Archmage Valeterisa no longer dreamed. She no longer slept. She was beyond all of that.
Or rather, part of her was. She had learned magic. Like those before her, she had delved deeper into the mysteries of spellcraft and magic. Only—in her era, Zelkyr’s creations had sealed the greatest achievements of magedom away. Behind a test that was suicide to attempt.
So few [Mages] knew what magic was. The rest played around at it. Even the most accomplished like Feor were children playing in the sandbox with toys the true [Mages] had left behind.
That was how Valeterisa would have described it, if you forced her to make an analogy for spellcraft in this era. But she had not been content to remain low-leveled, to shy away from what it meant to be a [Mage].
As a girl, she had wanted to be an [Archmage]. She had kept that dream, even as she aged. Now—with her short Human lifespan, she had already reached Feor’s level of spellcraft despite the half-elf being nearly four times her age. She had stolen away from the politicking of Wistram Academy to further pursue her goal.
Valeterisa had achieved one thing. One great technique of old. But—in the way of those who lacked a guide, the knowledge of old—she had dived into the heart of magic. Too far, without anything to pull her back.
She did not dream. She…thought. A part of her thought about thinking. Another was counting, making sure she ate, rested, excreted, kept herself basically clean—the functions of the body. Another was pursuing magic. Yet another monitored the mansion that was her home. Another tried to crack the spell from one angle. Yet another reviewed all the information she had ever learned.
She was—fragmented. Using a Skill she had obtained, and magic to aid it.
[Parallel Thoughts]. A technique great [Mages] had used across the ages. But even one of the former, true Archmages of Wistram—Archmage Chandler—who employed the same Skill for his own ends would never have gone this far.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, who was still alive even if Valeterisa and the world had no idea—fragmented his mind. He had experience with the technique, and the powers of unlife, his enhanced intellect, and magic to aid in the process.
Even so—he could sustain about fourteen simultaneous thoughts. And that took its own toll, as moments like his encounter with Ryoka Griffin had once demonstrated.
Archmage Valeterisa had over forty selves thinking with her mind. She had forgotten her own name. A singular part of her remembered for her.
Parts, working towards a whole. One kept her alive. One looked for danger. Most pursued magic, cycling between ideas. Trying to crack the grand theory that had consumed her for over ten years. Sometimes they devoted themselves to lesser tasks. But few of her separated selves had time for anything else.
One to eat and rest. Another to watch for danger. Another to just—scream. Be angry. Break things when the stress got too much.
Where was the one who remembered her name? The woman was lost in her head. And there was no self to tell her that.
Her fortress of a home held a Courier. She was aware of this—dimly. But he would die of starvation or madness before she ever roused herself. And two more were coming. Valeterisa sensed it.
How arrogant. The two were coming, like the Mage Runner had, to wake the Archmage of Izril. Ten years she had spent here. Countless people had tried to rouse her, for their own designs or out of concern.
They had failed. Couriers had failed. [Knights] had failed. Adventurers—
They would never make it to her. There were too many traps. And the two young women did not get off to a good start. Statistically…
They were doomed.
Ryoka Griffin stared at the distant mansion and felt her heart pounding in her chest. It…was familiar, and nostalgic at the same time.
She had done this before. Run deliveries like this, that was. She had delivered to the Horns of Hammerad, run the High Passes, and then reached the Necromancer himself.
But that had been then. Ryoka had survived close calls since then, but this was different. This wasn’t just survival. This was putting her life on the line for a delivery. For money. Or in this case—Lady Ieka’s help.
“Is this unhealthy, that I missed this?”
“Probably. I’m shaking.”
Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle was so nervous she thought she was going to throw up. Or maybe that was the rat’s blood. She felt…powerful. But unlike Ryoka, she hadn’t actually done anything like this before. Ironically, the Vampire girl was the rookie in life-or-death situations.
“Just listen and don’t rush into things and we’ll be fine, Fierre. Actually—we might not be, but don’t panic. You’re a Vampire and I’ve done this before.”
Fierre started and nodded. She bared her teeth.
“Leave it to me! This Archmage might have traps, but I bet she’s not ready for a Vampire. Especially—a real Vampire.”
She opened one hand, and her tendons and fingers locked into claws. Fierre’s eyes were glowing in the twilight. Ryoka eyed her.
Fierre had been cured. What that meant was that she had been cured of whatever Teriarch knew was afflicting her people. Accordingly—her weaknesses had led to some incidents. Garlic, sunlight—Ryoka hadn’t slapped her with a cross, but she was fairly certain Fierre was far more vulnerable to all the traditional weaknesses of her kind.
On the other hand—Fierre was stronger. It hadn’t been instantaneous; she’d gotten better day by day. Today?
“How fast do you think you could move if we run into trouble, Fierre?”
The Vampire girl scratched her head. She looked around. A green rat looked up, saw the glance, and turned to dive into a hole that led into the rat warrens.
Fierre blinked over and grabbed it so fast Ryoka barely saw the speed. The City Runner saw Fierre snatch the rat up, brush dirt off, and bite it. She tossed the rat over her shoulder a moment later. The rat landed among its fellows, who fled the corpse before coming over for the free food.
Kosher rat. Ryoka shuddered as Fierre turned.
“How fast was that?”
The young Human woman stared at Fierre and felt her heart skip a few beats. Not just because of the unnatural sight—but because that was so cool. She hesitated, cast her eyes towards the distant mansion. And then she nodded.
“I…have no idea. Let’s find out.”
The Vampire girl blinked.
“Okay, this is about a hundred meters! I’ll count as accurately as I can! Go ahead and run when I clap my hands!”
Six minutes later, Fierre was standing away from Ryoka just up the beach. The Vampire girl was scowling. She kicked at a clump of grass.
“This is so…stupid.”
She hadn’t meant it seriously. Ryoka Griffin, on the other hand, had.
“I said, this is stupid!”
Fierre shouted back. Ryoka ignored that. She wished she had her iPhone. Or a stopwatch. Well—she’d do her best. She had to approximate a hundred meters anyways.
“Just run when I clap my hands! Okay? Ready—go!”
There was such a thing as doing some actual research, rather than saying ‘wow, you’re fast!’ Ryoka clapped her hands and started counting. Fierre blurred at her.
“One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi—”
Ryoka Griffin got to ‘six’ before Fierre flashed past her. The City Runner stopped. She stared at Fierre.
“How’d I do? I think that was fast. That was fast, right?”
The Vampire girl panted. Ryoka looked at her. She had been closing on seven. But that meant Fierre had just beaten the world record by, oh, three seconds.
“That was…fast. The world record is 9.58 seconds, Fierre. You were like—six and a half.”
“What? And I was only three seconds faster?”
The Vampire girl didn’t seem to get what that meant. Ryoka Griffin shook her head.
“Three seconds? Fierre—you’re not an athlete. The man who trains his entire life and runs on an actual track—and is way taller than you—runs three seconds slower.”
“Oh. Well—I’m a Vampire.”
Fierre preened. On the other hand—Ryoka Griffin now knew something. After a bit of calculation, she nodded.
“Interesting. You’re about 40 mph at top speed. Forty miles per hour. So you’re about as fast as a horse’s top speed. Not as fast as a cheetah. Interesting.”
So Fierre still lagged behind Hawk. Ryoka had clocked the Courier’s top speed above hers, even if he couldn’t keep it up. On pavement, not grass and dirt, it might be different. But…Fierre wasn’t almighty.
Just fast. Her twitch-speed was insane. That was probably what gave her the feeling of moving so fast; her reflexes were a lot better than a horse’s.
None of that made Fierre any happier. She actually shoved Ryoka slightly.
“Stop calling me fast as a horse! I’m a Vampire!”
“And that’s amazing. But you’re not invincible, Fierre. Want to test your bench press weight? Damn—this is where Grimalkin’s weight set would have come really in h—hey!”
Fierre picked up Ryoka and tossed her into the surf. The Asian girl went flying. That was scary. On the other hand—she didn’t fly that far.
“I don’t think you’re stronger than Grimalkin! Or even Relc, by much!”
Ryoka shouted back. The Vampire girl threw a sandball at her. It hit Ryoka in the face and the City Runner went underwater as it stunned her.
It turned out Fierre had great aim. And even if she wasn’t as strong as Grimalkin—she was strong enough to knock Ryoka silly with a mudball. Ryoka lay on the sand.
“Sorry! I lost my temper. Shoo, you little pests!”
Fierre kicked a rat trying to eat the City Runner. Dizzily, Ryoka got up.
“I’m going to call that ‘Gold-rank’ strength, reflexes, speed. Maybe a bit below a specialist. Hold on, I swallowed some water. I might throw up.”
Fierre edged back. The Vampire girl could swim just fine, even if she hadn’t practiced it much. She was coordinated, fast, strong—after Ryoka rested on her knees and hands, she looked up.
“If you had Skills, you’d be really invincible. Vampires don’t get Skills, do they?”
“I never leveled. Old Bamer says there were Vampire Lords, royalty who had powers like turning into mists. Even Skills. But those might be relics. Look, I’m really sorry. It’s just—I’ve never felt like this before.”
The girl squatted by Ryoka. The Runner girl nodded.
