The Mining Station was still lit up despite the late hour, drifts of music and laughter could be heard from far away, and the green skin scout sniffed his the air, his mouth watering, as he caught the smell of meat roasting from the brightly lit town that appeared suddenly over the winter. His band head will be pleased with his news when he returned with it, and he slipped off into the darkness with his tummy rumbling.


The celebration party reached its zenith just past midnight, the miners, workers, and off-duty Marines drank and feasted on locally fermented alcohol and fresh ant meat. Captain Blake sat next to Princess Sherene, listening to Thorn's version of his experiences in the dungeon. He dropped the finished piece of ant leg on the side, which looked like a piece of snow crab leg, and somewhat tasting like snow crab.

Sherene happily dug out the fleshy meat and dropped the shell next to a small pile of empty leg shells. The ant legs were boiled in seawater and served with soya sauce, courtesy of Chef Keito's cooking. "This is delicious!" She wiped her mouth with a napkin and settled back on her seat happily.

"Yes," Blake agreed and asked, "Didn't your people have ant meat before?"

Sherene shook her head, "No, this type of monster cuisine is kind of hard to find among the nobles or royalty." She grinned happily and gave a small blurp, "This is my first time trying. It tastes very good!"

"Hahaha," Blake laughed at her satisfied expression, "Well, this is also the first time I had ant meat too, but it turns out pretty good." He remembered Chef Keito during the tasting, and him insisting ant meat as tasty as crab, while the volunteers looked on skeptically before some brave soul tasted it and agreed with Chef Keito. "Well, it is good that it will bring some food variety to the city."

Sherene nodded, "City hall had just finished moving the large magic ice box from the Iron Castle out nearer to the city, it is so useful! Food can be preserved for longer and there is almost no wastage!"

Blake took a while to understand what she meant by magic ice box, "You meant the refrigeration unit?"

"Yes, yes," Sherene nodded, her hair braided up and tied up with a large blue ribbon. "I have arranged for all those with knowledge or skills in skinning or butchery to help dismantle the monsters. With the new re-fee-gation set up next to the market, we can process all the meat and materials easier and less wastage."

"But there are more and more reports of goblin sightings now," Sherene added, "The farmers, loggers, foragers, and hunters are getting worried."

"Equip the farmers and workers in the forest with crossbows and bows for now," Blake turned to look at Sherene, "We only have so much Magelocks, and they are going to the next batch of Marines. I will push Major Frank to come out a training program for a Militia force."

Sherene nodded, her good mood had vanished as she thought of the coming troubles and problems that faced her and her people.

"Cheer up," Blake patted her hand, "We just won a victory against the Empire recently and also cleared the Dungeon's first level, and the number of resources and materials we have gotten will help us a lot in the coming days."

"Look at them," Blake pointed down to the courtyard where tables and chairs were arranged and a large bonfire burning in the center and people dancing to music around it. "Yesterday they fought with their lives on the line, today they celebrate that they are alive."

"They play hard and enjoy as much as they can, as there is no telling what will happen tomorrow. So why worry so much now?" Blake advised Sherene, seeing her downcast face. "We make plans to ensure nothing goes wrong, but life doesn't always follow our plans, that's the way we should enjoy the moment when we can."

Sherene smiled, "Thank you, your people had really done a lot of us, and yet we still are demanding more from you."

"Well, well, to be frank, we also need your people, we can't be strong just on our own," Blake patted her hand again, "Don't worry, we will do something about keeping your people and mine safe." Blake offered her another plate of ant legs, " More?"


"Well, we got four days off for R and R, so what are your plans?" James asked as he held Kristine, both of them swaying to the music.

The flickering flames cast a warm orange glow on Kristine's face as they danced slowly to the music, "I don't know."

"Do you want to come with me to the beach resort?" James asked, "You know for some suntanning and water sports."

"There is a beach resort here?" Kristine asked, her eyes lit up by the flames. "And you pulling my leg, Sergeant?"

"Oh no," James grinned, "It's for the armed services only, but with plans to open to the public later on."

"How come there is a resort here?" Kristine rested her head on James's chest.

"Well, Captain Blake thought it will be good for the crew and armed forces to take some time off from all the hustle and bustle," James hugged her, "It's actually more like a chalet, we need to bring our own food and stuff. What do you say?"

"I am not sure," Kristine pushed away from James embrace, "Are we together or this is just a fling for you?"

"Hey, look here," James said gently to Kristine, holding her chin, "I am serious about us being together, the Captain and XO had already stated that the rules of fraternization among the crew and military no longer applies here."

"And seriously, I don't think we will have a chance to return to Earth in our lifetime, maybe our kids' generation but definitely not ours," James stated honesty, "Besides this is actually quite a beautiful world. No over population, politics. pollution all that, only the monsters trying to eat you and an Empire that keeps trying to kill you."

