Glifir, myself, and whatever Ned was - heck, at this point I wasn’t even sure it was Ned anymore - were rapidly led to another tall, blocky building. The glowing lichen was a pulsing red, making it visible from a distance, and the doors were extra-large. A constant flow of dwarves, armed and armored to the beard in well-used and clearly loved metal gear, marched in and out of the doors.
I kept a wary eye on Ned the entire time, and I don’t think it went unnoticed by our escorts that I walked in odd ways to avoid being too close to him. Fortunately, they didn’t comment.
We made it inside, and while this was obviously some sort of military establishment, the Khazads had ideas on beauty in all things. Metal arches flowed along the walls, from floor to ceiling, with artistic “splashes” of flowing metal reminding me of water. The pillars were of subtle shades of different metals, and if this is how they treated utilitarian buildings, I couldn’t wait to see their idea of artistry!
Which gave me a sad pang as I thought about the dwarves I’d been traveling with. I’d seen the Sierra Obelisk, but what other art had they made? What objects of wonder and beauty had been casually razed by Lun’Kat’s rampage? How many years, centuries, of careful, painstaking work had just gone up in flames?
How many precious books were up in flames, unreadable forevermore?
My quest for a solid library that I could hole myself up in would have to wait some more.
I’d been trying not to think too hard of the literal millions, if not tens or hundreds of millions of lives that had been extinguished. The thought of it, the idea, was too painful, and I needed to be operational. I needed to be able to keep moving.
Here though? I was starting to feel the wear of constantly being on guard, of constant paranoia and alertness. I was feeling myself starting to relax a hair.
In spite of knowing I shouldn’t, that Ned was near and possibly dangerous.
It was all relative. Down in the mines proper, there were monsters lurking around every corner, every step could be a trap, and orcs were out for our blood. Which made Velduar like a siren song. No deadly traps. No orcs.
His presence was enough to keep me on my toes, although he wasn’t making any threatening moves. On one hand, I was cursing my [Oath], on the other, I wouldn’t actually do anything to him.
Still, my hostility didn’t go unnoticed by our hosts, although they weren’t saying anything. They were giving us the look that the guards gave to drunks that were arguing though. The “Please don’t fight, we don’t want to step in and break everyone’s skull.”
We made it to a desk, and the truth of the world was laid bare.
Everyone had paperwork.
“Urik. You’re back from patrol early.” A gruff dwarf behind the desk said.
“Found this lot wandering around the edges of the patrol area.” Battleaxe dwarf - now I had a name, Urik - said, indicating to us.
I awkwardly waved hi, noting we were still basically in a lobby as people were hustling and bustling around.
“Two of them are healers!” The administrative dwarf said, practically leaping out of her chair in excitement. “You should’ve started with that!” She said, berating Urik with a nasty tone of voice.
Urik opened his mouth, probably to protest that he’d only gotten a few words out and was getting there, but with a resigned look, closed his mouth. I knew the gesture well.
“Thoren. THOREN!” Admin-dwarf yelled, and a single dwarf, encased in metal like a can of tuna, hustled over and saluted.
“Thoren. We’ve got two healers here. Your squad is now on protection detail, along with Urik’s squad. I’m sending them to Commander Glora now.” She ordered Thoren, glancing back down to her paperwork like there never was a question if he’d obey her or not.
Admins. Might not be in the chain of command, but they yelled and everyone else was jumping around.
“Right then! Follow me.” Thoren said.
I glanced at Urik, but he seemed to be naturally falling in to follow Thoren, which made me think Thoren outranked him. There was probably an obvious way to tell, but for all I knew it was how their beard was braided, or the exact alloy of the armor they were wearing.
In my defense, I’d spent no time with the Khazad dwarves, and knew nothing about them. I actually had an excuse!
“What’s up with us getting an escort?” I whispered to Glifir, figuring he might know something about the dwarves.
“I don’t know. This is weird.” He said, looking around like a tourist.
“Still making a map?” I teased, trying not to show how tense and on edge I was.
He shook his head.
“It’d be terrible form for me to make a map of their barracks.” He said.
“Yeah, we’d hang you for spying!” Thoren cheerfully told us, and it took me a moment to realize he was dead serious.
