I reviewed my System messages as I ate breakfast, in case I happened to have slept through eighty thousand connection-to-foreign-soul-lost notifications. As expected, I hadn’t.
On the bright side, I hadn’t heard anything else either. No new foreign souls. No new skills forming. No new portals or other mana anomalies. For nearly six weeks, all had been quiet. In those six weeks, I’d attempted and failed to get access to the ark, in the hopes of using my superuser privileges to cut away all Earth humans from the System, but I had no other ideas of what to do about the situation. The best case was that they were mostly cut off, and couldn’t level or use System abilities, but the System still knew they were out there and no longer saw it as an error when the portals were closed.
“Last chance to change your mind,” said Cluma from her seat opposite me, swishing a vial of purple liquid. “Once I drink this, there’s no going back.”
“I’m really sorry. I know it’s selfish of me, but please do.”
Cluma sighed and drank the potion that would let me forget for one more year that she wasn’t just a human with extra fluffy bits. Why the hell she wanted me as her boyfriend—or mate, if I was to use the term the beastkin themselves used to describe their lifelong partners—I’d never understand.
“Sorry,” I repeated.
“Sheesh, enough already! How many times are you going to apologise?”
It was a struggle, but I successfully resisted the urge to apologise for apologising too much.
“That many. I’ll stop now.”
“Good. Now, hurry up and finish your breakfast. I want to see your new weapon in action on the Hydra.”
Some enchanters at the institute had taken a few days out from pouring over Earth science textbooks to implement a containment vessel in the mana concentration chamber, with the effect that we’d been able to generate affinity mana almost with impunity, keeping it safely contained within the vessel and not cooking, freezing, electrocuting, drowning, suffocating, burying or otherwise doing unhealthy things to the mages trying to do the conversion. Or healthy things, in the case of life affinity mana.
The ‘almost’ was important, because the vessel turned out to not cope well with the very fabric of space-time being inexpertly unravelled around it. Thankfully, with me and Darren on hand and some quick reactions, we’d prevented the resulting burst of spatial affinity mana from harming anyone. It had damaged the mana concentration enchantments, though, and they still hadn’t been repaired. Nor had the researchers built a replacement containment vessel, but spatial affinity had been one of the last on our list, and we’d managed to make several new materials before the unplanned disintegration. One of those new materials was a rank four lightning affinity metal called fulgurlite, and we had it in sufficient quantity for Grover to get stuck in building upgraded lightning gloves.
He’d turned over two of the resulting weapons yesterday, one each for me and Cluma. Cluma’s mana control wasn’t yet at the level needed for her to use it safely, nor was her armour enchanted with the requisite lightning resistance, but now that she’d taken a mage class, the possibility was there.
Mark 3 Electro-Thaumic Projector (Quality: 52)
– Enchantment: Comfort (Quality: 72)
– Enchantment: Durability (Quality: 72)
– Enchantment: Lightning resistance (Quality: 72)
– Enchantment: Lightning affinity enhancement (Quality: 72)
Weight: 800 grams
Aside from the name and a plus two to the quality rating, the description was much the same as my prototype. It still had the same four mounted crystals, too, but I’d been assured the maximum recharge and discharge rate had been increased five times over and the storage capacity tripled. I could fire bigger blasts, or sustain a blast of the same size for longer. I could fire four separate bolts and still produce bigger bolts than the fully focused output of the original. In addition, the higher max recharge rate meant I could take it deeper into a dungeon before it broke down.
If a trial run worked out, I’d have the weapon I needed to face the hydra alone. Over the past weeks, me and Cluma had grown adept at facing it together, but neither of us could do it without the other. We’d tried, with Cluma hiding with [Stealth], or me hanging back at the entrance and trying not to draw attention, but neither of us could overcome its regeneration while dealing with the attentions of its heads.
Despite those minor failures, the experience we’d built up let us take it without the aid of potions, and we’d gained a few more levels over the six weeks.
