While Cal has been sealed away working on his new mooks, the adventurers out front have noticed the dungeon is sealed up. Dale and his party are assigned to find a “seeker,” some kind of detection specialist mage, and get them to look at the door. You might assume this entails some kind of side quest, but no, apparently this mage needs an escort from one end of the camp to the other, and then for some reason needs to have their report back to the guild master relayed through Dale’s party instead of just going to talk to the guild master themselves.
We also get our first full look at Dale’s party:
They stopped and the other men in his group, Hans, the near silent Josh, and the ranger Steve, now looked upset at Craig’s words.
I can’t even remember which of Hans and Craig is the monk, and it’s still not clear what class Josh is supposed to be. Rogue, maybe? ‘Cause he’s quiet? Or maybe another Fighter, and he just doesn’t talk much.
In any case, without any dungeons to delve, Craig starts teaching Dale how to manipulate his chi more better. Which kind of mirrors what Cal is doing in his dungeon right now (remember that he spent a lot of time chi refining before he expanded his layout and experimented with the elemental bunnies), but I’m not sure what the parallel is supposed to indicate other than “both of these guys are protagonists of this book.”
After Dale follows Craig’s instructions, one of his “meridians” opens up. Apparently he picked one of the ones that isn’t fatal, which is maybe something Craig should’ve instructed him on first, rather than just have him bust open the first meridian he found in himself, unaware there were any others to locate and that some of them could kill him. Craig says they would’ve saved him if he went into cardiac arrest trying to open up the wrong meridian first, but it’s not clear why they didn’t just tell him which meridians to avoid. After Dale’s already got lucky, they go ahead and monologue at him:
“There are twelve paired meridians, six ‘yin’ and six ‘yang’.[“]
We get more arcanobabble about how the different meridians work, and the one Dale just opened up will apparently give him a CON bonus. Not that they actually have CON bonuses in this book, but it increases all the things you’d expect a CON bonus to increase.
After unlocking a meridian, Dale and his party meet up with the Mage what’s supposed to examine the door for them.
An unfamiliar man was waiting for them, his slim frame raising questions as to his status as a Mage in Dale’s mind.
Really? A slim frame makes him seem less likely to be a Mage? I realize that this story leans on xanxia and its Chinese-style fantasy heavily enough that the western trope of the frail wizard doesn’t necessarily apply (although some of the western tropes do apply, and figuring out which is which is all a bit of a mess – it’s not that it’s impossible to combine these two fantasy paradigms, it’s that Dungeon Born’s attempts to do so come across as a bit random and scattershot). A Mage is a guy who’s so awesome at chi cultivation that he has awesome magic powers, and is strictly an upgrade on a Fighter or whatever. Even so, just a page or two back there was a conversation about how a huge guy with no chi cultivation at all was actually weaker than Dale’s burgeoning chi-induced super strength despite the fact that Dale isn’t particularly bulking up, so the idea that a slim dude could be a Mage should not come as this much of a surprise.
The Mage rushes down the spiral staircase to see the slab of stone that’s blocked off the entrance to the dungeon, and…
The Team followed at a more measured pace, meeting the Mage as he was staring at the door.
More bizarre capitalization. I guess the official name for Dale’s team is “the Team?” Or is “team” just a term to refer to an adventuring party, which the author felt the need to capitalize for no better reason except that it’s new jargon? Or is this just a typo? It comes up again just a bit later when they’re using their usual dungeon raiding time for some training drills instead:
Realizing the error in their ways, they began with the most basic of basics; teaching him the proper way to hold his Morningstar.
A morningstar isn’t even a new term. It’s just a regular noun referring to an actual medieval weapon that really existed (if one that was significantly less common in the time period than modern media would have you believe).
[P]icking up a weapon and suddenly being good with it wasn’t realistic, it was a childish and lazy fantasy.
I appreciate that Dungeon Born is bucking that trend, but it shouldn’t be drawing attention to it like this. If that were a major theme of the story then fair enough, but this is the first time the idea that instant skill is unrealistic has even been mentioned, and we’re 44% of the way through a story with memory stones and chi cultivation and a dungeon heart protagonist with an as-yet unexplained ability to shove corruption around whenever he wants.
The Portal Mages (is that a specific organization or a profession or…?) show up at the end of the chapter, and Frank convinces Dale to take a percentage of their profit rather than leasing the land to them. The narrative brings up how weird it is that Frank is helping Dale out, and I’m not sure if that’s because there’s a sinister ulterior motive here or if it’s just the author noticing this is weird and dropping that into the narrative stream-of-consciousness without actually having any good explanation. Dungeon Born has been pretty good about explaining character motives (if not always at the right time) so probably an explanation will be forthcoming, but jury’s out on whether it’ll forthcome by the time we need to know it in order to properly understand character motivations. Whoever keeps telling writers that they should hold major character motivations in reserve as a plot twist needs to be brought to justice.
The Portal Mages show up and are just generally impolite. Dale doesn’t appreciate their tone and demands fifteen percent of their profits, plus a few bennies on the side, so the leader of the Portal Mages, a fellow named James, decides to find the limits of Dale’s land and just build outside them. Dale declines to inform him immediately that he owns the entire mountain.
He shoved an accusatory finger at Dale. “You own the entire mountain?! That’s bullshit!”
So we are for sure swearing in this story. I’m pretty sure I remember a few swears coming up earlier, too, but now I’ve got one in writing and recent memory. So that means the whole “Abyss” thing is an effort at worldbuilding. But, like, infernal essence is still called infernal, not “abyssal essence” or “void essence” or whatever. Why change the name of the specific plane famous for being infernal without seemingly changing anything else? Particularly if the Abyss will only ever be referred to as a curse, then why not just use the curse we’re already familiar with? Using a different word just draws attention to it.
