After victory over the Chained God, Julian’s work is just beginning.
One month after being stranded on a fantasy world and finding his place with the town that has welcomed him, Julian is ready to upgrade his Godcore to the next tier and expand the Factory.
But he might have waited too long. The Gods of the Green are on the move, and have dispatched a team of high ranked Adventurers backed by a vicious Nature Goddess. Surrounded by sabotage, hostile forces, and the never-ending demands of the Factory, Julian is in over his head.
He’s going to have to innovate his way out of this mess. Good thing Julian always has a plan. If he can’t overpower his foes, he’s going to have to outproduce them.
Vartian Caimaer was of the opinion that pigeons should learn to respect Aelif, desks, and Gods. Probably not in that order. There was one on his desk right now, a scroll of paper around its leg. He reached for it, but the bird fluttered a couple feet to the left and cooed softly. It met his eyes and cocked its head. When Vartian didn’t respond by immediately killing it or giving it food, unaware that it was staring at a God, the pigeon lifted its tail.
“Don’t you dare,” Vartian snarled.
The bird froze, and for a moment, Vartian thought his words had gotten through to the beast.
As if punishing him for his hubris, the pigeon shat on his disk. “Gods damn it!” Vartian shouted. That was the third today. He snatched for the bird, and it flew away again.
“Not this time,” Vartian growled and formed his hand into a claw. A spectral hand appeared from the gesture and streaked towards the startled bird. He grasped it tightly, fighting back an urge to squeeze his spectral hand shut on the animal. As frustrated as he was, he knew it was only obeying instincts and was mostly waiting for him to give it some treat in exchange for the message, as it had been trained. Unfortunately, he’d run out of treats earlier that day. That had been the primary cause of the fresh coating of droppings now splattered across his desk.
He took the message off the pigeon’s leg and tossed it out the window. It gave an affronted coo as it took back to the air, but apparently decided it feared ghostly hands more than it loved treats.
“You just lost an argument with an animal dumber than most Urkin,” said a voice from the door. Vartian didn’t even look. He knew that voice.
“I got what it was bringing me,” Vartian said, unrolling the paper carefully. “I count that as a victory. Since you’re here, Folas, I would like to once again request that I be reallocated to a role more fitting of my station. It is beneath a god to take messages from flying rats.”
Folas was radiant, and if Vartian hadn’t known what a prick the other man was, he would have found him painfully desirable. Folas’ Godcore had ascended to Gold Tier, and with that he had been able to pick a domain. Already a Creation core and considered one of the most beautiful Aelif alive, with a slender build and luscious antenna, it had been natural for him to pick the Desire domain, giving him the ability to see what people most desired and then create it, if it was within his power.
An ability he rarely used. Vartian suspected strongly that Folas just liked to know how many people lusted for him.
“It would be beneath my station, Vartian,” Folas said in an almost hypnotically soft tone. “You, however? You still have a Tin ranked core. Nothing is beneath your station.”
Vartian tried not to glower. He failed. As a Citrine Godcore, Vartian had exactly one way to strengthen his power. He had to be struck by lightning.
That was more difficult to manufacture than one might imagine.
As such, Citrine Cores rarely ascended beyond Tin. It was a source of constant humiliation for them. They occupied a strange place in society, important enough to not be mortals, but far from powerful enough to be taken seriously. Some Tin Godcores took up with bands of adventurers, where even a Tin Core was enough to distinguish themselves. Especially groups of adventurers that had mages in their mix. If the mage was willing and able to develop lightning based talents…
“Did you come by just to mock me, Folas, or did you have something you needed?”
“Actually, I did have something I needed.” Folas laughed. “I know, I’m shocked too. You actually have a use to me. This really must be your lucky day, Vartian.”
Vartian did his best to let the insults wash over him. Maybe the risks of getting killed while fighting alongside adventurers was worth the possibility of becoming Copper. Something. Anything, really.
“There’s a new Dark Lord in the Wastes.”
That obliterated that train of thought. “A Dark Lord?” He knew how stupid he sounded, but he couldn’t help it. When the people of the Wastes banded together under a single being, that being was a threat to all of proper, civilized society. A Dark Lord. There hadn’t been one in nearly three hundred years.
“Well, not yet,” Folas admitted. “It just sounds so much more dramatic when you say it that way, wouldn’t you agree? The truth is, fortunately for our safely and unfortunately for my deep love of melodrama, more complex. They are calling him or her or whatever it is the “factory.” They are rallying people to that banner. I need you to get information for anything coming in and out of the Wastes. We need to know what is going on out there.”
“Of course,” Vartian said.
“Oh, and you might hear some frankly absurd lies about what this factory can do for you in particular. Don’t let yourself become even dumber than you are weak and get taken in by those lies, there’s a good boy. It’s just a Dark Lord’s lies, after all.”