"Wait a minute, when did I say we will have kids?" Kristine glared at James smiling face. "I have not agreed to anything yet."

"Come on!" James laughed, lifting Kristine up and giving her a spin, making her laugh too. "Let's go to the resort, there will be barbecue!"

"Alright, only if there are ant meat!" Kristine laughed.


East of the Uncharted Forest, the Great Ocean Plains

War leader Urka of the Band of the Hand emerged out of the forest foliage and stood before a grassland that stretched as far as the eye could see. He took a deep breath, taking in the fresh scent of grass and not the coy rotting scent of the forest's undergrowth. The sun shone down, warming him up as he kneeled down and gave a simple prayer to the Spirits. "We are home."

His defeated warriors cheered up visibly as they saw the endless land of the Great Ocean Plains. They had marched hard for four five-day weeks through the cursed Uncharted Forest, fending off monsters and goblins attacks before reaching the edge of the forest.

"Come! We will return home soon!" Urka yelled at his warriors who gave a cheer. "Another two, five days and we will reach the Band." Following that, Urka climbed on to his mount, a large grizzle wind wolf and urged it forward and his warriors followed along.

Urka's wearily warriors managed to make to within sight of the Band after traveling for nine days, the journey was considered peaceful, only having two encounters with monsters, which they managed to defeat at the cost of a few unfortunate warriors.

Finally, they reached the wooden palisade of the Band and stood, waiting for the sentries to open the gates. The patrols and lookouts had already spotted them when they were two days out from the camp, and wolf riders rode up and down, dispatching messages and supplies.

As they entered the gates, the whole Oerkin band had turned out to welcome them back, some with cries of joy, while others with silent tears and words of condolences. The Great Chief dressed in a pure silver wind wolf pelt and wearing a headdress made out of the skull of a red griffin and decorated with sesame red griffin feathers, stood before the Great Hall and watched passively as Urka went down on one knee before him. "Great Chief, we have returned."

The wrinkled face of Great Chief remained solemn and just stared at Urka. The noise from the gathered Oerkin slowly quieten down as they turned to watch what was going on with Urka and the Great Chief. Finally, after a period of silence, the Great Chief spoke, "You returned with only half the warriors you began with, and where are the elders and shamans?"

Urka looked down on the ground, unable to answer. "Your actions had caused the clan greatly!" The Great Chief continued, "You are stripped of your position as War leader and shall be confined in the pit to reflect on your actions!" The Great Chief waved for the guards to take Urka away. "Go, reflect on what you have done, I have important guests to entertain."

Urka stood up speechless and allowed the guards to strip his armor and weapons away, leaving him bare-chested and the guards led him away pass the muttering and gossiping crowd, past the dwellings and to a pit several meters deep. Just as he was shoved down the pit unceremoniously, he saw something strange. Two strange looking grey metal objects were parked side by side behind the Great Hall and that was the last thing Urka saw as he was dropped into the pit.


Band of the Hand, Great Hall

"Ahh, Sorry for, ah, delay," The Great Chief said in halting Common and gave a yellow toothed smile at the guests sitting around the table, set on the floor. "Come, drink and feast!" He gestured to the food and drinks on the table.

"Thank you for your hospitality," Former Marine armory sergeant Raman smiled back, giving a toast to the Oerkin. "The food and drink are pretty good." The rest of the human party joined in the toast.

"Ahh, guests you are!" The Great Chief explained hurriedly. "Only the best for the guests!" He had seen what strange and powerful magic these strange hoomans have.

"So, what we can do for you?" Raman playing asked, knowing well what the old rat wanted as he leaned back and lazied on the soft wolf hide covered floor.

"You know we Oerkin has no metal skills," The Chief said, "We like to have you all as our metal workers!"

"Workers?" Raman raised a lazy eyebrow, "I am sorry, but we are not anyone's workers here." The rest snickered as they continued to drink the wine.

"Ahh, not workers?" The Chief frowned, "Then what do you want?"

"Simple," Raman sat up, "I want slaves, young and healthy, and warriors and land."

"Slaves? No problem, but warriors?" The Chief frowned, "Why warriors and land?"

"I want to have my own army and workers," Raman explained, "You provide me with slaves and warriors, in exchange, you get metal weapons and armor. And if you are a really good boy, I may gift you with some Magelocks." Raman and the rest laughed as he finished his demands.

The Chief looked at them in thought, wondering if he meant the thunder sticks. "Slaves easy! Land? Just pick where you want. But warriors? They have to be willing to follow you."

Raman gave a shrug, "As long you provide me with what we need, you get what you want. If not, we take our services somewhere else." Raman stood up and jerked his head to the rest. "let's go boys!"

"Wait, wait!" The Chief raised his hand up, gesturing them to stop. "Warriors, yes I know who to give you!"

"Well, if that is the case," Raman gave a triumphant grin, rubbing his hands together, "Let's talk business then!"

A note from neo Koh

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