“You call that a castle?” Vainqueur complained as he bathed in the lava around his new lair, “I demand at least seven towers! Work harder!”
“Yes, Emperor Vainqueur!” the kobolds shouted back, while Vainqueur briefly closed his eyes in satisfaction at the name. The minions had built a large bridge to carry raw material from the mountain to the castle, rebuilding the towers the dragon had destroyed during the War of the Hoard.
The hyena-like humanoid called gnolls carried most of the black stones making up the castle, the males doing most of the work under the supervision of their females. Vainqueur found their spotted fur and their clothes funny to look at.
As it turned out, the encampments south belonged to gnoll tribes who lived in fear of the dread Furibon, who allowed them to live and keep their gold so long as they obeyed him. Most had fled the region when Vainqueur warred against the lich, but the few who didn’t came to Murmurin looking for work. After condemning them for knowingly serving that cruel undead, Vainqueur forgave them and accepted them in his service.
The gnolls had proven lazy and cowardly though, unlike the zealous kobolds; they stopped working when Vainqueur wasn’t looking or picked fights with the other minions. The dragon had to eat twenty troublemakers before they started behaving.
“Also, the highest tower must have a crown!” Vainqueur ordered the minions. “A stone crown!” If it could give him more charisma, then surely, it would make his castle more beautiful.
“Your Majesty?” Vainqueur turned towards the bridge, seeing manling Victor riding that undead beast, with the corpseling and necromancer Jules Rapace on the back. Barnabas had dressed his chief of staff strangely, granting him a cowled, tattered mantle and dark boots. “I see you’re enjoying the new accommodations.”
“The temperature is just right, minion,” Vainqueur said, although he was careful not to let his crown too close lest it melt. The dragon felt some sympathy for his chief of staff, whose lack of immunity to fire prevented him from partaking in the bath.
“Emperor Vainqueur,” Jules the corpseling saluted the dragon with great deference. “How good to see you again. Words cannot properly express my gratitude.”
“A dragon does not turn away good minions,” Vainqueur said. Especially those he could digest, unlike that steel golem. “You should have asked to join V&V back in that backward village, instead of waiting so long. I know a true dragon may intimidate your kind, but I am an equal opportunity master.”
“I didn’t know Your Majesty would go this far back then. How could I resist the call of a country lacking Gardemagne’s heavy taxation on undead labor, and open to the idea of mass zombification? I feel a great corpse boom will soon start, and that the Empire of Murmurin may kickstart the undeathstrial revolution I dream of.”
“Interesting,” Vainqueur replied, trying to calculate how much funds they could gain from that business. “Now, for the important matter. My hoard was treacherously attacked by Furibon, who was evil enough to attack innocent, defenseless gold. It almost died of sickness.”
“I had him read the book, Your Majesty,” said manling Victor. “We used mimics to print it en mass.”
“It is a national best-seller,” Vainqueur boasted. Everyone should learn of his great deeds, and how he saved the world’s gold from the lich. “My hoard must learn to defend itself, especially if I am on an adventure and not present to protect it. Minion Victor said you could help.”
“I can indeed imbue your hoard with the ability for self-defense,” Jules the corpseling said.
“Then show me.”
Manling Victor and Jules climbed down from the mount, with the chief of staff giving a purse full of gold to his corpseling minion. Vainqueur watched the scene closely.
Spilling gold on the bridge, corpseling Jules cast a spell on it. “[Animate Golem].”
To Vainqueur’s marvel, the coins combined into a vaguely humanoid shape, a tiny, shiny engine of destruction. “This is the miniature version, but Jules can make golems the size of Your Majesty,” Manling Victor said.
“They will obey Your Majesty’s orders, and attack anyone trying to pilfer your treasure without authorization,” Jules said. “I may add alarm spells to the underground vault, to warn you of intruders no matter the distance.”
“You shall do so, Corpseling, and you shall be rewarded for your good deed. You shall be moved between Manling Victor and the other minions in my emergency ration priority list. You are now equal to the Kobold Rangers in the food chain.”
“Your Majesty’s generosity honors me,” the corpseling replied with a deep bow.
“Minion Victor informed me I would not be able to gain levels beyond thirty,” Vainqueur asked. “Why is that?”
“The ‘why’ is a mystery, but people need to use items called Crests to gain additional levels. This may be the system’s way to test if users are ready for greater challenges beyond mere experience progression.”
Vainqueur promised himself to have a word with the dragons who created this system when he found them. “Where can they be found?”
“Crests are heavily regulated by adventurer guilds and governments,” Jules explained. “The Gardemagnian Guild confiscate all Crests they can and issue them only with the King’s authorization. This allows them to control the levels of people, and reduce the number of dangerous criminals.”
“I sent a request, but I doubt it will lead anywhere,” Victor said.
“Otherwise, I believe Your Majesty will have to find one by conquering dungeons, fulfilling quests, or buy one on the black market.”
