Shayma wasn’t all that surprised that some mage-kings decided they could go against Blue. It wasn’t even entirely stupid, since there were limits to what she and Blue could do, and while she could easily take out one of them, dealing with four or five simultaneously might be too much. At the same time, neither of them were willing to just let it go. They’d have to deal with it, but caution was warranted.
If nothing else, it had massively slowed down the invasion. Blue cautioned that he didn’t know everything, but it seemed like a number of mage-kings had left of their own accord, while the remainder had clustered together in Port Hureot. So instead of having six or eight more cities to deal with, she only had one. She’d call that much a win, even if the one that was left was going to be tough.
“I doubt you can just walk up to it. Is there even a point in talking to them when they’re the ones that chose to stay?” Shayma figured Blue’s question was mostly rhetorical.
“I probably can walk up to it,” she disagreed. “But not as your Voice come to deliver judgement. We know it takes ages for them to take over cities with their cores, so they’ve probably just got troops and magic. All I need to do is be sneaky. I should be able to go in and figure out the lay of the land. At the very least figure out our targets.”
“Keep to maximum stealth. Don’t fight them, just Sungun them.” She thought Blue was maybe being a little overcautious, as she was confident in her own Skills. The mage-kings were like fifth-tiers, true, but outside of their dungeon territory they didn’t have any other advantages, and she could deal with fifth-tiers. Besides, she didn’t even need to have a body when she infiltrated.
Shayma circled out over the ocean as she drew near Port Hureot, considering that they’d expect her to arrive from the south, and changed to spirit form. She condensed herself down as she shot over the waves toward the city, limiting the sprawl of the magic that embodied her, but kept her senses alert just in case there was something that would notice her. It was unlikely, since as a spirit she didn’t have that much presence, but she could still trip wards designed to register magic. Mana-sight was a greater issue, but she could blend in by altering what her Domain looked like.
Being incorporeal was always odd. With no body there was no feeling of touch, no need to breathe, no sensation of hunger or thirst. Despite all that, it wasn’t as disturbing and alien as it probably should have been to move through the world without truly touching anything. For the most part, her altered species and her status as part of Blue were not really noticeable, no more than extra abilities and Skills, but something like an almost instinctive comfort with the non-physical form had to be from the Bargain.
Getting closer to Port Hureot, she saw that there were many, many airships moored all along the harbor and tied to belltowers or clocktowers. Partly because they had simply run out of room at the docks, the mage-king ships crowding out the normal trading vessels or pleasure craft that would be tied off at the harborage. She would bet the other half of the reason that the mage-king cluttered the city’s sky was as a reminder of the amount of power they wielded.
Though the ships didn’t carry nearly as many monsters as the war-cores had, by their joined forces the combined might of the mage-kings probably did reach one hundred thousand, though there was no way all of them would fit into the city. Indeed, as she passed some of the moored vessels and peeked inside, there were monsters packed into barracks type housing inside the massive troop ships. Though the exact setup was different than it would be for humans, given that the monsters in question were oversized scorpions with three tails, two of which had grasping claws instead of stingers.
Shayma drifted deeper into the city, floating right through brightly-painted walls as she circled in toward the city center where the mage-kings probably were. Port Hureot wasn’t completely shut down, despite the monster troops posted in the streets, but people went about their business with quiet, hurried steps and hunched shoulders. What little business there was.
She well knew the mood in the city, because she’d been there. Though she doubted many people realized how bad things were just yet. Tor Kot and Vok Nal had both provided food, terrible dungeon food, but food nonetheless, to make up for cutting the city off from the outside world. It didn’t seem like they were doing that for Port Hureot, so in just a few days people would start to starve.
Considering that the original purpose of the mage-kings was to siphon power and not kill people, Shayma was pretty sure that the remaining mage-kings didn’t have any real interest in their supposed duties. Forting up and killing people only served to gratify them and prove that they were more powerful than Blue, or at least more powerful than her. It wasn’t coincidence that they had waited until the Fortress was tied up in Nicehapoca to make a play for Einteril.
