Randidly had to admit to himself that if he took the time to meticulously construct a boat, it would look a lot like this. Trees and leafy shrubs were the first things that assaulted his senses when he laboriously clambered up the absurdly long ladder to the deck of the ship above. Bright flowers and ferns swayed back and forth in the sea breeze. And at this height, the wind was strong.
Not that it was a difficult climb, but to move calmly up the ladder while maintaining a consistent flow of Mana to all the hundreds of ships… it was testing to him. Both his mental resources and his ability to resist stress. After all, a stray thought would have a ship slowly smoldering around the crew.
But the moment where he hopped over and found himself faced with a tropical jungle paradise, Randidly managed to hold tight to the reins of Mana. Rainbow feathered birds twisted to look at this new arrival with detached interest. From his vantage, Randidly could peer through the foliage and see an orchard where dozens of workers were gathering humongous oranges.
“If you are quite done gawking…?” The old man who had called him up said sharply. Then he spun on his heel and began marching through the jungle. Sniffing to parse apart multitude of sweet fragrances emitted by the ship, Randidly followed.
Immediately, Randidly felt a pounding in his head. Taking a page from Alta’s book, he used the image of Ash to burn the remainder of that strange pollen out of his system and shook his head. Now was not the time to get sloppy. Sampling the flavors of this place could wait until later.
The Oracle, huh…?
Part of Randidly looked forward to this meeting. The Oracle was an ancient being. And from what Randidly had gathered anecdotally, the Oracle mainly kept herself cloistered deep within the Heart School. To find her here… and the fact that the Oracle asked for him by name…
It obviously wasn’t a good sign. As they began to descend a grand wooden staircase lined with twining vines and opulent azure flowers, Randidly grimaced. Truly, he hated meddlers more than anything. It felt like every time he attempted a different task, crazy people popped out of the woodwork in order to twist him to their purpose.
Honestly, he was tired of it. And with an entire boat of wood like this around him… He had some confidence in resisting any sort of pressures she put on him here and escaping without a scratch.
Well, perhaps that was being a bit optimistic. Now was not the time to underestimate the opponent, either.
Deeper and deeper they went. Below the jungle was a perfectly populated shady grassland. Hordes of deer-like animals looked up as the duo descended into that area. The deer's ears flicked, and then they returned to their gazing. But Randidly couldn’t help notice that a few on the edges of the pack kept an eye on the humans.
Downwards they went. Below the grassland level was water. Long tanks of it, full of swimming turtles and shellfish and tuna. Below that were the caves.
And below the caves… was darkness.
“You must proceed forward on your own from here,” The man said. His face was only illuminated by the candle he had produced as they entered into the water level. Behind him, the soft light refractions from the water tanks played on the staircase. He offered Randidly the candle, which Randidly took. “Few are allowed to witness the Oracle. Perhaps… as a show of respect, you might consider some footwear.”
Then the old man sniffed and turned back upward. Randidly’s frown grew worse.
It was a power play to leave a foreign influence wandering alone with a fucking candle in the middle of your super ship. For all that it was a wondrous display of engineering acumen to create something like this, it was still made of wood. Fires at sea were exactly the sort of problem that plagued those who were afflicted by hubris. It might even be a generous lesson for Randidly to teach this Oracle.
Ultimately, that idea was squashed and Randidly began once more to descend. But what else was Randidly supposed to do but continue onward? He had come this far, perhaps driven by curiosity more than a show of respect. Because truly, the being he was about to meet might be old. Very old.
Randidly proceeded downward. The darkness stretched around him, thick and heavy. In spite of himself, Randidly shivered as he remembered his time stuck in the dungeon. Unpleasant memories, even if it turned out alright. Not something that Randidly would like to relive. The weight, the darkness…
The edge of madness upon which he had danced. Those moments where his own images seemed to come alive against the backdrop of his closed eyelids...
Each “level” of the ship was about 20 meters in height. But this most recent layer felt extremely long. After a minute of walking, Randidly began to count the steps. Still he walked downwards without ceasing, or without sign he had passed into a new area. Every step echoed, so Randidly believed that he was in a wide open space.
Unable to resist, Randidly spread out his Aether Detection to feel in the vast darkness around him. What he found stopped him dead.
Wights. Folded into vast stacks. Millions of them. Hundreds of Witch Kings. Neatly sorted into piles. Sleeping and vulnerable. A desert where each grain of sand was an inert machine designed to kill.
