Fighting the Great Dungeon was a strange experience.
Most of the time she didn’t pay any attention to the fact that she was technically part of Blue, because it didn’t matter. She had her own Skills, her own life, and Blue didn’t control anything she actually did. He could reach out through her, but that was just one of the benefits of being his Companion, not something sublime or profound.
Inside that space she could feel her connection to Blue quite clearly, or rather, the sameness, that made her one with him. It was the only reason she could engage with the Great Dungeon at all, the vast and eldritch nature of Blue that she normally overlooked on full display as he loomed behind her and beneath her in her perceptions. Not only was there power there, but faint hints and whispers of dreams and knowledge beyond anything he’d ever mentioned. It was like she was actually sensing the very things that made him a Power.
The Great Dungeon was similarly represented, stretching out and away in space and time, bigger than she could ever understand. It was not as crisp as Blue’s presence, but it was massively larger and older. The two of them struggled in some rapid-fire exchange that she could barely follow, as she reached out and tried to slog toward the core of it all. She had the feeling that she and Blue perceived things differently, since he seemed almost prescient in cutting through barriers for her, but then would pivot and focus on something that seemed to have no significance whatsoever.
To her, the Great Dungeon seemed to be represented by some vast and incomprehensible architecture, magic formed into crystal spires and iron walls, an enormous fortress protecting the objective at the dungeon’s center. She knew it wasn’t a literal place, and in fact was even less of one than Phantasmal Space, since she was still crouched on the sub-core in dragon form with her claws pressed against the crystal. If anything it was like some absurdly complicated Skill made manifest, with the channels and restrictions turned into halls and barriers.
They weren’t empty halls, either. There were things, strange balls of hostility and fury that seemed to be of dungeon-stuff, that swirled in to intercept her. Her heightened link with Blue whispered a word and a concept into her head, antibodies, and she appreciated the comparison as she slid her way through the conceptual fortress. Sometimes she fought, sometimes she didn’t, since her Skills applied quite oddly.
It wasn’t a real space, so she wasn’t physically shifting, or moving, just bringing the mana structures of the Skills into play. It was very close to fighting with her actual soul structure, which would be incredibly dangerous if it was anyone but her. With Blue and [Unbreakable Promise] safeguarding her, she was uniquely suited to that kind of combat.
She’d started before the fortress walls, with Blue at her back hurling siege bolts at the enemy, and dove through the doors to assault it from within. A fortress existed to protect things, so somewhere within was their target, a place where Blue could actually take over all the cores and connections. Even as she cut through into the heart of the Great Dungeon’s power, she dove back down through its history. Shayma wasn’t sure whether it was something she was meant to be doing, but as she severed the strands of magic she released muted glimpses into what it was, what it had done. She felt that they were, in a way, attacks by the Dungeon that didn’t quite work on her since she was something else.
They didn’t exactly come in the proper order, but she started putting them together as she made her way inward toward where the heart of the dungeon’s control resided. The oldest glimpses were just impressions of vast swathes of time, of bright sparks between them. The Dungeon couldn’t exactly think, and what she was experiencing were not precisely memories, more like echoes strong enough to persist within whatever odd inner world this was. Even so, the thirdhand impressions of what must have been the gods themselves were daunting.
Though the narrow lens of the dungeon’s limited senses, there were sudden bursts of something like a blazing sun at a finger’s distance, too bright and intense for her to get any detail but imposing nonetheless. They gave it purpose, direction, and growth, even as immense as it already was.
That lasted for a timeless time until there was a change like death. She winced at something that wasn’t exactly pain, but was a profound loss. All the ancient, humming connections to elsewhere just vanished, and silence reigned. The dungeon seemed to grow almost still, with just the smallest perception of the vast, complicated body slowly moving and living, huddled into the remnants of flowing magic.
Something awakened it much, much later, pulling it out of the endless darkness and stasis. A small sting, a nagging ache. It was nothing important but it was unusual, a sensation more direct than the remote and removed creep of the dungeon body. That might not have been enough to rouse the dungeon out of its stasis completely, but it came with pinpricks of outside awareness and of something tremendously wrong.
“Are you getting all this, Blue?”
“Getting all what?” Blue replied, distracted.
“The dungeon’s memories or whatever.” She made herself intangible to shift past some barrier bristling with metaphorical spikes, feeling a little strained by pushing her Skills that way.
“Really? Anything useful?” Blue sounded perhaps less interested than he would normally be, distracted as he was by his own struggles. His fight, when it didn’t intersect with the fortress she was racing through, seemed to be like the struggles of a colossus overhead. Massive impacts seemed to rock what passed for the ground, shuddering through the walls and floor.
