……………………

Chapter 19

It is recorded, and therefore known to be the truth, that the First Emperor of mankind was a direct descendant of the First King of men, of the ancient age. During the time of reckoning, when the lifeblood of mana first came to be realized and destruction fell upon the world, it is recorded, and thus known as fact, that the First Emperor brought humanity back from the precipice.

When the oceans swelled, and the ground shattered- when men fell about their neighbors, lusting for greater heights in their new-found power: the Empire formed not out of a twisted ego or aspirations to greatness, but through necessity. What are kingdoms, when set beside extinction? What is power, when there is no longer another generation to inherit it? From his voice, the prophecy was heard. As if by the Lord of Light, the First King himself, the Empire was forged. Molded together by one man, and within their veins was a power so great, that it pulled humanity back from the brink of total annihilation. Held the line against the most ancient and powerful of calamities. The strength to conquer the world, and leave their enemies weakened and frightened husks, should they have the honor of being left alive at all. By the blood, for the blood: All in the glorious name of the Empire. All for the sake of what must be done.

The Empire rules today, for what might come tomorrow. The Empire rules, so we might live. To go against this, is to go against mankind, itself.

Yet, despite how the legends might portray those times: the First Emperor who lead those wars, who called upon the Prophecy and took up the holy mantle of responsibility to mankind’s very survival, was not alone.

Nay.

For while the events are known, and taken for the glorious truth they might well be: there are quieter stories. Smaller, less important records, that might also be taken as fact. Hidden and stashed away among the great Academy Libraries, or personal studies among the Royal keep within the palace.

The First Emperor did not fight alone. By his side, were men and women who took up the banners. Who fought with him, for him, loyal until the grave. Loyal enough to set themselves alight in their darkest of hour, lest they be taken up and turned against him. Though years have passed, and turbulent ages war have all but ended, the times have cooled. Tempered, even, like steel pulled free of the forge to set beneath the hammers of necessity. Every-flying flags of Red, banners of flame: these were the foundations which form the noble houses of men.

Of these, which remain in more modern times, there are still many. Dozens, even, of the families who might trace their history upon gilded pages of master-crafted books, woven with metals that no magic of today might waver. Still, among them, there are a select few which stand above the rest.

House Adom, of which the Empire’s finest Knights were born. House Hulden, bloodline of the finest Inquisitors mankind had ever seen. Even the peasants, the poorest, might recognized their crests and their names. But, of all these families, all these histories: there is only one of which, who can claim to stand directly beside the throne.

Aye, only one.

Known for the most powerful Archmages in the recorded texts since the very founding of the Empire. Legends that turned the tides against hopeless battles and unspeakable horrors. With blood all but untarnished by the wretched masses that now flock the streets, it is said that most of this bloodline are still known to hold affinity with an element of the mystic arts by the time they are able to speak. So it is, there is only one family given the right to act beneath the Emperor’s own will. The Privileged to maintain order in the Royal Family’s absence. Ever loyal, ever faithful:

The Greater house of Qol.

Yes, indeed.

Who better, to take on such a role? What choice could possibly fill the position, and do so adequately?

None, of course.

So, it was only just- only right, that Ekroy of Greater house Qol, receive the honorable duty of subjugating the newly discovered Dungeon Entrance.

Of course.

It was indeed a true use of his famed talents.

Ekroy nodded to himself, as the hot winds of the ever-drying plains West of the city swept up across the dying plains. The heath all but filtered to a cool and calming touch, by the woven seals along his cloakof silk.

Standing atop the wagon, polished wood carved to the finest standards of the Empire’s own crest, Ekroy felt the pride fill in his lungs. Ro’ of only the highest caliber bellowed out in mighty form. Men- soldiers, of the Royal guard, awaited only his word, to unsheathe blades of brilliant steel.

This was his purpose.

Just… right… this was something that only he, Ekroy of Qol, could do.

What a honor it was. For him, to have been selected, he could still hardly believe his luck. Yet, of course, he was the obvious choice. As the third son of the primary line, he was far above the other remaining candidates. Especially since, the most powerful of the family had left to cross the ocean by the Emperor’s own command, not long ago. And, perhaps admittedly, the next most powerful and their, sent out to the port cities of the Western most edge of the Old Country, to maintain order.

Or, the other, remaining talented members of the family, sent to to the Eastern lines, to reinforce and hold against the ever-creeping Dwarven monstrosities known to spawn in the blood-soaked mountains.

But, of course, it was still a role only he could fill! Ekroy was sure of it.

Ekroy of Greater house Qol would prove that, and more, today! His name would be stamped upon the texts! Marked upon those gilded pages: a Hero! A man who subjugated an Entrance to the Dungeon, for the honor and glory of the Empire!

And, this was only the start! With the winds of momentum and recognition, Ekroy wouldn’t stop here! No, he knew he was destined for greatness! The likes of which, the world might never have seen!

He would-

He… would…

“Is that a Frog?” Ekroy asked.

………………….

CRASH!

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up]

“I’ll have you know, I am a direct representative of the Empire! As the elected Leader of this Survey Team, I command you to stand aside!”

CRASH!

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up]

“Mage! I may not be able to see you, but I am learned in the arts! If you do not cease this mockery of your craft, I cannot promise you anything but the most extreme of punishments! This Dungeon Entrance has been claimed by the Emperor himself! It is property of his mightiest, and none other-”

CRASH!

“That is expensive equipment! You Brute! Do you even comprehend what you have-”

CRASH!

“Stop! You damnable machination! You foul monstrosity! Stop in the name of Law! In the name of justice!”

CRASH!

“Mage! Come out, this instant! Call off your Golem, or I will have your head! You are now directly responsible for destruction of-”

CRASH!

[Lesser Sentient Golem - Rank up]

“No! Not the Wagon! Do you even know how expensive those are these days? Lord of Light- DAMN YOU! STOP!”

CRASH!

…………

[Snake Report]

So.

I suppose two whole days without violence and destruction was too much to ask for. Yet, here we are.

Yes.

Breathe it in deep.

The already distant shouts of panic. The distinct scent of wagons burning. Men running- fleeing before two unstoppable forces of living-stone, intent on egregious amounts of property damage.

That one, pompous, arrogantly-loud, leader who is clearly failing to hold it all together on all fronts.

Yes.

This is all my fault.

An over reaction?

Maybe.

And yet, here we are.

I should have expected, considering the value people seem to hold in access to the Dungeon and its resources. I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that humans would probably come back here. If not the Farstrider Guild, then someone else, eventually.

Technically speaking, I could have come up with something to slow them down.

Maybe some big walls.

A moat.

There’s no water around here, but maybe I could have made a ditch filled with sharp rocks, or something like that.

Gorf could catch some scorpions to put in there.

Yeah.

Anyways, this could have gone a little differently. I accept responsibility, and I’ll admit I might have gone a little overboard.

A little.

By the time I slithered up the stairs, was there really anything left to ruin that Rocky and Gorf hadn’t already gotten a nice head-start on?

Absolutely not.

I don’t think I’d classify anything here as unwarranted, but I probably didn’t have to breath so much fire.

You know, being fair, though: maybe it’s a little bit the human’s fault. Rolling up here like they owned the place, getting to close to the sprout, making Rocky mad.

They really should have been much more prepared before they tried to set him on fire.

“We’ll be back! You hear me, Mage? I don’t know who you think you are, but I assure you! By the name of the Emperor: you’ve made a grave error!”

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure. Real convincing when you shout it from all the way over there.

“I deem thee an Enemy of the Empire! You hear me, you fool? Next time, I’ll be back with more than a small escort of wagons! By my name, of the House Qol, I’ll return with enough forces to wipe you and your cowardly creations from existence! We will unleash fury upon you, the likes of which you can’t even imagine! We will blast you from the sky! You hear- EEEP!”

