(Y6, July 15th)
“Well, that is entirely unexpected”, was Maelia’s laconic comment.
The target of said comment was just beyond the stone bridge they had crossed. After a day in a forest infested by bears – thankfully not entirely aggressive, so they had to fight only twice – they had reached the lip of an impressive gorge. But thoughts of fording the passage were quickly forgotten when Zaccali had spotted what looked from the distance as a natural bridge over the gorge.
They had reached the rock formation before crossing over and found this at the end.
“I thought our mighty cartographers said we were barely halfway to Gamma.”
“We are. I record longitude and latitude twice a day. And we are around 60% of the way, no more.”
“So, what’s this?”
“A town sign?”
“Ah, ah, ah. Funny.”
“No, I mean. That’s what it is. The major landmasses are just that. The main ones. The ones whose maps we’ve stitched.”
He pointed toward the signpost.
“There’s zero rule about every zone of Northworld being part of the big Three. Before they were Big Threes, it was more like the big Two and not so big Other Two. And even earlier, it was more The Hundred Cities than the Three Kingdoms.”
“So… we have found a town? One that even the Cartographer’s Guild doesn’t know?”
Maelia corrected Zaccali.
“It might be on the Cartographer’s database. None of us know the entire base by heart. Except maybe Armangest. It’s just that it probably doesn’t have a Guild member and hasn’t figured out the longitude/latitude. So we didn’t even know it would be on the way.”
“So, what you say? We swing by the town, and see what entertainment we can get before continuing?”
“All in favors, raise a hand.” “The ayes have it, sorry Vasili.”
“Well, I didn’t have time to try to raise my hand, you nekulturny.”
After over a month of mid and semi-high ranked zones, the plain beyond the gorge seemed refreshingly lowball. A small herd of Varanus Luteus told Vasili that this was likely low-tier territory. The kind of easy living – albeit poor XP – that a lot of people liked.
Besides, if the Alpha-Gamma road ever took off and became a regular caravan trail, that town couldn’t be better placed. And, he admitted with a chuckle, it even had the right name. Whoever founded that had been pretty canny.
The tower that rose from the distance drew the stares of the expedition.
“Now, that is how you announce your town.”
“Haven’t seen many adventurers around yet, but…”
“Speaking of which.”
A couple was coming up toward them, waving.
Maelia’s trained eye noticed quickly that they wore pretty much standard Earth garb, albeit the man had a Northworld bronze-shod staff, low level at 22, and the woman sported a vicious-looking pike strapped over her back.
“Is this Fanduk?”
“Yes, it is!”
The man looked at the high-rank expedition, frowning.
“Who are you?”
Warander was already trying to answer when Vasili cut him.
“Vasilikulik Expedition, official Cartographer Sponsored Team. We’re quite surprised to see a town here.”
“Whoa. You’re real? I mean, you’re from away?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“No, I mean, we’re all newbies here.”
“Yea. I think the oldest Gater around has been for like 8 or 9 days. Nobody’s even respawned yet. The town is brand new, but there’s a dozen of us already. Marvalla! Warn the mayor, if he’s there! I’ll escort the VIP.”
The six expedition members looked at each other, bemused.
“So, the town’s been there for less than a week. And you’re equipped local already?”
“Yes. The Three, I mean, the founders, they opened the tower. Thought it might be a dungeon, but it turns out it wasn’t. Just a bunch of old useless stuff, and an armory with about thirty weapons or such.”
“And you got one.”
“Town rules. Everyone gets one to fit their initial combat skills until they’re all gone. He calls it ‘founder’s advantage’. Helps if you want to adventure. Marvalla and me, we had to fight a couple of wolf-things with pretty much nothing but a pair of kitchen knives. We did ok, but that’s going to be much better. It’s too high level for me, but local weapons are still better than anything else.”
“Your staff is a level 22 one. Increases Dexterity or Strength, whichever is lower.”
She added, “Well, that will be when your Perception gets 22 for the level and your Reflexes 25 to use it.”
