It was a bloody fight, not because it was difficult, or even that they struggled, but because the sheer number of monsters they killed meant that the ground was soaked with blood by the time they had arrived at the central location. Plus, when they started antagonizing the monsters, the whole 5-mile block of monsters had surged into motion, running desperately to strike at the targets they finally found.
It took almost 12 hours, which made Randidly grit his teeth, but there was no other choice. The Creature had the support of an entire race, and if he wanted to be able to penetrate towards it, he needed to do the same.
When they arrived at the central area, it became clear why the monsters had been milling around. There was a stone wall, about 5 meters tall, but the whole thing was covered in sparkling runes, the violet glow of Aether clear. A small glowing barrier was erected around the wall, and when they took a monster body and threw it at the barrier, the thing disintegrated.
Sniffing Randidly said nothing. But Lucretia, who was oddly even more chatty after their previous argument, waxed poetic on the effectiveness of such a barrier.
So Randidly knocked on it, once, feeling the hostile energies sizzle and burn his skin. His frown deepened. He knocked again, harder.
After trembling for a brief moment the barrier dissipated, and the runic engravings that had controlled the Aether into a barrier cracked. Randidly shook his head sorrowfully. Truly, he had lost all concept of his own strength, to so easily destroy a sophisticated barrier like that.
Lucretia snorted. ‘Stop patting yourself on the back. If this was all the Creature were capable of, you wouldn’t have had so much trouble with her in the past.’
His expression turning seriously, Randidly motioned for the Raid Party to circle around him.
“Before we go in, I want to explain a bit about what I think we will find,” Randidly began, wondering how much to reveal to the group gathered around him. He looked slowly around, making eye contact with each one of them, until Randidly’s eyes finally settled on Ace, who was contorting his face into a gruesome grin, displaying his gums and flaring his nostrils.
To Randidly’s surprise, the ploy worked, and he snorted with laughter, breaking some of the tension that he had been carrying with him. The group around him was curious at first, then turned to Ace and rolled their eyes. By this time, after almost a month inside the Raid Dungeon together, Ace’s antics had involved everyone as a victim at least once.
It was that willingness to involve himself in other people’s lives, even as an annoyance, that helped Ace make friends back before the System arrived, Randidly reflected. And also what let him cover up for the monster that he had become now.
“...Some of you may know this, but there is a… powerful being that has been interfering with our Zone, that I call the Creature.” Randidly began. “Although it is hard to admit… part of the reason I had the chance to become as powerful as I am is because of its interference. But before it could complete its plan, I broke away from its control…”
There Randidly hesitated, remembering being left alone in the darkness, and how it was only due to his connections through the Blessings that he was able to escape. Then he shook his head and continued. “But it hasn’t stopped its operations. Its main goal is isolating itself from the wider System, which I expect is what it is trying to accomplish here. By hiding inside a Dungeon… I expect it’s trying to avoid detection.”
“I have a question,” Rose said, frowning at the ground. Randidly winced inwardly. The more questions they asked, the more trouble he would get into. Because a lot of what he was about to say was mostly speculation. “If it truly wanted to isolate itself, why pick this Dungeon? We need to beat this Dungeon to survive. If it had hidden in another Dungeon…”
“Also, the Regalia,” Alana interjected, folding her arms across her chest. “The advancement of our Zone was stalled because of its interference; it must have known that we would move against it.”
Randidly felt a flash of relief. At least for these questions, he had an answer. “There are a few reasons; the first is that I think the Creature needed us to help it, although I’ll get to that later. Second, it wanted to force us into a position to attack it, that’s part of its plan. Third, to go along with that, this is the highest Level Dungeon there is; harder to manipulate these forces, but once it does, they will be better weapons against us.”
“Ah,” Annie said, pounding her fist against her open palm. “It wants us to fail.”
“It seriously wants us to just… be depleted of Aether and fade into nothing? That would certainly isolate it…” Ace said, rubbing his jaw.
Rose shook her head, frowning at Ace. “But that doesn’t make sense. It would suffer then too, right? The life energy is leaving the Zone. Can it survive without that life energy?”
“We know that Dungeons are like a lake of that energy, and you steal some of it when you clear the boss,” Alana said shrugging. “Maybe it will live off that.”
“With the difference in time between the two, the amount of time it could survive is likely negligible,” Rose argued.
