Book III - Chapter 0 - Heretic's Sermon

 

Hear me, all! I speak to those of you, whose bellies churn in hunger, whose babes cry out in thirst! I speak to you, and I feel your pain as if it were my own! For your faces speak out, louder than any shout, for all the hardship you have endured. Hear me, and know: the time has finally arrived.

Do you know, of which I speak?

Our armies dare not leave their posts, and our farms lay fallow: dried to dust, while monsters roam the lands.Have you seen then, perhaps? Those fearsome beasts, risen up from the depths themselves, to prey upon the weak? Even here, in humanity's most powerful bastion, death and ruin rein! Where coin now holds more value than life! I ask you: what have we left to us? As was long foretold, there can be no denying.

This world is dying: lashing out in violence, as it screams in horrid throes of a death most terrible.

The Emperor, our protector- may the Light watch over his Soul, has abandoned this Great City! With his fleet, his Mages, his Seers, the Church and all its faithful: he has left to fight another battle across the seas. All while here upon the Old Country, our lines falter! Even now, as we speak, the Dwarven [Constructs] are breaking through our Eastern defenses: Golems, intent on murder and death! Our villages are burning, our people are dying, and in place of order? There is no such thing.

Lawless men rule the roads. Villains and cut throats, where Royal soldiers once marched! In times such as these, I hear you, my brethren. I hear your words, whispered quietly- yet louder by every passing morn. I hear you, as you say: this is the end.

The era of ruin is upon us, once again.

So it was, so it shall be again. Should you look long enough, even in these dark days, some will say we should find refuge in our Faith. The First King's blessings, the Light and Salvation from on high: to cling to the strength of our ancestors, to believe that the God of Light, will save us!

Yet, will he?

For all these prayers: do you not wonder why silence is all you receive? Perhaps you might take hold of such powers, perform as Healers do: but will the God of Light ever speak to you as I do now? Will he tell you what must be done, what must come to pass?

Nay.

Perhaps, some few of you still hold to the ancient ways, of Pagan trust in dead Gods- but do they answer your calls?

Again, I say: nay.

For all our crimes of necessity, for all our misguided deeds in the name of our very survival, the Church of Light will turn men and women like us away! The Old gods are dead, and so are we! Damned to die, labeled as wretched fools and sinners: yet, in our darkest days, there is still hope. For all my life, for all the evil I have done: I have found my faith.

Not of Light, no. Not of Man, or Kings, or coin. By the emblem I wear proudly: I have found a new God, and it has shown me the way forward. Let the stone crumble before him! Let his fires of green and radiance spare only the righteous, and hold back the darkness approaching! Let it be known!

All Hail!

……………………………………………..

10th day of the 1st month of the 4584th year after the great passing.

Titled - Heretic's Sermon

Heard and recorded by Scribe of the City, Luther Paul

Sealed in Trust, on Oath to the Empire


 

Book III - Chapter 1

 

……………………….

The Gods of Old.

Of Thunder.

Of Lightning.

Of Winter.

Of War.

Far away and removed from the reaches of men. They live as Pantheons within the skies, resting upon the clouds. Beings of miracles and wonders, staring down upon the mortals. Watching their toils, their vices, their wars: all while drinking from the cups of gold, or their chalice of crystal.

I feel that I can understand the stories, now. At least, the few I can still remember with clarity, if I focus myself to try. There’s an understanding, now: the truth behind why they always seem to end in disaster. These legends of Gods…

Imagine you had all that potential. The power to, given time, do almost anything.

How terrible, this might be.

Maybe you could raise a mountain. Lift the stone and sand, to create something taller than every other peak in the entire world. Something that reached so far up into the sky, the air would thin out. To bring you up among the stars.

What good would that mountain do, if you wanted to go further?

Nothing.

Maybe, you could heal people… help people. You could cure illnesses and do away with afflictions of all sorts. Wipe out pestilence and plagues with the burning wrath of faith itself.

But, what good would any of that do, if the person you’d like to heal is already gone?

Power…

Is having it truly a gift, then?

While you sit upon your throne of Gold, watching from your mountaintop, to gaze out upon the world below… I have to wonder.

I see monsters and vile machines, wandering the lands. Their kind emerge, festering out between every new crack that opens up among the plains where I now live, like maggots from a corpse. They rise from the depths, or creep through the defenses of those who still resist, killing and being killed. They continue to bring violence, where there is already plenty to spare. All, as the sky brings not a drop of rain.

I despise them.

For all the times I’ve thought of tearing this land down to the last, they’ve taken even that from me. For, here is a place where death already rules. To let it die and crumble into ruin, requires nothing of my effort.

All I have to do is wait.

What good is being a God, in a world that’s already burning to the ground?

It’s strange, but I almost pity it.

Almost.

……………………….

Chapter 1

[Unit 8945698]

[Status]

[Construct] – Unit 8945698

[Title] – [Servant of the World] – [Command Active] – [Bonus Attributes – Granted]

Active – Minor Damage Sustained

 

Among the plains, the [Construct] moved swiftly. While the other surviving members of its wave carried at approximate formation, Unit 8945698 carried on the foremost position.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[No Threats Detected]

 

Though the Construct could not think or feel in any traditional sense, there was a distant sense of relief. The instructions guiding its actions were continuing as planned. Having finally left behind the [Cursed Blood] Eastern lines, further resistance had ceased. At this point, any additional [Cursed Blood] retaliation would be grossly insufficient.

Indeed, the [Trader Caravan] they had encountered earlier, was met and ended with no losses to current functioning units. All encountered threats had been eliminated.

Even without the [Bonus Attributes] allocated, Unit 8945698 knew that chance of critical failure before reaching the intended target was now [99.9997 %] less likely to occur.

That did not relax its programming in the slightest, though.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[Potential Threat – Detected]

[Analysis] - [Identifying]

 

[Identified]

[Status]

[Stone Crab] – [Untranslated]

[Titles] - [Servant of the World] [Deceiver] [Juggernaut] [Humbled One]

[Level] – 58

[Ailments] – [Marked by Terror] [Subservient]

[Analysis – Ended]

 

[Full Assessment – Non-threat]

 

Unit 8945698 continued on without slowing. The terrain was barren, empty of most life. By statistical probability, it was highly unusual to find another [Servant of the World] of such strength upon the surface in this region. Still, [Analysis] had decided their course.

 

[Updated]

[Signal – Lessoning]

[Command Weakened] – [Bonus Attributes – Weakened]

[Weather Conditions – Worsening] – [Sensory Attributes Effected]

 

This was not predicted.

Calibrations would need to be made, but those would be applied to the next wave of [Construct] models. As things were, already, contact was limited. The Construct knew little of this, of course, but the practical applications stored the information within its core for retrieval.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[Potential Threat – Detected]

[Analysis] - [Identifying]

[Not Cataloged - Unable to Identify]

 

[Engaging]

 

Stone met stone.

Unit 8945698 did not need to watch to know their formation had scatted, the other three surviving units flanking to strike. Visual confirmation was all but impossible within the storm of sand, yet, despite weather conditions, the tactic was carried out within an acceptable deviation to ideal. Unit 8945698 felt the opposing stone give way beneath the blows, then crumble.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[Potential Threat – Rectified]

 

The target was eliminated. With its formation reestablished, they carried onward.

Logically, the Unit 8945698 reviewed and found it had been far from an adequate defense. Perhaps, that foe had been a scout, or sentinel. The recognition of this, was not enough so the Construct would cycle into additional decision paths, but it was also logged and recorded.

 

[Additional Threats – Detected]

[Potential Threat – Detected]

[Potential Threat – Detected]

 

Unit 8945698 paused for the briefest of instants, processing.

Two more enemies had appeared.

Reasons for why the original scan having missed these reliably limited to [93.2017 %] assumption of equipment failure. Syncing and confirming data matching with additional units.

[Query]

>Multiple unit equipment failure – [Assessing]

 

[…]

 

>Probability of [0.0132 %]

[Reassessing]

[Threat Level Elevated]

 

Additional information was logged within the core.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[Potential Threats – Rectified]

[Elevated Threat Level – Pending Reassessment]

 

As the formation moved to engage, the unit to the farthest right flank ceased transmission.

Unit 8945698 stopped once more. Three communication attempts to reestablish were made, as was suggested in combat protocol.

 

[Analysis – [Active]

[Scanning]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detect-

 

Another unit ceased and Unit 8945686 was badly damaged, but it had detected an abnormal presence of life. Relay of information-

Incomplete.

Unit 8945686 was offline.

 

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

[Elevated Potential Threats – Detected]

 

As the very sand beneath its limbs shifted, rising up in tendrils of binding stone and glass, Unit 8945698 did not feel fear.

Long ago, the Construct’s makers had known well what they wrought. Despite their ability to manufacture such a concept for their machines, Unit 8945698 did not express its own terror or distress- for these were symptoms of organic life, and intentionally excluded from its design. Weakness was to be recognized, but not expressed.

For that reason, though, however reduced in capacity the Construct’s self-awareness was, even Unit 8945698 could comprehend the emotion which spoke to it.

Softly at first.

Then, louder.

Louder still, until the resonance was amplified beyond the capacity of [Analysis] and all further abilities were effectively disabled. Drowned beneath untold gifts, channeled up and through every divots and grooves of the Construct’s system.

SEND AS MANY AS YOU WANT.

It felt the voice sink in, crushing piece by piece until all that remained was entombed.

And it knew hate.

I ALREADY TOLD YOU, GAIA:

NO ONE STEALS FROM ME.

 

Book III - Chapter 2

 

Chapter 2

[The Wastes]


The wagon moved as quickly as the Ro’ pulling it would allow, while the sands blew fierce. Storm, first nothing but a dusting, was now upon them in true. Rising up until it seemed higher than any natural cloud, the sandstorm had begun blocking the road from all but the keenest eyes. Waves of dust that might rival even the City of the Emperor’s distant walls.

For hours now, there had been no respite. Still, the wagon carried onward: determined to continue.

“Do you know where we are?” Trader Welsh shouted ahead to the guide, pushing out through the cover of the wagon to face the storm. For a brief moment, he had to resist to the urge to go back into hiding.

“I know where we are!”

“We need to stop, then! Any longer, and at this rate, we’ll be going in circles!”

“We can’t stop!” Pulling their cloak and hood apart, one calloused hand still on the reins, they turned to yell back. “I’ve changed our course!”

“We were two days ride from the City, just yesterday!” Welsh moved up, pulling the cover of the wagon closed behind him. “We can’t afford to turn that into another two by heading back!”

“We won’t!” The guide shouted back. “But we can’t stop here, either!”

“Why not?”

“Too risky!” Turning the Ro’ left, the Guide cracked the leather, roughly. “Something’s trailing us now! If we slow, it’ll catch up!”

“What?” Welsh took a seat beside them, almost falling as rocks kicked beneath the wheels. “Monster, or Construct?”

“Could be one, could be both.” The Guide caught them, steady hand on their shoulder helping them back upright. “Doesn’t matter: it’s not friendly.”

“How can you tell?”

“Call it intuition. Worst case, I’ll deal with it.” Reaching back, they tapped the grip of a weapon slung over their shoulder. “Don’t worry, though, we’re almost there.”

“Almost where?” Welsh asked, sand ahead all but blinding. Past ten paces, there was nothing but a flowing row infinite grains of dust.

“Close.” The guide answered. “I know a place we can stop and rest. Should be safe, if only for a short while.”

“I thought this last stretch didn’t have refuges.” Reaching beneath his cloak, Welsh pulled out a crumpled paper, squinting at the ink beneath a single lantern’s light overhead as her peered it over for what must have been a tenth time in an hour. “There isn’t one on the map.”

“You didn’t hire the map!” Pulling the reins again, the Guide steered them past a massive boulder, Ro’ bucking wildly until they were past it. “Hang on!”

“Gods!” Welsh almost lost the map, as he latched onto and handhold he could find, coughing from the sand that had slipped past the cloth around his face. “Where did that come from?”

“Long as it doesn’t follow us, I could care less.”

“Follow us? How could it-” Another rough turn, this time to avoid a patch of smaller stone, cut Welsh off early.

“You’d be surprised!” The guide shouted, riding up to snap the reins back down.

Beside the wagon, Welsh thought he could see figures running. Thin, streamlined bodies, not of flesh but,,, stone. He felt the horrible grip of nausea affix itself to the pit of his stomach. Not monsters, then: worse.

Then, the storm swept back in around them- blocking them from sight.

“They’re gaining on us.” He choked out. “Not even twenty paces.”

“Don’t worry!” His guide cracked the reins again, ignoring the Ro’s bellow of frustration, as it increased its speed. “We’re almost there!”

Out among the dust and storms, sounds began to echo. Muffled as they were, caught and pulled away by the winds, Welsh could hear them clearly. Of conflict, of battle, of shouts that came from something not made by voice- but rock and glass.

The sand pitched: howling gusts blocking out all noise as the wagon’s frame shook from the forces. Suddenly, though, the wheels began to slow.

“We’ve made it!” One final crack of the reins brought them out of the storm, night sky appearing at once. “We’re here.” The guide whispered, in the sudden absence of wind.

He was right, Welsh recognized. As the wagon came to a stop, Ro’ panting heavily, the storm seemed to carry on, but behind them. As if pushed away by unseen currents to part a clearing, circled within a large ring of towering stones. Like the eye of a storm, they’d come to find a space that was almost… peaceful.

“Where are we?” Welsh asked, turning to confirm the churning dust and wind, not ten paces behind him. Its thick texture, almost that of a wall, or smoke held behind glass.

“Hard to explain, exactly.” The guide replied. “But nothing can follow us here.”

“Those stones… Are those… statues?” Welsh asked, peering at the ring of large stones. Each carved out to a shape most strange. Not quite of men, but not quite of beast. He couldn’t help but stare. “Such intricate work.”

“Aye.” His guide replied, as they dropped down beside the tired animal, reaching for a bag of feed. “Best to leave them be, though.”

“What of the…” Welsh swallowed the lump in his throat as he turned back towards the storm. “Those things, chasing the wagons?”

“You don’t need to worry.”

“I do, though.” Above, Welsh looked up to see stars, as they emerged from the swirling mass of sand and dust. Squinting, he could fix their direction. It seemed right. “I never imagined to see those so close to the City.”

“Eastern Front is suffering, lately.” The guide murmured. “Still, no monster or Construct is going to get here. You have my word.” Stepping away from the Ro’ the Guide began marching forward, towards the only other piece of the clearing. Welsh glanced back towards the wagon, before turning to followed them.

Ahead, in the center of the ring of stones was… Green.

It was a tree, Welsh realized.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”

Twice Welsh’s height and covered in thick leaves the branches swayed in the twisting wind. Deep roots spread out, like a spider web, diving deep into the mound of sand below. Underneath them, though, Welsh thought he could see the shadow of something more.

“Is it… covering something?”

“Aye.” Pulling down his hood and wrapping cloth, the guide’s dark skin caught the night sky’s eerie light. “Marks a grave.”

“For who?”

“Depends on who you ask.” The guide replied, staring at the canopy. “Not even two years ago, over a hundred souls were lost, right here. Blood, fire… the whole mess and more.”

“A battle?” Welsh stared at the tree as well. Between the leaves, he could spot the stars, ever so briefly, as the wind picked up.

“You could call it that.” For a moment, the guide seemed almost lost in thought, expression just before a frown. “I wouldn’t, though.”

The wind picked up again, and Welsh could swear he saw something move, among the branches.

“What is-”

“We’ll be staying here for the night. Just until the storm passes” Almost a shout, as if so that someone else might hear, the guide bowed low, towards the tree. “You have my thanks.”

Welsh waited, uncertain at the sudden announcement. It had given him a fright, but now he wasn’t sure what to make of things. The guide rose back up, turning to him, not the tree.

“I… you also have my thanks.” Welsh said, reluctantly facing the tree. “Lovely place.” He added.

It seemed the right thing to do, as the guide nodded once, appreciatively, before they turned and motioned towards the wagon.

“I’ll keep watch.”

“I… see.” Welsh replied. “You’re certain?”

“Aye." The guide nodded again. “Go on.”

Welsh looked to the tree once more, before leaving the guide beside it and heading back to the wagon.

Climbing up, past the tired Ro’ and leather restraints, he stopped- just before pulling back the cover to the cabin. Beyond that cloth, a bedroll waited, almost buried among cargo and items of value. It wasn’t a huge haul, but Welsh had felt it was a worthy one, especially for the speed the guide had promised them.

