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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

1/1

“Ansae, I have a trade I want to make.”

“Oh?” Ansae was carving sigils into mana-dense metal plates, which was exactly what gave me the idea. While I could make a lot with my dungeon tools, I wasn’t actually that skilled at it and didn’t know what was possible with enchanting. Even if Ansae claimed not to be much of an artificer, she still knew a hell of a lot and adding her knowledge and experience to what Shayma and I could do probably would give me the sort of product I wanted.

“I know you want a Star. Considering that someone else just tried to assassinate Iniri I’m thinking I need to make her some defensive gear. Taelah needs something more suited for her work and I don’t even know where to begin with that, so basically I’ll trade a Star for your help on creating some magic items – probably Artifacts – for Iniri and Taelah.” I didn’t define what I meant by “help,” but I doubted Ansae would try and haggle. A Star was incredibly valuable, but so was the applied knowledge of a however-many-years-old dragon Power and I definitely didn’t want to leave my Companions without extra insurance.

“I like it,” Ansae agreed. “It ought to be fun. I’ve been looking forward to working with your more unusual materials. I don’t have the mana I’d like to invest in things, but for a Star it would be worth it.”

“Unfortunately, it looks like you’d have to be a Companion to manipulate Firmament. The only way Taelah and Shayma have been able to deal with the stuff has been through my Alchemistry and Smithery pseudo-Fields.”

“Ah, too bad.” She looked disappointed, as well she might. [Firmament] was far and away the most ridiculous stuff I could make, [Contained Star] aside. Inscribing runes into Firmament might well create something of truly terrifying potential. Not that I needed any more of that. “I suppose I’ll just have to be satisfied with all the other insane things you can make.” Ansae grinned, showing off sharp teeth. “Or maybe find other things for you to put through that anvil or infuse with stellar mana. I’m sure if I dig through my hoard, I can find something appropriate.”

“I can well believe it.” I didn’t know how big her hoard was, but considering that I’d seen her pull metal plates five meters on a side from floating runes, my guess was that it put my spatial expansion abilities to shame. It was probably closer to how my core resource inventory worked, where I could somehow pack away literal tons of stone and use it wherever I wanted.

I had a few ideas for what to make for Iniri but they were only vague and half-formed, especially since I wanted to make her armor, not a weapon. I didn’t actually catch the fight itself, thanks to my relatively limited ability to pay attention to things, but I did see that she was entirely unscathed, and the void assassin was so much seared meat. So she was plenty powerful, but even [Shield of Tarnil] couldn’t be deployed to cover every direction and didn’t do much against alpha strikes. Besides, I was pretty sure if I wanted it to function properly I needed to know how I wanted it to work. Just throwing a bunch of expensive and mana-rich materials at something worked for Promise, but I wasn’t confident about that working every time.

Until then I had to hope that House Anell would be a little more circumspect. It wasn’t the best hope, but I didn’t exactly have the reach to deal with them yet aside from sending Shayma. Considering how dangerous void stuff was, I didn’t want to do that quite yet. From what I’d seen and heard so far, I’d need to come in force, after I was well-established, if I wanted to make headway. I wasn’t about to forget them, though. Not that I wanted to be all fire and brimstone but something like this required a response. If nothing else, I’d be stealing any Anell-flagged ships that I saw.

“Maybe you can come up something that’s [Contained Star]-powered,” I suggested. “It’s going to take a while to make whatever we decide on anyway.”

“That’s an awful lot of mana to hand to a mortal,” Ansae said. “It’s just going to make more people want to get their hands on it.”

“Not if I use my primals to bind it to Iniri. Or maybe attune it to [Shield of Tarnil] using the Aurum? I’m sure something like bloodline-only isn’t unheard of and would keep away most of the worst offenders.”

“That would help,” Ansae admitted. “It would mean people would want to marry into the bloodline, but that will already be true and it’s a much better problem to have.”

