A note from InadvisablyCompelled


The normal liquid wash of Blue’s presence faded into an odd buzz as he focused on the opposing dungeon. It wasn’t what she normally heard from him, but then, he’d never attacked a dungeon before. There was bound to be some oddness.

“Vok Nal! Your reckoning is come!” Iniri said, voice amplified by her magic to bounce off the stone, sending it echoing through the city. “Come and fight or hide in your tower, either way we will put you down!”

There was, perhaps predictably, no immediate response to Iniri’s challenge. The Hurricane sailed up into the sky, starting to whip the winds into a frenzy with her pole, while the rest of Iniri’s entourage advanced forward. The few people out on the street, and it did seem deserted here, simply stopped and gawked. At least they weren’t cowed enough to hide the moment their Queen showed herself.

“Any luck?” Iniri asked her diviners, and Joce was about to speak when the ground shook. There was a dull rumble and where untouched cobbles met dungeon rock the ground buckled upward. There was a flash of obsidian-black in the stones before they caved in, crunching downward with a horrible wet noise that made it clear exactly what had caused it.

“Cursed gods,” Shayma swore, horrified as the ground continued to shake. When Blue mentioned dealing with the opposing dungeon, she hadn’t thought it’d be like this.

“Can you get him to stop that?” Iniri snapped it, eyes fixed on the tower. “It’s going to make it impossible to send anyone in.”

“Blue!” She called. “Blue!” The only response was the hissing buzz, a sound that was beginning to make her teeth ache. “I think he’s busy,” she said worriedly as another tremor rattled the doors of nearby buildings.

“Of course,” Iniri growled, then staggered as the pavement under her feet buckled. “Plan’s changed. Second and third tiers, evacuate the city. Outside the walls or through the teleport, either way. Fast as you can.”

They saluted and moved out, while Liril raised his hands and conjured a pillar of fire around the still-distant tower. It was still a couple of blocks away, despite the quick-marching they were doing through the religious quarter. Shayma could feel the depletion field bouncing off her the moment they crossed into Red Core territory, and winced at the thought of what it must be doing to anyone not likewise protected. Not that it was a powerful effect, but nobody wanted even a single point of depletion if they could help it.

The darkening sky blazed white for a moment as The Hurricane brought a bolt of lightning down on the tower’s roof, but to no avail. Liril’s fire burned higher, licking up the stone as it caught on the various magical protections and reinforcements. But it was another tremor behind them that finally pulled a bellow from inside the top of the tower.

“What are you doing!?” Vok Nal roared as he finally emerged into the morning.

He was...incredibly underwhelming. Vok Nal was just a weak-chinned, ordinary looking young man with a plump face and unkempt hair and already the start of a paunch under what looked like bedclothes. Shayma stared. Had he just woken up?

Even though the mage-king looked entirely unprepared, he didn’t seem to even notice The Hurricane directing an enormous dagger of lightning toward him, the coruscating beam just bouncing off and grounding itself onto a nearby roof. Nor did he seem to mind the stream of liquid fire Liril directed at him, instead staring down where Iniri and Shayma were. “You! You’re the Depletion...thing!”

He swooped down from the tower, blurringly fast, and smashed face-first into the hastily-erected [Shield of Tarnil], which was when she realized that despite his unimpressive physical attributes he was huge. Bigger even than Ansae’s amazon form, which hadn’t been obvious since he was proportioned quite normally otherwise. Plus he was a lot quicker than he looked, on par with at least third-tiers and probably fourth.

“I am Queen Iniri,” the kirin-kin said coldly. “And you will die.” A retort that was somewhat lost on him as Yamal leapt forward, the [Shield of Tarnil] parting around him as he swung his sword. There was a strange ripping noise and Vok Nal stumbled back several paces from the impact of the blow. Behind him, a line of cobbles crumbled into dust.

Even though the mage-king didn’t seem to be actually defending himself, nothing so far had made any noticeable impact on him. At most, Yamal’s cut seemed to have been the equivalent of a shove, since the blade didn’t even leave a mark on Vok Nal’s clothes, let alone his skin. “What are -” he said, before Yamal pressed the attack. He was finally forced to recognize the fourth-tier as Yamal’s blade glanced off his face, leaving a red welt across his cheek.

“You hurt me?” Vok Nal seemed incredulous, seeming to teleport backward as he reached up to touch his cheek. “Fodder can’t hurt us!”

“If I didn’t hate him before, I would now,” Shayma muttered to Iniri.

