Wright preferred to be out on deck while at sea. Though the quarters belowdeck were comfortable and luxurious, they didn’t have the fresh air, salt spray, and the feeling of being connected to something as powerful as the open ocean. He also didn’t have to strain his senses so much to get through the heavy enchantments and runework laid into his flagship, IIS Queen Linel.
He could feel Tarnil before they crossed the borders, a spill of excess mana with unusual flavor like the heat and smoke spilling out of a smithy door and the moment they crossed into Tarnil’s waters it was like stepping into the smithy itself. There were even echoes of great craft somewhere in there, something that spoke to his blood and made him instinctively reach for his hammer.
There was a forge on board of course, just in case the urge hit, but after considering it Wright decided against going belowdecks to shape metal. It was more important to try and feel what he could, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything unusual with mana-sight. It was something more subtle, a flavor in the air. Which was amusing because the enormous lance of mana and the Silver Woe’s subsequent appearance had been anything but subtle.
He actually believed Queen Iniri’s claim that The Silver Woe didn’t have any particular relationship with Tarnil. Nobody in their right mind would want to tell lies about their alliance or lack thereof with the ancient Power, especially not when The Silver Woe was so close at hand. That was true for any Power, but The Silver Woe had taken violent exception to the misuse of her reputation in some historical accounts. Cities had burned.
There was nothing to the air or mana off Tarnil’s coast that felt particularly draconic, but the core of power was still there, somewhere off to the west. Wright couldn’t put his finger on exactly how he could sense it, but anyone who was fourth-tier, or at least had a modicum of sensitivity, would know there was power there. People on the southern lobe could probably feel it, like sun on their skin.
One of the strange, immense towers loomed out of the ocean ahead of them, the bottom covered with a strange organic pattern and the glass glinting in the sun near the top of the ridiculously tall structure. Not that he was one to criticize, considering some of the towers in his capital, but even the tallest spires of Invernir weren’t that tall. Scrying Tarnil had found a lot of odd updates to be made to the official maps, including the towers and the city of Meil residing in a lake. Not to mention the diplomatic missive informing him that Meil was the new capital. Blue had wrought a lot of changes.
Suddenly there was a flicker of something, a ripple of dungeon-flavored magic washing over the Queen Linel that brought with it a sense of absolute clarity. It was too subtle to catch exactly how it worked, but it was a clear sign that Blue was aware of them. He assumed it was Blue, but if not, the Queen Linel had more than enough armament to deal with anyone who would be so foolish as to attack the Emperor of Ir while at sea. They weren’t far enough out to rate Leviathan protection, but he didn’t put much stock in that anyway. It wasn’t like unhindered passage came with an escort.
“Sir,” said Hanzell, climbing on deck rather than appearing in his shadow as usual. The raven-kin’s feathers ruffled in the wind, and he reached up to adjust his goggles. “Something is suppressing stealth around us.”
“Just something?” Wright asked, turning to look at his spymaster. That at least answered why Hanzell didn’t arrive with his usual flourish.
“It is certainly a dungeon effect,” Hanzell said. “Which certainly corroborates the claims that the same happened with the Haerlish palace incident. As does the potency of the suppression.”
“I suppose it is of no moment,” Wright mused. “We have no need of stealth ourselves, and if it applies equally to other attendees and potential foes it only helps. It might even do you good to be seen, Hanzell.”
“Very funny, sir,” Hanzell said, his tone carrying no humor whatsoever.
“Have we figured out those towers yet?” Wright asked, hooking a thumb at the half-mile or so of vertical stone passing by on their left. “They can’t be just decoration.”
“They’re supposed to help with weather,” Hanzell replied. “Nobody knows any details, it was just mentioned in passing.”
“The weather seems fine to me,” Wright said with a smile, teeth gleaming in the sun of a bright, clear day. “Though yes, that does seem odd.” Some kingdoms dabbled in trying to control their weather, and for some it actually worked, but it generally wasn’t a good idea. The ones that did usually had something more important to worry about than Tarnil’s apparently serene weather. He didn’t doubt Hanzell’s information, so there was obviously something hidden at play.