Vasili noted, “Looks like a wise mayor, you have.”
“No complaints. He even dropped a couple of Northworld coins on us, said it was originally in the house we picked.”
Wisuqkz was prompt: “Do we get our welcome bag too?”
“I dunno. I mean, you’re all high level. You probably have more coins than the entire town. Not that there’s much to spend it on. We don’t even have a proper inn running. Yet.”
Mastabasta exclaimed, “Drat. I was hoping for a nice cold one.”
Vasili found the town nice looking, but still wild. Some in ruins, no traces of work. But if it had been colonized for a week or less, it was more of a campsite rather than a permanent center of civilization.
“Here they are. The Big Three.”
Longjonn waved toward the group.
“Welcome to Fanduk.”
“Hello. Vasilikulik, Cartographer Guild Officer. I’m heading this expedition.”
“I’m Vantegaard, Sponsored agent. And these guys decided I’m the mayor.”
Sponsored Agent? So, the guy was affiliated with the Guild then. Of course, Sponsored Agent meant the lowest tier – people that the guild recruited to get rumors and data, without too much obligation.
“So, what brought the Guild on our way? That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an official Guild expedition.”
“That’s because it’s the first time there’s one. Two, rather, but this is the big one.”
Vantegaard signaled for a pause.
“Let’s get to the Inn. Our resident… Innkeeper says it’s useable.”
“Cold beer?” was the immediate question from Mastabasta.
“Don’t think so. But I have really no idea. He just said it was useable, whatever that means.”
Useable seemingly meant cleared of all debris and detritus, with the windows fully open, no funny smells, and something that appeared to be a set of shelves with four bottles and an assortment of ill-matched glasses and ceramic plates.
Dadanlong was positively beaming. His yet-unnamed Inn was inaugurated by big VIPs. Grand Travelers coming from afar – never mind anybody knew how far.
“Drink free! First drink free!”
The expedition members stacked their backpacks and took the largest table. They had barely settled when glasses appeared in front of them. Vasili raised his and looked.
Hybrid Drink of Apple and Rice (lvl 13), mildly alcoholic.
Vantegaard smiled. So, that was why Dadanlong was so obsessed with his Inn. He had some applicable skills. And rice wine, presumably.
“So, this is the local town.”
“Fanduk, the jewel of… well, wherever that is. What’s this expedition for?”
Vasilikulik started to explain about the new latitude/longitude points and how each major land was now positioned relative to each other. He ended up pulling a small map with hastily drawn blob for all lands, much to the professional displeasure of Maelia.
“So we’re really in the middle of nowhere at all.”
“Around 850km from Alpha. And 500-600 from Gamma. This is the largest interval. Gamma and Beta are around 400km from each other. Their first trip is probably done. Although, strictly speaking, Alpha-Beta would be the furthest, but you almost go into Gamma if you go the shortest route between them.”
“You have a good place, though. The local area doesn’t seem too bad. A bit sparse, but not too bad at all. You have a mid-ranked zone starting after the gorge where we found your signpost, so when the locals graduate in levels, that’s a good expedition. Any dungeons?”
“We only had a low-level basement to clear. Szalowca – one of the bowhunters – and another found what they call the 25-meter Hadrian Wall. It’s a 5m high reinforced wall… except it’s 25m long, with nothing else left. But some Canis Curiosus have made a lair there, and you can find them often coming back the next day.”
Vasili noted the proper monster designation. A well-versed guy. Whoever opened the Sponsored Agent post had been smart: this was a potential good recruit for real membership. Maybe.
“If it was a dungeon… it’s broken, I think.”
“I’ll show you later. But anyway, we haven’t mapped the whole area yet. I’m getting the accounts of everyone coming, but nobody’s done a serious exploration beyond half a day walk.”
Vasili was disappointed.
“So that’s it?”
“No. But the most notable part isn’t a dungeon. Or I think it’s not.”
“Most notable? The town’s tower doesn’t qualify? Because it’s quite impressive, on the whole.”
