In the city of Greenstone, Gary Xandier and Rufus Remore walked quietly along an empty street, the night lit up by magical lamposts. Gary was a huge lion man, yet looked sunken and small, with none of his signature boisterousness.
“It was a good service, I thought,” Rufus said.
“Good service?” Gary reacted angrily. “Good service? He died saving this city and what does he get? A bunch of sneering nobles, glad to see him go. They hated him. They always hated him. Tiny people who tell themselves they’re giants.”
“There were friends there too, Gary.”
“Farrah wasn’t. She’s dead, Rufus. Now Jason’s dead. How long until Hester shows up at my door to portal me to your memorial service?”
“You could stick around. Watch my back.”
“I was watching Farrah’s back. We both were, and what could we do? Watch her die, that’s what. Adventuring was meant to be fun, Rufus. Remember that? See the world; help the people who need it. It turns out we’re the people who need it, Rufus.”
Gary hung his head.
“What will you do now? For a team, I mean. There’ll be no shortage of takers back in Vitesse.”
“They can stay there,” Rufus said. “I’m going to stick around, work on the new training centre.”
“Good,” Gary said. “Be a teacher, Rufus. Maybe we’ll live long enough to be old friends.”
A flatland of long, yellow grass spanned to the horizon under a wide-open sky. Little more than a few sparse trees broke up the endless sea of gold, shifting gently in the breeze.
A remote village of low buildings was the sole population centre, with the few other building spread across the massive territory being ranches or other operations with no more than a handful of people. A lion-like leonid woman marched up to a cottage several kilometres outside the solitary village.
Accompanying the woman was a human man, who followed her to the cottage door. The building was a small stone affair, with an attached smith’s forge. The woman stood outside the door and bellowed a name.
Inside, Gary winced. The door hit the wall as it was slammed open, Gary’s hangover making it feel like it had hit his head on the way.
“Mum,” he groaned. “Did you open the door by yelling at it? Also, you know everyone calls me Gary.”
“No, everyone calls you the perpetually drunken blacksmith who half-arses his work. Are you sleeping on a pile of your dirty laundry?"
“I don’t suppose you’re here to wash it?”
“Although it might surprise anyone who knew you, you’re a grown man, Gareth. You’re old enough to do your own laundry.”
“Then why are you here?”
"Because somebody is too good to come visit his mother. Magda had to come get me, which does not reflect well on you as her employer."
“That’s not what I pay her for.”
“No, you pay her to manage the business side of your smithy, which is hard to do when the smith spends all his time in a wine-soaked heap. You’re not an onion Gareth, so stop trying to pickle yourself.”
Gary patted around until his hand fell on an empty bottle and he held it up, even as he still lay in a pile of dirty clothes. He peered at the label.
“This is wine? I may have been ripped off.”
“You should listen to your mother, Gary,” came a familiar voice. Gary propped himself onto his elbows to see Rufus standing in the doorway, behind his mother.
“I’m going to let you two boys talk,” Gary’s mother said. “Afterwards, Gareth, you and I are going to have some words about keeping a clean house.”
Gary eventually managed to navigate himself to actual furniture and sit at his dusty kitchen table. He leaned over it, propping his head up.
“Gary, you aren’t exactly looking your best,” Rufus said.
“You are,” Gary said. “Are you polishing your head again?”
“I don’t polish my head.”
“Sure you don’t. You hit silver?”
“The monster surge precursor signs have been going on for well over a year now, even if it increasingly seems like the surge will never come. There’s been a noticeable increase in silver-rank monsters in Greenstone, which got me over the threshold.”
“I thought you were going to run your new school instead of going back to adventuring.”
“It’s only a training annex, and I am. But you know what standards are like in Greenstone. All the good adventurers leave, so someone has to step up.”
“Didn’t a bunch come back for the monster surge?”
“We’ve been waiting for the surge for years at this point, Gary. These surge precursors have been showing for more than a year. It should have been weeks; months at the outside. People won’t wait forever, especially in a place like Greenstone where all but the lowest ranks stagnate.”
