After a long walk around the city’s area in an invisible, undetectable form, Randidly sat at one of the low benches of Carthak’s food market. The place was bustling with the sound of feet on stone, children’s laughter, and the hiss and spit of frying oil. Randidly’s eyes traced the completely cleared room, large enough to be a football stadium from old Earth. Twisting paths lined by bamboo stalls made the place a labyrinth, aside from the hundred or so tables and benches that formed the center of the room.
It was designed this way on purpose, Randidly realized. So you would have to walk past food on the way in and on the way out if you chose to eat in the center. And Randidly had noticed that a lot of the foodstuffs near the edges of the market were tiny finger foods. Meatballs on skewers or carefully cultivated and flavorful moss hanging on parchment paper. Small things with cheap prices that were easy to justify.
It wasn’t perhaps Randidly’s favorite food groups, but he could understand why some of these Earth Golems and assorted other refugees that had fled to Carthak would be tempted by one more snack before they headed home. Or perhaps they were meant as a gift to bring home to a friend or a loved one as a show of affection…
Randidly looked dubiously down at the thin black eels that swam around in his soup. With a grimace, he scooped one up and sucked it down. To his surprise, the thing seemed to shiver and then melt on his tongue into the warm and rich taste of fat. The soup itself was rather cool, with a minty taste. To be honest, it reminded Randidly of eating lamb chops, in a weird way. It possessed the same sort of flavor palette.
For all that it was a strange alien food, Randidly began to dig into his soup with gusto.
But these foods were part of a broader trend that was affecting the Seven Lands. From what Randidly could gather, strange emerald springs had appeared in some of the deeper tunnels. His Ignition of the Emerald Essence made manifest. Still, all was not well in paradise. This was a problem because the glowing waters attracted the Soulless, and if allowed to feed for extended periods of time, they grew at a horrifying rate.
Similarly, this was a boon to Carthak because it provided them with a much-needed food and industry source. A single drop of the emerald nectar, as they called it, fed one of the vast pools that bred these little eels for a week. They harvested hundreds of the fuckers a day, and more and more spawned every second.
Randidly had seen people leave out a bowl of the emerald essence in a small cave and moss would grow overnight on every exposed wall. People had begun cultivating the strangely thick and filling moss, selecting strains and teasing out the secrets of breeding them for flavor. A cottage industry that was a hybrid between breeding spices and growing tea quickly developed.
They hadn’t realized that their fragrant moss could be used in that way, but Randidly had pushed a few talented young chefs to try boiling the moss to add a little extra oomph to their recipes.
Carthak was slowly blooming into a city. But the outlook wasn’t entirely rosy.
“We are doomed,” Grem mumbled. Grem was an old Monster that had escaped before the Procession, as the mass of bodies devouring the lands as they fled down the World Tree was called, had reduced the Monster Land a place of broken people and bandits with no food to be found.
“We… we could bribe them, couldn’t we?” Ella, a young Earth Golem whined. “Our food stores are growing; if we give them enough, wouldn’t they be happy to avoid Carthak? Plus all of our stuff is underground-”
“If you think that they won’t take it all, your brain is softer than the dumplings you are eating,” Vollusk announced. Vollusk was a Spriggit, one of the few in Carthak, but was extremely respected due to him modernizing of Carthak industry. Without Vollusk’s rather cheaply made power frame mechs, moving so much rubble to clear the mountain tunnels would have been impossible. It was also his team that ensured that the mountain remained structural sound in the face of an increasing clamor for expansion. “There are three factions in the Procession, you know. Even if the main baggage train doesn’t pass near us, one of the factions will raid us in order to gain riches to tempt more followers to their side.”
Grem nodded, his typically grim expression in place. “Each faction has warriors numbering in the tens of thousands. Even if we were to put every capable warrior we have out there, we would at best be able to beat them back and slink home with half of the forces we came with. Fighting will lead to death.”
“Lady Allica wouldn’t let that happen,” Ella whispered.
“Lady Allica’s requests to broker an agreement with the Monster Faction fell on deaf ears,” Vollusk said with a shake of the head. Randidly thought that his curly hair made the Spriggit man look like an adorable child next to Ella, the towering Earth Golem. But it was heartwarming in a strange way to see them leaning toward each other at a small table together.