“I know. I’m really happy, Fierre. But just remember—there are things that can take you apart. I met a man who could have set this entire island aflame. He’d have been able to beat you without even using his best Skill—and he lost to Belavierr.”
Fierre’s eyes widened a touch. But she took the warning about Ser Raim seriously. Ryoka sat up.
She had met a Dragon. And the Necromancer. Both of them could kill Fierre. Maybe she could get stronger. But as it was—she had to be careful of overconfidence. And if there was one thing Ryoka Griffin knew, it was overconfidence. Also—getting your fingers bitten off.
“Okay. Measurements over. Let’s do this.”
“I’m ready to fight.”
“Great. But remember—we’re delivering a message. It’s not going to be easy—even if it looks like we can just knock. I’ve got a [Detect Magic] amulet, here. One of my rings deflects arrows. I’ve got a bunch of potions—my caltrops, sand—”
Ryoka’s items were all geared towards escaping or slowing down whatever she ran into. She’d used her funds to buy a few low-grade items, but she had been nervous about entering a highly-magical zone.
She had two trump cards. One was a bundle of cloth in her bag of holding she’d been waiting to have made. She hoped it wouldn’t break. It might not be good in an enclosed place. The second was…
Erin’s jars of acid. Ryoka had six. She’d asked Erin for some since nothing else on her travels had been as effective. If Ryoka had carried six when she met Venitra—she might never have had the trouble she did.
She had prepared, in short, as much as she could with the time and resources available to her. When Ryoka turned to Fierre—the Vampire girl reached into her bag of holding.
“Ugh. Everything’s covered in…well, my stuff!”
“No time to wash it off. We want to be done before daylight, remember? What’ve you got?”
“Well…ick, ick…blood, healing potions, a backup wand that fires [Steel-Barb Dart]. A dagger, enchanted with a weak piercing enchantment. And…aha!”
The Vampire triumphantly pulled out her best weapon. Ryoka stared at…
“Is that your journal?”
“It’s my notes! See? It contains all my information on Izril!”
Fierre flipped through the magical repository of her knowledge for Ryoka. The City Runner stared at her.
“Where are your weapons?”
“I have my fists! I can probably beat up Madain!”
Ryoka Griffin covered her face. Once again, she ran into Fierre’s sense of superiority. And fair play to her—she could have probably punched out any [Gang Leader] in Reizmelt even pre-panacea. But here?
“Fierre. Have you ever fought a Bone Behemoth?”
The Vampire hesitated.
“Uh—no? Those are huge, aren’t they?”
“Only like, thirty feet tall. My friends conjured a Frostmarrow Behemoth. Fierre, one of them was below Level 30. The other one was just over it, I think.”
“Oh. Well—we’re just going to deliver a message, right?”
“Stay behind me. Let’s go.”
“Actually, you should stay behind me. Vampire, remember?”
Fierre pushed Ryoka back as the two turned towards the mansion. Ryoka opened her mouth, but didn’t argue.
They should have brought Durene. Or Alevica. Someone with either the ability to rip apart a tree, or the magical prowess. Or even that Vampire Hunter guy. Or Ylawes…Ryoka was suddenly full of regrets.
Then again, how hard could it be to wake an Archmage who had been a recluse for a decade? Ryoka wished she had something to knock on.
“Okay, I’m not detecting anything magic so far…”
She was holding her amulet as she peered at the mansion in the distance. Fierre nodded. She was walking forwards and Ryoka suddenly fixated on something.
The mansion was set in the middle of the rat-infested, grassy isle. But there was a bare patch of land around it.
“Hold up, Fierre—”
“What? You said—”
As the two walked forwards, Ryoka saw the flicker from beneath the soil a second before Fierre walked forwards.
“Fierre! Stop! It’s a hidden sp—”
The Vampire girl exploded as she stepped onto the first magical landmine.
Statistically speaking, poor performance. The two intruders hadn’t even detected the landmines. Well, one had, but that put them well below the bell curve. Larger groups had tried to reach her. Numbers were just a disadvantage. The first one stumbled back as the artillery spell went off. A homing [Spear of Light] aimed right at her, enhanced to nearly triple the destructive yield. She went running, and dodged it. Barely; the explosion knocked her to the ground.
However, a second spell activated on the heels of the first. It should have struck her; the City Runner had been blown off her feet by the first impact. The second spell flashed down towards her as part of the Archmage watched, impartially.
Flicker. The Archmage’s consciousness stopped, tried to track the blur that had intercepted the fallen Runner. Part of her mind took a bit more thought processing.
What had that been? She had been sure—
Ryoka Griffin could barely breathe. She was hanging off the shorter Vampire girl’s shoulder. Fierre was sprinting away from the mansion, with Ryoka on her shoulder.
It really hurt. Ryoka was half-blinded from the spell’s impact, anyways. But she had seen her friend die—
“Ow, ow, ow! It hurts so much!”
That wasn’t what most people said with her injuries, though. When the Vampire girl got them out of range and dumped Ryoka on the beach, Ryoka saw—
Fierre’s legs and part of her stomach were torn open. Bone shone around torn flesh. Her blood had stained the grass. But—
The injuries were already healing. With incredible speed, Ryoka saw the wounds closing. Fierre gripped at her arm and Ryoka saw—her arm had been broken by the impact, slightly. Now the bones snapped together.
“That hurts so damn much!”
Ryoka Griffin stared at Fierre. She should have been paste. A landmine did not let you walk away with those kinds of injuries. Fierre’s skin was tough. Ryoka should have measured that. How hard was it to hammer a stake into her chest?
“Fierre? Are you—”
“No, I’m not! Why didn’t you detect that?”
“I saw it only when we were right on top of it! It must be camouflaged!”
“Your amulet’s a piece of junk! If I find that [Merchant] who sold it to you, I’m going to eat—”
Whumph. Something hit the dirt at the top of the incline. Both young women went running.
“Dead gods, it’s still after us?”
“Run further away!”
Artillery spells. Seriously? Ryoka and Fierre peeked over a sand dune at the very edge of the island, as far away from the mansion as possible.
“Okay. It stopped firing. So we know there’s landmines and a spell that blasts anyone coming towards the mansion to pieces. And we can’t see the Archmage’s magic with our level of spell. Ideas?”
Fierre looked at Ryoka’s expression. The Vampire girl was trembling, now that they were safe.
“Oh, come on, Ryoka! You were right! I’d be dead if I wasn’t stronger now. And that wasn’t a fun way to find out I can survive a Tier 4 spell. I think that was what it was.”
Ryoka blinked. Instead of comforting platitudes, she focused on Fierre’s face.
“You’re sure Tier 4?”
“Based on the power of the spell? Pretty sure. Tier 5 can vaporize you. Tier 3 is usually weaker and you can’t delay it. Like—[Delayed Fireball] is Tier 4—[Fireball] is Tier 3.”
The young woman wasn’t sure if Fierre’s abilities to appraise spells was actually that helpful. Either way, she was dead if she stood on that landmine—or crippled at the least. She narrowed her eyes.
“No wonder people can’t get to the front door. Well, I have my trump card. But I don’t know…I could try flying towards the door, but the wind isn’t under my control. I’d probably be hit by a spell or the wind would pulverize me by sending me into the ground or something.”
“What? You’re not giving up, Ryoka?”
The City Runner gave her friend a blank look.
“Of course not. We’re not dead. We should have expected this much, Fierre.”
That was the difference between City Runners and normal people. Fierre closed her mouth as she saw Ryoka investigating the distant mansion. They really were insane.
“Hm. The wind is strong around the mansion. Sort of weird.”
Ryoka muttered. She was trying to see if she could sail on the winds with her trump card into the mansion. She might hit it hard, but what if she threw Fierre? Wait, that could work. Throw her into the wall, get her to ring the door—but the door was probably trapped.
Still—something was off. The wind was blowing…Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes.
She could…sense the wind. Not concretely, and even if she asked it to blow hard, it sometimes failed her. She needed a teacher. Teriarch had offered some insights, and Ryoka had learned to call the wind stronger since the fire at Riverfarm. But she seldom tried to use the wind to scout.
Yet—if she wasn’t wrong…
“What is it, Ryoka?”
The City Runner started. She narrowed her eyes at the mansion.
“I think…I think that damn mansion is fake, Fierre. The wind’s blowing straight through where it should be going around the walls.”
Fierre started. She looked at the mansion and groaned.
“Oh, skunk blood. Of course! It’s the oldest trick in the book! Is the Archmage even on this isle?”
Ryoka felt sick. She might not even be here! But first—they had to test this idea. So Ryoka opened her bag of holding.
“Hold on. Let’s just make sure this is actually an illusion. There’s something there—just not the disturbance in the air a mansion could create. That door…might be real. Here—help me set up this. I just need a handkerchief—and a stick or something—”
Fierre offered Ryoka a rat. The green rodent squeaked and tried to get away. Ryoka stared at the rat.
“No. That’s cruel.”
The Vampire girl gave Ryoka a long look. She opened her mouth and Ryoka slapped the rat out of her hand.
She was no huge animal advocate, but Ryoka was definitely against cruelty and Fierre eating the rats did bother her. The Vampire girl sulkily got out some vomit-stained blood bags.
