(Y6, August 19th-21st)
Carmelli hadn’t really expected the trio that came into the office. Part of him kept expecting them to get cold feet and skip. But here they were.
“Vantegaard and group. We are… from Vasili’s party?”
Vantegaard didn’t know if the local agent had been notified.
Carmelli decided quickly to play a little dumb and see how they would play it.
“I was notified of the Expedition. You were expected more or less around now, based on difficulties. Where’s Vasili?”
“That’s the problem. He’s… dead.”
“Oh? Shit. What happened?”
Vantegaard started to recount the fatal encounter in the Pyramid.
“So… you got a full map of the world. And apparently alien Gater species.”
Carmelli realized that he was probably starting to sound a bit too skeptical and added quickly “That’s the kind of things the Guild lives for.”
“We reported it during Recess, but apparently there wasn’t enough time or something to get back to us. I just got an acknowledgment of the report, and nothing until we spawned again.”
“If you have the boss or too many officers out of Earth, then no. This is too big to be handled by the routine staff.”
“You haven’t received instructions?”
Carmelli decided on the spot that Hilltop Samms wouldn’t be large enough to warrant a Com Globe. A newbie might not know about those, but these were anything but normal newbies.
“Those take time. Unless I go on recess, you get local messages. The last Caravan came from Mt Talbor and they arrived four days ago.”
“They’re leaving soon?” asked Birkathane.
Oh, no no no, thought Carmelli.
“In a day or two, but I’d rather you stay around. Once I get instructions…”
“Don’t worry, I’m not leaving. I’m this group’s flight recorder, with Absolute Compass.”
“Well… until then, I’d suggest you do some local sightseeing. Do you have some cash? If not, I can see what I can do. When’s your AS?”
“Over two weeks from now. We haven’t Recess open yet, but we’re probably not going to do it. Unless you want me to check with the Guild?”
“No need to.”
Carmelli stood up and shook their hands.
“Until I get more, enjoy your stay in Hilltop Samms.”
Carmelli looked at the closed door. He hadn’t even let them know that he was aware of their wealth. Their convenient wealth.
When he went to Heishoudang to see if he had some Bane’s Grip ready, he got told the tale of the three newbies with a stack of skill stones, including one so rare it would probably get sold in an auction for close to a platinum. He was even tempted to get the Axe Sweep they had for himself. It wasn’t that rare, but every time he dithered, someone else snatched the inventory.
But that explained a bit the expedition wipe. Obviously, they got paid in skill stones to lure the cartographers somewhere – probably not a pyramid at all – and get them dead. The exact motives would become clear later, but that was the first lead.
Once outside of the Guildhouse tower, the trio conferred.
“So? What do we do until they get their expedition organized?” asked Birkathane.
“Dunno. We can do local hunt, although it might be crowded in a short-range. Or try to get a day job for crafting XP. Or enjoy our wealth. Quan?”
Quandocor was looking slightly dubiously at the tower.
“What? Well, maybe. You probably level a lot less fast crafting, right?”
“Unless there’s a lot of stuff to craft, then yes. Combat gives bigger XP on most skills.”
“I’d say, let’s check the town for today, then tomorrow, if there’s no news, we’ll go on hunting some local critters.”
“Hmmm… I think I saw something that looks like an ad panel inside. Let’s go back” said Vantegaard.
The bottom floor of the Guildhouse had a few wood panels covered with papers. There were well-defined sections: “Bad Necropolis groups”, “Minor dungeons”, “Outdoor hunters (newbie)”, “Errands”.
The “Errands” panel had a few handwritten notices, but a bunch of earth-printed flyers that advertised local stores.
Birkathane found an ad for the local “brewery”. Apparently, they needed alchemist-capable people for making various potion basics but chiefly supplying drinks for the inn. She stared at the notice.
“1 copper per half-day? Is that serious?”
“Well, usually, you’re a lowbie looking for work, so that’s good XP for you. The coin is a bonus. They’re essentially recruiting an intern.”
Leather’s shop for Quandocor wasn’t even an option. They required a strict minimum of 20 in working with leather, with 25 “strongly recommended”. Vantegaard finally noticed a small ad for jewelcraft. Apparently, below 10, you’d cut minor gemstones. The wage was in line with the brewery.
