Shayma relaxed in the bliss of afterglow, practically purring as the bed lowered itself into warm water for her morning bath. After The Hurricane had left, he’d been a lot more attentive than usual. Almost needy, in fact, but also incredibly gentle. Not that she was complaining. It was a wonderful way to wake up.
The soft sound of water and wind preceded Blue’s voice, kept low this time as if he were murmuring in her ear. “Good morning! Sleep okay?”
To be fair she’d had a few nightmares since the fight with Vok Nal. She thought she was done with those, but being so close to an actual mage-king had dredged them up again. [Restful Night] did stop them, but she didn’t want to depend on a Field to get a good night’s sleep the rest of her life.
Helping Keri and Annit out didn’t do much for her restful sleep, either. Healers were rare, and that only meant that demands on their time were even greater. Keri couldn’t simply cast one spell and regenerate a crushed or missing limb; it took time and effort over multiple days and after the battle in Meil there were a number of unfortunate souls with that kind of injury. Everyone was lacking manpower everywhere, and those who were healed left to fields or to Meil as fast as they could, so it was just the three of them taking care of patients most of the time.
They’d overstrained themselves in doing so, too. Running stamina all the way to zero was exceedingly uncomfortable, and she’d heard mana was worse, but Keri had done both. Annit didn’t use mana pools, but she was suffering herself, fetching, carrying, and hauling, mostly without any benefit from Skills. It was clear she had some medical Skills, since once Shayma took over some of the grunt work the southerner spent more time with the least injured patients.
In all, Shayma had seen quite enough of smashed, bruised, and oozing flesh, but she’d complained to Blue before and didn’t think it was worth going over it again. “I slept okay. Better than last night.”
“Wish I could help more,” Blue said regretfully. He’d added a regeneration field to the hospital area, which was help enough, but what he was really referring to was the fact that he couldn’t just hold her. In this instance the sense-sharing of the breeding station worked against them, because there was always that spiralling undercurrent of sexual desire. Just cuddling was impossible.
“The fact that you can literally make nightmares go away if I need you to is pretty amazing, Blue.” Shayma reassured him. “You shouldn’t feel bad that you can’t do everything.” Keri gave her hugs, at the very least, which Annit didn’t seem to mind too much. At least, not so long as Annit got more of them. Watching the grim-faced southern woman start to pout until Keri came by to give her at least a touch on the arm was something she found endlessly adorable even if she dared not say anything about it.
“The things that I can’t do are getting really old, though.” Blue grumped, then sighed. “Anyway, Ansae mentioned seeing you earlier, I don’t know for training or what, so you should probably visit her earlier rather than later. I think Iniri is going to have the crafters come in today, which is great because I’m finally regrowing some Primals.”
She’d actually found it a little discomfiting to find that Blue had lost so many resources in the battle. Even though it was temporary, she was just used to him having as much of anything as he wanted. He’d just mention he had something and then it would appear in her hands.
As unlikely as it seemed, she’d also nearly forgotten about Ansae with how distracted she’d been since the meeting. Shayma definitely hadn’t been keeping up with her training, but she wasn’t really a combat maniac like some of the higher tiers were. Or even to the degree Annit was. Hopefully Ansae wouldn’t be too disappointed that she hadn’t kept up her practice. “Sure, just let me get breakfast and I’ll head down! Or, maybe I should bring a breakfast.”
“I don’t think she’s eaten any...normal food lately. Might as well if there’s extra.”
Fortunately there’d been a harvest, and things weren’t quite so tight anymore. Meat was still not as common as anyone would like, but there was plenty of produce to fill in the gaps. Even fried plunor, which she hadn’t had since she was a kid. It tended to spoil too quickly for the cities to get any. Blue was doing his part too, by allowing people to pick tayantan fruit, but there wasn’t all that much of it and there was only so much to be done with the fruit.
Even though she didn’t have any staff, when she headed up to Refuge someone brought her two plates of breakfast food immediately. Though she felt a little embarrassed to be treated like a noble, she had to admit it was useful and Blue would have insisted anyway. Besides, she practically was one, given her status with Blue.
She stowed both breakfasts with [Phantom Pocket], glad that she’d actually figured out how to do that without spilling things everywhere. Even if other Skills were more powerful, that one was far and away the most useful, even if she did have to empty it of all the miscellanea she’d picked up every once in a while.