This was the point of the world, Randidly reflected. To allow people to choose their own paths forward. To choose who you wish to walk with.
“The only option we have left is to fight. If I had more of a budget, combat mechs-” Vollusk continued.
Grem silenced the Spriggit with a glare. “You already had to make so many aesthetic alterations to get the people of Carthak to accept your industrial models. The memory of the High King’s Folly is too fresh for Carthak to realistically deploy anything near combat mechs. It’s bad enough that the Procession has them.”
“Is the Black Iron Queen really a mech that killed so many that blood magic brought it to life?” Ella whispered.
Vollusk snorted, even as Grem nodded sagely.
“Aye, that is one story of her origin,” Grem said. “Others whisper that she used to be a beautiful woman who was scarred in the war. Such was her twisted heart that she started replacing her body with metal to feel beautiful again, but each time she only grew uglier and more twisted. But her power is unrivaled. The Black Iron Queen’s faction is the most vicious and powerful in the Procession.”
Randidly’s gaze was sad as he looked down at his soup. He had not yet left Carthak to check on the details, but there was something inside of him that told him he knew who the Black Iron Queen was.
Oh Lucretia, must you truly follow this tragedy to its end? Randidly thought sadly. He felt a great deal of pity for the woman compelled by guilt from missing her real child’s life to follow a surrogate daughter’s demise so closely.
“But…” The tremor was clear in Ella’s voice. “Is she really that strong? Stronger than the Scarred One?”
Grem and Vollusk shared a glance.
Grem spoke first. “Of course not. Our glorious Rejt has the blessing of the Progenitor himself. The beautiful music of the cathedral risings in joy at his very approach. With the support of the Progenitor, his strength is unrivaled.”
“...well, we need not depend wholly on some hypothetical god for support,” Vollusk said with a sniff. “I can assure you that Rejt is quite strong. He defeated two Behemoth class Soulless at the same time. His strength is real-”
“Praise the Progenitor…” Grem mumbled softly.
Vollusk’s dissatisfaction became an outright glare. “The Progenitor has nothing to do with it. That man worked hard-”
“The music of the wind is really so beautiful though…” Ella said doubtfully.
Vollusk looked like he was almost ready to pull his hair out. “Please. It is a wonderful natural phenomenon, but it has been replicated in other areas of Carthak. The warning system is based upon those same principles, and it was made by individuals-”
“Only after studying the mysteries of the Progenitor,” Grem argued back. “With doom looming, now is the time where we must reaffirm our faith to survive. It is said that Lady Allica goes to the dawn ceremony daily.”
The argument had the familiar cadences of one long rehearsed, so Vollusk just threw up his hands rather than continue it. The group fell silent for several seconds. Randidly took this opportunity to slurp down several of the thin eels in his soup.
Maybe he should be a bit more pointed in his lessons about tea… had he been too subtle? How much interference was too much interference…? Was there a point to controlling his interference?
Well, obviously yes. His goal was to have the world function safely without his having to micromanage the thing… But tea was something that may or may not happen, regardless. Especially when this city might soon be part of a raid.
“This is really good,” Ella finally said to change the subject. She patted her very firm stomach after devouring the last of the dumplings. “What was filling?”
“Eel meat, but the larger variety,” Vollusk said. “And a new strain of moss mixed in for flavor. I believe I tried a prototype before it was available to the public, and it was very succulent.”
“Why not just say it was good,” Grem said with a frown. “Why use succulent?”
Randidly finished his soup and stepped away, crossing out of Carthak, before the rest of the conversation could reach his ears. The friendship that had blossomed between those three was a small, precious thing. Those moments were Allica’s source of strength, Randidly could feel. It was like a complex net growing underneath Carthak, with Allica’s ideology at its core.
Proof of concept, it could be called.
But perhaps two months of travel away, the Procession ground slowly closer. It was a bulldozer, ripping up the land and taking anything supportive of life for itself. At the helm were three factions, led by the Weavers, Alta, and the Monster Prince respectively. There was an open war between the first two, while the third was likely the largest, and neutral.
But that third group was slowly shrinking-
Suddenly, Randidly frowned. There was… someone here that shouldn’t be here. In an instant, Randidly took a step and vanished from the Monster Land.