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The Guild Core 3: War Torn (A Dungeon Adventure)

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2021
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Mad Hag Books
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The Guild Core: War Torn



A Dungeon Adventure





TJ Reynolds





Edited by

James Walonyk





Mad Hag Books





This is a work of fiction.

Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

THE GUILD CORE 3: WAR TORN First edition. April 30, 2021.

Copyright © 2021 TJ Reynolds

Written by TJ Reynolds

Created with Vellum





Contents




World Map of Lianin



Map of Anvar



1. Hawk Flies with Sparrows



2. The Rabble Returns



3. Flagging Duties



4. Blessings Before Adventure



5. A Master Most Strict



6. Rooftop Revelations



7. Penance and Punctuality



8. Acting with Ambition



9. Unfamiliar Boots



10. The Value of a Packing List



11. A Place to Grow



12. Makeshift Mansion



13. As Seen in a Dream



14. He Who Holds all Eight



15. A Burdened Body



16. Secrets of the Scale



17. A Valid Excuse to Flex



18. Master of the Keep



19. To Hell with Banners Anyway



20. More Precious Than Life



21. Persistence of the Crab



22. If Death Spawned Wings



23. What the Darkness Fears



24. A Most Peculiar Custom



25. Reconsidering the Nest



26. The Bounty of Friendship



27. Oh, What Sweet Agony



28. All Things Golden, and What Comes After



29. Luminous



30. The Golden Valley



Anecdotes and Archival Particulars - Expanded





Liked What you Read?



About the Author



The LitRPG Guildmasters



If You’re a Fan of Cultivation, LitRPG, and Gamelit…



LitRPG





World Map of Lianin





Map of Anvar





1





Hawk Flies with Sparrows





Kai



The wind cut up over the distant peak like an invisible blade.

Bits of ice caught the afternoon light, turning them into a haze of golden sparks that cascaded upwards towards the group of dragons.

Kai shifted his wings slightly, gaining a bit more altitude so as to make the transition a little easier.

Now, let’s see if the young ones can manage the same with better results than last time, Kai thought, turning his long neck around to watch the dragonlings follow.

The first, the largest of ; the bunch, shifted his broad wings at the perfect time. A shudder passed through the dragonling’s body as the wind buffeted it, but it made it through easily enough.

After, the green-scaled Mireen dragonling thrust her head forward and charged into the blasting wind. Her smaller body rocked a bit harder; she had a stout heart and did nothing by half-measures.

The last two of the dragonlings, one gold and one white, braved the harsh winds.

The gold, an Orondi female nearly the same size as the Mireen, performed an interesting maneuver. She closed her wings halfway but inhaled and flattened her chest slightly. This allowed her to barrel through the harsh wind a little easier.

The Ananri, however, didn’t perform so admirably.

He shifted his head side to side, as if searching for some better solution than before. And of course, when the blade of wind crashed into his much smaller form, the dragonling’s flight was all but destroyed.

His wings popped back, and his thin body shook.

As he’d done time and again, the little dragon was thrown back, completely thwarted by the wind.

Kai circled round and met the Ananri.

Flying under the floundering dragon, Kai guided the beast back toward the others.

The two passed through the Knife’s Edge together, Kai’s massive body absorbing most of the force and allowing the little male to avoid a second disaster.

I don’t care what Jakodi says, Kai thought. If the little guy won’t toughen up a little, he will never become the dragon he needs to be.

The group of dragons descended from their height as one.

Kai had taken them this way seven days in a row in hopes the Ananri might master the unique obstacle the Knife’s Edge presented. They’d been searching for food, a near-constant pastime, when Kai heedlessly flew into the gale of wind.

At first, none of the dragonlings could master it, but one by one, and starting with the ever-competent Azure Dragon, they’d learned to get through.

All but you, Kai thought. I won’t always been here to protect you, ya know? You need to grow bold like your siblings. And you need to do so quickly.

Kai folded his wings and dropped down the opposite slope of the mountain.

One by one, the dragonlings did the same.

A long, narrow canyon opened up before them, a strip of verdant green tucked between the hoary peaks. This had proved an excellent hunting grounds of late.

It was also breathtakingly beautiful.

Kai still marveled at far he’d come in less than a year’s time.

He’d once considered the Pinea Forest outside of Mindonne to be the absolute height of natural beauty. But the Zargan Mountains spoke to something deep inside. They made him feel at home in a way he’d never experienced before.

Though the Sunken Keep proved to be a valuable resource, Kai still wished Ban had allowed him to travel much deeper into the mountains.

No sense in bringing that up again, Kai told himself. Besides, we achieved one of our greatest goals. We took out Hastings, the greatest threat to our quest of reviving the shivvered Earth Cores.

Kai dipped low enough to make out the stand of fir trees that grew along the edge of the canyon. He spotted wildlife dart left and right, fleeing for whatever cover could be found when his huge shadow crossed over them.

Most of the animals were too small to consider a meal.

Mountain goats and a few bounding deer might once have served to fill the gullets of the growing dragonlings, but those days were long gone.

Even the smallest Ananri dragon had grown to nearly half Kai’s length.

The dragonlings were scrawny things, of course. They would acquire bulk much later. But Jakodi insisted that should they continue to hunt, absorb the ether of their kills, and devour their flesh, the beasts would be ready for what would inevitably come.

An ear-splitting shriek erupted beside Kai’s head.

It was the Azure, eager for a kill.

He was the most promising of the four dragonlings who’d hatched, always pushing his own limits time and again.

It gave Kai hope that Jakodi’s assessment was correct.

Glancing ahead once more, Kai discovered the crisscross leaping pattern of a herd of beasts.

When he got close enough, he inspected the creatures.





Ringuard Faun

Mega Fauna

Golden 1





Kai veered to the right, pulling the dragonlings around for a more advantageous approach. They followed, rising up over the fir trees and circling around.

Then, as Kai came at the ringuard fauns, he scanned their herd for signs of danger.

Though the creatures were a much higher ascension than the dragonlings, who had yet to reach Amber, he’d learned one thing about dragons.

Their strength differed greatly when compared to other creatures.

Even his own progress now seemed sluggish compared to his half-brothers and sisters.

Each of the dragonlings could bring down one of the bulky grazers. Their twisted horns presented some danger, but the little dragons were quick.

The ringuard fauns reminded Kai of men who’d been mixed up with mountain goats. The combination was frankly disturbing, but he’d grown used to them by now.

They moved about on all fours, their shoulders and haunches bulging with muscle. But when they fought or presented a defense, the fauns would rise up on their back legs and strut about.

This gave them greater power when striking with their horns, something Kai could attest to directly. But it also made them appear like twisted men, stocky and possessing the wall-eyed gaze of sheep.

There you are, Kai thought, finding the alpha of the herd. And it just so happens I’m hungry myself. Sorry, my friend, but a dragon has to eat.

Kai opened his wings and flexed his torso. Pulling his legs forward, he opened his clawed feet and prepared to pounce on the poor beast.

This seemingly natural movement had taken Kai three times as long to master as his young charges. In fact, the blasted Azure had tackled a deer to the ground after his very first attempt, tearing into its neck and feasting as if it had been born to it.

After training himself all through the winter, however, Kai felt confident in his dragonly abilities now… at least insofar as to avoid embarrassment.

The alpha spotted Kai and immediately rose up on his hind legs.

Bleating its deep-throated challenge, the faun shook its head and twisted sideways to get a good look at Kai as he swooped in.

Seeing a huge dragon would make nearly any creature flee.

The ringuard were stout-hearted, though, and not once had an alpha left its duties and fled.

Kai timed his attack well, clutching the beast up in his claws and impaling it instantly.

The ringuard’s struggles ceased after Kai landed, crushing the faun in the process.

Concerned mostly about the progress of his young brethren, Kia swiveled his head around to observe the dragonlings.

The Azure and Mireen attacked first.

Though the Azure dragon had relatively small claws and fangs, his natural defenses lying in his massive tail, he still took down his prey first. Crashing into the side of a fleeing faun, the Azure collapsed his wings and increased the force of his impact.

The stunned faun could only bleed as the Azure dipped his horned head and tore out its throat.

The Mireen dragon was known for her terrible claws. She sunk them in around her faun’s spine and crushed all resistance. She too began to feed in earnest.

Then the Orondi attacked. She was more cautious than the others. Jakodi said it was a sign she’d inherited her race’s superior intelligence, and that they would all be grateful for her tactical prowess when she’d grown.

Finding the one injured faun whose gait was slower than its fellows and inconsistent, the Orondi landed on the creature and ended its life with her terrible fangs. She would never have the brute strength of the Azure, nor the ferocity of the Mireen, but the golden dragons possessed the longest and deadliest fangs for their size.

Finally, and awkwardly, the Ananri fell upon its victim, black claws and fangs sinking into the wooly fur.

In its haste to choose a target, the little dragon had selected one of the largest of the fauns, a male who must have weighed at least four hundred pounds.

It bucked and chuffed, veering around to smash the dragon on its back.

Kai growled, frustrated once more about the white dragon’s slow progress. Yet rather than step in to defend the creature, Kai waited to see what might happen.

Sure enough, the faun tore free and charged. The Ananri was by now over fifteen feet long with a twenty-foot wingspan. But its thin body weighed less than the faun, and its ribs were long and slender.

The male faun crashed into the Ananri, toppling him over in the tall grass.

Kai roared, a warning for the youngling to wake up and present his fangs.

Responding more to Kai’s threat than the faun’s bruising attack, the Ananri rolled away, and when the faun charged a second time, he gave a much more promising display.

He leapt into the air and curled over the top of the faun’s twisted horns. When the danger had passed, the dragonling attacked again. Its black claws sunk home, and it tore out the faun’s throat with a vicious bite.

Then, even as the blood still drained from its wound, the Ananri breathed in the cloud of blue ether that released from the faun’s body.

Still grumpy, Kai craned his head up and peered around.

The herd had moved on, a new alpha already asserting itself by leading the group of fauns to safety. A stand of fir trees stood some hundred feet off to the south, but only open grass waved in all other directions.

They are safe to eat, Kai thought. Time to enjoy my own meal.

His Progression had scarcely moved after taking the alpha. As an Emerald 3, Kai had been pushing hard to advance his ascension when not training the dragonlings. He had a great advantage the young ones did not.

Shortly after the dragonlings had hatched, Kai had asked Ban to produce a giant rat for them to kill. He’d assumed the dragons could take advantage of the swift ascension an Earth Core could provide.

Ban had assumed it was possible as well.

But his Earth Core had a fragmented memory, and his own knowledge was sorely lacking.

The rats had died and provided fresh meat for the dragonlings, but no ether could be absorbed. Only when Jakodi, of all people, arrived shortly after, had they learned the truth of it.

Dragons couldn’t take ether from the minions their Earth Cores provided.

Kai had protested, calling the notion foolish. He was, after all, a shivving dragon!

