Randidly’s eyes slowly opened. His gaze narrowed as he looked out the window and towards the sky of the Raid Dungeon. Something was brewing. Something… rather familiar, although if it was occuring now…
But after checking his status screen, Randidly was left rather nonplussed. His Path hadn’t advanced all that much, so why was this happening now…? In addition, those times that it had occurred in the past, there was some warning, or at least a sign. Randidly had crossed a line, and in exchange, the System judged him to be something dirty.
And from the sky, descended Judgement.
It was currently the evening of the 8th day since Cyndra and Dalton had departed with the people of the village. Ultimately, Randidly had decided to accept both quests, to get the experience boost for Alana and the rest. When they had returned from their short meeting, they found Aratta gardening, patting down freshly turned dirt with her shovel.
She had thanked them for staying, and offered to bake for them. Upon seeing Ptolemy once more going gooey eyed, Randidly had sighed, and then told her that while that sounded nice, they needed to have a meeting for their group. Aratta hadn’t seemed disappointed, which confused Randidly. It was clear that there was some sort of trick of Aether around the woman that drew Ptolemy, and others, in towards her. But she hardly seemed phazed when he snipped those connections with his Aether Manipulation.
Perhaps she was waiting for whatever was going to bother them during these 10 days to use the distraction and make use of the connection…? It was hard to say. And no matter how hard Randidly looked, he couldn't figure out the trick of her Aether. It seemed to be something originating from under the cloth covering her eyes, but in case it was a track, Randidly wasn’t willing to just rip it off her.
Instead, he waited, checking up on Neveah, working on his images, practicing his new Skills. At night, during those 5 days, small waves of monsters arrived, striking at night, seeming to aim for Aratta. But with their group, they rather easily overcame the enemies. Ace and Drake were finally in the low 40s in Level, and finally rounding out into powerful frontline warriors that could hold their own.
Meanwhile, Thea was elevating herself to another level, becoming a force of nature much more in line with the incredible acumen of Alana than the rest. That’s not even speaking of Clarissa, whose Chain Lightning had improved so much over the course of the Dungeon dive that the color of the spell was slowly changing.
Perhaps other people wouldn’t notice it, as the normal yellow slowly mellowed into a green/blue, but Randidly’s high Perception caught it after the 4th day, and immediately he wondered how he had missed it before. It might just be a change in the image that she was using, but it was undoubtedly a good sign that it was shifting.
They were growing in here, for better or for worse. And at the rate they were growing, especially with the flat experience rewards, it was clear that very few on the outside would be a rival for this group when they returned.
But perhaps the scariest of them all was…
“Do you feel that?” Annie asked, her head poking up from outside and blocking his window.
Randidly ignored her bid for attention and just nodded. “Let’s meet outside. If I’m not mistaken… the thing that’s going to come out of that will be tough.”
She nodded in response, and then disappeared. Randidly put a message in the Party chat and moved quickly through the building to outside. Reflexively, he felt out with Aether Detection and found Aratta. It’s not that it was hard to find her, it was just… delicate. In terms of Aether, she was like a very distinctive, but faint smell. It took a while to catch her, but once you did, she was all you could feel. The Aether around her was just… strange, in a way that neither Randidly nor Lucretia could figure out.
To his surprise, she was out in front of the church, looking up at the swirling clouds.
When he arrived, everyone was already there, and Rose was talking quietly to Annie as the group looked up at the sky. The rest seemed tense, but not really nervous. After a while, you sorta became used to the possibility of death, and the reality that you would be facing a monster out of a pre-System fantasy novel everyday.
Annie’s sharp laugh cut through the tension, as she slapped her knee in response to something that Rose said. Rose smiled awkwardly back at her, continuing to whisper between them.
That, perhaps, is why Annie was so fearsome. Although she was growing stronger, in terms of battle potential, what was most frightening about her was how powerful her psyche was becoming, how sharp her mentality. Life and death were… just more facts of life in her eyes. That unassuming acceptance made her calm, but it also made her images powerful. So powerful that even Randidly felt a small tingling of warning when she used her more powerful Skills.
She was a powerful ally for sure. And an asset to Donnyton.
Randidly stopped his train of thought at that, before he became too leery of her strength. “Rose, you see anything up there?”
