Ten days later, I was sitting with Drin, Fik, Glifir, and Urik, enjoying a nice meal all together. I’d just come back from a long session with a scribe, where I’d sped-read the entire Medical Manuscripts from memory to him. It had still taken ages, I was ravenous, but it was done and getting distributed. No idea if anyone would take me up on it, but I’d tried to dodge prejudice by signing it just “Elaine” again.
Then again, that wasn’t a very dwarfy name. Ah well, at least I was being consistent.
Chicken and other meat was incredibly cheap right now, which told me there’d been a wholesale slaughter of farm animals… the better to stretch winter rations out, and an acknowledgement that all the farmland on the surface had gotten burned to the ground. The harvests had all been in and secured in the granaries when Lun’Kat attacked, so in that respect they were predicted to survive the winter without too many problems. There were a number of underground farms as well, supplying the city, but some of their leadership had a cautious approach to the situation. The lack of any established surface farms, and orc commandos trying to burn what stores they had, had the dwarven leadership order a cull.
Long story short: Chicken was delicious.
I’d gotten my checklist together of what I needed to get out, and what I wanted to get out.
A way to store water.
My Sentinel Badge.
The last two a neutral observer might declare as “wants”, but no. I wasn’t leaving without them.
For it to no longer be winter. Fik had told me all about just how crazy the snow got in the mountains. According to him, there was over 9 feet/3 meters worth of snow regularly. Drin had objected, saying that it was usually even more. Either way, two, three Elaine’s worth of snow was too much. It’d been hitting the start of winter as we were arriving, and there was much spirited discussion if the “big storms” had hit yet or not.
Fuckers. They could’ve told me that I’d be trapped in a boatload of snow after going to the capital before sending me off that way. Either way, I was expecting to need to handle heavy snowfall, and I honestly didn’t know how to survive in the wilderness when snow was involved. Water was less of a concern, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Remus was nice and toasty, and snow was occasionally seen in the deep south - rare enough that it was part of the Advanced Wilderness Survival course, which I hadn’t taken.
A guide, or someone to watch my back.
A survival kit. Tent, flint and steel, rope, canvas, etc. This would let me create rudimentary alarm systems, and let me get some sleep
My utility gems, recharged with skills.
Time to practice all my skills. I’d gotten more practice in, but [Kaleidoscope] was tricky. Specifically, getting all of the butterflies to land at once, from every angle. I’d almost gotten the hang of it, then on level up they’d improved slightly - which had been enough to throw off all my timings, because leveling up improved acceleration, not speed. Sure, I could’ve used a lower acceleration to get everything timed and landing right, but I had standards. Top acceleration or bust.
Sure, the want list was a lot, but I was realistic about it. Every edge would help.
Slightly less realistically:
The dwarves’ blessing to leave.
All their magical knowledge, to evolve my skills, sate my curiosity, and advance my class peacefully. This tied into the snow… if I could safely wait for spring, and get a few more levels under my belt, I absolutely would.
A dozen more levels of [The Dawn Sentinel]. After the novelty of dwarves and prosthetics wore off, my leveling rate had decreased somewhat.
A unicorn. Now that I knew they existed? Oooh, I wanted a pretty pony all for myself. I’d totally call her Sunshine. Maybe Sunny. Sylver? Sparkles?
Ok, sure, a Thunderbird egg was more realistic, and was on my “to-acquire” checklist. Still had no idea how big their eggs were. Running away with something bigger than I was would be a challenging preposition.
I’d been able to subtly get a number of the items, mostly in the name of comfort. I’d been given a thick set of clothing, after casually mentioning that I was from a warm, warm climate, and that it was pretty cold underground - totally true.
A water skin was easy. I hadn’t even needed to ask!
I still had no idea on the exits, besides where I’d come in. Given that it had a dozen guards, anti-Mirage measures, traps, and general security against invaders? Yeah. It wasn’t high on my list, but it was literally the only exit I knew.
I didn’t consider it an option, not without a change in situation. It existed, but trying to exit that way was arguably worse than just staying put.
I wanted to ask about touring the farms, and seeing the grand entrance to the city from the surface. Both should have a way of getting out. My constant touring of the city had established that I liked to wander around and see things, and I’d been asking to see different things, so when I asked to see the exits, it’d seem totally natural. Just another thing [Tourist] Elaine wanted to see!
I had a backpack, although I couldn’t think of a good way to ask for new armor and weapons.