Blue’s Link sent her to Ansae’s cottage rather than the center of her lair, so Shayma went ahead and knocked on the door. It swung open for her, despite the fact that Ansae was clearly seated at the table across the way. She wasn’t sure whether that was theatre or practicality. It was probably easier for her to open the door with a brief application of willpower than actually getting up, but on the other hand, Ansae really seemed to have a preference for the dramatic.
Besides, Ansae had chunks of crystal and illuminated bits of magical equipment Shayma didn’t recognize spread out over the table, and was busy doing something with them.
“You wanted to see me?” She stepped inside. Even if the cottage was more normal than the massive furnishings at the center of the lair, everything was large enough to make her feel like a child. The chairs were nearly at chest-height.
“Mostly I wanted to discuss what I’ve found with Blue, but have you been keeping up with your shapeshifting?” The dragon pinned her in place with a look, the innocent question having a lot more teeth than expected.
“No,” Shayma admitted, a trifle out of breath from the sudden pressure. She imagined Ansae already knew the answer. “I’ve been mostly helping with the injured.”
Ansae snorted. “Any time you’re working your muscles you could do at least low-level shapeshifting. If you’re serious about the Skill it should become second nature to you.”
“Of course.” She should have thought of that, but of course shapeshifting wasn’t second nature to her yet. “Thank you, Ansae.”
The pressure left. “Yes, of course. So far as Blue goes, I can say he’s an Artifact.”
“His core fragment is precisely the same as the Red Core fragments, aside from still being alive. A complicated interweaving of mana and crystal, clearly artificial.” She waved her claws at the shards lying on the table, the blue one glowing faintly. “I can’t even figure out why it’s blue instead of red.” She beamed at Shayma. “I love it. It makes sense that an Artifact couldn’t cast magic. Artifacts don’t have intent, they’re things. How he has consciousness, I don’t know.”
“...wouldn’t that be true for the living storm too?”
Ansae’s muzzle quirked. “Have you ever run into a storm that didn’t seem angry to you?”
“Um.” She wasn’t sure that actually counted, but she wasn’t going to try and argue with an ancient dragon. “So I guess you don’t know how to let him talk to anyone else?”
“I’m not even sure how he talks to you. So far as the universe is concerned, he’s just a rock with some mana. That’s why nothing seems to be there for any mind magic. I suspect that’s why he can’t perceive himself with [Soul Perception] either.”
“Wait is she saying I don’t have a soul?”
“Blue doesn’t have a soul?”
“It’s just conjecture, since I have absolutely no desire to dabble in soul magic, but yes. In fact, not having one himself might be why it’s safe for him to perform soul magic at all, if that is what [Purify] does.”
“All right, she’s going to have to explain that one.”
“Blue would like some clarification.” Translating his comments was becoming second nature, though he still caught her off-guard sometimes with his meanderings. Or his jokes. Fortunately for this he seemed just as focused as her.
“Everyone I’ve ever killed who was doing soul magic was insane and tainted by it. You can’t touch something with magic without it touching you in return, so I imagine their very souls got corrupted. If Blue doesn’t have one…” Ansae shrugged.
“Okay that makes sense but lacking a soul sounds like it’s...kind of a problem?”
“So what exactly is he missing, if he doesn’t have a soul?” She’d never really considered the question. At best she was indifferent to the gods, so religious questions like the nature of souls were far outside her knowledge. So far no divine wrath had come down on their heads, but she couldn’t imagine they’d be happy with some soulless entity accruing more power.
“I did point out I don’t do soul magic,” Ansae grinned at her. “We don’t have any ensouled dungeons to compare him to, either. The only thing I can tell you for certain is that he is an Artifact, and whatever gives him his consciousness does not touch the artifact. I think it touches you though.”
“Yeah, I touch you all the time.”
Apparently his focus didn’t last all that long. Shayma rolled her eyes and asked the obvious question. “So you can see the Companion bond or something?”
“I cannot, but I’m referring to the fact that you made a Bargain. The one thing that he can do that is not part of the dungeon itself.”
“So you think you need a Bargain to talk to him.”
“I’m hoping for nothing so drastic. But I might need to study you rather than the core fragments to do that.”
“I hope she’s not intending to take you apart like she did me.”
Ansae laughed at her expression. “I’ll want you to talk to Blue while I teach you shapeshifting. Surely you can do that.”