Welsh watched the man, who was still standing beside the tree. Too far away to be sure, but he could almost swear the guide was speaking to it.

He was a odd fellow, surely.

Another trader, Stefano, had sent him with a letter of recommendation, directly. An Adventurer most reliable and trustworthy, it had said. One of several letters, actually, from numerous other contact. Welsh had accepted the contract terms easily enough. The guide had been steady all through their journey, up until now…

Eyeing the carved stones about the clearing, Welsh felt a shiver run along his spine.

Those hadn’t moved… had they? It almost seemed there were more of them, now. Some with weapons, some without…

Welsh shook his head as he pulled the wagon cover behind him, laying down to rest. No, he would trust the guide. If it was safe, it was safe. That was what he had paid the man for, and he’d no reason to stop trusting him now.

He closed his eyes.

It felt like only moments later the guide was calling to him once again.

“It’s time to go.” From outside the wagon, Welsh heard and felt the frame shift, as a heavy weight sat back down upon the coach’s seat. “Storm’s passed us by.”

“Already?” Welsh asked, surprised. “How long as it been?”

“Long enough.” Came the reply. “It’s morning.”

“Morning? Truly?” Slipping tired eyes back outside the cloth cover, Welsh was confronted with a bright orange sunrise, creeping up upon a flat of dust and sand for miles. “I’ll be.” Only the circle of carved stones and the tree, broke up the landscape. ”Those things chasing us… they left on their own?”

“No.” The guide replied. “No, but we won’t be worrying about their lot anymore.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Call it… a kind of faith.”

“I see.” Welsh lied, warily looking out over the dusty plains. There was truly nothing else, for as far as his eyes could see. Just the lone tree, encircled by stones. “This seems a sad place, for faith.” He said, quietly. “Truly sad.”

“Aye.” His guide replied, solemn as they brought the reins down, to start the Ro’ anew. “I hope that one day, it won’t be.”

As they left, looking back Welsh could have sworn that, among all the green, he saw the faintest hint of blue. Blue like the sky, before all the dust, the droughts, and the sun. Just for an instant.

Then, it was gone.


 

Book III - Chapter 3

 

Chapter 3

[Eveth]

“What do you mean you can’t pay? This was in the contract. Every Guild on the continent probably knows the terms by heart.”

“That may be true, but the contract doesn’t cover this type of… exception.”

“Exception?” Eveth glared across the counter of the Imperial office at the attendant. “We discovered a Dungeon entrance. We turned it in. We get paid on a basis, determined when we signed it over.”

“That may be true-”

“With proof, with witnesses, turned over in complete cooperation to the Empire’s possession, in exchange for a regular payment of an agreed sum.” Eveth continued. “Am I missing something?”

“No, you’re correct, Miss Gale. As written in the merging documents, the Partnership of the Farstrider Trade Company has full inheritance of the Royal payment, so long as the conditions have been met.”

“Then, what’s the problem?”

“They haven’t been met.”

“They haven’t been met.” Eveth repeated.

“No.” The blond hair and perfect smile never wavered. “They have not.”

“Why, might I ask, is that?”

“The local forces at our disposal have found the Dungeon entrance location to be… hostile. There have been numerous, unforeseen, difficulties.” The last word was chosen carefully. “As such, no further royalty shall be paid until these have been resolved.”

“What does that have to do with our original agreement?” Eveth asked. “It’s the Dungeon, of course it’s hostile. Why would that halt payments?”

“Well, Ms. Gale, in essence: it’s quite difficult to reap the benefits of such an asset, when several times its expected yearly revenue stream have already been destroyed by…” The attendant squinted, finally frowning ever so slightly. “Giant stone frogs.”

“That can’t be right.”

“No, honestly. It says right here.” The attendant pointed to the page. “Frogs and… green fire. Stamped and sealed by an Inquisitor’s crest...” They truly frowned, then. “How odd.”

“I don’t mean the frogs. I could care less about the frogs, or the fire- for that matter.” Eveth slapped her palm down on the polished wood of the counter. “I meant the payment. We did our part, we turned it in. That was the agreement when we signed.”

The attendant’s perfect smile returned, at once.

“No need for that, Ms Gale.” Briefly, they glanced behind her, towards the two armored men waiting beside the door. Deliberately, in motion, so Eveth couldn’t help but notice. “No need for that, at all.”

The barely audible creak of metal, turning caught on the air. Immediately, Eveth’s skin began to crawl, as she felt two sets of eyes fall upon her: peering out beneath thick helms of rune-gilded armor.

“Listen, I’m not trying to make a fuss.” Eveth lowered her voice. “But I’m sure you know, this hasn’t exactly been a good year. Prices are high, for everything. We were counting on this money being paid, in more ways than one. We’d have a safety net to cover this, but we don’t, on account of the fact that someone in your office was apparently bribed to set false bounties on us. Bounties, which we still had to pay-”

“That matter was already resolved, Miss Gale.” The cheery smile was turning frosty. “The personnel involved have been dealt with. Quite permentantly, I assure you. The tax credit to provide fair compensation, has already been applied to your Licensed account over the next several years.”

“That’s well and great in the long-term, but it doesn’t help us now. What about today-”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Gale, but I’m afraid my hands are tied on this matter.” The Attendant set the papers aside, hand motion directing Eveth’s attention towards a board on the room’s far wall. “Might I suggest, if it’s simply coin you’re looking for: anyone is welcome to take a look at our listed contracts. On the subject of said recently discovered Dungeon entrance, we’ve just recently raised the bounty for the removal of the beast guarding it.”

“You’ve got to be joking.” Eveth shook her head.

“Perhaps, you might be interested? Five thousand Gold, for kill or capture.” The attendant continued. "As the Farstrider Trade Company is the only successful group to return from that particular location with any profit, it could be worth considering.”

“Light.” Eveth sighed, abandoning her place at the counter, heading towards the door. “How many times do we have to tell you? We’re not doing it.”

“Some might call this a chance for two birds with one stone, Ms. Gale.” The attendant called after her. “Consider it!”

“Already have, thank you very much.” Eveth muttered, pushing the heavy wooden frames aside, while she did her best to ignore the two armored stares following her. Still, distracted as she was, as she pushed back out towards the plaza, Eveth almost collided into someone else heading inside- apparently just turning right outside the door.

“Apologies.” The woman excused themselves, holding the door open so Eveth could proceed. “I was so distracted by the sights, I didn’t realize.”

Eveth glanced them over.

Blue eyes stared out from a set of second hand armor. At their hip was a cheap looking weapon, more akin to a lump of steel than a true piece…

“Just watch where you’re going, next time.” Eveth shook her head, and carried on past. “This City is dangerous enough as it is.”

“Will do.” Distantly, Eveth heard the armored woman reply. Ahead of her though, was the crowded plaza. Tall buildings and market stalls, bustling with faces and noises aplenty.

“Eveth.” Beginning down the steps, Eveth heard another voice call out, large frame leaning against a stone support. War-hammer slung over his shoulder, Alem was waiting at the bottom of the steps.

“You’re early.” She greeted. “Thought you’d be taking it slower after your last trip.”

“Aye, I was. Until I saw this, of course.” He raised a crumpled paper in his hand, as Eveth carried down to meet him. “It’s up another thousand, now.”

“I just heard.” Eveth replied. “As if the Snake’s not already worth more than half the city’s scum put together at this point.”

“What of the royalty payment? Did they budge?” Alem asked, matching Eveth’s pace as they began to cross the plaza. “Anything change?”

“No.” Eveth answered. “I thought you said you spoke with him, recently. Made a stop.”

“Just because the snake decided not to kill me, doesn’t mean he listened to what I had to say.” Alem shrugged. “Tree’s a bit bigger, though.”

“Of course it is.” Eveth sighed. “Conveniently placed, too.”

“That it is.”

“Where are the others?” Eveth changed the subject. “You seen them today?”

“Probably still making their rounds. Stefano has had them doing some simple deliveries.”

“Together, I hope.”

“Of course, not worth the risk, otherwise. Besides, Tuth’s not much of a people person.” Alem replied. “By the way, what did you do to the woman, up there?”

“What?”

“The woman, at the top of the steps. Is she a friend of yours?” Alem tilted his head, back in the direction they’d come from. “I only ask, because she’s been staring.”

“What do you mean?” Eveth turned, risking a glance behind her- catching sight just as the door to the Imperial office swung closed.

“Ah… never mind, then.” Alem accepted with another shrug. “Let’s hope Stefano has some better news for us.”

“Let’s.” Eveth agreed.

 

Book III - Chapter 4

 

Chapter 4

[Farstrider Trade Company]

Eveth and Alem arrived to shouting.

Loud, blusterous, somewhat threatening: the conflict that presented itself upon the market street in front of Stefano’s shop was the center of attention.

“You think we don’t know what your lot did?” Someone shouted. “Think you can just go about business as usual?” Lead by a shirtless man with prominent crest of the Mercenary’s Guild boldly tattooed on his back, a small group of armed men had surrounded the store front. “You lot are dead, you hear me! Dead!”

“So, you say. First you offer coin, then shouts, now threats.” In front of the shop, looming over them by a full pace, Stefano’s prized bodyguard, Howard replied. “Run back to those who pay you, and tell them of your failures.”

“How about you put down that broom of yours and draw your sword, eh?”

“Aye, give it a draw. We’ll see who fails then. Let’s find out.” Another shouted, weapon in hand.

“Me?” Howard asked, voice booming like thunder as he began to laugh. “No, it is not me you should concern yourself with.” Cupping a hand to his cheek, he turned and shouted. “Nathaniel!”

The men on the street silenced for a moment, as they stared at the large swordsman. Perhaps, at first, it was simply the volume of such a shout, which quelled them. The noise was so loud that every passerby on the street had quieted. What kept them silent, though, it was the following sound of drums.

Heavy, pounding, thumps: approaching from a distance.

“What in all the fu-”

The shop door flung open with such force, dust shook from the shutters on the windows to either side. Hunched low, simply to avoid hitting their head upon the upper threshold of the door frame, an even larger man emerged to stand beside Howard.

“Brother Howard, who are these men?” The larger man rose up to full height, flexing muscles that quite audibly creaked.

“A good question, Brother Nathaniel.” Howard answered.

“Are they customers of esteemed Master Stefano?” Nathaniel asked, reaching behind him to pull free a massive double-sided ax. “I like customers.”

“No, brother Nathaniel. They are not customers.”

“Then what are they?”

"Fools.”

“I see.” Nathaniel replied, shouldering his weapon. “I do not like fools.”

By the time Eveth and Alem had managed to reach the scene, the originally shouting men had already begun to disperse. Some still issuing threats, but very much from a distance.

“Trouble, again?” Alem asked, cautiously, as they walked up. “Merchants send them?”

“If they only send weak, who pretend to be strong. It will never be enough.” Howard turned, smiling wide to reveal teeth, stained with tribal markings and gold. “It is good you have returned safely. Honored Alem, honored Mage.”

“It is good.” Nathaniel added, bowing his head. “Master Stefano has been expecting you.”

“Has he, now?” Alem asked. “We’re early.”

“We have already made tea.” Howard elaborated, finally setting his broom aside to guide them inside. “Allow me.” He dipped low to avoid the arch, as he lead them inside the shop. “Have you both eaten?”

“I’m fine.” Eveth replied.

“I think we’re quite alright-”

“I will prepare something.” Howard nodded, ignoring both of their attempts, as he opened a door within the hallway for them to enter, before bowing once more, and leaving them beside it. “Brother Nathaniel is quite the hunter.”

With that, the man lumbered off, but in almost ghostly silence. Despite, what their large height and frame might have suggested, as soon as they were out of sight, it felt as though any sense of their presence was erased.

“Where in all the Light did Stefano find them?” Eveth whispered quietly. “Not just one, now: two!”

“I simply don’t know. He has a gift for these things.” Alem whispered back, before he took a deep breath and entered the room. “Stefano, we’re-”

“Alem!” He didn’t get a chance to finish. “Welcome, welcome! Eveth, it is so good of you to stop by. I feel as though you never visit!” Dressed in bright colors beneath a vibrant glowstone on the ceiling, Stefano beamed at them from behind a paper-covered desk. “Come, come! Sit down, make yourselves at home! Have some tea!”

“Good afternoon, Stefano.” Alem replied. “ You have my apologies, I know we’re early.”

“Nonsense!” Stefano stood, pulling aside several stacks of paper, and moving a set of chairs out from behind the clutter of the office. “In fact, it’s excellent you’re here early: you would not believe the things I’ve heard today.”

“Anything to do with the Merchants?” Eveth asked, as she took a seat. Warily, she eyed a lute, hanging on the wall. “They had whatever leftovers are still breathing from the Mercenary Guild making trouble outside, again.”

“No, some things never change, there. Although, I have heard some tidbits that might interest you on that subject. There was yet another earthquake, and one of their warehouses collapsed- later. Not important, not now.” Stefano, began ruffling through papers on his desk, before pulling one free, excited. “Look at this.”

“Is that the Emperor’s seal?” Alem asked. “Imperial trading contract, of some kind? I could do another trip.”

“No, no: this came from a friend, who recently made a risky venture from the Western Port. He purchased it off of a refugee, of all people.”

“A refugee… it’s from the Northern Continent?” Alem asked.

“The very same.” Stefano handed the page to Alem. “See for yourself.”

“There’s been talk aplenty of what’s been happening there, but no one seems to be able to confirm a damn thing.” Alem mumbled, pulling out a worn looking pair of glasses, as Eveth leaned over. Craning her neck to see as well.

“Besides the fire.” Eveth corrected, eyes skimming the page. “They all agree on that, recently.”

“Aye, besides the fire.” He agreed.

“Listen here, then.” Pulling out a monocle, Stefano began to read- from another copy of the page, which seemingly sprouted from nowhere at all.

To any willing and able, heed the call.

The Northern Continent is Lost, but the Southern Continent still holds.

By the Emperor’s Might, we will split the ground, and part the stone.

If flames are sated by the Oceans, alone, under the First King’s honor: we shall let them drink.

Such is the will of the Emperor, such is the will of man.

“Recruitment?” Eveth asked, following the scrip on their own copy. “Page lists some decent rates for Mages, and laborers…”

“We’re taking local jobs, for the moment, Stefano.” Alem frowned. “I know we need coin, but we’re not going that far for it.”

“Oh, hush. I’m not suggesting you cross an ocean.” Waving away the comments, and the copy of the page… somehow (they blinked at that) Stefano pulled free another page. “While this is intended as recruitment, in context, it’s so much more.” Stefano continued. From his desk, he pulled free another paper. This one, more formal. “I was sent a letter, here, by one of my connections to the coast. They work closely with the grain markets of Southern Continent. Of which, we currently have quite the stake in, I might add.” He paused. “Did the Imperial Office honor their payment agreement this month?”

“The royalty?” Eveth frowned. “No.”

“As I expected, then. We’ll need to be creative. Much as those cost, they’re the only reliable investment, as of late. Grain is approaching its weight in gold, soon enough.” Stefano clicked his tongue as he accepted the news, before pointing to the new page in his hand. “Regardless, this letter is a courtesy.” He handed it to Eveth. “In it, they speak of rising prices, due to what has been referred to as a situation of eminent domain, along the isthmus.”

“Imminent what?” Alem stared, blankly. “Not sure I’m familiar.”

“The Empire is… forcibly acquiring property?” Eveth asked, confirming as Stefano nodded excitedly. “Farmland, it says?”

“Farmland.” Stefano returned.

“For what?” Eveth asked.

“That’s the question, now isn’t it?” Stefano smiled wider. “You tell me.”

“Not to be used for crops, I take it.”

“No, not unless…”

“Unless?”

“Well, unless you count the fish.” Stefano finished.

“What’s are you talking about?” Alem interjected. “What about fish?”

“You said this was on the isthmus.” Eveth’s eyes widened. “Didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“Are they insane?” Eveth passed the letter to Alem.

“In my opinion, desperation and insanity seem to share roots.” Stefano mused. “What’s wrong, Alem?”

“Hold on.” Alem looked about the room, visibly uncomfortable. Slowly, he stood up.

“What is it?” Eveth turned to him.

“We should try to get outside.” Alem warned. “There’s another one, on its way.”

“Oh, not again.” Stefano complained, already maneuvering around his desk. “Howard!” He shouted, opening the door to find the large bodyguard right outside the door: tray of tea and meat-baked biscuits in hand. “Oh, there you are. Best head out to the back. Keep the Ro’ from panicking. I fear we’re due for another quake.”

