“Elaine’s right.” Glifir said, eyeing up the remains of the trap. “This isn’t the orc’s crude work, may they die and never grow back.”
“What do we want to do? Keep going, or wait here for someone to come round and check on the trap?” I asked.
“Let’s keep going.” Glifir said, pulling out his map and spinning it around, seeing where we were now.
“Onwards. Sooner we find the Khazads, the sooner I can get a good meal.” Drin said.
“Let’s go!” Ned encouraged.
“I see no strong benefit to staying.” Fik added in.
I eyed the dwarves, the sentiment obvious. I weighed the options, and took a deep breath.
“We’re going to stay.” I finally said, to the obvious dismay of the rest of the dwarves.
This was it. The moment of truth. Did they trust my leadership, or was I about to have a mutiny on my hands?
I got a bunch of quizzical looks, and I figured I’d explain myself. Not like we were doing anything else.
“That trap almost got me. The orcs had crude traps of stone, while the dwarves are, at first glance, using much more elaborate traps.”
“You survived being beheaded.” Drin pointed out. “You can survive almost anything.”
“What!?” Ned asked, and we looked at him again.
The distraction was both unwelcome, and well-timed.
“Ned…” I asked slowly, with a calm voice like I was dealing with a scared cat. “Do you not remember me surviving a beheading trap?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.
I glanced at everyone else, who were also looking concerned.
“Fik. With me. Glifir, Drin, hang out here.” I said, in a dangerous tone that suggested challenging me on this would be a shit idea.
Fik and I walked back quite a bit, and I threw a [Long-Range Identify] over my shoulder, mainly checking on Ned.
Still returned as a [Healer], right in the level range I’d expect it to.
“Something is very wrong with Ned.” I said in a low voice, not even asking it as a question.
“Agreed.” Fik nodded, stroking his beard. “He’s been acting most unusual.”
“Problem is, I have no idea what to do about it.” I said. “I can do...what?”
“Have you tried healing him?”
“Yeah, I lost a few points of mana, but that was it.” I said.
“Remind me about your healing.” Fik asked.
“Panacea against - ah, it doesn’t do magical herbs, or similar effects.” I said, remembering the dwarven ale.
“Maybe he’s eaten something weird?” Fik suggested, seizing on that.
“That could explain it…” I said, thinking about his symptoms. It didn’t match any drug I knew, but I was keeping an open mind. The dwarven drugs to get you drunk had done all manner of wonky nonsense to my body, that could only be explained by magic.
Or lots and lots of different drugs.
Then again, we’d all been eating the same stuff. Anything impacting Ned would’ve hit all of us.
I snapped my fingers.
“Insects. Drin’s been feeding us all sorts of bugs. Let me grab him for a chat.”
“Sure, why not.”
“Well, either way, don’t talk to Ned about it.” I said.
I went to chat with Drin privately.
“Warrior Drin.” I said.
“Healer Elaine.” He replied back.
“Ned’s all sorts of weird. Any chance it was an insect you gave him?” I asked.
“Possible? Yes. Likely? Not at all. I believe I’ve recognized nearly everything I’ve grabbed. There aren’t too many different bugs that live here, and it’d need to look exactly like a bug I already know, while also causing that… problem… when eaten. And I would’ve needed to have never heard about it.”
“It’s a good idea, but no. I doubt it.”
We walked back together, and I grabbed Glifir for a private chat.
I went over the same things Fik and I talked about, and he had another idea.
“Are, like, parasitic mushrooms a thing?” He asked. “Whatever’s wrong with him has been going on for a while, and maybe he keeps getting a dose of whatever’s wrong?”
“They could be. Just about anything seems possible with magic.”
“How do we ask him?” Glifir said.
“Erm. We just ask him to strip and check him over?” I proposed.
I got a side-eye at that, then a sigh.
“Yeah sure. Talk with Drin first.” He said.
A quick talk with Drin - again! - and we were all on the same page.
“Hey Ned, can we check you for mushroom spores or something?” I asked him.
“Sure!” He said, stripping out of his gear. We looked over him, seeing nothing of concern.
“Huh. I would’ve put money on that being it.” Glifir said.
I frowned, not knowing what to do.
“Glifir, how’s the local map looking?” I asked him.
“Eh, so-so. I’d like to explore a bit more. If we can find a large intersection, the odds of someone finding us go up.” He said.
I thought about that briefly.
“Alright. Need me to check for traps?” I asked, given that we were in the trap zone.
“Nah, I’ll be fine.” Glifir said, waving me off.
That seemed unusually out of character for him, given how careful he’d been so far. Was everyone just slowly going insane down here?
I watched with no small amount of trepidation as he carefully worked through the hallways, Misty steps behind him indicating some sort of skill. He made it to an intersection without any problems, and called us over.
We headed over in a single-file line, with me taking up the rear position, right behind Ned.
About halfway down the hallway, there was a deadly whirring noise, and a pained cry from Ned.
“Arghhhhhhhhh!” He yelled, as his arms fell off. “Crusty eggshells that hurt!” He screamed out, looking down at his severed arms.
