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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

1/1

Don't lynch me, next week isn't more cliffhanging.

The battle started out well enough, with the Fortress being used as a wrecking ball and Classers pouring down fire, assisted by my own additions of mines and water and lava. Between us we’d probably killed three or four thousand monsters. Considering these were closer to level thirty than the level three goblins I’d dealt with before, that was a hell of a lot of damage. But it still left some thirty-five thousand troops intact and, worse, they didn’t make that mistake again.

I figured that I’d be able to carve out a good number of casualties with the LAE, since if I could see them I could target them. Unfortunately I hadn’t really gotten more than thirty or forty kills deep before some form of magical darkness shut my laser down hard. I should have guessed that magical darkness would just snuff out regular light, be it ever so coherent, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me. It’d clearly occurred to Tor Kot, though.

Shayma was using her own LAE, but hers was actually better than mine because she’d gotten ahold of a couple runes from Iniri and was using them to boost the weapon. Seeing floating runes wrapped around a shapeshifted laser portal was so absurdly magitek it was distracting, but sadly Shayma was only marginally more effective than me once the darkness went up.

At least he couldn’t shut down my rejuvenation field, which was absolutely essential for keeping the Classers going. They might have had a lot of levels but nobody could keep going for hour after hour with no real break or rest. Admittedly some six or seven hours into it the third-tiers were still on their first wind, but everyone else was working shifts.

If the defenders had unlimited time, or a way to force the monsters to come to them, the situation might have been acceptable. Aside from the one idiot the Ells took out early on, nothing threatened actual danger to anyone within the Fortress walls. The traitor had been wearing the idiot Duke’s colors, so that was going to be a problem once the battle was over, but after Cheya went around to have a quick word with a few others there had been no further incidents. But their supplies weren’t unlimited and the army was surrounding the Fortress in reinforced battalions, far enough out that Iniri couldn’t squash them without getting too far from my mana dynamos and losing the Fortress itself.

If that weren’t bad enough, Tor Kot was well prepared for a dungeon fight and had a bunch of bells in the rear of his groups. I didn’t know how it was done, but they slowed my ability to manipulate my territory to a crawl. Which rather undermined my plans to undermine the army, but I should have been expecting something of that nature.

At least it had the side benefit of damping some of the ANATHEMA anger I got from monsters wandering onto my territory. It wasn’t so bad compared to other times, but it was still an irritant. If anything I’d say the bells and their accompanying magic were anaesthetizing me, at least around the edges there.

That same anaesthetic made me a bit slow to spot whatever Tor Kot was doing to punch through to the inside the Fortress, though once I did see it I could tell it was similar to a portal. Similar, but different enough to worry me. Once it manifested I was actually nauseated by the way it twisted mana around. I was pretty sure nobody could intentionally make something like that, but then again, the mage-kings were kind of evil. Unfortunately I was distracted by the actual fight by a sudden ping from the overlay, a surge of ANATHEMA rage, and a very unwelcome sight.

Tor Kot had strolled onto the grass in front of my audience hall.

Nor was he alone. He had two of his elite mantis monsters with him, which unlike any other monsters I’d seen so far had their own names.

Miriam

Level 84 [Pale Mantis Reeve]

Charlene

Level 78 [Pale Mantis Vogt]

The mage-king was dressed in the same dapper suit as before, but Miriam and Charlene were dressed for war, with white-dyed leather that radiated magic and long poleaxes instead of the simpler spears their lower-leveled brethren preferred. Even though they had no expressions they fairly radiated a willingness to commit mayhem, in direct contrast to Tor Kot, who looked like he was on a nature walk.

“How can there possibly be this great a mana density when I can’t see any of it? I hope you’re taking notes, Miriam, because this is exactly the sort of breakthrough I’m looking for. Bulk no-Affinity mana would solve so many problems. Not to mention the growth rate.” Tor Kot babbled to his monster companions as they picked their way forward to my absolute horror. I had fear as well as rage to deal with, which was my only excuse for simply staring, metaphorically, as they strolled toward the entrance of the audience chamber.

