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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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My Emperor, I have met with both Queen Iniri of Tarnil and a representative of the backer that she claims has empowered Tarnil to stand against the mage-kings. This backer is known as Blue and purports to be both a Dungeon and a Power, but is represented solely by a young fox-kin woman. While my instincts insist this girl is no more than second-tier, I do not think the entire situation is a burlesque. Certainly, something teleported me and my guards so casually that I did not even catch the expended mana.

What makes me believe that a Power indeed is behind it, though I will reserve judgement on whether this Blue is indeed a Dungeon, is the sheer sense of presence generated by the girl in question. It exceeded even your own, and didn’t seem to represent any effort on her part. Interestingly, she warned me about upsetting Iniri on Blue’s behalf, indicating he has some stake of his own.

Other evidence for a Power’s involvement is the sheer mana density of Tarnil. It is higher than other neighboring countries and meets or exceeds that found near Invernir and our Great Dungeon. All this, without any apparent rise in magic beast incidence. Though considering the infrastructure of Tarnil is either very new or destroyed due to the war, it may be that the effects simply have not been seen yet.

Unfortunately, my own efforts to persuade Iniri to marry her fortunes to Ir have not met with great success. I suspect this is due to Blue’s own interests. Iniri is seeking to gain recognition of Blue as a polity in his own right, something I cannot commit Ir to. The only ones who may be doing so are Haerlish and Nivir, neither kingdom of which is of great import. This may be a backward way to find a proper husband but it’s impossible to discern what undercurrents may be at play with a Power involved.

Of those undercurrents, there are two major political developments you need to be aware of:

First, House Anell attempted to assassinate Queen Iniri. From what I overheard this was in fact aimed at a subordinate, but no less has made Queen Iniri declare an embargo on House Anell. I do not know what Blue intends to do about the attempt, but there seemed to be an assumption that there will be a response.

Second, Queen Iniri revealed that the mage-kings are intending to attack Tarnil once again, only a few days hence, and is sending all foreign nationals away. This includes me, so I will be returning to Ir sooner than anticipated.

My own opinion is that Tarnil has either an unreasonable opinion of its own ability to project force, or Blue is in fact a Power with the usual unknowns as to actual abilities. The claim of being a Dungeon remains nonsensical — there are no monsters, he claims to be present throughout all of Tarnil but there is no evidence of floors or any common Great Dungeon trappings, and there is no evidence of depletion like there would be with the mage-king’s dungeons. I can only ascribe using such an obviously fictional conceit to the vagaries of Powers.

Emperor Adrian Wright growled as he finished reading what Andis had written in the paired book. No doubt Andis was glossing over some of his own faults, but that was expected. Andis was a flawed tool, but so were all tools, and knowing those flaws allowed Wright to wield them properly. Even if Andis didn’t carry out his primary purpose, he had certainly reported actionable information.

Iniri should have preferred the backing of Ir to some out-of-continent fifth tier or pupeeteer empire, since by all accounts Iniri wasn’t stupid. Any remote power would only be sponsoring her in a bid to gain a foothold on the continent. Now that she’d driven them off once, it would be easy to overrule the political dithering of various kings and princes that had convinced him to leave the mage-king incursion to someone else the first time around.

He tossed the book aside, crossing from his study to his smithy, a walk of a few short steps, and selected an ingot of steel from the wall. He hefted his own personal hammer and heated the ingot with a [Skill] before bringing the hammer down. Wright always thought better when he was working, letting his hands decide what was going on while his brain mulled things over. Normally he didn’t worry overmuch about the politics of the countries on the ends of the lobes, both because they weren’t actually part of the Empire and because they were neither restive enough nor valuable enough for more forceful relations.

The sound of ringing metal filled his smithy as he considered what to do about Tarnil. More precisely, what to do about Blue. Though it was quite tempting to think he could add a resurgent kingdom and a Power to the Empire, it wasn’t particularly likely. To actually try and conquer Tarnil by force of arms would be a poor idea for a large number of reasons, and it wasn’t Tarnil that he wanted anyway, if Andis was seeing the truth. It was Blue.

Powers were rare and legendarily difficult to deal with. That didn’t mean they were invulnerable, or not susceptible to threats or bribes, but they couldn’t be treated like Classers or kingdoms. The Forest of Silence, for example, valued its privacy enough that it was willing to trade minor favors for the maintenance of the immense scry-ward placed around it. For all that it could drive off the Beast of Tarkelion, it didn’t want to do anything, and woe to anyone who tried to coerce it.