I had no way of getting a survival kit, short of stealing one. Immediately trying to break in to steal supplies right after I’d broken free seemed to be a poor life choice. I was going to keep my eye out for opportunities, but I didn’t have my hopes up high.
Food I’d half-secured. That was to say, I’d convinced Urik to stockpile snacks for me, given how much I ate when I was healing. To keep up the deception though, I had to keep eating them while I was on a healing spree, so the amount I had kept fluctuating.
I’d make sure I got a good meal before making my break.
Assuming I got to plan the right moment, and didn’t just seize the chance when I saw it. I should start carrying all my stuff with me, just in case I spot a good opportunity.
Map and a guide? I was working on that right now.
“It’s bad, but it’s not awful.” Drin was saying. “The Khazads opened all their doors to us, and tens of thousands managed to flee to safety.”
Urik interjected some good-natured… grumbling? Poking? Trying to establish what they’d paid, to make them grateful?
“Kazaragoth half-burned down as a result.” He mentioned.
Ouch. If looks could kill? Read the room, Urik. Even I wouldn’t put my foot in my mouth that badly.
Heck, I was shooting him a foul look.
Fik saved the day. Or Urik, as the case may be.
“Free housing, free food, and cheap loans to get back on our feet.” He said. “Along with an aggressive hiring program. Speaking of, I’m probably going to sign up.” Fik said, with an apologetic look to Drin.
“Never thought you’d be the one to volunteer for more work.” He jabbed back. “Also… I asked. They laughed me out of the room when I tried to sign up.” He groused. “Just because my armor skills are wood-based.”
Ooof. Yeah, I could see why they wouldn’t want Drin. Still, he was a… ok, not particularly strong warrior. Still, if he was guarding a door, that freed up someone else to go fight.
My understanding was that the Khazad army had taken a huge hit when it tried to attack Lun’Kat. It wasn’t exactly public knowledge, but “Great big army goes off to try to evict the dragon”, “The orcs beat us to it - damn them for kicking Lun’Kat and making her eradicate our cousins!”, “Only a few survivors of the great big army, after an epic battle against the orcs.” combined with “Ignore all the domestic problems, we must throw every resource at killing the orcs!” told a story. Not a particularly flattering one to boot.
Propaganda. Lies. Drumming up martial fervor to cover for leadership’s blunders. The same story, told again and again throughout time. The story didn’t change, only the actors.
Not my problem.
I got to the crux of the question, and the real reason I wanted to have lunch with everyone.
“Glifir, how are you doing?” I asked.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone I know is here, but I asked around. My family would be in Karacon. I’m trying to save up enough money to go there.”
“Why do you need money? Why can’t you just walk?” I asked him.
“Entrance tolls and movement fees.” He explained, turning to Urik. “You’ve been more than generous, taking us all in, but do you know why there are those fees? I never got a clear explanation.”
Urik leaned back, going into “teacher mode”.
“Well, the tunnels are unsafe. After the attack, a large number of them have collapsed, and we’re digging some back out, while trying to find alternate routes. If we just let everyone wander around, they would. Then most of you would get lost and die, feeding whatever’s living down there, making them stronger. Then the survivors would whine at us that we let you all die, and that we should do something.”
We all pulled a face at just how bloody accurate that comment was. Of course people would go and do dumb stuff, and of course once they died everyone would complain to the government about it, entirely forgetting that they’d saved their lives, and seamlessly, with no problems, gave them a new lease on life, a new living.
In Remus they would’ve just let them starve until they fell into enough debt to sell into slavery.
“The entry fee is tied to that. You’d all be running around trying to find your families. We totally respect that, but we need to slow everything down. We’re already strained here, and everyone would head towards Thel Doruhl given the chance, since that was next to your capital. Thel Doruhl is a small town, and is barely managing as-is. If everyone ran there?”
“No way the town doesn’t starve and collapse. Just makes everything worse.”
“The grump could’ve told me all that, instead of telling me to take a hike.” Glifir grumbled into his beard, viciously skewering another bite of chicken on his knife.
Damn. That didn’t sound promising. I doubted I could lure Glifir out on adventure, on traveling to Remus, when he was trying to save up enough money to see his family.
“Hi, yes, come with me. It’ll take ages, and I don’t have Krul, and it’ll delay you seeing your family a ton, and possibly ruin your chances of rebuilding your life, but pleaseeeeee?”
I did not see that ending well. Glifir as a guide was out, and I didn’t want to overplay my hand by asking to see his map.
I looked at the road.