Jakodi had only smiled, his old face both sympathetic and amused. You are and always will be half a dragon, Kai. And thank the heavens it is so. For though you have many disadvantages, without the rapid Progression Ban gave you early on, you would not have survived this long.

The old man’s words had stung, but Kai accepted them.

After that, Kai had taken the dragonlings out as often as possible to hunt.

At first, the hatchlings had progressed quickly. When they’d ascended to Crimson, however, they had slowed significantly. Now, months later, the creatures were still working toward their Amber 1 ascension.

He watched them feast for a time, content he’d helped them feed and grow yet again.

Then Kai lowered his head and tore into the stringy flesh of the faun.

Consuming raw beasts was a delight Kai had never anticipated enjoying. In his human form, the prospect still sickened him a bit, especially when he found a clump of hair stuck between his teeth.

But dragons were designed differently.

He took bite after bite, sliding the meat down his gullet like an oversized bird.

When he’d stripped the carcass clean, Kai let the meal settle for a while.

Looking to the mile-long strip of wavering grass, Kai decided a walk would be just the thing.

He transformed back into a human.

The process was no longer quite as painful as it had once been. It wasn’t as if the sensations had diminished so much that Kai had grown used to them.

Suddenly tender-footed and naked, Kai wrapped the broad cloak around his body. He wore the garment around his dragon neck, which provided him with some comfort should he need to transform.

The wind was frigid and the grass cool beneath his feet, but wrapping the thick cloak about himself was enough.

Kai groaned in satisfaction as he glanced over at the four deadly monsters feasting beside him. “How in all of Hintar did I come here?” he wondered aloud. “Such a strange life I find myself in, almost like I’ve stepped into a waking legend.”

He walked to the top of a nearby knoll and sat down.

Folding his legs, he pulled the cloak about his body tighter.

The blue sky, already bleeding into the orange and pink of late afternoon, was a wonder in and of itself. The stony black mountains rose up around the canyon like immense dragons’ teeth, sealing them all away from the rest of the world.

Someday, Kai thought. Someday I’ll build a home up here. Who knows, maybe even Rhona will grace me with her presence from time to time.

Thinking of the monk caused a chain of emotions to collide within his chest.

He knew well enough he loved the woman. Still, Rhona felt trapped somewhere between a comrade and what he hoped might be a lover someday.

It was confusing to say the least.

And she didn’t at all seem clear on the subject either.

Sometimes she showed him affection, a private smile or a lingering touch. But then other times, the woman would demand solitude and isolate herself for days at a time.

Kai knew she needed space and time to think.

What she’d gone through in past months had been beyond taxing. Betraying the army she’d once served in, nearly being slaughtered by Hastings and his soldiers, and then finally defeating the man by mastering Gold Mind.

The technique was what changed things, Kai mused. And if I’m ever to understand her again, I must master it myself.

Kai closed his eyes and fell into himself. He forced the outside world away one sensation at a time.

The buffeting wind went first, and then the quiet roar of the mountain canyon.

Finally, even the cold was stripped from his consciousness.

Kai followed the instructions Rhona repeated time and again. He progressed up until the point of ultimate surrender. Then he crashed against that wall and felt himself rebuffed.

You have to surrender everything, Kai, Rhona had told him. You have to let go of your past, your dreams, your pain… you have to surrender it all, Kai, and become nothing at all.

As with any task or challenge, Kai gave this his all. He tried being forceful for a time, hoping to crash into the technique somehow.

Then he tried letting go and drifting toward the goal unconsciously.

Regardless of what he attempted, Kai remained a young man bound to the idea of becoming a powerful hero.

He remained a dragon with a deep and never-abating hunger.

He remained himself—flaws, ambition, and promising qualities all.

After perhaps an hour, Kai sighed and gave up. There was a long flight back to the Sunken Keep, and his dragonlings would need a bit of time to rouse from their slumber.

He stood and took a step toward the Azure, who had finished gorging first and whose chest thrummed away in deep sleep.

An odd noise mixed with the thrumming, and at first, Kai didn’t notice the rattle of the nearby predator before it pounced.

The wind shifted slightly, however, and Kai smelled it.

“Rise! Rise and fight!” Kai bellowed, turning around to see the schist lion stalking closer.

With gray skin and fur, the lion could blend in anywhere in the mountains but for the grass it tread upon.

The beast made straight for Kai, conceivably the weakest creature in this canyon.

If he’d had his glaive and armor, Kai could have defeated the monster without transforming. He still might be able to accomplish it with his magic alone.

Grinning, he decided to use this as a teaching opportunity, however.

Kai sprinted away, running behind the rising Azure.

The four dragonlings let out predatory growls as they faced the schist lion.

And since Kai knew transforming would frighten the beast away, he backed up, the grin still plastered to his face, excited to see the battle that was about to occur.

He didn’t have to wait long.

The schist lion was a fearsome beast. It stood six feet tall at the shoulders and was more powerful than the faun alpha had been.

But with only a single enemy to face down, the dragonlings looked eager to test themselves.

The Azure made the first move, spreading its wings and lifting up in the air the second the lion leapt.

The Azure winged backwards, raking the lion’s face with its claws and evading the beast’s attack. Its siblings swarmed the lion from its flanks.

Kai winced as the lion turned on the Mireen, raking her ribs with deadly claws.

She reacted by diving away while the Azure and Orondi moved in.

The schist lion batted the Azure across its snout and snapped at the golden Orondi with its powerful jaws. Then it barreled toward the still-retreating Mireen.

Kai had to hold himself back once more from transforming. No, I mustn’t. They will face far greater dangers in the year to come. Let them find the strength they need.

The lion shrugged off the dragonlings and bounded forward. It knocked the Mireen down into the grass and drew back its head.

Then, surprising Kai with its ferocity, the Ananri flew at the lion. He sunk his black talons into the lion’s nape and struck down like a snake with his long neck. Targeting an artery, the Ananri landed the first grievous wound on the lion’s body.

Finding itself surrounded by much more challenging prey, the lion roared in outrage, perhaps hoping to cause the dragonlings to scatter.

The lion’s claws blurred, and the battle raged on, reaching a pitched fever as both sides bled in the confrontation. Powerful though it was, the monster cat was growing weak, and the dragonlings fought on with zeal.

These are no common beasts, Kai thought as he watched the young dragons tear into the lion from all sides. You’ve picked a fight with the last of the dragons, and it will be your last.





2





The Rabble Returns





Bancroft



“I don’t precisely care where you put the altar,” Ban complained. “No, I don’t! And nor do I think it a good idea!”

Caw was a good leader, all the daldrim could ever hope for, but dealing with the creature stretched Ban’s patience to its limits.

The grubby monster had once feared Ban’s champion.

Now, after months of cohabitation, even the rough, gravelly tones of Greg’s voice had no effect of the daldrim.

Caw gestured with his hands in frustration. “Altar must be made for Great Leader! Must worship him! Caw only need to know where altar to be built!”

Ban decided it would be best to give in.

He had plenty of work to do, and contending with a creature with such limited faculties would surely ruin his own. “Fine!” Ban barked through his champion. “Build the altar over there, at the edge of the pool, okay? Now, if there is nothing else, I have—“

Caw spun on his heel and stalked away while Ban was still talking.

Ban let out a growl before abandoning his champion’s body and returning to his work in his mine. That’s what I get, he fumed. Treat minions like they are real people, and I’m destined to be disappointed. How rude!

Despite the mild frustration his interactions caused him, Ban found immediate reprieve in his tasks. Rather than continue to delve out in random directions, the Earth Core had initiated a much more thorough and organized harvesting of his resources.

After the threat Hastings brought was diminished, Ban had focused his efforts on first creating a tidy network of tunnels below the Sunken Keep.

He reinforced several sections with massive pillars of stone before he dug too eagerly.

Nothing could have ruined his plans more thoroughly than to erode the mountain enough to cause the entire keep to collapse.

He’d spent a week building up the foundation below the Sunken Keep and another few days burrowing out tunnels that would allow his minions free access to the chambers below.

Then Ban had truly pushed himself.

After discovering several veins of ore, Ban had consumed more raw material than he ever had before. He still felt guilty about the time he’d allowed himself to be absorbed in the task, but the fact that he’d fallen behind in his ascension gave him the endorsement he needed.

Converting the material to pure Progression, Ban finally reached his Emerald ascension.

With the upgrade came a great deal of benefits.

For one, his MCP, or Monster Control Points, had doubled! With 640 points available, Ban could summon an army of powerful minions should the need arise.

He was still a peaceful dungeon, but after brushing up against the vile Hastings, he had determined never to feel so vulnerable again.

His ether pool had grown as well, allowing him to work faster than before, but neither of those advancements appealed to him like the third.

Ban’s newly expanded domain meant everything to him!

Instead of being able to control seven hundred feet in all direction, Ban’s dungeon now had a 1400-foot radius!

At first, he’d been tempted to dig straight down, move his core, and discover even more riches buried in the bedrock below. But there were other matters to think of.

Should the keep be sieged again, Ban had plans to wage an initial skirmish on the grasslands surrounding the chasm.

This would not only allow Kai, Rhona, and the kobolds to hurl nastiness at the invaders from afar, but it would also let him send minions out of his keep and fight at the very edge of his domain.

By doing so, it would give Ban the opportunity to replenish his minions from the safety of his keep.

He could only summon minions when an invading force was outside his influence, after all.

So Ban compromised.

His awareness flitted through his new core room. It sat thirty feet below his previous one, secured by thick walls of stone and decorated with the most intricate vine and flower patterns he could manage to create.

After securing his core, Ban indulged Kia and Rhona by building out their own private rooms.

He split the base of the tower into three rooms. Kai and Rhona’s sleeping chambers stood on either side of a wide common room where the three of them—including Ban in his champion form—would often share meals.

The rowdy dragonlings had been moved outside.

In fact, the oversized lizards had two living quarters.

The first was a series of large nests tucked into the side of the tower. The second one they’d claimed for themselves.

Ban’s hanging gardens were still one of his most prideful achievements. The trees, plants, and dangling vines draped down splendidly from the ring around the chasm.

The dragonlings found the birds that lived there to be quite delicious, and, without even asking Ban his thoughts on the matter, had pushed down a few trees and made roosts for themselves there.

Ban pushed the little beasts from his mind and focused on his latest project.

On the outside of his new core room, Ban had assembled a minion barracks. Sure, he could summon and dismiss his creations at will, but having the beasts roaming around nearby made him feel secure.

When considering which minions should occupy the barracks, he of course came up on the subject of improving the creatures.

Naturally, Ban came up with a fighting pit for his minions to battle and test themselves.

The room was diverse, and included several environmental features Ban could activate at will. These included gaps that opened up in the floor, pillars that would make traversing the room difficult, and even a variety of traps.

He was waiting for Rhona to arrive and observe his latest contest.

She promised she’d be here by now, Ban grumbled. Oh well, I suppose there’s no harm in modifying my designs one last time.