“Hanzell,” he said, not bothering to try and shout over the ringing of metal on metal, knowing that his chief intelligence officer would hear him.

“Sir,” the raven-kin said, the forge-light reflecting off the man’s goggles. All of his advisors had a set, enchanted to help them withstand the heat of the Emperor’s Smithy, but on Hanzell they looked positively diabolical. It really suited the old bastard, to the point where he wore them to official functions.

“Do we really know anything about Blue?”

“Sir,” Hanzell repeated. “We have verified that the disappearance of Haerlish’s Royal Palace for a period of six hours is attributed to Blue.”

Wright considered that. Destroying a palace was easy. He could do it himself, in the space of a few minutes. But making one vanish – not just in an illusionary sense, but completely transporting it elsewhere and then back – was far more difficult. An odd choice, as well, since the power and finesse it would take implied Blue ought to have had other options.

“The Source gem the Theurge of Purifying Flames let us study demonstrates unique effects, and its Status clearly states it originates from Blue,” Hanzell continued. “Our attempts to gather information on Blue’s representative Shayma have been suppressed by Grandmaster Monat, but there is no indication that she is a fourth tier or higher. Our agents do indicate she has extensive access to spatial transportation, which is consistent with the palace incident.”

“So old Monat is running interference for them,” Wright mused, hammer rising and falling as he ran his fingers along glowing steel. “Has he said anything official?”

“Only that he would deal with anyone who had ill intentions toward her or her companions.” Hanzell said, not needing to consult any notes. “She keeps the company of two other young women, a scion of the Esox family and an émigré of the southern tribal lands.”

“Suggestions?”

“We need access to the Sources, if nothing else,” Hanzell said promptly. “According to the Theurge, Blue provided a number of different Affinities, more than would be usual for even a Great Dungeon. Some of Andis’ prior reports implied that Queen Iniri does not have the authority to trade them, which means we would need to deal directly with Blue.”

“Hmm.” Iniri’s requirement to recognize Blue as a sovereign entity made sense, considering the picture he had. If Blue was indeed local and controlled a dungeon, it would be difficult for anyone to consider what was normally common property as a sovereign entity regardless of their actual abilities. Besides which, this Blue was clearly young and new and likely would have trouble handling the Classers and elites of a dozen kingdoms trying to delve his dungeon. It was an open question how dangerous said dungeon would be, but a full group of fourth-tiers, such as the ones in Wright’s own personal guard, would have no trouble carrying a great deal out of any dungeon yet seen.

In any action against Tarnil, his personal feelings didn’t matter, it was the cold calculus of politics. To press the issue with force would make the Empire enemies, and while he didn’t fear Tarnil, which even at its peak hadn’t been as powerful as Ir was now, that was the old Tarnil. The new Tarnil had driven off the mage-kings, who had capabilities similar to a fifth-tier, according to Hanzel, and clearly Blue was part of that effort. The calculus of treating Blue with diplomatic politeness was that he was staking Ir’s reputation that Blue was, in fact, worth that deference.

Wright plunged whatever he was making into oil, letting it hiss as it was quenched, and pulled it out again to see what he’d made. The Emperor laughed as he saw that he’d made a sundial, because it seemed his hands were smarter than his mind. Of course! There was no benefit to deciding now, not with a second attack on the horizon. Once might be luck, but twice certainly would not be.

“If they manage to hold off this mage-king attack, I will go myself,” he decided. “If they don’t, it may be better to seize the area ourselves. I dislike people who don’t follow properly civilized rules.”

“Sir,” said Hanzell, acknowledging the decision. Wright pulled all the remaining heat from the sundial with a flex of Skill, handing it to Hanzell as he exited the Smithy. The raven-kin ghosted along behind him, completely silent even to Wright’s senses.

“If this is a Power, I should be ready,” Wright mused, walking along the heavy staircase that connected his smithy to the rest of the palace. He’d had it reinforced several times so it wouldn’t dent when he stomped off to work out his frustrations. “I’ll be taking Voigtsten to the Forest. I need to know what it knows about Blue.”

“Of course, sir,” Hanzell said, and vanished. By the time Wright made it to the stables, two of his Elites were already there and had Voigtsten saddled for him. The big winged lion yawned lazily, giving Wright an annoyed look. He always hated when Wright interrupted his naptime.

