Tor Kot seemed nervous. Everyone was at least a little bit uncomfortable, between Shayma blanketing the area with [Panopticon] and Tor Kot having two high-level mantis monsters stationed behind his chair. Wright was exuding fifth-tier emperor authority, and he had Tendau, one of his fourth-tiers, behind him. Iniri had a pair of her Queensguard as well, though they were outclassed by everyone else in the room.
Iniri and Shayma were clearly controlling their expressions so they didn’t look actually hostile when it came to Tor Kot, not to mention Miriam and Charlene. Wright frowned imperiously. But Tor Kot seemed to be genuinely strained, which didn’t really match the man that I remembered, when he came to blather at me in my audience chamber. Then again, he’d been at an advantage before. Now, he was clearly in the minority.
“Tor Kot, you are the one who asked for this meeting,” Wright began. “I’d like to be clear about who exactly you’re representing. I am told you’re not here on behalf of the mage-kings as a whole.” Tor Kot blinked.
“I am curious how you came by that information, but it is true. I represent a faction that is focused on ending, or at least permanently sealing, the threat of the depletion rift.” Despite the strain he was under, Tor Kot’s voice was calm and steady. Without ANATHEMA, he was far less annoying. I still didn’t like him, but I could at least appreciate he wasn’t intrinsically irritating.
“How does that lead to invading Tarnil?” Iniri asked, rather than demanded, keeping herself laudably calm. Calmer than I probably would have been. Tor Kot inclined his head to her.
“We have effectively reached the end of how much power we can gather from our own lands. Despite this, the effects of the rift continue to spread. I understand you found out that even a small breach in the suppression we maintain with our cores leads to disaster. Though until recently we haven’t had breaches.” Tor Kot was far blunter than I had imagined he would be, basically confirming all our suspicions.
“So you have to come slaughter my people—” Iniri clamped her jaw shut. “So you came to Tarnil to gather resources,” she said, after a moment. “Why have you come back? Surely you don’t think we will help you now.”
“I think you would be fools if you did not help me now.” Tor Kot said, eyes gleaming. “You have the chance to end everything that led to the invasion, which is surely more important than trying to punish us. From what I have been able to find out, Blue has the one thing I have been searching for all this time — a way of removing or blocking depletion.” He gestured around, indicating the mana Shayma was channeling to suffuse the area. “In fact, I can feel it even as I sit here. That is what I am hoping to get access to.”
“So that doesn’t surprise me, but there’s just so many problems with that. One, I can make those [Soul Prostheses] but Tor Kot doesn’t need one, since Controllers seem to be immune to depletion too. Two, Purification is just off the table. Three, everything else involves my presence directly, and I sure as hell am not going to go put myself in the middle of a bunch of mage-kings and hope we all just get along.”
Tor Kot was twisted, but he and his friends seemed at least marginally reasonable. The other mage-kings I’d seen were flat-out awful. They’d try and take me over for certain, assuming they didn’t deploy more corekillers. Shayma nodded and flicked her ears as she considered my brief rant before focusing on Tor Kot.
“Blue can protect individuals from depletion, it is true. But only individuals, which would do very little for you. For obvious reasons, he has very little interest in going to your lands to apply more direct methods.”
“I can understand that, but this is hardly a completely internal affair. We need anti-depletion tools not only for our own sakes, but to properly protect the rest of the world!” Tor Kot leaned forward over the table, which made his monsters stir uncomfortably. It was hard to judge body language but I was under the distinct impression Miriam and Charlene wanted to just drag Tor Kot away. “If we could get in closer, start eliminating the root of the problem instead of the symptoms—”
“You’re talking about protecting the world but you’re part of the problem!” Tor Kot couldn’t actually hear me, but I couldn’t help trying to argue with him. “If I’m going to come in and start taking care of things—"
“We’re not going to hand over the secrets of a Power.” Shayma cut us both off. “Or go and leave you and your fellow mage-kings at our backs. If and when Blue deals with the depletion rift, all your red cores will have to go, too.”
“That…” Tor Kot sighed and leaned back. “That is true enough. I am certain I could convince my faction to stand aside if Blue had that power, but not the rest of the Controllers.”