“I was already going to make a Star for her, setting it into something useful rather than just handing it over is a better idea anyway.”

“Are you planning the same with Taelah?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “Taelah is more likely to want it as something that will help The Village, and it’s not like she or The Village are going to be out in public like Iniri is.” Though Taelah had made a giggling confession that she’d found acting like the mysterious wise woman for Iniri rather fun. Not that I expected such things to come up too often. “I don’t think a weapon or armor is right for her, either. I think for her we’d need to make a useful tool.”

“Those are the kinds I enjoy collecting the most.” Ansae rumbled a low laugh. “There’s not as many as you’d think, compared to weapons or armor, but they have the most interesting effects.”

“I’ll have to think about what to do. Well, and ask her.”

“Not going to make it a surprise?” Ansae prodded.

“I’d like to, but considering that I want it to be useful to her that doesn’t seem likely.” At this point I probably had months of my Anvil output spoken for, but what else would I use it for other than empowering my Companions? My personal defenses were mostly taken care of by being an entire country. Just having the time and space to address threats with enormous Fields or repeated explosive or energetic bombardment meant I was feeling better about my options. Besides, having to declare war on Tarnil to do it made the whole process of getting armed people near my cores a lot more involved.

Beyond all that I was looking forward to seeing what I could learn from Ansae. Now that I had some understanding about how much of a virtuoso she was when it came to mana manipulation, there might be something I could use even without spellcasting. At the very least maybe I could clean up my own manipulation skills, though maybe having the higher-resolution mana flows were a step in that direction. A lot of the patterns in my dynamos and Fields formed of their own accord, but I still had to link things up and there was no telling what improvements would result if I became somewhat less clumsy about it.

Until I could get the projects done though, I’d have to keep an extra eye on Iniri just in case. I had to admit I wasn’t sad to see Andis packing up, either. I didn’t much like the guy, I never had, and while it really wasn’t my place to interfere in Iniri’s personal life I was just as glad he hadn’t made much headway with her. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who was thinking about these things, because Iniri called on me at the end of the day.

“Blue, I have something to ask you. I’m going to be banning House Anell, but I still worry that they or someone else might try and slip someone through,” she said, pacing the floor of her office. “Your gifts are amazing, but after feeling that stellar Affinity you created, I can tell it has so much more potential than my light Affinity by itself. I was wondering if you could give me that Affinity, especially since we have these mage-kings coming.”

For that I had actually drag Shayma away from her smithing, though she didn’t really mind since she was almost done. I was pretty sure she was on the same page as Iniri and I because she was playing around with one of Iniri’s light ingots, heating it up and working it into various shapes, just to get a handle on how it acted. I wasn’t sure how strong it was, but I knew that Iniri’s solidified light was not quite as strong as steel by itself, as I’d found out while building the Palace.

Shayma took the teleport to Iniri’s tower, ascending uncontested and waving at the Queensguard as she went before knocking at the door to Iniri’s office. If I were the one doing the transportation I’d probably have dropped Shayma directly into the room, which was rather rude, in hindsight. It was for the best I’d given my Companions control over their teleports, since they had a better sense than I did when it came to these things.

“So you’ve finally admitted you just can’t resist Blue?” Shayma teased Iniri once she was let inside, and Iniri flushed.

“That’s not what this is about!”

“I know, I know,” Shayma giggled. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist.”

“Her face was pretty amusing.” I agreed, taking advantage of the fact that Iniri couldn’t hear me.

“Not you too, Blue,” Iniri complained.

“Wait, you can hear me now?”

“You can hear him now?” Shayma and I spoke at exactly the same time, but Iniri shook her head.

“I can’t hear words, but sort of his intent when he’s focused on me or Tarnil through [Queen’s Insight]. I was meaning to mention it before, but it’s been so busy.”