“I’m really hungry. Being blown up makes you hungry.”
“I wouldn’t know about that. Here—”
Ryoka finished her creation. It was…a handkerchief tied to a stick with some twine. She tossed it up and Fierre felt the wind blow. She saw the little parachute open and the stick flew off. It flew towards the mansion’s walls in the distance. Even Fierre’s enhanced eyes lost it, but Ryoka grimly nodded.
“It went straight through.”
“Darn. Well—now what?”
Ryoka Griffin thought about this. If they couldn’t see the Archmage’s mansion, was it underground? Accessible only via teleportation? Or…her eyes narrowed. She closed her eyes and felt for the wind.
Unexpected. The part of the woman’s mind which was tracking the two was infinitesimally small. Basically only there to record and watch for dangers to her person. Even so—the two’s progress had defied the statistical norm.
They had found the invisible mansion without going for the fake one. Now—they stood at the entrance, investigating carefully.
Somehow, they had found it. Though no magical resonance had occurred. A Skill? It was still within parameters.
After nearly twenty minutes of bickering, the two entered the front door. Which was, of course, not trapped. Just reinforced.
The door slammed shut and it was at that moment that Ryoka Griffin knew she’d been duped.
“It’s not designed to keep us out! It’s designed to—”
Fierre punched the door as hard as she could. The impact was thunderous. The door—which had no knob on the inside—remained shut. Fierre shouted in pain.
“Aaah! That hurts so much!”
She’d hit the door hard. But the enchanted wood didn’t budge. Durene with her club? Ryoka shook her head.
“We’re in trouble, Fierre.”
The two spun around. The opening to the mansion, which they’d been investigating through the untrapped door—was a long hallway.
Stone. The invisible mansion had been resting on the cliff’s edge. Ryoka hadn’t seen any of it, just known it was there. The door had appeared and like idiots, they’d gone in.
Now—she saw faint scorch marks, detritus like empty potion bottles or glass—evidence of other people having come through, waited here, and gone on, sometimes clearly having attempted to exit.
“Well, we’re not the only ones who tried this. I doubt we can break out with our bare hands, Fierre.”
“What about your acid?”
“Doesn’t work on non-organic materials. Doubt it’d do anything.”
Just to be sure, Ryoka glanced around the walls, floor, and at the door again. All stone, except for the enchanted door. Actually…it might be stone too, just spelled to look like wood.
“Like a damn dungeon. That’s what this is. An Archmage’s dungeon, only there’s a living person controlling it.”
“Statistically, that’s how most dungeons come to be. Someone makes their own fortress, it gets buried or lost to time and bam, a thousand years later you have adventurers.”
Fierre walked in front of Ryoka down the long hallway. Ryoka sighed. They were doing—okay so far, but this felt like more and more of a mistake. Now she remembered, she had barely survived Az’kerash and the High Passes! What made her think that meant she could just survive this?
There was one door at the far end of the hallway. Ryoka Griffin and Fierre walked towards it warily.
“Okay, this time we’re checking this door. Maybe try to put a wedge in, so we can get out.”
The two young woman clustered around the next door, which was pearly-white and had a little…arch?…carved into the door. Ryoka frowned at it.
“Someone has a sense of gamesmanship. That’s either someone messing with our heads, or it’s telling us what lies beyond.”
“Well, I’ll go first. No arguments.”
“Fierre—I can’t let you risk your life again. Let me—”
The Vampire girl grabbed Ryoka as she reached for the handle. Fierre held Ryoka by the shoulders seriously, looking up at her taller friend, then hugged her tight.
“I’m not losing my first Human friend. If anyone’s going to be in trouble—I have a better chance of surviving. No arguments.”
She turned, and faster than Ryoka, yanked the door open. Fierre looked into the room filled with mirrors, took a deep breath, and stepped through.
Ryoka moved, but an invisible barrier held her back. The door slammed shut.
The Room of Similarities took out 14.2% of all intruders alone. And those who entered almost never left without serious damage, or needing to use the artifacts they’d brought, or magic or a Skill. Of the intruders, 0.6% had ever left unscathed.
The first of the two walked into the room and Archmage Valeterisa’s watching mind-segment stirred. If it could be said to be interested in the results…it waited as the girl spun around from the closed door and raised her fists.
…Nothing happened. The girl looked around. The Archmage’s mind expected the mirrors to work. But…something was wrong. An invalid template had entered the room. The Archmage tried to make sense of it and another of her parallel processes devoted itself to the puzzle. Of course, she only had magical data. If she could have seen the room, it would have been obvious.
The Vampire had no reflection.
“Fierre! Fierre! F—”
The door opened and Fierre waved at Ryoka from the other side of the room.
“Hey Ryoka, I think the trap’s dead! Nothing happened!”
She had opened the other door, which had released the magical lock on Ryoka’s side. Fierre peered through the other corridor.
Ryoka spied the mirrors. She guessed what had happened.
“Fierre, it’s the mirrors! You have no reflection!”
The Vampire girl slapped her forehead.
“Duh! Gah! I forget you people get reflected by mirrors!”
Ryoka opened and closed her mouth. Then she saw Fierre whirl.
“Hold on. Something just moved. I—”
She stepped through the door as Ryoka drew breath to tell her to wait. And the door slammed shut.
Ryoka Griffin raced forwards, then felt the door slam shut. She was ready, though. She looked at the mirrors, drew a tripvine bag, and threw it.
The magical vines burst in the air as Ryoka was reflected across all the mirrors. Ryoka would have settled for mud, but she hadn’t time to make any with the water and sand in her bag of holding. Whatever was coming out of there—
Ryoka saw herself in the mirrors as she braced, one hand holding a jar of acid, the other in her bag of holding. She saw…nothing.
Just herself. The other Ryokas were tensed, ready to move. Ryoka Griffin stared at the vine-covered mirrors facing her. Four in all. They were all large, segmented, covering a half of the room.
Nothing happened. Then—one of the Ryoka’s straightened. She turned to stare at herself. And then began to walk towards the mirror’s edge.
Ryoka felt the hairs on her neck stand up. She saw another Ryoka stand. And then the other two. They walked towards the edge of the mirror. Pushed out of the glass. Three were blocked by the vines, and began to fight them. But the last exited. She raised her fists, and her face twisted in rage—
The Room of Similarity was her finest work. The mirrors were actually all relic-class artifacts. But she had come up with the concept. Not only did the mirrors reflect the person trapped within, they created doppelgangers with the same spells, Skills—the exact strength of their opponent.
And four? Well, one was bad enough. But four opponents with your Skills and magical abilities and fighting style could overwhelm even experts.
Most people survived, of course. 79.3% progressed onwards, because they had gear, or potions or other items that the mirrors couldn’t reflect. 6.5% turned around and refused to go further until they were forced to continue or captured.
The mirrors weren’t perfect. They just took the base person—the Courier had fought his reflections with spells but triumphed because he had healing and mana potions as well as artifacts.
But the Archmage had data about both intruders. Neither one was magically significant to her [Detect Aura] spells. One was…odd. She had wind-element attributes and the other one was plain invisible. But neither was even close to Gold-rank threat levels. So her thought-processes, all two of them, expected the mirrors to triumph.
After all, even if the opponent could win, the psychological impact of fighting your reflection—even killing one took its toll. Few could just—
The City Runner threw the first jar of acid in her doppelganger’s face. The Archmage’s thought processes halted as the first reflection went down in record time. The City Runner hit the second with a jar of acid—the other two broke free of the vines and charged her.
They were as fast as she was. One kicked the young Human woman in the chest while the second swept her legs and tried to stomp on her face. That was an aggressive combat style. But neither one used Skills, which they should have done. Neither did the young woman.
A third thought process joined the other two. That was so odd. Did she not have Sk—
The young woman raised her hand as one of her clones raised a foot to stomp her face in. The air in the room hurled the doppelganger into a wall and left red paste which faded after a few seconds. The second doppelganger tried to copy the gesture.
Nothing happened. The Archmage’s three thoughts watched the City Runner blow the second one into the wall and then run over and kick the life out of herself. That was…strange.
Just how had she done that? A Skill? But a Skill would be copied…an artifact? But no magic had been…
And meanwhile, the next two traps had failed.
The door swung open and Ryoka Griffin, panting, raised the jar of acid.
She saw Fierre, standing in the hallway, stomping on something which slithered away. A moving…shadow?
“Fierre! Are you alright?”
The Vampire spun. She stared at Ryoka; the City Runner had a growing bruise on her arm from where her clone had punched her.
“Ryoka! What happened?”
“Doppelgangers. They got me. A classic.”
Ryoka felt like it was. Fierre stared at her.
“You beat up yourself?”
“Four of ‘em. They didn’t have my acid jars, thank g—thank goodness.”
Ryoka shook her head. She was still shaken, a bit. But she’d taken care of them fast. It hadn’t been hard. Fierre shuddered at the thought.
“Four of me—how’d you win? I’d be so freaked out at killing myself.”
The young woman shrugged.
“Eh. Low self-esteem. That was actually sort of fun. I always wanted to punch myself in the face. And they couldn’t command the wind.”
