We open this chapter with a brief recount of the dungeon raid from before from Cal’s perspective, the only important takeaway from which is that he has done an atrocious job placing his static defenses or else made his corridors way too wide, because despite multiple chokepoints it was only through pure chance that one of the raiders actually walked into any of his defenses. Shouldn’t have been hard to give total coverage to the entrances and exits to each room, Cal.
The other important takeaway is that Cal gets essence from people dying within his influence, and it is worth a lot. So much that he has trouble holding onto it all and threatens to overload and die.
The dead man’s Essence blasted into me, more varied and elaborate than any I had ever had the pleasure of enjoying before. The power was so vast that it was simply impossible for me to contain it. Fire, water, air, earth, celestial, and infernal – all the basic Essences – were pouring into me and processing themselves. He released raw, unstable, pure Essence into my Core, and into the world around me as it overflowed.
Dani tried to help, “Cal! Try and collect it in a shell around you! Make a larger body for yourself!”
This kinda reminds me of a system of arcanobabble I once developed that operated on the interactions between the four elemental essences and humour theory and so forth (I think it’s actually on the blog somewhere, back when I was posting full articles daily and regularly had to mine whatever creative work I had lying around for fodder whenever I had no ideas left, which was very often). I didn’t end up liking it that much, because while it was a self-consistent source of arcanobabble for wizards to go on about ether circuits and paralyzing energies and so forth, I was never really able to get them to hook into real world physics or biology in a way that would allow for unexpected results the way that, for example, Brandon Sanderson’s allomancy did. For all the complexity of the system, its actual effects on the world were just as arbitrary as a D&D spell list.
The interesting interactions between different mana types were purely by fiat. Shadow mana, which humans generate when they’re scared, converts spirit mana into itself. The spirit world is comprised entirely of spirit mana, and will therefore immediately kill any humans who enter unless they’re part of a recognized order of placid monks who are known to train their initiates to be without fear before allowing them to enter the spirit world. It may look like an emergent property on the surface, but ultimately, what can you do with that information other than siege the spirit world in the exact same manner as was explicitly laid out already? There’s no “what can an allomancer do with a car” kind of questions.
My reminiscing aside, paragraphs after this make it clear that trying to hang onto so much essence at once is painful and dangerous, yet it’s not until the middle of the raid that Dani tells him how to reliably burn off the excess whenever he needs to (for whatever reason, the trick of expanding his body does not work a second time):
<Dani, what do I do?!> I screamed, the pain making my vision strobe.
“Push it out! Release the Essence out into your body, the dungeon!” Dani shouted back.
So, not great long term planning skills on display here. Alternatively, she may be taken off guard that Cal can even get essence out of dead people, if that’s supposed to be a thing limited to white or black gems, but Cal said that he got all kinds of essence out of them, so it seems like any dungeon profits from more complex creatures biting it in their zone of influence. Seems like the only reason black and white dungeons advance rapidly by starting wars on top of themselves is because they’re the only ones with the abilities to pull it off.
And then we get to the part where the book tries to clumsily justify profiting from the murder of multiple humans:
<What do you mean? I feel good. Pretty full, I guess.> I offered questioningly. Dani looked at me then did her version of a shrug, bobbing up and down a bit.
“Well, I was just worried, people did just die in here, and I thought that you might be scared, or horrified, or just plain upset.” I considered this for a moment.
<Well, this is what I need to do to get stronger, right? I don’t think that I have the same morals or values as flesh and blood creatures. It isn’t so much that I am happy they died, I am happy that I lived. I’m glad that I got stronger, the cost of it is just. . . the way it happens.>
Cal says he doesn’t have the same morals and values of flesh and blood creatures, but what we’re seeing here isn’t some actually interesting alien system of morals. It’s just video game morality, in which players develop a near sociopathic disregard for the lives of any NPC they don’t have a personal relationship with. Anyone who remembers my Ace Combat Zero references back in Awaken Online knows I am by no means immune to it – God only knows how many innocent people I’ve bombed because I wanted to get as many targets in the radius of a fuel-air explosive as I could and there were civilian factories in the same area.