“We seem to be at somewhat of an impasse. You want Blue to come take care of your problem for you, but you can’t guarantee his safety. You haven’t even offered anything to begin with,” Iniri pointed out.
“There seemed to be little point in entering negotiations when I wasn’t yet certain Blue actually did have ways of removing depletion.” Tor Kot clasped his hand together. “But, it is a valid complaint. What is it that you might want for aiding us?”
“While I am not directly involved in these negotiations, I want to know how likely it is the mage-kings will launch another invasion,” Wright said. “Since it seems you’re actually after people and not something that we’re willing to trade.”
“Yeah, I want to know that too.” I didn’t actually see much value coming from the negotiations. Tor Kot wanted too much, and even if I could trust him I surely couldn’t trust the rest of the mage-kings. If things were as bad as he said, they would have to try something new to patch up their shortcomings.
“We are, technically, still at war,” Iniri pointed out. “It’s complicated by the fact that we have no actual diplomatic relations and you didn’t bother to actually declare, but we certainly haven’t come to any mutual agreements about hostilities ending.”
“I can’t speak for everyone on the Council, but I very much doubt there will be any additional incursions soon.” Tor Kot frowned. “We are, for the most part, an insular people, and there is a goodly amount of political jostling over the duties and obligations in containing the rift. It’s ultimately a losing proposition, which is why I reached outside for a solution, but it may take some time for them to come to the same conclusion.”
“That’s something, at least. But it’s not really even a concession. If you don’t have the ability to negotiate on behalf of the mage-kings, why are you here?” Shayma conveyed that almost word for word, and Tor Kot nodded.
“I don’t have the ability to negotiate for the Council as a whole, but I am not without resources. The only thing I wish to bargain for is the ability to eliminate or at least better curb depletion.” He paused as both Iniri and Shayma shifted at the term bargain, but when they didn’t say anything he continued. “In return, I can offer knowledge of my own. I expect you don’t need resources, but we have centuries of dungeon management.”
“Okay, that is something I’m actually interested in, but I wonder how much it will translate. I guess Tor Kot doesn’t really know I am a dungeon, or that I’m a Blue Core dungeon, does he? Do we even tell him?” Shayma looked at Iniri, the two of them obviously talking through [Companion Concord] before Shayma turned back to Tor Kot.
“That, at least, is a useful offer. Do you have records or manuals to offer us, or is this all word of mouth?”
“Oh, we have enough records to choke a—” He paused for a moment, glancing back at Miriam, and apparently thought better of what he was saying. “I brought a great deal of literature along, but I have a long experience with dungeons and I’m quite willing to answer any questions.”
“Actually I have a couple big ones. One is, how do they get new cores? If it’s [Spawn Core], what are the details? Two, is there anything aside from [Storage Crystals] and levels to raise maximum mana?” I didn’t even get to finish my last sentence before Shayma was relaying them. Though they were obvious enough questions.
“The first question is closely guarded information. Why, I’m not entirely certain, except maybe to keep foolish young Controllers from trying to go for that trait themselves. We only have a few, very old dungeon cores that have the trait to make new cores. Each one requires a level 100 monster as a host and an immense number of resources — crystals, metals, and mana. Then it, effectively, incubates for a year before the new core is revealed.”
“Okay well, that’s sure as hell not how mine is going to work. I guess I can extrapolate, though.” It made sense for a red core to have to use a monster as a sacrifice, but I’d taken a different path. If I had to guess, the resource costs and the time cost would be the same, but it would gestate inside a Companion like the Dungeon Seed did. It also gave me some scope for how valuable cores were to Tor Kot. Not irreplaceable, but still ridiculous.
“As to maximum mana, I don’t know anything offhand. I would have to consult the records, but we generally don’t have a need for a greater maximum beyond what a few storage crystals provides.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Dungeons generally are able to generate mana quickly enough that expenditures due to expansion or monster spawning don’t overly strain their ability.”
“That’s unhelpful, but maybe there’s something in the records. Bah.” I hadn’t held too much hope that Tor Kot would have an answer to the mana problem, but it was still a letdown. “What do you think we ought to tell him in return?” Shayma answered that by nodding at Iniri and clasping her hands together while she looked at Tor Kot.