“They probably have so much leather around, they only craft the ones that sell.”
“So… you two are going to do an internship and I do… what?”
Vantegaard winced. He didn’t like having Quandocor excluded, even if in practice both he and Birkathane would be working on their own.
“Ok. Let’s say, you scout the opportunities and get the feel of the land, then tomorrow, we follow you in the wilds around town?”
“Okay. Sounds good to me.”
They explored the town a bit until they found the brewery, then a small shop for magical jewelry. Vantegaard waved at Quandocor.
“See you at lunch, I hope. Or after work.”
“You’re going to out-level me again.”
“I wish. I’ll probably get 2-3 levels top.”
“That’s more than I’ll get.”
Quandocor found himself in a strange position. After weeks focused entirely on trying to get to Northworld civilization, hunting and killing and getting their stats growing, the idea of being idle for a day felt alien.
It had felt alien as well during recess, but he’d been to the gym. The real gym didn’t have the fake group of Gaters he used as a foil, but people had looked oddly at the staff work. At least, he used a local bo, not the Northworld staff. But, in a way, it was scary how easy he’d slipped into the routine of a kind of… what? Hunter of fantastic beasts. With necromancy, fireballs, and rituals. With the stats gain piling, the changes in himself were scary.
That didn’t promise anything good for the Silvergate Laws. Nobody liked to hear you had to stop doping to improve yourself – not when the doping seemingly had zero side effects. Silvergater fronts were already fighting tooth and nail every little bit of emergency legislation passed after incidents, and the first appeals on the early arrests were finally landing on the Supreme Court’s docket.
Well, time to work. Find out as much as he could about how the “real” Silvergaters organized themselves. In and out of Northworld.
The Guildhouse had been a treasure trove of small information. The main local guild presence was called Reformed Ones – reformed from what, nobody could explain – and they focused on organizing dungeon expeditions. Besides the Bad Necropolis, there were a few ruins and a cavern complex that kept attracting hostile fauna. The necropolis was closer, at a 2-3h march, but the day staffer warned him that it was strictly a veteran affair, level 500 and above with solid combat builds. The rest was half a day to a day out.
More curious was the fact that the representative had… Adaptation Sickness?
“Yea. It’s not much of a problem for the first days, but of course, it means you’re not really fit for expeditions. So that’s how we roll. You run dungeons, then when you get AS, you man the offices for a couple of days before taking a recess. It doesn’t affect much the recess time needed to clear it.”
More important was the brochure handed, with an account key to get access to the Earthside web for the guild. It had taken a demonstration of the Auspicious Omens ritual and a necromantic Cold Grasp debuff to convince the man that he was indeed an Archmage – albeit of low level – and his interest in the guild was genuine. Well, it was, but probably not for what the man expected.
The Hunter Plus was apparently an up-coming guild that started two months ago and was trying to aggressively take over the Luteus skin hunting. They were the ones organizing the export market. They would be happy to have him around, but they were only recruiting veterans.
There were a dozen minor guilds advertising as well, but most didn’t have a dedicated office, or it was closed with an evening opening hour listed.
Having exhausted his Guildhouse opportunities, Quandocor headed back to the inn to check if his friends were back for lunch.
He found Mojitallus back behind the bar.
“Did any of my friends show up?”
“Haven’t seen them. Why?”
“They’ve gone for some crafting work. I’d have done the same, but the local ads say 25 in Work Leather, and I’m not going to invest the points I don’t have in it to get there.”
“You can blame the Luteus rush. There are so many people around, you probably get 300-400 skins per day coming to town. Even if you try to craft items locally, you need to export the results, which means only the good stuff gets made. Not enough people are going to buy a level 10 gear.”
“Is that Luteus thing that good?”
“You get the standard bonus that you’d get with normal skins for that quality, but you get damage reduction against fire on top. Even if you don’t need it all the time, it’s extra. I hear the top crafter guilds are experimenting into making multi-resistant clothing.”
“I’m probably not going to make that kind of thing anytime soon.”
“Anyway, if your friends are doing intern work, they probably eat on the spot. You get a basic meal for free if you’re doing two half-days.”
“Thanks. Then I’ll get a beer and lunch later.”
“Noon menu is cold cuts and salads, we don’t start the fireplace until the evening.”
