“Blue wants to talk to you.”
The words sent a thrill of panic down her spine, even though she knew she had no reason for it. Blue was more than fair, even generous, despite Shayma completely surpassing them in power. Though they still went out together, along with One-Eye-Green, it was obvious Shayma barely needed them. She’d be better off finding other, more advanced people and heading on toward more mana-dense areas.
Then again, Shayma had told her that she got the most experience from things other than combat. It was true that none of them were completely dedicated combat classes; Keri got more from healing, and had gained two levels recently as they’d run themselves ragged with the Chiuxatli refugees. Annit, on the other hand, had found great value in properly dismantling the strange stuff found in the Underneath.
She still felt at loose ends. The depletion didn’t help, as she was far weaker than she ever should have been, though the astounding benefits of the equipment Shayma had provided almost made up for it. Annit was starting to feel like she had stalled out, as most Classers did, and about at the same time, too. But Blue had come when Keri had stalled out, and delivered a miracle, so part of her thought that Blue might be doing so once again.
“Of course, but, what about?” She asked Shayma, already reaching for her surcoat.
“He’s been working on your depletion issue,” Shayma replied. “It is incredibly complex, but he’s ready to take the first step and see if he can at least shield you from any additional depletion, even if he can’t cure you quite yet.”
“I would be deeply grateful,” she admitted. “It sounds maybe a little redundant, though, considering that depletion is impossible within Blue’s reach…?” Even as she said it, she realized what Blue might have in mind.
“Yes,” Shayma said, nodding at the implied question. “We need to travel. To Nivir. House Anell is going to have one of the Ell Void Agents do something there. We’re not sure what yet, but we need to stop it, whatever it is.”
Annit winced. She knew enough to see that meant someone targeting one of Keri’s extended family, directly or indirectly. While Annit didn’t have much love for most of the Esox, they were still Keri’s family and they certainly didn’t do anything to deserve being targeted. The fact that it was Shayma’s extended family doing the targeting just made it worse.
“Have you told Keri yet?”
“No, I thought it might be better if you broke it to her,” Shayma said, then shrugged. “Also, she fell asleep on the porch, and I didn’t want to disturb her.”
“She’s been working hard, but she’ll want to be up to hear this,” Annit said, standing up and heading out to the porch. As Shayma said, Keri had fallen asleep with a book on her lap, head lolling to one side in a completely undignified but undeniably adorable pose. Annit reached out to put her hands on Keri’s shoulders, leaning down to murmur in her ear. “Time to wake up.”
“Hmm? Annie?” Keri stirred and blinked sleepily. “Did I miss someone?”
“No, no, Shayma’s here. There are issues over in Nivir she needs us for.”
“Oh.” Keri yawned and sat more upright, blinking herself awake. “Give me a moment.” She waved for the two of them to join her on the porch seats and rubbed her eyes before looking at them. “What’s happening?”
“House Anell is targeting Nivir in order to punish them for dealing with Tarnil and Blue,” Shayma said bluntly. “They have a Void Agent – an assassin, probably – already there, but they haven’t sent any instructions yet. We need to get there first and find them.” Annit had to wonder exactly how Shayma knew that. Powers were mysterious, yes, but it was like Shayma had overheard House Anell business directly. Keri harbored no doubts at all, staring at Shayma for a moment, speechless, then shaking her head sharply.
“Did you communicate with Nivir yet? Either of my uncles?”
“Iniri already sent a messenger,” Shayma confirmed. “But the Void Agent is an Ell. They’re practically enslaved by House Anell, and I want to save this one if I can.”
“Oh,” said Keri. “Oh. I don’t blame you! Yes, that’s tricky, because if they actually try to attack any of the nobility, let alone the Esox, well. Even just planning it is a capital crime.”
“Exactly,” Shayma agreed. “So we all need to go. I’m pretty certain I can deal with the Ell, but I need you and Annit to deal with your family and calm any bruised egos from me just going into Nivir.”
