Chapter Nine: Variance
When he walked out of the guildhall, Nader was met with one of his disciples. The young boy clutched at his clothes, yelling, “Master! Master! I figured it out. I know why the buildings feel so strange. The people here must have bound an earth elemental into service?”
For a moment, the hard set of Nader’s face softened. Kneeling, he gave the boy a pat on the head. “That’s very close, Blake. Well done!”
Sparing a glance at the Master Shaper, he informed his disciple, “Earth shaping is not a skill known only by earth elementals. Some gifted dwarves, as well as a couple of giants, are capable of it as well. In fact, Master Dwali here personally shaped this building.”
The boy’s eyes widened as he stared at the dwarf in astonishment. The old dwarf practically preened at the attention. Whether it was because of the boy’s admiration or the fact that his work was compared with that of an elemental, no one could say. Ignoring this, Nader quickly called one of the disciples to his side whiles bidding that the others look after themselves until he returned. Together, the members of the small meeting departed to the dungeon.
The plan was simple, rather than waste time arguing with them, Nader was taking the provisional council to the dungeon to prove his theory. The druid’s heart beat with excitement. If he was right, this was a discovery unlike any other. If he was wrong, though, he was making a fool of himself in front of his new colleagues. No pressure!
“There are three primary forms of variance in magical creatures”, Nader explained as his disciple drew a summoning circle on the dungeon floor.
Finding a place for the circle was easy. They just took the first empty cavern they saw. The ritual would work anywhere in the dungeon. The only form of preparation required was the circle and the offering.
“The first and most common type of variance is one of form”, Nader continued. “That is when the creature’s physiology is different from others of its kind in one way or the other. The second is magic. This one is pretty self-explanatory. For example, a creature whose species uses fire magic being born with ice instead. Variation of the soul or spirit is the last. It is also the rarest and strangest. Soul variants can have odd abilities, but most are generally smarter, more perceptive and charming. They are the type to become commanders or lords among their kin.
“Dungeons being among the penultimate of magical beings can possess any of these variations. Those variant in form either express it in their make or in their creatures. For instance, a normal dungeon is subterranean but imagine one that completely underwater, in the sky or somehow made of fire. Imagine also that its monsters had some kind of odd trait or unusual feature.”
“Like the Giant Warrens?” Gauwyn asked.
“Exactly like the warrens!” the druidmaster affirmed.
The Giant Warrens was an infamous dungeon in the south of the kingdom where the giants lived. Perhaps because the very first sapients it encountered were giants, it compensated. As a result, everything in the Giant Warrens was extra large. It was the only place that Gauwym had ever seen a rat the size of a bear. It caused a lot of commotion when it was first discovered, but now it was just another peculiarity to note.
“Dungeons with variant magic as the ones that spawn creatures with bizarre magical attributes. Often one or more types of magic are overly strong within the dungeon, and most of its monsters will take after it. Imagine a dungeon where nearly every creature has access to fire magic or a dungeon where the magical beasts are themselves variant, possessing magical abilities their species should not possess.
“And what of soul variant dungeons?” Count Allerton asked, intrigued by the discussion.
“Those are the wily ones. Newborn dungeons are not unlike the children of magical beasts. They rely on naught but instinct. Nevertheless, they are children with power over creation. A soul variant is different. They learn at accelerated rates. They develop their consciousness and speech rapidly, and most of all, they are fiercely intelligent and innovative. A soul variant is the most dangerous kind of dungeon because all dungeons are already powerful beyond belief, but they are the ones with the minds to use that power to its greatest effect.”
Nader realised that he had the rest of the provisionary council hanging on his every word. Count Allerton, in particular, looked deep in thought. “If soul variant dungeons are so incredible and dangerous, I’m curious why you are so excited about the variant divinities.”
“Because it concerns divinity!” the druidmaster exclaimed like it should be obvious.
“Ordinary creatures only have three primary attributes. Dungeons have four. Remember, dungeons are equivalent to numen or land gods. That means they possess divinity. It is why they have the powers they do. Without it, they cannot warp their domains to their desires. This means that theoretically, there is a possibility of variance in divinity.”
“You’ve seen a variant divinity before”, the warden accused.
The druid stopped in his tracks debating how to answer that question. “I am not allowed to speak about it, but yes. I have met a variant landvaettir. It possessed power that boggled the mind, wisdom and perception I could not fathom and the ability to grant boons like they were mere trinkets. Land gods have control over their territories, but there are obvious limits. This one pushed those limits and had them give way.”