He eyed one of his latest masterpieces.

The obsidian bear was a natural combination, one he’d spent long hours perfecting.

By combining the obsidian beetle—a massive insect with a thick, armored shell—with the bulky four-toed bear, a powerful and indomitable minion had been made.

Only standing four feet at the shoulder, the obsidian bear boasted six long, insectile legs. They granted greater leverage when smashing into foes, not to mention stability and speed as well.

A hard compromise was made in regards to the hide aspect of the minion. Ban could choose the armor that made the beetle so promising, or he could choose the thick and glossy fur of the bear.

Despite thinking the fur quite lovely, Ban acknowledged to himself that the armor was more important.

He did keep eight percent of the bear traits, however, which produced long spines that jutted out of the creature’s back like inch-thick hairs.

Kai thought Ban had lost his mind, but the dragon could be limited when it came to concepts of beauty.

The obsidian bear had the fangs and jaws of its bear parentage as well as the musculature, but what truly made it terrifying were the weapons Ban affixed to its front two limbs.

Since the bear could move about using its back four legs alone, Ban designed steel gauntlets that slipped over the bear’s front legs. They were tipped in thick spikes that were marvelously suited for bashing.

Ban glanced across the room at the striated crawler.

I know Kai thinks the beast is abhorrent, but I just don’t see it! I mean, what is inherently ugly about a spider? Ban chuckled to himself. Better question is, what is so inherently beautiful about humans? Nothing, if you ask me.

The crawler was an arachnid-mammal hybrid, which seemed perfectly suited to battle the obsidian bear.

With the body, legs, and antlers of a striated stag and the pincers, forelegs, and eye clusters of the cave crawler, it certainly was an interesting minion to look at.

Unique, Ban thought generously. Unique is a good word for it.

Try as he might, Ban couldn’t think of any way to improve the current model.

At first, Ban coated the antlers in a layer of steel. This turned them into devastating weapons, but the striated crawler was too easily damaged given its less impressive exoskeleton.

Ban amended this by forming a concave shield that the antlers held up.

Not only would this odd shield block arrows or attacks with ease, but if the minion twisted its head, it could even trap and break spears or sword tips.

Though the Earth Core appreciated the stalwart defense, the minion could do little but provide a moving shield.

He’d abandoned the design until Ban hit his Emerald ascension. Then he was able to unlock more options. For instance, he added four arms to the striated crawler’s shoulders.

The long spider appendages were now outfitted with weapons.

Ban placed blunt spheres on the lower, thicker legs, which acted as heavy maces. And on the top two, he simply coated the ends in a steel sheath and sharped them into daggers.

Marvelous. simply marvelous, and I do think Kai will come round and appreciate them more should we find ourselves in battle again.

Ban? Rhona asked tentatively. You down here?

If the Earth Core had been in his champion, he would have jumped.

Yes! Yes, of course, Rhona. Thank you for lending me your time, he said in a jumble of words. How was your meditation?

The monk huffed, leaning against the doorway that led into the battle room rather than coming inside.

Same as always, she replied glumly. Jakodi told me that I would find a way to overcome this feeling of loss. I can’t image it, though. Feels like…

Like something is missing, Ban supplied, having heard her sentiments too many times by now.

Rhona quirked a smile.

Then she strode into the room and sat down, tucking a lock of red hair behind her ear. Well, I’m here, Ban. Show me what you’ve got.

Ban felt a thrill of excitement surge through his body. He wished he could jump up and down.

Instead, he forced the striated crawler to tap its dagger points together rapidly.

Very well, Ms. Bloodspar. You will not be disappointed! Before we start, which beast will you choose as your champion?

Rhona blinked in confusion. I’m sorry, you want me to choose a favorite?

Just so!

The monk shrugged and pointed to the striated crawler. I’ll go with the more hideous one. That shield looks interesting.

Ban ignored the slight, lumping it in with the vast display of human ignorance he’d seen in his short life.

Very well! I choose the obsidian bear! Good luck, Rhona. I believe you’ve chosen poorly.

Then Ban reached out with his awareness and activated the minion he’d hidden away for just this occasion.

The woman’s poise evaporated the instant Ban’s modified gargat poked its head out of the hole in the corner of the room and screeched, sounding the start of the match.

Rhona rolled to the side, rising into a crouch with fists ready.

But when she saw the minion flapping its tiny wings and the two combatants walking forward to engage, she relaxed.

“That wasn’t funny, Ban,” Rhona muttered. “Not funny at all.”

I was going for dramatic, Ban clarified. Sorry to have startled you, my dear. Do pay attention, though, the battle has begun!

Rhona leaned against the wall, folding her arms over her chest, and watched as the amalgamations waged war.

The striated crawler held back, its oddly shaped shield moving right and left as it tried to predict its opponent’s attack.

Showing a much greater degree of aggression, the obsidian bear pushed forward. It struck out with both of its insectile legs, the mace-like appendages crashing home into the crawler’s shield.

The metal fanning out from the crawler’s antlers blocked time and again. A few cracks formed from the impacts, but the shield was holding for the time being.

Rhona stifled a yawn that irritated Ban.

Before she entered that mental state, she would have been thrilled to see such a contest. Now she can’t be bothered!

Tentatively, the striated crawler lashed out with its dagger arms.

These were lighter and quicker than its bulkier arms, but they proved ineffective.

The blade bounced off the bear’s thick exoskeleton, only scratching the natural armor. After a few attempts, the tip of one dagger broke off.

This failure must have encouraged the bear, for it surged forward, pounding away with its mace arms.

With the strength and stability of its sprawled insect legs, the obsidian bear had greater leverage.

The crawler gave way.

Finally, the bear landed a critical blow. Its right mace arm swung wide around its foe’s shield and cracked into the crawler’s ribs.

With a largely mammalian bone structure, the ribs were no match for the immense force applied.

I told you so! Ban shouted. Get ready to lose, Rhona! Oh, you will be sorry!

Unfortunately, his taunts produced no reaction from Rhona. She just watched the combatants as they continued their struggle.

Shrieking, the crawler backed away and thrashed its shield antlers to the side.

The steel edge struck the bear’s extended arm and cracked it.

The bear recoiled, roaring in pain as its front arm fell limp to the ground.

This display of weakness enticed the crawler to engage more aggressively for the first time. Pressing its advantage, the crawler finally struck out with all four of its attacking limbs.

It targeted the bear’s eyes with the daggers. The bear managed to dodge a few of these, but they distracted the beast.

Then the mace arms flew.

The obsidian bear blocked with its left arm, but its right flank was completely vulnerable.

The striated crawler struck time and again, pounding into the bear’s armored side. After three attacks, the exoskeleton shattered, and the mace plunged into the bear’s body.

No! Ban protested. A most inconvenient turn of events! Rally! Rally, damn you!

Of all times to interact, Rhona had the audacity to chuckle.

Ban looked to her usually stoic face and saw a quirk of a smile lifting the corner of her mouth.

He kept his thoughts and emotions private as a flicker of hope returned to his heart. There she is. I’ll bring out that Brintoshi girl with the barbed tongue again if it’s the last thing I do.

Ban’s focus returned to the fight, which was taking a turn for the worse.

His chosen champion struggled to free itself from the crawler’s clutches. One of the bear’s eyes was gouged from a thrust of a dagger arm.

Wincing away from the pain, the bear moved its head into the direct path of another heavy mace blow.

The minion’s skull caved in at the temple, ending what little chances it had left at victory.

The Earth Core groaned mentally, emphasizing his frustration.

His attempt to distract Rhona proved successful again. She laughed as she stood. Remember, Ban, you created both of these creatures. So, in a way, you’ve won twice over.

Thank you, Rhona. I am a bit disappointed in the obsidian bear’s performance, though.

The monk brushed off the seat of her pants and turned to leave.

Before she could do so, Ban said, A moment, Rhona! Please, I am only so good at this alone. Do you not have any advice on how to improve my constructs?

Rhona paused and leaned against the stone archway. Then she walked over to the minions. The one I chose, what is it called?

A striated crawler, Ban supplied immediately.

The striated crawler has an effective shield. But it could be reshaped. These antlers swoop up too high.

If they were widened and tilted down to the ground more, they would both provide a better frontal defense and also let the minion move more easily, she added. As it is, the monster must move about with its head lowered to the ground, which seems to obstruct its vision.

Ban smiled inwardly.

He’d noticed the same, but of course, Rhona was so much better at articulating these things.

The Earth Core waited while Rhona continued.

The daggers were less effective as well. I would make them thicker in the blade, slightly blunted considering the odd angle of attack. Leaning down, she pointed at the wrecked obsidian bear. Need I say this poor bastard is lacking in defense? Give it a helm, and perhaps reinforce the arms with steel as well. It fought well, though. A tough beast to be certain.

Ban appreciated all of her points and could find no flaws in her observations.

In all the other matches Ban had placed the bear in, it hadn’t broken its arm once, and with such overwhelming offense, no additional defense had been needed.

The value of his various experiments had become evident once again.

After absorbing the minions, he made mental notes to modify each and try again later.

Ban thanked Rhona and followed her as she walked up out of the battle room. I know I’ve asked a lot of you, Rhona, and surely you wish to seek out the solace of your meditations once more… but what are your thoughts on dinner?

The monk chuckled. I can find my appetite, Ban. Don’t you worry on that. Kai and his flying rats should be returning soon. Maybe they’ll bring some game with them we can roast up.

Ban’s awareness took in the golden light cascading down into the chasm around his keep. The endless splashing waterfall shook the air, and even as he looked up from just above Rhona’s shoulder, he saw flaring wings above.

Five shadows descended into the Sunken Keep, the largest, sure enough, clutching the corpse of some fallen creature.

He wished he was inhabiting Greg’s body, for if he had been, he’d be smiling.

Seems our timing is ideal, he said to Rhona, who stopped and peered up at Kai and his dragonlings.

I suppose so, Rhona said. I’m going to head over and feed Honor, maybe brush him out a bit before I come back.

Good idea. The old boy deserves it. Oh, and do make sure he tries those tubers the kobolds dredged up for us.

Rhona turned to walk around the tower to where Ban had built Honor a proper stable. Making accommodations for the war horse had been a priority, and well worth the challenge of doing so.

But then Rhona stopped dead in her tracks and gasped. In a disturbed voice, she asked aloud, “What in Briga’s bosom is that?”

Ban was about to scold his friend for her blasphemy when he noticed the terrifying statue currently under construction.

Exactly where he’d told them to build, the daldrim were assembling a twisted and insulting visage of his champion Greg.

Ban flitted into his champion’s body in an instant and barged out to confront the little devils.

“Caw!” he bellowed, sending the daldrim scattering away from his approach. “Caw! Get out here at once!”

“What is problem, Great Master?” The daldrim leader asked in a wavering voice. “Why scream?”

Ban growled in outrage and pointed to the gap-toothed horror in front of him. “This is the problem, Caw! How can you possibly think I look this ugly?”