How’s that? Just a little bit of fire to go with all the hot air.

Motivation to hurry up a bit.

There you go.

Keep walking.

All the way back to that stupid city.

Go do whatever it is you people do, when you’re not murdering one another.

Sss…

Well, that was something. What a mess.

Good work team.

Gorf, I think your idea with the wagon flipping was a very creative. Well done.

Throwing those boxes of mana crystals…

Not so much.

I know they make for good explosions. Very pretty- no, put down that box. Stop that. We need those.

No, I’m not sure what for quite yet.

Just don’t-

Ah.

Okay.

Great.

No, Gorf, I’m not mad you dropped the box. It’s not your fault you’ve got giant stone mittens for hands.

Hey now, cheer up. Look, Rocky’s happy. Go help him smash some of those wagons up a bit more.

There’s a good Golem.

Sss…

There are still a few boxes left, at least.

Hadn’t expected these to dwindle quite so quickly-

[!]

[The Empire has Declared War!]

[!]

[Enemy of Mankind - Updated!]

[Enemy of Mankind - Advanced!]

[Title Awarded: Enemy of The Empire]

[…]

[…]

[System Restrictions - Pending]

[Analysis - Complete!]

[Greater Enemy of The World - Retained!]

[Restrictions - Retained!]

[…]

[…]

[Temporary Restriction - Lifted!]

[Direct System Message: Gaia is pleased by your actions!]

[…]

[Redemption Quest - Offered!]

You’ve got to be joking.

[Redemption Quest! 0/1000]

[Reward: Title - Greater Servant of the World!]

[Accept? Y/N]

… you’re kidding, right?

[Accept? Y/N]

Hell no.

[…]

[Direct System Message: Gaia is displeased by your actions!]

[Restriction - Reapplied!]

Sss…

Fantastic.

……………………

Chapter 20

[Snake Report]

[Lesser Sentient Golem] hit a breakthrough.

Rank 25 is the magic number. After that, I got a notification as it made a shift over to [Sentient Golem]

Which, is interesting.

I’m not sure if there’s a consistent method of tracking when and how skills and spells seem to change, but I feel that one is worth noting.

That’s pretty high, far as the numbers I remember.

If I hadn’t already pushed Earth Magic past what was likely expected from someone, this might have taken a very long time.

Anyways, it wasn’t a spectacular sort of thing. Rocky squashed a scorpion I was hoping to have added to the hypothetical anti-intruder moat, and that was the feather that broke the camel’s back.

Or the magical system’s back.

One of those, metaphorically speaking.

Exciting times.

After an entire afternoon of testing my froggy companions with menial tasks and heavy labor though, I can say with certainty: the difference isn’t really noticeable.

No.

They’re still not all that smart.

If anything, my Golem and their personalities seem a little bit more pronounced, but that’s it.

They’re just a little more aware.

Barely.

Rocky is all about his responsibilities, standing guard over the sprout. Gorf just wants me to be happy with him. If I’m summarizing: they’re still just big, lumbering, lumps, but there’s a bit more of a “spark” there, when compared to before.

Unless I’m just overthinking this.

Could be, there’s no difference at all, and they’re just better at fighting, or something lame like that.

Considering how combat-oriented this world has been from the get-go, it wouldn’t surprise me much.

It’s safe to say, either way, I can’t expect to get a lot of intelligent beings out of this skill, no matter how much I grind.

The Golem crew will not be beating me at games of wit.

Also fair to assume: any aggression towards humans, is still unfairly rewarded by the system.

Or Gaia.

Or both.

I don’t know if they’re the same thing or not, but I feel like they’re close enough.

Scorpion might have been the last straw, so to speak, but there were plenty of notification messages before that. Typically associated with humans screaming.

Pretty sure we didn’t kill anyone, but I can’t say for certainty we didn’t come close. Gorf, specifically.

He got a little creative, towards the end there.

We’re going to have a chat, Gorf and I.

Later, though.

Slithered back downstairs to do a different kind of damage control.

Coincidentally, several random monsters were caught trying to to break in on the lower level, shortly after telling the messages I wasn’t interested in their offer.

Coincidentally.

Cross off the list as I go: monsters, humans, goblins, birds, dinosaurs, elves, more humans, that evil stone construct Eveth kept in the basement, a giant rock, and… some sort of ancient, primal, god-like, force of nature, that seems to be tethered to the very reality by which this world is governed.

Now, everyone is trying to murder me.

Wonderful.

Keep ‘em coming.

See if I care.

They can all eat a jolly bag of donuts.

I’m taking my stand, right here. The humans and their stupid, bloody, Empire. Gaia and the system, and whatever god-awful monsters they’re cooking up down in the dungeons: I’ve been running away from dangerous stuff for way too long.

I’m tired of it.

This is my line in the sand.

My water-less moat in the sand.

Right here.

Just me, my tiny little tree, and my sentient lawn ornaments.

Tiny Snake God as my witness, so help me: I will go full Eastwood on anyone stupid enough to mess with this arrangement.

Get the hell off my lawn.

[Sentient Golem - Rank up]

Sss…

I feel obligated to state that I’m giving up on the moat idea.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

My minions keep stepping on the scorpions.

This isn’t practical.

……………………

Chapter 21

[The East]

The Actium was an old ship. One of the oldest in the Empire, even, if you looked outside of the higher vessels held within the Royal fleet. Sister-ship to the Geralta (the likes of which was famously brought down in flames during its maiden voyage during the second Expansion, and never returned to service) the Actium’s career was far from the spotlight. In place of conquest, being drafted up for the Empire’s noble subjugation of the new lands all those generations ago, the Actium was instead stationed on the Eastern Lines in defense of the general populace. There, it remained, as one of the few vessels dedicated solely to the Dwarven front, where the battles had already been won and borders had already been established.

And it very well did remain.

Remained until the Actium was a proud veteran of two hundred and fifty-seven campaigns.

Yes, for longer than anyone but the ledgers could remember, the Actium had patrolled along the Bloodridge Mountains. Sometimes a scout, sometimes a rescue, but other times: as a presence. No, to some, maybe it could even be called a beacon. Something that held meaning to those many troops below. Soldiers, waiting in their camps, or outposts, looking up towards the deep blue sky. For, truly, the ship had been present for so long, it was more than just a ship. It was proof that the Empire did not falter. That the reason mankind stood strong along the front, was because did not forget the threat, no matter how much time had passed.

On the Actium’s ceremonial two-hundred and fiftieth campaign, the vessel was inspected by a Royal Shipkeeper and thereby marked as the only ship known within the Empire, to have capable been flying with not one, not two, but seven, separate, catastrophic, structural failures in desperate need of replacement. Each one, as it is noted upon the official documentation- in plain text: “patched and rigged more haphazardly than the previous.”

By practical decision, the Actium was immediately set to be retired.

Yet, then, by a far less practical outcry, as a result of wide-spread protest by the Eastern Legions, a Royal decree was drafted. One which proclaimed, a single exception. Thus, instead of being settled down to a slow dismantling, the ship was repaired and placed back into service, once more.

Repaired, though, would perhaps be an understatement.

For, as most already know: the Actium is an old ship. An ancient vessel, in many ways, and during its routine service, the vessel had been damaged, patched, damaged, and patched, so many times, many might even be argued the ship to be entirely different from how it began. In fact, to the untrained eye, it almost looked young. What, with a fresh coat of paint, and a new deck to replace the countless years of damage. Red painted wood used in place of composite or stone-strand for the purposes of weight and balance- expensive as this happened to be in the present times. The ports were new, the mast was new, as were the winged sails: but these are simply cosmetics. Even equipped with new sails, the Actium was not a thing of beauty. A proud, ram-style bow, stands out in a brutal fashion. The wide base, awkward, to the sleeker fashion of the younger generation of ships. New paint can’t cover up the lurking purpose held there. Of a ship, meant for an age where war was not just against the enemies of mankind, but of mankind itself.

