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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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A man made out of shadows leaned back in a crudely-carved chair, surrounded by rock walls and torches. There were figures in the flickering shadows, things of scale and bone, nowhere near human in shape. One rested its scythes on the ground, leaning on them like an old man might on his cane, another squatted on six stout limbs, close to the ground. Still others were more bipedal, but still monstrous in size and form. In the light of the torches, the figures looked like they belonged in chiaroscuro art rather than a living scene.

“I’ll do you one better,” Shadow said. “Forget Tor Kot. You probably wouldn’t much like what he would do to you even if he agreed to take you in. There’s this other one called Blue that’s a far better prospect.”

Strangely, the monsters didn’t say anything at all. There was soft clicking and hissing, the coarse scrape of bone against bone, but nothing that could be called words. Shadow answered anyway, casually waving away whatever question had been asked. “Because he killed Vok Nal and mounted his head on a fucking pike, is why. No, I didn’t tell Tor Kot that. Yeah, he has no idea how dangerous Blue is, because he still thinks it’s one of his opponents hijacking his experiments.”

A scythe came up, pointing at Shadow for a moment, and the monster held up his hands. “Look, Blue lets that Queen girl run around and manage her own damn cities so that makes him a lot more amenable than any of the mage-kings I know. Plus whatever his monsters are, they’re damn shy so he could probably use ones like you to actually have some kind of presence.”

Still there were no words, only intense staring from the things watching him. Shadow didn’t wilt under the weight of their regard, instead his pitch-black lips peeled away from tarry teeth in a rictus grin. “No, I’m pretty sure Blue doesn’t want to hear from me. I’m one of the mage-king’s creatures, aren’t I? Unless you think this is good enough.”

Shadow swiveled to look at an overly-tall, emaciated-looking lizard-thing that was covered in spines. “He’s dug into the mountain, just a little north of...yes, right there. No, I have no idea about the Blight. You’re on your own with that one.”

The monsters of scale and bone eyed each other, then the one with the scythes moved forward. It didn’t lumber, as something of that size and bulk ought to, but moved with the sinuous grace of a striking snake. Dozens of small, bone-armored legs supported a serpentine body, tapping with surprising delicacy against the floor as it laid the scythes on Shadow’s shoulders.

Magic built, coming from somewhere deep inside the scythe-limbed monster, and while its posture suggested that Shadow was imminently in charge of losing his head, the other monster’s posture was entirely relaxed. What passed for its eyes were closed even, the magic rising up and then sharpening, coming to an infinitely fine edge. There was a flicker, of something ephemeral being severed, and Shadow shuddered head to toe.

Then he started laughing. Bubbling tar had never sounded so delighted.

“Good luck with Blue,” he told the assembled monsters, “and don’t tell him I sent you. I doubt he likes me.” He rose out of the chair as the scythes dropped away, and bowed, courtier-like. “Thank you.” Then he flickered, vanishing into the darkness between the torches.

While the ability to see wherever my name was mentioned certainly was interesting, I wasn’t sure how to take what it showed me. Not that I was stupid; it was clear enough that some other group of monsters was being aimed at me, but I didn’t know who or why. It sounded like they wanted something from me, rather than trying to just invade, but I couldn’t imagine what.

Whatever was going on, though, it seemed like even the monsters weren’t entirely happy with the mage-kings. I hadn’t even considered that was a possibility, but the Shadow guy, assuming it was the same one as ever, had always seemed weird for a monster. A lot smarter, for one, and more cautious. Closer to an actual person.

Unfortunately I couldn’t do anything about it other than pass things along to Shayma to inform Iniri and Ansae, assuming I could figure out a good way to do so without tipping my hand. I really didn’t want to let anyone know about this particular ability, not even my Companions and friendly neighborhood dragon.

I decided to let that stew for a while, and distracted myself by considering what I’d gotten out of watching mana- and Source-imbued crafting. While helpful, observing them was not quite as useful as I thought it’d be.

[Fabrication: Loom] discovered.

[Fabrication: Mixing Bath] discovered.

[Fabrication: Hydraulic Press] discovered.

It turned out that anything that required a manual touch to do the work was effectively impossible for me to get a dungeon version of, at least the way I was doing things. The loom was really just an extension of the assembler, which is how I unlocked it. The hydraulic press was my own idea, after finding out I couldn’t actually get forging, and the mixing bath came out of seeing the way they treated wood and cloth.

