“Ah, there is one more thing,” Reynark said as he was about to leave. He paused at the door of the tent, then finally shrugged. “In the monster capital… hostilities have broken out. There was a coup. But… the Monster Prince is missing. And without him, the Royal Faction is being hunted down and killed. And without them-”
“Who knows whether the remnants of the monsters will follow the armistice,” Allica finished bitterly. She rubbed her eyes. Damnit, she did not have time for this. Another war, now? And in the remnants left by the Coalition Army, the Earth Golem’s wouldn’t have enough centralized communication to mount a resistance. They would be slaughtered.
Although she hated him for forging the coalition army in the first place, that Prince was the only reason-
“What does the monster prince look like?”
Reynark frowned and scratched his chin. “Well… I have not seen him. But I have heard… you know how the monster’s look. Like stretched out Spriggits, in their royal line. Pale skin. Dark hair. Ah, and his eyes, they burn like a flame.”
After nodding, Reynark departed. Immediately Allica heard him switch gears and speak warmly to some members of her crew that were nearby. It almost made her spit on the ground to ward away his weaseliness.
But she didn’t. There was too much work to do.
Before she started, however, Allica lightly tapped the crack she had made in the table. “Eyes like flame, huh… Emerald flame, perhaps…?”
“Tessa, fetch!” Rejt called. With a flick of his wrist, he threw a metal disk high into the air along the walls of the gorge. Instantly, the martin dashed upwards. With its sharp claws, it climbed the walls as easy as other people fell through holes in the ground. There was such a natural grace in her movements that it was difficult not to admire it.
Somehow, Randidly managed it. He was the scrooge of pets, he admitted to himself. But he had every right to be.
It had been three days since the scouting groups returned and delivered the bad news to Allica. Both Waystations that she had sent men to had some manner of Soulless presence. It was clear that there would be strength enough to eradicate the nests that sprung up, but Allica believed that it would waste too much time. Instead, they had done the back-breaking labor of clearing out the central boulevard here, these last few days.
Well, when every person in the crew, and soon some of the refugees, weren’t wasting time by deriving an altogether unnatural amount of amusement from how much the furry soulless pet was petrified by Randidly.
When he had privately asked Allica why literally everyone made comments about it, she had blithely replied. “You carry around your scowl like an executioner’s ax. Last night, I too was stricken by a night terror where I was forced to endure your contorted soft-skin visage…”
Then she giggled to herself a single time before coughing lightly and ordering to continue clearing rock. When Allica was making jokes as well, it became clear to Randidly that there was something broader going on. Perhaps something cultural…?
Either way, it was extremely annoying.
With a leaping backflip, Tessa spun away from the wall and caught the metal disc in her sharp teeth. Her landing was immaculate, and she immediately pranced back toward Rejt. Many watchers clapped enthusiastically and Tessa’s movements became more arrogant and vain with every ounce of encouraging.
Somehow, one of the refugees had produced a brush and now Tessa’s already glossy fur was lustrous and washed. Truly, she looked like a designer pet from pre-System Earth. Although she was largely deemed too dangerous to be allowed near children, most of the Earth Golems regarded the martin as harmless.
And the fucking thing had very quickly learned that convincing begging would earn it addition bits of food. After only three days, it was beginning to look quite pudgy.
Randidly suppressed an impulse to walk out and spook Tessa and instead watched as Allica appeared next to Rejt. “Alright no more messing around. Gather up crew, I have news.”
After the refugees shuffled away and only members of Allica’s group remained, she announced “Tonight we are going to move on from here. Everything that we are capable of moving is basically moved. Besides, due to other issues… we will be heading for Carthak. There are already a lot of forces working there, but due to the size of the city, and the populations of other Races that have remained there…”
Her eyes scanned the crowd until they landed on Randidly. She gave him a meaningful look. “Due to concerns at home, the Monster Race is especially volatile right now. While we are operating there… let’s all do our best to keep the peace.”
