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Tilruk continued to stare at me as the doors closed behind us, a soft teal light emitting from strips against the wall in the tunnel.

“You didn’t come through the dead zone?” He asked me.

“I have no idea what that is.” I repeated, confused as hell.

“Tis the place you just left.” He said.

“The Formorian lands?” I asked him.

“Yer, that’s part of the dead zone.” He confirmed. “The other side where you live shouldn’t be dead.”

“How would I know if it was part of the dead zone or not?” I asked him.

I got a strange, pitying look from Tilruk.

“You would know.” He simply stated.

“I clearly don’t!” I said in frustration.

“Maybe you call it something else.” He reasoned out. “Where do you start to get that feeling that nothing’s right? Where once you return from it, it feels like the rich smell of trees and wood have returned, and all’s right with the world?”

I gave him a blank stare.

“The feeling I got when I came in through the walls was the first time in my entire life that I’ve felt that.” I said.

“But – but you’re over level 300 before you’re 20!” He sputtered out as we started to walk down the tunnel again.

“Thank you! I worked hard for it. Almost died. A lot.” I said, shuddering at some of the memories. “Plagues, earthquakes, wars, volcanoes, tsunamis, Formorians, monsters, run of the mill dinosaurs, kidnappers and more!” I said, ticking them all off my finger. I’ll admit, seeing him go slightly green was quite fun.

He stared at me in open-eyed shock and awe.

“Ye realize the dead zone eats experience, right?” He slowly said.

I stopped and stared at him.

“What?!”

The whole story slowly came out, as we were both too stunned by the other’s revelation to keep walking through the tunnel.

In short, according to the dwarf’s traditional history, which all dwarves were extensively educated on, the Formorians had tried attacking them once upon a time. A brief mental comparison against Night’s recollections of events suggested that they had attacked the dwarves harder than humanity at first, which made sense if they knew about the dead zone.

However, once the dwarves had driven the Formorians back, and discovered the dead zone, they basically said “fuck it.” What was the point of trying to claim “dead” land? If people felt miserable inside of it, and got significantly reduced experience, what was the point?

So, they carefully measured exactly where the dead zone started, and built a massive wall around it. The Formorians had attacked quite a few times, but as time marched on, they had stopped.

Still, tradition demanded that the wall was manned, guarded against Formorians or whatever other threat the dead zone generated. Not that they thought anything could be a threat, not with the large experience gain imbalance.

It did make me wonder though – what, exactly, could be ‘eating experience’? That had terrifying implications. There was some grand force out there that could interfere with everyone’s System access.

The existence of one suggested, but didn’t promise, the existence of more than one. Although maybe it was the land itself, and not some creature, artifact, plant, fungus, elaborate curse, disease, godling, or other being that was eating the experience?

Like. Did vampires radiate a dead zone around them?

That… didn’t quite make sense. Not with how Night and the other vampires moved around, and with how precisely the wall was located on the edge of the dead zone. With Night being on the frontlines, I’d expect the dead zone to have moved somewhat. Given the precision and timelines involved, I would expect that it was stationary, whatever the problem was.

Or the zone was just dead, and it was a quirk of the world. I’d need to try and find out one day.

I seriously doubted it was the Formorians. They were dead, and after all, the “living” zone was at the edge of their territory.

I needed to tell Night all about this. Probably the Senate as well.

There were a billion implications to this.

I was practically fuming by the time I’d heard it all.

“You’re telling me, my entire life, through all my struggles, I’ve only been getting half the experience I should normally be getting!?”

It wasn’t fair of me to yell at poor Tilruk. Don’t shoot the messenger and all that. I. Was. Furious.

“Or less.” Tilruk whispered.

I punched the wall. It was an unrestrained punch, with all my strength and weight behind it, with all my anger and frustration behind it. A trained punch, one I’d thrown thousands of times.

My low strength, high vitality, and persistent healing all stopped my hand from being rightfully broken. [Center of the Galaxy] even killed any pain I might’ve felt. All in all, a completely useless punch.

Did make me feel a bit better though.

“Whoa! Easy there!” Tilruk said.