Class: Eldritch Mage (Level 30/92)
Class History: [Commoner 10] [Apprentice Mage 10] [Body Mage 20] [Spatial Mage 15] [Apprentice Fighter 7]
Soul Points: 10
Rank 1 Artes: [Backstab 5] [Armour Break 14] [Mighty Swing 15] [Swift Strike 15] [Shattering Strike 3] [Rapid Shot 6] [Piercing Shot 5]
Rank 1 Spells: [Minor Strength 15] [Far Step 16] [Minor Speed 16] [Minor Dexterity 15] [Minor Endurance 15] [Minor Intelligence 15] [Minor Wisdom 15] [Minor Charisma 15] [Far Reach 18] [Minor Slow 17]
Rank 2 Spells: [Strength 18] [Dexterity 18] [Endurance 18] [Weft Walk 17] [Item Box 16] [Distortion 15]
Rank 3 Spells: [Detach 15] [Redistribute 12] [Shelter 11] [Superimpose 14]
Rank 1 Skills: [Inspection 16] [Meditation 15] [Concealment 11] [Foraging 15] [Hunting 10] [Musician 12] [Weapon Proficiency: Universal 17] [Basic Crafting 15] [Clock 15] [Stamina Finesse 7] [Danger Sense 15] [Basic Etiquette 7] [Language: Common 10] [Language: English 10]
Rank 2 Skills: [Appraisal 16] [Enhanced Mana Recovery 16] [Weapon Style: Flowing Mist 18] [Extended Mana Pool 15] [Engineering 6] [Secrecy 11] [Enhanced Stamina Recovery 16] [Extended Stamina Pool 15] [Soul Perception 16] [Extended Health Pool 6]
Rank 3 Skills: [Analysis 16] [Expert Mana Control 16] [Expert Mana Finesse 16] [Mana Sight 17] [Regeneration 1]
Rank 4 Skills: [Eye of Judgement 2]
Traits: [Unbound Soul] [Determined Progressor] [Test Subject] [Xenophilia] [Soul Bound]
Titles: [Jack of All Trades 2] [Victorious Underdog 3] [Skilled 3] [Survivor 2] [Flexible Combatant] [Versatile Crafter] [Magician] [Athlete] [Novice Delver] [Durable]
Status Conditions: None
Attuned Affinities: [Body] [Soul] [Space] [Time]
Rank 2 Available Classes: [Monk] [Soul Mage] [Temporal Mage] [Thaumaturgist] [Teacher] [Trader] [Gatherer] [Bard] [Artisan] [Warrior] [Ranger] [Scout] [Spellsword] [Maid]
Rank 3 Available Classes: [Analyst] [Body High Mage] [Spatial High Mage]
Rank 4 Available Classes: [Eldritch High Mage]
Rank 1 Available Skills: [Weapon Style: One-Handed] [Weapon Style: Two-Handed] [Weapon Style: Shield] [Weapon Style: Dual Wielding]
Rank 3 Available Skills: [Profound Mana Pool] [Profound Stamina Pool] [Rapid Mana Regeneration] [Rapid Stamina Regeneration] [Soul Sight] [Status Concealment]
[Rapid Healing] had hit level ten, and I’d immediately bought [Regeneration], but aside from that, I was saving my soul points for my next class change. The other pool skills seemed unnecessary for now; my stamina had long since reached the point that I couldn’t exhaust it with regular activities, and without higher rank artes to spend it on, I’d likely never run out. Mana was even worse, with my manual recharge trick giving me effectively limitless amounts to play with. [Soul Sight] was certainly interesting, but I’d resolved never to mess with soul stuff. [Status Concealment] would be nice, and I’d get it instantly if it was free, but I wasn’t going to spend eight points on it.
With any luck, this practice run would go well, so I could do a full run, upgrade [Novice Delver], and change class without getting any further levels.
“If you’ve finished eating, get that dress off and your armour on!” complained Cluma, distracting me from my musing.
“Wow. Never thought I’d see the day when you’d try to talk me out of a dress.”
Her response was to toss a bread roll at my head, which I casually reflected back at my attacker with [Distortion]. She had, alas, discovered the link between [Basic Etiquette] and my massage quality, giving her yet another reason to dress me up, as if the cooking enhancement wasn’t enough already. Why did I ever get it enchanted?
Ten minutes later, we were back in the floor twenty antechamber, fully armoured and accessorised. The treasure chests hadn’t exactly been flooded with useful items, but we’d both upgraded our bracelets of martial skill with rank three versions, and I’d found a few more bracelets of crafting skill, hence the extra point of quality on the gloves. Cluma had even found a bracelet of covert skill, discovered it boosted her [Stealth], and hadn’t removed it since.
Rarely, the room wasn’t deserted, with a single delver laying out a pack of anaconda emperor corpses.
“Huh? Kids? Where did you come from?” he asked, apparently not recognising us. Then again, we only ever walked around on the surface here to sell our loot, and never used the barracks or tavern. The dungeon was big enough to rarely bump into people on the floors, and since we’d been hanging around floor twenty for over half the season, there hadn’t been an opportunity to meet many of the delvers here.
“We teleported. Hi, I’m Cluma!” exclaimed the energetic cat-sìth, bouncing over for her usual tactile greetings.
“And I’m Peter.”
“Uh… Right. Grant.”
Grant? Hadn’t I head that name before? I didn’t think it was here, though, and he didn’t look or sound familiar.