Old bones.

As such, the Actium had no new weapons, either. In fact, aside from the small additions to its core over the years, the ship was utter spartan. No rune-worked ballista, or new technology tinkered together by clever Mages at the academy. No pivoting cannons, or mana-stone fed tubes. Far from these, the Actium was not given shortcuts to greatness, for it had never needed them. It had but one weapon: the single cannon, set directly into the bow. Powered not by crystals, but by a Mage’s own mana reservoir. Despite the exception made to keep it in service, other models of Actium’s variety had all but been completely set aside, as the generations began to pass. Growing less and less feasible, as magic began to cool. A term coined some centuries past by Imperial Scribes. Much as their egos might boast otherwise, the average Mage of present day can no longer control the elements like one channeling the raging tempest of a violent storm. No, clearly, those powers are only for the rightful few. Of the royal, or noble blood. So, while the Actium’s, itself, stood the test of ages past, those who might use it were harder to come by. Still though, none of this changed the fact. That, set into the bow, pointed as one might steer: straight ahead, and nothing but, was a weapon of great power. Housed within a framework of wood, metal, and some combination of the two. Twisted and impossible abominations of smithing, which came from a different era. Back when the mana coursing through the minds of men was still a raging fire. When the greatest minds alive bent the knee and put their powers to serve one purpose: the Empire’s survival. There was an undeniable power in this. In a material whose nature could not be replicated. Not even by all the Archmages, sitting up in their ivory towers, or all the Mages studying beneath them.

Yet still, it flew.

Winged fins to either side, cutting across the trailing vapor of barely formed clouds, set beside the jagged peaks of the Blood Ridge Mountains. The Actium tracked along the definitive border. Soaring, high above the lands below, beside the threshold which set the realm of men apart from the lost lands of their long silent Eastern neighbors. Where steep cliffs stood, like broken fangs or shattered daggers, and dangers lurked. Horrors, truly, just waiting for the chance to bring ruin. Mountains and peaks of sharpened stone, continuing without end, until the coasts of the continent sunk into the oceans. And, perhaps, even then.

Sailing beside these, the difference in terrain could be striking, even to those familiar with the lands. How the mountains abruptly began, with barely a plateau of highlands, before simply striking out against the clouds. To see that difference, where farm land and villages sat, hugging the ever-drying river that was fed from the steep valleys between these peaks. To watch the current pool southward, towards the ocean beyond the Southern horizon. Dying farmlands, now barely capable of sustaining their once beautiful estates, waiting in the dark shadows of looming giants. Ever bordered by blackened peaks, where monsters were known to roam, if not worse.

A harsh beauty, to be sure.

It was said the Dwarves brought this all to be. That they did so, as their people’s one, final, act of hatred and spite. One horrific act of violence, upon themselves, in the face of a war soon to be lost. For, the most ancient legends, back from before the Empire, tell of the East as lands of a different sort. Though, these might now be filled with nothing but desolate mountains and danger, it’s said they were home to a vast civilization. Where cities rose to rival any of mankind, lifted up upon a grand plateau. With roads of gold, and buildings of glass,filled with treasures and altars to unnamed Gods. Where Palaces of precious metals, armor, and jewels, were worshiped for the glory contained within them. For secrets, bestowed only to the most faithful.

No longer.

Southward bound, following the river as it meandered with the small current still in its possession, winds gripped the winds with a steady elevation, the Actium and its crew paid little concern to the history beneath them. Barely a turbulent patch to be had, as their travel carried on. Every so often, far below, another fortification might be spotted. Just far enough from the mountains, themselves, to avoid falling debris, but close enough to respond at a moment’s notice. The Eastern lines of the Empire’s legions, spread thin in light of the recent proclamation. The fires lit within those encampments seemed far too few to meet the standards what was once the most honored defense known to man.

Looking down at them from his perch beside the open-air port hole, Mage Finel breathed in deep. The faint scent of fires was still on the wind, mixing the fresh flow of mana. Strong enough to set his beard on ends. Near the mountains, on a day like today, he could almost imagine he was standing before the Dungeon. Or a training room, carved out beneath the Academy.

“How far off are we?” Setting his hand on a long-running metal pipe, bracketed to the ship’s hull, Mage Finel shouted. “Ander, you hear me? I was told this location would be marked by [Eclipse] spells, on our approach.”

“I hear you.” The end cap of a hollow piece buzzed, quietly at first, but quickly growing louder. “Legions had a lot of people pulled, not long ago. They probably couldn’t send a full patrol like they’d originally planned.

“How are we supposed to know where this place is, then?” Finel continued his search on the ground below. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than wander around aimlessly.”

“Patience, Finel.” The bar hummed, as the other Mage’s voice reverberated through the rune-worked metal. The clarity shifted, as mana brought several of the markings to a soft, pale, glow. “South East of the Cutter’s Corpse Mountain was also what I was told. We’ve still got time.”

“Sure we do. But, we’ve still got to make it halfway down the continent for our second assignment, after.” Finel replied. “Can’t you tell the pilot to hurry up?”

“You mean, Captain?”

“Pilot.”

“Captain, Finel.”

“They’re still green.”

“Well, it wouldn’t do us much good to put any more pressure on them, then. Certainly, not with all the more experienced folks gone.” Over the bar, Ander’s voice dropped in volume a bit more, coming through clearly as the final clarity check of the runes tuned. “Besides, this is important. Inquisitor seal was present on the order, so they’re probably just nervous.”

“It was?” Finel paused.

“You didn’t know?” Over the metal, Ander’s snort cut off with a hollow thump.

“Well… I suspected-”

“Light, Finel. Did you even look up from your tomes long enough to read what we’re scouting? It’s ancient ruins! Of course the Inquisitors are involved.”

“My personal research is hardly a distraction from my service, Ander. I just must have overlooked… I just assumed the Inquisitors were too busy, these days.” Finel muttered.

“How so?” Ander pressed, tone humorous.

“All the talk has been about the Emperor flying everyone over the sea to put out some bloody fires, and before that it was about some monster breaking the Northern Continent’s Sanctuaries.” Finel defended. “The Royal Seers have been sending out orders, I hear.”

“I’ve heard, on good authority, it has been confirmed as just one Sanctuary. Not multiple.”

“Oh, same thing. Unheard of, either way.” Finel replied. “Besides, ruins turn up all the bloody time. I don’t see why this is going to be any different.”

“It’s-”

“And, it’s not like we’re going to be able to get any substantial force out into the ranges to deal with it.” Finel continued. “Why, I’d bet my favorite staff that nothing will come of this, whatsoever.”

“The Inquisitors are in the business of knowing what we’re up against.” Ander replied. “Even if they’re just going to order us to come back in a few weeks and set the cannon to it.”

“Light, I hope not.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“You don’t think they would, do you?”

“It’s really not so bad.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to say, you noble bastard.”

“If it were anyone else, Finel, I’d take offense.”

“Truth is truth, Ander. You’ve got reserves to spare, unlike the rest of us.” Finel shook his head, as he looked down as the approaching cliffs. They were turning East now, rounding the large, blade-like, mountain, cutting out a bit farther than those around it. “Last time I shot that bloody thing, I felt sick for days. Swear, the Mana potion didn’t make a lick of difference.”

“Well, if I were you, I’d just be grateful not to be selected to head overseas, then.” Ander replied. “I’ve heard they shipped out with entire cargoholds full of those.”

