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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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The moment the bells started to ring, Shayma could feel a pressure bearing down on her. It seemed to skate off her like the Depletion did, but it was there nonetheless.

“Goddamn stupid Red Core— ugh, sorry, ANATHEMA is making me tetchy. I hate it. Anyway I think the dungeon is actually paying attention to you now.”

“Oh, hornrot,” she cursed, which was something she’d picked up from Iniri. It wasn’t exactly applicable to her, but she liked the way it sounded anyway. She dropped the major illusions, since they weren’t of any use anymore and she was certainly going to need the mana, and used [Ghost Step] to teleport directly upward just as whispering footsteps sounded outside the treasure room. Then teleported a second time, getting onto the roof.

At least she didn’t have to worry about the dungeon changing the city on her. There were still monsters, of course, but hopefully that was something she could outrun. She was sure Tor Kot had things in place to deal with rogue Classers; he’d demonstrated that much on the way in. With any luck it’d be a lot easier to get out.

“Blue, LAE,” she said, as she shifted her arm. [Ghost Step] kept her running across the rooftops, but she was sure his monsters were tracking her and the LAE was the only weapon she could use while running. Though she had no idea what would happen if she used it while she was in [Ghost Step].

“All ready. I hope you don’t have to use it. Bit worried about the potential collateral damage.”

“Not until they let people outside.” The sound was dampened, but she could tell the big bells in the center tower were ringing. Not any of the ones she’d heard before, but something deep and ominous. She could tell there were ripples of mana associated with that, though she couldn’t tell exactly what they were meant to do. Blue’s own power seemed to be protecting her from whatever it was, letting it sluice past.

She leapt from rooftop to rooftop, heading back out toward the edge of the city. With everything looking identical she wasn’t sure she was taking the exact line back, but it was close enough. With the ocean to one side, she aimed for the distant line of the wall and sprinted. The bell kept tolling, ceaseless peals that she could feel through her feet.

“Behind you, to the left.” Blue murmured, and she glanced back to see a bonfire of mana from some monster following her from the street. If it weren’t for [Promise] the outline of the actual creature would probably have been lost behind the glare from her mana-sight. It seemed to be one of the caster mantises, with a black rock embedded in its forehead, and Shayma waved the LAE at it in an attempt to repeat what she’d done before and explode the gem.

It turned out that kind of precision was nearly impossible to achieve while sprinting, and instead she scored lines across buildings and scorched window shutters, at least for those parts that weren’t pure white. The monster took note of the damage and began to try and dodge the beam, though its random skitterings back and forth didn’t have much impact. Blue said the weapon was hitscan, and she had to admit it was eerie how it didn’t have any sort of projectile or anything to be dodged. It simply was there.

She slid to a halt, bracing herself for a moment while still in [Ghost Step], and focused directly on the monster. While she didn’t manage to get the gem, she did clip its eyes, and it abruptly stopped dead before fairly flying back the way it had come, mana swirling in its wake.

“Blinded it, I bet. I think you’d be blind too if it weren’t for [Promise] and [Regeneration], with all the close up glare you’re getting.”

Blue’s voice seemed to be more detached than usual, but considering his outburst before he was probably just trying to keep from swearing at the monsters again. Shayma continued her headlong flight over the rooftops, and considered how she was going to deal with the spellwork triplines outside the city. It was far too late to worry about alarms, but anything else might slow her down.

Then she remembered the jump she’d made up the wall, and decided if nothing else she could simply leap over the spellwork. From what she’d seen on the way in, it didn’t extend very far up, but she’d still have to be careful not to touch it. She was almost to the wall, which was now lit with much denser mana than before, enough to make it impossible for her to step through it. Over it worked just fine, though. She jumped past a mantis warrior, the bug twitching and swinging wildly at where she had been a moment prior, and hit the ground at a dead run.

At that speed, in [Ghost Step], her leaps were long, floating things, carrying her well above the triplines placed in the ground. She hadn’t come out of Duenn at quite the right spot, and was forced to angle back to where Cheya and Annit and Keri were hiding, but she was doing pretty well at outpacing whatever pursuit was being organized to go after them. She wasn’t sure how long that would last, but all she had to do was reach them and Blue could take care of the rest.

Shayma popped out of [Ghost Step] as she crossed into the treeline, branches bending and breaking as she smashed through them into the little clearing where she’d left the women and the boat. All three of them were on alert, combat-ready as she stumbled in.

“Here,” she said, skipping over all the questions they might have had by tossing Cheya the cube from her [Phantom Pocket]. “Blue, get us out of here!” She crouched down to put her hands on the ground and Blue growled in her ear.