“While those answers are not as helpful as we might have hoped, it’s worth telling you this. Red Cores spread depletion. But there are other types of cores, at least one of which can purge and purify it.”
“Really?” Tor Kot looked very interested at that. “All of ours start out red.” He considered a moment. “Well, red-ish. I suppose Blue transitioned away somehow.”
“I suspect I broke the red core in that cave where Tor Kot stashed me before I became me. Which might have been enough to revert me to neutral? I’m not sure. I don’t even know why or how I broke it instead of assimilating it.” There was another beat, as Shayma and Iniri communicated silently, then Shayma shook her head.
“Blue’s origins are mysterious, and we’re understandably wary of providing you with more exact information. It seems likely that he gained a different core type by actively opposing red cores, though how exactly you would go about that isn’t clear.” Shayma shrugged. “We’re wary of providing you with too much help, considering how powerful your cores are, and how powerful Blue is.”
“Understandable. Sad, but understandable.” Tor Kot tapped his fingers against the table. “Speaking of which, Blue is an actual, sapient dungeon core? A Power?”
“Yes. That is no secret, but before you ask, Blue has no interest in making a Bargain with you.”
“I suppose it was an obvious question.” Tor Kot smiled, but it only reached halfway. “I admit, I believe it’s been asked in the past, but no Power agreed to such a Bargain.” I had to wonder if Ansae had actually agreed, considering that she really did try to destroy the depletion source, and they just didn’t have records of it. Or maybe someone other than the mage-kings asked it of her. “It’s quite frustrating to see a solution for the depletion problem but not be able to grasp it.”
“We might have been more willing to share if you hadn’t invaded without so much as a word, and if the mage-kings were less monstrous in general.” Iniri said, and Tor Kot frowned.
“I am not particularly enamored of the solution we have, either,” he said. “I do what I can to mitigate the damage, as you know, since you saw Vok Nal’s city and you saw mine. But it is the solution we have and without something like Blue’s abilities we can only keep using it.”
“Blue’s abilities, as you put them, would cause absolute havoc in the wrong hands. If he could separate out the anti-depletion properties and peddle them about, he probably would.” Shayma sounded irritated, and I didn’t blame her. We were starting to go around in circles. It was true that the mage-kings needed my abilities to permanently clear depletion, but it was also true that they couldn’t be trusted.
“Bah, I don’t think there’s anything else we need to discuss.” Iniri held up a finger, and Shayma took the cue to cut her out of the wider conversation so she could say something to me.
“Actually, Blue, we might have the opportunity to get a foothold for later. Maybe we can set up an enclave somewhere for depletion purging for them, at a hefty cost. It might even be worth cores, to them. Since you can adjust your ANATHEMA it won’t even bother you. When the time comes, we’ll already have insight and a stepping stone to take care of them however we like.”
“Hm. If you think it’s a good idea, we can go for it.” I wasn’t completely convinced, but I liked her idea of using an enclave as a springboard for a later attack. The mage-kings absolutely weren’t an opponent that I was comfortable just stomping in on with no foreknowledge. Given Tor Kot’s attitude, he might even be willing to turn his coat when the time came for me to to properly take on depletion. Iniri nodded at Shayma, and the conversation resumed.
“While Blue is not interested in putting himself or his abilities in the hands of the mage-kings, it may be possible for you to still use them. We may be willing to create an enclave where depletion is purged so you can examine the effect, or use it for your own benefit, as you see fit. Of course, access would have to be restricted and it would be closer to Tarnil than your own archipelago, but you have more experience with depletion than we do. Perhaps you’ll see something we don’t.”
“Hm.” Tor Kot’s frown went away. “That may be acceptable. At the very least, it would provide a degree of insulation from the other factions on the Council. I rather doubt most of them would bother to leave Calest to investigate. Send their monsters, maybe, but not come themselves.” That was the first time I’d actually heard the name of the mage-king lands, which I’d just been calling the archipelago. It sure wasn’t labeled on the maps I’d seen in Tarnil.
“Yeah, well, if anyone arrives that isn’t anticipated I’ll probably just vaporize them.” I wasn’t particularly thrilled about letting any mage-kings in, but if they wanted to smuggle another dungeon-bane weapon in, they knew where I was. So far as targets went, I was pretty much impossible to miss.