“Full of what?” Finel paused. “Potions?”

“Any and every. It was quite the fuss, just a few weeks ago.”

“Who’d you heard this from?”

“I’ve got some friends in the markets.”

“You?” It was Finel’s turn to chuckle. “What’s this now? A Mage, like yourself, fancying to be a merchant?”

“I prefer the term investor, Finel.” Anders answered.

“The service not good enough for you?”

“Oh, enough. We’re starting to descend more. Keep your eyes open, I’ve got cliffs in front of me, now.”

“Fine, fine. Understood.”

As the Actium turned further, Finel leaned with the motion. The momentum carried on, he knew. Sailors had all sorts of strange explanations for how this worked, each more ridiculous and outlandish than the last, but Finel had studied in the Academy, so he knew better. That his body would have, were it not for the wood beneath his feet, continued to soar out in the same direction the ship had been travelling previously. That, would he not have plummeted (and thus changed his trajectory by doing so) he might have shot out like an arrow, on the apex of the turn.

Somewhere South, he imagined.

Behind him, the crew worked- what little crew were aboard this particular day. Two soldiers with war hammers held on their posts. They wore light armor, chest plated with a v-neck rising out for deflection, but leather and chain for the rest. There was really, unless they possessed a very specific skill, little point in wearing more. Just enough to avoid cuts from indirect attacks. Any real blow from the enemies in these parts, and the armor wouldn’t matter much.

Finel knew they were intended purely for reassurance. Two soldiers, alone, wouldn’t be able to do much of anything, should the Actium happen to go down. If they had any true purpose in being on the ship it was more for the rare chance they needed to assist the stationed Mages in repelling anything that managed to board while in flight.

As the ship shuddered, catching some unseen updraft along the cliffs, Finel frowned. On days like this, it really made him wonder if he made the right choice, enlisting. It had seemed a best option, at the time. His family had been from a village somewhat north, but still close to the Eastern Fronts, and he’d grown up with great respect for the forces stationed nearby. But, things had been different then. As a boy, the farms were still growing crops without much trouble, the rains still came, on occasion, and more than that-

He grimaced, as the ship shuddered again.

More than that, many years ago, Finel would never have imagined his life would be at the mercy of some newer Captain.

Mages, even from less-than-noble stock like himself, were far too important to be risked dying due to a piloting error. Dying in battle, defending the Empire was one thing (however Finel would much prefer to avoid it) but being smashed up against a cliff and reduced to pulp because some wet-behind the ears, good-for-nothing, pilot decided to fly them into a mountainside, was another subject entirely.

“See anything?” From the far side of the ship, Ander's voice buzzed along the rune-worked metal. “I’ve got a few Constructs visible on the cliffs. Southern side is distant, though. Not worried about incursion.”

“I’ve got… nothing, oddly enough.” Finel replied, peering out from the ship. They were several hundred paces from the ground now, and still dropping ever so slightly, but he couldn’t see much of the local “inhabitants” as it were. Steep cliffs, what looked to be the sight of a recent avalanche, perhaps, but nothing moved or responded to their presence. “Wait, there’s one.” Finel corrected.

“What type?” Ander asked. “Some sort of animal-imitation?”

“No, this one’s a bipedal. Looks human-enough. Bit strange, though.”

“What’s strange about it?”

“Well…” Finel frowned. “One of the arms is twice as long as the other.” He answered, squinting at it, just to be sure.

“Intentionally longer, or just misshapen?” Ander asked. “I’ve heard that can happen, sometimes. Some sort of issue with how they’re produced, is the theory.”

“I’m not sure.” Finel had a clear look at it now. The creature was hanging off the edge of a cliff, head turning to track them as they moved past. The ship was getting closer, but they were still several hundred paces away. “It’s noticed us, though. Seems to be watching the ship.”

“Close enough to try and jump?”

“No.”

“I’d just leave it be, then.” Ander replied. “Any others?”

“No, that seems to be the only one.” Finel replied, squinting. “It’s bizarre looking. Some sort of climbing adaptation, maybe? Been awhile since I’ve been assigned anywhere down this way, so I don’t know if that’s worth recording.”

“A little outside my normal territory as well, so… I suppose it could be important. Or, it might just be some sort of error.” Ander replied. “I’ve read some reports from the South, by the ocean. Seems as though they’ve been dealing with models based on insects the past few years. Easier for the Constructs to come up from the beaches, apparently.”

“Maybe… some sort of regional variation, then?”

“Well, if you don’t sound convinced, it’s worth recording.” Ander chuckled. “Ah, I’ve got sight on a flare. Get ready for another turn. South a bit further, but I think we’ve almost reached the ruin.” Ander’s voice distorted, as the ship jostled with another side wind. “We’ll have to descend a bit more to see anything.”

“Understood.” Finel responded.

The ship continued on, as the cliff fell away, soon replaced by smaller, sharper peaks below. Still, the Construct watched in the distance. Orienting itself to follow the Actium as it carried past. Joints and limbs (ignoring the long arm on its right side) seemed almost human, but bent so much farther. As it reached a distance that was almost completely out of Finel’s line of sight, it moved suddenly. Much like a contortionist, it skittered up to a gap in the cliff, and slipped away. Gone, as if it had never been.

Had it been a scout, perhaps? Finel wondered about that. Off to report its findings to some central location? The Empire forces had never found proof of such a thing, but the Constructs clearly had to be coming from somewhere. Deep underground, was the theory, but likely separate from the Dungeon, from what little exploration had been charted out that way. Many believed they were being formed within the mountains, themselves.

“Anyone ever manage to explain how those things communicate?” Finel asked.

“The Constructs?”

“Yes.”

“I was reading something one of the Archmages published, a year or two back. It was…” Ander hummed for a moment. “Silus, I believe? He did some study on the Soul element. Seemed to draw a hypothesis that they used their cores to pass messages.”

“Their cores? Really?”

“It referenced a study he had completed, related to crystals put under an active current of mana. The technical notes were beyond me, but apparently they can emit something like sound, or light.”

“And they respond to this?”

“Presumably, others can interpret this. Or at least, the other cores they had could react to it.”

“I see your time in the markets hasn’t completely ruined you, then.”

“Wouldn’t say that.” Ander replied. “I’ll admit, the notes were a little too much for me to make sense of. I’d need to reread.” He chuckled. “Even then, I probably still won’t understand, but I suppose that’s what sets the geniuses apart from the rest of us.”

“If you were a genius, they’d have you working in an ivory tower, you know.” Finel let out a short, laugh. “What a tragedy that would be, to miss out on all of this. God-awful mountains, filled with murderous horrors.”

“Is that sarcasm I hear? I’ll have you know- hold on.” Ander stopped short, voice cutting out. “Finel, you said the one you spotted had one arm longer than the others, correct?”

“Correct, right arm. Twice as long as the left.”

“I’ve got three… four of them, up on the cliff on the upcoming pass. Safe to say this is a regional trend.” The tube rattled. “And, I’ve got another flair. Light, the patrol is pinned down there. Something must have gone wrong.”

“They’re on the ruins?” Finel asked. “I’m still facing peaks over here. Damn pilot has me looking at nothing.”

“Yes! We’ve got a whole patrol down on the ruins, looks like they’re stuck. Two more flairs, now.”

“We’re descending.”

“Yes.”

"We’re descending… to much.” Finel noted aloud, as one of the closer peaks began to rise up. “Ander, why are we going so low? We’re close enough, as it is.”

“Hold on, word from the bridge…” The voice rang hollow for a moment, as muffled noises came down the tube. “Confirmed. Finel, the Captain has ordered a rescue. We’ll be head into a pickup.”