“...it’d be difficult to stop him from talking,” Shayma agreed with a smile. “If that’s all it is, I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
“Keep in mind you won’t have much time today though. Or at least, you’ll have to take a break when Iniri’s crafters come around. Oh! Maybe Annit and Keri can join you. Get you all some new gear. I can’t make all that many things yet and I think I should keep all my people equipped.”
“Blue is bringing in some crafters today. I’ll need to be there for that, but otherwise I’m free today.” She told Ansae. Then her stomach growled. “Oh, and I brought breakfast.” Ansae’s news had driven it completely out of her head, but now she conjured up the two plates and put them down on the table, only to remember she didn’t have cutlery.
Ansae didn’t seem to care about that, spearing slices of fried plunor with her claws. Admittedly they were sized a bit small, the entire plate being more a snack portion, but the dragon didn’t have any complaints about what was essentially peasant food. Instead of following Ansae’s example, Shayma decided to work on her shifting practice and simply focused on turning a finger into a fork, considering the metal and the tines before changing herself, earning a nod from Ansae.
“So, the whole soul thing is kind of worrying,” Blue murmured as she ate. “Not that there’s anything I can do about it, and it’s not like I feel like some hideous abomination against nature, but...it makes me uncomfortable.”
“You don’t act like you’re soulless,” she assured him. “I’m pretty sure that’s all that really matters.”
“Aww. Thank you, Shayma.” Blue sounded genuinely pleased, which only drove home how much it actually worried him. It hadn’t been much of a compliment.
For whatever profound reasons ancient dragons had, Ansae stayed in her amazon form that morning, chatting with Shayma as they worked. She still was puzzling over the core fragments, while Shayma was dealing with her shapeshifting. Something like changing a finger was barely anything; fingers didn’t have muscles. Changing something like an arm or a leg still took too long to properly use in combat. Still, the Skill was ticking upward and things were becoming easier. Maybe she’d be able to actually do some real damage with whatever new equipment Blue was going to have the crafters make.
“Ah, they’re setting up now. I’m glad they had their forges and whatnot intact. I don’t think I could substitute mine.”
“You know, I haven’t seen any of your crafting things,” Shayma reminded him as she waved to Ansae, stowing the empty plates in [Phantom Pocket] and heading back out to pick up Keri and Annit. For some reason when Blue mentioned a crafting demonstration, and equipment for the three of them, she’d been expecting that they’d all be coming to Blue’s main area. To Refuge. Instead, they were all going to Meil.
“Yeah it doesn’t look like much and the area that I have it is...not hospitable. I’ll have to set up a proper crafting room or something. Though for now it’s mostly just...crystals. Sometimes they glow. Kind of mysterious I suppose.”
“I know you have all kinds of things you don’t show off,” she admitted. “With the audience chamber at least people can see some of it! It’s a shame most people won’t see any more though.”
“Other than you, who would I show, anyway? I mean, it’s not like there’s people I trust or...I guess would care.”
That gave Shayma a moment’s pause. It wasn’t like Blue had any friends. He didn’t really have anyone other than her. Not even Ansae really counted, though she’d consider the dragon the closest confidante besides herself.
Aside from not being able to directly talk to anyone, she understood the good reasons behind his reticence. He had strange gaps in his knowledge and understanding, and was incredibly powerful in some ways but not others. He was far more vulnerable than he would like and really didn’t want to tempt fate by revealing that. Even if it worked, it made for a lonely lifestyle.
That might change at some point, but it’d depend on Ansae, and while Shayma personally rather liked the dragon she was well aware Ansae had her own agenda. One that matched with theirs, for the most part, but there was no way an ancient dragon wasn’t holding out at least a little. It was a worry she had to put off for another day, though, as Blue brought the three of them across to the teleport pad in Meil.
“This doesn’t look like a city that was supposedly wrecked just a few days ago.” Annit observed.
“Blue did a good job!” Shayma agreed.
“Thank you, I try.” Blue preened.
“Yeah! Looks totally normal to me!” Keri said, hanging onto Annit’s arm as she peered around.
“I suspect they’d be less impressed if they saw it before it got wrecked. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get most of the buildings right.”
Shayma didn’t pass that on, as usual for Blue’s hedging or muttering. He was right that people wouldn’t take him seriously as a Power if he talked to them directly, at least, if he talked to them the way he talked to Shayma. She was pretty sure offering such an almost-apology to any of the more aggressive nobility or adventurers would only result in tragedy.
They didn’t have far to go, Blue having put them outside crafting row. Already there were plumes of smoke in the air from some of the stations, and a stout gentleman with a heroic beard waited nervously next to Tulk.
