One thing that had become abundantly clear in the following days was that the increased Aether density in the Dungeon was finally having an effect. A profound effect.
Although Randidly’s Riders had initially had no problem wiping out the hordes of monsters in the surrounding area, that had recently radically changed. Suddenly, the Riders were plagued by the unified resistance from varying species of locals. The groups had entered into some sort of alliance to resist the Riders. During their patrols, they now habitually encountered traps that were tailor-made for each variety of Rider.
Amongst the monsters of the Dungeon, it seemed a ‘King’ had been born. Instantly, everything had changed.
Randidly hadn’t taken the threat seriously at first. He had given the order for the Legion of the Marching Cadence to investigate what was going on, but that was the only proactive step that he had taken. Randidly had simply assumed that his Riders would eventually find and eliminate the root of the problem. Besides, Randidly’s main focus was on his training.
Riders having more difficulty meant that his Skill Level would grow faster. Besides, they would quickly learn more advanced teamwork of their own if they were harried by a determined, intelligent opponent. Randidly wouldn’t baby his Riders just because they had hit a small snag in their rather childish architecture competition.
However, it only took a week for seven of his Riders to die. Five happened in a large surprise raid where a single patrol had been targeted in the jungle. That made Randidly focus on the problem with a razor sharp focus and the heavy weight of a debt of blood owed.
Because it wasn’t just that several of his Riders had died. One of the lieutenants of the Legion of the Unbreakable Bulwark had been ambushed as he was returning to the base of operations for this Legion. And he hadn’t been ambushed in the field. The monster resistance had planned an assassination on the threshold of Randidly’s Riders and gotten away with it.
The tall bird warriors and the gleefully howling monkeys dashed toward the jungle, avoiding pursuit and escaping with their lives.
Not for the first time, Randidly wondered if it wasn’t something other than his Aether that had inspired the change. Perhaps the creator of those arrows in the dome had finally made a proactive move.
Right when Randidly was considering how to approach this problem, the Legion of the Marching Cadence had returned to make the rather shocking report that they had successfully tracked the monsters back to their base.
Blinking, Randidly looked at the tall mount the Rider was on top of. Certainly, this variant of the Riders possessed an extremely high Endurance value and could pursue an opponent for miles. Based on what Randidly had seen, they were certainly extremely patient. However… the long legs and wide feet of the mount was a bit…
Randidly coughed into his hand. “Ah, how did you managed to avoid detection?”
The Rider looked at him with something that felt shockingly like pity to Randidly. Then, with exaggerated motions, the Rider got down off of his mount. He gestured to himself and mimed walking on foot. Then he got back onto his long-legged mount and gave Randidly a very long look.
“...I suppose that makes quite a bit of sense.” Randidly finally said. Then he speechlessly shook his head and gestured for the Rider to lead him. With a nod, the Rider wheeled around and brought Randidly across the jungle.
About three hours later, the Rider slowed down and hopped down off of his camel-bug. Then he carefully began to creep forward. With the ominous silence of the Grim Chimera shrouding his body like a cloak, Randidly followed after him. Twilight was around them, seeming to urge them forward with the soft whispers of approaching night.
They crested over a low hill and saw a wide and fat river lazily chugging along to their North. Along the river, there were several elephant-like monsters with multiple tusks gathering around a series of pools that bordered closely on the river. Some of the elephant creatures were bathing, while others seemed to be asleep. Randidly looked in askance at his Rider, but the Rider shook his head and gestured for Randidly to continue following.
As night fell around them, they quickly closed in on the large monsters. It was only when they were quite a bit closer that Randidly realized there was a narrow crack in the hill below them that fed into the pools, and then into the fat river. And standing outside of the crack… where two tall bird creatures carrying spears.
Pausing, Randidly watched the two of them closely. He had received the description of the myriad monsters that were resisting the expansion of his Riders, and these tall bird monsters were some of the most elite troops that the resistance had. Although monsters that were basically mutated frog and monkey were the most prevalent, the birds were the backbone of the resistance. It seemed to Randidly that they were likely related to the appearance of the King.
Randidly narrowed his eyes as he looked at the crack. There are two probable options. The first is that this force is receiving assistance from an outside source to fight against me… either the maker of the arrows, or the Creature, or some other element of the Nexus. After talking to Octavius… it's hard to know who all is out to get me. On the other hand… they could also have finally experienced a mutation based on the prevalent Aether and developed very rapidly over the past few weeks.
If it is the powerful supporter theory… this might be a trap to draw me out. Then it might be better to gather all of my Riders for this battle. But if it was just a trap, why have a base out here, not on the plateau? Just so I let down my guard? Or was this the location where the outside force might have arrived.
Randidly clicked his teeth together. Then he reached out with Aether Detection and scanned the area. When that turned up nothing, Randidly changed his methods. Instead of just scanning, he sent out drills of Aether shooting outward. Even if they couldn’t pierce through any sort of Aether defenses, they would still experience feedback if there was any sort of barrier in the surrounding area blocking Randidly’s senses.
But as far as he could tell, there was nothing.
