So I said I was going to write more letters, but guess what? You’ve probably heard by now of the war, and so I can’t tell you anything. So I’m writing this down until the day I can. I need it to keep my sanity.
If this letter-diary cuts off, I’m sorry. I love both of you.
* * *
So, let me get this straight. Xavier thought to me. First she turns you down, then she . . . kisses you?
On the cheek. I thought back.
Yes, yes, that makes all the difference in the world. What the Dungeon?
You know, I do have a way to read people’s thoughts now. Alice Black thought to both of us. You might want to be careful where you think.
We both blushed.
Where we thought was the Council’s Chamber, a massive DA Bubble inside the Palace of the Stone. It was jam-packed with delvers in a rainbow mass of auras, standing behind us in the semicircular rows of benches. Some kind of statistics mage acting as a stenographer sat by a desk with three floating quills, each transcribing every word that was said. The three High Justices sat on their seats, and against the wall were the six Councilmen and one Councilwoman. We ourselves were seated just outside the tiled platform in the center. Everyone looked intently at the stand.
Adam Black was currently on said stand, an upraised platform with a podium and a truth dais. He wore his Black Dragon Scale Mail, and stood at attention, as if the platonic ideal of a warrior.
“Honorable Councilmen,” he said. “As I have already explained in my report, it was extremely unlikely that we would have left the Core alive. If we had died, then no matter what we had or had not done with the shardgear, it, too, would be lost. Would you rather we had lost them on principle?”
“Principle is not the question here, Mr. Black,” Henry Smith, Speaker of the Council said. “Precedent is. Suppose another superparty, just like yours, were to enter the Core and find another Prismatic chest. Would not, they, too, be justified in using it? Soon we will see nothing but shardgear used on the lower Floors.”
“I object,” Hagel, our lawyer, said. His Black Dragon Scale Suit was as immaculate as he was. “Is this a political discourse or testimony?”
“I was answering his question, Mr. Rand.”
I took a deep breath, rather than snarl in anger. Alice Black, who doubtlessly could hear it with her high Perception, thought calmly to me. Ignore the theatrics. Henry Smith is bringing up a legitimate point, and the whole purpose of this testimony is to decide what to do. Politics is, and has always been, a sausage factory.
They had factories just for making sausage? I thought back.
Earlier? For everything.
I missed whatever outraged Adam Black, but the slam of his fist onto the podium before him and his shouted answer was loud enough. “If you wish to go down into the Core and see what it’s like, we are happy to escort you!”
“Please maintain a steady volume, sir,” the stenographer said. The quills had scrawled Adam Black’s words in a frantic large text.
“Again, this is not about you,” Henry Smith said. “This is about the City. You are not on trial. We are simply requesting your testimony.”
Some way to do that, Xavier thought to me.
“I have given it, for what good it has done,” Adam Black said.
Emily Ramsey, a Councilwoman, spoke softly but firmly. “It has done good. It will do more good if you do not react emotionally to the proceedings.”
I could see Hagel’s face move in telepathy with Adam Black. “I understand, Councilwoman. Please forgive my outburst.”
Adam always hated politics, Alice Black thought to me. Exactly like Dad.
I didn’t know how to reply to that. But in truth, no one knew how to react to any of this. We delvers are quasi-immortal, and can be revived from the dead. But deep in the Dungeon, we had found shardgear—weapons and armor made from dead delvers.
And so far, no attempt to revive them had proven successful.
“In your report, you said that some of the shardgear was stolen by members of an independent group with you,” Henry Smith said. “How did this occur?”
The “independent group” was none other than the Undercity, that massive camp of delvers on the 29th Floor, but we couldn’t say that in public. Nor could Adam Black even mention it, or the truth dais would force him to speak more details. I saw more telepathy between Hagel and Adam Black. “One of the—one of them had significant invisibility. The other was a Nekomimi, and simply polymorphed into a cat and snuck away. It’s possible the former simply carried the latter in his cloak.”
No one was allowed to speak, lest it disrupt the recording. But I could tell most of the blues and higher in the audience had taken a deep breath. Both Michael and Cat were violets, and I knew Michael had political connections with the Undercity itself.
The City and the Undercity had generally left each other alone. But it didn’t take a genius to realize this was a political incident in the making.
“Please wait a moment,” Henry Smith said, and nodded to a Sonic Mage by the Council. The mage cast a Field of Silence. The Council conferred, the field muting their words. I thought they had already known that Cat and Michael had done this, but now everyone knew. Perhaps they had not thought their questions through.
