The morning sun rose over a 4-story building that could only be called a mansion. It was painted in an eye-catching sky blue color, with the same slanted, red-tiled roof as most of the ground-based buildings in Azurvale. It had numerous windows that let in plenty of light, although a few of them seemed to have been boarded up from the inside. This grand building, known as the Central Consortium, was home to 8 different guilds who had a long-standing history of cooperation, mostly due to the fact they had no conflicting interests.
The Hidden Arrow trained Rangers and Rogues into scouts and the Knights of Elena provided heavily-armored combatants to serve as vanguards. The Maleficium mostly dealt with Warlocks, Witches and the odd Necromancer while the Blessed of Nyrie, their polar opposite, handled adventurers of a religious persuasion. The final two adventurer guilds were the Children of the Wild and the ominously-named Broken Mirror. The former consisted of Shamans, Druids, Monster Tamers and other Jobs that demanded a high affinity to nature. The latter attracted Wizards, Pyromancers, Cryomancers, Warlocks and any other Job that harnessed the raw, destructive power of magic.
Of course, it wasn’t just the adventurer guilds that were part of the Central Consortium, as the building also housed two groups of artisans. The Hammers of Horkensaft were a predominantly dwarven and gnomish guild that handled anything and everything to do with metal. Not just arms and armor, but also various tools and trade goods necessary for other craftsmen or the general populace at large. The other crafting-oriented guild was the Magus Emporium, which dealt with enchanting, alchemy and magic items in general, not to mention basic provisions and supplies necessary for long expeditions.
This Consortium building was a gathering spot where adventurers could form versatile teams to embark on difficult Quests or prepare for arduous journeys. They also benefited greatly from cross-guild training exercises that taught them to work together with others. It was important to be knowledgeable about other Jobs if adventurer parties hoped to combine and synergize their various Skills, Spells and Martial Arts to achieve the best effect.
However, this group-oriented approach was very different from the Empire’s policies that put emphasis on individual strength and achievement. It was widely believed in human culture that those who attain greatness through their own efforts were superior to those who only relied on others, and that such individuals would naturally find companions worthy of standing on equal ground with them. From the elves’ perspective, this mentality was reckless and unnecessarily promoted jealousy and betrayal. While they were right in that regard, the humans merely saw it as weeding out the weak. Those who took up arms, magical or otherwise, then got themselves killed on the field of battle only had themselves to blame. It was a ruthless culture, but it showed results as it produced many outstanding individuals over the Empire’s long history.
The people of the Ishigar Republic, on the other hand, simply did not have the luxury to ‘cull’ their own like that. The less numerous elves put emphasis on group tactics, preferring decisions that would benefit the whole rather than the individual. Bluntly put, they didn’t have much to work with, so they had to maximize what they had. It was cruel and unfortunate, but such was the reality they faced themselves with. Of course, they were convinced their ideology was the right one, despite centuries of conflict with the Empire saying otherwise.
Not that its people disliked it. Quite the contrary, actually. The living standard in elven cities and towns was markedly higher than that of dwarven or human settlements. Their way of life may not be the most suited when it came to military matters, but it spoke volumes for their civilization as a whole. They actually had a stable economy during times of peace, unlike the ever-expanding war machine that was the Empire.
It was this ‘group-first’ ideology that drove the Republic-based guilds to have much more extensive and more supervised training for people who were just setting out on their Jobs. While it was a more expensive and time-consuming process than that of Empire-based guilds, it allowed for a larger proportion of adventurers to survive until they were Level 25.
This was also the reason why a group of 10 men and women were lined up in a yard outside the Consortium building. The dirt beneath their feet was completely devoid of vegetation, as it had been walked on by so many pairs of legs that the dry ground had become akin to sand. All of them waited patiently for their Ranger instructor to arrive, and passed the time by chatting idly.
Well, except for one cat-eared beastkin girl that was sitting cross legged on the ground, breathing heavily.
“You ran all the way here again, didn’t you?” asked Lia while looming over her with a stern face. “You still would’ve been made to run a marathon again if Faehorn wasn’t running late himself!”
“Haah, haah, haah, please don’t, haah, tell him!” she pleaded between gasps for air.
“I won’t, but you seriously need to start waking up earlier!”
“I did! Haah, haah, I woke up right before dawn! It’s just that, haah, I had dropped one of my rings last night and, haah, spent way too long looking for it!”
The catgirl showed Lia the back of her right hand. A trio of plain-looking silver rings were on her index, middle and pinky finger.
“Those things? Come to think of it, you always have those on, don’t you? Are they enchanted or something?”
