35 Beauty and the Blades
"Gods, they're beautiful," I murmur as I equip my new scabbards.
Logane harrumphs. "Obviously. I made 'em."
I bat my eyelashes at the gruff leatherworker. "Talented AND modest. What a rare combination in a man."
Growling, Logane shuffles back to his workstation. "Well, men like yerself are a dime a dozen."
"What kind of man am I, Master Logane?"
"How kind of you to notice!" I give him a twerky booty shake.
He throws a knife at my head.
I catch it before I'm impaled and realize it's the perfect size for the smaller boot sheath. I shoot him a questioning glance and gesture to my boot.
He harrumphs again and doesn't ask for it back. "Get on with ye, good-for-nothing eejit."
Grinning, I sheathe the nice little knife. "Always a pleasure, Master Logane. Tootle-oo." I give the grumpy leathersmith a finger wave.
"Feck off and die."
"And you as well!"
I chuckle to myself as I make my way out of Lough Gur. Logane's an arse, but damn if he isn't talented. Using ushi-oni (ox demon) and kamaitachi (scythe-claw weasel demon) hides, he crafted me a shoulder harness that fits so perfectly I can't even feel where it sits under my pauldrons, and the coolest cross-backed scabbards for Zen'aku. They're full-length, too, so Zen'aku's ambient glow won't give me away in the dark.
I didn't even need to ask to know which blade is meant for which scabbard.
Zen's is darker, but brightened by a sprawling Tree of Life with a Sun rising behind it. If you look closely, the trunk looks like the body of a person, arms wide, shielding smaller beings behind it.
Aku's is lighter, but stained pitch-black by a gnarled Tree of Death with a Crescent Moon rising behind it. You don't have to look closely at this one to see the grinning half-mad skeleton who makes up the entirety of this skinny, sharp-branched tree. Its feet spread out into roots, while its two arms raise to form the leafless branches. A silhouette of a hanged man swings from one spindly limb.
Even the small dagger sheaths are ornate and well-crafted. They're a mix between ox oni leather and snakeskin from this weird lady-headed snake yokai I fought after the kappas. The darker, larger one goes on Orion's Belt and sheathes the White-tier dagger I'd bought.
All of the scabbards are imbued with one of Logane's specialties: durability magic. Weapons in Viren's Refuge have durability ratings, just like everything else, and normally you have to pay a blacksmith to repair weapons every couple days. But Logane's sheaths do something normal weapon storage cannot: they have Recovery-over-Time (RoT) magic, so while weapons are sheathed, they slowly repair themselves.
A flashing notification tells me I'm leaving the Safe Haven of Lough Gur, so I pick up speed. I'd been waffling between heading for a Main Storyline Quest out in the forest or hitting up a local dungeon, but after seeing all the materials required to upgrade Zen'aku, I go straight for the Dolmen Dungeon.
Basic Upgrade Requirements (Each Cursed Blade):
1 Weapon of an Enemy Disarmed in Combat
3 Reptilian Monster Scales
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2 Boss Monster Claws
1 Vial Fog Essence
1 Banshee Tooth
The fact it says "basic requirements" makes me think it's a trick. For example, I'm sure that technically scales from the snake lady I attacked would count, but Zen'aku would upgrade with better stats if I used scales from a reptilian Boss monster instead.
The hint is the last material; there's a Banshee you have to fight before the final boss of the Level 8 Dolmen Dungeon. And that boss is a clawed, reptilian monster.
I crest a hill, and I'm struck once again by the awesomeness of this world.
The Dolmen for this dungeon, like dolmens IRL, is made up of two sides of stone pillars with a massive flat capstone boulder across the top. It's essentially a 7,000-year-old house of cards, but the cards are made out of giant-ass boulders that should have been impossible for paleolithic people to move.
As I walk closer, I'm surprised there aren't more Players milling about trying to form parties. I wander through the thirty or so Players, asking a few questions but mostly relying on my favorite Observational Superpower: Blatant Eavesdropping.
'Interesting,' I think after a few passes.
Turns out a 4-Man Party with a rotating 5th have snatched the First Clear of three dungeons already, including the Lough Gur Dolmen. Even more impressive (or annoying, depending how you look at it), they've also set a Best Time record at each of them.
This is great news to me and my materials-hunting mission.
First, people worried about record-setting have already run off to grind so they can hit up higher-level dungeons or they've set off for the farther-away dungeons still available at this level. The Players still around here are more likely to share my current materials-gathering focus.
Second, the 4-Man group is solely focused on the EXP from clears, so they've only run the dungeons on Hard Mode. (You can't get a First Clear or set a Best Time on Normal Mode.) They're working the quantity over quality angle, which means it'll be easier than I thought to convince some Players to try this dungeon on Nightmare Mode. (If I want to upgrade Zen'aku, I really need the increased drop rate of the hellish Nightmare Mode.)
