It had been ages since they’d been to north Tarnil. There wasn’t much up there but the Waste and after seeing that the once even his wife’s curiosity had been satisfied. Though most of it looked the same as ever, the mana was now incredibly different. He assumed it had to do with the vague hints the Grandmaster had dropped about Shayma, but he couldn’t imagine what would cause such a drastic change.
He couldn’t tell the Affinity either, which was a little worrying. There was just the feeling of the mana density increasing, without any of the effects on the plants or animals that came with Mana Springs or dungeons. Between the two of them, he and Sienne could usually puzzle out what the local mana was like and what they might be facing, but not here. His wife’s void Affinity had left her paradoxically sensitive to mana flows, but even she was having trouble figuring out exactly what was going on.
“Anything yet, love?” He held his current weapon at the ready. All that mana with no beasts or monsters was putting him on edge, as if he weren’t worried enough to know that Shayma was involved with some sort of Power.
“Nothing so far.” Her eyes were narrowed and her ears twitched as she scanned the surroundings, fingers resting on the sword at her hip. Really she was absolutely breathtaking when she was serious like that, but he couldn’t take the time to admire her. Not in potentially hostile territory. “No, wait,” she corrected herself. “There was a shift in mana density up ahead just now.”
“Then let’s go check it out.” He took the lead, the tree trunk he’d trimmed slung over his shoulder. Sienne leaped up to ride atop it, her weight barely anything to his Skills. Not only did that give them extra height, but he could literally hurl Sienne at a threat, making up for her lack of movement Skill.
It was surprisingly effective.
They didn’t find a threat, though what they did find was stranger. A large archway stood in the middle of the woods with a clear portal in the middle, something that would normally take a mage an immense amount of work and mana to create and wouldn’t simply be in a random spot in a forest. A strange forest, at that, far too regular and young to be natural.
As if that weren’t enough, what was visible on the far side of the portal was a city, specifically a mansion with the banner of the Tarnil royal house on it. The entire thing was incredibly suspicious, as if it had been placed there precisely for them to find. Which was probably what had happened, considering the power potential around them.
“Soooo.” Sienne said as she poked at the stone with the tip of her rapier, producing a scraping noise and not much else.
“Aye,” he agreed. “So.” A man appeared on the other side of the portal, one of Queen Iniri’s guards by the uniform and one that seemed vaguely familiar to Giorn.
“I’m pretty sure this portal was meant for you,” he told them. “Unless there’s anyone else over there?”
“It’s just the two of us. Giorn and Sienne Ell.”
“Harold Tiun, Queensguard” the guard introduced himself. “Come on through. You must be important if Blue decided to give you special treatment like this.”
Giorn exchanged a glance with his wife, then tested the portal with his tree trunk. Not that he thought it was a trap or illusion, under the circumstances, but with something as esoteric as spatial magic it paid to be careful. When the trunk caused no issues, not even the slightest hint of destabilization, he took Sienne’s hand and they stepped through together.
It looked like any normal city but the mana density stayed high, far higher than the mundane surroundings would imply. He would have expected something more like Wildwood Retreat, lack of Affinity or not, especially considering the scent of trees on the wind.
“So where is this exactly? Our daughter told us to come up here. Shayma Ell.”
Harold’s eyebrows went up.
“Oh, you’re Shayma’s folks? That explains a lot then. Anyway, welcome to Meil, just taken back from Vok Nal.” He waved around them. “You’re as safe here as anywhere, really.”
“What doyou mean, ‘that explains a lot?’” Sienne demanded. “Where’s our baby girl?”
“Look, ma’am,” Harold put his hands up, palm outward, and Giorn winced. Sienne’s eyes narrowed dangerously. She wasn’t going to let anyone dissemble about Shayma. “I can’t discuss anything under Crown seal,” he continued, which at least defused Sienne’s temper. “I’ll notify Her Majesty that you’re here and I’m sure she’ll explain everything.”
