Beneath the Dragoneye Moons

Chapter 445: Interlude - Small events



Chapter 445: Interlude - Small events

Amber was irritated. Irritated by the slightly itchy mask. Irritated by the omnipresent sand that was impossible to get rid of. Irritated by the obnoxious snobbery of the elves.

Amber wasn’t sure what was worse. The elves that sneered slightly and looked down on her for ‘only’ being mortal, or the ones who felt bad that she’d been unfortunate enough in life to be born a human, and took it upon themselves to ‘help’ her as much as possible.

What was extra-grating was how often they were right, and their help was invaluable. Amber had needed to double check her rules, swallow her pride, and accept their assistance more than once.

Didn’t mean she couldn’t fume over it.

The auction was going briskly, and the longer it went on, the more excited Amber was getting. She’d put up a number of skills for sale here, watching most of them go for a tidy profit, but she couldn’t wait to see the Immortality gems Elaine had charged for her go up.

The Golden Lamp Emporium front-loaded the auction with a few high-value items, then dropped way down to the least valuable ones, slowly ramping up the value of the items as the auction went on. The most valuable items were saved for last, and the longer it took the moonstones to come out, the higher the price the auction house thought they’d command - and they were usually right.

Amber’s eye was a massive cheat in a place like this, and also sucked all the fun out of it. Any given item, Amber immediately knew the value of, and unless she wanted it herself, she promptly bid 70% of what it was worth. Without exception, she was outbid, and Amber merely contented herself to cashing in months of trading skills gems, instead of finding any hidden treasures that weren’t properly identified or valued.

A smaller auction house was probably better for that sort of thing, but as the Golden Lamp Emporium got further and further into its offerings, Amber stopped being so irritated and started to get excited.

“... and now, for our second to last offering of the evening! Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed collectors, and seekers of the extraordinary, I stand before you today with an unparalleled opportunity that is sure to dazzle and astound. Please, allow me to present to you a pair of gemstones that possess the power to defy the very essence of time itself, a pair of moonstones that can reverse the flow of time and bestow Immortality upon the user, it is my great honor to present the skill gems - [The Stars Never Fade!]

The [Auctioneer] revealed them with a flourish, and Amber sat back in her seat, cursing. She’d wanted them to be sold separately, the first one drawing in hype at being one of a kind, driving the price up, only for the second one to appear and wow people. The market for one person getting two of the gems was slim, and Amber was going to get screwed over on the smaller market.

The [Fae Trader of the Intangible] quickly mentally reviewed the contract she’d signed. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she could imagine the minor loophole they’d used to allow this.

Bastards.

She just knew it was because she was a human. Or, technically, because she was a non-elf.

The other way she was getting screwed over was a lack of private deals. If three dozen people bid on the gems, Amber could try to find them later, and negotiate a private sale in the future. Then the trip would be easier - the buyer would already be lined up!

Now the only people she could get lined up were those interested in two Immortality gems, or worse - resellers.

Amber fumed as the price didn’t quite match what she’d wanted to sell the two gems individually for, then reminded herself that her cost of goods sold was minimal, and her overhead was already neatly covered by everything else she’d done, and they had still gone for over half a million arcs.

Which raised a question in her mind - what had the auction house found that was more valuable than a pair of youth-granting skill gems?

“Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished collectors, and esteemed connoisseurs of the arcane, the time has come for our grand finale. Tonight, I present to you an artifact of such mystery and enigma, that its very existence defies the known boundaries of our world. Behold, this marvel of otherworldly craftsmanship—a device of unparalleled intricacy and bewildering origin.

This object, which hails from a realm far beyond our comprehension, stands as a testament to the wonders that lie hidden within the infinite tapestry of the cosmos. While its true purpose remains shrouded in mystery, we have been told that it possesses the astonishing ability to harness and project Radiance without the need for any skill or incantation.

