Vainqueur Knightsbane, First of His Name, Great Calamity of the Age, Emperor of Murmurin, Ishfania, and the Albain Mountains, and Protector of all Hoards, had waited so long for this moment.
He hadn’t allowed anything else to distract him; for a whole month, he had waited in his great vault, sitting on his ever-growing hoard. He had counted every single one of these thirty days of patience, meditation, and focus; every hour between him and this golden moment of pure bliss.
As the minutes separating him from his greatest pleasure turned into seconds, the pressure became almost unbearable. The echo of his tense breathing filled the underground vault, as his eyes widened in greed.
Then, it finally happened.
A large pile of gold, as shiny as the sun itself, materialized in front of Vainqueur, perfection made metal.
“YES!” Vainqueur roared out in relief, as he hugged the coin pile tenderly like a father with his child. After a whole month of separation, he couldn’t put a word on the joy he felt. “It is fine, everything is okay, you are safe! I will never let you go again... Never.”
The dragon enjoyed the warm comfort of his wealth returned to him, of his favorite Perk working again. At long last, everything had returned to normal.
He had to brag.
“MINION!” His prized chief of staff materialized at his side, stumbling on his master’s gold with his pants down. He seemed to have been sitting before Vainqueur called him. “Look! My [Stipend] returned! Manling Victor, you…”
Argh, what was that smell coming from his minion?
“Manling Victor, you stink like your kind's peasants!” Vainqueur complained, his lackey rising and putting back his pants on. His minion had also traded his black cowl for crimson robes and a hood, which meshed better with his wings and tail. “What did I tell you about taking a bath?”
“Your Majesty summoned me while on the toilet, what did you expect?! The smell of roses?”
“Yes, that is true that you manlings suffer from that problem,” Vainqueur said with condescension. “I hoped that your dragon transformation would solve this, but I guess you were better off with a magnificent tail. I suggest that you get rid of your manling half as soon as possible.”
“As if you’re better…” Manling Victor frowned when he realized that, yes, his master was better. “Wait, you’ve never… you’ve never actually… uh.”
“Yes, which is another proof of dragon superiority.”
“But where goes…” Poor Manling Victor couldn’t grasp the perfection of dragon biology, observing his master with his big, confused eyes. “Well, everything?
“Here,” Vainqueur put a hand on his belly. He suddenly realized he had grown fatter due to the lack of exercise. “Nothing is wasted. But, this is unimportant. What is important is that the moth elf has, at long last, well and truly been defeated!”
“Your Majesty killed him a month ago,” Manling Victor replied, unaware of the true significance of the event. “You had Pink write a book about it.”
“Yes, but now the last stain on my honor is gone! The [Stipend] Perk works again!” Vainqueur had worried the Perk had been broken, since no gold appeared after he rightfully regained his [Emperor] Class. The shock had been enough to delay his questing, until he was sure he had fully recovered. “My patience has paid off.”
“Wait, so all this time you shut yourself in your vault, asking not to be bothered except to get food or gold for the hoard, you did nothing but wait for the money to fall on your lap?” Manling Victor put a hand on his face, which he often did for reasons that eluded his master. “Your Majesty has become a true landowner.”
“I have not waited, Manling Victor, I have rested,” Vainqueur replied, adding his new pile of gold to his ever-growing hoard. Destroying Brandon Maure, ending his scheme to destroy his hoard, and organizing the most revolutionary Bragging Day known to dragonkind had exhausted him. “That was a wonderful vacation.”
“Doing nothing for thirty days?”
“Thirty days watching my hoard,” Vainqueur clarified. “Now that my Perk works, all we need is to find you a Crest, so that I may bestow [Noble] levels on you through my [Dynasty] Perk. You will need that sweet [Stipend] if you are to reimburse your debt to me, which is...”
The dragon recalculated the debt, removing the funds his minion had delivered to him the last month. “Twelve million, two hundred twenty-seven thousand, five hundred and twelve gold coins.”
“I’m just glad I managed to scrape three hundred thousand together in one month,” Manling Victor congratulated himself.
“At this rate, it will take you four years to reimburse me, which is too slow,” Vainqueur chastised his minion. “As an adventurer, I earned twelve million coins in much less time. While I do not expect you to surpass me, I want higher reimbursements.”
“Yes, but I’ve also been working full time to keep Your Majesty’s empire stable,” Manling Victor pointed out. “I swear more money will come soon. It will definitely take less than four years… I hope.”