That seemed…suspicious to Vartian. Why would Folas take time to warn him against falling for a Dark Lord’s deceptions? They were known for them, after all. “Of course,” was all he said.
Folas turned to glide out the door. Not walk with such grace it seemed like he was gliding – the vain bastard literally formed a floating disk beneath his feet, hidden under his robes, and floated upon it wherever he went. It was a stupid Waste of Investiture, but when you had as much as Folas, you could afford the Waste.
Vartian had spent one of his ten points on grabbing the pigeon. It would be a full day of walking on wool carpets in wool socks to build up enough of a static charge just to recharge that point. And he was judging Folas for stupid Wastes?
Then again, it wasn’t like Vartian had much else to do.
He ran his hand through his coppery hair, slicking his antenna back against his skull with the motion. It was soothing. Vartian had tried to explain it to a human once, but the best analogy he could come up with was it was like closing your eyes. They hadn’t quite gotten it, but at least had acknowledged it wasn’t just a weird tic. Given the state of things in the Civilized Lands these days, that counted for a warm embrace.
The Civilized Lands – what the Savages of the Waste called the Green, as if the only noteworthy thing about the beating heart of culture was the fact that they had more annual rainfall – had once been three empires. The Aelfin, Humans, and Dovom each had their own corner of the Lands carved out, and while there were tensions between them, relative peace had endured.
Until the discovery of a massive cache of Godcores centuries ago.
All of them had been found in a disputed territory between Aelfin and Human lands. The Dvorim, being subterranean, had claimed the territory below the ground, but that wasn’t technically disputed. Still, it had erupted into a war, and that war had only grown darker when the first Godcores from that pile were claimed. Herocores had been created then as well, according to the legends, but the legends also said no God had fallen, so it seemed unlikely.
The details didn’t matter, really. The end result did. All three races had been thrown into a stew pot, and just like a stew, they had been simmering ever since. Only the occasional threat of a Dark Lord could bring them together.
And it sounded like they had one.
Vartain unrolled the paper he’d taken off the pigeon’s leg. In the wake of Folas’ insults, Vartian had almost forgotten it was still in his hand. Now that he did, he was eager to read it, already contemplating who he’d give the information to. Maybe if he approached a Platinum with the Storm Domain, like Lady Alonna, and offered to give the human an advanced notice over Folas, she’d strike him with enough lightning to at least reach Copper one. He’d prefer a higher copper tier, or even Bronze, but it was seventy years since he’d found his Godcore and still Tin. Given how many nights he’d stood on top of buildings in pounding storms, hoping against all odds to draw a thunder strike, he’d take what he could get.
Anything to wipe that smug grin off of Folas’ face.
And the moment he unrolled the paper, that ‘anything’ was tested.
This pigeon had been sent from the Wastes, which was surprising. One of their agents out there, who kept an eye on the situation, must have sent it.
Vartian reached into his desk and pulled out a code book to start the decryption. That was why Citrines were often stuck retrieving messages. Could you really trust a non-god with such sensitive information?
No, of course not, but you could have any random messenger pick up the notes and spare the Citrines the indignity of pigeons.
Vartian finished the decoding, and then stared at the message. His hand shaking, he went back to the original and re-did the decoding to ensure he had made no mistakes. The second translation was much more roughly written than the first. Aside from that, however, the two messages read the same.
New God. Becoming Dark Lord. Building machines unlike any seen before. Please take the threat seriously. He has a machine that can bottle lightning. Plans to use it to unite Citrines along with Waste landers. Again, this could be a Dark Lord who unites an entire type of Godcore behind him, and empower the Citrines.
Beneath that were coordinates.
Vartian stared at the message. It was likely insanity. It was almost certainly a false promise by this new God.
After a long moment of consideration, Vartian opened a ledger book. “Cattle Offal: 1997.3145% Below Market Value.”
C.O. The abbreviation for the town. The four digits were coordinates, disguised as a percent. Below Market Value – to the south, hence the below, and to the east, which was where the Market had been in his home village – east of his house. It was not the most original code, but he had to come up with them on the spot.
Then, carefully, he fed each of the three slips, both his copy and his original message, into the fire pit behind him. He flipped open a couple flaps on his inventory belt, inspecting the inscription on the bottom of the pouch.
Ez-Fire Log, 1/164
Flint and Tinder, 1/1
Moments later, his room was almost unbearably hot. Even as sweat beaded his forehead, Vartian couldn’t stop smiling. He was going to wait for one more message. One more confirmation.
And then he’d make a move.
Julian’s forehead dripped with sweat and his heart thundered a staccato rhythm in his chest. He took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves. The interior of his workshop wasn’t brutally hot – he’d managed to add simple fans to the list of items he could craft, and the strain on the steam engines was absolutely worth the effort – but it still felt cloyingly warm.