“Not yet,” she said. “It seems the mage-kings did wake it up, though. It wasn’t doing anything until they started using their cores.”
“I guess we aren’t helping either. Well that’s too bad.”
Shayma had a little bit more sympathy, though the Great Dungeon seemed to be more a machine than a person, damaged and left spinning uselessly. More than uselessly; dangerously, though she didn’t quite understand where depletion itself came from. There was something about what it had lost that must have caused it, but she hadn’t quite put her finger on what it was. She knew that both Blue and Ansae were straining to keep them safe while she poked about, but she couldn’t help thinking there was something important about what she was learning.
More glimpses trickled in as she headed deeper, jolting through her when she made contact with any of the defenses. There were more glimpses of the lost time when everything was silent, but here and there were instants that came after the mage-kings had first taken the red core. The Great Dungeon didn’t control the new cores the mage-kings made, not even the one the first mage-king had taken, but it could still feel them, just as the cores drew some of their power from the dungeon.
Each one intensified a sense of alienation, of foreignness. It seemed there was only chaos beyond its own borders, and the deep imperatives, given by the gods at the beginning of it all, demanded it tame that chaos. In a flash, Shayma understood that, whatever had happened to this Great Dungeon, however it had broken, it saw them, it saw everything, like everyone else saw blightbeasts. Unidentifiable things, nameless, mindless, and ruthless.
There was something about it that nagged at her. It was hard to focus on it when she was fighting off aggressive magic and dodging through the mazelike fortress of the core’s interior, but that reversed perspective was absolutely wrong. If the Great Dungeon had been a person, she would have dismissed it as simply ego and misunderstanding, but the Great Dungeon was a machine and had no ego that she could tell.
“Shayma! What’s wrong?” Blue’s voice stirred her into action again, and she sprang forward, dashing through the halls while her brain worked.
“Nothing’s wrong, I’m just trying to understand how the Great Dungeon works.”
“Well you’d better understand fast, ‘cause I’m running low on [Sacrificial Cores].”
“You’ve been getting hit?” Shayma was a little surprised, since she hadn’t felt anything, and she should have with the way she was attached to Blue. Even if at a remove, she should have noticed if there was anything that had affected him directly. The only thing that she had experienced were the bits of understanding carried on the Great Dungeon’s mana.
Then she felt like an idiot as she figured out the obvious.
Of course the insights didn’t come for free; she was reading what was embedded in the core itself, and with the ANATHEMA and their bitter rivalry, that meant either she was being destroyed or it was. But she was Blue, even more than usual in this space, so he was paying the price. Yet, she felt there was some vulnerability there, some aspect that she could take advantage of if she just knew how.
“Kind of exploding all over the place here,” Blue said, a little worriedly. “Almost there?”
“I think so.” It was difficult to judge distance in a place where distance didn’t even exist, but the snippets of understanding had actually helped, giving her a sense of where in that great expanse the driving force that they needed to take over was. She was glad they didn’t need to convert everything, for that would have been a long slog of a nightmare, and one they might not have had time for.
She could see in a distant way that Ansae was holding up the sky. In the real world, her magic swirled and scoured through the remains of the core room, but she was also preventing the cores from drawing in mana from the rest of the dungeon. The world of the fortress trembled with the effort of trying to break past Ansae’s will, and even she had limits. They couldn’t afford to have her poke around anymore. She needed to move.
Shayma bent to the task, trying not to encounter any more stray shocks and focused on driving forward. She strained her Skills as she shifted through some things, fought others, and kept a wary eye on the surrounding, wincing every time another jolt of impression shot through her because she knew that meant Blue had been hurt again.
One immense surge of energy from Blue sent her hurtling forward, barely even able to notice the surroundings, so she hardened herself with [Unbreakable Promise] as she smashed through the last bastion and found the well of energy at the core of the core. Yet, she hesitated. They had to purge the depletion, remove the Great Dungeon, because it was overrunning the world. But to do so would kill every creature within, as Blue Dungeons did not support monsters and every blightbeast would be purged by his mana. When they were just beasts, that was one thing, but she had seen that there were people, or almost-people, just like the Scalemind, who hadn’t been lucky enough to get out before they were completely corrupted by depletion.
Simply doing nothing was impossible, and destroying everything was horrible. She could see the future unrolling before her, a moment of clarity as she contemplated the options and found them both wanting. A sudden understanding of the damaged dungeon crystallized in her mind, and her [Hero] Class hummed as she stepped forward.
She was taking a third option.