“Huh. Sounds a little bit like what Taelah’s got going on. It’d be great if I could end up talking to them.” Not that I had any objections to Shayma and Ansae as conversational partners, but Taelah was my wife and Iniri ran the country I was bound to, so both would be great. I wasn’t entirely certain if I’d get that far, given my communication blocks, but Iniri was using [Queen’s Insight] and Taelah was getting some feedback from [Nature’s Wisdom]. Neither Skill had anything to do with me reaching out, so it might bypass the restrictions.

“Maybe start practicing aiming at them instead of just me and Ansae?” Shayma suggested.

“I really should.”

“It would be nice if I could talk to him directly,” Iniri agreed. “I’ve always been a little curious about what he’s like.”

“I’ll let him surprise you, then.” Shayma grinned.

“Anyway, as to Iniri’s request. I’d be fine with it except I don’t have any stellar Affinity Sources yet, so I can’t give it to her. Plus, I think it has light components so what if it eats her light Affinity? Would she lose access to her [Shield of Tarnil] Skill?” It wasn’t just the political angle I was thinking of, it was the fact that without that Skill we couldn’t use the Adamant Fortress whenever it finally finished repairing itself. Shayma relayed that and Iniri nodded thoughtfully.

“People do occasionally get another Affinity, and that may lock out getting new Skills, it doesn’t affect Skills they already have. Thinking about it I will get someone to verify that, though I suppose it doesn’t matter until he gets those Sources.” Iniri frowned for a moment, then rubbed her eyes as she slumped into her chair. “Also, thank you for agreeing. It’s hard to feel I’m really doing my job when I’m not making much headway getting Blue on the world stage. Maybe even going backward, if House Anell is effectively declaring war.”

“It’s only been a couple weeks. Politics is a long slog and I figured we’d have people who didn’t like us anyway. Maybe not a trading house, but still people. Speaking of, I’m starting work on a more personal defensive Artifact than the Fortress. Something that will help keep you safe and doesn’t have an option that destroys the country.”

“What does it say that I’m barely surprised by that?” Iniri smiled wanly after Shayma told her what I said. “I look forward to it, though. Next time I might not spot the void assassin in time.” Shayma gave her a closer look, then crossed over to her and pulled Iniri into a hug. They held that for a while, until Iniri took a deep breath.

“Thanks,” she said at last. “I needed that.”

“If it ever slows down you should come visit me and Taelah,” Shayma suggested. “It’s nice and safe in Blue’s mountain.”

“If it ever slows down,” Iniri replied, shaking her head. “I still have to deal with all those people who are only just now being hit by what they did during the occupation. Whatever Blue is doing helps a lot, but some of my administrators are catatonic!”

“Oooh. Okay, I’ve just been using [Light of Hope], but for the individual cases…” I had an idea, but I wasn’t sure how much Shayma would go for it. “We do have a bunch of mind mages who owe me.” She groaned and rubbed her face.

“Do I have to, Blue?”

“I mean, not if you really don’t want to, but it’s something they could probably help with.”

“I know, I’m just complaining,” Shayma said, then turned to Iniri. “There’s some monster people who might be able to help with your problem, but the one that can actually talk thinks I’m cute and wants to pet me!” Shayma said with faux outrage and Iniri burst out laughing. After a moment Shayma joined her.

“Really though, they’re a little scary. But Blue’s right; they’ve got some really powerful mind magic so it can’t hurt to ask if they know how to deal with it.”

“Normally I’d object to having some unknown monster telepaths working on people I need to trust, but since it’s Blue, I’m just grateful.”

Since I’d raised the topic, I left them chatting for a moment while I checked in on the Scalemind. The ambassador kid was easy to spot because of her heterochromia, which was the closest thing to a deformity I’d seen yet. The phenotypes for the Scalemind were pretty wild, overall, so it was tough to say it wasn’t part of their normal package. Still, I doubted that it was coincidence the same kid had weird eyes and was picked for translating. I did feel a little odd calling her a kid, given that she was a nearly six-foot tall monstrosity of scales and claws and fangs, but compared to the hexapeds and the scythe types she wasn’t that big.

