We made our way to the great big administrative building, and filed inside. Thoren stopped to have a brief word with the administrator on the first floor, and came back to us, shaking his head.
“Gotta go to another building.” He grumped, twirling part of his beard around his finger.
Welp. About face, march. We stomped on over to another building, which I recognized as one of the training grounds.
Nice! Korun was making it easy for me! I could get my new gear, and immediately try it out. It’d be much easier to convince Thoren that I was still safe in the place I was, than to get him to try to get to a new building.
My heart plummeted into my shoes when I got into the training room. The orc statues had been moved to the side, and the walls were lined with dwarves, their weapons out and looking mean. Korun was on a makeshift stone stage, along with a number of other grumpy, important-looking dwarves.
I knew that Korun was important, but seeing all the other important-looking dwarves defer to him hammered the point home. Glifir, Drin, and Fik were all in the center of the room, the spotlight of attention on them.
“Healer Elaine. Good. Please join the rest in the center.” Korun’s words were nice, but his tone was restrained fury, making it entirely clear that he was giving orders, not asking.
Without a shred of hesitation, I walked to the middle of the room, my “Sentinel Dawn” game face on. I had my gems. Worse-case, I’d blind everyone with [Lantern], throw out a wave of [Kaleidoscope], then blow a hole through the floor with [Wall Buster]. Assuming it worked on floors, I’d never tried. I’d escape to the lower level, leaving a second wave of [Kaleidoscope] to slow pursuers down, hide with [Invisibility with Eyeholes], and take it from there.
Heck, I even had a free skill slot. My plan so far had been to grab whatever skill I thought would help, and that was still the plan.
I made it to the center of the room, looking at Korun with fearless eyes.
I didn’t think I was untouchable - but politically and socially, I was a peeled mango. Difficult to get ahold of. Not impossible, but I wasn’t going to get in trouble for anything short of the most major crimes.
“There have been a string of murders.” Korun announced, getting right into it. Grips tightened on weapons, and the sound of shuffling armor echoed around the room as the guards - execution squad? - leaned forward.
“They were traced to an Ooze-Mirror Changeling, who ate the victim, then used one of its skills to copy the look, skills, and [Examine] tag of the victim, to find a new one.” He announced.
I didn’t quite see what this had to do with us, so I started to relax. Just a bit. The number of armed and angry guards still had me on edge.
“We traced the Changeling’s path back to you four. You brought it in under the guise of one ‘Healer Ned’, and we need to examine you.” Korun announced.
It was dumb.
I shouldn’t say it.
Not when surrounded by lots of angry dwarves with twitchy fingers.
Unfortunately, the filter between my brain and my mouth didn’t always work, and I’d never been accused of making the right social calls. Especially when everything lined up so nicely.
“I told you so!” I shouted out.
Naturally, all the hostility in the room was directed at me, with Korun’s eyes threatening murder.
Fortunately for me, he was a relatively reasonable dwarf, and murdering the golden healer for showing him up in public wasn’t on his to-do list. Still. I fully expected my book request to get firmly rejected at this point.
I’d never been accused of being socially graceful.
Korun cleared his throat, bringing the attention back to him.
“As I was saying. The Changeling we killed was an amateur, and we need to examine the rest of you to make sure you are what you claim to be. Please do not resist. We have healers on-hand.”
With that, Korun snapped his fingers, the rest of the dwarves came a little closer, and the room went white.
A deafening BANG went through the whole room as a bolt of lightning, thicker than my thighs, went through me, causing me to involuntarily jerk around as the Lightning played havoc with my nervous system. My healing chased the lightning, restoring my organs just as quickly as they got fried.
In less than a heartbeat - granted, a longer heartbeat than usual, given that it’d been half-stalled out by the electrical testing - it was over.
I looked to the side. Glifir and Fik were literally smoking, but Drin was standing there, all sorts of annoyed, beard going haywire all over the place. He’d taken the shock, but not nearly as badly as the other two. I knelt down to heal Glifir and Fik - the Khazadian dwarves had a healer rushing in, but I was closer - and gave Drin a quizzical look.
“What?” He shrugged. “You think I play with Lightning without having a resistance skill for it?”
“Right. They’re clear!” One of the important-looking dwarves announced. She was the only one on the stage without a frazzled beard.
A bunch of the important dwarves started shouting out orders.