The Vampire decided she needed to build up Ryoka more often. The City Runner was busy investigating the next hallway.
“What happened here?”
“I was attacked. Little…shadow-things came out of the walls. Tried to grab my bag of holding—well, they got it. But they didn’t get me!”
Fierre made a triumphant fist. She’d lost her bag of holding, but more than one shadow familiar had been destroyed by the angry Vampire. None came to attack Ryoka now. The City Runner nodded.
She was tired. The young woman looked around. This hallway stretched further with no door in sight.
“Looks like we passed the first test. We might be under attack again, so let’s make a plan—we could be in danger so—so—”
She yawned hugely. Fierre stared at Ryoka.
“Sorry. That just took it out of me. I shouldn’t be so—tired—”
Ryoka yawned and realized something was wrong at the same time as Fierre. She grabbed the amulet.
“It’s not—not a spell? Is it…?”
The soporific gas usually kicked in after the shadow familiar attack. The Archmage was satisfied to see it worked. The Runner collapsed as her friend watched. The Archmage waited—the other girl hadn’t taken any precautions against the gas that she could observe. She waited…waited…her three thought processes added a fourth as the Vampire girl looked around and cursed. And when the Runemark Golems came marching towards her, the little girl hit one hard enough to crack the enchanted stone.
“…Ryoka? Ryoka, wake up!”
Ryoka Griffin woke up a bit later with a dry taste in her mouth. She looked up and saw Fierre shaking her.
“Whuh—Fierre? What happened?”
“You’ve been asleep for the last ten minutes! Wake up—I think I gave you the right antidote.”
The young woman rubbed at her head. She looked around blearily; the tonic that Fierre had applied was taking off the effects of whatever had put her to sleep, but she was still groggy.
“I think it was the air. Or maybe you got stung? I don’t know.”
“You didn’t fall asleep?”
The City Runner looked at Fierre and then remembered—Fierre could grind up poisonous leaves without gloves on. She did it as one of her side jobs.
The Vampire grinned.
“Nope. Lucky for you I was here—look at this.”
She pointed and Ryoka saw four Golems. Well—the remains of them.
They were like jigsaw puzzles. The Runemark Golems that Fierre identified them as were all made up of parts. An arm, a shoulder blade, a fist—each one enchanted with a glowing, magical rune.
“It’s hard to destroy them. They’re designed to break easier than their actual bindings. So they can come back together. Recyclable foes. I dealt with them.”
Fierre had taken one of Ryoka’s tripvines and used it to web the pieces to prevent them coming together. Ryoka looked at the Vampire.
“And you beat all four?”
“I punched them. I told you it works! But uh—it took a while.”
Fierre rubbed at her cheek. She’d gone several rounds with the Runemark Golems while Ryoka napped; only her Vampiric toughness and endurance had let her win.
“Those boxing punches you taught Alber actually helped. A bit. You shoulda seen it! I gave one a hook, and then I did that counter thing—”
She broke off as Ryoka grabbed her friend and hugged her.
“Thank you. That’s for earlier. Let’s not get separated again, shall we? If we go forwards—we go together.”
“What? But going one at a time works. You’re the weak link here.”
That was true. Ryoka had been saved by Fierre after escaping a trap that had passed the Vampire by. Now though, the City Runner wanted to make up the difference.
“I can at least help our progress here. You take my amulet; you can react faster so you’ll see something if we’re on top of it.”
“Okay. What will you do?”
Ryoka concentrated. She closed her eyes and the dead air in the hallways pushed forwards. She sensed the corridor ahead. The connecting passages, the air coming under a secret hallway, a pit trap—she opened her eyes, inhaled, and pushed.
She punched and the wind blasted down the corridor. It set off one trap door which opened up seamlessly ahead of Fierre. The Vampire girl blinked at Ryoka. The two stood there and Ryoka turned beet red.
“I’m trying to fake a Skill. How does [Wind Fist] sound?”
“Eh, I like [Gale Fist] more.”
“Good point. I was just copying this…guy. Who shouts his own name.”
“Guy? What guy?”
“Er, I met him in Liscor. He’s cool. He’s this Drake [Spearmaster]…”
Four of the Archmage’s processes listened. Now the intruders were in a more open, labyrinthine area, she had periodic spells to listen to them. They moved out of her ‘earshot’ and she noted the fragment of conversation for later automatically, saving the data in her memory, as it were.
Then her process realized she had far, far too much conversation saved and deleted the scrap since the term ‘Relc’ had turned up nothing in her knowledge banks.
Four of her thoughts—a whole 10%—were now devoted to their progress. Even as she was, Valeterisa loved a good statistical anomaly.
And the two young women were that. Not only were they dodging most of the traps with ease, they had a unique skillset that allowed them to navigate the area.
One of them, the tall one who looked Drathian, was clearly using the wind somehow. With a Skill? She had used it to sense the layout of the labyrinth completely. She was headed for the door and avoiding or anticipating most of the traps that had any noticeable tells, like the fake wall with the spider-summoning artifact.
Not that there was any good route that let you avoid traps. Who would do that? The Archmage saw the smaller girl leap at the spiders just in time for the rune spell to activate.
The spell should have locked down her muscles so the [Furry Spiders] summoned by the spell could overwhelm her, but the little girl just ran through it and punched the spiders to death. She ripped off a leg, dodged a leaping spider—
She was as strong and fast as a Gold-rank [Warrior]! Some kind of [Brawler]? She waved at her friend. The City Runner jogged forwards—and fell on her face as the rune trap got her.
Strange. The other girl dragged her friend to safety, killing a shadow familiar that went after the bag of holding. The familiar’s remnants vanished, to be reformed in the binding chamber. The entire dungeon was designed to be reused; no sense in temporary constructs that needed replacing.
The Archmage’s four processes combined were enough to note details about the intruders, like their appearances. And even have a bit of emotion—curiosity. The two had gone through the second layer with ease, navigating all the traps designed to slow them down while the gas worked.
By rights they should have been stripped of their belongings, affected by the gas and proceeding fights, and worn down for the third layer’s trap. They were not, and the Chamber of Insanity, which had gotten the Courier awaited down a door they were reluctant to enter.
The Archmage’s thoughts tracked them. But they did not summon more processes. The two might bypass this room, which would be interesting to see.
But there was still no chance they’d make it to her.
The door was incredibly suspicious to Fierre and Ryoka. But they knew it was a trap; the spiral on the doorway indicated to Ryoka that it might be some mental effect.
“So we should go in together. Or let me. I’m good with mind stuff.”
The City Runner couldn’t tell Fierre about Teriarch’s geas, but the Vampire girl was adamant.
“Vampire. Ryoka, when has being a Vampire not worked for me in this place?”
“…Well, once we get outside, one of us can go sunbathing.”
Fierre shoved Ryoka, but gently.
“No one makes traps for my kind anymore, Ryoka. Look, I’ll go in. We’ll try to block the door, but there’s a stupid barrier spell. I go in, and…well, we’ll see. Okay?”
“…Fine. Just be careful. I can’t use the wind; the doors are airtight. Just go in, and…”
“Okay. Okay. But take one of my healing potions. You’re out. Actually, take two. And…”
Fierre rolled her eyes, but she took two potions and entered the door. It swung shut behind her; Ryoka waited.
After four minutes, Ryoka had heard nothing. But after four minutes, the door swung open. Ryoka saw someone standing in the pitch-black room.
The Vampire girl was stock-still. Motionless. Ryoka knew something was wrong. Fierre was audible now—mumbling.
“…said you’d come back…Mom, Dad, someone for dinner…can’t drink another drop…”
The City Runner hesitated. Fierre was in the center of the room. Something was very wrong. Ryoka knew she should back up. She stepped forwards—
No. Something was wrong. It was a fool’s idea to go in there. If the room was open—Ryoka summoned the wind.
The Vampire girl stumbled as the wind blew at her back, a blast of air meant to knock her out. But she caught herself.
“Fierre! Come on!”
Ryoka shouted. The wind had activated the room. The darkness lifted for a second and Ryoka saw glowing runes, etched on every surface—she closed her—
“Hello, Ryoka. Ye don’t look so well.”
A voice spoke behind Ryoka. The City Runner turned. The dungeon…was gone. But she would have known something was wrong anyways.
The Frost Faerie hung in the air behind Ryoka, perfectly still. Her wings weren’t moving. Her crystalline face stared at Ryoka.
“Stupid Human. Ye fell for a trap. Did you really wander into a [Mage]’s trap like the stupid cunt that you are?”
“I…guess I did? Thanks. You’re not here—you weren’t there to point it out.”
Ryoka Griffin blinked. She felt…stupid. The Frost Faerie nodded slowly. She looked at Ryoka.
“‘Tis madness, you know. Created madness. But luckily for you—you know I’m not here. Don’t you? And you don’t have levels. Watch your friend. She’s of this world.”
The words made Ryoka realize the world was spinning. She was babbling something—no, her body was. She looked at the Frost Faerie.
“Ivolethe? Are you…actually here?”
For answer, the fae grinned. Ryoka saw the blackness vanish and the glowing form—
“…saw a Dragon.”
Ryoka Griffin opened her eyes. She was crouched in the hallway, shielding her face from the dark room. Fierre was lying on the floor, muttering.
