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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

2/2

“Miss Shayma!?”

Shayma opened her eyes, not exactly confused but still not expecting to find herself reclining against the base of the Tree of Eschaton, looking out on the Village. She was naked, but a flicker of thought fixed that, her usual clothing condensing about her form as she focused on the face of young Suna, who was standing nearby and gaping. For some reason the girl was taller than Shayma had remembered, her hair far longer.

“Yes, Suna?” She rose to her feet, feeling light and springy, perhaps even a little bit like she was floating. It was the feeling from getting a new physical Skill, though that couldn’t possibly be the case. Or maybe it could be. Shayma felt exceedingly calm, but also a little bit off, like she had forgotten to do something important.

“But, um.” Suna tentatively leaned forward to poke Shayma’s arm. “Are you real?”

“I feel pretty real!” Shayma said cheerfully, poking Suna back.

“But you died!” Suna protested.

“Did I?” Shayma recalled the fight with Taeli, the pervasive agony of void mana, but that was not the end. She remembered drifting, hearing people talk from a far distance: Iniri and Ansae and Taelah. Her mind still felt exceedingly clear, almost detached from what she knew should be a disconcerting development. “Well, I’m back now.”

“Oh.” Suna considered this with the gravity of a seven-year old, then grabbed Shayma’s hand. “We gotta tell Missus Taelah!” Shayma let herself be towed along in Suna’s wake, looking around at the Village. It was only slightly different from what she remembered; the same buildings, looking maybe a touch more weathered, with a scattering of wooden benches on the common square.

“Missus Taelah! Missus Taelah!” Suna yelled out. Shayma could see Taelah’s brown hair and sunhat from across the central green, perfectly ordinary to look at yet somehow managing to stand out from the people she was talking to. “The sky told me to go look at the tree and I found Miss Shayma!”

“What?” Taelah turned around, startled, and stared. “What?” She actually ran toward them, putting one hand on her hat to keep it from flying off.

“Yes, it’s me,” she said, smiling down at her fellow Companion. Taelah looked at her a moment more and then pulled her into a tight hug, strong enough that it almost seemed like she’d tiered up in Shayma’s absence. Then she pulled away slightly, gripping Shayma’s hands and looking her in the eyes.

“How? When? Does Blue know?” Taelah demanded. Before Shayma could answer there was the sound of roaring water in her head and a sensation of Presence around them.

“Shayma!” Despite not having any actual volume, Blue’s voice was painfully loud. “You’re alive! But, I saw you die. How? Oh, who cares, you’re alive! Shayma’s alive, everyone!” Shayma laughed again, because nobody other than his Companions could hear Blue, but that didn’t much matter, because Blue began teleporting people in.

Her parents appeared mid-kiss, Iniri was dropped into the Caldera along with her desk and chair. Keri and Annit appeared side by side, the former clutching her staff and the latter a dishrag dripping with soapy water. One-Eye-Green stared around in confusion. Ansae arrived of her own accord, angling in from the sky at a rate that implied some Skill was being used. Blue even pulled in Liani, the former guard captain stopping mid-bellow to stare around at her new surroundings.

“Sienne! Giorn!” Taelah took control of the confused gathering immediately, getting everyone’s attention.

“Shayma?” Sienne gasped, and suddenly Shayma was engulfed in parental embrace, partly blocking off the exclamations of the others Blue had summoned.

“My baby girl! You’re alive!” It was incredibly awkward for everyone to be awed and overjoyed to see her, for her mother to cry and hold her close, when to Shayma it had just been like waking from a long nap.

“How long was I gone?” She asked after her father finally set her down again.

“A year and a day,” Blue told her. “It’s been terrible. I wasn’t able to focus on anything well, not even Taelah, which isn’t fair, but I couldn’t.” Blue continued to babble as Iniri approached and pulled her into a more restrained hug.

“I’m almost not surprised,” Iniri told her. “It’s good to have you back. Though how exactly did you come back? Not even the best healers can reverse death like that.”

“I’d like to know too,” Ansae rumbled, looming over everyone else as she landed. “Coming back to life is one extraordinary trick.”

