Day 100 – Iniri
Iniri was pleasantly surprised at how effective Shayma was at recruiting. Hiding in the cities had tainted her view of how much fire was in the bellies of common classers, given how tamed and obedient the inhabitants of those cities had become. Part of it was the ever-present suppression of Depletion, but part of it, she had feared, was simply that they didn’t have much loyalty to her.
Shayma’s work put that fear to rest with how frequently the circle on the floor in the town square would flash and people would come through. The farmers and crafters usually looked around, shrugged, and got straight to work. To them, it was simply a strangely shaped valley with a few magical benefits. Odd, but not amazing. The farmland supplied by Blue was rich, verdant, and had enough nature magics overlaid on it to boost the growth of crops by an incredible amount. They were already expecting their first harvest in another week.
The Classers that came through were a lot more impressed. They could tell immediately they were inside a dungeon by the feel of the mana, the smell of the air, the weight of stone above them. Even though it’d been a while since she’d been in one of the Great Dungeons, Iniri had noticed it the moment she’d gotten underground. It still made her a little twitchy.
But Blue had been entirely honorable. Even helpful. Most of the time it was no different from living in a normal town, aside from the tunnel to the surface and the teleportation circles and the fact that they couldn’t stray out of the area for fear of being targeted by Vok Nal’s scrying. But occasionally something odd would happen, like all the shuttered windows being replaced with glass ones in the span of half an hour. She could also ask Blue to do certain things, like relocate the teleportation circles. Combined with the lack of menace from the surroundings, and she could almost believe Blue was harmless.
“Your Highness.” Cheya appeared in her office, breaking into her brief mope and pulling her away from the window. “We’re missing an adventuring group. They seem to have vanished between the surface and the town.”
“They didn’t just wander off the warded area?” She frowned. It was a worry, though she didn’t know how big of one. Vok Nal might no longer be looking for them, or might have already found them and already decided what to do. But it wasn’t a risk worth taking, so they strictly warned the hunting parties and kept track of who went up and who came back.
“Terren saw them head back inside, but they aren’t in any of the habitats. Yurn did a quick fly-around to be certain.”
“Mm. Who are they?” She did have greater things to worry about, but none that she could address now. Once Shayma got to Wildwood and third- and fourth-tier classes came, if they came, she could start assembling something useful. For now, her most important job was keeping the slowly-growing community of refugees and volunteers busy.
“Party name is ‘Under the Dragon’s Eye.’” Iniri didn’t bother to suppress her snort. From that alone she knew they were some overly ambitious low-tier group, and Cheya’s listing of their party members confirmed it. None of them above level thirty, a [Blade Bulwark], an [Earth Invoker], a [Heartfire Protector], and an [Ice Assassin]. Not a terrible party composition, actually, and if it weren’t for their terrible name they’d probably be taken seriously.
“I take it that since you’re here you don’t have any leads or evidence of what happened to them?”
“I suspect the dungeon ate them, your Highness.” Cheya was blunt and didn’t turn a hair at accusing their host. Who was listening, or at least, could be listening. “The only real questions, to me, are why them and why now.”
“We’ll probably have to wait until Shayma comes back to find out,” Iniri sighed. “And hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else. If Blue decides he doesn’t have any interest in protecting us…” Then her mouth firmed. “Well, he’s been reasonable so far. I’d rather not court disaster by supposing he’s going to betray us.”
a dungeon,” Cheya suggested neutrally. Iniri looked at her with a raised brow, since there were several meanings to that, but her spymaster merely looked back impassively.
“For the moment he’s also our sanctuary so mark it, but leave it be for now. Unless they reappear again, of course.”
“Yes, your Highness.” Cheya inclined her head. “I have nothing else of import, but I expect that we will hear from Wildwood Retreat sometime today or tomorrow, if Shayma’s speed of travel remains true.”
“Do you think old Monat himself would come?” Iniri asked wistfully. She remembered seeing him at a festival when she was far younger, each punch and kick shaking the ground as he exhibited what a fourth-tier could do. The finale had destroyed the stadium set up for that purpose, shattering it into kindling for the evening’s bonfires.