“It will have to be a place where only the people we agree on can go,” Iniri said. “Anyone else, from any source, will not be welcome. It’s going to be strained enough without strangers blundering in.”
“Yes, I imagine so.” Tor Kot laughed suddenly. “It’s going to be fun to see the look on their faces when I tell them they aren’t invited. Well, some of them anyway. I suspect most of them won’t care.”
“Then at least we have something we can agree to,” Iniri said. “Let’s see if we can get some details taken care of. The major question is what you can pay for it, because one of the few things we do want is dungeon cores. But I suppose you can’t trade those?”
“That would be a great way to get in even more trouble.” Tor Kot said. “You have no idea how long it took me to get two cores that I could experiment with, and it was generally thought that no matter what they’d still be useful at the end of it. Trading one away so we’d never see it again…” He shook his head. “I don’t have that much political credit.”
“Unfortunate. Not unexpected, but cores are the only thing Blue would value highly.”
“We value them too!” Tor Kot shook his head. “It sounds from these questions that Blue can actually make use of extra cores, and I’m assuming not to establish new domains.”
“Huh, sounds like they don’t do multi-core dungeons. I guess it’s not like we can backtrack at this point, so we might as well ask what normally happens when two red dungeon cores meet.” Shayma relayed the question, and Tor Kot laced his fingers together.
“It’s avoided for the most part, but dungeon-to-dungeon combat is at least introduced to each mage-king. It’s one of the few ways to deal with a rogue core, should a Controller die or simply mismanage it enough to lose their connection. It usually ends up shattering the loser’s core from foreign mana intrusion, unless you’re good enough to pull your dungeon back.”
“Yeah that’s kind of what was going on the first time dungeon combat happened. I guess assimilation requires a more direct touch, or something.” The only core I’d gotten without Shayma’s touch I had dumped so much mana into that I’d actually destroyed everything attached. If nothing else, it confirmed to me that the mage-kings had no multi-core dungeons or, for the matter, specialized cores.
“That makes sense. Blue has preferred to remove his enemies at a distance, when at all possible, so he hasn’t needed to worry too much about mana intrusion.”
“That pillar of light?” Tor Kot speculated. “I wish I had access to whatever that was. I suppose it’s locked behind the same thing as depletion resistance.”
“Yeah, no, that’s a me thing. Better that he know that so nobody is tempted by a potential superweapon.”
“That is actually something specific to Blue. He is a Power, after all.” Shayma smiled. “You can’t expect an ordinary dungeon to match that.”
“I suppose I can’t,” Tor Kot conceded. “Though our own dungeons give us quite a lot of benefits.”
“Exactly what benefits? It’s never been quite clear to me.” Iniri lifted her eyebrows at the mage-king.
“Oh, I can’t reveal all our secrets,” Tor Kot said, shaking his head. “At least not for free. Once we have this enclave, perhaps we can discuss this further.”
“I suppose that’s fair enough,” Iniri said. “Why don’t we—” She was interrupted by the door opening, a liveried servant stepping into the room and bowing deferentially.
“My lord!” He swept a bow in Wright’s direction. “There is a problem, our guest has—” I stopped listening because of the great blaring alarm that was ANATHEMA triggering the moment he walked into Shayma’s Domain.
“He’s an Anell!” I hadn’t quite known whether the bias would work on deep cover agents, as this guy was name Ailon Jursk and wasn’t fox-kin. There wasn’t anything on my overlay that gave any hint as to his affiliation, but ANATHEMA sure as hell knew.
Iniri, Shayma, Wright, and their guards all vanished from the room, leaving Tor Kot alone with the startled servant. They’d never been there in the first place. They were seated in the next room, with Shayma’s Domain extended to its fullest and projecting both illusions and [Panopticon] somehow. They hadn’t been so foolish as to put themselves in harm’s way, that close to an enemy.
Tor Kot flinched back, his earlier nerves returning as Charlene and Miriam stepped forward to flank him, baring their scythes. Then Shayma teleported into the room, the full force of my Presence smashing out to flatten Ailon Jursk to the ground. All the wards went off, a deep ringing gong sounding out as magic and metal clattered, locking everyone in their own rooms.