“You can’t be serious.” Finel turned, all but yelling at the metal. “Who does he think he is? Some bloody hero? That’s not what we’re here for. That’s not what we’re equipped for.”

“It’s the Captain’s call.”

“Captain?” Finel sputtered. “That boy can’t even grow a bloody beard yet-” His blood grew cold, as he glanced up at the rising cliff-side, just in time to see another humanoid form skitter into the cracks. That one wasn’t even fifty paces away. “Ander, tell the Captain to get us the fuck away from the cliffs, we’re too close.”

“It’s a tight fit through the pass, Finel. There’s no give on my side either.”

“Then, have him take us back up, we’ll circle back, approach from the other direction.”

“No go, we’re already too low for that. Besides, I got at look on the way in, they’re right up against the base of another peak. We’d have to do a full turn about and risk the ship.”

“Risk the ship? Ship’s survived plenty worst than that, what about us?” Finel felt his temper creeping, tempered only by fear. “This is foolish.”

They were too low. He could look out over the edge and see the ground was only twenty-five or so paces off, but what worried him more was the cliff-sides of the valley they’d flown into.

Steep.

Much too steep to be natural, even for the territory they were in. Almost as if they’d been carved away, chipped and broken, to a degree that was almost reversing the traditional angle. Indeed, there were gutted places, that pushed out, further away from the mountains, and closer to whatever might be stupid enough to fly near them.

“Ander, report to the Captain that I highly advise we reconsider this course.”

“The Captain notes your concern.”

With almost lazy speed, Finel felt the ship begin to decelerate. Eyes watching the cliff-sides, he leaned out further from the port, to confirm. They were all but engulfed by this pass. It was too tight, and narrowing further with a gradual turn. It barely seemed noticeable at first, but now that they were deep within it, Finel could see the walls were closing in.

Walls, that were filled with jagged splits, and recesses of inky black stone.

“Keep an eye out, Finel. I’ve got more movement on my side.” Ander’s voice echoed through the tube. “Five… six. If they try and jump, I’ll hit them with a buffer spell. We’re still far enough away.”

“What kind are they?”

“Same as we saw before. Must be for climbing, or-” Abruptly, Ander’s voice cut off.

“Ander?” Finel asked, eyeing the tube. It was still active… somewhat. “Ander?” He asked again.

The runeworked metal did not answer.

Keeping his eyes on the cliff-side, Finel felt decidedly uneasy. There were Constructs in the cliff-side. He could see them now, standing in the shadows of those cracks and splits of stone. From thirty paces, they couldn’t possibly make the jump, but they were so close. Much too close. If they didn’t get out of this bloody valley soon.

Something moved, and Finel reacted. As he was trained, as he’d done a hundred times before, the staff in his free hand let loose with a rush of Air, casting a [Buffer] to slow whatever had just come at them. But, instead of being rewarded with a flailing body plummeting to the ground below, Finel got a gash on his cheek.

A deep one.

Embedded in the wooden beam behind him, was a long, polished, spike.

“What in all the Light?” Finel stared at it. Then, to the soldiers, who were still seated, deeper in. They looked at it as well, clearly startled. One of them began to rise.

It was a javelin.

A javelin of stone, that had been thrown off course, however barely, from its target.

It was difficult to process, truly. Absurd, even, as they all stared at it, mental gears turning about in their heads, as a shared feeling of horror passed between all involved.

“TAKE US UP.” Finel shouted at the metal pipe, throwing off his astonishment with another spell, just in time to intercept a second incoming projectile. It whistled past, greeted by a shout of pain somewhere behind him, but Finel didn’t have time to care. Looking out at the cliff-side, he felt the pit of his stomach drop in a way that had nothing to do with altitude. Closer and closer, the cliffs were closing in, and crawling out from every crack, every crevice, were hundreds of Constructs. Each moving with inhuman speed as they burst free of their hiding, long arms already reeling back.

Reeling back, to throw.

“TAKE US UP!” Finel shouted, hurling every spell he could think of. Fire, Air: it didn’t matter. He unleashed hell itself, as his staff burned away all the mana he had to give. In seconds, he spent it all. Casting, even his arm found itself pinned. “TAKE US UP!” Finel shouted one last time.

But, it was already much too late for that.

……..

Chapter 22

[Snake report]

Time has passed.

Yes.

It’s been about a month since someone last declared war on me. Which, I guess in context to the severity of such an act, might be a really long time.

All in all, though, it hasn’t felt that way.

Time has been flying, and things have been getting really weird around here.

Weird…er.

I’ll be honest, nothing in this entire world has ever seemed completely normal, but recent developments should probably not be understated.

No one steals from-

Shush.

Where was I?

Weird?

Right.

When my Golem posse and I dealt with the Empire trying to imminent domain our turf, I didn’t fully appreciate the consequences which might follow.

Of course, I knew there would be some.

I’m not that naive.

No, I knew in one way or another, the Empire wasn’t going to just head home and accept “I guess that’s off-limits” or whatever. The Empire hasn’t really projected that sort of vibe.

But, I didn’t realize how grossly unprepared they were going to be, either.

It’s like they’ve got a bunch of amateurs leading the show.

I’ve seen what humans are capable of. Soldiers dropping down from ships, Legions marching through the streets, people swinging swords that cut the laws of reality as easily as their intended targets.

That has not been replicated.

Especially, not after all the shouting about the “Empire this,” and “the Emperor that.” I half-anticipated this whole ordeal to turn into some messed up version of the Alamo. Some worst-case scenario, where despite my best efforts, fighting the good fight, I’d have to slither off into the Dungeon and go back to being a paranoid lunatic and eating mushrooms for a few years.

Where the Empire would inevitably call in fantasy-era tactical air-strike.

That sort of thing.

Surprisingly, not the case.

Because, they fear you, Great One! no a soul alive would dare to steal from-

Shush.

Yes, Great One.

Sss…

It’s like he’s finally woken back up, or something.

Been getting noisy.

… and I’ve completely lot my train of thought.

Shoot.

Haven’t been sleeping much. Not intended as an excuse, so much as a statement. I’ve been keeping busy, mana burning away, day-in, day out.

Gorf did a real number on the mana crystals left-over from before, but I’ve probably made a dent in those myself, at this point.

Between the Humans, the Dungeon…

I’m a little on edge, trying to get ahead of whatever horrible thing is probably happening.

Because, it’s coming.

Of course, it is.

Can’t fool me that easily. No way, no how.

Oh, the beehive of random activity that stirred up from my polite rebuttal of the Empire’s claim to my property was probably a big fuss. Impressive to say the least, from my perspective. What, with their second and third attempts to come back here and oust me, as poorly executed as those attempts happened to be, but… these past few weeks, I’m not entirely convinced that I’m actually what’s driving the craziness anymore.

I’m serious.

You’d almost believe they’ve forgotten about me.

Not to say that Rocky and Gorf haven’t gotten really into their Wagon throwing contests- because they have. And, I’m not even going to try denying my part in (even by my lowest estimates) hilariously severe amounts of property damage.

It’s a lot.

But they seem to have bigger fish to fry all of a sudden.

The last time they attacked around a week ago. That loud noble-looking fellow and some folks in robes tried to bombard me with arrows and magic. To which, I had Gorf throw heavy things at them.

In rebuttal, of course.

After that, they… gave up?

Opted for a temporary recess in the campaign?

Which is a wise choice, on their part, as I’d really prefer not to have to scrape what’s left of some stupid noble off of my pet rocks.

But it’s weird.

Assumptions are being made here. It’s not like they met me in a white tent for peace talks and treaty agreements, or anything. But, I’m reasonably sure they’re calling it quits, and I guess that’s just the trouble.

No more people are currently being stupid enough to come over towards the Dungeon.

Which is good.