“Bronze Team! On me!”
“Aluminum Team! On me!”
“Platinum Team! Move out!”
Squads formed up and dispersed, leaving just Thoren’s squad, and two more that I assumed were assigned to Korun, or possibly just deciding to use the training room.
“Thank you for your understanding.” Korun said, as one of the squads did the obvious thing I hadn’t thought about - they helped my former traveling companions up. “I hope you understand that we needed to do that.”
Drin gave a curt nod.
“Aye. Don’t like it.” He said, voice filled with hostility. He did a smart military turn of his heels, and walked right out of the room, forcing everyone else to follow after him. Glifir and Fik were muttering curses under their breath, and the guards were looking a smidge guilty over the whole thing.
“Healer Elaine. One more thing, if you’d please?” Korun said, tone having thrown itself in reverse from “hostile and annoyed” to “fuuuuuuuuuuuck I probably pissed off the VIP that I was told to keep happy under any circumstances something fierce.”
I swallowed the fresh anger and annoyance that was hot in my throat, practically burning me. It helped that I was already displeased with the Khazad dwarves - putting it mildly - which meant I didn’t need to go on some rollercoaster of betrayed emotions. Still, my wind whirled furiously as I tried to think of what concessions I could leverage out of this, what items on my escape list I could politely ask Korun to get me.
Books were back on the menu, for example.
“Commander Korun.” I politely - with a minor coughing fit, getting the smoky “crispy lung dust” crap out of my lungs. I couldn’t quite remember his metal-name title, and I wasn’t feeling generous enough to check on it with [Pristine Memories].
“Walk with me. I would like to once again apologize for that unpleasantness.” He said, clasping his hands behind his back and starting to walk. I followed along.
“Some additional background. The Changeling was following what we believed to be a standard pattern for their kind. Assume the identity of a child. Wait. Hit the parents. Move on.” He said, and the pieces clicked for me.
Artemis. Waaaaaaaaay back when I first met her. She thought I was a Changeling, in the middle of the “murder and assimilate” routine. I had some basic facts wrong, and in Artemis-land, where “breaking a twig” was met with “rocks and lightning”, the fact that I was still alive was practically a miracle.
The problem of “What do I do the next time I suspect a Changeling” was still up in the air, and Korun was still talking.
“Needless to say, we could not permit that to continue. I tried to argue with the Council of Elders that you’d demonstrated your usefulness, and that you’d bled red for us just a few days ago, and that even if you were a Changeling, you were too useful to get rid of. They were out for blood, and testing you instead of summarily executing all of you was the best I’d been able to manage. One of the Elder’s great-great-grandchildren got killed.”
I nodded. There was a lot to unpack there. Korun had some minor pull with what sounded like all the hotshots running the place? They’d considered executing me?
Operation Escape was going into effect today.
“Anyways! If there’s anything I can do, just say it.” Korun said, as we arrived at another door. “Here we are.” He said, opening it.
A work of art met my eyes.
“Those blasted rabbits claim to be the best at everything. The best [Carpenters]. The best [Poets]. The best [Songwriters]. The best [Mages], [Artisans], [Warriors], [Archers], [Rangers], and everything else. Maybe they’re right.” Korun reluctantly admitted. “But when it comes to shaping and working metal? Bah. We’re better.” He said, a hint of communal pride of the Khazadian dwarves entering his voice.
The suit of armor was like a blend of what I imagined a [Knight] would wear, crossed with my Sentinel gear. The only thing “missing” was a spot where my right vambrace would go, with a perfect mirror on the left-hand side.
Shame it wasn’t filled with Sunstones, but I couldn’t have it all.
I took a hesitant step towards it, my hand moving as if to caress the arms, stopping just short. I didn’t want to get oily grease stains on this absolute vision.
“Go on.” Korun encouraged me. “Try it on.”
It took some help to get it all on - the straps were all in different places, and there was this fancy little latch that I was entirely unfamiliar with - but before long, I’d managed to get into the suit of armor, which I swore expanded in the right places and contracted in others to perfectly hug my body through the warm clothes I was wearing.
The chest was thick but flexible, stout without making me wider. I had my full range of motion still, and smooth armor around my shoulder and armpits slid around perfectly, preventing any gaps from showing up. The Arcanite from my old set was re-done into this one, but sadly Korun hadn’t seen fit to up my supplies.
