The following morning saw me and Sarah standing at the entrance of Ravenrock, a nearby town that was something like a second home to me.
Ravenrock was a fairly sizable town, even when accounting for it being the seat of a Barony. There were multiple reasons for this, but they all stemmed from the same root: the area was very poor in ambient magic.
Aside from the conduits we mages used to draw mana from Unreality, as well as the mana well, there was one more way for mana to manifest on our side of reality — namely, the porous nature of reality itself, which allowed for minute amounts of mana to arrive freely from Unreality.
The permeability of any particular section of the world was highly variable, and the reason for these differences was a hotly debated topic in academia. The only consensus was that there would never be any consensus on this particular issue.
In any case, what Ravenrock’s low mana density meant for society was that it made the town exceedingly safe. The chance of supernatural manifestations spontaneously appearing — usually animals being turned into monsters, magical plagues, and spatial shenanigans — scaled linearly with mana density. The area surrounding Ravenrock being essentially a mana desert meant that there would never be any magical beast hordes sieging the town or infinite dungeons appearing under some tomb.
The safety of the area made it prime real estate for retired adventurers and lesser nobles, as both groups wanted nothing more than to kick back and relax in relative peace. The coin they brought with them triggered a positive feedback loop for Ravenrock’s economy, attracting more and more people until the other shoe finally fell.
Since mana represented potential, a scarcity of mana stifled growth. This was largely irrelevant for humans since our own porosity was distinct from the area in which we resided, but it turned out that mana density was, in fact, quite important for crops. Were it not for the crop production bottleneck, Ravenrock would likely have grown to become one of the most important cities on the continent. As it was, the town had plateaued at a modest eight thousand inhabitants, the highest it could sustain given the poor harvests.
Or at least, it had been that way until one dashing Archmage devised a grand alchemical formula that increased the yield of crops in a specific area by cleverly imbuing vegetal matter — and vegetal matter only, this time — with diminutive strands of Energy mana. I only regretted wasting so much time investigating the possibility of an alchemical solution — but alas, that was the plight of a researcher. Most roads lead to a dead end.
The only thing setting the town back from becoming a proper metropolis now was the fact that it resided nary a league from my own tower, which was something of a deal-breaker for prospective residents. Not to mention the fact that the entire peninsula —- the former Barony — was now technically my domain, nevermind that I had never asked for it. After the Baron committed suicide by me, his only son and heir had taken his remaining men and fled with his tail between his legs, which was a shame, because the responsibility of having to manage the whole place now fell on me, ostensibly by right of conquest.
I wasn’t sure, but it was likely I was the only accidental conqueror in the continent’s history.
In any case, the spell had brought me a fair amount of goodwill from the townsfolk, enough that no more than a handful of families decided to flee the town in hopes of avoiding the ever devouring hunger of the Dark Lord.
Without the influx of new residents, the farmers were generating a surplus of grain, which quickly turned Ravenrock into a major exporter, further boosting the town’s economy.
I had shared all this knowledge with Sarah on our way here but had she still been alive, I’m sure she would have been sleepwalking a third way in. It appeared history and economics were not among the Hero’s interests. She did perk up when I mentioned the retired heroes, which made me smile secretly. I would have a surprise for her later that day.
The gate to Ravenrock was guarded by a pair of wights, lesser undead that were just intelligent enough to follow orders but not enough for any kind of independent problem-solving. This was expected since their souls were supplied by animals and their minds were closer to a mathematical algorithm than an actual organic mind. The guards were mostly there to deter criminals more than anything, and they made no move to stop us as we entered the town.
“This is much better smelling than that other town I visited,” her eyes wandered as she took in the sights. “Much cleaner looking, too.”
“Ravenrock was planned rather than naturally grown, compared to most places. It had sewers built from the start.”
“Oh,” she replied noncommittally.
As we walked through the alleys, we were given a wide berth by the other pedestrians. Some glared at us with obvious hostility, I assumed the more religious ones, but I was surprised to receive more than a few respectful nods. Most just glanced with interest. It made me happy that my reputation here hadn’t been completely dragged through the gutter. Of course, it hadn't been entirely by chance that public opinion remained largely neutral towards me. I had had a hand in it — a very light touch of Soul magic upon the populace, just enough to tip the scales ever so slightly in my favor.
It wasn’t long before we made it to our destination.
Master Kallo’s smithy was one of the longest-standing businesses in Ravenrock. He had served as the armorer for the Adventurers’ Guild up in Synara and when Guild Master Aisin announced his retirement, his younger brother decided to follow him and start his own shop.
As we entered we were greeted by a young spindly apprentice who was manning the counter. Rolf, if I remembered his name right.
“Lord Crane! It’s good to see the crusaders didn’t get you,” he smiled. “Do you need more instruments crafted? Should I get Master Kallo for you?”
“Hello, Rolf. I’m here for something different this time, actually,” I said as I returned his greeting with a nod. I gestured to Sarah. “I’d like to commission a set of plate mail for her.”
Sarah waved at the boy, who only just seemed to notice her beside me.
“I’ll inform Master,“ he replied as he scampered towards the forge in the back.
Sarah perused the swords on display while we waited for Kallo to arrive. She methodically looked over each one, but never took any for a test.
“I understand that you’re supposed to feel out a weapon to see if it’s suitable. And, what was that… test its balance?”
