(Y6, July 18th)
The Tower behind him was a symbol, maybe. For Vantegaard, it was a different opportunity, one that he had closed.
When he had spawned, he’d found that Fanduk had gained another five new inhabitants. They’d all spawned a few days ago, wandered around until they found one of the signs pointing them to town.
To his surprise, the “elections” hadn’t designated Dadanlong. He was pretty certain the guy would end up the new Mayor, but apparently, Redcap had gotten the trust of the locals. He gave Redcap the chest of coin bags and the town register. The guy admitted he didn’t see himself as generous as the Founders, but he’d try to keep the traditions of Fanduk alive.
Everyone had been on time, including Quandocor. The man had his staff on the back and a more practical set of clothes for the Northworld summer.
Vasilikulik let the lowbies go first. After all, they knew the area. At least half a day from town. Wisuqkz caught up to him.
“So, how do you rate our lowbies? Got them a good dungeon test?”
Wisuqkz shook his head.
“Found one mini cave system next to the gorge east of Fanduk. There’s a path down north of the bridge, and the cave opens midpoint. Got some Hynobius Adsulto holed there. We let them deal with one to see how they did.”
“The girl has good instincts. Solid Monk and caster build. The guy is clueless, but he’s born to the staff, I’d say. They should survive the trip if they don’t go too overconfident, or we get only lowbie lands.”
“There are… oddities, however. I mean, Zaccali says they’re real normal lowbies. The girl is the highest in the group, around 57. But… they have way too much Aether. Well over a hundred, closer to two than one.”
Vasili looked askance at the mage.
“If an Aetherist tells you someone or something has way too much Aether, he knows what’s he’s talking about. A 50-lowbie should have below one hundred, barely that in the best case.”
“All of them?”
“All three of them. The guy, Quandocor, he’s the highest of the bunch, 195. And no, the rest of the town inhabitants barely register in the Aether.”
“Any other anomalies.”
“They use probably too many spells. But then, if they have tier 1 meditation, they can probably afford the waste.”
“So, something doesn’t add up?”
“No. They feel more like someone in the two-three-hundred level range, despite having low levels.”
Vasili considered the anomalies. Did he err in taking those three? He would need to watch them very, very carefully. Solving the puzzle. Wisuqkz had no reason to lie, and if he said too much Aether, then there was too much Aether.
“Anything else besides our mystery trio?”
“We did some scouting while you were in Recess. Minor dungeon west, some ruin with a basement. Mostly empty, a pair of Chaerephon Spuo. And a druid tree ring that looks like it has an Umbra point. Probably a Custodia given the local ranks. We didn’t try to camp it for the spawn.
“So, normal lowbie sector.”
“Except for those meditations. I still can’t wrap my head about why everyone in town has a meditation. Even the ones that showed up after you respawned. Every. One. It ain’t natural. I mean, I can do Aether without a meditation. But fuck.”
“Oh, Birka? No. Well, a tiny bit, but it’s… an opportunity cost. You go somewhere, which means you miss another path. That’s all.”
“I just hope we don’t have to go through hell zones.”
“What are those?”
“That’s the name to sectors where you have stuff in 100-plus ranks. Things that kill a veteran in four-five hits and someone like us in one.”
“What happens if we find one?”
“We go around, I guess. What I’m afraid of is that the expedition might want to go through anyway and send us back.”
“I’m worrying too much. They’ll probably try to find an easier route. If they’re scouting to open a regular route between the two landmasses, then it’s not going to cross hell zones.”
He looked at her hands.
“Nice gloves. I don’t remember seeing you with them. Level 15?”
“How do you know? Oh, right. Your Aether Sense.”
She wiggled her fingers. The glove pair looked like black velvet.
Black-Tinted Cloth Glove (lvl 15), requires 30 Dexterity. Nice-looking item.
“Got that from the dungeon they found with us while Quandocor was getting his respawn. It was full of salamander-looking critters with big heads. They were jumping on our face, trying to stun and claw us. Wisuqkz was leading and said I could keep it.”
“Can’t see what it does from here, just the requirements.”
“Well, I don’t either. I’ve got 28 Dexterity, and I’m far from 29.”
“You could put a few points in it. I mean, now that we’re probably not chasing the lottery, we can put points in skills and stats.”
Black-Tinted Cloth Glove (lvl 15), requires 30 Dexterity. +5% Resilience.
“Hey, that’s a good one. It scales with your stats. With your build, it will grow faster than most items would.”
“I think I’ll keep it.”
“We should probably make a list of stats and skills we want to spend points on. All guides say stats first, but sometimes, a skill is a better investment.”
Quandocor was looking ahead at the unfamiliar terrain. The ruins where they had done their first combats had been passed by noon, off in the distance, and he hadn’t been to that part of the plains. But he didn’t get surprised by Maelia coming up behind him. The Sense Life and Death meant he could no longer be taken unawares, by hostiles or other people.
“Hiya,” he said without looking back.
“Good situational awareness” she noted. The lowbie probably did not see her smile. Probably.
“Hard not to. I can sense anyone up to 12m now.”
“There are a few skills that do that kind of thing, yes.”