“Ah, damn, that’s exactly it. That’s exactly how.” Blue suddenly became somewhat more coherent. “It’s the best trick, right? Tricksters have always been able to play fast and loose with death. That explains the huge amount of trickster experience that’s showing up on my overlay.”

“Blue thinks it’s a function of my Class,” she said, pausing to exchange more embraces with Keri and Annit. She could tell the two of them were both on the verge of third tier, nearly ready to break through. “But it might well be due to the Bargain, too. I’m sort of part of Blue, and he didn’t die.” Then it was One-Eye-Green’s turn to pick her up, the Scalemind somehow having gotten even taller while Shayma was away.

“Yay! Now that you’re back I have someone to ambassador with!” One-Eye-Green said, pointing a claw to herself. “I got an evolution and was sad you weren’t there for ambassador things but now you are here!”

“It’s good to see you too,” Shayma said with a smile.

“Oh yeah, you’ve got a lot to catch up on. And by the way, when you’re done there, the overlay claims you’re ready for some leveling up.”

“It can wait,” Shayma said, then paused. The sense of distance she had was starting to fade, and the idea that a whole year had passed had begun to sink in. “Wait a minute. Taelah! Iniri! Your kids!”

“Yes!” Taelah beamed. “Well, they’re napping now so we can’t bring a whole troupe of people in, but yes.” While Taelah had always been centered and steady, she now had an air of deep contentment that hadn’t been there before. It really suited her.

“Marin is back at the Palace with his nurses, since someone just brought me here unexpectedly.” Iniri just shook her head, smiling to show she wasn’t really upset with Blue. Iniri seemed more relaxed as well, perhaps not quite as transfigured by motherhood as Taelah had been, but some hidden stress eased.

“Still, I want to see them!” Shayma clapped her hands together, turning to address the crowd of people Blue had brought in. She did want to talk with everyone, but was feeling a little overwhelmed by the whole group clamoring after her. Especially since she didn’t feel like she had been gone. “Well, I’m back, so I really need to catch up. After I see the babies, maybe we should have a meeting or something?”

“Council meeting,” Blue suggested. “Between Taelah, Iniri, and Ansae, they can probably fill you in on anything I’ve forgotten.” There was a brief pause. “Honestly I haven’t been paying close attention this past year. There’s probably a lot of stuff I’ve forgotten or overlooked or just didn’t notice to begin with.”

“You’ll have to stop by the Ell estate afterward,” her mother said, recapturing her hand for a minute. “We’ve made a lot of changes since you sent everyone over here. Most of the Ells who had been deployed have arrived by now, too.”

“Oh!” Shayma checked [Quest], prodding the Skill and finding it satisfied. So far as it was concerned, she’d freed the Ells from House Anell. “That’s fantastic!”

“We’ll probably be there,” Annit added, glancing at Keri. The healer looked a little haggard, but still cheerful as she nodded.

“I’m so glad to see you alive, Shayma. I tried to heal you, but…” Keri lost some of the cheerful look and Shayma pulled her close again.

“It was a fourth-tier Skill that killed me, you don’t have anything to feel bad about.” The phrase sounded weird even as it left her lips, but Shayma had actually died. She reflexively went to touch [Promise], but found that the ring was no longer on her finger. Though that didn’t seem to impact the quality of her illusions, as her conjured clothes seemed to be just as real as she was.

It was just one of a long list of things she had to catch up on, and while [Promise] was important, babies were far more important. Despite Taelah’s protestations about the crowd, Iniri, Sienne, and Giorn still joined Shayma in Taelah’s cottage to see little Eva and Grant in all their sleepy, swaddled glory. While she held them she realized the [Dungeon Seed] she’d been gestating was no longer there, and it made her glad it was just that and not an actual infant.

However she’d gotten her new body, it wasn’t her old one, which was rather strange to think about. She felt like herself, but she’d felt like herself after the Bargain with Blue and that had been demonstrably untrue. Normal flesh and blood wouldn’t let Blue extend himself out from her. But she didn’t let herself dwell on it, instead following Iniri back to the Palace to see the even younger Marin. He was too little to show antlers but did have his chubby little kirin tail clutched between his fingers.