Of course, that could be said for all of Tarnil. Unreasonably active mana, with touches of Affinities he didn’t recognize, potent effects with no apparent source, and tremendous changes in geography. Simply saying it was due to a dungeon Power didn’t explain anything. Wright wasn’t much concerned with treachery, but the only way to truly understand something and make use of it was to peel back all its secrets to get at the pure material beneath.
The deck swayed gently under his feet as Hanzell brought him up to date with what few things had occurred since they’d set out from Port Lisholm. Nothing dire, though one of the nobles that they had been watching had, predictably, tried to start trouble the moment Wright was away from the capital. He was idiot enough to think that just because Wright had all four of his fourth-tiers with him there was nobody who’d deal with a power-grab. Admittedly a minor one, but he had a level forty duke sitting in a cell now.
Wright snorted. He had first tiers in charge of some aspects of the Empire. They didn’t stay that way for long, but it was an excellent opportunity for those with a mind toward administrator Classes. Level alone didn’t give anyone authority; the rule of law was the only thing that kept matters civilized over the Empire. Or at least more civilized than what Wright’s ancestor had done when he’d first carved out Ir.
There didn’t seem to be any other crises brewing, which was as it should be since he’d worked hard at keeping any potential disasters from germinating. He could spend the summit focusing on the summit, though he had limited interest in anyone other than Blue and Queen Iniri. Orrelin coming down from their plateau was amusing, and he was looking forward to throwing a few barbs at whoever was representing them, but the other countries were insignificant.
They passed more of the mysterious towers as the Queen Linel followed the coast, skipping through the waves at a fair enough clip that it was only early afternoon by the time they reached the pair of towers that marked the entrance to the new canal. A few winged figures circled the tops of the towers, but they didn’t seem at all threatening, so he merely marked their presence for the moment. Smaller vessels made way as his massive flagship turned into the waterway, and Wright squinted at the strange distortion of the banks as the landscape seemed to rush by.
“Is this a spatial tunnel?”
“I think so,” replied Tendau, who was the closest to pure mage of any of his fourth-tiers. The [Arbiter of Stillness and Motion] touched one of the runed disks he wore about his neck, peering off the side of the vessel. “It’s dungeon work so I can’t really read it, but I would surmise it has a compression ratio of approximately one hundred to one.”
Wright whistled. That was a significant ratio, made even more impressive by how much real distance it covered. He’d seen an eight-hundred-to-one expansion once, but it was a small initial room, with an original size of something like ten feet cubed. The Great Dungeons were widely considered to use spatial expansion on far greater scales, of course, but there was a difference between seeing it buried deep in the earth and seeing it out in the open.
That compression meant that the length of the canal passed in minutes, and the city of Meil appeared before them in the center of its lake. Aside from its location there was nothing particularly unusual about the city itself, though it was clear that the sprawl of docks and marinas growing outward was new. What really caught his attention was the attached palace, something with more glass than sense and traced with glowing metal.
Even from across the lake the metal had his absolute attention. It glowed with power, to senses both magical and mundane, and in an Affinity he didn’t quite recognize. It was something complex, something that sang of immense potential to his metal senses and made him itch to get his hands on it. He wasn’t shocked that he couldn’t place the metal itself, because the variations on Affinities and the changes they could make were effectively endless, but he couldn’t even tell what its base form was or the Affinity it was using.
That metal alone would have made the trip worth it to him personally, though as the Emperor he couldn’t go on trips just to find new materials. The sheer amount of it that had been used in the palace, as mere decoration rather than for advanced crafting, meant that it was something that they could export — which gave Wright at least one real goal for the summit. Oh, he wanted to know what was going on as much as the next ruler, to see Blue and the Silver Woe, but that just wasn’t all that exciting.
He continued to scan the palace with his senses, and under normal circumstances he’d call it the work of an amateur genius. There were no toolmarks, no joints or joins, and the way metal and wood and glass and stone linked to each other was absolutely sublime. Yet for all that technical skill, the palace itself lacked the artistic flourishes he would have expected from a master craftsman. There were no initials chiseled into hidden corners, no curls or motifs, no ornamentation that would have been put in over the months or years such a building would take to construct.
In this case, it was obviously dungeon work. There was a sort of creeping horror to how pervasive and how obvious the marks of dungeon work were, even in the little of Tarnil that they’d seen. The Great Dungeons changed slowly, and the landscapes beneath the surface that they created were mostly natural, save for places where they weren’t. Anyone who delved into the Great Dungeons eventually found places where monsters dwelt, savage and simple dwellings that nonetheless showed the signs of cunning craft.