That seemed to be too much for Tor Kot, who was hit by the fringes and sent reeling backward. His hand darted into the inner pocket of his suit and I caught a glimpse of something that looked like a scroll before Tor Kot crushed it. He reached out to grab Charlene and Miriam, and a massive surge of spatial mana carried him away. I didn’t have time to worry about that though, because Jursk wheezed feebly as Shayma approached him and his health started dropping rapidly.
“Ease up,” I forced myself to say. It went against the grain, but we wanted to capture the guy and not kill him. “You’re actually doing damage.”
“It’s not me,” Shayma said grimly, reaching down to grab the man and haul him through the Phantasmal Realm. She had to smash through the extant wards, but that was no problem as she simply pulled on my mana to bash her way through to where Keri and Annit were. Ward-plates in the walls fizzled and burned where she overloaded them in a straight line between the conference room and the suite.
“Keri!” The healer jumped as Shayma burst out of the air, dropping Ailon on the ground. “Heal him, he’s one of the Anell deep agents.” Keri blinked at Shayma’s command, then scrambled to obey, rushing over to the man’s side and accepting her staff from Annit. She started work on the dying man while Iniri was explaining things back in the warded box she shared with Wright.
“It’s definite; Blue isn’t wrong about these kinds of things.” Iniri told him. “Though considering that only their deep agents remain, there can’t be many left in Ir.”
“I thought we got all the agents though,” Wright growled. “How did he get through our screening process to begin with? Besides that, did Tor Kot actually disperse hostile magecraft over the grounds here? Or was that just a lie to set us against each other? Tor Kot is going to be furious even though we have to check things now.”
“Actually, Tor Kot is gone. He used a teleport charm, I guess an equivalent to the Companion recall thing.” Iniri cursed, which made Wright stare, and I agreed. “I think all the goings-on scared him off.” I hadn’t noticed that the Anell had accused Tor Kot of sabotage, thanks to ANATHEMA hyperfocus, but it made sense. Wright was right, they had to check. If House Anell really wanted to spark more conflict, they would have planted some kind of evidence.
Not that it mattered. The talks were absolutely ruined with Tor Kot gone. I hadn’t expected him to be as jumpy as he was, but then, he was rather far from his powerbase. Between the accusation, the wards going off, everyone vanishing, and Shayma’s liberal use of my Presence, it probably seemed like a fairly dire situation. Which was fair; even knowing the Anells had their eye on the meeting I would have believed that Tor Kot was guilty of some treachery. Especially if he was still under the target of my ANATHEMA.
“Shayma just let me know Tor Kot teleported back to his dungeon core, wherever it is,” Iniri told Wright as explanation for her outburst, whose scowl became even more thunderous than before. “I’m not sure if you have any way to contact him, but if you do we need to get a message as soon as may be.”
“He contacted me, but I’m sure there is something I can do. A magical construct, if nothing else.”
“If that’s the only way, we can use one of mine.” Iniri turned her palm upward and created a bird [Sunmetal] construct, pulling on my mana to summon the whole thing at once. “It’s stellar mana, so it shouldn’t be affected by Depletion.” I could tell Wright was focused on business because he didn’t evince any interest in the casual creation of the metal.
“How fast can it go?” Wright eyed the bird. “If it’s immune to depletion and sturdy enough to make the journey, we can combine our talents.”
“That would be welcome,” Iniri said, and Wright nodded decisively.
“We’ll go to my workshop here, as soon as the wards are lifted and we have the place swept.” Wright signaled Tendau, who nodded and used a wardstone to unlock the room they were in before starting to gather up other Classers. He popped back into the room a moment later.
“Tor Kot’s ship is leaving,” he reported. It made sense; he wouldn’t just abandon it along with the rest of his staff.
“Let it,” Wright ordered unhappily. “No need to compound the misunderstandings by trying to waylay it.”
Shayma was still supervising Ailon’s healing, sitting there in full Scythe-Sister form and looming over Keri and Annit. I wasn’t sure if it was poison or some strange mana thing, but Keri seemed to be able to keep ahead of it. Given that Shayma could probably yank stuff out of his head it was probably not necessary to keep him alive, but I was sure Wright would appreciate it.
