The OSHA control freak inside of me was in the midst of a meltdown. Like a late-game Jenga tower, the whole place was one gentle sneeze away from collapse. Time had crumbled many sections of the passages into piles of debris, wooden beams jutted out haphazardly holding the ancient mess together, worn paths snaked through and around the rubble.

Past the crumbling corridor wide enough for several ogres, we came out into a chamber as spacious as a big-city sports arena. An avenue cut through the middle all the way to the back with layers of ramshackle housing piled up on both sides. Every building, shop and odd structure was made from stone or brick.

The clank of metal on metal from smithies filled the damp air, and a scent of campfire and grilled meat made my mouth water - a few meals of mushrooms alone left me wanting.

A single beam of light came from an opening high above, along with drips of water that turned to mist. With a spiky tower shield on our back, we walked barefoot into the market. Merchants occupied the ground level, hawking their goods, including one that inquired about corpses, dying relatives and slaves. Everything was up for sale.

Devil-like and scaled creatures of various low [Evolve] levels, shouted, jostled, growled and scowled. The post-apocalyptic setting reminded me of Mad Max, except underground. The local hostility hung in the air like a fog, or a ticking time bomb.

We needed to buy a keg and get out, but I considered just leaving -- we were followed, or at least that's the feeling I had. Estra watched the locals with disdain, while I kept a cautious eye out for any sudden movements. Something was amiss, then I noticed that Zoey had vanished, though she had given us directions to a tavern, the Grim Tusk.

A short walk brought us to a building in squalor, with a sign 'Grim Tusk' carved into the side of the stone exterior. Past a thick wooden door with a hefty guard, the hubbub of the market became muffled. The accommodations consisting of rugs were laid out in concentric circles around a heater stove, imposing a familiar hierarchy to access warmth and softer ground.

The single orc at the counter looked out of place. A mangled mix of boar and human, his slick ashen hair was secured in a short ponytail. The amber eyes shone bright in contrast to his dull gray skin. He grunted a greeting.

"We'd like to purchase a keg of beer," I said. Bob would have reminded me to buy a square bottle of liquor so it wouldn't roll around on the floorboard of the truck.

"You're in luck, I got just one left." He grinned. "Fifty bits."

I knew they'd try to take advantage of a 'dumb' ogre. Zoey had gone over the prices with us: 30 bits for a keg, while daggers should fetch 12 to 15 each.

I scoffed. "Do I look stupid to you? What sort of a tavern has only one keg? It ain't worth fifty." I placed two daggers on the counter in front of him.

"You'd need more than those rusty daggers."

I furrowed my brows. "Sure, they have a little rust on them, but what do you expect from iron?" I hated to haggle, so I placed the third dagger on the table.

He turned them over on the table with disgust on his face, and for the first time, I noticed the subtle matching engravings on the three pommels. Badly drawn, they depicted a sideways four-point diamond, with lines extending further out diagonally from top and bottom corners like antennas on a TV.

"Where'd you get them?" he asked.

"That's none of your business," Estra said, looking at him sternly.

He crossed his arms with a grim face, meeting Estra stare for stare, "Get out," he said sternly and pointed to the door just as it opened and Zoey walked through in a hurry.

"Got what you needed?" she asked in haste.

"No, he's-," I said.

Zoey nodded upward to the orc, "What's wrong?"

The orc's pointy ears drooped. "Two daggers as we agreed," he choked, dashed out and came back with a keg under his arm.

"Ahh, your finest keg of Grim. Thank you, " Zoey said, smiling. "Okay, we best be off."

I grabbed the keg from the orc a bit to aggressively, making him recoil a step. The keg looked bigger than it felt - I was still getting used to my new massive ogre body.

We exited the tavern and proceeded out of the market with a fast step. I wanted to leave while the leaving was good.

"You two know each other?" I asked Zoey.

"Oh yeah, good friends, we go way back," she said.

With a bit of shoving, we left the market at a light jog, turned the corner, and there they waited for us. Several blocked our path, and more appeared out of the shadows behind us - we became surrounded by a dozen.