“Ned!” Drin cried out, hurrying back to him.
“Are you ok?” Fik yelled, moving back to support Ned.
“Yeah, yeah, give me a moment.” Ned said, making a motion with the stubs of his arms like he was trying to wave them off, and failing because he had no arms.
I started to hurry forward, only to see Ned start to regenerate his arms.
My eyes narrowed. My grip tightened on my knife.
“Drin. Fik. Back off.” I said, lowering myself a hair into a fighting crouch, good for moving quickly.
“But he’s-” Drin tried to protest.
“Now.” I snarled at him, practically growling.
The image of a tiny kitten pretending to be a tiger flashed through my head, and I banished such intrusive thoughts.
“What’s wrong?” Glifir asked, having caught back up.
“Ned’s healing is wrong.” I said, staring at his slowly regrowing arms.
“It’s wrong? How?” Fik demanded.
“Ned said he had over 4000 power, during the dragon’s attack. Before he got almost thirty levels. That healing rate isn’t 4000 power worth of healing.” I said, watching Ned like a hawk, slowly backing away to get more distance.
“That’s… kinda weak.” Fik said lamely. Drin was reluctantly nodding along.
“Oh come on! I’m a healer! I know this stuff!” I protested.
“Yeah, but you’re only, like, what, 20 years old? That’s not a lot of experience, even if your race grows up fast.” Drin pointed out.
“Yeah, how do you know how fast I heal?” Ned smugly pointed out.
[Oath] boosting my healing knowledge by an absurd percentage, along with a decade of experience. I didn’t say that though. I was still hesitating over the efficiency problem.
Ugh. I couldn’t even attack Ned and prove my point once and for all. I didn’t believe that he was an active, current threat to me.
I mean, not only was I [Oath]-bound, but like, stone-cold murdering someone to prove a point wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Although - shit, he could just have a horrible efficient rate. That would slow him way down.
Fuck. The words were already out of my mouth. I felt that nervous pit in my stomach, the one that occurs when I really, really screw up.
“Glifir?” I said.
“Ummmm. Let’s keep waiting and seeing? It’s a bit weird, but I dunno this healer stuff.” He said.
“You never did like me.” Ned pointed out.
The pit in my stomach, the dreadful feeling of having really screwed up, was deepening.
Thankfully, the heavy stomping of metal boots on stone started to faintly echo down the hallway. We exchanged rapid looks, promising that this wasn’t over yet.
“Fik. Can you be the boss? If they’re dwarves, they’ll probably react better to another dwarf than a beardless unknown.” I said.
Fik looked startled at the trust, and I mentally cursed.
I’d never established a chain of command after me. I’d been too used to Kallisto managing it, and I’d forgotten that minor detail.
Because honestly, in the situation I was in, the only way I wasn’t in charge was if I was dead.
Still, Fik stepped up, and it was with mounting tension that we listened to the boots coming closer. I made sure to keep one eye on Ned, and one eye on the escape route I knew was clear.
“Maybe call out to them?” Glifir suggested.
“HO! Cousins!” Fik called out, his voice echoing through the hallways. “We’re over here!”
There was a pause in the stepping noises, then the sound of rapidly marching boots headed our way. I primed my [Mantle] to be ready if anything happened.
“How did you get here!?” An angry dwarf encased in metal grouched at us, hefting a large, two-handed battle axe. “You’re supposed to be in Velduar! Wandering out like this could kill you!”
We exchanged excited and awkward glances with each other.
Fik stared at me, a desperate look in his eye. The look of someone who wanted someone else to take over.
Fik was not natural leader material. I gave him a slight nod of encouragement.
“Um. We came in from somewhere else.” Fik said, having found some spine.
“What!?” The dwarf exclaimed. “It’s all supposed to be sealed up! You must tell us where there’s a leak.”
Glifir butted in at this point, generating the entire map of where we’d been.
“We’re here.” He said, pointing to a spot. “And we came down an old air shaft that we widened over here.” He said, pointing to a now-familiar spot.
The Khazad dwarf eyed the map, looked at Glifir, and sighed.
“Fine. I need to get you to one of our [Strategists], they’ll figure out how to close it. Come on, let’s head to Velduar.”
“Um. What about the traps?” I asked.
“Dwarves don’t trigger them.” He said, before doing a double-take at me.
“Wait, how did you know about the traps?” He asked suspiciously.
I was mentally screaming.
Ned had triggered one!
“She’s a human.”
“Yeah, from the dead zone.”
One of the other metal clad dwarves peered at me, like I was some exotic bird or another.
“Is she safe?” He asked.
“What happened to her beard?”
“Can you really live in the dead zone?”
The dwarves poked and prodded, questions coming so fast that I couldn’t even respond to them. At least I got some distance from Ned.
“Oi! You lot!” The Khazad commander yelled. “Give her space! We’re near the edge of our patrol, let’s talk when we’re deeper in. Don’t want any orcs sneaking in.”
He muttered and seemed to adjust something.
“There! That should fix the traps for us on the way back.” He said, and scanned us one last time, before slapping his forehead.