Plus… their actions so far haven’t demonstrated that they are aware that I’m present. Honestly, the defenses around my dome… are practically nonexistent. If the resistance here wanted to strike at me-
Randidly rubbed his face furiously for several seconds. The Rider looked at him in silent askance. Almost helpless, Randidly waved a hand and let the aura of the Grim Chimera drop. Then he began to walk toward the crack where the guards were standing.
No matter how much he thought about it, Randidly wouldn’t be able to figure out what was occurring without either being extremely patient or investigating directly. And Randidly had learned his lesson about letting his opponents dictate the terms of their encounters from several painful failures in the past.
Plus, the first option was much less likely than the second option. If a foreign power was truly intervening, Randidly believed he would have sensed a trace of foreign Aether. But it was only his energy that filled the air.
When Randidly materialized out of the darkening night next to the guards, they jumped almost two full meters into the air. Randidly was honestly rather amused by their jumping ability as they tried to calm themselves. He kept his expression neutral and studied the way they moved and the weapons they carried. Even though it was slight, he couldn’t help but be interested to see they were using spears.
While they were pointing their weapons at him, Randidly smiled and said. “Good evening. You can understand me, right? Please, lead me to your leader. We have… business to discuss.”
Immediate understanding blossomed in their eyes, as well as a strange kind of dread. They immediately feared him. Randidly’s grin became a bit more feral. I’ve met monsters with intelligence, but… by and large they aren’t willing to negotiate with me at all. The Bone Wyrm that became a source for Neveah’s body was the notable exception. Yet these birds…
Randidly studied the Aether around their bodies as the guards led Randidly deep within the crack. Unfortunately, the Aether of the System was still a little too delicate and intricate for Randidly to get the full idea in a short amount of time. He could tell they had begun internalizing his Aether, but it was hard to see what changes that caused.
Within the ground, they quickly reached a dozen branching paths. Down some, Randidly heard the sounds of talking. Down others, Randidly saw dozens of monsters training with weapons. Down even others, Randidly could sense the presence of a growing number of foodstuffs. Clearly, whoever had created this place was preparing for a great war.
As they moved deeper, Randidly’s touch spread to more and more plants. They crept downward around the stone passageways, a constant invisible companion. Furthermore, Randidly continued to sweep the surrounding area with Aether. But the ground around him remained consistently mundane. There didn’t seem to be any sort of trap ahead of him.
Finally, they reached a large stone cavern with a tall chair at the other end. Randidly was shocked to find that someone was already waiting for him, as though they had been able to send word ahead. Had they been watched?
Or do these monsters have access to the messaging function of the System?
Large torches on the wall illuminated the cavern. A female bird monster was sitting on the throne with her scaled legs in front of her. Although she was not as tall as the guards that had brought Randidly, nor did she possess the same vicious claws as the four warriors flanking her, Randidly would have recognized her immediately without the accouterments. After all, his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom hummed in recognition of a kin as soon as their eyes met.
This one was a Queen.
The leader of the bird monsters opened her beak in what was immediately identifiable as a grim smile. “I wonder who would be so bold as to march into my territory and demand an audience. All of the remaining tribes have been brought under my banner. There is no one unaccounted for. Yet you didn’t come riding the black monstrosities… so I was curious.
“However… my advisors did point out that there was one central location between the two scourge hives that was treated with great caution. With something akin to… reverence. A residence that we have not had the opportunity to investigate.”
Her confidence was clear in her tone, although it was also clear that she was treading carefully with Randidly. The bird monster stepped down off of her throne. Her legs were long and slender, and extending for almost two-thirds of her body. In terms of form, she reminded Randidly most of a heron. Her beak gleamed dully in the low light of the room.
“My name is Ki-Kunot, War Priestess of the Silver Wings. Now head of the Jungle Survival Crusade. And you… are master of the scourges?”
Chuckling, Randidly straightened his spine. His Crown of Upheaval and Gloom immediately condensed over his head as if it had been there the whole time. The pale metal spikes gleamed darkly in the cavern as the flaming torches flickered.
But Randidly refrained from releasing his Willpower as an oppressive force in the surrounding air. He simply let a fraction of his aura permeate into the cavern, as though he were adding droplets of ink into clean water. Immediately, Ki-Kunot stopped smiling. It seemed that she was sensitive to the question of Crowns and images.
Which means I should handle this more delicately than I had planned, Randidly thought with a bit of irritation. If not with force… how should I deal with this?
Randidly blinked slowly. At that moment his eyes were completely closed, a world exploded before his eyes. His whole Soulskill expanded rapidly and then shrunk to nothing in a single heartbeat. Randidly’s eyes opened. This won’t be a test to train my power… but it will be a chance to reframe the image of my Class so I can heal the damage to it later.
“I… have been known as Progenitor. As Figure of the Alpha Cosmos. Recently, I have become Lord of the Baleful Wood, whose Riders you have fought so desperately… But I am also the Loyal Benefactor of the Weak, Lighthouse of the Boundless Worlds, Lodestone of the Black Wanting, Lesson for those of Brittle Will, and the Longing of the Banished Wind. you…”
Randidly paused and smiled widely at Ki-Kunot. “...may call me Randidly Ghosthound. I have come to accept the terms of your surrender.”