James set down his stone mug on the bar of Gil’s Tavern, “Another one, please.”
“Sure thing James,” the barkeep said. His name was Terry, a bear of a man. He was one of the few soldiers that survived the downfall of the Outpost. Since James and Torunn took over, he had resigned himself to run the tavern during the day and happily laid down his weapons for good. “Bread?” He asked as he set a mug of ale in front of James, a loaf in his other hand.
“Thanks,” said James. He took a bite of the bread. It was hard from storage, but the ale made it pliable in his mouth. He turned around in his stool as he chewed. Regulars sat in their normal spots, making small talk to pass the time as they waited for excitement to walk through the door. The Tavern was a good place for that. It was one of the first public buildings when you entered the city from the Savanna side. As such, Martyrs on patrol stopped in before turning in their quests, as did any merchants on their way back from the long journey to Dreng’s Rest. The survivors that lived in the Outpost before the Hedgemon’s took the city were slowly getting accustomed to their new lives. The ones that still harbored hate for magic sulked in the shadows, but most of them were harmless. James figured they hated having to defend their walls every night more than they hated magic and those that welded it. Under his rule, they could live their lives in peace as long as they gave up their dislike of Perturber’s, or at least, didn’t attempt to cage any of them. Only one person out of the fifty or so survivors had made trouble. Luckily, Omero got to him before he could do anything drastic. Good thing too. I don’t have time to set up an entire court system. Not with Patrick still missing. Still, the day will come when there is a disagreement or worse. What will I do then? His mug was empty now. “Terry, another.”
James pulled up his inventory tab and removed one Town Standing Point. The number in the lower portion of his overlay dropped by one, and an iron coin materialized into his hand. Remembering that he was in a position of high authority, he pulled out another coin for a tip.
“Thank you, sir,” Terry said with a nod. James nodded back.
The door to the Tavern opened, and a short man walked in. James did a double take. He was about five feet tall, short even for non-combatants and yet he carried a massive Warhammer on his back. He wore a long beard that could be tucked into his dark leather belt if needed. A dwarf? James watched the half-man grab an ale from Terry and head to a table by one of the three hearths. Everyone in the Tavern was watching him now. The constant din of conversation died, and hushed whispers grew from every table.
“Is that a Dwarf?” Asked James.
“Aye,” Terry said, careful not to react in any way that could be misconstrued as Perturber hate. He wasn’t sure if Dwarfs fit into that category, as he had never seen any of course, but he was happy to finally have a peaceful job in the tavern, so he played it safe.
James stepped away from the bar and carried himself and his mug to the Dwarf’s table. “May I join you?”
The Dwarf’s face was rigid with keen black eyes. They surveyed James quickly and with a slight curiousness, “Sitting down with a Dwarf? You must be the new leader of this place.”
“James,” he said, holding out a hand to the half-man. By James’s calculations, he was approaching eight feet tall now. And yet the Dwarfs strong grip fit within his hand perfectly. “These are some paws you have here,” James said, surprised.
The Dwarf chuckled. It was a hearty laugh. The type that comes when you are least expecting it and lingers long after you thought it would. James smiled. “They make it easier to hold a pickax. And a Warhammer for the days an axe won’t do the job. My name is Jordic.”
James nodded and offered his mug for tapping, “What do we owe the pleasure to, Jordic?”
Two mugs collided with a sharp echo of stone, “I have long heard rumors of a human city far past the land of Thimber. When I heard another, that the land of Thimber was being cleared of Hedgemon’s to set up trade routes, I thought it was finally time to see this old city. I was surprised to find out it was real.”
“Are you a traveler by trade?”
“All dwarfs are travelers by trade, whether we like it or not.”
“Why is that?”
Jordic smiled. His teeth were crooked but clean, “When you live forever, life tends to take you places.”
“You cannot die?” James asked, suddenly much more intrigued, as if that was possible.
“Not by natural causes,” he said before taking a long swig of his mug and setting it on the table, causing it to rock slightly. He looked James in the eyes and furrowed his brow, ‘You have never seen a Dwarf before, have you?”