Randidly raised his hands. “You are both right… and it’s a little more complicated than that. Based on what we have seen, Classers felt the lack of energy in the air much later than the NCCs, which means that it wasn’t that the Villages had stopped producing energy, just that it was getting sucked out of the atmosphere, making people expend their energy faster. But the Dungeon is like a little bubble, sealed up because of the time dilation.
“Still,” Randidly continued. “Eventually, the Creature would run out of Aether. Unless… it had a Village, created and founded inside the Raid Dungeon, which would provide a source of Aether.”
Everyone looked at Randidly, shock clear on their faces. He flourished his hand, creating a small golden coin, one of those used to create Villages. He hadn’t discovered it here, but it was from a long time ago, right when Donnyton was started, and he helped clear monsters for Donnyton. It was also a time that the Creature’s influence over him was at its strongest.
“I discovered some things, when I talked to Lyra about Golden Coins, just in passing,” Randidly said, remembering a passing conversation they had had back before he was pulled into Shal’s world. “I asked why we stopped finding them. Lyra told me that it takes two things for a coin to spawn; a Leader type monster needs to be killed, one that possesses minions. And the killer needs to be under Level 10.”
Randidly’s hands clenched into fists, and although the coin was System strengthened, he had moved past the point that a cursory level strengthening could resist him. Besides, the strengthening was designed to resist a normal person under Level 10. Against Randidly, that stopped being sufficient long before he had even acquired a Class.
“Which is why we’ve basically seen nothing but horde type monsters,” Rose said, her eyes flashing. “And if our Zone is discarded from the new Earth for failing to pass the Raid Dungeon, and just descended into oblivion…”
“The Creature would just sit here, in its bubble, having a backdoor to Aether,” Randidly confirmed.
“...Still, wouldn’t they notice?” Ace asked, scratching his head. “That Aether is just flowing to what should be a dead Zone?”
After a brief hesitation, Randidly said, “...I think that the System functions largely independently, with only a minimal level of oversight. Also… isolating itself is just a short-term goal for the Creature; I believe its ultimate goal is to hurt the System somehow. Buying itself time, as our Zone is forgotten about, and multiply that by whatever dilation is in place here…”
“Still, seems foolish to have taken the Regalia,” Alana said again, shaking her head. She hefted her spear and gazed at its sharp metal tip. “How could it not know that would make us send our strongest against it?”
To that, Randidly said nothing, for two reasons. The first being that the Creature didn’t consider them a threat at all, and it might be bad to tell the rest of the group that now. And the second… was because it was likely at the stealing of the Regalia was likely bait for him, specifically. After all, if Randidly stayed outside in the Zone, unwilling to go into it, he could likely find ways to use his Aether Crossroads to support the entire Zone.
His experience expelling all that Aether from inside of himself had taught him the dangers of losing himself in that sensation, but it was theoretically possible. Randidly just hadn’t dedicated any energy to discovering more, because it hadn’t seemed necessary when he could just go into the Raid Dungeon and kill the Creature.
That now struck him as slightly arrogant, but there was no point in worrying about it now.
For the first time, Clarissa spoke up. “...so it just had all these carefully laid plans, and gambled that you would come in here, under Level 10, and kill the right sort of monster, and it would drop? That seems like a pointless gamble.”
Randidly grimaced. He was hoping that no one would comment on that. “...I believe it knew that I still had a leftover gold coin from earlier. If I hadn’t caused one to drop, it would just try and kill me and take it.”
“Ah, so you are the reason it antagonized us,” Alana said, chuckling. Randidly flushed.
Thea tapped her hammer to her breastplate. “And it must have dropped while we did that quest to defend those people while they attacked the Death Cultists. That’s why they left so quickly.”
Everyone else nodded at that, and as it seemed there were no more questions, Randidly spoke again. “...That’s about it. I also just want to stress that if you can avoid it, don’t fight the Creature; it will not fight fair, and without my abilities…”
Randidly said the last part very slowly, looking around at everyone, but they all nodded seriously, accepting this. Randidly breathed a sigh of relief. That was one thing that he didn’t want to worry about, others being corrupted by the Creature.
“So we go in then?” Ace said with an easy grin.
“So we go in,” Randidly replied, his eyes flashing as he turned towards the cracked wall in front of them.