A minute later, Viv stood with some difficulty at the threshold of her tower, with Arthur clinging to her like a koala to its eucalyptus. The courtyard was a scene of utmost savagery. Dismembered crawlers, revenants, and puppeteers lay on the ground in pieces no larger than a chair. She could have walked from one wall to another without ever touching the ground. On the battlements, Solfis was butchering his way through the last foes.
It was a humbling moment.
The reality that a kingdom could fall to monsters in three days had remained a myth until now, something that belonged to the realm of legends. Now, she could clearly believe it. Solfis had himself admitted that he was not even the most dangerous creature around.
She briefly wondered how he would fare against a modern army. A concerted effort could certainly take him down, but at what cost? He was freakishly fast. Worse, his motions were completely unpredictable, going from upright one moment, to head down, left arm planted on the ground and the three other limbs shredding flesh the next. Just watching him made her head spin.
Solfis was quickly done. She saw his yellow glare rest on her for a moment before he went over the wall and the sounds of the massacre resumed.
Even Arthur’s squeals were subdued.
Cernit walked to the battlement and she followed with the others. A door opened on the side, but it was just the cook who had managed to hide, apparently. It brought the number of surviving soldiers to six. Out of fifteen.
She shook her head and joined the lieutenant to see what was going on.
Turned out, it was more of the same.
Solfis was no longer cleaning everything . He was now making his way to the necromancer duo by cutting a bloody path through the waves of monsters they were throwing at him in desperation. It wasn’t working. What he didn’t kill, he merely used as springboards to move faster.
Eventually, he arrived within reach and the man screamed something she did not quite get. Two rays of black and red energy emerged from the necromancers’ hands at the same time. They struck the golem and he stopped moving.
Slowly, the energy covered the frame in its strange radiance. Cernit frowned and placed a hand on his sheathed sword. Viv touched his shoulder, and shook her head.
The radiance spread and spread. The necromancers kept pouring energy in their beam. Solfis’ chest slowly opened to reveal the core.
The male necromancer screamed words of encouragement.
This went on for a little while, then the spells petered out as the two casters fell to their knees. The red light disappeared and Solfis’ ribcage snapped close.
//ENERGY RESERVES INCREASED TO 9%
//THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION.
He managed to be mocking with a mechanical voice.
The war golem bent his chest forward and struck. His left claw tore the man in half. At the same time, his right foot whipped out and punched the woman’s head off clean.
The horde instantly turned to chaos. They lost focus and direction.
Solfis grabbed a crawler and decapitated it in a slow and gruesome manner. The others jumped away, animated by some instinct of self-preservation. Slowly, the golem made his way back through the fleeing stampede. He ignored the half-broken gate and climbed the sheer wall by simply stepping on it. His claws dug into the old rock like it was made of wet sand.
His gaunt form topped the battlement. The ancient warrior stood before Viv in all his horrific, gore-covered glory. A crimson claw raised above her head, still dripping with the fresh blood of their foes.
//I had missed this, Your Grace.
//Not just battle. Movement. Autonomy.
//Fulfilling the purpose for which I was made by my creator, Irlefen.
His yellow glare descended on her.
//I spent three hundred years stuck in a dead city, killing its erstwhile inhabitants.
//Day after day, the people I had sworn to protect turned into more twisted creatures.
//I saw my reserves dwindle.
//I tried so hard, and for so long.
//Then you came.
//And now, you gave me a body, and a new purpose.
Solfis slowly bent, until he was on one knee with a clawed hand gathered in a fist resting on his skeletal chest. His terrifying glare bore into her soul, but Viv was unafraid. She knew he could kill her now, just as she knew that he would never do so. It was a gut feeling, one that came from attending political rallies with her father. She had seen it before.
//This unit, no, I, Solfis, swear to repay you for this second life I was granted.
//We will accomplish great things together.
The other humans were staring at the deadly entity before them, unsure as to how to react. Viv lifted a hand, and touched the forehead rune where her bloody fingerprint shone magma red. Something told her that it was no longer just blood.
“I would be dead without you, Solfis, so yes. Together.”