James shook his head, “No, I am not originally from these parts.”
“Understandable. Not many people have seen us. We are born from the rock deep below the ground,” he frowned, “but no one has seen a new dwarf in ages. I’m not sure how many of us there are left, but all of us are sick of asking questions.” He gave James a wink.
“Fair enough,” said James, “I am sick of asking questions anyway.” He downed his mug and signaled for two more, “Last one though because I am the same as you in a way. How do you deal with immortality?”
“A day at a time.”
The two looked at each other again, no more ale in their mugs to provide a social buffer. James had been struggling with many things as of late. One of those things was his immortality. It was such a strange thing, re-spawning every time you died. Although each death didn’t leave any physical marks, the mind still remembered. It remembered every stab, every cut, and every bruise. Worse yet, it remembered each time you dealt those things to others. Over time, James could see his life becoming one drawn-out war. There would always be fights, especially in his new world. He couldn’t avoid them. But deep down, that is what he wanted to do. All this and more had been weighing on James, and yet the Dwarf had a simple solution, to take it a day at a time. It was so simple that it was almost funny. Hilarious really. A smile grew on his face as he studied the Dwarf looking back at him. Then laughter exploded from them both. It was unabashedly loud, taking no heed to the regulars that watched them interact with judging eyes.
James and the Dwarf continued telling stories about their immortality. A mug for each story and the Dwarf seemed to have a never-ending supply of them. James drank and listened to Jordic describe far away cities filled with all manner of creatures, floating sky dungeons, and underground rivers that you could float on top and enjoy the subterranean flora for as long as you wanted. Not all of his stories were pleasant though. His true age showed itself in his weathered face when he remembered the Lich King.
“He brought unity to the scum and villains, to the wrong sorts of Mystics, and to the lost and forgotten. His army washed over villages, cities, and entire lands, leaving behind nothing but the people he ripped the souls from to fuel his magic and equip his army.” Said Jordic.
“Until Salmaana came.” James said knowingly.
The Dwarf scoffed, “Salmaana!? Oh no.” He shook his head, “She didn’t come until much later. Hell, she probably wasn’t even born when the Lich King was truly powerful.” Now he leaned forward, across the table, “That creature spread his devastation and disease far across Aldenraj for years before she saved us,” he whispered. “Many dwarves and many more-”
“What’s Aldenraj?” James asked, beginning to sway a bit in his chair.
The dwarf spread his bulky arms into the air, “All of this. The soil we stand on. The rock beneath it. The sky above. It is all Aldenraj. How do-”
“Aldenraj,” James whispered underneath his mug, savoring the words. Then all at once, he stood up. “Come on. We must tell my people!” Jordic, who was tired from the perilous road through Thimber stood up and followed James. He was unsure how someone could be so ignorant of the world, but something about James reminded him of himself when he was a young Dwif. So for the first time in years, Jordic did something on a whim. He followed the hooting human out of the tavern and into the city streets.
It was late. The moon lingered high above the sky, illuminating stones and steel moist from the Great Savanna’s perpetual nighttime dew. Jordic’s had his covered caravan parked in a cobblestone alley next to the Tavern. “James, where are you going?”
“Everywhere,” he said as he turned around to face the dwarf and the slanted steps to Gill’s Tavern.
“Well,” Jordic said, “We will certainly need some ale for the road!”
Thirst. Bright Light. A dry mouth. James flicked his eyes open and was greeted by swaying Savanna grass. He sat up with a groan. At the edge of the clearing he must have made while sleeping, there were a pair of boots. James leaned forward and swatted them.
“Gahhh, what?” Michael said, rolling to his stomach and flattening more grass.
“What happened last night?” James said, blinking the sleep, or lack of it, from his eyes.
Michael sat up, the dark green Oana scales of his pants glimmering, “You woke up the entire city.” He rubbed his face, “Eugh, you were telling everyone the world was called Aldenraj. Everyone met Jordic.” He fell back down on his bed of grass, “I think we must have visited every building in the damn place… and drank all the ale.’