“That will be fine. We didn’t cook anything special for lunch breaks on the trip anyway.”
The exchange had attracted the attention of a pair of locals – not the same ones as yesterday. One came to the bar and asked.
“You’re one of the Cartographers?”
“We’re not, we were just on their expedition. If that’s what you’re asking.”
“Yes, I heard you were from Alpha.”
“Not Alpha, but a place between Alpha and Gamma.”
“Wow. Can you tell us about it? A new place, it’s like the old days of Northworld, when everything was small camps all around.”
Quandocor moved to the local’s table and started talking.
“You have floating stones? Like magic megaliths that float above the ground?”
“Yes. There’s a similar thing in Beta, organized differently. It’s got a reputation among mages. It also had a nasty spirit guardian. We were newbies and it nearly did us in.”
The two locals fell silent as he talked about the wipe of the expedition.
“Why would you go into a dungeon so high level?”
“It didn’t look like it was high level. But I can’t really talk. My friend Vantegaard is a Cartographer, and he says that info is normally classified, the propriety of their guild.”
“Don’t you regret moving out Fanduk then?”
Quandocor thought about it.
“They would probably have found the same. And died the same. The big difference is that we survived, so people will know about it.”
One local, who went by the name Miravolus, shook his head.
“That’s the kind of epic stuff I wanted when I heard about Northworld. Every MMORPG had that kind of epic stuff.”
“You don’t want that epic stuff. Believe me. I have nightmares of those Terminator-type things trying to hack me and spewing lightning.”
“Yea, but you were lowbies and…”
“And the veterans died. All of them. We just ran away. If we had been higher, we might not have tried to run away. And then we would have died,” he said bluntly.
The conversation died there. After finishing his drink, Quandocor picked lunch and moved to his table, while the two locals left the inn and a couple more people came in for a quick drink.
“Brewing is hard work.”
“That much?” smiled Quandocor.
“It’s a bit exotic compared to earth chemistry. I’m pretty sure you don’t make beer that way on Earth,” admitted Birkathane.
“I won’t pester you for details. You’re the one with the skills.”
“At least I could manage both tincture work and brewing. The brewer liked that I had both types of skills.”
“What’s tincture work?”
“Basically, you can refine basic plant and mineral extracts. Like making essential oils.”
“So you got more skills?”
“1 and 2 in both skills. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about me. I forgot that I get XP from sensing people around.”
“So, a town like Samms…”
“Gives me a significant amount of XP. Maybe not as much as you did.”
“Heya! I see I’m the last!”
“Van! We were comparing XP gains.”
“Got 2 points in Jewelcraft. I did manage to fill my quota a bit early, so I slipped in some of my eclectic stone cuts, which was allowed. But I need some tools if I want to do that regularly.”
“Well, it’s not as if you can’t afford it.”
“I’ll see later. Besides, we have all higher-level jewelry than I’ll be able to make for quite some time.”
The evening’s menu offered choices between Ursus steaks and some kind of exotic meat. Bangforbus explained that he knew a valley where you could find some troops of Alces Gelidus. That kind of elk had a frost breath weapon and wasn’t afraid of using it. But if you had the right skills – like him – you could tackle the upper 30ish rank beast solo. The food gave you minor immunity against cold effects for a while, but that was useless in the evenings. Despite the 1 bronze cost of the extra deluxe menu, they all agreed to try.
“So, what have you found us, Quan?”
“The Bad Necropolis isn’t for us. 500+ affair minimum, I’m told. Besides… it has animated skeletons.”
Both Birkathane and Vantegaard closed their eyes. Even non-chromed skeletons were going to bring bad memories for a long time.
“But there’s a reasonable dungeon just southwest of here, at a 7-8h walk. We can check it, but we’ll probably have to camp on the spot before coming back.”
At that moment, Bangforbus arrived with a set of smaller tankards… and 6 chasers.
“Extra with the special group menu. You’re supposed to drink the first chaser, then the whole tankard as fast you can, then the second. The loser pays the menu.”
They looked at each other and exploded in laughter.
“I think I’ve already played that game once.”
Birkathane added “Why not? We’re going to sweat it tomorrow going out.”
“You’re hunting?” asked Bangforbus.
“No, checking a dungeon. What is it, Quan?”
“A cave system, apparently.”