This is a good thing.

I like that.

I’m okay with that.

But, just because they’re not approaching me-

OH? You’re Approaching Me-

Shut up.

How the hell do you even… I don’t want to know. As I was trying to say: Just because they’re not approaching me-

-Doesn’t mean there aren’t a heck of a lot of humans around.

It’s suspicious.

Coincidentally, almost exactly in line with the last pitiful attempt to invade the unrecognized, neutral, mostly peaceful, nation of the Tiny Snake God, the humans suddenly shifted gears.

Caravans have been increasing.

Both in numbers, size: I’ve seen a lot of traders, but also military. Same sort of wagons that Gorf has been happy to kick for field-goals have been rumbling by in huge numbers. All headed somewhere in a real hurry.

East to west, west to east: there are a LOT of people about. I haven’t been spending a lot of time above ground, but it doesn’t take an observant eye to know that traffic is way up.

And, I don’t know why.

Honestly.

No ideas.

Humans declaring war on me? That’s “OK.” Not really my first rodeo. Above all, I can understand a clear reason for it.

But, this is just strange.

I swear, just today I’m counting at least eight caravans so far. Big ones, at that, and those don’t even account for the traffic at a higher altitude. There are a bunch of ships that seem to be flying. I think they’re travelling on some sort of circuit, to and from the City. Cargo routes, I’m assuming from the size of them.

Clearly, something has happened.

Something big, bad, and ugly.

It’s probably going to be terrible.

I’m probably going to really, really hate whatever it happens to be.

Sss… yes.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about it.

I’m not curious?

No.

No, I’m not.

I’ve reached the point in my reincarnated life, where “I’ll deal with the problems as they wander in” is becoming a core part of my identity.

I have no motivation to find out ahead of time.

Without a single doubt: whatever it is will find me.

Any day, now.

Any day.

So, there’s no rush.

Humans can deal with whatever it is. Them, their Emperor, their giant fleet of flying boats.

Humans can go do human things, in human places.

Fine by me.

While they do that, I’ll be here. Ignoring them as best I can, watering my tree, keeping my pet rocks happy, and hoping everyone else goes away forever.

A perfectly acceptable choice for someone in my position.

Perfectly reasonable.

According to the limited information I’m permitted to see, [Voice of Gaia] seems to indicate that I’m literally some sort of God now. [Lesser] or otherwise, leaving the humans to deal with whatever is going wrong and providing no assistance whatsoever is absolutely par the course for a God.

… right?

I mean, that’s what they do.

Far out of reach of the mere mortals below. Forming a pantheon atop a glorious mountain filled with gold, and jewels, and treasure, or whatever.

Yeah.

While I might not have one of those, I do have a reverse mountain.

An inverted mountain.

This weird hole in the ground.

Instead of treasure, it’s filled with evil. And it hates me.

Whatever.

I’m making it work, and like I said: I’ve been keeping busy.

Just because I don’t have a bunch of sweet loot, doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on it.

There’s been all sorts of stuff I’ve managed to find scattered about the area, recently… for some reason. Those wagons might make for fun bonfires, but they’re not always empty, and I’ve been having Gorf do some heavy lifting to bring them down the stairs a bit, so they were out of sight. Until, of course, the stairway got completely clogged, so I decided he might as well just bring them all the way down, and I’d carve out a storage room for them.

Like a pantry.

Exactly like a pantry.

Only instead of stale pop-tarts and canned tuna, it’s filled with stolen weapons of war.

I think it’s nice.

I have no idea what I’m going to do with these things, really. Swords and spears and bows are all great, but I still don’t have hands. Or limbs, for that matter. If I wanted to use them I’d need to make some sort of [Tiny Snake Gundam] or something.

Which…

Okay, I have thought about it.

You know, just the concept-

No, enough. I’m already getting off-topic. That’s besides the point, because I’ve actually been too busy to bother myself with contemplating experiments like that.

Beneath your will, they will tremble in fear. Cower, at the sight of you! As you-

Shush.

Long and short of it, is the Dungeon seems to be turning into a little bit of a problem

A bigger problem.

A real problem.

I had thought, mistakenly, that I’d gotten through the worst of what it had to offer. What, after burninating the countryside and that huge pack of monsters that tried to crawl out of the ground. I had safely managed camping out here without too much fuss, and I figured that the Dungeon had swung all of its punches early. Like a boxer who throws too many, too quickly: I hoped team Gaia had run out of steam.

For a little while, it really did seem that way, too.

With the main room beneath the initial entry stairs, I’ve worked the stone to the point where I’m now seeing an ambient glow in the walls. An ever-present night-light sort of effect which, basically, states that I own this area. This is [Holy Ground] of the Tiny Snake.

Claimed territory, all that.

As long as I keep persistently casting spells on it every so often, I don’t think that’s going to change, but…

The past couple of days, the rest of the Dungeon has been acting up.

Big time.

For one, I’ve felt some serious tremors. Earthquakes are one thing, but these have felt focused. Localized, heavy, rumbling motions, that feel like entire tunnels are rearranging.

Probably, because they are.

I don’t like to think about that, but I’ve got to consider it.

My room here might feel pretty big, but I’m under the strong impression that the Dungeon might actually go all the way to the center of the earth… world… planetary body upon which I now reside.

It is vast, deep, dark, and terrible.

And it hates me.

I’ve been testing the waters, so to speak. Each time I go in, past that archway I’ve got my Golem’s posted, I can feel it.

Like a weight, or a cloud of thick miasma, mixed in with the taste of mana.

It really, really hates me.

I can’t ever say it felt particularly friendly, but this worse. This is an active sort of attention. A shift in whatever mindset is lurking down there, to look in one direction.

It’s not just biding its time, either.

My downstairs Golem buddies, Alastar and Steward, have had to squish so many giant spiders in the past few days.

So. Many.

Every few hours, there’s another wave of skittering death. First one, then two, then a few dozen. Spiders just come flying up the tunnel I’ve got the two Golem posted by, and…

Well, it’s just bad.

I’ve got some theories.

Maybe the Dungeon shifted a tunnel to help them get closer to the surface, or maybe they’ve been burrowing towards me, or maybe they’ve always been there, and they’ve just gotten really hungry all of a sudden. All I really know is that there must be some sort of local hive, or colony, or whatever you want to call a giant mass of eight-legged, teeming, death, close by.

It’s starting to get ridiculous.

Not just the numbers, but the smell.

My senses are starting to backfire here.

See, spiders are not meant to fight giant blocks of solid stone. If you’ve heard of rock, paper, scissor, spider: rock wins.

Rock wins, every single time. No exceptions.

But damn, if these stupid spiders don’t keep trying anyways.

I’ve given up trying to clean with Earth magic.

Given up.

I have, in fact, settled with setting the entire archway on fire, several times a day. You can think of it like turning the oven to “clean.” Only, just a little more dangerous.

And smellier.

Sss… Air quality is a mess.

My present guess is there’s some sort of nest in one of the side passages where the humans were mining crystals from. The main tunnel is more like a regal hallway, and it really doesn’t diverge from what I remember, but the initial archway into that, does.

There are a bunch of side tunnels, right at the start, and they go in deep.

And they spew out those eight-legged bastards like clockwork.

Fools… to threaten you? The Great One? How dare-

Shut it.

Holy crud, shush.

Tell me, though: how the hell am I suppose to sleep, if I’m constantly worried about a bunch of spiders bumrushing me?

I can’t.

That’s the answer.

Seriously, I can’t.

Just the other day, one of them got through. It only had six legs left, and yet I had to set the entire room on fire before I got the stupid thing.

What if I’d actually been asleep?

Evil, glassy, hungry eyes, with giant, venomous…

No.

Enough is enough.