“No.” Cheya didn’t hesitate. “Not at his age, and not with Wildwood still an active mana spring. The Retreat needs someone like him to guide it. But I expect he will send people who wouldn’t come otherwise. Fourth-tiers from other kingdoms, perhaps.”
just be fun to deal with later?” Iniri said, then scolded herself for being so negative. Another country ‘loaning’ their fourth-tiers to Iniri was akin to loaning an army and part of her feared that was a bill she couldn’t afford to pay. Tarnil was not what it once was. Even so, at least she’d be alive and
a kingdom to handle that political fallout if it ever came.
“I won’t turn them down. Any names spring to mind?”
“Liril. Tanner. The Hurricane.” Cheya shrugged. “Those are the only ones likely to be at Wildwood that owe Monat any favors.”
fourth-tiers? I’ll have to give Monat some sort of official commendation if he manages it.” Cheya’s ‘possible’ and ‘likely’ were closer to most people’s sure things, so it sounded like at least two were guaranteed and maybe even all three would come, in addition to her own Yamal Gen.
“Yes, your Highness.”
She hadn’t seen the Sovereign for three years, not since he’d held off Tor Kot’s elites while she escaped. From the news she’d been able to get she knew he had survived, which meant he had to be at Wildwood. Even a fourth-tier couldn’t wage a campaign against a mage-king with no support. “So do you think Yamal -”
“Sir Gen has arrived at the teleport circle,” Cheya interrupted smoothly.
Iniri eyed her. “You do that on purpose,” she accused Cheya, who didn’t even have the grace to smile. “Well, bring him here!” She instructed, rising herself. She wanted to go out to him, but retained just enough presence of mind to act like a proper ruler. Even if fourth-tiers were effectively upper nobility, they weren’t royalty.
That didn’t stop her from meeting him at the door, though, and by the time she made it down the stairs he was there. Despite the four-year difference, he looked exactly the same, down to the half-shaven scruff on his chin and crude hand-stitched embroidery on his cloak. He looked like a hard man, skin pulled tight against his bones, until he smiled and became boyish. “Your Majesty,” he greeted her as he stepped through the door, dropping to one knee and kissing her extended hand.
“Oh, get up, Yas! It’s wonderful to see you again.” She tugged at his hand and he stood, towering over her. Most people did, a consequence of kirin blood. At least in her family.
“I could say the same, my lady. I just wish it was under better circumstances.” He looked around the interior of the Blue-provided manse with interest, the sword on his back stirring uneasily in its sheath. “How deep
we, by the way? This feels like…twentieth floor or so?”
floors,” she said, beckoning him in. Cheya played maid, bringing meat and drink to the table. “We’re quite close to the surface…I think. Blue is fond of spatial workings so the distances are somewhat uncertain.”
a normal dungeon, then.” Yamal raised his eyebrows. “Hard to believe just from your writing. Oh, speaking of! Your little fox-girl gave me this.” He pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket. “Don’t I remember her from Invin?”
“Yes, you do,” Iniri said, some of her happiness at seeing Yamal fading at the reminder of that particular disaster. She took the paper and glanced it over, finding that Shayma’s writing was no better than before.
Sir Monat says that he intends to send Liril and The Hurricane through in a few days when they have properly prepared. There are also a number of third-tier groups who will be coming, but some of them are still out in the Wildwood Forest or the Tree itself, so it may be several weeks before they’ve all come through.
Wildwood is amazing, have you ever been here? I want to come back when this is all over. Also my parents were here recently, I hope I can find them and send them over! I’ve also made some new friends here, and they’ll be helping me level up while we wait. Though apparently I can’t actually level until I get back to Blue, I can still get the experience and he’ll tell me what I’m at when I get back. I’ll be level seven, right now.
As much as I like this place though, I’ll be glad to get back. I miss you guys.
Below it, even more hastily written, was a postscript.
Blue says that the missing group were trying to find and attack his Core. He has their corpses if you want them back.
He also says to tell Cheya she’s killed more people than he has.