Of the people at the Palace, she got some stares and surprised looks, but most of them didn’t know her personally. There were a few exceptions. Tulk was effusive as ever, despite his new rank and regalia as a member of the Queensguard, and Cheya looked remarkably unruffled by her return.

“To be honest, I had my doubts you were really dead, considering who and what you are,” Cheya confided. “Next time, come back sooner!”

“There won’t be a next time,” Blue growled. He’d been alternating between complete silence and babble, but they hadn’t had a chance to properly talk in private yet. She was a little surprised Blue hadn’t swept her off yet, but she was also glad he hadn’t because she was still coming to terms with it herself. Indulging in tickling infants helped, but soon enough Iniri had to get back to work, at least until the council meeting.

“Reconvene in an hour?” Blue suggested. The moment he got agreement, she felt the pull of core recall as Blue teleported her away. She reappeared in her beach house, which looked much the same save for a faint air of neglect. Nothing visible, just an impression.

“When you died I kind of lost it,” Blue told her somberly. “It was awful. I love you and I missed you and I’m glad you’re back, and I’m never going to stand for that kind of risk again.”

“I love you too,” Shayma said, stepping over to the core crystal next to her bed and wrapping her arms around it, even if Blue couldn’t really feel it. She could feel how much her absence had hurt him, and the only physical option he had would twist the mood in a way neither of them were ready for. “For me it was just like a night of sleep, but I don’t want to hurt anyone that way either. I promise I won’t do that again.”

“No, I mean it. It won’t happen again, ever.” Blue’s tone was hard. “I’m not going to let threats to you just go anymore. I only lost you because I wasn’t careful enough, didn’t take things seriously enough. It was completely avoidable and you have no idea how long I’ve spent dwelling on what I could have done better.”

“Blue, I—” She stopped, not really certain what she should say. It was true enough that she hadn’t really expected things to escalate as they had, and she really hadn’t paid the true price of her mistake. It had hurt, yes, but she was here again whole and hale, without having suffered the loss that everyone else did.

“No arguments. And we’re going to start with getting you a proper weapon. Something on par with Iniri’s Regalia. Believe me, I’ve been considering things for a while.”

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t argue about that,” Shayma admitted. “But where’s [Promise]?”

“It broke when you died,” Blue said, voice wavering for a second. “I have ideas. More than I’ve had in a while. I tell you, I was kind of out of it the whole time you were gone.”

“Oh.” For some reason, that hit her. She’d been using [Promise] so heavily it was just a habit, and now it was gone. By habit her hand went to her ring finger, finding nothing there.

“Anyway, let’s get you leveled up before the meeting,” Blue said.

Shayma Ell reaches level 72.

Shayma Ell Class evolves to [Trickster Hero]. 2 trait points awarded.

[Blue Core’s Blessing] mutates: When in corporeal form, that form is a fully living organism, capable of everything an ordinary living being is.

[Mana Manipulation], [Phantom Form], [Pocket Space], [Form of Thought, Shape of Will], and [Domain of the Trickster] merge to form [Domain of the Hero]: As a spirit, you are your Domain. You may touch and manipulate things anywhere in your domain as if you were in physical contact with them. Within this Domain, reality is your plaything. Any corporeal form you choose, limited only by your knowledge of such forms, will be fully substantiated. You can create illusions with physical form, project dungeon weapons and abilities, and alter the apparent nature of people or things. Mana moves at your whim. Even when not in active use, your perception within this Domain is total. This domain extends into a small pocket dimension, which you may access directly or through a portal. Rank remains at 4.

[Wisdom] evolves to [Wisdom from Beyond Death]: From death, understanding. This skill provides an intuitive grasp of the mechanisms of the world and the mana within.

[One Last Trick]: The Trickster has a low opinion of mortality. Should your corporeal form die, you will revive at the Tree of Eschaton in a year and a day.