3





Flagging Duties





Rhona



The dragonlings swooped away and found places to rest in their roost.

Rhona was happy they hadn’t chosen to descend to the base of the tower. It wasn’t that she despised the dragonlings; they were simply irritating to be around.

Jakodi had explained time and again that their excess energy and high-pitched screeching would no longer be so irksome.

With a gush of wind, Kai landed at the end of the river and dropped his prize.

Then he turned his body before transforming.

Rhona glanced away while her companion wrapped his nude body in the thick cloak he’d taken to wearing about his neck.

It is rather endearing, she thought. An excessively modest dragon.

She wasn’t at all bothered by seeing a man or woman’s body. Too many years of soldiering had ground away her own modesty, leaving behind a sense of pragmatism most couldn’t relate with.

If she were being honest, though, there was something else as well.

Her emotions towards Kai had become… complex of late. When she thought of Kai in her mind, she still saw the awkward youth she’d first met, sickly and near death in the swamps.

But every once in a while, she saw the broad-chested man who’d emerged.

Especially since mastering his dragon form, Kai’s body, confidence, and mannerisms had changed.

He was the handsome adventurer he’d fought so desperately to become.

“I hope you’re hungry, Rhona!” Kai called out. “I snatched up an elk on our way home.”

She faced the man and smiled. “It is always venison with you. I swear, Kai, it’s like you’ve forgotten what a tuber is.”

Kai chuckled.

Clutching his cloak around himself, he lowered his head and grinned. “I’ve dug up more taters than you’ve ever seen in your lifetime, Rhona. The day I forget them is the day I’ll be a happier man.”

The two chatted for a time while the daldrim swarmed the large elk. In minutes, they had assembled a large fire, skinned the beast, and hoisted its body over the flames.

Rhona watched the creatures work together, still fascinated by their cooperation. Having once been minions, it was Ban’s theory that they could still somehow communicate with their minds.

Either that, or they’d simply grown used to working in tandem for so many years.

She excused herself and at last made her way to Honor’s stable.

Around the side of the tower, Ban had turned much of the stone into turf. The Earth Core was good enough to refresh the grass daily, so it never turned to mud or died out.

Honor wandered as he saw fit, but preferred the soft grass where the sun most often fell.

Still, Rhona felt bad for the horse.

Ban had made a winding footpath that rose up to the rim of the chasm months ago. Since then, she’d only ridden the horse a handful of times.

“Hey, boy,” she whispered, running her fingers through the beast’s mane. “How you doing today?”

Honor chuffed, then pushed her in the chest with his nose. His tail swished, and he seemed restless, something Rhona had observed more often of late.

She walked over to the feeding bucket where Ban kept Honor’s treats. Taking out a handful of the yellow tubers, she fed the horse one at a time. “I’m sorry, okay? I promise, I’ll take you riding again soon.”

The horse chomped away, easily mollified as always.

His easygoing nature only made her feel more guilty.

So, Rhona did what any good horse companion should in such situations. She retrieved Honor’s brush as well as the bottle of oil the cavalry used to treat their mounts’ manes and tails.

Then she worked the horse’s coat patiently, chatting about anything and nothing at all while she did so.

An hour later, Rhona found herself seated at the large dinner table in the base of the tower. A platter of steaming elk steaks sat between a loaf of fresh bread and some mushroom stew the daldrim made.

Jakodi had returned from one of his long walks in the tunnels, a grin on his old face. “Please, Kai, tell me how the dragonlings are doing?”

“Good, actually,” Kai said between bites. “The Angitan is still struggling, but something shifted today. One of his siblings was in danger, and the little guy transformed before my very eyes! He might still be the scrawny runt of the clutch, but he fought like a true dragon today,” Kai finished, a look of satisfaction in his eyes.

The old wizard nodded. “Such a path is not uncommon. My own rise to power was not immediate nor grand.”

Rhona quirked an eyebrow.

Jakodi had given her many stories of the monks of the past.

He’d acted as a court wizard when he grew too old for combat, and when she’d seen him in Mindonne, that’s exactly how he’d appeared.

But Jakodi had once been a fierce monk.

He’d even earned the name “The Chipped Fang,” though to this day, the old man refused to explain the origin of his nickname.

“I was born a weakling, and my core refused to absorb ether as it was meant to,” Jakodi said. “For some reason, each time I defeated a creature, only a portion of its given ether found its way into my core. It took me till my twentieth name day to ascend to Crimson 1.”

Kai scoffed. “Almost took me as long. Is that so uncommon?”

The old man patted Kai on the shoulder. “You were raised by a farmer, Kai. My father was a Viridian ascended battle monk. My expectations were different than yours. The point, though, was that after I spread my wings, I quickly found my heart bold and my limbs strong.”

Rhona cleared her throat, but the old man shook his head and apologized before she could speak. “In time, Rhona. In time, I will tell you the story you wish to hear.”

She let out a sigh but could respect the monk’s wishes.

There were plenty of stories she wouldn’t repeat casually either.

Ban took a break from gorging himself, a practice he’d taken to wholeheartedly while in his champion’s body. “Where did you go today, Jakodi? Did you have a chance to check up on any of the new Earth Cores?”

“I spoke for a time with Rostinferel,” Jakodi said. “He is nearing Golden ascension. And the Earth Core has come up with scores of variations on spider minions. Fixated on them for some reason.”

Kai wiped his mouth and leaned back in his chair. “That is great news. Ross is a strange one, to be certain, though from my experience, all Earth Cores are a little batty.”

“Watch it, Kai,” Ban said in a growl. “I could poison your wine with no more than a thought. Remember that.”

Kai laughed but pressed the old man further. “What of the others? Have the kobolds sent word?”

Jakodi shook his head. “The Emerald dungeon, umm… Shoray, if I can remember right, supposedly encountered some issues with a neighboring pack of goblins. The kobolds sent a small band of reinforcements to defend her, but the Earth Core is so far away we won’t hear back for another few days at the least.”

Taking a sip of water, the old man continued. “The two young Crimsons, Lenda and Rool, both are nearing Amber ascension. At this rate, they should catch up to Ross within a month’s time.”

Rhona considered the odd life she’d stumbled into.

Gone was her pressing agenda to waylay Brintosh from starting a pointless war. In fact, after learning Hastings’ memories, she suspected the king of Brintosh was being manipulated all along.

She’d more or less accomplished her goals, which left her feeling somehow lost.

As the others chatted about which element the newly healed Earth Cores would take on, she wondered if her presence here was even needed.

Maybe the rangers need me, she thought, guarding her mind so the others couldn’t hear her. Tela must certainly have her hands full. Then again, what if the abyss beasts return? If there is one last worthy fight, it would be that one.

Thinking of the terrifying monster that had nearly killed them all gave her goosebumps.

She’d been locked with Hastings in a battle of their minds, but she’d seen the devastation the monster had brought to the Sunken Keep.

An army of such horrors would be beyond any force this world had ever faced.

“And how have your studies gone, Rhona?” Jakodi asked, interrupting her morbid thoughts. “Any progress in reaching your goal?”

Rhona jumped when she noticed the others watching her.

Kai had his usual half-guarded concern, and Ban smiled sympathetically down at her from Greg’s enormous black eyes.

She sighed and pushed back from the table.

Jakodi had been teaching her the next meditation technique she needed to master.

He called it, Temple of the Pristine Mind. Apparently, monks who mastered Gold Mind, as she’d done to defeat Hastings, often either departed from society to live out their days in peace or went mad.

Jakodi himself had nearly lost his will to live.

But, he insisted, if she pushed herself, she could find purpose and joy once again.

“Not much, I suppose,” she said quietly. “I worked for six hours today. I still can’t…”

Her words trailed off, and she picked up her mug and took a drink.

“Progress is often hard to measure, Rhona,” Jakodi said kindly. “I have nothing but faith that you will surmount this next challenge.”

An awkward silence spread through the room, and Rhona considered excusing herself.

Then Ban bumbled forward in an obvious attempt to salvage the evening. “Kai, what about you? Surely, you must have found some time to work on the new forms Jakodi gave you.”

Kai cleared his throat awkwardly. “I was busy with the dragonlings all day. I… I promise, I will spend more time in the days to come.”

Jakodi hummed patiently. “No need to fuss or worry. We have exactly enough time to complete our goals. With the Bleeding Tiger forms Rhona has given you, mastering the nine steps of the Dragon’s Dance will not prove impossible.”

Rhona glanced to her half-dragon friend.

Kai was rubbing his hands together uncomfortably. “They are more challenging than I ever considered. Makes me feel like the first time I tried to fly. Like a stone tied to a kite.”

“An apt description, Kai,” Ban said, his champion’s deep voice breaking into a rumbling laugh. “Remember when you flew through the waterfall?”

Rhona quirked a smile as well, recalling Kai’s first attempt to land when descending from the rim of the chasm above.

She smiled and fleshed out the story, knowing it would do them all a little good to share a laugh. “The best part wasn’t when he crashed through the water, nor when he summersaulted backwards into the pool below. It was that sound he made in his throat.”

Ban snorted and thumped the table with his champion’s huge fist. “Like a trumpet but cut off abruptly. Or an oversized goose being throttled mid-honk.”

“What would you know about geese?” Kai asked, pretending to be angry.

“I’ve read about the creatures from more than one book, thank you very much. They are described as the bane of all picnics.”

This caused Kai to snort and Rhona to chuckle.

Kai nodded. “Well, that is true. My aunt was once chased directly into a pond when two of the beasts attacked her. The crazy part is that anyone can defeat a goose. Just kick the bird in its chest and they’ll leave off. But they’re shivving terrifying!”

A loud knock sounded from the closed door at the base of the tower, interrupting their chat.

Kai stood up, his hand lifting a few inches instinctively.

He is ready with a spell at any time, Rhona thought as Greg crossed the room to open the door. How he’s changed. I only hope he doesn’t lose all of the innocence he once had in abundance.

Greg opened the door and gasped in delight.

The contrast between Ban’s somewhat posh and effeminate nature with Greg’s hulking form always delighted Rhona.

Pressing a thick-fingered hand to his mouth, Greg announced, “Sora! Kotsi! You’ve come just in time for dessert!”

Rhona chuckled and stood along with Jakodi.

The two war leaders of the kobolds ambled in. They wore steel plate mail, forged by Ban months ago. Each bore finely crafted weapons as well.

Kotsi set his great axe down near the door and bowed low. “We did not mean to interrupt. There is news that couldn’t wait, however, and Tesra sent us immediately.”

A flicker of torches held by a squad of kobolds outside the keep caught Rhona’s eye.

They’ve sent a troop of warriors, she mused. Something must be afoot.

“No problem at all,” Kai said. “Please, come in and tell us the news.”

Kotsi and Sora both bowed a second time to Kai.

Sora gripped his spear and remained standing near the door, but Kotsi strode forward.

