Aratta’s story ended very soon after that. In a much more muted tone, she explained how the methods were spread out, and the Dintan were able to grow in strength and beat back both the monsters and the great hunger.
Under Zith’s leadership, a great central village was made, and 6 satellite villages around it, like spokes of a wheel. Population controls were put in place, and immediately after birth, children would be taken away from parents and fostered in another village, so too much sentiment wouldn’t develop. Every 2 years, the youth would rotate around the outside of the wheel.
In the final rotation, they would be taken to the central area. And on their 15th birthday, they would be judged; the powerful would be assigned to the village. As for the weak...
For almost 400 years this had continued, until the current day. When Randidly pressed for why things had changed now, why the village was heading back towards the central region, and why she didn’t accompany them… Aratta could only shake her head. She refused to answer…. Or she didn’t know. Either way, Randidly was left frustrated.
The group fell silent and remained that way until the rest of the group returned, with food and the lay of the land. When she returned, Annie signaled to Randidly with her eyes, and the two of them walked off, leaving the others to watch Aratta.
“So are we taking her with us?” Annie asked, gesturing back towards the blind woman. “I don’t trust her. She enjoys playing the damsel too much.”
Randidly gave Annie a look. She laughed, flapping her hand at him. They both knew that Annie herself had played the damsel for weeks, luring and wooing Dozer. It was only after he was well and truly loyal to her that she had started being more open about her own physical capabilities, which were not minor.
After her laughter subsided, Annie’s face got much more serious. “The rest can tell you more about the Eyrie to the North if we choose to go after that quest. I went and followed the villagers South. What you put into the group chat is true, it’s not just this village, it looks like all 6 of the satellite villages are returning to the center. About the same number from each, so it looks like the population control thing checks out. Not a single teenager or child.”
They both were silent at that, Randidly thinking of those bodies, Annie probably considering the fate of her own newly born baby, had she been born into this Raid Dungeon. Probably also, she felt the pang of absence of being away so long from this creature she had grown within herself. Randidly didn’t know much about parents, and his own were lousy, but anecdotally he had heard about healthy affection, and Annie and Dozer seemed like the protective type.
“...Anyways,” Annie coughed, then continued. “The central village… is basically a giant hole in the ground. I couldn’t get too close, because the guards there know their shit, but they have a much grander amount of carvings around the hole. Maybe to keep out their Judgements?”
“Maybe,” Randidly said, rubbing his chin. Where was the Creature’s hand in this…? It pushed for the strength of monsters, forcing the people to turn to the Path of the Heretic. And then it just… sat back? It allowed the world to run its course…?
Randidly doubted it.
“So?” Annie asked. “What do we do now?”
Alana eyed Aratta. After hearing the second-hand version of her story of this Raid Dungeon, Alana was filled with distaste. She did not condone the actions of these past warriors, because life forced hard decisions on the weak. But inwardly, Alana resolved herself to focus on growing stronger, so that she would never be forced to make such decisions.
Strangely, Aratta had decided to go with them after the group had decided to ignore the problem of the villages for now, and seek out the Eyrie. Not only were they able to receive experience there, but there remained the problem of finding the Key of Death. Although there was the possibility that they would be forced to go to the central village and search for the key, it was better to test the easier nuts to crack first.
When Alana wasn’t scanning the horizon for monsters, she was either glancing at the Ghosthound or consumed in her own thoughts. Immediately after the Ghosthound had intervened, preventing her Class from exploding… or whatever was occurring within her, Alana had been profoundly weak. But once she woke up, her Vitality and Endurance did its usual job of increasing the speed of her recovery, and very soon, she was able to walk without assistance, and then move easily.
And then, of course, she wanted to fight.
She was delighted with the changes she discovered. On the one hand, the amount of experience she needed to Level hadn’t increased but simply stayed at the absurd amount required to move from 49 to 50. On the other hand, the performance of her two new Skills was… above expectations.
Crimson Ire surrounded Alana with a crackling, crimson energy, that provided smaller boosts to strength and speed. But what it did do was massively boost her reactions, and also gave all of her attacks a splash effect. So after she rushed forward and stabbed with her spear, the energy was stuck to her on an elastic band and followed her to attack and explode nearby in the area she struck.
