Randidly lightly tapped the edge of the hastily erected cot, where the Wild Rider was currently resting. The rest of the Raid Party was sweeping the area, cleaning up the monsters that were constantly spawning, due to the Creature’s strange… and almost ingenious plan for the Raid Dungeon itself.
Next to Randidly, the Grey Death Cultist stood deferentially, simply waiting for his word. During the time that Randidly had been impatiently waiting for the Wild RIder to awake, he had spoken some with the Death Cultists, and their version of history was illuminating.
They received an offer from the Creature the same as the other race of people here, but they refused. Instead, they relied on their powerful, shamanistic magic that could utilize death as a source of strength. Many brave warriors’ lives were lost, but in exchange, their race was able to rapidly grow to address the threat of the monster hordes. With their high reproductive speed, they were actually able to reach an equilibrium much more easily.
Then, unbeknownst to the elders of the Death Cultist, someone snuck in among their people and spread a strange, forbidden ritual that granted power. It was, of course, the Creature, and it spread through the lower, younger ranks like wildfire. When you routinely saw your friends and family sacrificed, you would do anything for power.
However, the White Death Cultist, who was their leader, quickly sniffed out this plot and came down with fire and brimstone to eradicate these betrayers. Through torture and interrogation, they managed to extract the method without promising a favor to the Creature, and the White Death Cultist thought it prudent to start utilizing it, regardless.
Unfortunately… very soon after that, there was a series of powerful attacks by a strange beast. During one of those attacks, the White Death Cultist was captured, but the beast too was gravely wounded.
After that, the Death Cultist society almost collapsed, as fear of more attacks such as that spread through the population. In a twist of fate that Randidly found profoundly disconcerting, they turned to religion, and the words of the White Death Cultist, who left numerous musings before he was captured. In a diary, he speculated at the nature of the location they were currently trapped and had investigated the whole area of the Raid Dungeon.
What he found was the lock for the Key of Death, and devised a way to create one. Tragically, it could only be used by an interloper from a distant land, so the White Death Cultist spoke of the heroism and responsibility possessed by these “saviors” who would come to free them for their eternal torment. Whether or not the White Death Cultist actually wanted to found a religion based on the forthcoming Raid Party was unclear, but since that individual was no longer around to say anything…
“Should I wake her?” The Grey Death Cultist asked in its husky voice, as it did everytime the Wild Rider’s eyelids fluttered. As always, Randidly shook his head impatiently.
Inwardly, Lucretia was hastily developing their first real Aether construct, one that would handle the strange tentacles of Aether that kept shooting outwards from the Wild Rider. If anything, the cloth that had covered her eyes had regulated it somewhat, making it much more subtle, and much more useful. In the wake of unmasking Ten’Malla, she was throwing hundreds of illusion filled tendrils where she used to only use a handful.
Of everyone, only Clarissa and Ace had high enough Willpower to be near it, without being phased. The Grey Death Cultist, as well, which was somewhat of a surprise, but he provided Randidly the company he needed for his unending vigil.
Only seemingly unending, Randidly hoped.
But what was puzzling about the Ten’Malla situation was that it appeared that the action of extending tendrils was almost entirely instinctual. More than that, it was motivated… out of fear and pain. It was not the action of a chess piece, but more likely, a messy leftover, that the Creature repurposed.
Which shifted Randidly’s attention to how exactly the Creature been influencing Ten’Malla, and what had been the Creature, and what had been the now grown up rider. What was clear was that the Creature could have used her fix on the translation software of the System to have Ten’Malla say almost anything to them. But what was more worrying was that the cloth over Ten’Malla’s eyes were also thick with Aether constructs.
Rather than investigating closely, Randidly had thought it prudent to simply annihilate all of that delicate work with raw force. Of course, now he regretted that immensely. He was wracking his brain to think of anything that the Wild Rider could have said to mislead them, or set them up for a failure later, but… he couldn’t think of anything.
