When Kiersty walked out of the hut, several turtle guards with crossbows scrambled out of the way. Originally they had been very disapproving of allowing her to wander freely, but Bert had said a quiet word to one, and instantly they became well behaved, springing to attention whenever she passed.
She smiled at them, but they were not her quarry; she continued onwards, down the small path away from the hill that formed Hess’ and Bert’s house. Kith Klark was built on a lake, with the turtles having raft dwellings on the lake, while the Rabbits built low to the ground clay longhouses on the lakeshore. There was a large obelisk where the center of the town was, which Kiersty had heard was the source of the strange animalistic characteristic they developed.
Even with her newfound freedom, Kiersty wasn’t that interested in the strange obelisk, but instead went to the small clearing to the north of the town where she had laid the seed of Arbor. When she had left it two days ago, it had barely been a bump in the ground, but now, when she walked into the clearing, she saw a few dozen of the small, grey skinned children gathering around the central location where she had planted Arbor.
As she walked over, the group seemed to notice her, and spread out, clearing a path to the center, glancing around nervously. There, poking around two feet out of the ground, was a small sapling. It waved excitedly as she approached, which caused the grey children to mutter to each other.
“Do you like Arbor?” Kiersty asked simply, looking a few of the nearest straight in the eye. They glanced at each other, but remained silent. Shrugging, Kiersty walked closer to the tree, until she stood over it. Then, with a strange delicacy, she drew a finger up what would be the trunk of this Arbor. It curled protectively into her hand, rubbing against her like a pet.
She felt its confusion, and its loneliness being here, cut off from the other Arbors. But also its growing curiosity and wonder for these new, strange creatures around it.
Nodding decisively, Kiersty took two steps back and raised her arms to mirror the tiny Arbor, and began to dance. Gleefully swaying, the Arbor followed her, wiggling back and forth wildly. The children took several steps backwards, but Kiersty ignored them, focusing on Arbor.
She was, after all, the Priestess of Arbor. The plant would always be her first priority.
After a few seconds of hesitation, Nathan walked up and joined her, dancing with Arbor. They continued like this for several minutes, before the silence was finally broken by one of the grey children.
“What are you doing?” There was a thread of judgement and derision in the question, but more curiosity. Kiersty carefully kept her face serious. It wouldn’t do for them to know this is exactly what she was waiting for.
“Dancing.” Kiersty said matter of factly.
“But why?” The grey child said, emboldened. Although they all looked the same, Kiersty had the impression that this one was was slightly taller than the others, and put its hands on its hips in a way that made her believe it was a she.
“Because it makes the tree grow faster.” Nathan added, bless his heart. Kiersty continued to suppress her smile, feeling slightly warm that Nathan so dutifully answered when and how she needed him to.
The grey child snorted, and turned away. Although the group walked some distance, they eventually stopped and turned, unable to keep their attention from the strangers that came to their village. Just like Kiersty was slightly fascinated with them, and their strange bodies and abilities. But she had a higher mission right now, and had no time to play around.
Still, now she simply danced, feeling Arbor’s happy joy. A miracle would come soon, she knew. They just needed to dance until then.
Randidly’s arm trembled as he lowered the spear. He had just failed for the second time on the training exercise where the series of rings hung, and he had to stab through them at a constant speed. Only today, Mrs. Hamilton had increased the difficulty.
First she had raised the weight of the spear by 1 pound, which Randidly had thought to be almost negligible, but as his first attempt had dragged on, it had become increasingly apparent. Still, he was able to grit his teeth and force through it. His arms could handle more than this, and he started using Mana Strengthening in order to make up the difference in physical conditioning.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only change she made to the exercise.
“How about we add a little complication, eh?” Mrs. Hamilton had said with a bright smile, and she gently pushed the apparatus, and it began to rotate. The rotation was slow, but it was uneven, as it slowly ground to a halt, and Mrs. Hamilton gently pushed it again to start the spinning.
To her credit, she demonstrated an intimidating amount of control with her pushes; without fail, they reached the same speed, and slowed down over around 40 seconds. Unfortunately, it was still quite easy to break his constant rhythm while waiting for her to press, and also, when Randidly hit the edges of the hoops, half the time they were knocked to the side, resulting in him failing the exercise.