“Well, dammit, that fucking Red Core is doing something with those fucking bells to make this harder. Hang on.” Blue’s mana buzzed as he forced it out into the earth, shaping together a teleporter at, for him, a glacial pace.

Then the bells stopped.

The sudden silence was more ominous than the noise, and whatever interference was going on with Blue didn’t stop just because the sound did, to judge by his muttered imprecations. With a final curse, Cheya popped out of existence, but the other two didn’t.

“Oookay so I can’t do everyone at once, that’s good to know.”

“What’s going on?” Annit asked, blowgun at the ready and her eyes darting about.

“Blue has to push past the local dungeon. Don’t worry, you’re next,” Shayma promised. As to what else was going on, Annit’s guess was as good as hers.

“Keri first,” Annit said firmly, and the healer vanished even as she opened her mouth to protest. The next few fractions of a second were completely silent, utterly still, and trickled by like chilled honey. Then there was a clap like thunder and man stood within the clearing.

A massive wave of magic rippled out from him, hitting Shayma with physical force and making Annit sway drunkenly, nearly collapsing before she vanished with a faint pop.

“Oh hell, that’s Tor Kot.”

She could have guessed that without Blue’s confirmation. He was tall, but nothing like Vok Nal’s grotesque proportions, being merely something over six feet. Tor Kot had an elderly air about him, but wasn’t quite aged, with fine wrinkles on his face,white hair, and a bushy white beard. Incongruously, he was dressed in an impeccably tailored black suit and carried a pure white cane, the overall effect being that he looked more like someone’s wealthy uncle than a powerful sorcerer.

“That is a fascinating application of dungeon magic, Miss Prinn,” he said as Blue struggled to pull back from the teleporter. It took her a moment to realize that she still had [Illusory Presence] running, and for all his evident power he hadn’t managed to pierce it. The mage-king seemed to stroll forward, but he was next to her in an instant from some sort of movement Skill. Additional soft popping noises heralded monsters teleporting in; clearly Tor Kot’s elites from the armor and weapons they had, even if they did look exactly like his other monsters.

“Uhhh, Blue?” She whispered, still unable to move and waiting for the recall.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry, he’s making everything super hard I’m going as fast as I can.”

“Take your time, I’m in no hurry.” Tor Kot crouched down beside her, leaning on his cane as he peered at her hand. “I have never seen anything like that! If I may be so rude, what exactly are you? Not a monster, certainly, but that’s not normal mana inside you either. It’s almost like you’re a controller but there’s simply not enough power there.”

“Punch him right in his stupid face!” Blue yelled, then immediately made a discontented noise. “This is awful. I can’t think straight and it’s making it harder than it should be. Done! Recall!”

There was a pulling sensation, but Tor Kot put his hand on her shoulder before anything could happen. Her tail frizzed instantly, and she tried to pull away but found she couldn’t. It wasn’t so much that his grip was that firm as that there was some sort of inevitability about it, as if his hand was simply going to be there and that was how the world worked.

“Oh, please, stay a while,” Tor Kot said genially. “You’re the most interesting person I’ve seen since I arrived here! Which of the Council do you serve?”

“Dammit, that Red Core stuff! You may as well try to talk him into letting you go or something. I don’t think I can teleport you while he’s touching you Blue’s voice trailed off into that awful hiss that she’d heard when he’d lost himself fighting the Meil dungeon, making her heart lurch before it came back. maybe I can burn him with Bane mana somehow

Blue sounded wildly out of control, going from rage to resignation to consideration in a few words, which was far from comforting. Still, she screwed up her courage and put on the face she used when she was representing Blue.

“I’m not with the Council,” she told Tor Kot, proud that her voice didn’t tremble.

“No? I don’t see how any rogues got over here except— ah!” He thumped the ground with his cane. “I know. Your master took my experiment, didn’t he? That scoundrel.”

“What experiment?” The words just slipped out, but Tor Kot brightened as if she’d asked after a favorite son.

“All our cores have the same mana Affinities, you see. I thought maybe maturing them away from any Affinity influence might change it. Then there was the hope one might develop Depletion resistance from being exposed to the other, but you wouldn’t be interested in that, would you?” He waggled a finger at her. “After all, you’re already resistant, aren’t you? Hmm? Hmm?”

“This guy’s bonkers.” She just shook her head.

“I don’t…” Shayma swallowed, losing her words, and tried again. “You’re a lot different than Vok Nal.”

“I should hope so! Vok Nal is a useless waste of a core and I don’t mind who knows it. Not a fan of any of the Voks but, politics, you know.” He sighed. “When did you meet Vok Nal, hmm? Oh, I see. You were there when your master took over the Meil core. Yes, boorish isn’t he?”

