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Overhead, an arrow plucked an Enraged gull out of the air. It crashed onto a Troll corpse when a bright flash of blue light leaked through embrasures in the palisade. Three seconds ticked. Liluth’s muffled cries yelled from within the Town Hall, “No! No! No! Faenin! No!” Her voice broke, her sobs unending.

Jeez. Why didn’t they just hide? Rowan thought. It’s not like I forced them to fight.

Such heartlessness was needed to persevere in this violent world.

“This is your fault!” Liluth shouted at someone.

Rowan tuned her out by playing a Wagner symphony in the web browser. The music of violins and cellos flowed beautifully. And with a breath held, he waltzed among the gathered bodies, tossing them into the mass grave one at a time, feeding the pit bursts of fire, not the hell variant; ash made for great fertilizer. His Frigid Fiber plants were going to be happy!

The bodies, Rowan noted, were all low-level: thirteen, fifteen, thirteen, twenty-one, sixteen, twenty-six, twelve, and so on. Most of their faces had been burned or corroded beyond recognition, their armor and weapons ruined, including the three Knights. Gabrielle’s stabs instilled with dark magic ate through their low-quality steel armor like malignant acid.

These Trolls were opposites to the Elves in every regard. Unhygienic, primitive, savage… overpopulated. Weak individually, they relied on sheer numbers, relied on zerg rushes. Fire blasts and acid bombs were their natural weakness.

I’m their perfect counter, Rowan thought smugly, incinerating a barely recognizable Troll body. Its robe had burned away.

But the lead Troll’s corpse, the one in scaled maroon leather, level thirty-four, was more or less intact save for an arrow sticking out of its eye under its coif. And another through its exposed neck above two more that pierced into a old tare in the leather. Nice shots! Excellent aiming from sixty yards away—and with a crude longbow lacking enchantments. Skylar deserved some upgrades… like that fancy recurve bow.

Enchanted Adorned Yew Recurve Bow of Stamina and Sharpshooting
Item Type: Ranged Weapon (two handed)
Damage Rating: 62 base, 72 total (Adornment Quality: 284)
Quality Rating: 345 (Good)
+6 Stamina (Enchantment Quality: 313)
Sharpshooting: Your ranged attacks with this weapon fly 50% faster and ignore air resistance. Your combat skill cooldowns are 50% slower.

Not bad; however, the quality ratings across the board could be better. He tossed Skylar a message.

Rowan LeMort (To Skylar Everbright): There’s a bow for you. Come get it by the mass grave after the dedication. Wash it first.

The reply was instant.

Skylar Everbright: Sweet!

Definitely not an NPC.

A tip window snatched Rowan’s eye as he pondered that adornment rating.

*tip: Certain rare metals and stones may be used to adorn equipment to increase their damage and defense ratings. This may be done by those with the Earth Artisan advanced profession.

Earth Artisan required proficiency in both Metalworker and Stoneworker. The crafting section on the forums was naturally packed-tight with people gunning for this particular trio. All those Swordsmen needed crafters. The price for a decent blade was bubbling upward faster than food.

Drawing mana from the Town Hall, Rowan shot the remaining three corpses streams of hellfire, then picked up the bow by its top limb. The gold patterning was cool to the touch. Smudges of something brown coated the leather grip and halfway down the string. He pretended it was just mud—best for his sanity.

“Lord LeMort,” Luthias said loudly from behind.

Already back in service. Very good. Smirking, Rowan turned down the music. Liluth’s sobbing was quieter. “Nice to see you in a good state of mind. Do you still have your crippling scar? What about the infection?”

“The wolf bite is no more, but unfortunately, the dark magic of my old wound is rooted deeper than flesh… and I must inform you my mind has suffered. I remember little of my life. Memories refuse to return to me.”

Not as good. A big loss, actually. All that experience would’ve been game-changing. The violins played a sad note as Rowan sighed. “Damn. Did we leave your head out too long?”

“I believe my skull was cracked.”

“Ah, that explains it. Should’ve made yourself a helmet. Why didn’t you?”

“Helmets are quite brittle when cast from molten iron. The metal requires extensive manual work to be forged into something usable in battle.”

Memories from material science classes floated to the surface. Steel and Iron were basically the same thing, steel having a very specific carbon content under two percent. Cast iron, surprisingly, contains too much carbon and was therefore harder but brittle. “I understand. Keep at it. What’s the current progress on them?” ”

Luthias’ head tilted. “On them?”

“Moonfyre and Joybringer. Don’t tell me you’ve lost memory of that.”

He squinted. “I remember. The iron is very close to hard steel, so melting it would—”

“I know. The knowledge of metals in my world is much greater.”

Luthias nodded stiffly. “I have not forged without magic in many decades. I am having much difficulty, and there is not enough metal in them for bastard swords.”

Rowan’s cheek pinched in thought. “Can you make an alloy? A mix of blacksteel and steel.”

