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DC/RH BK II, CH 33: Deliberations Resolved

Been having trouble writing lately. My trusty laptop isn’t doing too well. It is one thing to be slow but the crashes and freezes are a huge bummer. Put things on pause while I looked around for a good, future-proof replacement but times are tough and money is tight. So no luck.

Gotta save up some more. Until then, this one will have to keep trucking and when it crashes lil’ bro will have to share his.

Chapter Thirty-three: Deliberations Resolved

Twenty-two. That’s how many fights had broken out over delve slots in the past three days. Always, when it seemed things were settling down, the dungeon threw another clog into the loom. It had to be intentional at this point. Gauwyn had just finished dealing with the matter of the fifth-floor skill slates and brought the faeries to the discussion table, only for this to happen. While he was stuck attending meeting after meeting, the dungeon town was boiling over. The Warden did not need to roam among his townspeople to know something fundamental had changed. 

‘All of this could have been avoided if we’d kept a lid on the news’, he told himself for what seemed like the thousandth time. 

Alas, that was not to be. Thorn, that crafty faerie bastard, made sure to leak the news knowing full well the furore he would raise, and now every adventurer from here to Deven knew that the Realm of Valour offered hope of advancement. It had nearly triggered a riot. It didn’t matter that nine-tenths of them would be slaughtered long before facing the Eighth floor Boss. Hundreds of adventurers camped outside the guild clamouring for answers and delve slots. He was forced to issue an official statement to the public on behalf of the Adventurers’ Guild while the mages on hand tested the new skill slate and its offerings to hell and back. It was not enough. 

Testing, proper testing of a secret art, would take months, if not years. There was a need to discover things such as strengths, weaknesses, limits, possible complications, affinities, skills, ascension speeds, mapping the progression, and short and long-term effects on practitioners as well as compare studies to other known secret arts. That was how it went for ‘normal’ secret arts. This one was created by a dungeon. It required training within the said dungeon, for God’s sake. Who knew what pitfalls it held? However, there simply wasn’t enough time to get testing done. 

It didn’t matter! The adventurers of Black Briar Town wanted their secret arts, and they wanted them now! It was just a matter of time until some party got their hands on a skilled slate, and when that happened, they were sure to practise it, with or without the guild’s say-so. Gauwyn feared that even if the new skill slates were proven to be malicious and ineffective, there would still be adventurers lining up to practice them.

The irony here was that the adventurers were already ascending the ranks thanks to the dungeon. Groups like Utir’s bears had seen a steady increase in power and skill over the last few months. So much so that he had requested that Utir himself take tests to reevaluate his parameters. The constant fights in the mana-rich environment the dungeon provided were already pushing every adventurer towards their next promotion. It was slow and steady progress but progress all the same. If secret arts were added into the mix…

A harsh ringing sound, a poor imitation of an actual bell, alerted him to an incoming call. Pulling the noise-making crystal out of an expanded pouch, he sent a small pulse of mana into it. The caller was unknown. This was his private messenger. Gauwyn could count on the number of people who knew it on his fingers.

‘Who could it possibly…’ he wondered as he accepted the transmission. 

The crystal drew on his mana, creating a small windowed display above his hand that revealed the stern face of the Emperor of Basileus. 

“YOUR MAJESTY!” Gauwyn choked out, falling onto his left knee. 

“Rise, Warden!” came the Emperor’s voice. It sounded tired.

Gauwyn rose slowly, eyes fixed on the image being displayed. His guts were twisting themselves into knots. It was understandable. He had just been called by the Emperor. Directly. He had only ever met the man once. The day he’d sworn his oaths as a Warden, and even that had been a mere ceremony. Now, he was face to face with him, figuratively. How? Why? What was he supposed to…

“Secure the room!” commanded his monarch.

Without even thinking, Gauwyn moved to obey. With a quickly muttered phrase and an overly effusive pulse of mana, his office went into lockdown. The door locked itself, and the shutters closed, cutting off the light of the morning sun. The room darkened instantly, calling attention to the wave of magic that went through the room and walls seeking out any trace of divinatory magic or monitoring spells. A second later, a nondescript paperweight on his desk flashed a green light to signal that the office was clear.

 Before he could even announce this news, the Emperor nodded.

“Good! Now, we may begin!” the man said in an omniscient tone. The crystal only projected an image of the man from the chest up. It was a small image barely larger than Gauwyn’s hand, but the Emperor’s presence seemed to fill the room to the point where the Warden felt like he was the one intruding on his space.

“Accept our apologies for calling on you without notice, but recent affairs necessitate a response from the golden throne!”

Gauwyn gulped. ‘Was it that serious?’ he wanted to ask, but the Emperor’s eyes were fixed on him, an assessing gaze that made him feel like he was being judged. 

“You have been at the dungeon site since its discovery”, the bearer of those eyes said. “Please, in your own words, tell me about this ‘Realm of Valour’!”