“Speaking of moving around, how do kids and dwarves with low physical stats get around?” I asked.
The higher average level exacerbated the difference in stats, which meant some powerhouses careened down the street at high speed. It was risking life and limb to step out alone, without good enough stats - or armor.
I had enough speed that I felt confident about risking myself on the roads, although I didn’t see a white zone or any other “safe” travel lanes for kids and low-leveled mages and the like.
While most people had eyes, and didn’t run into each other, my plan for escape involved going invisible. Being invisible was a great way for someone else to run into me by accident, and ruin my plans. Hence my investigations.
“Tunnels!” Urik happily told me. Then he turned sour. “Well, when things are normal. Most kids stay in their clan’s compounds, and will use tunnels to get around to other compounds to play. Orcs hit a traveling group of kids though, killed them all. Nobody will use them now.”
I shuddered in sympathy, while pulling my lips back in an involuntary feral grimace. I was somewhat shielded, both metaphorically and literally. I hadn’t been around long enough, nor was I in contact with the average dwarf enough to know what the “real” state of things was. All I saw were the sick and injured, and after the initial wave of healing a few people that I suspected got hurt in the aftershocks of Lun’Kat’s epic battle with the guardians, I hadn’t seen much.
Healers didn’t get called for dead bodies.
Going after military targets I understood. Going after kids? That was a whole new low.
I needed to take a deep breath. I felt my blood boiling, surging up, demanding that I leave the table and hunt down the kid killers right now. Fuck the orcs, and fuck anyone who deliberately targeted kids.
The only thing keeping my butt firmly planted in the strangely comfortable stone seat was the knowledge that I was just too weak. I’d get murdered.
However, unused tunnels sounded like a good way to move around.
We were making small talk, a bite of food coming to my mouth, when things got a little strange. A hush descended upon the world. Drin and Fik paused, forks halfway to their mouth, while Glifir was leaning forward, his animated telling of a joke stopped.
No, not stopped.
Slowed way down.
It had taken a moment for it to click. Still gave me enough time to wrap the table with [Mantle of the Stars], shimmering specks of light surrounding us.
Nobody had time to do anything else. The shield was instantly broken as something went through it, and at seemingly the same moment my back was violated. Fortunately, for once, this was going at seemingly normal speed, in spite of [Bullet Time], which spoke to the velocities involved. Something exploded into my torso from my spine, and instead of just going through me like a normal projectile, split into dozens of corkscrewing missiles, turning my chest into a bloody mess. Geysers of highly pressurized blood sprayed out of me whenever a stone left, my rapid healing tracing behind the damage, forcing the blood and organ slurry out.
I clenched my teeth in pain, as [Center of the Universe] anti-pain mitigation got mildly overwhelmed.
The attack was more than enough to kill almost any healer, as the stones made sure to keep ricocheting about to keep destroying vital organs, overwhelming most healing.
I wasn’t any healer.
I felt the last stone erupt from my neck, my skin flawlessly healing behind it, only to get dog-piled by all of my guards, who were yelling and shouting, one of them tackling me to the ground, the rest throwing up shields and generally making a fuss. A crack echoed across the buildings, the sound of the attack finally catching up.
It didn’t stop at one dwarf physically intervening, throwing themselves between me and my attackers. More of the dwarves physically leapt on top of me
I tried to heal everyone touching me, but I was at serious risk of suffocation from the dwarves tackling me, throwing their bodies over me to stop another attack.
“Help.” I tried to gasp out, but couldn’t. The crushing weight of the rest of the dwarves, and my lack of significant strength, was doing me in. I tried to struggle, but I was being pressed, compressed, suffocated.
I was going to get killed by my own well-meaning escort, who couldn’t even hear me or feel my feeble struggles. I started to flash [Lantern], in a bid to let them know I was here, and I was dying.
Shooting Radiance through them wouldn’t help. They’d just turn into dead weight.
Soon enough though, the dwarves were reshuffling themselves, orders being yelled so fast and so loudly I couldn’t keep up. Then I was picked up, tossed about like a sack of potatoes, and we were off. I wrapped myself back up in [Mantle], just for the extra security. It took me a moment to orient myself, but when I did, I saw a silver lining to the whole situation
I was totally going to use this as an excuse to ask for armor and a weapon. Dwarven-forged!
I looked back at the scene of the assasination attempt, and noticed that my former escort looked fine. However, I saw something terrible.
They weren’t bringing the food!
I wasn’t done eating!