They had her rotating meat on a spit over a firepit and even with the species differences I could tell she was bored. Kids were kids, apparently, even if they were big and scaly. I did note that the spit was made of some Underneath wood, but since I hadn’t been paying attention I didn’t know whether the wood had come out of one of the packs the hexapeds were carrying, or if they’d scrounged it from wherever the tunnels led. I needed Shayma to talk to them anyway, to find out what was down in the Underneath before I tried expanding in that direction.

“I think they’re ready for a visitor whenever you are, Shayma. No rush.” I put in during a lull in her conversation with Iniri. The assassination attempt seemed to have shaken the kirin-kin more than I had initially thought, and with Cheya off at Wildwood there weren’t many people she could confide in. I felt maybe a little guilty about pulling away one of Iniri’s friends, but it wasn’t like there’d been much time for her to do anything other than Queen stuff of late.

Eventually Shayma left Iniri to try and salvage the rest of the afternoon. Since I’d cleaned up the throne room there weren’t any physical issues with holding court, and I could imagine Iniri would want to go back out there to show that she wasn’t hiding from anything. Or anyone. Considering what had just happened I ran [Structural Mana Reinforcement] throughout the Palace, though eventually [Amplified Presence] would make it tough enough without the help.

Shayma donned her circlet and teleported down outside of the Scalemind’s chamber, drawing immediate attention from those inside. The way they all snapped to attention at almost the same time was fairly creepy, but after a moment most of them resumed what they were doing save for the biggest of the hexapeds, the biggest of the scythe types, and the interpreter. I assumed it was the same trio that had ventured up to the audience chamber the first time, but unfortunately my read on their Status didn’t give me names. It was quite irritating.

“Okay, they’re expecting you.” I pulled open the door so Shayma could walk in, ring glimmering as she exerted just a little bit of pressure. The trio went forward to meet her while the others studiously ignored her presence. In fact, they were so collectively good at pretending Shayma wasn’t there that it was genuinely weird. Then I caught little twitches here and there, and I realized that there was probably telepathy stuff going on, both to keep people from staring and probably actually giving them the view from the leader types and their interpreter.

“Hhhello!” The interpreter waved vigorously at Shayma, as if she were afraid to be overlooked. Or maybe she was just happy to see my fox-girl. Shayma had mentioned that the Scalemind had thought she was cute.

“Greetings,” Shayma replied, stopping just out of reach of the three representatives, to the kid’s visible disappointment. “Blue has a task, and he wishes to know whether you can do it. He would also like to get a report on what you have encountered down in the tunnels.”

“Hhhhall righhht.”

“Also, it’d be great if I could get their names. They don’t have any in their Status.”

“Blue also requests your names,” Shayma added, barely missing a beat.

“Ahhm Hhhone-Eyyye-Grrreen.” She pointed at the one with the scythes. “Biggh Sssissster.” Then the hexaped. “Biggh Brothher.” Without even looking, Big Sister lifted one of her scythes and gently bonked One-Eye-Green on the head with the blunt side. One-Eye-Green squeaked and batted it away, while Big Brother heaved what was pretty clearly a deep sigh. Despite the mangled speech and monstrous forms, I could see Shayma struggling to hold back a smile at their antics. If they weren’t actually related, they sure acted like it.

“Cutsss-Liiihke-Cooohhld.” One-Eye-Green tried again, giving Big Sister a proper name. “Drreeamsss-Ahhhead.” Dreams-Ahead nodded when he was named, rocking his whole body slightly. I had to feel sorry for the two of them, being deprived of hands as they were, and lacking the facility for proper speech. Then again, maybe the telepathy made up for it. “Hhhwhat isss tasssk? Caaahn Share hhwhat ssscoutsss sssaw.”