“Yes, Master Stefano.” Howard retreated at once, quickly handing off the tray to Alem, just as he stepped outside.

“Wait a moment!” Alem yelled after him, to no avail.

“Come along, quickly.” Stefano encouraged, as the trader continued to lead them back down the hall, out the front door. Together, they almost made it outside, before the floor began to shake. In the distance, bell towers began to ring. “I swear, they’ve been happening much too often.”

“What in all the Light am I supposed to do with this?” Alem asked as he fought to keep the tray steady, following Stefano and Eveth out the door. Beneath their feet, the ground was in motion. Heavy-handed shakes, causing stumbles and curses.

“Eat them.” Stefano shouted a reply, over his shoulder.

Still, by the time they managed to get outside, the quake had all but ceased. Leaving in its wake several collapsed market stalls, and shouting in the street.

“What a mess.” Eveth stated.

“Only a small one, this time, though.” Stefano glanced down the road, before looking up to confirm his building. “No lost shingles, at least.”

“Really wish these would let up.” Eveth poked her staff at a large crack, running through the street. “Near the Academy, just the other day, I saw half a building was sunken in. They were molding things back into place.”

“Aye, it’s trouble.” Alem agreed. frowning at the now tea-soaked bread. “I don’t suppose anyone’s hungry.”

“Still no.” Eveth wrinkled her nose, as Stefano tactically continued inspecting his roof.

Leaning above them, though, a large hand reached down and plucked a soggy biscuit from the tray.

“You are too kind, honored Alem.” Nathaniel said, grinning down with a wide and toothy smile. On his shoulder, the battle ax caught the sun, wicked edges shining. “These are my favorite.”

……………………………………

 

Book III - Chapter 5

 

Chapter 5

[Dren]

“I’m not saying you were wrong to take it, Tuth. I’m just saying, you should have asked, first.” Dren explained, while interpreting a wild set of gestures. “Look, just because they dropped it, doesn’t mean it’s fair to pick it up and walk away. At least try and give it back to them.”

At that, the only reply he earned was a scoff, as Tuth shook his head.

The crowded street was thinning out, afternoon markets packing up and turning in. Traders rolling up carpets and blankets of goods, heading out to elsewhere. Beside Dren, Tuth spun a recently acquired necklace, gold glinting in the sun, before it slipped back into his pocket.

“Could have meant something important to them: sentimental value.” Dren ignored the disapproving look. “Well, it could!” He insisted. “You might have stolen someone’s family heirloom- in the middle of an earthquake, no less. Times like these, mankind needs to trust one another.”

From the headshake, Dren felt as though Tuth didn’t seem particularly convinced.

Turning the corner, at the next smaller plaza, the damage of the recent events happened to be more visible. Several stalls had collapsed or dumped goods into the street, while some of the less-maintained buildings seemed slightly… off-balance. Walls that were just every so slightly off their normal angles to the ground. Or, roofing for that matter, which seemed in disarray, almost everywhere. Missing ceramic pieces in odd locations, sunken in portions. Even the streets were effected, in some places. Despite the thick bedrock of the City foundations, cracks had been spotted running up and down certain avenues. The depths of which, were enough to make one question exactly how far down they reached.

Still, if seeing the city in such a state borthered Dren, it was the inhabitants which troubled him the most.

“Healer!” Already, he could hear as someone called out, far off in the distance.

Injuries, covered in dirty cloth, or daze stares. Desperate people, looking through whoever passed them by. Even if the occasional quakes were small, they still caused suffering.

“We need a healer!” Beside a market stall, half buried in rubble, Dren saw a group calling out. “Send for the Church!”

“Hold on, Tuth.” Dren said, turning towards the noise. “They need help.”

Tuth set a hand on his shoulder.

“Only for a moment.” Dren shrugged free. “I’ll be quick.” He continued towards the gathering. Begrudgingly, Tuth followed. The crowd was small, but the urgency was clear. Huddled around, each attempting to resolve whatever it was that had gone wrong, Dren had to pull someone aside before he could see the wounded person on the ground.

“Healer! Send for one of the Church! We’ll pay!”

It was a younger man, quite badly caught beneath a cracked support of stone strand. The rubble had piled atop it, fixing it securely to the ground. Unfortunately, with the upper section of arm, past the elbow, along with it. Upon their arrival, the group gave a shout, and lifted at once, as a woman pulled the man free.

Their success came with a horrible cry of pain. Even from a distance, catching all but half a glimpse, and Dren knew bones were more than broken. Compounding injuries like this were often the most troublesome. Fragments and pieces which might interrupt the healing process, if not properly alligned.

“Healer!” Beside them, the woman shouted.

Much To Dren’s surprise, though, he wasn’t the first to respond to their call. As he waded through the group, an armored figure pushed past him. Quickly dropping to the dirt and grim of the street, without hesitation, they set a hand upon the injured man in prayer.

By the grace of he who watches over, not for reward, I offer only the smallest portion of his justice.

May the hate which calls to you be quieted, and their rage satisfied.

Their voice was soft, but stern. Though Dren recognized it as a woman’s, the words had an unearthly quality about them, that seemed to bring silence after every verse. No one else dared to speak, or whisper, or breathe. Dren felt the hair on his neck and arms begin to lift, as a pressure built.

“I give you the gift of life. May you use it wisely.”

As if the flash of lightning, or the crack of thunder: the spell discharged in a sudden burst that spread out among them like a wave in its impact. Though he was not nearly so aware as Eveth, Dren could swear the scent of Faith burned in his throat. Just as he could feel the magic running through his veins.

By the time he came to his senses, the wound being healed was gone.

“Amazing.” Dren whispered.

As quickly as they had arrived, the armored figure stood back up, group parting for them with bows of thanks. They didn’t slow in the slightest, until their gaze fell on Dren.

"Can you mend?” From beneath her helmet, blue eyes had locked to him. “You have a medicinal pouch, are you from the Clergy?” She asked. “You’re the first I’ve seen, today.”

“I’ve trained in the arts.” Dren replied. “I do my best.”

“Good, there are still people who still need us.” Turning towards Tuth, she nodded again. “It never hurts to have another set of hands, either. We should get moving.”

“I…” Dren looked to Tuth, who seemed equally dumbfounded.

Still, the woman didn’t wait heading past them. Already, they were moving towards another set of voices, calling out for a healer.

“Are you coming, or not?” She shouted over her shoulder. As she marched ahead, she pulled her helmet free to reveal a bright blond hair, already catching in the wind.

“Are you going to…” Dren looked at Tuth, to find he was already following. “Of course.” Dren shook his head. “Now you want to help people.”

……………….

 

Book III - Chapter 6

 

Chapter 6

[Dren]

The day passed, and down the road they went. At times, Dren would heal, but more often, he would watch. For young or old, minor injuries, serious wounds: the not once did the Paladin they were following fail to stop. The woman treated every and all with immediate efficiency, moving on the moment her work was done. At times, people would offer coin, or food, or goods. Some even tried to barter services. Still, despite the mangled armor and gear the Paladin wore, these were always turned down with grace.

It was only when the sun was finally beginning to dip towards late afternoon, that they deemed their work done.

“I thank you for the help, Dren.” She said, bowing her head. “Many of the Churches I’ve seen since my arrival no longer send out their Priests. It is a very good thing, to find others willing to help.”

“It was no trouble.” Dren replied. “We were both happy to do some good. Weren’t we, Tuth?”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes, at the man’s serious nod.

“Ah, so Tuth was the name.”The Paladin turned to him, as well, offering another nod in his direction. “I thank you, as well.”

“Are you new to the City, Miss… Paladin?” He finished, awkwardly. “I just realized, I don’t know your name.”

“Ha!” Much to Dren’s surprise, she laughed aloud. “Of all the things to call me, you chose that...” She regained composure, shaking her head. “Apologies, I never properly introduced myself to either of you, did I? Here you’ve both been, helping me.” Offering a hand in Dren’s direction, she continued in an offical manner. “My name is Paladin Thorolund, of the order of Light. Issued by the Seal of the Holy Bishop Thease, who resides up the Northern Lands, beyond the sea.” Smiling, she dropped the formal tone. “Or, I was, before I became an Adventurer. You can call me Talia.”

“It’s our pleasure to meet you, Talia.” Dren smiled. “I’m Dren Kaldrake, of the Farstrider Guil… Trade Company.” He corrected. “Still getting used to that. This man beside me is Tuth Redknife.”

“I see, Redknife and… Kaldrake, you said? Is that any relation to the noble house?”

“Yes, but no longer.” Dren replied. “Thus, the healing.”

“Ah, I’m sorry.” Talia apologised. “I often forget, the sons have it far worse than the daughters. As they say, at least most of the daughters get a choice.”

“Indeed.” Dren smiled. “But, willingly joining the Church or not, I doubt even half of them have your talent. Working alone, I’ve only seen one other heal with such effectiveness.”

“Truly? You flatter me.”

“No, not at al!. Those hymns especially: they certainly didn’t teach anything close to them when I was at the monastery. Are those taught on the Northern Continent?” Dren asked. “They were truly efficient.”

“I doubt there’s anything left of the Northern Continent by now to teach, but… yes. They’re… something like that, I suppose. That was where I was learned them.” Talia looked away for a moment. Across the street, a damaged building was creaking. Strain, audibly signalling the structure was unable to withstand its own weight for much longer. “When I crossed the ocean, I hoped to find this land was faring better, but perhaps the problems here are just as terrible in their own way.”

“How long ago did you arrive?”

“It’s only been a few weeks since the boat made dock at one of the ports. I’ll admit, the journey to the City of the Emperor was most of that.”

“You’ve only been here a few days, then? The last Caravan can in at the start of the week.” Dren nodded.. “I’m sorry you’ve found the City in such a state.”

“It’s everywhere, at this point.” Talia waved away the concern. “The Northern is all but gone. From what I’ve heard, the Southern Continent is a true mess, short of the Emperor’s presence. There wasn’t any reason to expect the Old Country to be any different.”

“Where have you been staying?” Dren asked.

“For honorable affiliates of the Clergy, former or otherwise, the Church of Light provides adequate… lodging… hold on.” Talia stopped, as if listening to something. Slowly she turned her head.

“Is something wrong?” Dren asked.

“Yes.” Carefully reaching under her arm, Talia freed her helmet and put it back on. “There’s movement.”

“Where?”

“Beneath us.”

“I don’t feel anything. Do you, Tuth?” Dren asked.

The man shook his head, looking about for a possible cause.

“How often do these… earthquakes… how often do they happen?” Talia asked, stepping away from the nearest building, motioning for them to do the same.

“Recently, they’re common enough. Used to only be a few, once or twice a year at most, but the past several months have had a couple a week.” Dren answered, turning about to look for signs of danger. “Usually they get the bells ringing before…” He stopped, as the distant note of a bell tower began to ring. Several more began to join it, each closer than the last.

“Have either of you seen combat?” Talia asked, quietly.

“What? Combat?” Dren asked, surprised. “Some, for me. Quite a bit, for Tuth. Why?”

“Good.” Talia nodded, drawing out her weapon. “I advise you get ready.” She warned, before murmuring several rapid verses. Quickly, her helmet and armor began to take on the glow of an Aura.

All around them now, the sounds of metal tones filled the air. Not simple notes of warning, but rapid and disorganized paces. The type of which, were accompanied by panicked arms, pulling ropes as desperately as they could.

Around the street, people stopped and looked to the sky. Stepping out of buildings, or looking out windows. Wagons stopped, as Ro’ snorted loudly, or let panicked kicks lift up dust, as they thrashed against their reins.

“Two earthquakes in one day?” Dren turned to Tuth. “Have you ever heard of that?”

Tuth shook his head.

“It’s here.” Talia announced.

Upon her statement, Dren felt it. The slow shake, moving beneath his boots. Small, then building, growing more and more violent.

Then, it was upon them.

Unlike the first, it violent. Not a simple shifting of the earth and stone, but a trampling thunder, raging under their feet. While the seconds passed, the earth seemed to pulse, rocking sensation increasing in violence until Dren couldn’t so much as hope to stand.

“Light!” Dren shouted, as he fell heavily to the ground, attempts to catch himself all but completely fruitless. “This is a bad one!”

Beneath their feet, the sand and stone of the street began to throw itself upward, so terrible that even the nimble Tuth was sent stumbling for balance. Between them, Talia, steadied herself with a shout.

“By the coils of of scale, we seek refuge among the stone.” The familiar crackle of Faith shattered down through the ground, as she drew her weapon, to slam the metal heavily into the street with both hands. “Let them try to break us. Let them fail.” Two short lines, but the hymn took effect immediately as the ground beneath their feet solidified with the glow of Faith magic. Though very much still under the effects of the quake, all around them, the street was shaking far more violently.

“What kind of miracle is this?” Dren asked, as he fought to his feet, pulling free his own weapon.

“Later! Get ready!” Talia shouted back, metal mace in her hands beginning to glow, gathering power. Beside them, a building gave in, crumbling with a horrible groan. Several bricks of stone smashed down, landing uncomfortably close by with heavy impacts.

“Ready for what?” Dren shouted back, fumbling with his own weapon, as Tuth set a hand on the longest dagger in his collection. The quake was settling, but the damage was growing. Dren could see fissures reaching out along the street. Long and jagged splits, swallowing stone and market stalls whole, as people fled from their path.

“Ready for what comes after!” Talia shouted, ripping her weapon free from the ground.

Just in time, it seemed to Dren, as a fissure opened up before them:

And something climbed out of it.

 

Book III - Chapter 7

 

What feels like a long time ago, though, I once asked someone a question.

Not because it mattered at the time, or I felt there was a special significance. I asked it simply because wanted to know the answer they’d give me.

If you were a God, what would you do?

Innocent curiosity, soon usurped by providence.

Still, I’ll ask it again.

If you were a God, what would you do?

No matter the answer, in all likelihood, there would be alignments. I know them well: these common themes, where preconceived constructs of morality find themselves already established. Always pushing for someone to land on one of two sides.

Good, or Evil?

For all those who seek good in the world, I know there are people who would bring pain to others. At worst, in a purely malicious sense, at best- to ease their own suffering. Those who keep in their anger simmering by the day, restraint barely held in check, if only by their lack of options to release it.

If they had power, what would they do with it?

No matter how these two opposing forces would choose to see it, I believe that there's already a common-ground. Good or bad, it’s all the same in the end. If handed untold power, they would use it.

After all: wouldn’t you?

……………

Chapter 7

[Talia]

Monsters, in the City of The Emperor.

Years ago, just the notion would have made any man throw their head back in laugh. In the Dungeons or beyond the walls that protected this bastion of mankind, maybe these things might roam. In some regions, more than others, certainly there were monsters afoot. But, in the legendary City of The Emperor? Perhaps, it might be interpreted a joke of poor taste- or, for those with less humor, an offense to the honor of the First King, himself. The City of The Emperor had stood strong since the Empire was founded. How could a monster possibly find its way through to the strongest fortification in all the Empire- over walls hundreds of paces tall, guarded by the Royal Soldiers?

As the creature’s claws cut deep into the stone, and jagged teeth dripped with saliva heaved out a might roar, it seemed that Talia had found an answer to that question. For an instant, she even felt the urge to run.

Just like anyone else, the feeling was present there: in the form of fear, urgency, and terror. When faced with a creature twice her size, with jaws that could tear her, limb from limb: these were instinctive reactions to the sight of danger. Not even an veteran Adventurer could crush them completely.

Still, in this particular instance, Talia felt she came close.

Enveloped in an [Aura of strength] her mace swung down. The sound of bone giving way to blunted steel greeted her, soon followed with a heavy kick, as her boot threw the creature’s back down to the depths it had crawled out from. It screamed in agony, fading off into the black depths from whence it came- just in time for another to take its place, screeching on its emergence from the crevasse now opened in the street’s center.

As often seems to come with combat, Talia found control spiraled out of her grasp from there. While she would have been more than capable of dealing with one monster at a time, dozens of them, coming up along a rather lengthy line of fissures, was slightly too much to ask, and her attention was soon overtaken by a rather large set of gnashing teeth.

All down the line, this same circumstance was repeating. Cracks and breaks in the stone, shaken apart by the tremors rebounding through the earth to spit out further beasts. Giant lizards, to massive centipedes, quickly taking to the surface. The bells rang out from far off towers, accompanied by shouts and screams.

Luckily, she wasn’t alone.

