Vox—Victor's human-sized avatar formed from shadow magic—sat upon a summoned throne of shadows. It was easier to communicate with the humans like this, as he had no desire to incite fear among his own people. They were already loyal enough, as demonstrated by eagerly lining up to receive card-shaped slabs of emeralds.
Hyveth Arcspace, one of the few ancient dragons and his latest ally, stood by his side, watching the proceeds with her inhuman crystal eyes. The single golden horn jutting from her head glistened in the midday sun that shone through the windows.
Victor would be happy to have such a person stand by his side... if not for her constant tapping. Her clawed human fingers drummed on her scaled arm in an accelerating rhythmic beat, showing her growing impatience.
Hyveth had offered her assistance in his world domination plans on the basis he left the dragons out of the conflict. Which he had honored so far. Deciding to avoid the dragon's lair altogether, they teleported to the first floor of the Grand Dungeon and then took the tunnel Wiggles made to get to Necron.
"Vox, care to explain this to me?" Hyveth hissed through her teeth as she watched a middle-aged man graciously receive an emerald card from Andrew the King Ooze, a ten-meter-long grey slime and mayor of Necron.
The man poked his finger on a knife tip and imprinted his bloody fingerprint upon the surface of the emerald. It flashed a brilliant green and vanished. Seconds later, the man opened his eyes. His pupils had transitioned from a usual brown to a liquid emerald, and his skin glowed with a green hue.
The man looked at his glowing skin with curiosity and gasped as the emerald card rematerialized in his hand.
And he was not the only one. A group of excited humans huddled in the corner of the room, all exclaiming about their changed eye color. Some were mortals, and others were preserved corpses under his black ocean's control.
"What exactly do you wish for me to explain?" Vox replied, resting his shadowy head on his palm.
Of course, both the throne and avatar were made of nothing but shadows and therefore weightless, so he had no need to assume this tired posture, but he wanted to convey his displeasure with Hyveths comments, and her fidgeting was also doing her no favors.
Hyveth frowned at Vox, "Are we not in a partnership? How can I assist with your plans if I don't know what's happening? You said we are on a time crunch and that the other World Cores close in on the cursed forest with every passing second, yet you sit here giving things to humans for free—"
Vox raised his hand to silence her, "Fine. Disclosing some details is only fair. Those emerald cards have many inbuilt abilities that derive their power from my Demon Core, one of which is passive mana resistance. A skill these fleshy mortals will need to survive in my dungeon depths, as the mana is far too dense for an ordinary human to survive."
Vox looked into Hyveth's inhumane crystal eyes, "As for a time crunch? That is true, but you forget something, my dragon friend."
"And that is?" Hyveth scowled, clearly hating that she was the clueless one in this exchange and Vox's casual tone while addressing someone of her stature and power.
"This is just one of my three bodies. While I sit here showing my presence to reassure my citizens, my Netherborne body is busy reviving my collection of ice statues a few buildings from here to form an army for Toby to defend against the Empire."
Vox sighed, "Meanwhile, my Demon Core is mass-producing undead on the upper floors to defend the south and western flanks."
Vox's teardrop eyes dulled as his vision rapidly switched between his bodies. His shadowy avatar was nothing but a glorified projection that he could cast spells through at a high cost. Nevertheless, his Netherborne body remained his greatest asset for combat scenarios and casting spells.
Toby, the One-Eyed Demon King, was practically jumping with joy as Victor hovered over the ice statues casting [Raise Undead] over and over. Mana was almost free when your mana pool was the size of a continent, even if it was rapidly shrinking.
The sound of ice shattering and the roars of many A and S-grade monsters reawakening from a long slumber filled the cursed forest. The black ocean looked like a sea of bright lights as many powerful creatures joined the ranks, and most fearsome of all... they absorbed all the latent knowledge in the network.
Victor smiled. As they say, knowledge is power, and he needed all the strength he could muster to defend against the entire world by himself.
Rather than mindless beasts fueled by their hunger, they were now aware of war formations, how to farm, construction, and even human language. This was the true might of the black ocean and Victor's main motivation for wanting to keep Necron safe.
With so many undead humans joining the black ocean network with various skills in different fields, the hive mind became stronger as knowledge was shared as an instinct. The empire knights turned death knights had contributed essential information about how wars were fought. It became instinctual knowledge to all the undead under Victor's control.
Looking down at the horde of monsters, Victor turned to look at Alice, who was floating beside him. Her liquid gold eyes scanned the ground with curiosity and a light smile on her lips.
"You seem happy." Victor's ancient voice didn't even seem to faze the girl as her smile grew wider. She chose not to wear clothes and instead had a dense black mana shield coating her skin like armor at all times. It flickered and flowed as if alive, and her face was exposed.
She turned to face Victor, "Happy? I am more than happy—exhilarated would be a better term. Finally, no more running and hiding." A savage grin appeared on her crazed face, "I—no... we have more power at our disposal than anyone else."