James shook his head and sat for a while, trying to recall it all and failing. He checked his notifications for answers instead.
Jordic punches you. Minus 10 hit points.
You punch Jordic. 7 damage dealt.
Jordic punches you. Minus 12 hit points.
You punch Jordic. 8 Damage dealt.
Michael punches you. Minus 9 hit points.
Alex punches you. Minus 32 hit points.
Son of an Ingo Bird, I must have tapped out after that one.
Congratulations! You have learned a new skill - Unarmed Combat!
Congratulations! You have learned a new building plan - Large Human Cabin
Congratulations! You have learned a new building plan - Extra Large Human Cabin
Congratulations! You have learned a new building plan - Reinforced Marble Wall
Congratulations! You have learned a new building plan - Magical Water Well
Congratulations! You have unlocked all basic human building plans! Your basic knowledge of human building styles now grants you the ability to design building plans!
Congratulations! Your Intelligence has surpassed level 40. You now have access to the Kingdom Builder interface.
Congratulations! Your Wisdom has surpassed level 40. Your Party Leader skill now increases the experience gained of those in your command.
James shot to his feet, “I can create building plans now!”
Michael only groaned at the news, but a voice hidden behind Savanna grass was more excited than him, “Told ya you could do it!” Jordic said. James watched as the Savanna grass parted to reveal the Dwarf. He looked as if he had a full nights rest and then some. “Here are your pants by the way. It turns out you were right on that part. They were too big for me.” The Dwarf bent over and pulled down his pants around the same time James realized he was wearing Aldenraj’s equivalent of a loincloth.
‘Why…” James said, taking his pants from the Dwarf and sliding his feet inside, “Never mind. I don’t want to know. What happened last night, besides us swapping clothes.”
“OOooo, buddy. A lot happened last night. I met your villagers. A lovely bunch of racists they are, huh?”
“Ehhh,” James said, “They are mostly harmless. Just a little sheltered is all.”
“Yea,” Jordic laughed, causing his belly to hop up and down, “I figured that out when you didn’t know the name of the soil you stand on. You need to build a better rapport with your merchants. They are a wealth of worldly knowledge.”
Michael coughed, “Its the Great Savanna. We at least knew that much.”
Jordic’s jolly expression died. He glanced at the pitiful pile that was Michael, to James and back. “What did he say?”
“The Great Savanna. That is where we are. We knew that much at least.” James replied with a shrug.
Jordic looked around. A fruitless effort, as he was barely able to see over the quickly recovering Savanna grass. “THIS,” he said, pointing both pointer fingers to the dirt, “Is the Great Savanna?” James nodded, just enough to get the message across without giving his head an opportunity to ache.
“You didn’t get a not-” James halted his question, remembering that the NPC wouldn’t have gotten a notification upon entering a new zone. “Nevermind.”
“Why didn’t you say so last night!” he looked around again, this time appreciating his limited scenery a bit more, “Never would I have thought a rumor about a hidden city would take me here” He met James’s eyes. His gaze was panicked. “James. You have no idea what you care for. You need to stop trading with other cities immediately. You… you…”
“What are you talking about?” James shouted. Michael was sitting up now.
“The Great Savanna is the only land with its heart still intact. It was whiped from every map in Aldenraj when the Lich King came. Its the only land that the he wasn't able to harvest and ruin. No wonder Salmaana chose to hide her spirit vessel here.” Michael shook his head at the realization James had told Jordic, a relative stranger, so much. James shook his head as well, always one to get a little too trusting after a shared ale, “The Lich-” The Dwarf unsheathed his Warhammer from his back and swung it with such speed James barely had time to blink. The weapon was pushed into the dirt now — a wisp of dull blue pollen floating from it.
No, James thought, taking a knee and glaring at Nordic to remove his weapon. The massive Warhammer moved to reveal a flattened Blue Nifrit. The thin roots that made up its many legs twitched, then went slack. The blue petals of the dying flower were silk on his dirty palms, “You can’t kill these Nordic. They are a part of The Great Savanna.”
