Thea dug her heels into Chrysanthemum’s sides, causing the bear to skid to a halt. It was strange but… the more they traveled forward… the more this strange, dull pain in the back of Thea’s skull grew. To her horror, when she checked her Status, her Health was also ticking down, albeit slowly.
Was this a power of the Raid Boss…? If it was, this boss was a nightmare for group battles. It could slowly rip away at the Health of the backline fighters, pushing them so far back that they wouldn’t be able to exercise their superior firepower. They would completely roll through civilians, without any effort at all on the monster’s part. Merely its presence would cause pain and loss of Health.
Luckily, it seemed that at this range, the effect was minor, and Thea was sure that right over the next hill was where the fighting was occurring.
David was strong, and true. Damn what the Board of Directors thought, he wasn’t a spy. Or if he was, he wasn’t…
Thea hesitated, trying to formulate her thoughts correctly. In the meantime, she prodded her partner, and the two began to trot forward, heading deeper into the influence of the pain aura.
He was a good person, Thea finally decided. When they had first heard about the Tier III Raid Boss, Thea had felt only fear. And then her second thought was that she could avoid this fight with this beast by continuing her mission of testing Simon and David by leading them on a wild goose chase in the South, seeing if they revealed anything, or became impatient.
That failed on two fronts of course. They found proof that the Wild Rider had been here recently, and also encountered a Raid Boss. Not exactly the idle circumstances to test either of them. Not that Thea was even sure what they were looking for, after watching David fight.
He was the real deal, 100%. Which should have made her feel better, but it just made her feel… as though this was a worse outcome. It was small mindedness and suspicion that drove the Executive Board to this decision, and it wouldn’t assuage their worries if there really was just a wandering person with this much power… Was David from Donnyton or Franksburg? Or even the solo Village, far to the East…?
One question at a time. Thea reached the top of the hill and looked down, and then froze. There was a creature sitting there, cross legged, seeming to regard what was happening below. A being she recognized. The Wild Rider.
“A friend of yours?” The Wild Rider asked, tilting their head towards what was occurring below.
The Wild Rider stood only about 1.5 meters, and was absolutely covered in furs. Their head was covered in a low hood, that only sometimes revealed a flash of lips. Mounted on top of the hood was a pair of elk horns, or perhaps they were coming directly out from the Rider’s skull. Either way, they stretched half a meter in each direction, giving them a regal look.
And when they spoke, it was as if 100 different animals were calling, and strangely, all of these came together for sound.
It was always hard to understand, this strange cacophony voice, and it was only after a few seconds that Thea realized the question was directed at her. The strange waves of pain that were flooding up from below were making it hard to think.
But after a few seconds, she nodded. The Wild Rider breathed a long sigh.
“He… has lost his way. Only by relying on his ala does he remain. And even that will not last long, unless….”
“Unless…?” Thea asked, her eyes glazing over as she looked down below her. David stood still, looking at the ground. He barely even seemed to breathe. In front of him, several small grey creatures, a large bronze skinned one, and an elegant seeming gold one lay, moaning in agony, rolling back and forth.
Of them all, the gold one seemed the only one capable of movement, and as Thea watched, it was attempting to crawl away, but its body wouldn’t obey its orders. Its arms gave out pretty routinely, and its whole body was shaking.
Thea could hear the smile in their voice. “Unless we act. Unless we teach this rider to stop ignoring his mount.”
Randidly coughed lightly, and then sat up, rubbing his eyes. Darkness. Deep, eternal darkness, and swirls of energy, calm and consistent. He knew this place. And-
“Ah, you’re awake.”
The unexpected voice caused Randidly to spin around, instantly raising his guard. Was it the Creature, once more trapping Randidly inside of himself?!?
But no, the figure that Randidly found when he spun around was far, far too slender and innocent looking to be the Creature. Besides that, she gave off a very different feel than he had ever gotten from the Creature.
The girl was only as tall as his shoulder, and appeared 12. She had warm brown skin, and short, dark hair. From underneath the unruly hair small protuberances of bone stuck out of the crown of her head, 8 altogether, giving her a strangely noble appearance.