“Is she safe, at least?” Giorn asked. “She seemed fine in her message, but…” But it had been years. Years that he’d missed of his daughter’s life, years where the entire coast of Tarnil had been impossible to get to. Years they’d spent trying to get powerful enough to be able to travel there, and then she’d somehow gotten a high-powered sending to them out of the blue. He wanted to believe she was fine, but knew that just wanting it wasn’t enough.
“She’s out on a mission at the moment,” Harold said. “You just missed her. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Of course we did,” Sienne sighed.
“If you’ll leave your…” Harold eyed the two of them with disfavor, especially Giorn and his enormous tree truck. “Your weapon outside I’ll show you in.” Harold pointed at the manor with Iniri’s flag. “You’ll have to pass a Status check, of course.”
“That is acceptable.” Really, the reason he just used tree trunks was because his chosen weapon type was far too large to lug around cities or into buildings, so there was no point in fashioning anything permanent. He’d used stalactites and stone pillars before too, whatever was to hand. Even if someone felt the need to take a random hunk of wood lying around, he wouldn’t feel its loss.
Giorn leaned the tree trunk against a nearby building and then stared as the stone of the street grew around the base, holding it in place.
“Hm. Blue is paying attention to you,” Harold mused, eyeing the stone.
“Who is Blue?” That was the second time the color-and-name had been mentioned, and it was pretty clear this ‘Blue’ was enormously powerful. Which wasn’t exactly the sort of being he wanted to pay attention to him.
“Meil’s dungeon,” Harold said, walking over to the manor door and opening it for them.
“What.” Sienne didn’t budge. Giorn eyed his weapon, having second thoughts about giving it up.
“It’s fine, Blue is friendly. I’d explain but Her Highness would have my head if I told you instead of letting her discuss the full story.” He waved them in, guiding them to one of the lower-floor rooms. It was clearly outfitted for adventurer use rather than nobility, with cold cuts and bread and cheese on a far table and an adjacent washroom. There were closets and strongboxes for storing kit, not magically locked but still having simple tokens to register what was where. A few Classers were waiting there already, none he recognized but to judge from the feel of their mana all second tier.
“Feel free to relax for a bit. Her schedule is pretty packed, so it’ll take a little bit even though I’m sure she’ll want to squeeze you in.”
“Thank you,” Giorn said, glad that someone here actually knew how to properly cater to Classers. After returning from a high-mana area, any Classer wanted calories, cleanliness, and a safe place to relax. Despite needing higher mana densities to properly level, it was easier to solidify any adventurer’s understanding of the advancements in their Skills back in low mana areas. Which this was not, but the lack of any surrounding Affinity made it close enough. Once Harold left, Sienne dragged his head down for a kiss.
“I desperately need a shower,” she said. “Keep watch first?”
“Absolutely,” he said, taking her backpack for safekeeping and holding it open so she could retrieve her toiletry box. “Go get clean, love.” He punctuated that with a light swat on the rear, she squeaked and stuck her tongue out at him before heading into the washroom.
Giorn took advantage of the storage closets, deciding that it wasn’t likely they were going anywhere until Shayma came back, and freed of his burdens aside from his own shower-pack and new clothes, wandered over to the food table to stock up. One of the other Classers looked at his piled-high plate with some degree of astonishment, but Giorn was used to that. He was a big guy and had a big appetite.
Sienne emerged soon enough, hair and fur tousled, attracting a different set of stares. Giorn grinned, stealing another kiss from her and handing off the storage token so he could clean himself. Some Classers, like nobles or sponsored third-tiers, had the money for magic items to mimic amenities in the fields, but he and Sienne had always been independent so after several weeks traveling they were a little ripe. For himself, he liked the way Sienne smelled but it always felt good to get properly clean.
The shower failed to unknot the core of worry in his gut that he’d carried ever since they’d heard Tarnil had been invaded. It had been a long several years, especially when they’d found they had nowhere near the power to move around safely. Seeing one of Tor Kot’s elites from a distance had dissuaded them and sent them back to Nivir to try and get better. They had no idea what had happened to Shayma, to their shop, to Invin itself.