The golem stood back fluidly. It walked in its alien yet graceful gait back to the tower before disappearing into the entrance.
The humans, Cernit included, watched him go. Their fearful gazes traveled from her, to the dragonling now wrapped around her shoulders, to a piece of the wall behind her. She turned around and saw that an entire section of the battlements had been… sanded. Heavily. Only naked, polished rock remained over a length of thirty paces, at the very least. Not a corpse or a speck of ash had been left behind.
She recognized the site of her blight spell.
Intimidation: Intermediate 1
The day was won, the fort was saved, and victory tasted like carrion and charred meat. The stench stuck like a film on Viv’s tongue as she and the others retrieved pieces of friends from the deserted battlefield. Solfis had retreated to his alcove to conserve energy. It was up to them to drag monsters in a pile before the black mana sneaking in through the breached gate could reach critical mass and reanimate the fallen army. Here and there, they found the remains of fallen comrades. Those were gathered separately, with care.
Viv tried to find Jor, but she soon found the task to be impossible. His remains had been covered by another layer of corpses, all now burning and smoking in a single grey mass. She could not even recognize where exactly she had seen him fall. It all looked the same to her.
They did find Benetti, or what was left of him. She and Cernit gathered the parts with as much reverence as they could manage. Cernit picked up the enchanted sword, still embedded in a dead crawler’s face. He sheathed it and tied a rope around the hilt.
“Family,” he simply said. Viv understood.
“Ir Leias Benetti,” she stated. She thought that he conveyed who he was now, having redeemed himself through the sacrifice of his life. At least, she thought that he had.
“Yes. Ir Leias Benetti,” Cernit replied. He closed his eyes and Viv noticed a tear there. She… could not muster one. The exhaustion of the past few days had fully caught up to her. It left her with sluggish thoughts and a sort of deep wariness that she could not express with words. The past two weeks had been so harrowing, she thought that if she stopped now to think about it, she would fall apart.
They found that the last horse had survived. The necromancers had concentrated their forces on the humans. Or perhaps, they had hoped to gain a mount. It no longer mattered.
It took them an hour to make a pile for the monsters and a line for the lost. They set the pile ablaze with their last flaming bricks. For the lost, they built a pyre with every piece of furniture in the fort, and lit it up. Cernit led the survivors in prayers. She could not follow what he said, but she heard him refer to an entity called Enttiku, who she assumed was a god of the dead.
Quite a few of the men cried. They simply broke down where they stood in a sort of huddle. No attempt to maintain decorum, which she thought was rather nice. She sat at the back feeling a bit awkward and isolated. They were still strangers to her despite the shared ordeal.
The ceremony was over and Cernit let the remaining soldiers take some time to recover. He gestured towards her tower. Once inside, he walked up to Solfis, who had returned to his ‘compact’ form. His two yellow orbs were on them as they came in. Cernit almost sat on her bed in his tiredness, but he changed his mind at the last moment and took a chair instead.
The old knight collapsed and stayed there for a few moments, gathering his thoughts. Viv dropped Arthur on her bed in the meanwhile. Her companion looked a bit bothered, she coiled in her usual spot, but her eyes remained open and cautious.
After a minute, Cernit started to talk and Solfis translated.
The old knight explained that, with the fort breached, the enchantments keeping the black mana at bay could not be repaired with what they had on hand. The tower itself ran on a separate spell and could protect people, but he would not force the eight of them plus Arthur to live in this limited space together for the six weeks left before the scheduled change of guards, living on cold food. They had done their duty. It was time for others to do theirs.
Cernit explained his plan. He would leave the next day at dawn with Viv and her ‘followers’, trailing the sled behind them. Viv would keep the dead at bay and they would travel out of the deadlands. Cernit offered to drop her near the closest city, named Kazar. He would go on to the nearest base of the church of Neriad and report on the incident. Before Viv could ask, he explained that there would be ample interrogation and that she might as well be spared the hassle.
//Some members of the church follow paths that let them discern honesty from lies.
//They will be called to intervene in this instance.