Tor Kot seemed to notice my attention, because he paused for a moment, glancing around. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to give him second thoughts, because he stepped forward and crossed the threshold. He was just as enthusiastic about the interior as the exterior, examining the fractal patterns with sparkling eyes as he tapped his cane. “Look at the intricacy here! I’ve never seen this sort of patterning. It’s obviously meaningful…” His enthusiasm was infectious enough that Charlene took a hand off her halberd and touched the engravings, which finally snapped me out of my idiotic gawping.

“Shayma! Uhhh…” I flipped my attention back to the Fortress, and the ANATHEMA urges made me explode most of my steam mines before I could reign it in. Not that they were doing much. “Tor Kot is here with a couple of his elites. I’m going to teleport you back.” I was also going to see about dropping several tons of stone on their heads. Now, that wouldn’t have stopped Vok Nal back in Meil, but Tor Kot wasn’t on his own dungeon’s territory. He was on my territory and even with his elites that had to mean he was more vulnerable. The levels of his companions were a little scary, especially since I’d seen elites go toe to toe with fourth-tiers, but theirs weren’t exactly combat classes.

“Oh, and Ansae, Tor Kot is here so uh. I’m not sure how that will go.” Considering that he wielded depletion, Tor Kot was one of the things Ansae couldn’t go up against. In fact, when I told her the dragon’s head snapped up and she actually looked terrified for a brief fraction of a second. Then all her power seemed to vanish. I realized after a moment that she’d pulled in her aura or whatever it was, completely inverting it. I could see her just fine, but there was absolutely no way to detect her with more esoteric senses.

“If you’re having trouble,” Ansae said calmly. “I will take your core away.”

“Uh.” That was not an offer, it was a statement, but this wasn’t the time to argue. Some part of me was kind of glad there was some sort of last-ditch plan but I really hoped it wasn’t necessary. If nothing else, Shayma had actually managed to drive him off before, and that was before her class-up and other upgrades.

“Where is he? What are we going to do?” Shayma started asking questions the moment she popped into existence in my core room, wide-eyed and still smeared with blood and ichor from the fight at the Fortress.

“He’s heading in toward the audience chamber so uhh. I guess bluff him out. Or kill him if we can. I’m going to see about collapsing the whole thing on top of him.” I really thought multiple tons of stone might be more effective than either the LAE or lava, given what I’d seen thus far.

“I can’t…” Shayma stopped and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and then gripping her tail, smoothing down the fur there. “Right. I can do this. You’re a Power, he’s a mortal. Give me a moment to wash up and I’ll be ready, Blue.”

Well. She had more confidence than I did.

Once she was marginally clean I pulled her from the core room and set her in her place of judgement in front of the faux core. She didn’t have much time, but Tor Kot was still marveling at the construction of the entrance hall. It was weirdly flattering. He was my enemy, certainly, but he seemed genuinely taken with the design. His running patter indicated he thought there was some magical or mystical significance to it, which was completely wrong but was an understandable misapprehension. By the time they reached the other side of the spatially-extended hallway, Shayma was standing with a such a cold glare on her face that I was half surprised ice wasn’t forming on the walls. She lifted her hand, and Promise gleamed on her finger.

“You are not welcome here,” she pronounced, and Miriam and Charlene both staggered, dropping to all four knees. Tor Kot grunted in surprise, leaning forward as if fighting against a strong wind. I could sort of tell what was going on. This was rather like Ansae’s aura, only it was my power instead. It was a little irritating I couldn’t do it myself, but then, maybe I just hadn’t practiced. Shayma had Promise, one line of which read [Bearer Represents Authority], so she had a quick way of invoking these things whereas I had to learn. So I leaned into it as much as I could, not entirely certain what I was doing but figuring it couldn’t hurt.

I could hear Charlene’s joints creak from the pressure but it wasn’t quite enough, since the two mantises climbed to their feet again. Still, they were clearly struggling against the weight of my displeasure. And Shayma’s, of course.

“Miss Prinn?” Tor Kot said, squinting at her. “No, interesting, I cannot see your true Status.”