One of the guards nudged the battle axe dude.
“Healers!” He whispered, with the urgent tone I knew to interpret as “casualties ahead.”
“Cousins! Right! You do things differently.” He said, turning towards us.
“Healer. Healer. You both grace us with your presence, and I wish to invite you to break bread and share salt with us.”
I glared murder at Ned, who just smiled back in the most innocent way. Whatever was going on with Ned - he still had healing skills.
I wanted to tell these guards about my concerns with Ned, but - getting to somewhere safe, with food, was a high priority for me right now. I was all too aware that I could totally die down here, and getting myself safe was higher up on my priority list, than taking Ned down with me.
Ooooh, when we got back, I was going to tell everyone about Ned. Maybe I’d use my human bigshot status, and talk with someone important about the issue.
However, I was no longer the boss. Ranting and raving about the issue to the new dwarves, when the dwarves that actually trusted me and knew Ned hadn’t been convinced? They’d just lock me up in the looney bin, if they even allowed me in at all, and my credibility would get torpedoed before I could talk with someone important enough, alone, and convince them of my story.
We made our way through the tunnels, which quickly morphed into sensible, reasonable, well-lit and arranged hallways. The dwarves spent some time idly chatting, talking about the trip, about the attack. Everything I’d said about not saying the D-word clearly went out of everyone’s head, as the Khazad dwarves freely talked about her, then my team did after a moment’s hesitation.
It… was totally possible that Night, and as an extension, myself, were wrong about saying a dragon’s name got their attention. Or if it did - it didn’t matter. The dwarves were happily calling to her, and…
Well, I suppose she had just annihilated all visible dwarven civilization, from the sound of it.
A series of bright lights were in the final hallway, with a well-manned barricade at the end. The battle axe dwarf looked like he’d been poleaxed.
“Ah, erm, right.” He said, nervously stroking his beard. “I forgot this part, ah. This is awkward.” He said.
I glared at Fik so hard, he must’ve felt my eyes boring into the back of his head. He finally got the hint.
“What’s awkward?” He asked.
The patrol leader waved his question off.
“I’ll let the commander explain it. She’ll want to talk with that scout of yours, and the two healers.
He gestured, and two of his minions stepped up.
“See that they’re settled in somewhere nice after they’re debriefed.” He glanced at us, remembering what we’d said about eating bugs in the conversation back. “Get them a hot meal or six.” He added on.
“Patrol coming through!” He announced, stopping.
“Stand by for a patrol!” One of the guards yelled.
“Relax, it’s fine.” Battleaxe dwarf - I really should learn his name - said.
A number of lights flashed, and Inscriptions lit up. Some frowning and muttering occurred.
“She says she’s a human.” He said. “From the dead zone.”
A barrage of questions was fired my way, and I swear I was going back to Remus, if nothing else than to dodge all these annoying questions that I kept getting asked. Let someone else be the tip of the spear, and I’ll come back to visit once I’m no longer the pale beardless wonder.
I mean, I’d still be beardless, but I’d no longer be the new, exotic specimen.
“Right, you three, with me.” He said, leading us through the well-manned barricade. I saw a number of [Warriors], a few [Rangers], and a couple of [Mages], all pushing or over level 400. Only took me one [Long-Ranged Identify] to get them all! They took this defense seriously. Layer after layer of defenses, crossbows, Inscriptions, and more, all jam-packed into this narrow hallway.
I decided to keep my mouth shut on the obvious question of “What if they dig below you?”, assuming there was a good answer to that - like “we already have defenses down there.”
This did not look like a new conflict.
We made it through the blockade.
We exited to a marvelous city, carved into the heart of the mountain.
It was like they took an entire mountain, and carved out the entire heart of it. A few soaring pillars suggested that engineering, not magic, was holding up the ceiling, and the buildings were primarily built out of stone in a rough, block, Brutalist manner.
That’s not to say the seven-story apartment building in front of me was any the less impressive for it. No, the buildings either built out of the rock - or possibly, carved out of the rock as they built this city, were large feats of engineering prowess.
It was also clear, looking around, that buildings had been built in several stages, so to speak. The underlying build and architecture - and I suspected the rooms inside as well - were blocky and practical, and then there were the decorations.
Finely crafted metal filigree adorned every building, although most decorations ended abruptly around two stories up. Still, glowing moss and lichen of every color - some even slowly shifting through colors - adorned the buildings from that point up, basking the city in a multi-colored glow.
And, from what I could tell, it was a real, proper city. Buildings of various heights stretched back, each one “painted” in different multi-colored moss, creating a blinding display of lights. Dwarves hurried along crowded roads, where vendors were shouting their wares. We were in an isolated zone, a military area near the chokepoint into the rest of the mines, but we could still see the rest of the sprawling city.
The “inside” of the mountain seemed to be coated in a soft white moss, bathing the entire thing in an odd light. Hot red glows were scattered around the city, evidence of powerful forges working their craft, creating a strange, scattered lighting throughout the entire city.
[*ding!* [Cosmic Presence] has leveled up! 269 -> 270]
This beat the crap out of the tunnels!