The woman and tall man who Darrune had told to gather an army stood nervously in a sloping field. They exchanged meaningful glances. Around them, the crowd slowly grew.
They had, through small channels, made it known that a Pontiff was gathering a personal army to fight against the Wights. That had some weight, but it wasn’t enough to sway the hearts of many. The road from the North to Hastam was too long and hard. Few had energy left in their bodies. It was easier to hide behind Pontiffs than follow them.
For all that Tellus was the world of the greatest spear users the universe had ever known, not many of those were remaining in the Northern Camp. It was a broken people that had arrived at Hastam, only to be denied entry. That most recent sting was still a sour taste in the mouths of many.
But in all honesty, the tall man and the woman were quite disappointed with the reaction. Although they had but a few seconds of interaction with Sir Ghosthound, they took this deliberate slight against their master rather personally. He was a Pontiff! One of the chosen leaders of Tellus. Who were these people to sneer at such a generous offer?!?
So they put their heads together and discussed methods to gather more followers, so as to prove themselves to the much revered Pontiff.
Their second try was to exclaim loudly how wonderful it was to be under Sir Ghosthound. They made sure many overheard. It was only when the woman overheard a very lewd joke at her expense that she flushed and started exclaiming how wonderful it was to be a subordinate under Sir. Ghosthound.
This effort was met with an even quieter response than the first. And the few that seemed interested were the most jelly-spined and lazy group of people that either had ever seen. Besides, the entire Northern Camp had a good laugh at the woman and the tall man’s expense.
Most of those that joined were the tall man’s and the woman’s old friends. But both had moved onto a higher station, and barely deigned to recognize their previous association. Still, such a lazy group could not stay lazy unless they were clever.
The tall man and woman went to the group with the problem and made a deal; they assist and they can be subordinates to the subordinates in the new world order. There was a lot of chin rubbing, but the group agreed. So the fifty or so supporters they had currently all grouped up and had a brainstorming session.
Finally, the new followers just looked at the tall man and the woman and asked them, “Well, what made you follow Sir Ghosthound?”
The two thought about that. The first answer was jealousy, and to see Darrune proved wrong. But when they thought about it…
“Sir Ghosthound will be coming to the Northern Camp in a few days to perform a demonstration and seek pupils,” The tall man and woman told everyone who would listen, quite pleased with their lie. And if anyone called them on it, they would play dumb and blame Darrune. “If you manage to pass his test, he will take you away from the Northern Camp. To where? Well, Sir Ghosthound has large plans…”
He was taking them all to die on the frontlines of course. Or at least, he was taking the average recruit to the frontlines. Those with seniority, like the tall man and the woman, would likely barely encounter danger. It was a rich and relaxed life waiting for them… if only they could gather enough underlings.
The woman’s mouth was very dry. “This seems… a bit much, don’t you think?”
Ten thousand people milled around the field, talking excitedly about being inducted into an official Style.
The tall man licked his lips and coughed. “Erm… well we can’t be blamed for our effectiveness, can we?”
“But the promises…”
The tall man waved his hand. “Even if most of them were disappointed, isn’t that better? Then those that passed will feel pride. Even if we lied-”
Both froze as a voice spoke out behind them. “Oh, so you admit this was all your doing? Your own lie? Ah, my apologies, Sir Ghosthound, I should have chosen my subordinates more carefully…”
Slowly, they turned. Darrune, looking plump and pleased as a pig after a week of fattening stood next to a barefoot man wearing expensive combat leathers. His eyes were bright green, so much that to see them causes both the tall man and the woman to gasp.
But instead of fury, Sir Ghosthound seemed amused. “Well, this is fine. I’ll conduct a… test, of a sort. But it will not be related to the spear. It will be focused on Willpower. Spread the word. It will begin… at sunset. So… about three hours?”
Darrune’s expression grew uncomfortable. “Sir Ghosthound, there is no need-”
The temperature probably dropped twenty degrees as Sir Ghosthound gave Darrune a slow glare. He visibly wilted beneath the focused attention. The tall man and the woman could tell that Darrune wished to apologize, but the attention had him frozen. Both inwardly rejoiced.