Leatherworking was a complete bust. The amount of work required to skin the creatures, tan their hides, and then turn the result into useful things was beyond me. Woodworking was much the same, though I didn’t feel much of a lack there because I could use [Customization] on a tree and put it together with the [Assembler]. The main thing I found out was that putting Sources in things was a lot less useful than I thought, because they just improved Skill use, and a lot of people didn’t have armor-related Skills, for example. No, real magical items were made by enchanters or runesmiths or just manifested of their own accord from mana-infused materials.

I had a lot of ideas for experiments but before I did any of that I wanted to deal with my infestation. The ice had been doing a good job of stalling the [Armored Tunnel Crawlers] but they were starting to accumulate, spreading out over the bottom surface of my territory. I didn’t know if it was because my mana generation had ticked upward again or just because of time passing, but I had a grand total of sixty of the things, between levels thirty and forty, hanging out and chewing on stone.

So I flushed them. I didn’t know where the tunnels went, but they went down, and if it worked on a flame knight I could probably get rid of a number of the crawlers just with that. Over the past few days I’d been filling a massive reservoir with excess water, a special reservoir I’d built just to try out an idea I’d had. It was polished as smooth as I could manage, which turned out to be pretty damn smooth with [Customization]. Not quite atomically smooth, but it’d likely take advanced instrumentation to spot any texture.

All of which was in aid of supercooling. I really didn’t know how well it would work; I knew the theory but I wasn’t by any means an expert. If I could get it to work though, any bugs that weren’t killed by being smashed against walls would freeze solid as crystallization spread. I might just get a massive ice dam in front of the reservoir but it wasn’t like I could lose much from trying it.

The results were more dramatic than I had anticipated. A great deluge of water washed the beetles out and down the tunnels, crystallizing into ice as it went. I wasn’t sure if there was some magic influence or that was just how things normally worked, but the ice started forming on the beetles first, doing little more than riming the tunnel walls while it completely encased the beetles.

I ended up with twenty or so frozen bug statues that I could see, and the rest of them washed or driven down the tunnels, all of which were coated in a half-meter of ice. Oddly, I didn’t get any messages about kills. Even encased in ice, the crawlers were still alive. Maybe it was asking too much for simple ice to take out a level thirty-something monster.

“Shayma? What would your group think about stabbing some thirty-something monsters in the face? I’ve got them locked down pretty well. [Armored Tunnel Crawlers], frozen but not dead.”

“Oh, maybe! I’ll go ask.” Shayma took a break from the smithing area I’d made her next to the cottage. Even if I couldn’t make dungeon versions of most crafting, some of the tools I could imitate pretty well. Things I couldn’t grow directly I could build with the Assembler, provided it was all wood, stone, and iron. A forge and anvil was simple, and I had plenty of alchemical coal, so it was easy enough to making something for her.

None of them had their new gear yet, but they would probably be okay since they only needed to finish off something helpless.

“Oh and everything’s frozen over down there so make sure you have boots and gloves.” Actually I’d start warming it up once they actually started offing the pests, but I suspected it’d be cold work unless I tried to melt everything before they got there. While going through all the preparations, I realized I was asking adventurers to get rid of pests in my basement.

“Oh my god I’m a cliche.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure I could explain it. Is there such a thing as adventurer’s guilds by chance?”

“I don’t think so? There are some places that cater to registered groups of Classers, like Wildwood, but nothing like a guild. Maybe some larger nations have something like that, like Ir, but nobody around here does.”

“Huh.” I supposed that made sense. Most governments wouldn’t be terribly pleased with an organization that could effectively muster elite soldiers, which Classers were, if they didn’t control it. Not to mention that even with divination it was probably pretty difficult to organize across a bunch of nations that weren’t really on the best of terms.

Which meant no quests for low-level adventurers, I supposed. It seemed the real money that Classers made was from mana-rich materials that they carried out of dangerous areas, or just noble backers. So far I hadn’t seen a properly working city so I didn’t know how that translated into real life, whether all that stuff ended up in the noble houses or had more mundane uses. Maybe most cities were more like Wildwood when they were intact, if a couple steps down. Sure, I didn’t see any remnant runework in Meil but I’d already seen it had been rebuilt in a low-magic way so I couldn’t expect it.

By now the only patients left of Keri’s were the ones who had been most severely mangled and were still regrowing limbs. They needed regular but not constant attention, which meant that both the women had caught up on sleep and spent a lot of time wandering around the forest I’d put in the back of their house. I was pretty sure Annit was going a little stir-crazy, actually, given the lack of things to hunt.

Shayma found them holding hands and strolling between the trees, which was so intimate a moment I almost wanted to have Shayma leave them alone a little longer. Keri waved cheerfully with her free hand, but Annit looked more suspicious than anything.

“Hi Shayma! What brings you by?”