The thing is, this is a property of being fictitious. Somewhere around my third playthrough of the AC0 campaign, my empathy for the civilians on the ground eroded under the clearly fictitious nature of the Groundhog Day loop I was caught in, fighting the same battles of the same war over and over again, not in a WW1 “every day of the war is the same” sense, but in the video game “I have heard this dialogue three times already” sense. My empathy switched off because it had become inescapable that the situation wasn’t real.
That does not apply to this situation at all, and Cal’s player character morality is just him justifying having no concern for human life so long as it makes him more powerful. It doesn’t even have the raw honesty of someone admitting that power is their ultimate goal and other peoples’ lives aren’t important to that, because he feels the need to justify himself, to feign (or perhaps legitimately feel but discard) some level of empathy. He describes the deaths he just profited from with ellipses and assertions that he’s not happy that they died, which may just be characters announcing their traits like they do in this book, but in this context comes across like he’s concerned about perceived as bloodthirsty. But he is bloodthirsty. He just declared that he’s perfectly willing to profit from other people’s deaths.
And Dani immediately agrees that being a dungeon makes it totally okay to murder people:
Dani agreed. “It is what you are, you’re right. Always remember, the people that come here are risking their lives to get stronger, and to get rich. It is a risk that many will not survive, but it is their own choices – and greed – that will drive them here.”
What the Hell kind of morality is this? “They chose to take a risk, therefore it’s okay to murder them?” What about being willing to risk their lives for treasure is so terrible that it should be a capital crime? How the Hell do you get from “they knew it was possible they might die” to “their lives have no value?” And “it’s what you are.” Either this refers to dungeons being capable of killing people, to dungeons being able to profit from killing people, or that all the other dungeons are killing people. “It’s okay to kill people because you’re good at it,” “it’s okay to kill people because it’s beneficial to you,” and “it’s okay to kill people because lots of other people are doing it” are all transparently stupid justifications for murder.
And why are they barely even referencing the far more reasonable justification that, knowingly or not, they were here to kill Cal? They came into his house to murder him for loot. Cal turned out to be better at the murder game than they were. Sure, they didn’t know that they’d be killing a sapient creature by looting the gem at the heart of the dungeon, but Cal’s not required to sacrifice his life to protect the victims of whatever conspiracy is keeping the nature of dungeon hearts a secret. It’s unfortunate but perfectly reasonable for Cal to kill anyone who enters the dungeon with clearly stated intentions to loot the place, even if they don’t know they’d be killing someone in the process. So why does the book ignore the self defense argument in favor of “one class of people is allowed to kill another class of people for profit because they want to and/or are good at it?”
After the morality lesson, the special essence tree sprouts and Cal terraforms it some better soil to grow on, and then we learn that my using “essence” and “mana” interchangeably in earlier posts has actually turned out to be potentially misleading:
“Yeah, Essence is only the most basic form of energy provided by the heavens and the earth. To break into the ‘B’ rank, you will need to learn to further refine Essence into Mana, to get into the ‘S’ rank you will need to learn about spiritual energy, and when we finally escape the ‘SSS’ rank and move into heavenly, you will need to find a ‘fundamental’ energy.” Dani started a lecture as I silently groaned.
Once again, the narrative hangs a lampshade on Dani’s bozo box tutorial, rather than finding some better way to deliver this information. It’s easier to do in a book than in a video game, even, since you don’t have to worry about coaxing players into the kind of experimentation that will make the game systems clear, you can just have whatever character traits are most conducive to exploring your system be part of your protagonist’s personality, or handed off to a supporting character.
It’s hard to provide a particular example of how you could pull this off in this situation, because despite a paragraph that is basically just a tutorial pop-up transliterated into a book, we haven’t been given any information on what mana, “spiritual energy,” or “fundamental energy” actually do or how they’re different from regular essence. Probably they’re prerequisites to high tier monsters or something, in which case having such a monster stumble into the dungeon and get killed would release that energy, and then Cal could be all “wtf is this?” Bam, energy types that Cal doesn’t immediately understand how to use are established.