“You know the Stones of Tarquar, right?”
“Yes. Never seen them, of course. We’re all spawns from Alpha, and none of us have been to Beta ever. Although that might change now that we know where to go.”
“Well, just north of here, at around 4 hours’ trip, there’s a kind of similar structure.”
Wisuqkz interrupted, “Floating stones? Magical standing stones?”
“In a circle. Multiple circles, even. Three circles with a central obelisk.”
Vasili slapped Vantegaard on the shoulder.
“My man, you’re probably going to be the best spot between the two major lands. Another magical monument. That’s a real find.”
Vantegaard ended up climbing the tower with Vasilikulik and Maelia. The rest of the expedition opted out staying at the inn. It seemed that Dadanlong had other… concoctions. And was quite happy to start selling them to courageous experimenters – with large Resilience.
Vasili stared at the animated construct.
“I have an evaluation skill for that kind of case. But it’s not precise enough at that range. It’s… rank 290. Give or take 30. And Greater Elite.”
He looked at Vantegaard.
“You know what a Greater Elite is, right?”
“Normal mobs have very basic skills. Lesser Elite is 4-8 Gater-style skills. Elite is up to 12. And Greater Elite is something like 15 skills. The kind that destroys you, and then blows your corpse.”
Vasili opined “That’s not a dungeon boss you have, that’s a full raid target for an elder hardcore guild. But I’d hate to fight in that room with an entire guild.”
Vantegaard shuddered “So I’m not touching that orb in the middle.”
“Does he guard anything?”
Vantegaard hesitated, which Vasili noted.
“The upper room is the last floor of the tower. It’s what must be the treasure room.”
They climbed, and Vasili looked into the five empty iron boxes.
“Our guesses are that… the tower was supposed to be a dungeon. If that’s possible. But it didn’t work, and ‘someone’ walled up the entrance until it was fixed. Which never happened.”
“It’s not the first broken dungeon I’ve seen. I’ve seen that twice. Places that make sense as a dungeon, but are half-finished, or totally empty. This one’s the best example so far.”
He raised his hand to silence Vantegaard’s unspoken question.
“And no. I have no theories. Maybe we’ll get you a special pass for the Historicianus forum.”
“Don’t thank me yet until you’ve seen all the white rabbit holes they’ve dug over the years.”
The expedition was laughing along with two of the locals. Which included a Japanese-looking woman in a… kimono? Vantegaard couldn’t begin to place her. New arrivals every day.
Birkathane and Quandocor had moved to a slightly smaller table to the side and welcomed them back.
Vasili thought for a while, before drawing out a plan.
“Ok. What I’m going to do is to break the normal schedule and Recess. The rest of the expedition isn’t going to. Everyone has still at least four-five weeks until AS sets in, so we’re good. I’m going to report all those findings to the Guild. It’s an important waypoint if there’s a regular route coming up between Alpha and Gamma. Plus, with those attractions, you’re going to be a destination anyway.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow, and, unless the boss says otherwise, we’ll keep on toward Gamma. The expedition’s goal is still to trailblaze between the two landmasses, and just because we’ve got a midpoint now, doesn’t mean we’re aborting. And I’ll put a word for you at the Guild.”
He added “You don’t need to recess immediately anymore. All of your discoveries will be credited, and you’re good. And your town is growing. By next month, when people hear about you, you’ll have the area under control and tourist stands ready to fleece the crowds.”
Vantegaard noticed Birkathane fidgeting. Vasili followed his gaze.
“Sir… I’d like to ask… can I come along with your expedition?”
Vantegaard was struck. What? They just had started and…
Birkathane noted his look and held her hand up.
“I know. We’re good, we… just invested a lot…” she said, skipping over the dozen of skill stones consumed yesterday.
“But I came on Northworld to follow up on my friends. And they’re all in Gamma.”
She expanded “Now, M. Vasili here”
“Vasili only. Nobody calls me Mister. And Comrade is an insult, by the way.”