“We shall see,” Vainqueur said. Friend Victor may have been his trusted chief of staff, his master wouldn’t let him off the hook until he had reimbursed his life debt. “I hope you used my vacation time well, to grow my empire and breed.”
“Yeah, I… I did both. More than I would have liked. It’s exhausting.”
The dragon hummed the air, instantly recognizing a new scent on his lackey. “You smell of dwarves,” Vainqueur frowned in disapproval. “You have not bred with dwarves, have you? They are not minion material.”
“No, we’ve welcomed new ambassadors from the underground realm of Agartha,” Manling Victor replied. “I was actually preparing for a meeting with them before you summoned me.”
“Dwarves are not minion material,” Vainqueur repeated. They were meaty and tasty, but since they always made him drunk when he ate more than three, they made for poor emergency rations.
“I still think Your Majesty should see them,” Manling Victor insisted. “Also, I finally identified the scammers who took credit for your death.”
Vainqueur’s head immediately perked up in interest. “Where?” he asked, gleeful at the idea of settling the score.
“Charlene studied the guild’s archives, and identified them as a disbanded Silver-Ranked adventurer company from the merchant republic of Barin, the ‘Blue Rose Legion.’ They were a classic four-person party specialized in big game, monster-hunting work.”
“Disbanded? They are dead?” Disappointing. Vainqueur would have Jules raise these criminals from the dead as skeletons, so he could kill them properly.
“I’m not sure, the papers said that they separated in Barin twenty years ago, dissolving the group. I think that after claiming the reward for Your Majesty’s head, they earned enough money to retire.” The mere idea infuriated Vainqueur, who had already taken their slander personally. “Thankfully, Charlene found a quest in Barin which could help us investigate. I could even get a Crest out of it.”
Excellent. “Then we leave tomorrow for that quest, Manling Victor.”
“What?” Manling Victor panicked. “Like that?”
“I shall not be denied in my rightful revenge,” Vainqueur replied. “I shall take a tribute of cattle for staining my reputation, and seize the gold they received for my demise. Then we shall return to fulfilling quests and growing my hoard further. Must I remind you that V&V now has competition from my kindred?”
“Oh, I almost forgot, we received a promotion last week.” Manling Victor searched in his pockets, bringing out two bronze plates. “Here.”
“Bronze,” the dragon squinted, unimpressed.
“Bronze.” His minion sounded as annoyed as his master.
“How can it be that I am not gold yet?!” Vainqueur complained angrily. “I saved your robber king’s princess, slew the evil Furibon, and put the demon grasshopper in his place!”
“The adventurer guild is having a tough time reorganizing their rankings, with all the new dragon adventurers registering. Icefang even created the first dragon only Silver Dragon Adventurer Company.”
“Silver?” Vainqueur recoiled in disgust. How could Icefang live with himself? “V&V cannot fall behind these poor excuses for dragons, Manling Victor. I swear it, we shall wear gold-plates before the end of the year.”
“Can we talk about the V&V Empire’s situation first, though? I’ve got a lot on my plate—”
“Minion, you are my Grand Dragon Vizier and Doer of the Thing. Dealing with minion administration is your job.” And as long as he was in crippling debt to his dragon master, Vainqueur would not allow him to rest on his laurels.
“I get it, and I’m starting to like it,” Manling Victor trailed off, Vainqueur frowning. Had he not enjoyed it before? “But we’re getting a lot of newcomers, especially representatives from other states or ‘overplanar investors’, and they want to meet the Emperor. Some even say you are dead and your minions are keeping up a charade.”
“What?” Vainqueur’s booming voice made the vault tremble. “Who would be stupid enough to think I can die?”
Had the secret of dragon mortality spread to the paupers? Who else knew?
“Lots of people, apparently.” Manling Victor scratched the back of his head. “It would be good if you could show up, to dispel the rumors.”
The dragon sighed. He could not truly blame them; of course, everyone wanted to see His Majesty in the flesh at least once in their empty life. “Fine, fine,” the dragon replied. “What do they want? To touch my scales, hoping it will cure their sick?”
Come to think of it, Vainqueur could charge the manlings for this service.
Food for thought.
“Well, Your Majesty, the country is now fully yours.”
“Minion, it always was.”
“Yes, but now that the Empire has crushed the elven resistance… which I always wanted to say… we now control all of Ishfania, including the old capital of Mauria. It’s closer to a demon-infested dungeon than anything, which your niece and Kia are busy cleaning up, but Ishfania is more or less pacified.”
The news that his niece had adopted the family business of getting paid for eating smaller creatures warmed Vainqueur’s heart, but he didn’t understand his chief of staff’s point. “And?” Vainqueur replied, losing interest.