That dampened the mood as we climbed tightly spiraling well-worn stone staircases. I insisted on walking behind Ned… although maybe my paranoia was going a bit too far. I seriously doubted he’d try anything while surrounded by guards.
I managed to come to the conclusion that I was probably hurting my case, not helping it, as we arrived before some incredibly ornate doors, just one of a number in the hallway on this floor. There were some serious administrative chops going on here. Whoever had made them were masters of their craft, details spiraling smaller and smaller to the point where I was only seeing the smallest of them with the extra perception granted to me by my vitality - which made me think there were details even smaller that I was missing.
Four guards flanked the doorway, and unlike the wood guards - heck, unlike the average guard I saw in Remus, my dad included - they were looking keen-eyed and on-point, ready to be moving and fighting at a moment’s notice.
Guard duty was boring, and guard duty in town, in a military building, on what was one of the higher floors? The one token guard to act as a gatekeeper should be falling asleep on his feet, not four guards on high alert.
Thoren stopped a distance from the guards, and saluted.
“Is Tin Commander Glora in?” He asked.
One of the guards popped his head in, and had a quick word with whoever was inside. He exited, shaking his head.
“Tin Commander Glora is occupied. She says to see Silver Commander Korun instead.”
Thoren saluted back, and we were off again, to another door, another set of four guards.
“Bronze Commander Thoren with Steel Commander Urik here to see Silver Commander Korun!” He shouted out, having a completely different reaction.
Cripes that was loud.
I was tempted to tell him off, and to use his “indoor” voice.
Oh no. Oh no oh no.
I was becoming my mother!
I wanted to do something silly, to prove that no, I was still a kid, but this wasn’t the time or the place for it, which was even worse!
I should just lean into it and get a nice wooden spoon.
The difference in greeting made me think that Korun was Glora’s boss or something.
Also, silver was over tin was over bronze was over steel? Confusion was going to be the name of the game here. It probably made perfect sense to the metal-obsessed dwarves, but I was totally lost.
I shook my head and refocused.
One of the guards poked their head inside, and seemingly satisfied at what he found, popped back out.
“He’ll just be a minute.” He said.
I exchanged an awkward look with Glifir, and shrugged. Not much to do but wait here.
So we waited, occasionally having our whole group shuffle around in the little “left-right” dance as other groups of armed dwarves marched by.
One dwarf couldn’t stop staring at us - specifically, his eyes rapidly flickered between Ned and myself - as he marched by in his team, with us pressed against the stone wall to get out of their way.
“What are you looking at!?” The leader screamed at him.
“Gold-Comman-” He started to say, only to get interrupted.
“I don’t care! Eyes! Front!”
Well, good to know that we were going to be a spectacle.
I wasn’t the most patient of gals, so me getting bored to the stage of tapping my feet wasn’t exactly unusual. With that being said, we ended up waiting an uncomfortably long time, to the point where one of the guards peeked in again to make sure that Korun was still there.
“Enter!” A voice cracked out from the room, and half of us jumped at it. We quickly filed in, only to realize that maybe seven of us could fit, not the twenty-seven of us that was my team and the escorts.
“What is this mess! Why are there so many of you! Commanders only! Get! Shoo!” The same voice yelled, and I was brought along back in a tide of steel as half the dwarves tried to exit at the same time some were trying to get back in.
We eventually managed to sort ourselves out, and Glifir, Ned, myself, and the two dwarf commanders were in the room with Silver Commander Korun.
“Right.” He grumped, shuffling paperwork on his desk and grumbling into his beard. “I had said commanders only, but I suppose they’re here for a reason. What can I do for - Why didn’t you say you had healers?!” He screamed at Thoren, jumping up onto his desk, kicking paperwork everywhere. “You know how hard pressed we are for them! Or wait. These aren’t new healers are they? Someone who’s switched their class over?” He peered at us a moment, then shook his head.
“Of course they’re not. Too high level. That one’s a Nolgardian to boot. I thought we’d seen all the Nolgardians. But what’s with this one?” He asked leaning forward to peer at me from an uncomfortably close distance. “Mismatch of metal and wooden armor, healer-tagged, and beardless? What crime did you commit for that, and why haven’t I heard of a beardless healer? We might’ve offered you a pardon, depending. Which means you’re new here. How?” He asked, finally pausing in his barrage of words to let someone else get a word in edgewise.