“Oh.” Shayma said again. “What?” She knew she was getting close to the fourth tier, but she wasn’t expecting to breach it just yet. It wasn’t exactly a normal tier-up, which usually evolved capped Skills, and maybe a new one, not the ridiculous convergence of Skills that she’d gotten. Almost everything had merged into her Domain, including herself. At the same time, most of the remaining Skills had been left as they were, and even the Domain felt like it hadn’t changed much in power, just scope. It hadn’t even advanced at all, so she still hadn’t reached anywhere near its full potential.

“Uh. That’s um. Different.”

“I know my species said spirit but it never felt like I really was. I guess now I am.” She reached into her Domain and simply dispersed, vanishing for a moment before reforming on the other side of the room. It was strange, but she really didn’t need an actual body though she definitely wanted one.

“Also holy moly, that Ability. I guess it means that the Tree and I are both involved in it, but still. Wow.”

“I guess that means I’m somewhat less killable than before,” Shayma said with a grin.

“Don’t be too sure,” Blue said, voice turning adamant again. “It’s just your corporeal form, which means the spirit you is still vulnerable. Whatever that person did to you before could still easily kill you, and in such a way that you wouldn’t come back. I’m not taking any chances.”

“That is true,” she said, feeling slightly less invulnerable. Still, it explained why she felt so different, so much sharper and clearer. The Bargain she’d made what seemed like ages ago had finally reached its full fruition.

“Let me teleport in some food and stuff for you while we wait. I don’t want to talk your ear off about too much that’s happened since honestly I know I haven’t been paying attention to everything, but — actually, do you even need to eat anymore? With being a spirit and all?”

“I could use a snack,” she admitted, focusing in on herself. She wasn’t all that peckish, but her stomach was obviously empty and the description for [Blue Core’s Blessing] said that her corporeal form was exactly like a normal living being. Fortunately. She would have missed eating and drinking and sleeping, not to mention enjoying herself with Blue on their nightly, and sometimes not so nightly, adventures.

“So it was just like one night for you?” Blue asked, summoning up a spread that was far too large for Shayma to eat by herself, and obviously filled with some of her favorites. There were even some of Miss Burnhade’s cookies, so she couldn’t resist taking one of those and biting into it before helping herself to some roasted Scalehoof. Blue had probably stolen it out of someone’s oven, but she couldn’t find it in herself to ask.

“Sort of. I vaguely remember hearing people talk and the impression of time passing, but it was mostly like a dream. Not a bad dream, just one of those vague ones that you can only remember bits of.”

As they chatted, Shayma realized Blue was, consciously or not, trying to make sure she was the Shayma he knew, and not some strange imposter. She didn’t blame him; she felt subtly out of place herself, with everyone having skipped forward a year and looking older and having done things she didn’t know anything about. At the same time, he seemed to be avoiding talking about what had actually happened over the past year, almost as if he was afraid to tell her. She almost, almost asked, but Blue still seemed oddly fragile so she didn’t want to push him.

Soon enough, though, the others arrived for the council meeting. Instead of using the chamber somewhere deep in the mountain that Blue had first put together for it, he created a gazebo on the beach and brought everyone over. The four of them settled in around a table, and Shayma glanced at them expectantly.

“The first thing,” Iniri began, “is that Port Anell is gone.”

“What?” She stared at Iniri.

“When you died, I [Starlanced] the Anells,” Blue told her. That was what he’d been withholding, and the thought made her feel a little bit sick. It was one thing to target the Anells, and justly so, but to wipe out an entire city?

“Actually, Blue let them off easily,” Ansae rumbled. “If it were me, I would have spent far more time and effort destroying the Anell family than Blue did.”

“But, you’re The Silver Woe,” Shayma protested. “It’s different for you.”

“No, it’s not,” Ansae disagreed, leaning back in her oversized chair and looking at Shayma. “Do you know why I’m known for scorched earth destruction? Because it works. The Anells tried to kill Iniri, your allies, and you. They did kill you, despite knowing what Blue was. That kind of attitude is a disease, and if you don’t cut it out, it will simply spread.”

“That seems a little cold,” Shayma said, though she had to admit she didn’t mourn the Anells at all.