They could only take so much of that though before heading back to Wildwood for something less stressful.
When Shayma’s sending had found them, it had been a relief to know she was still alive, but less so to know she was assaulting a mage-king held city. Madness, suicide, and worse, to anyone who had seen the entire kingdom fall practically overnight, or had seen the power the monsters they produced en masse could wield. Yet somehow that assault that had clearly succeeded. A somehow that was a vast gulf of incredible power, or more likely, Power.
Now she was out on another mission, and she hadn’t even had a Class when they’d taken their trip!
He took a breath, snorted hot water from his moustache, and got out of the shower. Considering they were supposed to be meeting Queen Iniri he’d chosen his better set of clothes, though he wouldn’t exactly consider them fit for nobility. Though, nobility had to bend at least a little when it came to adventurers. When he returned he found that Sienne had piled her plate nearly as high as he had, though with her void Affinity that was par for the course.
“Nobody here knows where Shayma is,” Sienne sighed, offering him a wedge of cheddar, his favorite. “Most of them don’t even know who I meant. What sticks in my mind is that Queensguard knew her and didn’t much like her. Sounds like there’s trouble and maybe with the Queen.”
“Our girl, in trouble? Surely you jest.” Giorn chuckled, nibbling on the cheese. “If she’s making enemies it must mean she’s doing something right. Especially when it comes to the nobility.” Sienne groaned.
“I thought we went off adventuring so we could avoid nobility.”
“So you could avoid them. I’m just a simple country boy and never get near them anyhow.” Sienne snorted and elbowed him, pointing to a couch.
“Come on, let’s rest our feet while we can. Soon as we find out what our girl has been up to we’re going to be busy. I don’t know how yet, but we are.”
He chuckled and joined her, reclining and trying to relax despite his anxiety. The only reason the furniture didn’t groan under his weight was his Skills keeping him relatively light. Sienne snuggled in against his side and he put his arm around her, watching her fingers flick slightly as she worked through some of her Skills. She was so close to a Class breakthrough, but it had to be taken carefully. Only a fraction of void Skills could be used without ruining the user or endangering everyone around. At least with her inherited Class she knew how to get there, no matter how slow it might be.
On the other hand he’d finally broken through to his third Tier, Champion, when they were in Wildwood, and he was still getting used to the new and improved Skills. While they were fairly late in reaching the third-tier level since they had taken time off to raise a child, he was proud of the fact that they’d made it now. No sponsors, no groups, just the two of them. Now that Shayma had some sort of Class, it might well be three, assuming they could cajole her away from Iniri.
Assuming he could. They’d gone to scout Nivir’s dungeon in preparation for bringing Shayma there and offering her the path of the [Void Duelist Inheritor], but a couple of months had turned into long years and he couldn’t really know who is little girl was now.
If he was uneasy, Sienne was impatient, years of adventuring or no, glaring at the grandfather clock on the far side of the room on occasion as the hands slowly inched around. Giorn noted that none of the other Classes had been called either, so even if they’d jumped the queue they still hadn’t made it above whatever other issues the Queen was addressing. The minute hand was well on its way to completing its second revolution when another Queensguard opened the door to the waiting room and beckoned them.
“Finally!” Sienne leapt to her feet and Giorn allowed her to drag him afterward, light as a feather. Iin a fit of whimsy he let his feet leave the floor, bobbing in the air while she pulled him through the door. No one else seemed to notice, but that hardly mattered since he found it amusing.
The Queensguard led them to the top story of the mansion, where another pair waited to take Sienne’s rapier. Not that most Classers needed a weapon to be dangerous, nor could they do anything to break through the Shield of Tarnil if the stories were true, but nobody was allowed weapons in the presence of the Queen. Of course, Sienne had a dozen more weapons downstairs – she was rather hard on them, after all – so she didn’t think much of handing that one off.
“Giorn and Sienne Ell.” The guard announced them as they entered, the two of them kneeling on the plush carpet. Giorn was pleased to find that with his third tier his knees were far more amenable to that sort of exercise than they used to be, not protesting at all as he genuflected before the queen.