With a few more orders for details, Allica and he crew packed up and left. From the shock on the guard's expressions, Randidly could tell that Allica hadn’t told the Administrator or whatever about her decision to move on. They asked her to wait and scrambled back to report, but Allica marched forward with determination.
Randidly found her distaste for the political realities rather endearing. Honestly, it reminded him of how he had managed the early days of Donnyton. But what he couldn’t figure out was why Allica had given him that pointed look. It seemed that she believed her point would be made clear. Something about the situation of the monster race?
I mean, Allica believed that he was a member of the monster race. But did she just assume that because he was he would have some sort of influence…?
A burst of laughter distracted Randidly. He looked over to find that Tessa was whining as the sharp wind scratched at her exposed face while the Earth Golem’s around her chuckled and gathered up to cover her with their extra fabric. That might have revealed their feet for these sharp winds, but the Earth Golems could withstand it much better than the young soulless.
Randidly’s expression softened. He wasn’t sure what it was, but something was changing. There was a light in the eyes of Allica’s crew as they played with Tessa. Rejt had always been bright and positive, but now he was positively a force of nature, constantly joking and cajoling, driving the group forward.
Some of the darkness of recently being broken by the combined strength of the other lands was fading. A pebble in a vast stream of information and influences. But now, when Randidly felt episodes of the acidic heartburn the Ashen Image had given him, this was enough to hold him through it.
So he stayed back, careful to not disturb the fun, and also make himself the butt of the joke, while the group journeyed.
To his surprise, they were not as close as they appeared to his Progenitor perspective. He could obviously sense where they were heading. What made him slightly embarrassed was how slow they were heading there. Truly, when one becomes a god of a world, one will swiftly become irreparably spoiled.
After two and a half days, the group arrived at Carthak. Before the war, this was the second largest city of the Earth Golems, built into the side of a mountain. Kurag, who still followed close near Randidly during their travels, informed him that the front of the mountain used to be a work of air. The facade was intricate and littered with carvings. The rock had been shaped into the face of a roaring lion, daring the world to come against it.
Now, it looked like the lion had a mountain dropped on its face.
There was only crumbled rock and rubble remaining of the great facade. The stones that remained were burned and broken. Just like the people.
As easily as it had come with Tessa’s antics, Randidly couldn’t help but notice that it left just as easily as the group looked on at the exterior of Carthak. That small joy dimmed to nothing.
“No use standing around,” Allica gruffly said. “Get going. It’s still an hour’s walk away.”
What had once been a sad reminder of the scars of war quickly became an intimidating testament to the Spriggit Mech’s power as the group approached for another hour, and the rubble towered increasingly high as the perspective shifted. Randidly shielded his hand with his eyes and looked upward. Before this place was destroyed… it was probably as tall as a skyscraper. And he didn’t doubt it contained just as much engineering acumen.
There were several small passages in the rubble that looked cleaned up and the group of thirty or so filed slowly in. After a few minutes of anxiety-inducing crawling and shuffling through the tight passages, Randidly popped out into a large antechamber. Although the lower level was lit by torches, the upper levels stretched upward into darkness.
It seemed that this was some sort of gathering place, with levels of balconies about every ten meters in height. Randidly counted eight layers of these balconies before his sight wasn’t able to distinguish more. Whistling softly, he followed the group.
Most of the tunnels of Carthak had collapsed, so they were frequent elevation changes as the group walked on top of a collapsed roof to reach another strange cave, but this area seemed pretty well maintained. The other thing that Randidly quickly noticed was that there were people.
A lot of them.
Every tunnel was filled with people hurrying to and fro through the twisting passages. Their eyes were wild, and they avoided his gaze when Randidly looked at the people. And a few times Randidly had peered down side tunnels to see lines of bunks and huddled figures. His face tightened.
It wasn’t their thin and worried faces that soured Randidly’s mood. No, what really hit him hard was the certainty that hung over the whole of Carthak, touching every individual in here.
Their world had broken, and now they were living in the shattered remnants. The world was fading. The dream of a better life had been forcefully cut from them, and now all they had were the dark, twisting tunnels in which to hide for the remainder of their lives.