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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

3/3

The Sungun worked as well as I could ever have hoped. There had been tests and even test-firings, but it wasn’t the same as watching the device actually scour a lowway clean of blightbeasts. The containment on the Firmament chassis meant that it could actually overcharge the sun with stellar Affinity, enough that the integrity of the [Contained Star] within wasn’t threatened even with how long Shayma had kept the trigger down. Admittedly, the mana had been pouring out for months.

I hadn’t originally intended for the Sungun to be a man-portable weapon, and it still really wasn’t, but Shayma’s armor changed things. It gave her both the protection and the sheer mass necessary to fire the thing, and the fact that she could see through her Domain meant she didn’t have to worry about burning out her eyes in order to aim. She also could use it better than I could, frankly, with the finesse that came with being able to interact with magical items properly and not through the mana equivalent of mechanical switches.

The lance of stellar plasma had done a fantastic job of purging the overcrowded lowway of everything from vermin to near-kaiju, but I hadn’t been expecting the side effect of all that stellar mana. It’d transmuted huge swaths of lowway walls, especially the glimstone, turning it into a star-speckled tunnel. If we were lucky that might actually deter future blightbeast traffic, but it wasn’t something to count on. I’d have to see about something more permanent before Shayma left.

It was a pretty messy battle that Shayma dropped into, but she cleaned it up extremely quickly. Most of the defenders were Leyn, but there were quite a few of the mobile geodes that were Stoneborn, some of which I wouldn’t have been able to tell from rubble without the overlay. Everyone was down on health and stamina and mana, but [Rejuvenation] went a long way toward fixing that. She had Keri’s [Primal Healing] available to her as well, but I wasn’t sure it was needed. It was an unfortunate fact of the battlefield that people who weren’t given medical attention quickly died quickly, so for the most part there were only people in adequate shape and corpses.

“Thank you, stranger,” said a Leyn the color of jade, approaching Shayma. The overlay said it was named Keleeheem Opal-Star, and it was a level 71 [Enduring Gemstone Battlecaller]. Not quite fourth-tier, but really close, and while it was about half depleted, half was pretty good under the circumstances. “May we know who you are?”

“I am Shayma Ell, Voice for the Power known as Blue,” Shayma said. “The blightbeasts are his business, and he is eradicating them where they can be found.” The glowing tunnel behind her put some serious emphasis on the word eradicating. I couldn’t read Leyn body language, but I was still pretty sure Keleeheem was impressed.

“Nillaren Diamond-Star informed us of the attack,” she continued. “I suspect that it has been effectively dealt with, but I am quite willing to stay for a short time to ensure there is nothing further that needs to be addressed.”

“Maybe see if they’re willing to open some kind of diplomatic contact? I’m sort of on their northern border. Or will be, when I dig deep enough.” The Chalcery Depths were eighty kilometers straight down, which absolutely demonstrated there was nothing approaching normal geology going on. “Though I have to avoid that Great Dungeon so maybe more like northeast. Either way, we aren’t all that far away in absolute terms.”

“I believe the masters of the city would be quite willing to grant you leave to stay as long as you like,” Keleeheem said. “We would not be so churlish as to turn away our savior.”

“Excellent,” Shayma said. “I would like to meet these masters, and offer some aid on the way. You seem to have had a rough time of it.”

“We have,” Keleeheem admitted, then hesitated. “I am not actually certain who is in charge of the city at the moment. I haven’t been back in days.”

“Nillaren did mention something about certain internal affairs, but under the circumstances I’m sure that is no longer as important as it once was.” Shayma raised her eyebrows at Keleeheen, who blinked its eyes at her.

“Yeahhh, I bet it actually made it worse. Not a problem we can ignore if we want to deal with them. I don’t think they’d be happy if we waltzed in and put someone in charge, but we’d better address it anyway, just to make sure it’s not an issue.” Before, I would have left well enough alone. Now, I wanted to make sure I pruned any small problems before they became large ones.

“Are you sure about that?” Shayma asked, masking herself from Keleeheem, who was explaining exactly what I had said in slightly more diplomatic terms.

“Oh yeah. If we’re going to deal with them at all, it has to be as a unified government. Else we’re going to see people trying to mislead and backstab us and I’m not going to stand for that. So either they get their act together or we leave them to their own devices.”

“That seems a little harsh,” Shayma said, her tail flicking as she considered. “Though you’re right that if they bring us into their infighting, that’s not going to go well for anyone. No destroying any more cities,” she warned.

“If they behave themselves, I won’t need to!” That failed to reassure her, though I really wasn’t planning on any significant mayhem. “Seriously, we’re going to either deal with someone reasonable, or walk away. We can be diplomatic, but at the end of the day there’s no need for us to do things on anything but our own terms.”

“That is true,” Shayma admitted, then returned her attention to Keleeheem. “If you haven’t gotten any clear information from the city masters, who has been in charge of the defense?” She gestured around at all the people who were, though worn out, not starving or dehydrated. There was even an obvious encampment deeper in, a defensible beachhead. Though how defensible it was when simply being near the blightbeasts caused issues was an open question.