Garus and Leon had their own shedu, though neither of them strictly needed one. Garus was a fourth-tier [Black Beast of Komasu], and his preferred form was quick enough from the ground, while Leon’s [Icerigger of Heaven’s Vault] Class had movement Skills built in. Sometimes Wright wished his Class had movement Skills, but a blacksmith never really needed to go far from his smithy.

Wright scratched Voigtsten just behind the ears, getting a purr from the big shedu before he slid into the saddle, toning down the weight of his [Adamant Body] so Voigtsten could actually take flight. He didn’t need any particular mount Skill or skill to control Voigtsten, he just needed to ask. The shedu wasn’t quite as intelligent as a person, but he was pretty close.

“To the Forest,” he said, and Voigtsten made feline grumbling noises but stretched his wings anyway, launching into the air and heading over Invernir Lake, flanked by Garus and Leon. Neither of them looked particularly happy about their destination, but he didn’t know whether it was because they disliked the Forest itself or that they couldn’t defend him from it. Not that he intended to annoy it.

He always found such flights pleasant. Invernir Lake below was always fascinating to watch with fifth-tier senses; the water-Affinity mana spring at the center meant that tree-sized eels and massive fish swam in even fairly shallow water, to say nothing of the great lurking beasts down near the spring’s center. The air was fresh and crisp, and the stunning green of the Forest of Silence rose from the far shore.

Even on shedu-back, the flight took nearly an hour. Fortunately his staff was excellent, so he could take excursions like these and not worry about the Empire falling apart while he was gone. In fact, the various kings and princes did most of the work, now that they’d been part of the Empire long enough to be loyal to it. The silence crept in even before they reached the shoreline, Voigtsten’s wingbeats becoming muffled, then fading entirely before the sound of his own breathing and, finally, his own heartbeat vanished.

He couldn’t hear Voigtsten’s plaintive whuff when they finally set down on the shoreline, but he felt it, and he rubbed the shedu’s nose before hopping off and striding forward. The silence was so complete that it even stilled his wandering thoughts, leaving only the single thread of intent. Garus and Leon fell in behind him as he waded forward through mana nearly thick enough to touch, toward the first of the giant trees.

A clawed deer, albino-white and twenty feet tall, appeared from the oversized underbrush, eyeing them as it chewed on some leaves before darting away deeper into the Forest. A few paces closer and Wright began to feel the weight of the Forest’s attention, a palpable force pressing down on him. At fifth tier, it no longer drove him to his knees, but it still felt like he was walking against flowing water. That could be more literal, too, he’d seen the Forest push out people who were not well-behaved, and that was when it was feeling generous. His Elites knew how to act, though, and didn’t try to speak, even taking pains to walk in a way that would be quiet, if there were sound to begin with.

Wright stopped at the closest tree, reaching out to put one hand against the building-sized trunk. The Power’s force of will thundered down on him, painful even though it was doing no more than glancing in his direction. At least, that was the impression that he got. Nobody really knew what the Power was, whether it was the Forest itself or something that dwelt within it, but it certainly had enough magic to make even him wary. A good lesson if he was going to be dealing with another Power.

It never communicated in words, but it never needed to. The knowledge simply crystallized in his mind. At the moment it was feeling moderately sleepy and wanted him to ask his question so he would go away. It also gave him the tally that this was the last favor he could ask for the year, and could he hurry up.

Communicating back was less sure, but so far Wright couldn’t really complain. He brought up the knowledge of Blue in his mind, and pushed it at the Forest framed as a question. Wright didn’t know nearly enough about Blue to properly ask for information, so instead it was best to just ask the Forest what it thought. Even if it didn’t like to be disturbed it never shirked on its part of the trade.

Oddly, what came back was not an appraisal, a bunch of knowledge, or a course of action. Usually the Forest had opinions, often strong ones, for all that it deliberately isolated itself from the world. This time what the Forest showed him was a world-eating flash of light, with emptiness afterward. A rising swell of mana, then a sudden dawn with a blazing blue sun over a mountain peak. With it came an admonition of utmost caution, which was unusual for an entity that had historically slapped away a fifty-mile-long flying snake. In fact, it informed him in no uncertain terms that he was not to make whatever was responsible for that angry and drag it back with him to where the Forest would have to deal with it.

He let his hand drop, frowning. That was less helpful than usual, but he trusted it was not because the Forest was holding back. The Forest had told him it didn’t actually know anything beyond the alarming and powerful surges of mana and the rise of the blue sun, which obviously had to do with Blue. That itself was strange, and meant that whatever Blue was, it was truly new.

Wright decided he would absolutely have to see Blue for himself.

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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