Victor shook his head, his many golden eyes tracing the horizon, "Silly girl, we may match the strength of a single kingdom, or perhaps even the Empire... but we face the world."
Alice clenched her mana-coated fist, "Then so be it. We can conquer them one at a time."
"Conquer suggests subjugation—a fate I plan for the other World Cores, but not for this planet's people. Endless slaughter will only doom this world faster."
"Will those rifts really come?" Alice asked. A hint of skepticism in her tone.
"There are no absolutes in life, but Axon is a far greater threat to me than this world's inhabitants, that's for sure." Victor pointed a claw to his shadowy face, "If Axon could control my mind, then they can do it again. The last thing I want is for Axon to get a foothold on this planet and take advantage of the worldwide war caused by the demon lord quest."
Alice's golden gaze drifted to the red beacon that marked the entrance to the cursed forest's Grand Dungeon in the north. "A worldwide hunt for a demon lord. What a joke."
"What makes it a joke?" Victor wondered.
"They will be blinded by the rewards and refuse to accept their own greed will lead to their demise." Alice sighed, "Human greed always triumphs over logic. No matter what we say, they will just aim for those silly contribution points provided by the other World Cores."
"Exactly, human greed will be our greatest weapon in this war. Who said only the World Core could offer rewards? I just need to provide the sweeter deal to make them switch to the dark side." Victor chuckled and summoned his [Royal Card] that floated above his hand, "What are some arbitrary contribution points in the face of eternal life, endless food, and a mana-dense utopia?"
Alice sighed, "But is it really worth it? To go through all this hassle when we could storm each kingdom and annihilate them with overwhelming might? Surely the people would bend the knee in subservience to you if you wished it."
The golden card vanished back into Victor's soul. "Worth it? Absolutely. With my black ocean network and a utopia to nurture them, the human race will advance at unprecedented speeds, and with my careful management, Axon will never step foot on this world."
"I would prefer to wipe all these vermin out, Eshnar especially... But if luring them in with superior rewards is your aim, then I suggest we start with the Frostlands."
Victor tilted his head, "Oh, the Frostlands? That mining nation located north of the Grand Dungeon..."
"Mhm." Alice nodded—her black hair briefly obscuring her golden eyes, "They are already struggling from famine, and the arrival of a demon lord on their doorstep has likely crippled their economy. As the most desperate, they would be a good first target."
Victor thought for a moment. Her line of logic did make sense, and securing another World Core so early on would make it two Demon Cores against three World Cores. The Frostlands was also close by and in an easy-to-defend location, considering mountains surrounded it on all sides.
But there was also the risk of letting the Empire and Eshnar organize their forces and attack while he was busy up north.
"How slow are the Empire and Eshnar at making decisions?" Victor was used to living in a world with the internet and departments dedicated to disaster response. In such a connected world, global leaders could make decisions within a day.
Alice snorted. "Hilariously slow. Especially the Empire, which is notorious for having crappy nobles. Those bastards are more concerned about making each other lose more knights than actually suppressing any rebellions or dealing with monsters."
That reassured Victor that invading the frostlands quickly was the best move. Although the demon lord's quest and contribution counter made him fear the nobles would disregard all rationality due to fear of missing out on the juicy rewards.
[The other World Cores have designated you as a world-ending threat. As a result, your System access is restricted, and the world's denizens will gain rewards for your destruction. Your allies have also been marked as hostile.]
Victor concluded that the most important thing to do now was to remove his weakest link. Necron was like the command center for his hivemind and would serve as a propaganda engine to convince the rest of the world that life under his leadership was better than slaughtering his allies for contribution points.
All he needed was control over all the World Cores. Only then was he sure he could find a way to stop all this demon lord nonsense.
Surrounded by an army of monsters, Toby stood below, looking up at his overlord. With all of them revived and not a single ice stature remaining, Victor was confident he had an army that could hold off the Empire until he got back from the Frostlands.
"Toby, my champion, heed my words." Victor's ancient voice made the One-Eyed Demon King straighten up, "Your mission is to guard the cursed forests border with the Empire. Make sure to hold a strategic line and leave no gaps. You must stop the encroaching World Core's mana from eating away at my land."
Victor decided to ignore the fact Toby was practically vibrating from excitement. He knew the man was a battle junkie, but this was excessive.
"Oh, and one more thing. Do not engage or invade the Empire. Just hold the line." Toby's face darkened, but Victor added, "However, I give permission to kill anyone who tries to cross the border."
"Thank you, Master!" Toby's voice thundered, and all the monsters roared behind him in unison.
"Now go!" Victor pointed to the distance with his claw, "Defend my land in my name."
Victor watched the horde of monsters that could flatten a city charge to the east.
"Now then..." Victor returned his sights to Necron. It was time to prepare for the teleportation of his city into the dungeon's depths.