“I have,” Keleeheem said. “I could not allow the city to be overrun.”

“A good attitude to have,” Shayma said, walking beside the Leyn as they headed back toward the second layer of defenses. Keleeheem drummed on the ground with one of its legs on occasion, sending distant Leyn running back toward the city or bringing them to fall in with the escort. In very short order they had a enough outriders to make a credible honor guard, and by the way they made a loose perimeter around the pair it was clear it was exactly that.

The entrance to Kallindakari was vertical, not horizontal. Instead of an enormous gate or a walled entrance, there was a huge four-way helical ramp that split off into a bunch of smaller vertical shafts. The entire thing seemed to be made of steel, and a big steel cap was raised above the entrance on toothed girders, making it obvious that it could be lowered down to block the city entrance.

The whole architecture was clearly not meant for humans. The Leyn more or less came up to Shayma’s waist, and the Stoneborn had some flexibility in the outer swirl of stone that served for their bodies, so ceilings were low and there were often sheer vertical drops that had only rings of notches for handholds. Shayma, of course, had no trouble, but any other surfacer would have had difficulties.

The view when they finally reached the city proper was well worth it, whether the way was difficult or not. Kallindakari was built into a cluster of seven enormous garnet crystals hanging from the roof of a cavern so large I couldn’t see the ends of it. Each of the crystals had been expertly carved into hanging terraces and interior rooms, with water and plants of all shades and colors present throughout. Between the crystals were occasional bridges and hanging platforms full of crops, dozens of layers deep, lit with glimstone and irrigated with water siphoned from an enormous deluge in the center of the cluster, dropping into the abyss below. The whole thing was large enough to house tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, and from the looks of things as Keleeheem led her downward, it did.

“Holy crap.” I gawked at it all, and Shayma privately did the same. Of course, we both had the advantage of being able to look all around at once, taking in the huge expanses of polished, landscaped gemstone.

“You have a remarkable city here,” Shayma said, which was quite the understatement. “I’m glad to see it remains intact.”

“Mostly intact,” Keleeheem said, with a gesture of its claw that I took to be resignation. “It may look fine to you as an outsider, but I can see all the things that have gone missing, either salvaged for fighting or taken by opportunists.” Shayma hummed thoughtfully at that, and I took another look with a different perspective. Past the impressive façade, I saw what Keleeheem meant. There were mounts for things that were no longer attached to walls, mismatched decorations, and other signs of neglect or sabotage. Things looked fairly clean, at least, but the upper levels might have seen more attention than others.

“I sent runners ahead,” Keleeheem told her, as Leyn and Stoneborn appeared from the various entrances. The honor guard kept them at bay, but there was still a lot of foot-drumming and an odd grinding noise from the Stoneborn. “Kallindakari should know it has been saved, and by whom. The highest caste will likely meet you in the address terrace. It would be a great insult if they did not come,” it added in a lower tone, and I gave it high marks for offering Shayma that warning.

Most of the Leyn seemed to be of the middle castes, what really I thought of as the normal ones. There were two distinct sizes, which I had thought was sexual dimorphism at first, but Iniri had corrected me on that. There were a few of the larger, worker types on the fringes, looming over everyone else, but it was mostly the other two castes. Which made the ruling castes easy to spot, since they were far wider and longer-legged than everyone else, though lacking the bulk of the lowest hauler caste.

They were raised to their full height as Shayma arrived, which put their eye level roughly at hers. There were two distinct groups, and both of them locked onto her as she crossed the floor of an open level, one with the detritus of makeshift dwellings. Clearly people had been sheltering there until quite recently.

“Voice Shayma,” one of the high-caste individuals started, only to be echoed by the other one a fraction of a moment later.

“Voice Shayma! We would like to⁠—”

We would like to thank you for⁠—”

“For your defense of our city—”

“Our city! We would be happy to offer you a suitable reward as soon as we have control of the city⁠—”

“Soon as we have control of the city!”

The near-argumentative words were accompanied by a significant amount of leg-drumming and a lot of very nasty looks. Considering their anatomy, the Leyn had no trouble eyeballing each other while still looking at Shayma. It was almost laughable, except that the pair were very obviously trying to recruit Shayma to take sides. Especially as the bickering escalated, and they got off-script by arguing with each other.

“This is a mess.” Having a power struggle at the same time as an invasion was bad luck, but it was also kind of stupid that it had gone on while the city was under attack.

“Are they like this all the time?” Shayma muttered to Keleeheem.

“They will be until one of them emerges as the top caste,” it murmured back. “Nobody has gotten beyond the fourth instar, so we are in a bit of a crisis.” Shayma nodded and frowned at the two camps of competing Leyn.

“I think we’re done here,” she decided. “If you’ll show me back to the lowway, I’ll check that there’s nothing left.”

“Of course, Voice Shayma,” Keleeheem said, rapping out orders with its legs. She turned to go, though the Leyn merely reversed direction, the honor guard keeping the lower caste camps of the would-be Leyn leaders at bay. They both shouted offers of properties and goods at her back, and it wasn’t clear they had any business offering them in the first place. They were all contingent.