A knife cut through the air. With a wicked spin, the blade flew past her, taking another emerging threat between the eyes. Screaming in pain, a large reptile turned to face its agressor, dagger sticking out of its face like a horn, before the weapon was kicked in- to fatal effect. Graceful as a cat, Tuth landed beside its corpse, two more knives sprouting in his hands: each glowing a particularly nasty shade of red. Behind the man, another voice was chanting, loudly.

By the honor of the First King’s embrace, I call down from the heavens his fire.

Not of smoke and flame, but the gift of the sky, and all its violence.

Wicked beast of foul death, be smited by the lance of justice.

From the air, the glowing scent of burning descended, with a loud crash. One, twice, thrice: the bolts of faith fell to meet their targets, as the boy, Dren, stood tall: weapon raised above his head.

[Smite]

Crashing down to meet their foes, Talia watched as the lesser miracle was performed to perfection. From a safe distance, Dren’s command brought violence, known only to a rare few of the Faith. From his call, the magic burned like flaming javelins, thrown in arcs to the sky. While each casting seemed to stagger him, all three landed as intended- and several monsters met their ends. Talia would have been impressed, if she didn’t have to fend off a the next several creatures that had come up directly afterwards. Each swing of her mace took another down- but there were many more.

Soon, she found herself being driven back.

Though she could overpower the creatures one at a time, there was no organization to the numbers pooling out of the ground. Like blood from a gushing wound, it was just an overwhelming volume. For every terror Talia’s mace struck down, more replaced them. In the distance, she could hear shrill voices, of people less equiped and less experienced, meeting similar threats. Whatever was happening, this was no isolated incident.

“Ha!” Both hands gripping her weapon, she blocked a lunging bite, catching mandibles on the steel, before twisting to shatter them, spinning to take a blow on her chest-plate. Bringing her arms down with a shout, the mace crushed chitin, as she turned to intercept the next threat. Her gauntlet landed a heavy punch, throwing it back.

As Dren summoned another round of [Smite] from the air, Talia caught sight of Tuth- just as a ferocious lizard tackled him to the ground. Knives flashed: several almost mystically appearing in the beast’s neck, but the weight had pinned him. Rushing to throw the corpse off of the man, Talia lost track of the fissure for a second too long.

One instant, she was rolling a dead lizard off of a grateful Tuth. The next, she was coughing blood and half concious, crouched beside a crumbling wall.

“By his wrath, wash away the wounds that bind me.”

“Burn the wickedness that threatens this life.”

Talia felt the pain lessen beneath her chant, as her hands reached blindly for the mace, but finding nothing. In front of her now, Dren stepped up, giving just enough time for Tuth to scramble in before dropping a [Barrier] into place. Talia watched as the layers formed, a frosty mist of glowing light, raised up in an efficient cresent to the wall. Outside it, Talia saw what had given her such a heavy blow.

The beast was mayhem itself.

Among the bodies, where dozens of monsters lay dead or dying: one creature remained to tower over the rest. A seemingly endless number of legs, ends like spears, broke the stone beneath them, as it skittered out to the sunlight. Bright red, the carapace gleamed, while two long strands of antenna flung about, like heavy rope whips. Friend or foe, it cared little. One lesser threat, a lizard, disappeared in a mist of gore, as the centipede swept over it, turning towards the shelter of Dren’s Faith magic, to lurge forward with terrible speed.

"CRASH”

The impact shook the ground, threatened to topple the wall behind them, and send dozens of spider-web fractures all along the spell. Still, planting his feet firmly to the ground, Dren raised his mace with two hands, pressing back as massive mandibles fought for purchase against the spell’s translucent glass. The shattered layers began to fade, enveloped by new portions of the spell, as Dren took a step forward, then another: pushing the mighty creature back.

Though the creature had far from lost interest, the show of strength ended, as it circled, thick legs smashing effortlessly through the wall as it tried to get behind Dren’s spell. Crushing stone and bricks aside, it let out a screech of anger, finding the [Barrier] had formed in a perfect dome, regardless of the building’s presence.

Aggressively, the monster began to curl about, many legs slipping atop the [Barrier] as it continued to search for weakness.

“Where’s the Guard? Talia shouted, as the grinding noises along the spell grew louder. “Doesn’t the City have troops to deal with this?”

“On the edge of the slums? They don’t leave the center districts!” Dren replied, shouting between verses of his chant. “Especially not since the Emperor flew West!”

“Light.” Talia cursed.

Beside her, Tuth shook his head, daggers spinning about fingers in both hands, anxiously. It seemed he’d been scraped up more than Talia had realized.

“Craaaaaaaaaaaaa!” Outside the [Barrier], the centipede had all but encircled their defence. Moving rapidly, curls of its body had begun to block out the external sources of light, while its legs attempted to pierce their defenses and massive pincers clattered above it all.

“Don’t worry.” Dren replied. “We just need to hold out for a few more minutes. Our Guild is just down the street. Help will come.”

As if in response to his statement, the earth shook again. Talia issued a short hymn, once again stabilizing the ground around them, as further buildings suffered under the strain. The unmistakable sound of stones crashing down greeted them, and the centipede broke from its circling- crashing through another wall as it left.

Nearby, a wall fell to the street. Bricks and stones thrown wildly as the monster plowed onward, unconcerned.

“If help doesn’t come, how much longer can you hold?” Talia asked.

“Depends on what it does. I can keep the spell going for awhile, as long as it backs off.” Dren answered, breathing heavy as he took a knee and planted his weapon firmly into the sand. “How about you? After healing so many people today, I’m suprised you can fight at all.”

“I could be in better shape.” Talia admitted.

Beside them, Tuth looked bloodied in more ways than one. Despite his readied posture, the man was clearly covered in wounds from the previous engagement.

“At least the ground is closing up.” Dren noted.

Talia looked, confirming he was partly correct. Though the streets still bore heavy scars from the fissues, as the quake continued many of those seemed to be collapsing in on themselves. Whatever unstable breaks reaching down into the Dungeon, far below the bedrock, resealing with plumes of sand and dust.

“Finally.” As the latest earthquake finally came to an end, Dren relaxed, standing back up with a smile. “Seems like the worst of it is over.”

Then, several blocks down the street, a building exploded, as the giant centipede emerged once more, turning in their direction.

Dropping one of his knives, Tuth put a hand to the bridge of his nose, shaking his head with a sigh.

“That’s not my fault, Tuth.” Dren muttered, in response. “There’s no way that’s my fault.”

Talia watched as Tuth sighed again, this time pulling free the largest dagger, from a sheath on his back.

“Craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The centipede was gaining speed. Using the distance to pick up momentum, its front segments were rearing up, reading for a heavy strike as it charged.

“What if I said I could get us help, right now.” Talia asked.

Dren and Tuth looked to her in surprise.

“How?” Dren asked.

“There’s a price.” Talia answered. “It can be heavy.”

“Is it coin?” Dren looked back towards the charging monster, now only .

Beneath their feet, the monster’s pace was drumming like thunder. Dozens of legs smashing the stone of the street as it quickened its approach.

“It’s not coin.” She answered.

“If it’s not coin, then I think it’s fine.” Dren replied. Setting both his hands on the mace, leaning forward- as if to brace himself, as the [Barrier] began to glow brighter. “How about you, Tuth?”

Spitting out what might have been a molar, Tuth nodded.

Outside the [Barrier] the giant centipede had picked up tremendous speed now, smashing aside any an all obsticles as it charged towards them.

“Do it.” Dren agreed, readying himself once more for an impact against the [Barrier].

“Understood.” Talia took a knee, bowing her head, as if in prayer.

“Spirit, I call upon you.”

“We, three, will pay the price. Humbly, I request a miracle.”

Planting her palm against the soil, already she felt the pull. Against her skin, her bones, mana was draining. Beside her, she saw Tuth drop to his knees, eyes wide with shock as the toll was extracted from him as well. Dren gasped, the barrier beginning to fade: his source of magic no longer capable of sustaining it. All, while in the air, something began to form.

Ghostly, as if made of a substance with no solid mass but mana set aflame. Stronger, the shape grew until it floated before them: a torch of brilliant light.

Then, it spoke.

“So be it, Faithful one.”

 

Book III - Chapter 8

 

Chapter 8

[Eveth]

“How many are left? I feel like this is endless!” From atop a market stall, Eveth shouted as she let a well placed [Fireball] consume the next monster stupid enough to approach. Then, she hit it with a second spell, for good measure. “And- are they getting bigger?”

“Don’t worry!” Alem shouted to her, from the ground below. “They’re thinning out, just keep the magic coming!” Throwing his weight forward, the weapon in his hands landed a heavy hit to his latest opponent, sending the beast reeling.

“Keep it coming, keep it coming…” Eveth mumbled as she raised her staff, as the newest [Fireball] spell tethered itself in place in her array. Aggressively, the element fought against the links of Soul she tied it with. Much like a rock would resist a sling, it began orbiting with the others at a rapid pace around her. “Easy for you to say, all you have to do is swing a hammer.”

“I think we’ve got a large one!” Either blissfully unaware, or tactifully ignoring her, Alem pointed ahead. From the fissure, Eveth saw another creature attempt to force its way out onto the street. Larger than the previous, this one had thick scales and blood-red claws scraping at the edges of the broken ground.

“Sure you can’t handle that on your own?” Eveth asked.

“Don’t be like that, Eveth.” Alem let a hand run along his shaved head, as he stared up at the newest arrival. The giant lizard stared down at him. “It’s got to be five times my size.”

“Might be fun.” She added, as the creature began to rise further.

“Not the time to joke, Eveth!” Alem shouted back, taking on a defensive posture. In response to his movement, the monster’s slit-like eyes narrowed with a raspy growl of anger.

“Fine.” Eveth sighed, throwing her staff forward to sever the Soul links spinning about the air. As she did so, several of the prepared spells were cut loose- to satisfying effect. Flinging towards the target, fire encased the monster, sticking to its armor-like scales as it burned. “How do you like that?”

“Craaaaaaaaaa!” The lizard, it seemed, did not like that at all. Viciously screeching, it turned towards Eveth, and reared back in rage.

Jaws opening, Eveth thought it might possibly be trying to spit something. Acid, or material that possessed a similar effect. Dark, purple saliva seeped out between jagged teeth.

“Watch out!” Alem warned, loudly. “It’s got an ability!”

“Don’t worry.” Eveth replied. “They’re the second monster to survive this, but-” She swung her staff down, “I’ve made some improvements since the first.”

All at once, the flaming coat on the creature’s scales erupted. Eveth felt her hair and cloak blow back, as heat washed over her with the scent of ash and dust.

“Damn.” Alem coughed, eyebrows singed. “What in all the Gods was that?”

“Progress.” Eveth answered, as the monster’s corpse disappeared in a bout of smoke, tumbling back into the large fissure it had crawled out of.

“Next time, warn me.” Alem frowned, spitting out soot. “I’m serious.” He added, wiping the grime from his face. He eyed the trailing wisps of their latest threat, already fading away as the corpse tumbled back from the fissure whence it came. “Howard, Nathaniel, how are you both holding up?” Alem shouted. “Eveth and I have cleaned up, here. How’s your side?”

Eveth glanced back, as screeching death-rattles greeted him.

Then, came loud (and surprisingly happy) voices.

“All is well, honored Alem!” The reply was returned just as a giant ax swung down, bisecting a charging lizard. Then, violently lifting the weapon back up with a reverse swing, Nathaniel easily beheaded another. The corpse seemed to scramble for a few seconds, before smashing, headless, into a wall. Blood sprayed, profusely, as it did. “Such fun!” Nathaniel added, with a wide smile.

“Indeed!” Howard chuckled, like jolly thunder, as his greatsword flashed about, delivering horrible wounds to his latested oppoinent. “Did I not tell you, brother Nathaniel? This city is never dull!”

“So, you did!” Nathaniel replied, as he threw his head back, joining in the laughter. “To hunt in the streets! What joy this is! Does this happen often?”

“No, brother! This is a very special occasion!” Howard replied. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“It is!”

As both ax and sword did-in yet another unfortunate beast, Eveth shook her head.

“I think they’ve got a handle on things, Alem.” She dropped down from the stall, letting her remaining active spells dissassemble. “We should try and clear up what we can, though. I doubt it was just our block that was hit by this.”

“Aye.” Bloodied hammer rising to settle back on his shoulder, Alem looked to the direction of a distant Church tower, bells ringing out with a gusto. In the same direction, smoke was beginning to rise. “Here I was, hoping things had already dug their way down to rock bottom, and it was uphill from here on out.”

“How’s that?”

“Crops dying, people starving, graineries running down to empty, an entire continent on fire…” Alem listed. “I had hoped we’d reached the end of it. Now, what? Monsters crawling out of the bloody ground?”

“Make’s perfect sense to me.” Eveth replied.

“How’s that?” Alem asked, frowning.

“Keep digging past rock bottom, and you reach the Dungeon one way or another.” Eveth shrugged, pointing towards the fissure. “And here we are.”

“For all the…” Alem stopped talking and gave the long running crack in the street a pensive stare.

“Oh, come on, Alem. It was a joke.”

“I know.” He replied.

Eveth didn’t think he sounded very sure of himself.

Another quake rocked them, as the sounds of structures collapsing joined the bells and screams. Eveth cursed as her footing slipped out from under her, and she landed roughly beside the fissure. As she did, another set of claws sprung up from the darkness, only a few paces away. Seemingly uneffected though, Alem leapt forward to bring his hammer overhead for a heavy swing. The claws lost traction, falling after a sickening crunch.

As the quake settled, the fissure seemed to crumble in on itself. Street giving way as the edges broke into bits and pieces. Eveth pushed herself back, helped to her feet by Alem, as several of the foundation stones which made up the street beneath them, fell inward, blocking the recent opening.

“Good hit.” Eveth complimented, steadying herself as the aftershocks ran their course.

“Not my best.” Alem eyed the, now, sunken ditch in the center of the road. “Might have survived.”

“Well, the ones before didn’t.” Eveth breathed a sigh of relief as the ground settled, for true. “Shame, half our kills fell back into the holes they crawled out from. I’m assuming there’s some reward we’ll be due, after this is done with.”

“Hmm… I hadn’t considered that.” Alem rubbed at his chin, before pausing to look further down the road. “Hold on.” He motioned to her. “There’s another-”

“Craaaaaaaaaaaaa!” Ahead, a wall exploded, as a giant centipede plowed through with a mighty roar.

“Light, would you look at the size of that one!” Alem shouted, catching his balance as the shockwave reached them. All down the street, shop windows shattered from the force.

“Damn it!” Eveth winced, too slow to cover her ears.

“Think you can bring it down?” He asked. “Those fire spells seemed to be working, earlier.”

“You got to be kidding.” Eveth ground her teeth, as the ringing in her ears held steady. “That?”

“Why would I joke about something like this?” Alem asked.

“Alem, if you seriously believe my spells are going to be enough to kill that thing…” Eveth shook her head. “That’s probably the nicest, most misplaced compliment, I’ve ever recieved.” She watched, as the centipede crashed through another wall. Ripping through pressed earth and stone, the monster turned away from them.

“Craaaaaaaaaa!” It howled, crashing onward. It seemed completely indifferent to the damage left in its wake.

“Well… damn.” Alem whistled.

“Damn.” Eveth agreed.

“If we’re talking boundies, what do you think the price would be on that?”

“Hypothetically?”

“Aye.”

“Well… I’ve never seen one of those above ground before.” Eveth replied. “So, quite high, I imagine.”

“How high, though?” Alem asked, looking wistfully at his hammer.

“For Light’s sake.” Eveth grumbled, reaching to the pouch on her hip to pluck the cork from a glass vial. Tipping it back, she downed its contents in one sip, coughing as the sense of mana burned in her chest, as she summoned a new array. “Let’s go find out.”

 

Book III - Chapter 9

 

……………………………

Maybe you would build something up, and watch it prosper. Or, tear something down, and watch it burn. Maybe, you would even choose to destroy, but with the goal to begin anew: To rise up like the phoenix, bringing the end of one age, and the start of another.

Whatever the actions, the reasons, the intentions, or the goal: you need power.

Good or evil can battle, and people can judge them. Through the retelling of events, even the common man can twist and tangle history, until the villains are the heroes, and the heroes the villains. Empires can topple, cities can burn: but all that really matters is who’s left standing in the end. Who is still alive to tell the story, and decide the truth of who was good, of who was evil.

Power decides.

Yet, all that said, and I’ve skipped the other category. A place in which I often find myself stranded, lost amid this middle-ground for those who don't identify with either.

The moral gray that's neither good or evil.