//The thorough interrogation of knight Cernit will be enough to assuage their doubts.
//Some may still seek to talk to you, out of concern for safety.
//It will be a low priority task
//However, if you go there directly, you will be held until interrogated.
//It was standard practice three hundred years ago as well.
“I am an unknown spellcaster who arrived here through mysterious means. Would they not consider me a high risk?”
//With all due respect, Your Grace, you may be overestimating the danger you represent.
//Cernit can attest that you do not follow the path of necromancy, and that you helped soldiers of the church at risk to your own life.
//If things are the same as they used to be, you remain a minor concern.
“Compared to what?”
//Compared to a gravid redfin lizard eating an entire village, for example.
“You just made that up.”
//No, Your Grace, that was my third deployment.
Viv expressed her support for the idea, and Cernit ran outside. The soldiers started to move the remaining furniture outside and replace it with roll upon roll of covers which they spread on the ground to create a sleeping space. A partition was brought upstairs, to the lookout, to create latrines. The men then piled supplies and water in the corridor and through the stairs in preparation for their stay. The mood was morose, yet there was a general sense of relief that it was over.
Viv packed her stuff and reorganized the sled. Solfis walked himself to the makeshift construct, and settled in the ‘optimal position’, as he said himself. His few steps caused all humans present, except for Viv, to freeze in their tracks. Arthur grabbed her cover in her maw and remade her own nest at the back, squealing cutely at people passing too close. She really was like a wild kitten who only tolerated one human.
After dinner, Cernit gave her a pack filled with stuff. There were the official documents he had promised listing her as a mercenary in the service of the Church of Neriad, Baranese branch. He had also written a letter of recommendation in his native language that he asked her not to read in front of him with a light blush. She figured that it was stellar and that the proud knight was a bit shy. Finally, he handed her a fat purse filled with metal. It clinked nicely when she held it.
“Money,” he helpfully told her. She checked the contents and saw the glint of gold.
“You gave more,” she remarked. More than they had agreed on.
Cernit tried to explain but soon gave up and they returned to Solfis. Followed another discussion, where Cernit explained that they would receive a prize for slaying the necromancers and that this was simply her share. He had given her Jor and Benetti’s money and assured her that their family would receive the full amount. He would sort it out with the Church. That was fine.
The night was difficult for Viv. The others had let her keep the partition up, for which she was grateful, but their snores and whimpers stopped her from resting despite her exhaustion. It brought her back to the first few days of boot camp when she was not yet exhausted enough to immediately fall asleep. She woke up several times with a jolt, only to remember that she was no longer alone in the deadlands, and that other sounds were no longer revenants trying to gut her.
Or, at least not tonight.
They departed at dawn. Solfis stood up for ten seconds and cut a path through the wall of ashy limbs blocking their way outside of the gates, then they went down the ramp at a slow pace. The horde had almost fully dispersed, though the concentration of revenants was still high. There were no signs of elites, and Solfis explained that powerful revenants disliked sunlight.
Viv was still tender from the previous day’s exertion, and she preferred to kill the revenants in their path one by one. The spell was no longer taxing for her.
They stopped where the pair of necromancers had fallen. Their bodies were too damaged to turn to revenants, or at least not without months of energy seeping into the husks. Cernit climbed down and returned with two heads, placing the grisly trophies in a bag he attached to his saddle.
That was fucked up.
But hey, who was she to judge.
They moved on a bit until Cernit stopped at another spot. At first, she thought that what she saw were some of the debris the horde had left in its dispersal, but she was wrong. It was a very basic camp. They found some food, which was in an even worse state than what they had. They also found a few memorabilia bearing a sigil, which Cernit kept.
“Proof of who the necromancers were,” he explained. She remembered that inspection had mentioned ‘deposed ruler’ in its list of attributes. Perhaps some noble assholes somewhere would be glad to know that Viv and Cernit had found their missing murderous psychopaths.
Then, Cernit hit the jackpot. The pair had a coffer, which he opened before her. It was filled to the brim with precious metal minted in a wide variety of denominations.
“You keep,” he told her.