“Tor Kot,” Shayma acknowledged, still cold, and I realized after a moment she was using [Phantom Presence] to maintain her chill and distant look. It was a fantastic idea and if nothing else would prevent him from using his cold reading skills on her again. I whispered the names and levels and Classes of the monsters in Shayma’s ear, as it were, since I figure she could play the same trick back on him. “Charlene, Miriam.” She accorded each of the elites a frosty glare, and for the heck of it I started lowering the temperature in the room of my own accord. It wasn’t like it would bother Shayma.

“Who are you?” Tor Kot asked wonderingly. “You’re not a Controller, you’re barely second tier — where is all this power coming from?” He took a step forward, then another, and I was encouraged by the fact that it was no longer an effortless spring stroll. His flanking monsters followed, expressionless as ever but somehow subdued.

“I do not owe you the courtesy of answers.”

“You’re so awesome right now.” I was pretty sure that got a smile, under the [Phantom Presence] mask. Besides, she absolutely was and it was helping me push back on the ANATHEMA issues clouding my thoughts. Though they were weaker than they had been before; apparently Tor Kot himself was less of an issue than an actual dungeon.

“I suppose not,” Tor Kot conceded, still urbane. “Asking is easier than…” He stopped speaking to stare at the false core behind Shayma. “Is that a storage crystal? In a dungeon four months old? Are you seeing this too, Miriam?” In answer, the mantis shifted her grip on her poleaxe. It did rather deflate the mood a bit, though frost had started to form on the ground and Tor Kot’s breath fogged when he spoke.

“I say again. You are not welcome here.”

“I know, I know.” Tor Kot held up a hand. “But I can hardly leave my experimental core here, can I? Not after it’s demonstrated such success! Especially since I can very well guess that your Depletion immunity comes from it somehow.”

“That core is yours no longer. Neither is Meil’s.”

“I’d prefer that he not know I’m self-aware,” I muttered to Shayma. “I bet that’d only make him more interested, and if the mage-kings find out in general they might see it as more of a problem than some rogue with a core.” The only response she gave was to incline her head a fraction, but I knew she’d heard me.

“Surely you don’t claim that anything you happen to come into possession of is yours by right, like some common brigand.” Tor Kot replied earnestly, leaning on his cane.

“Says the invader, the conquerer, the murderer, the rapist.” Shayma’s tone was uncompromising and Tor Kot actually winced. “When you invaded Tarnil you forfeited any right to be treated as anything other than an enemy.”

“I can’t argue that,” he said. “But dungeon cores are dangerous. Especially uncontrolled!” He lifted his cane to gesture about the audience chamber. “This is utterly amazing for so new a dungeon and I would love to know how it was done, but at this rate it will grow too fast for whomever is controlling it. I’ve curated twelve cores so far, so I know how unstable this sort of growth is!”

“Damn right I’m growing fast. Also, it’s a good thing I can eat other cores, since I can well believe him that a feral red core would be very unpleasant.” That said, his arguments held no weight since I wasn’t under anyone’s control and wasn’t about to be. Not to mention everything he’d done to Tarnil. Thinking that I ought to show some more initiative than just cooling down the room, I closed off the passageway leading deeper in. Not with a simple door, either, but with a massive slab of solid stone.

The boom of the hall being closed off echoed throughout the audience chamber, and Tor Kot cocked his head. He didn’t seem surprised, so he could clearly see some dungeon workings. He might even have noticed the excavation going on above his head, as I readied a massive block of stone to fall down on top of him, so I figured I’d give him more to distract him.

Though I knew they wouldn’t be at all effective, I spun up portals for all my extant LAEs, save for the one reserved for Shayma, forming them throughout the audience chamber and pointing them all at the trio. Above and beyond that, I had an idea for something that might have far more of an impact.

“I’m going to partially unshield the forge,” I warned Ansae and Shayma both. “Maybe a shaped mana wave will give them pause.” It was nice that Tor Kot seemed willing to chat rather than bull his way through to the depths of the mountain, since it gave Shayma and I more time to try and dissuade him.