“I’ll need an actual Scalemind for this,” Shayma said, shifting back after only a few minutes as a Scalemind. “There’s something weird going on with his mind that makes it hard to follow. It’s a lot harder when someone’s fighting you.”
“I’m surprised he has enough in him to fight,” Keri muttered from her position at his side. “This is some potent stuff.”
“I suspect it’s ingrained training. Maybe even something done by a mind Affinity type on their end. If they’ve put effort into truly deep agents they had to have had some way to pass a simple lie detection or the like.” In a magical world, I could see completely alternate personas and other such techniques being entirely possible. The soul would make it difficult to stuff one entire person inside another, but nothing in a Status said anything about ultimate loyalties.
“We should take him back to the Caldera,” Shayma said. “I suppose I’ll ask Wright first. I imagine he’ll want his people present as well.”
“Probably. May also want to apologize for burning out a chunk of his defense wards. It was for a good reason but I bet they’re expensive.” Shayma frowned, then laughed.
“I need to figure out a better way past wards than throwing a few thousand mana into them. It’s not exactly subtle.” She looked to Keri. “Will you two be fine with him?”
“Yes. I’ll make sure not to heal him too much, though I’m sure Annie can keep me out of trouble.”
“I surely can,” Annit said, waving Shayma off. “Go ahead and do your diplomacy stuff, we’ll hold things down here.”
Shayma went back through the hole she’d made in the warding, retracing her path to the separate villa where they’d been meeting Tor Kot. The interior had been unlocked by wardstone, but the exterior was still locked down as mages combed through the grounds for any potential trap. The guards jumped as she appeared in the main room, but Tendau waved them down and pointed her toward where Iniri and Wright had gone off to: a tiny forge room, where Wright was doing some detail work on Iniri’s bird.
“He’s alive, but he did his best to kill himself,” Shayma reported, though I was sure she’d already told Iniri through [Companion Concord]. “I know this is your turf, but I’d like to take him back to the Caldera and have some mind-magic experts look at him. Of course, I would invite you to send along whomever you wish, or even come yourself. Though be warned, the mind-magic experts are Blue’s monsters.”
“We do have our own interrogators,” Wright said without looking up from his work. “But I suppose it’s not really possible to have the same finesse as someone who has actual mental Affinity. When we’re finished with this messenger I would love to have Hanzell and his team attend.”
“Certainly.” Shayma agreed readily, looking on as Wright tapped at [Sunmetal] with a small enchanted pick. “Blue will prepare things.” Her words made me bestir myself. I didn’t much like making whole rooms, furniture and everything, in part because I didn’t feel I was creative enough to make the proper flourishes and in part because I didn’t want to. The Village and the Chiuxatli had put in their own work making their own furnishings, but I shouldn’t rely on them for this.
Fortunately, I had plenty of references now, and it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to set up a series of guest quarters on the very same mountain as the Ell rehabilitation complex. Plus some nice, remote interrogation cells with gold thread woven into [Adamant Stone] walls. Not something that would hold a fourth-tier probably, but Ailon was only level forty. Besides, he looked to be a water Affinity mage and probably lacked some of the weirder tricks for getting out of confinement.
I needn’t have rushed, though, since it took some time for everyone to be ready. Wright and Iniri finished the messenger bird and sent it off, the now thoroughly enchanted construct winging away at something upward of a hundred kilometers an hour. There was no real guarantee it’d make it there, or that Tor Kot would listen, but it was the best that could be done on short notice.
The mages clearing the villa complex did find some nasty runed plates buried around the meeting villa, though they wouldn’t have been any particular threat to either Iniri or Wright. They were obviously more complex than Ailon could have made himself, so there had to be a supplier somewhere, but that was the extent of the sabotage. Considering they didn’t have any depletion near them, it was pretty obvious they weren’t planted by Tor Kot.
The delay meant that there was time for someone to wrangle an extra car onto Wright’s train just for Ailon, though I wasn’t sure how I felt about them having a prison car that handy. From there, it was another few hours traveling to Invernir and acquiring Hanzell. Finally, though, everyone returned to the Caldera and Tarnil, and I immediately sent Shayma to see Tlulipechua. I needed to get my Fortress moving.