Shayma reached up to touch the circlet, though I wasn’t sure if that was necessary. It wasn’t completely clear to me how people interacted with magic items that had active effects, but the process seemed to be an extension of Skills. So far, I hadn’t seen any that were entirely mechanical, or had a physical interface. Though that did make sense, considering there didn’t seem to be any easy mechanical-style mana switches around. I didn’t sense anything, of course, but Shayma nodded at intervals and finally held up a hand.

“I will report all that to Blue. For the task, we have a number of people who are traumatized after living under the mage-kings to the point of not even functioning. Considering your proficiency for mind magic, Blue believes you might be able to aid in the recovery of these people.”

One-Eye-Green froze for a moment, looking to Dreams-Ahead and blinking. Cuts-Like-Cold swiveled her own massive head to glance at him as well, and to judge by some of the other Scalemind stopping their tasks, there was a lot of talk going on. Whatever the debate was, it didn’t take very long, because soon enough One-Eye-Green looked back to Shayma.

“Cahhn try. Mihnds caahhn’t be hhhard.” Even without the context I could well guess that that by “hard” she meant protected, like with Shayma’s circlet. An obvious requirement, but I did want to make sure that they knew how to fix someone who was damaged like that and weren’t planning on wiping their brains or anything.

“Who’s going to be responsible for the procedure? We should probably make sure you can do something before I start shipping people all over the country.” Shayma started negotiations, mostly aloud but sometimes with the telepathy, and Dreams-Ahead volunteered to be the first one to check if the Scalemind could do anything useful. Which was when One-Eye-Green asked a question

“Hhhwe go Sssurfaccce?”

“Well, yes,” Shayma replied, and telepathy or no all the Scaleminds turned around to stare.

“It’s not that bad!” She protested either to their stares or some telepathic conversation I couldn’t listen in on.

“Sssshare?” One-Eye-Green suggested, and Shayma grimaced, but nodded. Dreams-Ahead and Cuts-Like-Cold shared a look, but One-Eye-Green just sulked. “Not liiihke.” All that got her was another bop on the head from Cuts-Like-Cold. Dreams-Ahead whuffed, and Shayma turned to look at him before addressing me.

“Blue, he’s worried about the reception they’ll get on the surface more than the surface itself. They’re also used to high mana levels, though I think that won’t be a problem.”

“Um. Well, they’re going to be under my protection, and for now you’re going to be escorting them. There’s not much I can do about how people react though. Oh! I guess you can temporarily illusion them up, if we need to go out in public. Won’t have that luxury all the time but we can start out that way. But we’ll be doing things in private so it shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Shayma shook her head, returning to discussing things with the Scalemind. It seemed pretty well set that Dreams-Ahead and One-Eye-Green were going to head upward, with Cuts-Like-Cold staying behind. Which might be just as well, getting any of them through regular size doorways or into regular size rooms was going to be a feat.

I could simply teleport the test subject down to where the Scalemind were, since the Earl in question was fairly insensate, but I didn’t think that putting him in a room full of monsters would help. Nor did I really want to just put them all over in Duenn, partly because it wouldn’t be fair to the Scalemind to surround them with all those thinking people and partly because if things did go poorly, it would be better that it happen somewhere more controlled. I could use the hospital, but I didn’t want to interrupt Keri and Annit and I’d sworn off teleporting stuff directly into their area anyway.

Ultimately, I decided to set up a temporary building in the Caldera. It was pretty thoroughly under my control, it was on the surface, it was mana rich, and it was far, far from anyone else. I set up a portal there from the Scalemind compound, letting natural light spill through. I was half expecting the Scalemind to hiss and cringe from the light or something equally theatrical, but they just squinted. I wasn’t sure what those cruciform pupils did that was special, but I needed to consider how to make sunglasses just in case. They may genuinely have issues with the sun, even if they clearly could deal with bright light just fine.