“You can’t -” Vok Nal was cut off once again, but this time by a rumble from the ground as something gave way off in the distance. Shayma spared a glance behind them, seeing a steady drip of people heading toward the teleporter, shepherded by the second- and third-tiers. She even caught a glimpse of Piping Hot Pies hauling a cartful of children before dust billowed up from a building collapsing.

They were terribly exposed, and Vok Nal would be able to stop them or kill them easily, except for the fact that Yamal had just demonstrated the mage-king couldn’t afford to completely ignore the fourth-tiers. A demonstration that meant that Liral and The Hurricane piled on.

Another lightning bolt arced from the dark, ominous clouds The Hurricane had gathered, this time striking Liril, empowering his purple flames. Now the blinding flare was indigo and white, a liquid sphere of Liril’s mana arcing from his hands to splash onto Vok Nal’s back. After that it was a bit of a blur as the mage-king spun, dashing off toward Liril and slamming his fist into another hastily-erected [Shield of Tarnil]. The dour firemage didn’t even flinch.

“Stop it!” Vok Nal shouted, voice booming and echoing off the nearby buildings. It didn’t seem to be magically enhanced, just very, very loud. “You fodder will know your place!”

A rumble punctuated Vok Nal’s words, but it wasn’t from him. The ground shook again, stone groaning as the street folded up nearby, crushing a signpost between slabs of rock. Shayma wasn’t entirely certain, but it seemed Blue was encroaching onto the Meil dungeon’s territory. Or at least the fight was. “Blue!” She said, trying to get his attention. “We’re right here! Be careful!”

The only reply was the same hissing buzz, which was a little worrying. He’d been distracted before but he’d never not answered her at all. The ongoing tremors showed that he was more than a little occupied, but she didn’t think he’d be that occupied. She didn’t have much to contribute to the fight herself, as it devolved into a high-speed exchange of blows between Yamal and Vok Nal, with some support by Liril and The Hurricane.

So far as she could tell Vok Nal didn’t have much practice, but with an enormous selection of stolen Skills and whatever else the Red Core granted, he didn’t seem to need it to keep up with Yamal. The two were too close together for Iniri to intervene with [Shield of Tarnil], or for Jace or Keel to contribute effectively. Not a problem for the fourth-tiers, since both The Hurricane and Liril could keep their lightning and fire, respectively, from actually hurting Yamal.

Liril’s fire was still burning the tower, clinging to it and whipped into a frenzy by The Hurricane’s winds. The clouds she was making were steadily darkening, and already drops of rain were starting to whip against the walls of Meil. From what Shayma understood The Hurricane did her best work in torrential downpour, though how that’d fit in with Liril’s flames she didn’t know.

“Enough!” Vok Nal finally bellowed, apparently frustrated by his inability to land a solid hit on Yamal. It seemed he’d remembered he was a spellcaster too, because he lifted his hands and a massive wave of blue fire burst outward. Iniri’s [Shield] kept the worst of it from them, but she could still feel the heat, spilling around the edges. A nearby storehouse, already weakened from the earth tremors, crumbled, the wind whipping dust and small rocks into the air.

“They need more time to evacuate,” Iniri said grimly, looking back at the crowd that was starting to gather around the teleport spot. Not that Blue had any limitations on how fast people could pass through, but the Classers organizing it had to keep things defensible. It wasn’t likely Vok Nal had many monsters left, but most of the city inhabitants were less than level twenty and first-tier, non-combat Classes like [Merchant] or [Scribe].

“Get him back toward the tower!” She called, and Yamal acknowledged the order by changing tactics, turning Vok Nal around and then giving ground, moving the pair back toward what was now a pillar of flames. There had to be an enormous amount of magic there for Liril’s fire to burn so long, or it was very resistant. Either way it was a mistake to ignore it, because the longer it burned the weaker the tower’s protections would be.

Of course, he hadn’t suffered much from ignoring the fourth-tiers. Even now he was defending against Yamal’s Skills with bare hands and pajamas, and batting aside The Hurricane’s lightning strikes to send them into nearby walls or streets. Shayma felt out of place, since not only could she not do anything against the mage-king, she couldn’t even keep up. She could try and throw illusions at him, but even if that somehow managed to distract him it wasn’t like he even noticed the hits he was taking from his sloppy fighting.