“Ishfania may be a desert, it has a lot of potential and many people want a piece of it; there’s also the matter of the Iron Eagle’s remains to deal with. I can make decisions in Your Majesty’s name, but it would be better if you were to grace the doubters with your imperial presence.”
Who was Vainqueur to deny lesser creatures the pleasure of his sight? “Bring them here, so they may marvel at my wealth and greatness.”
His minion returned with a group of dwarves, whose appearance confused Vainqueur.
Unlike the dwarves he used to eat in the past, their skin was as grayish as ash. They clearly hadn’t seen the light of day for ages. Each of them wore black steel armor and fine robes, with the leader having a slightly more elaborate dress with golden linings; each carried strange, glass-like protection over their eyes.
However, Vainqueur noticed something even stranger.
They didn’t smell of alcohol.
“Your Majesty, I present you Marbré, the ambassador of Agartha,” Manling Victor announced, the dwarves bowing at Vainqueur. The dragon welcomed them while sitting on his hoard like a throne.
“Your Imperial Majesty, it is a great honor to meet you,” the ambassador said, the dragon puffing up his chest at the praise. “The tales of your revolt against the elven bourgeoisie reached even our own Supreme Leader’s ears.”
“Yes, I squashed the cattle Brandon Maure with my hand,” Vainqueur boasted. “Which I found extremely gratifying.”
“Indeed,” Marbré agreed, as he stopped bowing and clenched his fists. “I remember my visceral feeling of contentment when our Supreme Leader cut the heads of the dark elf oppressors, seized their means of production, and established an Averagist, dwarf-made utopia. Served these smug pointy ears right!”
“I know,” Vainqueur nodded, understanding where this feeling came from. “Elves are so arrogant, as if they were the apex species everyone looked up to. Even if they are cattle who eat grass and breed with trees.”
“Exactly, elves were always looking down on us because they were tall, beautiful, and had higher Intelligence scores,” Marbré went on a tirade. “They oppressed and mocked the Agarthans, forcing them to mine jewels underground while monopolizing the profits.”
Pfft, they had copied dragons again? Had the grasshoppers ever had an idea of their own? “Truly, if they didn’t make the best princesses, there would be nothing to salvage from elves,” Vainqueur agreed. “No matter how many times we dragons put them in their place, at the bottom of the food chain, they never learn.”
“We Agarthans delighted when we learned how you cast down one of their outdated feudal states.”
“Wait, are you dwarves, or Agarthans?” Manling Victor asked, confused. “You keep using those words interchangeably.”
“We are Agarthans by our nation and Duergars by our species, but we call ourselves dwarves as a political statement, for we are all equally small.” Too many names. Vainqueur subtracted them a point in the potential minion ranking. “Most of the dwarves on the surface are traitors to the revolution or helpless drunks that we expelled.”
“Interesting,” Vainqueur replied. If these dwarves expelled their drunks, then he could perhaps eat them safely.
“Emperor Vainqueur, let me first congratulate you on your nation’s first step towards achieving Averagism,” Marbré said. “You are among the first people of the surface to have taken this step towards a true post-feudalism world.”
“Minion, translate for me,” Vainqueur ordered his chief of staff, unable to understand the lesser creature’s language.
“He’s impressed that you overthrew the local elf nobility to replace it with absolute authority, which is close to what they have.”
“We have fully finished our own revolution,” Marbré explained his thinking. “By overthrowing the elven bourgeois, and shortening the heads of anyone taller than our current Supreme Leader, we Agarthans have achieved perfect equality of height. That is Averagism: everyone is equally average.”
“But what about children and younger people?” Manling Victor asked.
“We use heeled boots,” Marbré replied, pointing at his shoes. “Everyone is as tall as our Supreme Leader. No exceptions.”
Vainqueur didn’t understand. What was the point of ruling lesser species if they weren’t smaller than him?
“Though you moved away from feudalism and abolished the elven bourgeoisie, you are stuck at the Hoardist Imperialism stage of economic development,” Marbré continued to speak nonsense. “Thankfully, Hoardist Imperialism is but a step towards true Averagism. Your Majesty just has to seize the means of production to better safeguard them, as did our Supreme Leader.”
“We’re kinda trying a free-market zone experiment there,” Victor said, confusing Vainqueur even more.
“But you have nationalized the land, mining, and farming, have you not?”
“Everything belongs to me,” Vainqueur said, understanding that part. “Except lead, which is banished until the end of time.”