She was smiling until she got to the postscript. The letter was pure Shayma, but that postscript was very…Blue. At least it solved a worrying mystery, assuming they believed the dungeon’s explanation. Which she did. That was exactly the sort of idiocy a group with such a pompous name would get up to.
She handed the paper back to Yamal. “I think we want those bodies back,” she said. “To verify their deaths if nothing else.”
Yamal glanced over the message and nodded. “I’m still more on the side of the adventurers here, but I suppose self-defense is reasonable. Where is -”
He stopped as part of the room began to reshape itself. She’d seen it often enough, but it was admittedly jarring. Mages didn’t so casually move floors and walls around, given how much focus and effort it took to keep everything from falling apart. The fact that Blue was moving stone and wood at the same time made the smooth and soundless manipulation even more impressive.
Then with four bubbles of black, a quartet of frozen corpses appeared in the stone bowl Blue had set into the side of the room. Iniri wasn’t particularly horrified. She’d seen worse before, though she was annoyed that he’d put corpses in her receiving room. But she was a little intimidated by how prompt the delivery had been, even knowing he could and did hear everything going on.
Yamal’s expression betrayed no surprise, but his sword vibrated softly as he took three quick paces over to the dead group. She followed at a more sedate pace, cold air pouring off of them and into the room, but fortunately not bearing any scent of decay.
It was bad enough having corpses in the front room. Having it smell like the dead would be intolerable.
“I have no idea what did this,” Yamal said in a tone of detached fascination. He prodded an outstretched arm, hard as a rock and covered in frost. She didn’t either. The bodies were shredded, but not by claws or teeth. It looked more like hundreds of knives, except that here and there were shards of rock embedded in the skin. She was still looking at the wounds when Yamal whistled, snapping his fingers.
Two swords leapt up like eager puppies, flying into his hands from the equipment strewn about the dead adventurers. “Look at this,” he said, demonstrating tiny grooves cut in the blades. “I have no idea what could have possibly made such precise cuts in Bilib Ivory. What sort of monsters does this Blue
“He claims to not have any,” Iniri said absently. Something about the face of one of them seemed familiar.
“Well I don’t think that’s true. There’s
horribly powerful down there.” He waved his hand floorward.
“I’m sure. He did drive off some of Vok Nal’s elites. I’ve never actually seen him in action, but the evidence says he’s dangerous. He’s on our side so don’t go provoking him,” she warned.
“A shame. I was looking forward to fighting something new.” He sighed theatrically. “Well, I suppose Vok’s minions will have to do. Are there any of those about?”
“Not at the moment. Blue’s got [Warding] up so they can’t find our precise location, either, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.” She waved it off. “Anyway, I want to get these people out of here before they start to defrost. You don’t by chance recognize any of them?”
“Fellow with the sword, a [Blade Bulwark], I’d bet, looks like a House Sarthi scion to me. You can always tell by that cleft chin.”
Iniri groaned, suddenly remembering the face herself. “He’s a Duke’s son, even. One of the ones that
caught in the invasion. I hope you realize how much of a pain he’s going to be once I get my cities back, Blue.” She didn’t feel bad for the man, young and foolish as he was. Going out of your way to provoke a Power was likely to get you and everyone around you killed or worse, and this young man could have gotten the entire agreement with Blue voided if he’d been marginally more competent. Or if Blue were more touchy.
“You keep talking to the air. That’s probably not a good habit,” Yamal said, amused, as Cheya arrived with some mid-level Classers in tow to take care of the bodies. Iniri wondered if she’d caught the message Blue had directed at her in the brief time Iniri had been holding the paper, then decided she had. She hadn’t asked to see it.
“Blue can hear us perfectly well. It’s just that he can only speak through Shayma. If he mostly ignores us, that’s just fine with me. Maybe it’s different at the fourth tier but I would rather not have the attention of a Power.”
“I wouldn’t either, but I think it’s too late for you. Since you keep talking to it,” Yamal pointed out, standing aside as the shredded, frozen corpses were carried out.