Though its form may appear mangled, do not let that deceive you, dear patrons. Within this seemingly disheveled exterior lies an intricate mechanism of astonishing complexity, the likes of which our world has never seen. None of us here at the Golden Lamp Emporium knows quite what is contained inside, simply that there is no arcanite or other gems fueling the device!

So, as we prepare to open the bidding on this final, mesmerizing item, I invite you to ponder the mysteries of the universe and the unimaginable possibilities that this otherworldly artifact represents. Who among you will be the proud owner of this enigmatic relic, the seeker of truths that stretch beyond the stars themselves?

Let the bidding commence, and may fortune favor the bold and the curious, as they step forth into the unknown and embrace the promise of untold wonders.”

The [Auctioneer] finished with a wild flourish, unveiling the object of curiosity to all. Amber leaned forward, looking at the silvery device cut in half, with one section clearly for a hand.

The value her eye was displaying went wild, the numbers jumping all over the place.

“Bidding starts at 50 million arcs.” The [Auctioneer] announced.

====================================

Artemis slammed the door of the local Courier’s Guild open, half the people inside jumping at the sudden noise and violence. She scanned the room for threats, noting where exits were, people, locations, levels, and threats.

Julius was behind her, his strong, solid, reassuring presence letting Artemis know her back was safe and secure.

It didn’t matter that this was ‘civilization’. It didn’t matter that this area was ‘safe’. Artemis had been attacked more often in ‘safe’ areas than in dangerous ones, and it held true even after the fae had utterly fucked them over.

Deciding the room was safe enough, Artemis started to limp inside, uncaring of the bloody footprints she was leaving behind her, of the gore shedding in her wake. Most of it wasn’t hers.

“You know, they’d like us more if we didn’t drag in a half dozen different raptor guts in here every time we visited.” Julius commented in Creation.

“Hush, you. We cleared out that vorler nest for them.” Artemis retorted. Life returned to the Courier’s Guild, people returning to their business. Artemis and Julius weren’t that unusual patrons of the place.

They made their way to the counter when Artemis suddenly whirled, rocks rising around her as Lightning crackled from her right hand, Darkness swirling around her left. The teenage [Runner] that had been maybe approaching her jumped back, a pile of letters spilling out of his bag. He stammered something unintelligible as he fell back.

Artemis narrowed her eyes, then finished making her way to the counter.

“Letter?” She half-asked, half-demanded. The man at the counter was a little more used to how hyper-vigilant some of their patrons could be, and didn’t bat an eye at Artemis’s earlier display.

Long familiarity with the pair helped.

“Please save your stunts for outside the guild.” He said, starting to leaf through a pile of letters. “Artemis, Artemis, I know I have something for you here…”

Artemis snorted.

“Yeah, the one time I don’t react is the one time they’re going to turn me into a bloody smear on your floor. That’d be a lot harder to clean up than some scared kid. He’s gotta toughen up at some point.”

The man didn’t reply to that, instead finding the letter he was looking for.

“Ah! Artemis, yes, here you go.” He said, handing it over.

Artemis squealed when she saw it.

“Julius! Julius! Look! Elaine wrote to us!” She tore the letter open, uncaring that she was holding up the line, studiously ignoring the [Post Officer’s] pointed cough.

Julius put his chin on her shoulder while he read.

“How do you feel about a trip to Sanguino?” He asked as he finished the letter.

Artemis snorted.

“Of course we’re going. I think we can be on the road before tonight!”

====================================

The air was filled with hopes and dreams.

Specifically, countless families' hopes and dreams that had been torched, burned to the ground and now formed an omni-present haze over the Han Empire.

Sigrun leaned against Serratrix, her bonded companion and spinosaurus having seen better days. He’d gotten a little too skinny at one point, but a steady diet of Han soldiers - Sigrun didn’t really care which of the five factions they were from - was doing him good.

The two were resting in a half burnt-out village that Sigrun hadn’t quite been fast enough to get to.