Shayma led One-Eye-Green and Dreams-Ahead through the portal and into the Caldera, to a portion that I’d landscaped in preparation for The Village. Said portion was still enormously large, so it hardly seemed like some small island of green in the massive sea of stone that covered most of the Caldera. There was grass, plants, trees, streams, and chrystheniums seeded throughout, and a simple two-room building I’d made a few moments before the portal itself. Not that the Scalemind even got to the building. One-Eye-Green took one look up at the sky and flopped down on the grass, digging her claws into the dirt, while Dreams-Ahead whuffed uncomfortably and swayed in place. Shayma’s expression softened as she turned back to regard them.

“It’s all right,” she told them, taking a few steps closer to the Scalemind. “I know it’s a lot of sky, but there’s nothing up there that’s going to come down on you.” She took another couple steps before One-Eye-Green drunkenly flung herself between Shayma and Dreams-Ahead.

“Nnooo touchhh! Quill poissson.” Shayma stopped short, and One-Eye-Green dropped back to the ground, burying her muzzle in the grass. I hadn’t imagined that they’d need poison or any other sort of defensive adaptations, but they were monsters. They were designed, not evolved, so there was no point in trying to judge them by normal standards. At least now I knew what the fine, fuzzy quills that stuck out between the scales were about.

“Huh. Hopefully they recover soon.” I hadn’t really thought that they might have some severe agoraphobia, though in hindsight it was obvious the sight of the sky would be strange to them. Which reminded me that I had to get Shayma’s impression of what the Underneath was actually like, since the scout report was telepathic, and I couldn’t see it for myself. “Why don’t you tell me what they saw down there?”

“An awful lot of big winding tunnels and complicated caverns. It reminds me a bit of Wildwood, since it’s all definitely high-mana life there. They didn’t show me anything that looked like a civilization down there, aside from the lowroad. Which you really ought to see, by the way. It’s way, way down there but it’s this huge tunnel bored straight through, with camping areas and everything. The stone looks a lot like your Adamant Stone and I’m sure it’s magic if it’s lasted this long, but it wasn’t in the best repair.”

“Nicccer than by Blighht.” I was surprised One-Eye-Green was even paying attention, but she seemed to be doing her best, peering over at Shayma with her mismatched eyes. “Thisss nicccer.” She rubbed her muzzle against the grass. “All nicccer. But that, ssso brighhht.” She tried to peer up at the sky again.

“Don’t look directly at the sun!” Shayma said, taking another step toward One-Eye-Green to block her view. “Maybe you should just come inside for now.”

“Hhhalrighhht.” One-Eye-Green levered herself to her feet, wobbling slightly, and Shayma reached out to steady her. After all, she didn’t have quills like Dreams-Ahead, who snorted and stumped forward of his own accord. One-Eye-Green leaned on Shayma’s arm, but seemed to be fixated on her ears, staring at them as they twitched. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer, and just after they crossed the threshold to get under an actual roof, she reached out to pet Shayma. I could have warned her, but it was just too strangely adorable.

“Hey!” Shayma pulled away from One-Eye-Green, who looked downcast.

“Sssorry.” Apparently Shayma was warming a bit to the Scalemind, because she didn’t scold One-Eye-Green any further. She just shook her head and made way for Dreams-Ahead.

“Just, if you’re going to be walking around on the surface don’t pet people. Not without asking, anyway.”

“Hhhyesss,” One-Eye-Green replied, though I would imagine she was still getting an earful from Dreams-Ahead. Or whatever the proper term was for the telepathic version of the same.

“I’m going to go fetch the patient, he’ll be in the other room.” Shayma vanished, taking [Phantasmal Path] to the nearest teleport and moving herself to Duenn. Again, I could have moved the guy straight there, but the Earl had guards and attendants and one of them would find he was missing at some point so it was easier to just have Shayma tell them what was going on. Not that we were having monsters do the work, but that we were going to see a mind specialist.