“Sorry.” I apologized, instantly feeling bad. In a minor win, my feelings of shame and regret flooded over my hard enough that I was no longer feeling terrible about having lost half my lifetime experience. Or more.

“Just. Friends of mine have died because I was too weak. People I’ve known and cared about are gone because my level was too low. Hearing that it was because I lived in the dead zone? That sheer blind bad luck probably caused it? That I should be level 600 instead of 300? It’s deeply upsetting.” I said.

Tilruk patted my arm, and we kept walking.

“If it makes you feel any better, you should only be about 50 or 60 levels higher, not 300.” He said, without a lot of conviction.

I rolled my eyes, and composed myself.

“I apologize for my outburst.” I said again, this time with more feeling.

“It’s understandable. Hey, thinking about it, you probably spent a lot more time working on each class. Your class quality should be higher as a result.” He said, and shot me an inquisitive look.

“Yeah, my healer class is dark green.” I said. Sure, it was probably super-secret “don’t let them know how strong you were” information, but screw it, I was never great at keeping secrets.

Tilruk let out a low whistle.

“That’s a mighty powerful class you’ve got there.”

“Thank you! Do you mind if I ask…?” I trailed off, not really wanting to ask. “Don’t tell people about your stats” was still deeply ingrained into me, which had asking about stats and skills being equally rude.

“Orange.” He said, with obvious pride, then deflated.

“I worked my axe to the handle a dozen times, and Orange was the best I got.” He said, a strange mix of pride and unhappiness mixed together.

Heck, if my 256 class was Orange, I’d be pretty upset as well. Then again, I did just show him up massively.

“Maybe it’s because life in the dead zone is harder?” I suggested, trying to claw back some benefit to having had most of my experience eaten.

“Aye, and since it takes more time for you to level up, you’ve got more time to get achievements.” Tilruk added in.

Did I just successfully pull off some minor diplomacy!?

I pinched myself, before rolling my eyes at [Center] completely killing off any negative aspects of the pain, just letting me know I’d been pinched. How could I check if I was in dreamland or not if pinching didn’t work?!

Tilruk abruptly changed the subject.

“What were you doing traveling with a Void mage?” He asked me, all curious. “For that matter, you’re not also a Void mage, are you…?” He looked at me warily, hand wavering madly between his side, and itching towards his sword.

I didn’t want to find out where “hospitality” and “kill the Void mage” landed.

“Nope! Radiance is my second element!” I said, letting myself [Shine]. I suppose that it didn’t show I was Radiance, that I could be Light, Brilliance, Mirage, or something else similar – but either way it demonstrated I wasn’t a Void mage.

[*Ding!* [Shine] leveled up! 111 -> 112]

I pursed my lips in how damn unfair leveling up seemed to be all of a sudden.

“What’s up with Void mages anyways?” I asked him. “Sure, Hunting’s super strong, but why the concern over them?”

I got another long look, as the end of the tunnel through the wall approached.

“The long-horned pansies keep telling us they randomly explode, taking out a city at minimum with them. Doesn’t matter the level of the Void mage, level 30 or level 3000. Boom. The pointy-eared bastards are a right pain in the rear, pardon my expression, but when they swing by to warn us of stuff, they’re usually right.” Tilruk grudgingly admitted.

“They’re shit at working with wood though.” Tilruk added in, seemingly needing to regain some pride back.

That… was a ridiculous amount to unpack.

“We’re here.” Tilruk announced, as we made it to the end, right before the door leading out.

I decided to aim for some last-second flattery. All the talk about wood made me think they considered it important.

“I’m impressed.” I said, waving my hand around, gesturing at the wood all around us. It was impressive. Dozens of different shades of wood, and not a single obvious joint, join, or break in the wood. Also, some of it was glowing, providing light, without any obvious inscriptions. Those pieces of wood were some master inscriptions. I was about as subtle as an elephant in a library, but eh. It was impressive.

“Ah? At what?” Tilruk asked me.

I gestured around me.

“This! All this wood, so beautifully crafted.”

I could hear the smile in his words. “Aye. We dwarves are masters of wood. From finding good places to plant trees, to creating the perfect soil, nurturing seedlings, to growing giants. We’re masters of it all.”