“Great Dragon Kai! Some of our scouts have returned from a long mission. The Crimson Spears found two more Earth Cores within a week’s march!”

Rhona whistled. “Wow, and how is it we didn’t find them before?”

Kotsi bowed to her as well before answering. “There was a tunnel collapse, but it opened a new passageway. In fact, after we clear away the rubble and the path ahead, we should be able to return in four or five days.” The war chief turned to Kai. “We were hoping you might come and restore them. Having two more allies would be welcome indeed.”

Kai smiled. “Of course, Kotsi. I will leave first thing in the morning. In fact…” He glanced to Jakodi. “What would you say if I brought the dragonlings with me? We could kill monsters on the way, and if the Earth Core’s minions have turned wild, they should be able to absorb their ether, no?”

The old wizard nodded sagely. “Just so, Kaius. It is time they face greater danger and push themselves beyond hunting game in the mountains. It is time your brood learns how sharp their talons and fangs truly are.”

Kotsi and Sora grinned emphatically, and the two left after refusing to join the meal.

The kobolds did take advantage of what was left of the roast elk, however, and the troop of warriors began a feast outside the tower.

Kai and Rhona joined them, but the monk stayed well apart from the excitement.

She would not be going on this mission.

Only Kai could restore an Earth Core, and if the battles were anything like the previous ones they’d encountered, he would not need her assistance.

She sat with her back against the base of the tower and watched her companions enjoy the rest of the evening.

The same heavy weight settled in her chest, a reminder of how fleeting life truly was.

Rhona had nearly given in to despair several times in the past months.

No, not despair, she thought distantly. More like a pervasive and cold-fingered apathy.

She would continue to study the form Jakodi gave her, and she would master it. By recovering her sense of purpose and a will for the pleasures in life, Rhona could once again become useful to those she loved.

For the only alternative was to lose herself entirely.

And regardless of what her dampened heart told her, Rhona had no intention of giving up on this life so soon.





4





Blessings Before Adventure





Kai



The only thing that dampened the mood of the impromptu feast was witnessing Rhona try to conceal her sorrow.

Ever since surviving the siege, the woman had been anything but the fiery ex-soldier Kai had fallen for.

He realized that he’d do anything to help her regain the fire that burned so brightly within her.

Still, there was little he could do other than remain her companion and hope she might master Temple of the Pristine Mind.

He thought long about her struggles as he tried to fall asleep that night.

Jakodi had come to them when all they lacked was a master. Bearing knowledge of a bygone era, the old man had turned their worlds upside down.

Rhona spent her days struggling to master a single technique that eluded her completely.

And Kai, well, he struggled with the nine steps of Dragon’s Dance like it was his first time picking up the glaive. The movements were fluid and precise, requiring a greater degree of dexterity than Kai possessed.

Most frustrating of all, though Kai found the forms came to him easier each time he practiced them, Jakodi admitted they were only the foundation of the path Kai needed to walk down.

The nine forms each had seven techniques he had to learn afterward.

The only good news was that Jakodi wanted him to focus most of all on his Progression. Jakodi had some secret or boon to gift Kai when he reached his next ascension.

No matter how many times he asked, Jakodi refused to tell him, though.

Still, Kai trusted his old friend. Jakodi had never lied to Kai, never led him astray.

If I can make it to Viridian, Kai thought as fatigue pulled his eyes closed at last, then I can learn what the old man has been hiding away.

The next morning, they all woke early.

Unsurprisingly, Rhona announced that she wouldn’t be coming along. “Sorry, Kai, I really am. Jakodi has a few more tricks up his sleeve supposedly. I want to be there for you and the dragonlings, but…”

She chewed her bottom lip, guilt written clearly across her brow.

Kai took her by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. Gods above, have there ever been eyes more green?

He chuckled at the fleeting thought and told her what she needed to hear. “Take the time you need, Rhona. You brought down Hastings, a man that would have finished us all. You need to remember that. I certainly haven’t forgotten.”

Then, shocking even himself, he pulled her forward and kissed her brow gently.

Then he pushed her back and smiled.

Before things could grow awkward, he shot out a punch toward her stomach.

Predictably, the woman blocked it and sidestepped, instantly gaining a more advantageous angle for a counterattack.

She laughed and blushed a little. “Thank you, Kai. Good luck on the mission. One more Earth Core is one more victory in your mission.”

“Our mission,” he reminded her.

Rhona nodded again, some of the distress returning to her gaze. “Of course,” she said at last. “Well, travel safe and kill a hundred monsters for me. See you when you get back.”

He shoved down his emotions as he watched her head up the stairs of the tower. There was no time for such distractions, after all.

So Kai kept himself busy. The fields won’t plant themselves, he thought, repeating a saying his uncle loved to throw about.

The memory of his past life didn’t make him upset for once.

Kai thought fondly of the simple people who’d sacrificed so much to raise him. He promised himself he’d return one day with a bag full of gemstones.

They certainly deserved it.

Then he turned to the tasks ahead.

Kotsi and Sora had brought a dozen warriors. Six Cobalt Axes and six Crimson Spears would be coming along for the journey.

Ban filled two large packs with provisions and helped the warriors resupply.

The kobolds all wore much finer armor than before. Chain mail made up the greater part of the defenses, but Kai had encouraged a few select pieces of plate mail to complement.

The creatures wore steel helms and breastplates as well as plate greaves and bracers.

Kai’s Earth Core devised clever backpacks the kobolds could fight in without being hindered. They were small and clung to their backs.

Only large enough to hold water and a few basic supplies, the packs still allowed the squad to travel much further distances between resupplies.

Kai transformed and flew up to call the dragonlings down from their roost.

During Kai’s lengthy study of dragonkind, he’d learned much about their preferred roosts. So he’d asked his Earth Core to accommodate the dragonlings even before they’d taken to wing.

Ban had crafted seven roosting poles in all, thick oak logs where the dragons could wrap their clawed feet around like birds.

Behind each was a large nest made of woven vines, padded with everything from strips of moss the dragonlings had scavenged from the walls of the chasm to large feathers stolen from beasts they’d hunted.

Only four of the seven eggs had hatched, unfortunately, but they’d decided to keep the others as a symbol of hope.

Surely somewhere out in the great world, other eggs might be hiding.

And worst case, if these four grew to adulthood, they would be able to mate.

Kai landed on his own roost pole, much larger than the others and situated in the center so the dragonlings rested all around him.

He endured their thrilled screeching for a few minutes. These scaled creatures were essentially children, and all kids needed to express their emotions, regardless of how much it bothered their elders.

Kai sent out a firm thought, insisting they should be quiet and wait for him to speak.

The dragonlings ignored him, and the Azure even took to wing for a time. It circled around Kai twice before landing again

Then the Mireen reached over and bit the Orondi.

This is not working, Kai groaned mentally. Well, I suppose they’re not exactly like children. There’s one way to shut them up for sure.

Kai silenced the little beasties with a roar.

Focusing his mind, Kai attempted to communicate in this primitive and ineffective way.

He started by showing them images of flying away together, a common image he used to rouse them up for a hunt. Then he sent them an image of tunnels, adding the intention to go inside and to walk instead of fly.

This, of course, resulted in a great deal of confusion.

The dragonlings fell to squawking and flapping about again until he roared a second time to call their attention into focus.

After trying to speak with the group for ten minutes, the Azure tipped its scaled head up and screeched an assent.

Seeming to understand Kai at last, the dragonling sent him a ball of tangled emotions.

Excitement, rage, and hunger struck Kai’s mind, along with the intention to follow him and kill whatever Kai thought needed to be killed.

Good enough, Kai thought before wheeling down and landing at the base of the tower again.

He couldn’t wait for the creatures to reach their next ascension. Kai could speak with them using thoughts, but they didn’t react to words.

Rather, he found himself sending images and emotions mentally. The worst part was that the strange conversation was nearly one-sided. Only occasionally did he receive a direct mental response. And even then, it was often confusing for him to interpret.

I’ll bet the dragons of old didn’t struggle so hard with this. Must have come naturally to them.

Considering the concept from a different angle, he remembered that he had never been a dragonling. As a half-human, he’d been raised as a human, and couldn’t speak for years.

These were full dragons, and oppositely, wouldn’t be able to take a human form until they matured.

Dismissing the futile mental discussion, Kai landed and headed over to where he’d laid out his equipment.

Kai dressed and pulled on his armor and equipment.

Being able to turn into a dragon didn’t solve all of his problems. Since Kai was to be working with the kobolds as well, having the ability to speak aloud was more valuable than raw strength.

Plus, though he could still command his spells with great force in dragon form, he lacked the precision to do so safely around allies.

After Kai had inspected the kobolds’ ranks twice over, he searched for Greg. “Kotsi! Have you seen Greg anywhere? It’s nearly time we get going?”

The door to the dining room burst open and out stepped a terrifying creature.

The monster opened its mouth, and, of course, out came Ban’s voice. “What do you think, Kai? I think I’ve found a way to surpass Greg’s glory at last!”

Kai shook his head, eyeing the newly enhanced Greg.

Wearing a set of thick plate mail, the champion’s stout body was largely unchanged. Greg didn’t seem quite as tall, however, and even with the heavy armor, he seemed more lithe and graceful.

What was truly terrifying, however, was the pair of arachnid legs that sprouted from Greg’s back.

Curving up and over his shoulders, each leg was tipped with a thick blade.

The leg blades had curved, one-sided edges, almost like glaives if not shorter.

Greg’s face had also changed.

Ban hadn’t been able to shut up last night about how terribly the daldrim had depicted his champion.

Somehow, the sensitive Earth Core had managed to make things worse.

Greg’s forehead was now filled with a cluster of spider-like eyes, several of which were shielded by bony growth to protect them.

His mouth was unchanged, but a pair of pincers jutted out from the champion’s cheekbones. The pincers stretched to nearly a foot long, and clicked occasionally in front of Greg’s mouth.

Kai sighed. “He looks fierce, Ban. Truly a terrifying specimen you’ve cooked up.”

As Kai feared, Greg shook his big, scary head. “I know that! But what of his appearance? Is this version of Greg much more handsome?”

Kotsi came to Kai’s rescue.

The war chief laughed and slapped his belly. “That is a beautiful monster, Ban. We are honored to fight at Greg’s side!”

Seeing a six-limbed dungeon champion blush and turn its head away coyly turned out to be more than a little amusing.

Kai suppressed a laugh. “Very good, Ban, but we need to get going soon. We have a long way to go.”

Suddenly, Greg’s eyes became blank, and Ban spoke in Kai’s mind. Not quite yet! I have one more surprise, and believe me, Kai, it will be worth the wait!

Okay, Kai replied, knowing his friend wouldn’t waste his time for anything less than amazing. What did you think up this time?

Four pillars of blue ether flared to life before Kai. Slowly, their shapes became discernible.

Kai gasped in shock when he recognized what he was staring at.

That is my absolute favorite human response, Ban said ecstatically. I have been trying to replicate it, but you and Rhona are so much more convincing.