Her head ached. But—the flashes of those runes weren’t turning her into a gibbering wreck anymore. Ryoka Griffin had fought it off.
Had that really been Ivolethe? The girl didn’t know. She did know something was wrong. Focus—she staggered upright.
Her bag of holding was missing. One of the shadow-things had stolen it. Damn! And she had no idea how much time had passed.
Fierre was still in there. Ryoka saw the runes flashing at her, trying to drive her towards insanity. But fake insanity, Ivolethe had called it. Whether it had been really her or Ryoka’s subconscious, she was right.
Ryoka had seen worse. It couldn’t have been that long, if nothing else had signaled that. Ryoka didn’t have a dry mouth or wasn’t feeling tired…she looked into the room.
She pushed and the wind grabbed at the Vampire. Trying to drag her out of the room.
“Fierre! Don’t look! Close your eyes!”
The Vampire girl looked up. Her mumbling stopped. Too late—Ryoka Griffin realized her error. She saw Fierre’s head raise. Her black hair tumbled around her glowing eyes.
“Do you hate me? I’m hungry, Ryoka.”
She stood up. Her head twisted left and right. And she—Ryoka backed up.
The Vampire leapt at her. The City Runner reached for her bag of holding that wasn’t there. But she’d hesitated anyways.
That was how they fell. The Archmage’s four thoughts were…disappointed. They observed the one called ‘Fierre’ dragging the other girl’s leg up, swinging her into a wall.
Insanity. Simulated, but effective. There had been a record of a trap in Albez like this that Valeterisa had read of, by the great Warmage Thresk, one of the masters of his time. She had replicated it on a lesser scale and 83.9% of all intruders failed here.
In the end—the anomaly got this far. Something was happening to the two—but the other three processes moved back to research and the last one didn’t have the capacity for analysis, much less emotion.
Back to work. She was so, so close…what was she missing? Valeterisa sat there…trying to piece together magic. She had almost come close. Something about the wind-magic that hadn’t been magic had…spoken to her. A clue? But then—
She was lost again.
The shadow familiars and Runemark golems subdued both intruders now that they were helpless. One had been rendered unconscious by the other. The shadow familiars, actually somewhat intelligent compared to the Runemark Golems or most of the autonomous traps, investigated the two.
They had simple orders. If the intruders were alive, they were put into the cells. The small one definitely was, for all the Chambers of Insanity had turned her into a gibbering wreck.
The other was trickier. The primitive familiars flitted about, noticing the blood on the ground. She had been injured.
The Vampire girl had thrown her into a wall. So they registered fractures, a broken nose—two puncture wounds on her neck.
Lack of blood. But she was breathing. So—they spirited her away, through a bound teleportation spell.
Into the cells. The Vampire girl followed, and both were contained in the cells which prevented magic and most Skills from activating. A holding area with a suppression field.
Now there were three captives. The Mage Runner raised his head slowly; hunger had weakened him not at all since only a day had passed. He saw both young women being put into cells. The shadow familiars tended to the injured one with a healing potion and then left them. In time…
They both woke up.
“Ryoka? I’m so sorry, Ryoka, wake up!”
“Let her rest, Miss Fierre. If she’s injured…”
The voices made Ryoka restless. She—didn’t hurt. But she was tired. Healing made you tired. And Ryoka was also just sleepy.
A bit of exhaustion from fatigue, the sleeping gas…
She opened her eyes in the cell. A glowing field of magic, almost invisible unless you walked back and forth to see it at the right angle—separated her from the hallway. Glowing sigils, like a second barrier of magical paint, formed a block around her cell, clearly keeping the magic active.
And across from her…two more cells, fairly small, lacking chairs, furniture—anything besides being boxes of stone—held Fierre and a man she recognized.
Ryoka looked up groggily and then felt at her neck. The last she had known, Fierre had thrown her into a wall and then been biting at—
Her neck was healed. Ryoka relaxed. But the Vampire girl’s voice was still fraught with guilt.
“Ryoka, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know—”
“It’s not your fault. It—it was the room. I should have gone in first. It was—”
Insanity. Ryoka remembered more and more. They had been defeated. She sagged. At least they were alive.
Then she registered the other man. Salamani, the Mage Runner, the Human [Mage] with a trace of Lizardfolk in him, was almost completely human. But he had slitted pupils.
A Lizard’s eyes. The Courier waved at Ryoka.
“I was telling your friend that, Miss Griffin. Insanity trap. Got me too. There was nothing you could have done; even a good mental charm would break under that many layers of magic. The only thing that could have beaten it was a charm one Courier had. Valceif—but he lost his…”
Ryoka Griffin felt a shock run down her body. She stared at Salamani and came back more into the world. The man gave her a miserable look.
“You’re Ryoka Griffin, right? Your friend Fierre—told me about you. So did Lady Ieka Imarris. I’m sorry we had to meet like this.”
“Who—who’re you? I mean—I know you. You’re Salamani, aren’t you? The Mage Runner? Lady Ieka? What’s happening?”
She’d seen him in the scrying orb during the famous delivery. But also—he was a Courier. The man smiled weakly.
“Some introduction. And yes—that’s me. Let me explain…”
It took him two minutes to clear Ryoka up on what was happening. When he did, Ryoka thumped her head against the magical barrier.
Lady Ieka had hired him? Of course she had. She wouldn’t really have trusted her with the request. Ryoka felt like an idiot. Salamani sat cross-legged as he looked at her and Fierre; he couldn’t see the Vampire, but he’d been speaking to her. Just as well; in her distress, Fierre wasn’t hiding her fangs or red eyes.
“If it helps, Miss Griffin, you got as far as I did. And better too, to hear your friend tell it.”
“I messed up. Ryoka, I’m so sorry. I bit you—”
Fierre’s voice became strangled. Ryoka glanced at Salamani, but the man didn’t seem to notice. He pitched his voice to Fierre, trying to smile.
“Don’t worry about it. You were insane. I bit myself under the insanity spell, although those damn familiars healed me. And punched myself in the groin for some reason I don’t know. Insanity spells do weird things to you.”
“Are you both okay? Salamani, if we’re captives, does that mean…”
The man grimaced.
“I’m sorry, Ryoka. But no one’s checked up on me since I arrived. Then again—it was only a day before you. But…I haven’t been fed either. And to look at it—this might be our end.”
He pointed and Ryoka saw. There were more than three cells here. In fact, there were dozens. Maybe forty in total? The familiars had cleared Salamani, Ryoka, and Fierre’s; they must have had orders to do so. But they hadn’t cleared the others.
Ryoka saw…bones. Piles of cloth. Even artifacts, gleaming, attached to emaciated bodies. She fell silent. Salamani nodded.
“Our forerunners. I’m…sorry. I wish I’d left a sign, Miss Ryoka. But I don’t think any of us are surviving this.”
She wanted to contradict him at once. But—then Ryoka looked at the Courier’s gaunt face and understood.
He was a realist. And now—he was thinking as she should have. Archmage Valeterisa. People would have sent many to ‘wake her up’. To get her help. Not just Runners. Couriers—maybe even adventurers.
Everyone had died here, if the corpses and the fact that Valeterisa hadn’t been seen was any indication. They had all died.
Ryoka Griffin sat there for a while, covering her face with her hands. Fierre was apologizing.
“I didn’t mean it. I—”
They all fell silent. Despair was written across Salamani’s face. Ryoka Griffin sat there, thinking. The Mage Runner interrupted her thoughts with a pained cough.
“If you’re willing to talk—I’d like to. I have at least a few more days left. I’ve been getting thirsty, but…it beats being alone.”
She looked at him. He was resigned.
“You’ve tried everything?”
“Lost my bag of holding. And my spells—useless. I recognize the spell we’re under. It’s a [Field of Suppression].”
“I don’t know that spell. I’m not a [Mage], sorry. What does it do?”
He gave her a strained smile.
“Even if you were—it’s advanced. I’m a Wistram graduate and I’m lucky I took those advanced courses. You see these barriers? They’re high-grade, but in theory we could break them. I’d definitely try, but I can’t cast magic. Or use Skills. Even if I had, say, a [Bound Spell] Skill—it won’t work. [Power Strike], Skills that allow you to move about or do anything—all fail.”
“The spell affects Skills as well as magic?”
Ryoka glanced up. Salamani nodded.
“Good spells do that. It’s advanced magic. Tier 5 or Tier 6, I’d guess. But a field spell is…setting up terrain. Not as hard to do if you have unlimited resources. It’s one of those spells that benefits from a single place. Like casting [Zone of Frost] before using lots of ice spells. As bad as a damned aura. And without it—I could punch this barrier for a month and it might not break.”
He’d been trying, Ryoka saw. The man’s knuckles had bled and broken. Salamani looked at her, in the calm phase of despair.
“I’m sorry. Feel free to do what you want. I won’t blame you.”
Ryoka was going to. Salamani had painted a perfect trap. A perfect holding cell the kind Zevara dreamed of. However…he was wrong to despair just yet.
Because Fierre was Fierre. And Ryoka…could still sense the wind.
“Fierre, get up. See if you can hit the barrier. Don’t lie there. I’m—I’m going to look around.”