“Shayma, girl! Over here!” He waved at her frantically, as if she could miss him, and grinned broadly as the trio approached. “How’re you doing?”
“Hi, Tulk! I’m— ack!” She couldn’t help the noise of protest as he scooped her up into an enormous hug, Blue laughing in her ear. Shayma hugged back and Tulk grunted, setting her back down and peering at her.
“You got strong!” He declared. “Anyway, this is Enchanter Gill, he’s in charge of all the crafting stuff? I guess it’s for Blue, not for you three.”
“It’s for both, actually.” Shayma told them. “Blue wants demonstrations, and we could use new or replacement equipment.”
“It takes a few days to make anything,” Gill said, clearly nervous. “If we’re working from scratch, we won’t have any finished products for you right away.”
“That’s fine. I’m not in such a hurry that I need this all immediately. “
“Blue understands. We’re mostly here so we can tell you what we’d like. Also in case Blue asks any questions.”
“Of course.” Gill bobbed his head uncertainly. “What is it you need?”
“I need armor and weapons. Sword and dagger, and loose cloth armor for shapeshifting.” Shayma looked to Annit and Keri.
“I can’t believe I’m getting stuff! I haven’t even done anything!” Keri said. That wasn’t true at all, of course. Shayma had no idea how many lives Keri had saved, but in Shayma’s opinion she’d earned something more than thanks.
“She needs some cloth armor and a staff,” Annit answered for her. “Probably one that can hold her Source gem. Ker?”
Keri lifted the necklace that held her Primal up to show it off to Gill.
“I can provide the wood for that. I can also supply steel, and Primal Sources...I don’t know how they’ll act with crafters if they bond to whoever uses them. The powder essence stuff might not actually be any good for crafting.”
“That’s something we can find out.” Shayma replied, then focused on Gill. “Blue can provide wood and metal. He also has Sources but they may not be suitable for crafting. He’s counting on you to find that out, if there’s something small that we could test with. Annit, what did you need?”
“New kit,” she said firmly. “My armor’s okay, and Blue’s weapon is...amazing, but everything else I have is pretty worn.”
“Any extra resources would be welcome,” Gill said. “We’re fairly low on most things, but we should be able to make what you’re asking. What did you want to see first?”
“I actually want to go to the smith,” Shayma admitted. “I have [Smithing] and I’d love to be able to make my own stuff.”
“Oh jeez. I feel terrible. I just assumed it was going to be a dead Skill and I didn’t even ask. That’s great anyway, I have some special metals that now that I think of it might be a problem for other people to work with.”
“I’ll see the leatherworker then, and Keri, cloth or woodworkers?”
“Cloth first, if Shayma will be dropping by later.” Keri agreed.
“Do you have samples of the Sources, by chance?” Gill asked. “I should be able to appraise them.”
“Right. Other people actually get good descriptions of things. Sure I’ll show him a nature Source I guess. I haven’t actually seen anyone with Skills for that yet. I think.”
Shayma lifted her hand and Blue deposited a primal Nature on it, all swirling greens like leaves fluttering in the wind. Gill blinked at it, removed his glasses and polished them on his sleeve, then replaced them and blinked again. “Primal Nature Source. This dungeon-created item binds itself to the essence of the user when activated through mana or Skill. It improves the potency of Skills of matching Affinity, as well as refining the Class and Skill quality over time. My word, I’ve never seen that last effect.”
“Ha, I knew it was special. Also I’m going to guess that binding things means that a crafter can’t work with it, if all it takes is Skill use.”
“Does that mean it will bind to the crafter if they try to use it?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s rare to see on anything but an Artifact or a high-quality finished product, but when I’ve seen that trait it really does mean any Skill.”
“All right, then Blue’s sources...probably won’t be very helpful for making our items then.”
Gill nodded, gesturing for them to follow him down the crafter’s row. Annit and Keri fell in alongside them, the healer peering around curiously. “Then we are limited in what we can make with Source materials. Though if you already have a Source, there is likely no need for that for any of your other equipment.”
“Hmm, is there any way to get enchantments or whatever on weapons other than sources or...magic enchanting I guess?”
Shayma relayed Blue’s question as they made their way down the street.
“Hm. The best way to acquire equipment with effects that are not created by enchanters is material that has been soaked in a mana Affinity long enough to transmute. Rather like how ore pockets are created in the earth.”
