67. Surrounded
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"I believe we have a lot to talk about, but time is of the essence," Vox said as he fully stepped out of the rift in space. Then, with a swish of his shadowy hand, a throne of darkness materialized, dominating the room with its ominous and commanding presence.

Vox took his seat—his two loyal servants didn't say a word.

Vox cleared his throat to draw unnecessary attention to himself and then addressed his two minions. "I reached the final floor of the Grand Dungeon. But, despite what your legends say, there was no goddess to grant my every desire. Instead, I found a poisoned fruit. Like a blinded and desperate fool, I took what wasn't mine, and now the world despises my existence even more."

Vox placed his head on his hand and slouched on his throne. "Henceforth, I am a Demon Lord. Declared as an enemy of the world alongside all those foolish enough to stand beside me."

A moment of silence befell the room until Andrew bravely spoke up. "My Lord, no matter the circumstances, we will continue to serve." The giant grey slime tried to bring his stubby hands together to give a bow, but he couldn't quite reach.

"Good." Vox nodded and sat up slightly. "I have gained powers beyond mortal comprehension.... powers of a demi-god, by assimilating with a World Core. These World Cores reside at the bottom of the deepest Grand Dungeons and, from my understanding, also manage the system. When one of these World Cores goes rogue or is controlled by a foreign entity such as myself, the other World Cores work together to reclaim the rogue core." Vox then gestured around the room. "We are surrounded by four such cores in each cardinal direction, and as we speak, I am losing land every second to them."

Toby stood up. "I will go, my Lord. Tell me where I am needed."

Vox's face remained featureless, but the sides of his face rose, indicating a smile. "Let us first establish our forces numbers and our priorities. Then we can act. The situation is bad but not dire yet. Rushing will only get us eradicated sooner."

Toby nodded. "What do you need to know, my Lord?"

Vox brought up his shadowy hand and began listing off. "We have around two hundred permanent residents signed up to be green citizens—the rest... either escaped or perished in the Empire's raid. These citizens will need protection as they are now enemies of the world and their lives are worth these contribution points. I do not expect them to fight unless they wish to increase their noble rank through combat. But what happened to the other people living in this town? There were over five thousand temporary residents last time I checked."

Andrew responded, "Of the few thousand in the town at the time of the raid, almost all have fled. They haven't made it far down the toll roads... should we deal with them?"

Vox raised his hand to silence Andrew. "Despite the world's aversion to my existence, I do not plan to inherit nor act upon the role bestowed upon me. So spread the word that everyone is free to leave or stay. Becoming a true Demon Lord benefits nobody."

"But my Lord..." Andrew stroked his goatee from stress, "I assume we will be cut from the Empire and Eshnar. We cannot currently survive on our own supplies. So keeping them as hostages or as a workforce would be best—"

"Incorrect." Vox resolutely replied. "I now have control over the entire Grand Dungeon. You may not be able to comprehend what that means but let me lay it out for you. I can create continent-sized floors of lush farmland, lakes of freshwater, and trees that grow delicious fruits. I have ten floors worth of undead humans that I can use as labor." Vox leaned forward, his blue eyes glowing with power. "So what use do I have for these pathetic humans? Why hold them hostage or force them to work and anger the surrounding kingdoms anymore than I already have?"

Andrew's stubby hand paused on his goatee, and his eyes gleamed with awe. "My Lord. This servant has been humbled." He gave an attempt at a bow, but without a neck, it looked rather odd. "The people will be granted freedom, as you wish."

"Good. Now with that out of the way, I need to figure out how to regain my lost land. The other World Cores are using their ambient mana to claim land from me. Any ideas?"

Toby crossed his massive grey-skinned arms, "If we position undead on the border, will that stop their advance?"

"Perhaps. Worth a try..." Vox mumbled to himself as his view changed. From the skies above, he directed some goblins near the toll road entrance to venture toward the approaching border. It took a few minutes, but they managed to reach it quickly since they were already close to the Empire.

Like an ocean being stopped by a sand castle, the encroaching border proceeded around the goblin, but after a few seconds, the goblin was a little island of isolated mana and was devoured. Victor tried to use [Raise Undead] on the goblin, but nothing happened... His connection to that pile of bones was severed.