“I can…” Luthias glanced at the recurve bow. “Doing so would greatly limit their adornment options.”

“Why?”

“Everything in this world has either a dark, light, or neutral affinity. Most metals are either of light or neutral.” A hint of a smile upturned Luthias’ mouth. “Also, fusing dark and light metals, such as silver and blacksteel, can cause spontaneous explosions; however, it is rare.”

This wasn’t a hard decision, but Rowan gave it some extra consideration. “Let me think.” Limiting options was never a good thing; Gabrielle would agree. But as a dense pulse of dark magic washed over him, the dedication finishing, he realized most things spawning in the area was now going to be of dark affinity anyway. There had to be a method of renewing metals…

He took in air through the mouth, glancing at the Town Hall, opening the web browser. While he searched, in the background, the beam of darkness broke with a resounding crack, but the sky remained dim. Streams of darkness flowed directly overhead as the answer scrolled into view. 

Earth Artisans could build Enchanted Mines at max level, but the runestone cost and upkeep was more than substantial.

Rowan decided: “They will be blades of darkness. Forge it out of an alloy when you have a Station. For now, help gather the insect corpses.”

“Yes, Lord LeMort, and I do appreciate the revival.” He strode off with a soldier’s gait.

It almost sounded like he didn’t appreciate it. How ungrateful.

Done with that conversation, Rowan turned up the music and hummed to the tune. He knelt by the Troll leader’s body and undid metallic buttons on its jacket. His fingers were sticky by the third button, and when he shuffled the garment out of its arms, the scales began disintegrating into nothingness. A curse growled from his throat. 

Destruction enchantment.

Fucking hell. Even in death, they were the epitome of their name: Trolls.

Rowan kicked the body into the pit and bathed it in cleansing flames, the shit on his fingers burning away, the red scales taking longer to break down than those rubber boots. He was tempted to blast it with hellfire and be done with it. Fertilizer was valuable, he reminded himself.

Zaine walked around the palisade’s corner. His sword was bloodied. He said something lost to the violins.

Rowan paused the symphony. “What was that?”

“Can I revive him?”

Him meaning the Myrmidon. “Yeah, let’s go.”

That boyish face of his lit up. “I thought you were going to burn him.”

Ridiculous. “Why would I?” Rowan stepped through the smashed front gate.

Zaine was practically skipping. “A bad feeling in my chest.”

“Are you sure you’re not sick?”

He said after a second, “My debuff bar is empty.”

A few away steps from the Town Hall, Rowan loosened his body and prepared for the worst, a softer expression on his face. Sympathy came easier than usual, for Faenin had been a good Sun Elf, a good slave. A good mate. Rowan pushed open the Town Hall’s double doors.

The scene inside was not as expected. He held back Zaine’s arm as it went for his sword hilt.

By Draesear’s Idol—and a pulsating Soul Crystal—stood a stunning young redhead Human girl, her posture confident and feminine. A sprinkle of pale freckles highlighted eyes as green as the fields of tall grass had been before the corruption. Ayla Wintersbane was gorgeous, physically at least, rivaling Gabrielle, who was lovingly embracing a catatonic Liluth next to Faenin’s covered body, and the Myrmidon’s covered body.

Tasha was there too, sitting against the wall, showing much sympathy. She nodded at Rowan in greeting. Bags hung under her eyes. And Ayla’s eyes. Did they stay up all night?

In the opposite corner, a shorter Sun Elf girl, perhaps a teenager, was standing protectively in front of a young boy. That straw hat and mouth-scarf combination was… unique, but the boy was where Rowan’s gaze focused. Their eyes met, bloody crimson connecting to glowing silver. Those tiny pupils fearfully narrowed, that baby blue skin whitening under jet black hair.

Rowan didn’t need a description window to know the boy was a Lunar Elf. Tasha had already recruited two into the cult—by deceptive means. This was going to be difficult.

“Demon,” the girl hissed.

He approached with measured steps. “The name’s Rowan LeMort. What’s yours?”

“I am Jassin Elsinaire,” the boy said.

The girl remained silent, her arms spread wide. Her left hand held a staff.

? : Sun Elf (Level 19)
Class: Mage
Health: 17%

A Mage, injured. Though Rowan saw no wounds. And that last name ringed. “You’re Faenin’s family?”

Jassin answered after a moment, “Elsinaire is a common family name among all Elves.” His index finger poked the girl’s side. “She is Saeya Shatumal. She has the Arctic Plauge. Can you help her?”

Gabrielle said softly, “I already told ya we dun’ have Sun Thistle. It’s super rare and expensive.”

Liluth sniffed. “He can only kill and destroy! He is the bringer of death!” Her head shook, tears flowing again.