In any case, James doesn’t get any more polite after finding out that Dale owns the whole mountain, gets told to leave, and is magically compelled to do so immediately.
“That would be the effect of being the magically enforced landowner of this mountain. Any citizen of this Realm – under the political rank of a Duke – would be forced to leave if you told them to. You cannot force someone to stay, or to do things for you, but you can obviously make them leave. In a brilliant yet uncomprehending move of forethought, you bought this from two Realms; meaning there are two Kingdoms of people that would need to obey the command you just gave him.”
“Well. Damn.” Dale turned to Frank as a realization dawned on him. “Hey! Is that why you have been so helpful to me?”
“Nah, I’m just a polite person. I’m definitely this nice to everyone, Heck, I let random people into the Guild all the time.” Frank grinned. “Then I let them come to me, the Guild leader, any time they have a question.”
So, hey, mystery solved. It’s not even the first time the idea of magically enforced land ownership has been brought up. It does seem like a borderline contrived bit of worldbuilding, though, especially since Dale didn’t even know he had this super power when he was first buying up the land. I’d like it a lot better if getting magically enforced ownership was something Dale had figured out for himself, to make sure he’d have a trump card when level a billion adventurers started stomping around.
After James is expelled, someone named High Magous Amber comes in to negotiate in his place.
High Magous was a title that meant the person was in the upper A-Rankings.
Why are we not using “magus” here? Did the author just not double check the spelling? Is this supposed to make it seem more European?
“I apologize for the poor attitude of my subordinate Guild member, he forgets that we were all at your level at some point.[“]
James is Amber’s subordinate? Why did you send the unhinged jackass in to do the negotiating? Sure, they didn’t know Dale was low-level so they didn’t necessarily think that the negotiations would go so far south so quickly, but someone who responds with spittle-flinging tantrums to negotiating with someone they disdain cannot possibly be the most diplomatic person in their entourage. I can absolutely imagine that James is more polite to people he considers to be on his level, that he is at least moderately competent as a negotiator with other mid-level adventurers, but I have trouble picturing that someone with self-control problems this bad would be their most competent negotiator.
Dale’s group is the first into Cal’s newly opened death trap, but they stop to soak up a bunch of spare essence that’s been building up here since no other adventurers have been around to cultivate in this place for several days. Another, weaker group gets ahead of them and, despite the more confusing layout of the top level, wipes the first floor boss.
They got up and were discussing where they should spend their money, so I decided that they needed a boost in the right direction. I dropped a few coppers on top of the stairs, making a loud clattering of falling coins. Of course, they came to investigate and found the tunnel hidden around the bend. Seeing the stairway leading deeper, they became so excited that I almost felt bad for them, but really, does death only come for those who are wicked? Does it spare good people just because they are good or excited? I think not!
Stop wasting space on trying to excuse your obviously evil actions, Cal. Just be a villain protagonist. It’s cool.
The weaker party is successfully enticed downwards, where the elemental bunnies TPK them. The bunnies gather up a bit of essence from the kill (though the majority goes to Cal), and Cal decides he’s going to try and level them up naturally rather than just pumping tons of his own essence into them to mutate them into stronger forms.
I needed to keep them separate, so as to ensure I would remember them, I’d call them alpha squad and give them a pleasure warren for when they weren’t in combat.
A “pleasure warren?” Keeping them in a separate warren to make them easier to keep track of makes sense, but a “pleasure warren?” What pleasures are you planning to stock the warren with? Are you going to make a bunny strip club? I can appreciate the playboy reference, but all you’ve got to work with is actual, literal bunnies.
“What is it Dale?” His name is Dale, huh? I’ll call them ‘Dale’s group’ from now on.
Would’ve been cooler if Cal came up with his own name for this group, to have the dungeon and adventurer both see each other from wholly distinct perspectives. That said, there does seem to be a direct rivalry between Cal and Dale finally developing, which gives the book some stakes to chew on. It’s not life or death or anything (not for Cal, anyway), but it’s a goal with opposition, rather than just an inevitable ascent to higher ranks.
The Team clears the second floor. The boss fight goes on for too long to be quoted in its entirety, but it’s actually fun to read. There’s enough detail and back and forth to make the fight actually interesting. The tank gets his shield wrecked by the giant stone-armored bunny, he starts wailing on Dale for a while, the ranger snipes him through the eye before Cal can deploy his healing bunnies to get the boss back up to full strength. It’s a good fight. Maybe it just took the author a while to get good at things, but I suspect if he’d gone with Dungeon Keeper style imps and such rather than relying on immobile mushrooms, and if he hadn’t waited ’till 50% of the way through the story to give Cal some unit diversity to work with, we could’ve had these kinds of fights much earlier.
The victorious Team backtracks through the dungeon, warning other groups they encounter of what’s deeper in.
<I don’t like them warning other people that are already in here! Gah! Dani, these guys are so frustrating.> I pouted, angry that they were always one step ahead of me.
Dani suggested an easy solution, “How about we make an exit to the surface from the Boss room? Easier for them to leave, and better for us to get them out of here so they can’t tell people about new obstacles.”
This is a reasonable explanation for why dungeons do this, but it raises the question: Why is the exit one-way? Why can’t people use it to go directly into the final boss chamber? That question actually has an easy answer: Cal already has the demonstrable ability to fill stone with corrupt earth essence to make it impenetrable, which is how he sealed off his entrance earlier. If he can make a seal that he can deploy from and retract into the wall whenever he wants, that’ll do it. The question then is, why is Cal’s heart connected to the rest of the dungeon at all? Why not seal himself off into a chamber surrounded by impenetrable walls and just manage the dungeon from there?