Returning to Andrew's palace in Necron, Vox's eyes regained light, and Toby and Andrew stiffened. "It is possible. But just one goblin wasn't enough. I will likely need quantity and quality to hold back the approaching tide."

"Yes, my Lord," Toby agreed. "But we must keep these contribution points in mind. I assume all the undead under your command will be targeted by the other World Cores and the denizens of the surrounding lands."

Victor checked his black ocean and quickly calculated a rough estimate of his forces. "I have access to around fifty Empire knights that have been turned into overpowered Death Knights. Other than that, I can field a few thousand undead goblins and a hundred zombie ogres."

"Maybe we should retreat into the Grand Dungeon, my Lord?" Andrew suggested. "I do not see how we can defend so much land against the World Cores and all of the Delvers from the entire continent."

"I agree with Andrew—" Toby interjected but was cut off by Vox's eyes flaring up and raising a shadowy hand.

"No. Although building a city down in the Grand Dungeon to keep my citizens safe does have merit, the dungeon's mana is too dense for anyone except monsters and Delvers to survive. But that isn't the main issue..." Vox continued after checking something. "I can feel it... as I lose land, I lose power. I believe the world generates mana, and the World Cores capture that mana to harness for their means. So to lose land is to lose my mana supply which will prove fatal in the long run."

Vox stood from his throne of shadows and gazed at his two loyal subordinates. "I will enlist the dragons for help—however, that will take time. Meanwhile, I want Andrew to spread the news about how the populace can choose to stay or leave, and I want Toby to head to the Empire's border to hold some ground." Vox stepped toward Toby. "I will revive every single ice statue, and those monsters will be under your command."

Toby instantly dropped to a knee and hung his head low. "As you wish, my Lord."

Vox nodded. "Excellent. I will also try and create new monsters and control the current dungeon's monsters to regain our lost land."

Andrew looked taken aback. "My Lord! Do you plan to cause a dungeon break? Those can destroy kingdoms overnight!"

"I. Am. The. Dungeon." Vox spelled out while poking Andrew's sludgy body with a shadowy finger. "It is not a dungeon break if I control it. We have no time to muck around and find another solution. The Cursed Forest is landlocked and surrounded on all sides by hostile kingdoms and World Cores that want to eat me for breakfast."

Andrew gulped and meekly nodded. "Alright."

Victor was satisfied with the meeting and decided to progress with his next plan.

Victor forced his shadowy avatar to make a grand exit by transforming the shadow throne into a portal with a wave of his hand, and then the avatar stepped through. The shadow man faded away on the other side of the portal down in the Grand Dungeon's depths as it was just a mere illusion, and he had no need for the mana upkeep. 'I think I will continue to use Vox as a persona to address the people and my subordinates for now. My Netherborne body can be used sometimes, but it's far too large to fit into most spaces and is overly terrifying to be in the presence of.'

Victor took a long deep breath to calm his nerves. 'One thing at a time... you can do this.' He felt like the whole world was crashing down around him, and it was hard to stay focused on one thing when ten other things demanded his attention.

However, there was one thing he couldn't shy away from any longer. His travel companions, that had stuck with him over the last few months were owed an explanation for what just happened. No doubt, they had a ton of questions for him.

Focusing on his Netherborne body, Victor took in the surroundings. Beside him was the World Core, which now glowed with a red tint, likely due to it becoming a Demon Core. 'I wonder why it glows red, though? Is that just a visual effect, or does it change the composition of the mana it sends out?' Another thing added to his long list of things to test.

Alice was there, shrouded in her void armor, looking straight at him. She was eerily quiet as she watched his motionless body but seeing his blue eyes relight with power and Victor turning his head made her perk up.

They still couldn't communicate in this void as Alice wasn't part of his undead network, and the lack of mana or oxygen in the air made communication rather tricky. So with his long claw, he gestured toward the floating island in the distance where, with his perfect vision—thanks to the Demon Core—he could see a very distressed-looking golden dragon.

Alice understood the hint, and the two of them flew back together. It was time to visit the dragons.