“Please do not think too badly of them,” Keleeheem said softly. “They will likely have only this one chance to ascend. I know it makes it difficult for you, for everyone, but the city needs someone of the uppermost caste.”

“I understand that, but neither Blue nor I are going to try and navigate what’s going on.” Shayma told him. “This is merely one front among many.”

“I do not blame you. You have already accomplished what I could not.” Keleeheem didn’t sound particularly put out by that. “I only ask that you do not forget Kallindakari. Even with this invasion defeated, we have lost enough that we will be hard-pressed to maintain the territory we once did. Unlike some others, I have heard of Blue, and we would welcome a good neighbor to the north.”

“Hmm, what about him?” Shayma asked, masking herself again. “I mean, why don’t we just make him our official contact point or whatever. He’s obviously independent of the two higher-caste Leyn inside and he’s pretty reasonable.”

“Yeah, I like him.” I wasn’t sure Keleeheem was a him, but Shayma was better at judging those things than I was. “We’ll set him up with Iniri. Umm, I’ll see about some sort of messenger thing, hang on. Iniri, do you have any paired books or anything available? I want to put your people in touch with someone from an Underneath city. Iniri was actually holding court, so I had to wait for my answer, but that was fine.

“Goodness, you’re being proactive,” Iniri said with a smile. “Yes, I have a few. I’ll send one of my Queensguard to procure a half. They use my [Sunmetal], but hopefully that won’t be an issue.”

“Great! Thanks, Iniri!” I watched the Queensguard in question, who went down to the vaults and took a small rune-scribed metal sphere from a display case, carrying it over my tower in the Palace and putting it on a pedestal there. I grabbed it and handed it off to Shayma, who was on her way back up the giant staircase with Keleeheem.

“Keleeheem,” Shayma said, and he rocked his body slightly to look up at her. “You have been very courteous and helpful, so instead of worrying about the higher castes back there, we have decided to treat with you. I have a connection here to Iniri, as she deals with Blue’s diplomatic efforts, so you can keep in touch.” She held out the communications orb, but Keleeheem didn’t take it.

“Blue is recognizing me over either Yesamin or Grenassil?” Keleeheem said in a careful, strained tone.

“Well, yes,” Shayma said, then stopped as he shuddered and crouched down. Mana suddenly flared inside him, flowing through his body, and underneath the uniform he wore cracks appeared in his carapace.

“What—” Shayma began, but one of the honor guard scurried closer.

“Please, do not touch!” The Leyn said in an undertone. “He is ascending an instar!”

“Uh. Did we do that to him?”

“I think so,” Shayma said quietly, watching Keleeheem. The mana was cycling furiously, the outer carapace shredding like paper. A few of the other honor guard sprang forward to loosen the straps on the uniform, where it cinched the hide and cloth tight, and Keleeheem suddenly rose upward. Fragments of jade-green carapace scattered outward, dropping to the floor from a suddenly rather larger and longer-legged version of the Leyn. His name even changed, from Keleeheem Opal-Star to Keleeheem Opal-Summit.

He blinked his eyes open, fastening them on Shayma, now that he was at eye level with her. In fact, he might have been slightly taller, and his big gripping claw had turned into a long, articulated limb that looked even more dexterous than their normal ones. Keleeheem took in a long breath and let it out again, before shaking himself.

“You launched me ahead two instars,” he said, a little wonderingly. “The attention of a Power is quite something.” One of the nearby Leyn rattled something with a leg and Keleeheem rocked from side to side. “Speak aloud, for Voice Shayma is a friend,” he said. “Yes, I may have been on the verge of the fourth instar after that battle, but I was not there, and I would not cross over until the leadership crisis passed. Now, I have.”

“It’s a good thing, then?” Shayma asked, still a little unsure.

“Yes. It means now the city will answer to me.” Keleeheem dipped his carapace to Shayma. “You have entrusted me with this power, and I will not betray that trust.” He reached out to gently take the divination ball from Shayma’s hands, holding it in his new manipulator hand. “I suspect you are not enticed by promises of wealth or power, but perhaps instead I could offer you a strong and friendly port in the Underneath.”

“Oh, he’s good.” Shayma nodded agreement.

“Blue find those terms agreeable. He has no desire to get involved in local issues, but would appreciate being informed about existential threats like the blightbeasts.”

“Excellent. I will take command of Kallindakari. Do you wish to come with me, or would you prefer to ensure the threat is completely dealt with? I will send an escort with you that is familiar with the surroundings.”

“I’ll go scour the area for any remaining blightbeasts,” Shayma said. I didn’t even have to prompt her. Obviously we both had the thought that it was better not to get involved in a Leyn matter, especially when we really didn’t understand how their caste system worked. “I am immune to depletion, so I am the only one who should engage them closely.”

“That certainly does simplify matters,” Keleeheem said in good humor. He sent a signal with the leg drumming, and a pair of middle-caste Leyn trotted over. “Inirik and Ynsentil will show you around, and I will look forward to your return.” He bobbed another bow to her, and waited for her to head upward before he started back down, gathering a tide of lower-caste Leyn as he went.

“So, did we just start a military coup?” I asked.

“I think we did,” Shayma agreed.

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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