“Ban!” Kai said, ignoring the Earth Core. “Are these what I think they are?”

Indeed. The only hard part will be how to get the monsters to try them on.

Kai shook his head, knowing they were in for a struggle. But one glance at the intricate plate armor, designed perfectly for each of the dragonlings, convinced him it would be worthwhile.

The sets of armor came with what amounted to a helm and face guard. These shaffrons each had distinct shapes to complement the varying types of dragons.

Made with built-in nostril and ear holes as well as wide eye slits, the shaffron that would allow the creatures to function normally. The steel would protect their vulnerable temples and the flat expanse of their upper skull, however.

A series of hinged plates swooped down in the shape of a dragon’s neck in a dragon version of a crinet.

Ban had crafted this section with holes out the top to allow the spiked scales that rose up along the crest of their neck to jut out.

A similar section of plate would protect their tails. This would allow the dragonlings to lash out without fear of injuring themselves, since the armor came with a thick steel spike that completely surrounded the tail.

The middle portions were hard to recognize at first, but Kai discerned a sturdy petral to protect the dragonlings’ chest and forelimbs and a skirted crupper to cover their hindquarters.

As always, Ban’s design went far beyond any expectations.

The steel was thin and even flexible, and when Kai picked up a portion, he found it to be extremely light.

An hour later, Kotsi and Sora stood far away from the dragonlings, both sour as week-old milk.

Ban had healed them several times during the process.

Losing a few fingers—and once on Kotsi’s part, an entire forearm—hadn’t made either of the kobolds happy, though.

Kai ignored them and inspected each of the sets of armor as he walked down the line of dragonlings.

Cast in a deep cobalt finish, the Azure’s armor glinted in the morning light.

Ban had given each dragonling set of armor a hue that corresponded with the type of species: forest green for the mireen, a deep gold for the Orondi, and pearlescent white for the Ananri.

“How did you make the metal so light?” Kai asked, still baffled by the construction.

Greg puffed up his chest. “Inspect the items and see for yourself.”

Kai shrugged and inspected the Orondi’s armor since it was standing the closest to him.





Mithril Alloy Crinet of Flight

Defense: + 25 Armor

Protection: Face, Head

Quality: Masterwork

Properties: Significant Weight Reduction, Increased Agility, Increased Flight Speed





“Ban! This is amazing! And you found mithril? Why didn’t you tell me?”

The Earth Core spoke directly into Kai’s mind. More information I gleaned from Imogen. And it isn’t quite mithril. I found trace amounts of a rare metal called mithrium. I lacked the proper components to make true mithril, but this is nearly as good. It isn’t as strong but even lighter, which suited our purposed nicely. I figure when they have grown, I can make a suit of armor with harder, more durable metals. For now, though, this will do nicely.

Kai thanked his friend, then reminded Ban it was time to get moving.

The dragonlings were looking irritable, as were the kobolds.

At last, Kai gave Ban a farewell.

He called out for Greg to follow along, and the kobolds started off toward the newly discovered Earth Cores.





The following days were a grind, consisting mostly of endless travel.

The dragonlings were given a chance to fight with several packs of monsters, however, so they weren’t difficult to deal with.

Intermittent attacks by roaming spiders or other delving monsters gave their party an added source of food as well. This came in handy, as there was no way they could have carried enough food to last the dragonlings for such an extended trip.

Kotsi led their party directly to the weaker of the two dungeons.

It was closer, so that gave a good excuse to do so.

If truth were told, Kai also was reluctant to push the dragonlings too far.

On the morning of the fifth day after leaving the Sunken Keep, they at last arrived at the dungeon.

The tunnel had opened so wide it felt as if they were walking outside at times. This odd sensation was heightened by the vast array of glowing vegetation that led up to the dungeon’s entrance.

It almost looks on fire! Kai exclaimed, confused by the different color of light spilling across the stone threshold.

Then he looked up and realized where the second source of light was coming from.

A rift shot up through the bedrock of the mountain, leading into the outer world a hundred feet above their heads.

Kotsi came up to Kai and grunted. “The old dragon must have used this shaft to come and go as he pleased.”

“Seems like it,” Kai responded, noting the too-smooth walls of the shaft. “Only an Earth Core could create that.”

Kai took a deep breath but held back a moment.

He grasped Kotsi by the shoulder and stared into his reptilian eyes. “I know you want your warriors to gain experience, but these dragonlings must grow quickly. Can I enter first with the dragonlings, and you and your warriors follow behind in support?”

Kotsi nodded. “Of course, Dragon Kai. As you wish.”

“Thank you. I promise we will alternate, but if it’s possible, I’d like the dragonlings to ascend on this journey.”

Kotsi offered no further comments or arguments, so Kai called the four dragonlings forward with his mind.

They scrambled forward on all fours, eager to engage whatever monsters they might find.

As Kai walked into the dungeon, he thought again how wonderful it would be when his underlings ascended to Amber. Jakodi said it was an extremely important ascension for dragons as it allowed them to speak with their minds.

They would each choose a name, and at last, could even accept a spell scale.

Kai didn’t have enough of the precious items for each dragon, but anything he could give them would help immensely.

At Golden, the dragons would finally be able to make their own Earth Cores and take on a human form if they so desired.

That might not come for months or even years, so Kai pushed the thought from his mind.

A descending path led straight down to a circular chamber. Nothing was in it, but the walls were decorated with intricate patterns and images.

Kai studied them briefly, noticing the image of a dragon standing protectively over a sphere held upright in a dais.

It’s as if this Earth Core wrote out its own creation in picture form, Kai mused. I wonder if Ban would ever do something like this.

He almost called on Ban to re-enter his champion. Greg strode quietly just behind the dragonlings, so it wouldn’t take too long to do so.

But then his instincts were nearly overwhelmed with a thick and tangible sense of danger.

Where is that coming from? Kai wondered as he listened for any sounds that might give away what he was sensing.

Only silence answered.

The ether in the air was thicker than it had been out at the dungeon’s entrance. But other than that, nothing came up as he stared into the dim doorway leading deeper into the dungeon.

Maybe it was the stillness itself that bothered him.

Only sure that he meant to keep on his toes, Kai pressed forward, heading into the adjoining chamber.

It didn’t take long for Kai to discover that, as usual, his instincts were spot on.





5





A Master Most Strict





Kai



The first thing Kai noticed was a strange squelching sound repeating itself too many times to count.

A series of plopping noises followed. Loud splats, like wet mops smacking the ground, sounded all around him. In the dim light, Kai could only just make out the outlines of dozens of odd creatures as they fell from the ceiling.

Each was roughly the size of a hound, but they seemed flatter, almost like frogs.

When Kai caught a glimpse of one clearly, he inspected it.





Yumdarts

Predatory Amphibian

Amber 1





Their low level and diminutive size made Kai think the rabble would be easy to defeat, but there were so damned many of them.

Kai sent a series of images to the dragonlings, urging them to attack in formation.

He wanted the Azure in the front with the Mireen and Orondi to either side. The Ananri would pull up the rear and act as support.

The dragonlings received his messages and acted immediately.

Unfortunately, they completely ignored any concept of order.

The Azure rushed forward and left the others behind. He leaped onto a group of yumdarts, crushing a few of the beasts beneath his body and another between his jaws.

The Mireen and Orondi split off in opposite directions, leaving the Ananri alone with Kai.

Kai growled in anger. “If you get your arses kicked, don’t blame me.”

Sure enough, a large sum of monsters were quickly dispatched, but the undisciplined dragonlings were soon swamped from all sides.

A dozen yumdarts charged the Azure first.

Long tongues exploded from their mouths, slamming into the plate armor that protected the dragonling.

There must have been a barb or perhaps a bony growth on the tips of their ten-foot tongues, because the armor clanged loudly as each attack landed.

Three found the blue dragon’s flesh, however.

The Azure screeched in pain and swung its powerful tail. This knocked two yumdarts away, but the fight was far from over.

Kai sent a Flame Spear at a cluster of the creatures before turning to observe the Mireen. The yumdarts’ sizzling skin and hissing death rattles told him he’d taken down quite a few in the conflagration.

The Azure would have to take a few more hits, and, hopefully, might even learn a lesson from them.

Several yumdarts were tugging at the Mireen, their tongues sunk into the flesh on her left side. This reduced any attempts of the dragonling to counter, and more and more of the little monsters were digging their tongues into her flesh by the second.

Kai launched a second Flame Spear, and the spell roared out of the tip of his glaive.

It roasted a half dozen monsters and burned through many of the tongue binding the dragonling down.

Then he spun to see what trouble the Orondi had gotten itself into.

The gold dragon whipped her tail back and forth, dealing hard knocks to many of the smaller monsters.

Her tactic seemed to be paying off, but again, she was simply too outnumbered to last much longer.

Since she was dealing with the situation better, Kai though it best to support the dragonling rather than step in directly. He began casting Barbed Barkskin.

The spell used Earth ether, and took ten seconds to finish.

When it completed, a ball of green ether flew out and struck the Orondi. A series of crystalline thorns and barbs rose up over the dragon’s hide, which would cause damage to the yumdarts as they fought on.

Another benefit of the spell manifested shortly after as the dragon’s movements sped up.

In addition to providing a small buff to defense, the increased speed would allow it to effectively handle the rest of the attackers.

Kai glanced ahead when he heard the Azure roar.

More of the monsters were pulling him down, a few showing the second attack that made them more of a threat than he’d originally anticipated.

Rolling forward like sentient stones, the yumdarts threw themselves at the Azure and pounded into it with incredible force.

Kai was about to use another Barbed Barkskin when he noticed movement at the far end of the tunnel.

A veritable army of yumdarts were on their way.

I can call up Greg and the kobolds, Kai thought, or I can try to buy us a little time for these little shits to do what they can on their own.

Without hesitation, Kai threw out his right hand and channeled Shimmering Shield Wall.

He chewed his lip as the spell took forever to cast. Thirty seconds was a very long time in such a situation.

Remembering the Ananri still behind him, Kai sent the beast a stern order. It translated to Go, kill monsters, save friends!

At last, the Ananri entered the fray, darting forward in a streak of white steel and scales. It made for the Azure, who by now was getting the worst of it.

Whipping its tail around in a blur, it detached several lashing tongues at once.

This freed up the Azure to retaliate as well.

Then the most amazing thing happened.

The shivving fools fell in beside one another and fought in an effective, if loose, formation.

Kai’s spell completed and a wall of light fell down from the ceiling, blocking off most of the advancing monsters.

Dozens more had made it within range before the casting had completed, but Kai felt confident the dragonlings could handle the rest.

One by one, he cast Barbed Barkskin on the others.

With the added buff, the little dragons fought as bravely as Kai could have asked.

In twos and threes, they crushed the yumdarts, destroying the monsters and filling the air with a thick cloud of ether.

When the last of the monsters died, Kai held his breath.

Will they be able to absorb it? Kai wondered. If so, this has to count for a great deal of Progression.

