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A note from puddles4263

9/14

Randidly’s mouth twisted into a grimace as his head continued to pound. I knew raising the demands on All Else Succumbs would hurt, but actually going through the activation of the Skill… plus with the accumulated damage from the process of forcing Nether Resistance to increase in Skill Level… And now…

With a hand that trembled from accumulated mental strain, Randidly reached out and touched the final square stone that had been a part of his tower experiment. There was a poof of air and the stone disappeared, brought to the assembly site within Randidly’s Soulskill where Wendy continued to diligently work herself to the bone in order to accomplish Randidly’s assigned tasks.

Honestly, Randidly was a bit worried about her. In the beginning, he had set a pretty brutal pace in order to tease her, but she had stoically accomplished all of the tasks well within his very optimistic deadlines. She was working herself with a zombie-like fervor that even Randidly found somewhat intimidating.

She must really enjoy the project… Randidly thought as he sprawled out on the ground and looked up at the sky. It was another cloudless day in the Dungeon. Laying as he was directly below the edge of the plateau, no wind came here. The temperature was ideal; when he closed his eyes, Randidly couldn’t tell where his body ended and the air around him began.

For several seconds, he simply savored the feeling of being intimately connected to the surrounding world.

Although Randidly hadn’t been able to improve his own images much, he had still been slowly learning how to recognize lessor images present in the world. His sensitivity was initially numbed by the constant exposure to the image of timelessness, but as he learned to balance that force with his own images, a strange sort of clarity came to him.

Perhaps it was because he could use the image of timelessness to check his own images that Randidly had long subconsciously released into the surrounding area. But Randidly felt shadows of old images that once ruled this land. In quiet moments like these, those shadows seemed to shiver and seep out to brush against Randidly’s skin.

The bold and bright gallantry of the monkeys. The modest determination of the Ki-Kunot’s heron people. The speculative patience held by the poisonous toads. The geography that Randidly had steamrolled might have been erased, but the spirits of the different people that once inhabited this land weren’t so easy to eradicate.

Randidly opened his eyes and looked down at the sparkling glove of Chulroon. The energy flow Engravings on the metal gleamed with Mana as Randidly used them to manipulate his replacement limb. The individual pieces of chainmail shimmered dully in the light of the sun. Honestly, the result of his arm remake was very satisfying.

Everything is finished here… the Riders have gathered everything they can… Randidly reflected. Then he checked his absolute timing.

There were three minutes remaining in his self-imposed year time limit.

“Has it really been a year already?” Randidly asked the sky. Truly, it would be too easy to hide away in a Dungeon and let the exterior problems fade away to a stretched out future. Plus, as Randidly’s experiments with Engravings grew more intense and intricate, it seemed like the avenues he had to advance grew more diverse every day. Even despite the diminishing returns to his other Skills, Engraving was a wondrous wonderland of knowledge he was just now approaching.

Yet the isolated genius was not the Path he had chosen. The Crown of Upheaval and Gloom hummed in pleasure at the firm declaration he carried with him.

After all, Randidly was the Lord of the Baleful Wood. And it was after a year here in the Dungeon that he finally felt comfortable bearing the full weight of that mantle. It was not just an individual image that he carried. Behind him was an entire court.

With a light hop, Randidly flung himself to his feet. His gaze swung outward, taking in the 860 Riders that waited patiently around him. His mouth curled upward into a mocking grin. “Fine then, it’s time to ride. Let’s confine ourselves to just this Dungeon no longer.”

His Rider’s didn’t smile or rejoice. After all, they were beings that were born of Randidly Ghosthound; they were cut from a stoic cloth. But they rode after him with wide eyes, like a murder of crows gliding toward a battlefield, with their mouths open just slightly.

*****

“Tatiana? There is something that you need to see.”

Tatiana didn’t bother to stifle her yawn in response to the barking terminal. Although her sleep had been interrupted once again, her assistant hadn’t sounded too worried. So she took her time stretching her arms up above her head until her shoulders released a satisfying pop. Then she twisted her torso around, savoring the series of spine-tingling cracks she earned there.

Only then did Tatiana rub her eyes and wander over to the terminal itself. “Bring it up on the screen?”

“Screen’s way too small,” Came the slightly tinny response. “You should get dressed and head up to the outer wall.”

For a split second, Tatiana didn’t move. It felt like someone had shoved a needle made of ice deep into her heart. Too small? Something that I need to see? The tingling numbness woke her up immediately. Tatiana drummed her fingers nervously against the edge of the keyboard below the terminal. “Understood. Two minutes.”