“We’re going to have to figure out a way to get these people out of here,” Shayma, temporarily reforming herself in an empty drawing-room. “No matter what we do, any conflict is going to wind up with most of them dead.”
“Some kind of evacuation? There’s no way we’d have time for that unless we shoved the entire city through a portal.”
“Then why don’t we?”
“Like we did with the palace. Just teleport the whole thing away from here.”
“Huh. That might actually work. But, I mean, there’s the mage-kings to worry about and I don’t want you to be in danger.”
“Sure, but if I can figure out where they’re holed up, we just exclude that from the teleport and bring everything else. We just don’t get near them and they won’t notice. I know you can expand really fast now.”
“Yeah and I don’t need to take over the whole city, I just need enough of a presence to set up the Field.” Blue sounded thoughtful. “The only problem might be if the mage-kings notice what we’re doing. Are you sure about this? I’ll have to be careful when I set up and try to do the teleport really fast once it’s ready.”
“Yeah I’m sure, between us it’ll be easy. I’ll go scout around and we’ll figure out the best way to do this.” She vanished back into spirit form and flowed along toward the city center, taking note of the landmarks along the way. Blue was right that he dared not get close enough to be obvious to the mage-kings, especially if that risked bumping into one of the red cores.
The ducal palace, or local equivalent, was off to one side of the actual center, where courthouses and trading headquarters jostled for space. Not surprisingly, that was where the mage-kings had gathered, to wait in the opulence to which they were accustomed. At least, so she assumed.
The telltale signs of depletion were stronger there, and hovering at the very edge of what she could sense, she counted seven total ward bubbles underneath the palace. They were spaced somewhat equidistantly, as far from each other as possible, but still within the confines of a heavy outer set of wards protecting the palace. Considering the way that depletion destroyed normal magical constructs, it was pretty obvious that the magical protections had been set in place by the mage-kings.
She circled around it, identifying landmarks and figuring out how close Blue could get without tripping something. Normal wards were no issue, given that Blue’s dungeon mana barely interacted with stuff like that, but mage-king wards were probably more sensitive. Or especially sensitive.
Once she had the area plotted out she sped through the rest of the city. While seven cores and seven mage-kings seemed about right for the numbers that they knew of, she didn’t want to take the chance that one of them had decided to set up somewhere else. Blue accidentally running into another core and going wild to convert it would give the whole game away.
There were plenty of monsters, but it seemed that there were no other mage-kings. On the other hand, the ducal palace was visibly reinforced, with a number of intensely magical items emplaced behind walls or encased in stone. The mage-kings had used their Skills to make the decorative defenses rather more formidable and shape stone to turn the courtyard into a hardened fortification.
If she were actually planning on attacking them personally, it would definitely make things difficult. Not so much for the damage they might do to her, but for the damage they’d do to everything else. Blue was right that she couldn’t let the mage-kings use people as hostages to keep her from taking action, but at the same time she wasn’t just going to ignore them. Ansae probably would have just flattened the whole city, but she didn’t want to be responsible for any more craters.
“Okay, I think I have it all fixed in my mind. Where do you want to stand?”
“Probably easiest to go underground,” Shayma said, and promptly punched through the ground in a back alley by simply making her armor as dense and heavy as possible. She went about thirty feet straight down and stopped, letting Blue reach out through her. The very first thing he did was shape her hole into a room with a comfortable chair for her to relax in while he performed his part of the task.
With her Domain she caught Blue’s [Burrowing Wyrms] emerging from portals and heading out under the city. They were still the only actual monsters he had, though she wouldn’t even call them such. They more like animate pieces of dungeon machinery, doing nothing more than boring holes and letting Blue expand easier. It felt a little odd just relaxing while things happened around her, but idea had been hers, so she had no grounds on which to complain.
Sometimes a Trickster just had to know when to let other people do the work.
