Shayma was a little scary now.
Of course she’d noticed the blue-glowing ring on Shayma’s left hand, because it gave Shayma an indefinable weight and presence whenever Annit looked at it. With that, it was easy to believe she was the representative of a Power, plus apparently it gave Shayma a few extra skills. It was, of course, a gift from Blue and even as inexperienced as Annit was with magical items it was clearly a cut above the normal Source or Affinity stuff.
Her [Illusion] skill had made her a pain to spar with before, though for the most part she kept that to a minimum so they could actually test real combat skills. Now, though, the [Illusion] was part of the real combat skills. Shayma couldn’t quite manage to make a full estoc as hard as iron, but she could give weight and sharpness to illusionary throwing knives. Or, at Keri’s suggestion, thin wires to restrict movement about the battlefield. She couldn’t, at Blue’s suggestion, make only the tip of her sword tangible, which would have been a nightmare for anyone to deal with. Yet, at least. For all Annit knew, that was just something she had to practice to learn.
It wouldn’t do more than annoy a third-tier or above, but considering Shayma’s level her weapon skills were impressive, if unpracticed. She would feel comfortable leaving Shayma to travel to Wildwood alone, for example, provided the fox-girl took along some basic equipment to keep her from being surprised. Of course, Shayma wouldn’t have to, because of one of the new Abilities the ring provided.
[Ghost Step] was an odd experience. Both Annit and Keri had to move on their own two feet, but it was like moving downhill with a tailwind, wherever she went. Her own Class Abilities didn’t seem to affect it, alas, so she couldn’t go even faster, and they dropped out of [Ghost Step] if they moved too far from Shayma. But it still meant that the three of them could effectively move together with as much flexibility as they could wish for.
In a strange reversal, Keri was more effective at landing touches on Shayma, as her [Combat Healing] could find Shayma at range, provided Keri could actually spot the girl behind [Illusionary Presence] and [Stealth]. Given the weird nature of the skill, it effectively bypassed [Regeneration], though nobody was willing to see how much damage it could actually do. Annit had taken a full power use of the Skill and it was an incredibly miserable experience, so their sparring was kept to finesse rather than power.
She stood with her eyes closed, listening to the wind. The fact that there was wind at all here, deep underground, was strange but given how much of her Class relied on it, she was grateful. It told her that Keri was off to her left, her Shield softening the movement of the air, and there were three different Shaymas approaching from three angles. But none of them sounded quite right, and they all sounded like each other, so she ignored them. No, the real one was somewhere further away, barely touching the wind but unable to hide herself completely.
Annit flung a quarter-power [Dart Flurry] in that direction while dodging out of the way of what she knew were incoming illusory daggers. There’d been the faintest rustle of movement just before she launched her attack, and since any of the daggers could be rendered fully weighted and sharp (or rather, blunt, considering the spar), she had to dodge them all.
What she wasn’t expecting to hear was a metallic clang from Shayma’s direction, followed by the girl’s rueful voice. “Touch!”
“It didn’t sound like it,” Keri said as Annit opened her eyes, seeing the last of the [Illusion] fade away and Shayma appear from the trees.
“Shapeshifted my arm to be iron...didn’t quite manage the best job.” She shook the arm in question, which didn’t have any visible injury but was rapidly losing a gray lustre. “Still stung a bit, so I guess it counts.”
“I think you’re off your game today,” Annit said wryly. “Normally you [Ghost Step] out of the way of those instead of trying to block them.”
“I...well, I’m nervous about Meil, I guess.”
“Haven’t you already been in a bunch of battles? I mean, when the mage-kings came over?” Keri dropped her shield since it was pretty clear the spar was done, at least for now, and walked over to join them.
“That’s why I’m nervous!” Shayma laughed, but it wasn’t her usual bubbling cheer. “I actually saw a mage-king in person, from a distance, and Tor Kot’s troops were...just unsettling. All white and too many legs and completely silent aside from the hissing. Plus...it’s not like they keep it a secret, but I actually saw people getting fed to the Red Core dungeons.”
“That doesn’t sound pleasant,” Annit said. “I’m just as glad we’re missing it.”
“You’re not going?” Shayma looked a little dismayed, but that was just too bad.
“Not unless Blue makes us go,” she said firmly. “Keri will be by the line of retreat for healing, but there’s nothing we can do in a battle and no reason to risk ourselves. It’s not even our kingdom.”
“It’s not? I suppose I never asked, but I always just assumed…”
“What, Keri’s teeth didn’t tip you off?” Annit had to remind herself sometimes that regardless of how absurd Shayma’s experiences were, she still hadn’t seen much of the world.
“They’re not that different from Queen Iniri’s, so…”
“But I don’t have antlers or a tail,” Keri said cheerfully. “Just as well. I don’t know how she manages to not bang the antlers on things or avoid closing her tail in a door. Or how you do, for that matter.”
“It’s something you learn,” Shayma said with a smile.
Annit gestured back toward the rear porch of the house-and-hospital. “Time for a break, I think. Is Blue going to make us go?” She pressed, since Shayma hadn’t taken her more subtle hint.
“Oh, of course not. I’m going, but I’m going to be sticking with Queen Iniri anyway, and with [Shield of Tarnil] that’s probably the safest spot. I’d like you to come, but I understand why you don’t want to.” Shayma followed the two of them back to the porch, settling down in one of the chairs and pouring them all tayan-fruit juice from the chilled pitcher. Annit had juiced it herself, once it became clear the fruits were both edible and allowed to be eaten, and had to admit it was pretty good.