Angel or devil…

Saint or demon…

Yet, somehow, in this case: very much a God.

……………………………

Chapter 9

[Eveth]

Another building fell to pieces, as Alem stopped them short. His hand, raised, stopped their advance, right on the corner to the next street. Beyond it, Eveth could hear the giant centipede’s rampage continuing.

“What is it?” Eveth asked. “Getting cold feet?"

“No.” Alem peeked around the edge of a building. “I think someone else is fighting. I don’t want to get us put in the middle of them.”

“Did the Guard really make it all the way out here?” Eveth asked, creeping up to the corner, herself, for a closer look, stopping as Alem shook his head.

“Probably not the Guard, but there’s a lot of dust. Hard to see.” Alem set his hand on Eveth’s shoulder, suddenly. “I think we should hold.” He stated.

“Shouldn’t we help?” Eveth looked up at him. “This could be a good chance, especially with a monster that strong.”

“I just get the feeling we should stay back for a moment.”

“Why?”

“I just do.”

“Alright.” Eveth eyed the corner, then Alem, trying to decide if she should try and look for herself. From the expression he wore, Alem seemed to be considering something important. “What, exactly, do you see-” His eyes widened, and Eveth stopped.

“Oh, shit.” Dropping his hammer, Alem tackled Eveth out of the way, as the Centipede came crashing back through the wall. Heavy natural armor ripping apart molded and laid stone walls, with ease.

Only, this time, far less intentionally.

“YOU DARE THREATEN THE FAITHFUL?”

Following after the centipede, the voice Eveth heard was as arrogant as it was loud. It shouted above the noise, cutting clean and free, and embodied with more confidence than she’d ever imagined possible.

“YOU FOOL! WITH ONLY THIS FRAGEMENT OF POWER, YOU ARE NOTHING BEFORE US!”

“CRAAAAAAAAAAAA!” The centipede turned about, legs skittering for purchase, before ripping stone apart for another sudden acceleration as it rightened itself. It moved to retaliate, as Alem practically carried Eveth over his shoulder, as he jumped forward, again. Behind them, legs like steel spears, crushed the ground as the monster rose up, height bordering some of the still-standing buildings around them.

“I AM THE WILL OF THE LORD. I AM HIS INSTRUMENT.”

Eveth saw the monster dive down with another shrieking call of battle, clearly targeting something close. From the angle it swung itself, whoever it was fighting, was close.

“BEGONE!”

This time, Eveth felt mana smash into them. Like a wave, or a ripple- it shook the air in a sudden pressure, as the building to her left exploded: giant centipede crashing through the molded-stone walls. Thankfully, she was ready, and Frozen air solidified. The magic blocked the ricocheting blocks and pieces that came their way.

At first, anyways.

“Crraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-”

Trying to rise, once more, a sudden impact threw it back to the rubble. The force was enough to send Alem stumbling, cursing all the while as he and Eveth hit the ground. Landing as she did, the barely formed [Barrier] almost crumbled from the lack of concentration, under the scatter-shot of jagged stone.

“YOUR FATE IS ALREADY DECIDED.”

“CRAAAAAA!” The centipede smashed through another building, bordering the recent destruction. Whipping about, flailing wildly against its enemy. As the spell faltered, Eveth desperately regaining control to bring its forms back into place, she caught a glimpse.

Beyond the [Barrier] was a battle of titans.

“THIS MUST END.”

Atop the centipede, what seemed to be a large [Golem] was in full melee. One massive stone hand held the centipede down, as an even larger frame stood above it, second arm delivering blows. As the centipede’s body curled about, in an attempt to bing its opponent, the second arm ceased its raining blows, and joined the first, beginning to throttle the monster. Ruthlessly, it lifting and smashing the centipede’s screeching jaws and head against the ground with relentless force. Above it, a ball of flame floated.

“MEET YOUR DEATH WITH DIGNITY!”

A… shouting ball of flame, Eveth realized.

“What in all the Light is that?” She asked.

“Dangerous, is what it is!” Alem coughed, climbing back to his feet. “Get ready.”

“Understood.” Eveth replied, as she rightened the [Barrier] spell, for another shower of stone, responding from a sudden shift in the battle before them. Tiny shards of earth moved as if the pieces were launching from slings. Small as they were, they sent dozens of cracks along the sustained spell, even as Eveth struggled to enforce the mana already in place. Even as she repaired them, wisps of cold air from the breaks made her skin prickle.

“CRAAAAA!” Despite being pinned down, and thoroughly thrashed, the monster wasn’t giving up without a struggle. Even held in place, the lower coil of body segements and numberous armored legs were finding purchase on an unbroken support pillar in the rubble. With a sudden lurch, they strained and lifted. Slowly, precariously at first- but successful nonetheless: the massive stone entity fighting the centipede was pulled to the air, and thrown down with a heavy bodyslam. In seconds, their positions had reversed, the massive monster now on the offensive.

Beneath the onslaught of legs and pincers, the stone golem weathered blows: arms raised defensively. In seconds, they had deflected almost a dozen hits, but there seemed no end in sight. Valiant resistance or no, the golem’s arms were losing material quickly. Pieces were being broken away at a dangerous pace. Throwing a leg up to intercept the next strike, a stone foot caught the centipede, letting a good portion of it break off, to roll back from the surrounding coils. Eveth watched the leg reform as it landed in the street, crouching low.

“We need to help them!” Eveth shouted to Alem. “Where’s your weapon?”

“No clue!” Alem replied, ducking as a huge chunk of the Golem was launched in their direction. “Buried, most likely.” He huffed, prying free a piece of timber from the rubble beside them. Experimentally, he swung it once. “Hopefully, this’ll do.”

As if in reponse to that, the Centipede reared back, turning to them. It seemed to have finally noticed their presence.

“Light.” Eveth muttered, rushing several spells into place around her. “This is going to be a terribly stupid way to die.”

Beside the centipede, the strange body of stone was recovering- somewhat. Though it seemed smaller, Eveth observed, as the Golem rose back up, extending its right hand out as if to catch something. Then, the ground lifted up, effortless: forming a spear. On its other arm, Eveth saw a portion of the stone molded away from the torso to form as a shield.

“Convienent.” Alem grumbled, enviously.

“More than convienent.” Eveth’s eyes narrowed, as more of the stone fell away, reshaping as it went. “Is that-

“FAITHFUL ONE, THE MIRACLE IS FADING. TIME IS SHORT.”

Above them, the ball of flame shouted once more, spurring the now-slender Golem into action. Charging forward, its spear pierced the Centipede’s armor, clean through.

“CREEEEEEEE!” In rage, the coils of segmented armor spun like a whip. The tail end of which, caught Eveth’s barrier with a hard strike, crushing almost all of it, as if it hadn’t been there in the first place, forcing Alem to dodge.

“Gods, damn this thing.” Eveth cursed, as the motion followed through, saved only by half a step worth of distance. Desperately, she pulled the barrier back into form, ignoring the gnawing chill of mana loss. This monster was strong. Much too strong, to be anything one would encounter near the surface. The moment it decided to focus on her and Alem, they’d be in deep trouble.

“Spirit!” Someone shouted. “I need another spear!”

The [Golem] was, Eveth realized. It’s already lessening form took on an even smaller appearance, as more of its mass was redistributed. The weapon formed anew, as the torso shrank. As the spear finished, she was certain she caught a glimpse of blond hair, before the monster lunched forward to intercept. Sand blasted from the impact.

“Defense, Spirit!” Bracing, the would-be golem raised their shield, planting it hard in the ground as the pincers closed. Scattered pieces flew free, but rolling back again, they abandoned it, just as the wicked edges closed shut, dodging a certain-death. Throwing themselves back forward, the sharpened shaft of molded earth plunged deep into the monster’s maw. The remainder of the stone which armored them began to add to it until there was nothing left but the weapon itself. Settled to the ground, it had joined itself with the street beneath them, as the lone woman held it in place.

“Now!” Alem shouted, muscles bulging he ran forward, to impale the creature through the eye.

“CREEEEEEEE-” It screamed in pain, as it fought against the stone that had impaled it. Each thrashing struggle sending gore spraying.

“Eveth!” He shouted, makeshift weapon snapping, as the creature threw him back. Pulling her focus, Eveth [Buffered] his fall, and the following impact into the building beside her. “Don’t worry about me!” He shouted, clutching his ribs. “Hit that thing!”

Eveth turned back, just to take a hit to the side of her head. Vision reeling, she almost fell as a gash opened on her scalp: stray stone having found its way through her barrier in the confusion. Grasping for control of her spell, Eveth watched helpless, as the massive monster heaved against the woman holding the spike of earth which bound it painfully in place.

“Spirit!” The woman shouted.

“THERE WILL BE A PRICE, FAITHFUL ONE!”

“I will pay!”

“SO BE IT.”

For the briefest of instants, all the dust, all the soil, all the smoke in the air seemed to freeze. Drawing in on themselves, Eveth watch as familiar but alien patterns formed: of Earth magic beyond comprehension- but mixed and intertwined tightly with the impossible flow of Faith.

The flame, above, fell to the ground- and from the stone, one more spear emerged. Unlike the previous, this was glowing with energy, barely capable of keeping its form, as grains of sand and dust fought for shape. Ghostly, aflame, yet solid all the same. Raising it from its resting place, letting out one final shout of resistance, the woman plunged it through the centipede’s remaining eye, holding tight as the beast flailed in one final death rattle.

Then, both the woman and monster, fell to the ground.

Rising back up from the carnage, the flame began to fade away. Still, it lingered, looking down upon the woman, as she forced herself back to a kneel, barely steady enough to keep from falling over.

"DO NOT FORGET, FAITHFUL ONE."

It spoke, even as the wind carried its final embers away.

"YOU MUST FIND HIM, BEFORE ALL IS LOST."

 

Book III - Chapter 10

 

Chapter 10

[Talia]

She could still remember the tunnels. Weeks spent, climbing, only to find those flames waiting. Those horrible specters, haunting the world above, even more terrible than the creatures hunting the world below.

Fires, that could only be of Chaos.

Some couldn’t endure the sight, others lost their minds, mad with laughter. As she fled, though, she could never quite escape the screams. Whose it was, she could not have said.

Still, even after the spirit found her, even after she began her journey through the caverns and tunnels, through monsters and ancient secrets best left forgotten: she knew one thing.

Those voices could break a mind.

Listening to language not meant for the ears of men, furious as it was euphoric. Even the faintest whispers she’d heard, before she fled: from those words, those tones, those cackling bouts of screaming laughter, came creeping secrets that pulled thoughts in patterns and shapes, building the pieces needed to twist, to pull, to snap-

……

Talia sat up, drenched in sweat, reaching for her weapon. Her hand felt… skin. Cloth, not armor. Blankets, not steel. Where had…

Ah, that was right.

She wasn’t in the Dungeon, any longer. There had been a fight. The City, the earthquakes, monsters… the centipede...

“Thank you, Spirit.” She whispered aloud.

For once, no one answered.

Looking about, the room she now found herself was a far cry from the battlefield she remembered. Laying in a comfortable bed, covered in warm, clean, sheets. Beside the bed, a small end table, with a cup of water and some folded cloth. Her armor- dented and scuffed, in all its glory, hung from a shelf beside a thick door of wood.

Real wood.

Deep reddish texture, with layers that seemed to shine with a glossy polish, or stain. She hadn’t seen much of that material since arriving on the Old Continent, but it appeared genuine. Which meant wealth… perhaps? Leaning further forward, she groaned..

Regret hit her, in time with the pain.

Unpleasant ripples up her arms and shoulders from what could only be broken bones that had been healed. Even set right and seamed together by faith, the echoes of what had occurred could never be entirely wiped away. Then, came the vertigo.

“So cold…” Talia wrapped herself up, breathing deeply.

The price had been paid, surely. Just as the Spirit had warned her. Considering what had been asked, it was a wonder she was even alive.

Talia lay back, letting the feelings settle. As her vision swam back into shape, she found herself looking up to what rested above her bed. There, a crest stared down. Badly burned about its edges, as if dropping into open flames.

A four-headed frog… that was quite a strange symbol.

“Why so many?” She murmured the question aloud, as she eyed it. “Two heads would have been plenty.”

“I’d just like to know who she is.”

Talia froze. Looking back towards the door, she could hear a voice approaching.

“Dren said she’s a ‘good person’ who deserves our help.” Someone else replied. A woman’s tone, this time. “But, I’m fairly certain that good people are a myth.”

“Again with the sarcasm.” The man’s voice grumbled, as heavy steps brought them closer. “Tuth seems to agree with him. He’s normally much more suspicious of people.”

“Tuth? Of course he does.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Have you seen her. Alem?”

“Aye.”

“Aye, huh? Always knew you had a weakness for blonds.” The voices stopping briefly at the scuffing sounds of something moving. “Stefano needs to clear more space for us. He agreed these rooms weren’t for storage.”

“Stefano doesn’t need to do anything, Eveth. We should be glad he’s been as patient with us as he has.”

“We paid him. He’s gotten his fair share.”

“Dungeon’s still off-limits. Haven’t been able to collect for some time now, but you don’t seem him asking for rent.”

“The nice lump-sum up front was more than fair for a wagon and some supplies-”

“And trust, Eveth. Compared to Gold, trust is far more valuable to me. We’re rather short on friends, recently.”

“Fine.” The woman cut the conversation short, as Talia heard another door open. “Trust it is.”

The voices grew quieter, as Talia turned her head to listen.

“I would still like to know who she is, though.” She heard the man grumble. “Saw a lot of Magic I’ve never even heard of, out there. I know I’m not a Mage, but I thought I knew a thing or two.”

”Faith and Earth were present, but I don’t know what the flame was.”

“It spoke.”

“It did.”

“Do you think it might be…” The voice hushed, as Talia strained to hear. “Dren thinks she’s related to our… friend.”

“It’s ridiculous enough have been him.” The woman replied, voice almost inaudible. “After hearing a ball of fire shouting, I’ll agree to that much.”

“Any thoughts on the rest of it? I know you can see more than most.”

“The Earth Magic wasn’t normal, either. Not nearly as complex as our… friend’s, though. Instead of an entire spell, it was just a small fraction, molding things into shape over and over.” They paused. “But, it was efficient. Far more than any ordinary Mage would have been capable of.”

“So, you agree?”

“I think it’s reasonable to assume our guest might know something. She might be involved, in some way.” They paused. “Why now, though? He’s been silent since Imra-”

“Imra wasn’t from here. Safe to assume they traveled before coming here. I doubt we’re the only people who knew of them.”

“I’ll be honest, Alem: that’s exactly what’s worrying me.”

Their voices were quieter, now. Talia had to lean over the edge of the bed, to try and listen.

“I should talk to her.” The man said. “See what she knows.”

“Oh, really?”

“I’ll see if we can get some answers-

“Sometimes, I swear. You’re as bad as Tuth, Alem.”

“What?”

“Talk to the gorgeous blond woman, lying half naked on the bed.” The woman snorted. “Just because you were the last one to talk to the snake, doesn’t mean-”

Talia gasped, as her palm slipped- barely catching herself on the end-table. She watched, as the cup tumbled, landing with a loud sound.

The voices stopped.

She held her breath.

“Should we check on her?” The man asked, quietly. “I heard something.”

“Should we check on her, he says…" The reply was icy. “I’ll do it.”

“Come now.”

“Poor woman barely has clothes on.”

“Stefano offered to provide some.”

“Oh, I bet he did.” The footsteps drew closer. Seconds later, there was a knock at the door. “I’m coming in.”

“Yes-” Talia didn’t get to finish her reply, before the door opened.

“I’ll yell if I need anything, Alem.” Standing by the entrance, a cloaked woman surveyed the room, eyes sweeping over Talia, before turning back to the hall with a frown. “Don’t even think about coming in, otherwise.” She finished, closing the door behind her, before glancing at Talia, again. “Hello.” She said. “I’m Eveth.”

“Hello.” Talia replied, cautiously. “I’m Paladin Thorolund.”

“So formal.” Talia saw Eveth raise an eyebrow. “Let’s get some [Light] in here.”

At once, several spells came to life. Not few one or two, but eight… nine… ten… eleven?

“Wow." Talia blinked. For a Mage who didn’t introduce themselves with a title, it was quite a lot of spellwork. “Grant could never do more than nine, no matter how hard he tried. That’s amazing.”

“Grant?” The Mage stopped short, frowning.

“Ah, I’m sorry.” Talia shook her head. “You reminded me of a friend. He was a Mage, too.”