“Vasili here… he says there will be probably regular caravans at some time, and lots of travel. But that’s in some future. His expedition will go to Gamma right now.”
She turned back to Vasili.
“So… if you’re ok… I’d like to go with you. I know I’m a newbie, but I’ve got a good array of skills, I’ve got a tier 1 Meditation…”
“Tier 1? You’ve got Boundless Meditation?”
“No. I’ve got something called Meditative Cultivation. Similar, but gives me +stats to my next actions.”
“It’s also something special about the place. Everyone in Fanduk spawned with a Meditation skill.”
Maelia asked for a clarification, “What do you mean, everyone?”
“Everyone. Well, I don’t know about the woman that’s on that table, because she’s new. But everybody who spawned in this area has one. Anything from tier 5 to 1.”
“So, Miss Birkathane here got the jackpot.”
“Our innkeeper, Dadanlong, he has the same tier one, if I remember right. Me and Quan, we got different tier ones as well. Absolute Meditation and Unseen Meditation.”
“I’m going to ask the rest if they’re ok with an additional…”
“I would also like to join if you’re accepting additional people,” said Quandocor.
Vantegaard was taken by surprise again.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. Birkathane always missed her friends. They worked well together, but they’d known each other for a week, while her other friends had been around for years.
Quandocor… well, it was hard to guess. He kept well under pressure, as when they faced the mini-boss at the floating stones. He had his gym pals, but never spoke about them. Ultimately… he was probably still trying to figure what he wanted out of Northworld. Making a new town wasn’t probably it.
Which left him. He’d been jokingly named Mayor of Fanduk, he named he picked himself. People joining up seemed to accept it. But was he going to be the boss of this new domain?
It struck him that he had started to have a kind of tunnel vision. Being nowhere closed his horizon. But he had this uncanny ability to select skills – not just Geomantic, but maybe Aetheric as well now… and who knew about Psionics – and he’d just dumped a dozen skill stones to make an adventurer build.
Ultimately… that was the real destiny he wanted. Go. Beat challenges. See everything. And his two friends in Northworld had the right idea.
Vasili was looking at him.
“Never two without three?”
“Yes sir, I…”
“Vasili. I already said, no one Mister me.”
“I… realize I could try to be the organizer of the place. But then I would miss out on the rest of Northworld.”
Vasili slapped him again on the shoulder.
“Not everyone is cut to make a real politician. I get stuck with Officer because I’m practical, not because I want to manage things.”
He added quickly.
“But three. No more. And that’s if the rest of the expedition feels ok with three lowbies. Wait here.”
Vasili moved to the main table and started discussing with the four remaining expedition members. Vantegaard looked at Maelia, who hadn’t followed the Cartographer.
“You don’t discuss that with them?”
“Nope. He’s the boss, and I trust him. We’ve been on a few mapmaking trips together, and the Russki knows what’s good and what doesn’t work. He’s probably more selling your presence than asking their opinion. If he didn’t want you, he’d said no immediately.”
“You’re a Cartographer too, then.”
“Yes. Have you downloaded maps of Alpha?”
“The ones available on the public-facing site, yes.”
“Half of them are mine.”
“Wow. Honored to meet you.”
Vantegaard turned his attention to his two friends who kept a slightly pained face. He felt he needed to reassure them.
“Look, I understand why you want to leave. That’s no problem. This town’s good, but it hasn’t a character yet.”
Birkathane was quick to justify herself.
“Yes, but I don’t want to put pressure on you. You seemed to like the whole housing scheme, the tower, all…”
“I do. But I’m like you. I didn’t come to Northworld to found a town. That just happened, but by next week, there will be dozens of locals spawned, and I’m sure some of them are good at it as well. So it’s not like I’m destroying the town if I leave.”
He added “and we’ve readied ourselves for a challenge, remember. Gamma is going to offer us one.”
“While we look for your friends” he added quickly.
“So you’re not following because…”
“Yes, I am following you. Not because you leave, but because you’re right about leaving.”
And, in a way, they had reminded him that those leylines were not going to find themselves.