“I’ll start packing immediately,” Keri said, starting to rise, but a look at Annit’s expression stopped her. “What is it?”
“Blue wants to try and help Annit with some with her depletion issues,” Shayma said. “He’s not certain precisely how effective it will be, but it’s going to require certain agreements.”
“What kind of agreements?” Annit asked, instantly wary.
“Actually, it’s more like empowerment?” Shayma leaned forward earnestly. “Blue knows that your first loyalty is always going to be to Keri, which is exactly what he wants to back. Keri can’t be tied to Blue, not without abandoning Nivir entirely, but we’re pretty sure she’s on Blue’s side anyway.” She winked at Keri.
“He’s been pretty good to us!” Keri admitted.
“So, we want you to safeguard Keri with Blue’s authority, as well as your own. Make an agreement to take on the mantle of Blue’s agent for keeping Keri completely safe and free, no matter who or what tries to coerce her.
“That’s…” Annit took a moment to consider it, then a few more. “That’s a little twisty. I’m not completely sure what Blue gets out of it?” She made the last a question, since it was obvious that Blue and Shayma, at least, didn’t intend it as a gift.
“Blue gets to find out exactly how to deal with souls and depletion, for one,” Shayma said. “He’s not going to do anything that would risk hurting you, but he’s going to have to keep studying you. There’s also Keri’s future; pragmatically, he would like having a healer he can call on, and having a fourth-tier healer that publicly has good relations with Blue helps too. But that won’t happen if she goes to Nivir and gets bogged down with family.” She looked apologetically at Keri. “No offense, Keri. I would find it hard to object if my parents wanted me to do anything.”
“No, it would be nice to have someone to keep them from hounding me.” Keri looked thoughtful. “Which Annie did a bit anyway, but it’s not like she really had standing.”
“What would being Blue’s agent for that actually entail?” Annit asked curiously. She could see, vaguely, how it might be a trade, and after all they’d been through she trusted the fox-girl. Shayma wouldn’t suggest anything that might hurt her. But Blue was still a Power, as the casual absorption of the entire Chiuxatli race showed. There was no such thing as too careful.
“You would represent Blue in all things regarding Keri, irrevocably. Obviously you wouldn’t be a Companion, like me, but you would still receive certain benefits.”
“Like depletion resistance.”
“Blue would like to be able to perform Affinity infusions as well as depletion operations without a breeding station,” Shayma admitted. “You’re really his best bet for learning that.”
“I suppose,” Annit said after a moment, “that there’s really no reason I shouldn’t.“
“That’s what Blue was hoping,” Shayma admitted. “The agreement will bind you as much to Keri as to himself. But you’ll have to commit to being loyal to Keri first, Blue second, and no one else. Ever.”
Annit sucked air through her teeth and considered that. Not that she had ever considered leaving Keri, but making things so permanent and unyielding was intimidating. Yet, she knew she was going to do it. All she really needed to do was trust that Blue wouldn’t try and put her at odds with Keri. She looked at Keri and found only support in her bright eyes, so Annit turned to Shayma and nodded.
“I agree,” she said at last. “What do I need to do?”
“Great!” Shayma said, and plucked something out of the air. It was a lump of blue stone as large as an egg, with silver and gold threaded inside it. The way the threads bent and twisted hurt her eyes, as if they were contorted in a way no mortal should see. Yet something about it called to her, almost hypnotically, while another part of her shuddered away.
“This is your soul structure rendered in Aurum and Argentum,” Shayma said, handing to Annit. She stared at it, feeling its unnatural warmth in her hands and feeling as if she were looking at her own beating heart. “If you could run your Skills through it,” Shayma prompted. “Blue wants it to bind properly before you give any oaths.”