They had been at this for hours. Gauwyn had all but poured his brains out before Emperor Cauis. Everything he knew, he’d said. Everything he suspected about the dungeon, about the faeries in it, about his dungeon town and even about the strategic resources council had been aired out. Even things he wasn’t sure he knew, as well as stuff he’d only put together in the telling, had been said. It was surprisingly easy to talk to the Emperor. The man was a good listener, only interjecting with words that furthered the conversation, helping Gauwyn put two and two together or making him go over something from an angle he hadn’t considered before. The Warden found himself saying more than he had ever planned to.

“You are of the opinion that Thorn Clearwing planned this reveal?” questioned his monarch.

“No!” the Warden. “Not exactly!”

He couldn’t have. Grimsby’s after-action report notwithstanding, the events unfolded too organically to be a setup. There was something there but…

Searching for the words, he said. “I certainly believe this was planned, but I do not think Clearwing intended for things to work out this way. Matters with the dungeon have progressed at a steady, intentional pace up until Duke Galronde’s visit. The adventurers had only just developed the strategies necessary to beat the fifth floor. Thoughts of the eighth were still far into the future. But then, Duke Galronde made a move in person, disrupting whatever they had planned and forcefully bringing them to heel.”

That sounded more right to Warden’s ears. He himself had been forced to deal with the Duke’s sudden intrusion into the dungeon’s affairs, and he had been a beneficiary. 

“I believe Clearwing seized on his friends’ desire to see the dungeon to reveal this before it was originally intended so as to outmanoeuvre Duke Galronde.”

“Then he has succeeded!” The Emperor pronounced.

“Your majesty?” he asked curiously, detecting a trace of admiration in the Emperor’s voice.

“We understand you requested that the portal network be extended to Black Briar Town. The Golden Throne will see to it that this is promptly met. In the meantime, gather your most trustworthy men … from across the empire if you have to and muster a garrison. You have writ to do whatever you must to secure the town and its riches! Henceforth, Black Briar Town and its environs will be an imperial holding and will be administered as such!”

Gauwyn sat straighter at the Emperor’s clipped tone, his ears noting every command.

“We will issue an edict granting ennoblement and other such rewards to the heads of such parties as are able to conquer the eighth and subsequent floors of this Realm of Valour and offer their rewards to the empire. Alongside this will be another regarding the private sale, smuggling, and theft of the dungeon’s more significant goods and the punishments such acts would entail. Additional protections for the dungeon are also in order.”

Emperor Caius paused here, seemingly deliberating something. He reached for something next to him. It was outside the transmission frame, so the Warden could not tell what it was. 

“In the meantime, Warden, focus on securing our new fief. In a fortnight, we will have Prince Aureus make the journey over. Speak with Clearwing, and have him prepare. On that day, he, his dungeon master and their entire cohort of creatures will swear fealty to the Golden Throne!”

The Warden nodded grimly, saying nothing as he feared his tongue would fail him. It was abundantly clear that his already complicated situation had just gotten more complex. 

“And if they refuse, your majesty?” he asked worriedly. 

In his private room, the Emperor set his jaw, right hand still clutching his god-slaying spear. 

“They would not!” he told the Warden confidently.

Few knew it, but there was an ironclad law in the Basilean Empire governing this matter, one of the few that had never been broken. It has persisted till this day since the great founding and the Gods War that preceded it. It was an oath that all gods that wished to operate within the boundaries of the Golden Empire had to swear. Those who refused had but one end. DEATH! An extradivine dungeon would be no different.

Next to him, the ancestral spear thrummed, sending soothing vibrations and an assuring, all-conquering might through his hand into his body. As Caius ended his transmission with the Warden, his mind went back to another conversation he had in this room.

“Thy ancestor, Basileus, wast a sir curs’d with opportunity. T wast for the valorous reason we hath called him the doom of the Dorthon Empire. The sir couldst not walketh ten feet without stumbling on something of use to the campaign!” Duke Galronde said with a small smile.

“It doest maketh one think. How is’t yond just as ominous portents stir in the North, his heir finds himself beset with a dungeon which pours out treasured weapons and martial powers?” 

A part of him hated how prophetic the fae lord’s words proved. Just yesterday, he received word that The Principality of Hardlyn, a northern kingdom disturbingly close to their borders, had fallen to a coup by Dorthon-aligned forces. What remained of its former rulers were now beseeching him for aid. Cauis could almost see the storm of war growing near. Currently, kingdoms to the north and west were the most at risk. These kingdoms, which separated from the empire under misguided ideals of independence during the empire’s tumultuous years, were now looking to him for aid.

“This one fears terrible things crest the horizon, childe. Out yond, something is clearly stirring. Thou has best prepare!”

It was all happening too fast, and ordinarily, he would be caught flatfooted by this. The signs and warnings came too late. His preparations had only just begun. Thankfully, he had, in his lands, a dungeon that poured out weapons and skills aplenty. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to destroy it.

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