Obviously, this is not a problem that can be lived with. Something needed to be done, so I’ve been going a bit further in- with escort, and closing up any of the side tunnels I can find.

Earth Magic everywhere.

I’ve been going in about twenty slithers, making sure there’s no possible way one can just “happen” to open back up without making some serious warning.

It’s nerve-wracking, and time-consuming, but if there’s any silver-lining, it’s that they don’t seem to be shifting.

What I’ve shut, is staying shut.

At least, for now.

I thought about trying to close the entire hall up, but I have a strong suspicion that might backfire under some indirect muckery with the actual Dungeon Entrance.

I’d rather not find out what trouble that would cause me.

Sss…

I’m serious.

I don’t want to know.

…………………..

Chapter 23

[Snake report]

When I was in the Dungeon last night, something unspecified attacked Rocky.

I’m being honest here, because as of right now, I’m not sure what it was. I just know what it did, which was a heck of a lot of damage.

I had to put some of my Dungeon crawling on hold, in order to make repairs.

Rocky got the worst of it.

Whatever “it” was.

My list of potential enemies known for doing this type of thing isn’t very long, so I’ve got a rough idea of what happened.

In the middle of the night, something pretty strong snuck up close to the entrance and made a surprise ambush. Rocky intercepted, and took some nasty hits. Gorf must have responded, and they either killed whatever it was, or wounded it badly enough to drive it off.

Sss… but that’s where it get weird.

With all the activity human recently, at first I thought it might have been a really possibility they changed tactics. Maybe, they tried to catch us with our guard down.

Some kind of surprise stealth mission. Instead of a large-scale assault, you just pay some professional-killer to do it.

That would be a very human thing to do.

Offer up a bag of Gold, and get some sort of assassin to try and finish to job. Like those Mercenaries with the crossbows, or hire someone really powerful, like… what the heck was that guy’s name?

Zane?

The one with the giant sword, who attacked Imra’s tribe way back when.

I haven’t met any other humans that are quite as scary as that guy on their own, but I’m sure others of similar caliber exist.

Probably.

If the Empire decided to send in someone like that, instead of a bunch of newbies puffing hot air, I might actually be in trouble. I’ve only lived this long by a policy of NOT seeking out combat with enemies like that, and in the few times I couldn’t, I was up against actual monsters.

My victory would be a gamble.

I seriously doubt a human would be stupid enough to eat me, so my best survival strategy is out is they have a way of getting past my defenses.

Ultimately, though: I’ve ruled the humans out.

Whatever attacked us wasn’t a person.

At least, in the chance it was a person, they exceptionally good at hiding any signs of having been here. There aren’t any foot prints, or wagon tracks.

The signs I would have been excepting just aren’t around.

Plus, humans have a distinct smell… Taste?

Whatever sense it is when I flick my tongue out: humans leave a particular sort of odor. Not really bad (most of the time) so much as noticeable. That generally sticks around, where people are.

And I don’t catch much of that.

I mean, a little, but nothing new.

Considering how highly-tuned my senses are these days, I’m keen to believe I’ve got my wits about me for this much. Which, in its own way, is a bit distressing. I’d almost prefer if this had been caused by humans, because then I wouldn’t be stuck here questioning this whole mess.

If not the humans, then… what?

What the heck was it? Another monster?

Sure, Mister Boulder likely had a few relatives left in the area he hadn’t eaten, but I don’t see evidence of any of them around, either…

Blood, or something?

I imagine they would smell just as much, if not more, than humans do.

Some sort of proof would have been detected.

But… I didn’t find any.

This is a troubling prospect.

Outside of the Dungeon, I really haven’t seen a lot of monsters. At least, not many strong enough to do serious damage to a bunch of giant stone Golem. No doubt, there are probably a few. Not saying there aren’t, but if it had been one of them that attacked, I would have expected more proof left behind.

Sss…

It’s a problem.

As if I didn’t already have my work cut out for me, here. Pretty sure that means some new kind of enemy.

Which is just great.

Repairs took all damn morning.

The [Sentient Golem] skill still gets in the way, which was part of why it took so long, but the rest of that was just because of how bad the damage actually was. I had to remake the shield, for starters. The piece was a total and complete wreck, which meant the fight didn’t end quickly.

So, whatever attacked, was up there on the danger-scale.

If the shield didn’t already point to that, the actual damage to his body took me awhile to get back to normal.

Gorf, too. His arms were pretty banged up, although, I’m not sure he was actually involved in the main battle that took place up here.

I actually think Gorf took it upon himself to pummel whatever might have been left behind from Rocky’s fight, into the dirt.

For hours.

Best guess, as that was what he happened to be doing when I slithered up here.

Punching the ground.

Yeah.

Fairly confident he must have been in the stairwell or something, and missed most of dangerous parts. Rocky probably took the brunt of this on his own.

It’s strange, though.

Searching the heavily punched dirt for clues hasn’t yielded any additional information.

I don’t know if there was a weapon there, or a corpse, or what, but by the time I managed to get him to stop, there was absolutely nothing but dirt and rocks. I filtered thought and found about what you would expect to find in the dirt.

Nothing to see, nothing to smell…

Little bit of mana, maybe? Some metallic scents… but, we’re smack-dab on top of a Dungeon entrance, here, and I burned so many pieces of Empire property, I’m not even sure that’s a surprise.

Some of what I can smell might just be left over from that.

Sss...

Anyways, currently: I’m assuming it was a monster.

Maybe it was a monster that attacked, and ran off after. I’m not even sure what else could want to kill me. I’ve already ruled humans out.

I guess it could have been some sort of spell, maybe?

I don’t know it that’s right, but there’s not much which really fits.

If Gaia has me on the top of their hit-list these days, just based on the lack of wagons, and people screaming, a random, rogue, monster attack would make the most sense.

I think.

The [Sentient Golem] spell ranked up at least five times before I managed to panic-slither all the way back up here, so, whatever it was: it had to be big.

The really scary monsters are usually big.

Besides, seriously: what else is out here?

Nothing.

Sssssss…

As soon as I’m absolutely, completely, certain that I’ve patched all the side tunnels, I’m going to have to see about getting some additional defenses.

There are still some mana crystals laying about. I can put those to use. Maybe, some sort of Golem response team, for backup. They can wait in the dungeon and react to whatever direction problems happen to come from.

Yeah.

That sounds reasonable.

Just as soon as I finish setting this last spider-nest on fire.

..………..


[Rocky]

Rocky stared out across the plains, and all was well.

His favorite pile of pebbles was right where he had left them.

The small green thing he had been charged with protecting, was slightly less small now.

His shield was brand new.

All was well. Perhaps, even better than well. It was clearly a great honor that the Creator had felt Rocky was worthy of additional effort. To make new equipment for Rocky to us, and to fix his injuries.

Today was a good day.

So it was, he stood perfectly still, new shield blocking the sun, as the winds kicked up small twisters of sand. Rocky stared out, and watched the hours pass by, ever-aware of the small smudges beyond his clear recognition continued to travel along their beaten path through the ever-drying landscape.

Those were wagons.

Human things, he now understood, specifically designed for being thrown as far as possible.

They could also roll quite well, which Rocky found interesting, but not nearly as exciting as the alternative methods by which he’d seen them travel.

Still, these particular wagons were not the “bad” wagons, meant for breaking. No, The small smudges at the edge of his “sight” (should Rocky’s core system of recognition even be called such a thing) were very much avoiding the Dungeon entrance, and thus they were supposed to be left alone.

Much to Rocky’s utmost disappointment.

The Creator had been very clear on this subject, though. So, it wasn’t as though Rocky was going to argue. Besides, if Rocky had to go all the way out to where those wagons were, who would protect the sprout?