She considered refusing, but both Solfis and the knight insisted that it was hers by right of conquest or something.
//Cernit informs me that the coins were most likely looted from revenants.
//Those who fall in the wilderness often do so with their money unspent, and carry their purses here.
//You will have to change this into money you can use in the city we will go to, Kazar.
And that led to plenty of questions, which she asked Cernit with Solfis acting as an interpreter. They talked as they went on, the knight ignoring the occasional yoinky interruptions.
“Baran lies in the far east of the continent, as I mentioned. Kazar belongs to the local kingdom of Enoria, which used to be a major player until it broke into two, fifteen years ago.”
“What — yoink — happened?”
“The king went too far trying to purge the nobility after a failed coup. He had replaced a third of them with sycophants when one of his most supportive allies rebelled against him. They fought a bloody civil war for two years until the king died. He was succeeded by his son, and both sides retreated to lick their wounds.”
“Is that sort of thing common?”
“No. The longer a war is, and the more resources are diverted from monster hunting. Kingdoms embroiled in long wars stand the risk of losing entire cities.”
“People knew that and still revolted?”
She was not being judgemental, she was just curious. Cernit didn’t seem to mind. In fact, talking made him sit straighter. Perhaps it took his mind off the loss of his fellow knights.
“A country cannot survive if you kill of too many nobles. It is not just a question of administration. Nobles follow noble paths for which they are trained from early on. Lines of militias are well and good, but without commanders to bolster them, they are not used to their full potential. You can have as much light infantry as you want. An elite group of knights following a captain will plow right through it without stopping. It’s the same with monsters. Spears can keep them at bay, but you need archers wielding heavy bows to put arrow after arrow into their thick hides. Dedicated fighter who can split boulders with a single blow. Or mages.”
“Why follow the path of the militiamen or the soldier? Would it not make sense to have all-knights armies?” she asked as a formality, though she was reasonably certain of the answer. Cernit did not disappoint.
“Your family must have followed a merchant path,” he said without malice. “The armed forces have limited access to resources, always. It takes over twenty ingots of steel to outfit a single heavy infantry soldier like Jor used to be.”
To her surprise, Old Empire knowledge came with meanings associated with the word ‘ingot’. She judged that the full armor represented at least a hundred kilograms, perhaps more. It was insane.
“There is not enough metal to go around, even if kingdoms stockpile as much as possible. Artisans must also spend time creating specialized gear like the leather armor I am wearing now. Even if it does not protect much, it still takes two days for a skilled worker to create one, and that is with the chainmail and leather already prepared.”
“So militiaman is simply the best path to survive with whatever you have at hand?”
“Exactly. On top of fighting in formation with limited weaponry, that path allows them to go on longer without rest, food, or water. It drastically improves their survivability while Knight paths like mine focus on power. We all follow the path that will help us the most in our current circumstances, blessings to Nous!”
“Solfis, are there variations between two individuals sharing the same path?”
//Historically, Southern Empire infantrymen received path skills related to pikes, while those from the north relied on sword and shield.
She refocused the conversation on Enoria.
“Kazar is at the border between the two sides of the civil war, yes. The son of the previous king has made openings to reunite both parts of the kingdom, though to my knowledge they have failed. I would not worry too much, though. Kazar is a border town with a strong church and mercenary presence. It has no strategic value.”
“Tell me a bit more about Kazar. Why would there be a strong mercenary presence?”
“The Church of Neriad pays one iron bit per revenant head. Enterprising fellows use the city as a base to launch expeditions into the deadlands. You don’t need to bring back the heads either, the church will either send a representative to measure the efforts and exorcise the corpses themselves, or you can use a magic tool and touch burnt out husks of revenants you killed yourself. The task provides a stable income, though it’s nothing too exciting. There are other benefits though. The Church can be generous.”
“How rich are they anyway?”
“Neriad is worshipped almost everywhere, even more so than Maranor, the goddess of war. Many retired warriors leave assets to the Church in their wills, including land, vineyards, factories and so on. Between this, making powerful items from monster parts, and donations, the Church has enough money to pay those expeditions and more. They see it as an investment, since it’s cheaper to prevent revenants from massing than to soak up undead invasions.”