A deep boom sounded off to the right and a three-story wooden building heaved drunkenly, then shattered as it sunk into a newly-created pit. Shayma pulled the other three into [Ghost Step] for a moment to keep up with the absurdly fast Vok Nal and Yamal, while Liril made his own way by blinking through a series of flame-portals.

“Is it my imagination, or is Blue getting closer?” Iniri asked, throwing up her [Shield] as Vok Nal conjured a blade of water and hurled it at Liril. A tiny bit of the water-blade clipped the edge of the shield continued past, smashing through the temple roof and leaving a gaping hole.

“He might be,” she admitted. “I can’t really tell.” It wasn’t like the darkness from the clouds bothered her any, not with her new ring, but she didn’t have the perspective from the ground to tell if Blue was encroaching on the Meil dungeon or the fighting between them had just expanded along the front.

“Ask him -” Iniri started, then cut herself off to throw out another shield to keep Vok Nal from smashing into them again. Shayma couldn’t tell whether he was actively aiming for them, or if Yamal had managed to get a good hit in. But he took the opportunity to stare down at them, even though he couldn’t possibly see through [Shield of Tarnil].

“What are you doing?” He demanded, vaguely and nonsensically, then flinched as another shudder rocked the ground, making the few intact buildings nearby groan. Yamal came back and cannoned into the huge mage-king, blade-point first, and they were off again. Then The Hurricane was finally ready, and drops became a deluge.

Iniri didn’t bother sheltering them with [Shield of Tarnil], making Shayma glad for her waterproof cloak. Nobody else was similarly equipped, and they all got soaked. Wind drove the rain into a sudden flensing burst against Vok Nal, though it managed to do nothing but cut a scrap off the mage-king’s sleeve.

Liril’s flames seemed entirely unaffected by the rain, as he hurled tiny seeking darts of fire at Vok Nal, each of which embedded itself in something invisible a few inches away from his skin and burned themselves out. The Hurricane seemed to have given up on lightning bolts, at least for the moment. She was probably charging a more potent one, like the one she’d used to practically melt the Ironbeak.

Even though she could see perfectly, the wind and the rain whipped away whatever words Yamal and Vok Nal were shouting at each other as they clashed. Another glance around showed while she had been distracted, some of Vok Nal’s remaining monsters, mail-clad and oversized goblins, had closed in on the evacuees. Not that it was a problem, because they began to stagger drunkenly the moment they stepped onto the stone claimed by Blue, becoming easy prey for the adventuring parties trying to herd frightened civilians through the storm.

“Blue!” She tried to get his attention again, to no avail. All she could do was watch as the third-tiers attacked Vok Nal with a similar lack of effect. “I thought they’d be able to stomp him,” she finally said to Iniri over the howl of the wind, as a grey-green beam of solid light tossed Liril through a building. There weren’t going to be many of those left between Blue’s tremors and the fight. Iniri was mostly covering the civilians from the byproducts of the fight, as The Hurricane’s weaponized rain was less discerning than either Liril’s or Yamal’s attacks.

“I was hoping they’d be able to do more,” Iniri replied, the grim tone somewhat spoiled by needing to shout. The ground shuddered under their feet, and Shayma was forced to [Ghost Step] them a few dozen paces sideways as the stone pavement crumbled downward, then a spike of greyish stone shot upward to replace it. It was the raw color that Blue used, which meant he had advanced, at least here. Though the fact that he’d advanced directly to the spot where Shayma was standing seemed...suspicious, to her.

The fighting brought Vok Nal and Yamal back around, the mage-king slamming into the spire of stone. It broke but, to everyone’s surprise, cut a small gash into the small of his back as it did so. “What is this?” He demanded, staring at the stone while ignoring several of Yamal’s blows. “What is this?” The huge man touched it again then immediately cried out as Yamal’s next cut actually hurt him, opening a shallow wound along his neck.

Vok Nal immediately rounded on Yamal and summoned a massive sphere of white that he hurled at the man. The battle moved off again for a moment and Iniri shouted at Shayma. “We need to get you to the Meil dungeon core!”

“What?” Shayma stared at Iniri.

“Until Blue takes out that dungeon we won’t be able to scratch Vok Nal. But if he does take it, they can pound him into paste. You just saw what happened. Blue needs to win and win now, before they run out of stamina and I run out of mana.”

Shayma winced. Because she hadn’t been doing anything herself, she hadn’t thought about that. They must have been spending resources like water to try and finish this quickly. So she activated [Seeker], since they certainly needed to find that core.

Of course, it was at the top of the tower.