She grimaced. “I wouldn’t know what to look for, really. I’ve only been in this world for, what, a little over a week? Before that, I’d only seen swords in a museum.”
That took me by surprise. “Only a week? And somebody saw fit to send you on a crusade?” I was fairly certain she had been sent to die, but I didn’t want to be the one to say it. Betrayals like that you needed to discover for yourself.
“The Duke must have been too taken with the legends surrounding Heroes. He probably thought I’d be a one-woman army from the get-go,” she said hesitantly, as if testing out the words.
“Is it me you’re trying to convince of that?” I murmured.
She stood in quiet contemplation after that. A couple of minutes later, the blacksmith made his entrance.
Master Kallo was a bear of a man, which had originally come as something of a surprise to me given that his brother managed to achieve the feat of being lankier than me. Burns covered much of his skin, evidencing his many decades of working the forge.
The man grunted in lieu of a greeting and looked at me expectantly.
While Kallo and I had a relationship based on mutual respect for each other’s trade, it was a very brittle thing. He did not like me one bit and made no effort to hide his distaste for my brand of sorcery. Even so, he was a man of principle, and to him, anyone’s gold was good gold. He had crafted a fair bit of specialized equipment for me, and I fully trusted his professionalism.
“A set of plate mail, custom fit for her,” I repeated my request, knowing he preferred brevity.
Kallo grunted again, this time in assent, and motioned for Sarah to follow him to the back of the shop. I moved to follow, but he turned around and stopped me with a glare.
“Don’t need you here for this. The lass knows what she wants, aye?” His voice was gruff and reminded me of old mothballs.
I gave Sarah a questioning glance, to which she nodded after a second.
“Very well. You can leave the bill with any of the guardsmen.” I then turned to the knight. “Come to the Traders’ Plaza when you’re done. I’ll find you.”
Sorting out the armor would take at least an hour, so I found myself with nothing to do for the time being. For a moment, I considered finding a quiet spot and practicing Dimension magic, but then reason kicked in and I dismissed the idea — it would do no good to accidentally demolish a building. My reputation was poor enough as it was.
Wandering through the streets, the decision was soon out of my hands as I found myself standing in front of the one thing I was most vulnerable to. Something that had not been here when I last visited Ravenrock, and I was no more able to resist than a crab in front of the tide. There, standing proudly between a bakery and a tailor’s shop, was my greatest weakness.
Unmindful of the people around me, I made a beeline to the object of my desires. The bell above the door made a pleasant clink as I stepped into the shop.
The inside consisted of several rows of bookcases, each going all the way up to the ceiling. There was a counter to the right, but it was currently unmanned.
I spent the next half an hour browsing the stock, and setting aside a pile that would be coming home with me. There were quite a few new magical treatises that interested me greatly, and I reluctantly also picked up a book called Dimension Magic for Dummies. It was aimed at young apprentices, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
I also selected a few titles that would help me with the newest addition to my tower, namely Mother Sulli's Guide on Raising Teenagers and Teenage Angst: A Survival Guide. I needed all the help I could get there.
I was still lost in my own little world when a voice startled me from behind.
"Hello there, customer! I apologize, I was in the back and didn't hear you enter. I am Davos, owner of this store. Is there anything I can help you with?"
I turned around to face the shopkeeper. He was a dark-skinned man with wild hair and looked to be in his late thirties or so. Interestingly, he did not seem to recognize me.
I glanced at the veritable mountain of books I had picked. “I think this is all for now. Though, you’ll likely be seeing me a lot around here.”
He smiled and gestured to follow him to the counter. “I’m familiar with most of my patrons, but I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“Indeed. I have been away from Ravenrock for some time. I’m Julian. Have you been open long?”
“About a year. I’m a refugee, from Redford.”
I grimaced at that, but Davos didn’t seem to notice. Redford had been another village under my domain, just until two years ago. Like the other settlements that fell under the former Barony’s jurisdiction, I had sent a contingent of undead for peacekeeping, as well as to collect the bone tax. This was mostly well-received — even though almost nobody liked the walking dead, even fewer people liked taxes. Heh, death and taxes.
In Redford, however, the local Temple of Lussira had been vocal protesters, calling for people to rise against the “forces of evil.” This culminated with the Temple starting a riot that led to the entire village going up in flames.
I felt no small amount of guilt, now, standing in front of this man whose life had been uprooted as a result of my actions. I turned that guilt into fuel for the anger I held towards the gods. I would make them pay a hundredfold.
If Davos noticed my inner turmoil, he made no mention of it.
He went through each book, making notes in his ledger. He tapped one of the covers as he began, “This one is a godsend. I’ve been raising my boy alone for the last five years, and Mother Sulli’s Guide saved me a lot of grief. Are you a father as well?”
“Not quite. I… I picked up a stray girl, so to speak, and I’m feeling ill-prepared to mentor her.”
Davos snorted. “Ain’t that the truth. You can never be prepared enough with a kid.” He looked lost, but then continued, “It was difficult enough when my wife died.
As we finished the transaction, I made to leave — arms full of books — but then stopped in the doorway and turned around to the shopkeeper. “I hope you have a good time in Ravenrock. I’ll be returning here often, so if you need help with anything please don’t hesitate to ask.”
He smiled and nodded, and then I was gone.
Back on the street, I mentally signaled to one undead guard, who I then sent to deliver the books back to the tower. With that taken care of, I started in the direction of the Traders’ Plaza. This was going to be fun.