She woke up and she felt amazing.
Shayma hadn’t felt this good since the dungeon had purged her Depletion. She stretched, slowly, finding no tension in her muscles at all, and when she opened her eyes she found her vision was sharper than it had ever been. She could even see the faint touch of Iniri’s mana nearby, magical fingerprints that were astoundingly clear. And without any headache. She’d never had clear mana sight ever since her Class locked it out halfway through development.
Oddly, the magic wasn’t on the glass of water, which was still cold when she drank it, but rather on the pillow that had been under her head. Some sort of alarm, maybe. Even though she could see it, she didn’t know quite what she was looking at. Rolling out of bed, her body felt not quite the same. It wasn’t bad, not really, but it was a touch disturbing to find she was faster and more sure on her feet.
But [Seeker] and [Luck] were still there, which meant everything else was too, probably, and that was what she cared about. Her clothes were neatly folded on a dresser next to the bed, clean and undamaged. She still wasn’t sure how they’d been removed, but she was glad they were fine, since those Flame Knight leathers were several cuts above anything she’d owned in the past. In fact, the only complaint she had as she dressed was the occasional liquid sound she couldn’t quite locate, like distant wind or water washing against stone.
Then the noise got louder and with it came a voice, close by but deeply muffled and distorted, as if from the bottom of a well.
“Oh good, she’s awake.”
She froze. Even distorted like that, she could tell it was a voice she’d never heard before. Which was a problem, because there shouldn’t be anyone else inside the dungeon. Then she continued moving, pretending she hadn’t heard anything. It was entirely possible that whoever-it-was didn’t realize they’d tipped their hand. If she could find any of the mages...
She opened the door to the bedroom casually, then closed it behind her before breaking into a sprint. Someone was probably outside, if she could reach it. The world blurred, faded, and suddenly she was outside, standing on the edge of the grass without traveling the intervening space. Somehow she’d gone through several walls and down a floor.
“Okay, [Ghost Step] is really cool.” The voice came again, echoing from nowhere in particular. Shayma stumbled, trying not to fall from the sudden shift. What was worse was that the voice must be naming the Skill she just used, because it definitely was a Skill, and not one she’d had before. Now, people learned Skills of course, but it was always a breakthrough moment, and she hadn’t had one of those recently. Had she?
Iniri was not far away, sitting at a small table someone had managed to put together by the lake, and with another blurring shift Shayma was there. “My Queen,” she began, and Iniri twitched, twisting around before interrupting any attempted explanation.
“Shayma! You’re okay!” She stood to wrap Shayma in a hug, tilting her head slightly to prevent her antlers from poking Shayma in the face. For all that the antlers were small, they were surprisingly sharp.
“There’s someone else here,” Shayma murmured in Iniri’s ear as she accepted the hug, any joy at reunion pushed far away by the weirdness going on.
“Hmm, I just count thirty-two. Maybe they’re…” The voice muttered and murmured, sinking back into incomprehensibility and the sound of wind and water.
“Who? Nobody’s been here other than us than I can scry…” Iniri muttered back.
“You can’t hear that voice?”
“It -” She paused, then continued. It’d be obvious enough soon anyway. “Whoever’s voice it is can see and hear everything. I’m not sure why I can hear them.”
“Right.” Iniri said grimly, and stepped back to cast something. The voice continued muttering.
“No, I’ve got [Warding] up, there’s nobody else inside except Ansae. And she’s...”
The voice faded before Iniri finished her spell, but the vague sounds remained, unaltered by whatever she had done. Shayma shook her head at Iniri’s questioning look. “It’s still there, but it mentioned a name this time. Ansae?”
“Wait, who’s talking about Ansae now? I’m the only one...that...I’m an idiot.” The voice faded away for a moment before returning with slightly more strength than before. “Shayma? You can hear me, can’t you?” It said, addressing her directly for the first time.
She held up a hand to forestall whatever Iniri was saying. “...yes?” She told the voice as Tulk wandered over from his spot by the lake.
“Must be the Companion thing. Or maybe the new species? Is it...” The distortions swallowed the words for a moment. “Anyway. Good to finally officially meet you!”
“...who are you?” Sure, the voice didn’t seem particularly threatening, but it still belonged to someone who was spying on them and using some sort of spell that even Iniri couldn’t find.
