Randidly frowned and coughed. Really bad heartburn. Then his frown deepened and he smacked the cage of roots containing the Propagator to stops its incessant buzzing. Although it had eaten through the surface layer of roots for almost 8 hours with no result, still it continued to eat.
Sporadically, it would blast out randomly with its mental powers, but Randidly simply stayed away and ordered no one near the strange plant orb at the height of the mountain. Due to the strange noises coming from it, no one needed to be told twice.
Not much time, Randidly pressed his hand to his chest.
Twisting, Randidly asked Platton, Io, and Yonna, who were each in charge of their own section of the formation a question he had repeated often over the past few hours. “Ready?”
“Yes,” Io replied pointedly, glancing sidelong at her companions.
“Very shortly,” Platton replied with a harried expression. Inwardly, Randidly didn’t blame him; he was handling fully half of the formation. Also, his soldiers didn’t have the benefit of being touched by Randidly’s images to give them a helping hand.
Yonna just threw up her hands. Randidly had the impulse to chuckle but knew that such a thing would affront the pride of both Io and Platton. For all that he liked Platton, it was somewhat disturbing to see his habits reflected in Io so exactly, with an extra sprinkling of arrogance. He had also heard that the two had taken to having dinner together.
Everyone couples off at the end of the world but me, Randidly thought with a faux-frown, before saying pointedly, “I need a time, Yonna.”
Her expression was nervous. She closed her eyes. With his Aether Detection, he could just barely sense as she reached out and felt at the growing image she was creating with her group below. Found it wanting. Considered. She opened her eyes. “An… hour.”
“Wight attacks will increase by then,” Io grunted sourly. Platton nodded in agreement.
Inwardly, Randidly gave Yonna another sharp look. She had… used a very nascent stage Skill like Aether Detection? Or image detection? And based on his own observations of how the work was proceeding below, her prediction was likely very close to being accurate. Randidly felt no shame for patting himself on the back for choosing to assist Yonna along in her test.
Truly, in raw power or understanding, she wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive. But her intuition…
“One hour it is,” Randidly said, clapping his hands. “We can spare the time. And as I said, these are still light patrols. Attacks now are actually better for us. More Wights closer during the first wave. As I said, the process will take several waves. There will be a fair amount of time between the waves… Even I’m not sure how it will go. But between those waves is when the heavy fighting will be. As soon as someone with half a brain realizes what we are doing, they are going to throw everything they have at us. Platton, Io, since you two are finished, take your units and begin to construct fortifications.”
They nodded in unison and walked lockstep away from Randidly. He almost threw up his hands in frustration. In addition, he had half a mind to assist them with his own Skills, but he knew that Io and her crew were rearing to try out using the Emerald Essence Skills to grow barricades. It would be a far cry from what Randidly could manage, they were still barely able to grasp controlling its use, but he suspected the difference in defenses wouldn’t sway the fight.
Besides, spear-users were remarkably poor at taking advantage of defensive positions. It simply wasn’t in their blood. And Randidly hadn’t enough time to change that yet.
“Sorry…” Yonna whispered, drawing Randidly’s attention back to her.
It didn’t manifest, but he could feel the heartbeat of his Crown. He reached out and touched Yonna’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. All people have different gifts. Just like all people have weaknesses. There is no shame in not being someone else.”
Then Randidly shooed her away. She obviously had work to do. Just like he did.
With methodical precision, Randidly began to finish engraving the vast formation that had been condensed to a sphere of vines surrounding the struggling Propagator. It was with much relish that he felt the Mana and Stamina expenditure runes coming into effect. The Propagator was silenced as its body no longer contained the necessary energy to move. Peace at last.
Chuckling, Randidly continued onto the control runes on the ground in the surrounding area. These were much more touch and go, and in a lot of places, he had to improvise. Hard work, but satisfying. But the whole time, the pain in his chest persisted.
Time flowed uneasily past.
No sooner than the sounds of fighting drifted up to Randidly than Yonna was scrambling up the slope. “Finished! Finished! It’s a few minutes late, but-”
Randidly didn’t wait to hear. Instead, he burned through the rest of his Mana to complete his own formation. His smile was wide as the Cheshire Cat’s. To start, Randidly reached out and stole the waiting energy present in the huge army in the Oracle’s boat. For this, he didn’t bother with the formation. After all, the formation should be self-sustaining once it was started; but the formation required fuel to get started. Without that, he would need several small scale successes before he could spread the formations influence.