We get even stronger xanxia influences as Cal starts refining his essence into…mana? He’s not even E rank yet. Dani didn’t really explain exactly what she’s showing him how to do, just that it would get him to E rank (but presumably not all the way to B rank), but part of the process is this:
As these competing swirls continued to spin, the fine inner center started to accumulate, apparently this process was called a ‘Chi spiral’. Pronounced ‘Key spiral’, Dani told me haughtily.
Then spell it phonetically. There’s no reason not to spell it as “ki spiral.” There’s no strictly right or wrong way to transliterate non-latin alphabets into latin alphabets. And why did Dani have to correct Cal’s pronunciation (or just inform him of it)? They’re not reading a book like we are, she, specifically, is speaking out loud in totally ordinary quotation marks. She says “ki spiral” and Cal will instantly know that’s the pronunciation to use.
Conversation then drifts to dungeon defenses (worried that I’m skipping over important stuff bouncing from conversation to conversation? Don’t be, this chapter really is just Dani dumping like five tutorials on Cal):
“The monsters in here need to be stronger, ranged, or able to move around. That group made it into the Boss room without having to fight a single time!”
How would the monsters being stronger help with that? Doesn’t matter how much damage the shroomishes do if no one ever fights them.
They then begin to discuss loot (“hang on, Chamomile, what conclusion did they come to in the last conversation about ranged/mobile monsters?” They didn’t).
Dani went quiet for a moment, like she always did before having something interesting to say. “Let’s talk about loot.”
<Loot. Got it. What’s that?> I wanted to know, and she would always drag these conversations out to keep my full attention. Surprising me, she jumped right in.
“Loot is a payment system for defeating monsters. It helps distract adventures from taking everything they see, and will guarantee that people will come back if they survive.
Describing loot as a “payment system” is kind of accurate, but really it’s bait. You don’t actually want dungeon raiders to get out of the dungeon with it, you want them to die trying, so that you don’t have to spend more essence making more. Loot will not distract adventurers from taking everything they see, it will encourage them to take everything they see. People who get enough loot to pay their mortgage may not decide to come back for more, so there is no guarantee at all.
Escalating the reward to more elaborate items for coming deeper in the dungeon increases the odds that you will have more opportunities to kill them off, and become stronger.”
This isn’t a terrible bit of advice, though. Encouraging aggression in a raiding party is a great way to pick off their numbers.
It’s split across pages that makes it hard to copy/paste and not a big enough deal for me to want to copy/paste it anyway, but the book attempts an explanation as to why fully formed helmets and coins pop out of defeated monsters that clearly do not use those items. This isn’t a bad idea in principle, but the actual explanation is just “there’s a way to store the essence and pattern required to create items in a monster such that it will activate when a monster is slain, which causes slain wolves to disgorge the contents of a small treasury.” Like, okay, I’m totally willing to accept it’s possible to do it that way, but you’ve yet to explain why you’d bother. Particularly, why a helmet? Why give adventurers items that make them better adventurers? Why not just rely purely on treasure, which they will be unable to exchange for better gear until after they’ve already escaped your dungeon and you’ve failed anyway? A video game needs loot progression to work (if it’s got Diablo DNA, at least), so if a game just wants to lampshade it or even leave it completely unexplained, then fine, but the book doesn’t need to do that. The book can just give out gold and gems and other treasure. The only immediately obvious plot function is to serve as bait, and I doubt we’re getting anything deeper than that.
Cal upgrades his dungeon with some ranged attackers (I think mushrooms that can launch thorn projectiles? It says they’re ranged but doesn’t say how) and a new boss with vampire abilities. And that is the chapter. I hope we go back to talking about Dale soon. That guy could just sit around completing “how to adventurer” tutorials the same way Cal is doing with “how to dungeon” tutorials, but he isn’t. Instead of just reading and implementing tooltips, he had an actual character arc.