But it was her eyes that held Randidly’s gaze. They were a glittering, metallic gold. She smiled at him. “Greetings. I am Ten’malla Teyit, but I have come to this world of yours as the Wild Rider. I figured meeting you here without my… Regalia would help move this along. You should feel proud to see my face, it is a great honor amongst my people.”
Randidly just looked at her, frowning slightly. This… was the Wild Rider…?
Well that explained somewhat how they ended up here. Could everyone related to the System do things like this…? That certainly made them very dangerous enemies…
Seeing Randidly’s expression, the Wild Rider’s smile swiftly withered. She coughed into her hand. “…Sorry… that was a bad joke. Um, but we need to act quickly. You are destroying yourself.”
This certainly made Randidly focus. He abruptly became aware that he could no longer sense his skills or soul; there was some sort of force blocking him, isolating him from it. This did have the bonus of lowering the pain to manageable levels, but…
The Wild Rider raised her hands. “Don’t struggle, please. It’s hard enough to do this as it is. Believe me, I mean you no harm. If I did, I would have simply left you to die.”
“What’s going on?” Randidly asked, his tone more stern than he had intended.
The Wild Rider’s smile withered further, taking a step back, all of her previous joy and playfulness gone. “Um, your shattered skill, the Aether fragments. They have been forced to vibrate by the activations of other skills so much that they are resonating. Resonating so much that they are beginning to activate other skills, with enough fragments in them, which in turn-“
“-makes it 100 times worse.” Randidly said, imagining just that scene. Then he turned to the Wild Rider, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. “If we can get some of the Mending Fluid from my companion Simon.”
“No, it’s far too late for that, for two reasons,” The Wild Rider said, shaking her head. “One, his liquid doesn’t have the potency you need, even after all these weeks. And also… there is no way to bring it to you safely. The skill activations…”
She trailed off. Randidly tried to imagine what it would be like to walk towards him, when he would intermittently release something like Anguish, Circle of Flame, or the Spear Advances, Ash Trails. Basically any of his offensive spells would inflict huge amounts of damage and pain. Sure, it might be in a different direction, but as you got closer….
“Then…?” Randidly said, feeling abruptly very tired. This fucking injury….
Spreading her arms wide, the Wild Rider said. “… you are in luck. In a way, we share the same fate. If we do not find our Ala, we will die. Individually, we are weak. Together, strong.”
“…So you want me to pledge to you, so I can get a bonded animal.” Randidly said, his mind abruptly clicking together for several reasons. Was it possible then that the Wild Rider was exaggerating…? But no, what she said made a lot of sense. Now that he was aware of it, he could sense a terrible rumbling from outside the bubble the Wild Rider had wrapped them in, keeping them safe.
That was not a good sign. At all.
She laughed, and it was high and bright, reminding Randidly that she was just a preteen. “No! Haha, you don’t need to pledge to me. I’d honestly prefer you didn’t, it just means I have to give you missions or something. Sometimes the *(($*#)(#$ of the System is…”
She trailed off, then tilted her head to the side. “Ah, from your expression, you couldn’t understand that. This world is truly very early on in its growth. Well, no, you don’t need to pledge to me to learn my skill. And also, you do not need this?”
“Then what?” Randidly asked, feeling exasperated now. Was she able to help, or wasn’t she…?
In an even more childish display, the Wild Rider stomped her foot. “How can you not get it? What could I even teach you? You already have your Ala, and even my bond with Traefalgr is not so strong. How did you do it?”
Randidly frowned. “What?”
“Why do you think I brought you here, away from the distractions of your impending death?” The Wild Rider asked, her head flopping back and forth, her short hair swishing marginally. “Because this is where your Ala sits, waiting for you, asleep. Only they keep you alive now, bearing the worst of the Aether backlash. And only with their help will you heal this wound in time to save yourself.
“Ah,” She added, as she turned away. “You have about 5 minutes before your Anguish skill drains you of Health. That should occur before permanent brain damage, but that is the hard time limit, currently. Goodluck.”
Then she vanished.