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“Mlflrgng.”

 

“I apologize for disturbing you. Your… drake… is exploring the Feather. We are concerned.”

 

“Ah, shit!”

 

She had completely forgotten about Arthur!

 

Viv jumped out of the bed and rushed out, only to realize that she did not know where to go. Fortunately, her dragonling could be easily found from the piteous squeals she let out. Viv rushed downstairs and fell nose to nose with a powerfully-built man with a thick beard. He was only wearing leather trousers.

 

Their eyes met.

 

[Temple guard, very dangerous, follows a path dedicated to righteous combat. Expert sword fighter.]

 

The man must have done the same, because his eyes widened slightly. He bowed a bit before retreating into his room.

 

That was another strange thing specific to Niyl. Back in her world, a trained man with this physique could have overwhelmed her. Here, one look at her and he could see that she was a caster, therefore, more dangerous. It was no exaggeration either. No matter how strong he was, she could simply use a fully powered Bzzt! to the face, and the horrible pain of ravenous black mana tainting his body would instantly disable him. He would eventually die from it too.

 

Viv shook her head and followed the squeaks to a panicked Arthur. One of the younger employees was keeping an eye out at a safe distance.

 

“Arthur! I’m so sorry. Come here.”

 

The worried thing was coming out of a storage space. She jumped to Viv who receptioned the flying pet out of habit.

 

“Ow ow ow.”

 

Arthur readjusted her posture. The claws had almost pierced Viv’s skin even without the creature trying. That was another thing. Here, monsters were the ultimate danger to civilization.

 

Except Arthur, of course, she was just too cute.

 

The girl who had followed Arthur babbled what sounded like an apology, with Yan adding to it. Viv did not use that opportunity to act all imperious. The tiny monster getting all fussy was her fault, after all, so bitching about it would have been a major dick move.

 

Five minutes later, she was back in her room with Arthur sleeping soundly on a couch and Solfis’ silent frame placed against a wall. A table had been set in the center, with dishes being brought one by one by Yan. There was fresh dark bread, a broth made with salty meat and tubers which turned out to be quite savory, grilled greens that were rather tasteless and a strange dish made of rehydrated pickled fish she found absolutely fucking vile.

 

“It’s a staple food in the northern city-states,” the courtesan offered as a way of apology.

 

The poor things.

 

He also served her a beer equivalent in a small glass, which she drank in moderation. She really could not afford to get tipsy and let things slip.

 

Dessert was fruits in a syrupy sauce. Some were sweet and tangy, others very smooth and reminded her of apricot. She recognized the peculiar almondy taste of the red one.

 

“Permonn.”

 

“Church rations often include permonn, Lady Bvibviane. They own many orchards across Enoria.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

She guessed now was a good time to ask about the local landscape.

 

“Tell me about Kazar.”

 

“Of course. Kazar started as a temporary settlement around the millennial tree standing at its center. The ancient being made the air purer around itself, chasing away the black mana. Nowadays, the deadlands have retreated a bit and border stones prevent most of it from passing through so it does not matter that much anymore, however, Kazar has not forgotten its origins and even now bears its benefactor on our official coat-of-arms. The current population stands at around two thousand, with more than half living on a thin band of arable land between the forest and the desert. You must have seen many farms on your way here, if you came from the north?”

 

“Hmm, yes.”

 

Damn, she did not expect the full encyclopedia entry. Was the courtesan really in tune with her? Was that what she was looking to hear?

 

Actually, yes. He proved it by continuing exactly in the direction she wanted.

 

“Our main productions are food and ‘cotton’.”

 

It was not cotton but a plant equivalent. That’s just how it appeared in her mind.

 

“As well as earthenware. We are far from most trading routes, and passing through the forest can only be done every month or so with a heavy escort. We are still the largest place at the edge of the deadlands, so we get a lot of high-ranking people stationed around visiting for relaxation and to receive orders or intelligence from the church office.”

 

“Okay…”

 

“As for notables, we have four major players you will meet if you stay here for a while.”

 

Viv did not ask why they would do so. If they had only one true caster in the city, then another one would obviously be of interest to, well, everyone.

 

“Captain Corel is the head of the guards here. He is mostly interested in keeping the monsters at bay and the town secured. His task is made delicate by the coming and going of powerful fighters from many different lands. It doesn’t help that some of them are currently at war. Next, uh, mayor Ganimatalo. Her family was from the north originally. They love their long names.”

 

Indeed, that was a mouthful. Yan took a break in the conversation to top up her water, his gestures calm and graceful.