“Umm…” continued Grant, looking down at the clingy catgirl in confusion. “You’re delvers?”
Wow. This guy was far slower on the uptake than Caleb back on floor fifteen. I carefully inspected my armour, making sure I was actually wearing it, that my potion vials were on my belt and that my weapons were… Ah, right. I pulled my sword-staff out of [Item Box]. “Yes,” I answered, now fully armed.
Did this guy really beat all those monsters on his own?
“Did you beat all these monsters on your own?” asked Cluma, who had no filter whatsoever.
“Hmm? Uh, no. The rest of my team helped.”
“They’re dragging the rest of the corpses here,” I filled in, using [Mana Sight] to scan the other side of the portal back to the main part of floor twenty, being too impatient to extract answers from this guy.
“Ah. They killed too many to bring all at once, but if they brought some and left the pile unattended, the dungeon would eat it,” worked out Cluma, finally detaching from the stoic delver.
“Well, congratulations on your hunt. See you.”
The delver’s face grew progressively more confused as we moved towards the boss chamber. “Wait,” he shouted, but given that I already had one foot through the portal, he was a touch late.
Cluma activated [Stealth] and slipped off to the side of the room while I cast my array of buff spells. With my obscene mana and raised level cap, I’d even inserted [Minor Speed] into my regular build. I was going to attempt it alone, but if I struggled, Cluma would jump in.
With the four heads staring at me, silent and unblinking, I kicked things off by blasting it with [Minor Slow], followed by the biggest lightning bolt my new glove could produce, aimed straight at the ice head.
One of those things produced more spectacular results than the other.
Three heads hissed loudly, the boss springing into movement in response to my aggression. The fourth head spasmed as lightning arced into it, burning through the scales and cooking the meat beneath. Smoke poured off it, leaving me glad of my odour suppression ring. Without it, I’d no doubt be gagging on the stench of burnt flesh.
Despite the damage to one head, it hadn’t done much to the hydra’s body, nor did it prevent it moving. It hadn’t even lost much health. While visually spectacular, my new weapon wasn’t a one-hit-kill cheat. The other three heads opened their mouths, preparing their breath attacks.
I concentrated on dodging the sonic breath at the expense of taking a glancing blow from the flame, trusting in my resistance ring to protect me while I switched the target of my lightning attack to the poison head and ignited the cloud while it was still in the hydra’s throat. As usual for when I performed that stunt, the head exploded, showering the arena in blood and flaming meat missiles.
Trusting the hydra’s regeneration wouldn’t repair the ice head instantly, I split my bolt in two, directing two crystals each at the fire and sonic heads, trying to hit the eyes. It was an interesting exercise in mana control to hit small targets on such a large monster from a distance, especially with the increased power making control more unwieldy, but I managed to take out each pair of eyes. Not that it achieved much, with them regenerating in seconds.
The eyes of the ice head snapped open and it lifted itself back into position, healed enough to rejoin the fight after only a couple of dozen seconds. The regeneration of this monster was horrific, and there was no way I’d be able to disable all four heads at once. A single crystal couldn’t produce a bolt big enough to harm it, or I could have hit all four heads at the same time. But without getting the heads out of the way, I couldn’t attack the more vulnerable body. It wasn’t as if I could coax lightning bolts around corners.
Or could I? Should I risk my sword-staff for an idea that might not even work?
Taking advantage of the missing poison head, which was visibly growing back but for now let me see behind the body of the hydra, I activated [Far Reach] and stabbed my sword-staff into its back, leaving it there. It didn’t even notice, the weapon little more than a toothpick in the face of its bulk.
Then I launched another bolt of lightning at the highly conductive spike.
Trying to direct it around corners, or through the narrow gaps between heads was hard, but now it had a big metal rod to attract it. The bolt passed through the gap where the poison head should have been and grounded itself through my weapon and then the hydra’s body. That hurt it, doing more damage to its health pool than even the exploding head.
It also stunned it. The heads were still moving, but for a brief second, the body was not. It couldn’t turn, and that second was all I needed to take advantage. I used [Far Step] to circle the hydra, getting out of range of the heads and getting a clear shot at the body. Keeping it spasming and avoiding any of the heads pointing at me, I kept up the lightning blast until the boss fell dead.
Skill [Minor Speed] advanced to level 17
Skill [Expert Mana Control] advanced to level 17
Only two skill levels? I suppose, with the amount we’d fought against this hydra over the past weeks, we were all tapped out of skill gains even if I did solo it.
And solo it I had. Cluma hadn’t needed to move for the entire fight, and the only damage I’d taken was from the edges of a few breath attacks. I could do it; with this new weapon, I was ready to earn [Proficient Delver].