“Ohhh, so that’s why the geology doesn’t make sense. Okay that clears up a lot of things. Also, I bet I can do that.” Blue’s mutterings faded into wind and water again as he moved off to try whatever experiment Gill had inspired. Hopefully he’d be back to paying attention to them by the time the crafters actually started their work.
“Thank you for the explanation,” Shayma said on Blue’s behalf, and Gill bobbed a nod.
“Of course. Most people are neither interested nor familiar with the mechanics of crafting. They just know that the more magic is involved, the better. Anyhow, there’s the clothier. Miss Shayma, the smithy is just ahead. The leatherworks is at the end, due to the smell, you know.”
“Of course,” Shayma said. Annit waved at her, letting her know that she was perfectly fine with splitting up. Keri bounced into the clothworks, and Shayma left Gill and Annit behind to step into the smithy.
The kirin-kin waiting for her looked vaguely familiar, but it took her a bit to recognize him as the blacksmith that had taken her order way back in Khiral town. “Hello again, miss Shayma!” He beamed at her. “I hear you need a smithing demonstration! It does take a while, but what can I make for you?”
“Hello, mister Eiluth.” Shayma smiled back. “I’d like a longsword and a dagger, actually. Blue can provide you with the steel.”
“Oh, right, hang on.”
“Where -” Eiluth started, then stopped as a black flicker on the counter deposited a stack of gleaming steel ingots. He stared at them. “Can’t say I’ve seen that trick before!” Hesitantly, he reached out the pick one up, then blinked and stared at it. “This is completely pure steel,” he said. “Usually takes the third tier of smelting to get this. Haven’t gotten my hands on it too often!”
“There are certain benefits to working with Blue.” She really wasn’t surprised that he could produce such high quality material. It seemed that everything he came up with was absurd in one way or another. If it wasn’t literally growing Sources, it was producing Artifacts out of the aether. “Also I’d like to get some instruction and do some work myself. I have a level one [Smithing] Skill that I want to increase.”
He laughed. “Normally I don’t take apprentices, but I guess you don’t count! Daggers are a good starter project anyway, we can start on that and maybe get you a few skill points before you even put an edge on it!”
“I also have some special metals for you, since I think they’ll bind to whoever makes them. Might as well have him take a look at those.” Another set of ingots popped into existence next to the first, these ones sheened in red.
“Could you examine these too? Blue’s pretty sure they’ll bind to me if I use them but I’d like to be sure.”
“Always happy to be of help!” He went to take one of the ingots then stopped, fingers almost touching the metal. “Yes, it says they’ll bind. I don’t dare touch them! I’m not sure about combat, not really my Class, but it says they are like a weak Source and...refine Skills? Might make for fine tools, if you make those first.”
“Oh, [Smithing] is fire Affinity?” She was wondering how many Affinities she had in her Skills now. Illusion, of course, but [Ghost Step] also had Spatial, and she wasn’t even sure what Affinity [Limited Shapeshifting] was. Maybe it was its own Affinity. [Luck] and [Seeker] probably didn’t have any Affinity, but really they didn’t need any boosts.
“A little bit of fire, a little bit of kinetic, and a touch of metal, aye.” Eiluth nodded. “I’m guessing you don’t have a smithing Class, just the Skill? Then fire is your best bet. So long as you have the strength, you don’t need help on the kinetic side anyway, and I haven’t yet seen a metal Source!”
“That sounds like a challenge! I didn’t even know there was a metal Affinity, hmm…”
Shayma considered mentioning that she did have a kinetic Source to help her in the form of [Promise], but maybe it was for the best that she didn’t broadcast she was wearing an Artifact. Even if Eiluth seemed harmless enough. “Making tools sounds like a great idea! I can always have Blue set up a forge for me later.”
“Sure thing! I’m pretty sure I can duplicate the setup here, but of course I can’t use it. No hands. Maybe it’ll unlock something though…”
The liquid sounds of Blue’s attention faded in and out as she and Eiluth loaded the ingots onto a dolly to push over to the forge. She was actually kind of excited about learning to make things. It hadn’t been all that long since her Class had been changed and she’d gotten a number of abilities, so it was greedy to want more Skills. But she didn’t want to do combat all the time and there was just something appealing about making her own equipment.
Eiluth passed her a hammer while the ingots heated, and she took a few practice swings. [Promise] hummed on her finger, the Primal Kinetic aspect linking into the [Smithing] Skill even without a piece to try it on.
This was going to be fun!