Finally, the fact that a single group has taken so many records and appeared on the System Announcements so many times is probably wearing on even the people who normally don't care. If I can help a group snag a First Clear of their own (each dungeon has two available; one Hard, one Nightmare), I can probably convince them to give me the materials I want!
The only downside to all this is that when I pass by the dungeon entrance, I see the list of record-breaking players, and Polemos is listed with the Party Leader insignia.
A flash of frustration hits me when I recognize him as the first Player to reach Gael. My competitive nature makes me instinctively hate this fucker. I can somehow just feel that to take the top spot and rule Viren's Refuge, I'm going to have to fight this bastard at some point.
Maybe it's the fact that his name means War.
Could be a clue.
His buddies Limos, Loimos, and Thanatos (Famine, Plague, and Death) rounding out the Four Horsemen of the Goddamn Apocalypse are also perhaps a clue.
Move over, Sherlock, there's a new genius sociopath in town.
Prepared now for anything, I begin searching in earnest for an open party.
"4-Man, seeking 1 DPS!"
Bingo! I head toward the gruff voice.
And then immediately freeze, because apparently "prepared for anything" did NOT include running into the GIRL OF MY GODDAMN DREAMS.
She's playing a Valkyrie, because of course she is, that's perfect, obviously, no one else should ever play Valkyrie because they'll all fall miserably short of this perfection, fuck she's so hot I might die.
Her silver-lavender hair is still styled in elaborate braids, now more Viking-themed, and it's pulled back with a leather hair tie adorned with a vicious snake fang still slick with venom.
Her eyes are still that electric shade of dark violet, and her skin is still that pale peaches-and-cream that makes me want to use my tongue more creatively than I ever managed in high school.
(Yeah, I'm a socially awkward nerd, but nothing helps a teen lose his v-card like Olympic Gold. You guys would not believe the amount of sex happening in Olympic Village.)
"No dice, dude." The same gruff voice I'd heard earlier pulls my attention from my Viking Goddess. "We're looking for someone higher leveled."
Using my Thread Reader passive, I see they're all Level 7 and 8. Considering they're all playing demi-humans, that's pretty impressive. They must have grinded all Nightfall for the double EXP to keep up with the human Players.
Honestly, I'm looking for lower-leveled players myself. If the party's too strong, they won't need me to carry them as much, and I won't be able to bargain for materials.
But hot girl.
With my scarf, I Perceive her name is Kara Geir. Wild Storm Spear. Her own spin on the names of a few truly badass Valkyries in Norse myth.
Gods, she's perfect.
"How do you know he's low-leveled, Nanuk?" the other girl in their party, a Draegkyn, asks the gruff-voiced Shaman.
"None of his gear is Celtic," Nanuk answers. "He hasn't grinded in Gael yet, so he can't be higher than Level 5."
I'm impressed the observant dude can be so right and still so wrong.
"Maybe I hit Level 10 in my Foundation Village," I say, unconsciously putting my hands on my hips like I'd grown accustomed to doing when I was pantsless.
The other guy, an Anubis Warrior I'm guessing is their Tank, laughs. "Yeah right, bro. And I found a Celestial Chest buried in mine."
My smirk gets a tad smirkier at that. "Sweet. Me, too!" I say.
Anubis dude and Draegkyn chick laugh. Nanuk rolls his eyes and calls out for a DPS Player again.
Kara Geir the Valkyrie doesn't laugh, though. She tilts her head and looks at me, thoughtful. I don't let anything show on my face. Nothing hides the truth better than actually saying it aloud.
"Nan, why not let the D'Raven join us?" Her voice is lower than I'd imagined, sexy rather than sweet, and I feel like I've been electrocuted by her spear lightning attack. She sounds almost familiar; I must have heard her in a beta promo vid without realizing it.
"What? You don't believe his bullshit, right, Kara?"
"Of course not. But he's wearing decent gear, and I get the feeling he can do some damage with those swords across his back." The look on her face tells me she's trying to place me, but I look too different from my beta avatar.
"Cool," Draegkyn girl says. "What's your name, hot stranger?"
"Erebus," I reply.
Anubis dude is frowning now. Must not have appreciated the "hot" part.
The Valkyrie nudges the Shaman, and Nanuk begrudgingly swipes a Party Invite over to me.
[Nanuk invites you to join his Party. Accept? Yes or No]
"Want to join our Party, Erebus?" Kara asks, smiling.
And I mean, yes, I do. I want to follow her and that gorgeous smile to the edge of the world.
But also, my beautiful Cursed Zen'aku needs me...
Hot girl or swords?
Hot girl or swords?!
I stare into the bright violet eyes that have haunted more than one (extremely pleasant) dream since the final day of the beta, and my decision is clear.
"Sorry! Blades before Babes!"
And then I smash the "No" more forcefully than necessary before I can change my mind, and run.