I hadn’t asked. I should’ve.
The metal flowed like water along my arms, perfectly encasing them, ending in metal gauntlets. The metal was whisper-thin on my fingers, making it hard to tell that I was wearing them, and not interfering at all with my fine dexterity.
It was nice that I no longer had my biceps exposed to the air. While not a vital target, Legion doctrine held that they didn’t need specific armor, and that doctrine flowed to the Rangers, and the Sentinels as a result. Having them covered felt weird, but I was sure I’d get used to it.
I was used to a leather skort, with strips of metal hammered onto it to protect my legs. While the dwarves had kept the same design, they’d replaced the leather with metal, the skort reaching past my knees. Tall knee-high boots protected my shins and feet, carefully articulated to allow my full, flexible range of motion.
The helmet was open-faced, with a secondary “soft” metal that carefully wrapped around and protected my neck. It was in the dwarven style, with my requests and crude drawings of how my helmet looked seemingly entirely ignored.
“Sorry about the helmet. Smith said your design was, and I quote ‘Stupid and will get her killed.’, and insisted on doing his own thing.”
I looked at the open-faced part.
“Did he remember I don’t have a beard?” I asked Korun.
He coughed awkwardly.
“Yes… but said that you were good stuff, and you’d grow yours back in eventually.”
I rolled my eyes at that. Some people thought they knew better, and in some respects, the smith was probably right. He probably knew helmets and protection better than I did.
In others, it created blind spots. Like “Human women don’t grow beards” just went in one ear and out the other.
The suit itself was a work of art. The [Smith] was something of an artisan though. In delicate silver, melded and meshed with the armor itself, smooth to the touch but easy on the eyes, were flowery whorls and artistic flourishes. The endlessly spiraling patterns that I saw the dwarves liked to use in their buildings were repeated in the armor, and I believed I could spend hours upon hours tracing their intricate patterns.
Still. It didn’t make up for Korun lightning-bolting me not thirty minutes ago. At the same time, I wasn’t going to show my displeasure.
“Thank you Korun! It’s wonderful.” I gushed, entirely honest about it. I started doing some stretches with it, and decided.
Now was the time.
“Mind if I stay here and practice with it?” I asked Korun. “I don’t want to trip over myself when something bad happens.”
“Of course!” Korun said, all smiles that I seemed to be happy. “I’ll let Thoren know. You’re right that you’ll need the practice. The armor’s got a number of passive enchantments in it, all centered around durability. Smith didn’t think you knew how to connect to active enchantments. Since all you need the armor for is staying alive long enough for someone else to cover you.”
I closed my eyes at that, resisting the urge to massage the bridge of my nose. It was good armor. Made by a master. Completely free.
“Thank you again Korun. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this.”
We made some more small talk, heading back to the main training room, where Korun made his excuses and left me with just Thoren and his group. We spread around the room, the guards breaking up into pairs or just squaring off against some training dummies. I idly made a few [Kaleidoscope] butterflies playing around my head, watching them as I did some serious last-second thinking.
I wasn’t going to ask anyone to show me cool skills, in an attempt to squeeze an extra level out of [Butterfly Mystic]. No time.
Right. First things first. Free stats.
[Free Stats: 164]
My Magic stats were absurd. Putting free stats into them wouldn’t make a single lick of difference. No, physical stats was where I’d get any sort of use.
One number sprang out at me after a few moment’s thought, and I felt like the world’s biggest moron for not noticing it.
My dexterity was unbalanced.
I had enough dexterity to properly control 7064 speed. I had 7234 speed. I hadn’t noticed, because it wasn’t like I went off a cliff the instant I was unbalanced, nor had I been pushing my speed hard enough to notice it.
My strength was now somewhat noticeable, but when push came to shove, I didn’t think I’d be rolling any boulders out of the way. I was planning on being somewhat sneaky, and dexterity would help with that and not twisting my foot at a bad moment.
I put all 164 points into dexterity.
Onto my free general skill slot.
This was the time and place. The only question was - [Sneaking] or [Sprinting]?
After a brief thought, I went with [Sneaking]. If I was in a mad, all-out dash, I was already doomed. No, being sneaky was the name of the game here. [Invisibility with Eyeholes], combined with [Scintillating Ascent] would -
My mental gears came to a screeching halt.
MY THRICE-CURSED WINGS WERE MADE OUT OF RADIANCE!