“So, you’re leaving?”
“No. I’m still getting the training annex ready. It won’t go into full operation until after the surge. The academy won’t send people before then. Danielle Geller left. Managed to hit gold rank, or so I’ve heard.”
“Good for her.”
“You know, Gary, you were bronze-rank before I even had essences.”
“It’s not my fault you’re immature,” Gary said.
“I’m sorry,” Rufus said. “Was I just called immature by the man who once forgot to wear pants to a fight?”
“I’m covered in fur, Rufus. It’s easy to miss.”
“Oh, I remember what you were covered in. It matted in your hair and we had to buy crystal wash to get it out, remember?”
“Right, yeah. Farrah wanted to just cut it out of my hair with scissors. She would have left me looking like a sick stray cat.”
“Gary, you are a sick stray cat. Your mother asked me to come here from another continent. She’s worried about you.”
“She’s my mum. That’s her job.”
“I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t, Rufus. Just don’t.”
“I’m not going to push. I do have something for you, though.”
“The way this conversation is heading, I’m not sure that I want it.”
Rufus took a small object from his pocket and placed it on the table.
“What is that?” Gary asked.
“You know what it is,” Rufus said.
Gary picked up the monster core and held it between the thumb and forefinger of his huge hand. He turned it over, examining it before setting it back on the table.
“What do you want me to do with this?”
“If you want to push your smithing to the next level, you need to rank up. You’ve been bronze rank for my entire adventuring career and you’re on the very brink of silver.”
Rufus tapped the monster core with his finger.
“If you’re really done with adventuring, then this is how you rank up, now.”
Gary looked at Rufus silently for a long time.
“So, that’s what you’re doing. Trying to wake me up by making me choose.”
“I don’t want to hear it, Rufus.”
Gary stood up, picked up the monster core and walked to the door of his modest cottage. He opened the door to reveal the huge span of yellow grass outside. He threw the monster core out into it with all his considerable strength.
“Rufus, you’re my best friend in the world and I love you. But get out of my house.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Magda said. The leonid woman had been approached in the village by an unusual man, asking after her employer.
“He hasn’t been staying in his cottage,” Magda continued. “He comes in every couple of weeks and works for a few days, then goes again. I’ve just been going up to collect whatever he’s made to sell twice a month.”
Magda was nervous. The customer had the immaculate perfection of a very high ranker, so if he grew angry at Gary’s less than excellent work ethic, there was little they could do about it.
“It’s fine,” the man said, smoothly producing a gold-rank spirit coin. “Go home for a while and… Mr Xandier, was it?”
“Yes, Gareth Xandier. But everyone calls him Gary, except him mum.”
"When Mr Xandier is ready for your services again, he will find you. It may be some time, so this should carry you in the interim."
He held out the coin for her to take, but she hesitated.
“Young lady,” he said, despite looking half of her forty years, “I assure you that I will take more offence at the rejection of my offer than the loss of the coin.”
Magda’s eyes went wide and she plucked the valuable spirit coin from his fingers, hurriedly, then was shocked at her own rudeness. He laughed lightly, holding up a hand to forestall her apology.
“It’s fine. I’ll have to go find him myself.”
“You aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”
“Oh, I probably am,” he said. “But there’s nothing you can do about that anyway, so you’d best run along.”
Gary was unconscious in a hammock strung between two trees. A sword buried itself in one of the trees, cutting the strap holding up the hammock and dumping Gary on the ground.
Gary yelled angrily as he woke up, untangled in the hammock and tore it apart with his considerable strength. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet and looked around, seeing and sensing nothing. He was in a copse of thin, widely spaced trees and there shouldn’t have been space to hide.
He looked to the sword sticking out of the tree and yanked it out. He immediately realised it was his own work.
“This is one of mine,” he muttered.
“I’m surprised you’re willing to admit that out loud,” a voice said from behind him.
Gary turned to find a slender, handsome man standing before him. His clothes were as immaculate as his face, both out of place in the wild savannah. Gary couldn’t sense an aura, which could have meant silver rank, but his instincts told him otherwise. This was a dangerous man.