“Blue has some stuff for us to kill!” Shayma’s tone was as cheerful as Keri’s, and even Annit’s eyes lit up a little upon hearing that.

“What stuff and where?” Annit asked, reaching down to touch the blowgun she always kept on her.

“Armored tunnel crawlers. He says he has them frozen down in the tunnels below us.” She waved at the floor. “So we’ll want to pack warm.”

“What else is down there though?” Annit’s eyes were already far away, considering things from the adventurer point of view.

“You know, I have no idea since I haven’t taken them over yet. Ansae might know, though, so you should probably stop by before you go down there.”

“All of us? I wouldn’t want to spring Keri and Annit on her.”

“Oh, uh, you know they should probably meet anyway. Might as well ask Ansae if she’s willing to say hi.”

“I hope she says yes.” Shayma grinned and turned to the curious Keri and Annit. “You two get ready, I’ll see about getting an audience with our resident expert.”

“Blue isn’t an expert?” Annit asked, skeptical.

“There are tunnels down there that aren’t his.” Shayma shrugged. “If it’s too high level we won’t go very deep.”

“Sounds interesting anyway!” Keri’s eyes shone. “It’d be like being in a real dungeon! Um, no offense to Blue.”

“None taken.” I actually preferred people thinking of me as something other than a ‘real’ dungeon. After all it wasn’t like I had much in common with any of the other types of dungeons people knew.

“Who’s the expert, anyway?” Keri continued.

“A recluse.” Shayma grinned. “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

“Oh, but you’ll spoil us surprising her?”

“She’s scarier than you are.”

“That is not reassuring,” Annit muttered.

“It’ll be fine! I’ll be back in a little bit.”

Another teleport brought Shayma into Ansae’s lair, where the dragon was, well, licking the chunk of core gem she’d gotten from me. That was a little weird, since I’d seen her testing it with tools that were a lot more complicated than a tongue, but then, she did say she ate mana. Maybe the core gem had a bunch of mana and it was like some kind of rock candy.

Shayma, wisely, didn’t comment, and Ansae didn’t either, setting the gem aside. She was in her normal form this time, wings mantled on her back as she lounged at the center of the lair I’d made for her. “Yes, Shayma? What does Blue need?”

“There are some Armored Tunnel Crawlers coming up from the tunnels below,” I said, and Shayma repeated. “I froze a bunch and I’m going to have Shayma and Keri and Annit kill them off, but I wanted to know if you had any idea what else was down there and how much they need to worry about.”

“Hmm. I’m surprised those came up already, but now that I’m not eating all the mana, I suppose it was inevitable. Those tunnels go all the way down, though. Keep going far enough and you’ll find all sorts of nasty things, but they mostly prefer heat. They won’t come up here unless you convert the whole area to something volcanic.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Shayma said. “Um, would you mind if I bring Keri and Annit by to hear what’s down there? Annit is more experienced as an adventurer than I am and probably knows what you’re talking about if you name any beasts.”

“More people?” Ansae’s lips peeled back to reveal a toothy dragon grin. “So long as they behave themselves. They’re not you, or Blue. Everyone else needs to work their way into my good graces. Because they’re friends of yours they may skip the audience chamber this time.”

Oh, right. I’d nearly forgotten that Ansae was an insanely powerful and old dragon who was a Power in her own right and everyone who wasn’t an immortal Power was basically a buzzing mayfly.

“Yes, of course.” Shayma bowed suddenly, more formal than usual. “You have my thanks, Ansae.”

She flipped a negligent claw at Shayma, returning her regard to the core crystals. Not mine, this time, but the red ones. They were all inside some sort of fantastically complex magical array, and even as I watched one of the fragments began turning to powder. I bet if she was the one who was controlling the dungeon I’d be twenty levels higher already.

“So what was that about?”

“Hmm?” Shayma’s ears flicked as she stepped back through the Link, hopping between Ansae’s lair and Refuge, between Refuge and the hospital.

“That weird exchange at the end between you and Ansae.”

“Oh, I think she was just reminding me to be formal when they’re here. Most people don’t talk to a Queen like we do, let alone a Power.”

“Right.” I had to wonder if losing my fear of Ansae was a mistake. Though she seemed perfectly happy to be chummy with Shayma, that could be an attempt to keep me on her side. Of course, both could be true at once. That said, I didn’t think Ansae was the type to act. Rather the reverse; she seemed the type to be brutally honest and grin when people didn’t like it.

Keri and Annit were finishing up with packing their equipment. I thought maybe Annit was being a little over-conservative, considering that I could supply them with things through inventory and they weren’t even going very far, but she seemed like a very by-the-book adventurer. Considering that she had mostly been a guide for greener Classers, I couldn’t blame her. For all I knew she really would need all that stuff; it wasn’t like I did any adventuring. I just watched Shayma.