In a whoosh of swirling light, the ether in the room started to move.

A small portion absorbed into Kai’s core. He’d killed quite a few with his Flame Spear.

But the vast majority raced into the dragonlings’ bodies.

Perhaps in relief that the fight was over, or due to the cooling effect of taking in so much ether, the dragons all tilted up their heads and roared.

Kai couldn’t help but grin. “Good work, you guys. Next time, listen more carefully though.”

With a couple minutes still left on his shield wall, Kai cast Restoring Tide on his charges.

He was grateful once again he’d chosen to reactivate the healing spell scale. Giving up Soul Projection wasn’t an easy choice to make, but given that his primary duty now was to keep the baby dragons alive, he knew it had been the right move.

Dragons mostly healed up, Kai strode forward to stand closer behind the beasts as they faced the hundred or so yumdarts writhing in a pile of squishy bodies at the wall’s edge.

Greg, Kai commanded with his mind, come forward and get ready to support.

Then he barked out to the kobolds still in the room behind. “Kotsi, Sora! Bring in your warriors. But do not attack unless we need you to.”

Two shouts of “Right away!” echoed back, followed by the pounding of a dozen sets of kobold boots.

Greg ran up beside Kai just as the Shimmering Shield Wall dispersed.

Ban had been so excited about his new champion, not only for its appearance but for the new abilities it came with.

Similar to the javelin attack the previous Greg had, this one had a similar ability that could target a large area at once.

Kai pointed to the surging mass of monsters, and cried out, “Thousand Sting Strike!”

Greg roared and threw back his arms.

The spider legs on his back arched backwards as well, their steel-clad tips glowing. Then a multitude of small, gleaming projectiles erupted from the daggers.

They streaked up into the sky, curving over the top of the dragons.

Suddenly, the chamber filled with a hissing noise that sounded like a tumbling waterfall.

It wasn’t the ability itself, but the cascade of deaths it caused as the yumdarts were thinned out.

The incredible volley had a two-hour cooldown, which made plenty of sense to Kai. That ability could turn the tide of a real battle too, he realized, proud of Ban’s accomplishment.

Greg stood dumbly at his side as the dragonlings fought together to finish the rest.

With snapping jaws and slashing talons, his young charges fought for another twenty minutes before the battle was won.

Having mostly recharged his spent Available Ether, Kai walked forward to heal the tired beasts.

More ether was absorbed, and Kai felt hopeful that they would finally be able to ascend to Amber.





After an hour-long break, the party headed further into the dungeon.

As the tunnel narrowed, Kai ordered the Azure to take the lead with him just behind.

They wound ever deeper, and soon came across resistance.

A handful of furry monsters burst free from the stone floor where they’d been hiding, and attacked the blue dragonling.

Already buffed with barkskin, the blue dragon reacted fiercely.

He dragged his claws at one of the monsters, which Kai had now identified as a frenzied quartzhog, injuring it fatally.

Two more got within striking range, only to be pounded in their armored chests by the Azure’s long tail.

Another of the monsters got off a hit, however.

As its oddly stick-like appendages struck the dragonling’s leg, stone erupted outward like spears.

Rather than shy away or wince, the Azure’s wrath exploded.

Raging, the dragonling flung the monster into the nearest wall, then swung his body.

His tail blasted the quartzhog in the chest, caving in its ribcage and killing it in a single blow.

This apparently wasn’t satisfying enough for the blue dragon.

It ran forward and crushed the monster’s skull in its jaws and tore its body limb from limb. Only after consuming most of the beast did it calm down.

Kai watched in fatherly admiration.

Then he sent out a thought to the Azure to fall behind, and he called the Mireen forward.

One by one, the dragonlings alternated as they plumbed the dungeon’s depths. They each got dozens of kills collectively, filling their cores with precious ether.

Finally, the tunnel ended, and a massive stairwell led downward.

Considering the rank of the monsters, all between Amber 1 and Golden 1 so far, Kai assumed they must be nearing the boss.

Sure enough, as he descended from the last step, Kai stared into a vast cavern.

At the far end, a brighter glow of ether-blue rose up and spilled across the wall. It was coming from a stone dais, one that most certainly held an Earth Core.

It would be satisfying to walk up to the shivvered core and heal it as he’d done so often before.

That would have to wait, however, for curled up in a ball before them was the bulky figure of the dungeon boss.

Losing any chance at a stealth kill, the dragonlings shrieked at the sight of the thing.

Surely, they thought the sound to be intimidating, but when the boss rose up on all fours, the young ones quieted.

“What’s wrong?” Kai asked with a smirk. “Not so strong anymore?”

He commanded the dragons to move to the flanks. They listened this time, the gold and blue heading off to the right of the chamber and the green and white to the left.

Kai jogged up with Greg at his side to face the monster directly while the kobolds stood behind in a defensive formation.

As he cast the barkskin spell on himself and Greg, Kai inspected the boss.





Rondus Prime

Territorial Geophage

Golden 3





The boss’ level didn’t concern Kai; it was the other details he’d picked up on.

This rondus, whatever the hells that was, had a stout body that looked to be made of stone.

With four legs splayed out below it, the monster had the general shape of a sludge hound. A single, broad claw tipped each foot, and instead of a slobbering maw, the monster had a beak in the center of its odd face.

For the life of him, Kai couldn’t find the thing’s eyes. Then he gave up inspecting the creepy expanse of gray flesh that made up the monster’s head.

Geophage… does that mean it can burrow? Kai wondered, recognizing only part of the strange word. Or does it eat stone? And it is a rondus prime. Does that mean there are—

The boss suddenly opened its beak and trumpeted loudly. A vortex of green ether surrounded its beak as it did so.

A rumble shook the floor, and stone exploded all around them.

Dozens of smaller rondus monsters rolled into the room from the tunnels they’ll been concealed in. Each was less than half the size of the boss, but that still meant they were as big as a dragonling.

Greg, pull the boss’ attention, Kai commanded with him mind. The dragonlings and I will kill its underlings first.

Then, before the battle could progress further, the monsters attacked.

The prime hunkered down and pounded its beak into the floor. Before Greg could get to the bastard, it tore a huge hole in the dungeon floor and disappeared.

A wave of Earth ether washed out in its wake.

Okay, so that’s what we’re dealing with, Kai thought grimly. This won’t get complicated at all.

Rather than be frustrated, Kai redirected Greg to support the Azure and Orondi as the beasts fought several of the smaller rondus monsters.

Kai charged to the opposite side of the room.

The Ananri attacked one of the monsters as he approached. Drawing the beast in with his wicked black claws, the dragonling lashed out with its jaws and ripped the monster’s throat out.

As it died, the rondus’ body shook and trembled.

Kai figured it was a sign of the beast’s death throes, but shortly after, long green spikes erupted from the beast’s knobby back and chest.

One lanced through the Ananri’s neck.

Recoiling in pain, the white dragon backed away and blood sprayed out in a wide arc.

Kai winced as he saw the grievous wound.

Before he could heal it, however, a few of the lesser monsters needed to be killed.

For the first time since entering the dungeon, Kai used his glaive.

Even as he slashed out the throat of a rondus, Kai sent a mental image of the Ananri’s misfortune, hoping to inform the other dragonlings of the danger of biting these creatures.

Then he dove out of the way of an incoming monster. The beast rolled past him like a boulder, then popped out its legs and opened its beak to bite him.

Kai thrust his glaive down its throat and released a Flame Spear.

The monster’s insides were torn apart and scorched, and it died before it could activate its death spikes.

Seeing the Mireen stuck between two more rondus monsters, Kai activated Breeze Step and teleported across the room. His glaive shot out in a deep thrust, sinking into the expanse of the monster’s forehead.

Kai spun around and slashed the rondus beside him through its hamstring.

Distracted by the pain, the monster wheeled around to fend him off, but Kai was already gone.

One more Breeze Step later, Kai sent two consecutive Flame Spears into the faces of three monsters that were hedging in the Orondi.

Then, seeing the battle was turning, Kai backed away to the center of the room and cast a heal on the Ananri.

Greg, wound the monsters but let the dragonlings finish them off, Kai commanded, hoping that most of the ether would feed the dragons’ cores.

Watching the battle unfold, Kai couldn’t help but be impressed with how much the dragonlings had already improved.

The Azure and Orondi alternated attacks now, both keeping the few remaining rondus monsters at bay while also landing critical blows occasionally.

Adopting a slightly different approach, the Mireen was facing three monsters and fighting in a completely defensive manner. It slashed with its claws and whipped its tail to keep them at bay.

Occasionally, when one of the rondus monsters overcommitted, the Ananri would jump out and deal a mortal wound.

He was bolder than Kai had given him credit for at first.

By far the weakest physically, the little Ananri male was showing a primal knowledge of battle that was often hard-earned.

It slashed tendons and struck only vulnerable areas with its tail.

When the last of the monsters died, Kai glanced around to make sure all were good and well.

Noticing the Orondi was limping heavily, Kai cast Restoring Tide and waited for the boss monster to return.

Minutes slowly passed while Kai rebuffed everyone present with another application of Barbed Barkskin.

All was silent until the often moody Mireen sat down heavily. Its plate mail clanked as its bottom struck the stone. No sooner had the sound faded than a faint rubble shook the floor.

Kai shouted mentally to the Mireen female. Move. Flee. Hide! He tried to approximate with a series of panicked images.

The green dragon swung her long head toward Kai, but she didn’t react in time.

In an eruption of stone and Earth ether, the ground opened up beneath her. Then the great rondus prime emerged, its beak already clamped down on the dragonling’s hindquarters.

The dragonling’s screech of pain reverberated in the chamber, slicing Kai’s heart in two. She flapped her wings and tried to pull herself away, but the boss monster’s jaws were too strong.

A squeak of metal giving way proved Ban’s armor was reaching the limits of its protection.

“No!” Kai screamed as he ran toward the beast. “No! No! No!”

He blasted its flank with three Flame Spear spells, but the monster remained fixated on his squalling quarry.

Kai wound up a Confounded Core, and while the spell charged, he shouted for Greg to act. Arachnid Assault!

One of Greg’s dagger-tipped arms lashed forward and fired a thick beam of light. It bored into the rondus’ hip joint, bursting a second later.

Finally, the boss monster opened its beak and roared in pain.

The Mireen slashed deep furrows across its face as she flapped away.

Kai released Confounded Core.

After ascending to Emerald 2, he’d been able to accept yet another spell scale. He’d happily chosen Confounded Core again, knowing it could devastate most enemies.

Since he was a higher ascension level than the boss, the spell worked.

Glowing faintly, the boss took a half step, then faltered. It tried backing up, but its movements were confused. Most importantly, it seemed the spell had also removed its ability to use skills.

Acting as one unit, the other dragonlings converged on the monster. Wisely, they didn’t try to injure it with blunt strikes from their tails. Instead, they used claw and fang, ripping into the beast’s stony flesh.