Pride and admiration colored every word he spoke.

“Then the cutters, in the right season at the right place come along, chopping the tree down and removing branches.” He said, and his voice was significantly less respectful when mentioning them, but then it yo-yo’d right back.

“The sawyers remove the bark, season the wood, and cut it into planks as needed.”

Tilruk’s tone took a reverential tone, the sort that was usually reserved for priests. Heck, with the way he was talking, it almost seemed like a religion.

“Then the carpenters get the wood, and oh! What wonders they perform! From the [Grand Wall Carpenter]s that made this wall, all the way down to the [Living Armor Carpenter]s who made my armor,” Tilruk took a moment to beat his chest with a single fist, a sharp knock telling me just how sturdy it was. “the carpenters make everything that we use to live.”

“Cool.” I said, not having anything better to say. I’d clearly hit a spot of pride. When in doubt, shut up.

Note to self: Compliment whatever dwarf I was talking with on whatever wood-related thing he or she seemed to have going on.

“Anyways, letting you know about them now. They outrank us, and there’s further complication depending on what type of wood they work on. Don’t worry about that, although don’t offend anyone who works on redwood or higher. Anyways! Let’s go!”

Tilruk Falvim the 91st opened the door, letting the bright light in. I squinted as I got my first good view of how another country, another civilization, another species lived.

Wood. Wood everywhere.

I’m not sure why I was even slightly surprised.

It was clear that the posting next to the dead zone wasn’t one of the plum assignments, and that most, if not all, of their budget went to maintaining the actual wall. Oh, nothing was in disarray, but it was clear that things had been built properly ages – maybe decades or centuries ago, I had no idea what they could do with wood – and just sort of left there. A few dwarves were sparring, axes and swords and spears flashing and hitting wooden shields with solid thunks, but even more dwarves were just spectating, lounging around and watching with a mug of what I assumed was beer in their hands.

The buildings all gave off a strong militaristic vibe, and even though we’d just exited the tunnel in the wall, I could already see where the tightly packed buildings abruptly ended, edging against a forest.

Militaries were similar the world around. I would’ve needed to be blind, as well as deaf, to miss the sparring ring. The large number of many-windowed buildings that all looked exactly the same had to be the barracks. The large, boring-looking building was a warehouse of some flavor. Armory or granary, I had no idea. I didn’t want to poke around, and be accused of spying.

I mean, in a sense I totally was spying, because everything I saw would eventually end up in front of Night, and, unless another Sentinel showed up in a hurry, I’d probably end up in front of the Senate.

No reason to give the dwarves a sense or idea that I was hostile, or give them a reason to try and kill me.

I’d go down fighting, but there was no question that I’d go down.

Then again, I had to remember – even Tilruk, a commander, only had an orange-tier class. The difference in tier was starting to become more significant than the raw levels would suggest, and the people I was looking at were weaker than I’d expect them to be.

Still. I didn’t want to get into a fight. Heck, throw me into the infirmary, and let me work my magic!

Speaking of, there were a few more unique structures, with slightly more polish than the other ones. I was out of my depth guessing what, exactly, they were. Did the Quartermaster get his own building? The armory? Spare gems for the arrays? The infirmary, like I was wondering about? Was that a stable for some sort of exotic creature? A central place to control arrays and the ballistas?

Only so much guessing I could do, but one building was all too obvious, and it was the one Tilruk started to take me towards.

“Come on. Let’s go meet the commander of this section, and break bread.” My dwarven companion said, leading the way to the fanciest building, one with a flag on it. Green Oak against a blue field.

At least, I assumed it was an oak. I hadn’t paid too much attention to trees in my survival lessons beyond “this one’s poisonous” and “The wood of that tree will ruin anything you cook.”

Wood was wood, and would all burn.

Anyways!

The headquarters!

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A note from Selkie

Mystery! New lands! WOOD EVERYWHERE!

My thinking: Dwarves are always good craftspeople. But why is it always strone and metal? Doesn't wood have a million properties that make it good to craft and carve?
Hence - Carpentry dwarves!


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