“Now, Ansae agreed to talk to you about what’s down there.” Shayma told them, looking from one to the other. “What I didn’t mention because she likes her privacy is that Ansae is a dragon. She’s also a Power, so be polite.”

What.” Annit just stared.

“Um, are you sure it’s a good idea for us to go?” Keri, for once, looked less than happy to plunge into things.

“Ansae is working with Blue, and you’re working for Blue. I don’t know what the future holds but it’s better than you know each other in case there’s some emergency or another.” Shayma’s reasoning was a lot better than mine. Mostly because mine was something along the lines of might as well. “For all you know you might be working together!”

“I doubt that.” Annit sighed. “But very well. We will be on our best behavior.”

“Brush!” Keri said suddenly, darting into the bedroom and returning with the named implement to put Annit’s hair into some sort of order. Only then were they satisfied to see Ansae. Another trip through the teleports, making me think I really needed to reorganize my rooms and maybe use spatial compression instead, and both women stopped dead upon seeing the massive dragon stretched out in front of them.

Shayma nudged them, and Annit went down to one knee, dragging Keri along with her. “Greetings, Lady Ziir,” Shayma said, curtseying. “These are my adventuring partners, Annit and Keri.”

“You may rise,” Ansae told them imperially. They did so, and the massive dragon surveyed them. “I do hope you are taking care of Shayma.”

“W-we are, Lady Ziir,” Annit said, with an unaccustomed tremor in her voice. I was starting to feel a little bad for having Shayma introduce them. Apparently Ansae had a hell of a presence, one I lacked given that even when they were bowing and scraping people didn’t look utterly terrified.

Then again, I didn’t have sharp pointy teeth.

“Blue has remarked that you will be entering the tunnels below. The uppermost set were dug by my thralls, and there may be some still there. I expect they have been mostly driven out by the inhabitants of a natural cavern full of earth and fire Affinity mana that I nibbled on occasionally, a half-mile deeper. Crawlers, as Blue has said, but there may also be Cavern Anglers, Stonefish and the assorted outriders their hives have, Heat Kites, from the deeper levels, though I don’t imagine they’ll come up here unless Blue puts down a lava trail.”

Which I almost had. Turned out that lava didn’t actually kill everything.

“Yes, Lady Ziir. I don’t anticipate going very far down but if I do I shall be exceedingly careful.”

“Oh, and the cavern does have lowways into the greater subterranean civilizations. I never did check which ones were nearby but I haven’t yet seen anyone come upward so they’re probably irrelevant.”

“The who what now?”

“Blue isn’t familiar with subterranean civilizations,” Shayma said. “Neither am I! I didn’t know any existed!”

“Oh, plenty,” Ansae said dismissively. “But most don’t care about the surface. Some don’t even know it exists. Still, if you’re going down there you’ll have to understand that there may well be civilized individuals that are very far from human or dragon. I don’t imagine you’d want to accidentally declare war.”

“Or on purpose declare war either, but I take her point. Also, if I’m going to be digging deeper I’m going to have another Queen Iniri to deal with it sounds like.”

“For today I don’t think we’re going much deeper than where Blue has the Crawlers frozen,” Shayma said. “Would it be alright to consult you if we do run into anyone down there?”

“Certainly,” Ansae replied. “Though don’t bring them to me directly unless they look delicious.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shayma said, clearly swallowing laughter. I wasn’t sure Ansae was joking. There was always an edge to those statements, and Ansae didn’t get to be monstrously powerful by good cheer and charm. Someday someone was going to make her mad and then we’d all see exactly how she treated those who annoyed her.

The thought process made me think that perhaps one of the reasons for her seclusion was to avoid just that. Given enough people, one of them would surely be an idiot and I’d have to clean up the inevitable aftermath. Not that Ansae would care herself, but she might want to avoid it out of consideration for me.

“Off you go.” Ansae waved an immense paw at them and Shayma bowed again, ushering Annit and Keri back to the Link.

“What in the Abyss were you thinking!?” Annit demanded the moment they landed on the other side. “That’s not just a dragon, that’s an ancient dragon. I was there when the Taras Beast attacked Wildwood and even it didn’t have that pressure.”

“Huh, I didn’t notice any...pressure.”

“Well you represent a Power too! That’s probably why.” Keri had already recovered, and was fairly vibrating from excitement. “I wonder which legend she is! The Kingslayer? The Calamity of Tenebron? The Silver Woe?”

“She’s probably just from one of the other continents.” Annit disagreed. “I’m pretty sure all those others died centuries ago.”

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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