“With so many people working towards reducing their number, you would think that revenants would not be so numerous.”
“You would think so, but how many people die in the wilderness every year? Many monster victims have enough parts left to turn into revenants and walk all the way to the deadlands where the ambient mana sustains them indefinitely.”
“So long as this land remains steeped in black mana, only those who can resist its effects through magic or armor dare go beyond the ring of forts. ”
“I see. I had other questions, about money.”
Viv, in her amusing and helpless optimism, thought that the local currencies would follow a clean decimal system. It was, of course, completely stupid of her. Currency was a mess. Every kingdom minted their own, and valuable coins like gold were always cut with other stuff like copper, silver, or zinc. What a silver talent was worth could fluctuate according to the rarity of the base materials. To make matters worse, silver and gold were valuable because they held enchantments more readily. If a kingdom launched a massive armament project, the value of some materials could skyrocket and cause the value of coinage to inflate. It was a fucking mess. She already missed fiat money.
At least, the base stuff was pretty tame.
The base amount was the iron bit. Cernit showed her an Baranese bit, which was basically a small dark rectangle stamped with an emblem with a horse on it, or at least that was what he described it as. He told her that it was the Baranese coat of arms. Viv thought that it looked more like the shit emoji, but she supposed that artistic value did not matter that much for a low denomination.
An iron talent was five bits and the local one was a rectangle, through Barran minted round talents with a hole in the middle. Next came the silver talent, which was worth a bit more than thirty-five bits. Silver talents were fairly small. Gold talents were a bit larger and worth six silver plus some change, susceptible to the exchange rate. Above that, there were exotic currencies like silverite talents which were worth a fuckload of money, at least a hundred gold talents apiece, but those never really saw circulation.
Viv thought about the veritable fortune spent to create Solfis’ first body. He must have cost the yearly GDP of a small kingdom. She also remembered that she had about eight kilograms of silverite in the skis under her sled, which she had dragged from Harrak all the way here.
“You really have the mind of a merchant lord,” Cernit said appreciatively when she started to ask about what was worth what. She didn’t think it was anything special. She just didn’t want to get shafted by the first swindler to spot her foreign ass, especially because she had so much to buy.
Starting with underwear.
And a sharp razor, because she had tried that dress she had looted with her boots, and let’s just say that the yeti had a new competitor.
“The lowest daily salary is seven bits per day of work,” Cernit continued, taking her mind away from her developing pilosity. “Only day laborers, or those very early on their paths earn that little. An adult can feed themselves without suffering for six bits per day. A night in an inn costs around two iron talents, a bit more for a few mugs of beer.”
“How much for clothes?”
“A basic new shirt can set you back a silver. It can go as high as you like for fancy enchanted stuff. Second-hand, well, it depends. Currency is not used that much in smaller villages. People will barter for stuff.”
“If the lowest laborers earn seven bits per day and it costs around six to feed yourself, how do poor people raise families?” she asked. The math was easy.
“Well, those who earn that little as those who just started on a path, so they would be around thirteen. It’s rare for girls this young to get kids, though it happens. People usually earn much more when they start a family. An apothecary I know earns half of his wages selling contraceptives and ‘oops’ potions, as we called it back home.”
Cernit smiled sadly.
“The children of the poor have it the hardest. Most of them spend their days outside the walls of their towns to forage, or they earn a few bits every day doing menial tasks. Even the smallest monsters can kill them with ease. My brothers and I, we would spend our days hunting around the village to kill predators as soon as we got our paths, but there would always be something going through our patrols. Ratwolves. Foraging beastling parties. At least once per month, a child would go missing.”
Well, damn. That question sure ruined the mood.
“We were talking about money, yes? When knights are mobilized, we are paid a silver every two days for the trouble. We are also provided with decent gear if we cannot afford better. Of course, you need to have some basic equipment to train yourself and progress on your path before getting accepted, and not everyone can afford it.