“Yeah, they have some weak magic on them, haah, but that’s not why I’m wearing them. Haah, haah, fuu… They’re mementos from my homeland, so I cannot afford to lose them.”
“Yeah. They’re very precious to me,” answered Keira with a soft smile while gently rubbing them with her left hand. She seemed to have finally stabilized her breathing.
“Well they don’t look like much, but I think they suit you.”
“Thanks. Rowie complained about them at first though,” she added with a bit of a pout.
“Rowie? Oh, your girlf- *Ahem* partner, right?”
“Yeah. She said they felt weird at first, but she’s gotten used to them by now.”
“Felt weird? What’s that supposed to- No! Nevermind! I don’t need to know!”
The slightly blushing elf waved her hands around to chase away the naughty image her imagination conjured up just now.
“Not like that!” protested Keira. “I meant when we held hands and interlinked our fingers!”
“Right! I knew that! I was definitely not thinking about anything lewd in the slightest!”
“Haha. Of course not! W-well…” stammered the bashful catgirl. “She did say that the cold metal actually felt nice when I-”
Lia sighed in the awkward silence that ensued. Keira was just too honest for her own good. She had trouble knowing when to draw the line when sharing about her personal life, probably due to culture shock. Elves were quite a bit more prudish than other people, after at all, so it was hardly unexpected. Lia offered to help her adjust on the cart ride yesterday, and the two had decided on using ‘TMI,’ short for ‘Too Much Information,’ to signal when she had gone too far.
“Alright everyone, sorry for the delay!”
Faehorn’s clear voice rang out from behind them, prompting the entire Ranger class to stand at attention. He briskly walked up to the front of the group and stood there with his arms crossed while carefully looking over each and every student. This much was his normal routine, but something was clearly off today, and not just because he was late. Instead of his impressive-looking scale armor, he wore what could only be described as a parade uniform. It consisted of a long, dark green overcoat, freshly pressed black trousers and black boots that were so polished one could see their own reflection.
He uncrossed his arms, put them behind his back and walked up to Keira, who reflexively stiffened up.
“Miss Morgana. I’ve given your stamina situation a lot of thought, and I’ve come up with a good solution.”
Despair welled up in the catgirl’s eyes at those words.
“Relax, I’m not making you run 40 kilometers a day. At least, not yet.”
She almost let out a sigh of relief, but it got stuck in her throat at those last few words.
“What’s your Level?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“14, mister Faehorn.”
“Okay, when you get to Level 20, I urge you to unlock the Fleet Footed Skill. It will help increase your overall stamina and reduce its consumption when you run or sprint. That’s when we’ll start doing 40 kilometers a day, just to help your Proficiency along.”
“Geh! D-do I get a say in this?!”
“Of course. You can do whatever you want, just so long as you don’t expect to ever graduate from my class.”
“... Understood, mister Faehorn,” she said while drooping her shoulders.
“Hahaha, worry not, kiddo! I’ll make a proper Ranger out of you yet!”
Faehorn walked back to the front of the class while they tried to stifle their giggling, and spoke in a loud voice.
“Now then. Today we’ll be having a special field trip! We’ll be heading towards the amphitheater to watch a few fights! The guild has kindly sponsored the tickets, so be grateful!”
Everyone present gave the instructor a strange look. They expected they wouldn’t be doing another hunting expedition, given Faehorn’s uncharacteristic tardiness and formal attire, but this was certainly not what they expected.
“Yes, what is it Miller?” asked Faehorn in response to the black-haired elf raising his hand. It was the power-leveler who came in first in the termite hunt the day before.
“Sir, I fail to see how this will be beneficial to us.”
“‘Fail to see,’ huh? Interesting choice of words, Miller! The fighter we’ll be watching is someone who I believe to be the natural enemy of us Rangers! Your first assignment for the day will be to closely study her fighting style and think up of any and all countermeasures!”
It would seem to be an observational and mental exercise, rather than a physical one. A good scout needed to be able to quickly analyze and gauge a situation, so this sort of practice was to be expected. The format was a bit odd, but none of the students were about to complain about getting free tickets to a fight.
“It’s not just us!” continued Faehorn. “A group of Warriors from the Knights of Elena and several Paladins from the Blessed of Nyrie will be joining us, so I expect each and every one of you to be on your best behavior!”
It suddenly made sense why the instructor was wearing that stiff-looking uniform. It was a well known fact that he and the Knights’ Warrior instructor called Hilda had some sort of old rivalry going and were constantly trying to outdo each other. ‘That old bat,’ as he called her, would definitely try to do show off in some way during this outing, so he didn’t want to feel left behind. Well, that and marching an armed group of people through the city was probably a bad idea.