The Dwarf shook his head, “None of that will matter if we don’t kill the Lich King. He will make it out of his prison given enough time. And when that happens, he will come here to take the Heart of the Great Savanna. This land will become like the rest of Aldenraj, only a shell of its former glory.”
Michael was standing, “Why do we need to stop trade? That is the only way we can get enough gold to bribe the Vagrant Praxk and get into the lower levels of the dungeon.”
“Because if there is anyone still loyal to the Lich King, they will be looking for the Great Savanna. If a merchant lets it slip that this is a real place, and not just a legend whispered to children, everyone will come. Millions will pile up outside your gates, begging to be let in.”
“Is that such a bad idea?” asked James.
“Yes.” Replied Jordic. “If the heart gets in the wrong hands we are all doomed. Ages ago, when Dwarfs first crawled from rock, every land had a source of magic. They took the forms of gems, swords, trinkets, almost anything. If the Lich King gets the last one, he will become unstoppable. But if we find it, we can use it to create more and repair the lands beyond here.”
James felt something scurry over his boots. Then he caught a glimpse of another Blue Nifrit running off to his right. He checked his map. They were running to the Outpost. Jordic’s face was desperate now. “Okay, what are you suggesting?”
The Dwarf sighed, “Well, last night you told me about your struggle to get to the Lich King, so I helped you get more building plans. We need to grow the Outpost’s defenses, and we need to stimulate trade enough so we can afford to bribe that Prakx that killed your Golem friend. But now we don’t have trade routes with the other cities to rely on, so we must create something of value without them. ”
“We?” asked James.
Jordic nodded, “Aye. I am with you now. A thousand Eagles couldn’t pluck me from the Great Savanna now that I know it’s real.”
The Outpost wasn’t too far away. It only took them ten minutes to walk to the gates. It took James another hour to recall all the merchant carts he had out on trade missions with the lands beyond Thimber, summon and brief his inner circle, and settle into the Grey Keep.
“This heart you speak of,” Torunn growled from his marble throne next to James’s, “Why have I never heard of it.”
Jordic faced the triple thrones of the Grey Keep, “I don’t know Chieftain, but I assure you it exists. You have a life here. Nothing beautiful grows beyond this place. Nothing but death and the creatures that thrive within it.”
James cleared his throat, “If it exists, we need find it. You can't protect something if you don't know where it hides,” he told Torunn. Then he turned his attention to Birger, who was standing behind the Chieftain’s throne, “I am going to have some new building plans soon. I need you to be ready to work on them in an hour. Highest priority. You can pause all other construction if you can’t finish it in time.”
“We will be ready,” Birger said, stepping forward as he spoke and excusing himself from the Keep with a bow when he finished.
“Now,” James started with a sigh, “We have a book that we suspect is tied to Patrick somehow. We have a theoretical gem or something hidden within the Great Savanna that the Lich King is likely after. And we have a near constant barrage of Hedgemon’s attacking our patrols in Thimber. Does anyone here have a solution to any of that?”
Michael, who sat in Frode’s marble throne when the Advisor was away, spoke up next, “You mentioned that you can create building plans now. I think you should try and create something for our crafters. If what Jordic says about the Vagrant Prakxs is true, and that we can bribe-”
“You always can,” Jordic interrupted, “None have ever refused my gold.”
“Then you haven’t met Noma,” James added, making it clear to his new friend that his brother was not to be interrupted.
“My point is,” Michael continued, confident enough in his prowess not to take the interruption personally, “Our best crafters can only create common items. If we cannot trade with other cities any more than we need to be able to craft something of higher value for this bribe. As it is now, we cannot.”
James nodded, “That gives us a path to solve one of our problems. I will find a way to create or help the Merchant’s Quarter craft something of great value. We will bribe the Praxk one way or another and take the fight to the Lich King once again.” He faced the room again, “What about the Heart of the Savanna. Who will go searching for it?”
“I will,” Torunn said roughly. James could already see that his Martyr brother had spent too much time in the Grey Keep. The walls always weighed heavily on him, as they did every Martyr other than Birger.
“Good,” said James, “Now what about the book? The Hedgemon’s?”