The damage couldn’t be considered too much at the moment, and the Skill only lasted for 5 seconds, with a 10-second cooldown, and a 500 Mana cost, but Alana knew these things would improve in time. Plus, in a tough situation, surrounded by monsters, the Reaction boost more than made up for it.
Earlier, when she had been testing it, she had made 6 giant tarantulas looked like statues as she weaved between their many bristling legs. Without even much effort, her spear had flicked outward and impaled four of their brains, leaving her panting, but with only two opponent’s remaining after a single usage. And those two had been knocked off balance from the remnant energy of her attacks on the others, as it splashed outward.
The rest were rather simple to mop up. As the effectiveness improved… Alana shivered. God, she would be almost untouchable in a larger melee. The effect of the splash would be much more muted in a 1 v 1 situation, but the Reaction would make up for that, for sure. Inwardly, Alana had a very strong impulse to challenge the Ghosthound with her new Skills, but she was somewhat shy about it.
After all, he had been the reason that she had obtained them. It would be somewhat rude to immediately use them to bully him…
Hiding a smile, Alana remembered the even more intimidating effect of her Avatar Form Skill. When it was activated, a crimson energy, similar to that of the Ire Skill, exploded outward. However, this time, the energy spread and shaped itself into an Alana shaped golem. Her real body remained in its core, at the center, but the energy body formed around her. It was about 150% of the size of Alana and had the strength and top speed to match.
Of course, her short-term quickness was proportionally reduced, but often, monsters are much larger than people anyways. The Avatar Form would give Alana the strength to go toe to toe with these larger monsters, without putting her own body in danger.
It only took her a few attempts to figure out how to leave her real body somewhere, while she controlled the Avatar Form from afar. Of course, her body had to remain completely still to keep her control over the Avatar Form sharp; if she didn’t stay still, both bodies were at half strength, and basically useless.
Unlike the Ghosthound, she didn’t have the effortless ability to control 100 roots at the same time; she was a real, human woman. But if it could be arranged for someone to watch her body while she moved, it would be easy to scout dangerous areas, without any risk to the team. The increased size, however, was an issue for that…
And based on the reading of the Skill, the size/strength/speed boost would increase with Skill Level. Alana tried to image reaching Lvl 100 in Avatar Form and being able to control a form the size of a building, walking casually next to a mountain range, stepping over small rivers with a single stride. Alana could only shake her head, helpless.
It was strange, but the Ghosthound’s presence made it very easy to forget how her own baseline for ‘normal’ was probably miles and miles away from most of the other people that lived in Donnyton. He had always acted as a rock, even to their sense of reality.
But reaching Level 50, seeing how her growth rates jumped, receiving these new Skills…
These were not the moves of an average person. Alana had always known she was stronger than most, but… right now, it truly hit her how far she had come. How being near the Ghosthound had transformed her from a hardworking track and field star into one of the most powerful people in the Zone, if not the World…
Even still, Alana had been initially disappointed in her Class, based on the name, but Lucifer, of all people, had comforted her when she had spoken aloud of it in front of him.
“Valkyrie of the Red Dust?” Lucifer had asked, in that deep, rumbling voice of his. Alana had nodded, not thinking much of it. There was no real reason to hide it from him.
He had considered it for several seconds, tucking some of his long red hair behind his ears. Then he had simply said. “That’s almost… religious.”
Then he had walked off. Curious, Alana had followed him to ask why, but he had just shrugged. Ace of all people had commented, seeing her confused expression. “Heya, don’t you know where people come from?”
“Ooo, a biology lesson from Ace,” Rose said snidely, rolling her eyes.
Ace just laughed and continued. “Like, in Christianity, what are people? ‘From dust to dust’ and all that. It’s the base form of all. The Mesopotamians believed that humans were made of clay mixed with blood, red clay. That’s what you are, the Valkyrie of the dried blood.”
“Or more poetically,” Rose said, frowning at Ace. “The Valkyrie of Birth. Or Humanity’s Genesis. Don’t let him tease you.”
“Ha,” Alana said, breathing slowly, looking up at the sky. “No worries. That… sounds much better than what I was thinking.”