Ryoka edged to the very front of her cell and stared down the hallway. Fierre looked up. She slowly stood and flexed one arm. She looked at Ryoka.
“Your friend—is she strong? I only saw her for a second, but if she’s…er…part-Dwarf? There might be a chance. I doubt Archmage Valeterisa left a gap in her preparations, but she might have trusted in the [Field of Suppression] too much.”
Salamani hesitated. He had seen Fierre, so he knew Fierre was too short to be a half-Giant. Ryoka nodded at Fierre. The Vampire girl bared her fangs.
“I’m not a Dwarf, Salamani. But I’m still strong. Hold on—hiyah! Ow, that hurts so much!”
She hit the barrier with a sound that made Salamani jump. He stared towards the side, wide-eyed with sudden hope. Meanwhile…Ryoka looked around.
The holding area was hard to see from where she sat. Just the glowing cells…hm…it looked like a lot of the visitors had left their belongings when they died. But only what was on them; the shadow familiars had stolen the rest.
Ryoka couldn’t see with her eyes very far. But the wind was her friend. And it told her that they were underground; a passage led upwards. Into a branching hallway—
No. Ryoka dragged her attention back down the steps. She needed a way out of here. She sensed…
The area where they were was the large part. Cells, where the air was allowed to flow in and out, including the one with Salamani, Fierre, and Ryoka. Oh…he’d relieved himself in one corner. Ryoka was grateful for the dead air. But down the passage was something…interesting…
“I…think our belongings are piled up over there.”
Ryoka murmured as Fierre hit the barrier again, to no effect but her own shout of pain. Salamani glanced up at Ryoka.
“You’re right. I can barely see something if I stand in the corner. How did you know that?”
She smiled at him.
“Not all of my Skills are inactive, Salamani. Can you describe the stuff for me?”
Hope sprang into the Mage Runner’s eyes.
“I…can barely see a table. Overflowing with items; it’s amazing the familiars piled it up. But they’re stupid like that. Primitive constructs. They must have orders to put it there, but the Archmage never investigated.”
“I can sense it too.”
Ryoka’s bag of holding was familiar to the wind. Also—the slight odor of Fierre’s puke was something Ryoka could sense coming from another bag. They were piled at the very top.
“That’s a lot of magical items.”
“Yes, well—I wouldn’t grab from there. So many artifacts in close proximity? They must be suppressed or they’d be reacting to one another and that might tear apart the entire damn mansion. There’s a design flaw if ever I saw one.”
Salamani shuddered. Ryoka agreed; she’d been told all day and night about bags of holding reacting to one another.
“If the field’s working on them, we might be in trouble. But the bag of holding is clearly working…so maybe we’re in luck.”
The young woman smiled tightly.
“Well…I’m betting the Field of Suppression only affects magical artifacts up to a certain level, right Salamani?”
“Right enough. Alchemical weapons might work fine. If we had some.”
Ryoka nodded. Her heart was pounding. Please let the Archmage not have predicted this.
“Well—here’s the question for a million gold coins and our lives. Salamani, did you see when they tossed me and Fierre in here—how did we get in? Is there a control switch or something?”
The Mage Runner’s unique eyes flickered.
“No. Familiars are quite stupid. They can’t deal with switches that well…they just pushed you into the cells. It’s a one-way spell. Quite simple. What do you have planned?”
Fierre looked at Ryoka. She grinned, showing all of her teeth. So did Ryoka.
“Hold on. It might take a few tries—but I think I can get my bag.”
She closed her eyes, settled down cross-legged. Salamani opened his mouth to ask a thousand questions—and then he felt something.
In the prison cells, the wind moved. The Mage Runner’s eyes widened as he felt a breeze blowing his hair. He closed his mouth, looked at Ryoka, and waited.
The first gust of air was short, controlled, and knocked over the pile of artifacts and belongings. The shadow familiars didn’t come, which was a relief; they must only do the organizing when a new person was captured.
So Ryoka had time. And happily—her bag of holding had fallen to the ground. It was very hard getting the wind to blow so strongly to move the bag while not blasting everywhere. Especially at range while using her senses and Salamani’s eyes.
Really, it was the kind of thing Ryoka should have thought of and practiced ages ago. But, ironically, her current prison was an excellent teacher and Ryoka had until she died of dehydration.
“Almost, almost, come on you little bastard!”
“Shh! Let her concentrate.”
Salamani cautioned Fierre as the Vampire girl swore at the bag of holding that had been rolling around the cell in front of Ryoka for the last half-hour. Ryoka was sweating; controlling the wind was harder the more fatigued she got.
It had taken two hours to get it here. Now—it was so close. She stared at it and begged the wind. Capricious, it blew the bag left, right—and finally, finally—gave her a blast that knocked her on her ass. When Ryoka got up—the bag of holding was lying in the cell.
The other two cheered like mad. Ryoka grabbed for her bag of holding and opened it.
“Finally! We can get out of h—”
She yanked an acid jar out of the bag, aimed at the glowing runes, and realized.
The bag of holding was on the inside of the cell. The glowing runes were on the outside. Salamani and Fierre stopped cheering.
“…Ryoka. Did you mean to get the jar of acid out before you got your bag?”
“It wouldn’t have worked. I thought—can I pass items out of the cell?”
Salamani slowly shook his head. Ryoka Griffin pawed through her bag. Half the magical items weren’t working. Healing potions and mana potions did her no good…
“Is there anything we can use?”
“Uh—uh—I’ve got food in here.”
“I hate you so much.”
Fierre banged her head on the magical wall as Ryoka took out a handful of sand and threw it at the wall of the cell. Salamani looked at Ryoka.
“A mana potion wouldn’t help you, would it?”
Ryoka slumped. She hadn’t thought this one through! If she needed to reach into the bag of holding, then, damnit, she couldn’t break the runes of her cell.
“At least you can move stuff. Maybe there’s something else. My bag of holding has scrolls…none of which will work. But another adventurer or Runner might have left something powerful enough to work even with the field.”
Ryoka sat up. She looked at Salamani. The man’s eyes were burning.
“I thought I was dead. Don’t you give up just yet. We have days, at least!”
“Of course not, Salamani. And in fact…I have a better idea. What if—is there a sword, or staff over there?”
The man and Fierre squashed their faces against the magic walls. Fierre nodded.
“I see a sword! It’s definitely enchanted! Look at that, Salamani!”
The man’s eyes lit up. Ryoka smiled tightly.
“What if I brought one almost into your cell? Halfway? Maybe—”
The other two nodded. Ryoka gritted her teeth. This was going to be even harder. Concentrating that much wind to blow a sword around? Well, she had done it with the bag of holding. And she had turned her doppelganger into jam. Just another reminder of why her trump card—flying about—might have gotten her killed.
“Okay. It’s going to take a while, but same as last time. Just—back me up. Okay, guys? I’m just a bit…tired.”
“Take your time. No rush.”
Salamani gave Ryoka a thumbs-up. So did Fierre.
“We’re going to make it out, Ryoka. Let us know anything we can do.”
The City Runner nodded. She fished in her bag of holding for a stamina potion and then had a thought. Slowly, as she reached for a stamina potion, she looked into her bag.
“Oh. There is something you two can do.”
The two looked at Ryoka curiously. They saw her get up, and then work on another project.
Ryoka had a sleeping bag and blanket in her bag of holding for emergencies. And even stuff like rope, gear for climbing, caltrops—everything a sensible City Runner carried.
It took her seven minutes to make the little curtain with the blanket and some other tools. Ryoka’s voice was muffled.
“Okay, turn around. And cover your ears.”
Salamani and Fierre stared at her. Then they shuffled around. Fierre sighed. Ryoka Griffin relieved at least one of the pressures on her. Then she had a sandwich. Fierre grumbled as she watched Ryoka noshing. Salamani had a pained look of a man starved for a day and a half. Not that pained, but like, really jealous.
“I take it back, Ryoka. This is so lame.”
“This is the reality of the situation. You try not having these problems for half a day. Back me up, Salamani.”
“I really don’t want to.”
The Archmage of Izril’s thoughts milled about. Trying to make it work. She had taken the idea of looking at a problem from multiple perspectives to its extreme. Her thoughts were all focused on one…breakthrough.
One aspect of magical theory she had deemed most valuable. If—if—if she could make it work, she would surpass Zelkyr—at least, current mage-theory in this one area. Even the old Archmages hadn’t gotten to this level; the theory had been lost.
But it could work.
Her other thoughts were doing their thing. Valeterisa ripped up some paper absently to vent the frustration at being so close. It was one thing to look at a problem from multiple angles—but she had slowly built up the magical theory and understanding, the basis for this simple, infinitely complex formula over a decade.
Her intruder-monitoring thought was passive. It did not check on the ones in the cell. What was the point. None had ever escaped so her mind had long since discarded the possibility.
That was her flaw. If she had been monitoring the cells with visual, audio, or any other of her means, she would have seen the Courier reaching for the hilt of an enchanted sword, whispering.
Salamani grabbed the hilt poking through the barrier. Ryoka gasped and Fierre spoke.
“Do it! Before it gets shoved out!”
