Ilbur, son of Hrask, was no warrior. The terror of being surrounded by the enemy, of being in their home, was in him like a paralyzing weight that lay over his heart, pushing down on every pulse. The thought of what his father had given to buy this one chance at freedom made his legs weak.
He was like a mouse in the city of a thousand cats. Of course he was scared.
Delving into the sewers had been half a choice - the shaman had told him to seek the Dungeon in low places - and half a necessity. There was nowhere else a free orc could hide. So down here he lived, with a filthy little nest hidden in an alcove, venturing out to scrape mushrooms from the walls. They grew everywhere here, blooming in great clusters and covering the tunnels in a thin fuzz of yellow lichen.
He was close. He believed it with all his heart.
But there was only so much courage in him, and he only ventured so far from his nest before scurrying back.
It was abandoning caution that got him into trouble.
Ilbur was farther from his nest than ever before when he heard the voices. Everything in his body told him to flee, but he inched closer, peeking around the turn of the tunnels.
Seven dwarves were making their way through the damp and gloom, their way lit by crystal lamps mounted on their helmets. Ilbur listened as they chattered, and heard the word ‘Dungeon’. His heart stopped. Instinct said to retreat, to go back to his hiding place, to avoid these strange and likely unfriendly people.
But they were looking for the Dungeon too.
After three days, Ilbur had no trail to follow, no ideas of what he might be searching for. The Dungeon was more a concept than a real thing for him. If he’d been told it had all been a fairytale, a made-up place to comfort young orcs who thought there was nothing out there for them but a life of slavery, Ilbur would have half-believed it.
So when he heard the word Dungeon, it was a spark of light to follow in the darkness. As the dwarves proceeded around a bend in the tunnels, Ilbur hurried to follow them, moving as carefully as he could along the little embankment to the side of the sewer’s flow to avoid splashing about noisily.
He came to the turn and…
Nothing. They were gone.
In disbelief, Ilbur hurried forward, and something cracked across the back of his head. Out of the shadows stepped the dwarves, one of them brandishing a cudgel and another pointing a crossbow at Ilbur’s skull.
“Runaway slave, looks like. Young too.” The one in the lead commented, nudging Ilbur with his boot as the boy lay on the ground, his head spinning. There were white stars of pain blotting his vision but even so, he could see there was no kindness in his captors eyes.
“My brother works up at the quarry, said there was a runaway. Big fight too. Bloody.” One of them had no nose. In the gloom, the open wounds of his nostrils were pits of shadow, his teeth yellow, his face like a bearded skull.
“We could return him. Could be a reward innit.”
“No. I’ve got a better idea. On your feet, boy. You’re going to help us a little, and then we’ll let you go.” The one with the crossbow gestured for him to stand up, and Ilbur did, albeit dizzily. The point of the crossbow bolt followed him as he swayed and stumbled.
But you know…
As much of his senses had been knocked out of him…
Ilbur didn’t believe for a second they would really let him go.
“Forward march, boyo.”
There was no option I wasn’t tempted by. Rat Queen related most to what Argent had been doing, organizing her little crew into a ring of thieves. Mongoose was promising, except for the line about being a foe of snakes, and would make her better able to stand up for herself in a fight.
But both of those were rather easily dismissed in light of the other two. Rat-Owl barely deserved a glance. No, the choice was whether Argent would be better served by the ability to walk in shadows and among humans, or dance in the moonlight.
Both choices hinted at magic, shadow and light, and my Dungeon lent itself to either. This would be the first time a minion naturally developed magic, and the possibilities excited me. Shadow magic, again, seemed the most directly useful to helping Argent carry out her current role amongst my minions. But moonlight magic, I didn’t even know what that would be.
Which wasn’t a reason to discount it. It was hard to judge an unknown, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to puzzle things out.
The Sun was associated with fortune, with luck and wealth. Moonlight, if the moon was the sun’s opposite, might be misfortune and loss. An interesting combination. On the other hand, the moon might have more to do with water, as it controlled the tides, or with illusions.
I decided to give up that line of thought as it wandered into pointless speculation.
No, maybe more telling was the fact that the Shadow Raccoon only had a chance at developing shadow magic, while the Moonlight Rat seemed guaranteed to learn it.
That alone was a major reason to select Moonlight. I could find other ways to obtain human proxies, but magic, magic was illusive. Only the Blessing of the Earthshaper had provided my minions with any access to it until now.
And more importantly, what did Argent want? Wrapped in her cocoon of amber light, her thoughts were dull and dreamy, her mind distant, but I sensed her ambitions. She wanted to claim the world above, to move unseen and hatch clever schemes. She wanted to win against all the clumsy things that were bigger and stronger than her, that thought they could ignore the vermin scurrying in their shadows.
She was a rat to her core.
I knew what to choose.
As light began to pour into the amber chrysalis, I poured my own Mana in, providing what I could to strengthen the blessing. I had long since given up trying to heal her leg- she wouldn’t allow it. But I could make her faster, stronger, smarter. In the moment of evolution there was no inner schema of complicated energy currents to interfere with my designs, and I could simply pour Mana in.
I reached out and consumed a single petal from the flower the Messenger had left me, using it to fuel Argent’s transformation.
With that done, my reserve exhausted, I left Argent for the time being, giving her time to be reshaped by the evolution. I had other work to do.
Namely, the forging of new shards. I picked a dull black jet for my first attempt, perfect for carrying the Attunement of Gloom. I poured Mana into the thirsty jewel and tried to press into it the shape of the runes from my own core, not knowing what they meant but more and more familiar with the rhythm in which they were used, the shape of the designs if not the meaning.
It was like a mimicking bird scavenging phrases of human speech, not knowing what they meant but knowing when they were used. Not for the first time, I wondered how much easier my life would have been if I’d accepted the offer to sell my soul for divine assistance.
By the time I’d finished - a miserable failure, leaving the jewel covered in wide cracks - I was about ready to offer my soul on a silver platter. I had to find a way to expand my knowledge, and soon. I even considered kidnapping a mage to tutor me.
I summoned a spider above, luring it down with thoughts of juicy toads and delicious fat prey. It seized the jewel and devoured it, and my senses were suddenly expanded into a new dimension, feeling a thousand subtle vibrations along the spider’s web. I felt the prickle of the wind against sensitive hairs and the thrumming struggles of trapped prey in the shadows.
I saw life through eight eyes at once.
I was surprised, too, how intelligent the Nacre-Spiders were. Perhaps it was simply an effect of how much Mana I had fed them, and how much they accumulated as apex predators within the gardens, but the lustrous pearl-armored creatures were shockingly close to human in intellect. They had dreams, although not dreams in images and sounds. Web-dreams, nightly imaginings of complex spinnings and beautiful patterns.
They had stories, tales they told to each other through plucking on strings, stories about the Spider Who Stole the Stars and the Spider Who Spun the Moon.
It was strange, like being plunged into a pool unexpectedly. Even I had no clue how deep the Dungeon I was creating ran. Even a Core couldn’t keep track of everything at once, and the spiders, with their quiet ways and hidden homes, had slipped past me.
I considered the mind I had just made contact with, and felt it considering me in turn.
It was possible I’d just found my Guardian.