There was some minor fussing from the servants but Shayma skipped their attempts to load her down with instructions by the simple expedient of hauling the Earl, bed and all, into [Phantasmal Path] and away. Though I saw people do impossible things all the time, the sight of Shayma physically handling a massive four-poster as if it were a plank of wood still struck me as strange. Admittedly, she was using shapeshifting to alter her musculature and probably some form of pseudo-realized illusion to aid in the motion of the thing, but it was still weird.

During the twenty minutes or so it took for Shayma to fetch Earl Sharpnor, One-Eye-Green grew brave enough to peer out the window, even if Dreams-Ahead did not. Though maybe he didn’t need to. If One-Eye-Green was like human children, she was probably babbling about everything visible through the window whether Dreams-Ahead was interested or not. I, on the other hand, realized that I hadn’t set up the room with them in mind and altered the furniture to account for One-Eye-Green’s stature and tail, and gave Dreams-Ahead a padded nook to recline in.

When Shayma returned they both twitched noticeably, and Dreams-Ahead turned to fixate on where Sharpnor was lying on the other side of the wall. My fox-girl slipped back into the room with the Scalemind, looking from one to the other.

“Do you think you can do anything for him?”

“Pehhhrhaps.” One-Eye-Green blinked, lacing clawed fingers together. “Sssaysss, caahn make forrrget, or caahn help edgesss.”

“I’m going to say the second one. Unless we purge everyone’s memory of everything, targeted amnesia isn’t going to help, and besides, he needs to know what’s been going on these past few years.” I was mostly guessing that “helping edges” meant that Dreams-Ahead would help blunt the actual traumatic thoughts and internal discord from the brainwashing. It would be nice to have more of a guarantee that the Scalemind could actually cure the guy, but telepathy was well out of my experience. That said, nobody had questioned whether it was possible, so I was hopefully on the right track. “Plus, if he can undo any changes made by the brainwashing, that’d be great. Whatever he can do. The more I know what the limits are the better we can plan.”

“We don’t want him to lose any memories, if you can manage it,” Shayma told them. “Also, we want him as close as possible to how he was before Tor Kot, though I don’t know if that’s possible. If you are even the slightest bit uncertain about doing something, say so. Blue wants to know what the limits are, so we can plan what to do in the future.” One-Eye-Green and Dreams-Ahead were silent for a minute or so, then One-Eye-Green waved her claws vaguely.

“Caahn try. Not know uhntil thehn.” I wasn’t completely certain, but it seemed One-Eye-Green was starting to get a handle on speaking a little more clearly. After having seen the other monsters when the mage-kings had met, I knew not every monster was anywhere near humanoid or had the ability to speak normally, so I was glad that at least some of the Scalemind were and could.

Dreams-Ahead made a chuffing noise and closed his eyes, going to work. The only visible effect was in my mana-sight, nearly invisible fluctuations of mind magic flickering back and forth between him and Sharpnor. The control reminded me of Ansae, though I was sure the content was what was important in this case. The silence stretched out for a while and One-Eye-Green grew increasingly fidgety, until finally she turned to Shayma.

“Cahn go outssside?”

“Of course, just so long as you come back when Dreams-Ahead is done.”

“Hhhyess.” One-Eye-Green scrambled out the door, running out onto the grass and immediately falling over. Not that she seemed to mind, picking herself back up and going to inspect the trees, then splash in the stream. Shayma watched out the window and smiled.

“I hate to admit it, but she’s actually kind of endearing.” I was pretty sure that she was talking to me, but Dreams-Ahead opened one eye and grunted at her. Shayma glanced at him and reached up to touch the circlet, communicating with him through mind magic. “I don’t know,” she said. “Why? Maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“Well?”

“He wants me to take One-Eye-Green out adventuring,” Shayma muttered. “He says she actually knows how to fight, even if she’s young.”

“Huh. I mean, it’s up to you. I don’t think your group is doing too badly by itself, but their mind magic is pretty impressive. Though I guess dealing with a kid all the time could get old.”