His jet black hair didn’t help with that. The month on Keldora had not included any time to find the local version of a barber, and most people in the village of Cast Off handled hair with a simple knife. Straight razors existed, but life on Earth had taught him to use a safety razor, and Julian was leery of pressing a blade that sharp to his throat. He’d gotten used to a beard over the winter week – another oddity there – but the summer week was making the temptation to shave near overpowering.
Needing a distraction from the heat, Julian looked at the minimap that was displayed by his AREVE, a floating representation of the crater that was their home. The last month had changed it dramatically. When he’d first arrived Cast Off had been a handful of houses in the center of the crater, eeking out an existence with barren soil and minimal people, under constant threat of raids from rivaling warbands.
Now, however, the village of Cast Off might need a new name. Home to almost two hundred people attracted by the luxuries that they offered, chief of which were the walls that lined the crater. Manned by Turrets that provided a near endless field of covering fire, there was probably nowhere safer in the entire Waste. They were supplied by the Factory itself, which covered more of the crater than the village it supplied.
Julian zoomed in to follow the production line, wanting to make sure everything was in working order. The iron field that supplied the Factory’s iron was covered with drills that churned away, extracting the precious ore from the earth and depositing it on the conveyer belts. As Julian watched, one of the Drills stopped working. He swore. That one was one of the newer drills, that cycled useless dirt back into the ground below. It wasn’t supposed to be able to fail unless there was no more iron it could reach.
“Ryne!” Julian shouted.
The young Aelif appeared almost as if by magic. She was a child by both the standards of her people and even younger by the standards of Earth, but that youth combined with a brilliant mind had been the perfect combination for her to pick up the basics of engineering at lightning speed. She had a knack for finding things Julian overlooked. “Yessir!” she said, snapping off a salute.
It had taken him a bit to get used to the Aelif’s alien appearance. Looking like a 40’s pulp comic depiction of alien elves, the Aelif’s had a slender build and long pointed ears mixed with silver hair, large eyes that were almost completely black, and two long antennae that swept back over their heads.
“We’ve got a drill failure on the iron patch. One of the Powered Drill III’s – Drill Nineteen to be exact.”
Ryne’s already large eyes grew wider at the implication. “Julian, I checked Drill Nineteen this morning. Personally. I mean I went and looked at it with my own two eyes. There wasn’t anything wrong with it. Tallow levels were high, sifter wasn’t showing any sign of clogs…”
“I know,” Julian said. “Go check again. Make sure there’s nothing broken, and then pull it down if it is. We cannot have a non-operational drill when our guests arrive.”
“Absolutely. Can I have another inventory belt? Mine’s full,” Ryne gestured to the three belts she wore, two across her body like bandoliers and one around her waist. Each pouch could hold items in an extra dimension storage space, and Ryne would need a free pouch for the drill if it wasn’t working.
“How is it already full?” Julian asked. He’d just given her the new belt yesterday.
Ryne flipped open one of the pouches to show the inscription on the inside.
Reinforced Stone Wall 64/64.
The pouches almost perfectly mimicked individual inventory slots in one of the crafting games Julian had logged so many hours on back home. They could only hold a set amount of a single item. Julian had spent an entire evening once categorizing the individual items and trying to figure out if there was anything that could determine how much space an item would take. It seemed to be completely arbitrary, although raw materials could fit the most into a single pouch.
“I was going to replace the stone walls on the west side when you called,” Ryne said.
Julian grunted and reached for the chest next to his work station. When Julian had first arrived here, he’d thought the AREVE’s holographic projections he used for placement were the only way to put items down. Trial and error had helped them learn that anyone could place objects like the walls and the drills, so long as they did so directly adjacent to themselves. “Don’t replace on the west,” Julian said, handing her a new inventory belt. “Put the reinforced walls outside the stone walls, but leave the stone ones in place. I want the second layer of protection there.
Ryne nodded and scampered away. “Check the drill first!” Julian shouted after her, then turned his attention back to the map.
With Drill Nineteen offline, that left a total of thirty nine operational drills on that patch. Ten per belt, less the one Drill Nineteen wasn’t placing anymore. Ten each was enough to fully saturate the belt line that led into the chute that was depositing ore on a central, extra wide belt. With that one drill missing, it wouldn’t cause a huge back-up, but it would slow things down just a tad.
Probably not worth getting bent out of shape over, but today everything needed to be as perfect as possible.
Julian traced the line, following it along the path to where it would lead to the Furnaces. Here Graspers were hard at work, the giant mechanical claws pulling ore off the belt and shoving it to where it could be smelted. Smaller lines along the back of the furnace line let coal be shoveled into each as well. He’d used chutes for that originally, but the Graspers were more precise. No ore spillage, and each furnace got an individual line.