It was the weak who suffered in this damned civil war. The poor, the innocent, and the vulnerable. They could do nothing to the armies marching back and forth, various bands of soldiers sent to nearby villages to ‘requisition’ supplies… and whatever else they wanted from the villagers. Half the time, the soldiers would find some excuse to declare the villagers supportive of one of the rival factions, either because they couldn’t hold the territory and wanted to deny it to their enemies, or they just wanted an excuse to murder, pillage, rape, loot, and burn.

That’s where Sigrun and Serratrix came in. The two of them couldn’t fight an army, no matter how hard they tried, but little raiding bands? Trickles of soldiers detached from the main army?

Oh, the two of them could fight those for days on end. In one notable case, quite literally, as they single-handedly chewed up almost an entire 500-man company, one raiding party at a time until they fell apart.

The sound of clattering metal on metal reached Sigrun’s ears, and she sighed, picking up her sword once again.

“Come on, Serratrix. No rest for anyone.” She said, redonning her helmet with the classic wings.

Order Valkyrie might’ve been shattered, but it wasn’t broken. It wasn’t dead.

Not so long as one of them still drew breath, not so long as at least one of them fought the good fight.

======================================

Dormin coughed into his wet mask, cursing Exterreri once again.

Criminals were sentenced to a variety of tasks, hard labor being one of them. In this case, the person he was looking for had been sentenced to work in the asbestos mines, extracting the valuable material.

Everyone knew it was a death sentence. The only slaves that lasted more than seven years had dedicated skills to surviving whatever it was about asbestos that gave people a short lifespan, and in any other circumstances, the [Extinguisher of Legends] wouldn’t be caught dead here.

But this was where the trail led. To a single slave, deep in the mines.

It felt… fitting, somehow. A man on the brink of death having the critical secret, to both his revenge and Dormin’s.

“Here.” The [Overseer] grunted to Dormin, then yelled.

“Oi! Antonius! Someone’s here for you!” He shouted as Dormin passed him the agreed-up compensation.

No, not a bribe, never a bribe from a former member of the guard.

Antonius sighed and walked over, pickaxe still in his hand, shoulders slumped, head down. A man waiting to die.

“Best of luck!” The [Overseer] was in a good mood. Dormin had given him a month’s salary for the little chat.

Dormin figured there was no point in beating around the bush.

“I heard you had a run-in with a phoenix?”

==========================================

Nina was a street rat, and that was the kindest thing anyone had ever called her. She nervously licked her lips as she stared at the casino, one paw on her poisoned dagger, the other carrying a metal bar.

Everyone knew the casino was run by the Three Dragons Triad. It was one of their biggest known fronts, a place where people could meet with the members of the Triad if they had business.

The dagger was for Nina’s own protection. She was growing up, getting older, and was all too aware of what people would do to get their hands on a kitsune with ginger fur. Especially one who’d been ‘blessed’ with the full array of nine tails.

An auspicious number, some said.

Blessed by the gods, others would comment.

Nina privately thought it was a curse. Interest like that didn’t come with anything good.

Her illusions and Mirages were good enough for now, but it would only take one less-scrupulous [Slaver] seeing through her disguise, one lapse in concentration, one of her so-called friends in the gang of kids she ran with ratting her out for the poisoned dagger to be worth it.

Nina was 12, and had lived her entire life on the streets. First running with gangs of other kids, trying to rummage through scrap and garbage to find enough to eat. Acting as bait for some of the older gangs, kids who’d unlocked their System and had taken up working as [Pickpockets], [Muggers], and other such [Rogue] classes.

Nina’s System had unlocked at 8, and she’d first taken an [Illusionist] class, working well with the innate ability all kitsune had to play with Mirages. She’d wanted to be a [Pickpocket]

, but a bad encounter with a rival gang had seen most of her fingers broken. Unable to afford a proper healer, she’d lacked the fine dexterity when it came time to pick her second class, and she’d gone with [Mugger] instead, trusting her life to a broken bar of metal that had served her so well so far.