“I’ve tried it the other way. You have to break their power and their will all at once, or they’ll just come back later. Do you have the stomach for hunting down and eradicating every Anell, publicly, until you’re completely sure nobody will come for you? Because if you do that, you’ll have to get them all.” Ansae shook her head. “No. They hurt Blue, Blue destroyed them. Now everyone knows the consequences.”

“Ansae and I have talked this over a dozen times or more since you died,” Blue added. “I wasn’t entirely happy with it either. But I’ll tell you this: I’d do it again before I let you die another time. Though I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Oh.” She still felt a little ill, but the idea of having to kill all the Anells herself made her even more uneasy. “But all those innocent people…”

“Yes,” Ansae agreed. “People who were contributing to the Anell’s power, were part of the Anell infrastructure, and giving them shield to hide behind. Make no mistake, if you are going to be willing to play the game you have to understand that there will be collateral. It’s very rare you find enemies that you can simply remove with no cost to anyone else. Even if Blue merely killed the Anell family in its entirety, the infighting over the power vacuum would kill as many.”

“It’s one of the uncomfortable things about the world stage,” Iniri said quietly. “That it’s nearly impossible to hold only those who are responsible to account.”

She didn’t like that. It didn’t seem to be good enough a reason, and yet it wasn’t entirely Blue’s fault or his first choice. Blue hadn’t started the feud, and the Ells were safe, so she put that aside to think over later. “Well, while I let that sink in, what else is going on?”

“Uilei-nktik set up an abechrai of Leviathans in the Caldera,” Taelah volunteered.

“I had to do some alterations and hollow out some areas outside the Caldera, but I’ve got them settled in,” Blue agreed. “There’s even a canal if they want to go to the Village.”

“The Chiuxatli finished the warding around the Caldera and have done a lot of work on the Fortress,” Ansae said. “The dragon area is quite nice.”

“I’ll give you a tour later,” Blue said. “Or see if Tlulipechua wants to.”

“The major thing is, after Tor Kot went back, they decided to use us to take care of their containment problems,” Iniri sighed.

“Wait, more blightbeasts?” Shayma flicked her ears, cocking her head at Iniri. “I thought they were trying to stop that from spreading.”

“From the glimpses I’ve seen, things are getting worse over there. They just don’t have enough cores to keep things contained. So they’re purposely letting blightbeasts out in my direction since I can handle them.” Blue sounded sour. “So many have come through that I actually got another level from them, but the land outside Tarnil is not in the best shape.”

“Blue set up a giant wall of Hungering Dark out in the ocean and going down into the Underneath,” Iniri added.

“I have got to see that,” Shayma said, a little bit staggered at the thought. Not that a wall to shield Tarnil was any greater a working than the Caldera itself, but the Caldera was self-contained. “But surely the blightbeasts aren’t just coming out in Tarnil.”

“No, and Iniri helped Wright set up a big [Sunmetal] perimeter around the Underneath access down in Ir because stuff keeps coming out of there, too.”

Shayma shook her head. It seemed like a year was all it took for things to take a turn for the worse. Of course, she already knew that the mage-kings had the ability to ruin anything they touched in very short order. It shouldn’t have been a surprise they were doing it again.

“So what are we going to do about it?” She addressed the question to them all, and Taelah and Iniri exchanged glances.

“We were talking over options with Blue…” Iniri said, but didn’t sound entirely certain about it.

“I know I haven’t really been all here lately,” Blue said. “I’m sorry. But now that Shayma’s back I’m ready to figure out something other than a holding action.”

“The question is, frankly, whether you have the power to force them to stop yet,” Ansae said. “And you don’t. Until you solve the problem of the devastation actually destroying their forces would unleash, your choices are limited.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Shayma frowned. Perhaps she was still overly energized from her recent resurrection, but just hearing about the problems made her want to go out and fix them.

“Just because we can’t attack them directly yet doesn’t mean we can’t address what they’re doing.” Iniri said. “Blue’s been expanding along the ocean floor and the Underneath, but the Fortress would let us go take care of trouble spots, maybe even alter the local geography.”

“And with you back, Blue will actually be able to talk to people properly,” Taelah said. “Iniri and I filled in how we could, but it just didn’t work as well.”

“Well, who do you need to talk to? I know Ir’s already on our side.”