“What do you want?” Gary asked.
“I don’t just go around buying terrible swords, Mr Xandier,” the man said. “But I found that one to be especially infuriating.”
Gary looked at the sword in his hands. It had gone into and out of the tree without so much as a blemish. He hadn’t exactly put his heart and soul into making it but it was an entirely serviceable product.
"It's a perfectly adequate sword," he said, in defence of his work.
Gary didn’t see the blow coming or even feel it land. One moment he was standing there with a sword in his hands and the next he was tumbling across the ground. Only when he rolled to a stop did the sting of the strike hit him.
"Adequate," the man said as if spitting out a slice of rotten fruit. "The next time I hear that word come out of your mouth, Mr Xandier, it won't be a gentle tap like this one you get."
He was already standing over Gary by the time Gary rolled over and painfully sat up.
“If you want your money back,” Gary told the man, “go ask the guy you bought it off. Also, kiss my pert, hairy rump.”
The man gave Gary an assessing look.
“You don’t care what I do to you, do you? You have some sense of my power and it just doesn’t matter to you.”
“Yep,” Gary agreed. “So, kill me or sod off; I’ve already got a smug friend. He died, but I’m not looking to refill the position.”
The man continued to stare at Gary.
"I see," he said. "You tried your hand at adventuring and it didn't go so well. Lost people. I hate to break it to you, Mr Xandier, but that is hardly a fresh story. It's been told forever and will be told again forevermore."
Gary let himself fall back in the grass.
“Oh no, I’m not special. Now you’ve tracked me down for this great revelation, can we get back to the part where you leave me alone?”
The man plucked a wooden chair out of the air and sat down next to Gary, still lying in the grass.
“Mr Xandier, my name is Virid Martine.”
“Gary. Stop calling me Mr bloody whatever.”
“Very well, Gary. Like you, I am a practitioner of the smithing arts.”
“Then make your own sword and leave me alone.”
“Gary, you will find that as you move into the upper realms of any craft, the principles you’ve formed start to inform your work. Over time, this becomes the basis for the nuances that make your signature style unlike that of any other.”
“If I told you my core principle was solitude, would you go away?”
“No. We’re here to talk about my core principle. It’s a simple one, being the idea that all skill, from sword mastery to dance to cooking to smithing, has foundational skills from which everything else stems. No matter how sophisticated or advanced the technique, it is, in some way, an extension of the foundational techniques.”
“I hate to break it to you,” Gary said, “but that principle is as much yours as it is everyone’s who has ever done anything.”
“Yes,” Virid agreed. “One might consider it the core principle of all skill. Yet, despite knowing this simple truth, so many go on to disregard it. They rush towards complexity, always seeking to push the boundaries without fully exploring the depths that the fundamentals have to offer. In doing so, they fail to grasp that foundations are where the greatest depths lie. The very things they seek are fragments of a greater whole.”
“That’s a great story, really. I’m not sure why you’re telling me, but you’ve given me a lot to think about. So, if you could just leave me to that…”
The sword Gary dropped when Virid hit him came flying through the air to slap into Virid’s waiting hand.
“Everything we make tells a story,” Virid said. “About us, about who we are and how we look at the world.”
He turned the sword over in his hands.
“This sword tells the story of a man who is patient. Who doesn’t rush to the end but fully explores that place he’s already at, knowing there is more to learn. A man who spent years honing the basics of his craft rather than move on to the new, flashy thing. It also tells the story of a man who no longer cares. His skills are ready to move on, to advance his mastery, yet he lacks the will. He’s become lazy and careless, with only the dedication of the past allowing him to get by on a series of shamefully adequate works."
Virid threw the sword and it shattered into pieces, falling into the grass.
“Because of my particular focus, I like to peruse the work of those still on the early stages of the path. When I saw this sword, I was infuriated. That someone whose steps on the path were so solid had lost their way.”
Virid stood up, grabbed his chair and shoved it into the air, where it vanished. He then closed his eyes and stood in place, silently. Eventually, Gary sat up to look at him.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for something,” Virid said. “My aura senses are expansive enough that it can take a little time to hone in on something specific.”