Some felt that they were created by the monsters who dwelled in the Dungeons, and others by the Dungeons that succored the monsters. Tarnil seemed to answer that question, but it also gave the impression that the entire country had been overrun and remade by monsters. Which wasn’t far from the truth in a way, from what he’d heard, but it still set his teeth on edge. At least until he spotted the portal.
The bare spire of rock was absolutely stark compared to the island the palace stood upon, but the obvious arch of dimensional passage that sat atop it more than made up for it in opulence. Portals were rare, since even space Affinity didn’t guarantee that the wielder would be able to create them, and artificers had difficulty with the complexity of the task. There were occasional Artifacts, or ruinously mana-expensive prototypes, so actual portal use was restricted to emergencies and military strikes. Having one simply sitting there, unused, was quite the statement.
The pilot steered Queen Linel into the berth that had been obviously set aside for them, marked by a giant flag with twelve spears on a white background. Ir’s flag came from a rather more martial time, but it was a good reminder that the empire was still strong and still had the most powerful forces on Orn. Discounting The Silver Woe, of course. There were members of Queen Iniri’s Queensguard waiting on the docks with a large carriage, and he could make out the badge of a captain on one of them, but there seemed to be far too few of the guards. The area was cordoned off, but he would have expected a few score of guards keeping formation, not the mere company that was in evidence.
“Hanzell,” he murmured, and his spymaster drifted over to answer his unasked question.
“Queen Iniri is still recruiting to refill the ranks of her Queensguard, but she still simply doesn’t have very many guards that can be trusted. This represents most of her seniors, led by Captain Joce Tarek.”
“Mph,” Wright said, and decided it wasn’t worth it to be diplomatically irritated at the low turnout. He didn’t care much personally, and if Queen Iniri was sending her elites, be they ever so scanty, that was clearly not a purposeful snub. He leapt from the deck to the dock in a single bound, followed by his four fourth-tiers. Tendau, Garus, Leon, and Capito joined him, each in their own way.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” said Captain Joce, offering him a deep bow. “Welcome to Tarnil. Queen Iniri is waiting to receive you in the Glass Palace. She has provided the royal carriage for your convenience, though if you wish to use Skills that will be no problem.”
That was an interesting concession. Politeness generally kept high-tiers from using movement Skills in cities, especially the sorts of Skills that could end up damaging people or architecture, so such a dispensation was effectively encouragement. At that, the stone underneath his feet seemed especially robust, and a brief scuff of his boot didn’t dislodge any debris, which was interesting given the strength he used.
“We’ll use the carriage, Captain.” He was tempted to send his guards on ahead, but only Leon and Tendau had serious movement Skills and there really wasn’t any need to scout ahead. It wasn’t a long ride anyway. “Thank your Queen for me.” The rest of his retinue had their own transportation. He had a traveling staff of forty at minimum and it wasn’t wise to rely on foreigners for logistics.
Unlike so many other things around, the carriage was clearly made by normal crafters, and showed some signs, to his senses, of having been in previous battles. There were some patched areas in the armored exterior, under the paint, that implied at least one serious attack. The carriage itself was comfortable, but Meil was not particularly interesting to be carried through, so Wright simply looked to his guards and raised his eyebrows.
“There’s a Leviathan here,” Capito said in reply. “A few hundred feet below us.” The [Javelineer of the Wrathful Mountains] had a stone sense that vastly outranged Wright’s detailed perceptions, which explained why he’d noticed that before Wright had.
“Lots of mana, more than I’d expect. It’s similar to Ir’s, despite northern Tarnil being supposedly mana-poor.” Tendau added, and Wright nodded. He’d noticed that himself, but it was good to have corroboration. It seemed it was difficult to tell the difference between Tarnil and Blue, if indeed there was a difference.
The carriage ride wasn’t long and, when Wright stepped out after it came to a halt, he was impressed despite himself. It had been pretty from a distance, but when he stood in front of it he could really appreciate the sheer amount of glass involved, not to mention that fascinating metal. Wright ignored the honor guard that turned out to escort him inside and crossed over to touch the metal lining the exterior of the palace gates. [The Crucible] identified it as [Sunmetal], and told him that it was not only particularly mana-rich but also not made from steel or copper or any of the common metals. It was as if it was a pure metallic representation of the Affinity — and in fact it probably was, if that was what his Skill led him to believe.