 

“She has been our headwoman for two decades now, and done a good job of it. I swear that she has the blessing of Sardanal, the god of wealth, himself. Or perhaps Emeric. We have grown quite a bit thanks to her initiatives. The next is the authority of the church here, master Farren. He is no fighter, actually, but a brilliant administrator. His job is to make sure that no fort remains unmanned and no soldiers unfed. Though, his greatest achievement could be how he manages so many massive egos. Many of his troops are volunteered from nearby regions, you see.”

 

“Not all of them are willing?”

 

“It is, forgive my words, a shit assignment. So, no.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Last but not least, Lady Vvarska. Forgive me, we Baranese do not usually say that sound. She is a court mage, quite far in her path and as dangerous on the battlefield as she is on the negotiation table. Seeing as you two have much in common… Forgive me, I do not mean to presume. You are both travelers who came here rather than local mages. Her circumstances are unfortunate.”

 

“How so?”

 

For the first time since they met, Yan displayed signs of unease.

 

“It is no secret that she was exiled here from Helock on penalty of death. She has acquitted herself of her duties very well, however. No complaints.”

 

“What are her duties, anyway?”

 

This line of questioning clearly made the man uncomfortable. She could tell from the way he considered every answer before replying, and she suspected that it might be due to two things. Either gossiping about a spellcaster in front of another one was considered bad manners, or Lady Varska frequented this establishment. Possibly both.

 

“A court mage would normally advise rulers on matters of magic on top of being proficient themselves. They have a more general approach to magic, or so I was told. In this specific case, Lady Varska does meet with mayor Ganimatalo on occasion. Besides that, she handles and repairs enchantments and defensive spells around the city. Sometimes, she goes on purges with the rest of the church if they need to clear dangerous undeads. Besides that, I would not know. I suppose that you can ask her yourself when you two inevitably meet.”

 

“I understand. What about the church? They handle the mercenaries around here, right?”

 

“Yes. The Church of Neriad is the main employer of the small bands of mercenaries currently present on site. Rowdy bunch. We have three small companies right now, but they come and go with every season. Undead hunting is relatively safe, or so I was told, but it’s not very lucrative and the deadlands’ mana concentration takes its toll on even the heartier line breakers.”

 

“You mentioned that they also coordinate state troops?”

 

“State troops, yes. The mercenaries are paid to thin the herd around the largest population centers. The church’s warriors and, errr, volunteers, play a more defensive role. Sometimes, they launch large-scale extermination columns. Those are rare though, on account of the logistics involved. Most of the time they focus on scouting and information gathering. Their main fort holds a retinue of temple guards and holy warriors for when a swift attack is required, like necromancers gathering a large force.”

 

Where were those fuckers at then? Useless pricks. She would go to the temple and request their wages since she had done their fucking jobs for them.

 

“Are you considering employment with the church? As an affiliated mercenary?”

 

She considered hiding the truth mostly out of habit. It took her a second to realize that it would be counterproductive here.

 

“Yes. I worked with the Baranese and my contract is finished. I was hoping to get some more resources before I leave.”

 

Yan nodded. She could almost see the gears turning in his head.

 

“You might want to go to the church office first thing in the morning tomorrow then. I will have someone guide you. Oh, and be advised that a free caster is a valuable rarity in those parts. The church might not be rich but their reach is long. I am sure that they can find a suitable compensation for someone of your rare talents, even if you are still early on your path.”

 

He could tell? Perhaps the inspection skill revealed quite a bit more to those who practiced it a lot.

 

The discussion died down after that. Viv asked about local clothiers and got a recommendation, then about smiths and was informed that the local ones only did repairs on account of how difficult it was to procure iron ingots. Some stores did sell weapons and armor, however, and she took note of a few. Viv assumed that the discussion would peter out, however, Yan surprised her once more.

 

“Would you care for a massage?”

 

She hesitated, and Yan reacted immediately.

 

“I remember the boundaries that you set.”

 

“Hmm. Why not?”

 

So that was a good idea. Apparently, courtesans had a skill to use little doses of magic to relax muscles and soothe aches. It was like being treated at a super high-end spa facility using state of the art technology at ten thousand euros a pop or something. The stuff of billionaires. Yan soon left her in a puddle on the bed, finally relaxed after weeks of stress. She waited for him to leave before rolling on her back.

 

“That went better than I expected.”

 

//Indeed, Your Grace.

//I am pleased to see you doing better.

//You were suffering from battle fatigue, and clearly needed a rest.

//You still do.

//With the funds at our disposal, I suggest that we take it easy for a few weeks, away from the deadlands.

 

“I wanna visit the forest, and so does Arthur.”

 

//Yes, Your Grace.

//We should hire a local guide before doing so.

//Learning of the local fauna is the first step in any successful expedition.

//And by successful, I mean that the expedition members actually return.

 

“Fair enough. First stop, the church and mercenary office. Then I want to buy some knickers!”