“I’m doing it! Please work, please w—”
The Mage Runner stood and pressed the tip of the sword into the ground just outside his cell. He scratched at the glowing runes that enforced his barrier with the enchanted sword.
Ryoka saw the sword glowing. A mint glow was coming from the magical sigils on the edge of the blade. It was an enchanted sword—over the last hour, Fierre and Salamani had both identified it as one of those ones with a projection effect, making the actual sword’s reach longer and far more deadly. A common effect.
Right now, the enchantment was unneeded and Ryoka prayed that the sword had a strong piercing or anti-magic effect. It just had to scratch—
She saw something peel up from the stone floor. Fierre gasped. Salamani worked even harder, frantically.
“Don’t let the sword fall in the barrier—”
The two young women watched as Salamani dug at the weak point of the rune he’d identified. More slivers of enchanted paint or whatever the runes had been drawn with. And then—the barrier vanished.
It just winked out. Salamani’s head jerked up. He stared at the empty air and put a trembling hand out.
“You did it! Free us! Free us!”
Fierre jumped up and down. The Mage Runner stumbled forwards. For a moment, Ryoka wondered if he was going to pull a classic double-cross and run off. But he didn’t. He raised the sword, began hacking at Fierre’s cell.
Her force field vanished. Then it was Ryoka’s turn. Fierre took the sword from the weaker Mage Runner as he stumbled over to his bag of holding. Ryoka saw the Vampire lift the sword, bring it down.
The barrier vanished after three hacking blows. Ryoka looked at Fierre. The Vampire girl smiled at her.
“I knew we could do it. If you didn’t stop for that sandwich, we’d have been out thirty minutes ago.”
Ryoka stood up and hugged her friend. Fierre squeezed back.
“I’m…so sorry I bit you. Please, please forgive me? I never would have, I swear.”
She whispered. Ryoka whispered back.
“It’s okay. I mean, I’m going to have to live as a Vampire from now on, but you can show me everything. I’m really hungry.”
Fierre let go, her eyes wide. She looked into Ryoka’s brown pupils and then punched at Ryoka.
The City Runner grinned. But then she nodded to Fierre and touched at her neck.
“It’s fine. Really. We can talk about it later. Let’s get out of here first. Where’s Salamani?”
He was eating out of his bag of holding, despite the stale food. He looked up as Ryoka and Fierre walked over.
“Thank you. Thank you. I won’t forget this. Let’s…let’s…”
“Let’s take five.”
Ryoka suggested. Fierre and Salamani looked at each other, nodded, and then relaxed. After a second, Fierre stood up.
“Hah! I knew it.”
“Shut up, Ryoka.”
An hour later, Ryoka was fully fed, watered, somewhat relaxed—and she’d taken stock of…everything.
And everything was her fortune. Salamani’s and Fierre’s as well. They had taken apart the entire holding area. Opened each cell. And looted damn near everything.
“At least two Couriers have died going after Archmage Valeterisa. And this is at least Gold-rank gear. The only thing we need to make sure of is that we don’t bring bags of holding outside the cells or they’ll implode and we’ll die. Besides that—we are now rich.”
Salamani had helped gather the gear up. Since it had all belonged to the intruders, the odds of it being cursed in any way were low, but he and Fierre had checked for magical traps.
As it was—Ryoka was now armed with dozens of scrolls. She had the highest grade of potions, six wands, and three enchanted weapons. Oh—and she was wearing armor. A chainmail shirt, some leather greaves, two rings—
“We’re at maximum magical resonance with this gear. We can mix and match later. Right now, I think we have an Archmage’s fingers to break.”
Fierre was similarly garbed. Even Salamani had upgraded, and he had been a Courier. No one had interrupted their gearing up; now all the treasures were loaded into the best bags of holding. Ryoka had kept hers, and Fierre’s er, vomit-bag was actually good enough. She had kept hers while divesting most of her possessions out of it.
“You could get a…cleaner bag, Fierre. Just saying.”
“My mother gave it to me, okay, Ryoka? She and dad saved up for it. I can’t get rid of it.”
“I’m at capacity in my bag of holding. We might have to make trips—if we can get to the Archmage.”
“Maybe prioritize. Some of this gear isn’t worth as much as the rest.”
“That’s like saying that’s only hundreds of gold coins rather than thousands, Miss Fierre…why don’t we put the rest in a sack and drag the stuff around? If we do one sack per person, the magical resonance shouldn’t activate…”
That was the fun part. The amazing part. The part that made all of this worth it. It distracted Ryoka from the reality. And it was this:
“We’re still in the Archmage’s dungeon. We might be close to her, but odds are there are at least a few more traps between us and her. If she’s smart—a lot.”
Salamani, Fierre, and Ryoka were now a team. They looked at each other, and grimness descended over them.
“I don’t know where we are. But Fierre’s right. We have to be on our guards. We might get lucky and a trap would only put us back here—but some of those traps are deadly. I nearly died to that room full of mirrors. If you two want—I’ll try to finish this delivery myself. I owe it to you two.”
The Mage Runner offered. Ryoka hesitated only a second before shaking her head.
“No way. We do this together. Let’s just see where we are.”
They climbed the staircase with Salamani using a Pendant of Truesight that hadn’t served the adventurer well enough. Or maybe it hadn’t prevented the trap from working. But with it, he was confident enough to not be on alert for magical traps.
“Hm. We’re definitely past the first set of traps.”
They were in a hallway enchanted to look like the actual interior of a mansion. It had a carpet, wallpaper—according to Salamani, it was all fake.
“Looks like this area is just meant to lead to the dungeons. Spelled. There might be guardians—Selphid’s tits! Back, back!”
There were. The instant they left the holding area, the shadow familiars and the next layer of roaming guardians beset them. No Golems this time; a circle flashed and a huge, roaring Manticore appeared, a summoned b—
Fierre blasted the monster out of existence. She tossed away the spent scroll as Salamani used two wands at once. Ryoka aimed a wand and blasted a cluster of shadow familiars.
“Okay. We know two things. First: more traps. Second? We’ve got gear.”
The three looked at each other. There had been at least thirty dead people’s worth of possessions. Not all of it had been powerful, but as Salamani had said—some powerful individuals had owned this stuff.
“Which way do we go?”
“That at least is obvious. I can sense the magic coming from that direction.”
Salamani pointed down the hallway. A long hallway waited for him. He narrowed his eyes.
“…Concealed runes. Can’t tell what they are. Yep, there’s definitely more traps. But we have to brave them. At least we’re geared up beyond even what most Couriers could afford. Let’s see what the hallway has to offer. Fierre? Ryoka? Keep an eye out.”
Ryoka frowned. She was fatigued, although only mentally, from the efforts and their escape. Even so, she felt a bit of worry. Something was…wrong. Salamani grabbed an adventurer’s tool, one of those rolling balls that triggered traps like the one the Horns had used. He tossed it forwards, gingerly, wand at the ready.
The intruders had escaped. Eight of the Archmage’s processes devoted themselves towards finding out how. She began mobilizing the entire mansion’s defenders to converge on the group. But she was still…absent. If she felt anything, it was curiosity and irritation.
Yet—at the same time. There was a certainty. They were not going to reach her. They had bypassed six entire layers of traps by emerging from the cells. And they might be armed with new artifacts if her analysis was not wrong.
What of it? No one had woken her. Couriers had come. Great challengers. They had still died, even those that got past here, all 1.8% of them.
The intruders had bypassed six layers.
Ten remained. And these traps—
The ball got halfway down the corridor when the [Chain Lightning] trap activated.
Salamani’s barrier spell he’d cast out of caution absorbed half a dozen bolts as six [Chain Lightning] spells activated at once. The ball was vaporized. Salamani himself went reeling backwards; only the breastplate he’d equipped saved him. Fierre caught two more bolts too, and they had been at the back of the corridor.
“That’s the trap?”
Fierre, horrified, picked herself up. Salamani was cursing with Balerosian expressions. Ryoka caught part of it.
“—Gazer’s eyes can look up my—that is a new level of trap.”
He grimly looked at Ryoka and Fierre, indicating his scorched breastplate. Ryoka shivered.
“How is she making all this?”
“Rechargeable runes. Miss Ryoka, it’s not actually that hard to make a spell that keeps activating. Supplying it with mana is the hard part, but if she’s in here—which she is—her dungeon runs on her. I could probably make a Rune of Chain Lightning—and if I could do that, with enough money I could make a hundred. That’s the kind of insanity you get in Wistram, or at least, the higher floors.”
“At least we have scrolls. Fierre, break out the anti-electricity ones.”
“On it. We can probably walk through once we cast enough of them. I just hope there’s not a second layer of spells we didn’t see or activate. Or we could just activate the trap enough that—”
Salamani and Fierre looked at Ryoka. The City Runner was shaking her head. She looked at the Courier, and at Fierre, and said it.
“No. Nope. No way. I’m out. I’ve done this before. I’m bouncing. I want out of here.”
The Courier blinked. Fierre looked at Ryoka.
“But we’re so close! Ryoka—”
“We think we’re close. But Fierre—that trap was meant to kill us. Not just subdue. If the Archmage gets serious—you were right. There’s risking our lives and that.”
Ryoka nodded to the hallway, still smoldering. Salamani hesitated, and then nodded.