“And you’re certain that is the case here?” the warden asked.
“We’re about to find out”, Nader told him. His disciple was finished with the circle. It was time to perform the ritual
Spirit of the land. Tignar’s child. Spirit of sparkling stone.
Answer my call.
Mana bringer. Life-giver. Creator of the hidden depths
Heed my plea.
Voidstone. Elite Dungeon. Realm of Valour.
Come to me.
I grant you this offering, a minor sacrifice to invoke your spirit.
Speak so this child may hear.
Grace me with your presence.
Come to this circle of stone.
Parley with a servant of the land.
“You’re calling the blasted thing here?” a suddenly unsure dwarf asked hesitantly. “I thought you were conducting a test.”
“If I may”, Nader’s disciple said, stepping between his teacher and the other men. He did not believe that they would interrupt the ritual in progress, but you could never be too sure.
“This is the only way to know for sure. If master is right, a summoning will invoke the dungeon’s consciousness and let us speak with it. We can obtain confirmation straight from the source this way.”
“I thought only soul variant dungeons could speak?” Count Allerton asked in confusion.
The Warden was the one to answer the question this time. “Usually, yes. It often takes years for other kinds of dungeons to become capable of communicating coherently. In the meantime, they often make their pixies do so on their behalf, even then it’s mostly instinct and desire.”
“Correct!” the young disciple said, surprised at the Warden’s knowledge. “I have seen my master use this ritual several times. Should the dungeon’s spirit be as capable as my master believes you will have your answer soon. Should it not, you can always question the pixie that appears.”
Brandr watched the new party with a wary eye. The Elder from before was back again and with him were a few others of comparable power. The old man performing the ritual was especially worthy of note. For one thing, he had a spell that allowed him to directly call on the dungeon core.
The man’s voice was compelling in a way that Brandr did not understand. He could choose to ignore the call, but that was only because his power was so much greater than his summoner’s. Were the scales reversed, that would not be the case. Even with his resistance, his instincts still suggested he go. There was a strange principle at play here, something akin to a minor law. That alone was enough to make the former daolord curious. Was a general law for spirits or one that targeted dungeons? That required some scrutiny. However, just as he made his mind to answer, a sudden transmission cut him short.
“Please!” Thorn said, his voice coming across their link for the first time in weeks.
“Allow me to do this!” the sprite lord requested. “For your sake and mine!”
Brandr considered this for a moment. He was not petty enough to deny Thorn out of spite, especially if the fae could be of aid. However, boundaries needed to be set. Listening to the beckoning cal, he decided that it was a matter for another time. Right now, he would simply watch.
“Alright!” he told Thorn. “Just this once.”
“Why isn’t it working?” Count Allerton asked impatiently.
“I don’t know. It is resisting the summoning somehow.”
“Summon stronger then!” the nobleman suggested.
“No!” “Being too pushy would only piss it off. I’ll increase the offering and try again.”
Adding a small pile of miscellaneous feathers, the druid called out again. Nothing happened, at first but then the prickling sensation of his hairs standing on end sent alarm bells ringing in his head. Stopping, he looked around the cavern. Nothing out of the ordinary stood out.
‘What’s wrong?” The warden asked, instantly catching on.
“I’m not sure”, the druid confessed.
The dwarf, asked hopefully, “Are we stopping the ritual?”
Nader considered it. It would be against their interests to stop now. Plus, it would significantly damage his credibility. Turning once more to his summoning circle, he made to speak the words when he was interrupted.
“Twice you’ve called, by the rule of three”, a sibilant voice said in the shadows. “To do so again would be three by three. Is it wise to bind so strongly for a first meet?”
Everyone whirled around to face it, weapons drawn. None of them, save perhaps Nader and his disciple, had expected things to go smoothly. They were in a dungeon for god’s sake. The entire party was on guard from the moment they entered. Now, they searched for their unseen adversary. At first, they were greeted with nothing, but eventually, the druid’s superior spiritual senses saw through the magic at play. Focusing his mana, Nader caught a soft distortion in the shadows next to the cavern wall.
“Begone spirit, you are not invited!” he yelled.
“Are you sure?” Thorn said, walking closer. The small gathering was treated to the sight of a short man walking out of the shadows. “You have done nothing but call my master since you entered. Did you not want an answer?”