“Orrelin, for one.” Iniri grimaced. “I’d almost rather let them deal with things on their own, but if they get infested they border Nivir and Kinul, and that would be a nightmare.” Shayma shared Iniri’s expression. What little she’d seen and heard from Orrelin didn’t fill her with any great cheer, but it did cut across the entire northern lobe.

“The Leviathans, too,” Taelah put in. “Uilei-nktik is polite enough, but some of them have been downright rude.”

“Oh, I’ll talk to them,” Shayma agreed, a little shocked that Blue hadn’t already corrected anyone who would dare to be rude to Taelah. He really had been out of it. “Though, without Promise, I can’t wield Blue’s Presence as well as I used to.”

“I’ve made some progress, but I’m still not as good at it as you are. Like I said, I’m going to try and replace Promise with something more suited to proper offense and defense.”

“It’s a good point,” Taelah said. “You’re the one dealing with all these people, you should have something that makes you invulnerable. Or close to it.”

“Oh, that reminds me!” Shayma said, and conjured up a Status rune to show off her new Skills and Abilities. “I actually tiered up and this happened.” She waved at [Domain of the Hero], which had the longest description of any Skill she’d seen. Taelah lifted her brows, and Iniri stared.

“That looks like what happened with my Skills,” Ansae observed. “Fourth tier is rather early for it, but often at high levels of power most Skills condense down into a very few that describe total control over some aspect or concept. Your body has always been an extension of Blue and you’ve always been a spirit, but now all that, along with your manipulation abilities, are of a single piece.”

“I’m more impressed by that ability!” Iniri shook her head.

“At least we know one thing the Tree of Eschaton does,” Taelah observed. “It always seemed a little smug to me, and now I know why.”

“I don’t think it would work for anyone else, though,” Shayma said. “I’m part of Blue and the Tree is part of Blue, and he seems to think it’s part of my Class to begin with.”

“Yeah, I feel like I should have known it was a possibility before. But it took so long, even if I had suspected...” Blue sighed. “Well, you’re back now.”

“I actually have never seen a Skill like that,” Ansae said. “Have you seen what happens when you transcribe it?”

“Oh jeez no, I completely forgot.” Blue said. “Haven’t had any need to try transcription in a long time. We’ll do it as soon as we finish the meeting.” Shayma laughed. Even if he was far more serious than he had been before, Blue was definitely still Blue.

“Well, what else has been going on while I was gone?”

Most of the rest of it was far less profound. Tarnil was finally self-sufficient again, producing enough of its own food and goods so there wasn’t starvation or shortages. The Village had sent a few teenagers off to Kinul, though Taelah was confident they’d be back. Two of the five dragon couples were expecting a clutch soon enough, and Shayma was quietly gleeful at the thought of dragon babies. Relations with Nivir had slowly improved, though Haerlish had some issues, considering their links to Leviathans. Apparently Blue’s abechrai made things, at the very least, complicated. The Ell compound was more her parent’s business, so she’d go there afterward to check in.

They parted after getting through the best gossip, exchanging another set of hugs with Iniri and Taelah, and even Ansae gave her a nod. Though she really wanted to go visit her parents and the other Ells, she walked back to the beach house, stepping into her bedroom to put her hand against Blue’s core again. The transcription triggered and she peeked in on his Status to see what it had turned into.

Skill and Ability Transcription beginning.

Transcribing Companion abilities:

Transcribing [One Last Trick]…upgrade to title [Sworn Protector]: When in grave danger, Companions gain a moment of perfect clarity, during which they may teleport to any core.

“Ooh, I like it. I’ve always been worried about missing something, especially after what happened to you.”

“I admit, that makes me feel better, too.” Blue’s core recall was useful, but it relied on his reactions and his paying attention, and wasn’t anywhere near infallible.

“Especially since you’re going to go visit people with void Affinity again. I admit, I’m twitchy.”

“It’ll be fine,” Shayma assured him. “Alright, time to go meet my extended family.”

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

To address some concerns, the happenings and aftereffects of the nuke and the lost year will unspool over time, rather than being infodumped all at once.  

 

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