“You may rise.” Iniri’s voice was a lot wearier than he had expected, and when they were standing again she waved to the chairs at the other end of her large desk. “Take a seat,” she added. “I was not expecting you so soon, or for you to come while Shayma was away.”
They followed her instructions, settling in across from Queen Iniri. Giorn studied her, surprised to find that the young woman actually looked worn down, though considering everything that had happened over the past few years it shouldn’t have been unexpected.
“Pardon my forwardness, Your Majesty,” Sienne said. “But where is Shayma? People have been –” She hesitated just long enough that Giorn knew she was swallowing sharp words and trying for something milder. “They’ve been hinting at things and promising you’d explain it.”
“I’m sure,” Iniri sighed. “Some of it is effectively a crown secret, though much of it is an open secret at this point. There is a story of how Shayma came to be in my service, but I will let her tell that as it is merely history now. The important part was that several months ago she made a Bargain with a Power for my protection.”
Sienne let out a slow hiss of breath. Giorn didn’t know what to think. That just wasn’t a series of words that made any real sense. She might as well have said that Shayma had turned into a dragon and flown to the moon.
“So,” Giorn said, drawing out the word as he tried to think of something appropriate to say, “what does that mean? Your Majesty.”
“First, Shayma is perfectly fine. In fact, she’s happier now than I have ever seen before. That said, her Bargain ended up with her…” Queen Iniri paused, and Sienne gripped Giorn’s hand. He didn’t like that pause any more than she did, it spoke of complicated things the Queen didn’t want to talk about. “She is bound to, part of, in some ways, the Power in question. A dungeon named Blue.”
“Meil’s dungeon?” Sienne said, more sharply than one ought to when speaking to royalty. “How does that even work?”
Iniri shook her head.
“Blue is his own person, that he currently is Meil is due to the fact that he was instrumental in taking it back from Vok Nal. I’m sure you’re familiar with dungeons, but you mustn’t think of Blue as one of the ones you’re used to. He has no monsters, he moves quickly, he knows things only a Power would know, and he can perceive anything within his territory. I’m certain he’s paying attention to us right now, in fact, but Shayma is the only one who can speak with him.”
When she mentioned it, there was indeed a feeling of pressure, something more than just mana. It prickled the hairs on the back of his neck, but none of his instincts warned him that it was dangerous. Just that it was there. With a flash of black, two glass tumblers filled with some sweet-smelling blue juice appeared on the desk in front of them. He twitched, since there wasn’t any sort of mana surge to accompany the teleportation, and Sienne frowned at the glass in front of her suspiciously. Iniri laughed, a surprised and amused sound as the drinks appeared.
“That would be Blue, by the way. Saying hello. As I said only Shayma can talk to him, and I mean that in a broader sense than just being able to hear his voice.” Iniri waved that aside. “The juice is quite good, by the way. Restores stats.”
“Hmph.” Sienne just eyed the juice, but Giorn reached out to try a sip. It was good.
“So our daughter is some Power’s” Sienne gestured aimlessly. “What? Slave?” She was leaning forward in her chair, and Giorn put one massive arm over her shoulder, pulling her back gently as he gave her a quick look. She frowned at him and he frowned back, tilting his head fractionally in Iniri’s direction to remind her that they were in the presence of a Queen. It wouldn’t do for Sienne to give her a tongue-lashing.
“She’s anything but.” Iniri assured them, another glass appearing in front of her. The mana around them shifted subtly and suddenly Giorn could feel his stats recovering. “Thank you, Blue. Now, I admit that the Bargain means that she’s completely under Blue’s control, but he’s never exercised it. Actually she argues with him quite a bit.”
“You make it sound like they’re married,” Giorn muttered. Iniri’s eyes widened as if the thought had never occurred to her, and this time her laugh was louder and more genuine.
“That’s not too far from the truth,” Iniri said. “It may be best to consider Shayma married to a Power.”