I supposed there were accidents in every kind of factory, sausage included.
Another nod by Henry Smith, and the odd acoustics of the Field of Silence dissipated. “Thank you for the time.” The Councilman said. “Next, we have Alexander Kenderman . . .”
What? Why me? Wouldn’t they go to Alice or Isaac Black next? But, lacking instruction, I got up and made my way to the stand. Adam Black gave me a weary nod on my way.
I stepped up to the stand.
“You are Alexander Kenderman?” Henry Smith asked.
“I am, sir,” I said.
“If you would spell your name for the record?”
So it went. It was really the same set of questions, modified slightly since I hadn’t been the superparty leader. I wondered if they were going to question my entire party.
“Now, you yourselves survived the entire battle with the 75th Boss.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I had not been terrified in the battle. It had happened so quickly I hadn’t had the time to even think. But with my Intelligence of 178, I could remember it all perfectly, and as I told of the strange, seven-layered Boss I found my voice starting to shake.
They weren’t interested in the Deepest Core the Boss had guarded, which I found strange. Perhaps they were trying to focus the discussion on shardgear, and not our discovery of the next layer of the Dungeon.
“Now in the chests this Boss dropped, was there anything out of the ordinary?”
“Excuse me?” I asked. “There were all sorts of unique drops.”
“Yes, but what sorts?” asked Akachi Mackenzie, the Councilman in charge of the treasury.
Great. Because I knew the second Cornerstone was in one of those drops, and if I messed this up . . . But of course, I shouldn’t have known. As far as anyone outside of the High House’s inner ring, the Cornerstone—that magical, mysterious stone that gave us all quasi-immortality—was unique.
Hagel, I thought in desperation. I know what they found in one of the Boss Chests. Get me out of this.
Say the following: “I am prohibited from discussing loot division.” Hagel thought back without skipping a beat.
“I am prohibited from discussing loot division,” I said. “I can say I did not find any shardgear either in my personal chests, or in any Boss chest I opened, nor did—” I almost slipped and said what I saw in the loot division, which would have contradicted Hagel’s line. “To the best of my knowledge, I did not see any shardgear.”
I could see a tiny bit of relief in Henry Smith. Shardgear was a crisis enough. If I spouted off about a second Cornerstone on a truth dais, what chaos would I have unleashed?
A few perfunctory questions later, I was dismissed.
* * *
I wanted nothing more than to go to my suite and slump over the bed, but Alice Black made a beeline for me the moment we teleported back to our Spire.
“This way,” Alice Black told me, and dragged me not so gently by the hand into a private room.
She was still as breathtaking as the first moment I had seen her beautiful face and gorgeous blond hair. That face now did not hold a smile, and I wilted under her stare.
“Will it help if I apologize?” I asked.
“The entire reason we convinced the Council not to subpoena me specifically was that I saw the second Cornerstone,” Alice Black said. “If I mentioned it . . .”
“Why me, then?” I asked.
“You were a party leader who saw the 75th Boss defeated. Of course they’d want to know how it happened for the record. Now, who told you about the second Cornerstone?”
I wondered if telling her Elise did it would be betraying Elise.
“I figured,” Alice Black said with a sigh.
Oh. Trash. The Deep Telepathy bracelet I gave her.
“I’m not even going to report this,” Alice Black said. “Dungeon, I’d probably have done the same if I was in her shoes. But be very careful. You realize what it means that there’s another one?”
“Politics?” I asked.
“And religion. There are seven labyrinth religions that would be disproven with the existence of a second Cornerstone. The City might not be friendly to them, but it can’t . . .” Alice Black trailed off. “Have you ever wondered why there’s never been a riot in the City since the Law was cast?”
“I didn’t realize, no,” I said.
“Delvers are simply too powerful. A fight between delvers can do immense collateral damage. A widespread riot could thrust the City into chaos. So the Law punishes them immensely. But the City, despite the Law, is always just on the verge of anarchy. Too many freedom lovers, too many of all kinds willing to kill to get their way, and everyone is armed to the teeth. It’s a dangerous mix.”
“I remember reading this was one of the reasons for the Law, come to think of it,” I said.
“So!” Alice Black said with a finger in the air. “Realize that for its faults, the Council simply wants to keep the peace. And we, the High Houses, are part and parcel of it all.”
I took a deep breath. No doubt Alice Black was watching me struggle through my thoughts.
“I’m not angry,” she said.
“Alice Black, can you please stop reading my thoughts?” I asked.
She blinked, but pulled off her bracelet. The bracelet I had, in fact, given her.