“You—you’re absolutely right, Ryoka. I’m not thinking. Even Couriers turn down bad deliveries. And this? This is a bad delivery.”
“We’ve been playing her game. Going through her death-mansion? Forget about it.”
The Runner felt like she was thinking like a…Runner. They had more money than she could have dreamed of. They had their lives; she wasn’t going to risk a trap of that caliber. Besides, this wasn’t over. She had an idea.
But escape first. Fierre hesitated. She was the maddest of the three; she clearly wanted to make good on her finger-breaking threat. But she acceded to their common-sense.
“So, what do we do?”
“Yes, but that means going through all the traps that are between us and the exit.”
“True…but if we assume the traps escalate until here, we can break out. Or—go for a wall. We have enough scrolls.”
“That’s tricky. I say—we scout backwards. The thing about these rooms is that they’re designed for people coming in. Not going out. Let’s take a look around.”
What was happening? Thirteen processes were confused by the direction the intruders were taking. They were…leaving.
Most of the room traps only worked when you entered one way. A decision Archmage Valeterisa had time to regret—or would have if she had the capacity to regret. As it was, she noted the intruders blowing open door after door with spells.
They had the firepower for it. And with their artifacts, they moved back through the layers of traps. A few things slowed them up, like the swarm of conjured insects, the illusion of green and contact pollen—but these were the non-lethal traps. If they struggled, they just rested up and moved on.
By the time the intruders were at the door, a good fifteen processes were aware enough to call off the attack on them from the entire mansion’s defenses. Valeterisa had made an analysis of cost-to-benefit and decided to just repair what had been broken, fix the gaps in her security, and move on.
She was still thinking of her project. That mattered. Intruders? She had never visited the other captives. So she let them break the door to her mansion and leave. It was annoying…but they hadn’t the tenacity to reach her.
In the end…they were at the high end statistically. But they weren’t even at the top. Valeterisa filed them away in her head.
And that was her mistake.
Ryoka Griffin stepped into the sunlight. Fierre instantly retreated. Salamani blinked at the morning light.
“We’re out. I guess…well, my boatman probably thinks I’m dead. But dead gods, there are a few [Lesser Teleport] scrolls here and I’ll swim to be away from this damn isle. Ryoka, Fierre—I’ll go with you wherever you want. Back to Lady Ieka, to the nearest Runner’s Guild—I am forever in your debt.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Salamani. We did this together. Without you we probably wouldn’t have made it out.”
Ryoka smiled at the Mage Runner. He gave her a serious bow.
“Don’t you exaggerate, Ryoka. I was going to die. Never mind that Ieka hired us both—I won’t forget this. But let’s get away from this damn mansion before something comes after us.”
“Just one second. I need to put on more clothes. Umbrella, umbrella…aw. It’s covered in my…stuff…”
Fierre was grumbling. Salamani winced as she shook black, dried vomit back into her bag of holding and onto the floor. He held his nose and edged away.
“Follow me, then. Let’s just teleport as far as we can. I’ll use a scroll, get someone to come for us. Unless that mansion…let’s just all teleport.”
“Maybe. But hear me out, guys. I think we have one last card to play.”
Ryoka waved a hand. Salamani and Fierre looked at her. The City Runner had made the level, calm decision to leave the mansion.
But she’d be lying if she said she was anything but pissed. Like Fierre, like Salamani, Ryoka did not like this Archmage of Izril. It had just occurred to her that it was stupid to play her game. Going through her mansion?
“What do you have in mind, Ryoka?”
Fierre waited. Ryoka glanced at her.
“We might have failed to get to the Archmage through her stupid mansion. But that’s not our job. I say—I say we try one last thing. And if it doesn’t work? We can leave. It won’t cost us more than we’ve gained. What do you say, Salamani? Fierre?”
She told them her plan. Salamani grinned. So did Fierre.
“I say—let’s do it.”
Archmage Valeterisa had devoted ten of her processes to fixing the damage. She had analyzed her mistake; exterior runes. She hadn’t figured out how they’d gotten an item into the cells, but she would fix the runes, and the barrier to need deactivation. That was all.
Her body moved as she thought. She let some of her mental processes take care of casting. While the rest tried to break through. And that was how she’d existed. She had given a decade of her Human life to her project. She would give another decade if she must. No one would wake her.
No one would break through her dungeon. Even a Named Adventurer; they’d done as the intruders had done, gotten to Layer 9 and left. So she was confident—if she had the emotional capacity for that—that—that—
Five of her thoughts lit up. Something was happening. Her danger-warnings were going off. And something…she blinked.
Something was happening outside her mansion. No—to her mansion. And the isle. It was demanding more and more of her thoughts.
Alert—attack. Defensive spells firing.
Alert—attack. Defensive spells firing.
Alert—[Message] spell. Contents…
Alert—attack. Defensive spells recharging…
For the first time in a decade, the Archmage’s lips slowly moved. Her voice, disused except to vent her frustration in screams, spoke.
“What—what is happening?”
The isle was called…well, it didn’t really matter anymore. It had been some ecological paradise, and then a rat-infested warren.
Now it was just on fire. Rats fled into the sea, or hid in their warrens as three figures roamed across it. They were casting spells.
They had a lot of scrolls. They had multiple wands. They also had some alcohol. So the three drunk figures cast spells and shouted.
“Archmage…Valeterisa! Get the fuck out here!”
Ryoka screamed. Salamani cast another [Message] spell. Fierre opened a scroll.
“Activate whatever this one is! Oh crap—”
A huge snowball ploughed into the side of the mansion. The defensive spells were going crazy, flinging multiple spells from the invisible mansion. Good thing all those summoned monsters were taking the heat.
They had a surplus, a surfeit of magical resources. From all the people who’d died thanks to this crazy Archmage. It felt right to use some of them. Ryoka threw a bottle and watched it splash into the ground.
“Oh crap. I think that was a healing potion. Salamani—let me borrow your wand!”
“One second. This is for you, Archmage! [Fireball]! [Fireball]!”
The Mage Runner shot them at the invisible mansion—whose protections were actually weakened enough to reveal a huge, rather lovely seaside mansion. It even had glass windows on the front; the back had turned into an ugly stone compound. Ryoka Griffin laughed as the wind blew surf at the mansion. If this didn’t work they’d—they’d just leave! Or find a bunch of crap and throw it on the front door or something.
The three were so busy venting their fury and shouting obscenities that the Archmage of Izril had to repeat herself three times before Ryoka heard the voice.
“What are you doing?”
The City Runner, Courier, and Vampire girl froze. Fierre stopped waving the bottle of alcohol and the wand. Salamani dropped the scroll and whirled. Ryoka looked up. Then she turned around.
Archmage Valeterisa hovered in the air. Not alone, either. Her shadow familiars—nearly a hundred of them—were flitting about her. An army of Golems had snuck up on the three from behind. Oh—but what really caught the eye was the giant maw of shadows hovering over their heads. Contained, but reaching for them, full of malice.
Ready to drop.
The three froze. Ryoka Griffin stared up at the Archmage of Izril. She stared at them. Her eyes were flickering.
“Recalling memories…intruders…no audio logs kept…who are you? Answer before I kill you. You have set fire to my isle…how many [Messages]? Count: 4,388…ah. Damage to property estimated…answer me. Who are you?”
Ryoka Griffin hesitated. But Salamani and Fierre were frozen. So the City Runner, in that way of hers, having experience with Dragons, absent [Necromancers], and so on, spread her hands.
“Uh…Runners? We have a message for you, Archmage Valeterisa.”
The hovering [Mage]…stopped. All of her fragmented thoughts. All of her separate selves…finally came together. She became one once more and realized only now, how much she had lost.
And it had all come from a single young woman. Valeterisa’s vast intellect focused on her. Each self joining together. Mainly because the girl’s statement was so ridiculous she couldn’t believe it.
“You. Are Runners? You have a delivery for me?”
She looked at her burning isle. The spells, summoned monsters still dueling with her defensive spells. The spells still in effect, sending a burning rain after the rodents—
At Ryoka Griffin. The City Runner saw Valeterisa staring at her. An old woman—okay, in her sixties. No spring hen. Looking surprisingly…normal. A woman, distracted, but no grand, otherworldly features like Az’kerash.
Except for perhaps the faintest tinge of magic that hung about her. Power, waiting to be kept, that made the air excited.
The Archmage of Izril waited. Ryoka Griffin spread her hands weakly. And she said the only thing that came to mind.
“Well…it worked, didn’t it? We have a message for you from Lady Ieka Imarris. Do you have a seal?”
Author’s Note: A longer chapter! Oops! But we are on Day 6 and I told you that it wouldn’t all be interludes. Here. We. Are.
Let me know what you thought! I have one more chapter left in me, then two weeks off! And I’m looking forwards to you! There’s a lot I could say—insert The Last Tide something something here…a lot of you have bought it and I’m very grateful!
I’m just tired. But look—is it good? One last chapter! One last chapter! Thanks for reading! Look forwards to what happens next!
Delanay by JohnDoe!
Nanette and Califor by kazakka!
Mrsha and Ieka Plushie Emojis! Happy birthday, Plushie!