He ignored the chatter from behind him as he studied it, wishing he could just melt a piece off the palace but holding himself back for the moment. It took Tendau’s voice to pull him away, looking back just in time to see a stone arch raise itself from the flagstones outside the entrance to the palace. A moment later the view through the arch changed as a portal opened, and his eyebrows climbed up to his hair as the Orrelin delegation stepped through.
That casual exercise of power was astounding, and he could tell that Capito wanted to throw a fit about the earth-shaping. He’d have to get the story of what exactly upset his earth-Affinity guard later, but for the moment he was entertained by the uncertain expressions of the Orrelin natives. They probably had never been through a portal before, let alone one of the size provided. While it was tempting to stay and be entertained, he didn’t want to delay so long that the other delegation got ahead of him.
He gathered up his guards with a gesture and swept forward into the palace, crossing a lush courtyard and striding into the audience hall. Queen Iniri was waiting for them, sitting on her throne, and he could feel her power resonating into the palace, through the Sunmetal, turning the entire thing into one massive magical item. He’d done the same to his own palace, and he knew how useful a trick it was. She was clearly fourth-tier, and it wouldn’t do to underestimate what she could do in her own home.
“Welcome, Emperor Wright,” Queen Iniri said, rising politely after he was announced. “I trust you had a pleasant trip?” There wasn’t an ounce of subservience in her, which Wright personally preferred even if it sometimes made things difficult.
“It was certainly interesting,” Wright admitted. “And instructive.” That got a flash of a smile from Queen Iniri, who certainly understand what he meant by that.
“I have reserved our largest suite for your use,” she told him. “There is private access to the summit complex in that suite courtesy of Blue. I expect all the guests to be here soon, due to Blue’s spatial abilities, but even if they aren’t, we’ll have a formal dinner there tonight. Until then, I hope you enjoy Tarnil and the summit.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Queen Iniri,” Wright said, completing the formal exchange, and bowed again before turning to follow the servant holding the flag of Ir. There’d be franker discussions later, in private, and the rest of his baggage train would find out where to go through servant-to-servant communication. Or more likely, servant-to-Hanzell communication, since that was one of his favorite ways to snoop.
The suite was commendably opulent, though Wright didn’t much care one way or the other. His days of sleeping on bare rock in the depths of a Great Dungeon were behind him, but they’d set the bar for what he really needed in life fairly low. He glanced around and let his guards fan out to check everything and claim rooms, not bothering to do more than look at the master bedroom and prod the big table in the drawing room with a finger. It was the Blue-provided access that he was most interested in, since it meant that they wouldn’t be sitting around in the palace all the time, and the freestanding door to one side of the foyer was obviously it.
By the time everyone was finished poking around the rest of the baggage train was starting to arrive, so Wright gave into temptation and opened the door. It was obviously another portal, since it didn’t show the foyer beyond, but rather a broad expanse of marble. He took one step through, then another, and gaped. It took a lot to impress him, after all he’d seen and all he’d made, but what was there was impressive.
He’d never been so high up. So far as he knew there weren’t any mountains anywhere in the world so high as the ones that surrounded him, and while there might be a drop like the one before him somewhere in the Underneath, the blue sky above him denied that possibility. Wright had no idea where they were, and reaching the balcony he looked out over an immense hidden country.
Barely visible in the middle of the immense valley was a white needle of a tower, the source of the draconic touch he’d sensed before. It wasn’t blatant, not like The Silver Woe’s reappearance had been, but it was implacably solid. Blue had to be The Silver Woe’s private retreat, and it seemed incredibly apropos that the oldest Power would have another Power just for a dwelling, but he did wonder what exactly drove either of them to finally open up, rather than just return to seclusion after killing the mage-kings.
“What the fuck is this,” Capito said bluntly, not really asking a question, just objecting to it in general. The short, stocky fourth-tier hopped off the marble onto the rock face below the balcony, anchoring himself sideways and bringing up earthern armor to protect his formal clothing from the splashing water. “This is not natural.”