“Ah, the Damp Cave. Full of creepy stuff usually. I hope you like bats.”
“As long as they don’t spit acid, I’m good,” said Quandocor.
“Nah. They spit. Not acid, but a lot. Hope you like being slimy.”
The banging on Quandocor’s door was particularly obnoxious.
“I’m awake! I’m awake.”
“Breakfast! Come on!”
Quandocor grimaced. Just because his stomach was iron didn’t mean his head was. Of course, they’d followed the drinking game with a second round, and then another round as people, hearing about the expedition, came to see them. And another general round. And a round on the house. That was the curse of civilization. You could drink and crawl to bed because you didn’t have to worry about some Canis Infernum sneaking on you.
Despite the vigorous pounding she’d made on his door, Birkathane also had blurry eyes. But the inn had coffee, and that always worked wonders on the Swede. Vantegaard only grunted in monosyllables while toying with the porridge and bacon-equivalent.
Finally, Quandocor pulled a small map he’d gotten from the Guildhouse, and pointed.
“That cave is going to escape if we delay.”
“Okay. Let’s bring our gear.”
“Good. I’m carrying” added Birkathane.
As they left the bar toward their rooms, Vantegaard notified the innkeeper, Bangforbus, who was tending the inn for the morning.
“We’re checking the cave we talked about yesterday. So, don’t expect us for tonight. We’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, I think.”
“Yea. It’s still paid, don’t worry, I’m not throwing you out.”
“We’ll see tomorrow if the Cartographers have finally given instructions. I hope. But we’ll probably stay a couple more days.”
“See you tomorrow then.”
Carmelli was trying to make sense of the last batch of notes picked from the Reformed Ones. That was what happened when you didn’t have a professional doing mapping on the Necropolis. They wrote notes after coming back, when they had forgotten half the details, and didn’t even mention which directions they had taken from the entrance. So he had a bunch of puzzle pieces.
When the door opened, he looked at the newcomer. Newcomers even, there were three of them. It looked like…
“Hello. Veteran Cartographer Karseerteal. I’m the head of the Inquisition.”
Carmelli stood up and shook the man’s hand. A Veteran Cartographer was just below full officer and outranked Carmelli in the Cartographer’s hierarchy by two full levels.
“So, what’s the status?”
“They did show up. All three. With the same story.”
“Aliens and Maker traps. Yea. I saw a copy of the ‘report’ that Vantegaard guy wrote.”
“We’re not the Historicianus. Does the guy think we’re going to swallow the first outrageous story they can make?”
“I once saw a video of some guy. He was saying when it comes to stories, the bigger, the better.”
“Anyway, here’s Mortarban, specialist evaluator. Wastehot, debuffer archmage, he’s making sure they can’t fight effectively back. If they’re real lowbies.”
“They seem to. But level 160ish, not low-lowbies.”
“That much? They were supposed to be 50ish when they left for the trek?”
“They say they grinded all the time to be sure to survive. But at least one is an archmage, which is rare… but they got paid in skill stones, I think.”
“They’ve sold – get this – 15 skill stones when they arrived. Even 2k-ers don’t get 15 skill stones like that on a virgin dungeon. Usually.”
Karseerteal munched his lip, digesting this new information before realizing a basic truth.
“And they probably used some. I know I would. At least if I wanted to stay on Northworld after.”
“I’m pretty sure they do since they took their time coming here. They probably think they can get away with it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have come back from Recess.”
“That’s probably why they wanted to be paid in stones. Some for them, but then they probably needed to get somewhere to sell their stones.”
Carmelli sighed, “a gold and a half are still too cheap to kill six people.”
“We have no idea who wanted them dead. But that’s why we’re here. Wastehot is a reasonable alchemist, and he’s got everything needed to keep them at least locked and ready to answer. The second group has a skilled reader and everything to make sure they don’t have a way to defeat potions.”
“They’re currently locked from recess. The innkeeper got them to drink some high Bane’s Grip two days ago, so they’re probably stuck for three or four more days.”
“Then we just have to get them. Where are they?”
“Well, they left to do some dungeon crawling, or so they said. They left most of their stuff in their rooms, so that’s probably true. They’re expected back this afternoon.”
“Then, we’ll just wait at the inn until they show up.”
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.