But that didn’t make it any easier to stop dwelling on it.
Besides, this was just a way to kill time. It had been about 8 hours since they had burned down the Northern Eyrie, and after making contact with the Grey Death Cultist, it had offered to contact the rest of their people, and gather them to greet the great messiah. Randidly grudgingly agreed, only because he knew what came next might be… complicated.
If his assumptions about what the Creature was doing were correct, it would be buckling down and fortifying. Although its true goals weren’t clear, Randidly began to wonder whether it was doing experiments with its Aether, trying to bless some of the Dintan, granting them Classes in the way Randidly was able to influence some members of Donnyton.
The prospect was… very intimidating. The Creature had already made it clear that it was much more skilled than Randidly at using its Aether resources, and an army of powerful Classes at its back would make it a much different kind of threat than it was currently. One that Randidly likely wouldn’t be able to contain on his own.
Randidly heard the soft rustle of grass and looked up. Chrysanthemum lumbered over to them, Thea on her back. The duo quickly arrived and Thea hopped off.
Randidly’s eyebrow quirked upwards. “Trouble?”
Thea looked directly at Randidly and shook her head. “Not trouble, just… there is a huge monster horde South of us. Except… it doesn’t seem like its heading for us. But towards….mmm well, Annie said you should know.”
Breathing through his nose, Randidly leaned backward. First of note was how directly Thea had been able to address him. That was… new, and likely a good thing. Perhaps the two weeks in here had done a lot to soften the blow his fury had done when she had chosen to upgrade her Skill rather than her Class, or a Statistic.
The second thing was the presence of the monster horde. It seemed the Creature was moving more quickly than he had expected… while not necessarily a bad thing, if they didn’t move quickly, it might become… overly complicated to attack the Creature’s base. Not that it was simply to attack it now, while there was a huge monster horde around it, but…
Thirdly… Annie also had intuited what was going on? Or was it just a safe move to refer the information back to her? How far could she see when scouting… Honestly, that was the most perturbing thing he had learned while in the Raid Dungeon, that she had a very accurate gauge of a very large amount of land, and she didn’t seem to travel at all, or have any limit on the direction or timing of her knowledge…
There was a Skill at work here, and a powerful one. Perhaps he should ask Rose if he could look at the copious notes she was taking on each of them, to see what type of Skill Annie was using…
Thea’s eyes slid sideways to the Grey Death Cultist, then back to Randidly. “So… we don’t need to fight them anymore?”
Randidly shook his head slowly. It was unfortunate, but… fighting them seemed just to be beneficial as an experience grind, and now that they were communicating… it didn’t help that they seemed to worship him… it reminded Randidly somewhat of the Cult of Arbor, and he didn’t just want to put these people to the sword.
Of course, another part of him whispered, that’s exactly what he would be doing by using their assistance to assault the Creature’s base… and those that survived would be wiped out when he used the Death Key and cleared the Raid Dungeon.
“Then what are we still doing here?” Thea asked, her expression puzzled. “Back home… the people are without Aether, right? I heard all the stuff the governments were saying, that short-term deprivation of Aether won’t have any lasting side effects, but it makes me wonder what short-term side effects-”
Randidly raised a hand, stopping her before she built up a full head of steam. When Thea said that, all Randidly could see were Simon’s soft brown eyes and the fear that other people would be hurt. It was… profoundly strange to realize that the person you are speaking to has more of a conscience than you did. It was not an agreeable feeling.
“... I know what you are thinking. I won’t deny it, we have the Key of Death, and we could clear the Raid Dungeon immediately if that was all there was in here. But there is more to do.”
“Is there?” Thea asked, her voice insistent, her eyes glowing coldly. Randidly almost smiled but controlled himself.
Truly, her upgraded Skill was paying dividends in her life. Standing before him was a powerful young woman full of confidence in her own methods. It was leagues away from the armored pincushion he had first encountered, in Star Crossing. But that didn’t mean she was right.