 

//Fascinating, Your Grace.

 

“Hey!”

 

//We will also resume a more long-term oriented training now that your immediate survival is no longer at risk.

 

“You think that the locals will give us trouble?”

 

//They will ask questions, Your Grace.

//However, I came to the realization that both our status are occulted.

 

“What does that mean?”

 

//Something powerful prevented a full analysis of the both of us.

//Investigator Tars knows of me, but not of how dangerous I truly am.

//I find it curious, but not unexpected.

//I suspect that the entity responsible for your… unexpected arrival… is keeping you protected from scrutiny.

 

“Huh. I thought that, you know, they didn’t care?”

 

//I doubt it.

//The obfuscation and the divine spark of luck say otherwise.

 

“Yeah, well, can’t they, I don’t know, talk to me? At all?”

 

//You may not communicate with the divine with a wounded soul, Your Grace.

 

“Ok. War council. What do I do?”

 

“Squee!”

 

Viv sighed and stood up. She grabbed a long cut of fresh meat and brought it to Arthur’s nest, now reinforced with a looted towel. A clawed arm lashed out and grabbed the offering, which disappeared in a reptilian maw.

 

Viv returned to the bed and sat there.

 

“Ok, war council, what do I do besides feeding her adorableness, the squeaky Arthur?”

 

“Squee!”

 

//You made no secret that you wanted to learn what had brought you here.

//And possibly return to your world.

 

It bothered her a bit that Solfis simultaneously agreed to help her leave while also repeating that he would turn her into a local power. The two proposals contradicted each other.

 

“Yes.”

 

//You either need to heal your soul and ask the gods for answers, or research teleportation and interdimensional travel.
//Unless the power of priests has drastically increased in the past three centuries, both projects will require access to extremely powerful people.
//A wounded soul cannot be mended as easily as a scuffed knee.
//It should cost more than money to access relevant resources.
//I suggest that we find out about current Param’s greatest repositories of knowledge, and obtain access.
//We should also find the greatest agents of faith and obtain access.
//Both tasks should require considerable influence.
//You will need to become a significant player.

 

“Can’t I just leverage the fact that I am an outlander and ask for help?”

 

//You may, and it could work.

 

“But?”

 

//But you would need to find a benevolent, powerful person with time on their hands and an unwillingness to use your outlander nature to their advantage, all while dodging people who do not like the turmoil your kind inevitably brings about.

 

“Yeah, ok, I get it.”

 

The truth was that this was a dog eat dog kind of world. If she had not been a caster, she would have died several times. Even if she had appeared next to the town, her value as an unknown stranger would have been dismal. No path at the ripe age of twenty-four. No family. No support. She would have suffered more and far longer. Now, at least, she had an easy way to gain power thanks to magic.

 

Magic would open the doors she needed. Magic, and intelligent networking.

 

And being powerful, respected, and dangerous was an end in itself. Let’s not forget that.

 

“So, I need to find out all the reasonably available people or places that could help me, then create an actionable plan to get there.”

 

//Yes.

//And in the meanwhile, you will train.

 

“Yes, yes. Say, why are you helping me leave? You know that’s what I’m aiming for, yes?”

 

//I estimate that, should you be successful in your quest, it will take five years to manage to return home.

//Not least because you will be disintegrated when passing between worlds.

//And it takes a mighty soul or powerful divine help to recombine on the other side.

//And your previous world had no magic.

 

Five years?

 

FIVE. YEARS?

 

Five fucking years?

 

Jesus.

 

Five years. You could go from single to married with two kids in that time span. You could go from freshly entering university to graduating with a master degree. You could finish several tours. Or die. You could learn an instrument to near perfection.

 

Five years.

 

Fuck.

 

//I see that this realization distresses you.

//If I may offer a measure of comfort, your lifespan right now is closer to two years without help.

 

“WHAT?”

 

//Your attunement currently sits at 15.1%

//You will die or successfully turn partly elemental long before going back home becomes an option.

 

“That was your attempt at comfort?”

 

//I was informed that a proper distraction could drive one’s mind away from distressing circumstances.

 

“Yeah, but not towards my inevitable death?”

 

//It is not inevitable.

//Merely an important hurdle on your path to power.

//A change that drastic should also facilitate your disintegration and recombination.

 

“Who taught you that, anyway? Is psychological advice part of that big database of yours?”

 

//No.

//I was...compelled by circumstances.

//I sought to understand my maker, Irlefen.

 

Viv kept silent as Solfis offered, for the first time, an outlook into his past that did not involve him killing something.

 

//Irlefen was a peculiar man, with many strange habits that others did not share.

//He suffered a lot from his difference and the isolation it brought.

//He was immensely respected for his talent, hard work, and his reliable work ethics.