“Your warnings do not impress me,” Shayma said, with a small flick of her ear to show she had heard me. “We are protected. From rogue dungeons and from ones such as you.”

“A dungeon protects you from dungeons?” Tor Kot asked skeptically. “Unless you are being guided by one of the gods themselves there is nobody who understands dungeons better than Controllers. Among them I’d rate myself near the top. Yes, Miriam, I know, but it’s not bragging if it’s true.”

“Blue protects us,” Shayma said scornfully. “Now he bids you leave, or be destroyed.” She pointed her finger, and I took that as a cue to trigger the [Mana Diamond Forge]. I’d reshaped the gold wiring and even the room itself slightly, making the space into a resonance chamber with an aperture pointed at the audience hall.

Once again the immense wave rippled through all my mana, but this time it was focused in one direction. The resonant chamber didn’t quite work out, and the wave was weaker than it might have been, but the results were still pretty good from my point of view. It passed over Shayma without any flinch on her end, but when it hit Tor Kot he screamed. The mantises were soundless, of course, but they both contorted in silent agony. Ansae, I was pleased to note, wasn’t anywhere near the path and didn’t seem to be bothered. But she was watching, and her grin was smoky and full of teeth.

The effects didn’t last more than a second, and it took time for the Anvil to reset so it wasn’t like I could blast them again immediately, but being able to affect such high-powered individuals was quite an ego-boost. Charlene seemed to take it personally, springing forward the next moment to lash out at Shayma with a blurring leap that took her all the way from the entryway to the storage crystal in the middle. I could barely keep track of the mantis, and though I tried to fling up a rock slab in the way I was far too slow.

Shayma was faster.

Charlene caught only an illusion and slammed into the storage crystal hard enough to fracture it. There were four Shaymas now, with the real one camouflaged and off to the side. Mana spewed into the air with a hiss more imagined than real, and I could see it get sucked into Charlene as she leaped again. She went even further and faster than the first time, passing over the heads of all the decoys and the real Shayma to smash into the wall.

All of this happened over maybe a second, and it was only in the brief pause afterward that I could catch up with what was going on. Then Miriam lowered her halberd, a deliberate chopping motion, and a Skill of hers washed through the audience chamber. The duplicate Shaymas vanished, and Charlene blurred toward the real one. But my fox-girl was quick with [Phantasmal Path] and flickered out of the way.

I figured this was as good a time as any to try and drop the ceiling, with everyone distracted by the fight. The chunk was a good six meters in diameter and about that deep, just above the entrance, and it was only that small because of the limited amount of time I had to work with. It still worked out to a couple tons of rock falling straight down on top of Tor Kot and Miriam, though I didn’t think it’d really hurt them much. Not with the levels they had. So I turned the LAEs on too, despite that they already knew how to neutralize them, on the off chance that I could overwhelm their defenses.

Unfortunately they were alert enough that they simply dodged out of the way of the rock, not moving quite as fast as they had back near Duenn but fast enough to get clear of the impact. Since it’d had time to get reinforced by [Amplified Presence] the stone didn’t crack, but it did make a hell of a boom.

Miriam closed the distance between herself and Tor Kot, interposing herself between him and the ongoing fight, while Tor Kot flicked his hands in the direction of the LAE portals, cloaking them in magical darkness. Tor Kot himself didn’t see overly alarmed, but he was surprised, first peering at where my lasers had come from then frowning thoughtfully at the giant slab of stone where it rested on the ground.

Shayma was leading Charlene on a merry chase about the audience chamber, teleporting from here to there and forcing the mantis to go around or through the falling lava and water. Usually it was through, spraying molten rock everywhere, but she did have to pause for a moment to shake off water-cooled and hardening stone after a few too many trips through the waterfalls. It was pretty entertaining that she couldn’t catch Shayma, but eventually [Phantasmal Path] would drain my only defender’s stamina. She couldn’t just dodge forever.