Quandocor was debating whether or not to try to do some chitchat with the Cartographer when she started anyway.
“So, good dungeon trip before Recess?”
“Yes. While you were checking out the Stones, we had that cave system. The Aetherist leader thought it would be a good adventuring location for the town. Not much loot though. At least I got scale skins.”
“Yea. Sometimes you get good gear, but that’s rare. Most of the things I have on me are human-made.”
“Got Skinning and Work Leather. I haven’t made much yet, both skills are low. Trying belts.”
“I’d say it’s hard to fail a belt, but that’s without a skill. Once you have a skill, even trivial things that everyone else could do easily can go bad.”
Quandocor turned his head to look at Maelia.
“True. I got Sprinting myself. It’s relatively common among Ranger builds, but it means I can’t really run hard for long. If I try to run, it is easy to trigger the skill, and then I have to stop after 60m. I can’t even try to run 1m more; I have to go back to walking. But you…”
“… you don’t have that problem then. I’ll run faster, but you’ll run further, up until you exhaust the stamina. Which at higher levels is probably hours.”
“So… it’s easier for me to make a leather belt, but if I try to use a... high-level skin, then I’ll fail. Even if it’s trivial with different leather.”
“Correct. Anything good yet?”
Simple Leather Notched Belt (lvl 6). Mundane item.
“Keep going. It’s rare to get any form of bonus below 10.”
“So I need to raise my skill to 10 first?”
“No. If you get lucky, you can exceed your skill cap. Some crafters, they use an escape clause when working on orders; if they get a critical success, they keep the item to sell separately, and they make you a normal one.”
“So, how does one become a Cartographer?”
“Ninety percent of the time? You like making maps.”
“You said you made most of the ones from Alpha.”
“That’s when you’re good at making maps. Some of those, I didn’t even go there. I got someone to make me a rough map, and I made it professional looking after.”
“Anything free? I heard Van saying your guild sold everything.”
“We do high-level maps for free. So that you have a rough idea of where everything is around.”
“Where do I get them?”
“Main site. You need TOR to get there. You know about TOR?”
“Well, it was made by the US military and is funded by governments. But yes, it’s used for that. Including us.”
“So, TOR. Site name?”
She pulled up a business card and handed it. Quandocor looked incredulously.
“Seriously? You have business cards?”
“Seriously, yes. High-tier guilds on Northworld are more like companies than anything else. You don’t have investors and the like, but they usually run a business at the core of their activities. For us… it’s the trade of information. Where everything and everyone is.”
“I’ll have a look.”
“And if you need more, ask your friend. Vasili promoted him, which means he can sell you some stuff.”
“What do you mean, sell? I thought…”
“If your friend is serious, he sells our information, he doesn’t give it away, unless he’s allowed to. He gets a commission, sure, but it’s the principle. Break the rules, get booted out. Even for a friend.”
Quandocor’s disbelief must have shown on his face, as Maelia pressed on.
“Don’t believe all that ‘information must be free’ crap you hear on the real world. Some companies get very rich gathering and selling information.”
She turned toward him.
“You see, we’re not just some funny guys with a fetish for maps. We’re the Google of Northworld. That’s how we recruit the best.”
Quandocor pocketed the card. A business card. Just like that. Of course, tracking a TOR-protected site was hard. The FBI handed that to NSA if they could prove out that it was a non-American one. Sometimes even if they couldn’t. Otherwise, it took a very long time, if he remembered his courses from Quantico right.
Vantegaard slowed his step a bit, sliding back. Once he got next to Wisuqkz, he raised his hand in greeting.
“I wanted to ask you a bit about Aether.”
“Really? Got skills?”
“I… unlocked an Aether Sense back after the first spawn. It was from an ambiguous skill, and I got a bit curious.”
“It’s common among Aetherists. Not an automatic skill like some builds get, but 80% of the Aether mages have it.”
“I’ve got additional skills now, but I still can’t really understand. I mean, Honest John’s says you can grind some… which I don’t have. But the mechanics are unclear.”
“You use Honest John’s to figure out Aether? Oh, sweet summer boy…”
“I don’t have much in the way of Aether-oriented sections on the forums I use.”
“Damn right. Aetherists stick together. So… you want to be an Aetherist? Rather than… some other mage class.”
“I’d like to know what exactly goes on with the build.”
Wisuqkz looked at Vantegaard, shaking his head.
“Aether is… a balance. Too little Aether and things shrivel and die. Too much and they balloon and blow up. That’s it.”
“That’s the core truth of Aether. That’s how you rock as an Aetherist like me. You look at the balance, and you tip the balance one way or another.”
Wisuqkz fished in a small bag at the side of his belt. He showed up a small, shiny glass sphere with a gemstone inside.
“That’s the tools of the real Aetherist. I make them myself, by the way. You don’t even need a skill.”
“How does that work?”
“Feel the stone inside?”
Vantegaard’s Evaluate Mineral failed to register the stone’s nature. But on the Sense Aether scale, it had something like 34 Aether.
“You stuff Aether in it. Once you stuff enough, it starts going unstable. That’s what the glass is for. It keeps it contained. You stuff more, and then you throw. The shock vibrates the glass and the instability does the rest. Instant magical grenade. Works here, unlike the Earth stuff.”