Iniri grimaced. She’d already decided in the back of her head she needed Blue, or at least what he could do for her. Not that she trusted him, not in the way she trusted Cheya or even Shayma. He’d not done anything to violate any agreements they had, though, implicit or otherwise. The way he’d dealt with the rogue adventuring group actually helped, since he hadn’t used it to try and leverage anything else from her. He’d treated it much like a fellow ruler would, though viewing him as one would be a mistake.
He didn’t have subjects, for one. She was pretty sure Shayma didn’t count.
“I really do need Shayma back here so I can start negotiations,” she admitted. “Even if we do manage to get the other two city-cubes and drive the mage-kings off, he’s still going to be sitting on my northern border.”
“You have something in mind a dungeon might want?” Yamal asked, handing the ivory blades to the last porter before the door closed, the chill finally ebbing out of the room. The corner Blue had set aside returned to normal, stone and wood flowing back into place like liquid.
“I’ve been thinking. But I’m not going to discuss here,” Iniri said wryly, pointing at the ceiling. Actually she couldn’t properly discuss it at all, for the things she wanted to keep from him. Not that she had much to bargain with at the moment, or many things to hide.
“Fair enough. Then, maybe you could enlighten me what role we fourth-tiers are going to play? We’re tough, but I couldn’t do
much against Tor Kot.”
“We’re not going after Tor Kot. Not at first. Vok Nal only controls one city, and not completely, not yet. With you and the rest of the Classers, we have a chance of taking it back. Then, all we need is the last city-cube and we’ll have the Adamant Fortress.
one, I expect we’ll need to get by subterfuge…which will be easier with the treasure vault in Meil.”
“Relatively straightforward, except for relying on an ancient legend.”
“It’s real enough, but the mana cost is staggering if the legends are to be believed. It could eat a mana spring if left out too long.” After the first real cube had surfaced, she’d scoured what sources she had for more information on the Adamant Fortress, and found some agreement on the fact that it consumed mana like nothing else. “I’m sure it can kill a mage-king, and I’m willing to pay the price for using it.”
“Well, at least it means I’ll get to fight some interesting stuff!” Yamil beamed, then sobered. “I’m glad you survived, Iniri. The mage-kings are unspeakably vile, and I hate what they’ve done to our kingdom. I would have purged them myself, but just their elites can match me.”
“That’s why I need an actual army,” she said. “And multiple fourth-tiers. And to attack a much softer target than Tor Kot. Blue is an impressive base of operations but he’s not connected to roads or rivers. We need a real city to operate from, not a dungeon. And…” She actually hesitated to mention it. Depletion wasn’t as big an issue for Classers away from the mage-kings. Someone like Yamal would probably have fewer than fifty points of it, despite all his levels. But it still existed and still ate stats and skill levels. “And Blue
cure Depletion. Make me immune to it, even. I’m hoping to do that before we start, so I’ll be able to stand up to them.”
She wasn’t a fourth-tier. Not many people made it to those rarefied heights, and getting to third tier alone had been an effort. But her Class gave her some of the most powerful defensive magics on record. If she could restore them to the level they had been at, even Tor Kot would find it difficult to break through her shields – so long as her mana lasted, anyway.
Yamal was actually speechless. “Wait, can I -”
“No.” She stopped him. “I’ve discussed it with Blue, through Shayma. It’s something he can only do through…breeding, and he was quite clear it was only open to females.”
“…ah.” Yamal looked at her, face going completely neutral. “You’re really considering it?”
“Yas,” she sighed. “How can I not? There is nothing,
that cures Depletion. I am
. I would spend the rest of my life as half of what I am. Except I don’t have to. It’s of more benefit than a political marriage, I can tell you that.”
“I suppose that makes sense, but…” He shook his head. “It’s hard to take.” One hand curled into a fist, tightening with an audible creak, and the sword at his back hummed slightly. “I guess I still think of you as little Ini.”
That surprised a laugh out of her. “I’m still little compared to you, but I haven’t been ‘Ini’ for years and years.” She patted his arm. “Don’t worry about me. So long as you keep me out of the hands of the mage-kings I can handle that. Power or not.”