With a delicate touch, Randidly reached out and brushed his Perception against the nearest pile. He released his breath in a hiss; they were filled with energy, all ready to go. All they required was some sort of signal and they would explode to life. Randidly had floated his fleet up next to a veritable nuclear warhead.
Or more accurately, a submarine carrying a nuclear payload had chased him down and hailed him.
His first instinct was to say fuck this and burn the whole place to the ground. But he restrained that. This much energy could be used. And now, more than ever, Randidly was intrigued by the prospect of what the Oracle wanted. Was this an ambush? Was Randidly being brought below in order to be killed?
That seemed excessive. If the Oracle truly controlled this force, then she could have struck without worrying about the consequences. Perhaps it was a threat, against the Oracle? Someone keeping this waiting army here as an insurance policy? Perhaps, but Randidly had no way of knowing.
He was aware that the leadership of the Spear-users and the Wights were intimately related, but more than that…
While his thoughts swirled around him, Randidly continued to descend.
Below darkness was fire. Honestly, it was a smoking, stinking hellscape. Randidly wrinkled his nose as he arrived to be assaulted by sulfur and charred carbon. The ground was smoldering quietly with a desolate sort of resignation. Randidly honestly had no idea how this ship continued to be seaworthy.
But, amongst the grey rocks and small flames, he found the Oracle.
She was a small woman, smaller than Randidly had expected. She looked like a child, with her hair in a boyish bowl cut. Her hair was black and her eyes were crystalline and translucent, like diamonds. When Randidly walked down the stairs and slowly crossed the smoldering wasteland, she smiled. “Don’t like it? I find it keeps me grounded.”
Despite her young age, Randidly was absolutely sure that she was the Oracle. Even standing in front of her felt difficult; there was an image hanging over her that seemed to constantly push at the fabric of the world around her. The ground near her warped and shuddered underneath the pressure.
Randidly inwardly believed that the Oracle was lying. She did not like this place. Who could? It wasn’t that she wouldn’t prefer another location, it was that a place like this was all she could safely be near. Her ridiculously powerful aura would slowly erode anything else.
About ten meters away from the Oracle, Randidly stopped. He bowed slightly. “Well met, Oracle. I am Randidly Ghosthound. Why have you brought me to the bowels of your ship?”
The Oracle’s laughed like a clear bell. “Isn’t it obvious? To warn you, Randidly Ghosthound. Your closest confidant has betrayed you. You waste your time heading to the Death School. Better to return and defend Hastam from the threat of the Wights.”
Very gradually, Randidly’s eyes narrowed. He looked at the Oracle’s smiling face. His closest confidant had betrayed him? Now the Oracle directly said what Platton had danced around. Randidly was aware that Shal was sending him away. But it hardly counted as a betrayal. He needed to be in the Death School to obtain Acri and Sulfur. Even now he could sense that he was growing nearer to them by the day.
Yet why did the Oracle warn him off…?
“Let’s dispense with the ominous warnings,” Randidly growled. “I don’t care for the shadow games. You are carrying an army of Wights on this boat. Why should I listen to anything you say?”
The Oracle blinked and then chuckled. Her smile was sly as she looked at Randidly. “You are more perceptive than I expected. Why should you listen? Because you know me, or at least my brand of magic. You have the touch of karma on you; you encountered Lucretia, did you not? She was my daughter. Truly, of my flesh, daughter. So you understand that what I say carries weight. Can you not feel it, down here in my kingdom?”
For the first time since they had met, the Oracle’s expression shifted into something close to bitterness as she gestured to the scorched ground and scattered fire. Randidly’s brain slowly parsed apart the information that the Oracle had provided. She was Lucretia’s mother?
Could he even believe that? Everything the Oracle had said so far needed to be taken with a grain of salt… Perhaps this was the sort of Oracle that could only lie?
But on the other hand… It certainly would explain the familiar thread of karma that the Oracle exuded…
The Oracle’s eyes flashed. “Fine, you are too stubborn an ass to respond to the stick. How about the carrot then?”
Randidly’s eyes narrowed dangerously. The muscles of his jaw twitched. These manipulators were all the same. Threaten you, and then attempt to pretend they were doing you a favor by tricking you.
This time when the Oracle laughed, it was a cackle. She rocked back and forth and revealed her age with a hacking, coughing laugh. At the edges, it was more than a little mad. “Oh, don’t make that face. You know what you are, Mr. Ghosthound. Sir Ghosthound? My Liege, Ghosthound? What sort of Crown do you wear, I wonder? But I don’t offer you the internal answers you seek; what I offer is a story. The story of… the Spearman, Auto Rach.”