[Race: [t3] Devling; Male]

"We came to give ya a proper greeting. Eh? We're good like that," said a gentlemanly voice.

We turned and faced a black scaled creature with pronounced horns and vivid red eyes. His lithe stature was like a coil ready to spring. A familiar symbol was intricately gilded on his belt buckle.

[Race: [t4] Fiend; Male] 

He smirked, eyeing the keg under my arm. "Came for a bit of beer, have ya?" He placed his arms on his hips. "I don't like losing my help, even if they were rookies."

I looked to Estra and subtly shook my head - the odds were against us, especially with all the [t3] grunts he had with him. Throwing fireballs would get us a kill or two, but we'd end up dead for certain. I gulped, and looked for an exit to make a run - I knew a start to a brutal beating, and it stared us in the face. I hoped a beating is all they had in mind.

His eyes gleamed. "You won't make it." He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

We crawled and limped, then healed up the worst after a great distance away. Zoey was nowhere in sight, and no cavalry had arrived.

We slumped against the wall, grumbling with pain despite two heals. Dried blood caked the right shoulder. I brushed my hand against the right side of my head -- the fiend liked symmetry, and even let me keep it.

"Potion ingredient?" I asked Estra and she chuckled with a groan - a few ribs had gotten loose. To my surprise, he didn't touch any of our belongings, including the dagger with a matching symbol. A fiend of honor and integrity that guy - said he isn't some lowly thief or vandal. It didn't stop him from putting a shiner on Estra's face.

"That bitch led us into a trap," Estra whined inarticulately, cupping her swollen lip.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a question lingered as to why they let us go. At one point, they simply stopped and vanished, leaving is crumpled up and bleeding. I knew this trip had risks, but hoped we'd get in and get out without trouble.

[HP: 1090/2040 and MP: 824/1810]

I winced. "How about a couple more heals?"

She healed once. "Don't get too comfortable."

[HP: 1450/2040 and MP: 644/1810]

I was seething on the inside. A beating like that brought back memories that I wished had stayed in the murky river-bed of my turbulent past, the memories that Bob was familiar with. "You can get mad, you can get angry, but then we get busy plotting," I told Estra. We had a score to settle, and for that we had to get stronger.

Estra nodded, scowling, eyes filled with determination and fury. "Burn them all."

"We must Evolve and upgrade all our spells and skills to the max," I said. We got up and stomped back home, every step filled with rage and a hint of violence to come, but also a plan - I had been thinking about the spells I had.

One can't truly appreciate home unless they travel to far out and distant places, or in our case - the market, and get beated to a bloody pulp. Zoey was nowhere in sight.

Globba had managed to find us, and she brought a snack with her. She was dragging a giant spider, like a cooked king crab, but the size of a large sheep. The creature struggled, it’s head caved in, spouting a trickle of thick blood. Globba sat down comfortably by the central cooking fire, oblivious to any supposed clan hierarchy. She ripped off its legs and placed them into the hot coals.

Some kobolds would have stopped her, but they must have been either scared of her, or dazed by her table manners to do anything about it.

The legless spider was shrieking as Globba pried the carapace up and dug around in its insides like a child playing with a doll house. A noxious smell filled the area.

Estra looked on with mouth open and a disgusted look on her face. "Ugh, that’s foul - a Blood Spider. Only thing it’s good for is its carapace. I hope she’s not planning to eat that." Estra said.

Globba’s plan was exactly that. She pulled out a fistful of organs out of the spider, and in they went straight into her mouth. This went on until the legs were cooked, which must have been a delicacy for her. She was happily humming and muttering to herself as she took them out of the coals and sucked out a goopy mess like drinking an egg through a straw. With a toothy smile she offered a leg to anyone who would have it, but nobody would go near. Satisfied with her meal she curled up besides us on our Pongor rug and went to sleep. While we had an afternoon meal of tasteless shrooms.

After the meal, I took out and examined the rusted iron dagger. A critical critical difference between iron and steel was simply carbon, but how much? I distinctly recalled high carbon steel blades being known to be better.

I turned the dagger over in my hands, as big as a chef's knife and equally light, its edge had grown dull and chipped.