Gritting his teeth, Randidly started again, ignoring the small smile that Mrs. Hamilton always seemed to wear now. This time, he would-
But he stopped, lowering his spear. A strange thrumming resonated in his chest. It was… strange. It did it again, a low, constant pressure, as if someone was tugging at a thread that lead into his heart.
“Just a second,” Randidly said to Mrs. Hamilton, closing his eyes. With his senses focused inward, he could see more clearly what was going on; one of the streams of Aether that lead back to him was vibrating strangely. Randidly focused more narrowly, but they all disappeared, so he could only sigh, and remain unfocused.
Very gradually, his sense of the Aether connections within him returned. There was the roiling ball that formed his core, spreading energy out through his body. Then there was the 4 thin threads that slid off, winding to those individuals that he gave a Soul Skill to. That connection existed even here, feeding them.
But then there were two larger, ropey connections of Aether. Of those two, the smaller was the one that was vibrating.
‘....one of the plants leveled up…?’ Randidly thought with a frown. If so, there didn’t seem to be much he could do. Without notifications, he would have no idea what the different options were for the evolution. Increasing his plants strength was important, but… there really wasn’t any need for it to happen quickly, right?
So Randidly ignored the strange thrumming, and returned to the exercise. He focused his attention on his hands and arms, controlling the spear to make it all the way through the slowly rotating hoops, even if it did knock several to the side during his thrusts. The important thing was maintaining a steady pace, and making it through all of the hoops, in order.
But as Randidly was halfway through his exercises, the thrumming returned, more demanding. He ignored it, continuing to control the spear. One of the tricks, Randidly was starting to realize, was to never let the spear be a dead thing in your hands. Instead, you needed to move it as if it was a living thing, with all of the weight concentrated at the tip. Focus there would make the exercise much more difficult, but-
The resonance sharply rose within his chest, a strange ringing that swiftly became so powerful that his physical body twitched. Although it was a small twitch, it was enough to throw off his thrust. Annoyed, Randidly turned his attention back inward. This time, he didn’t examine, he just reached, grabbing the thrumming connection of Aether.
Instantly, his consciousness was hit with a wave of sensation. Rather than knowing what the upgrades would do, or how it would change Arbor, Randidly felt them, two splitting paths. Paths endlessly, ever forward, he could sense. His main impression was only murky, but full of strange rotations and symbols, a map of Aether, listing all of the fated possibilities.
Out and out his attention stretched, feeling the strange shape of their connection, until his head began to pound, and the sheer power of the possibilities became too much for him; coughing, Randidly came back to himself. Mrs. Hamilton was giving him an odd look, but Randidly just shook his head. Then, after taking a steadying breath, he turned his attention back inwards, towards the Aether.
He grasped the connection again, but did not reach any further. He just wanted to see the immediate options, if Arbor was going to be so demanding. But of course, he didn’t know the details, he just had a strange instinct for the ways these two Aether flows would change his plant.
The first was a huge whirlpool, spiraling ever closer, ever more tightly, the outsides gentle and slow, but the inner circle viciously powerful. The other was more like an ever branching stream, flowing from the same source, but parting and spreading outward, its arms covering an area that was many times larger than the whirlpool.
Although the whirlpool was clearly more powerful, it was also more concentrated, and the feeling that Aether gave Randidly was very different than the river. The Whirlpool was anger and greed; the river felt of generosity and sharing. It was a river of life, that a civilization could be based upon.
Of course, that really did very little to inform him of how this Aether change would affect Arbor, but still…
Randidly pressed, superimposing that second image of how Aether should flow on the connection, and watched as it slowly seeped inward, altering their relationship.
Sighing Randidly returned to himself.
Mrs. Hamilton yawned. “Finally ready to put in some work…?”
Kiersty couldn’t contain her smug look, but the grey children didn’t notice; they were too busy staring slack jawed at the strange tree in front of them.
It grew and stretched, wiggling, as if the only thing keeping it from being 20 feet tall was the small hole it was using to get out of the ground. Its branches multiplied, and several flaming leaves formed on the tree. It settled in about as large as all of the trees are, or were, back in Donnyton, being slightly taller than an adult.