“Maybe you should be practising that, then, rather than harassing people who were perfectly happy in their hammock before you showed up.”
Virid’s eyes snapped open.
“Happy? Are you genuinely going to sit there and claim to have been happy?”
“Comfortable is an animal unaware it’s waiting to be slaughtered.”
With a gesture from Virid, a line of fire appeared in the grass but didn't burn it. An archway of blackened metal arose from the flames, which themselves then rose to fill it.
“On your feet, Mr… Gary. It’s time to go.”
“I know how portals work,” Gary said. “You can make me do a lot of things, powerful as you are, but you can’t make me go through that thing.”
“True,” Virid acknowledged. “What I can do is other things, until you agree to go through on your own. Do you want me to do other things, Gary?”
Gary’s only response was a groan.
“That’s what I thought. Now, get up.”
In the chaos of a monster attack, no one noticed a fiery portal open in the middle of a village. Virid and Gary stepped out and Gary immediately started whipping his head around. The village had mustered some kind of defence, from the shattered palisades and pikes lying beside the dead, but that defence had been broken. Now the screams of villagers and the shrieks of monsters mingled in air thick with the coppery taste of blood.
“Do something!” Gary yelled. “You’re powerful enough! Fix this!”
“My help comes at a price, Gary.”
“Just do something!”
“You don’t care what the price is?”
Virid made a casual gesture and moments later, silence passed over the village. Looking around, Gary spotted metal spikes sticking out of the ground, impaling every monster in sight.
“There you go,” Virid said lightly. Gary flashed him an angry look and rushed off to start checking on people.
Virid and Gary were walking on the battlements of a fortress town, designed to accommodate the local populations during monster surges. After the destruction of the village, Virid and Gary had accompanied the survivors there.
“The world is growing dangerous,” Virid said. “This extended period of pre-surge monster activity is becoming worse than a monster surge due to its protracted length. It doesn’t present the full threat of a surge, but the world cannot hunker down and wait out years of heightened danger. People, especially those with the least resources and greatest isolation, are becoming victims.”
“You didn’t seem to much care in that village,” Gary said. “Putting terms on helping people as they died around us.”
“You don’t get to judge me, Gareth Xandier. You don’t know the things I’ve done, but I know what you’ve done. You’ve sat around, slowly drinking yourself to death while people out there are suffering. You think you’re excused because you don’t have a portal power? Just being far away doesn’t absolve you of failing to help any more than it does me.”
“Is this what your price is about?” Gary asked.
“Yes. I’m glad that you didn’t ask what it was, Gary. It speaks well of you.”
“So, what have I put myself in for?”
“You aren’t going to back out? I forced an agreement out of you under some duress.”
“We made a deal and you kept up your end,” Gary said. “I’m not going to just go back on my word.”
“Very well,” Virid said. “As we’ve both borne unfortunate witness to, there are many people in many places in need of help. We can’t fight for them all but, as smiths, what we can do is give them the tools to fight for themselves. Weapons, armour, reinforced gates. Not big, flashy works. Basic things. Foundational.”
“Why?” Gary asked. “Why me?”
“It’s not just you, Gary. Those of us that exist at the upper reaches of power like to step in during the monster surges but this time the challenges are greater. There are few of us and so many in need. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to recruit people we feel are responsible and capable enough to help where they can.”
“You could have just asked.”
“Could I? I found you through your sword, Gary, and that sword told a story. It wasn’t the story of a man ready to help. You had to see, to remember who you are.”
“And who is that?”
“Someone who cares enough that losing people can break him.”
Five swords were floating in the air. Glowing yellow with heat. Like a symphony conductor, Gary waved his arms and they descended into the water troughs waiting below them.
“There are advantages to silver-rank,” he muttered to himself. He had held an instinctive aversion to using monster cores, but he knew he was never going back to adventuring. More than a year of travelling between remote villages and fortress towns, shoring up their defences had confirmed it. He could do far more swinging a hammer in a smithy than he could swinging one at a monster.
