I bolted awake as I heard a branch break, slamming against the side of the wagon, peering over, ready to do battle again.
Blasted hellhounds interrupting my sleep again, why I –
It was Fik, coming back with an armful of firewood.
Nothing to see here… I figured I should check my notifications from the battle before.
[*Ding!* [Mantle of the Stars] leveled up! 256 -> 257]
System? Hello, System? Are you there?
I flopped over in annoyance. SERIOUSLY!? One measly level for a life or death fight?! Out of the dead zone my ass. I should’ve gotten a lot more for…
I was an idiot.
Of course I wasn’t getting any levels. [Ranger-Mage] was capped out, and I still hadn’t gotten a chance to evolve it. The attack by the hellhounds just reinforced my decision to hold off on classing up – I wasn’t safe here. Sure, I had my escort, but I didn’t quite trust them enough to look after me for days on end while I was potentially classing up.
I’d done practically no healing to boot. Just a few embers on my arm, and if that had been enough to level me up, I’d be stripping and jumping into a fire again.
The rest of the dwarves were waking up, and breakfast was soon being cooked – fresh hellhound.
“That was a right mess.” Drin said, to nodding heads all around as we chowed down. The hellhounds tasted smoky, and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant type of smoky. More like they’d been caught in a bad fire.
Yet, Glifir was, if anything, undercooking them. It wasn’t an issue with the chef, so much as the source material. Hey, who was I to complain? At least it was novel.
“I hate my sleep being interrupted.”
“We going to make it to the peak today?” Toke asked Glifir.
He paused his cooking a moment to check the map.
“We should…” He said, trailing off, glancing at Lule. “Unless you’ve got other plans?”
She shook her head.
“Nah. Let’s make it up there, and camp for the day. Enjoy the view. Have a break after that nonsense last night.” Lule said.
The small talk resumed, and I was frankly shocked. No after-action analysis? No consideration of what went well, what went wrong, what could’ve been done better? No mention of the yaks nearly igniting?
I restrained myself. Maybe they just did things differently here. Maybe it was Tradition to wait a day before doing an after-action analysis or something. I wanted to speak up and start a conversation about the battle, who did what, what worked, and everything – years with the Rangers had ingrained the habit in me, and even as a Sentinel we went over each other’s combat once the Sentinel was back.
Sure, those were less useful, given that each Sentinel was literally at the top of their game, but the conversations helped, cross-pollinated ideas and information if nothing else. We didn’t consider ourselves too good for it.
Still. I was mindful that I wasn’t the best diplomat, and I wasn’t about to say or hint that the dwarves were bad, or wrong, or something else.
Plus, I didn’t see it mattering all too much. Their team was their team, and I was just a hanger-on. I could do an after-action analysis on my own actions, some quiet introspection while we traveled.
I had to say – I could totally get used to not needing to do anything, and being carted around.
This was going to completely, and totally, ignore the diplomatic repercussions of my actions. Gods and goddesses, I missed being in Remus, where all I needed to worry about was not looking corrupt, and not making Sentinels look like they were easy targets.
From a combat perspective, my first mistake was not making my capabilities clear to Lule and the team. I hadn’t insisted that we drill together, I hadn’t insisted that we work out tactics and how to integrate me into their formation. For example, if Lule’s and Toke’s barrier had been a little skinnier, Fik and Drin could’ve been a bit further apart, and I would’ve had room to be more actively engaged, instead of taking potshots over their head from the wagon.
Or the lean-to could’ve been wider, to accommodate the same. Alternatively, Drin and I could’ve worked on our tactics, and made room for me to kill hellhounds that he stunned – or other monsters.
Right. That was the pre-combat analysis.
During the fight, what could I have done better?
Shielding the yaks was critical, and if I hadn’t been there to do that, we would’ve been in serious trouble. I should’ve talked with Toke though, and seen if we could’ve shared a shooting hole, especially since Toke didn’t seem to be using it all that much. Could’ve stuck a finger out, and blasted [Nova] from it.
Right! After-action analysis complete!
I looked around. The dwarves were keeping a steady eye on the forest around them, obviously not completely ignoring last night. Nobody was talking, seemingly to better hear what was going on around us. Ned was his usual stoic self, which left me to my own devices.
I could re-read a book, and I probably would, but first! How would I have handled the attack if I was solo?
Well, based on their appearance, I was guessing that they had a good sense of smell. My [Invisibility with Eyeholes] gem would’ve been less useful, so I would’ve needed to pair it with my [Tracks-be-gone] gem. I would’ve blasted a path to the tree, and tried to climb it in the confusion. Once I was high up in the tree, I would’ve been safe enough to wait for them to go away – or for daylight. Once daylight hit, I’d just fly away, after climbing the tree enough.
I eyed yet another redwood. That would’ve been a lot of climbing.
The plan B would be to get my back to a tree, shield my sides, and judiciously blast away with [Nova], both the skill and my gems, and use Radiance beams to handle individual hellhounds that survived. Use my [Gust] gem when the ash hellhounds filled the air with ash. Use the spear and shield for anything that got too close.
Actually! Thinking about it! With how [Mantle] worked now, I could try to hold a weak monster back with it, and stab it with my spear.
Satisfied that I’d done a proper after-action analysis on my own abilities, I grabbed my book and went back to reading.