But with that army that the Oracle had so generously provided...
Io crushed the head of a Wight beneath her heel and conjured a handful of emerald fire. Even that small a Skill decreased her small Mana supply to critical levels, but the Wight about to strike a fallen Spear-user was sent screeching away as its face was melted.
Io dismissed the Skill notifications and rushed to help the poor fallen fool up. He nodded gratefully and sucked in several deep breaths. Seeing he would live, she turned and regarded the battlefield.
Wights had gathered together to form a force of several thousand, a few less than their own number, but the Wights didn’t care about losses. Every one of the lives under Sir Ghosthound was precious. Most disturbingly, a Witch King sat at the helm of the opposing force.
To this point, they had kept losses low, but-
There was a rumble from the mountain. Io turned hopefully, but there was no further movement. Sighing, she twisted back aground and slapped the wounded man’s shoulder. “Buckle up, this might be-”
“Sarge, what the fuck is on the ground!” The man yelled, pointing and shouting. “The Wights are gonna kill us all!”
Fearing the worst, Io stared at her feet. It took several seconds, but she forced herself to relax. With an even speed, there were… strange runes growing beneath them. As Io looked left and right, they spread all along the fortifications, all the way back to the center of the mountain. Io even recognized them; they were the same runes they were ordered to carve.
The runes grew inexorably out past the barricades and toward the main body of the Wight forces. Perhaps it was easy to miss, with them growing at only about a meter every thirty seconds, but very quickly...
The runes beneath them began to glow. As Io watched, the runes snaked outward in a burst of speed, snaking endlessly in the strange, esoteric pattern that Sir Ghosthound had taught them.
As if sensing something was wrong, the Witch King began to sing. The entire remaining force of Wights began to rush forward. Io’s grip on her spear tightened.
But then the runes flashed once more. A bright flash. The ground seemed to open up and reveal the sun, and suddenly Io was faced with a dazzling brilliance so powerful she could only force her eyes shut.
When she finally forced her eyes open, her vision was blurry, but one thing was for sure.
All the Wights had collapsed to the ground.
The mountain rumbled once more. The runes began to extend even further from the base of the mountain, stretching off toward the horizon so far that Io could no longer detect the edges of them. Unsure of what to do, Io ascended toward the summit where Sir Ghosthound sat. The stone path there was deserted.
The only company she had was the eerie light from the runes.
Right when she was going to approach where he had sent up shop, she found Platton and Yonna already there. Io nodded stiffly to Platton and was inwardly furious that Yonna had made it up here more quickly than she had.
“We are all here,” Platton said tentatively. “Now what?”
“We wait,” Sir Ghosthound’s response came. Io studied the area beneath him; the whole area was thick with glowing runes. And these were much more dense and varied than the runes they had been inscribing. It looked like the scroll ravings of a mad man, scrawled over every stone. The Ghosthound himself was sitting on a platform of vines above the runes, holding a ball of roots that was also covered in a dense network of runes.
The light from the runes was so bright and the distance between them so small that Io couldn't’ even detect the individual symbols on the vine ball. The thing simply seemed to glow.
After a pause, Sir Ghosthound continued. “The Propagator is much better than I am at gathering energy. So I subdued it and used the formation you created to amplify its power. Anything within the rune’s area will be affected. And each wave, we use the energy stolen in the previous wave to spread the amplification area. I don’t think any other Propagator has noticed it yet, so we should be peaceful for a while.”
“What… ah… is the point?” Io asked. Her mouth was dry, looking at these strange energies. Someday, if she learned the images provided by Sir Ghosthound, would she be able to manage such things…? The short-lived daydream set her heart pounding.
“Taking the Wight’s energy. All of it.” Sir Ghosthound’s voice was strangely harsh.
Io had nothing to say to that. She glanced at Platton. He seemed similarly confused.
To Io’s immense distaste, it was Yonna’s face that was warped with shock. “But… But…” She couldn’t even ask the question that had occurred to her.
Sitting above the glowing runes, the corner of Sir Ghosthound’s mouth curved upward. “Return to your posts. Soon, you will understand.”