“To a dungeon,” Sienne said. “I don’t—” Her mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. “How?” She demanded.
“I understand the difficulty,” Iniri sympathized. “It took me a while to accept Blue was a person, myself. If he could actually speak to us that would go a long way toward convincing people, but he can’t. Even Powers have limitations, it seems.” She waved a hand vaguely upward. “According to Shayma’s he’s quite personable, though. She even thinks he’s funny.”
“Of course Shayma thinks he’s funny,” Sienne groused. “She thinks her father is funny.”
“Hey now, I’m hilarious,” he protested, which got a smile from his wife.
“Be that as it may,” she continued, “Shayma did not even have a Class when we left. Your Majesty, may I know why you sent someone with so little experience on what is clearly an important mission?”
“I did say she made a bargain with a Power. As a result of this Bargain, Shayma got the Class of [Trickster]. Shapeshifting, [Illusion], teleport abilities, and [Seeker].” She ticked off the Class features on her fingers. “It’s the most powerful starting Class I’ve ever seen. All that, and she’s immune to Depletion. The mission was more her idea. Our entire stratagem is her idea, in fact.”
“Oh?” Giorn had to control his enormous grin at hearing that from a Queen. His Shayma, the strategist.
“We need the Adamant Fortress, and Shayma is the one who found out it existed. She’s found every piece of it so far, usually at great risk to herself. She’s brought me four of the five pieces, some of which were in very obscure places, and the last one is in Duenn. When she gets back, we’ll have everything we need to move against Tor Kot.”
That was another set of words that made almost no sense. Legendary Artifacts weren’t just found. But he couldn’t help a grin of pride as he considered it. His daughter, reaching to such heights before even becoming a Classer. And that Class! It was a bit of a shame she wasn’t going to take after Sienne and follow the path of the [Void Rapier], but it was true that Class wasn’t for everyone.
“You’re taking this more calmly than I expected,” Iniri noted.
“I’m not taking it at all,” Sienne said bluntly. “Until I see Shayma it’s not really real, Your Majesty. We go out for a short jaunt, war breaks out, and when I finally hear from my daughter she’s—” Sienne let out a low growl. “She’s married to some strange thing we can’t even talk to!”
“I know, it’s a lot to take in,” Giorn said, putting his huge hand on Sienne’s shoulder, “but just think about the fact that Shayma’s already good enough to go on special missions for nobility, and she has a powerful backer. I won’t be happy either if this Blue doesn’t meet muster, but if Shayma is happy that’s a point in his favor.”
“Can we meet Blue?” Sienne asked. “How do you meet a dungeon anyway?”
“You already have, more or less.” Iniri indicated the glasses on the desk. “Blue does have a core room, but even you’re not likely to see it. Shayma speaks for him, so while she’s gone he doesn’t have any way to properly discuss things.”
“That’s…” This time, he had to censor himself from being too sharp in the presence of the Queen. “That’s troublesome.” How was he supposed to interrogate Shayma’s boyfriend without her? More seriously, it meant that Shayma’s freedoms would be drastically restricted as she was the only conduit he had to the outside world.
“Very,” Iniri agreed. “It would make my life so much easier if—” She stopped as a flash of black deposited a piece of parchment on her desk. “Oh. There is that. Blue can deliver us notes from Shayma, though there are obvious limitations to that method.”
The Queen picked it up and read it, nodding, before handing it over to them. Sienne took it and Giorn peered down at the scrawl that was, indeed, Shayma’s handwriting.
Here at Duenn. Tor Kot had a lot of defenses along the way but nothing we couldn’t handle. He is a lot more prepared than Vok Nal. I’ll be heading in soon to get the last cube, Cheya’s helping me bypass some spell lines. With luck we’ll all be back in a few hours.
Also Blue says my parents are there! Hi mom and dad! I can’t wait to get back, I have so much to tell you! Blue better be treating you right or I’ll give him an earful.
“She sounds cheerful,” Giorn said.
“If only she weren’t about to go into a mage-king held city,” Sienne sighed. “I suppose she is my daughter.”