Ohohoh, soon Sir Ghosthound will choose me as is direct subordinate… after all, this was mostly my idea… Both the tall man and the woman thought.
Then Sir Ghosthound turned away. “I’m going to check something. Don’t disturb me until the time of the test.”
Then he was gone.
All three stood still for another few seconds, just in case. Only when it was clear that they were alone did the three turn on each other and begin to bicker.
Alta felt cold. Most of her body felt cold now after she had systematically replaced the flesh of her body with technology. Danz’ death made her realize how fragile the Spriggit body truly was. Unlike the Earth Golems or the Monsters, they possessed no natural defenses against the twisted machinations of their enemies.
The tragedy was that Danz had died so quickly he couldn’t even struggle. He was choked to death by someone so quickly that all Danz could manage was to froth at his mouth.
Metal and technology were Alta’s sanctuaries. With them, she could become so much more than a physical body; she could become strong. Although they had never tested it, Alta privately believed that she would now even be able to rival Creta in terms of battle potential.
But there was one part of her that was always warm. Too warm.
At her core, the resonator constantly burned, even when she didn’t attempt to draw on the image of ash. It was a constant annoyance, but likely it was due to Alta’s own growing power.
Standing at the head of the Procession, Alta turned to Creta. “They have not replied at all?”
“Nothing,” Creta said with a shake of the head. Her beautiful hair was finally beginning to lighten. Now it seemed to fall like snow around Creta’s unlined face. That irked Alta somewhat. No matter the passage of time, Creta barely seemed to be touched by it. Although her hair gave away her age somewhat, Creta could be twenty-five, fully fifty years less than her true age. One-third of how old she really was. Meanwhile, Alta…
Grunting, Alta lumbered forward.
As Alta walked, one leg dragged against the ground while the other was over-engineered and impacted itself after a year of repeated use. It turned out that creating technology that functioned as well as the flesh and blood you were born with was difficult. Alta’s first attempt at a leg was patently poor, an overly armored thing that ended up being a small distance shorter than her natural leg.
And of course, Alta’s brain had extreme difficulty adjusting to the new length of its legs.
Several attempts were made to correct the length, but nothing felt right. But Alta used the knowledge she had learned to create a leg in a different fashion. But if it wasn’t oiled, the knee joint stuck and that leg would always drag. These past few days, Alta simply hadn’t had time to oil the damn thing. She was too busy preparing for this day.
Carthak loomed above them. Or at least the mountain that hid Carthak. The doors had been sealed and the windows filled. The only greeting that awaited them was the strain, obnoxious keening that was produced by the chapel in the rear.
Did they think that they could survive this way? Isolating themselves from the world and waiting for the storm to pass? That was foolish.
“Carthak… I ask that you open your doors and share your riches with us simple pilgrims… or we will force your hand.” Alta spread her metal limbs, waiting for the response. This was generally how these raids would go, and there were only two ways these things eventually ended up. The first was that Carthak would use this chance to attack, trying to scare them off.
A foolish choice, if one that at least proved that those within had retained enough of their lust for life that they were willing to fight for it.
The second way…
No attack came. Alta’s expression turned derisive.
“Fine then.” The heat in her chest grew more intense as she drew on the image of ash she held in her chest. Alta realized that it was a reflection of the ash of this terrible world, but somehow she felt closer to this image. Perhaps it was because her heart was one of the truly organic things left in her body. It was easy to feel an instinctual familiarity with it.
And yet, she hated it all the same. That, Alta believed, was why it was so powerful. Why she was so powerful. That hatred.
Slowly, she formed a huge fireball while her army behind her watched. Only when it was a veritable lake of fire did she release it, spearing her Skill through the Carthak. The mountain rumbled and collapsed, with the top portion blown to smithereens.
With a whoop, her raiders rushed forward, eager to empty out Carthak’s coffers.