Rowan held back from retorting, instead thinking with pure logic. That plague couldn’t be contagious, and no slivers of dark magic radiated from Saeya. The solution pieced itself together with amazing haste. First, he gave a firm look to Liluth. “Don’t forget I saved your life.” Then to the newcomers: “Saeya, I can cure you. Pledge fealty and you’ll be saved. Are you willing to take the mark one day?” He tapped his own forehead. “And by one day I mean probably soon.”

Saeya recoiled as though struck across the cheek. “Such lies, and I would never submit to your kind.”

Everyone else was staring intently at Rowan. Ayla said in a musical voice, “What? Are you going to kill her and revive her with a Soul Crystal?”

Smart, but it was a simple solution. “Good guess.”

Saeya moved. Her staff slashed a wide arc toward Rowan. A mystical word garbled from her lips, hot magic flaring. An impressive stream of fire spewed from that tiny gem.

Bitting back surprise, Rowan held his hand to his face and wordlessly invoked the other half of his chosen Demonic powers. The trail of runes down his arm lit up. His palm consumed the flames as though hungry, starving. He could feel her Elven magic, painted with a floral pattern, convert into his own euphoric brand, overfilling his bar momentarily.

Her staff dropped to the floor, her breath hitching. She coughed violently into her mouth scarf.

“You’d make a good fighter. I’d have you in my ranks just for that.” Rowan nodded thrice. “So how about it? Just a little stab—or a cut—then we’ll bring you right back. Or we can wait till the disease claims you. Your choice. I am a fair ruler.”

“Yup, your choice,” Gabrielle mimicked. “We’re fair rulers.”

Zaine grumbled impatiently. “Get on with it. He is going to spoil soon.” A smooth motion, his sword was drawn.

Jassins’s eyes squeezed shut. He sank further into the corner.

Zaine stepped forward. His one arm raised.

“Wait!” Saeya yelped. “I will let the Plague run its course.”

Rowan shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He placed his hand on Zaine’s shoulder. “Let’s tend to the Myrmidon.”

Zaine sheathed his sword and mumbled a curse. He stepped to the Soul Crystal. His hand picked it up with some trouble.

And Jassin’s eyes had pried open. “A Myrmidon!”

Another fan. Rowan said, “Yes, Jassin. He was enslaved by the Trolls. We managed to save his body, and I am willing to spend one of our precious Soul Crystals to revive him, and another to save your friend. I have been sent here to make the world right.”

Jassin blinked in wonder. “Are you really a Demon?”

Saeya pulled him back. “Careful.”

Then, not waiting for a go-ahead, Zaine placed the Soul Crystal by the Myrmidon’s hooded head and peeled back the cover, the slave brand stamped at a slightly crooked angle. And without warning or a spoken incantation, a blinding flash of blue light filled the room. Dense, unflavored mana saturated the air to an uncomfortable thickness.

The Myrmidon moaned awake, pushing to his feet.

Rowan was already there. He prodded that broad forehead, and an invisible thread formed. Good on Zaine for not trying something here. It wouldn’t have ended well for him anyway.

The Myrmidon stood as per Rowan’s allowance. He spoke, “Demon. Am I in Hell? Have I offended the gods?” His muddy-silver eyes skipped to Zaine, suddenly confused, then toward the unbranded Elves in the corner, and finally a glance at Gabrielle and the girls.

Am I going to have to recite the speech for everyone?

Breaking the silence, Tasha stood and stretched. “Nope. You’re alive.” She looked at Rowan. “Hey, do you have a spare bed?” She’d booked extended immersion at Synaptic HQ the other day.

Gabrielle answered, “Yup. Take Viola’s room. Initials V E.”

“Cool. Thanks.”

With a straighter back, Rowan began, “In short: I’ve given you a second chance at life, you’re welcome, we’re going to make war against the Trolls, and we’re going to build a great kingdom in Draesear’s name. You’ll be mostly free, but the brand will remain. Are you in? Hint, you can’t say no here. I used a Soul Crystal on you. I expect a repayment.”

Zaine whispered, “Say yes. I vouch for him. What’s your name?”

Gabrielle nudged Liluth’s elbow. She wiped away tears, her eyes bloodshot. “I also vouch. My mate would if he were alive this moment.”

Skylar said from behind, “A vouch here too. Luthias vouches too.”

Ayla also strangely said, “I vouch.” Maybe she just wanted to speed things up and get to the fun part—the action-packed part. She was a MyTuber, not to forget.

The Myrmidon shared a tense look with each other branded Elf plus one Human redhead. “My name is Aewin Torlamir. If your cause is truly to make war against the Trolls, then the enemy of my enemy is my ally.”

A good saying. “Then welcome aboard. Zaine can get you up to speed. Ask him anything. What are your profe—”

“Aewin, show me some moves!” Jassin jumped on the spot, twice.

A round of laughter was had at that. Rowan guessed the interruption helped the cause, joining in politely. Even Saeya was on the verge of thawing. Excellent. Very excellent.

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