Vainqueur frowned. “Corpseling, repeat the last sentence.”
“Since Crests often find their ways through the government’s grasp, Your Majesty could buy one the Black Market for a sizeable sum.”
Yes, that was indeed the word he used. Buying. Even thinking of it made Vainqueur sick. “So I must destroy more Furibons to earn a Crest,” he said, refusing to entertain the other possibilities.
“Your Majesty may also contact the fomors if they are desperate,” Jules said. “The fomor Mag Mell created artificial items called Dark Crests, which break the level ceiling, but come with dangerous side-effects.”
The fomors? Those upstart fairies who pretended they had created the world when obviously dragons did it first? Vainqueur despised them as much as he did the lich. “Could a quest with a princess yield a Crest?”
“I’m afraid I cannot say. Crests are generated by the system without warning.”
“Minion Victor, we will try to fetch a Crest while hunting princesses.”
“Princesses?” Manling Victor picked up. “With an s?”
“I need three princesses now,” Vainqueur confirmed with a serious tone.
“What?” Manling Victor once again proved terrible at math. “Three princesses? Why?”
“Because my hated rival Icefang has caught twins,” Vainqueur said, the mere thought of that frost dragon outdoing him driving him mad. “I will not be overshadowed at my own Bragging Day, so I will have three princesses to parade.”
Manling Victor put a hand on his face for some reason, before sighing, “Unfortunately, Brandon Maure has no daughter, so we can’t kidnap her.”
“Minion, it is not kidnapping, it is capture. A true dragon has enough class not to kidnap baby princesses.” Also, Vainqueur heard they cried all the time.
“Your Majesty, quests with one princess are rare, let alone three of them.”
“Minion, you are my grand dragon vizier, my second-in-command, and the warden of Furibon,” the dragon reminded his minion. “I push you hard because I know you will rise to the occasion.”
Manling Victor stared blankly at his beloved master, awed by the positive reinforcement. “Hm, thanks, Your Majesty.”
“You are welcome, minion,” Vainqueur replied, “If needed, we will capture these princesses separately instead of as a set. Also, we have a quest specialist in town. Ask her.”
After his coronation, the adventurer guild had finally cleared that mess with Vainqueur’s last noble meal, with a guildhall manager settling in Murmurin and granting them iron plates to replace the copper.
The manlings had sent Manling Charlene, whose skin was constantly red, and her mood always foul.
Vainqueur didn't know the reason, but this should make her more open to breeding with Manling Victor, which was why he encouraged his minion to spend time with her. The dragon was losing patience with his chief minion’s inability to sire a new litter of minions, the only black spot on his otherwise perfect record.
“Charlene is never in a good mood when she sees me,” Manling Victor said. “Also, while I am all for chasing princesses, we have a much more urgent matter to deal with. Namely, the food.”
“Have you not already started solving this problem?” Vainqueur climbed out of the lava, peeking over the crater’s edge with his head. “Look at how greener it is!”
While the lands right next to the volcano were somewhat fertile, the region was too dry to feed Vainqueur’s guests for Bragging Day. So Minion Victor, ever the perfect Doer of the Thing, organized a great greening project with the added minion workforce. Gnolls dug canals from the sea and towards Murmurin, while kobolds gathered trees which provided shade for grass; Rolo the steel golem had taught them how to use devices called spades, which could also be used to mine gold.
Vainqueur almost regretted firing him.
“Rolo and Allison plant trees, while the minions build irrigation canals or pits to draw water from the mountain’s underground sources,” Manling Victor said. “According to Rolo, we need magical plants which thrive on sandy soil and will remove the salt from saltwater. We also experimented with seawater greenhouses for agriculture—”
“Minion,” Vainqueur interrupted him. “Twenty-five is not fifty. Try to make shorter sentences.”
The manling blinked. “How did you count them? Anyway, what I mean to say is, based on Your Majesty’s average diet, and accounting for excesses, we need at least two hundred and fifty tons of meat for Bragging Day, and that is a conservative estimation.”
Corpseling Jules counted in his head. “So, roughly two thousand and five hundred well-fed sheep, or four hundred cows, per day.”
“Sheeps, with a s,” Vainqueur corrected him.
The corpseling didn’t understand Vainqueur, which reminded the dragon why he needed a translator with animals. “Your Majesty, the plural of sheep is sheep.”
“Of course not,” Vainqueur replied, educating the minion. “How else could you tell one sheep from many? This would be confusing.”
“Your Majesty, I insist—”
“I am a dragon. You will say sheeps, or you will be sheep.”
Jules said nothing, with Manling Victor putting a hand on his back and shaking his head. “Still, Your Majesty,” the chief of staff said. “We don’t have the means to feed our own minion population, let alone so many dragons.”