Shayma was more than a little disturbed by how he didn’t seem to need her to actually reply to anything, wondering if he had some sort of mind magic on his side. She didn’t even know where to begin to defend against that sort of thing.

“Don’t worry, my dear. I can’t read your mind, only your face.” Tor Kot chuckled. “And ears. Demihumans usually have such expressive ears!” He reached up to touch his own, normal human ears. “I’m rather envious, really.”

“Oh hell he’s a cold-reader. Because of course he is. Uhh maybe you can distract him, otherwise he’ll just figure out everything by asking questions and I realllly don’t want him to know I’m a self-aware dungeon Power yet.”

Shayma was still struggling to deal the situation in her own mind. Despite the fact that his hand was still resting on her shoulder, Tor Kot hadn’t made any other aggressive moves and his elites were all standing quite some distance away. Though it was unreasonable to ascribe human emotions to the monsters, she thought they looked somewhat exasperated. Something about the set of their limbs.

“What...what do you want?

“What do you want?” Tor Kot countered. “You burgled someone’s house, which, frankly I don’t care about that much. Odious people, the Llyns, but necessary. But what could a controller possibly need that he couldn’t simply ask me for? Or more importantly, make himself?”

“This is not for a…” Shayma frowned as she repeated the term he’d used. “A controller. This is for Queen Iniri. She wants her kingdom back, and since you took it from her I doubt you’ll just give her what she asks for.”

“Oh dear,” Tor Kot said. “Oh dear, oh dear. Yes, it is quite an unfortunate circumstance. But!” He spun his cane, thumping it against the ground. “Did she take the core for herself?”

“No,” Shayma said shortly, unwilling to say more than that.

“Oh, come on, you can tell me,” he wheedled. “Honestly I feel for her, I really do, but it wasn’t like we had any choice.”

“What? Why not?” She gawped at the man. The mage-king had seemed almost sympathetic until he’d said that. Now he sounded like one of those wild-eyed fanatics her mother had warned her against.

“Aaaa why isn’t this doing anything!? Stupid trait points!”

While she was glad Blue was trying to do something, she didn’t like the apparent failure of whatever it was. In fact she almost had to ignore him, his muttering distracting her from the very dangerous mage-king in front of her.

“The rift grows wider by the day. By the hour! Even the smallest action possible is one that must be taken. You should know that want we want matters very little in the face of that. Or don’t you know?” Tor Kot peered down at her. “Your master isn’t even vaguely associated with the Council, is he?”

“No,” she admitted, since he could probably figure it out anyway.

“Wait,” he said. “If you took Meil and you’re not Council, what did you do with the Core? Oh, I see it’s fine, but what about Vok Nal?” Tor Kot peered at her face. “Oh dear. He’s not well, is he? Did you kill him? Oh my, that is unexpected. But...Miriam? Did Shadow report that Vok Nal was dead?”

He glanced over at one of his mantises, which shook its head. Once left, once right, very slowly. Like all the other monsters, it didn’t seem to say anything but Tor Kot seemed to have no trouble understanding it.

“It sounds like he’s been shirking his duty! I know he’s a transfer but that’s no excuse—” He stopped, glancing over at one his silent monsters. “No, you’re right Miriam, complaining won’t get me anywhere.”

Tor Kot lifted his cane and pointed it off to the side. Nothing happened. He frowned, and she saw mana flare slightly, but still nothing happened.

“Oh?”

“Oh yeah, I’m pretty sure that Shadow guy got free. If that’s even a thing that happens?”

“That is decidedly odd,” Tor Kot said, pointing the cane at the mantis-monster he called Miriam. “I need you to track down Shadow, because if I can’t call him something’s certainly the matter!”

While Tor Kot was distracted, Shayma focused on the hand resting on her shoulder. She knew she couldn’t pull away from it; whatever Skill he was using to hold her was far too powerful for that. But she’d had a little bit of success dealing directly with mage-kings before. Shayma reached through [Promise], pushing as much will and mana as she could against the hand. It was like running against a brick wall at first, but instant by instant, as she pushed against her Skill, she could feel the wall crumbling under the pressure of her mana.

Suddenly it all clicked into place, and Tor Kot’s hand crumbled to sand, blood spurting from the wrist.

“What!?” The mage-king was suddenly across the clearing again, another thunderclap and gust of wind announcing his motion. The realized illusion was already breaking, his hand reappearing hale and whole, but it was enough.

“Gotcha!” Blue exulted, and the clearing vanished, the familiar walls of the cottage appearing around her with a sharp snap.

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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