She wasn’t completely carefree though. Shayma kept her Domain stretched out to make sure that nobody was tracking her down, as unlikely as that seemed. While Blue’s expansion beneath Port Hureot was of far grander scale, his mana was practically invisible and his ability to simply assimilate things meant that it didn’t disturb anything. On the other hand, she was fourth-tier and, even hiding things with her Domain, the sheer weight of her mana might have left some trail to follow.
That distant worry turned out to be unfounded. For the better part of an hour Blue dug tunnels beneath Port Hureot, starting with a large circle around the ducal palace, well outside the wards, and adding spokes radiating to the city outskirts. At the same time, Blue mentioned preparing an area for Hureot in the Caldera, though hopefully it wouldn’t be there long. Without the city, cleaning up the mage-kings would be far less fraught.
“Okay, here we go.” There was an immense outpouring of mana, a rushing of energy outward past what she could see, and suddenly all the streets and buildings above her vanished away. Shayma was disappointed she didn’t get to watch Blue stealing an entire city, but with all the monsters patrolling around she would have stood out, especially since she wouldn’t have been able to move. There weren’t any monsters anymore, though she was still pinned in place.
“Oh damn, they’re mad.” Blue sounded amused, then worried. “Uh, you might want to cut yourself free, they’re coming out with all the guns.”
“Are you sure?” Shayma stood up, eyeing where her feet were attached to the stone. She knew that it was not pleasant for Blue to have pieces of him separated, and even if it was only a thin web, a city-sized chunk had to hurt if she cut it off.
“Yeah, it’ll sting but I’d rather— ow!” She formed a blade from her [Chimaeric Neutronium] and swiped it under her feet, slicing away the connecting stone while he was still talking. “Okay, get out of there and I’ll hand you the Sungun!” The lingering remnants vanished almost instantly as she teleported upward, armor flowing back to cover her.
The difference was stark. The ducal palace stood in the middle of a huge expanse of bare stone and raw dirt, with a river flowing through it. Some of the harbor was still there, as well as the scattered outskirts of road and most of the airships, but otherwise it looked like the mage-kings had set up in the middle of nowhere.
As Blue had warned, the mage kings were out and they were not happy. Seven flying figures laden with magical items blurred toward her, and while she wasn’t exactly interested in standing and fighting, she did want a look at them. Four of them were oversized, what Shayma considered to be combat forms, holding similarly outsized weaponry, and three of them were probably support.
“Just leave!” Blue urged her.
“I just want to see what we’re up against,” she said, and just started to shift into dragon form when she saw one of the mage kings bring an odd-looking item to bear, a long tube with a red glint in it. The only reason she even noticed was the exaggerated care with which the mage-king handled it, because it was otherwise completely unremarkable. It didn’t even seem to be a weapon. There was no sensation of danger or even a noticeable delay before something she could barely see reached out and touched her. The pain was instant and intense and the world seemed to slow as she realized there was something terribly wrong.
Shayma triggered her own core recall and vanished from the coast of Einteril.
“What was that?” She patted herself down, finding that she was sore, but intact.
“Dammit, I told you!” Blue growled in her ear, sounding furious. “Are you okay? It took off a tenth of your health in like a second! Must have been a dungeonbane weapon, because I didn’t even see anything!”
“I barely even noticed it.” Shayma was actually a little shaken. She’d expected her armor to protect her from everything, at least long enough to figure out how to deal with it. A sobering reminder that even with her Artifact she was not invulnerable, not to the right weapon.
“Yeah, so we’re not going in close again. Or at all. It’s like we never learned anything. What if the people who wanted to talk to you had something like that? We’re just going to Sungun them and be done with it.”
“I…” Shayma stopped herself from disagreeing. She didn’t want to simply vaporize everything, not when they put themselves in the middle of cities, but it was obvious that there was no way that she could get close safely. The longer she let them go on, the more people would be affected. “I suppose so.”
“It sounds like they’re packing up to move to another city right now. I guess it’ll be almost a day before you can get back there?”
“Something like that.” Shayma frowned. In theory she could be far faster than that, but she wasn’t used to maneuvering deep in Phantasmal Space. She could get to the same continent in a couple hours, but anything more specific required a little more time and finesse.
