Really, she’d suspected that Shayma had contracted a Power when she mentioned it could cure Depletion. Nobody could cure Depletion, not even the best mages, because there was nothing to cure. It wasn’t a disease, it was just that you were less.
Then there was the dungeon finding them despite all the scrying protection that had kept even the agents of Vok Nal from locating them, despite the immense mana-flares they’d been raining down over the area. And it had effortlessly chased off or killed any pursuit. She’d noticed the doors closing behind them, even if nobody else had. But beyond that, there was nothing. Given the forces some of the mage-king’s underlings could wield, that was disturbing.
She’d tried to warn Shayma what she was playing with, though even she had no idea what other options there were. Once Shayma had returned, the mage-king’s surveillance had massively increased. Another hallmark of Powers, that you found alternatives to fulfilling your Bargain closing to you by chance and happenstance. The ever-so-timely appearance of the dungeon entrance? Just another aspect of how Powers bent probability and reality itself.
Now she watched with bemusement as the very grass and trees suddenly surged with life. They had been lush before, but now they acted as if they’d received ten years of growth all at once, wood creaking as it grew. All without anything in her mana-sight. It was magical, of course, but it had to be a brand of mana outside the normal range, something special to dungeons and the occasional ascended being. Those who transcended the limits of their species.
“Uhh, Blue?” Shayma said, distracted from her practice with [Illusion]. “What’s going on?”
Iniri watched as Shayma’s ears flicked. It was still hard to accept that she could hear the dungeon. Everything about dungeons that she knew marked them as, at best, intelligent enough to know the difference between a threat and an opportunity. Powerful, sometimes vastly so, but easily controllable by a mage that knew what they were doing. Such as the mage-kings. This one...Iniri wasn’t even tempted to try.
“He says that he’s redecorating?” Shayma’s face twisted in something that was confusion and amusement both. “And there’s more coming.”
A moment later, the walls fled. Shayma stared. Iniri stared. There wasn’t much else to do as the room became larger. Then larger still. They were inside of the largest working that Iniri had ever heard of. She recognized it as spatial magic, of course, rather than an adjustment of the dungeon structure, but it was over an area so large that it must have taken hundreds of mana every second to support it. And it just continued expanding. Even if she joined forces with all the mages under her command they could have, between them, maybe managed three or four seconds of this, with plenty of preparation and careful creation of the proper rune circles.
All of this, and she didn’t feel a whisper of a tug on her person. She’d never done spatial work herself, but she knew you never did it with something living inside. It tended to end rather messily as the contents of the space were expanded along with its boundaries. Not so for this dungeon, which could perfectly exclude them from the effect. It was absolutely terrifying, for anyone who could spot the casual power and execution behind the awesome spectacle. Redecorating, indeed.
Yet it didn’t need any of that power for its hold on Shayma. Iniri wasn’t sure the girl even yet quite understood what her new Status meant. The dungeon owned her body and soul. Anything that dealt in souls was generally forbidden, but Iniri had looked into it once, when someone indulging in soul manipulation in a neighboring kingdom had made a monster. So far as Iniri knew, Shayma’s entire existence, every thought and action, was sustained by the dungeon’s will. The fact that she retained her life and mind and will was only because the dungeon actively willed it to be so. That Blue actively willed it to be so. No matter how powerful it seemed to others, for her it was actually a god.
A god that gave her flowers from nowhere, apparently. Magic flowers, a mix of affinities that shone like a rainbow beacon. She’d witnessed how it had claimed her - or rather, she hadn’t, the dungeon wrapping a sheet coyly over the act. What happened in the mage-kings’ dungeons was too brutal and clinical to be called even carnal, but judging by the sounds Shayma had made, Blue's attentions were...not uncomfortable. Actually, she found she was a little jealous. Queens didn’t have freedom to play around, and she could only hope she enjoyed her first time half as much as Shayma was enjoying Blue.
But despite all that strangeness and stress, it did her heart good to see Shayma smile like that.
The young woman had shown up almost literally at her doorstep, Classless and alone, one of maybe a dozen people to escape the mage-king’s landfall. She’d had, even then, an unshakeable and unearned loyalty to Iniri in particular and to the Tarnil Kingdom as a whole. Even now, Iniri wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t much of a [Protector Queen] if she couldn’t protect her own subjects.
But Shayma had stayed, and in her Iniri had found a core of bright faith to keep the darkness away as cities fell, as diplomacy was ignored, as her Classers found themselves impotent against the overwhelming power of the mage-kings and their subordinates. Not to mention Shayma was intelligent and insightful enough, despite indifferent schooling, to be a worthwhile albeit unofficial addition to her inner circle. Most importantly, Shayma was able to see Iniri both as a person and as a ruler, effortlessly balancing the two so that she could laugh and joke in one instant, and take an order as utter command in the next.
Then she’d emerged from the ruins of the capital, now a [Seeker] and bearing a city-cube, a legacy that Iniri had thought only legend. A portable fortress that, if said legend could be believed, would be enough to give even the mage-kings pause. Of course, that selfsame legend attributed the Great Northern Waste to that artifact, which explained why it was disassembled and packed away, pieces lost over the centuries.
Still, it had been a hope, with Shayma as the centerpiece. After all, who allowed themselves to take a Class, no matter that it was rare to vanishing, that locked out combat Skills? One that was doomed to the low levels forever because the only way to level was to actually lay hands on what [Seeker] could find? But Shayma could find the lost and scattered cubes, while her Classers retrieved ones they knew had turned up in enemy-held cities. Well, that had been the idea. Reality and the arrival of Vok Nal had made things different.
But now, Shayma had found something even better, though with the loss of something more than [Luck].
“Ah,” she said. “He says he needs me to go represent him? I’ll be back soon.”
“Be careful,” Iniri told her, putting a hand on Shayma’s shoulder as a staircase simply appeared next to them, leading down into the unknown.
“I’ll be fine.” Shayma smiled again, then blurred as she activated her new [Ghost Step], vanishing down the stairs.
Iniri watched her go, tail twitching as the stairs evaporated like they had never been. Blue was terrifying, true, but if it continued to show it had integrity with Shayma...well, she’d have to take a chance. It might be the only way she had to protect her kingdom.