I glanced at Thoren and Urik, only to see them studiously keeping their eyes on the wall ahead of them, not looking at us at all. I mentally cursed them.
“Hi! I’m Elaine, a human from Remus, which is in the dead zone.” I said, starting a little speech. I briefly considered trying to explain that I was also Sentinel Dawn, but that would go down one heck a rabbit hole.
“Not a criminal.” I added in, figuring I’d get that out of the way. “Human women just don’t grow beards.”
I was getting strange looks - what do you mean human women don’t grow beards? - and decided to get back onto the main crux of the story.
“One of my teammates and I made first contact with the Nolgardians here, and I was on my way to the capital when the, um,”
I paused what I was saying, and flapped my arms like giant wings, while mimicking breathing fire.
“Yeah, when that attacked.” I said.
“The dragon?” Korun said, looking at me like I was a crazy person.
I shushed him.
“Shhhhhhh! Don’t say its name! It’ll hear you!”
He opened his mouth, exchanged bemused glances with the other commanders, and closed it. He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Two weeks ago I would’ve called you nuts, and thrown you out the gates. Today? After seeing what’s happened? I think I just might be looking silly the next time we discuss this…her.” He turned around, and made some markings on a piece of paper pinned to the wall behind him.
“What happened to the rest of your team?” He asked. “Are they downstairs?”
“Oh, no, my teammate Hunting went back to tell everyone else that you were here. You’re as new to us as we are to you. Plus, the border patrol didn’t like him very much. Something about him being a Void mage.”
“Yeah, good thing they didn’t let him in. That’ll end in tears one day, and a city turned to rubble. Right. Healer, healer, what are you here for?” He barked at Glifir, pointing at him with a finger.
Glifir jumped at that, and Urik smoothly stepped in.
“They came from outside our perimeter, and breached their way into the old mines to escape the, um, “
To my endless amusement, Urik started flapping his arms as well. I could see a bright red blush spread up his cheeks, over his beard.
“Anyways! He’s made a map, and can point us to where they broke in, so we can hole it up.”
Korun grumbled, and started sorting through his papers, flinging them everywhere. He was basically making it snow, and it was a wonder he got anything done with that organizational system.
Glifir just generated his map out of Mist, making it large, and pointed to the spot.
“It’s here we fell down.” He said, pointing to the spot deep within the mines.”
“How’d you manage that?” Korun asked, studying the map - namely, just how deep and surrounded by other tunnels it was.
“Widened an air shaft.” Glifir said.
Korun grunted, as he kept shuffling through papers.
“Good trick that. Going to be a huge pain for us to fix.” He said, pulling out a paper, nodding at it, then scribbling furiously on it with an oversized quill.
The paper was hovering in the air, which was making me think there was a skill of some sort. [Invisible Clipboard] or [Everything is a Surface] or something.
There was so much cool magic in the world! I wanted to sit and talk with him, and learn all his skills!
Heck, forget that, I wanted to know everyone’s skills.
“Right, anything else from you?” He said, pointing his quill at Glifir, who shook his head.
“Right, out you go.” He said, pointing to the door.
“Um, go where?” He asked.
Korun rolled his eyes.
“To where the rest of the Nolgardians are! Someone will be there to debrief you. Now shoo! Get!” He said, menacing Glifir with his quill, who vanished in short order.
Not that his directions were exactly illuminating. I hoped Glifir would be ok, and they wouldn’t, like, think he was spying on them or something.
One of the guards could probably give him a hand.
Korun kept standing on top of his desk as Glifir left the room, creasing the paper with his great big boots.
“Now, the two of you.” He said, sighing and plopping himself back in his chair. “Both are true, proper healers, yeah? Got all the tricks?”
“Not sure what all the tricks are, but if it’s a mundane injury I can fix it.” I said.
Korun grunted at me.
“Good enough. Right, we have a problem.” He said, and I mentally rolled my eyes. There was always a problem.
What now? Healers were on strike? Deadly magical plague? All the healers had gotten locked outside when Lun’Kat attacked?
“We’re in a state of war with the orcs. I dunno how much you know about warfare, but healers are a high-priority target. They’re soft. Easy to kill. Kill the healers, and attacks become deadlier. Killing is no longer mandatory, but crippling works even better. After all, a cripplied warrior needs to be looked after, taken care of, fed, housed. However, when a healer’s around? A crippled warrior is back in the fight the next day.”