It seemed that Shayma came to the same conclusion, because she abruptly switched to the offensive. She dropped the camouflage and faced Charlene head on, drawing back her arm as the mantis sped forward. With all that was going on in the battle, both Iniri and Shayma had been drawing from my mana pool, but I still had well over fifty thousand remaining. Shayma sucked all that down in one huge gulp, body twisting as she met Charlene’s weapon with a vicious blow.

Shayma’s fist glimmered, crumpling the steel just ahead of her actual flesh as [Legerdemain] protected her from anything the weapon might do. The head of the halberd deformed, metal fracturing and exploding outward as the impact overwhelmed it, the sheer force splintering the shaft as Shayma’s fist continued on to catch Charlene in the chest. The mantis didn’t have the time to adjust or dodge or block, not in the fraction of a moment between Shayma breaking her weapon and hitting her.

The noise was almost as loud as the sound of the stone slab dropping, with Charlene smashing into the far wall half a blink later hard enough to actually throw chips off the stone before she dropped down to the floor again. She didn’t look particularly injured, but I could tell she was winded. Even if they looked like insects, the mantis-monsters at least breathed like mammals. She looked ready to go after Shayma again, but Tor Kot raised his hand.

“Charlene, hold,” he said, and the monster paused. It was only then that I noticed other tiny details, such as the fact that Shayma had kept up her [Phantom Presence] the whole time and was still looking distant, cold, and utterly unflustered. The fragments of Charlene’s halberd were embedded in the floor, the walls, and even the ceiling, while there was a cleared space around Miriam and Tor Kot showing one of them had used some sort of Skill to deflect the shrapnel.

Shayma stayed where she was, outwardly unfazed by the combat but I could see that her stamina and, of course, mana had taken big hits from it. I wasn’t sure how long the break would last so I spun up a rejuvenation field around her while I had the chance. With luck they’d give us enough time for me to build my mana reserves back up but that was probably unlikely.

“Yes, I see it Miriam,” Tor Kot said. “It’s a fascinating use of Fields but I’m more interested in how someone who’s clearly barely second tier could practically flatten Charlene.” He glanced at the mantis in question and then back to Miriam. “Now, now, don’t blame her, clearly there’s more here than we expected.”

“So, that was completely awesome.” If Tor Kot was going to prattle on I was going to use the opportunity to give Shayma some encouragement of my own. Fighting someone sixty-something levels above her couldn’t be easy. “Hopefully I can keep them talking and you can keep weirding them out enough that they leave.”

Since Tor Kot was clearly distracted by me doing dungeon stuff, I reabsorbed the failed rock trap and went ahead and started repairing the ceiling while watching my mana tick upward. Something that ANATHEMA kept pushing me to do that was a really bad idea was seal off the entrance and trap them in the audience chamber. First, I was pretty sure that just cutting off the chamber wouldn’t do much to hold them in place, and second, I actually just wanted them to leave. I didn’t want to suggest to them they needed to fight their way out.

The attempt was a qualified success at best. He frowned at the stone as it melted away into the ground but didn’t seem overly concerned. If anything it was the fractured storage crystal repairing itself that grabbed his attention, despite the fact that I wasn’t really doing that consciously. I was pretty sure it was [Amplified Presence] doing most of the work, but since I’d only completely exploded storage crystals before and not just damaged them, I couldn’t be completely sure. Still, I considered it a win that anything kept Tor Kot from exerting his full power against me.

The fact that Shayma couldn’t reply to me was driving me bonkers though. I knew that she couldn’t say anything without one of the three picking up on it, but I wanted to get some feedback on what was going on. At least I wanted her to tell me she was okay, though I could see that her hit points were still at full. She continued to stand straight, not yielding an inch to Tor Kot’s presence, staring him down as Charlene picked her way over to his side.

“I’ll get you a new one,” Tor Kot said to her, apparently exasperated. “It’ll just have to wait until we send back to the isles. Dungeons don’t make weapons!”

“Hah! How little he knows.” Shayma cracked a smile under the [Phantom Presence], I was pretty sure, and teleported herself back to the center of the chamber.

“So is this Blue the controller of this dungeon?” Tor Kot asked, sweeping his hand around the audience chamber. “I’d rather speak to him myself.”

