Rejt looked up sharply at the sound of footsteps, then smiled at the approaching figures. “Ah, softskin, you have made me more money than I can spend in the wilds. Truly, you have become a vexing figure in my life.”
Randidly’s face twitched as he walked up toward Rejt. Although he had been scowling for around six hours, the Earth Golem’s confident drawl helped lift his spirits.
“Kurag,” Rejt continued. “You have lost your edge. In your younger years, he- hmmm, what is that creature?”
Randidly smash cut from a small smile to frown without any transition at all.
Kurag chuckled, cradling the trembling body in his arms. “A young soulless, we believe. Although it is rather feral, it appears that it is still young enough to be raised as a pet. Some might say its baser instincts will eventually cause it to slaughter its owners… but I expect that the bugger will find Earth Golems difficult owners to kill. Besides…”
Kurag raised his arms and the creature moved to reposition itself. It was about as large as a medium-sized dog, but that body was long and sinewy, like a marten. Its beady red eyes blinked in confusion as it looked around. It had sleek black fur and a large bushy tail that conveyed its expression more clearly than its face did. Right now, the tail stood straight up, as if it were testing the air.
Then its eyes landed on Randidly and it froze. Randidly glowered at Kurag as the thing buried its head in Kurag’s chest.
“...Randidly killed its parent right in front of it. Truly, he has instilled the fear of the Progenitor deeply inside of it,” Kurag said, his craggy shining with amusement. Randidly sourly reflected that it was just his luck that this obstinate old man would have a soft spot in his heart for cute things, doubly so for ones that so thoroughly left Randidly vexed.
But Randidly also found it likely that it was an old remnant of Kurag’s affection for his daughter, so he couldn’t find himself to be too mad.
“Ah, it identified Randidly as a predator? Such a creature has a great deal of cunning,” Rejt said, immediately catching the joke. He walked over and began to stroke the incredibly soft looking fur of the marten. “There there, fella. Do you like meat? Here is some jerky.”
It took some work to get the marten to reveal its face, and it immediately sniffed the proffered offering suspiciously. Then its eyes brightened. Within a second, its short and sharp claws slashed out at Rejt’s hand.
With an ease born of long practice, Rejt dodged. “Ohoho. So enthusiastic! You have been crying in fear for hours, have you not? Undoubtedly you are famished, little guy. But you need to behave!”
As Rejt cajoled the martin, Randidly shook his head in disgust and walked back toward the waystation. The wind was sharp and cutting, but he had grown used to it. As he left the two amused Earth Golem’s behind him, his thoughts turned reflective.
Truthfully, Kurag didn’t understand how accurate he was when he said Randidly had put the fear of the Progenitor in the martin… From what Randidly could tell, the thing could sense what he was. More than that, the martin could sense that it was an interloper in this world and the animosity that Randidly had with its creator.
With that hidden violence between them and the vast difference in their capabilities, Randidly didn’t blame it for being instinctively petrified by his presence.
Still, he was disappointed for two separate reasons.
One was that he would have relished the opportunity to study the life forms left in his Soulskill by the Creature. He had always been suspicious of them, and while he had no proof that the problem with the Ashen image and the fatalism of the world was their fault, he wouldn’t put it past the Creature to do something like that.
Second… well goddammit, Randidly had a brief moment of excitement where he believed he had found an animal companion.
After they heard the strange keening mew, they had investigated the noise and discovered the martin. Instantly, Randidly’s mind was filled with daydreams about being able to walk around with the thing on his shoulder.
But no sooner had he reached out than it noticed him, pissed and shat itself, and then passed out from the stress of seeing him.
Kurag was in tears laughing after he had seen the expression on Randidly’s face. So much so that he had insisted on bringing it along. A few times on the journey Randidly had attempted to convince it that he wasn’t a threat, but…
“Hmm… I believe I shall name you...Tea? Salim…? No… you are a lady, are you not. How about… Tessa?”
The martin looked sharply up, blinking its eyes. Rejt laughed. “Tessa it is!”
“Tessa…” Kurag said slowly while rubbing his chin. “A strange name, indeed. One I have not heard before. And yet… it somehow fits.”
A coincidence…? Randidly thought while listening to the two men following behind him. But that seemed unlikely. It was a strange name to bring up from Randidly’s past. There was no easy answer for what it could mean for the small martin. Ultimately, he and Tessa had dated in the past and then the System arrived.
But it did disturb him somewhat how deeply this world drew from him. And at the weirdest times.
“If that is all, Reynark,” Allica said slowly, gesturing to the door. “I think it’s time you go. We are working as fast as we can. There is no more-”
“Already you have done so much, I was merely inquiring if you were holding anything back,” Reynark said with a greasy smile. Even for an Earth Golem, Reynark was especially tall, his head stretching to brush the top of the tent. “Besides, there is no need to hurry. I have… personal business to discuss.”
Allica remained silent. Her gaze was razor sharp in the dimly lit tent.
Without batting an eye, Reynark continued. “I am not simply the Interim Relief Administrator. I also speak as a representative of my family. And we believe that what we need now is a point for our people to rally around. With clearing even a portion of the waystations, the people approve of you-”
Allica closed her eyes and cut the man off. “No.”
“You can’t avoid the subject of marriage forever,” Reynark said, his greasy smile finally vanishing. “You have a responsibility-”
“My bloodline means nothing,” Allica muttered.
“Pah, your brother married the High King’s sister! I hardly think that’s nothing.” Reynark said with a harrumph.
Allica gave the foppish Earth Golem a withering look. “It truly is nothing. Their children would be related to His line, but my connection is only by marriage. Don’t chase old dreams. We have followed them to our deaths too many times.”
But again, Allica interrupted. “The people are sheep!”
To emphasize her point, she slammed her fist on the table. The heavy wood cracked.
When she looked at Reynark afterward, Allica was surprised to find that he was grinning. A wide grin. “Exactly. And then needed to be herded. It isn’t ideal, but you can serve that purpose. With my family at your back-”
“I will not be a figurehead to lead a struggling people to another dark end,” Allica said, tapping into the Great Skill that she understood if only a little. Instantly, an oppressive silence descended on the tent, smothering the words before Reynark could speak them.
After a few seconds, Allica let off of the Skill and Reynark sighed.
“Allica… you know the world we live in. What are there but dark ends for our people? At the very least, I wish to follow the High King as he would have liked: Fighting to find our destiny.”
Allica’s eyes narrowed into slits, but she had no answer to that.