But she was growing up. And she knew that without protection, without a larger aegis to shield her, that she’d be forced to perform work she didn’t want to.

In an ironic twist, the Three Dragon Triad, the unofficial rulers of the city’s underworld, were the ones most likely to force her to work in that way.

Nina’s reasoning was simple. If she joined them as an [Enforcer] or something of her own free will, she’d be one of ‘them’, not one of the merchandise. She’d automatically be protected.

The logic made perfect sense in the street rat’s mind.

Walk in, under an illusion to make her look like a proper [Tough]. Find whoever was in charge of recruitment. Ask to join.

Why would they be picky?

Nina took a deep breath, hardening her nerves like the trusty bar she was holding. She took two steps across the street before her instincts and [Street Sense] screamed at her, making her scurry back to the shadows.

A warrior, a [Knight] was approaching the casino. Not a member of the Bloodsworn order, no, and that was the most curious thing. Nina had never seen a [Knight] of this order before in the city, and she briefly studied him.

A stylized eagle in gold against a sunburst, two crossing crescent moons, and it was when she saw the helmet Nina gasped in recognition.

A Valkyrie.

The Order wasn’t one of the big movers and shakers of the Empire, but stories about them had reached even Nina’s kiddie gang. Something about them appealed to their imagination, the fact that they’d take any girl who wanted to as a squire. They were supposed to be twelve feet tall, breathed fire, and could never, ever die.

A few of Nina’s older friends had boldly proclaimed that they were going to go out and find a Valkyrie of their own, and become a [Squire].

Nina had only ever encountered one of them again after they left the gang to find their fortune, on the street outside a brothel.

The Valkyrie strode into the casino, bold as brass, and Nina didn’t know what to think.

Was the Three Dragons Triad so powerful that they had a Valkyrie at their beck and call? Was she a member? Did she simply want to gamble, to try her fortune?

Then the screaming started, and the blood started to flow.

Nina stayed crouched in her shadowed corner, [Invisible], knowing she should run, but fascinated. Rich patrons ran screaming from the doorway, some of them clutching chits, others taking a moment to bend over to grab carelessly spilled coins. There was a brief moment after the exodus, then [Thugs] clutching bleeding stumps stumbled out of the door.

A few more doors were made when people were bodily thrown through some of the walls, piles of broken masonry falling around their equally broken bodies.

Nina briefly considered running over to them and finishing the job with a quick swipe of her trusty bar, then grabbing whatever she could off their cooling bodies. It would be perfect[Mugger] experience, and she’d be able to eat for a week just selling their bloody tunics to a [Fence]!

But no. Something about the scene kept her bewitched, kept her watching at the edges of the trail of destruction. A morbid fascination, perhaps, or not wanting to get between the Valkyrie and her victims.

That was a bad place to be.

The screams slowly faded, and the famed Valkyrie appeared once again in the doorway. Her armor was dented, burned, and misshapen, her tabard torn and ripped. Her axe still dripped blood, and her shield was covered in gore.

With a ripple, the armor was reforged anew, once again perfect.

Nina seized the moment. She dropped her [Invisibility], and ran over to the Valkyrie.

Her heart practically stopped as the Valkyrie hefted up her shield and raised her axe. The one-day mistress of illusions realized exactly what this looked like. She immediately threw down her trusty bar, and dropped the illusion of a hardened [Thug], dropping down to her knees and bending her head.

“Please!” She half-begged, half-shouted, seeing her salvation just a single word away. Seeing a shield against the world, a way to carve her own path. “Please let me be your squire!”

The [Valkyrie] said nothing for a long time, staring at the girl. Nina finally risked a little peek up, unable to see anything behind the faceless helmet.

Finally the warrior sighed.

“You’ll have to drop the [Mugger] class.”

Nina’s poor heart was protesting so many shocks in such a short timeframe.

“And we’re going to have our work cut out for us otherwise, but yes.”

Iona held out a hand.

“Welcome Nina. You look like you need a good meal.”

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