“I see.” Eveth answered, pausing for a moment. Finally, after what seemed intense deliberation, she spoke. “You should be dead.” She stopped again. “You should be dead, twice over.” She clarified. “In fact, I suspect you’ve probably been wondering why you’re not.”

“I… was, actually.” Talia admitted.

“You drank two mana potions.”

“What?”

“After the fight, I managed to get you to drink two mana potions. All I had on me.” Across from the bed, Eveth pulled a chair from beside the bed-side table, and took a seat. “Even after both of them, you still almost ran out of mana. It was like watching the spiritual-equivalent of a bleed-out.”

“So, that’s how.” Talia nodded slowly. “Thank you.”

“The talking ball of flame was using you as a siphon.” Staff resting atop her knees, the Mage ignored the formalities as she leaned closer. “Tell me about that.”

“The Spirit?”

“Yes, that.” Eveth answered.

“I didn’t know Mages these days were so religious.”

“I’m not, and you can’t fool me. I know it wasn’t some secret Church Miracle.”

“Ah.”

“Ah.” Eveth replied, bluntly. “The ball of fire sounded an awful lot like someone I used to know.” She said. “I found that interesting. As did my friends.”

“Was this someone you used to know… an ally?” Talia asked, cautiously.

Across from her, Eveth sighed.

“You know why people don’t trust the Church, Paladin Thorolund?” She asked.

“No… why?”

“Because the Church has a bad habit of tricking people into trusting them, and then torturing them to death.” Eveth picked up her staff, tapping it on the floor. Simultaneously, the [Light] spells in the room around them drew in behind her. “Tell me: what do the words tiny, blue, and destruction, mean to you?” The [Light] spells shifted, molding into daggers. “You have three seconds.”

“What?” Talia asked, eyes wide.

“Two seconds, and I’m not joking.” The daggers got longer. “Tiny, blue, destruction. Answer.”

“A snake.” Talia choked out, quickly continuing. “They mean a snake- a Basilisk.”

“What else?” The daggers of [Light] elongated further. Now all but thin swords, just inches away.

“What do you mean-”

“What else do they mean?” Eveth pressed. “Death, danger? Are they a threat? Tell me!”

“No!” Talia gasped. “No, they’re not!”

“Then, what?” The blades approached. “What are they?”

“A friend.” Talia shouted. “They’re a friend!”

The blades stopped.

Eveth stared at her, before finally shaking her head.

The [Light] spells fell to pieces, crumbling off into dust, before reforming behind her, once again.

“I swear.” With a long sigh, the Mage held the bridge of her nose. “You’re either the worst Inquisitor this world has ever seen, or you’re something else.”

“You know the snake?” Talia asked. “Do you know where he is?”

“Why would I tell you?” Eveth asked. “You’re the stranger who inexplicably attached themselves to two of our Guild-members in a single afternoon.”

“Dren and Tuth? Are they here- are they well?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Eveth leaned back. “It’s them you’re worried about?” She muttered. “They’re fine.”

“I’m glad.”

“To think, people like you still exist.” Eveth crossed her arms, staff once again resting on her lap. “Thought the world swallowed all of you up years ago.”

“It tried.” Talia replied. “Tell me, what happened to him?"

"Who? Dren?"

"No. Tell me, what happened to the snake."

"I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Eveth shrugged.

"I’m talking about the blue serpent, with green flames."

"Did the Church send you?

“No."

"Then-"

"I swear to the First King: I'm not an Inquisitor." Talia stated. "I don't work for anyone. Not for the Church, or the Empire."

"Sure."

"Knowing what I do, there's no denying those are both likely searching by now." Talia replied. "But, I'm not with them."

"Fine." Eveth frowned. "Say, by chance, I believe you, Paladin Thorolund. What do you want?"

"To find him." Talia answered. “I’ve been trying to find him, for some time now.”

“And, why’s that?”

"For the same reason you won't give me an answer." Talia answered. "Or, so I'd like to assume."

“Oh?” Eveth’s eyes narrowed. “How so?”

"There should be a hole in your chest, but there isn’t." Talia let the statement sit in the air.

"I don't-"

"There should be. I can see it, because the Spirit lets me see it.” Talia continued. “Just like he lets me see the traces of him on all of you.”

“The Spirit." Eveth repeated. "The orb of flame, we saw earlier?"

"It was once his voice." Talia answered. "One of them, at least."

"Of course it was." Eveth muttered. “Is that how you found us? Residual mana traces, or something similar?”

“Do you know what’s happening on the Northern Continent, Eveth?” Talia asked. “What is happening to the world, at large?”

“There’s a fire.”

“No, it’s not just a fire.”

“That’s what people around here are calling it.” Eveth replied. “A fire.”

“They’re wrong.” Talia shook her head. “When the flames of Chaos took the Northern Continent, and covered the surface, do you know what I did?” With great effort, Talia pushed herself upright, ignoring the pain. “I fought my way through the Dungeon until I reached the coast. I stumbled through a dying city, to throw myself into the waves.” Turning herself, until her feet could touch the floor, Talia continued. “When no ships would fly across the ocean, I found one brave enough to sail.” Legs shaking, she stood, blanket draped over her shoulders. “From that ocean, I arrived to cross a wasteland, filled with monsters and worse, to finally make it here.”

“Why?” Eveth asked, quietly.

"He once saved my life. Just like he saved yours."

"And that's why you want to find him?"

"No." Talia answered. "But, that's why I have to."

She watched as Eveth closed her eyes. The frown was gone now, and with it, the apprehension had faded away. Whatever the Mage had seemed to have felt before, there was a different expression.

Sadness? Pity?

No… it was empathy, Talia realized.

"Trust me, you don't."

 

Book III - Chapter 11

……………………….

I once read that the human body is made out of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. For the most part, it’s just those six elements.

When you really think about it, that’s not much to work with.

Sure, you’ve still got this tiny bit leftover. Another five, with potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Maybe some more, depending on the quality of their tap water. Yet, add them together in their natural state: what do you have left?

So, I suppose it’s safe to say that a few of the total number will happily float away. Gone to the wind, never to return. gases, and the like. The rest are solid things at room temperature, though. Crumbled up and mixed together, I think you would call them dirt.

Earth.

I know Earth, quite well.

With just that one Magic, completely unaided, some of the things I can make happen defy reason. I’ve bent this reality to my own, idle, curiosity. Moved pillars, carved stone, created wonders, from dust to diamonds- and after all I’ve done, I still find it fascinating how the world chooses to govern what is within an “element’s” domain.

Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium.

What I call elements, here in this world, haven’t even discovered yet. In fact, to the people and systems which govern this reality, the long list above might simply be reduced to two words.

Gas, and dirt.

‘Air’ and ‘Earth.’

There’s ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’ too. According to Eveth, there’s a “Soul” element, and even something she called the “Faith” element. Still, I know this is all wrong.

Those aren’t elements- not really.

They’re not like carbon, or oxygen. They’re not listed on the periodic table. They have no true basis in a science, outside of whatever additional laws seem to govern the Magic in this world. Beyond the menu and system which governs it: they’re generalizations.

Concepts that people can interact with and understand at a basic level.

You breathe in Air, you stand on Earth, you drink and swim in Water, and you burn with Fire. Soul is ethereal, and Faith is belief… But, for some reason, these generalizations- these categories, matter. Matter, in ways that my understanding can’t always predict.

For example: Even with power of the ‘element’ of Water, I can’t take water out of a living thing. That life, that body, is untouchable.

It is.

Knowing what I know: the general percentage of water in the body, the elements which make out the molecules I’m strive for… still, I can’t touch them. And, just like I can’t pull the water from someone’s body, I can’t break free the basic elements with Earth Magic. I know what they are, I know what they could be- but it doesn’t matter. Almost as if it’s protected by some other force, or some other domain: I cannot pass.

Maybe, it’s the Soul element. I’ve heard that binds others together, or apart. Strengthens them, or attunes them. Possibly, it’s the strange power of blood, or an aspect of some ‘Divine’ element, or some other completely alien concept that I haven’t learned of yet. Any of these seem likely.

In the end, the result is the same, though.

I can try as hard as I want, but I can’t break the rules. Water can’t be reached, just as Earth can’t be drawn. When faced with a living thing, all I can do to interact is Heal with what Eveth referred to as ‘Faith.’ Unable to reach them by any other means, from the inside out. But, even if I can’t break the rules: I can bend them.

Fire: to burn.

Faith: to heal.

Earth and Water: to take.

To take.

For once, I’m going to play this stupid game.

On its own, Earth can’t reach.

Water can’t reach.

But Fire?

Fire can always reach.

Chapter 11

I don’t remember much about that first night.

There are broken bits and pieces. Snippets, really, of voices and screams…

I remember Eveth tried to pull me away, and I remember Alem shouting. I think that was about the time I sealed up the dungeon. Lifted sand and made it into stone, before pushing them away.

Eventually, they stopped trying to reach me. I know that. Alem dragged Eveth off, and together with the others, they took the wagon and ran.

Something like that.

I’m not sure.

All I really know, is that when the sun came back up: I was alone.

Alone in the ashes.

That other voice of mine had gotten progressively quieter. Just like the flames, his shouts began to die out, with time. By the morning, with green trails of smoke trailing off towards the bright blue sky, he was gone too.

Now it’s just me.

Even Imra’s gone.

I don’t know if that was the fire, or the healing. With so much mana, I suppose it could have been either. All of these things, happening at once. The Frog God speaking to me, the voice shouting at me, Imra fighting and dying, while my healing magic failed me over, and over, and over…

All that what do I have to show for it?

“Show me my status.”

“…”

“I said: show me.”

[SYSTEM ACCESS RESTRICTED] [!]

“Go on.”

[LESSER GOD TITLE - RECOGNIZED]

“And?”

[LIMITED PERMISSIONS - GRANTED] [!] [!] [!] [!-

————————————————————————

[Level 1]

[TITLE: INHERITOR, GREATER ENEMY OF THE WORLD, LESSER GOD]

[BRANCH: Divine Being]

.……………………………………

[UNIQUE TRAITS]

[Extremely Toxic] [Crystalline Scales] [Omnivore] [Affinity of Flame] [Legendary]

[Greater Enemy of the World - SYSTEM Access Restricted]

.……………………………………

[STATUS]

[WANTED - Humankind] - Bounty issued for capture, or proof of execution.

[HATED - World] - _______________

[INFLICTED - MADNESS] - No longer completely sane. [Resisted]

.……………………………………

[RESISTANCES]

[Poison resistance: Rank 27] [Fire resistance: Rank 22] - Affinity* [Mana resistance: Rank 47] [Chaos resistance: Rank 11] [Steel resistance: Rank I] [Iron resistance: Rank I] [Acid resistance : Rank 11 ]

……………………………………

[Skills]

[Healing]

[Greater Passive Healing: Rank 21] [Greater Heal: Rank 13] [Lesser Miracle: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Flame element] - Affinity

[Leviathan breath: Rank 41 ] [Fireball: Rank 11]

[Earth element]

[Earth Sculpting: Rank 57] [Lesser Sentient Golem: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Water element]

[Water Manipulation: Rank 26]

[Knowledge element]

[Voice of Gaia - Rank 16] - [RESTRICTED]

[Language Comprehension] - [Human Language - Northern Continent: Comprehension] [Human Language - Southern Continent: Comprehension] [Lukra Language - Comprehension] - Great Forest Dialect

[Spirit Attendant - Rank III] - [IN USE]

[Divine element]

[Lesser Possession: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Divine Blessing: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Holy Ground: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Future Sight: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.[Lesser Eyes of Familiar: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Royal Spirit of Man] - [IN USE]

[Ancient Spirit of Depth] - [IN USE]

————————————

That’s right.

The status is back with “Limited Permissions” or whatever the hell that means.

Like they’re trying to lock me out, but can’t.

There’s still a lot of information to take in, even if [Voice of Gaia] and the “System” it’s working for doesn’t like me.

Long as it gives me what I ask for, I could care less.

Honestly, even if it didn’t, I could care less.

Imra’s gone.

Completely gone.

My mind feels like a pieces of it was cut away. That bond, familiar, brain scramble- whatever it was, is just empty space now.

So empty, it hurts.

[Voice of Gaia] tell me what a Lesser God is.

“…”

“Tell me.”

[SYSTEM ACCESS RESTRICTED] [!]

“You sure about that?”

[SYSTEM ACCESS RESTRICTED] [!][!]

Fine, then.

Passive aggressive withholding of details, or not, the status alone tells me quite a bit.

Large increases across the board from what I remember. Nice to see my Water Magic grinding paid off, at least a little, but my level is back down to where I started. So, I guess once I hit the triple digits, the counter did a rollover.

There’s a lot of other changes, too.

The Divine Element, especially. The Frog God did something to me, down in the Dungeon. Before they crumbled, they gave me something. Mana, some sort of healing, but then all of those skills…

The [Inheritor] title.

What was it they said to me, right at the end?

“I’m sorry?”

They knew… no, they intended, for this to happen. For me to be stuck down below, while Imra was fighting up here. They meant for things to play out the way that they did.

Sorry, they said.

Really, now…

Fuck.

As if that makes anything better.

Book III - Chapter 12

Chapter 12

[Snake Report]

For whatever reason, I decided not to leave right away.

I won’t lie, I considered it.

There are oceans, to the West. There are mountains, to the East.

Either direction, and I’m sure now that my Magic is working again, I could make a life for myself. It wouldn’t be hard to leave all this mess behind, and move on. In fact, it might be good for me.

A new start, in a new place.

Right then and there, I know I could have picked one of those, and went with it.

But, I stayed.

Closing up the dungeon… plugging that horrible place as effectively as possible. I felt like I had to do it.

I had to.

It took some time.

A surprising amount of time.

Each time I went back over, it seemed I had missed something, somehow. Another fissure, or another hollow pocket I’d overlooked. In the stone, closing up that entrance, took hours, and every stopping point in which I thought I was done, I wasn’t.

By the time I stopped throwing Earth Magic around and really set my eyes back up to the horizon, there was…

This…

This “thing.”

Green.

It’s not a color I expect to see here, but here it is. Surrounded by sand and ash, centered in the middle of my tiny coil, is one, fragile speck of green.

A sprout.

I’ve been watching as it pokes little leaves out of the dirt. Bit by bit, lifting itself up from the ground below.

I don’t really understand how it’s alive.

Was it the fire?

Some buried seed, just waiting for an environmental trigger? Some plant that needs intense heat, to prompt it into growing? Looking around, there’s not another living thing for miles in any direction. No rain has fallen, there’s no rivers or streams…

But, here it is.

A sprout.

Right on the spot, where Imra used to be.

Which hurts.

Just one more reminder of how badly I’ve gone and messed things up. As if the empty void she left behind in her wake, wasn’t painful enough, when mixed with the regret of all the things I could have done differently.

It really hurts.

Of course, I watered it.

As best I could, I pulled some of the moisture out of the surrounding dirt, ten feet… twenty feet down.

I’ve improved with Water Magic, but this wasn’t easy.

There’s not much in the way of water out here. I suspect, the more I draw, the less there will be. Still, already, in just the time I’ve spent looking at it, this sprout has grown another inch or so.

Which, bothers me.

Bothers me a lot more than it should.

I mean: this is a grave.

This is death.

Beneath us, is a plugged up terror of pure fucking evil. All around us, are the scattered elemental bits of people I really, really did not like. And, growing right in the middle of it, is this tiny, stupid, plant.

Little thing like this has no right to be growing here.

The sun, the ashes- this terrain should be inhospitable to pretty much anything or anyone.

If I, what the menu-system is defining as a literal “God” feel a bit toasty, I can only imagine what’s going to happen to this sprout if I up and leave.

Without shade and water, how long is it gonna last?

Sss…

Imra told me she would turn this place into a forest, once.

Somehow, if she were a God: she told me that she would take the powers she received, and change this desert into something better. Back into what it was, before the rain stopped. Before the humans did what humans seem to do.

I have no idea how, logistically speaking, but Imra never cared much about those sort of thoughts.

She wouldn’t fret about the details, I just know she would try.

One way, or another.

Much as I want to leave, I really don’t know if I can spit on her memory like that.

Yeah.

So, here I am.

For a little while longer.

Just until I’ve come up with a way for this tree to survive.

I already plugged the dungeon entrance, so I guess there’s no huge risk, staying here for awhile. In fact, maybe it’ll be good for me, in a way. I’ll work on my Water Magic a bit more. I practice some of new spells in “inherited.”

Make something that can moves with the sun, to help shade this little guy…

Yeah.