“I’ll have to consider it,” Shayma said. “It’d depend on what Keri and Annit think, anyway.”

Time spun onward, Dreams-Ahead’s efforts continuing past afternoon and into night, until finally Earl Sharpnor sat bolt upright in his bed. Dreams-Ahead sagged down and yawned, while Shayma stepped into the other room. One-Eye-Green had already tired herself out and was stretched out on the grass next to the door outside.

“Earl Sharpnor? How are you feeling?” The Earl blinked over at Shayma, frowning slightly and drawing wrinkles across his tanned face.

“Better, I think,” he said. “Clearer. Like I finally woke up from a bad dream.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Being consumed by guilt.” He shuddered. “Everything overwhelmed me all at once.”

“We had a mind mage help you out,” Shayma explained. “It’s a little late to have Queen Iniri interview you, but I’ll take you home and we can work that out tomorrow.”

“It’s late?” He glanced out the window. “I don’t feel tired at all.”

“Okay, Dreams-Ahead did a really good job. It’ll have to wait until people who know him better talk to him, but he seems in a lot better shape than he should be for someone who’s been conked out for two days.” Shayma nodded agreement.

“If you’re ready, I’ll take you back. I’m sure your estate is worried about you.”

“I’d like to thank the mind mage first!” Earl Sharpnor said. “Whoever it is did an amazing job.”

“I’ll tell him for you,” Shayma said. “He’s rather shy. Maybe you can meet him later.” Sharpnor looked like he was about to insist, but apparently Shayma’s air of authority, or maybe just my borrowed one, stopped him.

“Very well,” he said. “I’m sure Duenn’s affairs need seeing to. But do let me know how I can arrange a gift for your mysterious mage.”

“I will,” Shayma assured him, taking him by one arm and hefting his bed up in the other to take them home. She saw Sharpnor settled back into his household, and slipped off to return to the Caldera and send the Scaleminds home. But before she stepped inside the house, she paused.

“I think I will have One-Eye-Green meet Annit and Keri,” she said to me, then continued indoors. It was good that she didn’t need any input on that because someone interesting used my name.

Tem Irn walked into Vok Lim’s office, his oozes squelching along behind him, holding a frame set with colored rods. The office was absolutely opulent, inlaid with gold and jewels and full of fine silks and tapestries, with Vok Lim himself lounging in a massive chair and chewing on an enormous spit of meat. His glance at Tem Irn was initially dismissive, but then his eyes fastened on the item in the other mage-king’s hands.

“Finally found out Blue’s monsters, then?”

“His scry-blocking is even better than ours, but I finally caught some,” Tem Irn confirmed. “Scaleminds.”

“Strange choice,” Vok Lim grunted. “But makes me think everything Tor Kot saw was just mind tricks. Odd that he’d fall for them though. He’s a cowardly old fool but that just means he’s even more careful about mind magic.”

“The scry-blocking and mana density can’t be mind magic though,” Tem Irn pointed out. “Whatever Blue is doing, it’s got some merit to it. Plus there’s an Affinity I don’t know, which is strange all by itself. The strangest thing, though, is that the size of his dungeon seems to be the entire scope of Tarnil.”

“But why?” Vok Lim’s eyes narrowed. “It’s impressive, I’ll grant you, but I can’t think of a single reason to bother. Most of that area would be a complete waste of resources.”

“It worries me. Combine that with his secrecy and other unknowns, it seems like he must have a completely different approach than we do.”

“Sounds like Blue’s from off-continent, so maybe that’s how we missed them.” Vok Lim chewed thoughtfully. “Tor Kot may not have been a total fool. But we have four war-cores, and Scalemind monsters mean he doesn’t have anything near the range needed to threaten us. Plus your oozes will be completely immune. Hiding’s not going to do him any good.”

“Maybe, but with an entire country it could be a chore tracking him down. Either way, we’ll know in a week.”

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