“What could I have done differently?” I asked.
“Informed Hagel, at least, that you knew. It was quick thinking on your part that stopped this from being much worse.”
* * *
I was too tired, after that, to do much else, but I thought it was good to be with my party.
“I think we should delve,” Elise said brightly, at our table in the common room, after we had eaten our daily crystal. I had been a delver for over a year now, and my hunger for crystal had never abated. As a violet, I had to eat at least a violet crystal each day, and I still didn’t want to think about how much money that was. “Just to de-stress.”
“Since when is going into the Dungeon less stressful?” Xavier asked.
“When the City is more?” Elise retorted.
Xavier shrugged his hands in defeat.
“We could just go chill at Mical’s,” I said.
Sampson nodded. “I could use a bite to eat,” he said. “Of food food, not crystal.”
Andy nodded as well.
* * *
And so in a few minutes we were in Mical’s herb cafe. Last we had seen her, she was upset with our House for forcing her to deliberately overcharge for her goods. And yet as she walked to us I could see she was a tiny bit less tense, or at least more resigned. Her bonnet covered much of her freckled face.
“Feeling better?” I asked her when she came by.
“I’ve been busy,” was her only reply.
I looked around to see all the many colors of delvers who came to Mical’s cafe. I saw no violets like ourselves, nor the pure red of a new delver, but I saw many auras of colors in between surrounding the other customers. If I tilted my head just slightly I could see with surfacer eyes: skin and hair of every human color, and the common but wildly varying mixes of the Cityborn.
All of us, in the end, were delvers. And in the end, that’s what really mattered in the City.
I noticed a large group of similarly dressed delvers: all wearing skullcaps and all had beards. They sat around a “table” that had been made from smaller tables pushed together. One smiling young man had a silver warhammer slung across his back. Something struck me about them as strange, but I could also hear a Field of Silence around them, so I decided it was better not to stare.
“I’ve always wondered what’s up with delvers and food,” Xavier said, sipping from his soup. “We can eat crystal, and we don’t need to eat real food. But why does real food still taste good? Why do we want it? For that matter, why do we like crystal?”
“Crystal is delicious,” I said.
“So is food,” Sampson said, eating his soup so rapidly it was best described as drinking it.
“Don’t we all ask questions like this?” asked a blue delver in a white coat, getting up coming to our table. He was older, but still with an intensity in his olive, wrinkled figure. “Apologies for my interruption, but . . . oh my, you are Xavier D’Ambrose, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Xavier asked with confusion. “Who are you?”
“William Keith Ivy, 100th Statistics Archmage,” the delver said. “More commonly known as the W. K. Ivy.”
Xavier practically knocked over the table in his haste to shake his hand. “I’m such a fan of your work!” Xavier said.
W. K. Ivy waved away the praise, as if it was more inconvenient than anything else. “I was hoping to speak to any of you, really. All of the 75th Qualified have been so busy . . .”
“I’m missing a little context here,” I said.
“The Ivy Institute is the most prestigious labyrinthological research group in the whole world,” Xavier said, as if its leader was not right next to him. “They figured out the Tier system, the way Bosses repeat if the same party tries the same Lock, and so on . . .”
“We would be very happy for any one of you to come talk to us,” W. K. Ivy said. “We would compensate you for your time.”
I thought about the near-disaster earlier today, so I carefully said, “Unfortunately, I’d have to pass.”
“Same,” Elise said. “I do respect your work, however.”
Andy shook her head, and Sampson frowned.
If Xavier was any brighter, we would have all taken light damage. “Of course, sir. Any time.”
Just don’t tell him about the second Cornerstone, I warned him over telepathy.
I won’t. Promise.
* * *
Alice Black wore a frown in the common room when we returned. I hesitated to approach her, but I was curious what she was thinking.
“What’s up, Alice Black?” Xavier asked. I winced.
In answer, she stood up and surveyed the room. “How many of you are willing to delve to the Core?” she asked loudly.
Every hand shot up.
“And how many of you are willing if there’s no hope of retrieval if you die? No insurance will cover it, and you might become shardgear.”
The hands stayed up. Alice Black looked surprised.
“Can’t keep a delver from delving,” I said proudly.
“Seriously,” Elise said. “If I had to, I’d delve all the way to the bottom myself.”
Alice Black also looked gladdened. “Thank you all. In a year or two, we’ll all be known as not only a Deep-capable House, but the largest Core-capable House. All thanks to you guys.”
I could not help but grin myself, thinking of the future.
For back then, I believed I knew it.
Thank you for your support!