“Um, well. I’m the dungeon.”
“This is your dungeon?” Shayma frowned. She figured the owner would have shown up long before now if he were still alive. Though clearly she’d underestimated how big this dungeon was. She vaguely wondered what he thought of her dalliances with it. They had been a lot more fun when -
“Then you should be speaking with Queen Iniri, not me.”
“I am willing to meet you and thank you for sheltering us,” Iniri said, taking the cue. Tulk, mercifully, stayed silent as they pair of them talked to empty air.
“Well, tell her she’s welcome, but I can’t exactly talk to her. Dungeons don’t talk. I think the only reason you can hear me is due to whatever you got in the Bargain.”
Shayma blinked, her understanding dragged suddenly sideways. “Wait. You’re saying you’re an actual Dungeon Core?”
“Well, plus dungeon. Walls, floor, ceiling. Big blue crystal. All of that.”
“That’s not…” She didn’t finish the sentence. Iniri did it for her.
“That doesn’t seem likely,” Iniri frowned. “...but it is not my place to pry. We do owe you for giving us refuge.”
“Actually she doesn’t. That was part of the Bargain. I mean, I would have done it anyway, but it’s covered. It’s why you’ve got all those new Skills. Haven’t you checked your statblock?”
The bottom dropped out of her stomach. “Wait...you’re saying the bargain wasn’t just…”
“I thought you knew. I didn’t even know Bargains were a thing until you concluded that one…”
There were places in the world where the flow of mana knotted up tightly enough to give it a kind of life. They could turn into spirits or phenomena or even stranger things, but they had power. Their appetites were simple and their prices were straightforward, though not necessarily cheap, and while only the brave and foolhardy bargained with them Shayma counted herself as both of those things.
That is what she thought she was dealing with.
The other thing that made bargains were Powers of the world, with abilities and minds beyond human ken. Gods and monsters, or both at once. A Bargain with them could found an empire, or destroy one. There was no way to deal with a Power and come out unchanged, or even ahead. This thing could even see her Status, so she was now deadly certain that this is what she had made agreement with. Whether it was genuinely ignorant or was just playing with her didn’t really matter, the fact was that she’d gotten herself and everyone around her far deeper than she’d thought.
“Shayma? Are you all right?”
She became aware she was sitting on a chair that definitely wasn’t there a moment ago. Tulk had his hand on her arm and Iniri was leaning over her, repeating the voice’s question.
“I’m...just a little overwhelmed,” she managed. “I think it might actually be the dungeon talking to me. It says it can see my Status. See the new skills the Bargain gave me.”
“And Class. And species.”
“...and Class. And species.”
“You don’t look different.”
“She looks better,” Tulk said. “Honestly Shayma, it’s like you gained twenty levels all at once.”
“Well, we don’t have a Status glyph, so…” Iniri paused as she caught Tulk’s look. “...you took the glyph from Meil, didn’t you?”
“Well, not me. It was Joenn. But why leave it for Vok Nal?”
Iniri narrowed her eyes. It was not an expression that boded well for either Tulk or Joenn. “It’s Meil’s glyph, not ours. Now go get it.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Tulk said and hastened off.
“I can guess what a Status glyph is, but do you need it to level up or something?”
“No, but it’s hard to access Skills you don’t know you have. Certain guilds only take certain Classes, that kind of thing.” Shayma murmured back as Tulk ran off to find his wife.
“Huh, seems weird to me. I can see mine all the time. Can’t turn it off, actually.” Despite herself, Shayma’s lips quirked at the voice’s resigned tone.
“Well, you’re a Power, not a person.”
“Hey, no, that’s not fair. I’m a person too. Just, you know, also a dungeon.”
“...sorry. I didn’t think.” The sudden note of annoyance gave her a brief flush of fear. This was a Power, it controlled every mote of dust around them, and she did not want to make it angry.
“It’s fine. I probably wouldn’t think of me as a person either if I weren’t me. Especially since nobody else can hear me!”
“Shayma, can you ask it what it intends?”
“What, about you guys or in general? I mean, you’re welcome to stay though you’ll want to do some hunting. I don’t think eating just dungeon food is healthy.” The voice replied to Iniri’s question. “In general, I think I’m stuck being at odds with the Vok Nal guy. I killed some of the people sent to retrieve you, and they thought I was another mage-king. Oh hey, the Status sigil. So that’s…” The voice suddenly trailed off, back to wind and water, which Shayma was beginning to think was a sign of its attention wandering away from her. In this case, toward wherever Tulk had gone.