“Hey Glifir?” I asked him, as he was on scouting break.
“Elaine! What can I do for you?” He asked me.
“Are you familiar with thunderbirds?” I asked him, figuring if anyone knew about him it would be Glifir.
“A little, why?” He asked me.
“Well, frankly, I’ve been thinking about getting a companion, and part of the reason we headed this way was to see about poking around a pair of thunderbirds we saw heading this way.” I confessed.
“You lot are probably quite a bit different than we are, but we don’t believe in ‘looking for’ a companion. If it happens, it was meant to happen. No sense in trying to force it.” He said.
Fik was making some strangled noises.
I opened my mouth to keep prodding him about it, then closed it. I had time, I might as well continue to try and be diplomatic. The dwarves had relaxed somewhat, but were still somewhat touchy around me. “No sense in trying to force it” and Fik – the stout traditionalist – making unhappy noises made me think the subject might be a touchy one for the dwarves.
Right then. Operation sneaky Elaine hunts for a thunderbird egg begins!
Maybe I could ask for an egg as a present? Not say what it was for?
Ooooh! Maybe there was some sort of market where I could buy one! It wasn’t unheard of in Remus for eggs to be bought and sold, although usually it was some of the more common dinosaurs being bartered. I was game to barter some of my gems away for a thunderbird egg. The Quartermaster, and the rest of the Sentinels, would totally understand. Heck, it’d probably even be a steal, trading something replaceable for something almost irreplaceable!
Right then. Operation “sneaky egg acquisition” had a plan!
We reached the top of the mountain, and the view was to die for.
I could see why we’d decided to detour over here, even though climbing the mountain with the yaks and the wagon was one heck of an ordeal, and probably added a few days to our journey.
A gorgeous, sprawling vista met my eyes. Mountain after rolling mountain, all covered with redwood trees, banks of mist hiding in the shadows. A few breaks in the canopy in some of the valleys suggested towns that the dwarves had carved out, chopping down the trees for space.
If I looked the way we came, I could, in the distance, barely see the walls the dwarves had built to hold back the Formorians, and marked the end of the dead zone.
Then, like a needle in heaven’s eye, a defiance of the gods and whatever creatures ruled the skies, rose a wooden tower. Even from the vast distance, several mountains away, it was visible to the naked eye.
“The Sierra Obelisk.” Ned pointed, obvious pride in his voice. “Our greatest creation. Generation after generation of dwarf has worked on, labored upon, the tower, reaching far into the heavens, a demonstration of dwarven ingenuity. It is our temple and our pride, our seat of government and our inerasable mark upon this world.”
“It’s amazing.” I didn’t even need to pretend to be amazed. I couldn’t imagine the years – centuries – of effort needed to erect such a tower, nor the engineering ingenuity required, the maintenance, replacing old timbers – it just boggled the mind.
Bulwark would love it. Heck, he’d love everything about the dwarves, from their “structures on the go”, to the tower, to the wall, to everything. I should totally recommend that he make his way over, spend some time comparing notes with their engineers.
I should put that on my to-do list! “Get Bulwark a meeting with someone as nerdy as he is”.
We spent the rest of the day drinking and goofing off. I spent a bunch of time just staring at the incredible scenery, just blown away by my tiny size in the grand scheme of things, the vastness and majesty of nature.
There was one small mar to the fantastic scenery – a small ventilation shaft, made out of stone. Fik kicked it grumpily.
“Bloody Khazads.” He said, as I wandered over, wondering what he was doing. “We work so hard to keep nature pure and pristine, for there to only be traces left of us when we intend it to be so. That’s why we take down our lean-tos. That’s why we build out of wood. When we leave a place, nature can reclaim it, for future generations. We remind ourselves that we have our bounty due to our ancestors with our generation numbers, and remind ourselves that we need to preserve for our future.”
Quite the rant coming out of him.
“But?” I prompted, and he kicked the ventilation shaft again. It was fairly large, with a narrow entrance that was just a hair too narrow for me to squeeze myself through.
“Khazads don’t believe in that. They believe the earth and stone is theirs to take and shape. When they’re done, they just leave things behind, and build strongly enough that nature almost never reclaims what is hers. They scar the earth, forever.” He said, pointing to the shaft.
“This mountain top was pure! Pristine for generations of dwarves to visit and enjoy! Then the Khazadian mine expanded underneath, and they built a shaft here, to get air down in the mine. Nature is trying to warn them, suffocate them for their insolence, but do they listen? Noooo. They just mar her further, blasphemy on top of blasphemy. Now everyone who visits this mountain needs to look at their ugly, temporary work.” He said.
I had absolutely nothing for that. Fik was sounding like a True Believer, and there was no reasoning with those.
“Ale?” I offered him a mug of blessedly not as powerful stuff.
He took the mug from me, and downed it in one angry go.
“Ahhhhh, that’s the stuff. Right! Let’s get back to it!” He said, heading back to the group.
I headed back as well, noticing with a little giggle that Glifir was trying to draw a map of the area – but staying far, far away from the edge.
“You know, it’s easier to see and map if you go right to the edge!” I cheerfully called out to him, only to get a death-glare in response.
Heh! Who’d ever heard of a map-maker who was scared of heights?
The rest of the day went well, setting up a lean-to, setting a watch, and going to sleep after a long session getting the constellations explained to me.