[Rusted Iron Dagger, quality: Normal.]

Did this dagger have too much carbon or too little? And did altering the dagger affect its Inspect stats?

What if I were to Extract the rust? What was it? Iron Oxide? I checked the page on [Extract Substance.]

[Extract Substance] [t2] [Channeled]
Mana: 100 mana / second; Range: touch
Extract a known substance at the rate of [Intelligence]/10 grams per minute [Average: 0.167 grams / second, with 100 int]

Available upgrades:
[t1] Lower mana cost, -10%; [150 Essence]
[t1] Increased Rate, +5%; [150 Essence]

"What are you doing?" Estra asked.

"How do you cast a spell? Say, if I wanted to cast one of mine?"

"Just will it mentally the same way you use the status screen. I hope you're not wasting our mana."

"Let me borrow your hand." I held the dagger over an open palm of my hand and thought 'Extract Iron Oxide.'

Blue wispy tendrils flowed out the rock to slowly congeal into a tiny rust colored point above my empty hand. It grew and expanded into a bigger clump. In a manner of seconds, the rust vanished from the surface of the dagger, leaving it shiny. I stopped channeling and a tiny clump of rust dropped into my hand.

[Iron Dagger, quality: Normal.]

Yes! That's a good start. I was thrilled with the result, but it took 200 mana. Now, what if I sharpened it? I needed a sharpening stone and a small source of carbon. Charcoal? The smiths would have both.

"There are better uses for mana than to simply remove rust of a cruddy dagger," Estra said, frowning.

"Relax, I'm just testing. Let's go to the smithy, I need to sharpen it."

A short walk brought us outside the smithy, Kuuz came out with a scowl on his face.

"Got coin?" He asked.

"I do." I had the single coin Zoey had given us.

"What do you need?"

"Charcoal, and to use a sharpening stone." I lifted the dull dagger up for him to inspect.

"Alright," he said gruffly, took the dagger from me, and waved us in to follow.

I took out the coin. "I only need a single lump, and I know how to sharpen a blade." Not an expert though, but I did own a single japanese double-sided whetstone that served me well for years.

He scrutinized me with narrowed eyes, but took the coin. "No need." He nudged a fellow worker and handed him the dagger. "Sharpen this."

The smithy was a bustle of activity, turning ore into iron ingots, and then iron into tools, weapons, and armor. Despite the chimneys to vent the smoke, the place was nonetheless stuffy. Proper ventilation needed to be installed, my inspection voice kicked in, making my hands itch for a clipboard. Constant stream of hammering at multiple anvils made me wish for ear protection.

Their two furnaces were a mess of hardened clay and stone. The bellowing was done by hand using leather bellows, two per furnace. They poured charcoal in layers with powdered iron ore at the top, which eventually produced what he called a ‘bloomery’ at the bottom. A flower of iron, which they pounded until it gained a semblance of an iron bar.

Wooden dummies lined one side of the smithy, sporting chain coifs, full length chainmail with long sleeves and other various pieces of armor. Weapon racks held many types of swords, clubs, axes and spears.

It took longer than I had expected, when Kuuz came back with a sharpened dagger, and a few lumps of charcoal. "I don't charge a fellow councilman for a bit sharpening work."

I pretended to smile and took the dagger. I was happy to see that the quality had increased from 'Normal' to 'Good.' Now, the tricky part.

[Infuse Substance] [t2] [Channeled]
Mana: 100 mana / second; Range: touch
Infuse a known substance at the rate of [Intelligence]/10 grams per minute [Average: 0.167 grams / second, with 100 int]

Available upgrades:
[t1] Lower mana cost, -10%; [150 Essence]
[t1] Increased Rate, +5%; [150 Essence]

We faced away from watchful eyes. Lump of charcoal in one hand, dagger in other, I channeled [Infuse Substance] carbon into the blade in one second bursts, [Inspecting] the dagger in between. Nothing changed the first four bursts, but the fifth lifted my mood immensely.

"We need to find Zoey," I said.


About the author

Lord Zaika

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Bio: Sonny, I've got a whooooole theme park full of red delights for you.

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