Vasili came back after his round of negotiations.
“Okay. The team is okay with you provisionally tagging along. If they quickly get the impressions you’re going to be more of a problem than just lowbies, you’re turning back and running to town.”
“Now, I still need to check with HQ. What’s your respawn status?”
Birkathane said, “Recess option opened up yesterday evening.”
Vantegaard added, “No option yet, but it should open up this evening or tonight.”
“I spawned one day after this guy. So, tomorrow maybe?”
Vasili thought quickly.
“Your Resilience is still a lowbie’s. That means you get three weeks, three and a half tops before Adaptation Sickness begins. That’s more than the rest of the trip, even without you already over a week in.”
He pointed out to them.
“So, expedition break. We’ll check your standing stones, maybe scout a bit around. Tomorrow, as soon as your last recess lights up, you take a 36-hour Recess to purge the build-up. Then you’re back, fresh, clear, with food stores for three weeks, and we start. No delays – if you’re not back within 37 hours, we won’t wait.”
He added “We’ll do a common Recess once we hit your AS limit on the way. I doubt you’ll last until we reach Hilltop Samms, which is our intended destination at the edge of Gamma.”
He turned to Vantegaard “I will do a Recess along with all of you to report. Your handle on the Guild forum is Vantegaard?”
“Then, probationally, I’ll get you to Probationary Agent. Ahah.”
“I have a Silvergate Debt.”
“I’ll check the bean counters, but your discovery of Fanduk and a major point of interest can probably get you in the clear – at least for that one. If you get Probbie, you’re in, not scot-free. Interested?”
“I… sure. I like exploring.”
“It’s the Cartographer’s Guild, not the Explorer Guild. I hope you can pencil better than me.”
“So, let’s see what this inn uses for rooms.”
He looked at the expedition’s table, where Zaccali was laughing with one of the newbies and Warander seated next to her.
“I think I know two who are going to like that Inn no matter what.”
“You know, you were not kidding. I’ve seen an artist painting of the Tarquar site, and it’s similar.”
Vasili added further “Similar, but the stones are arrayed differently. The middle ring is also rotating, but it’s the one with six stones. The outer ring has progressive gaps, small on one side, larger on the opposite. And your central core is taller and thinner.”
The other expedition members had decided to check the gorge areas, to see if they could find a dungeon or two. Birkathane and Quandocor had tagged along. Warander said it would be good to see how they performed. If they found a dungeon.
Maelia had already set up an easel to pencil the Stones of Fanduk site. The two men started down the bowl.
“We had a kind of guardian spirit at the center. A bit hard at our level, probably in the mid-30s.”
“I wanted to say that if you can’t tackle a 30 as a group, I don’t want you, but spirits can be hard. They’re always Lesser Elite at least.”
“I’ve mapped the site on the Geomantic level as well. There are two standard leylines and a minor one terminating just under the center. All three go northwest, north, northeast.”
“Oh? Earth Mage?”
“Got something like a good build, yes. I’m a geology Ph.D. back on Earth, so…”
“… it’s not entirely unexpected.”
No spirit guardian popped at the center. Vasili closed his eyes, seemingly trying to feel something. He opened them at least.
“Now that roads are starting, I’ll probably go and see the other Stones in Beta. But this is also worth the trip.”
“I wish we’d found them before you spawned and claimed the area. But, eh. We’re still among the first ones. Always worth something.”
Vantegaard looked at the site. He had grinded skills last night and all morning, and he had just enough points for one last additional skill. The intersection was the target, as he would probably find a lone leyline more easily than an intersection.
Dual Standard Leyline skills
Tread the Earth. Tier 3 Reflexes. Grasp the Earth and the leylines will be your guides.
Control Weather. Tier 3 Dexterity. The Heavens are not separate from the Earth when your reach is long enough.
Waterwalking. Tier 3 Dexterity. If you are careful enough, water is no softer than stone.
There was no real hesitation there. Who wouldn't want to walk on water.
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.