Kai let them have at it for long minutes.

The dragonlings could not pierce the boss’ flesh deep enough to kill it quickly, but they found arteries at its neck and the joints of his legs.

They ripped it to ribbons, shrieking louder and louder and they let their blood frenzy take over.

Even the Mireen joined in after Kai’s second Restoring Tide took effect.

Then the beast shook its head and a vivid green glow surrounded its body.

Not wanting to find out what might happen if the prime released its spell, Kai called off his charges.

Away. Mine. Kill, Kai mentally ordered as he jogged forward.

The dragonlings backed away as Kai leapt into the air. Using the enhanced strength of an Emerald ascended warrior, he flew high enough to thrust directly into the rondus’ skull.

As he’d done with its smaller counterparts, Kai pierced the beast with his glaive.

The enchanted weapon struck bone, but his momentum and power punched the blade through. Only when the glaive’s tip was embedded in the monster’s brain did Kai trigger Flame Spear.

He released his glaive and landed in a crouch.

A moment later, the monster toppled over, pounding into the stone of the dungeon’s chamber.

Kai ordered Kotsi and Sora to guard the dungeon’s entrance while he inspected the dragonlings one at a time. Only the Mireen remained injured, and it was due to a strip of plate mail that had been embedded into her haunch a few inches from her spine.

It took relying on Greg’s brute strength to tear it free and bend the metal backwards to solve the problem.

The Kai cast another Restoring Tide on the beast and ordered the dragonlings to feast on one of the fallen rondus monsters.

Since the monsters hadn’t been minions in untold years, and because the Earth Core of the dungeon was shivvered, the bodies remained scattered about the room.

Kai retrieved his glaive from the prime’s skull, and then approached the dais.

Glowing in a cup-shaped divot in the stone was the broken core.

It was split into three large fragments.

It was larger than Ross had been when they’d restored him, so Kai guessed this Earth Core might have been near Golden ascension when it was shivvered.

“Don’t worry, friend,” Kai said under his breath. “We’ll fix you right up.”

He removed one of his gauntlet as well as the knife he wore on his belt.

A clean nick later, and his blood wet his palm. Kai pressed his hand into the Earth Core.

Enduring only a minor shock of pain, Kai drained some of his hard-earned Progression into the Earth Core, healing its mind and body.

When the sensation passed, Kai panted over the smooth stone, smiling down at it. Hello there. Everything is going to be okay.

Who… who are you? the Earth Core asked in a frightened tone. And where is my dragon?

Kai sighed.

This part was always the hardest.

He took a deep breath and was, yet again, the one to break the bad news.

Your dragon has perished. I am sorry. As to your first question… My name is Kaius Unterinan, and I am the Fundamental Dragon.





6





Rooftop Revelations





Rhona



Days of fasting and alternating between meditation and practicing with the advanced forms of Path of the Bleeding Tiger had left Rhona delirious.

She’d complained to Jakodi that what they were doing was dangerous.

The old man had chuckled kindly and told her the honest truth. “You are inching closer to a precipice you will not return from. Find your own salvation, Rhona, or lose yourself entirely.”

So, that morning, she’d woken up and promised to once again give it her all.

Jakodi had decided it was time to up the stakes again.

Sitting in the center of the observation roof atop the Sunken Keep, Rhona stared out into the abyss.

The sun was shining, and the view all around her was nothing less than stunning.

The Zargan Mountains climbed up to their snowy peaks behind her, and ran north and south as far as the eye could see.

Down below was the verdant tumult that was southern Hintar. Endless grasslands striated with rivers and dotted with patches of dense forest broke up the terrain.

Yet the only thing that drew Rhona’s eye was the looming chasm.

The darkness was much more inviting than she wanted to admit, and yet her eyes stared ever downward.

When she’d first come up here, Rhona had counted no less than five villages and settlements, visible now from the height of Ban’s improved tower. The Earth Core hadn’t shut up for an hour as he described how challenging it had been to extend the keep upwards so high.

And she was impressed.

Over a hundred feet had been added to the Sunken Keep, though most of it was little more than a spire.

A thirty-foot base concealed three floors where archers could fire away nonstop at invading forces, nothing but thin arrow slits marring the otherwise smooth stone walls.

Atop that the spire began and stretched up higher and higher.

At the very peak, Rhona sat in the center of a square platform. It had been made for Ban’s minions to rest upon, and had no railing or parapets. Just over twenty feet wide, the platform felt dangerous and terrifying.

Is that what Jakodi wanted? Rhona wondered yet again. For me to sit up here for hours, terrified, cold, and alone?

She stood up and walked to stand a foot from the precipice.

The spire’s base stood directly below, and around that, the keep’s bulk spread around her so that if she fell, she would land there instead of tumble away to the chasm floor.

But it was still a hundred-foot fall.

Rhona felt her pulse quicken. She clutched her hands open and closed. Why not? What else could I possibly offer this world? Why shouldn’t I just—

“Jump if you must,” Jakodi said behind her.

Rhona gasped, her arms jerking in surprise. She spun around and saw the old master ascending the final step that led up to the peak.

His constant smile was gone.

And his eyes were cold as chips of stone.

He pointed the way she’d been looking. “Go ahead, young monk. If you are finished walking your path, let us see how far the tiger can fly.”

The woman took a step closer and hung her head in shame. “I wasn’t going to, Jakodi. I just…”

“But you wished to, or at the very least, thought that you did.”

Rhona nodded.

Jakodi met her in the center of the platform. “Listen, Rhona, and listen well. You are very confused. Entering the Gold Mind, especially so young, is a dangerous endeavor. You should have spent years training your will before even attempting it. But what is done is done.”

He repeated himself. “You are confused, Rhona. Time to find out if you truly wish to live in this waking world.”

Rhona opened her mouth to reply, but a force struck her in the stomach before she could do so. Stumbling back, she gasped for breath.

Then she looked down and saw Jakodi’s palm held out before him.

The old man moved in a blur.

Without thinking, Rhona reacted.

She blocked the punches that came so rapidly she couldn’t believe her eyes.

The ancient man fought with such precision and speed it was like she was dreaming, fighting with Hastings again in one of the many nightmares she’d had since the siege.

A fourth punch broke through her guard, slamming into her shoulder.

Jakodi jumped in the air as she gave ground again. He landed one kick to her thigh, bruising the muscle deeply. The other, he planted in her hip.

Rhona backpedaled a few more feet, but chose to roll forward to the side to evade another attack. The edge was close; she could practically feel it.

Still clutching his staff, Jakodi came at her.

Steely-eyed and seemingly furious, her mentor rained blows on Rhona without letting up.

She was a promising monk, and had an Emerald rank ascension.

Yet compared to the Chipped Fang, she was only a cub.

Again and again, Jakodi struck with fist or foot or elbow.

Rhona blocked and deflected the attacks. More than once, she was forced to dive and roll away to avoid toppling over the edge of the platform.

A fury rose in her stomach when the danger of their situation fully dawned on her.

She sped up to her maximum capability, blocked another three punches, and was about to activate Spirit Surge.

With the time-warping ability, not even Jakodi could defeat her.

But the old man fell into a deep squat, falling below her guard, and lashed out with both hands in either direction.

One clutched his staff as it pointed out to the Zargan Mountains to the west.

The other blasted her core, sending Rhona sprawling backward.

She would fall.

She knew it.

So close already to the edge, and the old man had taken her choice away with a single, ruthless attack.

Thoughts flashed through her mind: fears, doubts, and a multitude of emotions she didn’t have time to process.

Then Jakodi spun, taking a step closer at the same time.

A sudden pressure touched the back of her neck.

She teetered on the precipice, wind racing up from the chasm, as Jakodi held her upright with the crook of his staff.

“Ask yourself again, Rhona Bloodspar… do you wish to live in this waking world?”

Without hesitation she answered. “Yes! Yes, I do! I want to live!”

Jakodi held her for ten heartbeats until he apparently accepted her answer.

With a jerk of his arm, he pulled Rhona back onto the platform, where she collapsed forward to hands and knees. She crawled forward, arms and legs trembling with fright.

Rhona panted for a time, hating the man and also knowing the value of the gift he’d given her.

Jakodi knelt beside her.

His own breath was ragged, and when she looked into his face, she saw how much the exchange had taken from him.

He was pale, a sheen of sweat marking his freckled brow.

Never before had he seemed so old and frail.

“Do not return until you find yourself, girl. I expect nothing less than complete victory.”

Then he smiled before standing up and tottering toward the stairs.





It took Rhona an hour to recover.

Something about being throttled by her seemingly benign mentor and having a brush with death had made quite an impression on her nerves.

Seated in the center of the platform again, Rhona used the intricate breathing cycle Jakodi had taught her and Kai.

It slowed her heart and steadied her limbs.

Closing her eyes and glancing inwards, she admired the technique’s other benefit.

Her core shone brighter than before. Its burning fire glowed a little hotter each time she breathed in. This in turn restored her energy, and soon she felt ready to continue her mental journey.

Temple of the Pristine Mind was, like the other forms she’d mastered, a mental construction.

In fact, it combined the previous techniques and overlapped them. Attempting to summon Crystal, Iron, and Gold Mind at once challenged Rhona beyond anything else she’d attempted in her life.

But she’d seen the yawning abyss, and she knew it wanted to claim her.

I will conquer this, she told herself firmly. I’ll become the tiger I set out to be years ago. Palben will be proud, and so will Jakodi. Besides, what would Kai do without me?

Strengthening her resolve, Rhona assembled the sheer walls of Crystal Mind first.

This part was easy by now. It allowed her to contain the space within her mind she meant to tame and cultivate.

“The mind is like a garden,” Jakodi had told her on the first day they trained together. “If you cannot become emperor within the confines of your own skull, how will you ever advance along your path?”

She hadn’t known how to answer him, but now she knew intimately how right he’d been.

Crystal Mind completed, Rhona felt the tranquility and the clearness of thought it brought with it.

She breathed a little easier but pushed forward into Iron Mind. Holding onto the first technique, she enclosed the inner portion of her temple within a thick sphere of unyielding iron.

The sphere clanged shut, and it took all of her focus to maintain the thin walls of crystal on the outside.

Safe and protected now, Rhona relaxed yet again.

This was where she’d wanted to stay most days. The clarity and safety the combined techniques offered were simply delightful when compared to the wandering selflessness she experienced in Gold Mind.

At last Rhona resolved to go further.

Gold Mind took a conscious letting go of the self. By doing so, she was given increased foresight, an awareness of her surroundings and the things in her life that were often terrifying.

There was a peacefulness there, too, like the golden motes of afternoon sunlight that fell through a window.

She could float there for an eternity.

Only after defeating Hastings had she discovered just how tempting it was to exist in that peaceful state forever.

It quashed out all sense of desire for the living world, and made her life, and even those she loved, seem empty.

But Jakodi had reminded her that in the deepest recesses of her heart, Rhona still had a