“I never would have guessed,” said Tendau dryly. He didn’t jump over the balcony, though he was the only one of them that could outright fly. Leon practically could, and with all the waterfalls and mist he wouldn’t have any issues forming his ice, but it would take a very, very long time to get down. “So far as demonstrations of power go, this is a damn impressive one.”
“So, where are we?” Wright asked, glancing back at the portal they’d come from, standing on its own platform just to one side of the main expanse of marble. He didn’t feel particularly threatened, not simply by being somewhere he didn’t recognize, but it was a little odd to know that small link was the only thing that kept him from being completely lost.
“We’re in a dungeon,” Garus said bluntly, sniffing the air. He didn’t have enough room to shift, but his senses were sharp in any form. “Completely. If it weren’t for the sky, I’d say we were fifty levels deep.” He squinted at the sky, then turned to Wright. “So far as position goes, I’d say we’re still in Tarnil.”
“So, this is spatial expansion, but on such a scale…” Wright shook his head. This was absolutely the work of a Power. Nobody could make an entire pocket country. Or rather, until now nobody could have, and he wasn’t sure it was the best idea to show it off to people. He certainly needed no more land, but judging by the landscape spread out below, there might be individuals who’d want such excess for themselves. Though, they’d have to conquer a Power so good luck to them.
“Your Majesty,” Leon said, looking at one of the pedestals that lined the edge of the big marble platform. “A metal Source.”
Wright crossed over in a single bound. Metal Affinity Sources were vanishingly rare and, considering how much work he did, he had an appetite for them that outstripped supply by orders of magnitude. Only his full combat armor and his hammer had metal Sources integrated into them, since those were all the ones he’d been able to find, buy, or steal.
The Source resting in the slight depression was the size of an egg, which already made it twice as large as the largest one he’d seen. The polished silver sphere looked innocent enough, but he could feel his Skills reaching out to it. He stretched out a hand to pick it up but stopped as he felt someone simply appear behind him, whirling to see who it was.
A young fox-kin looked at him, completely ignoring the tension from his fourth-tier guards and affecting no concern for his own presence at all. She seemed to be second-tier, judging from the mana density he could feel, but there was something far more to her than just her level. Under the circumstances, and considering Andis' detailed description of Blue's lone servant, he was pretty certain he knew who she was.
“Emperor Wright,” she said, inclining her head. “I am the Voice of Blue, Shayma Ell. He welcomes you to the summit area and invites you to examine all the samples of what he can provide,” she added, gesturing around at the pedestals. “But I advise against sending your mana through any of these display Sources unless you wish to be suspected of trying to steal them.”
“Thank you for the information, Miss Ell,” he said, suppressing a grimace. It would have been an issue if he’d accidentally stolen something of Blue’s, so he was glad she’d interrupted him, but at the same time he really wanted to play with the Source. At least he’d been right about the fox-girl’s identity. “Would Blue be willing to sell such Sources by chance?”
“Everything on display here is something Blue can provide in quantity,” she replied, waving her hand to indicate all the pedestals scattered about. “Provided certain assurances can be met. Queen Iniri is handling most of Blue’s political interactions and she will inform you of the details.”
It was all Wright could do to keep from rubbing his hands together. Just having access to metal Sources alone was worth all kinds of trade concessions, and there were a lot of pedestals. He’d been ignoring them and focusing on the view, but the sheer variety of Affinities jangled at his senses. While Ir had a strong trade network and had no problem getting most things, much of what he wanted personally was not widely available. Even to the Emperor himself.
“I will contain myself until then,” Wright assured her dryly, and Shayma gave him a smile and another nod before vanishing and reappearing near the Orrelin delegation, who were coming through their own door. He shook his head, and shot Capito a look to keep him from exploding in indignation. An ordinary second-tier couldn’t get away with speaking to an Emperor like that, but Blue’s Voice absolutely would.
He began to tour the platforms, both the main one and the smaller ones that hung out over the rock face, examining the specimens on the pedestals. There were all the standard Affinity Sources, which was a good start, but there were more exotic ones besides metal for him and others to drool over, like Volcanic and Illusion. He’d have to bring home one of the Volcanics for Lucile. Their marriage was more political than anything, but he still wanted to keep her happy.