Iniri’s frown remained as Shayma related the voice’s response. “Well, I can’t complain if it’s willing to go against Vok Nal. We might even be able to get Meil back. I don’t quite…” Her frown wavered for a moment. “It’s awful difficult to talk about someone who can hear every word you’re saying. So no offense meant, but I don’t entirely trust that its goals align with ours.”
“Yeah fair enough. I don’t even know what my long-term goals are. Can say I don’t much like mage-kings and depletion. Nasty stuff.”
She repeated the information, then added her own commentary more quietly. It seemed it could hear her no matter how low-voiced she was. “I wish you could just talk to her directly.”
“You and me both. But I’ve been unable to talk to anyone for over two months, so, honestly I’m happy.”
“...wait, this dungeon is only two months old?”
That time she wasn’t quiet, and Iniri looked over at her. The frown was permanent now. “I suppose there’s no reason for it to lie to us, but...even the mage-king’s cores don’t expand that quickly.”
“Maybe I’m just better at it?”
“...your idea. The only reason I told you not to do it yourself is you’re as quiet as a drunken warhorse.”
“Yeah but you didn’t have to. If you’d objected I would’ve -”
“No, you wouldn’t have listened. I know you.”
Iniri ignored the bickering and held out her hand for the sigil. It was as Shayma remembered it, egg-shaped and sized and covered with runes. Normally it was emplaced in a stand that would pull ambient mana into it, but under the circumstances Iniri could fuel it well enough. “All right Shayma, let’s see what it says.”
She put her hand on the top of the stone and the runes lit, tracing words into the air between them. Everyone stared.
“Well, damn.” Tulk said at last.
“I’ve never even heard of Trickster,” Iniri admitted.
Shayma wasn’t even sure what to think. She still had [Seeker] but she wasn’t a Seeker anymore. No, she had magic Skills. She had weapon Skills. She even had, ridiculously, shapeshifting? The Skills meant that, now that she knew what to try, exercising them should come easily. It was everything she had ever dreamed of and more. But…
Her eyes drifted back up to the species entry. Creature of the dungeon, body and soul. She had bargained herself for this shelter, and that bargain had been taken with a seriousness beyond what she had imagined. Despite apparently being a spirit now she didn’t feel any different, aside from the benefits [Physical Superiority] provided, but if she was reading it right that was solely because the dungeon willed it so. The flat truth was that she was the dungeon’s, now, not Iniri’s.
That hurt, a little. But only a little, because she was still helping her friend and her Queen, since the dungeon’s half of the bargain was to provide for Iniri and her entourage. The protection of a Power might well rival that of a mage-king. In fact, she may have even gotten it to take an active role against Vok Nal, and even if that wouldn’t reclaim Iniri’s kingdom it’d at least reclaim Meil.
The dungeon itself was...well, oddly friendly, and maybe even a little lonely. It hadn’t bullied or threatened her or any of her friends, even by implication. It had been, in its own way, quite nice to her and attentive as a lover, which she hoped translated into other things. The only objection she might have was that she was completely stuck with it, no matter how things went in the future, but that was her own fault.
“I’m sorry, Shayma,” Iniri said. “If I had known that the Bargain would -”
“No, no,” she interrupted, shaking her head. “I think...I think this a good thing. I can do more, now. And so long as the dungeon doesn’t want me to work against you -”
“Not planning on it!”
“- I’m fine with working for it. As I was, I couldn’t really help you retake your kingdom or help your people. Now...I can, if the dungeon is on our side.”
“I think I’m on my side, mostly? But definitely against the mage-kings.”
“That may be true, but are you okay?” Iniri gave her a skeptical look, the frown easing slightly.
“I think so. I mean...before, what chance did we really have? Now...we have a Power shielding us. And I…” She gestured vaguely, the new Skills flickering through her mind and blurring her form. “I can help.”
Iniri’s expression softened. “If that’s how you feel, then...all I can say is thank you.”
Shayma smiled back, then spoke to the voice again. “So do what do I call you? Do you have a name?”
“I guess I don’t. Hm. How about you call me...Blue.”