“And then you drain Aether from the poor saps in front of you, and you do it again. Or you drain first, then finish them. And the best part is, 90% of the time, you can get your stone back. You just have to pour some glass over it to make your grenade back. It depends on which stone you use.”
“The bigger the stone level, the more Aether you can stuff in, and the bigger the boom. You should see the Aether Cannons they have near the Shadow Mountains pass, in case a big one decides to come and rampage. Costs a fortune to fire, and you need an Aetherist to man, but nothing passes unless they let it.”
Wisuqkz looked into Vantegaard’s eyes “Every Aetherist knows how to weigh Aether balance. Like yours.”
“What about mine?”
“Well, I keep tracking. Your Aether doesn’t change, which means you’re not using your damn meditation or whatever to keep yourself stuffed. Which would be stupid. But the thing is… you have way too much Aether base for a lowbie. I don’t know your trick, but be aware – every Aetherist is going to know you’re not what you seem.”
He added “I’m willing to trust Vasili’s judgment on you. But if it were me, I wouldn’t have let you come. I hate what I don’t understand, and you’re not quite right.”
“Meganthereon ahead” called Zaccali.
“Meg… what?” asked Birkathane.
“Meganthereon Triceps. You’re in for a treat, dear. Your first good fight. No, that dungeon we were in doesn’t count.”
Vantegaard spotted it first, while the veterans were stretching their muscles. Quandocor followed his pointed finger.
“You’re kidding me… a three-headed panther?”
“Yes, and she’s not looking very happy to see us. Three times.”
Vasili came to them.
“I think we changed ranks when we crossed that small river. This side is definitively not a low-rank area if we get some hunting Triceps.”
“How hard are those things?”
“Usually around rank 50. Sometimes a bit below, sometimes a bit more. And magical Lesser Elites, always.”
He called out to the rest of the expedition.
“We kill that patrol, and we make camp. If the sector is higher, no sense pushing it into the evening.”
“The lowbies can begin. I’ll try not to explode it” was Wisuqkz’s answer.
“I’m sure he wants to get choice cuts at camp tonight. You don’t get a high bonus from Meganthereon, but the taste is better than Kobe beef.”
Vantegaard and Quandocor looked at each other.
“On one… three... two... one!"
The camp was ready for the night, and Zaccali had drawn first watch. The rest of them were preparing for sleep or dithering around.
Vasili could tell that Vantegaard was steeling himself for something.
“So. Got something to tell me?”
Vantegaard looked slightly surprised.
“Boy, you’re nice, but you’re still a lowbie. We’ve got the experience figuring out all kinds of stuff on Northworld, so we can tell when something is not exactly normal.”
“I should thank you for the promotion on the Guild.”
“Means we’re supposed to trust you a bit more. Did we make a mistake?”
“Let’s say… the treasure room wasn’t empty.”
“The one behind the boss?”
“Yes. That’s part of why I think it was supposed to be a virgin dungeon. One with the boss not functioning.”
“You’ve heard of the Turk raid?”
“It was the talk on half the forums back in February. It was a construct. Like ours?”
“Lower rank than yours. There were fights over the loot. The biggest prize, oh boy. It’s something some people might assassinate you for. Even if there are probably less than a hundred people potentially capable of using it today.”
Staff of the Boardgame Master (lvl 128). Requires 8 lvl 120+ skills. +19 Reasoning, +13 Intuition, +12 Reflexes, +5% hit, +11% effects duration, +1.8 health/mn. At first light, 5 skills at random gain +19 until sunset.
“So, what did you find.”
Vasili mentally snapped his fingers. Mystery solved.
“There were nearly a dozen in each chest. And each chest was a single tier of stones.”
"Sixty. Skill. Stones? A dozen tier 1? That’s not artifact level, but it’s still...”
“I’ve purchased Honest John’s Guide to Skill Leveling while on recess. It’s got the most complete skill list and guide on grinding.”
“I know. 80% of it is pilfered from the internal Cartographer wiki, grammar errors and all. The one you don’t have access yet. Once we find Honest John…”
“My point is… about a third of the skill stones were not on the guide.”
“Unique skills? New skills?”
“So that’s why you all have so much Aether for your level. You got powerskilled. That’s something you see on the wealthy Asians scene when someone blows their rich daddy’s savings. I never expected newbies in the middle of nowhere… So what're your builds?”
“We all went for Archmages, plus complementary combat skills. I’m Geomancy, Aetheric, and Psi along with Sword. Birka is Monk, Druid, Arcane, and Geomancy. Quan is Staff with Necro, Mana, and Ritualist.”
“Had to split Earth much?”
“I had already half a dozen skills, and two of the stones were duplicates. Using them to raise the skill rank rather than giving somebody a new skill was a waste.”
“And you haven’t used the rest? I should charge you rich people for this expedition, you know.”
Vasili added “any Axe skill?”
“Throw Axe, I think. Oh, and Axe Sweep.”
“Damn. Got the first already and a better one than the second. I hoped for a new unknown Axe skill.”
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.