The other samples were interesting, but not as intensely fascinating as the Sunmetal found in the palace, with a few exceptions. Two of the best finds were in vials, one holding a liquid metal called simply [Celestial Metal], and the other holding a sample from a metal Affinity pool. If metal Affinity sources were rare, metal Affinity pools were unheard of. He’d have to get those two, and some of the others would be worth getting enough to play with, such as the rot-Affinity steel. He had a nephew with a high-level [Chef] class who would really enjoy some cookware to aid in pickling and cheesemaking.
His fourth-tiers were attracted to other sample products, like Tendau not-so-subtly salivating over a chunk of kinetic citrine the size of his head. Garus held up a small vial of what seemed to be a bit of Affinity pool and sniffed at it, which Wright wouldn’t have done but Garus’ Class was a little bit strange to begin with. He probably knew what he was doing.
The Nivir and Orrelin contingents were rather more impressed with most of it than he was, but predictably didn’t really understand exactly how valuable some of the Sources or stranger combinations, like the metal-Affinity onyx, were. Haerlish was represented by the actual royal family, the king and his two sons, but they’d fortunately left The Hurricane at home. That one would have caused a diplomatic incident in ten minutes flat. So far as Kinul went, only Hanzell knew who they were. It was mostly just a big swamp, without even a proper mana spring, so he never really bothered to learn about it.
He did spot the [Theurge of the Purifying Flame] wandering about, which explained where Liril had gotten to for the past month or so instead of attending to his research in Ir, as well as a few people that were clearly not part of any of the countries involved. Some avian-looking types, who Wright realized must have been the same ones he’d seen at the towers near the canal entrance, and an ambulatory pile of rocks that looked more like a spirit than anything else but didn’t have the unnatural feel of a monster. He’d have to get Hanzell to catch him up on who they might be.
Once all the delegations had arrived, Queen Iniri’s steward got everyone’s attention, getting them to assemble away from the large dining table and providing extraordinarily comfortable chairs for those tired of standing around. The reason for that became clear as people started popping into existence and setting plates and platters on the sideboard, quickly loading it down with an impressive array of foods.
“Announcing, Her Royal Highness, [Queen of the Sheltering Radiance], Iniri Tarnil,” said the steward as Iniri stepped up to face the mostly-seated nobility, as if there were anyone who didn’t know who she was. Wright wasn’t intending to pay too much attention to the welcome speech, having heard and given them often enough, but Iniri had some Skill that grabbed his attention. That actually bothered him, since as far as he could tell it wasn’t really a compulsion, just something that echoed into magic itself. Mercifully it wasn’t a long speech, though part of him wished it had been longer so he could figure out the Skill.
“Announcing The Voice of Blue, [Noble Trickster] Shayma Ell.” Wright was rather more interested in what she had to say, considering that she was far more unusual than a queen.
“Welcome, everyone,” Shayma said, looking around at them. “As Iniri said, Blue is backing Tarnil, but for most people that doesn’t mean anything. That is why Blue has provided this summit site. Everything you see here is his, everything on display is something he can produce, and every bite of food was cooked by his people.” She waved out at the truly expansive view. “This is the Caldera. It is his territory, his realm, and it represents a fraction of what he can do.” She paused to let them take that all in.
“For the most part, any negotiations with Blue will be done through Tarnil, but he does have a personal gift for all of you for coming tonight.” Shayma didn’t make any gesture, but stone pushed itself up next to each person in the audience, making more than a few jump. Wright could tell she wasn’t using any Skills, and judging by Capito’s quiet apoplexy it was the same as with the arch, where it seemed like the rock decided to move by itself.
Little swirls of black popped atop each rock pole and a Source appeared. It was obviously matched to the person in question — Garus got nature, Tendau got kinetic, Capito got earth, Leon got glacial. Best of all, a metal Source appeared next to him, and he wasted no time in scooping it up. It wasn’t a surprise that Blue knew their Affinities – fourth- and fifth-tier abilities were difficult to obscure – but to know the Affinity of every single person in the crowd was quite the intelligence coup.
“These are Primal Sources,” Shayma told them. “They will bind to you, and nobody else can use them or take them from you if you do not wish it. Not only do they act as normal sources, but they will refine your Class and Skills as you use them.” Wright lifted his eyebrows, juggling the little silver sphere from one hand to the other and watching it shift color from normal steel to something darker and more burnished.
Blue, he decided, was his new favorite person.