it matters.”
“Yeah, fix things first, speculate later,” I agreed. She started forward again, but arcs of compressed wind and storm suddenly appeared around the cores like a cage, crossing back and forth in an unbroken net.
“One last defense, hmm?” Ansae snorted and flexed her will, and the intense streamers bent outward, as if they were wires deforming under enormous strength. We passed through, the cage collapsing back into place behind us, and I drove my seed-ship toward the core array.
“Alright, time to earn my keep.”