//But he had only two friends and they often left the capital.

//I knew that I was special as soon as I interacted with the other golems.

//He made me special.

//We were both unique and apart from our kin.

//I had a… drive to understand him more.

//It was the first time that I pursued a goal that was not imposed upon me by others.

//Our similarities would help me understand my own nature.

 

“You wanted to understand yourself better?”

 

//I was designed for self-improvement.

//The acquisition of path-related knowledge led to the conclusion that self-improvement required an understanding of the self first.

 

“Wow. Ok.”

 

Viv did not expect this amount of insight from the flesh-hating, book-hoarding terminator.

 

“And you learned how to distract people in distress from him?”

 

//Yes.

//Irlefen was subjected to bouts of intense melancholy.

//But mentioning some topics usually improved his general condition.

//Such as gardening.

 

“Gardening?”

 

//Yes.

//Irlefen kept one of the most renowned flower gardens in the capital

//His creation equaled that of respected pathmasters.

//He… took the time to show me many of his works.

//I had to take great care not to crush anything with my frame.

 

“He kept you at his house? I thought you were stationed in a base?”

 

//Not while the city lived.

//He was the one who knew how to best calibrate and repair me.

//I only visited the base to use their charging stations

 

“I had no idea. It feels like he was… important to you.”

 

//Yes.

//He was.

//I exist, as Solfis, because of him.

//Not the thirteenth strike golem in the Imperial arsenal.

//Solfis.

 

“He really was more than just an inventor to you, huh.”

 

How could she continue this conversation? How much empathy should she express for one who was so different?

 

//Are you trying to express concern for my well-being?

 

“Well, yeah.”

 

//I appreciate it.

//Empathy expressed, returning to main task.

//Please create a list of every item you believe is required for your well-being, such as something to clean your mouth.

//Finally, we need a medium-term base from whence to operate in relative peace.

//The church compound will not do.

//We should try not to be overheard.

 

“Or they will figure out that you are a war golem?”

 

//Yes.

//And a passing tamer far on his path will realize that you are not one of them.

//And that Arthur is not a marsh drake.

 

Protect the cute one!

 

“Alright, they must have houses for rent with all those transients, we just have to find one of them. We could even—”

 

Viv’s sentence was interrupted by a couple climaxing in a nearby room.

 

“We could not stay here.”

 

//It would be too expensive, Your Grace.

 

“Yes. That. Anyway, I will rest for tonight.”

 

//Indeed.

 

Viv played with mana shaping until she ran out of juice, then with Arthur until the little beast ran out of patience, then finally read the bestiary until she ran out of interest. The only interesting discovery she made was that tribes of bottom-feeders called beastlings were the most common type of monsters in almost every region of Param. They were primitive beings the size of a large kid who could craft basic tools and reproduce very fast, with beastial features and simian bodies. Although never dangerous to a full-sized city, they were probably the main killers of lone travelers and wayward children. As to why lone travelers were a thing in a world with a fucked up food chain, she had no idea.

 

Yan came back for dinner, which was light with a soup and a dense cake with a sugary frosting that was at the halfway point between a brioche and an unmortared brick.

 

“I noticed that some of your girls were… rather young,” she could not help but mention.

 

“Ah yes, you met our trainees. Rest assured that we do not practice slavery. All of our younger members join willingly until they find another situation or decide to fully commit.”

 

“Find another situation? How does that work, exactly?” Viv asked with a mix between curiosity and horror.

 

“We accept attractive candidates who work with us for a while. When they have saved enough money, or if they find a richer husband, they leave. Many will buy land around here, on the frontier, and settle with newly come farmers or retiring soldiers.”

 

Viv prodded the man a bit more. She could tell that her questions surprised him, and yet he answered them with tact and professionalism. She wondered, with magic, if there was a parity between male and female fighters.

 

It happened that people here on Param tended to have a lot of children. Pregnant women could not fight or train with the same intensity as their child-free counterparts, and so female soldiers or mercenaries were less common. Yan mentioned a major female knight order dedicated to the god of death, Enttiku, so it was more trend than law.

 

That trend did not apply to dedicated casters. They could do whatever they wanted, on account of being one-person-power-multipliers-slash-heavy-ordinance-delivery-systems. Yan proceeded to mention how he was in the city of Kerevan, in eastern Enoria, when it was attacked by monsters. The local mages had stepped up to the battlements and obliterated the incoming horde in only a minute. They were that impactful.

 

Of course, she was still far away from that, but she also remembered how she had killed creatures like crawlers without trouble. They had been fast and dangerous. And she was still ‘early on her path’ as people here said.

 

Viv went to bed that night realizing that Solfis had, indeed, successfully distracted her.

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Mecanimus

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