That was not to say that he hadn’t taken up his war hammer. Monsters had no interest in waiting for his work to be done before striking at towns, villages and homesteads.
Gary finished the last of his work, nodding with satisfaction. This last batch of swords marked the end of another village's worth of work and it would be time to move on. He placed the swords in a crate that he easily shouldered before heading out of the smithy.
The little elf girl clamped onto Gary's leg like a limpet. He plucked her off by the back of her tunic and held her out, arms and legs wheeling.
“Hmm,” he said sternly. “I seem to have developed an unseemly growth on my leg.”
The elf girl’s mother came along and took her little girl.
“It’s fine,” Gary said with a chuckle. They walked towards the main street, Gary holding the swords on one shoulder and the woman holding her toddler, still straining to reach Gary.
“She’s never seen a leonid before, and she won’t like it when you’re gone.”
“My being gone means you’re more ready to face danger than when I arrived,” Gary said. “I can’t feel bad about that.”
“So, you still intend to leave in the morning?”
“Yes,” Gary said. “Providing my transport shows up on time for once.”
“That’s a little rude,” Virid said as the crate on Gary’s shoulder opened and a sword floated out. It moved over to Virid, whose annoying enthusiasm for appearing from nowhere was undiminished.
“Not bad,” Virid said as he examined the blade.
“It meets your standards, then?” Gary asked.
“Well, my standards are very high.”
“Then you can offer me some guidance,” Gary said. “Which is good, because I have questions.”
“I walked right into that one,” Virid complained. “I’m starting to regret you reaching silver-rank. Of all the people I’ve recruited, you’re the one who bothers me the most.”
“The others don’t want you to help their craft along?”
“Yes, but their questions are shallow and lacking insight.”
“Or you just don’t like the way they’re developing as master smiths.”
“Which is the same thing. You know that most of them don’t think that grinding out swords and pikes is helping them advance their skills?”
“It’s fine,” Gary said. “If you don’t want to help me, you don’t have to.”
“I didn’t say that,” Virid said hastily.
The latest town to receive Gary’s attention was the largest he’d visited. Although the region was remote, the town was the trade and travel hub for all the little villages around it. Gary had been a part of converting the town into a semi-fortress town, and more than once had stepped out to face monsters that threatened it.
The town was having a feast to celebrate the completion of the new walls, with tables and spit roasts set out in the central square. Gary was gesticulating with a full roast leg, spattering fat and sauce as he told a story to the people sharing his table. He stopped as his silver-rank hearing picked out familiar voices arguing.
“Your shields are magic,” Belinda complained to Neil. “All they cost you is some mana. Every time one of my shields gets broken I need them fixed or replaced.”
“You’re an adventurer,” Neil said. “You can afford it.”
“We’re not exactly scooping up coin running around after the herb witch, here,” Belinda said. “Not all of us come from money, Neil.”
“Herb witch?” Jory asked.
“Sorry, sweetie,” Belinda said. “I’m sure what you do is very important.”
“It is,” Jory said.
“Look, Neil,” Belinda continued. My point is that I use a lot of equipment sets, and since we hit silver I’ve been running around with garbage. I need to find someone who can supply some quality work at a decent price.”
“Lindy, that’s why we’re here,” Jory said. “I heard they have a travelling smith here who makes quality stuff.”
“You also said this was a defenceless town,” Neil said. “We just spent quarter of an hour waiting to pass the checkpoint in their giant metal wall. We could have told them we’re silver-rank adventurers.”
"You can't just go flaunting it," Jory said. "We're not here to make a fuss. And don't the new walls suggest that they do have a good metalworker here?"
“I will point out,” Belinda said, “that none of my equipment sets, varied as they are, include walls.”
“You have a big shield,” Jory said. “That’s kind of like a wall.”
“Jory?” a booming voice called out.
Jory looked ahead to where sounds of revelry were coming from the town square where lamps lit up the early evening. A huge, hairy figure was rushing down the street, brandishing a leg of meat like a weapon.