“We need to get up there,” she said, waving at the column of purple flames that burned a few blocks away.

“Get Liril,” Iniri said to Joce, who began using a quick divination working. With wind and rain and distance that was the only way to get through to him...maybe. Considering all the magic flying around it might well be just as easy to shout.

It took a few minutes, illuminated by lightning and multi-colored flares of magic and punctuated by the ground shaking and growling underfoot, to say nothing of the constant roar of wind and crash of thunder. But finally Liril appeared in a burst of flame, wiping the water out of his eyes. It was a useless gesture, and with a start Shayma realized everyone else could likely only see a few feet without Skills. Being able to see straight through the rain like it wasn’t there was very strange when she thought about it, but such was the power of an Artifact.

“Your Majesty?” He said, barely audible over the storm.

“We need to get into the tower,” Iniri told him. “How’s your fire doing? Can you punch us a hole?”

Liril glanced back at the flame-shrouded tower, the purple light of the blaze casting a halo through the driving rain. “I’m not sure why it’s still burning,” he admitted. “It should have eaten through the protections by now. I’ll see what I can do.”

“[Ghost Step], Shayma.” Iniri ordered, and once again she pulled Iniri and Joce and Keel into the Skill, this time following the rapid firebursts of Liril’s movement Skill. In that grey and ethereal world it didn’t take long at all to get to the tower, and Shayma flinched as the heat from the purple fire smashed into them.

Liril wasn’t affected, of course, walking up to touch the glowing flames. “There’s still a lot of defensive energy under there,” he said grimly. It was good he could tell, because Shayma couldn’t sense anything past Liril’s own magic. “But maybe you can get through with that Skill of yours.”

“Right,” Shayma said. [Ghost Step], like [Blink], could ignore intervening space and therefore some of the more prosaic defensive wardings. She activated the skill, approaching the wall of the tower and bracing herself to bull through the tracery of mana she could see even shifted as she was.

The moment she touched it, the webwork blazed with power, sinking into the fabric of her Skill and trying to tear it away. She screamed as needles raked across her, unable to find purchase, before finding herself lying on her back, clothes scorched and smoking as rain drenched her face and got under her hood. Keel appeared in her vision, looming over her as he helped her up. “Are you okay?”

“I...I don’t think we’ll be going in that way.” She didn’t know what that was but it hurt. At least she had [Regeneration] to take care of some of it, but the worst part was that it felt like it was attacking her Class and her mana directly.

“Don’t think the wall much liked it either,” Liril observed, eyeing a Shayma-shaped patch of brighter, deeper fire.

“Ugh. I don’t think I can keep doing that though.” She leaned on Keel, trying to listen for anything from Blue. But there was nothing there. If it weren’t for the buzzing and the occasional shuddering from below she would have thought he was asleep. Or dead.

“You may not have to.” Liril leaned in closer. “I might be able to push through here, but there’s no telling what the inside is like.”

“Unless we can get through whatever door Vok Nal came out of…”

“I checked it,” Liril shook his head. “If anything it’s warded even more heavily.”

“Do it,” Iniri said. “Before he comes back.”

Shayma realized she’d lost sight of Vok Nal and Yamal, having only the occasional flashes of magic to mark their location behind some building in an entirely different quarter of Meil.

Liril lifted his hands, looking entirely unimpressive in his now waterlogged robes, and pointed at the flaming silhouette. The fire actually dimmed, but Shayma could feel the eager hunger as it tore into the mana embedded in the stone. Some of the bricks slumped, melting as much from the heat as the destruction of the magical reinforcements that kept them in place.

A shriek echoed from somewhere out in the city and Vok Nal’s form came hurtling toward them over the rooftops, only to smash once again into [Shield of Tarnil]. Iniri let out a grunt, her hands splayed as the mage-king pounded on the Skill. “You’re hurting my dungeon! I’ll kill you!”

“Yas! Keep him off of us!” Inri shouted, even if Yamal wasn’t visible, and the fourth-tier obliged by appearing from a side street and crashing into Vok Nal.

“Inside!” Liril said, and enlarged the burned hole by the simple expedient of punching it. Even though he was a mage, as a fourth-tier his strength was more than sufficient to shatter the heat-weakened stone.

They piled through, into an astoundingly normal-looking lower room with desks and bookshelves and a startled-looking man – no, a monster, he wasn’t quite human – who fled out the door at the sight of them. Not that they had time to deal with that, since there was a stair up and [Seeker] was pointing in that direction for the core.