“In time, you will realize free-market carries the seed of its own inevitable destruction,” Marbré said, losing the dragon’s attention again. “We Agarthans offer to establish an embassy here on the surface, so we can properly assist in your political revolution and trade. We would also like to study the ruins of the elven Iron Eagle if you allow us.”
“The metal bird?” Vainqueur could have sworn he had wrecked it utterly. “What about it?”
“We are interested in it for our patriotic war against the sun,” Marbré replied flatly.
Manling Victor glanced at Vainqueur, who was as puzzled as him. The tiny dwarf noticed, and cleared his throat.
“When we Agarthans first made forays toward the surface to export the revolution, we were treacherously attacked by that fiery aster,” Marbré said with contempt, raising the black glasses on his nose to reveal milky eyes. “It burned the eyes of our ancestors, forcing us to wear these ‘sunglasses’. Ever since, we Agarthans have declared war on the Sun and its apostate god, Mithras. The Sun cowardly stayed too far away for us to reach, but the ‘Wind Spears’ might be the key to bring the fight to it.”
“I cannot condone it,” Vainqueur replied firmly. “The sun was made by dragons to fight cold. I will not allow dwarves to harm it.”
“We do not want to destroy the Sun, just to force it to stop burning our eyes,” Marbré tried to reassure him. “We want to coexist with the sky, but on our terms. In any case, we would like to exchange technology, and maybe buy some of your Powerstone supply.”
“Minion,” Vainqueur whispered to his lackey, low enough that the dwarves wouldn’t hear. “Are they serious?”
“I think so,” his chief of staff replied with a sigh.
“I do not think they share my values,” Vainqueur said. “They are ridiculous.”
“What does Your Majesty want me to do about it?”
“Cook them, obviously.”
“Okay they’re eccentric, but they can offer us a lot. Does Your Majesty remember the teleport stone we used to escape—” Manling Victor corrected himself when his master squinted at him, “tactically retreat from Maure? It was called an [Agarthan Warp Stone].”
Vainqueur guessed what the name implied. “It was dwarf-made?”
“I think we would benefit from a technology exchange.”
“They get the bird, we get the stones?” As his vizier answered with a nod, Vainqueur turned back to Marbré, suddenly interested. “What are these Powerstones that you want?” The Robber King of Gardemagne also spoke of them.
Marbré snapped his fingers, a member of his retinue opening a small box.
Vainqueur peeked at the content, a dozen glowing stones of different colors, from the purest blue to fiery red. Unlike his beloved gems, they appeared raw and fragile, like glass. Yet, he could sense the red one radiating heat, a white one cold, and the clearest releasing a faint stream of air around itself.
“These are Powerstones, a magical mineral imbued with elemental power,” Marbré explained. “We Agarthans need them for our forges, and we are ready to share our gold and perfectly safe magical items in exchange for a steady supply.”
“Wind Powerstones are what allow Maure’s old capital to fly, and the Eagle’s bombs to work,” Victor added. “The Albain Mountains have a lot of deposits, as does the Ishfanian desert.”
Vainqueur examined the stones closely, before voicing his judgment.
“Not shiny enough for my hoard,” Vainqueur said. “My minion will see that my treasure benefits from the sales. As I solved the manlings’ problems for their coins, I too will accept a tribute of gold in exchange for this junk.”
“Your Majesty is truly a true friend of the revolution.” Marbré bowed deeply. “I will see work your vizier for the fine print. We will deliver you our newest creations, which have been tested, tested, and tested.”
“You said tested thrice,” Manling Victor pointed out.
“Yes, to assert the fact our magic item prototypes are perfectly safe to use since we tested them before sending them to you.”
“Now return to me with gold, or do not return,” Vainqueur sent them away, the dwarves bowing and leaving the vault.
Congratulations! For showcasing your imperial majesty to foreign diplomats, you earned a level in [Emperor]!
+30 HP, +10 SP, +1 STR, +1 VIT, +1 SKI, +1 AGI, +1 INT, +1 CHA!
Once the dwarves had left though, the dragon looked at his chief of staff with a heavy gaze. “They are odd. Too odd to be minions.”
Manling Victor looked up at his master. “This is where Your Majesty draws the line?”
“I believe everyone has the potential to make for a good minion, if properly trained,” Vainqueur replied. “But I have quality standards, and they do not meet them.”
“And that tested comment makes me wonder if I just made a big mistake granting them access to the Iron Eagle.” Manling Victor sighed. “But so long as the Apple of Knowledge remains unaccounted for, we need their expertise.”
Vainqueur frowned. “What does your vegetable have to do with this?”