“I speak for Blue,” Shayma said, ignoring his first question. Which was just as well, since responding in either the affirmative or negative might lead Tor Kot to do things we didn’t want him to do. “He has no interest in negotiating with you.”

“Well I have an interest in negotiating with him.” Tor Kot said, not at all dismayed by Shayma’s attitude. “I haven’t even seen his monsters yet and I’m already running into concepts I’ve never seen before! I’m not too proud to admit that whoever controls this dungeon knows more than I do.”

I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it; that statement was about as far from the truth as it was possible to get. Tor Kot still thought I was a dungeon core of the sort he knew, and I was perfectly fine with that for now. If I thought he might actually have something useful to say about how to make a dungeon work I might have entertained the thought, stupid as it was, but at this point I knew we’d only confuse each other.

Assuming he didn’t try to take control of me.

“I’ll explain since you don’t seem to know, but the reason we Controllers need power, armies, and resources at the great cost they incur is to combat the wasteland that surrounds the rift into the Abyss. It’s a great howling hurricane with such Depletion that only monsters and Controllers can venture there.” Tor Kot tapped his cane on the floor. “This dungeon is exactly the sort of power we would all hope to have if we wanted to make real headway in containing it.”

“Uh.” That wasn’t the sort of appeal I was expecting. Something about joining his side to overthrow the Council and rule all maybe, but not that. It also sounded really suspicious, but it occured to me that there was someone who might know what he was talking about. “Ansae? Does what Tor Kot’s talking about really exist?”

“Yes…” Ansae said, eyes narrowing. “Though when I last dealt with it, it wasn’t as massive a calamity as he seems to be implying. It’s been some time since I was there, but I would expect their use of Depletion is feeding into the problem, their actions contributing to the whole, however indirectly. The idiots. Self appointed guardians of the Abyss rift…” She growled, which was enough to shake her whole lair. “All they’ve done is make the world worse.”

That sounded depressingly possible. People of all types had the habit of contributing to a problem while trying to solve it, and nobody else had shown they had an inkling of where Depletion came from initially. That said, even if the mage-kings knew they were making their problems worse, they may not have felt they had a choice. Bad decisions had a compounding effect, spreading out and miring more and more people within them.

It was easy enough to figure out the scenario. Faced with this threat in his homeland, some fifth tier or the like pulls a miracle and finds a dungeon core. Either it was a red core already, or Controllers got more idea of how dungeons worked from it, and he fed the conquered and the enslaved to his brand new dungeon as the best path toward greater power. He’d have an army of monsters and, say, a skill level and ten points of stats each from a hundred thousand people. That would make him nearly as potent as Ansae, and with the ability to give his allies or descendants that same sort of power.

A generation or two down the line and the usual sort of politics would take hold and only some of the people involved would remember why they had that power in the first place. It seemed Tor Kot was one of those, though that didn’t excuse what he’d done. He was better than Vok Nal, who had appeared the be the type that indulged in his power, but that was an extraordinarily low bar to clear. It wasn’t like I was going to work with the guy anyway. Tor Kot was still waiting for a reply from Shayma, so I had to come up with something before the staring got too awkward.

“Okay, tell him this. I have no interest in cooperating with him or any of his ilk. I have no interest in granting the mage-kings more power. This rift and this wasteland is a problem for them, not us, and if I deal with it I will do so on my own terms.” It did sound like a problem, but it also sounded like it was their problem and absolutely not mine. Certainly not something that justified the invasion and the subsequent atrocities.

Shayma repeated that to Tor Kot word for word, which was actually a rarity. Usually she had to massage my messages into better form, though under the circumstances that would probably be difficult. She was under enough stress already.

“I understand what you mean,” he said sympathetically. “But surely you can understand that isn’t acceptable for me. To come so close to the kind of power and strength we need and return empty-handed? No, that won’t do. If I went back to the isles with— ”

A sudden, tearing agony deafened me to whatever else Tor Kot was saying. I felt massively imbalanced, reeling and staggering though I was entirely stationary and hazy with pain. I tried to cast my senses back to the Fortress and couldn’t. Nothing was blocking me, it was just that I wasn’t there anymore.