Faehorn organized his class and made them leave their weapons and armor behind at the Hidden Arrow’s office. They set out in whatever casual underclothes they had on, but still wore the dark green tunic that bore the image of a downward-pointing arrowhead on each shoulder. They met up with a group of 14 adventurers that were similarly dressed in light clothing and wearing a uniform.
9 of them wore navy blue tunics with the image of a stone tower on their chests, which marked them as the Warriors they were told about. 5 of them were dwarves, while 3 more were human. The only elf in that group was a woman-shaped battering ram that was well over 2 meters tall.
The tunics of the remaining 5 were a dull yellow, and had a dark brown sickle - the symbol of Nyrie - on their right shoulders. These were obviously holy men and women in service to the Goddess. All of them were elves, much like the Ranger troupe if one were to ignore the highly conspicuous crimson-haired, tan-skinned, cat-eared-and-tailed girl that was smiling dumbly for no good reason.
Standing off to the side were two people who were probably their instructors. One was a tall, well built male elf that wore a uniform similar to Faehorn’s, only dyed in the colors of the Blessed of Nyrie. The other was a gray-haired and wrinkled dwarf woman in thick, full plate armor with a blue sash draped across her shoulder. She also had a short war axe on her hip and a large shield strapped to her back.
The two dozen apprentice adventurers and soldiers greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries. The students seemed to get along with each other for the most part, unlike their teachers. Faehorn and Hilda had already gotten into an argument regarding the dwarf being armed quite literally to the teeth. Surely there was no need to gear up so much for a peaceful outing. The Paladin instructor by the name of Lichter had to intervene and put an end to their squabble before the group could set out.
They walked along the elven capital’s streets, their procession turning more than a few heads, though mostly because of the dwarf in the noisy, clanging armor at the front and the curious sight of a cat-eared beastkin towards the rear. Keira spotted a rather drastic change in her surroundings at one point, as the wooden buildings with red-tiled roofs suddenly gave way to ones made out of stone or clay bricks. The people around the street were also of a considerably shorter stature.
The group had entered Azurvale’s Stone District. Keira had never been here before, so she looked around curiously at the dwarves and gnomes that milled about the place. There were also a fair bit more humans compared to her own neighborhood, and she even saw a short, dog-eared beastkin lugging a heavy barrel around. It was a much noisier part of the city than the ones she had been to before, though that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The group of adventurers and their instructors arrived at the amphitheater Faehorn mentioned earlier. It was a large, unroofed, oval-shaped stone building managed by the dwarven community. Faehorn, Hilda and Lichter spoke briefly with some fancily-dressed dwarven officials, after which they and the students were escorted inside. They were seated at a VIP box that provided an excellent, front-row view of the circular, dirt-covered arena below. The tiered stone seats that surrounded it gave off the strange impression of a gigantic staircase, and already had people filling them.
“Wow, so many people!” exclaimed Keira after sitting down the cushioned chairs she and the other students were provided with.
“This place was built to house 4,000 spectators, you know,” explained Lia, who was sitting next to her. “Although I don’t think they usually fill up all the way like this…”
In fact, judging from the amount of people that kept pouring in, the venue might actually be slightly over capacity.
“Probably because of the fighter we’re here to see in the first place.”
Keira jumped slightly in her seat due to the unexpected voice from behind. She turned around to see that the only elven Warrior in the group, the giantess that introduced herself as Lola, was sitting directly behind her. She didn’t look particularly well muscled or sturdily built. In fact, she had the same generally slender proportions as other elven women, except that her shoulders were noticeably wider. Both her hair and her eyes were pitch black in color, much like that guy called Miller in Keira’s class.
“You know something about it, Lola?” asked the catgirl after a moment.
“Oh yeah. Truth be told, I’ve already seen her fight before. She’s unpredictable, vicious, and a real nutjob to boot.”
“Ugh,” groaned Lia. “Sounds terrifying… She’s not one of those violent convicts you hear about, right?”
“Nah, she’s not. I hear she’s actually really nice outside the arena,” claimed Lola.
“That sounds hard to believe.”
“Well, you’ll see for yourself soon enough.”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean.”
“Ah, no, nothing. Oh look, it’s already starting!”
The girls turned their attention towards the arena. A clean-shaven dwarf in an eye-catching purple suit and top hat had walked out of one of the side passages and was standing in the middle of the arena.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
His voice was unnaturally loud, allowing even the people in the far back rows to hear him clearly. This was likely due to the small, gray stone he was pressing against his throat.