“Minions, you fail to notice the perfectly good rations building my castle,” Vainqueur said, eying the gnolls and the werewolves. Only the kobolds, he couldn’t bear to sacrifice and would have to hide from his kindred. “Also, that way, it means less mouths to feed.”
“I would rather not,” Manling Victor said.
“Then summon fiends. They are plentiful if rancid and bitter.”
“At this rate, I think we will depopulate Hell faster than Heaven ever did. Your Majesty, we need more resources, more food, than we can provide right now. I’m using everything we have, even having Jules scour the countryside to revive decades old corpses as undead labor, and two moons is still too short a time window.”
“Well, Victor, since you use seawater greenhousing, you must accumulate a lot of salt, do you not?” corpseling Jules said, “It is highly sought after, especially to slow down zombie degradation. I can use my contacts with Gardemagne to exchange them for fresh meat.”
“And you shall be granted a one one-tenth commission,” Vainqueur encouraged the corpseling.
“I’ve also been toying with other activities to build funds,” Manling Victor crossed his arms, “Since Your Majesty forbids taxes, and keeps the underground vaults, they could keep deposits safe from thieves for a cut.”
Vainqueur glanced at his minion with a knowing look. “No manling in their right mind would try to steal from a dragon, is that what you imply?”
“I didn’t know Your Majesty was alive!” the minion protested.
Vainqueur considered the proposition. Protecting the hoards of the world appealed to him, but on the other hand, it went against his dragon instinct to keep those of others without seizing them as his own. It sounded a lot like being a banker, which was a manling absurdity. “Are we that desperate for meat?” he asked his chief of staff.
“Yes. Yes, we are.”
Vainqueur didn’t believe it. They were desperate for meat to feed both his guests and the minions. If they sacrificed the latter, they would satisfy the former.
However, he could see that Manling Victor was desperate to save as many of them as possible; and Vainqueur had grown attached to a few of them, especially the Kobold Rangers.
After the torture he suffered from Furibon and his hard work, Vainqueur decided to indulge his chief of staff. He would make a sacrifice for Bragging Day. “Then no hoard shall be left defenseless in my empire. Minions and hoarders may send me their treasures if they fear for their safety, and I shall protect them from the Furibons of the world.”
Congratulations! For showing a sliver of true nobility and understanding a true leader often puts his minions’ well-being first, you have gained a level in [Kaiser].
+30 HP, +10 SP, +1 STR, +1 SKI, +1 VIT, +1 INT, +1 CHA!
“Well, now we are officially dragon Switzerland,” Manling Victor said, although Vainqueur didn’t understand the last word.
“I also declare that all creatures dying within my service will be reanimated to work as sentient undead, as were the Kobold Rangers,” Vainqueur decided. “No need for death to end their fulfilling jobs. They shall serve me in death, as well as in life.”
“I do not raise thinking undead for ethical reasons, and Your Majesty will need size—”
“I will take care of that,” Manling Victor said, putting a hand on Jules’ shoulder. “But can I get an exception, Your Majesty?”
“Minion, you will not die on my watch unless we run out of other minions and I starve,” Vainqueur said, before remembering the fragile manlings could die of old age.
“While I will not do the deed, I can ask a less ethical colleague to bring you back as a thinking undead, Victor,” corpseling Jules proposed, although his chief of staff didn’t seem so keen on the idea, “A vampire, or a ghoul? Perhaps even a lich, if you are ready to make a live sacrifice to Camil—”
“No lich!” Vainqueur snarled, making the crater tremble. “Minion, I forbid you from becoming a lich!”
“I would rather live longer as a living creature, than forever as an undead,” said Victor.
But come to think of it, Manling Victor was indeed mortal and fragile. Vainqueur had already almost lost him to Furibon. They would need to solve that problem as soon as possible before he suffered a tragic minion death. “Manling Victor, how long do Manlings live?”
“I dunno, eighty years?” Vainqueur laughed at the paltry number, the minion frowning. “Some of us reach one hundred!”
“You can calculate your longevity with your Health Point, Victor,” said Jules, “Take your maximum Health Points, then divide it by six; if you have aging resistance, you can double it, as you age two times slower. Other elements increase longevity or outright grant immunity to aging, such as the ‘Claimed by Sablar’ perk or the Undead Type.”
The minion did the calculation, as did Vainqueur. “Two hundred forty-five?” was the number his chief of staff came up with. “I can live up to two hundred forty-five?”
“And I shall live to two thousand years,” Vainqueur boasted, before realizing the problem. “A dragon can die of old age?”
“There is little chance for anyone to die of old age,” said the corpseling. “According to my research, you have a fifty to sixty percent chance of dying by violence in Outremonde, either in battle or from depredation, and twenty percent to sickness.”
“That will not be a problem for us,” Vainqueur replied with confidence, but he found the number worrying. Two hundred and a half was very short. “Minion.”
“Find a way to become immortal. You still have too much work to do.”