I’ll stay for a bit longer.

Just a bit.

Book III - Chapter 13

Chapter 13

[Snake Report]

It’s funny.

After stubbornly wasting half a day trying to come up with a better solution, I gave in and created a [Sentient Golem] to help shade the sprout.

I didn’t really want to give up, but all of the other ideas I had seemed too labor intensive. As the sun moved throughout the day, I got worried I would either shade too much, or too little. Eventually, I elected to “contract out” the work, if possible.

Still… It wasn’t what I expected.

Short the Fire magic I have, I never really dived too deep into “premade” spells.

I mean, I remember seeing them. They were always there, in the menu. Not that the Menu seems to be letting me at them now.

[RESTRICTED ACCESS] [!]

No, that menu hates me.

[!] [!] [!]

Big time.

Anyways, activating the spell, I got to see something I’m not super used to.

I saw what the Magic wanted.

Like a shortcut, it simply “was.” As in: “This is what the spell will be doing now, so you just gotta give it mana, and wait.”

Fundamentally different from most of the basic magic I’ve gotten used to.

I mean, yes it still activates, but the control is different.

Limited.

I’ve seen humans use this sort of thing. Young Gandalf did it more than a few times. Eveth did with several of her spells, though she was probably less dependent on it than most.

If I were to call this anything, it’s the “cheat” version of Magic.

Cookie-cutter Magic.

With little to no input on my part, the basic figure it began to form was nothing more than a printed template. All the tiny nitty-gritty work rushed off along that plan immediately.

Mana was sapped, as it began to rise up to meet my scaled intentions and mana contributions. With no suggestions from myself, for the sole exception of general size and scale, the creature formed up. I watched, I learned, I didn’t so much follow the instructions, as I did interpret them as they went along.

One minute later, it was pretty much all there.

Slow magic, then.

Wasn’t a fan of the speed, but once it came to the looks and cosmetics…

It was, I’ll put this frankly: hideous.

A poorly molded head, lumpy arms, legs barely separated…

Blind, poorly balanced, inefficient to a manner that actually made me feel anger. So much, that I could have sworn I heard the other voice- far off and distant, begin to rumble once again.

I had to look away for a bit, and let the magic cease, before that settled.

Once everything came to a stop, Slowly, the Golem took a knee- if what it had could even be called knees, and not lumped molds of stone, and stared me down.

Not in a scary way, but a…

A lumpy, misshapen, abomination sort of way.

Yeah.

I stared back, mostly in pity.

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up]

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!]

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!] [!]

[Lesser Sentient Golem] had begun to progress like any basic skill might, when provided an almost endless mana supply. The notifications were rolling along, now. Considering the excessive cost, what I had just created, would have been completely impossible if I was working with what a starting monster might have available.

Ten slithers tall, half that wide, it loomed.

A complete mockery of stone work, yet… loyal.

Very loyal.

That was pretty much the only positive thing I could get out of it. Not language or words, but a consistent signal of… well, waiting for me to tell it what to do, I suppose.

Still, I wasn’t pleased.

A quarter of my mana was simply “gone.”

That was a LOT, for what I’d ended up with.

No, this had taken far too much mana, and provided far too unfortunate a result. To say I was unhappy with it, was an understatement. Maybe I’d gathered up a little bit of an ego, but Earth Magic was supposed to be better than this.

Still, it stared at me.

No, I wasn’t satisfied.

[Lesser Sentient Golem] huh?

After spending so much mana, I didn’t want to tear it down and start over, but…

I activated the skill for a second time, I did something different. Instead of the letting pre-decided Magic run through whatever terrible template it thought of as a structure, I intercepted.

[Earth Sculpting]

I took over, with a vengeance.

It began, anew.

First, I shaped.

From the ashes around me, I took everything up with the sand, letting the spiral circle inward. Only the things I wanted, and nothing else. I operated on a “pick and choose” for what went in, as I encased it. Then, I pressed the materials into place, sinking them into the sad excuse for a Golem. Without stopping, I let the Magic pull: forming up a skeleton of carbon, muscles and tendons of frozen stone. Piece by piece, layer by layer, taking the Golem’s original form, and changing it.

Cutting away, shaving bits, or completely reshaping…

As the body morphed, I covered the figure which rose in armor, plated in polished stone, pressed so hard it glowed with a heat of its own- regardless of the sun. As the sandstorm raised higher, I searched- patterns skittering out among the growing cloud of swirling dirt. Lost mana crystals, unresponsive to earth’s pull, were seized. Scattered bits and pieces, hidden among the sands, lost from boxes of fleeing adventurers.

Taking a note from the cookie-cutter design, I formed several hands of sand to pluck these free, settling them into the mold. Slipping through the surface as it parted way, dozens of tiny shards clumped together, right at the statue’s heart. As many as I could find, placed one by one until a glowing core formed.

Though the spell didn’t give me much in the way of reason for why this would matter, I elected to do it anyways.

Then, I letting it all settle out, came the tricky part.

Two spells were going at once.

Not normally a problem.

Two spells going at once, while fighting one another.

Sort of a problem.

[Earth Sculpting] and [Lesser Sentient Golem] did not play nice with one another, whatsoever. Especially not when [Earth Sculpting] was more like several hundred spells operating under one name. The drain soon became substantial: while everything was held into place, but not everything was as I wanted it.

Originally activated, then interrupted, the [Lesser Sentient Golem] spell was having what I might just have to call a panic attack.

Mystical, magical, whatever- that’s what it was.

Clearly, it had specific orders to try and issue, but being massively outclassed by Earth Sculpting, it was doing so in vain. Over… and over… and over…

Oh, it tried. It tried, alright.

Like someone caught in a loop on the same mistake, or a computer program, running and failing. Unable to undo what Earth Sculpting was solidly locking in place. As it tried to reverse my creation, I continually forced the stone still, in the hopes of letting the spell run itself out.

I didn’t want a lumpy Golem.

It really wanted a lumpy Golem.

Really- REALLY wanted a lumpy Golem.

It was stubborn. Maybe seeing someone cheat the system pissed it off, or maybe it’s just built that way.

At first, it resisted.

For several minutes, it certainly struggled.

Then, all at once: it died.

Thankfully, not without completing whatever important bits were needed at the very end, though. I let the remaining sand fall down around us, as the spell came to a close.

The work was done.

Kneeling before me, the Golem stared down with eyes of pressure-formed gemstone. Armor, carved with battles and trials of war. On its left arm, it bore a massive great shield, and on its right: a heavy club of riveted stone. The mighty warrior of… Frog.

Ssss…

I guess I’m just a slave to routine, after all.

Though it couldn’t speak, I felt the Froggy Golem’s mind reach for me.

Simple…

Pure…

Though the Golem couldn’t form words, or true language, it requested a purpose all the same. Just like the first time I used the spell, it wanted to know what I asked of it.

I considered this.

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!] [!] [!]

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!] [!] [!] [!]

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!]

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!] [!]

It knew so little, but with every rapid ping of the skill which formed it, I felt that changing. Although the structure had been overwritten by my efforts, but Magic was still very much a “Lesser” compared to what it might one day become. The core of the skill, as it were, was still a rather simple “mind.”

Sentient, but not particularly smart.

As the notifications finally stopped, I decided it was good enough.

“Guard this.” I ordered. “Don’t step on it.”

The Golem nodded, as the commands set in.

“Defend… Protect”

I watched as those commands settled, deep inside it. Imprinting, I watched as the earth around the lump of crystals, shifted. Peering into the mana crystals themselves, with Earth magic, wasn’t really possible, but all around them, I saw the seams start to fill in. Like ice melting, then refreezing.

Rising to take a single step, the Great Froggy Golem lifted its mighty shield and… stood in place, blocking the sunlight.

It was rather magnificent.

It was rather shameful.

All that, because I was too lazy to move a stone umbrella a few times a day.

I didn’t dwell on it, though.

Instead, I went to sleep. Or, as close as I can get to sleep, while trying to pull water out of the ground.

Sss…

There’s no thrill in this.

Pulling water out of the ground, bit by bit… I won’t bother describing it further.

Several hours of grinding, at this point.

I guess the positive is, at least I’m in the shade.

Good work, Golem.

I’m sure I’ll come up with a name for you, eventually.

Book III - Chapter 14

Chapter 14

[Snake Report]

Bad vibes.

Something is really unpleasant, and it’s fast on approach.

Waking up to this, in the middle of the night isn’t a good feeling, but it gets a heck of a lot worse when I can’t figure out “why?”

I can taste something “wrong” on the air, feel the pressure in my bones, on my scales, all around me: this isn’t right.

But, there’s nothing wrong.

It’s dark… but I can see, well enough.

Watched a few wagons off on some road from… I don’t know, at least six or seven miles away, this afternoon. [Tiny-Snake Vision] is more than reliable, and dark hasn’t been a problem for me in a long while. Not above ground, anyways.

But, right now, there’s nothing out there.

Just wind, and dust.

Which doesn’t fit the growing sense of dread. Beyond any measure of reasonable doubt, danger is approaching. I know something’s coming for me, but I have no clue what it is.

Sss…

I cleared everything away, earlier. Nothing but flat sand for fifty or so feet in any direction. Charred dust for anything further than that. Rocks and stones and dirt…

I don’t see anything, but I still feel it.

Wrong.

Danger.

Hate.

Death.

The other voice is bubbling up…

That’s about as sure a sign as any. This is real, then.

Great One… They hunger…

Approaches…

Not a very helpful warning, but I haven’t ever expected much from them. If the “other” guy talking, I’m pretty sure whatever’s out there: it’s real.

Tell me where. I know that something’s coming. Where?

The Depths…

The depths… the depths…

If you mean the Dungeon, I plugged that already. Where else?

The… Depths…

They’re getting quieter.

Of all the times for you to be tired out, this isn’t one of them. Can you tell me anything else?

Below… Great One…

Below…

Shit.

Okay, even the Golem’s reacting, now.

It’s a slow, heavy, pivot.

Shield is up. Weapon is ready. Something’s definitely coming.

Full combat prep.

Mana’s still at seventy… seventy-five percent. Recovery from constant Water Magic takes time, I guess.

Doesn’t matter: Earth Magic is spinning up.

Below.

Alright.

Pretty general, as far as directions go. Still, I can put some feelers out, see what Earth Magic runs into, or doesn’t…

Sss…

Where are you coming from…

Where’s the danger?

Get a defense going… I can lift us up a bit… get some spikes ready… fortify…

It’s…

That’s weird.

I could have sworn I stuff a giant lump of bedrock right about there.

No, I’m sure of it. I plugged this thing up tight.

Why the hell would the ground give-

Oh fuck.

………………………………………………

[Golem]

The Creator was yelling many words the Golem did not understand, but the Golem was not bothered, for the Golem did not know many things.

It was not meant to know.

A copy, of a copy. A blueprint of a relic, made anew and handed off. From one being of greatness, to another, the magic which brought the Golem into existence was formed by commands and logic unknown to its own core.

All it knew was housed withing he pattern of runes, sunk deep into the mesh of crystals which made up its “Heart” as the Creator called it.

Somehow, it remembered that, but again: it did not know how, or why.

The Core.

The Heart…

In time, the Golem was aware that more knowledge would come to it, but for the present: it could only understand the purpose for which it had been created.

Defend.

The single word was cemented into every inch of its body. From the shield of stone, readied before its body, to the thin decorative armor the Creator had bestowed up it, the Golem planned to follow this command until it lay broken.

The Golem knew little, but unlike so many living things, it knew its purpose. The very reason it was put upon the plane of existence.

And that was more than enough.

As the ground became alive with grasping claws and howling screams, the Golem stood strong. When creatures emerged from the abyss, and the ground did open, it knew little of the names or reasons. There were no great plans of tactics, or understanding what was to soon unfold, or even if it would survive the coming battle.

Instead, it drew back its weapon of stone, and delivered first blood.

Then, second.

Faltering, was not its purpose.

No, its purpose was to Defend.

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up]

Its enemy screamed in pain and anger as a third, final blow was delivered, but the Golem continued as another replaced it. Already, the Creator was driving them back, calling upon Magic the Golem could not possibly comprehend, but until the battle was won, there would be many more enemies.

Rear back, swing down.

Simple motions, were all it could manage, after all. The Creator had worked hard to provide it a body far above its rank. It had the height, to provide leverage, and the Limbs which could lift for a fast downward swing. Certainly it was capable of delivering a more powerful strike, while the shield it carried blocked the worse of the counter attacks.

Again, the Golem lifted back up, then struck back down.

It recognized that it could win. A mind oriented for combat could understand this. So long as the shield held, perhaps, it might win against two… or three. But, beyond the shield it raised and the weapon beside it, there were many more enemies.

Too many, the Golem recognized.

They tore the ground apart, ripping their way out through tunnels most narrow, or breaches of open stone. The sand was trembling, as more split open: like scars being pulled until they ripped and bled. More and more enemies emerged. Each as dangerous, if not more, than the last.

The enemy died, but dozens more replaced it.

Victory was not possible.

Even with this powerful body: what came for the Golem was a flood. Just a handful of the beasts which approached might be enough to break the its body, and crumble the core it held to dust.

But, thankfully, the Golem was not alone in this fight.

Mana surged forth, commanded to perfection, as the Creator brought forth a reckoning.

“BEGONE.”

Fires of green which raged across the soil. Earth turned to spikes- then glass, as the fires touched them. Ripples of stone, burred like waves of ten thousand spears as they descended upon the threat.

The violence was tremendous.

As the Golem stood, all but fixed, the Creator lifted. Stone rippled across ground, Magic propelling the blue serpent back, forward, up. Splinters rose and intercepted claws. Shafts of burning stone cut back hungry teeth, and the Creator moved like a spear. Not burdened by a heavy body, not sluggish or slow: for every creature which grasped for it, they found nothing but air, blades, and fire.

As the battle was met, the creatures died. More took their place, and they too died- but the Golem cared little for them. Without magic, without superior strength or intellect: In this battle, the Golem knew its purpose.

The beautiful shield soon shattered. Its armor was slashed and melted.

It arms crumbled.

But the Golem did not concern itself, for again: it knew its purpose.

No matter what.

Even as it was chipped away, broken to nothing.

It would defend.

Book III - Chapter 15

Chapter 15

[Snake Report]

News just in: a Dungeon entrance can’t be closed.

Actually… on account of absolute generalizations being a scary concept, allow me to correct that statement:

This particular Dungeon entrance will not stay shut.

There.

That’s a little better.

And yes, trust me on this.

It won’t.

I even tried one solid sheet of bedrock, fifteen slithers thick.

No, it doesn’t give a crap how many slithers thick it is.

It hasn’t stopped me from trying quite yet, but in rough summary, there is no way to keep this thing sealed. At least, not for very long.

Thus, midnight monster attack.

Lessons were learned.

Mistakes were made.

Hey, show me my status.

[Voice of Gaia]

No more of this crap.

I’m not joking.

We might not like one another, but to say I’ve had a bad couple days, would be a terrible understatement, and we both know you have a job to do.

I said: Show me my status.

… [!]

————————————————————————

[Level 1]

[TITLE: INHERITOR, GREATER ENEMY OF THE WORLD, LESSER GOD]

[BRANCH: Divine Being]

.……………………………………

[UNIQUE TRAITS]

[Extremely Toxic] [Crystalline Scales] [Omnivore] [Affinity of Flame] [Legendary]

[Greater Enemy of the World - SYSTEM Access Restricted]

.……………………………………

[STATUS]

[WANTED - Humankind] - Bounty issued for capture, or proof of execution.

[HATED - World] - _______________

[INFLICTED - MADNESS] - No longer completely sane. [Resisted]

.……………………………………

[RESISTANCES]

[Poison resistance: Rank 27] [Fire resistance: Rank 22] - Affinity* [Mana resistance: Rank 47] [Chaos resistance: Rank 11] [Steel resistance: Rank I] [Iron resistance: Rank I] [Acid resistance : Rank 11 ]

……………………………………

[Skills]

[Healing]

[Greater Passive Healing: Rank 21] [Greater Heal: Rank 13] [Lesser Miracle: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Flame element] - Affinity

[Leviathan breath: Rank 42 ] [Fireball: Rank 11]

[Earth element]

[Earth Sculpting: Rank 58] [Lesser Sentient Golem: Rank IX] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Water element]

[Water Manipulation: Rank 26]

[Knowledge element]

[Voice of Gaia - Rank 16] - [RESTRICTED]

[Language Comprehension] - [Human Language - Northern Continent: Comprehension] [Human Language - Southern Continent: Comprehension] [Lukra Language - Comprehension] - Great Forest Dialect

[Spirit Attendant - Rank III] - [IN USE]

[Divine element]

[Lesser Possession: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Divine Blessing: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Holy Ground: Rank II] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title. [Lesser Future Sight: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.[Lesser Eyes of Familiar: Rank I] - Granted by [INHERITOR] title.