She asked a few more questions related to price. Cernit turned sheepish when she asked about real estate since it was a ‘big city thing’ and he got his land from the local baron. People in villages also got arable land attributed by either their lord of the village council. Or they inherited it from their parents. A decent sword would cost around four silver talents if you were a private individual getting a new one. It would be a bit over twice that to have it enchanted at the most basic level to make it sharper. Magic was, she found, fairly cheap. At the most basic level.
This led her to ask Solfis about path distribution for casters.
//All humans practice magic at some level.
//You saw Cernit light fires, for example.
//Many paths include mana shaping in some measures, such as the apothecary Cernit mentioned.
//This extends to, for example, mana blades.
//Those are specialized soldiers who use minor casting as part of their fighting styles.
//Pure casters are significantly rarer.
//Less than one in a hundred has the potential.
//Back in the Old Empire, they congregated in larger cities.
//A village who produces a mage will receive a boon from the lord who takes them under their wings.
“I see. Can I use my position as a bargaining chip?”
//Yes, Your Grace.
//You should avoid joining a minor noble as their sworn servant, however.
//The lack of resources would severely stunt your growth.
“You just don’t want me ending as someone’s stooge.”
//You would not enjoy being someone’s stooge, Your Grace.
Indeed the fuck not. She had not been thrown into fantasy land to end up as someone else’s pedestal, not if she could help it. Especially with the awesome magic waiting at her fingertips. She would be dark Gandalfette or die trying. If she failed to return home.
She frowned when she realized that her first response had been magic, not finding her way back. Surely that meant nothing.
She kept asking Cernit a few more things, but the discussion quickly died out when she realized that he knew thirty-two ways to catch and cook the local frog, but could not say how much a dress cost to save his own goddamn life. He was also turning dour as the day went by and she wanted to respect his grief. They spent the entire day dragged by his gelding, who started trotting along with more vigor as soon as he realized that they were aiming for the big patch of green in the distance and away from things that could eat his ass in one gulp. Come to think of it, there were probably things in the forest that could also eat his ass in one gulp, but at least it would smell better.
They stopped in a fortified building for the night.
Contrary to her previous cache, this one was not as dusty as the Gobi desert. It had a nice firepit with dry wood prepared, some fresh water in a jar, and it was really, really heavily fortified. They slept in the same room for the sake of convenience and woke up at dawn. Viv was increasingly exhausted, yet the good knight didn’t seem tired, probably his high stamina. And he didn’t have to cast every minute or so.
The second day went on much like the first one, and they arrived at another way-house in the early evening. The edge of the deadlands were tantalizingly close now, just out of reach. She could feel the black mana density getting lower even through the inscribed leather covering her form. Even Arthur could barely take her attention away from the dense forest covering the horizon. It was the first time in her life seeing so much green, after all.
Even the revenants were rarer. Many of them were walking in the other direction.
“Will the deadlands eventually run out of black mana?” she asked as Cernit lit the fire. Solfis did not know, but to her surprise, the knight did.
“The deadlands have reached a sort of equilibrium,” he informed her distractedly, “so many undead monsters create a black field of their own. It would take several large-scale expeditions to kill enough of the buggers to dent it. No kingdom would dedicate so much resources to a worthless land that would take decades to recover, not when there are easier places to develop.”
She thought it was a shame, but the decision made perfect sense to her. Kingdoms were in survival mode. All the time.
In the morning of the third day, they passed a line of stones, and Cernit removed his leather armor. She imitated him. The feverish feeling of poison did not sting her skin. The mana here was normal.
They were out of the zone.
They climbed a gentle slope and the forest appeared below, in all its glory.
The line of trees started maybe ten kilometers away, a bit down from where they were. Halfway between the two points, a small town sat there, on top of a small elevation. Low walls encircled maybe a hundred structures of various sizes nestled around a lonely elevation, not much more than a small hill. Ribbons of smoke danced merrily in the morning air from so many cooking fires. There were farms all around, linked to the city by trails no larger than threads from up here. Tiny forms worked the barren fields in preparation for the spring seedings.
She could fucking cry.
Somewhere in the distance, a group of men followed a carriage dragged by a pair of horses.
A fucking bath.