I nodded. I’d gotten similar lessons from Artemis and Maximus, about how in fights against other people, I’d be targeted first. Heck, I’d seen it in the fight against the orcs earlier, where their earth mage’s attacks had almost all targeted me. Ned had gotten lucky by being further back than I was, but ‘kill the healer’ seemed to be semi-universal among intelligent beings.
“Anyways, the orcs have been targeting healers, along with other targets of opportunity. They usually fail, but every success is a devastating loss for us.”
“Why would anyone ever leave town?” Ned asked, seemingly perplexed by the idea that anyone would want to. “It’s full of food.”
“Contrary to what you Nolgardians think, we’re not idiots.” Korun said, giving Ned the evil eye. “We’re trying to keep the healers safe. However, orcs do occasionally manage to slip into Velduar, and when they do, they try to burn our food, undermine the supports holding the cavern up, assassinate our healers, and hit whatever else they think is critical that’s unguarded. Two weeks ago, they managed to sabotage our sewage system. Shit was literally flowing through the streets. At least they can’t burn down our buildings.”
Oh. Yes. I hadn’t considered that, but combine the ability to become mostly invisible with just about anything else? Yeah…
It was like what I had done to the pirates, on a large scale. I was willing to bet that the dwarves had their own commando teams deep in orc territory, performing the same tasks. All was fair in love and war!
I’d let my [Shine] lapse, since there were actual lights here, but nope. It was not to be. I set a moderately powerful [Shine], strong enough to chew through mirages, weak enough that I still had a modest amount of mana regen.
I got a Look.
“Anti-Mirage skill.” I said.
He gave me a curt nod.
“Glad to see you’ve got your head on your shoulders! Anyways, while the two of you are here, we need you patching people up. You’ll also be assigned two teams of guards, and secured quarters. Some orc tries to come after you, just run, don’t try to fight them. We believe there are three teams of orc Sabotaugers currently running rampant through Velduar, and most, if not all, of the members have their third class. Now, I won’t lie to you. We’ll do our best to keep you alive, but they managed to drop a building on one of our most senior healers last week. We’ll do our best, but no promises.”
Ned was frowning.
“Is it possible to forgo the escort?” He asked, and even Thoren and Urik turned to give him a stupefied look.
“No.” Korun said, without a moment’s hesitation. “We need you too badly to risk it. Healer Elaine. May I speak with healer Ned privately?” He asked.
I nodded and stepped out of the room.
Waiting… waiting… waiting…
Wonder what they were talking about in there.
Ned came storming out, an angry frown on his face. Urik was hurrying along behind him, and he and his team vanished after Ned.
“Healer Elaine. If I may speak to you?” Korun said, and I entered to see Thoren and Korun in the room.
“Hi. Thank you for your patience. Believe me, I wish you were currently patching people up, reforging their body like a smith fixes a broken sword, but there are a few things I’d like to get from you before you begin. I’d like to know your magic power, control, mana regeneration, classes, and skills.” He said, having a fresh sheet of paper ready.
I blinked, and looked at Thoren, who nodded encouragingly at me.
“With respect - heck no.” I said, crossing my arm and cursing the lack of sunlight outside.
“Explain yourself.” Korun said, in a less friendly though not hostile tone.
“I’m not just Healer Elaine. I’m also Sentinel Dawn, a member of the Ranger organization in Remus. I was scouting our frontlines, because, politely, I’m one of the best humanity has to offer. I’m not telling a foreign military all of my tricks and secrets. I’m delighted to heal people - just point me to them - but if you think I’m letting you know what I can do? Not happening.” I said.
Korun tapped his quill against his desk.
“I need a rough idea of what you’re capable of, to manage estimates and juggle healers and their locations and assignments.” he said.
That was fair enough. Administrative work was hard enough even when people weren’t deliberately withholding information.
Speaking of - I needed to tell him about Ned, and my suspicions around him. I’d been mulling over it, and I was starting to see the shape of the problem.
Still. He didn’t need to know the full extent of my healing.
I grinned to myself. I’d give him the toned-down version.
“I can rip and tear through patients as fast as you can give them to me, without rest.” I grinned. “Just point the way!”