So they returned to their posts. By that time, more Wight patrols had arrived. They were massing, this time in the tens of thousands, but there seemed to be some confusion amongst them. The Wights had discovered their compatriots fallen lifeless on the ground, and couldn't seem to decide whether to attack with such an obvious warning.
Not that it mattered. About ten minutes later, there was another rumbling from the mountain; all those tens of thousands of Wights toppled over. Or at least Io assumed so. She was blinded for a good thirty seconds by the light this time.
This wave Io didn't’ see the expansion effects of, but when she turned to look toward the summit, there was now a small blue-green ball hovering above the mountain.
It was the same sickly color of the Wight’s Psychic Venom.
This time, there was a response. It took a while, but there was a dull rumbling as a Wight army marched directly toward their position. Her subordinates paled with fear and cursed Sir Ghosthound for bringing them to this death trap. Like a canary, the man that Io had saved earlier cried and begged for mercy.
Even while she struggled with her own fear, Io reprimanded them and stood tall at the front. Because she had been chosen. Because she was first among them. Although she chided herself for it, Io turned and peaked at the mountain. It was beginning to glow. Io turned back around with renewed confidence.
She would be the first to meet the oncoming horde-
There was another rumbling. All the approaching Wights collapsed. The ball above the summit had grown even larger. It was now like a small lake hovering above the Ghosthound.
Still, the runes shifted and snaked outward, extending.
“How far does it stretch…” Io whispered.
Like he was right next to her, the Ghosthound replied. “Across the entire Death School and a lot of the sea. This will be the tough one. They realize what’s happening, and they are sending only their quick forces. Be on your guard. This will hit hard. Delay as best you can.”
Sir Ghosthound was right. Almost a hundred Witch Kings appeared about eight minutes later, all screeching their fury. Even if they were staggered into groups of about a dozen, it was still more Witch Kings that Io’s mind could gather. Spells whizzed half-heartedly out, but even Io trembled with fear seeing so many together. All these Witch Kings? There was only supposed to be a half-dozen at most!
A howling, shrieking Witch King rushed directly toward Io, where she stood at the head of the battlements. With trembling hands, she conjured the emerald essence in her hands. Then Io once more peaked at the mountain. The brightness was growing, but-
The Witch King’s blow smashed into her hastily thrown emerald essence. To Io’s surprise, it was enough to deflect the first attack.
I survived a Witch King attack, Io’s numb brain managed.
Almost mechanically, Io thrust her spear into the Witch King’s side. The blade skittered off the bones of its ribs, only serving to infuriate it further. As it was raising its claw to cut Io in half, the idiot man who had been sobbing a second later smashed into the Witch King from the side.
It staggered, then smashed him into the battlements with the sound of shattering bones.
More Witch Kings arrived, ripping apart the battlements, and-
Right as they were about to be ripped to shreds, the mountain rumbled once more. Io had never been so thankful for blindness in her life. The Witch Kings twitched and became limp. But such was their speed that the momentum of their approaching bodies still crashed into the defensive fortifications. Several towers made of plants toppled over.
Io winced and picked up the wounded man.
There was a humming in the air, and Io turned and looked at the huge mass of blue-green energy in the sky.
“Huh, they realize the limitations. They are marshaling forces right outside the edges of the formation. Clever. Sending Propagators toward our position. Foolish, but understandable.” Sir Ghosthound’s thoughts boomed over the mountain. “Well, this is just what I’ve waited for.”
The sea of energy descended from the sky, rushing into the runes. With renewed vigor, the formation extended outward. Or at least Io imagined it so. After all, the runes were now stretched far beyond her ability to see.
When the Propagators appeared, they didn’t even come close to the mountain. The Ghosthound himself used his Skills to slow and capture them. The mountain rumbled. Light descended. The mountain rumbled. The sun itself was below Io. The mountain rumbled. Io didn’t know if she would ever see again.
By dusk, Io was trembling. A wall of energy that was as large as the sky hummed with its contained fury. The only thing louder was Sir Ghosthound’s laughter.
“Your move, Autarch. Everyone, defensive perimeter, but at ease. There are no Wights left on Tellus to threaten us. All that remains… is the spear users.”