Why the hell did I just assume that Helen would take care of the monster problem…? Tatiana thought furiously. I should have at least told her to investigate. But to just assume she had it handled when she was wandering around… fuck! And now...

Of course, Tatiana also hadn’t bothered to ask what the specific problem was that made it necessary for her assistant to wake her up. But when he wanted to bring her to the outer wall, Tatiana immediately knew it was something large enough that a view on a monitor wouldn’t convey the extent of it. Which made Tatiana think of a fearsome term that she hadn’t heard in a while to describe the current threat.

Monster Horde.

Now that Zone 1 had forces enough to pacify Dungeons, they hadn’t needed to deal with large scale attacks by rampaging monsters. Still, Randidly had insisted that Erickson Steel be built with walls high enough to resist in case those dangers would ever appear again. So it had been done with Tatiana’s blessing. Plus, Erickson Steel had a fair amount of prototype drones from Randidly’s earlier days.

Tatiana shimmed side to side as she slid her skirt up her legs. Hopping on one foot, she moved over to the mirror and checked how she looked. The result had her growling in frustration and looking around fruitlessly for a hairbrush.

But it wasn’t like Erickson Steel was defenseless. They had the walls, some turrets, and Tykes might be hanging around somewhere...

In addition, Helen would come rushing back as soon as she was contacted. And as far as Tatiana could tell, her arrival meant it would then only be a matter of time before the whole of the monster horde was executed. But Tatiana’s real concern was what would happen in that intervening time-

Tatiana threw up her hands in frustration. If her hair was soon gonna be soaked in monster blood anyway, it didn’t matter how it looked now. So she made sure all of her articles of clothing were properly buttoned and then hurried out. Seeing no one around in the street, Tatiana lengthened her stride and accelerated.

With a few light steps, she leapt up onto a low wall, then up against the side of a three-story building, then across the road to reach the roof of a five-story building. Then she accelerated further, becoming a blur that flowed easily along the rooftops.

Generally, Tatiana wanted to maintain a facade of calm and controlled CEO while she was moving around Erickson Steel. It helped create an image that was easier for the people who worked for her to respect her. But if there was a danger threatening the compound… speed was of the utmost importance.

Besides, nothing builds internal pride than a dangerous external threat...

With an easy grace, Tatiana vaulted up across the last bit of distance from the factory rooftops to the outer wall that surrounded Erickson Steel. Her assistant was already waiting there with a dozen other of the Erickson Steel guards. They all looked seriously out down from the wall to the road leading down from the Northwest toward Erickson Steel.

With a light cough to grab their attention, Tatiana folded her arms behind her back and began to speak. “What’s their average Level?”

“Uhh…” Her assistant looked at her in confusion. “W-What do you mean?”

Tatiana looked at him. Immediately, it became clear that there had been some sort of miscommunication from the bewildered look on his face. She missed Vye dearly. Then she curtly pushed him to the side and stepped up to the wall to look down at what they were all regarding with such slack-jawed wonder.

Below the wall, along the road as far as the eye could see to the Northwest, was a column of gleaming drones. Instantly, Tatiana narrowed her eyes. Had Halloway been dishonest and the government was launching a separate inquiry for Helen’s violence?

But very quickly, Tatiana recognized that these were not any of Ghost’s drones, which were based on the same principles that Randidly used when creating machines. No, these were extremely complicated and ornate looking, covered in thick layers of metal shielding to protect the valuable pieces that lay within their bodies.

These were the creations of the Order Machina.

Tatiana saw fully articulable metal centipedes with mounted flamethrowers and Mannatech canons. There were large hives of metal built on wheels that could produce a thousand deadly flying knives within only a few seconds. There were tall and lumbering dinosaur inspired collossai with long necks and teeth of superheated plasma.

Truly, the display was an oppressive one. Just from a casual count of the models that Tatiana recognized, there were probably five hundred high-end machines moving in formation toward Erickson Steel. At the front of this procession was a well-preserved a neon yellow Maserati sports coupe, undoubtedly made long before the System arrived.

Still, the fact it was so immaculately maintained was a testament to the financial power of the man at the helm.

“I just thought you should see… isn’t it amazing…?” Tatiana’s assistant whispered. “I wonder… does the Order Machina want to establish a branch here…?”

Tatiana almost rolled her eyes. You seriously got me out of bed for this…?

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