The only chutes here were ones that lead out of the furnaces. Iron sheets were dropping out the bottom of each on a regular basis, going to a line that led to a series of chests serviced by more Graspers. The mechanical arms whirred in a delicate dance, pulling iron sheets off and putting them into the chests. These chests served as a buffer, and multiple conveyor belts led away from them. The iron sheets would merge with copper bars and wood that was being brought in from the few spotty woods around the crater. They would be turned into intermediate items, and from there they would be merged into new working items.
It was almost perfect.
Three big problems remained. Wood and plant matter were still being gathered by hand. Julian had yet to come up with a solution that would allow wood to be automatically processed, so human – or human and Urkin and Aelif and Watcher and Kelping and other – labor had to be used to harvest it. The process could be streamlined some, with single deposit points for each of those two materials, but Julian wanted to give these people a life where they didn’t need to work.
The second was items that required Julian to spend Investiture, Godseyes Grasping Hands and the like. Julian was, for now, setting to craft while he slept and putting them in crates in the morning, where they could be taken by Graspers and conveyer belts to where they were needed.
The third problem was how much was going to the turrets.
Julian flicked across the screen, to the western wall. The turrets up there were firing in a constant stream. As soon as one magazine was emptied, a Grasper pulled it out and slotted a new one in.
Just beyond that was the reason why they were firing.
There were several dozen of them this time. The bulk of them looked like some cross between reptile and insect dreamed up by a Hollywood concept artist – six legs and slung low to the ground, with massive mandibles like a stag beetle’s and chitinous plating on the back. They were approaching a mound of bodies of their brethren that had already fallen to the turrets.
In front of them came a few of the new ones. They’d started emerging in the last week. Bigger and bulkier than the main ones, their mandibles were significantly smaller. Instead, the chitin on their heads swept back in a frill that extended well past their bodies.
They were both part of the Hive, insect like life that swarmed over the Waste and made establishing a permanent settlement nearly impossible unless it was small enough to escape their notice. Unfortunately, factories were known for many things. Potability wasn’t one of them.
Julian zoomed in as the shield-headed ones – the town had taken to calling them Phalanx drones, in contrast to the soldier drones that were the main bulk of the force, although the name ‘shield-head’ was catching on as well – began to crest over the pile of bodies. The turrets had mostly dispatched the last wave, and their aim started to shift. Crossbow bolts streaked through the air, impacting the huge shield head of the phalanx drones.
The gentle slope to their shields meant the bolts didn’t stick most of the time, instead being deflected off and away from the main group of the swarm. “I need more heat-targeting turrets there,” Julian said, writing a quick note to himself. The Phalanx’s big weakness was in their small heads, but motion sensitive turrets didn’t target that particular area well.
Julian tried not to think too hard about the deeper implication these new threats carried with them. Unfortunately, it was hard to ignore. Phalanx drones were not part of the Hive’s normal make-up. They also wouldn’t be of much use for the Hive’s typical style of predation, which involved grabbing isolated people and animals and carrying them back.
They were really only beneficial for exactly one thing – they were effective at stopping turret fire. Given that the mechanism of evolution took more than a month to produce new strains, that suggested an intelligence behind their design.
Fortunately, they were still few in number. Julian selected one of the turrets from his minimap, and using the AREVE’s integrated motion sensitive glove, forced it to take aim directly at one of the phalanx drone’s skulls. A half dozen bolts later, and the creature lay dead. Soldier drones swarmed around its corpse, trying to either get to the turrets or to the safety of one of the other phalanx drones. A few moments and selections later, Julian had taken out the other phalanx drones.
Even hardened carapace couldn’t resist a dozen crossbow bolts to the skull.
Those words shocked Julian out of the simple and relaxing joy of popping drones. “Already?” Julian’s heart leapt in his throat. The speaker was Calli, one of the warriors defending the village. She was on his short list to receive one of the Herocores he had pending. They would give people class levels, and make them immensely more powerful. Given the persecution the people of the Waste had suffered at the hands of adventurers, Julian could scarcely blame them for being hesitant.
“Yes. Come on,” Calli motioned furiously for him to follow.
“Wait, hang on. Runner!” Someone came up, one of the kids Ryne had recruited to run messages for him when she wasn’t around. “Get to Kurmoz. Tell him I need oil tossed on the recent wave’s site, try to slow down the buildup. Go!”
The child, a young Urkin with the curled horns that marked him as male, nodded fiercely and ran off.
“Calli, how do I look?”
Calli paused to give him a quick once over. “Good enough for this,” she said, and turned to head out the door.
Julian followed, his heart pounding again, the earlier fear returning. Massive swarms of insect monsters were bad, but they didn’t make Julian half as uncomfortable as what he was about to do. His least favorite activity in the world.
He was going to have to talk to people.