I didn’t have the spare gems to test it - not with how valuable each of the three [Invisibility with Eyeholes] skills were - but I’d bet my last coin that my wings would not only stick out of the shroud of invisibility, but because they were made out of Radiance, they’d utterly shred the illusion to pieces.
Fine. Flying out was off the table. Well, flying while invisible.
Plus, it’d make me the BIGGEST target. Nobody flew in the city, not even with all the neat buildings and relatively large spaces carved into the mountain. It just wasn’t done, and I knew people here had the levels and stats to support it.
It did irk me to get a general skill that I’d owned once upon a time. That was a real bummer.
I “hid” behind one of the orc statues, and focused on sneaking to hide behind the next one.
[*ding!* Congratulations! You’ve unlocked the General Skill [Sneaking]! Would you like to take the skill? Y/N]
Honestly, basic skills from the System were almost too easy.
I mentally willed myself to take the skill, and it slotted neatly into the skill slot. I then did a little bit of sneaking around, watching the initial levels skyrocket, thanks to [Passionate Learning] and the stress I was having over escaping.
There was an added benefit to moving like this. The armor I had was entirely new to me, and I needed to move with it
[*ding!* [Sneaking] has leveled up! 1-> 11]
However, time was rapidly ticking away, and I didn’t want most of the guards to be ready and waiting for me to finish up when I made my move. Then they’d be ready to try and catch me - or, as they probably thought about it, “move to protect me.”
I could believe that the average guard here genuinely believed I wanted to be here, and would genuinely think she was protecting me as she tried to catch up and keep me safe.
Time was ticking. Last up was my exit plan.
I didn’t know where the main exit was. From snippets I’d overheard, it was on the far side of the city, and “closed”. Rumors were mixed if it was closed because of Lun’Kat’s attack, the orcs - I had no idea what that logic was all about - or because it was straight out winter, and the snow was piled so deep against the doors that the dwarves didn’t bother opening it.
Either way, option A was to try and cross a busy, crowded city, while invisible, hoping nobody bumped into me, find the mysterious exit, and figure out how to open the doors.
Option B was to head back towards the mines and tunnels. The dwarves would scream bloody murder at me calling it “mines” - apparently, there were multiple distinct layers of said mines, with only one of them being proper “Mines.”
I didn’t care about the minute details of tunnel-boring. They were mines.
I had a plan to enter said mines, but no plan on exiting. Vaguely, I had thoughts about seeking out another dwarven city, saying hi, being let in, not letting them know how good of a healer I was, then walking out through their front door. It wasn’t the best of plans, but it was a plan. Alternatively, I could try to reverse-engineer where we’d dropped into the mines, then fly out with [Scintillating Ascent]. The drop was tight, but I should have enough room.
I walked over to Thoren.
“Hey!” I called out.
“Elaine. Do you need a sparring partner for something?” I can ask someone if you’d like.” Thoren said. “Or would you like to look at my skills?”
It was a fair question, given that I’d bugged half the guards for help with [Butterfly Mystic]. One thing I’d failed to consider when getting the class - asking people to see their skills, the general privacy most people kept about their skills and classes, and my utter lack of social skills was a bad mix.
I shook my head.
“No, just letting you know I’m going to be trying some blinding skills out. Don’t want anyone to be taken by surprise.” I said.
Thoren gave a bit of an unhappy look.
“That does throw a bit of a wrench into everyone else’s training.” He said.
“Yeah, but…” I gave him my best harmless kitten eyes. “You all get time off to practice stuff. I don’t.”
Thoren made a noise of assent, stroking his beard.
“Yes, right, that is unfortunate. Right then, go ahead.”
I mentally - and since I could, physically - pumped my fist. I walked over to a corner - near the door - and started flashing my lights as brightly as I could.
I wasn’t using [Lantern], not wanting to risk some residual remains from a specifically anti-illusion skill for what I had planned, but I did push the brightness from my [Radiance Conjuration] to the max, while keeping the burning part minimal, as I started flashing the skill rapidly, making myself into a blinding strobe light as I walked to the door.
I checked that the door was indeed open and unlocked.
I put my hand on the doorknob, and took a deep breath, my heart pounding in anticipation.
Then I flashed my Radiance for the last time, blew my [Invisibility with Eyeholes] gem, threw open the door, and I was off!