“They’ll probably be entrenched elsewhere by then.”
Shayma gritted her teeth. If she’d been more careful, this wouldn’t have been an issue. She could have just sped off, or stayed invisible, or otherwise avoided the mage-kings and then hit them from afar. The Sungun absolutely had a longer range and more effect than whatever dungeonbane weapon they were hauling around.
Obviously, she hadn’t really learned anything.
“You’re right,” she said. “We won’t risk it. From now on, no choice and no chances for the mage-kings. Or anyone else like that. It just gives them more time to hurt other people.”
“Yeah. We might end up needing to give the Sungun time to recharge…” Blue’s tone turned thoughtful, and Shayma snorted. She didn’t think that even with all their enemies they’d be using the weapon to that extent.
“What about Port Hureot?” The dungeonbane weapon still smarted, despite her own robustness and Blue’s healing fields around the core located in her beach house. Hopefully she was going to be back to full health soon enough, but it would still take a bit of time.
“Inside the Caldera, monsters don’t stand a chance,” Blue said proudly. “I wiped them all out with [Hungering Dark] and [Greater Light]. Now, the people are a little confused and I had to raise a wall to keep them from wandering around, so maybe you should announce something.”
“Right. Teleport me there and I’ll set them straight.” She stretched and shifted the armor to look more like normal clothing before Blue moved her to just outside a giant rock wall. By the looks of things she hadn’t even gone that far, probably because some of the other parts of the Caldera were more extreme, especially with the dragons making their homes there.
Shayma hopped up on the wall and looked down at Port Hureot, finding the streets not much more crowded than before. But no monsters, of course, and some people, mostly human and human-kin, hurrying this way and that. A few of them glanced up at her as she appeared atop the wall, but no attacks came her way. The mage-kings had probably killed or subdued all the combat Classers when they’d invaded.
“People of Port Hureot, you are being held safe in Blue’s territory while the mage-kings are removed. Stay within the city and you will be returned intact once it is safe.” That got some mutters and yells, but she didn’t have time or inclination to debate with people. She teleported around the containment wall, making the same announcement at intervals. With the volume she was using, more than once was probably not really necessary, but Port Hureot was a large city.
By the time she finished, all the soreness was gone and she’d shaken off a lingering feeling of illness, so she slipped into Phantasmal Space to make her way back to Einteril. One of the subtle ways her fourth-tier body was improved was that she had far less need for sleep, or at least, she could go longer without feeling the strain. Her dad had told her a legend about how two fourth-tier kinetic users had once dueled for five days straight without halting, but she wasn’t quite there yet.
“They’ve headed north from Hureot,” Blue told her. “Or, I guess, where Hureot used to be. You’ll have to stop by when you’re done so I can put it back.” Shayma grinned at the idea of simply putting back an entire city. She did enjoy doing ridiculous things with Blue.
Still, it would have to wait until they’d taken care of the mage-kings. By taking the city and killing all the monsters within, they’d crippled the mage-king’s forces, but their cores and their sheer casting ability were still intact, so they had no trouble overpowering another city to bunker down in. A city that Blue could guide her to with his odd and sometimes inconstant scrying.
She crossed the ocean once again, finding it faster and easier now that she’d been that way once before. It was like her previous path blazed a trail for her to follow, something shorter and easier than blindly tromping through the grand wilderness of the Phantasmal Realm. Though it wasn’t like the Realm had beasts and barriers for her to contend with.
“You’d think that with their armies gone they’d decide to just go home,” Shayma observed as she flitted through the ethereal world of the Phantasmal Realm. “I know they don’t exactly need them personally, considering how powerful they are, but I can’t see any of the mage-kings personally supervising a city.”
“Well, the fact that they drove you off is considered good enough. It sounds like they’re quite aware that they didn’t kill you, but they’ve got an effective way to deal with you. Which would be true if we didn’t have a way to hit them from far away.”