"I'd rather not. I'd rather that Keri not be involved either but getting her to listen to good advice takes a lot of effort." Keri stuck her tongue out at Annit. Even though it was true. “So I’ll be joining the rearguard with Keri and the rest of the support. I’m assuming it’ll be safe on the other end of the teleport. And that Blue is using teleports to get there.”
Even a week ago the idea of casually teleporting hither and yon would have been ridiculous. It was finicky and expensive for mages to set up the means, not to mention taking a good amount of rare Source materials, as spatial Source was even rarer than healing. But Blue didn’t seem to have that problem, and since it seemed every little chamber he set up was completely unconnected to every other one, not to mention the surface, it had become a casual experience.
“That’s what he intends, yes. It’s quite a trek from here to Meil without it. I should know.” Shayma’s mouth twisted with a sort-of smile. “I’ve done it a couple times now.”
“Is Blue making you go?” Annit asked. She wasn’t sure she much liked Blue, but she did like Shayma, despite their odd introduction and current terms. The fox-girl reminded her a bit of a younger and slightly less excitable Keri, and while it wasn’t like anyone could change Blue’s hold on her, there should at least be someone to look out for her interests.
“Um.” Shayma blinked, caught off-guard by the question. “I don’t think so? I mean, I am - was - Iniri’s subject and her friend and I want to help. Blue’s going to be doing, well, a lot to help, but he’s not the reason I’m going. Not the original reason, anyway.”
“Annie’s worried about you,” Keri put in slyly, earning a moderate glare.
“Worried about me? Why?” Shayma tilted her head slightly, ears canted.
“I’ve seen your actual Status now,” Annit said grudgingly. “The species description is a little scary. My parents bought out their slave contract before I was born, but you don’t have that option.”
“But I don’t...I wouldn’t…” Shayma fumbled for words for a moment, flustered. “Regardless of what it says I don’t feel like I’m a slave or anything. He treats me as an equal pretty much, even though I’m me and he’s this.” She waved her hand about indicating the walls, floor, ceiling, and everything.
“What’s it like?” Keri asked suddenly, leaning forward in her chair.
“What’s what like?” The fox-girl eyed Keri cautiously, as anyone who was subject to that level of wide-eyed, earnest interest was wont to do.
“You know,” Keri said, and fortunately continued before Annit had to intervene, because she did not want to hear certain details. “Just being with a Power every day. Someone who, I dunno, can build or destroy cities with a wave of his hand...well, I guess Blue doesn’t have hands.”
“He’s not really that different from a normal person.” Shayma said. Then defended herself from their skeptical looks. “He isn’t! I mean, yes, he knows things and can do things that are...beyond comprehension. But when he talks to me he sounds like just a regular person. He likes hearing about what I did and what I want to do; he complains about the little banal things that annoy him. He makes jokes and puns. Normal things.”
“...I think that’s stranger than all the weird things he does. How does a dungeon learn to be normal?”
“So, what, it’s just like having a rich, eccentric...boyfriend?” Annit asked, despite herself.
“A bit?” Shayma looked at her tumbler full of juice. “I mean, we can talk all the time, but he does give me some privacy. But...while we can be intimate and all, he can’t exactly give me a hug. I kind of miss that.”
“I can fix that!” Keri bounced out of her chair and wrapped the surprised fox-girl in a hug.
“That’s not what she means, Ker,” Annit said dryly, not even slightly surprised at Keri’s behavior. She was almost compulsively affectionate, which probably was a good trait in a healer but there were some that found it overbearing.
“Shh, you’ll ruin it.” Keri told her.
Shayma laughed. “I appreciate the thought, but you’re not Blue.” She returned Keri’s hug, then released her. “I just meant it’s a little hard sometimes, hearing him right there but not being able to touch him. Or well, I guess I can but it’s not like anything I could share with a demihuman.”
“I’d thought of all kinds of troubles you might have, but not that one,” Annit admitted.
“I told you she cared!” Keri grinned and bounced over to give Annit a hug too, which earned her a slight swat.
“Hush, you.” She said before turning back to Shayma, while Keri perched on her chair arm, leaning against Annit’s shoulder. “It’s just hard for me to think of Blue as a person. He’s more like...an earthquake or a landslide or something.”
“Hmm. Way back when I was first changed, after I fulfilled my Bargain with Blue,” Shayma said contemplatively. “Basically one of the first things he did was give me a bouquet of flowers. Dungeon flowers, of course, huge things but so exotic! The second time I came here, he’d made a cottage on a lake that I really liked. He remade that for me later on, too. I’d show you, but that’s where his core is so you’re probably not allowed? Not yet anyway.”
“That sounds nice enough,” Annit allowed, “and I don’t have much to complain about, just being employed by him. It’s difficult to trust someone you can’t look in the face, though. Or can look you in the face. Either way.”
“Do you trust me?” Shayma asked, earnest and honest. “I can vouch for him.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Annit said dryly. “But I appreciate the sentiment. I suppose I should stop suspecting him of trying to take advantage of you.”
“Gods, he lets me yell at him if he messes up even though he basically owns me. He wouldn’t have to try at all. We don’t argue much but I think the fact that we do at all shows he isn’t going to.”
“Mmm.” It was difficult to argue with Shayma’s logic, but Annit couldn’t shake some fundamental wariness. But maybe that was for the best. Between Shayma and Keri, someone needed to be the cautious one.