[Royal Spirit of Man] - [IN USE]

[Ancient Spirit of Depth] - [IN USE]

————————————————————————

Good, the skills are ticking up.

Next time, throw out those roman numerals. I don’t want those in the read-out. They’re giving me a migraine.

Just use normal numbers.

I know you can hear me.

You jerk.

Sss…

A total disaster.

Until I come up with some sort of solution, I know what happened last night is going to happen again. I don’t have to ask [Voice of Gaia] to be keenly aware that the World hates me. [Greater Enemy of The World] and all that comes with some perks, no doubt.

[Hated] as a status…

Yeah, reading this loud and clear.

They are not happy.

As for options, though, I’m not sure what I’ve really got available.

Plugging the tunnel up was a no-go, and covering the leftovers after the fight has turned out to be an even bigger joke. Fiddling around with things has shown me I can minimize the breach, somewhat, but I can’t stop it completely.

Maybe there’s some sort of special magic I could use to seal this, but I’ve found that [Lesser Holy Ground] doesn’t appear to be doing much of anything except help the sprout grow.

The little guy is almost as tall as me, now. If I rear back up, puff out my “chest.”

Nice as that is, this was not what I was hoping for.

Besides, that comes with its own problems.

Now I’m going to need to figure out how to more efficiently get water. Trying to catch molecules out of the air, as they evaporate is practically the definition of futile in this environment, and I’ve found this sprout tends to just pull water up and let it go.

At least it’s not dead, which- on that particular note: Congratulations are in order.

Good work, Golem.

You, uh… you really took one for the team, huddling over the sprout.

I really appreciate it.

Kept calm, performed admirably.

I’ll admit, unlike you, I might have lost my temper somewhere in the middle of the mayhem. Burned a heck of a lot of stuff, so you made the right call. Though, I might have originally recommended a bit more fighting back and less huddling on the ground, I guess I did tell you to protect the plant above all else.

So, yeah.

I’m really sorry the monsters hacked off a majority of your body.

I’m also sorry I set you on fire…

At least twice.

I apologize for both of those instances.

Occupation hazards aside, you did well. Excellent first night on the job. Just… uh… lay over there for a bit, all crumbly-like.

Rest up.

I’ll get back to you.

Sss…

I will.

You know, once I figure out how to deal with this stupid Dungeon.

This stupid, rigged, dungeon...

At least it sticks with the running trend of things. The game, the system, the whole damn world- I don’t see why the Dungeon entrance would be any different. Getting this to stay shut might well be impossible.

Closing the opening can’t be done without the damn ground trying to rip back up somewhere else. Using a variety of methods, I might add. The ground has burst back open with random winding tunnels, abrupt splits, jagged tears. Never in the same place, never predictable…

I’ve been learning. Fifth attempt here, going on number six. Getting more creative with my own methods, seeing if that can make a difference or not.

And…

Sss.

That’s a bust.

Heavy, segmented, rough, gravel to fill in the tears only works until it recognizes. Then, it opens up bed rock and swallows the stuff whole. Low and behold.

Oh, it might be mad this time.

I killed all the monsters the Dungeon must have had handy, so this time it’s just trying to make me fall into a crevasse. Like that would ever work. The hell do you think I am, huh?

Reeks of angry desperation, if you ask me.

Almost like someone really, really, really doesn’t like me.

That what this is about, [Voice of Gaia?]

Ha.

That’s definitely what this is about.

Yeah, rumble ominously. See what good that’ll do you.

Sss… maybe taunting the ground isn’t a good idea.

I’m still mad, though.

Honestly, this is irritating as all hell. Being able to resolve something, only to have it undo itself in some unpredictable manner is a real pain.

Doesn’t matter what I patch this with, it’s like a corrosive force is undoing any efforts to patch the hole.

I could sit here all day, and it would still find a way to get around me. Hell: if I did sit here keeping it constantly sealed, I bet it would probably just shuffle over a few hundred feet and then open up somewhere just out of range.

I’ll admit, putting my hopes in the [Lesser Holy Ground] spell was a bit of a let down. The Large Frog God left me with some interesting stuff, but it seems to be my mistake in hoping that this particular one might be useful.

It really wasn’t.

Does seem permanent, though.

I can “feel” the ground better, without using [Earth Sculpting] or anything, if that makes sense.

Uncertain at this time.

Getting back on topic: The Dungeon can’t be shut. Annoying as that might be, I’m aware of the problem now, and it doesn’t really change much.

I’m used to things trying to kill me.

Besides that: I already decided I’m not going anywhere. Just because the big-bad-Dungeon decided to throw some shade- if it wasn’t them, I’m sure someone else would be coming after me by now. Humans, or Mister Bolder’s buddies, or some other random horror that’s bored enough to seek me out.

So, this changes nothing.

But…

I guess it does me with a question.

How many [Lesser Sentient Golem] does it take to pacify a Dungeon?

Book III - Chapter 16

Chapter 16

[Snake Report]

I call him Rocky.

In honor of his valiant fight and capacity for taking a beating, I have bestowed this name as a sign of deep and heartfelt respect.

Then, I did my best to make sure he was restored back to normal.

Or, at least close to normal.

There seems to be a trick to doing repair work on an entity that is actively being held by the [Lesser Sentient Golem] spell. Although it’s not as troublesome as building from scratch, just like when originally enacting the skill, the “template” tries to take my Earth Magic rebuilding attempts and push it into the crappy cookie-cutter form. So, it continues to prioritize the Golem body that the spell is based on, and not what’s actually been built.

There’s still a decent amount of focus and attention required.

My rough understanding is that imprint of the spell can be overwritten, but it won’t completely go away. I’m probably not a high enough rank with the [Lesser Sentient Golem] to tell it otherwise, either.

End result, though, is a success.

He lives again.

Rocky, the chosen Golem: Slayer of monsters, honorable guardian of the weak, destined to continue his noble task. A froggy testament to all who might dare to encroach upon this place. Here above ground, he will remain a dangerously sentient umbrella.

But, above ground isn’t really what I’m concerned about, right now.

The harsh environment is a problem, yes. But, the sun can’t get through a shield made out of solid stone, so it’s not worrisome as long as Rocky stands guard. Creatures might wander in, like those red lizards or some smaller versions of Mister Boulder- which might be a problem. Still, unless something really dangerous shows up, I’m not concerned. Rocky will handle those, too.

On the subject of less natural threats, there are some distant wagon caravans. Just today, I saw another one go by. Luckily, those seem to have little to no interest in leaving the road, but humans are just as dangerous as the Dungeon, in my opinion. In time, if more people find this place, they might be a problem.

But, not right now.

My immediate problem is beneath my lack of feet.

The Dungeon.

I’m not going down there alone. I might make terrible life choices, from time to time, but I’m not a total idiot.

That place hates me.

Same point, I’m not going to leave the sprout up here alone, either. Rocky is going to stay put.

So… more Golems.

Why not?

Being honest, outside of philosophical dilemmas of constructing pseudo-living entities and forcing them into an existence of eternal servitude, I found my answer to that question appears to be “almost nothing.”

Sss…

So, it goes.

The moral travesties of not wanting to die to some ancient lurking horror beneath the ground. Still, I’m happy to report that the second generation of [Lesser Sentient Golem] seems to have bee a success.

The team has been assembled.

Built with far less intricate cores, and more utilitarian body shape, a second generation of Golem have come into the world, each swearing their loyalty to the Tiny Snake God!

They’re not as pretty, I’ll admit. Despite my scavenging, I couldn’t scramble as many many crystals together as I did with my first attempts at this spell- although I did find a few in what was left of the larger monster corpses. Or, piles of ashes, that were once monster corpses.

Which, was not something I’d ever considered before this, but makes a strange sort of sense if I think about it…

Do I have one of those?

Ug.

Rather not think about it.

Regardless.

I made do.

Built in roughly identical fashion to my original design, with smaller frames and less detail work. The spell didn’t let me go bigger, so I suppose the core size scales with that, somehow. At the very least, I’m confident that they won’t get stuck in tight places as easily. Sure, Rocky stands about a head an shoulders over them, but I’m optimistic.

These guys… I can see it in the polished stones that form their decorative eyes: these are the elite of [Lesser Sentient Golem] that all hope to be.

[Froggy A Team]

With bodies molded by yours truly, instead of that crap template the spell keeps pushing. Faces of frog-visage proudly standing in the afternoon sun. Weapons ready: They’re prepared for anything.

All they’re waiting for, is an order.

Yes.

Alaster, the spear.

Steward, the sword.

Granus, the… misshapen.

And Gorf, the…

Okay, so I ran out of steam while making these last two, but this guy…

Wooo.

He’s even worse than Granus.

I call him Gorf, the lump.

I know.

Considering they’re about to go into the Dungeon, naming these guys might have been a mistake. Any farmer will probably tell you: “don’t name things you’re going to have put down.”

Not that I’m going to put them down.

Well, literally, I might tell them to go down…

But I’m not going to execute them.

You mean what I know.

Sss…

I’m just very mindful of the fact that that the Dungeon has a habit of murdering pretty much everything.

Already feeling a little guilt.

Look at these adorable stone-cold war machines… They have no idea what is about to happen to them, and that’s probably for the best.

Standing here with froggy stoicism.

Elites, the best of the best, soldiers to their literal crystal-core.

Sss…

I don’t intend to just let them die.

It might happen, but I’m not just throwing them down the hole, or anything that shameless.

No, if we’re going down into that mess, we’re doing this in style.

Nothing but a large and ornate winding staircase will do, because if the Dungeon needs an entrance, it might as well be a nice one.

No more of this evil crevasse stuff, or pitfall tunnels.

It’s important to have standards.

Ssss…

Alright.

Come on, you lot.

Time to get to work.

……………………………

Book III - Chapter 17

………………………………………………….

Chapter 17

[Snake Report]

[Inheritor]

The gift I received.

The frog… person… God… entity… I’m still not quite sure what they were. But, when they died, I know they gave me something.

Something, with a purpose.

The title seems to infer as much.

Magic was a large part. In their final seconds, they fixed my Earth troubles once and for all. What’s more, is they gave me some of their own talents to go with it.

Still, it wasn’t just a simple gift. There was clearly more to it.

Knowledge.

The farther into their domain we traveled, the stronger I remember those vision had gotten. With their voice guiding me- guiding me until I couldn’t see anything else: I saw the edges of what they were.

Someone like me.

A person, or a ghost, or maybe just a soul? An outsider, snatched and forced to play a role, here in this strange place. Forced to play the games of killing for rewards. To be a [Servant of The World] as the title seems to suggest.

To gain that sort of power… how many people they murdered, I can only imagine. And yet, they made me witness enough. Just enough, until I could understand, what they hoped to accomplish. If only in a small part, I understand.

They chose me, to finish what they started.

Back down in the Dungeon, surrounded by my loyal Guards, looking up at this entrance of carvings: I think I’ve finally made a bit more sense of their message.

The faces stare ahead, stone given the imitation of emotion, as they fight and die in a never-ending battle. Swords, spears, teeth, and claws, all tearing one another apart. All meeting a horrible fate for the sake of war. Humans and monsters, together. Both sides, caught in a never-ending struggle of violence and war.

The truth was right there. Right here at the start, in these carvings.

This world is at war.

Not the kind where armies are pitted against one another, but war all the same. The kind of conflict where one side hates the other, so badly, that there’s nothing off the table of what might be attempted.

Hatred.

Something I’m all too familiar with, now. Personally, and…

Sss…

Down to the tiniest detail, riding along on Gorf the lump’s shoulder, I’ve got a pretty good sense of the dread that comes hand in hand with descending into a place that despises me. That which whispers in anger, at our very presence. That wants me to die, and die terribly.

I can’t hear it, exactly, but I can feel it.

Like a deep note, entire octaves out of range, but still shaking in my bones.

The World does not want me here.

[Enemy of the World]

I can almost feel that branded title pulse with rage.

The World doesn’t want me, or anyone, here. No one at all is permitted, unless they’ve bent the physical or metaphorical knee. So, someone like me, being here, is an act of defiance it can’t tolerate. Something that will naturally invoke retaliation of the grandest of scale, time and time again.

But, it probably should have thought about that before trying to murder me.

“Alaster, Steward: go to the hall entrance and keep watch. Granus, make sure there’s nothing else down here.”

Simple orders.

Nods of acceptance and now the Golem are… going.

I’m not entirely convinced these guys can carry out exactly what I tell them, yet. Not trying to say they’re entirely stupid, considering they understand speech, but they’re not quite geniuses, either. On the way down here, I saw Alaster hit his head so many times I had to rework the stairs.

Sss…

They’re good enough. I know they can fight, and if things go ass over teakettle, that’s what counts. The rest, hopefully, will come as the skill improves.

Hasn’t changed much down here, though. Which… well, it’s interesting.

I expected, from all the efforts to make the entrance open back up, there would be more differences from what I remember, but seems like that’s not really the case. Despite all the efforts to resurface and kill me, the Dungeon’s layout hasn’t changed much.

Still a large room, to start. Ruins and carvings on the entrance to go further in on one side, and almost natural cave-like layout for the rest of it. Minus, of course, the newly added staircase.

I tried to do a fairly narrow descent, but making room for the Golem crew was difficult on account of their size, so the new opening ended up being quite large. Little bit dicey on the approach, and I didn’t aim all that well. My interpretation of a glorious archway ended up in the far back, almost haphazardly bursting out and ruining the feng shui of the stalagmites.

Nothing a little touch-ups won’t fix, though.

Hmm… Alaster seems to be clunking around looking into the nooks and crannies, but looks like we’re in the clear. Nothing’s burst out of the shadows and latched on to their face, or anything.

Good start.

Steward’s actually the one in real danger, if there is any. They went right for the real entrance, down the incline a bit. Standing just inside the threshold of the passageway, any further and they would be heading into the winding hall, down to the Large Frog God’s throne room.

Or, what was his room.

Way down that long, winding, hall. Like a spiral to the center of the earth.

The farther in, the less I remember, but I imagine that’s where the monsters came from before trying to ambush on the surface. I’d bet good money they were drawn in from the deeper Dungeon, now that there’s no all-powerful frog to stop them. Either that, or…

You know, while I wasn’t in the best state of mind, I clearly recall there were some side tunnels towards the start. I think they were being mined by the people who were here before us, which means-

Ah.

There we are: I even spy with my tiny eyes, several boxes.

Mana crystals.

Looks as though they were never retrieved. The fake-wood crates are all piled, minus whatever Eveth, Alem, and the others must have brought out with them before they ran off.

Mine now, I suppose.

Gorf, your time has come. Start lugging those upwards. You’re on shuttle duty.

Yes, you.

Yep.

There you go. Just pick up-

Up, not down.

Gorf.

Ah.

Alright, I could see how this assignment might be difficult for you. I clearly didn’t think about how hard this was going to be for someone lacking in the defined “hand-structure” required.

OK- scratch that. Granus: your time has come!

Get to work, buddy. Just bring them back to Rocky. We’ll deal with them later. Gorf, you just… stick by me.

Yeah.

Hey, Gorf. Don’t feel bad.

Oh, come on now. Not having real hands is perfectly normal. I’m in a similar boat, and I seem to get by just fine. Your lumpy arms are great for other things, like pummeling monsters, or pounding giant pizza dough. You’ll get your chance to shine.

Sss…I have to admit, it’s amazing how a Golem that’s more soggy ginger-bread man than defined sculpture, can convey disappointment.

Didn’t expect that.

Gorf, I’ll tell you what. How about you go knock down some of those stalagmites.

I mean those weird pillar things, coming out of the floor. Give ‘em a good hit. Start swinging.

Yeah! There you go!

Nice job.

Good Golem.

Certainly got a knack for breaking things.

Keep that up, Gorf.

Man, he’s like a giant, extremely dangerous, sentient, wrecking ball of enthusiasm. He’s really going to town on those…

Right.

So, we’ve got our lookout guards, our package delivery, our demolition… Everyone’s got a job to do, now. So, I suppose it’s time I did mine.

Hear that Gaia?

This isn’t your Dungeon anymore.

No.

Starting now: this is mine.

………………………..