“I want to welcome you to today’s performance! We have another trio of blood-curling and hair-raising fights for your enjoyment!”
The crowd let out a large cheer. Even those who had no idea what was going on, like Lia and Keira, ended up getting excited.
“So, without further ado, let me present the first match! Innn this corner, we have a quartet of hardened criminals! These men have been caught and found guilty of many crimes in the wake of the mysterious mister Sandman!”
Four grim-faced dwarves in prisoner’s rags were taken out into the ring under armed guard while the crowd booed and jeered at them.
“Hey Lia,” half-shouted Keira, trying to make herself heard over the noisy audience. “What’s with the Sandman thing?!”
She’d been curious about it for a while now, but hadn’t really gotten a good chance to ask.
“It’s an old elven myth!” replied Lia, also trying to out-shout the crowd. “They say he spirits away elves who turn their back on nature and banishes them to a realm with nothing but sand and sun!”
“Is he real?!”
“Nah! Just a silly story parents use to scare their unruly children!”
It would appear that the mysterious individual or group that had been making criminals disappear was given the name of a bogeyman from elven folklore. Not that the residents genuinely believed the actual Sandman was responsible, it was just that many of them found it oddly fitting.
“Their crimes have been weighed and judged in a fair and just trial,” continued the announcer, “and their lives have been declared forfeit in recognition of their heavy and numerous sins! However! These four have demanded to fight for their right to live within the arena, as begets ancient dwarven custom! And Azurvale’s wise judges have seen fit to recognize our people’s heritage and granted them this chance! If they best their opponent in honorable combat, then their sentences will be lessened! If not, then justice will have been served!”
The crowd, which seemed half-divided between elves and non-elves, gave a noisy, uncertain murmur. It would appear they had mixed feelings about this situation. Some of them wondered if the ring of honor was really a place for such people, while others questioned whether these scumbags were deserving of another chance in the first place. There were also those who applauded the judges for their tolerant and respectful ruling.
“But!” shouted the announcer. “Do they stand a chance against… her?!”
The crowd suddenly went silent with anticipation. This person would be the one the Ranger, Warrior and Paladin students had all come to see and study, and only 4 of them had seen her before.
“You know her! And I know her! She crashed onto the scene like a storm of swearing, smashing and smiling! Barely a week since her first appearance and already 11 consecutive victories! Please welcome back the executioner who volunteered to undertake this grim and righteous task! The one! The only! The Rust! Blood! Juggernaaaaaaaaut!”
The spectators practically exploded in cheers as the gladiator that most of them had come here to see walked out onto the field from the entrance directly opposite the quartet of criminals. She sported a pair of baggy trousers that hung loosely from one side, a ripped up shirt with belts wrapped around her chest to emphasize her well-rounded breasts, a cursed shield permanently affixed to her left arm and a relatively massive, bloodstained wrench in her right hand. Her metal hair was forever styled into a pair of eye-catching pigtails, and her shiny face sported a disturbingly wide smile with a strange look in her eye. Her skin, once made of shiny steel, had been upgraded into series of lustrous, almost blindingly white mithril plates after her Rank Up, much to her Hero’s delight.
Fizzy raised a loud cheer of her own as she waved her signature weapon around. Nothing made the Mithril Golem feel alive like moments like these. Thousands of people’s eyes were fixed on her new-and-improved glorious frame, feeding the inherent narcissism found in all golems. Not only did she get to show off immensely, but she also got to please Boxxy by earning fight money. Out of all of the Mimic’s minions, she was most definitely having the most fun.
The guards undid the shackles of their prisoners and left a collection of basic steel weapons at their feet. They and the announcer then retreated to the sides of the arena, as Fizzy carefully sized them up. Two of them armed themselves with heavy, two-handed warhammers, the third with a pair of one-handed war-axes and the last one picked up a plain-looking staff. According to what Fizzy had been told beforehand, these guys were a pair of Warriors, a Rogue and a Pyromancer, respectively. A few tense minutes passed at the two sides sized each other up and made their preparations. Once they were ready, they took their starting positions some 20 meters apart, as was tradition.
“Our combatants are in position!” declared the announcer. “In that case let the match… Begin!”
He barely even finished saying the words when Fizzy shot out from her position. She shield-smashed into the first Warrior with her Armored Charge Skill with enough force and weight to send him flying backwards. He bounced twice, tumbled head over heels and slammed into the far wall with a heavy thud. Although he didn’t lose his life outright, he had broken a shoulder and several ribs.