“This way!” Shayma said, bolting for the stairs. [Shield of Tarnil] flashed as Vok Nal burst through a different part of the wall, apparently without any effort, and almost made it to them before a winded Yamal simply tripped the mage-king with a phantom sword. She didn’t dare use [Ghost Step] inside, with all those magics still blazing about her, and was restricted to just using ordinary muscle power to climb the steps.

The second floor was ordinary, but the third was not, being an entire empty floor lined with brown-red capsules large enough to house a person. Shayma had no idea what they were, though if she had to guess they were incubation chambers for monsters of various types. Whether or not there were also women inside them was something she was glad she couldn’t tell. They didn’t have time to deal with that.

Another floor with more dungeon-flesh things, but these ones were empty. The sounds of pursuit came from behind them, the clash of sword and the meaty thump of bare feet on the wooden stairs. Maybe the creepy dungeon pods were working to their advantage, forcing Vok Nal to follow architecture rather than simply bursting through it. [Seeker] indicated they were almost there, the core directly above them, but when they got to the top of the stairs they found it wasn’t unguarded.

There were bars of some grey-red metal running from floor to ceiling, blocking off the room. Not to mention there were two huge moils, hulking at the entrance. According to [Seeker] the core was just out of sight, but even she could see the reinforcements around this room were incredibly dense. If Liril had trouble burning through the outer wall…

“Anything.” Iniri said, looking at Joce and Keel and Liril. “Anything at all.”

The three mages began to hurl their magics at the bars as Shayma hastily stepped aside, but the magics there shielded both the bars and the moils behind them. They didn’t have long to work. Vok Nal flew into the room with Yamal close behind, and once again Iniri put up [Shield of Tarnil] to keep him from reaching them. But she must have been low on mana from the constant use and the sheer force of a mage-king, because this time he actually pushed it back. It hissed and spat where he touched it, at least until Yamal hurled him aside with a look of exasperation. “The Hurricane is on her way,” he called to them. “But I can’t hold him long. Hurry up!”

“Shayma, you have to use your [Ghost Step],” Iniri said, but suddenly another option occurred to the fox-girl. There was one ability her ring had given her that she hadn’t done much with yet. This wasn’t the best time to test it, but the [Bane] ability of her mana, through Blue, might give her enough of an edge for it to work.

She used [Illusion] on the bars, substituting empty space for metal. Not a large space, but enough to fit through. Then she reached out through [Promise] and rendered the hidden bars insubstantial.

It was like shouldering a massive weight. She staggered, straining under the load, but kept throwing will and mana into the Artifact, until she finally felt it hold. “There! We can go through -” She squawked as she was cut off by Keel physically picking her up and throwing her through the opening she’d made, right between the moils and onto the ground on the other side. She rolled, the moils staring at her dumbfounded as Vok Nal crashed into the bars where she’d been a moment before. He was far too big for the illusory hole, and the shock simply destroyed her illusion, bent and twisted bars snapping back into view.

“Go!” Iniri shouted at her, and Shayma scrambled, whirling around to see the core. It was exactly like Blue’s, if not larger, but a deep, arterial red. The faceted crystal was connected floor to ceiling, and had an enormous chaise lounge next to it, overstuffed and strewn with equally oversized pillows. She darted for the crystal, while Vok Nal howled and tore the bars from the doorway with his bare hands. Lacking any better ideas, she hurled herself bodily at the core, wrapping her arms around it just as Vok Nal burst into the room. The moils were still lumbring to catch up, their forms not even halfway toward her.

The crystal sizzled against her skin. She screamed. Vok Nal screamed. The moils screamed, which was even more horrible than she would have imagined. The hissing buzz that was Blue’s presence suddenly surged up, rushing through her flesh as the crystal seared her, smoke and the smell of burnt meat pouring into the air. The pain lanced through her arms, up to her throat, threatening to strangle her. Then, without any warning, the crystal flushed a clear blue.

She stumbled backwards and collapsed onto the lounge, completely exhausted all of a sudden, her hands and arms blistered and burnt black, her armor missing or charred into ruins. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Vok Nal likewise collapse and the moils keel over, utterly still. Iniri dragged herself through the shattered bars of the doorway, and looked around cautiously before limping over to the unconscious Vok Nal. Without any fanfare, she conjured a blade of light at the tip of her fingers and separated the mage-king’s head from his body.

“Well,” she said grimly. “That’s done.”


A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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