Rose glanced over her shoulder at him, then shook her head. “It’s just… nonsense. I sense something, but… it’s like it’s in another language. Like the System isn’t decrypting it, like it normally would-”
“Oh, that’s for me.” A calm voice said.
Frowning, Randidly turned and looked at Aratta. “You… is that Judgement for you? You are a Heretic?”
“Well technically,” Aratta admitted, pushing some of her wild hair behind her ear. “Or I was. I stopped. But there is something about your group arriving here… I couldn’t help myself and…”
Aratta gestured helplessly towards her garden. Randidly took a very long breath through his nose. She… couldn’t help herself….?
Then he used his Plant Dominance to explore the area underneath the garden, and Randidly’s breath hitched in his chest. His eyes burned emerald as he considered whether it was worth it to forgo the quest just to kill Aratta in that moment, screw the strange Aether consequences. But reason quickly won out, cooling that hot impulse.
She was the only person that he had found with a trace of Aether so far. The Creature was a live element in this Raid Dungeon, unaccounted for, possessing both of the Regalia of their Zone’s Champions. Even if Aratta was somehow a trap left by the Creature, it still meant that Randidly could get some information based on her presence. Killing her hastily wasted that.
But what he found in the garden was…
Thunder cracked the sky, and a light misting of rain began to fall. There was a low rumble in the distance that was not thunder, but the loud sound of an approaching horde of monsters. Dozens of questions flitted across Randidly’s lips, and he struggled to pick out the one that was most helpful at the moment.
“...Is this why the other villagers left? Did they know this was coming?” Randidly said slowly.
“No. Well, they knew this was coming, and were being careful not to cause it yet… but they believe in Zith very deeply. I may be her priestess, but…” Aratta flashed a helpless smile. “...I’m not so confident that her method would work. I mean, you guys came and proved the concept, but-”
“You’re the priestess…” Annie said, gaping at Aratta in faux-horror. “And you are the one person in the village who doesn’t believe in the religion?”
“It’s not that I don’t believe,” Aratta said, her voice finally edging from genial to sharp. “But I don’t believe that survival is possible. We’ve lived for generations, slowly dying off. Although I don’t believe the Death Cultists are going about it in the right way, sometimes it’s easy to see why they-”
“There are a lot of incoming monsters, boss,” Clarissa reported cheerily, floating down from her perch on a nearby tree. Randidly grimaced and looked up at the sky. It was quickly darkening, but it wasn’t yet to the point that the Judgement seemed to be descending. What was it waiting for…?
“-they are cowards, but honest ones,” Aratta was saying, and Randidly abruptly realized that he had tuned her out. They had other priorities, at the moment.
Before Annie could retort, Randidly quickly asked. “Do you know why the Judgement hasn’t descended? What is it waiting for?”
With a shrug, Aratta gestured to the surrounding area. “Well, I don’t really know the why, but it’s because they laid down the array around the settlement. It’s just a small one, but it would mask you from the System as long as you kept your Heretic Path below XIII. But with everyone leaving, I just couldn’t-”
Two familiar bodies lay in shallow graves in the garden. Two children, sucked dry, all withered skin and bones, their eyes gone, their organs turned to dust. Two familiar children, that had been so calmly playing before their group arrived in the village.
“Stop fucking saying you couldn’t help it.” Randidly growled, and from the way that Aratta stumbled backwards, and everyone else flinched, he realized that he must have released a bit of the Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil. With an effort of will, he reigned that in. Better to act with tact here. Besides, hurting his teammates did no good.
What Randidly couldn’t fucking figure out was why this was allowed to happen. Now that Randidly was aware of it, it was abundantly clear that there were no children in the group leaving the town. The children’s parents must have known they were missing. So why did no one raise a fuss…?
Everything was too fucked up to parse apart, and they didn’t have time.
“We’ve got about a minute.” Rose said quickly, glancing at Randidly.
It only took 10 seconds, but Randidly knew there was no point in throwing away the benefits now. He looked at the sky, where the clouds continued to swirl. At the very least, it seemed like this was buying them time. And if it stayed up there until she left the village…
“Let’s finish the quest,” Randidly said, his voice wooden. But afterwards…well, that was for another day. “Prepare to cut down the monsters.”