Rocky shifted slightly, looking down at the small green thing he’d been told to protect, uncomfortable with the thought.

It had only been several dozen times, but Rocky had been forced to stop his brother, Gorf, from stepping on the plant over the past weeks just a little too often for comfort. As such, Rocky had decided he wouldn’t trust his sacred responsibility to another Golem. This was his job, unless the Creator decided to make another Golem. One who could be trusted not to step where they weren’t supposed to.

And, probably even then.

As the sand picked up again, Rocky consciously opted to continue his thoughts.

How odd this all was.

Thinking, for his own entertainment.

Not long ago, Rocky knew he would have stood here all day, with nothing more than the considerations to track the sun, or the skitter of small monsters among the stones.

Since then, the world had changed.

This was not to say the world wasn’t always changing, in some way, or some form. Everywhere around Rocky, he could see it. While lacking eyes, in the conventional sense held by most living things, he could sense in ways which were similar. His core could detect such things. To watch as those many, many, grains of sand, continued their journey. Rolling along from one spot, to the next, like rounded wheels on the wagons in the distance. And, he could feel the heavy presence of those great shapes up in the sky, passing by with a backdrop of deep blue. Leaving a distant sense of energy and mana behind them, all but invisible.

The very material that had brought him into being, was scattered out with endless potential.

Rocky had no method by which to articulate this observation, but he could clumsily grapple with such a line of thinking.

He could also recognize, how not all that long ago, such a thought would have been impossible.

Well… not impossible. That wasn’t exactly right, but it was safe to say it would have been much, much more difficult.

Thinking.

At first, Rocky had to admit, it almost seemed like a waste of time.

The Creator could think plenty well enough on their own, without Rocky’s foolish attempts at doing so. Before recently, he’d mostly chosen not to do it at all, unless he was required to actually do something. A specific task, or react to some stimuli of danger.

Still, at times like this, when the sun was at its highest, and the winds were drifting in just the right way, he felt it was right.

“Good job, Rocky. Keep it up.”

Magic lessened, then ceased.

With the daily ritual of watering for the sprout now completed, from a perch spot beside the stairs into the Earth, Rocky felt the Creator’s presence lessen. They were slithering away at great speed, back down into the depths.

“Good job.” They had told him.

Not just a regular job, but a “Good” one.

Rocky straightened, to stand ever so slightly taller as he registered the praise. The Creator hadn’t said any such thing to any other Golem.

Or, if the Creator had, Rocky hadn’t heard it.

Proudly, Rocky turned to see his brother was still quite busy on the far side of the Dungeon entrance. There, it seemed to Rocky, that Gorf was inspecting a rather particular looking piece of burnt wood. The oddly-shaped Golem picked up the new-found object, inspecting it closely, with great care.

Then, they picked up another one.

Rocky stopped, for a moment.

Gorf seemed to be working quite hard, actually. And it wasn’t as though Rocky felt he was doing any better of a job than Gorf was…

Rocky deeply considering this.

Maybe…

Maybe, Gorf was doing a good job, too? Such a good job, that the Creator had decided not to interrupt him. Was that it?

Rocky nodded, slowly.

That had to be it.

They were all doing good jobs.

Of course! It was so obvious. Why hadn’t he thought of this before-

Rocky’s thoughts tumbled to a halt.

He realized he had no way of knowing the answer to that question.

How was it, that thinking could be so troublesome?

Rocky gave up on the question, deciding that it was nothing but trouble. Instead, he continued to watch Gorf pick up another piece of broken wagon-wheel to add to the growing collection held under his other arm. That Gorf was picking up just as many pieces as he happened to be dropping, didn’t seem to deter the lumpy Golem in the slightest.

Yes, Gorf was very hard at work today.

As all named Golem should be.

Rocky nodded.

There was a great honor in this: to be a named Golem. Somehow he knew this information.

He’d found, recently, he knew a great many things that he hadn’t truly learned. Often, random pieces of facts, that almost seemed like nonsense. Yet, he knew they were true. His core held all of them, and told him that Golem, like himself, were originally meant to be created and destroyed with little care for their individuality. That they rarely existed long enough to be recognized as different from the masses, or even be considered for such a privilege.

Yet, here he was, very much not destroyed, and very much named.

And… aware of it.

Rocky would have found it profound, if he knew what that particular word or concept meant. He didn’t, though, so he just found it rather strange and ultimately left the whole predicament at that.

He was a [Sentient Golem]

[Sentient Golem] were aware.

That was just how it worked.

Rocky found no really issue with it. He knew that he’d always been aware, in some way. Ever since the Creator had first brought him into being, he’d been dimly present. If he looked back in his memory far enough, he could even remember the patterns which formed him. The knowledge was stored within his core, within his chest. But recently, Rocky understood there was a difference.

Between the knowledge he’d been born with, and how he was presently. It was almost difficult to compare the two. Especially, as the Creator continued to advance the magic which bound them.

Changes were progressing.

Was he truly the same Golem he’d been back then?

Rocky realized he had gone about constructing a rather complicated question. So, instead of being troubled by it, he decided to cut the pondering off early.

Instead, opting to stare at rather pretty dust storm.

He didn’t have to think all the time, did he?

Hours passed, before the storm was finally gone, and Rocky was roused from his emptied mind with a sudden resonance.

Down below the ground, Rocky felt his two more-distant brothers defending the lower passage. Every so often, their efforts shook in his core.

Advancing.

Advancing, again.

Still, as wayward thoughts might drift in and out of his crystal-housed mind, facts and questions recognized or filed away for some deeper review at a later time, Rocky shifted through the new [Knowledge] that seemed to spring to life in his core.

There was a little more, each time this happened.

Stored within him now, there were words, commands and motions, all of which he could now follow. All of which, before, would have likely left him clueless. For example, Rocky understood that were more way to fighting than simply lifting up his weapon, and bringing it back down!

Imagine that!

Rocky never would have, until now.

Amazing.

Perhaps, it went without saying, but in these sudden leaps of intelligence (however small it might have been) Rocky felt great pride.

Staring out at the horizon, light now recognized as fading off into the cycle of night, Rocky let a stone hand shift the heavy shield. It was, he realized, his first major form of motion since the day had started, so he opted to follow it with another, as he took a large step forward, to set the equipment down, heavy into the ground before him. Lifting his other arm, the stone club of stone rested on his shoulder.

Rocky tested it, experimentally.

He would need to use this, soon.

Far off, he could tell they were approaching again. Creeping, sleek and strange form, its movement was not quite running, not quite dancing- and yet they moved with an elegance Rocky could not possess all the same. Long, graceful strides, carrying their body forward.

Just at the sight of them, he felt his core begin to spin. Processing his best course of action.

Only a moment had passed, but the shape was already much closer. No longer a far off thing that was beyond what Rocky could truly “see.” Now, their sleek body were clearly distinct to him. Nimble, as they continued in across the plains. Feet coming down, like dagger points, as they leapt along. Far from the beautiful shapes and patterns imparted by the Creator’s magic: these had terrible angles. They were sharp and cross, imbued with the look of tragedy and ruin. Etched upon their surface, Rocky could see the patterns numbering beyond his ability to count. Crossing atop themselves until they almost bore a skin, the longer he stared at them, the worse they became.

The same limbs that had almost tore him to pieces.

Again, Rocky adjusted his weapon, his shield. They seemed slow and clumsy to him, in comparison. Unfit to the perfected violence skipping atop the plains.

It was then, though, another shape drew his attention.

Loud thumps approached, each as poorly timed as the next, and beside him, Rocky found that his brother had arrived. The massive shape of stone, Gorf stood proudly, before he turned to Rocky, nodding.

Rocky nodded back.

All was well.