But somehow, Kiersty knew that this tree had a lot more potential for growth.
“It grew, just like that….?” The vocal grey child asked, her eyes wide.
“Well, it doesn’t always grow so suddenly.” Kiersty allowed. “But it grows on our love, slowly, but always growing. And I am its Priestess, Kiersty. You may call it Arbor.”
Decklan grimaced, wiping blood off of his knife. It was a worn thing now, but it had been given to him by the Ghosthound, and Decklan was sure that there was some secret still hidden in its depths. But against these higher tiered enemies… it was starting to reach the limits of its usefulness. He needed another blade.
They were stuck in a slightly awkward position right now. Decklan and Devan’s squad were over here, and were currently being used to mop up the raid parties led by the Raid Bosses’ lieutenants. The locals were rather unwilling to let such useful and trained warriors go, and so stood constantly guarding the portal.
But of course, this was only because Kith Klark was basically on their last legs, and was only a step away from being wiped out. Although their defenses hadn’t been breached, most of their industry and food sources were slowly being ripped away by the stranglehold of the Raid Bosses. Decklan couldn’t bring himself to hate the covert threat that the turtles and rabbits were using to keep them here.
In addition, 3 more factors weighed in the favor of them remaining and helping. First, the council wanted to maintain cordial relations, and their continued presence gave them further insight to the strange situation that heralded their arrival. Second, the council wasn’t sure what would happen to the portal if the village fell.
If the portal remained, and suddenly Raid Bosses could appear inside of Donnyton at any moment…
The third reason was Kiersty’s continued refusal to return, which was surprising, and an obstacle that Decklan had no idea how to handle. Sure, he could physically take her back, but…
The Ghosthound’s plants loved her, even Thorn, so Decklan was slightly leery of that option.
Kiersty’s mother, upon hearing the news, wanted to come over and drag her back, but Donnyton also didn’t want to send anymore people over, in case things over on this side became serious. As such, they were at a weird impasse. At the very least, the experience was good…
Which was increasingly important, because after hitting Lvl 30, all of them, Donny, Dozer, and Decklan, had hit a wall in terms of leveling. Experience was harder to get, and you required more. He had only today reached 32, and that was after battling against enemies whose level were in the high 20s for almost 14 hours straight. It seemed like 30 would be something of a dividing line in the future, and Decklan intended to be above that line. Meanwhile, less combat focused classes, like Daniel and Ptolemy, would probably have a much more difficult time…
There were benefits to the stranglehold that the Raid Bosses had over the area. They were not particularly friendly with each other, and had clearly defined territories. But they also were very stern about newly spawned Raid Bosses in the area, and would group up and deal with any fresh arrivals, unwilling to see anyone else rise to join their ranks. For the same reason, they didn’t launch a serious offensive, apparently worried about being attacked by one of their own while they were distracted.
There were currently 3 Tier I Raid Bosses and 1 Tier II active in the area, and-
A rumbling distracted Decklan from his thoughts. He frowned, because it was a rumbling he recognized from long experience in battle; that was the noise hundreds of feet made when moving.
He left his small burrow house and sought out the others. Alana and Devan were already there, grim faced, and the rest of his squad was waiting for him. Tera was wide eyed, talking to Annie, who was covered in dirt and blood, but appeared unharmed.
“Did you cause this?” Decklan asked, already knowing the answer.
Annie winked back at him. “Well, technically no. It’s the Tier II raid boss, that asshole, who's at fault. If he would have just stood still for one more second…”
The Rabbits and Turtles were panicking, groups of them hastily throwing on armor and moving up to their low walls. Decklan quickly followed, gazing out at the mass of monsters that was coming for the village.
Quickly returning, Decklan grimaced at Annie. “If that giant Ape Raid Boss was the culprit, why are monsters from the other Raid Bosses attacking too…?”
Annie pouted. “Because they are dead, dummy. I figured if I just killed all the Raid Bosses we could go back. And I was so close…! That dumb neanderthal just has such thick fur, how was I supposed to know that even an Empowered arrow would just annoy his throat?”
A roar rang out, too close for Decklan’s comfort.