“And the Fortress is on the other side of the world.” It still seemed unbelievable to her that they thought they could deal with her and Blue, but actually forcing her to retreat was probably quite a confidence booster. Even if she’d stolen a city right out from under them. They were probably taking steps to make sure that didn’t happen again, but she wasn’t going to approach things the same way.
“Yeah. In hindsight maybe you shouldn’t have showed off the Sungun before, but even forewarned I don’t think there’s much they can do about it. It’s a lot of gun.” Shayma snorted. Sometimes Blue’s phrasings got very strange, but she knew exactly what he meant. She arrived at the Bay of Stars once again, but didn’t land, instead turning north to retrace her steps. Then a thought occurred to her.
“Did Taelah take that fox home with her?”
“Yes. Yes she did.” Blue laughed. “She even joked about naming it Little Shayma.”
“You’re right. She’d find a better name.”
Shayma laughed. She still didn’t know why that particular fox had been so friendly, but her guess was that it had something to do with Blue being the arbiter for stellar Affinity and both her and Taelah being Blue’s Companions. Or maybe it was that both Shayma and Taelah were fairly powerful. A lot of magical beasts were single-minded about the concentrated mana that Classers represented, finding them irresistible and often attacking people despite massive level differences. But some were smarter, and foxes weren’t dumb to begin with.
When she made it back to Port Hureot, or where Port Hureot had been, there was nothing left of the ducal palace. It had been razed and melted, or so it seemed to her. Normally that would take a lot of effort, but one of the mage-kings had probably just done it in a fit of temper. It was weird to consider that she could do the same thing, if she threw a tantrum herself. Not that she would; her parents had raised her better than that.
From there she stayed mostly in the real world, winging along the coast in Chiuxatli form and keeping a sharp eye out for any other fliers or potential ambushes. In fact, she stayed out over the ocean rather than the landscape so she wouldn’t be running into anything hidden. Though she supposed it was possible to hide under the water, if very tedious to do so. From Hureot northward the only things she saw in the air were animals, mostly birds but there were some flying lizards. Actual lizards, not dragons, who didn’t appreciate the epithet. It wasn’t until she neared the next city up, Kairos, that she saw some airships and knew that her targets were there.
»I’m going to have to snoop again, at least to figure out where they are,« Shayma told Blue. »I admit we need to take them out as fast as possible, but I’m not going to raze the entire city to do it. «
“Be quick and be careful,” Blue responded. She could feel he almost wanted to add something else, but didn’t. Probably some further admonition, which she quite likely deserved for being careless the first time.
Once again she shifted to spirit form and carefully surveyed the city, flitting through the sprawl of Kairos to check where the mage-kings were. Despite having had less than a day to get situated, they had set up a way to counter their previous strategy by simply running ward lines across the city, centering on a big trading house. She couldn’t tell what exactly was inside because of the sheer wall of defensive wards, but she didn’t much care. As Blue had said, the Sungun was a lot of gun.
“I’d like to do this in a way that doesn’t destroy everything else,” Shayma said thoughtfully, forming her body again in a harborfront warehouse. “Oh, I have an idea.”
“Nothing that runs any risks,” Blue warned her.
“No, it’s just that I haven’t been using my own rune magic very much. Or not to much effect.” She went incorporeal again heading straight upward with her eye on the target. And up, and up. Spirit form wasn’t quite as fast as Chiuxatli form, so it took her a while, but eventually she got over a mile above the city, looking down at the tiny houses far below.
With [Abstract Mana Geometries] she created a small sight rune, to magnify the ground, and shifted herself to dragon form. Unlike before, she used her Domain to cloak herself, hiding the silver metal of her armor that she needed for stability when she fired the Sungun. The magic weapon itself appeared in her claws, and she created more runes in front of the beam.
She wasn’t sure how well they’d work, but she still poured a lot of mana into them, all with the purpose of narrowing and focusing the beam. There was some of that already in the gun, but she needed to melt just one building at a distance. It probably would have been impossible to aim for most, but Blue had provided the solution for that.