Fizzy then proceeded to swing her heavy wrench sideways, hitting the still stupefied Rogue in his thigh. There was an unpleasant cracking noise, followed by a piercing scream as the leg bent in a completely unnatural way. The Pyromancer backed off and started throwing Fireballs at her. Fizzy blocked them all with her shield, not letting a single cinder touch her actual body. However, this left her wide open to attacks from the rear. Something the other mace-wielder took advantage of as he landed a direct blow on the back of her metal skull.
Your target has suffered light trauma. Target HP -52.
The golem’s head rang out like a gong, yet she barely suffered any damage. Rather than reeling or recoiling from the heavy strike, she instead returned the blow with a one-handed swing of her own weapon. The Warrior tried to block the attack with the haft of his hammer, but Fizzy’s wrench snapped the iron handle in half as if it were a twig. The business end of her murdering tool buried itself into his side, causing him to keel over and black out briefly from the pain. She then swung the improvised weapon once more and flung it at the Pyromancer’s head. The dwarf just barely managed to avoid the steel meteorite hurtling towards his face by falling flat on his belly.
He was just about to get up from his precarious position when he felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his shoulder. Fizzy had run up to him while he was dodging her attack and skewered him with the Hidden Blade on her right forearm and pinned him under her massive weight. She stabbed him over and over again, her unflinching, toothy smile only becoming wider as his blood gushed all over her. And then she did something that no merciful being would ever consider.
She used her divine magic to heal his wounds. And then continued stabbing him. She kept alternating between healing and violence, keeping him on the edge of death for what felt like hours, but was actually closer to 4 minutes. The other 3 dwarves had more or less regained their footing, but the horrifying sight of their comrade kicking, screaming and literally begging to die had made them freeze out of fear.
What the hell were those officials thinking?! This was no ‘fair chance!’ Surely even a hanging would be preferable to this! Of course, such complaints were completely unfounded, as these guys had never once given pause to those innocent people whose lives they ruined or outright ended.
By the time the Pyromancer finally passed away, Fizzy was covered almost head-to-toe in his blood. Both the audience and her opponents watched on in silent shock as she stood up from the corpse and looked over the remaining survivors. She held a hand out towards where her wrench had landed and activated her Magnetize Skill. The heavy steel tool started vibrating, then leapt into the air and landed in her waiting, open palm. She pointed the weapon towards one of the dwarves at random.
Then to the next.
Then to the third.
Back to the first.
It took her less than 5 minutes to finish administering justice on behalf of the city’s authority. The three dwarves put up a desperate struggle, but they had no chance. The only reason they lasted that long was because Fizzy was having fun torturing and playing with the hapless meatbags. When the last criminal died by having his body pummeled into goop, she raised her blood-and-brains-soaked weapon above her head and showed the most disturbing grin yet.
And then, of all things, she started singing.
“Oh do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man?
Do you know the muffin man,
That lives inside my head?”
It was an upbeat, cheerful tune that seemed to well up from her very soul and was completely out of place. She even swayed her head back in forth in rhythm with her words. And, much to the surprise of the entire stupefied Ranger class, a large portion crowd, including Lola, sang back to her with an equally cheery tone.
“Oh yes we know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man!
Now we know the muffin man,
That lives inside your head!”
The golem repeated her first verse, while the crowd once again replied with the second. The odd exchange repeated itself a third and final time, by which point even those who had no idea what was going on ended up singing along. The bizarre spectacle finished with a round of applause, and Fizzy’s manic smile was replaced with a much calmer, sweeter one.
“Stay safe out there!” she shouted while walking off the ‘stage’ and waving back at the still cheering audience. The announcer came out afterwards, stating there would be a brief intermission while they clean up and fix the arena.
“What… just happened?” asked Lia.
“Oh, she always sings that song after a fight,” explained Lola.
“Dunno. It’s good fun though. Helps calm down the troubled heart.”
“Now that you mention it, I do feel a lot less on edge. Huh? Keira, you okay?”
The catgirl, who had been staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the spectacle, wiped the drool from the corner of her mouth. She regained a bit of composure and gave her green-haired friend a weak smile and an embarrassed laugh.
“Hahaha, sorry, I got a bit too into it. I mean, I could really go for a muffin right now.”
“Yeah, me too, actually,” agreed Lia, and Lola echoed that statement from behind.
“I hope you people were watching carefully!” shouted Faehorn. His voice was clearly audible over the buzzing and milling of the crowd.
“Because you’ll be sparring against her later this afternoon!”