Annit obeyed, silently reaching into the item, one that probably was worth a dozen kingdoms. It seemed almost hungry, absorbing her Skills as she activated them one by one, then reaching out to touch her passives of its own accord. The winds whispered nothing at all about what she held in her hands, and she didn’t have much facility with mana sense, but she could still tell there was potential growing within her soul model.
Keri and Shayma watched her, the latter flickering her ears now and then, listening to whatever guidance Blue provided. Once she had put every Skill she had into the item, even straining her passive ones to try and get them to be recognized by it, the crystal surface flashed intensely hot and freezing cold, all at the same time, glowing right through her fingers with something that was neither mana nor light. Despite almost blinding her, it cast no shadows and neither Shayma nor Keri seemed to notice.
“I think it’s bound now,” she said, feeling it almost tremble in her hands, eager for something.
“Now your oaths.” Shayma paused again, listening to Blue. “First, loyalty to Keri and Blue, in that order.” Annit nodded and turned to Keri, still clutching the strange magic item.
“I do swear my irrevocable loyalty to you, Keri Esox,” Annit said and couldn’t stop her own smile when Keri blushed. “After you, my loyalty is to Blue and no other.” Shayma nodded, tilting her head as the soul model beat like a heart against her palms.
“One more oath,” she said. “That you recognize no authority aside from yourself, first, and Blue, second.” It seemed like an odd pledge to Annit, but it did make some sense. Though it meant that she could never count herself a true citizen of any realm but Blue’s.
“I do so swear that I recognize no authority other than myself, first and Blue, second.” The moment she finished the heartbeat seemed to stutter, then that odd not-light flashed and expanded into her. She could feel the connection between herself and the small soul model, but couldn’t even guess what it entailed. Shayma, on the other hand, broke into a big grin and waved her hand, creating a set of runes with one of her many Skills to identify the item.
Soul Prosthesis: Annit
Bound to bearer. Cannot be lost or stolen.
Grants immunity to Depletion while under Blue’s Authority.
Grows with bearer.
“It worked! Blue’s pretty happy,” Shayma confided, as if Annit weren’t completely stunned by yet another impossible thing created by the Power. She’d grown enough that depletion didn’t threaten to kill her outright, but it was still a wonderful thing to be absolutely protected.
“This is amazing. You can’t let people know you can just do this,” she said, speaking before she thought about it. Then she winced, both because it was obvious that the soul prosthesis would have be kept secret and because it was clear this was no simple feat even for Blue. “I’m sorry, I just mean— ” Shayma waved her apologies away.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I understand. If anything, you’re running a risk if people see that. They might try to take it. Which they can’t, of course, nor would it do anything for them if they could.”
“True.” She took a moment to consider the prosthesis in all its strangeness. “I guess I should just wear it under my clothes?”
“Probably for the best,” Shayma agreed, and pulled some metal wire and chain from her pocket space. A few deft twists secured the prosthesis inside a wire cage of surprising quality and Annit slipped the chain over her neck, tucking the new pendant under her shirt. It rested against her chest, a comforting warmth. She looked up just in time to brace herself for an attack hug by Keri.
“Annie! Feeling better now?”
“I am,” she admitted. “It’s not a cure but knowing that I won’t lose anything else helps.” It wasn’t too likely that she’d run into enough depletion to kill her under normal circumstances, but after the eruption of blight beasts and the arrival of the Chiuxatli it was obvious that things were getting worse.
“Great!” Keri said, looking at Shayma while still hanging onto Annit. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as you’re ready,” Shayma told them. “I’ll be taking us there through [Wake of the Phantasmal], but since we’ll be visiting semi-officially feel free to take any luggage you need. I can handle it.”
“I didn’t think I’d be visiting so soon,” Keri muttered. “Give us, say, an hour?” She looked at Annit.
“About that,” Annit nodded. It wasn’t like they needed weeks’ worth of supplies for travel. Just enough for a few days in Nivir.
“Great!” Shayma beamed. “It’s great we can do this so fast. Hopefully we can stay ahead of Anell.”