The tunnel to Meil had never been developed much beyond a narrow pipeline to connect one piece of me with another. It was buried some fifty meters belowground, which I would have thought was more than enough, but apparently I’d been wrong. Perhaps I simply didn’t quite understand the extent of the options magic made available, but it had never occured to me that the buried stretch was particularly vulnerable.

Now there was a giant hole through it, where one of the monster army brigades had done something that had drilled straight down. It’d hit my connection and kept going, past what I could see. Tremendous overkill, but I hadn’t bothered to much reinforce that connection either. The end result was that I had about two meters of dead space between myself and my previously-connected self.

The pain was already starting to fade, which was a weird thing when a good chunk of my bulk had been unceremoniously amputated, so at least I could try and focus on fixing what the monsters had broken. Or I would have, if they didn’t have those damn bells set up that slowed everything down. It didn’t help that I was still pretty low on mana, so I couldn’t speed the process along as much as I would have liked, plus there was no guarantee they wouldn’t just repeat the process if I didn’t reinforce the connection with something like Stonesteel, or whatever reserves of Adamant stone I had.

I started pushing towards reconnection anyway, keeping half an eye on Shayma and half an eye on Iniri through the Companion bond. Tor Kot was still ranting, apparently not willing to commit to an actual attack in the face of what he’d just seen. In fact, I was pretty sure I could see very faint mana pulses coming from him, probably probing for more details of what was going on. Considering that he said he couldn’t see my mana, even though he could tell where Fields were I would bet he was just getting more confused.

“Blue? What’s going on? I can’t sustain this off my own mana!” Iniri was looking pretty well panicked and I didn’t blame her. Unfortunately it wasn’t like I could say anything to her — though there might be one way I could send a message. I’d turned it off before but for a moment I pushed her Guidance to maximum. That moment was enough, because her face suddenly cleared of confusion and she started snapping orders. Good, because Tor Kot grabbed my attention by starting some kind of spell.

I didn’t know what kind of magic would take a mage-king a long time to cast, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good for either me or Shayma. I knew nothing normal was going to hurt him, but in a flash of inspiration I mashed together all the firmament and anecrux bits I had and gave the resulting tiny glowing ball to Shayma.

“Hopefully this explodes.” After seeing what the anecrux did when the catalyst hit it, and seeing that other supermaterials were rather energetic, I figured that having several thousand potential mana mixed in with indestructible beads might well constitute a fragmentation grenade. It was also absurdly expensive, so even if it did work I wasn’t about to make a second one.

Shayma reacted nearly instantly, her hand shifting and elongating as she hurled the thing faster than I could track. Miriam reacted, her poleax flicking out to intercept it, and I was unutterably relieved when it did explode. Violently.

A blaze of multicolored light and a resounding detonation accompanied the destruction of Miriam’s weapon and the perforation of everyone in the room by tiny beads of Firmament. Even Shayma caught one right across the flesh of her cheek, though it sealed up almost immediately thanks to her [Eidolon Body] and my rejuvenation Field.

Most importantly, it accomplished my goal of stopping whatever cast Tor Kot was involved in. His spellwork collapsed as he lifted his fingers to touch a tear in his suit right dead center of his chest. Both Miriam and Charlene had a couple of similar tears in their leathers, with pinpricks of mint-green blood showing. None of them seemed particularly harmed by the projectiles, only dropping a few hit points, but they were actual wounds, which was enough to give everyone pause. Shayma’s [Phantom Presence] meant she looked completely pristine, which just added to the effect.

“So much mana it’s poisonous? How is this even possible?” That sounded similar to the nonsense Vok Nal had spouted, but Tor Kot was more wondering than indignant. Admittedly, I was still hoping he was about to collapse dramatically but such was not to be. Which was bad, because I was running low on stalling tactics, I still hadn’t reconnected with my other half, I didn’t have much mana, and even given how amazing Shayma was she couldn’t take the three of them by herself, so I couldn’t—

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