To keep her stable, a small platform of [Reified Manastone] let her stand in the air without using any magic at all. To let her aim, one of Blue’s lasers painted a bright spot of light on the ground. All she need to do was adjust the barrel until the target light was directly on top of the trade house, then trigger the weapon. The star inside flared and a column of blue-white plasma lanced downward. It was more than fire; raw destruction and mana etched into the air as she fought to keep the gun stable, the beam encompassing the entire trade house.
The front of the beam splattered against wards, making her wince as jets of ravening stellar mana vaporized chunks of nearby streets and offices, but even the mage-king’s defenses couldn’t last against such a terrible weapon. The beam suddenly punched through, sending out a blast of rock vapor and a fountain of molten material as it dug into the building and the ground beneath.
Shayma kept the gun trained on her target, the stellar wrath chewing deeper until she was absolutely certain that there was nothing left of the mage-kings and their cores. Then she turned it on the remaining floating airships, turning them to expanding vapor with quick shots of the Sungun, destroying them before the monsters had time to go berserk.
“Done,” Shayma said, and Blue took the Sungun back. She dived down toward the city, accelerating faster than she would have fallen, and landed at the edge of the molten crater she’d made. It seemed she’d overestimated how long she needed to keep the gun trained on the mage-king defenses because there was nothing there but a deep, glowing pit.
The surroundings hadn’t fared too well either, with wrecked buildings extending out at least a block in each direction, but it was far better than the devastation of Port Anell. She didn’t have much time to gawk, with the screams of enraged monsters starting to sound nearby, so she shifted to Chiuxatli form, given the narrowness of the streets, and went to take care of the monsters.
“I think I only got partial credit for that,” Blue complained. “No level-up yet even if that was seven cores at once. Though I guess it only reduces the requirements.”
Shayma only half listened as she rushed around shattering skulls and wiping away lesser monsters with [Hungering Dark]. The mage-kings had mostly put their troops along the ward-lines, rather than sprinkling them throughout the city, so there was no horrific large-scale massacre, especially since most everyone was hiding in their own buildings. Quite a few of those had their own protections, giving her time to mow through the low-level monsters.
They were all low-level. Between the huge chunk that Blue had taken and the ones that surely had been inside the trade house when she’d destroyed it, there didn’t seem to be any monsters above level thirty. Not that such weren’t dangerous to low-level and non-combat Classers, but they couldn’t summon the absolute carnage a fourth-tier monster could.
Part of her wondered if she would be more affected by the carnage that did happen if it weren’t for Tarnil’s war. She’d already seen what happened when the mage-kings arrived, already knew what they could and would do. No matter how much she hated the deaths, she knew that there was worse if she didn’t stop them.
Once the remaining Classers emerged from wherever they had been hiding, things went quickly. The now-mindless monsters fell, one after another, until there were abruptly none left to kill. A sort of silence fell over Kairos, the hush that came after a storm, and Shayma donned her wings to fly up again. She didn’t want to get involved in the aftermath, and she had another city that needed to be returned.
“I think the mage-kings will think twice about trying to expand again,” Blue said with satisfaction.
“They’d better. If they do, we get at them before they reach their targets,” Shayma said grimly.
“Agreed. I wonder if Uilei-nktik would help us keep an eye out for any movement. I can’t catch everything, but surely the Leviathans would notice.”
“And next time I’ll just use the Sungun from five miles out.” Shayma muttered, dropping down toward the blank area where Port Hureot used to be. “Tell me we can go after the mage-kings themselves soon.”
“Probably soon,” Blue agreed. “But we’re not there yet.”
Shayma dropped down into the rubble where the governor’s palace had been, settling in to wait as Blue reached back out to take control of enough land to teleport. It didn’t take nearly as long as last time, probably because Blue didn’t have to be as careful. Less than thirty minutes later, mana surged and the city appeared back in place. There was barely a shiver from the assorted buildings or a splash from the riverside docks as Blue set it back in place.
Once again she escaped before anyone could accost her, either to thank her or blame her. There was no way that she would stay for the inevitable chaos as people jockeyed for position in the wake of destruction. She’d already done her job. The invasion was over.