Michael motioned to Alex, who stood between his throne and James’s, “The Culture Initiative has finished our first project. A giant sun-dial between the Merchant and Soldier’s quarters. I would be more than happy to join Alex in repelling the Hedgemon’s.”
“Very well,” said James. He turned to Alex, “Since you have your soul sealed, I will need you when we go back into the dungeon to bribe the Praxk and clear the lower floors. Use this day as I figure out how to design building plans to train Michael to replace you as Commander.”
The door to the Keep swung open.
“Now, that only leaves the book.” James looked up to Sorrell, who was leaning over the balcony of the second floor and listening from above. That is why he didn’t notice a dark figure enter the open doorway at the other end of the Grey Keep’s main hall. It furled its wings into its back as it blocked out the sunlight that beamed from outside. Alex was the first to see. He crossed the 100 paces to the doorway in an instant.
“Abaddon?” he said. Then he turned to his Hedgemon guards, who were now unsure if they should have let the creature inside or not, “You did the right thing. He is an ally.”
“Greetings Alex,” Abaddon said, his half-rotten body now completely concealed under his robes, “We were hoping to find you here.”
“We?” Alex said, taking a step outside the door and peering around. The square court of the Grey Keep was a bright grey of flat marble all the way up to the dark iron fences. There was no one inside it, other than himself and his guards.
“Yes,” Abaddon chuckled and pointed up.
The peaks of the Impassable mountains lingered close. Tall towers of the Grey Keep attempted to match their height as they reflected the bright sun. Alex turned around. Above him, something blotted out that Sun. It only lasted an instant, but that imagery burnt itself into Alex’s mind for years to come. He did his best to follow the object through squinted eyes as it glided closer. Then all at once, the reason he lived and pressed on in this new strange world landed. She was even more beautiful than he remembered — the sunlight that she flew through seemed to stick to her. It flickered against her new golden robe and masked the outlines of her comely face.
“It's you,” Alex gasped.
Lilly smiled, “It's me.” She held out two hands and twirled. Her robed whirled at her knees, casting light in a circle as she went. Alex was enamored. He was vaguely aware of someone calling after him, but couldn’t keep his eyes off his lover.
“I’ll go deal with James,” Abaddon said, excusing himself with an unnoticed smile.
“You, have wings.” Said Alex. He meant it as a question, but it sounded more like a hesitant statement.
Lillyi nodded. Then she shifted uncomfortably. Not because her reunion with Alex was going differently than she expected, but because she wasn’t quite used to unfurling them yet. She rolled a shoulder, allowing the back of her robe to open and her wings to become free once again. She flexed her light magic like a muscle and all at once; they shot open.
Alex took in an unconscious breathe. Lilly’s wings were nothing like Abaddon’s. Where he had bones, she had blonde fur. Where he had thin and rotten webbing, she had golden feathers that gathered nearby light and trapped it within. Gorgeous. Just as you are, he thought. Then, as if forgetting himself, he shook his head and embraced her. He was careful not to disturb her new wings, but found that it wasn’t necessary. As his arms reached around her, they passed through her wings, as if they were only an illusion.
“You can’t hurt them. Don’t worry,” Lilly whispered into his ear.
“I am so glad you are back. It’s been an eternity.”
A hefty tome landed on a marble table with a puff of dust. Lilly gently scooped it up. “It’s a binding spell.” She said after flicking a few pages. “Mystics cast a curse and a binding spell onto these books and use them to track their enemies. The book will tell the story of whomever it is bound to, and the Mystics that have it will try to glean information of the whereabouts on who they are tracking. It’s an old spell, but still effective.”
James shifted in his uncomfortable throne. Everyone with a mission had left after greeting Lilly, leaving the Grey Keep eerily quite. His voice echoed as he spoke, “Patrick must have bound himself to this book when we first entered the Ancient Library.” Lilly nodded in reply.
“How do you know all of this?” asked Alex from Frode’s throne.
“Abaddon took me many places to train.” Lilly said as she sat, legs crossed on Torunn’s throne. One of those places was a human city where Salmaana once studied. I learned a lot about magic use and mastery there.”
As if the mention of his name was a summoning spell, Abaddon appeared from behind a large column to the right of the triple thrones, “Lilly was quite the student. I have dozens of gold cloaks testing different paths of light mastery for me, and Lilly quickly became the most fruitful of them. She discovered an entirely new path I was unaware of previously. What do you call it, dear?”
Lilly’s golden skin flushed, “Holy magic.”
James raised an eyebrow and pride surged within Alex. Abaddon continued as he paced around the triple thrones, “I suspect that holy magic runs in her blood, and yet, she is the only one of her family still alive.”
“What Abaddon is saying is that he wants to open up another magic research facility in The Outpost,” Lilly offered with a glance to her mentor.
“Yes,” Abaddon said, halting a few paces from James, “Conciseness. Sometimes you end up learning more from your students than you can ever hope to teach them. That perfectly sums up our time together as Master and Student, doesn’t it?” Lilly flushed again. “If you will allow it. I want to move here with my gold cloaks. We will train any of your people with an inclination to light magic,” the rotten man finished, concisely.
“I have seen you in action, Abaddon. We would appreciate your presence in the Outpost greatly during these times. Make the necessary arrangements, and I will either find you a building or make you one.” Said James. “Now, if there is nothing your light magic can do to help us, I am afraid I need to ask you to leave so I can spend some time with my interface.”
“There is something,” Abaddon offered with a glance to his student.
“Yes. I learned a Holy variant of the Seal Soul spell. It is much easier to cast than the Light magic variant. I should be able to cast the spell on all of your fighters.”
“Good!” James said, perking up a bit at the good news. "Having more fighters available to send into the dungeon will greatly increase progress once we get past the Vagrant Prakx. What about Dwarfs? Does the spell work on them?”
Abaddon’s cloak began to undulate when a soft chuckle escaped him, “From the little I know about the Dwarf race, I can tell you that your friend will fight in the dungeon, soul protected or not.”
“Why?” James said. He knew a bit about Dwarfs from movies and such, so he thought he might have an answer to his question. “Will he be too stubborn or honorable to miss a battle?”
“Maybe,” Said Abaddon, raising two hands an inch from his side dismissively. One was normal, and the other bone, a fact that never seemed to escape James’s notice. “Think of this as your first lesson James. A snippet of what you could learn if my new school opens in The Outpost. Consider this; what happens when you level up enough to choose a class?” The half-dead man continued, leaving no opportunity to answer his question. “If your intelligence is high enough, you get the option not to pick a class, and instead receive free stat points.”
James nodded in his chair, “Delay choosing. Ten points for level ten, twenty for twenty, and so on.”
The robbed figure standing in front of James nodded back, causing the sunlight streaming in from behind him to flicker in James’s eyes. “That is correct. But Dwarfs and other Rockborn only get that option, no matter their intelligence. They can never choose a class and can therefore never learn any truly useful abilities, either combat related or not. They get interface upgrades and boosts from stat points, but they cannot become crafters, or shoot through the sky and land like a meteor, as you can.”
“Okay,” James said, leaning back into his chair and getting comfortable.
“This is why all Rockborn are hardy and capable soldiers, but it is also why none of them have ever become heroes on their own. Learning skills is the only way to survive combat once you get to a high enough level. So this disadvantage they seem to have is offset in another way — a racial ability that allows them to eat diamonds and sapphires and any other rare mineral from dungeons, specifically. It doesn't work for jewels that are found outside of them, at least not once they break the surface from below for the first time. And when they do eat them, they get stat increases... That could be another reason, your friend will fight in the dungeon, other than his honor, of course. It will be ripe with Dwarf food.”
“So Dwarfs cannot learn magic either? They have no affinities, not even for stone?” asked James. He wasn't worried about Jordic's intentions. One of the first things he did after gathering everyone up was have Omero study him. The Dwarfs words were true, but James's appretiated the council regardless.
“There are whispers of Dwarfs wielding magic in the various lore books I have come across, but they are likely only legend.”